Hail to the glorious (un) dead

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.

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ladymaenad

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