Free {Kingdoms of War}

An outlaw, tuned to kill. A shifter, transformed from myth to monster. A prince, denied rightful claim to the throne. An assassin, adapted to survive and to kill. Four monsters, and a common enemy to unite them.

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62. Chapter Sixty One

"Are you sure you want another ale?"

Rubin looked up at the woman serving drinks. His vision was distorted, but he could still make out the worry seeping through her features. He scowled.

"Just give me the drink," he commanded, and something about the irritation and the glare and the knife at his waist must have made her comply, because there was suddenly another tankard of ale before him.

Rubin snatched it up and raised it to his lips, gulping it down furiously.

Krig. He still remembered the way he'd looked up as he'd died, as though Rubin had been worth saving, as though Rubin had been worth Krig's life.

Another swig of the ale. He still remembered everything. The way Krig's eyes had been red, no longer sharp and pale and blue. The way they had looked so different after Vipera had changed him and given him magic. The way they had looked so different, and yet had been exactly the same. The room was spinning, but in the painful depths of his memories, everything was still agonisingly clear.

He kept drinking. Nothing. Why wasn't it working? It should be working - it should be washing away the agony and replacing it with oblivion, beautiful, sweet, glorious oblivion. Another drink. Another mouthful of sickly, putrid ale, ale that should be saving him but was making everything worse. Only Krig could save him from this, but Krig wasn't here because he'd died to protect him. He tried to muffle a choked sob.

"Rubin."

The voice was warped, but strangely familiar. Rubin ignored it.

"Rubin!" There was a firm grip on his shoulder as somebody shook him. He almost fell, but the owner of the hand steadied him.

"Snap out of it!" Axel?

Rubin spun around to face him. His head was already pounding - and Axel's presence was doing little to help that pain.

"Leave me alone!" he hissed, narrowing his eyes. He could hardly tell Axel from the bar-maid, but the silver glint in his eyes was just enough to identify him by.

"What, so you can drink yourself into oblivion?" Axel's voice echoed through his head, tearing through his mind like knives.

"Yes," Rubin spat, hardly aware of the words tumbling from his mouth. "Oblivion has to be better than this. But you wouldn't know that, would you? Because your oh-so-precious prince is still alive. You wouldn't know what it's like to loose the only person who ever cared because you were being too stupid to realise you're about to die!" He paused to gasp a mouthful of air. "You... You didn't watch your best friend die for you."

The silence was painful to Rubin's ears. Even the pointlessly raucous volley of voices would be better than this. The glare of their eyes was burningly painful as Axel stared at him in what was probably shock. In the heat of their eyes, he did the only thing he could think of: he lunged forwards to punch Axel.

The dark mage evaded the blow with ease, and Rubin found himself toppling from the stool, the ground rushing towards him. It was almost a relief, to know he'd hit the ground and probably stay there. A relief - until Axel caught him.

For a moment, he simply allowed Axel to bear his weight, falling limp in his grip. And the world was suddenly spinning again, and this time it was not because of the ale. It took him a while to realise that Axel had slung him over his shoulders, and that he was being dragged from the bar. The door made a resounding click as it swung shut behind them.

"Put me down," Rubin demanded, and even as the words fell from his mouth, they sounded slurred and alien.

"You're heavy," Axel said by way of response. Rubin managed a mournful grunt in reply, but could do nothing as Axel lugged him through the streets.

"Where we going?" He barely managed the words.

"The palace gardens," Axel replied. "Shut up and stop moving."

He wanted to protest, wanted to walk off on his own two feet, but he couldn't. The alcohol and the pain had reduced him to this - this trembling, helpless, vulnerable coward. And so he complied, hatefully, bitterly, resentfully.

"Why?" he managed to choke out. "Why'd he do it?"

Axel didn't have to ask what he was talking about. He slowed a little.

"It was because he cared," he said softly.

Rubin tried to answer that, but the words died on his tongue. The knife of guilt twisted deeper into his gut.

"He shouldn't have cared," he managed. How could everything around him be so blurred when the memories were so clear? How could everything be so cruel?

"It was because of him that we won," Axel continued. "He didn't just saved you; he saved us all."

"But he died," Rubin hissed. "He died, because he saved me."

"All of us," Axel insisted. "But he did it for you."

This hurt - and helped - more than everything else Axel had told him, so Rubin settled into an uncomfortable silence, filled with remorse and bitterness and disgrace.

As they walked, he could feel the eyes of the onlookers trained on them. The new king's champion, they whispered, had been reduced to hauling some drunkard around? A grown man - crying? He tried to block out their voices, tried to ignore the daggers of hared that made the guilt climb higher and higher and higher.

And then they passed the guards standing at the gates to the palace gardens, and there was silence.

Axel dropped him to the ground beneath the shelter of a towering tree, and slid down to the floor beside him. They sat in a lonely silence, and Rubin turned his face away to hide the tears welling within his eyes.

"I'll get Skala," he said eventually, and although slurred, his words held a strange gentleness that Rubin had never heard from him before.

He sat, and waited for Skala as Axel slipped into the shadows.

There was a coldness in the air, but he almost couldn't feel it through the numbness, as though all feeling had been cut off from him, and he'd been left to wallow alone in an infinite pit of emptiness and pain.

Skala appeared from the shadows, and for a moment she took in the sight of him. Broken. Useless. Defenceless.

He raised his head to meet her eyes, but already she was kneeling beside him, wrapping her arms around his trembling shoulders and holding him close to her. Warmth. It surprised him that he could feel it - both physically and emotionally - and he leant into its comfort.

"Thank you," he murmured, leaning his head on her shoulder. "I just..." He trailed off.

"You can tell me," Skala said, not with even the slightest hint of encouragement or irritation. Just telling him. Just letting him know.

"He died for me," Rubin choked out. "I... I fought him, and then he died for me."

Skala rubbed his shoulder soothingly.

"It's my fault he's gone."

For a moment, he waited for the false words, or the words - like Axel's - that he wanted to believe but couldn't understand.

"Maybe it is, a little," she said. "But Vipera was the one who really killed him, wasn't she?"

Rubin nodded numbly. She understood, if only a little - and that was more than he ever could have asked for. "Without me..." He couldn't finish.

"Without you, he would have turned into a heartless monster, nothing but Vipera's puppet." Her words had become suddenly strong, no longer gentle like everybody else's. "It was because of you that he could die a human, that he could find his conscience and drag it to the surface. He had two options, Rubin. An empty life as Vipera's pawn, or a death as a hero. It might have been because he cared for you that he died, but it was because he cared for you that he could escape manipulation. You might be guilty, but remember this: you saved him from darkness. You saved him from servitude."

She pulled away, and stood, holding out her hand. "Come on," she said. "Let's get you back to the palace."

He took her hand and allowed her to drag him up and steady him, and as they walked, her words echoed through his mind with a redeeming clarity. A tiny smile flickered across his lips. It wasn't much, but it was a start.

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