It was all so beautiful, like an illusion or dream. Far too beautiful; it had to be a nightmare. Especially with her here.
The world around his was dark and faded, as if the scenery had no importance; in fact, the only thing in clear focus was the cloaked figure of Nisha, who shone as if caught in a silver moonbeam. She was walking towards him, no hesitation in her stride.
Gangrel couldn't move: he was frozen where he stood, helpless to do anything but wait. The tactician halted, barely any space left between them. He could see her dark eyes reflecting the silvery light as her hood fell back. She studied him, fearless. Then she tilted her head to the side a fraction.
What are you waiting for? she seemed to be asking. Cupping her cheek with one hand Gangrel smirked and leaned closer...
What little world that had existed before faded into nothingness: the only reality left was the woman in his arms. All sense of time, place, and identity vanished. There was no Ylissean or Plegian, nor king or tactician. He was just a man, she was just a woman, and they were together—as they were meant to be.
The Mad King sat bolt upright, reentering the real world with a jolt as strong as any lightning magic. The shock faded after the initial moment of consciousness, replaced by a flood of rage. The Mad King slammed his fist into the ground violently, ignoring the pain in his immense frustration.
For the fifth time this week, he'd dreamed of Nisha. It was always the same: she would appear more beautiful than he'd ever seen, tempting him to forgive her, to take back what he'd said in anger. And his pathetic dream-self always gave in.
Gangrel didn't want to forgive Nisha: he wanted to hate her! He wanted to drive out any form of affection he'd ever had for her, vilify her, make her into his enemy once more. His mind was made up on this, but whenever he fell asleep, he was forcibly reminded that his heart wasn't in agreement. And though he was trying his best, the Plegian couldn't quite conquer it. Since when was he known to be logical anyway? He lived off his emotions.
Still ruffled and upset, Gangrel laid back down, staring at the canvas roof. He didn't go back to sleep, but stayed awake until sunrise lightened the sky. There was no way he was giving in to those nightmares; those terribly beautiful nightmares.
More often than not, sleep deprivation begets irritation. Gangrel was particularly susceptible to the latter today: the dreams had woken him at about midnight, giving him less than four hours of sleep to go off of. Anyone who was wise would just leave him alone and not risk the Mad King's wrath. His luck lasted an unusually long time, stretching until early afternoon. Perhaps the Ylissean dastards had finally been intelligent enough to read what his dark scowl would mean for them. Probably not.
He knew his luck had finally run out when an accusatory voice sounded loudly behind him.
"What have you done?"
"What makes you think I've done anything, Maribelle?" Gangrel asked without needing to turn around; he'd know that particular tone of voice anywhere.
"Oh don't act like you don't know what you've done," the Ylissean noblewoman scoffed, walking by and whipping around so she could look the Plegian trickster in the eye. "You and Nisha have been avoiding each other recently—which is very unusual, considering how often she tries to assist you—and I have never seen Nisha look so worried or upset, the poor dear. The only explanation must be that you did something to distress her, and now she will have nothing more to do with you. Now, I will ask you one more time: what have you done?"
"Didn't you think to ask the tactician? I'm sure she'd love to tell you," the red-haired man snapped, severely irritated and ignoring a painful throb in his chest.
"Ha! Do you think I'd be talking to you if she had?" Maribelle laughed once, mockingly, fingering her parasol like a weapon she wanted to hit him with. "Nisha still retains the right to keep things to herself, but you lost that right when you pushed poor Emmeryn off a cliff. Now confess!"
Gangrel had been annoyed at the first sound of her voice, but Maribelle had crossed the line now; the all-consuming rage that had so far been reserved only for the hated tactician now stretched to include the insufferable blonde woman as well.
"I'll do no such thing," he replied coldly. "If you know what's good for you, you'll get out of my way."
Had a backhand slap ever felt so good? If there had, Gangrel couldn't remember it. He smirked grimly. Maribelle was silent, seemingly stunned beyond words that the former king would dare lay a finger on her.
"You don't command me," he said dryly. He turned away, ready to vanish into the forest, but her voice sounded again.
"H-how dare you!"
"How dare I?" Gangrel echoed mockingly. "I dare because I can! Nothing you can say or do will change that! I am a king!"
"You were a king! Now you're no better than the dust you walk upon!"
That was it: hearing the painful reminder of his losses was the last straw. Whirling back on the young noblewoman, he seized her shirt collar, dragging her forward. Maribelle was helpless in his grasp, unable to stop him. The Mad King's face twisted into a horrible smile.
"You had your chance to walk away," he growled though gritted teeth. "Now you face the consequences."
Maribelle didn't need to say anything: her response was fully articulated when she swung her parasol at the trickster, landing a blow hard enough to make his head snap to the side. She slipped out from his grip, ready to do it again. The ugly grin on his lips changed into a snarl, and Gangrel's hand dropped to his knife sheath, drawing the short blade with a sharp twist of his wrist.
His first swing was parried by the omnipresent—and ever-irritating—parasol, which Maribelle maneuvered like a sword. Despite the strangeness of the knife-vs-umbrella situation, the Mad King felt a strange satisfaction every time his steel tore through the soft fabric. Suddenly, an idea occurred to him.
Instead of continuing his fruitless assault, he deliberately stabbed at the parasol, driving the blade all the way through it. When it was sufficiently secure, he wrenched the knife backwards, flinging both weapons away. As Maribelle's eyes followed the path of the objects through the air, the trickster kicked her feet out from under her and she fell with a small cry of shock. Before the blonde Ylissean could recover, Gangrel snared her carefully arranged curls and dragged her upward by the hair, enjoying her shriek of pain.
"Lucky for me," he murmured, bending down to whisper in her ear, "I always carry two knives."
But as he reached for the second sheath, a firm hand gripped his shoulder tightly, jerking him backwards, away from his unfortunate victim. His fingers—tangled in Maribelle's blonde locks—did not come free, and the oh-so-dignified Lady shrieked again. Furious, Gangrel whipped around, ready to face his new opponent, keeping a tight grip on the crouching noblewoman's hair.
It was Stahl: fully armored and a sword hanging from his belt, the paladin looked ready to go on a great quest and save a damsel in distress. His usually smiling face was serious and disapproving; one would think he was a stern father, ready to reprimand a willful child.
"Let her go," Stahl commanded. Gangrel glowered at him, eyes narrow, unwilling to to anything as he was told. The brunette's frown deepened and he placed his hand on the pommel of his blade in a silent warning. The trickster knew that against a sword, his knife would stand no chance at all. All the same, he wasn't quite done with his fun.
"I'll let her go when I've finished with her," the former king growled, dragging the suffering woman a few inches farther upwards. Stahl studied the situation for a moment, then—almost imperceptibly—shook his head. That was all the confirmation Gangrel needed: this was going to end in a fight.
Tossing Maribelle aside as if she had no more importance than a rag doll, he launched himself at the paladin, the only thought in his mind the feverish desire to cause pain—to hurt. He didn't care that Stahl was armored, he didn't care that he had no weapons, he didn't care that he was outnumbered by people who would undoubtedly be on the side of his enemy; the only thing Gangrel really cared about was revenge: making these Ylisseans suffer as he was suffering. An eye for an eye.
The ill-advised tackle did its work: Stahl was knocked off balance, which gave the Mad King the leverage he needed to begin his true attack: as the brunette stumbled, Gangrel jerked his second knife free of the sheath and prepared to cut open the young man's throat in a bloody arc of steel and flessh.
A sudden pain in his right shoulder made him reflexively flinch and drop the weapon, which skipped across the earth. Twisting, he saw Maribelle had retrieved her parasol and struck him again, this time to defend Stahl rather than herself. Enraged, Gangrel aimed a kick at her, and felt a rush of satisfaction as the dainty woman flew backwards into a tent, which promptly collapsed on her. The attack on his sword arm had done its work, however: Stahl had recovered from falling and dropped his hand to his sword hilt to draw it—
And then Gangrel had snatched his wrist, quick as a striking serpent. Applying pressure, he forced the paladin's hand upwards, over his head. Stahl tired to free himself, but the Mad King had seized his other arm. The Ylissean pushed, trying to get leverage, but the taller redhead pushed right back, planting his feet to keep from moving. The stalemate lasted for maybe a minute before the brunette's incredibly average strength failed him, and he began to give ground. It took less than twenty seconds for Stahl's resistance against the harsh pressure to buckle and for the younger, weaker man to stagger to the ground. Victory.
Gangrel placed his foot on Stahl's chest to hold him still, then turned to pick up his knife. He paused, taking in the bitter irony at what he saw: the person he hated most of all—the perfect tactician—stood calmly with his weapon at her feet. To retrieve it, he would not only have to approach her, but bow before her to reach the handle. And though Nisha appeared calm on the surface, her unwavering eyes told him that is he even so much as took a step forward, she was ready to take him down in a moment.
"Gangrel, stop," the dark-haired goddess ordered. Her voice was soft, but the force of those words would make anyone quail under her authority. "Let Stahl go and forget your quarrel; whatever it is it's over."
The Mad King laughed, brushing aside her commands with a wave of his hand.
"Come now, tactician; I thought you were intelligent; I have no quarrel with this boy." He spat the last word viciously. "His only offense is interfering with a private matters. No, it is with another that I have a quarrel."
"Who, pray tell?"
She was mocking him now, trying to make him angry and do something stupid. She had to be; there was no possible way for her not to know who...
"You actually thought that this whelp was the problem?" Gangrel sneered, pressing harder down on the paladin's chest with his boot, his smirk widening as Stahl let out a grunt of pain. "Oh no, I'm afraid you're wrong, almighty one. My quarrel is not with him, or even little miss Mari Contrary. My quarrel is with you, tactician; it has been for quite some time now. Weren't you paying attention when I warned you this would happen?"
Nisha's eyes widened and what little color was in her face left it. Her obvious shock and fear was even more delicious than Stahl's pain. And he knew exactly how to get more.
An evil smile settling across his features, Gangrel strode away from the helpless paladin, closer to the tactician. Nisha's hand darted inside her cloak, no doubt taking hold of some tome or other hidden weapon, but he never let her draw it: in a motion just as deliberate as it had been in his nightmare, he tilted back her head with one hand, leaning closer to her with a smirk. Somehow, Nisha's skin became even paler, her eyes wider, her breath little more than shallow gasps. He drank in the expression of terror, feeding off every second she showed weakness.
"I can see that you haven't forgotten what I'm capable of," he hissed, his voice low and dark. "Good. Little miss Mari and young Stahl only got to feel the barest fraction of my wrath. Imagine how much more I can do to you. After all, I know what you're afraid of."
The Ylissean tactician shivered, but her deep eyes never left his; she seemed unable to look away or even move, frozen with fear. A perfect victim.
But before the trickster could decide how next to terrorize the young woman, someone roughly slammed into him and knocked him backwards by several feet. He knew that his fun had come to an end the moment the hated green armor had entered his line of sight. Stahl stood between the Mad King and Nisha, like a verdant shield.
"Enough," the paladin said, his voice more authoritative than Gangrel had ever heard it. "Whatever this quarrel is, it doesn't need to be resolved with violence or cruelty."
Nisha stepped up so she was equal to her comrade, still unnaturally white. Stahl placed an arm around her shoulder—never letting his eyes waver from the red-haired man—and her expression relaxed, all her fear evaporating at the simple touch.
A stab of pain pierced Gangrel's chest, along with hot, scorching jealousy. He clenched his jaw and shoved the feeling away, bringing his rage back to the forefront of his mind. Stahl's brow furrowed for a moment, his face unreadable as he continued to stare the trickster down. The Pklegian's scowl deepened and he spat contemptuously on the ground, stalking away. As he left, he spared a glance over his shoulder and saw Stahl face Nisha, gently resting his hands on her shoulders, no doubt asking if she was going to be alright. His hand came up to touch her face and the pain and envy returned in a flash, stronger than ever before.
His heart would punish him for this: the image of Stahl and Nisha together would be a new specter in his nightmares. The worst part? It would actually hurt to watch, to see Nisha with another man; his jealous nature would ensure that.
Gangrel could try and forget, try to hate Nisha with all his might, but his heart was just as stubborn as the rest of him: it wanted what it wanted and nothing less would do. Even if the pain killed him, or drove him mad, the beast in his heart would still crave Nisha, hunger for her. There were times—more often than ever before—when he was certain he wouldn't survive. But he would; it was his curse.
Nisha is Ylissean, he reminded himself. Her heart is black as her eyes; she was taught treachery and pretense from the cradle. She will never care for anyone outside the realm of perfect beauty, anyone who is not chosen by that thrice-blasted Divine dragon. "We" will never be—it was just an idle fantasy.
A Ylissean could never love a Plegian.