Hail to the glorious (un) dead

What Fresh Hell Is Byss 11

The Sound of Silence

DAY 13 (Session 11)
The Sound of Silence

The sun beams down at us from a clear blue sky, illuminating the unmistakable, haunted fens of Byss. I stare out through the thinning fog and feel my chest tighten with a shiver of joy – I’ve never been so happy to see something in all my life as I was this wet, stinking marshland. And the sun… the beautiful, beautiful sun! I wasn’t sure what it meant, perhaps destroying Elysia had saved Byss, perhaps things wouldn’t be so bad now, but it seemed like wishful thinking.
My temporary elation is shattered by a weak, agonized groan from Aintai, which jars me back to the harsh reality that she was bleeding to death, and Lóin had cut off her legs to free her.

“Aintai!”
I rush to the sorceress as Lóin rests her on the ground, the first tears I have ever seen her cry forcing their way down her pain contorted face. Alix follows me, and I can see his mind racing as he inspects the wounds for how best to stop the bleeding – or if it is altogether too late. I drop to my knees, hovering my hands above the severed flesh and desperately try to call Tubatron’s power to them, but it results only in my head pounding with strain.

“I’m… fine,” she hisses, bracing herself on an elbow, and as she grits her teeth I notice for the first time her fangs, which send a shudder down my spine. With a look of hard focus, she morphs herself down to a small snake, coiling around herself defensively. At least the bleeding seems to have stopped, perhaps this way she can arrest the damage of the wounds, at least until someone can heal her. I reach over and gently scoop the viper into my hands.

“Will you be okay like this?” I ask, and she nods, so I lift her to my shoulder’s height, and shiver a little as she slithers around my neck, a cold coil of muscle and scales. Tucking her head under my cloak, I believe Aintai resigns herself to sleep, as she should.

I glance around at my companions, and jump a bit as I notice Ulkair’s form has changed as well – either that, or a hulking gray lizard monster has eaten him and taken Nerida as its own. He notices my stare and growls, curling his fingers tighter around our cleric companion, whose skin still shines with rippling sea-green light, and I quickly look away.

“Huh,” Alix mumbles, and I twist to see him surveying the horizon, “we’re really far from Byss… But I think I know how to get home.”

“How far is really far?” Lóin asks, and Alix pauses for a moment to consider.

“About fifty miles, I’d say. Probably three to five days travel, under normal circumstances anyway.”

“Normal circumstances?” When are our circumstances ever normal?
I grumble mentally, but I know Alix must mean under normal Byssian circumstances, meaning when everything was wrought with danger and hideous monsters.

“Well, perhaps with the sun out, it could go a little faster,” I offer with a weak but hopeful shrug, “there should be less monsters, right?”

The ranger smiles at me, though it seems thinly spread over his weary features, and ruffles my hair – as it if could somehow not be tousled enough.

“Hope springs eternal,” he says, and I sigh, the exhale somehow bringing the harsh drain of the day to rest on my shoulders.

“Can we rest before we go any further?” I plead, looking around at my companions, none of whom seem to be in much better shape than myself. They all begin to debate which would be better, pressing on until nightfall, stuffing everyone they can in my bag and flying, or making much needed camp.

Lóin and Mimi don’t seem thrilled about the idea of wasting any time, in fact no one does, but if it’s going to take three days and upwards to make it back, I don’t see how losing an afternoon for rest will hurt us. I glance back in Ulkair’s direction, who growls again, and stumbles, his many monstrous eyes hazy, and I’m only more sure that we, especially he, won’t make it far, if he makes it at all.

Alix, we have to rest.

I know. He concludes. I’ll find us a place, just hang in there.

Okay…

I had blamed our immediate need of rest on Ulkair, but somehow the promise that I would stay on my feet is a strain, and all my senses cry out in objection. My head feels like it weighs too much for my neck to support, and my feet too much for my legs to lift. Aintai can’t be more than two pounds in this tiny form, but her sleeping, scaly form pulls on my shoulders like a necklace made of bricks. Everything hurts as we drag our way across the wet terrain, the closest thing to conversation between us Ulkair’s occasional growling at someone who wanders too close.

It doesn’t take Alix long to find a cave in which we can rest. It’s snug, protected, and inviting, even. I drag myself into the shaded enclosure as though it is the last thing I’ll do, and immediately plop against a wall, unable to will myself to do anything else. Alix starts a fire on some some dead branches that appear to have been fallen from the cave’s foliage, and everyone takes a spot around it. I watch as Ulkair lays Nerida next to the blaze, and reverts his form back to curl up with her, and find myself scowling at the injured wizard.

Sure, lay Nerida next to the fire demon. I grumble mentally. She’d love that…

I let out an audible “pfft”, and Alix beckons me over to him, probably in hopes of preventing me from starting a war which I cannot win. It takes more effort than it should, but eventually I convince myself that sleeping alone in the corner of a cave is inferior enough to sleeping with Alix that it is worth moving for. I pull myself up and shuffle over to him, plopping back down rather hard on the large root on which he’s taken a seat.

I lean against Alix, and feel the ragged movements of his chest as he draws in each breath with more effort than the last, his head a pounding mess of survival instincts and battle memories.

“Get some rest,” he mumbles to me, “I’ll keep watch.”

The words echoed of my nightmare cause my muscles to seize with fear, my mind immediately running to the horrors wrought on us by that demon – by me. I shake my head, forcing my mind elsewhere to try and keep from alarming Alix, and peer up at him with concern.

“You’re tired, too.”

“Rest.”

“Let me stay up and help you keep watch,” I try, but Lóin interjects suddenly, and much too quickly.

“No. I will,” he says, “Alix and I can keep watch.”

I look over at him, my lips forming a tight line as I try not to speak or act rashly, but my opinion on the matter seems to matter very little, as Alix nods in agreement.

“Indeed,” he says, “Lóin and I will keep watch.”

But Alix!

“Go to sleep, Cheshire.”

“…Fine,” I pout, shifting sourly to lay down and snuggle next to the ranger. I rest my head against his leg, his hand softly brushing my hair back, and under the soothing gesture my anger begins to melt away.

“It’s alright,” he reassures, and I feel my lip waver. Was it? Could it ever just be “alright”?

“Alix…”

“Shh, rest, little one,” he repeats. “We’ll talk in the morning.”

Aisylynn… My thoughts threaten to derail, to consume me with grief, but Alix wards them away for the time being. He continues to stroke my hair, and exhaustion takes its toll, pulling me quickly into the comfortable abyss of sleep.

DAY 14

The sound of shouting permeates my dreams, and I wake with a start as something grabs hold of me, then many other somethings. I gasp, struggling to pull in air as what my bleary eyes can barely make out to be vines constrict my arms to my sides, and around my chest and throat.

“A…lix…” I croak out the cry, wriggling desperately beneath the hold of the vines for any glimpse of him. I feel my face ache with the strain of suffocation when the vines recede, curling around themselves lifelessly as arrow after arrow sink into them. I hurriedly shove the remainders off of me, coughing and scrambling to my feet, to see our entire camp in equal chaos. I grab my axe from the ground, slashing at the plants as they lash out at my legs, and the ground quivers beneath me.

What’s going on!? My exhausted mind struggles to reason, scanning the cavern full of twisting plants for a source or a way to stop them. Alix, what are these things?!

Assassin vines!

Oh good! I hiss across our link. And what exactly are those!?

I have no idea what “assassin vines” are supposed to mean to me, and I hear a string of curses over our link that I’m not sure he meant to convey, but Alix’s arrows keep the continuing wave of murderous foliage at bay as I try to gain my bearings. Across from me however, Nerida is not so lucky, she’s still unconscious, laying in Ulkair’s arms as the vines constrict around them.

“Nerida!” I yell, but get no response, and instead begin skirting my way across the chaos to free them. The ground quakes beneath me again, and up from it bursts three huge, bug-like monsters around our campfire, one directly between myself and Nerida. The monster snaps its pincers at me, and I lift my axe defensively, taking a step back, but stumble on the shifting weeds below us. I struggle to regain my footing, fury and exhaustion bubbling over in my mind, and the monster moves closer to me, it’s hairy, spiny legs shuffling deftly around the vines.

Around us, the vines’ assault has roused Ulkair, who transforms again into the massive gray beast, and rips them from his and Nerida’s bodies. He roars, holding her close as he stomps wildly on the vines, and the fire, and everything else around him. He doesn’t seem stable, but at least I know Nerida is safe. The monster snaps at me again, pushing me back as I struggle to deflect each blow, my reflexes sluggish with fatigue. My hand slips on my axe, and the ant-like lashes out and bites into my arm, a sharp burning spreading from the wound. I punch the creature’s head in an effort to free myself, but its carapace is hard, and the blow has no effect.

A burst of blue and white arcana slams into the monster like a bolt of lightning, and it screeches and releases my wrist. I lift my axe and slam it into the huge bug, and the blade cracks into it mercilessly, leaving the monster to shrivel in on itself, twitching and lifeless. I glance around me, the vines all hacked to bits or stomped beneath Ulkair’s feet, and spot Mimi unconscious, in the clutches of another bug monster.

I snatch three of my arrows from the cave floor, and fire them in quick succession as Alix had taught me, two of them grazing off the monster’s hard outer shell, but the third sinking through its eye and into it’s skull. It squeals and drops Mimi next to the fire, leaving an acid burn on her chest and a hole in her robes, but curls into a defeated ball just as the other had. A resounding squish signals Ulkair’s defeat of the last creature, and I slump to the floor, panting and leaning on my instrument. I hear Aintai groan in discomfort, and moments later she slithers up my arm in her tiny viper form once more.

“Thanks,” I pant, and the serpent gives a curt nod before disappearing under my cloak.

Ulkair reaches down and snatches Mimi from next to the fire, clearly picking up on her being injured, but he hasn’t stopped storming around, stepping on things, including the fire pit itself, which appears to burn him, though he doesn’t stop. Alix approaches him, likely to free Mimi of his fist and investigate her wounds, but Ulkair growls, taking a panicked swipe at the ranger and tightening his grip on Nerida and Mimi protectively.

“What the hell!” Lóin demands, ripping his axe from a thick vine’s remnants, “what’s gotten into him?!”

Alix takes a step back, and I push myself back up to my feet – what was wrong with Ulkair? Had something happened to him in Elysia that was causing this hysteria? Could he not handle the magic of the font? No, that couldn’t be it, he seemed sane when he opened that portal.

“I don’t know,” I manage watching as Ulkair roars in pain, and thrashes about for whatever is attacking him – likely the fire pit in which he still stands. “This form must not be…”

Too bright? I finish mentally, deciding not to voice that particular opinion aloud, should he be able to be insulted by it. He finally moves himself from the area of the embers, growling and he makes a wild glance around the cave, all six of his monstrous eyes burning with battle.

“But he’s just trying to protect Nerida! I.. Maybe I can calm him down.”

Music soothes the savage beast, right? I glance up at Ulkair’s monstrous form doubtfully, but lift my instrument and begin to pluck out a familiar, harmonious melody as I edge closer to him.

Careful, Cheshire… Alix warns, eying the distance between myself and Ulkair skeptically. Ulkair’s eyes rest on me for a moment as my fingers shift over the chords, his chest rising and falling with labored breaths.

“Fear not this night,
You will not go astray
Though shadows fall,
Still the stars find their way,”

I lift my voice and already his posture shifts, the fury of his movements fading with the familiar tune. I suspected this would be the one to reach him, as I knew it had at least once before.

“Awaken from a quiet sleep
Hear the whispering of the wind
Awaken as the silence grows
In the solitude of the night
Darkness spreads throughout the land
And your weary eyes open silently
Sunsets have forsaken all
The most far off horizons,”

Ulkair’s grip loosens on our comrades, and with a low grumble he discards Mimi on the ground, allowing Alix to move him and tend to her. I move a bit closer to Ulkair, who darts a suspicious look at me, but doesn’t move away or grasp Nerida tighter, and continue to play.

“Nightmares come when shadows roam
Eyes close and heartbeats slow
Fear not this night
You will not go astray
Though shadows fall
Still the stars find their way…”

With another, somewhat more petulant grumble, Ulkair sits, laying Nerida back down beside him, and shrinks back to his usual self, curling around her protectively. I sit beside them for awhile, lost in the familiar melody as Ulkair drifts to sleep. It had been my instinct to play this song, I knew it would reach him, just as it reached me in every dark, empty night. Filled me with hope, showed me the stars in the black sky… but it doesn’t fill me with the strength and love of my sister as it always had before. Not tonight.

“Distant sounds of melodies
Calling through the night to your heart
Auroras, mists, and echoes dance
In the solitude of our life
Pleading, sighing arias
Gently grieving in captive misery
Darkness sings a forlorn song
Yet our… hope–”

I choke briefly on the bitter taste of the words, no matter how well I play the notes, they don’t sound right. Each drop of music rings hollow and heavy in the air, rippling in emptiness, because Aisylynn isn’t behind them, only her memory. I bite my trembling lip, my fingers moving deftly through the well-known beat, but my voice cracking under the strain of unshed tears.

“–our hope can still rise up…”

I stop – I can’t sing this song. I can’t ever do it justice. Every string, every verse tears the void in my soul larger and more jagged. I lean my head on the cool metal of my axe, taking in a deep, shaking breath, and try to fight back my utter aloneness. I wanted so badly to save her, I wanted to believe, to win, to be unafraid of the dark night, like I was when we were together. I wanted her to be right, so much that I risked her soul to prove we had nothing to fear, and now she was gone.

Fear keeps you alive. Alix’s words taunt me, wiser and less whimsical than the comfort of Aisylynn’s song. He was right… he was always right, and if I had listened to him, maybe Aisylynn would still be… but she wasn’t, now she was only a memory.

I pull myself forcibly from the thoughts, shaking my head to clear it of the dark spiral. I’m just tired, that’s all. I just need rest. In the morning, surely everything would be fine. Glancing back at Ulkair and Nerida, they both appear fast asleep, but even in their proximity to the dwindling fire, Ulkair shivers. With a sigh, I rustle through my bag of holding, tucking a spare blanket from it over the two of them.

“Here, don’t freeze to death,” I mumble, certain neither of them can hear me, “use this blanket. It’s beautiful.”

A sad smile tugs at the corner of my lips as I draw my hand back from the gray wool blanket, which is anything but beautiful, but still calls my mind back to those minutes of joyous, thieving high I’d achieved when commandeering it. “And stolen.”

“Thank you, Cheshire,” Ulkair mumbles, his conscious response taking me aback as he snuggles with the blanket and Nerida’s back.

“I…” I look down at the two of them, beaten exhausted, and sigh as Ulkair already appears asleep once more.
“You’re welcome.”

I push myself back up and return to my spot with Alix, although he and Lóin are busy digging in the corner of the cavern.

“What are you two doing?” I question sleepily, kicking away the crumbled remnants of the vines as I approach.

“Assassin vines are just the arms of a greater threat,” Alix explains, his voice strained with the effort of carving out the hardened earth. “they all spring from one large root, and if we don’t destroy it, they’ll grow back quickly to claim the next unfortunate group of traveler’s they can ensnare.”

“Oh, alright,” I stifle a yawn, trying to keep my mind present and engaged with is in front of me, “can I help?”

“No, you need to rest.”

“But this could take you hours,” I object – shovels would undoubtedly have eased the process, but as I had left most of the things from my bag in a heap in the arena, they were sadly in short supply.

“And? It will pass the watch.” Alix answers as though it isn’t an issue, but I can feel his head pounding with exhaustion.

He’s tired, everyone is, Mimi isn’t even conscious, and neither is Nerida. This would keep him awake for the next few hours, but then what? Stay up all night on watch alone and hope it works out? Travel exhausted and on the edge like he is now? Fight like he is now?

“Will you wake me up for next watch?”

“Cheshire,” he sighs and turns from his task to look at me, “no. You need to sleep.”

“So do you!” I insist, stomping my foot to emphasize my argument. “I’m less hurt than anyone else! I got more sleep in Elysia than you! I can keep watch!”

“This won’t be the first time I’ve kept watch overnight,” he answers simply, remaining calm despite the heated frustration that rises in my face.

“That doesn’t mean it’s good for you!” My volume raises with every word, and he lifts his hand pointedly to bring me down a few notches. “Alix, please. Just… let me take a shift on watch!”

You know as well as I do how bad you feel right now! I can barely even make out your thoughts! I insist mentally, knitting my brow as we stare each other down. It’s not you fault, Alix, but your head…

I hesitate to throw the truth of the matter in Alix’s face, and instead try to redirect my argument.

I’m just worried about you.

And I’m worried about you, little one. My wounds are on the body, they will heal on their own. Yours… I don’t know what to do for yours. There’s no…
I sense his frustration and concern for me as he pauses, trying to think of the right words.
I know of no poultice I can make, no herb I can find, no thing I can do to help you, I know only that I can let you sleep, and hold you while you weep.

I frown, my brow knitting as I listen to his words. He isn’t wrong, and he isn’t being unkind, but I feel the stinging truth that he dances around, not unlike me. He doesn’t trust me to keep watch, because I’m unstable. I suppose it isn’t any less fair than my not wanting him to keep watch because of his injuries and his struggle to think, but I grit my teeth, struggling to keep from lashing back out at him. I’m so angry, so hurt, I feel frustrated tears building in my eyes and I know, bitterly, that they aren’t Alix’s fault.

I…
I clench my fists at my side, letting go of the argument I feel I could only continue with unnecessary spite.
I just need something to do. I can’t sleep…

I hang my head, trying to collect myself. You need rest, too, and if I could just do something to help, I.. I wouldn’t feel so bad… I guess.

Sleep, Cheshire, and I will wake you. You think it’s that I don’t trust you. No, I trust you with my life, but I don’t know how to help you, so I must to trust you to help yourself. So sleep, but I know the need to act, to help, so I will wake you for your turn.

You promise?

Yes.

…Alright.
I scoot a little closer to Alix, wrapping my arms around him quickly, and press my forehead to his armored back. I cling to him for a moment before I feel my shoulders start to shake, threatening me with a collapse I am not ready for, and push away.

Goodnight, Alix. Steadying myself with a long breath, I go to curl up by the fire pit, trying to rest my mind enough for sleep.

Goodnight, Cheshire.

Hugging my knees closely to my chest, I watch the embers dance and toss some of the broken vines over them to fuel the dying blaze. I need to sleep, I feel exhaustion weighing on every ounce of me, my muscles throbbing, the heat from the fire pit only worsening my eyes burning. I lay my head against my knees, trying to fight the horrible truth that periodically presses its way back into my mind. I just need to rest – it will help, I know. I close my eyes for only a moment, and Alix’s calloused hand rests on my shoulder, shaking me lightly.

“Cheshire,” he says quietly, I blink up at the fuzzy outline of my father, struggling to focus on him. “Wake up.”

“Okay…” I mumble, rubbing my eyes, and this time clearing my view enough to see. Everyone appears to be asleep, even Lóin. It makes me wonder exactly how much longer Alix let me sleep than I’d intended. I can sense his unease as he sits next to me, and I move to rest a hand on his shoulder – seems I really am becoming a Byssian.

“Don’t worry, Alix,” I yawn, “I’ll wake you up for anything important.”

He looks at me with a weary half smile, and claps his hand over mine, then lays down without another word. I know the unspoken truth – he’s worried for me, he’d rather stay up, but he respects me, and his promise.

Maybe he shouldn’t.
I sigh, staring at the dying pile of embers in front of me. What was there to respect? I was a mess. Everything I had ever accomplished was on backs of another person, and when it really mattered, when I really, really had to come through, I choked. I push myself up from the spot on the cavern floor, and pace the enclosed space, trying to keep calm as my mind catches up to the past few days dizzyingly fast.

I have no idea how long I wander back and forth, prodding the dying fire on occasion, hovering by the entrance to the cave, the night sky and the seclusion of the outdoors tempting me. I spent so many years afraid to be alone, and yet as I feel the breakdown, beating relentlessly against my thinning defenses, it seems almost worth the horrors of whatever lurks in the swamp. I had to keep it together, I had to, just until morning, then some new task or threat would distract me, as it always does.

But what good would the privacy do me? What was one more breakdown in the heap of miserable failures my friends had been witness to? I couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn with my bow, couldn’t stop the immortal child from shredding my friends, I couldn’t save Aisylynn’s life, and I hadn’t even really saved her soul. What would it even matter if they respected me at the end of the day? I already knew they shouldn’t. Aisylynn’s death bears down on me, her scream playing over and over in my head as that demon tears into her, and I put my head in my hands and lean on the cavern wall, desperate to block out the crushing reality.

What have I done?
My sister was dead, and it was my fault. If I had just found her sooner, if I had told Zebidee not to send me here to Byss, or let that demon just kill me instead of running away, or anything. If I had done anything differently, Aisylynn would still be alive. She didn’t do anything to deserve this, she took care of me, she was a good person, all she ever did was love me. I screwed up, I forgot her, forgot the demon, and now she paid the price for my failure.

It isn’t fair!

Aisylynn hadn’t even seen me in eight years – eight long, lonely years. She’d probably forgotten about me, moved on, probably had a family of her own by now, children, a husband, a good life, and I stole it from her. Again. Because it wasn’t good enough to steal her life when I was born, it wasn’t good enough for her to lose her childhood to raising me, it wasn’t good enough for me to cost my family their home, cost my brother his freedom. No. I had to take the very life from the one person who never begrudged me anything.

I bite my lip to silence the sobs that overtake me, digging my finger into my arms until I feel my skin break, and the warmth of newly drawn blood beneath my nails. I clutch harder still as I slide to the floor, but the sensation means nothing, the pain doesn’t compare. My body trembles under the weight of the truth as my days of numb denial crash around me.

She’s gone. It’s my fault. I can’t ever… I take an unsteady breath, which only breaks into more audible weeping. I can’t ever undo it, I can’t ever make it right. I would never hear her sing again, never show her how strong I had become, I would never make her – make any of my family see that I was worth anything. I could never tell her how sorry I was, or how empty my heart is without her, or that I still love her.

It’s not fair!

The pain builds in my chest, piling further and further until the tightness catches my breath, unbearable, and I choke out another sob. I move my hands to my face, wiping desperately at my tear-stained cheeks and my dripping nose as I bawl, my breath coming in broken, shallow gasps.

It’s not fair, it’s not fair!

I repeat the words a hundred times in my head, as if they would change anything. As if there was any power in the universe to whom they made a speck of difference, or did anything but rile me. My fingers tangle roughly in my hair in hopeless grief, desperate for the numb denial I’d had only hours ago, and I bite my tongue to keep from screaming. The long, solitary moments of muffled sobbing leave me a nauseous, exhausted mess, bubbling out the occasional muted cry into my knees.

I stare at the dark walls of the cave and watch the dull orange glow from the embers flicker across them, empty and alone, despite the presence of every friend I had to my name. A hollow, haunted melody begins creeping to the surface of my heartache, and I quietly sing the words out into the bleak night, filling the cavern with my aching soul.

“Hello darkness, my old friend,
I’ve come to talk with you again,
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains within the sound of silence,”

I could never repair the damage, I could never get her back, undo the pain or the fear. I could never change our past, I couldn’t protect her, or stop what I had done. That truth sits heavily on my chest – what could I ever do to make it right? Nothing. I can do nothing. I’m lost – helpless. I tighten my grasp on my arms, the words falling dark and hollow around me.

Tubatron… help me. I lean my head against the wall of the cavern, sobbing in hopeless prayer. But to what end? There’s nothing he could do, no undoing the damage, even for a god. And I feel nothing, nothing of his holy presence, no answers, no peace or comfort. Not anything.

“In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
’Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a vivid light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence,”

Please… I know I’ve asked for too much. I-I understand. I swallow hard, bitterly placing my head in my hands, regret for my careless requests rattling my thoughts. Please. I don’t know what to do. This soul… maybe it means nothing to you, but if it wasn’t for her, music… would mean nothing to me.

“And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never shared
No one dared disturb the sound of silence,”

If it weren’t for the songs she sang to me at night, I would never have sung for anyone else. Never even dared to lift my voice.
My voice breaks, wavering with my grief as I beg with all the power my soul has, and for all of it I don’t know what I’m asking for, instead just rambling at a god from whom I’ve already received more than I had any right to ask for. I had begged so much of Tubatron and gave so little in return, but he saw something in me, he trusted me in moments I didn’t think myself capable. None of that would mean anything if it weren’t for Aisylynn, I never could have done the things I did without her voice empowering me.
This soul… is so much more beautiful than mine. I…

“Fools, said I, you do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you,”

I know I can’t change the past, but… she is what shaped my future.
My future. A future I never thought I would have. A future as Tubatron’s high priest, a future with a family, with music – a future I wouldn’t have without Aisylynn. She protected me, taught me, inspired me, she soothed my fears, and I left her in a prison. My mind carries me back to the fear and pain of being a spirit, how I’d torn at the seams, faded away, almost into nothing.
She didn’t deserve a future of darkness, a future of fear and questions and silence. I couldn’t change our past, but maybe now I could shape her future. I close my eyes, lowering my gaze to the glistening stone floor, and finally I know what I’m praying for.
For all the rest she ever gave me… she deserves it more than anyone. Please. Don’t let her be consumed by silence.

“But my words, like silence raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence…”

The shattering of glass pulls me from my thoughts, and as I turn to look for its source, a familiar brassy light falls over me, and Ulkair’s sleeping form. The warmth of Tubatron’s holiness wraps around me, and I sink to my knees, shaken with awe as the sound of divine music floods my ears. Relieved tears slip from my eyes as finally peace touches me, brilliant, glittering figures of light descend within the cavern, filling it with the brightness of dawn and the music of Tubatron’s own holy instrument.

The hymn is reminiscent of the music I’d heard in Tubatron’s concert hall, not as overwhelming, but just as beautiful. I feel the familiar, gentle touch of my sister’s hand on my cheek, soothing away my tears as she always had – as if I was the one she should be worried about, after everything that had happened to her. Her hand draws away and I bite my lip, reaching up to touch the empty space, but the loneliness that echoes in the missing contact is washed away as I stare after her. She looks happy. Her voice sweeps over me as it joins the chorus, ethereal, but beautiful, and leaves a bittersweet aching in its wake.

Aisylynn…

Tubatron’s reassurance fills the aching space in my soul. She’ll be alright, her voice will not be drown by the horror of death, but will live on in Tubatron’s celestial choir. With him, she will have rest and happiness, and he will ease the suffering I brought on her.

Thank you. I close my eyes as another burst of brassy light and music empties the cavern of Tubatron’s presence, and let out another small sob. Thank you…

In the absence of Tubatron’s power, the cave is cold and dim, but in an instant Alix is at my side. He pulls me into his lap and wraps his arms around me, and I wonder how long he has been awake before I feel my heart break with another sob. I can’t even tell what I am crying for anymore – relief, sadness, exhaustion, any number of things beating their way through my head, but I cling to the comforting embrace.

Another pair of arms wraps around me, and suddenly Nerida’s familiar presence engulfs me. Her arms wrap easily around the both of us, and I sob into her chest, which heaves with the effort of just breathing. It is relief enough to just know she is awake, that she even could wake up, but her familiar, gentle hold eases the hollow aching the wracks me.
She moves a hand back, and I force myself not to reach out after it, but she returns it with a softly glowing gemstone. It glitters all the colors of the rainbow as she hands it to me, and I look at it, confused, worry for the fissures that once again decorate her skin, but pull it to my chest.

Enclosed in Alix and Nerida’s arms, I cling to the glowing stone, clutching it to my chest until an unfamiliar pair of hands takes mine. I look up to see Ulkair, golden eyes staring down at me with a sad intensity, as though he is straining to reach a memory long lost. He begins to speak in Elysian, and although the words that reach my ears are foreign, they somehow reach past my mind, and delve into my soul.

He floods my senses with visions of paradise, with the closest sensation I have ever felt to standing in Tubatron’s presence, being filled with the music of his concert hall. The dark cavern falls away as Ulkair speaks, surrounding me with warm sunlight, clean air that carries beautiful, boisterous music and the scent of wildflowers.

In the bright expanse I see Aisylynn, she’s singing, laughing, she looks so happy, so whole. She turns to look at me, not the haunted visage that had been burned into my mind by that demon, not the tired, scared girl who faked so many smiles for my sake, but jovial and rested. I reach to touch her, and she hugs me, wrapping me in the embrace I’d longed for all these years.

The soft grass sways around us, a happiness I never thought I’d feel again bubbling out of me as I cling to her, elated tears brimming in my eyes. The music is wonderful, it’s everywhere, it’s warm and so welcoming. She lets me go, reaching her thumbs to wipe the tears clear from my eyes, and I stare up at her, unable to muster any words.

Her smile is genuine, it reaches her eyes, which glimmer in the light that surrounds us. I feel the pieces of my heart ache as I realize I’ve never seen this expression before, but I smile back at her nonetheless. This is what she will be like, in paradise with Tubatron, without strain, without… burdens. It is a bittersweet realization, that I was among her burdens, but nothing compares to the paradisaical harmony that surrounds me. In this place, in this moment, I feel like gold. I feel forgiven, and it is enough.

Ulkair’s beautiful illusion fades back into the cavern, and I feel the cold drip on my tears falling to my exposed arms, my hands still in his as my world spins back into focus. I meet his eyes, and he shakes his head, as if focusing to pull himself from his train of thought.

“Thank you,” I mumble, not sure what else to say. He releases my hand and walks away without another word – perhaps drained from his use of the Elysian tongue, a language with a power I still couldn’t understand.

“I’ll take care of her,” I hear Alix murmur, and Nerida shifts, her arms disentangling from the embrace as she readies to follow Ulkair.

“Thank you Nerida,” I repeat, grasping her hand as she pulls away. She looks torn, giving me a sad smile and clasping my hand in her own, I can tell she’s hesitant to leave, and I struggle to find words with which to comfort her. At least, truthful ones. I want to tell her I feel better, tell her I will be alright, and perhaps I will, but now I feel nothing, too exhausted and numb to put name to the listless emotions that rattle against the fragile walls of my mind.

“I’m sad,” I admit, no doubt to the truth of at least that statement. “I lost my family in Elysia. Aisylynn was all I had but… I have this family now.”

“And maybe we’re weird, and a little broken, and maybe you’re all terrifying,” I manage a small, fond smile, letting go of her hand as I finish my explanation, “but you all love me… and that’s more than I can say for most of the last one.”

I lean heavily on Alix as he pulls me in close, sniffling in numb exhaustion, my mind still reeling with the visions of paradise in which I’d rather have stayed. Nerida returns to her place with Ulkair to rest, and I rest easier with Alix just knowing that she had woken up, and would wake again.

“Alix…”
I sniffle into the ranger’s clothes, unsure of what to say, and he holds me silently as I sort through the mess. What was there to say? “You were right” he’s heard too much, “I’m sorry” was certainly true, but I didn’t know what for, “I love you”, “I’m glad I have you”, “Thank you” all seemed cheap in the shadow of the emotions that towered over me. Uncertainty settles on my shoulders and I feel myself shrink more with every passing moment, until Alix’s arms envelop me completely.

Eventually my tears subside to sniffles, and my sniffles into silence, and Alix only holds me tighter as the moments pass. He moves us from the edge of the cavern to sit by the dying fire, and I stare at the embers, dazed, occasionally reaching up to wipe my nose on my– well, Alix’s cloak. Alix runs his fingers through my hair, and the crackle of embers softly lulls me, pulling me down into the silence of sleep.

DAY 14

Alix does not wake me, and when I eventually stir from my listless sleep, I peer up at him, guiltily realizing that I abandoned my watch.

“I’m sorry,” I murmur, resting my head against his chest once again. He reaches a hand up to gently rub my arm, a gesture that assures me he is not angry, although that knowledge does little to ease my conscience. It seems everyone else is just waking, as well, Nerida heals all the past night’s injuries, each spell that she casts causing the fissures Elysia left on her skin to burst with the sea green light, but no one really seems to take notice of them besides Ulkair, and Nerida herself.

Alix? Can you see those.. um, cracks in Nerida?
I ask as he douses the remnants of the fire pit, readying to leave. He looks over at her, studying her for a moment, and shakes his head.

I saw something like that when Ulkair cast that spell in Elysia, but nothing now.

Oh… But they’re all over her, they show up whenever she uses magic.

It stands to reason that perhaps he cannot see them because he isn’t in tune to holy energy like Nerida and I are and Ulkair must know they’re there, whether from Nerida telling him or perhaps his own wisdom.

I wonder what they could be…

I’m sure Agorran will know.

I sigh and nod, picking up my bag from the ground, although the bag feels suddenly like it weighs hundreds of pounds, and even the small effort of lifting it is excruciating. I moan mentally as we trudge out of the cavern, and although I hadn’t meant to direct the thought at Alix, he scoops me up in his arms as we walk, perhaps sensing my strain.

“I can walk,” I mumble out the weak objection, knowing how unfair it is for Alix, who has already taken my night’s watch, to now carry me as we travel – and also knowing that it won’t stop him.

“I know,” he says simply. I lean my head on his shoulder, grateful for the relief, even if I don’t deserve it, and try to rest my mind, anxiety burning away at me already. We would be home soon, then, surely… things would be alright. Somehow. Agorran would help Nerida, and Aintai, and…

Alix, do you think Agorran is alright?

The Byssians had the upper hand when we’d left, but Dovev’s army was massive, even with him dead… My mind quickly wanders to our abandoned comrades’ fate, and my stomach twists with dread. Nerida and Ulkair ran off to Elysia before the battle was won, what if we made the wrong choice following them? We threw everything away, we destroyed Elysia, and what if… what if there’s no home to go back to?

Sighing, Alix squeezes me as he walks, and I feel him collecting his thoughts.
“Cheshire, I learned long ago that you can’t worry about the people who might die while you are gone. It will drive you insane. Focus on the people around you, keep them safe, and then return to the people you’ve left. Then wreak vengeance on anything that has hurt them in your absence. If anything’s happened to him, we’ll find whatever is responsible and we’ll kill it.”

Alix’s words hit me hard with the bitter truth – there is no reassurance he can give me, there’s no way he could know if Agorran, or anyone, made it through that battle. And there’s nothing we can do if they didn’t, except try to pick up the pieces, whatever pieces that remained. My stomach lurches, my mind reeling with worry for my home, so newly found, and so likely destroyed. I pull Alix’s cloak tighter around myself, I know he’s right, I know he’s learned this lesson the hard way, and that worry will not help me, but it still racks every fiber of my being.

If Agorran is dead, it’s our fault, and maybe following Nerida was the only choice we could make, but would that soften the blow? Would that poor consolation be enough to drown out Nerida’s cries over his body? I shudder at the memory. Nothing would be enough to make me forget the anguish in her voice, nothing would heal that wound. I peer over at her, walking hand-in-hand with Ulkair, exhaustion stretching her features thin, and I can still picture the cracks of light down her skin. If Agorran is gone… will there be any helping her? Will there be any helping Aintai’s legs, or Alix’s head?

How many times had I told myself “it was the final stretch”? How many times had I said that Alix just needed rest, and healing, that everything would be okay? And here we are, in the wake of it all. Beaten, exhausted, unsure, sick with worry, trudging the long, long miles home. It doesn’t feel like a victory. It doesn’t feel like anything. The sun’s precious rays had seemed like a kiss from heaven when I’d stepped into them, but by midday they’ve tinged Alix’s skin pink, and two more days of travel will likely see us all burned.

The wet trudge through the marshes seems only harder on everyone for the new heat, and what good did giving Byss its positive energy back do if we left its people to die? I promised Agorran we would save Elysia, and we destroyed it. I promised… well, I made many promises. I hang my head, covering my face as a new sob threatens me with every step down my self-destructive rabbit trail, and I feel Alix’s grip on me tighten as I try to process it all.

All this fighting, all this horror, all the promises, broken or kept, the lies, the fighting, the pain… everything we’d done, everything I’d seen, and all I wanted was a place I could call home, a place I thought I had found in Byss. A place that, for all our efforts, could be in ruins.

“What if it’s not just Agorran? What if it’s everyone? What if no one survived!? What will we do if…” What will I do if there’s no home to go back to? If there are no pieces to pick up?

“*Cheshire.* You forget that the people we left were not helpless. Trust them. We are a product of our people, and we survived, so I choose to believe they did as well. Like I said, we will avenge them if need be, but we must not be prideful and assume that we survived where they did not. We are Byssians, and that means we are survivors.”

I take a deep, uneven breath, trying to back off the edge I’d just pushed myself to. He’s right, he has to be right. Byss is what gave me what strength I have, and these people have been stronger and wiser than me for a long time. It is arrogant to think that just because a handful of us left, they all died, or that if we’d have stayed, we would have turned the tides of battle.

Alix is amazing, but Byss raised others the same as it did him – in the harsh reality that you fight and live or die trying, and these were the few who had not died trying. Plus, we’d left Sheik and Oriela behind, and while Oriela had never done much to prove herself, Sheik, I was sure, would make quick work of plenty of undead, as she always had.

“You’re right,” I mumble. Burying my face in the crook of Alix’s neck, I cling to the comfort I’ve come to rely so heavily on, and hug his cloak tightly to my chest. The warmth and strength of his arms never fails to soothe me, and I feel a tiny spark of hopefulness dare to trickle into my train of thought. Everything isn’t over. We won, there’s no reason to believe they hadn’t as well, and if all else was lost… I still have Alix, and if we had nothing but each other, that would be enough.

“Alix?” Lóin’s voice pulls me from my thoughts, and I look up to see him meeting Alix’s stride to walk alongside us. “Can I borrow Cheshire for awhile?”

Borrow me? What for?

I can’t imagine what would be going through Lóin’s head right now, or what he could do or say to make me care about it when there is so much else weighing on me already. But I imagine it must be important for him to bring it up at this very moment, when I think anyone can see my distress, and I also get the vibe from Alix that he knows what it’s about. Alix raises an eyebrow at Lóin, his stare distinctly warning, then looks at me, and I heave a sigh and nod. Lóin wrests me from position on Alix’s shoulders, moving me to his own, and I shift, holding Alix’s cloak closed around me. He walks a bit ahead of the group, I suppose wanting privacy and forgetting Alix can hear my every thought.

After a few moments of increasingly awkward silence, he finally manages an “uhh”, and a nervous laugh. “This is not as easy as I expected it to be,” he mumbles.

Is anything? I ponder bitterly as I reach a hand out from under the shadow leather cloak to pet Lóin’s head.
Whatever it is he’s trying to say, he’s obviously on edge, and this method of comfort always seems to work for Tad Cooper, so in my fatigued delirium, it seems like the best course of action.

“So, Uh…. How about that Zebidee, huh?”

The statement is awkward, but I still manage a small smile, reminiscing on our various back of forths about the silver dragon when we’d first arrived in Byss. Of course, things were much different then, and having regained my memories, I now realize I’ve a lot less reason to stick up for him than I initially thought.

“….Fuck that guy….” My voice comes out much smaller than I’d meant it to, but memories of my sister and the demon, memories Zebidee had locked in my mind, choke me as I try to force out the words. I try, and fail, to hold back the tiny, dry sob that hits me, and I feel Lóin’s grip on my legs tighten.

“I’m sorry,” he says, swallowing hard. “…About everything. I didn’t mean for it to become like it was.”

Sorry…?
The word spins in my head – I don’t know what I’d wanted him to say, I doubt there was anything better, but somehow it doesn’t feel like enough. He’s being sincere, I can feel it. He’s nervous, he wants to make it right, and as much as I’d wanted him to, suddenly frustration spikes in me. It forms a lump in my throat that refuses to budge, and I barely choke out my next words.

“I know.”

“I really Cheshire’d everything up.”

What? I want to ask, but know there’s no need. My name – synonymous with failure. Myself, as a person, being the very best example he could think up to demonstrate utter, devastating blundering. How could further explanation possibly make that any better? I lay my forehead defeatedly against the messy tufts of his hair, shame burning my cheeks.
“…You did.”

“I didn’t rein it in,” he says, I suppose trying to lighten the mood by using Alix’s constant words of caution.

“You didn’t,” I mumble, the words coming out muffled, “at all.”

Another long moment of silence passes, and he makes one more push, I suppose sensing my dismay, or perhaps simply dissatisfied with his results thusfar.

“Cheshire, I’m so sorry.”

I sigh into the half dragon’s hair, slumping against his head as I feel the last of my fury slip away into pathetic defeat. I can’t argue with him, not at this point. He wants to make amends, and I know I have to let him.

“I forgive you, Lóin.”

“Well, that’s great,” he says, his tone suddenly casual and sour, “but I’m not sure I can forgive myself. Not really.”

I am abruptly struck with the impression that this is what Lóin was waiting for – for my forgiveness, just so that he could point out he doesn’t have his own.

What do you want from me, Lóin!? I want to scream, anger scratches its way back to the surface of my mind. Perhaps my own problems make it hard to care about someone else’s, but Lóin isn’t making it easy. This isn’t the time for a conversation like this, not with so much hanging over us, anyone could see that. Well, I suppose anyone except for Lóin. Still… if we have any chance of friendship or trust again, we have to be able to put this behind us, I realize that now.

Save your hatred for your enemies… that’s what Alix would say. I tell myself, at least, and he doesn’t pipe in with something different. The battlefield is no place for grudges, not against your allies, or yourself. I let out another muffled sigh into Lóin’s hair – what Lóin did was awful, but there are worse crimes, and if I can make him understand that, maybe we can move on.

“Well, I don’t want to Cheshire this up*,” I try not to let too much resentment seep into the new phrase, though I’m not sure it worked, “but think about the person you hate the most.”

“That would be Lóin.”

“Really?”

Well, that makes my point a bit harder to make.

“Yep.”

I sigh again, supposing it might have been too easy for him to just say ‘Dovev’, or anything that would have made this point easier to make.

“Okay, think about the person you hate NEXT most.”

“Zebidee.”

“_*Really*_?” I find myself caught somewhere between exacerbation and amusement, the point I’d wanted to make running away with Lóin’s inability to take this moment seriously.

“Yep,” he concludes, not missing a beat, “he knows what he did.”

“Um… okay,” I pat Lóin’s head again, hoping his newfound cheer is a sign that he’s moved on.

“No,” he sighs, drudging the moment back up into reality, “really it’s Malom.”

Malom? The name rings no bells, but it must be someone from Lóin’s somewhat checkered past.

“Okay, well, safe to say you’ll never forgive him for all the terrible things he did to you, right?”

“Yes.” Lóin’s response is curt, and it seems I’ve struck a nerve, but maybe that means he’ll listen to what I have to say.

“And now you’re out to kill him, right?”

“Um, yeah,” he responds as if it were the only conceivable option.

“Well, if you never forgive yourself for anything, won’t you end up hating yourself just as much as him?”

“I… guess?” The statement is more of a question, and Lóin clearly has no idea where I’m going with this, so with a sigh, I deliver my conclusion.

“So, what, are you going to kill yourself, too?”

I can’t say for sure what I was expecting in response to that question, but awkward silence was definitely not it. I set my jaw, feeling my anger begin to bubble up again with every moment of quiet that ticks by – why had I even asked? After everything we’ve been through, after everything we’d seen and done, and all the people who’d died so we could do it – how could it really be so easy for him to throw away his life? The Byssian in me, small and new though she may be, seethes with anger at the notion.

Perhaps… he just doesn’t understand the gravity of what he’s saying, perhaps he feels his life isn’t worth anything, or that he’s already as bad as this “Malom” character, a fact I can’t really argue with him, but am praying isn’t true.

“Lóin, you know what the difference between you and this “Malom” is?”

“A color?”

A color? What.. Oh, Malom must be a dragon, then.

“No,” I sigh, trying my best to guide Lóin to a conclusion I know will keep him from suicide. “It’s a heart. You’re sorry. You want forgiveness, even if you can’t give it to yourself.”

“Yeah…” He sounds melancholy at best, and like he certainly doesn’t believe me.

“You’re not the same as he is, Lóin.” I try, and am greeted with more silence. I clench my fists – fine! If he is determined not to listen to any reason, then why should I bother tormenting myself to save him? The thought sends a sharp pang of guilt right into my heart – that isn’t fair.

It’s not his fault he feels useless, it’s not his fault he can’t undo his mistakes. I reason, my stomach twisting as my mind combs over my own recent failures. Of all people, I guess I have no room to talk.

I sigh, “Lóin, sometimes… there are things you just can’t forgive yourself for. You can’t… unring a bell, you know?”

He doesn’t do anything but grunt, and I feel tears well in my eyes as I struggle to maintain my composure, to get through Lóin’s thick skull the point I’m trying to make without breaking down.

“But… just because you can’t forgive yourself,” I take a deep breath and, throwing a glance back at Alix, feel the support and confidence to carry on my family has instilled in me. “Doesn’t mean that other people can’t.”

Lóin is silent for awhile more, and then he rummages through his bag, and reaches up to hand me a big silver scale, “I want you to have this.”

I turn it over in my palm curiously, “one of your scales?”

“No, Zebidee’s.”

“Oh,” unsure, I stare at my reflection for a moment in the glistening scale – I look awful.

“It’s more important to me than one of mine,” Lóin’s words pull me from the battered image of myself, and all I can think to respond with is another curious “oh?”

“Because it’s how we met,” he explains, “I hate the guy, but it’s special because of that.”

“Oh,” I smile a little, looking back down at the scale, and my memories of that day come rushing back to me.

*

Things were quiet in the city, and there I was running a delivery for Zaine, just like any other day. Or, it should have been just like any other day. I’d never been on this side of town before, too afraid to stick out among tall buildings, pricey shops, and nobles wandering the streets. I couldn’t be the only kid running an errand, but I was still drawing stares, so I stopped to check my reflection, making sure for what must have been the sixth time that day that I hadn’t accidentally changed.

A quick glance at a window showed the same curious urchin I’d been for the last few days, so no cause for alarm among the masses. With a sigh, I trudged the last bit of road and tried not to make eye contact with those so clearly off-put by poverty. I reached my destination with little fuss, but something about the big, foreboding doors of the manor sent a chill down my spine as I approached. I just had to drop off this lousy amulet, that was all, but once I crossed that threshold, everything happened so fast.

The inside of the manor was pitch black, it smelled like blood, unholy heat washed over me in a wave that stole the scream from my lungs, and I stumbled back for the door as the hands of hooded figures grasped for me. Panic stricken, I shrank to avoid them, but a burst of light above me drew my eyes, and I wish I’d never looked up. The scorching violet eyes of a monster burned into mine through the darkness, its voice boomed out at me in a strange and terrible tongue, and I knew, staring at the features illuminated by the terrible light, that I would die there.

But I didn’t.

As I stood for seconds that felt like an eternity, frozen in fear, something in me pushed. A robed man wrapped his hand around my wrist, dagger poised for my heart, and instead of shrinking, I grew. As my arm burst from his grasp, I shoved him to the ground and I ran, my heart pounding in my ears the only thing to drown out the chorus of shouts behind me. I couldn’t let them catch me, I had to get away, desperation driving my every step, I tore through the crowded streets, doing everything I could to evade my attackers.

The monster’s voice echoed in my head as I ran, and it crippled me, booming over my thoughts with a new threat, a curse, a promise. I clutched my head as his horrifying language filled it, bringing me to my knees: I stopped him from entering this world, and he would destroy me. I stared, horror struck at the amulet, glowing in my hands, and hurled it down an alley in panic, and the voice stopped, the demon’s presence fading from over me. I scrambled back to my feet, panting, and sprinted without stop until I reach Zaine, whose bushy brows furrowed in concern as I approached.

“Child, you look like you’ve seen a ghost,” he said, “what’s happened?”

My mind raced for some way to explain how very much worse than “a ghost” I had seen, giving me only a moment to catch my breath before I spilled every detail of what happened in a flurry of hysteria. The old wizard’s look darkened, and he grabbed my arm, staring me hard in the eyes.

“We must go quickly, grab only what is precious to you.”

My possessions were few, and that which was precious to me even fewer, so I nodded, and quickly went about gathering what I had to have. I took only a moment to handle Aisylynn’s doll with care, hugging the memento to my chest before I tucked it in my bag of holding – I had no idea where we were going, but wherever I landed, I wanted her with me.

I met Zaine in the back of his shop, in an even more unusual state of disarray, and found him mumbling in the center of the room, his eyes racing over a tattered scroll.

“W-What are you doing?”

“I bought this scroll in case of emergencies,” he explained hurriedly, “but it’s a bit above my head, it may not take us exactly where I intend.”

That was far from reassuring news, but anywhere had to be safer than there, he outstretched his hand to grab my wrist as he finished his incantation, and arcane magic swept around us. I felt the pit of my stomach twist as the world began to spin around me, and in a flurry of motion, Zaine’s hand was ripped from my own, the wizard disappearing from my sight before I crashed into a wall of stone, and my world went dark.

I woke to find that it was not a wall, but the ground I had crashed into, the splitting pain in my head the first thing to assault my senses, followed by the distinct cold of my bare flesh on the stone, and the distant crackling of a hearth. No, not a hearth – a fire! As my brain raced to catch up with the previous events, I shot up to find my things scattered and ablaze.

No! The lamp oil in my bag must have ignited somehow! I rushed for the blaze, trying desperately to put it out only to burn my hands and feet, but among the burning remnants, I spotted the tiny porcelain hand of Aisylynn’s doll, and panic seized me.

No! No, no, no! Please! She’s all I have left!

I plunged my hand through the flames to grasp the doll, though the heated porcelain scorched my skin, and pulled her from beneath my other burning equipment. She was singed, some of her hair curling and fraying from the heat, her face marred with ash, and her dress, which I’d so meticulously cared for all our days together – irreparably tattered. I dropped the doll once free of the flame, and held my hand to my chest, searing pain running through the marred flesh and up my arm.

Frustrated, panicked tears stung my eyes, but there was no time for them, I pushed myself up and instead tried to pull anything not already unsalvageable from the ground. As I gathered my things, I found my clothes to be among the ruined, although I’m still unclear how they came off – perhaps something to do with the spell going wrong. A ways away I found my bag of holding, open, but luckily untouched. I dug through it for whatever it may have held on to, which wasn’t much, but at least included some of my traveler’s rations – wherever I was, I was certain the journey ahead of me was long.

My lute-bow somehow survived, and my accordion, though the heat seemed to have warped it slightly, and after gathering them, I went to retrieve my beloved toy once more. She was cool now, and with a sniffle, I turned her over in my hands, running my fingers over the back of her singed dress.

“I’m sorry,” I murmured to the doll, and a deep, harrowing laugh echoed from her in response. It paralyzed me, horror ripping through my body – th-that monster, that demon! No! How could— The laughter faded, and slowly the doll’s head began to turn, I wanted to scream, throw her down and run, but fear locked me in place, staring at the monstrosity in my trembling hands. Her eyes were not her own, instead fiery and purple, like the demon’s I had seen in the manor, and they burned with intensity and fury.

“You cannot run!” It shrieked, “nowhere is safe for you, and you can never hide from me! I will drag you to the pits of hell, but not before I take everything you love! Your sister, your petty wizard – Everything!”

On the last word, the doll shattered, pieces scattering around me with the demon’s laughter.
I stood, shivering in terror, staring at the empty place in my hands that once held Aisylynn’s doll – I’m not safe. I’ll never be safe!

I hadn’t been still but a moment when the beating of wings in the air cut my panicked thoughts short, and I raised my head only in time for a shadow with massive claws to descend on me. I think I screamed, I’m certain I cried, and I flailed in panic as the talons closed over me, the booming voice of a dragon demanding to know what I’d just done. I could only blubber in terror, curling in on myself as it lifted his talons to his face to look at me closer. I felt its breath steadily washing over my skin, strangely cold, and I shuddered in horror, feeling my body shrink in response, and a pair of feline ears springing from beneath my hair.

“I-I-I haven’t done a-anything!”
I managed to squeak out the words among a series of senseless pleas for my life, and felt the unsettling, dominating force of the dragon’s eyes on me. In great trepidation, I lifted my gaze from beneath my hands and regretted it immediately. The huge silver beast locked eyes with me, invading my mind, and in an instant I relived every horrible hour that had passed that day, the terror and pain ripping through my psyche.

I screamed, I think, but could only hear my heartbeat, pounding in my head as my world reeled, every part of me burning with adrenaline. The pressure built and built as the horror played behind my eyes, and helpless, I withdrew, desperately clawing into the back of my mind – into silence and sanctuary.

For a moment, everything was still and dark, and then the dragon’s voice pulled me back into the waking world. I stared up at him from my place in his palm, dazed, a cold sweat drenching my body, the pounding in my head relentless.

“I see that you were the victim of this evil,” my vision swimming, I desperately tried to focus on the image of the silver dragon, and his words, as he spoke to me, “not the source.”

What…? I squinted at him, trying to voice my curiosity, though it only game out an incoherent mumble.
What evil…? Where am I? Where is Zaine?

“I accessed your memories,” he said solemnly, almost sheepishly, “but your mind… could not handle what happened, I have locked it away to protect you.”

“Locked… What?” I finally managed to question, holding my head, “what happened?”

The dragon explained to me the process he’d used to force my memories out of my head, then back in, and then, essentially stuffed them into the back of my mind where I couldn’t reach them, and he may as well have been speaking draconic for all the sense it made.

“I… cannot undo the damage,” he explained, “but I believe I know someone who can. His son is on his way here now, and I am going to send him to another plane. Tranatheraxxus is there, when you find him, he can help your mind, and you should be safe traveling with his son in the meantime.”

I tried to make sense of what he was telling me and sat in silence for a moment, wracking my brain for answers in what seemed to be an empty gap. A day’s worth of time had simply vanished from my mind, but for a few horrifying glimmers that flashed across it when I pressed.

“Ah, don’t try too hard,” the dragon insisted, “you know, to remember. I’m not quite sure what will happen.”

“What… can happen?” I asked, and the monster was quiet for a moment, contemplative, before he answered.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said, “I’m certain Tranatheraxxus will be able to help you before the, well, let’s call it a “box” protecting your mind breaks. As long as you don’t do anything too… crazy. Anyway, when Lóinnir gets here, I’m going to play a prank on him, and you should help me. What do you think?”

“I…” I paused, staring up at the expecting eyes of the massive silver beast – they looked almost playful. It seemed unwise to say ‘no’ to something of his size, but, equally unwise to get involved in whatever kind of pranks a creature like this might think amusing.

“Uh… do I have a choice?”

“No,” he cooed merrily, “well, I mean, I suppose you don’t have to play along, but I’m going to do it anyway. It will be hilarious.”

I had no chance to voice another objection before the dragon scooped up the rest of my belongings, closed me in his claws, and took to the sky. The ground below me shrank away much too fast, leaving a twisting knot in the pit of my stomach, and I shut my eyes tightly, praying for my life as fast as my mind could conjure words.

We landed soon, mercifully enough, at the entrance of a cavern, where the dragon took me to sit by a decent treasure hoard, and introduced himself as “Zebidee”. I thought it was a strange name, but just as quickly realized it would be unwise to say so, and decided instead to introduce myself, as well.

“My friends, erm, friend calls me Cheshire,” I said, not realizing until after I stumbled through it how awkward the statement was.

“Cheshire, hm?” Zebidee paused, “well then, what do you enemies call you?”

“I, uh,” I had no idea how to respond to that now, other than thinking I shouldn’t have tried to be clever in front of a dragon, and after awhile of stunned silence, Zebidee chuckled.

“Cat got your tongue?”

I shivered – what a horrible phrase… It never failed to raise the hairs on the back of my neck.

“Um, I guess,” I mumbled, casting my eyes to the ground in the hopes of dodging any further conversation.

Zebidee mulled about his cave chatting for awhile, my kidnapping becoming increasingly casual with every passing moment, before leaving without much explanation, though I could only assume it had something to do with this… other dragon he was bringing here.

Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place…

I sighed and turned to look at the mound of silvery treasures in the back of the cavern, much too concerned with my situation to even think about touching them or investigating any closer. I still couldn’t wrap my mind around what had gone on, but as I reached through the fog for answers, I remembered Zebidee’s warning about trying too hard to regain my memories and shuddered – hopefully this… Other dragon would find his father quickly, and I could get back to Zaine.

And find Aisylynn! Something in me urged, pulling at my heart strings. I didn’t know what anymore, but something was very wrong, and I needed to know they were safe. My exposed buttocks were just starting to numb against the cold stone floors of Zebidee’s lair when he returned, but to my surprise, he didn’t have with him another dragon.

He sauntered back into his cavern looking pleased with himself, to say the least, and dropped from his terrifyingly large silver talons a man – or perhaps, by his ears, an elf of some kind. The stranger got to his feet, dusting himself off with all the dignity I imagine he could muster, and smoothing back his tightly cropped hair. Broad, spiked shoulders, strong features, he didn’t look like any elf I’d ever seen, ears aside, and was a little weird looking, perhaps, but then who was I to talk about weird?

He certainly wasn’t a dragon, but I was sure Zebidee had said this man was the son of another, more powerful silver dragon than himself, and the occasional patch of silvery scales did cover the newcomer’s skin, so… perhaps he was adopted? Or disguising himself with magic? Or… only half dragon – if such a thing were possible. He approached with Zebidee, the two of them talking in hushed tones about something I couldn’t hear, and then Zebidee circled around me, closing the space between us quickly, and I felt a threatened shiver run down my spine. The cold of his breath so close to me made my hair stand on end as he spoke.

“I caught this strange thing in my treasure hoard,” he coos, and my eyes widen as I realize he is referring to me, “I was thinking about eating it.”

WHAT?! I turn in alarm to look at the looming silver dragon, and feel my ears flatten against my hair as adrenaline sets my heart racing. I should have run while he was gone!

“But better still that we should share the meal, seal our pact, as it were?” Zebidee’s voice sounds all too enthused as he makes an offering gesture at me with his claw.

Horrified, I twisted to look at the other… whatever he was, whose face luckily displayed heavy disgust at the idea of simply eating me right here and now.

“I’d rather not,” he mumbled coolly, and Zebidee cocked his head.

“Are you quite sure, Lóinnir? There’s a long journey ahead of you, a belly full of thief seems like it would make it more manageable.”

Lóinnir, as Zebidee said, simply shook his head as he replied. “Even still, I like my food less… Alive.”

Zebidee laughed and winked down at me, a playful twinkle in his eye – this… this was his prank? Dragons had strange senses of humor, it seemed, and I made the mental note not to get involved with anymore such practical jokes in the future, for my safety, and my sanity’s, sake.

“Alright then, Lóinnir,” he said, “I shall send you to Byss, where I last heard from your father. In exchange, you will take this strange little thief off my hands, and they will accompany you on your journey.”

I glance back at the half-dragon, who looked me up and down, clearly unimpressed, but nodded dutifully.

“Very well, Zebidee, if you’ve changed your mind about eating him.”

I’m not a thief!

I wanted to object, but it seemed best to play along for now, and besides, such an objection would have been a lie. I was absolutely a thief, just not one stupid enough to have tried to steal from a dragon.

Zebidee scooted me over to Lóinnir, placing a single silver scale in his hand, and began speaking in the language he had when he’d first assaulted me. As his voice filled the space around us, I felt my stomach twist with weightlessness, and as a wave of arcana washed over us, I squeezed my eyes shut in fear. When I opened them, I was sitting on a cold, damp stone roof. It was grossly overcast, wherever we were, the mist and fog completely obscuring the sun, and I turned to see Lóinnir sourly seated beside me.

It was no time at all before I heard the commotion of people noticing our arrival, and presumably my nakedness. I didn’t know much about this place, but it was likely best I looked the least threatening as I possibly could, so before too many took note, I changed my shape once again. I assumed the body of a halfling, small, slender, and otherwise nondescript. It drew Lóinnir’s attention, and he raised an eyebrow.

“What? We all have our tricks up our sleeves,” I defended, he paused, and nodded, picking me up in one arm and hopping from the rooftop to the ground with little fuss. One of the townsfolk stopped us, I assumed him a guard by his clothes and his weapons, and questioned us. I couldn’t answer much, as I truly had no idea how I got here, or even how I got to Zebidee, and after a brief, curt conversation with my traveling companion, decided to take us to their military barracks.

I was sure there would be further questions, but for now it seemed we were to be pressed into military service or ejected from the city. I looked small, I was young, I was sure I could finagle a way out of it, but my nervousness grew with every step down the foreboding streets.

“I’m Cheshire, by the way,” I mumbled, and Lóinnir looked down at me, still effortlessly carrying my new, tiny form down the street, and thankfully shielding most of my nudity with his massive, muscular arm.

“Lóin,” he responded simply, and I smiled a little.

“Nice to meet you, Lóin.”

*

I feel the smile in my memories spread over my own lips as I look over the shimmering scale in my hand, and wrap my arms around Lóin’s head.

“Well, it’s important to me, too,” I say finally.

If Lóin and I can share nothing else but memories of good times, at least we have those. He isn’t the hero I’d thought he was when I first came to Byss, he isn’t the paragon of virtue I believed him to be, but he is my friend. We pass a few moments in comfortable silence, but it is short lived, Lóin begins to shift uncomfortably after awhile, perhaps searching for more to say, and I dread the thought, my stomach twisting in anticipation of his next move.

“So,” I begin, and then hurriedly try to call to mind something worth discussing, “when you screw up really badly… Is that what everyone calls it, “Cheshiring up”?”

“Uh, no,” Lóin laughs nervously, “that’s what Lóin calls it… because…. You know.”

“No, I don’t…”

Perhaps this wasn’t the best subject to change to.

“Well, I mean, I screw up a lot, too,” Lóin offers, as if that somehow helps. I sigh, resting my chin on his head.

“Yeah, well… at least you didn’t murder a bunch of innocent priests,” I mumble, tears welling in my eyes as the weight of the truth presses against my shoulders.

“True, but I almost murdered an Alix, which is almost as bad.”

Almost? I try not to clench my fists in Lóin’s hair – I didn’t need the painful reminder.

“Maybe worse, given who I’m talking to.”

I force a quiet laugh as I respond, my eagerness to escape this situation growing with each moment that ticks by, “well, I suppose it would make me a bad person if I said that was worse.”

You need to stop blaming yourself for things others have done.

Alix, who had apparently previously been trying to give us some privacy, finally breaks through my thoughts, likely having sensed my discomfort.

“Alix says we should stop blaming ourselves for what other people do,” I mumble, and Lóin turns around to look behind us at the ranger, whose eyebrow I can feel raise in his direction. Seems he doesn’t much care for the way this conversation is going, and I can’t really blame him. Apparently Lóin takes the hint, because he picks me up off his shoulders and hugs me, whispering his apologies into my hair one last time before he passes me back to Alix.

That’s not exactly what I said, little one. Alix points out as he wraps his arms around me.

I think it’s what he needed to hear… I mumble the defense in my head, and Alix sighs.

That doesn’t mean you can ignore it.

So what, I’m supposed to just… ignore all the innocent people who got killed because of me? Blame Dovev, blame the demon, the vampires… whatever! How many monsters can I throw under the bus when I’m the only common factor?

Cheshire, Alix begins, his tone low and indicative of the coming lecture, and I snap back at him before he finishes.

No! Alix, you know it’s true! You keep telling me to “blame the enemy”, but… but I summoned Dovev into that temple! He couldn’t have gotten past Agorran if I hadn’t let him! He looked me in the face and thanked me!

I curl in on myself, shuddering as the memories ravage my mind, Dovev’s smile in my head, the agony he caused, the havoc I let him loose to wreak. That horrible song, that moment… I succumbed to him. Raising my hands and Alix’s cloak to hide my shame stricken face, I let out a strangled cry against the dark, heavy fabric as I choke out the unspoken truth.

It was my fault – those people got hurt because I didn’t listen! You told me to just stay calm, to just wait, and I couldn’t! I… I got your friend killed. You asked him to look after me, you told me to be careful, and… now he’s dead, because I just can’t stop… screwing up!

Suddenly Lóin’s new phrase bites into me with the bitter sting of truth, and it occurs to me it isn’t hurtful that’s what he thinks of me, it’s hurtful that it’s not wrong.

I’m not asking you to ignore your responsibility in what happened, Cheshire, but I’m asking you to blame the killers. Your actions indeed led to Dovev’s entrance into the temple, but his hand felled the priests. Remember that, let it force you to keep going when it’s too hard, use it to bring justice to the living, and vengeance for the dead.

Alix’s words rattle around in my head, and I try to make them stick, try to shake off the crushing failure and the guilt, replace them with anger, but it doesn’t seem to work. I can’t shake the melancholy, or drum up a will to fight, and though the battles are over, and I should be relieved, Alix’s words seem to ring hollow in the frightening void that all our victories have left in me. I lean my head on Alix’s chest, the small contact the only thing that doesn’t seem soured by our circumstances, no matter how bad, and let out a quiet sniffle.

I don’t think I can do that, Alix. Retribution isn’t what keeps me going when it’s too hard. I mumble back at him. You are.

Alix sighs, and as he draws me in closer, I feel a strange sadness lingering between us for a moment before he responds.
I love you, Cheshire. I’m glad I can be with you.

I snuggle my face against his armor, unable to place the hesitation in his thoughts, and unwilling to pry.

I love you, too.

Behind us, I could hear a slew of mixed emotions in Ulkair and Nerida’s conversation, finally gripping my interest with my own crisis beginning to pass, and I peek over Alix’s shoulder only briefly to see the wizard with his arms around Nerida’s, weeping against her. I feel my posture slump a little harder as the sounds of his grief finally sink in, and with it, the haunting lament Nerida had sung in Elysia. The sorrow echoes through me with each word, and I lay back against Alix, my curiosity slain by the exhausting sadness that holds me once more. Clearly I was not the only one for whom our victories felt hollow, and I was certain I already had a more intimate knowledge of Ulkair’s suffering than he wanted me to, so it was better for me not to eavesdrop further.

Our mood remains somber most of the day, our trudging exhausted and quiet as each person takes the long hours to process their own thoughts and feelings. Alix and I chat from time to time, when the silence becomes too much for me to bear, and then fall back into the periodic hush. When we make camp for the night, my stomach whines with hunger, my muscles ache, and staring at our fire only seems to make me thirstier with every passing moment, but the thought of food turns my appetite to ash, and instead I stay in Alix’s embrace, and sleep hard.

Our next day of travel is a bit better, littered with occasional conversation, even a bit of laughter from time to time, as everyone finds themselves in slightly better spirits, although exhaustion still seems to hold us all in its grasp. I smile at Lóin’s jokes, listen with a bit of mirth as Nerida tries to settle arguments between Ulkair and Anduin, who seems to have gained sentience. I feel like this should have surprised me more, or at least been more intriguing than it was, but I couldn’t drum up passion for much besides being glad that her trident was, indeed, speaking, and not just another voice in my head. Besides, a talking trident wasn’t exactly the strangest thing I’d seen, and it certainly wasn’t the worst.

I stare at the horizon with every step we take, praying our home will soon come into view, every moment of joy I might have had being ripped away by the twisting anxiety in my stomach, the whispers in my mind that there was no home to return to. Another night came and went with no sign of Byss, and as we settled into camp, most of our faces and ears burned by the new sunlight, Alix assured me for what must have been the thirteenth time that day that our travel time was normal, and we would be there soon.

My stomach, I feared, would not be settled until I could see the stone walls for myself, and it was becoming impossible to tell the pain of hunger from the pain of fear. Alix caught us dinner that night, but I couldn’t bring myself to eat, even as the smell of roasting fish taunted me, and Alix gave up insisting that I do much quicker than I’d have thought, likely a result of his own exhaustion.

As I snuggled in to sleep with him again, I made the mental note I should do much more walking tomorrow, instead of allowing myself to be carried. Nothing appealed to me more than Alix’s arms at the moment, but my weight on him all day couldn’t possibly be making our journey any easier.

DAY 16

In the morning, we break camp, and I force myself into a more competent form, opting to walk hand in hand with Alix, which I think he appreciates, not that I think he’d ever admit I’d been dragging him down. We walk most of the day again, the dark, heavy cloak I wear around my shoulders seeming to grow heavier and magnify the sun’s rays with every passing minute.

And, to counter it, the easy rest in my bag of holding seems to appeal more with every moment that ticks by. Just when I am debating giving in and being carried, frustration and defeat beating down on me, Alix nudges me gently. I glance up at him, and then to the horizon, where, through the afternoon sun, I can make out the outlines of stone walls, and a pillar of billowing smoke.

Undead don’t burn the bodies.

That means people are there. It means they’re alive! My chest swells with relief and new found energy, I could break into a sprint, but I doubt the rest of our merry band could follow, Nerida especially. Instead, I beam at Alix, grasping his hand tightly. He gives me a tired smile, as if to tell me, as fondly as possible, that he told me so. Alix is always right. I don’t know why I bother doubting him. I can hardly contain myself as we head for the city, everyone’s pace just a little faster, but not as much as I’d like it to be.
They’re alive!
I celebrate mentally, chiding myself for ever doubting the proud warriors of Byss, and how better to celebrate them than in song? For the first time in days, I feel inspiration bubbling in me, my heart pounds with the desire to play our victories to the world. We’re a few hundred feet away, but I bet one of my winged companions could close that distance in no time. I turn to glance at Lóin, anticipation threatening to burst me at the seams as I take my ax from my back, and he raises his eyebrows, lifting his wings in question.
I nod eagerly, and he hoists me onto his shoulders.

“Fly us around the city, we need to make an entrance!”

Lóin takes off with a powerful sweep of his wings, and I tighten my legs around his neck as my stomach lurches from the weightlessness, but as I settle my hands on my axe and begin to play, I lose myself to the familiar melody that blasts from the strings.

“As a child you would wait
And watch from far away
But you always knew that you’d be the one
To work while they all play
And you, you’d lay awake at night and scheme
Of all the things that you would change
But it was just a dream…”

The sunlight bounces off the brass instrument gloriously, the wind whipping my hair and cloak about as I play the familiar tune and I close my eyes, focusing to empower my voice and ensure it will carry to the ears of every living Byssian.

“…Here we are, don’t turn away now
We are the warriors
That built this town
Here we are, don’t turn away now
We are the warriors that built this town
From dust!”

Lóin carries me overhead of the city entrance, and below us I see a solemn crowd, the men, women and children of Byss, all watching us, hands over their hearts in salute. I begin to shred, leaning into the solo to recreate the glorious melody from which my axe was born as Lóin lowers us steadily to the ground. The Byssians clear away for us, and my cloak rests heavily over me once again as he lands. My fingers still, allowing the melody to fade, and as I scan the crowd, a familiar figure cuts his way through them toward us.

“Agorran!” I exclaim, scrambling from Lóin’s back and throwing myself into the high priest’s embrace. The scent of blood and ash stains the familiar incense that marks Agorran’s robes, but I feel relieved tears run down my cheeks as he puts his arms around me.

“I’m so glad you’re alright!” I pull back to look at him, fixing my cloak sheepishly as I again realize my nakedness, his eyes seem particularly sorrowful, but there is no hiding the relief from them, and his smile is genuine.

“And you,” he says, “but what’s happened?”

“Agorran, I’m sorry,” I begin, casting my eyes to the ground as guilt for yet another broken promise gnaws at me, “we couldn’t save Elysia.”

“But we brought Elysia to Byss,” Nerida’s voice chimes from behind me, and I turn to find my companions, whom I’d briefly forgotten in my frenzy, approaching us through the crowd.

My hand lingers on the sleeve of Agorran’s robe, and I tighten my grasp as I look up at him, praying I would not find a broken heart in his expression. He looks exhausted, saddened in spite of his obvious joy at our return, and bite my lip, racking my brain for anything I can say to make it right.

“The sun is shining in Byss now, for good,” I offer, and as I do, I recall a phrase I’d read that once warmed my heart as surely as the sun, and hope that it will do so for Agorran, as well. “And the sun is a daily reminder that we too can rise from the darkness and that we too can shine our own light.”

Agorran smiles a little, and he reaches his hand to brush some of my disheveled hair from my face.

“Child, perhaps Alix was right,” he says softly, “we needed to make this our paradise, not long for something that was unattainable. You brought the sun, but more importantly, you’ve brought yourselves.”

With a sniffle, I wrap my arms around Agorran’s waist once more, and look out at the crowd around us, still somber as ever – had I missed something? Had we not… won? Was it the news of Elysia that caused this lack of celebration?

“Everyone looks… very sober for having just won a great victory,” I muse, looking up at him questioningly, and he sighs.

“Everyone has lost a family member, some families are gone,” he explains, and I feel my heart sink.

Of course – we won, but not at any low cost. Grief had nearly consumed me when I thought I would lose Alix, and we’d lost so many in the battles of the past few days. Hundreds of Byssians fell against the vampires, and likely hundreds more laid on the pyre outside. Byss was such a small city, I didn’t know our exact populace, but I suspect the people gathered here are all that remains. A few hundred, at best. I bite my lip, tears threatening my eyes again, but Agorran continues before I can express my remorse.

“If you look closely, you can see they are happy,” he says, perhaps hoping to ease the blow. It is true that I must be the most… exuberant Byssian to ever live, at least between myself and Alix, what I communicate in yelling and tears and song, he communicates with the tightness of his posture. So perhaps their grave appearance is a bit misleading, although it does not mitigate the weight of the loss.

Nerida moves to close the distance between herself and Agorran, and wraps her arms around him, breathing a long, exhausted sigh of relief.

“I’m so happy you’re alive,” she murmurs, leaning to rest her head on his shoulder. Agorran puts an arm around her, a fond smile tugging at his lips as he responds.

“I’m glad you all made it.”

“What happened to your leg?” Nerida asks as we step away, and I frown, following her gaze to Agorran’s limp, which I hadn’t noticed before. “Is there any healing it?”

He shakes his head, looking momentarily grim.

“I don’t think so. Exhaustion took me near the end of the battle and a ghast,” he shudders ever so slightly as he recalls the moment, “Well, ate my leg. This was the most I could heal it.”

I cringe, being overwhelmed by the undead is a horror I know all too well, and even then I doubt what I went through compared to Agorran’s pain.

“I’m so sorry we left so abruptly,” Nerida looks flustered, wringing her hands as she hurries out her response. “but we had to take care of the vampires, stop them from catching us between them and Dovev’s army.”

And you had to do what Ulkair wanted, I add bitterly, but try not to let it show. I know Nerida was doing what she thought was best, and in the end, Ulkair did help Byss. It didn’t make the horror of a vampire dragon just disappear, or give back any lives that we lost but still, as Alix had pointed out, it was hubris to think our presence alone would have turned the tides of battle.

“And you have done a wonderful thing,” Agorran says, resting a hand on Nerida’s shoulder. If he held our leaving against her, or any of us, his voice did not betray it. “I even saw a rainbow.”

I feel my lips turn up in an exuberant grin at the thought – nothing could be more fitting for Byss’ rise from the ashes but a big, beautiful rainbow.

“What’s a rainbow?” Nerida asks, and I try not to look incredulous. Did merfolk have nothing good in their lives?!

“Nerida, a rainbow is the best thing ever!”

“It is an array of many colors in the sky,” Agorran clarifies, as though he were trying to make it sound boring.

“That sounds delightful,” Nerida says, and I shake my head. Agorran looks at us thoughtfully for a moment and then raises his hand, creating a thin arc of water in the air before him. As it fell, it glimmered in the sunlight and left a small, brief rainbow behind it.

“That is glorious,” Nerida says, awe evident in her every word, and then she pauses and asks, “um, High Priest Agorran? Why does the water you summon come from your hand?”

He cocks his head at her, looking the most confused I have ever seen him, “where does it come out of for you?”

“My mouth!” Nerida exclaims, and it occurs to me that I never stopped to question why she could spit up gallons of cool, clean water. It indeed must be a spell, but… my spells have never worked like that, not that it mattered. “I don’t understand, all my other spells come from my hands!”

“Eadro works in mysterious ways,” I tease, grinning up at the mermaid – perhaps Tubatron was not the only god with a sense of humor.

Nerida and Agorran continue to debate the particulars of Eadro’s magic, a subject in which I quickly lose interest, and instead pick my axe back up and wander over to Alix, who puts an arm around me.

“When we’re done here, there’s something I’d like to give you,” he says, and I cock my head back at him.
“Really? What is it?”

He smiles a little, an emotion I can’t place flickering over our bond before he replies.

“You’ll see.”

“Alright,” I resist the urge to prod my way through his thoughts as curiosity wriggles about inside me, and I tune in to Agorran and Nerida’s conversation once again instead.

“But I am very glad to see all of you,” the high priest says, “although I am sorry you could not return to your homes through Elysia as you had hoped.”

Oh right. That was what I had hoped, wasn’t it? I lean my head on Alix’s shoulder, and the thought of being anywhere else seems absurd.

“I think I found what I was looking for anyway, and Byss is my home now.”

Agorran smiles at me, a bit of bewilderment playing on his face.

“Who’d have thought Byss would ever come to be someone’s home, and of their own free will?”

He muses, and I can see why. Barely more than a week ago I’d have given anything to say goodbye to this wet, violent place. I suppose it was still probably infested with monsters, and undead, and… sure, their idea of food was bread made of moss and fish that tasted vaguely of death, but this plane, harsh as it was, was full of better people than I’d ever met.

“Well, sure, Byss sucks,” I admit, “but its people are pretty great.”

“I hope that in time, Byss will be great, too,” Agorran says, “oh, that reminds me! There was something else I wanted to show you, follow me!”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen the level of excitement Agorran displays as we follow him up onto the city walls. He gestures out to the fields, where just days earlier we’d met Dovev’s army in battle, and I follow his gaze out over the muck to see tiny sprigs of green poking through it.

“Grass has even begun to grow!”

I stare at the tiny green sprouts happily for a moment, letting my eyes wander the expanse of muck, slowly starting to dry in patches. I pause to study the fissures in the ground, now sealed, where Tubatron crushed Dovev’s body and his army, by his almighty will, and it fills me with pride. One day, this place will be beautiful, like Elysia, only it will be free of undeath, and the music played here will be songs of our triumph, glorious, epic ballads of Tubatron’s teachings, not the haunting melody of the Ichtaca’s harpsichord.

…Right?

I don’t know what it is that gives me pause, but it sends a shiver down my spine, and I try to scan the ground beneath us for the Ichtaca’s head – just for reassurance.

“Is there anyone in need of healing?” Nerida’s question breaks my concentration, and I look back over at her and Agorran, suddenly remembering the tiny viper who has served as my necklace for the past three days.

“No,” Agorran replies, “we have tended our wounded already. Now we are working to restore the city.”

“Um, High Priest Agorran?” I interject, scooping Aintai up in my hands, “I have someone in need of healing… Aintai makes a fabulous accessory, but I think she’d rather have her legs back.”

He nods and I set Aintai on the ground and step back as she transforms to her normal form. I cringe, watching her try to maintain her stoicism through the pain and shock of facing her lost limbs again, Agorran crouches to heal her, and knowing she is in good hands, I return to my search.

It nags at me, gnawing like a desperate animal at the back of my mind – he’s dead. I know he is. I watched him die, but I had to see it, as ridiculous as I knew I was being, just to be sure. From where I am, I can’t spot the ghoul lord’s remains, but I quietly break away from the group to walk the walls, watching for any sight of the head with increasing anxiety. I reach the very spot where I’d stood and told him to jump, the very spot where Tubatron had slain him, and peer over the edge carefully, sure I would make myself look like a fool for my paranoia.

By the base of the wall, there is a visible stain of blood on the ground, but no head of a ghoul musician. My chest constricts with panic as every paranoid delusion I’d refused to entertain rushes to the forefront of my mind, assaulting me with impossible, horrible scenarios.

No, no, no! This can’t be right! I insist, tightening my hands into fists. It must have rolled, or… or… something! Been carried off by a ghoul, or a zombie, or a wild animal! Or…

“Been burned,” Alix’s voice calls my attention back to reality, and he puts a hand on my shoulder. He must have sensed my distress and followed me, and it isn’t exactly surprising I didn’t hear him coming. “All the remains of the undead are burned, Cheshire, to make sure they stay dead.”

“You’re right,” I turn a weak, forced smile to Alix, swallowing the lump of fear that has lodged itself in my throat. “I’m just… I’m sorry, Alix. I panicked for nothing.”

He sighs, sensing my obvious distrust of the situation, and leads me away from the edge of the battlement, “if it will help you, later we can speak with Agorran and others to be sure it was burned, or look for it, if it was not.”

I nod, clutching Alix’s hand in both of mine, and try to talk myself off the ledge I’d jumped to so suddenly. There is no need to panic, Alix is right. Dovev did not just… get up and walk away from being crushed to death, no one could, not even the undead.

Alix did. My mind taunts, memories of his brutal defeat in the government building forcing their way into my thoughts. No! No, that was different! Directly opposite, in fact. I chide myself as we walk back, but I can’t seem to bring myself to loosen my grip on Alix’s hand, no matter how illogical I insist I’m being. He gives my hand a tight squeeze, and as I look up at him, trying so hard to seem brave, unafraid of a shadow now in my past, I think my eyes betray me.

“Everyone has demons, Cheshire,” he reminds me, “you can’t force yourself to disregard them, but you also can’t let them control you.”

His words are right, I know, and I lean my forehead on against his shoulder, tears burning in my eyes as I try to swallow the fright that has haunted my every dream. I wouldn’t let Dovev control me when he was alive, what sense did it make to tremble before him in death?

“Let’s go home,” Alix offers, and I nod, reaching up to wipe my eyes, and follow him down from the walls.

The crowd parts for us as we go by, and Alix leads me down a series of streets I’d never seen before, and to a stone homestead, surrounded by many others. It seemed all the buildings in Byss were quite close together, and well kept, as I suppose they had to be. I couldn’t think of any immediate threats of poor maintenance, but I’m sure if I asked, Alix would have been more than willing to point them all out.

“This is your home?” I ask, peering up at Alix, and he nods, pushing open the stone door and holding it for me.
The interior of this house is about as nondescript as its outside, I wouldn’t guess it was lived in by my first glance around, except for the unusual level of cleanliness.

“Yes,” Alix’s response sounds almost hesitant, and I suspect that I wasn’t too far off in my assumption that this house isn’t lived in, or at least, it isn’t a home. “And I have two spare rooms.”

I bite my lip, rocking back on the balls of my feet and peek up up at Alix in an attempt to contain my excitement at the implied offer.

“Yeah…?”

Alix smiles, ruffling my hair, “and I’d like you to live here with me, Cheshire, and any of the others are welcome too, if they’d like.”

I can’t control my beaming any longer, and I throw myself at Alix, wrapping my arms around him. “_*Yes*_! Thank you! Of course I want to live with you!”

“Alright. Stay here, I’ll be right back,” he says as I release the embrace, and walks down the plain stone halls. In his absence, I hum idly and observe my surroundings – my new house.

I have a house!

The excitement bubbles in me, and I bounce to let it out, spinning a happy circle in place while I wait for Alix to return. The war is over, we actually won, the city is safe – I have a house! And I can stay here with Alix, and have a real home, with people who want me there. It all seems almost too good to be true, and I resist the tears that threaten my eyes as I look around the small common room, my fears from only minutes ago washed away by hopeful elation.

When he comes back, Alix is holding something behind his back, and he has a rare smile tugging at his lips, but a tinge of sadness in his eyes.

“Cheshire,” he says, and I struggle to resist the urge to peer around his back at this mystery gift he’s brought me. “I wanted you to have this.”

He moves and holds out a stunning dress, as bright and yellow as Byss’ new sun, and my breath catches in my chest as I stare at it – it must be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I reach out and take it from him, holding it by the shoulders to stare at the intricate stitching over the bodice, which glimmers as the light catches it.

“Alix, I…” I bite my lip, my eyes watering as I look up from the gorgeous fabric to meet his gaze again and try to find a way to put my emotions into words. “It’s just so beautiful. Thank you…”

“It was my mother’s dress,” he explains, and I feel my heart stop – suddenly the tinge of sadness in his eyes makes sense. My fingers tighten over the fabric with the sudden tension that overcomes me, and I force myself to loosen them. I can’t damage this dress, I shouldn’t even be touching it!

“She was going to wear it in Elysia.”

“Alix, I-I can’t accept this,” I mumble, staring at the ground as I hold it back out to him, “I couldn’t bear if something happened to it, I can’t.. I can’t wear something so precious.”

He puts his hands over mine, and presses my arms back toward me, dress in tow. I cringe as I feel the satiny fabric crushed beneath my hold, and am suddenly aware of all the filth on my hands and arms from our travels. Horror-stricken at the thought of my sweat or Byss’ marshy dirt staining this treasure, I try my best not to move.

“I learned long ago that things are meant to be used,” Alix presses, giving me a stern, certain stare that almost masks the pain that taught him this lesson, “because if you wait, the time never comes, and then it is too late.”

I look from him to the dress, and then back again before I finally squeak out a reply. “Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you, Alix,” I whisper, looking back at the dress in my hands, scanning it for any imperfections I may have caused, “I’ll treasure it forever.”

“And wear it,” he insists, and though it pains me just a little, I nod.

“Yes, and wear it.”

“But.. I think I’d like to bathe first,” I look away sheepishly, unable to remember the last time I didn’t have blood in my hair or dirt – or who knows what else, beneath my fingernails. Alix ruffles my hair understandingly, and shows me to his wash room.

It is a massive relief to peel the sweaty cloak from my shoulders, my damaged boots, and the remnants of my shredded pants, which stick to me unforgivingly as I slide them off my legs. I discard them to the ground as I draw a bath, and hang the dress carefully from the corner of the door, as not to let it touch anything of my adventuring clothes, or the floor. I sink into the cool water with a long, heavy sigh, and feel the weight of a dozen battles slide off my shoulders.

I can’t remember my last bath, sometime during our stay in the barracks I’d cleaned up, but with no privacy and not so much as a moment’s peace from the voices in my head, it didn’t compare to this. Mercifully, shape changing seemed to renew my skin, freeing me of some of the excess grime, and sparing my smelling like blood and filth for days, but it wasn’t the same.

I rest my head on the side of the bath, humming softly, and watch the water roll off my hands as I bring them to rest on my knees. It glimmers briefly in the sunlight that shimmers through the shutters, and then disappears into the rippling pool from whence it came. I drum my fingers on my knees idly, watching the droplets glisten on my skin, and my mind travels to Agorran’s rainbow.

Could all divine spellcasters do that? Could I? I turn my hand over, watching the droplets roll down my fingers, listening to their steady, rhythmic splashes as they fall to meet the water beneath them, and try to focus my energies.

Create water. I think my intention repeatedly and pull the divine focus to my hand, like I had to heal. Surely enough, tiny drops of water begin to form on the edges of my fingertips, they slip down my palm like the others had. As I continue to focus, they grow, falling in rhythm with my tune, then become a steady stream of cool, clean water, pouring freely from my palm into the bath.

Awesome!

I lean back, satisfied with my success, and sigh as the spell fades, and my hand stops gushing water. I probably need to learn better control, but I’m sure that will come in time. For now, I suppose it would be best that I actually get clean and dressed before Alix thinks I’ve drown. I dig through my bag of holding for some of the soap we’d gotten from that wretched fence, and lather my hair, my fingers coming away coated in gray suds.

Ew…

I start to plunge them into the water but pause, closing my eyes and focusing my divine energy again to instead create it – I might as well practice a little. After a moment, I summon the water again, and begin to run my fingers through my hair, letting the water push off the filthy foam until it stops flowing. I think to repeat the spell again to rinse the soap from the rest of myself, but realize quickly that wasting so much holy power on something so trivial is unwise – I could still need it today, there was no telling what might happen.

I hop from the bath, shaking off the excess water and ring my hair out, my moment of relaxation passed, and carefully take the dress from the wall. It’s so beautiful, easily the most amazing thing I’ve ever been given – with the exception of my axe, but that wasn’t a fair comparison. I slip into it carefully, and shift to grow a few inches and keep it from trailing the ground. I momentarily wish I had a mirror to admire it in, but I have no time to lament it, and I hurry down the hall to find Alix.

“What do you think?” I ask, grinning from ear to ear and twirling in place. He smiles and gets up to hug me.

“You look radiant,” he says, tucking my tousled hair behind my ear. I can’t seem to wipe the smile from my face, and it all seems so surreal.

“Let’s go find the others! Oh, oh, and get my stuff from the arena! And then we can have dinner, and everyone will be here, and it’ll be so wonderful, and…”

Alix watches me ramble my plans of increasing grandeur with amusement in his eyes, and I finally catch myself and allow the words to trail off. After a thoughtful pause, I grip his hands, a few overjoyed tears slipping past my ill-built defenses as I manage to say what I actually mean.

“Thank you Alix, I’ve never been so happy.”

He brushes my tears away with his thumbs, and smiles down at me – an expression I happily note is becoming less rare with every passing day. “Neither have I, little one.”

“Why don’t you go and collect your things and find your friends,” he offers, “and I will speak with High Priest Agorran about the remains of the Ichtaca.”

I shudder a little, the subject of Dovev a harsh reminder that everything in my life is not made of sunshine and glitterdust, but nod. There’s no one I would trust more with such an important search, even myself, and I know if something were amiss, Alix would be the first to notice.

“Okay, Alix. Thank you, please let me know as soon as you find out.”

“I will.”

I collect my bag of holding and put on my boots, and then hurry down the street back toward the city gates, where I hope to find Nerida and Ulkair, if not everyone. I only get lost or turned around a couple times, and Alix quickly points me in the right direction, so journey is fairly quick. I found only Aintai there, and she appears to be looking over something, a letter, perhaps, with a look of intense concentration on her face.

“What’s that?” I ask as I bound up to her, and she quickly folds it.

“Nothing,” she says, tucking it away. I can swear for a brief minute, I see tears in the corners of her eyes, but she either blinks them away or I am hallucinating.

“Everything alright?”

“Of course,” her voice is level as ever, and a bit cool as she responds, “the battle is won and I have my legs again. Why wouldn’t it be?”

“Just making sure… you know, it’s not like these last few days have been easy on anyone,” I offer, and mumble my last few words, “especially not you.”

She cuts a sharp look in my direction, her eyes narrowing, “why especially not me?”

“I just mean,” I bite my lip – I hadn’t meant to imply she was weak, nor did it seem like her lost limbs would be a popular subject. “I mean… your legs…”

She huffs and rolls her eyes, her arms crossing over her chest, “I just did what I had to to survive. Anyone would have done the same.”

Except you wanted us to leave you. I think, but decide it wise not to point out.

“I know, but… Well, anyway, thank you, Aintai, you saved us.”

Her posture softens as she studies me for a moment, and sighs.

“Cheshire, you… idiot.” She mumbles, and I blink, “no one saved anyone back there. We all did what we had to, we worked as a team, and.. I admit, a pretty good one.”

She smiles a little, “plus, I suppose I should be thanking you for toting me around. You make an alright infirmary bed.”

I return her grin and shrug my shoulders, “and you make an alright necklace.”

She shakes her head at me in response.

“Anyway, you must have needed something?”

“Oh! Yeah, I wanted to find everyone, do you know where they are?”

“Nerida and the wizard headed off with that priest,” she says, gesturing toward the temple, “Mimi said something about a bath, and I think your muscle is going to see his father, seeing as he isn’t a big old icy blood smear anymore.”

“Alright, I’m going to go find Nerida and Ulkair then,” I nod, and she returns it, waving her hand at me casually as I turn away. I only get about ten feet away, however, and stop, turning around to face her again.

“Hey Aintai?”

“Hmm?” She raises her delicately sculpted eyebrow at me, and I shift awkwardly in place.

“Do you, um, have a place to live? Here in Byss, I mean?”

She pauses, and I suppose this is the first time she’s given it any real thought.

“No,” she says slowly, “but there’s always the barracks, and I’d wager a lot of newly emptied homes. Why?”
I cringe at the casual reminder of our body count, but clear my throat.

“Well, I mean… Alix and I were, well I guess, um, just I was, uh… wondering…”

She cocks her head at me, displaying an unusual patience as she waits for me to stumble through my sentence.

“It’s just that… Alix has some spare rooms, and I think Nerida and Ulkair are probably going to take one, and maybe Lóin. I, um… I don’t really know but anyway you could share one with me if you wanted and maybe you could, um, stay with us and we’d all be together and I just think it would be nice… you know…”

If I stared any harder at the ground I think I’d break my neck, and I don’t know why the invitation was suddenly so crushingly awkward, but I peer up at her stoic face just in time to see it break into a smirk.

“Yeah, sure. Sounds nice.”

“Really? I mean, good!”

She rolls her eyes again and mumbles “idiot” under her breath, then ushers me on, and I run down the street happily. One down, just a few more to go, and hopefully talking to Nerida I won’t make myself look like a blithering idiot.

Cheshire? Alix’s voice pokes its way into my head as I make my way to the temple, and he sounds solemn, which worries me.

Yes? I ask, trying not to relay my building anxiousness in my tone. I can feel him taking a deep breath, and that he wants me to do the same.

It looks like we will need to investigate the matter of Dovev’s head a bit further. It is indeed missing, and was not burned. I’ve tracked it a little ways outside of the city

Panic punches me in the chest, constricting my breath and I cut Alix off, desperate to stop him from leaving.

N-No! Come back! You don’t know what–

Cheshire, calm down. I feel Alix reach over our link to place a hand on my shoulder, and I try to steady my breathing, try to stop the weeping that already threatens me with its presence.

Alix…

We’ll get to the bottom of this, but you have to stay calm. I’m only just outside the city walls, if you would like to accompany me, gather the others and meet me here. I’ll wait for you.

Alright. I sniffle, rubbing my eyes and take off to find Nerida and Ulkair. I’ll… I’ll be right there. Don’t go anywhere, please.

I told you I would wait for you.

I just want you to be safe.

I know.

As I make my way to the temple, a flash of sea green light catches my eye from the distance – Nerida’s magic, for certain, but I wonder what she’s casting it on.

I hope no one is in trouble… The tiny spark of doubt quickly becomes a fire in my mind as I race toward the temple, praying that my imagination is simply over-active.

Please, please don’t let there be anything wrong! Please don’t let it be Dovev!

No shouts or screams greet me as I approach, no clashing of swords carries in the air, and I hope that is a sign that my paranoia is misplaced. I see Nerida before anyone else, of course, and she appears to be standing with Ulkair and Mimi, calm as anything, although her skin again glows with the fissures that appeared in Elysia. I slow my run to a jog, and then a swift stride as I approach, certain that by their demeanor, there was nothing wrong here. Whatever spell she cast, bright though it was, must not have been to fend off any enemies.

“Hey guys!” I say, trying to maintain calm, steady breath as though I had not panicked and sprinted half the way here. I stop in place to twirl as I had for Alix, “look at my new dress!”

Nerida indulges me with an appreciative stare, and smiles. “It’s lovely, Cheshire.”

Pleasantries now aside, I feel the increasing pressure of time on my back, we need to get moving and meet up with Alix.

“Also, Alix is waiting for us outside the city,” I mumble, my fists clenching as the panic crawls its way from my mind to my stomach once more, “Dovev’s head… it’s gone. We’re going to go look for it.”

Nerida cocks her head at me, blinking in confusion. “Well of course it’s gone? He’s dead. He jumped off his wyvern into a fissure in the ground.”

I grit my teeth to keep from snapping at her, I shouldn’t have to explain this! Perhaps if she hadn’t run off the second she thought the battle was done…

“No, that didn’t kill him” I manage, swallowing the lump of emotions that stick themselves in my throat as I try to calmly describe for her what had happened. “After you left, he crawled out of the fissure. He…”

I struggle to pull in a calm, even breath as the memories rush back to me with my description. Dovev’s hands, clawing his way back out of that pit, his blood-soaked smile, dead on me. His eyes… I shudder, and Nerida narrows her eyes in concern, clearly wondering how what I’ve said could be possible.

“He got his head above them before they closed and crushed him, it rolled to the base of the wall by my feet,” I manage, trying to shake the mental images. Why, why hadn’t I destroyed what was left of him when I had the chance?

“I was going to shoot it with a fire arrow, just to be sure, but… you two were running off and… I just thought… we had bigger problems.”

I was wrong… I add silently as Nerida places a hand on my shoulder.

“It’ll be okay, Cheshire. We’ll find it, or we’ll keep you safe.” she says, kneeling and pulling me into a hug I can’t bring myself to return.

No, it won’t! You won’t! I think bitterly, drawing in on myself in an attempt to stop the spiral. I know if I hug her, I’ll cling to her, and if I do that I’ll weep. She didn’t protect me against Dovev, she fell for his trick! No, that wasn’t fair, everyone fell for his tricks, and she did her best, played her part in the battle like everyone else. She just doesn’t understand, and how could she?

She didn’t choke on his stench, feel his cold, clammy flesh on her bare skin. He didn’t touch her, didn’t corner her – he couldn’t have. He couldn’t loom over her and invade her mind as he had me. Her didn’t want her, so how could she possibly begin to understand?

She takes my face in her hands and turns me to look at her, staring into my eyes as if trying to reassure me. I feel a shudder run down my spine at the contact, and I break it, unable to meet her gaze. She straightens up, I suppose accepting that there was nothing she could do for me in this moment, and gestures for Ulkair to follow us. I wrap my hand around a couple of her fingers as we walk, staring at the ground and trying to push down fears that tear at the edges of my sanity.

We make the journey out of the city as short as possible, picking Aintai up on our way out. I think briefly to go and find Lóin, but the smithing areas, where his father is resting, are just too far out of the way. Alix, true to his word, is waiting not far from the city walls where Dovev’s blood stain is, and I run to his side.

Alix takes a moment to put an arm around me, giving my shoulder a reassuring squeeze, and I sigh, staring down at the bloodied space. Maybe it wasn’t so bad… maybe it was just an animal, or a monster carrying it off out of sheer stupid coincidence… That was possible, right? I can feel my subconscious scoff at my optimism – as if we had ever been so lucky.

Alix releases me and begins following a trail that apparently he can see, though I’m not sure I understand it, even as he stops to point things out to us. There were apparently some very tiny feet involved, like a child’s, or smaller, which only makes the whole thing more confusing, at least for me, although I don’t know about the rest of out party. After awhile, Alix stops, he scratches the back of his head, and I can hear him running through all the most likely scenarios in his mind, checking them off as impossibilities one by one before he speaks again.

“I don’t know what happened,” he admits, “the trail just… ends here.”

What can that mean? A humanoid toddler stole Dovev’s head and just.. disappeared?

However nonsensical my mental explanation may seem, the ridiculous scenario actually seems more likely than Alix’s tracking ability failing us, so I wait on baited breath for his next move. He raises his hand, drawing a symbol in the air in front of us, and I feel a small burst of magic erupt from him, a tiny glimmer of green energy illumination the edges of his hand. It was divine power, but not like anything I recognize, not Eadro’s energy, and certainly not Tubatron’s.

Wow! What was– I start to inquire, but a wave of magic cuts my train of thought.

Horrible, evil magic. There was no other way to describe it – it was like staring into that demon’s eyes, standing suffocated by his presence the day I first crossed him. I shudder as the residue washes over us, radiating from the spot where Alix had cast his spell, so strong it overpowers the trace of his divine magic. I cling to Alix, breathing unevenly as I try to wrap my mind around whatever it is he just stirred up, and he holds onto my hand, remaining ever sharp and vigilant.

Ulkair seems primarily unfazed, he crouches near us, regarding the ground and the traces of magic Alix has unveiled thoughtfully.

“I don’t know,” he mumbles, “it could be a teleportation spell of some kind, or a pass without a trace, they could have hidden maybe… It’s impossible to tell by what is left. I suppose this will have to be a mystery for another time.”

Another time? We can’t just… walk away!

“But, Dovev’s head…” I press, looking from him, to Alix, and then the rest of my companions.

“What could anyone even want his head for?” Nerida mumbles, as though it could matter. There is, I’m positive, absolutely nothing good you could want to do with the head of an Ichtaca, particularly not this one.

“Ulkair said they could have hidden themselves, maybe they’re still here?” I urge, tightening my grip on Alix. If we could just find some way to stop this before it’s too late…

“No, this is just a residue, but the fact that it’s so strong means that whatever it was, it’s bad,” Mimi shivers and shakes her head as she explains, “it’s similar to how the immortal child felt when she was in the room with me, but it’s hard to compare without her here.”

Okay, I get it, it’s bad news. Isn’t that all the more reason to look for it, whatever it is!?

I lean my head on Alix’s arm to keep from throwing it back in frustration as Mimi starts inching her way back toward the city – how do they not get it? They think this is bad? They think this is too much to go after and investigate now, well what do they think is going to happen when it comes back, and with Dovev in tow?

Stay calm, Cheshire. Alix reminds me, squeezing my hand, and I bite my lip.

I’m trying! I insist.

“Alix, is there anyone in town who might know more about this?” Nerida asks – well, at least someone isn’t just throwing their hands up and walking away, perhaps she can sense my growing unease, not that I’m exactly hiding it.

“Agorran,” Alix says, and Nerida heaves a heavy sigh, bringing her fingers to rub her temples.

“Of course.” She mumbles, and takes Ulkair’s hand to head back to the city.

I’m not sure I understand her exasperation, she was fond of Agorran, unless he had said something to gravely offend her in the last couple of hours, and typically seemed eager to pay him a visit. Perhaps she’s struggling with Eadro granting him a different create water ability than her own… I make a mental note not to show her the new trick I learned this afternoon.

As we enter the city, Tad Cooper bounds through a nearby building to greet me, and I hug him merrily, throwing my arms around his huge spectral head.

“Tad Cooper! Good boy, I’m so glad you’re not hurt!” I exclaim, petting his beak as he nuzzles me.
I realize with quite a bit of shame that I’d nearly forgotten about him, in the heat of everything, though I’m glad I did not make the mistake of taking him with us to Elysia: who knows what those vampires would have done to him.

“Did you help everybody kill those bad, bad ghouls?” I coo, and Alix shakes his head at me, either unsure of my bond with Tad Cooper, wary of the stares that I draw when speaking to him, or perhaps both.

The ethereal owlbear looks away sheepishly, and I get the impression that was not indeed what he did with his time, but I suppose it is for the best. I would have loved to have him by my side, but Dovev could control the undead, if he had fallen to the influence of that awful music and been forced to turn on me… I don’t think either of us would make it through something like that again.

Oh, buddy, what am I going to do with you?

I sigh, petting his beak lightly as we continue our walk after Nerida and Ulkair. Byss was a dangerous place for the undead, especially now, and I notice Tad Cooper shying away from the sun’s bright rays as we walk. Alix had said that the sun makes undead weak, even burns some of them, I suppose ghosts are no exception, but perhaps Agorran could help with that, as well. He restored Aintai’s legs, and I still have Tad Cooper’s pelt, maybe if he could fix his body, Nerida could put his soul back in it? I’m not sure that’s how it works, but it would be worth a shot.

Agorran is still standing up on the city walls, he seems to be enjoying the sunshine, and the view of Byss’ newly acquired grass. I can’t blame him: with the nice breeze, I can think of few finer perches for a moment of peace after such a hard won week.

“Ah, hello again,” he says, turning to greet us as we approach. Nerida looks guiltily at the ground, and mumbles an apology, and I can’t help but wonder if they didn’t, in fact, have some sort of unresolved spat while I was gone.

“Hello Agorran, I’m sorry to keep bothering you today, but um…” I pause, wringing my hands as nervousness twists its way through my stomach again. “Do you know what someone, or… something might want with an Ichtaca’s head?”

Agorran pauses, his brow knitting in what is either deep thought, or concern.

“Hmm, well, I suppose with his head, you could revive him.”

“Oh,” my voice comes out a squeak as I try to respond to the news, “could you?”

Of course. My stomach lurches with fear and frustration. Of course! I knew it was something awful, it had to be, because why should we be allowed a moment’s piece? I try not to let the bitter spiral consume me as Nerida and Agorran debate the particulars of how one could revive the undead without the use of holy magic. But… none of this made sense, what could anyone want with Dovev? Surely no one living in Byss could want to see him rise again, right? But then, he was ancient and powerful, perhaps there were those who were bound to his will, like… I almost was. I shudder as I remember the Ichtaca’s hold on me, his unearthly power flooding my mind and my will. I couldn’t have been the only one he’s ever effected, right?

“So, in the legends about Ichtacas, was there ever mention of them having cultists or other followers?” If such a thing existed, it seemed certain Agorran would know, after all, such people would have been a terrible worry for the clergy.

“Well, all the ghouls follow them devotedly, but as soon as they die or show weakness, then a new Ichtaca is chosen. Ghouls shouldn’t be interested in reviving him, they should be finding a new Ichtaca. And now, they should be interested in survival,” Agorran smiles as he finishes his explanation, and I wish his joy were contagious. Of course, it made sense that it wasn’t human followers after all, that residue hardly felt… normal.

“Does Byss have any problem with demons?” I ask, shuddering at the memory of the magical residue. It was the sensation of pure evil, reaching into your soul and squeezing until your bones hurt, and there was only one other being that had ever left me with that sensation.

“Not so far as I know.”

“Well, at least that might make it a little easier to sleep at night,” I mumble. Not a complete lie, but I doubted I would find any rest while the Ichtaca’s shadow loomed over me. “Is there nothing we can do…?”

“Are there any signs we could look out for? Any way we could know if someone was performing this… terrible ritual which would revive him?” Nerida asks, and I glance up at Agorran hopefully, but his expression is not a relief.

“Perhaps,” he says uncertainly, “if they are even still here, or anywhere in Byss.”

But Mimi said they weren’t… I hang my head, gripping my dress tightly as I try to ground myself, keep from spiraling out of control. If they weren’t in Byss anymore, what could we even hope to do? How could we ever find him? Nerida and Ulkair had mentioned scrying in Elysia, that the vampires could watch us even from another plane, if they could do it, perhaps we could, as well.

“Nerida, could we scry for it?” I ask, peering up at her desperately, Ulkair stiffens, but she nods.

“Yes, I know a scrying spell… I won’t be able to perform it until the morning, but I could try to find him that way,” she says, and I nod, at least it’s something. A potential lead…

“Alright, thank you.”

I stare out to the fissures once again, losing myself to the memories of battle, the cries of the undead, the earthquake that should have consumed him. The one shot I had to take to end all of this… the shot I didn’t take. Dovev’s music plays in the back of my mind, the cold, haunted chords of his harpsichord echoing between my ears as I study the fissures. The gentle breeze that teases my hair raising a chill on the back of my neck, suddenly so sinister, and I don’t notice how tight my grasp has become until Alix’s hand takes one of mine. I turn to look at him as he pulls me back to the present, and he brings his other hand to wipe away the tears I hadn’t realized I cried.

“Alix…” I bite my lip, unable to raise my voice above a desperate whisper, or word the mounting pressure in my chest.

“I know,” he says, gently moving my hands from the fists I’ve balled them into, “but the others are heading to the temple, something about a painting. Didn’t you want to ask Agorran about Tad Cooper?”

“Oh, yes… I did.”

“Well then, you should go with them.”

“You’re not coming?”

He offers me a small smile as he responds.

“Well, it seemed like you had some pretty grand plans for dinner. I’m going to go get started on that. Besides I think you still have an invitation for Nerida outstanding, and some stuff to get back?”

“Oh, right,” I had forgotten all about my other purposes when Alix told me about Dovev’s head, but I was yet to invite Nerida and Ulkair to live with us, and I did still have a general store in a pile in the arena.

“Don’t be out past evening,” Alix says, ruffling my hair, “I’ll see you at home.”

“Okay!” I nod, and hurry down the stairs after Agorran and the others, Alix’s words buzzing pleasantly in my head.

Home. I repeat to myself, “I’ll see you at home.”

With Tad Cooper’s company, and Alix’s words, I manage to keep my paranoia at bay as we walk to temple, repeating to myself occasionally that we would find Dovev’s head in the morning. For better or worse, at least we would know. Nerida and Ulkair chat back and forth, and eventually I drum up the courage to interrupt them.

“Oh, by the way, Nerida?” I ask, peering up at the priestess, and she looks down at me.

“Hmm?”

“Would you, um, maybe want to sleep at my house? Or, well, um, you know, Alix’s… Alix has a house, you know, and there’s an extra room, so I thought maybe…”

I trail off, turning a bit red as I begin the spiral into idiotic rambling for the second time that day – how was I so bad at this? I’d seen this woman naked, she’d pried me from the jaws of monsters, and burning buildings, we’d suffered on the verge of death and everywhere in between, together. You would think I could talk to her like a normal person.

She is thankfully sparing of my feelings, and doesn’t call me out on in, instead tapping her chin thoughtfully.

“Well, the only other place I could consider sleeping would be the temple– ” I can’t help but notice Ulkair visibly recoil at the word, “but Ulkair might not feel as comfortable there as I would, so maybe Alix’s place would be nice. What do you think, Ulkair?”

I per around her to see the wizard rub his arm nervously, “Yes, that sounds much better. The temple makes me… uneasy.”

“Well, you’re both welcome in,” I bite my lip, grinning a little as I say the words, still hardly able to believe them, “our home.”

Ulkair inhales sharply, as if just remembering something, “could I have some bread?”

“Bread?” Nerida asks, cocking her head at him, “oh, the green stuff? We can get some at the temple.”

“Green!?” Ulkair asks, looking and sounding about as horrified as I had when I first tasted it.

“Yes, it’s what we ate every day, it’s wonderful!”

I shudder – does she not have the ability to taste, or was all the food in Zissyx just that bad? “It’s horrible!”

“It tastes very familiar,” Nerida muses aloud, “but I’m not sure why.”

“But… but it’s… green?” Ulkair insists, and Nerida looks at him quizzically.

“Well, yes, what other color would it be?”

“Ugh it’s so baaad,” I whine, hugging myself dramatically as we walk.

“No it’s not!” Nerida maintains, “It’s really good, you should try some!”

Ulkair doesn’t look convinced, maybe he’ll spare himself. Agorran chuckles to himself lightly as we walk the temple steps, and enter into the main hall.

“Well, what do you think of my masterpiece?” Ulkair announces proudly, “I call it ‘A Moment of Harmony’!”

He makes a grand sweeping gesture towards the wall, where a brilliant mural is painted. The first thing that catches my eye is seas of blue, I follow the soft tendrils throughout the painting to Nerida, hand in hand with Ulkair, dozens of tiny details and a beautiful, soft background accenting the two of them. It is amazing, but I feel like it’s missing something… but what?

“Well,” Agorran smiles, holding his hands up in a framing motion and cocking his head in appraisal. “I suppose it is good to have some record of Nerida, she who brought us Eadro, and so much more. And one that seems to be of great import to her. It’s beautiful and brings light and grace to a temple once full of only suffering and survival.”

Agorran’s words hit me with a pang of guilt and sadness, but also inspiration – light! That’s what this needs, to be brighter! This painting is the symbol of Byss’ new temple, it needs to be shine like Byss’ new sun. I focus my arcane energy, mumbling into my palms to summon a handful of shining, magical glitter.

“Man, that’s almost perfect,” I say, releasing the spell and throwing the glitterdust in an even, shimmering coat over the mural. “_Now_ It’s perfect!”

Ulkair nods in approval, and Agorran laughs softly as Nerida groans, hiding her face in embarrassment.

“I’m going to go get some bread…” She mumbles, shuffling off toward the temple’s food hall.

Agorran smiles, and I feel my stomach twist with nervousness as I ready to bring yet another problem to him, and one he is likely not going to be too terribly pleased with.

“Um, High Priest Agorran?” I mumble, and he looks back at me.

“Yes, child?” He responds, his smile unwavering. He looks at me with a soft patience in his eyes, and I feel my tension wane.

“I.. I know you have much bigger problems, but, I was wondering… maybe after everyone’s had some rest… if you could maybe help me with my friend,” my mumbling gets increasingly quieter with every word, “…he needs a body.”

“What are you asking for?” Agorran cocks his head at me, clearly confused, and I realize he has no idea who or what Tad Cooper is, and that I’m not exactly being clear. Of course, I don’t exactly know what it is I need, but, maybe he will. I dig through my bag of holding and pull the folded owlbear pelt from it, holding it up to him with a hopeful stare.

“You need an owlbear resurrected?” Agorran’s face falls as he asks, and mine with it. Of course he would think it a ludicrous endeavor, with so many Byssian lives lost, and this creature undoubtedly being one they lived in fear of… I hang my head, and then Agorran places a hand on my shoulder.

“Cheshire, I’m sorry. But that takes resources we simply don’t have here in Byss.”

I glance back up at him, suppressing a sniffle – he doesn’t seem angry, or even irritated, but more that he was lamenting his inability to help me.

“Like what?” I ask, maybe if it was only a matter of resources, I could find a way to get them.

He looks only more despondent as he explains. “Like an enormous diamond.”

I blink up at him for a moment, then dig through my bag for the gem I’d taken out of the vampire’s ashes – it’s enormous, at least I think. It’s certainly the largest one I’ve ever held, or even seen.

“Like this?” I ask hopefully, and Agorran’s eyes widen.

“Li-Like that… giant diamond,” he says, sadness running across his features before he replaces it with a smile, “I’m very happy you can bring your friend back. I can cast the spell for you.”

I study his features for a moment, my gut wrenching with guilt even as he tries to cover his impulsive response, and I suddenly feel ridiculously selfish.

“I…”
I bite my lop, glancing at Tad Cooper, who cocks his ghostly head at me curiously. I have him, and Alix, I have a family and a home for the first time in my life, and Agorran… has nothing. He lost so many friends, and I recall in his conversations with Nerida, he mentioned losing the last living member of his family. I have everything I’ve ever dreamed of and more, and I owe so much of it to Agorran, how could I have ever thought it was right to ask for more?

“I think you should have this, Agorran,” I mumble, holding the gem out to him. I’ll figure out some other way to help Tad Cooper, this is more important. “You lost a member of your family, right..? I still have Tad Cooper, if you can bring someone back, I would rather it be them.”

Agorran smiles sadly at me, and he crouches down, placing his hands over mine and guiding it back to me.

“I have lost many members of my family. I consider every Byssian a member of my family, just as I consider you one,” he says, ruffling my hair gently. “The dead are the dead, it was their time. I have the feeling your ‘Tad Cooper’ met his end earlier than he should have.”

I sniffle, managing a small smile, “Alix has that effect on things.”

This earns me a wry chuckle, “That he does.”

Tad Cooper growls at the mention of his untimely demise, and I shoot my fiercest look at him.

“Don’t you take that tone with me, Tad Cooper!” He’s going to have to learn to get along with Alix, no grumbling. He lowers his head, and I reach out to pet him in consolation, and Agorran shakes his head, his smile returned.

“Let us resurrect your friend. Shall I cast the spell now? It will take a few minutes.”

I glance behind me – Nerida has returned with bread which Ulkair eyes warily, and neither of them seem in any hurry, so I nod at Agorran. Giving him the diamond, and Tad Cooper’s pelt, I go and take a place by Nerida while he prepares the spell. Ulkair nibbles the bread with a polite smile I know well – it was the same one I gave Sheik when she offered me raw hydra meat. His face remains shockingly neutral as he eats the bread, and after a swallow I can tell takes a bit too much effort, he smiles up at Nerida’s hopeful face.

“Oh, perhaps it was special Elysian bread I wanted, but this is good too. Thank you,” he says, and I shake my head. Oh well, I suppose he doesn’t want to hurt her feelings. “Why don’t you have the rest?”

“Aren’t you hungry?” She objects as he hurriedly passes the bread off to her.

“We should eat at Alix’s house,” he says, and I don’t have the heart to tell him it will likely be no better.

Green moss-bread and fish that tasted slightly of the undead were just what the people of Byss ate, it seemed. I wasn’t sure that was an aspect of my new home I’d ever get used to, but it was a small price to pay, and I didn’t really need to eat that much.

“He is making dinner,” I offer, and Ulkair looks at me hopefully.

“Do you two have any bread?”

I shake my head, “no, but if you’re really hungry, I have some traveler’s rations that are better than that bread. It’s just that… I think that’s the only kind of bread they make here.”

Nerida munches the green, chewy loaf happily, but frowns as she observes Ulkair’s crestfallen face
.
“What do you need to make this special Elysian bread?” She asks, and Ulkair sighs.

“Wheat.”

“Maybe that will grow here soon?”

A flash of sea-green light catches my attention, and I turn to see Tad cooper’s pelt floating in front of Agorran, submersed in the holy energy. It begins to flesh out, forming paws, claws, legs, slowly but surely starting to regain Tad Cooper’s familiar form, and then the green light surrounds his spirit next to me, and fuses the two of them together. I wait on edge for a moment as the light fades, Tad Cooper grunts and groans, and shakes his head, then raises it to look at me. I chew my lip, praying he will still remember me, and that nothing has gone wrong, and then his eyes light up, and he bounds over to me, nuzzling me with his beak.

“Tad Cooper!” I cry merrily, wrapping my arms as far around him as they will go. He stops, and growls, and I follow his gaze to Nerida – oh, yes, he’s a bit afraid of her, I’d forgotten. I shake my head, giving him a firm stare, and he turns his attention from her once more, content to frolic in his new body and be petted.

“Thank you, Agorran!” I give the high priest another hug, and he returns it. If he regrets his choice, he doesn’t let on to it – he seems genuinely happy for me, if a bit bewildered at my choice of company.

“I’m glad I could help you, Cheshire,” he says, “but be careful.”

“I will be, I promise!” I pull myself onto Tad Cooper’s back – with a bit of aid from the owlbear himself, and we trot merrily over to Ulkair and Nerida, who appear to be waiting for us by the temple’s doors.

“Oh, guys, before we go home, I have to get my stuff from the arena. I know you don’t know where it is, but head for the gates and I’ll meet you there, I won’t be long.”

Nerida nods, and Ulkair says something about having some shopping to do, though I’m not exactly sure how much luck he will have with the current population in so much disarray, and Tad Cooper bounds out of the temple’s doors, and down its steps. I giggle, but cling to his feathery coat with all my strength as he runs us down the city streets, clearly happier than it had occurred to me he might be to have a physical body again. We draw plenty of stares, I think, but most of the townsfolk go by in a blur, and luckily I think I’m quite noticeable enough for no one to try and attack my feathered friend.

We reach the arena quite quickly, and I slip from Tad Cooper’s back, a bit dizzy and my heart racing. He waits for me to stabilize and then proceeds to frolic merrily in the open combat space while I gather my things. The whole pile of stuff I left, taller than myself, is respectfully untouched, and it looks like the Byssians have begun the process of smoking the remains of the hydra, and disposed of the rest of the corpse, no evidence of it but its cooked remnants and a colossal blood stain.

It doesn’t take me long to get my things, and Tad Cooper happily takes me to the city gates, as well, where we meet up with Nerida, Ulkair and Aintai. Having run to his heart’s content, he doesn’t seem too antsy about walking slowly with the others on out way home, which is good, because clinging to him has made my limbs sore, his back quite wide for them to hold on to. I slide from his back as we reach Alix’s house, and spin in an exaggerated, showing off gesture.

“Ta-dah!” I exclaim, “Alix’s house!”

Aintai sarcastically claps for me, and Nerida smiles, although it looks as though she is too tired to care about much of anything at the moment, the week’s events seeming to catch up to her, and hit her hard. Ulkair takes her hand, and walks in as I open the door for them, Aintai behind us. I hurry around the house, excitedly showing them everything from the common room to the bedrooms, where Nerida and Ulkair excuse themselves from my tour so that Nerida can pass out.

Aintai humors me as I excitedly show her stupid things like mugs and plates, and even has dinner with Alix and I. For awhile, the exuberance keeps my fear at bay, my stomach even settling enough to eat a proper meal for the first time in weeks. Mimi shows up with Lóin just as Alix and I are setting out plates, and I happily place two more, and then another two for Ulkair and Nerida, as he seems to have successfully roused her for supper.

I can barely contain my joy as we settle in for a shared meal, it wouldn’t be the first I’d had with this group of people, but this one was different. It wasn’t a bunch of adventurers huddled around a campfire, praying every bite wouldn’t be their last, it wasn’t rations split between dying friends, or soup made only to try and keep the peace. This was a family meal, around a shared table, it felt whole and kind, and was every bit as wonderful as I’d always dreamed it would be. I feel the familiar sting of tears, and bury my face in my hands briefly to contain them.

“Cheshire, what’s wrong?” Mimi asks, and I shake my head, raising it to smile at my companions, who all look at me strangely.

“I’m just so glad you’re all here,” I pause, my mind straining for the words to tell them, to make them understand what it’s like, how it feels to be wanted, instead of tolerated. “I guess all my life, what I wanted most in the world was to just fit in and be like everyone else. To know who I was and look in the mirror and see a face that I knew was me, not just somebody.”

I don’t think I could ever make them understand how badly I wanted to be something. To be what others wanted, what my family wanted, how hard I tried, and for how long, but never could get it, nor a friend, nor any form of praise. I had nothing for so long I suppose I looked at self love and identity as the only thing I could obtain, and until just recently, I didn’t even have that. It tore at me, and every day I wanted it more and more, shedding a hundred skins to try and find my own.

“I tried everything, over and over, and no matter what I did, it never worked. I guess eventually I thought that the best way to be liked was to just not be… disliked. No one could hate me if they didn’t know I existed. As I learned to control my powers a little better, I started to only shapeshift when it suited me, which was… often and usually not for any especially virtuous reason. I just avoided others, I learned everything I know from books, or practice…. You have a lot of time for practice when you’re, well, always alone.”

I pause, looking down at my food as I feel my face and ears flush with shame and frustration– I don’t need that anymore, I know who I am, but somehow, now that I was trying to explain it, trying to show them such a lonely existence for what it truly was… it felt disgraceful. I only want them to know how happy I am, and I suppose I thought that they couldn’t understand without knowing how unhappy I had been, but my words writhe in my stomach, as if speaking them will cost me everything.

Alix reaches from his seat to place his and on my shoulder, and the comforting calloused grasp breathes a new life into my words. It washes away the humiliation of a lifetime of failure, knowing that it all lead to this point, to these people… I sniffle, placing my hand over his, but manage to lift my gaze with pride.

“I never would have thought of myself as a people person until I met you all, I was alone half my life, and that was fine, but now… I can’t ever think of going back to that. I don’t really want to fit in anymore, I guess now standing out, which always seemed like a punishment before, is kind of who I am, and at least I know who that is now. I learned a lot of life lessons in these last weeks, I went from avoiding everyone and everything, and hiding from all my responsibilities, to suddenly feeling the gravity of all my actions, and sometimes… they weigh heavily, but I wouldn’t trade this, or any of you. Not for anything.”

My hand still clutching Alix’s, I carefully study the faces surrounding me and find no hint of ire, but shared smiles all around.

“I guess now that I have everything I’ve ever wanted… all that’s left is to shred some face,” I grin, making a gesture in the air as though I were shredding notes on my axe, and it earns a smirk from Aintai.

“I know I never really became very connected to you all,” she says, shooting me a glance that seems to suggest an exception, “though we’ve had some fun times, you probably don’t know much about my past.”

I lower my hands to listen to what she has to say, the only one at the table who doesn’t appear to have paled at hearing her voice – as though they never have or something?

“Well, Cheshire has her triumph, and I have mine. The one thing in my life that I will never regret is the day I broke free, the day I earned my freedom,” she has a vehemence in her voice that takes me by surprise, and she turns her knife idly over her plate as she speaks, a proud smile tugging at her lips.

“Most of my life I had been a slave, sold when my family decided that I wasn’t adequate. The huntsman of the tribe they sold me to acted as my master for about seven or so years. One day we went out on a hunt, after some wickedly large beast, and he turned his back – I saw then what I was certain would be my only chance. The wild beast we hunted stood before us, easily able to kill any regular member of the tribe, the very reason they sent the master huntsman and I. I turned around, drove my fangs into his leg, and left as the poison raced through his body.”

Awesome…

Aintai’s story is much more impressive than mine. It seems to inspire storytime all around the table, Mimi and Lóin piping up with tales of their past, Mimi of her defiance of her culture, choosing to stand out and embrace her elven heritage, and Lóin of a lost lady-love, years he spent enslaved to a circus. I wish I could say it sheds some light on his behavior, but it only digs up more questions I fear will never be answered. He says he wants to go and look for her one day, but not as he is now, that he’s not good enough for her right now, and Alix claps him on the shoulder.

“In time, friend,” he says, and I peer curiously into his mind for whatever it is I seem to be missing – apparently Lóin also apologized to Alix, and asked for his aid in controlling his temper.

Well, I suppose if anyone can help him, Alix can. I look at Nerida, wondering if, since it seems to be going around, there was something she might like to say, too, and she looks around the table with nervousness on her every feature. Clearly, if she has something to say, she doesn’t want to, so I think it best to change the subject, and there’s a question that’s been nagging at my brain for awhile now anyway.

“So, Nerida, you said you were planning on going back to Zissyx?”

I knew she was on a mission, I knew she had family in the mer city, that she would have to travel back eventually, but it hadn’t occurred to me until just now that she may not consider Byss her home, as I did. Nerida was a part of my family, my stomach lurches with the realization she may not feel the same way, that she might leave, for good.

“That’s… not, um… is that a long term plan? Are you coming back, or…?”

“Well, I’m only an initiate of the clergy,” Nerida begins, and I can’t hold back the bark of laughter that it spurs.

“No, I’m sorry, go ahead,” I try to cover my mouth, stop the incredulous laughter, and she looks at me strangely.

“I’ve only been a priestess for a year,” she says, and I raise an eyebrow.

“And you’ve done, wait, how many miracles?”

“Only one!” She says – as if it somehow makes the situation less ridiculous, “and I didn’t do it, I only prayer to Lord Eadro for it!”

“Oh, I’m sorry, how many miracles you convinced Lord Eadro to do, then,” I correct sarcastically.

The very idea that someone like Nerida should have to return to Zissyx to somehow… prove herself was an outrage. Ulkair seems to agree, leaning back in his seat to give her a sarcastic stare.

“A-Anyway,” Nerida clears her throat, looking away from us as she explains, “I at least need to go back and let them know I’m still alive. Well, I mean, that will irritate people, but…”

I can’t stand to see her floundering with lack of confidence, for the sake of some… water-sucking morons who apparently would rather she be dead, but at least it sounds like she doesn’t have much intention of staying with them. Even still, Zissyx sounds dangerous, and if even her fellow priests of Eadro wish her dead, it doesn’t seem like she should go back alone.

“Seems to me like you owe these people nothing,” I offer, reaching over to pat her shoulder, “but if that’s what you really want, we’ll go.”

“I think you should go back to tell them you’re high priestess, now,” Ulkair adds, and I nod eagerly at first, but pause, my face falling. Nerida deserves more than anyone to wear the mantle of high priest, she’s ridiculously devout to Eadro, she’s magnificent, powerful, kind… everything a high priest should be. I’m sure under the light of her leadership, Zissyx would be glorious, but without that same light, my life would feel dull.

“But… won’t that mean you would have to stay in Zissyx?”

“Well, I at least need to finish some things up there,” she answers, I think deliberately misunderstanding the question to avoid acknowledging her potential as a high priest. “But Ulkair has a teleport spell?”

He grins and teleports into her lap flashily as proof, and I roll my eyes.

“I believed you, you didn’t have to demonstrate,” I mumble, then turn my attention back to Nerida. “So, you weren’t planning on doing this alone, right?”

“Well, I wouldn’t expect any of you to come with me,” she says simply, and Ulkair gives her a disbelieving look, and she sighs, “except you.”

I sigh – increasingly sure that Nerida does not trust me as I do her, or any of us. I’m starting to wonder if I could ever earn that trust, after Elysia, everything we’ve been through, she’d still rather face a dangerous situation alone than with us. I know she doesn’t fear for Lóin or Mimi’s safety, and there’s no one among us more capable than Alix, so perhaps it is just me, and possibly Aintai, that she considers me a liability. I know that I’m not as tough as the others, and I’ve leaned on her for more than any of them, but hadn’t I also come through when she needed me? What will it take to prove myself?

“Nerida, I know you could be a fourteen foot, stupidly strong destroying machine of holy might and epicness,” I sigh, searching for the right words and failing miserably, “and so you’re not pathetic like I am, but I’m just saying that if you need your friends, we’re here for you.”

“You fought toe to toe with Dovev. How are you pathetic?” She immediately cuts back in with an opinion that makes me wonder even harder why she wouldn’t want my company on a dangerous journey, but the mention of the ghoul king’s name raises the hairs on the back of my neck.

Yes. Dovev. What a victory… that I nullified.

Eager to move on from the subject, lest it tear me in two, I wave my hand dismissively.

“That was different, that was just music,” I say, trying my hardest to nonchalantly redirect the focus of the conversation. “I’m just saying that from what you’ve said, Zissyx sounds like a terrible, garbage place that you shouldn’t go alone to.”

“It’s like Byss in many ways,” Nerida says, and I believe she is trying to defend her homeland until she continues, “except there is no kindness. Instead of banding together, the people there look out only for themselves.”

Her eyes reflect the bitter taste of the words on her tongue, it is obvious she has no fondness for the awful place, but why won’t she just allow us to help her deal with it, then?

“Sounds like a place that needs a lot of help,” Mimi chimes in – help, well, not exactly the word I’d have chosen.

“Yeah… ‘help’,” I mumble, “look, Nerida, I have a geas to fulfill for Tubatron. The cost of Agorran’s life was a bargain that we, well, I would teach music to the followers of Eadro, so that they could use it to better worship him. I’m betting I won’t find more of his followers anywhere else, so you’d be doing me a favor if you would escort me to Zissyx.”

Nerida looks at me for a moment, her lips tightening, and then sighs.
“Alright, Cheshire,” she says finally, “just… stay close, because sharks are as big as I am and bigger. They have many, very sharp teeth and they shred and destroy.”

I’ve heard of sharks, but never seen one, in fact, I’d never seen an ocean before at all, or anything bigger than the lake nearby the city here in Byss. Stopping to think about it, I could hardly fathom a body of water so large, and a creature so huge Nerida fears its shredding, destroying teeth must have been truly horrifying.

“They sound awful,” I mumble, and she nods.

“Indeed, they can come from any direction and they strike quickly. I will kill any we may come across, but you must stay close to me,” she reaches over and squeezes my shoulder, letting the touch linger as if to reassure me, but I sense a greater motive behind her hesitation. “Though if we are to travel to Zissyx together, I’m afraid there is something I should tell you first.”

“Something I should tell… all of you,” she lets go, looking around the table with a guilty pain on her face. “If you would follow me to Zissyx, there is something you would probably figure out there, but I would rather you heard it from me. If you remember one of the first nights out in the marshes I spoke of working a lot in the fields growing up. The truth is I was actually born into slavery, myself and my five siblings. At least, there used to be six of us…”

She looks away, her words trailing off for a moment and I feel my heart wrench in agony for her. Nerida, so strong, so wise and so beautiful, I suppose part of me hoped that she’d grown into the person she was because she was surrounded by loved ones and opportunity, but when is that ever the case? The fact that she made herself who she is from nothing, it only made her more amazing, but I doubt she would see it that way. She continues to speak, in painful detail telling us the fate of her siblings, the life she had scraped and struggled her way into, only to meet with more hatred, the stigmas of her past staining her future at every corner.

With every word, my heart sinks further, watching the pain on Nerida’s face as she recounts years of injustices piled on her loved ones. Somewhere in all my pity, I feel a pang of wretched jealousy – of course she’s accomplished so much, risen above so much more than me and with even less than I had, because why should I think I was special to have thrown off my life as a gutter rat? I shake it off, mentally berating myself for my pettiness, and listen in silence as Nerida continues.

“I remember the first night lying down with Áine to sleep and how I cried. I finally had gotten everything I had always wanted, but it was nothing like I thought it would be, nothing was right. And I will always remember the day I threw my two thousand gold down onto that table and demanded that they free me and Áine. Just seeing the hatred that burned in their eyes, that there was nothing they could do. I will go back, and I will make them all see what I am.”

Her eyes burn with defiance, but glisten with tears long unshed, and I can see her grip tightening on Ulkair with every word, and he leans on her, finally breaking his silence when she pauses.

“You have become more than any of them could have imagined, Nerida.”

She looks at him, and swallows hard before turning back to the rest of us.

“I understand if none of you can look at me the same, but…” She trails off, and I shake my head, getting up to stand by her.

“Nerida, I don’t look at you the same,” I say, and I see heartbreak flash in her eyes before she tries to mask it with acceptance, but I wrap my arms around her tightly. “I respect you even more than I did before, and I didn’t think that was possible.”

I feel a familiar hand reach past me to rest on Nerida’s shoulder, and Alix’s voice accompanies it a moment later.
“No one can choose what they’re born into, Nerida, they can only choose what they do with the life they are given, and your choices have been excellent. You’ve saved all of our lives.”

“You helped me find a god when I hadn’t wanted one,” Lóin mumbles from across the table, “and I know how you feel.”

Nerida sniffles, a single tear rolling down her cheek, and pulls Ulkair and I in closer, hugging us for a long, silent moment. Eventually, she composes herself and releases us, returning to her food, and I get up to help Alix clean up after dinner, a comfortable silence falling in the kitchen. It’s so normal, so easy, and everything seems as though it’s finally as it should be, even though I never dared to dream for something like this. Even with the shadow of Dovev looming over us, the evening sunlight that filters through the shades seems bright and promising, and in the morning, I tell myself, that shadow will be gone.

Mimi and Lóin take their leave shortly after they are done eating, Aintai retires early, and Nerida and Ulkair stay at the table for awhile, speaking quietly amongst themselves. Tad Cooper, unfortunately, doesn’t really fit in the house, but I doubt he’d be terribly happy inside, opting instead to romp in the space behind Alix’s home. I worry a bit for his safety, but it seems Alix doesn’t really have many neighbors anymore, and most everyone in Byss will recognize him as mine soon enough. I sit outside, watching him for a little while, idly plucking the strings of my axe, trying to still my mind enough for sleep but, at Alix’s behest, head inside as it gets dark.
I think he can sense my restlessness, because he places a hand on my shoulder as I walk inside.

“It’s best everyone gets some sleep,” he reasons, “tomorrow doesn’t seem like it will offer any.”

“You’re right,” I sigh and nod, setting my axe aside to hug him. I had no idea what tomorrow would hold anymore, at the very least, it was a hunt for Dovev, but maybe also the beginning of a perilous journey to the ocean.

“Alix?” Nerida calls, and he releases me to turn his attention to her.

“Yes, Nerida?”

“Remember when we were leaving the government building and you had to stop and rest? You looked very dizzy?”

I tighten my grip on Alix as they converse, trying to keep the brutal memories she dredges up at bay. I’m not sure how anyone could have forgotten anything surrounding something so horrible, and so recent, but I decide it best not to comment, as Nerida has been through enough this evening.

“Yes,” Alix says, frowning, “it’s been hard to think clearly since then.”

“So it has still been bothering you,” Nerida mumbles guiltily, and I feel a tinge of anger flare in my chest.

Of course it has! Does no one pay Alix any mind? He has a visible dent in his head! He hasn’t recovered, and how could he, especially from such an injury? He’s been much too busy tracking, hunting, keeping watch and getting us home in one piece to rest! My grasp on his arm tightens more still, and I feel Alix’s disapproval at my anger wash over our link, and try to calm myself.

But it isn’t fair! You’re not disposable, Alix!

Alix does not respond, and Nerida brings her hands to rest on either side of his face.

“I’m so sorry.” Nerida adds, assuaging my fury. I sigh, relaxing my hold and awaiting the lecture from Alix, when a flash of Eadro’s holy energy washes over him. He groans and goes limp, slumping forward, and Nerida catches him.

“What did you do to my Alix!?” I demand, trying not to panic as I look him over – had something gone wrong? I recognized healing energy, but had it not worked properly? Had some kind of negative reaction? This wasn’t supposed to happen when something got better!

“I only healed him!” Nerida objects, although she seems as unsure as I am, looking over him with distress, “he’s perectly healthy, just… unconscious.”

“Well… put him in his bed,” I mumble, and Nerida nods, picking Alix up and following me to his room, Ulkair on her heels. She strips him of his boots and lays him in bed, and I nestle him into his blankets with a heavy sigh – at least he appears to be resting peacefully.

“When do you think he’ll wake up?” I glance back at Nerida, and she shakes her head.
“I’m not sure, but probably by morning.”

“Alright,” I mumble, berating myself for my misplaced anger at her as I study Alix’s resting features. I was worried for him, that wasn’t her fault, and I don’t truly believe she, or anyone, means to take him for granted… Even if we all do. “Thank you, Nerida.”

She nods, and after a moment of silence, I sigh again.

“I think I’ll go to bed.”

“Alright, good night Cheshire,” she says, making her way to the doorway, where Ulkair leans waiting for her.
“Oh, though Nerida, are you planning on leaving tomorrow?”

“I’m not sure yet,” she answers, “but soon.”

“Soon,” I repeat, watching Alix’s chest rise and fall thoughtfully. If I were going to follow her to Zissyx, I would need to breathe under water. I know she has spells, but I believe I can do it on my own, with the right modifications, I just have to figure out how to do it.

“I’m sure they all believe me dead, so when exactly I return can’t matter too much.”

“That’s… fair, I suppose,” I reply, and Ulkair looks Nerida over thoughtfully, tracing his finger down her arm where the fissures glow faintly, a reminder of the spell she’d just cast on Alix, and our struggle in Elysia.

“I think perhaps we should do something about this first,” he says, and she wraps her arms around him tightly, masking a sniffle.

“That would be nice,” she mumbles, and I grimace – this enemy of hers, Zalissa, who she would have to face, wasn’t she an old, powerful priestess? If I could see the cracks, I was certain she would, too, whenever Nerida cast a spell, it seems. I know Nerida is eager to see her sister again, but a visible vulnerability such as that would surely be dangerous.

“I… I think Ulkair is right,” I try to put it delicately, because I hate to rub in a fact of which she must be aware, but flaunting your… whatever these fissures were before a temple full of enemies couldn’t be wise. Nerida gives a wry giggle as she responds, obviously trying to avoid delving too deeply into the topic.

“Never thought you’d say that, did you?”

“Well, I’ve certainly said stranger things,” I muse, “but your hand was pretty left that one time. I wasn’t sure I’d ever get along with Ulkair.”

He flinches in her arms at the painful reminder, which I feel is a satisfactory response – at least he’s sorry. Nerida jumps to his defense, insisting she was fine, and he hangs his head.

“I’m so sorry I did that to you,” he mumbles, and she holds him closer.

“If holding my hand helped you at all, then it is of little consequence.”

I’m not sure I agree with that statement, but I won’t start another argument about it, either. Her relationship with Ulkair is her own, and whatever I may think of his actions, I recognize I cannot truly fault him for his madness. The sadness of the lament in Elysia, his sadness, crushes down on me even as I only briefly call the events to mind – how could anyone live with such a heavy heart and be sane?

“You two are garbage,” I murmur playfully, blinking back the tears that threaten my composure, and Nerida smiles at me.

“Love you, Cheshire.”

Her words seize my heart, stopping it for just a moment. They swell in my chest, filling me with a cautious warmth and mirth I had only felt when I heard the very same words from Alix for the first time. I grasp the wool blanket beneath my fingers and I feel a single tear slip past to roll down my cheek.

“Goodnight.”

“I… love you, too, Nerida,” I murmur back, trying not to let on to the upheaval within me, or the caution with which I breath the words, no matter how true they are. “Goodnight.”

She and Ulkair leave Alix’s room, shutting the stone door behind them, and I curl up next to him, my world completely rocked by such simple words. They were my family – why shouldn’t they love me? I know it to be true, but it still tightens my throat when I try to process the information. I cling to Alix’s sleeping form, more tears working their way down my face as I lay in the peaceful darkness of our home, my home, loved.

“I love you all…” I whisper, clutching Alix’s armor much too hard.

Come what may, tomorrow, or any day, be it Dovev, Zissyx, or some other monster, more horrible yet. This is my family, they love me, and I will be there, no matter what… I’ll love them until my last breath, and I’ll never let anything take them from me again.

Lost in my fervor, I don’t know how long I dwell on my new vow before my eyes grow heavy with sleep. I am drifting into its soft embrace when the creaking of Alix’s bedroom door wakes me with a jolt of fear. It slowly creeps open, and I tighten my grip on Alix’s arm, my breath hitching in my chest as a shadow looms from behind me. My heart pounds in my chest, my exhausted mind racing for a plan of action, hurling terrible scenarios at me faster than I can process them as the shadow closes in on us.

“Cheshire?” It whispers, and I heave a heavy sigh of relief – it’s only Nerida.

“Yes?” I whisper back, rolling over to face my huge companion, and saying a prayer of thanks to every deity and spirit I know that she is not a certain ghoul.

“Will you sing High Priest Agorran to sleep?” She asks, and I squint at her, trying my best to understand what could have possibly spurred this request.

“What, like, now?”

She nods, looking exhausted, and I squint harder, still not sure I understand.

“You want me to get out, out of this warm bed with Alix…” I begin, hoping she will realize how ridiculous it seems to do just that, then walk all the way across town, go into High Priest Agorran’s room, and sing him to sleep.

“Well, maybe not tonight, but he’s probably tired,” she says, and I sigh again. She is right, Agorran must be exhausted, and the healing hymn is a cure for that like no other, but it would still be weird to go now.

“Alright,” I promise, rolling back over to snuggle with Alix, “tomorrow I’ll sing Agorran to sleep.”

“If we’re still here tomorrow,” she adds, and I dejectedly slump my head against Alix’s arm before rolling back over to face her once more.

“On a scale from one to ten, how likely is it that we will leave tomorrow?”

“Pretty likely,” she says, “although I still have to scry for you, so it can wait, I suppose.”

“No, it can’t,” I grumble, “because then if we have to leave you’ll say ‘oh, poor Agorran, if only he’d gotten some sleep’.”

Nerida looks at me sheepishly as I scoot off the bed and go to find my axe, I pause only briefly on my way out the door, remembering Alix’s insistence that I not be out alone at night, and debate going back for Nerida. But… she looked so tired, and as I peer back down the hall, I can already hear her climbing back into bed with Ulkair. It isn’t.. too far to the temple, or too terribly late at night… I look back out at the dimly lit streets, weighing my choices. The vampires are gone, the assassins are gone, the remains of Dovev’s army was burning outside the city… it should be safe, right?

Either way, I promised Nerida I would go. Steeling myself, I pick up a torch from near the door and light it with a burst of arcane flame. It illuminates the street as I step outside, securing the stone door behind me and call for Tad Cooper. Whatever was out there, he would keep me safe. Well, almost anything that was out there. I shudder, the shadows that dance beneath my torch’s flame taunting me, the seconds dragging by like frightful hours as I await my fluffy companion. I jump at the sound of rustling behind me, only to find my beloved owlbear bounding from the shadows to my side.

“Hey buddy,” I murmur, nervously hugging his neck, “let’s go.”

Securing my axe to my back, I clamor up onto Tad Cooper’s back, the lit torch making it a much more arduous process than it previously was, and gently spur him onward. As much as I would like to get there quickly, I don’t have enough hands to cling to him for him to run like he had earlier today. And frankly I feel it’s much easier to mistake romping for rampaging in the dark of the night, and don’t want to tempt fate with the exhausted, war-torn citizens of Byss.

I try to soothe my nerves as Tad Cooper carries me through the city, forcing myself not to jump at every sound, nor stare at every shadow. I had faced so many real horrors, it was ridiculous for me to be so paranoid of false ones, or so I told myself. It didn’t stop the lingering shadows from seeming to grin at me, with a smile much too large, it didn’t unclench my fingers from Tad Cooper’s feathers, didn’t stop the shiver of horror from caressing my spine.

It is a mercy to reach the temple, I don’t think i’ve ever been so pleased by the sight of its doors and, to my delighted surprise, its windows are still illuminated. I slide from Tad Cooper’s back and pet his nose before I douse my torch.

“Wait here, buddy,” I whisper, and slip through the double doors into the temple.
It is warm and well lit, a few priests still wandering about tending to things I knew less than nothing about. Everyone near me stops what they are doing as I enter, stilling and placing a fist over their heart in a solemn Byssian salute. It immediately causes my heart to plummet with panic – had something happened? Was someone hurt? Why did I draw such attention? Were they about to give me some awful news?

“Um,” I manage to respond awkwardly to their expecting stares, mimicking the saluting gesture, “hi guys.”

I search the crowd for any sign of further communication, wracking my mind for whatever it is that generated this response among Byss’ clergy, waiting on pins and needles for the tragic news I’m sure is coming. Instead I receive a few tight smiles – which were as close to normal smiles as most Byssians seemed to get, before most of them returned to their work.

Oh… so, nothing is wrong? I wonder, watching cautiously for a moment as they resume their routine. They just… all wanted to greet me?

It was a strange sensation, being… a person of note, but it seemed to be the case.

“Excuse me?” I stop the nearest priest, trying to keep my tone respectfully quiet for the first time in my life, “but do you happen to know if High Priest Agorran is awake?”

“Ah, he’s meditating,” the priest gestures toward the back of the hall, where I spot Agorran, kneeling in what appears to be solemn prayer.

“Thank you,” I whisper, and he nods. I wouldn’t dream of interrupting Agorran, so I creep up near him, and take a seat a few benches back, he probably won’t be praying very much longer, I can just wait.

I look around, observing the temple walls, the tapestries, breathing in the familiar incense, drumming my fingers lightly on my axe. I almost died here, twice, could have become eternally enslaved to the Ichtaca, so many things came to pass within these walls, and I’d never stopped to observe them before. There’s a peace to this room I’d never felt, a rhythm in the steady footsteps of its clergymen, the flickering of the lamps, I lose myself to it easily, allowing my mind to commune and drift, my fingers to drum steadily on the surface and strings of my axe.

I reach out to the holy energy radiating around me, and in it I feel strong and sure, like the foundation of the temple itself. Neutral, like all the world is in balance. I let my mind wander, and for once it does not return to me with fears and doubts, instead exploring my limitations without crushing them. I lose track of time, minutes, maybe even hours ticking by in the restful melody, before Agorran places his hand on my shoulder to pull me from the meditative state.

“Oh… Agorran,” I manage awkwardly, stilling my hands. Some part of me knew they were moving, drumming out a harmony, but I hadn’t really realized it until now. “S-Sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb your prayer.”

“No, it was beautiful, actually,” he smiles kindly, releasing his grasp on my shoulder. “How may I help you?”

“Uh, well, I was actually supposed to be helping you,” I admit, sheepishly looking down at the instrument in my lap and Agorran gives me a curious look.

“Oh?”

“Nerida and I noticed you looked…. Exhausted,” I mumble, suddenly feeling ridiculous for my late-night travels and the idea that it was normal to just trek across a city to sing a grown man to sleep, magically or otherwise. “I know you have so much on your plate and she thought, well, we thought that if I sang you to sleep again it might help…”

I peer up at Agorran reluctantly, and to my relief I am greeted with a kind smile, “It was perhaps the best I had slept in a long time, even with Dovev approaching the city.”

I am certainly glad to have helped, but it is a sad realization nonetheless, that there truly has been no rest for the weary among Byss for so long.

“Seems like no one in Byss has had a decent rest in a long time,” I murmur, wringing my hands a little, “I mean… I’d like to help however I can…”

“Thank you, Cheshire, that would be wonderful,” Agorran, ever patient and accepting of distinct lack of normality, takes my hand and helps me up. “I would love to hear your song.”

“O-Okay,”I mumble as he releases my hand, and walk with Agorran to his room. He gets comfortable, and I seat myself on the edge of his bed, and begin to pluck a familiar melody on the silver strings.

“Fear not this night, you will not go astray
Thou shadows fall, still the stars find their way
Awaken from a quiet sleep, hear the whispering of the wind
Awaken as the silence grows in the solitude of the night,
Darkness spreads through all the land
And your weary eyes open silently
Sunsets have forsaken all the most far off horizons,”

I breath deeply, feeling the sweeping melody build in my lungs as I pick up the pace of my tune. Finally it feels right to since this song again, like I am no longer grasping at long-gone shadows, I have a family again, and I deserve to sing it. For them.

“Nightmares come when shadows grow
Eyes close and heartbeats slow
Fear not this night, you will not go astray
Though shadows fall, still the stars find their way
And you can always be strong,
Lift your voice with the first light of dawn
Dawn’s just a heartbeat away
Hope is just a sunrise away…”

“Cheshire,” Agorran says, reaching to place a hand on one of mine. I lift my head from my strings to him, letting my melody fall to a soft lull as he speaks, his voice heavy with sleep.

“Byss has changed since you came here. It has gone from a terrible place, to… a place of music, and beauty, and I did not think it could ever be so.”

I try to respond, try to muster any words or even sounds, but my throat tightens, catching a lump that I do my best to swallow as I feel tears build in my eyes. My chest swells with a thousand emotions, and I take his hand in mine, releasing the strings of my axe momentarily.

“Thank you,” he whispers, and I tighten my grasp, a few stray tears rolling from my cheeks to splash on the brassy surface of my axe.

Still I can’t muster the words, there’s too much to say, too much to express. Thank you’s didn’t begin to cover it, apologies couldn’t scratch how sorry I was for my wrongdoings, but he smiles at me, wise, wordless understanding in his eyes, and I release his hand, allowing him to drift into what I pray is a restful sleep.

“Distant sounds of melodies
calling through the night to your heart
Auroras, mists and echoes dance
in the solitude of our life
Pleading, sighing arias gently grieving in captive misery
Darkness sings a forlorn song
Yet our hope can still rise up…”

I sing softly, infusing my words with magic until I am sure Agorran is asleep, and get up, carefully and quietly leaving his room. I wander the temple’s halls, strumming the melody, instilling my magic into each note, singing out to the stone walls and those they protect, all the words I don’t know how to say. I love them, they’re my home, my family, and so, so much more.

“Nightmares come when shadows roam
Lift you voice, lift your hope
Fear not this night, you will not go astray
Though shadows fall, still the stars find their way,”

I as I climb the stairs, dimly lit by the flickering torchlight, my voice seems to trail behind me, echoing in the halls below, filling the air, and I turn from the top of the flight to look out over the hall, where I once caused so much harm.

I’m so sorry…

“And though the night sky’s filled with blackness
Fear not, rise up!
Call out and take my hand…”

Placing my hands on the banister, I belt out the lyrics of my song, pulling the holy aria from beyond my lungs, from the deepest part of my soul. The bannister shimmers with brassy light at my touch, and I stare down at it, remorseful tears sliding down my nose to meet the out pour of holy energy.

I’ll never, ever hurt you again.
I vow, tightening my grasp, and lift my voice, to Tubatron, to help me protect them, to Byss, its citizens, my family.

I want to protect you. I want to be strong.

“…Fear not this night, you will not go astray
Though shadows fall, still the stars find their way
And you can always be strong
Lift your voice with the first light of dawn,”

My fingers move over the bannister, drumming out the rhythym no longer played on my axe. As they move, picking up momentum with my song, I feel the push of Tubatron’s holy energy filling me, the touch of his hand on the foundation of Byss’ temple. It pours out of me, carrying with my voice over the hall, the notes of my song echoing over the incense heavy air.
The shimmering brassy trail spreads around me, rushing over the floors and walls, spreading the ethereal echo of my voice over every corner of the solemn temple. I watch in wonder as his presence fills the building, permeating the stone itself with consecrated music, and when the light fades, the cold stone beneath my fingers feels different. It is familiar and sacred, similar to my axe, and I smile, the blessing of Tubatron evident in the very air around us, and very faintly, familiar words reverberate from the walls back to me.

“Dawn’s just a heartbeat away
Hope’s just a sunrise away…”

I repeat the words, sliding to the floor against the bannister, and pick up my axe, resuming my playing, my song this time a thankful prayer to Tubatron. For my music, his blessings, his strength… I don’t know why he chose me, but I would be nothing without him, lost in the endless expanse of darkness, and instead, I am a star twinkling in the night sky. My music, my family, my home – I know the things I have are gifts, not to be taken for granted, not to squandered.

“Thank you,” I whisper, as if it could ever be enough. Shouting it from the rooftops every morning at dawn could never be enough – although, that seemed like it might be a good start. I stay in the temple, playing softly for a couple of hours, until I start to doze off, my fingers slipping shamefully on the strings of my guitar. Most of the lights have been put out, the clergy all in their beds for the night – exactly where I should be. I push myself up, fighting the ever growing temptation to sleep on the stone floor, and make my way outside, where Tad Cooper awaits me, fast asleep at the foot of the steps.

“Come on buddy, let’s go home.” I murmur, and he yawns, lumbering his way to his feet and then up to me.

He nuzzles me, and I hoist myself onto his back, stifling a yawn, and he makes his way back down the empty city streets. The trip home seems much shorter than the one to the temple, my mind buzzing with Tubatron’s consecration of the temple, filled with the echoing music I’d played, and I hum softly as we travel, shooing away the paranoia that grasps at me through the shadows.

Tad Cooper delivers me safely to Alix’s front door, and then promptly lays down outside of it. I slip into the house, careful to make as little noise as possible, and rest my axe by the door, sliding off my boots and adding them to the pile. The stone floors are a chilly shock to the soles of my feet, but I manage to pad my way down the hall fairly silently.

I stop at my bedroom’s door, and glance behind me at Alix’s – I have my own room, and that’s where I should sleep, but.. maybe just this one night it would be fine to sleep in Alix’s bed with him, I reason. He was hurt, after all, what if he needed some kind of care in the middle of the night?

I scoot quickly across the hall and slip into Alix’s room, shutting the door as softly as I can, and crawl under the heavy wool blankets of Alix’s bed. To my surprise, he rolls toward me, awake, and pulls me in close.

“I’m glad you’re home,” he whispers against my hair, and I wrap my arms around him, my chest swelling with the feeling of wholeness.

“I’m so glad to be home.”

Comments

“Nerida, I know you could be a fourteen foot, stupidly strong destroying machine of holy might and epicness,” I sigh, searching for the right words and failing miserably, “and so you’re not pathetic like I am, but I’m just saying that if you need your friends, we’re here for you.”

“You fought toe to toe with Dovev. How are you pathetic?” She immediately cuts back in with an opinion that makes me wonder even harder why she wouldn’t want my company on a dangerous journey, but the mention of the ghoul king’s name raises the hairs on the back of my neck.

Yes. Dovev. What a victory… that I nullified.

Eager to move on from the subject, lest it tear me in two, I wave my hand dismissively.

“That was different, that was just music,” I say, trying my hardest to nonchalantly redirect the focus of the conversation. “I’m just saying that from what you’ve said, Zissyx sounds like a terrible, garbage place that you shouldn’t go alone to.”

You’re both pretty, and pretty much the best, and you should both believe it.
—Ulkair

What Fresh Hell Is Byss 11
 

Cheshire says:
Um…………. Well, it’s just that… sometimes I do, and then other times I leave Dovev’s head to get snatched by an imp and then Loin uses my name as a verb…

What Fresh Hell Is Byss 11
ladymaenad

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