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 by 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 breath 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 look 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 knight 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.