Jump to content


Author: Author
  • Content Count

  • Joined

  • Last visited

View Author Profile

Community Reputation

1,769 I'm Awesome

Story Reviews

  • No Story Reviews


  • Rank: #0
  • Total: 232

6 Profile Followers

About VVesley

  • Rank
    Cool Member

Profile Information

  • Age in Years
  • Gender
  • Favorite Genres
  • Location
    United States
  • Interests
    My interests include reading, writing, painting, cooking, video games, and DnD. 

Recent Profile Visitors

3,852 profile views
  1. VVesley


    Yay! I was so glad to log back on and find not one but two chapters posted. I feel so lucky! Thanks for a great story!
  2. VVesley


    Great chapter! I love where this is going, and the slow but warm development of L & A's relationship. Thanks!
  3. VVesley

    Chapter 19

    Yes indeed! Though who's to say he hasn't? I think for Devan, there's been a slow build up to an "I just can't take it anymore" moment that happened during the last gathering of the thirteen. Alex starting a civil war was somewhat of a wake up call for Devan. I appreciate the feedback - maybe I'll go back and make an edit to make this more clear in one of the previous chapters, after I get through the rest of the story 😅 Thank you for reading and for the comment!
  4. VVesley

    Chapter 19

    Thanks so much! I appreciate that, and am excited to reveal more about all of the characters with the plot. Yes - Devan and Damien's territories are effectively abandoned as of right now in the story. Thank you for reading and the comment!
  5. VVesley


    I couldn't agree more about the cottage being a character! Place can have the best characterization in stories, and that isn't being overlooked in this one. That makes things all the more enjoyable! An underrated part of this story is getting to envision this beautiful home and how it's going to change. Great chapter.
  6. VVesley

    Chapter 19

    Adrian boarded his vessel hand in hand with Kade, the two walking up the gangway and both giving salutations towards the captain. Captain Bjornan waited for them at the edge of the ship, and gave them a personal greeting. She was all smiles, and Adrian was glad that she was there to meet Kade. She was one of the few other capable leaders in the Illjard, and had been a family friend for as long as he could remember. “Welcome, my prince,” she said with a respectful nod. “And my prince-to-be,” she said with a turn towards Kade. “Thank you,” he said back. His face remained stony for a second before breaking into a smile at the slight squeeze of the hand by Adrian. Appearing friendly and greeting others with smiles was something that Kade would have to condition himself to do – it was not natural because of his upbringing. While merchants, smiths, and shopkeepers weren’t necessarily held to the exact same social standards as other Nabian citizens, there was still progress that needed to be made. “I’m honored to meet you, and appreciate you taking us back.” “You’re very welcome – and no need for such formality aboard my ship. Save that for court. Adrian, I assume you know where to go?” “Of course.” “Good. I’ll let you take your groom to your quarters, and we’ll prepare to set sails within the hour.” “Sounds great,” Adrian said with a conspiratorial wink. “Thanks Sarah.” The captain gave nothing more than a grunt and walked off to the docks. Adrian knew she had already drifted off to thinking about other things, and he was fine with the privacy anyhow. “This way,” Adrian pulled Kade along by the hand. It wasn’t long before they entered an enormous cabin at the stern of the ship, which was normally the Captain’s quarters. An arched wooden door with a carving of a kraken led to the nicest part of the ship, but Kade turned for a moment before entering. “Shouldn’t we get our stuff?” “A worker will bring that,” Adrian said dismissively. “You should go in.” He ushered the Nabian in through the archway, and let him explore. The prince watched Kade gaze around, taking in the elaborate woodworking of the ship’s interior. The entire ship was painted white, and the interior held enamel and glass embellishments that culminated in a giant crystal and silver chandelier that hung from the ceiling. Kade said nothing for a while, and ran his fingers over the art on the walls. After observing his fiancé absorb what he was seeing for a while, Adrian broke the silence with a simple question. “Do you like it?” “I’ve never been on a ship before,” Kade replied honestly. “It’s… it’s like what I’d imagine the inside of a general’s house to look like. Are they all like this?” “Ships? No,” Adrian said with a laugh, “not all of them. Captain Bjornan heads our fleet, and is the highest ranking captain in the Illjard. She has one of our nicest ships.” “Oh. I see. It’s pretty impressive.” “I’m glad you think so,” Adrian said truthfully. It was a matter of pride for him, seeing as the Fray family had commissioned each and every ship that the Illjard boasted. “We’re very proud of our ships, and this one is somewhat of a jewel. Be sure to tell the captain what you think – she’ll like that.” Kade nodded. “Will do. Do you think she’ll like me? She will, right? And all of your other advisors?” “Of course. Though I’m honestly surprised at the question… do you care what they think?” Adrian had not known Kade to be self-conscious. Kade shrugged at that. “Ordinarily, no. But I suppose it’s the type of thing I should start caring about, right? And besides… it’s more about whether I’ll fit in.” “Why wouldn’t you?” “I mean…” Kade gestured to the ornate walls and ceiling, and then to his own clothes. His wardrobe hadn’t exactly been revamped given that they left the Di Coteau estate almost as soon as it was safe to do so. Even compared to the crew, Kade was underdressed. “You do have money now,” Adrian reminded him. “Or you will.” “That’s true. But not all the decorum that I’ll probably need. And the etiquette – I’m sure there’s a lot that I don’t know yet. And I look… different than the rest of you.” Adrian nodded, understanding Kade’s implication. With everyone aboard the White Wind being Illjardi, Kade was the only person that had color in his hair and skin. Having just experienced life on the mainland, being an outsider was an experience that he could relate to. Even if Kade was a generally confident person, being different could be isolating. In a way, Adrian was glad that Kade had the good sense to foresee this. “You will be different,” Adrian replied. “But that’s not a bad thing. And besides, you know that we take in outside blood every so often to promote a healthy population. You’re not the only mainlander on the island… just part of a small minority. Plus, you’ll have me. Nobody can turn you away or treat you poorly.” When Kade raised an eyebrow at that, Adrian hastily addended his last statement. “Not that they would – the Illjard isn’t like Nabius in that way. Everyone is generally friendly.” “So you’ve said,” Kade acknowledged with a nod. At the mention of his home country, Kade frowned. “I guess it’s good to get away now anyway. They say that Alex’s odds are about fifty-fifty of winning the war after what’s happened. His victories were unexpected, but now people are starting to rally. A lot is about to change, either for the good or for the bad. Let’s hope for the good… but I guess we won’t be around to see it.” “Yeah,” Adrian nodded. “I suppose not. It’s a shame really – were the southern generals accessible by water, I would offer Alexandre naval support.” “You would?” Kade asked, seemingly genuinely surprised. “Of course. We don’t normally get involved with politics of the mainland countries, but Alexandre’s vision of Nabius would be easier to work with, I have to admit. His win would be better for my country. I also probably already pissed off most of his enemies by picking you as a groom anyway. It’s pretty clear which side the Illjard wants to win. Once word gets out about who you are and that I was at the siege for Alexandre’s home… the world will know.” Kade only nodded. “And most of the enemy generals are pricks to work with anyway,” Adrian grumbled a little more quietly. Kade smiled at that, and returned to stoicism. “We’ll just have to wait and see.” “I suppose you’re right,” Adrian said. A long silence stretched between them, and Adrian hoped that he had done enough to mitigate Kade’s worries. It was pleasing that Kade actually wanted to participate and make a good impression on the Illjardi people – that much couldn’t be said for all mainlander spouses of the past. Adrian hoped for a good relationship with Nabius regardless of the outcome of their civil war, and that would be made easier with a well-matched husband from the country. “Hey Adrian?” Kade asked with a serious tone. His face was somber, and his eyes were severe. “Yes?” Adrian looked at his lover’s face, taking in the expression and searching for any sign that Kade was still uncomfortable. He noted an underlying playfulness, and couldn’t tell whether Kade was being serious or not. When the prince ticked up the corners of his mouth in the start of a smile, Kade responded with equal joy. Kade’s face devolved into a devilish grin in a flash, and he took off his ragged shirt and threw it to the floor. “You ever fucked on a boat?” *** “You took quite a while,” growled Ysabel from her hiding spot. General Devan had only been in his tent for a few minutes before Ysabel spoke up, but he didn’t react at all to her appearance. For a few moments she thought he hadn’t heard her. Without looking up from the stack of documents he was reading and annotating, he offered a simple greeting. “Hello Ysabel.” His back was towards her, but he didn’t turn around. Normally Ysabel would warrant at least a bit of a reaction, but Devan wasn’t intimidated in the least. Ysabel had forgotten what it was like to be in the presence of an equal, and had to stifle the flicker of annoyance she felt at his nonchalance. “Thank you for coming,” she said as she stepped out of the shadows. She was in one corner of an enormous tent that stretched up at least two stories. It had taken half a day just to erect the structure, which was situated just outside the walls of Alexandre’s home. The tent had multiple rooms delineated by hanging sheets of canvas, and Ysabel had gone directly to where she knew Devan’s makeshift office would be. He must have noticed me when he came in. “We would have fallen without you.” “I’m aware.” This was all he said, but Ysabel didn’t respond. Eventually, Devan turned around in his chair and gave a sigh. He looked at Ysabel’s hands and saw that she was armed, and raised one eyebrow before continuing. “I came as soon as I could.” He raised a flat hand towards the chair across from him, indicating that she should sit. General Clarion walked slowly to the seat, staring with slightly narrowed eyes. “I doubt that,” Ysabel replied coolly. “I didn’t know you were here.” “Nor Kade?” Devan’s mouth pressed into a hard line, and he stared Ysabel down. He clearly wasn’t used to being challenged either. “I had originally intended to let these lands fall,” he said while shifting on his seat. “I never understood why Darion chose this territory of all of them. It’s practically worthless, resource-wise.” “I’ve often wondered about that as well,” admitted Ysabel. “Perhaps it was symbolic. Sitting at the ‘head’ of Nabius… that would have suited him.” “Perhaps.” The silence stretched on for a minute while the two reflected on the loss of Darion. Even all this time later, Ysabel still felt pangs of anguish when he came to mind. “There was no point in defending it until I discovered that there was family here. When I found out that Kade was inside the manse… I knew I had to come. He, Alexandre, Talia, and Jezebel are the last hopes for the Di Coteaus. Considering the current situations of Alexandre and Talia… I did my duty to preserve the bloodline.” “Situations?” Ysabel’s interest was piqued. She knew, of course, what Devan was referring to about Talia. When it came to Alex, though, she was unsure. “Are you referring to both of them as situationally safe? Alex is in danger, yes, but marginally more than he was just for being born into this family.” Devan frowned at that, and cleared his throat. “There has been an update.” “What… is that?” “Alexandre has been wounded. Perhaps fatally.” Ysabel felt the news hit her like a wall, and she swayed a little before her vision went red. “What happened?” “He killed Pitor Davora. Davora and Fran La Croix attacked the capital. General Torne has informed me that Alex sustained an injury before taking the Devourer out. Prince Cathcart carried him all the way back to the capital, it is said.” “How bad is it, Devan?” “I’m not sure,” said General Di Coteau honestly. “Elsa says it’s an abdominal wound, and that she’s taking care of him.” “Which – “ “I don’t know the organs that were hit,” Devan cut her off with a raised hand. “And I don’t know if he was poisoned. And I don’t know if infection is likely.” Devan answered all of the next questions that Ysabel had before should could raise them, proving that he understood what her line of thought was. “This is all that I can tell you.” Ysabel nodded, supposing that would have to do. She was fraught with emotion at the news, but knew that the situation was out of her control. She would have to focus on what she could impact. “Very well.” “Anyway… as you can see, it may be that Jezebel and Kade are the only ones to come out of this alive. At the bidding of Alexandre’s steward and his plea for my son… I decided to come.” “Kade only,” Ysabel corrected. “I’m sorry?” “Kade only,” she repeated. “Jezebel is dead. I found out that she killed Darion, and killed her for it. Also at the bidding of Alexandre’s steward.” Darion sat back in his chair and thought for a long time on that. He seemed to handle the news without losing his temper, but Ysabel knew that he was also the type to seek vengeance. Jezebel having killed Darion was startling, and she left him as much time as he needed to regain his internal composure. “That… is distressing to hear. Are you sure it was not the steward? He’s orchestrated this well. A little too well, if you ask me.” “I did consider that,” Ysabel said with a nod. “But Luca is not the type. As capable as he is, he does not thirst for power. It would have been interesting to see what he could have been were he born into a noble family, but he is Ironian. A slave that rose to become more than he anticipated – that is all.” “How can you be sure?” Devan seemed angry now, and Ysabel could understand that. Like her, he would sniff out every lead to avenge his losses. Ysabel had already taken care of that though, and she did her best to assuage his annoyances. “Jezebel admitted it to me. Or rather, she admitted it without knowledge of my being in the room. I am one hundred percent confident that the perpetrator was finally caught. And trust me Devan… I enacted justice.” “I see.” Devan gave a sigh, and rubbed at his temples. “I suppose that explains the news I had for you. It’s convenient that you’re here – I had rather hoped to catch up with you after our last conversation about the war effort.” “More news?” “Yes. When I made the decision to defend the north, I had hoped that Damien would join forces with me.” “Damien is a coward,” Ysabel said with a roll of her eyes. “I’m not surprised that he said no. I’ve tried to inspire him with fear, but it doesn’t seem to work like it used to.” “It’s not that he said no… it’s that he has disappeared. His lands are empty – subject to civilian and Tomacian rule. He and his troops are gone.” Ysabel was interested by that. “And now you presume he’s gone off in search of Jezebel?” “Perhaps.” “Or do you think he’s treasonous?” “Perhaps.” “When he doesn’t find her at her estate…” “… he’ll continue moving south,” finished Darion. “One way or another, he’ll be treasonous to our cause. Whether it’s because he’s a rat upfront or because of the death of his daughter, he is now the enemy.” “I agree. He’ll defect to Yago.” Ysabel let out a frustrated sigh. “He may already know that Jezebel is dead anyway – I saved her head for Luca. I don’t know what he did with it, but I’m certain he’ll use it to gain some kind of advantage if he hasn’t already.” Ysabel thought things over, growing increasingly annoyed at Damien’s lack of resolve. “Of course… another problem to worry about. How annoying. I wish he was of the same stock that you and Darion came from.” “As do I,” said Devan with his hand curling into a fist. “The tide has turned to favor us now. The north and the Capitol have held – there will be one great battle left.” “My brother,” Ysabel said with a nod. It was a truth that she knew, but was still grappling with. “And we’ll need as much help as we can get. He’s been cultivating an army from the provinces for years.” “I’ve already amassed my full force. I’ve plead to Giovanni as well… but he still seems uninterested in conflict.” “His people are decimated as it is,” Ysabel said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “I doubt he could offer much, even if he wanted to.” “I’ll continue to try.” “As will I. I’ll reach out to those that I can. For now, I believe we should all march south towards the Capitol. I will assume control of Jezebel’s territory until a new general is instated.” “I thought that you might.” Ysabel shrugged. “I killed her after all. It’s my right to control her assets. I’m also going to set something else in the works.” “What is that?” “You’ve inspired me, Devan. I cannot risk losing both of my children. Once I’ve got things squared away with full commitment to our united armies, I’m going to make a play. Talia is strong, but Yago is stronger. Look for me when you march upon my brother.” Just a moment went by before Devan’s face lit with recognition, and he gave a wicked grin. “A Di Coteau classic.” “Indeed.” The things we do for our children, she thought. *** Talia lay dazed, unable to control her muscles. Every thought she had was to fight against her restraints animalistically, but she resisted. It took most of her willpower to retain command of her body, and the result was that she was mostly unmoving. Her uncle had expressed deep disappointment in her opposition to the change, but always remarked that she would eventually lose control anyway. Try as she might to be brave, this scared her. I can’t let fear take over… but I don’t want to end up like them. She shivered at the thought, recalling the other people that had been brought into Yago’s office during the past few days. Many were counts and traders of a high status that lived in Yago’s region, who were thus his subjects. Talia had seen the tribe members from the provinces perform their ritual on other people a couple of times now, and each time Talia felt revulsion. After preparing flesh with substances unknown to Talia, the leaders were all subjected to consumption. Yago watched as they were affected in different ways, most of which involved screams of agony or horrific medical emergencies. Of the dozen people that Talia had seen Yago experiment with, eleven had died. Only one person had survived the inculcation of the demon, and he seemed to have gone mad. It reminded Talia of her mother on her worst days, and she had barely been able to look. To either die or go mad… neither are appealing choices. You won’t, said another voice from within the depths of her mind. You were made for this. This will feel good for you. Going mad it is I guess. She pushed that voice away from the forefront of her thoughts, and tried to focus on nothingness. Despite regular feedings and Yago attempting to instill the demon in her persistently, Talia had been able to resist the pull of power and insanity by making her conscious blank. There were some changes that she had noticed, but for the most part her strategy had worked out. It was a small victory, but one that Talia would take. Stay blank. She was staring at a particularly interesting piece of dirt on the floor when the news arrived. A rapt knock on the hall’s main door echoed in the room, and Yago let out a terse “enter” from behind his desk. He did not look up from what he was doing at the guard who walked in. Talia could practically smell the fear on him, and knew that he was about to deliver unfavorable news. “Updates from the battlefield, General Clarion,” he said with a stiff salute. “Proceed.” “Pitor Davora has fallen at the hands of Alexandre Di Coteau. Elsa Torne retains the capital, and all remaining allied troops are retreating south. General La Croix is now leading them.” Talia felt a surge of hope, but that emotion left her feeling unbalanced. Maintaining equilibrium was her most important need, but this good news gave her a sell of joy. “How many were lost?” “Thousands, sir. An exact count is being put together, and will be on your desk as soon as possible.” “That will be all,” Yago said with a wave of the hand. Instead of turning to leave, the guard spoke again. “Jamison Hadeaux and Marie Lafeye are also dead. Devan Di Coteau disrupted the siege on Alexandre’s home and ended them both.” The room went unnaturally still, and Talia’s demon was irked. This was the real bad news, she knew. Taking our home was personal – the capital was just business. That missive shouldn’t have been failed. “And how,” Yago said with a hiss, “is that possible?” His tone was soft, and deadly. The scent of fear from the man who delivered the news grew stronger now, and Talia focused in on him. Funny. I can see the hairs on his neck rising from here. “The citizens were armed,” the guard explained. “They fought back long enough for General Di Coteau to –“ “Be quiet,” Yago interrupted. The soldier did, and dared not move from his spot in the doorway. He was across the room from Yago, but Talia knew that the distance meant nothing. His life was in the balance, and she wondered how it was decided that he should have to be the one to deliver bad news to the general. He definitely drew the short stick. After a while, Yago shook his head and spoke. “Orr?” “Alive. He’s retreating here as well.” “Good,” Yago said rubbing his hands together. “I’ll send word to have the remaining generals of our alliance come here. We will consolidate our strength. Alex wants a showdown, and so do I.” The anger seemed to have dissipated from Yago’s body language, but the guard still stood rigid. It’s your lucky day, pal, she thought. We could kill him ourselves, said another voice within her. She ignored it, and looked over to her uncle. “Have ravens prepared to deliver messages to all remaining allied generals. I’ll draft documents now.” The guard nodded promptly, and slipped wordlessly into his next duty and out the door. Talia finally couldn’t resist the urge to let the other inside her take over for a moment, and began to laugh. Even though she was taking glee out of another’s suffering and thereby enabling the demon, Talia didn’t feel bad. I’m allowed to feel joy in another person’s pain if it’s him. Yago looked up curious at that, and smiled a wicked grin. “Coming around then, are we?” he asked. “Not in the way you would hope for,” Talia replied. She barely recognized her own voice. “Oh, I’m not so sure about that.” “I’m only rearing my head to gloat, uncle,” she said with a venomous smile. “You’ve failed. You are a terrible failure, and a pathetic excuse for a general. You know that the current steward at the Di Coteau house was a whore before this? He has no training whatsoever, and you couldn’t even bring yourself to touch him.” She chose to provoke him with this loss rather than the one at the Capital, as she knew that it would goad him the most. Yago frowned, though appeared to be less bothered than she would have hoped for. “I don’t care what happens to the north,” he said while inspecting his fingernails. “That was just for fun. If anything, it reflects poorly on the generals that went there themselves. I have nothing to do with their military failures.” “I don’t think so,” Talia shot back in a gravelly voice. “You’ve monumentally fucked up. You lost in the north, and you lost at the Capital. You’re going to lose it all. And I’m going to love watching you fall.” Yago smiled, a twinkle in his eye. “The more you give in to the mirth, the quicker it happens, you know. You’re much better at controlling it than I could have ever expected. How pleasing.” “Shut your mouth,” Talia snarled. She lunged, pulling on the restraints that held her. She hadn’t even felt herself get up. “I told you so,” Yago said with a smile. “I’m glad you’re finally coming around, even if it is at my perceived expense.” Talia’s blood was boiling now, but it didn’t stop her from catching the key word in that sentence. “Perceived?” “Yes,” Yago confirmed, “perceived. How do you know the battles that have occurred aren’t going exactly as planned?” Talia scoffed at that, annoyed by the fact that her uncle never could admit when he had miscalculated something. “Your ego is going lose you this war.” “Maybe,” he said with a shrug. He pushed his chair out from beneath his desk and stood up. “Though it is going my way right now, in spite of my ego and in spite of what you might think. Actually, things couldn’t be going better.” He began walking around the desk, and headed out towards the hall. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a few things to take care of. Another count has come to take his test, and I have some letters to write… how exciting. I’ll just leave you to stew here some more.” Yago walked just out of range of her restraints, and placed a small wooden bowl on the floor in front of her. It was filled with blood – human blood – and Talia knew that it was the type designed to further her progress. She stared contemptuously at it, fighting all the way. She was doing her best to resist, but her psyche was too steeped in anger to not give it serious thought. Deep down, Talia knew the terrible secret that was beginning to grow and fester inside of her – I want it. Yago gave an arrogant smile, and began walking out of the room. After a few moments, Talia let loose a primal scream while yanking at her restraints. She yelled something, but it was unintelligible and she didn’t even feel herself say it. She felt spittle fly out of her mouth and drip down her chin, and her normal consciousness slide further and further behind a growing fog of hate within her. Cocky bastard, she thought. He must be bluffing, or delusional. She thought to his smile, and his unusually calm treatment of the guard that had delivered bad news to him. She had seen people skewered for less, and she felt confused. He has to be crazy… right? Surely there’s no way things are actually still going in his favor.
  7. VVesley

    Chapter 1

    Just started reading, and I'm going to give this a follow! Nice opening
  8. VVesley


    Nice chapter! I love that Lenny is being a bit of a contrarian regarding his aunt, and that's driving the decision to keep the place/moving the plot along. I like both of the main characters a lot!
  9. VVesley


    Ahh, very sad to read about a tragedy like this. The story is unfolding quite nicely, though! Glad to see the early chapter and am really enjoying this!
  10. VVesley

    Chapter 18

    Ha! Well I'm glad I can elicit such a reaction! Thanks so much for reading, and I appreciate the comment!
  11. VVesley

    Chapter 18

    I'm so glad you liked it! I had the idea of Darion, Devan, and Damien and each of their unique fighting styles planned out since the very first chapter of this series! Thanks so much for reading and the comment!
  12. VVesley

    Chapter 18

    I'm so glad you liked it! Yes - two more Generals are down. I feel like you've just summarized what I was hoping to portray in terms of the relationships between characters, which makes me feel great! Thanks so much for reading and the comment.
  13. VVesley

    Chapter 18

    So glad that you liked it!! I really appreciate you sticking with it and leaving the comment, and am so honored that you consider it among your favorites!
  14. VVesley

    Chapter 18

    War was one of the few places that Alexandre could find solace. Though the battlefield was a chaotic zone of fear and darkness, Alex had developed the ability to fall into line with the ebb and flow of fighting with detached focus. Because war was a constant in his life, it provided some comfort. Though terror gripped him every time he had to fight – and he would argue that it was that way for everyone, every time, despite what they might say – it was also a chance to step outside of himself, and be a machine. One day, we won’t have to do this anymore. I hope. The noises of battle and bloodshed echoed all around him, a dull roar in his ears. There was a distinct kind of concentration that Alex could dive into which allowed him to pass through the crowds unphased by the brutality surrounding him and he was fully in it now. A stab to the right, a beheading to the left, Carl watching my back… its good to not think for a little while. Or rather, think only about staying alive minute by minute. Over the course of five days, the scale of battle had dramatically increased. Alexandre and all his allies left the Capital to fend for itself, forming one wedge-shaped unit to pierce through the heart of the camps that surrounded the city. Initially, the enemy troops responded as Carlisle had predicted – they ramped up attacks within the city borders and took out their wrath upon civilians. Alex pushed forward rather than turning back to assist, much to Elsa Torne’s chagrin. He knew that the guerilla tactics were designed to separate his troops and wear him thin, and that he would lose if he were to continue to respond. Instead, he had made for the tents of the opposing generals. Carl was right… but so was I. When the enemy generals realized that Alex was not diverging forces to deal with their distractions, they had also reconsolidated power. Not fast enough. Alex suspected that Davora and La Croix had thought him soft, unwilling to sacrifice the common people to win a fight. While it was true that Alex waged his war partially to end the mistreatment of the general populace, he was still raised to uphold the principles of being a Nabian. The citizens did also fight back, and there were less casualties than could ordinarily be expected for raids of a comparable size. I abandoned the city… but I will do what it takes to win this war. He ducked a sword that had broken through the wall of soldiers surrounding him and Carl, and reached out with one of his own hooked blades. Placing the curve around the hilt of the sword, Alex yanked the blade towards himself in a surprise to its wielder. He let the blade launch to the other side of his body and helped its momentum along with a push – this slid the weapon between two allies to his left, and pushed it into the chest of a soldier that was giving them a difficult time. The man screamed horribly, and died dramatically. Alex moved on without a second glance. There is always going to be a darkness in me. The sacrifices I have made… the people I’ve lost… even succumbing to this darkness will be worth victory. Black, for our fearlessness in the darkest of times, he recalled while mouthing the words of Nabius. Am I fearless? Truly? Walls of shields surrounded Alex on three sides, and they were making progress slowly. Carl was there with him, and red and black uniforms mingled with blue and gold ones in one strong unit. “We’re approaching Davora!” shouted a squadron leader. Good, thought Alex as he continued to walk slowly. He and Carl shared a glance, and the silence hung grim between them. They were both exhausted – it had been almost a full day of fighting. They were given opportunities to rest, but the labor of the battle had worn them to their cores even with that. “Now!” shouted the squadron leader. The men on their sides broke rank in swift unison, thrusting their spears between shields and thinning out the line of people before them. Swordsmen were next, and they passed between the frontline to engage in smaller skirmishes. Alex and Carl both picked up speed, and headed straight ahead. When the lines parted, Alex was amazed to see that Davora’s tent and banners were close. He hadn’t been able to see them until they were practically right in front of him, and he marveled at how far they had traveled to make it to the back line. They had chosen to head towards him rather than General La Croix due to the fact that Fran La Croix likely wouldn’t engage in combat that was unsafe. She was famed as an archer, and was also too old to truly fight. Davora, on the other hand, could be expected to be found in the middle of the carnage. As Alex approached his bannermen, he knew that this assumption was right. Davora was there, and he bore his signature weapons. Alex watched a Tomacian soldier get gutted with a horizontal swipe of Davora’s arm, and when the man fell to the ground with his entrails spilling out, the other general looked up to lock eyes with Alexandre. It is now your time. Two heavily armored men with halberds ran at him first, but Alex stood completely still while Carl attacked from his right. He assumed that these were Davora’s personal guards or members of his staff – their positions and dress suggested that they would be capable fighters, and were there to keep enemies that Davora didn’t want to engage at a distance. When they charged, Alex didn’t even bother to pay them attention. Carl slammed his body into the nearest guard, and used a mighty swipe of his broadsword to disarm the second. Alex stepped around them, trusting his husband to keep them at bay. This cleared the distance between the two generals, and they stood observing each other for a moment. “Finally,” General Davora growled. He stood wide-legged, and looked powerful in his set of leather armor. He wore his famed blades, which ran parallel to his forearms and were attached by a few mechanical contraptions and tight leather straps. His hands were in fists, and the length of the blades ran several inches past where his fingertips would end if he were to fan out his digits. “Finally,” Alex agreed, drawing his two hook swords. He maneuvered them into blackthorn stance, posing to prepare to strike. Around the two generals, the crowd parted and formed a circle. Soldiers on all sides craned to get a look at the fight, sparing glances when they could. The fighting at the edges was half-hearted, most soldiers reluctant to miss the opportunity to see a showdown between two generals. This is the kind of fight you read about in the history books at the academy. Alex recalled studying many a recorded battle between generals during his time as a student, and wondered if this one would make history too. Probably. The wave of people fighting around them slowed further, and Alex felt comfortable assuming that no one would interfere. There was an unspoken ideal that meant the two generals would be given an honorable fight. A victory would turn the tide decisively one way or another, and Alex sincerely hoped it would be in his favor. Pitor Davora gave a half-grin, and suddenly lunged. Damn he’s fast! Alex dodged out of the way just in time, deflecting Davora’s left arm with his right sword. The older general spun almost immediately, both arms wide in horizontal swipes that would be lethal if Alex were nearby. He met a thrust of Davora’s right blade with his left, and turned to the side to dodge the left-armed swing. Both Generals swung hard and fast, and each time their blades met Alex could feel reverberations up his arms. Ugh, Alex thought has he narrowly avoided a swipe. He fights almost like he’s boxing. The older general held his hands in loose fists, raised in front of him, bouncing around on the balls of his feet. Stabs were thrown like punches, but the extended range on Davora’s weapons was throwing Alex off. He knew that just one mistake would end it, and he wasn’t doing as good a job keeping up as he would have hoped. Davora lobbed a swipe after feigning moving right, and Alex caught it with a hook. He threw the arm to the side and yanked down, exposing Davora’s chest. With the other sword, Alex took a swing but had to back off when Davora took a stab of his own. Had Alex committed, the generals would have wounded each other at the same time. His fighting borders on suicidal – he’s banking on me not being willing to take a hit to win. Both generals rotated out of immediate proximity to each other, and Alex used the momentum of his spin to launch another attack. He jumped and lifted his legs up, as if he were sitting in midair. Underneath him, his hook swords had been conjoined at the head to create one giant, sweeping blade. His range was greatly extended, and the strike landed just above the kneecap. Davora’s right thigh was gashed open, and he grimaced. Yes. Alex used another loop of the conjoined blades to strike again, but this time Davora fell back to avoid the blow. He propped himself up on the tips of his blades looking skyward, and Alexandre’s slash swung just inches above his face. Alex made a third rotation, bringing the blades into a diagonal swipe, and Davora kicked off of the ground over and around it. Realizing that this tactic wouldn’t work, Alex slowed the rotating swords and returned to having one in each hand. He’s got to have a weakness. The way that his blades are strapped to the outside of his arms…. Can he protect his back that way? It would require some flexibility, and Alex thought that he looked to be slightly too muscular to reach all the way behind himself for full coverage. That’s where I need to strike. As if the cut that Alex had landed were a great insult, Davora launched into an angry frenzy of attacks. His swings were reckless, but even Alexandre’s finesse with swords did not afford him an opportunity to get in between them. Holy shit. The flurry of metal on metal was hard to keep up with, and sharp pinging noises rang out each time an attack was blocked. Alex circled Davora while fighting to keep his focus for half a minute or so before finally making his move. He caught one of Davora’s ankles by a hook, and yanked while dropping to the ground to roll sideways. Letting go of the lefthand blade, he was able to get behind Davora while he fell backwards towards the ground. Alex had planned to use his righthand sword to punch up and into the older general, but somehow the other man managed to spin to face the ground while he fell. Alex felt the impact of steel in his gut, and felt stunned as Davora pinned his sword hand down. I lost. Davora’s blade stuck through Alex on the right side of his abdomen, exiting out his back and sticking into the dusty ground beneath it. Blood began to flow freely, mixing with the dirt and dust to form a murky black goo that would start to pool out soon. “NO!” Alex heard Carl cry, but the scream was too far away for help. Davora looked over in the direction of Carl and smiled, raising his other arm to punch down through Alexandre’s chest. That brief moment of hesitation was all that Alex needed, and he sprung into action. Rubbing his boots together, Alex activated a spring-loaded lever that made one long spike protrude from the top of his left foot. He brought it up into Davora’s side hard, and this time it was Davora’s turn to be surprised. The pain made him falter, and Alex used every ounce of strength that he had to rotate the two around. Davora tried to sit up and strain the opposite direction, but his blade was stuck in Alexandre and he couldn’t wrench it free quickly enough. The two rolled to where Davora was laying on his back, Alex sitting on top of him with one blade sticking through him. Alex pushed off and continued rolling, letting the blade slide out of his stomach in one fluid motion. He knew that this would increase the blood flow and reduce his chances of survival, but he didn’t care. Now you die. Continuing the roll, Alex made it to where his righthanded sword had fallen, and grabbed it by the hilt in one fluid motion. He gave another rotation while pushing up off of the ground, and swung his blade like like a croquet bat towards where Davora was. The hooked sword scooped out a good chunk of his throat, and Alex fell onto the ground after having never made it back to standing. He watched Davora flail and sputter while he bled out, and knew he had won. The battle surged back to life around them, and Alex felt red cloud the edges of his vision. He saw Carl approach him from above, and slowly felt his world fade into black. *** Eamon entered Luca’s quarters slowly, trying not to catch the younger man off guard. He knew he would be jumpy after the attack by assassins, but luckily he did not scare him when he opened the door slowly. By the sounds he was making, Eamon could tell that Luca was collapsed on his bed exhausted. “Did we find all entrances?” he asked quietly. His tone was morose, and Eamon’s heart hurt to think of the clock on their lives ticking down. “We think so,” Eamon replied, equally sullen. The assassins that had made it into the estate had been almost entirely dispatched, and Ysabel was able to find where they entered from. A tunnel through the sewers that hadn’t been on the schematics of the estate was overlooked, and many men had been sent through there. After the initial wave was fought off, Eamon and Ysabel had stationed additional units in the dungeons of the place to guard against covert entrances. They had held for a few hours, but this also meant that there were less people manning the walls above. The attack had also brought on heavy casualties, which included most of the house staff. Alfie, the head chef and friend to both Luca and Eamon, had died defending Luca and Eamon knew that it would weigh heavily on his mind. “Adrian and Kade are safe as well. They’ve gone to the west tower and are watching from there.” “That’s good,” Luca said with a nod. “I’m glad that they made it. I can’t count on two hands how many friends I’ve lost today.” Eamon walked over to the edge of the bed, and sat down with his arm around Luca’s shoulders. “I know,” he said solemnly. The silence hung thick in the air between them for a while, before Eamon felt Luca’s hand on his chin pull him into a kiss. It was sweet, and Eamon could feel the tears on Luca’s face. He grabbed the back of Luca’s head with both hands, and slowly laid him down to where he was on top of the younger man. “Eamon…” Luca said quietly. “I know we haven’t… done everything yet. But I want you to know that it’s not – “ “Shhh,” Eamon hushed. “It’s okay. I understand.” “No,” said Luca with intensity. “This may be our last night. The walls won’t hold much longer, and with our reduced capacity… we may only have a few hours left. Before I go, I want you to have me. Fully.” Oh gods. This is exactly what Eamon had wanted since he had first seen Luca, but it was now tinged with sadness and the cold reality of mortality. After all this time, can I even bring myself to…? Now that it’s the end of the road for the both of us? Eamon hesitated, and Luca caught it immediately. “Don’t falter. This isn’t just because of... what’s going on. And you aren’t taking advantage of my emotions, either.” Eamon briefly wondered if Luca could read minds. “I want this. And I have, for some time. At first… it was hard, because…. Well, you know.” Eamon nodded, indicating that he did know. “But I think we’ve both changed. Found ourselves. And the person that I am works well with the person that you are. We were meant for each other. If I go out of this life without giving you all of myself at least once, that would be my only regret.” Eamon felt himself getting aroused, and Luca pulled himself in closer. “Okay,” Eamon breathed, so quiet it was almost a whisper. Their faces were millimeters apart, and their noses were so close that Eamon struggled to tell if they were touching or not. “If you’re ready.” “I am. Make me yours.” The two dove into a passionate kiss, and their hands explored each other with desperate need. The fumbled with their clothing, and experienced each other fully for the first time. *** “Fifty four dead. Twenty seven injured. Five caravans burnt to the ground, and over three hundred thousand in luxury commodities destroyed.” Jared read the numbers aloud, not daring to believe that the report could be true. “Is this a joke? This is outrageous!” “I know,” said Marion softly. Prince Coyne could tell that his cousin was furious, and was mulling over who would pay the price for this assault. “Why? This doesn’t even make sense.” “I don’t know,” Marion said with a matter-of-fact intonation. “And yet the order has the gall to inform us that they’ve ‘taken care of the issue’ as if we should be appreciative. They’ve crossed the line.” “I agree,” said Jared. “I just don’t understand this at all.” Jared thought over the details of the letter that Marion had just brought to his attention, wondering what had prompted the attack. The situation that had been explained to Coyne and Monciet leadership was simply that a few trading caravans were completing ancient, evil work and needed to be eradicated. The Hallowed Order had taken matters into their own hands, slaughtering Ironians that they deemed ‘agents of terror,’ and burning their wares to the ground. Jared couldn’t interpret these actions as anything other than an attempt to undermine the recently reestablished authority in the region. In truth the loss was not hugely substantial, but the fact that anyone would use the order to further potential enemies of Ironia irked him. It was against the principles of the order to take this kind of action, and Jared was disgusted. “They’ve sought to hurt us by killing civilians. Innocent people.” “Not innocent according to them,” Marion said with a motion to the letter. “Agents of terror.” “You know what this means, Marion. Someone has taken control of the order to attack us. Or at the very least, they’ve infiltrated and have enough influence to damage allies.” “I do,” Marion nodded. “And I agree. I will not allow my people to be slaughtered unjustly without retribution. These crimes will be answered for.” “What are you going to do?” “I’m still thinking on that. I wanted to loop you in so that when you see my revenge, you know what it’s motivated by. I just promised leadership to my citizens – I can’t just let this go.” Jared nodded, understanding completely. “I support you. But keep in mind that you thirsted for revenge against the Di Coteaus long after their crimes were committed. Now, they are allies and are working to make reparations. Please just consider the consequences of your actions.” “I will,” Marion snapped. “But there are some differences between then and now.” When Marion didn’t continue, Jared probed further. “Those differences being…?” “The Di Coteaus launched a military assault. They didn’t murder citizens just for the fun of it, and had a strategic goal of occupying territory. They also weren’t part of an order that was supposed to be apolitical.” “I suppose that’s true.” “I also wasn’t in a position to be able to do anything about it then.” “And this time, you are.” “Exactly.” *** “Are we finished?” Luca asked calmly as he surveyed the battlefield from above. He was on the highest balcony of the estate with Eamon, Adrian, Kade, and Ysabel. They all watched as the outermost wall of the Di Coteau estate burned and began crumbling, large chunks of it falling off at a time. Luca’s eyes felt heavy, and he was sure that they probably looked blackened from exhaustion. There was an eerie calm about the place as each person in the palace surrendered to inevitability. “Yes,” replied Ysabel coolly. “What do we do now?” asked Kade. “We die,” Ysabel responded again. No one spoke for some time after that. The group simply listened to the screams of the dying and the raging sounds of battle below them, and numbly accepted their fate. After a while, Eamon spoke up. “You should all run. When the troops flood in, try to escape in the chaos. I’ll defend you,” he said while looking in Luca’s direction. My sweet guard. Always trying to protect me. “I don’t think so,” Luca said. “I committed to this. I will go down with this estate. It’s my duty.” Ysabel seemed to approve of that, but Kade frowned. “Don’t let me stop any of you, though. General Clarion, Adrian, Kade – you guys are strong. You could make it.” “Not a chance, child,” said Ysabel dryly. “This is personal for Hadeaux, and General Lafeye does not take prisoners. We would be run down the moment we exited what is left of these walls.” That was a sullen thought, but Luca knew that it was probably true. Please, Luca willed. Please come through. We only have minutes left. He poured all of his willpower into a desparate plea to the universe, for the chance that his last letter before the siege might pay off. He was banking on humanity, and the power of bonds between family. But no. If anyone was going to help, they would have come sooner. Luca saw a procession of more orderly than normal troops encircling a few horse riders slowly make their way up to the front lines, with banners flying at the corners of a square that they formed. That would be Marie Lafeye, he recognized. She’ll be coming to partake in the raid of the estate. She’ll probably execute us all herself. “And so it ends,” Adrian muttered quietly. “So it does,” said Ysabel. As the general approached, a roaring noise accompanied the collapse of the inner wall. Stone crumbled in every direction as the great fortification fell in a few spots, and the plumes of dust it produced ballooned high enough to cloud the air around the tower. Luca had to squint his eyes as they watered from the dust that was formed. Enemy soldiers cheered, and the first few eager troops began to make their way through the rubble to clash with the Di Coteau estate’s last defenses. These were mostly made up of civilians from Mullansburg, who understandably began to flee into the recesses of the building. Well. At least we held off for longer than expected. Armed citizens can be more effective than I had even hoped for. A deep drumming began from the east, which caught Luca off guard. He allowed himself the smallest ray of hope, a pinprick of light through the shroud of despair that had settled over him. The drumming grew louder, and the rumbling of hooves on ground slowly started to build up. Could it be? Marie Lafeye and her entourage were still moving towards the break in the second wall, slowly and surely. It appeared that she and her men did not hear the approaching noise, or did not care. “What is that?” Adrian asked sharply. “Do you all hear that?” “It’s about fucking time,” Ysabel said with a growl. “He did come,” Luca breathed, daring to hope for survival. As he watched, the woods to the east erupted into a mass of soldiers on horseback. They charged the main force of the opposing troops hard, slamming into the wall of bodies from the side. Soldiers on both sides fell, but banners waved proudly through the galloping mass. “That’s…” “My father,” Kade breathed out in disbelief. The sigil of Devan Di Coteau waved ferociously, and the surprise attack from the east cut into Marie Lafeye’s troops faster than Luca would have expected. Luca looked over to Kade, who was spectating the battle below with wide eyes. Thank all the gods that you were here. Luca wasn’t particularly proud of using Kade in his last effort plea for help, but still didn’t know if Devan would have come otherwise. The general was his last hope, and he had come through. As battle raged on, Ysabel left the tower and began to head down its winding steps. Luca wondered if she was planning on joining in the battle, but he decided that he would watch the result from above. Roughly equal in size at this point, the two armies engaged each other with stunning ferocity. The major difference was that the enemy had been sieging for close to two days at this point while General Di Coteau’s army had just arrived, fully invigorated. Yes. Over the course of the next twenty or so minutes, lines broke and reformed, and soldiers fell in large numbers. Once Marie Lafeye and her immediate guard turned east to engage the newcomers, they began to make progress more towards the origin of the allied troops. It was then that Luca saw Devan Di Coteau himself emerge from the woods, perched atop a massive black stallion. From the distance Luca couldn’t make out any distinct features, but he imagined the man as a carbon copy of his older brother Darion. Luca would never have wanted to face off with Darion Di Coteau, and imagined that Devan would be just as intimidating. It was hard to tell from this height, but Luca knew that Devan was probably just as large in stature, and just as dangerous. Please save us. “What’s the update?” Eamon asked. Luca gasped, sucking in air after realizing that he had been holding his breath. He had been narrating the course of the battle for Eamon, with contributions from Adrian and Kade as well. “General Di Coteau is now engaging General Lafeye. Their personal guards have begun fighting and are slowly splitting to form a barrier around the two generals.” Eamon nodded, seeming to understand. “The fight between them is beginning now,” said Adrian as Marie Lafeye drew her sword off her back. She used a sword and shield, and arranged herself in a formation that Luca was sure was probably a classic battle stance. Devan grabbed two enormous morning star flails from his horse as a response, and appeared not to adopt any stance. He simply walked forward, looking straight at the opposing general. “They’ve drawn arms, and a circle of soldiers has formed around them.” It was what Luca had expected to see – he had heard about legendary showdowns between great warriors and the Nabian custom of observing them without interference, but now he was getting to see one for the first time. “What weapons are they using?” “Both of them are using what they are known for,” Kade said. “They’re taking this seriously. They intend to kill.” “Lets hope our side wins,” Luca said. “I don’t think I could even lift one of General Devan’s weapons. “You probably couldn’t,” Eamon agreed. The battle began with General Lafeye striking first, a quick jab to test the waters. General Di Coteau deflected it easily, and began spinning his right handed weapon. The spiked ball at the end of the chain rotated faster than the eye could see, and Luca could just imagine the roar of the whooshing noise that it made once it got up to full speed. When General Lafeye struck again, Devan blocked her blow with the stationary flail and swung the spinning one at chest level. Lafeye didn’t struggle getting her shield up, but Luca was sure that the impact would have hurt the arm that bore the shield. Were it wood, it would have splintered into a thousand shards. Devan disengaged, pulling back on the embedded flail to pull his opponents shield away from her body. She held her ground, and fell back with a defensive thrust. The two separated, and Devan began spinning his flail again. This time, he began to rotate the one in his left hand. “What’s happening?” Eamon asked. “Neither has landed a hit yet,” said Adrian. Eamon seemed unsatisfied with that explanation, but everyone atop the tower was too engrossed to provide a more detailed play by play. Marie Lafeye launched into a flurry of blows, each of which was dodged or fought off by Devan. He was now on the defensive but wove swings of his weapons in at unexpected times. Lafeye had a few narrow dodges herself, but the pair seemed equally matched. After a minute or so of constant battering by both generals, this secondary round of fighting culminated in a hit by Devan. His left flail was blocked by General Lafeye’s shield, but Luca realized he must have changed the grip mid-swing. The handle ricocheted off of the shield’s face, but the chain and ball looped around the side to impact the shoulder. Marie Lafeye was armored, but Luca had no doubt that probably punctured her protective gear. She drug her shield and sword down towards the sides where both of Devan’s weapons had her engaged, then kicked his exposed chest. This successfully put some separation between the two, and they began preparing for another cycle of fighting. Devan now swung both of his flails to the side, whirling metal in two circles that crossed over his body. “Di Coteau landed a hit!” Adrian said excitedly. “They’re gearing up to fight again.” “Good,” said Eamon with a grimace. Luca knew he was hopeful, but didn’t want to get raise any expectations while his fate still hung in the balance. “Come on,” Luca heard Kade whisper. “You can do it.” He was hoping for the same thing, but didn’t want to jinx himself by vocalizing anything. This time, it was Devan that attacked first. He ran straight at Lafeye, jumping into a spin that put his body parallel to the ground. The morning stars whipped around hard, giving Devan momentum that Luca would have thought impossible. Lafeye blocked both with her shield, but this time they hit hard enough to dent in the metal and stick. Luca could tell by the way that Lafeye moved that her shield arm was injured, and she was forced to bring it down after that blow. When she made to stab General Di Coteau, he spun around the shield side of her while still holding on to the handles of his weapons. The effect was that she was spun, and wasn’t able to catch him with her sword. Devan aimed a heavy kick at the side of one her knees, which collapsed sideways under the blow. As she knelt, she tried one last swing at General Di Coteau’s throat. He had clearly been expecting that, and caught her sword hand by the wrist. One hand still on an embedded flail, Devan ripped the weapon from Lafeye’s shield and swung it directly at her head. Luca looked away with a cringe and sharp intake of breath, only seeing the opposing general’s demise for a quick moment. He had watched her head begin to burst open like an overripe watermelon, and knew that he didn’t want to get too much of a look at the aftermath. “What?” said Eamon panicked. “What is it?” “We won,” Luca said quietly, relieved. “Or at least General Di Coteau did. Marie Lafeye is dead,” said Prince Adrian. Silence hung in the air for a few moments before the tension broke, and suddenly the noises of war sounded less like death to Luca. The rage of battle sounded like victory, and even as Luca watched he saw the people of the Di Coteau estate begin to return to their stations. A glorious uproar of cheers erupted from the Di Coteau army and what was left of the Mullansburg citizens. War horns sounded, and Luca knew that the melodies they played were northern, specific to Devan Di Coteau’s triumph. “That will turn the tide of battle,” followed up Kade. He was right, though Luca felt that he was pointing out the obvious. “Thank the saints,” Eamon breathed, his shoulders slumping in clear reprieve. We may make it through this yet, thought Luca numbly. He saw Kade and Adrian embrace and kiss in celebration out of his peripheral vision, and felt Eamon’s arms wrap around him similarly. “Oh gods,” Luca said. He had tears streaming down his face, and Eamon pressed his face into his neck. “I’m so glad to have more time with you,” he whispered. The older man was squeezing him tightly, harder than Luca had ever been hugged before. Luca didn’t mind the contact despite the heat of the day, and leaned into Eamon, his strength completely sapped by what he had just witnessed. Eamon supported him instantly, seeming to know that Luca was at the brink of total exhaustion. The younger teen stayed like that for a few seconds, allowing himself to be held and carried by the strength of another. He reveled in the situation, finally feeling like he could breathe. Eamon was nurturing and protective, just as Luca needed him to be. After a minute or two, Luca regained his constitution and stood up straight. He kissed Eamon directly, and put two hands on the sides of his face. “Okay. Let’s go – we’ve got work to do now.”
  15. VVesley


    I really enjoy the start to this story, and am excited to see it progress. I also really enjoy your writing style - looking forward to reading more of your works!
  • Create New...

Important Information

Our Privacy Policy can be found here. We have placed cookies on your device to help make this website better. You can adjust your cookie settings, otherwise we'll assume you're okay to continue..