Author Topic: The Ladder of Chaos  (Read 503 times)

William Roberts

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The Ladder of Chaos
« on: October 30, 2021, 01:22:59 AM »
Cheesecake.

Numnus Ravalath wished this torturous delivery done, so he could waddle home to the delicious cheesecake he knew his ever faithful wife, Brodo, had waiting for his partaking. Why did Abbalaya stock delay so long to force issue between their pale copper thighs? His stomach growled as the golden-haired lass known as Rea San groaned and thrashed in the straw, her sweat-covered face contorting in pain. Her lips without cessation uttered guttural syllables of a language Numnus did not recognize.

As a priest of Milil, he had little desire for these distasteful duties of his office. He much preferred leading a full-throated chorus with all the congregation—especially the female supplicants—centering their attention upon him and his angelic voice, resplendent in his purple and gold robes, and his delicate hands strumming his instrument with a skill he practiced far more regularly than healing. Oh gods, Rea was bleeding now, and still the head of the child had not yet appeared.

Numnus slipped his hand into his bag of unguents and elixirs to find the bottle of dear cognac, from which he drank a hefty snoot full. The warm pleasure that effused him from his graying hairs to his painted toenails put the matter of the difficult birth in perspective but did little to augment his skill for assisting the enfeebled woman. Rea’s dark eyes opened wide momentarily and pierced into his, leaving him feeling helpless and vain, before she shuttered them again, withdrawing into herself and her private agony. He swilled another drink of cognac.

The father. Where in all the Nine Hells was the father? He might provide a modicum of comfort to the lass. She were a lovely wench, and the Abbalayar were uncommonly talented—not a people to forgive trifling with their maidens nor to lack the means of revenge. The mate was likely as young and inexperienced as she, but of another tribe and loathe to explain to his own kin how he had coupled with one of the fearful Gifted. If he did not show his face and claim Rea and the child for his own, an Abbalayar curse would follow him until the end of his days.

Rea pushed and shuddered, her high-pitched scream staving off for the moment the drowsy relief of the cognac, and amongst the gore the wild, golden hairs of an infant’s crown made their first crest.


Beauty like a tightened bow, a kind that is not natural in an age like this.

William Roberts

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Re: The Ladder of Chaos
« Reply #1 on: October 30, 2021, 02:46:27 PM »
Throughout the next several years after that long and sleepless night, Numnus sometimes wondered whether the Abbalayar wrath might have been misdirected, so that the curse targeted the middle-aged priest and the child’s unfortunate mother, rather than whoever had placed his seed in her. Although Rea San survived the labor, some internal injury maimed her beyond the repair of Numnus’s limited healing skills; for the rest of her days, she would remain bedridden.

As for himself, Numnus enjoyed his carefree life of pleasure and the culinary comforts of Brodo, but for all his dissipation and decadence, his faith in Milil was genuine. He accepted that some purpose had deposited this woman and her strange offspring into his care, and he would not shirk from divine duty. As the child he nicknamed Cheesecake grew, however, Numnus had many moments of questioning whether the odd boy was an opportunity or a test.

Early on, for example, Cheesecake demonstrated a certain inclination for, well, the most accurate word for it would be stealing. As it seemed to arise from a naïve notion that he could take for his own purposes whatever no one else was using at the moment, rather than greed or malice, his patron might have overlooked this fault in Cheesecake. Numnus was something of a pragmatist himself after all, and the boy could be persuasive beyond words when justifying his own actions. Yet those less inclined to indulge Cheesecake out of guilt for his mother’s condition (and from feeling themselves a rather poor excuse for a substitute father) were not persuaded.

They pointed to the changing, heterochromatic irises of the child and his inordinately long fingers. “Shifty-eyed…and hands meant for reaching in your pocket!” they hissed, “He’ll end up on the gallows one day, mark my words.”

Numnus worried they were right, but for all the priest’s efforts, Cheesecake only yawned with a cute innocence and changed the subject to the natural world whenever Numnus tried to instill any morality into his small charge. Without a doubt, Cheesecake evidenced striking cleverness and a sharp mind, but he could not be bothered to apply himself to philosophical topics, instead defeating the priest’s attempts to persuade him of the deeper purposes of life with precocious facts and logic. Consequently, for all his wit, his lack of wisdom caused Cheesecake to find himself continually in circumstances from which only his innate boyish charm could extract him.

Cheesecake had both Brodo and his mother wrapped around two of those elongated fingers, making it even more difficult for the tired priest to rein in the boy. The women insisted discipline would come later: let the child experience childhood.

Well and good, the priest reflected, but the more wild weeds gained purchase in Cheesecake’s forming personality, the more difficult cultivating an honest garden would be later. From all observable nature, Cheesecake little took to either the plow or the hoe.


Beauty like a tightened bow, a kind that is not natural in an age like this.

William Roberts

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Re: The Ladder of Chaos
« Reply #2 on: November 01, 2021, 09:56:46 AM »
Whether it was the carefree mischief that always seemed proximate to Cheesecake or the enigmatic, seductive charm he could ignite with a twinkle of his chromatic eye, he never lacked for companions his own age—to the relief of Numnus. The boy’s guardian had lived too many winters to provide the activity that the child needed to satiate his unlimited, unfocused energy. Yet to all the peers who gravitated toward his orbit, Cheesecake was a wandering star, unfixed to any pole and changing his favored clique as often as the weather. Above all, he valued his independence and free agency, so that the more a would-be friend clung to him, the more likely Cheesecake would absent himself and seek fresh horizons.

His restless roaming increased after his mother manifested a mental derangement to match her physical incapacity. She passed in and out of sleep throughout the night and day, never remaining in either state for more than half an hour, and, whenever conscious, she babbled incoherently, often in that same strange, guttural tongue. Numnus and Brodo took on the burden of caring for her every need, as she now did almost nothing for herself, and Cheesecake could not be relied upon. Even when physically present, his mind was elsewhere and oblivious to so small a task as dabbing the long rope of spittle from Rea’s chin before it dried into a crust.

Regardless of the anxiety and heartache Cheesecake caused him, Numnus found that his love for the boy only grew as Cheesecake matured. When the plumpness of infancy hardened into the wiry, coordinated muscles of youth and the lad announced he would henceforth prefer to be known by the name his mother had bestowed upon him, Numnus felt an angst in his bones, a foreshadowing of the time when his charge would set out to make his own path in life, leaving Numnus and Brodo behind as indifferently as he had all his other transitory affections.

Even so, from that day the child was Cheesecake no more, except in Numnus’s heart, but was called Caden Windriver—the latter presumably the surname of the absent patriarch.


Beauty like a tightened bow, a kind that is not natural in an age like this.

William Roberts

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Re: The Ladder of Chaos
« Reply #3 on: November 02, 2021, 12:39:52 AM »
To the delight of Numnus, a communion of mutual understanding between him and Caden was music. The priest’s divine devotion he expressed best through song, and he found that the presence of his young ward only enriched his voice, somehow inspiring him to more difficult notes achieved with greater ease. Additionally, the boy’s improvisational creativity suggested progressions and changes to freshen even the staidest standards and make them at times newly intoxicating. Whenever Caden indulged him in a late-night impromptu session, Numnus felt as though he were already enjoying the rewards of the afterlife. He did not wish to ruin the occasion by asking Caden where the lad had been in the more reasonable evening hours.

The priest would come to bed not long before the cock crow and find Brodo still awake and smiling, unperturbed by the lateness of the hour. “See, Nummy…there is good in the boy.”

Indeed, the priest believed anyone capable of so much talent and beauty must be a celestial rather than diabolical gift—for he had long concluded something was not entirely ordinary and mortal about Caden.

“Don’t over do it, my love. As much as I enjoy the two of you harmonizing,” Brodo said one late night-early morning when Caden had reached his sixteenth year, “you sounded a wee bit strained toward the end of tonight’s concert.”

Numnus rubbed his throat, cognizant that he felt a scratchy ache, likely, as Brodo said, the result of overuse or strain. Tracing with his fingers, the sleepy man thought he detected a small lump right where his jawline met his neck. To his relief, it did not seem to be in the right place for a vocal cord nodule. “Probably some muscular swelling,” he thought, before pecking Brodo on the cheek and rolling over to his side of their featherbed.


Beauty like a tightened bow, a kind that is not natural in an age like this.

William Roberts

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Re: The Ladder of Chaos
« Reply #4 on: November 02, 2021, 03:33:40 PM »
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.


The creaking barstool balanced on two legs, teetering with every shift of its jaunty occupant, Caden Windriver, who had draped himself like a festoon from bar to stool, his unlaced red and gold derby footwear supporting his legs on the former, his parrot-feathered hat cocked atop his head and frame on the latter. The young dandy’s ruffled silk shirt gaped halfway down his hairless chest, his breast rising and falling like a bone-hulled boat on the tide in time with the carousing ballad he crooned for the lewd enjoyment of that evening’s crowd at the Sea’s Bounty.

“Oh, Celni Ruv were a fine young lady,
Play, hay, roll and go.
Sure, Celni Ruv were a fine young lady!
Play, hay, roll and go.
So we rolled all night,
Then we rolled all day,
Blew me money on Celni Ruv.
So we rolled all night,
Then we rolled all day,
Farewell me coin for…Celni RUUUUV!”

Caden elongated the last perfect-pitched note, closed his mismatched eyes, and threw his head back and his arms wide, so that his balance became ever more precarious, while unrestrained applause reverberated from all his many listeners. Then he cut the note short—his tapered fingers sweeping like a conductor’s—and slammed the stool’s legs down for emphasis. His eyes reopened to case the room, looking for any sign of a critical reaction. Finding none, he allowed himself an enigmatic smile.

A red-haired young woman behind him began to massage the muscled cords running from his neck across his shoulders. “Is Celni Ruv anyone I know?” she lilted into his ear.

He looked at her and waggled his eyebrows. “Tis a work of fiction, sweetling. Escapist, you might say.”

She tutted. “How disappointing. I was hoping that bit about rolling all night and day were true.”

“Perhaps another evening t’will be. But tonight…” A more serious expression filled Caden’s angular face. “I have an errand I ought tend.”

“At this hour? Pshaw…come’n with me…into the back.”

“The Viper Room?” He followed the nudging motion of her curly tresses to the guarded black door that led to the bar’s notorious den of drugs and debauchery. “Not tonight,” he said, gulping a burning shot of whisky.

“What’s the matter, Caden? You’re usually…fun!”

He ran his long fingers through his wild, streaked hair and thought of a quick lie—mostly to stay in practice. “A pal is bringing me some money he owes me. Tomorrow night, I’ll be in a better way and have more gold to show you a good time.” He slapped her pert rump.

A dignified, out-of-place figure appeared in the entrance to the Sea’s Bounty and announced in a somber tone above the din, “I’m looking for Caden Windriver.”

“That him?” the barmaid asked Caden, while rubbing her backside and squinting.

The newcomer was indeed known to Windriver, although he was certainly no one who owed the dandy money. He was a family friend and a minor priest of Milil. Caden apprehended that his appearance meant the hour was too late, and no need remained for the young man to hasten home.

His guardian, Numnus Ravalath, was already dead.


Beauty like a tightened bow, a kind that is not natural in an age like this.

William Roberts

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Re: The Ladder of Chaos
« Reply #5 on: November 03, 2021, 03:56:29 PM »
Away from the Sea’s Bounty, Caden walked alone down the deserted night streets of Athkatla by the light of the city’s enormous oil lanterns and inhaled deep breaths of the air blowing in from the Sea of Swords. He envisioned Numnus as he had last seen the dying man: emaciated, skin drawn as tight as leather hide on a silent drum, his voiceless mouth struggling to speak to Caden but only a mute gurgle issuing from the priest’s tumor-ravaged throat, his gumless teeth click-clacking together like loose bits of gravel. Windriver estimated that his guardian presently weighed no more than five or six stone. Hefting his lifeless form would be an ease for any pall bearers.

Brodo would be a comfortless wreck. And Rea San, his mother, would be her usual helpless, burdensome self. Caden tried to picture his guardian in more pleasant moments, wishing by all the gods that his lasting image of Numnus not be of a pathetic shriveled husk on a close, rancid-smelling deathbed. He would force himself to remember the Numnus who understood good food and drink and smiled when savoring every lip-smacking bite of Brodo’s bounty, rather than what corruption had long malformed: a gaping vacancy who could hardly swallow water and whose thrush-filled mouth had to be swabbed continually with a damp cloth.

Caden could not bear to go home and face the harsh and final truth of death. He refused to concede that he would never again lift voice with Numnus and share the art both loved so well. After four years of watching disease wrap its inexorable fingers around his guardian’s throat and slowly extinguish the life from him, Caden still denied Myrkul this victory. The two men, he assured himself, would meet again and sing their joyous duets.

Windraven arrived at the great bridge over the Alandor River and contemplated the churning waters below. Perhaps now was the time to throw in with the Shadow Thieves. He knew he had the skills for such a life, and, whatever religious character Numnus had once tried to cultivate in him, his mentor’s illness had long extinguished. Caden wanted no part of a god who would let such a good and faithful man suffer so in divine service.

The love and kindness Numnus had shown Caden—even in all those moments when as a boy he had not deserved it—the patient care Brodo and Numnus gave without ceasing to Rea San: What had they counted against the greedy, merciless claims of disease and death? To all men it was appointed to die, but not all suffered unrelieved years of agony. Damn all the gods: the only power Caden trusted, the only he intended to heed, was his own free will.

He took off his parrot-feathered hat and tossed it with a spin over the side of the bridge, watching it fall like a gliding, wounded bird into the dark water where the street lanterns’ light could not reach. The hat had been a frivolous thing.

Caden shrugged and swung toward the road, undecided whether to go left or right, east or west. Perhaps he would flip a coin or roll a die. He heard a shuffling noise behind him, then, and looked back the way he had come across the bridge, his slender hand moving to the pommel of his weapon. If he were to meet with the Shadow Thieves, he preferred the assignation be on his own terms.

A specter hobbled toward him, its ghostly hands outstretched like a hungry beggar’s. For the first time in many months, Windriver heard his guardian’s voice, though it now sounded from afar off and tuned by an undiscovered country no living man might see: “Caden.”

An uncontrollable fear ripped through young Caden Windriver’s entrails, displacing all his previous considerations, and his only thought became flight. He ran.
« Last Edit: November 03, 2021, 03:58:06 PM by William Roberts »


Beauty like a tightened bow, a kind that is not natural in an age like this.

William Roberts

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Re: The Ladder of Chaos
« Reply #6 on: November 14, 2021, 01:00:47 AM »
How long Caden fled in unchecked terror his overwrought brain failed to record, but he did not rest from his flight until his body’s exhaustion could no longer sustain it. Had he been an instinctive animal perhaps the adrenaline polluting his blood would have ignited his propelling limbs until his heart exploded, but at last human reason regained control with the awareness he had either escaped the horror of guilt that pursued him…or that his goal was unattainable, and his doom sealed. In any case, he was too exhausted to continue. He collapsed in a doorway, and the night’s inebriation soon rendered him unconscious…and the captive of a succession of traumatic dreams. He would recall of these nocturnal visions only that they caused him to feel weak, humiliated, and worthless.

In the morning he discovered that the doorway in which he lay was familiar—home. He gathered his wretched self and, finding the door unlocked, pushed it open and entered. The solemnity of death hung over the still house like a pall, though perhaps that was only Caden’s empathetic imagination, as no one greeted him, and he heard no voices to indicate the presence of mourners. He dreaded most, now, to encounter Brodo, for he wished first to grieve over his patron and not yet be forced into trying to comfort the wife when his own heart most like that of a son was without balm.

And yet. Brodo knew Numnus as well as he: she alone of every other soul in Athkatla felt the personal, unique loss Caden felt. Only the two of them together would not say, “I, too, lost my husband” or “I know just how you feel, for I lost my father.” No, they both had lost Numnus—for a husband could be replaced by another husband, and a father by another father, but a second unto the man who had been Numnus was beyond even the power of the gods to substitute.

Caden found what remained of him, then, on the death bed, his eyes closed, his body shrunken and alien as Caden had expected, the faint smell of decay already beginning. That was unfortunate, Caden thought, for it was believed among the priestly caste that the time between death and rot augured the holiness of the deceased. So much for their damnable, ignorant superstitions. Windriver felt certain that the corpse before him had been as good a man as the city had ever known.

He knelt by the corpse, preparing for the infinite tears, like regret from a nauseous gut, to flow.


Beauty like a tightened bow, a kind that is not natural in an age like this.

William Roberts

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Re: The Ladder of Chaos
« Reply #7 on: December 04, 2021, 12:25:15 AM »
I do not think, Caden, that I shall last until you arrive, my dearest boy. I have prayed...sweet Milil, how I have prayed!...that I endure this agony a few more breaths so that I might see you again. There is so much I wish to say to you, my almost son. For all those conversations we had on so many subjects and that I shall carry with me to the next world, still I greedily wish for one more. But it is not to be.

As much as I would delight in these last moments of hearing your thoughts and dreams, the sweetness of youth with which you so often regaled and enlivened an old man like witnessing the pleasures and promise of flowers in spring, alas, now I must write to you without the joy of dialogue and your beloved face.

I know that you will come to me, even after my death. Milil will not deny me that much, tho should it require a divine miracle. Forgive me, Caden, that I press something upon you that by your nature--one who wants only joy and life--you would deny. I indeed know why you have tarried so long away in the hours of my decline, and I do not fault you for that. But I insist and here ask my god to grant me this, that your conscience, and, failing that, divine intervention, draw you to your father (for I have been a father to you) in this moment of parting.

I shall not go easy, else, into the next world, knowing that I have in some ways spoiled and indulged you. Perhaps it was pity because of all you had been deprived of and lacked. But no, it was something in you that drew indulgence from me. You are charming and I know that there is undeniable good in you--as much as you would play the rogue.

So this is my dying wish for you, Caden: That you turn away from the path you have chosen until now. Take responsibility, my boy. You have exceptional gifts, and to whom much is given, much is owed, much shall be commanded. For all that you fear to care and show your true, loving nature...know that you will never be happy until you take up what the gods will for you, what I most fervently pray, and what you are capable of, your best self.

Turn aside from these women you whore yourself with...the drunkenness and debauchery...the dissolution of your days...and live as one holy and sanctified.

As you have loved me and as I have loved you, fulfill the promise of one who has always believed in you.

Goodbye my son,

Numnus




Beauty like a tightened bow, a kind that is not natural in an age like this.

William Roberts

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Re: The Ladder of Chaos
« Reply #8 on: December 06, 2021, 02:38:45 PM »
Caden folded the letter from Numnus and tucked it inside his inner breast pocket. After delivering the note in compliance with her deceased husband’s request, Brodo had allowed Caden a private moment to read over the contents. The gruesome apparition that stalked Caden must have been the miracle for which the dead man had prayed. Except for the terror-stricken flight that resulted, the young bon vivant doubted he would have returned home to receive Numnus’s admonition. He passed a hand through his disheveled, streaked hair and considered that, if so, the damn gods truly worked in mysterious ways.

As long as he was here, Caden should also pay his last visit to his mad mother. He did not wish to, but the momentary influence of Numnus’s charge strengthened him for his unpleasant duty. He trudged up the narrow spiral staircase to Rea San’s small room, her mutterings and whispers murmuring in his ears as he approached her door. “Mother?” he called and knocked.

“Oh, do come in, do come in!” For once the old girl sounded quite lively.

Caden swung the door open with a wrenching creak. His wide-eyed mother was propped in her bed, an armless baby doll clutched against her half-bare breast. She instantly raised a finger to her lips as though to shush him. The beauty Rea San once possessed insanity had long erased and replaced with a continuous expression of mocking cruelty.

Her slobbering mouth worked for a second or two, but no words came out. “My boy,” she said then, with a gleam. “How you’ve grown since your poor, neglected mother saw you last.”

Caden came nearer and placed a hand on the sleeve of her gown. Her eyes remained fixed on his face. “They say the rot has finally eaten up Numnus?” Her tone was almost eager.

The young man bit his lower lip before saying, “My father is gone, yes.”

“Your father? Numnus was not your father, Caden.” She pursed her expression.

He raised his eyes from his hand on her sleeve. “To me, he was.”

Rea shook her head emphatically and let the doll fall from her. It tumbled off the bed and struck the floor with a crack. The toy had a noisemaker in it of some sort, for a single, plaintive whine coincided with the impact.

“No, no, no. Rea never consorted neath the moonlight with the priest man.” The mad woman giggled and leered at Caden, seductively, as though she wished for her son to imagine the act that had conceived him. “Numnus never topped your mother.”

He restrained an impulse to press his hand over her mouth and doubted she could resist him if he did. Besides the immobility of her lower limbs, Rea looked as though she weighed no more than six stone.

She prattled on: “Your father…my lover…you are almost the spitting image of him. So much more handsome than Numnus. Even before the rot started in on the priest man.” She drew down the covers to reveal that her gown had hiked up until a good portion of her pale, flaccid thighs were bare.

He reflexively reached to cover them.

“Useless.” She looked at her inert lower half and gurgled a few unintelligible words. “Your birth ruined the flower, boy. My stems were so beautiful.”

“Mother…I am going away.”

“Whaaat?” Rea’s mouth dropped open. “But who is going to take care of me?”

“Brodo is still here. She will have more time to tend to you now that she no longer has to look after Numnus.”

She scowled, and suddenly it was her arm clutching his. “But you’re my son. And it’s your fault I’m like this. Don’t ever forget that!” He felt her jagged nails digging into his sinews.

“No, I have to go away. As long as I’m here, I’ll never make anything of myself. I understand that now.”

She drew his hand up as though to caress it against her cheek, but at the last moment she moved to stuff his fingers into her devouring maw, her teeth champing in frustration as he snapped the hand back. She snarled when he flung her from him, against the pillows and other bedding. “What kind of son are you? To leave your poor, dependent mother?”

He staggered backward, horrified at the vision in the bed, a haggish figure who seemed to embody failure and despair reaching for him, to drag him into the paralysis she suffered. She had resumed the eerie chant of unknown words, but now in a louder shriek. Then Caden stepped forward—the doll crunching under his boot—to snatch one of the pillows.

He pushed the cushion over her gaunt, sputtering face, her arms flailing against his chest like two leafless limbs in a maelstrom.

All he had to do was not let up for a few more moments, and their mutual torment would end. Rea heaved violently at the abdomen. She sensed that she lacked the strength to dislodge him, and so instead clawed at his unseen face. One finger raked the corner of his mouth, but already he could feel his mother weakening.

Only then Numnus’s letter fluttered against his silk shirt, as though it were Rea’s frail heart, or his own, beating its last. Caden loosened his grip on the pillow, and Rea gasped, sucking in life-sustaining air beneath him.

Before she could regain her speech, Caden fled from the room, never to be seen in Athkatla again.


Beauty like a tightened bow, a kind that is not natural in an age like this.

William Roberts

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Re: The Ladder of Chaos
« Reply #9 on: December 10, 2021, 12:12:51 AM »
Et je fus plein alors de cette Vérité:
Que le meilleur trésor que Dieu garde au Génie
Est de connaître à fond la terrestre Beauté


He had almost killed her...a frail, defenseless fragment who gave him life. For all of her vile, vast sinkhole, what could she do but poison his ears with guilt?

He thought of Miguel, the one, true friend he would most miss. And Callabu...the young wench who in his arms and in his eyes felt and looked most like love. To leave them was the nearest to dying, yet the poison in his veins he could lance only with severance, and to stay....

The scourge. As much as he sought redemption in Callabu's dark eyes, his guilt would corrupt her too...and plead from her the penance of flagellation. She wept but yielded, and for a fragment his mortified flesh felt sweet penance and relief. Yet his guilt returned as soon as he beheld her downcast face. The whip fell from her hand.

And so into the Mists he fled, unlike those who were drawn against their will. He embraced the dissolution, the terrible falseness, and what he might hope would be forgiveness.

Spoiler: show
« Last Edit: December 10, 2021, 09:13:35 AM by DM Indolence »


Beauty like a tightened bow, a kind that is not natural in an age like this.