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Hold The Cup But Refuse To Drink

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Early morning; painfully early, for some, but Karl was long used to rising at the crack of dawn, or even before, to prepare the inn for the day's visitors. But, even so, this time it was different. This time -- and for the last several times -- one of the sleepers upstairs, in his snug little room, had quite literally nowhere else to return to, and Karl had discovered he had a great deal to think about on the matter.

It was not that he spited the lad's presence, nor his long and delirious fever-sleep, oh no, nor the time and the care he'd needed (and still did) over these last soul-shivering days. He'd no more have turned the shocked and shattered wight away when he'd been brought to the inn, than he would plunge a sword into his own son's chest. None of this, no ...

But the sight of that unruly crown of ruffled curls -- paler, true, to be sure; grayer, less desert-gold, but a sharp reminder nonetheless of another foundling, so very long ago -- had brought Karl up short on that terrible day, not a week past.

Years on, buried beneath trimmed hair, and neat mustache, and a son now a man grown and knighted. So many years since he'd walked away across the worlds, the brilliant embers of his eyes turned bottomless black from the dark's last kiss (a magical accident, he always said; oh, if they only knew), to lose himself in the comfortable, comforting routine of inn and family and a new existence. Yet -- even after so many years -- he'd still felt the pull when oblivion itself came to claim Norende.

Karl had felt the darkness tug on him as it devoured the village, the countryside; as it punched down deep into the earth in its quest for the world's heart. Because he knew, he knew, that the heart was that terrible force's ultimate goal.

It was, after all, what he would have done.

... But that was a drive that was dead, and gone, and had been so nearly three decades and more as the world counted time. Karl had a life and a family and an existence of his own. And this was not his battle; this was not his war to wage, for the darkness or the light, any longer, no matter how many times in these last few benighted days his hands had itched to call on that long-banished blade. Or its crimson, intangible replacements. Whichever answered first --

... No. He'd spent too long, given up so much to stitch together a life, a heart, name, purpose, all, to throw it all away now. He had Owen to think of -- and a battered survivor of black calamity to be checking on, and oh how it was a pleasant, almost humbling thing to do so and know, to feel, he had no nefarious purpose behind it all.

So Karl -- only Karl, no ciphered name, no ominous title, no eldritch existence -- gathered up a waiting tray, climbed the warm worn familiarity of the staircase to the sleeper's bedroom, and pushed all thoughts of darkness and chains, hearts and memory and sharp heavy blades, firmly out of mind. That time was over; that was someone else.

To his pleased surprise, his guest was waking -- actually, finally waking -- as he opened the door. Maybe, just maybe, he'd managed to make some small stride towards balancing the sins of his past. But first, to announce himself before the poor lad spooked.

Rumbled words, low but welcoming.

"Good morning --"