Hail to the glorious (un) dead

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.

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ladymaenad

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