Deity, Destiny, and Demons

The Past Must End
For the Future to Rise Up

I gently rubbed Cheshire’s back under the blanket, softly singing to her until her sobs slowly ceased. I suspected it was more that she was too tired to continue weeping than that she had found peace, but I didn’t know what more I could do. Her pain, Alix’s, I was here for her if she wanted to talk, but she said nothing. If only she would sleep, let rest soothe the ache in her soul…

Sighing softly, I continued to hum, my mind wandering to thoughts of my dreams, what else we might have missed. Dovev and Vhailor were filtered out, leaving just Bob, Alix’s family, and the immortal child, or at least Elysia. We’d found Alix’s mother and sister behind Agorran and we would all need to gather to look into Elysia. As for Bob, Mimi said he didn’t know anything and didn’t seem to be involved, but why else was he in my dream? He specifically interacted with me, one of the few that hadn’t been there that evening, and Lord Eadro didn’t wave his presence off as a part of my fears clouding the rest of my dream.

“I wanted to go see that man we brought here. Maybe it’s nothing, but I’d rather be sure. Will you stay with Cheshire?” I asked Ulkair. I needed to talk to him before the sun grew too low in the sky, but I couldn’t possibly leave Cheshire alone in the meantime.

“Hopefully he hasn’t gotten himself into any trouble,” Ulkair commented, pulling Cheshire more fully into his lap and leaning over to kiss me, feeling my own anxiety.

“He better not have,” I sighed, kissing him and taking my leave.

Walking the familiar path to the forge, I soon knocked at the door, Will’s voice ringing out to invite me to enter. Stepping in, I watched them banking the embers in the forge, hanging hammers and tongs back on the wall in their designated place in a ritual that seemed to long predate Will’s own practice of it, methods and traditions passed down over time. Will looked up a moment from his work to greet his visitor, his face paling seeing me, a soft sigh escaping his pursed lips.

“Hail, Champion Nerida,” Will stiffly greeted.

“Please, just call me Nerida…” I mumbled awkwardly at the title. All of the Byssians held great respect for us, but thankfully, most simply addressed me by my name.

“Okay, Champion Nerida.”

“I’m just here to check on Bob,” I sighed again, suspecting the day would never come when he would stop calling me that.

“He’s right there,” Will said after a moment, gesturing to the back of the forge, and I realized that he must have provided him with his real name when introducing himself. He stiffly turned away from me, all too happy to focus on closing down the shop for the night rather than paying me any mind.

“Thanks again for bringing me here,” Bob spoke up, looking curiously between Will and I. “It’s nice having honest work for a change.”

“Everything has been going okay?” I asked.

“Yea, I’m learning a lot. He even let me hit the metal once,” he said, a spark of pride glowing in his eyes.

“He’s passably acceptable,” Will added without looking at us.

“You still haven’t told me your name,” I chided, smiling slightly.

“Jona,” he answered after a moment, finally deciding it was safe for me to know his name.

I glanced back at Will, but he gave no reaction hearing the name, suggesting it was the same on he had given him. Evil still surrounded him, but it was faint, perhaps even a little more so than it had been before seeing that there was good in the world and he could be a part of it. I cast true seeing, just to make sure it really was him I was speaking to, not a nightwalker or some undead she controlled, but Jona looked no different, nor did anything else in the forge but the walls. Writing similar to what was scrawled across the walls guarding the city glowed in here, a bizarre mixture of Celestial and something else….Elysian? Ulkair had never taught me to read or write in Elysian, adamant that his language die with him.

“Has anything strange happened since we brought you here?” I asked, hoping it hadn’t been too obvious I’d been trying to read something he couldn’t see on the walls.

“Well, everyone said Agorran was a really nice guy, but I’ve only seen him yelling at people.”

“At who? For what?” I asked, frowning.

“I don’t know,” Jona shrugged.

“Strange indeed,” I mumbled, familiar guilt telling me I should have noticed. “But nothing else?”

“No, not that I noticed.”

“Well, High Priest Agorran is feeling better now, so perhaps in a couple days you can meet him properly,” I suggested.

“Okay. I promise I’ll keep out of trouble. It’s not like I enjoyed what I had to do and Will is a great guy. I like it here a lot,” Jona said, nervousness creeping back into his eyes that I would take him back to Sigil.

“Is there anything you might need from me?”

“I don’t think so. You’ve already given me a lot. I’m sorry I don’t know anything more about the people you’re looking for or the rats. Weird to think I was working for rats…”

“We haven’t killed them yet, but I’m sure we’ll run into them again,” I sighed, suspecting they would find us if not the other way around as most the enemies we made seemed.

Shaking my head slightly, I bid them a good evening and departed. Will waved slightly and tried to smile, though it looked pained. The fresh air did my thoughts little good, mulling over how Jona was involved. He had to be, somehow. Perhaps if Lord Eadro hadn’t helped me filter through it, I could have just dismissed his presence as I had Dovev’s and Vhailor’s, but he must have left him in my dream for a reason…but what? Would Ulkair know or would hearing more about my visions just upset him? For now, maybe I shouldn’t talk about them….

Walking through town, I saw the same kind of sigils marking the buildings, more so the older structures than new constructions. Indeed, the newer the building appeared, the less writing was on them and the cruder the sigils became, the knowledge of the inscriptions lost over the years. Larn…had he taught them these? His language, ways it could be used to keep them safe from undead. Or had other Elysians come here as well? I shouldn’t suppose there would be any knowing for sure.

Walking up to Alix’s house I saw Ulkair waiting outside, watching the clouds passing overhead as he so loved to do, the sun hanging low in the sky, though the entire city still glittered under the golden rays. Alix must have returned if Ulkair had left her side and I prayed that meant Agorran was left to a dreamless sleep for what healing my magic couldn’t provide him.

“They probably need some time,” Ulkair announced as I walked up to him.

“Would you like to go for a walk?” I asked, a smile spreading across my face at the fond memories of times we’d shared not so long ago, but how much simpler our lives had been for that time.

Ulkair smiled back, reaching for my hand as we walked together towards the city gate as we had so many times before, a light breeze sweeping past us. So much we had discussed, worries, teasings, sharing stories, just spending time together I never tired of, whether we spoke or not. Even asking him about my lifespan so much shorter than his hadn’t pushed him away as scrying had, my fate as an oracle. Would that we could never speak of it again, let it be a disagreement of the past, but this was my future, as was Ulkair, if we could reconcile our differing beliefs.

“So…I feel like talking to you this morning could have gone better…” I began, holding tighter to Ulkair for fear he would run again.

“It may not always go very well, but I’ll always love you,” Ulkair sighed, wrapping his arm around my waist. “I know I’m two thousand years old, but I’m not always the best at mastering my emotions.”

“That’s probably not what you wanted to wake up to,” I mumbled. “What is it that you had hoped for us?”

“Well, the blending of our souls and the blending of our magic. We have a new and I think beautiful thing and we could have taken it much further, but it will take devotion and study and a lifetime that you won’t have in the service of your god.”

“Why not?” I asked. Divination was magic too, already a sort of blend of the arcane and divine we both could use. Two hundred years or how ever many centuries Ulkair may have given me blending our souls was a long time. Surely I could learn a single school of magic and still be with Ulkair.

“Because it is new, unknown, a bold frontier in magic. To be honest, some people would disapprove,” Ulkair tried to elaborate, though I still didn’t understand why I would have to choose between him and Lord Eadro.

“Why?” I asked again.

“Why does anyone ever disapprove? Because it’s powerful, because it’s not theirs, it’s scary, it’s unknown, but I think it’s beautiful,” Ulkair murmured, pausing to pull me closer, caressing the side of my face.

“Just cast fireball on those people,” I giggled, nuzzling his hand.

“They usually have very long beards that are good at catching fire,” Ulkair smiled faintly, his face soon falling again. “But, you know, you didn’t soften the blow at all, though I know you were waking from the nightmare.”

“I may have focused on the wrong part of it right away, but I was worried about you,” I tried to explain, flinching at the hurt in his voice, despite his understanding.

“I suppose I forget how crazy I am and how young you are,” Ulkair laughed sadly, shaking his head.

“You’re not too crazy and I’m not too young?” I called, pulling him into my arms.

“Not too, no, not too. Just right.”

“It keeps life interesting.”

“Yes, and thankfully we were there for Cheshire. We needed to be.”

“Indeed,” I breathed, burying my face in Ulkair’s hair as I tried to smother a tinge of jealousy in my heart I knew didn’t belong, but it was always her, wasn’t it?

I needed him so desperately this morning, just to be with me and to know we wouldn’t be separated, but he left. Cheshire said to tell him she needed him to make him come back and when he did, he apologized to her for his absence. You tell me I don’t always need to be strong, but when I’m not, no one is there for me. You tell me to share my problems with you, but what has telling you done but make us fight? I still had to try, didn’t I? Maybe this time it would go better, but I couldn’t help but tighten my hold on Ulkair, praying he wouldn’t run from me again.

“I suppose the reason that it worried me so much, watching you pulled away from me, is that I don’t ever want to be parted from you,” I breathed, feeling his heartbeat next to mine, our souls bound together.

“I’m sorry, it’s just some times I want to do things I don’t want to do, if that makes any sense. I didn’t know what I would do, so I ran away. I’m a little unstable yet…”

“That’s what I’m here for?” I offered, kissing his forehead. “When I don’t push you away.”

“If you promise not to push me away, I promise not to run. And we’ll both promise to try to not let Eadro come between us. How’s that sound?”

“I can’t imagine why he would have brought us together just to separate us later.”

“I can imagine,” Ulkair bitterly ground out.

“I have never questioned his will in anything else, but…I don’t know what I would do without you,” I whispered, the closest I had ever come to defying Lord Eadro, but if he told me now I had to leave Ulkair, I couldn’t just nod and obey.

“I believe that everyone’s will is to be questioned. We need to think for ourselves, everyone. When we follow others blindly, horrible things happen. That doesn’t mean denying your god, but we should think for ourselves,” Ulkair said, trailing his fingers along the side of my face to tap my temple. “You’re smart. You’re wise. You’re wonderful.”

“And so are you. You worry that my being an oracle will tear us apart, but if you haven’t noticed, I’m a little bit stubborn.”

“Indeed, my beautiful, magnificent, stubborn mermaid.”

“I know I’ll hold on with everything I am and if anyone can think of a way to make it work, I know you can.”

“Eadro will have to pry you out of my cold, dead fingers,” Ulkair said, cupping my face in his hands as he gazed into my eyes, more a promise than a simple statement.

“Or maybe they should never be cold and dead,” I mumbled, resting my hand over his and entwining our fingers.

“I just want you to remember Eadro doesn’t care so much about what you want, just what you can do to serve him. I’m sure he loves you, I know he does, but your will will always be subservient to his,” Ulkair said, brushing my hair back. “And perhaps nothing bad will come of that. The higher level of service you give a god, the more sacrifice is required. But this has been a heavy day, Nerida. Perhaps we should go to our home and sleep.”

“Indeed. It’s just nice to walk with you in Byss again and see the stars.”

“This place smells a lot better than Sigil,” Ulkair commented, wrinkling up his nose.

“I think everywhere does, except maybe the abyss, but it’s only marginally worse,” I muttered, grateful for the clean air surrounding us for a change, free of the sulfurous odor permeating all of the lower wards of Sigil and even the upper wards were stale at best. Nothing at all like Byss.

Holding Ulkair’s hand, we turned to walk back to the city, a weight creeping over my shoulders and bearing down more and more with each step. The emerald…before this morning, I had never feared that he would say no. Now, without the unnatural exhaustion making everything seem so much worse than it probably was, I realized I was being ridiculous. He’d already told me several times he would always be with me, but still, something told me now was the time, before we returned to the city, time running out with each step.

“Hey Ulkair?” I began, fidgeting with my pearl necklace, a similar stone that, in a way, started all this.

“Yeeees?” Ulkair drawled, grinning, I suppose guessing the cause of my nervousness, what secret I’d been trying to hide with limited success.

“Well…you know how there’s a little box in my mind you’re not supposed to open? This…isn’t quite how I planned this going, but…” I trailed off, fighting for what words to convey all that I felt for him, how much I loved him despite our disagreements. My cheeks flushed and I swallowed thickly, my throat suddenly too dry. I wanted everything to be perfect, not spur of the moment after fighting most of the day, both with each other and undead, but so too was this the land we met in, the land we saved, and where else could be more meaningful? “You once gave me your light in the darkness. I wanted to return a promise that I will walk beside you as long as I am able.”

Releasing his hand for a moment, I rummaged through my bag, a jolt running through my fingers the moment they brushed the glassy surface of the emerald, my adoration and devotion crystallized. I glanced at Ulkair and my heart fluttered seeing his gaze on me, the curiosity in his beautiful eyes almost brassy at the moment, torn between wanting to know what I’d kept secret and wanting to consummate our promise in another fashion. Taking hold of the gem, I dropped my bag beside me and pressed the emerald into his palms, wrapping my own hands around his. Ulkair’s eyes grew impossibly wide at the sight of it, looking back up at me for an explanation.

“Perhaps you didn’t know, but when merfolk want to pledge their love for each other, they exchange stones. Which ones they use can vary, some opting for value while others choose a personal sentiment. When you gave me a golden pearl, that is what I thought and it has long reminded me of your eyes when you’re happy. And so I hoped that an emerald might make you think of me. Alas I didn’t have an emerald that meant nearly so much to me as that pearl did to you, but I hope this is huge and magnificent enough.”

“Oh, Nerida…I wanted to spend my life with you regardless of what you might have given me, but…you found this in the elemental plane of earth? Like this?”

“Um, well, mostly? That’s what I went to Elysium for. The best gem cutters in the multiverse are there,” I explained, my flushing further.

“Ohhh,” Ulkair hummed, putting all the pieces together in his mind. Jumping up into my arms, he draped his arms around my neck. “Yes, of course I want to spend my life with you. This is a wonderful gift. Thank you. I can sense an incredible magical potential in this.”

“I noticed that a little bit too when I picked it up, so I was hoping you could make something with it. We were thinking maybe a staff. We decided an earring would not work and a wand would become a club.”

“Yea, I think that would be a little unbalanced,” Ulkair laughed, holding the emerald up to his ear. “What do you think?”

“Just make it float. It’ll be fine,” I laughed, waving my hand.

I think it’s even bigger than yours,” Ulkair commented, holding it up by my emerald still spinning around my head. Casting a spell on it, the emerald began to float above his head, the two whirling around each other trying to orbit us, nearly colliding every time. “Hmmm don’t think that would work.”

“Maybe not. I don’t know what will happen, how this will go, but I know we’ll work something out.”

“Indeed. I love you. I love you and Cheshire very much and I will try to always be there for you. I’ll try not to let my nature get the better of me,” Ulkair said, tangling his fingers through my hair as his lips hungrily sought mine, chasing away the shadows of doubt and the weight of the day as I pulled him closer, needing the relief his presence brought.

“I’ll try to do the same,” I murmured against Ulkair’s lips. “I suppose one day, Seren and Rhapsody may want a younger sibling too. I’m not sure when. We always seem to be in so much danger and maybe that will never change.”

I held his hand over my stomach and buried my face in his neck, hiding my flushing cheeks. I didn’t know when would be best, if we would eventually find ourselves with another year or perhaps longer of safety or if this was simply our lives, but still, I felt the need to tell Ulkair that despite my ridiculous delusions, I did want to bear his children one day. We hadn’t talked about it in some time, Ulkair telling me he would wait until I was ready and leaving it at that, not saying anything further for fear of making me feel pressured to concede. Regardless of my past fears, this was my choice and his child could never be anything but a wonder.

“Hopefully soon we’ll have a home for our children to be safe in,” Ulkair murmured, holding me close.

“Indeed. And there will be a forge in there and I hear there is no place safer,” I said, recalling my time in Elysium.

“What better way to grow up than with dwarven teachers?”

“And I suspect they’ll be able to handle Seren’s strength better than Aintai.”

“Poor Aintai,” Ulkair laughed. “My boy is so strong.”

“Indeed, my widdle Seren,” I hummed happily, my heart growing warm to hear him refer to just Seren as his own, not only Rhapsody. He didn’t need to be a father to Seren, but chose to accept my sweet nephew, so beautiful and precious despite his cruel birth.

“Yes, we have wonderful and unique children. I can’t wait for them both to grow up.”

“I’d rather been thinking about that with all the children running around the church, what trouble they’ll get into together.”

“I think those children have long since ceased to be children though,” Ulkair said, his face falling a little.

“Perhaps, but we’ll give them a better life now, free from Sigil.”

Ulkair nodded and we walked the rest of the way home, telling him what happened in Elysium to carve the gem that would likely adorn a great staff Ulkair in time would craft. He could always pluck the information from my mind, but as always he preferred hearing my stories from me, the better to tease me about drinking with Khaz and falling asleep beside him. For a time, I could forget about the battle waiting for us in Elysia.

The morning came with the brilliant sound of Cheshire’s music from the roof next door, sunlight streaming through the windows as I knew it had every morning, but somehow I’d forgotten the dawn was so…bright. Groaning slightly, I curled up tighter around Ulkair, burying my face in his wavy hair. Ulkair neglected to set up his contingency spell and I found that I didn’t really mind, blinding and dreadful though the sun was. At least Cheshire was happy and could sing on the roof to an audience of Byssians again. To my surprise, a harp soon joined her, notes bright but gentle weaving through Cheshire’s melody.

Their duet came to an end all too soon and I heard the soft steps of the crowd going about their day as Cheshire spoke to Aadya, their voices too muted to quite make out. I knew we should get up so long as we were awake, but here of all places, after a year of Cheshire joining us after her daily performance and cuddling until it was time for my own prayer, I couldn’t quite bring myself to even suggest as much. The door slowly swung open and Cheshire crept towards our bed, unusual trepidation in her steps.

“Ulkair,” Cheshire whispered, shaking the wizard’s shoulder.

“That was beautiful, Cheshire,” Ulkair mumbled sleepily, pulling Cheshire in to snuggle.

“Thank you, but it’s important,” Cheshire dismissed nervously. “I know, ummm…that scrying is bad….”

I felt Ulkair’s every muscle tense as his eyes opened and he sat up with a slow deliberation, lifting Cheshire up into his lap. Cheshire shifted uncomfortably for a few moments, knowing she had our full attention, but still the words escaped her. Ulkair’s own warnings echoed in my mind, telling me that there would always be one more time we just had to scry, that it would be worth the risk. Just one more time and then that was it, at least until another such instance arose and again I couldn’t deny the usefulness of this power at my fingertips. So easy, just a quick peak and we would have all we needed to know. So easy, too easy, but I knew whatever it was Cheshire wanted me to scry for, I couldn’t say no.

“Hypothetically…” Cheshire began again, trailing off.

“It’s not hypothetical, is it?” I echoed the conversation we’d had under my bed so long ago, sitting up to lean gently against Ulkair and wrap my arms around him and Cheshire.

“What are the chances a spirit could live in Elysia?” Cheshire asked. “And by live, I mean whatever passes for it.”

“That depends,” Ulkair sighed, a weariness to him not from the early hour but the weight of this nightmare once more on his shoulders though he’d thought he was finally free. “An unshielded spirit would quickly become a shade, but an undead would become empowered. Depending upon its strength, it could live forever. It’s the corporeal undead that can have a problem. The vampires all should have died because they were accustomed to all that positive energy and that negative energy would have overwhelmed them, but a shade or a ghost, what we saw, could live forever in Elysia.”

“Why do you ask?” I whispered.

“Well, I met my uncle last night,” Cheshire said, glancing shyly between us

“You mean Alix’s brother?” Ulkair asked, his brows knitting together.

“Yes. Their spirits were bound by their mother’s cruel will, not by their own desire to be here, it seems. When we defeat them or whatever she had stuck them in, Mimi said that she didn’t feel either of their souls there. I thought it was worth looking into, but maybe that they had just gone back to where they’d come from. That doesn’t appear to be the case. He was here and with the last of his strength, he wanted to hold Rhapsody. After that, I sent his soul to Tubatron and asked that he help me to find my aunt and he said she’s not here.”

“And even Tubatron would find it difficult to penetrate into Elysia,” Ulkair concluded with a soft sigh, his arms tightening around Cheshire.

“Somewhere else, he would probably be able to find her, but on the other side of that mirror, where he could reach me before it collapsed into a vortex of negative energy…so I would rather if there were some way to know for sure before we marched into Elysia.”

“I suppose we have to check it out anyway, make sure that nothing else comes through,” I nodded, pulling Ulkair closer, kissing his temple, wishing he wouldn’t have to see the dark abyss that his home had become. “Have you heard from Agorran yet today?”

“He’s a Byssian and life will go on?” Cheshire said, not seeming to know what else to say.

“The best of what Elysians used to be,” Ulkair said, smiling sadly. “You’re strong.”

“Tough as nails and about as flavourful?” Cheshire provided.

“Strong in the face of death and defiant until you have no breathed,” Ulkair said, his gaze growing distant for a moment.

“So I think we should all have breakfast and I will rally the troops, so to speak, and then we’ll make a plan,” Cheshire said, scrambling off the bed.

“You said it’s a plane of negative energy? Does that mean it draws out positive energy?” I asked, thinking about my well, the fractures in my soul leaking positive energy and more if I wasn’t careful. “Is it bad if it’s particularly easy to draw positive energy from some of us?”

“No, it will actually mean that you two will last longer than any of us,” Ulkair said, running his fingers through my hair.

“What will happen to the well?” Cheshire asked.

“The power will be sucked right out of it. The thing is though that those that have no positive energy to spare, they will simply just wither and die and turn into shades. Even Mimi, after a time. Eventually, you two as well.”

“You can draw on my positive energy,” I murmured, holding him tighter. “There’s bound to be a way to protect ourselves from the energy, but I don’t have a spell like that.”

“Come to think of it, I’ve heard of something like this before. Being surrounded by negative energy will hurt as it sucks the life out of you, but that’s just it, it’s an injury like any other your spells could heal. It’s just that it’ll be hard to keep up with if we’re there for any length of time, especially with so many of us,” Cheshire said, clenching her fists in the sheets.

“In the worst of negative energy planes, it can be so draining that even powerful adventurers could only last thirty seconds, maybe a minute, but Elysia shouldn’t be that bad yet. Without any protection, it would take maybe around five minutes

“Is there anything we can do to destroy Elysia for good?” Cheshire asked, cautiously glancing up at Ulkair.

“It’s difficult to destroy matter completely,” Ulkair said, lifting his hands, flames dancing in one of his palms and shards of ice floating above the other. “I can shape it, I can change it, but I can’t take it out of existence.”

“And we couldn’t really really shape it any further than we already did, I suppose,” Cheshire mumbled.

“Indeed. Our best bet is to cut it off from everything,” Ulkair concluded.

“If we do that, how will we get out?” I asked, looking between them.

“That’s the problem,” Ulkair all but breathed, his magic vanishing from his palms before he ran his hands through his hair, his mind whirling with a thousand possibilities, searching for the one that would work and keep us alive.

“Can we cut it off from this side?” I asked.

“I-I don’t know. It just feels so…final to completely cut it off. That’s why I didn’t insist we destroy the mirror, but so long as there are people with magic, there are ways in and there are ways out.

“You said it was connected to the ocean, didn’t you?”

“And that will always be a difficult thing to end because there’s always jumping off the side, theoretically. Byss and Elysia are just so inextricably tied. I’m not sure we could completely cut it off. Most of the denizens of that place that have survived will not be able to survive in Elysia much longer, so that will just keep them from moving over, but powerful things like Alix’s mother will find a way.”

“So we find everything there and kill it?” Cheshire stated more than asked, Alix’s influence on her evident.

“I suppose if we find a way to reactivate the magic of Elysia that sealed both Byss and Elsyia away, things could find their way in, but things would have a hard time getting back out.”

“And that would seal Byss as well,” Cheshire said, her brows knitting together.

“It would make it difficult to leave Byss, yes,” Ulkair confirmed.

“Difficult, but not impossible? Is it beyond even a gate spell for those who know it’s here?” I asked, finding it hard to believe that we couldn’t find a way with all the magic at our disposal, arcane and divine.

“Well, I hesitate to ever say impossible, but…I don’t know. I would guess so. I don’t know how the vampires were moving demons in and out. I just don’t know….” Ulkair whispered, burying his face in his hands.

“Do you think there would be any of the old cities left?” Cheshire asked.

“Almost certainly they would be there in the darkness yet,” Ulkair said.

“So maybe we could find out,” Cheshire said, wrapping her hands around Ulkair’s. “But I think I should go talk to Agorran and gather people for breakfast.”

“I’ll go with you to see High Priest Agorran,” I said, shifting to get up with her.

“I don’t think he’ll be awake yet,” Cheshire stated.

I looked at her a moment, wondering what the purpose of going to see him was if not to wake him. Surely he needed the rest, but then….why was she going? Unless she didn’t want me there? No, that didn’t make sense. She was angry yesterday, but it was a terrible morning for everyone. I could hardly hold that against her.

“Breakfast sounds like a good plan,” Ulkair hummed, retrieving the emerald from beside the bed and gazing at it in the morning light. Smiling, he held it out to show Cheshire. “Nerida gave me this.”

“That’s…big,” Cheshire commented.

“Yes, it’s about the size of Rhapsody,” Ulkair grinned.

“Nerida, when you said you were considering children, I didn’t think you meant a rock.”

“Baby steps!” Ulkair laughed.

“I’m going to go find people” Cheshire groaned, rolling her eyes. “I’ve got stuff to do. But….okay, so I assume you found this in the elemental plane of earth? That would explain why you were giggling like an idiot, I guess…”

“Hey!” I pouted.

“You were like ‘Cheshire, you carved up a dragon? That’s terrible! But I have a secret! Eheeheehee!’ What else was I supposed to think?” Cheshire countered, raising her eyebrow.

“But it’s so magical,” Ulkair said, such awe to his voice and excitement I didn’t need a bond with him to feel. “And not just in the poetic way, but it’s literally magical.”

“What are you going to do with it?” Cheshire asked.

“He’s going to make an earring,” I giggled.

“He’s going to make a torn earlobe, you mean,” Cheshire mumbled.

“I’m going to make something special. I haven’t quite decided what yet,” Ulkair hummed again, turning the gem over in his hand. “I’m sure breakfast will help me decide.”

With that, Ulkair swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood up with a stretch. Stepping up beside Ulkair, I pulled him into my arms and kissed him, so glad he was still here. I knew in but a few hours, we would have to go into Elysia, what a battle it would be against the plane itself, nevertheless what we were hunting inside it, but for now, for what precious few moments I had, I wanted to embrace what joy had returned to my heart. Cheshire shook her head and left, her soft steps retreating to Alix’s house next door.

“Ulkair, do you think something is wrong with Cheshire?” I asked, looking at where she’d been just moments before. She undoubtedly was worried about her aunt and what we would find in Elysia, but she seemed so…distant.

“I would guess she feels left out, Belovéd,” Ulkair sighed, gazing out our open door.

“But we’ve never excluded her in anything. If she wants to sleep with Alix instead, that’s her choice and right now, I’m sure he needs the company as well. She didn’t propose to me a year ago,” I mumbled, burying my face in Ulkair’s hair. “I’ve been trying to think of something to get her anyway. I had thought maybe a rainbow opal like the one I gave her after Elysia and casting continual flame on it, but it just didn’t seem….quite right. Exchanging a stone with you made sense, but I don’t think she’d appreciate it the same way and I just haven’t figured out what else to get. She really likes those bolts of expensive fabric we have, but I don’t know anything about fashion. I just…don’t know…”

“I think more of being in on the secret, Nerida. I think she wishes you would have let her in on the surprise so she could have been excited with you for giving it to me, but now she feels like you either meant to exclude her or you didn’t trust her. I could be wrong, but… I don’t think I am. I’ve gotten pretty good at reading her.”

“I didn’t tell her because I thought her head would explode if she knew and then was alone with you for a week, though I hadn’t expected it to take that long. I had a hard enough time not saying anything and she’s…more excitable. Aside from that, the times in which you’re not around one or both of us are few and far between.”

“It’s not me you need to explain to, Love, it’s her. She’s in a bad space now, to make matters worse, with Alix falling to pieces and Elysia rearing it’s evil, ugly head in his family. I… Elysia… taints everything. So we need to be strong and understanding for each other, lest it seep in and tear us apart. And we’ll do our best to help you through your… visions and nightmares. It’s just… there’s just so much going wrong and all we have is each other. And come gods or demons or shades of the past, I’ll be there for both of you. I won’t repeat my mistakes.”

“It just….seems she’s been upset with me since we got to Sigil, but she’s never said anything. I know it’s been hard for all of us, so I haven’t pressed her for anything, figuring that if something were wrong, she’d tell me. Maybe I’ll have to be more direct, but if I’m wrong, I don’t want to make her feel worse thinking I’m angry with her when she already has so much else to worry about. At least I know you’re here…” I trailed off, fisting my hand in Ulkair’s shirt.

You’re here, but my visions….you hate them, hate everything they represent. Gods, divination, being used, being deceived. I can’t blame you, but I need you….and what would you say except to turn away from these nightmares if I told you they scared me? What would I say? I have no reason I can explain, just a compulsion to follow. Agorran…I wished I could talk to Agorran, but he had matters much more compelling to worry about and to speak with him, I would have to send Ulkair away somehow. I reflexively held tighter to Ulkair, my peace of mind in this chaos. I would suffer any other fate before I would send him away.

“I love you more than anything, Ulkair,” I whispered, leaning down to capture his lips for a moment. “You don’t ‘taint’ anything. You make me feel safe when nothing else can. You are so much more than what mistakes you have made and you help me through the ones I make. A lot has been happening, but we have weathered stronger storms together and we’ll do it again.”

“Yes, we will. I think we’ll all have to… grow, and perhaps in difficult ways, but at least we’ll do it together.”

“It’s about time you grew. You’re rather short, you know,” I giggled.

“Well, I happen to know you and Cheshire quite like the way I grow,” he replied smugly. Turning more serious, he sighed. “Perhaps we ought to join the breakfast preparations. I imagine the next few days are going to be dangerous.”

“Always so dangerous, but how sweet are the spoils of victory shared with my belovèds,” I murmured, leaving the promise for our return. “At least you said the vampires should be gone, right? I’m rather tired of almost losing my head.”

“They should be, but… I am unsure of what still lurks in the dark. But whatever it is, it’s no match for the Mighty Nerida and Glittering Cheshire, I’m sure.”

“Or a good fireball, I’m sure,” I added, taking his hand.

I didn’t typically have much assistance I could offer as far as food preparation was concerned, the art of sacrificing food to fire demons yet lost to me, but still we ventured over to Alix’s house to see what aid we could lend. By the time we arrived, Cheshire had already gone and Alix was cooking fish with a dour look on his face. Glancing beside me, I saw a hole in the wall, the remains of some insect no longer identifiable splattered around it and across a dagger sitting on the table. Looking back at Alix, I was glad I couldn’t sneak up on the ranger if I wanted to.

The fish appeared to be almost done if the smell was any indication and a fresh batch of moss bread was sitting on the counter, so I fetched the plates from the cupboard and set the table, Ulkair following behind me with silverware. Our companions soon joined us for the meal, tension remaining high. Alix wanted to leave as soon as we finished eating, but it would be another hour before I could renew my spells and still we needed to find a way to survive the constant drain of a negative plane of energy.

As soon as we finished eating, Ulkair and I returned to the mirror to see if there was anything we had missed the previous day, needing to stay busy so long as we were awake. Ulkair held Rhapsody and Seren, muttering in Draconic under his breath and struggling to move his hands properly for the a spell while holding the babies. Looking curiously at him, I offered to hold them, but he shook his head, a look of concentration coming over his face. Shifting his grip on Seren, he tried again, shimmering light surrounding his hands. The light wrapped around Ulkair’s chest, tendrils carefully taking hold of each of the babies and holding Rhapsody securely against his chest while Seren was on his back. Seren gleefully laughed and held his little hands up, magic glimmering around his hands, though it never manifested into a spell. Smiling at him, I held his tiny hand and kissed his face, giggling feeling his tail flipping by my leg. I took Ulkair’s hand and we walked the rest of the way to the mirror and our effigies, finding much what we had the prior afternoon.

“Any thoughts on energy protections?” I asked, looking over the mirror again, almost expecting to see the dark reflection of Elysia appear in the smooth surface.

“Ummm….if we had weeks, maybe months, I could make a spell, but we don’t have that kind of time,” Ulkair said, casting a few more detection spells.

I held my hands over my eyes for a moment, casting true seeing again, in case there was anything hidden from us. I looked again at the mirror, searching for anything I might have missed, but found nothing different. Sighing, I glanced around us for whatever trails might lay hidden when again I saw the writing on the buildings, glowing in the distance.

“What does it say?” I asked, pointing at the nearest building with the writing.

“Oh. Well, it’s interesting. It’s very similar to what the walls surrounding the city say. Each building has its own particular benediction for its own purpose. For example, the government building says ‘may their wisdom save the future generations.’ I assume each building will have something similar, depending upon their intent.”

“They were all over the walls in the forge too.”

“I imagine to bless their creations. These aren’t active, but like the walls, they can have energy channeled into them.”

“What would channeling energy into the houses do?” I asked, looking back at Ulkair.

“Perhaps a shield for dreams? Good sleep?”

“Could we put these on our walls?”

“If we spent enough time studying them, by which I mean if I spent enough time. I don’t want anyone spreading Elysian everywhere again.”

“Well, I can’t read it anyway…”

“I think that’s for the best,” Ulkair said, smoothing my hair back.

“I don’t like being illiterate though,” I mumbled, remembering my shame at my inability to write my own language, though I had been taught to read growing up for the convenience of our future owners.

“Even when we try to kill it, Elysia strives not to die. It needs no help to live from us, but I think I can get this mirror to take us to the main part of the city, where I used to live. If there’s anything left, it’ll be there.”

“Will you be okay going back?” I asked, pulling Ulkair into my arms.

“I have to be,” Ulkair sighed, resting his face on my shoulder.

“Somehow it seemed asking you if your soul would end up on a wall was easier than telling you about Elysia.”

“Nerida, nothing is easy today. I just…I will get to see my failures twice over, but I’ll be with you.”

“It’s not your fault alone. Stop blaming yourself,” I murmured, wishing he could leave what he saw as his failings behind him, but the wounds ran so deep.

“I’ll stop blaming myself when you stop blaming yourself.”

“For what?” I asked, eyeing him. There were…things I could forgive myself for..

“Well, I guess it doesn’t matter. What matters is we are all together, and together we’ll work out whatever this is and help Alix and Cheshire while they’re hurting. Blame gets us nowhere. I know what I did, and there’s no changing it. I just have to remember to see the people around me, and not just focus on what I have to do.”

“And we’ll help you while you’re hurting. I know…how painful just focusing on what you need to do and ignoring what’s wrong and what you blame yourself for can be after just a few years. Just know that I love you and I have long since forgiven you for everything you have done to me because you have given me so much more.”

“Indeed,” Ulkair smiled, raising his hand to my face. I love you, I love you both. I didn’t think I’d ever love anything as much as Elysia, but this new life has offered me much to adore. I just wish I hadn’t caused harm to your soul, or that Elysia wasn’t now coming to hurt Alix. But I’m sure you will help me make it right.”

“My soul is fine and it’s not Elysia that is hurting Alix. Maybe it’s empowering her, but we’ll take care of that and perhaps things will end better than they might have. It…did take some mulling over, but I’ve decided I’m not broken and that’s what matters. There may be some weaknesses I’ve gained, but flexible magic you and Cheshire can use too may yet save us. I don’t know that anything is purely good or purely bad. We just wade through the shades in between and hold onto the good to get the bad.”

“Yes, you are right. Nothing is as clear-cut as we’d like it to be. I… am glad you are with me. Every day is clearer with you and Cheshire in it. Come, let’s go to the temple. The less time we take to solve this is the more time we have free of Elysia.”

Ulkair took my hand and we walked to the temple, finding Agorran’s office vacant for possibly the first time, the high priest yet recovering from his recent torment. It seemed so…wrong to be in his office without him, but Agorran kept the most relevant archives of survival against undead there for easy access and it was the best place to work. We carefully cleared his desk of the books he’d written about his life, setting them in a neat pile to the side until he could replace them as he pleased. A new shelf had been added of the books Mimi had translated into Common, but we pulled the original Celestial copies in case any nuance was lost in the slightest.

Agorran’s desk was soon filled with various texts and tomes, neat piles beside the desk growing ever taller of books we’d already looked through and dismissed irrelevant to what we were looking for. Perhaps it was an obscure information we sought, especially in a city with virtually no arcane magic and even the divine didn’t extend beyond basic survival, but there must be some record of it. If I could shape and manipulate my magic as Ulkair could, it seemed I should be able to use my shielding spells to protect us from the negative energy, if I could just figure out how to change it slightly.

“Nothing in these more recent archives…I’ll need the very oldest documents they have,” Ulkair sighed, setting another book back.

Nodding, I retreated back to the basement where the books they rarely used were. Agorran said that most of them were in Celestial and they weren’t entirely sure what the contents were, unlike the tomes in his office. They had simply been here as long as any of them could remember, those who once spoke the language of the heavens lost to the surrounding undead. Hefting a box up onto my shoulder, I turned to return to the office when I noticed a disc floating near the door. Smiling, I set the box down on the disc, gradually piling on all the dusty stacks of books, scrolls, and loose parchment. When I had what I thought was everything we could possibly need, I looked at the disc, tapping into my bond with Ulkair and his magic to tug the disc towards me. Slowly, it glided forward, easily following me down the hall and up the stairs back to the office.

Ulkair glanced up at me when I entered, a pleased look on his face. His expression was too mild to suggest he’d found what we were looking for, leaving the simply utility of his spell. He’d probably been watching me for my reaction, as was his want. The disc sank to the ground and vanished, it’s use fulfilled. I lifted what I thought was the box of oldest documents onto the desk, leaning down to kiss Ulkair’s cheek. Almost giddy, he began to dig through the box and I frowned watching dust piling up on Agorran’s desk, making a mental note to clean his office later.

Sifting through one of the boxes, I squinted at the fading Celestial scrawled across worn pages, looking for anything relating to positive or negative energy or protection, though on these older documents there seemed to be another language mixed in with it I couldn’t quite decipher. I didn’t know that I could work out anything to do with the information if I should find it, but at least I could help Ulkair filter through the seemingly endless pages. If not for the time constraints, I suspected Ulkair could spend days here reading through each of these books. Perhaps one day we would find a library the size of a plane for him to explore.

“I think this is what their ancestors used to avoid the negative effects of the plane when they originally came here,” Ulkair said, holding up an ancient scroll. “I guess the secret was lost.”

“This was a negative energy plane before too?” I asked, seeming to recall Ulkair saying it was a land as beautiful as any before its positive energy was stolen centuries ago.

“They were afraid it would be. They didn’t know what they were going into. It says that any planar travel will become safe if this spell is cast.”

“What would it take to cast it?”

“Well, I believe that if I spent a day I could learn this spell, or I could cast it once from this scroll.”

“How long does it last?”

“I’m…not sure,” Ulkair mumbled, scanning the parchment.

“It sounds like it would be better to learn how to cast it, but then we would have to convince Alix to wait a day,” I sighed, doubting we would be able to if the kitchen wall this morning was any indication.

“Maybe Agorran, being the heir of this information, would know something about the spell.”

“We’ve been looking over these books and scrolls for some time now. He’s likely awake now and I should imagine Alix and Cheshire are here.”

“Indeed. Let’s go,” Ulkair said, standing up and holding his hand out.

Taking his hand, we walked to Agorran’s room, praying he was familiar with the spell. Between him and Ulkair, there wasn’t much they didn’t know, but the scroll was ancient. Then again, he knew how to activate the writing on the walls. If he knew the spell, he would likely have to come with us when he should yet be resting, though I doubted there would be any convincing him of that. With the spell I cast on him yesterday, technically his body was fully healed and I couldn’t think of anything that could make me stay behind with his belovèd at risk.

I knocked on his door, Cheshire opening it a moment later to reveal Agorran eating in bed, Alix standing a short ways from him while Mimi, Lóin, and Caspian stood on the other side of the room. Agorran smiled wearily at me, his eyes not as vibrant as I remembered them being. I sat on the edge of the bed and gently hugged Agorran, so relieved I still could.

“Thank you, Nerida, and thank all of you, also for letting me sleep, but we must make haste,” Agorran insisted, setting his plate aside. “She languishes even as we speak and we Byssians have never left anyone behind.”

He must have been talking about Alix’s sister, trapped under her mother’s control in a land of negative energy that should destroy her. Even when he hadn’t known me for but hours, Alix led everyone back to save me from that ghoul abomination chasing me rather than discarding me as weak and a burden for being too slow to keep up as other members of our party might have preferred. So much for a stranger and this was Agorran’s belovèd, lost to him years ago and again found under the tyranny of undeath.

“High Priest Agorran…about that…Ulkair found a spell that would protect us from the negative energy in Elysia, which I suspect we’ll need, but he could cast it once or he could learn how to cast it,” I said, Ulkair holding up the scroll to demonstrate. “However, he said the latter would take a day.”

“And maybe up to three,” Ulkair mumbled.

“May I see it?” Agorran asked, extending his hand out to Ulkair.

Ulkair handed the scroll over, a look saying he didn’t think the high priest would be able to read it, but we couldn’t very well deny him his own possessions.

“Yes, there is something that every high priest learns as part of our heritage. It’s a spell I can cast, but it takes all of my holy energy to maintain the spell,” Agorran said, scanning over the page. “It will protect us in that place.”

“For how long?” I asked, fearing what such a spell might do to him. “Is that something I could aid you with?”

“No, I don’t think so. I love you, Nerida, but this is a spell that requires a Byssian to make a sacrifice.”

“What else does it do?” I warily asked. “It sounds like there is more of a cost that you haven’t mentioned.”

“It takes a portion of my energy,” Agorran said, his face betraying little, though I suspected he knew it would hurt him to cast, a burden he didn’t want to put upon anyone else.

“Are you sure there’s not anything we can do to help?” Cheshire whispered.

“No, I don’t think so,” Agorran said, resting his hand atop Cheshire’s though she still looked worried. She cast a concerned glance at Alix, their conversation reserved for their minds before Agorran continued. “I am no stranger to battle.”

Standing up, he walked over to a chest by the foot of his bed, pulling out radiant full plate and a mace that hadn’t seen use it some time, but looked yet maintained as if Agorran was waiting for this day. All armour and weapons in Byss were bound to be well cared for, the only thing they had saving them from the surrounding undeath, especially when resources were so few.

“This is what I wore before I was a mighty spellcaster. Would you help me put this on?” Agorran asked, turning to Alix, and I wondered if this wasn’t a Byssian custom, assisting your brethren in arms into their armour before battle, those who would protect you applying the steel that would work to do the same.

“I’m going with you, but I’ll keep us safe from the horrors of that place and I’m sure you’ll keep me safe from whatever denizens may remain,” Agorran said, leaving no room for question.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Cheshire said, smiling softly. “Let’s go then.”

Cheshire picked up her bag of holding, pausing a moment as she stared at the bag. Setting it down again, she pulled the yellow dress Alix had given her, once his mother’s if I recalled, though the once sweet sentiment now seemed so bitter. The dress she was going to wear in Elysia Cheshire would don to fight the terror she had become in what was supposed to be their paradise. Looking closer, I noticed it seemed more ragged than I recalled, worn after running around much of Byss in it.

“Nerida, do you think you could mend this for me?” Cheshire asked, looking up at me behind fading yellow fabric as if she was asking a great favour of me.

“Of course,” I smiled, leaning down to brush my fingers against the fabric, divine magic wrapping around the frayed edges and restoring them.

Ulkair regarded the dress and his eyes glimmered. Holding his hand out, he cast glitterdust on the dress, the fabric shimmering in even the dim light of Agorran’s room. Smiling, I also cast light on the dress.

“A shining beacon in the darkness,” Ulkair said, echoing my own thoughts of our little bard.

“I’m sorry I don’t have continual flame, but it’ll last for about two hours,” I said.

Cheshire smiled, holding the dress up to her chest and happily twirling around. Perhaps a dress would be a good gift for her..I could cast continual flame on it and Ulkair could probably find a way to cast glitterdust permanently on it. I would just have to figure out what dress….somehow….Mimi knew the most about fashion in our group, though her and Cheshire’s ideas seemed to differ. I’d figure something out when there wasn’t so many more pressing matters at hand.

All donning our armour, we met at the mirror. Aadya crouched beside it, easily three times as tall as the mirror and I doubted that even trying to contort herself to crawl through, she wouldn’t fit. Ulkair looked her over for a moment, a grin spreading across his face. Moving his hand before himself, Ulkair wrapped his magic around the giantess, causing her and even her marble statue to shrink down until she was only a foot taller than me. Blinking, she looked over herself, glancing also at each of us before her gaze fell on Alix, her lips turning up into a smile. Pleased with himself, Ulkair turned his attention back to the mirror, seriousness returning as he focused to move where the portal would connect us to Elysia.

Ulkair held his hand out to the mirror, the smooth surface rippling as a dark reflection of the once great city came into view, lost to blood and shadow. Ulkair flinched violently seeing his home, what he’d known it had become, but still the sight was painful. Stepping up beside him, I took his hand and squeezed it, telling him without words that I was still here for him, no matter what. Taking a deep breath, Ulkair squeezed my hand back and stepped through the mirror, all thought of light escaping the moment we passed though. I could barely see anything but for the magical light shining off Cheshire. The darkness was suffocating, the absence of light and life and I almost though I heard laughter echoing, though I wasn’t sure if it was in my mind or something lurking in the distance. I held tighter to Ulkair, invisible just beside me and he seemed impossibly distant somehow. Perhaps the darkness that had shrouded Byss had been like this, but it hadn’t engulfed me. The Byssians the vampires had claimed though, had they felt so lost in their last moments? Torn from the only safety I could offer, not enough, never enough…

Ulkair gripped my hand again and I heard him muttering arcane words, my sight returning to me. At least, mostly. I could finally make out towering buildings and elegant spires around me, but everything was various shades of black and white, even my skin, strands of my hair just before my eyes. I thought the imposing feeling would fade once I could see, but still I felt something pushing down on me and I expected to see myself sinking into the ground. A familiar sound caught my attention and my head snapped in its direction, a dark, ebony shore greeting my eyes, beckoning my attention. I felt it reach out for me as though it could sense me, seeking warm flesh, the life it contained to snatch away. Everywhere I looked were reminders of the nature of this place and the dangers everything held, the ruins of a once great civilization fallen to damnation.

Agorran bid everyone draw near him before he began his prayer to Lord Eadro. The cold tendrils of this place began to fade away, replaced by a warmth shining out of the high priest and into each of our hearts. His own light faded with each of us he shielded and I feared once more what sacrifice this spell required, if it wasn’t hurting him as he’d suspected it would. Lóin took his dragon form and more light fled from Agorran to protect him, the high priest staggering on his feet a moment.

“No,” Agorran began before any of us could voice our objection, “breathe your cold flame on this place and destroy it.”

“I know this may not be the time and it may not be wise, but I wish to go to my old office, my old house,” Ulkair sighed, looking out over the evil ocean with such sadness to his voice as I had not heard since he was freed from his cave. “I feel a need to see it, see what I’ve done to it.”

“What the vampires did to it,” I corrected, squeezing his hand.

“Yes, what the vampires did to it,” Ulkair echoed, though I could feel how heavily he still blamed himself, a raw wound ever bleeding in his heart.

“Let’s go,” I said, looking over our companions, gauging their reaction to his request with a determined stare. I would not force anyone, but Ulkair and I would be going, with or without them. I prayed we would never again have to return here and so I couldn’t deny Ulkair something so important to him.

“I believe trouble will find us whatever road we walk,” Cheshire said, agreement enough.

The path to Ulkair’s house was slow, some of our companions near blind as I had been and Ulkair had only memorized one of the spell granting us our strange sight. The buildings were mostly intact, only six or seven months passing since all life was drained from the plane, but outlines I couldn’t quite make out still lined the streets. Curiosity getting the better of him, Ulkair stepped up to one of them to see it was a puddle of shadow with various items poking out.

“This must be were vampires were as they dissolved in the overwhelming negative energy,” Ulkair said, crouching by one of the puddles. “It looks like their gear was left behind, whatever magical items they may have had, anyway. Everything else was destroyed.”

“Should we see if any of it is worth taking?”

“It might well be.”

“It could be a trap,” Mimi said, frowning at the oozing puddles.

“And I can’t say that it’s not,” Ulkair shrugged, hardly concerned.

“It’s probably evil, but does anyone have a waterskin? I could bless the water and dump it on the puddle, see what happens,” I suggested.

Cheshire handed me one of her waterskins and I promptly blessed the water. I stepped closer to the puddle, holding the waterskin out should it react violently before dumping the water onto it. The puddle hissed, greedily absorbing the positive energy infused in the water. Though it did shrink., it didn’t disappear, instead looking almost as if it were searching for more.

“I could try to bless more water,” I mumbled. Surely it could only take so much holy water…

“That would take a lot of time and spells. Maybe it would be better to put the stuff in the bag of holding and douse it in holy water later,” Cheshire said, frowning slightly.

“Perhaps someone without divine magic should take it then, someone it won’t leach onto,” I said, looking at Cheshire, knowing her affinity for anything unclaimed.

“I’ll do it,” Ulkair shrugged, stepping up to the shifting shadows.

“Be careful,” I murmured, reflexively reaching out to him.

Ulkair reached his arm into the puddle and I cringed, waiting for his screams to echo off the surrounding buildings for what agony the puddles of negative energy might have caused him. His face reflected no pain, but his arms went further into the puddle than it should have been able to for a moment before pulling his hand back.

“That wasn’t so bad, just kind of gross,” Ulkair commented, looking over the item in his hand.

I looked over his arm, residual slime hissing at my touch, but his skin was perfectly intact, no other sign that he’d come in contact with liquid evil. Ulkair’s eyes widened at what looked like a clear sphere in his hand. Almost sneering, he threw it into the bag of holding, wiping his hand off on his pants as if trying to rid himself of something lingering from the stone.

“A crystal ball,” Ulkair muttered under his breath. “Looks valuable, though. I see three other puddles if you want me to check them too.”

“Are you sure there isn’t something more to these? No taint, no corruption we should be worried about?” I asked.

“We’ll bathe him in holy water when we get back,” Mimi said nonchalantly, waving her hand.

Ulkair glanced over us and shrugged again, walking up to the next puddle. My grip on Anduin tightened following him. There had to be something more to this, but he did like magical items. If we were cautious, it should be okay. Ulkair crouched down by the puddle, his fingers barely brushing the surface when the shadows exploded up around him, a ghostly voice screaming.

“Flee! It’s too much! Flee! But save me! ” the voice cried, dark tendrils shooting out and wrapping around Ulkair, trying to pull him in.

“Ulkair!” I screamed, reaching out for him, but the darkness had already engulfed half of him.

Alix and Lóin appeared beside the puddle, each taking hold of one of his leg. Pulling him out, a vaguely humanoid form clung desperately to him, still pleading to be saved. Lóin summoned a portion of Lord Eadro’s divine magic to his hand, just enough to chase the shade away. Falling back, it screamed as the puddle dissipated.

“Whew, that was scary,” Ulkair mumbled, shuddering and brushing himself off. “Can I have some holy water?”

I created more water in the waterskin and blessed it, pouring the water over his head and shoulders, the shadows hissing and vanishing at the positive energy so much stronger than the thin wisps clinging to Ulkair. I ran my fingers through his hair, chasing out the last of the shadows lurking. Ulkair sighed in relief before looking over fabric clenched in his hands. Shaking the fabric out before him, I saw it was a cloak with a flame pattern lining the bottom edge. A pleased look came over his face, but still he shuddered throwing the cloak around his shoulders and fastening it before him.

“This is a cloak that makes you more resilient. Did you need it, Nerida?” Ulkair asked, his hands pausing at the clasp.

“No. You keep it,” I mumbled, holding him close for a moment. “Please be safe. I love you so much.”

“Do you want me to check the other two puddles?” Ulkair asked, excitement glinting in his eyes at what he might find, despite the apparent danger.

“Not after that,” Caspian commented wryly.

“I don’t think it will be a problem. Clearly that was just psychic residue,” Ulkair dismissed, no more concerned about the residue than he might be a minnow swimming through his hair.

“Would pouring holy water on it first help?” I asked. I didn’t care for the idea of him trying any more with what happened, but if he was so keen on doing so, we should at least take further precautions. It did make the other one smaller, perhaps less potent.

“The other one didn’t do it. I think it’s only the ones that were stronger mentally. Maybe if Lóin just keeps a hand, er, um, a claw? A mouth? A claw,” Ulkair finally decided, looking over the dragon, “nearby, I’ll be okay.”

“How about I just do it?” Aadya chimed in, looking at us.

I looked up at her and wondered why it hadn’t occurred to me before. She was far stronger than any of us and she wasn’t a beacon of a god’s light the darkness so loved to taint. I didn’t think I could have asked her to put herself in danger, so new to our entourage, but if she was offering….I glanced back at Ulkair, visions of him being dragged into blood and shadow flashing through my mind, but not stopping at what I’d just witnessed. I felt our link sever violently as the darkness consumed him, taking him somewhere I couldn’t follow no matter the magic I possessed.

I nodded mutely, reflexively holding tighter to Ulkair, and Aadya knelt down my one of the remaining puddles. She reached her hand into the puddle and the shadows writhed, latching onto her arm and everything it could reach. Aadya scowled in annoyance, simply drawing her arm back and punching the residue again taking the shape of a man. The ooze splattered harmlessly in a wide arc, leaving Aadya free to reach back in. She dug around for a moment before retrieving a ring so small in her palm. Turning it over in her palm a couple times, she dropped it into the bag of holding. Unfazed, she walked over to a puddle larger than any of the others had been, reaching in without hesitation. Once more the puddle remained lifeless and she soon held up a chainshirt. Shaking the ooze off it, she again placed it in the bag of holding, the shirt splashing in the bottom as though it had taken on some of the properties of the goo it had been resting in for some time now.

Ulkair pulled the cloak tighter around himself, apprehension I knew he wouldn’t admit to wavering through our bond. His home, his office, how many times he must have dreamed of returning, the life he once knew that he could never return to. I suspected that if I had asked, he would wave the question off, saying his life was better now anyway, though happiness had once found him here. I took his hand in mine, squeezing it softly, though I said nothing, not wanting to draw further attention to his pain. If he would ever want to talk about the painful memories, it wasn’t here and now, but I could at least comfort him this much. Ulkair squeezed my hand back and led us through the city until a tower came into sight.

Drawing closer, my breathe caught as I saw the tower was on a peninsula looking out over the rolling waves of the ocean as I’d never seen, the idea of looking down on water foreign to me. Ulkair had explained that the oceans of my birth were on the border of two planes and that was why it was contained, so to speak, by the sheer wall as it was whereas most oceans flowed something like enormous lakes. Even so, I hadn’t expected the sight to be so…magnificent, just a hint of the vast beauty and grace of the oceans yet showing its might in the endless churning of the water. Ulkair’s home…the ocean he once so loved he’d stare out into it in what time he could spare. I could almost see the sunlight glimmering on the crests of the waves as far as the eye could see, a wonder to behold as the sun rose, or set, leaving stars shining above and the moon glowing on the restless waves. My heart bled to see what he had been taken, his beautiful sanctuary lost to what he’d known was coming, but hadn’t been able to stop.

Ulkair squeezed my hand again, drawing my attention back to his face, a looked of pained resignation in his eyes. He’d known, of course, what he once had, what he would never have again. It was no surprise to him, painful though seeing it might be. He pulled me forward towards the door and Lóin and Aadya waited outside, too large to fit into the tower. Ulkair opened the heavy wooden door and all blood drained from his face, his yet outstretched hand trembling at the sight before us. Blood coated it seemed every surface, though it must have been two thousand years old. Magic laced through the substance, the residue of blood magic cast preserving his home left in ruin as a warning to any other who might dare defy the vampires. Ulkair’s hand slipped from mine as he slowly stepped forward, surveying the damage.

“It does appear that all my arcane equipment was destroyed, but I’ll bet there’s one thing they did not find,” Ulkair trailed off to chant something under his breath, a small pocket dimension opening in the floor.

The wizard grinned and pulled out what looked like a royal scepter made out of platinum chased with gold, rubies elegantly adorning it. Looking over it, I wondered if he had made it or what was so special about it that he’d hidden it away, the one portion of his old life that survived millennia of neglect.

“Any chance any of your other spellbooks are still here?” I asked, looking around for anything else that might have escaped the vampires’ wrath.

“I’m sure that was the first thing they looked for. I have but what I saved.”

“In your other pocket?” I asked, cocking my head to the side.

“Yes, in my other pocket,” Ulkair replied, a faint smile ghosting over his lips. “This was my first experiment of making a pocket dimension.”

“Was there anything else you needed here?” Mimi asked.

“No,” Ulkair sighed, his face falling again as he looked around his study, hundreds of years of memories of him and Larn floating to his mind. Shaking his head, he held his hand out, flame erupting above his palm in preparation to cleanse him home in the only way he could. “There’s not.”

As if responding to his magic, the blood in the room began to shift, coalescing into two large gelatinous creatures that looked quite similar to the oozes we’d fought before, but more menacing. Behind me, I heard Alix say something about a blood jelly, but I couldn’t make the rest of his words out. Their forms quivered and they lashed out at Ulkair before I could reach him. He fended the first off, but the second tangled around him, engulfing him in an instant. Having the prize it sought, the blood jelly seeped into the ground, a bloody trail appearing along the ground the only sign it had ever been here.

“Ulkair!” I shrieked, following the path without a thought, but it was moving faster than I could run. In the darkness, my gaze could only follow it for maybe sixty feet before I lost sight of the trail. Desperation tore at me and I reached out to Ulkair through our bond, praying the blood jelly hadn’t suppressed that. ‘Ulkair? Can you hear me?’

‘I’m in one of the buildings, down in the middle of the city. Hurry, I’m with-’ Ulkair replied, our connection suddenly breaking.

I stared into the darkness for a moment, everything I was screaming to follow after him, find him and burn every writhing shadow that dare stand between us with divine light. I glanced behind me, seeing Cheshire reaching for Ragnarok, the other blood jelly edging closer to her, feeling her arcane magic. I needed to save Ulkair, but I couldn’t abandon Cheshire. As soon as it was dead, we could go find Ulkair. Gritting my teeth, I ran back into the room and thrust my hand out towards the gelatinous parasite, pouring all the magic I could to form a pillar of divine fire erupting around the blood jelly. The jelly shrieked and slumped into a shapeless puddle soon claimed by the flames.

“He’s in the city,” I announced, wasting no time running back out.

“He can’t be more than a mile away. Let’s go,” Cheshire said, somehow familiar with these fell creatures, though I didn’t question her valuable insight.

Nodding, I followed the bloody trail as well I could, but the path crossed others, soon tangled and lost to the endless blood and shadow of this corrupted world. Alix joined me, picking out the trail I’d lost and leading us through the city where it would seem the blood jellies had long been traversing. He soon guided us to what once must have been one of the most majestic buildings in the city, almost akin to a castle in its grandeur. Enormous doors large enough to allow even Aadya and Lóin to enter stood open, a silent invitation. Alix paused a moment, looking up at me, recalling me as his commander though I’d never wanted the position. I was no leader, but someone needed to lead.

I stepped forward, my companions easily falling into step behind me as I followed the faint tugging I felt from Ulkair, our bond silent, but not entirely suppressed in such a close vicinity. The entrance way opened up into a grand hall, a haggard man standing in the middle of the room, Ulkair encased in the blood jelly lurking behind him. A vampire, I recognized the man as, though he maintained a regal bearing. His face looked like worn parchment, countless thousands of years old, though I suspected he had only recently born the weight of that time. His very clothing appeared to be composed of the surrounding shadows writhing around him as though they were alive. He looked up at us and sighed deeply as his placed his gnarled hands over his eyes.

“I should have known that the first people who would return to this accursed place would be the slayers of my child. My fate is all but sealed, so I will grasp at whatever straws I can. Help me and I’ll return your belovèd wizard as well as tell you about the woman who has brought you here and whatever else might be of use to you,” he said, desperation rolling off him, though there was yet a powerful aura of menace not tarnished by his years.

“You can’t trust him! I’m sure he is the father!” Agorran yelled, Alix knocking an arrow and drawing aim at the high priest’s words.

“Shouldn’t we see what he wants?” I asked, holding my hand up, though my eyes didn’t stray from the vampire. I had never disagreed with Agorran about anything, but something told me this creature, vampire though he was, had something worth bargaining for. “Rushing into battle hasn’t always ended well for us.”

“Perhaps not, but can we really trust something that even your high priest utterly despises?” Caspian asked, looking uneasily between us.

“Well, then don’t have tea with him. Just talk. The enemy of our enemy may not be our friend, but that doesn’t mean we need to rush into a fight with him,” I spat. There was a gray area between friend and foe that most of Zissyx existed in. That was all I asked for, the possibility of that vague truce.

“Don’t let them get me!” he pleaded, dropping his hands and looking at us.

“What is it that you want?” I asked.

“To leave, get away!”

“And go where?” I asked again, my eyes narrowing.

“And what are you trying to get away from?” Caspian asked.

“A cage, unending and eternal,” he said, his face hollow and his voice bitter, a mere shell of what he was a year ago. “You’ve destroyed all my children. What more could you take from me? My life is not worth as much as it once was.”

“Let’s cut his head off,” Mimi whispered behind me.

“What would you do if you escaped?” I asked, ignoring the celestial.

“Continue to be an evil asshole!” Mimi supplied and I could have screamed at her insistent lack of any variant of diplomacy. How could she not grasp how serious and precarious our position with him was?

“I cannot say I won’t feed,” the vampire laughed, though it lacked any mirth. “I cannot say I won’t try to have children. This is my life, but I swear to you that what I know is important to you.”

Children…his children, his kind….I shuddered at the thought, my nightmares, that vampire that pinned me in the streets and very nearly whisked me away to a fate crueler than death, devoid of light and all I held dear. In his words I felt fangs sinking in my neck, draining my life as their very touch stole away my strength. I couldn’t just let him go, to visit that torment upon any others, but there had to be a way, if I could keep Ulkair safe.

“What are you doing to Ulkair?” I asked, my gaze drifting to my wizard yet trapped behind him.

“I’ve merely wrapped him in a cocoon of what precious little blood remains to me. He is not harmed. I don’t want him. I don’t want any of you, even vengeance for what you’ve done. I just want to leave here before they come for me,” he breathed, such sincerity in his voice I couldn’t help but believe him, but what he asked of us…

“Why do they want you?” I asked, prying for what information I could.

“I see that you won’t just speak of my deal,” the vampire sighed. “Why does he want me? Because I am unique.”

I saw Ulkair shudder violently in the blood jelly, his mouth open in a silent scream though I could feel his pain through our bond. I looked at him for but a moment when I realized the vampire had disappeared, though before I would wonder where he might have gone claws raked over my armour, screeching on the steel of my platemail and all too easily tearing through it, carving piece after piece out of my back with savage ferocity. My voice rang out in sheer agony as blood gurgled in the back of my throat, too stunned at the sudden onslaught to move. I faintly heard Cheshire scream something and the assault ceased long enough for me to crumple to the ground in a pool of my blood, my mind in a daze as my body spasmed, ignorant of the battle waging around me. Something warm gently touched my back, so different from the unnatural touch of the vampire shredding everything its claws met. Positive energy flowed into me, chasing away my pain as I felt my skin and muscles begin to knit back together, my mind clearing. Looking up, I saw Aadya slam her marble statue into the vampire, though the shadows around him writhed and oozed into his own wounds, mending his undead flesh. The very air around us seemed to ease his injuries just as it would harm us, the negative energy now tainting this place the same to the undead as Lord Eadro’s divine energy was to me.

Staggering to my feet, I lifted Anduin and poured healing magic into the trident, the only spell that would be devastating to the vampire without harming any of my companions. Lord Eadro’s light would cast off any shadow, no matter how deep or dark. Pulling my arm back, I embedded Anduin into the vampire’s chest, a flash of sea green light tearing the unnatural creature apart.

“Heh, freedom….freedom from the cage in oblivion,” the vampire breathed, a smile spreading across his face before collapsing to the ground, true relief in his eyes. The tattered trails of his cloak shivered and slithered up Anduin.

“Euh, vampires!” Anduin shuddered in my hand before glowing brighter, the shadowy cloak exploding off of him. “Nerida, what’s with the vampires again?”

Shaking my head, I turned back to Ulkair, seeing the blood jelly had melted away. The wizard was walking towards us, coughing and wiping futile at the blood covering him. I giggled at the sour, almost pouty look on his face, my own injuries not seeming so severe anymore at the sight of him. I held my hand over my last water skin to bless the water and handed it to him. Ulkair gratefully to the holy water and poured it over himself, sighing contently until he looked at me again, or more specifically, edging around to see my back.

“Oh no…” Ulkair groaned, his face paling again.

“What?” I asked, looking at him. I knew my condition had been dire before I was healed some, but surely I had sustained worse injuries before.

“That’s just…really bad…” Ulkair grimaced.

Cheshire nodded and took my hands, calling on Tubatron’s power to heal me. Smiling, I prayed as well, feeling Lord Eadro’s magic course through me, mending the last of my injuries. I felt positive energy leak through the fissures in my soul, escaping into the well, though the surrounding negative energy immediately snatched it away again. Satisfied that I was okay, Ulkair turned his attention to the vampire, a scowl darkening his face as he kicked the body.

“I’m surprised any of them survived. He must have been very powerful. Very old.”

“Any chance he said anything to you?” I asked, wishing we could have gotten more information out of him. “He might have books that could be of use to us.”

He was so painfully afraid of someone, even despite how powerful he was. Someone terribly powerful in their own right, perhaps someone who could get in and out of a sealed plane to expand his collection. It could be someone else. After all, I was hardly unique if he already had three other blue haired, green eyed merfolk, a far cry from undead, but regardless, whomever this vampire feared seemed like someone we should know everything we could about.

“I suppose we could search this place for his inner sanctum,” Ulkair said. “I don’t think he would have kept any notes on that though. He seemed pretty far gone, fallen from his high throne,” Ulkair spat, kicking the body again. “Why didn’t he turn into mist though?”

“Maybe their gaseous form can’t survive here?” Cheshire suggested.

“Maybe he’s older, a different kind of vampire. Could we use the crystal ball to find who we’re looking for here?” Mimi asked before Ulkair could say anything.

I wanted to dismiss her questioning irrelevant to what we’d been discussing, but one look at Agorran said we should leave as quickly as we could. Just protecting us here was painful to him and the longer we remained, the more trouble we invited. I could always talk to Ulkair later, though the vampire probably hadn’t said anything, saving him and what information he had as a bargaining chip.

“You want to scry on an evil creature in this giant vortex of evil? Even using the crystal ball, scrying is dangerous,” Cheshire frowned. “Let’s just go. We’ve yet to find what we’re looking for and all of this is a distraction.”

“Maybe you could use this to scry on my sister,” Alix said, pulling out the hilt of a broken sword. “We have been too long in this place.”

“I thought they would have come to find us by now, but she probably knows just being here could kill us,” Cheshire said, glancing nervously at Agorran.

“My mother is smart and spiteful,” Alix said, nodding.

“Well….I could do it,” Cheshire said, looking at her bag of holding, the crystal ball still housed within.

“If someone is going to, I will,” I said, resting my hand on hers. “I’m more familiar with scrying.”

“Then I’ll hide you from her,” Cheshire said, squeezing my hand before casting a spell on me, a shimmering force surrounding me.

Taking a deep breath, I dug the crystal ball out of the bag, knowing too well that this could go terribly, but how else could we find a shadow at night? There would always be just one more time I just had to scry and picking up the crystal ball, insisting that I be the one to scry, I felt I was accepting my fate somehow, acknowledging that I had some sort of affinity for divination others simply didn’t. Alix’s mother was far more powerful than me here of all places, but Lord Eadro would not give me sight if he didn’t mean for me to see. Lord Eadro shielded me even from Corellon Larethian when in all rights, my soul should have shattered irreparably under the god’s wrath. He was more distant here, but I was never alone.

Holding the crystal ball, I activated the magic stored within it, focusing on Alix’s sister, what I had seen of her in my dream. Her happy face smiling up at Agorran, the minute differences between her and Alix. I felt my mind, my awareness leave me, feeling through the shadows for her lost soul so similar to the ranger beside me. Dark images swirled before me and my fingertips burned, Alix’s mother appearing before me and pushing me back into my body as her face appeared in the crystal ball.

“You can’t hide from me,” she chided, a condescending smile stretched across her face.

I froze, unable to move or do anything other than stare. The crystal ball in my hands moved on its own, turning to face Alix.

“I’m waiting for you, son,” she taunted in a singsong voice. The image in the sphere shifted away from his mother to show his sister’s face contorted in agony as her mother’s hand constricted around her, easily crushing her. “And your sister is waiting too, but she’s pretty impatient. Good luck finding me.”

I felt my arms raise above my head and throw the crystal ball down with all my strength. I collapsed to the ground as though her strings controlling me had been all that were keeping me upright and now that I was free once more, I had no strength to stand. My hands trembled and I wrapped my arms around myself, not sure if I was trying to hide how shaken I was or if I was trying to comfort myself. Perhaps both.

“I should have known…’ Ulkair breathed, staring at the crystal ball once more clear, laying innocently on the ground. “Of course she is where the negative energy is the strongest – the confluence, where all of this began and where it will all end for a second time.”

Ulkair wrapped his arms around me and I felt his fears whirl through me. Scrying, divination, the danger involved, all made worse by being here. I returned his embrace long enough to collect my bearings and shake off what unease Alix’s mother had left me with. There wasn’t time for that, for any of this. Alix’s sister couldn’t last much longer and I feared neither could Agorran. He hadn’t voiced a word of complaint, a single sound of discomfort at shielding all of us, but neither were necessary to see how draining his spell was. We spoke briefly about how to best get to the confluence, be it running or the possibility of riding atop Lóin and Caspian were she to take the form of one of her megaraptors, Mimi also offering to carry someone. Traveling faster with the dragon and raptor was tempting, but none of us were familiar enough with riding creatures that in order to ensure none of us would fall off, we would lose precious time. And so we ran.

Ulkair lead us through the streets, darting around debris and oozing puddles like what we’d found earlier until we escaped the city and crossed fields of swaying grass. Though the magic granting me sight in the darkness left everything in shades of black and white, each blade of grass seemed to be dripping with blood, what had been a subtle feeling that something was wrong last time so much stronger now. Part of me wished Ulkair had trusted me enough to tell me what he’d planned or that I had thought to ask him, wondering if there might not have been a better way even if we did ultimately destroy Elysia as Ulkair wanted to. It was so hard to see the result of our efforts, the result of the fissures carved into my soul, and believe we had done the right thing. I shook my head in an attempt to dismiss the thoughts, hoping Ulkair was too distracted to notice them. That didn’t matter now. What was done was done and if there had ever been a way of restoring Elysia to her former glory, there certainly wasn’t anymore. We just needed to rescue Alix’s sister, Agorran’s love, and kill the monster tormenting the ranger’s family.

Behind me I heard a shuffle, turning to see Agorran stumble. We all reached out to the high priest to steady him, Cheshire quickly casting lesser restoration on him. I felt her holy magic all but brush over him before the negative energy of the plane greedily devoured the rest, much as it had snatched the energy of my well, but it seemed to have helped Agorran a little. He smiled and thanked Cheshire, though his breathe still fell in short gasps and he looked as though he might topple over at any moment. I clenched my fists, wishing I could just carry him the rest of the way, but for all my strength I knew I couldn’t carry a full grown man in full plate without slowing myself down as well. Our only choice was to move on, get out of here as soon as possible to spare him the suffering shielding us inflicted upon him.

A shiver ran down my spine as we neared the confluence and my soul ached, remembering the energy of a plane lifting me up and so nearly tearing me apart. I took a deep breath and reached for Ulkair’s hand, knowing this was even harder on him. Stepping closer, I felt waves of dark energy pulsating out towards us, a hulking figure in the center of the crumbled cavern. As if sensing it, the figure stretched upward, towering over us at more than twice the height of the walls surrounding Byss, maybe forty five feet tall and fifteen across. It looked something like an enormous black worm rather than the shadowy figure it had been before, a nightcrawler with countless writhing tentacles whipping around it’s open maw, one wrapped around the soul of Alix’s sister.

“She’s my last child! You can’t have her!” the nightwalker shrieked at Alix and Agorran.

Her mouth open impossibly wide and she began to wail as she did in Agorran’s office, my blood running cold at the sound so piercing it threatened to shatter my very being and stop my heart. The rocks crumbled around us, somehow audible above her wail and my breath caught, the fissures in my soul aching at the memory of how I should have died a year ago in this very spot. Such despair came over me at the memory, stinging my eyes as something burned deeper. Rage, shame, accusations of failing echoed endlessly, crushing me until I couldn’t even think of disputing it. Visions of Elysia falling to darkness flashed through my mind as Vhailor laughed until I was watching my soul start to shatter, but not from my perspective. In front of me, looking up…Ulkair?

My eyes flew open and I saw Ulkair crouched on the ground, screaming with his hands buried in his hair. His thoughts continued to echo in my mind, losing everything that mattered again, what he allowed to happen. All of Elysia was dead, gone, as I should be…I should be dead…he? We? He wanted to die with them, felt he deserved to and I felt him letting go. I scrambled over to Ulkair and pulled him into my arms, resting my forehead against him. I couldn’t speak, my voice lost to anguished screams, but I could give him something to hold onto. I held tight to him through our bond, doing all I could to drown out millennia of loss and torment, pleading him to believe me when I said it wasn’t his fault. I survived and he freed Elysia from the vampires that had taken her. Live, live for me, live for Elysia, in remembrance of hubris and folly. Live!

Golden eyes met mine and Ulkair’s arms slowly wrapped around me as he sobbed. I pressed my lips against his forehead and pulled us to our feet, scanning the field for Cheshire. She survived in Agorran’s office, she had to have made it again. I found Alix, folds of yellow fabric peaking out of his embrace, her arms wrapped tightly around the ranger as well. I breathed a sigh of relief, turning to see Agorran yet standing, Aadya, Caspian, Mimi flying by, though Lóin had landed, peering at something on the ground. The dragon roared just as I realized he was standing over Selene’s crumpled form, his fury turning on the nightcrawler.

She almost seemed to smile, the tentacle holding Alix’s sister’s soul tightening. As the soul screamed, waves lashed out all around her. Ulkair narrowly dodged the one aimed at us, but I wasn’t so quick on my feet. The whip didn’t bring as much pain as I’d expected for the colossal size of the nightcrawler, but instead it tore at my very life, trying to take part of me. I forced her prying fingers aside, though still she seemed to grow larger and I still felt something draining on me. Glancing behind me, I saw Agorran had collapsed, grasping at his chest. His shield had fallen…and now the plane itself was slowly killing us. I ran to the high priest’s side, helping him to his feet. His breath was ragged, his face contorted in pain, but be still claimed he was fine. Whatever the cost of his spell had been, there wasn’t anything I could do to mitigate it here.

I mulled over the magic at hand, what spell to use, but Selene’s prone form caught my eye. In this place so full of negative energy, if her soul wasn’t collected, protected, she would turn into a wraith. Even with the holy energy pouring out of me, ever consecrating the ground around me, the desecration of this land suppressed it. Gripping Anduin, I ran over to her body, gently collecting her soul and siphoning it into the empty jar in my bag. I hadn’t intended to take souls anymore, but still I couldn’t seem to part with the jar, one of the first things Ulkair ever gave me and something he’d painstakingly made. Now, I was thankful for what sentimentality had made me keep the vessel.

Magic flared around the nightcrawler, Ulkair and Caspian casting sunburst as Lóin carved into her with his sharp claws and teeth, Alix firing arrow after arrow while Agorran wielded his mace, ever a Byssian. Thunder rumbled and clouds swirled above at Aadya’s call. Unfazed, the waves of dark energy lashed out again, strengthening the nightcrawler as we grew weaker. Agorran cast his gaze around the field, noticing something I must have missed.

“We can suppress her dark field if we all use our positive energy and flood the area at the same time!” Agorran called out, making eye contact with Cheshire, Mimi, and myself. “Each person needs to be in a quadrant!”

Following Agorran’s lead, we split up around the nightwalker while the rest of our companions continued their onslaught. Negating those waves of negative energy wouldn’t stop her, but then we could fight her without her stealing our own life force to heal herself. Without the high priest’s shield, I already felt myself growing weaker by the second, the surrounding air almost seeming as though it were alive, slowly devouring me until nothing would be left. I glanced at Agorran, knowing he had already been ailing for the spell that spared us, but still he carried on. Ulkair’s words echoed through my mind and a chill crept through me. Of all of us, I would be the last, or could be, as I simply had more positive energy to lose than my companions. I couldn’t let them fall to the shadows!

I called all the positive energy I could to me, though Lord Eadro felt impossibly far away, obscured through veil of blood and darkness, the negative energy compassing all. Even so, I knew he had already bestowed me with all the power I needed to accomplish this, his divine grace flowing through me as a coursing river. Sea green light began to glow around me, the same energy surrounding Agorran while a brassy light enveloped Cheshire and Mimi. Agorran looked at each of us and nodded, our magic glowing brighter and extending out and wrapping around the nightcrawler at his signal. The nightcrawler screamed at the positive energy, but so too did Alix’s sister, her small soul still tangled in her mother’s grasp. Roaring again, the nightcrawler lashed out, our collective energy wavering as her tendrils tore through our attempt to hold her dark field at bay. Waves of negative energy rolled over us again, clawing at us as damned souls lost to the abyss, begging for salvation denied to them. Their fingers ran over my skin and their screams rang through my mind as their touch sought to steal what of my life remained after the constant drain from the plane itself.

I pushed them aside and gazed at Alix’s sister in the throes of agony. We had to save her, but her mother was draining her soul and everything we could use to stop the nightcrawler harmed her as well. I couldn’t see Alix’s or Agorran’s eyes, but I didn’t need to see them to know the despair reflected in them. As Ulkair had learned the cruel fate that had befallen Larn, she too was tormented in undeath. So close, so fragile, but there needed to be a way. Looking closer, I realized that our positive energy wasn’t killing her again as I’d feared, but purging the taint of undeath from her soul, helping her fight against her mother. Just a little bit more and we could hold back the worst of the dark field.

Raising my hands, I called on the power from Lord Eadro again, knowing his light could shine even in the deepest shadow. Lord Eadro’s high priest and his hierophant, Tubatron’s high priestess and paladin, we would never submit to the tyranny of undeath. At Agorran’s signal, we unleashed another combined burst of divine energy as Lóin and Alix continued to carve into the nightcrawler, Aadya’s lightning crackling in the air around us. She screeched again, but this time our barrier held against her enraged outburst and she staggered, liquid shadow dripping off her. The tentacle clutching Alix’s sister released her and she fell to the ground in a heap, precariously balanced between life and death. The pools of shadow oozing around her began to shift, forming into four dread wraiths that advanced on us. A deafening thoom shook the ground as a spectral night careened out of the sky and crashed into Lóin with a great lance.

“Yes, kill your mother again, your family,” the nightcrawler taunted, a low laughter echoing in the stale air, her wretched spawn edging ever closer to us.

Ulkair glanced between the nightcrawler and the wraiths, holding his hand out and drawing on my magic. His voice rang through my mind a brief apology as light coalesced in his palm, firing into the nightcrawler rather than the wraith shifting closer to me. I waved his concern off, knowing the wraiths were little more than a distraction in the end. If their master fell, they would disperse. Wraiths…I’d read about them, writhing shadow given form and malice, but what could a lone shadow do under the scrutiny of the sun? Even wraiths as powerful as these would be virtually powerless under sunlight. As if hearing my thoughts, the one closest to me shifted forward and tore a clawed hand through me, naught but passing through and yet agony flared in my skin still undamaged to the eye. With the pain came a creeping hollowness that stole my strength, leaving me feeling brittle somehow.

Agorran walked closer to where the soul of his belovèd lay and held his mace over his head, muttering words only Lord Eadro could hear. A beam of pure light shown down on him and soothing, protective energy wrapped around me. I felt for a moment I was back in the ocean, near our new city, just…floating peacefully, though I couldn’t think of a time I ever had so little concern there. The pain, the numbness, none of it faded, but it didn’t seem to matter as it had a moment before. I watched Agorran extend his hand towards his belovèd, our fight to save her, to lay Ulkair’s pain to rest as well we could, and to free Alix from his past.

Caspian stepped up behind me and her fingers brushed against Anduin, emerald green magic pouring into him. Anduin hummed in approval as he began to glow with the radiance of the sun, chasing away even the unnatural darkness cloaking this place. The dread wraiths shrieked and shrank back, though there was nowhere to go beyond the light of Caspian’s spell. Finally able to clearly see again, I looked up in horror to see Alix wrestling against the nightcrawler’s tentacles just before its great maw. Aadya ran up and took hold of Alix, trying to free him from his mother’s grasp. Mimi swooped down again and carved into the nightcrawler, though her focus never wavered.

Desperate to divert her attention, I poured all the power I could into the palm of my hand burning with the searing light of the sun as Ulkair formed an enormous fireball, launching it at the same time as I released my own spell, the flames shifting to avoid our companions. The nightcrawler shrieked as the holy magic and arcane fire scorched her skin, but still her tentacles lashed out and seized Aadya, swallowing both her and Alix whole. A low hum of satisfaction reverberated throughout the arena before something caught her attention and she roared in pure fury.

“That is my dress!” the nightcrawler bellowed, finally noticing Cheshire now that Alix was gone from sight.

Shrieking again, her stinger whipped out and carved through Cheshire, torrents of blood staining her yellow dress. Cheshire screamed as she collapsed on the ground, barely clinging to consciousness. My own cry caught in my throat, torn between continuing my assault on the nightcrawler and helping Cheshire. She would say to help him, needing him to live more dearly than perhaps anything, but I couldn’t lose her here. Even if I could bring her back, mend her skin, and lay her soul back into her body, I couldn’t watch her die.

Magic whirled around my fingers when the nightcrawler shuddered violently, her hands gravitating towards her bulging stomach. A large sword suddenly pierced through her skin with a great gout of liquid shadow and gore. The sword carved down through her abdomen to reveal Aadya, Alix clutched against her chest with her other hand. The storm giantess burst out and away from the writhing nightcrawler shrieking in a growing pool of shadows. Even as Aadya flew away, Alix wiggled out of her grasp and up to her shoulder, throwing his sword back at his mother’s open mouth. The sword sank deep into the nightcrawler’s throat and out the back of her neck, her deafening screams suddenly stopped, her form wavering before collapsing to the ground. All I could do was watch her for a moment, waiting for her to move, get up again and the battle would continue, but she didn’t budge. The wraiths disappeared and the spectral knight, free of the nightcrawler’s control, fled.

A short sigh of relief escaped my lips, though I knew the danger wasn’t gone entirely, not while we were here, unshielded. I glanced at Cheshire trying to move towards Agorran and cast a quick healing spell on her before moving towards my high priest as well. She would need more healing, as would we all, but it would buy her some time to resolve our next problem. By the time I ran up to Agorran, he was already cradling his belovèd. She looked mostly as I recalled from my dream, so much like Alix, but younger, her features smoother and feminine, though in her translucence I still could see some lingering traces of the undeath that had claimed her.

“I know that you can’t usually resurrect an undead creature, right? What we could do is put her soul in an arcane construct. Perhaps it’s not ideal, but it’s something,” Ulkair suggested, scratching the back of his head.

“Couldn’t we put her soul into another body, like reincarnate her?” Cheshire asked.

“She was smart and spiteful and horrible. I think she just removed her soul out of her undead body and hid the body. If her body hasn’t been destroyed….” Ulkair trailed off, shaking his head. “That would be my guess. I could be wrong, but from the way she’s acted before? And things she’s said? It makes sense to me.”

“Do you think her body is here or back in Byss?” I asked.

“Did you burn her body?” Cheshire softly asked, looking at Alix.

“We burned what we thought was her body,” Alix began, sighing. “But undead can often get a soul in a new body. I don’t know….we could try to resurrect her, though I think it would just fail with what Ulkair said.”

“Is there any way to keep her safe until we know for sure?” Cheshire asked.

“I do still have a soul jar,” I commented, thinking about Selene’s soul housed within it.

“She’s a ghost, right? Couldn’t she possess someone?” Mimi suggested.

“I could give her space in my body, or we could try to purge the rest of the undeath in her soul, the risk being if we overdue it, we destroy her,” Agorran all but breathed, his hand running softly through her hair, occasionally phasing through her.

“Would it be easier to try to cleanse her if she was more stable?” Cheshire asked. “Outside of this plane?”

“I fear that our chance is now, with all of her negative energy being used up by her mother,” Agorran sighed.

“If we could free her soul of undeath, that would solve this dilemma, as dangerous as it would be,” Cheshire whispered.

“Should we start with minimal energy, perhaps? Make sure it’s not hurting her?” Caspian suggested, glancing between us.

“I have the ittiest bittiest ability to turn undead…I could try first?” Cheshire offered.

I watched her face fall and her lower lip quiver slightly, anxiety reflected in her every motion, though I knew it was better for her to try. She was a cleric as well, but her talents and magics were split between music as well as the divine and arcane while on my own, I could only focus positive energy. I had turned even Dovev’s flesh-crafted wyvern over a year ago, a feat I hadn’t thought possible at the time, and now I was stronger. Even trying to use the smallest portion of holy energy at my command, with all I possessed in becoming Lord Eadro’s hierophant, his oracle, the fissures carved into my soul that allowed my magic to flow too freely…out of all of us, I was the most likely to kill her, no matter how cautious I was.

Cheshire crept closer and gently rested her hands on her aunt’s pale form. Taking a deep breath, Cheshire closed her eyes, the faint sound of music in the air as she focused on Tubatron’s holy power. Alix’s sister moaned softly, her form glowing brighter with the positive energy coursing through her. Looking encouraged, Cheshire focused her magic, Aadya’s harp music filling the unnatural silence. Cheshire softly began to sing the chilling, painfully beautiful song I first heard here, first sang as my soul was shattering, just as the very plane was. Both fractured, but not destroyed, left in another strange state not as anticipated. The sound so haunting, so alluring…I found myself drifting closer to Ulkair, feeling the warring emotions raging in him.

Brassy light emanated from Cheshire’s hands, glowing brighter with her song, joined the holy energy of Lord Eadro and Tubatron already residing within her soul, aiding in her fight against the taint of undeath. Cheshire and Aadya’s music seemed to wrap around them, purifying the area with song and the crashing waves of the ocean. Alix’s sister groaned again, her form continuing to grow brighter until her body faded into swirling light that coalesced into a bronze sphere floating between Cheshire’s hands, illuminating a tear trailing down her face.

I could only presume the sphere was her soul, protected and preserved by our combined magic, though the unspoken question of what to do next hung heavily in the air.. What would be best? Could we bring her soul back to Byss and try to reincarnate her? Put her in a construct as Ulkair had suggested? Perhaps that would be better than her current state, but it seemed such a cold existence, trapped in metal rather than her own living flesh. Stronger forms of the resurrection spell could recreate a body as Agorran had for Tad Cooper, but we would need some part of her for that to work and the spell took ten minutes. Even if we had a lock of her hair or something to focus the spell on, even ten minutes was an eternity when each passing second continued to draw on our lives, but what else was there? We’d come too far to lose her now!

“She is blood of my blood…” Alix trailed off, his gaze growing distant.

“Alix…” Cheshire cautioned, eyeing the ranger. “I don’t think we have enough diamonds to resurrect her right here right now.”

Agorran mutely produced a large diamond from a pouch at his side, a desperate plea for this very possibility he’d breathed word of only to Lord Eadro. His eyes locked with Alix’s and the ranger pulled his dagger from its place at his side, cutting off his little finger without hesitation. Gritting his teeth, he squeezed Cheshire’s hand and offered the severed finger to Agorran.

“Thank you, my brother,” Agorran whispered, accepting the proffered focus for his spell.

Agorran immediately began casting the spell, sea green light radiating from his hands drawing the brassy sphere closer to him and weaving between the finger and his belovèd’s soul. I bit my lip and took a couple steps back so I could clearly see everyone already so injured from the fight. Ten minutes. I just had to keep them alive for ten minutes and I could get us all out of here. If it weren’t for my soul fissures, perhaps I could cast gate and everyone else could flee, leaving fewer for me to heal, but I didn’t know that I could focus on keeping the gate open and healing and if it closed, we would be trapped here. If we were to try to take her soul possibly at best, it would be destroyed. At worst?

I shook my head to dismiss the thought. Focus. Lord Eadro had already granted me everything I needed to keep them safe. As seconds trickled into minutes, I concentrated on my magic, pouring positive energy into the spell to heal all of us as much as I could. The negative energy around me seemed to converge on me as a swarm, greedily latching onto the fissures in my soul and stealing what they could. I choked back a pained groan, trying to ignore everything but the spell. I couldn’t be distracted, couldn’t distract Agorran from his work. Breathe, breathe through the pain, mere discomfort next to what else you have known, especially here of all places. Let the plane leach what it would. Lord Eadro’s light would cast out any shadow. What energy it stole, I would find more. I would be more, be enough to keep all my companions whole for as long as it took. We would not fall here.

I repeated my words as a mantra through each spell I cast, ignoring the insignificant unease, the fissures glowing on my skin. They didn’t matter, my companions did. I lost track of the time passing, everything other than my companions’ condition. Alix’s finger slowly took the form of a full body much like his own, following the guidance of Agorran’s memory and her soul. An eternity passed before Agorran’s hand lowered and the soft glow of sea green light faded, his belovèd’s chest slowly rising and falling. She groaned softly and her gray eyes fluttered open for a moment, resting her face on Agorran’s shoulder before she fell asleep again. Agorran tore his eyes from her to look at me. I nodded and turned around, focusing on the spell that would free us from this place. I pictured Byss, the glow of the sun over the glimmering city, the gentle breeze by the steps of the temple, every detail I could think of beyond the positive and negative energy threatening to further break my battered soul.

Gritting my teeth, I thrust my palm out and a line cut through the air, turning to create a portal leading to the temple in Byss. I faintly saw my companions shuffle around me to pass through the gate, not daring to take my attention away from the spell to verify who anyone was. Eventually, a hand took mine and slowly guided me to walk forward, Ulkair’s arms wrapping around me in my mind. We must be the last then, I mused. He led me through and I let the gate close behind me, leaning heavily on Ulkair. Alix threw his arms around Agorran and his sister, the happiest I had ever seen him in the year I’d known him now. The gift of seeing, the curse of knowing….whatever my future may hold, this was worth any torment that may await me.

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*:・゚✧ Cheshire's Adventure Log ✧゚・: *
The Worry List (Reprise)

Day Ten

Once my worry for Nerida starts to subside, my week is for the most part enjoyable. Mimi finishes up the application for the temple of Ao in just a matter of a couple days, confirming my suspicions she was the right person for the task. The only problem being that it turns out they won’t accept it without a donation of one-hundred-thousand coppers to go along side it, a problem I bring to Ooze, only to discover the ‘tiny bit of debt’ to which Declan had referred was every bit that much, and possibly more.

And there’s no wiggling our application by for any less, or any kind of payments, services, nor other arrangements that can be made, because, as it turns out, Ooze has made an enemy of the head of the department that would be processing it – a priest by the name of Finn, who he refuses to say much else about. I reassign Mimi to a census, for lack of any better idea what I could possibly do – two hundred thousand coppers? And that didn’t include any of our daily costs, which I imagine, based primarily on what food consumption I’ve observed and the fact that Alix’s liquor supply never seems to run dry, are not cheap.

Apparently Ooze isn’t great with finances, making them another thing I believe everyone here thought I would handle – clearly Tubatron didn’t feel my formal education, or lack thereof, was something to be concerned about, because none of them seem to know how completely in over my head I am. At least this allows me to not look like an absolute fool, but my biggest, most proper smiles and the words ‘we’ll work it out’, are starting to feel hollow.

In the precious free time I am not unearthing more and more impossible dilemmas, Ulkair and I spend most of our days together, studying, caring for the boys, doing… a bit more goofing off than I’d truly intended. I find myself utterly helpless to resist Ulkair’s mischievous smile when it appears, and often more focused on my instructor than our material. I can’t help the stirring in my soul as I watch him process each and every thought, taking long moments to simply savor the fact that I have such a moment, to observe and appreciate him.

We hadn’t been alone together for any real period of time since the night we spent after Zissyx, and the couple of days that followed, and in that time, well… I watched him just as intently, felt the same pull, but it brought me only anguish to be in his arms, guilt and worry for how much I loved him, as opposed to the warmth of his returned affection.

We spoke of many things – some painful, others remarkably easy. The security of our blanket fort in Alix’s living room offered so much relief from the horrors of the ocean, the fear of my future, and the truths of which we had to speak to Nerida when she returned. He was the first of my companions besides Alix to know about Sigil, about my destiny, and how it called me away from Byss – something that filled me with so much anxiety. But somehow, when we spoke of it, it hadn’t seemed so bad, and as we’d laid together, and he spoke to me in Elysian of every form of music he knew, my very soul shook with my need of him, and with the question I couldn’t put out of my mind – Why couldn’t it always be like this? Because life is never so simple, I know, but at times like these, it can seem it.

At the very least, Ulkair is mature and focused on the task at hand. He recognizes when my mind is wandering, and constantly pulls my attention back with something new. Sometimes food, sometimes kisses, quizzes, or Elysian examples of the planes we debate, when my focus is too terribly strained, and my fidgeting becomes obvious, we walk the halls, but it never takes long for my focus to wander from his words to his lips, or his eyes, or any number of the ways I can count how very, very much I love him.

“You seem distracted, love,” Ulkair points out, somewhere into our fourth day of study, and I shake my head, blinking at him and struggling to muster a memory of the last few things he’d said.

I am unable to, remembering only the curvature of the lines on his face as he’d spoken, and he gives me a soft smile, indicating that ‘you seem distracted’ was code for ‘I said something utterly ridiculous just to see if you were listening and clearly you weren’t.’

“I… sorry,” I mumble, scooting closer to him and planting a soft kiss on his shoulder, “I just….”

I wrap my arms around one of his, laying my head against him, and struggle for words enough to express myself, my mind landing on a song I’d once sung in all my pining.

“I think… I love you too much,” I whisper the words in Elysian, my hesitation to use a language that could cause him pain lowering my volume, but the common tongue just doesn’t seem like enough. Nothing does. I do my best to wrap him in the verbal embodiment of my emotion, as he has shown me, though the language is still so new to me, and my command of it limited.

He smiles, delighted, and yet with a tinge of sadness.

“No, I loved Elysia too much,” he replies, his Elysian much more beautiful, as images of his homeland flow into my mind, giving him happiness and sorrow, sapping his strength trying to save it.

“I think your love for me is perfect,” he continues, as I am wrapped in his view of my love for him, visions of our shared passion, how my love strengthens and empowers him, gave him his precious Rhapsody, and keeps his mind safe from its self-harrowing. “I love you, too, Cheshire.”

I reach up to rub the budding tears from my eyes, and shift my arms to embrace him, as tightly as I can. I feel a building sense of… rightness, for lack of any better term, as the words fade, leaving in me a rare spark of pride – in myself. In the things that I have done, however large or small, to bring light into Ulkair’s life, and perhaps others. Pride in our family, our love, in Rhapsody – so beautiful, and the purest testimony to the very best of me, in spite of my failings. For a moment, my mind rests, and I feel that… I couldn’t bring myself to change a single, precious moment of our lives, even if it would undo all the agony I’ve ever suffered.

“I would do anything for you,” I murmur, “I can’t imagine what my life would be like if you’d never been in it, or… if we’d lost you to Elysia, I…”

My words begin to trail off, and Ulkair’s hand gently cups my face, tilting it to look at him before he closes his lips over mine in a rapturous, devouring kiss. I quickly rise to meet him, wrapping my arms around his neck, and he sweeps his hand across the floor, shoving away our heaps of open books to lay me down. His lips break away from mine as he trails kisses all across my face, over my ears, down my throat, and I shudder helplessly, tangling my fingers in his hair, arching into his every touch in a desperate need to be closer to him. For a time, the world falls away, my fears, the weight of the faithful on my shoulders, the ache of old wounds and memories lost to Ulkair’s love, and when our passion is exhausted, I lay in his arms, listening to the melodious rhythm of his heart until I fall into a restful sleep.

Day Fourteen

Another night passes with no word of Nerida, and most of the morning, and though my worry only increases with every moment of the ticking clock, I do my best not to voice it. I am sure Ulkair’s is double my own, and drawing his attention to it would only drive him mad. Instead I see to it there is always a baby in his arms, a book for us to comb through, something to stimulate his mind, and keep us both distracted, and I tell myself, again and again, that Nerida wouldn’t have gone somewhere dangerous and been so giddy and keen to leave us.

Sometime before noon, Nerida throws open our bedroom door, and before I can question, or breathe a sigh of relief at the sight of her, she closes her lips over mine, pulling away with a beaming smile.

“Wha–” I begin, and she turns away, wrapping Ulkair in her arms and pulling him into an amorous kiss. Her lips leave his only to shower his face and neck with frantic passion as she presses him against our wall, and I decide my questions can wait – she obviously missed him.

An awful lot more than she missed you.

The words slice into my thoughts with the careful precision of an assassin, and I feel my fists tighten in response to the strike.

That’s not true!

Nerida’s arms close around me again, pulling Ulkair and I to her chest, and she breathes a long, relieved sigh.

“I missed you,” she whispers, and I feel tears sting my eyes, which I reach up to wipe away.

See? I retort, suddenly desperate to win this argument… with myself, a fact that worries me too much when I stop to acknowledge it, so I lift my eyes to Nerida in question.

“When you left, you said only a day or two?” I manage, clearing my throat.

Nerida looks like she is about to respond, but Ulkair cuts in with a sly, excited grin on his face.

“Sooooo, what were you doing that took you five days, hm?” He pries merrily, and Nerida quirks her eyebrow at him.

“Well, I met a dwarf,” she offers, “and ended up drinking with him for a few nights.”

Drinking? Nerida? I lean back to peer at her in the hopes of discerning whether or not she is lying, trying to cover up her true purpose.

“I thought you hated alcohol?” I question, and she shrugs, still terribly casual about this entire affair.

“I did, too,” she answers, “but he had this stuff called mead and it was actually very good. It tasted like honey, and he handed me a tankard and it seemed rude not to drink any of it.”

“So… peer pressure?” I conclude, raising an eyebrow, and Nerida pouts.

“It did taste good,” she reiterates, and then quickly changes the subject – obviously still unwilling to elaborate on this important quest of hers. “What did you two do while I was gone?”

I feel my breath hitch at the question, my mind suddenly running blank of all the week’s activities but for Ulkair’s and my rather more more intimate ones. My cheeks begin to flush, and I glance away to collect myself – suddenly not as certain as I thought I would be of my decision not to mention said explorations to Nerida.

“Um.. studied,” I manage, turning back to them and hoping my expression doesn’t dreadfully betray me, “and… discovered a possibly insurmountable debt problem.”

I can feel my face fall as I remember he crippling debt our church is in, and Ulkair pats me on the shoulder.

“Well, studying was fun,” he says, his mischievous grin spreading a bit wider. I feel my cheeks flush a bit more, and clear my throat, nuzzling him playfully.

“Well, yes… most things with you are.”

“I’m sorry I missed it,” Nerida says, sighing and tightening her hold on us.

Sure you are. That’s why you spent three extra days away. My mind snaps the words before I can think anything else, in spite of the utter sincerity in Nerida’s voice – what is wrong with me?

“I would have rather spent time with you two, but…” Nerida begins to clarify, making me panic for the briefest moment that I had somehow spoken my doubts aloud.

“But this was an important task?” I repeat, more to drive the point into my own mind than hers, I think.

“Indeed,” Nerida hums absently, leaning down to kiss Ulkair again. “So, how would you feel about going with me to Elysium sometime?”

The invitation is all but breathed against Ulkair’s skin, sending another sharp pang through my chest, this one even less deniable than the last. Nerida’s tone, the longing in her eyes as she speaks with Ulkair… perhaps it was the severance of their link that has made her so amorous, it certainly seemed to bother Ulkair while she was away, but it is painfully obvious he is her focus, like the rest of the world didn’t exist. I had felt the very same way only yesterday, but the difference is that Nerida wasn’t there for me to disregard, and I am.

I am here, and that invitation wasn’t meant for me – that’s what’s wrong with me. Such a simple truth shouldn’t hurt so badly, it isn’t as though I wouldn’t be welcome, I’m certain, and yet… not in nearly half a year have I felt so much like an outsider, staring in at someone else’s love. For the first time in our relationship, I am unequal.

Is it, though? My mind demands, or are you only now noticing?

I shake the thought for a moment, but it persists – if Ulkair and I stand on equal ground, why do her words to me feel half-focused, like something she must do before turning her attention to him? If I wasn’t worried Nerida would leave, or push me away… why haven’t I told her how I feel about Seren? I look back at them, my ears ringing over their exchange about Elysium – Nerida’s face flushing as she holds him tight, the deepest longing in her eyes, her lips pulled into a distant smile, her mind clearly consumed with her thoughts of him.

She’s never looked at me that way.

Panic quickly rises in my chest, and I push away from Nerida’s embrace, scrambling to stand on my own two feet as Nerida and Ulkair give me concerned looks. I try to keep my breathing even and my tears at bay, looking between the two of them for a moment before turning away.

“I… I’m going to go check on Alix,” I mumble hurriedly.

“We’ll watch the babies,” Nerida calls, and I manage a curt nod as I gingerly shut the door behind me.

The click of the door latching into place is like a beacon to draw forth every demon from every corner of my mind. The panic and longing surges in a wave to tear at the edges of my sanity, spitting lies and cruel words faster than I can process them all.

Whatever made you think you could be equal to Ulkair? My mind taunts, and I bring my fingers to tangle in my hair, desperately pulling at my bangs to shut out the torturous voice. Why would someone like Nerida ever love someone like YOU? Why would she miss you when she could have him?

STOP IT! I scream the words, unable to determine if only in my head, or out into the air, as tears billow off my eyelashes and stain my leggings with their tell-tale splashes. My brain only “tsk”s, remarking what a mess I am, and continues to taunt me as scramble down the stairs to find Alix – the only modicum of sense in my head.

After all but running through the crowded halls, I spot my father exactly where I thought he’d be – not that that’s good news. He takes a drink from his tankard as I approach, and I scoot into the seat next to him, laying my head on his shoulder and peering at the meticulous pages on the table.

“Looks like it’s coming along?”

“It is. What’s wrong, Cheshire?”

“Noth–” I start, but think better of it. I wasn’t fooling anyone, least of all Alix. “I… I don’t know. I’m sure I’m just being stupid, but Nerida just got back and…”

I bite my lip, my hands finding a death grip on Alix’s arm as I struggle out the words.

“It’s just that… there’s been a lot of little things lately, and then she just left out of the blue a few days ago, as you know. She wouldn’t tell me or Ulkair anything about where she was going, and she was acting weird. I guess I don’t have any room to talk about secrets… and Ulkair didn’t seem too worried, he said that she has some secret that she said she would tell him later, so I suppose I just thought she would tell us when she returned, but when she got back… I… I suddenly didn’t feel like a part of “us” anymore.”

I whisper the last of the explanation, any of the tears I’d held back slipping as my throat tightens, refusing any further indulgence of the words. As though if I stopped saying them, they would be less true. Alix shifts and gathers me in his arms, and I bury my face in his armor, taking a deep, shaky breath.

“Something happened to make you feel that way, so I don’t think you’re being stupid, just perhaps… overreacting. But I love you, and always will, no matter what. And, I think, so will they.”

“I-I know, I know,” I whisper, in the hopes that with enough repetition, it would seem true. “Nerida just missed Ulkair… a lot. I mean, how could I blame her for that? It’s just that… I feel like nothing has been right since we left Byss, and I… I’m so afraid that…”

My voice breaks, betraying me as it always does, and I desperately tighten my grasp on Alix.

…What if she gets tired of me? The words whispered in my mind betray me, creeping across my link with Alix with a sea of doubts and troubles, ones I know are not Nerida’s fault, nor his. Nor any of theirs. What if she wants things back the way they were? Just… Just her and Ulkair… and Seren…

Imagine losing the closeness of our bond. It doesn’t mean you are less, but the relief of returning was certainly more… tangible.

I know! I insist, my stomach twisting with dread at the very thought of voicing the itching, persistent, ever-present fear that claws at the back of my mind. But it’s not just that… it’s…

Again my stomach turns, and I lose my nerve, letting out a soft sob against Alix’s clothes.

“Never mind…” I manage the whisper, trying my hardest to close the doors between our minds and stop the out pour. Alix’s hand moves to my face, lifting it to look at him, and I feel my heart seize at the disapproving frown on his face, and the sudden silence in my mind.

“Never mind nothing, Cheshire. What is it?”

“I.. I didn’t mean to shove you out, Alix…” I mumble, glancing to the floor, unable to meet his gaze.

“Indeed. I respect that sometimes you might need privacy,” for a moment I think I’ve won myself a reprieve, but Alix continues, “now tell me what could possibly make you so sad. Because if it’s Loín…”

He trails off, his tone jesting, but in his eyes, I see a brief, familiar flash of the stone cold hunter I’ve seen so many times before. Even having ejected Alix from my thoughts, I can feel his worry for me over our link, muddled with alcohol, and a growing anger, which I am almost certain is not at me.

“It wasn’t Loin,” I offer hurriedly, taking a deep, unsteady breath in attempt to calm my churning stomach and frayed nerves. “I… it’s me. I let my mind run off with my fears and now… I just can’t seem t-to put them to rest. I know it’s ridiculous, but.. sometimes Nerida… I feel like… I’m not really that important to her, a-and… neither is…”

I choke on the name, my fists balling tightly against Alix’s leather-clad chest. “…Rhapsody.”

A new round of tears breaks me down, the words giving my greatest fear freedom to roam, breathing into existence this conflict from its prison in the pits of my mind. I suddenly find myself combing every moment of the two weeks since our departure from Byss. Replaying them in my mind – how many times had Nerida held Rhapsody? How many times had she done… anything with him? Hardly ever, but when I put him there, and yet… when did I see Seren out of her arms, if not in my own?

“S-She doesn’t treat him the same way she does Seren, I love them both so much, a-and… I know she must, too, but s-she hardly ever holds him, a-and he’s Ulkair’s son, and I know she loves him more than anything s-so… w-what if… it’s because… of me?”

“Then she doesn’t deserve you, Cheshire.” Alix’s arms close around me again, squeezing tighter than I think he ever has, and I cling to him. “But I don’t think that’s true. How could anyone not love Rhapsody, especially because of you? He’s a tiny ball of adorable lightning and brass, a true son of Byss.”

“Well, he is all of those things,” I sniffle, the fond description of my son bringing a reluctant smile to my tear stained face.

“But.. I think this means you need to speak to Nerida,” Alix concludes, his tone lowering with the gravity of his words, and I bring my shoulders up to hide my face further.

“I can’t…” I murmur, so quietly I may as well not have spoken, and yet I am certain that Alix heard. I struggle to put my finger on just one of the many reasons why I could never manage to bring myself to dredge up such a terrible conversation, because I know the next word out of Alix’s mouth will be ‘why?’ Because she would be crushed, she would stare at me with those wide green eyes, utterly betrayed, because no matter what I said she would blame herself, and pull away, because if I am wrong, I’ll have ruined us for nothing. And worse yet… what if I’m not wrong? “I.. I’m too scared.”

“You can’t let this hang between you, especially if it’s not true.” Alix insists, and his words only sting all the more for their accuracy, “it would taint your happiness, which you have found so much of in the arms of your lovers. And Nerida is a good, protective person, but I think you need to remember, she’s as young, inexperienced, and even afraid as you.”

I pull in a deep breath, sniffling and running his words over in my mind.

“I… I guess… I don’t really think of Nerida that way,” I admit in a whisper, “she’s just… so strong, and… huge and magnificent, it’s hard to imagine her… being like me.”

But… maybe, if this taints my happiness, is that so bad? I add mentally. Tainted happiness… it was still
happiness, which is more than I could ever say I had when I was alone. “I… just can’t, Alix. I’m sure I’m wrong – I love her, I love all of you. You’re my only family, and I just… don’t want to ruin everything.”

Like I always do.

“I’ve never seen you ruin anything,” Alix answers – perhaps because he didn’t watch me bake those raspberry tarts, “I admire your tenacity even when you don’t think you can do it. So even if you can’t believe in yourself, remember that I believe in you. And anyone lucky enough to have you love them had better appreciate you.”

He places his hand on my shoulder in Byss’ signature firm, masculine sign of affection and adds, “because you are a strong daughter of Byss, and only death can take that from you.”

I pull on a smile, and rest my head on his shoulder.

“Thanks, Alix,” I mumble, “you always know what to say.”

Even when you’re kind of drunk. I glance back at the tankard on the table in the moment of silence left in the wake of our words – it’s mostly empty, and even if I weren’t connected to Alix closely enough to feel the liquor’s effects, the scent of it on his breath would be enough to tell me it wasn’t his first. And it isn’t as though I don’t know why, the explanation is laid out neatly before me in the form of monstrous illustrations and a handful of crumpled papers. We’d had this conversation before, and I thought perhaps time would ease the sting, but it only seems to have worsened.

“So….” I begin, sliding the tankard carefully to the other side of the table and just out of my father’s immediate reach, “I mean, Alix, we haven’t even had breakfast yet… Are you sure there’s nothing you want to talk to me about?”

“Oh, Cheshire,” he sighs, reaching up to run his fingers through his hair in an uncharacteristic sign of stress, “I’m just… worried.”

“Is this about my dancing again?” I offer a nervous laugh, knowing damn well that is not the case, but desperate to lighten the mood.

“This is about a lot of things. It’s about how… you all nearly died, and I didn’t get a scratch,” he retorts immediately, and I try not to visibly wince as I realize I may have cut the wrong stitch on a wound still so new. “It’s about this new place, where I know no one, and it seems like everyone is out to get us. It’s about this… city, these… people.”

With every word, it becomes more apparent that Alix was quite a bit more drunk than I thought, and his typical reservations are no where to be found, but the worst of it is that as much as I’d like to discount his words as drunken chatter – they aren’t wrong, at all.

“These…. Scummy, shit people who take advantage of children,” I add bitterly, staring at the tankard across the table, and starting to want a drink, myself.

“And I have no right to be, I know, but I’m lonely.”

The words and the utter sadness in Alix’s tone catch me completely off guard, and I spin my head back to look at him.

“Alix, no…” I bite my lip, unsure which is worse, that I’ve failed to be decent company, or that Alix feels he has no right to feel loneliness. I wrap my arms around him in the biggest hug I can give, unsure of what else to do.

“You all have your… people, you lovers, your goals, and things you have to do. And mine…” Alix sighs, reaching for the tankard and polishing it off with one big, bitter swig. “My only goal is to protect you, and I let Caspian die. And you almost did, as well.”

“Alix… no one knew…”

“Yes…. And now.. I know,” he mumbles, his tone turning dark as he clutches a handful of papers – his work on the very beast that nearly destroyed us, the Balor. With a deep, steadying breath, he smooths the pages back out and picks up his pen, beginning to write again. Perhaps he’s come to his senses enough to feel how nervous I am becoming, and is trying to drop the subject before we are in too far, but I doubt there is a rug big enough to sweep this under, and it’s not a subject on which I don’t care whether or not my opinion is voiced. Alix didn’t do this to us. He wasn’t responsible, and at the very least, if he couldn’t believe that, he should know that I do.

“I… I know, but… You know… I don’t think it’s fair for you to blame yourself for Caspian’s death, I-I know you will, but…”

“But I am supposed to be your protector. Your… wise mentor,” he snaps the words back at me, as though it’s a mantle he feels will crush him, “for all of you, in the ways of battle, at least. And clearly I… keep myself safe.”

I feel the hairs on the back of my neck rise in panic and indignation at the guilt in his voice.

“There is nothing you could have done!” I snap, my voice raising more than I’d meant it to. How could he believe that? After all the times he’s saved me, all the things he’s taught me, all the times he’s… done or given everything for _all of us! _

“….perhaps,” the quiet acknowledgment tells me to stop, but I find myself unable to come down from the level I have reached.

“How would it have benefited us for you to be more injured, or to die?!” I insist, my voice still a fair bit louder than it should be, “it wouldn’t have stopped what happened to Caspian, or to me! Or any of us!”

“Yes, Cheshire… and sometimes I think, perhaps you are right, and then… I see all of these snares and pitfalls here, of a more social nature, and I don’t know what to do for you here, either.” Alix sighs, resting his forehead on his palm before he bitterly mumbles, “I.. detest this place, with its seven trees.”

I hang my head, tears building in the corners of my eyes as I begin to feel the bitter sting of bringing Alix with me to Sigil, and for the first time, I can’t help but challenge whether or not it was the right choice. Not that it was mine to make, and I bitterly remember all too well what happened when I tried to keep him from leaving Byss with me, but… I know he would be happier there, and for all that he has suffered, especially for me… Alix deserves some fucking happiness, and a new, creeping hatred for the birthplace of my god worms its way into my heart for taking that from him.

“I-I know, Alix… I don’t like it either and, hopefully we won’t have to stay here long,” I offer, as though it is any consolation prize, “but having you here with me… it’s what makes it possible? If… admittedly, not great.”

Alix sighs, and puts an arm around me, pulling me into a gentle hug, and planting a kiss on the top of my head.

“The least I can do is take care of your children while you are busy,” he murmurs, and only seconds after I process the words, and think to object to them, he adds, “that is what the elderly are for.”

“ALIX! YOU’RE NOT OLD!” I realize now that I am utterly incapable of volume control, and I twist to give him a desperate stare. I know I hadn’t exactly won that argument about Remus, but it is starting to seem as though every passing day is ten years in Alix’s mind. In the week we’ve been here, he has gone from warning me he is aging and won’t be around forever, to resigning himself to enfeeblement and an eternity of babysitting.

He sighs, shaking his head and looking down at his work, “I feel it.”

I take a deep breath, lowering my voice back down to Alix’s somber, socially acceptable level, and take his hand in both of mine.

“I…. think there’s a… um, small chance… that continuing to abuse yourself is maaaaybe…” I drag out the suggestion, looking between him and the empty tankard and then back again, “aging you a little harder this week than… um.. normal..?”

“No more than the countless wounds I’ve taken in Byss.” He retorts simply, and I feel my lips tense into a tight line – I can’t argue with that… but… that doesn’t make it okay! He stares at the empty mug in his hand, and I can suddenly feel the longing for another oozing across our link, and I reach over to the tankard, summoning Tubatron’s holy power to my hand to fill it with water. Alix lifts the cup to his lips and drains it of the water in one drink, but it doesn’t ease the urge any.

“Just this last one, Cheshire,” he reasons, “I want to finish this chapter.”

My brow knits as I look at him, my stomach writhing with worry at the prospect of walking away and leaving him to his increasingly bad habit. I know I need to put my foot down, insist that he stop, but.. how can I? How can I tell him to suck it up and face this kind of.. horror? I can’t even face my own lover. Still… I hang my head, unable to meet his gaze, knowing the pain in his eyes will break my will.

“I’m… pretty sure that’s what you said about the last chapter…” I practically whisper the words in one last-ditch effort to convince him to give himself a rest.

“Well, there will always be another, it seems,” he mumbles, seemingly unmoved by my plight. “The monsters… they are endless, and unfortunately, here in Sigil… I think… they wear many faces.”

I take a deep breath, and let it out in a long sigh, my mind whirling with the prospect of the tasks ahead, and the misconstrued justice that passes as ‘neutrality’ in Sigil. “And… apparently, we’re not supposed to fight most of them.”

“Not with swords, but with words,” Alix concludes, “so words I will put down.”

I peer back over at him, his gaze intensely focused on the words he is writing, and lean my head on his shoulder, at a loss for any other words to say, or things to do.

“I… I love you,” I murmur, wrapping my arms around one of his, “and.. I’m worried about you.”

Alix sighs, looking down at me, and I glance up at him, the look on my face, I suspect, more pitiful than I’d intended.

“I love you, too, Cheshire,” he says, and he hesitates, but adds, “give me a week. I’ll be better in a week.”

“That’s what you said six days ago….” I whisper, my grasp on his arm tightening.

“So I have one more day,” he says, his tone suddenly a bit too light for the gravity of our situation. I peer into his mind and catch the words left unsaid, and my chest seizes.

To spiral downward…

Desperate to arrest the spiral that I now know even Alix knows he is caught in, my mind races for a solution – anything to get him out of this seat and away from this bar.

“You know… I… need do some shopping,” I lie, praying his liquor obscured vision stops him from seeing through it, like he always does. “And… I’d really rather not go into town alone… It’s dangerous.”

Alix sighs and nods, my apparent safety winning out over whatever else he had planned.

“Give me two hours to sober up.”

At least he knows how drunk he is…

I nod, getting up from my seat and give him one more hug, kissing his cheek with a quick lesser restoration spell to help reduce the headache I know is certainly coming. He sighs, and I feel the fog of alcohol begin to lift from his mind – a wonderful effect of the spell I’d cast which I make sure to note for future use. He sighs, shaking his head as his brain is alleviated from some of the strain of days of sleeplessness and liquor.

“We can go now, then,” he says, and I nod, plucking the tankard from the table in an effort to prevent its use any further for the day. Alix gathers his pages and closes them in the bindings of his book, and bends over, plucking up his fluffy companion – who I hadn’t noticed before now. Dumpling stretches out and purrs in his arms, and he rubs her belly, a small smile appearing on his features, an expression I do my best to mimic even as on edge as I am around the supposedly harmless feline.

“Why don’t you bring Dumpling along?” I offer, trying to keep my voice level – she makes Alix happy, and I need Alix to be happy, much more than I need to be… comfortable. “I’m sure she’d love to get outside? In the… well, not so fresh air…”

Dumpling loved nothing more than stretching out on our stoop in Byss, rolling about in the warm sunlight for hours – one of the only two things it seemed she and I agreed on. Of course… there was no warm sunlight here, and the air is.. toxic, at best, so as I make the offer, it seems less and less like a good plan.

“But… we could buy her, a leash maybe? And a collar? And then you two could take walks around the city,” I offer hopefully – under normal circumstances, I’d say Dumpling would stay close enough to Alix to not need a leash, or at least be able to find her way back, like she always did when she wandered in Byss, but I doubt Sigil knows the meaning of the word ‘normal’. Either way, a walk around the city every day would be an hour less Alix spent agonizing over a tankard of booze and pages of an unending project. “We could maybe even find her some little boots!”

Alix looks at me strangely for a moment, as though the idea of boots on an animal is bizarre, but his smile creeps a little wider.

“That sounds adorable,” he admits, and then scratches Dumpling’s chin, “what do you think, Dumpers?”

She purrs and rubs her head contentedly on his hand, and I breathe a small sigh of relief – it appears I’ve finally found some reprieve.

“Okay, I’m going to go get my bag, I’ll be right back.”

I scoot from the room hurriedly and go back to my own to grab my bag – Nerida and Ulkair are sitting on our bed, the babies still sound asleep. I feel my stomach twist in a panicked knot as I look at them, all the words I can’t bring myself to say, and had momentarily forgotten pushing their way back to the forefront of my mind and bringing prickling tears to my eyes, which I quickly rub away.

“Hi guys,” I murmur, giving them a quick wave as I grab my bag of holding, “I’m going shopping with Alix, I’ll be back later.”

I rush from the room before I catch much more than the acknowledging nod I saw Ulkair start to make, and I hope they chalk my hurry up to something weighing on Alix, not myself, while wondering how it is I will manage to get this under control by the end of the day. I can’t come home and panic at the sight of my beloved bed mates… I sigh, shaking my head, and make my way back down the hall, where I am fortunate enough to bump into Declan.

“Oh, good morning!” I wave, jogging over to grab his attention before he can disappear under the mound of tasks the temple has set for him.

“Good morning, Cheshire,” he says, offering me a big, winning smile, in spite of his obvious exhaustion – I get the impression he doesn’t like to be up this early.

“How’s the research going?”

“Well, I think I’ve found the people you’re looking for,” he says – good news, but his expression suggests otherwise. “And the good news is, they’re not a formal organization. At least, in that, they’re not recognized as a faction in Sigil’s criminal underground. The bad news is, I haven’t found out much else. They probably have around forty kids in their employ, I’m guessing they use them, well, because they’re easy.”

I take a deep breath, my lips pursing, and force a swallow down my throat as it tightens in anger. The change it my posture must be visible, because Declan grimaces, and shrugs a little, as if trying to display how unfortunate this unavoidable truth is.

“I mean… they’re cheap to feed, if they do, people don’t suspect them as much and frankly… Well, there’s no one sticking up for them.”

“Well, there will be soon,” I mumble, and he sighs.

“Well, I mean, unfortunately, Cheshire… They’re just the people taking advantage of the population, you know? You rescue all these kids and…” He trails off, leaving his pointed suggestion where it stands, and I sigh.

“I know, they’ll just find more…”

But what else can I do?

“So you’re going to have to not just.. rescue these kids, but… stop the people behind it. It’s just.. the nature of the city.”

‘Balanced’, huh? I think, the word sliding around in my head bitterly – for a city the size of a world, which prizes itself on neutrality, Sigil doesn’t seem any better, or anymore ‘balanced’ than cities in Faerun, or the rest of the multiverse for that matter. It wasn’t Sigil’s nature that made evil people take advantage of unfortunate kids – it was people’s nature. That truth stings, but it doesn’t excuse the people of the city, or The Lady for that matter, for turning a blind eye.

“But… they’re small, right? So… getting rid of them won’t cause an uproar in the underworld?” That’s what Ooze said would bring The Lady’s wrath down on me, anyway, so this was at least a bit of good news.

“Well, no, but then… you have stop anyone else from taking advantage of those kids you freed..? So, I mean, one crime ring goes missing, no one will care, but then if you want to actually improve the lives of these kids, instead of just getting them out of the frying pan –”

“–Then we’re talking abut radical social change,” I conclude, rubbing my temples. That would certainly get me in trouble with The Lady, no matter how ridiculous it was to be furious with someone for changing your shit society for the better.

“Well…” Declan begins, but immediately trails off, as though he’s debating some way such a thing could be avoided or untrue, and I can’t help the first scowl I’ve felt adorn my features in the better part of a year.

“Because, in my experience, nobody cares about kids on the street.”

“Yeah,” he agrees, shrugging his shoulders in defeat, “no one’s cared to start an orphanage in Sigil.”

“Well, I think it’s high time somebody started caring,”

“So… are we taking in all these children?”

“Well… such a young, developing age is the best time to learn about music,” I offer, as though it somehow made all the huge, glaring flaws in that plan go away. Declan seems unconvinced.

“That’s… a big expense,” he says, clearly trying to ground me in as delicate a manner as he can muster.

“Well, some expenses are worth it,” I justify, knowing full well Declan was not the green, muscle bound, seven foot party I had to convince. “And I… I heard the call of Tubatron when I was on the streets, and I never looked back.”

“Well, it’s your decision, High Priestess,” Declan mumbles, respectfully leaving his obvious disapproval unspoken.

“Yes, it is. And I will speak to Ooze about it when I have the chance.”

And by ‘speak’, I suspect I meant ‘argue with and lose’, but perhaps if I were better equipped with knowledge, instead of… just my burning, and, one might suggest, personally motivated passion, I would stand a better chance.

“Declan, how many people do we house here? Versus… our capacity?” I ask, peering at him hopefully – he and Mimi had been working on that census, so perhaps we now had a better idea of the faithful’s housing situation. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as I thought?

“We are setup to house an orchestra, and a handful of priests,” he says, and I try not to let the panic show on my face. Not as bad as I thought…. Just worse.

“Th-that’s it?” I ask, combing my mind for the numbers Mimi had told me a couple of days prior. “But… two hundred people live here?”

“Yeah,” Declan says, his voice increasingly grim with every passing moment, “that’s why people sleep in the halls.”

Well, it would be a lie to say I hadn’t expected that was the reason, but… it seems the situation is much worse than I’d even thought as I stepped over sleeping bards in the early mornings. Of course, I hadn’t entered a single room that didn’t house a pile of instruments in one corner or another.

“How much… of this space problem do you think could be solved with, perhaps a bit of organization?” I ask, and Declan scratches his head thoughtfully.

“We could probably squeeze… I don’t know, twenty more people in?” He says, and I sigh.

I hadn’t suspected it would be anywhere near enough, but that ten percent squeeze wouldn’t even accommodate the first group of children, and this didn’t come close to accounting for however many… hundreds more there may be in need.

“What would really solve it,” Declan offers, perhaps seeing the despair in my eyes as I try to crunch the numbers, “is another floor. Maybe even two, dedicated to just housing. We can’t build out in Sigil, but you can always build up.”

I can only imagine adding another floor to a domed building is an…. Expensive and strange venture, but then, didn’t everything seem to be in this place? And what was a hundred thousand more coppers, when we were already two hundred thousand in debt? Well, it was a lot, actually. My mind wanders, combing over all the things I might say or any arguments that could be made in favor of such an expansion in the face of our crippling debt, or any way that I could stand by such a promise as ‘I will cover the cost myself’, when Declan clears his throat.

“So…. Ready for the bad news?” He asks reluctantly, and I stare at him, for just a moment, aghast. How was all of this not the bad news!?

“I.. um.. sure.”

“Well, so… the bad news is… I’ve reached a bit of a dead end. I don’t know their leaders, any major players, where they meet, what they want, you know… anything like that, and there’s no way I can learn without getting myself killed or, well, greasing some palms.”

“How much do you need?” I sigh, opening my bag of holding and digging through it for what I can only imagine is going to be a rather substantial bit of coin.

“Three or four hundred coppers, probably, at least. But… if you can spare more, you’ll get your information faster, and it’ll be more reliable.”

“This should be five hundred,” I wiggle a large coin purse from inside my bag and pass it to him, “if you need more, just let me know.”

He nods, and tosses the sack of coins into what I imagine is his bedroom. “I’ll get it taken care of. Anything else, Cheshire?”

“Well… yes, actually. On a lighter note, do you by chance… know somewhere in the city I might be able to buy boots… for a cat?”

“What? I thought you hated cats!”

“…Yes I do. But… I love my dad,” I mumble, “and he loves his stupid cat.”

“Well, there’s a pet vendor in the hive,” Declan says, rubbing his chin, “I think he sells Lim-Lims, but… he might have a leash that would fit a cat… and… some little lim lim booties that would.. fit a cat? I don’t know?”

“Alright, thank you, Declan.”

We exchange nods and I hurry back to Alix, who is now seated by the door, a sleeping Dumpling in his lap, and I shudder as I hear her purr-snore, a strange and… unsettling noise.

“Oh, come on, Cheshire, you have to admit she’s adorable,” Alix says, getting to his feet, “and she’s not evil.”
Dumpling stretches in his arms as the movement wakes her, her claws extending, her tongue forced to curl within the bounds of sharp fangs, and I force a smile to my features, for Alix.

“….I know I love your cat so much I’m so glad we have her.”

The words come out hurried and jumbled, and Alix rolls his eyes, but pats my shoulder.

“That was hard to say. I appreciate it.”

“I’m glad she makes you happy,” I add, these words considerably more genuine.

“She does, I love my cat,” Alix says, scratching her chin as we head down the road, “I found her in the wilderness in Byss.”

“Well,” I sigh, “she’s Byssian, and that makes her family. So lets go buy her some booties.”

“And a leash,” Alix adds, and I smile at him, almost as glad that the idea appeals to him as I am he’ll be spending any less time idle and drinking. “And then I can take her on walks.”

“I’m sure she’ll be a chick magnet,” I joke, which earns me a bit of a smile, “I mean, she’s the only cat I’ve seen in Sigil.”

Of course in my zeal to create a better world for the underprivileged children of Sigil, I’d forgotten to ask Declan exactly where or what “The Hive” is, so it takes a couple hours of walking, asking directions, and getting called ‘clueless’, to find this pet vendor. At least it’s nice to stretch my legs, and the stench in the air becomes less noticeable the longer we are out, not to mention, of course, every minute I spend traipsing about the city with Alix is a minute he doesn’t spend letting horror and alcohol consume his mind.

“Ah, sir, have you come to buy a lim lim for your little girl?” The vendor asks as we approach, and I smile a little, an admittedly silly warmth building in me that I was recognized as Alix’s daughter. By a stranger, despite us being not of blood relation – I suppose a pair like us is probably not uncommon in Sigil, but I find a grin making it’s way to my features.

Cheshire, focus! I remind myself, and shake my head to clear my thoughts, although they immediately travel to these ‘lim lim’ creatures. They are bizarre looking, like… what I imagine would happen if kidney beans and dragonflies made a drunken mistake – they’re awfully cute, though, and just about cat sized.

“Oh, um, no sir,” I manage, forcibly pulling my focus back to the man in front of us, “actually… this may sound like a strange request, but… these lim lims you sell… they’re awfully cute. Do you sell boots for them?”

“Well, yes, for my more lucrat–” the merchant begins, but clears his throat, correcting his tell-tale slip, “I mean, wealthy customers that come by. They often want accessories. I have a leash, I have booties, I have glitter, collars, special food. And a little rain coat.”

Oh, good, another trader who wants to take advantage of me. I think, and try not to let the bitterness seep over my link with Alix – I don’t care how much it costs, in the end, if it makes him feel even a shred of happiness, and I can’t chance him changing his mind because he thinks it makes me bitter.

“Can I see these booties, by chance?” I ask, studying the lim lims that buzz about – they have strangely long, spindly legs. Perhaps their boots would fit Dumpling, but they didn’t seem like they would be comfortable. Sure enough, he produces a pair of colorful, knitted wool boots, and they are much too long, even though the stretchy material seems like it would otherwise fit her. I look at Alix, and he studies them for a moment, and nods.

“I’ll take them,” he says, and I blink – we will? Well, he must have a plan.

“And a leash, too, please,” I add.

“Well, for all of that together, that’d be two-hundred coppers,” the trader says, and I feel my features tighten, hoping I didn’t visibly cringe at the words.

Two hundred coppers!? For a hundred more than that, Declan believed he could successfully infiltrate a criminal syndicate! I look at the wool boots in my hand – there can’t be more than ten coppers worth of materials in these, and even that was generous.

But… Alix wants them. I remind myself, smiling at the merchant and trying not to let how utterly appalled I am show, lest Alix change his mind. I can’t walk away, but maybe I can sweeten the deal.

“Now, if we were to by chance, buy say two pairs, maybe in… alternating colors, could you maybe.. cut us a deal?” I ask, trying to maintain as charming a demeanor as I can, “I can’t help but feel like… these don’t cost you… a hundred coppers to make, or… even fifty.”

“Well, alright,” he says, rolling his eyes as perhaps he realizes he’s not going to get away with the absolute highway robbery he had in mind. “For two hundred coppers, I’ll give you two pairs of boots, one in leather and one knit, and a leather leash and collar set, and I’ll throw in some special pet food.”

Such an easy and drastic increase in value suggests he’s still making an absolute killing on those items, but the deal is much less egregious than it was before, at least, and it satisfies the sensible side of me enough that I nod in agreement.

“Is it this special pet food safe for cats?” I ask – the last thing I needed was to poison Alix’s cat with something made for… bugs? “What do Lim lims normally eat?”

“I don’t know,” the merchant shrugs – never a good sign, “out in the wild I have no idea but this is the remnants of the stuff in the butcher’s yard.”

Ah, so meat and bits… the perfect thing to fuel the killing machine that was the domestic cat. I take a coin purse from my bag, counting out the two hundred coppers, and pass the pairs of booties, leash and collar to Alix. I sling the bag of food over my shoulder, and thank the man as I walk away with Alix, watching as he skillfully slices up the boots to fit Dumpling, and then places her on the ground wearing them. She stares at him, with what I can only describe as a long-suffering look, and throws herself onto the ground, stretching out on her back in demand of compensatory belly rubs.

“She’s adorable,” Alix concludes, crouching to rub her belly and affix her collar and leash, “thank you, Cheshire… You didn’t really need to go shopping, did you?”

“I… um…. Uh, needed, um,” I stumble, struggling to call to mind some way to not get caught in my lie, “I needed… this other thing, but.. I think the store is closed by now.”

“Closed, huh?” Alix raises an eyebrow, “it’s what, noon?”

I smile sheepishly as Alix gets to his feet and puts an arm around me, kissing my forehead. Dumpling gets to her feet as well, purring, and begins to rub on my leg, moving in a circle and prodding her head into my shins, the demand for what I pray is only pets, and not perhaps my soul or my very lifeblood, sending a shiver down my spine. I crouch, still balancing her food on one shoulder, and reach out a trembling hand to pet the fluffy murderer that so enriches Alix’s life.

“I’m… sorry I tried to have Tubatron smite you,” I mumble, unable to muster any words more fond. She begins to purr ferociously, the low, reverberating noise making my stomach twist as she throws herself back onto her back, stretching out over my feet, and finally, mercifully, Alix picks her back up.

He scratches her belly, and then her face, and she stretches to rub her face against his chin – which, I note, has visible stubble for what I think is the first time ever since I’ve known him, and that is not a good sign. Still as I watch them interact, I feel a gnawing loss start to tear at the hole in my heart left by my own fuzzy companion.

“I miss my Tad Cooper…” I mumble, and Alix turns back to me, sighing, and places his hand on my shoulder.

“I know,” he says, “hopefully we’ll have a place for him soon.”

“A place where the sun shines,” I add miserably, “and there’s more than seven trees.”

“Indeed…” Alix trails off, and Dumpling stretches out a clawed paw – luckily secured within a soft boot, to my arm, and this time, taken aback, I visibly cringe.

“Well, I think that’s enough personal growth for today,” Alix says, giving me a pointed stare, “for both of us.”
I sigh, the exhale all I can muster on my frayed nerves, and he places Dumpling on the ground, making room for me to take his hand in one of mine.

“I think you’re right.”

We walk home primarily in silence, and I brace myself at the doorway, taking a deep breath, and praying I’d done enough personal growing to face my lovers once again, without opening my big mouth and ruining our lives. Not surprisingly, Seren’s wailing catches my ear from the floor below our room, and I hurry to find him flailing in Nerida’s arms – had I known I’d be gone for hours, I’d have brought the babies with me, as Seren eats a hearty amount nearly every two hours without fail, and this is the second time in a week that schedule’s been disrupted.

He reaches his arms for me as soon as I enter the room, and pulls at my hair in demand of food as I pluck him from Nerida’s arms, hiccuping and completely red in the face. Rhapsody, too, is fussing, but he doesn’t have the powerful lungs of his brother, and as Seren quiets to nurse, Ulkair is able to shush the brassy baby back into a restful state. I sigh, pacing the room and rocking Seren gently as he nurses, wiping away his tears and finally taking a seat between Nerida and Ulkair.

“Sorry I was so late,” I mumble, “I got a bit lost.”

“You got lost…. Checking on Alix?” Nerida asks, and I sigh, shaking my head.

“No… hunting down booties for Dumpling… it’s um, a long story.”

“Boots for a cat? That sounds adorable,” Ulkair remarks, kissing my cheek, and Nerida makes a face.

“Boots, ugh,” she mumbles, and I grin up at her, kicking my booted feet idly.

“They protect your feetsies, Nerida!” I insist, and she raises an eyebrow at me.

“They’re unnatural,” she objects, and I sigh, glad for the moment of normality to soothe my fears and aching mind.

*

Day Sixteen

I settle back in to a hesitant comfort after a couple days of normality between myself, Nerida and Ulkair. The nagging fear remains in the back of my mind, but it is much easier to put to rest without the a constant reminder, and Nerida and Ulkair spend most of their next couple days in the Elemental Plane of Water, working on something or another for the fortress. I know it will be important to us in the future, and Ulkair always seems excited about the work he’s doing, so I don’t begrudge them the time, even if it would be… likely better spent on something else. I still can’t shake the concern that there’s more to that sunken fortress than there appears, but Ulkair always insists it’s safe, fine, abandoned.

But abandoned by what? I wonder helplessly as they leave for the third morning in a row.

Or whom. My brain corrects.

“Or whom,” I repeat, shaking my head as I gather up my sons and our things to go to yet another meeting with Ooze. Ulkair doesn’t seem at all concerned, and neither does Nerida, or anyone, for that matter. Alix remarked that the elemental that tried to murder him wasn’t there by accident, that people send water veiled assassins, even thought it was an important enough point to note it in the pages of his book – pages which I’d become very familiar with of late, between my helping him, and the words constantly turning over in his thoughts when I check in on him.

But why send such a thing after us, especially if the prior occupant didn’t know we were there? That didn’t exactly make sense, but neither did the dragon, the illusion surrounding him, the other creatures trapped in the fortress, or how we ended up there. Not to mention that the arcane technology in that room was fascinating to Ulkair, and getting it all up and running, he said, would be difficult and expensive. So, a mage powerful enough to turn Ulkair’s head, who was apparently incredibly wealthy, and probably dangerous, for some unknown reason abandoned his big, expensive, hidden water fortress and left it full of crazy monsters to kill whoever happened upon it? I am not an expert in the arcane, or security, or the elemental plane of water, or… anything, really, but nothing about this sounds safe, or fine.

It seems as though our truly best case scenario with this fortress was that its previous owner was dead, and the other things were all terrible, unlikely coincidences or leftover security precautions from his life, but that was a stretch, at least, and there was no way to prove any of it. Perhaps when the dragon is awake, he can shed some light on the whole mess, but it didn’t seem like, given the fragile state of his mind, he’d be the light-shedding type.

“One problem at a time, Cheshire,” I mumble as I swing open my bedroom door – I have faithful to lead, children to save, a future to build and the multiverse to bend to my god’s whim. I will worry about how dangerous the dilapidated, floating rock castle might be when and if Ulkair ever successfully moves it. Caught up in my thoughts, I jump as I look up to see Declan just inches from me on the other side of the door, letting out a surprised ‘eep’ that I don’t think spares me any dignity.

“Ah, uh, sorry,” Declan begins, lowering the hand he was no doubt about to knock with. “I have some news?”

Clearing my throat and taking a deep breath, I look up at him, washing the worry from my face with a forced smile.

“Good news, I hope?”

“Well…”

The dragged word doesn’t suggest the news is good. Rubbing my temples, I listen in dismay as Declan reports what he’s found in the last two days of digging. A meeting place of these child abusers – good news, a time they are usually there, also good news, and that he can’t investigate any further, because…

“They’re operating under Sigil, at least their higher-ups are,” he explains, his tone grim.

“Under… Sigil? What’s under Sigil?”

“Bad things,” Declan concludes, shaking his head.

“That scary, huh?” I mumble, my face falling further with every word.

“Anything too scary for the light of day in Sigil? Yeah, that’s what’s under Sigil.”

And… the light of day in Sigil is just fine for… criminals, glabrezu, and Tubatron knows what else.

I conclude mentally. So, I’d reached the end of our investigation, at least as far as Declan was concerned – it’s clear he has no interest in furthering the pursuit under Sigil, and anyway I can think of only one person I’d readily trust with such a dangerous and clandestine task.

Alix? I peer into my father’s thoughts, glad to not find our link muddled with alcohol in these yet early hours of the morning.

Yes?

There’s been a… development? And it’s too dangerous for Declan to keep looking into those kids. I was hoping… maybe you could continue where he left off. Apparently he tracked them to some place under Sigil? And it’s… bad news.

I’ll take care of it.

Thank you, Alix, please be careful.

“Thank you for all of your help, Declan,” I offer, and he looks relieved. “I know you’re busy, so I won’t keep you, but find my father and give him a detailed account before you go about your day, please, he’s going to handle it from here.”

Declan nods and heads on his way, a list that’s no doubt a mile long of things for him yet to do, and with a deep breath, I head down the hall and up the stairs to Ooze’s room. The magnificent sound of Ooze’s tuba dies down as I enter the room and he turns to greet me.

“Ah, hello Cheshire,” he says, and I can’t help but notice his greeting is a fair bit more muted than I am accustomed to – probably not a good sign about this meeting. I certainly hope he’s not angry, but then, maybe finances just aren’t his, well, area of expertise and he doesn’t know what to do? From the state of things, that seemed like a viable option, as well.

“Hello, Ooze,” I begin, trying not to seem nervous as a breach the subject, “so, as you know Mimi looked into our finances, and it isn’t exactly…. Good. I know we discussed having our members, um, work, for the temple, to pay off our debts. Anyway, I.. was thinking that it might behoove us to address the faithful during a service about this matter, and… I would very much appreciate your spoken support, because… I think, it’s important that, um, that they see us as a united front.”

Alright, not too much stumbling. So far so good. I reassure myself as I await Ooze’s reply, I think I might be getting the hang of this.

“Indeed…”

“I, also, well,” I add quietly, hoping the additional point will help my argument, and not somehow damage it, or make Ooze change his mind. “You… have been with them and earned their love, and their trust, and I feel like big changes from me might not be.. well received.”

“I… think you are right,” Ooze nods, and I try to stifle my audible sigh of relief, “also we need to organize a way to make money from the music as a group, I believe we need to create an orchestra, and perhaps we should charge admittance to the public for the daily devotionals.”

“But!” I immediately start to object, and Ooze quirks an eyebrow at me, slowing my outburst, “well, it’s just that I think… some of the public would be… saddened.”

Ooze seems fairly unmoved by my plight on behalf of Sigil’s poor, and as much as I want to press the issue, I have a bigger, more unreasonable proposal to yet keep in mind, and I think it will take all of the good will I may yet have with him for it to even be considered, so with a sigh, I try to… see things his way.

“But.. I suppose… it has been ten years,” I conclude – charging admissions meant excluding the less fortunate, but if I was going to be tending to them anyway, I could perform for them, and spread our faith on my own. I am the high priestess, that’s my job, and it won’t be a drain on the temple’s finances, so it seems like a good compromise.

“And Mimi’s census included people’s particular skills and instrument proficiencies,” I add, suddenly glad I’d thought to add such a detail, “so, hopefully it will be easy to find seats for our orchestra.”

“Well, alas some of our bards are… better than others,” Ooze objects, “and we don’t have a conductor.”

“I… I’m certain we could find one?” I offer, but Ooze seems unconvinced.

“I think… they are rare. Dedicated music bodies are.. not so common in the planes as we would hope. And most of these people have never played with a conductor, we are all.. orchestras of one, you might say.”

“Well, neither have I,” I admit – in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever played with… anyone, before, or even seen a conductor, but… I decide to keep those bits of information to myself. “But, I’m sure they just need the right person to lead them.”

“Indeed.” Ooze says, giving me a look so pointed it could have been weaponized.

“O-Oh,” I mumble, “I suppose… I-I could study the matter.”

The offer, and the subsequent satisfied look on Ooze’s face raise a thousand alarm bells in my head – me? A conductor? I don’t know the first thing about conducting! I barely even know what a conductor IS! I can’t lead an orchestra I’ve… I’ve never even heard an orchestra!

“But I, uh, feel like maybe an orchestra is something we should consider… later?” I begin, hoping to divert us from the subject and buy myself some time, “perhaps when we even know how many instruments we have and–”

“I thought you assigned Mimi to that?” Ooze interjects, and I bite my lip, trying to think of the politest way to point out the… failures of Ooze’s administration tactics.

“Um, well, yes but… the paperwork situation was…. A bit worse than we thought.”

In response, Ooze lets out a laugh that if I didn’t know any better, I’d have called sheepish.

“Yeah,” he says, “well, at least it was all in one room.”

“Was it?” I question – Declan seemed to suggest otherwise, saying that what we found in that room was just the application.

“I… Hope so?” Ooze offers, shrugging up his shoulders, and I bring my hand to my forehead with a sigh.

“I see…” Glancing up at Ooze, it’s more than clear we’d both like to move on from this particular trash fire of a subject, so I do, ever hopeful that our leadership will at some point hit its stride, and things will come together. “Well, how do you think we should go about fairly rewarding the members of our church who have carried… more than their share of the burden, for the last ten years?”

Ooze shrugs again, “I don’t know, we have nothing to give them, except our music, which is why we haven’t ever charged an admission.”

“Well, I thought… perhaps, we could reward them with.. notoriety, among our members, either with position or,” I pause, combing over my mind for any distant knowledge of notable or important people in my homeland, what tributes were considered… acceptable? “Maybe… songs, or statues in the temples we build throughout the planes?”

Perhaps my limited memories of nobility have lead me astray, or maybe Ooze simply doesn’t like the idea, either way, he seems unimpressed with my suggestion.

“Declan said we should give them a medal.”

“A-A medal?”

I suppose that isn’t a…. terrible idea, but it seems awfully lackluster, especially for people who have floated the entire expense of the church, for ten years, on faith alone. To have done such a thing, they- must be truly dedicated to our cause, and surely they didn’t do it for the recognition but, in the face of such outstanding faith a medal seemed… almost insulting. “I feel like… if you told someone “thank you for spending thousands of dollars a year for ten years on us, here’s a medal”, they might be more insulted than… if you maybe just didn’t ever bring it up, and let our success be their reward.”

“Well, uh, we could give them… silver donor status?” This suggestion sounds like something Ooze just made up on the spot, but he continues to elaborate. “Which is.. the same thing but with a fancy title, put their names on chairs or instruments or things.”

“Hmm… Like in the orchestra hall?” I inquire, and Ooze nods. “That seems like a good idea. Or on a mural, or.. bricks!”

I add the last suggestion with a bit more enthusiasm than I’d meant – but it made so much sense! Bricks, the very foundation of what will build our temples, how perfectly symbolic, and, I’d think, very satisfying to the ego of those involved. Of course, to engrave our donors names into the building blocks of our temples, we first had to have such temples, for which we needed followers, priests, resources… And money.

“Oh, but… I suppose that is another task for one day, when we’ve surmounted our debt,” I mumble, hanging my head as the excitement of the new ideas is shooed by old problems.

“Well…” Ooze begins, stroking his chin thoughtfully, “how much risk are we willing to take?”

“I.. What do you mean?” I look back up at Ooze, cocking my head curiously, and he shrugs once again.

“Many people would pay very well for our bards to inspire their troops in battle,” he explains, and I just barely manage to mute my sharp gasp, “I have the constitution for it… and the heritage.”

“That.. may be, and perhaps it’s not… a bad plan,” I manage, shuddering as the gore that has been my adventuring life forces its way to the forefront of my mind – I couldn’t compel others to put themselves through such a thing. “But… the horror of battle isn’t something I would want to subject the faithful to. Or anyone, for that matter.”

“Well, no, you can’t require it,” Ooze concedes, “but you can offer it.”

“But there are… so few of us, and relying on others to keep you safe, it… usually works, but, what about the times when it doesn’t?” I press, earning a bit of a grimace from Ooze.

“Well…” He mumbles, letting his sentence trail off.

“I-I suppose, there is much to consider,” I take a deep breath and clear my throat, certain that my proposal isn’t going to go over well, especially not now that it comes on the back of my rejection of another of Ooze’s ideas. “And, on the subject of things to consider.. How would you.. potentially feel about an expansion?”

“Of what?”

“Of…. Us, our… space, for, perhaps, an… um,” I stumble my way through my sentence with infinitely less intelligence than I’d hoped for, and Ooze’s eyebrow raises ever higher with each passing word. “An orphanage, of sorts. Because, I… you see..”

Either tired of my stumbling, or just outright unwilling to entertain the idea any further, Ooze cuts me off.
“Why would we want to build an orphanage when we are so far into debt?”

“Well, I know, but… hopefully we’ll be surmounting this debt as quickly as possible and, I feel like, it would behoove us to be perceived well in the public eye,” I offer, at least managing to articulate a couple of the dozen points I’d so excellently made to my reflection this morning. “And it would give us an opportunity to turn so many young minds to Tubatron. We could educate and inspire an entire younger generation to music!”

“This sounds expensive,” Ooze presses, and I feel myself shrink beneath his stare.

“I-I know,” I mumble.

“And nice,” he adds, and I lift my gaze, my eyes undoubtedly lit with hope.

“And impractical.”

Correction – False hope. My eyes lit with false hope. I feel my shoulders slump at Ooze’s words, and bite my bottom lip, carefully chewing on my potential response.

“But, there are so many in need in Sigil and we need to bolster our numbers–” I begin, and Ooze shakes his head in response, leaving no more room for debate.

“As you said with my ideas, I must say with yours: It is something to consider. Later.”

I can’t help but think that his idea of later is on par with all the “laters” that Alix and I would talk about things – so, never. The depression must show in my posture, because Ooze adds, “I would have no objection to this orphanage when we’re secure.”

“I-I understand,” I nod, trying to shake off the heavy cloak of disappointment and memories that has woven itself over my shoulders and remind myself why I am here. It is good to help others, and I will, but the faithful need all the help we can get…. And then some. “The stability of our home is important, and… not here.”

“Indeed… perhaps once this hall is not our primary place, we could take this space and make it an… Orphanage,” Ooze says the last word as though he is actively thinking of a thousand things he’d rather turn that space into, but for now, it’s a victory, and I’ll take it. “But we must find a home to call our own.”

“Yes, I know,” I nod – our home is priority number one, the only trouble is…. Finding it, or rather, finding out how to do it. “I feel… it is more likely we will make one, than find it.”

“Well then, we must find out how to do that,” Ooze responds, as if privy to my thoughts.

“Any… word from Clement?” I ask, my voice betraying the doubts surrounding what answer I may receive.
“Strangely, no, not since he checked in last.”

“You said he had a problem with addiction,” I begin, choosing the words that I hesitate to even ask carefully, “is it possible… it’s interfering with his work?”

“Yes,” Ooze sighs and nods, “it is a possibility.”

I was afraid of that, to say the least, as what I’ve heard of this Clement character does not lend to reliability, but there is also the chance he is in danger. “Is it then possible that we should send someone looking?”

“I don’t know,” Ooze says, breathing a hesitant sigh, “his fervor for Tubatron was strong.”

“Well, perhaps… it is his fervor for Tubatron, the search for this… Primal song that has lead him astray?” I question – if it is truly the most powerful thing in the universe… perhaps it was too great a temptation, such a thought was unnerving, but not entirely unlikely. Particularly with Clement’s…. heritage in mind.

“Perhaps,” Ooze says simply, which doesn’t entertain my theory, and only leads to my next question.

“If… someone must go to find him, is there any chance there is someone better suited than you or I?”

“No. And… if it is anything more than distraction or… what have you, if he is in trouble…” Ooze trails off for a moment, bringing a hand to rub the back of his neck, “we may need more than just one of us.”

By his hesitation, I thought that would be the case, and not an easy one to deal with.

“I feared as much,” I conclude with a sigh. There is not, nor will there ever be, a ‘good time’ for us to both just up and go, leaving the faithful leaderless for the length of our journey, so we do not discuss it, only conclude that if he doesn’t return soon, it is an action we will have to take. Our other issues for the most part a stalemate, I excuse myself from Ooze’s living space and back to my own to nurse an increasingly fussy Seren, and turn over the day’s events in my head until I am dizzy.

~

Much of the rest of my day is consumed by a midday nap with the boys and an excess of snacking, at least until evening, when my nerves get the better of me. Alix leaves at dusk to pickup investigations where Declan left off, and I pace in my room, trailing his every step through our bond. I watch carefully, obsessively, as he deftly slips through Sigil’s shadows in pursuit of our perpetrators – he follows them down alleys and through parts of the city I’m sure it’d be better for us to never venture into, and with each calculated step, he draws closer to our goal, but it is no welcome sight.

At great distance, he follows a small group of thugs down a dark, secret passage into the undercity, and immediately as he slides down the ladder, a rush of fear consumes our link. I feel my heart seize in my chest, my concentration shattered as the horror runs its course over my body. Distantly, I hear Alix’s panicked cursing as he is chased from the caverns – impossible! No one could have discovered him so quickly in such heavy darkness! As quickly as the fear came, it is gone, and I find myself trembling on my knees, staring at the floor I hadn’t realized I’d hit, and reach up to dry away my tears.

A-Arcane fear. I manage to conclude – there was no real reason for it, no way it could have been so strong, and nothing I had ever seen had caused Alix panic, except for that.

Indeed.

His response is a mercy – I knew he wasn’t dead, but at least now I know he’s safely away, and I sigh heavily, shifting to sit on the floor as our link swims back into focus.

I’m glad you’re alright… W-What was that?

I didn’t get a look at it, but it knew I was there, maybe even knew that I was coming.

Do you think it… had a magical alarm or, maybe… it smelled you, or… maybe they’d caught on to Declan already?

It’s hard to say, but best no one goes out alone at night. At the very least they know someone’s onto them, and they’ll be suspicious.

So if we’re going to do this, we need to act fast… I conclude. Before they have the chance to clear out.

That would be my assessment.

Alright… come home safe, and we’ll talk to everyone.

~

Alix returns quickly, and I give him the biggest hug I can before we head upstairs to debrief the rest of the party. Nerida and Ulkair return from the fortress shortly after, and we devise a plan. We don’t know what’s down there, but clearly it’s dangerous, and it knows we’re coming, which makes charging in blindly idiotically dangerous, especially when we don’t even know what the enemy is. We need any advantage we can get, and Declan knows where the surface thugs and children meet and drop off their day’s spoils, so if we snatch one of these thugs, we could interrogate him for the information we need. This seems like a sound plan, except, of course, that “we” in this situation is Alix, and none of us are capable of going with him without blowing his operation. I’d more than learned my lesson about moving silently or unseen, being that I can’t, even if my life or someone else’s literally depends on it.

“I could go with Alix,” Caspian offers, and I turn my eyes to her curiously – pirates never struck me as the particularly sneaky type. She plucks Dumpling up in her arms, rubbing her belly as she continues, “I can shape change – meaning I could take the form of your kitty companion here.”

“People have seen Alix around town with Dumpling,” Nerida adds, nodding slowly, “it wouldn’t even raise any alarms.”

My stomach still relentlessly twists with the frightful memory of this evening’s excursion, but there is no better choice in the world than Alix, and no other possible companion than Caspian to accompany him, so the plan is set. Tomorrow night, Alix and Caspian will stake out their drop off location, and snatch us an informant, and we will plan our attack from there. There isn’t much else to do in the way of preparation, at least not without more knowledge, so I retire with Ulkair and Nerida to our room, and curl up on our bed with the boys, my head buzzing with events yet to even occur until sleep claims my thoughts.

View
*:・゚✧ Cheshire's Adventure Log ✧゚・: *
The Worry List

Day Seven
(Session 5)

“Cheshire!”

That voice – that was Nerida… but… everything… hurts. I… I can’t, I can’t go to her, she’s so far away, I’m so tired, in so much pain… It burns to breathe. I-I can’t breathe!

CHESHIRE!

Alix..? I try to reach for him, but I can’t move, can’t see…

Wake up, Cheshire! Don’t you die on me!

A wave of water washes over me, tearing the pain and paralysis away, and I gasp, coughing and drawing breath in the Abyss once more. Nerida and Alix stare down at me, and I blink blearily at their worried faces.

“Wh…what happened?”

Nerida pulls me into a tearful hug, and I move my arms to return the embrace, wincing a bit at the extraordinary tenderness of my skin – as though it was all brand new and weak, it must have been Nerida’s healing magic I’d felt just a moment ago.

“That demon had a final surprise, it seems,” Alix says as the two of them help me to my feet.

“That light…” I mumble, straining my mind to remember what had happened. We’d been fighting demons, and the big one, it tried to crush me then… I rub my head, and Nerida moves to check on Ulkair.

“Did we win?” I mumble hopefully, looking around at the wreckage of the twisted cathedral for a quick head count. Loin holds a weakened Selene in his arms, the two of them speaking words I can’t make out over the ringing in my ears. Alix seems unharmed, Nerida and Ulkair are both standing, Mimi has lowered her scythes, and is crouched over a body.

Caspian…

“Yes,” Alix answers reluctantly, “but not without cost, and we’re still in enemy territory.”

No… I clutch his hand, staring, at the druid’s bloodied form, and Alix guides me away from them as sorrow builds in my chest. This wasn’t the time or the place to weep for lost allies… He leads me away from the bulk of the carnage, and sits me in a secure corner, taking a guarded position by one of the cathedral’s slitted windows, readying his bow.

Alix? Is something out there?

Not that I can see… Yet.

A bright, silvery light pulls my attention from Alix, and I turn to see it enveloping Loin, as he slowly changes form to that of a large, silver dragon. Selene stares up at him in awe, and I smile a little, exhaustion pounding in my head, and making me simply glad he didn’t explode. I suppose I should be more amazed at his accomplishment, but he had said his goal was to become a full dragon, and while I am happy for his success, much too much else weighs on my shoulders to make it seem truly miraculous. As the light fades, it bounces off the nearby pile of blood-stained wealth the demons had accrued, and an intense glimmer catches my eye. Glancing back at Alix, ever intently watching the windows, I push myself up and wander over to the pile – the woman’s body that once laid upon it was gone, only dust covered blood remaining, which I could only assume to be the work of the demonic explosion.

I sift through some of the loose coins, and recoil as I cut my fingertips on the blade of a shimmering sword.

Ouch! I barely touched it…

I frown at the fresh cut, but knock aside more of the treasure to reveal a hilt, and draw the immense, heavy blade from the horde. As I lift it, it sparks, flames and lightning erupting around the blade, and I jump back, dropping it with an audible clatter in shock. This earns me a series of frustrated and questioning stares from the rest of the room, and I shrug my shoulders up sheepishly.

“Sorry,” I mumble, and cautiously lift the great sword again. It radiates magic, and something about it seems… angry, like it doesn’t want to be here – a notion, I note, which is very ridiculous.

Alix, look what I found!

Not now, Cheshire.

But! Alix, I think… I object as I carry the sword carefully back over to his perch by the window, hoping it doesn’t spontaneously ignite again.

“Everyone, we need to move,” Alix announces, turning to our companions as they try to collect themselves, “now!”

“What? Why?” Mimi objects, and Alix turns a hard stare in her direction.

“We’ve got company.”

I peer out the window around him, and see a large group of demons not thirty feet away – they must have just teleported here, and among them is not one, but three Glabrezu, and two of the animalistic monstrosities we fought earlier, the one who trapped me in that… vision. I shudder, quickly stuffing the magical sword into my bag of holding, and hurry to Nerida’s side, so that we can join hands to planar shift.

“We need to figure out what happened in that teleport,” Nerida objects, “and whether or not it’s safe for us to leave.”

“But Alix said now,” I insist, glancing back toward him as he trains his bow on the doorway.

“Ulkair?” She asks, and he shakes his head. “What was that pulling sensation we felt before?”

“There’s no way to know for sure, Nerida,” he explains, “most likely someone just wanted us to think they were capable of something, but I suppose they could try to grab someone again, the Abyss is chaos.”

Well, that wasn’t exactly a relief to hear, but nor was it surprising.

“Isn’t there any way to –” Nerida’s theory is cut short by the slinging open of the cathedral doors. Demons stream through them, more of those female Tanar’ri we’d fought before leading the way, sweeping by Loin and clawing at him as he makes his way toward us with Selene. “Nevermind, whatever it was, it can’t be as bad as staying here.”

“Well, you’ve killed them all, it seems,” a glabrezu proclaims, looking around at the bloodshed, “as a thank you, perhaps I’ll only take a few of your souls.”

He reaches a terrible, clawed hand for Selene, and Alix releases two arrows, sinking them into the demon’s meaty arm, causing him to recoil and roar in pain. Nerida grasps my hand, and I grab onto Alix’s as my companions close around us to form the link needed to planar shift, and the demon judges raise their hands, producing another vortex of colors around us.

No! Please, not again!

“Nerida! We have to go, now!” I plead, and she grabs Ulkair’s hand and raises her arms to cast a spell.

The rush of Nerida’s planar shift begin to sweep us up, and I clutch Alix’s hand in mine, and Nerida’s in the other as the demons make their final swipes at us before the world begins to warp and sway. Through the haze of magic, a glabrezu’s terrible claw grasps at Selene’s ankle, and she cries out, but clings to Loin, and kicks herself free of the fiend’s hold just as we are ripped from the plane. We land hard, and I swear that as long as I live I will never become accustomed to the nauseous, reeling sensation left by magic transport, but I could kiss the filthy ground of Sigil as I look around, and realize that is where we are.

Now… where in Sigil, that was a good question. I can’t see the music hall, or anything that looks so much as vaguely familiar in in the ring. Although, casting my eyes upward, I realize that even if the music hall were visible directly above us, I likely would not recognize it from here. Nerida’s holy energy draws my attention from the sky, and I turn to look at her, my stomach wrenching as she pours it into Caspian’s unmoving form. Maybe… just maybe she would be okay, maybe she was still alive… she… She doesn’t move. Her wounds recede, her skin crawling back over exposed tissue and broken bones, though thick, newly shed blood still soaks her hair and armor, and she remains still in Mimi’s arms.

“Ma’am, Miss Angel,” a dirty looking figure calls from the people surrounding us, drawing my attention to them for the first time. I have no idea where in Sigil we might be, but this I recognize very clearly. Poverty. In Sigil, it wears a slightly more diverse face, but hunger, disease, filth – these things, it seems, are universal. All of my companions stiffen as a the ragged man approaches Mimi.

“I could take that body off your hands for you, miss.”

“What? No! I’m keeping her, thank you,” she says hurriedly, taking a step back.

“Surely not! A proud, important person like you? You don’t want to get your hands dirty like this,” the man insists, reaching for Caspian’s corpse once more, “I’ll take that body to the mortuary for you.”

“She’s not going to the mortuary!” Mimi yells, kicking the man and backing away. “I’m keeping this body, leave us alone!”

Mimi! I stare at her for a moment, wide-eyed, and about to shout my objection before I see the tears in the corner of her eyes – she’s scared, she’s under a lot of strain, she’s hurt, all of us are. It’s no excuse to assault someone, even if he was a corpse robber, but as I look around, I see all my companions reaching for their weapons, eying the people around us. Tensions are high, and you can’t trust anything in Sigil, even someone who may well be doing their job, I suppose. But violence wasn’t going to solve anything, and we could wander lost in this damned city for days, and even end up in another plane accidentally if we didn’t convince the locals to help us – which, if we continue to assault them, I doubt they will.

“Guys, just calm down!” I urge, raising my hands and stepping between Mimi and the quickly gathering crowd. “Let’s just… ask for directions and get out of here, alright?”

No one seems to think that this rabble of diseased, hungry peasants will give us directions, or at least good ones, and with my companion’s doubting stares at my back, I admit I am substantially less excited about approaching the unpredictable masses. But I have dealt with these kinds of people before – I’ve been this kind of person before, and when food and money is scarce, you don’t tend to bear ill will to someone who could make it worth your time. This knowledge in hand, I approach a portly older woman, trying my best not to seem… desperate.

“Excuse, me, ma’am? Could you maybe help us?” I ask, and she looks at me suspiciously, “I could make it worth your while.”

“What use could a ol’ fish monger’s wife be ta people like ye who appear out of thin air, and with a dragon, no less?”

I glance back at our party, beaten and worn, and… obviously not from around here, and I hesitate to admit our ‘cluelessness’, as Sigilites call it, lest we be preyed on, but I see little other option. Loin’s presence marks us with some form of status, apparently, and I suppose silver dragons must not be common, even in Sigil, so perhaps that is enough for us to be regarded well enough to not be taken advantage of.

“Well, I was hoping for a guide,” I explain, “we’re not from Sigil, as I suppose you can tell, and we need to get back to the Music Hall of Tubatron. Is there any chance you might know where that is?”

“Oh, aye. I been ta their services,” she says, nodding, “it’s about the only pretty thing in this whole anthill they let us berks in ta see fer free.”

I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the term ‘berks’, but I assume it to be derogatory. Still, I smile at her, glad to know that under Ooze’s leadership, the reach of music has not been stifled by class.

“Well, we believe music should be shared with everyone.”

“Oh, so yer one of them crazies, eh dearie?” She says, squinting at me, and my smile only spreads as I nod proudly. “Well, far be it fer me to judge a cutter fer sharin’ with tha likes of me.”

“Thank you very much, do you think you could lead us there?” I ask, and she shakes her head.

“I can give ya directions, but me feet don’t work so well,” she explains, and I instinctively look at her feet, to find, beyond the dirt, swollen, hard looking red lumps on them. It must be some form of disease, as they look neither new, nor infected, nor like they spawn from injury. In fact, by the way she carries herself, carefully avoiding what must be painful contact from the lumps, I’d wager they’ve been like this a long time. I spin to look at Nerida and Mimi.

“Do either of you have a cure spell memorized?”

I know that Nerida must choose, every morning, which spells she asks Eadro for, that she picks them carefully, and cannot just spontaneously call on her god’s energy as I can. But, for all my ability to bend Tubatron’s gifts to my needs, I have never cast a spell to cure a disease, and wouldn’t even begin to know how. Mimi nods, and passes Caspian’s body to Alix before she steps forward, laying her hands on the woman’s shoulders and summoning Tubatron’s holy power. There is a tell-tale brassy shimmer around them, and with a clap of tuba music, the sores recede from her feet, and then disappear.

When Mimi steps back, the woman blinks at us, surprise on her face, which fades into a joyous smile.

“Why… I.. I haven’t been free of those ol’ joint pains in twenty years!” She exclaims, and I beam, a tiny piece of the horror of The Abyss momentarily melting away, replaced by the warmth of helping another as I watch the pained expression leave her face. “I’d be happy ta take ya to the church of Tubatron!”

“Thank you!”

Loin steps toward us, Selene next to him, and looks the woman over.

“I could offer you a ride there?” He asks, and the woman stares at him for a moment, bewildered and amazed at the simple offer.

“Ride? On a dragon ?” She asks, and he nods. “Well… yes!”

He crouches, bowing low and Selene helps the elderly woman to his back, before hopping up herself. The crowd parts as Loin begins to walk in the direction our guide points out, and as I look out over them, my smile fades, a pang in my chest replacing the joy that had filled me just seconds ago. We helped one woman, so effortlessly we changed her life, freed her of twenty years of constant pain – but there were so many more. These faces that stared out at me through the crowd, most gaunt with hunger or sickness, all of them desperate, these lives that could be forever changed with a simple touch or spell…. Magic I didn’t have at the moment.

But I could. I could come back, create food and clean water, cure diseases…

Alix’s hand on my shoulder pulls me from my thoughts, and I rub my eyes, turning to look at him.

“Alix, I’m… not so great with directions, do you think you’d be able to lead me back here later?”

Alix looks at me for a moment, then our surroundings, and nods. He doesn’t ask questions, and I can feel his understanding through our link, as well as pride, but his love is tainted with worry, for certain.

“Yes, but be wary when we do return. Not all who ask for help need it.”

I nod, wrapping my arms around one of his as we make our way across the city, every step harder than the last, but one closer to seeing my beautiful sons again. It isn’t, luckily, a terribly long trip, and as soon as the steps of the temple are in sight, I want to bolt for Marian’s room, but I wait, rocking idly on the balls of my feet while my companions say their pleasantries to our guide, and Declan, who greets us on the temple steps looking strangely cautious.

“Mighty Dragon friend, may I ask why you’ve come?” He begins, “I, uh… hope you bear no ill will to the church of Tubatron?”

I peer up at him curiously as Selene helps the old woman from Loin’s back, and Declan looks at us again, and blinks, as though he’s only just now noticed the rest of us.

“Oh, wait.. Loin?!” He says, to which the silver dragon nods, “but, I thought you were only a half dragon?”

“Looks like he found another half,” Nerida muses, giggling a little.

Declan scratches his head and looks back toward the already cramped conservatory.

“Ah, well… you’re still welcome here, we’ll open up the… uh… ceiling..?” He seems a bit at a loss, and Loin, with what seems to be a bit too much difficulty, changes into a elfy version of his old self, with no shoulder spikes or scales left to mark him as half dragon.

“That was good for these old bones,” our guide says, shaking Loin’s hand gratefully.

“Thank you very much for helping us,” I offer, gesturing to the doors, “can we offer you a bath and a hot meal before you head home?”

“Couldn’t say no to such a lovely offer as that,” she concludes, and I look to Declan, who nods and guides her inside.

No sooner are they out of sight do I bolt for the entrance, hurrying down the halls and to Marian’s door. My manners forgotten in the urgency of holding my children once more, I open the door and hurry down the narrow stairway, to find my nanny shushing a fussing Seren, while Rhapsody sleeps contently beside her. Seren immediately busts out a new wave of water-works when he sees me, reaching over Marian’s shoulders and flipping his tail. I kneel and scoop the merbaby up, and she smiles at me tiredly.

“I’m glad you’re back,” she says, “I think Seren was getting awfully hungry.”

“Where is the wet nurse?” I ask, untangling Seren’s fingers from my hair as he wails and grasps at it for my attention – and, more importantly to him, food.

“She left already,” Marian explains, and I knit my brow, shifting to the side and wiggling down my shirt to allow the wailing merbaby to nurse. Seren quiets immediately, though he flips his tail a couple more times in show of his disapproval as he suckles, a relief I’m sure to him as well as to my aching, overfull breasts.

“She… left?” I ask.

“She just left ?!” Nerida repeats, and I turn to see her and Ulkair on the stairs just behind me – I hadn’t even noticed they’d followed.

“I… think she only had enough milk for Rhapsody,” Marian whispers, shier, it seems, now that she is delivering bad news to myself, and my rather intimidating lovers.

“Well…. Maybe she couldn’t have fed them back to back like I can, but she should have been able to feed Seren at least a little!” I object, frowning down at the merbaby and brushing his hair away from his face with my fingers, before I realize they are utterly filthy, and it’s best to touch him as little as possible until I bathe.

“Well, she, um.. didn’t know they were sorcerers,” Marian continues, passing Rhapsody to Nerida as she approaches from the stairwell, “and I think, um, she had maybe had enough of Rhapsody.”

“Declan… didn’t tell her that, huh?” I look back at my brassy baby, sleeping happily on in Nerida’s massive arms, and sigh.

“I think… she would have asked for a higher payment if he did, anyway, that’s what she said,” Marian seems miffed at the idea, “that you would have to pay her more next time.”

I feel the crease in my brow deepen – as if! What would they have done if I hadn’t gotten lucky, and come home from the Abyss tonight? What if I had been gone three days, a week, or longer? She left my son to go hungry over money? Over convenience? And she expects me to not only trust them to her again, but pay her more? There was no price too high to ensure my children’s well being, but clearly this was no insurance, and I’ll be damned if I’d trust that stupid wench to their care again.

“Well, thank you for looking after them, Marian,” I mumble, leaning down to kiss Seren’s forehead, “I’m glad at least they had you, since she turned out to be so untrustworthy.”

“Oh, of course, High priestess,” Marian nods, smiling up at me, “anytime. I think they’re just darling!”

I smile back at her, and crouch to give her a quick hug, mentally making note to ask Declan about that spell of his – at least with that, Marian could care for the boys without the need to find yet another potentially useless wet nurse.

“Thank you,” I repeat, “hopefully we won’t be going anywhere like this again, but… it’s a relief to know the boys will have you if we do.”

Nerida leads me back up the stairs and to our room, she and Ulkair on either side of me, and at last, when we are snuggled against the soft safety of our bed, the world feels right once more. Seren’s overly eager nursing calms, Nerida lays Rhapsody in my arms with him, and I hum to them quietly as my lovers debate the perils we’d faced, the tugging sensation in the teleport, and what it could have meant. When Seren is done eating, Nerida scoops him up eagerly to burp him, and I curl up around Rhapsody, doing my best to keep my eyes open, in spite of the heavy fog of sleep falling on me.

~

My dreams are fitful, full of the pained cries of my children, the scent of blood and burning corpses, and it can’t have been long before Rhapsody wakes me with soft, hungry cries – which are a relief. Sniffling, I shift from Nerida’s arms and get to my feet, freeing myself of my corset and shirt, and gently guide him to nurse. I pace the dimly lit room, and I reach to wipe the cold sweat from my forehead, but as I draw it back, the dull light of our room illuminates glistening blood, and I bite back a scream. I blink furiously and focus on my hands once more – no blood, just my tired mind playing tricks on me, I suppose. They are clean, but for the large black smears marking them, and likely my face as well. I grimace, the filth of the Abyss still marking every exposed inch of my skin, the taste of blood still lingering on my tongue, and resolve to bathe before I return to bed and settle in for the night.

Who knows what kind of awful disease or muck was on my skin, to which I cuddled my children? I can’t bring them anymore harm, no matter how indirect. Ever, ever again. Guilt churns my stomach, and the demon’s cruel illusion lights my mind with fear and agony, the sounds of my little Rhapsody’s pained screaming.

What have I done…? I hold him closer, resting my forehead to his, and let out a soft sob.

“I’m so sorry, Rhapsody,” I whisper, as if the words could mean anything to him, “so, so sorry. I never meant to hurt you… I love you so much.”

He stares up at me with intently focused black eyes, the picture of perfection in spite of all of my sins, and all I can do is try to keep my weeping silent as I watch him, so desperately glad to have him in my arms, however blood stained they may be. When we’ve finished our midnight food ritual, I tuck him in his father’s arms, and make to leave for the bath when I catch Seren’s wide green eyes on me, watching me attentively.

“Seren, do you want to have a bath?” I whisper as I scoop up the merbaby from the bed. I wrap some clean linens around my chest, and grab a second for Seren, and quietly creep from our room, though I can’t help but sing to him in whispered tones as we sneak around.

“Oooh, we’re off on a secret mission,
We’ve gotta go and get clean,
Because the Abyss is awf’ly gross,
Even worse than it seems!”

Seren laughs as I dance with him in the hall, and I can’t help the spread of the contagious smile, giggling a bit myself as I step around the hall of sleeping bards and make for the washroom, drumming up rhymes that I’m sure only seem legitimate because I am exhausted. Although I am glad to finally associate my ridiculous sneaking song with something other than the horrible memories surrounding its creation.

“Secret, secret, hush hush hush,
Secret, secret, ooooh,
We’ve gotta be swift and stealthy,
‘Cause we don’t wanna stink!
We’re off and away, but first another drink
Da da da da da da da…”

I fill the bath with fresh, clean water from my free hand, and plop Seren in the water, which causes him to squeal in delight, and wiggle out of my remaining clothes before sinking into the cool bath myself. The copper tub is quite large, with room enough for Seren to swim happy circles, occasionally ducking around my legs while I scrub my skin and hair. He chases after bubbles of soap, pouncing on them and clasping tiny piles of suds in his hands, and I smile watching him flail about. Summoning more water to my hands, I splash him, and he squeaks, retaliating with a flip of his caudal fin.

“Ooh, you little cheater!” I coo, grabbing him up in my arms and blowing a raspberry on his exposed belly. He squeals, about as loudly as I’ve ever heard him, and flails, splashing and flipping his tail as he wriggles in my arms.

“Alright alright, shh,” I giggle, snuggling him close and shushing him before I release him to swim about in the tub, “we have to be quiet, people are sleeping, you know?”

When we are clean and Seren is dozing on my chest, I unplug the bath drain. The merbaby watches the water spin and disappear with a betrayed look on his face, so I call Tubatron’s holy energy to my hands once more, rinsing the excess suds from us both, and pluck him from the tub.

“Look you, that’s enough fun for tonight, it’s sleepy time now,” I murmur, poking his nose gently as he flails in desire for the water. Whether out of defeat or exhaustion, he lets me dry him off, and I look at the washroom floor, covered in soap and splashed water – we are neither the quietest, nor the tidiest pair, it seems.
I scoot the linens I’d used on Seren across the floor to mop up the excess water, and then head back to our room with him in one arm and my laundry in the other. I hesitate to lay my freshly clean self and merbaby right smack between my lovers, both utterly filthy from our trip to the Abyss, so I quickly roll us up in a blanket before wiggling down into our spot once more.

~

Day Eight

Morning seems to come too early, but I stretch and place Seren in Nerida’s arms, climbing out of bed to raise my daily praise to Tubatron in the wee hours of daylight. My muscles ache and whine as I dress, and Ragnarok seems to weigh at least forty pounds more than it did the day before, but I drag myself to my window in the hall, masking a yawn, and staring out at the dreary gray cityscape. It suddenly seemed much more lovely than it had just two days ago, but I suppose I was now comparing it to the Abyss.

Still, we had rescued Selene, prevented Nerida’s possible death, and today, when she had her spells, Nerida would resurrect Caspian, then all would be well. We could put the horrors of the Abyss behind us, hopefully for good this time. No more demons, no more life-threatening excursions into the lower planes – there was plenty of work to be done here, in Sigil, in the conservatory, and even among the other planes. I did have to travel them all, apparently, until I found a place suitable for Tubatron, and it was beyond safe to say that the lower planes would never be that place.

First, I have to prioritize those children – we made a promise, and beyond even our duty to honor it, was the urgency of their situation. I suppose I can ask Declan if he could gather information on this crime ring that is using them, it seems like a ‘clueless’ poking around would do nothing but raise alarms. Meanwhile I had plenty to do here: studying the planes, which I’m certain Nerida and Ulkair could help me with, seemed like a priority, to even give me a starting point on this mission to find Tubatron a home, but there was more.

Our financial situation here at the music hall couldn’t exactly be… good, with Ooze stomping about smashing things often enough that Declan had dedicated contractors he knew to call on. Not to mention that they’d let Loin simply take and keep that accordion – how many other instruments did we have? And how many were we supposed to have? These all seemed to be valid questions, rattling about in my brain as I pray, and I make sure to note each of them for when I speak to Ooze later.

When I’ve finished my prayers, I go and get the boys from their spots in bed, and make my way to the kitchens for food, as eating seems to have become one of my favorite past times since Rhapsody’s conception, and even moreso since I’ve been feeding he and Seren. Alix meets me in the kitchens after awhile, though he seems in a rather poor mood, and simply holds Rhapsody in stony silence when I pass the baby to him.

“Is… everything alright?” I ask, and he nods, pouring himself a drink, which I decide not to question, in spite of it being barely dawn.

Our morning is quiet, if… unusually uncomfortable, and I can feel Alix’s mind carefully raking through the events of yesterday, but I think it wisest not to prod any further. Whatever is wrong, he would tell me if he wanted me to know, or even felt I needed to. When Ulkair and Nerida have finished their morning prayer-meditation cuddling ritual, Nerida goes to resurrect Caspian, and I lay upside down on our bed with the boys, playing with Seren and watching as Ulkair prepares for some big fancy spell or another.

“So… this spell will tell you what happened with that teleportation yesterday?” I wasn’t sure this was accurate, but it was my best guess based on what I had overheard him discussing with Nerida the night before.

“Not exactly, love,” Ulkair explains, casting an amused glance my way, “but it may help. This will tell us if there is any residual magic left from whatever they attempted. If there is, that may tell us what happened to us, or, more importantly, what they hoped to accomplish when we were planar shifting to the Abyss.”

“Oh, so… it’s like a detect magic spell?” I question, rolling over to cease the excess flow of blood into my head.

“In a way,” he says, ever patient of my unique understanding of arcane theory, “but more complex, and more thorough.”

I nod, giving him a thoughtful ‘hmm’ instead of more questions, as it seems the process is one on which he should focus fully. Nerida seemed awfully worried about this pulling sensation we’d felt, and I don’t want to be the one who was responsible for her only hope of understanding it failing because our arcane expert was distracted. And speaking of the devil, Nerida steps through the door only a minute or so later, and I give her a curious, hopeful look – an unspoken question as to the status of our fallen comrade. She nods and sighs, taking a spot next to me on the bed and plucking Seren from my arms to snuggle him.

When Ulkair is ready, we gather all of the rest of our companions into the room for him to cast his spell – it seemed most likely that he, or Nerida were the targets of whatever magic he was searching for, and if no one else, at least Selene. After all, they’d tried to grab her from a planar shifting spell as well, but I suppose it was better safe than sorry, and if he was already casting it, it wouldn’t hurt for him to investigate us all.

The familiar sensation of Ulkair’s arcane presence creeps over me as he casts the spell, and then he looks us all over, his face falling as he casts his gaze on me.

That’s not a good sign.

He looks around at the rest of our companions, and then back at Nerida.

“Well, at least there’s no residual magic on you, my love,” he says, “but… Cheshire, Mimi and Selene are all marked.”

“Marked?” Mimi squeaks, looking over herself in sudden dismay as though this magical mark were a stain of some kind she could scrub from her dress. “By what? What’s on me?”

“A magical tag, of sorts,” Ulkair explains, “like a beacon. It means wherever you are, even planes away, they can see you, easily follow your movements, etcetera.”

“I… suspected that might be the case,” I mumble, throwing a pointed glance Selene’s way, before I look back at Ulkair, “but… who is ‘someone’? Can you trace this back to them?”

I glance at Selene again, hoping she might have some input, but she seems altogether unmoved by this news, which makes me only all the more sure it was a good thing Ulkair checked. If she suspected something like this would have been the case, wouldn’t it have been wise to share it, and even now, knowing those demons not only tried to grab her but are tracking her, she has nothing to say? I shake the sinking sensation of suspicion from my head and look back to Ulkair – she’d barely been with us a day, all of our nerves and minds were raw from our time in the Abyss, how could I expect different from someone who’d been trapped there for so long? She would have come to us about it soon, and I’m sure Loin will talk with her about her connection with those demons before they have the chance to become a problem.

“I can’t trace it to the caster, exactly,” Ulkair explains, “but I can tell you for certain that whoever marked you also marked Mimi, but not Selene.”

Who would mark just me and Mimi? My brow knits at this news, too obscure to be coincidental – the only thing we have in common is Tubatron, and he didn’t need to tag us to know where we were or what we were doing.

“I can’t say for certain who might have put it on you or how old the mark is,” Ulkair continues, as though he was reading my thoughts, “but that demon in Elysia was quite interested in the both of you.”

My stomach twists with the aching memory of that night in Elysia, and the lasting scar of fear it has left on my brain. He did grab Mimi from her bed – I thought it was because she was unconscious, an easy target, but perhaps it was more than that after all. Or maybe all it took to mark someone was a touch, but then, why didn’t he mark all of us? And what did such a mark mean now that he was dead, why hadn’t it faded? What could… my mind reels with questions and paranoid theories, and my face must show it, because Ulkair places his hands on my shoulders, drawing my attention to his golden eyes.

“Don’t worry, love,” he says, moving a hand to caress my cheek, “I can try to disenchant them. It might be easy.”

“Will it be dangerous?” Nerida asks, the concerned frown on her face doing nothing to reassure me.

“It could be dangerous, or difficult. It depends on how old the mark is and the skill of the one who placed it,” he says, and I puff out a small sigh at the realization that ‘it could be easy’ was likely only for my benefit – and of course it was, because why would anything ever be easy? “I once used such a spell to since Larn’s hair, got him pretty good.”

He chuckles quietly, a distant sadness flickering in his eyes before he continues, “then there’s this one particularly nasty spell that can cause an extremely venomous viper to rear out and attack you… Counter magics can be all sorts of things.”

“I’m sure whatever it is, you can dispel it,” Nerida says, and then looks over us once more, and back at herself, as if expecting to see something strange.

“Nerida?” I question, “what’s wrong?”

“Nothing, it’s just… I thought for sure I’d be marked,” she says, “I just had this strange feeling, but it’s a relief to know I’m not.”

Ulkair looks back at her, studying her hard – perhaps after the dreams she was having, he was right to. There was no denying the fact that Eadro touched her mind, and even without knowing how deep her oracular tendencies would run, it would be unwise to ignore her strong or strange feelings.

“I… I don’t know how I missed that,” he admits, his face and Nerida’s falling as he speaks. “You are marked, my love, and it seems by even someone other than those who marked Cheshire and the others.”

Tensions in the room only grow with the news, and Ulkair sets about working to dispel the magical tags. It seems mine and Mimi’s are the easiest to dispel, but Selene’s doesn’t give him much trouble either, in fact, none of them do – except Nerida’s. He tries to dispel it the same way he did our’s, with no luck, then tries something else, also without success. Our companions have gone about their days by the third attempt, most of them having cleared out when the other marks were removed, so I sit on our bed with the babies, observing in the hopes I might be able to offer some kind of help. With an increasing sense of dread, I realize even as Ulkair exhausts all the magic at his disposal, I have no ability to aid either of them.

This kind of magic appears to be too much over my head, and in no way intuitive as most arcane things are. It is with much reluctance that Ulkair finally admits he can only suppress the tag on Nerida – render it useless for short periods of time, perhaps a few days at best. At least, as long as he is with Nerida, he can renew the spell whenever the need arises, and the likelihood of him ever leaving her side for more than a few hours or so seems slim.

They sit to discuss the ritual needed to cast the initial spell that will suppress the mark, and I find even with this modicum of good news, there is still a dragging, increasing agony pulling at the back of my mind. I can’t seem to place what causes it, but my uselessness gnaws at me, and my stomach twists with guilt that I would walk away scot free while Nerida is in trouble. I tell myself that makes no sense, but my mind cannot be contented, so I decide it’s best that I make busy. I scoot off the bed, wiggling Rhapsody into his sling, plucking Seren from his spot and going to plant a kiss each of my lovers before I leave.

“Good luck, guys. Please be careful, and let me know if I can help.”

“Where are you going?” Nerida questions.

“I have a lot of work to do here in the temple,” I explain, “I was waiting to see if there was any way I could be of use to you two with this but it seems like you have it well in hand.”

Nerida nods, but Ulkair seems altogether very preoccupied with his new project – and why wouldn’t he be? Nerida’s safety has to come first.

My head buzzes with a thousand tasks that need performing as I walk the halls, every dent in the walls or master crafted instrument on the floor drumming up another issue, another question. I struggle to pull the most important of them from the mix, mentally compiling a heap of questions for Declan and Ooze, when the bell sounds to indicate the beginning of the morning devotions. I look down at the boys, Rhapsody fast asleep and undaunted by the sound, and Seren looking around, green eyes ever eager to observe the world around him.

“Well boys, let’s go praise Tubatron and listen to music, hm?” I muse aloud, “maybe your mother can sort out her head during service.”

I take my typical seat by Ooze for our service, although I still feel a bit out of place at the head of the room, and bounce Seren idly in my arms as Declan plays. The sweeping violin melody is apparently dedicated to Loin, and reminds me of the one Tubatron taught me to play for him, though rather more delicate, as was the nature of the violin, versus a tuba. The music reverberates over the halls, and as I listen, I feel the reeling in my head begin to melt away, gently drumming my fingers on Seren’s back in time with the performances of the faithful.
The moments of clarity aid me in starting to sort through the mess of priorities in my head, and slowly I begin create order from the chaos. First things first – those kids. Lives are at stake, they cannot take a back seat to anything, even my errands for the temple, so when our devotion is complete, I take the chance to grab Declan before he can be lost to the sea of work that consumes his days.

“Declan!” I call to him, waving as I cut my way through the crowd, and when I approach, I find him standing with Mimi – very closely. She is leaning on him, her wings folded behind her, and his arm is draped casually around her waist, leading me to believe I must have missed a memo somewhere, but I am still happy for them.

“Yes, Cheshire?” He asks, flashing me his wide, winning smile, “did you enjoy the performance?”

“Oh, yes, it was masterful, Declan,” I answer with a smile, and he puffs his chest out a bit. “But there was something I was hoping I could get you to look into for me? It’s…. kind of important so I was hoping you could make it a priority, and focus all your attention on it this week.”

“Declan needs to focus on me!” Mimi pouts, and I must turn a harder stare toward her than I meant to, because she immediately looks away and adds, “I was only kidding!”

“Yes, well, you’re going to be busy, we all are,” I explain, trying my best not to sound wretchedly bossy, “anyway, Declan, I need you to look into this criminal organization, the one using Rolfe and the other kids0. You’re the only person I can trust who’s actually from Sigil and not a ‘clueless’, as you guys call us. Any of us could go but it would take us so long to even begin to understand the city, there’s no way we could go undetected by a dangerous bunch like them.”

He nods, and Mimi cocks her head at me, placing her hands on her hips, “well then what do you want me to do?”

“Mimi, you need to find out what all paperwork Ooze and Clement have been dumping on Declan, what’s left to be done, and–”

“Uh, there ISN’T any paperwork! I’ve asked!”

I purse my lips, indignation prickling my skin as Mimi cuts me off, but I breathe deeply, recentering myself as Declan looks at her with an awkward, embarr-assed expression.

“I promise there is paperwork,” I insist, and Declan’s nervous grin backs my confidence, “just not any completed paperwork. But there must be records, particularly of our finances.”

Mimi turns an indignant stare at Declan, “you said there was nothing here with words on it!”

“Not… in the music room,” Declan corrects, giving her a sheepish smile, “look, I’ve got the accounts sort of figured out. Maybe. A little bit. But the application for official godhood with Ao? I uh… haven’t touched that.”

“An application?” I cock my head at him – I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a paper application for anything, except maybe military requisition forms, and even those I’d never seen, but then, Sigil was bizarre. “I… there’s an application for…. Godhood?”

He nods, but his confidence in his statements appears to waver with my uncertain stare, and he glances down the hall, “I’ll uh… explain on the way.”

“Lead on, then,” I sigh, and Declan takes us a ways down the hall, where we come to a door that looks remarkably untouched, no dirty finger prints, no stains, no tell-tale Ooze shaped cracks running along the wood.

It’s as though no one in the entire temple uses the room on the other side, which can’t possibly be true, considering the lack of space and the amount of sleeping bards on the floor every day. With a deep breath, and a bit of a flourish, Declan throws open the door, and in an instant, more paper than I have ever seen comes pouring fourth from the opening, scattering and spilling out around our feet, into an unceremonious heap. I stare, aghast, at what I can only imagine to be hundreds of coppers worth of sheets of paper, in all manner of disarray, and follow the avalanche back up to gaze into the room, which appears to be no less empty for my body’s weight in parchment on the floor.

“Declan… what…. Is all this?” I ask, turning my horrified stare to our attaché, but before he can answer, Mimi’s shrill exclamation sounds from just behind me.

“AND HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN SAVING IT!?”

He looks at her, his expression devoid of its typical humor, or anything at all as he answers.

“This is just the application for the temple of Ao,” he says, and I feel my heart sink as I stare at the pile.

This is just the application? This isn’t even… all the paperwork!? My head spins as I pick up a fistful of the papers, scanning through them in quickly failing hope that I might make some sense of the impossibly tiny script.

“I… like to pretend it doesn’t exist,” Declan says, and I look up in time to see Mimi’s eyes flare.

“P-Pretend it doesn’t exist!? How does that help anything!?” She demands, and he gives her a somewhat sad shrug.

“Well, it doesn’t, but… it also doesn’t.. hurt?”

Declan and I appear to have different ideas of ‘hurting’ the cause.

“Wha— YES IT DOES!” Mimi insists, flailing her hands up as she quickly starts to become hysterical, and Declan more standoffish.

“Oh….kay, well, it needs to get done,” I manage an even tone, stepping between the two of them. “So… as High Priestess, Mimi, I’m assigning you to complete this application. By the end of the week, whatever it takes, we need to get it submitted. I was going to have you take an official census, organize the halls, inventory things but… this is clearly more important.”

And… not Declan’s strong suit. I add, glancing back at the enormous heap of paper, and our flustered violinist.

“No, it’s not! Have you seen their instrument room!?” She demands, and I turn my head back to her, taking a deep breath, and making a mental note to investigate this…. Instrument room to which she refers.

“No, but I’m sure it will be fine, this is our priority.” I insist, and she stares at me, incredulous.

“No it’s not!” She yells, “instruments are piled and piled and piled and they’re almost to the ceiling and there’s no order anywhere!”

“Well, yes, I understand but I –”

“How are you supposed to find anything when you go in there!?” She demands, cutting me off for the third time today, and I feel my nose and cheeks begin to flush as I try to maintain my composure.

“Well, I suppose you just… get the one you’re actually looking for?”

“NO! Because then the strings get messed up and stuff!” Mimi objects, speaking truly like someone who has never, in her entire life, used a string instrument.

Even a bunch of bards as disorganized as this couldn’t possibly be disrespectful enough of instruments to have them literally piled, without so much as cases to protect them, and simply moving cases back and forth wouldn’t destroy them, if you weren’t, I suppose, completely careless.

“That’s not really how they – Nevermind. Look, this is more important. Get this paperwork done, and find out where it needs to go, and file it! And then you can worry about the instrument room.”

Declan looks like he’s not terribly eager to be involved in this conversation anymore, but he clears his throat and speaks nonetheless.

“Um, actually, Cheshire, I think your idea of getting a census is a good one, that’s probably pretty important,” he suggests, “and… maybe while you’re at it, we should establish some kind of criteria for membership?”

“I… yes, you’re right. Alright, Mimi, after this application gets where it needs to go, I want you working on a census – ”

“How extensive does this census have to be?” Mimi asks abruptly, staring down at the piles of paper around her in despair.

How am I supposed to know that!? I don’t know how to write a freaking census!

I try to shut down my internal panicking, and the building frustration of yet another sentence being cut short by Mimi’s outbursts. I understand the task before us is daunting, but it might seem LESS so if I could ever complete a statement from start to finish.

“Pretty extensive,” I insist, hoping she will understand better than I do what parameters I’ve just set, “I know it might take awhile between this application and actually completing the census, but Ooze says a third of our members are sensates. I don’t even know what those are, but apparently I should be worried about them. And you know, are they male, female, or other, what are their names, their needs? Just…. Give me an idea of what we’re working with, and then we can base our criteria somewhere around there.”

“Well, I may need Declan’s help,” Mimi objects, and I sigh, feeling my face fall at the realization she’s not entirely wrong. I can’t guide her in this task at all, but maybe he could…

But…. The children My conscience urges, and I rub my temples.

“If you need Declan’s help,” I begin, and Mimi cuts me off once more with another objection I’d have solved had I been able to speak the words I’d intended.

“He knows everyone who lives here, and we have no idea!”

Stop. Interrupting. ME. I stare at her, in silent fury, feeling my face and ears begin to burn with the familiar red of shame and anger that often colors them, and I grit my next words out through my teeth.

“Yes. I know that. That’s WHY we need a census. How many people attend services, how many of them LIVE here, these are things we need to know and if you do the census we will –”

“So that’s why I need his help!”

– Not need Declan for that anymore… I take a deep, bracing breath, trying not to tighten my grasp on Seren or Rhapsody in response to my anger and embarrassment. “Mimi, I need Declan to –”

“And I don’t want you to take up all his time, you know?” Mimi continues, as though I hadn’t spoken, “I mean, he is kinda my boyfriend now.”

For a moment, the frustration peaks into a blinding white fury, and I stare at Mimi, incredulous, unable to wrap my mind around how she could, in any way, believe that sex with Declan is somehow more important than the lives of dozens of children who are being extorted, abused, or worse even as we speak. I watch her, hot, indignant anger seething off my posture, and then I chance a glance at Declan – he looks on edge, unsure. He shouldn’t be unsure. I’m supposed to be his leader… Mimi’s, too. I take a deep, deep breath, letting the heat run from me in a sigh, and look back at Mimi.

“Mimi, I understand the importance of love, and family, and intimacy, more than… probably any other person you could talk to,” I say, shuddering at the very memory of the… edge upon which I’d stood on a few months ago. The dreams and thoughts and desperation I would rather never think of again. “But there are KIDS out there, Mimi, who need us. Their lives at are stake, the faithful’s future is at stake. I am happy for you and Declan, but… we must be able to prioritize.”

“Well, I know…” Mimi mumbles, looking at the ground.

“Don’t worry Mimi, you can have all my nights,” Declan assures her, taking her hand and then turning toward me with what I hope to be an approving nod. “But yes, Cheshire, I will be happy to look into this organization for you during the day.”

“Thank you, Declan,” I nod back at him as Mimi makes her way into the paper room, and hope he doesn’t notice me cringe at her next shrill exclamation.

“THERE’S NOT EVEN ANY INK IN HERE!?”

“Go… buy some?” Declan says, scooting towards a neighboring room, as though to make his escape from this disaster while he still can. “Oh, and by the way, Cheshire?”

“Yes, Declan?” I sigh out the words as I watch his guilty-looking inching through the door.

“We’re…. Maybe…. A little in debt!” He says hurriedly, slamming the door and disappearing behind it before I can even get out a response.

“Declan! Wait… how.. much… in debt?” I put my head in my free hand, shaking it softly as I resist yet another sigh, and look down at Seren, who cocks his head at me curiously.

“One crisis at a time, Seren,” I mumble to my infant son, as though that was somehow better than to myself, “one crisis at a time…”

~

The rest of the day is comparatively quiet, Nerida and Ulkair spend much of it preparing for the spell he must cast on her tomorrow, I see neither Loin or Selene so much as once, Caspian appears to be recovering well but spends most of her time in bed, and I only see her once in passing as she ventures out for food. Alix I find in the kitchens, drinking in a silence that suddenly seems so heavy I’m not sure Nerida could lift it, or Ooze could break it, for that matter, but I try anyway.

“Um.. Alix?” I murmur, peering cautiously at him as I take a seat.

“Hm?” is the only response I get, and he throws back another swig of what I imagine is awful liquor, but, to be fair, probably much better than whatever he was drinking in Byss.

“Are you alright…?”

“Yes.”

He still hasn’t looked at me, which I find to typically indicate the opposite, but I try to pry into his thoughts and find it distinctly difficult – whether he is successfully shutting me out, or they are too muddled by alcohol, or he is shutting them out, however, I cannot be sure. I feel only an increasing trickle of bitterness, and more of the nagging sensation I’d felt before, that I should be doing… something. Anything.

“Are you sure?” I press, and finally he pries his eyes from the counter space in front of him to look at me.

“Yes.”

His voice is flat, and so are his eyes, but the bags under them are much more pronounced than they had been even yesterday. He must not have slept at all, as if the little rest he got since coming to Sigil was enough to begin with. I want to press, but his tone leaves no room for argument – whatever is wrong, he’s not going to talk to me about it right now, and it seems he wants to be left alone.

“A-Alright,” I mumble, awkwardly placing a hand on his shoulder as I scoot from my seat, “I’ll just… leave you to it, then.”

I leave Alix to his drink, as much I would have liked to pry him from it, and decide to dedicate my afternoon to investigating these ‘sensates’ that I’m supposed to be wary of. Ooze seems to think they are a flighty, unreliable sort, obsessed with change and new feelings or trends, and if a third of our faithful are like this, well… it doesn’t bode well for us, but perhaps something could be done about them. If I have to wander the planes, perhaps I can persuade them to come with me, and use their desire for new experiences to our advantage. Of course, I have to spread the word and love of Tubatron across said planes, and perhaps a bunch of fickle minded followers are not the best way to do that.

It doesn’t take long chatting with the bards in the halls to come upon a group of sensates, which is not surprising, as one in every three of them belongs to this… way of life, I suppose. They are a nice enough sort, all of whom seem quite ready and willing to answer my questions, though they admit that most of their brethren have one foot out the door already. I spend much of my evening conversing with them and others, and secure the certain loyalty of a small handful of them – five, of the hundred or so who are members of our temple. It wasn’t exactly much, but at least it was a start.

By the time I am done with the sensates, the boys are both fussing, Seren whines and pulls at fistfuls of my hair, hungry and, apparently, tired of his exhausting day of being carried around on my errands. I bid my followers goodbye and head back to my room to take care of the babies. Ulkair and Nerida are nowhere to be found – likely in the fortress with Rolfe or on an errand in the city, it’s just as well, although I’d have liked an extra pair of hands to help with the boys, the music hall seems to be stifling for Nerida, and I’m sure whatever they’re doing is a better option than idly waiting and worrying about her tag.

Once the boys have settled down, I debate returning to the kitchens for food, but I can see the sleep in their eyes, and every yawn seems more and more contagious. I dare not take them on another trip through the music hall when they’re ready to sleep, and my restless night seems to catch up with me quickly in the form of heavy, aching limbs and an insurmountable desire to stay in bed, so I stay, curling up around my sons protectively, and drifting into an uneasy slumber.

~

When I wake next, it is to Seren’s fussing and hair pulling, and Nerida and Ulkair are asleep beside me. The room is dark, at least as dark as it ever gets in Sigil, so I suppose I must have slept for at least a couple of hours. I shift ever so slightly to allow Seren to nurse, and try to coax myself back to sleep while I am exhausted, and all my worries haven’t had the chance to catch up with me, but the growling and writhing of my stomach allows no such rest. I gingerly crawl from my space between Nerida and Ulkair, an action which I admit takes much too much undignified flailing, and tuck Rhapsody into Nerida’s arms.

Seren gives me an indignant look, as the jostling did nothing for the ease of his meal, and thus, his sleepy temperament. I sigh, kissing his forehead and draping a spare shirt over my shoulder to cover him and my exposed breast as I wander from our room, and down the halls for food. It is once again, no easy task, and I say a silent prayer of thanks for my keen vision in the dark, lest I step on quite a few of the faithful.

There must be a better option than this. I lament silently, watching as the sleeping bards shift on the floors. It seemed a very great number of the faithful must call this hall their home for so many to be sleeping in the halls, with what seemed to be their few earthly possessions scattered around them. It seemed the sooner we found a new home, the better, so after I’ve eaten, I return to my room, and rummage through Ulkair and Nerida’s things for some of their books on the planes. I sit in the corner of the room with Seren to read, and make it through perhaps three pages before I am fast asleep once more.

~

Day Nine

When I open my eyes, waking once more for my morning prayers, I am back in bed with the both of the boys in my arms, though whether I zombie-crawled my way into it to feed Rhapsody at some bizarre hour, or Nerida found me asleep on the floor and moved me, I have no idea. Still, I give the boys over to Nerida and Ulkair, and crawl from the bed, fixing myself in the mirror and picking up Ragnarok to go and raise my daily praise to Tubatron.

In spite of having eaten in the middle of the night, my hunger prevents me from dallying after my prayers, and I hurry to the kitchens for food once more. Alix is already up, it seems, sitting at a table in the far corner, drink in hand and pages of his book in front of him. In the hopes that he might be in slightly better spirits this morning, I grab some food and go to take a seat by him, peering over at the carefully inked illustrations – demons. His compendium on monster slaying nearly complete, I suppose he needed a new project, but this one seemed…. Painful.

“Good morning?” I prod hopefully, sliding my plate toward him in offering, “looks like your book is coming along?”

“Yes, our recent adventures have given me a lot of material to process. I’m thinking of breaking up my one book into several, now. The unique danger posed by demons seems to merit its own… treatise.”
“Have you slept at all since we got back?” I ask, looking over the illustrations on the table once again, “these look… detailed.”

“I… no, not much.” Alix takes a drink from his tankard, and rubs his eyes. “I know I should, but… I need to get this all down while it’s fresh. Before…” He trails off, staring over his other shoulder. “Anyway, what do you need to do today, little one?”

“Well, Ooze wasn’t kidding when he said I had lifetimes of work ahead of me, and were it not for those kids… I’d say we should all take a breather and spend our days trying to recover from…”

I thumb through a couple of the illustrations, chewing over my words until a particular monstrosity catches my eyes. The “Nalfeshnee”, it’s apparently called, the beast like demon that afflicted us with those horrible illusions… I shudder, laying the other sketches over it and shake my head.

“…this, because that work isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. You know… I understand if you don’t want to talk about it, but I don’t think you’re at risk of forgetting anything that happened in the Abyss, in fact…. it maybe seems like you’re trying to."

“I… try to forget some things, and remember others in exquisite detail, Cheshire. The… the alcohol helps with one. Not closing my eyes helps with the others. Dreams… nightmares… change what happened in my mind, muddling the memory,” Alix responds slowly, careful not to look at me.

“You told me dreams have no power over the waking world, except what we give them….” I reach across the table to rest my hand over Alix’s, “I know it’s not that simple, but… I’m worried if you don’t get some rest soon, those nightmares will start becoming your reality.”

“I know, Cheshire. You’re right. But we must still experience those dreams, and they will change my memory of what happened. And for the sake of even one person who might read my work and be kept safer from the dangers we’ve faced than we were when we faced them, I owe them the most accurate and truthful portrayal of these monsters, especially the demons, these nightmares made flesh,” Alix practically pleads with me, trying to help me understand why he’s driven to write.

“I… no one should have to wonder if this demon is going to explode, or what kind of horror is going to come out of that dragon’s mouth. So many people have a portion of the truth, know something about some of the monsters they face, but then they die. They die and their knowledge is lost. So many die, Cheshire, and yet I never have. So how can I sleep when I could be writing?” Alix takes another drink, and finally looks at me. “And I know I shouldn’t drink, but I can’t keep the horror at bay while I work without it.”

Alix’s words rattle in my head, weighing heavily on me as I try to process everything he’s said, but one phrase continues to crawl its way to the surface above all the others ‘So many die, Cheshire, and yet I never have.’

Why do you say that like it’s a bad thing…?

I force myself to loosen my grip on Alix’s hand, which I realize had gotten a bit too tight, and take a deep breath – a gasp of air before the plunge.

“What can I do to help?” I ask finally, giving up the senseless endeavor of trying to overcome a lifetime of reasoning in a single morning in favor of a more practical solution.

“I know this is important Alix, I don’t want to stop you, I think… you’re doing what no one else could, and it’s amazing work. I just don’t want… your drive to help others to hurt you. We don’t know what’s around the corner, we don’t know what we’re going to face trying to save these kids, and if you’re not able to recoup from the Abyss… Look, I was there, too, maybe… my memories could help keep you grounded? Like… you always do for me. I know… I know how easy it is to make things… bigger or worse in your mind, but maybe between the two of us, we could find some compromise between no sleep and accuracy?"

Alix smiles, a small one, true, but a smile nevertheless. “Yes, Cheshire, I suppose we could. Perhaps… perhaps you could write for me for a bit, and then I’ll rest. I’m almost done, with this part, and with your help I’m sure it can only be better.”

“Sounds like a plan,” I smile at Alix, releasing his hand and getting to my feet. “I’ll get you some breakfast.”

I get some food for Alix, and some more for myself, and take my seat next to him once again. I spend most of our meal reading over his notes and the entries he’s completed, or mostly completed, to make sure my writing will match his. I hadn’t expected to be trusted with such an important task, but I undertake it happily – glad both for the clearly displayed faith Alix has in me, and for the chance that he might get some rest.

~

When I get back to our room, I am surprised to find Ulkair alone, flipping through the pages of the book I’d fallen asleep reading.

“Oh, good morning Ulkair… where’s Nerida?”

”She went to speak with Loin, I believe… Doing some light reading?”

Loin? What in the world for?

Nerida always seemed to have a distinct lack of patience for Loin and his Eadro-given task to protect her, so for her to seek him out seemed strange. Of course, if Ulkair knew anymore about the subject, I’m sure he’d have mentioned it, so instead of prodding further, I give him a sheepish smile, scratching the back of my head.

“Well… I was trying to. I fell asleep about two pages in,” I admit, “it might have helped if it wasn’t the middle of the night but…. I’m also in a little over my head. That’s maybe.. why I was hoping you’d help me study. I barely know where to even begin.”

The glimmer in Ulkair’s eyes seems to say ‘I thought you’d never ask’, and if it had been anyone else, I’d have said he was much too terribly excited at the prospect of study or teaching, but Ulkair… I’m not sure he has a greater passion than the pursuit of knowledge, and being the guiding hand on the road of questioning everything you thought you knew.

“When would you like to begin?” He beams at me, and I smile back, suddenly much more confident in this endeavor than I had been before.

“I uh, well, no time like the present, right?” I ask, wiggling my way into his lap as I do. “So… Ooze says gods usually live in the outer planes, what makes them so great? Apparently they’re crowded.”

“They are,” he says, “many gods live in the neutral outer planes, but some of the upper planes are the most desirable places in the multiverse. Paradises, where everything from gods and their petitioners or followers to wealthy and immortal beings congregate.”

I make a face – the idea of being crammed into some space, no matter how lovely, with a bunch of rich, old, stuffy people and ancient gods or beings who thought they were better than me hard to imagine as anything but miserable. Ulkair laughs, placing a kiss on my scrunched up nose and picks up one of the books I’d rummaged, flipping through it for passages about these paradises, written by scholars older and wiser than me, and they all seemed to think they were great.

“Do you see?” He asks, and I shrug a bit. Elysium, Celestia, Ysgard – they didn’t seem so much better or different than Byss. Why shouldn’t a prime be just as suitable? Perhaps sensing my debate, Ulkair wraps his arms around me, breathing a soft sigh against my neck before he begins to speak in Elysian. I shudder, helplessly leaning into his embrace as his words wrap my mind in the expanse of the universe, and the world around us falls away. He builds palaces, paradisal sloping hills of the greenest grass, a gentle breeze to sweep my bangs from my forehead, it’s beautiful, and somehow.. more serene than Byss, more… Patient. Eternal. Like the mortal planes can never be…

Their beauty is fleeting I guess…. Like ours. I shift to lay my arms over his, mulling over this new found understanding, and whether or not that is the only reason gods cannot live on prime planes, when Nerida enters our room, and the last of the Elysian words melt away back into reality.

“I just wanted to let you know I’ll be gone for a day or so,” she announces, and I blink up at her. Nerida has scarcely ever gone somewhere without me for a day or more, but for the occasional visit to the Coastal City in Byss, and she’s certainly never made such a journey without Ulkair by her side.

“Where are you going?”

She comes to sit next to us and pulls me from Ulkair’s lap to her own, grinning and hiding a giggle in my hair as she nuzzles me.

“It’s a secret,” she hums, and I lean back to give her sudden lovey actions my most suspicious look. A secret? She’s leaving for a day or two and isn’t even telling us where? That must’ve been what she’d been speaking to Loin about but… what could she possibly be willing to tell him that she wouldn’t tell me?

“But…would planar traveling be a bad idea with this mark on me?” She adds, looking to Ulkair.

“Well,” he begins, his brow knitting in a frown, “no, technically planar traveling should make it harder for them to track you.”

“Oh, good!” Nerida practically chirps, kissing us each quickly on the cheek before getting to her feet.

“Wait,” Ulkair objects, getting to his feet as well – likely to stop what appears to be Nerida’s hasty, and bizarrely cheerful retreat, “why?”

“In case I fall through a portal walking through Sigil!” Nerida dismisses, making her way toward the door as I stand as well.

Planar travel again? So soon after we got back, and with so much to do here? My mind objects frantically, trying to nail down any reason as to why she’d just… flit off to another plane with no explanation, and when there was so much riding on our work here and now. Why is she acting so… weird?

Ulkair’s frown hasn’t let up any, and he takes her hand.

“Is Lóin going with you?” He asks, and Nerida nods but rolls her eyes as she responds.

“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.”

“Nerida, you’re leaving for two days and you can’t even tell us where you’re going?” I try to reason, and she waves her hand, dismissing me.

“Don’t worry about it!”

I feel a tiny spark of anger worm its way into my heart, and my brow knits in response – we almost died two days ago on an errand across the planes. I’m fairly sure that I… I did, for a moment. How can she just… brush me off like this? Brush us off? Even putting aside my own hope that Nerida would have been here to help with the babies and my studies, with all that happened, and all that still stood on the horizon, this was no time for games or secrets.

“Oh, but… if I’m in a different plane, I won’t be able to feel you, will I?” Nerida says, turning a sad gaze back to Ulkair. “Perhaps I can make it just one day…”

Well, at least how Ulkair feels matters. I try not to let the bitterness of the thought sour me entirely, and as Nerida wraps her arms around us again, I puff out a small sigh.

“Be safe,” I mumble against her, surrendering the fruitless desire to understand why she is leaving, or where to.

If Nerida is going to run off to another plane without us, at the very least I wouldn’t want a fight to be the last thing between us before she leaves, in case… I shake the thought from my head – surely she wouldn’t be acting so… giddy if she thought this trip would lead her into peril.

Of course, we never know around what corner peril may lie, do we?

“Of course, I can hold my own and I won’t be alone,” Nerida says, nuzzling my hair again, “try not to burn down Sigil while I’m gone, you two.”

I glance to Ulkair, who does not seem as concerned or confused as I am, so perhaps there’s more to this than I understand. It would be a lie to pretend I wasn’t at least… disappointed that Nerida was leaving, but she is not beholden to me, or my will, nor is she required to aid me in any task, no matter how dire. I suppose I simply… assumed she would, and that was wrong.

“No promises,” Ulkair says, chuckling lightly as he strokes the side of Nerida’s face in his typical manner, “but… do be careful, love.”

Nerida tightens her grasp, holding onto us in silence for a few moments, in which my mind turns things over, desperately trying to think of anything that made her sudden departure make sense. What could possibly be so important? I had thought that when things with the abyss calmed down, Nerida would help me with…

All these tasks you’re not even close to qualified for? My mind finishes, and I try not to let the words sting, biting back at them with the quickest defense I can muster. Alright, so maybe I was wrong to assume Nerida’s interests and my own were aligned, but maybe I wasn’t! This must just be… really important!

The words sound weak even in my head, but still, if she would leave knowing we may have to move at any moment in defense of these children’s lives, this task that is calling her away must be urgent, and as such I suppose it would take precedence over helping me to establish a home for the faithful, or… any of the other things I desperately need her support and help with. It’s not that she doesn’t care, I assure myself, merely that there must still be more pressing worries. Of course, if this were so worrisome, why wouldn’t she let us go with her? Tell us what’s happening? Nerida can be a bit of a lone wolf, but usually only when she’s upset, and that doesn’t seem to be the case here…

Nerida pulls away, breaking my train of thought with a kiss to the forehead before she grabs her bag and leaves our room – leaving no more space or time for debate. I look at Ulkair, a hint of worry still lingering in his eyes.
“Ulkair?” I pry, unable to stop the storm of swimming theories and emotions in my mind, “you’re in her head… what’s this about?”

“Hmm, I’m not entirely sure,” he hums thoughtfully, peering after our wayward lover, “but Nerida is very capable, and she’ll be in good company. It may have to do with our trip to the Elemental Plane of Earth.”

A soft smile tugs at Ulkair’s lips as he muses – there was certainly more to that trip than resurrecting a dragon, then, but I’m sure if Ulkair knew the extent of Nerida’s errand, he would tell me. Reluctantly, I look back at the pile of books to return to our studies. At least Ulkair didn’t seem too terribly concerned, so whatever this secret Nerida has is, it must not be a bad one. Ulkair sits beside me, and I crawl into his lap, opening the book I’d started on the planes and thumbing through it. Even with what he’d shown and told me of the outer planes, as magnificent and beautiful as they were, something didn’t seem right. They weren’t… enough.

There had to be something better, something more.. unique. I scan the pages for key words, anything about music, or undiscovered territory, or something extraordinary, anything that catches my eye, but page after page, nothing does. Eventually Ulkair’s hand comes to rest on the pages of the book, ceasing my search, and he rests his chin on my head.

“What exactly are you searching for, love?” He asks, perhaps hoping to narrow the incredibly broad field of study into which we are supposed to be jumping, and I sigh.

“I don’t… know, exactly.” I pout, tilting my head to look up at him, “something amazing?”

He tilts his head at me, his eyebrows knitting as if to say ‘I just wove all the paradisaical outer planes around you what more are you looking for’ as he regards me.

“My darling, most gods… live in the Outlands, the neutral planes,” he offers, “Tubatron is a neutral god, is he not?”

“Well… yes, but.. what if that’s… not good enough?”

“For the gods for whom that’s not good enough, there are the upper planes, the paradisaical places that I showed you, but… as you have said, they are crowded.”

I shake my head – we could muscle into territory if we had to, but space wasn’t the problem, no it was something else… They were too… too…

“Boring,” I mumble, “what if those are too boring?”

“Well…” Ulkair looks at me strangely, scratching his head, “well, I suppose you have the lower and evil planes, where… all the evil gods live. They are often chaotic.”

The only response I can muster is a disgusted face, and he sighs, perhaps beginning to theorize that my love of Byss is skewing my perspective. He takes my hands in his and continues his explanation.

“Gods can’t live on the primes,” he says, “where there is infinite variety.”

I sigh, nodding my acknowledgment of this fact, and wrack my brain for another solution – there must be one.
“Ooze said… there are places in the planes that are… Empty?” I ask, finally starting to come around to the information for which I think I have been fishing all this time. “Places where… you can just… create?”

“Pocket dimensions, yes,” Ulkair begins slowly, nodding, “or, even pocket planes, as we call them.”

“That’s what… Elysia was, right?” I ask – I’d heard him refer to it in such a manner in all of his and Nerida’s studies I was certain. But even being a ‘pocket plane’, it was large, and grand, and Tubatron had hoped to make his home there…

“Elysia was… a bit more complicated than that,” Ulkair says his tone hesitant, regarding me cautiously as he follows my train of thought, “but essentially, yes… I suppose… You could create a space for Tubatron. But… the power and energy that it would take to make it big enough… would be… extraordinary.”

“Like… the plane of positive energy kind of energy?” I offer, and I think he must see the light in my eyes growing as he speaks, because he continues, as though he is certain I don’t understand the measure of power to which he refers.

“Cheshire… Like, the planes… would need to stop, for a moment, in awe, kind of energy.”

I feel a spark bubbling in my soul, forming quickly from a nudge, an urge, into a concrete certainty – that. What he just said. That is what Tubatron needs. An open space in the multiverse, an empty stage on which to play and make all the planes and all the gods stop in awe of his presence. This is Tubatron’s plan. I don’t know how, I don’t know when, but this is the path, and I have to figure out how to walk it.

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*:・゚✧ 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 breathe 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.

I haven’t spent any real amount of time alone with Nerida in… a year? Not since the night that Ulkair and Byss were freed. So much has changed since then, it’s all so… complicated and hard, but these moments I spend hand in hand with Nerida take me back. Back to Byss, back to our friendship, our lives before gods, and demons, and fate crushed down on our every action. I never thought anything would be as hard as surviving that first week in Byss was — I had no idea it seems, but Nerida… she was there, she was my ally, even when I was wrong. The memories punish me, hanging in the air around me as a taunt — I wouldn’t have made it without her, I won’t make it without her. I finally have the chance to rekindle some of what we have, and I’m going to ruin it. 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, 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, they seem to be back to normal, 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. I can’t let it continue to ruin what would otherwise be wonderful time, just her and I, and… look how much better things worked out when I was willing to talk to Alix. 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 every 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 breathe 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. At least… and meant it. ”

“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, although Tubatron knows 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.

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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..’

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