Hail to the glorious (un) dead

Baby Mine
An Introduction for Rhapsody

My baby, my little Rhapsody, there’s nothing in the world so perfect. No magic, no wealth, no artifact could hold a candle. He’s so small, this tiny, precious child of mine, fitting in my hands with ease, dwarfed by Nerida’s. He doesn’t look anything like Ulkair, as I’d prayed he would, no, he’s like me… a doppelganger. But he’s different. He’s not some faceless monster, he’s beautiful. His big eyes, his tiny hands, his inaudible cries… they are unique, and they shatter my ill guarded heart.

I thought I was so clever, I thought I was so talented, so together, so ready for anything. I thought I would leave Byss on the shoulders of my god, and I could handle whatever life threw at me, but I was so completely wrong. I weep as I hold him, a mess of overwhelming emotion. Those cries, those soft, weak cries as Agorran placed him in my arms, I’ll never in my life hear a music more rending. My chest aches as though my heart no longer fits in it, and all I can do is stare and cry, and whisper a thousand apologies. Oh, what could I ever have been thinking to risk you? How could I even begin to measure the grief of my life without you?

Looking at him, watching the impossibly small rise and fall of his chest, I am wracked with a love unlike any I have ever felt, and with it, a righteous anger, and a ferocious determination.

“I will never leave you.” I whisper, and a fresh wave of tears fall from my eyes to trickle down my infant’s brassy skin. “I will never, ever leave you.”

My parents were wrong.

Rhapsody is not what I prayed he would be, but looking at him, holding him, feeling his tiny heart beat… I can’t even remember what it is I’d hoped for. So what if he is not human? It doesn’t devalue him, he is only more precious, more likely to be spurned by the world… more in need of me, of my protection. I can’t imagine him different, or better. It’s impossible, he’s perfect. My mother… she should have felt this.

She was scared – so am I. I am terrified. I don’t know what I’m doing. What if I hold him wrong, raise him wrong, what if… what if no one else loves him? What if they look at him, this beautiful, wonderful baby… and see a monster?

What will I do when he cries? When he sees the anger and fear in their eyes, when he doesn’t understand why he’s different? How will I make him see that if all the planes and all the gods condemned him… they would be wrong?

I am afraid… but for him, not of him. Afraid that he will fall and fail, and I will have to hold him when he wants to give up, teach him all the lessons I’ve only just learned… afraid I won’t be like Alix, I won’t be strong at the right time, gentle or kind at the right time… I’m afraid I will fail him.
I’m afraid that I already have.

It was my nature that made him what he is… my carelessness that’s made him so small and helpless. If the others can’t love him… if they don’t see him as I do… I tighten my grasp protectively, but gently over my tiny treasure.

I’ll always love you, Rhapsody. Always. And if they can’t… I… they don’t deserve you. I’ll love you enough for all your family.

I lean down to kiss his head, gently, so very afraid I will hurt him, and try to stem the out pour of tears, but to no avail. Alix will love him, at the very least, Alix has to love him…. he loves me, even though he’s seen what I really am. I should have shown Ulkair and Nerida, should have prepared them, tried to make them understand… but instead I hoped for the impossible, and wrongly.

I carefully enclose Rhapsody’s tiny fingers in my own, and look up at them, guilty, anxious, but unable to bring myself to be sorry, only to steel myself. Alix’s hand closes over mine, and he meets my eyes with such kindness, so much pride and approval. I take a deep, shaking breath, and as I hold Rhapsody out to Ulkair, my chest aches to snatch him back, to hold him, forever a barrier between him and the pain of rejection.

“My son…” Ulkair whispers, his voice cracking as he lifts the infant to hold him against his chest. “ My son…”

I watch them, my heart rended from my chest by the tears I see in Ulkair’s eyes, and his smile, painfully helpless, paralyzed, just as I was.

“He’s beautiful, you.. you’re both beautiful,” he weeps, clutching our son, and I grasp Alix’s hand, relief washing over me.

Thank you…

I glance next to Ulkair, cautiously peering into Nerida’s eyes, searching them for any sign of her feelings. She has so many misgivings about children, she was so guarded, she told me not to fight in the arena, I…

Oh Nerida, please forgive me…

Nerida watches with wide, fearful eyes brimming with tears, looking over him still cradled in Ulkair’s shaking hands and my chest seizes painfully. There’s so much fear in her eyes, in her posture, I have hardly ever seen her look so shaken – my heart falls, and I resist the urge to look away, hide my face from her. What must she think of me, what must she think of him? She could never have expected this, but even though I did, the crushing pain in my chest stops my very breath. ‘What’s wrong with him’, ‘what is it?’, I can’t bear to hear her say the words that my mind taunts me with.

Her hands reach out to me, shaking, and for a brief moment, I want to recoil, unsure of her intent, before they brush the surface of my bloodied teal shirt, and grasp its hem.

“I…I’m so sorry,” she breaths, her voice breaking as she speaks. I recognize this sorrowful tone, heavy with guilt, I have heard it from her many times but… what did she have to feel guilty for?

“I should have protected you… him… you’re… please, I’m so sorry.”

Her words break down into sobs, and as she wraps her arms around me, pulling my torso up to greet hers, relief hits me as hard as that bolt of lightning had. She trembles, clutching me as tightly as she dares, and I can tell by her ginger movements she is afraid she will harm me, break me as though this experience has somehow made me into porcelain. I shift as best I can, an action which admittedly takes too much effort, to wrap my arms around her.

“Nothing was supposed to happen this way,” I breath unevenly against her chest, “I’m just so glad you don’t hate him… or me.”

The words bring a fresh bout of tears, and I cling to Nerida for all I am worth as she shakes her head and hushes me.

“I could never hate you, Cheshire,” she says, “either of you.”

I spend a few moments in her arms, calming myself before she lets me go again, and I lay back down, exhaustion suddenly pulling heavily against me. Alix smooths back my hair, and as I turn to him, the pride on his face brings a new wave of tears. If I would have ever stopped to think when or where I would birth my first child, I would never have said now, or here, on the stone floors of the arena’s prison.

I would never have thought that this place, where I once spent a night of misery and madness, would be where I felt the happiest I ever have, this place where we fought for Alix’s freedom, would be where I had these conversations. I never would have thought the arena where I proved myself to all of Byss would have been the place I brought a new Byssian into the world.

Nothing was supposed to happen this way – no, but after everything, I suppose I can’t think of any way that could have been more appropriate.


“Well, yesterday, if you’d have asked me to tell you a story about someone I loved, I’d have probably talked about Ulkair, or.. Nerida, or Alix, but now… I have Rhapsody to introduce to you, and…”

I look around at my companions, tightening my grip on the bundle of blankets in my arms. Nerida loves him, Ulkair and Alix love him, even Agorran… Surely Mimi, Aintai and Loin could, as well. Mimi knows what it’s like to be an outcast, Loin too, and Aintai, well, she didn’t seem one to judge based on appearances, especially not after what her family had done.

I shift, taking a seat nearby them with Alix’s help, and much, much too much difficulty.

“I’ve never loved anything more in my whole life,” I practically whisper the words, and my hand trembles as I shift to show him to them. “He’s perfect, and he’s changed my entire world. Everything seems… bigger, and scarier now that it isn’t just me, and I’m trying… Well, I… I’ve already made some mistakes, and they don’t seem acceptable anymore. I haven’t been… exactly honest with you all, and some of you I… flat out lied to.”

I hang my head guiltily – I hadn’t told Aintai, Mimi or Loin, too concerned of what people might think. So afraid to be asked questions I couldn’t answer, or lose their support in my upcoming ventures that I didn’t stop to think what they might think of me after the fact.

Loin found out on his own, of course, I should have known I couldn’t have hidden the pregnancy from him when he spent so much time shadowing Nerida, especially to and from the coastal city, visiting with her sisters these past few months. They both knew, of course, and I have no doubt Aine swam right up to them and asked how ‘the baby and Cheshire’ were doing. I didn’t begrudge her that, either, she’d been so kind to me through the whole affair, never so much as batting an eyelash at my relationship with Nerida and Ulkair, and she and Mayra were both so helpful when I didn’t know what to do, or was overwhelmed by nausea, pain or sleeplessness.

Now, of course, I knew Aintai had decided to stay, and part of me thought that was best, although I would miss her. Like most of Byss, her miles are much greater than her years, and knowing that Alix’s home won’t go unlived in, abandoned, these place where so many of my good memories are… What I wouldn’t give to raise Rhapsody here, but I shake my head, pulling my thoughts back to the present.

“I thought you may not approve, may not… love him, if… I’m sorry. I lumped you all in with people who… I know you are better than, and you didn’t deserve that.”

“Why would you lie?” Mimi asks as I struggle my way through my explanation and I pull in a deep breath, feeling my resolve waver. I feel a wave of defending pride over my bond with Alix, and Nerida and Ulkair’s presence on either side of me wraps me in security. I am loved, Rhapsody is loved. Our family is strong, and whole – they’re not like mine.

“Because I… I thought I was keeping him safe,” I admit, “but now I realize I can’t do that on my own. I thought no one else would… love him, if he was like me. I realized yesterday that was not the case, and I also realized that… if any of you can’t love him, you’re just… wrong.”

And exactly what he needs protecting from.

“More than anything, I just.. I just want to protect Rhapsody,” I feel my arms tightening around him again, and force myself to ease my grip, too afraid to hurt him. “I know you all have your own goals and desires, but I don’t know what kind of things we may face in Sigil, and so I’m asking for your help, to please, please lend me your strength, and keep him safe.”

My stomach wrenches with the very thought of any ill befalling my precious infant, and as I hang my head, trying to curb my tears, Nerida puts an arm around me. I turn into her slight embrace, burying my face in her silk shirt, and she tightens her grasp, giving my arm a soft, reassuring squeeze. Even without looking, I can tell she is staring our comrades down, as if daring them to say anything but the right thing, or simply promising their swift end. As much as I think it will decrease their likelihood to be honest, I feel my heart swell, so very glad to have her here.

Loin closes the distance between us, and I peer up at him, suddenly very close, and wonder if he truly doesn’t realize how huge he is, or how imposing it is for him to loom over me the way he does. He reaches into his pants’ pocket and takes out a silver dragon scale, not unlike the one he gave me a year ago. I turn it over in my hand, and etched into it is a series of letters: “C A A L U N M”, surrounding the symbol of our homeland – a powerful silhouette of two warriors, a man and a woman, hand in hand. I peer up at him curiously, and he clears his throat.

“It’s for Rhapsody,” he says, “it has all of our initials, and the symbol of Byss. I want him to have it when he gets older, so that wherever he goes, whatever happens, he’ll always feel connected to each of us, and Byss.”
I run my thumb over the etched pattern and smile back up at him – a very thoughtful gift.

“Thank you, Loin.” He puts a hand briefly on my shoulder before moving away, and I find Aintai peering down at Rhapsody skeptically.

“Huh,” she mumbles, and I find myself resisting the urge to shrink back before she straightens up, nodding at me thoughtfully. “Well, making babies isn’t exactly my area of expertise, but… looks like you did alright.”

I smile, feeling my cheeks glow – from Aintai, that was certainly a high compliment. She pats my head and walks away, clearly unmoved by my supposedly ‘big news’, and probably especially eager now to try to avoid the subject of what happened yesterday. I can’t blame her, I know Aintai isn’t the type to want to be indebted to anyone, nor would she want anyone to feel as though they owed her anything.

I know she wants to stay in Byss, I would never begrudge her that, and I suppose she thinks if she stops to acknowledge the issue of those squamous spewers, she will be roped into planar travel with me. It saddens me a little to think that Aintai might feel we are leaving on strange terms, or that I would have not saved her life if she wasn’t willing to pay me back, but then, perhaps that isn’t it at all. Exhaustion and raw emotions tear at the edges of my mind, and for all I know, Aintai doesn’t even know what happened, I barely know what happened.

“So, did Tubatron give you this baby?” Mimi asks, and I feel my cheeks and ears burn.

“W-What? No!” I exclaim. I can see why she could have thought that, being that Rhapsody’s skin is so brassy and magnificent, and it was a well-known fact that I am Tubatron’s high priest, but… I think I am a far cry from mothering any avatars. I clear my throat, lifting my head to face her again. “Ulkair did.”

She gives me a look I can’t quite pin, her brow knitted – I suppose Mimi’s never had much to say about my relationship with Ulkair and Nerida, probably she doesn’t approve, or maybe doesn’t understand. But… would that effect the way she would view Rhapsody?

“…He’s beautiful, Cheshire,” she says, but her voice is cold, and I recoil toward Nerida’s protective embrace.

I thought I would understand if anyone told me they couldn’t be alright with him, or with me, but facing it, I’m not. She’s lying, her posture is stiff, her voice is strained – does she think he’s a monster? Does she… think I am? I peer into her thoughts, and before she pushes me from her mind, I sense a glimmer of betrayal, and then anger, most likely at my attempt to steal the truth from her.

“Mimi, I’m sorry–” I try, and she shakes her head at me, a glimmer of tears in the corner of her eyes.

“No, Cheshire,” she snaps, “it’s bad enough that you don’t trust me. That you think of me as some… shallow monster that would shun you if you told me the truth, but you lied to me, so desperate to keep your secret, and yet you think it’s fine to just invade people’s private thoughts!”

I feel Ulkair and Nerida tense beside me, I feel everyone tense, and I look away.

“I just thought…”

“No, I don’t think you did.”

“I’m sorry,” I murmur, my grasp on Rhapsody’s blankets tightening as much as I dare, “that I tried to read your mind.”

“I need some time,” Mimi mumbles back, turning away from us and heading for the door. Time? We don’t have time. Would she refuse to go with us to Sigil now? Had I so quickly burned this bridge..? I bite my lip, kicking myself as I watch her retreating back – how do I always manage to ruin my relationships?

“We’re leaving in a couple of hours,” I say, just barely above a whisper, and Mimi pauses briefly on her way out the door.

“I know.”

She shuts the door behind her, and I draw my shoulders in, holding Rhapsody close. The silence that falls over us in Mimi’s absence is awkward and heavy, and I bite my lip to try and control the shaking, tearful breaths that I draw in as I hide my face in Nerida’s shirt once more.

“I-I didn’t mean…” I try, my voice breaking under the strain of exhaustion and guilt, “I just wanted to… to…”

Nerida kneels beside me and draws me in to a protective embrace, hushing me softly.

““It will be okay, my little love,” Nerida whispers, her lips brushing my temple.

“She accuses you of betrayal while justifying your reason for caution. She is not an angel deserving of worship, just one hiding behind holiness and thinking herself pious for it. Perhaps you should have told her. Perhaps you shouldn’t have tried to read her mind, but she should have been more understanding. You did nothing so wrong she should have turned away. She will realize she was wrong or we will be better for the absence. Please don’t cry.”

With a sniffle, I nod, trying to collect myself for the journey ahead.

“I’m sure she’ll come around,” I whisper back, and then look around the room, “thank you, everyone, for your kind words, and for your gift, Loin. I think we should get ready to go.”

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Repressed Madness
Part 3 - Remnants

Elyssia. A place I had heard of many times from my companions, but not for a moment did I expect to see this. An evil red sun hung in the sky casting a wicked hue over all things. The vampires had turned whatever this place once was, the paradise I had heard of many times, into a paradise for the blood-obsessed. I kept my concerns quiet, not wanting to add to the sorrows, at least no more than already, but I couldn’t help but feel a terrible tension over all of us, and bad things have happened because of such things.

To help prevent any prying eyes, and to help us move quicker through the harsh landscape, Cheshire, Alix, and Aintai hid in the bag, while the rest of us walked. With the exception for myself, who floated alongside Nerida and Ulkair. Before we departed the door, Ulkair closed it with whatever magic it needed. I’m still unsure of how magic works, but I felt strange as the door closed. This could be our final stand, and if it was, then so many unresolved feelings would go on. I looked to Cheshire and Alix, thinking back to only a few days ago, when I peeled the little hero from my leg, as I marched her father into death’s camp. I thought of my own father, whom I saved through my words, but now I wondered if those words were hollow. As we travelled, I remained silent, considering appropriate words for Cheshire and Alix, but none came to me. What could I possibly say to atone for my crimes?
After a while of travelling in a directionless pattern, Ulkair, more tired than the rest of us, it seemed to me, asked Alix if he could find us a place to hide and rest. I had forgotten that we had just fought a great battle, several in fact. I tried to think back, to remember if we actually did sleep, then I remembered that I had slept on the gate, in anticipation for Dovev, and I shook off the sorrow. I was moping enough as it was.

Alix stuck his head out of the bag and looked around. In his ever brilliant sense of direction he seemed to know the barren world better than Ulkair, but in his defense I could see a deep sadness to the ancient mad wizard. As I looked upon him, being as Ulkair as he possible could, I could see the burden this place put on him, and I felt sympathy. I am, after all, no stranger to atrocity.

At last we stopped for rest, but I wondered how much rest we could have in this evil place. My answer was Ulkair making a hut appear out of air. I found the lack of surprise more surprising than the appearance of a hut. I truly don’t understand magic. I hear Nerida suggest Cheshire’s music to whisk us off to sleep. I wouldn’t argue. Her music would be nice to hear right now. Cheshire summons a tuba, and I smile. Of course she would, I listen to the sound with my eyes closed, happy for her beautiful brassy. But its cut short by Nerida, who was reminded by the last time an instrument was played loudly at night. I frowned at this but kept silent. That was also when I made the first of many mistakes. Mistakes I’ve yet to make up for.

Once inside the hut, my companions flowed out of the bag like water, relieved to be away from the atrocious sun. I hear Ulkair mention the brief timeframe we have to rest. Only four hours, then we must march to war again. The idea of a watch is abandoned quickly for the rest. This magic hut should protect us from the ever present eyes of the vampires. I sit on my bed, feeling the need for sleep, the need for a lot of things. But I’ll be glad for sleep.
I hear Nerida begin to sing to Ulkair, but I don’t listen to intently. My heart is elsewhere, and my dreams beckon.

It was a dark scape all around. An endless void, only darkness, and me, standing within. This void wasn’t unusual or strange to me. It was the space I visited in my dreams, a place where I could make any scenario or hope come true. But this visit was different, despite the dark despite the loneliness, I felt the presence of something else. Something familiar. An accordion began to play, and I perked up. My axe appeared in my hand as I swung around ready to bring it into the throat of the Ichtaca, but I stopped short when I stared into my master, Üdragoth’s, face.

“Master!” I cried, happiness filling my confused heart. I threw away my axe and embraced him, he smelled different, but I didn’t care, it was my master, surely he, of all people, didn’t hate me. “Master, I’m so glad you’re here!” I cried into his shoulder, “There is so much I want to talk to you about, so much I need your help with. I’m sorry, master.” I let tears form in my eyes. My master had taught me that tears were best saved for closed doors, the battlefield was for blood, but I couldn’t help it. All my pain washed away as I embraced him harder, but then I noticed something, he wasn’t embracing me back. In fact, his body was beginning to feel warm, then hot. I tried to remove my arms, and trails of melted flesh came with them. In a flash I watched my master ignite in a red fire, throwing me to the ground. I looked from the burning visage to myself, and realized that I was a boy again, weak, helpless. My eyes returned to my master, burning from a heat I could not fathom, but he did not scream. His eyes, tense and angry, glared into my heart, and I felt a helplessness I’d never known.
“Lóin,” his voice boomed, angry and dark. “How could you! How could you hold that worthless father above me! I raised you, and your mother! Where was Tranatheraxxus all your life? Was he there for all the horror and torment we endured together! No! I raised you, you were my son! But I was cast aside the moment your ‘real’ father appeared!”
“Its not like that master!” I cried back. Something in me couldn’t help but wonder if it was though. When I flew in the skies of Byss, I felt a closeness to my father that I’d never known possible, and even a desire to be in the sky with him. When I saw what the vampires had made him, any desires I had previously became to save him no matter what. Did I forget my master for that ideal? “It’s not like that.” I whisper.

“It is Lóin! This flame that consumes me is the flame of Eadro, he has betrayed you, my soul burns and it’s your fault!” Üdragoth cried anger spilling from every word. Out of the darkness are others consumed by red fire, people I recognize as Byssians. Among them is Agorran.

“Save us Lóin, turn your back on Eadro,” Üdragoth cries, and as he does his mouth sickishly opens wider and wider, till it goes past his neck, and his eyes roll back, revealing gray fogs of emptiness. The accordion, burning in my master’s hands falls to the ground beside me. And I stare at it, unsure, doubt beginning to cloud my heart.

“Did I,” I say. Stumbling for the words. “When I broke it, did I really damn them all? Did Eadro lie to us? To me?”

My words were met with only agonized screams of damned souls, tormenting my soul, making it question. Making me wonder, “had it all been for not. Everything I’ve done, every sin I’ve committed. My wings, my father, my master’s soul, are they all lies?”

“You are an igit among igits.” A familiar voice rings in my mind. “How many times in two days do I need to save you, boy?” my master’s voice growled, but not like the burning visage before me. Suddenly a flash of green light surges through my mind, returning me to my proper age, my proper strength. “If you are so damned stupid as to believe this half-cocked lie, then play the accordion. Play my song.” I looked down at the burning instrument. I was afraid. The last time I played an accordion, I made a deal with a Dovev. And as I thought about it, it was that deal that led to the priest’s deaths in the temple, and the battle on the wall. To abandoning Cheshire..

“Are you going to play it Lóin?” I looked up astonished at the sound of her voice. Cheshire stood on the other side of the fire smiling. She bent down and picked up the accordion, not bothered by the flames, and I could see that they didn’t hurt her. She held it out to me. “Can you play it? Or are you consumed by the lies?” Once she held a similar instrument. I remember that all my woes here in Byss began with that damned instrument. Now it’s all I want to grab it, but I’m afraid.

Still I reach out for it, but withdraw from the heat. The flames hurt me, but Cheshire, my most beloved friend stood on the opposite side of these flames. If I wanted to be in her light again, then I had to cross these flames. My hands slowly took the instrument from her, and I winced at the unbearable fire that scorched me, but I took the instrument and allowed the fire to lick me, an agonizing feeling, but as I pushed the instrument in on itself, and the sad lamenting sound echoed into the chaos, I felt a green haze soothe the fire, I looked at Cheshire again, still smiling, innocent, and hopeful, and I played my master’s song.

“There was once an accordion player who didn’t go to war.
His mother said I know all you wanna do is play but can’t you see what’s going on?
It’s not about you anymore,
It’s not about you anymore.
It’s not about you anymore,
It’s not about you anymore.
It’s not about you anymore,
It’s not about you anymore.”

With another push of beautifully sad sound, a wave of green light resonated out of the accordion, extinguishing its red flame, and causing the visages of horror to dissipate back into the darkest recesses of my soul.

“And so he stayed and played at home until they burned it down.
And when there was no bench to sit on he would just sit on the ground.
And when he held his wounded friend in his arms and death was all around.
He said,
It’s not about you anymore,
It’s not about you anymore.
It’s not about you anymore,
It’s not about you anymore.
It’s not about you anymore,
It’s not about you anymore.

Oh Mother, I could die a hero and bring glory to our home.
And what would you do in a house full of glory if you had to live there alone,
Live there alone,
Live there alone,
Live there alone,
Live there alone
So I’d rather play this song.
I want to die playing,
I want to die playing,
I want to die playing,
I want to die playing,
I want to die playing,
I want to die playing,
I want to die playing,
I want to die playing,
I want to die playing,
I want to die playing.”

With a final push, I let the last lamenting note travel and echo through the darkness of my heart. I fell to my knees, and began to sob into the accordion. The song. My master’s lament. My lament. I realized as I played, that as much as I wanted to be like my father, I wanted to be like my master more. As I wept, I wondered if I had ever really mourned my master, or if I had simply swallowed this sorrow that filled this scape around me. I looked up to see Cheshire, still standing there, smiling at me. I pushed the accordion aside and embraced her.

“I’m so sorry,” I sobbed. “Words can’t describe how sorry I am for all I’ve done. I-, I can’t-,” I trailed off sobbing. I felt her hand on my head as she said:

“Save it for the real Cheshire, it’s time to wake up, you survived your nightmare.”

My eyes flutter a moment, dazed. I feel a presence, dark and twisted, and hear a scuffle begin. I bolt upright, confused, and see the giant demon towering over my comrades. It’s a terrifying presence, huge wings that dwarf mine, horns extending from its head, two sets of arms, one of which is pincers instead of hands.

I wipe away the tears from my eyes, forgetting momentarily about the dream, and grab my axe. As I’m about to enter the fray I feel my gravity give way, causing all of us to float. My wings, though new, perk immediately giving stability enough, to float on my own.
I see my comrades having trouble not only with the demon but staying stable in the weightlessness. I rush in and attempt a slash, but the demon moves out of the way, preoccupied with Cheshire. Wait with Cheshire? I look up and see the demon begin to tear into Cheshire, and I pause watching her form float, weightless, blood floating around her. I barely notice the wall of ice Aintai summons near me, I barely notice the demon frantically swiping at my comrades. I think for the briefest of moments what my life would’ve been like had I not met her there in Zebidee’s cave. If I had not been able to share in her happiness for the brief time I was able to.

I feel a surge of anger course in me, as my wings instinctually move me through the air to her. I reach my hand out, screaming in my mind: “Please let me do something, anything to save her. I can’t let her… I can’t let her be taken away!” I feel a warm sensation course over my hand, and I as my hand grasps onto her, a green light glows from it, and slowly her wounds close. I clutch her to me, allowing the green light to cover her, and I look upon her face, I think how peaceful she looks, just like in my dream.

I look to my hands and think. “Right, sea paladin,” just another thing I failed at, just another thing I forget. She stirs in my arms, and looks at me, dazed, confused, and I hope less than angry at me. I try to smile, I try not to cry, the images from the dream filling my mind, I want to apologize, I want to make amends, but not here, not on the battlefield. Only blood falls here. “Sorry, it took so long. I guess I forgot I can do that.” I hope my voice isn’t breaking. “Eadro didn’t exactly give me a manual.” It was lame, just another lame joke. I think I liked it better when I didn’t talk. She smiles at me, the kind smile I used to deserve. It feels me with a small amount of hope, that maybe, I can save the light she held for me. Maybe, I can still be with the friend I love.

“Our gods never give us manuals, but they do give us hope.” These words shake my core. Hope. I was just dwelling on that. I was just hopeful. Yes, our gods give us hope. Eadro and Corellon Larethian shook the world to save my father for me, Eadro reached his hand down and gave me wings to fly, and above all, he allowed me a moment with my master, allowed me the chance to save my master’s soul from Dovev’s twisted design.

Debris flies around us, bringing me back to reality. I look down and see the carnage continue. Oh, right, a demon is in here… fighting a bear. Another transformation of Ulkair’s no doubt. As I watch the carnage looking for a way in to cut the demon down, I hear Cheshire begin to sing. It was a song that she often sang, but just as beautiful as it was, it was sad. It was her own lament, just as my master and I had ours. I noticed where ours was rough, and dark, hopeless almost, hers wasn’t just beautiful, it was powerful, like a light ripping through darkness. I look down at her, I see she’s clutching the pieces of her doll, her sister’s doll. I see from the pieces of the doll sparks beginning to float from them, then a burst of golden light shot from them entangling the demon, ripping a soul from it. Her sister’s soul. Cheshire’s music, Cheshire’s lament, had a similar power to Eadro’s, when he saved my father. Cheshire’s music can call even to the lost souls, even to the edges of madness, where I now reside.

I think back to the battle on the wall, and how her music bent the twisted Ichtaca to its will. How come, its now, in this lost place, that I notice her. The demon howls, a blood-curdling sound, and I sense a righteous anger surge through me. I see Nerida, and the others fighting, and my markings, those burned into my flesh, begin to burn intently as though the holy energy that makes me Eadro’s champion is screaming to fell the dark creature. To strike down the dark and fill the space with the righteous green light of my god. Once again instinctually I let go of Cheshire, and fling myself at the demon. I kick him at a spot I saw Alix strike previously, causing the demon to spin, and with one great swing of Gilgamesh, I tear into the demon’s throat with all of the fury I can muster. Dark blood, spurts from the wound, as the demon gargles curses at us and collapses, followed by my friends, who had been floating above me.

I can’t remember if I too fell to the ground, or if I simply allowed my wings to bring me safely down, but the next thing I remember is the fact that Mimi is still contained in her nightmare.
“I have not encounter this personally but I have, indeed, heard of it. She’s trapped in an arcane nightmare, and someone has to wake her up, and show her that it isn’t real.” Aintai explains to us. Arcane nightmare. “I imagine each of us had some sort of nightmare.” She pauses. “But I don’t know most of you very well, so I certainly wouldn’t know how to wake her up. Someone else will have to do it.” So what I saw in my nightmare was a visage concocted by the demon. Fucking magic. No that’s not fair, magic has saved me more than once. After all my hands can qualify as magic now too, I guess. Still, if that nightmare was only a concoction of a demon, then how much of that triumph was actually me, and how much was the demon?

“Mimi,” Cheshire’s voice pulls me back into the moment. She’s gripping Mimi’s hand tightly, and I can feel her trying to reach into the nether to wherever in the dark scape Mimi has found herself. “I don’t know what you’re seeing, but I know that it’s horrible, and that it’s not the truth, and I know that you feel like you’ll never be accepted. I know how that feels but, that’s also not true because we’re all here for you and we all love and accept you for who you are.” she pauses, “plus, if you never come out of this, who will stop me from dressing like a hoodlum? Or wearing clashing colors?”

“It won’t be Lóin, he has no idea how colors work.” WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH ME! Why talk at this moment, why say anything at all, least of all that? How completely boneheaded am I? I step back, and close my mouth, only listening. After a moment, Mimi begins to stir, and she mumbles something I can’t hear, but at least she seems safe. She looks around at us and the hulking demon currently rotting in our doorway. Someone should take care of that.

“Guys, this isn’t what it looked like when I fell asleep…. I thought we were supposed to be safe in here.” A good point. How did the demon find us? I presume the vampires sent him, but the cabin was safe, supposed to be anyway.

“Ulkair didn’t let the demon in!” Nerida interjects. I assumed that, but given Ulkair’s connection to this place, perhaps it isn’t implausible to assume him. Still, he seems dedicated to Nerida, he even looks pretty beaten up, after that fight. If he did send the demon, they made it a very convincing show.

“Did everyone else have really bad dreams, too?” Mimi asked rubbing her eyes. Define “really bad”. I suppose as far nightmares go, I’ve had worse. I even feel a little bit better after breaking down in my dream. But I still can’t help but wonder how much the demon actually had to conjure for me, and how much of it came from my own fears of what the truth is. Still, I look at my hands, hands that I once believed barely had the power to make things, as well as destroy them, now have the power to heal others as well. I feel a weight of responsibility creep into my heart with that realization. My hands can heal, how many more times am I going to forget that? How many more times, is it going to be vital, and all I’m going to do is use these hands to destroy?

Nerida comes around passing out healing magic, which I am thankful for, though I don’t need as much as the others. Instead I sit on my bed, the others already returning to their sleep, or in the case of Nerida and Ulkair leaving the cabin to retrieve the soul for Cheshire. I feel as though I should go with them, something in me, in fact, compels me to, but I ignore it. I instead inspect my hands again, hands capable to create, destroy, and heal. Power beyond which my fingers should have. I listen to Cheshire sing, and as I drift off, I feel one last tear fall, for whom I don’t know, but maybe, hopefully, for myself.

When I awake, I find the hulking demon’s carcass still in our doorway, and I’m a little disturbed. We simply ignore it as we pack and prepare for a fight we’re not sure we’ll win. The others pile into our ever useful bag, and we set off, the cabin dissipating behind us, leaving barely a trace of our short time there.

Once more I’m haunted by a beautiful land tainted by the red sun that looms over us in a sickly way. Like watching something rot, and I hope our time in it is soon done.
With Alix’s help from the bag once more, and another amount of walking, we make it to what appears to be a massive cavern, and from it, energy of some kind flows into the sky towards the sun. I feel another darkness calling from within the cavern making me hesitate, but Nerida and Ulkair are already starting to move forward, and I need to keep up.
Not far into the cavern, we come to the heart of Elysia. Despite being able to see the energies, I notice my eyes are unable to see much else. Actually nothing else. I only notice the stairs because of the positive energy nexus. Mimi’s hand sticks out of the bag, and attempts to illuminate the darkness, but the magic is absorbed by the machines around us. The machines appear humanoid, and I have a bad feeling. Behind them are steps that lead to a giant drop-off, where positive energy is burning down from Byss.

I hear Nerida and Ulkair talking, but I am only half listening, I’m too awestruck by this contraption. “Yes, this is the place.” He seems genuinely distraught, and I can’t help but feel sorry for him. “I didn’t make whatever those statues are, but I did this.”

“But you didn’t mean for it to become this.” Nerida replies, and for the first time I notice them. His sorrow, her need to cure it. It was familiar, like a pleasant dream just on the verge of memory. It reminded me of girl, a frozen lake, and skating. But no matter how I tried, I couldn’t remember.

“No, no I didn’t,” sadness, etched in his words, “but it did, and I am responsible.” He pauses. “Those must be what’s blocking out the sun. They must be draining the negative energy from Elysia, so that the holy energy more fully permeating everything, and then covering the sun in blood.”

A moment of pause. I can’t imagine what the others are thinking, but I know that whatever we do, these things must be destroyed. Cheshire seems to be thinking the same: “So, if we break those, the whole thing will stop?”

“Maybe.” Is our only reply, and the only answer we get.

“Well, well, well,” exultant, arrogant, and dripping with an ancient swagger, which makes me sick. Out of the shadows steps the vampire that one-punched Alix, all of us tense up, none more so than Cheshire.

“Vhailor!” Ulkair growls, but the vampire merely laughs at our merry band.

“I knew you’d come, Ulkair! You have always been so predictable.” He chuckles at us. “I knew you were going to try your little suicide mission, I knew you would abandon your little Byssian friends to their fate, like the pathetic mongrels they are! To try and steal Elysia for yourself!” He looks us three over, as though deciding which meal to start with. “I don’t know what you think you will accomplish, and I don’t know what you people with him think you’re going to get out of this.” He pauses. “Did Ulkair tell you he could fix everything if you just got him to the nexus? Did he promise, he’d make everything he did better?” a struck chord. Promises to make everything better. I had thoughts of that, make everything I had done better. I look over at our wizard, and feel another parallel between us. “Well let me tell you, he made grave mistakes before and it will be no different now. He’s a fool, who only has a fraction of the power from before, and we,” he pauses and smiles at us, “we are immortal blood gods, compared to him,” he chuckles. “Even if we don’t kill you, there’s nothing the likes of him could do, not even here. You are all insects, and I will crush you beneath my boot.” Anger seeps into my blood again, and I grip my axe, feeling a desperate need to remove the space between Vhailor’s head and shoulders. “Ah I see you eyeing my masterpiece.” I look over at Ulkair again, who’s looking at the machines. “What Dovev had was mere child’s play.” At his words, the machines begin to move, and I’m reminded of the amalgamation of body parts that I fought at the wall. “It was laughable to think you had a chance before, now you will face my truly awesome creation, and me.” He laughs. “No surprises this time you shall face all the powers of blood and horror that I have at my disposal.”

Mimi slips from the bag, scythe in hand and flies at Vhailor, I look back at Ulkair as he dumps, unceremoniously the rest of our friends. I hear a cry of frustration and I look back to see Mimi pinned by the Shadow Dancer from the mansion, armless and all, a portal of shadow closing nearby. Behind me I feel the ground tremble as Nerida is struck by the construct. One of the machines we say expelling energy. I feel something telling me to turn and face the construct, but my attention is still on Mimi who is struggling under the Dancer. I feel my legs kick off as I charge at the Dancer. I sense his need to move, but I anticipate it and slash into him. The Dancer ignores me and begins tearing into Mimi, but as I try and swing into him again, he moves out of the way. After another assault on Mimi, I’m about to try and swing into the Dancer, but I notice Mimi break partially away. She flings him and herself, striking him into the stone wall. I suddenly hear Chesire begin to sing, then an explosion of holy energy throws me and Mimi forward a little, and I look back to see Vhailor now in the middle of the floor, and wall of ice surrounding the golem. I see the cascading effects of Cheshire’s magic, but the golem begins spitting out black energy randomly. A beam of which hits the Dancer, and I can see he has been renewed.

I feel another tremble of the ground, and Nerida appears, towering over all of us, growing to the size of the golem and begins tearing into Vhailor over and over, again until he just dissipates into mist. I look up and notice that the blood sun, which had been looking down at us from a hole in the cavern ceiling, is now uncovered shining down its golden rays of light upon us, especially the Dancer. The golem breaks through the ice wall as, I hear a giggle, a little girl’s giggle, and we all stop. Another visitor out of the shadows, a small girl in a fancy dress, appears before us, smiling.

“You all struggle so valiantly, against your inevitable fate. You’re so funny, but you’re so wonderful too. I have an offer for all of you.” I try to move, but realize I can’t. I think that none of us can. A similar trick to Vhailor’s before. I guess we have to listen. But I doubt we’ll be inclined to take her offer. “We’ll make space for your Byssians here. They can be happy in Elysia. We’ll only feed upon there sister city. We’ve been impressed by what you can do, come you have earned rest in Elysia.” Immediately I mentally refuse, the only place I want to “rest” is with Eadro and my master. “We could give you immortality.” No thanks, I barely want to be alive as it is, why would I want an eternal life? “We could give you happiness.” Unless you can bring me back to a few days ago, so I could undo all I’ve done to Cheshire and the others, I doubt you could bring me happiness. “In fact, we can give you whatever you want.” …. I want my master back, and I doubt you can give me that without some sort of string attached. “It’s not like Elysia was a very good place before we got here. It’s really just different now. The shame of what those Elysians did just to make their lives better. I can’t believe you would spend time with one Nerida. He’s garbage.” I feel Nerida tense with anger, something we all feel, but the child only smiles wider. “Please listen to me, I want you to be happy, you’ve proven yourselves, I don’t want to kill you.” She looks at Nerida, who I think growls at her. “Alas they told me you were stubborn, and you’ve proven quite contrary. I sent Tranatheraxxus to give you this offer, and you murdered him!” I feel rage burn in me again. What I did to save my father, what Eadro, and mother did, to twist fate around and bring him back, is anything but murder. “He was so beautiful, I loved him dearly, you’ll pay for that Lóin,” she shakes a tiny hand at me, and I feel more rage course as the feeling of belittlement stings my skin. “I’m going to make you suffer most,” her voice changes to something sinister, dark, and twisted, and I wish I could move, I have a few hand gestures I learned from dwarves to show her. “And Nerida, you’re very naughty, you stole Ulkair from his righteous punishment. Such a pity I had hoped to save you with your holiness and beauty. However, Cheshire will make a fine pet.” I struggle against the spell holding me in place. Pet? Visions of ripping this child to shreds dance in my mind, as my anger seethes and I feel myself start to lose control again. “I do so love music.” Her demeanor returns to that of a little girl as she giggles again.

Suddenly the Shadow Dancer, bursts into flames and I realize that he had been in the sun during the spell, so if he’s burning, does that mean that the spells done. A wall of swirling blades appears around Nerida, Alix, Night Eyes, and Aintai, and I hesitate to move, despite my rage. It seems to be stopped, but only for us to consider her offer. A moment passes, a far too short moment. “No answer from any of you? Okay!” she raises her hand, and I prepare to charge the little creature, when Cheshire stops me.
“Wait! If you spare Alix, I’ll go with you.” The look on her face, the pain, the desperation. I can’t tell if she’s serious, or only trying to fool the vampire, regardless, I feel a pang in my heart, that I know I deserve, and hesitate again.

The child appears to consider this then grins madly. “Good try,” the child replies, and the wall of blades moves into my comrades. Mimi flies at the child, as I see Ulkair, now once again, a stone giant, picking up Nerida and placing her over the barrier, just as the golem strikes him. I chase after Mimi in an attempt to move her and the child into the sunlight, but the child is ready, and instead forces me into the scuffle with them. I feel some of my wounds heal, but am unable to pull my focus away from the child. With a cry of fury, the child rips us away from her and slams Mimi and me together. The force shocks my system, and I feel my head spin for a moment. I never imagined strength could come from such a tiny thing. The child laughs at us, and I feel my head return and with it my anger. I slash at her, but she nimbly dodges, and I curse in draconic. Another wall of ice appears from behind me, attempting to trap the child, but she merely absorbs it into her hand, with little effort, even the arrows that Alix lets fly from wherever he is, thuds into her, and she rips them out. Nerida appears beside me briefly, from wherever she was before and stabs her trident into the child, causing the child to scream. She pushes Nerida and I back, and laughs. “Very good, Nerida, that looked like fun.” She begins to grow, but Nerida and I begin to attack her, Mimi appears beside us, healed by some miracle, and our three attacks connect. She stumbles back, and laughs as she jumps into a beam of negative energy. Mimi charges past me and cuts into her, but, I notice that the swirling energy begins to heal her, and I realize that she has to be removed from it.

Not far from her is the sunlight, a beam of it pouring down from outside. My chance. My wings perk up, ready to fly me, and with a push from my feet, I fly past Mimi into the swirling negativity. I’m able to grab hold of the child and begin to push her out, but as I do, something comes over me, the negativity around me burns into my brain, peeling back, at least a little, the memories I chose to forget.

The image of a red dragon, hulking, massive, and terrible, starring down at my master, behind him is my mother protecting me from it. The dragon roars, demanding I be handed over, but my master, he refuses, ready to die, to protect the last hope of Iarrthóir. The image in my mind dissipates and is replaced with the smug grin of a yellow goblin, his long warty nose pointed and his eyes, shifty, and cunning, wearing a top hat and ragged suit. He tells me that someone I love has been sold away, because our infatuation has caused him to lose profit. I feel an eerily familiar rage burn in me as I watch this image burn before my eyes.

Finally I’m on the other side of the energy, and the visages disappear and I look up to realize the child is screaming in the sunlight. I try to charge her again, but a flash of the lost memories burn in my mind, and I find myself grasping my head. I hear screaming and I force my eyes to focus, I see myself, but I assume its Cheshire taking my form. Again. And Alix holding her in the sunlight. The child is screaming, and finally bursts into flame, and melts away under the sun. I feel a rejuvenation come over me at the sight of the child burning, and I look behind me to see the golem still standing. With new anger, I fly over the barrier of blades and bring Gilgamesh into the back of the golem slicing part of its backing off. It falters slightly, as I see Nerida healing Ulkair. Ulkair stands up and rips the head of the golem from its body, and crushing it, ending its wretched existence. He falls to the ground panting, this was the hardest fight we’ve all fought. I feel relieve, but I still can’t shake the memories I saw in the negative energy, they flash by then fade away, then flash again.
I see Ulkair take Nerida up to the conflux and begin performing some ritual, just as I’m about to listen, to try and understand, my negative memories, those fighting to be remembered, final erupt in full view, and I feel my mind slip far, far away:

*

We were close now, for a moment, I believed we would make it out, that maybe there were others who remembered the tunnel and had escaped, that I could still have my mother and we could still be together. As we approached its entrance, Malum appeared behind us, with an evil smirk. “At last,” he sighed. “I was growing bored and impatient, two things that are very unhealthy you know,” he stared at us, and I for the first time looked into his eyes, and all I saw was hate, and anger, fires that had consumed his heart.

My mother, her conviction just as strong, if not stronger in the face of this death, slipped her bracelet to me, and whispered in my ear: “As long as you have this, both your father and I will be with you. As long as you have this, you know your father and I love you, and that you are our hearts.” She handed me to Üdragoth and the dragon laughed.

“No need to hand him over to that one, I will kill you both if you desire,” Malum smirked.

“You will never have Lóinnir, beast,” she spat.

“Lóinnir?” he blinked in mock confusion. “Light? A foolish name, but as I understand all of you blasphemous creatures take the name of your clan as well, so Iarrthóir, or seeker.” He considered this a moment. “Light Seeker, such a foolish name, even for an abomination.” Malum reached down and plucked my mother up, I could feel my master trembling, the reappearance of Malum had caused fear to return to him. She did not struggle, but looked at me, and smiled one last loving smile, before she was devoured by the red dragon. Seeing this caused my master to scream in defiance, and I to scream in sorrow, Malum looked down at us and laughed, he laughed at our misery, at the pain of witnessing his violent display. For a moment all fear in me disappeared, for a moment, the world disappeared from me, only Malum and I existed. The fear, for that moment was replaced with anger. “You are Üdragoth, are you not?” the red dragon asked. “I had heard about you from your warriors, who so gratefully told me where this compound was,” he stopped and seemed to consider something. “The ones I didn’t eat anyway.” I could feel it, the same anger that filled me, now filled my master as well, but unlike mine which was only hate, his was righteous, his was justice. “Give me the abomination, elf! And I may yet let you go,” Malum said.
My master smirked. In this moment I saw the powerful warrior that my clan so looked up to and admired. In this moment, though I would never see it again, I saw the spirit of the Iarrthóir. “You know, if I was any old elf, I probably would hand the boy over to you, in fact, if I was just any old elf, I’d probably even believe you would let me go. But you see Malum, I’m not. I am Üdragoth of the Order of Iarrthóir, and I say not only will I not give the boy to you, not only will we escape, not only will you never find him again, but I swear he will become the harbinger of your demise. I say that you should fear him, for he will extinguish your flame!” as my master defiantly, valiantly spoke, Malum’s smirk disappeared and he scowled at us.

“Petulance,” he spat, “I have grown sick of your petulance elf, I had hoped to torture the abomination before killing it, but at last I have lost my patience! Give me the boy!” Malum was about to breathe fire upon us, extinguish us forever, but a sound stopped him, and it stopped him cold. The roar of another dragon echoed forth and from the burning sky descended in a majesty of ice and snow, my father, or so I would believe. He landed between us, and roared again.

“Malum!” he cried, and bellowed ice from his mouth just as Malum bellowed fire. But I did not see the conclusion to this, for when my father appeared before us, my master turned and pushed the rock away, and cast me into its dark embrace, before following, replacing the stone as he went.

*

My mind returned if only for a moment. I was on my knees clutching my head in agony. Everyone around me were spellbound by something before us. Right, Nerida and Ulkair. I looked up the steps and saw not only the two encased in holy light, Nerida’s body clearly breaking, but I also saw Cheshire. This caused me pause. For a brief moment I wanted to run up and save them all from whatever was happening. I wanted to stop the world from collapsing around us. It was then that I noticed the cavern’s ceiling falling in. I attempted to stand, but the energy radiating from the three broke into my mind, swirling with the negative energy, and forcing me to peel away, to see another memory.

*

“What do you mean you sold her?!” I exclaimed smashing my fists into the fancy wooden table. Alaster sat across from me, sipping wine, toying with a handful of coins. The eyes he fixed on me were dark and twisted, but his smirk was arrogant, and full of itself.
“Lóin, I can do whatever I so please with my property,” he retorted. “You freaks are, after all, are my property. Your caretaker signed you both away eight years ago.” He swirled the wine and sipped it. “Besides your infatuation with Selene was causing me to lose profit, and if I lose profit all you freaks suffer.”

I could feel my anger rising, not in years had it become like this, full of hate, full of power. “That’s a lie! Where did you send her! Tell me!”

The goblin laughed, and my anger burned more. “I don’t have to tell you anything, you’re property remember, fool. Now get out there and keep performing. Make me money, and maybe I’ll see that we find you another slut to bang in your off time.” He laughed again, louder this time. He reared back and kicked the table, forward throwing me back, making me stumble to the ground. His words burned in my heart, and I felt fire burn in me, red, hot. How dare he say those things about Selene, how dare he take her from me, when Malum already took away my family, and Selene returned light to my life. No more! My rage will be sated, Alaster will burn in my fire!

I stand up, slowly, letting the fire course, I stare at Alaster as he laughs, wine and spit flying from his mouth. I reach beside me, and grab a lantern hanging there. In one fell swoop I’m across the table, smashing the lantern into his face. He falls back with a cry of pain as glass and fire digs into his ugly face. The oil of the lantern covering him, igniting him. I throw the table aside, a bottle of wine shattering over scattered coins, and as I approach I see his face burning from the lantern’s fire. I break off a leg of the chair, and ignite it in another lantern, as Alaster tries to crawl from me, I slowly approach him, he puts his hands up to protect himself, but I ignite him with the chair leg. He screams and its music to my ears as he thrashes about, burning to death. I grab the lantern, I used to ignite the chair leg and pour the oil over him, he screams more and more, as the fire consumes him.

My rage isn’t yet done, as I exit the tent, clutching the ignited chair leg. I walk downthe line of tents, letting each catch fire, humming to myself, thinking about the look of distress, the look of fear on Alaster’s face he paid for his crimes, and his empire will fall.

It wasn’t long before my twisted dance had set fire to all of the Circus of Terrible Wonder. I reveled in the flames as I, the liberator of my fellow performers, watched my good deed. Suddenly I was tackled to the ground, the chair leg knocked out of my hand. I looked up into the angry, shocked eyes of my master.

“Lóin, you igit! What are you doing?” he screamed.

“I did it master, I avenged us all, I avenged Selene, she was sold master. And I avenged her.” I babbled and smiled.

“What are you saying boy?” my master’s eyes kept there surprise, but gained sorrow, a deep, dark understanding.

“I saved us, master, I saved us, I saved-,” the feeling of his hand across my face brought me to reality.

“You fool!” he screamed, tears in his eyes. “Saved us? I’ll show you what your saving has done!” he picked me up with strength I wasn’t sure he had, and he hauled up a nearby hill away from the camp, and threw me to the ground. “Look, liberator! Look at what you’ve wrought.”

I rolled over and looked down at the camp, for a moment I couldn’t tell what he meant. The fire was beautiful, it consumed the hell we had suffered in, but then their screams reached my ears. I saw below me, people running around on fire, burning, dying. Not just fellow performers, but patrons, children, innocents. My hands shook, my stomach twisted. My wrath, burned my new family, the people who took my master and me in, treated us like family, for years. A twisted thought crawled its way through my sick mind. Where was Selene’s father? Where was Hyperion? I scanned the people burning to death, trying to ignore there screams of anguish, trying to ignore the distraught who were desperate to put the others out, but still I couldn’t see Hyperion. Did I… did I kill Selene’s father? In my rage, in my revenge, have I not only killed my family, but also the most important person to Selene?
“Master, what have I done?” I sobbed, the tears coming, uncontrollable. I thought about Malum, his hateful fire consuming my clan. Have I become just like him? “Master, am I like Malum?” I sob out. I feel myself being picked up as master embraces me tightly, his own tears falling.

“Why didn’t I see it in you boy?” my master whispered. “If this hatred was in you why didn’t I see it?” he hugged me tighter. “I’m sorry, Lóin, I’m so sorry.” I embraced him back breaking down, shivering for the first time in my life, feeling cold course my body.

*

“Elysia doesn’t deserve to live anymore!” I hear Ulkair’s words break into my twisted thoughts, bringing me back to now.

I remembered everything. I remembered all that I had sealed away, repressed. I remembered Malum, and Alaster, Selene, Hyperion, I remembered all of it, and I felt sick. I looked back at my hands. Hands capable of healing, but hands that have known complete destruction.

Everything around is breaking and falling, Nerida appears to be passed out, cracks coursing her body, and Ulkair holding her tightly, Cheshire glowing with her own holy energy, trying everything to save our friend. A giant boulder from the cavern’s ceiling fell into the conflux exploding energy around us. Alix and Night Eyes have already clamored up the stairs and stood with Cheshire, Nerida and Ulkair. Mimi and I likewise did our best to fly up to and land with them. It took a moment but we made it. I realized as I was looking around, that Aintai was at the mouth of the cave, was she trying to escape out the front, or had she simply gotten trapped there. Behind us Ulkair’s magic opens a portal to, we hope, Byss.
As we’re about to turn and head through, we hear a scream. I turn and see Aintai, her legs crushed beneath a fallen boulder. The sorceress is struggling, suffering. She looks at us, waiting up on the stairs. “Go on without me! I’ll find another way back!” she screams, and I see in her eyes desperation, but for us, or her?

I had had enough. The memories showed me who I truly was. A monster, who got lucky. A monster in need of slaying. I turned my back on Cheshire, on my friends, and even on my master. I brought down the family that accepted me, and now again I stand in the ruins of actions that destroy lives. I had had enough. No one else should be left behind, we our friends, we are family.

I plunge into the collapsing world, swerving as best I can around the debris. I make it to her, and her eyes hold a hint of hope, but mostly of indignation that I didn’t listen. Too bad. I raised my axe and without hesitation, bring it down on her legs. She screams in agony and it rips into my heart, but I know magic can restore them. But it can’t restore a crushed body. I pull her up expecting the snake-lady to bite at me, but instead she clings to me, and I waste no time. I force my way back to the portal, and I throw us through, the others following behind.

On the other side, we are greeted by the warmth of the sun, the smell of trees, and the sky so blue.

View
What Fresh Hell Is Byss 12
Come What May

Day 17 (Session 12)

I wake before the sun, peering around Alix’s blankets to see it just barely starting to light the horizon. I should go back to sleep, I know, but the day’s upcoming events rush to the forefront of my mind, consuming it, and refusing to let me rest any longer. Dovev looming over me, Nerida’s scrying, her… fissures, her hometown, all things on the agenda. I scoot out of bed, and Alix releases me, squinting a little at the morning light, already much too bright for him.

Oh… right. Byss has never had a sun before.
I ponder, glancing around at the empty windows. I shuffle to each and close the wooden shutters, but they are far from light-tight, and I am certain by sunrise, beams will filter through them onto Alix’s face, making it, I imagine, impossible for him to sleep in past sunrise.

Well that won’t do.

I conclude, adding ‘putting up curtains for Alix’ to my mental agenda. I would be foolish to put such an endeavor above scrying for Dovev, but I imagine today Alix won’t sleep in very late anyway, as we’ll, with any luck, be hunting a ghoul.

I move as silently as I can out of Alix’s room and into Nerida’s. She’s sound asleep with Ulkair, and I hate to wake her, but my stomach churns violently at the possibility of waiting any longer. Whatever we’re going to find on the other end of that scrying spell, the sooner the better. I shake her lightly to no avail, poke her lightly, also nothing.

“Nerida,” I whisper, poking her again, and get no response.

“Nerida, Nerida, Nerida,” I repeat, prodding her softly with each word.

Finally she groans and rolls over, squinting at me through what I suppose to her is darkness.

“Cheshire?” She asks wearily, “what time is it…?”

“It’s, uh… I don’t know, five?” I offer, trying hard to remember my brief study on times and their relevance to the position of the sun, “but it’s scrying day. Get up!”

‘Scrying day’ made it sound like a holiday, and I only wish I could be as enthused as I sounded, in fact, I wish I could be as enthused as Nerida sounded, which… was not very much at all.

“Cheshire, I have to pray before I get my spells,” she mumbles, waving her hand dismissively at me and rolling over to snuggle Ulkair once more. Knitting my brown, I poke her again.

“Nerida! Get up,” I insist, and she barely moves. I sigh, “okay, I’ll go get some curtains for Alix while you pray.”

“Alright,” she mumbles sleepily, “see you in a few hours.”

“Hours?!” My voice is much louder than I mean it to be, and Ulkair moans angrily, so I hush my tone as I continue, “it only takes you twenty minutes to pray!”

“There’s a certain time I have to pray,” she says, “it has to do with the tides rising.”

I frown, crossing my arms, praying is praying, right? I’ve prayed to Tubatron at every hour of the day – I sincerely doubt Eadro needs the sleep.

“Well then, why don’t I go and wake the tides for you?” I offer with false mirth, “I’ll jam on the roof, that’ll fix it for you, right? No way they’ll sleep through that.”

And by “they” I meant her.

“It still won’t be eight o’ clock,” she mumbles, and I flop in despair on the ground.

“Nerida!” I whine, pulling pleadingly on her blankets, “come oooon!”

“Ulkair?” She mumbles, “didn’t you say something about an aquarium you have?”

“Yeah, we should get that,” he responds sleepily.

“What aquarium?” I ask, peering over the side of the bed at them – what could a fishbowl have to do with scrying for Dovev’s head?

Ulkair props himself up on his elbow, and through his exhaustion manages a devious grin that sends a chill running down my spine. His golden eyes sparkle with a spectacular malice, and something tells me I don’t want to know the answer to my question.

“Oh, well…” I mumble, pushing myself up.

It seemed they would not be roused by normal means. Very well, I meant to cry Tubatron’s praises from the rooftops in the morning anyway, and if they could sleep through the ruckus I intended to make, well, then they deserved the rest. I scramble out of the room and pull on my boots, then grab my axe and hurry out the door.

Tad Cooper looks up at me sleepily from his place in front of the house, and I put his head. With some coaxing, he gets up and gives me a sizeable boost up, from which I clamor onto Alix’s roof. The sun is just beginning to peer over the horizon line, it’s brilliant bronze rays lightening the sky, and bouncing off the surface of my axe. I breath deeply in the morning breeze, soaking in the atmosphere around me, everything seems right.

I take Zebidee’s silver scale from my bag, studying it in the dawn’s light. What was better than a hard, epic ballad for your god? One played with a dragon scale, I’m certain. I raise my hand, poising my fingers on the frets of my axe, and bring the improvised pick to strum out a powerful chord. It echoes out over the misty morning air, and I feel a grin creep over my features.

Perfect.

With another deep breath, I run my hand down the neck of my instrument, reveling in its melodic wail, and begin to shred. The song bellows out over the Byssian rooftops, and I pour my arcane will into it, shaking the ground beneath me with every note. How better to wake my new home than with the very song I’d used to win it?

“Time after time, as we march side by side
Through the valleys of evil and the torturing souls
Night after night, for the glory we fight
In the kingdom of madness and the tales from the old,
Death by our hand, for the higher command
As the darkness surrounds us, hear the cries as they fall
Fire burning steel, and the tyrants will kneel
Hearts burning stronger with the power of the sword…”

I play as fervently as I ever had, as I did when I was face to face with Dovev, as I was now, and part of me prays that I will find in the notes the same courage that I once did. The courage to cast him from my shoulders, but it does not come, every note I play more desperate than the last to shed holy sunlight on the shadow that lurks around me.

“Cry thunder, sword in his hand!
Titans of justice, fearless we stand
Cry thunder, strong in command
Blessed by the union, freedom of man,”

From the corner of my eye, I catch a streak of blue that I recognize to be Nerida’s hair, I follow it as she runs down the city streets, and moments later I spot Ulkair on her heels. I wonder where she could possibly be going in such a hurry, but I know if it were truly urgent they would have told me, or at least, Alix would have. I cannot bring myself to pursue them in lieu of the music, especially as I feel each note restoring a portion of the holy power I’d expended the day before. This song is a duty to Tubatron, and I don’t think I could silence it, even if I wanted to.

“Reckoning day, for the demons we slay,
With the force of a dragon we will conquer them all
Chaos still reigns, devastation and flames
For the ultimate glory when the legacy calls
March on through the hellfire
Blazing through the darkness beyond,
Nightmares return by the thousands
Fearing rise, to the heroes once more…”

I shred for all I am worth, losing myself to the exhilaration of the music, to Tubatron’s power pumping through my veins. Unable to contain my energy, I dance as I play, flouncing across the roof as the melody wails from my hands and my lungs.

“Cry thunder! Sword in his hand
Titans of justice, fearless we stand
Cry thunder! Strong in command
Blessed by the union, freedom of man!”

At some point, Alix joins me on the roof, and, completely lost in my solo, I don’t even notice his presence until I feel his hand on my arm, pulling me against him. I take a moment to breath, my fingers warm and numbed, my hair a tousled mess, and stare down at the small crowd of people I have gathered, all staring up at me in awe. Alix releases me as I step out across the rooftop towards them, letting my voice soften.

“Unholy darkness in the eyes of broken dreams
Outside of the wasted and torn, a land of tears still remains,”

I grin, watching the anticipation build in their eyes, feeling it build in my own chest, and begin to pick up tempo again, building the power that Byss inspires in me, their strength, into my melody. Our melody.

“Soldiers of destiny calling,
and the fallen will rise up again
To conquer the forces of evil
And fight ‘til the end!
Cry thunder! Sword in his hand
Warriors defending, one final stand!
Cry thunder! Strong in command
Blessed by the freedom, union of man,
Blessed by the union of man…
Cry thunder!”

I slam the notes out on my strings, and return to my dance, spinning in a dramatic circle as I play the final notes, and casting a burst of glitterdust over my audience. The somber applause and salutes are hardly the uproarious cheering my racing heart cries for, but I see the pride in their eyes – and it’s enough. For everything Byss has given me, to give back even a little, to make just one person in this city as proud to be a part of it as I am, if my music could ever make them realize how amazing they are, that would be enough.

I scramble down from the rooftop, and Alix greets helps me to the ground, catching me as my boot slips from the wall.

“Be careful,” he warns, helping me to straighten up.

“Thanks,” I mumble, “good morning!”

I turn to face the twenty odd people gathered around our home, my face flush with the heat of my performance, and beam my biggest smile at them all. I salute them in return, but I feel as though the gesture doesn’t seem well suited to my grin, and most of them give me a tight smile, and a quiet compliment, patting mine and Alix’s shoulders in congratulations as they make their way away from our house – content to go about their day. Though most of them seem unsure what to do about the magical golden glitter that adorns their gray and black clothing.

“It will wear off!” I call after them, waving and bit my lip to suppress a giggle before turning back to Alix.

“Well that was nice,” I comment, and he looks at me, burning pride in his eyes, and wraps me in a tight hug. I wrap my arms around him in return, unsure of the sudden, heavy sincerity that falls over us.

“Alix?”

He moves away from me tucks my bangs away behind my ears.

“I love you, Cheshire.”

The feeling rushes over me that there are no words for the praise he wants to shower me in, for the happiness I’ve brought into his life, that those choice three are the only thing that comes close. I wrap my hands around his, and I wonder if he understands that I feel the same, that I woke up this morning convinced our life was a dream.

“I love you, too.”

We walk back inside, and it isn’t long before I break our moment of serenity with a storm of exuberant questions.

“Did you sleep alright? Do you want help making breakfast? I was going to get you some curtains but then I realized you’re awake now anyway, but I’ll get them today so that tomorrow the sunlight won’t wake you up and then you can sleep in, well except that I think I’m going to play on the roof at dawn every morning, that won’t bother you, will it? Because it really is just perfect and it’s the most invigorating thing I think I’ve ever done and you know, plus we owe Tubatron a lot and so it only makes sense,”

I pause only briefly in my rambling to breathe, and Alix patiently watches me wear myself out, amusement playing behind his storm gray eyes.

“I think Nerida may have been right, you know? That there’s just a certain time you should do things and so maybe she just needs to pray with the tides because that’s perfect for her and if that’s perfect then that’s great and I probably shouldn’t have woken her up, oh, do you know where she went because she seemed like she was in a hurry?”

This time my pause is sincere, as it occurs to me that Nerida has not returned and if there was indeed something wrong, I should know, Alix sighs, as if what he’s about to tell me is a shame.

“I believe she went to face the pyre,” he says, and my face and heart fall. “What happened was not Nerida’s fault, and things could certainly gone worse, but Byss has suffered a great loss. There is a lot of misplaced guilt weighing on her shoulders, not unlike yours.”

My mood dashed, I look away, the familiar sting of pent up weeping creeping across my features.

“Nerida did her best,” I mumble, and Alix puts a hand on my shoulder.

“As did we all, but every person must face their grief eventually, and for many, it is easier to face death than life in the wake of lost comrades.”

I stare up at him, wishing I could process his lecture, my mind buzzing with arguments and mixed emotions. Try as I may, I can’t seem to rein them in, and I feel the tension start to build on my shoulders and chest once more.

“I…. I’m going to find Nerida!”

I hurry right back out the door, and Alix lets me go, perhaps knowing there’s nothing he can do to ease a feeling I can’t explain. Maybe it is my own guilt that pushes me to follow her, or my desperation to assuage it that makes me so determined to convince her that what happened to those people wasn’t her fault – wasn’t our fault. That didn’t seem right, but then, neither did celebrating my new found life when so many had lost theirs, yet here I was. Maybe… facing that pyre will help, or maybe it will make everything worse. I don’t know what pushes my every step, what I hope to find at the end of the road, but I have to be there. I just.. have to.

The roar of the blaze is terrible, somehow ringing so much louder, so much more obviously in my ears than it had yesterday, the sight of the billowing smoke over the city’s walls is as foreboding as today as it had been a relief the day before. The whole area of the city is warmer, something I suppose I hadn’t noticed yesterday, too wrapped up in my own concerns and celebrations to stop and consider the weight on every other person’s shoulders. It taunts me, the heat washing over me in a wave as I get closer, my chest constricting painfully as my senses ground me in the horrible reality.

I slow my run to a walk, clenching my fists to try and control myself, my breath, my legs suddenly trembling, threatening to buckle beneath me when I stare up into the blaze. I can barely make out the somber mumblings and sniffles, even cries of distressed family over the thunderous blaze, but for one set of sobs that carries over the others, over even the fire. I follow the sound to find Nerida, a weeping mess in Ulkair’s arms, her whole body heaving with sobs, and whatever carried me here breaks.

Whatever hope I’d had of facing this, making sense of it all, helping her, any stupid notion I’d entertained is immediately dashed. It crumbles away with the barrier of denial that had guarded me from this sadness yesterday, and my heart sinks, aching painfully to the bottom of my stomach. Sitting by Nerida, the heat of the blaze washing over us, I sink back into empty, profound sadness.

It wracks me, as it has many times in the last week, and I clutch my knees, my lungs aching to scream. My fists tremble with their urge to move, to hit something, do anything to pacify the pain, to push the feelings out before they drown me, to give my rioting soul a voice in the midst of horrible, crushing silence.

“Anar’alah…”

I whisper the haunting Elysian melody, pulling it from the pit of my soul as I lift my head to face the pyre. The tears that run down my cheeks are a sharp contrast to the heat, and my lips waver as I try to control them well enough to sing.

“Anar’alah Beloré
Sin’dorei Shindu Fallah Na
Sin’dorei, Beloré
Anar’alah…”

The lament carries, horribly pure and beautiful, over the din, and I focus my arcana into my trembling hands, summoning a harp, and begin to pluck the strings in time with my voice. It isn’t quite as overpowering as it was in Elysia, but I feel the words carry not just the music, but my very emotions over the air. Next to me, Nerida’s sobbing hardens, and she chokes out a few of the words with me before falling into despairing cries once more.

“Shindu Sin’dorei
Shindu Fallah Na
Sin’dorei Anar’alah Beloré
Beloré, Anar’alah, Beloré Sin’dorei…”

My chest wavers with my weeping, but I steady it, forcing each uneasy breath to be more than a wasted sob, instead contributing them to the song, to honoring Byss’ fallen warriors. I have never heard anything that evoked from me what this piece did, and even as the melody grasps my heart with pain, holding too tightly, I resolve to finish it. It is the only thing that even comes close to measuring my grief, the only way I know to show Byss that I know its suffering. Our failures, their consequences… I feel their weight.

I’m so sorry…

“Shindu sin’dorei
Shindu Fallah Na
Anar’alah Beloré
Beloré…”

I finish the song with a shaking breath, and my harp disperses in a tiny puff of gold light. I sit, numbly staring into the blaze for awhile, crying until my eyes run dry, and soon after, I feel a familiar hand on my shoulder. I look up to see Alix, who sits next to me and offers me a plate of food, setting two more down next to Ulkair and Nerida. I want to say I’m not hungry, but it would be a lie, and my stomach growls as I stare at the food, seemingly unaware that this isn’t the time for eating.

I lean on Alix, picking at the breakfast, and he rubs my arm, taking what I believe to be his own solemn moment to say goodbye to his brothers and sisters in arms. After awhile, I’ve eaten most of my plate, but the heavy, solemn air, and Nerida’s weeping prevent me from having much appetite. I feel another wave of inevitable weeping creeping up on me, when Alix gets up, pulling me with him.

“Come on, let’s go,” he says, clearly deciding that it is not best to let me wallow. He’s right, of course, but I cast another somber glance at Nerida.

“Ulkair will take care of her,” Alix assures me, ushering me away from the pyre, and I rub my eyes, stinging from the smoke and the dryness of too many tears.

“Alix?” I mumble, receiving a curious ‘hm’ in response, “can we go fishing?”

Alix cocks his head at me, and I can’t help but think the casual request was the absolute last thing he’d thought was coming.

“Yes,” he answers, giving me a quizzical stare, “but why?”

“Um, I need to… um,” I scratch my head, trying to think of a way to tell him my plan without sounding crazy. “Take one apart… for… research?”

Alix knits his brow at me, safely the most confused I have ever seen him, and I chew my lip.

“Well, it’s just that, you see, Nerida is going to Zissyx and I want us to go with her,” I explain, to which he nods, as this fact that he was already well aware of does not shed any light on my needing to dissect a fish.

“Anyway she has water breathing spells I know but I just thought, you know, if would be better if I could breath on my own, and that way she wouldn’t have to worry about me so much. And… I think I can breathe under water if I have gills, like a fish, I just don’t know how they work and I thought maybe if I could see one from the inside…”

I peer up at Alix, expecting to see horror or disdain or, I’m not really sure, but certainly not the pride in his eyes. He nods and pats my shoulder, looking almost impressed.

“Well, I love fishing,” he says, “and maybe it won’t be quite so dangerous anymore.”

Dangerous? Oh, right… undead in the water. I glance up at the sun, hoping that its rays will indeed serve to keep the undead at bay, as Alix claims they will.

“So, you don’t think I’m crazy?” I ask, and Alix shakes his head.

“No, I think you’re finding a way to contribute and survive the best you can with what you have,” he says, “that doesn’t make you crazy, it makes you a Byssian.”

My grin could split my face if it got any bigger as I listen to him speak, and I bristle with a strange new pride: pride in my abilities and heritage as a doppelganger, instead of shame. I walk in silence with Alix, pondering the new sensation for awhile, when he nudges me.

“I’ll race you!”

The cheery challenge is probably the least somber I have ever heard Alix’s voice, and I blink at him, trying to process it as he takes off running. After a moment of stunned silence, I bolt after him, but Alix’s stride is much more impressive than my own, I can’t win with my current legs. I focus as I run, causing my legs to stretch and grow, shaping them more like Nerida’s, and close the distance between us. Giggling, I even overtake him after a time, and I turn around, throwing a handful of arcane glitter over him as I pass.

“Hey, no fair, you’re cheating!”

He calls, and as I reach the shores of the lake, I shrink my legs back to their normal size, skidding to a stop before I accidentally splash into the lake in my dress. Panting, I turn back to face Alix, who jogs up next to me – he doesn’t even look winded!

“You let me win, didn’t you?” I breathe, and he raises an eyebrow.

“Well, in a manner of speaking,” he says, “I would have overtaken you if I had cast my longstrider spell.”

“Why didn’t you?” I cock my head at him, and he raises the other eyebrow to match.

“That would have been cheating.” He says pointedly, and I scratch my head, feeling a bit ridiculous to have shape changed for something like a race, which apparently he did not take seriously.

“So, let that be a lesson to you,” he says, stretching, “a victory you cheat to earn feels hollow.”

“Well, I don’t know about that,” I mumble, “sure, maybe this one did, but I’ve done much more desperate things to gain the upper hand before, and never really felt bad about any of them.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I mean, I cheated to beat Dovev… I didn’t even kill him, I made him jump off his wyvern and do it himself.”

And I didn’t even win, really. I add, but try to keep the thought to myself. Alix looks a bit despondent, and he shakes his head.

“Cheshire, that wasn’t cheating,” he explains, “that was battle. All’s fair in war, you were defending yourself and your home.”

“So, you should only not cheat if it’s not really important?” I ask, and he brings a hand to his face, shaking his head again before he looks back over at me.

“You really don’t understand play very well, do you?”

I pause, debating this fact: I consider myself a playful person, I know how to play a lot of instruments, but… I suppose I haven’t played games or participated in friendly competitions in, well, ever. I watched other children play, but I was never welcome among them, even my own siblings shied away from me. Aisylynn never really played games, we sang songs when we were together, or slept, or I tried to help her do her chores. My thoughts drift over my childhood memories, as I dig for one that did not end in isolation, becoming increasingly desperate to prove I was indeed, capable of playfulness.

“Well…. No,” I admit finally, and Alix looks at me for a moment, an unfamiliar, devious spark in his eye.

“Wha…” I begin to question, but Alix grabs me, pulling me to the soft ground and pinning me. Panic-stricken, I focus all my energy into my hands and push him back, rolling him onto his back and pinning him. I stare at his surprised expression for a moment, searching his eyes for his motivation in attacking me, trying to calm my racing heart, and he laughs. He genuinely, mirthfully laughs, and smiles up at me as I move back.

“Wh-What’s so funny?”

He pushes himself up and ruffles my hair, covering whatever of it was clean before in dirt from his hands.
“I’ll teach you to play yet, little one.”

That was his idea of playing!? Well… it made more sense than Alix trying to murder me, didn’t it? I sigh, putting my head in my hands – perhaps I really didn’t get it, and was starting to wonder if I ever would, or if Byss had too thoroughly compounded my fear for my life into each and every action. Alix gets up, and helps me to my feet, and I stare in horror and dismay at the mud-coated yellow dress I’d owned for less than a day.

“Oh, no,” I whisper, tearfully looking over the disastrous state of the fabric, and Alix smiles, looking, if I didn’t know any better, pleased to see muck all over his mother’s priceless dress.

“It will wash,” he says simply, digging through my bag – discarded on the ground from our scuffle, for my fishing net and casting it into the water. “Speaking of cleanliness, if you’re going to keep all this…. Stuff, you should take it out of this bag and put it away at home. Orderly, not all over your bedroom floor.”

I cross my arms, huffing as I walk over to him, “why? How am I supposed to organize a whole general store in one room anyway? And what does it matter if it’s ‘orderly’, as long as I can find it?”

“A tidy home is a tidy life, Cheshire,” he says, and this time it’s my turn to raise an eyebrow.

“Yeah, and there’s nothing tidy about our lives,” I point out, “and there never will be!”

Alix looks me over for a moment, and I could swear, ever so faintly, I hear him wondering what he’s done, before he shakes his head again and turns his attention back to the net.

Wait… Did I just… win an argument with Alix? Unable to wrap my mind fully around the possibility, I sit next to the shore, watching as he adjusts the net, putting it further out and securing it by some means I probably should understand, but don’t, although I suspect I will by the afternoon. We pass a little over an hour comfortably conversing by the lake, and Alix teaches me all the finer points of fishing, before realizing I know nothing about fishing and teaching me all the basics, as well.

I pull off my boots with some reluctance, and hoist up the skirt of my dress to follow him out into the water and help him pull in the net. I doubt he actually needs my help, so much as he wants me to do and learn, so I follow his lead and we drag the net back to the shore. We have indeed caught quite an impressive gaggle of fish, and my stomach churns guiltily watching them flop about on the ground.

“So, can I… take one of these?” I ask, and Alix nods, digging through my bag of holding once more for who knows what. I shudder at the feeling of the wet ground squishing beneath my toes, but realize fully that putting my boots back on now would only result in crusted mud inside them later, so I remove the dagger that I keep within them and leave them by the shore. I find one of the larger fish, and guiltily wiggle him out of the net.

Sorry buddy, today is not your lucky day…
I try to ignore his wriggling, though it is difficult to do so and still keep a hold on him as his spiky fins prick into my hands. I find a solid, dry patch of land nearby and lay the fish down, whispering one more apology and bracing myself before I slice into its head with my dagger. To my surprise, the cut is quite clean, perhaps used to much greater struggles, I cut its head clear off in one swift, smooth motion.

The worst part over, and now with new found confidence, I scoot the bloodied head away from my workspace and make another clean slice, honing in on my end goal with a laser focus I have never maintained before. Slowly, meticulously, I peel away parts of the fish, slicing its gills away to observe and understand them. I don’t know what I had expected, tiny tubes leading to strange fishy lungs perhaps, but that is not what I find, instead the flaps of thin, stringy skin appear to be a circulating system all their own.

But how did they work? Once the gills are in my hand, I take them apart, studying them, and after awhile Alix wanders over to me. He watches in silence as I peel apart each of the four flaps, and then return to the fish’s body, cutting away additional pieces with precision, revealing the small creature’s skeleton, and then its organs. No lungs of any kind, that I could see. Did fish simply suck in water like people did air? Through their mouths, but push it out through gills instead of through noses? I’m not sure I completely understand how this would allow a creature to breathe, persay, so I continue to prod through tissue carefully with my dagger.

“Have you done this before?” Alix asks, and I shake my head, giving him a vague mumble that does not break my concentration in response. I hear his approving “hmm” above me, but find myself lost in the mystery in my hands. I disassemble the other half of the fish as well, and can only seem to confirm my theory that fish breathe water, absorbing what tiny particles of air must be within it, I suppose. I sit back, cleaning off my knife, and Alix looks over my precise piles of fish pieces.

“So, do you know how it works?” He asks, and I nod.

“I think so.”

Another strangely mischievous grin spreads over his face, and before I can question, Alix pulls me up into his arms. I flail with what I imagine is no dignity at all as he makes his way back into the lake and slings me into the water. I brace myself as I submerge, instinctively holding my breath and heading for the surface when I realize his intention is obviously for me to test all that knowledge I just tried to gain.

I push myself deeper, pulling away from the surface in spite of what my survival desires scream at me, and try to focus on my memories of the gills. The way they felt, the strange, thin hair-like flesh, the hard ridges that connected them, I call them to mind, shifting my skin to mimic what I had seen and studied.

They do grow, but they are sensitive and painful, I gasp at the sudden change, but my lungs to not revolt and send me into a frenzied struggle of coughing and gasping for air. Instead, as I suck in the water, it filters flawlessly through my new additions, relieving the pressure on my chest as though I had just taken a short, shallow breath. The rushing water pouring from my neck is a bizarre sensation, and my sensitive new gills send a tremor down from my neck to my toes. I clamp my hands over them and reinforce the skin over them, with some harder scaly flesh, similar to how the fish had been structured, if less obtuse.
It eases the shock, and I breathe in again, this time deep and full of confidence, and sure enough, the water rushes through my gills, and my body fills with oxygen as though I had taken a deep breath above the surface. I swim up again, poking my head from the water to see Alix, eagerly awaiting my results.

“Well?” He asks, and I nod exuberantly.

“They work!”

I feel a burst of pride over our link, and I scramble up out of the water and into a celebratory hug. shifting my gills away as I do. Alix returns the embrace, and helps me back to shore, my dress a soaking, heavy mess. I gather my bag, my dagger and my boots, and Alix gets the bucket of fish we’ll be eating, and we head home in good spirits. Alix’s pride in my achievement glows in me, and builds my own – I can’t wait to show Nerida! I hope she is in better spirits when we return, but I see her still in front of the pyre, resting against Ulkair, and decide it is best to leave her be.

Alix takes me home and sets about gutting and cleaning fish, a process he is keen to teach me, and I do my best to learn, after taking a moment to change from my sopping wet dress and into some clean day clothes. The clean change of clothes, it turned out, was a bit unwise, as they are thoroughly soiled by the end of our endeavor, and I have to change again.

Still waiting for Nerida, I empty my bag of holding into my room, and Aintai raises an eyebrow at me from the bed as the pile empties out onto the floor.

“_*What*_ in the seven hells are you doing?” She asks, and I giggle, crawling my way through the stuff.

“Well, there was no more room in my bag, and it’ll be easier to find things this way than it would be digging through that tiny opening.”

Aintai looks unamused.

“The likelihood of you actually finding anything in that mess is slim and none.”

I pout, crossing my arms from my place atop the pile.

“You don’t know!”

“Whatever, Cheshire,” she mumbles, shaking her head before digging out a book from the pile to read. I slide down the stuff and hurry out of the room to help Alix to slice fish and prepare our next meal.

“Nerida and Ulkair are back,” he informs me as I run into the kitchen.

“Oh, good! Where’d they go?”

“To their room.”

“Oh… well… I guess I’ll leave her alone for now,” I mumble, “she probably still has to pray… I’m sure she’ll come get me when she’s ready to scry.”

“I’m sure she will,” Alix pats my head, obviously approving of my attempted patience.

But once we are done with food preparation, I find myself, for the first time since coming to Byss, with nothing to do. I pace around our home, drumming my fingers idly as I await news from Nerida. Aintai wanders out of our room for food at some point, and watches me pace as she eats.

“You going to make it?” She questions, and I offer her a nervous smile, my idleness not aiding in my attempts to stay calm and collected.

“Yes, I’m sure Nerida will be done praying soon.”

Aintai nods, raising an eyebrow at my sad attempts to convince her, or perhaps myself, that I was keeping it together. Nerida pokes her head out of her room, and I spin to face her eagerly.

“Hey guys,” she says, looking nervous, “there’s a spell I’m going to cast on Ulkair… Whatever you hear, it’s fine. It’s, um, left.”

So you’re done praying? Why are we not scrying for Dovev yet!? I want to scream, to burst the seams, but I know I have no right to demand Nerida’s magic, nor her time. If she thinks this is more important than finding out about the Ichtaca, there’s nothing I can do but continue to wait.

“Oh no,” I mumble, letting out a nervous laugh, “that’s no good. When you say something’s “left”, you mean broken and in a lot of pain.”

“But we’re fixing it!” She insists, and I frown a little.

“Should we be worried?” I ask, and it seems to pique Aintai’s interest a bit, as well.

“Are you sure this is necessary?” The sorceress adds, “whatever it is?”

“Don’t worry about that!” Nerida says much too quickly, and I feel my frown deepen.

“Are you sure there’s nothing we can do to help?”

“If you’re worried about it, you can go be happy somewhere else and not think about it,” she says. I bristle, and try my best not to look at her as though she’s as insane as her suggestion.

Yes, Nerida, why don’t I just go do that? Why don’t I just go somewhere else and be HAPPY?! While Dovev is lurking around with some… horrible evil, and you’re here doing Tubatron knows what, pretending he’s not a problem instead of LOOKING FOR HIM!?

I grit my teeth, and manage to almost mask my sour demeanor, turning away from Nerida to face the other end of the hall as I respond.

“Well okay then. I guess we’ll just ‘go do something else’.”

Apparently I was wrong, because Nerida sounds almost apologetic.

“I’m sorry, I’ve never cast atonement on someone before.”

Ah.
I take a deep breath, reminding myself again how little claim I have to Nerida’s magic and time. Atonement. Of course. Atonement on a man who had already went with her to hell and back seems like it couldn’t possibly be as time sensitive as hunting an eternal horror’s one chance at resurrection, but it was Nerida’s choice to prioritize however she would. At least this was something I understood, something maybe I could help with if she wouldn’t so readily dismiss my offer as she had the first time.

“I’ve had it cast on me,” I say, turning around to face her once more.

“What was it like?” She asks, and I sigh, trying to think of any way to possibly describe those moments. I feel my fists tighten as the memories seep in, the Ichtaca’s horrible music filling my mind – no, I only wish it were that simple. Not Dovev’s horrible music, my horrible music.

Pure intention juxtaposed will set two lovers’ souls in motion
Disintegrating as it goes, testing our communication
The light that fueled our fire then has burned a whole between us
So we cannot seem to reach an end, crippling our communication
I know the pieces fit, ‘cause I watched them tumble down
No fault, none to blame, that doesn’t mean I don’t desire
To point the finger, blame the other, to watch the temple topple over…

I wrap my arms around myself, trying to block out the flurry of sensations that assault me, to ground myself in the moment, not the past.

“It was…”

Cold silence has…
A tendency to atrophy any sense compassion…

Dovev’s hands ghost my skin, his eyes burn into my soul, the empty moments, the evil, the thousands of years lived in just a moment hang in my mind, impossible to forget or deny, only to hide. And I had hidden them, so well, I thought, until now. I shudder, the memories ravaging my mind with the greatest, most evil hunger I had ever felt.

…I know the pieces fit, I know the pieces fit

“Scary,” I manage finally. Nerida does not look comforted – but, should she? At least through the darkness, I had Alix, I had Agorran, willing to fight for me, for whatever reason. I had Loin and Mimi, and Nerida, her voice, our song, which finally pierced the madness. I know without them I surely would have died, or worse, and perhaps the same fate awaits her beloved Ulkair.

Although, at least he is not beholden to whatever evil is on the other side of this spell for him. I suppose in a way, he is, but it is his own evil, his own strength, not something much greater than he could never hope to face alone – and he won’t, he, too, would have Nerida.

“But that was probably because I was fighting Dovev on the other end,” I add, and Nerida looks incredulous, if I didn’t know any better.

“He’s fighting two thousand years on the other side,” she says, and I try not to visually bristle.

And I wasn’t?

What was it about Nerida that made her think lightly of Dovev? Searching for his remains was apparently low on her priorities list, struggling against him meant nothing to her, she seemed to think it couldn’t compare to struggling against your own self. She’s so blind, but then, how could she see, I remind myself, when she has never truly faced him.

I know the pieces fit…

“Yes, he is,” I try to explain calmly what I had determined before, but my frustration muddles the message, “but he is facing two thousand years of himself. His own – look, all I can tell you is I had to cut out a part of myself to make it. If he can do that, he will also make it.”

“It can’t be harder than letting go of Elysia,” Nerida muses sadly, and I shake my head.

You have no idea what you’re talking about.

I hope for Ulkair’s sake that Nerida’s comprehension of what he is about to go through doesn’t have any bearing on the spell or its outcome, and I try to think of something to say that would make her understand what burned through my mind, but I know she never could. If you don’t hear the music, you think the dancers mad, if you’ve never touched madness, how could you ever begin to understand it? But then, she didn’t have to understand it to help me, so maybe the same will hold true for Ulkair, who already so heavily relies on her, and who is so clearly attached to the very song she sang to me.

“And he will have you,” I offer, “you should sing him Fear Not This Night.”

“I had another song in mind, but thank you, Cheshire.” She gives me a polite smile that seems… off, somehow, and goes to close her door, pausing briefly before she does. “Thank you for teaching me that song, even inadvertently, I’ve sung it to Ulkair many times now.”

“Okay,” I mumble, not sure what else to say, and feeling my own sanity beginning to fray with frustration, “well, I hope you know what you’re doing, Nerida.”

She sighs and nods before shutting her door, and immediately my feigned stability fades away, I turn from her and Aintai and hurry down the hall to find Alix. He is in the kitchen, cleaning up behind our earlier meal prep, and I throw myself haplessly into him, and clinging to his armored back. He turns toward me, pulling me off his back and into his arms, and I let out a poorly suppressed sob.

“Alix!” I exclaim, and he waits with an inhuman patience as I try to sort through the mess in my head to tell him the rest. Where to even begin? ‘Nerida doesn’t know anything’, ‘Nerida thinks Ulkair being a good person is more important than my _*life*_’, ‘Dovev isn’t dead, and in case anyone missed this fact, it’s my fault!’?
The latter seems the closest thing to truth, or at least seems like the biggest and baddest of those three options, but has also been true since we returned home, and so doesn’t seem a justifiable source for my tears.
But it is.

The ghoulish melody I’d sung to Dovev continues to rattle between my ears, pushing my consciousness further and further to the edge. I’m not insane! I know I’m not! But nothing has made me doubt it so greatly as this moment does. It pulls me down, threatening me with a pit I know I won’t escape a second time, and my knuckles pale with the force of my grasp on Alix, as if he could somehow stop my mind from fraying at the edges.

“What is it little one? Why are you so afraid?” He says, smoothing back my hair, and I take a sharp, shaking breath.

“Why does no one understand?” I weep, “why isn’t this a big deal to anyone but me!? I can… can still hear him, feel him, I’m trying so hard to be brave, but… I can’t get it out of my head. He’s out there somewhere, Alix! And it’s like every minute that ticks by we have less of a chance of stopping this, and no one even seems to care! Nerida’s my only hope to find out the truth, and she just… just… thinks everything else is a bigger problem!”

“Because something is always out there, every minute that ticks by could have some danger, some problem,” Alix’s words cut deep, because I know they’re true, I know I’m being unfair, and that Dovev isn’t a greater danger than the unknown – simply a more personal one. Despondent, I lean my forehead against Alix’s chest, trying to steady my sobs to steady breathing as he continues.

“But I’m here. You needn’t fear, we defeated him once, we’ll do it again. Nerida has something she needs to do, and she’ll help you, or she won’t. But focus on the now, or the future will destroy you faster than you thought possible. If you can’t wait for Nerida, ask Agorran, but also don’t be so hasty to find trouble. Be ready for it. What if she needs to do this for Ulkair to be ready to help her scry?"

“I don’t know,” I mumble, staring at the floor, my forehead still firmly planted against him. All sound words of advice, all fair points, but they didn’t soothe the nausea that writhed within my stomach.

“I just… I just want to find to find him before,” I bite my wavering lip, swallowing hard to force the words out, though part of me tells me not to, as though speaking them would give them weight in the outcome of things. “He finds me.”

“I understand, Cheshire. But no horror will find you, only us.”

I wipe my nose, composing myself for the time being, and take a seat at the table. I drum my fingers idly on its surface, but find no solace in their rhythm, no peace in what normally brought me so much. Instead of synchronizing with the melody, it takes most of my focus to simply maintain it, tapping the nervous tune haphazardly on the counter top. Alix finishes cleaning up and comes to sit next to me, placing his hand over mine to still the frantic movements.

I look at him, and he gently squeezes my hand in silent reassurance: Nerida will be done soon, she will scry, we will know the truth about Dovev, and come what may, we will face it together.

It will be alright. I tell myself.

But it wasn’t.

True to her word, Nerida does scry for Dovev’s whereabouts, although it is late in the afternoon before she returns. I spend every moment trying not to torture myself, and Alix tries to help me find ways to keep busy before Nerida finally comes to find me, and together we gather the things she needs for her spell. I wait on a bed of nails as she casts the magic, and stares into the basin water for what feels like, or may in fact be, hours. She is unmoving, her slightest twitch causing my stomach to lurch and my waning attention to snap back to her, only to find her exactly in the same place she was.

I have no idea what scrying truthfully is, or how long it is supposed to take, but every minute that ticks by leads me to worry more and more that something is going terribly wrong. I pace around the room, my mind drumming up a newer, more horrible outcomes faster than I can hope to squash them. I tell myself again and again that it will be alright, that she will snap out of this trance to tell me Dovev is dead and never coming back, and eventually I let out a bitter chuckle. That would be much too good to be true, but at least we will know where he is, maybe even what he is planning, at least we won’t be caught unawares.

Eventually Alix senses my unease, I suppose, because he comes into the room and gestures for me to sit with him, obviously thinking it wiser than continuing to let me pace and fret. I sit in his lap, drumming my fingers nervously on my knees, and stare at Nerida, waiting for any sign of change. I’m not sure how much more time passes before Nerida gasps, and is pushed back from the marble bowl. She falls to her knees, and I think to run to her, but stop myself – what if I mess something up? Instead I wait, watching her with fearful eyes, and when she finally lifts her head, she looks worn.

“I’m sorry Cheshire,” she mumbles, and my heart drops, what little hope I’d had shattering, grounding me in my horrible reality. “My spell failed.”

That was it, then. There was no knowing, no finding out, no more seeking the truth, no more hope to stop things that were obviously already in motion. This trouble couldn’t be sought out, no, when the time came, it… Dovev would find me. My body aches with tension, my skin so stretched by anxiety it threatens to peel from my muscles, and I force a hollow smile onto my face.

“That’s alright Nerida,” I say, my voice coming out a strange, strained form of chipper in my best attempt to mask my internal screaming. “Sometimes… you just fail, and there’s nothing you can do about it. I’m sure it will work out.”

“I’m sorry,” Nerida repeats her apology, looking at me with worry evident in her features. “I wish there was another way we could find it.”

I feel my smile tremble, my arms, my hands, everything trembling, and Alix rests his hands on my shoulders, but it does nothing to comfort me.

“Well, you know, you had a lot on your plate today,” I say, dancing around a subject I knew there was no satisfactory answer to. “And I thought you would forget, so, thank you for not forgetting.”

“Does that mean you forgot?” Nerida sounds hopeful, and I bite down hard on my tongue to keep from laughing, although the bitter exclamation feels appropriate.

“No. No, I didn’t forget,” I manage to keep my voice level, though it comes out cool, and I clench my fists on my lap.

Part of me wishes such a thing were possible, but as cold acceptance sinks in, I realize that forgetting Dovev, forgetting my utter and complete idiotic failure to finish him off, it would only make me more likely to die by his hands. It would only make the horror on my face sweeter for him. Forgetting everything that had happened would free my mind of what will undoubtedly haunt it for the rest of my waking life, until it returned, and wouldn’t the Ichtaca love a clean slate to defile anew?

“I’m sorry Cheshire,” Nerida repeats once again, as though her apology could somehow change anything. Alix moves his hands to rub my arms, possibly in an attempt to soothe their tense tremors, and I keep my smile plastered, for lack of anything better to do.

“I’m sure it will work out,” I respond again, the lie only tasting a little more bitter the second time.

But what else could I do? Scream, cry? Demand she try, and fail, again? Blame her, blame Ulkair, blame anyone who made this take more time? Waste my life wondering if that extra time would have made any difference at all? Throw myself on the floor and wail until I vomit? None of that would help, none of it would undo the damage, it wouldn’t matter if it was true or fair or not, so I lie.

“We’ve been through some pretty rough battles. We’ll find a way, Cheshire. Though shadows fall,” Nerida crouches, hugging me, and I can’t stand to hear her finish the words.

“Yeah,” I mumble, returning her embrace in the hopes she will stop trying to console me. “You’re right.”

Nerida begins breaking down the scrying shrine she had built out of holy artifacts and Dovev’s harpsichord, and I stare at the instrument, its music reverberating in my head, and determine I should have it taken to the temple, brassed, and left in the vaults. I don’t know that they have enough brass here to even do that, but perhaps a coat of Tubatron’s favored alloy would do the unholy artifact some good.

“Whenever you’re ready for dinner, I have this cool spell I want to try,” Nerida says, and I tear my eyes from the harpsichord to respond to her.

“How cool is this spell?” I ask, certain that whatever it is will probably put the soup Alix and I made to shame, but it would save, at least for a day, and magically conjured food seemed like it would not.

“It should make a whole feast, enough to feed twelve people,” she says. Well, in theory, that sounds good.
“But what kind of food?” I ask, “Real food or Byssian food?”

Alix raises an eyebrow at me, and if I had any more spirit, I’d explain to him that our average meals were barely to be rated above poisonous, but truthfully, I didn’t, and I feared any food would taste like ash at the moment.

“I don’t know, land-dweller food?” Nerida says, shrugging curiously, “I believe there’s bread, so that should make Ulkair happy.”

I shudder and insist, “Nerida, that green stuff is not bread.”

“Ulkair seems to agree,” she says, sounding disproportionately upset given what we’d only just been discussing.
“I think it’s wonderful, but no one else seems to agree. Though, are you busy now? Would you like to go to the temple with me to see if a couple of priests can join us for dinner?”

I would not, in fact, like to go to the temple, but nor would I like to go anywhere else, and nor would I like to stay in this room one moment more. Alix nudges me, sensing my apathy and refusing to let it rule me, although I likely would have, left to my own devices.

“Sure,” I say, getting up with what seems like much more effort than should be necessary, “let’s go to the temple.”

We walk to the temple chatting, I carry Anduin so that Nerida can lug the large marble basin back to its proper place. She invites Agorran to supper, we engage in pleasant small talk, and repeat the process with another of the clergymen, a fellow by the name of Tark, with whom she is apparently close. It’s amazing how casual it is, how easy for them, they just go on as though nothing is wrong. Nerida seems to have put the matter of Dovev behind her entirely by the time we reach the temple’s doors, and I push myself through the motions, praying if I feign happiness long enough, it will eventually be true.

From the temple, we move on to the smitheries, to find Loin an invite him as well. He introduces us to another smith, and I think my attempt at exuberance is a bit too over the top. He seems scared of me, well, of all of us, and clearly wants nothing to do with our dinner party.

“It’s at Alix’s house!” I chime in, when things seem to be going much too sourly – everyone loves Alix, right?

“Oh, good,” the smith, Will, I think his name was, grumbles, “so I’d have to sit with the hero of Byss and not be awkward? Great…”

“Oh, no. You can be awkward around Alix,” I assure him, “I’m horribly awkward, all the time.”

It makes sense for people not to realize what an incredibly understanding person Alix is, I too once worshiped and feared him, convinced that everything I did would be wrong.

“I…. o-okay?” Will says, staring at me like I’m insane, and, well, maybe I am.

“Great, new friend, and you’re making him super uncomfortable… That’s great,” Loin mumbles, and Nerida dismisses him with a wave of her hand.

“It’ll be fine!” She says, “Alix is a really nice guy.”

“That doesn’t mean everyone in Byss feels equal to Alix,” Loin points out, giving me an unnecessarily hard stare.

“That’s because no one is equal to Alix!” I shoot back without a moment’s pause or hesitation, crossing my arms. It’s hard not to get caught up in our back and forth, and I even find myself giggling a little as we try, and fail miserably, to make this Will fellow desire our company.

I walk back with Nerida and Loin, enjoying their mirthful spirits, it was hard to stay numb when laughter was so contagious. I know this momentary happiness will likely fade into more crying and fear, that the truth will soon crash down on me again, but when we reach Alix’s house, and Ulkair greets us wearing one of Nerida’s starfish as an eye patch, I can’t help but giggle at him. Looks like he made it through his atonement alright, and he looks ridiculous, like some kind of child’s story pirate.

He hugs Nerida, and she giggles as well.

“You look ridiculous,” I say, and he looks at me disbelievingly, placing his hands stubbornly on his hips as if he’s never been more insulted in his life.

“Okay okay,” I giggle, growing an absurd, huge curly mustache, and twirling it around my finger, “now I look ridiculous, too.”

Nerida smiles, and lays a starfish over my eye, as well, so that I properly match Ulkair, and I hug her legs. Behind us, a hear jovial laughter, and turn to see Agorran and Tark standing in the street, just outside Alix’s door.

“Agorran!” I wave at him, and he smiles, taking a moment to soak in my appearance.

“You look magnificent, Cheshire,” he says, and I grin a little sheepishly.

“Hehehe, thanks,” I scoot out of the way of the door to let them in, and Will pales seeing Agorran.

Oh, right, so if he was uncomfortable around Alix, Agorran is also kind of a big deal…
Poor guy, well, maybe he’ll realize that they don’t bite. I wander away from the crowd to find Alix, and he raises an eyebrow when he sees me. Oh yes, I’d forgotten my “magnificent” accessories. I stifle a giggle and carefully pull Nerida’s pet starfish off my face, and rid myself of the mustache.

“Sorry,” I mumble sheepishly, and he reaches over to tuck some of my bangs behind my ear.

“I’m glad you are feeling better,” he says, and I lean on him with a small sigh.

“You’re right, Alix,” I admit, as if there could have been any question, “there will always be some horror looming over us. I don’t know… well, I doubt that I’ll ever be ‘okay’ with that, or how long it will take me to stop jumping at shadows, but moping won’t make Dovev go away. It won’t fix what I did, it will only make me weaker for the next time, so I guess… While there’s strength and happiness to be had in our friends, I should take it.”

Alix wraps his arms around me, resting his chin on my head, and I feel pride flowing over our bond – obviously this was the conclusion he’d hoped I would come to, or at least close enough to it that he’s glad he made me get out of the house instead of letting me wallow.

“Let’s go eat,” I take his hand, making our way back to Nerida and returning her starfish to her hair, where they seemed to like to stay.

Nerida’s spell is so much more awesome than I think she thought it was, the food she summons is not just not Byssian food, but I think the best thing I’ve ever eaten. I happily pile Alix’s plate with things to try, and he humors me, though he eyes most of it warily, as the fluffy golden rolls of sweet bread are far from anything like Byss has ever seen.

I listen to him and Agorran converse, which interests me more than it should, because I suppose it never occurred to me before that the two of them were friends. They knew each other long before either of them knew me, and it only makes sense they would get along, they have to be the two kindest, most awesome people in Byss – although I doubt that’s how they see it.

It does make me ponder about things over the last few weeks, like my decision to hide Alix and take his place in prison – I had thought he would die without my intervention. Of course, knowing Agorran now, I realize that he would have obviously helped Alix if we’d only said something, probably anyone in the temple would have.

Well, hindsight is a marvelous thing, isn’t it?

I turn my attention from them only as Ulkair makes some loud, grand claim about his magical prowess, and the room is suddenly flooded with his arcane power. The air above us becomes a grand illusion of Ulkair standing against a massive black dragon, Nerida and, to my pleasant surprise, myself by his side. I watch as the over-the-top fight ensues merrily, kicking my feet beneath the table, and applaud him with the rest when it comes to an uproarious end, with a passionate kiss shared between the illusions of Ulkair and Nerida.

“Ulkair… what was that?” Nerida asks, her face flushing a rather brilliant shade of scarlet. Ulkair grins deviously at her.

“A wizard doesn’t reveal the majesty of his ways, lest they be unappreciated,” he says slyly, and Nerida raises an eyebrow at him, leaning down to whisper something in his ear. Their exchange quickly becomes a bit too intimate for the dinner table, and I look away, absorbing myself in food and the company of the others, who either are not embarrassed by Nerida and Ulkair’s heavy, breathy words and kisses, or simply do not notice them.

Our meal is magnificent, as is the company, we talk and joke over the table for a couple of hours, and I find myself in good spirits, in spite of everything. I give Agorran a hug goodbye, as he and Tark are the first to excuse themselves, and Will slips out the door silently behind them. Nerida, too, retires early, Ulkair with her, and I smile after them, glad that Ulkair seems to have found some peace. Hopefully it will help him to figure out the issue of Nerida’s fissures, which I believe they plan to speak with Agorran about tomorrow. Loin leaves soon after, opting to return to his forge, and Aintai retreats to our room to read, or maybe to sleep, she doesn’t say which.

The meal mostly cleans up after itself, all its remnants disappearing moments after our merry dinner party had dispersed, and I sigh, resting my head and arms on Alix’s table, which is once again clean and clear. I’m not sure how long I sit in contemplative silence as Alix moves about the kitchen, but he rubs my shoulder lightly, and I turn my head to peer over at him.

“You should get some rest,” he says.

“It’s too early for bed.” I object, and he raises an eyebrow.

“Not if you plan to wake before the sun every day.”

I sigh, the weight of my day and my full stomach making a convincing argument for Alix’s case – I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so much, and barely eaten at all in weeks. Sleep does sound terribly appealing, and maybe it will help me to fight the looming truth that creeps its way along my back in the absence of mirthful company.

“I guess you’re right,” I mumble, and Alix nods knowingly, getting up and beckoning for me to do the same. I stretch as I stand, and then wrap my arms around Alix tightly.

“Goodnight, Alix.”

“Goodnight, little one.”

By the time I reach my room, Aintai has made herself comfortable in the corner of the stone bed, curled up as a tiny viper on the furs, and I crawl into it as well, supposing she doesn’t mind the closeness, as she’d spent three entire days as my living accessory. My muscles ache with the relief of a bed, my eyes burn for their desire to close, but my mind begins to buzz as soon as my head hits the pillow, playing my foolish mistake over and over again behind my closed eyes. Why didn’t I just take the shot? What if he’s already here, lurking, waiting? My brain torments me, dragging each question over my consciousness like a rake over hot coals, stirring the flame until I feel the heat of panic begin to set in.

The shadows in my room loom over me, taunting me, my eyes constantly struggling to force them to be still, although I swear that they move. I roll over, hiding my face beneath my blankets, and hum softly to myself, trying to calm my mind. My every note only reverberates back in my mind as the Ichtaca’s accordion, each attempt dredging up another harrowing song. It grows louder and louder until I clutch my ears, desperate to block out the sound, the feeling of his breath on the back of my neck… I can’t take it!

Cheshire? It’s Alix’s voice. I blink my eyes, staring into the darkness, and try to compose myself enough to answer him.

Yeah..? I can’t say I’m proud of how small my voice sounds in my own head.

You know I’m just across the hall if you need me.

Yeah…

A brief silence falls between us, as I think Alix debates whether he should let me try to handle this alone, but the idea sends another ripple of horror through my thoughts.

Alix?

Yes? He answers, his patience ever-present in his voice.

Can I sleep with you?

Yes.

I peek out from under my blanket, masking a sniffle, and glance at Aintai in the hopes she hasn’t noticed my hysteria. She doesn’t appear to have moved, her breathing still steady, but a snake’s lack of eyelids makes it hard to tell if she is truly sleeping or not. I scoot out of bed and quickly make my way out of the room and across the hall to Alix’s. He isn’t even in bed yet, which makes me think that I hadn’t been trying to keep it together for anywhere near as long as it seems, but I scoot into his bed, and he climbs in after me, covering me in a blanket and wrapping his arms around me in one smooth motion.

I sniffle and lay my head against his chest, surprised to encounter a soft wool shirt, rather than the hard, blood-stained leather I am accustomed to.

“You didn’t think I always wore that armor, did you?” He asks, amusement in his voice, and I respond with a sheepish giggle.

“I mean, maybe?”

He shakes his head, tucking my hair behind my ear as I snuggle in close, and plants a kiss on the top of my head.

“Sleep now, little one,” he says, and I nod, all the anguish of the moments past washed away by his closeness.

“I love you, Alix.”

DAY 18

I wake early again, and just as I am wondering how to crawl over Alix without waking him, he stretches and gets out of bed. I suppose he’s never going to sleep in past me as long as I am in bed with him, a fact which almost deters me from making it a nightly habit. Almost. I grab my axe from its place next to the door, sliding on my boots and head for the roof. Again I take a moment to stare out at the glorious sunrise, relishing in it for all that it means, but something about today feels different. Heavier, less perfect.

I sit on the rooftop and begin to play, though not quite as dramatic a tune as I had yesterday, rather one more somber, as it seemed appropriate. I know the time is right, I know the sleeping city makes a beautifully empty stage for my performance, I remember the holy rush I felt yesterday, but today, I feel something different.

Instead of my blood racing with Tubatron’s holy power, flooding all my senses, I feel a focus I cannot place, like a memory or a thought on the very tip of your tongue, but slipping further away the harder you try to recall it. I am certain there is something Tubatron wishes me to know, but even as I close my eyes in prayer, playing away on my holy instrument, I cannot seem to hear his words as I have in the past. Whatever this message is, but it makes me uneasy and… sad, somehow.

It seems as though it is a warning, but of what, I’m not sure. Dovev, maybe. The thought twists my stomach with regret, and I pause my playing, leaning my head against my beautiful brass instrument – the proof of Tubatron’s faith in me, in my abilities… the trust I had clearly betrayed.

I’m sorry.

“Regrets collect like old friends,
here to relive your darkest moment
I can see no way, I can see no way.
All of the ghouls come out to play
And every demon wants his pound of flesh
But I like to keep some things to myself
I like to keep my issues strong
It’s always darkest before the dawn,
And I’ve been a fool and I’ve been blind
I could never leave the past behind
I can see no way, I can see no way…”

My voice carries over the misty air, and I sniffle, lifting my head to begin strumming out a beat on my beloved instrument. I couldn’t undo my mistakes, I remind myself, but wallowing will not help. I can’t let this shadow, or any other one loom over me, I can only work to correct my mistakes, to shake the weigh of the past from my shoulders, and build a better future. For myself, my family, and Byss.

“Shake it out, shake it out, shake it out, shake it out,
Shake it out, shake it out, shake it out, shake it out
And it’s hard to dance with the devil on your back
So shake him off,”

This determination should inspire me, but instead the thought sends another worrisome lurch through my stomach, as if the floor had been suddenly ripped from beneath me. I clutch my axe, strumming out another verse, and struggle back my tears, keeping my voice level and determined.

“And it’s hard to dance with the devil on your back
But given half the chance, would I take any of it back?
It’s a fine romance but it’s left me so undone,
and it’s always darkest before the dawn.
And I’m damned if I do and I’m damned if I don’t
So here’s to drinks in the dark at the end of my road
And I’m ready to suffer and I’m ready to hope
It’s a shot in the dark, and right at my throat,”

I stand, building the strength to do so through my song, and finally begin to feel my holy powers restored today as they were yesterday as I build tempo. I can’t let this drag me down, whatever it is, I will face it, like I’ve faced everything else. And with love, faith, and a little music, hopefully I will not be facing it alone.

Alix will be there. No matter what. I reassure myself, watching the light bounce off of my silver strings my fingers fly from one position to the next. We will walk the long miles together.

“’Cause looking for heaven, found the devil in me
Looking for heaven, found the devil in me
Well what the hell, I’m gonna let it happen to me…
Oh, shake it out, shake it out, shake it out, shake it out,
Shake it out, shake it out, shake it out, shake it out,
And it’s hard to dance with the devil on your back
So shake him off!”

I spend awhile enthralled in my refrain, and some long minutes playing my heart out to the sky, until finally the weight lifts from my back. I don’t know what this doubt that plagues me is, but as Alix helps me down from the roof, it is washed away, and I run inside to help him make breakfast. I wake Nerida and Ulkair much too early, and end up trapped in their bed, snuggled between them for quite some time as I try to rouse them with no luck, but all my false arguments aside, it’s nice. I don’t know Ulkair terribly well, but my heart is quickly warming to him, and I draw immense comfort from the closeness of my friends.

Our next few days pass peacefully, each one a bit easier than the last, each moment that I make it by making the shadows loom less closely. I follow Nerida when she goes with Ulkair to speak to Agorran about her fissures – I don’t know why. I trust them, but I worry, and I know if I ask she’ll only tell me it’s fine, like she has a hundred times. Together we work out a plan, which mostly consists of my prattling off desperate ideas I can’t explain, and leaving it to Agorran and Ulkair to translate them into something useful.

Agorran seems to be able to ease her exhaustion, even though the fissures have not closed, she seems preoccupied, worried, even as his restoration washes over her. She tells him about Zalissa, her home, her plan to challenge her for her title, her doubts in that very plan. The look on Agorran’s face… it sends a shiver down my spine – the last time I saw that look, he had resolved to kill me. Between the two of them, they decide Agorran will challenge Zalissa in Nerida’s stead – already the high priest in Byss, his kind influence seems like just the thing a place like Zissyx needs.

Before we leave, I ask Nerida to take me to the lake, show me her tail in the hopes that I can come to better understand it, and that between it and my gills, I will stand a better chance in the ocean. She and Ulkair and I spend hours by the lake, I morph my own tail and swim with them, or rather, am pulled around in the water with them – it is alarming how fast they move. All merfolk must be like this, and if so… I worry for Agorran. We go home waterlogged, and I’m not sure I know much more about tails and fins than I did before, but walking hand in hand with Nerida, and sleeping in Alix’s arms, it is hard to fret.

View
Madness and Nightmares
An unspecified dream, at an unspecified time

The darkness is all I deserve, the silence my penance. As I think back to the awful things I wrought, I begin to allow the darkness to consume me. I think back to my childish departure from my best friend. How I was willing to kill a truly real family for vengeance, when I couldn’t even be sure I could win. I think back to her eyes, hurt, betrayed, her tears consuming her, and the hate my friends felt glaring into me. I stare at the scene as a detached party, looking upon the sin I am committing. No words can describe how sorry I am. No words can undo what I have done to the first friend I had had since I burned, and maimed the lives of my second family. Her eyes, her touch, her sincerity. I ripped it away from myself, because I am a monster. One who needs to be slain. Cheshire. I know you don’t understand me anymore. I know you’ve lost that spark of light for me. And I know I am to blame. My greatest desire now, is to restore how you once saw me, a stoic, kind man. But I cannot. How could I. How could I possibly undo anything? The darkness is all I deserve, the silence my penance.

“Man you are so melodramatic.” The voice spoke in the darkness. My voice, or a darker version of it. I cringed as he spoke and as he ripped through my dreaming, my lamenting. I looked up from wherever in the dark I was staring to see him. The ghoul knight. A version of myself that could’ve been but wasn’t thanks to the underserved love of a friend. “Will you stop with that? You know this darkness is what you deserve.” I stared at him. Myself, but sickly green, and rotting. Red eyes, and stitches over his face. “My god we get it. You’re sad you hurt your only friend since you know, you killed all your others. Oh that reminds me, how is Selene gonna take the fact that you technically killed her father?” I ignored this fact. One lament at a time. “Nothing? Its fine, I could feel the sting.”

How long have I been haunted by this specter of a different world? “I don’t know, probably since Typhon’s magic made you hallucinate that nightmare.”

“What?” I asked.

“I can hear your thoughts Loin, I exist in this darkness with you for a reason.”

“My penance.”

“Yes, yes, your half-assed attempt at making yourself feel better for the fact that you’re a shitty person. We get it, they get it, and it’s all been done.”

“No penance can save me, can it?”

“Nope you are stuck with me for life, and once you’re happy ass becomes a full dragon, that’ll be a very long eternity.” He spoke that with a zest and zeal that made me shiver. “Then again, there is always early check out.”

Out of the darkness I see two figures manifest. A stoic, kind ranger, and a beautiful, innocent young girl. The ranger brandished a knife. The girl, a guitar-axe. “I’m sure they’d love to take their frustrations out. And two birds, one stone, you get put out of all our miseries.”

I raise my hand and wave it, dissipating the visage. My darker self sighed heavily. “Good point, you are in quite the pickle. Either live with me for, well, ever, or take your chances with Eadro, whom I doubt highly will care about your twisted soul enough to reunite you with dear old Udragoth, whom I am pretty sure, will just turn you away. You know, because he hates what you’ve become. Man I’d hate to be you.”

I close my eyes and think about Cheshire. About how she looked at me, before she saw the monster that I am and the happiness it brought, even briefly.

“You know what, you got this for a night.” He chuckled. “I’ll see you in the morning, and every hour of every day, forever.” He smiled, a twisted menacing smile, which he learned from his twisted master. “Oh and before I go, yes, she should’ve let you fall.”

I was alone again, in the darkness. I waved my hand and watched again, the scene of myself ripping Cheshire from my leg, and walking her father, someone who loved her more than any could, to an absolute death. After re-watching it for what could’ve been the hundredth time or more, my head collapses into my hands and I sob for the monster I have become, and the pain I’ve brought to those I love.

View
Moments of Peace Lost to the Waves
The Depths Beckon

Nerida

The days trickled by, much of my time spent in the temple with Agorran and Ulkair, filling page after page with knowledge of Lord Eadro and reading twice as many each, slowly piecing together what exactly had happened and how we might try to mend me as well we could. Áine and Mayra often joined us to teach Agorran the appropriate songs and dances for our worship, Ulkair looking on in amusement as we tried to convert dances meant for tails to legs. Other times, we would curl up with Cheshire in her mountain of blankets and tell stories or just talk, more carefree than Zissyx had ever allowed.

After about another week, Alix and Cheshire led an expedition to find the other city, hope and determination marking the bard’s every feature. I wanted to accompany her, keep her safe from whatever yet lurked in the retreating swamps of Byss, but I knew Alix would guard her if she needed any additional protection at all, as would the other Byssians. She was capable and I had my own obligations within the city to tend to. My returning exhaustion swelled and began to ebb without Agorran’s magic to hold me together this time, my body finally healing after the weeks that had passed since Elysia. Left in Alix’s house too lifeless and quiet without the other occupants, we arranged to move to a vacant house next door, giving Áine and Mayra their own room while Ulkair and I continued to share one.

Ulkair straddled a fine line, wanting to hold me in a tender embrace and dispel lingering doubts, but ever cautious not to push me. Being near him, my skin itched, burning for what I had feared for so long, but couldn’t seem to dismiss. Lying beside him at night, his fingers ghosting lazily across my skin, a gesture I once only saw as innocent affection now caught my breath in my throat, sending shivers down my spine though my face burned. I walked with him even in my dreams so vivid I could almost have been awake. Sometimes we strolled hand in hand through the Byss Ulkair had envisioned or swam together through the vast ocean, but others…others left me breathless, my mind reeling, torn between fighting to understand what I was feeling and not entirely caring about the “why” anymore.

I couldn’t get visions of Zissyx out of my mind, begging to know what could have been if I hadn’t pushed Ulkair away. Sharing his breath, his lips searing a trail along my neck, his tail entwined so tightly around mine, bright, brassy eyes watching my every movement, every slight catch of my breath. Waking, I longed to feel his hands on me, but I couldn’t seem to voice my desire, despite the sweet torment of holding him so close to me. My face flushed in shame at the thought, though I knew I wanted him as he wanted me. Áine, the curious looks she gave us each morning…I felt I would betray her sacrifice, all she had suffered for years, only wanting to spare us the same torment she had undergone. She went through so much and for me to simply allow the same….but Ulkair said it wouldn’t be like that, though I didn’t understand how the same act could be so different.

Heaving a frustrated sigh, I threw myself down onto our bed, my thoughts spiraling wildly. Was it unfair to Áine to be with him? Was it unfair to Ulkair to refrain? If I didn’t, would he…no, no he told me he would never leave me, especially for a reason so shallow and I…I didn’t know what I wanted….or I did…but why?

A sound snapped from across the room, setting off my already frayed nerves. I sat up abruptly, my head whipping in the direction of the noise, only to see Ulkair silently regarding me. Guilt washed over me as my gaze caught his and I looked away. My hesitation, my confusion, they weren’t his fault. None of this was his fault….

“Ulkair,” I whispered the name, shuddering slightly as he sat down beside me, pulling me into his arms, threading his fingers through my hair. He must have felt my distress, but perhaps he missed the cause, the warring thoughts his touch brought.

‘I need you,’ the thought echoed through my mind as I fisted my hands in his shirt, his warmth surrounding me.

Ulkair inhaled sharply, a low moan emitting from his throat as he pulled me closer to him until I was sitting in his lap, his shaky breath brushing across my lips in his faltering vie for self-control. Panic seized me, realizing Ulkair must have heard me. Of course he did…he was already paying attention to me and I was curled up against his side, thinking about him. How could I…but he was so close, so beautifully, temptingly close, his fingers trailing along the hem of my shirt. Meeting his gaze, my thoughts of pulling away vanished, lost to his eyes almost glowing in the dark, so full of endless love and burning desire for me.

Leaning forward, I pressed my lips against his, wrapping my arms around him and entangling my fingers in his ebony hair. Ulkair groaned loudly against me, his hands slipping under the shirt I only wore to bed the past couple weeks to spare Ulkair whatever torment my naked torso seemed to bring him, a barrier no longer necessary. Dropping my hands to my sides, I grabbed at the hem of my shirt, Ulkair needing no further prompting to slip the useless fabric from my body, his hands caressing my skin the entire way. Casting the shirt aside, he took an appreciative glance as if he had never seen me before, his lips soon descending repeatedly on mine, each kiss growing more and more desperate.

Breathing my name, he kissed along my jaw and down my neck, muttering words in Elysian that brought strange visions of myself to my mind, reflecting what Ulkair saw when he looked at me, how even the gentlest touch set his skin ablaze and the pleasure of simply hearing me whisper his name. My every action, without even realizing it, captivated him. A sharp cry escaped my throat, electricity shooting down my spine feeling his mouth shift lower, teasingly swiping his tongue around my nipple, his arm holding me close as his hand groped further and further down my back, every moan he drew from me seeming to excite him further.

Hot…I felt so hot, could only breathe in short gasps, just clinging to Ulkair for support. These feelings, these sensations…too much…what should I…it couldn’t, I couldn’t…how could I…? There was no going back, not anymore. We were really going to…what I had feared and yet longed for, dreamt of, but didn’t know how to face. Apprehension I couldn’t remember the reason for rippled through me, chased by waves of pleasure making it so hard to think. All I could seem to do was babble unintelligibly in my native tongue, pleading his name as though the invocation could save me from what I didn’t understand. Everything was happening so fast, just like In Zissyx, but, but…this was different. I refused to fear Ulkair, fear the touch I knew he gave out of honest affection, not blind lust.

Running my hands up his chest to his chin, I guided his face back to mine, kissing him as I carefully pushed him back onto our bed. I pulled away just enough to study his face, searching for any signs of concern from being trapped under me, a terrible limitation land brought. Moaning, Ulkair threaded his fingers in my hair on either side of my face, his eyes betraying no distress I might have felt. Instead, he nuzzled my face, pressing chaste kisses against my lips soon deepening again, his tongue darting out to join mine, exploring my mouth. I clumsily felt for the hem of his shirt, pulling away to relieve him of the garment. I paused for a moment to just hold his hands still tangled in his shirt above his head, admiring his form stretched out below me. Despite the number of times I had seen him shirtless, living almost my entire life without clothes at all, seeing him now stole what shallow breath I’d found. His flushed face, his eyes reflecting my own desires, strengthened by our bond, his shaky breaths escaping his parted lips, his back arching towards me trying to renew the contact denied.

I tentatively leaned forward, kissing down his neck as he had done to me, my hand slowly dragging, trailing down from his arms across the expanse of his chest. I hardly knew what to do, just that I needed to be near him. His every encouraging cry drove me further, begging me to continue my exploration as his hands worked to rid me of the rest of my clothing, an effort I quickly mimicked. His warmth consumed me, each graze of his skin on mine sending flames dancing across me, lightning arcing down my spine in his typical arcane fashion. His emotions, his infinite love for me flowed through me as great waves crashing on the shore, filling me so completely there was no room for doubt, the folly of my apprehension brought not by any action of Ulkair’s but the whispered taunts of old shadows.

I hadn’t known growing up that it was possible to physically take a soul, only explaining the tragedy as well my young mind could, but this, even if this would rend my soul from my body, it’d be worth it. We already shared a portion of our souls, bound our minds, exchanged our hearts. Of what consequence was it to give him what he already held, what I knew he would guard as a precious treasure? If nowhere else, I was safe in his arms, his heart beating strongly beside mine in his gentle embrace, safe to drift off and dream of a future not plagued with the ghosts of the past.

Days flowed together, the weather hardly changing despite the passing of the seasons, whatever they were supposed to be like up here. The return of the exploration party marked the coming of summer rather than the incessant heat I’d heard about, worse than the already unnatural warmth of land. Where I expected to see joy and triumph in the eyes of my fellow Byssians, my little bard and her kind ranger, I instead found a sea of fallen faces, disappointment and anguish etched deeply into their every feature.

The discovery of the other city brought not the new comrades we had hoped for, but the shredded remains of corpses too fresh to have been from before our assault on the vampires. All the time they had survived against the endless undead, just to fall now, so close to freedom from the tyranny of undeath held over this land for too long. So painfully close, so many we failed to save…but what could we have done differently? As it was, as hard as we had fought to save Byss, we still lost half the city, I lost half the city.

A chill ran down my spine and I swallowed thickly, my throat suddenly too dry. That should have been Byss, if they ever realized they were seen as cattle, merely kept for vampiric consumption, not the proud warriors they truly were. That jar of souls, Byssian souls I held would have met its dark purpose, never knowing the peace with Lord Eadro they deserved. How long would they have gone on, chasing a fantasy orchestrated by their oppressors? The bitter truth stared at me in the face, glaring as the pyre we walked past to enter the city, my burning failure, our somber victory. Perhaps it was as they had tried so many times to make me see, as hard as it was to accept that a death toll so high could be a good outcome. We saved all of Byss from the vampires, saved half of them to live in a land becoming more of a paradise with each passing day.

I kept Ulkair close, feeling myself heal with his hand clutched in mine as I think we all began to mend, finally starting to give rest to old nightmares. Spending all my time with Ulkair, my sisters, and Agorran, Cheshire frequently dropping in after her morning prayer, I think it’s supposed to be, it was easy to believe that. At least until Áine noticed something all too familiar to her in Mayra. There had never been any doubt in the least of what Aquis had done to Mayra, but I never thought that even in death he could torment her, leaving a small life growing inside her.

For days she cried, curling up in my and Áine’s arms, pleading that it be a lie, that she wouldn’t have to bear the child of the one who had taken everything else from us. We were finally free from slavery and the horrors it inflicted on too many, but not soon enough. If only I had protected her, asked Ulkair to shield her instead of Áine…but I never guessed he would track her down when his assassin failed to return. With our blue hair, similar features, it wouldn’t even have been difficult for him…if Mayra blamed me, she hid it well, or perhaps she was too distraught to think too much about the matter. Holding her, I prayed she would have a daughter, a child more similar to her mother than a painful reminder of her father.

I did my best to hide my fear for her, of watching her grow hollow as Áine once had, knowing she needed support. To my surprise, the entire town seemed to be offering whatever aid they could, celebrating her child in their own subdued fashion. These people who allowed me into their refuge, despite being so different, who followed me into battle, even watching so many of their own fall. These people who had done so much already, had shown me nothing but kindness when they hadn’t needed to now extended that same kindness to my sisters. Alix told me that in Byss, every child was seen as a blessing, the birth of the future, precious above all else. They were the future warriors meant to take the place of their parents, the survival of a fragile existence. Even so, they understood how she felt, never pushing her to share their muted excitement.

Coming home in the evening I would frequently find someone visiting, trying to help them adjust to life on land, always asking particularly Mayra if she needed anything. She didn’t quite seem to know what to think of such overwhelming attention when being noticed had only ever brought pain in the past. A guard stood by the door day and night to defend her from any lurking threat. Every few days I seemed to find some new trinket around the house, many reminiscent of our aquatic place of birth. One day she casually mentioned she liked how dresses moved, the trailing fabric reminding her of swaying waters. A couple days later the tailor brought her a dress cut of bright cloth to her measurements. Watching her twirl gleefully, hope crept back into my heart, hope that she would survive this as she had Aquis’ torture and all that had been inflicted on her before.

Part of me wondered if she could find it in herself to love her child. How did Áine feel about her children? Could a parent love a child they hadn’t wanted, couldn’t have wanted, even if they had never met her? Holding my sisters close, I tried to dispel the thoughts, silence questions I could never ask, answers lost years ago.

Life went on, even bitter reminders of Zissyx and Elysia paling next to the perfection surrounding us. After months of research, arcane and divine, Ulkair and Agorran designed the ritual to create a reservoir to hold the extra energy expended when I cast powerful spells and shield the fissures etched along my skin from view. They worked to set up one of the rooms in the basement for the ritual, the same one Cheshire had been restrained in so long ago.

I sat on the bed in the middle of the room, watching in a mixture of curiosity and wariness as Ulkair drew arcane symbols in a large circle on the ground around the table. Agorran lit incense in each corner, moving on to sprinkle what looked like silver and diamond dust, maybe mixed with another powder, adding elaborate loops and swirls around the circle Ulkair drew. Taking a pitcher from a small table, the high priest poured pale oil into a crystal bowl as he muttered a prayer under his breath, drawing symbols over the bowl with his other hand. Nodding, he handed the bowl to Ulkair, waiting at the end of the table.

“Are you ready?” Ulkair asked, taking the proffered bowl and stepping up to me.

The words echoed in my mind and I swallowed thickly, wrapping my arms tightly around myself. Was I? Were we? What…what if it didn’t work…? The months of preparation, scouring every page we could find, everything we went through just to obtain all the materials and components we needed. Ulkair and Agorran knew so much about souls and positive energy already when they began working the pieces together. If this didn’t work, what else could? What if it got worse, if that impossible exhaustion returned?

Nodding quickly, I laid down on the bed, trying to dismiss the thoughts. It would be fine. Ulkair and Agorran knew what they were doing better than anyone else I knew. Everything would be okay…it had to be. I felt Ulkair watching me and I turned away as my eyes slid shut, knowing my face betrayed too much. Even if I weren’t ready, if I wasn’t sure about this ritual anymore, the powerful magic he would weave around me, after all our work, I could hardly say no if I wanted to.

Reluctantly opening my eyes, I saw the restraints sitting loosely by my hand, ominous, though I knew they wouldn’t be used on me. I shivered as flashes of old nightmares plagued me, visions I hadn’t thought of for months but in that moment were as fresh as when I awoke the morning of the arena. That cold mouth on my neck, fangs tearing into me, stealing my life, even the light of Lord Eadro leaving me as thick leather straps cut into my wrists with my every attempt to free myself. Dark magic fluctuating around me, dragging me farther and farther under their control, the stench of blood and death so thick in the stagnant air.

I flinched, feeling a warm hand touch my face, drawing my gaze. Looking up, I saw Ulkair outlined in pale candle light, concerned golden eyes watching me.

“Nerida, are you okay?” Ulkair asked, setting the bowl down and taking hold of one of my hands in his.

“Ulkair…what if it doesn’t work?” I asked, fisting my hands in his shirt, staring desperately into his eyes.

“Then we’ll find something else. I did this to you. I’ll not rest until I find a way to make you whole,” Ulkair replied, placing his hands over mine.

“But you said there is no way to make me whole again, just to…minimize the damage.”

“Then it looks like I won’t be resting for some time,” Ulkair continued, smiling slightly.

“That’s not good for you,” I mumbled, smiling despite myself as I nuzzled his face.

“But you are.” Kissing my eyes, Ulkair let go of my hands and caressed the side of my face. “And for you we’ll make sure it works.”

Releasing a shaky breath, I lay back down, slowly letting go of his shirt, my last source of comfort slipping through my fingers. I hated how vulnerable I felt lying flat, tall figures looming over me, though I knew the last thing they wanted to do was harm me. Ulkair leaned down, tucking loose strands of hair behind my ear as he lightly kissed me on the forehead, his touch chasing away my lingering hesitation. We had been so careful and Ulkair understood the risk better than I did….he wouldn’t hurt me.

Placing the Emerald of Eadro above my head, Ulkair dipped his fingertips into the blessed oil and began drawing symbols across my face and down my arms, leaving spirals on my hands as he muttered under his breath, arcane magic swirling around me tinged with divine. Holding his hands over me, the symbols seemed to come to life, glowing faintly in the dim room. His magic sparked, hovering just above my skin as it began weaving around me, slowly forming a barrier, a well.

I watched the shifting colours of arcana surrounding me, mixing with golden positive energy as sea green light shone from long cracks along my every limb, flaring to life at the call of the ritual. My hands burned as magic not my own coursed through and around them, not quite painful, but impossible to ignore. My breath reduced to little more than short gasps as I fidgeted on the bed, unable to set aside my unease entirely, feeling so much magic saturating the room and everything in it. I suspected what I felt of Ulkair’s workings was more mild than rituals could be, but still something about the very nature of them unnerved me. Ulkair was hardly doing anything to me so much as working his magic around me. Gathering the shards of my soul, making me whole again…if it was even possible, that was bound to be another matter entirely.

Shuddering, I closed my eyes and tried to relax, let Ulkair work and just listen to his melodic voice uttering words I couldn’t understand, the musky scent of the incense burning and the sweet oil painted on my face. It would be okay…it had to be okay…magic had been Ulkair’s life for hundreds of years. He knew what he was doing. Even if it were to go wrong, both he and Agorran were watching over me. Lord Eadro had preserved me through so much, Elysia, a demon’s claws and the nexus that should have destroyed me. Everything would be okay.

I lay there suspended in an ocean of magic for what felt like an eternity, seconds ticking by as minutes that never seemed to come, the mere few hours they later claimed passed stretching on endlessly. When the ritual was finally done, I slowly blinked, my mind trapped in a strange fog, overwhelming dizziness seizing me the moment I even attempted to move. Ulkair and Agorran were immediately at my side, each taking one of my arms, helping me sit up and I can only assume asking me how I was, though I couldn’t seem to make out the common words they spoke. I leaned against Ulkair, burying my face into his chest, the scent of incense clinging to him though the sticks must have long since burned out. His fingers ran through my hair, his soothing touch chasing the vestiges of dizzy confusion from my mind, the unintelligible sounds he spoke slowly becoming words again.

“Nerida? How are you feeling? Are you okay?” Ulkair asked, gently raising my chin to look at him.

“My hands are warm,” I mumbled, bringing my hands up to inspect, almost expecting them to be glowing. Glancing at Ulkair, I laid my hand on his face. “See?”

“I do see, or rather, it’s what I don’t see,” Ulkair smiled, tracing along my arm with one hand, placing his other upon mine on his face.

“What do you mean?” I asked, my brows knitting together. My hand looked pretty visible to me…

“I think it worked. Your fissures are hidden and the well surrounds you. I hope you aren’t too disoriented, but I think we succeeded!”

Reaching down, Ulkair brought his lips to mine, caught up in the moment, his delight at helping me and satisfaction with bending his arcane might to his will apparent on his face. His weight shifted against me and I fell backwards, catching myself on my elbow. His joy contagious, I giggled happily, wrapping my other arm around him and kissing him again. We did it! The fissures weren’t gone, but for now, in a way, I was free of their weight on my shoulders.

“I feel fine,” I hummed, nuzzling his face. “My head is just a bit fuzzy yet. So if I cast a spell, the fissures won’t be visible?”

“No,” he laughed, nuzzling my face back. “They should be entirely invisible save to the most potent divinations.”

I held him close for a time, just breathing, feeling so…light without the ritual bearing down on me for the first time in months. Everything was finally okay. A flash of green caught my eye and I looked over to see the Emerald of Eadro sitting innocently at the head of bed. I felt oddly…attached to it, but wasn’t the ritual supposed to include it too?

“Did the emerald work?” I asked, watching the flickering candlelight dancing across the gem. “I’m glad it’s not embedded into me, but…I thought something was supposed to happen to it?”

“It did. You’ll need to keep it around for the well to function. It will act like an ioun stone, a repository of magical power that floats about its owner. Its power matches its beauty, now, like its owner,” Ulkair said, slowly stroking the side of my face. “It acts like a focus for the power of the well, channeling the power into and out of the well… I guess you probably don’t need to know or care about the arcane minutia.” Laughing, Ulkair kissed me again, snuggling closer to me and heaving a tired sigh. “I’m just so happy it worked.”

“Are you okay?” I asked, frowning. “Was the ritual hard on you too?”

“Intensive rituals are always draining on everyone involved, but it was worth it. Besides, I have a Nerida to rest on.” Ulkair laid his head down on my chest and looked up at me, grinning.

“I suppose you do,” I laughed, running my fingers through his hair. I shifted to sit down on the bed, Ulkair falling easily into my lap. Looking over at the emerald I picked it up, tossing it in the air a couple times. “So how does this work? Why isn’t it floating?”

“There isn’t anything powering it yet,” Ulkair said, putting his arms around me. “Once you start casting spells, it’ll start floating. Then you just release it and it’ll float around you.” Muttering some arcane words, the gem began floating, zooming around my head.

“Wow…” I breathed, watching the stone’s even orbit. “How did you do that?”

“I flooded it with arcane power, giving it the energy it needed to fly about you. It’ll run out, but as you cast spells and energy is trapped in the well, it’ll siphon the tiniest power to orbit you, a side effect of its being a focus for the energy.”

“Ooooh…so it’ll at least usually be floating around me?” I asked, trying to poke the stone, but it sped past my finger, resuming its path.

“Indeed. You’ll be able to catch it in a bag or something if necessary, but it’ll need to be around you for the well to stay stable.”

I shifted slightly side to side, watching as the emerald did indeed follow me, floating a neat circle above my head. I tried to poke it again, but the stone spun around my hand again, easily evading me. Pouting, I tried again to the same end. If Ulkair hadn’t been in my lap, I probably would have jumped up to see what the stone would do. Freezing, I slowly glanced down, finding amused golden eyes watching my bizarre attempts. Blushing, I looked away, unsure why I had been so determined to touch the circling emerald in the first place. Chuckling lightly, Ulkair tiredly snuggled closer to me, the strain of the ritual taking its toll on him.

“Ulkair…thank you,” I breathed, running my fingers through his hair as I lightly pressed my lips against his forehead. “I love you.”

Turning his face up to meet my lips, Ulkair put his hand on the side of my face and pulled me into a deep, desperate kiss, so many emotions flowing through our bond. The nape of my neck tingled, the feeling shooting down my spine with his love, as his fear ebbed, such painful dread that he had irreparably harmed me washed away by the sweet relief of the contact. In truth, maybe he had, but it had been the only way and I yet lived. I breathed, he mended the worst of the lingering consequences, and whatever was left, I knew with him, I could face it. Pulling Ulkair closer against me, I happily drowned in his adoration, praying my own reached him.

“I love you, too,” Ulkair whispered, pulling in a shaky breath. “More than I can say. I’m so sorry you needed this, but know that I’d do anything for you, Nerida.”

“There are worse fates than having a big, shiny emerald floating around my head for the next couple hundred years. Bet Cheshire will be jealous,” I whispered. Smiling, I rested my forehead against his, unwilling to lose that closeness just yet.

“So jealous.” Laying his head down on me, Ulkair began breathing deeply, exhaustion wearing on him. “Can we just lie like this forever?”

“I sure hope so,” I mumbled into his hair, sighing contently.

Yawning, I curled up on the bed, pulling Ulkair into my arms. He snuggled into my chest, releasing a slow breath, almost immediately dozing off. I smiled down at his pale face, finally free of strain and concern, tucking a loose strand of hair behind his ear. Gently kissing him, my eyes slid shut, falling into dreams not so dissimilar from what waking life brought.

Without the ritual to worry about, Ulkair began teaching me about arcane magic and the principles that governed it. Sitting out in swaying fields of grass, we would practice casting spells, mimicking the movements his hands made a hundred times before trying to cast anything. Drawing his magic through our bond still felt strange, so fiery and chaotic and uniquely Ulkair. Where divine magic almost seemed to come naturally to me, the magic flowing from me with Lord Eadro’s guidance, arcane was another matter.

Each component seemed so much more complicated, the precise way I held my hand, how quickly I moved it feeling magic building in my fingertips, foreign words demanding exact pronunciation. Even looking through what he assured me was a basic spellbook daunted me and I sometimes worried he would tire of my inadequacy, but his enthusiasm never wavered. Taking my hands, he would simply guide my movements again, as many times as it took. Occasionally, he would teach me draconic phrases I was pretty sure had nothing to do with magic, but Lóin wouldn’t tell me what they meant.

Careless days grew concerned as communication from Severi lessened and disappeared for a couple weeks. I had kept in fair contact with him through magic, whether message spells or spending a day there. Ulkair always had a couple teleport spells at the ready should I want to visit, the spell yet beyond me and the consequences of failure too high. He worked to promote our antislavery cause and I watched from the distance, helping however I could without drawing attention to myself. Every few days Coral would send me a message from him, the two of them growing close over the passing months. I sent him a couple messages, receiving no answer. There was relief in knowing he was alive, that my spell would have failed if he weren’t, but the silence did not bode well.

“Nerida, you need to return to Zissyx,” Severi’s voice echoed in my mind, ending the long silence from my brother and pulling me from slumber as cold dread filled me, both at how it might have harmed dwindling family now and having to return to the ocean of my birth.

Looking down at Ulkair in my arms, I brushed his hair aside, my fingers trailing down his face. I was loath to wake him, but if I was leaving, he was certainly following.

“I need to go back to Zissyx,” I spoke, my voice scarcely above a whisper, not wanting to believe the words, accept what validity speaking them brought. Even so, I couldn’t run from Zissyx so long as I had something there to protect, be it my brother or slaves still crying for freedom.

“Now? Or soon?” Ulkair sleepily asked, looking none too pleased. Yawning, he curled up around me as if the embrace could protect me from what awaited me, his gentle warmth dismissing the memory of cold water on my skin.

“Pretty soon, if not today. Something is wrong,” I said, wrapping my arms around him. “I received a message from Severi.”

“Oh,” Ulkair groaned, sighing. “Can we have breakfast first? Are we going to round everyone up?”

“I should probably at least wait until after eight so I can pray and you can meditate, but maybe not long after that.”

“Okay,” Ulkair mumbled, drifting off to sleep.

I lay there a moment, wanting to remain near Ulkair, leave problems I couldn’t address alone, but my mind would give me no peace. Something was wrong , something bad enough Severi would risk my life on it. So his too must be in danger…my last living brother, one of my few remaining siblings…I couldn’t let Zissyx take him from me as it had so much else.

I carefully disentangled myself from Ulkair, gently laying him back on our bed. Ulkair whined a little at the loss, his hand blindly patting after me a couple times. Smiling, I held his hand for a moment, watching his breath even out, longing to join him though I knew sleep wouldn’t take me. Sighing, I wandered out to the kitchen, trying to find a way to keep busy until I could pray. The moment I left my room and the area Ulkair’s silence spell surrounded, Cheshire’s music filled my ears, her voice a more glorious sound than anything I could ever produce ringing out across Byss. She…would want to follow me too, wouldn’t she? She’d been rather adamant the first time, but then again, she hadn’t known what she was getting into traveling to that city. Perhaps now she would know better than to follow me, but she would be offended if I didn’t at least inform her of my departure.

“Cheshire?” I called to the young bard on the roof as I stepped outside, peering up at her through the light of dawn.

“Yes?” she replied, the last notes of her song yet echoing on the surrounding stone buildings.

“How do you feel about going back to Zissyx?” I asked, hating to even suggest she of all people return, but…it was okay to rely on them, wasn’t it? Though they had tried so hard to convince me of as much, how could I ask this of her again?

“Ummmm….what’s wrong?” Cheshire slowly asked, horror filling her eyes at the mere thought of returning, the torment only a couple days there had brought.

“I don’t know,” I admitted, my gaze falling to the ground. “I received a message from my brother telling me I needed to return. He didn’t say anything more, but I have only enemies there. If they’ve figured out that we’re related or if someone has taken offense to the changes I asked him to support…”

I dragged him into this, endangered him when I couldn’t stay, knowing full well what fighting against slavery would do, the enemies he was sure to make. He could have been safe, here or quietly keeping his head down in the government, too young to appear a threat. I endangered him, but there hadn’t been another way, had there? Who else knew them better than he?

“Yea…okay…” Cheshire breathed, her face falling to pained resignation. “I’ll get my stuff.”

“I’m sorry…” I whispered, wondering if I shouldn’t have mentioned my intent at all, just try to fix whatever was wrong and come back before she noticed.

The door opened and Ulkair ambled out, sipping at a steaming mug with the words “Zissyx sucks” scrawled across the side. Looking blearily around, he wandered over to me, looking entirely displeased to be awake.

“Where do you get those?” Cheshire asked incredulously, putting her hands on her hips and eying the cup in the wizard’s hand.

“Prestidigitation, Cheshire. Figure it out. It’s awesome,” Ulkair said, grinning as he took a sip of his drink.

Cheshire looked down at her hands, wiggling her fingers with a determined look on her face. Glancing at my own hands, I tried to remember what the components for prestidigitation were, but all the arcane words jumbled together in my tired mind. Sighing, I dropped my hands, leaving magic for another time.

“I was about to start breakfast if you want to come over when you’re ready,” I offered.

Cheshire looked behind me, grimacing at something. Glancing back, I saw Ulkair sipping ever so innocently at his cup, smiling at me when he caught my gaze.

“I think I should find Alix, but I’ll catch up with you later,” Cheshire said, grabbing the gutter as she jumped off the roof, sliding down to neatly land in front of us.

“What did you tell her?” I asked Ulkair, turning to look at him.

“That Zissyx sucks,” he nonchalantly replied, taking another drink.

“What are you drinking, anyway?” I asked, wrinkling my nose at the dark, steaming drink. It looked like the ‘coffee’ we’d had with my heroes’ feast spell before, but darker, more gritty with a bitter scent. “It smells weird.”

“It’s what they drink to wake up.”

“Not coffee?”

“No, it is.”

“Are you sure? The coffee we had at our picnic was pretty good, but this seems…different,” I commented, wrinkling my nose as it caught the acrid scent again.

“Well, not all coffee can be magical, Nerida,” Ulkair chuckled. “Unless you’re offering to summon some. Or at least some cream, maybe.”

“Oh no…” Cheshire groaned, immediately catching our attention. “Nerida, I’m going to the temple. Apparently, there’s news that woke Alix up before I got up to pray.”

“I’m going with you, then. Perhaps he knows something Severi didn’t or couldn’t tell me,” I said, gritting my teeth. Just stay calm, Nerida. Stay calm and work through whatever this is. Everything will be okay. You will make it okay.

Áine poked her nose out the door, carrying two plates of sacrificed fish, her eyes full of such miserable understanding. She knew I was leaving again, going where I shouldn’t return, leaving her to wonder if she would ever see me again. We barely made it out of Zissyx last time and now…there was no knowing what would happen.

“I heard you were going to be leaving and I didn’t want you to get hungry,” Áine said, handing each of us a plate, the resignation in her voice worse than accusation could have been.

“Thank you,” I mumbled, accepting the plate, though I couldn’t hold her gaze, guilt tearing at me. My sister, the reason I was alive at all…I loved her so much, and yet I brought her so much pain. Why did I always end up hurting those I loved more than anything?

“If…if you’re going back, you’ll be coming home first, right?” Áine asked, edging towards me.

“I believe so,” I said, nodding, knowing too well what she was actually asking.

The last time I answered the temple’s summons, I hadn’t gone home to see her before departing, fearing I wouldn’t be able to leave her side if she knew, looked at me as she undoubtedly was now. We were all we had in the world and we held tight to that, protecting each other as well we could when we owned not even ourselves.

“Good,” Áine sighed in relief, leaning back against the doorway. “I’ll see you soon, Nerida.”

“See you soon,” I promised, hugging her.

Reluctantly releasing her, I followed Cheshire, Ulkair taking my hand with a gentle squeeze. The familiar path to the temple seemed to take an eternity to tread, my mind running through endless scenarios of what could have happened to Severi. Cheshire took off at some point, saying something about Lóin and Aintai I didn’t quite catch. Probably that she was going to go wake them, though I wasn’t sure that they would want to follow me. Lóin might, but why would Aintai? We frequently ate together at Alix’s house and I often saw her accompanying Cheshire on some shenanigan or another, but why follow me? Sighing, I held tighter to Ulkair’s hand. So long as I had him, I could survive Zissyx again.

Walking into Agorran’s office, Alix and the high priest both looked up at me, stress as I hadn’t seen on them for quite some time evident on their faces. Perhaps we bore the same news after all.

“There’s been news from the city,” Alix said, a grim look on his face.

“I too heard from my brother this morning. He told me I needed to return, but nothing more. What news did you receive?” I asked, my apprehension growing with every passing second, despite my best efforts. Nothing had changed. Just breathe. Hear what they have to say. Work something out from what you learn. Panic yields only mistakes, mistakes kill people. Just breathe.

“There was a group getting ready to migrate that Agorran had been keeping in touch with, but apparently quite a few of them have gone missing,” Alix said, shaking his head slightly.

“How many is ‘quite a few?’” I asked, looking between the high priest and the ranger. Only so many were planning on leaving with us. If we didn’t find them, we might never reestablish the city, if they yet lived at all….

“Almost one hundred,” Agorran said, clenching his fists anxiously. “I worry for them.”

“As do I…the ways of Zissyx are known to me,” I said, running a hand through my hair. One hundred people don’t just vanish. Slaves, with no way to defend themselves, disappeared all the time, but free citizens? Who could manage such a feat, abducting so many without disturbing the water, leaving any ripples in their wake?

Slaves disappeared all the time…that’s what Cheshire quoted from Typhon, wasn’t it? When she was posing as a buyer interested in Áine and I? And it was true. With so many enslaved, they could hardly keep track of everyone as well as they might like. So close to the open ocean , danger found even the careful, swooping in with rows of sharp teeth set inside monstrously strong jaws. Our lives didn’t mean enough to track, unless they had reason not to. These deals, illegal even in Zissyx, would be easy to hide.

I felt sick…staggering slightly, I thought back to when I was ten, my arms wrapped protectively around my battered torso, covered in mottled shades of deep purple, tinged with mahogany. A bruise for every question I dared ask, every moment of the overseer’s time I took, the defiance of thinking at all. I felt something give with the last blow he landed, cracks only faintly audible seemed to echo as pain erupted around his fist. Screaming, I fell to the ground, a swaying strand of kelp brushing hot tears from my cheek as I knew no hand would. Such comfort was for those who were worth the affection and that I knew I wasn’t.

“He’s gone. Stop looking for him,” his gruff voice called, the barest hint of emotion in his voice. Concern, but it couldn’t be for me. Maybe for himself, for damaging a yet growing product, or maybe for speaking at all when all my other questions had led to nothing but beatings and barks to get back to work, but never for me.

At the time, I took it as confirmation of his death, but I did not then understand that the law too was for sale. Part with enough platinum and anything could be arranged. He said Zeph was gone, not dead as I had suspected. Erhu’s tiny body I watched drift off in the current carrying him to the depths of the ocean, far from the city, but Zeph was never found, not a trace of him. What…what if he was alive after all these years? If he was sold, there was no knowing where he was or what had happened to him, but there was a chance, a hope. Maybe he yet could be saved…

“How many people can you take with you when you teleport?” I heard Agorran ask, his voice pulling me from my memories.

“Myself and four others, but I only have one spell memorized.”

“How many will be going?” I asked, looking around the room, noticing Cheshire had arrived with Lóin and Aintai at some point. They all gave me a pointed look as though it was a ridiculous question unnecessary to even voice.

“I would need a day to prepare, but then I could take everyone,” Ulkair announced.

“If we walked, it would take a couple days just to get to the ocean, a few more to swim to Zissyx,” Cheshire pointed out.

“Or we take a few people and go today,” I suggested. I was going today, with or without everyone else. I had to believe we could work through this, but it couldn’t wait.

“I guess the rest could follow behind us tomorrow?” Cheshire proposed.

“You haven’t meditated yet today. Could you memorize the spells you need when I pray in a couple hours?” I asked, looking at Ulkair.

“Oh yea. I’ll just do that,” he mumbled, sipping at his coffee. “We can go today.”

“Hey Ulkair…how do you feel about scrying?” I all but breathed, my thoughts still on Zeph, the chance, however slim, of finding him in Zissyx.

“I used to love it, but I think it’s dangerous.”

“Even if a cleric does it?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps your god will help you understand what you see, but it opens up a lot of doors. Not all of those doors are what they seem,” Ulkair said, bitterness creeping into his voice, his eyes narrowing. “I can’t blame what I did on anyone but myself, but scrying helped me walk that path. Little did I know I was being led by the nose.”

“What if…I just cast it to find out if my brother was alive..?

“Will it stop there?”

“I suppose that depends on if I get a yes or a no,” I replied, guilt seizing me as pain flashed across his face. That…wasn’t the answer he’d wanted, but it was the truth and I couldn’t lie to him.

“I’ll help you with whatever you decide, but just remember that not everything is as it seems,” Ulkair warned, taking my hand and looking me in the eye.

“Is there any way to discern truth from lie, knowing to look for falsehood?”

“It will be your senses and if it can fool your senses, it will fool you.”

“I’ll be careful. It’s been seven years, but what if he is still out there?”

“It would be good to know if your family was still alive. I love all your siblings that I’ve met, so surely your brothers must be as wonderful as your sisters.”

I pulled Ulkair into my arms, just holding him for a time. Zeph…my little champion of Lord Eadro. If he was still alive, there was no telling what he might be like now. Perhaps that gentle soul was gone, the little one trailing after me with his tiny arms full of whatever stalks and stones he’d found to craft his empire. I needed to know, save him if there was anything to save. All my siblings…I couldn’t abandon any of them.

“What should we do with my sisters? They’ll have a difficult time remaining on land without you here to give them legs, but…Mayra is pregnant. Zissyx is dangerous.”

“There’s the lake we fish in nearby. The undead are pretty much gone, but a guard follows Mayra anyway. They could defend her from anything if it crept too close to the city at night,” Cheshire suggested.

“Perhaps. I’ll talk to them about it.” I said, grimacing at the thought of leaving them out where undead yet lurked, though seldom. “High Priest Agorran? Is there anything in particular you would suggest I do to prepare?

“I don’t know exactly what we’re going to be dealing with, so I’m not entirely sure, but I think you should be ready to fight,” Agorran said, pinching the bridge of his nose.

“Always,” I sighed, tightening my grip on Anduin.

Focusing on Severi, I drew on my magic reserved from yesterday, forming a message for him in my mind. If he could tell us something, anything more, we could be better prepared. If I could just hear his voice…

‘What’s wrong? Is there anything more you can tell me?’

‘Being watched.’

“Evidently he’s…I don’t know,” I sighed, running a frustrated hand through my hair, pulling on the strands. I should have known he couldn’t tell me anything more when he didn’t, my brother ever so cautious, but who could be monitoring magic on him? What have I risked reaching out to him? “He’s being watched by someone. We’ll have to go there to learn anything more.”

“Well, I mean, he wants you to come, so maybe he’s just trying to play it cool until you get there because he needs someone who can protect him,” Ulkair said, rubbing my back.

“He said he was being watched,” I said more harshly than I intended.

“Yea, but he also told you to come, so maybe we just need to get there as soon as possible. I don’t know,” Ulkair sighed, slumping into my arms.

“I’m sorry,” I mumbled, kissing his forehead, knowing he was just trying to make me feel better. “Is two hours too soon to be ready?”

“It’s up to you, Nerida. It’s up to you. I could send you right now, but just you.”

“Can messages sent be deceptive as well? Is there any way of knowing that it was from him?”

“It seemed like him.”

“Seemed like, huh?” I repeated, sighing as I crossed my arms. “If I went there and died you’d kill me…”

“Yea,” Ulkair said, giving me another pointed look.

“Nerida, if it’s not from him then they’re tricking you to think it’s urgent to make you go alone. If you go with everyone, you’re a lot safer. Two hours isn’t that much,” Cheshire said, taking my hand, staring up at me with wide eyes so afraid for me.

Looking at her, I trembled, guilt and frustration warring within me. I’ll be safer? I wanted to yell at her that I didn’t care about my safety, a concept so novel I hardly considered it at all. Didn’t she see it was her I was trying to guard? The one who had done so much to save me, to save Mayra and Áine from Aquis? That it was their safety I sought? My scars from Zissyx must run deeper than hers for my years there, knowing the full extent of the terrors that lurked when she shied away at what in comparison were mere shadows, but my scars had become a dark part of me, indistinguishable from what I once might have been. Cheshire, she still was something worth protecting whereas I had so little to lose but those who asked to accompany me. If I went alone, I had only Severi and Coral to protect, but with them, all their lives were in my hands. Land dwellers in a yet foreign ocean, so vast and strange, so dangerous and they so vulnerable. I wanted to argue, but Cheshire’s gaze never left mine, her eyes pleading for me to consider my own wellbeing.

‘Death will take those who fight alone, but united we can break a fate once set in stone.’

The words I once sang to Ulkair echoed in my head, challenging my every argument I could concoct, calling to mind the times too numerous I would have fallen had I been alone, times the melody insisted were not weakness for the reliance on others. Just as Ulkair had told me more than once.

“Fine,” I sighed in defeat. “Severi has made it this long. Two more hours may not change anything.”

Cautiously glancing around the room, I felt a lump rising to my throat seeing relief flickering through the eyes of my companions. Didn’t they realize where we were going? Severi was young, but capable. He wouldn’t have summoned me for a matter of little consequence, for anything he could have handled himself. Don’t look at me like that knowing where I would lead you, what must await us there.

“I’m going to go get ready,” I mumbled, tightening my grip on Anduin. I needed to be stronger this time, strong enough to protect them. My soul was still fractured, sea green light glowing under Ulkair’s veil of magic, but I couldn’t let that stop me. That unbearable exhaustion was gone. I could protect them…I needed to…

Bowing slightly to Agorran, I turned to leave his office, anxiety unbearable in the wake of idleness. Ulkair walked up beside me, his hand immediately finding mine, reassuringly squeezing my hand. Smiling slightly, I squeezed his hand back. Somehow, without really doing anything, he made everything better. I wasn’t alone and that was enough. My companions were capable too, always guarding me as I guarded them. This wouldn’t be like last time, making them enact my will while I hid in the temple. Everything would be okay.

Returning home, my sisters greeted me at the door, fear evident in their wide, green eyes. Mayra threw her arms around me, shaking as her hot tears fell to my shoulder. She tried to speak, voice the horror consuming her mind, but she could only sob, overwhelmed by fears too painful to utter. Áine wrapped her arms around both of us, her silence saying everything. I wiped the tears from her pale face, gently rubbing her back. We were free, escaping both our captors and the city that allowed our slavery. And now, I was going back to the city more dangerous than ever. I’d had enemies as long as I’d had my freedom, but now, they were angry. Surely they were worried about Severi as well, but in going to save him, they risked losing us both, leaving them the last of our siblings alone on land. I was leaving again and promises that I would return offered no comfort.

I fought slavery, one person against thousands too used to the cruel practice, too many who benefitted from owning us. Even with my companions, we were outnumbered. I didn’t know how to bring about change, make them see what they were doing to us, but how could I leave them to suffer? I knew their pain, bore the same scars. How could I just walk away because I had been lucky enough to escape? Lord Eadro saw something in me, chose me for some greater purpose I didn’t understand. Perhaps this isn’t what he intended or perhaps he wept for the tears of his children. Either way, if there was the chance I could do something, I had to try.

For a time, we simply held each other, wordless, taking what comfort we could in the embrace. All I could have told them was that I’d come back last time, so why should this be any different, but we all knew that meant little. Aquis almost got us and we still knew almost nothing about how he acquired that spell, stronger than what even Ulkair could currently use. Typhon…I’d never met the lord, never wanted to, but if he could hide his criminal treatment of slaves from the law, he could hide magic. Even so, they were wealthy enough to have hired anyone in the city to do whatever they might want. It could be anyone.

When Mayra’s sniffling finally ceased, the three of us curled up together in her bed, talking softly about anything but Zissyx or what might happen there. Mayra lounged across our laps, my hands resting on her pregnant belly as Áine played with her hair, working her long strands into braids like Cheshire had shown us before. We spoke of flowers, weaving the lovely blooms into her hair or twining them into delicate crowns in the shade of a young tree and the different skills Alix had been teaching Áine of late, like the meal she prepared this morning. Simple conversation of little consequence, a brief respite amongst the chaos, though none of us could truly dismiss all thoughts of the ocean of our birth. My family, Severi…Zeph…could he still be alive? We were going back anyway…I could scry for him, I could find him…Ulkair didn’t like it, but if we were careful, it should be okay. I scryed for Dovev and nothing happened, so what could go wrong looking for my brother?

Looking down, I saw Mayra had drifted off to sleep, curled up peacefully against us. Áine took my hand, a sad acceptance in her eyes, knowing it was almost time for me to leave. This…this was everything I had ever wanted and more, to live happily with them, though I had long given up hope that I could be with more of my siblings than just Áine. I wrapped my hands around hers, holding it to my forehead and closing my eyes, trying to break the silence with an inevitably painful goodbye, but the words wouldn’t come.

“I don’t suppose you wanted to come along, unless you want to spend the next couple days in the lake,” I choked out, trying to joke, though the humour fell flat.

“If I have to spend a couple days dragging myself around the house, oh well,” Áine shrugged, kissing my forehead.

“I’m sure half of Byss will be by to help, if you should need anything at all.”

“Their champion’s sisters? I suppose we have a bit of a reputation.”

“I’m no champion,” I mumbled. Champions succeed in what they set out to do.

“Hmmmm…how about leader? Commander? Saviour?” Áine teased, lightly ruffling my hair. “You are more capable than you give yourself credit for, my dearest Nerida. Whatever awaits you, I know you’ll overcome it and come back with our brother.”

“I’ll miss you, but I’ll see you soon. I’m sure Severi will be interested to know he’s going to be an uncle. My sending spells have been too limited to mention it before,” I commented, reluctantly pulling away from her. “I need to go pray. The sooner we leave, the sooner we return, right?”

Áine nodded after me, staying in bed with Mayra lest we wake her. Walking towards my room, I saw my companions waiting in the main room, speaking amongst themselves. Seeing me, they grew quiet, waiting, I suppose, for some plan they expected I had.

“I just need to pray with Ulkair and then we can leave,” I announced, weaving through them to find Ulkair.

Taking his hand, we retreated to our room. The sooner we received our magic, the sooner we left, the sooner this was over and Severi was safe. Sitting on out bed, I leaned against the wall, wrapping my arms around when he curled up in my lap. Inhaling, I slowly released my breath, letting my thoughts flow smoothly as the ocean while I communed with my god, thanking him for the endless blessings he granted me, knowing he would be with me.

When I was done, I held Ulkair close, burying my face in the side of his neck. Zeph….if I was going to find him, I had to look. At least here, we were safe to try. Ulkair tensed, shifting to look back at me.

“Ulkair…you said you would help me scry, right?”

“…yes, I said I’d help you with whatever you decide. I take it you’ve decided against my advice… although with how seductive scrying is I shouldn’t have been surprised,” Ulkair said and I flinched at his bitterness.

“I…I guess we don’t have to….but how else can I find him? What if he is alive and needs help? Anyone with the power to find and hide him as they did could do anything they wanted to him. Ulkair…if he’s out there, I can’t abandon him again.”

Again. The word so simple and yet so painful to hear. I had failed him before in allowing him to be taken. I failed him when I stopped looking, when that overseer slowly swam past me, taunting me in a glance to ask him again about Zeph. Holding my cracked ribs, I looked down and went back to work, never again asking about my brother’s disappearance.

“I… I won’t stand in between you and finding your brother. I want to find him, too… and there is no other way from Byss. At least, I hope he’s not here. I’m sorry, Nerida. I love you, of course I’ll help you scry for him.”

Pulling me close, Ulkair encircled me in his arms and held me tightly for a moment as he murmured what seemed to be an Elysian lullaby. Images of our working together until we found Zeph and were happily reunited cascaded through my mind, and I felt his sincere desire that we find my brother, but also the tightly wound fear constricting his heart.

“I love you too. I’m sorry to ask something so painful of you. It…could be he really did die seven years ago and there’s nothing to find,” I whispered, fisting my hand in his shirt, my heart clenching painfully. I wasn’t sure which was worse, given the circumstances.

“Whatever it is, we’ll find out together.”

Ulkair’s hand brushed the side of my face as he leaned down and gently kissed me, so soft and sweet. Pulling back I ran my fingers along his face, wondering how it was I had been so blessed to find him, for him to love me back. Taking a deep breath, I sat up straighter, concentrating on the spell. Ulkair took my hands, casting detection spells through my scrying.

My eyes fluttered shut and the world spun, it seemed my mind leaving me to search for Zeph, find him no matter where he was hidden. I came to a grey barrier of some sort, not quite solid, but nor could I simply pass through the obstruction. Frowning, I laid my hand on the barrier, poking it to see what happened. No ripple or wave formed around my fingers, the barrier standing unaffected as the grey expanse continued on in all directions. Just what was this thing? Could I break through it? Was I supposed to? What would happen if I did? This…didn’t seem like something that could fool my senses necessarily, but so too could it be some sort of trap. Caution…Ulkair said to be careful and he’d been so afraid to even try. Pushing away from it, I opened my eyes to see Ulkair’s fearful face before my own.

“Wait, wh-what’s wrong, Nerida? You’re back,” Ulkair asked, panic seizing him, his wild eyes searching mine for how divination might have failed him again.

“It felt like he was shielded by something, but I don’t know what,” I said, trying to explain the strange sensations, but I knew so little about scrying, what might be normal or dangerous.

“Did you try to break the shield?” Ulkair hastily asked, his hands clutching my shoulders as if I might disappear if not for his grasp.

“I didn’t know if I should,” I murmured, wondering if I hadn’t done something wrong watching him. I was supposed to be cautious, wasn’t I?

“Well, unless they’re actively watching their magic, no one would notice, but that’s a good sign. Clearly someone is preventing you from scrying,” Ulkair sighed in relief, his grip on my arms loosening as he leaned forward, resting his forehead on my shoulder.

“Me specifically?”

“I didn’t see since I wasn’t there, but either he’s alive and someone is shielding him or someone is preventing you from scrying at all.”

“I suppose with what’s happening in Zissyx, someone could be targeting me,” I mumbled, wrapping my arms around Ulkair and holding him close to me. Right now, there was no way of knowing which. All I could do was try again when I had another spell memorized, after resolving everything in Zissyx. Maybe I could break through the shield then… “Try again tomorrow?”

“Let’s. We’ll be prepared then,” Ulkair said, pulling back enough that I could see a faint smile on his face, his hand reaching up to stroke the side of my face. “Cheshire knows I can help people-“

“Ulkair, what are you doing? Why are you dragging me into this?” Cheshire cried, instantly appearing at the door. I stared at her a moment before shaking my head. Of course she was eavesdropping. Somehow, she always was.

“What? I helped you punch through defenses before too,” Ulkair said, nonchalantly shrugging.

“Yup,” Cheshire squeaked, paling. “I’m not always sure it’s a good idea…”

“You helped Cheshire with reading thoughts though, right?”

“Yea? Which is kind of less of a big deal than scrying,” Cheshire said, still partially hiding behind the door.

“Perhaps, but that is for another day. We should leave, unless there’s anything else anyone needs to do?” I asked, looking at my companions.

Cheshire eye’s fluctuated, relief ghosting through them that she was no longer involved in the conversation, but fear plagued her at the thought of returning to Zissyx. She probably hadn’t ever intended to return, as neither Áine nor Mayra would. If it weren’t for Severi, Coral, and the slaves, I doubt I would either. Settling on grim determination, Cheshire nodded, tightening her grip on Ragnarok. Alix put his hand on her shoulder and Lóin moved to stand beside the young bard. Mimi deftly twirled her scythe beside her, smiling softly at me. Aintai neither said anything nor moved, but a dark glimmer in her eye told me she was ready to face those who would dare enslave others.

The platinum ring around my finger caught my attention and I realized I could use it to help keep Severi safe. Cheshire usually hung onto the other platinum ring, but she shouldn’t need it this time.

“Cheshire, could I have that ring back? I fear I may need it for my brother,” I explained, kneeling down by her.

“Oh…yeah,” Cheshire said, looking down at the shimmering ring with reluctance. She wiggled the ring off her finger, handing it back to me. “I know it’s important to keep your brother safe, but…. just be careful.”

“I’m always careful. How else would I look after you?” I commented more than asked, trying to slip the ring onto my little finger. Well, hopefully it would fit Severi.

“Okay, I can’t take everyone at once,” Ulkair said, looking around the room. “I’ll have to come back for someone.”

We all looked amongst each other, silently debating who should stay behind, if even for a moment. Should I be there to defend them or should I wait, being the very reason they would be endangered at all? In six months, would their faces be recognized? Well, if only Ulkair, Cheshire, and Mimi were going, it might be okay, but land dwellers would instantly be suspicious, regardless of if anyone remembered them specifically. Cheshire’s tail is so bright and different from ours with her huge, trailing fins and Mimi’s was also pink…only Ulkair blended in at all and even then he still had gills. Despite that, those in the temple responded well to Agorran. Maybe they would be okay until Ulkair could get me. The temple was safer than the government building. I was about to speak up when Cheshire stepped up, looking at Ulkair.

“I’ll wait,” the bard announced, fidgeting as everyone suddenly looked at her.

I immediately thought to argue, insist she shouldn’t be left alone, but…she was safer in Byss. If a trap was waiting for us, if someone had noticed scrying for Zeph, at least she would safe. I could protect Ulkair. Releasing a slow, deep breath, I nodded and took Ulkair’s hand, holding it tight. So long as I don’t let go, we’ll be okay.

Everyone else slowly joined hands and Alix rested his other hand on Ulkair’s shoulder, linking us so the spell would transport us all. I looked at Cheshire anxiously clutching her instrument, despite how she tried to put on a brave face. I wanted to say something, offer anything that would make her feel better, but I could think of nothing but boldfaced lies and promises I couldn’t keep. I weakly smiled at her, praying that if anyone was hurt, it was me.

Ulkair muttered arcane words under his breath, moving his other hand before him as his magic surrounded us. Reality imploded in around us, everything twisting and distorting as the spell pulled us from Byss. I kept waiting to appear in the temple, but I seemed to be…lost, suspended in nowhere but torn between everywhere, alone, everything swirling dizzyingly around me. What was happening? I reached out for Ulkair and found nothing, my vision swimming even more at the movement.

“Ulkair!” I screamed, panic welling in me and I desperately reached out for him, no longer even sure which way was what.

Something wrapped around my wrists, pulling me from the stream of magic, though I saw nothing. It felt…wrong, somehow. This thing trying to drag me away, it couldn’t be Ulkair. I struggled against my abductor’s hold on me, but I kept sliding towards it regardless of what I did.

‘Ulkair! Where are you?’ I called out again, clinging to him through our bond. He had to still be here!

I felt an arm wrap around my waist and sea green light exploded from behind me, illuminating dark tendrils encircling my wrists. Positive energy from my well tore through the tendrils, freeing my hands and I floated idly in the pool of arcana once more.

’I’ve got you, Nerida,’ Ulkair’s voice whispered in my mind.

Reality rippled around me and I felt like I was falling with no end in sight, a terrible sense of nausea growing in the pit of my stomach. Falling, falling forever with nothing to hold onto, nothing to slow my descent. Water exploded around me, bubbles obscuring my already dizzy vision. Finding myself in Ulkair’s arms, I laid my head on his shoulder, both of us breathing erratically. Holding tight to my one solace, I waited for my disorientation to pass, my heartbeat to calm, my hands to steady. Ulkair shifted and I looked up at him, his hand gently stroking the side of my face, relief flickering through his tired eyes at seeing me.

“Ulkair…what was that? What happened?” I breathed, grateful for the support of the water saving me from crumpling to a graceless heap on the floor.

“Nerida, someone tried to steal you out of my teleport.”

“Are you okay?”

“I am because you are,” Ulkair smiled faintly before collapsing against me.

Looking more closely, I noticed the edges of his fins and fingertips were singed, his breathing shallow and pained. Someone tried to take me and this is what happened? How? I brushed my hand over the side of his face, drawing on my magic. I knit my brows together, realizing most of my magic was gone. That sea green light…I had felt him tap into my magic. Dismissing the thought, I used what magic I had to heal him, relieved to watch the char fade from his skin. Ulkair sat up abruptly gasping and grabbed onto my shoulders to steady himself.

“Thanks.”

“Are you actually okay this time?”

“Yea, yea, that’s better,” Ulkair mumbled, rubbing his chest. “Someone incredible powerful was interfering. They wanted you. I barely fended him off…he was as good as I am.”

“If someone with such strong magic is after me, what should we do?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Who of our enemies is a powerful magician?”

“Well, you stepped on the only one I knew about. I don’t know who Aquis might have hired. It could have been anyone.”

“I guess I better go back for Cheshire,” Ulkair sighed, still looking weary despite my spell, much of his magic used in escaping the intervention.

“Will you be okay? Were they only after me?” I asked, my fear for him plaguing my mind. We must have only barely escaped last time. What if this would be captor succeeded this time?

“They were trying to pull you out of the stream. I, I don’t know if you were the only target.”

“But now they’re bound to know you’re tied to me, so it’s dangerous for you too.”

“Cheshire’s bound to be worried out of her mind,” Ulkair commented.

“Alix, have you told Cheshire what’s happened?” I asked without looking at the ranger. Cheshire was fine. Alix could tell her and she would understand, so why was Ulkair so concerned about her?

“I let her know that there were some issues, but she shouldn’t be on her own,” Alix insisted.

“What does Cheshire have to say?” I asked, shooting him an irritated look.

“You’re not even there yet and there are already issues?” Alix repeated the bard’s words.

“We’re in the temple,” I grumbled. I don’t know what I was hoping she would say, but…not that. Everywhere in Zissyx was dangerous, everything wanted to hurt you, destroy you. Why would the temple be different? It was only safer, never safe.

“Well, here I go,” Ulkair said, hugging me quickly, his magic beginning to wrap around him once more.

“Wait!” I cried, but the space around him imploded and he was gone. “Please…be careful…:”

I wrapped my arms around myself, trying to convince myself that everything would be okay, but I couldn’t quite believe that. Something powerful had been after me and now, they were bound to be after Ulkair too. Would he be able to fend off another attack? Cheshire had been safe in Byss, which was more than we could say for ourselves now. Why risk another encounter so soon, from the same place we first teleported into? They had to know we were here, that this is where Ulkair was coming back to. They would try again and I wouldn’t be there to help this time. I wouldn’t be there….why, Ulkair?

I clung to my bond to Ulkair, praying he might be protected from whoever was after us. He’d done it before, he could do it again. I felt him appear in Byss, relief flowing through him at arriving without trouble. No problem at all. He was talking to Cheshire, preparing to bring her back with him. Taking her hand, he bent time and space to his will, picturing the temple beside me in his mind. He disappeared and panic filled him. It was happening again…it was happening again and there was nothing I could do! Nothing…but I had to try something, anything.

I reached out for Ulkair through our bond, determined to pull him here. If they could interfere with spells, then why couldn’t I? My fingers almost curled around his hand when lightning arced and arcane magic forced me away from him. Ulkair’s screams echoed in my mind, his agony more painful than anything they could have done to me. I threw myself at the barrier keeping me from him, pounding my fists against it, trying to force my magic through our link as we’d been practicing, but nothing seemed to work. I just couldn’t reach him…

Tears pricked in my eyes, despair whispering I was losing Ulkair and there was nothing I could do about it. Stubbornly, maybe futilely, I just kept trying for the chance that something would change and it would work, not knowing what else to do. I had to…I couldn’t just walk away when he needed help. What was Cheshire doing?

With a sudden jolt, I felt Ulkair appear nearby, maybe not within the city, but close, certainly in the ocean. Fear, confusion, and pain, so much pain radiated off him, the same disorientation I’d felt before distorting his vision. He reached for Cheshire, needing to know she was okay, but his hand fell short, his consciousness slipping from him as he had slipped through my fingers. They were lost, at the mercy of one who doubtless wanted me dead, one who hardly knew the meaning of the word.

Blinking, I found myself curled up on the ground, my hands fisted tightly in my floating hair. Gone….gone…I didn’t want to believe it, but couldn’t deny the truth. Something shifted towards me, the ranger, probably checking on me to see if I was okay. Maybe unintentionally or maybe meaning every bit of my ire, I glared fiercely at him, my despair quickly turning to rage. If he hadn’t insisted Ulkair go back for Cheshire right away, we could have worked out something, some other way to get her here or protect Ulkair. Or leave her in Byss. So far she hadn’t…

Clenching my fists, I took a deep breath. This wasn’t helping. Ulkair needed me and we needed a plan this time. A gleam of green light caught my eye and I noticed my emerald sitting beside me, lifeless without my magic to keep it afloat. I held the emerald in my hand a moment, watching my distorted reflection staring back at me, thinking of all the magic Ulkair poured into it to bind it to me and stabilize my well. We would find them.

“Lóin, something went wrong with the teleport. Whoever was trying to get me, they got Ulkair and Cheshire,” I said, slipping the emerald into my bag.

“Where?” Lóin asked, brandishing his axe.

“Nearby? But…with magic like this, he has to have something planned.”

“Alix, can I be angry please?” Lóin calmly asked, though rage burned in his eyes.

“He’s got Cheshire, but she’s with a friend,” Alix said, oddly calm.

A friend? A friend ? Oh good, she had a friend when Ulkair was unconscious and in pain.

“Then she’ll be fine. I need to find my brother before he’s killed,” I announced, looking at my companions. “Once I know he’s safe, we can go find Ulkair and Cheshire. Given the circumstances, I don’t think we should be separated.”

“But Cheshire,” Alix insisted, staring hard at me, obvious disapproval flashing in his eyes. If he didn’t want to leave Cheshire alone in Byss for more than a couple minutes, he certainly wouldn’t want to leave her here.

“I’m worried about them too, but is she hurt? Is she distressed?” I asked. Alix looked down, his brows knitting together, unable to claim she was in danger, though he worried whenever she wasn’t with him. “They won’t kill Cheshire. She’s too valuable to them at this point, but they will kill Severi. Alix, I can’t lose any more of my siblings.”

Alix regarded me a moment, terrible understanding in his eyes. He of all people knew what it was to lose those he loved, family and friend alike. Had he had siblings once? A brother, a sister, someone precious he had to lay on a pyre to save from the curse of undeath. He slowly nodded, reluctant to delay searching for Cheshire, but he wouldn’t leave my brother to die.

“Severi is probably at work. He usually spends a lot of time there and especially if someone has been watching him. Being alone is too dangerous,” I said, backing anxiously towards the door. We just needed to find him and make sure he was okay. After that I could protect him.

The swim to the government building was long, quiet, though my mind ever raced with thoughts of my brother, what must have happened to him for him to call out to me. What was happening to Ulkair? I watched our bond, waiting for some spark of emotion, any thought to cross his mind to tell me he was awake, but there was nothing. Did silence mean he was okay for now or that he simply wasn’t conscious to recognize the pain he was in?

Finally reaching the government building, I searched the halls for any flash of blue. I had never been to his office for the questions such a visit would arouse and neither could I ask anyone, should they inform Typhon. The lord knew I was here and probably that I was related to Severi, but I would take any level of uncertainty I could get. Being here at all was suspicious. Thankfully, the halls were yet largely deserted.

“Oh, Nerida. I’m glad you got here so quickly,” Severi said, relief washing over his face when he saw me.

He looked exhausted, his young face taut with the ongoing strain of trying to bring change to a people who didn’t want it, too many profiting too much to care about the suffering of those so far below them. Even so, he was alive and that was all that mattered.

“Teleport is wonderful. What’s wrong?” I asked, swimming up to him, trying to prepare for the worst.

“If we’re going to act, we have to do so now. We need to free what slaves we can and get out of here. Anyone who tries to mobilize to move to the new city, they disappear. I think it’s Typhon,” Severi explained.

“Does he have magic?” I asked, tightly clenching my fists at my sides. Was he the one behind Ulkair and Cheshire’s abduction? How was it I doomed all those I loved by knowing them, simply caring about them? All because of Aquis…because he couldn’t accept that I was chosen to join the clergy and he wasn’t. The grudge Typhon let him hold he now sought revenge for.

“Oh, he’s very powerful.”

“I think he has two of my companions.”

“Oh, really?” Severi asked, grimacing. “That’s bad. He’d going to use them as leverage. I think he wants to kill all of us. He’s been watching me for days.”

“I know he at least wants to kill me and I fear the same for you. That’s why we’re here.”

“He’s also been blocking all efforts I’ve put forth to promote antislavery and migration.”

“That’s not surprising considering what happened with Aquis, especially how much money he would lose without his slaves.”

“I’m afraid that my political efforts have been completely shut down. We’re either going to have to kill him or run,” Severi sighed, seeing so much of his work slip away. He was intelligent, but not a fighter. He must have been trying to avoid this very situation, but Typhon simply had too much more sway in the government than him.

“I’m down for killing him,” Lóin evenly stated, his arms crossed over his chest.

“I don’t think he’ll stop if we run,” I said, none too pleased at the thought of fleeing. That which runs is chased. Sooner or later, we would have to turn around to fight and by then, who all might be following us?

“I think you’re right, but he has an army,” Severi said, fear creeping into his voice, at a loss for what to do. He knew we couldn’t run, but didn’t know how to fight him.

“What do you mean by army?” I asked. How many hundreds were we talking about?

“He has a personal guard that’s trained and loyal to him. I think we need to assassinate him now or run. You have all your land dweller friends, right? Could they protect our new city?”

“Do you suspect they’ve been killed or are they being held somewhere?” I asked, relieved it was just a personal guard. Trained or no, it couldn’t be anything like either of the armies of the undead we had fought. “And I’ve spoken with High Priest Agorran about an alliance with the city. I believe we will be able to work something out.”

“It’s hard to tell. If I know Typhon though, he’s probably enslaved them. He’s never one to waste a resource,” Severi said and I flinched hearing him call our fellow merfolk “resources.” People, good people, reduced to mere possessions. This was why our plan needed to succeed.

“If we were to attack him, do you know how best to proceed?”

“Sneak into his house and kill him in his sleep?” Severi suggested, raising a brow, wondering how else to go about assassinating someone.

“Why are you trying to attack Cheshire’s friend?” Alix asked, glaring accusingly between us.

“He’s not her friend,” I said, just staring at the ranger. What would give him that idea? He knew why we were here and now we knew who was behind the disturbances. Cheshire hated Aquis and Typhon was no different.

“Yes, he is,” Alix insisted, gritting his teeth.

“You were here last time. Didn’t you see what he did?”

“I would know who my daughter’s friends are,” Alix said, dodging the question.

“Regardless, he may have kidnapped Ulkair,” Lóin pointed out, thankfully free of the same delusion.

“Can I speak with the four of you?” Aintai asked, pointedly ignoring Alix’s gaze.

“Why can’t you speak plainly?” I asked, growing weary of all this pointless banter.

Ulkair was in danger, more than Cheshire, though her usefulness was bound to run out eventually and then she would be no better off. He could be torturing Ulkair and must have worked some magic on Cheshire to make her think Typhon was her friend, as Dovev once convinced me he was Cheshire’s, and this is what we were doing?
“There are reasons and you need to know them,” Aintai said, her voice gravely serious and her gaze flickering to Alix and back to meet mine again.

“Alix, I’m worried someone is watching Severi. Could you look in the halls and make sure no one is around?” I asked. He had to know I was trying to get him out of the room, but it wasn’t a bad idea and he was the best suited to find someone spying on us. Maybe it would buy me the time Aintai needed to tell me what she knew. She wasn’t one to joke around, so this news must indeed be important.

Alix eyed me warily, but nodded, kicking his legs and slowly moving out of the room. Guilt gnawed at me for sending him away, for lying so obviously to his face, but something had to be wrong and Aintai insisted he shouldn’t hear what she had to say. He would understand when his senses returned, wouldn’t he?

“We should whisper though. Alix hears everything,” I spoke, lowering my voice as I’d suggested. It might not be enough, but it was worth the attempt.

“Something is obviously wrong. I believe Cheshire has been put under a suggestion spell and it’s affecting Alix. He would never think Typhon was Cheshire’s friend.”

“We should act sooner rather than later,” I said, my sense of urgency ever growing. Idle, idle was bad. Idleness brought pain, kept you enslaved for what few years you may be able to bear whatever suffering your master desired.

“Sooner is better because the longer we wait, the sharper the dagger becomes with Typhon,” Severi agreed.

“And the more time he has to do terrible things to Ulkair and Cheshire,” I shuddered, reaching out again to Ulkair, but consciousness had yet to return to him.

“If he finds out that Ulkair is your lover,” Severi trailed off, grimacing, unwilling to suggest any of the various methods Typhon might use to get what he wanted.

“Do you know what he might use them for specifically? Something I could be watching for?”

“What the fuck, guys?” Cheshire yelled, storming into the room, her gaze full of furious accusation landing on me. “Why can’t I have friends other than you?”

She stared hard at me in a mixture of anger, frustration, and betrayal. I reached my hand out to her, unsure of what to say, torn between wanting to comfort her, assure her that I only wanted her to be happy and being so angry. She was Cheshire, my first land dwelling friend, my tiny companion, her big, bright eyes ever staring innocently up at me. And yet she was also why we went back. We didn’t need her to be here and she didn’t want to be either. She would have been fine in Byss and now Ulkair was probably being tortured by Typhon. And she was here, accusing me of refuting what she called friendship when she left Ulkair to his fate. She left him with Typhon.

Suddenly, a hand gripped my shoulder and sharp pain tore into my back, nausea rippling through me, time seeming to slow. Mimi roared and charged behind me, swinging her scythe in a wide arc, slashing into my attacker, dark blood and shredded bits of entrails pouring into the water. He screamed but held tight to me. Wrapping his arm across my shoulders, he tore the dagger out and plunged it in again, stabbing deeper, pain erupting from my lacerated my organs. My mouth gaped in a silent scream, blood gurgling in the back of my throat. I couldn’t move, the agony burning in my torso consuming my every thought. He tore a strangled cry from me wrenching back his dagger, twisting it between my ribs again.

A crimson haze billowed thickly around us and my eyes fluttered shut. My heartbeat echoed loudly in my ears, straining to pump my blood through my body only for it to leach into the ocean. I needed to move, to fight back, but I was so cold, as if the freezing water replaced the escaping vital fluid and coursed through my veins instead. I was so dizzy…but Ulkair…I needed to save him…I couldn’t leave him alone, forsaken once more in the depths of the ocean. If I stained all of Zissyx red in my blood, so be it, but I would find the strength to save him.

Spinning around, I faced my assailant to see him watching me expectantly and I realized he was waiting for death to take me, so fully expecting it his dagger had fallen loosely to his side. He paled and his jaw dropped, horror plain to see in his wide eyes. Those stabs should have killed me, would have easily killed most anyone else, but so too would that demon in Elysia, the energy of a plane coursing through me.

My fingers twitched and I tightened my grip around Anduin, straining against the poison tearing at my muscles. You can’t stop me…Lord Eadro’s might is infinite and I drew my power from him. I would not fall, not to some assassin, not when I was so close to freedom from Zissyx. Not when I had finally known true happiness.

“I refuse to bow to you!”

I smashed Anduin’s haft into his arm just above his elbow and he released his dagger, reflexively cradling the arm as he stared at me in growing terror. I spun and slammed my tail into him, knocking him to the side as I brought Anduin up to catch him, my weapon quivering with bloodlust. His tines stabbed into the hole Mimi must have left with her first assault, shredding what remained and rending him in two.

“Oh, I thought I heard an extra person in there,” Alix commented, slowly swimming into the room. Surveying the damage, the wispy trails of blood spreading throughout the room, his face contorted in guilt.

“Not…anymore,” I gritted out in raspy gasps, pain returning as my anger ebbed. I couldn’t go on like this much longer. “A-Anduin…would you mind healing me a little?”

Anduin seemed to stand a little straighter somehow as his healing magic surrounded me, piecing my organs together and stopping the worst of the bleeding. He watched me with what I suspected would be a smug look if he had a face, just waiting, waiting for praise and gratitude for saving my life. I thought to ignore him and show exaggerated gratefulness to Mimi instead, but I didn’t much feel like having my trident fighting with me too.

“Thank you, Anduin. That was most helpful.”

“Of course it was helpful, I’m nothing but helpful. Maybe you should have me watching your back, because no one else seems capable of keeping you safe.”

“I don’t need to be safe, I need to be alive,” I retorted in a huff.

“Haha, true enough, we shall live, our enemies shall die, even if we have to drown them in our blood! Let’s defeat them together, Nerida!”

I smiled faintly, wondering that only my trident seemed to share my perspective. Blinking, I notice Severi staring at me in a mixture of horror and amazement. He…saw me fight Aquis, but that was tame in comparison to this. Aquis had hardly touched me and he only lost an arm.

“I think I called the right person. I think that was meant for me. I’m sorry it happened to you, but I’d be dead!” Severi cried, shivering.

“Oh! We could talk to his head if we brought it to Agorran,” Cheshire exclaimed oddly cheerfully. Moving the head to face me, she added, “If that’s what you want to do, Nerida”

“She’s even scarier than you,” Severi mumbled, scooting closer to me and clinging to my arm. I smiled faintly, thinking of plenty of instances that might change his mind, but I didn’t say anything. “Keep me safe? I’m scared of them and a little scared of you…”

“I wouldn’t hurt you! You’re my brother,” I said, frowning.

“Well, no, but you are scary. I still think I’ll stick with you though,” Severi whispered. Leaning in closer, he asked, “How did you survive that?”

“What do you mean? He only stabbed me three times. He didn’t even tear me to pieces. Look, no bones showing,” I said, showing him my other arm to demonstrate.

“No bones showing?” Severi repeated, paling further. “Oh no…I need to get out of here…you need to go deal with Typhon, I think right now. I’m going to go home.”

“You’re not safe!” I cried, holding onto his arm linked in mine. If an assassin was waiting here, there was certainly one in his house, where he would be completely alone.

“Oh! That’s what I was coming to tell you! I got distracted by the shadow,” Cheshire almost sang, swimming up to me. “Typhon wants to talk to you about freeing the slaves and stuff.”

“I’m sure that’s what he wants to talk about,” I spat.

“It’s what he wants to talk about as far as I know. And he’s keeping Ulkair safe for you because he was really hurt.”

“Aintai, is there any way to break a suggestion?” I asked, trying not to yell at Cheshire, reminding myself it wasn’t her fault she was under a spell. We just needed to deal with Typhon and then everything would go back to normal.

“You’d need a break enchantment spell. I’m sorry, but I don’t have one.

“Look, I’m really scared to go, but I am good at negotiating with these people. We could go, but you should be ready for a fight,” Severi said, holding tight to me.

“Of course. Stay behind me.”

“Look at this beautiful bracelet he gave me,” Cheshire said, completely oblivious to what we were talking about. Instead, she proudly displayed her wrist and the platinum band around it, a large, mesmerizing aquamarine elegantly set in it.

“Why did he give you a bracelet when he wants me dead?” I asked, my irritation getting the best of me. How could she be so blind, so oblivious to what was going on? Even under the spell, this couldn’t all add up.

“No no no, Nerida, you don’t get it. He doesn’t want you dead. He wants you to stop messing with his perfectly legitimate business.”

“Cheshire,” I began, grabbing the assassin’s torso and holding it out to her. “How do you explain this?”

“You don’t know that Typhon sent that! Why would he? He’s a good guy!”

Scoffing, I threw the remains back to the ground, hoping the gore might have helped snap her out of it. I didn’t really want to try talking his head at her and Severi may not speak to me again if I did. Instead, Cheshire actually took interest in the body, or more specifically, to his dagger and the pouches that had been around his waist, sitting a couple feet to the side of his tail. Digging happily through the bag, she pulled out a jar containing a sticky ooze. Smiling, she tucked the blade and jar into her bag.

“Why don’t you let me hang onto those for the time being?” I suggested, eying her bracelet. If she was going to stab me in the back, I’d rather the blade she used be free of the potent poison I knew to be in that jar.

“Nope. Mine. I might need this dagger. Anyway, go talk to Typhon. He doesn’t want to free his slaves because he needs them to feed Zissyx, which is fair because let’s admit that Zissyx is afloat on the back of slaves, but, I mean, that doesn’t mean he’ll be garbage to all of them. I’m sure you guys can work something out.”

How dare you …this legitimate business of his? What do you know of slavery!? What could you possibly know of the horrors it inflicts upon so many? What could you know of the nights I lay, desperately fighting back tears, waiting for everyone I loved to die. My parents, Erhu, Zeph…I could feel the days ticking away until I would lose Áine and Mayra, Severi already distant. I was lucky to have them, lucky to have something to fight for at all, to keep the hopelessness and despair at bay. You defend him and never questioned the cost! How many lives would you justify?

“We should go before more of them show up,” Severi said, tugging on my arm.

“The question is do we swim into his trap or try to figure something out,” I grit out, caring less about the consequences of just going the more Cheshire spoke. Typhon must have been planning this for six months. A haphazard plan would only help us so much anyway.

“Well, no one here is going to help us,” Severi said, a defeated look on his face, mixed with weariness. Tired, he was so tired of these people, their selfish corruption. “He’s gotten rid of everyone who was my ally and not his.”

“Maybe you could go first and the rest of us could follow behind you. We could get behind him and surround him,” Aintai suggested.

“We could all just go. It’s not like he said ‘come alone’ like some ominous lunatic,’ Cheshire scoffed.

“He probably won’t kill me right away,” I commented. He wanted something, my pain if nothing else. He was far more cautious, calculating than his son, but he was bound to have something in store that would give my companions a little time.

“He’s not going to kill you,” Cheshire sighed in exasperation.

“I think it might be best if I go alone and walk into whatever trap he has so you all can follow,” I said in Celestial, looking at Mimi. The less Cheshire knew about our plan, the less she could divulge to Typhon.

“I think we should restrain her,” Mimi replied, frowning slightly.

“That’s why I’m telling only you. If Cheshire knows and she tells Typhon everything, that could be problematic.”

As I spoke, I felt Cheshire trying to wiggle her way into my mind. What had gotten into her that she was so entirely insufferable? Why couldn’t she trust me at all? When had I ever said no to her before, ever knowingly done something to harm her? And yet she turned so easily on me, doubting my every action, disagreeing with my every word.

“Okay, I’m just going to go. You figure out what to do with them,” I spoke in Celestial once more.

“Okay. We’ll have your back,” Mimi said, smiling at me.

“I’m going to go speak with Typhon,” I said, switching back to common, so grateful to at least have the Celestial on side.

“Are you going alone?” Lóin asked, frowning.

“He probably won’t kill me right away,” I said, shrugging. Mimi would tell him what he needed to know.

“Why don’t I go with you? He specifically asked me to bring you back,” Cheshire suggested, flipping her caudal fin in irritation.

Taking a deep breath, I nodded. Going with her didn’t bode well with me, but I didn’t know how to convince her to stay behind without knocking her out. As angry as I was, I didn’t want to hurt her.

“Am I going with you?” Severi asked, looking more afraid than I had ever seen him. Alone, he was defenseless. With me, he was swimming into a trap.

“He’s trying to kill you. Why don’t you stay with Lóin?” I suggested. Lóin could keep him safe.

“Okay…I’ll do whatever you say, Nerida.”

“I’ve lost too many brothers…I can’t lose you too,” I said, taking his hand and squeezing it.

“Maybe he should come,” Cheshire chimed in, tapping her finger to her chin. “It’s his legislation that’s causing problems. So I mean, it only makes sense for him to come along. Nerida, you don’t know much about politics.”

“So he can kill my brother in front of me?” I asked, gritting my teeth, the desire to grab her by the arm and throw her into the slave pits growing. Let her see firsthand, up close, the nature of this “legitimate business” she defended, that it wasn’t Severi’s legislation that was problematic but the heartless treatment of slaves. She still wouldn’t understand, but she might come to know something about my past that nearly stole my future.

“He’s not going to kill your brother. He’s a nice guy!”

“I could use my disguise to appear as your brother so you won’t be alone,” Mimi suggested in Celestial.

Mimi blinked a few times, bringing her hand to her head, a focused look coming over her face. Like someone was trying to intrude on her mind. Glancing beside us, Cheshire was still, her eyes distant. Shaking her head, Mimi scowled, glaring at Cheshire and slapping her hand. A hurt look flashed across her face and she looked between us, wanting answers we couldn’t give her. She wouldn’t accept them if we tried. Tears brimming in her eyes, shock turned to anger.

“Don’t try to talk over me!” Cheshire screamed, shoving Mimi away from her.

Holding my hands out, I poured soothing positive energy into the room, trying to calm the discord growing between us. We were supposed to be fighting Typhon, not each other. Mimi visibly relaxed, a serene look passing over her face, but Cheshire only grew angrier, my attempt to restore peace offending her even more.

“I’m just trying to help you guys!” Cheshire shrieked.

“I’m just trying to figure out how to get us all out of this city alive,” I ground out. Couldn’t she trust me? Just a little? Know that there had to be a reason I was keeping things from her?

“Then how about instead of making contingency plans to kill everyone, you just cooperate for once in your life!” Cheshire seethed, punctuating each word.

Silence fell across the room and I could only stare at Cheshire in disbelief, my chest aching at her words. That…was that what she really thought? Typhon had her under the suggestion that he was her friend, but that shouldn’t have affected her thoughts or feelings about me. If he’d made her think me her enemy, she would have attacked by now. They were just words…I’ve heard so much worse from so many, but from her, they ¬_hurt_ . I’ve tried so hard to keep everyone safe, but I’ve failed again.

Mimi’s soft voice eventually broke the silence, but I couldn’t make out her words or Cheshire’s clipped response. It didn’t matter. Obviously, words had failed, diplomacy a lost cause.

“You can fight if you want, I’m going to find Ulkair,” I spoke, my voice low, quiet, leaving no room for argument. This was my problem and I would fix it. I never should have involved them at all. I would fix this and then Typhon’s spell would be broken. Cheshire will go back to normal, I’ll save Ulkair, and everything will be okay. I’ll fix everything as I should have in the first place.

“Fine! Do whatever you want,” Cheshire called, but I paid her little mind. Scathing words burned my lips, but I knew that if I started to speak, I wouldn’t be able to stop until she could never look at me the same way again and that thought didn’t bother me as much as it should have.

Darting out of the room, I tore through the water with all the speed I could muster, following the faint trail I felt leading me to Ulkair, his soul ever beckoning mine. I needed to find him before Typhon could enact what it was he had planned. Typhon…he wouldn’t kill him, would he…not wanting to “waste a resource.” No, there were fates far worse than that alone. What if he was turned against me too? I couldn’t fight him…if I had to choose between my life or his, I would choose his every time. He knew too I was dangerous, quite possibly too dangerous to keep if his magic didn’t work on me as it had Cheshire.

My thoughts were suddenly flooded with pain and disorientation not my own. Ulkair…he was alive…in pain, but alive. It wasn’t too late. Reaching out, I gingerly wrapped my arms around him, grateful for the contact, even if it was only through our minds.

‘How are you?’ I whispered, cautious as though someone might overhear and indeed they might. I didn’t know what Typhon could do, how he might be able to use our bond against us, but I didn’t want to find out. Still, I needed to know what was happening, what he was doing to Ulkair.

Ulkair groaned, my heart aching to see him in pain, struggling even to think. Wincing, he looked up at me, relief filling his eyes at seeing me, simply knowing I hadn’t been captured as well.

“He’s doing something to me…he’s keeping my mind in a fog…” Ulkair said, his voice so terribly weak.

“Actively doing something? Is he in the room?” I asked, holding him tighter as though my ethereal embrace could protect him.

“I’m resisting it, but something is making me want to do everything he says.”

“Could it be a suggestion? He placed one on Cheshire.”

“It’s worse than suggestion. I’ve been teaching you about arcana and there are stronger spells than that. It’s a domination.”

“Like the vampires,” I breathed, cursing.

“At least I’m alone now. What happened to Cheshire?” Ulkair asked, flinching at the name of the monstrosities.

“She’s fine. She thinks Typhon is her friend and was told to bring me to him,” I grumbled, my anger and bitterness rising.

Ulkair didn’t respond, his silence breaking me from my thoughts. Now wasn’t the time to be distracted. I had too much to lose to be so reckless. Calm…focus…you can still save him.

I followed the trail to a mansion a short ways outside the city, distant and dark. I thought he had another house within the city, but with his resources, he could certainly have another and there was sure to be things he wanted to keep a little farther from prying eyes.

When I approached the mansion, the guard at the gate ushered me in, obviously expecting me. He led me through hall after hall, back to where his master was doubtless awaiting my arrival. We passed no one else on our path in what I suspected was intentional. All of this, every part, was planned to catch me at my weakest and use everything he could against me. The guard stopped at an elaborate set of double doors and opened one, holding his arm towards it. I glanced at the door and looked down the hall, wondering if I could find Ulkair.

“Please, he’s waiting for you in here,” the guard said, gesturing again to the room.

I looked the guard over, doubting he ever actually defending or enforced anything so much as idly watching a gate no one would casually approach. Overpowering him would be only too easy and by the look in his eye, the slight shaking of his hands, he knew it too. Swallowing thickly, he opened the door a bit wider, his gaze shifting between me and the room. As much as I wanted to find Ulkair, that would earn me too much attention. Glaring at the guard, I swam into the room, smirking inwardly seeing him flinch at something so small.

“Ah, Nerida. I’m so glad to see you,” Typhon crooned, turning around to see me, his voice, the look of satisfaction on his face making me ill.

“I bet you are,” I evenly stated, hiding my emotions as well I could. Anything I betrayed, he would use against me.

“Well, you know, you took my son, I took your friend. She is a delight, that one,” Typhon smiled, stroking his chin thoughtfully.

“Your son got what was coming to him,” I said, clenching my fists.

“He did,” Typhon laughed softly, his eyes growing distant. “He always did reach too high. He didn’t wait until he was good enough to do as he wished.” His tone grew dark, ominous, a promise glimmering in his eyes meeting mine once more that he was different than Aquis. “But Nerida, Nerida, Nerida, what are we to do? Your brother has been trying to free the slaves and leave.”

“Everyone deserves freedom,” I said, giving up on the thought of denying my kinship the moment it crossed my mind. There was no point in trying to lie. He knew the truth.

“But it’s bad for me,” he sighed as though this was only something he considered after long deliberation, a regrettable outcome.

“My condolences,” I said, waiting for him to get to the point.

“Oh, Nerida, I can see why my son didn’t like you.”

“Because he was unworthy and I was.”

“That’s probably not untrue, but we both know there were political machinations beyond that at work. I’ve eliminated them, but that’s in the past. Right now, I want to repay you for the trouble you’ve caused me. Your little friend, Cheshire, she’ll pay when she gets back, but for now, it’s your turn.”

“What are you going to do to Cheshire?” I demanded to know, a sort of relief creeping into my heart. Cheshire…perhaps it was just as well that we had fought and neither she nor Severi were here. If I was alone, I only had myself to protect. He could only hurt me.

“Well, it depends on how it goes. I was planning on just torturing her along with Ulkair, but it seems I have a better idea. She’s beautiful and she could be my new heir. I believe she would enjoy that.”

“How does that benefit you?” Ultimately, he was a business man and something so petty as pure revenge didn’t suit him. He wouldn’t make Cheshire his heir, his glimmering, golden pet, just to spite me. There had to be something more than that.

“All my children are dead and I will die eventually. I need a protégé.” Shaking his head, he laughed, though what he could have found humorous was lost to me. “Oh, the pretenses. I don’t even care anymore.”

Snapping his fingers, Ulkair appeared and my heart stopped at the sight of him. Chains held him tight to the wall, strange symbols surrounding him, his torment apparent in every shallow gasp he drew. Every fiber of my being screamed at me to go to him, heal him, save him from the arcane trap encircling him, but I knew I couldn’t, not yet. Digging my nails into my palm, I forced my gaze from Ulkair back to Typhon, trying to keep my breathing steady. Stay calm, kill Typhon first, then save Ulkair.

“Ah, this is boring. You merfolk are boring,” Typhon sighed, seeming somehow disappointed with the state that Ulkair was in, everything we were doing.

“Aren’t you merfolk?”

“Oh, yes, of course I am,” Typhon droned. Meeting my eyes, he grinned and unwittingly I tightened my grip on Anduin.

Raising his hand towards Ulkair, a lightning bolt shot from his palm, arcing into the wizard. Ulkair screamed as the electricity tore through him, the first sound or movement he had since appearing.

“No!” I screamed despite my determination to remain impassive. It was all a façade and Typhon knew it.

I needed to stop him, stop him from hurting my Ulkair, but how? One wrong move and we were both dead, but the longer I thought about what to do, the more time he had to torture Ulkair. Anduin grew warm in my hands, familiar magic swirling around him. Hold person….if the spell worked, that would give me time to free Ulkair, move him so he was less vulnerable. There would be no convincing him to leave, even to save himself, but then he could at least fight. I held Anduin out, the brilliant magic pooling around his tines before launching at Typhon, enveloping his body. The light diffused and Typhon just laughed. Why, why didn’t my spell work? Even if he wasn’t a merfolk but some sort of shapeshifter like Cheshire, it should have done something!

Ulkair’s screams yet echoed throughout the room as he pulled frantically at the chains, terror consuming his every thought, images of his cave flashing through my mind. Visions of how was electrocuted over and over again, lightning tearing his life from him only for Elysia to restore him, lying in a singed heap on the ground. Holding his hand through our bond, I cast shield other on him, feeling my divine magic bind our lives as our souls were. If I couldn’t spare him this agony, I would share it with him.

“I am clearly superior to you. I have thwarted you at every turn. Now that I’m aware of you, there’s nothing you can do. What you can do is leave. Take your brother with you and never come back.”

“You called me here to tell me to leave?” I asked, anger leeching into my voice. You followed Severi, planned his death, abducted my companions, tried to dominate my Ulkair and electrocuted him before me, and now I was to simply swim away ? Allow him to continue to abuse whomever he saw fit?

“You and your brother, never to return. Don’t look for the people who are gone, don’t take anyone else with you. Leave me my slaves and everyone else’s.

“And why would I do that?” I seethed, my voice low, quiet as I nearly trembled in my rage.

“Well, I could kill him. I could kill you.”

“You can certainly try .”

“Well, your friends aren’t here yet, so okay,” Typhon grinned and I wondered if he wasn’t just taunting me when he proposed I leave, knowing I would never accept. It was just another game, another way to toy with me before spilling my blood.

His gaze flickered behind me and I looked just in time to see a shadowed figure, blade pointed at me. I spun around, swinging Anduin at the assassin. Not again. If I let myself be stabbed so many times again, I wouldn’t be able to save Ulkair. The assassin barely dodged to the side, stabbing his dagger deep into my shoulder. I screamed as pain tore through me, nausea all too familiar racing through my blood, clawing at my every muscle.

“Guards, we have a problem,” Typhon casually called, his smirk growing.

He stared intently into my eyes and I felt something slithering across my mind, tendrils wrapping around me, beckoning me to simply follow, do as it bade. Typhon held out his hand and I reached for it without a thought, an odd compulsion coming over me, silencing any objection I may have had. Anduin suddenly seemed so heavy in my hand, a voice whispering to just let the unnecessary weapon go, let him fall to the ground. For possibly the first time in my life, I had no thoughts of defiance, but something within me stirred, screaming at me to fight. It was wrong, something was so, so wrong. Cheshire, I argued with her because of Typhon. He was behind this, all of this, everything I had fought against for so long in Zissyx. I would never bow to him.

Tightening my grip, I spun around and slammed Anduin’s haft against the assassin’s tail, his scales cracking loudly under the assault. Stunned, I shoved him into the wall before he could catch himself and ran him through, the barbed tines finding no resistance until the stone wall. He screamed as lighting arced through his body, ice spreading across his skin as I heard his flesh burn around the tines, the unmistakable scent rising in the water through clouds of fresh blood.

He screamed at me like an animal, pulling himself off of Anduin’s tines. His movements hardly seemed his own, too controlled and yet too thoughtless, as though he was possessed. He swayed, raising his dagger and I dodged to the side, only for him to feint and bury the blade deep into my stomach, a satisfied look rising to his eyes. Pain ripped through me and my vision blurred in the red haze of our blood mixing in the water between us, nausea clawing away at what the blade happened to leave untouched. Over the assassin’s shoulder, I faintly saw guards streaming in, obediently answering their master’s call. Outnumbered six to one and I still had to help Ulkair…I doomed him to this. He never would have come here if not following me and I failed protect him. I had to…

I gritted my teeth, pulling my trident between us. He was injured at least as badly as I was…I could take him. It wasn’t too late. My magic whirled around my fingers, light beginning to grow in my palm when pain seized me and Ulkair’s screams rang out, lightning coursing through him from Typhon’s outstretched hand. I slumped against the wall, blinking against the dizziness clouding my mind, my consciousness slipping from me as cool numbness began to replace my pain. I knew I needed to fight, but the gentle call of slumber pulled at me, beckoning me with sweet promises.

I couldn’t stop now…couldn’t die now, not when a better life for so many was so close at hand. Merfolk couldn’t all be the dark, terrible people lurking in Zissyx. We could be more, be better than just that and this new city was our chance.

Before me, the assassin regarded me carefully, gauging my awareness, waiting to see if I could move. He must not want me dead, not yet. I hadn’t suffered enough yet. Even so, that wouldn’t save me if he noticed I was conscious. Typhon wouldn’t risk “losing” to achieve revenge and killing Severi and I would stop the migration and antislavery sentiment all the same. He wanted my pain, but it was a mere bonus in this game he played. Anduin had slipped from my grip at some point, too heavy, my strength fading as swiftly as my blood escaped my body.

Where my strength failed, Lord Eadro granted me his and my fingers tingled, traces of magic yet swirling lazily around them in a reminder that I wasn’t alone. My eyes fluttered shut and I focused on the positive energy, drawing on both the healing and destructive powers of my magic. As the faint traces of Lord Eadro’s saving grace flared to new life, light burning like the sun came to my other hand. The assassin jumped back, raising his dagger to stab me again, realizing too late what any slave knew too well. The moment you were careless was the moment you died. I thrust my left hand towards him as the magic in my right whirled around me, my own skin knitting together as brilliant light seared through the assassin’s body and wet ash fell among remnants of charred flesh. For a moment, I thought I saw relief flicker across his face before his gaze grew distant, the dagger slipped from his hand, slowly sinking to the ground with his lifeless body.

Retrieving Anduin, I felt a sense of calm resolution come over Ulkair, too grim to be from my magic soothing the electrical burns across his skin. Ulkair…what are you…? His gaze caught mine and he smiled faintly at me, his arcane magic weaving around mine, undoing the shield I cast around him.

‘Stop! Ulkair, what are you doing?’ I screamed, horror filling me as I felt my magic fall away. My shield, the only way I had to protect him from Typhon, even a little, and he was destroying it!

‘No sense in both of us suffering my foolishness, my love,’ Ulkair whispered, his phantom touch gently trailing down my face.

‘Ulkair! You can’t!’ I sobbed, reaching for his hand, but it disappeared as the divine magic connecting us did.

His foolishness? How was this anything but my doing? He wouldn’t be here at all if not for me and now he was going to suffer for my failure! This was never his fight. I reached out to him again, desperate to stop whatever he had planned, but electricity sparked around him. Screams of pure agony and terror all too familiar resounded throughout the room, striking me down to my very core in anguish I wished above all else I could spare him. One of the symbols around Ulkair exploded and he slumped against the wall, his breath little more than weak gasps as the last vestiges of electricity crept along his skin.

How many more were there? How many more times would I have to watch Ulkair do this to himself? Looking at the symbols around him, studying them, drawing on every lesson in arcana I’d had, I still couldn’t tell. They were only symbols, as obscure as ornate ripples in the sand. Whatever magic this was, it was too complicated, too far beyond me and fearful tears burned in my eyes watching Ulkair. Already he was looking around, trying to destroy the next rune despite the pain he was still in. Even once he was free, what then? So long as he still drew breath, another fight awaited him. The guards swimming towards me, Typhon, his personal army he was bound to summon. I had already exhausted so much of my magic…how much longer could I sustain us?

‘Death will take those who fight alone, but united we can break a fate once set in stone,’ the lyrics echoed in my mind, the words sending a strange sense of dread through me. Those who fight alone….I fight alone to save those I care for, spare them the torment I face. I fight for them…I can’t fall now….

The guards surrounded me, slowly circling, not quite wary but distant, calculated. None of them seemed disturbed by the fate of the assassin, merely aware of what would happen should they carelessly approach, almost as though their death would be but an inconvenience. I tightened my grip on Anduin, waiting for one of them to make a move as they invariably would. They had no other choice but to follow their order.

One darted forward and grabbed my arm, pulling me towards him to restrain me. I grit my teeth, drawing Anduin back and thrusting the trident at him, my strike fueled with my growing fear for Ulkair. I had to end this as soon as I could, before Typhon or the magic binding Ulkair killed him. Bones crumbled beneath the blow and Anduin tore straight through the guard’s chest, piercing his heart almost too easily. His body listlessly slid off my trident, no surprise lurking in his wide, staring eyes. The other three guards hardly reacted, merely moving in closer around me to fill the gap of their fallen companion, circling, waiting for another opportunity.

Typhon watched on, a curious look crossing face as his gaze darted briefly towards the door. Grinning, he shimmered and vanished from sight. Teleportation? No…not quite…he was still here, his eyes yet watching me. This spell, Ulkair had cast it before as a simple prank, the magic so innocent in his hands. He had only cloaked himself in invisibility, waiting for something I couldn’t name.

The door slammed open behind me accompanied by a thunderous roar and a flash of silver and green. Without a thought, even the briefest moment of hesitation, Lóin lunged at one of the remaining guards, cleaving him cleanly in twain as blood bloomed thickly in the water, growing ever redder with each new wound flowing freely. My lungs burned, choking trying to breathe the blood contaminating the surrounding water, but there was not time to worry about that. I had to find Typhon…he had to be in this room yet, waiting for something, always planning something . Beside me, Lóin froze, untold horror growing in his pale eyes.

“Lóin? What is it?” I asked, cautiously bringing my hand to his arm, his knuckles white with his strained grip on his axe.

The champion didn’t answer, rage overtaking what fear had consumed him. I pulled on his arm, still eying the remaining two guards swimming around us, but he didn’t appear to be aware of me at all, lost to something…magic..?

“Well, I’m impressed,” an amused, disembodied voice rang out throughout the room, seeming to come from every direction but nowhere at the same time. “Usually meatheads like you fall for both of those.”

The deep voice chuckled and grew silent once more, though I could feel his gaze on me, envisioning the torment he could inflict, waiting only for the opportunity to arise. My eyes scanned around the room, looking for where he could be hiding, some flicker, however faint, of his lurking form, any whisper that might betray him. A slight crackle reached my ears and my blood froze, painful dread filling me, recognizing the sound, knowing what was coming next. Ulkair…

Ulkair’s screams resounded on the walls as another rune exploded beside him, electricity coursing through his body. Black, singed marks formed across his limbs surrounding wide, oozing patches that almost looked melted around the edges as I never thought skin could. He couldn’t take much more of this… couldn’t take much more of this, his pain, the terror in his voice, the taste of his burnt flesh creeping sickeningly into my mouth, mixing with the blood surrounding me. Stop him…I needed to stop him, save him from this if he wouldn’t save himself. Just…be still until I can end this…please…

I held my trident towards Ulkair and drew on Anduin’s magic, almost completely oblivious to everything around me. They didn’t matter, nothing mattered but helping him, protecting him. Movement flickered beside me as pain spread through my forearm, more of my blood leaching into the water, but I ignored it, focusing on wrapping the magic around Ulkair instead. That guard couldn’t do anything to me that hadn’t been done before. Ulkair flinched, wide, incredulous eyes darting towards me, muted betrayal simmering behind golden irises.

‘You’re killing yourself!’ I called through our bond, despair consuming me at voicing my fear, admitting it could be true.

‘To save you!’ Ulkair insisted. His gaze narrowed and he easily deflected my spell, still staring into me for answers that seemed obvious to me.

‘I can’t heal you,’ I sobbed, reaching for his hand through our link, desperate even that ephemeral contact. His fingers wrapped around my hand, not denying me that contact, but he said nothing, only stubbornly regarding me. How could I make him understand? ‘I can’t watch you kill yourself!’

‘I’m not going to kill myself! And if I did, I’d be doing it to save you!’ Ulkair yelled, as if saving me could justify his own death.

‘That doesn’t make it better! Why did you unravel my spell?’ Surrounded by so many, it was all I could do to protect him and he threw it away! I would have been fine!

‘Typhon was going to kill you.’

‘Then he’s going to kill you too.’

‘It’s better just me than both of us.’

‘Or just me,’ I insisted, staring hard at him.

‘Exactly…you feel the same way I do.’

I bit my lip, wishing that Typhon would target me instead, focus his cool rage on me and leave them alone, but that was exactly why he wouldn’t. He knew their pain hurt me more, that Ulkair’s screams tormented me far more than his lightning could, but maybe the lord hadn’t known that I could share the wounds he inflicted. Ulkair…don’t you see I would rather die with you than live without you? A world so cruel, so cold without you beside me, your hand in mine…how could I survive centuries without you?

Lóin grabbed my arm and pulled me behind him, huffing in irritation, bits of ice forming in the water before him. The guards, Typhon…I didn’t have time to argue with Ulkair over which of us should die, not when we could still swim away together. The champion took a deep breath, expelling the fury of winter, the birthright of his draconic heritage. Shards of ice swirled in a wide cone, mercilessly slicing through one of the guards barely able to voice his agony. Deep crimson mixed with the spinning frost, icy tatters of his corpse settling to the ground along the spray. I heard a faint cursing in Aquan amongst the crackling of the ice, but I couldn’t pinpoint where the sound came from or what blood might have been Typhon’s next to the guard’s filling the room.

Lóin’s form went rigid and scales erupted across his skin, long slits appearing along his neck forming gills fluttering rapidly in the water. Webbing grew between his fingers like a locathah’s and he began to shrink, his arms shortening and gaining a sort of translucence. Shaking his head, Lóin screamed harsh words I recognized to be that of his native tongue, though their meaning was lost to me. The transformation stopped and reverted, aquatic features retreating as quickly as they’d started.

“I’m not a fish…I’m not a fish…” Lóin mumbled under his breath, flexing his fins until they became fingers again.

A huge bolt of lightning exploded from across the room, crashing towards both Lóin and I. I tried to dart out of the way, but Lóin was still recovering from the other magic Typhon has used on him. My vision flashed white as the electricity seemed to follow me of its own accord, chasing after me, more vicious than a shark. I screamed as my muscles seizing painfully against the current coursing through me, burning and still somehow leaving me feeling cold, numbly floating in the room so much darker than I recalled.

Groaning, I struggled to unclench my fists, to move, get up from the spot I found myself curled up on just above the floor. A form approached me, but I couldn’t make out their features. For a moment, I forgot where I was, what was happening. Looking up, I saw Ulkair swimming towards me, a sad smile on his face. I reached out to him when he shimmered and golden eyes became distant brown ones, the last guard reaching out for me. Jumping back I wildly swung Anduin’s haft at the guard, trying to knock him out. Seeing him, I saw Latus, a lost child trapped in machinations beyond him. I saw Lord Eadro’s child, somewhere behind those vacant eyes. Something was wrong with him, with all of them and I couldn’t bring myself to kill him too.

The guard dodged to the side and grabbed my arm, dropping his own trident to reach for my other, pulling me towards him. His face remained impassive, wide, blank eyes regarding me. He was only enacting an order, thinking nothing more of what he was doing or the consequences thereof. I wrenched my arms out of his grasp and backed away, a trail of my blood following me. My vision swam, numbness replacing the pain that wracked my body. Keep going…just keep going….you have too much to lose…

Divine energy swirled around my fingers, gentle warmth soothing me as the magic washed over me, flowing too quickly through me. The worst of my injuries disappeared, my blood no longer leeching into the water, though I still ached terribly. I glanced over at Ulkair to see all traces of his wounds had vanished, his face no longer contorted in pain. No, he was focused on the symbols around him, muttering something under his breath. Not again….please…not again…

Tears welled in my eyes as the third rune exploded, his excruciating screams resounded once more, summoning the memory of his I caught glimpse of in his mind, watching him throw himself at the barrier to his cave, killing himself for the chance to save me. Killing himself to save me, just as he was doing now. Ulkair’s cries faded to pained gasps, his body yet convulsing under stray lightning running across his skin. Shuddering, he gritted his teeth, forcing past the pain to already look at another of the arcane symbols.

The remaining guard twirled his trident and mindlessly stabbed at me, his, blindly doing as he’d been told despite all the blood that had been shed. I darted back, knocking his weapon away with Anduin. Keeping him at bay, I looked around the room for some sign of Typhon, trying to focus on the evil intent he radiated. He was here somewhere…if I could just stop him, Ulkair would be okay. He had powerful magic, but so too had the immortal child. So had Dovev, and they both fell. Typhon would be no different.

Alix and Cheshire burst through the door, stopping in their tracks as horror spread across their faces. Cheshire reflexively covered her nose, assaulted by the blood spreading throughout the room, swept up by her fluttering gills. Blinking, Cheshire brought a hand to her head, the sight before her bringing questions to mind even the suggestion she was under couldn’t quite dismiss.

“Guys, what happened?” Cheshire breathed, her gaze finally settling on me. “Nerida, I’m sorry I yelled at you. Why is everyone dead?”

“Help Ulkair!” I called, barely hearing what she’d said. The look on her face said enough, though what had led us to this point hardly mattered now. If I couldn’t help him, maybe she could. “He’s killing himself trying to get out of there!”

Uncertainty flittered across the bard’s face, but she nodded, swimming with what speed her elaborate tail allowed over to Ulkair. Glancing between him and the circle, she reluctantly held her hand out, the magic fluctuating around her fingers. Lightning crackled, sparks flashing around Cheshire’s small hands and the entire ring surrounding Ulkair began glowing brightly. A fearful, knowing look flashed across Ulkair’s face and he closed his eyes, turning away to brace for what he knew was coming. The magic exploded and their combined screams of anguish filled the room, my own fearful cries joining theirs.

Screams shifted to a piercing ringing, pain tearing through me as blinding light encompassed all. My hands flew over my ears of their own accord in an effort to block out the sound from what invisible assault plagued me. Slowly blinking, I looked around to find myself alone in an oddly familiar room full of ornate furniture and impressive sculptures. This room…it was the very hall I’d been fighting Typhon in, but I had seen no sign there’d ever been a battle and most of the décor I now blearily regarded had already been removed when I had arrived not long before.

Furrowing my brows, I propelled myself away from the long couch I had been lying by with a quick flip of my tail, only for cold metal to dig into my neck. My eyes widened, my hands grabbing frantically at the metal I realized encircled my throat. A collar. I was wearing a collar. Where I expected to see a thick, bronze chain connected to the terrible proof of my ownership around my neck, I found instead a fine platinum chain not fit for a lowly slave. A long strand of my hair brushed my arm, sent floating around me by my hasty movements and I stared at it in horror I never expected to feel seeing the sign of my freedom. Slaves are chained, collared and chained, but laborers’ hair was always cut as short as their dull blades could manage.

“No!” I screamed, pulling at the long strands, despair consuming my every dream of freedom, knowing that only…only pleasure slaves were allowed long hair, at the preference of their owner. “No! I escaped this!”

Delicate fabric floated around me, suspended from the intricately carved collar down to a platinum ring on either hand, doing nothing for land dwellers’ sense of modesty, but purely for decoration. Thin chains wrapped around my waist, more fabric trailing from them, flowing beside my tail.

No….no no no no! It can’t be! I pulled desperately at the chain, my panic convincing me that if I could only sever the links, I would be free. I would wake up and find this was but a terrible illusion. The only hands on me would be Ulkair’s and to him, I knew I was no mere possession.

The chain shimmered faintly as I pulled at it with all my strength, magic preserving my slavery, binding me tightly to the arm of the heavy stone couch piled with undoubtedly plush cushions and pillows. I swallowed thickly, the purpose of such a setup not lost to me. They couldn’t have me….he couldn’t have me! I wasn’t for sale anymore!

A thunderous crash echoed throughout the hall, tearing me from my thoughts. That noise…no merfolk could have created it but something larger, much, much larger. Whales never drew so near to the city and couldn’t fit in even so grand a hall, but what else could have produced such a sound?

Another noise resounded even louder and I flinched, dreading whatever monstrous creature was drawing closer to me. I yanked at the chain with renewed effort, slamming my tail into the couch, praying one of them would break. The metal bit into my palms and I felt my scales cracking under the blows, but I ignored the pain. My hands would heal, my bruised tail and shattered scales would heal, but this thing hunting me, as I somehow knew it was, something told me there was no going back from what awaited me.

“Nerida!” Ulkair cried, swimming up and wrapping his arms around me. I clung to him, burying my face in his neck in a mixture of relief and terror at seeing him. Even if I couldn’t leave, he needed to.

“Ulkair, you need to get out of here,” I said, stroking the side of his face. “I’m sure I’ll be right behind you.”

“We’re not leaving without you,” Ulkair said, smiling faintly.

His hand gently caressed my cheek before turning his attention back to the chain, inspecting the links. We? A flash of gold met my eyes and Cheshire swam up to me, Áine a short ways behind her. Why were they here? I was glad I wasn’t alone, but I would rather face whatever torment might be in store for me on my own than endanger them.

“We’ll get you out of here. I won’t let them…” Áine trailed off, drawing me into her embrace.

“Don’t worry about me. I’ll figure something out, but you have to get out of here. It’s not safe,” I insisted, holding tight to Áine for what I feared would be the last time.

“You’ll figure something out?” Cheshire repeated, raising an eyebrow. “Nerida, you’re chained to a couch. Exactly how many left hands do you plan to give yourself? Just let us help you.”

Muttering something about stubborn mermaids, Cheshire joined Ulkair in inspecting the chain, turning the platinum restraint over in their hands. Suddenly, the room shook and the wall at the other end of the room bulged, deep cracks fleeing from the monster as I couldn’t.

“Run…” I breathed, staring in growing terror. That wall…that wall was solid stone and that creature was breaking through.

Cheshire paled, holding tight to Ragnarok and staring at the cracks yet creeping along the walls. Ulkair focused his attention on the chain, moving his hand before him with practiced ease as a red glow grew between his fingers at his arcane words. The fire forming hissed angrily at the water as steam billowed from his palms. Áine glanced at the steam and pulled me away, shielding me. Ulkair launched his spell at the chain, producing enough heat that should have melted any metal, but the chain only glowed, holding strong against his magic.

They weren’t leaving…why weren’t they leaving..? They saw the wall, heard it, felt it giving way and still they waited by me, wasting time too precious to lose.

“Get out of here….”

The wall crumbled as an enormous black creature lacking defined form crept through without particular haste. The sides of the oddly cylindrical creature shifted, pulling back and upwards to reveal rows upon rows of jagged teeth. Slits in the very end of flared as a gleaming charcoal sphere appeared, narrowing in our direction.

A nose…an eye…just its face was so large and still the rest of it edged forward until the gargantuan monstrosity filled the end of the hall, its fins on either side almost brushing the walls. Its fluttering gills, its endless teeth, it had to be a shark, but it wasn’t right. It was from here, couldn’t have been, and yet here it was; the bane of merfolk the size of a whale.

Black eyes locked on me and sheer terror as I’d never felt before crushed down on me, petrifying me with but a glance. Even staring down Dovev, that demon, vampires and their legions of undead, I’d never known such consuming horror, chasing all hope from my heart. As if sensing my despair, its nostrils flared again and it grinned, edging closer.

“Hold onto me!” Ulkair called, grabbing my hand as he began casting another spell.

Cheshire darted back and rested her hand on his shoulder, Áine curiously laying her own hand on his arm. The world began to waver in preparation to teleport us somewhere else, anywhere it couldn’t follow. Everything imploded around us and I felt arcane magic tugging at me when the metal around my throat began to burn, choking me. There was a faint pop beside me and they disappeared, leaving me still trapped with the shimmering platinum chain dangling from my neck.

A moment later they reappeared, despairing confusion evident in golden eyes. Cheshire and Áine were still beside him, whether by choice or accident I couldn’t say. Ulkair glared at the shark with grim determination, a burst of magic exploding out of his hand and Cheshire fired an arrow at it, both of them approaching the fiend. Its smile only grew, too pleased to see its prey draw near, though I suspected it wouldn’t have minded a chase either.

I saw in its cold, soulless eyes hunger, the ravenous, insatiable hunger that could devour entire worlds and had . This wasn’t new. This monster didn’t rush because it didn’t have to. Where would we go? It must have only been toying with me, casually bumping its colossal tail against the wall, moving with lethargy to prolong the hunt and savour the fear he drew from us, not because it was the only speed he could muster.

It was too late, maybe had been as long as I’d been here, but maybe not for all of us. Whatever this chain was enchanted with, there was no severing it in time, but they could still get away. Ulkair could teleport out, plane shift even. If I could at least save them, it would be worth it.

“Ulkair, take Áine and Cheshire and leave. You can still make it.”

“No,” Ulkair responded, growing larger as his skin faded to familiar grey. Stepping on the couch, he pulled on the chain until his arms trembled with the strain and still it only creaked faintly.

“Please, at least you can survive,” I cried, wrapping my arms around his.

“I’ll stand over you to my last breath, Nerida,” Ulkair whispered, gently trailing his fingertips down my face.

Turning abruptly away, he launched at the shark, flames glowing in his fist. Cheshire fired arrow after arrow, sonic waves ringing around each shot, her aim true, though the monster hardly seemed to notice. I held my hands out, calling out to all the power Lord Eadro granted me, blinking back useless tears. Tears wouldn’t save them, maybe nothing would, but I couldn’t sit back and simply watch.

Sea green light glowed around my hands, gentle light growing brighter, agonizing as too much energy surged through me. Deep cracks formed along my arms, the overwhelming magic threatening to tear me apart. Screaming, I lost control of the spell, positive energy spilling into the room. Áine called my name, asking me about the fissures some part of me recalled she shouldn’t be able to see, but I couldn’t heed her words over the burning in my skin, the pain resonating far deeper. My soul ached, crying out at the positive energy pouring out of me, taking fragments of me with it.

Useless…always so useless…I couldn’t break this chain, I had no weapon, and I wasn’t strong enough to hold myself together even enough to use my magic. I had to try, do something, anything¬ . They mattered more.

Prayers to Lord Eadro barely reached my lips before my screams renewed, drowned out by distant cracking reverberating in my mind, too familiar though I had heard it but once. Unending agony consumed me as my soul fractured further, only without the sweet bliss the positive energy brought to distract me from the pain. I felt something pulling at me, barely registering that it was my sister, completely unaware of what was happening to me.

Gritting my teeth against the pain, I looked around the room for sign of Ulkair or the shark. I’d had my eyes off them too long. A shrill cry rang out and cold terror made me numb to my shattering soul. Cheshire, I couldn’t find Cheshire. Ragnarok slowly fell to the ground in a cloud of blood, the red haze the only other indication she had ever been here. Ulkair roared and grabbed one of the statues in the room, swinging the massive stone sculpture at the shark. The shark’s gaze flickered to me, a grin stretching across its face to see it had my attention. I reached out, knowing what fate awaited my belovèd, but I couldn’t…so close before me, he couldn’t…

The monster casually batted the statue away, sinking its teeth into Ulkair as his blood bloomed in the water, his short cries muted by a terrible crunch that stopped my heart, my mouth agape in a voiceless scream. The pieces of his soul bonded to mine tore free no matter how I clung to them, to the life more precious than my own.

My death crept closer and Áine moved herself between us, just as she’d done before. I tried to speak, tell her to run, that I loved her, anything, but I couldn’t muster the force of will to utter a word, to move, to breathe. I could only stare through my tears as it drew ever closer, my dear sister yelling some declaration at it, a promise she couldn’t keep and yet she held her arms outstretched as though the act could protect me.

The shark lurched forward, sharp teeth snapped just before me, warm splatters of blood hitting my face as only a severed arm gradually sank to the ground, tatters of shredded muscle and skin trailing behind it. Gone…they were…gone….and as each one vanished into the abyss, they took with them a part of me I knew I could never get back again, taking and taking until all that was good was gone, swallowed by darkness. Staring up at the rows of teeth, stained with the blood of all I held dear, I feared for a moment the shark would swim away, leaving only me alive.

It nudged me, drawing a strand of my hair up as it inhaled deeply through its nostrils, a tooth larger than my face grazing my skin. My eyes slide shut and I waited for it to devour me as it had my reason for living, waiting for the relief nothingness would bring. How could I…? I failed them…these precious people looking to me for so much and it was my fault they were dead. I should have been stronger, strong enough to escape on my own or avoid capture in the first place. I should have been more, enough for them.

I exhaled what I knew would be my last breath before its jaws closed around me when I felt something in me stir and a heartbeat broke through my anguish. Ulkair…? His soul wrapped around mine, gathering the shards as he had before. He was alive…? I clutched the sides of my head, distant ringing returning. This wasn’t right. Ulkair, he, if he was alive, I needed to find him. I clenched my fists, fury burning away the fear, the base resignation that had festered too long. I swore…I vowed I would never give up again and still I almost had, overcome with grief and loss, but it wasn’t true. None of this was true.

I held my hand out, drawing on the strength Lord Eadro had given me. The shark before me looked smaller than I recalled with long tendrils waving on either side of it briefly before it shimmered, disappearing from my view entirely. Whatever it was, something told me it was real, not that shark I had seen, the room, my sister I knew to be safe in Byss. Reaching for it, my vision flashed white, burning light enveloping all as that piercing ringing returned. Screaming, I fought against the light, the noise, not knowing what was behind it, just that I needed to get past it to get to Ulkair.

YOU CAN’T HAVE HIM!!

Screams shifted to the sound of gasping breaths, equally deafening to my ears, and I found myself in the same hall as I seemed to distantly remember, surrounded by my injured companions.

What….?

Before me, Ulkair was clinging to Cheshire, trembling, though due to fear, pain, or residual convulsions of electricity I couldn’t say. He was alive…they were alive …Typhon, the battle, we were fighting. I wasn’t a slave anymore, never one for his pleasure. It _was_¬ just an illusion. Everything would be okay. I could save him, save all of them from what they never should have been in danger from. This only should have been my fight. I readied Anduin in my grasp, searching the room for any sign of Typhon when the all too familiar crackle of electricity met my ears.

No…not again…

Lightning sparked and shot through the water, white light wrapping around Ulkair and Cheshire. Ulkair’s cries were cut short, lost beneath Cheshire’s pained breaths. Silence echoed through my mind, shaking my very soul. Its shattered remains futilely clung to the vestiges of Ulkair’s own soul woven through mine as I felt them start to pull away.

No! No, Ulkair, you, you aren’t…you can’t be…I can’t really….I can’t lose you…

I reached out to him in my mind as tears streamed down my face, desperate for some sign that he was still with me, but I found only my own encroaching despair replacing the shadows of his presence with hollowness. For the first time in seven months, there was nothing. No faint musings, no traces of his emotions swirling among mine, how I always felt him near me, even when we were separated. So quiet…cold….alone….

My strength left me and I collapsed to the ground, my anguish tearing from my throat until my soul was raw. Divine magic poured out me almost of its own accord in my despairing need to save him, flooding the room with positive energy. My magic danced around my companions, soothing the wounds cruelly inflicted. Ulkair gasped, clinging to Cheshire and sobbing into her chest. Through our bond, I saw flashes of the times he had died in his cave, from the most recent to what must have been centuries ago. Visions of him screaming, torment that he yet drew breath morphing into the madness that overtook the shambles of his mind broken by millennia of solitude, both saving and destroying him.

My heart bled watching him, wanting more than anything to go to him, comfort him however I could as he had eased all my fears, the shadows plaguing me not nearly so oppressive as those weighing down on him. I wanted so desperately to be near him, and yet I knew that it would be an opportunity Typhon couldn’t pass by. He’d only just cast his spell. He must still be in place. Hitting them again would be tempting, but if I was there too, they would certainly be struck again and Ulkair couldn’t survive that. Biting back a sob, I reached out to Ulkair through our bond, wrapping my arms around him the only way I could, praying the ephemeral contact helped him.

Seeing them together, a pang of jealousy shot through my chest, her arms wrapped around him as I wished mine were and yet, with her, he didn’t need me. She had never done anything to hurt him…she wasn’t the reason he was hurt now. I shook my head, trying to dispel the displaced envy. She was just helping him, was all. They could rarely go a day without bickering over something small, usually Ulkair poking fun at the small bard, glitterdust ever flying. I was being ridiculous.

The door slammed open and four merfolk burst into the room, obviously guards of far greater skill that the other group. Two fighters and two magic users, one that commanded the same positive energy as myself, his eyes as blank as the guards that had surrounded me. I didn’t know him from the temple, but I would recognize the signs of my god anywhere. One of the fighters regarded Alix crouching on the ground clutching his head. That illusion, Typhon must have cast it on all of us. The fighter spun his spear over the ranger, knocking him flat with a quick movement of his tail.

I reached out to him, warning on my lips when an arrow shot grazed my arm and shards of ice exploded across the room, lacerating my arms and freezing the steel rings of my shirt to my skin. Nausea rippled through me, but I fought past it. If I fell to poison now, my companions wouldn’t be far behind me. The cleric held his hand out, bubbles forming around his fingers as a swarm of small, biting fish appeared, speeding towards Ulkair, Cheshire, and Lóin. The swarm surrounded them, tearing away at them bite by bite, even wiggling into Lóin’s heavy armour.

“That spell focuses on one spot. If you move out of that circle, the fish won’t be able to follow you,” I called, watching the water tinge pink around them.

Nodding, Cheshire held tight to Ulkair and swam towards me, batting at the countless fish sinking their teeth into her. Drawing away, they almost seemed to lose interest, releasing her and focus on the half dragon. Pulling out his axe, his gaze fell on the cleric, his eyes narrowing as he swam towards him.

“I can’t die now! I have to protect my daughter!” Alix yelled, pushing the spear away from him as he held up his sword, staring down the merman before him.

Time seemed to slow as the ranger readied another arrow and the wizard was muttering arcane words, my companions all focusing on the new threat. This wasn’t right…the look in their eyes, this wasn’t their choice. Typhon must have cast some spell on them and would use the children of Lord Eadro to dull our blades, caring nothing for the lives he sacrificed. I only wanted to save my brother, give my people a safe place to live, free from the darkness that ever loomed over Zissyx.

I held my hands in the shape of a spiral, reaching out to our god, pleading that he hear me, save his children from a meaningless death. There was no avoiding fighting Typhon, just as I’d had no choice but to face Aquis, but these people were innocent. If they could but see beyond the illusion obscuring their senses, know what it was they were doing, they could choose…

I felt a sort of reassurance within me, a familiar guiding force wrapping around me as a beacon of sea green light emanated throughout the room. The cleric recoiled at the light, groaning and shaking his head. The confusion on his face turned to awe when he looked at me, I can only assume seeing what glory of Lord Eadro could shine through just his hierophant. He threw himself to the ground, bowing before me and begging forgiveness for turning against me.

The ranger and guard beside me looked around the room in confused horror at the carnage so thick in the water. Glancing cautiously at me, they fled from the room as fast as their tails could carry them through the water, not once looking back. The remaining fighter and wizard only smirked, such cruelty and amusement at our pain in their undazed eyes I realized they must have been slavers. Where Typhon held magic over the others, these two in fact chose to be here, to protect their investment. I clenched my fist around Anduin looking at them, my guilt chased away by anger. If they would not shy away from their fate, freed from any possible enchantment by the infinite mercy of Lord Eadro, then I would not either.

“Thank you, Cheshire,” Ulkair muttered beside me, drawing my attention back to them as he collected himself and drawing away from Cheshire’s embrace.

“I’ve got your back, bro. We work well together,” Cheshire commented, smiling faintly, though there was some sadness behind her gaze fixed on Ulkair.

“Yes, we do,” Ulkair agreed, returning her smile.

Blinking, he stared off behind her, looking pensively at the wall he had been chained to. His brows furrowed and he swam towards the wall, running his fingers over the symbols remaining. I found myself trailing after him, staying between him and the slavers. Studying the symbols closer, I started to discern individual runes, separating the explosion tags from the rest of them now that they had been expended. Even so, what he might have been trying to do was beyond me. If the lightning traps had been used, what good was the rest of it? If it could still hold anyone, we would never get Typhon close enough to snare him.

“Alix!” a high-pitched voice called, the owner immediately swimming over to the ranger.

Mimi, Aintai, they followed too? Where was Severi? The celestial rested her hands on Alix, skin growing over a gaping wound in his chest. Aintai waited in the hall, extending only her hand to cast a lightning bolt at the slaver that stabbed Alix. Mimi jumped back, shooting an irritated look at the sorceress.

“You can do it, Nerida!” Severi cheered, ducking back into the hallway.

Reflexively, I felt for the platinum ring on my hand, the shielding spell I intended to cast on him if he needed the protection. What was he doing here? In the entire city, there was no where he was more inclined to be attacked than here! I didn’t even have enough divine magic left to cast it on him. He was in so much danger here…but that was true of anywhere in Zissyx. At least here, we could keep an eye on him. Sighing, I turned my attention back to the slavers fighting Alix and Mimi. If we finished them off, it would just be Typhon for all of us to focus on.

Cheshire swung Ragnarok off her back, playing another song that seemed to be to her god’s liking, her voice darker, more gruff than normal, filling me with a sense of defiance, reminding me of standing up to my owner before I bought my freedom, every slaver who tried to beat me down.

Death surrounds
My heartbeat slowing down
I won’t take this world’s abuse
I won’t give up, I refuse

Just as Lord Eadro gave me the strength to go on then, he preserved me now. I would never bow down to their cruelty, stand by their malice when I could fight for a better existence for merfolk. I may not be able to save Zissyx, but if there was at least a choice for us, it was a start.

This is how it feels when you’re bent and broken
This is how it feels when your dignity’s stolen
When everything you love is leaving
You hold on to what you believe in

The slaver readied his spear, backing away from Alix to face Mimi as Lóin swam towards the wizard. The merman leapt at Mimi, stabbing his spear deep into her side. Screaming, the celestial fell back, blood seeping between her fingers pressed tightly over the new wound. Alix darted between them, his sword glowing in his hand. Flames whirled around the blade, hissing against the cold ocean water but the enchantment held, searing aquatic flesh unaccustomed to warmth. Bringing his sword around, Alix stabbed the blade through the slaver’s chest with a brilliant flash. Mimi twirled her scythe and cut the slaver’s arms off in a clean motion. Turning the blade, she brought her scythe back up in a wide arc, easily slicing through his torso before he could even scream.

No, not gonna die tonight
We’ve gotta stand and fight forever (don’t close your eyes)
No, not gonna die tonight
We’ve gotta fight for us together
No, we’re not gonna die tonight

Radiant light as I’d never seen shown from the wizard’s hands, a glowing orb shimmering before him. The other cleric raised his gaze but for the spell, transfixed on the magic. Rising, he reached out to the spell, following the light as though it were from Lord Eadro. His fingers were about to brush it when Lóin appeared beside him, heavy axe raised well above his head. The slaver barely had time to raise his arm in a futile attempt at protection before the half dragon cleaved him in two, a new red cloud surrounding him.

Break their hold
‘Cause I won’t be controlled
They can’t keep their chains on me
When the truth has set me free

I looked around, almost unable to believe that our battle might be nearing its end. We still had to fight Typhon and that magic he wielded so easily, but with all of us against him, we could all still survive this encounter. I looked around the room, searching for any sign of movement, and movement or whisper unaccounted for that might give him away. The space behind Cheshire shimmered, revealing something far different from what I expected.

This is how it feels when you take your life back
This is how it feels when you finally fight back
When life pushes me I push harder
What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger

Out of the water materialized long, orange tendrils tinged bronze at the ends, shifting strangely as viscous slime appearing along them flicking towards the Cheshire. As the invisibility spell faded, a stormy green shark-like creature appeared, three red eyes set atop each other in the middle of a triangular face staring at the bard. This creature…I’d heard of them, of those that travel between the planes, invading foreign waves. They could pose as other creatures and control vast numbers of people. That must be why hold person didn’t work on him…he was a mind shark, not something humanoid. It seemed familiar somehow, though I couldn’t have seen one before. This wasn’t a spell, it wasn’t some illusion, not this time. Tightening my grip on Anduin, I darted towards him. I had to save Cheshire…

The last thing I heard was you whispering goodbye

The mind shark drew back its many tentacles, lashing out at Cheshire and turning her song into screams as she was battered between the tendrils. The grey slime clung to her wherever it touched, her skin growing pale around it to the point of translucence, becoming a slimy membrane almost like a jellyfish, but losing what limited stability they possessed. Cheshire’s cries ebbed and she slumped lifelessly, Ragnarok slipping from what had been her fingers, the mucus spreading across her skin.

Cheshire…why did you follow me…? Why hadn’t you run when you knew what was waiting for you here? Visions of her facing down that aquatic demon flashed through my mind, that terrible nightmare that could only have been one of the abyssal sharks I’d heard horror stories about. It’s cruel eyes, delighting in our fear, our pain…I couldn’t lose her to a shark again. Screaming, I dashed towards Typhon, calling to me the last of my magic to tear him apart. Focus on me, see only me, these hands that killed your son, this face that would be the end of you too, of all you had in Zissyx. Leave them and hurt only me.

Divine power flowed through my arms, every last ounce I could muster to form a whirl of giant shards of ice speeding through the waters separating us, ripping through all it touched. The mind shark shrieked an unholy sound, recoiling, but to no avail. Shaking, red wisps leeching into the water on all sides, red eyes narrowed in my direction. Arcane magic hummed around us in no spell I recognized, resounding through the hall. I held Anduin up and braced for the spell, noticing too late a flash of deep grey, a shark swooping at me out of nowhere. Trepidation rippled through me as I tried to fend off the shark, its teeth only grazing me, though they still shredded my skin, peeling off a few of my scales.

What was a shark doing here? There was no kelp to hide in, no light filtering from above to disguise its pale belly. Its ambush failed and still it hunted me, circling me, eyes too intelligent regarding me. I held Anduin before me, looking between the sharks and Cheshire’s helpless form. I needed to heal her, but Typhon was so dangerous…I had to deal with him first and he seemed to have some sort of influence over the other shark, if I could only get around it long enough to get to Typhon.

The other cleric was swimming towards me, mace poised to strike, his gaze fixed on the shark. He…was helping me? Even those I didn’t know from the temple seemed to know me, or the reputation of me Aquis had spread. Everyone knew the blue haired priestess was a dirty slave and a whore….and yet he intended to aid me? Either he intended a bargain or perhaps…he somehow didn’t know who I was? Regardless, Lord Eadro had blessed him as he had me. If he wanted to help me, he could save her.

“Heal her!” I called out, pointing to Cheshire.

“But, the sharks…” he trailed off, looking nervously at the endless rows of teeth waiting to devour me, a chance I would make sure they wouldn’t get.

“I’ll be fine. She needs you more,” I dismissed, wondering why he was so eager to help me. Lord Eadro freed his mind, not me, and as a cleric he already should have been devout. Next to that illusion, neither of these were hardly anything to fear.

Nodding hesitantly, he swam towards Cheshire, weaving around the tendrils striking at him. His hand brushed the bard’s shoulder, sea green light mending what I could see of her injuries, though the slime didn’t fade as I’d hoped. Gasping, Cheshire sat up abruptly, taking hold of Ragnarok again. She was still in pain, but at least she was alive. For now, that was all I could hope for. Typhon drew his tentacles back and batted them away, clearing the path between us. More grey slime oozed out of the ends, coating their skin in the sticky substance.

“I will not succumb to your tyranny again!” the cleric cried out, wiping the ooze clean, unaffected by what ailed Cheshire.

‘As is befitting of a true follower of Lord Eadro,’ I mused, smiling with a bit of pride in my people for the first time. We could be better than we had been in Zissyx. We would be.

Feeling my determination renew, I looked between the sharks circling me, looking for an opening to attack Typhon. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a light flash, feeling arcane magic flowing through Ulkair, but not harming him. Instead, it seemed to restore him, giving back some of the magic he had lost trying to fend off Typhon’s first assault against us. Relief rippled through me seeing him act normally again, regaining his will and some magic once more. If nothing else, he could defend himself.

Alix swam after Typhon, stabbing his great sword deeply into his back while Lóin attacked from the other side, carving down to his spine. Typhon shrieked in agony, but his gaze never left mind, barely heeding them at all in favour of focusing on me. Finally, perhaps they would finally be as safe from him as they could be. Smiling, I darted under a tentacle he whipped at me and swung Anduin after the other shark to keep it at bay, edging closer to Typhon.

I heard a strange noise almost like a muted laughter and the shark lunged at me, its endless teeth all I could see. Darting back, I tried to fend it off with Anduin, but the shark easily wove around my trident, its teeth finding me still. Typhon chuckled again and four tendrils whipped out to strike me, taking advantage of my distraction. Every time I tried to knock on of them away, another invariably found me, the shark never far as weakness too familiar began setting in. I couldn’t take much more of this, but I had no more magic to heal myself, heal anyone. I just had to hold on, be strong for a little bit longer. Once Typhon was dead, they would be safe.

“Nerida!” the cleric cried, swimming after me with his hand extended, blind to the danger he was swimming into for the sake of aiding me.

Why was he doing this? Helping others, risking danger to himself to help a dirty slave; that wasn’t how the merfolk of Zissyx acted. Staying, doing as I’d asked, that alone was startling enough and now he was swimming between two sharks for me? The look in his eyes was so determined, almost desperate to save me from what he seemed to perceive would be my death. In following me, he neglected to watch Typhon, the mind shark shifting his aim just to thwart my fellow cleric’s efforts to help me, his pet not far behind. Screaming, the spell faded from his palm and he fell to the ground, doubling over. Thick clouds of blood surrounded the mind shark, pained eyes staring into me. Perhaps he knew he wasn’t leaving here, that all his planning had finally failed, but he had resolved to take me with him.

‘You won’t fall here, Nerida. I won’t let you,’ Ulkair’s voice echoed in my mind and I felt his arms wrap around me, holding me close.

I faintly heard arcane words resounding and magic wrapped around me like flames lapping at my skin, though it didn’t harm me. Instead, I felt the power of all the slaves of Zissyx with me, every single one who had ever been wronged, abused, drowned in hopelessness. Every slave Typhon had touched, every mind he had corrupted fueled me now, crying for revenge, for their voice, their freedom so long denied. I felt vestiges of old emotions flaring to new life, the caution, the fear I’d been taught because of people like him. I remembered the pain I had known under slavers like him, the despair holding Áine at night, praying I wouldn’t wake to see Lord Eadro had eased her suffering. Slavery may not end with him, but a new life could finally begin without his shadow lurking, tainting all it touched.

This thing, this abomination that dared try to take Ulkair from me, torture him with his greatest fears. He would use Cheshire against me, defile my sister and kill my brother just to maintain his abuse over my people. How long had he kept up this façade? No more. Our freedom would not be denied….my vengeance would not be denied!

I drew Anduin back, feeling him quiver in excitement, and I charged at Typhon, somehow no longer concerned with the shark waiting to tear me to pieces. I would withstand anything to strike down this demon, strengthened by my belovèd and protected by Lord Eadro. Typhon recoiled, lashing out in an attempt to stop me that seemed…pathetic, somehow. He sought to stop me, stop me , but I would not be killed so easily. No, not while he still had so much more blood to spill.

I grabbed the tentacle he struck me with and pulled him close to me, staring into his eyes, some dark part of me I hadn’t known existed reveling in the fear they reflected, the justice of inflicting on him what he had so many. I smiled, the perfect resolution coming to mind. A simple death would be too kind, too quick and too freeing. No, he deserved a cage as what he had put so many merfolk in, one I could provide him with.

I thrust Anduin forward, tearing through his eyes and down his side, electricity arcing wildly as flames seared through his flesh, leaving an icy trail behind. Sharp thorns lining Anduin’s tines dug deeper and deeper until I was sure his black soul was tangled on them, drowning in his own blood and agony. He needed to bleed, to suffer as we had. Feel despair as we had. Lose everything as we had. Reduced to nothing but a wailing soul, perhaps he would know, feel our agonized, empty existence and rot in it. Anduin hummed, taking hold of the soul and offering no energy to replace it. One day, my people would be free from this darkness oppressing us, but I would consign this monster to the fate he deserved, doomed to never know freedom again.

Screaming, I tore my trident out of him, satisfaction washing over me feeling the soul syphon into my jar. Typhon’s body sank to the ground followed by the other shark, another cloud of blood seeping out at the impact, whatever control he’d had over the fiend dragging them both to the grave. Seeing his body before me, nearly torn in half amidst a suffocating amount of blood surrounding me, I smiled, almost laughed joyously at the victory. He was dead, the main slavers in Zissyx gone and the taste of carnage left me burning for more. Why stop at just them when so many still remained? Slaves outnumbered slavers and we had nothing to lose but lives we didn’t want. We could overtake them, slaughter them until all of Zissyx was stained red with our freedom.

I tightened my grip on Anduin, lost in the bloody haze, my blood pumping with the fury of battle. I could destroy them! All of them! Just as I had Typhon, just as I had his worthless son, their pathetic assassin, I would rain Lord Eadro’s divine might on these soulless wretches underserving of the life he had given them! My head spun with bloodlust, with vengeance, images of the wars I would wage. I turned to face my companions, my thoughts, my whole body burning with the need to rally them as I had before, for the glory we would carve from their flesh. Seeing them, the liquid fire poured from me as suddenly as it’d come.

“Ulkair! Do you know what this is?” Cheshire asked, her voice small and afraid as she looked over her skin, growing ever more translucent.

Ulkair… yes, it was his spell I’d felt fading, taking my murderous lust with it, and leaving confusion tinged with horror in its wake. I…had done this…? I could recall a sense of delight in carving him to pieces, but it seemed almost distant. Typhon was now far from the first monster I’d killed, but this, this was more than just killing him. Looking at the bloody shreds of him surrounded his corpse, I felt like I should feel regret, pure horror, something stronger that almost apathetic resolution. Perhaps I hadn’t intended to do this exactly, but he deserved no better. He deserved worse.

“Yea, someone needs to cast remove disease on you. Oh….but we’re all out of magic…” Ulkair trailed off, grimacing.

“Do you have that spell?” I asked the other cleric, trying to collect myself. Cheshire, we had to help Cheshire. That was more important.

“No, I didn’t memorize that one today,” he sighed, looking more upset to disappoint me than concerned for Cheshire herself.

“How long do we have?” Cheshire asked, her gaze flitting between us.

“Actually, what this does is it means you can never breathe air again,” Ulkair announced, running his hand through his hair pensively.

“So….I’m just stuck here until someone casts remove disease?” Cheshire asked, almost sounding a little hopeful.

“No, once it’s complete, remove disease doesn’t work anymore.”

“Would cutting away the limb stop the spread?”

“I don’t know…there’s probably some way to cure it after the fact, but I don’t know what it is,” Ulkair sighed in defeat, looking despairingly at Cheshire.

“Do you have any teleport spells left?” I asked, loath to suggest he leave, but Cheshire needed help and High Priest Agorran memorized almost nothing but healing spells. He was bound to have remove disease.

Ulkair paused a moment, eyes wide as he thought, working out what to do. Looking back to Cheshire, he grabbed her hand, the space around them twisting and distorting until they vanished with a faint pop. I reached out to the space he had occupied a moment ago, immediately feeling his absence as acutely as I did the cold ocean water around me and I longed for his warmth. The abysmal vortex of suffering and sorrow that shrouded this city was overwhelming without him at my side, his hand in mine. I thought I could protect him, that I would be enough this time, but Zissyx had proven once more there was nothing it couldn’t take from me, given time. This morning, but precious few hours ago seemed an eternity.

I could reach out to him, hold him until I felt whole again, but….he was with Cheshire. I couldn’t distract him now. I just had to be strong a little longer. I had lived here for seventeen years. I could survive one day more. I could…I needed to…

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What Fresh Hell Is Byss 11
The Sound of Silence

DAY 13 (Session 11)
The Sound of Silence

The sun beams down at us from a clear blue sky, illuminating the unmistakable, haunted fens of Byss. I stare out through the thinning fog and feel my chest tighten with a shiver of joy – I’ve never been so happy to see something in all my life as I was this wet, stinking marshland. And the sun… the beautiful, beautiful sun! I wasn’t sure what it meant, perhaps destroying Elysia had saved Byss, perhaps things wouldn’t be so bad now, but it seemed like wishful thinking.
My temporary elation is shattered by a weak, agonized groan from Aintai, which jars me back to the harsh reality that she was bleeding to death, and Lóin had cut off her legs to free her.

“Aintai!”
I rush to the sorceress as Lóin rests her on the ground, the first tears I have ever seen her cry forcing their way down her pain contorted face. Alix follows me, and I can see his mind racing as he inspects the wounds for how best to stop the bleeding – or if it is altogether too late. I drop to my knees, hovering my hands above the severed flesh and desperately try to call Tubatron’s power to them, but it results only in my head pounding with strain.

“I’m… fine,” she hisses, bracing herself on an elbow, and as she grits her teeth I notice for the first time her fangs, which send a shudder down my spine. With a look of hard focus, she morphs herself down to a small snake, coiling around herself defensively. At least the bleeding seems to have stopped, perhaps this way she can arrest the damage of the wounds, at least until someone can heal her. I reach over and gently scoop the viper into my hands.

“Will you be okay like this?” I ask, and she nods, so I lift her to my shoulder’s height, and shiver a little as she slithers around my neck, a cold coil of muscle and scales. Tucking her head under my cloak, I believe Aintai resigns herself to sleep, as she should.

I glance around at my companions, and jump a bit as I notice Ulkair’s form has changed as well – either that, or a hulking gray lizard monster has eaten him and taken Nerida as its own. He notices my stare and growls, curling his fingers tighter around our cleric companion, whose skin still shines with rippling sea-green light, and I quickly look away.

“Huh,” Alix mumbles, and I twist to see him surveying the horizon, “we’re really far from Byss… But I think I know how to get home.”

“How far is really far?” Lóin asks, and Alix pauses for a moment to consider.

“About fifty miles, I’d say. Probably three to five days travel, under normal circumstances anyway.”

“Normal circumstances?” When are our circumstances ever normal?
I grumble mentally, but I know Alix must mean under normal Byssian circumstances, meaning when everything was wrought with danger and hideous monsters.

“Well, perhaps with the sun out, it could go a little faster,” I offer with a weak but hopeful shrug, “there should be less monsters, right?”

The ranger smiles at me, though it seems thinly spread over his weary features, and ruffles my hair – as it if could somehow not be tousled enough.

“Hope springs eternal,” he says, and I sigh, the exhale somehow bringing the harsh drain of the day to rest on my shoulders.

“Can we rest before we go any further?” I plead, looking around at my companions, none of whom seem to be in much better shape than myself. They all begin to debate which would be better, pressing on until nightfall, stuffing everyone they can in my bag and flying, or making much needed camp.

Lóin and Mimi don’t seem thrilled about the idea of wasting any time, in fact no one does, but if it’s going to take three days and upwards to make it back, I don’t see how losing an afternoon for rest will hurt us. I glance back in Ulkair’s direction, who growls again, and stumbles, his many monstrous eyes hazy, and I’m only more sure that we, especially he, won’t make it far, if he makes it at all.

Alix, we have to rest.

I know. He concludes. I’ll find us a place, just hang in there.

Okay…

I had blamed our immediate need of rest on Ulkair, but somehow the promise that I would stay on my feet is a strain, and all my senses cry out in objection. My head feels like it weighs too much for my neck to support, and my feet too much for my legs to lift. Aintai can’t be more than two pounds in this tiny form, but her sleeping, scaly form pulls on my shoulders like a necklace made of bricks. Everything hurts as we drag our way across the wet terrain, the closest thing to conversation between us Ulkair’s occasional growling at someone who wanders too close.

It doesn’t take Alix long to find a cave in which we can rest. It’s snug, protected, and inviting, even. I drag myself into the shaded enclosure as though it is the last thing I’ll do, and immediately plop against a wall, unable to will myself to do anything else. Alix starts a fire on some some dead branches that appear to have been fallen from the cave’s foliage, and everyone takes a spot around it. I watch as Ulkair lays Nerida next to the blaze, and reverts his form back to curl up with her, and find myself scowling at the injured wizard.

Sure, lay Nerida next to the fire demon. I grumble mentally. She’d love that…

I let out an audible “pfft”, and Alix beckons me over to him, probably in hopes of preventing me from starting a war which I cannot win. It takes more effort than it should, but eventually I convince myself that sleeping alone in the corner of a cave is inferior enough to sleeping with Alix that it is worth moving for. I pull myself up and shuffle over to him, plopping back down rather hard on the large root on which he’s taken a seat.

I lean against Alix, and feel the ragged movements of his chest as he draws in each breath with more effort than the last, his head a pounding mess of survival instincts and battle memories.

“Get some rest,” he mumbles to me, “I’ll keep watch.”

The words echoed of my nightmare cause my muscles to seize with fear, my mind immediately running to the horrors wrought on us by that demon – by me. I shake my head, forcing my mind elsewhere to try and keep from alarming Alix, and peer up at him with concern.

“You’re tired, too.”

“Rest.”

“Let me stay up and help you keep watch,” I try, but Lóin interjects suddenly, and much too quickly.

“No. I will,” he says, “Alix and I can keep watch.”

I look over at him, my lips forming a tight line as I try not to speak or act rashly, but my opinion on the matter seems to matter very little, as Alix nods in agreement.

“Indeed,” he says, “Lóin and I will keep watch.”

But Alix!

“Go to sleep, Cheshire.”

“…Fine,” I pout, shifting sourly to lay down and snuggle next to the ranger. I rest my head against his leg, his hand softly brushing my hair back, and under the soothing gesture my anger begins to melt away.

“It’s alright,” he reassures, and I feel my lip waver. Was it? Could it ever just be “alright”?

“Alix…”

“Shh, rest, little one,” he repeats. “We’ll talk in the morning.”

Aisylynn… My thoughts threaten to derail, to consume me with grief, but Alix wards them away for the time being. He continues to stroke my hair, and exhaustion takes its toll, pulling me quickly into the comfortable abyss of sleep.

DAY 14

The sound of shouting permeates my dreams, and I wake with a start as something grabs hold of me, then many other somethings. I gasp, struggling to pull in air as what my bleary eyes can barely make out to be vines constrict my arms to my sides, and around my chest and throat.

“A…lix…” I croak out the cry, wriggling desperately beneath the hold of the vines for any glimpse of him. I feel my face ache with the strain of suffocation when the vines recede, curling around themselves lifelessly as arrow after arrow sink into them. I hurriedly shove the remainders off of me, coughing and scrambling to my feet, to see our entire camp in equal chaos. I grab my axe from the ground, slashing at the plants as they lash out at my legs, and the ground quivers beneath me.

What’s going on!? My exhausted mind struggles to reason, scanning the cavern full of twisting plants for a source or a way to stop them. Alix, what are these things?!

Assassin vines!

Oh good! I hiss across our link. And what exactly are those!?

I have no idea what “assassin vines” are supposed to mean to me, and I hear a string of curses over our link that I’m not sure he meant to convey, but Alix’s arrows keep the continuing wave of murderous foliage at bay as I try to gain my bearings. Across from me however, Nerida is not so lucky, she’s still unconscious, laying in Ulkair’s arms as the vines constrict around them.

“Nerida!” I yell, but get no response, and instead begin skirting my way across the chaos to free them. The ground quakes beneath me again, and up from it bursts three huge, bug-like monsters around our campfire, one directly between myself and Nerida. The monster snaps its pincers at me, and I lift my axe defensively, taking a step back, but stumble on the shifting weeds below us. I struggle to regain my footing, fury and exhaustion bubbling over in my mind, and the monster moves closer to me, it’s hairy, spiny legs shuffling deftly around the vines.

Around us, the vines’ assault has roused Ulkair, who transforms again into the massive gray beast, and rips them from his and Nerida’s bodies. He roars, holding her close as he stomps wildly on the vines, and the fire, and everything else around him. He doesn’t seem stable, but at least I know Nerida is safe. The monster snaps at me again, pushing me back as I struggle to deflect each blow, my reflexes sluggish with fatigue. My hand slips on my axe, and the ant-like lashes out and bites into my arm, a sharp burning spreading from the wound. I punch the creature’s head in an effort to free myself, but its carapace is hard, and the blow has no effect.

A burst of blue and white arcana slams into the monster like a bolt of lightning, and it screeches and releases my wrist. I lift my axe and slam it into the huge bug, and the blade cracks into it mercilessly, leaving the monster to shrivel in on itself, twitching and lifeless. I glance around me, the vines all hacked to bits or stomped beneath Ulkair’s feet, and spot Mimi unconscious, in the clutches of another bug monster.

I snatch three of my arrows from the cave floor, and fire them in quick succession as Alix had taught me, two of them grazing off the monster’s hard outer shell, but the third sinking through its eye and into it’s skull. It squeals and drops Mimi next to the fire, leaving an acid burn on her chest and a hole in her robes, but curls into a defeated ball just as the other had. A resounding squish signals Ulkair’s defeat of the last creature, and I slump to the floor, panting and leaning on my instrument. I hear Aintai groan in discomfort, and moments later she slithers up my arm in her tiny viper form once more.

“Thanks,” I pant, and the serpent gives a curt nod before disappearing under my cloak.

Ulkair reaches down and snatches Mimi from next to the fire, clearly picking up on her being injured, but he hasn’t stopped storming around, stepping on things, including the fire pit itself, which appears to burn him, though he doesn’t stop. Alix approaches him, likely to free Mimi of his fist and investigate her wounds, but Ulkair growls, taking a panicked swipe at the ranger and tightening his grip on Nerida and Mimi protectively.

“What the hell!” Lóin demands, ripping his axe from a thick vine’s remnants, “what’s gotten into him?!”

Alix takes a step back, and I push myself back up to my feet – what was wrong with Ulkair? Had something happened to him in Elysia that was causing this hysteria? Could he not handle the magic of the font? No, that couldn’t be it, he seemed sane when he opened that portal.

“I don’t know,” I manage watching as Ulkair roars in pain, and thrashes about for whatever is attacking him – likely the fire pit in which he still stands. “This form must not be…”

Too bright? I finish mentally, deciding not to voice that particular opinion aloud, should he be able to be insulted by it. He finally moves himself from the area of the embers, growling and he makes a wild glance around the cave, all six of his monstrous eyes burning with battle.

“But he’s just trying to protect Nerida! I.. Maybe I can calm him down.”

Music soothes the savage beast, right? I glance up at Ulkair’s monstrous form doubtfully, but lift my instrument and begin to pluck out a familiar, harmonious melody as I edge closer to him.

Careful, Cheshire… Alix warns, eying the distance between myself and Ulkair skeptically. Ulkair’s eyes rest on me for a moment as my fingers shift over the chords, his chest rising and falling with labored breaths.

“Fear not this night,
You will not go astray
Though shadows fall,
Still the stars find their way,”

I lift my voice and already his posture shifts, the fury of his movements fading with the familiar tune. I suspected this would be the one to reach him, as I knew it had at least once before.

“Awaken from a quiet sleep
Hear the whispering of the wind
Awaken as the silence grows
In the solitude of the night
Darkness spreads throughout the land
And your weary eyes open silently
Sunsets have forsaken all
The most far off horizons,”

Ulkair’s grip loosens on our comrades, and with a low grumble he discards Mimi on the ground, allowing Alix to move him and tend to her. I move a bit closer to Ulkair, who darts a suspicious look at me, but doesn’t move away or grasp Nerida tighter, and continue to play.

“Nightmares come when shadows roam
Eyes close and heartbeats slow
Fear not this night
You will not go astray
Though shadows fall
Still the stars find their way…”

With another, somewhat more petulant grumble, Ulkair sits, laying Nerida back down beside him, and shrinks back to his usual self, curling around her protectively. I sit beside them for awhile, lost in the familiar melody as Ulkair drifts to sleep. It had been my instinct to play this song, I knew it would reach him, just as it reached me in every dark, empty night. Filled me with hope, showed me the stars in the black sky… but it doesn’t fill me with the strength and love of my sister as it always had before. Not tonight.

“Distant sounds of melodies
Calling through the night to your heart
Auroras, mists, and echoes dance
In the solitude of our life
Pleading, sighing arias
Gently grieving in captive misery
Darkness sings a forlorn song
Yet our… hope–”

I choke briefly on the bitter taste of the words, no matter how well I play the notes, they don’t sound right. Each drop of music rings hollow and heavy in the air, rippling in emptiness, because Aisylynn isn’t behind them, only her memory. I bite my trembling lip, my fingers moving deftly through the well-known beat, but my voice cracking under the strain of unshed tears.

“–our hope can still rise up…”

I stop – I can’t sing this song. I can’t ever do it justice. Every string, every verse tears the void in my soul larger and more jagged. I lean my head on the cool metal of my axe, taking in a deep, shaking breath, and try to fight back my utter aloneness. I wanted so badly to save her, I wanted to believe, to win, to be unafraid of the dark night, like I was when we were together. I wanted her to be right, so much that I risked her soul to prove we had nothing to fear, and now she was gone.

Fear keeps you alive. Alix’s words taunt me, wiser and less whimsical than the comfort of Aisylynn’s song. He was right… he was always right, and if I had listened to him, maybe Aisylynn would still be… but she wasn’t, now she was only a memory.

I pull myself forcibly from the thoughts, shaking my head to clear it of the dark spiral. I’m just tired, that’s all. I just need rest. In the morning, surely everything would be fine. Glancing back at Ulkair and Nerida, they both appear fast asleep, but even in their proximity to the dwindling fire, Ulkair shivers. With a sigh, I rustle through my bag of holding, tucking a spare blanket from it over the two of them.

“Here, don’t freeze to death,” I mumble, certain neither of them can hear me, “use this blanket. It’s beautiful.”

A sad smile tugs at the corner of my lips as I draw my hand back from the gray wool blanket, which is anything but beautiful, but still calls my mind back to those minutes of joyous, thieving high I’d achieved when commandeering it. “And stolen.”

“Thank you, Cheshire,” Ulkair mumbles, his conscious response taking me aback as he snuggles with the blanket and Nerida’s back.

“I…” I look down at the two of them, beaten exhausted, and sigh as Ulkair already appears asleep once more.
“You’re welcome.”

I push myself back up and return to my spot with Alix, although he and Lóin are busy digging in the corner of the cavern.

“What are you two doing?” I question sleepily, kicking away the crumbled remnants of the vines as I approach.

“Assassin vines are just the arms of a greater threat,” Alix explains, his voice strained with the effort of carving out the hardened earth. “they all spring from one large root, and if we don’t destroy it, they’ll grow back quickly to claim the next unfortunate group of traveler’s they can ensnare.”

“Oh, alright,” I stifle a yawn, trying to keep my mind present and engaged with is in front of me, “can I help?”

“No, you need to rest.”

“But this could take you hours,” I object – shovels would undoubtedly have eased the process, but as I had left most of the things from my bag in a heap in the arena, they were sadly in short supply.

“And? It will pass the watch.” Alix answers as though it isn’t an issue, but I can feel his head pounding with exhaustion.

He’s tired, everyone is, Mimi isn’t even conscious, and neither is Nerida. This would keep him awake for the next few hours, but then what? Stay up all night on watch alone and hope it works out? Travel exhausted and on the edge like he is now? Fight like he is now?

“Will you wake me up for next watch?”

“Cheshire,” he sighs and turns from his task to look at me, “no. You need to sleep.”

“So do you!” I insist, stomping my foot to emphasize my argument. “I’m less hurt than anyone else! I got more sleep in Elysia than you! I can keep watch!”

“This won’t be the first time I’ve kept watch overnight,” he answers simply, remaining calm despite the heated frustration that rises in my face.

“That doesn’t mean it’s good for you!” My volume raises with every word, and he lifts his hand pointedly to bring me down a few notches. “Alix, please. Just… let me take a shift on watch!”

You know as well as I do how bad you feel right now! I can barely even make out your thoughts! I insist mentally, knitting my brow as we stare each other down. It’s not you fault, Alix, but your head…

I hesitate to throw the truth of the matter in Alix’s face, and instead try to redirect my argument.

I’m just worried about you.

And I’m worried about you, little one. My wounds are on the body, they will heal on their own. Yours… I don’t know what to do for yours. There’s no…
I sense his frustration and concern for me as he pauses, trying to think of the right words.
I know of no poultice I can make, no herb I can find, no thing I can do to help you, I know only that I can let you sleep, and hold you while you weep.

I frown, my brow knitting as I listen to his words. He isn’t wrong, and he isn’t being unkind, but I feel the stinging truth that he dances around, not unlike me. He doesn’t trust me to keep watch, because I’m unstable. I suppose it isn’t any less fair than my not wanting him to keep watch because of his injuries and his struggle to think, but I grit my teeth, struggling to keep from lashing back out at him. I’m so angry, so hurt, I feel frustrated tears building in my eyes and I know, bitterly, that they aren’t Alix’s fault.

I…
I clench my fists at my side, letting go of the argument I feel I could only continue with unnecessary spite.
I just need something to do. I can’t sleep…

I hang my head, trying to collect myself. You need rest, too, and if I could just do something to help, I.. I wouldn’t feel so bad… I guess.

Sleep, Cheshire, and I will wake you. You think it’s that I don’t trust you. No, I trust you with my life, but I don’t know how to help you, so I must to trust you to help yourself. So sleep, but I know the need to act, to help, so I will wake you for your turn.

You promise?

Yes.

…Alright.
I scoot a little closer to Alix, wrapping my arms around him quickly, and press my forehead to his armored back. I cling to him for a moment before I feel my shoulders start to shake, threatening me with a collapse I am not ready for, and push away.

Goodnight, Alix. Steadying myself with a long breath, I go to curl up by the fire pit, trying to rest my mind enough for sleep.

Goodnight, Cheshire.

Hugging my knees closely to my chest, I watch the embers dance and toss some of the broken vines over them to fuel the dying blaze. I need to sleep, I feel exhaustion weighing on every ounce of me, my muscles throbbing, the heat from the fire pit only worsening my eyes burning. I lay my head against my knees, trying to fight the horrible truth that periodically presses its way back into my mind. I just need to rest – it will help, I know. I close my eyes for only a moment, and Alix’s calloused hand rests on my shoulder, shaking me lightly.

“Cheshire,” he says quietly, I blink up at the fuzzy outline of my father, struggling to focus on him. “Wake up.”

“Okay…” I mumble, rubbing my eyes, and this time clearing my view enough to see. Everyone appears to be asleep, even Lóin. It makes me wonder exactly how much longer Alix let me sleep than I’d intended. I can sense his unease as he sits next to me, and I move to rest a hand on his shoulder – seems I really am becoming a Byssian.

“Don’t worry, Alix,” I yawn, “I’ll wake you up for anything important.”

He looks at me with a weary half smile, and claps his hand over mine, then lays down without another word. I know the unspoken truth – he’s worried for me, he’d rather stay up, but he respects me, and his promise.

Maybe he shouldn’t.
I sigh, staring at the dying pile of embers in front of me. What was there to respect? I was a mess. Everything I had ever accomplished was on backs of another person, and when it really mattered, when I really, really had to come through, I choked. I push myself up from the spot on the cavern floor, and pace the enclosed space, trying to keep calm as my mind catches up to the past few days dizzyingly fast.

I have no idea how long I wander back and forth, prodding the dying fire on occasion, hovering by the entrance to the cave, the night sky and the seclusion of the outdoors tempting me. I spent so many years afraid to be alone, and yet as I feel the breakdown, beating relentlessly against my thinning defenses, it seems almost worth the horrors of whatever lurks in the swamp. I had to keep it together, I had to, just until morning, then some new task or threat would distract me, as it always does.

But what good would the privacy do me? What was one more breakdown in the heap of miserable failures my friends had been witness to? I couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn with my bow, couldn’t stop the immortal child from shredding my friends, I couldn’t save Aisylynn’s life, and I hadn’t even really saved her soul. What would it even matter if they respected me at the end of the day? I already knew they shouldn’t. Aisylynn’s death bears down on me, her scream playing over and over in my head as that demon tears into her, and I put my head in my hands and lean on the cavern wall, desperate to block out the crushing reality.

What have I done?
My sister was dead, and it was my fault. If I had just found her sooner, if I had told Zebidee not to send me here to Byss, or let that demon just kill me instead of running away, or anything. If I had done anything differently, Aisylynn would still be alive. She didn’t do anything to deserve this, she took care of me, she was a good person, all she ever did was love me. I screwed up, I forgot her, forgot the demon, and now she paid the price for my failure.

It isn’t fair!

Aisylynn hadn’t even seen me in eight years – eight long, lonely years. She’d probably forgotten about me, moved on, probably had a family of her own by now, children, a husband, a good life, and I stole it from her. Again. Because it wasn’t good enough to steal her life when I was born, it wasn’t good enough for her to lose her childhood to raising me, it wasn’t good enough for me to cost my family their home, cost my brother his freedom. No. I had to take the very life from the one person who never begrudged me anything.

I bite my lip to silence the sobs that overtake me, digging my finger into my arms until I feel my skin break, and the warmth of newly drawn blood beneath my nails. I clutch harder still as I slide to the floor, but the sensation means nothing, the pain doesn’t compare. My body trembles under the weight of the truth as my days of numb denial crash around me.

She’s gone. It’s my fault. I can’t ever… I take an unsteady breath, which only breaks into more audible weeping. I can’t ever undo it, I can’t ever make it right. I would never hear her sing again, never show her how strong I had become, I would never make her – make any of my family see that I was worth anything. I could never tell her how sorry I was, or how empty my heart is without her, or that I still love her.

It’s not fair!

The pain builds in my chest, piling further and further until the tightness catches my breath, unbearable, and I choke out another sob. I move my hands to my face, wiping desperately at my tear-stained cheeks and my dripping nose as I bawl, my breath coming in broken, shallow gasps.

It’s not fair, it’s not fair!

I repeat the words a hundred times in my head, as if they would change anything. As if there was any power in the universe to whom they made a speck of difference, or did anything but rile me. My fingers tangle roughly in my hair in hopeless grief, desperate for the numb denial I’d had only hours ago, and I bite my tongue to keep from screaming. The long, solitary moments of muffled sobbing leave me a nauseous, exhausted mess, bubbling out the occasional muted cry into my knees.

I stare at the dark walls of the cave and watch the dull orange glow from the embers flicker across them, empty and alone, despite the presence of every friend I had to my name. A hollow, haunted melody begins creeping to the surface of my heartache, and I quietly sing the words out into the bleak night, filling the cavern with my aching soul.

“Hello darkness, my old friend,
I’ve come to talk with you again,
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains within the sound of silence,”

I could never repair the damage, I could never get her back, undo the pain or the fear. I could never change our past, I couldn’t protect her, or stop what I had done. That truth sits heavily on my chest – what could I ever do to make it right? Nothing. I can do nothing. I’m lost – helpless. I tighten my grasp on my arms, the words falling dark and hollow around me.

Tubatron… help me. I lean my head against the wall of the cavern, sobbing in hopeless prayer. But to what end? There’s nothing he could do, no undoing the damage, even for a god. And I feel nothing, nothing of his holy presence, no answers, no peace or comfort. Not anything.

“In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
’Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a vivid light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence,”

Please… I know I’ve asked for too much. I-I understand. I swallow hard, bitterly placing my head in my hands, regret for my careless requests rattling my thoughts. Please. I don’t know what to do. This soul… maybe it means nothing to you, but if it wasn’t for her, music… would mean nothing to me.

“And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never shared
No one dared disturb the sound of silence,”

If it weren’t for the songs she sang to me at night, I would never have sung for anyone else. Never even dared to lift my voice.
My voice breaks, wavering with my grief as I beg with all the power my soul has, and for all of it I don’t know what I’m asking for, instead just rambling at a god from whom I’ve already received more than I had any right to ask for. I had begged so much of Tubatron and gave so little in return, but he saw something in me, he trusted me in moments I didn’t think myself capable. None of that would mean anything if it weren’t for Aisylynn, I never could have done the things I did without her voice empowering me.
This soul… is so much more beautiful than mine. I…

“Fools, said I, you do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you,”

I know I can’t change the past, but… she is what shaped my future.
My future. A future I never thought I would have. A future as Tubatron’s high priest, a future with a family, with music – a future I wouldn’t have without Aisylynn. She protected me, taught me, inspired me, she soothed my fears, and I left her in a prison. My mind carries me back to the fear and pain of being a spirit, how I’d torn at the seams, faded away, almost into nothing.
She didn’t deserve a future of darkness, a future of fear and questions and silence. I couldn’t change our past, but maybe now I could shape her future. I close my eyes, lowering my gaze to the glistening stone floor, and finally I know what I’m praying for.
For all the rest she ever gave me… she deserves it more than anyone. Please. Don’t let her be consumed by silence.

“But my words, like silence raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence…”

The shattering of glass pulls me from my thoughts, and as I turn to look for its source, a familiar brassy light falls over me, and Ulkair’s sleeping form. The warmth of Tubatron’s holiness wraps around me, and I sink to my knees, shaken with awe as the sound of divine music floods my ears. Relieved tears slip from my eyes as finally peace touches me, brilliant, glittering figures of light descend within the cavern, filling it with the brightness of dawn and the music of Tubatron’s own holy instrument.

The hymn is reminiscent of the music I’d heard in Tubatron’s concert hall, not as overwhelming, but just as beautiful. I feel the familiar, gentle touch of my sister’s hand on my cheek, soothing away my tears as she always had – as if I was the one she should be worried about, after everything that had happened to her. Her hand draws away and I bite my lip, reaching up to touch the empty space, but the loneliness that echoes in the missing contact is washed away as I stare after her. She looks happy. Her voice sweeps over me as it joins the chorus, ethereal, but beautiful, and leaves a bittersweet aching in its wake.

Aisylynn…

Tubatron’s reassurance fills the aching space in my soul. She’ll be alright, her voice will not be drown by the horror of death, but will live on in Tubatron’s celestial choir. With him, she will have rest and happiness, and he will ease the suffering I brought on her.

Thank you. I close my eyes as another burst of brassy light and music empties the cavern of Tubatron’s presence, and let out another small sob. Thank you…

In the absence of Tubatron’s power, the cave is cold and dim, but in an instant Alix is at my side. He pulls me into his lap and wraps his arms around me, and I wonder how long he has been awake before I feel my heart break with another sob. I can’t even tell what I am crying for anymore – relief, sadness, exhaustion, any number of things beating their way through my head, but I cling to the comforting embrace.

Another pair of arms wraps around me, and suddenly Nerida’s familiar presence engulfs me. Her arms wrap easily around the both of us, and I sob into her chest, which heaves with the effort of just breathing. It is relief enough to just know she is awake, that she even could wake up, but her familiar, gentle hold eases the hollow aching the wracks me.
She moves a hand back, and I force myself not to reach out after it, but she returns it with a softly glowing gemstone. It glitters all the colors of the rainbow as she hands it to me, and I look at it, confused, worry for the fissures that once again decorate her skin, but pull it to my chest.

Enclosed in Alix and Nerida’s arms, I cling to the glowing stone, clutching it to my chest until an unfamiliar pair of hands takes mine. I look up to see Ulkair, golden eyes staring down at me with a sad intensity, as though he is straining to reach a memory long lost. He begins to speak in Elysian, and although the words that reach my ears are foreign, they somehow reach past my mind, and delve into my soul.

He floods my senses with visions of paradise, with the closest sensation I have ever felt to standing in Tubatron’s presence, being filled with the music of his concert hall. The dark cavern falls away as Ulkair speaks, surrounding me with warm sunlight, clean air that carries beautiful, boisterous music and the scent of wildflowers.

In the bright expanse I see Aisylynn, she’s singing, laughing, she looks so happy, so whole. She turns to look at me, not the haunted visage that had been burned into my mind by that demon, not the tired, scared girl who faked so many smiles for my sake, but jovial and rested. I reach to touch her, and she hugs me, wrapping me in the embrace I’d longed for all these years.

The soft grass sways around us, a happiness I never thought I’d feel again bubbling out of me as I cling to her, elated tears brimming in my eyes. The music is wonderful, it’s everywhere, it’s warm and so welcoming. She lets me go, reaching her thumbs to wipe the tears clear from my eyes, and I stare up at her, unable to muster any words.

Her smile is genuine, it reaches her eyes, which glimmer in the light that surrounds us. I feel the pieces of my heart ache as I realize I’ve never seen this expression before, but I smile back at her nonetheless. This is what she will be like, in paradise with Tubatron, without strain, without… burdens. It is a bittersweet realization, that I was among her burdens, but nothing compares to the paradisaical harmony that surrounds me. In this place, in this moment, I feel like gold. I feel forgiven, and it is enough.

Ulkair’s beautiful illusion fades back into the cavern, and I feel the cold drip on my tears falling to my exposed arms, my hands still in his as my world spins back into focus. I meet his eyes, and he shakes his head, as if focusing to pull himself from his train of thought.

“Thank you,” I mumble, not sure what else to say. He releases my hand and walks away without another word – perhaps drained from his use of the Elysian tongue, a language with a power I still couldn’t understand.

“I’ll take care of her,” I hear Alix murmur, and Nerida shifts, her arms disentangling from the embrace as she readies to follow Ulkair.

“Thank you Nerida,” I repeat, grasping her hand as she pulls away. She looks torn, giving me a sad smile and clasping my hand in her own, I can tell she’s hesitant to leave, and I struggle to find words with which to comfort her. At least, truthful ones. I want to tell her I feel better, tell her I will be alright, and perhaps I will, but now I feel nothing, too exhausted and numb to put name to the listless emotions that rattle against the fragile walls of my mind.

“I’m sad,” I admit, no doubt to the truth of at least that statement. “I lost my family in Elysia. Aisylynn was all I had but… I have this family now.”

“And maybe we’re weird, and a little broken, and maybe you’re all terrifying,” I manage a small, fond smile, letting go of her hand as I finish my explanation, “but you all love me… and that’s more than I can say for most of the last one.”

I lean heavily on Alix as he pulls me in close, sniffling in numb exhaustion, my mind still reeling with the visions of paradise in which I’d rather have stayed. Nerida returns to her place with Ulkair to rest, and I rest easier with Alix just knowing that she had woken up, and would wake again.

“Alix…”
I sniffle into the ranger’s clothes, unsure of what to say, and he holds me silently as I sort through the mess. What was there to say? “You were right” he’s heard too much, “I’m sorry” was certainly true, but I didn’t know what for, “I love you”, “I’m glad I have you”, “Thank you” all seemed cheap in the shadow of the emotions that towered over me. Uncertainty settles on my shoulders and I feel myself shrink more with every passing moment, until Alix’s arms envelop me completely.

Eventually my tears subside to sniffles, and my sniffles into silence, and Alix only holds me tighter as the moments pass. He moves us from the edge of the cavern to sit by the dying fire, and I stare at the embers, dazed, occasionally reaching up to wipe my nose on my– well, Alix’s cloak. Alix runs his fingers through my hair, and the crackle of embers softly lulls me, pulling me down into the silence of sleep.

DAY 14

Alix does not wake me, and when I eventually stir from my listless sleep, I peer up at him, guiltily realizing that I abandoned my watch.

“I’m sorry,” I murmur, resting my head against his chest once again. He reaches a hand up to gently rub my arm, a gesture that assures me he is not angry, although that knowledge does little to ease my conscience. It seems everyone else is just waking, as well, Nerida heals all the past night’s injuries, each spell that she casts causing the fissures Elysia left on her skin to burst with the sea green light, but no one really seems to take notice of them besides Ulkair, and Nerida herself.

Alix? Can you see those.. um, cracks in Nerida?
I ask as he douses the remnants of the fire pit, readying to leave. He looks over at her, studying her for a moment, and shakes his head.

I saw something like that when Ulkair cast that spell in Elysia, but nothing now.

Oh… But they’re all over her, they show up whenever she uses magic.

It stands to reason that perhaps he cannot see them because he isn’t in tune to holy energy like Nerida and I are and Ulkair must know they’re there, whether from Nerida telling him or perhaps his own wisdom.

I wonder what they could be…

I’m sure Agorran will know.

I sigh and nod, picking up my bag from the ground, although the bag feels suddenly like it weighs hundreds of pounds, and even the small effort of lifting it is excruciating. I moan mentally as we trudge out of the cavern, and although I hadn’t meant to direct the thought at Alix, he scoops me up in his arms as we walk, perhaps sensing my strain.

“I can walk,” I mumble out the weak objection, knowing how unfair it is for Alix, who has already taken my night’s watch, to now carry me as we travel – and also knowing that it won’t stop him.

“I know,” he says simply. I lean my head on his shoulder, grateful for the relief, even if I don’t deserve it, and try to rest my mind, anxiety burning away at me already. We would be home soon, then, surely… things would be alright. Somehow. Agorran would help Nerida, and Aintai, and…

Alix, do you think Agorran is alright?

The Byssians had the upper hand when we’d left, but Dovev’s army was massive, even with him dead… My mind quickly wanders to our abandoned comrades’ fate, and my stomach twists with dread. Nerida and Ulkair ran off to Elysia before the battle was won, what if we made the wrong choice following them? We threw everything away, we destroyed Elysia, and what if… what if there’s no home to go back to?

Sighing, Alix squeezes me as he walks, and I feel him collecting his thoughts.
“Cheshire, I learned long ago that you can’t worry about the people who might die while you are gone. It will drive you insane. Focus on the people around you, keep them safe, and then return to the people you’ve left. Then wreak vengeance on anything that has hurt them in your absence. If anything’s happened to him, we’ll find whatever is responsible and we’ll kill it.”

Alix’s words hit me hard with the bitter truth – there is no reassurance he can give me, there’s no way he could know if Agorran, or anyone, made it through that battle. And there’s nothing we can do if they didn’t, except try to pick up the pieces, whatever pieces that remained. My stomach lurches, my mind reeling with worry for my home, so newly found, and so likely destroyed. I pull Alix’s cloak tighter around myself, I know he’s right, I know he’s learned this lesson the hard way, and that worry will not help me, but it still racks every fiber of my being.

If Agorran is dead, it’s our fault, and maybe following Nerida was the only choice we could make, but would that soften the blow? Would that poor consolation be enough to drown out Nerida’s cries over his body? I shudder at the memory. Nothing would be enough to make me forget the anguish in her voice, nothing would heal that wound. I peer over at her, walking hand-in-hand with Ulkair, exhaustion stretching her features thin, and I can still picture the cracks of light down her skin. If Agorran is gone… will there be any helping her? Will there be any helping Aintai’s legs, or Alix’s head?

How many times had I told myself “it was the final stretch”? How many times had I said that Alix just needed rest, and healing, that everything would be okay? And here we are, in the wake of it all. Beaten, exhausted, unsure, sick with worry, trudging the long, long miles home. It doesn’t feel like a victory. It doesn’t feel like anything. The sun’s precious rays had seemed like a kiss from heaven when I’d stepped into them, but by midday they’ve tinged Alix’s skin pink, and two more days of travel will likely see us all burned.

The wet trudge through the marshes seems only harder on everyone for the new heat, and what good did giving Byss its positive energy back do if we left its people to die? I promised Agorran we would save Elysia, and we destroyed it. I promised… well, I made many promises. I hang my head, covering my face as a new sob threatens me with every step down my self-destructive rabbit trail, and I feel Alix’s grip on me tighten as I try to process it all.

All this fighting, all this horror, all the promises, broken or kept, the lies, the fighting, the pain… everything we’d done, everything I’d seen, and all I wanted was a place I could call home, a place I thought I had found in Byss. A place that, for all our efforts, could be in ruins.

“What if it’s not just Agorran? What if it’s everyone? What if no one survived!? What will we do if…” What will I do if there’s no home to go back to? If there are no pieces to pick up?

“*Cheshire.* You forget that the people we left were not helpless. Trust them. We are a product of our people, and we survived, so I choose to believe they did as well. Like I said, we will avenge them if need be, but we must not be prideful and assume that we survived where they did not. We are Byssians, and that means we are survivors.”

I take a deep, uneven breath, trying to back off the edge I’d just pushed myself to. He’s right, he has to be right. Byss is what gave me what strength I have, and these people have been stronger and wiser than me for a long time. It is arrogant to think that just because a handful of us left, they all died, or that if we’d have stayed, we would have turned the tides of battle.

Alix is amazing, but Byss raised others the same as it did him – in the harsh reality that you fight and live or die trying, and these were the few who had not died trying. Plus, we’d left Sheik and Oriela behind, and while Oriela had never done much to prove herself, Sheik, I was sure, would make quick work of plenty of undead, as she always had.

“You’re right,” I mumble. Burying my face in the crook of Alix’s neck, I cling to the comfort I’ve come to rely so heavily on, and hug his cloak tightly to my chest. The warmth and strength of his arms never fails to soothe me, and I feel a tiny spark of hopefulness dare to trickle into my train of thought. Everything isn’t over. We won, there’s no reason to believe they hadn’t as well, and if all else was lost… I still have Alix, and if we had nothing but each other, that would be enough.

“Alix?” Lóin’s voice pulls me from my thoughts, and I look up to see him meeting Alix’s stride to walk alongside us. “Can I borrow Cheshire for awhile?”

Borrow me? What for?

I can’t imagine what would be going through Lóin’s head right now, or what he could do or say to make me care about it when there is so much else weighing on me already. But I imagine it must be important for him to bring it up at this very moment, when I think anyone can see my distress, and I also get the vibe from Alix that he knows what it’s about. Alix raises an eyebrow at Lóin, his stare distinctly warning, then looks at me, and I heave a sigh and nod. Lóin wrests me from position on Alix’s shoulders, moving me to his own, and I shift, holding Alix’s cloak closed around me. He walks a bit ahead of the group, I suppose wanting privacy and forgetting Alix can hear my every thought.

After a few moments of increasingly awkward silence, he finally manages an “uhh”, and a nervous laugh. “This is not as easy as I expected it to be,” he mumbles.

Is anything? I ponder bitterly as I reach a hand out from under the shadow leather cloak to pet Lóin’s head.
Whatever it is he’s trying to say, he’s obviously on edge, and this method of comfort always seems to work for Tad Cooper, so in my fatigued delirium, it seems like the best course of action.

“So, Uh…. How about that Zebidee, huh?”

The statement is awkward, but I still manage a small smile, reminiscing on our various back of forths about the silver dragon when we’d first arrived in Byss. Of course, things were much different then, and having regained my memories, I now realize I’ve a lot less reason to stick up for him than I initially thought.

“….Fuck that guy….” My voice comes out much smaller than I’d meant it to, but memories of my sister and the demon, memories Zebidee had locked in my mind, choke me as I try to force out the words. I try, and fail, to hold back the tiny, dry sob that hits me, and I feel Lóin’s grip on my legs tighten.

“I’m sorry,” he says, swallowing hard. “…About everything. I didn’t mean for it to become like it was.”

Sorry…?
The word spins in my head – I don’t know what I’d wanted him to say, I doubt there was anything better, but somehow it doesn’t feel like enough. He’s being sincere, I can feel it. He’s nervous, he wants to make it right, and as much as I’d wanted him to, suddenly frustration spikes in me. It forms a lump in my throat that refuses to budge, and I barely choke out my next words.

“I know.”

“I really Cheshire’d everything up.”

What? I want to ask, but know there’s no need. My name – synonymous with failure. Myself, as a person, being the very best example he could think up to demonstrate utter, devastating blundering. How could further explanation possibly make that any better? I lay my forehead defeatedly against the messy tufts of his hair, shame burning my cheeks.
“…You did.”

“I didn’t rein it in,” he says, I suppose trying to lighten the mood by using Alix’s constant words of caution.

“You didn’t,” I mumble, the words coming out muffled, “at all.”

Another long moment of silence passes, and he makes one more push, I suppose sensing my dismay, or perhaps simply dissatisfied with his results thusfar.

“Cheshire, I’m so sorry.”

I sigh into the half dragon’s hair, slumping against his head as I feel the last of my fury slip away into pathetic defeat. I can’t argue with him, not at this point. He wants to make amends, and I know I have to let him.

“I forgive you, Lóin.”

“Well, that’s great,” he says, his tone suddenly casual and sour, “but I’m not sure I can forgive myself. Not really.”

I am abruptly struck with the impression that this is what Lóin was waiting for – for my forgiveness, just so that he could point out he doesn’t have his own.

What do you want from me, Lóin!? I want to scream, anger scratches its way back to the surface of my mind. Perhaps my own problems make it hard to care about someone else’s, but Lóin isn’t making it easy. This isn’t the time for a conversation like this, not with so much hanging over us, anyone could see that. Well, I suppose anyone except for Lóin. Still… if we have any chance of friendship or trust again, we have to be able to put this behind us, I realize that now.

Save your hatred for your enemies… that’s what Alix would say. I tell myself, at least, and he doesn’t pipe in with something different. The battlefield is no place for grudges, not against your allies, or yourself. I let out another muffled sigh into Lóin’s hair – what Lóin did was awful, but there are worse crimes, and if I can make him understand that, maybe we can move on.

“Well, I don’t want to Cheshire this up*,” I try not to let too much resentment seep into the new phrase, though I’m not sure it worked, “but think about the person you hate the most.”

“That would be Lóin.”

“Really?”

Well, that makes my point a bit harder to make.

“Yep.”

I sigh again, supposing it might have been too easy for him to just say ‘Dovev’, or anything that would have made this point easier to make.

“Okay, think about the person you hate NEXT most.”

“Zebidee.”

“_*Really*_?” I find myself caught somewhere between exacerbation and amusement, the point I’d wanted to make running away with Lóin’s inability to take this moment seriously.

“Yep,” he concludes, not missing a beat, “he knows what he did.”

“Um… okay,” I pat Lóin’s head again, hoping his newfound cheer is a sign that he’s moved on.

“No,” he sighs, drudging the moment back up into reality, “really it’s Malom.”

Malom? The name rings no bells, but it must be someone from Lóin’s somewhat checkered past.

“Okay, well, safe to say you’ll never forgive him for all the terrible things he did to you, right?”

“Yes.” Lóin’s response is curt, and it seems I’ve struck a nerve, but maybe that means he’ll listen to what I have to say.

“And now you’re out to kill him, right?”

“Um, yeah,” he responds as if it were the only conceivable option.

“Well, if you never forgive yourself for anything, won’t you end up hating yourself just as much as him?”

“I… guess?” The statement is more of a question, and Lóin clearly has no idea where I’m going with this, so with a sigh, I deliver my conclusion.

“So, what, are you going to kill yourself, too?”

I can’t say for sure what I was expecting in response to that question, but awkward silence was definitely not it. I set my jaw, feeling my anger begin to bubble up again with every moment of quiet that ticks by – why had I even asked? After everything we’ve been through, after everything we’d seen and done, and all the people who’d died so we could do it – how could it really be so easy for him to throw away his life? The Byssian in me, small and new though she may be, seethes with anger at the notion.

Perhaps… he just doesn’t understand the gravity of what he’s saying, perhaps he feels his life isn’t worth anything, or that he’s already as bad as this “Malom” character, a fact I can’t really argue with him, but am praying isn’t true.

“Lóin, you know what the difference between you and this “Malom” is?”

“A color?”

A color? What.. Oh, Malom must be a dragon, then.

“No,” I sigh, trying my best to guide Lóin to a conclusion I know will keep him from suicide. “It’s a heart. You’re sorry. You want forgiveness, even if you can’t give it to yourself.”

“Yeah…” He sounds melancholy at best, and like he certainly doesn’t believe me.

“You’re not the same as he is, Lóin.” I try, and am greeted with more silence. I clench my fists – fine! If he is determined not to listen to any reason, then why should I bother tormenting myself to save him? The thought sends a sharp pang of guilt right into my heart – that isn’t fair.

It’s not his fault he feels useless, it’s not his fault he can’t undo his mistakes. I reason, my stomach twisting as my mind combs over my own recent failures. Of all people, I guess I have no room to talk.

I sigh, “Lóin, sometimes… there are things you just can’t forgive yourself for. You can’t… unring a bell, you know?”

He doesn’t do anything but grunt, and I feel tears well in my eyes as I struggle to maintain my composure, to get through Lóin’s thick skull the point I’m trying to make without breaking down.

“But… just because you can’t forgive yourself,” I take a deep breath and, throwing a glance back at Alix, feel the support and confidence to carry on my family has instilled in me. “Doesn’t mean that other people can’t.”

Lóin is silent for awhile more, and then he rummages through his bag, and reaches up to hand me a big silver scale, “I want you to have this.”

I turn it over in my palm curiously, “one of your scales?”

“No, Zebidee’s.”

“Oh,” unsure, I stare at my reflection for a moment in the glistening scale – I look awful.

“It’s more important to me than one of mine,” Lóin’s words pull me from the battered image of myself, and all I can think to respond with is another curious “oh?”

“Because it’s how we met,” he explains, “I hate the guy, but it’s special because of that.”

“Oh,” I smile a little, looking back down at the scale, and my memories of that day come rushing back to me.

*

Things were quiet in the city, and there I was running a delivery for Zaine, just like any other day. Or, it should have been just like any other day. I’d never been on this side of town before, too afraid to stick out among tall buildings, pricey shops, and nobles wandering the streets. I couldn’t be the only kid running an errand, but I was still drawing stares, so I stopped to check my reflection, making sure for what must have been the sixth time that day that I hadn’t accidentally changed.

A quick glance at a window showed the same curious urchin I’d been for the last few days, so no cause for alarm among the masses. With a sigh, I trudged the last bit of road and tried not to make eye contact with those so clearly off-put by poverty. I reached my destination with little fuss, but something about the big, foreboding doors of the manor sent a chill down my spine as I approached. I just had to drop off this lousy amulet, that was all, but once I crossed that threshold, everything happened so fast.

The inside of the manor was pitch black, it smelled like blood, unholy heat washed over me in a wave that stole the scream from my lungs, and I stumbled back for the door as the hands of hooded figures grasped for me. Panic stricken, I shrank to avoid them, but a burst of light above me drew my eyes, and I wish I’d never looked up. The scorching violet eyes of a monster burned into mine through the darkness, its voice boomed out at me in a strange and terrible tongue, and I knew, staring at the features illuminated by the terrible light, that I would die there.

But I didn’t.

As I stood for seconds that felt like an eternity, frozen in fear, something in me pushed. A robed man wrapped his hand around my wrist, dagger poised for my heart, and instead of shrinking, I grew. As my arm burst from his grasp, I shoved him to the ground and I ran, my heart pounding in my ears the only thing to drown out the chorus of shouts behind me. I couldn’t let them catch me, I had to get away, desperation driving my every step, I tore through the crowded streets, doing everything I could to evade my attackers.

The monster’s voice echoed in my head as I ran, and it crippled me, booming over my thoughts with a new threat, a curse, a promise. I clutched my head as his horrifying language filled it, bringing me to my knees: I stopped him from entering this world, and he would destroy me. I stared, horror struck at the amulet, glowing in my hands, and hurled it down an alley in panic, and the voice stopped, the demon’s presence fading from over me. I scrambled back to my feet, panting, and sprinted without stop until I reach Zaine, whose bushy brows furrowed in concern as I approached.

“Child, you look like you’ve seen a ghost,” he said, “what’s happened?”

My mind raced for some way to explain how very much worse than “a ghost” I had seen, giving me only a moment to catch my breath before I spilled every detail of what happened in a flurry of hysteria. The old wizard’s look darkened, and he grabbed my arm, staring me hard in the eyes.

“We must go quickly, grab only what is precious to you.”

My possessions were few, and that which was precious to me even fewer, so I nodded, and quickly went about gathering what I had to have. I took only a moment to handle Aisylynn’s doll with care, hugging the memento to my chest before I tucked it in my bag of holding – I had no idea where we were going, but wherever I landed, I wanted her with me.

I met Zaine in the back of his shop, in an even more unusual state of disarray, and found him mumbling in the center of the room, his eyes racing over a tattered scroll.

“W-What are you doing?”

“I bought this scroll in case of emergencies,” he explained hurriedly, “but it’s a bit above my head, it may not take us exactly where I intend.”

That was far from reassuring news, but anywhere had to be safer than there, he outstretched his hand to grab my wrist as he finished his incantation, and arcane magic swept around us. I felt the pit of my stomach twist as the world began to spin around me, and in a flurry of motion, Zaine’s hand was ripped from my own, the wizard disappearing from my sight before I crashed into a wall of stone, and my world went dark.

I woke to find that it was not a wall, but the ground I had crashed into, the splitting pain in my head the first thing to assault my senses, followed by the distinct cold of my bare flesh on the stone, and the distant crackling of a hearth. No, not a hearth – a fire! As my brain raced to catch up with the previous events, I shot up to find my things scattered and ablaze.

No! The lamp oil in my bag must have ignited somehow! I rushed for the blaze, trying desperately to put it out only to burn my hands and feet, but among the burning remnants, I spotted the tiny porcelain hand of Aisylynn’s doll, and panic seized me.

No! No, no, no! Please! She’s all I have left!

I plunged my hand through the flames to grasp the doll, though the heated porcelain scorched my skin, and pulled her from beneath my other burning equipment. She was singed, some of her hair curling and fraying from the heat, her face marred with ash, and her dress, which I’d so meticulously cared for all our days together – irreparably tattered. I dropped the doll once free of the flame, and held my hand to my chest, searing pain running through the marred flesh and up my arm.

Frustrated, panicked tears stung my eyes, but there was no time for them, I pushed myself up and instead tried to pull anything not already unsalvageable from the ground. As I gathered my things, I found my clothes to be among the ruined, although I’m still unclear how they came off – perhaps something to do with the spell going wrong. A ways away I found my bag of holding, open, but luckily untouched. I dug through it for whatever it may have held on to, which wasn’t much, but at least included some of my traveler’s rations – wherever I was, I was certain the journey ahead of me was long.

My lute-bow somehow survived, and my accordion, though the heat seemed to have warped it slightly, and after gathering them, I went to retrieve my beloved toy once more. She was cool now, and with a sniffle, I turned her over in my hands, running my fingers over the back of her singed dress.

“I’m sorry,” I murmured to the doll, and a deep, harrowing laugh echoed from her in response. It paralyzed me, horror ripping through my body – th-that monster, that demon! No! How could— The laughter faded, and slowly the doll’s head began to turn, I wanted to scream, throw her down and run, but fear locked me in place, staring at the monstrosity in my trembling hands. Her eyes were not her own, instead fiery and purple, like the demon’s I had seen in the manor, and they burned with intensity and fury.

“You cannot run!” It shrieked, “nowhere is safe for you, and you can never hide from me! I will drag you to the pits of hell, but not before I take everything you love! Your sister, your petty wizard – Everything!”

On the last word, the doll shattered, pieces scattering around me with the demon’s laughter.
I stood, shivering in terror, staring at the empty place in my hands that once held Aisylynn’s doll – I’m not safe. I’ll never be safe!

I hadn’t been still but a moment when the beating of wings in the air cut my panicked thoughts short, and I raised my head only in time for a shadow with massive claws to descend on me. I think I screamed, I’m certain I cried, and I flailed in panic as the talons closed over me, the booming voice of a dragon demanding to know what I’d just done. I could only blubber in terror, curling in on myself as it lifted his talons to his face to look at me closer. I felt its breath steadily washing over my skin, strangely cold, and I shuddered in horror, feeling my body shrink in response, and a pair of feline ears springing from beneath my hair.

“I-I-I haven’t done a-anything!”
I managed to squeak out the words among a series of senseless pleas for my life, and felt the unsettling, dominating force of the dragon’s eyes on me. In great trepidation, I lifted my gaze from beneath my hands and regretted it immediately. The huge silver beast locked eyes with me, invading my mind, and in an instant I relived every horrible hour that had passed that day, the terror and pain ripping through my psyche.

I screamed, I think, but could only hear my heartbeat, pounding in my head as my world reeled, every part of me burning with adrenaline. The pressure built and built as the horror played behind my eyes, and helpless, I withdrew, desperately clawing into the back of my mind – into silence and sanctuary.

For a moment, everything was still and dark, and then the dragon’s voice pulled me back into the waking world. I stared up at him from my place in his palm, dazed, a cold sweat drenching my body, the pounding in my head relentless.

“I see that you were the victim of this evil,” my vision swimming, I desperately tried to focus on the image of the silver dragon, and his words, as he spoke to me, “not the source.”

What…? I squinted at him, trying to voice my curiosity, though it only game out an incoherent mumble.
What evil…? Where am I? Where is Zaine?

“I accessed your memories,” he said solemnly, almost sheepishly, “but your mind… could not handle what happened, I have locked it away to protect you.”

“Locked… What?” I finally managed to question, holding my head, “what happened?”

The dragon explained to me the process he’d used to force my memories out of my head, then back in, and then, essentially stuffed them into the back of my mind where I couldn’t reach them, and he may as well have been speaking draconic for all the sense it made.

“I… cannot undo the damage,” he explained, “but I believe I know someone who can. His son is on his way here now, and I am going to send him to another plane. Tranatheraxxus is there, when you find him, he can help your mind, and you should be safe traveling with his son in the meantime.”

I tried to make sense of what he was telling me and sat in silence for a moment, wracking my brain for answers in what seemed to be an empty gap. A day’s worth of time had simply vanished from my mind, but for a few horrifying glimmers that flashed across it when I pressed.

“Ah, don’t try too hard,” the dragon insisted, “you know, to remember. I’m not quite sure what will happen.”

“What… can happen?” I asked, and the monster was quiet for a moment, contemplative, before he answered.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said, “I’m certain Tranatheraxxus will be able to help you before the, well, let’s call it a “box” protecting your mind breaks. As long as you don’t do anything too… crazy. Anyway, when Lóinnir gets here, I’m going to play a prank on him, and you should help me. What do you think?”

“I…” I paused, staring up at the expecting eyes of the massive silver beast – they looked almost playful. It seemed unwise to say ‘no’ to something of his size, but, equally unwise to get involved in whatever kind of pranks a creature like this might think amusing.

“Uh… do I have a choice?”

“No,” he cooed merrily, “well, I mean, I suppose you don’t have to play along, but I’m going to do it anyway. It will be hilarious.”

I had no chance to voice another objection before the dragon scooped up the rest of my belongings, closed me in his claws, and took to the sky. The ground below me shrank away much too fast, leaving a twisting knot in the pit of my stomach, and I shut my eyes tightly, praying for my life as fast as my mind could conjure words.

We landed soon, mercifully enough, at the entrance of a cavern, where the dragon took me to sit by a decent treasure hoard, and introduced himself as “Zebidee”. I thought it was a strange name, but just as quickly realized it would be unwise to say so, and decided instead to introduce myself, as well.

“My friends, erm, friend calls me Cheshire,” I said, not realizing until after I stumbled through it how awkward the statement was.

“Cheshire, hm?” Zebidee paused, “well then, what do you enemies call you?”

“I, uh,” I had no idea how to respond to that now, other than thinking I shouldn’t have tried to be clever in front of a dragon, and after awhile of stunned silence, Zebidee chuckled.

“Cat got your tongue?”

I shivered – what a horrible phrase… It never failed to raise the hairs on the back of my neck.

“Um, I guess,” I mumbled, casting my eyes to the ground in the hopes of dodging any further conversation.

Zebidee mulled about his cave chatting for awhile, my kidnapping becoming increasingly casual with every passing moment, before leaving without much explanation, though I could only assume it had something to do with this… other dragon he was bringing here.

Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place…

I sighed and turned to look at the mound of silvery treasures in the back of the cavern, much too concerned with my situation to even think about touching them or investigating any closer. I still couldn’t wrap my mind around what had gone on, but as I reached through the fog for answers, I remembered Zebidee’s warning about trying too hard to regain my memories and shuddered – hopefully this… Other dragon would find his father quickly, and I could get back to Zaine.

And find Aisylynn! Something in me urged, pulling at my heart strings. I didn’t know what anymore, but something was very wrong, and I needed to know they were safe. My exposed buttocks were just starting to numb against the cold stone floors of Zebidee’s lair when he returned, but to my surprise, he didn’t have with him another dragon.

He sauntered back into his cavern looking pleased with himself, to say the least, and dropped from his terrifyingly large silver talons a man – or perhaps, by his ears, an elf of some kind. The stranger got to his feet, dusting himself off with all the dignity I imagine he could muster, and smoothing back his tightly cropped hair. Broad, spiked shoulders, strong features, he didn’t look like any elf I’d ever seen, ears aside, and was a little weird looking, perhaps, but then who was I to talk about weird?

He certainly wasn’t a dragon, but I was sure Zebidee had said this man was the son of another, more powerful silver dragon than himself, and the occasional patch of silvery scales did cover the newcomer’s skin, so… perhaps he was adopted? Or disguising himself with magic? Or… only half dragon – if such a thing were possible. He approached with Zebidee, the two of them talking in hushed tones about something I couldn’t hear, and then Zebidee circled around me, closing the space between us quickly, and I felt a threatened shiver run down my spine. The cold of his breath so close to me made my hair stand on end as he spoke.

“I caught this strange thing in my treasure hoard,” he coos, and my eyes widen as I realize he is referring to me, “I was thinking about eating it.”

WHAT?! I turn in alarm to look at the looming silver dragon, and feel my ears flatten against my hair as adrenaline sets my heart racing. I should have run while he was gone!

“But better still that we should share the meal, seal our pact, as it were?” Zebidee’s voice sounds all too enthused as he makes an offering gesture at me with his claw.

Horrified, I twisted to look at the other… whatever he was, whose face luckily displayed heavy disgust at the idea of simply eating me right here and now.

“I’d rather not,” he mumbled coolly, and Zebidee cocked his head.

“Are you quite sure, Lóinnir? There’s a long journey ahead of you, a belly full of thief seems like it would make it more manageable.”

Lóinnir, as Zebidee said, simply shook his head as he replied. “Even still, I like my food less… Alive.”

Zebidee laughed and winked down at me, a playful twinkle in his eye – this… this was his prank? Dragons had strange senses of humor, it seemed, and I made the mental note not to get involved with anymore such practical jokes in the future, for my safety, and my sanity’s, sake.

“Alright then, Lóinnir,” he said, “I shall send you to Byss, where I last heard from your father. In exchange, you will take this strange little thief off my hands, and they will accompany you on your journey.”

I glance back at the half-dragon, who looked me up and down, clearly unimpressed, but nodded dutifully.

“Very well, Zebidee, if you’ve changed your mind about eating him.”

I’m not a thief!

I wanted to object, but it seemed best to play along for now, and besides, such an objection would have been a lie. I was absolutely a thief, just not one stupid enough to have tried to steal from a dragon.

Zebidee scooted me over to Lóinnir, placing a single silver scale in his hand, and began speaking in the language he had when he’d first assaulted me. As his voice filled the space around us, I felt my stomach twist with weightlessness, and as a wave of arcana washed over us, I squeezed my eyes shut in fear. When I opened them, I was sitting on a cold, damp stone roof. It was grossly overcast, wherever we were, the mist and fog completely obscuring the sun, and I turned to see Lóinnir sourly seated beside me.

It was no time at all before I heard the commotion of people noticing our arrival, and presumably my nakedness. I didn’t know much about this place, but it was likely best I looked the least threatening as I possibly could, so before too many took note, I changed my shape once again. I assumed the body of a halfling, small, slender, and otherwise nondescript. It drew Lóinnir’s attention, and he raised an eyebrow.

“What? We all have our tricks up our sleeves,” I defended, he paused, and nodded, picking me up in one arm and hopping from the rooftop to the ground with little fuss. One of the townsfolk stopped us, I assumed him a guard by his clothes and his weapons, and questioned us. I couldn’t answer much, as I truly had no idea how I got here, or even how I got to Zebidee, and after a brief, curt conversation with my traveling companion, decided to take us to their military barracks.

I was sure there would be further questions, but for now it seemed we were to be pressed into military service or ejected from the city. I looked small, I was young, I was sure I could finagle a way out of it, but my nervousness grew with every step down the foreboding streets.

“I’m Cheshire, by the way,” I mumbled, and Lóinnir looked down at me, still effortlessly carrying my new, tiny form down the street, and thankfully shielding most of my nudity with his massive, muscular arm.

“Lóin,” he responded simply, and I smiled a little.

“Nice to meet you, Lóin.”

*

I feel the smile in my memories spread over my own lips as I look over the shimmering scale in my hand, and wrap my arms around Lóin’s head.

“Well, it’s important to me, too,” I say finally.

If Lóin and I can share nothing else but memories of good times, at least we have those. He isn’t the hero I’d thought he was when I first came to Byss, he isn’t the paragon of virtue I believed him to be, but he is my friend. We pass a few moments in comfortable silence, but it is short lived, Lóin begins to shift uncomfortably after awhile, perhaps searching for more to say, and I dread the thought, my stomach twisting in anticipation of his next move.

“So,” I begin, and then hurriedly try to call to mind something worth discussing, “when you screw up really badly… Is that what everyone calls it, “Cheshiring up”?”

“Uh, no,” Lóin laughs nervously, “that’s what Lóin calls it… because…. You know.”

“No, I don’t…”

Perhaps this wasn’t the best subject to change to.

“Well, I mean, I screw up a lot, too,” Lóin offers, as if that somehow helps. I sigh, resting my chin on his head.

“Yeah, well… at least you didn’t murder a bunch of innocent priests,” I mumble, tears welling in my eyes as the weight of the truth presses against my shoulders.

“True, but I almost murdered an Alix, which is almost as bad.”

Almost? I try not to clench my fists in Lóin’s hair – I didn’t need the painful reminder.

“Maybe worse, given who I’m talking to.”

I force a quiet laugh as I respond, my eagerness to escape this situation growing with each moment that ticks by, “well, I suppose it would make me a bad person if I said that was worse.”

You need to stop blaming yourself for things others have done.

Alix, who had apparently previously been trying to give us some privacy, finally breaks through my thoughts, likely having sensed my discomfort.

“Alix says we should stop blaming ourselves for what other people do,” I mumble, and Lóin turns around to look behind us at the ranger, whose eyebrow I can feel raise in his direction. Seems he doesn’t much care for the way this conversation is going, and I can’t really blame him. Apparently Lóin takes the hint, because he picks me up off his shoulders and hugs me, whispering his apologies into my hair one last time before he passes me back to Alix.

That’s not exactly what I said, little one. Alix points out as he wraps his arms around me.

I think it’s what he needed to hear… I mumble the defense in my head, and Alix sighs.

That doesn’t mean you can ignore it.

So what, I’m supposed to just… ignore all the innocent people who got killed because of me? Blame Dovev, blame the demon, the vampires… whatever! How many monsters can I throw under the bus when I’m the only common factor?

Cheshire, Alix begins, his tone low and indicative of the coming lecture, and I snap back at him before he finishes.

No! Alix, you know it’s true! You keep telling me to “blame the enemy”, but… but I summoned Dovev into that temple! He couldn’t have gotten past Agorran if I hadn’t let him! He looked me in the face and thanked me!

I curl in on myself, shuddering as the memories ravage my mind, Dovev’s smile in my head, the agony he caused, the havoc I let him loose to wreak. That horrible song, that moment… I succumbed to him. Raising my hands and Alix’s cloak to hide my shame stricken face, I let out a strangled cry against the dark, heavy fabric as I choke out the unspoken truth.

It was my fault – those people got hurt because I didn’t listen! You told me to just stay calm, to just wait, and I couldn’t! I… I got your friend killed. You asked him to look after me, you told me to be careful, and… now he’s dead, because I just can’t stop… screwing up!

Suddenly Lóin’s new phrase bites into me with the bitter sting of truth, and it occurs to me it isn’t hurtful that’s what he thinks of me, it’s hurtful that it’s not wrong.

I’m not asking you to ignore your responsibility in what happened, Cheshire, but I’m asking you to blame the killers. Your actions indeed led to Dovev’s entrance into the temple, but his hand felled the priests. Remember that, let it force you to keep going when it’s too hard, use it to bring justice to the living, and vengeance for the dead.

Alix’s words rattle around in my head, and I try to make them stick, try to shake off the crushing failure and the guilt, replace them with anger, but it doesn’t seem to work. I can’t shake the melancholy, or drum up a will to fight, and though the battles are over, and I should be relieved, Alix’s words seem to ring hollow in the frightening void that all our victories have left in me. I lean my head on Alix’s chest, the small contact the only thing that doesn’t seem soured by our circumstances, no matter how bad, and let out a quiet sniffle.

I don’t think I can do that, Alix. Retribution isn’t what keeps me going when it’s too hard. I mumble back at him. You are.

Alix sighs, and as he draws me in closer, I feel a strange sadness lingering between us for a moment before he responds.
I love you, Cheshire. I’m glad I can be with you.

I snuggle my face against his armor, unable to place the hesitation in his thoughts, and unwilling to pry.

I love you, too.

Behind us, I could hear a slew of mixed emotions in Ulkair and Nerida’s conversation, finally gripping my interest with my own crisis beginning to pass, and I peek over Alix’s shoulder only briefly to see the wizard with his arms around Nerida’s, weeping against her. I feel my posture slump a little harder as the sounds of his grief finally sink in, and with it, the haunting lament Nerida had sung in Elysia. The sorrow echoes through me with each word, and I lay back against Alix, my curiosity slain by the exhausting sadness that holds me once more. Clearly I was not the only one for whom our victories felt hollow, and I was certain I already had a more intimate knowledge of Ulkair’s suffering than he wanted me to, so it was better for me not to eavesdrop further.

Our mood remains somber most of the day, our trudging exhausted and quiet as each person takes the long hours to process their own thoughts and feelings. Alix and I chat from time to time, when the silence becomes too much for me to bear, and then fall back into the periodic hush. When we make camp for the night, my stomach whines with hunger, my muscles ache, and staring at our fire only seems to make me thirstier with every passing moment, but the thought of food turns my appetite to ash, and instead I stay in Alix’s embrace, and sleep hard.

Our next day of travel is a bit better, littered with occasional conversation, even a bit of laughter from time to time, as everyone finds themselves in slightly better spirits, although exhaustion still seems to hold us all in its grasp. I smile at Lóin’s jokes, listen with a bit of mirth as Nerida tries to settle arguments between Ulkair and Anduin, who seems to have gained sentience. I feel like this should have surprised me more, or at least been more intriguing than it was, but I couldn’t drum up passion for much besides being glad that her trident was, indeed, speaking, and not just another voice in my head. Besides, a talking trident wasn’t exactly the strangest thing I’d seen, and it certainly wasn’t the worst.

I stare at the horizon with every step we take, praying our home will soon come into view, every moment of joy I might have had being ripped away by the twisting anxiety in my stomach, the whispers in my mind that there was no home to return to. Another night came and went with no sign of Byss, and as we settled into camp, most of our faces and ears burned by the new sunlight, Alix assured me for what must have been the thirteenth time that day that our travel time was normal, and we would be there soon.

My stomach, I feared, would not be settled until I could see the stone walls for myself, and it was becoming impossible to tell the pain of hunger from the pain of fear. Alix caught us dinner that night, but I couldn’t bring myself to eat, even as the smell of roasting fish taunted me, and Alix gave up insisting that I do much quicker than I’d have thought, likely a result of his own exhaustion.

As I snuggled in to sleep with him again, I made the mental note I should do much more walking tomorrow, instead of allowing myself to be carried. Nothing appealed to me more than Alix’s arms at the moment, but my weight on him all day couldn’t possibly be making our journey any easier.

DAY 16

In the morning, we break camp, and I force myself into a more competent form, opting to walk hand in hand with Alix, which I think he appreciates, not that I think he’d ever admit I’d been dragging him down. We walk most of the day again, the dark, heavy cloak I wear around my shoulders seeming to grow heavier and magnify the sun’s rays with every passing minute.

And, to counter it, the easy rest in my bag of holding seems to appeal more with every moment that ticks by. Just when I am debating giving in and being carried, frustration and defeat beating down on me, Alix nudges me gently. I glance up at him, and then to the horizon, where, through the afternoon sun, I can make out the outlines of stone walls, and a pillar of billowing smoke.

Undead don’t burn the bodies.

That means people are there. It means they’re alive! My chest swells with relief and new found energy, I could break into a sprint, but I doubt the rest of our merry band could follow, Nerida especially. Instead, I beam at Alix, grasping his hand tightly. He gives me a tired smile, as if to tell me, as fondly as possible, that he told me so. Alix is always right. I don’t know why I bother doubting him. I can hardly contain myself as we head for the city, everyone’s pace just a little faster, but not as much as I’d like it to be.
They’re alive!
I celebrate mentally, chiding myself for ever doubting the proud warriors of Byss, and how better to celebrate them than in song? For the first time in days, I feel inspiration bubbling in me, my heart pounds with the desire to play our victories to the world. We’re a few hundred feet away, but I bet one of my winged companions could close that distance in no time. I turn to glance at Lóin, anticipation threatening to burst me at the seams as I take my ax from my back, and he raises his eyebrows, lifting his wings in question.
I nod eagerly, and he hoists me onto his shoulders.

“Fly us around the city, we need to make an entrance!”

Lóin takes off with a powerful sweep of his wings, and I tighten my legs around his neck as my stomach lurches from the weightlessness, but as I settle my hands on my axe and begin to play, I lose myself to the familiar melody that blasts from the strings.

“As a child you would wait
And watch from far away
But you always knew that you’d be the one
To work while they all play
And you, you’d lay awake at night and scheme
Of all the things that you would change
But it was just a dream…”

The sunlight bounces off the brass instrument gloriously, the wind whipping my hair and cloak about as I play the familiar tune and I close my eyes, focusing to empower my voice and ensure it will carry to the ears of every living Byssian.

“…Here we are, don’t turn away now
We are the warriors
That built this town
Here we are, don’t turn away now
We are the warriors that built this town
From dust!”

Lóin carries me overhead of the city entrance, and below us I see a solemn crowd, the men, women and children of Byss, all watching us, hands over their hearts in salute. I begin to shred, leaning into the solo to recreate the glorious melody from which my axe was born as Lóin lowers us steadily to the ground. The Byssians clear away for us, and my cloak rests heavily over me once again as he lands. My fingers still, allowing the melody to fade, and as I scan the crowd, a familiar figure cuts his way through them toward us.

“Agorran!” I exclaim, scrambling from Lóin’s back and throwing myself into the high priest’s embrace. The scent of blood and ash stains the familiar incense that marks Agorran’s robes, but I feel relieved tears run down my cheeks as he puts his arms around me.

“I’m so glad you’re alright!” I pull back to look at him, fixing my cloak sheepishly as I again realize my nakedness, his eyes seem particularly sorrowful, but there is no hiding the relief from them, and his smile is genuine.

“And you,” he says, “but what’s happened?”

“Agorran, I’m sorry,” I begin, casting my eyes to the ground as guilt for yet another broken promise gnaws at me, “we couldn’t save Elysia.”

“But we brought Elysia to Byss,” Nerida’s voice chimes from behind me, and I turn to find my companions, whom I’d briefly forgotten in my frenzy, approaching us through the crowd.

My hand lingers on the sleeve of Agorran’s robe, and I tighten my grasp as I look up at him, praying I would not find a broken heart in his expression. He looks exhausted, saddened in spite of his obvious joy at our return, and bite my lip, racking my brain for anything I can say to make it right.

“The sun is shining in Byss now, for good,” I offer, and as I do, I recall a phrase I’d read that once warmed my heart as surely as the sun, and hope that it will do so for Agorran, as well. “And the sun is a daily reminder that we too can rise from the darkness and that we too can shine our own light.”

Agorran smiles a little, and he reaches his hand to brush some of my disheveled hair from my face.

“Child, perhaps Alix was right,” he says softly, “we needed to make this our paradise, not long for something that was unattainable. You brought the sun, but more importantly, you’ve brought yourselves.”

With a sniffle, I wrap my arms around Agorran’s waist once more, and look out at the crowd around us, still somber as ever – had I missed something? Had we not… won? Was it the news of Elysia that caused this lack of celebration?

“Everyone looks… very sober for having just won a great victory,” I muse, looking up at him questioningly, and he sighs.

“Everyone has lost a family member, some families are gone,” he explains, and I feel my heart sink.

Of course – we won, but not at any low cost. Grief had nearly consumed me when I thought I would lose Alix, and we’d lost so many in the battles of the past few days. Hundreds of Byssians fell against the vampires, and likely hundreds more laid on the pyre outside. Byss was such a small city, I didn’t know our exact populace, but I suspect the people gathered here are all that remains. A few hundred, at best. I bite my lip, tears threatening my eyes again, but Agorran continues before I can express my remorse.

“If you look closely, you can see they are happy,” he says, perhaps hoping to ease the blow. It is true that I must be the most… exuberant Byssian to ever live, at least between myself and Alix, what I communicate in yelling and tears and song, he communicates with the tightness of his posture. So perhaps their grave appearance is a bit misleading, although it does not mitigate the weight of the loss.

Nerida moves to close the distance between herself and Agorran, and wraps her arms around him, breathing a long, exhausted sigh of relief.

“I’m so happy you’re alive,” she murmurs, leaning to rest her head on his shoulder. Agorran puts an arm around her, a fond smile tugging at his lips as he responds.

“I’m glad you all made it.”

“What happened to your leg?” Nerida asks as we step away, and I frown, following her gaze to Agorran’s limp, which I hadn’t noticed before. “Is there any healing it?”

He shakes his head, looking momentarily grim.

“I don’t think so. Exhaustion took me near the end of the battle and a ghast,” he shudders ever so slightly as he recalls the moment, “Well, ate my leg. This was the most I could heal it.”

I cringe, being overwhelmed by the undead is a horror I know all too well, and even then I doubt what I went through compared to Agorran’s pain.

“I’m so sorry we left so abruptly,” Nerida looks flustered, wringing her hands as she hurries out her response. “but we had to take care of the vampires, stop them from catching us between them and Dovev’s army.”

And you had to do what Ulkair wanted, I add bitterly, but try not to let it show. I know Nerida was doing what she thought was best, and in the end, Ulkair did help Byss. It didn’t make the horror of a vampire dragon just disappear, or give back any lives that we lost but still, as Alix had pointed out, it was hubris to think our presence alone would have turned the tides of battle.

“And you have done a wonderful thing,” Agorran says, resting a hand on Nerida’s shoulder. If he held our leaving against her, or any of us, his voice did not betray it. “I even saw a rainbow.”

I feel my lips turn up in an exuberant grin at the thought – nothing could be more fitting for Byss’ rise from the ashes but a big, beautiful rainbow.

“What’s a rainbow?” Nerida asks, and I try not to look incredulous. Did merfolk have nothing good in their lives?!

“Nerida, a rainbow is the best thing ever!”

“It is an array of many colors in the sky,” Agorran clarifies, as though he were trying to make it sound boring.

“That sounds delightful,” Nerida says, and I shake my head. Agorran looks at us thoughtfully for a moment and then raises his hand, creating a thin arc of water in the air before him. As it fell, it glimmered in the sunlight and left a small, brief rainbow behind it.

“That is glorious,” Nerida says, awe evident in her every word, and then she pauses and asks, “um, High Priest Agorran? Why does the water you summon come from your hand?”

He cocks his head at her, looking the most confused I have ever seen him, “where does it come out of for you?”

“My mouth!” Nerida exclaims, and it occurs to me that I never stopped to question why she could spit up gallons of cool, clean water. It indeed must be a spell, but… my spells have never worked like that, not that it mattered. “I don’t understand, all my other spells come from my hands!”

“Eadro works in mysterious ways,” I tease, grinning up at the mermaid – perhaps Tubatron was not the only god with a sense of humor.

Nerida and Agorran continue to debate the particulars of Eadro’s magic, a subject in which I quickly lose interest, and instead pick my axe back up and wander over to Alix, who puts an arm around me.

“When we’re done here, there’s something I’d like to give you,” he says, and I cock my head back at him.
“Really? What is it?”

He smiles a little, an emotion I can’t place flickering over our bond before he replies.

“You’ll see.”

“Alright,” I resist the urge to prod my way through his thoughts as curiosity wriggles about inside me, and I tune in to Agorran and Nerida’s conversation once again instead.

“But I am very glad to see all of you,” the high priest says, “although I am sorry you could not return to your homes through Elysia as you had hoped.”

Oh right. That was what I had hoped, wasn’t it? I lean my head on Alix’s shoulder, and the thought of being anywhere else seems absurd.

“I think I found what I was looking for anyway, and Byss is my home now.”

Agorran smiles at me, a bit of bewilderment playing on his face.

“Who’d have thought Byss would ever come to be someone’s home, and of their own free will?”

He muses, and I can see why. Barely more than a week ago I’d have given anything to say goodbye to this wet, violent place. I suppose it was still probably infested with monsters, and undead, and… sure, their idea of food was bread made of moss and fish that tasted vaguely of death, but this plane, harsh as it was, was full of better people than I’d ever met.

“Well, sure, Byss sucks,” I admit, “but its people are pretty great.”

“I hope that in time, Byss will be great, too,” Agorran says, “oh, that reminds me! There was something else I wanted to show you, follow me!”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen the level of excitement Agorran displays as we follow him up onto the city walls. He gestures out to the fields, where just days earlier we’d met Dovev’s army in battle, and I follow his gaze out over the muck to see tiny sprigs of green poking through it.

“Grass has even begun to grow!”

I stare at the tiny green sprouts happily for a moment, letting my eyes wander the expanse of muck, slowly starting to dry in patches. I pause to study the fissures in the ground, now sealed, where Tubatron crushed Dovev’s body and his army, by his almighty will, and it fills me with pride. One day, this place will be beautiful, like Elysia, only it will be free of undeath, and the music played here will be songs of our triumph, glorious, epic ballads of Tubatron’s teachings, not the haunting melody of the Ichtaca’s harpsichord.

…Right?

I don’t know what it is that gives me pause, but it sends a shiver down my spine, and I try to scan the ground beneath us for the Ichtaca’s head – just for reassurance.

“Is there anyone in need of healing?” Nerida’s question breaks my concentration, and I look back over at her and Agorran, suddenly remembering the tiny viper who has served as my necklace for the past three days.

“No,” Agorran replies, “we have tended our wounded already. Now we are working to restore the city.”

“Um, High Priest Agorran?” I interject, scooping Aintai up in my hands, “I have someone in need of healing… Aintai makes a fabulous accessory, but I think she’d rather have her legs back.”

He nods and I set Aintai on the ground and step back as she transforms to her normal form. I cringe, watching her try to maintain her stoicism through the pain and shock of facing her lost limbs again, Agorran crouches to heal her, and knowing she is in good hands, I return to my search.

It nags at me, gnawing like a desperate animal at the back of my mind – he’s dead. I know he is. I watched him die, but I had to see it, as ridiculous as I knew I was being, just to be sure. From where I am, I can’t spot the ghoul lord’s remains, but I quietly break away from the group to walk the walls, watching for any sight of the head with increasing anxiety. I reach the very spot where I’d stood and told him to jump, the very spot where Tubatron had slain him, and peer over the edge carefully, sure I would make myself look like a fool for my paranoia.

By the base of the wall, there is a visible stain of blood on the ground, but no head of a ghoul musician. My chest constricts with panic as every paranoid delusion I’d refused to entertain rushes to the forefront of my mind, assaulting me with impossible, horrible scenarios.

No, no, no! This can’t be right! I insist, tightening my hands into fists. It must have rolled, or… or… something! Been carried off by a ghoul, or a zombie, or a wild animal! Or…

“Been burned,” Alix’s voice calls my attention back to reality, and he puts a hand on my shoulder. He must have sensed my distress and followed me, and it isn’t exactly surprising I didn’t hear him coming. “All the remains of the undead are burned, Cheshire, to make sure they stay dead.”

“You’re right,” I turn a weak, forced smile to Alix, swallowing the lump of fear that has lodged itself in my throat. “I’m just… I’m sorry, Alix. I panicked for nothing.”

He sighs, sensing my obvious distrust of the situation, and leads me away from the edge of the battlement, “if it will help you, later we can speak with Agorran and others to be sure it was burned, or look for it, if it was not.”

I nod, clutching Alix’s hand in both of mine, and try to talk myself off the ledge I’d jumped to so suddenly. There is no need to panic, Alix is right. Dovev did not just… get up and walk away from being crushed to death, no one could, not even the undead.

Alix did. My mind taunts, memories of his brutal defeat in the government building forcing their way into my thoughts. No! No, that was different! Directly opposite, in fact. I chide myself as we walk back, but I can’t seem to bring myself to loosen my grip on Alix’s hand, no matter how illogical I insist I’m being. He gives my hand a tight squeeze, and as I look up at him, trying so hard to seem brave, unafraid of a shadow now in my past, I think my eyes betray me.

“Everyone has demons, Cheshire,” he reminds me, “you can’t force yourself to disregard them, but you also can’t let them control you.”

His words are right, I know, and I lean my forehead on against his shoulder, tears burning in my eyes as I try to swallow the fright that has haunted my every dream. I wouldn’t let Dovev control me when he was alive, what sense did it make to tremble before him in death?

“Let’s go home,” Alix offers, and I nod, reaching up to wipe my eyes, and follow him down from the walls.

The crowd parts for us as we go by, and Alix leads me down a series of streets I’d never seen before, and to a stone homestead, surrounded by many others. It seemed all the buildings in Byss were quite close together, and well kept, as I suppose they had to be. I couldn’t think of any immediate threats of poor maintenance, but I’m sure if I asked, Alix would have been more than willing to point them all out.

“This is your home?” I ask, peering up at Alix, and he nods, pushing open the stone door and holding it for me.
The interior of this house is about as nondescript as its outside, I wouldn’t guess it was lived in by my first glance around, except for the unusual level of cleanliness.

“Yes,” Alix’s response sounds almost hesitant, and I suspect that I wasn’t too far off in my assumption that this house isn’t lived in, or at least, it isn’t a home. “And I have two spare rooms.”

I bite my lip, rocking back on the balls of my feet and peek up up at Alix in an attempt to contain my excitement at the implied offer.

“Yeah…?”

Alix smiles, ruffling my hair, “and I’d like you to live here with me, Cheshire, and any of the others are welcome too, if they’d like.”

I can’t control my beaming any longer, and I throw myself at Alix, wrapping my arms around him. “_*Yes*_! Thank you! Of course I want to live with you!”

“Alright. Stay here, I’ll be right back,” he says as I release the embrace, and walks down the plain stone halls. In his absence, I hum idly and observe my surroundings – my new house.

I have a house!

The excitement bubbles in me, and I bounce to let it out, spinning a happy circle in place while I wait for Alix to return. The war is over, we actually won, the city is safe – I have a house! And I can stay here with Alix, and have a real home, with people who want me there. It all seems almost too good to be true, and I resist the tears that threaten my eyes as I look around the small common room, my fears from only minutes ago washed away by hopeful elation.

When he comes back, Alix is holding something behind his back, and he has a rare smile tugging at his lips, but a tinge of sadness in his eyes.

“Cheshire,” he says, and I struggle to resist the urge to peer around his back at this mystery gift he’s brought me. “I wanted you to have this.”

He moves and holds out a stunning dress, as bright and yellow as Byss’ new sun, and my breath catches in my chest as I stare at it – it must be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I reach out and take it from him, holding it by the shoulders to stare at the intricate stitching over the bodice, which glimmers as the light catches it.

“Alix, I…” I bite my lip, my eyes watering as I look up from the gorgeous fabric to meet his gaze again and try to find a way to put my emotions into words. “It’s just so beautiful. Thank you…”

“It was my mother’s dress,” he explains, and I feel my heart stop – suddenly the tinge of sadness in his eyes makes sense. My fingers tighten over the fabric with the sudden tension that overcomes me, and I force myself to loosen them. I can’t damage this dress, I shouldn’t even be touching it!

“She was going to wear it in Elysia.”

“Alix, I-I can’t accept this,” I mumble, staring at the ground as I hold it back out to him, “I couldn’t bear if something happened to it, I can’t.. I can’t wear something so precious.”

He puts his hands over mine, and presses my arms back toward me, dress in tow. I cringe as I feel the satiny fabric crushed beneath my hold, and am suddenly aware of all the filth on my hands and arms from our travels. Horror-stricken at the thought of my sweat or Byss’ marshy dirt staining this treasure, I try my best not to move.

“I learned long ago that things are meant to be used,” Alix presses, giving me a stern, certain stare that almost masks the pain that taught him this lesson, “because if you wait, the time never comes, and then it is too late.”

I look from him to the dress, and then back again before I finally squeak out a reply. “Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you, Alix,” I whisper, looking back at the dress in my hands, scanning it for any imperfections I may have caused, “I’ll treasure it forever.”

“And wear it,” he insists, and though it pains me just a little, I nod.

“Yes, and wear it.”

“But.. I think I’d like to bathe first,” I look away sheepishly, unable to remember the last time I didn’t have blood in my hair or dirt – or who knows what else, beneath my fingernails. Alix ruffles my hair understandingly, and shows me to his wash room.

It is a massive relief to peel the sweaty cloak from my shoulders, my damaged boots, and the remnants of my shredded pants, which stick to me unforgivingly as I slide them off my legs. I discard them to the ground as I draw a bath, and hang the dress carefully from the corner of the door, as not to let it touch anything of my adventuring clothes, or the floor. I sink into the cool water with a long, heavy sigh, and feel the weight of a dozen battles slide off my shoulders.

I can’t remember my last bath, sometime during our stay in the barracks I’d cleaned up, but with no privacy and not so much as a moment’s peace from the voices in my head, it didn’t compare to this. Mercifully, shape changing seemed to renew my skin, freeing me of some of the excess grime, and sparing my smelling like blood and filth for days, but it wasn’t the same.

I rest my head on the side of the bath, humming softly, and watch the water roll off my hands as I bring them to rest on my knees. It glimmers briefly in the sunlight that shimmers through the shutters, and then disappears into the rippling pool from whence it came. I drum my fingers on my knees idly, watching the droplets glisten on my skin, and my mind travels to Agorran’s rainbow.

Could all divine spellcasters do that? Could I? I turn my hand over, watching the droplets roll down my fingers, listening to their steady, rhythmic splashes as they fall to meet the water beneath them, and try to focus my energies.

Create water. I think my intention repeatedly and pull the divine focus to my hand, like I had to heal. Surely enough, tiny drops of water begin to form on the edges of my fingertips, they slip down my palm like the others had. As I continue to focus, they grow, falling in rhythm with my tune, then become a steady stream of cool, clean water, pouring freely from my palm into the bath.

Awesome!

I lean back, satisfied with my success, and sigh as the spell fades, and my hand stops gushing water. I probably need to learn better control, but I’m sure that will come in time. For now, I suppose it would be best that I actually get clean and dressed before Alix thinks I’ve drown. I dig through my bag of holding for some of the soap we’d gotten from that wretched fence, and lather my hair, my fingers coming away coated in gray suds.

Ew…

I start to plunge them into the water but pause, closing my eyes and focusing my divine energy again to instead create it – I might as well practice a little. After a moment, I summon the water again, and begin to run my fingers through my hair, letting the water push off the filthy foam until it stops flowing. I think to repeat the spell again to rinse the soap from the rest of myself, but realize quickly that wasting so much holy power on something so trivial is unwise – I could still need it today, there was no telling what might happen.

I hop from the bath, shaking off the excess water and ring my hair out, my moment of relaxation passed, and carefully take the dress from the wall. It’s so beautiful, easily the most amazing thing I’ve ever been given – with the exception of my axe, but that wasn’t a fair comparison. I slip into it carefully, and shift to grow a few inches and keep it from trailing the ground. I momentarily wish I had a mirror to admire it in, but I have no time to lament it, and I hurry down the hall to find Alix.

“What do you think?” I ask, grinning from ear to ear and twirling in place. He smiles and gets up to hug me.

“You look radiant,” he says, tucking my tousled hair behind my ear. I can’t seem to wipe the smile from my face, and it all seems so surreal.

“Let’s go find the others! Oh, oh, and get my stuff from the arena! And then we can have dinner, and everyone will be here, and it’ll be so wonderful, and…”

Alix watches me ramble my plans of increasing grandeur with amusement in his eyes, and I finally catch myself and allow the words to trail off. After a thoughtful pause, I grip his hands, a few overjoyed tears slipping past my ill-built defenses as I manage to say what I actually mean.

“Thank you Alix, I’ve never been so happy.”

He brushes my tears away with his thumbs, and smiles down at me – an expression I happily note is becoming less rare with every passing day. “Neither have I, little one.”

“Why don’t you go and collect your things and find your friends,” he offers, “and I will speak with High Priest Agorran about the remains of the Ichtaca.”

I shudder a little, the subject of Dovev a harsh reminder that everything in my life is not made of sunshine and glitterdust, but nod. There’s no one I would trust more with such an important search, even myself, and I know if something were amiss, Alix would be the first to notice.

“Okay, Alix. Thank you, please let me know as soon as you find out.”

“I will.”

I collect my bag of holding and put on my boots, and then hurry down the street back toward the city gates, where I hope to find Nerida and Ulkair, if not everyone. I only get lost or turned around a couple times, and Alix quickly points me in the right direction, so journey is fairly quick. I found only Aintai there, and she appears to be looking over something, a letter, perhaps, with a look of intense concentration on her face.

“What’s that?” I ask as I bound up to her, and she quickly folds it.

“Nothing,” she says, tucking it away. I can swear for a brief minute, I see tears in the corners of her eyes, but she either blinks them away or I am hallucinating.

“Everything alright?”

“Of course,” her voice is level as ever, and a bit cool as she responds, “the battle is won and I have my legs again. Why wouldn’t it be?”

“Just making sure… you know, it’s not like these last few days have been easy on anyone,” I offer, and mumble my last few words, “especially not you.”

She cuts a sharp look in my direction, her eyes narrowing, “why especially not me?”

“I just mean,” I bite my lip – I hadn’t meant to imply she was weak, nor did it seem like her lost limbs would be a popular subject. “I mean… your legs…”

She huffs and rolls her eyes, her arms crossing over her chest, “I just did what I had to to survive. Anyone would have done the same.”

Except you wanted us to leave you. I think, but decide it wise not to point out.

“I know, but… Well, anyway, thank you, Aintai, you saved us.”

Her posture softens as she studies me for a moment, and sighs.

“Cheshire, you… idiot.” She mumbles, and I blink, “no one saved anyone back there. We all did what we had to, we worked as a team, and.. I admit, a pretty good one.”

She smiles a little, “plus, I suppose I should be thanking you for toting me around. You make an alright infirmary bed.”

I return her grin and shrug my shoulders, “and you make an alright necklace.”

She shakes her head at me in response.

“Anyway, you must have needed something?”

“Oh! Yeah, I wanted to find everyone, do you know where they are?”

“Nerida and the wizard headed off with that priest,” she says, gesturing toward the temple, “Mimi said something about a bath, and I think your muscle is going to see his father, seeing as he isn’t a big old icy blood smear anymore.”

“Alright, I’m going to go find Nerida and Ulkair then,” I nod, and she returns it, waving her hand at me casually as I turn away. I only get about ten feet away, however, and stop, turning around to face her again.

“Hey Aintai?”

“Hmm?” She raises her delicately sculpted eyebrow at me, and I shift awkwardly in place.

“Do you, um, have a place to live? Here in Byss, I mean?”

She pauses, and I suppose this is the first time she’s given it any real thought.

“No,” she says slowly, “but there’s always the barracks, and I’d wager a lot of newly emptied homes. Why?”
I cringe at the casual reminder of our body count, but clear my throat.

“Well, I mean… Alix and I were, well I guess, um, just I was, uh… wondering…”

She cocks her head at me, displaying an unusual patience as she waits for me to stumble through my sentence.

“It’s just that… Alix has some spare rooms, and I think Nerida and Ulkair are probably going to take one, and maybe Lóin. I, um… I don’t really know but anyway you could share one with me if you wanted and maybe you could, um, stay with us and we’d all be together and I just think it would be nice… you know…”

If I stared any harder at the ground I think I’d break my neck, and I don’t know why the invitation was suddenly so crushingly awkward, but I peer up at her stoic face just in time to see it break into a smirk.

“Yeah, sure. Sounds nice.”

“Really? I mean, good!”

She rolls her eyes again and mumbles “idiot” under her breath, then ushers me on, and I run down the street happily. One down, just a few more to go, and hopefully talking to Nerida I won’t make myself look like a blithering idiot.

Cheshire? Alix’s voice pokes its way into my head as I make my way to the temple, and he sounds solemn, which worries me.

Yes? I ask, trying not to relay my building anxiousness in my tone. I can feel him taking a deep breath, and that he wants me to do the same.

It looks like we will need to investigate the matter of Dovev’s head a bit further. It is indeed missing, and was not burned. I’ve tracked it a little ways outside of the city

Panic punches me in the chest, constricting my breath and I cut Alix off, desperate to stop him from leaving.

N-No! Come back! You don’t know what–

Cheshire, calm down. I feel Alix reach over our link to place a hand on my shoulder, and I try to steady my breathing, try to stop the weeping that already threatens me with its presence.

Alix…

We’ll get to the bottom of this, but you have to stay calm. I’m only just outside the city walls, if you would like to accompany me, gather the others and meet me here. I’ll wait for you.

Alright. I sniffle, rubbing my eyes and take off to find Nerida and Ulkair. I’ll… I’ll be right there. Don’t go anywhere, please.

I told you I would wait for you.

I just want you to be safe.

I know.

As I make my way to the temple, a flash of sea green light catches my eye from the distance – Nerida’s magic, for certain, but I wonder what she’s casting it on.

I hope no one is in trouble… The tiny spark of doubt quickly becomes a fire in my mind as I race toward the temple, praying that my imagination is simply over-active.

Please, please don’t let there be anything wrong! Please don’t let it be Dovev!

No shouts or screams greet me as I approach, no clashing of swords carries in the air, and I hope that is a sign that my paranoia is misplaced. I see Nerida before anyone else, of course, and she appears to be standing with Ulkair and Mimi, calm as anything, although her skin again glows with the fissures that appeared in Elysia. I slow my run to a jog, and then a swift stride as I approach, certain that by their demeanor, there was nothing wrong here. Whatever spell she cast, bright though it was, must not have been to fend off any enemies.

“Hey guys!” I say, trying to maintain calm, steady breath as though I had not panicked and sprinted half the way here. I stop in place to twirl as I had for Alix, “look at my new dress!”

Nerida indulges me with an appreciative stare, and smiles. “It’s lovely, Cheshire.”

Pleasantries now aside, I feel the increasing pressure of time on my back, we need to get moving and meet up with Alix.

“Also, Alix is waiting for us outside the city,” I mumble, my fists clenching as the panic crawls its way from my mind to my stomach once more, “Dovev’s head… it’s gone. We’re going to go look for it.”

Nerida cocks her head at me, blinking in confusion. “Well of course it’s gone? He’s dead. He jumped off his wyvern into a fissure in the ground.”

I grit my teeth to keep from snapping at her, I shouldn’t have to explain this! Perhaps if she hadn’t run off the second she thought the battle was done…

“No, that didn’t kill him” I manage, swallowing the lump of emotions that stick themselves in my throat as I try to calmly describe for her what had happened. “After you left, he crawled out of the fissure. He…”

I struggle to pull in a calm, even breath as the memories rush back to me with my description. Dovev’s hands, clawing his way back out of that pit, his blood-soaked smile, dead on me. His eyes… I shudder, and Nerida narrows her eyes in concern, clearly wondering how what I’ve said could be possible.

“He got his head above them before they closed and crushed him, it rolled to the base of the wall by my feet,” I manage, trying to shake the mental images. Why, why hadn’t I destroyed what was left of him when I had the chance?

“I was going to shoot it with a fire arrow, just to be sure, but… you two were running off and… I just thought… we had bigger problems.”

I was wrong… I add silently as Nerida places a hand on my shoulder.

“It’ll be okay, Cheshire. We’ll find it, or we’ll keep you safe.” she says, kneeling and pulling me into a hug I can’t bring myself to return.

No, it won’t! You won’t! I think bitterly, drawing in on myself in an attempt to stop the spiral. I know if I hug her, I’ll cling to her, and if I do that I’ll weep. She didn’t protect me against Dovev, she fell for his trick! No, that wasn’t fair, everyone fell for his tricks, and she did her best, played her part in the battle like everyone else. She just doesn’t understand, and how could she?

She didn’t choke on his stench, feel his cold, clammy flesh on her bare skin. He didn’t touch her, didn’t corner her – he couldn’t have. He couldn’t loom over her and invade her mind as he had me. Her didn’t want her, so how could she possibly begin to understand?

She takes my face in her hands and turns me to look at her, staring into my eyes as if trying to reassure me. I feel a shudder run down my spine at the contact, and I break it, unable to meet her gaze. She straightens up, I suppose accepting that there was nothing she could do for me in this moment, and gestures for Ulkair to follow us. I wrap my hand around a couple of her fingers as we walk, staring at the ground and trying to push down fears that tear at the edges of my sanity.

We make the journey out of the city as short as possible, picking Aintai up on our way out. I think briefly to go and find Lóin, but the smithing areas, where his father is resting, are just too far out of the way. Alix, true to his word, is waiting not far from the city walls where Dovev’s blood stain is, and I run to his side.

Alix takes a moment to put an arm around me, giving my shoulder a reassuring squeeze, and I sigh, staring down at the bloodied space. Maybe it wasn’t so bad… maybe it was just an animal, or a monster carrying it off out of sheer stupid coincidence… That was possible, right? I can feel my subconscious scoff at my optimism – as if we had ever been so lucky.

Alix releases me and begins following a trail that apparently he can see, though I’m not sure I understand it, even as he stops to point things out to us. There were apparently some very tiny feet involved, like a child’s, or smaller, which only makes the whole thing more confusing, at least for me, although I don’t know about the rest of out party. After awhile, Alix stops, he scratches the back of his head, and I can hear him running through all the most likely scenarios in his mind, checking them off as impossibilities one by one before he speaks again.

“I don’t know what happened,” he admits, “the trail just… ends here.”

What can that mean? A humanoid toddler stole Dovev’s head and just.. disappeared?

However nonsensical my mental explanation may seem, the ridiculous scenario actually seems more likely than Alix’s tracking ability failing us, so I wait on baited breath for his next move. He raises his hand, drawing a symbol in the air in front of us, and I feel a small burst of magic erupt from him, a tiny glimmer of green energy illumination the edges of his hand. It was divine power, but not like anything I recognize, not Eadro’s energy, and certainly not Tubatron’s.

Wow! What was– I start to inquire, but a wave of magic cuts my train of thought.

Horrible, evil magic. There was no other way to describe it – it was like staring into that demon’s eyes, standing suffocated by his presence the day I first crossed him. I shudder as the residue washes over us, radiating from the spot where Alix had cast his spell, so strong it overpowers the trace of his divine magic. I cling to Alix, breathing unevenly as I try to wrap my mind around whatever it is he just stirred up, and he holds onto my hand, remaining ever sharp and vigilant.

Ulkair seems primarily unfazed, he crouches near us, regarding the ground and the traces of magic Alix has unveiled thoughtfully.

“I don’t know,” he mumbles, “it could be a teleportation spell of some kind, or a pass without a trace, they could have hidden maybe… It’s impossible to tell by what is left. I suppose this will have to be a mystery for another time.”

Another time? We can’t just… walk away!

“But, Dovev’s head…” I press, looking from him, to Alix, and then the rest of my companions.

“What could anyone even want his head for?” Nerida mumbles, as though it could matter. There is, I’m positive, absolutely nothing good you could want to do with the head of an Ichtaca, particularly not this one.

“Ulkair said they could have hidden themselves, maybe they’re still here?” I urge, tightening my grip on Alix. If we could just find some way to stop this before it’s too late…

“No, this is just a residue, but the fact that it’s so strong means that whatever it was, it’s bad,” Mimi shivers and shakes her head as she explains, “it’s similar to how the immortal child felt when she was in the room with me, but it’s hard to compare without her here.”

Okay, I get it, it’s bad news. Isn’t that all the more reason to look for it, whatever it is!?

I lean my head on Alix’s arm to keep from throwing it back in frustration as Mimi starts inching her way back toward the city – how do they not get it? They think this is bad? They think this is too much to go after and investigate now, well what do they think is going to happen when it comes back, and with Dovev in tow?

Stay calm, Cheshire. Alix reminds me, squeezing my hand, and I bite my lip.

I’m trying! I insist.

“Alix, is there anyone in town who might know more about this?” Nerida asks – well, at least someone isn’t just throwing their hands up and walking away, perhaps she can sense my growing unease, not that I’m exactly hiding it.

“Agorran,” Alix says, and Nerida heaves a heavy sigh, bringing her fingers to rub her temples.

“Of course.” She mumbles, and takes Ulkair’s hand to head back to the city.

I’m not sure I understand her exasperation, she was fond of Agorran, unless he had said something to gravely offend her in the last couple of hours, and typically seemed eager to pay him a visit. Perhaps she’s struggling with Eadro granting him a different create water ability than her own… I make a mental note not to show her the new trick I learned this afternoon.

As we enter the city, Tad Cooper bounds through a nearby building to greet me, and I hug him merrily, throwing my arms around his huge spectral head.

“Tad Cooper! Good boy, I’m so glad you’re not hurt!” I exclaim, petting his beak as he nuzzles me.
I realize with quite a bit of shame that I’d nearly forgotten about him, in the heat of everything, though I’m glad I did not make the mistake of taking him with us to Elysia: who knows what those vampires would have done to him.

“Did you help everybody kill those bad, bad ghouls?” I coo, and Alix shakes his head at me, either unsure of my bond with Tad Cooper, wary of the stares that I draw when speaking to him, or perhaps both.

The ethereal owlbear looks away sheepishly, and I get the impression that was not indeed what he did with his time, but I suppose it is for the best. I would have loved to have him by my side, but Dovev could control the undead, if he had fallen to the influence of that awful music and been forced to turn on me… I don’t think either of us would make it through something like that again.

Oh, buddy, what am I going to do with you?

I sigh, petting his beak lightly as we continue our walk after Nerida and Ulkair. Byss was a dangerous place for the undead, especially now, and I notice Tad Cooper shying away from the sun’s bright rays as we walk. Alix had said that the sun makes undead weak, even burns some of them, I suppose ghosts are no exception, but perhaps Agorran could help with that, as well. He restored Aintai’s legs, and I still have Tad Cooper’s pelt, maybe if he could fix his body, Nerida could put his soul back in it? I’m not sure that’s how it works, but it would be worth a shot.

Agorran is still standing up on the city walls, he seems to be enjoying the sunshine, and the view of Byss’ newly acquired grass. I can’t blame him: with the nice breeze, I can think of few finer perches for a moment of peace after such a hard won week.

“Ah, hello again,” he says, turning to greet us as we approach. Nerida looks guiltily at the ground, and mumbles an apology, and I can’t help but wonder if they didn’t, in fact, have some sort of unresolved spat while I was gone.

“Hello Agorran, I’m sorry to keep bothering you today, but um…” I pause, wringing my hands as nervousness twists its way through my stomach again. “Do you know what someone, or… something might want with an Ichtaca’s head?”

Agorran pauses, his brow knitting in what is either deep thought, or concern.

“Hmm, well, I suppose with his head, you could revive him.”

“Oh,” my voice comes out a squeak as I try to respond to the news, “could you?”

Of course. My stomach lurches with fear and frustration. Of course! I knew it was something awful, it had to be, because why should we be allowed a moment’s piece? I try not to let the bitter spiral consume me as Nerida and Agorran debate the particulars of how one could revive the undead without the use of holy magic. But… none of this made sense, what could anyone want with Dovev? Surely no one living in Byss could want to see him rise again, right? But then, he was ancient and powerful, perhaps there were those who were bound to his will, like… I almost was. I shudder as I remember the Ichtaca’s hold on me, his unearthly power flooding my mind and my will. I couldn’t have been the only one he’s ever effected, right?

“So, in the legends about Ichtacas, was there ever mention of them having cultists or other followers?” If such a thing existed, it seemed certain Agorran would know, after all, such people would have been a terrible worry for the clergy.

“Well, all the ghouls follow them devotedly, but as soon as they die or show weakness, then a new Ichtaca is chosen. Ghouls shouldn’t be interested in reviving him, they should be finding a new Ichtaca. And now, they should be interested in survival,” Agorran smiles as he finishes his explanation, and I wish his joy were contagious. Of course, it made sense that it wasn’t human followers after all, that residue hardly felt… normal.

“Does Byss have any problem with demons?” I ask, shuddering at the memory of the magical residue. It was the sensation of pure evil, reaching into your soul and squeezing until your bones hurt, and there was only one other being that had ever left me with that sensation.

“Not so far as I know.”

“Well, at least that might make it a little easier to sleep at night,” I mumble. Not a complete lie, but I doubted I would find any rest while the Ichtaca’s shadow loomed over me. “Is there nothing we can do…?”

“Are there any signs we could look out for? Any way we could know if someone was performing this… terrible ritual which would revive him?” Nerida asks, and I glance up at Agorran hopefully, but his expression is not a relief.

“Perhaps,” he says uncertainly, “if they are even still here, or anywhere in Byss.”

But Mimi said they weren’t… I hang my head, gripping my dress tightly as I try to ground myself, keep from spiraling out of control. If they weren’t in Byss anymore, what could we even hope to do? How could we ever find him? Nerida and Ulkair had mentioned scrying in Elysia, that the vampires could watch us even from another plane, if they could do it, perhaps we could, as well.

“Nerida, could we scry for it?” I ask, peering up at her desperately, Ulkair stiffens, but she nods.

“Yes, I know a scrying spell… I won’t be able to perform it until the morning, but I could try to find him that way,” she says, and I nod, at least it’s something. A potential lead…

“Alright, thank you.”

I stare out to the fissures once again, losing myself to the memories of battle, the cries of the undead, the earthquake that should have consumed him. The one shot I had to take to end all of this… the shot I didn’t take. Dovev’s music plays in the back of my mind, the cold, haunted chords of his harpsichord echoing between my ears as I study the fissures. The gentle breeze that teases my hair raising a chill on the back of my neck, suddenly so sinister, and I don’t notice how tight my grasp has become until Alix’s hand takes one of mine. I turn to look at him as he pulls me back to the present, and he brings his other hand to wipe away the tears I hadn’t realized I cried.

“Alix…” I bite my lip, unable to raise my voice above a desperate whisper, or word the mounting pressure in my chest.

“I know,” he says, gently moving my hands from the fists I’ve balled them into, “but the others are heading to the temple, something about a painting. Didn’t you want to ask Agorran about Tad Cooper?”

“Oh, yes… I did.”

“Well then, you should go with them.”

“You’re not coming?”

He offers me a small smile as he responds.

“Well, it seemed like you had some pretty grand plans for dinner. I’m going to go get started on that. Besides I think you still have an invitation for Nerida outstanding, and some stuff to get back?”

“Oh, right,” I had forgotten all about my other purposes when Alix told me about Dovev’s head, but I was yet to invite Nerida and Ulkair to live with us, and I did still have a general store in a pile in the arena.

“Don’t be out past evening,” Alix says, ruffling my hair, “I’ll see you at home.”

“Okay!” I nod, and hurry down the stairs after Agorran and the others, Alix’s words buzzing pleasantly in my head.

Home. I repeat to myself, “I’ll see you at home.”

With Tad Cooper’s company, and Alix’s words, I manage to keep my paranoia at bay as we walk to temple, repeating to myself occasionally that we would find Dovev’s head in the morning. For better or worse, at least we would know. Nerida and Ulkair chat back and forth, and eventually I drum up the courage to interrupt them.

“Oh, by the way, Nerida?” I ask, peering up at the priestess, and she looks down at me.

“Hmm?”

“Would you, um, maybe want to sleep at my house? Or, well, um, you know, Alix’s… Alix has a house, you know, and there’s an extra room, so I thought maybe…”

I trail off, turning a bit red as I begin the spiral into idiotic rambling for the second time that day – how was I so bad at this? I’d seen this woman naked, she’d pried me from the jaws of monsters, and burning buildings, we’d suffered on the verge of death and everywhere in between, together. You would think I could talk to her like a normal person.

She is thankfully sparing of my feelings, and doesn’t call me out on in, instead tapping her chin thoughtfully.

“Well, the only other place I could consider sleeping would be the temple– ” I can’t help but notice Ulkair visibly recoil at the word, “but Ulkair might not feel as comfortable there as I would, so maybe Alix’s place would be nice. What do you think, Ulkair?”

I per around her to see the wizard rub his arm nervously, “Yes, that sounds much better. The temple makes me… uneasy.”

“Well, you’re both welcome in,” I bite my lip, grinning a little as I say the words, still hardly able to believe them, “our home.”

Ulkair inhales sharply, as if just remembering something, “could I have some bread?”

“Bread?” Nerida asks, cocking her head at him, “oh, the green stuff? We can get some at the temple.”

“Green!?” Ulkair asks, looking and sounding about as horrified as I had when I first tasted it.

“Yes, it’s what we ate every day, it’s wonderful!”

I shudder – does she not have the ability to taste, or was all the food in Zissyx just that bad? “It’s horrible!”

“It tastes very familiar,” Nerida muses aloud, “but I’m not sure why.”

“But… but it’s… green?” Ulkair insists, and Nerida looks at him quizzically.

“Well, yes, what other color would it be?”

“Ugh it’s so baaad,” I whine, hugging myself dramatically as we walk.

“No it’s not!” Nerida maintains, “It’s really good, you should try some!”

Ulkair doesn’t look convinced, maybe he’ll spare himself. Agorran chuckles to himself lightly as we walk the temple steps, and enter into the main hall.

“Well, what do you think of my masterpiece?” Ulkair announces proudly, “I call it ‘A Moment of Harmony’!”

He makes a grand sweeping gesture towards the wall, where a brilliant mural is painted. The first thing that catches my eye is seas of blue, I follow the soft tendrils throughout the painting to Nerida, hand in hand with Ulkair, dozens of tiny details and a beautiful, soft background accenting the two of them. It is amazing, but I feel like it’s missing something… but what?

“Well,” Agorran smiles, holding his hands up in a framing motion and cocking his head in appraisal. “I suppose it is good to have some record of Nerida, she who brought us Eadro, and so much more. And one that seems to be of great import to her. It’s beautiful and brings light and grace to a temple once full of only suffering and survival.”

Agorran’s words hit me with a pang of guilt and sadness, but also inspiration – light! That’s what this needs, to be brighter! This painting is the symbol of Byss’ new temple, it needs to be shine like Byss’ new sun. I focus my arcane energy, mumbling into my palms to summon a handful of shining, magical glitter.

“Man, that’s almost perfect,” I say, releasing the spell and throwing the glitterdust in an even, shimmering coat over the mural. “_Now_ It’s perfect!”

Ulkair nods in approval, and Agorran laughs softly as Nerida groans, hiding her face in embarrassment.

“I’m going to go get some bread…” She mumbles, shuffling off toward the temple’s food hall.

Agorran smiles, and I feel my stomach twist with nervousness as I ready to bring yet another problem to him, and one he is likely not going to be too terribly pleased with.

“Um, High Priest Agorran?” I mumble, and he looks back at me.

“Yes, child?” He responds, his smile unwavering. He looks at me with a soft patience in his eyes, and I feel my tension wane.

“I.. I know you have much bigger problems, but, I was wondering… maybe after everyone’s had some rest… if you could maybe help me with my friend,” my mumbling gets increasingly quieter with every word, “…he needs a body.”

“What are you asking for?” Agorran cocks his head at me, clearly confused, and I realize he has no idea who or what Tad Cooper is, and that I’m not exactly being clear. Of course, I don’t exactly know what it is I need, but, maybe he will. I dig through my bag of holding and pull the folded owlbear pelt from it, holding it up to him with a hopeful stare.

“You need an owlbear resurrected?” Agorran’s face falls as he asks, and mine with it. Of course he would think it a ludicrous endeavor, with so many Byssian lives lost, and this creature undoubtedly being one they lived in fear of… I hang my head, and then Agorran places a hand on my shoulder.

“Cheshire, I’m sorry. But that takes resources we simply don’t have here in Byss.”

I glance back up at him, suppressing a sniffle – he doesn’t seem angry, or even irritated, but more that he was lamenting his inability to help me.

“Like what?” I ask, maybe if it was only a matter of resources, I could find a way to get them.

He looks only more despondent as he explains. “Like an enormous diamond.”

I blink up at him for a moment, then dig through my bag for the gem I’d taken out of the vampire’s ashes – it’s enormous, at least I think. It’s certainly the largest one I’ve ever held, or even seen.

“Like this?” I ask hopefully, and Agorran’s eyes widen.

“Li-Like that… giant diamond,” he says, sadness running across his features before he replaces it with a smile, “I’m very happy you can bring your friend back. I can cast the spell for you.”

I study his features for a moment, my gut wrenching with guilt even as he tries to cover his impulsive response, and I suddenly feel ridiculously selfish.

“I…”
I bite my lop, glancing at Tad Cooper, who cocks his ghostly head at me curiously. I have him, and Alix, I have a family and a home for the first time in my life, and Agorran… has nothing. He lost so many friends, and I recall in his conversations with Nerida, he mentioned losing the last living member of his family. I have everything I’ve ever dreamed of and more, and I owe so much of it to Agorran, how could I have ever thought it was right to ask for more?

“I think you should have this, Agorran,” I mumble, holding the gem out to him. I’ll figure out some other way to help Tad Cooper, this is more important. “You lost a member of your family, right..? I still have Tad Cooper, if you can bring someone back, I would rather it be them.”

Agorran smiles sadly at me, and he crouches down, placing his hands over mine and guiding it back to me.

“I have lost many members of my family. I consider every Byssian a member of my family, just as I consider you one,” he says, ruffling my hair gently. “The dead are the dead, it was their time. I have the feeling your ‘Tad Cooper’ met his end earlier than he should have.”

I sniffle, managing a small smile, “Alix has that effect on things.”

This earns me a wry chuckle, “That he does.”

Tad Cooper growls at the mention of his untimely demise, and I shoot my fiercest look at him.

“Don’t you take that tone with me, Tad Cooper!” He’s going to have to learn to get along with Alix, no grumbling. He lowers his head, and I reach out to pet him in consolation, and Agorran shakes his head, his smile returned.

“Let us resurrect your friend. Shall I cast the spell now? It will take a few minutes.”

I glance behind me – Nerida has returned with bread which Ulkair eyes warily, and neither of them seem in any hurry, so I nod at Agorran. Giving him the diamond, and Tad Cooper’s pelt, I go and take a place by Nerida while he prepares the spell. Ulkair nibbles the bread with a polite smile I know well – it was the same one I gave Sheik when she offered me raw hydra meat. His face remains shockingly neutral as he eats the bread, and after a swallow I can tell takes a bit too much effort, he smiles up at Nerida’s hopeful face.

“Oh, perhaps it was special Elysian bread I wanted, but this is good too. Thank you,” he says, and I shake my head. Oh well, I suppose he doesn’t want to hurt her feelings. “Why don’t you have the rest?”

“Aren’t you hungry?” She objects as he hurriedly passes the bread off to her.

“We should eat at Alix’s house,” he says, and I don’t have the heart to tell him it will likely be no better.

Green moss-bread and fish that tasted slightly of the undead were just what the people of Byss ate, it seemed. I wasn’t sure that was an aspect of my new home I’d ever get used to, but it was a small price to pay, and I didn’t really need to eat that much.

“He is making dinner,” I offer, and Ulkair looks at me hopefully.

“Do you two have any bread?”

I shake my head, “no, but if you’re really hungry, I have some traveler’s rations that are better than that bread. It’s just that… I think that’s the only kind of bread they make here.”

Nerida munches the green, chewy loaf happily, but frowns as she observes Ulkair’s crestfallen face
.
“What do you need to make this special Elysian bread?” She asks, and Ulkair sighs.

“Wheat.”

“Maybe that will grow here soon?”

A flash of sea-green light catches my attention, and I turn to see Tad cooper’s pelt floating in front of Agorran, submersed in the holy energy. It begins to flesh out, forming paws, claws, legs, slowly but surely starting to regain Tad Cooper’s familiar form, and then the green light surrounds his spirit next to me, and fuses the two of them together. I wait on edge for a moment as the light fades, Tad Cooper grunts and groans, and shakes his head, then raises it to look at me. I chew my lip, praying he will still remember me, and that nothing has gone wrong, and then his eyes light up, and he bounds over to me, nuzzling me with his beak.

“Tad Cooper!” I cry merrily, wrapping my arms as far around him as they will go. He stops, and growls, and I follow his gaze to Nerida – oh, yes, he’s a bit afraid of her, I’d forgotten. I shake my head, giving him a firm stare, and he turns his attention from her once more, content to frolic in his new body and be petted.

“Thank you, Agorran!” I give the high priest another hug, and he returns it. If he regrets his choice, he doesn’t let on to it – he seems genuinely happy for me, if a bit bewildered at my choice of company.

“I’m glad I could help you, Cheshire,” he says, “but be careful.”

“I will be, I promise!” I pull myself onto Tad Cooper’s back – with a bit of aid from the owlbear himself, and we trot merrily over to Ulkair and Nerida, who appear to be waiting for us by the temple’s doors.

“Oh, guys, before we go home, I have to get my stuff from the arena. I know you don’t know where it is, but head for the gates and I’ll meet you there, I won’t be long.”

Nerida nods, and Ulkair says something about having some shopping to do, though I’m not exactly sure how much luck he will have with the current population in so much disarray, and Tad Cooper bounds out of the temple’s doors, and down its steps. I giggle, but cling to his feathery coat with all my strength as he runs us down the city streets, clearly happier than it had occurred to me he might be to have a physical body again. We draw plenty of stares, I think, but most of the townsfolk go by in a blur, and luckily I think I’m quite noticeable enough for no one to try and attack my feathered friend.

We reach the arena quite quickly, and I slip from Tad Cooper’s back, a bit dizzy and my heart racing. He waits for me to stabilize and then proceeds to frolic merrily in the open combat space while I gather my things. The whole pile of stuff I left, taller than myself, is respectfully untouched, and it looks like the Byssians have begun the process of smoking the remains of the hydra, and disposed of the rest of the corpse, no evidence of it but its cooked remnants and a colossal blood stain.

It doesn’t take me long to get my things, and Tad Cooper happily takes me to the city gates, as well, where we meet up with Nerida, Ulkair and Aintai. Having run to his heart’s content, he doesn’t seem too antsy about walking slowly with the others on out way home, which is good, because clinging to him has made my limbs sore, his back quite wide for them to hold on to. I slide from his back as we reach Alix’s house, and spin in an exaggerated, showing off gesture.

“Ta-dah!” I exclaim, “Alix’s house!”

Aintai sarcastically claps for me, and Nerida smiles, although it looks as though she is too tired to care about much of anything at the moment, the week’s events seeming to catch up to her, and hit her hard. Ulkair takes her hand, and walks in as I open the door for them, Aintai behind us. I hurry around the house, excitedly showing them everything from the common room to the bedrooms, where Nerida and Ulkair excuse themselves from my tour so that Nerida can pass out.

Aintai humors me as I excitedly show her stupid things like mugs and plates, and even has dinner with Alix and I. For awhile, the exuberance keeps my fear at bay, my stomach even settling enough to eat a proper meal for the first time in weeks. Mimi shows up with Lóin just as Alix and I are setting out plates, and I happily place two more, and then another two for Ulkair and Nerida, as he seems to have successfully roused her for supper.

I can barely contain my joy as we settle in for a shared meal, it wouldn’t be the first I’d had with this group of people, but this one was different. It wasn’t a bunch of adventurers huddled around a campfire, praying every bite wouldn’t be their last, it wasn’t rations split between dying friends, or soup made only to try and keep the peace. This was a family meal, around a shared table, it felt whole and kind, and was every bit as wonderful as I’d always dreamed it would be. I feel the familiar sting of tears, and bury my face in my hands briefly to contain them.

“Cheshire, what’s wrong?” Mimi asks, and I shake my head, raising it to smile at my companions, who all look at me strangely.

“I’m just so glad you’re all here,” I pause, my mind straining for the words to tell them, to make them understand what it’s like, how it feels to be wanted, instead of tolerated. “I guess all my life, what I wanted most in the world was to just fit in and be like everyone else. To know who I was and look in the mirror and see a face that I knew was me, not just somebody.”

I don’t think I could ever make them understand how badly I wanted to be something. To be what others wanted, what my family wanted, how hard I tried, and for how long, but never could get it, nor a friend, nor any form of praise. I had nothing for so long I suppose I looked at self love and identity as the only thing I could obtain, and until just recently, I didn’t even have that. It tore at me, and every day I wanted it more and more, shedding a hundred skins to try and find my own.

“I tried everything, over and over, and no matter what I did, it never worked. I guess eventually I thought that the best way to be liked was to just not be… disliked. No one could hate me if they didn’t know I existed. As I learned to control my powers a little better, I started to only shapeshift when it suited me, which was… often and usually not for any especially virtuous reason. I just avoided others, I learned everything I know from books, or practice…. You have a lot of time for practice when you’re, well, always alone.”

I pause, looking down at my food as I feel my face and ears flush with shame and frustration– I don’t need that anymore, I know who I am, but somehow, now that I was trying to explain it, trying to show them such a lonely existence for what it truly was… it felt disgraceful. I only want them to know how happy I am, and I suppose I thought that they couldn’t understand without knowing how unhappy I had been, but my words writhe in my stomach, as if speaking them will cost me everything.

Alix reaches from his seat to place his and on my shoulder, and the comforting calloused grasp breathes a new life into my words. It washes away the humiliation of a lifetime of failure, knowing that it all lead to this point, to these people… I sniffle, placing my hand over his, but manage to lift my gaze with pride.

“I never would have thought of myself as a people person until I met you all, I was alone half my life, and that was fine, but now… I can’t ever think of going back to that. I don’t really want to fit in anymore, I guess now standing out, which always seemed like a punishment before, is kind of who I am, and at least I know who that is now. I learned a lot of life lessons in these last weeks, I went from avoiding everyone and everything, and hiding from all my responsibilities, to suddenly feeling the gravity of all my actions, and sometimes… they weigh heavily, but I wouldn’t trade this, or any of you. Not for anything.”

My hand still clutching Alix’s, I carefully study the faces surrounding me and find no hint of ire, but shared smiles all around.

“I guess now that I have everything I’ve ever wanted… all that’s left is to shred some face,” I grin, making a gesture in the air as though I were shredding notes on my axe, and it earns a smirk from Aintai.

“I know I never really became very connected to you all,” she says, shooting me a glance that seems to suggest an exception, “though we’ve had some fun times, you probably don’t know much about my past.”

I lower my hands to listen to what she has to say, the only one at the table who doesn’t appear to have paled at hearing her voice – as though they never have or something?

“Well, Cheshire has her triumph, and I have mine. The one thing in my life that I will never regret is the day I broke free, the day I earned my freedom,” she has a vehemence in her voice that takes me by surprise, and she turns her knife idly over her plate as she speaks, a proud smile tugging at her lips.

“Most of my life I had been a slave, sold when my family decided that I wasn’t adequate. The huntsman of the tribe they sold me to acted as my master for about seven or so years. One day we went out on a hunt, after some wickedly large beast, and he turned his back – I saw then what I was certain would be my only chance. The wild beast we hunted stood before us, easily able to kill any regular member of the tribe, the very reason they sent the master huntsman and I. I turned around, drove my fangs into his leg, and left as the poison raced through his body.”

Awesome…

Aintai’s story is much more impressive than mine. It seems to inspire storytime all around the table, Mimi and Lóin piping up with tales of their past, Mimi of her defiance of her culture, choosing to stand out and embrace her elven heritage, and Lóin of a lost lady-love, years he spent enslaved to a circus. I wish I could say it sheds some light on his behavior, but it only digs up more questions I fear will never be answered. He says he wants to go and look for her one day, but not as he is now, that he’s not good enough for her right now, and Alix claps him on the shoulder.

“In time, friend,” he says, and I peer curiously into his mind for whatever it is I seem to be missing – apparently Lóin also apologized to Alix, and asked for his aid in controlling his temper.

Well, I suppose if anyone can help him, Alix can. I look at Nerida, wondering if, since it seems to be going around, there was something she might like to say, too, and she looks around the table with nervousness on her every feature. Clearly, if she has something to say, she doesn’t want to, so I think it best to change the subject, and there’s a question that’s been nagging at my brain for awhile now anyway.

“So, Nerida, you said you were planning on going back to Zissyx?”

I knew she was on a mission, I knew she had family in the mer city, that she would have to travel back eventually, but it hadn’t occurred to me until just now that she may not consider Byss her home, as I did. Nerida was a part of my family, my stomach lurches with the realization she may not feel the same way, that she might leave, for good.

“That’s… not, um… is that a long term plan? Are you coming back, or…?”

“Well, I’m only an initiate of the clergy,” Nerida begins, and I can’t hold back the bark of laughter that it spurs.

“No, I’m sorry, go ahead,” I try to cover my mouth, stop the incredulous laughter, and she looks at me strangely.

“I’ve only been a priestess for a year,” she says, and I raise an eyebrow.

“And you’ve done, wait, how many miracles?”

“Only one!” She says – as if it somehow makes the situation less ridiculous, “and I didn’t do it, I only prayer to Lord Eadro for it!”

“Oh, I’m sorry, how many miracles you convinced Lord Eadro to do, then,” I correct sarcastically.

The very idea that someone like Nerida should have to return to Zissyx to somehow… prove herself was an outrage. Ulkair seems to agree, leaning back in his seat to give her a sarcastic stare.

“A-Anyway,” Nerida clears her throat, looking away from us as she explains, “I at least need to go back and let them know I’m still alive. Well, I mean, that will irritate people, but…”

I can’t stand to see her floundering with lack of confidence, for the sake of some… water-sucking morons who apparently would rather she be dead, but at least it sounds like she doesn’t have much intention of staying with them. Even still, Zissyx sounds dangerous, and if even her fellow priests of Eadro wish her dead, it doesn’t seem like she should go back alone.

“Seems to me like you owe these people nothing,” I offer, reaching over to pat her shoulder, “but if that’s what you really want, we’ll go.”

“I think you should go back to tell them you’re high priestess, now,” Ulkair adds, and I nod eagerly at first, but pause, my face falling. Nerida deserves more than anyone to wear the mantle of high priest, she’s ridiculously devout to Eadro, she’s magnificent, powerful, kind… everything a high priest should be. I’m sure under the light of her leadership, Zissyx would be glorious, but without that same light, my life would feel dull.

“But… won’t that mean you would have to stay in Zissyx?”

“Well, I at least need to finish some things up there,” she answers, I think deliberately misunderstanding the question to avoid acknowledging her potential as a high priest. “But Ulkair has a teleport spell?”

He grins and teleports into her lap flashily as proof, and I roll my eyes.

“I believed you, you didn’t have to demonstrate,” I mumble, then turn my attention back to Nerida. “So, you weren’t planning on doing this alone, right?”

“Well, I wouldn’t expect any of you to come with me,” she says simply, and Ulkair gives her a disbelieving look, and she sighs, “except you.”

I sigh – increasingly sure that Nerida does not trust me as I do her, or any of us. I’m starting to wonder if I could ever earn that trust, after Elysia, everything we’ve been through, she’d still rather face a dangerous situation alone than with us. I know she doesn’t fear for Lóin or Mimi’s safety, and there’s no one among us more capable than Alix, so perhaps it is just me, and possibly Aintai, that she considers me a liability. I know that I’m not as tough as the others, and I’ve leaned on her for more than any of them, but hadn’t I also come through when she needed me? What will it take to prove myself?

“Nerida, I know you could be a fourteen foot, stupidly strong destroying machine of holy might and epicness,” I sigh, searching for the right words and failing miserably, “and so you’re not pathetic like I am, but I’m just saying that if you need your friends, we’re here for you.”

“You fought toe to toe with Dovev. How are you pathetic?” She immediately cuts back in with an opinion that makes me wonder even harder why she wouldn’t want my company on a dangerous journey, but the mention of the ghoul king’s name raises the hairs on the back of my neck.

Yes. Dovev. What a victory… that I nullified.

Eager to move on from the subject, lest it tear me in two, I wave my hand dismissively.

“That was different, that was just music,” I say, trying my hardest to nonchalantly redirect the focus of the conversation. “I’m just saying that from what you’ve said, Zissyx sounds like a terrible, garbage place that you shouldn’t go alone to.”

“It’s like Byss in many ways,” Nerida says, and I believe she is trying to defend her homeland until she continues, “except there is no kindness. Instead of banding together, the people there look out only for themselves.”

Her eyes reflect the bitter taste of the words on her tongue, it is obvious she has no fondness for the awful place, but why won’t she just allow us to help her deal with it, then?

“Sounds like a place that needs a lot of help,” Mimi chimes in – help, well, not exactly the word I’d have chosen.

“Yeah… ‘help’,” I mumble, “look, Nerida, I have a geas to fulfill for Tubatron. The cost of Agorran’s life was a bargain that we, well, I would teach music to the followers of Eadro, so that they could use it to better worship him. I’m betting I won’t find more of his followers anywhere else, so you’d be doing me a favor if you would escort me to Zissyx.”

Nerida looks at me for a moment, her lips tightening, and then sighs.
“Alright, Cheshire,” she says finally, “just… stay close, because sharks are as big as I am and bigger. They have many, very sharp teeth and they shred and destroy.”

I’ve heard of sharks, but never seen one, in fact, I’d never seen an ocean before at all, or anything bigger than the lake nearby the city here in Byss. Stopping to think about it, I could hardly fathom a body of water so large, and a creature so huge Nerida fears its shredding, destroying teeth must have been truly horrifying.

“They sound awful,” I mumble, and she nods.

“Indeed, they can come from any direction and they strike quickly. I will kill any we may come across, but you must stay close to me,” she reaches over and squeezes my shoulder, letting the touch linger as if to reassure me, but I sense a greater motive behind her hesitation. “Though if we are to travel to Zissyx together, I’m afraid there is something I should tell you first.”

“Something I should tell… all of you,” she lets go, looking around the table with a guilty pain on her face. “If you would follow me to Zissyx, there is something you would probably figure out there, but I would rather you heard it from me. If you remember one of the first nights out in the marshes I spoke of working a lot in the fields growing up. The truth is I was actually born into slavery, myself and my five siblings. At least, there used to be six of us…”

She looks away, her words trailing off for a moment and I feel my heart wrench in agony for her. Nerida, so strong, so wise and so beautiful, I suppose part of me hoped that she’d grown into the person she was because she was surrounded by loved ones and opportunity, but when is that ever the case? The fact that she made herself who she is from nothing, it only made her more amazing, but I doubt she would see it that way. She continues to speak, in painful detail telling us the fate of her siblings, the life she had scraped and struggled her way into, only to meet with more hatred, the stigmas of her past staining her future at every corner.

With every word, my heart sinks further, watching the pain on Nerida’s face as she recounts years of injustices piled on her loved ones. Somewhere in all my pity, I feel a pang of wretched jealousy – of course she’s accomplished so much, risen above so much more than me and with even less than I had, because why should I think I was special to have thrown off my life as a gutter rat? I shake it off, mentally berating myself for my pettiness, and listen in silence as Nerida continues.

“I remember the first night lying down with Áine to sleep and how I cried. I finally had gotten everything I had always wanted, but it was nothing like I thought it would be, nothing was right. And I will always remember the day I threw my two thousand gold down onto that table and demanded that they free me and Áine. Just seeing the hatred that burned in their eyes, that there was nothing they could do. I will go back, and I will make them all see what I am.”

Her eyes burn with defiance, but glisten with tears long unshed, and I can see her grip tightening on Ulkair with every word, and he leans on her, finally breaking his silence when she pauses.

“You have become more than any of them could have imagined, Nerida.”

She looks at him, and swallows hard before turning back to the rest of us.

“I understand if none of you can look at me the same, but…” She trails off, and I shake my head, getting up to stand by her.

“Nerida, I don’t look at you the same,” I say, and I see heartbreak flash in her eyes before she tries to mask it with acceptance, but I wrap my arms around her tightly. “I respect you even more than I did before, and I didn’t think that was possible.”

I feel a familiar hand reach past me to rest on Nerida’s shoulder, and Alix’s voice accompanies it a moment later.
“No one can choose what they’re born into, Nerida, they can only choose what they do with the life they are given, and your choices have been excellent. You’ve saved all of our lives.”

“You helped me find a god when I hadn’t wanted one,” Lóin mumbles from across the table, “and I know how you feel.”

Nerida sniffles, a single tear rolling down her cheek, and pulls Ulkair and I in closer, hugging us for a long, silent moment. Eventually, she composes herself and releases us, returning to her food, and I get up to help Alix clean up after dinner, a comfortable silence falling in the kitchen. It’s so normal, so easy, and everything seems as though it’s finally as it should be, even though I never dared to dream for something like this. Even with the shadow of Dovev looming over us, the evening sunlight that filters through the shades seems bright and promising, and in the morning, I tell myself, that shadow will be gone.

Mimi and Lóin take their leave shortly after they are done eating, Aintai retires early, and Nerida and Ulkair stay at the table for awhile, speaking quietly amongst themselves. Tad Cooper, unfortunately, doesn’t really fit in the house, but I doubt he’d be terribly happy inside, opting instead to romp in the space behind Alix’s home. I worry a bit for his safety, but it seems Alix doesn’t really have many neighbors anymore, and most everyone in Byss will recognize him as mine soon enough. I sit outside, watching him for a little while, idly plucking the strings of my axe, trying to still my mind enough for sleep but, at Alix’s behest, head inside as it gets dark.
I think he can sense my restlessness, because he places a hand on my shoulder as I walk inside.

“It’s best everyone gets some sleep,” he reasons, “tomorrow doesn’t seem like it will offer any.”

“You’re right,” I sigh and nod, setting my axe aside to hug him. I had no idea what tomorrow would hold anymore, at the very least, it was a hunt for Dovev, but maybe also the beginning of a perilous journey to the ocean.

“Alix?” Nerida calls, and he releases me to turn his attention to her.

“Yes, Nerida?”

“Remember when we were leaving the government building and you had to stop and rest? You looked very dizzy?”

I tighten my grip on Alix as they converse, trying to keep the brutal memories she dredges up at bay. I’m not sure how anyone could have forgotten anything surrounding something so horrible, and so recent, but I decide it best not to comment, as Nerida has been through enough this evening.

“Yes,” Alix says, frowning, “it’s been hard to think clearly since then.”

“So it has still been bothering you,” Nerida mumbles guiltily, and I feel a tinge of anger flare in my chest.

Of course it has! Does no one pay Alix any mind? He has a visible dent in his head! He hasn’t recovered, and how could he, especially from such an injury? He’s been much too busy tracking, hunting, keeping watch and getting us home in one piece to rest! My grasp on his arm tightens more still, and I feel Alix’s disapproval at my anger wash over our link, and try to calm myself.

But it isn’t fair! You’re not disposable, Alix!

Alix does not respond, and Nerida brings her hands to rest on either side of his face.

“I’m so sorry.” Nerida adds, assuaging my fury. I sigh, relaxing my hold and awaiting the lecture from Alix, when a flash of Eadro’s holy energy washes over him. He groans and goes limp, slumping forward, and Nerida catches him.

“What did you do to my Alix!?” I demand, trying not to panic as I look him over – had something gone wrong? I recognized healing energy, but had it not worked properly? Had some kind of negative reaction? This wasn’t supposed to happen when something got better!

“I only healed him!” Nerida objects, although she seems as unsure as I am, looking over him with distress, “he’s perectly healthy, just… unconscious.”

“Well… put him in his bed,” I mumble, and Nerida nods, picking Alix up and following me to his room, Ulkair on her heels. She strips him of his boots and lays him in bed, and I nestle him into his blankets with a heavy sigh – at least he appears to be resting peacefully.

“When do you think he’ll wake up?” I glance back at Nerida, and she shakes her head.
“I’m not sure, but probably by morning.”

“Alright,” I mumble, berating myself for my misplaced anger at her as I study Alix’s resting features. I was worried for him, that wasn’t her fault, and I don’t truly believe she, or anyone, means to take him for granted… Even if we all do. “Thank you, Nerida.”

She nods, and after a moment of silence, I sigh again.

“I think I’ll go to bed.”

“Alright, good night Cheshire,” she says, making her way to the doorway, where Ulkair leans waiting for her.
“Oh, though Nerida, are you planning on leaving tomorrow?”

“I’m not sure yet,” she answers, “but soon.”

“Soon,” I repeat, watching Alix’s chest rise and fall thoughtfully. If I were going to follow her to Zissyx, I would need to breathe under water. I know she has spells, but I believe I can do it on my own, with the right modifications, I just have to figure out how to do it.

“I’m sure they all believe me dead, so when exactly I return can’t matter too much.”

“That’s… fair, I suppose,” I reply, and Ulkair looks Nerida over thoughtfully, tracing his finger down her arm where the fissures glow faintly, a reminder of the spell she’d just cast on Alix, and our struggle in Elysia.

“I think perhaps we should do something about this first,” he says, and she wraps her arms around him tightly, masking a sniffle.

“That would be nice,” she mumbles, and I grimace – this enemy of hers, Zalissa, who she would have to face, wasn’t she an old, powerful priestess? If I could see the cracks, I was certain she would, too, whenever Nerida cast a spell, it seems. I know Nerida is eager to see her sister again, but a visible vulnerability such as that would surely be dangerous.

“I… I think Ulkair is right,” I try to put it delicately, because I hate to rub in a fact of which she must be aware, but flaunting your… whatever these fissures were before a temple full of enemies couldn’t be wise. Nerida gives a wry giggle as she responds, obviously trying to avoid delving too deeply into the topic.

“Never thought you’d say that, did you?”

“Well, I’ve certainly said stranger things,” I muse, “but your hand was pretty left that one time. I wasn’t sure I’d ever get along with Ulkair.”

He flinches in her arms at the painful reminder, which I feel is a satisfactory response – at least he’s sorry. Nerida jumps to his defense, insisting she was fine, and he hangs his head.

“I’m so sorry I did that to you,” he mumbles, and she holds him closer.

“If holding my hand helped you at all, then it is of little consequence.”

I’m not sure I agree with that statement, but I won’t start another argument about it, either. Her relationship with Ulkair is her own, and whatever I may think of his actions, I recognize I cannot truly fault him for his madness. The sadness of the lament in Elysia, his sadness, crushes down on me even as I only briefly call the events to mind – how could anyone live with such a heavy heart and be sane?

“You two are garbage,” I murmur playfully, blinking back the tears that threaten my composure, and Nerida smiles at me.

“Love you, Cheshire.”

Her words seize my heart, stopping it for just a moment. They swell in my chest, filling me with a cautious warmth and mirth I had only felt when I heard the very same words from Alix for the first time. I grasp the wool blanket beneath my fingers and I feel a single tear slip past to roll down my cheek.

“Goodnight.”

“I… love you, too, Nerida,” I murmur back, trying not to let on to the upheaval within me, or the caution with which I breath the words, no matter how true they are. “Goodnight.”

She and Ulkair leave Alix’s room, shutting the stone door behind them, and I curl up next to him, my world completely rocked by such simple words. They were my family – why shouldn’t they love me? I know it to be true, but it still tightens my throat when I try to process the information. I cling to Alix’s sleeping form, more tears working their way down my face as I lay in the peaceful darkness of our home, my home, loved.

“I love you all…” I whisper, clutching Alix’s armor much too hard.

Come what may, tomorrow, or any day, be it Dovev, Zissyx, or some other monster, more horrible yet. This is my family, they love me, and I will be there, no matter what… I’ll love them until my last breath, and I’ll never let anything take them from me again.

Lost in my fervor, I don’t know how long I dwell on my new vow before my eyes grow heavy with sleep. I am drifting into its soft embrace when the creaking of Alix’s bedroom door wakes me with a jolt of fear. It slowly creeps open, and I tighten my grip on Alix’s arm, my breath hitching in my chest as a shadow looms from behind me. My heart pounds in my chest, my exhausted mind racing for a plan of action, hurling terrible scenarios at me faster than I can process them as the shadow closes in on us.

“Cheshire?” It whispers, and I heave a heavy sigh of relief – it’s only Nerida.

“Yes?” I whisper back, rolling over to face my huge companion, and saying a prayer of thanks to every deity and spirit I know that she is not a certain ghoul.

“Will you sing High Priest Agorran to sleep?” She asks, and I squint at her, trying my best to understand what could have possibly spurred this request.

“What, like, now?”

She nods, looking exhausted, and I squint harder, still not sure I understand.

“You want me to get out, out of this warm bed with Alix…” I begin, hoping she will realize how ridiculous it seems to do just that, then walk all the way across town, go into High Priest Agorran’s room, and sing him to sleep.

“Well, maybe not tonight, but he’s probably tired,” she says, and I sigh again. She is right, Agorran must be exhausted, and the healing hymn is a cure for that like no other, but it would still be weird to go now.

“Alright,” I promise, rolling back over to snuggle with Alix, “tomorrow I’ll sing Agorran to sleep.”

“If we’re still here tomorrow,” she adds, and I dejectedly slump my head against Alix’s arm before rolling back over to face her once more.

“On a scale from one to ten, how likely is it that we will leave tomorrow?”

“Pretty likely,” she says, “although I still have to scry for you, so it can wait, I suppose.”

“No, it can’t,” I grumble, “because then if we have to leave you’ll say ‘oh, poor Agorran, if only he’d gotten some sleep’.”

Nerida looks at me sheepishly as I scoot off the bed and go to find my axe, I pause only briefly on my way out the door, remembering Alix’s insistence that I not be out alone at night, and debate going back for Nerida. But… she looked so tired, and as I peer back down the hall, I can already hear her climbing back into bed with Ulkair. It isn’t.. too far to the temple, or too terribly late at night… I look back out at the dimly lit streets, weighing my choices. The vampires are gone, the assassins are gone, the remains of Dovev’s army was burning outside the city… it should be safe, right?

Either way, I promised Nerida I would go. Steeling myself, I pick up a torch from near the door and light it with a burst of arcane flame. It illuminates the street as I step outside, securing the stone door behind me and call for Tad Cooper. Whatever was out there, he would keep me safe. Well, almost anything that was out there. I shudder, the shadows that dance beneath my torch’s flame taunting me, the seconds dragging by like frightful hours as I await my fluffy companion. I jump at the sound of rustling behind me, only to find my beloved owlbear bounding from the shadows to my side.

“Hey buddy,” I murmur, nervously hugging his neck, “let’s go.”

Securing my axe to my back, I clamor up onto Tad Cooper’s back, the lit torch making it a much more arduous process than it previously was, and gently spur him onward. As much as I would like to get there quickly, I don’t have enough hands to cling to him for him to run like he had earlier today. And frankly I feel it’s much easier to mistake romping for rampaging in the dark of the night, and don’t want to tempt fate with the exhausted, war-torn citizens of Byss.

I try to soothe my nerves as Tad Cooper carries me through the city, forcing myself not to jump at every sound, nor stare at every shadow. I had faced so many real horrors, it was ridiculous for me to be so paranoid of false ones, or so I told myself. It didn’t stop the lingering shadows from seeming to grin at me, with a smile much too large, it didn’t unclench my fingers from Tad Cooper’s feathers, didn’t stop the shiver of horror from caressing my spine.

It is a mercy to reach the temple, I don’t think i’ve ever been so pleased by the sight of its doors and, to my delighted surprise, its windows are still illuminated. I slide from Tad Cooper’s back and pet his nose before I douse my torch.

“Wait here, buddy,” I whisper, and slip through the double doors into the temple.
It is warm and well lit, a few priests still wandering about tending to things I knew less than nothing about. Everyone near me stops what they are doing as I enter, stilling and placing a fist over their heart in a solemn Byssian salute. It immediately causes my heart to plummet with panic – had something happened? Was someone hurt? Why did I draw such attention? Were they about to give me some awful news?

“Um,” I manage to respond awkwardly to their expecting stares, mimicking the saluting gesture, “hi guys.”

I search the crowd for any sign of further communication, wracking my mind for whatever it is that generated this response among Byss’ clergy, waiting on pins and needles for the tragic news I’m sure is coming. Instead I receive a few tight smiles – which were as close to normal smiles as most Byssians seemed to get, before most of them returned to their work.

Oh… so, nothing is wrong? I wonder, watching cautiously for a moment as they resume their routine. They just… all wanted to greet me?

It was a strange sensation, being… a person of note, but it seemed to be the case.

“Excuse me?” I stop the nearest priest, trying to keep my tone respectfully quiet for the first time in my life, “but do you happen to know if High Priest Agorran is awake?”

“Ah, he’s meditating,” the priest gestures toward the back of the hall, where I spot Agorran, kneeling in what appears to be solemn prayer.

“Thank you,” I whisper, and he nods. I wouldn’t dream of interrupting Agorran, so I creep up near him, and take a seat a few benches back, he probably won’t be praying very much longer, I can just wait.

I look around, observing the temple walls, the tapestries, breathing in the familiar incense, drumming my fingers lightly on my axe. I almost died here, twice, could have become eternally enslaved to the Ichtaca, so many things came to pass within these walls, and I’d never stopped to observe them before. There’s a peace to this room I’d never felt, a rhythm in the steady footsteps of its clergymen, the flickering of the lamps, I lose myself to it easily, allowing my mind to commune and drift, my fingers to drum steadily on the surface and strings of my axe.

I reach out to the holy energy radiating around me, and in it I feel strong and sure, like the foundation of the temple itself. Neutral, like all the world is in balance. I let my mind wander, and for once it does not return to me with fears and doubts, instead exploring my limitations without crushing them. I lose track of time, minutes, maybe even hours ticking by in the restful melody, before Agorran places his hand on my shoulder to pull me from the meditative state.

“Oh… Agorran,” I manage awkwardly, stilling my hands. Some part of me knew they were moving, drumming out a harmony, but I hadn’t really realized it until now. “S-Sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb your prayer.”

“No, it was beautiful, actually,” he smiles kindly, releasing his grasp on my shoulder. “How may I help you?”

“Uh, well, I was actually supposed to be helping you,” I admit, sheepishly looking down at the instrument in my lap and Agorran gives me a curious look.

“Oh?”

“Nerida and I noticed you looked…. Exhausted,” I mumble, suddenly feeling ridiculous for my late-night travels and the idea that it was normal to just trek across a city to sing a grown man to sleep, magically or otherwise. “I know you have so much on your plate and she thought, well, we thought that if I sang you to sleep again it might help…”

I peer up at Agorran reluctantly, and to my relief I am greeted with a kind smile, “It was perhaps the best I had slept in a long time, even with Dovev approaching the city.”

I am certainly glad to have helped, but it is a sad realization nonetheless, that there truly has been no rest for the weary among Byss for so long.

“Seems like no one in Byss has had a decent rest in a long time,” I murmur, wringing my hands a little, “I mean… I’d like to help however I can…”

“Thank you, Cheshire, that would be wonderful,” Agorran, ever patient and accepting of distinct lack of normality, takes my hand and helps me up. “I would love to hear your song.”

“O-Okay,”I mumble as he releases my hand, and walk with Agorran to his room. He gets comfortable, and I seat myself on the edge of his bed, and begin to pluck a familiar melody on the silver strings.

“Fear not this night, you will not go astray
Thou shadows fall, still the stars find their way
Awaken from a quiet sleep, hear the whispering of the wind
Awaken as the silence grows in the solitude of the night,
Darkness spreads through all the land
And your weary eyes open silently
Sunsets have forsaken all the most far off horizons,”

I breath deeply, feeling the sweeping melody build in my lungs as I pick up the pace of my tune. Finally it feels right to since this song again, like I am no longer grasping at long-gone shadows, I have a family again, and I deserve to sing it. For them.

“Nightmares come when shadows grow
Eyes close and heartbeats slow
Fear not this night, you will not go astray
Though shadows fall, still the stars find their way
And you can always be strong,
Lift your voice with the first light of dawn
Dawn’s just a heartbeat away
Hope is just a sunrise away…”

“Cheshire,” Agorran says, reaching to place a hand on one of mine. I lift my head from my strings to him, letting my melody fall to a soft lull as he speaks, his voice heavy with sleep.

“Byss has changed since you came here. It has gone from a terrible place, to… a place of music, and beauty, and I did not think it could ever be so.”

I try to respond, try to muster any words or even sounds, but my throat tightens, catching a lump that I do my best to swallow as I feel tears build in my eyes. My chest swells with a thousand emotions, and I take his hand in mine, releasing the strings of my axe momentarily.

“Thank you,” he whispers, and I tighten my grasp, a few stray tears rolling from my cheeks to splash on the brassy surface of my axe.

Still I can’t muster the words, there’s too much to say, too much to express. Thank you’s didn’t begin to cover it, apologies couldn’t scratch how sorry I was for my wrongdoings, but he smiles at me, wise, wordless understanding in his eyes, and I release his hand, allowing him to drift into what I pray is a restful sleep.

“Distant sounds of melodies
calling through the night to your heart
Auroras, mists and echoes dance
in the solitude of our life
Pleading, sighing arias gently grieving in captive misery
Darkness sings a forlorn song
Yet our hope can still rise up…”

I sing softly, infusing my words with magic until I am sure Agorran is asleep, and get up, carefully and quietly leaving his room. I wander the temple’s halls, strumming the melody, instilling my magic into each note, singing out to the stone walls and those they protect, all the words I don’t know how to say. I love them, they’re my home, my family, and so, so much more.

“Nightmares come when shadows roam
Lift you voice, lift your hope
Fear not this night, you will not go astray
Though shadows fall, still the stars find their way,”

I as I climb the stairs, dimly lit by the flickering torchlight, my voice seems to trail behind me, echoing in the halls below, filling the air, and I turn from the top of the flight to look out over the hall, where I once caused so much harm.

I’m so sorry…

“And though the night sky’s filled with blackness
Fear not, rise up!
Call out and take my hand…”

Placing my hands on the banister, I belt out the lyrics of my song, pulling the holy aria from beyond my lungs, from the deepest part of my soul. The bannister shimmers with brassy light at my touch, and I stare down at it, remorseful tears sliding down my nose to meet the out pour of holy energy.

I’ll never, ever hurt you again.
I vow, tightening my grasp, and lift my voice, to Tubatron, to help me protect them, to Byss, its citizens, my family.

I want to protect you. I want to be strong.

“…Fear not this night, you will not go astray
Though shadows fall, still the stars find their way
And you can always be strong
Lift your voice with the first light of dawn,”

My fingers move over the bannister, drumming out the rhythym no longer played on my axe. As they move, picking up momentum with my song, I feel the push of Tubatron’s holy energy filling me, the touch of his hand on the foundation of Byss’ temple. It pours out of me, carrying with my voice over the hall, the notes of my song echoing over the incense heavy air.
The shimmering brassy trail spreads around me, rushing over the floors and walls, spreading the ethereal echo of my voice over every corner of the solemn temple. I watch in wonder as his presence fills the building, permeating the stone itself with consecrated music, and when the light fades, the cold stone beneath my fingers feels different. It is familiar and sacred, similar to my axe, and I smile, the blessing of Tubatron evident in the very air around us, and very faintly, familiar words reverberate from the walls back to me.

“Dawn’s just a heartbeat away
Hope’s just a sunrise away…”

I repeat the words, sliding to the floor against the bannister, and pick up my axe, resuming my playing, my song this time a thankful prayer to Tubatron. For my music, his blessings, his strength… I don’t know why he chose me, but I would be nothing without him, lost in the endless expanse of darkness, and instead, I am a star twinkling in the night sky. My music, my family, my home – I know the things I have are gifts, not to be taken for granted, not to squandered.

“Thank you,” I whisper, as if it could ever be enough. Shouting it from the rooftops every morning at dawn could never be enough – although, that seemed like it might be a good start. I stay in the temple, playing softly for a couple of hours, until I start to doze off, my fingers slipping shamefully on the strings of my guitar. Most of the lights have been put out, the clergy all in their beds for the night – exactly where I should be. I push myself up, fighting the ever growing temptation to sleep on the stone floor, and make my way outside, where Tad Cooper awaits me, fast asleep at the foot of the steps.

“Come on buddy, let’s go home.” I murmur, and he yawns, lumbering his way to his feet and then up to me.

He nuzzles me, and I hoist myself onto his back, stifling a yawn, and he makes his way back down the empty city streets. The trip home seems much shorter than the one to the temple, my mind buzzing with Tubatron’s consecration of the temple, filled with the echoing music I’d played, and I hum softly as we travel, shooing away the paranoia that grasps at me through the shadows.

Tad Cooper delivers me safely to Alix’s front door, and then promptly lays down outside of it. I slip into the house, careful to make as little noise as possible, and rest my axe by the door, sliding off my boots and adding them to the pile. The stone floors are a chilly shock to the soles of my feet, but I manage to pad my way down the hall fairly silently.

I stop at my bedroom’s door, and glance behind me at Alix’s – I have my own room, and that’s where I should sleep, but.. maybe just this one night it would be fine to sleep in Alix’s bed with him, I reason. He was hurt, after all, what if he needed some kind of care in the middle of the night?

I scoot quickly across the hall and slip into Alix’s room, shutting the door as softly as I can, and crawl under the heavy wool blankets of Alix’s bed. To my surprise, he rolls toward me, awake, and pulls me in close.

“I’m glad you’re home,” he whispers against my hair, and I wrap my arms around him, my chest swelling with the feeling of wholeness.

“I’m so glad to be home.”

View
What Fresh Hell is Byss 10
Re-Education (Through Labor)

DAY 12
(Session 10)

Alix helps me to my feet, and I turn to look out over the broken paradise, my breath catching in my chest. It was beautiful, or, it should have been. The sloping hills, the tall trees, the fantastical architecture of a city in the distance, everything about this place should have been a dream after the dim grayness of Byss, but it isn’t. Just like the paradise in Ulkair’s mind, it is breath-taking, open, and vast, but instead of filling me with elation and desire, it sends a shiver down my spine which leaves me hollow and anxious.

The pure sky which should shine the most beautiful blue, but it is tainted with a blood-red sun, the grass beneath us an awful red hue, the trees somehow sinister, each leaf hanging heavy with the taint of evil. I shiver, grasping Alix’s hand tighter, and feel him squeeze it lightly in an attempt to soothe my fears, even as his own doubt crushes down on him – this place, even if Alix hadn’t really believed in it, had always been a distant promise, a hope, and it had driven so many of his people. How many had died for the promise of Elysia? How many nights had grieving loved ones soothed themselves with the knowledge that those they’d lost rested in its beautiful halls? All of it, a lie…

“Ulkair, the vampires can scry, yes?” Nerida’s voice pierces my thoughts, and I turn to listen to their conversation. “Do you have any spells to protect us from that?”

“Yes, but I only have enough energy for three such spells left,” Ulkair says, looking sour about his number of companions, “until we can rest, I can only shield three people from their vision.”

Rest. The concept almost seems laughable at this point, but he’s not wrong, the longer we stand still, the harder it seems it will be to move once again. I can’t seem to summon any arcana to my fingertips, and I have never felt further away from my god as I do in this moment, I shiver again as I try to summon even a shred of Tubatron’s mighty energy with no luck.

Am I too tired, am I not focusing enough? I look at Nerida, intent on asking her if she had any ability to summon Eadro’s energy here, but she and Ulkair are deep in thought and conversation, debating our course of action. Perhaps I am just weak from my ordeal with Dovev, I used more power in those few fleeting minutes than I think I have in all the rest of my life combined. It must be that I am too exhausted, and it is not that the evil of Elysia is greater than Tubatron’s holiness – at least, I hope.

“Stuff the others in that bag of holding,” Ulkair suggests, gesturing to my bag, and Nerida makes a face, but he continues, looking impatient, “they can’t scry on them in there because it’s a separate pocket dimension. They’d have to look for them there instead of in Elysia, and we, who will be carrying it, will be shielded from their vision!”

She seems to be coming around to the idea, and I’m suddenly glad I dumped almost everything out of my bag, because, looking at my companions, I’m starting to think it’s going to be a tight fit.

“Alright,” Nerida says hesitantly, “Aintai, Cheshire, Mimi and Alix, will you all ride in the bag? Oh, and Night Eyes, too. I think Lóin is the biggest of you, and it’s going to be an awful squeeze, so it’s probably best he walk with us.”

“Hey, it’s not so bad in there!” I object, putting my hands on my hips, “I dumped most of the crazy stuff out earlier and I’ve made it quite comfy, thank you! I’ve slept in there!”

As I speak the objection, it occurs to me that I probably spend much too much time in my bag of holding, and probably shouldn’t have it set up to be so nice and homey, and my companions’ stares only seem to solidify my point.

“Um, nevermind,” I mumble, passing the bag to Nerida. Aintai changes her shape, slithering up my body in the form of a tiny viper, and I shudder at the feeling, but crawl into the bag with her, realizing that it was indeed a wise choice for her to take up as little space as possible.
I, myself, shrink to my smallest usual form as I curl up on Tad Cooper’s pelt with her and the others pile in around us. I’m plenty content to pile up with my friends, though Mimi seems a bit off-put by the cramped space with her wings, so I happily snuggle with Alix and Night Eyes, taking up as little space as possible as Aintai slithers to a nearby spot where she can rest in her own space.

Alix? I lay in silence for a very short while before poking my way into the sleepy ranger’s thoughts, and he looks down at me, opening one eye.

Yes, Cheshire?

My mind buzzes with all of our unfinished conversations, what to tell him, what to ask, all the things I’ve wanted to say and not had the time for, but settles first on one thing.

Thank you. I wrap my arms around what of his waist they can enclose, and lean my head against him. Thank you for believing in me, for… for being so proud of me, for saving my life, and teaching me, and… everything. Thank you for everything. I know I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.

I don’t think I’d be here without you, either. Pausing, Alix begins stroking my hair, and continues. I’m… not sure what happened back there with the last vampire, but… I think I should have died, and I’m pretty sure it was your voice that called me back. So let’s be glad we have each other.

The horror of that night in the government building, still so fresh, flashes before my eyes, and I shudder, tightening my grip on Alix.

I am glad. So glad, that I have you. I sigh shakily, trying to loosen my grip, and stay calm. If nothing else…

My mind wanders to Lóin, to his betrayals in the face of Dovev, and my heart aches in response – why had he even come with us to Elysia? He had his father, he saved Udragoth from Dovev’s clutches, so, why bother? He clearly… clearly doesn’t want anything to do with me.

I don’t know what I’d do if I lost you, too.

Even Nerida made her position clear, leaving with Ulkair in the heat of everything, turning away when I needed her… I bring a hand to my head in frustration – now’s not the time for doubts. They’re my friends, Lóin is here because Byss matters to him, and Nerida too… right?

And I can’t think of anyone I’d rather face Elysia with.

I can’t think of anyone I’d rather return home to Byss with, little one.

Alix, I’m sorry I can’t fix your head… I look up, biting my lip and resisting the urge to run my fingers over the dent in his forehead as the images of the vampire’s killing blow play again in my mind. I’m… sure it will be okay… when we get home. You just need rest, and… maybe some more healing. Maybe if I can master this whole high priest thing…

I pause – I suppose I hadn’t mentioned that to Alix yet.

Um, in other news… I… am apparently Tubatron’s high priest?

Oh. What does that mean?

I….. um, that’s a good question? To be honest, I don’t really know… He just… called me that.

Well, we’ll figure it out as we go. I feel a warm glow of pride from Alix as he hugs me tight. I’m glad he’s granted you his power. With you and Nerida, we’ll probably be okay against the vampires.

Well, I… I hope so. I mean, figuring it out as I go is sort of how I do everything.

I sigh, a smile creeping over my face – High priest… Well, I seem to be doing alright so far. I probably could stand to ask Nerida some priest questions, figure out exactly what I’m supposed to do, but that seems like it will wait for another day, one when our lives are not in quite so much danger.

Alix? I’d hoped to avoid drudging this particular subject up, but it continues to gnaw at me the longer I put it off.

Yes?

Do you… do you trust Lóin?

Not anymore.

So simple, and not an ounce of hesitation, I suppose he’s right, but I feel my spirit sink as he speaks.
But… he’s here, right? That must mean he wants to help…

It means he feels obligated to be here. He broke our trust and now he has to earn it back.

Can he?

I wring my hands, glancing up nervously at Alix. I want to believe, I want him to… to come back to us, but my mind reels with his betrayal, still so fresh. His eyes were so cold, so devoid of anything but hatred and malice, there was no room left in them for me, and I wonder if there ever was.

Yes. Alix says, the heaviness in his tone displaying his concern for my anxiety. I believe he can, but not easily.

I want to give him a second chance, but… I find myself gripping the ranger’s armor, tears welling in my eyes. I shouldn’t! I can’t! How could he!? He’s not even sorry, he won’t even talk to me, won’t even look me in the eye, he… he… Alix, I’m scared to.

Alix pries one of my hands from his armor and holds it in his own, and I cling to it, fighting back a sob – I can’t keep breaking down like this. I’m strong, I have to be… I’m a Byssian now. But Lóin, he used to like me, he used to be so kind, was that person gone, or was he never really there? Why even try to earn our trust if he’s only going to leave?
It can’t be that, he acted so tenderly with his father, he’s worried about Sheik and Oriela’s opinions of him, so… is it just me? Was he like that with Alix because of me? It has to be, but what had I done? How do I always manage to turn people away from me?

I don’t know what I did. What if I just mess up again and then he turns his back on everyone when they need him?

You’re not responsible for Lóin’s actions.

But he wasn’t like this before… and, and he isn’t like that to everyone else…

But he chose to become like this. Whether or not you prompted him, he chose. Just as you chose to not turn your back on us when we called you back from Dovev, we prompted you, but you made the choice to return.

I… I tighten my grip on Alix’s hand, running every interaction I’ve had with Lóin in the last two weeks over and over again in my head – Why, why? None of it made sense. Alix is right, he did choose, but there had to be a reason, right?

I guess you’re right. I finally admit, lowering my gaze. I just don’t understand.

“Um, Alix?” The voice is Nerida’s, from the entrance of the bag.

“Yes?”

“You’re good at reading the land, could you maybe, um, assist us? A little?” I don’t think I’ve ever heard less confidence in Nerida’s voice before. “If you were given some…guidelines? In where we’re going?”

Wait, are we lost? How can we be lost already, and why do they want Alix to guide them? Isn’t Ulkair from Elysia? He was so eager to get back here, you would think he would at least know where it is he wanted us to go…

“Yes, Nerida. What kind of landmarks are you looking for?”

As Alix shifts, I fight the impulse to cling tighter, forcing myself to release him instead. He rubs my arm as a gentle reassurance, and climbs to the edge of the bag to peer out of it. I lay against Tad Cooper’s coarse, warm feathers, running my fingers over them idly as my mind buzzes in his absence. So much has happened, and still more was to come – could we really save this place..?

Lóin, my high priestdom, that vampire – One-Punch Man, as I’ve morbidly nicknamed him, Dovev, what awaits us here in Elysia, what of Byss there will be to even go back to, everything swirls around in my head as if pushed by an invisible wind. Alix wants me to go back to Byss with him, but Elysia is so powerful, it could be the gateway to everywhere else, right? The way out? The way… home.

The word torments me, echoing in my head as though it were a threat. Byss is terrible, it’s dangerous, who would ever choose to stay there? And yet, Alix’s words ring through my thoughts as well, promising me an honest home among its people, and I feel my heart pull me with all its will back toward the awful marshland. Perhaps with Dovev and the vampires gone, it wouldn’t be so bad, and everyone there accepts me, I don’t have to hide, I don’t have to be just like them or try to be something I’m not. I don’t have to be perfect to be a Byssian.

What was even waiting for me back where I’d come from? Zaine was gone, Aisylynn… well, even if I found them we could never go back, not with that horrible – I shudder – demon skulking about. I have to find them, make sure they’re safe, but couldn’t they come back here, with me? But what if I can’t find them? What if I save them and they don’t even care? My head begins to pound, my neck aching with tension and indecision. What if they’ve forgotten all about me?

Alix wants me here, if I don’t go back with him… would he even let me return later? Wouldn’t I be choosing them over him, just like Lóin had? And then, then he wouldn’t trust me anymore! And why should he? What would I be leaving him for? A life of thievery, of hiding and changing and ducking behind corners, and… and being alone. A life of being alone.

I don’t want to be alone!

But what could I do? Abandon the people who had taken care of me to a fate I had brought upon them in the name of my comfort? No, I couldn’t, I had to find a way back, had to find a way to save them, even if I could never find my way back to Byss – the thought raises a lump in my throat, and I choke out a tiny sob around it. If I have to leave maybe… maybe Alix would go with me? My shoulders shake with the quiet cries I let out against Tad Cooper’s pelt, tangling my fingers in the feathery fur.

But that isn’t fair.

Alix returns to my side, with a seemingly endless well of patience for my antics, and wraps his arms around me.

Cheshire… He soothes, rubbing my arm. I can feel his concern, and also his bewilderment – I can’t blame him, I only wish I knew what caused me to spiral so far so fast.

“I… I don’t…” I stumble on my words, my head too chaotic to even communicate through our link, or, apparently, at all.

Calm down, it’s alright.

I don’t know what to do! I manage at least a single sentence, my head swimming with what feels like a lifetime of unanswered questions.

Whatever it is, we can handle it.

No, I can’t. I object, clenching my fists as I scramble to explain myself. I can’t do everything! I don’t even know how I did what I’ve done! I-I got…. Lucky, I guess, I don’t know.

Cheshire. Alix repeats, his thoughts breaking through my hysteria commanding, but calm. I said ‘we’, not ‘you’.

I… well, I know but…

I said I would walk the long miles with you.

But what if I can’t walk those long miles?

Then I will carry you. I’m a Byssian, and we never abandon one of our own. What we do is calm down, realize we are still alive, and then move forward, with faith that something good will come our way one day. Just as you came to me after a lifetime of sorrow.

Alix’s words strike me like a dagger in the heart – of course that’s what he would say, of course he thinks I’m the light at the end of the tunnel, that I’m the one good thing in his life… and of course I would be planning to leave, because how else could I destroy something this good?

Alix…

I want to tell him the truth, so badly I want to tell him… but how can I? Sitting in the remnants of Byss’ greatest false hope, how could I possibly tell him I’m just another one? Would he even want to be by my side then? Why should he trust his back to someone who’d put a dagger in it? All this time I’ve spent brooding over Lóin’s betrayal… I’m no better than him. My stomach twists with guilt and fury as I take Alix’s hand – I need him, even if I’m a liar, and I don’t deserve him.

I do have faith, at least in the good that’s already happened.

But not in me? What is it you are hiding, little one? I can tell something is wrong beyond what you’ve said, something that you don’t think you can tell me. Please, don’t lie to me. I… we only survive if we trust each other, and I… I can’t lose you to something so foolish as a lie.

I feel something over our connection that I haven’t felt from him before – hurt. Hurt that I would lie to him, that I’ve betrayed the only thing he’s harped on since day one, his trust. And he’s right to be hurt, I can feel the struggle as he tries to determine my motivation, I knew his head was still bothering him, I knew he was vulnerable, and I tried to take advantage of it… he’s done nothing but trust me in his hour of need, and I’m lying to him.

I hang my head, turning away from Alix as I feel the familiar burn on shame color my face and my ears. I feel his hand on my shoulder, and guilty tears burn the corners of my eyes as he says simply,

I said I would walk the long miles with you, and I meant it, even should we walk in silence.

Maybe I could fix it, brush it off… tell him it’s just that I don’t have faith we’ll save Elysia – we don’t even know what we’re doing, after all, only blindly following Nerida. But she must have a plan, I know she does, and he’d know I trust her. I know I can’t hide from him, I know it’s wrong and I’m a miserable excuse for a person for even trying, but maybe silence is for the best. I can’t keep lying, but I can’t… I can’t bring myself to tell the truth, either.

If he knows I’m going to leave, he won’t want to stay close to me. Who could willingly think of someone as one of their own, fight and possibly die for them, knowing they would only leave? He doesn’t trust Lóin anymore after he showed his true colors, and mine are no different. I turn back to glance at him, and catch a glimpse his hand brushing his cheek, wiping away a single tear, and the tiny motion hits me like a slap in the face.

Maybe it’s wrong to ask him to abandon paradise for me, but could it possibly be worse than this? I’m only making it worse, digging myself further into a grave I can only escape by crushing Alix, and how much more horrible will my betrayal be if I tell him after we’ve freed Elysia? When everything should be okay? When he’s fought through everything, stood by me through everything… when he should finally be able to be happy?

Alix… I’m sorry. I hug my knees and hide my face in them, too ashamed to even face him. I don’t deserve to have you walk beside me… I’m no Byssian.

The truth wracks my chest with a tight sob as I continue. I’m not strong, or brave, or kind like you. I… I’m a liar, and I don’t have any faith that good things will come my way because every time they do, I ruin them. Just like Lóin, and now you, and Byss. I can’t…

My mind chokes on the words, as if refusing to admit them would somehow deny them, stop them from coming true, let me pretend for one more day that I am a Byssian.

…I can’t stay with you.

The silence that falls between us is so heavy I feel like I can’t breathe, I know Alix is waiting for me to elaborate, but my stomach writhes like a pit of snakes, growing worse and worse with every word.

I want to, but… I have to go home – the word hurts, leaving a sharp bitterness in its wake as I speak it. For the first time in my life it matters, for the first time it means something, and yet I suddenly wish it didn’t. Byss isn’t my home, I remind myself, neither is Elysia, nor will they ever be, and it was stupid to think so. – To my world, to where I was from before Byss… I have to… fight that demon, I guess and I don’t… I don’t think I’ll come back.

My shoulders tremble with my previously unspoken fears – fight this demon that was hunting my loved ones, save Aisylynn and Zaine? Who was I ever kidding? Of course I had to try, of course I have to fight, but it will never be a matter of finding a way home to Byss, because I won’t win. I don’t want to abandon Byss, or Alix, or anyone, but I won’t be Lóin, I won’t drag Alix to hell with me, condemn him to death – at best, for a suicide mission.

I have to go, and… I bite my lip, my fingers digging into my arms as I brace myself for one more lie, although it’s wrong, although I know he’ll know, because I don’t know what else I can possibly say. I don’t want you to come with me.

You don’t want me, or you don’t think I will go with you?

No… I once again find myself marveling at my ability to actually mumble thoughts, and I keep my head firmly planted against my legs. I’m already caught, of course, how could I not be when nothing was further from the truth? It’s not that I don’t think you’d go.

Then what is it?

I don’t think you should I take a deep breath as the tension between us builds, bordering on unbearable, I can feel Alix biting his tongue, and I know I deserve whatever he has to say, but I’m still glad he hasn’t said it yet.

Alix… I want you to stay, and… and have a chance at Elysia, when we fix it, and everything is okay, and not have to keep fighting, and… I don’t want to be like Lóin, I don’t want to drag you into a mess you can’t possibly make it out of alive.

Of course I want Alix to come with me, be by my side through all the hardship and fear, and maybe have a little bit more good to call my own before… I feel the familiar sting of broken skin as my fingernails clutch too tightly into my arms, and try to cut my train of thought, stop the fear from bubbling over into his mind, but I doubt it works.

I should have told you the truth sooner, but I didn’t want… to think about it. I’m so sorry.

Cheshire, Alix’s tone is weary and hard, as if spoken through gritted teeth. What do you think of me? I know what your family did to you, but I am not them. Whatever this monster you have to fight is, then I’ll be by your side to fight it. I’m not going to turn my back on you like they did. I promised the only way I’d leave you was in death, and I meant it.

And your death is exactly what I’m trying to avoid! I know what you think of my family, Alix! My grip on my arms tightens, pain flickering through them as my fingers dig in further with every sob that threatens to break me.

You don’t have to rub it in! I know you think they’re horrible, I know you don’t believe me when I say it was my fault, but this isn’t about them! I don’t want you to get hurt because of me, I know I’m stupid, but I love you, and I don’t want to betray your trust!

Then stop lying to me! The statement is strained, and I can feel Alix seething on the other end of our link, his frustration bubbling over into my already muddled thoughts, and all my fears making it worse for him, I’m sure.

Then stop– I pause, stumbling on my fury, my brain scrambling for a way out of this hole that I’ve dug, some way to win this argument, make it less my fault, or anything to say. Stop… being so…

Alix waits in silence, and I can only imagine the knowing look on his face while he anticipates my argument’s self-destruct. He’s right. Of course he’s right, he’s always right! My lip wavers, my breath hitching on the sob I can’t hold in as my anger and contestation falls in around me.

So nice. I weep – because that’s all Alix has ever been to me, kind, and patient, and so far above my immaturity. My grip on my arms goes limp, releasing the bloodied marks I’d made as Alix sighs, and pulls me back over to his side, wrapping me in the security of his hug once again.

I’m sorry, Alix… I just don’t know what to do, I never know what to do…

I tuck my arms beneath the ranger’s, wrapping them around him as he lets me cry against his armored chest – why am I like this? Why can’t I just be normal, and calm, and… not just so garbage? Alix is always right, he’s never been wrong about a single thing since the day I met him, so why do I doubt him?

I don’t want you to be right about my family. I admit bitterly, hating my mind for its inability to hide my introspection, and for the bitter taste of the truth.

I didn’t want to ask you to leave your home, because I don’t have one for you to come to with me… I never have, and… and I want to stay with you, here. But I can’t because I can’t just abandon my sister to her fate. Even though…

I pause again, trying to hold back the words that bounce in my head and wrack me with guilt, but I feel Alix’s acceptance, and I know he will still love me regardless, even if I can’t.

I want to. I whisper the words across our link, but they result in an audible sob for my lost morality. All she ever did was care for me, I brought this on her, and now I want to leave her to it. And why? …Because I’m scared.

It’s okay to be scared, Cheshire, it’s even okay to want to do the wrong thing. I feel Alix’s calm returning to him, to us both, as he soothes away my tears, resting his chin on my head. What matters is if you do it, and you’ve already decided to do the right thing.

But what if when the time comes, I don’t? Or I can’t? It’s easy to plan to do the right thing from a safe distance, but when terror stares you in the face, it’s just as easy to be a coward.

You’re not a coward, Cheshire. Alix responds, ever-aware of my disastrous mindset. Fear keeps us alive. Fear lets us know when we are in danger. Embrace your fear, and what it teaches you, but never give it control.

I try not to… I reach up to rub my eyes, realizing of course that, as hard as I may have tried, I have failed. Miserably, in most cases, particularly this one.

I’m sorry, Alix. I shouldn’t have said any of those things, and I shouldn’t have lied… Can you still trust me?

I can. Because I love you, and I believe you when you say you are sorry. While we still live we can still change.

We’re going to live… His words strike a terrible chord, and I tighten my grip on him. I feel the heavy sadness that hangs between us dragging against my ability to believe my own words as I respond, but we could win, couldn’t we? We could live, we’d lived through so much already, and this was it, the final stretch.

And I promise I will get better… I know the defense isn’t worth much, but it is the truth. I can’t promise I’ll never lie again, never try to run away, or hide from my problems, because it’s what I’ve always done, but… Alix makes me not want to anymore.

I’ve changed a lot. You’ve changed me…

I want to be everything Alix wants or expects, I don’t know why I can’t hold myself together when he needs me to, why I can’t make a single sensible decision without him. I will find a way to be better, if he can just wait for me, just be patient a little while longer, I know I’ll get it right. I let out a small whimper, burying my face against Alix’s armor to keep my cries muffled.

I never fought before, not for anything. I never wanted to, but everything’s so different now, and I… I’m trying really hard. I know we can keep changing, we can change Elysia, change everyone in Byss’ lives, I know we can change our stars…

There will always be time to worry, Cheshire, but we’ve said what needed saying. Now we need to take rest while we can, and fortify our minds for what comes in Elysia. None of this will matter if we aren’t prepared for what comes, if we can’t weather the storm.

I sniffle against Alix’s armor, unable to relax my grip on him, or my mind, although I know he’s right. I know… I didn’t mean to start this. I… I didn’t think it would be so bad .

Alix strokes my hair, hugging me close, and says, It isn’t so bad, Cheshire. Not so long as we’re together.

I sigh, the tiniest shred of relief in his words hitting me like a tidal wave, and relax my hold on Alix a little as the exhaustion settles in. I still have Alix… I haven’t messed up so badly that I don’t at least still have Alix.

…Alix?

Yes, little one?

I love you.

He gives me a gentle squeeze, and I sniffle against the dirty leather armor I’ve come to draw so much comfort from, the reeling in my mind starting to slow with every moment in the security of Alix’s arms.

I love you, too. He kisses the top of my head as he speaks. But you need to rest.

So do you… I object, and it earns me a wry chuckle.

What do I think I was doing before?

Oh… oops.

I settle down into a comfortable silence with Alix, our day weighing on me like a blanket made of bricks, but it unfortunately isn’t long before I break it again.

“Alix?”

The quiet, tired ‘hm’ he gives me in response changes my mind about bothering him, as he is clearly resting, if not half-asleep. I shake my head a little, mumbling a soft “nevermind.”

We beat Dovev… My head brags, and I find myself unable to resist the smile it brings to my features, or the soft giggle as I try to hold in my disbelief. I beat Dovev. I out-played the ghoul-musician, in Byss’ darkest hour, I rose… I was a star, even if only for a few minutes. I did it. They looked to me, and I actually did it.

Yes, Cheshire, you did. Alix’s words aren’t filled with the pride I’d have expected them to be, and my smile runs away from my features as he continues. But never forget you won on the shoulders of your friends and our people. It was a great victory, but don’t forget to share it.

Alix… My lip wavers a little, my momentary pride in my accomplishment dashed. He was right, of course, I never would have made it without them, I couldn’t have done it alone. I can’t do anything alone. I hadn’t forgotten that, I thought, but maybe the reminder was necessary. Either way, it stung.

I know… I didn’t mean it like that.

Commanders who share their victory continue to be victorious.

I know… Perhaps the words come across a bit more sour than I’d meant, because Alix continues, as if he’s not sure I understand the gravity of his words.

It’s an important lesson.

I know!

I bite my lip, and my tongue as I snap, lest I say something else I regret. I don’t want to be angry at Alix, I know he’s right, but… I did want to be proud of myself, for just a moment. I know I didn’t do it alone, I was the first person to say I couldn’t, I know I’d be dead, or worse, without them. Nerida, Alix, Loin, everyone else… they’re the only reason I’ve done anything. I know I have to share my victory, but would it have killed him to let me at least have it, just for a moment?

“Sorry,” I mumble, trying to keep my emotions quelled despite the hurt that tightens my throat. I’m not going to start another fight I knew I’d lose, there was no point. I wasn’t exactly trying to hide it, but I can tell Alix senses my disappointment, and how hard I am trying to keep it together, and he sighs.

I’m very proud of you, Cheshire, and so should you be. But there’s a difference between confidence and arrogance, and it’s a fine line. It’s alright to be proud of yourself, but cocky people die. Overconfidence leads to failure, and failure is death.

I just… I just wanted to feel good about one thing today… I know it’s stupid, but I… I fought so hard, and…
I cut myself off with a sigh, my mind racing for something to support the argument I’m about to make. There was a point that I truly believed I could best Dovev, that he wasn’t as bad as I had thought, and perhaps that was arrogant, but I wasn’t wrong?

Then again, I didn’t beat Dovev, I suppose. He’d still be casually tearing pieces of me off to eat right now if it weren’t for everyone else, and my god’s intervention… twice. I had fought as hard as I could, but in the end, it wouldn’t have been nearly enough if I’d had to stand on my own two feet.

Never mind… You’re right.

I don’t deserve to revel in a victory I didn’t earn, and none of this would matter if we lost this battle for Elysia, as Alix had reminded me.

You’re thinking too narrowly.

I shift to look at Alix as he speaks, searching his features for a better understanding of his lecture, or of his need to teach me this lesson I thought I’d understood. He looks tired, but he takes my hand, patient and determined to get through to me.

We earned it, we should be happy. Not ‘I earned it’, because no victory is ever earned alone. More quietly, perhaps not meant for me, he adds, nor is any failure or death.

I take a moment to soak in his words, trying to sort them in my own head before I say anything else, our conversation falling into weighty silence. There’s something terribly haunted behind Alix’s eyes, and it reminds me painfully that his lectures aren’t purposeless or excessive, and if he is bearing down on me, it is only because he has lost so much. I chew my bottom lip, casting my eyes down in shame as the new perspective takes me down a peg. I’m glad Alix is proud of me, because I certainly am not.

I understand, Alix. I know I didn’t do it on my own, and I wouldn’t want to. I snuggle by his side, hoping my embrace might bring him some comfort. I would rather have a shared victory with my family than a hundred alone.

As would I.

I’m sorry I make it so hard on you. I don’t always do the right thing, I mumble, tightening my grip on the ranger. But I’m glad I have you, Alix… No matter what happens.

I’m glad to have you, too, little one. No matter what.

Our comfortable silence returns, and this time I do my best not to break it as I run recent events over and over in my head. Alix needs to rest, so do I, I know, but I can’t seem to stop my brain from running haywire. After awhile, Alix leans down and kisses my head, soothing my nerves, which are all but shot.

Rest, little one.

I want to, Alix, but I

Rest. He repeats.

I’m trying…

Try harder.

He almost sounds amused, but I know he means it.

Okay…

I do need to rest, even if not for me, then for his sake. We need to fortify our minds, as he’d said, he was already struggling, he didn’t need my mania and exhaustion dragging down his ability to process. I close my eyes, snuggling as close as I can, and try to clear my head, focusing my thoughts on Alix, instead of allowing them to wander. The soft, steady rhythm of his breathing and his heartbeat fills my mind, and I drum my fingers gently against his armor as I begin to drift off, the heavy darkness of exhaustion claiming my thoughts at last.

I sleep heavily, though Dovev’s presence dances in my mind, making it less than restful. I hear the echo of the Ichtaca’s accordion in the otherwise still silence of my dreams, his voice, his smile haunt me. I feel his cold hand run down my face, trailing my neck, feel my chest tighten with horror as his eyes burn into mine – no, no! He was dead! How could this be happening?!

“Don’t touch me!” I wake in a flare of panic, shoving at the hand on my head blindly. “STOP!”

Alix stops my frantic flailing by gathering my wrists in his hand, and I stare up at him, wide-eyed, my heart pounding, my ears ringing with Dovev’s music as he pulls them to his chest.

“Cheshire, calm down,” he whispers, bringing his free hand to brush my bangs from my forehead, sticky with cold sweat. I try not to shudder at the contact, and he pulls me back into a soothing hug. “It’s alright, it was only a dream.”

I pant against his armor, letting the cool leather soothe my panic-heated skin, and relax my arms in his hold, which loosens in response.

“I-It… I…”

“It was a dream, Cheshire,” Alix repeats, gently caressing my loose hair behind my ear, “it was only a dream. You’re safe.”

“It was so real…” I whisper, closing my eyes tight to fight the horrified tears that brim in them as the ghost-touch of Dovev’s hand trails my skin once more, sending a shiver running down my spine. “It was Dovev, he was still alive.”

“Dreams haunt us all, Cheshire,” he says, resting his hand on my head once more, “but they hold no power over the waking world.”

I nod silently, trying to will my heart beat to rest, and my arms to cease their trembling.
“Unless you give it to them,” he adds, and I nod again, rubbing my eyes and wiping the sweat from my face.

“I won’t.”

Dovev is gone, we beat him, I watched him die, and I’m not going to let him take that victory from us by polluting my dreams. Dreams don’t mean anything, they’re not real, and as the terror it had left me with fades into calm, I feel just a touch of my magic returned to me. I suppose it was my exhaustion that was at fault for my inability to draw on it, rather than Elysia’s unholiness, still, I reach for that spark of Tubatron’s energy, and it is strangely distant.
I shudder at the hollow sensation the realization leaves in its wake, it makes me fear that Tubatron cannot reach me here, and although I’ve only just achieved this closeness and this holy power, the lack of it disturbs me.

Did you get any sleep at all?

Some, yes, but I’ve been helping to navigate the landscape, as well.

Oh… How long was I asleep?

A few hours.

Do you think we’re almost there?

I believe the plan is to rest for the night. I think I found us a decent hiding place just before you woke up.

Of course you did. I giggle a little, snuggling Alix as he looks down at me in confusion.

What do you mean?

Alix, is there anything you can’t do? You’ve never even seen a landscape like this and you’re navigating it better than Ulkair, who lived here. These vampires won’t even know what hit them.

Alix rolls his eyes once he understands my fangirlish motivation, and he starts to say something, I’m sure along the lines of another lecture in overconfidence, when Nerida opens the bag once again.

“Everyone holding out okay?” She asks, we must be within the shelter Alix had pointed out. “I’m sorry it’s so cramped…”

“We have four hours,” I hear Ulkair’s voice cut in before I, or anyone else, can say anything, “then we must renew the spell and leave, for they will no doubt send physical search parties after us when their magic fails.”

“Four hours?” My voice is rather more grim than I’d meant it to be. I shouldn’t complain, perhaps we really shouldn’t be stopping at all, in fact, but it seems as though if we’re going to, this is the only chance we’ll get, and everyone is exhausted. I know Nerida must be, and I can feel the strain on Alix, my own exhaustion seems to have put a halt on my magic, so I can’t imagine in the shape we’re in, we’ll stand any chance against an army of the undead.

I got a little sleep, I suppose I could keep watch. That would allow the others to rest awhile longer, but then I’d be useless in the coming battle, not to mention I couldn’t trust myself to stay awake.

You need your rest, Cheshire.

Alix’s reminder is maybe not necessary, but it also isn’t wrong. I wrack my brain for another option while Ulkair and Nerida seem to be debating something to which I am not paying attention.

What about what you did in the arena? Alix offers, pulling my fraying sanity back to the memory of the hymn I’d played the night before.

I had felt incredibly rested after that, and my singing Agorran to sleep appeared to help him, as well as what little healing magic the Byssians had left seemed to stretch much further under Tubatron’s holy influence. I bet I could do something like that again, but I had so little magic… I had to make it really count.

“That isn’t much sleep, but… maybe I can play something to help everyone rest?”

“That could work.” Nerida sounds hopeful, and gives me her approving nod. I need to draw on this power from Tubatron, however faint and weak it may be, so of course, how better to call out to him than with his own holy instrument? Pooling all the arcane energy I can, I summon a tuba, place the instrument to my lips and begin to play, trying my best to remember a piece of music I had heard in his concert hall.

As I begin to draw out the bass melody, loud and – at least in my opinion, lovely, I try to suffuse the music with Tubatron’s holy energy as I had once before but Nerida slams closed the entrance to the bag of holding once more, with what could only be described as disgust and horror on her face.

I pause, staring up into the darkness expectantly – what had happened? Did the vampires catch us? No… we weren’t moving, so certainly there was no battle afoot. I wait in uneasy silence, trying to determine the source of her reaction, until she reopens the bag, looking defeated, if not irritable. Wait… had she shut us in here because of my music?

“Can’t you play something… quieter?” She asks, and I feel my eyes narrow. Well, what was she expecting? Music isn’t quiet, and, in case she hadn’t noticed, she’s asking for Tubatron’s help for our little merry band, so what in the world other instrument would she have me play? It’s not like I can maneuver my axe in these cramped quarters!

Cheshire… Alix’s voice is pointedly calm, using his tone to remind me I should be as well. We don’t want to draw any more attention than we have to.

…Fine.

I shoot Nerida a dirty look, and allow my tuba to dissipate in a fabulous, brassy light – although no thunderous clap of music this time. With a sigh for my wasted arcana, I try to refocus my energy into my voice as Nerida carries us into some form of shelter.

“Lay by my side and we’ll sail away
Off to the shores of another day
All set to go once I hear you say
‘Goodnight, my friend,
until the morning’…”

Mimi crawls out of the bag first once we’re given the all-clear, and then Aintai, and Alix helps me out as I sing. The shelter must have been magically conjured, as it is sizeable, dry, warm, and well-constructed, but looks nothing like the other architecture of Elysia. The tiny cottage contains eight bunks, and even a chair and a writing desk. Ulkair closes the door behind us, and I feel another small flicker of arcane energy as he does, so some spell or another must be directly connected to the hut.

“Up we will float as we close our eyes
Stars all around us like fireflies
Just you and me drifting through the skies
Goodnight, my friend…”

I take a seat on the edge of a bunk as I sing, focusing as hard as I can on the pooling of my energy over them, blanketing the room with holy grace in the form of my lullaby, trying to suffuse it with my arcane power like I had before.

“Not a thought
Not a care
Resting safe and sound…
With each other… there…”

As everyone else settles into their own respective beds, I stare around me, the profound loneliness of the last time I’d sung this very song rushing to greet me. That night I’d spent in prison in Alix’s name, the things he’d told me, my utter and complete aloneness… I hang my head, tucking my knees to my chest on the bed with me and fight back a cry as I continue to sing, desperate to aid my allies in their sleep.

Cheshire. Alix’s voice breaks through the mind-numbing cold of my thoughts, and I look across the room at him, only able to make his outline out of the darkness. You’re not alone.

I know…

But you don’t believe?

I…

“…And so we’re off on our nighttime ride
Cozy and warm on the rolling tide
‘Till we arrive on the morning side
Our journey’s end…”

Alix, can I… sleep with you?

I feel an unexpected fondness creep over our link in reaction to my words before he responds.

Yes, Cheshire.

With a sniffle, I shift hurriedly from my spot to Alix’s, crawling into bed with him and snuggling against his side to settle in for the night.

Thank you.

“…Goodnight, sleep tight
We’re gonna be alright…”

For a moment, surrounded by the warmth of my friends, and the security of Alix’s presence, I actually believe the words as I sing them. I stifle a yawn as I finish the song, a small burst of arcana finally empowering the words as hope and love spark the last bit of my power into the music, the soft comfort of bed calling me to sleep.

Goodnight Alix, I love you.

I love you too, little one.

“…Goodnight, my friend.”

DAY 12

I walk into Elysia, my hand laced with Alix’s, my mind buzzing with our recent victories. As we stand, soaking in the visage of the once sacred paradise, my mind wanders to all of the other horrors and perils we have faced – Dovev, One-Punch Man, ghouls, vampires, monsters, that wyvern, and who was always by my side, who never left, never chose himself over me – and who never will. This place… it’s horrible, and yet, I feel Alix’s strength beside me, and I know I have nothing to fear. No matter what is coming, he’ll be there.

“Nothing will turn me away from you, Cheshire,” he says, clearly hearing my train of thought, and I wrap my arms around his happily with the reassurance. “We’re family, no matter what happens.”

“I love you, Alix,” I whisper, our very contact soothing any nerves I may have had away. Elysia will not take Alix from me when death itself could not. How had I gotten so lucky? How could someone like Alix love someone like… like me? And so much? What had I ever done to deserve a friend, a father even, like him?

“I love you, too, little one.” He leans down and kisses my head, smoothing some of my bangs behind my ears. “Get some rest, I’ll keep watch.”

“Thank you,” I happily accept, lying down near Alix as he begins to build a fire. My bedroll wraps me in an unusual comfort, so much warmer and softer than I remember, and my exhaustion takes its hold, pulling me into a much needed rest after our battle with the Ichtaca and his army.

DAY 13

Fear grips me in its vice-like hand, and I jerk awake, my heart racing. It must be the middle of the night still, it’s so dark… I peer through the shadows, my vision bleary, and focus in on a hunched figure.

Alix? He doesn’t move, doesn’t respond, but as my vision begins to clear I can see that he’s on his knees, clutching his head… is he hurt?

Alix? I repeat, pushing myself up from my bed. Are you alright? Does your head hurt?

His shoulders jerk as I reach out toward him, he looks up at me, Dovev’s grin spread across his face as his hands slide down it, and I feel my heart stop, my blood running cold.

No…

“You know…” He whispers, his voice trembling and unreadable, “I tried to tell him ‘no’.”

No, no this can’t be happening!

“Alix…” The ranger’s name is all I can muster as I stare wide-eyed at that horrible, rictus smile.

“But the part of Dovev I took into myself to give you that shred of hope back in the temple,” his head cocks as he speaks, his voice becoming eerily calm – accepting. “It makes too much sense.”

My disbelief quickly fades into the cold horror of reality – what had I done? That day in the prison, that injury… Dovev had used me to get to him. How could I not have known? How could I have ever thought it would be alright? I did this. It’s my fault. He saved me, and now…

“You have to be put down, my child, my love.” He shifts, crawling toward me, his movements disjointed and unnatural, and horror crawls down my body in a shiver. “You are a menace, and we have to hurt you… Punish you.”

He looms over me as he whispers the words, his breathing heavy, and my body, frozen in fear, refuses to back away any further. He reaches out, caressing the side of my face, tucking my hair behind my ear gently, as he used to, and I let out a shaky breath, staring uncertainly into his eyes – was… was he fighting Dovev’s hold?

His hand rests on my face, my breath frozen in hopeful dread, and as the light catches his silver eyes, I see them flicker with red before his fingers dig into my skin. I yelp, jerking my head away from the touch, and try to shove him back, but he suddenly moves with the speed and precision I am used to from Alix, pinning my arms to the ground and my body beneath his.

W-What was that? I stare up at him, searching his eyes for any shred of the Alix I once knew, and see in them only an infernal, burning hunger. He continues to stroke my face, staring down at me with the Ichtaca’s horrible, hollow smile, a wave of horror washing over me as his weight settles on my body. I inhale, trying to steady my breathing, and the ashen scent of sulfur fills my nostrils, flooding my mind with memories.

Those eyes… burning in the darkness, they’re not Alix’s! They’re that.. that demon’s! There is nothing of my loving father left in this monster, his eyes burning with a horror that I realize I recognize all too well. I turn my head to try to escape the contact, but he only digs his fingers in again, slowly tearing lines down the unbroken skin. I feel every horrible hesitation as my skin resists the assault only to rip, and the warm ooze of blood pooling down my cheek.

My lips, tainted with the taste of my own blood, part to scream, but no sound escapes them, and I feel Alix tremble with an excitement I know is not his own.

Please, no! No, no no… this can’t be true!

I want to struggle against him, cry out, sing… to do something, anything! But my body betrays me, and I let out a hard sob, panicked tears rolling down my cheeks as I battle in vain. His grin widens, and he runs his face along my neck, inhaling, smelling me, tasting the sweat and tears than roll down my skin as though I were some Elysian delicacy. His free hand wanders, dragging sticky, warm lines of my blood down my throat and to my chest, pushing the loose silk of my shirt from my shoulders.

No!

As his fingers trail to the laces of my corset, I feel his lips part on my skin, his teeth brushing against my neck, and then pain flares through my body like lightning as he bites down. He rips away the flesh, I feel every vein and tendon snapping as he tears through it and I can only gasp helplessly, panic coursing through me as I watch him chew a piece of my own body in wide-eyed horror.

I-I don’t want to die like this! I have to do something!

I try to free a hand to bring to the wound, the flesh pulsing and soaked already in my blood, which pours down my neck, but Alix’s grip is as cold and hard as iron. Desperate, I try to summon my healing magic to the spot without the touch, but none comes. I can’t feel Tubatron’s energy, or even my own, flowing through my body, only unholiness and Elysia’s awful, suffocating presence in their place.

Alix’s grin widens as he watches the horror on my face spread, my blood and tears only seeming to arouse him, and I close my eyes, trying to block the heated lust and murder in his eyes from my mind. I can’t watch, can’t stand to see it anymore… I feel his breath on my neck once again, his lips brushing the wound he’d made hungrily as his hand makes quick work of my laces.

This isn’t Alix… that demon, he’s taken him from me, just like he said he would. He’s won… I’m alone, and he’s going to kill me. My struggling only seems to goad Alix’s actions, and he lets out a low, predatory growl before I feel his teeth sink back into my neck. I scream, the wet tearing of my skin the only sound to contest it.

I don’t want to… die alone…

“Fear… not this night, y-you will not go astray…” I choke the song out around my broken sobbing as the cold horror of death wraps its fingers around my mind, hopelessly reaching for anything to ebb my fear. Just a voice, a memory, anything but this.

Alix, please!

Alix’s body jerks suddenly away from me, and he begins to cough and choke, black bile mingled with my bloodied remnants spilling from his mouth. His body trembles with the effort of an invisible struggle, and through the unholy darkness, for the briefest moment I feel his presence, his rage and his agony at what has befallen us.

I push myself up on my elbows, my body shaking with the effort, and watch as he heaves – he’s still in there, he’s fighting it! I have to help him, I take a deep, unsteady breath, feeling another burst of blood seep over my neck from my wound, and begin to sing again, keeping my voice as clear as I can.

“Though shadows fall,
still the stars find their way
And though the night sky’s filled with blackness
Fear not, rise up, call out and take my hand.”

He stops, hope rising in my chest as he reaches up to wipe his mouth, only to be crushed when I see that awful, gaping smile spread across it again.

No…

“Very good, Cheshire.”

Alix lashes out, clutching my throat in an impossible grip, and he begins to laugh, the harrowing voice that escapes him not his own, but that of the same monster that possessed my sister’s doll. I feel the skin on my face strain with my struggle to pull in air, my eyes watering as I bring my hands to claw helplessly at his.

“It seems you’ve surrounded yourself with others who will fight your battles for you,” he hisses, tightening his grasp. His hold becomes unbearable, and my vision swims, only the demon’s cruel grin visible in the pained darkness before he speaks again, over the agonizing sound of his hand crushing my throat.

“I knew you couldn’t do it alone.”

DAY 13

I jolt back into consciousness, pain shooting through my neck and panic pounding in my ears as I sit up to find all of my comrades still sleeping in their bunks.

A dream… it was only a dream. I breathe out a shaky sigh, bringing my head to rest in my hands as I repeat Alix’s words from earlier in my mind, and then run my fingers through my bangs, dampened by the cold sweat which covers my body, pushing them off my forehead.

“It was only a dream.” I whisper, as though saying it out loud would affirm its truth. I shiver, the lustful murder in my nightmare’s eyes creeping through my mind once more, and turn to face Alix, just to reaffirm his normality. In the darkness, his back turned to me, I can see his shoulders shaking, and reach out to shake him awake, trying to suppress the panic that threatens to rise in my chest.

“Alix?”

His body trembles and convulses under my touch, but I hear a choked gurgle, and roll him over in horror to find he is unconscious, coughing up the same bile as he had in my dream.

No! B-But it was just a dream!

“Alix!” I shake him again, dread slapping me across the face with its presence. It wasn’t just a dream! How could I be so stupid?! That demon is here, he’s in Elysia, but how?! No, that doesn’t matter, he’s trying to kill Alix! It must have been our link that gave me the nightmare! Alix continues to choke, and obviously my shaking is doing him no favors, but my tired mind races for another solution.

Think, think! You can’t let this unholy thing kill Alix!

Unholy. Right! He’s a demon, holy things should hurt him… I need holy water! Nerida can consecrate things, I know it! I snatch a waterskin from my bag and run to Nerida’s bunk, shaking her from her cuddle with Ulkair.

“Nerida!”

She looks at me blearily, and mumbles some sort of acknowledgment, though in my hysteria I miss the particulars.

“I need holy water!”

She stares at me for a moment, but reaches out to touch the flask of water, and I feel a burst of positive energy as she sleepily consecrates it. I rush back to Alix’s bunk without another word, wriggling the cap from the waterskin as I scramble back onto the bed. His thrashing makes it impossible to get him to drink the consecrated water, or even to pour it into his mouth, and Alix is much stronger than I am, so my attempts to restrain him are miserable failures, but luckily I hear Nerida’s drowsy footsteps behind me only a moment later.

She says nothing, but instead pins Alix, allowing me to brace his head and empty the holy water into his mouth. The bile begins to foam and spew from his mouth, and he screams, thrashing against our hold as it gives way to the holy water, steam rising from it’s contact with him.

Alix… I’m sorry. I clutch his head as the sizzling black liquid pours from his mouth and over my hands and arms, his awful screams rending my soul with guilt. I’m so sorry… Please be okay.

Alix’s thrashing stops, and he coughs up the last bit of the putrid fluid and opens his eyes with what appears to be some difficulty, but they are their normal, stormy silver. I release his head, hugging him with a cry of relief, and he returns the embrace as Nerida releases his arms, though I can feel his head pounding, his mind caught swimming in the fog of sleep and struggle.

“Well, look what I’ve caught in my net,” the voice that sounds from behind us stops my breath in my chest, freezing me in place.

No…

“Cheshire,” the sound of my own name on the demon’s tongue sends a shudder down my spine, but I steel myself, scrambling up to stand between him and Alix. My knees buckle as I turn to face him, and I feel the warmth and color running from my skin as he stares down at me, his violet eyes burning through the darkness into my very soul. He is just as horrifying as I remember, dwarfing even Nerida in size, but for the first time I soak in his true features.

Horns, huge leathery wings, two sets of arms, one huge and bearing crab-like pincers, and the other that of normal men, but seeming to burst from his chest. In my memories, I’d only seen glimpses, outlines, things I’d prayed I’d made worse with fear and forgetfulness, but I was wrong. I’d censored them.

“Oh, and Mimi, too,” he coos, stroking his chin thoughtfully, as if the celestial’s presence pleased him. “How delightful.”

Weren’t demons supposed to be afraid of holy creatures?! I grab my axe from beside the bed, bracing the holy artifact in my hands, which betray me with their trembling, and the demon chuckles, stroking his chin thoughtfully.

“I told you I’d find you, and I never break a promise,” he laughs, “but you made it easy, keeping those doll fragments.”

The demon’s words ring cruelly between my ears – I did this. I brought him here, just like I brought Dovev into Byss, whatever happens now… it’s my fault. I’d damned my friends again with my inability to think. He chuckles, presumably at the despair on my features, and crosses his humanoid arms, drumming his fingers on them.

“However, I’ll make you a deal.”

A deal..?

“You give me your soul, and Mimi’s, and I will allow the rest of these people to leave.” His tone is mocking, but for a moment the option weighs on me – could we really defeat this monster? I could offer myself up to him and spare everyone… but I couldn’t offer up Mimi. No, I couldn’t offer up myself, either! A Byssian is willing to die fighting, but not die to avoid a fight. Alix would never forgive me, and only an idiot would take a demon’s word at its face value. I tighten my grip on my axe, digging in my heels for the coming battle. This monster is my fault, and I’ll put him down just as I had Dovev.

“I also made a promise,” I spit the words back, finding courage somewhere in my soul to stand against my foe, “I promised I would stop you, and protect those precious to me, and I have no intention of breaking it.”

“Oh,” The demon’s grin only widens at my bravado, and he conjures a small cage into his hands, “you’ve already broken that promise.”

I stare at the figure trapped within the cage, horror and disbelief crushing me. It… it couldn’t be…

“Aisylynn…”

My sister’s tormented visage floats behind the bars, a broken ghost. The years had changed her, the pain had stolen the soft kindness from her face, but there was no mistaking a soul that beautiful, whose voice, now crying out in pain and sorrow, had pulled me through so many lonely, terrified nights.

I stare helplessly at the spectre, tears burning their way down my cheeks, and feel my will begin to crumble – I was too late… too consumed with Byss, and Alix and… and myself, and I let him murder her and… I shudder to think what else.

The demon watches the despair take hold of me, his grin widening with every moment of sick joy that ticks by, and behind me, I hear Alix stir, and glance back at him as Nerida steps beside me. Their presence, the stirring of the rest of my companions, it sparks tiny, courageous fire within me, calls me back to the crippling fear of my nightmare, to the rage and the agony I had felt from Alix as he’d resisted this same demon’s mind games, for me. And that is what they were. Mind games. It was all they ever had been, from the very beginning. Intimidation tactics and threats.

He’s toying with me!

The nightmare was a trap, the deal was a trap, his possession of Alix a ploy to weaken me, the same as his possession of my doll. He was terrible, he was powerful, and cunning, but perhaps not as powerful as his cunning made him seem. Dovev almost turned every man, woman and child in Byss against one another, he convinced my allies he was my friend, he cried out in Udragoth’s voice when Loin struck him. Vampires hid themselves from the very victims on which they feasted with glamor and manipulation, and this demon, even more powerful than them, had violated my very being.

He must know what my sister looks like, of course he would lie and try to use her against me, it’s what monsters like this do! But I am not the scared child he’d preyed upon outside Zebidee’s den, or in those dark city streets, I understand now, I’ve used this very same form of mind-bending on my enemies, to fascinate them, manipulate them… it’s what I do. I straighten myself, tearing my eyes from the tormented remnants of my sister, and glare into the eyes that had so haunted me.

“I am also a master of tricks and illusions, and I have no reason to believe this isn’t one,” I retort, trying to bury the fear in my voice beneath my false bravado. I won’t let him trick me into giving him his victory, he’s a monster just like any other, and I will stand my ground, no matter how loudly he roars.

“I’m not afraid of you!”

He barks out another laugh, his presence bearing down on me.

“Oh, you should be,” he sneers, plunging one of his claws into the cage and grasping the image of Aisylynn. False or otherwise, her screams rend into me, tearing through my defenses, my hope, and into my soul as he crushes her, and I watch, in pale horror as the soul bursts into embers, and is devoured. Shock rings in my ears, echoing Aisylynn’s horrible, dying wail, and tears continue to roll numbly down my cheeks as I watch the demon discard the cage, now empty. It isn’t real… it can’t be real…

“You should have taken the deal,” he spits, “but now I’ll offer you one even better. I owe those vampires nothing. I was going to give these pathetic people’s souls to them, but no, I think when I kill them, I’ll keep them, and you can watch as I destroy them, too.”

The demon lurches forward as he speaks the threat, making a large, exaggerated swipe for me as though to make his point – more intimidation tactics. I duck beneath his arm with reflexes I’m not used to having, and slash the blade of my axe into his side as I maneuver around him. It hesitates only briefly on the demon’s hide before slicing in, splashing blood from the wound as I yank my weapon back to my side and move back.

“That actually hurt!” The demon’s exclamation is a mixture of surprise and disdain, and I brace myself to strike again, a smirk tugging at my lips. He bleeds.

“You’re not the first monster to be surprised by me.”

“But I will be the last,” the demon turns back to glare at me as he speaks, and I feel my blood run cold with the threat. His eyes pierce through my defenses, my confidence, and into my very soul through my memories. Meeting those eyes again, I am the scared child he’d preyed upon in those dark city streets, and I buckle. He raises another hideous claw, but before he can take advantage of my fear, I feel a pulse of rage from Alix, who runs his rapier, glistening with holy water, into the demon’s shoulder. Nerida isn’t far behind him with Anduin, stabbing the artifact through the demon’s flesh, and wrenching it back out again.

The wounds bleed, but not like they should, steam rises from the small hole left by Alix’s rapier, and even as Alix continues his assault, creating more of them, the demon seems unphazed. Instead he stares at me intently, locking me in place with my fear.

“You have indeed surrounded yourself with powerful people, Cheshire,” he hisses, and I brace myself again, tightening my shaking grasp on my axe and glare back up at him. I won’t let him take Alix, or anyone! Never again!

“And I won’t let you take them.”

“Oh,” he sounds amused, a sinister grin spreading over his face, “you won’t be able to stop me. Just like you weren’t with your sister.”

I cringe, Aisylynn’s screams ripping through my thoughts once more. It couldn’t be real… The demon lifts his pincers in some arcane gesture, and the weight disappears from the room, and my stomach drops with horror as the spell lifts my feet from the ground.

Nononono! My mind scrambles with panic as I claw back toward the ground, or the bunks, or anything to hold on to, to arrest the sensation and ground myself. He crosses the room with a single beat of his leathery wings, snatching Mimi’s helpless, floating form from above her bed – why isn’t she waking up, or doing anything? How can she possibly sleep through this!?

Alix and Nerida grab onto the demon as he makes for the door, and I scramble in the air to follow, though the motion sends another shudder through my body, the paralyzing memory of slipping from the wyvern’s claw twisting my stomach with dread once again.

My fingers slip over the coarse skin of the demon’s back as I try to pull Mimi from his grasp, but he secures her under his huge, crablike arm and makes a swipe at each of us with the other three, knocking me from his space. I have to stop him somehow, slow him down, anything! My bag floats nearby, snagged on the corner of my bunk, and I rush toward it, clinging to the piece of furniture for stability as I struggle in the air for my bag.

An unnatural chill falls over the room, coating the walls and ceiling with thick, hard sheets of ice and blockading the door, and I glance to see the demon shoot a deadly glare at Aintai, who tucks a wand away in her robe with a smirk on her face. I catch my bag and dig through it for a handful of the broken raspberry tarts I’d made a few days ago, praying I had just one more useful trick up my sleeve. Anything to slow him down, stop him, get him to drop Mimi, any kind of advantage.

I brace myself against the wall to push off toward the demon once more, but the contact burns. Gasping, I pull my unprotected arm back with a hesitation that I know takes a bit of my skin as Loin pushes past me. Propelling himself with his own wings, and utterly unfazed by the cold, he slashes into the demon’s back with his battleaxe, and though no blood floats up from the wound, he does gain his target’s attention. Mimi still secured, the demon whirls to swipe at Loin with a claw, and I brace my boots against the wall, pushing off to close the gap between us and smear the raspberry tarts across its arm, pushing my magic out into them.

Please work!

The fiend turns his eyes back to me, and though they are burning, filled with murder, I see the corners of his lips begin to twitch, and sure enough he bursts into hideous, terrifying laughter – the laughter of a maniac, which chills my soul, leaving hollow fear in the wake of my spell instead of victory. From beside me, a familiar voice echoes the laugh, though it is a completely foreign sound, as Alix loses himself to the spell.

Dammit! Alix, I’m sorry!

I grasp desperately for him as he floats away, drawn to the ceiling by the demon’s magic, but he is quickly out of reach. What had I done!? I have to end this, before I screw anything else up. I look back at the demon, and he meets my gaze, trembling with laughter, and his eyes boring into my being with fantasies of violence and horror. His human-like arms grab at me as he laughs, their grasp iron despite their size, and he stares at me furiously as he pulls me in.
My heart pounds in my chest as though it is desperate to escape its cage, and I scramble to grasp the dagger from my side as the demon begins to sober. A green light flares around us, settling over the demon, and he whips his head around to glare at its source, breaking the eye-contact with me for just a moment. I struggle from his hold, and plunge the dagger with all my strength into his eye while he stares Ulkair down, but to my horror, the blow glances off, as though I were striking steel.

Time seems to hesitate as he turns his furious stare back to me, bearing a series of fangs, my breath catches, leaving me only time to regret my failure, and not even to cry out before his pincers close on my torso. My vision flashes bright white, an indescribable pain wracking my body, and the sound of tearing fills my ears as I feel his grip twist before my world fades to black.

Loud… the ripping is so… My heart pounding, but so faint… how can it be so loud?

So much pain… it can’t be real.

IT CAN’T BE REAL!

But it was. It all was, and it was all my fault.

Aisylynn… I’m so sorry… I…

My world swims, my mind pounding painfully in the darkness, unable to ground myself, unable to wake up, and yet all around me, the screams of my friends, the smell of blood.

Alix…

Everything hurts… it hurts so badly.

Help me… I failed… I failed everyone, I failed Aisylynn, and Alix, I didn’t listen. I promised I would always listen! And… I didn’t.

I’m so sorry.

I hear the faint call of music, pulling my soul toward it from the verge of my existence.

Tubatron… I must be dead. Dying? No! I can’t be! I can’t die! That monster… he killed Aisylynn… he… he ate her soul and it’s my fault… I can’t die, not until I make it right. There has to be a way to make it right…

Please… I call out with all my soul’s will, with all the strength in my being, I reach. Please save her!

No.

In my delirium, the word rings clear as day, and despair clutches at my soul as it echoes in the darkness. Is… is there nothing he can do? Or nothing he will? I had asked so much of my faith, and always received, I knew, I knew it was too much, too many victories, too many favors… but I would trade them all for this… just this one…

Please…

I will not do for you that which you can do yourself.

The world comes crashing in around me once more, the cold, the pain, present but fading, and I blink myself back into awareness to see Loin just above me. He holds onto me, keeping me grounded though everything is still in chaos, and I struggle to focus on his words as he speaks.

“Sorry it took so long,” he says, “I guess I… forgot I could do that. Eadro didn’t exactly give me a manual.”

I feel a smile overtake my features as he holds me, some measure of the security I once felt in these arms and the knowledge of Tubatron’s trust in me guiding it. Failure doesn’t have to mean that it was too late. Tubatron believed in me, my god trusts in me – in spite of my failures, in spite of everything, he believes I can do it. I’ve messed up countless times, and he made me his high priest! There is a way. There has to be, and I have to find it.

“Our gods never give us a manual,” I whisper, holding on to his arms to straighten myself up, “but they do give us hope.”

Dawn’s just a heartbeat away. My sister’s words echo in my head, drowning out even the sound of her screams that plague me. Hope’s just a sunrise away.

I could reach her, I had to. It wasn’t too late, I could still feel her, still hear her, it couldn’t be too late. I turn in Loin’s arms, staring in horror at the battlefield that our shelter has become. There’s blood… so much blood floating around, crystalizing to the frozen ceiling, it can’t all be mine…

The hut’s furnishings are a disaster, floating about as the demon grapples with a huge bear – which must be Ulkair. Alix has my axe, but he’s hurt, Nerida’s hurt, badly, she giggles deliriously as she holds her bloodied stomach. What have I done? We should have been safe, and I let this monster into our shelter… I brought him here with my sister’s doll, I… I gave him power, now I had to take it away.

My bag drifts within my reach, and I grab it, rifling through it for the pieces of Aisylynn’s doll. I collect the fragments in my hand, Loin’s arm around my waist keeping me stable, and stare at them for a moment, as every memory I have of this doll, good and bad, plays through my mind – as though to plead with me not to harm it. Aisylynn… she’s gone, and this is all I have left of her, I… I can’t hurt her…

But I have to.

This doll is my connection to her, but it’s also that monster’s connection, and if I can just sever it… maybe I can free her. I have to, to save them, to save all of us… to save Aisylynn. I have to be strong, to stand on my own two feet, and face the night.

“Nightmares come when shadows roam
Eyes close and heartbeats slow…”

I start to sing, and stare at the ceramic pieces, tears sparking in my eyes just as the arcane fire does in my hands. It dances around the doll’s remnants, burning away Aisylynn’s hair and the childish dress it once wore, slowly warping the porcelain face to twisted blackness.

“…Fear not this night
You will not go astray,
Though shadows fall,
Still the stars find their way,”

I couldn’t reach her across the planes when she needed me, I couldn’t reach her retreating back when I was a child, I couldn’t reach her just across the room as this demon stole her from me once again. So many times I’d grasped at the air, but music was more than me, and everything I could be. Music would transcend the darkest night, the coldest death, it had before, it could again.

“And you can always be strong
Lift your voice with the first light of dawn
Dawn’s just a heartbeat away
Hope is just a sunrise away…”

The heated glass is agony in my hands, the paint flaking and running, burning my palms although the fire does not, but I maintain my grasp. It doesn’t matter, no burn, no wound, no kind of pain could ever hurt like living with my failure. Nothing would ever burn as badly as knowing I let go, I didn’t push through and find a way to reach her. That I was too concerned with my own pain, and couldn’t bring that sunrise for the person whose music carried me through every dark, horrible, night… no, I had failed once, I wouldn’t again.

“…And though the night sky’s filled with blackness
Fear not, rise up, call out and take my hand,”

Please, Aisylynn… Please hear me. I clutch the burning fragments while I beg, the heat of my shattered past washing over my face in stark contrast to the cold lines left by my tears. As the sparks rise from my hands, they burst into golden light, converging on the demon, and he roars in fury and pain, breaking away from Ulkair. The light surrounds him, tearing at him, and I can feel his overwhelming arcane presence diminishing as Aisylynn’s soul bursts from within him, then disappears from the hut.

Yes! She’s free, we did it! She wasn’t safe though, floating around aimlessly in Elysia, she was sure to be consumed, or worse. We had to put an end to this demon, I had to think of something, anything else to do to stop him – he was weakened now, at least, somehow. I could feel it.

The demon howls in fury, turning its burning gaze back toward me, grounding me back in the moment, pulling my mind from Aisylynn and my song, and I reach habitually for my axe – which I do not find, dread flooding me as I realize I am unarmed, pinned in place only by Loin’s hold. But he is quick to react to this new opening, flinging me behind him as he launches himself at the demon, roaring in fury and slashing into it with his axe. In the blur of motion, I hear the slicing of flesh and bone, and see a spray of gore, before the demon falls to the ground, and then the rest of us.

I crash hard into the hut’s floor, followed by my bag and the sound of my companions and their various weapons and items crashing around me. For a moment, I can only lay, dazed and panting, staring at the corpse of our newest foe, and pray it doesn’t get back up. My companions gather themselves, heal themselves, talk amongst themselves, and I can only stare, from my place on the floor, my heart pounding. He doesn’t move, doesn’t even twitch, as blood continues to seep out from under him, and yet it doesn’t seem like enough, it doesn’t feel like a victory…

I feel my lip tremble as the reality of the night crashes around me, and the adrenaline that had fueled my every movement fails. That nightmare, this demon, everything I’d remembered was true, and how could I have ever forgotten it? If only I had known sooner maybe Aisylynn wouldn’t be… but I didn’t, and she was gone.

No, not gone. I kept saying ‘gone’, as though I could find her, as though she was just… missing. As though she could be found, saved, and she could ever hold me again, as though everything could ever be okay. But she wasn’t gone, she was dead. And it was my fault. I failed. I failed her, I failed Alix… Everything went so wrong, so fast.

I try to pull myself up, my limbs quivering, my head spinning, I make it to my knees, but can push myself no further. I dig my fingers into the hut’s wood floor, numb to the sharp pain of the splinters beneath my nails, and sob, like I never have before. It is loud and helpless: the sound of fear and despair, every ounce of anger, all the bitterness I’ve ever felt.

I bring my arms to my chest, hugging myself in a desperate bid for comfort as my world shatters, not a speck of pride or shame left to tell me to hold myself together, nor any care for what the others must think. Nothing outweighs the grief that wracks me, nothing amounts to the hollow feeling that fills my chest.

Cheshire…

Nothing, except Alix.

The ranger pulls me to my feet, replacing my arms with his own, and I cling to his warm embrace, unable to stop the cascade of despairing tears even as he holds me.

“Alix… I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” I weep, my sobs turning to rambling as my voice struggles to keep pace with my guilty thoughts, “I d-didn’t… I didn’t listen. You were right! You’re always right and I promised but then I just… I just didn’t listen…”

He brings a hand to my cheek, and I flinch, the horror of the nightmare flashing behind my eyes lids. Forcing myself to still, I pray he does not notice the reaction as he wipes at the wet trails left by my tears.

“Your past came back to haunt you. It always does. I didn’t know that ghost was coming, and I would have died save for you. That’s why we have each other.”

He moves his hand to pull my head against his chest, and I stare silently at the blood stains on his clothes, on the walls and floor of our shelter, the scent of murder permeating through my every shaking breath as I try to collect myself. My fingers pale my grip on Alix as my mind replays his words over and over.

We have each other.

We have each other. I still have Alix…

“I haven’t encountered this myself,” for some reason it is Aintai’s words that next break through my thoughts, and I tilt my glance to see her looking over Mimi’s still unmoving form. “But I have indeed heard of it. She’s trapped in an arcane nightmare, and the only way to wake her is to get through to her, and somehow show her it isn’t real.”

The sorceress shrugs a bit as she speaks, looking over the celestial once more, “I’d wager most of you experienced the same thing tonight, yes?”

I give a shaky nod as she calls my memories back to the nightmare, the malicious sound of my tearing flesh, the taste of my blood, Alix’s face contorted with ghoulish pleasure… I shudder, and feel his arms tighten around me, perhaps in reaction to my thoughts, or his own.

“Well, someone has to wake her,” Aintai continues, “I don’t know most of you very well, I doubt I can get through to her.”

I watch Mimi for a moment, unmoving but for her breath, and glance at my other companions, who all seem unsure, or absorbed in their own problems, and the memory of my nightmare shakes me once again. My vision wanders to her ear, scarred for her half-elf heritage, and to the tattoo wrapped around it, a symbol of defiance in the face of adversity. What must Mimi be seeing that is so terrible that even someone as powerful as her can’t break free of it, that is has claimed her mind, and trapped her in this horrible false reality?

I shudder once more – if her nightmare is anywhere near what mine was, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, and I certainly couldn’t condemn a friend to such a fate. There had to be a way to help her… maybe a song?

I was able to reach Alix through the nightmare with music and… I reached Aisylynn… The thoughts rend my heart, and for the first time in my life, I can feel no music dancing in my soul, no inspiration, just hollow fear and loneliness. I open my mouth to sing, but my voice chokes on the notes, the night’s memories clutching at me, souring even Alix’s embrace. I move away from him before the panic takes hold of my chest, and go to kneel by Mimi, trying to calm my racing thoughts.

I’m not afraid of Alix. I won’t be afraid of Alix. Mimi is important right now, I have to focus on her, or we could lose her forever.

“Mimi, I don’t know what you’re seeing, but I know that it’s horrible, and that it’s not the truth,” I reach to hold the celestial’s hand, focusing on it, on our contact, and not on the demons that ravage my thoughts, “plus If you never come out of this, who will stop me from dressing like a hoodlum? Or wearing clashing colors?”

“It won’t be Lóin,” Lóin’s voice chimes from beside me, “he has no idea how colors work.”

I turn to glance at him and Alix closes the distance between us once more, placing his hand on my head and ruffling my hair in a casual, but loving gesture. It’s an unusual choice of action for him, and makes me wonder if he isn’t aware of my ulterior motives for moving away from him, nonetheless, I smile a bit at his words.

“I think you look lovely.”

“Thank you, Alix, but I think that’s the problem. Or, it is for Mimi, anyway,” I look back at her, the moment of lightheartedness fading as I see her yet unmoved. What else can I say? I have to make her realize it isn’t real.

It’s only a nightmare, dreams have no power over the waking world. I shudder as the memory of Alix’s breath ghosts over my neck, which sears with the pain of being torn… devoured. At least… they shouldn’t.

“Whatever evil it is that has you, it’s just that: evil,” I murmur, tightening my grip her hand as I try to block the haunting echoes from my thoughts. “And that’s not what you are. Please, Mimi.. please wake up.”

She shifts as I speak, her face pinching with pain for a moment before she opens her eyes, looking dazed. I smile down at her as the blue orbs slowly begin to focus, settling in on me and my once-lovely turquoise shirt, now drenched torn and drenched in my blood.

“I was wearing something even worse than that in my dream,” she mumbles lightly, and I smile at her attempt to lighten the mood. I suppose whatever she’s been through, she can’t bring herself to talk about it, or perhaps she is just choosing to remain strong rather than burden the rest of us with her fears, or her cries… Unlike me.

“Well, it was only a dream,” I repeat the words once more, perhaps as much to myself as to Mimi, “and you have that beautiful battledress.”

“Yes, you’re right,” she smiles in return as she sits up, smoothing out the apparent wrinkles in her dress, and nods, but it fades into confusion as she looks around the room, then back at all of us. “Guys, this isn’t what it looked like when I fell asleep…. I thought we were supposed to be safe in here.”

“Ulkair didn’t let the demon in!” Nerida immediately jumps to her cohort’s defense, and I cringe, feeling the judgment of my companions bear down on me, even if it truly was not. How could I have been so stupid? How could I have forgotten what those fragments meant, what had happened to them? How could I have not known something so obvious?

“Yeah, I… I don’t know who did,” I mumble the liar’s defense of myself, unable to face the just wrath of those around me. We’d all almost been killed, and it was my fault. I know Alix knows, but perhaps the others didn’t have to yet, I couldn’t face them, couldn’t deal with whatever consequences my actions would bring now… had they not brought enough? I release Mimi’s hand, fighting the instinct to curl into the fetal position, defend myself, hide… cry.

“Did everyone else have really bad dreams?” Mimi asks, getting to her feet as Nerida wanders toward us. I feel her healing energy on me, which is a relief, although I suppose I no longer need it as desperately as I had before. She hums and wanders back toward Ulkair, and I think to speak to her, but cannot seem to summon the words, not so much as a ‘thank you’ for her attempt, or for fighting that awful monster with me. My stomach churns with frustration and agony as I watch her talk to Ulkair, and he dramatically throws himself on their disheveled bunk, as though no situation was above good humor.

I hear them talking, but I can’t seem to focus on their words, or Mimi’s just above me, everything becoming a blur of inconsequential noise. I wrap my arms around myself once again, my ears ringing – how could they all be so calm? Return to their beds and move on, with the corpse of this monstrosity at our feet? What about Aisylynn? Her soul isn’t safe – I let it from the pot and into the flame, to be consumed by vampires in the unholy wasteland of Elysia.

My shoulders shake with the pressure I pile upon them in my own thoughts and feel Alix’s hands on me once more, pulling me back up and off the floor.

“Come on, Cheshire,” he murmurs, “we still need to take rest where we can get it.”

I look back over my shoulder at Nerida, curled around Ulkair about to sleep, everyone else already tucked away back in their beds as though nothing had happened, but I know there will be no rest for me, not while my mistakes are still floating about in Elysia. Not while Aisylynn is missing, lost and confused in the dark night. She never left me to suffer my fear alone, how could I turn my back on her and rest now? But what did I know about finding souls? Nothing, and somehow yet less about capturing them, or holding them, or sending them to rest… whatever could be done, I needed Nerida’s help, but…

Alix stops, looking at me and following my gaze to Nerida’s resting form.

Then go and ask her for it.

But

Cheshire, you need your wits about you for the coming battle. I understand the importance of family, but you don’t have the skills you need to be successful on this mission. Nerida does, and Ulkair knows the land, they are a sensible choice.

But she’s already done so much, and… I knit my brow, watching Ulkair shift in Nerida’s arms. I don’t trust him.

Perhaps not, but you said you trust Nerida’s judgment.

Well, yes, but…

If recovering her soul is important enough to risk your life, how can it not be important enough to ask a favor?

…You’re right.

Once again, I’d let my selfishness cloud my judgment – Nerida is my friend, and I do trust her, I shouldn’t be afraid to talk to her just because of Ulkair. I make my way back to her bed, and timidly poke her back, half of me wishing she’d be too heavily asleep, and the other screaming at me for being such a coward.

“Nerida?” I whisper, and she groans in response, turning her head to face me.

“What is it, Cheshire?”

“U-um… hypothetically…”

She sighs, “this isn’t hypothetical, is it?”

“No,” I hang my head, wringing my hands as I speak, “not at all.”

“We already beat Dovev,” she says, and I imagine in her sleep deprived mind this argument somehow makes sense, but how could I possibly be worried about Dovev at a time like this? The ghoul lord was dead, and Aisylynn’s soul was out there somewhere, lost and vulnerable.

“No, no,” I explain hurriedly, “Dovev doesn’t matter!”

I saw him die, I reassure myself, he’s of no consequence now.

“He’s just a small thing, a bump in the road compared to this…”

I’m not sure even I believe that statement, but it certainly gets Nerida’s attention, she rolls over completely to look at me, and she looks properly worried.

“Alright… what is it?”

“So… so…” I drag out the words, twisting my hands, my stomach heaving with anxiety as I try to summon the honesty I need to ask for Nerida’s help. “I-I really messed up. That wasn’t an illusion, that– that monster really did have my sister’s soul and… and–”

Nerida smiles as I stumble on my confession, which is not the reaction I’d anticipated.

“Oh,” she says merrily, as though this is a huge relief, “shall I go fetch it?”

I want to question her, but instead I grasp the edges of her clothes as my intent breaks down into a pitiful plea.
“Please?”

“Of course, Cheshire,” she says, lifting the jar she’d taken from One-Punch Man’s desk, “I have a bunch of Byssian souls here I can keep her with. I’m sure they’re very nice.”

I stare at Nerida, unsure what to make of her proposition, or the casualty with which she refers to the eternal remnants of our dead comrades, except that I know very little of these matters, and perhaps if I were wiser, like her, I would not mind it. But didn’t that jar belong to Ulkair? Wasn’t that what the vampire had said? That she wanted it for him, and hadn’t he given her the one she had? And wasn’t it dangerous?

My mind races with doubt as she stares expectantly at me, and I know I can’t ask for answers to all of these questions, but I do know one thing for certain still – I do not trust Ulkair. Whatever purpose he had her collecting the souls of the dead for, however noble or evil it may have been, Aisylynn couldn’t be fuel for it… I just couldn’t let that happen, and I realize, staring at the jar, that it must have been the very same kind of prison in which my soul had once been trapped. Bright white, endless, and yet so confined, so frightening, so much confusion. I’d put Aisylynn through enough, I couldn’t now let her suffer like that at the hands of her rescuers.

“Isn’t there… anything else you could keep her in?”

Nerida turns to look at Ulkair – exactly what I’d hoped she wouldn’t do, “is there anything else we could keep her in?”

The wizard sighs, peering over at is, and then looks thoughtful.

“Why, yes, in my pocket dimension,” he says, sitting up and opening a hole in the air itself, and rifling through it, “I have this handy little thing you can have, Cheshire.”

His sudden interest and change in demeanor is strange, but my mind whirls with other, more dire things as he and Nerida chat about pocket dimensions and spells. How can they be so calm? Doesn’t Nerida have a sister? Doesn’t she understand how important this is? Ulkair holds a tiny jar up to his ear and shakes it a few times, and Nerida gives him a horrified look.

“Are you listening for screams?”

“No!” He says, his face and tone indignant – as though such a thing would have been hard to believe, “I’m just trying to remember if there were any souls in there.”

“By… shaking it?” Nerida asks, to which she receives another dirty look, “what? You were the one who said you wanted them to line your walls, wailing.”

My stomach drops as I listen to the exchange, and I feel tears begin to build in my eyes.
“Nerida…”

Nerida turns an innocent, curious look to me, pulling her attention from Ulkair.
“What is it, Cheshire?”

“If you trust him, I… I trust you,” she cocks her head, concern creeping over her features as I try to maintain my composure, “but.. please. This is really important to me.”

“It’ll be alright, Cheshire,” she says, placing a hand on my shoulder, “when we get back, you can hold onto the jar if it makes you feel better.”

“Alright…” I give Ulkair a wary look as I pick my bag up off the floor, readying myself to leave. Whatever he had planned, Nerida is my friend. She wouldn’t betray me to Ulkair, she wouldn’t lie to me for him… would she?

“Oh, Cheshire can’t go or they can scry on her, right?”

Nerida’s words stop me in my tracks, and I turn to look at her.

What? No! I have to go!

No, you have to trust your allies.

But Alix–!

What was the first thing I taught you when you came to Byss?

I pause, mulling over all the things Alix has said to me in search of the memory of our first encounter, which seems so distant now.

“Out here, all you have is trust.”

Exactly. We have to trust one another if we want to live, or succeed at anything. You heard Nerida, your leaving would only put all of us in more danger.

But I could go in the bag!

And what good would that do?

I…

Trust your friends, Cheshire.

Ulkair’s not my friend! The petty, last ditch argument earns a sigh from Alix, and I can feel his weariness weighing on him.

Cheshire.

I know, I know… I’m sorry.

“Ulkair, will you go with me?”

I grip the edges of my bag, biting my protest. I don’t want him to go anymore than I want to stay, but Alix is right, Ulkair knows the land better than anyone, he is the logical choice. I have to trust that Nerida will keep Aisylynn safe, that she won’t capitulate to whatever his hideous desires are.

“Of course I will go with you, Nerida,” the wizard yawns, rolling out of bed and stretching. “As if I’d let you wander Elysia alone.”

Nerida looks at me briefly, and I look to Alix, whose stern features don’t leave anymore room for argument.

“I… guess I’ll stay here with Alix,” I mumble as I turn my gaze back to Nerida. She leans over and ruffles my hair – a popular gesture this evening.

“I agree that would be best,” she says, “don’t worry, we’ll be back soon.”

She and Ulkair exit the shelter hand in hand, and I stare after her back for a moment, pinned in place by the weight of my heart.

I have to believe… I have to trust.

But I don’t think I do.

Then trust in me, little one.

Alix’s hand wraps around mine, pulling me back to our bed, urging me to rest as he pulls me down into his lap and encloses me in his arms. I lay staring at the door, insides writhing with doubt, every second ticking by as another monstrous uncertainty: when would they return? Would they have Aisylynn? What did it even mean if they did? What if Ulkair… does something? Would they even return? I close my eyes, unable to watch the unmoving door any longer, my misery bubbling out of me in tears, and song.

I do.

“Lost in the fog, these hollow hills
Blood running hot, night chills
Without your love,
I’ll be so long and lost.
Are you missing me?”

My voice trails the walls of the hut, haunting and hollow, drowning the air in my melancholy. I have to sleep, I know, but the idea of rest holds no promise, despite my aching body and my heavy eyelids. What was this horrible, unholy place we’d come to? Why was that demon here… why, why was I so stupid?

“Is it too late to come on home?
Are all those bridges now old stone?
Is it too late to come on home?
Can the city forgive me?
I hear its sad song…”

I do trust you. I repeat the words, as if to reaffirm a truth I wasn’t sure I believed – but I did. I do. I do trust him, and Alix, he… My eyes burn with such sorrow and exhaustion that the tears that run from them are a cool relief.

“…It’s been so long
Between the words we spoke
Will you be there upon the shore?
I hope.
You wonder why
It is that I came home…
I figured out where I belong,”

I let him down… but he’s still here, holding me in all this darkness. I still have Alix. He won’t leave me and now, I don’t have to leave him. The tiny relief that comes from the thought rends through me as soon as it occurs, wrenching my stomach with guilt. How could I think like that, how could I just write Aisylynn off? Why would something this horrible… be a relief? I let out a soft sob, my only solace Alix’s presence, even in a room of what should be my trusted companions. What was this awful place doing to me? Would there be anything left of who I was when we made it out? ….Would we even make it out?

“But it’s too late
To come on home
All those bridges
Are just old stone,
Oh, and it’s too late
To come on home
Can the city forgive me?”

My words begin to fade into darkness as sleep wraps its vice-grip around my mind. So much to do, so much to fear, so much to think about, but for all I to fight it, I cannot break free. I feel the weight of my eyelids pulling them down, the weight of my body falling against Alix’s, and the weight of my worries fading into what I pray is a dreamless sleep.

DAY 13

My mind creeps into consciousness as I wake, but as soon as it does, my reality hits my like an iron wall. Aisylynn, the demon, Nerida and Ulkair! I look around the shelter and find Nerida seated on the floor, praying with Ulkair in her lap. I want to rush to her, but I know her prayers are important to her, and, I believe, connected to her ability to cast holy magic, so I wait, every second of her meditation ticking by another thorn-like stab.

Perhaps sensing my unrelenting stare, Nerida comes over to Alix and I as soon as she is done praying, mending the remainder of Alix’s wounds from last night. She fishes around in her bag and hands me the small jar from last night, and presumably Aisylynn’s soul, but before I can ask, or exchange any words with her, Ulkair cuts in.

“You should be careful with that,” he warns, eying the jar in my hands as he approaches, “it might be best if I held onto it.”

You?! YOU!? The madman who brought us to this wretched place, got us lost, and wishes to line his halls with the wailing of tormented souls? YOU who’s somehow lead even Nerida astray, who’s the only person among us with a connection to these vampires?! YOU!?

Alix’s voice cuts through my hysterical, accusatory train of thought before it can spiral any further.

Rein it in, Cheshire.

I… He’s right, of course, so I don’t argue, instead I look Ulkair over for any sign of malintent.

“Why?” I ask, and he stares at me as though I am stupid as he responds.

“It may break.”

“What,” I pause, looking at the jar in my hand – what did these things do to souls, anyway? Would it hurt her, or kill her if it broke? “What will happen if it breaks?”

“Her soul will freely wander as it had last night.”

His response is a relief to hear, at first. But of course, if wandering in Elysia were safe, I wouldn’t have asked Nerida to find her for me, then.

“And… run away, or get lost.” I conclude, to which Ulkair nods impatiently. I tighten my grasp on the bottle, looking back at Alix.

It’s your choice. He says simply, and I look back at the bottle in my hands.

I know it is, but I want to make the right one.

I glance back at Ulkair, then to Nerida – she loves this person, right? Trusts him? There must be more to all of this than I know, I’m certain. Nerida is a good person…

“Cheshire, If Ulkair had any ill intent for it,” Nerida says, perhaps seeing the doubt in my eyes, “he probably would have just put it in one of the other bottles.”

“I… guess that makes sense,” I mumble. At least, it seems like it does to her. I don’t know anything about souls, or these jars, or keeping souls in these jars, but perhaps it’s harder to access this jar for some reason? Either way, I once again find myself at the cross roads of trusting Nerida, or facing something I know nothing about alone, and with a sigh I hand her the tiny jar. The mermaid smiles at me, strangely cheery, and passes the jar to Ulkair, who tucks it away in his coat, before looking around the shelter impatiently.

“Can we go now?” He insists, “or need I remind you we’re all currently unmoving targets?”

I look at the blood-stained floor, the demon’s mangled corpse still decorating it, and shudder. I don’t need a reminder: last night was a horror I’m sure I’ll never forget. We pile back into my bag of holding, Mimi grumbling as she tucks her wings to fit into the tiny space, and I take my previous spot against Tad Cooper’s pelt, settling in with Alix and Night Eyes, for what I hope to be just a bit more sleep before we face the battle ahead. Aisylynn’s soul is safe, at least for the moment, and the rest I’ll figure out when I get that far. For now, I needed to rest, for now, I needed to believe everything would be okay.

“It will be okay,” I mumble to Night Eyes as I pet his head, though the words are clearly for my benefit, not his. He nuzzles my hand, and I lay my head against the familiar feathers of my own animal companion, wishing I could have brought him me, but knowing it was for the best. This place isn’t meant for spirits, and I couldn’t let any vampire or demon take the souls of anymore of my loved ones.

“It will be okay…”

I feel Alix’s arm close over me protectively, and nestled between him and Night Eyes, I drift into a sleep less fitful than the one I had last night, but haunted by again by nightmares. The stench of death permeates my nostrils, paralyzing me as Dovev’s hand drags its way down my skin, the haunting melody of the ghoul lord’s instruments playing again and again in my mind, all the while the laughter of the demon, my sister’s screams battling for my mind’s attention.

I wake with a start, the hairs on my neck raised with the ghost touch of Dovev’s cold hands, and try to shake it off, focusing on the warmth of Night Eyes’ fur, and Alix’s arm around me.

Dreams have no power over the waking world. I remind myself, clutching the wolf’s fur in my hand a bit harder than I probably should have, though he doesn’t so much as twitch. Dovev is dead. That demon is dead. They’re dead, you’re alive, but you won’t be soon if you don’t focus on what’s in front of you.

Sound advice. Advice Alix might give. Now, if I could just follow it.

I lay with Night Eyes and Alix, trying to keep my head only on the battle ahead, and not on the nagging feelings of failure or dread that bite at my heels. I’m not sure how long I slept, or how long I stayed awake battling myself, but it seems like it isn’t long before we come to a stop, and I hear Nerida and Ulkair’s muffled voices from outside the bag, though I can’t make out their words.

“Mimi?” The bag opens and I see Nerida’s face peeking in, “we can’t see, can you cast daylight?”

Mimi nods, lifting her hand as a burst of holy energy and light escapes it, illuminating the space outside. Nerida and Ulkair move a bit further, and I can hear them talking again, but I can’t quite make out about what, so I shift and, with a little help from Alix, peek my head out of the bag to observe.

The cavern in which we stand is huge, it looks natural, but in the middle of it are statues and a mechanism of some kind, pillars of swirling energy on either side of a single flight of stairs – man made artifacts, for sure, but nothing like I have ever seen.

“Those must be what’s blocking out the sun,” Ulkair points the pillars to Nerida, looking pained as he explains their purpose. “They must be draining the negative energy from Elysia and using it to cover the sun in blood. This would also cause the positive energy stolen from Byss to more easily permeate everything, so in one fell stroke they make it livable for themselves, yet maintain it as a paradise.”

Positive energy stolen from Byss? I look from the pillars, to Ulkair and back again. Is that what makes Byss so terrible? Is that why they never see the sun?

“You didn’t mean for it to become this,” Nerida reassures him, and he turns a guilty gaze to meet hers.

“No, no I didn’t. And yet, it did become this,” he remarks, bitterly turning his gaze back to the confluence of arcane energy, “and I am responsible.”

What did they mean? Elysia was supposed to be a holy paradise, but then why would it have to steal positive energy from another plane? Was it the vampire’s presence that made it like this, that made it have to live off of another thing, like they do? But then what was Ulkair’s role in all of it, what did it mean? Was Byss… different before? My mind reels with this information, and yet I have no idea what to do with it.

I look back down at Alix, who seems to be processing the questions and doubts that hit me as well, and I feel a creeping anger come over me. This place… this “confluence”, or whatever Ulkair had called it, it was stealing positive energy from Byss. It was just one. More. Lie. I don’t know what to do with that fact, but I do know that it has to end.

“So,” I call Ulkair and Nerida’s attention to me as I look over the pillars, “if we break those, the whole thing will stop?”

No more blood sun? No more stealing goodness from Byss?

“Maybe?”

I’m just about to comment on his uselessness when a familiar voice booms from the shadows beyond the mechanism.

“Well, well, well!”

The words jolt through me painfully, and I do my best to suppress a gasp.

One-Punch Man!

There was no mistaking it, that voice belonged to the vampire that hurt Alix. Sure enough, he steps from the shadow, everything about his gait as arrogant and pleased with himself as his fanged grin.

“Vhailor!” Ulkair hisses, and the vampire barks out a harsh laugh.

“I knew you would come, Ulkair! You’ve always been so predictable!”

Nerida’s hands tighten on Anduin at his words, and Ulkair’s on the bag of holding, but neither of them charge the vampire, who strolls arrogantly along the stairway as he speaks.

“I told them you were going to try your little suicide mission. I knew you were going to abandon your little Byssian friends to their fate, like the pathetic mongrels they are, to try steal Elysia for yourself.”

I feel my blood begin to boil as the vampire speaks, but Mimi’s hand pulls me back down into Alix’s lap, and she scrambles from the entrance where I’d been hovering, scythe in hand. Apparently she isn’t in the mood for talking, and neither am I. I look at Alix, gripping my axe, when the bag shifts, slinging us into a haphazard pile on the floor. I look up, dazed, at Ulkair, shaking out the contents of my bag of holding, and scramble to my feet with Alix’s help – what was this maniac thinking?

“He only has a fraction of the power he had before, and we are all immortal blood gods compared to him,” Vhailor’s attention seems to be focused on Nerida, but he can only possibly be talking about Ulkair. From the corner of my eye I see Mimi charging toward him, but he doesn’t even flinch, watching cockily as an armless figure leaps from the shadows, taking her from the air and grappling her to the ground in one fell swoop. She struggles against the second vampire, who pins her beneath his knees, malice glimmering in his eyes.

“Even if we don’t kill you, there’s nothing the likes of him could do, not even here,” Vhailor mocks, “you are all insects and I will crush you beneath my boot!”

Insects!? My ears ring with righteous rage, my fingers tightening on my axe – we are not insects! The people of Byss are strong, despite Elysia’s every attempt to steal their potential! I fix my eyes on the nexus of energy, billowing out of the cavern in pillars of light – this thing was protecting the vampires from the sun, it was hurting our people, but it was only a choke point of holy and arcane energy. It simply funneled two different magics into one purpose, just like me, it seemed impressive, but it wasn’t, no more than I was. It was just a fancy catalyst, and if I could use my music to bend Tubatron’s holy energy, I could use it to meddle with Elysia’s.

“Ah, I see you’re eying my masterpiece, what Dovev had was mere child’s play,” I can’t quite tell if the vampire’s words are meant for me or Ulkair, but Dovev’s name snares my attention.

What Dovev had? What does that mean? Was something like this the source of the energy wave that had pushed me from the wall? Was it what he used to control the undead, was it – I stop my reeling thoughts as quickly as I can.

It doesn’t matter now, Dovev doesn’t matter now. He’s dead. I firmly remind myself of Alix’s warning, and so will we all be if we don’t focus on the battle at hand.

“It was laughable to think you had a chance before, now you will face my truly awesome creation, and me.”

No way… As Vhailor mocks us, one of the statues by the stairway breaks free of its stony prison. It lumbers toward us, weapon in hand, and the vampire’s grin only widens, fading from arrogant to malicious.

What is that thing!?

“No surprises this time,” I hear a tinge of bitterness in his tone, as though his words were to reassure himself of his impending victory rather than us. “Now you shall face all the powers of blood, all the horrors that I have at my disposal.”

“What the hell that!?” Loin’s exclamation mimicks my thoughts as it charges us, and I duck away from the metal behemoth as Aintai, ever aware of the arcana around her, speaks up just behind him.

“It’s an iron golem! They’re extremely powerful magical constructs, and independent once they’re animated, so killing the caster won’t stop it!”

The sounds of battle erupt around us, but Vhailor’s taunts still ring in my ears: ‘pathetic mongrels’, ‘insects’, his words burn in my mind, but not as strongly as the sound of Alix’s fate at his hands, not as vividly as I feel his blood splash across my face. Fury burns on my fingertips, and I stare at his “masterpiece”, vengeance filling my soul, pumping through my veins with every beat of my racing heart. I’m going to blow this thing apart.

Battle wages across the cavern, and I bring my fingers to my axe, focusing my energy on the confluence as I slide my fingers down the frets and begin to shred. As I play, I begin to pour my own arcane energy out over the nexus, and I feel the mechanism strain under my manipulation. I was right! It’s so carefully balanced, so meticulously constructed – I just have to throw it off!

I sweep my hand down the neck of my axe, my fingers pulling the melody from the instrument as fast and loud as they can, and from the corner of my eye I spot Vhailor turning his attention to the confluence. The streams of unholy black energy waver, beams of brassy light bursting from them as my music streams into the confluence.

I hear the vampire utter a curse as he tries to control the carefully laid system, but under the strain of my magic, it chokes. The holy glow of Tubatron’s energy, fueled with my arcane music, consumes the pillars, and the dark energy bursts out over the cavern, its blackened remnants ricocheting dangerously from wall to wall. I brace myself as it sails past me, striking the vampire that struggles with Mimi and now Loin, but it seems to have no effect on him, and only continues spinning with no focus, and as the confluence fails, true sunlight begins to filter through the opening left in the cavern by the pillars.

I stare in hopeful wonder at the beams for only a moment before a jolt of fury and pain lashes out across my link with Alix, and I turn just in time to see the huge metal construct stomp on him.

ALIX!

The ranger scrambles out from under the monstrosity’s foot coughing and weaponless, though he seems to have avoided the heaviest of the damage, but my mind races with panic of the sight.

Alix, are you alright?! I can’t lose him, not again!

Focus on the enemy in front of you!

Alix’s voice snaps in my mind, hard and commanding as he grabs his rapier from the ground and scrambles to his feet. We have no time for panic, no room for error. I know that, and still my arms tremble from the moment of horror, my mind straining to pull focus back on my music, to decide what to do next, but consumed with the memory of Vhailor’s assault. The sound of Alix’s shattering bones, the moments of silent horror, the splash of red all play behind my eyes, over and over, Vhailor’s laugh ringing in my ears, his mockery of one more insect’s life lost.

I tighten my grip on my axe, the melody I play morphing contorting to my rage, becoming lower, heavier, and I turn back to face the enemy in front of me. Vhailor’s focus is on restoring whatever damage I’ve done to Ulkair’s invention and their unholy shield, his hands are raised in an arcane gesture, and he sunlight I’d released begins to wear away.

Oh no you don’t!

He wasn’t going to take Alix from me again, or the positive energy from Byss, it’s hope, it’s sunlight… No! Never, EVER again!

“To the sound of a heartbeat pounding away
To the rhythm of the awful, rusted machines
We toss and turn but don’t sleep
Each breath we take makes us thieves
Like causes without rebels
Just talk but promise nothing else,”

My music crashes over Vhailor, drowning the sounds of battle around us, and I pour everything I can into the strings of my instrument. My magic bursts around me, an unbridled mess of arcane and divine, pouring out over the confluence, blanketing Vhailor in my rage as my mind fills with the horrors these vampires have wrought upon my people. Upon my home!

“We crawl on our knees for you
Under a sky no longer blue
We sweat all day long for you
We sew seeds to see us through
But sometimes dreams just don’t come true
We wait to reap what we are due…”

An entire world unsafe to travel, monsters, undead, abominations… all of that for what? For this? For this stupid confluence, this stupid blood sun, for the comfort of these monsters! They treated the people of Byss as slaves, as cattle or pets, to be fed upon and disposed of at will. They think we won’t rise up, they think we can’t fight, but through the blood, the horror, and the mist, and the dark, hollow nights, Byss has risen. Through every hardship Elysia has forced down on them, the people of Byss have gained strength, in spite of Elysia and its thievery, they have survived on the scraps they were left with.

“…White needles buried in the red
the engine roars and then it gives
But never dies
Because we don’t live, we just survive
On the scraps that you throw away!”

We are strong, and Elysia will not take that from us, and it won’t take my family from me. No matter what nightmares crawl in the shadow of its unholy blood sun, no matter how dark the night, I won’t let these monsters steal our hope. A new dawn will come for Byss.

“I won’t crawl on my knees for you
I won’t believe the lies that hide the truth
I won’t sweat one more drop for you
Because we are the rust upon your gears
We are the insects in your ears
We crawl, we crawl, we crawl all over you
We sow seeds to see us through
Our days are precious and so few
We all will reap what we are due
Under this sky no longer blue
We’ll bring the dawn long over due,
We crawl, we crawl, we crawl…”

Vhailor curses as a mass of energy forms between his hands, volatile and frantic, pulsing and growing with every note that I play. I watch as he tries to contain it, shredding down the frets as my music grows heavier with every note, echoing my emotions over his magic. He tries to direct it to the confluence, but the dark energy again forming around the pillars sputters and fails as he loses control of the spell.

“….All over you!”

My voice carries through the open cavern, dark and weighted, and with my final words I let out on more wave, one last push of energy, expending all of my holy and arcane wrath over the vampire. He screams, the holy magic he’d tried to manipulate lashing out in a violent wave that knocks me back, and sends him skidding down the steps and across the ground. My ears ring, my vision swims as I push myself to my feet in time to see Nerida growing as Agorran had, and plunge her trident into Vhailor’s chest with righteous fury. He screams and writhes in pain as she brings down another blow, and I feel satisfaction tugging at my lips as he bursts into a vampiric haze.

Alix, are you alright?

I’m fine. Stay focused!

I am focused.

I scan the cavern for my other companions, and find Alix, Aintai and Night Eyes still alongside Ulkair, struggling with the iron golem, while Mimi and Loin wrestle the armless figure who’d attacked them earlier into a pillar of burning sunlight. This is it – the final stretch. We just had to let that vampire burn and defeat that construct, then Ulkair could do whatever it was he had to do to fix Elysia, stop it from leeching off of Byss. I eye the golem for only a moment, certain we must have faced worse in the past, the taste of victory dancing on my tongue, when a high pitched giggle echoes from the shadows.

The eerie laughter comes crashing over my sense of victory, and I turn to face its source, my shoulders sagging with desperation – of course it wasn’t over. Of course our victory couldn’t be so near, so easy. Of course there was another one.

The giggle belongs to the body of a child, but I am no stranger to illusions nor false appearances, everything about this… girl is dangerous. The way she stands, the cold, calculated joy in her eyes as she soaks in the battle in front of her – no, this is not a child, but another vampire, and likely stronger than the last.

“You all struggle so valiantly against your inevitable fate. You’re so funny, but you’re so wonderful too,” she announces with a false cheer, turning her gaze over all of us as though debating which pet to keep or eat.“I have an offer for you.”

She raises her hand, and I feel the very fabric of the world around me shift, time itself slowing, dragging, and then stopping. The magic strikes a chord in my mind, the horrible, helpless sensation calling me back to the moments before we first dispatched Vhailor – the long, dragging moment I couldn’t explain, and how I hadn’t seen what Nerida had done to him. It must be similar, if not more powerful magic that this vampire child is using. She watches us for a moment, staring helplessly, awaiting her “offer” as though we had any choice, and then begins to make her way down the stairs as she speaks.

“You know, we could make space for your Byssians here in Elysia and you’ll all be happy. We’ll only feed upon their sister city. We’ve been impressed by what you’ve managed to do,” she says, running her hand along the disabled confluence before casting her cold red eyes over us again. “Come, you have earned rest in Elysia. We can give you immortality, we can give you happiness. In fact, we can give you whatever you want.”

I feel her words rend into a part of me deeper than they should, and try to turn my gaze toward Alix – was this his pain I was feeling? The first night we’d met, he’d told Sheik about “earning rest in Elysia”, about Byss, and how they fought so that one day they might ascend, be worthy… worthy of paradise…. Worthy of a blood-stained lie.

“It’s not like Elysia was a very nice place before we got here. It’s really just different now. The shame of what those Elysians did, just to make their lives better,” she giggles idly and turns a fanged smile to Nerida as she continues, “I can’t believe you would even spend time with one, Nerida! He’s garbage! I wish you would listen to me. It’s true, you know. I don’t want to kill you, I only want you to be happy!”

She pauses, as if awaiting a response – but could we even do such a thing? I can’t move, but I can think, I can see and hear her, maybe.. I could talk? Not that I should, I suppose, but maybe if I could speak, I could cast a spell? I try to draw on my magic, and curse myself for the tiny spark of arcana that bubbles in my soul – I had expended so much energy facing off against Vhailor… How could I be so careless?

“Alas, they told me you’re stubborn, and you have proven quite contrary,” she laments with a pouty sigh, “I sent Tranatheraxxus to give you this message, and you murdered him! He was so beautiful… I loved him dearly. You’ll pay for that, Lóin.”

So much for only wanting us to be happy… Her voice slips from cheery to sinister so quickly I’m not sure when the change started, and I struggle to move with no luck. Her eyes reflect thousands of years of cold, detached terror as she continues, her aura flooding the room with murder and fear.

“I’m going to make you suffer most for destroying my beautiful dragon, Loin, and you Nerida, you’re very naughty. You stole Ulkair from his righteous punishment! Such a pity, I had hoped to save you, you’re so pretty. Cheshire however,” the sound of my name on the vampire’s lips sends a chill down my spine, and panic rushing through my every cell. “She will make a fine pet. I do so love music.”

Her voice breaks away from the cold threats and erupts into joyous, childish laughter as she raises her hand once more and snaps her fingers, unholy energy bursting out from them, and settling into a wave of cold, sharp steel knives. The wall of blades flares out around the room, much like the spell in which Agorran had caught Dovev, but infinitely larger, and I hear Alix’s mental cursing as the blades surround him, and Night Eyes, poised to shred them both at the next snap of the immortal child’s fingers.

Alix! Hang on! Again I try to turn my head, move, cast a spell – do anything!

Just… do.. SOMETHING! I scream at my muscles, fear boiling beneath my skin. PLEASE!

I-I can’t let Alix die! I can’t let anyone die! Who knows who else is caught in this barrier, if not everyone. They were all nearby each other, except maybe Loin and Mimi. I couldn’t free him, I couldn’t move, I had to stop her. Keep her from releasing those blades!

“Oh, no response from any of you?” The child exclaims with false surprise.

No no no! Come ON!

“Okay then!” She raises her hand once more, and panic forces my hand.

“WAIT!” I cry, my mind racing for anything to give her pause as she turns to face me – I have so little magic left, but if I could just cast… just the tiniest spell, just a charm, like I’d used on the fence. The immortal child watches me impatiently, and I know there’s no way something that simple would work on a being as ancient and powerful as her, unless maybe I can catch her off guard. But how? I needed a distraction, an argument, something insignificant, that wouldn’t raise any alarms in her mind. She wants me as a pet, right?

“I… If I go with you,” I begin, hope rushing over me as she gives me a curious look – she’s interested, or intrigued at least. I force out what little magic I have left over my words, coaxing them into a charm spell and praying, hoping against hope that if I played my cards right, they could maybe have some effect. “Will you spare Alix?”

My offer hangs in the air, my spell settles, and a smile creeps over the child’s face once more.

“Nice try,” she says, dashing what hope I’d had with a second snap of her delicate fingers.

NO!

I collapse forward with the outcry as all the motion I’d tried to will to my muscles catches up with me, time rushing forward once more as she releases the spell. For a terrible moment, my ears are filled with nothing but the sound of whirling steel and tearing flesh, Night Eye’s yelp of pain is the most distinct, followed by others too hard to make out. It all happens so horribly fast, as I push myself up, desperately scanning the scene, I can see only Ulkair in the form of a stone giant and the golem, and blood stained iron, still whirling in the air.

ALIX!?

The ten foot wall of blades has cut me off from my companions, except for Loin and Mimi, who charge the immortal child while I stare in horror-struck panic, waiting for any sign of life from the rest of them.

Alix?! Alix what happened? Are you okay? Talk to me!

I feel Alix’s head swimming as he tries to respond to my frantic demands, and try to reach through our connection to see the others, but with no avail. Nerida was on the other side of that wall, she was near Alix when she hit Vhailor. She had grown so huge with that spell she cast, I should be able to see her over the wall, but no sign of her. Was she alright? Aintai and Night Eyes… how far back did those blades go? Had any of them been spared? I bite my lip, seconds dragging by like hours as I prayed for any sign that they had made it, when I see Ulkair sling the blood-stained Nerida over the wall of blades, before the golem smashes an iron fist into him.

Nerida!

She glances behind her, cringing as she watches Ulkair struggle with the iron golem, before raising her hand with the string of prayer beads. A wave of holy energy echoes from her hand, washing out around us, and her wounds begin to mend, as well as Ulkair’s, it would seem. Alix’s mind seems to clear as the healing magic washes over him, and a moment later he leaps the span of the wall of blades, landing near Nerida, rapier in hand, blood coating every space of his armor.

I grip my axe, my throat tightening as I try to muster something to say to them – some excuse for failing to keep them safe, some apology, or even to tell them how relieved I was to see them, but nothing comes.

Cheshire, focus!

Alix meets my gaze with a hard stare as he loads his bow, firing the arrows into the immortal child as if he hadn’t just nearly bled to death – how many times would he have to tell me that? When would I learn?!

Alix, I’m sorry, I — A pained cry from Mimi cuts my train of thought, and I spin in place to see the immortal child suspended in the air, one hand tangled into Mimi’s wings, and another on Loin’s. She slams the two of them into one another, Mimi’s face smashing hard into Loin’s plated chest, and Loin shakes it off, again taking a swing at the vampire, but the celestial plummets to the ground.

“Mimi!”

I hurry to the stairs by the confluence, sliding to my knees next to Mimi and turn her over. She’s so pale, and dark purple bruises have quickly begun to spread over her face, blood still gushing from her broken nose. My mind races, flooding with images of Alix in a very similar state only a week prior – I have to stop this bleeding! I press a shaking hand to her nose, but it only spews more in response to the misplaced pressure, and blood begins to pool beneath us from her injured wings.

The vampire lets out another shrill, joyous laugh as she drops the fistful of Mimi’s pale feathers, mangled, into the air, and slaps Loin’s attacks away. I had to help Mimi, and the others! I close my eyes, trying to feel her faint heartbeat, struggling to pull any ounce of Tubatron’s holy magic into my touch.

Come on…

I hear the tell-tale whizzing of more arrows past my head, and the following “thunk” of them meeting their target, and as Nerida’s thunderous footsteps rush by me, I look up to see her plunging Anduin into the immortal child’s abdomen. This time, finally, she screams in pain, shoving Nerida and Loin back as the trident is ripped from her.

“Very good, Nerida!” She says, her false joy tainting her voice once more, “that looks like fun!”

She begins to grow as she speaks, just as Nerida had, and glances around her, leaping back to the ledge behind the confluence. The stream of whirling negative energy collides into her as she lands, and the vampire grins, laughing again as the wounds we’d struggled to inflict disappeared from her body. I feel my shoulders sag in disbelief – what would it take to destroy this abomination?

Around us, the battle still wages on, the child empowered by the negative energy she’d absorbed, deflecting blow after blow, I can hear the clashing of massive fists just behind me as Ulkair and the golem crash into each other just beyond the wall of knives. Nerida turns her desperate focus to them, another wave of healing energy pouring from her as she tries to keep her beloved wizard alive, and the child wails on Loin from her precarious place on the ledge, her tiny fists striking his armor like steel, denting it.

I clutch Mimi’s nose, desperate to stop the spread of her unnatural wounds – a broken nose shouldn’t bleed like this! Had this vampire done something to her? Nerida’s focus is elsewhere, try as I might I can’t stabilize her, Loin is… losing, Aintai and Night Eyes trapped beyond the wall, unable to come to our aid. Mimi is dying in my arms and we… we weren’t going to win this battle.

Alix… I turn my desperate gaze to the ranger, searching for guidance, answers I knew he couldn’t have, trying not to let my hopelessness flood our bond. But this time, we’d met our match, this monstrosity was too strong, too cruel, nothing HURT her!

He meets my gaze, and then his travels back to the immortal child, beating down Loin on the ledge. I can see the gears in his head turning, I follow his gaze to the swirling font of positive energy that the confluence had manipulated. It would destroy her, for sure. If someone could keep her in it, it would shred her surely as sunlight! Alix braces himself, and I can see his plan form in his mind. Charge her, bull rush her right off that cliff, and fall with her.

Alix! No! I try to get to my feet, but I can’t drop Mimi, and instead stare at him, wide eyed and pleading. Don’t! We’ll find another way!

Cheshire. His voice is too calm, too accepting as he speaks my name. It would put an end to this. We would win.

I don’t want to win at the cost of your life, Alix! It isn’t worth it!

It’s a good plan.

Yes, maybe, for Loin! He has wings!

I can sense Alix’s determination, his will to put an end to the monster that was Elysia, and its vampiric hosts, but also the strain of what it would do to me weighing against his resolution to end this, to keep the rest of us, to keep me safe.

I’d rather have one shared victory with my family than a hundred alone. I whisper the words across our link, staring him down as I do. I don’t care if the lives of the many outweigh the lives of the few, I don’t care if all of us would make it out without him. I didn’t want to make it out without him. And maybe it would be a shared grave, rather than a victory, but I could sooner face the abyss with Alix than a life without him. Alix’s posture shifts, and he lifts his bow again, giving me an accepting look before he pulls back the strings and fires into the immortal child.

The warm ooze of Mimi’s blood spreads further across my hands, dripping down my arm, I turn my attention back to my paling comrade. I was so caught up with keeping Alix alive, I’d almost forgotten I was supposed to be keeping her alive, too.

Don’t die Mimi, please I hang my head, closing my eyes in desperate prayer. Just… stop trying to die!

What kind of high priest am I? If I can’t even heal these small wounds, I can’t save my friends, can’t turn the undead like Nerida can. I had been so disconnected from Tubatron since I got here, something about Elysia suffocating his presence, making it harder and harder to call on him, and when I had, he couldn’t, or perhaps wouldn’t reach me.

But there was so much displaced energy here, an entire font of it pooling just below us. If I could cast just one more spell… I tighten my grasp on Mimi’s injured head, pleading the last bit of holy magic from my veins to her body, pulling on the energy around us, and slowly the bruises recede, the bleeding stops.

Yes!

Mimi gets to her feet without a word, fury burning in her eyes, picks her scythe up from the ground and charges at the small girl assaulting Loin. If I could somehow just tell them Alix’s plan without alerting her, that holy energy would vaporize her, and surely between the two of them they could fight her off long enough to make it back up in one piece? Loin seems to have other plans, however, and with Mimi’s help, he hurdles himself and the immortal child towards a pillar of sunlight.

The vampire screeches, clawing at him and wriggling free of his hold, but Alix throws himself into the beam as well, grappling with the age-old monster. She flails, clawing into Alix’s wounds, biting into their arms as they try to restrain her and I drop my axe, running for the pillar of light.

Alix! Hang on!

Panic rushes through my veins as I watch her tearing into them, blood and scraps of armor flying from her every blow, and I feel my muscles shift in response to the blind adrenaline. I need to be stronger! We have to hold her, if only a few more seconds, we HAVE to hold her! My clothes burst at their seams, shredding as I take Loin’s form and thrust myself into the fray.

I grasp desperately at her hands, steam rising from her skin, and she shrieks, clawing into my hands and arms, digging harsh, bloody gouges with every strike. I tighten my grasp, and Alix and Loin struggle to contain her legs, but with all my strength I can’t pin her arms, and she jerks mine with them.

From the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of Nerida – still empowered by divine might! I cast a desperate look in her direction, a silent plea for her help, but do not meet the determination I thought I would see in her eyes. Instead she stares at me, guilty, torn, as the vampire screeches and flails in our grasp, and turns her gaze back to Ulkair, collapsing beneath the assault of the iron golem, which relentlessly pounds its fists against his head. If she doesn’t go to him, he’ll die.

I understand.

I swallow hard, and try to convey my meaning through my nod as I turn my stare back to the burning, screaming vampire. I tighten my grip on her arms, her strength at last beginning to wane, and she turns her eyes, burning with murderous hatred, to me.

“I’M TAKING YOU WITH ME!” She shrieks, ripping an arm free of my hold with one last push and pulling an amulet from around her neck. She makes a swipe for me, thrusting the blood-colored gem towards my skin, and I reel backwards in panic, grasping her wrist and straining to push it back. She presses further, harder, wailing in pain as her skin smolders away, desperately inching the amulet closer to me.

I want to recoil as it pushes closer, hovering just above my skin, but instead I push back, straining my every muscle, my wounds bursting with fresh blood, and hold her in place, watching as she writhes, lets out one more harrowing, bone chilling scream, and bursts into ash and flame.

I fall to my knees, panting, my head pounding, my ears ringing in disbelief – we did it. She was dead. Loin scrambles to his feet, taking off in flight after Nerida to finish off the golem, and Alix gets to his feet and puts a hand on my shoulder, silently encouraging me to get to mine. Staring at the pile of ash beneath my hands, apprehensive hope creeping over me, I watch as the last of her clothes burns away, leaving only a large, pure diamond.

I shrink back to my own normal form, all too suddenly aware of my nudity in the brisk Elysian air. I pick up the gem and push myself back to my feet with Alix’s help, just in time to see the iron golem collapse, the blade barrier dispelled, all of my companions standing. Beaten, bruised and bloodied, but standing.

We won.

“We actually won…” I breath, uncertain happiness washing over me in a wave that weakens my knees. Alix grips me, sweeping his cloak from his shoulders to mine to cover me. He keeps me standing, and I fight back the relieved wave of sobs that threatens my chest.

“Yes, we did, but let’s keep our eyes open. We’re still in a hostile land, and we don’t know what else might be here, or what evil traps they might have laid in their defeat,” he warns, and I nod, gripping his arm to steady myself.

He’s right. This wasn’t yet the time to celebrate. I tuck the diamond into my bag, and straighten what’s left of my pants, although the rest of my clothes were shredded by my transformation, at least I was covering some small part of myself. I was hopeful that somewhere in the bag of holding laid a change of clothes, but now was hardly the time to look for them.

Nerida holds Ulkair, now himself once again, close, raising her hand to his bruised skin to heal it, but he stops her, taking her hand in his own. She gives him a long, understanding look, and then a nod, and walks hand in hand with him towards the confluence.

“What are we going to do about this, Nerida?” He says, though I can barely make out his words, even from as close as I stood. Did he not know how to fix this creation of his, could he not just… turn it off?

“Do you trust me, Nerida?” He asks, and with no hesitation whatsoever, Nerida smiles at him as she replies.

“Yes.”

I feel my chest seize, with… what, I’m not sure, perhaps apprehension, but Nerida trusted him, clearly. It would be alright. It had to be. We couldn’t lose now, not when the battle was already over… Ulkair smiles at Nerida, but the look soon fades into something sadder, more hollow, and I feel the twisting anxiety in my stomach grow stronger. Something was wrong.

I watch with baited breath as the wizard lifts his hand, begins to mumble in an arcane tongue, and Nerida tightens her grasp on him. The positive energy from the nexus below them begins to shift in response to Ulkair’s chant, flowing around them, towards them, channeling into Nerida’s body. But… that couldn’t be right! There was so much energy there, there’s no way even someone like Nerida could contain it – look at what it did to Vhailor!

Nerida screams, and begins to hover as more of the energy pours into her, and I push myself away from Alix, only to have him catch my arm.

“Cheshire, no!” He snaps, holding me back against him. I stare up at him for a moment, then look back at Nerida, floating into the font, agonized tears streaming from her eyes.

“But Alix!” I cry as another of Nerida’s screams rips through me, like a blade to the gut, and I feel horrified tears build in the corners of my eyes. “He’ll kill her!”

Alix shakes his head. He knows, I think, that this is completely out of both of our hands, over both of our heads, but he can accept that, and I can’t.

“Trust your friends,” he says, but the uncertainty I feel through our link betrays the calm of his voice.

“He’s not my friend!” I aim a weak punch at Alix’s chest, twisting my wrist in his grip with no result, “I don’t trust him!”

“Then trust Nerida! She chose this!”

“I… I do,” I whisper, staring up at Alix as pleadingly as I can. “But… I want to help…”

“Then help, Cheshire. You can’t stop them, but you don’t have to let him control the outcome.”

I feel a burst of holy energy behind me, and Nerida screams again, excruciation coloring her voice as it tears through the cavern, and then her cries cease. Silence hangs in the air, ominous and eerie. My heart stops, my breath catches in my chest. Quiet, why was it so quiet?

Nerida…?

The moment drags on like an agonizing eternity, the sound of silence ringing in my ears, horrible and taunting, until it is broken by… song. The haunting, mournful song rising from Nerida to shatter the interminable quiet is a relief, at first.

Anar’alah, Anar’alah,
Beloré
Sin’dorei
Shindu fallah na
Sin’dorei…

But the hymn, even in a language I do not understand, shakes me to the core of my being. It delves past all my defenses, past my consciousness, to pour its profound tragedy into my very senses. The melody floods my soul with sorrow, and my heart breaks under the strain. I twist in Alix’s hold to see Nerida, floating in the font, rays of bright golden energy bursting from her body, trailing small fractures across her skin. It is her singing, and although she doesn’t appear conscious, her voice rings clear and distinct, and beautiful, somehow more beautiful than I ever remember it being. But this energy… it’s tearing her apart!

I glance at Ulkair and he grimaces, tears rolling down his face as he struggles to maintain his incantation and control the flow of energy already far out of his grasp.

It isn’t going to work, and he knows it! I look back at Alix, and this time he releases me. I dash up the steps to the edge of the confluence, my heart aching for every word of the lament that Nerida sings and racing with panic as the cracks spread further over her body.

…Sin’dorei Anar’alah
Shindu Sin’dorei
Shindu Fallah Na…

I stumble on the last steps, tears slipping from my eyes as Nerida’s requiem bores ages of misery into my soul.
We are failing… The sentiment overwhelms me, the fear, the anguish crushing into me.

We were so close, the battle I’d thought won, but was there any hope? Around us, the cavern whines, trembling under the force of the unleashed energy. Images of Elysia, of the glorious, glittering plane flash in my mind. The sun shining upon its fields of soft, green grass fills me with love and comfort, and desire spills over my thoughts, and then loneliness, sorrow… guilt. It tears at me, and I grip the stone landing, quaking beneath us as the ceiling begin to buckle.

Elysia is gone. I’m so sure of the thought, even as I stand in the cursed paradise, even as I long for it with a love that cannot be only mine. I lift my head to stare at Nerida, pure, holy energy swirling everywhere around us, tearing through her and no where near contained. Elysia is a broken dream, and we’ve failed…

Sin’dorei
Anar’alah Beloré…

But.. but we can’t! Something – a tiny, desperate spark in me demands my courage, demands I push myself up on the unsteady ledge, and I do. I stagger for a moment to regain my footing, then look to the font. We can’t fail here! Maybe Elysia is gone, but what about Byss? What about Agorran? And Alix? What about everyone else!?

What about Nerida?

I can’t let him control the outcome.

With a thunderous crash, part of the cavern gives way, rocks of all shapes and sizes plummeting around us, unable to withstand the strain just as Nerida was – and Ulkair, it seemed.

“What can I do!?” I plead, the roar of the cavern drowning my words, but somehow not Nerida’s song, which carries, pure and powerful, over the din.

…Beloré
Anar’alah…

“Ulkair! Please! I want to help!”

It’s no use, he can’t instruct me, he can’t even hear me! I grasp onto his arm, staring up at him, searching for any way to interfere on Nerida’s behalf. He doesn’t turn to me, too focused, his features taut with strain. Sweat tracks its way down his face, his golden eyes burning with every emotion I’d just been drown in – he feels it, too. He’s struggling. He isn’t trying to kill Nerida, but… I look back at the priestess, the fissures spreading across her whole body – I have to stop her from coming apart. But wasn’t that what Ulkair was trying to do? I outstretch my hand like his, and try to manipulate the pool of energy, guide it away from Nerida, but nothing happens.

I don’t know anything about this! Frantic, I pull against the current of energy once more, to hone it as I did my own magic, but it continues to funnel into her, and she continues to sing.

…Beloré Sin’dorei
Shindu Sin’dorei
Shindu Fallah Na…

Panic pumps in my veins as I hear the shouts and scrambling of my companions in the commotion – we had to save Nerida, I had to help, but how!? I squeeze my shut, screaming in my own head, panic and fury tearing at the fragile edges of my mind, which only buckle further and further.

Cheshire! Alix’s voice cuts through the horror like a beacon, I feel him grasp onto my consciousness just as it threatens to split. Calm down and concentrate.

But I don’t understand this, Alix! I can’t help her! I don’t understand any of it and I can’t block out this song!

My words strike a chord straight through me, all of the gears whirring into place at once. The song. Of course! The song! Maybe I can’t manipulate energy with my hands, but I can manipulate it with my voice.

Anar’alah… ” Nerida repeats, and I follow, singing out the words with her I had heard so deeply before.

“Sin’dorei Beloré
Beloré…”

I close my eyes again, breathing deeply, and meld the music to the vortex of positive energy, as I had done Tubatron’s divine magic. As I sing, I feel the flow of the stream, suddenly connected and overwhelming, radiating everywhere. It’s calm, it’s pure and amazing and beautiful, but terrible. I feel how much of it tears at Nerida, billows out of her. I feel her – her soul, ripping at its seams.

No…

“…Anar’alah, Anar’alah,
Beloré
Sin’dorei…”

I feel another presence, strong and ancient – Ulkair’s power in the font, directing it, pushing it through Nerida, but clinging to her for dear life. I cannot struggle against it, I know. Nerida trusted him, I have to trust she will make it… I know can’t save her on my own, I have to help him decide the outcome. I tighten my grasp on Ulkair’s arm and blanket my power around her, surrendering to his. Merging all the energy I can to hold her together, I submit my aid to Ulkair’s will, and I feel his magic latch onto it, sealing it over Nerida as her energy bursts over us.

“Elysia doesn’t deserve to live anymore!”

Ulkair’s exclamation pulls me from my state of communion with the holy energy, I keep my hold as best I can, but turn in shock to look at him. His face is tortured, anguish reflecting in tear burdened amber eyes. Below us, the swirling current of energy has changed, now a rippling sea green – like Nerida’s, and she hovers still above it, but her eyes are open, billowing the holy light as they stare into Ulkair. Was she conscious? Was she alright?

A huge boulder plummets into the center of the void, guided no doubt by Ulkair, and the energy bursts, scattering and then vanishing. With another deafening crack, the pillars of the confluence collapse, the stairs begin to give way, a hard line running up them, splitting the platform beneath us. The jolt shakes me, throwing me to ground as Ulkair reaches out to catch the descending Nerida, and I stare out at the decimated cave, scanning the collapsing ruin for our comrades.

Alix?! I search through the falling rocks, illuminated only by the light of the font, for the ranger’s figure, and see him snatching my axe from the ground by the foot of the steps. Night Eyes at his heels, Alix leaps around the falling rocks and obstacles, and dashes the shattering stairs to close the distance between us. He grips my arm, pulling me to my feet and I cling to him as another hunk of debris crashes into the stairs, separating us from the rest of the cavern.

“What about the others?!” I yell, looking back out to see Aintai by the edge of the cavern, maybe she could escape to the outside, but Mimi and Loin are struggling to stay in the air and avoid debris. Alix says nothing, but I feel his reluctant knowledge of the truth – if we have any hope of escape, it isn’t on the other side of this cavern, and the others have to get themselves here, there’s nothing we can do for them.

The platform whines, collapsing against the remaining stairway, and Alix’s grip tightens on my arms – was there any hope for escape? I look to Nerida and Ulkair, and he curses, I think, mumbling under his breath. I watch magic sparking haplessly around his hand, an unstable portal of shimmering light flickering before us. This was our only way out, but he looks weak, spread too thin, and he buckles under the weight of the unconscious Nerida.

Mimi lands on the platform next to us, and Loin not far behind her, but Ulkair’s small portal continues to shudder.

“I can’t hold it!” He grits out – this was it, our only escape, and it couldn’t stabilize. I tighten my fingers on Alix’s clothes, bracing myself with an unsteady breath when a wave of arcana darts over us, blasting through Ulkair into the portal. I blink to stare at the growing vortex, shimmering with warm sunlight, but a violent scream cuts into my moment of hope.

Aintai! I spin to see the sorceress caught, her legs crushed beneath a fallen boulder, her hand still outstretched, shining with the remnants of her magic.

GO! ” She screams, reaching to press against the massive stone in futility as the ground behind her buckles.

“NO! AINTAI!” Alix’s grip on me remains firm as I struggle to run for her, giving me no shred of movement, but as I twist to fight with him, Loin takes off from his place on the steps. He flies nimbly to Aintai’s side, axe in hand, and I watch in horror and hope as he brings it down on the sorceress’ legs, eliciting another scream.

Aintai…

He slings her up into his arms as the cavern floor collapses, abandoning her pinned limbs, and hurdles them through the portal after Ulkair and Nerida, Mimi following behind him, and then Night Eyes. I clutch Alix’s hand, my legs shaking, numb tears rolling from my cheeks as I stare after them.

Alix squeezes my hand in return, and no words are needed as he steps us to the portal. Back to Byss, back to hell, and war. We’d won this battle, we’d win others, no matter the cost. I couldn’t ever wash myself of Elysia’s horrors, I know. And for all our hopes and dreams, we didn’t find heaven, but with Alix by my side, I could walk through hell. I squeeze his hand in return, swallowing hard, and jump through Ulkair’s portal to Byss, where I stand in awe of a shining sun, glorious and warm, for what feels like the first time in my life.

View
The Return Home
Where the Heart is?

Nerida

The following morning, Ulkair teleported everyone back to Byss, leaving us to try to figure out what it meant to lead a normal life, or comparatively so. The few days before we went to Zissyx had amazed me, such peace, such luxurious time to do as we wanted, to share a magical feast with loved ones and not worry about what army of the undead might strike next. Now, there was even less looming over me. For what felt like in the first time in my life, I was completely free. My mission was completed and neither Zalissa nor Aquis were any threat to me anymore.

In what time Agorran could spare, I shared with him all I knew of the glory of Lord Eadro’s teachings, but that was no chore. In the afternoon, we pored over every text we could find on positive energy, souls, anything that might be relevant to my fissures. I read through the tomes in Celestial while Agorran covered those in Common, Ulkair occasionally joining us with his own books I couldn’t understand. I expected Ulkair to sit in my lap as he read, complaining he couldn’t concentrate otherwise, but he sat quietly with his books, only the rhythmic turning of pages meeting my ears.

Where before he rarely left me alone, since returning to Byss, he seemed almost…distant. He didn’t avoid me, still opting to sleep in my arms at night, but I missed the closeness we shared not long ago. I felt like he was pulling away from me, drifting beyond my reach. I thought we had worked through what happened in Zissyx, that terrible misunderstanding born of fear, confusion, and circumstance, but I didn’t know what else could be wrong. Ulkair and Cheshire could barely look at each other, whatever happened with Aquis still lingering, pressing down on them as my growing fatigue did on me, though we all tried to hide it.

I sat beside Agorran in his office once more, explaining to him how Lord Eadro created the oceans for us, watching in mild fascination as my words appeared along white pages in the high priest’s neat hand. Nervous steps paced briefly outside the room, the feeling of vague unease creeping into my mind. Glancing towards the door, I focused on my bond with Ulkair, feeling him standing near the door. Perhaps noticing my attention, the doorknob rattled, golden eyes peaking in.

“Nerida….we need to talk…” Ulkair mumbled, uncommon reluctance in his voice.

“Ulkair? What’s wrong?” I asked, frowning. It hadn’t been my imagination…something had been bothering him, something concerning me.

“Remember how I said I needed to speak with Cheshire and then I would tell you more? Well, I spoke with Cheshire…”

“You…don’t look pleased with how that went….”

“Actually, it probably went as well as it could have…so I feel like I need to tell you about what happened….perhaps alone…” Ulkair said, glancing at Agorran.

“Go talk,” Agorran smiled, giving me a knowing look.

“I’ll be back soon,” I said, bowing slightly to him as I stood.

“Whenever you are ready,” Agorran said, flipping through papers on his desk, the endless work he always seemed to have.

“Where can we talk in private?” Ulkair asked me when I joined him at the door, glancing at the other priests around us tending to their duties.

“Well, when I stayed here, I used a room down that hall,” I said, pointing towards it. “I should imagine it is still available.”

Ulkair nodded and I led him towards the room, walking in uncomfortable silence. Zissyx, Cheshire, Aquis…all the answers I had wanted, felt I needed, but now, seeing Ulkair so anxious, I wasn’t sure anymore. His conversation with Cheshire had gone well, and yet he was still hesitant to approach me. Even so, he chose to find me at the temple, knowing I would be working with Agorran rather than waiting until tonight. Finding the room, I gestured for Ulkair to enter before following him, lightly closing the door behind me. Ulkair stood in the middle of the small room, wringing his hands, fighting for words he didn’t want to say, but felt compelled to. Sitting on the edge of the bed, I waited for him to speak.

“So….ummmm…” Ulkair began, quickly losing whatever he had precariously found to say. Sighing, he sat beside me on the bed, taking my hand. “So, Nerida, you know I love you.”

“Yes, of course,” I immediately said, placing my other hand over his and gently squeezing, fearing what he had to tell me was worse than I had thought. Despite everything we had been through, I couldn’t think of another time I had seen him so nervous.

“Well, you remember when I came back after we went after Aquis to read his thoughts?”

“Quite well,” I commented, cringing, recalling all too well how terribly I had hurt Ulkair, my own fear that had pushed him away, though he had done nothing to deserve it.

“I…well, we, we didn’t just swim past him to read his thoughts. We tried, but it didn’t work. His thoughts were too well guarded and so we followed him. Cheshire and I devised a way to use my arcane energy to slip into his thoughts. We couldn’t just stare at him. They were wondering what we were doing and getting suspicious. So while she was concentrating, I had to come up with something to do, to make it look like…we had no interest except in each other. He sent his goons over to check us out and there were other people doing things there and it seemed like a good way to…avoid notice.”

“Things like what?” I asked, furrowing my brows. What type of places did Aquis tend to haunt? I had always assumed he chose places where he could flaunt his wealth, his favourite slave draped across his arm. As much as I hated slavery, I wouldn’t begrudge them it if Cheshire pretended to be Ulkair’s. There was little harm in her sitting closer to him than necessary.

“Well, I started cuddling and kissing her so that they wouldn’t notice what Cheshire was doing. They went back and left us alone, so I just kept doing it to avoid suspicion, but Aquis was a little more clever than his pawns. He noticed that Cheshire was just sitting there with intense focus on her face. So, she had to start kissing me back.”

“That explains why you haven’t quite been able to look at each other for a while,” I mumbled, staring at our joined hand to avoid his gaze. Dark emotion swirled through me, wondering, questioning. Why was that what he tried and why should it bother me? I…I didn’t own him…he could do as he wanted, or what he needed to save my sister. How could I blame him for whatever method he needed to use? And yet, I didn’t like the thought, couldn’t help but wonder if that was why he was pulling away from me.

“Oh…that was the best part…” Ulkair breathed.

“Oh…”

Gripping his hand, I squeezed my eyes shut, but in the absence of light I could only see Ulkair and Cheshire together, her in his embrace, her own arms around his neck, sharing a kiss I thought Ulkair reserved for me. A perfect couple, bright and beautiful, not like me. No, I was bizarrely large next to them, broken, and in a few days, standing could once again become a chore. I had barely survived Zissyx, suffocated by my past, memories I wanted to forget, leave behind me, while they had done everything themselves despite the terrible cost. Or perhaps they didn’t see it as a cost.

“That was the part that was comparably quite nice, because then this salesman barged in before Cheshire could figure anything out. He was selling his wares to everyone and Cheshire and I pretended to be lovers. After that, Cheshire slipped into Aquis’ thoughts and we sat there cuddling when I told her Áine had been kidnapped and it broke her concentration again.”

“Was it harder to get back in every time her concentration was broken?” I asked, trying to focus on what Ulkair was saying. I…I might have heard enough already, but if he felt he needed to tell me, I would listen. I wanted to be wrong, find something I had misunderstood again. Kissing her didn’t mean he loved her, right? It was just to save Áine.

“Yea, and he started getting suspicious of us because we weren’t…as physical as we had been before, so we had to start up again. Unfortunately, it didn’t just delay his suspicion so much as arouse his attention, you might say. We realized we needed to get him alone to get the scroll to save Áine and so…we seduced him.”

“You did what?” I cried, looking up to see pale golden eyes regarding me. “I only sent you to read his thoughts…” How had everything gone so wrong? I should have gone myself, faced my own demon down. I would have worked something out, wouldn’t I? A fool’s errand perhaps, but then they wouldn’t have been hurt.

“We seduced him because he was clearly interested in what we were doing and it got…pretty heated…but Cheshire managed to steal the scroll and read his thoughts on how to use it. Then she charmed him and made him think we were going to go all the way to make him dismiss his guards. When his back was turned, we teleported away. I thought…you needed to know…” Ulkair miserably wept, turning away from me. Curling up in the corner, his shoulders shook, guilt and frustration trailing down the face he hid from me.

“I’m so sorry,” I whispered, pulling him into my arms, the anguish I felt from him demanding to know how I could have doubted his intentions. The growing despair I had felt, his reluctance to speak with me, telling me he loved me more than anything, perhaps holding onto that to save Áine as I had clung to him so many times now. I was just so afraid of losing him, this precious man so different from all others I had ever known, my peace in the chaos I couldn’t seem to truly escape.

“And then, it just makes it worse that you came in and I was clearly upset, you were right, but then, I felt like a monster because you inadvertently compared me to Aquis, who’d I’d just been with.”

“I never did mean it that way,” I said, wincing, feeling self-loathing rolling off him once more.

“But, I mean, I was clearly aroused by Cheshire and Aquis and then it transferred over to you and…it was just bad.”

“I just thought you were angry and upset, like you were in your cave.”

“I was,” Ulkair mournfully replied, drawing in closer on himself.

“I didn’t want to leave you when I knew you were upset. Hugging you usually seems to help,” I said, trying to explain what I had done, despite the signs anyone else might have recognized, what I should have seen.

“I could use one right now,” Ulkair mumbled, turning around to face me and curling up in my lap, resting his head on my shoulder. Leaning down, I kissed his forehead, running my fingers through his hair. “So…that’s all that happened. I don’t know that I exactly worked it out with Cheshire, but I think we can….function.”

“How about us? You…seemed pretty worried about telling me.”

“We’ve already had enough problems with that,” Ulkair sighed, shifting so his face wasn’t resting against my neck.

“So my reaction wasn’t what you were expecting?” I asked, too confused by the revelation to do much, least of all when Ulkair was crying in my arms.

“I don’t know, Nerida. I’ve never been able to predict you.” Caressing side of face, traces of desire yet lurked in his eyes behind undeniable adoration. “I just know that I love you and I would never want to do anything that would jeopardize any part of our love.”

“Well…ultimately, you saved Áine. You saved her as I couldn’t. I’m sorry that it was at such terrible cost to you and Cheshire. I wish there was something I could do to make it up to you, to you both.”

“So long as it wasn’t at a cost to you and to me,” he whispered, looking up at me, drawing me in closer and pressing his lips against mine. Threading his fingers through my hair, he shifted closer, sharing my breath.

“Why would it be?” I breathed, nuzzling his face, leaning in to kiss him again, almost desperate for that closeness, further reassurance that he still loved me as I did him.

“Nerida, I didn’t want to make things between us even harder, at that level of our relationship,” Ulkair sighed, collapsing against my chest. “I just…had to tell you or I would have felt I was keeping a secret. I wouldn’t want you to find out and think that it was more than it was because Nerida, I only want that with you.”

“Cheshire is fifteen,” I commented, relief rippling through me, calming the concern I couldn’t seem to dispel entirely, though I knew Ulkair loved me. Cheshire was too young. Even in Zissyx, they waited until slaves were at least sixteen to start breeding them.

“You’re only seventeen,” Ulkair flatly stated, just looking at me.

“Well, so you’re only two thousand years older than me.”

“Y-yea…yup,” Ulkair groaned, slumping down in my arms until his head rested in my lap.

“It doesn’t bother me. If I’m old enough to lead an army, I’m old enough to have a two thousand year old boyfriend if I want to,” I said, idly twirling his soft, black strands around my fingers.

“I’m glad,” Ulkair laughed, the sound short, lacking mirth. “If it did, clearly this would only be my issue. Well, Nerida, thanks for understanding…we did it for you.”

“I’m so sorry….” I cringed, holding tighter to Ulkair, feeling even guiltier for my doubt, the vision I couldn’t deny bothered me, but was an invention of my own mind.

“I’m sorry it hurts so much, Nerida…I…I’m trying to be good. I want to be good, but, it’s difficult. It’s so hard to change .” Burying his face, Ulkair sighed out a shaky breath. “I want to be strong like you, but I’m afraid I’m weak.”

“You have nothing to apologize for, my love. Perhaps…all has not gone perfectly, but you’re okay. Áine is okay, as is Cheshire. I…I wanted so badly to go to you, help you with whatever was wrong, but,” I swallowed hard, looking away, “I would have destroyed everything you had already worked to do. All I could have offered him was myself in exchange for her, leaving you with the choice of walking away or fighting a harder battle. You, you are a wonder. You have fought so hard, alone, for so long, as I never could. You have come so far in but a month, changed so much already. You are many things, but I could never see you as weak.”

“Strength tempered with sacrifice, weakness salved with love,” Ulkair whispered, reaching up and caressing the side of my face. Images flooded my mind, visions of his time in his cave and using my strength to set him free, holding him in my arms, and the way my face looked to him when he saw me for the first time in the free air. The phrase, though simple, was laden with his love for me, letting me see myself the way Ulkair saw me, strong, beautiful, radiant with holy power.

Holding his hand against my face as my eyes slid shut, I enjoyed the simple pleasure of the contact. It was hard to believe so much had happened in only a month, time so fleeting under constant threat of attack, the reality of war that would not be denied. The past few days seemed a veritable eternity in comparison, but after it all, I had these people I cherished. The bliss of spending time with Agorran in the temple, pouring through books with him and Ulkair, finally able to do something about my soul fissures, and being with my sisters, at ease for the first time of our lives. Somehow, my life became so much more than what I could have dreamt from the dark depths of Zissyx, a paradise I could stay in forever. Forever…I didn’t have forever, but Ulkair did, didn’t he?

“Ulkair? Are you immortal?”

“Mostly,” Ulkair slowly began, apprehension destroying the peace that had adorned his face. “I can still be killed and I will eventually run out of time, but not for a long time. Something about being in that cave made it even worse than a normal Elysian life.”

“Do you know how long a normal merfolk life is?” I asked, dread too familiar coursing through me, realizing that no matter how hard I tried, how I clung to Ulkair, I would one day lose him. Or rather, he would lose me. I was too used to everyone else leaving me behind, going where I couldn’t follow for my need to help those who remained. What would happen to him then?

“About one hundred?” Ulkair said, gazing up at me, his eyes widening in terror and devastation, his unbearable sadness gripping my very being. “If we do nothing about it, I will live long past the time your bones have turned to dust, but I would grind the very planes themselves to dust before I let that happen.”

“You speak as though there is a choice about this.”

“Well, Nerida, there is always a choice. The question is what price you’re willing to pay. But,” Ulkair said, taking my hand, “it would be the price we are willing to pay.”

“This is going to cost me more than my soul, isn’t it?” I groaned, pinching the bridge of my nose.

“Of our soul?”

“Do you still have that part of my soul?” What he meant by “our.”

“I don’t think they’re parts anymore, Nerida. I believe they have blended.”

“I wondered if something had happened. Since Elysia, despite feeling cracked around the edges, I’ve also felt more…whole, somehow, than I had in what I swear was longer than a mere couple days. At least, I’ve felt closer to you.”

“Indeed. I think that alone will grant you more life than a normal merfolk.”

“Being tied to a long-lived Elysian? How…much more are we talking about?” As it was, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the idea of living for more than a couple years yet, hadn’t ever really wanted to after the horrors my short life had already shown me. What would I trade to remain with him?

“Maybe another two hundred? I can’t be certain. By normal Elysian standards, I’m still more than twice as old as I should have ever been.”

“How old were you when you….relocated.”

“That’s one way to put it,” Ulkair laughed bitterly. “I was five hundred years old. I was in the prime of my life.”

“What sort of cost are you talking about? I…don’t want to leave you alone, but, are we talking about moving mountains?”

“We’re talking about moving…continents. Unless we take the easy way out, in which case we would be moving molehills, but that would mean killing people.”

“Let’s not kill people,” I grimaced, unwilling to even consider taking the lives of others for the purpose of preserving my own life, or perhaps especially for that reason. I could never be worth that price.

“No…I had an easy plan. It was a good one, but then, then, you convinced me it was good to be good.”

“What was your easy plan?”

“Well, we’d just bathe in the souls of our enemies, or anyone’s at all,” Ulkair said, so nonchalant it was hard to believe he was talking about using people’s souls. “Not just our enemies, but our friends too.”

“Do you mean that bottle of Byssian souls?” There were innumerable things he could do with the power that many souls possessed, maybe even good deeds, but those people, they were innocent. The Byssians had already worked so hard, fought for so long. They deserved rest, not whatever fate befell those whose souls were expended, if they would continue to exist at all.

“Or Cheshire’s sister, or anyone. But I see now that’s wrong, the easy way, and I don’t want to anymore. It’s the bloody way.”

“Good,” I breathed, relieved, running my fingers through his hair once more. “It sounds pretty hard to move a continent.”

“Well, that’s why there aren’t many immortal people running around. It’s difficult and it’s dangerous.”

“Of course it is. If it weren’t dangerous, it wouldn’t have come up,” I grumbled, wondering how it was the solution for everything seemed to be difficult and dangerous. Bringing Elysia to Byss almost killed us all and fixing the lingering damage caused by the positive energy…it was hard to remain hopeful. We had barely scratched the surface, but the ritual involved was far beyond my comprehension and the results? Well, hopefully I wouldn’t have an emerald the size of my fist embedded into me, when even that could be considered a success.

“But we are strong and we are smart,” Ulkair smiled, rolling onto his back to look up at me, somehow optimistic despite the danger lurking even in peace. “And who knows, perhaps Eadro will grant you long life, but I have the sneaking suspicion that’s more of Cheshire’s faith than yours.”

“Well, we still have plenty of time now.”

“We have time for now,” Ulkair whispered, pulling me down into an embrace, a sadness to his soft words.

Snuggling into his chest, I listened to his heart beating steadily below me, strong and constant as it had for so many years and would continue for so many more. Ulkair’s words echoed through my mind, the promise of time together, the promise of an end. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said anything, left us drifting in blissful ignorance of how my remaining time paled next to his. Even with more years than I expected to have, they wouldn’t be enough to remain with him.

I almost laughed thinking of the irony of wanting to live longer after gratefully counting on a short life. So much else had changed, so why not that too? What would Coral think seeing me now? Curled up with a man, a land dweller at that, the very one she had feared sending me to, though we had little other choice. Maybe she would be happy I had found someone when neither of us ever thought I would. A smile slowly spread across my face as I thought of the look she’d give me learning of his age, what she might call him.

“Cradle robber,” I called, laughing, dismissing the tension falling over the room again. Ulkair looked stunned and a little confused, probably wondering why I might mention his age after claiming it didn’t bother me. We hadn’t seen much of Coral this past visit and I dodged most of her questions about him, but she was bound to learn the truth eventually. “I’m sorry.”

“Well, if I’m going to rob the cradle, I might as well rob the right cradle,” Ulkair chuckled, jumping up and wrestling me over until he laid on top of me, his arms resting on either side of my head.

“Hey, Ulkair. You’re super strong as a stone giant, right?” I asked, draping my arms around his neck, still giggling.

“Yea, why?”

“…I want to try riding on your shoulder sometime…it looks like fun. Cheshire rides around on Lóin and Alix’s shoulders all the time, but I’m too big for that…”

“Are you jealous of Cheshire?”

“Nooo….maybe….a little…” I pouted, looking up at him.

A mischievous smile spread across Ulkair’s face and he abruptly rolled off the bed, impish intent glowing in his golden eyes. Grabbing my hand, he pulled me from the bed and led me out of the temple. My laughter echoed along the stark, stone walls, my fatigue, my apprehension, everything that weighed on my mind forgotten for a blessèd moment. Somehow, despite what problems we had, he always made me feel safe, like all that haunted me would simply fall away. Running through the street, Ulkair’s skin began turning a deep grey, coarse to the touch as he grew to be a little more than twice his normal height. Picking me up as if I weighed nothing, Ulkair set me on his shoulder, his heavy footsteps reverberating throughout the city, the Byssians paying us little heed.

Approaching the wall, his large hand clamped over my legs, holding me in place as he vaulted over the city’s defenses. Scrambling, I wrapped my arms around Ulkair’s neck, clinging to him as we plummeted towards the ground, choking back a scream as my stomach churned at the unfamiliar sensation. Falling, falling for an eternity yet the ground pressed ever closer. Ulkair landed with a jolt and I couldn’t help the faint squeak that crept out of my throat. Blushing furiously, I hid my face in Ulkair’s neck, knowing he must have heard me. Grinning, he took off running towards no destination I could discern, perhaps not caring where he went at all. I slowly sat up and Ulkair released my legs, letting me find my own balance now that he was done challenging our ability to float on land as we did in water.

Propped up upon his shoulder, the wind rushing through my hair, so similar to the current and yet different, lighter, I felt so….free, exhilaration coursing through me. I could have been flying, sailing through the air, my own delight yet paling next to Ulkair’s. After being imprisoned in his cold, dark cave for so long, confined in Byss, trapped in the temple in Zissyx, he must have dreamt of this, going wherever he wanted, gentle white clouds dotting the sky, the warmth of the sun shining down. So simple, and yet I couldn’t think of anything more I could want. We were working towards managing my soul fissures, my sisters were happy, I had people who cared about me , not that I had been a slave, and I had Ulkair. What else could matter?

Time flowed freely, moments turning to minutes and minutes to hours neither of us cared to count. Never had I been able to travel without constant vigilance. The open ocean was dangerous and so too had these fields been before the sun chased away much of the undead. The sun had begun to sink in the sky when it occurred to me Agorran was still waiting for me to come back. As the high priest, he always had other work he could do, but regardless, I had told him I would return.

“Ulkair? Do you suppose it’s about time we return to the city?” I asked, reluctant to cut short anything that could bring him such bliss as our venture had.

“I suppose so…it’s not like we can’t do this whenever we wish. But, it is good to be free again, free to breathe, free to move, and free to love.” Taking my hand, now so small in his, Ulkair kissed it before turning toward the city.

“Perhaps next time you could take your normal form so I could hold your hand as we walked,” I commented, finding myself already looking forward to our next chance to be together like this.

“My normal form…I suppose that is my normal form. It’s been a long time since I’ve been around anyone long enough to get to know my ‘normal form.’”

“Is there another form you would call your ‘normal’ one?”

“There was, once. But I think I like this one best, because it’s the one in which I came to know you.”

“I rather like it, ‘awkward sticks’ and all,” I commented, grinning. “What did you look like in Elysia? You are a land dweller, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I’m a land dweller. It doesn’t matter what I looked like, I’m not that person at all anymore. This is me, now. Hopefully to never make the same mistakes again. Or be alone again.” Returning to his typical form, Ulkair took my hand and continued walking.

“Does what you look like determine who you are?” I asked, cocking my head to the side.

“Only in part, but to return to what I was would be…maddening.”

“I’ll do whatever I can to help you, stave off this madness,” I said, gripping his hand, “but I know you to be stronger than that which haunts you. You are stronger than them, Ulkair.” Promises that he would never be alone again died on my lips, remembering why we were here. I had promised him and so many others that I would save Elysia…

“As strong as I need to be? Perhaps, perhaps not. But I’m glad to have you with me.”

“I would never choose to leave you, unless you would ask it of me.”

“I would hold onto you forever, Belovèd.”

“Then I have nothing to fear,” I whispered, pausing to pull Ulkair into my arms, just holding him for a time, embracing the simple joy of being so near to him, his warm arms around me, his heart beating beside mine.

“I love you, Nerida,” Ulkair said, simply, but I felt our bond overflow with the strength of his love, like a tidal wave on the ocean.

“I love you too,” I breathed, entranced by Ulkair, his emotion, his strength, his beauty, everything that made him who he was, everything so precious shielded in my arms.

Minutes ticked by slowly, unnoticed at first, but the sinking sun could only be ignored for so long, knowing Agorran awaited my return. In truth, if I didn’t go back until tomorrow, he probably wouldn’t question me, but my word should mean something to my own high priest. Taking Ulkair’s hand, we began walking again, paying little mind to the good chance that Ulkair had a teleportation spell memorized.

Returning to the temple, I retrieved Anduin from the room I left him in before sheepishly poking my nose into Agorran’s office. Looking up as we entered, Agorran smiled at us, setting his other papers to the side as if I hadn’t abruptly left for hours.

“I believe we left off with the creation of the locathah?” Agorran said, pulling out the book he had been writing in before, flipping through the pages.

“Indeed,” I nodded, sitting beside him once more. “After the locathah, Lord Eadro created the merfolk. As I’m sure you noticed, we’re both almost a blend of fish and land dweller in opposing halves, made to thrive in the water, though we can survive on land.”

While I continued to explain my world and Agorran took diligent notes, Ulkair pulled up another chair, reading through an old, ornate book, undoubtedly one from his collection. No matter how I tried to focus, my eyes seemed to drift of their own accord back to Ulkair, watching him read, the serene look on his face, long fingers trailing almost lovingly along the worn pages to turn them. The utter perfection he managed to achieve simply sitting there, relaxed, without even trying to captivate me.

“Nerida?” Agorran called, looking curiously at me, his quill poised above a ready page.

“Ah, yes, this holiday is important because it marks when Lord Eadro brought life to the oceans,” I said, blushing when I realized that I must have trailed off for some time. “It has already passed this year, but the dances for it are more elaborate than most others to give proper thanks to Lord Eadro for the life he breathed into us as well as our home. Though Zissyx is dark and sparse, I have heard it said that in warmer waters, swaying green seagrass and kelp extend as far as can be seen in all directions, colourful fish everywhere.”

Golden eyes scanned over what for me was illegible text, his brow furrowing as they came to rest on what seemed to be a passage of interest, his index finger tapping the spot a couple of times. Pursing his lips, he shifted, bringing the book slightly closer to his face, staring intently at what answers the words might hold, how we might remedy what damage Elysia had wrought.

“Perhaps we should continue this another day,” Agorran suggested, dabbing his quill off on a cloth and setting it beside his inkwell.

“I’m sorry,” I murmured, looking down and gripping the thin fabric of my trailing skirt. “I don’t know why I can’t seem to focus.”

“You seem to have a lot on your mind,” Agorran said, smiling as he glanced at where Ulkair was sitting, yet caught up in his book and arcane mysteries.

“Perhaps, but that doesn’t excuse shirking my responsibilities to you and to Lord Eadro.”

“You have responsibilities to more than just the church. Perhaps you should take the rest of the day to resolve what you need to. We can continue this on the morrow when you are ready.”

“Though shadows fall, still the stars find their way…” I mumbled to myself. Shadows…what ailed us was but a shadow, nothing more, nothing we couldn’t face. “Thank you. I’m sure tomorrow will go better.”

“It’s okay to need some time for yourself as well, Nerida, and to take that time,” Agorran said, putting his hand on my shoulder.

“I suppose life has been less hectic of late,” I said, returning the gesture. Maybe I could take a little longer. Walking over behind Ulkair, I wrapped my arms around him. “Ready to go home?” Resting my face on his shoulder, I looked over the page he was on, trying to make sense of the peculiar script and diagrams that had caught his eye.

“Done already? Excellent, let’s go.” Ulkair said, gently closing his book and slipping it into his pocket dimension.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, High Priest Agorran,” I called, bowing slightly.

“Have a good evening,” Agorran smiled.

Nodding, I took Ulkair’s hand and walked towards the door, a mixture of guilt and relief stirring in me, wondering a little more with every step I took towards Alix’s house if I shouldn’t stay and work as I had planned to. If I asked Ulkair to head home before me, maybe I could concentrate better. Or maybe I would spend the next hour thinking about the hurt look he would give me, the way he turned and left me, and how badly I would want to draw him into my embrace and hold him until all our lingering doubt and confusion could fade away. Agorran was right, but…it still didn’t bode well with me. Well, if I had his permission whether I wanted it or not, I might as well use it to work through the last vestiges of the problems Aquis brought about.

“Is Cheshire okay?” I asked. She was so young…if Ulkair had been troubled by what happened, how much she be feeling? “You said…you weren’t sure about how your conversation went.”

“She…I…we’re ok. We shared a difficult experience, but I think we are going to blame Aquis, and not each other.”

“Is…is she worried about me too? Come to think of it, I haven’t seen much of her since we’ve been back. I thought it was just because I’ve been at the temple so much, but I don’t suppose that’s the case, is it?”

“I think she just wanted me to talk to you first.”

“So I should speak with her second?”

“No, I don’t know that you need to, but if you feel awkward perhaps you should,” Ulkair continued, shrugging.

“I…don’t know how I feel…but I don’t want things to be awkward between us. I don’t blame either of you for what happened.”

“I… don’t want to think about happened, I just know I love you.”

“Then don’t. I love you too,” I whispered, pulling him into my arms.

“I think your friendship with her is strong. She’s the kind of friend who would face Aquis for you, and that doesn’t just change.”

“I should hope not,” I sighed, resting my face atop his head. “I probably should talk to her though, make sure she’s okay. I never meant to make anyone face Aquis for me.”

“You didn’t make anyone, we volunteered,” Ulkair said, turning to look up at me.

“Volunteered to read his mind. Were you this stubborn before we met?” I teased, nuzzling his face. “It’s not looking like this is an argument I’m going to win.”

“I’m only stubborn when it’s worth it,” he said, nuzzling me back.

“I suppose I can accept that,” I murmured, feeling his shaky breath ghosting across my skin.

Pulling him closer, I leaned down slightly to claim his lips so temptingly close to mine, running my fingers through his short, wavy hair. Ulkair pressed closer, deepening the kiss, a display hardly meant for the streets, but I couldn’t seem to care. Parting, I held him close, trying to remember what we were supposed to be doing above the persisting desire to be as near to Ulkair as I could. Cheshire…I needed to talk to her, make sure she was okay.

I took his hand once more and we walked the rest of the way in silence, watching the sun slowly sinking in the sky as my mind buzzed with thoughts of Ulkair. Opening the front door, I saw Alix cleaning in an empty kitchen, making quick work of removing the scales from some fish, Cheshire nowhere to be seen. Glancing towards us, Alix muttered a quick greeting before turning his attention back to the fish, his blade sliding through the aquatic flesh with uncommon precision. Cheshire almost always helped Alix with dinner. I couldn’t recall hearing her playing through the streets as we walked…if she wasn’t with Alix or running through the streets, where could she be?

“She’s in her room,” Alix announced without turning around, grabbing another fish.

“Oh…thank you,” I mumbled to the ranger, too accustomed to greater feats of inhuman perception from him to wonder too much how he knew exactly what I was doing, whom I was looking for. I glanced at Ulkair, silently asking what he intended to do. It sounded like he and Cheshire still had things to work out, but….perhaps one of us at a time was better.

“I’ll be in our room if you should need me for anything,” Ulkair said, squeezing my hand briefly.

Nodding, I squeezed his hand back before he stepped away. Taking a deep breath, I walked up to Cheshire’s door, knocking a couple of times on the heavy stone surface. Long moments passed as I waited for a response, wondering more and more if she might not be trying to avoid me too. This…was my fault, at least in part, regardless of what Ulkair said. If they hadn’t followed me to Zissyx, if I had been able to protect Áine or save her myself, none of this would have happened. She had every right to blame me, be angry with me. Even so, I needed to speak with her, find out the truth.

I inclined my ear towards the door, frowning when nothing met it, no sound, no sign of life. If Alix said she was in there, she must be. Grasping the handle, I slowly pushed the door open, peering in to find more blankets than I had ever seen piled up in the middle of Alix’s bed, but no Cheshire. At least…not that I could see. Walking over to the bed, I poked at the blankets to see if I could find a bard hiding under them. A moment later, a small hand wiggled out from beneath the mountain, feeling around for me.

“Yes?” a muffled voice called.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, I scooped Cheshire up with her blankets, setting her on my lap and cradling her in my arms. This poor child, so much more capable than I had been at her age and yet she was so young, so frail in her own way. She wasn’t used to being seen as an object, something for the use of others, and nor would I wish for her to be. She should have been spared this, this fear that has long haunted me. She shouldn’t have to look at others and wonder what they will do to her, if their hands will gently tuck her hair behind her ear as Alix’s do or if they will hold her too close, stray too far. She shouldn’t…I never meant for this….

“I’m so sorry, Cheshire,” I whispered, holding her tightly as if the embrace could protect her.

“Sooo….you’re not mad? Because that’s what I was getting ready to say…” Cheshire mumbled, poking her nose out from the pile of blankets.

“Why would I be mad at you?” After everything, what could I be angry with her for?

“What did Ulkair tell you?”

“Well, he told me you didn’t just swim by,” I quietly spoke, not caring to voice the specific details.

“We tried to…” Cheshire miserably cried, snuggling tighter into the blankets, burying her face again. “It didn’t work.”

“I had no idea it was possible to shield one’s mind at all, nevertheless that he would know how,” I admitted. Even with all the resources of Zissyx at their disposal, who could have taught Aquis? Did Typhon know too?

“Neither had I…if I did, I would have done it.”

“But you saved Áine.”

“That’s all that’s important, right?” Cheshire asked, lowering the blankets just enough to cast a desperate gaze at me, needing to know that it wasn’t for nothing, what she had done was worth it all, despite the guilt and doubt eating away at her.

“Not all …I would rather you hadn’t been traumatized,” I grimaced, holding her closer. “I would have been willing to do anything to save her, but I couldn’t make you do the same.”

“Nerida, nobody made me do anything. That’s the worst part,” Cheshire breathed, staring vacantly for a moment.

“What do you mean?”

“Nevermind,” Cheshire dismissed, shaking her head. “I guess I’m just glad that you’re not mad at us.”

“I’m not entirely sure how I feel, but it’s not anger.” Confusion…why had images of them come to my mind when I knew they didn’t harbor feelings for each other? Why did they bother me so much despite knowing that? Ulkair had done nothing to deserve my doubt…

“Oh…” Cheshire cringed, drawing in on herself again, impossibly small in my arms, despite the blankets wrapped around her. “Are you sure?”

“I mostly feel terrible for what happened.”

“Well, I mean, at that point, I guess we could have disengaged, but we were so close! And…I didn’t want to leave empty handed…he was going to do such horrible things to her,” Cheshire shivered, burying her face in the blankets.

“I can imagine.” With Mayra already gone, his plan to trap me in part a failure, Áine would have been his only way left to hurt me. We didn’t look as much alike, but this time, I would know she was gone, what he was doing to her.

“I don’t have to,” Cheshire stated, staring at me with such a haunted look in her eyes. Trembling, she pulled the blankets tighter around herself, trying to block out what torment Aquis had planned for my poor sister, the screams that must have echoed in his mind, the agony he would have delighted in. “Maybe you could have gotten there early enough to stop him, but I was just trying to do things the right way!”

“Technically we worked it out legally? You found irrefutable proof that he was guilty and I killed him,” I said, trying to make her feel better. She didn’t succeed how she intended to, but she still succeeded. That was bound to mean something, wasn’t it?

“Yea…you’re so awesome…Nerida…please don’t ever get mad at me…you’re terrifying…”

“I’m sorry? I don’t want you to be afraid of me…” What was so scary about me? I was tall on land, but a relatively normal size for a merfolk. I couldn’t imagine becoming so angry with her that I would ever harm her.

“Well, I’m more afraid of you not being my friend any more than your firing a searing light through my heart, but I don’t really want either of those to happen,” Cheshire mumbled, snuggling into my chest.

“I have no reason to be angry with you.”

“Are you mad at Ulkair?” Cheshire asked, wide sea green eyes staring up at me.

“I don’t think I’m mad, exactly? I…I don’t know,” I sighed, my fists clenching slightly as the vision of Cheshire and Ulkair together came to my mind again. I shook my head to dispel the image, focusing on Cheshire curled up in my arms. They only did it to save Áine. Cheshire was so young and Ulkair loved me…

“Well, he left to talk to you a long time ago, so I figured you either worked things out or you murdered him.”

“No, no, I couldn’t hurt him. I think he’s in our room now, in one piece. I talked to him at the temple, discovered he’s a little bit older than I thought and somehow it came up that merfolk don’t live to be twenty five hundred. And then…he turned into a stone giant and I rode around on his shoulder.”

“Did…Ulkair tell you what happened?” Cheshire asked, her brows knitting in concern again.

“What happened with Aquis? Yes, he did. We spoke about that first,” I mumbled, realizing that was the more relevant topic Cheshire was worried about, though they weren’t thoughts I much cared to dwell on.

“Okay…just making sure that we’re on the same page.”

“Hey, Cheshire? How do you feel about Ulkair?” Some small, scared part of me needed to know I was being foolish, needed to know I wasn’t going to lose Ulkair as I did everyone else, no matter how I fought our seemingly inevitable departure.

“Ummmm….Nerida, that is a loaded question. I mean,” Cheshire began, sighing, “in the last month, Ulkair has gone from being the voice in your head that made your hand left, to pitiable, to an ally, to maybe a friend, to I don’t know what. I feel like I’m glad you have Ulkair. That’s how I feel about him. And I feel like…I trust him a lot more than I did before. It’s kind of hard not to.”

“He means well in what he does.”

“He does well in what he does. I don’t know what else to say…I don’t want you to feel like I’m lying to you, but I don’t know the whole truth to tell you. It’s kind of something I haven’t sorted through yet.”

“I can’t say anything. I don’t understand how I feel yet either or why.” Why, why couldn’t I get the image of them together out of my head, though they had never shown an interest in each other before, could hardly look at each other since. Before today, it had never occurred to me at all that Ulkair might leave me for someone else. “Do you think it was…a one-time incident to save my sister, or…?”

“Nerida, I think Ulkair loves you more than is humanly possible. And I think he wouldn’t ever want to do anything to hurt you. I mean, you should have seen how badly he wanted to kill Aquis, but he reined it in and kept doing something he didn’t want to do for you.”

“He told me a similar thing when he shut me out of his mind in Zissyx. When I was swimming through the temple I could feel his emotions, his distress growing worse and worse. I didn’t know what was happening. I wanted more than anything to go and help him, but he told me not to leave the temple and I feared I would only make it worse.”

“I mean…I think all this is a little above me? But…I wouldn’t have done it if it wasn’t for you. I don’t know Ulkair like you do, but I feel like he wouldn’t have either.”

“I’ve only known him for a month too, a little bit longer now. He’s always been capable of harming me quite terribly, but has never intentionally done so. I don’t suppose he would start now.”

“I especially suppose he wouldn’t start now.”

“Sorry…force of habit…” I mumbled, wondering if I would ever stop analyzing people, working out how they could best hurt me, if I could take whatever beating they could give, how I could prevent it. I didn’t need to hold everyone at arm’s length anymore, just waiting for them to betray any trust I foolishly show, but distrust forged and tempered over years did not decay in but a precious few weeks.

“I know.”

“Too bad shape changing and reading minds isn’t something you can teach people. I would have given anything to go in your stead, even if I would have hated myself afterwards.”

“I think I’m glad you didn’t. I don’t think it would have gone so well.”

Gripping the blankets enveloping Cheshire, I said nothing, knowing too well that the words were true, having uttered them myself, and still, hearing them from another struck a painful chord, the bitter taste of failure forming in my throat. Perhaps now she would understand I wasn’t the hero she seemed to see me as, the infallible leader, wise and collected. I wanted to save the citizens of Byss, Elysia, my sisters, my home….I tried so hard, did everything I could think of to help them, and yet, I failed them all.

“You know, Nerida…” Cheshire began, taking a serious tone, her typical childish features vanishing from her face. “You’re older than me, you have a lot more experience than me, I know you’re a lot tougher than me, but I think maybe you could stand to learn maybe a few things from me, not the least of which being that you are important too. I mean, you say you’ll throw yourself in the line of fire for others so they wouldn’t have to get hurt, but they’re willing to do the same for you for a reason.”

“But I can take it!” I insisted. I didn’t care if I was hurt, if my bones cracked and gave way under the onslaught of enemy assault, if my blood stained every surface around me. I could withstand anything, knowing the lacerations would heal and the pain would fade. I had been so many times before, so what did it matter if I was harmed again? If it had to be one of us, it should be me.

“So can I…no one give me enough credit around here…”

“That’s not what I meant,” I sighed, holding Cheshire close. I knew she wasn’t the small child I met weeks ago, barely half my height, jumping at every shadow, but she was innocent. “Nevertheless, if it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t have to jump in the line of fire.”

“Yea, but if it wasn’t for you, I would be dead. Soooo…alive and in the line of fire ooor dead. It keeps coming back to dead,” Cheshire said, staring pointedly at me, moving her hands like scales.

“But you could have been alive and in no lines of fire, happy in Byss as opposed to in Zissyx.”

“Did you just hear yourself say the words ‘happy in Byss?’ I know it’s great now, but if I didn’t have you, I mean, I’d be dead. There would be no ‘happy in Byss’ if it weren’t for you.”

“I didn’t do that much.” Even before we fought to free the Byssians from the influence of vampires, thwart the Ichtaca, Byss was a better place than Zissyx. Life was still hard here, dangerous, but they were kind. They valued each other more than gold. Wasn’t that happiness?

“Sure you didn’t,” Cheshire said, raising an eyebrow and gesturing to the fissures etched along my skin, invisible, but always there, positive energy ever leaking from them.

“That was Ulkair.” I may have diverted the energy back to Byss, but Ulkair controlled everything, the method of which I couldn’t fathom. He brought the sun back, I just held the scars from it because I wasn’t strong enough.

“No, I’m pretty sure that if Ulkair had done that without you, it would have turned out differently. And he never could have made it to Elysia without you. You’ve really got to give yourself some credit.”

“No, I don’t,” I grumbled, getting the distinct feeling that Cheshire wasn’t going to give up this fight.

“Now you’re just being ridiculous,” Cheshire said, leaning back slightly to regard me, a small brow raised.

“I’ve been fighting for so long to prove I’m worth something, it’s hard to believe I actually could be,” I whispered, mulling over the words. The slavers, the temple, Zalissa, all who would see me as nothing more than a dirty slave…I wanted so badly to be something more that I fought to force them to see as much without ever truly believing my own insistence.

“I get that, though it doesn’t mean you’re not.”

“Maybe I am now,” I mused, a small smile finding its way to my face.

“I think you always were,” Cheshire said, wiggling her arms out of her blankets and holding me tightly, resting her face on my collarbone.

“I would be dead without you too, so there,” I pouted. If I had to face my accomplishments, then so did she.

“Okay. We’ll compromise. We would both be dead if we were alone,” Cheshire lightly laughed.

“Death will claim those who fight alone, but united we can break a fate once set in stone,” I quoted, the song we had sung together in Zissyx coming to mind. “I’ll convince Ulkair to sing it with me one day.”

“Singing in Elysian would be pretty awesome,” Cheshire hummed, her eyes growing brighter at the prospect.

“Well, it’s a little bit soul-shattering, but maybe if it were a happier song. I wonder if Ulkair would be willing to teach me Elysian.”

“I would like to learn Elysian,” Cheshire said, looking at me with wide, innocent eyes.

“You would have to ask him about it.”

“Ooor I could ask you.”

“I would have a difficult time teaching you when I don’t speak it.”

“But if he teaches you, then you could teach me.”

“Wouldn’t it be better to learn it from him? It’s his native language.”

“Maybe…but then I would have to talk to him, which I’m not sure I’m capable of doing anymore ‘cause I tried this morning and it didn’t work.”

“What happened?” I coaxed, rubbing her back.

“I cried a little, I decided it was better that Ulkair be two thousand years old than two thousand years dead and I went to my room to hide under my blankets where I’ve been all day until you just came and found me.”

“You haven’t eaten all day?” I asked, frowning. She must be starving.

“No…”

“Alix is making dinner…I would go get you food, but I don’t think you would eat it.”

“Would you be bringing it to me raw? If so, then yes, you would be correct.”

“Fish is delicious.”

“Yes, when it is cooked and doesn’t have its eyeballs anymore,” Cheshire muttered, scrunching up her nose.

“You don’t have to sacrifice everything,” I commented, wondering what was so bad about raw fish. Warm and crispy wasn’t bad, but neither was fresh fish.

“Nerida…I love you. You’re a great big sister, but you’re insane.”

“How am I insane for not sacrificing my food to fire demons?”

“You know what, actually, you were right. Fire bad. Fire is good only for cooking your food, preferably not yourself.”

Shuddering, I rubbed my shoulder, feeling Cheshire’s little toes wiggling on my lap as we both recalled that burning house. The scorching pain consuming so much of my body, my broken shoulder, my skin almost melting around the steel rings of my shirt pressing into it under the weight of that beam…the fire corrupting all it touched, leaving charred, black residue.

“Nerida…would you go steal some of what Alix is cooking for me?” Cheshire asked, her hunger winning out over remaining trauma of the past. “Maybe tell him it’s for Ulkair so he won’t make me come out of my room?”

“After that, do you want to try talking to Ulkair again? It sounds like you still have something to work out.”

“No!” Cheshire cried, retreating into her pile of blankets once more. “Nope nope nope….there’s nothing to talk about…”

“Would it help you if I were there too, or would that make it worse?”

“No! Not at all!” Cheshire shrieked, pulling the blankets tighter over her head.

Sighing, I set Cheshire back down on her bed, still clutching her many blankets around her. Maybe with a little food, she would feel better. Opening the door, l found two plates of food waiting for us. Blinking, I looked at them, wondering again how it was Alix knew everything that was going on.

“Thank you, Alix!” I called, picking up the plates. I heard a gruff noise of acknowledgement from the kitchen and the occasional soft clink of a fork brushing against a metal plate.

Closing the door, I sat down by Cheshire once more, setting the plate near her on the bed. The bottom edge of the blankets slowly raised as Cheshire peered out of her fortress, eying the steaming food on the plate. Her hand slowly slid out and retrieved her meal, pulling it under the blankets with her.

“Is there a reason you’re afraid to talk to Ulkair?” I asked, blowing on my food in the hopes that the fire would leave it.

“Nooo….no reason….it’s just so awkward….” her muffled voice called.

“After I inadvertently accused him of being like Aquis, it was terribly awkward talking to him, but-“

“What did you say?!” Cheshire yelled, abruptly pulling the blanket back and giving me an incredulous look.

“I told him I wasn’t comfortable because of what I had seen that do to my sisters and I didn’t mean Aquis, but I didn’t want to lose my soul and that’s what happens, so I thought…and he took that to mean like Aquis which I didn’t mean and never thought but he was understandably upset and…” I trailed off, realizing I was babbling.

“That’s what he meant when he said it didn’t go well…” Cheshire sighed, wiggling closer to hug me.

“Yea…so if I can mess up like that, certainly you can talk to him,” I said, nibbling on a hot vegetable, a “potato” I think Alix calls them.

“But….ummm…I have to eat this food and I’m pretty sure it will take me all night….” Cheshire mumbled, backing away from me a little in a retreat towards the safety of her fort.

“I…don’t think that will take all night. Ulkair must be eating too. Maybe I should go get him so we can all eat together.” So many other nights, we found such joy dining together around the same table or campfire. Couldn’t we find that again?

“Ummmm…suuure…you should go do that….”

“There’s a lock on your door, isn’t there? If I left, you’d try to lock me out,” I stated more than asked, eying Cheshire.

“No…yes….maybe….I…don’t want to talk to Ulkair…I don’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to say the first time and then I made it worse and then I made it so bad that he pitied me,” Cheshire miserable stated, fully hiding under her blankets with her plate again.

“Cheshire, you’re going to get your dinner all over the blankets.”

“Whatever! I have way too many blankets, but I’ll never admit it because they’re mine!” she cried, a hand darting out to grab her fork.

“You know, if you just wait for it to cool down, you don’t need metal to eat it.”

“Nerida, I’m not having this argument right now with you, okay?”

“Okay…would you rather talk to Alix first?”

“No!” Cheshire yelled, sitting up abruptly and throwing the blankets off of her again. Leaning in close to me, she whispered, “why would I talk to Alix about this?”

“I spoke with High Priest Agorran and it helped?”

“No…”

“Why not?”

“Because nooo,” Cheshire whined, hiding her face in her hands. “Because it’s embarrassing…”

“Yea….it was a pretty awkward conversation with High Priest Agorran…” I said, blushing as I recalled our exchange.

“Probably would have been less awkward with Alix,” Cheshire commented, idly scooting her food around her plate with the fork.

“I didn’t think to talk to him. I didn’t even mean to bring it up with High Priest Agorran either, but he asked, so…”

“He just asked?” Cheshire questioned, raising an eyebrow, obviously wondering how such a topic could possibly have come up.

“He noticed something was wrong and inquired. Also I found a dead guy in the closet that wasn’t dead anymore…”

“Okay…I leave you guys alone for ten minutes…” Cheshire shook her head, scraping some meat off a piece of fish.

“It was the guy who cast the spell on Áine and I and he threw down these symbols and…”

“Oh, the guy you accidentally killed.”

“I was just trying to knock him out and then his jaw flew across the room! And I healed him. And then he woke up.”

“You’re so scary….oh my god, Nerida, you’re so scary…you accidentally ripped someone’s jaw off ! You know, just a love tap, and then his face flew off!”

“I panicked!” I cried, not knowing what else to say. It had surprised and horrified me too, but I doubted mentioning that would help. I could hardly place my conflicted emotions, nevertheless explain them to someone else.

“You panicked? Okay, never let you panic in a hostile situation and never let Lóin talk to anyone. Got it.”

“What did Lóin do?”

“Oh, have I not told you this story? Well, he may or may not have implicated himself as a child molester in front of a random guard before the Holy Arena.”

“Because he panicked? Is that why he doesn’t talk much?” I asked, blinking. Even in Zissyx, most left children alone, though I wasn’t sure if that was due to some shred of morality or because children didn’t have enough money to be worth exploiting.

“Uh huh. I think so. In fact, I know so. The guard asked him if I was a child or a halfling after he implied we had a rather intimate relationship and he looked him dead in the face and said ‘does it matter?’ Like there was any universe in which it could have not mattered!”

“Well….neither Ulkair nor Alix are that bad at talking, so I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

“I see how you turned that around on me and I don’t appreciate it,” Cheshire pouted, wrapping a couple blankets around her shoulders and crossing her arms. “Why don’t you go talk to Ulkair?”

“I did. Then we went romping through the field. It was fun.” Even with how badly some things had gone, we worked it out. Ulkair didn’t seem to hold any grudge against Cheshire or think poorly of her, though she almost seemed to fear him, or something about him. Something she dare not speak or she simply didn’t know what words to say….?

“Why do you want me to talk to him?”

“It sounds like there are still things you need to work out?”

“Yea, like how we’re going to avoid making eye contact in hallways ever again. We should probably plan that in advance.”

“Or maybe work through everything so you don’t need to do that? How are we supposed to pull you into bed with us in the morning if you’re avoiding eye contact?”

“Maybe I’ll just wear a bag over my head for the rest of my life…”

“How are you going to sing or play your lute with a bag over your head?”

“I’m pretty sure I could do it, but it would make dancing a lot harder,” Cheshire said, her brows furrowing as she tried to figure out how to function living in a bag.

“Well, you don’t have to talk to him tonight if you don’t want to, but you probably should. Is there anything I can do to help or make you feel better?”

“No…I felt better a moment ago, but now I don’t anymore.”

“Oh….I’m sorry….” I whispered, guilt stirring anew. I just wanted to help, make things better…how did I seem to ruin everything I touched?

“I just….I think it’s probably better if we put this all behind us and never think about it or talk about it again…”

“I don’t think problems work that way,” I said, thinking about how much I cried in Zissyx, all the terrible memories I relived in Ulkair’s arms, that he helped me through. So many problems I had never spoken of or took the time to deal with. Times of weakness I never stopped blaming myself for until I finally had to see them for what they were. “If they did, I never would have been afraid of Ulkair.”

“Yea, that’s true,” Cheshire sighed, picking at her food again. “I just don’t think talking to Ulkair is going to go any differently the second time around, except for maybe worse….I don’t know how it could have gone worse….”

“What are you afraid will happen?”

“He’ll stare at me, waiting for me to have something to say and I’ll feel horrible and I’ll break down? Because that’s what happened last time?”

“Would you rather if we didn’t live under the same roof?” I asked, hoping space might help if talking to us was so painful.

“No? Why?” Cheshire cautiously asked, regarding me carefully.

“Well, four people in one room would be a little bit crowded. Right now Áine and Mayra are sleeping at the temple, but it would be nice if we could all be under the same roof. If we asked, we could probably work out other living arrangements and maybe make you feel better too. So you wouldn’t need contingency plans to not make eye contact.”

“Pushing you away is what I was trying to avoid,” Cheshire whispered so softly I could barely make the words out. “Are you sure you’re not mad at me?”

“I love you all the same,” I smiled, placing my hand over hers.

“Will it make you feel any better if I talk to Ulkair again?”

“I would rather if there not be a lurking issue between us.”

“Okay, Nerida,” Cheshire mumbled, her voice still tinged with uncertainty as she moved closer again, snuggling into my chest. “But…tomorrow…and in the incredibly terrible am so I can catch him off-guard….and I’ll have all night to panic….”

“It’ll be okay, Cheshire,” I murmured, holding her close. “Did you want me to leave you alone with your thoughts?”

“I should probably realistically never be alone with my thoughts,” Cheshire said, shuddering.

“Do you want to romp around the countryside on my shoulders? It’s a lot of fun.”

“Yes. I think we’ll still have an hour or two before it’s dangerous? And I don’t think there’s anything left in Byss more dangerous than you.”

“I have Anduin and I could probably turn anything we encountered,” I commented, quickly eating my cooled food.

Picking up her fork, Cheshire did the same at a slightly slower pace. When she was done, I threw her up on my shoulders, walking with Anduin in hand towards the front gates. Approaching the gates and the fading light beyond, I held my hand before Anduin, sending my magic into him as he began to glow more brightly.

“Where to, Cheshire?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never romped through the countryside before. You tell me.”

“Well, did you want me to walk or swim?”

“I think walking would be better.”

“Definitely walking then. The air is so thin here, it feels like I’m suffocating when I run,” I said, taking a deep breath, but it felt like nothing next to cold ocean water.

“The air here just wasn’t prepared for your huge and magnificent lungs, that’s all,” Cheshire said, patting my head.

“Why do you keep calling me huge and magnificent?” I asked, glancing up at her.

“Because you are,” Cheshire declared with more conviction than I’d heard from her all evening. “I mean, you’re like seven feet tall and awesome.”

“Okay…thank you?” I mumbled, unsure what else to say.

Comfortable silence fell around us as I wandered in a large circle through the fields I passed through just a couple hours before. Walking, I tried to follow the path we had taken before, looking for whatever gave Alix guidance, though land still looked so similar to me.

“Nerida…if I don’t talk to Ulkair, are you really going to think there’s a hanging issue between us until I do?” Cheshire asked, breaking the silence as we neared the city again.

“Only if there is one.”

“I don’t think there is.”

“And yet you refuse to talk to him,” I pointed out. That sort of aversion must mean something.

“You said you’d love me either way, right?”

“Yes, but I don’t want you to be afraid of Ulkair. With any luck, he’s not going anywhere, despite how he tries to sometimes.”

“Tell me about it,” Cheshire giggled. “I guess it does make things hard if you can’t be with me and your garbage boyfriend at the same time.”

“He’s only garbage when he tries to get himself killed.”

“I beg to differ,” Cheshire said, crossing her arms atop my head.

“He’s…just facetious.”

“Well, that’s probably true, but…fine, I’ll talk to Ulkair…”

“He does rather like poking fun at you, doesn’t he?” I commented, thinking about it. He hadn’t seemed to care too much for any of my companions, but he interacted with Cheshire more than anyone else.

“Yea?” Cheshire drawled, just looking at me.

“He’s been alone for an awfully long time?”

“You’re blaming it on a lack of social skills? Because he seems to have plenty when you’re involved.”

“He likes to poke my buttons too, just differently, I suppose,” I mused.

Just as he decided to make me panic working on his rod of wonder rather than just asking to sit in my lap, so rarely serious, saying strange things, trying to get under my skin or make me laugh if I was upset. He seemed to like whatever reaction he could get out of me, that dopey grin on his beautiful face. Silence dragged on a bit too long and I glanced up to see Cheshire raising an eyebrow, an amused smile stretched across her face.

“I, I didn’t mean it like that!” I cried, blushing furiously. He likes getting a rise out of me too? No, that’s even worse. “He…he like antagonizing me too….that’s what I meant…”

“Okay, Nerida, for you, I will talk to Ulkair in the morning,” Cheshire agreed, amusement yet colouring her voice.

“You need to stop doing things just for my sake,” I said, frowning. All that had happened to her already just for following my orders, all that could have been avoided…”my sake” couldn’t be worth it. I only wanted her to be free of what painful discomfort seemed to torment her so her smile, her joyful presence could return.

“If I were doing it for my sake, I’d be hiding under my blankets for forty eight more hours until I was pretty sure the problem had resolved itself and then pretend it never happened.”

“That doesn’t resolve problems.”

“I can’t think of any in which it has worked, but I can’t think of any in which it hasn’t.”

“So you’ve never tried it before?” I asked, raising an eyebrow at her.

“Right,” Cheshire nodded, shifting to begin climbing down my side as if I were a tree.

“I’m sure it’ll go just fine,” I said, smiling as I paused before Alix’s front door, should Cheshire have anything more she wished to say.

“Okay…I’m going to Alix’s room…” Cheshire mumbled sleepily.

“Good night, Cheshire,” I said, leaning down to hug her. Holding her, I prayed the night brought her some peace from whatever was troubling her, that when she snuggled into Alix’s arms and closed her eyes, listening to his heart beat, she found rest, not more shadows plaguing her.

Watching Cheshire scramble inside, undoubtedly dashing into Alix’s room and the safety it offered, my heart clenched painfully. She never should have followed me to Zissyx…I never should have led her. She was so innocent, and now, she tensed seeing me, couldn’t stand the thought of seeing Ulkair, nevertheless speaking to him. Sighing, I shook my head, leaning heavily on Anduin as I slowly made my way to my own room. Perhaps it was only the darkness that made everything seem so bad, the growing fatigue dragging on me, the horrors so fresh in my mind, just as Agorran had said. I just needed to sleep, hold Ulkair in my arms and know everything would be okay, we would be okay.

Walking into our room, I felt golden eyes on me, waiting for my return. Resting Anduin against the wall by our bed, I collapsed next to Ulkair, oddly tired after the strange day. Pulling him into my arms, I held him tight as if he would disappear otherwise, like everything else that brought me happiness seemed to.

“Are you okay?” Ulkair asked, his hand coming to rest on the side of my face, his thumb slowly stroking my cheek.

“I love you,” I whispered, leaning into the warmth his hand offered.

“I’m supposed to be evasive and clever, not you,” Ulkair whispered back, an amused smile replacing the worry on his face.

“Perhaps you are rubbing off on me, but there are worse fates I can think of,” I commented, smiling at him momentarily. I didn’t quite know what to say, how to voice what I didn’t fully understand myself, but silence only bred more uncertainty. “I feel like something is wrong, but I don’t know what. We’ve all talked now, but something doesn’t seem to add up.” Cheshire…she was so afraid of facing Ulkair, too afraid, but why? Or was I being too hard on her, what was obviously traumatic for her? “You may rather tend to be evasive, but you also tend to be honest in what you do say. Cheshire…if there’s anything she hasn’t told us, I guess we’ll find out soon. She’s planning on pouncing on you in the morning.”

“I can think of someone I’d rather pounce on,” Ulkair said, a gleam coming into his eye as he rolled over on top of me and started kissing along my neck, eventually coming to my face. Looking me in the eye, he said, “I’m honestly in love with you, my beautiful mermaid.” Closing his eyes, he brought his lips to mine, his passion and love for me overflowing through our bond.

Fisting my hands in his shirt, I clung to Ulkair, almost desperate to know, to feel that he was here and he was mine, as much as I was his. I needed him, to be close to him, close enough he couldn’t be taken away. Pressing up against him, I focused on our bond, feeling his love flowing around me like gentle waves lapping at my skin, hearing his words repeat over and over in my mind.

‘I love you more than anything,’ I whispered in his mind, wishing I could speak Elysian, make him feel as I did hearing the foreign words.

“I know .” As he said the word, certainty of his love caressed my mind, and I knew as images of watching me from his perspective over the weeks we’d been together passed into my mind’s eye one after the other, from the moment I stood up to him and caught his attention to when I kissed him goodnight, my lips a font of love from which he’d never tire of drinking.

Relief washed over me, a single word silencing my doubt, my fears unfounded. Why had I ever thought otherwise, when he had never given me a reason to? What had he done but try to prove his love for me, his affection I could always feel through our bond?

Relaxing my hold on Ulkair, weariness I had done my best to ignore crept back into my mind, my limbs growing impossibly heavy as my eyes slid shut of their own accord. What afflicted me now was not nearly as oppressive as what I faced after Elysia, but still the lull of sleep was sweet, surrounded by Ulkair’s warmth and adoration. Shifting, he curled up on top of me, resting his head on my chest. Lightly draping my arms around his waist, I soon drifted off to sleep, hoping that with the pale morning light, everything would go back to what strange sense of normality we had defined over the past month.

Come morning, something prodded my side with odd insistence. Frowning, I lazily swatted at whatever was touching me, wondering why Ulkair was poking me. He didn’t normally like getting up early and preferred to cuddle with me until we needed to get up. Blinking, I realized I had at some point rolled onto my side and Ulkair was still curled up in my arms. Glancing up, I found Cheshire lying on my side, staring down at me.

“Good morning, Cheshire,” I sighed, grabbing the small bard and cuddling her between Ulkair and I.

“So early…” Ulkair whined, burying his face in his pillow.

“Good morning, Nerida,” Cheshire whispered, staring up at me.

“Good night,” I mumbled, content to sleep until I needed to pray in a few hours.

Beside us, Ulkair shifted, moving to wrap his arm around Cheshire as well when he froze, pain flashing across his face. Glancing at his still raised hand, he awkwardly patted Cheshire’s shoulder.

“Good morning, Cheshire,” Ulkair bid, taking hold of my hand.

Cheshire looked over her shoulder, paling to see the golden eyes regarding her. Wiggling out of my grasp, she clambered over me, hiding behind my back.

“Are you asleep?” she whispered, peeking over me as though I were a great wall.

“What’s the right answer to that? Do you want me to be asleep?”

“Yes.”

“Oh. Then yup, I’m definitely asleep,” I murmured sleepily, pulling Ulkair into the space Cheshire had vacated.

“Should we go talk?” Ulkair asked, shifting so he could look up at Cheshire as his grip on my hand tightened.

“Yea, I think we should,” Cheshire sighed, sounding too defeated to my ears.

“I love you guys,” I said, rolling onto my back and taking Cheshire’s hand, holding hers beside Ulkair’s in my grasp.

“I love you too, Nerida,” Ulkair said, gently caressing the side of my face.

“Love you guys too,” Cheshire echoed, squeezing my hand slightly.

Smiling, I let their hands slip out of mine as I rolled back onto my side, curling up in the lingering warmth from where Ulkair had been as though he were still here, sleeping beside me as he should be. Cheshire had said she would talk to him in the morning…and she was of the unfortunate opinion that morning began when the sun rose, no matter how dreadfully early that was. Well, whatever they still needed to talk about, they pointedly didn’t need me for it. Clutching Ulkair’s blankets, I drifted back to sleep, praying they might find some level of normality, whatever that might be.

Pain spread through my abdomen, stealing the air from my lungs in one swift blow. Breathless, I tried to sit up, my hand scrambling for where Anduin rested beside my bed to fend of whatever was attacking me. Another weight collapsed against me, pushing me back down as hands running across my skin in what would have forced laughter if I had the breath to spare. Drawing my arm back, I prepared to throw this assailant from me when familiar golden eyes caught my gaze, almost glowing as they looked at me. Ulkair…?

“Wake up, Nerida, wake up!” Ulkair called with far too much energy for what ungodly hour it must yet be, his fingers yet dancing along my sides.

“I am…now,” I gasped, fighting to find the breath to speak after their combined onslaught. Ulkair was tickling me…and Cheshire looked guilty…had she jumped on me? What hit me was too small….she must have used her elbow or maybe her knee…but of all the methods she could have used to wake me, why that one? “Cheshire….what did you do that for?”

“I didn’t think it would hurt you…you didn’t even seem to feel it last time.” Cheshire said, wringing her hands.

“You didn’t hit me in the stomach last time!”

“Oh no…how will I do my laundry if I have injured the abs the poets praise?” Cheshire mournfully said, petting my abused stomach.

“You wanted to do laundry on me?” I asked, staring at her, assuming in some lingering haze of lethargy I misheard her, but I couldn’t make any other sense out of the words she had spoken. “I don’t think that would work.”

“I think I can think of better things than laundry,” Ulkair commented, grinning.

Squeaking, Cheshire flushed bright red, darting under one of the blankets on the bed and rolling up in it. Ulkair did the same, leaving only their faces visible, gold and sea green eyes watching me from within their cocoons.

“Did you work it out?” I asked, wondering if this wasn’t some bizarre dream and I only thought I was awake….that made more sense somehow than what was happening. My dreams had been more vivid since returning from Elysia…

“Mhmm,” they both hummed, glancing at each other before their gaze returned to me as though they were waiting for something. How had they gone from barely able to look at each other to…whatever they were now, in what couldn’t have been more than an hour?

“Is that why you attacked me?” I asked, blinking, trying to clear the last vestiges of sleep from my mind or at least confirm that I was indeed awake.

Frowning, Cheshire wiggled her arm out from her blanket cocoon, her small hand petting my stomach again as faint healing energy poured from her fingertips, easing the lingering discomfort. Pulling her arm back, Cheshire looked at me and smiled.

“That wasn’t necessary, but thank you,” I mumbled, still confused.

“We love you, Nerida,” they whispered in unison, still staring at me.

“I love you too?” I said, looking between them, trying to wrap my mind around what they were waiting for, what they wanted from me. “Why do I get the feeling you’re about to tell me something terrible?”

“Ummmmmm….define ‘something terrible?’” Cheshire requested.

“Are you two okay?” I asked, my anxiety growing. So long as they were okay, we could work everything else out, right? So why were they looking at me like that, staring into me, so…content and yet so reluctant to tell me anything?

“Mhmm.”

“And my sisters are okay?”

“Mhmm.”

“Alix, everyone, everyone is alive and well?”

“Mhmm.”

“Well….I guess it can’t be that bad then.”

Taking my hand, Ulkair’s magic flowed over my palm and a simple white cup appeared in it, black letters forming along the smooth exterior spelling out ‘Ulkair and Cheshire suck.’

“Why do you suck?” I asked, looking between the cup and Ulkair, somehow growing more confused as I continued to talk to them.

“Just take a sip,” Ulkair instructed.

Sniffing at the cup, my brows furrowed. It smelled sweet, almost like that ‘honey’ Ulkair put on his bread, but more mild, brighter somehow. Bringing the cup to my lips, I took a hesitant sip, the taste of sunlight shining on shallow waves filling my mouth, energy suffusing throughout me. Even the exhaustion from my soul fissures seemed to ebb. Pulling the cup back, I looked at the golden elixir again, swirling it as if that would explain anything.

“It’s great! It’s from Elysia!” Cheshire cheered, her face lighting up even more.

“It…is pretty amazing,” I admitted, my mind clearing as the elixir seemed to chase away my drowsiness, clarity bringing more despairing confusion than relief. This was strange, everything they were doing was strange! They acted like old friends when only last night, Cheshire couldn’t bear the thought of seeing him. What happened ?

“Yea, it is,” Ulkair grinned, taking the cup and drinking from it before handing it back.

“So…what news are you breaking with Elysian sunshine? The last time you tried something like this it was to tell Lóin about his master. Are you going to sing to me in Draconic too?” I asked, taking another small sip of the divine nectar, trying not to drink too much. If this was indeed from Elysia, then…no more of it could be made. Looking at the cup, I handed it back to Ulkair.

“No, I feel that if Tubatron had taught me a song to sing to you, it would have been in Aquan,” Cheshire commented, mulling over the point.

“Guys, you’re worrying me…”

“So, you wanted me to talk to Ulkair again and make sure there wasn’t anything lurking between us and I don’t think there is,” Cheshire began, pulling the blanket tight around herself.

Watching her, my heart sank, apprehension consuming me. Why did I feel like I had made a terrible mistake? I just wanted them to get along or at least not cringe being in the same room when we lived under the same roof…and yet I just wanted them to swim by Aquis…nothing was so easy, was it? Fumbling under my pillow, I found the golden pearl Ulkair gave me, holding it to my chest for whatever comfort the stone could offer. Ulkair set the cup to the side, shifting closer to me and beginning to rub my back.

“And the conclusion we came to is that we both love you with every fiber of our little black and grey hearts respectively.”

“Why are your hearts black and grey?” I asked, still waiting for what news they were trying to tell me. Why would the go to such lengths to say they loved me, like we hadn’t said as much before they left? What wasn’t she telling me?

“Well, I don’t know what colour Ulkair’s heart is, but mine is grey because it’s poopy…and that’s what my skin is supposed to look like. Anyway, we decided that we would never want to do anything to hurt you and we won’t.”

“But?” Gripping the pearl tighter, I watched her with wide eyes, blinking back tears threatening to form. “We?” Since when were they a “we?” How had this become about avoiding hurting me, about me at all?

“But, uh…” Cheshire softly spoke, swallowing hard. “Maybe we already did.”

“Already did what?” I nearly sobbed. Just tell me what you need to say! You say you don’t want to hurt me, so why are you…?

“We think maybe that’s why you feel bad. Maybe a little betrayed,” Ulkair said, tucking a strand of hair behind my ear, his fingers trailing down my cheek like the tears I bade not to fall.

“But…it was just to save Áine, right?” Right? Just doing what they needed to do to fool Aquis and save my sister from her imprisonment? That’s all I…

“That’s how it started,” Ulkair said, letting out a shaky breath.

“Started?” I repeated, feeling like my heart was breaking, shattering into infinite pieces to match my battered soul. I didn’t want to be right, not about this….but why? What had I done wrong?

“And that’s how it ended,” Cheshire quickly added. “It’s just the middle that’s a doppelganger area. Err, doppelgangers are grey.” Pointing at her chest, Cheshire smiled faintly, though it couldn’t mask her uncertainty. “I mean…like I said yesterday, I wouldn’t have done it if I wasn’t doing it for you, but…maybe what I didn’t say yesterday is…”

Cheshire trailed off, biting her lip as she struggled to find the words to explain what she meant, each passing moment driving a dagger farther and farther into my heart. Before I wondered, even feared that maybe Ulkair had found he preferred Cheshire over me, and why shouldn’t he? They, they made sense. She fit in his arms, bright as the sun he had missed while trapped in the cold ocean that was my home.

“We hated Aquis, we hated what we had to do, but we found we didn’t hate each other,” Ulkair joined in.

“That’s not a bad thing, so why do you look so guilty?” I asked, my gaze falling to the thin blanket draped around my waist, clinging to me yet from when I had slept so peacefully, blissfully unaware of what was going on. The warmth beside me had long since faded, forfeit to the cool morning air.

“Because we don’t want you to think,” Ulkair began, scooting closer to wrap his arms around my waist, resting his face on the back of my shoulder.

“That we’d rather have each other than you,” Cheshire finished, moving forward to almost sit in my lap as she hugged my arm, leaning against me.

“Yes,” Ulkair nodded.

“So having each other rather than me has crossed your mind?” I numbly asked, faintly hearing Cheshire sharply inhale. How had this happened…how could I lose him, both of them, when just yesterday, everything had been okay? An hour ago, I had been blissfully asleep, Ulkair in my arms…

“We were afraid it had crossed your mind,” Ulkair said, holding me tighter, though the embrace didn’t soothe me as it normally might. Was it meant only to soften the blow, as that elixir was?

“I think,” Cheshire began, trailing off for a veritable eternity as I waited for her to speak words I didn’t know that I wanted to hear, my chest aching from emotions I couldn’t deny but nor could I fully explain. “I think maybe especially because things between you and Ulkair went so badly that you might be jealous or feel betrayed by what we did and the fact that it went substantially better. You have every right to be. And so…I understand if you’re mad…but I still love you no matter what.”

“Me too,” Ulkair murmured into my neck.

“Are you still attracted to each other?” I asked, holding my breath as I glanced at them, preparing for the worst. They spoke of shared love, not for each other but me, and yet I couldn’t dismiss the gnawing fear that I would still lose him, lose them.

“Yes,” Cheshire breathed, looking away from me as shame washed over her face. “Or I am to him. Nerida, I’m sorry. Ulkair is really handsome and he is the only person I have ever had any intimate contact with that has been both alive and not had any mal-intent for me. I’m sorry, I can’t help the way I feel. Oh Nerida…”

“I don’t know…I’ve been thinking about it and…I, the thought of you being together is…I don’t like it, but…it’s strange. I want you to be friends and to get along. I adore both of your company and I’d never want to deprive anyone of that so I…I don’t know,” I sighed, shaking my head. What did their persisting attraction mean? I hadn’t felt so drawn to anyone before Ulkair…was that the same as what fascination Cheshire had developed for Ulkair? Ulkair…how did he feel about her?

“Well, Nerida, can you trust us with what we said to be true? We do mean it,” Ulkair said, shifting so he could look into my eyes, his containing such sincerity, such love I had never before questioned whom it might be for.

“Am I in your way?” I pleaded to know, my voice the faintest of whispers. Did Ulkair feel obligated to be with me after freeing him? After my soul shattered in Elysia? If it weren’t for me, could they be happy together?

“Not at all. We both just said we choose you.”

“Plus Ulkair’s too old for me anyway,” Cheshire whispered, giggling, a hint of normality peering through obscurity.

“You know I’m not that much older than you, Cheshire,” I commented. It felt like everything had changed, but perhaps less had than I suspected. Ulkair…I could trust him, I did trust him….his word over fears I knew were senseless, but…I didn’t know what I would do without him anymore.

“Shhhhh,” Cheshire hushed, lightly placing her small hand over my mouth, more for the gesture than anything.

“You’re fifteen, aren’t you?” I asked, smiling faintly under her hand.

Beside us, Ulkair pouted, evidently none too keen on being reminded of his age two days in a row. His eyes suddenly lit up and he grinned, pulling his arms away from me to cross them. Rapidly shrinking, he turned into a younger version of himself, looking no more than four years old, or maybe six. It was hard to tell with how small land dwellers were.

“You’re both too old for me, dang it!” Ulkair insisted, crossing his short arms.

Cheshire and I looked at each other, identical smiles spreading across our faces as we seemed to have the same idea. Pushing Ulkair backwards, I rested my hand across his tiny chest with a fraction of my weight, easily pinning him. My other hand danced along his side as he flailed wildly, Cheshire sitting on his legs tickling his feet.

“When…I…can…breathe ‘nd…transform…then ou’ll…” Ulkair fought to indignantly yell between bursts of riotous laughter, half his words lost to unintelligible babble.

“What are you trying to say?”

“I think he’s trying to threaten us. Don’t let him breathe and watch for arcane mumblings,” Cheshire called, wiggling her fingers between his tiny toes.

I nodded, continuing to tickle him as he had earlier to wake me up, my fingers running along his skin. Holding his arms would stop him from casting spells too, but I couldn’t bring myself to pin him like that for the terror it would yet cause me. Perhaps it wasn’t a fear he shared, but there was no need with even just one hand keeping him in place.

The moment we paused in our assault, Ulkair’s skin began turning grey as he grew rapidly, soon towering above us. Grinning, he caught each of us in a massive hand, holding us against his chest. Jolting forward, Ulkair broke into a sprint, ignoring how much smaller the doorways were than his new form. I buried my face in his chest as he crashed through the doors with little care, dust and bits of stone flying every which way. Once free from the confinement of Alix’s dwelling, he tore off towards the city’s front gates. I wrapped my hands around one of his fingers, trying to pry his hand off or loosen his grasp enough to wiggle out, but it wouldn’t even budge. Swiftly approaching the largest lake near the city, Ulkair held me up over his head, preparing to hurdle me into the water.

“Don’t you dare!” I shrieked, pulling at his hand when I realized what he had in mind, but with as much success as I had before.

Laughing, Ulkair threw me into the lake, Cheshire following close behind me. Rather than stopping by the lakeside to gloat as I expected, he didn’t slow down, instead jumping and turning into a merman midair, diving into the water several feet behind us. Spitting and sputtering, Cheshire clung to my arm, blowing bubbles in the water and pouting at Ulkair until she grew her gills. Slipping my shirt and pants off, Lord Eadro’s power encircled my legs, fusing them together as they grew longer and deep blue scales erupted from pale skin.

We had been here before, so similar to this, what, a week and a half ago? Maybe two weeks? It was hard to tell anymore with how much had happened. Cheshire studying my tail, trying to figure out how to form her own and swim with it…had we really changed since then? I didn’t blame them for what happened with Aquis, the confession that brought Ulkair to tears, but I still didn’t know what to think about them, the thought of them together. Maybe Cheshire had been right and I feared losing Ulkair to what I couldn’t seem to give him when they had come perilously close. That was what he wanted, maybe Cheshire too in her growing attraction to him…what could I offer? Holding onto Cheshire, I took off swimming as fast as I could through the lake, some part of me needing proof nothing had changed between us, another part desperately trying to escape the endless questions and doubts whirling through my mind if I couldn’t give rest to them.

Squeaking, Cheshire wrapped her legs around my waist, holding on for dear life as I tore through the water, hardly even feeling her weight on me. A flash of gleaming black caught my eye and I glanced behind me to see Ulkair happily chasing me, moving through the water with surprising grace for a land dweller. Taking a deep breath, I slowed down just a little to allow him to gradually catch up with me. Worrying, not talking to Ulkair, that’s why I was in this situation to begin with. As good as it felt to swim through the water with what speed I could muster, I knew I shouldn’t run from him. I was making too much out of nothing but my own anxiety. Coming alongside me, Ulkair took one of my and Cheshire’s hands in each of his and we slowed down to a lazy swim. Cheshire let go and moved next to him, kicking her legs in what seemed to be land dwellers’ typical attempt to move through water.

“So do you want anything to continue between you?” I asked, drifting to a stop as I looked at them, hand in hand.

“Our friendship,” Ulkair said, rubbing his thumb across the back of my hand, pulling me closer to him.

“Yea, because no one else will sit on the roof with me and cast glitterdust on innocent passersby,” Cheshire giggled.

“Am I enough?” I whispered, hardly sure if I actually voiced the question or if it was merely another echo in my mind, the constant fear of inadequacy plaguing me.

“Nerida, you were more than enough from the very moment I met you and now you are more than I ever could have asked for,” Ulkair said, stroking the side of my face, seriousness washing over him as he stared into my eyes. “And you’re more than I deserve.”

“Don’t say that,” I breathed, placing my hand over his.

“It’s true.”

“Is not,” I insisted, shaking my head slightly, holding his hand so he wouldn’t pull away from me. ‘Please don’t pull away from me…’

“Nerida, without you, I would be dead, I’m sure.”

“That’s better than still being in that cave,” I frowned, thinking about before I knew him so well, how different my plans had been from what happened. I wanted to talk to him first about atonement, make sure I wasn’t releasing something terrible into the world, but I knew something needed to change. Eternity there would have been too cruel a punishment for anyone. One way or another, I had planned to save him, though I never expected it to turn out as it had, grateful as I was.

“I thought long and hard about that,” Ulkair said, his gaze growing distant as I inwardly cursed myself for mentioning his imprisonment, especially so horribly. “I’m glad I never decided that, because I’m glad I met you.”
“I wish I could say I hadn’t wondered the same after fewer years,” I mumbled. Everything I suffered seemed like nothing next to what he had and still it scarred me so, haunted my thoughts, formed who I had become. I was supposed to be strong…

“Slavery is hard.”

“My only real solace was that if I failed, it wouldn’t matter for long.”

“But now you know anything you do, it matters to me,” Ulkair murmured, the hand on the side of my face gently pulling me closer, leaving the precious choice to follow or pull away from him.

Reaching over, my fingers trailed down his cheek as I leaned forward to press my lips against his. His arm wrapped around me, holding me close, in every way treating me like something cherished as if he was afraid of losing me, as if I could bear to be parted from him. Feeling his bare skin against mine, his scales brushing against my tail, I shivered, remembering Zissyx, his touch too rushed, the fear that had paralyzed me. Even then, his soft lips, his warm hands exploring me…it hadn’t been so bad. I gazed up into his brassy eyes, a smile more enchanting than dawn adorning his face.

“So I’m really going to live to be older than twenty?” I asked, still not quite able to believe it could be true.

I had never expected to have very long, clinging to what little I had that made my time seem to matter. The thought was wonderful and terrifying at the same time. So many terrible things had happened to me in the few years I had drawn water through my lungs, so many tears, so much heartache in so little time. What would these future decades, possibly centuries hold for me?

“Mhmm, you’ll live longer than me if I have anything to say about it.”

“Well, hopefully you don’t then,” I murmured, holding tight to him. I would walk the earth for countless moons for him, face whatever may come, but alone, such time would be unbearable.

“Oh, I do, I do,” he whispered, kissing my forehead.

Sighing, I laid my head on his shoulder, twining my tail around his. There didn’t seem to be much point in arguing with him about the matter. If he had any plan to prolong my life, its arcane magic would probably be beyond my comprehension anyway. I would just have to do everything I could to protect him, shield the life he would try to give before allowing mine to be taken.

“Nerida, your hair is so beautiful, but not nearly as beautiful as you,” Ulkair mused, watching my hair floating about me in the water, sunlight gleaming along the blue strands.

“There are still singed spots in it,” I grimaced, burying my face in his neck. My mark of my freedom, so important to me and yet so fragile, so easy to mar or take away. “I meant to get kelp paste for it in Zissyx, but we were a little preoccupied and it probably wouldn’t have actually helped anyway…fire isn’t a common problem for merfolk.”

Ulkair ran his fingers through my hair, catching on the occasional rough patch grazed by flame. Muttering under his breath, his hand burned warmer than normal, still entangled in my hair. After a moment, he smiled, taking a blue strand and brushing my nose with it. Bringing my own hand to my hair, I ran my fingers through it, finding no traces that fire had ever touched it.

“You’re the best,” I said, wrapping my arm around Ulkair again, nuzzling his face.

“Nerida, I can’t imagine that there’s anything I would ever choose over you, because you chose me and I still don’t understand why,” Ulkair softly spoke, cupping my face.

“Likewise,” I replied, but Ulkair only smiled bitterly.

“You don’t force me to steal souls, walk on land, kill…” he trailed off, shame washing over him.

“Out of those, you only forced me to take souls. The clergy forced me onto land, land forced me to kill.”

“And I was glad you did,” Ulkair said, self-loathing, a feeling too common these days, radiating off of him. “I hope you can forgive me.”

“We both saw our freedom in it.”

“Indeed, and now I see so much more,” Ulkair said, his fingers brushing the side of my face. “Are you okay?” Pain and concern flashed across his eyes, leaking through our bond.

“I’m still a bit…conflicted yet, but I’ll be okay,” I mumbled, blushing faintly. Maybe it was just Cheshire that was attracted to him, but Ulkair never denied the same fascination. At the same time, he seemed as he always had, his love for me as strong as ever, his kisses as sweet, maybe even more captivating than before. Was it his desire I felt or my own? What drew me to him, made me yearn for what I had feared for so long?

“Conflicted?” Ulkair repeated, his brows furrowing.

“At the temple, after you got back, as scared as I was, I didn’t entirely…hate it…and I don’t know what to think wanting that from you or being jealous, if that’s what this is, at the thought of you with someone else. It’s just…a new feeling to get used to…”

“They’re both very new for you, but you have to decide what you want and what you don’t want. I let you know unfortunately roughly what I wanted, what I still want.”

“I want to be with you.”

“Well, I don’t want it to hurt you. I don’t know why it would, but you’re afraid it will and I respect that.”

“That’s all I’ve ever known it to do, but you have never intended to hurt me.”

“I’m so sorry,” Ulkair whispered, shrinking in his guilt, “for the times that I have hurt you, but know I would never intentionally harm you. In all of my experience, it only makes people love each other more.”

“Left hands?”

“No, being together. Sex, Nerida. What they did to your sisters was terrible, but that’s not what it would be. What they did was violent and aggressive and wrong. It wouldn’t be like that between us,” Ulkair said, holding me close as his eyes pleaded with me to believe him, trust that he was different.

“I trust you,” I breathed, the phrase so simple, but the words promised so much. I trusted him to hold my hand, hold me dear. What he and Agorran had told me, what I felt behind my persisting fear, they all pointed to the same thing.

“I love you.”

“I love you too,” I whispered, burying my face in his neck, relishing the closeness.

Lips pressed against my exposed neck and I froze, my entire body tensing at the sensation, the unwanted memories the touch brought. The temple, that burning house, my dream, those fangs embedded deeply into my neck, draining my life, my ability to refuse him. Why, why couldn’t I seem to leave that vampire behind? His wide, red eyes always watching me in a lifeless gaze, his fangs tearing me apart. Biting back a cry, I squeezed my eyes shut and clung to Ulkair, forcing the memories to disperse. Kharn was dead and the vampires were gone….I was safe in the arms of the man who loved me….whom I loved…

“I’m sorry,” Ulkair said, gently guiding my face up towards his. His lips brushed against mine so softly I barely felt them at first, the infinite care he held me with, silently asking if I were okay, Sighing against him, I wrapped my arms around his neck, kissing him again. I was with Ulkair, no one else.

“It’s not your fault. It’s just…memories. I’ll get over them,” I breathed, nuzzling his face. Safe in his arms, there was no horror of my past he couldn’t dispel.

“Larn…” Ulkair spoke the name with such anguish in his voice, so much regret and despair. His belovèd apprentice, the only one from Elysia he thought he had been able to saved, only to find he had suffered such a cruel fate for so long.

“It didn’t help that I covered his mouth with my hand. I thought the control he had over others was by speaking and I didn’t have any other way of stopping him.”

“You couldn’t have known how bad of an idea that was, but it makes sense. That’s how Cheshire’s control works. I’m, I’m glad you put him to rest.”

“I am…unspeakably sorry for what I did,” I grimaced, thinking what I did with his head, the horror in Cheshire’s eyes while I could only laugh, the agony Ulkair himself had been in that I hadn’t noticed.

“I am unspeakably sorry for what was done to him…you did what you had to do.”

“I don’t think I had to talk his head at anyone…” I murmured, loath to even voice what I had done. What had driven me to do such a terrible, morbid thing? This strange humour that seemed to visit me as death drew near, grasping at my shadow, fear I knew I should feel kept at bay with horrible laughter.

“That was pretty funny though,” Ulkair chuckled lightly, though pain remained in his eyes. “Maybe not with his head, but you got Cheshire pretty good.”

“I don’t think she thought it was very funny,” I mumbled, laying my head on his shoulder, watching his gills gently flutter as he breathed. “Is there a reason you have gills?” He could turn into anything he wanted to, so why choose gills when he was in such still water?

“I like the way water moves through them,” Ulkair said, taking a deep breath to demonstrate.

“How could you breathe in your cave though? The water was so stagnant.”

“Oh, actually it filters. There was a faint current that ran through it they set up so there was no way I could die,” Ulkair explained. Shuddering, he clung to me, squeezing his eyes shut as warm tears slid down his face. “At least not permanently.”

“I’m glad that you’re alive,” I whispered, rubbing his back. Some part of me hoped that thinking about his past torment and facing his pain might help lessen it, praying I hadn’t needlessly hurt him again in my thoughtless questions.

“For the first time in fifteen hundred years, so am I,” he breathed, his voice so soft, teetering on the edge of breaking.

“You made it five hundred years?” I cried, staring aghast at him. Five hundred long years alone in the lightless, hopeless depths of the ocean, he had still clung to who he was, always striving to save his Elysia. Centuries turning into millennia of loneliness so hollow and consuming it corrupted all it touched until echoes of insanity were the only means of conversation. “You’re stronger than you give yourself credit for, Ulkair.”

“Thank you,” Ulkair whispered, snuggling in closer to me.

“I’m sorry for making you sad again…”

“At least I can feel sad because I know the other side. I know joy.”

“So do I,” I said, smiling as I stroked the side of his face. A small but genuine smile spread across his face as he leaned into my touch, raising his own hand to rest atop mine, entwining our fingers. Glancing around, I realized at some point in time Cheshire wandered off, making slow laps in the lake with her legs flailing behind her. “Should we go get Cheshire?”

“I’m really hungry…”

“I need to pray soon,” I commented, feeling the familiar pull of the ocean on my mind, strong and persistent as the currents.

“Yea, you can pray and then we can have a heroes’ feast. Oh, let’s have a picnic!”

“A what?” How would picking a “nic” help me pray? Or feed anyone? Unless a nic was a nice place we could do both, like a niche. Land dweller slang was so strange…

“It’s where you take food out to a beautiful place and eat together while looking at the sky.”

“I suppose there are beautiful places here now,” I mused, thinking about the soft blades of grass growing through the moss on the drying ground, the sun shining on what lakes remained. Perhaps in time, there would even be flowers as Ulkair had envisioned.

“And we can lie out on the grass and enjoy the sun,” Ulkair sighed contently.

“It can feed twelve, but three is about the same,” I giggled, happy to see joy return to his face.

“I suppose we could go back and share…” Ulkair pouted, resting his face on my shoulder and staring up at me. “Or we could have a picnic.”

“I could cast it again at home later if they need food….” I said, unable to say no to him, to something so simple that could bring him happiness. “Hey, Cheshire! Do you want to have a picnic?”

“Oh my god, yes! Yes yes yes yes yes! A heroes’ feast picnic would be the biggest, loudest picnic ever!” Cheshire cheered, summoning a tuba. “Let’s do this.”

Swimming to the edge of the lake, I forfeited my beautiful tail for legs once more, sighing as I saw the short, scrawny sticks form from my strong tail. Shaking my head, I pulled myself from the water, the sun taking no time in nibbling at my exposed skin. Walking along the edge of the lake, I found my clothes, still soaking wet from when Ulkair threw us in. Glancing at the sun, I wrung my clothes out and slipped them on. The wet leather clung uncomfortably to me, but the cool fabric was a relief next to the fire demon lurking in the sky. I sat down in the damp grass, not waiting long before Ulkair clambered into my lap, dressed once again in the clothes he’d slept in, kept dry by his arcane magic.

“What is that stuff you drink in the morning? If you think about it intently enough, do you think I could make it?” I asked, starting to draw on my magic when I was done praying. “I didn’t know what bread was either.”

“Hmmm maybe,” Ulkair hummed, putting his hands over mine.

I felt his magic surrounding mine, arcane carefully working around divine, adjusting the spell to create this “picnic” he wanted. Before us, a large blanket appeared on the ground, a flat piece of wood forming in the middle, soon followed by an unfamiliar selection of food, a mixture of sweet and savoury smells wafting off them. Large pillows surrounded the flat table in the stead of chairs. It was certainly a less elegant form of the spell, but perhaps more comfortable and the food still smelled delicious. Ulkair jumped on one of the pillows, taking the handle of a white cup similar to what he handed me earlier and taking a taste of it.

“Mmmm, yes, this is wonderful,” Ulkair sighed contently, taking another grateful drink of the dark, steaming beverage.

“It’s hot, isn’t it,” I frowned, inspecting the cup, tentatively poking the ceramic surface, heat immediately suffusing through my fingertips. “Hot” was terrible…but Ulkair was drinking it? Bringing the cup to my lips, I took a small sip, squeaking as the coffee scalded my tongue.

“Oh, yes, it’s really hot. Sorry.”

“Maybe once it cools down,” I mumbled, setting the cup back down. Bringing my fingertips to the tip of my tongue, I cast a light healing spell to ease the burning.

Ulkair held his hand out, pointing at the cup while he muttered arcane words under his breath, magic swirling around his fingers. The hot drink hissed as frigid air shot from his fingertip, ice forming around the rim and down one side.

“Ice coffee, there you go,” Ulkair smiled, holding the cup out to me again. I eyed the cup warily, sniffing its contents before taking another cautious sip, the smooth, the rich flavour of the coffee filling my mouth this time.

“It’s weird drinking something with flavour, but it’s not bad,” I commented, taking another drink, catching just a hint of sweetness lingering.

“I like it,” Ulkair hummed, picking his cup up again.

“What do you think, Cheshire?”

“Alix says I can’t have coffee,” Cheshire said, happily stuffing her face with what looked like small loaves of bread with a brown spiral in the middle.

Seeing what she had, Ulkair’s eyes lit up and he grabbed a loaf in each hand, promptly dunking one in his coffee and eating it. I laughed, shaking my head slightly, though he paid me no mind, already reaching for another one in his apparent love for bread. I curiously took one as well, wondering what bread bearing my god’s symbol might be like. Taking one of the warm rolls, I lay down against one of the plush pillows, looking up at the sky. Ulkair flopped down beside me, a roll in each hand and one sticking out of his mouth. He peered up at me with such a look of almost childish innocence as if neither cruelty nor insanity had ever touched him.

Simple…the happiness he sought was so simple, just the joy of eating hot bread, lying in the grass with the sun shining. Curled up against my side was the man I had seen glimpses of beneath what tormented form time and isolation had driven him to, the one I had fallen for, despite his strange antics, or perhaps because of them. He was so much more than he realized. His fierce dedication to what he loved, his patience, his understanding, everything I could barely find the words to speak about he calmly listened to, somehow bringing me peace of mind to what I’d feared was unforgivable. His warm embrace, his beautiful smile, his golden eyes, watching me with such adoration…I couldn’t lose him.

“Are we okay?” I asked. The words they spoke earlier echoed through my mind, easier to hear without my resounding doubt clouding what I knew to be true.

“I am. Are you?” Ulkair asked, concern marring his face.

“Evidently, I’m huge and magnificent,” I giggled, nuzzling his face.

“Well, that’s true,” he easily agreed, washing down another roll with some coffee.

“You weren’t supposed to agree,” I mumbled, blushing.

“Huge and magnificent and beautiful.”

My face flushed again and I focused instead on the hot bread in my hand, dipping it in my coffee. Taking a bite, a surprising burst of sweetness filled my mouth, unlike anything we had in Zissyx, or at least that I had found in my poverty. The coffee cooled the roll to the perfect temperature, blending with the sugar and spices without making the bread soggy. Wiggling my toes happily, I continued eating, sipping at my coffee occasionally. Ulkair chuckled lightly as he wrapped his arm around me, all three of his loaves somehow gone already.

I rested my head on Ulkair’s shoulder, a wave of exhaustion washing over me. Must just be comfortable…yawning, I curled up with Ulkair, watching the clouds roll by overhead, the gentle breeze dancing with glittering sunlight across the lake beside us. I felt Ulkair’s fingers trailing through my hair, concern echoing through our bond, but I was too tired to dwell on why. So drained…my eyelids fluttered shut, suddenly too heavy. Ulkair’s voice grew distance, the faint feeling of his hand on the side of my face as I drifted off to sleep.

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Shadows Laid to Rest
I Won’t Be Alone Anymore

Nerida

Shivering, I drew in closer on myself, finding no comfort or reassurance, only the cold stone floor stealing what little warmth my body possessed. Every lurking shadow, every dark memory of my past tormented me, brought to life with my return to this horrid city. Alone…I hated being alone, the threat of losing my sisters always looming overhead and now I had so much more to lose. Everything bad happened when you were alone, too cold, too quiet, too vulnerable…but who could I turn to? Coral and Agorran were busy and I didn’t want to risk waking Mayra up, forcing my problems on her when she had enough of her own. Everyone had enough to worry about without my crying like a lost child. Breathe…just breathe, Nerida. Lord Eadro has preserved you through worse than this. He will carry you through this if no one else can. Just keep going as you always have.

Staring blankly at the ground, the urge to move, to do something began to burn, but what could I do? I had done everything I could here and leaving, where would I go? Nowhere in Zissyx was safe for me regardless of what I did or where I went. Though if everywhere was dangerous anyway, I was no worse off for leaving the temple. No…if I left, I would find Aquis. I might convince myself I was just swimming around, trying to clear my thoughts, pass time until Ulkair and Cheshire came back, but ultimately I would still only be lying to myself. Without thinking, I would find myself in places Aquis might go, my eyes looking for black hair and hazel eyes in the crowd. I would ruin any chance Ulkair and Cheshire had of getting Áine back unharmed, before Aquis inflicted misdirected contempt on her.

Sighing, I pulled myself from the ground. Gods don’t grant miracles for those too lazy to get up, after all. Glancing at the table, I flinched seeing Latus’ body. What should I do with him? I could hardly just leave him here, but where else could I put him? I didn’t reside within the temple. Coral did, but Mayra had been through enough already. She didn’t need to wake up next to a corpse. Where might he go undiscovered? There were closets…no random passersby would notice him there and the odds of a slave finding him were rather slim….was there another choice?

Swimming up beside the table, I lifted Latus’ body into my arms, shuddering as his chill skin touched mine. He looked like he was just peacefully sleeping, awaiting a dawn that would never come for him. I brushed his hair out of his face, glaring down at him, guilt and rage warring within me. He took my world, I took his life. He chose his fate when he chose to do as Aquis bid, but…he was a child of Eadro, a fellow cleric. He was not unkind as most others here were.

Shaking my head, I swam out of the room, looking around for a closet in one of the lesser traveled halls. I would have to face his death in time, but until then, I would rather his body remain hidden. Finding a small door in the hallway, I rested my hand the stone surface. This wasn’t right…nothing about this was right, but trapped in the temple, what else could I do? Releasing a shaky breath, I opened the door, setting Latus’ body down, flicking the end of his tail in with my caudal fin.

I closed the door, leaning against the stone surface just breathing, listening to the resounding silence, marked only by my heartbeat and short breaths. Quiet…it was too quiet. I always heard a little bit of chatter from Ulkair, usually arcane mutterings I didn’t understand, but something was always there unless he was extremely focused or…in trouble.

‘Ulkair? Is everything okay?’ I asked, reaching out to him.

‘Super busy. Talk to you later,’ Ulkair replied quickly, closing our link again.

Something…was wrong…I could tell Ulkair wasn’t lying exactly, but he was being evasive. They were just swimming past Aquis, weren’t they? What could have happened? I wanted to talk to him more, figure out what had gone wrong, but distracting him could be dangerous. If he needed my help, he would tell me, wouldn’t he? Or would he? Grim realization came over me, chill dread seeping into my very being. If he thought it would endanger me, he wouldn’t. Aquis probably hired at least one assassin waiting for me somewhere in the city, but I survived against the last one. How bad could this one be? No, I couldn’t risk their chances of getting anything from Aquis.

Heaving a frustrated sigh, I took off swimming through the temple, probably faster than I should have. I felt trapped, caged in a temple meant to be a sanctuary, in a city I never meant to involve my companions in. The weight of my chainshirt suddenly seemed unbearable against my skin, suffocating me. Grabbing the thin band of my shirt, I tore it off, watching as the glamour dispelled and thin fabric became a sheet of steel rings once more. I stuffed the armour into my bag, relieved that here we didn’t hold the same inane ideas about the need of clothing.

‘Cheshire says don’t leave the temple,’ Ulkair’s voice rang through my mind, just as clipped as before, silence returning as swiftly as it departed.

Don’t leave…that must mean that whatever assassin Aquis hired is waiting outside the temple. They’re getting information from him, so that must be a good sign, right? But why was Ulkair so quiet, keeping to himself when it should have been Cheshire reading Aquis’ mind? Why wouldn’t he tell me anything? Maybe he’s just busy…maybe I’m completely overreacting. He isn’t telling me what’s happening because there’s nothing of importance to tell. I wanted to believe as much, but some part of me knew that wasn’t true.

Anxiety crept through me like countless spiders along my skin, my restlessness only growing with each passing moment of silence. Each time I passed the main door to the temple, I couldn’t help but wonder if it wasn’t worth a try. The assassin would have to be hiding somewhere, ready to slip a dagger between my ribs or imbed a crossbow bolt between my eyes, but what if I swam as fast as I could? How good could their aim be? Being shot once or twice wouldn’t kill me if they missed my vitals. I had withstood worse.

Suddenly, I felt a wave of dark emotion surge through me, vanishing as quickly as it had come. I blinked, my breath little more than shaky gasps. I hardly understood what I had felt at all, just that the emotions weren’t mine. Another flash and a shiver ran down my spine, my face flushing as I felt his fury, his burning hatred, mixed with a strange discomfort I didn’t recognize. Drifting to the side of the hallway I was in, I rested my forehead against the cool stone, trying to calm my dizzying thoughts, ease my trembling breath.

‘Ulkair, what’s wrong?’ I called out to him, needing to know he was alright.

‘I love you more than anything,’ Ulkair whispered, his phantom hand stroking the side of my face.

‘I love you too, but that doesn’t answer anything!” I cried. Why are you reassuring me of your love now? Tell me something, anything that doesn’t sound like you’re running off to your death! Please , Ulkair, just talk to me…

‘Trust me,’ his voice faintly echoed before all trace of him vanished from my mind.

I brought my hand up to my face, tracing where I had felt his hand with my fingertips. How could everything have gone so wrong? Ulkair…it would be easier to trust you if you didn’t tend to put your own wellbeing last. A little while longer…I could wait a little while longer, give him some time to work through whatever he was doing.

Curling up, I wrapped my arms around my tail, burying my face in my scales. He would be okay. It was just Aquis. If he was that capable, he would have attacked me himself rather than sending assassins after me. They’d be okay. Breathing deeply, I felt the water gently passing by, my hair floating around me, the steady beating of my heartbeat. Just wait a little while longer…let time flow as the gentle current…trust he will come back to you.

With a start, I felt Ulkair appear near me, his rage flooding through me as it had before, but stronger, more consistent. Relief flickered among my apprehension. He wasn’t hiding from me anymore, radiating anger, not pain. Pushing away from the wall I had been resting near, I followed the faint trail I felt leading to him. He was alive, but something was still wrong. So many times I had felt his anger from his cave, thrashing around, destroying everything he could, but now I could be here for him. I could hold his hand and we could work through this.

Swimming up to the door, I found Ulkair storming around the room, his dark tailing whipping angrily behind him. Looking up at me, Ulkair flinched away from me, casting his gaze back to the ground.

“Maybe not fit to be around right now,” Ulkair almost growled, breathing erratically.

“Are you sure there’s nothing I can do?” I asked, creeping forward. I couldn’t leave him alone when he was so upset…

“Remember when you said there were merfolk who needed killing? You don’t need to point out which one it is now,” Ulkair seethed, his eyes flashing darkly.

“Weren’t you just going to swim by him?”

“We were,” Ulkair said, clenching his fists and taking a deep breath.

“What happened?” I asked, horror gripping me. This was all my fault…if I hadn’t asked Cheshire to read Aquis’ mind, none of this would have happened.

“Apparently, he’s been taught to guard his thoughts and so we had to…escalate,” Ulkair carefully explained, shuddering slightly.

“What do you mean escalate?”

“What do I mean by escalate?!” Ulkair yelled, throwing his hands up. “I mean I gave my power to Cheshire and I think it might have been a mistake.” Ulkair ran his hands through his hair, swimming in a wide circle, forcing his anger back. “No, no that’s unfair. She did a good job of what she was supposed to do.”

“Is Cheshire okay? Ulkair, please, just talk to me,” I pleaded, inching forward.

“I lent her my power so she could break through his guards, but then the world went mad, madder than me,” Ulkair laughed darkly. “We distracted him, but Cheshire was having a hard time getting in and finding what she needed and I had neglected to tell her we were looking for Áine. I distracted her, though we found out that Aquis has a plot to kill you when you leave the temple. But then, that wasn’t enough of a distraction, apparently. We had to, suffice it to say,” Ulkair trailed off, looking away from me again, shame ghosting across his face. “But we can, we can rescue your sister and we have everything he had on him. I’m sure we can use something to incriminate him.”

Ulkair wrapped his arms around himself, guilt lurking behind his ire. There had to be something more than Aquis just wanting to kill me, what he’s wanted as long as I’ve known him. Ulkair’s anger, his guilt, despite saving Áine…what wasn’t he telling me? I slowly swam forward, watching Ulkair. Wide, brassy eyes darted towards me, almost looking afraid to see me approach him, his breathing still erratic.

“Nerida, I need a little time to cool down, I think,” Ulkair breathed, holding his hand out, but I couldn’t tell if he meant to push me away or pull me in.

“Thank you,” I whispered, wrapping my arms around him. “I’m sorry it’s cost you so much.”

Ulkair groaned, pulling me flush against him, one hand cupping my face. He twined his tail around mine, kissing me deeply, his other hand running along my back. Panic rippled through me, feeling him so close, his scales brushing against mine, but…it was Ulkair. He wouldn’t hurt me…it, it was just a kiss. I could handle that…I could…

“I love you too, but-” I whispered, gasping when I felt his mouth shift, kissing down my neck, his hand groping along my bare chest, drawing a moan from my lips. ‘But I’m…’

I’m what? It was Ulkair…he was different than the others. I’d fully believed he wouldn’t try to hurt me as they had, so…what was he doing? Why was he touching me as they had? He wasn’t like them! It couldn’t have just been a lie…he loved me…I’d felt it, so why? Brass eyes flashed up at me and a cold sense of betrayal tore through me, finally recognizing what laid in them. Desire, something I had seen in the eyes of too many others, but never thought to look for in Ulkair’s.

‘Everyone will hurt you! They wait only for the opportunity!’ some part of me screamed, echoing what I had thought with Latus. “Everyone” wasn’t supposed to include Ulkair…anyone but him…

Tears pricked at my eyes as my shaky hands gripped his shoulders, torn between holding on and pushing him away. He had made me feel safe, but now, now I felt like I was suffocating, trapped in the arms that once protected me. Fear…I was afraid…closing my eyes, a tear rolled down my cheek. I had never feared Ulkair, even meeting him, fully expecting the worst. Even knowing he could harm me all too easily, I never shied away from him.

Shivering, I tried to push him away, but I couldn’t seem to find the strength. Kissing down my chest, he spoke my name like a mantra, his hands trailing along my sides, each graze setting my skin ablaze. Stifling another moan, I cursed myself, hating that I could find pleasure in his touch, once so innocent. If you’re going to hurt me, rend my soul from my body, then hurt me . Don’t make me long for my own demise, a trap no less foul for its beautiful façade. I’ll, I’ll give you anything else, but not this. Just…stop… please , if you ever truly loved me…

“Stop,” I sobbed, weakly pushing at his hands on my hips.

“If that’s, that’s what you want,” Ulkair breathed, recoiling as if he’d been struck, giving me a pained look. “If you don’t want me. I, I warned you.” Turning away from me, Ulkair darted towards the door, undeniable self-loathing radiating from him.

“That’s not it…” I whispered, following a short ways after him, so lost and confused. “I’m sorry, I don’t want to lose my soul!”

“What? I don’t know what you mean, I just, I just can’t right now, Nerida.”

Had…had I done something wrong? Should I have let him, if that was what he wanted? Maybe I deserved it…my sisters had suffered the same fate before me. Why should I be exempt? He already held my soul anyway, so what difference would losing it to him make? But…feeling his hands on me, all I could think of were the shadows of my past, holding me down, reveling in my tears, the terror consuming me. The dead, haunted look in Áine’s eyes when she thought I wasn’t paying attention, scratching at her pregnant belly. How could he want that for me?

‘I do still love you,’ I whispered in his mind, hugging him from a safe distance, ‘but….I’ve seen what that has done to my sister.’

“And I would never do anything like that to you!” Ulkair yelled, spinning around to face me, his anger washing over me. “Just…..I’m not Aquis! I know you love me, I just…sometimes, I wonder when you compare me to him,” he bitterly trailed off, overwhelming sadness replacing his ire. Distraught, he fled from me again and this time, I didn’t chase him.

Dropping to the ground, I drew my tail into my chest, my mind whirling in confusion, betrayal, and guilt. What…happened…? How had I compared him to Aquis? I knew Ulkair was nothing like the cruel merman, so where had that insult come from? I just…feared giving him what he seemed to want, and yet claimed he would never take. I had thought you would never do anything like that to me too, Ulkair, so…why? Why did you look so hurt? What…why had I…liked it..? Why…?

Tears trailed down my face, masked by the surrounding ocean, deafening silence my only companion once more. Silence that did nothing to cease the endless questions festering in my mind. Silence that only reminded me of how alone I was, as perhaps I deserved to be. Ulkair, Cheshire, Áine, Mayra…I wanted to protect them, keep them safe, but I was the one who had endangered them. If it hadn’t been for me, none of this would have happened to them.

Wiping the proof of my hideous weakness from my face, I pushed off the ground, tearing through the halls once more. I needed to do something before wondering and worrying drove me crazy, but what? I still couldn’t leave and there was nothing more I could do about Aquis from here. Something, anything…I couldn’t be alone with my thoughts to roam free, dark and terrible as they were. From the corner of my eye, I saw a locathah crouching by the wall.

“What are you doing?” I asked, swimming up by the poor slave, knowing that was the only reason a locathah would be allowed inside the temple or Zissyx at all.

“I’m not, I’m just doing as I was told,” the locathah said, shrinking in my presence.

Watching him, I saw he was cleaning buildup off the walls, switching between a chisel and a brush. Eying the brush now resting beside him, I picked it up, scrubbing at some persistent grim caked into fine engravings too delicate for the wide chisel to touch.

“Th-thank you, ma’am,” the locathah nervously muttered, scooting away from me.

“Don’t worry about it,” I stated, not caring to explain why I chose manual labour when I didn’t have to.

Scraping down the walls wasn’t a job I had ever been given, but it was no harder than endlessly harvesting kelp and there was an odd sort of comfort in the familiarity of repetitive work. Falling into a rhythm, we quickly worked down the wall. Passing priests stared incredulously at me, unable to fathom why I would be helping a slave, but I pointedly ignored them. They would never understand what it was to be a possession.

“Are you okay?” I asked without looking at the locathah beside me, noticing he was still uncomfortable.

“Yea, yea, mhmm,” he mumbled, avoiding eye contact.

“Let me rephrase that. What’s wrong?”

“You seem upset,” he commented, moving away from me again.

“Not at you,” I sighed. I didn’t really want to talk about what had happened with anyone, least of all someone I didn’t know. If I spoke of what troubled me to anyone, it was usually…Ulkair…shaking my head, I scrubbed harder at the wall, forcing the thoughts from my mind.

“Oh, umm, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean anything,” he quickly said, working faster.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” I frowned, knowing how terribly locathah were treated, the lowest of the slaves for not even being merfolk. They were safe from the breeding pits, but every punishment was harsher, every beating, every torture. Slavers thought nothing of killing locathah for any transgression and worse yet, they were taught to believe they deserved nothing better.

“Oh, I never would have suggested that you would have, but I would have deserved it if you did,” he said, shrinking before me though I had done nothing to appear intimidating.

“I’m so sorry for how you’ve been treated,” I whispered, wishing I could reach out a comforting hand to him, but knowing he would fear punishment. Why were they looked down upon so for looking more like fish than we did? We both had scales and fins as fish do, they simply retained more of the aquatic features in their upper bodies as well.

“You mean that, don’t you?” he asked curiously, pausing in his work to look strangely at me.

“I was born a slave.”

“You’re, you’re her ,” he breathed, staring at me in cautious wonder.

“I’m who?” What could he be talking about? I couldn’t think of a time someone had been happy to learn who I was. No, they tended to make a disgusted face and avoid me from then on.

“You’re the one who’s going to come and free us all,” he whispered, hope flickering in his eyes for possibly the first time.

“I’m sure going to try,” I said, smiling at him.

“So it’s true!” he cried, excitement glowing in his eyes. Happy…he even looked happy. My heart bled when I realized I had never seen a locathah smile before.

“High Priest Agorran and I are pretty well acquainted. I will speak with him about freeing the slaves in the temple.”

“I believe in you, Nerida.”

“We are hoping to rebuild the city on the coast. Would you come with us? You will be a free citizen there.”

“Locathah and merfolk could live together?”

“We are all children of Lord Eadro,” I said, slowly reaching out, taking his hand in mine.

“But you are the beautiful children, the belovèd children…” he whispered sadly, looking at his green, finned hand in my pale grasp, pulling away from me.

“Perhaps our lord does not see it that way. You are no less dutiful,” I said, watching him sadly. I couldn’t believe Lord Eadro would shun his own children, deem them deserving of such a wretched life.

“If, if you say so. That sounds…too good to be true…”

“Freedom does to the oppressed, yet we should all know it.”

“You are wise and wonderful,” he said, smiling at me. Reaching out again, he took ahold of one of my hands in his. “I look forward to that day, Nerida.”

“I pray it is soon,” I smiled, gently squeezing his hand.

“I thought I would die a slave, so any time before the end of my days is sooner than I expected.”

“I recall many a similar thought,” I muttered, thinking of the days I had wondered if my efforts weren’t in truth futile, if I would never know freedom.

“But you are young and you are beautiful and you are wise. You can do anything,” he said, picking up his chisel once more, though a faint smile remained on his face.

A short way down the hall, I heard banging on the door and I froze. This…this was the hallway I hid Latus’ body, wasn’t it? He was dead…I know he was dead! He had no pulse, drew no breath. Undead shouldn’t be able to survive down here, but what else could be banging on the door?

“I’m sorry, but I have the odd feeling I should go check that out. I’ll be back,” I said to the locathah, picking up Anduin. He just bobbed his head, taking his brush back and continued to work on cleaning the wall.

Slowly swimming down the hall, I followed the noise, finding it did indeed emanate from a very familiar closet. Placing my hand on the door, I called on my magic, feeling for the presence of the undead, but sensing nothing. Taking a deep breath, I threw the door open, pointing Anduin at whoever was inside, finding Latus staring at me with wide eyes, his hand raised to bang on the door again. All colour drained from his face and he screamed, pressing himself as far away from me into the closet as he could. Relief flickered through me momentarily seeing I hadn’t killed him, replaced immediately by angry suspicion.

“I-I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”

“How are you moving?” I demanded, holding Anduin at his throat.

“T-the normal way?” Latus said, wiggling his caudal fin to demonstrate.

“I cast detect undead and didn’t sense anything!”

“Because I’m alive! I-I’m alive! I bleed…” Latus miserably replied, eying the trident before him.

Narrowing my eyes, I touched one of the tines to the side of his neck, but Latus only squeaked, squeezing his eyes shut. If he was a vampire, that should have hurt. Even if he had a much better tolerance for pain than I suspected he did, a burn should have appeared where the silver touched him, but there was nothing.

“Anduin, is this a vampire?” I asked my trident, staring warily at the merman. Detect undead and silver had worked on vampires before, but what else could this be? He had died!

“No,” Anduin stated, sounding bored and annoyed. If he had eyes, I had the feeling he would be staring at me like I was an idiot. “Check his teeth if you need to, but I don’t because I know he’s not.”

“But he’s alive!”

“So?”

“I knocked his jaw across the room!”

“I mean, people survive weirder things? You welded it back on with your magic,” Anduin said nonchalantly, like we relieved people of half their faces all the time.

“Yes, and High Priest Agorran used a spell on him that only works on dead people,” I insisted.

“Well, yea, that is kinda weird, but I know this is not a vampire or evil. Psh, I mean, that should be obvious. He’s just a scared piece of garbage.”

“That should be dead,” I reiterated. How was he overlooking this point? If dead people just stood up all the time, I wouldn’t have to worry so much about Ulkair. Shaking my head, I focused on the merman before me. Latus didn’t look dangerous, but I couldn’t afford to be distracted again.

“Come to think of it, he did sell you out to Aquis. Should we kill him? He may not be evil, but he’s not good either,” Anduin said, his tines slowly extending towards Latus’ neck, glowing more brightly than normal. Latus whimpered, on the brink of consciousness.

“Only if anything happens to Áine,” I said, glaring at Latus.

“Ah. Fair, fair.” Anduin’s tines retracted to their normal length.

“I didn’t have much of a choice,” Latus laughed nervously. “I’m sorry about your sister…”

“How much did he pay you? How much was my life worth this time?” I seethed at hearing him dare to utter my sister’s name, touching the middle tine to his throat.

“Well, actually, he paid me by not killing my family…”

“Why you?” I demanded. Out of the entire clergy, why had Aquis chosen him? He couldn’t have known that after Coral, he was the one I was closest to, the only other priest I might not immediately suspect. He couldn’t be watching me that closely, know that much about me, no matter how obsessed he had become with me.

“Because he owns my parents? He saw me visiting them and he noticed my priest garb.”

“That’s a familiar story,” I sighed, pulling Anduin back a little.

Of all the reasons he could have had, that was the only one I might have accepted. My sisters, my family…what would I have done to save my parents, to know them? If I could meet them now, what would they think of me? Could they love me, or would I just be a reminder of their slavery, what they were forced into. Even if they could have looked at me like Alix does Cheshire, they died four years, lost to the ocean waves. For me, it was too late, but Latus still had a chance. He needed help and who else in Zissyx would give him that without a price?

“And also he paid me some money. You can have it!” Latus squeaked, dropping a pouch in front of me contained a few hundred gold coins, possibly a thousand. “For whatever it’s worth, I don’t like Aquis. He just…has a knife to my throat.”

“Do your parents know what you’ve been hired to do?”

“I didn’t tell them. Of course not,” Latus said, shame etched deeply into his face.

“Do you want to disappear?”

“No! Don’t kill me…please?” Latus cried, tears forming in his wide green eyes.

“There’s a target on my back as well, but you’re probably still safer with me,” I said, trying to explain myself.

“O-Oh, you mean stay with you, not that…’you’re going to kill me’ disappear,” Latus nervously said, hardly looking convinced.

“You were a tool, and now you’re a loose end.”

“Yours or his?”

“His,” I sighed. Was I really so terrifying to him that he still hadn’t realized I was trying to keep him alive? “He hired you, you used the spell. You know enough that could be used against him and the chance of people believing you is bound to be worth more to Aquis than your life is.”

“I…I just want my family to be okay,” Latus whimpered.

“That’s all I want too.” What siblings I still had, I would protect them as well as I could. I had lost too much of my family already.

“I’ll do whatever you want me to do,” Latus said, looking more resolute than I had ever seen him.

I glanced at the bag of gold on the ground, the payment Aquis didn’t need to offer, but chose to so Latus wouldn’t even have the peace of mind of knowing he was only doing it to save his parents. We had just used sixty thousand gold to save Mayra, but I didn’t want to recover any of that in blood money, given to take Áine, intended for me too. Holding my hand out, I activated my ring, using telekinesis to draw the bag to my palm.

“Put this towards buying your parents,” I said, dropping Anduin to my side and holding the bag out to Latus. He needed the money more than I did anyway.

“I…th-thank you….I, I, I always thought you were nice, Nerida. I’m sorry I did that to you…”

“I’m sorry I killed you? It was an accident….how does your jaw feel?” I asked awkwardly, rolling Anduin between my hands.

“It’s a little stiff…why?” Latus paused, thinking for a moment before his eyes grew wide and he stared at me in horror. “It was off, wasn’t it!” he yelled, bringing his hand up to his face, feeling along his jawline. Evidently…he hadn’t heard that part when I was talking to Anduin earlier, probably too terrified to quite catch our every word.

“Don’t…don’t worry about that…”

“She’s a great healer,” Anduin chimed in.

“Shut up!” I hissed at him.

“What? You’re not doing any better!” Anduin retorted. I sighed, knowing he was right, but I wasn’t about to tell him that lest his ego recover from his blunder before.

“Why, why don’t we go find High Priest Agorran. I think he might be interested to see you,” I suggested, pinching the bridge of my nose.

I didn’t know what else to do with him and Agorran would need to know that he was alive somehow. Come to think of it, I had heard that the spirit didn’t always depart immediately upon death and I had healed his body right away. Whatever the case may be, he was alive now.

“Ha ha…why?” Latus laughed nervously. “He’s really nice, isn’t he?”

“Yes, he is. Let’s go speak with him,” I said, holding my hand out to him.

Latus stared at my hand a moment before reluctantly taking it, edging out of the supply closet. I didn’t think he was going to try to get away, but it wasn’t a chance I felt like taking. Smiling at him, I swam towards Agorran’s new office. Entering, Agorran looked up at me, his smile faltering when he noticed who was beside me.

“High Priest Agorran, look who woke up,” I said, releasing Latus’ hand.

“What?” Agorran stared wide eyed at the merman. Raising his hand, magic washed over us, looking for an evil presence.

“He’s not a vampire or undead. I found him banging on the door to the closet I shoved him into.”

“You shoved him into a closet?” Agorran asked, raising an eyebrow.

“I didn’t know what else to do with him…” I mumbled, blushing.

I…okay….well, I’m glad he’s alive. I guess he’s tougher than he looks. Child, what happened to you?” Latus just glanced at me, pointing in my direction. Flushing again, I looked away. “Well, I’m happy you’re alive. You may continue your services within the temple after you explain why you attacked Nerida and her sister.”

“W-well, Aquis wanted someone close to Nerida, someone within the temple. He owns my parents and he saw me one day when I went to visit them when I was still wearing my priest garb. He, he threatened to kill them if I didn’t throw these arcane symbols at Nerida and her sister, but please, you have to believe me when I say I didn’t want to!” Latus pleaded, glancing between Agorran and I. “I, I just wanted my family to be okay and he said the symbols wouldn’t hurt them.”

“Hmmm….this slavery business is…unsavory,” Agorran said, rubbing his temples.

“Yes, yes it is,” I sighed, knowing Agorran had barely scratched the surface. Most of Zissyx probably didn’t know the worst of what slavery entailed, didn’t care to question the lives of those so far below them. “There are slaves working in the temple as well. As high priest, would you have the jurisdiction to free them so that they may go with us to the new city?”

“If I didn’t, I do now. I proclaim all the slaves within the temple as free.” Raising his hand, Agorran called over the chamberlain waiting among a group of other merfolk for word from the high priest. “Write it out that the temple slaves will all be free and they will all be paid and housed within the temple, as I doubt it would be wise for them to leave. But don’t hide it. No one should hide it. I want everyone to know the temple will not abide slaves within its walls.”

“How are we going to pay them?” the chamberlain asked, hardly hiding his disapproval.

“Well, if the treasury can’t cover it, then we will all get paid a little less,” Agorran replied, giving the chamberlain a hard look.

Glancing back at the others waiting, they were speechless, too astonished to remark on their displeasure at Agorran’s decision. No one had ever stood up for slaves, especially at their own expense, freed them because it was the right thing to do. Looking amongst themselves, the group swam off in a huff. I had the feeling Agorran just became less popular, but there was no helping it. Even without my influence, he wouldn’t have abided by slavery in the temple. The notion of antislavery was new, inconvenient for some, but it was a change I would fight for.

“What shall we do with our quite lively friend here?” Agorran asked, gesturing to Latus. “It seems he had not much choice in what he did, but I will leave it to you. He wronged you, not me.”

“Indeed not, though I will save Áine regardless of who wronged me. For the time being, I feel he should remain near me so I can protect him from Aquis, if we are to prove any of what he has done.”

“Well, Nerida, I have spent this day and perhaps the next arranging affairs here, but I should be returning to Byss soon. We’ve set the seeds of change in motion here and now that Ulkair has been here, perhaps we can teleport back and forth as needed.”

“I know you cannot tarry long. I’m sure tomorrow Ulkair could teleport you back to Byss,” I said, flinching at the name. I could probably convince him, if he was willing to speak to me at all…

“What are your plans for here though?” Agorran asked, leaning forward on his desk.

“I still wish to lead as many as I can to the coastal city, which I will at one point learn the name of,” I blushed, realizing I still hadn’t asked Coral what the name of her city was.

“You can name it whatever you wish when we reestablish it, but will you do that now? I can stay if you’ll need my help.”

“Doesn’t Byss need you as well?” I had already taken Agorran from them for too long. Life may be more peaceful there than it had ever been, but everyone still looked to him for guidance.

“Indeed, it does. It needs you too. Is Zissyx ready?”

“Many in the temple were,” I mumbled, warmth ghosting through me hearing the high priest’s words.

“Temples tend to be full of more compassionate-minded people.”

“My brother works in the government. Perhaps he could help.” If suggested by both the government and the church, we were bound to get more support, weren’t we?

“Yes, but will you be staying to work with him or do you intend to lead them away soon?”

“I don’t know how long it will take. If they know he is my brother…any relation to me will not do him any favours.” With our shared blue hair, similar features, it wouldn’t be hard to guess if we were seen together.

“No indeed. That is why I wondered if perhaps these seeds should grow without you around. Apparently it is not even safe for you to leave the temple,” Agorran said, his eyes reflecting only kindness.

“Yes…he sent an assassin after me when I first left Zissyx and it’s only grown worse since.”

I sighed, knowing he was right. This wasn’t something we could rush if there was to be any hope of success. I just wanted to do something to bring about this change. I couldn’t fight Zalissa, I couldn’t save Mayra or Áine, and now I couldn’t even help free the slaves or convince people to travel to the new city with us. I didn’t want to give orders, sitting back and watching as my will was realized by others, through their strife, their pain when it should have been mine.

“I don’t know your city as well as I should like since I am tied it, but it does seem unsafe for you to be here. I would worry for you if you should stay, though I could not tell you what to do. Or perhaps I will not,” Agorran said smiling.

“Thank you for giving me a choice,” I said, a small smile finding its way to my lips. “I would at least like to speak with my brother. If that goes well, perhaps I can follow you back. There is still much I wish to teach you about Lord Eadro.”

“I look forward to it,” Agorran said, swimming around his desk and putting a hand on my shoulder. “Do what you need to do, though you look…upset.”

“Something seems to have gone wrong when Ulkair and Cheshire went to read Aquis’ mind,” I murmured, wondering how much I should tell him. I didn’t know quite what to say, how to explain why I had been so afraid without revealing too much.

“I am unsurprised. Zissyx is a dangerous place and those two are unaccustomed to it: one to freedom, the other to dangerous people who do not appear dangerous.”

“They would not tell me what happened, but…without meaning to, it would seem I have greatly insulted Ulkair.”

“What do you mean? He seems a touchy fellow. Was it more than just…wounded pride? I have never known you to belittle someone just to do it.”

“He feels I have compared him to Aquis, though obviously they are nothing alike.”

“Oh, well, did you?”

“I didn’t think I did, but…” The look in his eyes, the misery leaking through our link, it was certainly more than mere wounded pride, but what? What made him think of Aquis? That prat never touched Áine, though I knew he would if he’d the opportunity.

“Well, Nerida, I feel that there is a deeper problem.

“I just told him I loved him…well, no, maybe that’s not quite right, but…I never meant to hurt him…”

“Sometimes you don’t understand the whole story,” Agorran said, pulling me into his arms, his voice so calm, soothing. “I don’t know what happened between you, but you two love each other. You should be able to work it out. Maybe he just needs some time to calm down before you speak with him again.”

“I should have left him alone to calm down. I knew he was upset, but he’s been alone for so long…I didn’t want to leave him like that.”

“Usually alone is not best, but what kind of upset was he?”

“Well, he seemed angry, but at Aquis, not me. Why?” I asked, cocking my head to the side.

“I would guess you misunderstood the nature of his distress. Clearly something went wrong when you tried to comfort him, so something must have happened to make it hard for him to be close to you.”

“What could have gone wrong? What would have made him…” I trailed off, wrapping my arms around myself. Why?

“What exactly did he say, Nerida? Maybe that will help you understand the problem.”

“It’s not what he said,” I mournfully replied, burying my face in my hands. Should I tell him? He almost always had the answers, but…something like this…? Peeking at Agorran, I found only concern on his face, the genuine desire to help me he always seemed to have, though I couldn’t be worth all the trouble I put him through. Sighing, I ran my hand through my hair, wondering where to start.

“Nerida…” Agorran said, trailing off with a pointed look at me, clearly waiting for me to continue.

“It’s just…he, I asked Cheshire to swim past Aquis to read his mind to learn more about whatever plan he had that he thought he could take Áine and I alive. I couldn’t go with her, so Ulkair volunteered. They were just supposed to swim past him! But…something went wrong. Ulkair said that Aquis had been taught how to guard his thoughts and so Ulkair lent Cheshire his power to break through. Somehow they took everything Aquis had on him, so they must have engaged him somehow, but I don’t know why that would have upset Ulkair so much. Aquis has wanted to kill me since I crawled out of the slave pits and into the temple, so why should that bother him now? Something else must have happened, but he won’t tell me what.”

“Indeed… it seems a mystery. Perhaps he needs some time before he can tell you.”

“What should I do?”

“Well, if your relationship is important to you, you need to reach out to him and help him through whatever the problem is. Clearly he’s distressed, and needs help, but…Ulkair seems to need a lot of help. You need to make sure you are willing and able to deal with his problems.”

“I tried….that’s why I went to speak with him. I felt his anger, his distress and I wanted to help him. We spoke briefly and I tried to hug him, but…” I trailed off, shuddering. “I…I guess I made a mistake.”

“You can always try again, when you’ve both had time to calm down. I’m sorry it didn’t go as expected, but I’m sure your love will help you overcome it. Like I said, there must be something deeper wrong.”

What else could be wrong? Why had hugging him bothered him when it normally calmed him? Why would he attack me? I love him…and I knew he loved me…I felt as much, so why…? What was I missing?

“Would…would someone who loved you ever rape you?” I asked, wrapping my arms more tightly around myself, staring at Agorran. That was what every question led back to…if he could answer just that…

“Did Ulkair rape you?” Agorran asked, concern taking over his face as he put both his hands on my shoulders, looking intently into my eyes.

“N-no? Ulkair, he said he would never do that, but still he…” I began, lowering my gaze from his eyes normally so full of kindness, now stained with such concern for me though fury burned darkly beneath. “He scared me and I asked him to stop and he did but he was so upset and angry with himself and I don’t know what I did wrong! I just didn’t want to lose my soul!”

“Oh. I…see. Why would you lose your soul? What was he doing exactly? Did he use his magic on you?”

“Because that’s what happens? Isn’t it?” I said, looking at Agorran, but he only stared at me in confusion. “I don’t know that he needs magic to take my soul. Or I don’t really understand how I gave him part of it to help free him from the cave he was in, but that’s different. I think.”

“You’re soul-bonded? I mean… but you think it’s different? Are you talking about sex? Sex steals souls? You two haven’t had sex? I…think you better explain more clearly.”

“Maybe? I think he still has part of my soul. I don’t really know how to tell. Why would you assume that he had done that to me?” I asked, staring wide eyed at the priest. He seemed so concerned a moment ago, but now, why did his opinion seem to vary? “All I know is that it is what…stole the light from my sister’s eyes and made me fear every waking moment it would be the last I saw of her.” I shuddered, squeezing my eyes shut and wrapping my arms around myself again. For four years, it had brought her nothing but pain and anguish, countless tears as her spirit broke more and more with every child she had, knowing the life they were being born into.

“Oh,” Agorran began, regarding me for a moment. “I did not know this was a problem for you, Nerida. I know it can be very difficult. I imagine from the little I’ve seen that your time as a slave was excruciating and damaging. Ulkair should understand that, but perhaps he was in a vulnerable moment where he couldn’t. We’ve both seen…terrible things done and people who have wished they were dead rather than have to live after what they’d been through, but from someone you love, sex doesn’t steal the light from your eyes, it adds more,” Agorran gently explained, past horrors ghosting across his face before settling back into his normal smile.

“How?” How could something so horrible possibly bring anything other than pain?

“It’s the culmination of a relationship, it binds people together, a step beyond just being near to each other.”

“That steals your soul and gradually makes you lose the will to live?”

“No, Nerida, because it’s not being stolen, it’s being given,” Agorran softly stated, no sign of impatience or exasperation.

“He already has a part of my soul.”

“And then you give him a part of your body as well. But as you saw, he didn’t take it, he wants you to give it, as he wants to give himself to you and not have it taken. When it is taken it steals the light from your eyes, but when it is given, it makes your relationship stronger.”

“So sex isn’t just a euphemism for rape?” I asked, furrowing my brows. It had never occurred to me that they weren’t the same thing, that anyone would choose such a fate.

“No, like I said, it is something that can be given, something you can do together, not just a torture you are forced to endure.”

“I do like sleeping with him in my arms at night,” I mumbled, recalling his familiar warmth curled up beside me, his soft breath brushing across my collarbone. The feeling of his lips against mine, so different from others preying on any moment of weakness they might find. If kissing him was different, maybe other things were too…

“Yes, that is nice, and there’s a step beyond that too, but never let him, or let anyone, take it from you.”

“I hadn’t….anticipated ever letting anyone.”

“Well, that is normally a part of a healthy relationship.”

“I just wanted to live a quiet life with Áine,” I groaned, putting my face in my hands. I once held such simple dreams, just wanting to live with at least one of my siblings, not fearing for our lives, and having enough to eat. Everything was simpler before I left, more consistent, but…not better.

“Perhaps your life will not be so quiet, but I think it will be better with Ulkair involved as well,” Agorran said, hugging me. “Your sister perhaps will never be able to give herself to anyone after the terrible experiences she’s had, but perhaps she will. People heal.”

Wrapping my arms around him, I clutched his robes in my hands, relaxing into the gentle warmth of his embrace. In his arms, I felt no fear, no dread, just as I hadn’t with Áine, my other siblings, Cheshire, or Ulkair; those I loved, trusted not to hurt me. They were different from those who would try to extort me, the slavers who held me too closely, their hands roaming unnecessarily.

“You did say we worked to heal the soul…” I mumbled into his robes. “Okay. I’ll…try to talk to him again.”

“And it’s okay if you’re not ready, Nerida,” Agorran said, pulling away from me a little so he could see my face, grey eyes locking with mine. “Remember that he’s not trying to rape you, he’s asking you to give part of yourself to him.”

“Okay….thank you for your council. I’m sorry to have…come to you with something like this,” I said, hanging my head.

It was hard to believe, but I knew Agorran had my best interest at heart. If one of us was wrong, it was surely me. I could trust Agorran, just as I should have trusted Ulkair or found a better way to tell him I was afraid, ask him to slow down, something . I knew he didn’t want to hurt me, and yet…I’m so sorry, Ulkair…

“Perhaps it is uncomfortable to talk about, but you can talk to me about anything.”

“One day, I will come to you with something pleasant.”

“You already have,” Agorran whispered, pulling me in close again. “You’ve come with you.”

Smiling, I snuggled into his hold. I hadn’t come to talk to Agorran about Ulkair, but maybe it was a good thing I had, or rather, that he asked questions until I told him everything. So much I didn’t understand, distorted by the horrors of slavery, the oppressive cloud of despair that seemed to cover this city. Ulkair made me feel safe, held me when I couldn’t do anything but cry, and I couldn’t even listen to him. How many times had he tried to tell me to leave him alone?

Off to the side, I heard something shuffle, hands frantically scrambling to pick up something they had knocked over. My head snapped in the direction of the sound and I saw Latus sheepishly fixing a pile of stone tablets he had nudged, pointedly trying not to pay attention to us. Groaning, I buried my face in Agorran’s shoulder, my face burning red. Latus…I had forgotten about him somehow…of course he was still here. I’d told him he would die if he left my side and he possibly thought I meant by my own hand.

“I should probably go,” I said, reluctant to leave, to be alone again.

“There is much to be done, but life has been difficult for the past few weeks,” Agorran said, slowly rubbing my back. “Remember that may be making things seem worse than maybe they are.”

“You said the high priest doesn’t get any rest. Maybe the hierophant doesn’t either,” I said, laughing slightly to myself.

“Probably not,” Agorran smiled, “but our gods, they lift us up as well.”

“Mine already has…” I whispered, thinking of when Lord Eadro gave me the strength to rise, to save Áine and myself. “That’s why I’m still here.”

“Ours, Nerida,” Agorran gently corrected.

“Ours…” I repeated, warmth rippling through me. Closing my eyes, I sighed contently, resting my face on his shoulder once more. Ours…our shared hope, our shared faith, our devotion and love for Lord Eadro.

Agorran placed his hand on my shoulder and smiled at me, a silent reassurance that everything would work out. Moving away from me, Agorran called after his chamberlain, making sure that they were following his orders regarding the slaves, carrying on with the work that always seemed to find him.

Free…the temple slaves were free. Grinning, I dashed through the hall, I looked for my new companion to share the news with him. We may not be leaving for the new city for a while, but his life would at least improve in the meantime. A little farther down the same hallway, I found the locathah working away, scrubbing at the walls.

“Have you heard the news?” I asked, swimming up beside him.

“News?” he questioned, not pausing in his work.

“You’re free,” I said, but he just kept scrubbing at the wall, almost as if I hadn’t spoken.

“Free to keep working?”

“You’re not a slave anymore. You’ll be paid for your work.”

“Paid in food? That sounds exciting,” he said, still not seeming to understand what I was trying to tell him.

“Paid in money, so you can buy what you want.”

“What, what I want?” he asked, stopping for the first time to look up at me in confusion.

“Mhmm. And you will be given a place to stay in the temple.”

“I want to eat enough, and maybe even too much,” he smiled, swimming off, excitement shining in his eyes.

I stared after him, swallowing thickly around the lump forming in my throat. Didn’t he have any ambitions, any dreams of freedom? I had known hunger too well, known pain at the hands of my owner, but I knew my price. Time was short, but I could fight to own myself. How had he been so beaten into submission that he couldn’t even understand being free?

Left alone in the hall once more, familiar restlessness plagued my mind, anxiety growing out of idleness. Trapped in the temple, only waiting, waiting for everyone else to solve my problems. I was too accustomed to always working, studying, looking after Áine, hardly ever stopping for anything but to sleep in the evening. Maybe Mayra had woken up. If I couldn’t do anything useful, I could at least see one of my belovèd sisters.

“Nerida!” Áine called, throwing her arms around me.

“You’re back!” I cried, holding her close.

“Yea, your boyfriend freed me. He’s really nice.”

“He is indeed,” I said, my guilt resurfacing. I needed to talk to him, work through our misunderstanding, but I hardly knew what to say.

“He said it wasn’t too difficult to free me, so I’m glad. It was pretty dark and scary where I was being held. I don’t know how you got me away from whatever that was. I’m sure it was Aquis or something horrible,” Áine said, shuddering against me.

“He used an imprisonment spell on us and somehow I was able to resist the magic,” I explained, running my fingers through her hair.

“I’m glad you did. I was afraid he might have caught me and would have done whatever he did to Mayra to me…and to you,” Áine whispered, glancing up at me, looking more afraid for me than herself.

“I’m sure he would have if given the chance, but I’ll make sure he doesn’t.”

“I’m so glad you kept me from going back to that,” Áine breathed, clinging to me, tears rolling down her face.

“Never again,” I swore, holding her tightly.

“I’m so glad that of all my sisters, at least you never had to experience that. Poor Mayra…I don’t know how our mother survived so many children.”

“I don’t know how you survived so long either. You say I’m the strong one, but I don’t know about that.” I panicked being touched by the man I love when she endured years of torment at the hands of whomever they threw at her. She wept each time she became pregnant, grieved for each child taken from her, doomed to share our lot in life, and still she kept going.

“Nerida, I know about that. You’re the one who got us out,” Áine laughed softly, ruffling my hair. “So, what are we going to do? Are we going to leave?” She looked at me with such hope in her eyes, wanting nothing more than to be together again and escape this terrible place, put the past behind us.

“I…can’t leave the temple,” I slowly stated, my heart aching watching her face fall, hope replaced with fear.

“But how can we stay here with Aquis trying to kill us, imprison us, or worse?”

“That’s the problem. Aquis tried imprisonment, his obsession growing to possession, but if he can’t have me, he wants me dead. He has an assassin waiting outside the temple for me.”

“Shouldn’t we just leave Zissyx? Now that we have Mayra, what’s keeping us here?”

“There are still so many others enslaved.” I couldn’t just leave them…Lord Eadro bestowed his power upon me and I wouldn’t simply turn my back on them as the rest of the clergy had, as the rest of Zissyx did. Even if I couldn’t personally act here, I would set the stage as well as I could. The children of Lord Eadro deserved to know happiness, to find the light in this world lost to the dark depths of the ocean.

“What can I do about that? What can any of us do?”

“We are young and we are wise. We can do anything,” I smiled, taking her hand in mine.

“Well, you did bring down Zalissa…she’s gone now.”

“And the slaves in the temple have been freed, both courtesy of High Priest Agorran.”

“So that’s a good start. Let’s leave and not die. He got to us even here,” Áine said, her eyes darting warily around us.

“I know…I know no place in Zissyx is truly safe for us, but he’s already used his plan for within the temple walls. We already have Mayra back. He’s running out of means to use against me and I still have my own strength and that of my companions. Lord Eadro has preserved us for this long. I fully believe he won’t abandon us now. We just need to hold on a little longer. Everything will be okay, Áine,” I soothed, rubbing her back.

Maybe I should have been afraid of what Aquis could do to me, the resources at his disposal, the magic he flaunted, stronger than what even Ulkair could use, but I wasn’t. My fear would only give him power and that I refused to do. He was a pompous child and I would not yield to his kind. He once destroyed my chances at the life I wanted, denouncing me as a filthy slave and a whore so no one could ever see me as anything else, but I would rising above my past and claim my own happiness. He will never take that from me again.

“Nerida!” Alix called, swimming up to me, his face taut, anxious. “Cheshire needs to talk to you.”

“Is she okay?” I asked, turning to face him, keeping my hold on Áine’s hand.

“I, I don’t think so.”

“Okay. What does she have to say?”

“Aquis wants me to meet him outside of the city in an hour and a half and he says he has news, I’m sure about you and Áine,” Alix said, evidently repeating everything exactly as he heard. “On the flipside, we could get some of our money back, but we did find the contract for your head in his possessions.”

“You did?” Ulkair mentioned they managed to take everything Aquis had on him, but I didn’t know he’d been carrying a contract.

“Oh. Maybe I should have mentioned that sooner. Yea, we did. We have all his stuff and this beautiful shiny aquamarine. But I don’t know what to do. I could send guards to the meeting place, but he’d probably talk his way out of it. I could go and try to get us both incriminated. Or I could tip off the guards and go and they could overhear us talking about horrible incriminating things? I’d get arrested, but I could shapechange and probably get out of it.”

“If you’re arrested with him, how would we get you out?”

“You guys broke me out of jail once! How tough is Zissyx jail?”

“It’s…look at the city you’re in! Mr. Starfish meant well, but we have guards here.” I had never been in jail here, but I knew them to be far less merciful than what Alix had been in. Even accused of heresy, all saw Alix as a hero and knew he would survive the arena. Crimes, or making the wrong enemies in Zissyx were punished far more severely.

“But then it wouldn’t be ‘he said, she said.’ We could show them this contract if you think it’s enough.”

“And he could buy his way out of jail. There is little money cannot buy here. I can bring that contract to their attention and demand that he pay for what he has done, that I may settle the score myself,” I insisted.

“That’s…of course that’s how they handle it here. But if we do that, I have the contract on me now and going back to the temple would raise some big red flags. Should I take it to the guards? Should I go to the meeting? Should I use that as a failsafe? I mean, it’s your city, Nerida. I don’t know what to do. Alternatively, and I hate to suggest this, but he may or may not still be under the effect of a rather intense charm spell. If I were to show up in the form I charmed him in, I may have an advantage over him.”

“What did you charm him for? Is that how you took his belongings?”

“Yes…and if I looked like I did when I cast it, we would have an advantage over him and his guard might be down enough to get the drop on him.”

“What did you do while he was charmed that you would have an advantage?” I pried, still trying to puzzle out what had happened.

“She’s not going to tell you that through me…” Alix groaned, paling. “Oh no…”

“You have already done so much,” I said, grimacing. “Maybe the contract will be enough. We can at least get Aquis.”

“And if it’s not, we’ll lose our only chance…but I’ll do whatever you want me to, Nerida,” Alix said, recovering from his horror. “I mean, ultimately I feel like there’s not much I can do that’s worse than what I’ve already done.”

“And that’s why I can’t ask you to do this. I…can’t tell you what to do…” I sighed. I let her go talk to Typhon, I told her to read Aquis’ mind, and both times she was horrified with repercussions I still didn’t fully understand. No good came from listening to me, but…that’s what she was asking for, wasn’t it? Guidance, help, an answer in her confusion? She asked for answers I didn’t have either, but maybe I could at least guide her away from the danger she was in. Maybe this time it would work. “The only purpose in going to the meeting now would be to try to reclaim some money, but I don’t care about that. It’s more dangerous than it’s worth. Let’s try the contract.”

“Do you want me to bring the contract back to you? To the guards? You can’t leave the temple. Apparently there are crossbows trained on you and I’m sure they’re poisoned because they’re garbage. I could turn into you and try to take it to them.”

“My face will do you no favours here,” I stated. Aquis’ assassins couldn’t be all over the city, but I had more enemies than only him. Too much could go wrong if she looked like me.

“Except in the case of demanding satisfaction between you and Aquis.”

“Which I would rather do myself. That’s too dangerous to ask of you,” I insisted, praying she listened. Whatever happened with Aquis, I promise it could have been worse. It could always get worse, hope shattered and taken away sliver by sliver. Get out before you delve too deep, Cheshire…

“Do you want me to bring guards to you? Aquis can’t own all of them.”

“No, they hold a great deal of sway over the city, but not quite that much. It should be easy to find a guard. They’re about the only ones carrying weapons.”

“Find someone with armour and a weapon. Got it. Are they required to answer citizen’s cries for help?”

“It’s their job. It might depend on who you find. You can ask them as you are. If they say no, swim around a corner.”

“Okay. She’s going to look for a guard,” Alix said, rummaging through his bag. “And here is the contract.”

“Well, let’s wait in the antechamber for the guard then,” I said, swimming in that direction.

I lazily swam on my back so Alix could keep up, my eyes narrowing as I looked over the contract. Ten thousand gold…he offered ten thousand for my head. How many times would others put a price on my life, make me an object for sale? I glared at the tablet, my hands shaking, wanting nothing more than to shatter the stone into dust, but I knew I couldn’t. At least I was worth something this time…

Abruptly, something soft grazed my face, a waving blue strand not my own. Furrowing my brows, I lowered the contract a little, finding Áine swimming above me, peering over the stone tablet in my hand. Giggling, I poked her in the nose, flicking my caudal fin at her. I held the contract against my chest, sighing, letting my anger fall away as I looked into my sister’s green eyes, once more bright and full of life. She made it, we were free. That was what mattered. We couldn’t be bought or sold anymore, no matter what they thought.

As I approached the antechamber, a merman carrying a trident swam up to me, looking me over quickly.

“I heard a tip that there was a hit on your life,” the guard stated.

“Yes. Here is the documentation of it,” I said, handing him the stone tablet.

“Oh, by Aquis . That’s…that’s some serious business,” he said, a grim look on his face, his eyes darting between me and the contract. “So, what do you want to do about it? Do you want to bring these charges against him?”

“I would demand satisfaction from him, for this is not his first attempt on my life.” Not the first, but this would be the last.

“Whoo, okay, good,” the guard said, obviously relieved he wouldn’t have to confront Aquis or his father. “Well, I can go file those charges and Aquis will be informed that he must meet you or be shamed and cast from the city.”

“See that you do,” I stated, eying the guard. He…seemed genuine, more honest than most guards in Zissyx. If Aquis didn’t have him killed, he would likely do as he said.

The guard nodded at me and swam out of the temple. Watching him leave, I was almost…jealous, feeling too confined in these walls. Had I only been here a day? It felt so much longer, watching everyone else come and go while I was trapped here. Imprisoned…vestiges of Ulkair’s disquiet leeched through our link, like how he felt in his cave. Moving in his direction, he drifted away, but I couldn’t tell if he was moving away from me or simply moving, too irritable to remain still.

‘Ulkair?’ I called out, hoping he would answer me. The soft chattering and restlessness I felt from him instantly disappeared, his end of our growing still. Don’t run…please, don’t block me out.

‘Yes, Nerida?’ he answered, his voice ever so slightly strained, controlled.

‘Can we talk?’

‘Always, Nerida,’ he breathed.

‘Where are you?’ I asked, relief flowing through me at the soft words. I still didn’t know what I would say to him, but speaking would be a start. We would figure something out.

‘Come swim with me,’ Ulkair invited, sending me an image of where he was in the temple.

“I…need to speak with Ulkair,” I said, turning to Áine and Latus. “Could I be alone for a little bit to do that?”

“Yea, you do,” Áine grinned, winking at me.

“I’ll see you guys later,” I sighed, swimming towards where Ulkair was.

“See you in the morning, Nerida,” Áine called after me, giggling.

What was she so amused about? Well, at least she was in a good mood. Shaking my head, I swam through the temple, looking for the room Ulkair showed me, following the faint tug of our link drawing me towards him. Coming up to the room, I peered inside, seeing Ulkair swim in agitated circles. Ulkair’s eyes flashed in my direction and he froze in the middle of the room. Watching him, I crept forward, stopping a few feet in front of him.

“So, Nerida, what would you say? It’s…been a long day,” Ulkair sighed, pale golden eyes regarding me.

“When we spoke earlier, it would seem you perceived my words differently than I had intended them. I certainly never meant to insinuate in any fashion that you were akin to Aquis, for I know it is not true,” I said, finding my words oddly…formal, perhaps an unconscious effort at diplomacy.

“And yet, is it not? I tried to force myself on you, just as he wants to do. I suppose I thought it was…” Ulkair trailed off, shaking his head. “I, I don’t know, Nerida.”

“You told me you were upset and I should leave you alone and I didn’t listen. I’m at least as much at fault as you are, if not more so.”

“Indeed, I knew perhaps you weren’t ready for that, but…” Ulkair’s face fell, shame contorting his every feature.

“I never thought such acts could be of anything but pain and despair, but perhaps I was wrong, and I would be glad to be.” I loved being near him, holding him in my arms, even feeling his magic coursing through me, his presence always lingering in the back of my mind. I would not fear him again.

“Well, Nerida,” Ulkair began, swimming close to me, caressing the side of my face, “they don’t have to be, but cruel, evil people make them that way. I hope to never be that person again.”

“That’s what startled me the most. I knew you were not that kind of person, and yet…I did not understand there could be another intent,” I admitted, hating that I was so quick to doubt him, fear him.

“No, it was born of my love for you. I, I hope you can believe that,” Ulkair said, his golden eyes gazing into mine, pleading with me to trust in him as I had in Elysia.

“I’m sorry I hurt you,” I whispered, hugging him and resting my head on his shoulder.

“I’m sorry I pushed too quickly into something you weren’t ready for. I would only ever want that from you in love,” he whispered back, wrapping his arms around me.

“I trust you.”

“That’s what got me through Elysia, that you trusted me and I love you for it,” Ulkair said, kissing the top of my head. “I love you, Nerida, not just your body. It’s just…you caught me at a bad time.”

“Do you want to talk about what happened?”

“I think, I think I need to talk to Cheshire first,” Ulkair sighed, a pained expression ghosting across his face.

“Is everything okay?”

“We made it through.”

“We made it through Elysia and though scars remain, they are only indicative of so much.”

“We need to do something about that,” Ulkair commented, tracing the fissures along my skin as he held me.

“Yes, we do,” I sighed, thinking about the glaring fissures glowing along my skin. Magic…I couldn’t cast any spells here if I wanted to keep them a secret. Maybe no one here would know what they were, but that was too dangerous a risk…I would have to fight Aquis without use of my magic. “I’m going to be fighting Aquis tomorrow,” I announced, realizing he hadn’t heard about our upcoming battle.

“What?” Ulkair grit out, his grip on me tightening protectively.

“I’m trying to kill him before he can kill me?”

“I will kill him and his entire family before he could touch you,” Ulkair seethed darkly. “How, how are you going to kill him, Nerida? How are you going to find him and kill him without leaving the temple?”

“Cheshire sent a guard here and I showed him the contract for the hit Aquis put out on me. That was enough proof demand satisfaction from him on the morrow. I can’t hide in the temple forever.”

“I guess I shouldn’t have ignored you,” Ulkair sighed, running his fingers through my hair, “but at least I figured out how to free your sister. Not that it was difficult. With everything Cheshire had, I’m sure she could have done it.”

“How did you free her? I thought you said you couldn’t cast the spell anymore?”

“I just used their scroll and keyword, set up a ritual so she would appear here rather than where they planned to release her.”

“That doesn’t sound simple,” I commented, raising an eyebrow.

“Oh, it didn’t take hardly any of my time. I wished it had taken more…”

“If you’re bored, you can always help slaves clean the walls,” I lightly laughed. If nothing else good came from this, at least I spoke with that locathah, somehow gave him hope when he hadn’t known what it was to even dream.

“What?”

“I, I needed to stay busy and I didn’t know what else to do,” I blushed, looking away.

“We’re quite a pair, aren’t we, Nerida,” Ulkair chuckled, rubbing my back.

“A strange, crazy pair.”

“But there is none like you,” Ulkair murmured, running his fingers through my hair.

“That may be a good thing. I’m not well loved here,” I muttered.

“No place where you’re not well loved is a good place for us to be. I care not for Zissyx.”

“I don’t think anyone cares for Zissyx…”

“Well, anything I can do to help you?”

“Do you know anything about Aquis from following him or reading his mind?” He had made a point of knowing everything he could about me, but I knew almost nothing about him, just that he was a wealthy noble trying to destroy me. Maybe Ulkair had learned something that would be of use to me.

“I just know he has an entourage of followers, but it’s just going to be you and him, right?” Ulkair asked, frowning slightly.

“It’s supposed to be, but that’s only if he shows up and doesn’t know someone with magic who can intervene at his behest. Is there any way to hide the marks that appear when I cast spells? I simply fear revealing a weakness around so many none too kind to those with them.”

“Indeed, indeed, but we shouldn’t worry. I don’t think you will need spells to defeat him,” Ulkair grinned, looking at Anduin floating beside us.

“Indeed…it’ll be okay…” I said, taking a deep breath. I didn’t want to be without my magic, the power of Lord Eadro I was now so accustomed to wielding, but…I was strong before he chose me, harden by whip and toil. My strength, with Anduin in my hand, I would be enough to kill him and save everyone I held dear from his indignation.

“Oh, I’ll make sure it’s okay,” Ulkair grinned darkly.

“What are you planning?” I asked, eying him warily.

“If some wizard intervenes, you will have a wizard intervening on your behalf as well,” Ulkair said, caressing the side of my face.

“Do I need to cast shield other on you?” I asked, the protective spell somehow becoming something of a threat.

“No, no, I think I’ll be fine.”

“You’d better be,” I pouted, snuggling in closer.

“You too,” Ulkair lightly chuckled, kissing my forehead. “You better be too.”

“I’ve been torn to pieces by a demon. What’s Aquis going to do?” He hid behind others, throwing his money and his prestige at his problems. He sent me to hell where I met an angel, fought my way to heaven and battled demons, and came back so much more than I could have imagined. I had nothing to fear from him.

“Exactly. I mean, we beat One Punch Man.”

“One Punch Man?”

“Cheshire,” Ulkair said, laughing.

“Is that what she’s been calling Vhailor?” I cried, staring at him. It was one punch, wasn’t it? Oh Alix…I’m so sorry…

“Yea,” Ulkair said, still chuckling to himself.

“Well, I’m pretty sure Aquis isn’t a vampire, but stabbing him will still hurt. If I can kill people on accident, I should be able to do it on purpose.”

“You’ll be fine, Nerida. You’ll be fine.”

“Hey Ulkair…” I began, taking a deep breath, trying to calm my heart pounding in my chest for words I never wanted to speak again. “There was…something else I wanted to tell you about.”

“What’s bothering you, my love? Something other than Aquis?”

“It’s…about what happened earlier, by the kelp forests with Cheshire.” Swallowing hard, I reached for his hand, holding it tightly to my chest, both wanting, needing the reassurance, but feeling like I didn’t deserve it. “Maybe, maybe if I had told you then, things would have gone differently.”

“And maybe they wouldn’t have. I think we’ve both learned the pain of imagining too many could-have-beens. “

“Even so, I feel you should know. You, you said you could never judge me harshly and you never have before. When I was in Byss, when you first took up residence in my head, I felt safer talking to you than any of my companions. I didn’t need to watch my wording, worry about what you might discover about me, assuming you already knew everything. You knew and still I was good enough to do what you needed. That was more than anyone else had given me. Maybe you don’t actually know everything about me and maybe you don’t need to, but this, maybe this you should know. Evidently, I can’t hide from it anymore.”

‘Though I’ve tried.’ Slowly exhaling, I squeezed Ulkair’s hand, struggling to find the words to tell him, where even to begin. What did he know of the life of a slave in Zissyx? The prevalence of all forms of abuse, what it truly meant to not own even yourself?

“I guess to a degree, I’m used to being touched by hands I wanted nowhere near me, held too closely by anyone who thought they could get away with it, but nothing too bad. It’s just…part of life in Zissyx and there isn’t anything you can do about it. If I had tried to complain to anyone about being groped, I’d probably be beaten for bothering them. For rape they might have tried filing charges of property damage because I have blue hair, but that’s it. As I grew up, I got better at avoiding others, recognizing places that would be easier to attack people from and getting out of trouble if I was foolish enough to get into it. I did my best, but when I was fourteen, I made a mistake.”

I clung to Ulkair, burying my face in his neck, old feelings of self-loathing and guilt swirling in me, so much fear, buried, but never fully forgotten. No, it had become part of my every mannerism, my suspicion, my mistrust. Only in being alone are you safe, where no one can betray you, take advantage of any weakness not yet struck down by the cruelty of this world, but I didn’t want to be alone anymore. Taking a shaky breath, I continued, praying Ulkair would be more forgiving of my folly than I had been.

“At that point, Áine had been in the breeding pits for two years already. She was twenty years old and had just had her second child, soon to be pregnant with her third. I don’t know why, but I just had it in my head that twenty was the magic age we would die at. Áine…she had already become a shell of the person she had once been. She tried to look after us, but it was hard on her, especially after she lost her arm.”

“So I did my best to earn money where I could without hurting other slaves. I heard a rumour one day about some random job or another in an area I didn’t know terribly well. I was so desperate to earn at least enough to free Áine before…” I shuddered, tears pricking in my eyes, “before I would one day wake to find her cold in my arms that I didn’t think too much about it. I showed up and looked around for whoever I was supposed to speak with, wary of every shadow, but saw nothing,” I laughed bitterly. How could I have been so foolish to fall into such an obvious trap, to think there was no danger on the simple basis that I could not see it?

“I had just been wondering what I had been so worried about when I found myself pinned to the ground, without ever even seeing anyone. He must have been twice my age, maybe a little older. I don’t think he was even a slave. We were just an easy target with minimal repercussions at worst. He looked at me with the coldest blue eyes I had ever seen, offering me a deal. I could pay him fifty gold, or he would take what he wanted. Everything, everything I had figured out about getting out of such situations, staying calm, learning what I could about whomever was involved, finding a way out, it all vanished in the haze of my panic. I pulled at my arms as hard as I could, tried to hit him with my tail, but he wouldn’t budge.”

Squeezing my eyes shut, I fought back tears threatening to fall, suffocating in emotions left too long to stew and fester in the dark recesses of my mind. The feeling of his fingers trailing along my skin, his lips kissing down the side of my neck, his laughter echoing in my mind…it was my fault…it was all my fault…if I hadn’t gone there, if I had just given him what he wanted, everything would have been okay! If I hadn’t been such a coward…

“There was no way out I could see but paying him money I knew I couldn’t afford to lose…and I couldn’t do that to Áine. She had suffered so much on our account already, doing everything she could to take care of us. S-so, I…I tried so hard to look calm, act like I didn’t feel like I was dying as I told him I would give him nothing, but he just grinned and said ‘we’ll see.’ I tried, I tried to stay strong, convince myself that I could face it just once. Áine had, so many times, so I could too. I needed to, for her, but…I was so scared,” I sobbed into Ulkair’s chest, my resolve finally giving way as tears streamed from my eyes.

“If that was what stole the light from Áine’s eyes, made her cry herself to sleep so many nights, what would it do to me? What if he took something I could never get back? I, I thought it was almost like a disease. Even once and it would tear through my body, stealing my soul and gradually corrupting my every hope and dream, leaving their shattered remains to lacerate me until I was unrecognizable, until even mustering the will to live was too great of a burden to bear. I don’t know…I don’t know what I thought, but I was convinced it would destroy me. Fear….wretched, base fear consumed my every thought, turning any hope of plan into panic. Maybe…maybe he could have become distracted and I could have slipped away, but I could hardly think, just screaming for him to stop.”

I clung tighter to Ulkair, praying he would chase away the memory I was losing myself in as he had before, save me from the feeling of that merman’s touch ghosting across my skin, prodding at my scales, his deep voice resounding in my mind, mocking my every movement, every strangled cry he tore from my throat. I prayed Ulkair wouldn’t push me away, even if he should.

“This is what makes you mistrust men so?” Ulkair asked, looking down at me, gently running his fingers through my hair. “I suppose it makes sense, but I hope you can see we aren’t all like that. I’d kill anyone who did that to you.”

“Even before then, I suppose,” I sniffled, glancing up to meet his gaze. “I saw too many times what happened trusting anyone, especially men. The only exception was my siblings, and even then I was closer to my sisters. Severi never hurt me, but…he never helped me either. I expected the same from the Byssians who first found me crawling through the swamps, from Alix and Lóin, even you, when I first met you, but you all have thankfully proven contrary. I don’t suppose I would be this close to you if I didn’t trust you.”

“I’ll hold you close forever,” Ulkair murmured, kissing my forehead.

“A few days later I told Áine what happened,” I continued, feeling like I should finish the story, even if I didn’t really want to. My cowardice that almost cost us everything, our lives, our freedom, not mere currency…if he was to understand, he should know. “She didn’t get angry, yell at me, blame me for anything, and I hated myself more for it because she should have. She just held me in her arm until I stopped sobbing, telling me it would be okay. I begged Áine to buy her own freedom, save at least herself. She deserved happiness and I didn’t want to be responsible for her life anymore, every passing day weighing down on me, another day I hadn’t free her, but she refused to leave without me. Maybe she knew that without her, I wouldn’t make it.”

“After that, I largely stopped eating. Every bit of kelp I put into my mouth turned to ash as every piece could have been another copper or so towards our freedom. I started selling my daily rations, scarcely sleeping at night so I could roam the ocean floors for food or shiny things to sell. After two months, I couldn’t do it anymore. I barely managed to get back the money I had lost, but there was so much more we needed for both of us. I fell down working and couldn’t get up, or maybe I didn’t want to. Everything hurt and I was so tired and it just seemed so…futile. I was fighting a war I couldn’t possibly win. Then Lord Eadro lifted me up, gave me the strength to keep going.”

“Even so, even with my god to preserve me, it took me two more years to free us. How much sooner might we have escaped if I hadn’t been such a coward? How many more times was my sister violated because of me? And she calls me the strong one,” I scoffed, shaking my head bitterly. “I succumbed to my fear and almost lost everything, only surviving by the divine grace of Lord Eadro. Fear…fear doesn’t stop anything from happening. It won’t help you, save you, chase away your demons. No, it only makes you weak against enemies who are always lurking, waiting. I learned then that if I was going to survive, I couldn’t risk fearing anything.”

I slumped against Ulkair, feeling drained somehow. So much guilt, so much regret I had been carrying for these years, tormenting me for every choice I made, wondering how they would affect Áine, or if I was doomed to lose her too. His arms tightened around me, holding me close as he trembled in an onslaught of emotions I felt radiating off him, his rage, anguish, despair, hatred, protectiveness surrounding me as did the cool waters of the ocean.

“I’ll never push you away, Nerida,” Ulkair whispered, tenderly wiping the tears from my face and kissing my eyes. “If Áine doesn’t blame you, then neither should we. I only wish I could have protected you then as we protect each other now.” Under his breath, so quietly I almost missed it, he muttered, “No, I blame that horrible man, who shall pay.”

I almost wanted to argue with him, say that Áine refusing to blame me didn’t mean that he shouldn’t, but Ulkair pulled me in closer and the words died on my lips. I rested my face on his shoulder and he stroked my hair, slowly bringing peace to the chaos whirling in my mind, relief flowing through me that he wouldn’t reject me. I’ve…hated myself for so long because of what happened. If I had been the one hurt, that would have been okay, but Áine…she didn’t deserve it. But…we made it. Regardless of how or how long, what we went through, the scars that remain, we survived. That’s more than too many could say.

“Do you regret knowing?” I whispered. Even if he wouldn’t push me away, maybe he hadn’t wanted to know how broken I was, so foolish in the face of the world.

“I’d regret your being too scared to share it with me. I love you, Nerida, and when I say that I mean I love you despite or because of the things that have happened to you. Do you regret knowing I was the one who doomed Elysia? Who subsequently destroyed it? No. I’m just glad you love and trust me enough to tell me.”

“You doomed Elysia?” Glancing up at Ulkair, I ran my finger along his lips, a small smile finding its way to my own. “That’s funny. I don’t see any fangs.”

“You better hope I don’t have fangs,” Ulkair smiled, grabbed my fingers and softly bit one.

“Indeed not. They can’t have you,” I said, pulling my hand away to brush the side of his face. “I love you too much to allow undeath to claim you. Or regular death, for that matter. There is nothing you have told me that I have regret coming to learn. In truth, I wish you’d tell me more about your life before.”

“My life then pales in comparison to now, because you are in it,” Ulkair softly whispered as he closed his eyes, holding my hand to the side of his face.

“I could rather say the same, my love, my paradise I hadn’t known existed, and yet here you are in my arms. Still, I would like to know if you would be willing to tell me, if it’s not too painful to think about.”

“It’s painful, but…I’m safe here in your arms, beloved .” As Ulkair said the last word, a knowledge, a certainty of his love flooded me, a picture of us together in bliss forming in my mind, inseparable and intertwined, and I realized he must have used the Elysian word for ‘beloved.’ He continued, speaking in Elysian, my mind whirling as it was filled with images and sensations I wasn’t used to language alone bringing. “Every wizard must write his spells down, with special inks and in magical books, but I took special delight in mine. I thought that if I’ve already gone to this much effort, I might as well take a little more time to make them beautiful, as well. I would draw in the margins, illuminate the letters, and bring the spells to life upon the page.”

As he spoke, I saw a page of his spellbook, a spell that caused plants to spring to life and entangle his enemies. The letters looked like roots, vines, and various plant life I saw when Aintai used this magic upon the bone giant, the margins filled with interlocking patterns.

“It’s…beautiful…” I breathed, in awe of the book he had shown me, mastery of brush and pen far beyond my meager understanding. I could barely write with a stylus clenched in my fist, and yet he brought each page to life with such beauty befitting the land of his birth. “You still have it, right? Is it in your pocket?” I asked, praying he hadn’t lost it to the vampires as he had so much else.

“Indeed, my greater spellbooks with my personal research and more powerful spells were taken, but they left me my lower grade and early work.”

“I’m sorry, Ulkair…is there anything I can do?”

“If they weren’t destroyed immediately, they are in a nightmare hellscape that would be impossible to search. I don’t think there’s anything we can do about them,” Ulkair said, laying his head atop mine. “I think I don’t want to dwell on my past, but on our future. I love you so much for listening to my mad ramblings.”

“They were neither mad nor do you ramble,” I said, nuzzling his face. “Our past has left its mark on us both, but we are more than what has been done to us.”

“And the marks don’t hurt so badly when you’re with me.”

“Then together we will be,” I said, smiling. “Come on, let’s get some sleep. It’s been a long day.”

“Indeed it has. Sleep in radiant peace, my love .”

Images of us sleeping until a glorious dawn swirl through my mind, resting and comfortable, lulling my mind. Lying down, Ulkair pulled me into his arms, running his fingers through my hair. Snuggling into his chest, I fell into a peaceful slumber, dreaming of the future he spoke of.

Come morning, I woke to Ulkair’s loving gaze, his fingers trailing along the side of my face. Smiling, I closed my eyes, resting my hand over his and simply enjoying the peace of the moment in our typical routine before I knew I needed to prepare for the fight with Aquis. At least one crossbow was undoubtedly still awaiting the moment I left the temple, possibly more lining the path to where we would fight. If it would be Aquis himself waiting there and not someone disguised as him with magic, some scapegoat to be sacrificed for a lord’s son.

Sighing, the respite already lost to what could be, I tried to sit up, my arms protesting what shouldn’t have been difficult. Frowning, I pulled myself upright, only for my vision to swim, exhaustion clinging to me despite sleeping soundly. My fatigue…part of the lingering damage from Elysia…it was coming back. Agorran’s spell kept the unnatural weariness at bay for more than a week, and though it wasn’t as bad as it had been, I couldn’t deny that it was returning.

“Nerida? Is something wrong?” Ulkair asked, wrapping his arms around me.

“I’m…just a little tired,” I said, resting my head on his shoulder and closing my eyes.

For today, I was just a little tired. Tomorrow, it would be worse, the fissures draining more and more every day until simply being awake would be a chore again. Any reservations I had about leaving were fading as my strength was, weakness that I couldn’t afford here of all places. Cold dread filled me and I prayed that this time, it wouldn’t be so bad. This time, I would be stronger, strong enough to manage simple lethargy.

“It won’t be so bad this time,” Ulkair said, concern knitting his brows. “We know how to treat it, and we’re getting closer to a solution.”

“I don’t know that stealing High Priest Agorran’s strength counts as viable treatment,” I said, cringing.

“It does if it keeps you alive.”

“Was I in danger of dying before?”

“No, I meant staying alive dealing with our other problems,” Ulkair replied, his face pained.

“Byss is much safer than it was before. I’m sure I’ll be fine until we can find this elusive solution.”

“I’ll keep you safe wherever we are, whatever the cost, my love. I…wouldn’t know what to do without you.”

“Between the two of us, you won’t have to find out,” I whispered, nuzzling his face. “I’m not going anywhere. I have too much to live for now and I’m far too stubborn.”

“You are uncommonly stubborn,” Ulkair said, smiling and raising his hand to my face.

“And you’re uncommonly dedicated.”

“Some things are worth holding on to.” Ulkair wrapped his arms around me tightly, laying his head on my shoulder and snuggling close.

“Indeed, and I don’t intend to let go. Guess you’re stuck with me,” I giggled, twining my tail around his.

“I guess so. I mean, how did I get stuck with someone so strong, kind, beautiful, and self-sacrificing? How am I supposed to deal with that?” Ulkair said, greatly exaggerating his words and rolling his eyes. “You make me look bad.” Pausing, Ulkair soberly added, “actually, without you, I’d still look pretty terrible. I’m glad you don’t intend to ever let go.”

“You look pretty beautiful to me,” I murmured, gently kissing him, sighing as I felt his soft lips press against mine.

Kissing me back, Ulkair sighed, burying his face in my neck. “Perhaps we ought to get ready for the day.”

“I suppose…I do have a noble to kill,” I mumbled, letting my arms fall around his waist, folding my hands behind him so I could pray to Lord Eadro, happy to hold him again.

After prayer and meditation, Ulkair waved his hand, drawing unfamiliar symbols before him as he muttered an incantation. Soft light emitted from his hand, protective magic glowing across my skin, weaving around me so I would not face my enemies alone. Calling my own magic to my hands, shifting colours swirled around me, forming a shield. If only I had the spell memorized yesterday, I could have left the temple and helped Cheshire and Ulkair…or made matters worse if Aquis saw me. Shaking my head, I let the matter go. Mourning the past changed nothing, no matter how much I had wanted to help them.

I placed my hands over my eyes, casting another spell on them so they wouldn’t be fooled by any magical disguise Aquis might have planned. Lowering my hands, I grimaced seeing my arms, noticing the cracks hadn’t faded as they normally did after I cast spells. The glowing fissures, the mark of my shattered soul carved into my skin still covered my arms, stretching across my chest and back the clearest I had ever seen them. Was this how Agorran saw me now? He had noticed the marks without seeing me cast magic or using any of his own, as far as I could tell. Fragile, broken, guarded by those I held dear, but I couldn’t simply hide and accept their protection anymore. Aquis would die at my hand and he would threaten us no more.

I took Ulkair’s hand, leading him towards the entrance where our companions waited for us. Áine regarded me curiously, looking between Ulkair and I as if trying to discern something, though she said nothing. Taking a deep breath, I placed my hand on the temple door, knowing an assassin waited for me, but there was no avoiding the crossbow trained on me. Our magic should be enough, but even if they hit me, it would take more than one shot to bring me down. In that time, we could fight back.

Swimming outside, a bolt immediately sailed through the water towards me, its aim true. The water before me wavered, flaring vibrant hues as the dart passed through it, my shield throwing the dart askew, but not far enough. Pain rippled through my arm as the bolt grazed it, my blood leeching into the water around me, the sting of poison biting at me. Ulkair’s eyes narrowed and he thrust his hand forward, a wave of force exploding out of his palm towards the assassin. The surrounding water swirled as shockwaves swelled around the blast of arcane energy firing straight at my would-be murderer, crushing him against the wall.

I glanced at my arm, running my finger along the shallow wound, fighting back ebbing waves of nausea. If there were any other assassins waiting, they didn’t make themselves known. Ulkair squeezed my hand still firm in his grip, reassuring me he was yet at my side. No longer would I face the cruelty of this city alone, merely fighting to shield my sisters from the terrors each day brought.

Swimming through the city, my eyes scanned every shadow, every corner someone could hide behind on the way to where I would meet Aquis near the government building, but no movement caught my gaze, no faint gleam of light reflecting off the bronze tip of a crossbow bolt. Perhaps Aquis only hired the one, but I knew I couldn’t afford to relax. Arriving at square, a crowd awaited us, too eager for blood, though most seemed to want Aquis’. Word travelled fast. Anyone who cared to know would have learned by now that I had gone to Byss and returned, surviving my suicide mission beyond all expectations. I survived and Aquis had earned my wrath as he undoubtedly had that of so many others unable to prove anything.

Aquis crept forward out of the crowd, nervously looking around, shrinking under his father’s harsh stare. I looked down at my skin, sea green light still glowing along the fissures, proof my true seeing spell was still working. I looked back at Aquis as an announcer was spewing something about honour I didn’t care to heed, searching for some sign that this was a trick and he wasn’t who I thought, but I saw nothing. Typhon’s gaze hardened, his ire and disapproval at his son obvious for all to see. Shame…a past of slavery was seen as shameful, and for a noble to run from even a former slave, to refuse to accept my challenge, they would be disgraced. All the privilege that allowed you to torment me finally had its cost, didn’t it?

The announcer gestured for the fight to commence and Aquis adopted a defensive stance, slipping two daggers from their place at his hips and holding them before him. Spinning my trident in my hand, Anduin hummed in my grasp and I grinned, knowing that wouldn’t be enough. I was going to kill him and he knew it. He knew it…his hazel eyes peaked out from behind his arms, watching me, so full of fear.

I clenched my teeth and swung Anduin’s haft up into my other hand, setting him to charge. I couldn’t falter now. He wasn’t just an afraid child…he was older than I was by several years and he chose this. No one else made him obsess over me, despise me, give me a task that should have killed me or send an assassin after me. No one made him buy my sister and torment her. No one made him threaten Latus’ family or abduct Áine and I. He was guiltier than that assassin I stole a portion of a soul from, that I let Ulkair swoop on. He was afraid, but he should be. He made his bed to lie in, I would make his grave.

My grip on Anduin tightened and I charged at Aquis, looking at the one who would have destroyed everything I loved, not the fear in his wide eyes, hiding behind daggers that couldn’t save him. Tearing through the water, I thrust my trident before me, ripping through Aquis, his thin leather armour offering little resistance. Aquis’ screams resounded, almost masking the faint cracking of his ribs giving way under my wrath, the water around us tinging red as I tore my trident out of him. Blood dripped along his lip as he sneered at me, his face contorted in pain and terror though his eyes burned anew with furious indignation. Pulling his drawn daggers back, he swung the blades in wide arcs, one right after the other. Feinting to the side, he dashed in close to me, grazing my forearm with his last slash.

I backed away from him, clutching my arm as a new wave of nausea surging through me, stronger than before. The cut burned as poison ripped through my veins, devouring my every ounce of strength. Aquis smirked, twirling his daggers in his hands as he crept closer. Whatever poison he used, it was strong…if I was cut one more time, even one tiny scrape, would I even be able to move? What of that which was still tearing through my veins?

Keeping my distance, I called my magic to my hands, grimacing when my soul fissures flared even brighter before so many, but I had no choice. I cringed, pooling magic into my spell to save me from the residual poison in one hand. Focusing on my other, light sizzled around my fingers, the energy so familiar it felt like it had become a part of me more than a spell memorized. Sea green light crawled along my skin, finding my wound, soothing the poison eating away at me. Holding my hand before me, searing light shot from my palm, burning a hole through Aquis’ left shoulder, the faint taste of his charred flesh leeching into the water.

Aquis screamed, dropping one of his daggers, turning to glare furiously at me, desperation lurking in his gaze. Gripping his other dagger, he slashed frantically at me, inflicting me with his poison again his only chance. Neatly dancing away from his attacks, I held Anduin before me, keeping the merman at a safe distance. Aquis’ gaze flickered past me and he raised his hand, an arrogant smirk stretching across his face once more. Not a moment later, I heard a couple heavy footsteps followed by a muffled scream, a wave of satisfaction from Ulkair rippling through me. All remaining colour drained from Aquis face and he slowly backed away from me, drawing his dagger up in a defensive stance again. Glancing briefly behind me, I saw a stone giant watching me a ways behind the crowd.

Shaking my head, I turned back to Aquis, ready to finally settle our debt. What he had done to me, I could overlook, but what he had put my sisters through, what more he would have done to them if he could, that I could never forgive. Holding my hand before me, light radiated from my palm, divine magic burning like the sun though the fissures betrayed nothing. The one who would take them from me, delight in every tear they shed, every drop of blood he drew from wounds joyfully inflicted, relishing their pain, knowing what their suffering would do to me. The one who would not rest, would never leave me alone while both of our hearts yet beat. No longer would your shadow taunt us, not while the light of Lord Eadro shone on us.

Thrusting my hand forward, light burst out of my open palm, searing into Aquis’ shoulder again. The spell sizzled as it burnt through the already brittle, charred flesh, echoed by his agonized shrieks. The light coalesced, engulfing Aquis’ shoulder and severing his arm. Aquis stared blankly forward, his convulsing body sinking to the ground followed by scorched bits of his own flesh, the taste of blood and fire thick in the water. Typhon shook his head, hardly looking surprised as he swam away from the crowd, leaving his son’s body behind on the cold ocean floor.

Swimming up to his body, I flicked his face with my caudal fin, verifying his death with not a little satisfaction at the insult. I was finally free of him, of the slavery of my past, the chains keeping me in this horrible city. Áine need not fear him and Mayra….well, he couldn’t touch her anymore.

“Well, at least that chapter is finished,” Agorran sighed, putting his hand on my shoulder.

“It doesn’t undo what he has done to my sisters, but he will not be able to harm anyone else,” I said, placing my hand over his. Perhaps it isn’t what he would have done in his infinite kindness, always striving to preserve life, but I hadn’t known how else to protect my sister’s from his attacks. If he only targeted me, I could have accepted that risk, but they had suffered so much already.

“No, he will not.”

Breaking away from the rest of the crowd, Cheshire darted towards me, throwing her arms around me. Ulkair followed close behind her, his gaze on the young bard in my arms, understanding and more affection than I had ever seen him look at one other than me. Glancing at Aquis’ body, Cheshire sniffled, burying her face in my neck.

“Whatever happened between you three, I’m sorry, but…never again,” I murmured into Cheshire’s hair, drawing her in close.

“Well, he’s dead and we’re okay,” Cheshire shuddered, clinging to me.

“That’s a good start,” I hummed.

“That’s all that matters,” Ulkair said, taking my arm in his and resting his head on my shoulder.

Smiling, I nuzzled his face, just holding them, treasuring these people who, for reasons I couldn’t understand, loved me back despite it all. Slowly, Cheshire pulled away, bright sea green eyes staring up at me, full of relief.

As the general crowd dispersed, a familiar face parted from the other government officials, blue eyes watching me as he swam towards me. Severi…I hadn’t seen him for some time now, usually opting to send him messages rather than meeting with him, lest someone realize he had been a slave as well.

“I’m glad you beat him, Nerida,” Severi said, glancing curiously between Cheshire and Ulkair as he approached us.

“Good to see you again,” I said, lightly wrapping my arms around him.

“Indeed. It’s good to see you too,” Severi replied, to my surprise, returning my embrace.

Smiling, I rested my face on his shoulder. I never truly blamed him for freeing himself alone, knowing what fate awaited him if he were remain enslaved, but some part of my fourteen year old mind had still felt a little betrayed. He had always kept to himself, only seeing the rest of us at night when we slept. His arms around me now, I knew that after everything, he was still my brother. Two pairs of arms wrapped around us, our sisters joining in the embrace, the four of us finally together again.

“Áine, you got your arm back! That’s wonderful!” Severi cried, looking over Áine’s arm. “Nerida, it would seem you’ve become a powerful priestess.”

“A lot happened on land.”

“Yes, I had heard of that horrible, horrible quest they sent you on.”

“That reached the government?”

“I kept an eye on my sisters,” Severi said, smiling faintly. “So, Nerida, what are you going to do now?”

“Well, there was something I wanted to talk to you about,” I said, wringing my hands as doubt crept into my mind. He had never helped me before, so why should he now, when doing what I would ask of him could earn him disfavour? “How much sway do you hold over the government?”

“I have some pull. Why?” Severi asked, eying me.

“I trust you have heard of the coastal city and that it was destroyed? I want to lead people there, reinhabit it.”

“Well, our home is not the best place…I imagine it wouldn’t be too hard to do better. I’ve tried to work within the system, but I do hate it here. I’ve just never had anywhere else that I could go.”

“I fear that has been the case for many,” I agreed, shaking my head. Had I not been given the task I was, I likely never would have left Zissyx, certainly never opt to live on land, but the ocean was too vast, too dangerous to venture through lightly.

“For our entire family, until you left.”

“Indeed. We could give our people another option, somewhere else to go. I was also hoping to slowly lessen the grip of slavery here and one day to rid our city of its horror.

“I will do what I can, but it will take time,” Severi sighed, running his hand through his hair, his face growing stern.

“If they could at least be treated with some shred of humanity in the meantime…anything would be an improvement.”

“With Aquis gone, that’s a good step in the right direction.”

“If only I had something against his father to prove his involvement…” I trailed off, sighing. If Typhon didn’t hate me before, he was bound to now and with what he had done to my sister….I didn’t know his full involvement, but Aquis couldn’t have done all he did alone.

“That merman is as slippery as an eel and twice as mean. I’ll do what I can to bring change. What were you planning on doing?”

“The church in Byss converted to Lord Eadro and I have much to teach them,” I said, watching as the fissures on my skin finally disappeared, though I knew they weren’t truly gone. That…we would also have to do something about my shattered soul, but I didn’t need to tell Severi about that. As it was, any clerics around must have seen them when I used magic. The less they knew about what they were, the better.

“Oh, how interesting. I never would have guessed that land dwellers would have worshipped Lord Eadro.”

“I don’t suppose anyone suspected as much. That may be why it was part of my task.” The more reasonable part, at that. Though the Byssians worshiped Elysia, here, it was generally thought of as little more than a fable.

“Yes, we all thought it was impossible, but you, Nerida, you have always been one to do the impossible.”

“Between Zissyx and Byss, I’m sure I’ll stay busy,” I blushed, looking away, unsure of how to handle the praise.

“Indeed it seems like you will be much safer for you there. Visit often? Will you be taking our sisters with you or shall I find a place for them?”

“It would be difficult to live on land without legs, so I don’t know how they would fare there, but we haven’t talked about it yet.”

“I could give them legs,” Ulkair offered.

“How many souls would it cost them?” I teased, linking our arms.

“It would just take a portion of my power every day to keep the spell going. I just couldn’t do that for you because at the time, I didn’t want to and I wasn’t with you. You would have been too far away to cast it on you.”

“So, what do you think?” I asked, turning to my sisters.

“I don’t know about living on land, but I want to live with you,” Áine said in a near plea to not be separate again.

“I’m just glad Aquis is dead,” Mayra mumbled, shuddering.

‘What did he do to you?’ I wondered, my heart bleeding watching her. All because of me…Aquis wouldn’t have cared about her, tormented her if it weren’t for me. I abandoned her twice, leaving her behind when I freed Áine and myself and I left her alone when I left Zissyx, even knowing that anyone dear to me could be in danger. Swallowing hard, I pulled Mayra into my arms, holding her tight as I idly ran my fingers through her long hair, knowing it couldn’t soothe her pain, ease the nightmares that were bound to plague her. I couldn’t leave them at the mercy of this city again. “Would it be difficult to maintain?” I asked, turning to Ulkair.

“No, I would just have to cast the spell every day.”

“I have to water my starfish every day,” I commented, a small smile finding its way to my face.

“Yea, like that,” Ulkair laughed, shaking his head.

“Getting used to living on land is…interesting…and it’s hot and there are fire demons everywhere that like to chew on you, but it’s not all bad. You’ll have to do something called “drinking.” It’s like eating, but with water,” I explained to my sisters, trying to think of everything I had found strange when I arrived in Byss.

“Weird…isn’t that like breathing?”

“Similar. Your skin will also be something called “dry.”

“Dry?” they asked, staring blankly at me.

“It’s…the opposite of wet…? You’ll see…I’m not sure how to describe it, but it’s weird. And a little itchy. Oh, and legs. They’re terribly awkward to use, don’t let him lie to you,” I said, grinning and pointing at Ulkair, “but you’ll get used to them too.”

“You’ll help us, Nerida,” Áine smiled, her eyes shining, simply happy to be going with me this time, finally flee Zissyx, no matter what land might bring.

“There are fish in ponds nearby and aside from that, they have food called “bread” that is delightful. There’s also red stuff that’s really hot called “fire.” They’re demons. Don’t touch the demons,” I said, scowling a little as I thought of the first time I saw Alix summon the unnatural fiend.

“Demons?”

“The land dwellers sacrifice their food to them,” I whispered, still confused by the practice. Sacrificed fish weren’t bad, but the practice still seemed strange and unnecessary to me. It took so long and made food painfully hot when it was just fine raw.

“Nerida….I love you…” Ulkair said, shaking his head.

“Oh, here’s another interesting thing. Alix, could I borrow your hand?”

“Yes?” the ranger said, slowly extending his hand towards me, eying me curiously.

“Touch his hand,” I instructed my sisters, taking Alix’s small hand in mine and holding it out to them. “It’s warm. Land dwellers are all warm.”

Blinking curiously, they both reached out, tentatively touching his hand. Squeaking, they pulled away when their skin met, staring in awe of the warmth lingering in their fingertips. Giggling, they poked at his hands again, amazed that the heat never seemed to diminish. Alix chuckled, watching them in amusement as they turned his hands over, poking his face a couple times. While Mayra continued to study Alix’s hands, comparing them to hers, Áine scooted closer to me again, hugging my arm.

“We’ll make do,” Áine sighed contently, resting her face on my shoulder, “so long as we’re not in Zissyx.”

“We escaped slavery together and so too shall we escape Zissyx together. I won’t let them hurt you anymore,” I whispered, holding Áine tight. No, we were going to “Elysia,” the paradise Byss was becoming, made perfect by those at my side.

View
What Fresh Hell Is Byss 9
Cry Thunder

DAY 12 (Session 9)

Mimi gets us back to the city quickly enough, at least, and Loin is the first person out of the bag, by the time I have scrambled out after him, I am already watching his retreating back as he storms away. I want to call after him, say something, try to settle things, but I steel myself. I have bigger things to worry about now, and if all Loin has ever taught me is anger, well, perhaps it’s time I teach him how to use it right.
I stare out over the wall, the breeze carrying the sounds of the approaching undead horde, and grip my axe in one hand, and Alix’s hand in the other, a shiver running down my spine. Through the fog, the shadow of an army creeps over the marsh, and Alix moves to stand by the wall’s edge, looking out over them all and cursing quietly – his mission hadn’t exactly been a success, and thanks to the wild chase we’d all been on, we’ve no time to prepare for whatever he may have discovered.
Nerida approaches us with Agorran and Ulkair, and all the clerics Byss has left to its name, who begin readying their battle stations atop the stone walls.
“I see you and Loin made it back safely,” Alix turns to face her as she speaks, releasing my hand, and I stare hard at the approaching armies of ghouls, lest I say something I regret. I know I have no real reason to be angry at Nerida, she hadn’t necessarily done the right thing in my moment of need, but she also hadn’t done anything wrong. She hadn’t spat on our friendship, betrayed me and tried to take everything I had left to his death, no, that special honor goes to Loin. Still, Ulkair’s presence gnaws at me, Nerida’s happiness with him, her willingness to turn away from me in favor of him – I suppose it simply demonstrates which of us is more important to her, and I have no right to be jealous that it isn’t me.
I have no idea how long she has struggled with Ulkair, how long she has known him, waited for this moment of his freedom, and the chances of it being less than the two weeks I have known her seem remarkably slim. It only makes sense that she would want to be with him now that she has him, I shouldn’t begrudge her that, but to think I was just a way to pass the time… It cuts deeper than any enemy’s blade has.
“What did you find out?” She asks, and as I hear Alix’s sigh, I can feel the weight of his failure dragging on his shoulders.
“Nothing of use, I’m afraid,” he mumbles, and turns his attention back out to the approaching forces, “I see ghouls and ghasts in the vanguard, but also hundreds of skeletons. He must have rallied more than just his usual army.”
Dovev was the lord of ghouls after all, it must be more difficult for him to control other manners of undead, so for him to have rallied such a large and varied force, well, this must be a special occasion indeed. Loin has returned to us, with Sheik and Oriela in tow – not a surprise to me anymore, considering he seemed so concerned about their opinion of him, and Aintai climbs the wall behind them, coming to stand near me.
“Everything alright?” She murmurs, and I force a small smile at her – of course it isn’t, and she knows that, but her attempt at being cordial is still warming. She stands next to me, with her back to the wall, and watches as our companions talk amongst themselves.
“Cheshire?”
“Hm?”
“I…”
Hesitation isn’t like Aintai, I turn my head to watch her as she speaks, and see something unfamiliar glistening in her eyes – doubt, fear, regret maybe, it was impossible to read the truth beneath the Yuan-ti’s practiced stoicism, but it was more genuine emotion than I think I’ve ever seen in her.
“If we die tonight, I just want to thank you.”
I cock my head a little, and she turns to look at me, a small, genuine smile tugging at the corners of her lips, not like the devious grins she’d always worn in the past, and a far cry from her typical scowl.
“You’re alright, you know that?” She says, holding out her hand. I grasp it in a firm shake and return her smile – there’s more to this, I’m sure, but I know better than to pry at a time like this, “and it’s been a hell of a ride.”
“Yeah,” I nod, “it has.”
“And a lot of fun.”
A harrowing, draconic screech bellows over us, stopping short any reply I may have had for the sorceress, and we turn to stare in wide-eyed horror as its source approaches the city. I’d recognize that horrible form and sound anywhere, and sure enough, the wyvern sweeps its way through the fog, though it appears to have a few new additions in the form of two extra heads and a rider, who is much too large to be Dovev.
The rider leaps from the wyvern’s back, dropping heavily some thirty feet from the gates of the city, and stands a tall, horrible abomination of flesh and bits. Its body appears mashed together as though it were a heap of powerful leftovers, but somehow, despite its haphazard nature, it seems horribly precise, and equally terrifying as it is strange. It raises its weapon and shield, and begins to clash them together loudly, as though daring any one of us to challenge it.
“Throw me at it!” Sheik demands of Oriela, practically frothing at the mouth for her excitement. I assume she means to use magic, but Oriela looks doubtful all the same, and Nerida holds up her hand.
“No, Sheik! Ulkair, what do you know about flesh-crafting?” I turn to listen as she questions her new companion, if ever the madman was going to be useful to us, it certainly seemed like it was now.
“Oh, it’s pretty evil,” he drawls the words out, as though he couldn’t be anymore bored with this entire scenario, and I feel anger prickling at my spine – how checked out do you have to be for hundreds of innocent lives to not matter to you?
“Is there a way to counter-act it?”
“Not really. Flesh golems are pretty nasty things,” Ulkair muses, “you usually just have to cut them up to bits and burn them to stop them, but only the very strongest metals will have any effect.”
Nerida looks somewhere between hopeless and frustrated, “is magic effective?”
“Oh no. It does nothing at all to them, in fact,” he smiles as he speaks, as if there’s anything about this that could possibly be amusing, “they’re completely immune, isn’t that horrifying? Sorry, but there’s nothing I can do.”
I’m not sure what Nerida sees in this flippant, garbage merman, but his humor in the inevitable loss of our comrades’ lives has finally boiled too much anger beneath my skin. I push myself away from the wall and start to close the distance between us when a haunting, familiar melody stops me. Dovev’s accordion, terrible and yet all too great, echoes in my ears, drawing the hair on the back of my neck to stand on end. The stench of death fills my nostrils, causing my captive eyes to water as I turn to face the Ichtaca, helplessly drawn to his music.
“Why, hello friends,” he says, his voice calm and captivating, “I have come to offer you a deal. All I want is Elysia, just open the gates and I’ll kill no one.”
I watch the Ichtaca move, unable to tear myself away – why shouldn’t we just let him fight the vampires? Send him through the mirror, let the armies of undead fight amongst themselves and clean up whichever remains, then take Elysia for ourselves. There’s no way the vampires will just sit back and let us fight Dovev, whittle away at his army with siege tactics and consecrated walls, no, they’ll be out of that mirror anytime now to slaughter however many of us they see fit and use the power to destroy the opposition. We’re going to be wedged between a rock and a hard place anyway, why not use it to our advantage?
“I’ll give you a moment to consider,” The Ichtaca continues, looking over the stoney, silent faces of my comrades, “my champion will receive your answer.”
“I’ll give you something to think about!” Sheik screams, lunging at Dovev with her halberd, and just like that, he is gone, sliding sideways through some form of dimensional magic, and leaving behind a mass of rotten flesh, and the haunting remnants of his music in my head.
Cheshire! I hear Alix’s voice break through the song in the Ichtaca’s absence, and it manages to shake whatever fascination he’d held me with, pulling me back to my senses. Sheik slams her halberd into the horrible blob of rot, bursting it like a pustule, and it sprays a noxious gas out over us – the stench is overwhelming, and I reach up to cover my nose and mouth, coughing and retching into my hand.
Alix… I… I’m sorry. I shake my head – what had I been thinking? Of course he was lying, we open those gates and you may as well stick a fork in us.
Music is powerful, Cheshire. Alix says, his tone a clear warning. You’ve proven that, don’t fall prey to it.
I’m trying. I chew my lip, and the rising sound of clattering metal pulls my vision from where Dovev had stood haunting me. The ranks of undead are all mimicking the flesh golem’s movements now, clanging their weapons to their shields, moaning and roaring, gathering more volume and ferocity with every motion, taunting us.
Taunt me, will you? I stare down at the army, fury and determination building in my mind as I watch their movements. Music is power, it’s how he’s controlled me, how he controls them. Go ahead, be as loud as you want, I’ll just have to turn up the volume, too.
If Dovev wants a battle, oh, he’ll get one!
I grip my instrument and hurry to stand over by the gate, staring down at the flesh golem. So this is Dovev’s champion, well, I am Byss’, and Tubatron’s high priest, and if the Ichtaca thinks this huge, brutish lump of flesh is enough to stop me, he has clearly underestimated my ability to be big, and loud. I close my eyes, taking a deep breath as I place fingers to strings, the song that has been brewing inside me roaring to the surface. “High priest” doesn’t sound quite right, but if that’s my calling, then I’d better amount to it. I lift my heart to Tubatron, and my instrument in proud defiance, and begin to shred, as my god had so aptly called it.
Go big or go home, right?
“Time after time
As we march side by side
Through the valleys of evil
And the torturing souls
Night after night, for the glory we fight
In the kingdom of madness,
and the tales from the old,”
As I begin to play, my instrument and my voice ring louder than I know they should, even as I pour every ounce of volume and passion I have into them, I feel Tubatron’s guiding hand on my music, carrying it that all might hear. That every Byssian might know the power of music, the glory of Tubatron, that it would be bigger and louder than any monster or fear they may face, and break the hold of evil over my people.
“Death by our hand
For the higher command
As the darkness surrounds us
Hear the cries as they fall
Fire burning steel
And the tyrants will kneel
Hearts burning stronger with the power of the sword,”
The music and my magic burst out around me, and begin to silence the ranks of the undead, who shamble about uselessly as Dovev loses his control over them. His skeletal archers fire haphazardly around themselves, into their allies, into our walls, the ghouls drop their weapons to their sides, but his flesh golem stands still, staring at us, murder in its eyes. He will not be so easily manipulated, because he is Dovev’s own creation, not a slave to his music, but to the Ichtaca himself.
“Set sail for the glory
Pray for the masters of war
Sunlight will fall by the wastelands
Endless rise for the heroes once more,”
My companions begin to stream out to the battlefield, Sheik leading their charge on Dovev’s champion, hacking and slashing at the monster, Loin, Alix and Mimi just behind her. Nerida’s commands echo to our archers over my music, and the force of her voice sends an excited shiver down my spine. Byss will not go quietly, we will not idly allow the undead to consume us, and these heroes will be sung of, to my dying breath, we will fight, we will beat them back, and we will cry thunder.
This is our answer.
“Cry thunder!
Sword in his hand
Titans of justice,
Fearless we stand!
Cry thunder!
Strong in command,
Blessed by the union
Freedom of man,”
We will not bend to Dovev. We will not bow, nor break, nor stop until our last man falls, and when the last drop of blood is spilled on this battlefield, may he choke on it, knowing that we are immortal in music and in courage.
“Reckoning day for the demons we slay
With the force of a dragon
We will conquer them all
Chaos still reigns
Devastation and flames
For the ultimate glory
When the legacy calls
March on through the hellfire
Blazing through the darkness beyond
Nightmares return of the thousands
Giving rise to the heroes once more…”
A wave of arrows crashes over me, slamming into the ocean of undead below us, and the cries of the monsters are like music to my ears, feeding every holy note that I wail out over them. I hear the screech of the wyvern above us, and a flash of sea green light briefly illuminates the sky, turning the monster in its tracks, and it begins to flee, overwhelmed by Nerida’s might. We can do this. We can win .
“Cry thunder!
Sword in his hand
Titans of justice
Fearless we stand…”
The power of the music sweeps me away, and my fingers move of their own accord, flying over the chords as they have never before, as I would never have thought myself capable. But they do, stretching and moving nimbly to meet the demand of the hymn, rock hard, loud, and bigger than anything I have ever played. The friction of my hands moving on the silver burns, but I love it, and the sound that echoes out over the city is the only sound I could imagine playing for Byss, epic, and nothing less would ever do.
I am not sure for how long I continue to shred, but my hands cramp and scream for rest as I pull the end of the solo out, pausing for only a moment to stare out over the opposing army, and then around at my people, and let my voice carry in the night’s fog.
“Unholy darkness
In the eyes of broken dreams
Outside of the wasted and torn
a land of tears still remains,”
Byss… So strong, so amazing, and yet forever damned. This wouldn’t be their eternity. I simply can’t allow it. How many Byssians had been fated to die yesterday? How many should be on a pyre now? How many had defied it? Now I must withstand destiny for them, as I had for Alix, I clamber up onto a crenellation, standing tall and in defiance, of Dovev, of fate, of everything that would try and stop me, and begin to play again.
“Soldiers of destiny calling
And the fallen will rise up again
To conquer the forces of evil
And fight ‘til the end…”
I slam out a few more notes, then raise my fist to the sky, showing my resistance to the world and to the Ichtaca. I breath in a heavy pause before slamming it back down to my music, letting the heavy, open sky carry my voice, our battle cry, out into evening.
“…Cry thunder!
Sword in his hand,
Warriors defending
One final stand!
Cry thunder!
Strong in command
Blessed by the union,
Freedom of man
Blessed by the union of man…
Cry thunder!”
I slam the last notes of the song out over the enemy army, and stare at their disarray with triumphant joy, but it is short lived. A sonic wave bursts back across the battlefield, skeletons and other undead heads exploding among the ranks as it rushes over them, knocking me from my perch. I scramble back to the crenelation, pulling myself up against it and stare out at the masses of undead, now clambering back into their positions under Dovev’s orders, and the wyvern flying back towards us. The front lines are still muddled, I’m guessing Dovev’s magic can’t reach quite far enough from where he is to take control of them again, but the army begins to part for a huge cart, pulled by zombies.
More skeletons burst as it pushes by them, crushing countless undead beneath its horrible, creaking wheels, and from the dust of its comrades rises a giant of bones and pieces. The huge, horrifying undead stands at least twenty feet, taller even than the walls with which we had thought to protect ourselves. It mercilessly crushes everything in its path as it approaches, and the rest of my allies fly or climb back up to the rampart.
That… that thing will massacre us! I pull myself to my feet in horror, staring out at the monstrosity as it lumbers toward the city. It will tear down the walls, and then thousands of other undead will swoop in on the remnants of whatever it doesn’t smash. We won’t stand a chance, our warriors will be annihilated where they stand, and over their corpses the Ichtaca will stroll his armies to Elysia’s gates.
How many more of these absurd creatures did Dovev command? Could he conjure these giants at will? I look out over the masses of hungering undead, collecting themselves for battle, and past them. Dovev is still watching from a safe distance, I can sense him, feel him waiting to wear us down and take what he pleases. We’re playing right into his hand, and my music isn’t enough to stop them, not while he hides and pulls the strings, we can’t afford to wait for his next move, I have to make him come to us.
“Nerida,” I turn my view from the distance back to her, arguing with Ulkair, and she looks at me, my earlier anger washing away with the promise of strength and support in her eyes.
“Yes, Cheshire?”
“If I.. if I did something crazy,” I begin, glancing back at the army, “would you have my back?”
“Always,” she smiles at me, despite the strain on her from all angles, puts her hand on my shoulder, and I feel her holy energy rush over my body, strengthening me, protecting me.
I’m sorry, Nerida.
Aintai looks at me, her amber eyes narrowing, “what are you going to do?”
“Oh, you know… play a song and hope for the best?”
She raises a delicate eyebrow, “so, Cheshire signature?”
“Pretty much,” I grin nervously at the sorceress, scooping my axe up off the ground, “cover me?”
She draws a wand from her side, acid magic sparking off of it as she does and nods, “of course.”
I peer around, spying the highest arch in the city’s walls amidst the gatehouse, and make my way up to it. The bone giant still stands towering over me, but I have my eyes on a bigger prize.
Alright Dovev, let’s play.
I brace myself, digging in my heels against the stone, locking my posture and position my fingers over the strings – he’s not going to knock me down or shut me up with a sonic burst this time. I won’t be silenced, I won’t be pushed around, I am more than he thinks, better, stronger than even I’d thought, and I owe it to this city, to these people and my friends. To every hit they’ve taken for me, or in some cases taught me to take, every drop of blood spilled out in that bog, on the stone streets, and everywhere in between.
I begin to play, drawing a familiar, haunting melody from the strings of my holy instrument: the song I’d sung to Dovev in the temple, the song I’d fascinated him with, the song that had almost damned me. How better to get his attention? The horrible melody sends a shiver down my spine, assaulting my very being with the memories of that day, of his horrible existence crushing me, destroying my will, taking everything I loved. The thousands of years of Dovev’s horrible hunger gnaw at my mind, the sensation of his power coursing through my veins, and as I feel it burning through me once more, I realize it is not as great as what I have now. It is not an unstoppable force, it is not insurmountable.
The weight of my fear falls off my shoulders: he bleeds. He is just a monster, like any other, and I am not the weak child he preyed upon that day in the temple, I am not the frightened whelp that would play his music for fear of Loin’s ire – no, I had learned those lessons, hard as they were. He cannot tempt me again with power that does not compare to the rush of Tubatron’s energy – his music, mine, ours in perfect tandem. I am not just some silly bard, I am a Byssian, I am a warrior, a champion, I have earned my battle scars. I do not fear this night, for in the night the stars shine, and I will be a star.
“Dovev Ichtaca!” I invoke the ghoul’s name, my voice loud and burning with angry defiance, “you tried to take my friends, and you tried to take my soul. Well now I’m going to take your army, or I’m going to die trying! You think you can control me, but you’re wrong! You want me, you want Elysia? Well then come and get it!”
With my final words, I strum a hard note, bearing my rebellion out over the horrible song I’d played, shattering the ghostly tune, and let the instrument fall silent for a moment, resting it in my hands as I lift my voice above the heavy, echoing silence.
“So, this is Cheshire,
torn and weathered.
But I’m never taking orders
From the jaws of the likes of you,
because I know you’re a liar
And every part of me is screaming
‘Let’s fire’,”
Tubatron’s holy power is no longer carrying my voice, nor my music, not like it did the last time, but I carry it myself, and I know he isn’t because he knows I can. I will do it, or I will fail, and failure is not an option.
“I am never gonna follow your rules
So come at me if you dare
You diabolical fool
Let’s go now, me and you,
Our rematch is long past due.”
I take a step closer to the wall, strumming out a low, heavy tune to accompany my words as an uncanny wind begins to whip my hair around my face. I can feel the Ichtaca’s eyes on me, exactly where I want them, his hunger, his desire and his anger echoes in my soul, and it only feeds my determination.
“Go ahead and try to take me if you’re able
Try to break me if you think that I’m unstable
I can see you hate that I think I’m your equal
But you were wrong if you thought I was weak willed
And you’re not gonna stop what they’ve made together
I am gonna keep Byss safe forever
Try to drown out my song?
I’ll just play it louder!
And you’ll never defeat me
Because you’re a coward,”
I’m not afraid of you anymore. I don’t need his power, I have my own. I won’t listen to his music, won’t let it bring me to my knees, because I have my music. I am my music, and I am not alone. I have my friends, my inspiration, the people of Byss all behind me, they’re counting on me, and I can’t let them down. I have to be better than him, stronger than him, and I can be. I am.
“And I am made of my song, song
And I’m stronger than you
My song, song,
My song is stronger than you,”
A huge pillar of flame erupts around the bone giant, Ulkair appearing just near it – apparently Nerida finally motivated him to do something, but I don’t have the time nor focus to dedicate to it. I see many of my other companions again rushing out to the battlefield, and hear Aintai’s distinct arcane mumblings from beside me, Nerida’s focus appears to be on Ulkair for his reckless stunt, but I have to believe she will have my back when the time comes.
“This is how I feel
It’s what makes my music real
and you may think you can control me
But my soul you’ll never steal,”
Nerida calls down another volley of arrows into the horde of undead, covering the advance of our party, but still they work to cleave their way through them, Mimi sweeping in amongst the carnage to grab Ulkair before he is overwhelmed by ghouls. The bone giant stumbles forward, away from the wall of burning undead, blackened and singed by Ulkair’s magic, and I see my companions struggling toward it, desperate to stop it, halt it before it can reach the walls.
“Because my heart is beating
For every one of them
And I won’t let you take this city
and I won’t let you hurt my friends,”
Come on! I can’t let that thing breech the city! I have to be better, play harder, do something! The horrible, exquisite music of Dovev’s harpsichord breaks through my thought, and over my voice for but a moment, and I scan the horizon for its source. Dovev, the ghoul lord himself, rictus grin spread horribly over his face, stands impossibly balanced on the shoulders of the bone giant with his haunted instrument.
“Go ahead and try to break me if you’re able
Can’t you see that my resolve is ever stable?
I know you think that I’m not something you’re afraid of
Because you think that you’ve seen what I’m made of,”
He stares at me as he plays, his hands moving impossibly fast over the keys, and I sweep my fingers down the silver chords of my axe, taking a step further towards the edge of the wall, forcing out another wave of electric music. I accompany my verse with a new rift, staring the Ichtaca in the eyes as I play, and his grin only widens as his horrible monster closes in on me.
“But I am even more than the things you’ve seen
My friends have carried me from what I’ve been
Now I have their courage
I have their anger
And I promise you’re in danger,”
My eyes do not break from their contact with Dovev, but behind them, my memories run wild as I sing – Nerida, standing so tall, so fearless always, and the sound of her broken sobs over Agorran’s corpse, Alix’s pain, every moment that he’d cheated death, pressed on when he shouldn’t have been able to, his pride and his love, wrapped around me without doubt. I remember the strength and security of Loin’s hands, and also the cold, hard revenge in his eyes. Every lesson they’d taught me was hard learned, but I had learned them.
“I am made of their song, song
And I’m stronger than you
Their song, song, their song,
And I’m stronger than you,”
Now here I am, here we all are, and no matter the cost of victory, I know we will seize it. Because music is my strength, and they are my inspiration, and each one of them that is here risking their lives is one more reason for me to succeed. Loin’s anger burns in my veins, and Alix’s pride, Nerida’s strength, the valor of all of Byss stands behind me, and in front of me a monster who stands only on the pedestal I had built.
“I am made of our song, song
and I’m stronger than you
Our song, our song,
Our song is stronger than you.”
The bone giant slams his hand into the nearby section of wall, shaking it beneath my feet, and Dovev watches me as I struggle to keep my balance, his eyes burning with an animal hunger. It grasps the stone, crumbling pieces of it beneath its massive fist and Dovev saunters down its arm with his harpsichord, which seems to glide in front of him.
His music hangs in the air, heavy and terrible, and I feel the courage of my allies seem to melt away, all of them watching him in horror. I swallow hard, tearing my eyes from the Ichtaca’s horrible stare in search of my comrades: Nerida stares out into the battlefield, I know her eyes are on Ulkair, without even being able to follow her gaze. Aintai takes a step back from us as well, eyes wide, crippled by fascination as the Ichtaca passes by her, and I feel my heart sink. The rest of my allies all scramble for the wall, the bone giant, or their wits as Dovev’s music crushes down on them.
Surrounded by friends, I am alone.
But I can’t do this alone! I feel my heart begin to race as Dovev’s ethereal jaunt shortens the distance between us, backing me to the edge of the wall, my fingers paling with their grasp on my axe.
You’re never alone, Cheshire.
Alix!
The bone giant’s hand is pulled abruptly from the rampart, and it roars as Ulkair rips it away, growing to match its size, and then some. As they fall, I see Alix’s familiar figure leaping from the giant’s arm, propelling himself back up to the wall, and Loin, scaling it to reach us.
“You will not defile her mind again!” Alix yells, slamming his mace into Dovev’s flesh as he lands. Gore bursts from the wound, but Dovev doesn’t seem to react, only turns and stares down at Alix before knocking him away, his unholy grin spreading as the ranger smashes against the hard stone battlement.
Loin, gaining his feet, screams and charges at Dovev, and as he does, the ghoul lord slips deftly from behind his harpsichord. He leaves it blocking my allies’ path as Loin’s axe strikes against his haunted instrument, which continues to play as though the Ichtaca’s fingers were upon it. The blow reverberates off the instrument without harming it, and Dovev turns to look at Loin as it is struck, speaking in a voice that is not his own.
“I’m so disappointed in you, Loin,” he says, his voice soft enough to only just be heard above the harpsichord’s music, “I know you could have been great.”
What..? I see Loin’s eyes widen with horror, and his posture sags as he shrinks back from the admonishment of what could only be his master. Loin, no! It’s a trick, don’t listen!
“All that time we spent together,” Dovev continues, “after I saved you from that dragon, saved you from the circus, this is how you repay me?”
Loin raises his head again to look at the ghoul, and in his eyes I see nothing of the fright he’d had a moment ago, but instead cold, hard rage. He pulls back his great axe, taking a blind swipe at Dovev, who leans back only a fraction to dodge, the girth of his instrument preventing Loin’s reach. The Ichtaca turns his terrible smile back toward me, as if to ask “where were we?”, and closes the space between us with an impossible stride.
“Why would any of you want to harm me?” The stench of death permeates the air around us as he bears down on me, and I hold back a gag as he reaches out and places a lifeless, cold hand on the side of my face. “I’m her friend.”
His clammy fingers run down the side of my cheek, brushing through my hair in a perverse mimicry of Alix’s comforting touch. My breath catches in my chest, my eyes water, and his horrible smile only widens. I bend back to try and escape the contact, my skin screaming to crawl from my body and escape, and he only leans further, staring down into my eyes as though to invade my very soul through them.
“Aren’t I, Cheshire?” He asks, his voice ringing calmly over the chaos of battle around us. His every movement is heavy with arousal, and revulsion claws its way up my spine, my boot slipping on the edge of the wall as I try to back further away.
“No you’re not!”
Desperate to restore distance between us, I raise my axe, slamming the silver blade into Dovev’s side with all my strength. I feel flesh and bone give way beneath the blade, and putrid, reeking blood spurts out around it, but the Ichtaca does not move even an inch. His fingers dig into my face and my scalp, the gentle facade of a moment ago devoured by malice, and he uses it to draw me closer, pulling me from the edge on which I teeter and towards his body.
I swallow the horror that rises in my throat as he forces me in closer, each rise and fall of my panicked chest now brushing against his exposed skin. Our new proximity serves as a painful reminder that my mind is not the only thing Dovev plans to defile, and as I feel him press against me, hunger dripping off his body, the cold horror of my situation hits me – no one can help me, they’re under his spell, they believe him.
No! I reach up and shove his hand from my face, and wrench my weapon from his side as he drops me. Panic rushes through me, my heart racing as I search for any way out from behind him. I have to get away. I can’t let him… I… Alix, help me!
I feel Alix’s strained thoughts, the pounding in his head as he pulls himself from the crumbling stone, but Loin’s enraged scream reaches me before Alix does, and he sinks his battle axe into Dovev’s back, the huge gash he leaves splashing gore across him. Dovev’s body tenses as Loin rips the axe back out, and mercifully, he turns away from me for a moment.
“Loin, Loin, Loin,” he taunts, shaking his head, “why would you hurt your poor master?”
Loin’s eyes flash with rage, and he raises the axe again, but Dovev begins to scream, begging for mercy in the voice he had lectured Loin in before – in Udragoth’s voice. Loin stops, a pained grimace crossing his face as he hovers the axe, just about to fall on Dovev.
“I’ll take it out on him, Loin,” Dovev’s voice is suddenly sure and sinister, no longer the eerily calm, low tone of before, but instead a proclaimed threat, “every wound, every injury, he’ll feel it first! Every last bit of it will go to him!”
I try to skirt around the Ichtaca as he and Loin stare one another down, but he still has me enclosed in his space, my only possible retreat blocked by his outstretched arm and the certain death that would be falling from the wall. Alix is back on his feet, however, and he leaps the distance over the harpischord with ease, using the force of the jump to plunge his rapier through Dovev’s chest. The Ichtaca’s grin widens, an unsettling show of his fury, as Alix wrenches the weapon back from his oozing chest, and as he steps toward Alix, I suddenly feel strong, familiar arms around me. They pull me away from the corner Dovev had backed me into, and against a chest that still smells vaguely of incense.
Agorran!
I look up at the high priest as he protectively encloses me in his cloak, holding me with one arm as he raises the other to cast a spell. Alix dives clear just in time as a whirling mass of blades appears in the air by Dovev – it shreds into the Ichtaca, scraps of flesh and gore spraying everywhere across us.
The rotten stench of decay fills the air with the thick blood that splashes off the blades, but harpsichord’s music breaks loudly over the sound of the clashing steel, playing another of Dovev’s terrible melodies. As it does, whatever holds the Ichtaca in the blade barrier is suddenly gone, and with it, the mass of knives as well. Dovev pushes himself up, turning his grin to me, freakish and wide, blood dripping from between his teeth.
“Very good, Cheshire,” he says, a horrible intensity burning in his eyes, which bulge with either pain or fury, though I cannot tell which, “I see you do have many friends. I have many friends, too. Now, see what your friends will do for you.”
With the threat, the Ichtaca disappears, leaving only a mess of puss and viscera behind, before reappearing on the wyvern’s back as it circles the city. From his mount, the sound of his accordion begins to echo in time with the harpsichord, the music carrying far too loudly for any normal instruments, and as it creeps horribly into my soul. I feel rage and chaos begin to pump through my veins as though it were my own blood, and shove myself away from Agorran – how dare he touch me!
Wait, no, that isn’t right! That can’t be right, not when just a moment ago I was so glad to feel his embrace. I look around, my head dizzy as the Ichtaca’s music pounds through it, Alix, Loin, Nerida, Aintai even – they look angry and confused, the Byssian soldiers, too.
Alix? I reach out through our link, and feel only the fog of chaos and murder as the ranger clutches his head, trying to get a grip on himself. No, this isn’t like Alix, this can’t be right.
It’s a trick, it has to be, but it’s so hard to think with this music in– That’s it! The music! It’s Dovev’s music that’s causing this! I have to drown it out somehow, stop everyone from killing each other.
I grip my axe and stumble to the other edge of the wall, staring down at the murderous faces packed in to the streets behind the gatehouse – we can’t let Dovev make us turn on each other. We’re not animals to be controlled by the undead, not cattle to be corralled into submission. We’re warriors!
I close my eyes, trying to block the haunted music from my mind long enough to focus on my own notes, and begin to play the song I’d played in the arena.
“Here we are
Don’t turn away now
We are the warriors
That built this town!”
I sing out at the top of my lungs, slamming each and every note from the brassy instrument in my hands, and pouring my arcana into the strings – it had rallied them once against undead overlords and mind control, it could do it again. I just have to be bigger and louder than Dovev. I have to shine.
“Here we are
Don’t turn away now
We are the warriors
That built this town from dust!”
I feel the force of my music begin to push away Dovev’s arcane discord, my song drowning the sound of his haunted instruments from my companion’s ears. My magic swirls around me once again as I let it freely pour from my voice, glaring after the Ichtaca in rebellion. We are not his pawns, I am not his pawn! I will not go quietly, I will not back down, I will stand my ground no matter the consequence.
“The time will come
When you will have to rise
Above the rest and prove yourself
Your spirit never dies,
Farewell, I’ve gone
To take my throne above
But don’t weep for me
‘Cause this will be
The labor of my love…”
Nerida seems to have shaken the spell’s effects, and she charges the harpsichord, plunging her trident into it and eliciting an awful note, the haunting echo almost that of a banshee’s scream more than an instrument. The sea green energy I have come to recognize as Eadro’s holy power begins to burst from the cracks in the wood, spreading them, and then erupts in a brilliant flash around Nerida. The light bridges up to the sky, and begins to break away, a few humanoid shapes forming from it to surround Dovev, this light – it’s not just Eadro’s power, it’s Eadro’s power guiding lost souls. Victims of Dovev’s, trapped loved ones of the people who fight beside me here and now, and like any Byssians, as they manifest, they stand ready to fight.
I feel Alix’s bravado over our link as he watches Dovev maneuver above us, his control over our forces slipping away, and the souls pour out of his harpsichord to join us against him.
Yeah that fucker’s worried.
His grin spreads to my own lips as I shred out a few more notes, and raise my voice for all of our warriors – fallen, risen, or otherwise.
“…Here we are
Don’t turn away now
We are the warriors
That built this town…”
“Bastard!” I hear Aintai hiss from nearby me, “no one controls me!”
She hurls a magic missile, which whirls through the air and slams into the Ichtaca’s back, and he turns his head to stare at her, danger in his eyes, and begins to play a new song. As I turn to look at Aintai, a black cloud billows out around her, taking density and shape in time with Dovev’s music. She takes a cautious back-step from the cloud, but it is already too late: jagged teeth form out of the mist, and then a massive jaw, which clamps down around her.
“Aintai!”
Aintai screams as the monstrosity shakes and then drops her, blood dripping from its mouth as it takes full form, shaping into a huge, squat black lizard, with eyes as red as blood. Crippled and bloodied, the sorceress claws desperately at the stone to try and pull herself to safety, and I dash for the monster, blind adrenaline pushing me. I have to save Aintai, have to stop it from shredding her, distract it just long enough that she can get away or Nerida can heal her.
As the reptile rears back, opening it’s jaw for another bite attack, I throw myself onto it’s back, digging in my heels as it slams back into the ground – its jaws snap shut with a terrifying volume, and I regain my balance, resuming my music as the monster flails beneath me. I can’t stop playing, can’t stop singing even as I fight, or our people will be forced to turn on each other.
“…Here we are
Don’t turn away now
We are the warriors
Who built this town
From dust!”
The colossal monster rears back once more, the threat of its jaw snapping wildly echoing in the air, and I kick my unbalanced heel into the thick hide of its shoulders, teetering as it falls forward once more. My heart begins to race as I continue to fly my fingers over the strings of my axe, glancing desperately around me for aid as my plan – if you’d call it that, begins to unravel around me. I stumble, barely keeping my footing before Alix appears by my side and drives his rapier into the creature’s hide, which causes it to hiss and flail frantically.
As it thrashes, I feel my feet slip, and I fall backward into the massive arms of Agorran, who is much larger than he should be. He catches me and passes me off to Alix before jumping into a grapple with the monstrous black lizard. Alix pulls me back from the fray as its tail sweeps wildly around, jaws snapping, claws scratching, anything to fight the high priest’s hold on its neck. It rolls, twisting around on the ground in an attempt to break free and sink its horrible teeth into Agorran’s flesh, but he doesn’t let up, instead crushing down on the beast’s throat with all his strength. With a sickening squelch of bones and blood, it stills, its head hanging limply in the high priest’s arms, and Agorran stands up matter-of-factly, as though he hadn’t just crushed a monster six times my size to death, and pulls Aintai to her feet, healing her wounds as he does.
The horrendous creature disappears just as it had been summoned, in a cloud of black smoke and accordion music and as Alix lets me go, I turn to stare up at Dovev as Loin, carried by Mimi, takes his best swipe at him with little success – this has to stop. The more he plays, the less of a chance we have. His army closes in on us, the zombies swarming Ulkair like ants, even as he stands victorious over the bone giant, the ghouls scratching and wailing at the consecrated walls as the soldiers within them try to maintain their sanity under the crushing sounds of his music.
I can’t allow any more of his tricks to silence me, any more of his songs to torture my friends, I have to face him now, stop him, once and for all. I have to sing the song that will change our stars. I walk to the edge of the wall, staring up at the wyvern, and project my voice out solely at the Ichtaca, my music pouring into the distance between us – I have to bring him down here, one way or another.
“I can feel
When you stay low
Nothing happens
Does feel right?
Late at night
Things I thought I’d put behind me
Haunt my mind
I just know there’s no escape now
Once it sets it’s eyes on you
But I won’t run
Have to stare it in the eyes.”
The Ichtaca looks at me, his music crushing down around me, and I stare in proud defiance, slamming my hands back down onto my guitar. I will not bow, I will not back down, won’t turn and run away. I raise my voice as loudly as I can to belt out the new song that pours through me over the sound of my axe. I won’t be controlled, I won’t be beaten down. Never again. That’s not what I am.
This is.
“Stand my ground,
I won’t give in
No more denying
I’ve gotta face it
Won’t close my eyes
And hide the truth inside
If I don’t make it
Then someone else will
I’ll stand my ground,”
The song echoes over the city, loud and powerful, and I feel Dovev’s stare upon me. Heavy, intense… Fascinated. I feel his focus as I have felt it once before, but this time he will not take me. The accordion’s music halts, and moments after I hear the sound of the wretched instrument crashing to the ground nearby. It shatters with a terrible wail, abandoned by its master, and from it springs forth more lights: souls, angry, afraid and desperate. They do not flee skyward as most of the others had, however, but spread out over the city and the marshes, aiding the others, standing strong with Byss’ mighty citizens.
They’re… inspired. The thought fills me with pride, courage, and my memories of Tad Cooper. That night in the swamp, the fear and the anguish, how far we’ve come, how far I’ve come, and that once again the power of my music has transcended the boundaries of death. Dovev will not control me as though I am his beautiful little puppet. He can no longer control anyone: not these spirits, not his ghouls, not even himself.
“This might just be the ending
Of the life I held so dear
But I won’t run
There’s no turning back from here,”
I feel his consuming want as I continue my to sing with all I have in me and the last defenses in his mind slip away. I have overcome him as he once did me, and just as he poured into my mind that morning in the temple and consumed me, my force of will crushes into his soul. Just as he tore at me with madness, just as he visited hell upon me, now would he kiss the flames himself. The Ichtaca stares into me, and I stare back into the void, unafraid. His mind awaits me, an empty stage in which to play, and a smile spreads over my features.
Where was his power now? Where was his endless thirst? His hunger, which would consume the world? The Dovev Ichtaca in whose shadow I had trembled… I could end him now with a single word.
“Jump.”
And he does.
I watch the ghoul lord stand, captivated, and dive from the back of his hideous, flesh-crafted mount as though he had nothing to lose, no other intention, no care in the world for his own death. As he plummets, I feel my heart race with cautious elation.
I… I did it? I did it!
I rush to the edge of the wall, watching as he plummets and slide my hand down the frets of my axe, playing one last, victorious chord for the Ichtaca to ponder in his final moments. It bursts from the instrument in a wave of sonic force, shattering the very ground below us as Dovev crashes into it. Fissures part the swampland, swallowing scores of the undead, which howl and screech as they are pulled into the pits of the earth with their leader.
I stare past the crenelations, out into the rippling fields of muck and scrambling undead, and at the fissure into which Dovev’s body had crashed. Could it… finally be over? Had I really done it? Had we really won?
The Ichtaca’s hand plunges forth from the pit, grasping at the swampland.
No…
Next his head rises up into view, his eyes burning with pain and fury, his blood-stained grin still fixated on me as though I’d never left his sight. His stare stops my heart, fear stabbing through me like the edge of a sharpened blade – what would it take to kill this monster? I raise my bow in desperation, placing an arrow to the seventh string and swallowing the nervous lump in my throat, but before I can release it, another shockwave rocks the ground beneath us.
Well done, my servant.
Tubatron’s powerful voice echoes in my head, and I stare out at the marsh in awe, watching his work unfold. The fissures that had opened to swallow the forces of the undead slam shut once more, and as they do, Dovev’s body is crushed. His head bursts off his neck with a spurt of putrid blood, and rolls to my feet at the base of the wall as though it were a gift, hand delivered to me by my god himself, as a reward for my actions. I had beaten back the Ichtaca’s forces, I had controlled him, brought him to his knees with the power of music – I promised I would save everyone, and I did.
With a swell of pride in my chest, I pull back the arrow on my bowstring, fire bursting around its tip, when Agorran’s voice breaks through my thoughts.
“Fear not! Let us go out and purge this evil from our home!” I turn my head to see him rallying the nervous people of Byss under his command – but where was Nerida? Why isn’t she inspiring them? Why isn’t she leading the charge? Dovev is gone, half his army consumed and the rest in shambles, so where is our commander?
A brief scan shows me her retreating form, and Ulkair’s, disappearing down the city streets and towards the government compound. They’re leaving for Elysia!
Dammit, Nerida! There is no question in my mind she has abandoned us because of her faith in Agorran to succeed, and her madman’s whimsy, but what are their chances of success if they enter the blood-stained realm of vampires alone? What are ours without Nerida’s might? I look at the crowd of warriors, crying and cheering their response out to their high priest: they are strong, they are capable, and if Alix has shown me anything, it is that Byssians know how to kill undead. On the other hand, if Nerida has shown me anything, it is that this Ulkair impairs her judgment.
Alix! Nerida and Ulkair are headed for the mirror, if we don’t catch them they’ll enter Elysia alone! I hurry to Agorran’s side, grasping his hand for his attention.
“Agorran, Nerida has gone to fight for Elysia,” I explain, as by the doubt in his eyes she clearly didn’t, “my friends and I have to help her, or she won’t come back.”
He gives me a solemn nod, “we will do our best to make sure there is a Byss to come back to.”
“And I’ll do my best to make sure there’s an Elysia to hope for,” he clasps his hand on my shoulder, and I stand on my tip-toes to return the gesture, “just hold them off for a little while longer, I’ll be back to help, I promise.”
Alix has made it to my side with Aintai in tow, and we run from the wall after Nerida, the wyvern screeching above us as Loin drags his axe through the hide of its underbelly, felling the monstrosity just outside the city. I stop for a moment to marvel at his new wings, shimmering silver and sea-green in the air, nothing like Mimi’s, but scaled and leathery – a dragon’s wings.
“Loin! Mimi!” I call, waving my hands at them as we run, “come on! We have to help Nerida!”
I turn my gaze to the government compound, no longer able to spot Nerida or Ulkair’s retreating forms down the street – they must have gotten quite far ahead in the time it took me to rally the others.
Don’t do anything stupid Nerida, please… I think, glancing back at the army of Byssians nervously as we make our way down the city streets. Just wait for us.
We’re not yet out of sight of our comrades when a shadow falls over the city, darkening the streets and blocking what little bit of the sun’s light that reaches us through the mist. Horror stops me in my tracks as I look skyward for the source: a huge cloud of blood colored smoke, billowing from the government building – from the door to Elysia.
No! Nerida!
The smoke begins to solidify, and through it forms a pair of huge, torn leathery wings, then teeth, claws, a jaggedly spiked tail which lashes out, crippling buildings with the swipe. The dragon roars, breathing ice and blood and horror over the city in front of us, and I feel my will begin to crumble beneath me as though the dread sound has reached into my very soul, grasped it, and crushed it. This… monster, it’s unbeatable! I take a step back, staring at the silver and red scales, glistening with blood, at the mangled visage of what I know was once a kind, beautiful creature, perverted by power and darkness, and feel another horrible rending in my soul. This dragon… this dragon was the same one that had been captured with Alix, taken somewhere unknown by blood magic – it had to be!
This dragon… was Loin’s father.
The dragon begins to speak, its voice bellowing out over us, drowning out everything from the moaning of Dovev’s undead, to the pounding of my heart in my ears.
“Loin, my son!” He roars, the words sending a shiver down my spine as cold as the ice the monster breathes, “the vampires have shown me the true meaning of existence! It is power, and blood, and terror!”
No… I stare wide-eyed at the vampiric nightmare, and then search the skies for Loin, who hovers, a fair distance from us in the air, staring at the remains of his father.
“You are strong, my son!” The dragon demands, frosted blood dripping from its warped, jagged teeth, “you are powerful, join me! We shall destroy and scourge and drink the blood of these pathetic Byssians!”
“Loin…” As I whisper the name, I feel the song Tubatron taught me stirring in my soul – Loin’s song, a song of love, of acceptance, a song crafted to reach his soul by Tubatron himself. I take my axe from my back, and begin to play, strumming the low, draconic tune.
Loin continues to stare, paralyzed, though clearly not by fear. I can’t make out his face, but I know the look it must bear, I know the heartbreak, I know the desire. I remember it. Seeing your family just out of reach, wanting to be anything that would make them love you, I remember it all too well.
“No, father,” I hear him call back, my heart swelling with my friend’s courage, “we are silver dragons! Blood and horror is not our way! It is not who we are!”
I can see it in Loin’s posture, hear it in his voice – he would strike his father down now rather than allow him to be lost to this dark eternity, but maybe… just maybe he won’t have to. Maybe there’s enough of him left in there, somewhere. He recognized Loin, that must mean something, he still wants him by his side! If his love of Loin survived the horror of these vampires, maybe it could defeat it, maybe he could still be saved.
The dragon roars again, this time, there is pain in it, the screech is angry, tormented, and I see Loin begin to close the distance between them.
Loin! Be careful! The dragon breathes another burst of blood-stained ice, buildings crashing down beneath the rain. It’s not… it’s not enough.
_Why isn’t it enough? Parents are supposed to love their children, right? …Supposed to always want them? Isn’t that what they say? _
Bitterness creeps into my mind as I realize that perhaps I was wrong, perhaps love cannot transcend such a change. This song may inspire Loin, but can my music really reach this… this corrupted monster? The dragon makes another swipe with his tail, screeching out Loin’s name as he hovers near him, and I feel a new tune work its way to my cords, guiding me. He already wants Loin, already accepts him, wants him to join him. He aches for his love of his son – love and acceptance is not what he needs, he needs to remember why.
“My child arrived just the other day
He came to the world in the usual way
But he learned to walk while I was away.”
I empower my voice, pushing arcane energy through my lungs to blanket the city in music once more, to touch even the towering dragon, and his son so far above me. He turns to look at me as I begin to sing, and I feel his focus hone on us, his eyes staring into me from impossibly far, crushing my will beneath his power and evil. My vocals waver, my fingers trembling over the strings, I feel Alix tense behind me, and hear Aintai’s frantic cursing, but I can’t stop.
Alix… I’m sorry I dragged you into this.
I am only sorry that this may be the end. I hear Alix’s armor shifting as he reaches for his weapons, his determination steeling my mind. But I’ll fight until the end with you, Cheshire, because we’re family.
You don’t give up on family. I nod, tightening my grip on my instrument and bracing myself for whatever may come. And that’s exactly why we may not have to fight.
“And he was talking ‘fore I knew it,
and as he grew
He’d say, “I’m gonna be like you, dad
You know I’m gonna be like you.”
Loin came here searching for his father, and his master, he left his home, his whole life behind, to be close to them, to find his family. He never gave up on either of them. Just as we had struggled to free Udragoth from damnation, now here we stand with Tranatheraxxus, and my quest is no different, to save my sister from damning forces. There must be a way to save his family, and mine. I have to believe that it isn’t too late.
“And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man in the moon
“When you coming home, dad?”
“I don’t know when
But we’ll get together then
You know we’ll have a good time then.”
As Loin closes the distance between them, now impossibly hard to see, my heart stops as I see Tranatheraxxus’ tongue lash out, enclosing him.
No!
But he does not eat him, but instead begins to let out a mighty wail in draconic, and weep. I can make out Loin’s name among the things he says, but can no longer hear my half-dragon companion, and can only trust in him, play a song, and hope.
“My son turned ten just the other day
He said, “Thanks for the ball, dad;
come on, let’s play
Can you teach me to throw?”
I said, “Not today, I got a lot to do.”
He said, “That’s okay.”
And he walked away, but his smile never dimmed
And said, “I’m gonna be like him, yeah
You know I’m gonna be like him.”
I watch the exchange wide-eyed, continuing to sing with fear and hope at constant odds within my mind. He has to get through to him, he just has to. It has to be true that a parent’s love can conquer anything – just this once, it has to be true.
“And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man in the moon
“When you coming home, dad?”
“I don’t know when
But we’ll get together then
You know we’ll have a good time then.”
I can just barely make out Loin’s arm, out-stretched to his father as he places his hand on the corrupted dragon’s nose, and holy energy bursts from the contact. Some of it I recognize as Eadro’s and the rest, I am not sure of, but it encloses them in warm light, and I feel hope burst through my soul as I play.
Tears roll down my cheeks as I stare in wonder at the embrace, as the blood and the wounds and the horror fade from Tranatheraxxus, as the power of his love for Loin, and Loin’s own desires overcome fate itself, defy evil, defy everything. The bright light of holy magic suffuses around them, then fades into brilliant silver scales, leaving Loin with his father curled around him, whole, and washed of the vampire’s taint.
Miracles can happen, if you believe, if you want it badly enough…
But then… My heart aches with the distant memory of my parent’s faces, of my family just beyond my reach. I did want them, so badly… why wasn’t it enough? Why wasn’t I? How can Tranatheraxxus’ love of his son reach beyond death, and darkness, and torture and fate itself, and my parents’ love couldn’t even reach… me?
What’s the difference!? I hang my head, buzzing furiously with my own failures. What makes Loin so special?
I look back up at dragons, at their tearful embrace, and feel my shoulders begin to tremble, my grip on my axe becoming strained. It’s not fair!
Your family isn’t out of reach anymore, little one.
I feel Alix’s calloused hand close around mine, and I a weak smile stretches the corners of my lips through the fear, but it comes crashing down around me as soon as it had come – Nerida! That dragon came out of the door to Elysia, for sure, had she been caught? What about the guards? We don’t have time for my whining! I sling my axe over my back once more, and take off down the twisting city streets.
I hear Alix just behind me, and his footsteps catch up to mine in no time – of course, because he runs much faster than I do. Mimi sweeps in, scooping up Aintai and passes us, we need to get to that portal now, and I’m dragging us down. I look over my shoulder at Alix, who meets my gaze, and change my form, shrinking and reaching my hands out in my typical grabby fashion.
I see another rare smile cross Alix’s features, and with it feel a surge of fondness and familiarity rush between us as Alix reaches out and scoops me up. He slings me onto his shoulders, and I curl happily against him as we run for the door to Elysia, my heart brimming with the feeling of family, with the fondness of a child Alix has never had – fondness of me.
As we reach the building he sets me down, and I run with him, hand in hand, for the mirror. The room lies strewn with the bodies of guards, but no seven foot mermaid among them. Through the mirror, I see her, staring at the door about to close, and dive for it, the rest of our companions behind me. We land in a heap on Nerida and Ulkair, and as the wizard scrambles to shut the way, I hear the beating of leathery wings – Loin’s, just before he and Night Eyes land in the pile. I wiggle my way free enough to breath, and staring into the horror of the blood-red sun, the tainted Elysian sky, as Nerida begins to laugh, I can’t help but join her.
So many questions, fears, doubts, so much burns in my head, the adrenaline of battle draining with every breath, but here we are, the final stretch. Just one last push, just one more battle, and we can do it. I know it.
If it bleeds, you can kill it. Alix’s words echo in my head as I ponder our hope, my laughter calming gradually as my companions collect themselves.
It it doesn’t, you can make it bleed.
And then you can kill it.
We can save Eylsia, beat the vampires just as we’d beaten Dovev.
We can win.

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