Gangrel was curled up in the dark, ignoring the pleas of a blonde angel to come out. He was afraid, afraid of the light the angel brought, the light that wreathed her face, making it impossible for him to see her face. She begged him in Emmeryn's voice to come out, come with her. His answer was always the same.
"I'm not coming," he said. "You can't make me."
But no matter how many times he said no, she kept pressing him. Finally, his irritation won out over his fear.
"Alright! Fine! Gods..."
Slowly, the trickster crawled out of the dark space, closing his eyes against the bright light. He felt a hand take his own and help him stand. After a long moment, Gangrel forced open his eyes.
Emmeryn stood before him, smiling gently, holding his hand between both of hers. They were alone in a field. Gangrel looked around, but the bright sunlight made him dizzy and nauseous. He fell back into the grass, holding his head in his hands, willing the world to stop spinning. He felt a gentle touch on his shoulders and instinctively shoved the person away, not wanting to been seen as weak. Something sticky and warm spread over his hands and Gangrel squinted his eyes open to see what it was.
The familiar crimson shade of fresh blood glistened on his hands.
The Mad King released a strangled yelp and tried to rid himself of the bright liquid, only to see that more was dripping down onto him. He wondered where it could be coming from. Then he looked up and saw Emmeryn.
Her face was calm, smiling and beautiful as always, but thick blood welled from a large puncture wound in her stomach. As she paled from the blood loss, Gangrel suddenly realized that he had been the one to give her those wounds. She was dying because of him.
"No!" Gangrel screamed, jolting to his feet in a panic. "No no no no NO!"
"Monster!" someone cried behind him. The red-haired man whirled around and saw the Shepherds had gathered behind him. As one, they all unsheathed their weapons.
Gangrel did the one thing that made sense to him: he ran. His chances of escape were slim, but it was something at least. He heard pursuit and ran faster, pushing himself harder than he'd ever dared to.
The firm dirt of the field gave way to soft, slippery mud, and the Mad King landed face-first in the cold waters of a spring. He rose to his hands and knees, coughing and sputtering. As he struggled to regain his breath, Gangrel looked into the water, and cried out when he saw his reflection.
Only his eyes were unchanged—the same ruby shade as they had always been—but the rest of him was covered in thick fur, two twisted horns rising from his forehead, fangs jutting from overlarge jaws, and long claws extending from the tips of his fingers.
"There he is!"
The cry snapped Gangrel out of his horror long enough so that he could begin running again. The sodden fur slowed him down and he heard hoofbeats drawing ever nearer. Pain lanced through his side and he stumbled, landing heavily on his side and skidding a few feet before the wild run was brought to a sudden halt.
Groaning in pain, Gangrel rose to all fours, watching terrified as he saw Stahl dismounting from his white horse, drawing his blade. The Plegian tried to speak, to beg for his life, but only a faint whimper escaped his throat. Desperate, he looked for someone—anyone—who would help, but he was alone. Alone with someone who very much wanted to kill him.
Stahl raised his sword, steel flashing in the sunlight. Gangrel watched the blade descend, helpless to stop it, unable to contain the paralyzing panic that rushed through his body.
The icy metal burned as it cut into his flesh.
The silent night was broken as the Mad King jolted awake, covered in cold sweat. He felt trapped, smothered, and struggled to free himself from the blankets tangled around him. He finally kicked free of the fabric and dashed out of the tent, running like his life depended on it.
He did not slow until he was free of the camp, dropping to his knees in exhaustion. The panic of the nightmare still gripped him, and being in camp made him feel caged and vulnerable. Out here, among the trees with no light but the moon, he felt safer.
Gangrel struggled to slow his breathing, shivering as a breeze picked up. One moment, he'd thought himself to be in blinding sunlight, and upon waking had been plunged into darkness. Part of him knew that the vision had only been in his mind, and that there was no real danger, but it had felt so real...
The trickster jolted to his feet when he heard footsteps. He whirled to see who it was, cursing himself for his defenselessness.
As the figure stepped into a shaft of moonlight, Gangrel felt himself relax some. It was just Nisha; he was safe.
She appeared to have only just awoken herself: her hair was loose and tumbled around her shoulders in a messy tangle, she wore a loose tunic and breeches that she had clearly been sleeping in, and her cloak and boots looked as if she'd pulled them within the last minutes. The tactician stepped closer, her brow furrowed in concern.
"Gangrel?" she said softly, as if afraid to spook him. "Are you alright? I heard you leaving the camp and got worried."
The Plegian man turned away slightly, not trusting himself to answer. Nisha reached out her hand and touched his arm lightly.
"Do you want to go back?" she asked. The Mad King shook his head, still unable to dispel the haunted feeling that accompanied the thought of the Ylissean League. He shuddered as the wind picked up again, chilling his sweat-covered body and cutting through the thin black shirt and trousers that he had worn to bed. The tactician nodded and began to pile sticks on a clear patch of ground. Gangrel wondered what she was doing until she pulled out a fire tome and ignited the wood, creating a miniature campfire.
Clever girl, he thought to himself as he felt warmth rush over him. He sat by the flames, watching them intently. Nisha joined him on the ground, seating herself next to him. There was silence between them, filled by the crackling of fire and the gentle wind. Finally, the dark-haired woman dared to speak.
"Was it a nightmare?" she asked. Hating himself for it, Gangrel nodded once, not daring to look at her. She sighed lightly.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
Showing weakness before a Ylissean was bad enough, but the Mad King felt far deeper shame in revealing his nighttime terrors to the only person who—Ylissean or not—was willing to help and listen; it made him feel weak. He didn't want to be weak. Especially in front of her.
Nisha seemed to understand, because she didn't press him. Instead, she scooted closer.
"Was it about us?" she asked. Gangrel knew that she meant the Shepherds. He watched the fire flicker in the darkness, but did not answer. His silence, however, only gave the young tactician the information she had sought.
"Are we still your enemies? The Shepherds?"
The question surprised him. Were they? If his nightmare had anything to say about it, they certainly were. But then again, he would still be a slave to the Dread Pirates if they hadn't come along. Or dead.
"I try not to think about it," the trickster answered honestly. "In my mind, anyone who's trying to kill me is the enemy. I don't classify beyond that."
Nisha hummed to herself as she processed the information, asking another question as soon as she was done.
"When I tell you that I don't want you to die, do you believe me?"
"I have no doubts about it," he said flatly, before he asked a question of his own. "But how far would you really go for me—your old enemy?"
"I will die for you if need be."
Gangrel turned to stare at her, unsure of what he had just heard.
"I would die for you," she repeated without hesitation. She looked him straight in the eye as she said it, and he could see her certainty written on her face. He couldn't believe it.
"Am I worth your life?" he asked quietly. "Even after everything I've done?"
"Yes," she replied, her voice soft but firm.
Her dark eyes reflected the campfire, a dancing orange light. The flames gave her gaze a strange power, an unearthly aura. Gangrel found himself frozen, staring at the fire dancing in her nearly black irises, unable to tear his eyes away. She did not seem uncomfortable about his staring, holding his gaze evenly, allowing herself a small smile.
The silence between them was long, but not at all awkward. Even after Nisha turned away to feed the flames, Gangrel studied her, his eyes roving her profile. Why was he in such awe? he wondered. He saw her every day, and she always looked the same; so what was so fascinating in this moment that he couldn't stop looking?
Eventually, the small blaze faded into embers and the dark-haired tactician stood, offering the Mad King her hand. He took it and stood.
"You ready to go back now?" she asked gently, not releasing his hand. Standing there with her, he did finally feel ready, and he nodded. Nisha released him and turned back towards the camp, walking calmly through the shadowy forest. Gangrel followed, wincing as the rough ground scraped the bare soles of his feet. The wind blew around him, but the chill no longer pierced through his thin shirt. It was as if he were wrapped in an invisible blanket of warmth that nothing could pierce.
It took him some time to recognize what he felt—it had been years since this sensation had last touched him, and he was surprised that it had come now. There was no reason for him to feel this way, yet he did.
For the first time in over a decade, he felt safe and secure. There was a world of things he could be worried about, things he should be afraid of, but somehow, he just...wasn't.
And he wondered why.