Deity, Destiny, and Demons

*:・゚✧ Cheshire's Adventure Log ✧゚・: *
Love is a Battlefield

Day Something
(session 10)

“Everyone, through the portal!” Nerida yells, and though I push myself up, I stumble, my limbs heavy with exhaustion and pain. I stare at the shadow clad ground beneath me, which seems to twist around my boots, holding me, pulling me back toward it. Stay, it insists, its so much easier to just rest… No! No, I can’t… I have to go back home, have to hold my sons, let them meet their aunt! I have to keep going, I can’t rest yet… I straighten up, taking just one step, which feels like I am dragging the weight of a thousand people on my ankles.

Every movement is torture as the cold shadow of Elysia pulls at me, the sunlight visible just beyond the gate, but somehow… so unreachable. I feel Alix’s hand tighten on mine, my fingers closing over his – one less for our endeavors today, but a small price to pay. It urges me on, and I pull my gaze up to meet his, finding hope shining back at me through those storm gray eyes, true, genuine hope.

“Let’s go home, little one,” he whispers, and I nod, fighting back tears as I cling to his arm – home, family… two words I never thought could mean more to me than they already did. I stumble through the portal, Byss’ warm sun washing us in its rays, seeming to push back the wretched, grasping shadows of Elysia that hung over me. The moment my boots hit the grass, I fall to it, plush green catching me as I stare up at a sky – so big, so blue, so beautiful.

So many afternoons I’d spent, lying in Alix’s arms staring up at this very same sky… I look at my hand, Alix’s blood smeared across it from his sacrifice, and then up at him, but his gaze is fixated elsewhere – on Agorran, and his sister. For a second, I think I catch a glimpse of tears on his pale skin before he moves to embrace them and his face disappears from view. Sitting up, I watch them for a moment, Agorran’s smile so genuine, and yet… so cautious, as though he is waiting to be woken from yet another dream.

I know the feeling too well… how many nights had I laid in bed with Alix, certain any moment I would wake in the cold streets of my old home town alone? How many times had I pinched myself, or let Seren go on pulling my hair until it hurt just to be sure he and Rhapsody were real? And my victories, while new, were not so far-fetched as this one. I want to reach out to them, embrace them, assure them it was true – we’d beaten down another impossible nightmare, we’d emerged victorious, that everything could, just maybe, actually be alright, but it seems… wrong, somehow, to intrude on their moment together.

The gate to Elysia closes behind us, for what I pray is the final time, and I look around at my companions – Nerida, Ulkair, Alix… what could I ever hope to be without them? Even Aadya, whom I barely knew, she’d saved Alix twice now, and me, and… were it not for her and Tubatron’s intervention, I would have failed them all in Elysia. Loin cradles Selene’s body to his chest, Caspian nurses her wounds, Nerida and Ulkair take a seat on either side of me, and for a moment, all is quiet, the stillness only broken by the breeze rolling through the grass. We won.

We won…

We won.

My words echo into Alix’s thoughts, and back again, his voice almost more disbelieving than my own. I look back at him, and think to say something, but can’t seem to muster the words, or the will to pull him from his family, who he’d only just regained.

…His family.

The words strike a painful chord in my heart, and as I watch their prolonged embrace, I feel tears burning at the edges of my eyes. But… why? This should be a joyous moment, our greatest victory, and yet… these don’t feel like happy tears.

He doesn’t need you anymore.

A voice taunts, creeping its way up from the darkest reaches of my mind to gnaw at my sanity.

That’s not true! I spit back, and it silences, but leaves an aching sore on my heart in its wake.

“Cheshire, what’s wrong?” Nerida asks, pulling my attention from Alix’s moment of somber celebration.

“What? I.. um, nothing,” I shake my head, reaching up to rub my eyes. “I just… think I’m still shaking off the last of the negative… um, energy, I guess.”

“Alright.”

Right. Elysia, the negative plane, the shadows… that’s all that was. I assure myself, wrapping my arms around my knees as Nerida and Ulkair snuggle in closer, determined to keep at bay my demons, if only for now. My mind reels with the events in Elysia, and I hardly notice Loin approaching us until I am staring at his boots.

“So, Nerida, Selene’s soul… is in your jar, yes?” He asks, and Nerida nods, leaving me to suppose that I missed her collecting it in the flurry of battle, but it only makes sense that she did. That dark plane was no place for an innocent soul.

“Yes,” she answers, “why?”

“Can you… tell if the soul is whole, by any chance?” Loin asks, and then his brow knits heavily, and he continues his explanation, but lets his words trail off. “It occurred to me during the fight she’d been with demons for a very long time, and…”

Nerida takes the jar from her side, opening it and taking something into her hand – I imagine it to be Selene’s soul, and that were I to focus all my holiness, I could perhaps see it, but the effort to simply lift my head is too great, and the strain of the attempt would be pointless, as Nerida’s expertise would be insurmountably more useful than whatever guess I could make.

“They probably kept parts of it to help control her,” Nerida explains sadly, making it more than apparent the soul is not, in fact, whole as she passes it to Ulkair for observation.

“Or to fuel these monstrosities they’re creating,” I whisper, and try to hide the grimace on my features as I remember Aisylynn’s soul, what it had looked like, the torture, the screaming… and that demon had her for only nine days, and no greater purpose than malice and spite, who knows to what end they had taken apart Selene?
“Or… just to abuse…”

I bite my lip, cutting short my words and my train of thought – such misery could do Loin no good, and there was plenty on his shoulders as it was. Ulkair observes the soul, turning it over in his hands, though what he is looking for, I am unsure.

“These don’t look like violent tears or even… bites,” he concludes, which I hope is a good thing, but doubt, “this separation was precision work. Only the wizards of Thay or the most powerful of demons could do this.”

“Is there any way it can be…. Restored now?” Loin asks, staring sadly at his lover’s body for a moment before looking back to Ulkair, “or do we need the actual pieces of the soul?”

“You need the pieces of the soul,” Ulkair answers, shaking his head. “This is likely why she was so distant and uncaring of… certain things that should have been important to her. You could substitute something for it, but there is no… wound to bandage, no way to heal it without what is missing. And it will never be the way it was, unless you find the other pieces.”

“What about… another soul?” Loin asks, and Ulkair gives him a knowing look.

“It would be a powerful gift, and a huge sacrifice. Neither of you will ever be exactly the same again,” he says, but looks at Nerida, meeting her eyes with a soft smile, “but that’s not always a bad thing.”

Loin does not seem to think this warning to be anything of concern, he simply nods, certain of the choice he has made, with no hesitation or weighing of options.

“I’m already not the same.”

I feel my stomach twist at his words – Loin can’t lose his soul, not even half of it, or small pieces, he can’t afford it. It would be a thousand steps back for every one that he’s taken on this path of… growth, or… vengeance, or discovery, whatever it was anymore. I remember the look in Selene’s eyes when I’d questioned her – cold, devoid, nothing but spite and horror burning in them, and I shudder to recall when I’d seen the very same in Loin’s. When I’d thought him so far gone that nothing would reach him, and he’d only lost his mind then, not his soul.

“Loin… Don’t take this the wrong way, but,” I begin cautiously, peering up at him just in time to catch a look in his eye that insisted he would, and I steel myself for the plunge. There is no point in hiding or mincing words, I remind myself, a good leader can’t be afraid to speak to their enemies, nonetheless their family.

He will take my advice or he will not.

“Its just that, supposedly not having these pieces of her soul are what made her so…. Distant, and… so cold. And in the meantime while we search for hers, all those pieces are missing from you. Can you… really afford that?”

He stares at me, hard, and I wonder if I haven’t perhaps crossed a line – but it needed to be said, and who else would, if not me? Who else knew, who else could use that guilt to make him see sense? I break our eye contact as Mimi approaches to put in her two cents – something I’m never sure will be a good thing or not anymore.

“I think it should be Selene’s choice,” she says, a surprisingly neutral and inoffensive opinion.

It doesn’t take long for this to break into a debate that is well above the level of interest I am capable of putting forth, and I find my mind, and my eyes, wandering back to Alix as he breaks his embrace with Agorran, and the two of them help his sister to her feet. She looks just like him, if he were maybe twenty years younger and less world-weary, and I’ve never seen such genuine disbelief or happiness on Alix’s face. For what I am certain is the first time since our link was forged, the overwhelming emotion seeping over it is not mine. Alix is happy. So truly, incredibly happy.

The sharp claws of jealousy rake through my mind once more, insisting his happiness means he no longer needs me, and I clench my fists at my side.

That’s not true.

I repeat, but pain still ripples through my chest with every quickening heartbeat as the three of them turn away, making their way, I can only imagine, toward the temple. Alix’s sister leans heavily on Agorran, clearly exhausted, but my mind races with painful memories as I watch their retreating forms, and I scramble to my feet, wiggling free of Nerida and Ulkair’s hold to hurry after them. I jog the distance between us, so desperate to put a nail in the coffin of my awful thoughts that I forget my earlier decision not to intrude, and don’t stop to wonder what Alix’s sister will think of me until I am much too close to back away without seeming strange.

My heart seizes in my chest as I close the last few feet of space, and Alix turns to face me – though whether he heard me coming a mile away, or sensed the chaos in my mind as I approached, I am not sure.

“I-I…” I begin, throwing a panicked glance between him and his walking companions, but he pulls me into a fierce hug before I can continue.

“Thank you so much Cheshire, I…” Alix trails off, his voice thick, as though threatening to crack – a sound I don’t believe I’ve ever heard. He recovers, swallowing hard as he moves away and says, “you’ve brought my family back to me.”

I simply stare at him for a moment, unsure of what to say – I could hardly take credit for such a feat, but as he releases me, he lets out a sad sigh and continues.

“At least, all that could be.”

“I’m… sorry about your brother,” I whisper, the memory of my uncle’s tormented soul still fresh on my mind, and I wrap my arms around Alix’s waist, returning the embrace he’d given me. “I… wish I could have done more, but… he is resting in the halls of Tubatron now.”

And not on that wretched wall. I add mentally, my stomach churning with anger at the injustice of it – at the idea of Byssian souls crushed into nothingness, destroyed, abandoned for their “faithlessness”, as though they hadn’t been thoroughly enough abandoned in life. I glance up at Alix to see sadness in his eyes, a faraway stare, though whether my indignation for our people has crept across our link, or his sadness is for his lost family, I am not sure. I bite my lip, once again at an utter loss, and tighten my grasp on him, when his sister – my aunt, calls my attention away.

“I never imagined Alix would have children before me,” she says, moving to wrap me in a firm hug that is remarkably similar to the ones Alix gives, but somehow… warmer. I jump a bit, letting out a squeak of panic as I struggle for words to say that will not embarrass Alix in front of his family, but feel what I can only equate to a thump on the edge of my brain. Peering at Alix, I see a tired smile tugging at his lips, and over our bond, a sudden reassurance that there is no wrong answer – that he has a family to be embarrassed in front of, and that’s more than enough.

“Well, um… I’m adopted,” I begin awkwardly, “but um… my name is Cheshire, and.. it’s nice to meet you.”

“It’s lovely to meet you, Cheshire, I’m Katarine,” she says, and I beam, hurriedly reaching to shake her hand.

“I have children, too,” I add, “if you’d like to meet them?”

She releases me, a big smile spreading over her features as she looks from me to Alix, and back again, delight sparkling in her eyes at what I can only imagine is the prospect of Alix being not just a father, but a grandfather. He shared a similar excitement when I conceived Rhapsody, though twenty extra years of world weariness seems to have stolen the sparkle in Kat’s eyes from his.

“Oh, you do?”

“They’re… um… a little…. Strange,” I glance away, doubt digging its claws into my stomach and twisting at the sudden prospect of showing Rhapsody and Seren to her.

A doppelganger – a monster in most people’s eyes, and a mer baby… Kat’s death, it seems, was but a few years after war between Byssians and merfolk ravaged the coastal city. A war in which she no doubt participated, and perhaps the years had made Alix and Agorran understanding, but… there were no ‘years’ for Kat, nothing to dull the sharp, painful edge of her life as a hunter.

“But… I love them,” I conclude, shoving down the fear that claws at my every word and thought, and steeling myself to tell her the truth, however painful the rejection may be. It would be better to know now. “And they’re the best.”

Kat cocks her head, giving me a confused look and asks, “strange?”

“Well… one of my sons, is a merbaby,” I start, swallowing hard at the look of surprise – but at least not disgust, that dawns on my aunt’s face.

“Things must have really changed,” she says, her gaze wandering curiously to Nerida and Ulkair, who pick up on the stare, and rise to approach us. “They don’t… look like merfolk?”

“Actually… Nerida is,” I awkwardly fumble through my explanation, jogging to meet my lovers and pulling them back to my place by Alix. Nerida, who seems no less confused and nervous than Kat, claps her on the shoulder in an awkward imitation of the Byssian gesture, and Kat stiffens in response, but pulls on a smile, the forced nature of which sets off every panic alarm my mind has.

Why is this going so badly!?

“You’re very tall,” Kat mumbles, and I put my head in my hands, wishing I’d found a less intimidating way to introduce my lover, who, by her own nature, is quite intimidating. She clears her throat, however, regaining herself, and continues, “Erm, and beautiful. I’m sure you’re a wonderful… partner, for my niece.”

She phrases ‘partner’ as almost a question, and I hurriedly pull Ulkair to mine and Nerida’s sides.

“Um, and this is Ulkair, he’s… my other partner,” I suppose the lack of traditional labels is what makes it so hard to introduce my beloveds to others, but Kat gives me an understanding nod, as though it now makes a little more sense. I suppose it would, as men with multiple wives were not uncommon in Byss, and I hurriedly move on from the subject, continuing with my explanation.

“Anyway, so… Seren is… is… is,” I stumble again, mentally kicking myself as I struggle for the words with which to explain my strange, wonderful family, “adopted, too.”

“He’s my nephew,” Nerida adds, neither helping, nor hurting my explanation any.

“Yes, and… so, he’s a merfolk, but… he’s adorable, and– and the best,” I continue, my nervous rambling earning me only patient nods and smiles from my aunt – a title that never stops sounding strange to say. “Rhapsody, um.. He’s…”

I trail off, the moment of truth catching in my throat as a fist sized lump, and feel tears begin to well in the far corners of my eyes. How can I tell her Alix’s only child is a monster? My grasp on Ulkair’s arm tightens much too much, and I feel him gently place his hand on mine – a reassuring gesture that manages to challenge my initial doubt with a greater one. How could I be ashamed of Ulkair’s son? Our son? My beautiful, precious Rhapsody… Perhaps Kat would be alarmed by the truth, or suspicious of me, but… Rhapsody, if she couldn’t love him… there would be no manner of care in her heart.

“A doppelganger,” I finish, my voice smaller than I’d meant it to be, “like… me.”

Kat blinks at me, surprise obvious on her features, but not outrage.

“Really?”

“Um… yes, and… he’s a little scriggly, and… sometimes, he shoots lightning at people, but um…” I flounder helplessly, feeling the burn of shame on my face as I desperately try to feel less like an idiot, and glance at Alix, who is wearing the biggest, proudest grin I think I’ve ever seen.

“He’s a mighty sorcerer,” he boasts, and Kat smiles between the two of us, disbelief in her voice as she responds.

“Well, I see…. Much has happened since I’ve been… um, dead,” she pauses, mulling over the words for a moment and shakes her her, “what a strange thing to say… But it is not strange to be alive again. Thank you, Cheshire.”

She closes the distance between us in yet another hug, and I look at Alix, suddenly giddy – she didn’t freak out, or run away, or even call me out on my idiotic rambling. She…

ALIX, SHE LIKES ME!!!

I practically scream the words in his brain, and he shakes his head, reaching out to put a hand on my shoulder and asks simply,

How could she not?

I can’t help the sheepish, nervous giggle as Alix puts his arms around us, and I bite my lip.

I don’t know… I think Agorran had his doubts when he met me.

Alix chuckles, and, as though he were privy to my thoughts, Agorran’s arms join Kat’s and Alix’s around me, and I think, for a moment, my heart stops – as though debating whether or not to simply explode and let me die here and now, in this state of disbelief and joy. When I am released, I cling to Alix’s hand, my fears and woes temporarily forgotten, and Kat leans on Agorran, who braces her in his arms. I feel tears well in my eyes again as I watch them – the picture of the happiness they all deserve, the weight of the world gone from Agorran’s eyes as they exchange an amorous stare, and… and I helped. I couldn’t have ever been so naive as to tell Alix that I “would fix it”, but… this was as close as it could possibly come to fixed, wasn’t it?

It wasn’t without cost, of course, my five fingers wrapped around Alix’s four a hard reminder of that, but he interrupts my train of thought as I squeeze his hand.

I would have given that and more. He says, and I look up at him to see the familiar, no nonsense face of the Alix I am used to, which tells me there is no room for argument.

I’m… sure we can heal it? I offer, and he nods, but seems unmoved.

It wouldn’t matter. I could never miss any part of myself as much as I missed my _twin._

With a small nod, I lean my head on his shoulder, turning my attention back to Agorran and Kat, whose energy
seems to be fading fast.

“Well… you all seem to be on your way to the temple,” I swallow the lump in my throat as it builds, pushing down the part of me that screams that I would be unwelcome in such a journey. “I… won’t stop you, but I can maybe bring the babies by later?”

“I would love that, but… I… I need to rest.” Kat says, and I nod hurriedly.

“Okay… perhaps tomorrow, then?”

“Yes, tomorrow.”

I give Alix one more hug, and with little more discussion, they are off on their way to the temple for rest and food, and some much needed time together, I imagine. Nerida and Ulkair head off, hand in hand, either to return home and check on the boys, or perhaps to try and finally catch up and settle.. whatever it was that happened between them, either way, I linger in my space, unsure of whether or not I should pursue them, and let my eyes wander the rest of my companions. Loin has disappeared with Selene’s body, and in all of the excitement and panic I suppose I didn’t keep track of to where, though I imagine he’s taken her to the temple, where the priests can keep her safe until she can be resurrected. I glance past Caspian and Mimi, and my vision settles on Aadya, who seems to be at the same loss as I am for what to do next. Taking a deep breath, I cross back over the grassy field to stand in front of her.

“Um, Aadya?” I ask, and she looks down at me, her figure so ridiculously towering it almost isn’t imposing.

“W-Would you… like to come and play music with me? It’s still early and I’ve yet to raise my daily praise to Tubatron.”

She smiles, and I find myself releasing the breath I didn’t know I’d been holding.

“Indeed, I would love to. I am so happy for your family, I just… didn’t want to intrude.”

“That’s okay, I… feel that way, too, sometimes,” I sigh, and can’t help but lower my gaze, my stomach writhing into nervous knots as I try to muster the words I know I have to say. “But… um, before we go… I… thank you, for all of your help. I know when I asked you to come with us, you were worried about your honor in… I guess, abandoning your old allegiances. I just wanted to say, um… for whatever it’s worth, I think your honor is above reproach. And… you’re an amazing person and you’ve done so much for Alix, and you saved his life twice and mine, and I just…”

I feel my breathing waver, my throat tightening as I wring my hands and try to find the words. “Um… I… I’m humbled to have you fighting by my side, and I’m proud to call you my friend.”

When I finally manage to finish my sentence, Aadya kneels, and then crouches, reaching out a large hand to pat me, as though to console me for my own struggle to communicate, and I sniffle, glancing up at her to see a smile on her large, but gentle features.

“Thank you,” she says, “I appreciate you very much. You are good friend.”

I smile at her in return, though I fear it comes across as more of a grimace as my stomach writhes in objection to the words I am slowly leading up to, and their possible consequences.

“And, um, you know… if you’re interested, I…” I bite my lip, ceasing the incessant wringing of my hands only to grasp the skirt of my yellow dress within them, “I think the clergy of Tubatron could use someone like you.”

I take a deep, shaking breath, and tear my eyes away from Aadya and toward Alix’s retreating form – I have to let go. He could be so happy, they could be so happy, I have to trust the that there is love enough in his heart for his family, and Aadya, and me. And if there isn’t… and… if they replaces us, then… Well, nothing lasts forever, I suppose, and I’d have had more time with someone as amazing as Alix in my life than I probably deserved anyway. And more time than I’d have had if he’d stayed in Byss, or if he’d died trying to save me from Dovev, or in that undead camp.

“And… so could Alix, I think.”

Aadya beams and follows my gaze after Alix with obvious affection in her eyes, and then looks back at me and says “yes, I think I felt Tubatron’s call.”

I rub my aching chest gingerly, the thought of lightning pouring through my heart never a fond memory, but it seems, ever a present one.

“Yeah, I… think I felt it, too,” I mumble, and Aadya winces, gently patting me on the back with just a finger.

“I am sorry,” she says – obviously she hadn’t anticipated the force with which her empowerment would hit me.

“It’s not your fault,” I shake my head, reaching up to pat her hand in consolation, “I… have an increasingly delicate heart these days.”

“I think you have strong heart,” Aadya objects, “and family seems very important to you.”

“My… family is pretty much my everything,” I mumble, trying hard to keep in the internal, warning screaming that I have just signed away said family.

“And I think your baby is adorable,” Aadya adds, and I blink at up at her, confused for just a moment before it occurs to me she likely heard my desperate ramblings about Rhapsody. “I think he will be strong one day, like his mother.”

I glance away, drawing my shoulders up shyly as my face begins to heat – a certain sign of the many shades of pink it must be turning.

“Oh.. gee.. well, thank you,” I mumble, scuffing the ground with my boot, and Aadya lets out a hearty laugh as she stands.

“Come, let us pray,” she announces, and I nod, hurrying down the street with her toward my Byssian home.

We stop along the way to pick up the boys, who are both happy, asleep and fed – not surprising, as I left them with a Byssian woman, and not some worthless, selfish Sigilite. I thank her and her husband both profusely and sincerely, but that is all I can seem to offer, as they neither want, nor need my money. It has no real value in Byss, such a small and only recently recovering community, but even if it did, between the nature of Byssian lives, and Alix’s status, as well as my own, I doubt they would desire my payment. Byssians are no strangers to the communal care of children, and not a single one of us would place money above the welfare and care of something as precious as a child’s life – which is exactly the way it should be.

Ulkair and Nerida are nowhere to be found when we arrive home, leading me to believe even more strongly I was right to assume they are trying to sort out the mess that brought us here – between Nerida’s dreams, and her behavior, there was no doubt plenty to discuss. I tuck the boys into Alix’s bed and hurry back outside to Aadya, who is plucking the stings of her harp in the yard. Taking a place beside her, I dig through my bag of holding for my harp, wiggling it free of the pocket dimension with considerable difficulty. Taking a deep breath, I begin to weave a melody around her steady rhythm, once again growing a second pair of arms, and adding to our duet the steady drumming of my hands on the ebony instrument.

The melody becomes whimsical and earthy, and I circle my harp to achieve Aadya’s range, lifting my voice in song to our god as I feel his eyes turn to our performance.

“Can you feel the wind of the north my dear?
For the chill means I am near.
Turn your face to the north my dear,
The frost my frozen tears.
Breathe in, the wind
Of the north my dear.
For the day is dawning clear,”

As the words pass my lips, Byss’ sunrise, ever a sight for sore eyes, greets us with a clap of uproarious thunder. I jump at the noise, so unusual in the clear skies, but manage to keep my hands moving over my strings as a bolt of brassy lighting careens from above us to strike Aadya. She pauses, breathing deeply, and I feel the familiar presence of Tubatron’s divine energy begin to flow through her, reverberating off the glowing strings of her harp. Tubatron has accepted Aadya into the ranks of his clergy, and as his power washes over us, soaking in our every chord, filling the air around and between us, I can feel only the assurance that he is pleased with the addition.

The certainty lifts a weight from my chest, and I feel a smile creep over my features as I continue to play and dance circles around my harp. For the first time I feel no doubt in a choice I have made as Tubatron’s High Priest, and the clarity even begins to seep from one part of my life to the next – Aadya is a mighty ally, and would be an asset to the faithful, and our family.

When all twenty of my fingers are sore, and the presence of my god has faded, I finally let my hands slip numbly to the side of my harp, and look to Aadya, who smiles at me.

“You do not usually play this long?” She asks, and I shake my head.

“I suppose I lost track of time,” I admit, glancing at the sun for a sense of how much time had passed, when a familiar crying reaches my ears – well, Seren was awake, and so, I am certain, will Rhapsody be in only a moment.

“Oh… well.. one moment,” I excuse myself and hurry inside to find, of course, that Seren’s cries have roused his brother, who also begins to cry, although his tiny whines are drown by the mer baby’s demand for food. I shake my head, sighing and plucking each of the boys from the bed, one with each set of arms, and make my way to the windowsill, where I perch to feed Seren.

“Now, that is healthy baby,” Aadya comments, reaching down to gently pat Seren’s head as I allow him to nurse, which immediately quiets his wailing.

“Yeah,” I sigh, “a big, healthy baby.”

“Is good to be healthy,” Aadya says, taking a seat near the window, “but you should wean him!”

“Well… Maybe, but.. he’s still so young,” I object, although it occurs to me I have no idea when is ‘too young’ to wean, or too old to still be breastfeeding him. Aine said a year was about right, but… he’s so big as it is, I don’t know if at double his size, this feeding ritual will still be practical. I suppose I am more caught up in my debate than I realized, because I barely notice Mimi’s approach until she is very close and speaking to me.

“Cheshire?” She asks, “how long are we going to be in Byss? Do you know?”

“Wha— Why?”

“I need to go back to Sigil,” Mimi explains vaguely, and I squint at her, trying to wrap my mind around what matter could possibly be so important that she doesn’t have the time to rest and recuperate from our struggle in the plane of negative energy. I suppose we do need a plan, but my head is still spinning, unable to parse all of the events that laid just a couple of hours behind us – I’ve only just breathed the sigh of relief that comes with holding my sons again, knowing they are alive, and so am I… how could I possibly have a plan?

“…Is it urgent? ” I ask, reaching up to rub my forehead as the pounding headache I’d somehow forgotten in my prayers flares up to make itself known again.

“I had something made for you and I have to pick it up,” Mimi explains, her tone still delightfully casual, “and I wanted to get some stuff for Byss and spend some time with Declan!”

So, “no”. My mood, already spiraling, plummets further as I stare at Mimi’s expecting smile. How can she already be planning to leave? I.. I can barely breathe! Alix’s family is here, and I haven’t even gotten to introduce the boys… But then, I suppose I shouldn’t even be here. I have a duty, an obligation to the faithful and to Tubatron, which I dropped to run here for an emergency, which has passed. I feel the bitter sting of responsibility biting away at the peace my wonderful, former home brings me, but even if Mimi is right, I cannot leave today.

We need to rest first, and we’ve nowhere yet to go back to – in case she forgot this gem, Ooze formally uninvited us from the music hall, which means finding lodgings in Sigil we likely can’t afford, or staying in that wet, stale fortress in the elemental plane of water. That may be what we have to do, but I’m not happy about it, and whether I stay one night in Byss versus one night in that fortress, I do not believe, will make any difference to the faithful.

“That doesn’t sound urgent, Mimi, but if you need to go today, talk to a competent spell caster,” I mumble, my failure in Elysia seeping into my words, “Nerida or Ulkair can send you.”

“Well I just didn’t know when we were planning on leaving,” Mimi continues to press, “or… do you not have a plan?”

If you want to go, then DO. I scream the words at her in my head, my mind spinning – what does she want from me? What answer can I give her other than a solution? How could I possibly have a plan? Was she not there, did she not see what I have been up against for the last two days!? My throat tightens, my eyes water as I stare at her, incredulous.

“Mimi, listen to me,” I begin, my voice coming out quiet and hard as I try to keep it level. “Yesterday morning, Ulkair was gone, Nerida was crying in a blanket fort, and Alix… broke. I did anything I had to do to just… fucking get here and do what I had to do. I don’t have a plan! I don’t ever have a PLAN. I don’t know how long I’m going to be here, I don’t even…. If you want to go back to Sigil, talk to Nerida and Ulkair, because they can cast the magic, and I… I can buy a five thousand copper scroll. I… will not begrudge you your return and I’m sure if… JUST YOU went back, you’d be welcome with the faithful.”

My every attempt to keep calm fails, my voice raising and breaking indiscriminately as I devolve from some measure of sensibility to blatant bitterness, and Mimi can only stare at me, shocked, as though she could never have seen it coming. The look in her eyes couldn’t more clearly say she thinks that I am insane, and as the weight of my emotions crushes against me, I feel my eyes narrow in a furious glare – who is she to judge me!? To ask of me, and to insult me, and take, and take, and take and then to think I am so useless when I break underneath the strain!? I did everything I knew how to do! I do everything I can, every. Single. DAY!

I don’t have the answer to one question, well, what do you want from me!?

“I.. I don’t even know if I have all my organs, at this very moment!” I exclaim, the words finally bursting from my lips after a long enough spiral beneath her silent stare, “what the hell do you want from me!?”

“Well, I just didn’t know if we had a plan coming here,” Mimi mumbles, as if somehow repeating that fact again could change my answer.

“You know what the plan was? It was DO ANYTHING I HAD TO DO TO STOP THE BLEEDING!” I scream, a sob breaking my conviction as I hold Seren and Rhapsody tighter than I should, “And I did that! I did MY JOB! I DID EVERYTHING I COULD!”

“I guess I’ll.. talk to Nerida and Ulkair,” Mimi mumbles, eyeing me like I was a killer beehive she regretted kicking. I sob as she backs away from me, and pause only when I feel a tiny hand on my face, blinking back my tears to look at Rhapsody, staring up at me through huge, innocent black eyes. Even my infant son is worried for my mental state. No wonder Mimi ran away. Sniffling, I pull on a smile and turn my head to wipe my tears away on the shoulder of my shirt, before leaning down to nuzzle his sweet brassy face.

“You’re so sweet, and much too smart for your own good, little man,” I lament, kissing his forehead before I drag a guilty stare up to Aadya. “I.. I’m sorry, Aadya. I don’t mean to keep… coming to pieces like this, I swear I’m normal sometimes.”

Waving her hand dismissively, Aadya harumphs. “Clearly that one does no understand good timing. It’s been…challenging day, no? And babies eat better when mother is calm. She should no ambush you like that.”

‘Challenging’ was one word for it, certainly. I take a deep breath, breathing it out in a long, heavy sigh as I watch Mimi’s wings disappear from sight down the streets.

“Maybe… it just wasn’t as hard on her as it was the rest of us,” I mumble, perhaps more to myself than Aadya. Mimi, I suppose, had no special stake in what we just went through above and beyond the norm. No weight on her shoulders of her past sins or dead family, no knowledge that one slip up could cost her everything, or damn a family member’s soul. To her, I suppose, it was just any other battle, and I seem to be the only one who considers each of those a frightening struggle.

“Well, I suppose Alix will probably be with Kat and Agorran the rest of the day, I… could show you around the city, if you’d like?” I offer, eager to move on from my breakdown, “there’s… not really a lot to see but, it’s nice?”

It seems like an awkward offer, now that I’ve said it – as though Aadya’s day would somehow hinge on Alix’s presence? But I hadn’t seen the city since we left, and with the permanent glitter and the beautiful weather, there was no better way I could think of to spend a few hours of the day, and it would be a chance to get to speak with Aadya and know her better. A chance, I suspect, that soon I will be glad to have taken, given how closely intertwined our lives will undoubtedly soon be.

Aadya agrees, and I lead her all over the town, a story about Alix’s heroics to be told at every corner. She seems happy, and is, I believe, the first person outside of orphaned Byssians to ever actually listen to my stories about Alix, at least with any enthusiasm. We stop in the center of town, where the mirror to Elysia had stood, to actually observe the statues I’d seen the day before, I lead her around the arena’s stands, and, through quite a bit of ashamed giggling, manage to describe our battle with that pyro hydra.

There are somber memories and stories to be told, of course, but I can’t seem to speak them the moment, even as the sounds of battle and screams of my kinsmen replay in my ears. Staring down the path we’d walked to the government building, now marked as a memorial, with the names of every Byssian lost, I eventually lose my will to reflect on our past. Aadya seems to understand, she pats my back gently, walking with me in silence until we are a ways from the arena, and I have cleared my head.

Day Something (Again)

Aadya joins me in the wee hours of the morning for my prayers, her harp a lovely accompaniment to every tune that I play. I’d grown quite accustomed to scaling the walls of my home for its rooftops, but it is much easier on my exhausted limbs, and a nice change of pace for her to so easily lift me to and lower me from them. When I am done praying, I hurry inside to help Alix cook, although I get little done in the way of actually assisting with breakfast before Seren calls my attention, demanding his own. Ulkair and Nerida are fast asleep in their neighboring house, and I think to wake them but… breakfast will save another hour or so, and I hate to deny them any amount of rest, especially when their night was rather… Occupied.

Alix makes his way to the temple to check on Kat just after breakfast, and while I am eager to join him, it occurs to me that she and Agorran may both likely still be sleeping, and while Alix is capable of quietly, and unobtrusively checking on them, I am… not. I stay at home to finish feeding Seren, and opt for a nice long bath with him and Rhapsody. Our small wooden tub is not so thrilling to him as the large stone bath in the music hall, but he still enjoys the water and playing with soap bubbles. The quiet morning gives me time to spend with Tad Cooper and the babies, unwinding the tangled mess of nerves and battle memories that is my mental state, and by the time Nerida and Ulkair are awake, Alix returns from the temple, Nighteyes in tow.

The wolf is a sight for sore eyes, and he barks happily at me as I drop to my knees to hug him close and scratch his ears.

“Nighteyes! I missed you so much!” I exclaim, and he nuzzles my face, pausing to sniff Rhapsody’s head and letting out a soft whine. I look up at Alix, stroking our good friend’s coarse white fur as I do, “I’m glad he’s alright… When I realized that it wasn’t really Agorran in the temple…”

Alix sighs — clearly this isn’t a subject of which any of us will ever be fond, and I knit my brow, deciding it best not to push, and instead wrap our furry friend in another big hug. I puff out a sigh against Nighteyes’ fur, glad for his many years of defending himself and Alix from the undead, and that nothing was done to him in our absence. Seren squeals happily from Ulkair’s arms, and I look over to see him reaching for our fluffy companion with all the gusto he can muster. Giggling, I pluck him from his father’s grasp and sit on the floor next to Nighteyes once more, gently guiding his hand to pet him, and mindfully keeping him from grabbing onto great tufts of fur like he does my hair. Night Eyes is patient, but he certainly would not appreciate such a gesture.

Seren stares at our hands moving over the fur for a moment, and then breaks out into another happy fit of squeaking, flipping his tail joyfully from my lap as Nighteyes moves closer and licks him. I giggle, rubbing my beloved wolf’s ears as he sniffs the babies once more, and patiently allows Seren’s overzealous patting of his face.

“I’ll be picnicking with Kat and Agorran for lunch,” Alix announces, and I turn my attention to look up at him, “Kat hasn’t had much chance to experience the new Byss.”

“That sounds wonderful, I’ll–” I pause mid statement as it occurs to me he may enjoy the quiet time with his sister, without my… rambunctious brand of company, and instead ask, “can I come?”

“Yes,” he answers, pausing only for a moment to look at me quizzically, “of course you can.”

“Great! Then I’ll help you make food!” I get to my feet, laying Seren by Night Eyes, who gives me a long suffering stare as the mer baby clings to his neck.

“We have some time yet,” Alix points out, “we only just ate a couple of hours ago.”

I feel my stomach rumble with disappointment, but realize I am the only one of our merry band who eats six to eight times a day when able, and that is sad, considering one of us is a dragon.

“Oh, right,” I scratch the back of my head sheepishly and I take my seat on the floor next to Night Eyes once more.

Alix shakes his head, passing me a bowl of leftovers from breakfast off of our counter before he walks outside to speak with Aadya. I can only vaguely hear their voices, and I fight back the temptation to eavesdrop, instead tearing the loaf of green bread on my bowl into pieces. It’s just as awful as I remember it being, especially after having had decent food in Sigil to compare it to, but somehow every bite brings a smile to my face, and the last few, tears to my eyes. It tastes like home. Something I hadn’t realized how badly I’d missed until I was here, sitting on this floor, speaking to the friends I’d left behind, snuggling my beloved animal companions, watching my son play on the floor I wanted to raise him on.

I quickly reach to wipe the budding tears from my eyes before Ulkair or Nerida notice them – Nerida never even wanted to go to Sigil, how could I even begin to tell her how much I don’t want to go back? How hard it hit me when Mimi so quickly demanded we leave? How much it stings to know that this will likely be my last day in my beautiful, glittering home? I firmly remind myself that this home would be none of those things, and this house would be an empty memorial to Alix, the fallen hero of Byss, were it not for Tubatron, that any sacrifice he asks of me is just, that we can afford no regrets, and the faithful do not need a selfish, unsure leader. For a moment, it placates my longing, and I feel the edges of my heart harden just a little more.

*

The morning is quiet and the afternoon comes quickly, prior to helping Alix prep food for an increasingly large picnicking party, I spend most of it with Ulkair & Nerida. They seem in good enough spirits, so I can only suppose between that and the rather audible sex they’d had last night, they resolved their fight. I feel the nagging urge to ask periodically pulling at my thoughts, and dismiss it at first – it’s none of my business, I insist, but that doesn’t stop me from wishing that it were. That I could be trusted with these dilemmas, with Nerida’s plans and her victories – I would have been happy for her if she’d told me about the emerald, for both of them, and I would have at least been… involved. Even a little.

I keep the biting suspicions at bay as I help Alix pack, but as we walk to the lake, Ulkair and Nerida’s hands laced, my mind wanders back to the emerald they’d shown me with such excitement. The trip to Elysium she’d made, traveling the planes to find only the best gem cutter in all of them to create an artwork appropriate of their love. A gem the size of our child. A gem she got for Ulkair, not for me, not for us. She hadn’t gone to such lengths for me, but then… why would she? Ulkair, he is her everything, and I… I’m just her silly bard. I understand now, but it doesn’t seem to make it any easier to swallow. It was a merfolk’s marital tradition, the exchanging of gems between yourself and the one with whom you wanted to spend the rest of your life.

The one.

My mind echoes the word in a cruel taunt. Not the few, not the many… not the two with whom you wanted to spend the rest of your life. The one. I stood beside her in fire, and blood, and war, and I cannot even earn her trust – how could I hope to have earned the same kind of affection she shows to Ulkair? To make her see me the way I see her, or even… the way Ulkair sees me. I let my memories stray to our time together while Nerida was away, the love in his eyes, the comfort of his arms, the words he’d spoken to me in Elysian… I reach up to rub the tears from my eyes as I feel them building, trying my best not to let the war waging in my mind spread to Alix’s, but a quick glance in his and Aadya’s direction suggests his thoughts are… elsewhere.

A soft smile tugs its way to my lips, my worry for Alix and I’s future hasn’t seemed to subside, and I wonder if it ever will, but… again my thoughts focus on my recent time with Ulkair, and if Alix has a chance at something even remotely close to that with Aadya… I can’t help but be happy for him, whatever the cost. I suppose… the same should be true of Nerida. I trail my eyes back to my beautiful mermaid, hand in hand with the person she loves most in the entire multiverse, and feel my jealousy trickle down into sadness, and then acceptance. I am not that person. I know that, but that doesn’t mean I’m… nothing? And this proposal, it doesn’t threaten my place in Ulkair’s heart, at least.

Of course not. My thoughts reaffirm, but then creep further and darker. But that lie would have.

I shake the conspiracy from my head before it has time to linger and grow, but… She lied to me three days ago, told me Ulkair didn’t care about me, and why? The question still lingers as we meet up with Agorran and Kat at the lake, but I shoo it away as I pass my infant son into his great aunt’s arms. It’s been there for days, it will be there for me to worry over when there is not family to celebrate.

“He’s so… shiny!” Kat exclaims, carefully taking the infant from my arms – there is not an ounce of fear or anger in her eyes, and I feel my heart swell with the acceptance.

“Well, he’s blessed by our god, and, um,” I giggle a little, offering her a sheepish shrug of my shoulders, “brass is kind of our thing.”

“He’s gotten much bigger,” Agorran comments, peering over his love’s shoulder at the tiny son of Byss he’d delivered just before we left.

“Yes… they’re both growing like weeds, but… that’s a good thing, I think.”

“A good thing, indeed,” Agorran smiles kindly at me, “they have a good mother.”

I feel my cheeks flush and I look to the ground, sheepishly scuffing the grass with my boot, “th-thanks.”

Kat smiles at me, and then at Alix, and she fusses over Rhapsody for awhile longer as we set out food before handing him to Agorran, at which point I pass her Seren.

“Woah,” she exclaims, her figure drooping temporarily under the unexpected weight before she readjusts, “this is a HEALTHY baby.”

“He, uh… he eats a lot,” I mumble, my blush intensifying. Kat smiles, but as I peer up at her, I can’t help but notice how… vague it is.

“Aww.. he’s so adorable,” she murmurs, “I just love him so much…”

“Thank… you?” I begin, glancing around at my companions – none of them seem to have noticed the sudden change. Seren giggles happily, and as Kat reaches for the buttons of her shirt, I hurriedly snatch him from her arms. A spell, of course!

“I-I’m so sorry,” I begin, but Kat continues to fiddle with her buttons, the effect unbroken by removing Seren from her proximity. I hurriedly take her hand to stop her, and she looks up at me, a familiar haze in her eyes. Domination. Not charm, not even a suggestion, but domination. I look, panicked, back down at the baby in my arms, and he giggles, all too pleased with himself. But how could he possibly..? Then, of course, it hits me. He is part aboleth, Typhon dominated my mind with ease, and the minds of countless others – likely Aquis could do the same.

“Ulkair, dispel magic!” I hear Nerida hiss from behind me, her voice panicked. She must have put it together, too. Kat blinks at me, her gaze trailing from her hands, held by mine.

“What? Seren’s just a little hungry,” she says simply, “and he’s so adorable!”

“I-I’ll feed him,” I answer, for lack of any less awkward response, “it’s fine.”

“Oh, alright, as long as he gets fed,” she says, and as she drops her hands, she shakes her head, the tinge of magic disappearing from her eyes. “Wait… what? That was strange… I can’t feed him…”

My head buzzing with embarrassment and wonder, I stare down at Seren, who pouts as he loses control of his target, and then begins to cry – the forced, crocodile tears of a child that has nothing to truly cry about.

“Ulkair…. How do we teach our baby to not dominate people?” Nerida whispers, the increasing desperation in her tone evident – this ability of Seren’s must be hitting her harder than it is me.

Maybe you should have done that to your wet nurse, and not your aunt. I grumble mentally, catching Seren’s hands as he reaches up to pull my hair in a frustrated demand of food. He wails, beginning to work himself into an actual hysteria, I suppose because his false tears were earning him nothing. But he can wait – I shouldn’t reward that kind of behavior with what he wants. I think.

“Uh…” Ulkair stumbles, sounding truthfully stumped for the first time since I met him, “tell him it’s bad when he’s older and can understand that?”

I glance over at them, and Nerida’s wide green eyes seem to suggest that’s not enough of an answer for her. She must have been hoping for some sort of magical contingency.

“Until then, we just have to be careful,” Ulkair says, shrugging up his shoulders, and I bite my lip.

“I.. don’t mind that, Ulkair, but… we leave him with babysitters,” I point out – if there is a magical solution, it seems likely we should take it. I have no idea what having your mind dominated by an infant is truly like, but I imagine it makes it rather difficult to function as a reliable adult. I sigh as Seren’s insistent wails increase in pitch, and shift away from our guests to move my shirt and allow him to nurse before Rhapsody picks up on his hysteria.

I’m sorry Alix… I mumble mentally, glancing over at him. We bring his sister back to life, and her first day back among the living my infant dominates her mind… As if Byssians didn’t have enough reasons to be suspicious of merfolk, and as if she hadn’t been uncharacteristically accepting of myself and my strange sons… He doesn’t seem at all bothered, in fact, if I didn’t know better, I’d theorize he hadn’t noticed. I do know better, of course, but he glances over at me and smiles, a sure show that he is not worried, as if his seat, casually leaning against Aadya’s bare leg was not enough of an indication.

Ulkair sighs, scratching his chin, “I’d have to research it, but maybe I could lay a contingency spell over him… so that when he uses that domination, it casts dispel magic.”

Nerida is clearly uncomfortable, but she nods, and then turns an apologetic stare to Kat, “I am terribly sorry about my nephew and his behavior.”

“I’m also sorry,” I mumble, “you… you can’t take me anywhere…”

“Oh, it’s alright Cheshire,” Alix shakes his head, and I glance over at him to see he’s still smiling, “he’s just a hungry, healthy baby.”

“Brat,” I correct, although his new found happiness is contagious, and I smile too, “a big, healthy brat.

I trail my stare down to Seren, who looks up at me intently, all his incredible tears from just a moment ago miraculously gone. “You are a brat.”

Seren seems altogether unmoved by the title, but I hear a tiny, familiar giggle in my head, and turn quickly to look at Rhapsody in Agorran’s arms, his black eyes resting on me, a big smile on his face.

What in the world am I going to do with these two…?

Kat shakes her head, though whether it’s the last of Seren’s magic she’s shaking off, or just astonishment I’m not sure. “ Quite the family you have.”

“Um… yes,” I mumble, “we’re special…”

“Seems like he’ll be a mighty warrior to defend Byss one day,” Kat says, and I feel my chest puff up with pride, “He’s certainly big enough!”

“Well… I think so,” I smile down at the merbaby in my arms, and then look around at the beautiful grassy planes, and the crystaline lake, “but hopefully Byss won’t need too terribly much defending anymore.”

“Yes, I don’t even recognize it!” Kat says, following my gaze with a smile on her face, before leaning against Agorran, and snuggling his arm. “It’s… beautiful!”

I beam at them, watching their loving exchange for a moment with so much happiness in my heart I think it could burst. I’ve never seen Alix so… joyful, nor Agorran. Even the kindest, most genuine smiles I’d seen on his face seemed empty compared to the look in his eyes when he holds Kat. Surely our lives have never been more right, or more complete than they are in this moment. Even with everything behind us, even with Nerida’s… my stomach twists, though whether from my excited state, or the fear that threatens to ruin it, I’m not sure, but suddenly it occurs to me that this is the perfect time for a drink. And bottled Elysian sunshine would compliment the moment, and take the edge off, I am certain. I reach over to gently poke Ulkair, and he looks at me, humming out an indulging “hmm”, as was his typical form of acknowledgment.

“Um…. You know… this is a pretty special occasion,” I begin, and he nods in agreement, “any chance you might want to break out some Elysian Sunshine?”

“I could be…. Persuaded ,” he drawls, his lips splitting into a lascivious grin. I can’t help but giggle, scooting closer to him.

“Seems I have a talent for persuading you,” I murmur, and Nerida looks between us, her brow knitting.

“What are you two talking about?”

“Um…” I blush, suddenly remembering all the family members by whom I am surrounded, and clear my throat, “nothing.”

I turn my lewd smile into my best, most pitiful puppy dog eyes and stare up at Ulkair, but his grin doesn’t waver.
“Maaaaybe… if there were enough kisses in it for me…”

He trails off, and I shift, leaning up against him to place a soft kiss on his lips.

“Tell me when to stop,” I whisper, placing another kiss, and then another, trailing them softly along his jaw.

“Keep going,” he hums, utterly shameless, and I feel my face flush with desire at our proximity.

“You know,” I begin, shifting away from him to calm my racing heart before I lose my senses, “if you were to accept just a down payment, I could pay you back with… interest later.”

“Deal.” Ulkair leans down to capture my lips in one last kiss, his smile unwavering as he pulls away and opens a tiny portal to his pocket dimension. He takes out two bottles of the familiar nectar, and a series of small glasses.

When Seren is done eating, I pass him to Ulkair to burp, and fix my shirt, then I pour one for each of my companions and pass them out, pausing as my eyes fall on Alix – Elysian nectar is high brow liquor, for sure, and not anywhere near so strong as what he usually drinks, but… perhaps that was even worse. He’d been completely sober for nearly four days, but I couldn’t possibly call him out, not here and now… I pour quite a bit less in his cup than I had the others, they are opaque so, maybe he won’t notice.

He stares at me as I pass him the cup, though whether it is my nervous shrinking back under his glance that gave it away, or he knew before, I’m not sure. He reaches out and takes my hands, and I sigh, depressingly resigned to give him as much as everyone else, when he guides me to pour the rest of his cup back into the bottle. He looks like the decision causes him physical pain, but I smile down at him, wordless thanks and relief all over my features as I call Tubatron’s holy energy to my hands and create water, filling his cup – and mine. I wanted a drink of this nectar badly, but not as badly as he did, and if he could put it down for me, I can abstain to support him. Besides, as I pass the rest of the bottle to Aadya, the twinge of sadness and disappointment worries me – I… shouldn’t have wanted that drink so badly, and I’m not sure why I do.

I take a seat next to Alix, and touch our glasses lightly in celebration.

“Cheers,” I murmur, sipping the water, and Alix sighs, sipping his as well.

“Alix, I hope you won’t mind, but… it’s such a special occasion,” Nerida begins, and I look back over at her, “I thought maybe a hero’s feast would be in order?”

I think my eyes light up faster than they should have at the prospect of something less… green for lunch, and Alix shrugs.

“I wouldn’t mind at all, Nerida,” he says, “that would be excellent.”

“Any requests?” Nerida asks, looking over the group as she raises her hands to cast the spell.

“Candy!” I exclaim – it wasn’t bottled sunlight, but… it was just as wondrous. Nerida laughs, shaking her head.

“Alright, Cheshire,” she says, summoning Eadro’s holy power to cast her spell. The magic glistens in the sunlight, summoning cushions, a low table, and more food than even all of us could eat – in a wide variety, including a variety of sweets, and chocolate. Immediately as the magic settles I snatch a piece from the table and offer it to Alix, giddy. He gives me a strange, suspicious look – I don’t think he understands how good food can be. How worth being excited about this piece of chocolate is.

“What is it?” He asks, taking it from my fingers and turning it over in his.

“It’s chocolate,” I explain, and he gives me a look that suggests my words actually explain nothing. “It’s… it’s candy, it’s wonderful, just.. try it!

He takes a bite of the chocolate cautiously, and I watch his face carefully as he contemplates it. After a moment, his eyes widen, a surprised delight in them that he controls and then hides well, but not from me. It helped being six inches from his face and staring at him expectantly the entire time, but I also feel the signals firing in his brain over our bond. I was right.

“See!?” I insist, and he nods, polishing off the piece of candy.

“That.. is very good,” he concludes, and I nod excitedly before my grumbling stomach gets the better of me. I pick up a plate from the table and fill it with… admittedly nothing but sweets, but the magic of hero’s feast makes them just as good as anything else. Once plates are filled and conversation is mostly replaced with contented silence, Ulkair calls the table’s attention.

“Well, since we’re all here: what are we going to do with this fortress I’ve been working on?”

Oh, right… That fortress. He and Nerida had spent a lot of their time there in the last month or so, and he seemed to be very excited about the work he was doing. I listened when they spoke of it in the evenings, I know, and yet… I can’t seem to recall much of the information I’d been given, I suppose with so much else to do and process, something I had so very little fondness for fell to the wayside.

“Are you… sure it’s safe?” I ask, for what must be the hundredth time in all our conversations, and he nods.

“Yes, yes, but we need to figure out a place to put it, or… places.”

“Place…s?”

“Yes, we could theoretically attach different rooms to various planes, like, leaving one in the elemental plane of water, one say, here in Byss, you know, but they would all connect to a central location. That kind of magic is… expensive and a bit dangerous, of course, but the cutting edge always is…”

Oh yes, this bit I recall. He’d explained this concept before, but it seems to interest the table more than it did me – perhaps they didn’t hear the ‘dangerous and expensive’ part? Whatever the case, Alix offers to scout out a location for us, but we must decide what we’re looking for, and the table erupts into chaos as people put forth ideas, all of which seem… a bit on the short-sighted side. Nerida wants water, no surprise, and a water_fall_ , which sounds… beautiful, but not entirely useful? Loin wants to put it in or by caves, a place for his soon to be dragon hoard, which is sensible for him, but not too terribly much for the rest of us. Nerida and Loin want it to be cold, I want it to be warm, Loin also says Mimi wanted somewhere nearby to shop, of all things. Perhaps she doesn’t understand that nearby, busy cities mean that the land we’d be dropping it on was almost certainly owned.

Amid the chaos, it becomes apparent to me that very few, if any, of my family members are aware of or at least concerned about how kingdoms and feudal lands work, and whether or not we would be making ourselves unwanted guests. Eventually I put forward that an island would be more secure than just any… land, and less likely to be owned, or even discovered, by some potential threat. Although it likely offers none or few of the cosmetic qualities that the group requested, and Caspian immediately jumps at the idea. Right, a pirate, of course that’s what she would want. From there we determine, with Caspian and Alix’s knowledge guiding us, what sort of island, whether or not it would be sustainable, farmable, and… possibly occupied by large, terrifying magical beasts like dragons.

The conversation takes more hours than I would have liked, and when my supply of candy to distract myself with has run dry, I find myself growing increasingly apathetic, but that allows my mind to wander places it should not, so I try to focus once more. In the end, Agorran and Kat retire much before the rest of us, and we have a rough, but somewhat sensible list before us. Loin insists on caves, but it turns out those could lead to mines – perfect for Nerida’s dwarven followers and for us to use as some sort of income, which, Nerida says that apparently Mimi insists, could be used to start up a brewery.

So many people have so many thoughts on this fortress… so many hopes and plans, and I hadn’t given it an ounce of consideration. It makes sense that Mimi would be thinking of our finances, it was part of what I’d assigned her to do, but.. a brewery? I want to object to this idea but then, of course, I realize that the faithful’s liquor habit is… alarming, and is dwarfed only by that of well, Dwarves, if what I’ve heard of them is correct.

It seems, however, that finding this mine-ready cave system is a bit out of Alix or Caspian’s area of expertise, so it is decided we will wait a few more days to give Nerida time to return to Elysium and gather one of her followers, whose area of expertise is exactly that. She and Ulkair will go tomorrow, apparently, when they have the needed spells, and likely return the following day, from there, Alix, Caspian, Aadya, and this dwarf, will apparently set out across the planes searching.

I… hate this idea. The short time Alix and I’s bond was shattered by his leaving Sigil for Byss nearly drove me mad, but for him to leave now, for some… indeterminate amount of time, to wander the planes in search of what was at least a needle in a haystack, if not an impossible goose chase. At least… he won’t be alone, and with Aadya they will likely travel quickly, but… the idea does nothing to settle my stomach.

Well, now he’ll have his family, a new love interest, and some silence in his head for once.

My thoughts taunt me, rattling between my ears, echoing my fears that should I ever even get to see him again, he will be a changed man when he returns. He’ll have had a break from me, from my madness, my clinging, I’ve never seen him so happy or distracted as he has been today, and when he’s gone, I… I won’t even be a part of that. I instinctively hug my knees closer and closer with every passing moment, every second ticking by bringing new misgivings or panic, desperate hope for a different plan, but I have so much work to do, so many things barely even set in motion with the faithful.

We all have things we need to do, we can’t all go, and this huge, daunting task of exploring… It would be something much better for Alix to do than watch my babies. It might keep him from drinking himself to death or staring at the pages of his book for another week, and… I have no right to be selfish over him, no reason not to trust he won’t care to return once he’s been away with Aadya for however long… I’m happy for them, I remind myself, I have to be. We all head home in the late afternoon, and as we walk, my mind buzzing, Alix puts an arm around me. I look up at him to realize I’ve fallen quite a bit behind the rest of our companions, and shift Seren’s weight from one arm to the other, getting ready to apologize when Alix pulls me into a tight hug.

“Thank you so much, Cheshire,” he breathes the words against my hair, his voice tearful, and I panic at his tone, putting my free arm around him.

“Alix, I…”

“You brought my family back, Cheshire, you.. did… what I thought was impossible,” he continues, and I swallow hard, feeling tears threaten my eyes, “I love you, Cheshire, so, so much.”

“I-I… I love you, too, Alix,” I whisper, digging my fingers into the fabric of his shirt harder than I should.

My thoughts claw desperately at the tip of my tongue, fears demanding to be spoken, to beg him not to leave, not to change his mind, to call him out on unfair promises, so far out of context in this case they were barely viable. I bite them back, burying my face in his shoulder to try and keep it together, but a sob cracks through my ill-built defenses. “Just, please… just come back, alright?”

Alix laughs softly, and I feel my heart sink at the sound – he’s so happy, why… why can’t I just… be happy for him? Genuinely?

“Of course I will,” he says, pulling away and gently kissing my forehead, “it’s just a scouting mission, Cheshire. It’s not even dangerous.”

“I-It could be,” I murmur, my grip on his shirt unwavering, and he ruffles my hair.

“I’ll be careful.”

My stomach lurches as I tell my fingers to let go, to let him walk away, to just let. Him. Be. Happy. Not to weigh him down with the gravity of my insecurities. It doesn’t matter if he… it shouldn’t matter, I shouldn’t matter. Not more than his happiness. It’s all I ever wanted for him.

So just let. Go.

I repeat the words again, and again, and again, my fingers tremble, and then my lip. I can’t.

“Alix…” I begin, taking a shaking, deep breath. “I-I… I know you will be careful, I know… you’re strong, and you’re capable, and I… I know you’ll be able to come back to me, it’s just…”

Alix looks at me, his eyes trailing to my trembling hand and then back up to mine – the relaxation, the joy disappearing from them, the seriousness returned to his features hits me like a dagger in the chest. One I deserve. My will wavers, my thoughts quickly begin to spiral, and I force out the next words, wishing with every syllable I’d said anything but them.

“I’m afraid… you may not want to.”

“Why would I want to, Cheshire? Why would I want to be part of my daughter’s life? Why would I want to be with my grandchildren? Why would I want to spend time with the girl who brought peace to my family and my twin back to me? I can’t think of any reason I might want to be around her, the child I pulled out of the mists of Byss, only to find that it would be that woman who pulled me out of the mists of my past and give me a future.”

I lower my tear-stained gaze, unable to meet Alix’s stare as he speaks – I still can’t seem to will my hand from his shirt. I wish I knew what it is that keeps me here, paralyzed, unable to answer him, unable to lie, or to even understand the truth I am trying to tell. Alix has never given me any reason to doubt him, and his answer… makes it clear he thinks the same. He makes my fears sound so ridiculous, but still they writhe about in my stomach like a ball of hungry snakes, lashing out and biting at every chance. He’s never been anything but good to me, never done anything but the right thing, never expected me to be anything but what I am.
He makes it seem so simple, and I wish.. I had an answer for him, wish I could explain myself, I wish I knew… why he thinks I am so special.

“I don’t know,” I mumble, tears slipping slowly down my nose to splash on the glittering cobblestone roads beneath us. “I-I only did what anyone would do.”

“No, you did what only Cheshire would do,” Alix corrects, placing his hand over mine, “and that’s enough for me. Why isn’t it for you?”

My cheeks begin to flush with shame and frustration, and my grasp on him tightens. Why isn’t it enough for me? Why isn’t it enough for him to love me, for Ulkair to love me, for any of them to? Why can’t I care for my children, for my family, and be cared for in return? How can I insist on seeing the worse in every scenario, how can I think, after everything, that every turned back is a fleeing one? Why, after all I have done to see myself, do I still hear my mother’s words when I look in the mirror?

“I-I don’t know!” I choke out, another sob breaking my words, “I’m just so scared. I know it doesn’t make sense, Alix, I just… I see you with them, and you’re so happy, and all I can think is that… y-you don’t need me anymore. That I’m going to lose you, lose… everything, and I know I shouldn’t be so… jealous, it’s crazy. I know you love me, more than I could ever deserve, I just… can’t stand the thought of you not wanting me anymore, I… anyone but you, Alix…”

I weep, my fist white with the strain of my grasp, cruel words from my past echoing in my ears as I lose the security of my denial. The truth rakes my soul on its way out, but somehow… it is a relief to speak, let the demons out of my head, stop the rattling of the cage for just a moment.

“I will always love you, Cheshire. Anytime you think I might not, say something, don’t keep it inside, and I will gladly remind you of how much I love you,” Alix pulls me in close as he speaks, wrapping me in a tight, fierce hug, and I sob against his chest, the promise pulling me from the ledge upon which I have stood all day.
Holding me close, he whispers his next words, barely audible above my sobs, and I hear the deadly, unequivocating promise in his voice.

“And anyone who wants to harm you will have to answer to me.”

“I believe you,” I whisper, and I do. “I’m sorry it… it always seems to be me that’s hurting me. I don’t know… how to fight history, or stand up against my own memories. I know.. you don’t either, really, but… I guess that’s why we have each other, then, isn’t it?”

I sigh, resting my head on Alix’s shoulder with a sniffle – we have each other, whatever’s changed, whatever new disasters lurk around every corner, we still have each other. I still have Alix. And that… won’t change. I take another deep breath, slowly calming, and finger by finger I release my iron grip, the fabric of Alix’s shirt mercilessly crunched into the shape of my fist. Sometimes I forget my strength. Still sniffling, I smooth the wool out gently as my hysteria ebbs away.

“You were right, Alix,” I mumble, “about Nerida… I should have talked to her. I thought… maybe tainted happiness was still better than none, but it’s… it’s making me crazy, and… I don’t even know sometimes, what’s real and what’s just my mind running away with itself.”

Alix sighs, and places his hand on my shoulder. “Perhaps the most powerful relationships have to go through the most challenges to survive. At least that’s my experience.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” I mumble, shifting Seren to one arm so that I link my other with Alix’s as we walk, “you always are.”

~

Our remaining days in Byss pass much faster than I want them to, the end of our stay looming ever closer, and with it, Alix’s journey into the unknown in search of our new home. Our new home, I am constantly reminded, that will never be as magnificent as our old one, here, in The Glittering City – what an amazing title, for an amazing place. It had been proposed to bring the fortress to Byss, but I shut down the idea quickly, at the table and in my own mind. Yes, it was lush, yes, it was unowned, yes, it was a place in which we were familiar and loved. For all intents and purposes, it is perfect, except for one – we bring trouble every where we go. Danger, fate dogs our every footstep, our enemies riding its unforgiving tide in and out of our lives, and I would never inflict those enemies upon this plane again.

Two accessible cities yet stood here, ours and the coastal city of merfolk, neither were strong or established enough to face an influx of strangers from all over the planes without losing their foothold on their homes. And that was only the threat of our allies or followers, not to even mention war, Ichtacas, demons, and the slew of other things always looming as a threat over us. Every Byssian was a strong son or daughter of war, that is true, but that didn’t mean that’s what they should be forever.

Of course, all of that was just a practical excuse, when the truth of it waters down to my own personal weakness. If I could set all those things aside, I would still not bring that fortress to this place, wouldn’t dare to call Byss my home again. I could never bring myself to leave. Just this visit, just these three short days, filled with urgency and strife, every moment makes it harder to face my uncertain future. Tubatron called me away from Byss, and I see now that among his reasons, he was certainly wise enough to know I could not have both. I cannot have my past and my future, I never could.

To be Alix’s daughter, I had to lose my old family, to be Seren and Rhapsody’s mother, I had to let go my own, to become a Byssian, I left behind Faerun, and to lead the faithful, I must leave behind Byss. If I bring that fortress here, I am digging in my heels, throwing a selfish, childish temper tantrum, insisting I want both. I want it all. I want my perfect home, my perfect family, my life and god and followers, and I don’t care what happens. That I don’t care what or who suffers the consequences of my selfishness, and that is not who I am, that is not who the faithful need, or who Tubatron wants.

Nerida returns to Elysium to gather her dwarf, but Ulkair stays to work on a project I requested of him for Alix, and I can’t help but be a little relieved. He is busy, and Nerida isn’t gone terribly long, but the snatches of time I spend with him, the boys and I “helping” with his work, are precious. When Nerida returns, my nerves twist with the looming threat of a conversation I’ve yet to have with her, and so I make myself busy, making up for lost time with my new found family members, and old ones alike. Hopefully Alix will not be gone long, and when he returns, we will have a safe place for Tad Cooper to come and stay with us, and space on an island all our own for him to romp, but in the meantime, I make sure to get plenty of snuggling time in with him and the babies.

He is surprisingly gentle, nuzzling Seren and even Rhapsody with the appropriate amount of care, and he barely so much as blinks when Seren pulls out a small fist full of his feathers and promptly sticks them in his mouth. Mortified, I of course remove the huge, dirty animal feathers from my infant’s mouth, and then his hand, and show him, once more, to be gentle with our animal companions, carefully guiding his hand to stroke the feathers on Tad Cooper’s neck. Still, the gentle giant’s patience makes me wonder, solemnly, if mine are not the first babies to tug on his fur or pull out feathers – he had a mate, had they once had babies of their own? If they had, they certainly had been killed, either by desperate Byssians or whatever horrors used to lurk in our swamps.

“I guess it must be pretty lonely, huh, buddy?” I murmur, snuggling against him, “I’m sorry it’s taking so long… maybe when we move, we can find you a lady friend, hm? Seems like it’s the season for it.”

Loin, Alix, Agorran… perhaps it was something in the air that worked a woman’s love into all of my family’s lives, of late, even Mimi had found what seems to be a serious partner in Declan. I suspect finding a lady for Tad Cooper would be no where near so, well, deadly, as it had been for most of my other companions, but I also doubt Alix would be thrilled at the prospect.

“Aww, but I bet baby owl bears are so cute!” I muse, playing with Seren’s caudal fin as he continues to poke and prod at Tad Cooper’s feathers. “And they would grow up and be big, strong, fierce protectors just like their daddy.”

I scoop Seren up into my arms with his brother, a task that gets more difficult with each passing day, and snuggle him close, “and just like you, my mighty sorcerers.”

Perhaps it was just my slanted perspective, but having a family of huge, monstrous bears patrolling our island and guarding our property and followers seems like a very good idea, and not to mention, after all my poor Tad Cooper has been through, he should have someone to keep him company while I’m gone. Our time in the sunshine flies, however, and before I know it, dawn arrives on our final day, and my arms are around Alix in a firm, tearful goodbye hug.

“Please be careful,” I whisper, and he sighs, rubbing my arms lightly.

“I told you we’ll be fine, Cheshire,” he says, “it’s just a scouting mission.”

“I-I know,” I mumble, reluctantly releasing my grasp. He kisses my forehead, and then Rhapsody’s, and Seren’s, and readies the rest of his gear.

“Oh, Alix? Before you go, I… had something I want to give you,” I feel my cheeks heat a little as Alix turns a curious stare my way. I set the babies on the bed and pull the rod Ulkair has crafted from the bag of holding, passing it to him. “Um, I asked Ulkair to uh… make this for you. It can cast enlarge person, and reduce person.. three times a day, and Ulkair made it so it should work on Aadya. It lasts a few hours and I uh, thought… you might… need it, you know, for… adventuring.

“Oh, thank you,” he says, taking the rod from my hands and putting it with the rest of his things with little muss or fuss. My face has undoubtedly turned six more shades of red in the moments that have passed, but he seems to pay it no heed, I briefly wonder if he really registered what I was implying, but… decide it best to not pry. They’ll…. Certainly figure it out.

I help him finish packing, and in the process, dump my bag of holding in favor of letting him use it – it only makes sense. Were they in a spot of danger, they could pile into it and Aadya could fly them to safety, also any number of supplies, weapons and food can fit into the tiny bag, or samples or things they might collect or need on their travels. When we meet the others outside, Caspian, Aadya, and Nerida’s dwarf are all apparently ready to go – I doubt Alix has ever been the one everyone was waiting on before, and… perhaps if I hadn’t periodically stopped his efforts to get ready with sobs and hugs, he would have maintained that record. I look up at Aadya, who smiles down at me, obviously sensing my nerves, or perhaps recalling how very shaky my performance was this morning when we’d prayed. She reaches down to gently pat me.

“Do not worry, we come back soon,” She says, her voice booming with confidence, and I nod, pulling on a smile.
“I know,” I murmur, “you’re… both so tough.”

I glance back Alix, ready to go, sober, purpose in his eyes, and I hope this is all for the best, that this mission is exactly what he, and all of us need. That it’s not just the temporary high of happiness that has him in his current state, and being back in a survival situation won’t send him spiraling, with no one around to… No, I shake my head of the thought. Alix got along just fine before me, just because I’ve seen his one weakness, doesn’t mean my interfering is the only thing keeping him from slipping off the ledge, and besides, he won’t be alone. I turn my gaze back to Aadya.

“Aadya… um, look after Alix, alright?” I mumble, hoping it is just loud enough for her to hear, but that I might not draw my father’s attention, “and don’t, um… don’t let him drink too much.”

She cocks her head at me, and follows my concerned gaze to Alix and back, but nods.

“Of course,” she says, “like I say, we come back soon.”

I nod, bringing my fist over my heart in a Byssian salute – as there is no other familiar gesture, such as the typical hand-to-shoulder clapping or even a handshake, that Aadya and I could exchange. She smiles, pounding her gauntlet to her armored chest in what I imagine to be her culture’s own variation of the gesture, and then moves to join Alix and the others in the space in which Nerida will cast her spell. Eadro’s holy magic crashes over them like a wave as Nerida raises her hands, speaking her incantation, and then, with a soft ‘pop’, they are gone.

I shudder as my link with Alix severs, in an instant, as though it were no stronger than a blade of grass, swaying and bending beneath weather, battle and bloodstain, but so, so simply cut. His thoughts vanish from mine, his feelings, urges, his mental state, his soul disappear from their place, ever present, alongside my own. I feel empty, unbalanced, the sharp contrast sending my nerves skyrocketing as I am forced to face, for a second time, how very much of my stability is not my own. Through every moment of panic, through every nightmare, every struggle, all the indecision, all the doubt, the solid, grounding force of Alix has been there, just on the other side of the mirror, often silent, but always tangible.

When he left for Byss, it was barely a day they were gone, and knowing it would not be long, I managed to ignore the nerve wracking sensation of his absence. The silence in the back of my mind, the quiet, calculated processing of Alix’s thoughts and emotions no longer available to me – it was awful, but quick, and here, now… I stare at the empty space, my heart aching with every horrible beat. I don’t know. I don’t know when he’ll return, how long it could be – days? Months? ….Years? A cold few tears slip down my cheeks at the very thought, the visions of Rhapsody or Seren’s first steps, without their grandfather there to witness them, of battle without Alix by my side. I couldn’t stand this emptiness for so long, I would go mad, I…

“Cheshire?” The warm voice is Ulkair’s, and it pulls me from my quickly building hysteria. Closing my eyes, I breath deeply, and then let it out in a trembling sigh, struggling to arrest the spiral. I am being irrational – successful or otherwise, Alix would never allow himself to be gone for years on a fetch quest.

“Yeah?” I murmur finally, my voice coming out much smaller and less confident than I’d intended as I peer up at my lover. He reaches out and wipes away my tears, softly caressing the side of my face.

“He’s the best tracker I’ve ever seen, he’ll be safe and find us a home in no time,” he assures me, wrapping me in his arms, “and in the meantime you have us.”

“I-I know, it’s just… going to take some adjusting to, I think,” I mumble, returning his embrace and squeezing him tightly as another shudder slithers its way down my spine. “I just.. need to keep busy. But, you know, that shouldn’t be a problem, given that… I have more work ahead of me than I could possibly do in a lifetime.”
I let out a nervous laugh, resting my head on Ulkair’s shoulder, and wish that entire sentence hadn’t seemed so disastrous.

When I’ve collected myself, I give Tad Cooper another big hug, and Nighteyes, and then Kat and Agorran, as well, before joining hands with Nerida and Ulkair in the circle. It twists my stomach leave, but I keep my eyes focused hard in front of me and free of tears, lest I be unable to stand by the goodbyes I’ve just said. With a whirl of Eadro’s magic and a soft ‘pop’, we appear in the elemental plane of water, the fortress. I look around at the damp, cluttered stone structure and sigh – it’s certainly a far cry better than it was, but… as I look at the dark, wet walls, and the empty expanse of water beyond the window, it is hard for me to picture ‘home’. I know it won’t always be like this, that hopefully one day soon I will see sunrise and lush flora beyond that window, instead of choking, dark water, and so I try not to let the utter melancholy show on my face.

Turning my attention to Ulkair, I pull on a big smile.

“You fixed the window!” I begin, and before he can respond, Nerida is plucking Seren from my arms, presumably to take him swimming. I reach my hand out to grab hers, to stop her, a rush of indignation at her skewed sense of priority, or perhaps her eagerness to do something which makes me nervous, or, I’m not even sure what, washing over me, but I stop myself, instead clearing my throat. “Nerida?”

She pauses and turns to look at me with a cheerful “hm?”

“I… um, be careful,” I mumble, and continue quickly before she has a chance to tell me how ridiculous I am being, or be insulted by my request, or point out how ‘safe’ the plane is, or that it houses Eadro, “and also… I know you’re probably busy, and um, have your own plans, but… do you think you could um.. help me with something? Later?”

She cocks her head at me, a look of growing concern on her face, “well, I was going to try to start looking for information about Zeph but I suppose I could make some time, what is it that you need?”

“I um, well, it’s just… I wanted to… um, in Sigil, help some people, and uh,” I stumble, suddenly struggling to explain what I thought to be a very simple concept, “and Alix said I shouldn’t go alone, and I-I don’t have the spells I would need…”

Nerida smiles, taking my hand briefly and giving it a quick squeeze, “yes Cheshire, I can help you with that, when would you like to go?”

“Well, um, I was hoping to make it.. a daily thing, maybe after my prayers so I could work in the music hall the rest of the day but I know you won’t have spells yet, so… maybe when you’re done praying?” I ask, peering up at her hopefully, she nods.

“Yes, and… maybe I could get up with you when you pray, watch after the babies,” she offers, and I blink at her, the sudden offer taking me by surprise, “it would give us a chance to spend a little more time together, as well… we haven’t really been able to much lately, have we?”

I beam, nodding excitedly, perhaps too excitedly as I grasp her hand, “I would love that!”

Ulkair groans, throwing his head back dramatically, “well, I suppose if both of you are going to get up early, maybe I should, as well…”

“You don’t have to,” I tease, “I mean… if you want to sleep half your day away, you can…”

He scoffs, crossing his arms, and Nerida giggles, releasing my hand and planting a kiss on Ulkair’s cheek before making her way out of the room with Seren. My stomach twists in another brutal knot as she disappears from view, but I try to assure myself there is no danger for Seren in this water that Nerida cannot handle, and make busy questioning Ulkair about all of the changes and updates he’s made to the structure to keep my mind occupied.

He seems proud of his work, and quite excited, and as we walk the stone halls, he gestures to various things he’s done, explaining them to me in exquisite detail, and then continues to elaborate further on what possible options we have to change or update the fortress, all the various, wonderful, possibly dangerous magical things he can do to it. I admit, seeing him so excited breathes new life into the dreary, musky stone walls, and walking hand in hand through them with Ulkair… they feel much more like home than I’d thought they could just a few minutes ago. We go from room to room with Rhapsody, at least all of the ones in which there is no water, and debate the possibility of a nursery, hosting faux conversations with the infant, who only squeals happily as I gesture with his hands in a mock critique of what could be his room. For a baby, I imagine he has very exacting standards.

I would have thought Nerida to be out swimming with Seren until her heart was content, but of course, that didn’t take into account his demanding feeding schedule. She returns with him, the both of them soaking wet, in just under an hour, and Seren immediately turns on the waterworks when he sees me. Plucking the merbaby from his aunt’s arms, I find a fairly comfortable place to seat myself and nurse him, as doing such a thing standing is getting increasingly difficult.

“I swear you gain five pounds every day,” I mumble to the merbaby, brushing the wet, sticking hair away from his face. He peers up at me only briefly at the contact, clearly much more concerned with his meal than whether or not he is wet, or unnaturally heavy. The rest of our day passes without much event, I eat, a lot, feed the babies, and work on cleaning up a bit of the fortress, finding any way I can to keep busy. It will be tomorrow before we return to Sigil, and I think I should have this conversation with Nerida before then, but every time I see her, my stomach twists, and I lose my nerve.

Loin seems content to spend his time pacing the halls with Selene, or in the bronze dragon’s treasure room, and Nerida, for her part, spends much of the day swimming with Seren in between his many meals, and most of the rest of it with Ulkair, discussing how we will, in fact, move the fortress, and whether or not it will maintain its structural integrity when we do. It’s strange to have so few of us here, I don’t believe our group has ever been quite so small, but with Mimi already back in Sigil, and the others planes away, it is a quiet evening.

As I snuggle down to sleep with Nerida, Ulkair and the babies, the absence of Alix in my mind claws at me, keeping me awake, feeding the paranoia. I hum quietly to the boys as I would any other night, but when they are both fast asleep, it is too terribly obvious it is to soothe my nerves more than theirs. After a long while, I get up and pace, my lovers undisturbed by the motion as I often do so to feed the boys. My mind buzzes with fears, hopes, desperate plans for the future of the faithful, guilt over not being able to bring myself to speak with Nerida, anything I can do to keep myself occupied, and yet, none of the thoughts any more constructive than the passive worry that was my state without my other half. My calmer, wiser, smarter, braver… better, other half.

I softly clunk my forehead against the cool stone wall – how long has it been? Not even a day. Perhaps ten, twelve hours without him, and already I am a mess. My stomach growls at me, though the whining is likely equal parts stress and hunger, I swear I must have eaten only a couple of hours ago, but I am hungry again. If I’d just gone to sleep, I could have slept through the grumbling or the nausea, but then, that would have been sensible. I’m starting to wonder if there isn’t some kind of parasite living just beneath my skin, feeding itself and a brood of its kin on my meals, but I think the culprits are actually rather more tangible and adorable than that, and currently asleep on their father.

Sighing, I dig through my bag for what’s left of the two day supply of food I’d taken from Alix’s – well, Aintai’s kitchen, and munch on the hard, chewy green bread. It is still just as horrible as it’s always been, but part of me wants to save it a little longer, my heart yearning for Byss with every bite. Of course, were I to save this bread for sentimental reasons, I wouldn’t be able to tell it from the mold that it would inevitably grow, and that knowledge makes me much less eager to leave it sitting in my bag.

When my belly is no longer rumbling, and exhaustion is finally claiming my mind, even above and beyond the chaos, I climb back into bed. As soon as my head rests Nerida’s arm, I feel darkness start to creep around me, pulling me into sleep, and a tiny fist grasping my hair. Blinking my eyes back open, I hear Seren’s distinct, hungry fussing, and roll over, wiggling him out of Ulkair’s arms to nurse him – as I had just before we’d laid down for bed. So it must have been the better part of an hour that I was pacing, but even still, I worry how, even with the aid of magic, I will maintain this feeding ritual when I am away.

Day Something Again

When the morning comes, I drag myself from my place between my lovers with reluctance, and go to greet the sun, only to remember, of course, that there is no sun in this forsaken plane. Grumbling, I shuffle up the stairs to the room that houses our bronze dragon friend, knowing that his is a slumber my music will not disturb. I take a place next to him on his tiny mound of treasure, and place Ragnarok over my knees, strumming a soft tune on the silver strings. The melody comes out low and pensive, the room doesn’t have much in the way of acoustics, but it is quiet, and the soft song fills the stone hall.

I sigh, closing my eyes, leaning back and letting the weight drift from my shoulders with the rhythm, Tubatron’s holy power wrapping around me. I reach for it, from the deepest part of my subconscious, cling to it as it begins to rush through my veins, filling the void left in my soul with prayer. It builds in me, soothing my doubts and clearing my mind, and I carefully reflect on what lies ahead of me until my sons’ cries draw my attention from downstairs. They’re awake and hungry.. and so am I.

I get to my feet and head downstairs, where my sleepy lovers await me, snuggling between them, I pick up Seren to nurse him, and gently poke Nerida.

“Nerida,” I whisper, and she groans out her acknowledgment.

“I remember, Cheshire,” she mumbles, and I smile, kissing her cheek. I should have spoken to her yesterday, but perhaps… we could talk on the way to administer in the city, we’ll likely be alone, then.

Nerida conjures breakfast for us, as I’ve eaten through all the food I brought, and she won’t have another planar shift until she’s done praying, but once we’ve all eaten, and Nerida has prayed, it isn’t long until we are back in the foul smelling streets of Sigil.

I thought I’d grown accustomed to the stench, but perhaps I’d only become numb, or my days in the fresh air and sunshine of Byss had simply spoiled me. Ulkair gives us each a kiss, and makes his way toward the market to buy the things he’ll need for his emerald rod… the subject only reminds me of the looming conversation I must have with Nerida, and as Loin and Selene part ways with us, my stomach lurches. We’re alone now, I have no more excuses, and yet, as Nerida takes my hand and we head down the busy, unforgiving city streets, I lose my nerve once again. It’s so… nice to spend time with her, to walk and talk with her without strain, she seems happy, I should be, too. Every moment that ticks by it looms ever further over me, every second of silence between us becoming more uncomfortable as I try to force myself to break the peace, but can’t.

And so it goes, we administer to the poor of Sigil, feeding them in mass quantity, healing injuries, curing diseases, every morning for a week, we walk the same path, we eat and chat in between my prayers and hers. I work on flyers for the church in the couple of hours we have each morning – Seren “helps”, and even spending more time alone with Nerida than I have in months, a year even, I cannot seem to bring myself to say anything. When I am not actively passing out bowls of food, cups of water, or curing injuries, I sit with the people to whom we administer.

I talk, I sing, I do my best to teach. I tell the children stories and play them music to keep their minds from their difficult circumstances – culture, distraction, I know they are secondary needs to food and medical help, but they are still needs. I answer all the questions, dry away all the tears, share all the faith that I can. Many people walk wide circles around me or Nerida, eying us skeptically, or even angrily, but being looked down on by people on the streets, well, that was something I was more than accustomed to. It no longer fills me with fear or distress, and no amount of judgment could outweigh the relief in the eyes of those who do accept our help, or the value of a smile on a struggling child’s face.

We stay every day for a few hours, but it seems no matter how much time or magic we put in, there is always another person in need, another pair of outreaching hands. My heart aches to walk away, but I console it with the knowledge I will come back again tomorrow, and remind myself firmly that I am doing good work, but there is lifetimes of Tubatron’s work ahead of me, and the faithful need me as much as the poor. I arrive at the music hall around noon each day, and I realize with the odd looks that I wreak of poverty – it is undeniable and far from glamorous, so I take to bathing in the afternoon between my time representing us to the poor, and to the rest of the city.

Over the week, Ooze and I have a handful of meetings on our finances and the location of our herald, and our opinions clash, as usual. He maintains we should charge entry to our devotionals, but I can’t shake from my head the memory of that elderly woman, remarking our services were the only nice thing in Sigil the poor could attend for free. Music should be for everyone, not only the wealthy. I, myself, am a far cry from the wealth this city holds as its upper class standard, and I came up from… nothing. And that is what I would still be, had I never heard Tubatron’s song. I leave our first meeting red in the face, my temper hot, my past dogging my footsteps and, I realize after some time, warping my opinions.

Music is for everyone, it shouldn’t be nothing but a tool to make money, but… that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a valid one, and perhaps… we could worry about spreading the love of music through charity when… we had such charity to give. We end up with a compromise, cheaper seating on weekdays and mornings, where any of the faithful may perform, free standing room to listen in the halls, and more premium prices in the evenings and on weekends, times when myself, Ooze, and our other, most skilled performers will be playing. As for Clement, Ooze acknowledges it is strange that he’s yet to return, but according to Declan, he has been gone this long before, and we should organize a search only if he hasn’t returned in a month or so’s time. I’m afraid I know very little of our herald, but that he is of a fiendish bloodline and makes more than his share of bad life decisions, so I accept this verdict. I couldn’t possibly stomp across the planes searching for him on my own anyway, I will have to wait, at least, for Alix to return.

Even with all the work ahead of me, and the accomplishments behind me, the pressure of an unspoken conversation between myself and Nerida continues to mount with each passing day, and one morning, while I am writing flyers and pamphlets for our newly agreed devotional schedules, I finally steel myself to break the silence. Yes, things are alright now, but… unless I put a stop to it, problems will arise again, and what if… what if they could be better? Alix was always right, always, I remind myself, I can’t leave this hanging between us, taunting me, and… look how much better things worked out when I was willing to talk to him. It felt like it would rip out my guts, my heart and my soul and stomp on them to breathe those words to him, but we were better for it, I was better for it.

The most powerful relationships have to go through the most challenges to survive. I quote my father’s words back at myself, wishing for the six hundredth time in a little over a week that I had him here with me, and take a deep breath.

“Um, Nerida… hypothetically,” I begin, peering over at her from my work. She looks at me, amusement and caution battling in her eyes, and her eyebrow raises.

“Yes?”

I stop, letting that big, deep breath out in a small sigh. This isn’t hypothetical, or amusing, and if my life has taught me anything besides ‘trust nothing but Alix and music’ lately, it is that I must be more forward with people. My followers need me to be strong and decisive, my god needs me to have a spine, so too, I imagine, must my family.

“Nerida…” I pause, struggling for the right words – honest, unwavering, but gentle. What Alix would say or do.

“Cheshire?” Nerida responds, her brow knitting as she regards me.

Where to start? What to even say? I comb through all of my panic, all of my insecurities, all of her dubious actions and reactions of late, desperately trying to narrow them to one decisive source, one factual truth, free of my hysterical opinion or skewed perceptions, just… something to start, one answer I need above all others, I could work my way to the rest. Fact first – that was most important, I could drown her in my feelings, but what good would it do? They are liable to change at any moment, I have found, and no doubt will with her reasoning for the way she’s treated me, for the things she’s done.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but, I need to know…” I begin, struggling the words out one by one, fear plunging its cold iron fist through my chest to grasp mercilessly at my heart, “why did you lie to me about Ulkair?”

Nerida’s expression doesn’t turn dark as my fears told me it would, but it also doesn’t fall sadly as I thought it might when faced with such a question, instead she cocks her head, confusion taking over her features.

“What?”

“Well… I… I… asked you, I… more or less begged you to tell him that I needed his help, and…” I trail off, wringing my hands, breaking my eye contact with Nerida as her unrelenting stare becomes harder and harder to meet.
“And… you didn’t. And then you told me that he just didn’t want to see us, and would deal with me in a day.”

My arms and hands tremble, my nerves already shot as I recall the moment, the hurt echoing through my chest, the disbelief that I could be so very unimportant to the father of my sons, the man I loved, that he could turn his back not just on me, but even on Nerida, on all of us, in such a desperate time. The cold acceptance that slithered across my heart, hardening it in the face of grief, the trust I’d had in him slipping away. And then…

“Then Ulkair shows up, and says that you didn’t tell him there was a problem?”

I look back at Nerida, and she is staring at me, mouth ajar, like I’m insane, like this memory of mine, so painful, is absolute news to her. As though she weren’t there, as though it never happened, or she didn’t see?

“I tried to!” She snaps, her voice much more harsh and defensive than I’d expected. She seems not confused, but incredulous. “I tried to get him to come here so I could tell him, because I didn’t want to tell him while he

was away in a cave that there was a problem with Elysia!”

Elysia? ELYSIA!? I echo the name in my mind, staring her in the eyes, disbelief tightening my throat. I feel my cheeks heat, my ears burn, and she stares back, indignant as she watches the range of emotions wash over me. I asked you to tell our lover I needed him, and you didn’t, because of Elysia!? Because… Because… WHY!?

She knew, without a doubt, Alix was in pain, in need, that we were in trouble, that Agorran was involved, her entire dream revolved around them, but for one piece. But for the knowledge Elysia might be involved, and somehow, that small possibility, in her mind, outweighed the very real, very tangible agony that Alix and I were in? Staring at me, hearing the desperation in my voice, she still considered that wretched, dead plane more important?

Do I… do I matter to you, Nerida, at all? Does our family!?

I want to scream the words, I want to grab her by the shoulders, shake her, pull her beautiful blue hair from her scalp. For a moment, I want to hurt her, want to make her feel like I do, and I hate myself for it. I bite my tongue, dig my fingernails into my palms, my fists firmly clenched on my lap. I stare at her, white and red fury blurring my vision, and blurt out the least hurtful, most significant words I can muster.

“But there was a problem with ME!”

Elysia aside, that should have been enough.
We should have been enough. If not me, then Alix, or Agorran, but I should have been enough. And I would have been, for Ulkair.

“And now there’s one with me, too.” Nerida states, and my head spins with frustration and confusion – what is that even supposed to mean? This can’t… really be how she feels, she can’t… I take another deep breath, looking away, tears building in my eyes, and try to calm myself. Slinging insults won’t help, screaming won’t help, there must be more to this, I… I know the woman I love is in there somewhere, and she has a softer side, and I can appeal to it, if I just calm down and try.

“I just… I have so few things in my life that I can trust and rely on, and… I want you to be one of them,” I begin, turning back to her to see Nerida stiffen, causing me to stumble over my words. “I… You… I can’t… I don’t need not being able to trust you to be one of my many problems.”

“I’m sorry if…” Nerida begins, and I sigh, relief washing over me. I knew I was being ridiculous, I knew she didn’t want me to feel this way. She couldn’t.

“If in a moment, where I could barely move, ” Nerida continues, her voice dropping angrily, “and I was already falling apart on my own, and struggling with the fact that Ulkair would choose… someone else or to go away or to not be with me, that I didn’t say the right thing.”

I bristle, the anger flaring right back up as Nerida’s false, accusatory apology rakes its way through my ears. Didn’t ‘say the right thing’? What ‘right thing’ did she have to say?! She didn’t even have to think of the words, all she had to say was “Cheshire needs you”, and he would have come!

“I’m sorry–” I bite my tongue, the words to follow too scathing to lead to anything good, and struggle for something else to say when Nerida continues, her voice raising.

“I was hurting too!”

I set my jaw, my eyes still hard on her, and unset it, unable to summon any words but the blistering, furious truth. All this convincing she claims she had to do, she.. she invented it, by insisting she couldn’t tell Ulkair anything unless he was there in person, by making it about Elysia, instead of our family. This pain she was in – she caused it, by trampling Ulkair’s feelings the way she does my own, by being the ridiculous, insistent, uncompromising, stubborn woman that she is.

“I’m not as strong as you think I am,” Nerida murmurs, and I feel my lips tighten into a thin line.

“I realize that.”

The words sound only half as bitter as they taste. Yes, I realize that. Now. Too late. After I made the mistake of leaning on you in the lowest moment of our family’s lives together.

“I guess if you… don’t want to be with me anymore, I would understand,” she says, and I look away, lest my stare get any more unforgiving.

Well, you don’t make it easy, do you?

Alix was right. He’s always right. Nerida… she’s no different than me. She’s huge, she’s terrifyingly powerful, she’s god-touched, beautiful, and above it all, insecure. She’s flawed, she’s young, and stupid and broken, just like me. I take a deep breath, sighing it out as I slowly remove her from the pedestal I’d managed to put her on in my mind, and look back at her, suddenly eye level for the first time in our lives.

“I love you, Nerida, and when you care about people, you don’t just abandon them because they hurt you,” I begin, trying my best to weigh every word against what Alix might say, what was rational and fair, but still true, what I’d want to hear, what I wanted to hear, in a conversation with the person that I needed to be strong for me. “But you did.”

“How did I abandon you?!” Nerida demands, and I knit my brow – is she deliberately misunderstanding me, or have I simply never been so disillusioned that I stopped to see this infuriating side of my lover?

“You didn’t abandon me, Nerida, you hurt me!”

She stares, silent and stubborn, her nostrils flaring, her eyes hard. My stomach twists, this seemingly endless battle of frustration and hurt beginning to tear me at the seams – how had everything gone so wrong so fast?

“There’s no undoing that, and you don’t…” I pause, searching for the words.

Care. At all. My mind fills in as tears build in my eyes. “Seem… to… to think that it was unjustified. So… I guess there’s nothing else to say.”

The last words come out a murmur, and my shoulders slump in defeat as the tears roll down my heated cheeks. Nerida… She is flawed, more than I’d ever given her credit for, and I suppose a consequence of that is how she treats me, how, it seems, she will always treat me. She’s not even sorry. Not so much as a little bit, doesn’t even… care how much it hurt, accidental or otherwise. And how could she, when she’s so busy being angry I had the nerve to question her?

“I think… we’re looking at it very differently,” Nerida says, and I turn to look at her once more.

“Yes. Obviously,” I conclude, trying to keep my tone level, though it comes out low and angry, “because… I see… that I needed you to tell Ulkair three simple words! And you see…. That you were hurt and being petulant, but that justifies not doing that!”

“It wasn’t that I was intentionally not telling him that!” Nerida insists, and I feel my head spin.

In what kind of reality was Nerida living that these words made sense to her? You can’t accidentally not tell someone, to whom you are telepathically linked, ‘Cheshire needs you.” It can’t be unintentional, you either said it, or you didn’t! And even if she had somehow, in the thirty-five seconds from when I spoke to her to when she reached out to Ulkair, forgotten that was the message I asked her to send, she still didn’t admit to me she didn’t tell him that. She still told me that he didn’t want to see her, that he placed whatever stupid, petty argument they had over my desperation.

“I didn’t think ‘Oh, Cheshire told me to say this, so I’m not going to’!” Nerida continues, her tone more mocking with ever word. I clench my fists.

Then why didn’t you!?

She didn’t deliberately make me feel like I was utterly unimportant? She wasn’t trying to destroy my relationship with Ulkair? Wasn’t acting out of malice, or jealousy, won’t admit to the petulance of it all? Then what is her excuse?

“I’m sorry that I was weak, for ONE MOMENT–” She begins, and I feel my restraint snap.

“You have been weak for more than ONE MOMENT, Nerida!” I cut in, shaking my head angrily. It is an insult to every person who’s ever been there for her to imply otherwise. It denies Ulkair every moment he ever picked her up when she was down, denies me every inspiration, every encouraging word, every sacrifice I’ve ever made.
For her.

Nerida stares at me, her eyes watering, her own fists tight balls at her side. I can see the tremble of fury and depression in her shoulders, I know I’ve cut through all the outer pretense and into the very essence of what Nerida thinks makes her who she is. I take a deep breath, trying to sort through the indignation and the anger, biting back the insults on my tongue, the urge to tear her down three more levels. I sigh, carefully spreading my fingers over my lap to release the fists I’ve made, release the anger they represent. This isn’t about one-upping one another, about laying blame or boosting ourselves at the cost of our lover, even if… that’s what she is trying to do.

“And I… have loved you through all of those moments, and I still do,” I begin, taking another deep breath. I know she can be reasoned with, I know I must be able to make this better. Make her see that all I want is… is us to grow, to talk instead of argue. That I’m not attacking her, only being honest. “But I think that… you’re…. Just… trying to make me a villain that I am not.”

“How have I tried to make you a villain?” Nerida shoots back, and I reach up to rub my temples.

I’m not sure what it is that makes Nerida think the appropriate way to solve this is to repeat everything I say as a question and make me constantly validate myself as though she doesn’t understand the words I am using, but it does not, by any stretch of the imagination, make this easier or better.

Just… own your problems, Nerida! I keep the words in my mind, instead of on my tongue, knowing they would not help her see, only make her more standoffish.

“You’re just awfully defensive,” I manage, and by it I mean, of course, she won’t talk to me, and instead deflects the issue with silence, or counter attacks about how much better than me she is with every word I say. I wait for some kind of response, any sign I might be making progress, but Nerida only continues to give me a silent, infuriating stare. The lid I’d kept on my thoughts twists and grinds with every moment under her gaze, and I dig desperately for a decisive, calm way to express my inner ranting, but the moment I make the mistake of opening my mouth, the floodgates collapse.

“You can’t admit that you were wrong without saying “I’m so sorry I was weak FOR ONCE IN MY LIFE that I wasn’t there for you”! I get that… I am pathetic and I fall apart all the time, and you don’t, and so maybe it doesn’t seem like a big deal to you when it happens anymore, but…” I grind my words to a halt, arresting the outflow before it goes too far in the wrong direction.

Oh, how many times had I been down this road? How many times had I tried to calmly present my feelings to Alix and spiraled this very same way? Dumped on his shoulders a thousand insecurities he shouldn’t bear? Well, I’m Alix now, I remind myself, I’m the one who has to be mature, stay reasonable even though I’m frustrated, and this isn’t about piling my insecurities on Nerida, who has plenty of her own. “I have to rely on people, Nerida. And… the few times you have ever had to rely on me, I… I like to think that I was there for you.”

I look at her, searching her gaze for any sign that she understands or agrees with what I’m saying. That I’m reaching her at all, that she cares, or realizes why saying “I’m sorry I was weak one time” is hurtful, and wrong, and villainizes me instead of taking responsibility. A long, horribly uncomfortable silence falls between us, and I struggle not to break it, knowing if I start talking again, I likely won’t be able to stop, and will only give her more reasons to question me, instead of speaking her own piece.

“I like to think I have been there for you,” Nerida says finally, “but evidently I was wrong.”

The words hit me like a depressive wave, and I sigh, hanging my head and shaking it.

So, you can’t admit to one mistake, can’t bring yourself to be sorry when you slap our relationship right in the face with lies and pettiness, but you can sit here and say nothing you do is right?

I wonder bitterly if this is really how I make Alix feel every time I refuse to take credit for something he says I did. If everyone around me views me as this mopey, hypocritical misery, but then I realize that at least, for all my likely infuriating insecurities, I can admit to my failures. And Nerida, she clearly can’t, so this talk… it’s pointless.

“You know Nerida… You are impossible to talk to.”

“What do you want from me?” Nerida demands, and I only shake my head again, “I feel like everything I’m saying is the wrong thing.”

That’s because all you ever had to say was I’m sorry. I conclude, bitterly grinding my teeth and staring at the floor as I search for the words. Any words. Some way to make her understand without just giving her the out she clearly wants.

“I…. I don’t know.” I mumble finally – what I want seemed easy, a chance to make things better, to be treated equally, to be given an apology I thought I deserved. Clearly it was not, and none of that would fix this now, even if she said it. I don’t even know what would fix this now, or if anything could.

“I try so hard to be everything that you need,” Nerida continues, finally willing to speak, although she becomes increasingly hysterical with every word, “To never tell you what’s wrong because I see you’re already falling apart under everything with the church, and what you have going on –”

“I never asked you to not tell me what was wrong!” I snap, and she again does nothing but stare at me. “I share my problems with you! Why can’t you share yours with me!? N-Not just your problems, Nerida, why can’t you share your victories with me!? You couldn’t have told me you were going to Elysium to make something for Ulkair!? You had to just say you’d be gone for a day and then be gone for five!? And then… not understand why I was worried or upset, because.. because.. it was AMUSING to you! But you don’t think you can trust me with a petty secret!”

Nerida only stares, and I try to breath deeply again, arrest the spiral, lower my voice, do anything, but the lid is gone, a sob the only thing that breaks my rambling.

“And everything I say to you… You just…..! I say “you hurt me” and you say “well I understand if you don’t want to be with me anymore”, I say: Nerida, you failed me, and you say “well I fail at everything!” I say “Nerida, I don’t think you can understand how much PAIN Alix is in right now”, and you say “well apparently I don’t understand anything !” How is that fair?! I mean…”

My head spins, my vision blurred by tears and fury, so much frustration, and all that greets me on the other end of it – Nerida’s stupid, silent, stubborn fucking stare.

“Grow UP, Nerida!” I finally scream, realizing with more every word how incredibly hypocritical I am, how infuriating, how broken, and senseless, and stupid I have been. What a saint my father is, for his patience while I do these things to him, for not slapping me, for never showing the anger I’ve just displayed toward Nerida, never wanting to shake me, and pull out my hair, and how incapable I am of being him.

“Sometimes, things CAN happen in moderation! And… Ulkair can love you, and be attracted to someone else without it being a risk to you! And… you can do something wrong without everybody… wanting… to leave you.”

Sighing, I put my head in my heads and wipe away some of the tears that blur my vision. “Because we are family. I love you, and I wish I knew what it is that makes you incapable of trusting me, or ever asking me for my help.”

I stop to breathe, my hands tangled in my bangs, and after a long pause, Nerida finally mumbles, “all my family has ever done is leave me.”

“Well, mine too,” I whisper back, the words rolling off my tongue with a bitter taste. I bring my knees up to my chest, hugging them close in a desperate bid for the security I’ve lost in Alix’s absence – I miss him so much. I… I can’t be him, I don’t know how. I’m not strong, and patient, and unendingly wise, I… I don’t know how to be the grounding force Nerida needs.

“You know, I think sometimes you feel like… I love Alix more than I do you, but.. the truth is.. I just… need him,” I whisper, my heart aching for my absent father more with every word. “Because… before him, my life was nothing but garbage and blackness, because no one in the world would have fought for me… He is the first person, in my ENTIRE life, who ever told me he loved me, Nerida.”

“B-But… I don’t have that family anymore, and you don’t have that family anymore, and Aine didn’t leave you, and Mayra didn’t leave you by choice, and… we’re trying to find Zeph, and we’re trying to find your parents, but I can’t try to find my family, Nerida, because my family doesn’t want me to find them! My family wasn’t kidnapped and taken away by a sorcerer! They just. Hated me. And… without you all, without Alix, I am nothing. I am faceless, worthless trash.”

Unable to meet Nerida’s gaze any longer, I hide my face in my knees. I feel my chest constrict and dig my fingers into my arms as the truth crushes down on me, memories of my family, of my life stealing the air from my lungs. They flood, unopposed, to the forefront of my mind, no Alix there to counter them, no shield to hold them at bay. I… I need him, so much. I sob into my knees, and lift my head only to mumble a few more words.

“So when I say that I need someone…. I mean it. And when I say that I love someone, I mean it. Because if I didn’t… I would be too afraid to ever utter those words to anyone.”

Nerida says nothing still, but the silence allows me time to compose myself, and I with a shaky sigh, I try to pull some response out of her.

“I just think that…. We don’t have anything if we can’t trust each other,” I conclude, and finally Nerida mumbles.

“It’s never been that I don’t trust you.”

“Really? Because…. Sometimes you grab me, and you stare at me so hard… I… I feel like… you’re trying to fish my soul out of my body, and most recently, you did this when I said that “I love you, and I trust your magic”, and… and before that, it was when I was dominated by Typhon! So… I can only assume that you somehow equate my trust of you with my… trying to overcome an aboleth’s magic!? And that doesn’t make sense! And… you don’t tell me… ANYTHING. Until I pry it out of you. And when Ulkair leaves, and there’s a problem… I…. I can’t blame you for making a blanket fort, Nerida, but… what would you have DONE if I hadn’t come in and pried and asked you what happened? How long would you have been in that blanket fort, and Ulkair in his cave!?”

“I actually would have probably plane shifted, and tried to crawl to his cave,” Nerida says simply, as though she did not hear a single word I just said, or they simply meant nothing to her. “Because I don’t know that I could have walked.”

“But you would have done it ALONE! WHY!?” I cry back, the skin of my arms breaking beneath the force of my nails, “you could have ended up… three hundred miles away from him, and I’d have come into our room expecting to see you all cuddling and praying and NEITHER of you would have been there, and meanwhile, there was a REAL problem!”

Nerida says nothing, only looks at me, as though she can’t figure out why she isn’t winning this argument, in spite of disregarding my every point and changing the subject at her whim. I sigh, letting my head fall helplessly back against my knees. As badly as I want to get through to her, this isn’t the way, it can’t be. Because nothing I say matters.

“I know nobody’s perfect, I’m not here to beat you up about every mistake you’ve ever made, it’s just that… you’re right, there’s a lot riding on my shoulders. It’s not just the temple, it’s our future. It’s the hundreds of years I apparently have ahead of me that I will be doing this for, I’m laying groundwork for what will literally be the rest of my life,” the words are suddenly horrifyingly real. The rest of my life. My very, very long life. The fact that I’d shoved to the side in favor of the here and now, the future. The long… lonely future. “I won’t always have you all, but while I do… I would like to at least have you.”

Another sob wracks my chest, and I stare at the wall, breathing unevenly as I force out my next words, sentences broken by weeping and nervous laughter.

“Because I don’t… I don’t know what I’ll do when Alix drives himself into an early grave with liquor, and… and I don’t know what I’ll do when you go… become a fish, and whisper secrets into Eadro’s ear for eternity. And I don’t know what I’ll do, when being without you slowly drives Ulkair mad! And I have nothing but myself and the faithful… for whom… I have to find a place in the universe.”

“Well that’s why I don’t tell you my problems,” Nerida mumbles, “I’m worried I will bury you alive.”

“I’ve got hundreds of years to dig my way out, apparently,” I whisper back, my voice broken by tears and bitterness, “and I would rather know that there is a problem than not be told until it is way too late. Because all secrets do is build more distrust… and I am already so mistrusting, that I almost damned my uncle’s soul for eternity because I was afraid to let him touch Rhapsody. I am so distrusting that I can’t be genuinely happy that Alix has found someone he loves because… because… what if he loves her more than me?”

We suffer another terribly long pause before Nerida responds, her voice bitter. “I’m sorry I’ve let you down.”

“I just think…. Maybe this was fine in Byss, because everything was fine in Byss, but we have so much external strain now, that… we can’t not be able to trust each other,” I murmur, rubbing my eyes to once again attempt to free them of tears, “and we can’t be fighting all the time, and I can’t be angry, or afraid of you.”

“You’ve been angry and afraid of me this whole time?” Nerida asks, her feelings indiscernible by her tone.

“No!” I answer quickly, glancing at her before hiding my face back in my knees, “but… sometimes, yes. Which I guess isn’t fair, but… you are really hard to talk to.”

I glance at Nerida once again, who only stares at me, her lips a thin line, and sigh, desperate to lighten the mood somehow. “And… you could crush my head like a sparrow’s egg.”

“But I never would,” Nerida immediately retaliates, which makes it clear she found no humor in my words.

“Well… That’s good, and I would never leave you.”

“Why?” She demands, and I frown a little more, unsure of how to answer such a question. Why? Why would I?

Why, after everything we’ve been through, would I leave her now? How, after facing down death, and fire, and shadow and everything in between, could I possibly turn my back on her? Again I am struck with the memories of my conversations with Alix, with how many doubts I’ve had, when we’ve faced the same, and more, and I put my head in my hands.

“Nerida…. If I were going to leave you, there would have just been way better times to do it than now, don’t you think?” I offer, and her eyes narrow.

“You have never told me why you love me,” she says, a strange suspicion in her voice I can’t seem to understand, “and I thought it was… because I was strong, but evidently I’m not.”

She closes her eyes, tears slipping past her soft black lashes to roll down her cheeks, and my heart aches as finally a sob breaks her insufferably silent staring. “And if I’m not strong, I don’t know what I am. It’s easy to be brave when you have nothing to lose, and I have never had more to lose.”

I sigh, crawling over to her space and wrap my arms around her in the biggest hug that I can.

“Nerida… you are strong. You’re not strong all the time, you’re not perfect. You do have a lot to lose, we ALL do,” I explain softly, running my fingers through her silky blue hair, all urges I’d had to pull it out gone in a flash of sadness. My frustration melts away as I desperately try to console her, to make her see sense, and see herself as the wonderful person I know she can be.

“You know, I… I feel like, you all thought I was scared to go to the Abyss with you, and… you were not wrong, but… I wasn’t scared for me. I was scared for them,” I release her to gesture briefly to our children, “what happens to Seren and Rhapsody if I don’t come home? And their wet nurse leaves them, after twelve hours? But that’s… why we have each other, that’s why we have Ulkair, and Alix, and Loins, and Mimis, because…”

I let out a sad chuckle as I speak our celestial companion’s name, still hoping to lighten the incredibly heavy conversation just a little.

“Because, man, every other word out of her mouth insults me, but… she’s good at killing things! I don’t want to stay with you because you’re strong, Nerida, there are lots of strong people in the world, if I… only wanted power, I could be on Vhailor’s arm!”

Nerida sniffles, a small smile creeping across her face as she responds.

“Hey, I killed Vhailor, that’s a bad example.”

I shudder as the sound of shattering bone and tearing flesh plays between my ears, the sound of Alix’s skull collapsing beneath Vhailor’s fist. I close my eyes to try and chase away the memory, but I only see the splashing of blood.

“But no… No,” I manage, shaking my head, “see, that’s not a bad example, because Vhailor was strong. But that’s all he was, and that’s why we defeated him. That’s why we defeat everything we come across, because… by all means, we shouldn’t. Nerida, we shouldn’t be ALIVE, we shouldn’t WIN, when we do, but we do. And when we lose… it isn’t because we’re weak, it’s because we did our best, and that just wasn’t enough.”

“Then what else is there?” Nerida asks, and I desperately scrape at the edges of my mind for a suitable answer.

“Making your best… better?” I offer, “continuing to try? Taking those nine out of ten wins, and calling it a day? I couldn’t save Tad Cooper and his mate, but I saved Tad Cooper? I couldn’t save my uncle and my aunt, but I saved my aunt? I… I can’t stop Alix from ever drinking, but… I stopped him two days… out of ten. That’s.. something. And… you can’t… you can’t communicate every single time you need to, but every time that you do is one more time you didn’t fail?”

“Is there… something in particular you want me to communicate for you?” Nerida presses, still searching for whatever key phrase it is she believes will get her out of this.

I sigh, my hopes for this entire conversation finally slipping away with the air that escapes my lungs. I can’t even seem to remember what exactly those hopes were, what point I’d been trying to make, but I’d settle if she could understand just this one.

“No, Nerida… Just in general, I feel like… this is a good skill for you to work on,” I murmur, resting my chin on her shoulder, “I know you don’t like asking for help, I practically had to SHACKLE myself to you for you to take me to Zissyx. And… maybe you regret that decision… But, sometimes… You have to ask for help. You have to, because if you don’t, you die alone. Which is why I ask for help… every day. Because if I didn’t, I would die. Alone. Probably a horrible death. I hate asking for help, Nerida. I hate being the most miserably useless person I know. I can’t feed poor people alone, because they could KILL me.”

“There are a lot of them..?” Nerida offers with a sniffle, and I hang my head – still missing the point, completely.

“But a lot of them couldn’t kill YOU! Because they’d still be malnourished, crippled, poor people! And a lot of malnourished, crippled, poor people shouldn’t be a frightening threat, but… it is to me."

“Well… I just have more area magic than you do,” Nerida points out, and I stare at her, exasperated.

“You’re RIGHT! Because I don’t have ANY!”

“Well… my magic’s just a little bit stronger than yours,” Nerida offers, at least no longer so standoffish, “that’s not your fault…”

“No, you’re right, because you’re great at magic, and I’m okay-ish at magic,” I sigh, resting my chin on her shoulder, “and I… I’m great at music, and you’re okay– well, actually, I think you’re great at music, too, but the point is that…. At the end of the day, there’s a very, very small chance that my singing will stop someone from killing me. And there’s a much greater chance that my singing will lead them to hunt me down and try to rape and devour me! I mean.. I don’t… like having to bother you at six am so I can go feed poor people, I don’t like having to find Alix wherever I go, whether I need to sleep, or make a sandwich, or take a freaking walk. I don’t like getting taken advantage of every single TIME I walk into a store!”

I sigh, and then take another deep breath, pulling my rambling back in to my point, “but that is my lot in life, and unless I ask Declan to shop for me, and Alix to make sure that…. there’s no horrible death waiting for me at the end of that sandwich, and you to talk to Ulkair for me, and Ulkair to teach me about the planes so I don’t bow myself up trying to do something stupid for my god, and… it’s just… something that you have to get used to.”

“My life has always been doing my best, and being enough,” Nerida retorts, “and when I haven’t been, people have died.”

“Well, Nerida… twelve days ago, you were not enough,” I state, keeping my tone as level as possible, “and I didn’t die. Twelve days ago, none of us were enough. You and I and Alix and Aadya, and Mimi and Loin and all of us were not enough to come out unscathed. You can’t change that. You can make it… better. By being together, by safety in numbers, by learnin–”

“Safety in numbers didn’t save Caspian.” Nerida cuts in, stealing the air from my lungs as I let out a frustrated sigh, my mind filling in my unfinished sentence.

….From your mistakes…

“It saved me. It saved Ulkair, it saved you, and Mimi and Loin and Alix,” I retort, unable to reach her any other way but to simply over state the obvious, “and you know, if Caspian had been alone, she’d have died, and there wouldn’t have been anything or anyone to bring her back.”

“If she hadn’t come with us at all, she never would have died,” Nerida shoots back, and I feel my brow knit. How have I never, in over a year, realized how impossibly stubborn and small-minded Nerida is before?

“Yeah, and if I hadn’t gone after Alix, you never would have stabbed me to death,” I respond, exasperation coloring my tone more than I’d have liked it to, “and I would have still been the person that wouldn’t have
minded being stabbed to death, because I wouldn’t have Alix. If you never take a risk, you get no reward.”

That’s why I’m talking to you. I add mentally, running my fingers through my hair as I continue to struggle to communicate my point to my lover. You can only learn from your mistakes if you own them!

“But you can learn to recognize when you’re not enough, and get help. I reached out to you because I knew that I was not enough to deal with whatever horror was on the other end of Alix’s life.”

“And which of you can help me be an oracle?” Nerida challenges, again dodging the subject, refusing logic at every corner, but perhaps… sharing with me an insecurity, a problem, finally, that I should not disregard, regardless of whether or not it is a subject that I have… any knowledge of.

“I can’t help you be an oracle, Nerida,” I admit, letting out a defeated sigh, “but… I can help you sift through your dreams, I can help you not feel crazy, I can help you not be afraid. I hope I can inspire you. And… Eadro will guide you, I am certain.”

Because… this is what he wants from you. I add, deciding to keep the words to myself, lest they start another fight I’m not prepared to take part in. It’s what he’s been grooming you for from the first time he noticed you.

This is simple truth, and not at all unlike Tubatron’s plans for me – to be his high priestess, to lead his faithful. Of course, Tubatron’s call does not seem to be as directly threatening to my well being as Eadro’s does for Nerida, but I am in no position to question whether or not Nerida’s god has her best interests at heart.

“I have found… that when you are on the path that your god desires for you, it’s not always easy, but it eventually becomes clear,” I offer, trying to keep my advice as neutral as possible, “and I am certain Eadro would not have given you this power if he didn’t want you to use it for him.”

“I know he does,” Nerida says, “I just don’t know…. To what end.”

“I think that… is impossible to know, even as an oracle. Our gods’ scope is much larger than ours. And I understand that this is something… you maybe can’t talk to Ulkair about so much, but… that’s what I’m here for,” I take Nerida’s hand, offering her as reassuring a smile as I can, “You think I don’t understand what it is to be in boots you don’t know how to fill? Because I mean.. I could stuff our bed spread into my shoes, and they still would have too much space.”

“And how do I stop myself from going crazy? How do I know what’s real and what’s not? I woke up from that dream and I thought I was awake, I could not tell. I clung to Ulkair’s chest and felt his hand on my face, I felt Selene crush my throat and I thought I had died. How many more times will that happen? How long before I cannot tell what’s a dream and what’s real?”

“You’ll always have me to tell you what’s a dream and what’s real,” I offer, holding her hand tighter, but the answer does not seem to satisfy her fears.

“Unless I dream about that!” She objects, and I knit my brow – is she… joking?

“I feel like… that’s a very obscure vision and not very likely…. Wouldn’t it be a waste of Eadro’s holy magic to give you a vision that was just me telling you the vision was real and not a vision?”

“It could be my mind,” Nerida insists, increasingly hysterical with each theory, “he said my fears taint everything. And if I fear that I’m going crazy–”

I take Nerida’s other hand in mine as well, putting them to my chest and meet her gaze intently to stop her spiraling rant.

“Nerida… everyone’s fears taint everything,” I explain, “when I stay awake too late, the shadows in our room smile at me with a rictus grin. When I see Loin walking with that accordion, I… I assume nothing good can come from it. I used to love the accordion, I was pretty good at playing it. It was the first instrument I played, or loved, and I will never hear a single note on an accordion again without wanting to claw. My. Own. Skin off. If that isn’t fear tainting something, then I don’t know what is. That’s not oracular insanity, Nerida, that’s…. survival instinct.”

Fear keeps us alive. Fear lets us know when we are in danger. Embrace your fear, and what it teaches you, but never give it control.

Alix’s words echo in my mind, but before I can speak them to her, Nerida scoffs.

“Well it’s a little bit harder when you have to look at everything, and know what it means, and know whether it’s important, or… it’s just someone picking up a plate.”

The words are brusk, challenging, almost sarcastic, as if they didn’t clearly enough say ‘my fears are more legitimate than yours, and my problems are bigger’, her tone certainly did.

You’re just being difficult now… I feel my lips purse, but try to remain impartial.

“You’re right,” I manage, though the words hurt a little with every syllable, “and maybe you’re not good at that yet, but… I’m sure you will become good at it. And if you don’t, then we will chase all of the plate picking up people, for the REST of your life. Nerida, I don’t have all the answers… but…. We can try to find them? I can try to help you find them. I know what it’s like to be insane, Nerida, I do.

“So what if I don’t want to subject you to it?” Nerida asks, and a wry smile creeps across my features, but manage to keep in the laugh – her? Subject me to insanity? Perhaps she has tasted Ulkair’s, sharing a mind with him, but she has simply no idea.

“I… don’t think it’s avoidable.”

“I’m sorry I stared into your soul when I got back to Byss after Typhon,” she blurts out suddenly, shifting to grasp my hands in hers. It was not the apology I expected, or… needed, or even wanted, really, but it clears the air a little. I sigh, resting my forehead against her arm.

“I… I’m sorry I let Typhon take over my mind,” I whisper, Tubatron although I’d spoken the apology countless times before. “I didn’t want to hurt you.”

“I know that. I never believed you wanted to hurt me,” Nerida murmurs, although I can’t help but doubt the truth of the statement anymore, “I just… had a dream, on the way to the city, and I had to see that your eyes were not so cold. Even before oracular visions, ever since Dovev attacked the temple, and even more since Elysia, my dreams have been very, VERY vivid.”

It would be a lie to say I wouldn’t have rather gone without knowing that fact. Thinking Nerida doubted that I had shaken Typhon’s very powerful, frightening domination was… a kinder illusion than thinking she doubted my intentions for her because of some dream. But at least now I know, possibly more than I ever wanted to, what it takes to shake us.

“Well, I know a thing or two about vivid nightmares,” I mumble, shuddering as the words ghost an icy set of ghoul’s fingers down my spine, “they’re not oracular, but… I will tell you the same thing I told Alix. Which is that… when your nightmares twist your reality.. I will be there to set it straight again, if you let me.”

“But my nightmares ARE my reality,” Nerida insists, “Agorran was being controlled.”

“You’re right, your nightmares can be truthful, and… those nightmares we can solve,” I offer. Truthfully there is no solving a nightmare that makes her think my eyes cold and dead, no solving memories that dance through our dreams, but at least, if they are warnings, we can heed them. “Other ones, you just have to not let them have power over you, and I don’t know how you’re going to sort through them, but I’m sure we’ll figure it out.”

“I haven’t had one for a week now,” Nerida says, sniffling ever so slightly as she calms, “it’s a new record.”

“That’s a good record to keep,” I whisper, giving her hand another reassuring squeeze, “maybe it will be longer.”

We talk awhile longer, an uneasy peace falling between us, before we go about our daily routine. I don’t see hide nor hair of Ulkair all morning, and I can’t help but suspect he is avoiding us, or… perhaps me. I wonder if he could simply hear our yelling and has decided to steer clear for awhile, or if maybe… he got a rather slanted perspective of our argument from his mental bond with Nerida. Sighing, I gather up my flyers, sons, and a change of clothes, stuffing all but the babies into my very average bag of not holding with some difficulty. I suppose I’d taken the magical artifact for granted, but it was incredibly inconvenient to have to actually have enough space for everything I wanted to carry in a day. Strapping Rhapsody to my chest, and Ragnarok to my back, I take Nerida’s hand, and she shifts us to Sigil.

View
My Mind My Soul to Mirror
My Scars Were Not Enough

Nerida

“I don’t know if we can go today,” I mumbled, fighting the urge to slide down the doorway until I was sitting, unsure if I would be able to stand again. “I have plane shift, but we have no way of knowing where in Byss we’ll show up. If we show up three hundred miles way, that will be quite a march. There’s a stronger spell called gate that works like a portal and could take all of us to a specific location, but I don’t have it memorized.”

I bit my lip, feeling the tension grow around me, hearts sinking at the news. I didn’t want to admit I hadn’t recovered my magic for the day, though they were bound to have noticed something was amiss. Maybe not. Cheshire was focused on Alix and Alix was lost in his tormented recollection. His family, his sister…even to save her, I don’t know that I could hurt Áine.

“How about your well?” Cheshire asked, looking at the emerald circling above my head and wringing her hands. “Or maybe I could give you some of my magic?”

“I…don’t think I could use arcane magic to power a divine spell, even blending it with what’s stored in my well. Besides, trying something experimental like that on a mass interplanar travel spell could be disastrous. If it goes wrong, we would all be scattered across the multiverse.”

“Can you go ahead of us to find Ulkair and open the gate tomorrow?” Cheshire asked.

“Then I would be alone somewhere in Byss. We don’t even know if Ulkair is there right now,” I said, though part of me knew where he was. Where better to be in pain than in the remnants of his cave? Tears stung in my eyes at the thought that he would rather be alone in his prison than with me, but I blinked them back. Now wasn’t the time for that.

“Could we buy a scroll?” Mimi asked. “Or get someone to cast it for us?”

“It’s a very powerful spell. There probably aren’t many here who can cast it and I’m relatively certain none who have been to Byss. It’s like teleport. You have to picture where you’re going as you cast the spell,” I explained.

“I guess I’m going to the marketplace to get a scroll of gate then,” Cheshire sighed.

“If we all go, we could just leave from there,” Mimi chirped.

“If we all go, we’ll be a crowd of fifty clueless. The children have to come and most of them can’t be seen. Alix and I will just go and get it and come right back. Nerida’s exhausted. She doesn’t need to be tromping all over Sigil.”

“I’m going with you,” I insisted.

“Nerida, I’ll be okay. I’m just going to the market. You look like you can’t move.”

“I can move…” I mumbled, leaving out how difficult it was to do so.

“We’ll be fine. Just stay here and be ready and don’t let the place burn down or let the kids steal anything, okay?” Cheshire said, passing the babies to me.

I felt I should insist on going with her, offer what assistance I could, but I didn’t have the energy to argue. Nodding, I cuddled the babies to my chest and slowly slid down the wall until I was sitting on the ground. Relief flooded through me as I sagged back against the wall, the call of sleep bidding my eyes to close. The voices in the room faded to distant whispers, their meaning lost to me as my eyes slid shut.

“Nerida,” Cheshire whispered, gently shaking me. “Nerida, can you look at this scroll with me? I think I understood the instructions, but you’re familiar with this spell, right?”

“A scroll?” I echoed, blinking a couple times in confusion until I remembered what we’d been working on through the haze in my mind. “Oh yea, the gate spell. I’m familiar with the divine equivalent.”

Returning to Byss, seeking out the truth muddled among my fears. I took the scroll from Cheshire’s proffered hand, looking over what instructions were included on casting it. Arcane diagrams lined the pages, only vaguely familiar from what I’d been studying with Ulkair. They were obviously for teleportation magic, some kind of procedure to stabilize the magic for when something…appeared? I held the page a little closer, trying to make out a symbol Ulkair had shown me before, but I’d never seen him use. A magical being…a demon?

“These diagrams are for a summoning ritual, if you want to call a demon to you. We find enough trouble without looking,” I mumbled, my eyes still scanning the rest of the page. “It’s just like casting teleport, but bigger and louder. You start the spell and then sort of stabilize it into a portal that will last as long as you concentrate on it. You can cast teleport or spells of that level, right?”

“Ummm….yup….I’m sure it’ll be fine…” Cheshire mumbled, her face paling.

“I…can’t use arcane scrolls, but if you can start it, I can use my magic to help you control it? I can’t access arcane magic on my own, but I’m pretty familiar with manipulating it once I have it now,” I hummed, kissing Cheshire’s forehead.

I passed the babies back to her and climbed to my feet, the very core of my being crying out, pleading that we rest, but waiting any longer wasn’t an option. Making my way back to our room, I grabbed Anduin and my bag, leaning heavily on the trident as I walked back to join my companions, the children already sitting around waiting for us.

Cheshire held the scroll in her uncertain hands, wide eyes looking up at me. Standing behind her, I wrapped my arms around her, resting my hands over hers, taking long, deep breaths in hopes Cheshire would do the same. She relaxed ever so slightly in my arms and I felt arcane magic ignite, stronger than anything I’d felt Ulkair use or cast myself. Bending the multiverse to our will and linking two planes never meant to touch together for a time was no simple task. I closed my eyes, focusing on controlling the magic, containing it just enough so Cheshire could direct it. The act was similar to casting my own upper level spells, but the arcana burned my hands, searing my weary mind as Ulkair’s magic never did. Just a little longer…Cheshire would finish the spell soon and the feeling would fade, leaving me with my own soothing magic.

Cheshire hummed, her music wrapping around the magic of the scroll and funneling it into the gate we sought, a vertical slash of light appearing before us, spinning to create the portal. On the other side, I saw the entrance of Byss waiting, a beacon against the once lethal surroundings. The children whimpered and shrank away from the display. Cheshire made hushing noises and walked up to them, trying to calm them enough that they would come with us.

“High priest Agorran is never going to forgive us for bringing so many people here,” I mumbled, thinking about our last visit, the look in his eyes so different from what I was used to with the gentle man. He so readily accepted all of us, despite everything that had happened, but something seemed to have changed in the reconstruction of the city.

“Why would Agorran be mad?” Cheshire asked, looking back at me.

“He was pretty upset about the other man we brought here.”

“I’m going to take them all and give them jobs to do in the city while we’re busy and it will be fine. Agorran will get over it. There are way bigger problems,” Cheshire mumbled, pulling Ragnarok out, playing the song she used as a sort of lullaby for them the other night.

The children looked at each other, still unsure of the display of magic, if it was safe to go through. Lóin smiled faintly at them, walking through and waving from the other side. A boy and girl looked at each other, trepidation lingering on their faces, but they held each others hand and stepped through the portal. Wide smiles spread across their faces smelling the clean air in Byss, the sun shining on their pale faces as they beckoned the others to join them. Stepping through the portal myself, a wave of Ulkair’s feels washed over me for a moment before largely vanishing. He knew I was here and he was withdrawing again….

“Can you feel Ulkair now?” Cheshire asked, looking up at me.

“Yes, he’s here,” I mumbled, wrapping my arms around myself, wishing they were his instead.

“Can you go and find him?”

“I think he’s quite far away. I could start walking, but I suspect that would take a few days…”

“Can you talk to him and tell him to please come to Byss and that I need him?”

You need him? Like I don’t? Like my soul isn’t screaming to be with its other half? Needing him didn’t keep him at my side when I could barely move or even think. My needing him wasn’t enough, but of course yours would be different. You didn’t make him cry with every conversation. You didn’t push him back to the heart of his despair. He told me he would never leave unless I pushed him away, so that must be what I’d done. If just what we’d said this morning pushed him this far, then what would telling him about Elysia do? Just feeling me here, he withdrew further. What if this was the last straw, the final insult? He did risk my life to “save” Elysia, and now…

‘Ulkair…? There are some parts of my dream I didn’t mention,’ I began, trying to think of what to tell him.

Fear tainted my heart, whispering that if I said the wrong thing, I would chase him away entirely. I taunted him with death and the destruction of his soul, gods and oracular visions. What could be worse than hearing that perhaps he hadn’t saved his belovèd home as he thought he had? He thought of nothing else for two thousand years, risked everything to try to make amends for what he had done. If I needed to tell him, I should at least do it in person so I could be near him, hold his hand. I felt his emotions washing over me, petulant melancholy, but not the…anger I was expecting? The hurt, the betrayal, the dismissal. I held tight to him, fearing he would vanish at any moment.

‘I’m glad you came, Nerida,’ Ulkair murmured, resting his head on my shoulder. ‘I was going to wait until you found me, but I see you’re getting better at finding me with your mind. I’m glad there’s more to the dream than what you told me.’

‘That’s what I was worried about, but…’ I trailed off, fighting for the words I knew would break his battered heart, but still I needed to tell him.

‘There’s always more, isn’t there?” Ulkair sighed.

‘And I feel I should tell you the rest in person,’ I concluded.

‘I…guess I’ll feel like leaving tomorrow. I’ll see you then,’ Ulkair said and his presence faded from my mind, leaving me a hollow shell.

I felt my resolve crumble at his words, tears welling in my eyes. He…really didn’t want to be near me…he said he was glad I came, but still he chose his prison. Why…?

“He doesn’t want to see me until tomorrow,” I breathed, clenching my fists.

“Fine. We’ll take care of it ourselves then,” Cheshire ground out, her lips drawn into a fine line as she turned towards the city, motioning the children to follow her.

My heart fell watching her walk away from me, the anger in her voice cutting down to the core of my being. I wasn’t enough for either of them…maybe I shouldn’t have said anything, just let well enough alone. If I didn’t want or need anything, if I were strong enough to always be there for them when they needed me, maybe then they wouldn’t leave me. I tried so hard, but it was enough, I was never enough….

I heard a popping noise and water slashing onto the ground beside us, a small, greenish blue crab slowly opening and closing its pincers before itself standing in the middle of the puddle. I knelt down and gingerly picked the crab up, careful not to hurt him as I had when he was a bird, though I expected him to skitter away from me.

“Nerida, when there’s a problem this big, you should say something,” Ulkair said, turning back into himself and draping his arms around me before looking at Cheshire. “I’m so sorry, Cheshire. What exactly is wrong?”

“Elysia may not be as gone as we thought it was…” I whispered, watching his face for his reaction.

“What?” Ulkair cried, putting his head in his hands.

“That’s why I wanted to tell you in person. In my dream…or, maybe we should go find High Priest Agorran and tell everyone at once,” I suggested.

“Umm, maybe we should let Alix talk to Agorran,” Cheshire said.

“I feel like there will be a lot of self-loathing in that conversation,” I commented.

“It’s not our business, Nerida,” Cheshire chastised. “It’s not our pain and you can’t possibly understand.”

All I could do was stare at her for a time, wondering what she thought of me. I knew pain, I knew loss, I had felt the crushing weight of millennia of despair and anguish not my own, but still my heart bled. I may not have felt his pain as she had through her bond with the ranger, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t understand. If Alix asked to speak to him alone, I would naturally respect his wishes, but the request hadn’t come from him.

“I seem to be very good at not understanding of late,” I bitterly stated.

“Yes, well,” Cheshire began, starring angrily at me.

“Anyway,” I said, looking back at Ulkair before I fought with the bard further when there wasn’t time for bickering. “I dreamed of that dinner party we had when High Priest Agorran and Will came to Alix’s house and everything was great, except for when I looked at High Priest Agorran and I thought Alix was sitting quite close to him. Then I realized that it wasn’t Alix, but a woman that looked remarkably like him and there was a silhouette of a woman behind him looking just like what I imagine Alix’s mother might. Strings were wound around her fingers and she was controlling both of them. Over by Lóin, Vhailor was sitting with the immortal child on his lap and she was laughing at the idea that Elysia had been saved.”

“Let’s go look at that mirror,” Ulkair said, taking a shaky breath.

“I’m so sorry, Ulkair,” I mumbled, holding him tight and burying my face in his hair.

“This is a much more immediate problem and I’m sorry to continue to visit my sins upon Byss,” Ulkair sighed again. “We’ll look into the mirror and perhaps Alix should speak with Agorran.”

“We possibly should check on that man we brought here too,” I suggested. “I don’t know if he’s involved, but he was in both versions of the dream, the one I first saw and the one Lord Eadro helped me sift through. I stood up from the table suddenly and I knocked over my plate. It shattered and he tsked at me and picked it up. It could be nothing, but it’s like he was an attendant there, a rather subservient position. I don’t know if he has any affiliation with the vampires if they’re back or whatever it is that’s crawled out of Elysia. I don’t know if he’s involved or will be. He is not a good person and if he doesn’t like what he finds in Byss, I worry that he might go to them. In the meantime, if we can, we should keep an eye on him.”

“Alright, I’ll go find something for all these children to do rather than steal from our countrymen,” Cheshire sighed, walking off with them.

“Let’s go to the temple and investigate the mirror,” Ulkair said, pulling away from me.

Looking at him, I bit my lip and held my hand out, waiting for him to take it. He said he was glad I came and wrapped his arms around me of his own accord, but still I couldn’t dismiss the anxiety clawing at my heart that he would say no. Maybe it was just my tired mind making everything seem worse than it was, each sharp word or angry glance cutting deeper than they should, but I felt an eternity pass in what moments it took for him to take my hand. His warmth suffused through me, calming the anxieties whispering from the corner of my mind.

“It’s alright, Nerida. I’ve always known your god was important to you, I just…it wasn’t a gentle way to dash my hopes.”

“What hopes did I dash?” I asked, my heart falling again.

“We just talked about blending our souls and our magic and become one in magic

“Why can’t we still do that?” I asked. We’d already started to anyway, sharing all of our spells, our souls already fused, though I couldn’t think of a time he’d mentioned blending them further than that or what would happen to us.

“Being an oracle I think would largely prevent that.”

“Haven’t we already blended our magic?”

“It could have just gone to a level beyond even that, but it would be very difficult and I don’t think Eadro would approve if you’re going to be his oracle.”

“I could ask him,” I mumbled, holding his hand over my heart.

“You’re welcome to. I won’t.”

“Well, we will have time to see,” I mumbled, nuzzling his hand. What years I never thought I would have, I would fight to spend with him, decades beyond what I should have had.

“Regardless, it’s not important now. We have bigger problems,” Ulkair said, squeezing my hand.

I nodded and we walked towards the temple in silence, not entirely uncomfortable, but not what we usually had. My mind whirled with anxieties about my dream, Agorran, Cheshire, Ulkair, why I was so tired, exhaustion far beyond what a single sleepless night should have left me with. At least…at least Ulkair was with me. For everything else, we would work something out.

Passing through the temple, I blushed faintly to see Ulkair’s mural was still on the wall, thinking it might have faded after we left the plane. Ulkair glanced up at me and grinned, holding his hand out and casting glitterdust on the mural as was his and Cheshire’s want. Shaking my head, we walked back to the vault housing the mirror, only to stop in our tracks opening the door. The wall the mirror had been hung on was empty, nothing else touched or moved out of place as well as I could recall.

“The mirror is gone,” I announced to the first priest I could find, expecting at least a look of shock, but he looked at me as though we were only discussing the weather.

“Oh yea, the mirror was set up in the town monument where all the statues are. With Elysia gone, we didn’t think it had to be guarded,” he stated, shrugging.

“What statues?” I asked, my brows knitting together.

“Has no one told you? We’re making statues of all of you.”

“You mean of Alix?” I tried to clarify.

“His is the biggest. They’re not all finished yet, but smaller ones of everyone else surround him.”

“So the mirror is surrounded by images of all of us?” I sighed, running my hand through my hair. If whatever had crawled out of Elysia had any doubts about whom it was looking for, it wouldn’t any longer. “Where is this monument?”

“It’s in the center of town between the residential area and the marketplace,” he said, not seeming to understand the connection, though there was no reason to elaborate and concern him further.

“Thank you,” I said, inclining my head towards him and we took our leave.

Walking through the city, I felt nothing out of place, no disturbance, no undead, no evil, nothing that would suggest anything was amiss. Elysia had to be connected to this somehow. If it weren’t, Lord Eadro wouldn’t have shown me the immortal child remarking on the once paradise. Arriving at the town square, half-carved statues met my gaze, Alix the most recognizable after what little time they’d had since our initial departure to work on them. The last remaining mirror in Byss was propped up against Alix’s statue, looking as it always had.

“Ulkair, what should we be looking for?” I asked, staring into the surface of the large mirror.

“I mean, it depends on when it came through if it came through this mirror. If it came through more than maybe a week ago or really even more than a day or so, its presence would be gone.” Ulkair said, moving his hand before him as he began muttering arcane words.

“I meant to memorize true seeing this morning, but I didn’t get my spells back,” I murmured, staring blankly at my hands, the positive energy I should have felt coming from them. Though I still had what magic I hadn’t used yesterday, I felt like I had failed somehow.

“It’s impossible to tell,” Ulkair sighed, his detection spells yielding nothing.

“Should we move it somewhere? Put a seal on it so nothing else can pass through it?”

“We could just try to open it and see what happens,” Ulkair suggested, resting his hand on the mirror’s surface.

“If we do that, we should wait until there are more of us.”

“That’s probably wise. I guess do we really even know there’s a problem yet? Your dream could just be predicting something.”

“I suppose. We would have to talk to High Priest Agorran and see if anything has happened. He didn’t mention anything when we were here last week, though I suspect he will be preoccupied for a while,” I mumbled.

Such news…could only be painful, scars that had roughly healed years ago and still ached from time to time. I’d wanted to be there to try to mitigate some of Alix’s blame on himself, soften the blow as much as it could be, but my presence was unwanted. Alix may not have spoken up initially, but he didn’t correct Cheshire either. Still, they’d known each other longer than I’d been alive and what words I’d spoken today had only served to make matters worse. It was best to give them what space they needed.

“Whatever happens, we’ll be together, belovèd,” Ulkair said, a concerned look upon his face. “Perhaps all we can do for now is wait.”

Waiting…what I least wanted to do when something was wrong. Idleness was wasting precious time that could save someone, earn us something that could give us an advantage but there wasn’t anything else I could think to do, not until we heard back from Alix. Waiting, time to see what would happen here, what would become of my vision, future visions. They would grow stronger, wouldn’t they? Perhaps not more frequent, necessarily, so much as simply as often as needed, but they would grow. My fate, my life, I’d given them to Lord Eadro, but Ulkair held my heart and soul, whatever compromise we might find in time.

“I suppose you’re right,” I sighed, pulling him into my arms again. “You’re too good at doing that, though it beats the alternative. Life with an idiot would be terrible.”

“Indeed. I find the company of intelligent, beautiful women far superior to idiots. I’m… just so glad I’m not alone anymore,” he said as leaned his head on my shoulder and closed his eyes.

“I can think of no fate worse than being separated from you,” I murmured, resting my face atop his head.

Ulkair sighed contently, snuggling closer to me. After this morning, the visions, the arguments, everything that had happened, perhaps a moment of idleness was warranted. I hadn’t pushed Ulkair away, Cheshire was tending to her followers, Alix was talking to Agorran, and we would save Byss from Elysia a second time if that is what we needed to do. Ulkair’s warmth surrounded me and I felt all desire to do anything but sleep flee, my knees almost buckling.

“Are you okay, belovèd?” Ulkair asked, caressing the side of my face as he looked up at me, concern heavy in his golden eyes.

“I’m…just tired,” I mumbled, leaning into his hand. “Perhaps we should wait at the temple.”

Ulkair frowned, but nodded and be began a slow walk back to the temple. Just inside the entrance, I found a clear spot on the wall and slide down to sit on the ground, telling myself that we should be near the entrance to make sure we didn’t miss any of our companions coming or going. Ulkair curled up in my lap and I wrapped my arms around him, much as we sat for our prayer and meditation each morning. My lips turned up into a small smile and I rested my face atop Ulkair’s head, my eyes growing heavy. We needed to be here, to be ready…but there was nothing to do but wait for now. I could close my eyes for just a moment…

Ulkair lightly shook my shoulder, crouching beside me rather than curled up in my lap as he had been just a second ago. I must have dozed off…looking around, I saw Cheshire standing a short ways ahead of me, her gaze locked on Alix as she nervously wrung her hands. The ranger’s face was ashen, shaken, his fists clenched tightly at his sides.

“Well, I…don’t know what to say, Cheshire,” Alix said, coming to stand before the bard and shaking his head.

“What happened?” Cheshire asked, cautiously reaching her hand out towards him, though she paused midway.

“He wants to know why I would open old wounds and that he forgave me all those years ago because he thought we would all die soon, but now he has to live a long life with this. He wonders why I prod at his pain,” Alix all but breathed, his eyes distant, almost vacant.

“Did you tell him what Nerida said?”

“Yes. He said he thinks he would know if there were undead, if his future mother-in-law that died seventeen years ago were back or if his lover were around.”

Cheshire took Alix’s hand, looking intently at him as I suspected I did when I was speaking to Ulkair in my mind, their words not meant for our ears or she was concerned about someone else overhearing. Agorran…was being controlled in my dream. I couldn’t believe that he would so casually disregard a message from our god warning us of the presence of undead after the centuries the vampires had been here.

“Alix, there are undead here,” Lóin spoke up, looking at the ranger.

“You know for sure?” Cheshire asked.

“Show me,” Alix stated, stepping towards the dragon.

Lóin nodded mutely, leading us back into the temple to the small memorial for his mother, where his father’s scale with her likeness etched into it was held. He gently rested his fingertips on the scale, lost in thought for a moment before he turned back to us.

“I came here to, you know, send well wishes and all and I saw a shadow pass. Selene didn’t notice, so I cast a spell to detect undead and I passed out it was so powerful, but it wasn’t familiar. I don’t think it was anything we’ve encountered before.”

Alix’s eyes narrowed and he edged closer to the scales, watching where he was stepping and scanning every surface for any sign of the shadow Lóin saw or what might have overpowered him.

“I think I see,” Alix began, running his finger along the wall. “It would be easy to miss, but there’s just the slightest, slightest residue.”

“Slightest residue of what?” I asked, grimacing watching the ranger bring his finger to his lips to taste the substance before spitting it out.

“Ectoplasm. There has been something in here.”

“Should I try to detect it again? Maybe I won’t pass out this time and actually help find it,” Lóin said, his eyes flickering about the room, looking for any sign of the shadow.

“You would know that best,” Alix said.

A determined look came over Lóin’s face and he stepped closer to the scales again. He took a deep breath and I felt his magic filling the room, looking for what creature dare taint these halls. His hands flew to the sides of his face and he squeezed his eyes shut, swaying on his feet before he collapsed. Selene was at his side in a moment, shaking the dragon. But moments passed before icy blue eyes fluttered open again and he lifted his hand to cover Selene’s on his shoulder.

“This is what happens if you try to divine the location of one too strong for your senses,” Alix said, frowning. “Many a priest has had this outcome on missions with me. Generally, it means that it is much more powerful than the person casting it.”

“Your magic is probably way stronger than Lóin’s,” Cheshire said, looking up at me.

“And I have an innate ability to find things, it would seem,” I replied.

“Indeed,” Ulkair said, a forced smile spreading across his grim face.

“I don’t have any scrying spells, but I could try another spell,” I said. If nothing else, maybe I would figure something out about this ghost or whatever we were looking for.

Taking a deep breath, I called on my own magic to search for the presence, immediately feeling something around me. So it was here, but where? I focused my magic following it to its source, wherever it was hiding in our city. Something came over me, what I was looking for finding me instead as overwhelming evil surrounded me. I felt like I was falling, drowning as all light extinguished around me, lost to the shadows consuming me. My eyes flew open and I tried to scramble back away from the darkness, but I couldn’t seem to lift my arms so impossibly heavy at my sides.

“Nerida!” Ulkair called, cupping my face in his hand. “Nerida, are you okay?”

“Ulkair? Y-yea, I’m fine…” I mumbled, leaning into his chest, realizing I was lying on the ground. “It was just…stronger than I expected. I was hoping I would at least be able to figure something out about it, but one moment I was fine and in the next, all light was lost…”

Ulkair hugged me and helped me to my feet, a task yet so much more difficult than it should have been, but we knew for certain now that the presence of undeath tainted these halls, something stronger than any one of us, including Agorran. I had certainly faced worse than soul-shattered exhaustion and I couldn’t give in now, not while my high priest needed me. Looking around, I saw Cheshire’s worried eyes staring up at me.

“I-I’m sorry Nerida, I didn’t think it would hurt you…” Cheshire mumbled, wringing her hands before hugging my waist.

“It didn’t. It just…overwhelmed me a little for a moment,” I said, loosely wrapping my arms around her.

Cheshire paused, regarding me for a moment as though something had suddenly occurred to her. She closed her eyes briefly, listening? Her eyes slowly opened and she released her hold on me, following something I couldn’t discern. I wrapped my arm around Ulkair’s waist and followed her through the temple, slowly leading us back to Agorran’s office.

“Alix…this…is the only place I don’t feel Tubatron’s holy presence or hear my song…” Cheshire all but breathed, staring in horror up at the door.

Alix nodded, stepping up to the door and kicking it down, drawing his sword in a smooth movement. Brandishing his great sword, he grabbed Selene by her arm, practically throwing her at the high priest.

“You said you can push spirits out of people’s bodies. Do it,” Alix commanded. “This room is covered in ectoplasm.”

Caspian looked between us and raised her arms, her magic filled the room and flowing through each of us, granting us all uncommon strength for what fight seemed to be ahead of us.

“I’ll be right back,” Ulkair muttered, teleporting away with the babies in his arms.

I looked in horror at Agorran, tightening my grip on Anduin. I…I couldn’t possibly attack him, drench his office in his own blood. I couldn’t kill him again. Souls…ghosts..that ghost that was possessing Cheshire I was able to pull out with Anduin, but I couldn’t risk attacking him. Though…after Elysia with that demon that possessed Alix, I’d studied exorcisms, an art lost, unnecessary in Zissyx. I’d never been able to practice the skill, but if there was even the chance it could save Agorran without hurting him, it’d be worth it.

I extended my hand towards him, focusing on Lord Eadro’s power, his light that could chase out any darkness. Agorran stiffened as I poured positive energy into him, his own oddly absent, masked by the foul creature controlling him. His face contorted in pain and he hunched over with his arms wrapped tightly around himself, a feminine scream tearing from his throat. Agorran collapsed to the ground and the woman from my dreams, Alix’s mother appeared before him. Lóin looked uncertainly at his hand, pale, sea green light forming in his open palm before he thrust his hand towards Alix’s mother. The light coalesced and a ray shot out, striking the shade and reflecting harmlessly into the ground.

“You are weak, dragon,” she sneered, narrowing her eyes at us.

Cheshire shifted behind me, glancing briefly between Agorran and Alix before she darted forward, reaching for the high priest yet crouching on the ground to see if he was okay. An exorcism was certainly more gentle than ripping the spirit out of his body with a trident, but I didn’t know what other damage might have been done by my hand or the ghost’s.

“Get away from him!” the ghost shrieked, knocking Cheshire back away from them.

“This is not your temple and this is not your home!” Cheshire screamed back, throwing herself at Agorran.

She stared into his vacant eyes, pressing her fingers against his wrist, trying to assess what damage we might have done. Feeling her touch, he flinched violently, jumping to his feet and looking around the room.

“What’s going on?” Agorran groggily called, his gaze resting on Alix for an explanation.

“I know a lot about undead, but you seem awfully solid,” Alix spat, his eyes narrowing. “That didn’t feel like an exorcism, that felt like an act to me.”

Alix leapt forward with his great swords, carving into the ghost, or what was pretending to be a ghost. With each swing, his blades knocked her farther back into the room until she was leaning heavily against the back wall, black ooze leaking from the corner of her mouth.

“You always were such a clever killer,” his mother ground out, her tone too soft, perhaps one a parent might use with their child but for her words.

Her head fell back and a terrible screech filled the room, shaking the very core of my being. My hands flew over my ears for what protection they could offer, but still her piercing wail threatening to shatter my mind. Blood oozed from my ears and my own shrieks joined the banshee’s, lost to the cacophony of anguish. Collapsing in a heap, my forehead pressed against the cool stone of the ground, offering no relief. Her screech slowly faded as the undead creature faded into the wall. My vision swam as I glanced up, groaning at the small motion.

“Where! Is! Agorran!?” Alix demanded, glaring at the form of the high priest yet in the middle of the room, carving into him with each word and with each slash the form of the high priest wavered until it settled into that of his sister.

“You’ve done it again, Brother,” the young woman said, looking sadly at him, her form fading from view.

Both of Alix’s swords fell from his hands as he dropped to his knees, staring vacantly at the place where his sister stood but moments before, the puddle of ectoplasm remaining. Cheshire knelt beside him, wrapping her arms around him and resting her face on his shoulder.

“We’ll find Agorran,” Cheshire whispered, holding him tight, but he made no indication he even heard her. “Alix?”

Ulkair appeared in the middle of the room, his hands poised to fill the room with his arcane might when he paused, looking around in confusion. Stepping up to him, I wrapped my arms around him, explaining what happened in the mere moments he was gone as Cheshire’s soft, broken voice ressounded with a song for Alix. Agorran….really wasn’t here….so where was he? And how long had be been gone? Was it him I spoke to when I was here last week? The only times I had seen such anger on his face as I had last week was against undead and when I’d told him about slavery in Zissyx. I…should have known…I should have stayed, found him. A week was not long, and yet, in so few days I had gone from being another rube following Alix around through the marshlands to a commander leading the entire city to war against vampires. So much could happen in even so little time.

Ulkair walked over to investigate the puddle, casting a few detection spells on what remained. His frown deepened as he looked around the room, the residual magic glowing not only from the ectoplasm, if that’s what it truly was, but the entire room.

“Yes, there were some elaborate illusions in play here that are just now dispelling,” Ulkair muttered.

“So they weren’t ghosts?” I asked.

“I think that his sister was a ghost, but his mother was not.”

“Then why did the exorcism work?” I asked, frowning. Had I done something wrong after all? I’d been so happy to finally be able to put the skill to use, only to find out it was a lie.

“They knew you could do that and that you probably would, is my guess. They staged it to make us think that was Agorran.”

“There are some undead that can manifest with a particular malice towards a particular object or person and some have great command of illusions and other magic,” I commented, thinking back to what I’d read about undead creatures. “Like with the vampires and Dovev, any undead can control other undead. She could be a remnant with no goal other than to kill Alix or she could be forcing other undead to look like his family. As the Hero of Byss, there probably are a lot of undead that hate him, but there’s no way to know for sure.”

“I thought it was very odd that he didn’t welcome someone with open arms when we brought him…” Alix mumbled, his voice dead, devoid of all emotion.

Cheshire whispered something to him, her voice too soft for me to make out above her weeping. Ulkair crouched beside her and wrapped his arms around her, though she hardly seemed to notice. I wavered on my feet beside him, catching myself a little on his shoulder to remain standing. If I knelt beside them, could I stand up again? I wanted to say yes, of course, but the strain to merely stand gave me pause. Cheshire needed me, Agorran more than anyone needed me, and yet I was so weak.

I heard muffled voices behind me growing louder by the moment, panic woven through them, questioning what was happening, where Agorran was, if undead were back, what was going to happen. Seeing Alix in shambles, their fear only grew, wondering what could possibly take their leader and bring their hero to his knees. Climbing to her feet, Cheshire stepped up to the crowd of Byssians forming, holding her hand out to try to calm them.

“Please, we will find Agorran. Go about your lives and take care of your brothers and sisters in arms. We cannot continue to let undead stain our lives,” Cheshire said, her voice heavy with grief not entirely her own.

“We’re the people who live here! Tell us what’s going on!” someone yelled, anger mixing in with his fear and confusion at the dismissal. “We have to help him, we­ have to find him! He’s our high priest!”

“Did you bring that with you?” another asked, accusation heavy in her voice.

“No!” Cheshire cried, looking at them at a loss “It was here when we came here. I would appreciate any information anyone might have regarding Agorran’s behaviour the last couple of weeks.”

“He’s just been busy, reclusive,” came the gruff response, all eyes yet on the bard, looking for answers.

“He is our high priest too and we will not rest until we find him,” I said, stepping forward, new determination strengthening my stride. “Lord Eadro told me that Byss was in danger and that is why we came back. We drove the tyranny of undeath out once and we will do it again!”

Looking the crowd over, the very people who once followed a stranger to war, one who was once their enemy, I saw panic fade, leaving a look of almost pained resignation amidst the need to find Agorran. They weren’t an idle people, content to sit back and allow others to resolve anything for them, especially in a situation involving undead. All offered their aid in any way they could, yet reluctant as the crowd dispersed, but so too was a glimmer of hope, trust. They remembered our past victories together and trusted us to do as we said.

“Alix, it looks like that thing was reading all of Agorran’s journals from his whole life. All the pages that are open are about you,” Mimi called from beside the high priest’s desk, looking over the scattered pages.

“I am a blight upon his life. We should burn those books,” Alix ground out, clenching his fists.

“I’m sure there are plenty of other things in those books that Agorran will want when we find him,” Cheshire said, squeezing the ranger’s hand.

“And Nerida may be able to use them to find him. These books are the last item that thing was touching,” Mimi added,

“This puddle of ectoplasm would be a good thing to aid her scrying as well,” Ulkair chimed in, forced neutrality on his face.

“Should I be looking for the thing that took him or High Priest Agorran himself?” I asked, looking between the journals and the ectoplasm.

“Either, though if this is a powerful undead that understands magic, its probably warded against scrying. However, we are powerful. Perhaps we could break through that ward,” Ulkair said.

“We have before,” I commented, nodding slightly.

“We could take the fight to them. According to Nerida’s dream, that’s Elysia,” Cheshire said.

“What would have happened to it after the confluence was destroyed?” I asked, my memory of the events yet hazy, and after we left? What happened to a plane entirely devoid of positive energy?

“It would have gone dark and it should have been relatively impossible to go in or out, but I imagine something powerful enough could get out,” Ulkair said, sighing.

“Ulkair, is this whistle magical now?” Mimi asked, holding the trinket out to him. “A boy stole it from me shortly after we got here, but I hadn’t seen him since in all the time we’ve been here. It was just something I bought on impulse before I came here, but he just showed up and handed it back to me before disappearing.”

“Well, I don’t think it’s magical from you, but there seems to be an enchantment on it,” Ulkair began, turning the whistle over in his hand for a time, inspecting the magic surrounding it. “It appears that when you blow it, this will stun all undead around you for a few seconds.”

“I think you need this more than me,” Mimi said, handing it to Cheshire.

“What did the boy look like?” Alix asked, possibly looking even more haggard than he had before Mimi spoke up about the whistle.

“Well, a little boy,” Mimi began, holding her hand out at about her thigh in indicate his height. “Grey eyes, shaggy, black hair. He smiled a lot.”

“That sounds like what my brother used to look like,” Alix said, his shoulder sagging further. Standing, he turned to look at me with such anguished desperation as I had never seen in him. “I know you have no great love for it, but please, would you try to scry for him?”

“I…don’t have any scrying magic today…” I mumbled, biting my lip. I couldn’t take us here and now I couldn’t even look for Agorran. Whatever that thing might have been doing to him before, now that it knew we were here and looking for him, it could only get worse. Time was of the essence now more than ever. “I could try to just…reach out with my oracular nature, but I’m still not really sure how it works. I don’t know that I could find anything, but it’s worth a shot. In the meantime, could you go find the guy we brought here and interrogate him? Find out if he knows anything, how Agorran has been acting.”

“Nerida’s right. Go find him, stick him in your zone of truth, and find out if he knows anything about this,” Cheshire said, nodding.

“If he was being led to follow them to work for them and if High Priest Agorran was already possessed last week, then he is bound to know something. He’s working in the forge with Will now.”

Nodding, Mimi headed out to the forge, determined to find whatever lead she could there. Cheshire returned to Alix’s side, holding his hand, whispering promises that we would find him, everything would be okay. Ulkair knelt beside her again, gently rubbing her back, occasionally glancing over at me to see what I was doing. I thought to ask him what to do, but he wouldn’t necessarily know either and Cheshire needed him.

Clenching my fists in determination, I walked over to the high priest’s desk, looking over the journals filled with his familiar, near scrawl, the ever-present smell of incense in the room. So many days I’d spent with him here, teaching him about Lord Eadro, our history, the intricacies of our practice, our festivals, our songs, our dances. His soft chuckles as I tried to translate the dances to something suitable to land. I sat heavily in the chair, feeling a crushing weight bear down on my shoulders. This desk, this office I feared would become mine after fighting the vampires, a vacancy I could never fill. So much he’d fought, so much he had bested and now Byss was the paradise he deserved to be happy in. He couldn’t…we couldn’t lose him now.

A single tear slide down my cheek as I shut my eyes, reaching out, looking for him, his gentle presence, though I wasn’t sure how. How could I look without my eyes, see beyond where I was, when I was? How…how didn’t matter because I needed to, one way or another. Taking a deep breath, I allowed my thoughts, my worries, everything to wash away on tides far greater than me, magic, divinity more vast than my mind could contain, but perhaps catching a glimpse would reveal what I needed to know. I reached out, but I felt so…heavy, so weak in comparison and I felt my will begin to crumble under the weight.

Fear crept into my mind, whispering of an unavoidable fate of my broken mind, rampant insanity that would drive Ulkair away from me. On this path, I would lose him, I would lose myself, everything I loved, everything I was. Doubt clawed at me, batted my hand away as though I were a small child than had been caught getting into something I wasn’t supposed to. That journal I read, that was the fate of oracles, of those who saw what wasn’t meant to be seen. No matter how I clung to Ulkair, it wouldn’t be enough. Hadn’t I held tight to Erhu’s small hand as he wasted away? Hadn’t I swam with Zeph every day? Hadn’t I been just beside Áine when she lost her arm and was thrown into the slave pits, deformed, unwanted? So much I had held onto with all I was, but I wasn’t enough, never enough.

I faltered, my mouth opening in a silent scream to deny all it had said, but I could find no opposition. I felt Ulkair’s reassuring presence, his arms wrapping around me, holding me tight as his lips brushed against my forehead. I was stronger now and I wasn’t alone. Ulkair’s love, Lord Eadro’s divine grace, if anything could preserve me, they would. I would be enough for them, for Agorran. He needed me and that was more important than my fears, my failures. Cheshire crying at Alix’s side, her every tear a painful jab to my heart. The ranger I had never seen so hopeless, broken. For them…

Screaming, I punched through the shadows in my way, throwing aside their chains holding me back. Reach out, sea green light washed over me, my fissures glowing as positive energy danced across my skin. Something ignited in me and the exhaustion clouding my mind lifted, my magic restoring. Lord Eadro was at my side, just as he always was, ever guiding me.

My eyes flew open and I sat up with a start, my breath coming out in short gasps. I looked down at my hands, expecting to see sea green light glowing along long fissures, but I saw nothing. Ulkair paused in his pacing to walk up to me, running his finger down the side of my face.

“We can always be strong, when we lift our voices at the first light of dawn, together, Belovèd,” Ulkair said, modifying his treasured song slightly.

“Then would you lift your voice with mine? Perhaps not now or at the first light of dawn, but sometime?” I asked, gently turning his hand over in mine, trailing my fingers across his skin.

“I…can’t sing…but…perhaps…after my own fashion, I will join you,” Ulkair mumbled,

“Have I ever told you about the most beautiful sound I think I’ve ever heard?” I asked, glancing up at him.

“Um, no?” Ulkair responded, regarding me with faint suspicion.

“Well, you see, this one time I was sitting in the arena with this amazing man. I hadn’t known him long at the time, but there was just something about him that drew me to him and had since the day we met. At the time, it was the happiest I’d ever seen him. We were talking about admittedly a ridiculous plan I had concocted to perform a magic trick for him and the glorious sound that fell from his lips brought such joy to my heart,” I mumbled, continuing to describe the sound of his laughter in Elysian.

“I… well,” Ulkair began, the corners of his mouth twitching as he tried and failed to suppress a smile. “I love to hear your voice more, so there!”

Laughing, I pulled him into my arms, realizing it wasn’t difficult to do so. The exhaustion that had plagued me was gone, my magic returning as it might otherwise have this morning. I hadn’t found Agorran as I had hoped to, but now, I could scry for him. My smile faltered, seriousness returning with our grave situation.

“Perhaps you could grace me with your voice another day, but for now, we have a high priest to scry for,” I murmured, taking his hand.

Ulkair nodded, squeezing my hand when Alix’s frantic voice rang out, calling to us. Ulkair and I exchanged a worried glance before we ran out to see Cheshire dashing out the front door, Alix, Lóin and Caspian just behind her. Ulkair held tight to my hand and muttered under his breath, cutting his other hand through the air before him, a shimmering portal appearing he wasted no time jumping through. We appeared outside the temple, running just behind Alix. He appeared to be following a trail, though I couldn’t see anything. Cheshire ran beside him, singing, perhaps illuminating the path he was following.

“I think I know where we need to go,” Alix said, darting away from the town along a path rarely followed.

The arena…where better to keep someone that no one else would notice or think to go near? Just as Typhon kept his second residence so far from the rest of Zissyx. I hadn’t seen much of it aside from the training hall and where we fought, but there must be a place where all the undead were kept, fortified to keep the rest of the city safe from the lethal collection.

“I don’t know exactly what we’ll be facing in there, but I think…my mother wishes to invalidate my victories, so be prepared for the worst,” Alix announced as we approached the entrance.

“Well, we are one victory she can’t invalidate,” Cheshire said, hugging him.

Alix hugged her back, taking a deep breath and lovingly brushed a strand of hair behind her ear. Even if the rest of his family had met a cruel end or turned against him, he still had her, ever a radiant beacon. Alix led us once more into the arena, his mother waiting for us in the middle of the open space, her arms folded tightly across her chest.

“I sensed you were coming. I don’t know quite how you found us, but it’s quite in time,” she said, sneering at Alix, her gaze never straying from him until a flash of yellow caught her eye, a gentle breeze catching the trailing fabric of Cheshire’s dress. Murderous fury filled her eyes and calm, calculated speech turned to shrieks. “How di- how dare you give someone else my dress!”

“You have no more claim to this dress than you do to Alix or this plane or our lives!” Cheshire yelled back, her fists balled up at her sides.

“Alix,” she began, her voice suddenly cool, quiet, but no less indignant. “I demand you send her out right now.”

“You don’t give him orders,” Cheshire seethed.

Without a word, Alix took one of his swords and launched it at the figure standing before us, effectively cleaving straight through her. The two halves of her body fell, motionless. She hadn’t budged, moved a muscle at all, almost as if that was what she’d been waiting for.

“You’re a bad son,” her hollow voice called and a shiver ran up my spine at the unnatural sound.

Black slime oozed out of the halves, exploding away what remained of her flesh and it billowed as smoke, growing and growing until it towered over us all, at least thirty feet tall and about half as wide. A being of shadow, reveling in the corruption and torment of others, a nightwalker. Sharp, curved spikes sprouted across her shoulders, framing her face no longer feminine. Narrow slits turned to look at us in the stead of eyes and skin grew clean over where her mouth should have been, but still she spoke.

“It took a while, but I found my way back out here so I could just give you some discipline, Alix. Give you what you deserve for all that you’ve done to this family. You can thank your friends that made Elysia the way that it is because I would never have been powerful enough without that gift of negative energy they gave me.”

“I know that in a negative energy plane that even for beings that can absorb negative energy, there’s eventually too much. Just like on the positive plane, it heals you and heals you until you’re full of life and vigor, that is until you explode. That was my hope, that the vampires would be so full of negative energy that they would pop, but she must have found a way to just grow until she was powerful enough to leave and her vessel was never destoryed.”

A small boy clutching a skull and a girl materialized on either side of her, both bearing a striking resemblance to Alix. I thought the girl looked like the woman in my dream with Agorran, though she was a twisted, ghoulish version of the one I had seen and it was hard to see her skin rotting of the face I remembered seeing full of such happiness. Looking closer at the little boy, I notice he cradled two skulls in one of his arms, a staff made of what appeared to be bone in his other the hand.

“Be careful. The little one is a skull lord,” I warned, recognizing the undead creature. “They’re capable of raising and controlling lesser undead, wielding bone staves, and they can fire bone shards at range. A favourite trick of theirs is to tear shards of your bones out and spit them back at you with unerring accuracy. Like most undead, he’s immune to the cold. The skulls protect him from injury, but they can only take so much and he’ll lose an ability with each skull destroyed. With the first, he’d lose the ability to create undead and the second his ability to launch bone shards.”

Alix paid little heed to either of the smaller undead, charging instead at the nightwalker his mother had become with his great swords drawn as lighting shot from Aadya’s open palm, darting across the ground as though it were alive. A colossal beast roared behind me and Caspian’s wingless dragon, a megaraptor, I think she called it, charged past me to claw into the ghoul. I glanced between the skull lord and the nightwalker, the latter the obvious threat, but neither should we ignore the other undead. If Ulkair and I could at least return him to the death that once claimed him, then we could all focus on the nightwalker.

Ulkair took my hand and I felt him drawing on my magic, a column of divine fire raining down on both of them, tearing through a shimmering barrier surrounding the nightwalker. I squeezed his hand back and called on the fury of the sun I first used in this arena to burn through what undead they pit us against. Light coalesced in my palm and burned into the skull lord as one of the skulls in his arm began to crack.

Unfazed, the skull lord raised his hand and I stiffened, feeling like tiny, invisible claws were picking at my bones. I instinctively wrapped my arms around myself, but still screams tore from my throat as a terrible cracking sensation resounded through me, my bones splitting apart. They shifted under my skin at the skull lord’s command, heeding his call and tearing out of my body. Groaning, I glanced up to see the bloodied white shards hovering before me, waiting to strike. I threw myself backwards to dodge them, but the splinters of my bones followed just as I’d warned they would, as though they sought to return where they belonged, cutting cleanly through me. Turning around, he lifted one of the skulls, eerie light glowing in the empty sockets. The ground rumbled, shifting as a gigantic skeleton began climbing out. The dragon…it was the remains of the zombie dragon we had fought just a couple weeks before.

The nightwalker shrieks faded as she shook off the flames, and she plucked Alix off the ground, looking like little more than a toy in her hand, a grin spread across her face as she took flight. Cheshire screamed his name, running after them without a thought. Wings erupted from her back as she tore after them, bringing the whistle Mimi was given to her lips. A burst of magic flooded the arena and the undead stiffened, even the nightwalker reduced to only hovering above the arena.

Cheshire flew after her, Lóin just behind them in his dragon form, blade and claws carving into her while Mimi and Selene focused on the skeletal dragon. Mimi’s scythes sliced easily through its bones, ribs and great wings falling like leaves from a tree. Selene ran up its spine and severed its head with a solid kick to the base of its neck, the dragon crumbling in a heap.

I felt the skull lord’s dead eyes on me, though he was yet held motionless by the magic of the whistle Mimi received from a child whose resemblance he rather bore. Gritting my teeth, I called another beam of searing light to my palm and Ulkair set him ablaze again with arcane fire. Mimi jumped off the dragon falling to lifeless bones again and brought her scythe down on the skull lord, a smile on his face. What magic controlled him exploded out, leaving only the hilt of a broken sword sticking out of the ground.

A flash of violet caught my eye and I looked up to see Aadya catching Alix, Cheshire and Lóin still on either side of the nightwalker. The ranger pointed at the inky figure and Aadya drew her arm back, throwing him like a lightning bolt at what was once his mother, before she was distorted by misplaced rage and anguish. The sunlight flashed off his blades before he cleaved through her and her form fell as a collapsing pillar of smoke. A ghoulish scream rang out from Alix’s twin as she writhed on the ground, dissipating without the nightwalker’s control.

Cheshire landed a short ways ahead of me, searching the disturbed ground for sign of our missing high priest with her music, Aadya soon setting Alix down beside his daughter to aid her. Alix soon found his trail despite the overturned soil and led us into dungeons below the arena. I supposed they once kept the creatures heretics were to fight here, but all such curiosities fled my mind at the sight of Agorran chained to the wall, signs of torture too apparent across his naked skin. Agorran…why hadn’t I found you last week when we were here? How could I have been so blind as to overlook the strange behaviour of that wretched creature wearing your face after having spent almost every day with you for six months, our interactions not infrequent even after that?

Cheshire ran up to him and smashed the chains with Ragnarok, Alix just behind her to catch the wounded priest before the unforgiving ground could. I rested my hand on his shoulder, pouring positive energy into him, his many wounds slowly healing over. Groaning, he looked up at the ranger, his hand fisting in his shirt as if still doubting that it was truly him. He coughed violently, blood staining his hand, though still a faint smile spread across his weary face.

“I knew you’d come, Alix,” Agorran said as he slowly wrapped his arms around the ranger, his voice tired, hoarse from strain my heart bled to consider. “Was it truly her?”

“No, they were just undead being controlled,” Cheshire answered without hesitation, tears welled in her eyes, though she did her best to blink them back.

Were they really Alix’s family? We…didn’t actually know that they weren’t, that Alix’s mother hadn’t in fact trapped their souls and forced them to become the undead they had fought in life, but right now, that wasn’t what Agorran needed to hear. We didn’t know it wasn’t them either and after what he had suffered down here at their hands, there was no need to break his heart further. Agorran sighed and sagged into Alix’s arms, resting his face on his shoulder, undoubtedly relaxing for the first time since he was taken.

“Go to sleep, Friend,” Alix’s voice called, a gentleness to his tone I rarely heard, reserved, I supposed, for Cheshire when just the two of them spoke.

Agorran’s eyes fluttered shut and Cheshire covered him in a blanket from her bag of holding, Alix adjusting his hold to wrap the fabric around his abused body. Mimi sheepishly stepped forward, holding out the hilt of the broken sword the skull lord left behind. Alix stared sadly at it a moment before taking the hilt, holding it close to his heart.

“”This was the sword I gave my brother before he left and never came back. It really must have been him….but we are all finally free from my mother,” Alix murmured, walking away with Agorran yet safely in his arms.

“Cheshire, I didn’t sense their souls anywhere,” Mimi all but breathed, regarding the bard with wide eyes.

“They could have just been undead or they could have already moved on. We’ll figure it out,” Cheshire sighed heavily, running her hand through her hair as she turned to follow Alix, though she stopped abruptly and turned once more to face Ulkair and I. “Where are Rhapsody and Seren?”

“Oh, I left them with Aintai,” Ulkair mumbled, scratching the back of his head. “She was the only person I could think of off hand that I knew I could trust.”

“Good choice,” Cheshire nodded.

“I think though that Seren was wrestling her to the ground. We might should go check on that.”

I blinked a couple times at Ulkair’s announcement, my lips twitching upwards into a grin, thinking of the merbaby wrestling the normally stoic sorceress and possibly fairing well with Caspian’s spell to augment our strength. Chuckling slightly despite myself, I took Ulkair’s hand, agreeing that we ought go check on them before we found a giant viper wound around Seren. Ulkair took Cheshire’s hand and reality whirled in around us, appearing before the disgruntled sorceress a moment later. She gave us a dirty look, immediately moving to hand Seren back to me, though her eyes lacked the coolness they’d had when we met. She passed Rhapsody to Cheshire with much more care than she had Seren to me, mindful of his fragile form.

I nuzzled Seren’s face and thanked Aintai for watching them, giggling feeling Seren’s tiny hands on my face. Aintai nodded, moving back to something she was enchanting, if I gauged the various components on her table correctly. Cheshire held Rhapsody close, expressing her own gratitude before wandering out, heading straight for Alix’s house, it would seem still vacant after our short absence. I reached again for Ulkair’s hand, trying not to dwell on why they weren’t pressed to find a new resident for our houses.

Following after the bard, we found her curled up on Alix’s bed in a pile of blankets, her typical refuge. Sighing softly, I sat beside her on the bed, pulling her small form and her revertible mountain of blankets into my lap. Ulkair sat next to me, wrapping one of his arms around my waist, the other on Cheshire. Leaning closer to him, I rested my face atop his head, my eyes sliding shut for a moment. For now, we were safe. Agorran was safe, recovering from torment we would likely never know the full extent of for the pain the retelling would bring.

Elysia still stood, though, a dark parody of the glittering city we guarded. Seeing what the vampires had done to his belovèd home nearly crushed him, and now, to see the full extent of what our actions had wrought…I tightened my hold around Ulkair, pressing my lips against his temple, praying our visit would not leave such grievous scars on us this time.

View
Two Souls Entwine
Reality cuts deep, would you bleed with me, My Selene?

In a moment the morning sun loomed, eradicating any lingering effects of the negative energy. We stand in Byss, our home, and despite feelings of rejoice and relief from most of my companions, the sting of loss, and realization plagued my heart, and thoughts of desperation creep into my mind.

I try to allow the others a moment’s reprieve before I ask the question eating at my mind, but how much time can I afford? Finally I breathe out a heavy sigh and approach Nerida, Selene’s lifeless body wrapped up in my arms. “Nerida, Selene’s soul is currently in the jar, yeah?” She nods her head. “Can you tell,” I begin, “If it’s… is it whole? It occurred to me, after the fight that she has been with demons for a very long time, and they like to munch on things like souls, and since her soul is currently outside of her body, maybe you can tell if it’s missing demon mouth-shaped pieces.”

Nerida takes out her jar, and I see a tiny light hovering within, a small sad light. “It’s smaller than it should be,” she says. “They may have kept parts of it to help control her.” Ulkair also gives the tiny light a once over.

“These don’t look torn or violently done, this was precession work that fragmented her soul.” He considers this a moment. “Only the wizards of Thay, or the most powerful demons can do this. Surgically fragment souls.”

Surgically? What does he mean surgically? Where has she been all this time? “Is there any way to fix it now, or do we need the actual pieces of the soul?”

“You need the pieces of the soul,” he says. “This might be why she’s been so distant and uncaring of certain things that should be important to her.”

“Would dragon magic fix this?” I recall my father doing something to me, to remove the taint that the Ghoul Lord corrupted me with, could I do something like that as well?

“You can substitute something for it, but it’ll never be the way it was unless you find the original pieces.”

“Can it be a temporary fix, like a Band-Aid until we get the other pieces back?”

“There are no real Band-Aids for souls. There are changes, and fragments.”

Without hesitation. “What about another soul?”

A silence falls over everyone. “It would be a powerful gift,” Ulkair says gently, “and a huge sacrifice, but you wouldn’t be the same again.”

“I’m already not the same anyway.” I respond quickly. “I’m becoming okay with changing on a near constant basis.” If I’m being honest I’m not sure my soul would be enough to save hers, but if it’ll bring her closer to being my Selene again, then so be it. I can sense an onslaught of retorts coming from my friends, and I steel myself. I have to do this.

Then my eyes meet Cheshire’s and in an instant that steely resolve wavers. “Listen, don’t take this the wrong way,” too late, I think, “not having these pieces of her soul already made her so distant, right, and cold. In the meantime, while we look for those missing pieces, those pieces will be missing from you.” She pauses, silence filling the air. “Can you really afford that?” I want to retort, I want to ask her if she was in my position wouldn’t she do the same, for Nerida? Ulkair?… Alix? But the words won’t come. They can’t. Silence, instead, fills the space between us. I see in those eyes a desperate plea I would’ve ignored not too long ago. Those eyes. I can’t break the heart behind those eyes again… can I? That’s not me anymore. I have to consider the words of my companions, my family. Regardless of what happens, regardless of my choice, I must hear their words.

“I also think it should be her decision too,” Mimi interjects. “She should have a say in it,” she’s right. But the problem is time. Selene shouldn’t be outside her body too long.

“Can we bring her back first?” I ask.

“It would be more difficult,” Ulkair says. That’s what I figured. “And while we’re here in Byss where positive energy permeates the entire plane.”

“I don’t know her, like you know her” Mimi continues. “But, I would be upset. I mean that is touching, but I wouldn’t want my loved one to suffer like that.” A fair point, but Selene would be better, even if I can’t enjoy it, she’ll be whole again.

I hesitate. “The thing is, we’ve both been suffering for a long time, but my reaction to her being taken away was to repress it. Maybe I can make up a little bit for that. That’s only part of the reason. I’ve been looking for her forever. I’m doing this.”

Nerida now draws out Anduin, the egotistical trident of Nerida’s that can be quite amusing. “Maybe, Anduin can talk to her, see what she wants Lóin,” What Selene wants? I hadn’t considered that. Wait, I really didn’t consider that! I feel shame color my face, but I wait as Nerida convinces her weapon to help. I think about the days and weeks since Selene returned to my life. I would really be blind not to have noticed the drastic change in her, even with considering what she must have gone through over the last couple of decades, her mood hasn’t improved, even with the time we spend together. She remains distant, and I wanted to give her space, but nothing’s changed and now that I know her soul is not only in pieces but was surgically broken, I must find out why, but do I have the strength to learn the truth? I’m not sure.

“Yeah, she’s not a god so I didn’t talk to her.” Freaking egotistical trident. Nerida coerces him again, and this time, we get different results. “I am moved, by your plight,” he says after communicating with the tiny light. “It’s a delightful love story of murderer and slaughter,” well he’s not wrong. “She thinks you’re stupid, and she loves you and you shouldn’t do it.” the trident says. “She doesn’t want you to lose the ability to feel like she has. She says if anything, she’ll live that way till she can have her soul again.” I don’t know what to think. “Also you’re big and dumb,” fair, “but she says you’re awesome regardless.”

She doesn’t want me to do this. The sensation echoes within me. A sorrowful echo, I feel the dark tree at the core of my world shiver and shake as each vibration of the echo rips through me.

“I think you should respect her wishes.” Nerida says after a few moments of silence. “Any problem I have would be made infinitely worse if in return Ulkair couldn’t love me.”

“I’ve got a new purpose, to take a piece of this demon that has Selene’s soul.” Anduin announces. “You’re big and dumb, I’m doing it for Selene, and her story compels me.” Yeah it compels me too.

“Yeah, my story has murder in it too.” I say absently, remembering the screams of agony as people burn.

“Yeah, yeah it’ll be great when we kill Malum, I’m going to stab him in the face.” I remain silent. “You’ve murdered tons of people but they weren’t good.” I shudder as an image of Hyperion crosses my mind then fades back into the recesses of my soul. One thing at a time.

“I…” I stutter, and hesitate. “I won’t do it.” Selene. Selene is my world. My eternity. Though my friends’ words sway me, only Selene can turn my heart. She remembers me before Byss, before the flames consumed me and the Ghoul Lord nearly ate me. And I remember her, before her soul was cut apart. I want my Selene, I want to take away her fear, her loneliness, and her hopelessness. But I can’t. I ascended reality, I overcame my darkness!… I forgave myself. But can I save her? For the first time since I became a dragon, I feel powerlessness, and it is a sobering feeling.

As Agorran and Alix’s sister embraced I could see relief and happiness paint the features of the old priest, and I can’t help but smile. I look back at Selene’s body, in her still features I see the elf who I stole glances with, who shared the pain of losing a parent, who didn’t laugh at my appearance or think I was an abomination, and who loved me despite my heart being broken.

I take her body away from the happiness of those around me. Let them have it, they have long deserved it. I take her body to the temple, the only place I can assure her safety till tomorrow. A priest walking by stops as I enter.

“Champion Lóin, what a surprise,” he then sees Selene in my arms and hesitates, not quite sure what to say.

“Please, is there a place where her body can rest? We can’t revive her until tomorrow.”

“Yes of course, this way.” He leads me to an empty room. Empty save for a bed and a desk. A few books sit on the desk, light from the morning sun bathes the room in a rich yellow. A perfect place for Selene. I gently lay Selene on the bed and look at her quiet face, uncertain, scared. The priest casts a spell and her body glows a moment, then the glow dissipates. Sadness once more creeps into my heart. The feeling of powerlessness slowly fills my mind.

“Can you keep an eye on her for a little while?” I ask. The priest smiles and nods. I look back at Selene once more before walking out of the temple. I stand a moment looking at the sky. Once upon a time there wasn’t a sky, only fog and dreariness. But now the sky shines so blue like sapphires dotted with white. I breathe in a moment, before exploding from my elven form to my true form, my dragon form, my comfort form.

I walk the streets absently, my mind consumed with a back and forth of what to do. I find myself at the lake, once crawling with undead, now just a peaceful, quiet lake. I lay next to the water a moment, then look at my reflection. How much have I changed, and yet, so much is still beyond my grasp. I examine each scale of my face and I see there, lining the silver scales, the blue of my markings, once painted on, but now burned into my face, even in this form, even in any form I take. Marked eternally, scarred eternally, the eternal reminder that though my darkness was conquered, scars will always remain.

The water I’m gazing at starts to ripple, again and again, and I realize that I’m crying, slowly at first, then more start to come as I reflect over everything. At first I consider holding them back, I’m supposed to be a dignified dragon, and Master used to say: “save your tears for closed doors”, but he’s not here anymore, neither is my mother… never was my father. I’m on my own, I have to figure it out on my own, and the only one I can blame at the end of it all is me.

I just let it flow, all my sorrow, swallowed to the deepest part of my world, escapes me now in the form of these dragon’s tears. As I cry I place my head on the ground and wrap my hand around it, sobbing, consumed by the sadness and weakness. I cry for Selene whose sins are not her own, who is to be punished for them, who once loved her family, the performers, so much, who cried when any of them were sold away, who even felt sorry for Alaster, the greedy goblin that owned us. I cry for those performers, whose lives I consumed in my gleeful rage, who faced my fire, and burned. I cry for an old battle-hardened elf who had to take care of a scared little boy, who was blind to the repercussions of his broken heart, and who loved him as his son. I cry for the brave elf woman, who walked through hellfire, into the gaping maw of a vindictive red dragon, to try and save her son, not just for him but for the dragon she loved as well. And I cry for myself. A sad half-dragon who got lucky, who reached for the sky, but is still stuck on the ground. Who broke his friends, his family, numerous times, who stared into the eyes of an innocent girl and threw her to his fire. Forgive me Selene, forgive my weakness, and forgive my fear and desperation. Forgive what I’m willing to do to get your soul back.

As I cry I hear a splash and look up to see Caspian, the rather enigmatic new addition to my companions, swimming up to me. A water genesai, I was that once, though I never really felt like one. She reaches up to me, a gentle hand, meant to comfort. I am… moved…. She has felt death’s sting, yet seems cheerful. I gently lean my head into her hand and smile as another wave of tears shutter through me. She pets my head then swims a little ways off.

I look back at my reflection again, and blow gently on the water. It freezes a small part and I put two fingers gently on the surface. It looks like a person, an elf, skating along. I remember when Master and I froze another lake. How Master made it snow. I remember how happy Selene was when she saw it, how overjoyed she was to dance on the lake with me. I remember her, and she remembers me. She refused my soul because she didn’t want me to forget. To forget her, or me, or our family.

“By flame consumed, by frost renewed.” I whisper. Etched in all my forms, just like the markings on my face, or the spiral scale on my chest. Selene, I’ll get stronger, I’ll forge a life better than before. It’ll take some time still, but I’ll make you whole again.

I smile and wipe away any remnants of tears, as the sadness subsides and I feel refreshed, almost new. I begin to hum a tune, an old shanty Master taught me many years before. I then realize that I hear someone singing it, and look over I see Caspian singing away. How long has she been singing now? I listen to her for a few minutes, before I join in, my booming dragon voice causing her to jump. She joins back in and we sing the rest of the shanty. She joins me back at the other side of the lake.

“You know that song?” she asks.

“Um, yes, when I was in the traveling circus, whenever we would stop near a port town, my Master and Selene’s father would go into town to learn new songs for he and I to perform.” I tell her.

“I’ve sailed around for all my life, let’s see if you know this one.” We proceed to sing old songs not heard of in Byss. After a few hours of singing, some heavily armed fisherman approach the lake and Caspian noticeably tenses up, causing me to chuckle. The fisherman, well, fish. Even with the peace this place has attained, Byssians will be Byssians, and I love them for it. A new thought occurs to me. Is this how my father felt when he encountered the Iarrthóir? Did he find a similar love for the battle-hardened, yet merry, family of elves after enduring similar trials that I faced with the Byssians? The only one left to remember them is my father, but I doubt he has any pity for them. That’s not fair, maybe I should talk to someone about this, but who? Maybe Cheshire? But she has more than enough problems, we all do.

I get up and leave the lake, realizing I had been there nearly all day. I returned to the temple where I was greeted by the same priest. “Champion, your-,” he hesitates.

“Selene.”

“Yes, Selene’s body is safe, would you like to see her?”

“Please.” He takes me back to the room I left her in. She looked as though she were sleeping. I pull out the chair next to the desk and sit in it, and examine the books on the desk. “Is there a book on Lord Eadro I can read until tomorrow?” He gives me a mock exasperated expression, which makes me chuckle. “Sorry, I’m-I’m trying.” I smile.

“You certainly are,” he says and leaves. I stroke Selene’s face gently, warmth still permeating from it. Not long after the priest returns with a book, that he hands to me. I look through its pages and notice a fancy swirling kind of handwriting and sigh.

“Mimi translated this didn’t she?”

The priest laughs and then leaves Selene and I. I begin to read.

*

Time passes, the night passes, and I awake the next day, head in the book, hand clutching Selene’s. I don’t remember a dream, or if I even had one. It’s not long before Nerida, Ulkair, and Agorran come in ready to return my Selene her soul.

Agorran puts a hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry Lóin, we haven’t the resources to undo all of the damage.”

“It’s okay,” I reply, “it’s better that she just comes back at all.” I stand out of the way and watch as Nerida casts her spell. The scene isn’t much different from Caspian’s revival but I find myself feeling tenser, more on edge.

The tiny light from the jar floats out and rests on Selene’s chest, as the diamond needed to generate this magic turns to dust in Nerida’s hand, then the tiny light gently fades into Selene’s body. She jerks awake, breathing heavy and reaching out for me, and I clutch her to me. In a moment, she’s calmed down and I breathe easy as her breathing eases as well.

“Are you alright?” I ask. She looks into my eyes, and I see it, behind her familiar eyes I see an emptiness, but also I see a sorrow. A realization that she is only partly the Selene I remember. I can see them now, a want to be whole, but a fear, deep, dark, and frustrating. Something unspeakable, wanting, waiting, and evil is the cause of her fear.

“I am exhausted,” she says before collapsing again, asleep. Nerida uses her magic, a quick burst of light I recognize as healing magic covers Selene. Her grip on me loosens, and feel her relax.

“Thank you Nerida,” I say.

“Of course, Lóin,” she says before her, Ulkair and Agorran leave us. I look back at Selene, sleeping peacefully, breathing easy. She won’t sleep long with Nerida’s magic. How much longer can I afford to wait? Desperation is my mortal enemy, but I need to know where her soul is. I’ll do what it takes to restore her, my Selene.

As I predicted she only slept a few hours before stirring. I continued to read while I waited and I found the time to be peaceful. Something I’ve noticed since becoming a dragon, I can understand things better, and I recognize the world in a different way than before. It’s been an adjustment but a liberating one.

When Selene and I leave the temple, I thank the priest once more for his help. I consider going to where the scales are, to make a quick prayer for mother and Master, but I sigh and move along instead. As we walk into the sunshine we run into Alix.

“Oh, Lóin, Selene,” he says, despite the usual stone face expression I can tell he walks a little less hard, it makes me happy to see. “We are having a picnic to celebrate Kat’s return, the whole family’s invited.”
“Kat? You mean, your sister?” he nods. “Of course,” I say looking at Selene, who sadly looks disinterested, “we’d love too.”

The picnic is simple, a refreshing change to the insanity of our daily lives. It feels good to be around some real happiness. To see Agorran and Alix, two people I look up to, relax and seem genuinely happy, is inspiring. During the festivities Seren attempts to dominate Kat, a trick to get fed out of an unsuspecting woman. Cheshire catches on and immediately stops it. The whole scene causes a great amount of laughter from us, and the laughter feels good, feels real.

The festivities are enlightened more by Nerida’s contribution of a magically conjured feast. When asked about what she should conjure, Cheshire in true Cheshire fashion suggest candy, Caspian being the sea-faring pirate only wants meat.

Candy was something Selene and I once had to harvest from waste bins and thrown on the ground after a performance. We each eat happily, though she doesn’t show it. I can see a slight elation in her eyes, like old memories, sweet and refreshing.

Selene leans on me, my arm around her. Regardless of what comes, moments like this I will treasure, like silver lined pictures of happiness. They will become part of the horde that I need to survive. “Thank you for bringing me back from the dead,” she says.

“Of course,” I reply, “I wish I could’ve done more, but I understand why you wouldn’t want that.” I consider something a moment. “But when you do feel like talking, I’d be happy to share whatever of my life, you don’t know about yet.” She smiles.

“What wondrous people you are, to be able to bring the dead back to life, and make chocolate from thin air.” She lays her head on my shoulder and I kiss her head gently.

The picnic serves a second function, and one that has been needed to be discussed for a while. With our recent eviction from Tubatron’s temple our only place to live is the fortress in the water realm. Ulkair mentions that it’s almost completely solid again, with almost all the water purged out. We discuss what each of us need out of a place to live. The fortress can be moved once we know where to put it, but we have to decide on that first. All I really need is somewhere cold where I can begin to store a horde. Sleeping on the silver-lined carpet hasn’t been the most uncomfortable, but it’s not been the most comfortable either, and I try to hide the accordion for the most part. I consider, as we discuss, how I’m going to go about acquiring a hefty horde of silver things, I may have to venture out and hunt for pieces. Then again, maybe I could get sheets of silver, similar to the bronze dragon’s, but I know those sheets aren’t enough for him, and neither would they be for me. What’s more I need the horde to be large. I intend to gain strength for whatever has Selene’s soul, and in order to do that I must be bigger and stronger.

What my companions put in also makes sense to help with growing the industry of our party. A volcanic island, which I’m not completely sold on, but perhaps I can find a way to make a cold cave, even a system of them. The volcanic aspect will help with growing crops, allowing us to be self-sufficient, which will indeed help once we bring all of the allies we’ve amassed across the planes.

In the end it is decided, and who will find this magical place? Alix, Aadya the giantess, Caspian, and one of the dwarves from Elysium. I’m quite excited to have one of the dwarves help in locating a place, I may be able to get a decent mine that can help with the horde, though I won’t hold my breath.

*

Four days pass in Bysss. I spend my time with Selene, just like before, I’m scared to really ask her anything, scared of causing her more pain than she has already endured, scared of her leaving and my inability to really change anything. We spend the four days as we’ve spent all days almost. We talk, but not about what we’ve done, or where we’ve been, but just talk of the moment we’re in. We would walk around Byss, hands clasped together, watching fireflies at night and holding each other till morning, when we would wake and do it all over again. It was peaceful though it gnawed at my mind. Where has she been? Still she genuinely looks happy, she genuinely seems ok, and that brings me peace.

But time has caught up to us. We’ve returned to the fortress, seen the slumbering bronze dragon, and Rolfe and his friend, seem fine in that room with sleeping creature. The first night back, Selene and I sit in a dry corner of the fortress in silence for a few moments, while I mole over how to start.

“I need to-,” I stutter. “I need to talk to you about somethings that I’ve been putting off for a while. Because I didn’t know what kind of state you were in when we rescued you. I didn’t want to,” I try to think of the words, “shock your system, as it were, by getting too emotional. But I need to know what’s happened to you, over the last several decades. Because if I’m going to get your soul back, I need to know where it is.” I breathe in. “And if you’re not going to take mine, I’m going to have to tear the Abyss apart to get it.”

She looks at me, sadness and fear in her eyes, but smiles. Sadly, but a smile nonetheless. Then she tells me the answer, an answer that shakes my core again, pouring anger, hate,… and desperation over my heart, like oil over a fire.

“I survived this long without it.” I cringe as she speaks.

“You need to have your soul back,” I argue, “because you need to be,” again I search for the words, “okay, like you make me okay.” I try to think of more, anything more. “Like I said, I was more than willing to give you part of mine, or all of mine, but you need to have your soul intact.”

“The person who has it,” she too fumbles for words. “It’s not that I don’t think we can take it back, it’s that I know,” her brow twists, a sign that she wants to cry, like I have, but she can’t, not anymore. “I know we can’t.” she says, and my heart twists.

“If you just told me who it was, we could figure something out, all of us,” I pause, “together.”

“Or you’ll run off, and do something stupid, and get yourself killed.” I can hear a tinge of anger, but a desperate attempt at mustering it. Her words strike me, reeling me back to a different time, a different me. Desperate to die with my boots. Desperate to slay, to murder, to avenge. Desperate. “I love you, Lóin, and I don’t want you to die for me.” To die for her? If only that was the least I was willing to do. I love her, she’s my Selene, the moon that illuminates the nightmares; how could I do anything less?

I feel my head lower, as I remember everything. “I, kind of already did once,” remembering the innocence lost in a plane very far away from here. I remember all the sins I’ve committed, all that I’ve wrought since I last lost her. At last I find the courage to continue. “I’ve done some things,” I begin, “because you weren’t there anymore, and,” I stumble over the words, “I don’t know, I just want you to have,” to have what? The world, the multiverse, the best of me? “I just want you to be you again.” The girl who loved the clown.

She sighs, and I feel her eyes upon me, and for the first time since I lost her last, I feel the distance between us. “Honestly, I want that too. I would love to feel again, I would love to be able to show you the affection that I know I have for you.” Her eyes, behind them is emptiness, behind them is numbed pain.

“Then, please, tell me where it is? We’ll figure something out.”

The look she gives; a hard stare, doing everything in her soul’s power to muster a strength to convey how darkling dangerous this is, a strength that even I can’t achieve. “You must promise me that you won’t trade yourself for me, you have to promise you won’t run off, or do anything without talking to me.” She pauses, “Or getting the approval of… your people.” My people? They’re our people, our family, but I can’t convince her of it, not right now. Her words ring in my heart, just as when she refused my soul. Can’t go at it alone. A dark thought crosses my mind, making me wonder if Gilgamesh will ever wake up the same way Anduin has, and if that counts for not going alone. But I dismiss those thoughts. That’s not me anymore. “You owe them, just as much as you owe me.” More truths. But she doesn’t know the half of it.

“Of course,” is all I can say.

She sighs again. “The demons running the project that I was involved in, are the highest order of demons and bad people. They’re making machines to fuel the war, with their kin, their foul kin.” She visibly shutters. “And the one being who could be so horrible as to conceive this, is Orcus himself.” Orcus? I’ve never heard of him. Then again I didn’t really know about the Abyss until just a few months ago. “He has my soul, insurance that I could never use this ability to ever turn on him, and I can’t. I can kill his low level cronies because that’s what happens in the Abyss, the weak die, but I can’t fight directly against this project, and now, I’m geased to end it.” She falls silent a moment, “I can’t resolve them both. I’ve been hiding how sick I feel from you,” the sickness. The geas. The brand of unfairness done to an innocent girl. It makes me angry. “Because if I fulfill my geas, I feel my soul constrict, and if I don’t, my body begins to waste…. All these problems you have, are huge problems. Nerida’s family, the church, all of them are nothing compared to Orcus.” I feel the fire begin to burn. “That Balor was nothing. He was one of the low level soldiers. That is why we were toys,” Toys? The flames burn brighter. “Just a cog in the machine, one of the more useful ones, because I have the training and the Zen to kill with the touch of my fist. I was a natural.” She starts to breathe heavy, “I can feel the pain of just telling you Orcus’s name. I can’t tell you about what he’s going to do, can’t tell you where they are, even though I know, I wouldn’t survive.” She begins choking and coughing, and I leap to her side, clutching her, rubbing her back. In an instant, the flame is gone, leaving behind a smoldering desire, not to kill for revenge, or to destroy for the sake of retribution. The desire to take away the pain of someone I love, to undo their hurt and fear. It’s part of why I have this form, it’s part of why I am who I’ve become.

“I can promise you that I won’t go into the Abyss alone,” again I consider the loophole in this promise and again I dismiss it.

She clears her throat, and I give her a moment while I wait for my head to stop spinning. “So you see my dilemma.”

I do, more than anything I do. “We’ll figure this out,” I repeat, cursing my inability to form sentences, my inability to say the right thing. “It’s not going to be as quickly as I initially hoped.” The words sound dry, almost metallic, because I always knew it wouldn’t be an easy fix, nothing in the multiverse is. But I have an eternity, Selene doesn’t, so I’ll do what I can, and try not to sweat the rest.

She looks at me hard, trying to read my face, trying to see if I’m lying, and considering what’s crossed my mind twice now, that’s fair. “I know how much it can hurt to abandon someone,” an image of Cheshire thrown to the ground, ripped from what she thought was a friend, crosses my mind, before returning to its place in the darkest reaches of my heart.

“Look Lóin,” she smiles, “we’re finally together, let’s enjoy it.” Enjoy it. I smile back. Can it wait? No, but it won’t happen tomorrow either.

I stroke her cheek gently, examining her face, remembering every line, every moment we’ve shared. This is my Selene now, and I am her Lóin. “I agree.”

“The blood war will grind on forever, no matter what, without stop. So I’ll do what I can to not aid it, and to stop whatever part I had, but I fear I’ll bear this geas to the end of my days.”

“It’ll be worth it because I have you,” I say, smiling at her, she smiles back. My Selene.

A thought occurs to me, and I grab Selene by the hand. We go to the room Ulkair is in, where he’s working on the various magical items, for the various companions that asked for them. If anyone in the multiverse would know how to remove a geas, Ulkair would.

“Ulkair, I hate to be a bother, but do you know how to remove a geas?” He’s toiling away at his craft, and he seems distracted by something else, something I probably don’t want to know about.

“Yeah, uh, basically, I cast a Wish spell, and it can end the geas.” Wish spell? I wonder if I can have that one day. But this is great news, a way to solve one of the problems. He’s half paying attention, which is fair, he’s a busy guy. “But that won’t stop the Clockwork Nirvana sending more soldiers.” He says.

I look back at Selene who says: “They’d be a lot easier to fight than Orcus,” and I consider this. I wonder what the likelihood is that they’d send a person, a paladin even, some feeling compassionate being I could requisition to take at least this burden for Selene. I remember my promise that I just moments ago made. If I do this, Selene must agree to it. My family must agree to it. And if they don’t, then I’ll find another way. I clasped Selene’s hand, and look into her eyes. We’ll find a way.

View
Hope for the Future, Fear for the Past
Not All Things are Meant to Last

Nerida

Walking back to the church, it was disconcerting how little attention was paid to us. Here we had gone beneath their city and killed a giant and a dragon and those yet moving about in the pale light even the night brought were none the wiser. This organization had possibly even stolen from a few of those we walked past and they didn’t know. I wasn’t interested in any sort of recognition, but it was bizarre to kill something so dangerous, or at least the form it had been taking, in the middle of a city and still no one was aware. What else just happened here behind closed doors, behind a thin curtain just out of sight?

I lightly shook my head and took Ulkair’s hand, entwining our fingers. We had all survived and at least for now, that was all that mattered. Looking back, I saw Cheshire hanging on Alix’s arm, rather deliberately between him and the storm giant, she said she was, Aadya. Alix didn’t quite seem to know what to think of her interest in him, especially when she towered over all of us, more than double my height and triple Alix’s. Giggling to myself, I held Ulkair a bit closer, thinking about his emerald, what to say when I gave it to him and where. It wouldn’t be long now, a week and a half at the most. Ulkair eyed me curiously, wondering at my sudden good mood, but he didn’t say anything.

Arriving back at the church, we followed the stairwell up to Ooze’s dwelling to see how their own task had gone, if they’d found the children or if that was to be our first priority before anyone else could take advantage of them. Even if they had gotten all of the operatives, there were bound to be others who would gladly find misuse for thirty children. Cheshire led the way, peering through Ooze’s open door to find the half orc talking to Declan, the sound of children talking excitedly nearby.

“I’m afraid one got away,” Declan announced as we entered, his face falling slightly. “Alas, there just wasn’t time to get to them all.”

“It’s okay. You did your best and at least it looks like you were able to save all the children,” Cheshire said, smiling up at him.

“Indeed. How did your exploits go?”

Grimacing, we looked between each other, recalling the fight with what we thought was a dragon and the countless rats pouring out of it. Killing a dragon that had already been dead was not much to report back, nor that we had allowed the cranium rats, if that’s indeed what they were, to escape.

“We killed the dragon and one of its storm giant bodyguards, but as it turns out, they weren’t so much of the problem,” I began, trying to think how best to explain what we’d seen. “The dragon was infested with what I think were cranium rats? I didn’t get a good look at the rats themselves, but there must have been at least one hundred of them and they used their own magic to teleport away.”

“I don’t think we’ve seen the last of them,” Ooze said, a grim look on his face. “Cranium rats are…strange and disgusting and they just get smarter the more there are. That many together…”

“Evidently they were smart enough to temporarily be a dragon and hire some mercenaries,” Cheshire concluded, sighing.

“In fact, it’s said that there is a great hive mind underneath the city called ‘Many As One.’ I fear we may have run afoul of them. I have a short history with them.”

“And if we have run afoul of it or them, what would we do?” Cheshire asked.

“Well, I had a druid friend who thought the answer was to set them free,” Ooze chuckled not entirely fondly. “Though I don’t know what ever came of them. This Many As One is said to be overpoweringly intelligent.”

“Do you know if your druid companion kept up with them? Might he know?” I asked. Even if they weren’t a part of this ‘Many As One,’ perhaps they could enlighten us about what they might want, what they might be doing.

“Well, only if they visited his grove,” Ooze mumbled, his face falling a little.

“Would doing anything in Undersigil count as disrupting the balance?” Mimi asked.

“No, The Lady is only concerned about Sigil itself,” Ooze said.

“The Lady’s blind spot, huh?” Cheshire commented.

“Yes, because people generally wind up dead regardless down there, but don’t say she has a blind spot. It’s more that Undersigil sorts itself out,” Ooze grimly stated.

“Well, thank you both very much for your assistance. We couldn’t have done it without you,” Cheshire said, smiling up at the other bards.

“I’m glad we could save some children,” Declan said.

“Ooze, do you suppose we could find some accommodations for our friend here?” Cheshire asked, gesturing to Aadya.

“I’m not sure how I missed her…” Ooze mumbled, staring up at the storm giant. “But yes! Any friend of Cheshire’s is a friend of the people of Tubatron!”

“You’re very pretty for a half orc,” Aadya said, laughing.

“Indeed!”Ooze smiled, strutting a few steps and playing a blast of tuba music. “But yes, let us rest and tomorrow, we will celebrate!”

Celebrate? Celebrate what? We but skimmed the surface and sent the rats scurrying away to burrow yet deeper to watch us and plan their next move. It may take them some time to rebuild, but what was stopping them from doing just that? Another new enemy lurking in the shadows with these others tracking us for whatever intent I couldn’t fathom. We lived, but so did they.

“What are we celebrating?” Mimi asked, voicing my confusion.

“Celebrating our new, very large friend! The children! Our success! That the day is dawning! What more do you want, Mimi?”

“There’s just a lot of celebration going on here and I just wanted to make sure it was for something specific,” Mimi mumbled.

“Or it could be because we’re all alive?” Cheshire chimed in.

Hearing our voices, or more likely the blast of Ooze’s tuba, the children all ran into the room, mostly gathering around Cheshire, but they regarded all of us fondly, hugging our knees. A few of the larger boys even lifted Cheshire up, similar to her debut performance, but more innocent. They immediately began to question her, what happened, where Rolf was, where they would live, what their fate was to be. I looked over them, so small, thin. If they were anything like Rolf or even Bob, they were famished. I held my hand out and enough bread for almost sixty people appeared. The children gasped and silence fell over the room save for their chewing. Their awe over the bread soon faded and a few walked up to Lóin, asking with a full mouth if he was really a dragon. They followed him and Caspian outside, a couple loaves still sticking out of each of their pockets and another in their hands.

Watching them, all I could think of was our own children, wondering what they would be like in a few years, when they were grown and could run about. Seren already had quite the little personality and they were both using magic. I couldn’t imagine the two of them being anything but inseparable, as much trouble as they were inclined to get into that way. I looked back at Cheshire, still in the middle of a crowd of children, and called to let her know we were going to go get Seren and Rhapsody. Nodding, she returned her attention to the small harp she summoned and the wide eyed child trying to mimic everything she did.

We spoke softly as we walked down to Marian’s dwelling, mostly about the water fortress and Ulkair’s excitement to fix it. The past few days had been enough to give him an idea of what to do and he happily listed off various components we would need to buy in the morning. With more than thirty children, we would need to finish the fortress now more than ever. Picking up Seren and Rhapsody, we thanked Marian and returned to our room, playing with them on our bed until Cheshire returned to feed them. Our bard curled up between us, sighing softly after the long day. I wrapped my arms protectively around her and Ulkair, lightly kissing her cheek in a promise to keep the safe from the lurking shadows. Holding them close, sleep soon embraced me as well.

In the morning the sounds of many feet pattering around woke me before the call of the tide could and I groaned, burying my face in Ulkair’s chest. Cheshire was already up, so it was at least after five, but still earlier than I cared for and it would appear Ulkair felt the same. Pulling me closer, he kissed my temple and rested his face atop my head. I tried to fall back asleep, but every time I had almost drifted off, I would hear another shriek that nearly stopped my heart, fearing something had happened to Seren or Rhapsody though I could feel them curled up beside me. Ulkair raised his hand and cast silence, but I was still too on edge to sleep, despite Ulkair’s warmth beckoning me.

Sighing, I sat up and leaned against the wall. It was too early to pray, but I could meditate for a while. I didn’t know that it had helped my magic or visions as of yet, but Ulkair and Agorran meditated daily, so there must be something to it. Meditation didn’t quite bring me the peace that praying did, but still the act was pleasant. The bed beside me shifted and Ulkair curled up in my lap with the babies. Giggling, I nuzzled the side of his face and he turned to kiss me. We sat together until it was time for my daily communion with Lord Eadro, his power restoring my spells once more.

Cheshire came back to the room just as we finished our prayer and meditation, taking the squirming merbaby out of Ulkair’s arms to nurse him. She leaned against us, regaling us with tale of her morning with the thirty six children Ooze and Declan saved. Old habits did not care to be parted with and it would seem their first instinct remained to steal what they could. Alix would train them as he had Byssian children in time, but for now they were keeping a close eye on them.

We spent the rest of the day running from merchant to merchant looking for what seemed an endless list of various components for Ulkair’s proof of concept project. Holding my hand, he nearly pulled me to each vendor in search of some more elusive ingredients I wasn’t familiar with, despite my time studying arcana with him. I rarely saw such excitement in him, though I suppose in Byss all the magic he taught me was material he’d known possibly since he was my age whereas this was new, something he hadn’t had for quite some time. His giddiness was contagious and I couldn’t help but laugh chasing after him, looking through all sorts of peculiar things I hadn’t seen before.

The sky was growing dim again by the time we returned to the church, Ulkair excitedly talking about his plans for the fortress, trying to decide which room to work on first based on the residual magic and what he could do if he was successful. Cheshire wandered in not long after us, the tired look on her face fading a little bit seeing us. She curled up beside us again with the babies and Ulkair started his explanation over again, pleased to have a new audience.

“How long do you think it will take?” Cheshire asked.

“Well, I think my proof of concept project will take two days and then it might take me about a week or two for the rest of it,” Ulkair hummed.

“And then once the whole thing is sealed up, we can move it? Could we move it anywhere?” Cheshire asked, her eyes nearly glowing at the prospect, moving anywhere that had sunlight.

“Do we have to move it?” I mumbled, frowning slightly. I…didn’t need to be in the elemental plane of water feel a strong connection to Lord Eadro, but I loved swimming there, the soothing energy of the water. Seren needed somewhere to swim too. He should be swimming already for as old as he was and where better than in his god’s plane?

“Indeed, ideally somewhere with land, especially if your dwarven smiths want to forge. You would have a hard time convincing dwarves to live in water and they’d have to have air to make anything,” Ulkair said, taking my hand.

“Can we move it somewhere near water then? Somewhere for my little Seren to swim?” I asked.

“Oh, easily. Seren needs a pool at the very least. Now if we had a lot of time and money to spend, we could leave parts of it in different planes and still have them connected. One part could be perhaps left in the elemental plane of water, but still connected to the building.”

“That would be amazing!” Cheshire exclaimed.

“That would be very expensive, possibly dangerous at first,” Ulkair admitted, though he hardly seemed concerned.

“Of course it is. We wouldn’t try it if it weren’t dangerous,” I said, sighing.

Perhaps….I could just go back to visit the elemental plane of water to be nearer to Lord Eadro and swim as fast as I pleased. For everyday life, a lake would work just as well. Just being in water was always nice, to breathe at ease and I wouldn’t have to worry about Seren getting lost. He wouldn’t necessarily need anything larger for a couple years yet.

“The very cutting edge of new magical knowledge is always a little dangerous,” Ulkair said, smiling.

“Maybe we could wait until the edge dulls a little? Because there’s a newer one?” Cheshire suggested, holding Seren a little closer.

“Nerida wants to be in the water and I want her to be happy,” Ulkair said, pouting.

“How dangerous is dangerous? She’s going to be taking Seren through this portal,” Cheshire insisted.

“Well, expensive is the big hurdle. We don’t have enough money right now,” Ulkair said.

“We don’t have money for a lot of things, but there was something else I needed to talk to you about,” Cheshire said, taking a deep breath. “So, Selene….”

“Is she okay?” Ulkair asked.

“Do I need to kill Lóin?” I asked, my eyes narrowing at her statement. Lóin…could be a dense fellow and I wondered all what aspects of her company he sought and after her time in the abyss how willing she was to share it.

“Yes, and no, respectively. I think she’s more upset with me than Lóin. It’s just that I thought when we fought that balor and we killed that monk he didn’t seem quite as upset as I would have liked him to be. He said we were breaking his toys and it made me think that maybe this monk that Nerida saw wasn’t Selene’s master. Then they tried to grab her, not the priestess plane shifting them away or the guy she clearly would have gone back for or the dragon or the body we then couldn’t resurrect or the angel. I thought it was strange they tried to grab her and I thought that must mean they still wanted her and would come after her. Then you found that tracking spell on her, so clearly whoever is pulling the strings is bigger than what we saw. You guys know about collecting souls, ripping them out of peoples’ bodies. Have you ever heard of punching a soul out of someone’s body?”

“No, I’ve never heard of someone punching someone’s soul out,” Ulkair said, his brows furrowing. “Usually demon’s bargain for souls.”

“So I tried to approach Selene and get a feeling for how much of a threat she might be, deliberately or not. She’s so fine, like I was fine when Tad Cooper was living in my body or like you were fine living in that cave.”

I reflexively held Ulkair a little tighter at the mention of his cave. She…couldn’t begin to understand, how his imprisonment had nearly destroyed him. She met him after he had hope, not when I was still leading him from the darkness. What small glimpses I’d had of his torment had nearly left me a sobbing heap on the ground in what precious few moments he’d let his guard down. Ulkair…probably didn’t want her to know that side of him, diminished as it was, though I couldn’t help but feel she’d made too light of two thousand years crushing despair in her comparison.

“Oh….so she’s a problem, then,” Ulkair slowly stated.

“I don’t know that she means to be, but she was very standoffish and feels like she’s worth nothing more than any other demon spawn. Apparently the monsters that we killed were her handlers and low on the totem pole.”

“Even the balor?” I asked. As far as I knew, they were the most powerful demons in existence. Just killing one almost took the rest of us with it, not to mention the pain it too easily inflicted on us while it lived.

“And I thought they were at the top,” Cheshire said, a grim look on her face.

“Me too…” Ulkair sighed.

“And that glabrezu still knows we escaped,” I mumbled, running my hand through my hair. “I guess I could try looking into more powerful demons, but I’m not sure what good that would do.”

“If there are more powerful demons, then there has to be someone who knows what they are. Anyway, apparently they took her and that other guy and a bunch of others and trained them how to punch people’s souls out of their bodies. She said they’re collecting souls and also bodies of everything, but separately.”

“Demons are so last time I was awake,” Anduin grumbled.

“We only fought one,” I retorted.

“And we killed it,” Anduin chuckled darkly

“Well, I’m glad Anduin doesn’t think demons are a big deal,” Cheshire mumbled, giving the trident a dirty look.

“Just not as big of a deal as that god we poked,” Anduin said and I had the feeling that if he had a body, he would have stretched his arms behind him with a bored yawn.

“One crisis at a time, please,” Cheshire sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose.

“I’m just saying, I wouldn’t ignore that.”

“I don’t intend to! If you had a neck, I would throttle you!”

“I do have a neck,” Anduin taunted, the spot just below his tines glowing a little brighter.

Cheshire snatched the trident from where he was leaning against the wall, crushing down on what could be called his throat with all her might, but I just felt amusement rolling off of him.

“Aaaand who is the one who just tried to throttle a metal weapon?” Anduin mocked, laughing.

“I hate him too,” Ulkair said, putting a hand on Cheshire’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry…I’ll just…set him over here…” I murmured, picking up Anduin and leaning him against the opposite wall.

“Hey!” Anduin called, growing silent as he sulked.

“So this matter with Selene, do you suppose it’s an imminent threat?” I asked.

“I think as long as those demons are out there and Selene is here, we’re in danger,” Cheshire said.

“Of Selene or the demons?”

“I don’t know. For all we know, they have a way to control her other than what we think Lóin broke. Did he bring those bracers back or did he leave them there? I think he left them there where the demons could use it again.”

“Do we have any way of knowing if they could be watching us through Selene, like that spell I cast on Caspian? There’s bound to be a stronger version of it.”

“I mean, we did move to a different plane, but if they have an agent on this plane, maybe,” Ulkair said. “I should probably look in the morning.”

“Would the detection spell you cast before have found that?” I asked.

“Unless it was well hidden.”

“It seems such spells can be quite well hidden,” I murmured, thinking about the suppressed mark on me.

“If it had been much better hidden than everything else, I might have overlooked it against all the other magic. At the time, I was just more worried about you two,” Ulkair murmured, squeezing both of our hands.

“Is my mark still suppressed?”

“Yes, I make sure it is every day,” Ulkair said, resting his head on my shoulder.

“I don’t know what kind of damage has been done to Selene’s mind and what, if any of it, can be helped magically, but if someone can sneak a restoration spell across the table way out of arm’s reach from her, it might help,” Cheshire suggested, fidgeting nervously.

“I could talk to her,” I said, nodding.

“Well, that’s what I thought too. I just…I don’t want to walk around telling everyone all of her tragic secrets, but I feel like the sooner we can get all of this out in the open and do whatever we can for it, the sooner we can prepare for whatever hell is to come.”

“If she is still a tool of theirs, I don’t suppose she is a willing one,” I said, my mind drifting back to my dream. The look in her eyes as she knelt down beside me, her tears splashing on my face and the defiance burning in her soul. She couldn’t have chosen this.

“Maybe. Would you have considered me a willing tool of Dovev?” Cheshire asked, the look in her eyes challenging me.

“No,” I answered without a moment’s hesitation.

“Then you would have been wrong. I won’t say my mind wasn’t affected, but I loved what I did the minute I did it.”

“And what will of his did you do?” I asked. What affect Dovev may have had on her mind did not make her willing, but trapped.

“Well, I was going to set Lóin on fire and murder everyone I could just because he told me to and it seemed like a good idea.”

“That time in the temple?”

“Yea…” Cheshire breathed, looking away from me.

“But you came back,” I insisted, pulling her into my lap and looking into her eyes.

I knew she still blamed herself for those priests’ deaths, the ghoul lord’s presence that followed her when she was just trying to do the right thing, misguided though her thoughts were. In her position, I would probably do the same. I still had a hard time not blaming myself for the deaths of so many Byssians in the wars I led them into, tried not to wonder why they didn’t hate me with each Byssian I passed, how it was Agorran could stand to be near me with the blood of so many of his people on my hands. Guilt…was difficult to assuage, but still we needed to go on.

“And I’m sure so can she, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t there. I don’t know,” Cheshire mumbled, slumping against me and Ulkair reached up to rub her back. “She just said they specifically called her a most valuable toy. She thinks not everyone who they tried to teach can punch souls out.”

“Learning something like that seems like no easy feat and they also did want Anduin,” I commented.

“I’m not sure those demons were connected to the other ones, or at least, they weren’t working for them.”

“Perhaps for the same higher up demon, whatever is at the top of this, and they wanted an edge over each other. They wanted their souls too.”

“Indeed. In fact, they specifically were happy that we just killed that balor and snake woman.”

“I’m tired of fighting demons,” I sighed, lying down on the bed.

“I was tired of fighting demons thirteen and a half months ago,” Cheshire mumbled back, her fingers gripping my shirt.

“And his little arms,” I whispered, giggling.

“You’re so scary…” Ulkair murmured.

“That’s what I should have talked to that guy about, Bob or whatever he calls himself. Maybe that would have scared him.”

“Guys, I’m going to bed,” Cheshire groaned and rolled over between us.

Giggling, I pulled the sheet around us, kissing both of them before settling behind Cheshire. Perhaps…laughing at the memory of nearly being reduced to a shapeless pile of gore wasn’t a healthy response, but fearing demons wasn’t entirely helpful either. They were dangerous, powerful, and should be regarded with caution, but fear was only ever a distraction. Even so, despite how she trembled, I knew the next time we faced down a demon, for I was painfully sure there would be a next time, I knew also that my beautiful, radiant Cheshire would still be an inspiration to us all. Holding her a little tighter, I buried my face in the crook of her neck as I began dozing off.

Cheshire suddenly stiffened in my arms,,her heart beating wildly against my chest. She curled protectively around Rhapsody and Seren and I jolted up to see what might have startled her. Ulkair hovered over her, summoning an orb of light to illuminate the room, though I saw nothing.

“Something is happening next door, someone is there for Selene,” Cheshire whispered. “Maybe you guys should go check on it and I’ll stay here with the babies.”

Nodding, I leapt out of bed and grabbed Anduin from where he was leaning against the wall, Ulkair just behind me. Stepping out into the hall, I saw two red men in golden armour standing in the doorway with their swords lowered. One turned to face me with a strange whirring noise, regarding me with a calculating gaze.

“It has been resolved,” it stated with a tinny, hollow voice.. “Parameters achieved with minimal bloodshed. Do not initiate.”

“What has been resolved?” I questioned.

“The judgment of Selene.”

“What is she being judged for?”

“Defer to marut,” it said after some more whirring and clicking, gesturing inside the room.

I stepped towards them with Anduin lowered at my side, the men, if they could be called that, allowing me to pass. Within I saw another figure similar to those beside me, but even larger with obsidian skin and more ornate golden armour covering most of the gears I could still hear whirring beneath. He was walking away from Selene, appearing to care little about the rest of us. The monk was slumped on the ground and pale, but otherwise looked alright, remorse etched deeply into her face as she accepted her punishment from these machines.

“What has she done?” Lóin asked, staring after Selene’s judge. “Can we help her?”

“It doesn’t matter to me if you know or don’t know. Ask her,” he said, pausing only briefly to look back at Lóin before continuing on.

“But can we help her?” Lóin pleaded.

“We wish to right wrongs. Be my guest, friend.”

“Who are you to judge her?” I asked, stepping in front of this ‘Marut.’

“What we are means very little. Our right is the right created by the very essence of law itself and we don’t answer to you,” it said walking up to me in the doorway, its grip tightening on its sword to say I would move, one way or another.

“Wait, can you do anything to help us right this wrong?”Selene asked, desperation creeping into her voice.

They turned to her briefly, but thought nothing of her plea, possibly thinking that one who had committed crimes so grievous as she must have for them to be here didn’t deserve such aid. Somehow, that didn’t seem right either though. If they were law itself and cared only for atonement, why would they deny her? Above all else, they were logical.

“The most effective way to right this wrong would be to make sure she is capable,” Alix said.

“The judgment is fulfilled whether she dies or succeeds,” Marut nonchalantly replied, caring nothing for Selene despite her undoubtedly unwilling involvement in whatever she’d been accused of.

“What is the task appointed to her?” I asked.

“She must return and dismantle the creatures that were made with her power.”

“What was made with her power?”

“Again, it matters not to me if you understand for she does,” Marut said, growing impatient with our questions.

“Selene?” I called, looking back at her, but she only looked away.

“We can’t help you if you don’t tell us what happened,” Caspian stated.

“I’ll tell you when they’re gone,” Selene said, holding tight to Lóin.

“What are you going to do now?” I asked the figure yet standing before me.

“I will leave and monitor the situation.”

“Will we see you?”

“Probably not.”

“Will you interfere with us or with Selene?” I asked, regarding him carefully, not so sure that ‘law itself’ could not be corrupted. As little as he cared for Selene or her plight, ‘law’ might decide to bestow his own verdict without allowing Selene her proper trial.

“No. As I said, she lives or dies by her own hand.”

“And we will guard her with our lives,” I replied, moving aside to allow him to pass.

“It is good for her that she has good friends. Perhaps she may live,” he hummed, stepping past me into the hall.

“Is it not customary to grant a boon to the those about to go out and fulfill their quest?” Ulkair asked, crossing his arms as he regarded the mechanical men.

“Indeed, but perhaps not for one who had sinned so greatly.”

“But is it not the nature of law to give what is required, no matter the cost or reason?” Ulkair countered, a slight grin spreading across his face.

“Indeed, is not the letter always to be observed,” one of the others said, the gears on his faces shifting to resemble agreement as he looked to his commander.

“I presume to follow the spirit of the law,” Marut said, sighing.

Marut turned and walked stiffly up to Selene, unable to deny what Ulkair had said, but still he loathed the idea of offering any assistance to her, repulsed yet by what crime he believed her responsible for. Lóin clenched his fists, ready at a moment’s notice to defend Selene if he needed to, only barely waiting to see what he would do. Marut took her hands, touching his fists to hers and a jolt of lightning arced along her arm and the room trembled slightly as a wave of force moved up her other arm. Selene cried out, seeming more startled than pained, and curiously stared at her hands. Grimacing, Marut returned to the hall, his duty fulfilled.

“For one who reeks of chaos, you certainly know the ways of law well,” Marut commented, warily regarding Ulkair.

Stepping past me, the three of them joined hands, familiar magic surrounding them in a spell I recognized at plane shift carrying them back to Mechanis, however I wasn’t sure where that was. Perhaps Ulkair was familiar with it, though such questions would have to wait for later.

“We will figure this out together,” Lóin whispered, kneeling down before Selene and cupping her face in his hands.

“I’m so sorry, Lóin…” Selene wept into his chest. “I’m afraid my freedom has already cost you so much and so soon my liberation has been taken from me.”

“I am no stranger to sins. I will not leave you,” Lóin vowed, holding her close.

“It just feels so unfair. I never chose this…”

“You cannot help what you are forced into, but freedom is worth the price,” I said, kneeling next to her and resting my hand on her shoulder, squeezing it briefly.

Selene sniffled, a grateful look passing over her face, a sort of peace I hadn’t seen in her before. Whatever scheme she may or may not have been caught up in, I knew in that moment she didn’t want any part of it. She was a slave to a will not her own and we would free her from that. She buried her face and wept softly into Lóin’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry to ask this of you. I understand if no one wishes to go with me,” Selene all but breathed.

“Are we going back to the abyss?” I asked, frowning at the notion, but Selene nodded.

We had only barely survived last time and not all of us were even that lucky. To go back there, spend even more time hunting down demons, what more would we lose? Still, we couldn’t simply leave Selene to her fate. We were more familiar with the abyss now as well as with demons. Given time to get better armour and equipment, our next venture would go better.

“These creations have gone to many places. I…I don’t not know where they are, only that they we created in the abyss. I was never told much.”

“Do you know what was created? Was it mechanical like those men that were just here?”

“I saw one of them once,” she said, shuddering, her gaze growing distant with untold horror clouding her mind. “Imagine one of them but with bone, blood, gears, flesh, horror, and nightmare all fused in together.”

“Why do they seek judgment on you?”

“I don’t know…” Selene mumbled, wrapping her arms more tightly around herself.

“I think the reason they came now is that she’s no longer under the protection of her former patron and she has left the abyss,”Ulkair commented, glancing into the room at her. “Now she is reachable where none of the others are.”

“Do you know anything about something like that, Ulkair? Or about Mechanis? I think that’s where they were returning.”

“I think we’re all tired and we should revisit this in the morning,” Ulkair said, taking my hand, leading me back towards our room.

I looked back at Selene still curled up in Lóin’s arms, the dragon slowly trailing his fingers through her hair. She looked exhausted, afraid…any more questions tonight would be cruel. Rest would do her well, a night to feel safe before the light of dawn could illuminate the shadows lurking, never bright enough to quite chase them away.

Returning to our room, I saw Cheshire still curled up in the sheets just as she was before, holding the babies close to her chest. She looked so small in the middle of the mattress, the sheets pulled tightly around her as though her only protection. Lying down beside her, I pulled her into my arms once more, feeling her trepidation radiating off her trembling form, guilt in her turquoise eyes. So she heard everything through Alix…at least there was no need to explain what had happened. Ulkair laid down on the other side of her, slowly rubbing her back.

I waited briefly to see if there was anything she wanted to say or ask about, but she didn’t breathe a word, perhaps fearing that if she said anything, she wouldn’t be able to stop. Every word would shed more light on another fear, another terror lurking in her mind of painfully real enemies watching us. Watching, watching, ever watching, for what end I couldn’t guess, and now another looked on to see if we would complete yet another quest that too easily could be the death of us. I was in no hurry to return and Cheshire was terrified of demons more than almost anything, each encounter only adding to her reasons to fear them. We had survived each time, but the cost was so heavy.

I hummed softly to her, running my fingers through her hair. We were here to hold her hand through the darkness and shield her from what hid in it. We were here and we weren’t going anywhere. Her breathing slowly evened out and I nodded off shortly after her, praying my dreams wouldn’t bring visions of the abyss or taunt me once more with my death.

A soft knocking at the door pulled me from my sleep, the room only marginally brighter than when we came back. Groaning, I snuggled in closer to Ulkair, wondering what it was about bards that made them get up so obscenely early. I had no cause to rise before the tides called to me and so saw no reason to cut my sleep short, though Cheshire insisted we slept the day away. I heard her moving behind me, likely getting dressed for the day.

“Cheshire, I hear there was some excitement in here last night,” Ooze’s voice called as he opened the door, peeking into our room. “Is there anything I should be worried about?”

“Umm, apparently, big, mechanical guys came looking for Selene because she violated the order of the planes, but they gave her a geas and we’re going to fix it. So as far as I know, they’re going to leave her alone”

“I think you need to leave the church sooner rather than later. Business like this can get out of hand.”

“I understand…we’ll take our leave as soon as possible,” Cheshire breathed, trying to hide the tremor in her voice.

“We’re still very glad to have you. Things have been moving in a way they have not for years, but…”

“We can’t endanger what we have. I understand. I was concerned about this very thing over the last week.”

“I do not envy you. I too was once tangled in the threads of fate. It is not always pleasant,” Ooze said, pausing briefly as I heard something shift, a blast of tuba music starling me and the babies began to wail in my arms. “But it is always fateful and magnificent!”

Sighing, I tried to calm them from the abrupt awakening, hushing their cries. Ulkair rolled over to face us and kissed Rhapsody’s head and held Seren’s tiny hand, casting silence to shield them from any more tuba music. I glanced back at the half orc standing in the doorway and I could see he was laughing, though no sound came out. Shaking his head slightly, he turned to leave, moments later his cheery voice echoing farther down the hall.

“Sorry about your babies! I didn’t think!” his voice called, not sounding terribly contrite to my ears.

“That’s okay…we were just about to get up anyway,” Cheshire mumbled, stumbling back into the room. “I didn’t just put them to bed so I could pray…”

Ulkair sat up, pulling Seren and Rhapsody into his arms, gently rocking them. My heart swelled watching them, Rhapsody yawning as Seren reached his tiny hands out and rested them on his face, babbling happily. My family, so strange and so infinitely beautiful. I sat up beside Ulkair, lifting him into my lap and nuzzling the side of his face. He leaned back into my chest as Cheshire’s music filled the room. Leaning back against the wall, I dozed off until it was time to pray. Another knock came at the door and I sighed, wondering who it could possibly be this time.

“Can we all speak to you in the other room?” Declan asked, opening the door just wide enough that he could see us. Blinking a couple times, he looked at me, or perhaps more accurately, my yet bare torso. “Lucky fellow.”

Groaning, Cheshire walked over to the bed and threw the sheet at me, effectively covering my skin from view.

“What?” I asked.

“Social cues,” Cheshire mumbled, pinching the bridge of her nose.

“You said don’t go out into public naked. What if ‘public’ comes in here?” I asked, crossing my arms over my chest.

“I love you, Nerida,” Cheshire sighed. “What does Mimi want?”

“She didn’t say, just that she wants to talk to everyone,” Declan said, sitting in the corner and playing a gentle song on his violin.

I held the sheet over my chest, regarding Declan. Cheshire was still wearing my shirt, pulling her pants on under it and fastening her corset around her waist. Even if she weren’t wearing it, how could I dress without dropping the sheet? Mimi and Caspian slipped in through the open door, evidently deciding we were taking too long to join them.

“Here’s a spare shirt, Nerida,” Mimi said, handing me a shirt looking identical to the one I typical wore.

Raising an eyebrow, I looked between the celestial and the shirt, wondering why in the world she would carry a spare for me. I didn’t even carry spare clothing with me except for my priestess robes and even that stopped once we had a house in Byss. She looked at me insistently, still offering the shirt out. To put it on, I’d have to drop the sheet Cheshire had thrown over me or dress under it, a notion even more ridiculous than their bizarre sense of modesty. He came in here. If my bare skin was so offensive, he could avert his eyes.

I dropped the sheet and reached for the teal shirt in Mimi’s hand, her lips drawing into a fine line at my antics and Cheshire groaned beside me. I slipped the shirt on and Ulkair wrapped his arms around my waist, resting his face on my shoulder. Mimi sat beside Declan, fidgeting and idly playing with the hem of her skirt as she searched for whatever words she wished to share with us.

“So, I may have misrepresented a few things,” Mimi began, taking a deep breath. “For those who don’t know, I should probably explain from the beginning. You know with the water elemental and the whirlwind and how I was thrown out and I couldn’t catch up to you guys?”

“And you stuck your hand in the respective Eadro cookie jar?” Cheshire chimed in, raising an eyebrow.

“Yes, when I made the first of many mistakes and I prayed to Lord Eadro and was struck by lightning. My holy powers were taken away and I spent the next two days sobbing and repenting in utter terror. Then we fought the dragon and I felt terrible when we killed him because we didn’t do right by him. So I prayed for his soul for the afterlife and he was reincarnated in an elf’s body because Corellon Larethian stole his soul. So, I was unwilling to right that wrong because I was afraid and I put you two in danger, fighting for the dragon on my behalf. Corellon Larethian came to me and gave me the option of leaving all of you and working towards repenting. He had been wronged and I stood by and did nothing, which was offensive to him.”

“But Mimi, I’m not saying you didn’t do anything wrong,” Cheshire said, holding her hand out towards the celestial. “You say he had been wronged, but the truth is that he damned a soul because you dared to pray for it. He was the one in the wrong, petty at best.”

“After your archon enslaved you,” I added. I didn’t know what the full consequences of defying him would be, but there would be consequences even if we chose to bow and grovel before him.

“My archon, Inisbel, was important to me, almost like a father. He took me in when he didn’t have to. I was mixed blood, tainted, not worthy, but he still picked me and I had a purpose with him, helping him. When I went with Lóin’s father to ask if I could stay with all of you, he was in tears when he gave me his holy avenger to help protect me.”

“And his condition was that you give him his child,” Cheshire frowned, looking at Rhapsody and Seren sleeping on the bed. “I feel like that’s a pretty important part.”

“It is a pretty important part,” Mimi nodded. “I was to have a child to replace my service to him.”

“That’s weird…do you mean enslave your child or foster him?” Declan asked.

“Foster, you know, to take care of and raise,” Mimi replied, seeming to think nothing of the question.

“That sounds like what a slaver would want their slave to believe, because they were unworthy and yet took them in anyway,” I mumbled, clenching my fists. The manipulation of thought was too much their game, for how better to prevent thoughts of freedom than to make you think you weren’t worth even that or worse yet, that you should be grateful for the abuse they bestow.

“No no no, the child would grow up and choose for himself,” Declan tried to explain. “He would grow up with Inisbel, learn from him, and then he could stay on as his-”

“Slave,” I cut in, staring hard at the bard.

“Household servant at worst. You get a better life with an archon than you do anywhere else,” Declan said, smiling softly as he continued to play his violin.

“That’s why I was so upset when Tubatron took the holy avenger; it wasn’t mine,” Mimi explained.

“Should we go speak with this archon of yours?” I asked.

Something was still bothering her about this, something she’d yet to mention. If her archon was so important to her, why had she spoken so poorly of him before? If he was benevolent, why demand Mimi give him her child? What I had heard about archons in general and particularly Inisbel varied so greatly between Mimi’s and Khaz’s tales of him, even within just Mimi’s perspective. There must be something we were missing, some misunderstanding that ought be resolved and I could think of no other way than to speak to Inisbel, the closest we could reach to Corellon Larethian.

“I feel like I should go talk to him, but you all shouldn’t be punished for what I’ve done,” Mimi said.

“Mimi, you’re freaking out over nothing,” Cheshire said. “Whatever happened, we’ll handle it, but you’re in the halls of music now.”

“But I made the mistake!” Mimi cried. “If I had known how this would turn out, I may have made a few different decisions, but I’m happier now. I feel like I’m home and I’m where I’m supposed to be, but that’s a slap in the face to the people that raised me.”

“Perhaps then it is a slap they need,” I argued. If they had been mistreating her, being docile wasn’t about to make them change their minds or see what they’d been doing. Something would need to change.

“And now I’ve put Tubatron in a terrible place. He’s a young god and Corellon Larethian is not,” Mimi wept.

“Well, everything I did, I did with his blessing and I don’t think you’re in a position to question that,” Cheshire bristled.

“I just feel like I should be the one that’s punished instead of us all now being at war. Maybe I should just go back”

“Can you unring a bell? Absolutely not. You also can’t unstab a god, you can’t unslap a face, you can’t unmake a promise. You did what you did and I stand by you because you were wronged. I mean, maybe Inisbel is a better person than you may have represented him to be, but that doesn’t change what happened. That doesn’t change that I wasn’t going to stand by and let some dragon be eternally damned because Corellon Larethian decided that you made him mad and that guy had to pay the price. His music may be powerful, but it is old and stale.”

“I just don’t think we need a war right now…” Mmi mumbled, shrinking back a little.

“Then how are you going to stop it? Go back and throw yourself before Inisbel and give him back the holy avenger that will no longer ever be his and say, ‘yea, I took all this stuff and I worshiped this other god, but now I don’t want to deal with the consequences of my actions so I’m sorry?’ You can’t fear the revolution when it’s on your doorstep, Mimi.”

“I just don’t want his wrath and punishment to come on you all!”

“Then you should have made different decisions, because wrath and punishment is what our lives are made of. I don’t feel that I made a wrong decision and everything you’re telling me is that you’re scared of the consequences. It’s okay to be scared, but they’re still there.”

“Fear does not make anything disappear. In fact, in your mind it will only make them stronger,” Caspian added.

“I just want to take them for yourself,” Mimi said on the verge of tears.

“You can’t. You didn’t do it. You aren’t Tubatron’s high priest. You didn’t steal the soul back from him. You prayed to the wrong god and repent and it wasn’t good enough for him. Well, you’re good enough for us, even if you weren’t for him, but I don’t see how any of what you’ve said changes anything. To me, it sounds like you’re looking back at a bad situation with rose-coloured glasses because you’re afraid of future strife. Do you know how many times I thought if I could do something, I could prove I was good enough for my family? That they weren’t that bad? Well, they were wrong and war is here. I won’t stop you, but I will tell you that as the one and only paladin of Tubatron, you are supposed to stand as a holy beacon of light in war, not crawl on your belly to your enemies and beg forgiveness.”

“Why would you want to snivel to some god anyway? That’s all they take; everything,” Ulkair bitterly stated, staring at each of us.

“That’s not true. Tubatron hasn’t taken everything from me. He’s given much more than he’s taken,” Cheshire said. “If I didn’t have music, I wouldn’t have you.”

“As has Lord Eadro for me,” Lóin added.

“If it weren’t of Obah-Hai, myself and everyone else I knew would be dead,” Caspian nodded.

“I’m hearing a lot of people not taking credit for their own actions,” Ulkair countered.

“Lord Eadro led me to you. Your lives would be very different if he hadn’t,” I mumbled, stroking the side of his face.

“Maybe, and maybe Eadro is going to get exactly what he wants out of that,” Ulkair said, resting his hand over mine, though his gaze remained unwavering. “It wasn’t charitable at all.”

“Maybe I’ll get what I want out of it too. Is it so bad if we both benefit?” I asked.

“No, but it doesn’t make them so generous as everyone seems to thinking.”

“Gods aren’t charitable, they aren’t genies, they don’t exist to grant your wishes,” Cheshire said.

“And that’s why you don’t owe them anything,” Ulkair cut in. “You just said it’s not charity, it’s a contractual obligation. Anyway, Mimi, what I’m trying to say is you took your punishment, you left your god, who cares now? You have your new one.”

“Well, I’m happy we could have this conversation,” Mimi mumbled, curling up into Declan’s side.

“Sooo, that’s it?” Cheshire asked.

“I did send letters to my brother,” Mimi commented.

“Post marked from Sigil?” Cheshire asked, groaning.

“So now they know where we are,” I sighed.

“Well, we won’t be here much longer. We need to leave. We’re not good for the faithful and we’re taking up a lot of space and goodwill that we don’t have to spend. The point is, there’s three hundred people here and there’s space for about eighty. There are a lot of heads under this roof and some of ours are very large.”

“I couldn’t help but overhear,” Aadya said, crouching outside our door. “I heard some screaming and I thought I’d stop by to see if Alix was okay. But as for moving, I think I should go with you.”

“It seems pertinent, doesn’t it,” Cheshire said, running her hand through her hair.

“Well, you’re supposed to find a new plane for this temple anyway, are you not?” Caspian asked.

“Yes…I’ll get right on just creating a plane.”

“Can we pray to Tubatron for direction?”Mimi asked.

“No, this is our direction and he’s done more than enough for us,” Cheshire said.

“I just don’t want to do the wrong thing by him and there’s no books,” Mimi wistfully stated.

“Sometimes you need to follow your own intuition,” I said, though I knew that wasn’t always easy.

“You know, I think I’ll write books about Tubatron so people can understand him better. I just need more information about him,” Mimi said, though Declan and Cheshire just stared at her. Hadn’t the room she’d been trying to play the violin in been full of music? I hadn’t taken the time to read any of the scores, but that was his library, the record of his sound no words could express. Noticing their stares, Mimi continued, “oh, they could be picture books.”

All colour drained from Cheshire’s face and her jaw dropped, staring aghast at Mimi who innocently looked back as if it could be possible that she didn’t realize how she just insulted her high priestess.

“I need a moment,” Cheshire ground out, tearing from the room and past Aadya, Ulkair and I right behind her. “Ulkair, can you cast silence around me? In a circle?”

Ulkair nodded, raising his hand as blue light began to glow from his palm. He shifted his hand in a way I didn’t recognize for the spell, shaping the magic around us as a shimmering force barring sound to enter or exit. Cheshire’s lip wavered and she fell to her knees, screaming anguish she had lost the words for. Ulkair and I crouched down on either side of her, wrapping our arms around her for what comfort she could find in the embrace.

“I’ve only been here for two weeks and I’m not even welcome anymore!” Cheshire wailed.

“I think you’re welcome. It’s the rest of us who aren’t,” Ulkair said, slowly rubbing her back.

“Well I’m stuck with you! I love you, but sometimes I think what would I do if I didn’t have my family to aggressively hide behind and I think I’d be dead and that might be better than this!! I know how to read! I led our temple to war! There’s three hundred of us and I led them to war for the woman who thinks I don’t know how to read!”

“I love you?” Ulkair offered.

“I love you so much,” Cheshire wept, fisting her hands in our shirts.

“Look, we could just send everyone else away?”

“No we can’t, because we’d all die. Lóin will march to the abyss with Selene and they’ll fight demons until they die and then the next time a demon gets inside my head and shows me everything I’m to blame for, you know who else is going to be on that pile of bodies? Him, because even though he’s stupid and has never done anything for me but cause me pain, I want to protect him!”

“Well, then I think we just need a space that can do that. We just need to fix up and move our fortress.”

“We’ll work something out, Cheshire,” I hushed, running my fingers through her hair.

“It’s fine…everything’s fine….we’ll just go back to the abyss and kill more demons like there’s not an endless amount of them.”

“We need to know where to find them first anyway. It will be a while before we have to go back.”

Cheshire slumped into our hold, gasping for breath more than breathing in her attempt to calm herself, but the worst had passed. I glanced at Mimi standing sheepishly in the corner, perhaps finally realizing what she had said

“Cheshire, why don’t we go to the water fortress and work on that for a while, just get out of Sigil,” I suggested, taking her hands and kissing her knuckles. “Perhaps you’ll feel better.”

“Because I am so scared of the elemental plane of water,” Cheshire sobbed.

“You could see our dragon friend, how healthy he’s looking,” Ulkair said.

“And you’ll be with us,” I hummed, kissing her cheek.

“We’ll keep you safe,” Ulkair said, kissing her other cheek.

“I’ll just leave my alcoholic dad to drink with someone who could drink his body’s weight. Nothing bad could happen if I leave for two seconds.”

“He has Dumpling?” Ulkair offered.

“I suddenly understand why all the tables in this building are broken!” Cheshire cried, pounding her fists on the ground.

I carefully reached out and pulled Cheshire into my arms, casting calm emotions on her with a gentle kiss on her forehead. I knew she could resist the spell if she wanted to as she had before, but I prayed she would allow my magic to soothe her. We’d had a lot to do in Sigil when we first arrived, but now we seemed to have twice as many enemies and less direction than before, all with the weight of the Church of Tubatron bearing down on Cheshire’s shoulders. Cheshire curled up in my lap and let the positive energy wash over her, carrying away her anxiety for now, at least. Ulkair scooted to sit beside me and shifted Cheshire so her weight fell on both our laps, wrapping his arms around both of us.

“I’m sorry, Cheshire….I didn’t mean to insult you…” Mimi finally spoke up.

“Well, you did, but it’s okay,” Cheshire said, sniffling. “I know you didn’t mean to do a lot of things. I can read. I can also read music. Clearly, you can’t. I will teach you to read music.”

“I think I’m unteachable,” Mimi mumbled.

“Is she unteachable, Declan?” Cheshire asked, turning to the other bard.

“She could learn, it would be a lot of effort, though. No one is unteachable,” Declan said, grimacing a little at his violin before resuming his playing.

Cheshire abruptly sat up, her wide eyes trying to gauge the time, though without the sun that was always a difficult task here. Mumbling she had to go, she scrambled out of our laps and dug through our room for Ragnarok, a burst of arcane magic covering her in glitter.

“You could perform during another service,” Declan offered, watching Cheshire hastily fixing her corset.

“I already bumped someone to play today! I can’t make them reschedule again!” Cheshire called back, swinging Ragnarok onto her back.

“Okay, I’ll go let everyone know,” Declan nodded, walking towards the concert hall, Mimi just behind him.

Smiling at her, Ulkair and I each took one of her hands as we followed after them. Cheshire squeezed our hands, more nervous than it seemed she should have been for just another performance. Performing in front of others…was not my strongest suit, but already she had given staggering performances to all her people and in Byss, a crowd had gathered each morning to listen to her, much, if not the rest, still able to hear her song. If there was but one place she was fearless, it was on her stage of choice, her music never less than what one might expect of a high priestess of a god of music. If not for her performance, what else…

As we walked in, others continued to hurriedly finding their seats, Aadya sitting in the aisle beside Alix. Leaning down, I pulled Cheshire closer to kiss her quickly, a small reassurance that we were here and whatever she had planned, it would be okay. We squeezed her hands and she turned away towards the stage. Stepping into the middle, she took a deep breath, looking over the many faces watching her, waiting for her performance, though Ragnarok was yet strapped to her back.

“My people, you know that I have come to you as your high priestess at a most crucial moment in our history,” Cheshire called, holding her hand out towards the crowd. "The great work of Tubatron is beginning and though much of this work is to be carried out by us, your leaders, so too does our great faith need each of you. Each and every one of you are notes in the glorious symphony and so do you all have a part to play. We have amongst us musicians, poets, dancers, people of all skills and all walks of life as diverse and beautiful as the multiverse itself, but all of us are united by one thing: music. It is for the love of music that all of us have gathered in this hall and it is for the love of music that I call upon you now. Use these skills.”

“Our church is in dire need of financial assistance. Without it, we cannot continue our services the way they are, cannot afford supplies for broken or new instruments. We cannot go before the Temple of Ao and have Tubatron proclaimed, as he should be, as a god before all of the planes. I wish, truly, that the multiverse could function for the love of music alone, but sadly we have not spread our faith that far. Yet. And this leaves us in debt, subject to staunch, unfeeling bureaucracy, trapped behind a line of red tape that would silence these halls. We the faithful are few, but we are mighty and we cannot allow this. You have instruments. I ask that you use them, teach them, spread your love of music through the city, through the planes if you have to. I have given this much time and much thought and if each of you were to dedicate just one day in every five to our church’s cause, we could surmount this debt in a matter of months, two, perhaps three, and from there begin again without the shackles of coppers detaining us.”

The room broke out in a chorus of startled gasps, soft chatter filling the room as everyone stared at her in a mixture of confusion and disbelief, disapproval. The years they had spent as they were and now there was change on the horizon, change that was unwelcome. Devotion was more than music and festivities alone, something the church had never asked of its followers before, it would seem, at least not the majority of them. Declan and Ooze were always busy tending to the rest of the faithful, but too few were pulling the weight of too many.

“For this is our time, our moment, our chance to be the songs that will be sung for generations. This is the first step of the faithful on the path of victory, of glory and legends and we will not be laid low by inertia. This is the task that I require of you, to take the burden of our food and needs off the few and carry them on the shoulders of the many so that they are light. I am assigning our fine celestial, Mimi, to oversee this first task, and I ask that each of you report to her by the end of the day with which days you are willing to aid your brothers and sisters in music, or the reason why you are not. Remember as you go forth in Tubatron’s name, kings age, empires fall, but as long as there are bards willing to put bow to string, or give voice to lyrics, music will never die.”

Cheshire’s face fell slightly, tinged with concern that her word would not be enough to sway them, the excitement for their high priestess lost so quickly, but still she carried on. She was little if not an inspiration and her music had brought all of Byss to our aid against the vampires. I did what I could to persuade them with my words, but she was not so limited and her music sang out with the glory of her conviction.

Reaching around behind her, she pulled out Ragnarok. Her fingers descending upon the strings and her voice rang out, starting soft and gentle, gradually growing to be strong and triumphant, calling each of her followers to action. She swayed with her song, dancing with long, flowing motions, her movements somehow so perfectly matching her music, growing bolder as her refrain did. All chattering in the room ceased, captivated by Cheshire’s performance, every note ringing off Ragnarok, the swell of her voice, every slight shift of her body moving to her song.

The air buzzed with her magic and silence fell over the room as the last chord faded and Cheshire held her hand out towards her people, beckoning them to join her, aid her in her cause, their cause to build a sustainable church and foundation for their faith. All thought of hesitation or disapproval vanished in riotous applause, everyone reaching out to try to touch their high priestess’ hand. Smiling, Cheshire bade them to see Mimi to confirm which days they would be available to share their skills.

I wrapped my arm around Ulkair and leaned slightly against him, watching the bards surround Cheshire with a new excitement for the legend they would create, the founding members of the church that carried Tubatron to full godhood and spread his word across the multiverse. Cheshire, our Cheshire, so small and unsure sometimes, but ever big and loud. I couldn’t counsel her on how to be a high priestess, a position I didn’t think I could fulfill myself, but I had no doubt she would find her way. She was a better leader than I and that was what they needed, some sense of direction, purpose.

Cheshire gradually worked her way towards us, a tired smile on her relieved face. Just making plans of how to proceed was a big step, more so in achieving agreement. She collapsed on the other side of Ulkair and leaned against him, the respite of her success so soon lost to what else remained to be done. The church, finding a plane, the children, the fortress, Selene’s fate, the abyss. With every solution, we found two more problems. Even so, she needed a break.

“Did you want to come with us to the fortress?” I offered, reaching out and taking one of her hands.

“I think I should stay here because I have thirty five little hellions running around,” Cheshire mumbled, burying her face in Ulkair’s shoulder.

“Did you want us to bring them with us?” Ulkair asked.

“Will that grossly impede your work?” Cheshire asked, looking up at him.

“It might, but they’ll just get into trouble here,” Ulkair said.

“They get into trouble there too. There’s not much dry space for them and one has a dragon while the other is full of arcane equipment,” I said, frowning. I didn’t want to refuse to take them, offer Cheshire what relief we could, but there was precious little space that wasn’t underwater and the lot of them wouldn’t be nearly so well behaved as just Rolf and Simon were.

“Let me ask Alix what he’s doing,” Cheshire hummed, her gaze growing distant for a moment.

“We could run drills around the dragon until the other room has the water cleared out,” Alix suggested, walking up beside us and looking at the group of children running around the concert hall.

“If Alix is watching them, then it will be fine,” I nodded. The man was nothing if not capable and he wanted to teach them anyway.

“Alix, I’d be interested in seeing this water fortress of yours. May I come? I’m very good at swimming and I can breathe underwater.

Nodding, we rounded up the children and head to the fortress. I took the lead and Ulkair, Alix, and Aadya kept the children centered between them so none of them could disappear of their own volition or anyone else’s. The man who escaped or the cranium rats who escaped probably weren’t in any position to try anything against us as of yet, but it wasn’t worth the risk.

Arriving at the fortress, Alix and Aadya looked after the children while Ulkair and I stayed mostly in the arcane laboratory, occasionally venturing downstairs to look at the failing membranes, adjusting the magic to reinforce them as needed. Ulkair beamed at his creation coming along, his joy so precious and bittersweet. This must have been what his life was like before. Perhaps not for fortresses in the elemental plane of water, but arcane discovery, research and creation with his belovèd apprentice, teaching the other man all he knew and working with him to learn more. This was what delighted him more than almost anything, perhaps the only exceptions being myself, Cheshire, and the babies. Once we moved, we would have to fix this laboratory up so he could research more if he wanted to, for when we had the time to spare.

Ulkair smiled and took my hand, cradling a mixture of the components in one of his arms and grabbing my hand, excitedly running towards the stairs. Touching the water, we regained our tails and swam back to the room we slept in before. Ulkair set everything up, writing arcane symbols around each of the windows and casting a spell over them, setting a few other pieces in place to secure the walls as well, if I’d understood correctly. He said that the magic preserving the fortress was failing, not just that keeping the water out, which was why upstairs where the magic was stronger was in better repair than what was submerged.

“Nerida, could you shoosh the water out, please?” Ulkair asked, his golden eyes nearly glowing in his giddiness.

I couldn’t help but smile at him and do as he bade, calling on my magic from Lord Eadro to gain control of the water, commanding it to flow out of the windows. The water swirled and poured out the windows, soon leaving the room entirely dry as I pulled water out of even the soggy furniture that had been floating around the room. Ulkair shifted back to have legs again and ran up to the window, resting his hand against the reinforced membrane now holding the water out.

“Look, our bedroom!” Ulkair beamed, spinning around and gesturing to the now dry room. “Possibly. I think we could sleep in here with the babies and Cheshire.”

‘It’s wonderful,” I smiled, wrapping my arms around Ulkair and leaning down to kiss him.

“Well, that’s a good reward,” Ulkair hummed.

“So, it looks like it’ll work for the rest of it then,” I commented, looking around the room.

It was certainly more spacious than what we had at the conservatory and we would need that as the boys grew up. The others had also been quite cramped in the other room and Aadya would certainly appreciate the higher ceilings here. It seemed a shame again to have to move it when I felt so close to Lord Eadro here and more so if Aadya could swim and breathe underwater, but Cheshire hated it here.

“Indeed, indeed. I will just need more materials.”

“Do you know where we’ll be able to move it? Or what will be involved in that?”

“Oh, that will just take the rest of the arcane battery up there. I think we can move it once no problem. After that, we’d have to find a way to restore it and I haven’t quite figured that part out yet. Souls could certainly power it, but I think we could find a better way.”

“Indeed, better that we not resort to such methods,” I said, grimacing. I’d rather had enough of stealing souls, as useful as they could be.

“We’ll figure that out when we need to, I guess.” Ulkair said.

“Or when you get bored,” I teased, running my fingers through his hair.

“Maybe,” Ulkair grinned. “But first, we need to find a place to move it. It seems like we’ll have a lot of work in the abyss. If we put it there, it would be good staging ground.”

“Wasn’t the point of this fortress to keep us safe?” I asked. I knew safety was a lie, but I couldn’t imagine how we could possibly fortify the fortress enough to be able to sleep there with demons running around everywhere, ones strong enough to make balors weak in comparison.

“Well, it’d be as safe as it could be as a staging ground in the abyss. Or we could put it in the outlands. There would be lots of space there. We could move it again later if we needed to.”

“Couldn’t we just go back to the Abyss if we needed to?”

“Yes, I suppose, but if we had any longer operations, it would be good to have a safe place there.”

“What about your hut spell? With the sticks.”

“Yes, but we could post men in the fortress, guards and supplies. Just a suggestion, Nerida. We’ll do whatever you want to do, but we do need to find a place for it.”

“Living in the abyss sounds terrible,” I mumbled, resting my face atop his head and holding him tight.

“I’m just saying it’s an option if we find we need to spend significant time in the abyss. I certainly wouldn’t want a summer home there. Otherwise, we could pick somewhere with easy access to Sigil so we’re not always using your magic.”

“That would be convenient, so we would know where we would appear each time,” I commented.

“Or we could focus on finding that place for Tubatron and put the fortress there too.”

“It sounds like we’ll have to move it sooner rather than later and I suspect we will not find a place for him soon. Didn’t Cheshire say something about creating a plane for him?”

“Yes, or even a pocket dimension.”

“I don’t know how to do that.”

“I’m not entirely sure either,” Ulkair admitted. “As soon as we have a place for it, we can start putting your followers in it and it could also be a way to generate money. I didn’t think it was possible, but we’re running out. If we put it somewhere we could control a mine and some fields or even trade routes, that would be the most lucrative setup.”

Money…of course we would need money to set up the fortress. I’d been too reckless spending so much on having the emerald cut, but who else could have? Anyone could have tried, but there was something about it, something
unique I couldn’t find again in all the planes. I…I would find another was to help pay for our communal expenses.

“We’ll have to find out about more planes to find a suitable location,” I commented.

“Frankly if we got some of those dwarves-” Ulkair began, stopping abruptly. “How did you get forty dwarves to follow you from the Elysium mines? I’m dying to know.”

“Ummm…I drank with them?”

“I would really like to hear that story,” Ulkair grinned, pulling me into his arms.

“We drank and talked a lot and Khaz thought we were interesting. He helped me out and I told him about looking for Zeph and he was offended that one would keep a person and he decided to help me.”

“How drunk did you get?”

“I only passed out once?”

“You passed out drunk and I missed it?” Ulkair asked, laughing.

“Yea, Lóin came back with Selene and he threw a blanket over us,” I mumbled, blushing.

“Wait, you slept with a dwarf?” Ulkair asked again, laughing even harder.

“Next to? The night before we only had mead, but then that night we had some more mead and something called bourbon and I don’t remember what the other one was.”

“I would love to go drinking with the two of you sometime.”

“I tried a sip of it and it was like it bit me,” I pouted.

“Nerida, I love you,” Ulkair chuckled, shaking his head slightly. “I never would have pegged you for drinking buddies with a dwarf. I look forward to meeting him. So, what did you need from this dwarf?” he asked as he leaned closer, a sly grin spreading across his face.

“There’s an acquaintance of his I wanted to speak with.”

“Oh?” Ulkair drawled. “A dwarf after the elemental plane of earth? Plus, you came back with more beautiful armour?”

“I’ll tell you the whole story soon,” I promised, nuzzling his face. “As soon as the fortress is ready and we can go back to get Khaz.”

“Alright, let’s go buy everything we need,” Ulkair said, grabbing my hand and taking us back to Sigil.

Laughing, we ran through the marketplace, darting from store to store to pick up the remaining components we needed to finish the rest of fortress and keep all the water out. I suppose part of me had hoped to keep one of the rooms submerged, especially if we’re to move the fortress from the elemental plane of water. As much as I missed water, it just wasn’t practical for what everyone else wanted and needed. Still, we could find a place near a lake if nothing else, somewhere Seren could swim as well, and we would make do. We always did.

We left the supplies in the fortress and gathered Alix, Aadya, and the children to return to Sigil for the evening. I thought of just spending the night in the fortress to spare the trip, but I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving Cheshire alone in Sigil without Ulkair and I or Alix there for her and I missed Seren and Rhapsody terribly. Their sweet faces and Seren’s happy babbling never failed to bring a smile to my face. Tomorrow. We would return tomorrow and possibly even finish the other rooms, or at least a couple of them. Once that was taken care of, we just needed to find a place to move it. It could be just a few days before we would go to Elysium to get Khaz and I could propose to Ulkair.

The moment we returned to our room, I pulled Ulkair into my arms and kissed him, running my fingers through his wavy hair. Ulkair seemed a little confused, but wasted no time wrapping his arms around my neck, pulling me closer to him. Holding him, his emotions flowed into mine, his love, his adoration, his joy, his hope. It was a rare moment I found naught but good in anything I had done, but finding Ulkair, freeing him, bringing the good in him to life once more I could find no fault in. Ulkair’s fingers trailed down the side of my face with the greatest of care and he stared at me for a moment, wonder glowing in his eyes.

I glanced behind him at Cheshire sitting on the bed with the babies, a small smile on her exhausted face. Smiling at her, I took Ulkair’s hand and we walked over to her, flopping down onto the bed and pulling her between us. Seren squirmed in Cheshire’s arms and I leaned down to kiss his face before looking up at Cheshire again, a grin spreading across my face. Wrapping my arm around her waist, I hovered over her and showered her face with soft kisses, Ulkair joining in on the other side until she was laughing, her small hands flailing trying to push our faces away. Giggling, I took her hand and pressed a kiss against the back of it before snuggling closer to her. I couldn’t take the weight from her shoulders or the anxiety from her mind, but perhaps I could ease some of the strain. Smiling, I held them close, drifting off to thoughts of giving Ulkair his emerald.

Laughter filled the room for perhaps the first time, finally free of danger, finally free to smile without fearing what destruction the small distraction might bring. No, tonight we were just us, enjoying a meal together. My cheeks tinged pink at using Lord Eadro’s power for something so frivolous, but it was so nice to share with my companions a feast far beyond anything I could have imagined. The joy on Ulkair’s face seeing his special Elysian bread made it worth it if nothing else.

I looked over to see Agorran’s careworn face in a smile somehow more genuine than I seemed to recall, laughing at a joke Alix had made. A hand took mine, drawing my attention back to Ulkair and I smiled feeling him lay his head on my shoulder. This man I loved so very dearly, more precious to me than anything…I felt his happiness seeping into me like warmth from a campfire, fire so like him. I leaned down to gently kiss him, mindful of our company, when I saw Dovev smiling up at me, his cool, clammy face feeling so wrong against my skin.

“I’m so happy to be here with you, Nerida,” Dovev said, his voice deep, captivating, but unnatural, tainted with the torment of countless souls.

A soft scream escaped my throat and I jolted away. Shaking my head, I suddenly saw Ulkair looking up at me again, confusion in his golden eyes. I looked around the room to see if anyone else had noticed anything. My gaze focused on Alix, but something seemed different about him too. He seemed…feminine, hanging on every word Agorran said, hearing nothing else. He sat oddly close to the high priest and I heard him shift in what I could only assume was his hand sliding up his leg under the table. Puzzled, I looked at Agorran, affection he had never before demonstrated for the ranger as clear as the ocean was vast. Blinking, I noticed a silhouette behind him, a woman. My eyes strained to catch every detail of her shadowed figured and I realized she looked just like Alix, but younger, what I imagine his mother might have looked like. Strings were wrapped around her fingers leading to Agorran, the high priest moving only when she pulled one, a sinister grin spreading across her face.

My gaze darted around the room, looking for someone, anyone else who noticed anything as I had. Seeing Lóin, my heart nearly stopped, or rather those who were sitting beside him where Will should have been. He was conversing jovially with Vhailor, the immortal child sitting in the other vampire’s lap. I jumped to my feet, my chair clattering to the ground behind me and my plate crashed to the floor, shattering. The man we brought to Byss tsked at me and moved to clean pick the plate up.

“What’s wrong, Nerida?” Cheshire asked, staring quizzically at me. “We defeated the vampires and saved Elysia, haven’t we? Or at least, we’ve blown it up, right? I mean, we didn’t really save it, but it’s better now, right? Or maybe…I don’t know.”

“Ha, what a lovely joke, Cheshire. Saving Elysia,” the immortal child laughed chillingly, her voice ringing in my mind as my vision faded, something pulling me into the darkness. I fought against the force clawing at me, biding I become one with the shadows as they had tried to take me before.

A scream tore from my throat and I found myself clinging to Ulkair, holding onto him as though he was all that could save me from the darkness. I glanced around the room for the vampires or any other lurking evil, my breath coming out in ragged gasps, but I saw nothing, no fangs, no too large smile stretch across his face. Sighing in relief, I slumped into his chest.

“What’s wrong, Nerida?” Ulkair asked, stroking my hair.

“Just bad dreams, my love,” I answered, standing up and stretching.

Hearing no response, I turned around to see Ulkair swaying on his feet, suddenly disoriented. Staggering back, he caught himself on the wall. The stone surface shifted, long cracks forming and enveloping his hand. I grabbed onto his free arm, pulling with all my might, feeling that if I let go now, I would never see him again. Tears brimmed in my eyes feeling my hands slipping, his arm oddly slick, impossible to hold onto. Looking down, I saw I wasn’t holding his arm, but a slimy fin.

“I don’t want to be a fish, Nerida,” Ulkair said, fading into the wall, a sorrow reflected in pale, golden eyes,

“Well, I don’t want to be a tuba, Ulkair!” Cheshire called, her hands on her hips.

My eyes flew open and I found myself lying in my bed beside Cheshire curled up on Ulkair’s chest, both asleep. Blinking, I pinched myself a couple times, realizing I was truly awake this time. That dream…some of it seemed to be my own mind, but truths were yet threaded through it. That woman behind Agorran…why would I invent a mother for Alix if she wasn’t in fact relevant somehow? Or perhaps Alix’s origin was?

Sighing, I sat up and looked around the room, somehow expecting something to be there, watching me. I cast detect evil, but felt nothing near me. In Sigil, the distant presence I felt could have been anyone. Frowning, I cast detect magic and looked around again. Ulkair, Cheshire, and both the babies glowed softly, but nothing else caught my attention, their faces normal, peaceful. I reached beside our bed and pulled out the small silver mirror again, staring into its smooth surface, only my own reflection looking back at.

I tucked the mirror back in my bag and wrapped my arms around my legs, resting my face on my knees. We needed to go to Byss, I was pretty sure, but what else was relevant? We killed Dovev, though we never were able to find his head. The immortal child and Vhailor were dead too, but the other vampires? The other legions of undead they commanded? Alix and Agorran….I had never thought Alix feminine and though I couldn’t be anything but glad if they were to find happiness together, I only knew them to be friends. Why should Alix’s mother, if that’s who she was, want to control Agorran? I could ask Alix, but what if I was wrong about everything I saw? I knew nothing about his family and in a city with such a high mortality rate, it was bound to be a sore topic.

I could pray, but typically I only had the feeling that Lord Eadro trusted me. He gave me these visions and trusted me to understand them, decipher them and act. If I asked for help, would he be disappointed in me? Dovev, Elysia, the vampires, the man we took there, Agorran, Alix’s family, his origin, what was the right part to focus on? We couldn’t just go back to Byss and tell everyone that undeath had visited them again and go on a hunt, but there had to be something there to do. I reached for my holy symbol, holding my hands around it in the shape of a spiral and I prayed to Lord Eadro, prayed I wasn’t failing him.

‘I know these visions are from you, I just don’t quite understand them yet. Is there any more guidance you could bestow upon me?’

The reassuring presence of Lord Eadro surrounded me more strongly than it ever had before, even when he pulled me from the fields, when he saved the temple in Byss, praising his glory for hours in his realm. I felt almost as if he had become a part of me or I him. I slumped backwards and my eyes fluttered shut, seeing only sea green as brilliant as the sun.

“Sift out your own fears, Nerida, and you will be left with the truth,” Lord Eadro instructed. “For an oracle’s fears colour everything they see.”

A deep sleep came over me, the sea green light fading to become my dream and once more I was looking at Ulkair resting his face on my shoulder, no sign of the ghoul lord. Lord Eadro was yet with me, sifting through the vision with me. I looked at Alix and his form shimmered briefly, and I realized it wasn’t him but a woman who looked very similar to him. The strings from the other woman behind Agorran extended to her as well, manipulating both of them. On the other side of the room, Lóin was talking to various Byssians, their faces changing whenever I glanced away. A voice whispered in my mind that who he was speaking to didn’t matter. The man we brought to Byss still picked up my shattered plate and the immortal child remained, her unnatural voice still laughing at the idea that we had saved Elysia. I saw Ulkair briefly stagger and catch himself on the wall before the dream faded entirely and I felt like I was floating in positive energy.

“This is his fate as he stands. It will likely take both of you if you want to save him,” Lord Eadro said and with his fading voice I felt him depart, sleep again claiming me.

Something soft brushed my face for a fleeting moment before returning again just beside it, ever shifting to cover any patch of skin it might have missed. My eyes slowly slide open, somehow a monumental task for something I knew to be small, but still I wanted nothing more than to close them and drift again in the sea of oblivion.

“Nerida, it’s time to meditate,” Ulkair called, his hand brushing the side of my face as he showered the other side with more chaste kisses.

“Are you sure you don’t want to be a fish?” I mumbled, staring blankly at my hand, trying to will my fingers to move, reach for Ulkair’s hands so close, but his proximity didn’t seem to matter. I knew I should be able to, even wanted to, but I couldn’t seemed to muster the energy.

“What?” Ulkair asked, smiling at me.

“I had a dream last night.”

“A dream or a dream “ Ulkair asked, seriousness overtaking his playfulness as concern stained his eyes.

“It was oracular. I woke up and prayed to Lord Eadro and he told me it was a vision before we watched it again,” I explained.

“Oh,” Ulkair began, a short, hollow laugh falling from his wavering lips. “This seems to be truly your fate, then…is this what you want, Nerida?”

“Well, he told me I was an oracle, if there was any doubt yet of that, and I feel that he wants me to be his oracle,” I said.

“I want you to be whatever makes you happiest, which I don’t believes involves you being a god’s oracle,” Ulkair pressed, stroking the side of my face.

“I’m happiest being with you, but…can’t I have visions and still be with you?” I asked, frowning.

“I will be with you until the moment you send me away,” Ulkair vowed.

“Would you have to be sent away for that?”

“I would never willingly leave you is what I mean.”

“Ulkair, what happens if you don’t believe in a god?” I asked, forcing my arms to lift me and I reached for Ulkair, nearly crawling the short distance to cling to him, looking up at his pale eyes.

“Why would you ask?” Ulkair questioned, hiding behind a veil of neutrality.

“The second part of my dream, you said you didn’t want to be a fish and you fell into the wall. I tried to pull you out, but you were drawn into it.”

“Clearly just a bad dream,” Ulkair dismissed, looking away from me.

“Lord Eadro said it was your fate if you remain as you are,” I said, pleading with him to just talk to me.

“I believe no fate is set in stone because I once thought they were and you proved me wrong,” Ulkair insisted, staring hard at me.

“And so if you changed, it would change.”

“Eadro doesn’t know everything and he doesn’t know me,” Ulkair ground out.

“I think he warned me more than just for my sake,” I cautiously began.

“I think any concern was for you, not me.”

“I do believe he cares about you too,” I whispered.

“I just think he’s trying to make you happy. I don’t suppose he cares if my soul- it’s not, I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t think that’s true.”

“I’m sure he wants me to be happy too, but he has looked out for you too. Maybe not as you would have preferred, but he didn’t have to lead me to you. The magic holding you was great, but not so much that he couldn’t have killed you if he saw fit. He was angry for what you had done to his children, to his oceans, and still he saw fit that you be freed, that you find happiness.”

“That may be, Nerida, but he knew that this was what he needed to do to raise you up to be his oracular puppet,” Ulkair nearly spat the words, his eyes glowing. “What have these dreams done but exhaust you and cause you pain?”

“We found Selene.”

“We found her with our magic!”

“I’ve only had two.”

“He encourages you to look and to poke and to prod and to scry,” Ulkair muttered darkly.

“And I know to be careful and I have you to help keep me safe,” I said, reaching for his hand.

“You will always have me, but I don’t want to be a fish, Nerida.”

“You don’t want to stay with me?” I asked, my eyes widening. I had never feared death, knowing it meant I would go to be with Lord Eadro, but now, it meant being separated from Ulkair.

“How can you say that, Nerida? Of course I want to be with you!”

“But I’m scared for you!” I cried, tears pricking at my eyes. “I don’t know what fading into the wall means, but it can’t be good. What happens to your soul if it doesn’t go to a god?”

“They throw you upon the Wall of the Faithless. If you don’t bow to them, they crush you into nothingness, but I know how to escape that fate. I could become one with the essence of magic itself and in there their grasping hands can’t get my soul.”

“And so you still become nothing? Wouldn’t you still cease to exist?”

“Who is to say we would be together with Eadro? I become a fish in his pond of souls and you become his oracle kept close to his bosom for eternity, showing him what is to come.”

“Maybe that doesn’t have to be your fate.”

“Yes, if I,” Ulkair began, taking a deep breath and turning away from me. “I believe we are at an impasse. I thought we could perhaps become something great together, but I see that the will of your god is very important to you.”

“And so are you. Can’t we still be something great together?” I pleaded.

“Not something unique, something new to the planes, but I, I need time to think,” Ulkair said, pulling away and disappearing.

I felt a weight crushing me in the wake of his absence and I collapsed in our bed, still warm from where he’d been sleeping not long before. Gone…he was gone…not just out of the room, but from the plane. Tears slide down my cheeks, but I couldn’t find the energy to sob at the aching chasm in my heart, the void left without him. His promises to never leave me echoed in my mind, followed by desperate cries to know why he wasn’t here then. What did being at an impasse mean? What did it mean if we couldn’t rectify this? My god, my love, they were the two halves of me. What was I without them? How could I chose one?

Maybe it wouldn’t matter…my bones would be dust before Ulkair fled to become one with his belovèd magic, wouldn’t they? How foolish to think my happiness could last, that we could remain together through it all. What were loved ones but something to lose, each taking a piece of you with them as they fall away until nothing is left but the sweet embrace of the one thing you pray can bring them back to you? But death would not reunite me with him and Cheshire will go to her Tubatron. Alone….no matter how I cling to them now, I would still end up alone…

Lying in a crumpled heap, my eyes slid shut and I reached out to Lord Eadro in my prayers as I did each morning. I felt he heard me, only having just departed, but my magic did not return, my mind too exhausted. A hollow feeling consumed everything I was, leaving whatever shell was left without Lord Eadro and Ulkair. Some part of me knew neither had forsaken me, but the tattered remnants of my heart couldn’t heed that truth through my crushing despair. Alone…so, so alone…I could face so much, survive so much, but I couldn’t do it alone.

I slowly clenched my fists, dragging my hands to the sheets pooled around my waist and pulling them over my head, though I still felt so cold. Cold and so very tired, almost like after my soul shattered, except now it wasn’t my body stopping me from acting. My muscles didn’t strain and cry out every time I tried to move, but I just couldn’t seem to make myself do anything. I knew I should get up. Gods don’t grant miracles for those too lazy to get out of bed. Maybe that was why I hadn’t recovered my magic…was Lord Eadro angry that I needed his help? I called out to him and then couldn’t even sit up to give my daily devotion. Why was I so exhausted? My last vision left me tired, but nothing more that a sleepless night. Why…?

The door creaked open and I felt someone standing in the doorway, looking at me. Probably Cheshire, wondering why neither Ulkair nor myself had come out yet. She paused there a time, an eternity, it seemed, before I heard the door shut again, no one in the room with me. I fought to pull myself together, be the strong leader she saw me as before she left me too. I had already failed Ulkair becoming what he hated, pushing him away. I couldn’t fail her. I thought of sitting up, turning to smile at her and tell her everything would be okay. We just had to go to Byss and Ulkair would come back to see her soon. Everything would be fine. Another tear slide down my cheek as I stared at my unmoving fingers yet clenched around the edge of the sheet shielding me from the world.

I heard the door open again, soft steps approaching me before sitting down on the edge of the bed and my heart raced in my chest. I have never been able to outright lie to Cheshire. How could I convince her I was okay, that I was strong enough? I took a deep breath, grateful the sheet wiped away what tears I’d shed. The edge of the sheet lifted ever so slightly and I pink little nose poked under it, turquoise eyes curiously regarding me.

“Why’d you build a blanket fort?” Cheshire softly asked.

“I had another dream.”

“What was it about?” Cheshire whispered, her grip on the blanket tightening.

“I’m not really sure…” I mumbled, hazily thinking over what I had seen. I felt we needed to go to Byss, but as for what exactly was wrong was hard to say.

“Nerida, where is Ulkair?”

“Gone…” I breathed the word, squeezing my eyes shut, my soul crying to be near him.

“Gone where?”

“He’s not in Sigil….”

“Why don’t you tell me what happened?” Cheshire coaxed, resting her hand on my shoulder.

“Well, I was trying to tell him about the dream. At first it was when we were in Byss at that heroes’ feast I cast when Will and High Priest Agorran and Tark came over. Then, the vampires were there, just sitting there, eating with us. Then there was Alix, or when I first saw him, he seemed oddly feminine and there was a silhouette of a woman behind High Priest Agorran that looked just like his mother might, a slightly younger version of him. You said something about saving Elysia and the immortal child just laughted. Then I thought I woke up and Ulkair got up and sort of stumbled into the wall. He said that he didn’t want to be a fish, I guess because petitioners on Lord Eadro’s plane usually become fish and swim in his sea. He was pulled into the wall and then you said you didn’t want to be a tuba, but I don’t know why you would be a tuba. Is that what happens to Tubatron’s followers? I don’t know…” I mumbled, cradling my head in my hands.

“I….no…that would be news to me.”

“But then I woke up, for real, and…um…I cast detect magic and evil. There were no vampires or anything was watching me from the mirror, so I thought I was okay. I prayed to Lord Eadro for guidance and he spoke to me,” I said, a glimmer of hope returning as I recalled my god’s voice, his guiding presence. “He told me I was an oracle and he wanted me to be his oracle and I needed to sift out my fears. I watched the dream again with him, but it was different. It wasn’t Alix with Agorran anymore, but a woman who…looked just like him and the other was still behind High Priest Agorran and the immortal child was still there and that man we took to Byss-”

Suddenly the door flew open, slamming against the wall and Alix stood in the doorway, paper, a quill, and an ink well clenched in his hands. His face betrayed more emotion than I had ever seen, fear, despair, a faint hope that he was wrong, a hope he couldn’t bring himself to believe.

“Describe her to me.”

“You or the woman behind High Priest Agorran?”

“Both of them. Now,” Alix demanded.

“Okay,” I whispered, shrinking back a little.

I grasped at all the details I could recall, trying to describe every nuance, but what clarity I had seen then in was lost in my waking. The only words I could thing of to describe the woman with Alix was his reflection if he were female. The biggest differences were her face, her eyes, happiness I had never seen in Alix, love that made my own heart ache for my other half, but I didn’t know how to say that without offending the ranger. I felt Cheshire prodding my mind and I let her look over the images of the dream I watched with Lord Eadro to relay them to Alix. Alix’s quill flew over the page to the sound of my voice, though he hardly seemed to be paying attention to me rather than drawing from memory until pictures of the two women appeared on his pages with better detail than I could have described. Finishing, he stared at the pictures, pure anguish etched into his every feature.

“Alix, what’s wrong? Alix?” I called his name.

“Is this accurate?” Alix asked, holding up the two pictures.

I nodded and he threw the pages down, storming out of the room. Cheshire called after him and followed. Move…I needed to move, but I felt so…heavy. Flying seemed an easier task, for even in falling, for a time, you were one with the sky. Still, they needed me, at least to get to Byss. That mattered more than my pain, the impossible weight pushing down on me. They mattered more. Gritting my teeth, I forced my self to move, slowly climbing to my feet. Standing….I was standing….the worst part was over. Staggering towards the doorway, I leaned heavily against it, gradually making my way to the next room. Peering in, I saw Alix had already donned his armour, his great swords at his hips and his bow slung across his back.

“Take me to Byss!” Alix insisted the moment he saw me.

“Tell me what’s happening first!” Cheshire pleaded. “Alix, what do we have if not trust?”

“I trusted the past not to reach out and dig its claws into the present,” the ranger bitterly ground out.

“Alix, who are they?” I asked again.

I couldn’t think of anyone they could be but his mother and sister, but he never mentioned having any siblings. All I knew of his mother was that the yellow dress he gave Cheshire had once been hers. If that was who they were, why would they haunt him now? Why would his mother be controlling Agorran and his sister?

“Alix, do you not…trust me enough to let me help you?” Cheshire all but whispered.

“No, I…I do trust you. That’s not at all the problem, Cheshire. You are the blood in my veins, even if I did not conceive you. That is why I wouldn’t visit the curse of the past on you or your children.”

“Alix…” Cheshire began, taking his hand. “Whatever is happening, your pain is mine.”

“I have no family,” Alix said, letting out a shaky breath. “You know I killed my father. Well, the rest of them followed shortly after. My mother said I killed my brother and let my sister die, my twin. She blamed me for their deaths and went to her grave shortly after, out of grief, rage, and spite. That is my family and they have come back to haunt me.”

“How can undead still survive in Byss?” I asked, though I didn’t feel welcome in their conversation. Still, all the other undead had weakened and died with the positive energy flowing over the land.

“I don’t know. Are they undead? Are they…?” Alix trailed off and sighed. “I heard some of what you said about the immortal child laughing about Elysia being saved. Ulkair, he didn’t actually destroy it, he made it dark and empty. Is that not the perfect place for evil and undead?”

“I’m not really sure what happened to Elysia…my memories of what happened at the end are hazy, at best, jumbled…”

“Well, no one ever went in to look, did we?” Alix said, cool anger in his voice.

“I wondered about the mirror, but Ulkair said it couldn’t be used to get back there. What about High Priest Agorran?”

“Agorran’s heart is enormous and he forgave me for killing the woman he loved.”

“Whatever this is, we’ll handle it together. We’re your family now,” Cheshire said, squeezing his shoulder.

“And if I take care of it alone, I won’t risk the family I have,” Alix dismissed, much as I often did.

“A-Alix, you’re not alone!”

“I have killed my entire family!”

“But you haven’t killed me and you’re not going to,” Cheshire stated, staring into his eyes.

“You said your mother blamed you, but that does not mean you are to blame,” I added.

“I didn’t…kill my brother, per se. I loved him and he loved me and wanted to be just like me. He was not just like me…no one was. I could see a monster and see how to kill it. He could not. But I did kill my sister, my twin,” Alix said, his gaze growing distant, reliving the horrors of his past.

Moments dragged on, voice lost to their own bond, continuing the conversation I was never meant to be part of on their own. I stood useless in the doorway, waiting for them to finish, waiting for my exhaustion to fade, though it clung to me. For a foolish moment I thought moving would help, that momentum might carry me, dispel whatever clouded my mind and wake me up, but it hadn’t. I found myself leaning drowsily against the frame until Alix’s voice once more filled the room.

“I had wondered…perhaps, when Ulkair described it as ‘turning the flows,’ I wondered if Elysia would just become a worse Byss,” Alix mused.

“But it fell to ruin, didn’t it? The cavern was collapsing,” I said, frowning.

“I’m sure that whatever they made on the power that was there collapsed, but that’s a lot of death and horror. What better task would an immortal creature have to do, trapped forever, than find a way out? I am no magister, I am no expert in magic. I am…not schooled in these things as you all are, but what I do know is monsters. I am sure there were some horrible monsters made by the vampires that would only thrive in a place with no light. I am a child of Byss, the greatest hunter it ever produced.”

“You’re also the greatest father it ever produced,” Cheshire whispered.

“Agorran would have been a better father and husband,” Alix said.

“I wouldn’t rather have anyone else, even Agorran.”

“Good. No one else would have you,” Alix said, the faintest touch of mirth returning to his dark eyes.

“Well, no one else would want your stupid cat,” Cheshire sniffled, wrapping her arms around him.

“She’s pretty adorable,” Alix commented.

“Speaking of Dumpling,” a booming voice began from outside the room, a huge, violet hand moving past me to set the purring cat down. “You ran off so quickly….I was only trying to bring her back up to you.”

“I always kept Dumpling to remind me there were still gentle creatures in Byss,” Alix said, picking the cat up and scratching behind her ears.

“Would you like to come see our homeland, friend?” Cheshire offered Aadya, looking up at her crouched in the doorway.

“Any creature that would threaten your homeland is a creature that I would be happy to help kill. To see the land that made such a noble man must be a great one indeed,” Aadya said.

“As Byss stands now is a bit different from the land that made Alix, but it helped shape who he is now,” Cheshire smiled.

“We need to go. If there is even the chance that my siblings were not laid to rest, I…” Alix trailed off, old pain returning to his face.

“I know. We’ll go,” Cheshire said, patting his arm before turning to the confused silver dragon looking between us. “Gear up, Lóin.”

View
Descent into the Deep
All is Not as It Seems

Nerida

With the morning light came questions of what to do next. There were so many tasks that needed our attention and I hardly knew where to start. If Khaz and his apprentices were going to have a place to go, we would need to get the water out of our fortress, which would also give Rolf more room to move about. At the same time, I kept wondering if it wouldn’t be worth it to go back to the Temple of Ao to inquire about meeting that oracle. Even if I needed to persuade him to talk to me, it would be something, though I didn’t know what I’d do if I found his sanitywas wearing thin.

Zeph visited me in my dreams, memories of when we were young and so carefree, yet unaware of what it truly meant no not own oneself. His bright green eyes shown with delight as he proudly displayed his newest creation, even knowing it would be dismantled in but a few hours. He was so different from Severi, becoming my partner in crime when Áine and Mayra started working.

As much as I wanted to look for him, I couldn’t begin to think of where to start. People who collected others probably didn’t just hand out fliers about their personal affairs in the streets of Sigil. Anyone aware either wouldn’t care to spill his secrets or couldn’t, already an unfortunate part of his collection. If indeed he collected beings other than merfolk. I knew nothing about him and the only way I could glean anything else about him could only end terribly for me.

Sighing, I flopped on my back in bed, my mind torn as to what to do and how. The fortress was more Ulkair’s project, but he wanted my help, or more likely my company. After the venture to Elysium, I didn’t want to be separated from him again so soon either. Information on oracular visions wasn’t crucial enough to put it before anything else for a more extensive research and still I wasn’t sure how to look for Zeph or what attention might be drawn to us asking questions. The fortress was the only project with a particular timeframe attatched to it…perhaps that would be the best place to start and while we were in the marketplace getting the necessary components, I could try asking around a little.

“What could possibly make the mighty Hierophant of Eadro sigh this early in the morning?” Ulkair mumbled, curling up on my side.

“Just that…we have so much to do or that we could do and I don’t know where to start. Oh yea, the kids too. I’d forgotten about them,” I groaned, burying my face in the pillow. “Didn’t Cheshire say Declan and Alix followed them to beneath Sigil? Well, we had a week without a battle….”

“Indeed,” Ulkair sighed, taking me in his arms. “Being protectors puts us in conflict with many, but… I can’t imagine you any other way, Belovèd.” Leaning in, Ulkair stroked the side of my face and looked deeply into my eyes. “But we can’t just leave people to their suffering, just like you couldn’t leave me.”

“I know. I…couldn’t leave children to such a fate,” I mumbled, nuzzling his face. “At least my owner wanted me to live so he could sell me. These children don’t even have that regard. Declan is still trying to find out more about them, right? I guess in the meantime we can work on fixing the water fortress. Once we’re able to free them, they’ll need a safe place to stay.”

Evidently while I’d been gone, Cheshire had sent Declan to look into the organization behind the children’s abuse, finding more a crime ring than a formal faction taking advantage of an easy labour force. Even if we did find every child they had stolen, they would simply steal more, plucking the otherwise unwanted of the streets where no one else would come looking for them. If we were to strike, we needed to cut the head off the snake before it slithered away and found a new place to burrow.

“Indeed. We all need a home we can be safe in.”

“I suppose more accurately, you’ll work on fixing it and I’ll…try to follow what you’re doing.”

“Well, I need a lovely assistant to get anything done,” Ulkair said, a grin blooming on his face.

“You mean to scare half to death in the middle of working just to say you want to sit on my lap?” I said, poking him in the side.

“Well, it’s a great place to work from,” Ulkair laughed, a gleam twinkling in his eye. “I’m pretty sure I do my best work there.”

“Any chance to spend time with you is a good one,” I hummed, leaning forward to kiss him. “Though I suppose we should pray and meditate.”

Ulkair needed no further invitation to curl up in my lap. Laughing, I sat up and wrapped my arms around Ulkair, holding him close. Perhaps time wasn’t so short as I’d feared. So often everything happened so fast, where one moment we’re trying to prove Alix isn’t a heretic and the next we’re marching to war against a kind of undead I’d never heard of. Focus on a couple things at a time and eventually we’d finish, wouldn’t we? Zeph…had been gone for eight years. One more week wouldn’t change anything.

With our magic restored, we informed Cheshire and Alix of our plans for the fortress, Lóin and Selene following shortly behind us. Declan was still looking for more information on the organization so until he had a definite lead, we were free to work on repairing the membranes.

At the fortress, we surrounded the bronze dragon with bits and bobs of treasure we’d found, but hadn’t the use for as he did. Piles of gems, some magic items, staves, a couple weapons none of us could use. Lóin couldn’t really tell us how much he might need, but by the time we were done, the dragon seemed to sleep easier.

For the rest of the day, I followed Ulkair around inspecting the windows, comparing the membranes downstairs with the ones on the upper floor, trying to discern why some were failing and others weren’t, or not so severely. Ulkair mumbled all his observations aloud, a trail I could mostly follow with my yet limited understanding of arcana, but I couldn’t deduce anything from the information. Still, Ulkair was happy to tell me everything he saw and the joy in his eyes was plenty. The calm, stillness of the water was a relief next to busy Sigil, sweet solitude and time spent just with him. I’d wished I could have brought Seren with us so he could swim, but there would have been no way to feed him.

And so we spent our time together for two days, until we returned to the church to see Cheshire clinging to Alix, a grim look on the ranger’s face. Blinking, I noticed two identical cats, Dumpling, I think her name was, sitting by Alix’s feet. Hearing us enter, Cheshire looked up at us briefly, swallowing thickly as she opened her mouth to speak, her voice trembling with her words.

“Declan found the final drop off location,” Cheshire mumbled, holding tighter to Alix.

“And Alix is going to scout it out,” I concluded, frowning slightly.

Alix was the best and honestly only one of us that could move quietly enough or hide, but Cheshire always hated it when he had to go alone, the inherent danger in any such task. Even so, we needed to know everything we could about this organization, how large it was, who was important, and what those of import were.

“Scout it out and bring back one of the operatives,” Alix clarified “Caspian will be coming with me in the form of a cat. I’ve been seen the past few days walking a cat with booties, so no one will think anything of it. If we’re caught, we simply stop sneaking.”

“I could cast chain of eyes on Caspian. Ulkair and I will be able to see everything she does and the spell can be transferred by contact. If one is getting away or going somewhere she can’t follow, just by brushing against them I could follow that person instead. No one would think too much of a cat, I shouldn’t think.”

“That could work,” Alix nodded. “If it really goes south, you’ll know.”

“Are you leaving now?” Cheshire asked, pulling just far enough away that she could look up at Alix’s face.

“We should be there early to scout out the area and make sure we see them,” Alix explained, smoothing her hair and pulling something out of his bag. Kneeling down, he affixed little knited booties onto I think Caspian’s feet, gauging by the dour look on the cat’s face, and clipped a leash around her neck.

“Be safe…” Cheshire breathed, wrapping her arms tightly around herself.

I crouched down and rested my hand atop Caspian’s head, watching her eyes faintly glow as I cast my spell. Closing my own eyes, I saw myself kneeling before me, my hand poised just over my head. Blinking a few times, I again saw Caspian standing before me as a cat, my vision focusing from my own eyes once more. Alix picked up Caspian and walked towards the door, briefly looking over his shoulder at Cheshire before taking his leave.

Cheshire sniffled and walked in anxious circles, her gaze largely distant, focused on her link with Alix. I thought to hold her, offer what comfort I could and cease her nervous pacing, but I felt she didn’t want to be in my arms. The stillness would bring more concern for what was happening to Alix. Sighing, I sat on the edge of our bed, folding my hands on my lap as my eyes slide shut and my mind was not greeted with darkness but my vision bobbed along down the familiar hallway of the church. I felt Ulkair’s arms wrapping around me, silent disapproval of the divination magic, but still he hovered close by me, a protective force if I should need one.

For a couple hours I watched Alix walk around darker parts of Sigil passing only few people, searching for the man Declan had tracked down. He showed no impatience, slowly making round after round until someone slipped into a large building, some minutes later followed by another and then a young child. Alix crept in and set Caspian down at his feet. The two men were beating the child for something, though I couldn’t hear anything through my spell.

Razorvines sprang out from the ground and entangled all three of them as Alix raised his bow. Aiming for but a moment, the arrow soared through the air and caught one of the men in the eye. His body slumped forward and I saw the other two screaming, pulling at the vines around them in their terror. Caspian darted forward and regained her own form, cupping her hand over the child’s mouth before too much attention was drawn to them. A rope slithered out, wrapping around the other man and binding him as Caspian’s spell faded. Caspian and the boy spoke briefly, the boy’s fear and doubt quickly turning to hope. Alix dropped the bound man into th bag of holding, helping the boy step in on his own. Caspian again took Dumpling’s form, casually walking out of the building beside Alix.

I sighed in relief and thought to end my spell, but decided to keep watching, should anything happen on the way back. Sigil was an unfriendly city in the dim light of day and at night, every caution was necessary. I watched as they crept back along streets I slowly began to recognize again until they returned to the church, stepping up to our door. Releasing the spell, I groaned and held my head as my vision spun. Ulkair held me tighter and I rested my face against his shoulder, slowly blinking as I adjusted to seeing out of my own eyes once more. The door slipped open and Alix stepped in, Caspian in her typical form just behind him.

“Well, we killed one, caught one, and we have another kid,” Alix announced, setting the bag of holding down and helping the boy out.

“Sounds like a success,” Cheshire said.

“We should take him to see Rolf in the morning, but I think we should interrogate this guy now. We should wake up Lóin,” Alix said.

Nodding, Cheshire wasted no time in running to the room beside ours and we followed behind her to see the bard practically jump on Lóin and shake his shoulders. Alix dumped the man on the ground and he glared up at us. I tightened my grip on Anduin looking at him, wondering what it would take to make him speak. His eyes were cold and even in the pale light, I saw several scars carved into his skin. Seeing him, I wondered briefly what I would look like if I didn’t have magic to heal me. After Elysia alone I would hardly be recognizable. Even surrounded by us, the man hardly looked daunted.

“You guys are gonna get it,” he spat. “It doesn’t matter what you do to me.”

“Okay, that’s fine,” Lóin said, a grin stretching across his face. “I’m going to need everyone to clear out of the room for about thirty minutes.”

“You’re all talk. You guys are always all talk.”

“I should probably stay in here. Make sure he stays conscious,” I commented and leaning back against the wall, trying to ignore the terrible knot twisting in my stomach.

I could already hear his screams, the torment we could inflict. Or would inflict? Did it have to come to that? If he would just tell us what we needed to know, that would be the end of it. He could leave and we would face that creature, whatever it was.

“Oh, good. That will make things easier,” Lóin said, stepping closer to the man.

“This isn’t my sort of thing,” Ulkair mumbled, casting a spell on Lóin and stepping out of the room with Cheshire, all but Alix filing out.

Fog seemed to surround Lóin and he grew taller until he had to crouch forward to fit in the room, his skin falling off him in wet, heavy sheets to reveal dark, sinewy muscles tangled around white bones. He stared at the man with eyeless sockets and spoke with a harsh, ghastly voice as an ancient undead monster risen to claim vengeance on him.

“Who do you work for?” Lóin wheezed, leaning closer to him.

“Answer,” I commanded, weaving magic into my voice to force his compliance, but he only sneered. Gritting my teeth, I seized him by the throat and slammed him into the wall above my head.

“There’s nothing worse you could do to me than what they will,” he croaked.

“Hey, Nerida, put him down for a moment,” Lóin said, leaning on my shoulder. “I’m going to need some lantern oil and a bucket.”

I simply released him, letting him fall to the ground coughing at our feet. He looked so…pathetic, weak. He looked like someone I should be protecting, someone caught up in a system larger than him. He accepted his place, took part in the mistreatment of others, but that didn’t mean he deserved this. There was already so much pain in the world. I didn’t want to add to it. I…didn’t want to be like them.

“You can burn me alive if you want, though everyone will know what you’re doing in here, stupid.”

“Oh, you think I’m ashamed still. That’s adorable,” Lóin said, chuckling.

“Why are you so loyal to him?” I asked, clenching my fists. Why protect them?

“I’m in too deep.”

“That doesn’t matter if we kill him, this creature you work for,” I said, meeting his gaze.

“You can’t kill him,” he laughed bitterly, looking away.

“And why would that be?”

“You can’t even intimidate me. You can’t kill him.”

“Even gods can die. What is so special about this master of yours?”

“You wouldn’t believe me,” he muttered, shaking his head.

“Try us. You don’t know what we’ve seen,” I challenged.

“Who do I work for? I work for the shadows in the darkness. I work for those who perpetuate crime for its own sake. You don’t know. You don’t understand anything!”

“And what would he do to you for speaking to us?”

“Just for speaking to you, nothing. For telling you anything, string me up by my guts or scream my mind out and make me think I’m strung up by my guts.”

“And you think we can’t do the same? Rip your soul out of your body and torture it until you don’t recognize it anymore?”

“Well, then you’d be just like him.”

“It doesn’t benefit you to be silent,” I said, wishing he would just speak so we could stop this.

“Nor does it hurt me any worse,” he countered, glaring at me.

“What’s your name?” Lóin asked suddenly.

“Bob,” he spat.

“Good enough for me. Why are you doing all of this, Bob?”

“Why are you doing what you’re doing?”

“We’re not the ones on trial here,” Lóin said, crossing his arms.

“And neither am I.”

“Did you used to have a family, Bob?”

“Yea, I ate them.”

“Nerida, you have anything else you want to say before I smear him across the wall?”

“You could still come out of this, you know,” I said, kneeling down by him.

“No, I’m pretty sure I’m already dead. You’ll kill me or he’ll kill me.”

“Or you can speak to us, we’ll kill him, and you can run along to another plane. If you could walk away from this, what would you do?” I asked.

He…wasn’t a good person. I could feel the vague taint of evil on him, some of what he was forced to do, some of what in time he chose to do, but all to survive. If left to his own devices, maybe he would just go back and continue to prey on those weaker than him, but he could change if he chose to.

“Starve on the streets of Sigil without the system.”

“Why stay in Sigil?”

“Where would I go?” he asked, doubt of his conviction reflecting in his eyes for the first time, considering our words.

“We know of a portal to Elysium.”

“Bunch of goodie two shoe elves? They wouldn’t want me there,” he scoffed.

“There could be another place for you in this world.”

“Words mean nothing. You were just threatening my life. One of you is going to kill me. I have no incentive to talk to anyone.”

“We have no incentive to kill you if you speak to us.”

“You killed my friend without any sort of provocation or trial or justice!”

“And the child you were beating?”

“He didn’t bring back what he was supposed to,” Bob said, shrugging.

“He’s still just a little boy,” Lóin said.

“No, he’s not. He’s a contractually obligated employee.”

“That just happens to be eleven?” I asked.

“Anyway, when I don’t report in, they’ll come looking. When they find my body, you’ll get what’s coming to you.”

“You can go anywhere from Sigil. Where would you go, given the choice?” I asked again.

He was right that our threats mean little. We could kill him all too easily, but I didn’t think I could bear to drag his torment out long enough to force anything out of him. If he refused, I would rather cut his head off and force that to speak. Quick, clean, probably mostly painless, but I had to give him the chance. What information he had couldn’t be worth his life, miserable though it seemed.

“I know no life other than this.”

“Did you choose this life?” I asked, suspecting the answer was no.

“I was born here and I was that boy. That’s the way the world turns.”

“I was born a slave and yet I am not a slaver.”

“I was a circus act,” Lóin chimed in.

“Good for you,” he glowered.

“What I’m trying to say is you don’t have to stay in this life you were born into,” I said, resting my hand on his shoulder. Even if he accepted his role, he hadn’t chosen this and I couldn’t so easily condemn him for that.

“Well, I mean, yea, I guess it would be nice to have the chance, but no one has ever given me that and I don’t know don’t know why you would. Why should I trust you? How would any place be better? It would just be the same thing, people taking advantage of other people.”

“There are places that are different,” I insisted, thinking of Byss and all I learned there, especially from Agorran.

“Yea, right, not for poor people. I ain’t got no skills.”

“You must have something to have gotten to the position you were in?”

“Yea, big fists.”

“Which also equates to strength. There are crafts that require that.”

“Well, yea, I used to feel bad about doing this to kids, but I don’t know what else there is in life.”

“So what you’re telling us is that all you’ve ever known was how to destroy things? I wasn’t much different, honestly, but I was taught to be a smith. What I’m trying to say is that we can offer you a better life.”

“Can you offer me a better life somewhere they won’t find me? Can you guarantee that?” Bob asked, looking at me.

“I rather take it upon myself to protect those that need it,” I said, grimacing at the marks around his neck. Reaching out, I cast a light healing spell, watching the bruising fade.

“Look, I’ve never been a good person, but I’ve never had a chance or a choice.”

“I have seen someone comeback from far worse than this, who suffered for far longer. You could too, if you wanted to,” I murmured. My Ulkair was stronger than him in every way, so radiant even in his darkness, but perhaps this man could accomplish a similar feat, if on a far smaller scale.

“Get me out of the city, get me somewhere good to live, and money in my pocket. Someone to teach me how to do something and then I’ll tell you anything you want to know. Deal? Five hundred copper, or whatever money they use in the place you send me to. Gold, they use gold in other places. Yea, five hundred gold, a house, and a job,” Bob said, looking satisfied with himself.

“I’ll see what I can do about setting up a life for you,” I said, sighing, not sure how interrogating him turned into us being extorted for his information. A chance…just give him a chance… “So tell us about those you work for.”

“I need a promise, something I can trust that you won’t just dump after I tell you. You would have to take me there first.”

“No.”

“I don’t even know that you can get me out of Sigil. You’ve given me no reason to believe anything you said.”

“Byss has made home to worse than him and if anyone can keep him in check, my people can,” Alix spoke up from the corner.

“We can take you there, but we must act quickly, therefore you must speak,” I bade.

“Take me there and I’ll tell you everything.”

“And what guarantee do we have that you’ll tell us anything there?” I asked.

“Well, I’d be well and truly trapped, wouldn’t I?”

“And so are you right now. Tell us something now and the rest there. Right now we don’t even know that you know anything.”

“My masters aren’t even human. That’s what I’ll tell you,” Bob said, nodding slightly.

“Well, I figured that,” I scoffed. Since when were we lucky enough that it was just some common human in charge of things?

“How would I have known you knew that? You don’t even know what you want!”

“We want to know what your master is so we know how to kill it.”

“He’s got a couple of giants, but I’m not telling you anything else or you’ll dump my body!”

“How much do you know about your master, what it is?” I pried.

“I know where he lives, how he appears to us, and what his bodyguards are. I could also give you all the other operatives at my level.”

“How many children are there?”

“I know of…thirty,” he said after a moment.

“Do you know if there are more?”

“There could be, but I wouldn’t say there are many more. I make the final drop every week.”

“I could memorize plane shift in the morning,” I said, looking at Alix.

“It’s almost that time,” Alix commented, looking out the window.

“How long has it been since you’ve eaten?” I asked Bob.

“Eaten or eaten well?”

“Eaten well.”

“Uh, I had a meal at an inn last month?”

I held my hand out, summoning loaves of bread as I had for Rolf, the pile larger than he could possibly eat. Kneeling down, I untied the rope around him, knowing he wouldn’t be able to escape with Alix in the room. Once his hands were free, he immediately grabbed a loaf in each hand and ate as if he hadn’t seen food for some time.

“The taste perhaps isn’t the best, but it will keep you full and sustain you,” I explained.

Making no indication he heard me, he continued eating, obviously not terribly concerned about the flavour of the bread. Sighing, I stepped back into the other room, Cheshire sliding wordlessly by me to go check on Alix. I dropped beside Ulkair and pulling him into my arms, burying my face in his neck.

“I love you,” Ulkair whispered, hugging me back. “Want to talk about it?”

“Love you too,” I mumbled, fisting my hand in his shirt. “I don’t know…I just…hate hurting people weaker than me. I hesitated even facing down Aquis and he was far more evil than this kid. I don’t want to be like them. I don’t…suppose that’s a bad thing? It would have been so much easier to just hurt him any number of ways and heal him enough to keep him alive until he caved or just kill him and force his remains to speak, but looking down at him, all I could think of was Zissyx. Everyone taking advantage of those who couldn’t defend themselves, those who can’t say no…”

“And that’s why you are better than them, and why I love you. You are a protector, not a destroyer, and that takes more strength and determination than the will to harm. I’m glad you didn’t lose that part of yourself, Belovèd.”

I clung tighter to him, just breathing and listening to his steady heartbeat, his fingers trailing through my hair and down my back in an endless loop. Our…“interrogation” didn’t go at all as planned, but at least he should tell us whatever he knew, for whatever good that might do. In Byss, he would have a chance and I could not deny him that, as annoying and whiny as he was. Snuggling into Ulkair’s chest, I soon drifted off to sleep for what few hours we would have.

The call of the ocean pulled me from slumber after not nearly long enough, but I sat up anyway and cast lesser restoration on myself and Ulkair. Gods don’t grant miracles for those too lazy to get up. I stretched and pulled Ulkair into my lap to restore our spells. The boy, Simon, he said his name was, regarded us curiously, his gaze occasionally anxiously flitting about the room. The moment we stood he jumped to his feet, demanding to know when he could see Rolf.

We grabbed a quick bite to eat and Simon climbed into the bag of holding. Ulkair cast a spell on Bob to change his appearance as we walked the streets, lest he be recognized. We dropped Simon off with Rolf and I cast a quick spell to give them more food for the day, suspecting Simon was still hungry after what we’d given him a few hours prior. Rolf was quick to show Simon his backpack between mouthfuls of bread, explaining the few rules for staying in the fortress.

Smiling at them, I pulled out the key for Byss to take us back to the closest thing to a home I had come to know. Alas that we could not stay long, but seeing Agorran again for any length of time would be a relief. Soon the wide fields of Byss appeared before us, the morning sun shining down. Bob looked around in wonder he tried to hide, but the sight must have been truly captivating to one who’d only ever known Sigil. With our hands still entwined, Ulkair teleported us directly into the temple where we found Agorran meditating. His eyes fluttered open hearing us arrive and I wasted no time pulling him into my arms.

“To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?” Agorran asked, laughing as he hugged me back. “And who is this you’ve brought with you? Where’s Cheshire?”

“Cheshire’s fine. Mimi too,” I hummed, pulling away so he could see Selene and Bob.

“This is Selene,” Lóin introduced.

“Ah, I’m glad you found her in only two short weeks. I’m overjoyed to see you all again.”

“How long did the glitterdust last?” I asked, knowing Cheshire would be curious. The spell normally only lasted a few minutes, but perhaps it lasted an hour or so with how much magic we put into it.

“Well, it’s quite spectacular at sunset.”

“It’s still there?” I asked, blinking.

“Yes, we’ve taken it to calling ourselves ‘The Glowing City.’ We think that once there’s more than once city, it will be quite delightful.

“It’s already quite delightful.”

“Yes, people are already talking about going to settle the other city, once we’ve enough people.”

“Indeed, new cities are a fragile thing,” I said, nodding, thinking of Étaín struggling to survive with so few people.

At least we had many priests to create food to supplement what we could gather as we built the city and the mass of former slaves were not unaccustomed to a hard day’s work. We had survived and were growing by the day as Byss would when they branched out in the years to come.

“If you meet a mason, send him our way,” Agorran commented, smiling.

“Well, we have someone we were hoping could move here? He’s looking for a new life. He’s quite strong. Perhaps if there are any masons here, they could teach him their craft, unless Will could use another smith?”

“I…suspect there is more to this story,” Agorran said, eyeing Bob.

“Ummm….well….long story short, kind of, we left and we found what we thought was a black dragon but it turns out he was a bronze dragon and we killed him and we brought him back, but we needed bronze for him. So we got a bunch, but then this kid hid in the bronze and we found out they were being used to steal stuff from people for this big, bad thing we don’t know what it is but we want to kill it. He knows what it is, but he wanted a better life so he’s here,” I babbled, shrinking under his gaze.

“Oh…” Agorran mumbled, sitting down in one of the pews. “Look, we have enough on our plates without keeping track of a criminal. We need people who can help Byss. I will do it for you, Nerida, but we need a quality people. No offense intended, but that is the need.”

“We can find somewhere else…” I mumbled, looking away from him, guilt gnawing at me for ever having brought him here. I didn’t want him to do this simply because I was asking. I didn’t want to force anything on this city I so loved after all they had done for us.

“He is a large man. Perhaps Will could use him,” Agorran commented, looking up at him.

“Could we try it out and see if he does okay? If he’s too much trouble, we’ll find somewhere else for him,” I offered. This need not be permanent. We could leave him in any plane and never see him again.

“If he’s too much trouble, he won’t make it,” Agorran said before turning to Bob. “Byss is a hard place and a hard life. It won’t be easy. You pull your weight, we’ll accept you for who you are.”

“That’s more than I could get in Sigil, I guess, but remember it was a place to live, money, and a job.”

“We will find him a place,” Agorran said.

“Are you sure?” I asked, tightening my grip on my holy symbol. “You can get anywhere from Sigil. Any place would take a mercenary.”

“Let us not speak of it. I am still so happy to see you all. Can you stay? Shall we feast?”

“We do need to be back, at least by tonight, before this organization moves on,” I sighed, wishing we could stay longer, speak of something that wouldn’t upset my high priest, maybe show him the emerald if I could distract Ulkair for a moment.

“Well then, speed you on your way with my blessing,” Agorran said as he rose his hand, sea green light surrounding all of us.

“So, what can you tell us?” I asked, turning to Bob.

“Okay, so he looks like a regular person, but I’ve heard him stomping around before I’ve gotten gone into the room. He must have been something huge and I heard the swoosh of wings.”

“You think he’s a dragon?” I asked, sighing, wondering how many dragons we would have to fight.

“I dragon or a demon? But, just listening to him gives me a headache. I don’t know why, but there’s something wrong about his voice. The form he appears in when I see him is very plain. He has brown hair, brown eyes, really easy to miss in a crowd. He wears plain clothing, too.”

“Do you know if he ever leaves?”

“He must? He’s not always there, but he could be somewhere else under Sigil.”

“What can you tell us about Undersigil?”

“It’s a horrible place full of undead. Vargoyles, cranium rats, wererates, carrion crawlers, demons stage out of there sometimes. It’s just bad. There’s no telling what horrible thing is going to kill you and I try to spend very little time down there,” he said, shuddering.

“Do those creep into where he stays too?”

“He keeps it pretty clean. He probably controls some, but I don’t know for sure. Cranium rats get everywhere, but I’ve never seen one in there.”

“What’s a cranium rat?”

“They look like normal rats, except that they have huge brains sticking out of the tops of their heads. They don’t seem so bad looking at them, but if enough get together, they’ll kill you like anything else down there.”

“Are there any other entrances to it?”

“There must be one other one, but I don’t know where it is. I’ve only used the one you found. He knows the boys can’t use Undersigil. We all stay above.”

“Where do the kids stay?”

“Mostly, they live in Ragpicker’s Square. We go to the hive to steal.”

“What of the other operatives you spoke of?”

“Yes, there are four others. We’re the only boys who survived from our age group. We control the boys and they all bring their bounty to me so I can bring it to the boss. We average about a hundred coppers of stuff and then the specific items he tells us where to find and steal.”

“What kind of specific items and how does he find them?”

“A lock of a noblewoman’s hair, an amulet from a wizard’s study. One time, some eggs from a bird’s nest. They’re just random and weird,” he said, shrugging, obviously never having thought to much about why they were taking what they were instructed to.

“Do you know if he performs magic aside from transformation?”

“Probably? One time, we had to go get cheese. I mean, a noble lady did disappear after we stole the lock of her hair.”

“What about the other ones, after something was stolen from them?”

“I don’t know. That’s the only one that was high-profile. I don’t know and I don’t want to know,” he said, drawing in closer on himself.

“You said you knew of his guards?”

“Yes, he has two guards on him always, a couple giants. A large green skinned man with wild green hair. The other a woman, similar, but violet.”

“Are they strong or do they possess magic as well?”

“Both.”

“Do hey have any weakness you know about?”

“Their knees? I don’t know. I mean, I saw them electrocute a guy. They like lightning, I guess.”

“Of course they do,” I sighed, pinching the bridge of my nose.

“Mostly, they play boulder catch with each other. It’s terrifying, so don’t throw giant rocks at them. One of them carried a musical instrument, a harp, I think.”

“Are there any other traps leading into where he is?”

“He always disables the traps when I come in, but I know they’re there. Look for trip wires and pressure plates. I think I’ve seen one right at the ladder, one in the bend of the hallway, and then one in one of the stalagmites”

“Any other fortifications? Defenses we should know about?”

“Not to my knowledge.”

“Do they guard the children?”

“They aren’t guarded. They’re just marked for death if they don’t come back and everyone knows it.”

“How big is this organization?”

“Two giants, my boss, my compatriots who are a bit nastier than I am, but stupider. Really, it’s quite small, just specific, targeted.”

Sighing, I ran my hand through my hair. He didn’t know as much as I had hoped and I bitterly wondered if what he’d told us was worth the trouble. Capturing him, questioning him, bringing him here to be a burden to our people…at least we knew about the traps and about how many children we were looking for.

“So am I good? Can I have some money?” Bob asked, pulling me from my thoughts.

“No, you’re evil. I can feel it,” I grumbled.

“Look, I’ve had a hard life.”

“So has everyone here and I don’t want that to continued,” I retorted.

“I’ll pull my weight,” Bob said, nervousness flashing across his face, a hint of fear that we would back out on our side of the deal.

“This will be more than enough to get you started,” I said, handing him a pouch with fifty gold, hoping he did argue too much about it. After having Ulkair’s emerald cut, I didn’t have much more than that and it wouldn’t do him much good here anyway. “You’ll find money doesn’t quite hold the same weight here as it did in Sigil.”

“And you’re sure they can’t get me here?” he asked, fidgeting with the bag in his hand.

“I don’t know how anyone could get here without plane shift and they would need an attuned key for that. As of tomorrow morning, there shouldn’t be anything to worry about anyway.”

“Okay,” he mumbled, though I realized he likely hadn’t understood what I’d just said.

Alix walked up to us with Night Eyes in tow, the wolf sniffing each of our hands and his tail wagging happily behind him. Smiling, I knelt down and scratched his ears as Cheshire so often did. He looked curiously behind me as though looking for the small bard, wondering where she was if not with me or Alix. Sighing, I pet him some more and stood up, wishing he could join us, if nothing else for Cheshire’s sake for how dearly she missed him and Tad Cooper.

Alix stood anxiously by and I knew we needed to get back and help Cheshire prepare for tonight. Mimi and Caspian were with her, but no one looked after Cheshire as closely as Alix did. Bidding Agorran farewell again, we took our leave. As the sight of Byss faded, I prayed we hadn’t made a mistake in bringing him here.

We spent the rest of the day preparing for the evening, relaying to Cheshire, Mimi, and Caspian what we’d learned from Bob. We still didn’t know much, but it was better than nothing. Cheshire arranged to have Declan, Ooze, and a few other bards were going to attack the other main operatives and rescue the children. Striking at the same time would be our best chance to catch them all before they heard news that they had been compromised and fled to anywhere in the planes or even just rebuilt elsewhere in Sigil. The city was too large to monitor so closely.

When night fell, Alix led us back to the entrance he scouted out a couple days prior, finding a simple ladder. It looked too innocent, too inconspicuous to be harbouring anything like a demon or a dragon, but a certain air of forbodence clung to it still. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on and yet it still whispered warning to not dare pass.

“Look, he probably knows we’re here. We should probably move as quickly as we can,” Alix advised.

Lóin nodded and stepped down the ladder, followed by Mimi. I descended behind the celestial, watching for whatever trap was supposed to be by the ladder, but I spotted nothing. Frowning, I wondered if Alix shouldn’t have led us, however already I could hear Lóin’s heavy footsteps down the hall ahead. I hurried after him, trying to keep an eye out for traps hidden in the rough stone walls, though I hardly knew what I was looking for, if a pressure plate might look different than a regular patch of the floor. I heard Caspian say something behind me and flames erupted down the hall. I tried to shield Ulkair and Cheshire from the spell, but the flames whipped around me, searing into their flesh as well.

Reaching around behind me, I took Ulkair’s hand, holding him close. We would make it through this, whatever was ahead of us. One trap left, two giants, and this dragon or demon, nothing so bad as what we’d faced in the abyss. We rounded the corner to see another, smaller room and a narrow passageway further ahead.

“The tripwire is by that stalagmite in that opening. Try to duck under it,” Mimi whispered.

We crept closer to what must have led to where this creature resided, seeing rough cavern walls give way to what looked like a normal stone building Sigil had built over and so it was lost to the darkness and the creatures that roamed there. A large, scaled green face poked through the opening, indeed in no way surprised to see us and even amused.

“Hello, little mouse,” the dragon called, grinning, and a pale green gas billowed out of its mouth, filling the small room we were in.

I covered my mouth, but in was no use, the gas burning and blistering as it brushed over my skin, looking almost as though my very flesh was melting. Ulkair screamed and collapsed against the wall, reflexively curling up to avoid the gas.

“Ulkair!” I cried, pulling him into my arms and cradling him against my chest.

His breath was shallow, harsh, and it seemed that just keeping his eyes open was a strain. So soon…we had only just seen our enemy’s face and already our wounds were so devastating. I trailed my hand down the side of his face, praying to Lord Eadro for his power as his skin knit back together, the mixture of burns fading. Taking a relieved breath, he slumped against me, holding his hand out to cast a fireball at the dragon and giants within.

“A green dragon,” Ulkair mumbled, letting his arm drop. “Their breath weapon is a corrosive gas that can be used even underwater. If I were to time a fireball just right, I might even be able to ignite it.”

A great roar echoed from up ahead and I saw the swoosh of a silver tail and wings as Lóin charged the other dragon, sinking his teeth into it. Selene dove under the wire and launched herself at the violet giant, keeping her attention from Lóin. The other giant charged at us and slammed into the stalagmite, sending a burst of electricity into the surrounding area. Flinching, I held Ulkair against my chest and turned my back to the giant to shield my love from the trap, praying the electricity didn’t simply shoot through me.

When nothing touched us, I glanced behind me to see Alix run at the giant with his sword drawn, carving into the towering man. Standing up, I helped Ulkair to his feet and looked over our companions, searching for what injuries they had sustained, though I had looked away for but moments. Cheshire leaned against the wall as she played Ragnarok and sang, signs of the fire and acid yet painfully evident. Mimi was swooping on the dragon with her scythe poised, though several gashes marked her and blood dripped from her armour. Selene and Caspian were barely able to stand.

So quickly we shed our blood, lacerations covering our skin. Dragons, giants, demons, no matter how strong we became, there was always something stronger than any one of us, but I couldn’t let them fall. I drew on as much positive energy as I could, feeling my soul fissures glow as my magic strained against them. I closed my eyes, focusing on the spell though energy flowed out of me almost as quickly as I could send it out to my injured companions. Just breathe…you’re stronger than anything that can be done to you. Exhaling, I let the emerald whirling over my head absorb what positive energy escaped, funneling the rest to heal my companions’ many injuries.

Looking up, I watched in relief as Cheshire’s skin knit back over dark burns on her face. I still had to concentrate more than I might if I didn’t feel my energy fleeing so freely from me, but that was a small price to pay. Ulkair drew on my well of energy and called a flamestrike to his fingertips, a great column of divine fire descending upon the dragon and the violet giant.

Patting the flames out, the violet giant looked at the other one, raising her hands towards him in a gesture he mimicked, a large lightning bolt appearing before each of them. The lightning arced wildly, glowing brighter and brighter until they each launched and crashed together over Mimi. The lightning exploded out on either side of the celestial, moving as though it were alive, seeking more prey to envelop. Seeing it course towards me, I jumped back, almost feeling where it would go before it could strike me.

The dragon took our moment of distraction with the giants to cast what looked like the same spell I’d just used to heal my companions, his and the giants’ wounds largely closing over, though I didn’t think dragons had divine magic. The bronze dragon did, but he was good whereas the evil radiating off this green dragon made my skin crawl. No matter…what wounds he healed we would simply replace.

Alix’s eyes narrowed and he charged forward, leaping over residual lightning arcing along the ground and up onto the giant’s back yet turned to us for the spell he cast with the violet giant. Pulling his great sword back, he sliced cleanly through the giant’s neck in a spray of dark blood. The ranger easily balanced on the giant’s shoulders as he slumped forward, using the momentum to launch himself at the dragon. Burying his blade in th dragon’s neck, he carve down he length of it and landed on his feet, holding his sword before him.

All eyes turned to the dragon, paying little attention to what was likely a mercenary in favour of slaying the fell beast. Mimi swooped down on the dragon again, scales and gouts of blood spraying across the room. The dragon roared and shrank back to meet Lóin’s ready teeth and claws. I held my hand out towards them to heal what damage their chained lightning had done as I felt Ulkair draw on my magic again to encase the dragon in a pillar of fire.

Acid poured from the countless gashes and burns along its neck and its throat convulsed in what looked like an attempt to use its breath weapon, but a swarm of rats clawed their way out along with the corrosive gas. I stared in horror watching what must have been at least one hundred rats stream out of the dragon as its body slumped to the ground, chittering amongst themselves as light began to glow around them. Magic? How could rats cast magic? Unless…these were the cranium rats Bob mentioned? He did say they were more dangerous in groups, but he hadn’t said anything about magic!

The giant paled and began to float, holding her hand out towards the swarm of rats, electricity arcing between her fingers. Bolts of lightning sprang from her fingertips and darted through the throngs of rats, several shrivelling into crisp remnants, but still the others continued their chattering, the group teleporting away a moment later.

The giant slowly lowered herself to the ground, eyeing us warily. With the dragon gone, as well as that which I suspected had been controlling it for some time, we had no reason to fight her., but she may not see it that way.

“I take it you were working for this dragon, or hoard of rats, whatever it was?” Cheshire said, slinging Ragnarok across her back and stepping towards her.

“I thought I was working for a dragon, yes. I was paid very well, but it looks like…” she trailed off, shuddering.

“I guess it’s better that we purged it than left it,” Cheshire grimaced.

“But alas my contract is only fulfilled if I kill you all or die trying,” she said, her eyes narrowing slightly as she looked over us.

“If you wanted to walk away,” Cheshire began, glancing between Alix and the body of the other giant. “If you can’t go back, the Church of Tubatron would be pleased to have you. I heard you love music.”

“You heard that now, did you?”

“I also saw your harp,” Cheshire said, pointing at the instrument yet strapped to her back.

“We have no reason to fight you. It seems a shame to continue,” I added, stepping up next to Cheshire.

“And we’ll split the dragon’s treasure,” Cheshire chimed in.

“But my honour…though, will he be there?” she asked, gesturing towards Alix.

“Yes, he’s my father.”

“Well, almost certainty of death, small chance of success, yea, I’ll give your church a try,” she said, pulling out a piece of paper. She dipped it into the dragon’s blood and it immediately dissolved, erasing the evidence of her involvement. “I think I could make a case about the false pretenses in which this contract was drafted.”

“We would be thrilled to have you and I think you’ll find yourself in good company,” Cheshire said, her eyes shining at the prospect of having such a big and loud follower of her god.

I wandered forward, looking over the fallen dragon’s body. Arcane scars lined its throat, the stench of death wafting through the pungent acid. How long had it been controlling the dragon? How long could this have continued? Was it dead when they infested it or could it feel them crawling through the in what glimmers of consciousness it had? Green dragons were evil, but it seemed a cruel fate nonetheless.

“I wonder how long it was dead for,” I mused aloud.

“Some time, it would seem,” Ulkair commented, wrapping his arm around my waist.

Cheshire stepped up beside me with a knife, making incisions down the remnants of its neck. Grimacing, I walked away, looking for anything else that might have been left, any of the special trinkets the cranium rats had requested. Maybe she could learn something from it and dragons weren’t so common that it was an opportunity she could pass up, but I still didn’t want to watch. Ulkair followed me, circling the room and looking through everything left behind, but we saw no sign that anything magical might have been performed here. Up above we found a door only leading to the streets of Sigil, doubtless the second entrance that Bob mentioned, though only the dragon and giants could possibly have used it.

By the time we finished, Cheshire and Caspian were plucking what scales were salvageable off the dragon. Caspian could probably use some of the scales to repair her armour and there might even be enough to make something else with them too. The task was still a gruesome one, but useful. With the bag of holding neatly filled with much of the dragon’s treasure and his scales, we slipped out and made our way back to the church, hoping Declan and Ooze had been more successful than we had.

View
A Glimpse of the Future
Let Me Carve My Love for You

Nerida

My mind whirled, trying to piece together what had happened, how it was we were still standing. That demon…it must have had some sort of spell set up for when it died that nearly took the rest of us with it, as that glabrezu had been intent on bringing as many of us with it as it could. Still, it seemed…almost too easy somehow, like something was missing. Both Ulkair and Cheshire had nearly died, I could barely keep up healing Lóin and Mimi even with my strongest spells, but we made it. I’d been so anxious about coming here…what was I missing?

A great roar resounded, tearing me from my thoughts and I jumped to my feet, readying Anduin. A dragon…a silver dragon crouched in the middle of the room by Selene, tiredly nuzzling her face. Lóin…I knew he’d been trying to become a full dragon, studying the way of a dragon disciple, but still it was amazing to see the culmination of his efforts, breaking the very boundaries of mortality. Lóin slumped forward, as surprised at the transformation as the rest of us. A look of concentration fell over his face and he slowly began to shrink, turning back to his regular form, though he lacked his draconic features, his shoulder spikes and wings gone.

“Nerida, you have plane shift, right?” Cheshire asked, looking up at me.

“Of course. I made sure to save a spell. Though,” I trailed off, remembering when we came here. If someone hadn’t taken Ulkair, then what had that feeling been? It seemed a greater feat to pull someone out of plane shift than teleport, but I didn’t really want to find out if it was possible. “Ulkair, do you know what that pulling sensation we felt when we came here was? Is it something to worry about.”

“I think someone wants us to think something, perhaps distract us from something else, but I don’t know what.”

“Well, whatever it is, it’s probably not as bad as staying here,” I said, drawing on my magic to flee this terrible plane.

The air wavered and an aura of evil returned to the room, another glabrezu appearing in the room. No, not another, but the same one as before and it had mended its grievous wounds. Behind it stood another glabrezu, a few succubi, and another of the first demon we fought here, the one who saw the fissures in my soul.

“Oh, I see you’ve killed them. Well, thank you,” the glabrezu said, its lips curling up to reveal rows of monstrously sharp teeth. “Though I think I might keep a couple of you as collateral.”

Unholy light shone around the self-proclaimed judge of demons, beckoning taunting memories and our darkest fears, just waiting to tear us apart and rend us helpless before demons. Even without its “judgement,” in our condition, our odds weren’t good. I took a deep breath and prepared my spell, catching Ulkair’s glance. The demons would likely figure out what I was doing, but I might as well be as discrete as I could. Ulkair nodded, catching out companions’ attention and motioning towards me.

One of the glabrezu grinned as Lóin knelt down to pick up Selene, reaching for the injured dragon with a giant pincer. Alix trained his bow on the demon, releasing a held arrow to break the tip of its pincer off. Lóin ran towards me, scooping up the ranger on his way. Mimi ran up to me with Caspian in her arms, tears running down her face. Caspian…was she…? I grimaced seeing her battered, bloodied form cradled in Mimi’s arms, protective instinct flaring in my chest, demanding to know why I hadn’t protected her. I’d had to choose between her and Ulkair and Cheshire, a battle anyone would lose next to my belovèd, but still guilt plagued me. Not now…I didn’t have time to heal her now, not if we were to escape these demons. As soon as we were safer in Sigil…just hold on that long, Caspian.

Cheshire grabbed Lóin’s wrist and I released the teleportation spell, divine magic wrapping around as the red haze began to fade, carrying us away from this terrible place. One of the glabrezu reached for Selene, determined that they keep at least one of us captive. Selene held tight to Lóin and kicked the claw away just as my spell completed, barring further demonic interference as the smell of Sigil returned around us. After hours of nauseating sulfur, the typical stench of the city didn’t seem quite so horrible anymore.

Looking around, I tried to find something I recognized, but nothing stood out. We were lucky to have appeared on the ring at all, but I couldn’t begin to guess the way back to the conservatory from here. Everything looked even more rundown and dirtier than what we had walked through before, desperation thick in the air. Where before the others hadn’t paid us any mind, the people here eyed us with a sort of hunger and I could feel their eyes raking over me, searching for anything of use or value. A few crept closer, seemingly hopeful that we might just collapse where we stood so they could raid our remains or perhaps take even those for some purpose I could neither guess nor cared to dwell on. I looked down at all the blood staining my armour, most of my companions in an even worse state than I was. It was no wonder they took us for dead.

I looked back to Caspian, unmoving in Mimi’s arms, all her injuries difficult to discern under the thick layer of blood coating her and her cracked armour. I held my hand out to rest on hers. No pulse meeting my fingertips but residual warmth from the abyss quickly fading in the cooler air of Sigil. I called my magic to my hands, allowing the positive energy to flow over her, mending her skin. I held her hand for a moment, hoping to feel a pulse return or for her eyes to flutter open, but she didn’t budge. Latus…Latus had come back somehow, but that had taken a couple hours. Looking down at her, I bit my lip, knowing I couldn’t count on such miracles happening more than once, but she didn’t deserve this fate she so easily could have been spared if only she hadn’t come with us. If it weren’t for me, we never would have gone to the Abyss and she would still be just fine, regaling Cheshire with tales of her adventures at sea.

Softly shaking my head, I walked up to Lóin and rested my hands on his sagged shoulders, divine magic seeping into his wounds. The rest of us could survive until we returned to the conservatory and the relative safety it offered.

“Ma’am, Miss Angel, I could take that body off your hands for you, miss,” one of the people from the crowd offered, trying to look at Mimi, but his gaze kept falling back to Caspian, excitement in his eyes.

“I need to keep this body,” Mimi said defensively, holding tighter to her.

“Oh, a proud, important person like you? You don’t want to get your hands dirty like this. I’ll take that body to the mortuary for you,” the man said, reaching for Caspian, tugging at her leg.

“She’s not going to the mortuary!” Mimi yelled, kicking at the man and glaring at the rest of the crowd eying us. “I’m keeping this body!”

“Guys, just calm down,” Cheshire said, patting Mimi’s arm.

“We just need to get back to the conservatory. Maybe if we fly up we’ll be able to see the way,” I suggested. This city was strange, but it always worked in the ocean.

“I don’t think up will help. Let’s just ask for directions,” Cheshire said, sighing.

Looking around, she found an older, portly woman who hadn’t approached us or shown especial interest in Caspian. Her skin was pale, but she seemed to have eaten recently, which was more than I expected many of the others could say.

“What do you need, dearie?” the woman asked, warily eying Cheshire.

“Well, perhaps a guide?” Cheshire asked, smiling at her. “We could make it worth your while.”

“What help could a poor fish monger’s wife do for people who appear out of thin air?” she huffed, no less suspicious of our intent.

“We’re not from Sigil and we need to find our way back to the Church of Tubatron, if you might know where that is?”

“Aye, I’ve been to their service. It’s about the only pretty thing in this whole anthill they let us berks in to see for free.”

“We believe that music should be shared with everyone.”

“You’re one of them crazies, eh? Well, far be it for me to judge a cutter for sharing with the likes of me,” the woman hummed.

“So, do you think you could lead us there?”

“I could give you directions, but my feet don’t work so well.”

“Nerida, do you have remove disease memorized?” Cheshire whispered to me.

“Not today. I thought Mimi had it,” I replied, looking at the celestial.

Mimi perked up noticing us both looking at her and she hopped forward, looking over the old woman. I gingerly took Caspian out of her arms so she wouldn’t have to set her down. The others around us seemed a little afraid of us, but their desperation would drive them to steal Caspian’s body if she were so vulnerable. Mimi set her hands on the woman’s shoulders, brassy light shining briefly and a little colour returned to her face, surprise shifting to obvious joy.

“I haven’t been free of these joint pains for more than twenty years,” she murmured, a smile stretching across her face as I was sure it hadn’t in some time. “I would be happy to lead you to the Church of Tubatron.”

“I could offer you a ride there,” Lóin said, taking his dragon form again and bowing low so she could climb onto his back.

The woman’s smile widened and she clamoured up onto Lóin’s back, patting the base of his neck. Lóin glanced at Selene and she nodded, gracefully jumping up onto his back and sitting behind the other woman, helping to hold her in place. Mimi carefully took Caspian back and we followed behind Lóin, guided by the woman’s directions. Cheshire took Alix’s arm and they softly spoke as we walked, the effort Cheshire was making to remember the path we took reflected on her face. Smiling, I took Ulkair’s hand. It wasn’t like the walks we took in Byss, watching the stars appearing against the evening sky, the aroma of flowers wafted up to us by the gentle breeze, but at least we were yet together.

As we approached, I heard hushed whispers, a few eyes warily gazing out of the church door cracked just far enough open to allow them to see. Declan appeared at the entrance and strode out to meet us, bowing before Lóin.

“Mighty dragon friend, why have you come? I hope you bear no ill will against the Church of Tubatron,” Declan said almost reverently, slowly rising from his bow. Looking around, he noticed the rest of us standing around him. “What are you…wait, Lóin? I thought you were a half dragon…”

“He found another half,” I commented, giggling. Another half, his other half, call it what you will.

“Oh…well, you’re still welcome here. We could open up the…ummm,” Declan trailed off, trying to think of a space in the already cramped conservatory to fit a dragon.

Lóin crouched low to allow the old woman to dismount, Selene helping her to the ground. A look of concentration came over his face, struggling to change his form. Holding my hands up, I cast a couple of healing spells, hoping that the positive energy would help regain his typical appearance. Lóin shuddered, slowly shrinking down as his silver scales melded into his skin until he looked once more like a tall human.

“That was good for these old bones,” the woman chuckled happily.

“Thank you for helping us. Could we offer you a hot bath and a meal?” Cheshire asked, gesturing towards the front door.

“Couldn’t say no to a lovely offer such as that,” the woman replied, taking ginger steps towards the door before remembering that the aches of decades had finally been lifted.

Declan rested his hand on her shoulder and guided her inside. Cheshire followed close behind him, undoubtedly heading for Marion’s dwelling and Ulkair and I followed her lead. Seren and Rhapsody….we had left them just this morning, but it seemed like so much longer than that. So much could happen in hours so few, so much had. I grit my teeth and walked faster, finding myself almost desperate for my little Seren’s innocent face after the torment of the abyss.

Filing down the dark stairwell, we found Marion playing with Rhapsody and Seren, trying to keep the merbabe occupied, though he fussed at her.

“Seren is pretty hungry,” Marion said, looking up and smiling as we entered. “He’s a healthy baby.”

“She left? I’m glad I got here in time then,” Cheshire groaned

“She left?” I repeated, anger flaring in my heart.

She just left? Left Seren hungry when her singular job had been to provide for them as Marion couldn’t? Seren squealed happily seeing us, his eyes locking on Cheshire as he reached for her and I clenched my fists. How could she let a child but months old go hungry? Was it because he was merfolk? She couldn’t know he’d been born to a slave to hold the grudge against him.

“Yes, she left…she probably had enough of Rhapsody,” Marion sighed, rocking Rhapsody in her arms and giggling at the lightning arcing off his fingers.

Had enough of him? She was lucky to have left before I could…demonstrate my appreciation for what she had done to our children. I crouched down beside Marion and she carefully passed Rhapsody to me, Seren already in Cheshire’s arms crying for food. Our sweet children…that wretch would never touch them again.

Thanking Marion, we returned to our room so Cheshire could feed Seren, all of us needing the moment of peace after the day’s events. It seemed almost surreal sitting on our bed, Cheshire and Ulkair leaning against me, the feeling of their hearts beating against my chest. We were alive. That was what mattered, wasn’t it? I kept them alive, though just barely, but Caspian…squeezing my eyes shut, I held Ulkair and Cheshire closer. Somehow, we always seemed to make enemies and once more we found ourselves not quite even knowing who might be hunting us. That pulling sensation…something must have been trying to do something.

“Ulkair, can you think of anything that sensation in the abyss might have been? Or could something like detect magic tell us anything, if anything should linger?” I asked, finding myself reaching for Ulkair’s hand.

“Perhaps. In the morning I’ll run some tests, analyze ourselves and our bodies to see if any enchantments have been hooked onto us without our knowledge,” Ulkair mumbled sleepily, snuggling into my chest.

Smiling down at him, I ran my fingers through his hair, letting my other hand rub Cheshire’s back as her eyelids grew heavy under the strain of the day. I kissed his forehead and shifted to carefully pick Cheshire up, laying her between Ulkair and I. She hadn’t said anything, made no mention of the demons since returning, but I knew she was still terrified of them and for good cause. That one just looked at her and Ulkair and they nearly died…forcing the thought aside, I wrapped one of my arms around Cheshire’s waist, draping the other across Ulkair. Safe…you would be safe in my arms.

Closing my eyes, I softly sang to them promises of safety against any storm, no matter how rains poured down or waves crashed around us. Ulkair curled around Cheshire and held my hand, sighing contently. Their breathing slowly even out, lulled from worries that seemed ever present in waking hours. Holding them close, I prayed demons would not haunt their dreams as I drifted off to sleep.

We renewed our spells in the faint morning light, Ulkair scanning through pages of his spell books I hadn’t seen before to find the enchantment he sought as I prepared the spell to revive Caspian. I felt faint pangs of apprehension from him as his eyes scanned the pages, though he guarded his thoughts well. Maybe it was nothing more than this lingering anxiety I couldn’t place telling me that something was watching me because why else was I so on edge? Maybe it was nothing…but my mind wouldn’t rest, couldn’t dismiss the thought without some semblance of proof that my concerns were ill-founded.

Ulkair sighed and slid his spell book shut, reaching for my hand. Our fingers entwined and I squeezed his hand for what comfort the small gesture could offer. Ulkair tucked his spell books back into his pocket dimension and we climbed to our feet, moving towards our companions’ room.

Caspian’s body rested on the end of the room, a sheet draped over her. I took a deep breath and knelt beside her, guilt whirling through me as I reached for the sheet to pull it aside. She looked so much like she were sleeping, though her blue skin was far paler than it should be and splatters of blood and crumbling armour remained as a reminder of the recent battle. I took her hand, flinching at the coolness of her skin.

Safety in numbers, huh…our numbers had grown and yet here you were, cold, lifeless. Caspian never asked for protection, never asked for us to look after her so much as allow each other’s company on our individual quests, but it seemed an unspoken law. We hadn’t known her as long, but she had still become one of our companions. This…this was why I was worried about her joining us. I didn’t doubt her strength, but I knew our path was dangerous. I just wanted to save her from this fate, this demise that, even on her own, perhaps she would have been spared only looking for her belovèd.

What would she say waking? What blame would she cast? I deserved her ire, but what else could I have done? The spell that stole my magic was all that saved Ulkair from the demon’s own assault and even then Cheshire was still a target. Surrounded by so much pain, how could I save them all? I tried…I tried so hard to keep up, to mend my companions’ wounds as quickly as they were dealt, but there were so many and I was but one. Ulkair and Cheshire…given the choice to save them or anyone else, that was a fight they would always win. My stomach churned violently at the relief that flickered through me that they were safe, even looking at Caspian’s body. They were safe and this was the cost.

I pulled a diamond out of my bag and set it in Caspian’s palm, holding her small hand in mine as I began to pray to Lord Eadro, calling on his divine power to restore the druid’s life. Sea green light shone from my hands, shifting to wrap around her arm and slowly envelop her body. The positive energy seeped into Caspian’s skin, her normal hue returning as she shuddered violently and her eyes flew open. Caspian inhaled sharply and coughing as her gaze flew wildly about the room.

“Caspian!” I called, wrapping my arm around her shoulders to brace her. “It’s okay, we’re back in Sigil. Just breathe.”

“Nerida?” Caspian murmured, confusion overtaking surprise as her breathing steadied.

“How are you feeling?” I asked.

“I’m… I’m not sure how to describe it,” Caspian huffed a bit and shifted, though her movements were stiff. “… Cold? A bit numb? Dizzy…but slowly recovering, I suppose. A bit like getting out of frigid water; you’re stiff and wet, but you get over it.”

“Caspian, I…I’m so sorry,” I breathed, my gaze falling to the ground. Words were cheap and did nothing to change what happened, what I let happen, but still, I had to speak them.

“…I suppose there is little else to be done. At least my body is all in one piece. I admit…at first, when I opened my eyes again after that explosion… I was not expecting to have all my limbs. I could be in much worse shape,” Caspian said, shrugging slightly.

“If you had, I would have restored them for you as well,” I said, smiling slightly, a hint of pride and gratitude flickering in my heart. Even when I wasn’t enough to protect her, Lord Eadro still granted me the power to make her whole again. “You must be exhausted though. If there is anything I can do for you, please let me know.”

“I cannot imagine much. A warm bed, some time to rest…perhaps someone to fill me in on what happened while I was with the spirits. I’m not even sure how long it’s been.” Her tone suggested a bit of humor to it, grim, but not heavy-hearted.

“It’s just the next morning. I would have brought you back yesterday when we returned from the abyss, but I didn’t have the spell memorized. We can go over the rest of the details as well, perhaps after you rest, but first Ulkair is going to look for any magic that may have been cast on us. After what happened when we first arrived in the abyss, it seems prudent.”

Caspian nodded, shifting to lean against the wall. I stood back up and stepped next to Cheshire, giving Ulkair space to cast his own magic. Stepping before each of us, Ulkair drew arcane symbols with his hands, muttering under his breath. He barely paused at Alix or Caspian, passing by Lóin to look at Selene. His brows knit and he kept walking, stopping by Mimi, Cheshire, and I. Relief flickered through his eyes looking at me, but his face fell turning to Cheshire and Mimi.

“Well, it would appear that Selene is marked, as are Cheshire and Mimi,” Ulkair said, glancing between the three.

“Marked by what? What’s on me?” Mimi asked, her eyes widening.

“A magical tag so someone can find you wherever you are,” Ulkair replied. “It’s not something like a symbol so much as they make you extremely easy to spot and keep track of once they see you.”

“I figured that might have been the case for Selene, but who is ‘someone?’ “ Cheshire asked.

“The mark on you two is the same, but someone else marked Selene. I can’t say for certain who might have put it on you or how old the mark is, but that demon in Elysia was quite interested in the both of you.”

“So then maybe it wasn’t Inisbel…” Mimi mumbled, her brows knitting.

“I don’t think it’s angelic in origin,” Ulkair said, softly shaking his head. If only we were so lucky for it to just be the mark of her archon. “I can try to disenchant it. It might be easy, but it could be very difficult. It depends on how old the mark is and the skill of the one who place it.”

“Will it be dangerous?” I asked, frowning.

“There is magic that can activate when someone tries to dispel it. Once I singed Larn’s hair. Got him pretty good,” Ulkair chuckled sadly. “There’s this one particularly nasty spell that can cause an extremely venomous viper to rear out and attack you.”

“I’m sure you’ll be able to dispel them,” I said, smiling at him.

I glanced between Alix and Cheshire, trying to discern the difference or see the mark Ulkair spoke of. Finding a faint glow, I looked down at myself, expecting to see a similar mark, but saw nothing other than my soul fissures shining. I felt I should be relieved, but…I had been so sure that there would be something. At least Ulkair had found what was on everyone else and could remove the magic on them. Ulkair stood in front of me again, staring sadly at the fissure as he caressed the side of my face. Blinking, he looked closer at me, focusing his spell.

“I don’t know how I missed it before, but Nerida, you have a mark too,” Ulkair said, his frown deepening. “It’s different from the others.”

“I thought I might,” I sighed, feeling no better for the confirmation, but it was better to know. “Is there any way to find out who might have put them on us?”

“Not without them in the room or if I were already familiar with their magic, but if I see their magic again, I’ll know. I’m glad we did this though,” Ulkair chuckled nervously, running his hand through his hair. “This is bad.”

I pulled Ulkair into my arms, resting my face atop his head. I didn’t know who might have the magic to put these marks on us without our noticing or who might what to keep track of us, least of all three different parties, but now we knew and now we could do something.

“Well, let’s dispel these marks,” Ulkair said, looking happier, though I suspected he was still worried about the mark on me or something about it, maybe why it was so much harder to notice than the others.

“Cheshire, your mark is gone,” Ulkair said, smiling. “Yours was surprisingly easy.”

“Is that a bad thing?” Cheshire asked, fisting her hands in Ulkair’s shirt.

“No, not at all,” Ulkair smiled again, taking her hands and kissing them. Stepping before me, he held his hand up, concern flashing across Ulkair’s face. “Nerida, yours is more complicated. Whoever put yours on was very skilled.”

A look of concentration came over his face and he repeated the incantation, his spell reaching out to the hiding enchantment. I felt his magic move through me, searching for something, but if he found that which he sought, I couldn’t tell.

“I…don’t think I can remove this mark from you, Nerida, which is worrisome,” Ulkair whispered, his hand falling to his side and his gaze fell to stare at his fingers as though they had betrayed him.

“We’ll…figure something out, Ulkair,” I offered, taking his hand. “We always do.”

Ulkair sighed and walked over to Mimi and Selene, casting the same spell over them. Navy blue light enveloped them, removing their marks with similar ease as he had with Cheshire’s and I felt disappointment and guilt seeping through our link. He was almost frustrated that theirs were so easy for him to remove, but mine he couldn’t seem to touch. Ulkair clenched his fists and I felt determination flare in him as he stepped back over to me, pouring arcane energy into his spell, refusing to accept defeat. Light washed over me again, but Ulkair hardly looked pleased.

“I was able to suppress it that time, but…I don’t think I’ll be able to dispel it,” Ulkair murmured, his shoulders slumping.

“Maybe we can just keep an eye on it then,” I suggested.

“I’m so sorry, Nerida…sorry to have failed you…”

“You noticed it in the first place. I just…guessed,” I said, pulling him into my arms again and pressing my lips against his forehead.

“I can research it. Maybe something will be forthcoming,” Ulkair insisted, his mind whirling over what the mark could mean, ways to free me from it for good.

“Would you come with me to the temple?” I asked, hoping that doing something else would help him feel better.

Thinking about the potential that I was an oracle couldn’t be a comforting thought for him, but he of all people would value knowledge over intentional ignorance and I needed to go anyway. Caspian had already dozed off, curling up where she had sat, so talking to her would have to wait.

“I would go anywhere with you, Nerida,” Ulkair said, taking my hand.

I smiled and nodded, glancing at my companions in a silent question for if they should need us for anything before we departed. Everyone seemed to have their own plans for what time we might guard before something else demanded our attention. Cheshire and Mimi had been so busy trying to organize the church and Selene was surely still adjusting to the semblance of regular life we mimicked.

Taking our leave, we walked the streets of Sigl, occasionally asking various passersby where the temple was. It seemed that the only temple in Sigil was that of Ao, the god of the gods themselves. I didn’t know much about Ao or what his priests might be like, but seeking their wisdom seemed like the best place to start looking for information on oracles.

Entering the temple, I wondered briefly if we hadn’t somehow found the wrong building, seeing what looked much more like an office building than a god’s temple. The walls were lined with small desks walled off from one another and piled with stacks of paper, each having a small stash of quills, inkwells, and additional candles, presumably to complete the endless paperwork. If it weren’t for the feeling of divine energy surrounding me, the area obviously hallowed, I might have left and asked someone else for directions. When we didn’t move from the entrance, the priest at the desk nearest to us stepped forward, obviously preferring the company of his paperwork over that of visitors.

“What brings you to the Temple of Ao today, travelers?” the priest asked, looking between us.

“I was hoping I might be able to find some information on oracles?” I said, growing a little uneasy in the priest’s bored stare.

“Oracles? What kind of information? Do you need someone to scry or cast some other form of divination?”

“No, I think I may be one and wanted to know more about visions and how to understand them, if anyone here might know more about the matter.”

“If you’d like to submit an official inquiry, we could look into giving you access to the personal records of an oracle and maybe even the whereabouts of an oracle, though that would take time and expense. And paperwork,” the priest said, retrieving a page from a tall cabinet with drawers filled with yet more papers and handing it to me.

Thanking him, I took the page, catching a faint hopeful glint in his eyes that perhaps this was all I wanted and he could go back to his inkwell for whatever comfort it offered him. Reading material wasn’t quite what I was hoping for, but it didn’t appear as though I would have any luck speaking to anyone if this fellow was the sociable one. Looking over the page, it read:

‘The Divine Oracle: Some people call them mad, and certainly some divine oracles are driven insane by the visions they see. Some people doubt their words; indeed, some divine oracles are destined never to be believed. Wherever the deities are known to speak to mortals, some mortals hear their voices with a unique clarity and gain insight into the past, the present, and the future by virtue of their unusual status. Divine oracles are such mortals, blessed, or cursed, by visions from their deities. Could this be you?’

The page continued with a few key points of what to look for, dreams, nagging feelings you can’t explain, and a few vague suggestions for coping, the foremost being meditation. I stared at the paper in dismay, wondering at the dismal outlook it suggested. The first thing it had to say was others would think me mad and they may not be wrong. Already I wondered at the vision I’d had, fretted over what it meant, if we interpreted it correctly, and it had only been precious few days.

“Would you be interested in the sacred records of the last oracle of Ao for only twenty-five hundred copper?” the priest asked when we didn’t leave. “They chronicle his experiences as an oracle and could perhaps grant you the insight you seek. The whereabouts of an oracle would be five thousand copper, but you could ask him whatever you like.”

“That…sounds useful,” I mumbled, mulling over the offer.

It seemed strange to buy someone else’s personal journal, but I knew so little about being an oracle, if that is indeed what I was. One dream didn’t necessarily mean anything…but neither did I start my journey as a cleric casting elemental swarm. The offer to meet an oracle was tempting, but however the temple acquired the information of his whereabouts, something told me he was tired of people asking him questions, whether oracles or curious sensates, perhaps more still wanting to know their own future. He might talk to me, but he would likely request some further cost, as was not unfair. These coppers donated to the temple undoubtedly never reached those whose information was sold.

“I would like to read the journal, if I may,” I finally said, digging through my bag for the required copper.

“As you wish,” the priest said, smiling faintly as he accepted the coin. He disappeared into the back room for a time, returning with a worn leather tome. “You may stay here as long as you like to read that, but do return it to me before you leave. If you should wish to speak with an oracle or would like any other information, let me know.”

The priest then returned to his desk, shifting his stack of paperwork to pull out another form, I think for some record of our transaction. Holding the quill out to me, he pointed at a section of the paper with more blank lines requesting my name, the reason for my visit, and a few other details I didn’t know why they were concerned about. Sighing, I accepted the quill and cautiously wrote my name, trying to remember the way Ulkair showed me to hold a quill and not to press too hard. The priest’s frown deepened with every careful letter, evidently accustomed to those who wrote much faster than I did.

“I’ll take care of the rest, thank you,” he said dismissively as soon as I finished writing my name, retrieving his beloved quill and gesturing towards the back where tables were set up for reading.

Watching him, I tried to imagine a life of paperwork, toiling away endlessly with a quill in hand, fingertips ever stained black with ink as my weapon. Shaking my head, I walked over to one of the tables, Ulkair following shortly behind me. Somehow in comparison, chiseling algae off the walls didn’t seem so bad.

Flipping through the pages, I followed this priest’s gradual growth as an oracle as well as his descent into madness. Curious confusion became optimist joy at the chance to know what would happen before it came to pass, what use he could put it to. Once he could know, he needed to, grasping at glimpses of the future. Once innocent dreams soon all whispered terrible omens without any hint of if they were oracular visions or paranoid delusions. He began to doubt everything, question every dream, every feeling he had, torn between fearing his visions and needing them. Scrying, divination, page after page I began losing track of where he was looking or when and I wonder if he didn’t as well. What was, what would be or could be, knowing everything but certainty. When people began seeking him out for his visions, he grew even more dependent on his foresight, drawing farther away from reality.

Looking over the last pages, I could barely understand his words, the messy scrawl across the page sometimes in what looked like a conversation with himself, though the other half was missing. Other times, fear and paranoia overcame all else, leaving him desperately looking for an answer his visions couldn’t satisfactorily provide, what exactly it was he feared lost to me in the shambles of his failing sanity. The only consistent thought through it all was that he was right to seek “the truth” in his visions, delving deeper and deeper until he lost sight of what he was looking for in the need to look, to know.

I slide the book shut, wondering if it might have been better after all not to have known so intimately the details of his life, the fragments of his mind scattered across pages left behind. The lurking promise to know was too enticing, that glance into the future ever at hand, but that very promise was deception. That which would come to pass was not carved in stone and misinterpretation of visions could point you in the wrong direction and still this oracle was so drawn to his abilities, driven to find some finite truth in infinite possibilities.

“Ulkair…what does this mean?” I breathed, numbly staring at the book.

“It is the ultimate fate of seeing what is better left alone. Mortals are meant to experience the future, not see it,” Ulkair said, bitterness creeping into his voice.

“And if I have no choice but to see?” I asked, flinching at his words. “I close my eyes and there the visions are, though I do not look for them.”

“I…I know. I’m sorry, I just…I fear the path you are heading down and I’m even more afraid there isn’t anything you or I can do about it. But…to answer your question, I think this means that you need to learn the difference between true visions and constructions of your own mind, between truth and deception. I thought I had learned it, but I was deceived for I think the same reason this man was. We trusted ourselves too much and it was our undoing. Being skeptical, critical, and, especially, thoughtful about what you see before jumping to conclusions will prevent you from sharing our fate.”

“At least I have you to help me…” I mumbled, pulling him into my arms and resting my face on his shoulder. “You know, if it wasn’t for you, that collector would probably have me too. I…wanted to scry for Zeph again so badly, even though he saw me, tried to grab me. I probably would have if anyone other than you had told me not to.”

“I know you have to do this, but let me be your voice of caution. I love you and I’ll do my best to keep you safe.”

“I love you too,” I whispered, trailing my fingers down the side of his face, guiding his lips to mine, holding him close.

At least I had him…at least I wasn’t alone in this. I knew Lord Eadro was always with me, always guiding me, but he didn’t hold my hand, nor would I expect him to. Part of me wished Ulkair still loved divination as he had in Elysia, hating that my visions caused him such fear and pain, but perhaps it was better in a way that he had come to distrust it. That yearning, seeking, it was too easy to fall into and if so encouraged, I would. We would find a balance…we would keep each other sane….

“If you don’t mind, I think I would like to pray for a while,” I mumbled, resting my forehead against his.

“Of course, beloved. I’ll meditate,” Ulkair said, curling up in my lap as we did each morning.

I wondered vaguely if the priests would object to the display in their temple, but they seemed too caught up in their work to notice, if indeed they would have minded at all. I wrapped my arms around Ulkair’s waist, holding my hands in the shape of a spiral before him as he leaned back against me. This place wasn’t anything like Agorran’s temple, the scent of paper clinging to the room rather than that of incense. The frequent sound of shuffling papers met my ears mixed with quills darting across them, people occasionally shifting in their seat. It seemed so…cold, lifeless, disinterested priests filling out form after form for what purpose I couldn’t guess, but at least positive energy surrounded me.

Taking a deep breath, I took a few moments to extend my prayers to Lord Eadro, though the hour must have been late after reading the entirety of the journal. He chose this for me, or me for this. He couldn’t have intended for me to lose all sense of myself, of reality, so there must be another way. The right reason makes any trial easier and Lord Eadro told me that with this, I could help my family. Finding Zeph and my parents, saving Selene, serving Lord Eadro’s will; they were worth it. I just needed to hold onto that reason, to them, and we would write our own ending.

I kissed Ulkair’s temple, effectively rousing him from his meditation. Smiling, he wrapped his arms around my neck and pulled me down to claim my lips. I felt him grin and one of his hands shifted to creep along my leg instead.

“Ulkair…they’re going to kick us out,” I breathed, too quickly losing concern over what the temple thought of us.

“Let them,” Ulkair mumbled, nibbling at my lips.

“Let’s just excuse ourselves,” I said, slowly standing up so Ulkair wouldn’t fall off my lap.

Ulkair pouted a little and took my hand, following beside me as I walked back to the front of the temple to return the book to the priest at his desk. He barely looked at us, paying more attention to the book and flipping through the pages, I suppose checking for damage. He pulled out another form and began filling it out, including the portion for my information. When he made no indication he needed us for anything, we took our leave, the light indeed dim in the sky.

The following morning, Cheshire lingered as Ulkair and I prayed and meditated, fidgeting beside us rather than seeking out Alix as she typically did. I felt her gaze flicker between Ulkair and I, trying not to interrupt us, though her fingers still drummed out a steady rhythm on her leg.

“What is it, Cheshire?” Ulkair asked when we finished, reaching for her hand and pressing a kiss against the back of it.

“I…was hoping you would help me study the planes or study them with me. If I need to find Tubatron a home, knowing a bit more about the planes seems useful,” Cheshire mumbled, curling up beside us.

“Of course. Is there any type of plane in particular you were curious about?” Ulkair asked.

“Well, Ooze said not a prime and places like Elysium are already pretty full of gods, so I guess something else.”

Elysium…I still needed to go there to find a gem cutter for Ulkair’s emerald and if he was studying the planes with Cheshire, he couldn’t come with me. As a wizard, Ulkair tended to get caught up in whatever he was researching, especially if in addition he could be teaching Cheshire. They would still notice if I was missing and would wonder what I was doing, but it was something to keep them preoccupied while I was gone. Lóin…I would need to tell him too. He was ready to throw his life away just trying to follow me to the elemental plane of earth and there would be no reason he couldn’t accompany me, especially if Lord Eadro had charged him with my safety.

“I’m going to go talk to Lóin,” I announced too abruptly, having lost track of Cheshire and Ulkair’s conversation in my musing.

“Is something wrong?” Ulkair asked, frowning, knowing I didn’t tend to seek the dragon out.

“No, I won’t be long. Enjoy your studies,” I said, sliding out from under Ulkair and kissing both him and Cheshire quickly.

I thought to tell him it was just a matter pertaining to Lord Eadro he wouldn’t be interested in, but I didn’t want to lie to him and I didn’t know that information existed that he wouldn’t be curious about, especially anything pertaining to me. I didn’t like keeping anything from him, but…he would see soon enough.

Lóin was still next door, Selene curled up at his side as they softly spoke, a moment shattered by my interference. Seeing me, Lóin was immediately on guard, his hand reaching for Gilgamesh of its own accord.

“What is it?” Lóin demanded to know, looking me over for injury or distress, anything that could have warranted the visit.

“I need to go to Elysium. Will you accompany me?” I asked quietly. Cheshire and Ulkair weren’t as perceptive as Alix, but anyone could hear a careless voice next door.

“Why do you need to go there?” Lóin asked, his brows knitting as he relaxed ever so slightly.

“I’ll explain on the way, but nothing bad. I’m sorry to interrupt you.”

“It’s fine,” Lóin said, packing a few things back into his bag.

“I’ll join you as well,” Selene said, standing up.

I expected her to do the same when I realized that she didn’t have anything. Tools are not typically granted their own possessions, after all. Grimacing, I nodded my acknowledgement at them and took my leave. Her form of slavery was especially brutal, but I doubted she wanted to hear that from me. After so few days, even standing beside Lóin, she must still be waiting to wake up and find this all some cruel dream, that she was still in the abyss, chained to that other monk.

Shaking my head softly, I returned to my own room, peeking in to see a couple familiar books spread across the bed, a look of forced concentration on Cheshire’s face. Ulkair seemed to sense her attention slipping and began to describe the plane they were reading about in Elysian. With what bits I heard I saw clouds appear in the room around us, a delicate breeze of the cleanest air brushing across my skin and through my hair.

“I just wanted to let you know I’ll be gone for a day or so,” I said, watching the magic of Ulkair’s mere speech fade from the room.

“Where are you going?” Cheshire asked.

“It’s a secret,” I hummed, pulling the bard into my lap and nuzzling her face. “But…would planar traveling be a bad idea with this mark on me?”

“Well, actually planar travelling should make it harder for them to keep track of you,” Ulkair said, frowning.

“Okay,” I chirped, kissing both of them.

“Why do you ask?” Ulkair asked, regarding me curiously.

“In case I fall through a portal walking through Sigil,” I called, giggling.

“Is Lóin going with you?”

“Indeed. With how he reacted when we went to the elemental plane of earth, I don’t think he’d let me leave without him.”

“How long will you be gone?” Cheshire asked.

“A couple days?” I offered, shrugging lightly. I wasn’t sure how long it would take to get the gem cut, but I imagined it would take at least that long.

“A couple days!” Cheshire cried, staring incredulously as me. “And you can’t tell us where you’re going?”

“Don’t worry about it,” I dismissed, looking at Ulkair as something dawned on me. “But…if I’m in a different plane, I won’t be able to feel you, will I? Maybe I can make It just one day…”

“Be safe…” Cheshire mumbled, wrapping her arms around my shoulders.

“Of course. I can hold my own and I won’t be alone. Try not to burn down Sigil in my absence, you two,” I teased, nuzzling Cheshire’s face again.

“No promises,” Ulkair chuckled, stroking the side of my face. “But do be careful.”

We simply held each other for a time, curiosity and concern radiating off Ulkair and Cheshire knew even less about my plans than he did. Would it have better to not have mentioned I was leaving? No, then Ulkair would feel our bond suddenly go cold and quiet with no explanation and he’d panic, especially with the arcane marks he’d found on us. I reluctantly pulled away from them, knowing prolonging the departure would only make it worse.

Stepping outside our room, I found Lóin and Selene waiting for me, silently waiting for me to lead the way. Shaking my head slightly, I moved towards the entrance, Lóin and Selene following close behind. I would be back soon enough.

Walking through the streets of Sigil, I soon realized tongues loosened only with coppers, information as much of a commodity as any other ware. Following a string of sightings and what people thought they remembered, we eventually found a man who knew of a portal to Elysium sitting out by a square cloth with various trinkets arranged on it.

“Do you know how to get to Elysium?” I asked as I approached the man, his eyes lighting up at the question.

“I’ll take you there for just forty coppers,” he said, grinning.

“How will I get back?” I asked, frowning. I could always plane shift back, but it would be dangerous without Ulkair to teleport us if we should miss the ring of the city.

“I’ll wait for you,” he said, pulling a string lining the edge of the cloth until it closed up into a bag, neatly tucking away all his merchandise. Slinging the bag over his shoulder, he looked expectantly at me.

“We’ll be there for a couple days,” I continued. Of all the places to stay for a couple days, surely Elysium wasn’t too bad, but what would he do in the time being?

“That’s fine,” the man said, shrugging. “Otherwise if you want to buy the key to the portal, that’ll be five hundred coppers.”

“If you don’t mind waiting, that’s fine by me,” I said, pulling forty coppers out of my bag and handing them to him.

Grinning again, he led us a short ways down the road to a building that had half collapsed on itself. The man stepped up to a box with tiny flowers growing in it and muttered some words under his breath. A whirling blue portal sprung into existence over the box of flowers and the man walked through it without hesitation, not even turning to see if we followed.

Stepping through the portal, I stopped in my tracks seeing a nigh endless expanse of emerald green grass coloured with wild flowers swaying in the breeze. Small villages dotted the flowing valley at the base of a crystalline lake in what could only be the picture of perfection. It looked so much like Ulkair’s memory of Elysia, not the plane corrupted by blood and shadow, and perhaps even more beautiful still than what he had shown me. Seeing it, I suddenly wasn’t so sure about taking Ulkair here anymore, wondering how this very sight would hurt him. His beloved home he wanted so desperately to save…what would seeing it, or something so similar, do to him? But…he said he wanted to come here.

“Do you know where a gem cutter might be?” I asked, forcing the thoughts aside. Either way, I needed to have the gem properly cut.

“I do not, but someone will,” he said, flopping down in the grass and pulling out a book. “I’ll be waiting here.”

Nodding, we walked towards the nearest village, seeing humans, elves, and dwarves going about their business looking much more friendly than the average person in Sigil. The city was clean and the air fresh, the pained desperation that seemed to cling to all of Sigil absent here. Passing through the streets, I came across an open-faced forge with a few dwarves working inside. One in particular walked around directing what I could only assume were his apprentices in their craft. I didn’t see any gems or the implements to cut them, but with such complementary work, he was bound to know a gem cutter.

“Why, how can I help you, lassie?” he asked in a gruff voice, staring up at me with wide eyes.

“I hear that the best gem cutters in the planes are here?” I began, suddenly growing self-conscious of my height, but I suspected that if I crouched down, he would take offense.

“Why yes, they are. I’m a fair one myself, in fact,” he boasted, puffing out his chest. Noticing my hesitation, his face fell a little. “Ah, I see you’re looking for the best.

“It is for my belovèd,” I explained.

“I see that is a matter of great importance. May I see it?”

“Of course,” I said, ruffling through my bag to find the emerald and holding it out to him, his eyes growing impossibly large seeing the stone.

“Oh my…I understand, lass. I’ve never seen that stone’s like. I don’t have a personal connection, but I do know you need to see Thrarin. I’ll need to close up shop for the day, but then in the morning we can go.”

“Did you want any help for the day?” Lóin offered, stepping forward.

“What kind of skills do you have, lad?” he asked, eying Lóin curiously.

“I’ve been working with the forge for a long time?”

“And how long might that be?” the dwarf asked, laughing, amusement glinting in his eyes.

“More than ten years?”

“I don’t even take on an apprentice until they’ve had twenty,” the dwarf said, laughing merrily. “But come, show me what you can do.”

“Alright,” Lóin grinned, happy to work in a forge again.

I peered inside to see molten silver being poured into molds, others hammering glowing red metal into blades or grinding an edge onto a recent work. I thought only briefly of joining him before a wave of oppressive heat hit me, even with the cooling effect of the bracelets Ulkair made. Frowning, I stepped back again, warily eying the forge. Watching them work was interesting, but not enough so that I wanted to sit beside roaring flames to observe them.

I wandered over to a tree, sitting down in the shade it provided and watching the rhythmic swaying of the grass in the breeze. I reached beside me for Ulkair’s hand, so used to his constant presence I forgot he wasn’t beside me until my hand met only air and soft grass. Silence resounded through my mind and a surge of loneliness plagued my heart. I was alone, truly alone for the first time in a year. Even when I was in the ocean and Ulkair was in Byss, I could feel him, hear the hushed whispers of his thoughts. The reassurance of his presence…

I slipped a small silver mirror Cheshire found in the dragons hoard out of my bag, anything to keep my mind off of how dismally alone I felt. I stared into the reflective surface, wondering, almost expecting to see something else to stare back at me. Ulkair used his mirror to scry and that oracle used to use mirrors for his own divination. Could anyone affect scrying if I didn’t use magic? If I just looked and saw, was that different? Or could anyone looking for me find me through the surface? Would I know they were watching?

Nothing else appeared, my reflection remaining my own, but the sight brought a bitter reminder of what I left behind. My own gaze so resembled my sisters’, green eyes I longed to see again though we had but parted. Áine…Mayra…how many weeks would pass before I would see you again? Or perhaps this time, it would be months. At least they were safe this time.

“Our dwarf friend invited us to stay in the forge tonight, if you had no other plans,” Lóin said, pulling me from my thoughts.

“That was very kind of him. I’d been thinking about trying to figure out how to climb a tree, but staying with him seems more sensible.”

“What?” Lóin mumbled, cocking his head to the side. “Why were you going to do that?”

“It seemed a better plan than sleeping on the ground? But I wouldn’t mind sleeping in the forge if it cools off at night. Thank you for the kind offer,” I said, bowing slightly to the dwarf.

“Oh, think nothing of it, lass,” he said, chuckling lightly. “No place safer than a forge.”

“My name is Nerida, by the way. I’m afraid I neglected to introduce myself earlier.”

“My name’s Khaz.”

“Nerida, when were you planning on turning in for the evening?” Lóin asked, fidgeting a little. “I just wanted fly around in my dragon form for a while, if that’s okay. Will you be alright here?”

“Of course. No place safer, right?” I mumbled, walking back towards the forge.

Swim into one trap and all of a sudden you can’t be alone anymore…even outnumbered, I’d held my own. Fighting his personal guard alone may not have gone well, but I wasn’t some frail, delicate flower in need of constant protection! I could mind my own with friendly company for a couple hours.

Finding a bench in the forge, I sat without any regard for grace and took out the golden pearl from Ulkair, rolling the stone around in my palm. As soon as the gem was cut, we would be back in Sigil. I would be back with Ulkair and Cheshire.

Khaz set a pile of blankets off to the side and retrieved a couple of tankards in one hand and a pitcher in the other.

“So, tell me a little bit more about what you be needing,” Khaz said, sitting next to me and handing me one of the cups full of some beverage.

“With the emerald? Well, I’m afraid you likely know better than I do, but I sense that it’s more than just a regular gem. I want its full potential brought out.”

“Aye. So do you want it in a setting or just cut? There be jewelers a plenty, but gem cutters there be less of.”

“Set as in for jewelry? I think it would break his neck,” I commented, giggling.

“It’d be a bit ostentatious to wear as an earring, eh.”

“Indeed,” I laughed. “My belovèd is a wizard, if there’s anything in particular perhaps he could use it for with his magic?”

“Well, it’s the largest emerald I’ve ever seen. You could put it on a staff, make it mighty. Or, I don’t know, chuck it at your enemies,” Khaz said, laughing as he took another sip from his mug.

“He has grumbled that real wizards carry staffs, not rods or wands,” I mused.

“Can you imagine that on a wand?”

“It’d be more a mace at that rate. Put a dagger on the other side and you’d be set.”

“You have a devious mind, lass,” Khaz chuckled again. “But I bet on a staff it’d be quite powerful. I do know the right person to take it to, but he’d be a wee expensive.”

“How expensive is a wee?

“To even see him, you have to make it worth his while. You see, when you’re the best in the planes, you have more work than you could possibly finish. Now mayhaps the work alone will speak for itself and he’ll just wish to see what he could do with such a beautiful piece, but there’s no guarantee.”

“Is there anything else you would recommend to influence his decision?”

“Well, there be a certain thing that be near to all dwarven hearts and that would be gold, lass. You could offer him the best ale in the planes and that might get you in, but I doubt you be having that.”

“Sort of? Ulkair has some, but we don’t have the recipe for it yet,” I said, thinking of that nectar from Elysia. I think it was mead or alcohol of some variety? Either way, it was the finest I’d ever had. If any drink alone would convince him, that would be it.

“Well, that would be a problem, then. He be an aficionado of fine liquor. Either you be needing lots of gold, a silver tongue, or some fine mead.”

“It was made in Elysia. It’s the last of its kind.”

“That sounds mighty fancy. Well, we don’t have to go tomorrow.”

“I would have a hard time explaining why I needed it without giving anything away,” I mumbled. Not to mention I couldn’t very well make him pay for his own engagement stone.

“Ah, it be a secret then, eh?” Khaz grinned, his eyes lighting up.

“Well, I want to propose to him with the emerald. Or rather, answer his proposal with it.”

“Ah, young love,” Khaz said wistfully, taking another drink. “I’m more willing to help you than I even was before. You seem like good people. If I can call you people. Are dragons people?”

“Lóin is an interesting one, but I’m pretty sure you can call him people. I call him companion and that seems to work.”

“Never seen a man do that with his breath. It seems a mighty fine way to quench a sword, granted you don’t shatter it.”

“Can you use magic?”

“Of a sort, lass. Being a dwarf, I’m not real keen on the workings of magic, but I can bind them into runes. Me cousin was a wizard. It was a bit strange.”

“Makes for interesting dinner parties,” I commented, thinking about the heroes’ feast dinner in Byss, the images he created. Images almost like a vision… “You wouldn’t happen to know any oracles, would you? I don’t know if they’re common or not.”

“No, they don’t be mixing with my common sort.”

“Are they normally haughty or reclusive?”

“No, just rare, the consorts of kings and such. Why do you be asking?” Khaz asked, giving me an odd look.

“I think I may be one and was looking for guidance.”

“Ah, yes. On top of all these other things you be, you be an oracle too, eh?”

“My god trusts me,” I said, mixed emotions whirling through me at the simple phrase. A great honour, to be sure, but not without its own price, or its rewards.

“Well, I’ve seen a few servants of gods around here in my time. The only advise I have for you is be true to your god, but don’t let your god over use you, eh.”

“He gave me my life. It only seems right to give it back to him,” I said, frowning slightly. He gave me the strength to face anything, even if the road I was set on was hard.

“I don’t know your situation lass, but I’ve seen plenty of people give everything they have and get nothing back.”

“I have an Ulkair?” If nothing else, that would be enough.

“That’s your beau?”

“Alix has a bow?” I said, trying to think if I’d ever heard Cheshire call something that.

“Your lover, lass,” Khaz laughed, taking another swig of his mead. “For someone as powerful as I think you be, you be delightfully innocent.”

Blushing, I sipped at the mead, etiquette demanding at least that much to be polite. My lips tingled at the sweetness of the drink so much like warm honey, though the mug was cool to the touch. Ulkair…he liked honey. Did he like mead too? It was almost the shade of his eyes, just paler…

“Are archons like kings?” I asked, before I could dwell too long on thoughts of Ulkair, wishing he were here with me.

“Around here, they might as well be, but they’re a pretty good sort. I’ve had plenty of dwarven kings, but archons at least want to do the right thing by ye, even if they don’t always.”

“Have you ever heard of an archon being deliberately cruel to one of their subjects?” I asked, frowning. I hadn’t heard much about Mimi’s archon, but none of what she had mentioned sounded good.

“Deliberately cruel? No, that would be an oddity, for sure,” Khaz said, scratching his head.

“I don’t suppose you know anything about an archon named Inisbel?” I pried further. There was an exception to every rule and Mimi must have been unfortunate enough to have found that exception.

“Aye, he be one of those elfy ones. I mean, I don’t have much truck with him, but we do make things for him all the time. They appreciate the beauty we can craft here.”

“And of his disposition?”

“Well, he’s tough. He’s one of the great defenders of Mt. Celestia, but I’ve heard naught but that he be fair. He’s very into tradition and bloodlines, but I’ve never heard anything about him mistreating anyone, particularly not his own.”

“Even if they were only half celestial?”

“I heard something about a time when halves were considered undesirable, but you know elves. They’re always so particular about certain things,” Khaz said, shrugging.

“One of our other companions was a… servant of his,” I bit out, unable to help the bitterness and anger at the word, a euphemism meant to make the abused feel better about their miserable station.

“Oh, well, to be a servant of an archon is quite an honour.”

“I’m sure that’s what they want you to think,” I mumbled darkly.

“No, no, there are those who compete for it, I can tell you. It’s…not a bad thing to serve an archon, lass, much like serving your god as you say you do.”

“Why would one compete to be a slave to another?” I asked, bristling at the suggestion that my devotion and love for Lord Eadro were anything akin to slavery.

“Because it’s not slavery. You can leave if you wish. Mount Celestia has always looked down on slavery. That’s the thing of fiends and devils.”

Scowling, I tightened my grip on the steel mug in my hand. Fiends and devils indeed…and merfolk, it would seem. And those who were enslaved? What were we? Nothing…nothing at all. How could the mere possession of someone so base be anything? Even so, Lord Eadro saw something in me, a lotus to rise from murky depths to bloom in the sun above. Perhaps I wasn’t anything when he first reached out to me, but I had become more. I would be everything I needed to, tear down anything that would hold me back. I would…

“Oh, I’m sorry, have I offended you, lass?” Khaz asked, pulling me from my thoughts. “Have another drink.”

“Unfortunately, the land of my birth did not look down upon slavery, but rather grew rich at our despair,” I muttered, too many memories flashing through my mind.

“Were ye a former slave yourself?”

“Born into it,” I mumbled, shame flushing in across my face as I cursed myself for saying ‘our.’

“Ah, that’s a pity, lass. Anyone who could enslave such a noble girl as you…” Khaz trailed off, shaking his head.

“I suppose all of us are free now, for whatever that’s worth. I’m just looking to free my younger brother and parents.”

“Aye. In dwarven society, you have your place and you’re born into it, but no one makes you be it. I’m proud to be what I was born to be, but I could leave if I wished.”

“So your parents and your ancestors were all, oh what did Lóin call them…smithiers? Smitheries?”

“We call ourselves smiths, lass,” Khaz laughed, throwing his tankard back again as I sipped at mine, blushing faintly. “But yes, that is what I truly be, me and my fathers before me. Eighteen generations, in fact.”

“That’s quite the line.”

“Indeed, though I myself have no children. My line will end with me.”

“Surely you’re not without prospect?” He was not…to my aesthetic, but perhaps he was to other dwarves and regardless he was kind and a skilled craftsman.

“My dear, I’m a petitioner. I be a dead dwarf. Alas, I died young, when I was yet in my prime. I didn’t have time to find me a wife and it be a bit late to have children now back where I used to live.”

“Are you bound here?” I asked, thinking back to what I knew of petitioners, those who reformed on their god’s plane and continued to carry out their work much as they had in life, though petitioners were irrevocably bound to their god’s will and could not deviate. In time, he would become one with this very plane.

“No, it would just be a shame if I were to die again anywhere else. I would be cut off from Moradin and that would make my dwarven heart sad. But no, I can leave. I have in fact gone a few places at my own archon’s command. See, I’m a midlevel smith; not so important that I’m invaluable, but enough that I can go perform my duties. I be a bit of a free agent now, just crafting my wares and making people happy with their gear.”

“And what of this gem cutter, Thrarin, I believe you called him? If I go up and ask him to make it with what I have on me and he refuses, is there any chance of persuading him a second time?”

“The more times you are refused, the more it would take to get his attention. That Elysian nectar might be your best bet.”

“And if that isn’t an option?” I asked, regretting having brought it up at all. I would feel bad enough taking one bottle, but I doubted that would be anything more than simply offensive to present him so little. “If I am to rely on gold, how much do you suppose it might take?”

“I would say no less than twenty-five thousand gold. He’s the best in the planes. Anything less would be an insult.”

“I guess I’ll…just give him all the gold I have and hope for the best,” I sighed, running my hand through my hair and taking another sip of the mead.

I had been too rash, taking a sleepy idea and running with it before I could consider all I was asking for, everything I might need to make this work. Twenty-five thousand…that should be about all that I had…though I needed that to buy the materials for those robes Ulkair wanted to make. His protection was more important, but I was already here. If I walked away now, Khaz might not agree to help me again, swept up in the wonder of my small quest. We did still have more loot tucked away in Cheshire’s bag of holding. We could always get more money, but perhaps not another chance such as this.

“But I bet you it’ll be worth it. I’m sure this man won’t say no to you with such an emerald. I sure wouldn’t,” Khaz chuckled.

“Well, I wasn’t really worried about that. I don’t think he’d say no if I simply asked him to remain with me. I just want it to be good enough. He gave me a golden pearl that was his light in the darkness for a very long time.”

“Lass, your story just keeps becoming more and more intriguing. You’ll have to tell me it sometime. Wizards and lights in the darkness and slavery and magical booze!”

“It tastes like sunshine, but isn’t so dreadfully warm,” I said, giggling.

“Aye, that sunshine be a bit obnoxious, isn’t it?”

“Especially when you’re used to having yards of water between you and the fire demon.”

“It was a bit difficult to adjust to Elysium after living me whole life underground. The first time I saw a raindrop, I thought I’d had too much to drink. I feel like we be becoming good friends, ma dear. Aye, I be feeling like I need to be making something!” Khaz cried.

Jumping up, he stoked the flames in the forge into a roaring fire. Khaz laughed happily at the sight and turned back to me, thinking for a moment.

“You be a priest, yea? Give me your holy symbol,” Khaz insisted, holding his hand out. Blinking, I slipped it off from around my neck and handed it to him. Inspecting my symbol, he frowned, tutting. “Aye, I could make this better.”

He took a large gulp of his mead and threw the rest of it into the forge, flames lashing out and lapping at the surrounding stone walls. I shifted back warily, wondering if I shouldn’t stop him, but he otherwise seemed capable. He threw a couple ingots of silver into a small cast iron bowl, the silver soon melting in the heat of the forge. Grinning, Khaz grabbed a few more tools and began working, surefooted despite the empty bottles of liquor at his feet. What seemed but moments later he held a gleaming silver holy symbol with Lord Eadro’s spiral on the front, another strange marking carved on the back.

“What’s this?” I asked, tracing the foreign mark.

“Ummm…..I don’t know. Maybe I will in the morning,” Khaz drawled, sitting heavily beside me and wrapping his arm around my waist. “But I want you to have this.”

“Thank you,” I began, unsure of how to take the sudden outburst, though he seemed genuinely happy. “How could I repay you?”

“You already did by drinking with me, lass.”

“And so you have given me two gifts.”

“I be in a charitable mood. You caught me on a good day, I guess.”

“I have told you about myself, but what tales have you to tell?”

“Well, this one time I had a lot to drink and I went back to the forge. I was leaning my face in real close trying to stoke the fire and I burped and it went fshwooo! Fire got all up in my beard!” Khaz cried, falling to the ground in riotous laughter. “I looked like a beardling!”

“You have your own breath weapon, it would seem,” I commented, laughing with him.

“Aye, I do! I’m a mighty dragon!” Scrambling to his feet, he spit some mead into the forge, throwing his head back in laughter. “Aye, lass, I have many tales. I’ve been here for perhaps two hundred years. I was about one hundred eighty when I died, though I don’t remember too much about that.”

“Ah, so you were pretty young yet,” I commented.

“Well, how old are ye?” Khaz asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Don’t worry about it,” I mumbled, blushing and sipping at my mead.

“Well, what have you decided, lass? Are we going in the morning?” Khaz asked, a bit of seriousness returning, though he still swayed happily as though listening to a song only he could hear.

“I think so,” I nodded, not sure when else might be better.

“Alright then. What will you be presenting him?”

Digging through my bag, I pulled out the twenty-five thousand gold and platinum he suggested, few coins left behind but the coppers from Sigil. I felt a little guilty spending so much on something we didn’t need to survive. For the ceremony of exchanging stones, any emerald would do and any craftsman of fair skill could cut it, if it were cut at all, but I wanted it to be perfect for him.

“You carry that much on ye?” Khaz cried, staring with wide eyes. “Be still, my heart. Seldom have I seen such a pile of gold in someone’s pocket.”

“Where else would I keep it?” I mumbled. Possessions left behind were too easily stolen.

“I’m not sure if it’ll be enough, but I was planning on adding this sword your friend made,” Khaz said, holding out a gleaming silver sword with frost along the edge, despite the heat of the room. “And I’ll get ye a small chest to present your gold in. It will give you a chance to talk your way in.”

“I’ve had nothing but a chance many a time before and its always worked out so far,” I sighed.

“I like speaking with ye, but I think ye’ll find me more jovial than him.”

“How much more of this mead do you have? That might do the trick,” I said, giggling as I drank what I realized was the last on the mead in my tankard, though I thought I’d only been sipping at it.

“Oh, this isn’t the kind of mead he’d be drinking. In fact, this is my guest mead…I’m a little embarrassed,” Khaz said, walking over to a cabinet and pulling out a couple more bottles. “This be a bit stronger, but it be a bit more flavourful too. Go on, drink up.”

Sipping at the mead, it was smooth and sweet as the other, but the flavour of honey was much stronger with something else weaving through it. Warmth flooded through me as a summer day and for a moment I thought I felt the sun shining on my face. Taking a deep breath, I sighed contently, letting my concerns fall away for a time. Come morning, I would have to pick them up again, but for now, I could sway as a calm breeze.

“I hope you like your present, dear, and I hope you’re successful tomorrow,” Khaz mumbled happily, leaning heavily against me.

“Thank you,” I said, hearing a faint snoring coming from him.

Lifting the dwarf up into my arms, I carried him farther back into the forge up a short flight of stairs where I found his bed tucked away. Laying him down, I took his boots off as I had with Tark and pulled the blanket over him.

“Oh, thank ye, lass. I’m embarrassed, outdrank in me own home, but it’s good to have a tall friend,” Khaz mumbled sleepily.

“You’re the first dwarf I’ve met, but it would seem it was about time I did so.”

“You’re the first oracle, hierophant, planar traveler, ex-slave, dragon friend et cetera et cetera, but now you’re a dwarf friend.”

“Perhaps one of my finest titles yet,” I smiled, the sound of snoring again meeting my ears.

Walking back down the stairs, I heard the faint click of a door opening, two figures standing in the door way. I regarded them a moment and giggled to myself, thinking that they were late to the party if they were only just arriving. A shame, really.

“So, how was your evening?” Lóin asked, eying me strangely.

“It was great,” I giggled again, looking for a place to sleep. “We talked. How about you?”

“Should I not tell Ulkair about our adventures here?”

“Why not?”

“No, no reason,” Lóin mumbled, watching me wander around the room.

“You’re weird,” I called, laughing again, trying to remember what I was looking for.

Selene walked up to me and guided me over to a pile of blankets I vaguely recalled Khaz bringing down before he handed me the first tankard. She began arranging the blankets and I slipped my shirt off, clamoring into the makeshift bed she made. I felt her hand smooth my hair and the blankets drawing over me, lulling me to a blissfully dreamless sleep but moments after I lay down.

I woke with the morning light, feeling the call of the tides pulling me from sleep. Frowning, I patted the blankets next to me, looking for Ulkair’s familiar warmth through the dull ache resounding in my head. Right…he was still back in Sigil with Cheshire and the babies. Not even a full day had passed and I longed to be near them, hold them until I felt whole again without that gnawing silence in my mind. How were they doing? Had anything gone wrong in my absence?

Sighing, I sat up and slipped my shirt back on. No sense in worrying. I would get back as soon as I could and in the meantime, they were capable. I held my new holy symbol almost glowing in the morning sun and prayed to Lord Eadro, feeling my magic return to me.

“It’s a good morning,” Khaz said, stumbling down the stairs and clutching his head.

“How much did you drink last night,” Lóin asked, regarding the dwarf.

“I drank…three fourths of Nerida?”

I moved to stand up and quickly abandoned the effort, my head throbbing as my vision swam. Maybe…standing wasn’t a good idea. Though hadn’t Cheshire said something about using lesser restoration on Alix after he’d had too much to drink? If it had any chance of working, it was worth it. I couldn’t very well meet a dwarf I needed to impress in this sorry state. Holding my hand before me, I muttered my prayer to Lord Eadro, touching my fingertips to my forehead. Cool relief immediately flooded through my mind, taking the ache and dizziness with it. Khaz watched me with wide eyes, mumbling something and poking himself in the forehead.

“What were you doing, lass? It didn’t work for me.”

“I cast a spell to make my head stop hurting. I could cast one on you too. Seems you could use it.”

“No, that’s fine. I’ll just drink some more mead,” Khaz muttered, walking over to his cabinet and pulling out a bottle.

“So, do you eat breakfast? I have a spell that could suffice for that too.”

“Oh, well I was going to make us some breakfast, but magic is good.”

“What do you normally eat?” I asked. I would be more than happy to eat nothing but cinnamon rolls with coffee, but something told me that wouldn’t be quite to his liking.

“Well, I like potatoes and bacon and sausage and gravy and rolls,” Khaz listed off before lifting the bottle to his lips. “Food like that.”

I repeated the list over in my mind, thinking over all the different land dweller food I’d had and picturing what Khaz wanted. A long blanket appeared covered with platters of everything Khaz had asked for beside a couple plates of cinnamon rolls with a steaming cup of coffee sitting beside each plate. Khaz’s eyes widened and he scooted the pillow before him aside to sit on the floor, happily filling his plate. I smiled and gestured for Lóin and Selene to sit and enjoy the food before nibbling at one of the cinnamon rolls.

“So do you know what this does?” I asked, holding my holy symbol out to him.

“Oh, aye, if you invoke,” he began, looking a little sheepish. “You’re a worshipper of Eadro, yea? I may have made a bit of a mistake, but by the power of Moradin you can be a little more powerful. Theology not be me strong point, lass, but invoke that rune and it will be like a spell. Just say the right dwarven word. It might sound a little strange coming from you, but, you know. And don’t worry, you won’t be offending your god.”

“Thank you,” I nodded, looking at the rune.

Khaz stuck the ice blade into a cup of coffee, instantly chilling the drink. Laughing, he did the same to mine and proceeded to tell us more stories while we ate, mostly mishaps at the forge. Lóin listened with interest, sharing his own tales. Much of what they spoke didn’t make sense to me, my mind drifting to thoughts of Ulkair and Cheshire, lying under a tree and eating cinnamon rolls together.

“That was a delightful breakfast,” Khaz beamed when he’d eaten his fill, happily patting his stomach. “So, will you be bringing all of your friends?”

“Hey, Lóin? First impression is probably key and I feel like if Cheshire were here, she’d come up with something elaborate that was big and loud. That’s…not something I’m as good at, but riding in on a big, silver dragon sounds pretty impressive.

“Of course. I would be happy to help you. After all, you helped me find Selene,” Lóin said, taking Selene’s hand.

Presentation…what else was important for that…clothes? A time we were in the marketplace with Declan and he and Mimi were talking about fashion. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the use of it, but Mimi was devastated to hear she was one hundred years behind Sigil fashion and evidently shark leather was atypical as well.

“One of my companions told me I dress like a mermaid out of water. Do you suppose that would be problematic?”

“I could put ye in a fine suit of armour that would look mighty impressive,” Khaz said, evidently armour being the dwarven idea of fashion.

“I have a fullplate suit.”

“Well, let me see it, lass,” Khaz said, holding his hand out. Digging through my bag, I handed him the various pieces for him to inspect. “Aye, that’s a fair piece of work, but it’s a bit plain. I could spend the day making it fancy for ye? A bit of display is always the dwarven way.”

“I’m none too keen on it. I don’t like clinking around, but another companion of mine has a…flair for such things.”

“Do you have anything…special to spare or a little money? It’s not exactly the cheapest work.”

“I have another black pearl?”

“That would serve for my fee and I could do a bit of display work,” Khaz nodded, taking the pearl.

“Did you want any help?” Lóin offered.

“No, lad, I don’t need any help, but you could donate some of that enchanted silver?”

“Sure,” Lóin said, pausing only a moment to consider before handing over four ingots of silver.

“Oh, you’re a good friend, eh?”

“I try to be.”

Khaz began stoking the fire again and I walked outside, all too happy to avoid the heat of the flames. The holy symbol had been a quick job, but working on the fullplate wouldn’t be and I didn’t know that I could stand being so close to fire for so long. If he needed anything, Lóin was at his side. Sitting down in the grass where I had yesterday, I pulled out the mirror. Once more, only my reflection greeted me. I didn’t know really what I expected, if I was hoping to find something or relieved to see nothing else, but I felt compelled to look.

Light slowly faded from the sky, time ticking away to the rhythmic sounds of the forge. A gruff voice called me, pulling me from my meditation. Looking up, I saw Khaz beckoning me to return, proudly holding up the breastplate of my armour. Walking up to meet him, I saw the full suit laid out as it would be worn, silver covering steel with golden accents around the collar, cuffs, and boots. Runes lined the shoulders and down the breastplate to form a spiral pattern across the chest. In the light, I thought I saw it sparkle like ice, a faint sheen reflecting off it.

“Aye, lass, I believe any dwarf that sees that will recognize you as a dwarf friend,” Khaz proudly announced. “Only a minor one, as you haven’t done anything for a clan yet or something of the sort, but it be something. I like ye.”

“That is its own honour,” I said, unable to help but smile looking over the armour and Khaz own smile spread across his face.

“Aww, you know just what to say, lass.”

“Though I suppose it’s too late to go now, isn’t it? On the morrow, I suppose.”

“Yes, but better to be prepared than rejected, eh?”

“Indeed,” I sighed, sitting heavily on the bench.

“Have you ever played a drinking game, lass?” Khaz asked, walking up to me with another pitcher of mead and a couple other bottles.

“No, I hadn’t really drunk alcohol before yesterday.”

“What?! Well, I have to regain me honour! So you’ve really never had alcohol before, lass?"

“No. In Zissyx, it’s what rich people had and in Byss it smelled terrible,” I commented, shuddering at how wretched the grog in Byss smelled. I’d had some of the Elysian nectar, but I didn’t really want to bring that up again and I doubted those sips counted as “drinking” to Khaz.

“Well, not all places have very good mead, but let me break out the good stuff then,” Khaz said, walking back to another cupboard.

“These are several fine types of alcohol. Mead is what I prefer to take with meals and at night, but this be my stock of fine dwarven ale. This one is what we take when going to war. It will nourish you, even when you don’t have food.”

“That sounds impressive. And you said you didn’t have magic,” I giggled, accepting some of the ale, the flavour much more bold than that of the mead and I felt like I could swim for days.

“And these are called bourbon and whiskey. Not so nourishing, but still good after a long day,” Khaz said, pouring a little into a smaller cup.

Sipping at it, I almost spat it out feeling a terrible burning sensation clawing at my throat, stealing my breath. Coughing, I looked up to see Khaz throw back almost four times what he’d poured for me and sigh.

“I don’t need to do that, do I?” I asked, grimacing at the thought of trying to drink so much of the liquid fire.

“No, lass, if you haven’t been having it, I don’t think you should. But I think we ought try getting you some wine. I think that be a bit better suited to ye.”

“What’s wine?”

“What elves drink? I tasted it once. A bit watery, like fruit.”

“Ah, fruit is nice.”

“Don’t tell anyone I told ye this, but yes, fruit is quite nice,” Khaz said, looking to the side.

Laughing, I picked up the tankard of mead again, by far preferring smooth honey over what I wasn’t terribly sure wasn’t in fact acid for whatever immunity Khaz may have gained over the years. Khaz didn’t seem to mind one way or another what I drank so much as that I joined him. Clinking the cups together, we stayed up talking through drinks I’d long lost track of, laughing until sleep claimed us.

Blinking, I groaned at the impossibly bright morning light burning my eyes, my head throbbing. Better than nightmares left alone without Ulkair to ease my mind…I think…but a desperate thirst choked me. Something shifted next to me and I tried to sit up to see what it was, but my vision swam and my hands flew to the sides of my head as if they could still my dizziness. Squeezing my eyes shut, I concentrated on my magic, sighing as sweet relief washed over my mind as cool water. Glancing beside me again, I saw Khaz snoring.

I looked around, realizing we’d passed out on the ground right by where we’d been sitting, only vaguely recalling Lóin stopping by and throwing a blanket over us. I sat up and grabbed the tankard I’d been using, creating water in it. Leaning against the bench, I felt immeasurably better sipping at my water, enjoying the silence of the morning. Setting the tankard down, I held my holy symbol and prayed, my communion easing what simple magic and water couldn’t.

I heard the door click open as Lóin peered in, I suppose assessing our state. Khaz’s eyes fluttered open at the noise and he muttered something under his breathe in a language I didn’t understand, looking around the room.

“A blanket?” Khaz asked, raising an eyebrow at the dragon. “You just left us passed out on each other? It’s fine with me, but you could’ve at least gotten a pillow or an anvil.”

“It was…I…” Lóin began, sheepishly scratching the back of his head.

“Just teasing ye, lad,” Khaz said, chuckling before he looked at me. “Though I don’t suppose you have another one of those magical breakfasts, do you? I could make one if you don’t, I just don’t know how all this magic business works.”

“It seems the least I can do after all you’ve given us,” I said, standing up.

Holding my hands out, I cast the same spell as yesterday, the smell of sausage and bacon soon filling the room with a hint of sweetness from the coffee and cinnamon rolls. Khaz and Lóin chatted back and forth again, but I barely heard them lost to my own thoughts, what the day may bring and the fate of the emerald.

When I finished eating, I retrieved the armour Khaz had adorned, lashing it in place. Stepping outside, my companions soon joined me. Lóin took his dragon form, kneeling down so I could more easily climb up with the heavy armour. I sat at the base of his neck, large silver scales clinking against the plates of my armour. I looked down at myself, the silver and gold shining in the sunlight atop a dragon…what a sight it must have been to behold and I felt an odd sense of…worth? Pride? I…wasn’t sure what to call it, but for once, I could silence the whispers in the back of my mind saying I would never be anything more than a dirty slave.

“So, I know I said I’d go with you, but…” Khaz began sheepishly. “I don’t think I could ride a dragon.”

“I could carry you?” Lóin offered.

“I don’t think that will work either. It’s a bit scary, you know. I’ll walk. I’m a bit slow, but we’ll get there.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to try flying? You’ve shown us your world. Take a peek into ours,” I said, hoping what sense of shared comradery we had might be enough.

“The sky is so big…” Khaz laughed nervously, looking up.

“If you’d like, you could close your eyes. It won’t take very long,” Lóin added.

“Oh yea, so I won’t see the ground coming up to meet my face,” Khaz grumbled, crossing his arms.

“He’s very strong. He could hold you,” I began, smiling as I thought back to when he’d spat his mead into the forge. “You’re a great fire breathing dragon, are you? It’s about time you learned to fly.”

“I suppose you be right, lass,” Khaz laughed. “I’ll give it a shot.”

Khaz ran back inside and grabbed a long chain, swinging it over Lóin and strapping himself to the dragon. Selene neatly jumped up behind me and Lóin shifted, abruptly flapping his wings several times to take flight. I clung to the back of his neck, trying not to pull on his scales too much, but there was nothing else to hold onto. Riding on Ulkair’s shoulder as a stone giant hadn’t been anything like this, soaring so far above the ground. Once he’d reach a height he seemed to deem suitable, the ride was smoother gliding, though my stomach still dropped every time his wings flapped and we ducked down a little.

Breathe…I just had to breathe…I probably wouldn’t fall, even in the cumbersome armour, and if I did, Lóin could likely catch me as I’d tried to convince Khaz. Expelling a slow breath, I forced my shoulders to relax. I couldn’t look so anxious when we arrived if we were going to make the impression I would need to convince him to cut the emerald. Instead, I focused on the confrontation to come, all but ignoring the feeling of the wind swooshing around me in favour of mulling over what to say. I hardly knew what to expect of this gem cutter, but it kept my mind preoccupied until what resembled a fortress came into view.

“Oh, mighty dragon! To what pleasure do we owe your presence?” one of the dwarven guards asked as we approached.

“Untie me so they can’t see me strapped to him!” Khaz whispered to me.

I slide down Lóin’s side, letting my arm trail to the side so I could reach the hook enclosing the chain around him. Stealth was…not my strongest suit, but perhaps they were guards like Mr. Starfish. I winced a little hearing the chain rattle to the ground and one of the guards raised an eyebrow.

“We’re here to see the great Thrarin,” I announced, drawing attention away from Khaz.

“Yes, I, um, I am sponsoring her,” Khaz said, stepping up beside me and clearing his throat.

“Yes, you are known to us,” one of the guards said, smiling. “We will go inform our lord that you’re here, but what tribute do you have to offer?”

“I have brought only this,” I said, pulling out a small chest Khaz gave me to present the gold and platinum in. “I was hoping he might be willing to carve this emerald for me.”

I set the chest on the ground before them and retrieved the emerald from my bag, holding it out so they could see it. Rays of sunlight caught in the gem, refracting through it a mesmerizing beauty. I heard the guards’ breath catch seeing the emerald, their jaws dropping as they stared at the jewel in my hand. One swallowed thickly, taking a step towards me as if possessed, his eyes fixated on the emerald. The other guard shook his head and elbowed his partner, sense returning to the both of them.

“Yes, well, we’ll inform Thrarin of your presence. Wait here.”

Moments passed as hours waiting for someone, anyone to return, heavy metal doors our only companion. Their reactions, the way they looked at just the emerald alone, they couldn’t possibly turn me away, but Thrarin was the best in all the planes and his time was no simple trinket to pass around. I was but a foreigner, a giant to these people that warranted no special treatment. They owed me nothing and the chance to work on a gem he couldn’t keep was only so tempting.

Suddenly the door flew open and another dwarf appeared, an almost regal air about him though he wore heavy leathers rather than the flimsy finery so common among the wealthy. If he even noticed Lóin yet in his dragon form or Khaz, I couldn’t tell for his gaze was fixed on me, searching for the emerald in what majesty the other guards must have described it to gain such a reaction.

“May I see this emerald?” Thrarin bade, edging closing to me as he wrung his hands eagerly.

“Of course,” I said holding the emerald out again, sunlight once again dancing through the stone though it was yet roughly hewn.

“I would love dearly to work on that emerald,” Thrarin said, shivering slightly at the sight of the gem. “I am one of the best emerald cutters in the planes. Yes, I have been serving Moradin longer than any other dwarf in the cutting of gems.”

“I would trust no other to this task,” I said, growing a little uneasy in his unrelenting stare.

“Indeed, there is no finer,” Thrarin said.

For a time, they all simply stared at me, or rather, the emerald, completely entranced by the gem. Even Khaz seemed to lose himself looking at it, swaying slightly on his feet. Blinking a couple times, he shook his head, looking apologetically up at me.

“Sorry, dear,” Khaz mumbled, his cheeks flushing. “Dear friend…yes, you’re my friend, not the emerald.”

“Do you know when you would be able to start?” I asked Thrarin, wondering if he could still hear me. “I’m sure you’re quite busy.”

“I’ve cancelled all my other projects,” he said dismissively as if they were nothing. “I would be happy to work on it right away for a paltry sum of ten thousand gold.”

Ten thousand? Having more left than a handful of gold would be nice, but Khaz had said that anything less than the twenty-five would be an insult. He…he offered so much less trying to get me to simply give him the gold and leave, though I suspected that if I accepted, I wouldn’t see the emerald again.

“He is an honourable dwarf, but honourable dwarves have done terrible things before, when the greed overtakes them” Khaz whispered to me. “Give him all you’ve promised and more for when you come to retrieve it or stay with him.”

“If he has the mind to keep it, what would staying with him change?” I whispered back.

“He is an honourable, lawful dwarf. He won’t simply steal it outright. If you leave, he could say you didn’t pay him enough or some imagined slight and he could say he was keeping the emerald to compensate for the debt between you. It’s a very convoluted dwarven matter.”

“For your skill and your time, I couldn’t possibly pay you so little,” I insisted, putting the gem aside to pick up the chest and hold it out to Thrarin.

“Ah, yes, I do have a reputation to maintain,” Thrarin said, clearing his throat. “I’m very sorry, lass, I’m afraid the beauty of that gem overcame me for a moment.”

“It almost overcame you for more than a moment, friend,” Khaz commented.

“Yes, I would be honoured to work on this and I will accept your full offer. Any particular request you have?”

“It is for a wizard. I was thinking he might craft it into a staff, if there is anything you would recommend for that. You are, after all, the master.”

“Well, not knowing the exact design of the staff he would put it into, it’s hard to say, but I’ll keep that in mind,” Thrarin said, pulling out a velvet-lined box and holding the lid open. “Alright, you may send the gold with my compatriot and place the emerald in this case, if you would.”

“May I observe you in your work?” I asked, doubting even the promise of more gold would be enough to convince him to part with the stone without my presence demanding it.

“Well, it will take a long time, perhaps three days.”

“I’m patient,” I said, not budging.

“For the sum you are paying me, you may observe,” Thrarin said, turning to walk back inside.

I followed him in to a room lined with various tools, picks and files sitting neatly by while a wide table had different small jars and vials. In the center of it was a strange stand with a series of small circles of glass on fine wire. Thrarin set the emerald by the stand, adjusting the top of it so a few of the circles lined up, making the gem look larger through them. The dwarf simply turned the emerald around for some time, studying the surface.

I stood a sort of vigil day and night, the same long hours Thrarin worked, his fascination only growing with time. Each splinter of the gem he carefully cut away, little more than a fine dust coating the space around his work so precise was his every graze, but still the emerald grew immeasurably brighter, as though it invited the light in. The longer Thrarin stared at the emerald, the less he seemed to care about anything else, possessed by some song the gem sang, but I could not hear.

The days left their own mark on me, silence clawing at my mind, searching for lingering whispers of Ulkair’s own thoughts. I longed for his presence beside me, his hand in mine, trying to stifle a laugh from some comment he’d made in my mind, safe from Thrarin’s ears. The golden light shining in his eyes when he looked at me, his gentle smile, every feature of his I could all but see before me watching Thrarin carve the sign of my love for my Elysian.

When Thrarin finished, he staggered towards me, wide, exhausted eyes looking up at me. He held out a trembling hand and the sight of the emerald took my breath away. The gem seemed to catch even the faintest light. Refracting it and sending out dancing green light even more captivating than it was before.

“Lass, you must take it away. This is perhaps my finest work on the finest gem I have ever seen. Take it before it doesn’t come back to your possession, but it was a right honour to work on,” Thrarin said. Traces of warring thoughts flashed across his eyes, whispering that the gem could be his and why not, for he was the one who had carved it.

“Thank you for honouring me with your craftsmanship,” I said, taking the emerald and bowing slightly.

“I don’t think you should be coming back here. This will haunt my dreams for the rest of my tenure here.”

“Why would it haunt you?”

“Because I want it,” Thrarin breathed, his voice suddenly hoarse.

“Thank you,” I said, tucking the gem away and bowing slightly.

“Oh dear,” Khaz muttered behind me, quickly shutting the door he’d only just opened.

I caught only a glimpse, but the crazed look of one of the guards caught my eye, promising death to all the stood between him and the emerald in my bag. I looked behind me at the gem cutter, his gaze darting between his door and me, though I had the feeling he wouldn’t be upset if his guard were to seize my life and leave me no claim to the emerald.

Gritting my teeth, I held my hand out, calling on Lord Eadro’s power to summon a column of holy fire on the door. The door began to melt sluggishly, the hinges beginning to pull out of the stone wall, but still it stood. Frowning, I held my hand out again, ready to turn the rest of the door into molten sludge so I could face the one threatening my life when Khaz rested his hand on mine, shaking his head.

“Look, lass, this is a dwarven problem,” Khaz said, pulling out his ice sword. “We’re very ashamed our people are acting like this. Let me drum some sense into the man, by which I mean kill him.”

Khaz strode forward and kicked the door open, staring the crazed dwarf down. Pointing the blade at him, he started speaking in another language, his voice deep and a little gruff, but the sound not so harsh as Draconic. A clang rang out as a great hammer striking an anvil and a burst of light surrounded the guard, turning his equipment to dust.

“Lad, ye haven’t a prayer now. Moradin has turned his sight from ye. Just leave, boy,” Khaz bellowed, crossing his arms.

The guard bowed his head, holding his hand out to Khaz without looking at him. Khaz handed him a knife and the once guard wasted no time putting it to the thick braid at the base of his neck, severing it. Grabbing what loose strands remained, he shaved them as close as he could, the sharp blade leaving almost nothing behind. The sight brought painful memories to my mind, but I said nothing. This, whatever his punishment was, it was not something I could interfere with. Without a word he returned the knife and turned away.

“Sorry about the door,” I mumbled, nodding my head towards Thrarin.

“Sorry that I can’t trust my help, apparently,” Thrarin said, shaking his head.

I tightened my hold on my bag and turned to leave. What tenuous welcome we’d had was long gone and I didn’t want to have to fight any others on the way out. Khaz followed at my side, the ice blade still tight in his grasp.

“We’re leaving,” I announced to Lóin and Selene when I saw them.

“There was a bald, naked dwarf that just walked by here,” Lóin mumbled, bringing a claw up to scratch behind his head.

“He…wanted the emerald and tried to fight us for it. Khaz called to Moradin to remind him of who he really was.”

“Aye, it was the artificer’s prayer. It’s what they teach us to use when our work is turned against us. Well, it’s been quite an interesting time getting to know you fellows.”

“Would you like to travel with us?” I asked. “We could certainly use one of your skill.”

“And leave me forge here in Elysium? I don’t know. What could you be offering me? Do ye have a forge or a place for me to set mine up?”

“We have an underwater fortress with a dragon in it?” Lóin offered.

“Oh, and you’re not the dragon in it?” Khaz asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Apparently, we collect them now,” Lóin said, shrugging.

“That’s a mighty dangerous collection you have there.”

“He’s a bronze dragon, another priest of Lord Eadro. He’s asleep right now,” I explained. “If we could have a little time, we could make suitable accommodations for you. I’m sure there will be equipment we could use, if you could make them for us, but otherwise you would be free to go about your business as you normally might.”

“Well, lass, you have a bit of a silver tongue there. I quite like ye. I’d like to meet the rest of your crazy group and the great creation your man is going to make out of this. Perhaps I could even help him. Anyway, I would love to take you up on your offer. A dwarven smith is never a bad thing to have in your employ, but what is it you’re aiming to do? What cause am I joining?”

“Do you remember when I said I was looking for my other brother and my parents?” I began, biting my lip. “Well, for many years, I believed them dead. As it turns out, they had been taken by someone and they’re being held captive as pets or possessions on a shelf.”

“Your clan has been stolen from ye and kept in slavery to some horrible being who thinks he can just put men on display?” Khaz bellowed, his face contorting in outrage. “Well, I won’t stand for it! I’ll join your cause, lass. The goblins, they stole a few members from my clan. It’s one of the few memories I have of my life from before, part of what I died for in the Goblin Wars. Well, you have my service, lass. Just give me a week or two to make my preparations and then come get me when you’re ready. How many of my people can I bring?”

“As many as you would like.”

“Alright, can they bring their families? A few of them are living yet.”

“How, how many is that?” I asked, pinching the bridge of my nose. I couldn’t very well tell them to abandon their families to help me find mine, but I doubted there would be space in the fortress of all of them and their forge.

“Perhaps we’ll discuss that more at a later date. It could be quite a few, but they’re all fighters. It’s up to you. Just saying I could bring a lot of people or just a few. The big question is, do you have any alcohol where you are or do I need to bring mine?”

“I’ll look into finding a supply for you. In the meantime, did you want a ride back to your forge?”

“No, lass, I think I’ll be walking. Flying wasn’t so bad as I thought, but I still be trusting my feet better,” Khaz declined.

“Well, I’ll see you in a week or two then,” I said, climbing up onto Lóin’s back, Selene jumping up beside me again.

Khaz waved and began the long trek home as Lóin took flight, soaring over Elysium. Without the anxiousness of meeting with Thrarin clouding my mind, I closed my eyes, leaning forward on Lóin’s neck and letting the wind flow through my hair. It wasn’t the same as swimming, the joy of moving through the water on my own, but I found I loved the overwhelming sense of freedom. Opening my eyes, I looked out over the land, wondering what growing up in Elysia must have been like, waking up to this every day. The land that shaped Ulkair, built him up to what he was until the illusion was lost and he was cast out, his scars yet painful. I couldn’t save Elysia, turn back time and stop it or undo the damage the vampires had wrought, but I would find a way to heal Ulkair’s scars if it took the rest of my life to do so. This emerald, my love, Cheshire’s, that of his child and the child we would one day have, our lives together…that would be enough.

Lóin flew us back to where the portal was, land near our guide back. Seeing Lóin, he scrambled away, holding his umbrella before him as if the canvas would do anything to protect him from a dragon. I slid off Lóin’s back again and he regained his human form, slipping his pants back on. Our guide’s face flushed in relief and embarrassment.

“W-well, are you ready to go back?” he asked clearing his throat and picking up his book.

“If you could, please,” I said, trying not to smile.

Trying to regain what dignity he could, he walked over to the tree he’d been by and placed his hand on a small knot on the side that looked almost like a spiral, once more muttering under his breath. Blue light flashed as a brilliant portal appeared beside the tree to take us back. Our guide strolled through, a strange sort of forced calm on his face for what appearance he yet had to maintain.

Passing through the portal, I sighed in relief feeling Ulkair’s presence return, immediately reaching for him through our bond.

‘I missed you,’ I breathed, wrapping my arms around him.

‘I missed you, too. So…can you tell me, yet?’

‘Almost, belovèd.’

‘Neeeeeridaaaaa…almost wheeeeeeeen?’ Ulkair asked, a large grin dominating his face.

‘I’ll see you soon,’ I giggled, paying attention to my surroundings again.

Following where I felt Ulkair was, I almost jogged back to the church, needing to see him again. Lóin and Selene easily followed, though obviously confused at my sense of urgency. They didn’t know what it was like to always feel each other’s mind, their thoughts and emotions. They didn’t know what it was like to join their soul with its other half and the bliss of that unity, the gnawing void left without it.

Running into the church, I found Ulkair and Cheshire walking together, my heart swelling at the sight of them. Without a thought, I lifted them both up into my arms and wasted no time in claiming Ulkair’s lips, leaning him slightly against the wall as I explored his mouth. Shifting ever so slightly, I kissed down his neck and up Cheshire’s until our lips met too.

“I missed you,” I breathed, holding them close.

“When you left, you said a day or so,” Cheshire mumbled, wrapping an arm around my neck.

“Soooo, what did you do there that took five days?” Ulkair asked, trailing his fingers down the side of my face.

“I met a dwarf and ended up drinking with him most nights.”

“I thought you hated alcohol,” Cheshire mumbled, raising an eyebrow at me.

“I did too, but he had this stuff called mead and it was actually very good. It tasted like honey. He also agreed to work for us, if we should need anything made. He works mostly with silver and he made my armour bigger and louder,” I said, setting them down to show them Khaz’s modifications.

“It’s magical, too,” Ulkair noted, looking over the armour. “You’ll find flames won’t burn so hot with this enchantment.”

“He worked on my holy symbol too,” I added, holding it out for them to see.

“It would seem you’ve made quite the friend in this dwarf,” Ulkair commented, draping his arms around me and grinning. “And he taught you to drink?”

“Well, he handed me a tankard of mead and it seemed rude not to drink any of it.”

“So he peer pressured you into drinking,” Cheshire concluded, frowning.

“It did taste good,” I mumbled, pouting a little. “So, what did you guys do?”

“We studied and discovered a possibly insurmountable debt problem,” Cheshire sighed.

“The studying was fun though,” Ulkair commented, kissing Cheshire’s forehead.

“Yes, most things with you are,” Cheshire said, nuzzling his face.

“I’m sorry I missed it,” I sighed, tightening my hold around them. “I would rather have spent time with you two, but…”

“But this was an important task…?” Cheshire tried to complete my thought, looking up at me.

“Indeed,” I hummed, leaning down and kissing Ulkair. “So, how would you feel about going to Elysium sometime?”

“Sounds great to me. Sounds like they have all the parties there,” Ulkair said, curiosity yet burning in his eyes.

“I didn’t say I was in Elysium the past few days. I could’ve been anywhere,” I said, laughing, knowing I wasn’t fooling them anyway.

“We could go drinking with your dwarf buddy.”

“I need to go get him in a couple weeks anyway.”

“Good. We can go together this time,” Ulkair said, nodding.

I felt my heart skip a beat, my face flushing at the thought. Just a week, maybe two…he already knew I loved him, that I wanted to spend the rest of our days together, but something about the act made it so much more…formal, official almost. Taking a moment to find the perfect place to present him the possibly the most beautiful emerald in all the planes and vow to live our lives as one…I shivered, pulling them closer and resting my face atop Ulkair’s head, simply holding them.

“I’m going to go check on Alix,” Cheshire said after a time, wiggling out of my grasp.

“We’ll watch the babies,” I said, going to our room as she wandered off.

After being away for longer than I’d ever been separated from them, I had looked forward to spending time with her too, but if Alix needed her, I couldn’t deny them each other’s company. Ulkair squeezed my hand, letting his curiosity rest for a time while we sat on our bed, playing with the babies and talking. My mind buzzed with thoughts of the emerald, so tempted to just give it to him now, but there was hardly any wonder to being proposed to in a storage room with a mattress on the ground. Wait for it…just another week or two would be worth it to set everything up, so small a time next to how long we would be together. The perfect moment would come if I were willing to wait for it.

View
To the Abyss to Save Loin's Waifu!!!!!!
Sigil 4.5

I wake up feeling very sore. ’ It must be all the dancing. I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun. Well, and the last time I was so frustrated; it was almost like Declan and I were speaking two different languages with no chance of ever understanding one another, but when we danced.. our bodies communicated beautifully. I wonder if I’d have that feeling dancing with anyone, or if that is something only Declan can cause? ‘. I crawl out of bed and get ready for the day. ’ What are we going to do with a boy? Loin had told us about Rolf the night before, but should a child stay with a sleeping dragon? Well, I’m sure there are lots of things he needs…’ I leave my room and go to find Ulkair.

My mind wonders as I walk down the hall. ’ Something just feels, off.’ I remember Declan’s face as he fled the music hall, the day before. There were terror and confusion in those normally happy, warm eyes.’ He returned and seemed as though everything was fine. Should I have asked him about it? There is just this air of unease and I can’t pinpoint where it’s coming from. If it was important, or if we were in some kind of danger, would he have shared it with me? Maybe not. We have just met and it’s foolish to blindly trust a stranger. His main goal does seem to keep Cheshire and this church safe.’

I force myself out of my thoughts as I find Ulkair in his room. ’ Yes, something is amiss, even he seems off today. It could be the fact that Nerida and Cheshire aren’t with him, but I doubt it’ I smile at him warmly and ask him to make a sling shot for the boy. I thank him and then skip of the go shopping. ’ There’s no reason it gets worried and freaked out until you have an enemy to face’ I shove my worry down and walk out of the church happily.’ I love shopping !’

I forgot the stench. Leaving the church I don’t know why I expected to inhale clean fresh air but my lungs were crying in protest. My wings also dropped a bit as I looked around at the city, blanketed in its hazy light. ’ I’m going to miss the sun. I’m glad we found Cheshire’s church but I really hope this isn’t our new home.’ I right myself and start walking again.

I find a man in the middle of the square who seems to be a purveyor of general goods. ’ He seems like a good choice’. He greets me with a large warm smile, and it seems, truly genuine.

I gather everything I think the boy will need and put it on his counter: ten sets of clothes, bedroll, food for 20 days, blanket, a nice pillow, bullets for a sling shot 20, a bag, soap, wash basin. I pay the man and place everything I bought carefully in the bag. ’ I think that’s all I need I should get back to the church so we can go see him.’

I start my trek back to the church, glad I had the foresight to pay attention to my surroundings on the way here. I look around at all the different kinds of people. Some humanoids and some not so human. ’ This is really an incredible place.’ Declan’s warning rings in my mind as I pass a demon “Make sure to not upset the balance or draw attention to yourself”. I clench my hands into fists and fight the urge to draw my weapon as I pass him, making sure not to make eye contact. ’ This place should have wards against violence if all these different kinds of people are going to exists in the same place… but maybe, that’s what the Lady likes. Evil, and good, together in a yin-yang balance.

I’m brought out of my thoughts as I almost run over a man and his stall. I catch myself just in time to keep myself from tipping and falling all over him and his wears. I back up a few steps and apologize to him for almost ruining both of our days and then look down at his table. Toys?

I look around his stall, which doesn’t seem too permanent. It’s just set up in the middle of the street on a table. ‘No wonder I almost ran over him. Was he here when I came through here before? Maybe he travels a lot, or perhaps he’s on the run from something. The Lady could also have some strange rules for him to follow that keeps him moving, but I wonder why he’s different from the other vendors’. Then all the sudden it hits me. ’ We are in Sigil! The city of doors! He doesn’t live here.’ I almost kick myself for not realizing it sooner. ’ What was it Declan said? Clueless. Yep, hits the nail right on the head.’ I almost blush with my embarrassment. I really do have a problem with shopping. My mind goes all muddled and I get too giddy. Is it sin to love shopping this much? I wonder if my new god would think so’.

I pick out some puzzles and we both keep a tally on the copper I’m spending. I learned long ago if you didn’t, then you could be taken for a fool. Cheshire and the babies pop into my mind when I look at the toys and I get a wonderful idea. ’ They need Tad Cooper!’. I ask the man about making me a doll.

" For fifty coppers I could make you any plush you wanted if you could describe it to me," He says, and I add fifty more coppers to the tally I’m keeping. It’s a bit expensive here, but they need it. I’m sure Cheshire feels the loss of not having him near. I try to describe the owlbear to him in as much detail I can remember. I know Cheshire or Alix could do a better job but I want this to be a surprise for her. So much has happened to us and I want her to have a little piece of home and some peace about having to leave him behind. Well, and then the babies may remember him and love him when they finally get to meet him. My heart swells with happiness about my new secret.

I look at the table at the action figures. The man is talking to me about their important in this realm but I’m distracted when my eyes fall on Ooze. ’ What had the man said? Collector’s items? Is everyone in Sigil knowing them? I wonder if they were great heroes. Does Ooze miss his companions?’

I agree to purchase them and place them each carefully into the bag I bought for Rolf. My hand freezes over Ooze, who is the last one to be placed in the bag, and I know I have to get a second one. ’ If I come back with these, and Cheshire finds out I didn’t get her an Ooze toy, she’ll be thoroughly disappointed. He is the reason we have Tubatron, anyway.’

I ask for another Ooze toy and ever the merchant the man offers me something more valuable. He tells me that he has a rare signed collection of the figures. They are of course more expensive but they are very highly valued and apparently coveted.

" Couldn’t Ooze just sign it for me himself?" I ask the man confused as to why they are so special. He goes on to explain that Ooze has a deal with the Merchant and only signs them for him once a year. ’ That would make them special, but I don’t think I should spend that much money on them; when it’s only going to go into a bag of holding with all of her other Treasure in a huge mound, and probably be gummed on by babies.’ I smile at the thought. I politely refuse the upgrade to the toys but thank him.

He gives me a piece of paper on how I am to find him and when the toy will be finished. I take it and put it into my pocket, next to the remainder of my coppers. ’ I spent a good bit of copper but I suppose it wasn’t that much really.’ I thank him again and get back on my way.

I step back into the church and am surrounded by music and songs. My already high spirits lift even higher. But I’m also hit with a pang of guilt. Now, that I’m able to think clearly and my emotions aren’t on a roller coaster from hell, I feel guilty about what I’ve done. I turned my back on my faith and my family. I was wrong to pray to another god, even if at the time I thought it was the right thing to do. It wasn’t. The right thing to do also should have been to repent and spread myself on the ground, begging like a dog. Who was I to slap a god in his face and expect better treatment? I also let me friends think the worst of the situation because I was being so irrational. ’ But, if I could go back.. if I could change what I did, knowing what I know now. I think the discussion would be the same. Well, I think I would have handled it a bit different. Who am I kidding? I would have handled it a lot different… But, I’ve never felt so free and happy… so full of love and warmth than I am now. I’m also with the people that mean the world to me. People I know I can’t live without. So, yeah, what I did was shitty but I’m not going back. ’

I wonder around the church until I find Cheshire. She’s looking a bit confused and worried. There is so much on her shoulders now. This whole church is counting on her. I hope we can all come beside her and help her achieve what it is Tubatron needs of her. I take the Ooze toy of toy my bag and give it to her. She takes it and smiles, thanking me. I tell her of my plans to go see Rolf and then I’m off again. ’ They’ll be no time to dance with Declan today’. The thought makes me a bit sad but there will be plenty of time for dancing later once we’ve taken care of a few things.

I make my way to the main hall and find Nerida, Ulkair, and Loin. They all seem ready to go and we all walk outside. Loin walks next to me quietly, with a faraway expression on his face. ’ He must be so worried about Selean. I don’t know how I would be if someone I loved like that was in that situation. But I’ve never loved someone like that.. not really’

My attention turns to Ulkair and Nerida, who are walking hand in hand and are talking quietly among themselves. Nerida is holding a squirming Seren in her other arm and I smile at the baby. ’ They are so happy. I’m so glad they found each other. True I didn’t think Ulkair was an evil selfish bastard at first, but love really changed that. And, I had been wrong in my judgment of him. ’ Ulkair turns to look at me almost as if reading my thoughts and our eyes meet and hold each other’s for a few moments. ’ I couldn’t have been talking out loud, could I ?’ He reaches over and hands me the slingshot. I take it and look down at it. It was beautiful and very well made. I smile up at him and thank him. He nods and goes back to his conversation with Nerida. I slip the slingshot into the bag for Rolf and smile happily.

We shift into the elemental plane of water and Nerida cast a water breathing spell on us. Seren swims around happily, laughing. Even at only five months old, the merbaby handled the water better than I did. I think he remembered playing with me before because he swam up behind me and played with my wings. I moved them around for him and he squealed with laughter.

We make it into the membrane and up to the top floor of the building without indecent. Nerida scoops Seren up into her arms again and we check on the dragon. He seems to be in a deep sleep. I finger his tooth in my pocket and guilt billows up out of my heart. ‘I should have done something to save him. I let my family take it on alone and now we are at war with the god that I scorned. It was all my fault.’ The feeling of helplessness seeps its way into my heart and I almost let it have free reign but then I see the boy.

He’s much smaller than I imagined him being. His body looks like she should only be five years old, but Loin had said he was older. I was ready to argue that fact or ask again when I was caught by his gaze. His eyes looked ancient. Too old for someone his age. Too worldly and hurt for someone so young. ’ What must he have gone through to have eyes like that?’ He looked at us wearily and I approached him slowly. I didn’t want to alarm or frighten him.

I introduce myself to him and pulls his bag off my shoulder and show it to him. He looks at me, distrust, worry and confusion, all in his eyes, but then there is a small spark of joy. Tiny, but it’s there. It’s almost like he’s afraid to believe me. afraid to hope. ’ I want to throw my arms around him and pull him close. I don’t dare though. He may take it as an attack. I take out all the things for him and show them to him, reassuring him that they are in fact all his. He smiles and takes some food out and munches on it.

Tears come to his eyes and he hugs me. I fight my own tears as I hold him close. He thanks us over and over again. I let him go and then give him the slingshot Ulkair made. I explain that Ulkair made it to him and then ask him if he’d like me to show him how to use it. He smiles up at me and explains he know how. I make him promise not to shoot the Dragon or to hurt anyone unless they are trying to hurt him. He sighs and rolls his eyes. ’ I’m being a fussy mother hen and I guess we both know it. Well, he’s going to be in for another surprise then, isn’t he?’

We get into an argument about him having a bath with the soap I bought him. He complains and struggles but in the end, I get my way. I scrub him from head to toe. His hair is matted and his clothes were almost fused into his skin. ’ I’m going to burn those clothes and punish the people who have put him through all this.’ I suds up his skin scrubbing at it, careful to be gentle around his bruises. I have to repeat with soap a few times before he’s clean. I help him get dried off and into some on his new clothes and then we both rejoin the others.

Rolf goes back to his back and starts eating again and I look over at Loin. He’s leaning against the wall, staring at the dragon with a far off look in his eyes. I’m about to ask him if anything is wrong when he pushes himself off the wall and walks over to the dragon. He picks up something off the dragon’s pile of bronze, but I can’t see what it is. He walks away from the dragon with his back to me.

I freeze as music fills the room, but not just any music, Dovev’s music. I feel like I can’t breath and terror fills me, pulsing through my veins like ice water. ’ What… how? He’s dead! We killed him! ’ I move around to see Loin playing the accordion. ’ He can’t play…he doesn’t know how’ I move over to him and try to take it from him. He lashes out at me and throws me to the ground, and I swear I heard and growl escape his lips. I look up at him in horror from my place on the floor. His eyes aren’t right. It’s almost like someone else is looking out from him. Then, like a flash, I would have missed if I blinked Loin was there. The accordion seemed to me fighting him, or perhaps in was whoever was sharing his eyes. They played two songs. One sick and twisted song that I will never be able to forget and one song full of life and battle.

‘I have to do something!’ I move to stand and try to take the accordion away from him but Ulkair stops me with his booming voice.

" Let him fight his demon!"

‘His demon? Is that what’s happening? Thank Tubatron it’s not really Dovev.’ I didn’t feel his evil but the song was his. I reach out to Tubatron as my body starts to move to Loin’s song. ’ I can’t stop him but, I can still help him. Tubatron please help Loin overcome this. I know he doesn’t belong to you be he’s precious to us.’ I close my eyes and my body seems to move on its own. I still my mind and let it take me. Not wanting my mind or thought process to ruin it. The music pounds in my ears as I move and Loin’s music wins out. I sigh in relief as Tubatron and Eadro’s holy power flow into the room. My mind goes blank and I surrender myself completely.

When the music ends I slip to the floor panting. My body aching, and I’m covered in sweat. Holy power is still prickling along my skin like lightning. I look over at Loin. He’s on the ground bleeding but he seems to be himself. The dragon is awake and holy power moves from his body and into Loin, through his claw against his chest. A shiny silver scale forms over Loins heart and his wounds disappear. I sigh happily and watch as the dragon curls around Loin and they both fall asleep.

We manage to get Loin away from the Dragon but we can’t pull the accordion away from Loin. Ulkair lifts Loin with a large floating disc of light and we travel back to Sigil. Cheshire meets us in the hall and she seems to be trying very hard to keep calm, which is understandable given the situation. She tries to pull the accordion from him and is almost in tears as she can’t free it. Screaming about how we have to destroy it. The funny thing is, is there is no evil coming from the thing or from Loin.

Ooze walks up behind her and she tries to explain to him what’s happening to him calmly.’ Alix must be helping her keep calm’ Ooze tells her he will not destroy the instrument and plucks it from Loin’s tight grasp. He frowns down at the think and then he’s encased in holy energy that is then thrown out of him and into the instrument. The thing doesn’t feel any different to my but he gives it back to the sleeping Loin and assures Cheshire that the evil songs have been driven out. He also warns us to be careful what songs we give it. I look over at Cheshire and I don’t think we have to worry about giving it any evil fuel. She’s not going to let anyone play that.

We go to the main hall and discuss or trip into the Abyss. Cheshire is worried about Alix not having good enough equipment to protect him and we decide to buy him some upgrades before we leave. I ask Cheshire about my Avenger and she suggests that I pray for it. ‘She did say that Tubatron would give it back bigger and shinier’. She offers to help me and suggest our performance needs to have something to do with my weapon.

I pull my scythe out and hold it out in front of me as Cheshire starts to play. I take some deep calming breaths to squelch my nerves. The music begins to pulse on my skin and I start to move. I let the music and my body have free rein. Holy energy fills the room and buzzes around me like static electricity. I know my mind would try to ruin things with logical thought. I incorporate my weapon into my dance and try to make it the main focus. I feel Cheshire next to me and on me. We become a tangle of limbs and I’m lost, completely taken over by our performance.

The music stops. I’m alone again, but I’m not. There are scores of people around me cheering. I look over at Cheshire, panting , and watch as Nerida and Ulkair all but drag her up the stairs. Then hands are on me and I’m pulling into an embrace, lips on mine. My body stiffens until I realize it’s Declan. I wrap my arms around his neck and return his kiss. I start to become overwhelmed and I shove him away.

" You’re a beautiful dancer, Mimi," He says still too close to me.

" Thank you," I say breathlessly, panic starting to overtake the passion I just felt. I grip the Avenger, that had been returned to me in during my dance, so hard that my fingers turn white.

" Never have the halls of Tubatron seen such dancing. It is a good day that Cheshire has returned to us. My fiddle is ever at your service, Mimi." He smiles and bows. Then he turns to walk away.

" Wait!" I call after him, embarrassed and flustered " Declan, I need to talk to you" my breath catches in my throat as he turns around to look at me. ’ Calm down. You can do this.. just let him down easy’ " I was in a relationship before.. and it was, very, intense, and I thought it was going to be the only relationship I was ever going to be in…"

" That’s a very long and lonely life you’ve lead for yourself."

“What do you mean?”

" Won’t you live a long time? That’s a long time alone Mimi" He moves closer to me but I take a step back.

" Well he was also, going to live a long time, but-"

" Well, clearly, the relationship is over. So if that’s the only one you’re going to be in- "

" What I’m trying to say," ’ and failing miserably. Come on, calm down.. just make him understand.’ " I don’t want something temporary…" I wring my hands and look up at him hoping he understands.

" Ah, music lasts forever"

" Yes, it does.." ’ try again, and keep your voice strong’ I look at him trying to keep my composure.

" Then we would make such sweet music" he smiles a moves closer to me. Panic quickens my pulse and it pounds in my ears.

" But you don’t know me very well.." I back away again trying to argue.

" I know you through your dancing. Do I have to spend a long time with you to know you? I think not. I follow where the music leads and I don’t question the beauty of it if I’ve only heard it for a short time " He stops advancing on me. ’ I must look like a hyperventilating scared rabbit’

" I just.. don’t want you to be disappointed" I croak out, on the verge of tears. ’ I don’t want to be hurt again.’ My body tenses and I’m only able to breathe in small shallow breaths. My heart has warmed towards this man but I’m so afraid to be pen and exposed again. He looks at me and sighs.

" I am not disappointed, Mimi, for the time you have given me" He smiles at me sadly" The bard life is wondering one and I take what comes, and I don’t regret it if it leaves me. But make no mistake, I am committed to everything I do, one hundred percent"

" Can I think about it" ’ Am I really doing this? Am I really thinking of opening myself to this man?’

" Whatever you need-" I don’t let him finish as I run up the stairs to Cheshire’s room.

My heart feels like its going to pound out of my chest as I knock on the door. There is rustling inside and muffled angry shouts and a " go away". I stand at the door not knowing what to do, and then all sound from the room stops. I’m hopeful someone might come open the door but am left disappointed. My mind falls to Alix and I know he’s my best choice.

I go to our room and want to fall into the man’s arms and sob. I restrain myself but only just barely. ’He’s not my father, and I’m not sure he would welcome me; that, and Cheshire would be hurt’ instead I explain my situation to him and ask him for his advice. I need his calm level mind to help with my frantic out of control one.

After talking to Alix I run out of the room to find Declan. ’ Alix is right. I deserve to be happy. We may die in the Abyss tomorrow, but I want this.. I need this.. I only hope Declan hasn’t changed his mind. I may not be able to fully trust him with my heart but that will come.’ Doubt and the fear of regeneration start to creep into my heart but I shove it away. I won’t let it keep me from being happy anymore.

I find him in the music hall and throw myself into his arms. He almost drops me and I don’t know how he stays upright. Shock is all over his face as he tries to keep us upright. I don’t think it would have been a bad thing to go troubling to the floor with him. I grab his face and kiss him, putting all my hopes and dreams into the kiss, hoping he excepts me. He recovers quickly and returns the kiss. When we part he pulls me down the hall to his room quickly. It’s almost as if he’s afraid giving my time to think will change my mind. ’ How does he know me so well already’

Being with him was amazing. It was like I was missing a piece of myself and now I was finally whole. I lay my head on his shoulder and listen to him breathe evenly. I’m still reeling from our time and the fact that I really do love this man. ’ How did he sneak past my defenses. How could this man know me so well in the short time we’ve been together? But, he does.’ I fall asleep feeling safe and warm in his arms, so happy I let my heart do the talking and not my brain.

I woke up alone in his bed the next morning. I get up and stretch my sore muscles. I go back to my room and try to prepare myself for the day. I still my mind as fear starts to slip in. ’ We are going to survive this. We are going to save Loin’s lover and make it back’ I gather my things and go to find my companions.

Cheshire looks around at us nervelessly. This is the first time she’s going to be leaving her babies and it must be unnerving. Loin seems to be back to normal and anxious to get going. Alix is looking pretty dangerous and impressive in his new armor. We gather around Nerida and Ulkair and I feel her familiar magic envelope us. The world around us shifts and we fall into the Abyss.

Sulfur assaults my nostrils and lungs. It’s hard to breathe as evil slams into me like a sledgehammer. I close my eyes and try to calm down. My pulse is so fast it feels like my heart it trying to explode out of my chest. This place is evil. I grip my weapons and say a silent prayer to Tubatron, then slowly open my eyes. The scenery is what you’d expect from a place called The Abyss. Everything is dark and gray. There are ruins scattered around the landscape.

I frown and look over at Nerida who has gone tense and cold. I look around to try and figure out what has caused such an abnormally reaction and my eyes fall on Ulkair; on the ground and at the mercy of a hideous demon. ’ But Ulkair is next to Nerida and me? ’ I glance over at the sorcerer next to me just to confirm it. ’ So, one is not real’. We can’t seem to tell the difference and they both claim to be the real deal; so there is only one thing left to do. Take out the demon.

We fall on the demon; a flurry of arrows slashes and claws, Caspian had turned into some kind of dragon like beast. I slice into the hideous thing. He growls and glares at me before summoning another one of those evil bastards. ’ That not going to help you Hellspawn!’ I pour good holy energy into my weapons and fall on him in a flurry of swings. I slice him open as a huge tuba clap sounds. Light pours into me and my weapon and I explode through him. Covered in the demons black blood I turn to take out his friend. He holds his guts into his body after I slice him open and then he’s gone with a curse.

I pant and look around at my companions. They seem to be mostly unharmed, good. ’ I’m so getting a bath when I get home. Maybe, it will even be a sexy one. Gosh! Did I just think that!’ my cheeks flush red and I say a silent prayer of thanks, that I don’t have company in my head.

Ulkair and Alix lead us safely to this large structure with huge flying buttresses along the sides. It had the makings of a beautiful church, but there was no way that was what this building was. It could have been used for sacrifices I suppose. We argue about what to do. The two options are: Bust in there weapons at the ready, or try to come up with a plan to sneak us all in; needless to say, we opted for busting through the front doors.

Fresh blood and the odor of death and suffering hits me in the face. That isn’t the only thing that hits me. I become trapped in the sticky spiderweb-like substance and can’t get free. It doesn’t take me long to find the source of the stench. Freshly kill, mutilated bodies were in the back of the building on some kind of altar. My stomach lurched at the sight of them. They weren’t even recognizable as human or any being, just a mesh of flesh. My heart goes out to them but I can’t afford to dwell on it long.

My attention turns to the two demons in the middle of the room, one male, one female. On either side of them were portals that swirled with demonic energy. ’ That can’t be good’
just as I’m thinking that dozens of little imp demons rush out of the portal. I continue to struggle but I can’t free myself. ’ We are going to be overrun and me not able to get free and help.’ I shake my head to deter further thoughts of that nature and turn my focus to the large male again. ’ He’s the one we have to focus on’ Take down the commander or the ringleader and the others are lost.

Almost as if he could read my thoughts he locks his eyes on me and smiles. Amusement rolls off him and I can almost hear him laughing. A wall of flames erupt out him in all directions and slam into us. I hear cries of pain all around me and am struggling with my own pain. I feel the flames lick at my skin burning, but through the pain, I can’t help but smile. The sticky web I was caught in starts to melt away with the fire. He’s just made a grave mistake in freeing me. I smile back at him through my pain.

I take my weapons and charge at him bringing them down on him hard and slicing into him with holy tuba power. ’ Man I love this!’ The demon growls and snarls at me and soon receives a storm of magical power from Nerida. I take my attention off the beast to glance her way but that was a mistake. I hear a loud cracking noise and then am engulfed in a ring of fire. I scream out in surprise and struggle but to no avail. I fiery whip has wound around my body and has me trapped. ’ Damn him. ’ I turn back to look at him but he isn’t paying me any attention. He doesn’t need to. He has me trapped again.

I struggle against the whip, trying to free myself. I cry out in pain and frustration as I watch on in terror, powerless to protect my family. I turn around and glare at the demon, who only smirks at me. ’ When I’m free I will spill all of your blood’. I look around for some kind of aid or hope and it comes in the form of Alix, who doesn’t disappoint. He aims his bow at me and fires two arrows. The first hitting the whip that’s wound around my body and the second sinking into the demon’s flesh. I fall to the floor and shake the remnants of the whip off my body.

I move to attack the beast but Nerida runs past me and thrusts Anduin into his chest. Her angry screams making my ears ring. I leap into the air and bring my weapons down on him slicing him almost in two. ’You’re done for’. I smile down at him but he only returns my smile. Fear starts to pick at my skin as beautiful light pours from him and engulfs the whole room.
White…pain…ringing…pain… I try to think but my mind can’t break through the agony and all I can do is take shallow gurgled breaths. ’ What happened?‘. My eyes come into focus and I look around at my companions. I try to shake myself out of the have to be able to move or do anything to aid my fallen companions. ’ I’m not sure if we won this fight..’

View
*:・゚✧ Cheshire's Adventure Log ✧゚・: *
Brave New World

Day Six
(Session 4.5)

I roll out of bed early, my stomach twisting in knots as I pick up Ragnarok and look for a place to pray. Immediately as I stretch to wake myself, my stomach rumbles with insistent hunger, but I can’t imagine eating with my nerves the way they are. I poke my head out of our window to stare out over the cityscape, and debate what it would take to get to the roof three stories above us and whether or not such a thing would get me in trouble. It probably isn’t an impossible feat, but a bit more climbing than my anxious, twisting stomach wants to attempt, so with a sigh, I resign myself to indoor prayers. I step out into the hall, as not to rouse my lovers or children from their sleep, and instead seat myself in the biggest window I can find with Ragnarok, strumming the silver strings lightly.

Today I would speak with Ooze, and hopefully with that would come a better understanding of the task ahead of me, but also, I know, a great new weight on my shoulders.

“…To be calm in the eye of the human storm
In the house full of dreams I am safe and warm,
Looking back on a life filled with warm embraces
No regrets, only memories of smiling faces,
Ooh, we were almost there, now change is in the air…”

I sigh, taking a deep breath, and watch the bustling movement below me – so busy already, did this city never sleep? People of all colors, all walks of life, even monsters, just… walking, living, back to back… Where did someone like me fit into this big, cold city? I was so comfortable in Byss, always warm, always surrounded by those who loved me, I’d almost forgotten what it was like everywhere else. So… indifferent.

“Here in the brave new world’s embrace,
I watch the parade begin, searching for one familiar face
And I wonder if I fit in…
How will I know if there’s a place for me in the brave new world?
Until now, I held the zone,
I ruled the world, I called it home,
I never saw the downside.
We were almost there, and I… I was unaware…”

Staring out into the brownish gray cityscape, my inspiration runs from me, and I let my song fade into a soft melody, unsure how to finish it, as doubt builds in me with increasing pressure. This city… Demons running about, criminal organizations abusing children, and it’s all allowed? I can’t wrap my mind around this kind of ‘neutrality’ that The Lady promotes – it feels only like evil, and it goes against everything I am now. But the faithful seem to love me, and Tubatron wouldn’t have chosen me as his high priestess if he didn’t believe I was what they needed. I feel Tubatron’s holy energy resonating from my strings, as though to reaffirm my thoughts, it pours over me, replenishing the emptiness left in the wake of my attempts to aid Loin. I suppose I had no love for Byss, either, when I first arrived. I just need to give it time.

I sigh, swinging my legs lightly from the window-way and playing for awhile more before I hear the familiar pitch of Seren’s fussing. I scoot back inside and return to my room, where I snuggle down with the babies for breakfast, and wait for my lovers to wake.

~

My increasing nervousness allows me very little rest, so by the time Nerida and Ulkair rise for their morning prayers and meditation, I’ve already dressed, gotten food for myself and Alix, and fed the babies – Seren twice.
“Do you guys mind keeping an eye on the boys while I talk to Ooze?” I peer over at them as I tuck Seren and Rhapsody in together, and Nerida cocks her head at me.

“I was planning to go with you,” she says, “Declan suggested we speak to Ooze about the Blood War.”

“Would you… mind if I came and got you later?” I bite my lip, dragging the words out a bit longer than I’d have liked as I struggle to voice them without offending her. Her eyebrows knit closely, which suggests I didn’t succeed.

“Does this need to be a private conversation?” She questions.

“I…. Don’t know,” I admit, though even if it didn’t, Nerida is not the company I’d have chosen.

I love her, but she hasn’t exactly been shy about prioritizing her thoughts over my image, especially in front of Ooze. He did say it was up to me if I involved them or not, but I have the sinking suspicion that the point was brought up because he would rather I did not. Even if I were to disregard that suspicion, if this meeting is derailed, it’s not only bad for my image and relationship with my comrades in faith, but also damages my chance to speak my mind and to truly understand what all of this means for me.

“But maybe it should be?” I conclude, “I was going to bring just Alix with me, which I thought, at the very least would be okay, since Tubatron named him my protector… And I mean, he would know what was happening anyway, because he’s in my head.”

“Well, you can just ask him and tell us, if that’s what you want,” Nerida seems miffed, or at least off-put. I suppose she doesn’t like the idea of there being secrets between us, which I’d note is a ridiculous notion, considering how much she tries to hide. “I just thought you might be talking for a long time, so it would be easiest and best to just get this out of the way.”

Aaaaand that’s exactly why I’m not bringing you. I sigh and rock back and forth uneasily on the balls of my feet. Because you’re acting like what I’m trying to do is some inconvenience you need to work around.

If I knew that Nerida would come with me, and be supportive and patient and help me to figure out the role I am struggling to fill in this meeting, I would happily bring her along. But her plan is to come with me, tell Ooze and I to put whatever it is we’re doing on hold so she can question him and go about her day, and she somehow doesn’t consider this a problem.

Not to mention there are things I must discuss with Ooze that I think Nerida thinks little of, like the very real threat of Dovev, which Loin’s brush with the accordion reminded me of rather sternly. Perhaps that connection is reaching, ridiculous even, and maybe I have no reason to fear, at least anytime soon. But such an enemy is one that shouldn’t be disregarded, when he could cost our people so much, and Nerida does not fear him. She barely considers the possibility that he is still a viable threat, and if I have my large, powerful, priestly lover rolling her eyes at my side – it is likely that Ooze will also take this threat lightly. I stare at Nerida’s waiting, suspicious eyes, and my head reels for a way to make her see how urgent it is that this morning go well, that it’s important to me – much more important than the Abyss, or the Blood War.

“We can just go and take food to Rolfe and check on the dragon,” Nerida says with a shrug, “do whatever you want to do.”

“I…” I frown at Nerida, torn between wishing this hadn’t gone so poorly and my very real belief that I was completely right. “Well, I was hoping you all would watch Seren and Rhapsody while I was gone but I can take them with me if you need to go do other things.”

“We’ll just take them to the elemental plane of water,” Nerida dismisses, “I’ll cast water breathing on Rhapsody.”

“O–Oh,” I manage, my stomach twisting in objection, “I… I guess… nothing could go wrong… Okay… take them with you to the elemental plane of water… Full of the unknown, and.. monsters…”

‘Nothing could go wrong’ was an absolutely untrue statement, but ‘nothing that Nerida and Ulkair can’t handle’ still held weight. I know how offended Nerida would be if I told her not to take them, and I know she can take care of them, so I try my best to put my unease aside. It’s only paranoia, I assure myself.

“It’s surprisingly empty, actually,” Nerida muses, “we took a good long jaunt out into it. Just water. For miles and miles.”

Well, I suppose that was a relief, but then, it drudged up the point that high level magic seemed to be dangerously unpredictable of late. Nerida’s ‘jaunt’ with that elemental may have been pleasant, but mine certainly wasn’t, and Alix almost drowned, twice in our short stay. I know that our ending up in the elemental plane of water instead of Sigil wasn’t Nerida’s fault, nor were any spells going wrong, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t happen, and why invite trouble, when I could just take the boys with me to my meeting?

“Will you be planar shifting to get there?” I ask, hoping to get the point across without making her feel any worse than I know she already does. Her face falls, telling me I had anything but succeeded.

“No, we’ll be taking the portal Ulkair opened,” she says, “do you still think I’m going to drop us in the elemental plane of fire?”

“No,” I begin cautiously, “but I just think that… probably the less… massive amounts of magic and planar travel we expose the wee ones to, the better?”

Nice recovery. I think bitterly. Or at least, I thought it was, but Nerida remains unconvinced. How can I prove to her it’s not her I don’t trust? Further, how can she not understand why I don’t want to over-expose Rhapsody to magic, or either of them to danger? She stares at me, hard – a familiar, mistrusting look I’ve seen only a couple times before, and I realize that I am suddenly drowning, again, in a conflict I hadn’t meant to start.

“I love you Nerida, and I have faith in your magic.”

Desperate to back-pedal the damage I’ve done, I reach out to take her hand, meeting her hard stare with my most pleading eyes.

“I just don’t know what I have to talk to Ooze about, and he might not want me to bring my entire entourage, which is why I was only going to bring Alix.”

“It’s okay,” Nerida’s words insist, but her tone says otherwise. Still, I persist, squeezing her hand hopefully, and she sighs. “I just didn’t want to interrupt you, as I figured it would be a long conversation.”

“It… could be,” I reason, releasing Nerida’s hand as she pulls away. “or it could be very short, I have no idea.”

And either way, interrupting it would be bad.

I add mentally, but shake it off – I’m sure she just… doesn’t realize. I suppose we got so comfortable with Agorran, and were so well loved in Byss, it must be hard for her to adjust to authority figures, or to not consider herself one, or her priorities the top. And we’re all under stress, the idea of the Abyss hanging over all of our heads, that nightmare she had, it’s no wonder Nerida thinks the Blood War is such a pressing issue, I’m sure I would be just as insistent. Soon we’ll put the lower planes behind us, and then she’ll adjust – soon she’ll realize how important all of this is, especially to me.

She gives me a look I don’t quite understand before turning away, and taking her spot on the floor to meditate with Ulkair. She pulls him into her lap, and action which seems rather pointed at the moment, and closes her eyes to pray. I sigh, glancing from them, to our sleeping children, and leave to find Alix, who is waiting for me in the hall.

“Everything alright?” He raises an eyebrow at me, and I pull on a hesitant smile.

“I hope so,” I mumble, taking his hand as we head down the hall. “I think everyone is just having a hard time adjusting… I know I am. But I think it won’t be so bad after today, you know? When there’s not so much.. unknown.”

Alix nods, giving a thoughtful ‘hm’, and I turn to look up at him.

“How are you doing?”

“It’s… different here, but we will make do,” he says.

I can sense heavily masked unease in his thoughts and words, and I wonder if he doesn’t want to worry me with his troubles, or if they are simply too many to list. He’s uncomfortable here in Sigil, I can feel it – he sleeps less, his thoughts are more guarded, and we’ve barely been here three days.

“Is it just my dancing that’s worrying you?” I press, “or something else? Or lots of somethings?”

“Our enemies walk the streets here freely, and we have less means to defend ourselves,” he offers, skimming a subject I can feel troubles him deeply, “our family is vulnerable, perhaps… especially you, and in foreign territory.”

“Maybe it would help you worry less if.. you got a little more sleep?” I peer at him cautiously, and he pats my hands on his arm.

“Vigilance is important,” he says simply, “don’t you think have enough to be concerned about, little one?”

I sigh, leaning my head on his shoulder, and wishing he weren’t right. The Blood War, the babies, Nerida, Tubatron, the faithful, the demons prowling the streets… the list went on, and we’d only just arrived. But I suppose that wasn’t terribly surprising – we had a knack for finding the biggest, baddest trouble we could, and fast.

Ooze isn’t hard to find – I follow the sound of tuba music to a room up a couple flights of stairs, and knock. The door flies open with a blast of oddly loud tuba music, and I hope Ooze doesn’t see me jump in surprise. Quickly shaking the look of shock from my face, I walk into his room, which looks very much like the rest of the rooms here. Piles of cushions make up a bed, piles of sheet music and instruments make up… pretty much everything else. Ooze has a table, though it’s so beaten up it looks more like an old tower shield.

“Cheshire!” He exclaims, and before I can even turn my attention to him, he grapples me into another spine-altering bear hug, and swings me in a circle as he had before.

“Good… morning,” I manage dizzily, as he plops me back onto my feet.

“Cheshire, Cheshire, Cheshire,” He says, and I feel my ears wilt with the sudden apprehension that I’m in trouble.

" …Yes?

“I’m so glad you’re here,” he says, and I puff out a sigh of relief I hope isn’t too noticeable.

“I’m glad to be here.”

“I spent yesterday communing with Tubatron,” he explains, and I can’t help but smile, suppressing the
inappropriate giggle as I reflect on poor Alix’s headache.

“Yes, I heard, it was very lovely.”

Ooze regards me for a moment, his smile fading into what must be the most serious look I’ve seen him wear thusfar.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us,” he says, and his voice is so grim I can’t help but wonder if he thinks such work can ever be done. But of course, I knew that – leaving Byss, the only thing that was made abundantly clear to me was that wherever I was going, whatever I was to do, I would spend the rest of my life in service to Tubatron.

“A lifetime’s worth, you might say,” I muse.

Several lifetimes.” Ooze corrects, and I knit my brow – this is quite a legacy, I know… should I already be considering my successor? Such a thing hadn’t even occurred to me.

“I would be surprised if Tubatron lets us go anytime soon,” he continues, “he has already granted me the gift of long life, and I suspect you shall find he has granted that to you, as well.”

“Oh.”

I feel as though this word is becoming an overly present part of my vocabulary, but I have never before been at the general loss for words that I have been lately. Or so very afraid to say something inappropriate or foolish. I’m not sure how to process the information I’ve just been given, but I feel a very strong and sudden misgiving for the situation that is not my own. I turn to look at Alix, who wears a distinctly forced smile on his face – something I have never seen before.

Alix..?

You’re going to live a long time, Cheshire. He muses, the look in his eyes grim as they meet mine. I’m.. not sure what you’re going to do alone.

I… My smile slips, my mind racing for a solution to an age old, impossible problem. I-I’m sure you’ll live a long time, too..?

Denial is bad enough when it doesn’t sound like a question – but Tubatron named him my protector, and… and blessed his presence in all of our endeavors, he wouldn’t just… Alix takes a deep breath, and pointedly turns his focus back to Ooze.

We’ll talk about this later.

Okay…

I blink the tears back and look back up at Ooze, certain if anymore subjects get swept under the ‘we’ll talk about it later’ rug, they will amass an army to destroy us.

“For I believe that the needs of Tubatron are great,” Ooze continues so smoothly I wonder if he knew my mind was elsewhere, or if I actually tuned out something he said while I was in my own head. “He is a god without a home. We have been granted a special dispensation to live in Sigil for a short time.”

“I hear The Lady owes him a favor?” I question – it is a tale I feel I should be familiar with, as it will certainly be questioned, and what kind of high priest can not give an answer on such an important subject?

“Yes, indeed. She owes him, and me, for the things that happened with Talos and his attack on the city. Unfortunately, despite all of the good will in the world, even if The Lady wanted to let us stay here indefinitely, she could not. It is a little known fact that the reason The Lady keeps gods out of Sigil is that their divine presence will destabilize the spire, and tear the very fabric of the multiverse, of which Sigil is the center seam, you might say.”

“Oh.”

There it is again, me, sounding too intelligent for my own good.

“So, Tubatron has to leave, and we have to prepare his way.”

I take a deep breath, determined not to say ‘oh’ again, and clap my hands together in what I hope isn’t too great a show of eagerness. “So, where do we start?”

“Well, Tubatron’s hope had been to move to Elysia,” Ooze grimaces, “but that is no longer an option. That place is now dark, and nothing but chaos and evil.”

I wince, the memories of our sour ‘triumph’ only more bitter knowing that we had not only let down the Byssians, but in fact my own god. At least Byss could live in peace, no longer damned by the blood-sucking shadow that was Elysia, but that did not make the multiverse in any less peril from Tubatron’s extended stay in Sigil.

“Besides! Tubatron needs a place grand and full of music, not just any place will suffice for him, only the best,” Ooze proclaims, and I nod my eager agreement. “We could just claim some… empty space in the outlands, but ‘big and loud’, I believe, is what you’ve said?”

I giggle, nodding sheepishly as I feel my ears flush pink, “ahem… yep. A couple times.”

“I have read the Big and Loud song you’ve sung to Tubatron on the divine scrolls, and it is,” Ooze pauses, grinning and thoughtfully stroking his chin, “appropriate. And so, Tubatron desires to do something big and loud, to enter onto the scene and we shall do that, and make all the planes recognize his godhood.”

“He and I will tell you more about that, but we will take care of it. That is why it falls to you to secure us a home,” Ooze explains.

“Okay!” I try my best to sound confident and cooperative, but now is is hardly the time for false bravado, “But I… I admit I don’t know much of the planes. Or… anything of them, outside of what I have seen. But I’ll begin studying immediately.”

“Well, as you travel, wherever you go, keep your eyes open. You could try the outlands, or I suppose some of the upper realms, but those places are crowded with gods already. And… somehow we have a feud with Corellan Larethian?”

“Well… yes, it seems that way. Our newest convert, you see, she was a paladin in service to Corellan, and he grossly mistreated and abused her,” I explain, “and that dragon I mentioned when we first arrived? He had taken its soul, and was reincarnating it into an elf to punish her for praying for it.”

A spark of rage flickers in Ooze’s eyes, and he lifts his tuba to his lips, blasting out a series of angry notes.

“Then it is just, and he deserves everything we have brought to him! The large majesty of a dragon, reduced to that of an elf!” Ooze shakes his head at the idea, exclaiming it as though it were the most preposterous thing he’s heard in all his days, and all I can do is nod in agreement.

“When I acted, it was with Tubatron’s blessing,” I assure him, and he pauses, stroking his chin thoughtfully once again.

“I had an elf friend once,” he muses, “he was a strange fellow. He loved Corellan Larethian, but… well, so be it.”

“I, too, knew a strange elf who worshiped Corellan Larethian. We had our disagreements but,” I pause, trying to think of how best to sum up a person such as Sheik, “she wasn’t a bad person, just… strange.”

“Very strange, these elves,” Ooze concludes, and I nod. Ooze falls into a contemplative silence, which is broken quickly by a knock on his door, and Declan enters following it.

“Pardon me,” he says, nodding to the three of us, “I hate to interrupt but while I have you both together I needed to inform you I received a message from Clement early this morning.”

He passes a sealed envelope to Ooze, who opens it and scans the letter within quickly.

“Oh my, it would seem that his errand for Tubatron has gone rather well,” he remarks, “it seems he has found a piece of the song, and he cannot return yet, because it calls to him.”

“’The song’?” I repeat, cocking my head curiously at Ooze.

“Yes, the primal song,” he sort of explains.

“What’s that?”

“Well, it is… the song, Cheshire,” Ooze continues, but his words are hesitant, as though he’s not entirely sure of them, himself. “It is the song that birthed the universe, as they say. Tubatron has spoken of it, and that, should any of us find or hear of it, it should be our number one priority, other than that I know very little of it.”

I stare at him for a moment, at a loss for words – a song birthed the universe? I suppose it makes as much sense as anything else, but… such an immense thing strains the capabilities of my mind.

“Tubatron says that with it, one can change the fabric of reality,” Ooze adds, and I rattle my brain for memories of any such music – it must be uncannily amazing. Something so powerful… I can hardly wrap my mind around the chords that would embody it, but the only thing that would even hold a candle to such an immense music in my mind is Tubatron’s. The symphony in his concert hall… perhaps that was it? It was certainly the most rapturous thing my ears had ever experienced.

“And… you would just… know if you heard it, right?” I ask, peering up at Ooze.

“I suppose.” He answers with a shrug.

“Oh, so.. you haven’t heard it, then?”

“I have heard Tubaton’s song, which is powerful and potent, but I do not think it is the same thing,” he explains, as if he had read my very thoughts for my theory. “Although I believe Tubatron’s will is to incorporate this primal music into his song, which is why he has sent Clement out to find more of this song. It seems he is doing well, but I fear with his personality, he may become addicted.”

“I see… Is addiction a problem for Clement?”

Ooze hesitates for a moment, then breathes a defeated sigh as he answers.

“Yes.”

“Well then, it seems like we have a lot to do,” I conclude, unsure of what to make of the news of this Clement fellow, “and… it seems my work will start with studying the planes, and finding a perfect, beautiful, and preferably empty plane for us to live on.”

Every further word of that description makes it sound less likely.

“We may, indeed, have to create such a plane,” Ooze says, once again as if he were privy to my thoughts.

“Can you… do that?” I suppose this question only goes to show my ignorance on the subject matter, but such a feat sounds truly immense, if not unbelievable.

“Yes, there are places in the multiverse where one can create your paradise with your own thoughts,” he explains, “indeed the planes are infinite, and shapeable. But, there are places where it is easier than others.”

I suspect, in this case, ‘easier’ means ‘vaguely possible for mortals’, but I nod nonetheless. I’m certain Ulkair will know of this phenomenon, and perhaps he can help me to understand it, which I will need to, if it is potentially the future of the faithful.
“I… I will look into it immediately,” I shift, growing more uncomfortable with every promise I make – it’s not that I don’t intend to keep them, oh no. Just that they don’t feel like… enough. ‘I’ll look into it’ and ‘I’ll do my best’, seem like a poor offering to bring to such a mighty table as this, the faithful have so much riding on me, on my ability to succeed in a subject I knew nothing of until this very conversation. These boots of mine, they are getting bigger with every passing moment, and I already feel small in such a formidable shadow as Ooze’s. “I admit I… didn’t know why I was being called here, or what the tasks Tubatron may have put before me. I’m sorry if I seem, well… I… this is all very new to me.”

“Indeed, I have had years to adjust to Tubaton’s will,” Ooze says, taking things in stride, as it seems he always does, “I’m afraid we’re affording you a little less time.”

This is true, but Tubatron has yet to entrust me with a task in which he did not believe I could succeed, and if he believes I can do this for him, then I can. I just have to figure out how.

Our gods never give us a manual, but they do give us hope. My own words to Loin echo in my head, that moment, that floating, agonizing moment of despair, dancing on the line between life and death… I didn’t think I would live, I didn’t dream I could free Aisylynn’s soul, but Tubatron told me I could, and I did. If he says I can do this, then I can, and I will.

“Well, he’s never lead me astray so far.”

“No, the music will never betray you,” Ooze says, as though it is the only thing he believes that of, and I want to object, but combing through my thoughts for that which I have never doubted… There is only music, and Alix.

“And… it’s probably one of the only things,” I conclude with a soft sigh, to which Ooze nods.

“But, I will share with you my progress if you share with me yours, and you may ask me for help, should you need anything,” he pauses for a moment, regarding me more critically than I think he ever has thusfar. “We must lead the church together… although, I confess, I’m not quite sure how.”

I’m not sure whether he studied me so hard just now because he doesn’t know how to lead with me, or because he just doesn’t know how we are going to lead, but either way, this doesn’t seem like the time or place to step on toes. I’ve never been a leader before, so whatever path Ooze has carved out of this mess of a city, I feel it is best to follow.

“Well… how have you been going about it so far?”

“We…. Play music, and… shout about Tubatron,” Ooze says, his voice suddenly a bit sheepish, “to be honest, I thought this might be, well, your area of expertise, as you are the high priestess. I understand music, I teach at the conservatory, I lead our people in that, but I’m not quite… sure what it means to be a church.”

Oh… Oh, good… So I’m in charge of our structure? I’m like the least structured person I know! I glance at Alix, whose expression is pointedly reserved, but I get the impression he agrees with my sentiment.

“I handed out pamphlets for awhile, and people started coming,” Ooze continues, sounding less sure and more exasperated with each sentence. “But then they started asking all these questions, and they are starting to want more than that. More than just music.”

“Well… I have… some experience, from… some pretty reliable priests in my life,” I offer – if Agorran was not an example to lead by, I don’t know who was. “And I’m sure we’ll figure it out.”

“Some people have expressed interest in becoming priests of Tubatron,” Ooze adds, “but I did not know what to do with them, or how to lead them in such an endeavor.”

“Oh, how many?” I know about as much about being a church as Ooze does, but it seems like a good wager that more than one priest was needed, or at least preferred. Ooze looks a bit grim as he responds.

“Not many.”

“Well… we may be few, but we are mighty.” I proclaim, placing my hands on my hips in the most determined posture I can muster. Ooze picks up his tuba, playing another astonishing, passionate blast of music before bringing it crashing down onto his table, which collapses beneath the force as though it were hollow, and not a solid table of wood and stone.

“WE ARE MIGHTY INDEED!”

He roars the happily agreement as though it were a battle cry, and as he turns back to me, a boisterous grin once again splitting his features, I hope he didn’t seem me jump.

“Ah, I’m so glad you are here, Cheshire!” He reiterates, and I smile back at him. Ooze means no harm, but his loud, sudden movements and general over-the-top exuberance leaves me a bit jittery. I was so used to being the loudest, most spontaneous person I knew… I wonder if this is how Alix always feels around me.

Yes.

I glance at Alix as his answer cuts very distinctly into my thoughts, and make the symbol of a heart sheepishly with my hands.

Ehe… I love you?

He sighs.

“Well then,” Ooze concludes, “let us be about our business, unless you have more questions?”

“Um… what about.. concerns?” I look back at Ooze, my stomach churning with a new onslaught of nerves. Ooze looks at me curiously, and I swallow hard, pushing down the creeping sensation of dread that crawls up my diaphragm with the notes of a harpsichord.

“I-I… I feel I may have brought… an enemy with me,” I begin, drawing my hands in close to my chest. “Somehow, somewhere, he’s always shadowing my footsteps. I don’t know when, and I don’t know how, but…
He will come for me.”

“Who is this enemy?” Ooze demands, his brow knitting in anger – which I hope is not at me.

“Dovev Ichtaca?” I answer, the meekest I think I’ve spoken in a little over a year.

“THEN WE SHALL SHOW HIM THE FURY OF OUR GOD LORD TERRIBLE!” Ooze shouts, his eyes flashing with war and fury as he lifts his tuba from the ground, once more blasting a series of powerful notes. The melodious battlecry shakes the floor and shatters the windows, and nearly knocks me from my feet, but Alix’s reflexes what they are, he steadies me easily. When he lowers it, I look around at the mayhem of his room, my chest swelling with inspiration and the camaraderie of my family, and my brothers in faith.

Show him we shall. I conclude – Dovev is getting stronger, I’m certain, every day. But so am I, so are we, and this time he will not be laying siege to an unsuspecting city on his home turf. This time it will be a fair fight, with my family, my god, and my faith by my side – this time will be his swan song.

Declan pokes his head into the room, eyes wide, likely summoned by the thunderous sound of Ooze’s outcry and the shattering glass.

“Is everything alright?” He asks, and Ooze, I think still a bit swept up in the moment, throws his back and lets out a brutal battle roar, the muscles of his throat straining against his collar with the outburst. Declan looks from him, to me, and all I can do is shrug sheepishly, and he sighs.

“I’ll call for the contractors…” He says, shutting the door as he leaves, though it rattles on it’s frame.

Ooze calms himself, picking back up his tuba as though he hadn’t just wreaked havoc on his living quarters, and looks back at me pleasantly.

“Um, any… advice you might have for me?” I ask, deciding it was best for the infrastructure of the temple if we move on to a less… aggressive subject. “While I’m here in Sigil? Things or people to look out for?”

Although if demons are just running about willy-nilly and he didn’t seem to think that was worth warning me about, I doubt anything would shake him.

“Well, different factions are always trying to get one up over on the others. We have a lot of sensates in our midst, and they don’t actually make the best bards,” Ooze muses, “they’re not all about the music.”

“What are sensates?” I ask, and he looks me over for a moment, the briefest grimace crossing his features.

“Watch out for them,” he warns, “they will want to possess you.”

I stiffen at the words, and feel Alix do the same, and I can’t help the doubtful frown that comes to my features – there were many of these creatures in our ranks? I suppose it takes all types, music is no more exclusive to humanity than to merfolk, celestials, or… Well, me’s.

“Alright… What do they look like?”

“Oh, they’re just people. Anyone,” Ooze says, and my worry grows. If they’re just anyone, just any person, how could I possibly know who to look out for? “Sensates are just people who are always looking for new experiences or sensations, thus the name. They used to come in all the time and listen to our music, and they kept demanding it change, and Syephos, my elf friend… they always creeped him out, because they wanted to touch his ears.”

My hands drift protectively to my pointed ears, and Ooze shakes his head.

“They’re a little weird, but they’re mostly harmless,” he assures me, though it seems to go against his earlier warning. The last few people or beings who wanted to possess me were not what I would call harmless.

“You said we have many of them in our numbers?” I ask, and he nods.

“About a third of us are sensates,” he says, which brings up my next question.

“Ooze, how many of us are there?”

“Oh, around three hundred I’d say. That was about the limit of my evangelizing efforts, I think once the church is set up proper we’ll have more, oh, and that reminds me, you also might consider setting up churches in the places you go, you know, across the planes.”

“Ah… well, for that I suppose I need more priests,” I muse aloud, and Ooze nods.

“This is true,” he confirms, “and we have much to do, so let us be on our way.”

I nod, and am about half way to the door when Alix stops me.

Didn’t Nerida want you to ask him about the Blood War?

Oh right!

“Ooze?” I pause and turn back around, and he looks at me curiously.

“Yes?”

“What can you tell me about the blood war?”

“Well, what do you want to know?”

“Well, Nerida had a dream about someone we are looking for, and she’s trapped there, and I suppose we must pursue her, and any information you might have that could help us would be much appreciated.. And could save lives. Like maybe, where is it, and how do you get there?”

“Well, in the lower ward, there are many portals that will take you to any of the lower planes, which is why it’s called the lower ward, plus it smells awful from all the sulfur. But the Blood War, to put it briefly, is this age old
conflict between the Ta’nari and the Baatezu, or demons and devils, and it spans all the lower planes.”

Ooze outlines what sounds like a very complicated conflict to the best of his ability, and I take away that some demons, Ta’nari, are vicious and unpredictable, and others, Baatezu, are just as evil, but in some sick, calculated way. They war over territory, mortal souls, who eats the last muffin for all it seems to matter, and no celestials or gods get involved because apparently, there are so very many of these monsters, that if they ever stopped killing each other, they would over run the entire multiverse.

Stopping to consider these facts as what they are, facts, is nothing short of horrifying, and with every second that ticks by, I believe less and less there will be a Selene to save when we reach the Abyss, nonetheless that we will be able to.

“And people who don’t watch themselves… well, they often get absconded with, or snatched up and carried off to the blood war,” Ooze concludes, which is I suppose his theory on what happened to our Selene.

“I see…” I mumble, trying to wrap my mind around such a horrifying fate, but none too tightly, lest it become stuck on it. “Speaking of watching ourselves, when we arrived, Declan warned us against making waves. Um… is there any definition to those parameters?”

“Well, no, just… try not to do anything to upset The Lady, or you may get mazed, or shredded to ribbons, depending on the level of your transgression.”

“Um, where might… breaking up a ring of criminals that are abusing children fall on that scale? Do you think The Lady might be terribly upset if my friends and I were to do such a thing?”

“Probably not,” Ooze muses, “unless it destabilizes the peace. So I suppose it depends if you just stop that arm of their criminal organization, or if you cut it out entirely and it becomes a power vacuum. If war starts amongst the criminal underground, then she might be upset with you. Now, if you were to establish something in its place, or, took over the reins, persay, then she would likely have no problem.”

“B-But… that would be awful!” I object – putting more crime into the city? How could that be preferable to ending it?

Ooze shrugs.

“Balance is supreme in Sigil,” he says, a strange hint of menace glimmering in his eyes that I hadn’t noticed before. “No light without the dark, Cheshire. No good without the evil.”

“…Where do you fall in that?” I ask, regarding him with a new caution, and he smiles.

“I live to serve Lord Tubatron, Cheshire. Whatever is required of me.”

Point taken.

“I… see.”

Ooze turns his attention from me, and picks his tuba back up, so I excuse myself and Alix, and head back down the hall, my mind buzzing.

I have so much work to do.

~

By the time the others return with the babies, my breasts are heavy and sore, and Seren begins to wail as soon as he sees me – although he appeared perfectly content before. I go to take him from Ulkair’s arms, but stop in my tracks as I watch one of Ulkair’s arcane discs pass through the door into the main hall, carrying an unconscious Loin.

“What happened?” I urge, and Nerida looks at me, grimacing, and then around at Ulkair and Mimi.

“Guys…?” I look between them all, their faces guilty, uncharacteristically hesitant, and finally Mimi speaks.

“Loin had to battle himself,” she answers, leaving me only more confused. I knit my eyebrows and stare at her, hoping someone will elaborate.

“But he won, and the dragon woke up,” she continues – I’m still not sure I am even beginning to understand what happened, but it seemed like good news that the bronze dragon had awoken, at least. The bronze must have worked.

“He woke up and healed Loin, and it turns out he’s a priest of Eadro, but after that he collapsed back onto his hoard,” Nerida clarifies.

“Oh… But… what do you mean Loin fought himself?” I look back at Loin, studying him, bloodied, unconscious, clutching… That accordion!

“It’s hard to explain,” Nerida says, “but he seems… better now.”

I frown at her, and then the rest of them, and reach out for the accordion in Loin’s arms – I don’t know what happened, but I know what he told me last night. This… other self that taunts him, that he struggles against, this… ghoulish Loinnir, and his memories of Dovev’s music. It couldn’t be unrelated to this situation, and further it couldn’t be unrelated to this damned instrument. He never should have played it! As I draw closer, Loin lets out a deep, aggressive growl and curls closer around the accordion. I have to get it away from him! I can’t guess the nature of his illness, and I hadn’t the chance to speak to Ulkair yet, but I know this has made it worse.

“You can’t take it from him, he’ll attack you,” Mimi says, and I shoot her a glare, lowering my hand.

“And you’re sure what Loin fought was himself ?”

“It looked just like him,” Nerida says, shrugging.

“Oh, did it?” I turn my hard stare to her – well, if it looked like him, then nothing else could be going on!
“Well good then, because there’s no kind of magic that can make you perceive things differently than they are.”

The statement, however obvious, comes out rather more scathing than I’d meant it, perhaps a consequence of my brush with Nerida this morning, or my rising anxiety, or perhaps both.

“I know Lord Eadro helped him,” Nerida defends.

OH! Well, if Lord Eadro helped him, then that must mean there’s nothing wrong! There’s no possibility of evil still being afoot! Why don’t we just let him keep one of Dovev’s instruments while he’s dangerously unstable!? THAT’S NEVER GONE WRONG FOR US BEFORE!

I feel my lip start to curl into what I fear is a sneer, so I turn away, taking a second to try and calm myself. This isn’t Nerida’s fault, and certainly not Eadro’s, I’ve no reason to be bitter towards either of them. But, clearly no one is going to help me to take this accordion from Loin.

“It really looked like it was just an internal struggle,” Mimi says – still none of them have actually explained what they saw, but in my experience, internal struggles aren’t visible externally. That rather defeats the point of them being internal, in fact, the two are diametrically opposed. I must be staring at Mimi like she is stupid as I try to wrap my mind around her logic, because Nerida interjects again.

“What else do you think it would be, Cheshire?”

What do you think, Nerida!?

I knew she didn’t consider Dovev a serious threat, but it’s either him, or his influence on Loin’s building madness, and with so much obvious evidence, that she would still deny it is only slightly more infuriating than it is worrisome. I shake my head, stomping back toward Loin again and place my hands on the accordion, a shiver of horror running through my soul as I break my vow to never touch one again. Clutching the cold metal sides, I pull on the instrument, and Loin reaches up, shoving me to the ground with ease, and tightening his grip. I push myself up, tears welling in my eyes as I watch him curl around the instrument, and reach for it again, only to have him lash out at me once more.

“What’s going on here?” Ooze’s voice meets my ears just as I hit the ground once more with a pained squeak, and I scramble to my feet.

“My friend, Loin, he apparently found this accordion somewhere here, and yesterday told me that when he played it, he remembered Dovev’s music and was upset, but now for some reason he seems very attached to it!” I hurriedly explain, gesturing to the accordion, and Loin’s vice-like grip around it, “and apparently it manifested some evil version of him to fight while they were in the elemental plane of water! This, reasonably seems untrustworthy to me, but apparently only to me, and I can’t get it away from him!”

“Hmm,” Ooze nods, looking at Loin thoughtfully, “what do you want to do with it?”

“Well, destroy it,” I insist.

“It’s still an instrument of Lord Tubatron’s will,” Ooze objects.

BUT IT’S A CURSED ONE! I scream mentally, feeling my face flush with unexpressed fury and panic.

“Oh-kay, fine, we’ll put it in a box, and lock the box, and… dump it in the elemental plane of water,” I know damned well this is not a compromise, and so does Ooze.

“If he wishes to play an instrument, should we not encourage him?” He reasons, and I stare at him, my head so tense it might explode any moment.

“Yes but not this one!

“Hm,” Ooze looks me up and down, clenched fists to tearing eyes, and looks back at the accordion, “let me see what I can do.”

He approaches Loin, placing his hands on the accordion, and after a brief struggle, turns to look back at me.
“He’s a strong one, isn’t he?” He muses.

“YES!” The exclamation is rather more desperate than I meant it to be, but Ooze puts his lips to his tuba, playing a brief blast of what I can only describe as strong tuba music, and I feel a burst of arcana rise from him and his instrument. He reaches down, takes the accordion in his hands, and this time manages to rend it from Loin’s grasp. I watch, fighting the clawing dread as Ooze begins to play the accordion, drumming up a marching tune, which is at least a far cry from the twisted, creeping music of the Ichtaca.

“The music in this accordion is… exceptionally strong,” His brow knits as he presses out each note with what seems like much too much effort, and I feel him begin to draw on the holy power of Tubatron. Something he would not need if there weren’t an ancient, powerful evil to be purged from that instrument. The music becomes strange, strained and warped for a moment, but Tubatron’s energy pours into the accordion, and then Ooze begins to play a new tune, one reminiscent of the song Tubatron taught me to play for Loin. Whatever presence was dwelling in that instrument, it has been purged, but it was still there.

Ooze sets the accordion back in Loin’s arms, and Nerida immediately begins questioning him about the lower planes – despite my telling her I would do so. Why do none of them care? Why do they all think this is fine, and they should just… go about their days!? Trembling, tears burning the corners of my eyes, I snatch the boys from Ulkair and Nerida, and hurry back to my room. Slamming the door behind me, I remain only just mindful enough of the fragile lives I carry to not throw myself onto my bed, but by the time I have carefully curled up with the boys, my weeping shakes my frame.

Seren fusses incessantly, and Rhapsody begins as well, though whether it is from hunger, a sense of my hysteria, or a reaction to his brother’s cries, I can’t be sure. I sniffle, adjusting to allow Seren to nurse, which soothes him immediately, and gently lay my hand on Rhapsody to try and soothe him.

Cheshire…

Yes Alix?

You know we’re going to protect them. Whatever it takes.

He says, and I draw in a trembling breath and nod, though it occurs to me he can’t see it.

Whatever it takes.

“When the clouds will rage
And storms will race in
Know you will be
Safe in my arms
Rains will pour down… waves will crash around…” A hard sob breaks my song, and I pull Seren and Rhapsody in tighter, a gesture that the nursing merbaby likely doesn’t appreciate.

Loin you… idiot! What have you done?!

A hand on my shoulder pulls my attention, and I look up, expecting Alix, and find Ulkair standing by my side. He sits next to me, causing us to sink further into our makeshift bed, and wraps his arms around me and the babies.

“He didn’t get you before, and we won’t let him have you now,” he says, resting his chin on my head.

“I… I know,” I whisper, turning my head to lean on his shoulder, “I believe you. I believe we can win, but… What is that victory going to cost us?”

I look back down at Seren and Rhapsody, biting my lip – the crossfire of these battles, they’re the ones who are in danger of getting hurt. What happens to them if Dovev shows up on our doorstep? What happens to them if I don’t come back from the Abyss?

“It’s not just about me,” I mumble, as if I didn’t know he knew, “…I can’t let anything happen to them. Not because of my mistakes.”

Ever again.

“Indeed, we have more to protect than ourselves. These little ones…they need us. Which is why we need to make a safe place for them, and soon. Tubatron’s faithful try, but this place is not…secure, which is probably why he wants to find his own domain so badly.”

“Which he’s tasked me with,” I mumble, sniffling as the last of my tears run dry, “but I know nothing about the planes… I know you aren’t on the best terms with the gods, but… will you help me?”

“Anything for you, my love. It’s the faithful I believe in, and them I’ll help.”

I lean up to place a kiss on Ulkair’s cheek and smile.

“Thank you, I knew I could count on you… and the sooner we’re out of this city, the better, I think… I miss the sun,” I puff out a sigh, “and Sigil seems to dredge up a lot of bad memories for a place I’ve never been before.”
Ulkair nods, humming thoughtfully, “indeed, the balance of good and evil here is…disconcerting.”

“Ooze claims it’s perfectly even, that balance is everything here but… I think those kids will beg to differ,” I frown, knitting my brow as I mull over yet another daunting task, and another life that will be lost should we fail to return from the Abyss. Rolfe is counting on us, stranded in the elemental plane of water – and who knows how many more needed our help, and what kind of disaster we’d be jumping into by trying to assist them.

“We have no idea what we’re walking into, taking on this… organization, whoever they are, and apparently they’re not the only thing we have to worry about. Ooze says that eliminating them may anger The Lady, because it could start a power struggle in the underground – I don’t… know what to think about that, but either way, we need to make them a priority when we return from the Abyss. There has to be something we can do.”

My stomach twists with a guilty rage at the thought of leaving, knowing I was leaving innocent kids in the hands of those who would extort them, but.. what choice did we have? Lives were at stake in the Abyss, too – Nerida’s and Selene’s, at the very least. Street kids are resilient, if nothing else, I know from bitter experience the amount of desperation that can be heaped on one’s back before you collapse… My shoulders tense with the weight of my old life, and I set my jaw, furious tears burning the corners of my eyes. Angering The Lady is the last thing I want to do, but I can’t stand idly by.

Cuddling me closer, Ulkair kisses the top of my head as he watches Rhapsody and Seren.

“No, I don’t think I could stop you or Nerida if I even wanted to. We’ll help these children, and deal with the consequences, whatever they may be.”

“I can’t think of anyone I’d rather be imprisoned forever in a maze with,” I snuggle against Ulkair, grinning a little, “you’re my favorite partner in crime, you know. And in all fairness to you, my love, it’s not exactly… possible to stop Nerida, from doing anything.”

“Especially when it’s protecting her family.”

“Indeed,” I sigh again, and speak of the devil, Nerida enters our room.

“Ah, did you find out what you needed to know?” Ulkair asks, lifting his head to look at her as she comes to stand by us. “Will we be scrying in the morning, or do we have another plan?”

“Scrying seems like a bad plan,” Nerida mumbles hesitantly, but her tone suggests she doesn’t have another one.

“It does seem like the easy way,” Ulkair offers, “which is rarely the best way.”

“Ooze spoke of an amulet that you can attune to someone?” Nerida asks, and as Ulkair pauses, I can see the gears turning in his head.

“Well, I don’t know much about that,” he says finally, and Nerida sighs.

“Neither did he.”

“We could go to the Abyss, and attempt local divinations,” Ulkair muses, “but we could be on the wildly wrong end of the plane, or not on the right plane at all, which would render them useless.”

“How many planes is this Blood War on?” Nerida urges, looked despondent, and Ulkair shrugs his shoulders upward.

“From my understanding it spans all the lower planes,” he says, confirming what Ooze had told me earlier. I suppose I hadn’t gotten the chance to relay that information to Nerida yet, though it looks as though she’d taken the opportunity to question him anyway.

“Oh…” Nerida mumbles, “well, maybe it would be best to scry, then. If we’re going to make waves, perhaps doing it as quickly and efficiently as possible is best.”

“That’s true,” Ulkair muses, “if we were prepared to leave as soon as we finished scrying, it would give them the least amount of time to prepare.”

They go back and forth about the particulars, debating and preparing magics much over my head while I finish nursing and caring for the boys, but it seems the consensus is that we will be leaving early tomorrow, as soon as they have completed their spell.

Alix?

I heard.

I sigh, trying to settle my nerves, and wiggle Rhapsody into his sling when he is finished nursing. Ulkair and Nerida are still absorbed in their spell preparation, so I take the babies out to find Alix, and discuss our own potential plans. I know Alix has little in way of fear, but anything we could do to diminish the risk, to ensure our safe return and Seren and Rhapsody’s safe stay, we should. I meet Alix in the hall, and it occurs to me that of all the preparations we could make, some new armor seemed in order. That demon we faced in Elysia tore through my chain corset like it was a thin silk, I doubted Alix’s leather would hold up much better, and something told me dragon scales would be more efficient than chain link.

“Alix, before we go, I was thinking… I bet there is a lot of great smiths and leather workers in Sigil,” I begin, shifting Seren to his arms as we walk, “maybe we should better armor ourselves before we journey to the Abyss… In Elysia, what we’re wearing now didn’t seem to give that demon even an ounce of pause, I doubt the ones we encounter tomorrow will be any less…. E-efficient.”

I stumble on my final word, struggling to find one appropriate, and to not waver in conveying it. Alix nods, putting an arm around my shoulders – I can feel he is proud of my ever growing pragmatism, and maybe also my first successful use of the word ‘demon’ without losing my mind. I wonder if he realizes that he is that pragmatism, that bravery and wisdom, that when I panic, I ask myself not what I should do, but what Alix would. Ooze and Alix’s words rattle back into my head – the possibility of my very, very long life, the possibility of living it.. without Alix. I bite my lip and try to shake the thoughts away. This isn’t the time or the place, and what would our potential lifespans matter if we were annihilated by demons in the Abyss?

Just… focus on the enemy in front of you. I remind myself. One crisis at a time.

I find Declan to inquire about where I might buy and sell goods, and he gracefully offers to accompany us, certain that we’ll stick out as “clueless”, and be taken advantage of. I am glad to have him, of course, and in the end, it turns out we needed him. I trade pretty well every ounce of treasure I own at a curio shop for some enchanted armor for Alix, and suspect I’d have come quite short of what I needed had Declan not been haggling on my behalf. After all, the last time I tried to bicker with a shop owner, well… Those were times I think it best not to consider.

Nerida and Ulkair eventually catch up to us for some shopping of their own, and I don’t end up finding anything I’d rather have than what I already do, but Declan comments that plenty of smiths could turn all the dragon scales I collected into something magnificent. For now, I’m satisfied to know that Alix will be a bit safer, and he seems pleased with the magical shadow that shrouds him as he straps on the new armor.

~

Our day a somewhat success, we follow Declan back to the music hall for, at least what I plan, some much needed rest. My nap though, it seems, was not meant to be, as Mimi meets me in the hall.

“Hey, Cheshire, I was going to ask Tubatron for my Holy Avenger back before we leave for the Abyss,” she says, “I was wondering if you would pray with me?”

Well, perhaps this wouldn’t take too long – Tubatron did say she would get it back if she joined the faithful, and now is as good a time as any.

“Sure, Mimi,” I nod, passing Rhapsody to Ulkair, and Seren to Alix so I had free hands to play Ragnarok. “How were you planning to pray?”

I have seen Mim’s variety of prayer, so reserved and silent, and I feel that should this be her continued intention, it is my duty as Tubatron’s high priest to teach her better.

“I was thinking of dancing,” Mimi answers, “and I was hoping you would join me, and maybe play for us?”

“Alright,” I nod, retrieving Ragnarok from my back, “where would you like to pray?”

“Well… I don’t know,” Mimi shrugs a bit, and looks around. “The halls are pretty big, and empty right now, I guess we can dance in here?”

I get the impression that it wouldn’t bother anyone here wherever we dance, and the halls do seem spacious enough to handle whatever dance Mimi might have in mind. It’s not the rooftops, or the biggest window seat in the hall, but it would certainly do.

“Alright, what do you want me to play?” I ask, and Mimi looks at me, confused.

“I… I don’t know, does it matter? It’s kind of urgent.”

“Well, if it’s urgent …” I can’t help the devious grin that spreads across my face as I take Mimi’s hand and lead her to an open space in the hall, then begin strumming a low tune.

“You’re not shy, you get around
You wanna fly, don’t want your feet on the ground
You stay up, you won’t come down
You wanna live, you wanna move to the sound
Got fire in your veins, burning hot
But you don’t feel a thing, your desire is insane
You can’t stop until you do it again…”

I begin to sway with the rhythm, immediately falling into the heat of the song as I had in the elemental plane of water. Something about every word, every note of this song, so quickly enraptures me as I play it, Mimi moves closer, her hands tracing my shoulders, and down my back to my hips, and I twist toward her grasp, pressing against her.

“…You say it’s urgent, so urgent,
So oh oh urgent, just wait and see,
How urgent our love can be…”

The celestial’s hands trace my body, her breath playing at the back of my neck to the uproarious approval of the crowd we’ve quickly gathered. In a clap of tuba music, her scythe materializes in her hand, brassy, elegant, and people around us cheer as she twirls it, and I shred out the notes of my song in praise to our god lord terrible.

“…I know what I need, and I need it fast
Yeah there’s one thing in common that we both share
There’s a need for each other, anytime, anywhere
It gets urgent, so urgent,
You know it’s urgent, I wanna tell you
It’s the same for me…”

I feel the cold metal of Mimi’s scythe brace around me as she presses the shaft against me, using the polearm to draw me in close, earning her a breathy gasp as our bodies collide. She slides herself down the pole, and my body, and I hear the excited wail of Declan’s violin as he begins to play. Swept up in our performance, he moves to dance next to us as Mimi drags her hands up my thighs and hips, and I rock back against her, tossing my hair as I belt out the words after Declan’s solo.

“Urgent, urgent, emergency,
Urgent, urgent, emergency,
It’s so urgent!

My voice hits an unexpected high as Mimi’s hand trails an electric path down my spine and she pulls away, planting her scythe on the floor and swinging herself around it, and down to the ground. I stand, panting, looking at the crowd of faithful that have gathered in the hall to cheer for us, my face flushed, my blood rushing, before familiar arms pull me in close, and my lips are stolen away in Nerida’s kiss. She grasps my arms, pulling me up to meet her, and my feet hover ineffectively over the ground as I surrender to her amorous touches. No sooner have I been planted back on the floor, my head spinning with adrenaline and lust, does Ulkair pull me into his arms, trailing kisses and playful bites from my lips to my collar, and I let out a helpless moan as Nerida presses against my back. She bends to kiss the back of my neck, her warm lips brushing the cool scales that mark me as allied with Eadro, and I shudder, melting into their grasp before each of them takes one of my hands and hurry from the hall to the privacy of our bedroom.

~

Day Seven

My night is fitful at best, my worry keeping me awake longer than it should each time I wake to nurse a baby. I pace the halls, gently rocking Rhapsody after I’ve fed him, another tear slipping from my eyes with each passing thought. I torture myself with what ifs, something I know better than to do, but each time I look at the innocent faces of my infant sons, another pang of paranoia and guilt rends through me. I can’t send my family off to fight without me, I wouldn’t, but… that meant leaving the littlest, most helpless members of that family behind, and a stronger part of me than I knew existed screams in objection.

I’ve never known a feeling so ferocious and demanding as the one that burns in my heart when I hold them, I’ve never been so beholden to something as I am to these boys. This animal instinct pulls at me, demanding I don’t go, and it’s overpowering. I know what I have to do, I know there isn’t another choice, I know that this love of mine would not comfort me if someone didn’t make it back from the Abyss because I wasn’t there to help them, but it doesn’t ease the insistence.

“Of course not,” I mumble bitterly, “when have I ever been logical enough to control my own emotions?”
What would Alix say? I lean on the window at which I’d prayed yesterday, watching Rhapsody’s tiny features stretch with what must be the most heartbreaking yawn I’ve ever seen.

“Your grandpa would tell me to get my butt back in bed and rest for the coming battle,” I muse, wrapping my hand around both of his.

“Well, you aren’t entirely wrong.”

I don’t know if it was my pacing or my thoughts that woke him, but I nearly jump from my own skin when Alix’s voice greets me from the shadows. I turn an expression I imagine is a strange mixture of pleading and glaring toward him.

“Alix!” I hiss, “don’t ambush me! I’m not a monster, you don’t have to sneak up on me!”

“I wasn’t actually trying to hide, Cheshire,” he points out, and I slump in despair against the windowsill.

“Of course you weren’t…” I mumble, turning my exhausted stare back to my father, “well… it’s a good thing I have you, then.. Obviously observation isn’t my strong suit.”

“No, but this is,” he makes a small gesture at the hall around us, and then takes my hand, still holding onto Rhapsody’s, in his. “And so is this.

I smile a little, the warmth of Alix’s pride always reassuring – at least one of us was confident I was a good mother.

“Yeah, but this makes it much harder to leave,” I whisper, and he meets my doubting glance with a hard stare.

“And it makes it that much harder for your enemies to destroy you,” he says, his eyes burning with a familiar, battle born intensity as he closes my hand in a tight grasp. “You’re right, Cheshire, the stakes are higher, being a parent changes things, but that same part of you that keeps you up at night with worry also makes you more than you were, and gives you the strength to rise to the occasion.”

“Alix…” I lean my head on him, biting my lip, and he puts an arm around me, and leaves what he’d said to hang in the air. I hope I am as suited to the task as he believes I am.

~

When Nerida and Ulkair are ready, we take Seren and Rhapsody to Marian. I try to maintain my composure as I pray over them, and she offers me a tiny hind in comfort.

“I’ll take good care of your babies,” she whispers, and I crunch her in a hug I fear is a bit too tight.

“Thank you,” I sniffle, wiping my eyes as I release her, “we’ll be back as soon as we can.”

Nerida puts an arm around me, guiding me away, and I feel my heart rending with every step as we head to the Lower Ward. True to what Declan said, the place reeks, the air is hot, and heavy with the scent of sulfur. I feel my muscles tense as we approach and grasp Alix’s arm, constantly checking our surroundings for infernals – as if it would somehow benefit me. I am certain if they are to be seen waltzing about the other parts of Sigil, then a place like this is crawling with them, and we were about to enter the infinite layers of the Abyss, their home.

Ulkair stares at the small silver mirror in his hands for a long while, studying it intently as he casts his divination spells, and then leads us as quickly as he can to, and through a portal into the lower planes. As the world reels around us, I feel a familiar pull, a drag against the magic that carries us from one plane to the next – very much like that which snatched Ulkair and I from his teleport, and into the clutches of Typhon. I cling tighter to Alix, trying to lay eyes on each of my companions, when we come tumbling to the hard ground.

Immediately heat washes over us, the air suffocating and sticky, Alix helps me up, and I stare out into the harsh wasteland. The ground beneath us is dirt, perhaps, or ash, hard as stone, crackling in jagged burned patterns and rocky crags as far as my eyes can see, and the stench… I cough back a gag as it hits me, the hot, rotten odor of sulfur.

“Well that was strange,” Ulkair murmurs, “but teleportation magics are strange in the Abyss, it’s very chaotic, and many of its denizens teleport.”

I’m not sure why that would have felt like someone was trying to grab us from the portal, or how it would have affected us, but I suppose we could have been crossing someone else’s teleport, or something. Perhaps it was the Abyss itself that tried to interfere, to prevent us from entering? I doubt there’s any way to know, and if there was, Ulkair would have figured it out, not me. Nerida raises her hand, and the holy energy of Eadro spills over us, melting away the unbearable heat of the Abyss for a moment. The spell is like diving into a clean, crisp river in the middle of a desert, and it forms a cool barrier between us and the infernal plane, leaving it not quite as insufferable as it was before.

“Do you think anyone knows we’re here?” Nerida asks, and Ulkair grimaces.

“That interference makes it seem like they might,” he admits, “we hid our scrying well, but they were expecting us. Anyway, the less time we dally the better, I think it’s this way.”

He looks down at the silver mirror, squinting at his divined map, and between his magic and Alix’s sense of direction, the two lead us down what seems, to me at least, to be an indiscernible path through the ashen plane. We scramble our way through the jagged, hilly cliffsides, my boots occasionally betraying my footing and slipping on the desiccated earth as bits crumble away down the rocky ridges. Eventually we round the corner of a large stone formation, and I bump straight into Alix, who’s stopped dead in his tracks.

“Sor–” I begin, cut short by my breath hitching in my chest as I raise my gaze.

A large demon stands not far from us, his features a terrible amalgamation of creatures everywhere from man to boar, one cloven hoof firmly planted on the ground, and the other resting atop a familiar, bound figure.

Ulkair!? No! But… how!?

I look back at my lover, still standing by Alix, now exchanging confused glances with him, Nerida, and the rest of the party, and then double take at the person on the ground. He stares at me with desperate golden eyes, writhing in his bindings as if to warn us – that pull we felt in the teleport… could this demon have… stolen Ulkair and replaced him with a shapeshifter?

“Try to do anything, try to cast a spell, and I crush him,” the demon announces, raising his massive fist over the bound Ulkair, and I stiffen, afraid to let even go the breath I’d been holding.

“Wait! What do you want?” Nerida demands, and the monstrosity smirks, though its strange animal features do not lend well to the expression.

“What I want from you is very simple; I just want the souls of the people you’re about to go fight. Capture their souls and give them to me and I won’t kill this person right here.”

“Nerida, come on, that’s not me,” the Ulkair leading us protests, watching his bound mirror image with scrutiny.

I look at Nerida hopefully – her link with Ulkair was even stronger than mine with Alix, surely she would know. She stares at the Ulkair by the demon, and then back at ours, searching his features, his eyes, and then nods.

“You’re right,” she concludes.

“Well, looks like the jig is up,” the bound Ulkair concludes.

Standing, the ropes fall from around him, and he morphs into a woman with dark hair, leathery red wings and claws. She disappears, leaving the air around her warped with the force of her arcana, and reappears in front of Nerida, grasping Anduin. Nerida’s face contorts in anger, and she pulls back, but the demoness again teleports, this time with Eadro’s sacred artifact in tow. I stare, horrified, at Nerida, whose features are etched with disbelief, before the demoness reappears, accompanied by the sound of splattering blood on the ground.

Nerida smirks and lifts her hand, and I look up to see Anduin rend itself from the demon’s body, and fly back to Nerida’s waiting grasp.

The air hangs heavy for a moment as the demoness’ body crumples to the ground, dousing the cracked earth in blood, and Nerida turns a murderous stare to her partner. I can feel the rage emanating from her – how dare they try to steal Anduin, impersonate Ulkair, manipulate us, I knew all too well the fury that would be coursing through her, and I pray it will be enough to see us through this battle as I reach for Ragnarok. In an instant, the tense stillness is gone, and the storm of battle rages. Loin is the first into the fray, followed by Caspian, whose form melts away into that of huge reptile, almost like a wingless dragon. She throws herself at the animalistic demon, shredding huge claws and teeth into its flesh.

The demon sneers in pain and lifts his hand, and next to him materializes another, horribly familiar figure, the four armed beast that strides through my worst nightmares – the Glabrezu. I feel my breath hitch in my chest and the battle cries of my companions, the clashing of weapons, the echoes of war on a desolate plain all quiet, muted by the ringing in my ears as I stare at this new foe, paralyzed. My mind screams to flee, but I dig my heels in, forcing my fingers, paled from the force of their grip on Ragnarok, to his strings.

“Fear not this night,” I struggle out the first words, anything but true, and begin to play, focusing my magic on the notes.

“You will not go astray
Though 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 a solitude of the night
Darkness spreads throughout the land
And your weary eyes open silently
Sunsets have forsaken all
The most far off horizons…”

Alix moves from beside me toward our enemies, unleashing one greatsword to do battle magically as he draws the other two, and as I struggle to keep track of the movements on the battlefield, a beam of light draws my eyes. My fingers slip haplessly over Ragnarok’s strings as I lift my head to stare into the colorful vortex, like a brilliant, swirling arcane rainbow, demanding my focus, calling me…

“Nightmares… come when shadows roam…”
I vaguely hear the sound of music, the shatter of bones, the splatter of blood on hard ground, but my mind is consumed in the sea of colors as they explode in a wave over us. Familiar soft cries draw my attention from the lights, the battlefield washing away at the sound of my son’s distressed calling.

Rhapsody? I spin to look for him, now surrounded by the beaten walls of Byss’ arena, but something feels wrong… empty, quiet. I don’t feel the warm light of Byss’ sun, even though it glimmers on my skin, don’t hear the roar of the crowd, the clash of battle. Rhapsody’s cries intensify, and my stomach twists with sudden dread as I search the empty battleground.

“Rhapsody!?”

The crackling of lightning behind me turns my blood cold, freezing me in place as my son’s cries assault my ears, suddenly pained and shrill.

Sinner.

The voice rings through my mind, cutting through the torturous noise only a fraction of a second before the pain hits. It tears through me, burning, screaming across my veins, I try to change, to direct it away from Rhapsody, I-I have to protect him! But the current spreads, arcing through my muscles, seizing me as cold horror wraps my mind in the reality of my grievous fault, and blackness consumes my vision.

Guilty.

My heart seizes, beating a thousand times faster than it should, but struggling to push my blood through my veins. Everything hurts, everything is so cold, so quiet. The silence in the air is horrible, echoing the cruel sounds of lightning and frantic cries around me, and above them, the ever present voice of the judge. Sinner, guilty… repeating, crushing down on me. I clench my fists, pain echoing through every inch of me, and force my eyes open, blurry and unfocused, to try and identify the sounds.

I won’t take any risks, I promise!

That voice, my voice, quoted back at me through the haze – and then Alix’s.

Stay behind us, Cheshire, you can’t risk your child.

I’ll be careful, neither of us will get hurt.

Liar.

I promise.

LIAR.

Rhapsody’s shrieking pierces my senses again, digging into my frantic heart like a thousand daggers, and I force myself up from the ground, my vision swimming, my ears ringing, and crawl toward the sound.

“Rhapsody… I’m so sorry,” I whisper.

Again the sound of electricity crashes around me, again it wracks me with pain, and again I hear the words cutting through me. Liar – Alix’s voice, Ulkair’s, Nerida’s, the chorus of my loved ones echo the judge’s verdict. Guilty. Sinner.

“I’m sorry!” I sob, desperate, and claw my way across the dusty arena ground, my eyes blearily focusing on the figure of my infant son. His cries fade into the hollow silence, and my stomach lurches with desperation as I close the distance between us, he isn’t moving – WHY ISN’T HE MOVING!? Panting, panicked sobs catching my every other breath, I pull him to my chest, praying for the sound of his tiny heartbeat, the impossibly gentle feeling of his chest rising with breath. I lower my gaze in search of signs of life, but my arms are empty, doused in blood that runs, warm and thick down my fingers.

RHAPSODY!?

The air seems to strangle my screams, muting them as the chorus repeats my judgment again and again.

Liar. Guilty. Sinner.

What is this!?

“NO! I didn’t.. I… Stop it!”

LIAR. You prize your pride above your own son! You wear your sins as clearly as the blood of your kin.

The voice demands, and I shake my head, squeezing my eyes shut in desperate disbelief.

No, no! This is a dream, a nightmare! This isn’t real!

Hysteria pounds away in my chest as I try to smear clean the blood from my arms, but it only spreads, pooling around me, soaking the floor, it splashes over me in warm, sickening wave, the scent thick.

Your sister, your people… You will drown in your sin, priestess, for heavy is the mantle of death on your shoulders.

“I’m sorry!” I gasp out the words, spitting my mouth clean of the metallic liquid as another wave crashes over me, and another. The deluge pounds into my back, into my shoulders, beating me, pulling me to the ground as the judge’s mocking voice carries over the repetition. Guilty. Guilty.

HELP ME! PLEASE!

I cough, fighting for each breath as I grasp for anything through the torrent, something, someone, to save me. My hand reaches in blind desperation, and clutches the only arm outstretched to the likes of me. The cold, iron grasp readily accepts my clinging hands, and I raise my eyes to the Ichtaca’s terrible smile.

“Thank you for letting me in,” he says, pulling me in close, “I couldn’t have done it without you.”

“NO! I didn’t, I never wanted…!” I push away from the ghoul’s embrace, and my bare feet slip on soft, wet slick, sending me crashing back to the ground, but it isn’t the hard floor of the arena that greets me. I push myself back, and stare in horror at that which has broken my fall – a priest, no, dozens. The clergymen of Byss.

Remember what I told you! You are better than the madness within you. Alix’s words repeat in my mind as I scramble back, the expanse of bodies endless, muted sobs and the scent of death choking my breath.

But you weren’t, were you? The judge taunts. *You aren’t better than your madness, you aren’t better than anything. You’re weak!*

I’m sorry! I beg, clutching my head as nausea wracks me. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry… please, forgive me!

Pay for your sins!

Again the voice belongs not to one singular judge, but all of those I would call my loved ones – the unfortunate souls that have been affected by me, I feel their accusing stares. The bodies press in around me, impossibly heavy, dragging me down, and I claw against their slick skin in a desperate attempt to save my own. Again warm liquid splashes over me, and I sputter and spit it from my lips to find it is not the metallic taste of blood that stains them, but something different. This was… oil , that the Byssians used on their funeral pyres.

No..!

In desperate horror I struggle against the insurmountable weight, but hands reach from the pile to grasp me, holding me, pushing me, pulling me further in. I open my mouth to scream, and choke on the thick fluid that douses us – I can’t escape, can’t scream or struggle.
I belong here.

“Cheshire! Cheshire get up!”

Plunging through the burning chaos, Alix’s hand clasps my arm, and I gasp, suddenly staring into the hot sky of the Abyss, and my father’s concerned silver eyes.

“A-Alix…” I manage to stumble the name, cold sweat drenching my skin, a sharp contrast to the heated air that berates my senses. My world spins, my head echoes with the screams drown by fire, the accusations, the voices, no, no, we were fighting those demons but… What happened?

“I… I was…” I cling to him as he pulls me to my feet, letting out shaky breaths, but curbing the sob that punches me square in the chest as I look at my hands, free of any burns or blood stains. It was an illusion. It wasn’t real.

“Me, too. It was a demon trick, Cheshire. Don’t let it drag you down. We can’t carry the weight of the dead right now, and you deserve no demon’s guilt.”

“But I…” I swallow hard, clinging to Alix to ground myself in the moment, in the horrors of the Abyss, somehow a blessing compared to whatever I’d just lost myself to. How could I ever begin to tell him, or anyone, what I saw? What I heard and felt? That wasn’t a ‘demon’s guilt’, it… it was mine, he only forced me to look it in the eyes.

The thought of the illusion sends a shudder down my spine, and I look around, counting the heads of all my companions to ensure they are alive and well. Nerida is leaning on Ulkair – she looks shaken in his embrace, and I suspect she fell victim to whatever spell Alix and I just had. The rest look no worse for wear, as though they were not even hurt in our engagement with the demons, but that seems impossible, they must have been healed while I was out, but injured or not, we can afford no rest. We push on as soon as my legs have stopped their trembling, and we have gathered ourselves and our things, following Alix and Ulkair once again until a looming black cathedral stands before us.

Not unlike the temples in my homeland, it stands tall and imposing, but a perverse mirror of the holy statures I was accustomed to. The towering walls were cut of jet black stone, their edges lined with jagged spikes, rather than an inviting filigree. Everything about it from the window-ways, to the pillars, and the way it stands nestled in the rocky patch of wasteland seems twisted, wrong.

“If my divination is correct, they’re in there,” Ulkair concludes, eying the structure suspiciously.

“I suspect they know we are already here,” Nerida adds, and Mimi shrugs.

“Then we don’t have to worry about sneaking around,” she says, “we can just barge in and kill them.”

“I don’t think– ” I barely start to breathe the whispered words before Loin is already charging the front doors, Mimi just behind him.

“Lord of glory, guide us,” I whisper the lyrics of my song as I follow my companions, calling down Tubatron’s blessing on us in the sweet seconds we have before the doors fly open.

Loin is first through the doors, crashing through them with Mimi at his heels, and the rest of us in a steady stream, Nerida in front of Ulkair and myself, Alix just behind me and Caspian at our rear. Loin springs a trap as he enters, and a net of thick white webbing hurls itself in our paths. I dodge the blast, sweeping under it with a grace I never considered that I had, but Ulkair just next to me, and Loin and Mimi, who took the brunt of it, were not so lucky. I stop for only a moment to look at my beloved in the web, but he urges me on, and Alix pulls me with him into partial cover.

“Selene!” Loin calls as he strains against the web that tethers him, and for the first time as I follow his gaze, I get a decent look around our battleground – and our enemies. On either side of the hall are portals, streaming out tiny, wretched winged demons, Selene stands between them, amidst a pool of blood that streams down from an altar – a woman’s body laid upon it, desecrated. Next to the Selene is the man from Nerida’s dream, her captor, and as if they weren’t enough, behind them towers a demon, wreathed in flame and darkness.

My breath hitches in my chest as his voice booms out threats above us, and from behind him slithers a new horror, another demon – a woman, it would seem, with a snake’s tail instead of legs, and six arms, each one brandishing its own sword as she sets her eyes on her prey, Caspian, with a wretched smile. Alix readies his weapons beside me, and I grasp Ragnarok, my heart pounding as I bring my hands to his strings.

“Fight on in foreign fields of mass destruction
Stand as one, no man left behind
Our final victory, tonight awaits us
Slain in darkness behind the lines…”

I run my fingers up and down the neck of my axe, pulling a melody frantic enough to meet the pace of the chaos that descends around us, and pouring my magic forth into each note as our forces converge. Selene and her master leap to either side of Loin, raining down blows on him, and Caspian throws up her hands, summoning a wave of vicious, thorned branches to encase one of the portals before the serpent demon descends on her. It does not stop the out pour of tiny demons from the second one, however, and they dart about, slashing at my companions to impede their charge.

Releasing my grasp on Ragnarok for only a moment, I pull the brass horn from my side and bring it to my lips, letting out a low, magical battle cry. As I’d hoped, before me materializes a handful of hulking armed warriors, awaiting my command, I point them to the small, demonic pests, and they roar and charge eagerly after them.

“…Fly through the storm, power of the steel
Striking with vengeance, force them to kneel
Soldiers unite, force of the world
Fight till the end we will die by the sword
Fight till the end we will die by the sword!”

Amidst the chaos, I hear the continual zipping of Alix’s arrows from beside me, and I feel a rush of Nerida energy as she lifts Eadro’s holy symbol, calling down a pillar of blue-green flame over our enemies. Ulkair lifts his hand, lightning crackling on his fingertips, and pours a jolt of electricity out over them, the lightning tangling with Nerida’s holy flame, and both seeming to evaporate on the horned demon’s skin as they hit. He smirks, lashing out with his whip to grasp Mimi as she charges him without even looking in her direction, his eyes fixated on Nerida with dark amusement.

“What a lovely fire storm, priestess,” he mocks, “now let me show you mine.”

He raises his sword, swirling with unholy energy so intense it turns my stomach, and even with warning, the blast hits too fast and hard to avoid. The profane magic washes us in fire, which knocks me from my feet, leaving heavy red marks as it burns through my clothes and peels away layers of my skin. I scramble to shield my face, and open my mouth to scream in pain as it rips through me, but the heated gasp offers no air, only a rush of burning heat down my throat, and a horrid certainty of death, when I am suddenly pulled from the blaze. Alix braces me against a pillar as the flame roars around us and I desperately try to pull in just one breath air instead of heat and smoke. I look up at him in silent thanks for my life, but his gray eyes meet mine not with relief, or even the intensity of battle, but instead a pain I can’t place in the frantic moments before the flames disperse.

My ears ring with pain and the clashing of weapons, I open my mouth to try and sing, but my scorched throat cannot summon the words as I stumble from behind the pillar and grasp my weapon. Loin sways on his feet, screaming as he smashes his axe into Selene’s captor with all his might, and the monk finally falls in a spray of blood.

“Hm,” the serpent demon muses, looking back at her winged partner, “they’ve killed our toy.”

Their leader simply grins, as though this loss is of no consequence, as Mimi struggles in vain against his burning whip and brutal strength, and Caspian desperately changes her shape to that of her large, wingless dragon to stand a chance against her assailant.

Their toy? As hard as he was to best, as much damage as he’s done, and they don’t even care?

My head spins with the chaos of a losing battle, but I feel Alix’s cold determination cutting through my dismal thoughts as he fires another series of arrows, one snapping the whip that holds Mimi in her place, the others sinking into the serpent demoness’ back. She screams in pain, blood spurting from the wounds, and Caspian uses the opportunity to flee, shrinking to her normal form and lifting her hand to cast a spell as she dances just out of the serpent’s reach, bloodied and bruised.

We make them know us, so that our fear becomes theirs.

Light the fires of freedom, on the shores of endless seas…

I bring my bloodied, burning fingers to Rangarok’s strings, my eyes stinging with pained tears at the contact, at the horrible memories the smell of my blistering skin brings back, put strum out another powerful, defiant chord. We have to rise to the occasion, just one more push – we can’t fall here. Nerida’s holy magic washes over us, restoring my flesh, washing away the blood soaked burns that covered me and leaving them only a faint sting, and Ulkair’s fills the room just behind it, a cloud of acid washing over the demons, incinerating their imps and peeling away even the flesh of their strongest. I look back at the towering demon, who stares, in rage, at us, slowly turning the tides. He throws down his frayed whip, blood finally visible from his wounds, and looks from Nerida, to Ulkair, raising his hand.

No… I follow his gaze, and run for Ulkair, as if anything I could do could stop that monster’s magic.

The demon snaps its fingers, the sound somehow resounding over all else, over the spilling of blood, the rending of flesh, the clash of weapons, wails of slaughtered imps, and Ulkair’s golden eyes widen.

“NO!” I scream, rushing to his side as he coughs a mouthful of blood out, his body seeming to collapse under the weight of an invisible force. Nerida turns to stare at us, horror in her eyes, the force of their magics sparking in the air around us as they battle the demon’s spell, and Ulkair shudders, but pushes himself back up straight. Praise be to all that was holy, somehow, he had beaten back the onslaught – if only just barely. I grasp his hand, calling on Tubatron’s might to shield him from another attack, adding mine to the magics that stood to defend him.

His golden eyes flash in defiance as he stares back at the demon, and he lifts his hands, pouring arcane might into himself and Nerida. As he does, they grow several feet, just like she had in Elysia, and she charges the demon, roaring in fury as she plunges Anduin into his chest. I watch the dark, sizzling blood pour from his wounds, pride in my family swelling above my fears for just a moment, belief that we could win, but my faith runs from me as the demon turns its horrible gaze, locking red eyes to mine.

Nerida rends Anduin from his chest as he lifts his hand, and again the snap of his fingers rings through the air, heralding an onslaught of pain. The very air around me seems to grasp like a vicious fist, digging into me from all sides – my legs buckle, my ribs crack, I open my mouth to scream, and only choke on the taste of my blood as my organs give beneath the pressure of the demon’s magic.

No! I… can’t…
Being a parent changes things, the stakes are higher. Alix’s warning echoes in the darkness, surrounded by the shrill cries of my infant son, and I clench my fists.

But it also makes you more than you were, and gives you the strength to rise to the occasion.

I won’t die like this, won’t let them break me.

I can’t die here, I… I have to go home, to my sons!

No !” I spit the word, forcing back the demonic assault with a wave of my own arcane and holy energy, mending my injured body. The demon looks at me, his red eyes widening in a momentary surprise at my display of strength, and I glare back at him, straitening my posture and wiping the blood from my lips. He chose me when Ulkair made himself a more difficult target, but I am a mother, and a Byssian, and I. Am. Not. Weak!

The demon narrows his eyes at me, hatred burning in them as my companions reign blows upon him, slay his allies, defy his power at every turn, and he bends his fingers to strike again, sending a shiver of horror down my spine. I brace myself, digging in my heels as I feel his magic begin to build in the air around me once more.

“All is lost again, but I’m not giving in,” I grit out, the unholy force crushing against me as the demon snaps his fingers, knocking aside another of Nerida’s desperate assaults with his sword arm, and my body buckles beneath the strain. Every part of me presses violently in on itself, and I taste the stain of blood once again, but I push back, drawing a gasping breath to empower my voice, and force back the assault a second time.

“I will not bow, I will not break!
I will shut the world away,”

The demon stares at me, disbelief and fury in his burning eyes, and I feel spark of pride bubbling within me.
We will teach the denizens of this place we are not to be trifled with.

“I will not fall, I will not fade,
I will take your breath away.”

Nerida looks back at me, swaying on my feet, blood pooling at my lips, and turns back to the demon, raising Anduin with a scream of rage, and plunges him into the monster’s chest. As she pierces his skin, Mimi sweeps next to her, driving her scythes into the wounds, and rending them apart, spewing the demon’s blood across them. He looks at me, but there is no fear in his eyes – instead, he smirks, mouthing words I cannot make out as blinding light pours from his wounds and suddenly, my world goes dark.

View
The Road to the Abyss
Our Path Mark by Blood

Nerida

The sky began to grow brighter again in a pale imitation of dawn, the sounds of a people stirring returning to the conservatory. By the time I woke, Cheshire was already dressed and milling about the room, the babies dozing contently next to me.

“Do you guys mind keeping an eye on the boys while I talk to Ooze?” Cheshire asked, slinging her bag across her shoulders.

“I was hoping to go with you,” I said, sitting up. “Declan suggested we speak to Ooze about the Blood War.”

“Would you…you mind if I came and got you later?”

“You can ask him yourself, if you’d like. I just thought you would likely have a lot to discuss, so it would be something to get out of the way,” I said, yawning. I didn’t much care to eavesdrop on their conversation so much as ask Ooze a couple questions and leave. He would know or he wouldn’t and fetching me for a five minute conversation seemed like more of a hassle, but I hardly felt like arguing the point. “We can do whatever you want. We still need to get food for Rolf anyway. I can cast water breathing on Rhapsody again.”

“Okay….nothing could go wrong…” Cheshire squeaked. “You’re not going to a giant plane of water full of monsters…”

“No, it’s surprisingly empty, actually, and they’d be with Ulkair and I.”

“Will you be planar shifting to get there…?”

“No, we’ll be using the portal,” I said, relief immediately falling over Cheshire’s face. So…the plane of water wasn’t the problem, it was how we would get there. “Do…do you still think I’m going to drop us in the elemental plane of fire?”

“No, it’s just…maybe the less massive planar travel energy we expose the littles ones to the better,” Cheshire mumbled, wringing her hands.

My heart sank watching her, the uncertainty in her face. It was hard enough to hear her doubts when we arrived in the elemental plane of water and there was reason to wonder how we ended up there, but now? Why would she still question my capabilities after Ulkair and I had successfully gone to the elemental plane of earth and back, my spells otherwise working properly again? Leaning forward, I gazed into her eyes, finding only concern for our children.

“I’m…I’m sorry, Cheshire,” I murmured, burying my face in my hands. “It’s just…been a rough few days for me in regards to my magic.”

“I love you, Nerida, and I have faith in your magic, I just figured I don’t know what I need to talk to Ooze about and I didn’t think I should bring my entire entourage. I was just going to bring Alix because he’s in my head anyway.”

“That’s okay. I just didn’t want to interrupt you as I expected it would be a long conversation. I had no intention of staying for your discussion.”

“It could be long or it could be very short. I have no idea,” Cheshire sighed, edging towards the door. “I’ll find you when we’re done.”

The door softly clicked behind her and I drew my legs up to my chest, resting my forehead on my knees. What was wrong with me to suspect Cheshire so much? I should have known it was nothing more than concern for the babies. I knew she loved me and only wanted what was best. She was just feeling overwhelmed with so many looking to her, expectations so high. Perhaps I was just…trying to find my place in this crazy new life and since we left, everything had been in question. My magic, my dreams, my intuition, was anything certain here?

I felt the bed shift beside me, Ulkair’s arms soon wrapping around my waist, his face resting on the back of my shoulder. He held me without speaking, a silent comfort. Ulkair, he was certain no matter what plane we were on. Lord Eadro was always with me. My hand drifted to cover Ulkair’s, holding his hand and just enjoying the closeness with him for a while. I’d been through much worse than just this before, I just normally didn’t have so much cause to doubt everything I saw and felt. Was it a mistake to doubt it or to trust it? So many questions, but I wouldn’t find the answers brooding.

Lifting my head from my knees, I shifted so Ulkair could sit in my lap, wrapping arms around him as he settled. I rested my face atop his head and communed with Lord Eadro, feeling at peace once more. For those precious few moments, the world could wait. The dragon would still be there when I finished with my prayer and Sigil would be no more or less wretched in twenty minutes.

When we finished, I picked up Seren and Ulkair cradled Rhapsody and we walked hand in hand to go find something for breakfast and then Lóin. Thankfully, some bread wasn’t hard to find and neither was the half dragon pacing near the entrance, evidently expecting me to try to sneak to the elemental plane of water without him. At some point Mimi heard about Rolf and had taken it upon herself to accompany us.

Walking to the marketplace, she listed off seemingly endless things she was trying to remind herself to get for Rolf. She led us from merchant to merchant, sifting through all their wares. By the time she finished, it must have been midday, though she had a little bag for him filled with five different sets of clothes, a few toys, soap, enough food for days, and I think a few other things I lost track of. Under her other arm she carried a few thick blankets and a pillow, clutching a small basin in her hand. As we walked, Ulkair whittled a slingshot for him, again at the celestial’s request. I found myself a little impatient, my thoughts drifting too often to the abyss, but ultimately grateful for Mimi’s presence. Food was obvious and Ulkair already pointed out Rolf would need new clothes and bedding, but much of the rest I never would have thought of.

Making our way towards the portal, Mimi hummed happily to herself, obviously pleased with her many acquisitions. I laid my hand over Rhapsody’s tiny body cradled against Ulkair’s chest, praying to Lord Eadro to grant him the ability to breathe water for the coming hours. Sea green light shone from my fingers as the spell surrounded the babe and spread over to Mimi as well. Ulkair caught my hand yet hovering above his son and pressed a kiss against my fingers, smiling up at me.

Arriving at the elemental plane of water, Seren wiggled out of my arms and happily swam through the water, finally free to move again. Giggling, he darted into Mimi’s wings, burying his face in her feathers. Laughing, Mimi lowered her wings and quickly brought them up again, encasing Seren in feathers and earning her shrieks of delight. He played in her feathers until I had to scoop him up to carry him upstairs. As much as I’d like to let him swim to his little heart’s content, it would be too easy for him to swim out one of the windows.

Upstairs, Rolf was crouched by the dragon, just staring at him as though entranced, a fascination I could hardly blame him for. I’d become more accustomed to being around dragons than I’d ever thought I would and still he was a sight to behold, weakened though he was.

“I was poking him for a while thinking he’d wake up, but he didn’t budge. I think he’s really sleepy,” Rolf commented.

“He probably won’t wake up for a few more months. He was….grievously wounded,” I said, looking away from the proud beast.

“He sleeps for months at a time, huh,” Rolf mused, only tearing his gaze from the dragon at the slight rumbling of his stomach.

“This bag is for you. Everything in it is yours now,” Mimi proudly declared, holding out the dripping bag to him, setting the wet bedding beside her.

Frowning, I cast control water as I had to clean the room, drawing the water out of the bedding and all Rolf’s new possessions. On land, the blankets would probably dry eventually, but it might take a couple days. Until then they would probably be unbearably cold for a human, though it seemed cozy to me. Rolf blinked curiously at the blatant use of magic and Mimi’s offerings, unsure of what to think of our actions and probably trying to decide if this wasn’t all some ruse. Everything has a price, even what otherwise would appear to be kindness.

“Thank you,” Rolf mumbled, accepting the bad and rifling through the contents. “You’re really nice too.”

“You’re welcome,” Mimi chirped happily, her wings fluttering slightly. “I try to be.”

“You don’t need me to do anything? You’re just going to give it to me?”

“Of course! But you should probably stop poking the dragon,” Mimi chided.

Sniffling, Rolf chewed on some dried meat from the bag and slowly emptied its contents, examining everything.

“Do you want help taking a bath?” Mimi offered.

“A bath? I don’t need a bath,” Rolf said, his face scrunching up at the suggestion.

“Yes, you do,” Mimi stated, undeterred.

“I bathed, like, six months ago. I was dunked in the well. I’m fine. I even swam yesterday. That was probably the best bath I’ve ever had,” Rolf shrugged, grabbing another piece of dried meat.

“You’re supposed to bathe every day as a child!” Mimi shrieked indignantly. “You have to use soap!”

“Soap? What’s soap?”

I stood back with Ulkair and watched in amusement as they continued back and forth for a while, Rolf entirely unfamiliar with the notion of hygiene and Mimi nearly hysterical trying to explain to him how to take a bath and how often. It perhaps took me a while to get used to land dweller customs that were unnecessary in water, but Ulkair rather added additional incentive to the process. Rolf complained the entire time, squirming trying to get out of her arms until he was finally clean and in some of his new clothes. Smiling, I pulled the water off his skin and dropped it into the dirty basin by Mimi’s feet. Rolf sneezed and Mimi cast another spell on him, colour immediately returning to his skin.

“You’re so much better than the bad people,” Rolf sniffled again, wrapping his arms around Mimi’s legs.

“We’re going to be gone for a few days though,” Mimi said, frowning down at him.

“I don’t care. I’m happy here,” Rolf shrugged, inspecting his bag again and pulling out the slingshot with interest.

Smiling, Mimi pulled some small stones out of one of the pockets on his bag and set up a target for him to practice with, applauding his every shot. Watching them, I wondered if that wasn’t what having a parent might have been like. Áine looked after us, but with her demanding schedule, we hadn’t had time for such interactions. She was always exhausted by evening, somedays even smiling at us seeming a strain. Still, she would make sure we were all accounted for and well, splitting our dinner amongst us, but our entertainment was talking, stories, or song. A vision of my parents flashed in my mind, a younger version of myself swimming between them.

Shaking my head, I walked over to the dragon, sitting down beside him. Such things could never be, but perhaps we would find our own way yet. Looking down at Seren, I smiled and kissed his forehead, holding him close. How foolish I was to ever think I could do anything but adore him, knowing from the moment I first held him I would do anything to protect him. His bright eyes, his smile, his laugh, everything about him was so precious, in no way diminished for the nature of his conception. Perhaps my parents could look at me as I did him.

Ulkair sat behind me, wrapping his arms around my waist and resting his head on my shoulder. I couldn’t tell if he just wanted to be near me or if he picked up on my sudden dour mood, but either was possible, if his motive wasn’t in fact both. I placed one of my hands over his, lacing our fingers as I watched the dragon’s shallow breathing, his chest slowly rising and falling. This was all he wanted, wasn’t it? A place to be safe and keep his hoard, despite what cruel magic had changed him. Such sadness clung to him…I didn’t yet know the full repercussions for defying Corellon Larethian, but looking at the dragon, he was worth it.

I reached my hand out and rested it on what I guess you might call his finger for whatever comfort the small gesture might provide, if he was aware of anything at all. Still, something told me I should sing to him, song ever my companion when the world grew dark. Music that had calmed even Ulkair from fits of rage under the weight of millennium of anguish. Squeezing his claw, I softly began to sing what I’d come to think of as Ulkair’s song, though I first learned it from Cheshire. Her song that met him in the darkness and gave him a light to follow, may it now do the same for this dragon.

The slow melody chased the silence from the room, reverberating off the stone walls. My voice, nothing special, nothing magical like Cheshire’s, but still song brought me peace amongst the chaos. The dragon didn’t move, didn’t shift, showing no indication he was aware we were near at all, but I prayed it soothed his mind all the same. I felt Ulkair shift behind me, gently kissing along the side of my neck and my breath caught in my throat. I stifled a soft groan, trying to focus on singing, but Ulkair’s hand trailed up my leg, knowing too well how sensitive my skin was after seventeen years of hiding behind scales.

“Ulkair…” I breathed, my face flushing further at my voice meant as a mild warning, but it lost any edge it might have had to obvious interest.

“What?” Ulkair called in mock innocence, his lips ghosting over my ear.

I leaned back against him, any rebuttal dying on my lips when the accordion began to play, picking up where I left off as if it knew the song as well as I did. A hauntingly beautiful melody filled the room and I shivered, drawing my arms tightly around myself. Why, why was it playing itself? It was magic, I knew, but through the Ichtaca’s machinations, accordions had become a harbinger of anguish to me. Following its song, no matter how masterfully played, how fascinating its cry, or perhaps for that very reason, pain in one form or another always followed. But…this was different, right? Dovev wasn’t here, couldn’t be here. It was just an accordion, playing along with me because of its magic. It must be enchanted to do as much…

Mimi crept closer, warily reaching for the accordion with grim determination on her face. The dragon bared its teeth, raking his claws over the accordion and drawing it closer to him, the first sign he was aware at all of our presence.

“Part of its magic must be that it mimics what music it hears,” Ulkair said, tightening his hold around me. “It seems to be a receptacle of some sort for music. The music you put into it will influence what it becomes.”

“So we should put good, happy music into it,” Mimi concluded, nodding, rather seeming to find it a simple matter.

“I hope it’s that simple. Now that it’s part of his hoard, he won’t just let anyone take it,” Ulkair said.

Lóin stood with his arms crossed, staring towards the accordion, though it was impossible to tell what he might have been thinking. The half dragon stared into the distance quite often and I’d just come to realize that it was just something he did. Lóin’s gaze fixed on the accordion and he tightened his grip on Gilgamesh, stepping towards the dragon. When his hand approached the instrument, the dragon recoiled, spitting lightning at Lóin and curling up tighter around the accordion.

“Lóin, what are you doing?” Mimi asked, voicing my own confusion.

“You more than any of us should know how desperately he needs what little hoard he has,” Ulkair added.

Paying us no heed, Lóin returned his axe to his back and grabbed the accordion, throwing a few thousand gold down in its place. The dragon flinched as though pained and pulled the gold coins closer to him. Freed from the weight of the dragon, the accordion began to play the very song Cheshire and I performed for Lóin so long ago when Cheshire was trying to tell him that Dovev had his master’s soul. Lóin ran his hands along the keys of the instrument with unusual care, silencing the accordion’s playing to produce his own song. A softer melody began under his gentle hold, promising adventure, but still the familiarity of a place to call home.

The half dragon’s playing suddenly faltered and his fingers tightened on the accordion, straining for control. Another song resounded from the accursed instrument, my blood running cold at the sound. This song, this was Dovev’s music, the very same cruel melody that had torn from my memory my greatest shame, my most devastating moments of anguish to relive again. I flinched back in Ulkair’s embrace, reaching for Anduin. Whatever unholy magic was influencing it, I would sever its influence as Lóin had destroyed Cheshire’s accordion and freed the souls trapped within.

Mimi strode up to him, determination marking her every feature as she reached for the accordion. Just before her fingers could brush the sides of it, Lóin lashed out, shoving her across the room with a distant look in his eyes, sweat streaming down his face.

I climbed to my feet and raised Anduin to strike the accordion, deciding that this should continue no longer. I wasn’t sure what was happening to Lóin, what he was fighting, but this would end.

“Wait,” Ulkair called, taking hold of the crook of my arm just long enough to halt my movement. Tapping his temple, he continued, “I think he’s trying to defeat his demons. Do you feel anything evil?”

“No,” I mumbled, clenching my fist around Anduin, casting my gaze back to Lóin. “But, that song…”

“I think this is something he alone should face,” Ulkair insisted, wrapping his arms around my waist and kissing my cheek.

Gritting my teeth, I nodded, still watching the half dragon intently. If something were to take a drastic turn for the worse, I would need to step in. He may have been charged with protecting me, but I could not let him fall either.

Lóin clutched at his head, the accordion falling heavily to the ground as the half dragon screamed something in his harsh native tongue. Sea green light shimmered around Lóin, expelling some dark sludge from him before fading into the dragon. Groaning, the dragon’s eyes flickered open and he struggled to stand up, his gaze fixed on his kin.

“Eadro wishes you to know, Lóin, that the darkness inside you is something you can let go of,” the dragon said, shrinking to take the form of an old man with bronze hair.

A new wave of horror rippled through me hearing his words. If Lord Eadro had spoken to this dragon, gave him the strength to awaken from his dragon sleep, he must be a follower of his. I killed a follower of my god, claiming it a cleansing of his realm. How, how had I not recognized him sooner, seen some sign that we were kindred in faith as he was in blood to Lóin? Slaying an innocent dragon was enough of an atrocity, but this? I’m so sorry….

Oblivious to anything else, the dragon regarded Lóin and began to sing in Draconic, his deep voice much better suited to the song than my own had been. The sludge began to shift, taking a twisted form of Lóin, almost like what happened to Ulkair when I cast atonement on him. A rictus grin spread across the other Lóin’s face, his skin in various stages of decay like a ghoul’s. Holding his hand out, a dark ring formed around them. My skin crawled feeling the evil energy radiating off the circle, its magic forbidding we pass.

“I realized something I should have sooner,” Lóin began, glancing at each of us before his gaze settled on the ghoul version of himself. “I love them more than I hate you. I forgive you for everything.”

“You always were weak,” his reflection sneered, drawing a dagger. Lurching forward, he plunged the dagger into his chest, rage burning in his eyes. “Always so noble, always so dramatic. That’s why I have always hated you.”

“It’s not your fault. None of it was your fault,” Lóin ground out, clutching at the dagger buried in his chest.

“You’re right. It was your fault. It was your fault everyone died. It was your fault we killed everyone we knew. It was your fault we burned down our home. You made me. Perhaps what it comes down to is that neither of us should live. We deserve nothing more than to be the slave of an evil lord,” he spat, ripping the dagger out of Lóin’s chest and plunging it into his own heart.

Screaming, more blood poured from Lóin’s chest, his copy’s wound harming him all the same. Gritting his teeth, he staggered forward, wrapping his arms around his reflection and holding him close.

“It’s not our fault,” Lóin repeated over and over as if the mantra was all that allowed him to yet stand.

“Then whose fault is it?” he asked, his voice sounding so…frail, so lost and confused. Sinking to their knees, he clamped his hand on Lóin’s shoulder, staring into his eyes for an answer. “Whose fault is it?”

“Mal-“ Lóin began, the red dragon’s name poised on his lips to take the blame for everything as he had for years when a realization sparked in his eyes. “No, it’s Tranatheraxxus’ fault. It’s always been his fault…he left us.”

“You’re right,” he laughed bitterly, his rictus grin fading to a faint smile. “I don’t think we’ve ever forgiven our father. Perhaps now that we know, something can be done, but are we becoming a dragon for ourself or for our father?”

“It doesn’t matter anymore why we started on this path, but now we are doing it for ourself.”

“That I can accept,” he whispered, fading from sight.

Groaning, Lóin collapsed on top of the accordion, cling to the instrument that started this all. Magic whirled around my fingers, waiting for the ring to disappear so I could heal him. The dragon stepped forward, waving his hand and dispersing the last of the evil magic. He easily lifted Lóin into his arms and placed his hand over the stab wound, muttering a prayer as familiar healing energy flowed into his chest, a large silver scale appearing in its stead. Looking closer, I noticed a spiral on the scale, dashing any possible doubt that he was a fellow priest of Lord Eadro. Wearily walking back to his hoard, the dragon set Lóin down before collapsing back into his dragon form, curling protectively around him.

I released a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding, so relieved Lóin was yet among us. I…just wanted to make the dragon feel better, but somehow singing triggered all of this. Perhaps it was for the best, though, that this happened now and not in the midst of battle or in a wasteland not so hospitable as the elemental plane of water had been to us. First Ulkair and now Lóin…would I one day have to face some darker version of myself? A Nerida crushed under the weight of guilt and sorrow too long repressed that they became her and glared at me for answers. A Nerida demanding to know why in such a cruel world, I hadn’t loved her either, instead forcing her to the depths of my mind and ignoring her pain. Our pain I couldn’t stop to address lest I lose my will to keep going.

In spite of the danger, life was better now, or at least, I wasn’t so alone anymore. Áine and Mayra would always have listened to me had I talked to them, but I chose not to burden them with my woes when they had so many of their own to bear. Ulkair never took silence for an answer, instead searching for what troubled me until the shadows in my mind didn’t seem so sinister anymore.

Looking at his body, I sighed softly, wondering how we were going to get him back to the conservatory. He was almost as tall as I was with far more muscle and doubtless heavier than I could carry. Unless maybe I slipped the bracelets Ulkair made me around the half dragon’s wrists to halve his weight, if they would fit over his hands. Ulkair chuckled lightly, telling me he’d already thought of a solution and was just amused watching me mull over ideas. Smiling up at me, he nuzzled my face and held his hand out, a small disc forming in his hand. The disc hovered over to Lóin, trying to scoop him up as it had the pile of bronze sheets. We each took a side and lugged him onto the disc, the dragon I suppose allowing us to take him, not stirring in his sleep. Mimi’s gaze fixed on the accordion yet clutched in his arms and she reached for it. A low growl rumbled from Lóin’s chest the moment her fingers touched the instrument and she pulled her hand away.

Once he was settled on the floating disc, Ulkair made his way back to the arcane room, casting different spells around the room until the portal whirled to life once more, beckoning us back to Sigil. I glanced at Lóin and shook my head, wondering for a moment what attention we would draw carting a sleeping half dragon holding an accordion around on a floating disc. Then again, they’d yet to stare at us for too long with any of our other peculiarities, so what was one more?

Passing through dirty streets, we soon returned to the conservatory, indeed no one too much concerned about who we were with or what they might have been holding, floating or otherwise. I glanced at Lóin, ever looking for some injury that may have remained from his fight, but the dragon had mended all his wounds, leaving only fatigue he was best sleeping off in the relative peace of his room. It was hard to say how much time might have passed, but surely Cheshire was done talking to Ooze by now. Travelling the halls of the conservatory, we were looking for Lóin’s room when a startled cry met my ears.

“Guys, what happened?” Cheshire cried, running up to us, looking over the sleeping half dragon.

“Lóin had to battle himself,” Mimi said. “But the dragon woke up to help him and he won.”

“The dragon is awake?”

“Turns out he’s a priest of Lord Eadro. He woke up, sang for Lóin, and healed him after the battle, but then he collapsed back into his hoard,” I briefly explained.

“Well, okay. I’m just going to take this…” Cheshire trailed off, reaching for the accordion clutched in Lóin’s arms, earning her another growl.

“You can’t take it from him,” Mimi frowned, recalling her own attempts to relieve him of the instrument.

“So, are we sure what Lóin fought was himself?” Cheshire asked, looking up at us.

“It looked just like him?” I offered, wondering what else it could have been. Then again, she hadn’t been in the room when I cast atonement on Ulkair, so she probably wasn’t familiar with anything like this happening.

“Oh, did he? Well I’m sure there’s no magic that can maybe make things look different from what you thought,” Cheshire spat, the venom in her words taking me by surprise.

“I know Lord Eadro helped him. He would not be fooled by simple magic,” I countered. Of course, of late we had seen that to be painfully true, but something seemed off about her near accusation.

“Yes, our gods help us do many great things,” Cheshire said, not convinced.

“What else do you think it could be?” I asked. There had to be something in particular she was worried about to be acting like this.

“And you can’t get that accordion away?” Cheshire dodged, staring at the instrument in his arms.

“I tried. He shoved me across the room,” Mimi said.

Cheshire’s brows furrowed and she edged closer to Lóin, tugging at the accordion despite the growling rumbling in the half dragon’s chest. Huffing, she pulled harder until she began to slide towards him, the accordion no looser in his grasp.

“What’s going on?” Ooze asked in his typically cheery, though still booming voice.

“Well, my friend apparently found this accordion here. Yesterday he told me he played it and remembered Dovev’s music. Now he’s very attached to it, though I hear it manifested an evil version of himself to fight while they were in the elemental plane of water. This seems untrustworthy to me, but I can’t get it away from him,” Cheshire said, crossing her arms.

“Hmmm….what do you want to do? It’s still an instrument of Tubatron.”

“Put it in a box and lock the box and throw it in the elemental plane of water?”

“If he wants to play an instrument, shouldn’t we nurture that?” Ooze asked, frowning slightly.

“Not this one!” Cheshire insisted.

“Let me see what I can do,” Ooze hummed, grabbing onto the accordion and pulling. “He’s a strong one, isn’t he?”

Chuckling, Ooze brought his tuba to his lips, playing a burst of tuba music before wrenching the accordion out of Lóin’s hands. Lóin snarled, his fingers twitching for a moment, searching for what he’d lost. Ooze turned the accordion over in his hands, humming occasionally as he inspected the instrument. Nodding, coming to some conclusion I must have missed, his fingers fell into place on the keys. Grimacing, I reached for Ulkair’s hand. It was just an instrument. It couldn’t do anything to me, but the memories it conjured could, in a way. Ulkair squeezed my hand back, not questioning the ridiculous need for the small comfort.

As Ooze played, I thought I felt arcane magic fuse into the song, similar to how he normally played his tuba, but something was…different. Arcane magic was so different from divine, so much harder for me to recognize, but I could tell he was doing something, perhaps to the accordion itself.

“The music in this is exceptionally strong,” Ooze commented, though not deterred.

His eyes slid shut and brassy light surrounded the accordion as Ooze composed an ode to Lóin and his victory over his darker half. Feelings of triumph whirled in my heart, silencing the horror of my memories with his music. I thought I heard a faint hissing, something evil releasing its hold on the instrument in the face of divine power.

“I told you Dovev was powerful, but you were right,” Cheshire mumbled.

“It would seem that his reach has extended even into our holy sanctum. I see we must be wary, as he is not as dead as was hoped,” Ooze said, more solemn than I’d ever seen him.

“Are we sure he is still around or could this be just lingering vestiges of his magic?” I asked. We knew his head had been stolen, but how could something bearing his mark find its way here?

“That I do not know,” Ooze sighed. “I suppose this could have come from Lóin because I can tell you no one has played this accordion save him. The only music I want to hear is that of Tubatron. The ghoul lord’s music was potent, I’m sure, but the music of Tubatron shall always defeat his enemies!”

Sniffling, Cheshire nodded, scooping Seren and Rhapsody out of our arms and walked swiftly towards our room. Ulkair glanced up at me, squeezing my hand before following her, knowing she needed company. The ghoul lord terrified her more than perhaps anything else and the notion that he was still traipsing about in his mockery of life was not a trail of thought she should be left alone with. Watching her go, Ooze turned to leave as well.

“Wait, could I talk to you about a separate matter?” I asked. Unlike Declan, I didn’t suppose Ooze was one that could be disturbed once he was preoccupied.

“Ah, Nerida, what is it?” Ooze asked, regarding me.

“I just wanted to know if you knew anything about the Blood War, or rather, how best to survive it to find someone trapped in it.”

“I don’t know. That seems very difficult. Do you have a way to scry on them?”

“Yes, but I think it would be best to avoid scrying, if possible,” I said, remembering all too well the last time I scryed, Ulkair crying as he gripped my wrists, so painfully afraid of what divination might yield.

“Do you have an object or possession of theirs? A piece of their hair?”

“I’m afraid not. It has been many years since Lóin saw her and I’ve never met either of them, though I do have a picture of the man holding her captive and I know a song she once played, if that could be of use.”

“Well, that is a connection to her. Perhaps you could use a generic divination rather than scrying, necessarily. Clemente told a story of using an amulet to find someone, attuning it to that person, it drew him to them.”

“Is that something someone else could perceive as you can be noticed scrying?”

“Yes, magic is always detectable, but that’s a much more gentle version. A scry is something like staring at someone and they feel your eyes on them and this would be more like a breath of wind. I don’t know how to make one, though. Perhaps you could talk to Clemente about it when he returns.”

“Do you have any advice for surviving what else lurks there?”

“All the tricks I know about protecting myself from demons and devils only work when I’m not on their home plane. Protection from evil won’t help you in the abyss.”

“Would this man happen to be familiar to you?” I asked, showing him the picture Alix drew of the monk with Selene.

“No. Should he?”

“I suppose not. I knew it was a longshot that you might have met. Well, if nothing else he seems to be looking for me. Our paths will cross in time. Thank you for your insight,” I said, nodding slightly at him.

“It’s nice to talk to a lady of my own stature,” Ooze smiled, bowing.

“It’s not something I’m much accustomed to on land,” I commented, smiling back, trying not to think too much about the abyss.

“Indeed not. Perhaps I shall have to take a trip to visit the land of mermaids.”

“The ocean is quite magnificent indeed,” I said, wistfulness creeping into my heart.

Somehow, I hadn’t missed the ocean so much in Byss, though I still did visit Coral and Severi often. It had become so beautiful there and it’s where Agorran was, that alone making it a better land dweller city than any other. Something told me I would never live in the ocean again, though the small hope remained that Cheshire would get over her misplaced fear of water and the warm shallows would treat Ulkair better than the cold depths had.

Softly shaking my head, I thanked the bard again and turned towards my shared room. Cheshire would be okay with Ulkair, Alix’s reassuring presence ever in her mind should she need him, but I still wanted to find them. I felt…responsible for this, somehow. If I had done a better job scrying for Dovev’s head or perhaps had destroyed his body with holy fire, maybe none of this would be happening. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so honest about the dream with how much demons scared her too. I brought this on them as I always seemed to, such fear and pain just for knowing me and being foolish enough to care.

Finding our room, I barely opened the door, peeking in to see Cheshire curled up at Ulkair’s side, nursing Rhapsody. Seren slept happily once more in Ulkair’s arms, the perfect picture of a family.

“Did you find out what you needed to know, Nerida?” Ulkair asked, looking up at me through the slight opening. “Are we going to scry or do you have another plan?”

“Scrying seems like a bad plan,” I sighed, opening the door the rest of the way and leaning against the frame. I didn’t want to admit I didn’t know what else to do, but scrying opened too many doors, too many of which I didn’t know about and couldn’t discern. If Ulkair didn’t fear for my life, I knew he would never have suggested it.

“It does seem like the easy way. The easy way is rarely the best way.”

“Ooze spoke of an amulet that could be attuned to someone,” I offered with a glimmer of hope it might be a magic he was familiar with as he seemed to all else arcane.

“Well, I don’t know much about that.”

“Neither did he,” I sighed, ambling over to them and curling up on Ulkair’s other side, resting my hand over his around Seren.

“We could go there and do local divinations, but we could end up on the entirely wrong plane if we try that.”

“How many planes does ‘the abyss’ encompass?”

“From my understanding, the Blood War spans all of the lower planes.”

“Oh,” I groaned, slumping against him. “Well…maybe it would be best to scry then, or at least better. If we’re going to make waves, we should get in and out as fast as we can.”

“That’s true. If we were prepared to leave as soon as we scryed, that would give them the least amount of time to prepare,” Ulkair said, sounding slightly more hopeful at the prospect. “So, are you ready to go? We have care for our children. What else do we need to arrange?”

“Protection from fire. It’s really hot there,” I grumbled, recalling the very air blistering my skin. “Or endure elements might work better.”

“So that means we can’t leave until at least tomorrow morning, right?” Cheshire pipped up for the first time.

“I do at least need to memorize a scrying spell.”

“I’m going to buy some gear for Alix then,” Cheshire said, burping Rhapsody and arranging him in his sling.

“You’re….still coming?” I asked in a mixture of relief and trepidation. Safe…as desperately as I wanted her at my side, I wanted her to be safe, to stop subjecting her to terror and anguish. Both didn’t seem to be an option.

“Do you want to leave me here?” Cheshire asked, staring up at me with wide eyes conflicted as my own.

“No, it’s just you had spoken of splitting up. I hadn’t realized you’d made a decision.”

“I need to wander the planes and so that’s what I’ll do,” Cheshire mumbled, climbing to her feet. “Oh, and while we’re wandering the planes, I don’t suppose you know how to ordain a priest?”

Ah. Of course. She would go for her Tubatron and what he bade. I couldn’t blame her for finding courage in following her god’s will as Lord Eadro gave me strength to face anything, but I had faith in him to protect me, preserve my life even in that hellish wasteland. Tubatron left her once before in the face of one ghoul and what of endless demons? But she was his high priestess now. If he didn’t love her as he should have before, he ought look after her now.

“I know how to ordain priests for the Temple of Lord Eadro, though I don’t know that it’s big and loud enough for Tubatron.”

“Anything can be made bigger and louder,” Cheshire grinned. “Anyway, I know that Alix’s Byssian uniform has served him well, but I don’t know that it’ll serve him well in the Blood War. Though we’ll have to sell a lot of the art and stuff we’ve picked up along the way. Armour runs tens of thousands of gold, or um, I guess copper here.”

“I think selling that will harm you more than me, Cheshire. You don’t need my permission.”

“I think I’ll go find Declan, then,” Cheshire sighed heavily, already lamenting the loss of all the loot she’d been stockpiling like a dragon.

“I’ll go with you. Maybe there’ll be something Ulkair could use,” I said, looking at his clothes. He’d mentioned once that he can’t wear armour like I do because it interferes with his magic somehow, but there was bound to be something wizards could wear to protect themselves in battle.

“Well, I would never say no to new fancy magic items,” Ulkair hummed.

“I think you’ve been around Cheshire too long,” I giggled, offering him a hand to help him stand.

“Hey!” Cheshire cried indignantly, pouting at me.

Sniffing, Cheshire picked up her bag of holding, everything she had stockpiled over the last year within. Even with the fortune we spent on Mayra’s freedom, I knew the bag was yet full of countless pieces of art, scrolls and tapestries, piles of gems and various weapons of no use to us. Finding Declan, he readily agreed to accompany us, much happier that at least for now, we came to him for something other than travel to the abyss. His chest always puffed up some in pride whenever he could be of use to Cheshire, his long-awaited high priestess and the streets of Sigil were certainly something he was familiar with.

Declan easily led us to a store in one of the nicer wards where the air was not so foul, though the city no less strange for the higher class residents. Inside, a curious woman with skin nearly the shade of my hair greeted us. Shelves lined her store with innumerable things I couldn’t name nor guess their purpose. I saw jars of teeth, small vials with some sort of oil in them and others that appeared to be water, though there had to be something more to them. A couple small dolls sat on one of the shelf, so innocent next to many of the other items and I wondered if they weren’t in fact possessed or what other property they might have possessed that they were sold here.

Cheshire dug through her bag, pulling out art I recognized from the government building and others that I recognized from Typhon’s house, more still I couldn’t place where she might have found them. Declan displayed them each with a wild introduction, praising each piece as a lost artifact from Byss, so long cut off from the rest of the planes, and how could she deny the opportunity to be the first to sell these prized items to any with enough coin?

The woman stared at us with a discerning eye, negotiating each price with Declan, conversation that largely escaped me. The speeches of salesman I’d heard more times than I’d cared to, my own auction I’d tried not to consider. At least nothing here had soulless eyes staring back at you, though if the price was right, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn she delved into slave trade as well.

In time, the pile of art turned into a pile of copper, though thought of the once worthless coins being precious here was slightly distressing. Hours spent, my blood traded for copper when I needed gold, and here, the same coins held value. Perhaps that which had no worth elsewhere could find a place where it had significance after all.

We followed Cheshire and Declan through the marketplace looking for better armour, Alix finding dark leathers enchanted to help him hide while Cheshire preferred brighter ones that challenged the vibrancy of the sun. Everything he held up, Cheshire glitterdusted and the ranger only sighed. Ulkair and I looked through what robes they had to offer, seeing some that mimicked stars or shone brightly, but nothing that seemed good enough. The only exception was some black robes with an evil aura, but the enchantments woven into the threads were undeniably powerful.

“Do you suppose you could make something like that?” I asked, running my fingers along the fabric. The evil magic seemed to reach out and grab my hand, draining my very life as a vampiric touch. I quickly withdrew my hand, cradling it against my chest. “Except maybe not evil ones…”

“Indeed, I think I could make some more suited to my current… disposition. It would be much more expensive in time, materials, and my arcane energy than other things I’ve made, but also I can make it exactly what I want it to be. Which certainly means touchable by my beautiful priestess.”

“I would be rather sad if I couldn’t touch you,” I hummed, wrapping my arms around him.

“Debilitating sad, belovèd.” Leaning in to my embrace, Ulkair turned his head and started kissing me. “I know you don’t need to touch anymore to heal, but… I think sometimes it’s more… enjoyable… with a touch.”

“Well, that’s what our time outside of battle is for. I would rather prefer it if you weren’t harmed at all,” I commented, taking Ulkair’s hand and pressing a kiss against it before Cheshire might deny knowing us for the public display.

“I could rather say the same,” Ulkair said, his smile becoming slightly subdued.

“That which doesn’t take my life adds to it?”

“I hope so. I know you add immeasurably to mine.” Squeezing my hand, Ulkair turned back to the robes and continued, “It’s too black, anyway, Cheshire would never be seen with me in that. I think blue, and gold would be much better. Very shiny.”

“Don’t forget glitterdust. Maybe wreathe it in continual flame,” I added, giggling. “It will be an interesting day should she decide I need an update to my wardrobe.”

“I think you mean a fabulous day,” Ulkair said, laughing.

“Whatever you two say,” I commented, shaking my head slightly.

I didn’t think I’d ever understand land dweller’s odd fascination with clothing, but so long as whatever she chose wasn’t too uncomfortable, I supposed there was no harm in it. It seemed only a matter of time until she decided that grey leather pants and a teal shirt weren’t big and loud enough. I was bound to stand out regardless of what I wore.

Holding Ulkair’s hand, we followed Cheshire and Alix through the marketplace until they found something suitable, Cheshire reluctantly agreeing to the dark colour. Still, Alix looked pleased with the find, the way the leather seemed to blend into the shadows. I was a little disappointed we didn’t find anything for Ulkair, but I was sure what he would in time make for himself would be better than anything we could find here anyway.

Back at the conservatory, we made our way to the hall for the evening meal. Mimi was already at one of the tables, staring off into the distance as she nibbled absentmindedly at some bread. Sitting beside her with our own food, she barely noticed us, still lost in her thought. Shrugging, I began eating, deciding that if it was important or she wanted help, she would tell us. Sharing woes didn’t always ease one’s mind and with our plans for the morrow, there was much she could be concerned about.

“Cheshire, could you help me pray?” Mimi suddenly asked, looking at her. “I want to get my holy avenger back, or maybe something comparable.”

“Ummm, I could play for you if you wanted?” Cheshire offered, looking a bit startled by the outburst. “I mean, you can pray to Tubatron however you want. I would suggest performing and prostrating yourself.”

“Will he accept it if I pray a different way?”

“Of course. All voices are equal in a chorus.”

“Well, then I’ll dance and ask him for a scythe to protect my family.”

“And to spread his glorious reign through all the planes?” Cheshire added, raising a brow.

“Right!” Mimi chirped.

Cheshire swung Ragnarok off her back, her fingers slowly strumming out the same song she played for Mimi when trying to convince her to worship Tubatron. She swayed on her feet as she began to sing along in a low, breathy voice. Mimi followed her lead, raising her arms above her head and rocked her hips to match her rhythm. Sighing, Cheshire flipped her hair out of her flushing face, dancing closer to Mimi as she had at the celebration. My breath caught watching her and I swallowed hard, wanting to reach out to her, join her as Mimi had and allow no hands but mine and Ulkair’s to roam across her skin.

Brassy light flashed and a scythe appeared beside Mimi, looking the same as it had before but in its colouration and the very blade seemed to sing. Mimi took hold of her weapon as if she had expected it to appear there, twirling it in the air before bringing the haft behind Cheshire, holding her close. Cheshire’s eyes fluttered shut and she arched her back, lost to her performance. Mimi circled around her scythe, sliding down the haft as her head fell back, slowly rising to wrap her arms around my Cheshire again. If the rest of the world had fallen away, I don’t know that I would have noticed, too enraptured by Cheshire, wanting it to be my touch that drew those sighs from her lips, the flush to her beautiful face.

The moment Cheshire stopped playing I walked up to her, pulling her into my arms and kissing her with the passion she performed with. When we parted Ulkair claimed her lips, lifting her up against him. I stepped behind Cheshire and wrapped my arms around her waist, kissing the spiral on the back of her neck. My gaze flickered to meet Ulkair’s brassy one, hazily agreeing in the glance that this was better continued elsewhere. Ulkair set Cheshire down and we each took one of her hands, retreating from the crowded hall.

The precise events of the evening weren’t quite as I expected, but ended as I’d hoped. Lying with them, holding them close for the peace and security they brought. For a moment, all was right in the world. No matter what happened tomorrow, at least they knew I loved them more than anything. Whatever happened…..

A pang of bitterness welled in my heart and I tightened my embrace around them. Why did the thought of going to the abyss bother me so much more than any other danger I’d fought had? Going to Byss was meant to be a suicide mission, our odds fighting the vampires in the government building hardly better. Dovev, his army, the immortal child, even returning to Zissyx and staring down my assassins. Nothing else had given me such pause, so why now? What was different now? I had become stronger, but so it would seem had my enemies. Had I seen what would come, what could come, or was it merely a warning to act?

A warning…that was the problem. I’d never had a warning before, no time to sit and mull over what had to happen. It was fight or die and I always chose fight, simple as that. Just react, do everything I could, and survive, but now, the what and when were blurry, the vague promise of a terrible result if I did nothing. I saw no enemy, though they quite possibly saw me. So many questions, so few answers, and so much at stake. Now I had time to wonder if I would survive, if I would be enough to protect them above the simple need to.

I hadn’t failed them before and I couldn’t start now. These visions, if they were indeed from Lord Eadro, then everything would work out one way or another. He would not show me visions to lead me to my death. He trusted me. He trusted me to act and to live through whatever the planes could throw at me. Listening to their even breathing, Cheshire’s heart beating against my chest, I drifted off to sleep.

I felt someone had been holding my hand for some time, but I couldn’t see who. Must be Ulkair or Cheshire…probably Ulkair. Cheshire tended to get up when she woke, especially since Rhapsody was born. Sometimes he woke up before me and would simply watch me or gently stroke the side of my face until his attention roused me. Smiling slightly, I tightened my grip around the hand holding mine, only for the feeling to fade. Blinking, I opened my eyes to see Ulkair was still sleeping soundly in my arms and Cheshire was sitting up against the wall, feeding Rhapsody. Must…have just been a dream, though I didn’t remember anything else.

Shaking my head, I leaned down to kiss Ulkair’s temple. Groaning slightly, he draped his arms around my neck, pulling me down for another kiss. Would that we could laze about as we had in Byss, curled up beside each other softly talking or simply enjoying his company, but we hadn’t the luxury of such time now.

I sat up and leaned against the wall, Ulkair in my lap a moment later as I prayed to Lord Eadro for my magic. Scrying…I hadn’t requested that spell for some time and the last occasion where I had, I was almost torn away from Ulkair. Almost, but now we knew to be careful.

When we finished, Cheshire was burping Rhapsody as Seren wiggled his little tail, the freedom he had in the water denied on land. Picking him up, I nuzzled his face. Free from the constraints of the blankets, a determined look came over his scrunched little face and he flipped his tail in an attempt he seemed to believe would allow him to swim.

“In time, little one, in time,” I whispered to him in Aquan. “You’re already as good of a swimmer as one of your grandpas and one day I’m sure you’ll learn how to walk too, though that’s trickier.”

Ulkair chuckled and we walked down the hall towards where Marion dwelled, loath though I was to leave them. It would just be for a day, maybe two. They would be fine for a day. Climbing down the stairway, Seren cast light on my necklace, playing with the pearl in his tiny hands. Marion was already awake, it would seem waiting for us to arrive. I noticed more pillows and blankets had been added around the room since we’d been here last. Marion walked up to Cheshire, the two of them speaking in the same hushed tones as they had before. Kneeling down by them, I laid Seren down on a pillow bed much like what we slept on, though far smaller, and handed him the rattle Ulkair made. Cheshire rested Rhapsody near him, the difference in their size startling seeing them side by side.

“I’ll take good care of your sons,” Marion promised, looking at Cheshire.

“Thank you,” Cheshire sniffled, wrapping her arms tightly around herself.

I wrapped an arm around Cheshire and slowly guided her towards the stairs. The sooner we found Selene, the sooner we would be back with our babies again. Ulkair walked on the other side, rubbing her back until we were back at our room to scry. I sat down on our bed and Ulkair faced me, resting his hands on mine. Uncertainty wavered in his eyes tinged with fear he tried to hide. So much he’d lost from glimpses into the future, what could come to pass, what was happening, tainted by what the vampires wanted him to believe. Even guarded, we were not safe, but neither would we be traipsing through the abyss, hoping we were on the right plane as countless demons and devils waited only for the opportunity to kill us. The danger of demons was more certain than that of what might or might not notice us.

“Are you ready, my love?” Ulkair asked, pulling me from my thoughts.

“If you are,” I whispered, scooping his hands up and lightly kissing his fingers.

“I….would do anything for you, Nerida.”

Holding our hands against my forehead, I sighed, wondering if that wasn’t the problem. He knew more about magic. If he wasn’t worried about me so much, perhaps he would have had another solution. Perhaps there wasn’t an in between, just aimlessly look or scry. Regardless, we had chosen now. Releasing his hands, I pulled out the picture Alix drew and set it between us, remembering his voice, his harsh gaze, every detail I could recall. Taking a deep breath, I allowed my eyes to slide shut as I called on my spell. Ulkair’s magic whirling around mine, cloaking it from detection.

I felt myself drift away, falling and falling until I saw him, standing beside Selene and barking some orders at her. Her gaze fell and she nodded, moving to do as he’d bade. Seeing them, I knew where they were in one of the upper levels of the abyss, near Baator where lawful demons resided, no less cruel for their sense of order but more calculating. I was almost waiting for him to look at me as he had last time, but he never seemed to notice me and I thought it best to keep it that way. Pulling away, my vision swam as I found myself in our room once more, Ulkair’s fearful gaze watching me.

“Nerida!” Ulkair called, nearly crawling into my lap as he cupped my face. “Are you okay?”

“Yes, I’m fine,” I mumbled, blinking against the light in the room, finding it too bright all of a sudden. “I know where they are. I don’t think either of them noticed me.”

“Is there anything else you need?” Alix asked.

“Just to find a portal,” I said, wondering when he might have entered the room, but there was never any knowing with the ranger.

“Ooze said portals to the abyss are pretty common, so we should be able to find someone who knows where one is. Most know where they are to avoid them,” Cheshire added.

“Well, let us find one swiftly. They less time they have to prepare, the better,” I said, climbing to my feet.

I grabbed Anduin from where he was resting against the wall and ventured out to see our other companions in the hall, waiting for me to lead the way as they had once before. This time…this time I couldn’t fail them.

The walk to the lower section of Sigil was quick, an uneasy silence amongst us. Any words of inspiration were lost and none feeling jovial enough for idle conversation, not when we were looking for a door to hell. The single demon we fought in Elysia, a glabrezu I believe it was called, tore half of us to pieces. A slight smile spread across my face despite myself thinking of its smaller set of arms still as large as Lóin’s, just not next to the gigantic pincers perched above them. Had it hit me with that final assault, at best I would have lost consciousness and at worst, well, none of us would have left Elysia. Still, I couldn’t help but be amused at the towering fiend’s “little arms that were just too itty bitty to reach me.”

Asking around for a portal, people were only too willing to tell us how to get to the abyss, lest they anger anyone crazy enough to choose to go there. We found a dry well an old man mentioned and I thought of desperately needing water, as though I had gone days without the precious substance. A swirling blue portal appeared nearly on top of me, the overwhelming smell of sulfur and death billowing out of the portal. How many people had accidently fallen into the abyss for want of water? If this monk wanted to harvest souls, no wonder he stayed so close to this entrance.

Shaking my head, I cast endure elements on my companions, the heat radiating off the portal unbearable enough. The spell greeted me as cool water running over my skin, easing the scorching blaze of the abyss. Taking Ulkair and Cheshire’s hands, we walked through the portal, shimmering as we touched it. I felt a vague pulling sensation on me, like when Typhon tried to steal me out of Ulkair’s teleport, but nothing seemed to happen.

“That was weird,” Ulkair commented, shrugging.

“Do you have any idea what that was?” I asked.

“I’m not sure, but teleportation magic is strange in the abyss. It’s very chaotic and many of its denizens teleport.”

“Do you think anyone knows we’re here?”

“Looks like someone might, though we hid our scry pretty well.”

If Ulkair wasn’t worried about it, then we should be okay, all things considered. Looking out, a barren wasteland stretched as far as I could see along the side of crumbling remains of mountains. Heat rose off the baked earth, distorting my vision, but I didn’t see piles of corpses anywhere, for what relief that was. Ulkair pulled out a small silver mirror, muttering arcane words as he traced the edge of it.

“It looks like they’re this way, using these hills to hide behind. Up ahead there should be a break in the wall we can pass through,” Ulkair said, pointing ahead of us.

“I love you,” I whispered to Ulkair, taking his hand again and squeezing it, knowing how much he must have hated resorting to divination.

Ulkair squeezed my hand back and started leading us forward, explaining to Alix what we were looking for in the rock. Even with having lived on land for a year now, I still couldn’t pick out the minute differences they saw and instead looked out over the dead land, waiting to see demons crawl out of crevices I couldn’t see, everything else looking exactly how it had in my dream.

They led us for some time before we finally found the opening we were looking for. Turning the corner, I stopped in my tracks seeing a huge demon that looked like a twisted amalgamation of an ape and a boar with small wings standing over…Ulkair…bound by its feet…but, how? Whose hand was I holding if not Ulkair’s? He’d had been with me the entire time. Unless…that’s why that pulling sensation we felt was. That’s why he wasn’t worried about what it might have been and he was the one who led us here. But…I would notice the difference, wouldn’t I? I glanced at his golden eyes fixated on his mirror image, the same ones I so often stared into. It looked so much like him, even so close, but what if I was wrong?

“That’s not me!” he cried, his voice hoarse. “That’s not me with you!”

Closing my eyes, I reached out to our bond. My soul could only be tied to one of them. Even focusing, I felt Ulkair was near, but I couldn’t tell if he was beside me or the demon. I opened my eyes again and desperately looked between them. I could find him, the real Ulkair. If there was nothing else I knew, it was him. Beside me, I felt a flare of divine magic from Caspian, her hands hovering near her eyes.

“Cast any spells and I will crush him!” the demon bellowed, raising his fist over the other Ulkair. “What I want from you is very simple; I just want the souls of the people you’re about to go fight. Capture their souls and give them to me and I won’t kill this person right here.”

Its lips curled up around its tusks as it raised its arm over the other Ulkair, taunting me to make a choice. Whatever this fiend was, it was even larger than a galbrezu, at least twenty feet tall, its fist certainly as effective as any club.

“Wait!” I cried, holding my hand out in a plea to stop it. “What do you want their souls for?”

“Nerida!” Cheshire whispered in a harsh voice. “Don’t talk to demons and definitely don’t listen to them!”

“My lord would pay me very well for them and I want him to owe me,” it hummed, entirely too pleased with the notion.

“How do you know why we’re here?” I asked.

“Well, it turns out they knew you were coming, just not when, so I’ve been on the lookout for anyone traveling here from Sigil. I’m smarter than them and obviously you’d be coming from Sigil.”

“Better question, how do you expect us to kill them without him?” Caspian asked, raising an eyebrow and cocking her hip to the side.

“He’s got a big axe, she has a big scythe, and she has a big trident. You’ll figure something out, I’m sure.”

“Combatting magic is important,” Caspian insisted.

“Can’t you just searing light him in the face?” Mimi grumbled.

“Nerida,” the Ulkair next to me whispered, leaning closer to me. “Come on, that’s not me.”

Just what an imposter would say…as they both had insisted the other wasn’t him. I looked at the Ulkair next to me, the beautiful face I woke to each morning, his warm, golden eyes reflecting eternal love for me. I couldn’t fathom how he could be a façade or anything other than my belovèd. Closing my eyes again, a thought occurred to me. Rather than looking through my eyes, I looked through his, seeing my face as if I was standing beside myself.

“Oh well, the game is up,” the other Ulkair said, his voice growing feminine.

Standing up, it took the form of a succubus, a smirk stretched across her face. The air around her wavered and she disappeared, reappearing right in front of me. Taking hold of Anduin, she teleported away again, tearing my trident from my grasp, though I thought I felt a spark of indignation in him. The succubus appeared once more beside the other demon, staring in shock at Anduin protruding from her chest. Grinning, I held my hand out, beckoning Anduin to return to me. The succubus screamed as Anduin exploded out of her chest, the trident coming to rest easily in my hand where he belonged.

“Oh…” the demon mumbled, staring at her crumpled body strewn across the cracked earth.

Setting his ax before him, Lóin charged at the demon, but his blade only bounded off its skin. Caspian followed right behind him, taking the form of what she called a “megaraptor” as Mimi took flight, carving into the demon with her scythe.

Swirling colours began to surround the demon, shifting between all shades and glowing with unholy light. Holding its hand out, fire rose from the ground into a pillar, a glabrezu appearing as the flames faded. The first demon looked at me, its eyes narrowing in distain.

“I see your secret,” it hissed at me. “Your fissures are not hidden from me and I judge you weak.”

Weak…the word echoed in my mind and I couldn’t deny its assessment. If I’d been stronger, I wouldn’t have these “fissures.” If I were stronger, my soul wouldn’t have fragmented and nearly shattered. So many times I’d proclaimed myself weak, only clinging to the faint hope it might not be true at Ulkair’s insistence it wasn’t. He called me strong, but if he could find any fault in me, he hid his view well. A sort of numbness spread through me watching the lights I thought should be beautiful but they were just…wrong somehow, as Elysia had been.

I’ll prove him wrong as I had everyone before. I would prove him wrong and show him I saw more than what he judged. I would prove myself wrong and rise up. Positive energy poured from me, seeping from the fissures in my soul and welling in my hands. Taking a deep breath, I focused the holy energy and sent it to each of my companions, allowing it to envelop their weapons. Beside me, Ulkair cast cone of cold at the glabrezu, the ice magic warping around it and fading into a shimmer of force surrounding the demon. The glabrezu grinned and I stepped defensively in front of Ulkair, hoping I would be enough to shield him.

Lóin roared, drawing Gilgamesh back and slashed into the demon, pushing it back as Caspian sank her teeth and claws into it. Mimi twirled her scythe in the air, the air rumbling around her. Swooping down, she swung her scythe, catching the demon in the chest with a thunderous clap of tuba music. Energy welled in its chest and exploded out his back in a fountain of gore, hissing as it rained down on the heated earth.

The air rippled and a wave of unholy energy washed over us, utter despair clawing at my heart, whispering of my every failure. My soul fissures seemed to burn, another flaw etched into my skin for which there was no remedy beyond what rough patchwork we’d done. Weak. Broken. I’d only achieved what I had through Lord Eadro’s grace, what power he granted me. And if he grew weary of me, needing to give me so much, what would be left of me? What was I without Lord Eadro, without Ulkair? A slave, obstinate tool refusing to admit to her place…

‘Gods don’t bestow greatness in mortals; they ignite what is already there,’ Ulkair’s words rang through my mind, filling me with the warmth of his adoration.

I was not alone and I was not weak for their company, what aid they gave me. Demons lie and I would prove its words false.

The sickening spray of blood tore me from my thoughts and I looked up to see the glabrezu stagger back, clutching at its abdomen to hold its guts in after another attack from Mimi. How the tables had turned since we last fought one of its kind, its pincers shredding my flesh from my bones in but seconds. And now, the glabrezu looked warily at us before the air around it shimmered and the demon disappeared.

Sighing, I turned around and pulled Ulkair into my arms, so relieved he was okay, but guilt gnawed at me for questioning at all that it had been him beside me. Of all my companions, how could I doubt him? He was my soul and that should be stronger than their deceptive magic.

“I’m sorry,” I murmured, burying my face in the crook of his neck.

“It’s alright, dear. I know you aren’t quite as comfortable moving between our minds as I am, but you figured it out before anyone made any mistakes they might have regretted.”

“Perhaps that is something I should work on,” I mumbled, nuzzling his face.

“I think it could go much further than either of us have taken it, but that’s something we’ll have to research and decide on together.”

“I can’t imagine how being closer to you could possibly be bad, but that will indeed have to be a discussion for another time. Let us find Selene and leave this place.”

Taking Ulkair’s hand once more, we walked on, following his divination and Alix’s guidance until we found a dark mockery of a cathedral nestled into the stone. Statues of twisted forms of angels lined the building, their faces contorted in anger bearing sharp teeth and clawed hands poised to strike.

“According to my divination, they should be inside,” Ulkair said, eying the black stone walls of the cathedral.

“I suspect they already know we’re here,” I said, frowning. Something seemed to know we were here, unless someone else was watching our movements as well.

“Then we barge in there and kill them,” Mimi shrugged, twirling her scythe.

“Selene…” Lóin breathed the name, staring hard at the door keeping them separated, oblivious to all else.

Tightening his grip on his axe, Lóin charged forward, throwing the heavy doors open. Following after him, I heard a faint click, a huge web flying at the doorway. I ducked out of the way, but Ulkair and Cheshire behind me weren’t so lucky. I heard a low chuckle ahead, a hulking figure slowly approaching from an altar at the back. Bright red skin caught my eye as he passed by a torch, horns protruding from atop his head and massive wings hovering on either side of his body. Beside him stood another demon, the lower portion of her body resembling a serpent’s and the top that of a fair woman’s with six arms, each wielding a lethal blade. Lóin stared hard into the far corner where I then noticed two others, dwarfed next to the demons. A human man stood with a smirk on his face beside an elf, undoubtedly Selene, though she seemed….different than she had in my dream somehow, her face devoid of everything but blind bloodlust. Behind them imps streamed through portals, small, frail in appearance, but numerous.

Roaring, Lóin gripped Gilgamesh and charged at the one keeping his love from him, oblivious to all else. Caspian held her hand out and twisting vines and thorned branches formed hedges blocking one of the portals, slowing the imps. I glanced at Lóin readily closing the distance between him and our enemies and them standing all in one place. If I was going to hit them and not my champion, now was the time. Holding my holy symbol, I called on my divine magic to rain fire on them, neatly avoiding the hedge Caspian created and sparing only Selene from the flames. Behind me, Ulkair held his hand out despite the webs holding him, lighting shooting from his fingertips. The winged demon basked in the blaze, unfazed by the lightning as was his serpentine companion. The monk jumped out of the way of the lightning, moving with impossible speed to appear before Lóin, Selene flanking behind the half dragon.

“That was a beautiful storm of fire, my dear priestess,” the demon almost purred addressing me, sinister delight glimmering in his dark eyes. “Let me show you mine.”

Flames erupted throughout the room, dancing around us and devouring all they touched. I tried to jump out of the way, but there was nowhere to go untouched by the very flames I looked to avoid. They lapped at my skin, the choking smoke surrounding us as I had prayed it never would again. I frantically brushed at my arms, trying to ward off the demons’ burning touch, but it was everywhere. Flames surrounded me as I was pinned to the ground, desperate screams torn from my throat, though they did nothing to quell the agony.

Squeezing my eyes shut, I forced the memories back, focusing instead on my companions around me. They needed me. I couldn’t lose myself to torment and recollection now. The snake woman surrounded herself with whirling blades, slithering closer to Caspian still reeling from the other demon’s spell. Ulkair and Cheshire were free from the web, took the full brunt of the spell and Lóin fared no better for his freedom, the fire doubly painful on his naturally cool skin. Keep them alive, and then I could help fight the demons. I called on my magic, feeling it sooth my burns before filling the room, mending my companions’ fresh wounds.

Behind me, I heard Cheshire start to play Ragnarok and Ulkair’s arcane magic burst around the demons, filling the air with acid. The monks continued their assault on Lóin as if nothing had happened while the winged demon began to reel Mimi in with a fiery whip and the snake brandished her six blades, grinning at Caspian. So many enemies to watch, to guard my companions’ lives against as well I could. I had only just healed them and still Lóin swayed on his feet, trapped between the two monks. I held my hand out to the half dragon, mending his wounds as I felt Ulkair draw on my magic, calling down a column of divine fire on the demons, the holy energy thwarting the resistance they normally possessed.

Alix’s sword sprang to life, dancing of its own accord over to the whip binding Mimi and slashing it. The whip frayed and Alix lifted his bow, aiming for but a moment before launching an arrow to hit the weakened spot on the whip, severing it and freeing the Celestial. The demon looked at his whip with irritation for a moment before an ominous gleam rose to his eyes and he called on powerful magic, undaunted by the combat surrounding him. His gaze narrowed on Ulkair and I nearly fell to my knees feeling the destructive magic close in on him, trying to rend his soul from me as the magic sought to capture his life.

I stared at Ulkair in horror, his body seeming to crumble under the onslaught of the spell. I clung to his soul slipping from mine praying that the spell would fail, tears brimming in my eyes at the thought of losing him. Ulkair slumped against the wall, shuddering as he clutched his chest, straining to force the magic aside. Gritting my teeth, I quickly flung a healing spell at Mimi to ease the angry red burns wound around her and pouring positive energy from my palm to focus on the very water in the demon’s body, intent to draw on it until he was as dry and lifeless as this wretched plane. I needed to cause him enough pain that he couldn’t ignore me, so that Ulkair might be spared.

I felt Ulkair’s magic surround us both, my magic fleeing, but in its place came even greater strength and rage burned with me, my mind filling with the unrelenting desire to cause this fiend as much agony as I could. This wretched creature that dare try to take my Ulkair from me…I seethed at the thought, tightening my grip on Anduin.

The demon almost looked disappointed seeing Ulkair stand back up to cast his spell and the fortitude his magic provided. His gaze fell to the side and he smiled, entirely too pleased, and I realized it was Cheshire he was looking at, having moved to cast a spell on Ulkair as well. No…you can’t take them from me! Screaming my fear and my fury, I charged at the demon, moving along aside Mimi to stab Anduin into him. Even doing all I could to draw his attention, still he all but ignored Mimi and I. He stared hard at Cheshire, frowning that they both had survived his spell.

Determined, the demon raised his hand again, dark magic wavering around his fingertips and I drew Anduin back again, praying my assault was enough to disrupt his concentration. Laughing the demon splayed his fingers out and made a sudden fist as though he was crushing Cheshire in his palm, the spell igniting. Tears brimmed in my eyes and I fueled everything I was into my assault, the distant ringing of my companions’ screams meeting my ears, but I couldn’t look away from the demon. They would have to guard their own lives for a few moments, just until there was modicum of safety for Cheshire. I had to become a bigger threat if I wasn’t an easier target.

Lóin roared and jumped up on my other side, Gilgamesh carving deeply into the demon’s side. Gritting my teeth, I stabbed Anduin into the demon’s stomach, holy light shimmering from his silver tines. The demon bellowed and recoiled from us, drawing his sword up over his head, his gaze finally fixed on someone other than my belovèd wizard and bard. Sneering at Mimi, he prepared to bury the blade into the celestial. Mimi only grinned, twirling her scythe and fitting the blade under his arms, slicing deep into his chest and rending his heart.

A blinding light pierced the air and all I knew was agony, an unseen force flinging me back like I was nothing and peeling my exposed skin from my body. My head rang and I could barely think through the cries of my cracked bones and bleeding organs my armour was unable to spare from the blow. I blearily opened my eyes, my vision swimming the moment I thought of trying to get up. A violent coughing fit seizing me instead, more blood painting the floor below me. What…happened…? Mimi attacked the demon and then…? Cold dread stabbed into my heart, so much worse than the lacerations yet marking me. Fighting through the dizziness, I looked around the room for any sign of Ulkair and Cheshire, sobbing when I saw two crumpled forms in the corner.

“ULKAIR! CHESHIRE!” I screamed their names, anguish consuming me.

I scrambled over to them with strength I didn’t think I yet possessed, but forced my limbs to carry me regardless, mumbling pleas that they be okay. Tears poured from my eyes seeing them and I reached shaky hands out, calling on magic I prayed wasn’t too late. Don’t leave me…please, anything but this! My fingers trailed down Ulkair’s bloody face, positive energy seeping into his skin slowly knitting back together as his eyes fluttered open. Reaching out to Cheshire, I cast another spell on her, pulling them both into my arms and pouring healing energy into them until I was sure all their wounds were gone. Cheshire groaned, tensing and looking for Alix, finding the ranger had crouched beside me, entirely unharmed.

Another tear slid down my face in relief to know they were okay, wanting to hold them for longer than I knew to be wise where we could only ever be in danger.

View
My Dreams Beckon Me
The Curse of the Gift

Nerida

I held tight to Ulkair, trying to relax hearing his voice whispered beside me, his hand rubbing my back, but every time I closed my eyes, I was back in the middle of the Blood War. Sighing, I stood up away from his grasp, fisting my hands in my hair. Breathe…just breathe…it was just a dream…except…it wasn’t. It couldn’t be. This, this was different. Everything I saw, heard, felt, it was all so terribly vivid, so much more than just a regular dream. But…if it wasn’t just a dream, then what was it? Why would I see Selene now? Why…?

“Nerida?” Ulkair called, his concern pulling me from my thoughts.

“I…I think I’m going to go for a walk,” I mumbled, walking towards the door

“I’ll go with you,” Ulkair said, immediately beside me, reaching for my hand.

“You, you should sleep. You’re exhausted,” I said, taking a step backwards.

“Do…you not want me with you?” Ulkair asked, looking up at me with a pained gaze.

Nearly sobbing, I pulled him into my arms again, torn between needing him and wanting to spare him from whatever this was. Visions, he hated any kind of divination. I didn’t scry, I didn’t ask to see any of this, but maybe it was similar enough. We had to go to the abyss and something in me pleaded me not to go. Something about the mere thought scared me, but I couldn’t be afraid. I had to be strong, be there for them, for when they needed me and how could I do that if I was afraid? Not afraid, concerned…I wasn’t allowed to be afraid…but something was wrong. Something bode ill and I couldn’t say precisely what. It was too easy to dismiss it as some residual anxiety from the nightmare, feeling myself die at Selene’s hand, but what if that wasn’t it? Or maybe that was all? I didn’t know….

“Whatever worries you so, is it not better we face it together?” Ulkair murmured as he returned my embrace, rubbing my back again in a futile attempt to calm me.

“I just want to protect you and I don’t know how or even from what,” I bitterly whispered, clinging to him.

“Whatever comes, it’ll find a united family,” Ulkair says, gesturing to Cheshire, “None of us are alone anymore, and we’ll protect each other,” Ulkair said, a fierce pride entering his voice. “What happened, belovèd? I feel such turmoil inside you.”

“Not, not now,” I breathed, shaking my head slightly. Couldn’t talk about it anymore, couldn’t think about it anymore. I was so tired, but the thought of sleeping brought tears to my eyes. “Will…will you walk with me?”

“Of course. You have always stayed with me when things get to be… too much, so how could I do any less?”

“You never have let me face that which pains me alone. How ridiculous to think you would start now,” I said, a ghost of a smile on my face. Taking his hand, I walked over to Cheshire, leaning down to kiss her forehead. “I’m sorry I woke you.”

“I’m sorry you’re awake. Are you sure you won’t come back to bed?” Cheshire asked, her eyes pleading with me to at least consider the notion.

“I…I just have too much on my mind for sleep, but I’ll be okay,” I said, trying to smile more widely. Maybe I could make at least her believe me, spare her needless concern when maybe there wasn’t anything to be worried about.

Sighing, Cheshire nodded, glancing briefly at Ulkair before lying back down with the babies, exhaustion overtaking any determination to convince me to remain. I risked her, I risked them all with any plans to pursue this dream. Shaking my head, I squeezed Ulkair’s hand, trying to leave thoughts of the visions behind me. Walking towards the door, Ulkair followed right at my side, taking my arm in his and lacing our fingers.

We walked the halls together, following the easy course the dome provided and softly speaking of anything that came to mind but the dark thoughts dwelling there. For a moment, I could pretend it was still like when we were in Byss and so carefree. The long walks we would take together, telling stories or just talking. I always wondered if whatever tales I had to tell weren’t redundant to Ulkair, assuming each was a memory he had already perused, but still he encouraged me to tell them. There was no time to put this off for long, but for now, I was happy to walk with him again.

In time, I felt the pull of the tides. Even here the oceans of the multiverse beckoned and I answered their call with my prayer, Ulkair meditating in my lap. With him in my arms, we would work something out. Before then, we had a dragon to worry about. Declan said he’d get the bronze we needed, but I hadn’t heard anything about the success of that venture or where we could pick it up. There was also…another matter I wanted to ask the bard about. He seemed to know a lot about Sigil and might even have an idea of where to look for a gem cutter.

Cuddling Ulkair a bit closer, I kissed his cheek, allowing my magic to relieve us of our weariness. Sighing contently, Ulkair shifted in my hold, turning around just enough to gently bring his lips to mine. I smiled, running my fingers through his hair and kissing him again, savouring his warmth, the feeling of his skin on mine and his endlessly captivating eyes.

“Shall we go deliver some bronze to a dragon?” I asked, nuzzling his face.

“If we must,” Ulkair pouted, kissing me again and leaning against me until I fell over backwards on our bed. Grinning, he began kissing down my neck.

“Ulkair, we need to go find Declan,” I said, lightly pushing his face away.

“Hmmm there’s something more important I have in mind,” Ulkair replied, taking my hand and showering my fingers with chaste kisses instead.

“You’re incorrigible,” I giggled, halfheartedly trying to pull my hand away.

“Ah, there it is,” Ulkair murmured, running his thumb over my lips. “Needed to find that first.”

Blinking, I stared at him a moment as it dawned on me what he was talking about. A smile. Even with everything that was happening, dragons and gods, our ventures in this plane and possibly others, he stopped to make me smile. Cupping his face, I pressed my lips against his, wondering how I got by before him.

“Thank you,” I breathed, sorely tempted to forget about the world for a while and remain with him. “But we really should be going.”

“I suppose you’re right. One shouldn’t resurrect a dragon only to let him wither away. Strange, the paths our lives take, don’t you think? Come, let’s be off,” Ulkair said, standing up and offering me his hand.

“And this is hardly the strangest part,” I commented, taking his hand, lacing our fingers once more.

Traveling down the halls once more, we followed the enchanting sound of the violin, the elegant performance I was becoming to associate with Declan. Drawing closer, the music paused, a couple uncertain notes preceding a terrible screeching noise.

“I…I don’t think I did it right…” Mimi’s voice sadly called.

“It’s okay, you just drifted a little too close to the bridge,” Declan’s voice answered reassuringly.

“The what?”

“That’s this wooden piece holding the strings up. Try to stay closer to the fingerboard up here.”

Peeking through the door, I saw Mimi holding Declan’s violin as he pointed at different things on it. Nodding with a determined look, Mimi brought the bow up again, a wavering note soon squeaking again.

“What am I doing wrong now?” Mimi pouted, looking at the bard.

“Ah, that time, you were just bowing at a bit of an angle. Try to keep the bow straighter,” Declan instructed, his hand running along her arm until it met hers, guiding her bow on the strings. Wrapping his arm around behind her, his fingers danced along the strings to create a melody. “See?”

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” I began, stepping into the room.

“Ah, Nerida. How can I help you?” Declan asked, turning to face us. “Would you like to learn to play the violin?”

“Oh, umm, no thank you. I sing,” I said, immediately realizing my mistake seeing his eyes light up.

“Well then, would you care to sing for us?” Declan asked, recovering his violin and beginning to play a flowing melody that reminded me of the ocean waves.

“That’s…really not why I’m here,” I tried to decline, wondering what possessed me to tell a bard I sang. Of course he would then want to hear, but…he was used to performances such as those last night, ones I could never hope to match. My voice wasn’t suited to these halls.

“Oh, but surely you have a moment?” Declan persisted, continuing to play the lovely tune.

“Singing always makes you feel better,” Ulkair encouraged, squeezing my hand.

Releasing a shaky breath, I nodded, wondering why he chose a song reminiscent of water. Water…an ocean of waves…my thoughts drifted to Agorran and the song I sang to him spilled from my lips, memories of him lying motionless flashing through my mind. Declan adjusted his song to match mine, accompanying me perfectly, even as my voice trembled with the devastation of having lost him in the wake of a bitter victory. Even knowing he was yet among the living, I still remembered the pain of losing him, perhaps more acutely now than in a long time because I had lost him again. He was still in Byss, passing the days caring for his people, helping all however he could, but how many more would pass before I could see him again? Perhaps I didn’t need him as I once did, but he would always be my high priest, his soothing company dearly missed.

“That was beautiful, Nerida,” Declan said when we finished, smiling up at me. “So what was it you wished to speak to me about?”

“For one, I wanted to apologize for my behaviour when we first met. I’m afraid I was hastier than I should have been.”

“Oh, well, you were concerned about your friend. No offense intended, so none taken.”

“We went through…a lot to revive him and I didn’t want that to all be in vain.”

“That’s okay,” Declan easily dismissed. “I believe today the shipment should have arrived at the place where Lóin specified, the place you first appeared.”

“Can we get back to the elemental plane of water from there?” I asked.

“There’s a good chance that if we recreate the act that dumped us into the elemental plane of water there, a portal will appear like the one that brought us to Sigil. Casting any spell requiring about the same amount of positive energy should do the trick,” Ulkair provided.

“We should probably find Lóin though,” I commented, wondering where he might have gone. “He was pretty upset when we tried to go to the elemental plane of earth without him. Oh, but I did have one more question.”

Pausing, I looked at Ulkair, feeling my face flush a little. I needed to ask about a gem cutter and how could I do that with him standing right next to me? I couldn’t very well ask him to leave and if I tried to come back later, Ulkair would doubtless be with me then as well. He was almost always at my side, especially if I was upset about anything. Well, he knew I had something from the elemental plane of earth and had probably already guessed a gem. Knowing I wanted it cut only revealed so much more.

“Do you know about any gem cutters? Or rather, where to find one?” I asked.

“Gem cutters? Why yes, there are quite a few here in Sigil.”

“Of what level of skill?”

“Well, I guess moderate to extremely skilled,” Declan said, blinking in confusion.

“How about, say, the best in the multiverse?” I asked, hoping he would be able to give me a more straightforward answer than the gem cutters themselves might.

Anyone could say they were skilled and the best here might be able to achieve what I wanted, but it had to be perfect. There wouldn’t be another emerald like what I found and I couldn’t risk ruining its potential settling for what was here. We had already travelled to one plane to find the emerald, so what was one more to have it crafted as expertly as it deserved?

“Well, I don’t know about that. The most skilled are the dwarves who mine in the lands of Moradin and peddle their wares in the hills of Elysium.”

“Could we find them from Elysium?”

“Oh, certainly, certainly. I don’t know offhand where a portal to Elysium is, but a lot of people like to visit there. You’ll certainly be able to find someone who knows where one is. I hear it’s a great vacation spot because it’s always summer.”

“Okay. Thank you,” I said, smiling perhaps too widely.

Elysium…how perfect in every way. Ulkair wanted to go there anyway to bury Elysia. The trip…would be hard on him. He had so many demons, so much regret plaguing his mind, questioning everything he had done, reminding him what he had lost. I could help him move past his anguish and give him a promise of our future.

“What do you need a gem cutter for, Nerida?” Ulkair asked, a huge grin on his face.

“Oh, nothing in particular. A coincidence, I’m sure,” I smiled back. “Thank you, Declan. Sorry again to have interrupted your lesson.”

“Think nothing of it,” Declan said, turning back to Mimi, handing her his violin once more.

Taking our leave, we walked the halls asking any we happened to pass if they had seen Lóin around. Thankfully, the half dragon rather stood out and it didn’t take long to find him buried in spare instruments back in another storage room. Looking around, I saw every instrument I had ever heard of and many more I hadn’t lining shelves and countless more in cases scattered across the room. Lóin was searching for them with odd determination, looking for something in particular, though I had never known him to play anything. I suppose if he wanted to learn, he was in the right place.

“Do you want to help me put some bronze under a dragon?” I asked.

“Yes,” Lóin stiffly answered, not even turning to look at me in favour of pulling down another pile of instruments from a shelf, methodically checking each case. “I’ll meet you there in two hours.”

“O-okay, Lóin,” I mumbled.

Without any indication that he heard me, Lóin began digging through another pile. Should I help him look? I had nothing in particular to do, stray thoughts from my dream clouding me in times of idleness. I could, but…something about him unnerved me, his singular dedication to finding the instrument he was looking for. Perhaps it was nothing. I felt no evil near us and Lóin could be like that sometimes. Shaking my head, I turned towards halls becoming familiar in my recent need to be kept busy.

“Was there anything you wanted to do, Ulkair?” I asked,

“Whatever will make you feel better, Nerida. I have a few ideas,” Ulkair grinned, though I felt concern behind his teasing, knowing he was just trying to distract me.

“Could I…talk to you about my dream?” I asked, a sort of dread filling me at the question, but I needed to face it.

“Of course. My love, you can talk to me about anything,” Ulkair said, seriousness returning to his face.

“Maybe just…somewhere more private than this,” I mumbled. After the party, there weren’t many awake just yet, but enough that I didn’t want overhearing our discussion.

We walked in silence back to our room, the only place I had seen in the conservatory that might offer the privacy I was looking for. My mind whirled with questions, what the dream meant, the meaning of seeing those visions at all. Admitting I needed to face it seemed to bring everything I had been trying to avoid to the surface of my thoughts. The moment we reached our room, I curled up on our bed, Ulkair ever at my side, his arm draped around my waist. Whatever this was, I just had to see it through. Then it would seem so bad anymore. It wouldn’t have the upper hand from chasing me.

“What do you know about that dream I had?” I asked, trying to figure out where to start with the endless questions plaguing me. I knew I had mentioned at least parts of it, but in the haze I couldn’t recall what all I might have said.

“I caught glimpses of it in your mind, but I didn’t want to dredge it up until you were ready,” Ulkair said, running his fingers through my hair.

“Well, I don’t know that I am, but no good will come from running and if there is any truth to her words, we don’t have much time.”

“What did you see?” Ulkair gently questioned.

“It started out I was looking out over the ocean, but when I dove in, the water became blood and I knew it was mine. Then I was in the abyss, dying in a pool of my blood. I couldn’t see the wounds on me, but I felt them carved into my body. There were so many demons and devils and people fighting around me. They all left me for dead, all except two people. That monk and Selene walked straight towards me. Standing over me, he commanded her to kill me, saying freedom would not come to her. When she knelt beside me, she told me he knew we were coming, but not what we looked like. She said she didn’t have much time. Do you know how someone would bind another’s soul to their hands? Or why?”

“It could be a phylactery. He could have her soul in an object and he’s using that to control her.”

“Is it bad if mine is…vulnerable as it is?”

“I know the magic for it, but it’s not a quick or easy thing if that’s what he’s done. He might be able to take your soul quickly, but not bind it to anything. We’ll do our best to make sure he never finds out about your soul fissures.”

“Do you know why I would dream about that? I’ve never had nightmares sleeping near you before, not after that burning house, not after that demon or after Elysia. I have always felt safe with you and that has been enough to keep nightmares at bay,” I said, tears brimming in my eyes.

“After everything that’s happened to you, it makes sense, but that’s your domain, my love,” Ulkair said, brushing away the tears.

I had heard about Lord Eadro sometimes giving the gift of oracular vision to those who delve into scrying and divination, though I had used those spells but a few times. Even so, what else could this be? My dreams had become more vivid since I saw his face in the temple and even more so since the overwhelming amount of positive energy coursed through me.

“What do you know about oracles?” I asked. If that’s what I was, had become, I should know more about what it meant to be an oracle.

“Well, I knew there were those in Elysia who had oracular foresight whose dreams began to tell the future before it happened or gave them warnings. Many of them went mad with the endless and imposing possibilities of the future.”

“How do you know what’s a vision and what’s a dream?” I asked, this ‘gift’ feeling more and more like a curse.

“I don’t know,” Ulkair sighed. “That’s the problem.”

“She spoke to me so clearly…will I die if I go find her?”

“If it is an oracular vision, it could be that you’ll die if you find her or it could be that you’ll die if you don’t find her at the right time. From what you described, it could be that if you don’t try to find her, you’ll die.”

“Do you think he’s looking for us? While everyone else passed me by, he walked straight towards me. I was already dying and wouldn’t have lasted much longer anyway. Why would he care to seek me out?

“I don’t know for certain, but it strikes me that it’s more about her life, that perhaps if you don’t get there in time, whatever we’re doing along the way, we’ll find her as an unfortunate surprise and she will kill you. Maybe that means we should make her a priority.”

“After the dragon,” I insisted, wondering vaguely how I seemed to be the only one concerned about him.

“If delaying means your death, I say we go now,” Ulkair said, pulling me into his arms and holding me tight.

“I’m sure it won’t take long to deliver the bronze.”

“Alright, maybe we could talk to all our companions and plan it out or we could just go.”

“How would we find her there? There was chaos everywhere.”

“We do have scrying magic. We can find anyone anywhere, it’s just dangerous,” Ulkair said.

I froze hearing the suggestion. Scrying? Ulkair was terrified of scrying, despised the magic that cost him all he loved. How could he suggest it so easily now? If it was a trap, he could show me whatever he wanted, guide me perfectly into place until there was no escape.

“He noticed me when he couldn’t have been expecting me looking for her and now he is,” I said, frowning.

“And now we know to hide ourselves,” Ulkair said, a grim look yet on his face.

“How do we do that?”

“If you cast the proper spell, your scrying becomes much more difficult to detect. Well do I know that you can be fooled, but I do also know the chameleonic spell.”

“Is there anyone else who might know more about the Blood War or possibly them? It seems he must be pretty powerful, so someone is bound to know about him.

“There are bound to be a lot of people who know about the Blood War. It’s always trying to spill into here. As for this monk, I’m not sure. There are a lot of powerful people in Sigil.”

“Maybe Alix could draw him for me. Then we could see if anyone recognized him,” I suggested, realizing I knew nothing else about him.

“It seems worth trying,” Ulkair said, caressing the side of my face.

It seemed a longshot, really, and Ulkair probably knew that. Perhaps he was only humouring me, but it was the tiniest hope that maybe we could even that much of an edge on him. Sighing, my eyes slid shut and I leaned into Ulkair’s hand, nuzzling his fingers. I was too worried about this. We would face whatever met us and we would find a way to survive. What I saw didn’t matter. Feeling my life slip between my fingers was irrelevant. The visions were but a warning I would heed, but nothing I would not overcome.

“Let’s go find Alix,” I said, opening my eyes to see concerned golden ones regarding me. If for no other reason, I needed to get a hold of myself for his sake. If I was worried, he was for me. I had to be strong for him.

Smiling, I stood up and pulled him to his feet, the two of us traversing the halls once more. We found the ranger even faster than we had Lóin, no one able to miss their high priestess’ passing and naturally, Alix was with her.

Walking up, I saw Alix playing with Seren, tickling his belly as he shrieked in delight. For a moment, all thoughts of demons and war fled my mind seeing my sweet nephew, his life and his innocence. Smiling, Ulkair took Seren so I could talk to Alix, though seeing them wasn’t terribly much less distracting. My beautiful family, as unexpected as they were precious…

“How can I help you, Nerida?” Alix asked, drawing my attention away from Seren.

“Ah, yes. Could you draw something for me?”

“Of course. I don’t have any art supplies, but I’m sure I could find some around here,” Alix said, asking around until someone was able to provide him with a piece of parchment, a quill, and a small jar of ink. Setting them at the table he’d been sitting at, Alix dipped the quill into the inkwell and looked back to me. “Describe him to me.”

Taking a deep breath, I nodded, trying to recall what exactly he looked like. I had paid more attention to Selene, but I still clearly saw him.

“He was tall, I think. It was hard to tell, but he seemed to tower over Selene. Tall and thin. Pronounced jaw, just a little bit of a beard on his chin. His face was rather angular in general. Short, dark hair, dark eyes. An intense stare…” I trailed off, remembering the anger in his black eyes when he ordered Selene to kill me, one daring to think of freeing her.

Without a word, Alix brought the quill to his parchment, dark lines slowly spreading across his page. Seeming scattered at first, the lines slowly formed a featureless face. Each stroke of his quill worked to bring the picture to life until my memory seemed to stare back at me. While he worked, Cheshire walked up, looking on in interest.

“Is this the person you were looking for?” Alix asked, turning the parchment towards me.

“Indeed, as well as I can tell. I only got so good of a look at him.”

“Yes, it does seem like you’re looking at this person from below. We don’t really have good details of his forehead or eyes, but it should do,” Alix said, smiling at me.

“I’m sorry…I was choking in a pool of blood on the ground,” I mumbled. The only thing we knew about him was what he looked like and I couldn’t even provide a very good description.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Alix said, his smile faltering as he put his hand on my shoulder. “Are you okay?”

Blinking, I realized he almost certainly hadn’t heard anything about the dream. He probably knew something happened with all the noise, but I doubt he asked Cheshire about it if she didn’t offer anything. It just wasn’t like him to pry.

“I just…had a nightmare about them last night,” I vaguely explained, blushing slightly.

“Oh, is this the one with Lóin’s lady? Do we know where we can find them?”

“In the Blood War? It looks like we may have to leave soon. Time is short.”

“Well, I’ll go strap on my armour then,” Alix sighed, rising from the table.

“I don’t think we’re going today. We still need to deliver the bronze to the dragon.”

“I…I still need to talk to Ooze too,” Cheshire mumbled, looking down.

“Well, we still need to let everyone else know and perhaps prepare a little more anyway,” I said, draping my arm around her.

“But we should go as soon as we can,” Ulkair said in a high pitched voice, waving Seren’s arm with each word. Sighing, he continued in his regular voice. “As soon as we’ve prepared. My instinct is to run in, but my instincts aren’t what they once were.”

Frowning, I pulled him into my arms, trying to stave off the worst of the waves of self-loathing I felt from him. I didn’t know who he once was, what he might have been like to shun the man I had come to know, but I knew he deserved a chance. Raising his chin, I gently pressed my lips against his, feeling him readily kiss me back. Tiny hands patted at our faces, pale green eyes watching us. Laughing, I kissed his face, resting my fingertips over his hand. Seren’s face scrunched up and he squeaked, his tail flipping happily between us.

“Ulkair, do you know what toys merbabies tend to play with?” I asked, nuzzling Seren’s face.

“I don’t know. What did you ha-“ Ulkair cut off abruptly, his face falling. “Well, I could make him something I would have made for an Elysian child.”

“I was just thinking of how often he’s been stuck in the bag of holding of late and he doesn’t have anything to hold onto. I want to say he’s a brave merfolk, but maybe he’s still only five months old,” I mumbled, running my fingers through his short hair. “It would be nice if he had something while we’re gone.”

“I’ll make him something,” Ulkair promised, kissing both of us.

“We will need someone to watch them if we’re going to the abyss, though. Maybe Declan will know someone who can look after them,” Cheshire suggested, wrapping her arms protectively around Rhapsody.

“I’ll go with you. I bet he’s still in the music room with Mimi,” I said, linking my arm with hers.

“Music room?” Cheshire asked, raising an eyebrow.

“You’ll…see when we get there,” I said, scratching the back of my head. I wasn’t sure what spurred her sudden interest in the violin, if it was Declan or trying to fit into the church of Tubatron better, but perhaps she had gotten the hang of the instrument by now.

Leading her towards the room, I wasn’t greeted this time by sounds of the violin but even footsteps moving about the room. Glancing in, I found them dancing closely, an act Mimi seemed much more familiar with than playing the violin. They gracefully moved together, each movement intentional, but not forced, with a closeness that made me want to try such a dance with Ulkair or Cheshire.

“Hi, guys,” Mimi called when she noticed us, pausing in their dance, though her arms remained loosely draped around Declan’s neck.

“Do you know anything about Marian?” Cheshire asked, reluctantly drawing her gaze away from the scrolls of music around the room. “I was talking to a harpist and he mentioned she might be able to care for my babies if need be.”

“Marian?” Declan repeated, thinking a moment. “She lives in the basement. Doesn’t really come out much.”

“Why not?” I asked, growing wary.

“She says she doesn’t want to be distracted from the music.”

“Does she have a reflection?”

“Yes,” Declan chuckled lightly. “I think she’s just uncomfortable around some of the other bards.”

“Ah. Well, Declan, do you maybe have any plans tomorrow?” Cheshire asked, holding her hands behind her back and looking up at him.

“I’m always busy in the service of Tubatron.”

“Could you be busy in babysitting for the blessèd baby of Tubatron?” Cheshire asked, kissing Rhapsody’s head and looking up at the other bard.

“How could I ever not take care of the blessèd baby of Tubatron,” Declan said, his hands falling away from Mimi.

“Why is he babysitting? Where are you going?” Mimi asked, looking between us.

“Nerida says we need to go to the abyss,” Cheshire said.

“Someone Lóin knows is caught up in the Blood War and I believe we need to find her,” I added.

“Oh,” Declan said, his smile faltering. He hid it well, but he was extremely concerned about something. He tried to look at me, but his gaze occasionally flickered back to Cheshire. To his new high priestess. “Lots of not nice things live in the abyss. Are you sure you’re ready for that?”

“Well, they killed me in my sleep last night. I would rather find them before they attempt the same in real life,” I stated.

“Perhaps,” Declan began, his smile disappearing entirely. “Perhaps the high priestess of Tubatron should not risk herself in such a dangerous venture. You, you have just arrived after we have waited so long for you. The faithful might be upset if you leave so soon.”

“Is there any who might know more that could aid us in this journey if it must happen?” I asked. We knew it was dangerous and we rather knew why, but perhaps there was some insight, something to watch for that would help us.

“Any number of bards would go with you, but they would all die or fall to the wiles of succubi, We are unfortunately a temptable folk. Cheshire and Ooze are probably the best suited to go, but that doesn’t mean that any of us are suited to it.”

“I intended more for someone who might be able to advise us how best to survive, not to go with us,” I clarified.

“I would speak with Ooze. He has travelled to many places, fought many things,” Declan said, looking no more relieved. “I mean…I suppose I could go with you. I am not needed here in the sense that Ooze is. My loss wouldn’t cripple the church of Tubatron.”

“I couldn’t ask you to do that, though,” I frowned, looking him over. He was no fighter. Granted, neither was Cheshire, but I knew she was accustomed to battle and Declan obviously didn’t want to go as much as I didn’t want to drag anyone else into this. I didn’t want to be haunted by dreams of him asking me why I survived and he didn’t as other faces have before.

“Against my better judgement, I just offered,” Declan ground out, trying to keep a brave face before Cheshire.

“We appreciate you offer, but that would leave no one reliable here to look after Rhapsody and Seren,” Cheshire said, folding her hands over Rhapsody’s tiny body.

“Indeed, I would much rather watch them,” Declan said, some colour returning to his face.

“How is he going to feed them?” Mimi asked, raising an eyebrow.

“I’m getting there! One problem at a time, please,” Cheshire huffed. “I don’t know.”

“Well, I did hear this funny story about an adventurer who had a baby,” Declan began, blushing slightly. “It’s a long story, but she needed to feed the baby while she was gone and they found out how to use certain spells to extract the milk and save it in bottles for later. It’s a little embarrassing, but I do have experience with this.”

“Or we could just hire a wet nurse,” Cheshire pointed out.

“You’re familiar with magic as a bard, right? So the babies casting light or lightning wouldn’t startle you?” I asked, holding Seren a little tighter. I didn’t really want to leave him in the care of a stranger, but it was far safer for them anywhere other than the abyss. Still, he had to be prepared.

“I love lightning, but why would I have to worry about that?” Declan asked.

“They’re both sorcerers,” I informed him, handing Seren the pearl I wore around my neck. Cooing happily, he stared at the stone until light began to shine from it.

“Oh….well, I’ll just teach them a little song,” Declan said, singing a little tune about shooting lightning out of his fingers. “But maybe I’ll get Marian to help me with them. I can take care of everything, but I certainly understand if a mother would like to meet her babysitters.”

I found myself nodding, though I knew Declan was speaking to Cheshire. Seren may be my nephew, not my son, but I still couldn’t bear the thought of anything happening to him and I loved Rhapsody no less. Smiling again, Declan led us down to the basement where this Marian resided. The path down was dark, but I sensed no evil or undeath as I first suspected.

Opening the door, I saw a tiny woman about the size Cheshire was when we first met, though her eyes were far larger and her features more squat, her skin and hair almost white. Her eyes widened further on her pinched face seeing us and she ran over, bowing as soon as she saw Cheshire and speaking in a voice so soft I could barely make the words out at all. Smiling, Cheshire shook her little hand and she stepped up to me, coming just above my knee. Kneeling down, I extended my hand for the same courtesy, her hand wrapping around only a couple of my fingers. Shying away, she continued to speak to Cheshire about what brought her to the church. Puffing up with a bit of pride, Marian pulled out a small stringed instrument similar to Declan’s violin, though she held it in front of her, a peg at the bottom of it resting on the ground.

Running a bow over the strings, she told the tale of a great hero of her people, saving them from a drow, an evil race of elves living in the underground, if my memory served. I saw something about them in one of the books on the planes, but didn’t read much more about them with all the other types of land dwellers there seemed to be. When she finished, Cheshire shrunk down to be the same size and put a hand on her shoulder in the typical Byssian fashion. Sniffling, Marian threw her arms around Cheshire and hugged her.

“I would be honoured to look after your babies,” Marian’s soft voice called, looking between Rhapsody and Seren.

“I’m afraid Seren will give you some troubles…” Cheshire commented.

“Oh, I’m very strong for my size,” Marian hummed, walking up to me and reaching for Seren. I passed him to her, keeping my hands close just in case, feeling Ulkair ready magic to catch him if necessary. His tail brushed the ground, but she held him just fine, rocking him slightly in her arms scarcely bigger than his. “We are very strong. We have to move big rocks all the time and bash in giant beetle skulls. I’ll keep them safe.”

“I think they’re in wonderful hands,” Cheshire smiled, regaining her typical size. “When we’re ready to leave, I’ll bring them here.”

Nodding, Marian passed Seren back to me and he played with my glowing necklace, entirely undisturbed by the one who would be his caretaker in our absence. Indeed, I felt no animosity from her, nothing that would suggest she would do anything but care for our children as she vowed to. Loath though I was to leave them with anyone I didn’t really know, if I needed to, she seemed a good choice. Thanking her, we took our leave.

“So what are you planning to do now?” Cheshire asked, looking up at us.

“It should be about time to meet Lóin to take the bronze to the dragon,” I said, trying to figure out how much time might have passed.

“Oh, well, I can take Seren then and look into finding a suitable wet nurse then,” Cheshire said, reaching for Seren.

I hadn’t thought too much one way or the other about bringing him with, but it would give him a chance to swim freely as he hadn’t since we’d come here. He needed some way to be able to move and if there was any sort of pool here, I’d yet to find it. Still, Cheshire looked at me expectantly, waiting for me to pass her my nephew and I reluctantly conceded. If she was looking for a wet nurse, it might be best to have them both and it could be difficult to watch him moving the bronze.

“See you later, my little love,” I whispered, kissing Cheshire on the forehead.

Taking Ulkair’s hand, we walked down the hall towards the entrance when Lóin rounded the corner, an accordion strapped to his back. I stopped in my tracks, staring at the instrument. That’s what he was looking for? Time untold he spent searching, checking every case in every corner in favour even of aiding his own kin, and all that effort was for an accordion ? I knew the instrument itself wasn’t an abomination, but still a shiver ran down my spine remembering its haunting sound and the pain that always seemed to follow it. Ulkair stood behind me, peering over my shoulder.

“What good could an accordion be?” Ulkair whispered in my ear. “Why would he want one?”

“Lóin, why do you have an accordion on your back?” I stiffly asked, searching his eyes for some sign of possession.

“I can’t leave it here,” Lóin plainly stated, as though the answer obvious.

‘It doesn’t seem to be good or evil. It’s just neutral, magical,’ I said, feeling for an aura from the instrument.

‘Looking at the magic, it seems like it binds to the first person who plays it,’ Ulkair added.

“Why were you looking for an accordion?” I asked.

“I didn’t want the accordion, I just wanted to play it. Now I can’t seem to put it down.”

“Was there a reason you wanted to play the accordion, specifically?”

“I wanted to play my master’s song, which was on the accordion.”

“I have many memories of accordion. None of them good,” I grimaced, staring the keys, almost expecting them to start playing or to see souls clawing at the metal siding, screaming for freedom they feared they would never find. “Why do you have to carry it now?”

“I just want to remember my master and this seems to be the best way to carry him with me.”

I eyed Lóin, searching his words for falsehood, any sign that there was something more to this sudden desire or anything else influencing him. I didn’t know if I should be disappointed or relieved to find nothing. That was what he wanted, but what he wanted wasn’t always good for him. At least Dovev was gone. This time, this couldn’t be his doing. The accordion was an instrument as any other, though I still didn’t think I could bear to hear its sound.

“Just…be careful,” I conceded, trying to dismiss the feeling of unease I had around it. Was it the instrument that was putting me on edge? The dream? Both? Was anything actually wrong, or was it all just in my head? If, if I could just gently persuade him to leave it behind, then it wouldn’t matter. “Though it looks like we’ll be going to the abyss soon. Perhaps it should remain behind so it won’t get damaged. If the abyss is anything like what I song in my dream, it’s a nightmarish wasteland there.”

“It’s mine. Why would I leave it? Besides, what if someone did something to it?”

“It will be safer here than in the abyss surrounded by demons and devils if that’s your concern,” I responded. If he thought the magic of the instrument would protect it against the painful heat of the abyss and the battle that awaited us there, it would certainly be fine here.

“But we’re not going to the abyss right now,” Lóin said, growing increasingly defensive.

“I didn’t say you had to leave it now. Just a suggestion. It seems precious to you and I wouldn’t want to see it damaged. Though you’re sure the water in the elemental plane wouldn’t damage it either? I don’t know that land dweller instruments are meant to be submerged.”

“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Lóin said, tightening his grip on the strap over his shoulder.

“Okay. Let’s go,” I sighed, taking Ulkair’s hand again and continuing towards the entrance. I didn’t have any real cause to demand he leave it behind, just a bad feeling I couldn’t explain.

Opening the doors to the music hall, the stench of Sigil assaulted me. Coughing, I clamped my hand over my nose and mouth, having forgotten that the air was so foul outside. How did people live in this? Zissyx was a terrible place, but it was clean and the water fresh. I reluctantly lowered my hand and followed the path Declan had led us down to return to where we appeared the previous morning. The sooner we were out of Sigil, the sooner I could breathe.

The walk seemed shorter today, ogling the city less than I had the previous day. I was bound to stand out regardless, but no sense in drawing unnecessary attention to myself. No one seemed to pay anyone much heed here, all too used to seeing creatures from all across the multiverse, though I suspected trouble still found those obviously new to the city before those raised here.

A large cart full of sheets of bronze sat in the square we arrived in, appearing undisturbed. Lóin looked the metal over, frowning at some of the sheets, but I couldn’t tell the difference between them. Grunting, he threw the sheet he lifted back and looked at me, waiting for me to create the portal to the elemental plane of water.

“Anything using about the same amount of positive energy as plane shift, right?” I asked, looking at the space beside the cart where I supposed the portal was to appear.

Ulkair nodded and squeezed my hand. Well, even if this didn’t work, I could always cast plane shift and then Ulkair could teleport us to the fortress. Raising my hand, I call my magic to my hand, drawing on the spell to grant me greater size and strength. If the portal didn’t appear, the spell would make moving the bronze easier.

The spell whirled around me, readying to empower me as it usually would when something began drawing on my magic, pulling it away from me to power something else. The space before us wavered, starting to swirl and glow blue as it fed on my magic. It glowed brighter and brighter until a swirling portal appeared, just as the one that took us to Sigil. Around us a few people grumbled, stepping aside to avoid the portal just as they did the cart beside it, the cart of bronze more peculiar than a portal.

“I was right! When we cast that plane shift, it must have been just the right place at the wrong time that the spell opened up that portal and we were sucked through it instead of arriving here in Sigil,” Ulkair beamed at me in a mixture of pride that he’d been right and to reassure me that nothing had ever been wrong with my magic. “It’s quite the coincidence. The people of Sigil talk all the time of accidentally falling through portals.”

Lóin stepped up to the cart, grabbing the handles and pushing it through the portal. Ulkair and I followed close behind before the portal could close. Water exploded around us, the increasingly familiar sight of the fortress greeting our eyes. Regaining my tail, I swam over to the bronze, wondering how we were going to carrying it to the fortress and then up the stairs to the dragon.

‘Nerida, we have a stowaway,’ Ulkair said, pointing at a spot in the middle of the pile.

Looking closer, I saw a small land dweller, a boy with wide, distressed eyes. Why was a child hiding in the bronze? He couldn’t possibly have intended to come here and gauging by his face, if he had known our destination, he never would have followed.

“Let’s go. The bronze is sinking. I’ll keep an eye on the boy,” I said, grabbing onto the corner closest to the child, a water breathing spell ready at my fingertips for if he couldn’t hold his breath.

Ulkair and Lóin each took hold of the bronze as we slowly swam towards the fortress. Between the three of us, especially with Lóin’s strength, the weight wasn’t so bad suspended in water, though it made swimming awkward. The boy’s gaze flitted around, his cheeks puffed out in what I think was an attempt to hold his breath. How long could land dwellers go without air? Alix managed just fine, but this child was likely different.

As we drew near the fortress, bubbles escaped his lips and he began making choking noises. Reaching out, I touched his arm, lending him Lord Eadro’s power and the gift of breathing water he granted all his children. The panicked look on his face slowly faded as he realized he could now breathe the water filling his mouth, though his every instinct I’m sure protested. I watched him in case he decided to try to get away, knowing I could easily catch him. Looking at the size of his little legs, Seren could probably outswim him. Sniffling, he curled up in the bronze.

Once we maneuvered the cart into the fortress, Ulkair grabbed the boy by the back of his shirt, dumping him in front of me to decide what to do with him.

“Should we take him up to the air or keep him where’s he’s uncomfortable?” Ulkair asked. “He’s just a lad. Probably.”

“We could take him upstairs and show him the dragon we’ll feed him to if he doesn’t talk,” I commented. The dragon was asleep and didn’t seem the sort to eat a child since having his life restored, but this child didn’t know that.

“Ahhh! I’ll tell you whatever you want!” he shrieked, trembling.

“What were you doing in the bronze?” I asked, feeling a little bad for having scared him so. I knelt before him, trying to look less imposing.

“It, it was just bronze. I was just going to take some and sell it. I didn’t know it was yours. I was hoping to grab a nicer sheet, not the piece of garbage a grabbed off the top. They told me it was ‘impure’ when I tried to sell it. And then digging for a better piece they kind of shifted over me and I was stuck until we were in the water,” he said, rubbing bruised skin around his ankle.

“Why did you want to sell it?” I asked.

“So I could eat,” he mumbled, biting his lip and looking away from me.

I reached out and gently took hold of his chin, inspecting his face. He flinched, scrunching his eyes shut as though he expected me to beat him. After threatening to feed him to a dragon, I supposed that was to be expected. I saw fear, wondering if maybe there wasn’t something more to his thievery, but I could recognize hunger anywhere, especially in a child. Sighing, I released him, thinking of my time in Zissyx, stealing to scrap together everything I could to win my freedom.

“If I feed you, will you tell me more?” I asked. Whatever situation he was in, I felt the need to get him out of it.

“If you give me food, I’ll do anything for you,” he said, the first hint of anything other than fear I’d seen in him glimmering in his eyes. Hope, excitement at the promise of food though I undoubtedly still scared him.

“Ulkair, do you know how we’re going to get the bronze up the stairs?”

“I think I can manage that,” Ulkair said, holding his hand out to the pile of bronze.

Floating discs appeared before his fingertips, growing as the swooped towards the pile of bronze, each picking up several sheets until the cart was empty. Forming a line, the discs glided over to the stairs, lifting their load without any sign of difficulty even breaching the water.

“They don’t really help underwater, but they work pretty well in the air,” Ulkair commented, smiling at his spell’s usefulness.

“You have a spell for everything,” I hummed, kissing my wizard before turning back to the child. “Come, let us get you something to eat.”

He eyed the bag slung across my chest, trying to gauge how much food I might have in there. Looking back at me, he nodded, need of food winning out over anything else. I slowly scooped him up in my arms and swam towards the stairs, regaining my legs with but a thought to climb them. The boy gasped, staring at my legs and at Ulkair as he returned to his regular form. Curling up in my arms, he said nothing, probably fearing we wouldn’t feed him if he asked too many questions. I lightly touched my fingertips to his ankle, casting a simple healing spell to ease the bruising.

Peeking into the room upstairs, I saw it was still covered in a mixture of our and the dragon’s blood caked on the stone floor. Grimacing, I turned so he couldn’t see the remnants of our battle. Sending positive energy out to the water below us, I commanded it to rise and flow into the room, taking with it the water dripping from our skin and clothing. The water swirled over the room, neatly avoiding the dragon, but sweeping up all the remaining blood.

When the room was clean, I sent the water out the window, the red taint soon lost to the endless plane. Walking into the room, I set the boy down away from the sleeping dragon, casting another spell to create food before he could worry too much that I would change my mind. His eyes widen to see a pile of bread about as big as he was appear out of nowhere, sitting beside a large barrel of pure water. Without hesitation he grabbed a loaf in each hand, eating as quickly as he could, barely pausing to even breathe. As soon as his hand was empty he grabbed another loaf, tears forming in his eyes. Had he ever known anything but hunger?

“Easy, it’s not going anywhere,” I murmured, kneeling down and rubbing his back, praying perhaps magical food was kinder to an empty stomach than ordinary bread might be.

“How did you make food appear out of nowhere? That’s amazing,” he mumbled, trying to finish chewing the bread in his mouth before taking another bite.

“I’m a cleric. My god grants me power to do all kinds of different things, like how I brought us here and pulled the water out of our hair and clothing,” I said.

“He gives you power? I thought gods were just mean and ignored you. Would he give me power too?”

“If you were his follower and became his priest, yes.”

“I would follow anyone who gave me food every day,” he said, grabbing another loaf, glancing at me as he tried to eat it slowly.

“We could at least help with that, couldn’t we?” Lóin asked, looking at me.

“I know a lot about Sigil and I’m really fast!” the boy spoke up, desperation creeping into his voice, pleading with me to find him useful enough to keep around or at least feed. “I could run errands or tell people things!”

My heart bled looking at him, seeing my own childhood flash before my eyes. How I had done just as he had, whatever we needed to survive under a master who knew no mercy or pity. He hadn’t mentioned any owner, though he looked and acted like a slave might. We could keep him safe, feed him, give him a chance to have his own life one day, when he was older and didn’t need protection.

“How old are you?” I asked. He was tiny, but so were all land dwellers. Well, perhaps all humans, anyway.

“Nine. Or at least I’ve been keeping track for nine years, so I guess I’m a little older,” he said, shrugging.

‘Ulkair, does he look like a nine year old human? I don’t remember the children in Byss being that small.’

‘He looks malnourished if he’s nine, especially if he’s actually eleven or twelve,’ Ulkair grimaced, staring sadly at the boy.

“What’s your name?” Lóin asked, crouching down next to him.

“My name? My name’s Rolf. I promise I won’t be a burden! Please don’t make me go back!”

“If all you want is food, you couldn’t possibly be a burden,” I breathed, burying my face in my hands.

“So….I know these other kids…” Rolf trailed off, drawing his shoulders in and carefully looking up at me.

“How many others?”

“Well, I don’t know exactly how many. They don’t let us see each other all that much and you would have to steal them away from some bad people….”

“Are you a slave?”

“Nothing so formal. I don’t think there was anyone else who wanted me, so I wasn’t taken from anyone. But I help them, the other kids. I look after them and make sure everyone gets enough food to scrap by.”

“And who owns you? What do they use them for?”

“A bad guy. He makes us steal things that are out in the open and sometimes makes us crawl into people’s houses, take their shiny things. One of them got caught last week…caught in a trap. There’s not much of him left anymore…” Rolf mumbled, sniffling a little. “But we’d be really useful! We could steal stuff for you so long as you feed us and don’t hit us, don’t make us do horrible things. And treat the boys just like the girls. No special jobs.”

“Special jobs?”

“I, we agree,” Ulkair said, inhaling sharply.

I blinked curiously at them when a realization struck me and a growing sense of horror filled me. Of course…they weren’t just thieves running around of their own accord but essentially slaves, formally or otherwise, and men tended to find uses for those who couldn’t say no.

“Or at least, we’re going to go fireball these scum,” Ulkair continued, clenching his fists, a dark look coming over his face.

“I agree,” Lóin nodded, clapping his hand on Rolf’s shoulder.

“We just need to know where to find them,” I said, smiling faintly at him.

“Just let me know when you’re ready,” Rolf said, shivering slightly. “When I don’t go back, they’ll either hope I’m dead or make sure of it. How it works is we check in every night with our shinies or our money and if we don’t we’re assumed to have been caught or killed. If anyone sees you and you haven’t checked in, you’re assumed a traitor. This is your house, right? I’ll stay here. I don’t want to go back to Sigil.”

“I don’t know when we’ll be coming back here. We’ll be going to a very dangerous place soon and I’m not sure how long that will take,” I said.

“Just leave some food. I’ll be okay,” Rolf said with a shrug, leaning back and grabbing another loaf of bread as if to demonstrate the point. “I’ll watch your dragon.”

“That food will only last for twenty four hours. That’s the duration of the spell,” I explained.

“Do you have any other food with you?” Rolf asked, frowning and inspecting my bag again. Something told me he would love Cheshire’s bag of holding, though Alix forbade her from keeping perishable food in there after one of her raspberry tarts was lost in it for too long.

“No, but we could return tomorrow with some for you. Ulkair, how long would it take to oust these people?”

“Well, that depends. If it’s a large organization, it could take a long time. If it’s a small ring, we just kill his contact and anyone who knows him. Might take a day or two.”

“I really don’t want to go back until the bad people are gone…I don’t mind being alone and if I eat all this, I can last more than twenty four hours. I’ve gone as long as four days without eating,” Rolf said, looking up at me with wide eyes.

“We’ll be back in the morning to bring more food, a few other things you might need. Until then, you’re welcome to do as you please. Just don’t go in that room across from here and don’t annoy the dragon. He’s a good dragon, but he’s….been through a lot and it would be easy for him to hurt you by mistake.”

Rolf glanced at the dragon and nodded, grabbing another loaf of bread. Safety, food, at his age, that was all I wanted too. Even now I wanted little more than that, just to be safe and have enough to get by with those I loved, though it would seem that wasn’t what was in store for me. Lord Eadro pulled me from the kelp forests and freed me from my shackles. Even so, he hadn’t forced me to do his bidding. I chose to devote the life he gave to me to be his will. He would preserve me through what danger crossed me on his path. These visions, they must be from him, but I didn’t understand why.

“I…think I’m going to go pray for a while,” I mumbled, slipping from the room to return downstairs, grateful for the water around me. If we needed to wait until tomorrow for Cheshire to speak to Ooze anyway, then there was no rush.

Suspended in the cool water, I felt Lord Eadro’s faint presence ever infused in this plane, so soothing amongst the chaos of my thoughts. Was I really becoming an oracle? What did that mean? Each night I lay down to rest, would I see visions like I had last night, or only sometimes? Would I know what was a vision and what was a dream? How many times would I feel myself die or worse yet, would I be forced to watch my companions die? Ulkair…Cheshire…would I watch them die in my arms or perhaps just beyond my reach, denied even the comfort of being with them their final moments? An answer, guidance, something, anything. What was I supposed to use it for?

Divine energy rippled ever so faintly over me, giving me the feeling I was on the right path, that I was doing Lord Eadro’s will, though I wasn’t sure what that was. This was a gift, or it was meant to be. Something breathed a whisper that with these visions, I would find my family, though I wasn’t sure if it meant my parents and Zeph or my companions. So many questions yet unanswered, anxieties left to twist and turn in my heart, but this ability, if it brought my family together, it was worth any cost. If Lord Eadro made me his oracle, it couldn’t be a bad.

Drifting to the floor, I drew my tail up to my chest, wrapping my arms around it and resting my forehead against my scales. Cheshire, Mimi, they seemed to receive so much guidance from their gods, or now I suppose it was just Tubatron, but I…I just wanted one answer. Faith. I just needed to have faith. The past few days had simply been trying was all. Lord Eadro would never forsake me, harm me, or give me anything he didn’t think I could handle. If he didn’t make his intentions more clear, it was because he felt he didn’t need to.

Something brushed my hand and I looked up to see Ulkair sitting beside me, evidently feeling my warring emotions.

“Not get the answer you were looking for?” Ulkair asked, kissing the back of my hand.

“Yes…and no. I don’t really receive answers so to speak as Cheshire and Mimi seem to so much as vague feelings. These were…especially vague, but I had the feeling I’m on the right path. I guess he’s pleased that we’re heeding what I saw. I just…wonder if other clerics receive more definitive answers or just have better intuition they follow. Is that something that comes with time? I suppose I’ve only been a cleric at all for two years and now suddenly I’m a hierophant oracle.”

“I must be a good influence on you, after all, hmmm?” Ulkair drawled, pulling my hand against his chest as he leaned on my shoulder looking up at me, a slight grin on his face.

“Well, I’m inclined to agree, but I don’t suppose this is your doing. I don’t think you’d choose anything related to divination.”

“No, I suppose not,” Ulkair replied, his smile disappearing. “But in all seriousness, Belovéd, you have grown beyond powerful. It is in part a gift from your god, but it also had to come from within. Gods don’t place greatness in mortals; they ignite what is already in there. Although you will never hear them admit that it is anything but their doing.”

“Perhaps. You all rather seem to see something in me, whatever that might be. If I hadn’t felt I had something to prove to Zissyx, I don’t know that I would have become anything at all. Sisters to save, a city to prove wrong, my belovèd to protect; you all had as much to do with that as I did.”

“Greatness is never born alone, it’s true, but I think you will soon reach the heights of what mortals can achieve. Then where will you go? It is something to think about, but… perhaps it’s time to move on.”

“Wherever you will be is where I plan to go,” I whispered, leaning down to claim his lips, such vows best sealed with a kiss. “Though I suppose we have been here long enough. I do tend to lose track of the passing of time when I pray.”

“It’s been a few hours,” Ulkair said, smiling, taking my arm in his.

“Is Lóin upstairs with Rolf?”

“Yes, they’ve been talking.”

“I hope Rolf is okay,” I giggled. “So what were you doing?”

“Hmmm it’s a surprise,” Ulkair grinned.

“A surprise, you say. Wonder what that could be,” I hummed.

Upstairs, I found Lóin walking around with Rolf on his shoulders as Cheshire used to do in what seemed like a different lifetime now. Coincidence…perhaps, perhaps not. Maybe we were meant to help this dragon as well as this child, though I suspected there might have been another way we were supposed to help the dragon if that were the case. Noticing us watching him, Lóin knelt down and set Rolf back on the ground, waving goodbye to him.

“We will be back in the morning to bring you provisions,” I said, perhaps more to ease my guilt leaving him here alone than comfort him. Rolf still looked overjoyed to be safe from those who’d been keeping him and have food, but a blanket and something to entertain himself with wouldn’t go awry.

Stepping across the hall, Ulkair already had a whirling blue portal waiting for us, the City of Doors on the other side. I took his hand and we stepped through, Lóin just behind us. The city seemed no different for the hours that had passed, the streets still busy and light yet in the sky. Traveling back to the conservatory, what few moments of sleep I’d had began to catch up with me. My magic kept my mind alert, but the longing for rest grew. Perhaps I’d simply been spoiled by much of the past year in Byss, the relative inactivity of even the past few days. In the waning hours of the day, I wanted nothing more than to curl up with Ulkair and Cheshire, holding them close until our dreams whisked us away from this world. Or perhaps their presence would protect me from nightmares that would steal me from them.

Making our way back to our room, we found Cheshire sitting on our bed with Seren and Rhapsody, singing softly to them.

“Oh, hey guys,” Cheshire greeted as we entered, smiling up at us. “Did delivering the bronze go okay?

“Well, we’ve…acquired a child,” I began, realizing I should have figured out on our walk back if not sooner how to explain Rolf to her. I never really stopped to consider what she might think, but she ran around with the children of Byss so often teaching them music, it never occurred to me she might mind.

“Oh,” Cheshire mumbled, bewilderment coming over her face. “Well, the more the merrier, but, um, why? How old is this child and where are they?”

“Right now he’s in the fortress in the elemental plane of water. He was stowed away in the pile of bronze. He was trying to steal some of it for his owners, these people who apparently keep him and other children to use for thievery,” I explained, indignation rising with each word I spoke.

I knew Zissyx wouldn’t be the only place slavery of a form existed, but at least then, there was more….purpose to it. Our owners were cruel and there was no reason for us to be treated so terribly or for most personal slaves to exist at all, but most of those enslaved worked kelp fields. Most of us provided food for our city that would not survive without a work force to harvest kelp. For the profit they made, there was still no reason we couldn’t have been employed rather than owned, but at least our service meant something. This, these children risked their lives and died for “shinies” that served only greed.

“Or worse,” Ulkair added, clenching his fists again.

“So…what’s the plan?” We’re gonna go….crack some skulls, right?” Cheshire asked, a war for these children already waging in her eyes.

“Yes, but for now, he’s safe there and I made some food for him. We’re not sure how old he is and honestly, neither is he. He said he’s been keeping track for nine years, so probably more like eleven or twelve. Ulkair thought he looked younger than that though.”

“O-okay,” Cheshire squeaked, trembling slightly.

“We didn’t think you’d be opposed and he…reminded me of my time in Zissyx,” I mumbled, reaching out and placing my hand on her shoulder, squeezing gently.

“No, not opposed at all,” Cheshire said, shaking her head. “But why didn’t you bring him here? Why leave him in the elemental plane of water?”

“He was worried about someone seeing him, and then being branded a traitor for not returning, and hunted by the organization.”

“Oh…that makes sense,” Cheshire sighed, holding our children closer. “So, the sooner we do this the better, then? So that he has a safe place to go to, and he can be here with us? Or… I suppose the sooner we repair and move the fortress the better, so he never has to see this stinky, no-sunshine city again?”

“Yes, but…we still need to go to the abyss tomorrow,” I reminded, wondering how she possibly could have forgotten that. Though, I suppose it hadn’t been….ingrained into her mind the same way it had mine.

“I…Nerida, I’m sorry, I couldn’t possibly leave so soon, I…” Cheshire bit her lip, looking away, “I have responsibilities and… and I still have to talk to Ooze tomorrow. I don’t have any idea what he’s going to have to say. I don’t know if I even can leave, nonetheless tomorrow.”

“Well, we have a couple matters to take care of while you talk to Ooze, namely taking Rolf some food. My spell will only last twenty four hours and there’s no telling how long we’ll be gone.”

“Probably warm bedding and real clothing is in order as well,” Ulkair pointed out.

“And we should be swift in whatever we do,” I said, letting out a deep breath.

“I…guys, look,” Cheshire began, bracing herself for whatever she was about to say. “I know it’s not… ideal, but… I don’t know what it is Tubatron will ask of me, and… if you guys think you need to get to the abyss quickly, then maybe I should stay here. I could gather information on this criminal ring of child abusers and do what I can here, I don’t like that idea at all, but…”

I flinched hearing her words, dread sinking in my chest abysmal as the plane we were to visit. Wasn’t that what we spoke with Declan for? Making plans to leave so Seren and Rhapsody would be okay? I…didn’t want to go, only pushing for sooner rather than later because I knew it would better our odds. I hated the feeling it left, something dark crawling under my skin; impossible to ignore, invisible to all others. To go without her…I suddenly felt so lost. She stood at my side through everything else, no matter how terrified she was, and we were always victorious. Didn’t she know my life hung in the balance? Then again, she didn’t seem to realize I could be hurt and she had her god and her people to consider. What was my silly dream next to that obligation?

Though maybe Declan was right and she should stay here, where she was safe. Maybe I was too worried about this and if I wasn’t…well, someone needed to take care of Seren and Rhapsody. Something bode ill and perhaps it was best that Cheshire be far from it. I shouldn’t risk her too. I found a way every other time, so why should this be any different? Lord Eadro wouldn’t show me my death if I couldn’t avoid it or change what possible future I’d seen. I would be okay.

“Maybe splitting up is something we can think about when we have a base of operations,” Ulkair said, tearing me from my thoughts. “Somewhere we know the people left behind will be safe, but…it’s your choice, my love.”

Cheshire grew quiet and I didn’t dare disturb her in her thoughts for what I might have found them to be. She would make her choice and we would make accommodations one way or another. I needed her with me and I needed her to be safe, but I didn’t know that those two could coincide. Without her, there would be fewer people to protect, but sometimes it felt like her inspiration was the only thing that carried us through battle.

Sitting down on the bed, I pulled Seren onto my chest, kissing his forehead. Giggling, he flopped his hands on my face, babbling happily. Ulkair lay down beside me, resting his head on my shoulder. Cheshire curled up on my other side, humming softly once more to Rhapsody, the illusion of normality falling over the room. We would at least be together still until morning and after that, we would see. No sense worrying about it now.

Ulkair grinned suddenly as if remembering something and shifted to dig through his jacket pocket, pulling out what looked like a small wooden stick with an ornately carved ball at the end. Handing it to me, it made a soft sound and I saw there was actually a little ball in the top of it rolling freely inside its wooden confines. Arcane words were finely engraved along the handle surrounded by swirls and the occasional little star.

“It’s a rattle,” Ulkair explained, looking proudly at his creation. “I made it while you were praying. If he shakes it, it’ll make noise and he can chew on it when he starts teething in a couple months. It’s something most babies in Elysia had, though this one I enchanted with a shield spell too.”

I shook it lightly and Seren’s eyes lit up as he watched the rattle, his little tail flipping against my hip as he reached for it. Taking the rattle, he shook it in his tiny fist, squealing in delight. Watching him, I couldn’t help but laugh. The face he made, his rapt attention on his new toy was too adorable, warming my heart after too much morose contemplation.

“It’s perfect…” I murmured, leaning over to kiss Ulkair. “Thank you.”

“I made a pacifier for Rhapsody too. I love making things and now I have plenty of materials,” Ulkair hummed, kissing me back. “I used to make toys all the time. I’m glad to have children to make them for again.”

Reaching over, Ulkair affixed the pacifier onto Rhapsody’s swaddling, running his fingers down his son’s small, brassy face. Sighing contently, I held them close and we softly spoke of our day until we drifted off to sleep. That night, Selene visited me again, sadly staring at me, occasionally opening her mouth to speak, but no words came out.

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