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Calamity Ascendant - Return of the Black Queen [Berseria/Zestiria]

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Naron, Jan 30, 2021.

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  1. tnt

    tnt Getting sticky.

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    Um feel dumb, but I'm also missing the symbolism here... some nice please give me a hint?
     
  2. Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    That line was a bit tongue-in-cheek from the narration, hinting at what is to come.
     
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  3. Threadmarks: 2.10 Pact
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    Symonne had waited a day before agreeing, if just to appear hesitant. She idly wondered where Velvet stayed to come and go like this, but her thoughts were more focussed on making sense of the weird precautions taken with them. She figured she might as well adhere to them, but did not miss their idiosyncrasy.

    Taking a last breath of the much cleaner air, she dematerialised and settled within Nica. Her senses numbed somewhat, direction being relegated to only vision and hearing; then only hearing, as the elder's eyes were covered by a blindfold. "The air feels different," Velvet commented while rustling around doing something. "There is a domain around Ladylake now, isn't it?"

    Her bit of conversation drew a chuckle from Nica; Symonne already knew why, not that she could chime in right now. Nica said about the same thing, anyway. "The gentle shepherd returned to town just earlier today and introduced a new Lord of the Land, so- "Eight headed is the lord of the land- Symonne shuddered and pushed the thought away; she really should not have challenged Laphi to read that book out loud. She missed the rest of what was said outside until she heard her name: "Are you alright in there, Symonne?"

    Nica's question distracted her a little, which was why she focussed on it; the other two Normin pulsed something akin to worry as well, which told her enough about how noticeable that shudder of hers was. "I'm fine."

    "...if you say so. Lead on, sweetie."

    What followed were dull minutes of nothing but sounds. Symonne still weaved a light illusion on Nica's request, to make it seem to passersby as if her eyes were not bound to prevent undue attention. She sometimes felt seraphim nearby, but they moved on with the crowd. The noise of said crowd grew more quiet as time went on, then almost vanished entirely. It should not do that in the middle of day, she knew; perhaps they left Ladylake?

    The fact she could soon feel enough mana ahead to constitute several seraphim was puzzling. Symonne tried to strain her senses further, but failed to pick up much from any of the individual people. They closed in, no words were exchanged for some reason, and then even more mana flared right in front of her. Just what was this all?

    A lurching sensation later, she figured whatever happened was done. Except that Velvet told Nica to keep walking, on and on and on... until it was time. "You can come out, Symonne." She did just that immediately, a deep curiousity burning within her now. Who were these people really, who were those seraphim, what was that arte she definitely felt acting up?

    More importantly however, why was she in Lastonbell?!

    The architecture was different, more rustic than Ladylake's smooth surfaces and channels. She could have mistaken it for a different part of town, but Lake Perniya was nowhere to be seen. The royal castle was gone. And there was a belltower on full display. Only a single one of which existed on the entire continent, at least one of such magnificence. Lastonbell lay two months' worth of ceaseless travel distant from Ladylake. They should not be here.

    Symonne discreetly created a needle from her mana and rammed it into her thigh; pain flared through the appendage and she had to suppress her instinctual reaction to heal it immediately. Yet even as her body throbbed and wavered, she found the scene around her unchanged. Unless someone she never heard about displayed illusions more potent than her own, which not even enough force or pain could dispel, this truly was Lastonbell. The only ritual she even knew of that could create such an illusion had been forgotten for a millennium, with herself being the only one who still even knew of its existence.

    Velvet began to walk and Symonne followed almost numbly, her astonishment plain for all to see. Nica chuckled, having taken off the blindfold and looking around the city. "It has been a while since I was here, sweetie."

    "I'm not surprised." Velvet huffed, then exchanged greetings with a group of men walking past. Then a gaggle of children. A lot of people seemed to know her here, Symonne noted even through her befuddlement. Rounding the first corner since her emergence and finding a knight approach Velvet to chat, Symonne forced herself to think. What kind of arte did she know that would allow such travel?

    The answer was simple: only one. A lost arte, a powerful arte, an arte so potent she wished she could just refuse the reality she was staring at. But it remained, unchallenged. She had woken up in Ladylake, now she stood in Lastonbell. Nothing but a gate of travel allowed this. Which, now that she thought about it, made a lot of odd little things form a coherent picture. She never ran into Laphicet on her walks, yet suddenly he showed up on Nica's doorstep. The same with Velvet. Both of them kept appearing and disappearing while apparently doing something in the interim. Velvet's mysterious prodigy whom Hyaci never heard about, it all made sense with this.

    She had to learn more. Did Velvet find those two connecting gates and learned to use them? No, Symonne discarded that last part immediately. If anyone, Laphi did. The better question was whether these were the only gates they had, or if there were more. Where those potentially existing gates led.

    Perhaps it was intuition, perhaps just paranoia, but Symonne felt certain that there was more to this than just two artes left over from the Age Of The Gods.

    Her thoughts kept racing for several more blocks; she ignored most of the conversation as it was just chatter and Nica having fun by playing grandma as usual. She considered her options, but found herself not feeling threatened; if anything, she was truly just burning with curiousity how all of this could be. Odd. Perhaps, she reasoned, an existing network of teleportation artes would benefit her own work. Would benefit the cause. That might just be it.

    In time, as noon approached again because Lastonbell lay further east than Ladylake, she was led to a fenced off backyard; above it towered a building that dominated the street it stood on, which appeared familiar to Symonne. She could not tell where she saw it before, though. Most of her memories from before meeting Nica were fuzzy at best, another change she had yet to fully understand. Velvet produced a key and opened the door in that fence, then led the other two inside. Into the house and up a staircase, into something that looked like a living room, if with most of the furniture pushed aside. Symonne idly studied the few personal effects in place, a single painting of a bowl of fruit, some flowers carefully tended to, and a pair of knit socks halfway to completion.

    Those were all the impressions she could gather before they reached that room, where two people were already waiting for them. One was Laphicet, smiling at her the moment their eyes met; Symonne could not help but feel a little more at ease, knowing she had a friend here in whatever she got herself into.

    The other was a young woman, one whom Symonne would not have pegged for fourteen, had she not known. Knowing her age, she noticed the few traces of a yet not fully mature body that remained after her puberty. They were well hidden, with the usual clumsiness of growing rapidly or the influence of her still developing sexuality completely absent. As if she were older, far older. A calm gaze she had, meeting Symonne's lilac eyes evenly with her bright blue pair. Her peripheral vision provided the fact this girl wore a sword strapped to her waist, then Symonne noticed the pendant. Her clothes were plain greys and browns otherwise, so the somewhat intricate carving hanging from her neck stood out a bit, as did her bright blonde hair.

    Symonne could not tell at a glance what kind of motif it was supposed to be, so she discarded the notion for now. She had no real time for more observations anyway, seeing how the momentary silence began to drag. The girl wilted somewhat, but then she took a deeper breath and bowed her head politely. "I was already told of your arrival, it is a great pleasure to meet you both. My name is Margaret, and I have been studying the blade under Velvet."

    Symonne added a way of speaking that stood at odds with usual peasant vocabulary to the pile of inconsistencies; they normally would have bugged her, but she already knew the answer.

    Meanwhile, Nica darted forward at speed and cooed. "My, such a proper young lady! Velvet already told me so much of you, sweetie, but you are even more adorable in person!" Margaret blinked, obviously bewildered by the sudden praise; Symonne chuckled quietly while Velvet snorted, neither of them even trying to stop the elder from her usual spiel.

    Making use of the moment, she took a step toward Velvet; Laphi did much the same and Symonne threw a raised eyebrow to him primarily. "A gate of travel? How did you get your hands on something like that?"

    The boy made a bit of a face and sighed. "Figures you would put two and two together. Is now the time to say it?" he asked toward his sister, who did not answer him. "I take that as a yes. So, Velvet, 'I told you so'." A pause, followed by a huff. "Feels weird to say that myself."

    Symonne did not need to ask clarification to understand who had the idea with the blindfold. Instead she nudged her friend with a little smile. "What, is it usually you who gets that one?"

    "More than you can imagine," Velvet muttered in response. Then she shook her head. "The gate of travel, well. We found one and Laphi figured out how to operate it." So about as expected.

    "And how to make more," Laphi added with a grin. "We put a few up during our travels last year." So about what she feared.

    Yet, this opened another question Symonne really should have asked earlier. She focussed on Laphi now, feeling actually inquisitive for the first time in a while. "You allegedly learned Ancient Avarost on your own and are capable of not only operating but also replicating a lost arte. How did I never hear of you before?" Due to her focus, she failed to notice the Normin exchanging glances and Margaret's attention turning to her.

    Laphi opened his mouth to speak, but then he faltered and frowned deeply. Symonne waited, a bit of worry about maybe pushing too far somewhere in the back of her mind quickly silenced; he would be fine.

    Velvet then put a hand on his head and looked at Symonne with a curious lack of emotion. "Because we lived in a little village of three dozen souls, far away from where anyone would hear about him."

    She made to ask, but stopped herself. Something about this was off, in a way she knew she should not poke but forgot why exactly. A moment passed before the memory sparked in her mind, of how seraphim were sometimes born from the death of a human. And these not only acted as siblings, they were. The picture was clear enough. "I see. I'm sorry for bringing that up." She actually was sorry, too. It had been a while, Symonne realised; she never minded pushing people into their issues to see whether they broke or grew. Yet here, she had nothing to gain from doing so; she did not want to hurt her first friend, either. Thoughts she decided to examine later, but which she would forget to ever get back to.

    Taking a deep breath, Symonne took Velvet's nod for forgiveness and turned to Margaret, who was eyeing her curiously again. "Now, let's see what we have here." She strolled forward, right into Margaret's personal space; the girl leaned back a little when Symonne tiptoed to get even closer. Her cheek warmed in a heartbeat when the seraph girl cupped it with one hand, studying her; there were more signs of youth up close, traces of acne that still persisted but were hidden away under strategically placed strands of hair.

    Symonne remained in that pose for an amount of time she knew was uncomfortable for Margaret, trying not to laugh and not to draw it out too long. She was trying to get the human girl's measure. to see how far she could go to fluster her without creeping her out. The thoughtful noises she made as she 'examined' Margaret might have helped a little bit.

    When she decided it was enough, Symonne went for the finishing blow. "So you are the girl I heard about," she opened and ran a thumb over Margaret's cheek, then let go and took two steps back with a sly grin. Margaret did not blush noticeably, though what little could be seen of her ears under that pretty hair seemed rather red. Symonne chuckled over how much she fidgeted. "I have the feeling we will have a lot of fun together."

    "That was her only concern?"

    Velvet probably had not meant to say it that loud, but Symonne heard and threw her a wink. "Not the only one, but it's a good start." Margaret had begun to pout at this point, cheeks puffed out and arms folding up. "A journey means I don't have a Laphi to tease, and here we have a fine substitute to suit my needs."

    She winked at Laphi as well for good measure, who averted his gaze despite not being the focus of her teasing. Velvet just huffed while Nica cackled, a wrinkled hand ruffling Symonne's hair. "Now, don't be too hard on the girl, yes? She is still young."

    "I would much appreciate that," Margaret mumbled from the side. Still, she did not refuse her after the revelation, so either she had been given ahead warning, or this was more important to her than a bit of embarassment. Symonne could work with either of those.

    "Don't worry too much, it's not fun if I do it all the time." Else she would have gone for an enthusiastic hug to greet Laphi; on second thought, that was an opportunity she wasted today.

    Margaret sighed softly and shook her head. "It is just as well," she ultimately told them, gaze still on Symonne. "Some embarassment won't kill me and if it keeps you happy, I will bear with it." She held out a hand to shake, which the seraph girl took a moment later; she admittedly felt a little bad about it now, with how ernest Margaret was about the whole thing. Symonne made a mental note to go a bit easier on her for a while.

    Curiously, Margaret had a rather firm grip for a human girl. Symonne took note of that but missed how her partner-to-be thought much the same in that moment. The others had retreated somewhat and left them to get acquainted, which Symonne made use of to focus on Margaret. It was time to figure her out and how she compared to Shepherd Sorey. "I'm curious. You wish to travel, but what will you do when we are attacked by hellions? Especially those who were once human and could be restored by the shepherd?"

    Margaret's smile faded and was replaced by a soft frown as she considered. Due to her focus, Symonne could tell the moment she was done deliberating; her shoulders tensed and straightened, the contemplative expression made way for determination. "Any hellion that was not once human, I would cut down with your aid. For any other, it depends on whether they can be reasoned with; those who do evil knowingly, I would also destroy. The rest, I would leave be for the shepherd to cleanse."

    "Interesting." Both the answer itself and the seriousness that was so unusual for a teen. "Why is that? Wouldn't you want to save everyone?"

    She got a hollow laugh in response. "Not everyone can be saved at the same time and you know that as well as I do." Symonne did. "Sometimes, in choosing to aid one, another is forsaken. I can only try to save as many as possible and weed out whoever would threaten them."

    "You don't sound happy."

    "Just because it has to be done doesn't mean I have to like it."

    She was beginning to see what Velvet saw in this girl; the desire to make this world better, the heart to see it through, and an unwavering conviction to take on even the world itself to make it change. Yet at the same time, even with memories of another life, this girl was yet raw material. A will never challenged was not strong, merely consistent; a heart never hit was not unbroken, merely whole.

    Margaret was much like Shepherd Sorey in that they both held a strong purity. She was quite different from him in many other ways. Like him, she would need to prove herself and not break on the challenges ahead. Unlike Sorey, whom Symonne and Nica agreed would have his convictions tested severely before this was over, she saw Margaret passing those tests with distinction. More than that, she wanted to see her pass them. Or, in the event she broke, to be present if it happened.

    Breathing slowly, Symonne nodded. Her decision was mostly made at this point. "One last thing I am curious about right now. What exactly is your goal?"

    A long pause followed as the two girls stared at each other; Margaret twitched a little, seeming to pick the words to speak. Once she had them ready, she began slowly, surely: "My goal, right now, is undetermined in the short term. I need to learn more about this world first and help who I can on the way. After that however, I already know that I wish to become Maotelus' pactkeeper."

    Silence reigned after her declaration; Symonne faintly noticed Nica's grin over the girl's boldness from her peripheral vision. She wondered what she should say about this; Maotelus was as good as fallen, corrupted by Heldalf and forced into submission by Malevolence. Sealed beneath Artorius' Throne, the former grand temple to the Great Lords, now a nest of darkness most foul. Yet it was a goal and an ambitious one at that; Symonne had certainty now, knew that this girl would get involved with Heldalf's plans. Yet her words were so full of conviction that Symonne wanted to aid her anyway; not against the Lord of Calamity, but at least on the first steps of her path. Within her concious mind, she decided to delay reporting on this until it was necessary.

    Her decision made, Symonne decided to end this bit of interrogation. She considered pushing the girl into asking question about her instead of acting as if only Symonne's choice mattered, but knew it would be dishonest. In this moment it was her who held all the cards; if she refused Margaret, there was nothing she could do.

    "Very well. I'm curious how far you will actually go."

    She held out her hand without another word, palm facing up. Margaret beamed and gingerly reached for her, but did not manage to do more than touch before Nica distracted them from the other's warmth.

    "Out with you, children. This isn't a show from here."

    Their attention went to the elder, who shooed Velvet and Laphicet out the door; neither of them complained. Bienfu and Grimoirh returned to their vessel while Nica turned to the two girls. In that moment, the bond Symonne had with her dissolved like water turning to mist, fading away in an instant. Now she felt cold, more so than she ever remembered being. Alone.

    She had changed more than she thought, feeling this distraught over being unbonded.

    Nica strolled over to them with a gentle smile and covered their joined hands with her own. "Even with memories of past pacts, I'm going to run you through it for your first bond in this life," she told Margaret, who nodded and stood silent, eyes on the elder. "You already know the arte to bond with a seraph?"

    "Yes."

    "Good." A glance to Symonne. "No pact name, as before?"

    She rolled her eyes. "True name, as before." Never pact names, never.

    "Very well. Now listen, little Margaret." She squeezed their hands with calm. "A pact between human and seraph traditionally begins with a plea or prayer, if just to assert your goals toward the other. Following that, you cast the bonding arte and allow your chosen partner to tie her mana into it; only then will you receive her true name, at which point the bond establishes with that true name to tie her to you. You can offer a pact name at that stage, but Symonne doesn't want one." Margaret nodded a few times as she listened, but said nothing. In her own mind, Symonne noted that the plea or prayer was for something like them, with neither side having known the other beforehand; bonding with a human one knew well did not require to make one's intentions clear.

    Margaret offered no questions even with prompting, so Nica nodded to herself. "I will take my leave now. The words you speak to each other should remain yours, and no one else's." Her voice was kind, but there was an odd note in it which Symonne could not decipher. She decided to ignore it, figuring it may be wistfulness or something of the like. Perhaps remembrance.

    A few soft steps and the clacking of a door later, they were alone, eyes boring into the respective other's. Margaret stepped back and opened her mouth, but hesitated; with their touch broken, Symonne knew as well that it was time.

    The girl took a deep breath, eyes fluttering closed momentarily. A trickle of mana coursed through her and formed into a spell matrix, circular and silvery. It gently rotated between them, transparent like glass petals. Then she put her hand on it from one side, palm facing Symonne. "I am Margaret Randgriz," she intoned, "and I aspire to turn this world for the better no matter what. To improve the lives of all the people in it, human and seraph alike. No matter how far I have to go, even if it will be ultimately futile. I ask for you to join me as a partner and friend, for however long you wish to be." The mana pulsed with each sentence spoken and a corona of silver formed atop the girl as the arte manifested itself. Symonne could not help but smile over Margaret's earnestness; it was a good plea, in her opinion.

    She put her hand on the other side of that matrix, channeling her own mana into it; there was easily more of it, mixing with Margaret's and turning the 'glass' a navy blue. "For the time being," Symonne answered, "I wish to see where your ambitions may lead you, for many trials await on your path. Your partner I shall be, and friends we may become in time. As such, receive my name, Kyurib Ishuk."

    Her true name rang deeper within Symonne, her spiritual nature bound by it since it had been given to her a millennium ago; the spell matrix began to shine brightly and rotated between their hands, filling with intricate lines as her very nature weaved itself into the arte. Symonne felt herself being drawn into the spell and let it happen; her body lost coherence and flowed forward like a gentle wave, through the 'glass' and into Margaret's hand.

    From there, Symonne spread through the girl's body; she remained concious, her nature adjusting the new vessel to become more sturdy on its own. Within moments, her ears were Margaret's ears, her eyes were Margaret's eyes; she could not see the girl anymore, merely watch and listen through her vessel's senses. Just as with Nica, yet also different. Her mana flooded through every pore of Margaret's body, suffused it, made it more.

    "Kyurib Ishuk."

    Margaret tested the name, her voice sounding different from within. "Symonne of the springs? That is such a beautiful name."

    There was nothing but awe and Symonne simply huffed, knowing that their bond transmitted her voice to Margaret; she felt happy that her name was liked, though. "It doesn't really matter, but I appreciate it. You and I will be together for a while, so... what are you doing?"

    To some surprise on Symonne's side, Margaret had looked at her hands and clenched them to fists a few times, but then immediately made use of her improved mana channels. Most humans only had atrophied ones or none at all, but she apparently knew that channeling mana became easily possible with a seraph. An arte circle formed on top of her palm, gently rotating.

    Symonne recognised it a moment before the arte completed and gentle, white light filled Margaret's eyes. "Testing your old knowledge?" She did not really have to ask, seeing the use of one of the most simple artes in existence, but there was a certain curiousity there. Symonne wanted to know who her new partner had once been.

    Margaret's vision shifted slightly, likely a nod. "Yes, something like that." She paused momentarily and the light winked out as its mana flow was cut off. "Say, would you be up for a little bout before I go down? I would like to see what you're capable of."

    Had Symonne eyes, she would have rolled them in that moment. Children.

    "No need for now, we can do that afterward. Lie down and rest up, that will serve you better." She then left her vessel and formed back into her regular body. "You will be out of it for some time as your body gets used to the adjustments, between one and five days usually."

    "I am aware. Please get along with Velvet and Laphicet in the meantime, okay?"

    Symonne chuckled and winked at Margaret. "It's not my fault he pouts so cutely."

    The other girl joined in her laughter after a moment and they left the room together.
     
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  4. Threadmarks: 2.11 Restful Interim
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    Far to the north, below the ruins of Horsa village, Rodeen Forton was busy cleaning her little chapel. She once again lamented the fact that this room alone was kept pristine, by her, which meant that whenever she or Enid ventured into the rest of van Aifread's base, they had to meticulously clean themselves or drag dust and dirt inside under their tails. Then again, over the months she found that the mindless repetition of cleaning a room had something relaxing to it. It helped center her, push back the bubbling anger. It also gave her time to utter curses about whatever bothered her at the time. Which, in turn, had led to all but the bravest of bandits staying clear of the ominously muttering clergywoman and her chapel outside of the sermons she held.

    While being a lamia had some downsides to her existence however, Rodeen found at least one upside as well, beside her inhuman strength and speed: if she pushed herself to the very tip of her tail, she could reach over three metres in height; with some practice to balance, this allowed to clean even the ceiling without any help. For a woman who was never tall, a whole new world had opened.

    Her peaceful work was interrupted when the arte at the room's head began to glow. A haze formed above and the lamia quickly slithered away, barely stopping herself from cursing whatever seraph was passing through. The first time it happened, she forgot that her Malevolence was dangerous for the seraphim; the sudden fear at her sight was confusing and a little infuriating then, but by now she had kept it firmly in mind. So Rodeen took her distance and waited for who it might be. Perhaps the same woman that met with Aifread the last few times, she did not seem too bothered by the lamia sisters' presence.

    It was a woman indeed, but no seraph. Rodeen needed no esoteric sense for mana to tell. She appeared older than Rodeen remembered, clad in a simple peasant's dress instead of the robes she took to years past, but unmistakable to her nonetheless. They shared the same, slightly aristocratic and gaunt features.

    "R-Runette? It is you, how are you faring?!" She immediately surged closer to meet her little sister, whose attention focussed on her at once. Rodeen's mind caught up to the situation in time and she slowed herself so as to not run Runette over, though the way her blank expression dissolved into a smile calmed her raging heart somewhat. She approached almost carefully now, wanting to embrace her sister but fearing she might break her.

    Yet Rodeen's thoughts did not idle in those moments. She realised that her little sister just walked into a bandit king's hidden base. Through a means of travel only the Bloodwing Butterflies had access to. "You are with the Bloodwings?"

    Runette's response was to wrap her arms around her older sister's shoulders with considerable strength. "Not exactly," she muttered into Rodeen's shoulder. "The Bloodwings are a means to an end, as well as a good ally to have. As for your earlier question, Rodeen." Another squeeze before Runette pulled back and offered her a sly smile. "His holiness the Pope has left for parts unknown a while ago. With his absence and until a new Pope has been selected, I hold power over all of the church."

    That was the little sister she remembered. Rodeen huffed softly and smiled back. "You were always ambitious. Congratulations." She had half a mind to ask for Runette to undo Enid's excommunication, to let them both return home, but she knew it was not right. She knew neither of them truly wanted to go back, either.

    "Thank you." Runette studied over curiously, which made Rodeen painfully aware of how her sister could not even see the changes Malevolence wrought on her; if she could, she would not smile like that. The older Forton lowered herself to the ground fully, just in case her taller sister might notice a difference in height. "How have you fared yourself, sister? The Bloodwings told me life in Horsa was quite the ordeal." A glance went around the room, examining the partly cleaned chapel.

    Rodeen, though, sneered at the memories; all those sheep that expected her to solve their problems. Good riddance. "Horrible is what it was!" she spat, then sighed with a sweeping motion to indicate the general area. "This is... a little better, I think. At least those ruffians don't expect me to solve all their problems, and they attend sermons every once in a while. You never really consider what makes a bandit until you live with them, I guess."

    "I heard that van Aifread is an unusual man," Runette noted thoughtfully. "Those under him are likely the same."

    This time, Rodeen actually laughed. "Quite, such as Enid. She is under him in more ways than one, actually."

    It took Runette a moment to catch her meaning, though she gave little more than a nod. "As long as she is happy?"

    "Happier than she ever was as a nun."

    "Then that is that."

    Her sister took this with a lot more grace than Rodeen herself had; then again, she was always the most measured of the three. "But that aside, Enid is his right hand also. Who would have thought this was her true calling?"

    "Life works in strange ways at times," Runette agreed softly. "Such as the Bloodwing Butterflies, or the gods themselves." Her eyes wandered over Rodeen again, this time from head to tail. "Or Malevolence."

    The older sister went still as she realised. Runette consorted with a group consisting of seraphim. How had she not made the leap before, only understanding now that the younger Forton could, in fact, see her in this scaly form? Wide eyes met calm ones and Rodeen slowly relaxed. "You, you are not bothered by this? By me? Aren't I hideous to you?" Ever since that kind traveler explained the darkness to her, Rodeen had few fears left in life. It seemed at least this one was unfounded, in the end. It was still hard to believe.

    Runette merely shook her head and stepped closer to hold her sister's hands. "It is quite alright. Your scales have quite the beautiful shade of red." A hopeful smile blossomed on Rodeen's face, only to turn into bafflement when her little sister's form contorted and grew; legs melded together with squelching noises, her dress shifted a little as her hips narrowed. Sickly green scales lined her revealed tail and lower body, a few shades darker than grass in Summer.

    "It would be hypocritical of me to detest you," Runette mused out loud while her sister still stared. "For we match. And from what I heard, we make a nice, three-coloured pair of sisters with Enid."

    Rodeen slowly pushed herself up on her tail to stand at even height, reaching out to touch what she saw before her. "H-How?"

    Her hands were not stopped and soon ran over smooth skin, then through almost inhumanly silky hair. Runette smiled softly. "I am told it is a skill all hellions can develop, potentially. With great force of will, we can suppress our outward appearance and regain the human one we lost. Few are capable of becoming proficient in it though; I can try teaching you, but you should not get your hopes up."

    She had seen straight through Rodeen's question; still, it was amazing to know and see nonetheless. "Yes, I remember that traveler telling us about something like that." Then she decided to tease a little and ruffled Runette's hair. "It seems my little sister is quite special."

    Said sister huffed indignantly and slapped her hands away. "Stop that, I'm not a child anymore." Rodeen ruffled her hair again, to an actual squawk. "I said stop! Rodeen!"

    She was laughing. Earnestly, at that. Runette was not so amused and quickly slithered away to get out of her reach. Rodeen almost pursued, but decided this was enough. "Come now, Runette. Let me have this, it has been years since we were together!" The other lamia merely gave her another unamused look that had Rodeen chuckling again.

    "It seems you are doing well indeed."

    Her dry tone almost set the older Forton off once more, but this time she kept it down. "Your arrival made my day a great deal better, is all. I missed you."

    "...as did I."

    Rodeen then clapped her hands, trying not to break into tears as her feelings decided to go on a rollercoaster. She still smiled, though. "Now we will go and find Enid, then take a long slither around town to talk."

    "A 'slither'?"

    "Yes, a slither." Rodeen almost laughed over her sister's incredulity and thumped the ground with her tail for emphasis. "We don't have legs anymore, so calling it a walk feels weird." Runette understood, of course, and palmed her face. This time Rodeen did laugh.

    "Enid came up with that one, didn't she?"

    "You know her so well."

    Still chuckling, the crimson-scaled lamia dragged her green-scaled sibling out of the room, to find their oldest sister.

    Elsewhere, on a mountain far up high, a seraph girl looked out into the distance from the cliff she sat on.

    Edna was bored, like almost every day in her life. There was just so little to do up here and her previous favourite activity hurt too much now; to imagine her brother returning home and all the things they would do once he came back. He was back now, but not in the way she ever wanted.

    She considered taking another shot at that sculpture she thought of; clay was nice and malleable, even stone was, to an earth seraph like her. Centuries of practice saw her being good at it, just to fill the time in a place where entertainment was hard to come by; no books to read, no people to listen to, nothing; not even trees to climb. At this point, she actually liked to sculpt; it gave her focus, let her forget for a little while. For a time, she could even do it mindlessly and get what she wanted; now however, Edna needed to pay attention again. If she let her mind wander, her sculptures ended up looking like a certain smiling boy she could not stop thinking about. A cute boy with a quick wit.

    At first Edna tried to ignore it, but by now she wondered: was she starting to crush, or was she latching onto the first person to visit and talk to her in a good while? Without being a jerk, that was. Else she would have to consider Zaveid in the same vein, of which just the thought made her shudder unpleasantly. It was not the same, not at all; she did not even hate him, if she was honest. He just rubbed her the wrong way with his endless confidence and jerkish behaviour. Edna would probably sooner feed herself to her brother or jump down this cliff before she entertained romantic thoughts about him.

    Which brought her back to Laphicet. A crush, or a crutch? The fact it was him her mind revolved around so much and not his sister pointed to the crush, though Velvet had undoubtedly left an impression as well. Having her around was... nice. Different from Laphicet, too; something about her nagged at Edna, but she could not put her finger on what that was. In the end, she figured it might be that she was a big sister first, the kind of sibling she always wanted Eizen to be for her.

    Sighing softly, she stopped herself from dodging the subject at hand. Her interest in Laphicet was not fleeting, that much she knew. She had to stop lying to herself about this. Every visit of his was perfectly preserved in her memory, every smile etched into her mind as vivid as when he first gave it to her. It was her blessing at work without doubt. Just like thinking of Eizen returned memories of him from over a thousand years ago, just as clear as the day she saw him last.

    Sometimes, Edna wondered if this was not a curse of her own. A blessing that called back fond memories to all she blessed, while granting herself a perfect memory for her own fond memories; every letter Eizen ever wrote, though long since turned to dust, stood clear in the back of her head. Every day of the short while they lived together was forever preserved in amber, to be recalled whenever she so wished. She lost years just sitting around and drowning in her memories, right after he returned as a dragon. They would never leave her either, because she loved her big brother despite it all.

    But again, it was beside the point and she had wallowed in pity for long enough. Her memory between the last letter and recent times became spotty due to the monotony. Now, again, she found memories preserved where she had gained none in centuries. Her blessing did not act against her will, but rather also on her feelings; that it preserved the times Laphicet came to visit made it very clear what was going on.

    She did not want to crush, or to fall in love. But she had, and her heart stood stronger than her mind. Always had, despite her attempts to cast it in chains.

    "There you are!"

    Edna almost flinched and carefully did not turn her head. Just as usual, but also because she did not yet know what to make of her realisation. What to say, how to say it, if she should even say anything. She simply waited, felt the mana that was another seraph getting closer, willed the luminous blush away from her cheeks in that time.

    When Laphi plopped himself down next to her, she managed to appear unbothered again. If barely.

    They stared out into the distance together for a moment and a bag of cookies changed hands. They did not even need to look at each other for this, it having become a bit of a ritual. Laphicet always brought her cookies and she always accepted them without a word.

    As Edna began to munch on the first treat however, she wondered whether she should say thank you. He did not have to bring her anything to be welcome, but she had no idea how to say that without sounding like an idiot to herself. What ultimately came out of her mouth, though, was a different observation: "They taste different today. Kind of."

    Her eyes sought Laphicet's, who averted his gaze bashfully. "It's, uh, I made those." Edna blinked and he continued uninterrupted: "Mine are finally good enough to give to people, but Velvet's are still a lot better."

    "They are." He winced, then she almost winced as her words registered to herself. "Sorry, reflex."

    "It's okay. You're not wrong, I still have a long way to go if I want to reach my sister's baking." He did not seem upset, but Edna sometimes did not know how to tell. She also felt like hiding behind her umbrella and turn into a blushing mess for being an idiot, again, but they sat too close for her to do that. Not actually touching, but she could tap his elbow with a single motion of her own.

    But if she already made an idiot out of herself? She might as well go the extra mile. "Laphicet?"

    "Hm?"

    Now it was her who averted her gaze, trying her hardest not to blush. "I was meaning to say, you don't need to bring me cookies every time you visit. It's, uh, it's okay if you don't." Her mouth clicked shut and she waited for his response. It took a moment, which she spent munching on another treat.

    Laphicet kicked his legs idly, that much she could see even without meeting his eyes. "I figured something like that, but, well. I like to think it makes you happy to get a little gift. Don't you like them?"

    Edna's metaphorical heart had skipped a beat before that last question. She was really not used to people wanting to do nice things for her, not to mention the other matter. Her face was hot but she could not tell if she blushed; a shy glance to Laphicet revealed that he was not looking her way, which gave her a chance to fight that down before he saw. "I like them. It's just... you don't have to, I'm happy to have you either way."

    There. She said it. A small weight left her chest and she closed her eyes to revel in the minor victory against herself. If Laphicet noticed anything about her or her embarassment, he did not say. She hoped he simply failed to notice. Now that this was done, Edna decided to change the subject to something less embarassing and something which drew her curiousity; she wondered several times before, every time Laphi visited her, really, but she could never think of how to bring it up. Now she was beyond caring for what he thought of her, even though she might hide in a hole once he left. So... she asked: "How did you get here?"

    Her voice had finally returned to its usual flat tone, which was good because he now turned back to her. They stared at each other for a moment, then Laphicet adopted a sly little smile. "Out of the goodness of my heart, how else?"

    Edna blinked and almost shot back, but then stopped herself. "I meant your speed, you're here at least once every week. It makes no sense unless you keep camping around the Spiritcrest or can fly."

    Now she got a curious look from her friend. "No snide comments for once? You really want to know this, don't you?"

    She could not help herself then. Her tone still playfully blank, Edna answered him as he had asked her to: "So you are the kind of man that makes a girl beg after all." Not that she would mind begging him for things, a traitorous part of her noted. She made sure not to say that out loud.

    Laphi shook his head in the meantime, then he dropped onto his back; that pretty blond hair spread out around his head like a halo on the dark rock. He glanced to her for a moment, then up at the sky. "We found a teleportation arte that I analysed and replicated. And we placed a gate in a small cave further down the mountain before meeting you the first time." Edna stared at him with wide eyes, trying to comprehend what he just said. Laphi just grinned at her mischievously. "And I can fly."

    He was obviously teasing now and her reaction was immediate, faster than she could stop it; Edna crossed her arms and turned away, only barely managing not to blow out her cheeks like she used to with Eizen. Laphicet kept quiet, but she could see him grinning from the corner of her eye. Once she dropped her pout however, he shrugged from where he lay. "Just so you know, I meant both of those. I can show you how to operate that arte if you want, then you could come visit me for once."

    Tempting. Oh so tempting. But later, they had time. Not to mention Edna was a little afraid she would be unable to pick up such an arte, then again look stupid to Laphicet, who apparently managed to rebuild an arte long lost. So, later. "Maybe some other time. How about you show me how you fly, little birdy?"

    A chuckle from the boy. "Are you sure an earthworm like you could comprehend? I might peck you up."

    "You aren't early enough for-"

    She stopped herself, flabbergasted, when Laphi got up and offered her a hand. Edna thought they were just throwing barbs, not that he actually offered to take her flying. She looked up at him for long seconds, trying to decide what to do. In the end, looking back at how her day went so far, she figured she might as well and took the hand.After pulling her up however, Laphi bent down and swept her off her feet in a swift motion; before Edna even knew what happened, her legs were in the air and she clutched his neck for stability. She stared at the completely unrepentant boy for a long moment, felt his arm wrapped around her back.

    "A princess carry?"

    He shrugged, careful not to rustle her too much. "You're always trying for dignified lady, so I figured you don't want to piggyback. And I need to keep a hold on you," he added after a moment, the hand around her knees giving her a soft pat. "Even if earth is your element, I don't want to drop you from up high on accident."

    "So you're only going to do it on purpose?" She could not help but quip, yet still made herself comfortable in Laphicet's hold at the same time. Much to her own surprise, she did not dislike being held like this. The warmth of the body she was leaning against made her feel warmer, too.

    "Only if you give me too much backsass," Laphi shot back with a little smile that she might have returned, had he not taken off the ground in that moment. Edna was left staring as the mountains quickly fell away. Air rushed in her ears and the scenery changed in perspective, more so than just from her usual perch. The two seraphim rose higher into the sky and from her new vantage, Edna could see the entire mountain; winds made ochre and blond hair flutter, and right in this moment, the calm and collected Laphicet that eyed their surroundings was much different to the friendly one she got used to. His smile was gone, but he held her tight nonetheless. He was warm, especially so against the cold winds rushing around them. Edna would have snuggled a little closer, had she been able to.

    She tried to speak, but the wind pulled her words away before they could reach. It gave her pause, long enough for Laphi to notice; he frowned and then, a moment later, the air shifted and became still. She could feel his mana suffusing her surroundings. Edna's jaw worked for a short while, eyes slowly shrinking to their normal size as she tried to find the proper words. What she finally settled on was more a matter of fact: "So you are a wind seraph."

    He could not be anything else, being able to fly like that. And powerful too, she doubted even Zaveid could actually stay in the air indefinitely. He probably would have showed that off by now, instead of walking up the mountain like all the rest.

    Laphi just shrugged.

    At this point, she caught the sight of lands even more distant than she could normally see. Twisting a little, Edna began to take them in. "Turn around a bit," she muttered and Laphi did, without complaint. He then kept doing it whenever she began to crane her neck. "What's that city?"

    Her finger pointed westward, roughly, and he took a moment to peer into the far distance. "Lastonbell, actually. If you squint, you can see its unique stone belltower from here." Edna did just that, but failed to find it. Her eyesight was good even for a seraph, but the city too unfamiliar to her to make out this particular shape.

    Edna slowly realised that she was acting like a child, again, but her friend did not seem to mind. He happily answered whatever question she had about the sights she normally never got to see. He held her close and safe. All of this together did what she successfully managed to prevent earlier. Edna even knew it from how warm her own cheeks felt; she was blushing, her entire face crimson and no place or way to hide it. She could merely remain where she was and hope he was nice about it.

    When Laphicet saw her state, he blinked once and made to say something, but then closed his mouth without a word. Edna was so grateful that she considered pecking his cheek, but alas, she was not that courageous.

    Not that it mattered. With or without, she already knew that this memory, too, would be etched into her mind. If not forever, then at least for a long, long time.
     
  5. Threadmarks: 2.12 Restless Interim
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    It had been a day since Margaret fell into her fevery slumber. Symonne did not worry for her, as that period of adjustment was normal. The girl's mother Cynthia did not see things that way, even after Velvet explained it to her. Having such a caring mother who kept fussing over her child, it almost made Symonne a little envious. Or perhaps not just almost, but she preferred not to look too deeply into herself at the moment. Nica left for Ladylake that morning, so her absence remained mostly unnoticed there. In turn, this meant all Symonne had for company were the seraphim on staff at the Crowe's Nest, Velvet, and Laphicet.

    Right this moment, Laphi was the only other person in the room. He laid a few wooden markers and a thread of yarn on the map between them. "As far as she told me, she wants to head for Hyland. We heard that Glayvend is a bit of a problematic area recently, so I think you should move around instead of straight through there."

    Symonne nodded, a finger tapping her chin as she considered the route he laid out. "It looks well enough for a basic plan, but we're probably not going to adhere to it entirely. The area around Glayvend is too full of hills and small mountains to get a straight path." She leaned back and cast another glance at the living room surrounding her; it belonged to the two Crowes, but was surprisingly devoid of personal effects. Books and a few trinkets from around the world she saw, but nothing distinctly them.

    "You have a point, but there is only so much one can plan for anyway." Laphi adjusted the yarn marking Margaret's potential path a little further and then left it at that, sneaking a glance at her. "Even if it's just for a few days, how are you settling in?"

    "It's comfy."

    Symonne left it at that, happy enough about the situation and the novelty of sleeping in an actual bed. Not that she would have had the time to elaborate, seeing how Velvet picked that moment to march through the room with two younger girls in tow. Their wide eyes swept the room, gazes passing right over the two seraphim watching them. Then they were through and Symonne cast a glance to her friend, who shrugged. "Our barmaids are gossips, so word of Margaret's state probably spread. Those were some of her friends, I guess they're worried."

    She could not help but ask: "Are you certain they are her friends? People often crowd around one who can perceive us, and not with good intentions."

    Another shrug. "Margaret is a good judge of character, or at least good enough. I don't think either of those two is in it for selfish reasons." His eyes focussed on her again and Laphi adopted a grin much like her usual ones. "Are you just being pessimistic again, or did you actually get protective of her already?"

    Symonne opened her mouth to respond, but had to pause and consider it for herself. What were her feelings on the matter? "A bit of both," she finally allowed. "Though I would not call it pessimism, it happens often. On a guess, I would say what saves her from the worst of it is this place in its entirety." A sweeping motion to encompass the tavern, as everyone could interact with seraphim in it; something about this bothered her, but she could not tell what.

    "Possible." Laphi struck something else off the list of potential gear they made, then added flint and tapped his quill onto the parchment. Symonne took the lapse in conversation to follow that thought. Something was odd about this place, and it was not that she did not know what. It was that she refused herself to think about it. The domain encompassing it was quite similar to that of Innominat, raising the resonance of everyone within. Just far, far smaller and weaker. Symonne knew that domain well, so well that just comparing this place to it made her shudder violently for thinking of it.

    Laphi, being focussed on his list, failed to notice.

    With this acknowledged, Symonne buried those thoughts again before seeking a distraction. She forcefully calmed herself and continued their conversation: "Do you have any idea what Margaret wants to do when she gets to travel? I know she's rearing to go and that she wants to help people, but, uh, how?"

    He shrugged again, glancing her way for a moment. "I assume it will be 'in any way necessary' or something like that. Margaret is not picky in how she helps others. Be it by listening to their troubles, repairing something that broke, or guarding their lives. Sorry, I can't think of anything more clear."

    "It's okay." But that subject was a bust for distraction. Then perhaps she could get him to teach her a bit... and tease a little. Symonne's mood lightened at the thought and she began to crawl around the table, careful not to alert Laphi immediately.

    Once she was next to him, hands steadying her on the couch and her face next to his, she whispered to him: "Hey, Laphi." A start and his eyes snapped to her own, a little down and then quickly back up. Too easy. "Can you teach me how to create that teleportation arte? I'd be very grateful if you did." She gave him a wink and delighted in how much he fidgeted with just an 'eager' posture and some well-picked emphasis. Leaning a little closer and lowering herself on her arms so she could look up at him, Symonne added an innocent look. "Pretty please?"

    On the inside, she was laughing at how hard he tried not to glance down into her cleavage, to hold her gaze instead of looking away. If she put her hands on his cheeks in that moment, she just knew they would be burning hot. Her facade broke into a grin and she leaned back to sit normally, giving the boy some space and a moment to center himself. This had yet to get boring and she doubted it would do so anytime soon.

    Laphi heaved a deep sigh at that point and threw her a flat look. "You could have asked normally, you know? I don't need any reason to explain things to a friend." He looked as if he wanted to add an 'but if you're already offering' or something like that to the comment, but prior experience told him not to. Symonne grinned, knowing that the one time he tried to match her, he had ended with a red face from her pushing back until he gave.

    Still, it would also take a while until she stopped being happy about him calling her friend. Symonne's grin turned into an actual smile and she became mist, flowing back to her own seat. "Thanks. I'm genuinely curious about that one, or how you made it so an ordinary seraph can weave them."

    Now it was for him to grin and raise his hands. "Watch and learn." Symonne mimicked his expression and leaned forward, surprisingly eager to learn something from him.

    Her eagerness did not hold for long. Neither did the smile.

    When Laphicet began to weave his arte from the very foundation, it was the first time Symonne got to see him work mana in any form. For the first time, she beheld the golden light in this era. Her body locked up as her soul screamed, eyes widening until there was hardly any white left visible; Symonne became still like a statue, seeing nothing but the figure before her.

    "You see, the very basis is to turn thirteen strands together in a lotus pattern, from which three ends are run back into the same for reinforcement, and the remaining ten weaved into the remainder as a supporting structure... Symonne?" Those eyes were on her now and she stood frozen, the sound of her name eliciting but a twitch. A small part of her screamed to flee, but the rest remained perfectly still out of horror, knowing that there was no place on the planet far enough to run from a god's will. Resistance was futile. All she managed under that worried look was a meek, terrified whimper and to continue staring at him.

    Heldalf had praised Symonne's unbreakable will in the past, a force which could carry her through pain and suffering with not even a second glance or a peep. Beholding once more the most terrifying secret Desolation held broke her in an instant. The old god had returned to reclaim his throne.

    The arte winked out. Mana dispersed. Light faded. Symonne could breathe again, cascading dread subsiding far enough to let her shiver in place. The very memories she pushed back into the depths earlier returned with almost perfect clarity now, memories she had wished to forget for so long. Now she understood why this domain reminded her of Innominat's; it was Innominat's and not a pale imitation or coincidence. How had she missed this, even under all the different mana? She understood more than that, too; Velvet appeared the slightest bit familiar and now she knew why. The ease with which both siblings handled forgotten artes, the confidence they had. She was shaking.

    "Symonne? What's going on?"

    He tried to reach for her, but stopped when she recoiled. A shriek was cut off by a hiccup before it actually became loud, followed by Symonne's chair falling backward as she crawled away, uncaring for her abrupt meeting with the ground. Her clothes lost coherence and faded, left leg melting into goo from the knee downward, as did half her belly. Symonne just wanted to be away, far away; or dead, she would take that over another living death. Yet her body refused to follow even the command to flee, futile as it was. She remained a half-puddle pressed against the wall, not mist to seep out of the room. Not fully fluid even, to flow away. Her vision swam from tears, but she never once lost sight of the confused god in front of her.

    A spot of black appeared that a blink told her was the Lord of Calamity, poking her head through the door and immediately focussing on her. She needed no actual name, for she was the first of the title. Velvet Crowe, the woman who aspired to kill Shepherd Artorius; the woman who butchered her way through exorcists, malakhim, and daemons alike; the woman who murdered even the exorcist legates, Shigure Rangetsu and Melchior Mayvin.

    The woman who ultimately set Symonne free with her bloody crusade

    "What did you do, Laphi?"

    "Nothing! I was just showing her an arte formula and this happened!"

    They talked back and forth but Symonne paid it no real attention; her concious mind returned somewhat, settling back into place far enough to try calming the rest of her. Yet the sheer terror surging through her clawed at it still. Symonne became aware of Velvet approaching and locked up again; the Calamity calmly crouched, making her melt a little further against the wall. A soft smile graced her lips, nothing more. "Hey," she said softly. "Whatever it is, it's okay. You're safe here, Symonne. Nothing bad will happen to you." She kept talking, saying more things like that, in this warm and friendly tone that almost made her believe. A part of Symonne hoped against hope that it was true. Her rational mind latched onto it, even though the fear hardly subsided, she had to know if maybe, just maybe, she could get out of this as herself.

    "R-Really? You w-won't eat me? I won't be s-suppressed again? Promise?" Her voice was so weak, hesitant, even breaking as if she were three again. Velvet blinked in what might be confusion at first, only to realise with the last words. A quiet "Oh" from Laphi made Symonne flinch, but her eyes never left Velvet's.

    It took only a moment for her gentle smile to return, then she held out a hand to her slowly; her right hand, the 'human' one and not the hidden maw. "I promise."

    This would have to do. It was enough, it was a promise Symonne clung to. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, then slapped her cheeks, several times and hard enough to leave imprints on her skin. Her puddle-body slowly pulled itself back together into full coherence as she gathered herself. Even still, looking at Velvet again made dread and hopelessness settle into her heart. Heldalf's ambitions were dead, as he would be the moment she found him. All his aspirations and goals, moot. He did not compare and Symonne knew that.

    She started weakly, just talking without really thinking: "You're her. The first Calamity. How are you even alive? Everyone said that Shepherd Artorius killed you. I-"

    Strong arms wrapping around her cut off the words, made Symonne lock up again for a moment. She was held in this embrace that was so, so warm. Comfortable. How could a Lord of Calamity be comfortable like that? So warm? It did not hurt to be near her despite the Malevolence that must be there somewhere. A hand gently carded through her hair and a kiss was pressed to her forehead, then Velvet let go. "This is not the place for a conversation like that. Laphi, blanket." The command was obvious to everyone in the room. Symonne's eyes flicked to... her friend? Was he? No, she did not want to think that. Despite everything. She watched how he picked up a wooly blanket and bunched it up to throw at his sister, staying away from Symonne which she was quite grateful for.

    A moment later, that blanket was wrapped around a still-shivering Symonne, who once again felt at least a little warm. She did not lock up this time when Velvet picked her up, just soaked up the fact she was there and held her close. The other woman made to carry her away, but stopped in the doorframe. "Go look after Maggie in a bit, Laphi."

    No response. Symonne could not see his reaction at all, but that was alright with her; she needed time. Time to think, time to maybe run away... but where to? Nowhere was safe, so she might as well comply and hope for the best. Not to mention she was warm, at the very least. Velvet held her close and carried her gently, down several flights of stairs and past no one. Into a room holding six teleportation artes, equally deserted. There she hesitated before activating one to renewed light that made Symonne's breath hitch. She fought it down this time, the memory of the real one still fresh in her mind; a mere shard of his power could not compare.

    She fell forward for a long moment, then they stood... somewhere in a forest. It was mostly nondescript and without any useful landmarks, so Symonne could not tell where they were. She slowly glanced to Velvet, who noticed and pressed another kiss to her forehead. "It's alright, you'll be okay."

    Somehow, that did make her relax. A little bit. Symonne took a deeper breath and let it out in a sigh. She was carried a few steps into a clearing, where Velvet set her down against a large tree and came to sit next to her. They were shoulder to shoulder then, and a larger hand gently squeezed Symonne's. "First of all," Velvet began, "what you heard was nonsense made up for the people. There would have been mayhem if they learned the Lord of Calamity won."

    "I see." The terror began to fade and left but a lingering dread, taking along most of her newly budding feelings. Symonne was cold and despite it all, she snuggled closer to the only source of warmth nearby. "Why is it that nothing I do ever matters?" she found herself asking. "I, I just wanted to have a purpose, just this once... but with Innominat loose, it was futile from the very start."

    Silence followed, a lack of an answer for questions Symonne had never found one for herself. Curiously though, Velvet did speak up after a time: "I felt that way in the past. Or, similar to that. Laphi was sickly as a child, so sick that my entire life revolved around caring for him. Protecting him. And then Arthur took him from me, took my everything."

    Symonne nodded softly, she knew how the story continued. "And so you turned to revenge, for purpose?"

    "...yes."

    An arm was slung around her shoulder and she allowed it, happy to not be as cold as before. She glanced up at Velvet, who was staring at her bandage-wrapped arm. "But in the end, I was only lying to myself. That's what made me a therion, to hate yet love Arthur so much. He was family, until the very end."

    She opened her mouth to respond, but found no words to describe her feelings. She did not even know what she felt in these moments; Symonne knew that if she were human and capable of generating Malevolence, she would emit it now.

    "What I'm curious about," the other woman muttered with another soft squeeze, "is how you play into this. Were you with the abbey before?"

    She did not want to talk about it, but also wanted her to understand. In the end, the latter notion won and Symonne opened up quietly: "I was Melchior's hidden ace. We were just a few metres away from each other, at times. The trap in Lothringen, the illusion over your village, that was me."

    Velvet had grown thoughtful and for a moment, Symonne feared she would get eaten after all; her actions hurt this woman more than any other things and people had. Yet all she got was another squeeze. "I see. How did you survive when we killed him?"

    "...oh, that. He put me on standby to bond more combat capable malakhim for the confrontation. His own basic illusions were enough for the job, or so he thought." She almost laughed about that, remembering which of them was still alive and who was not. Yet there was nothing worth laughing over, so it became but a sigh. "Thank you, by the way. For freeing me back then, even if it wasn't your intention."

    Velvet hummed softly and pulled her closer; the blanket fell open from the continued motions and Symonne quickly flipped it back to not be cold. She did not want to be cold anymore. "I don't know what to think," she finally admitted.

    "It's hard. But, maybe I can tell you one thing that's for certain?" She looked at Velvet again, who wore a faint smile. "It's that Laphi didn't mean to hurt you out of malice. He is a sweet boy and despite all of this, I hope you can stay his friend."

    There was that word again, 'friend'. A word that had so many meanings yet none at all. A word which Symonne so desired. "I," she began and trailed off immediately. So instead, she buried her head in Velvet's shoulder. A second arm wrapped around her and held her close, secure. She tried to answer her prompt again, but failed and decided to change the subject for now: "You were Innominat's greatest enemy. Why can you work with him so easily?"

    She could not see Velvet's face, but her heart beat steadily. And deep below, she now felt, Malevolence thrummed in tune. "Because he is still my brother, my little Laphicet. We left the past behind to look at the future," she told Symonne softly.

    "And... where does that put us?" Symonne only realised that nothing had to have changed after asking; they did not know her allegiances, only their past connection. She expected some confusion, or a confirmation for things being the same.

    "That depends on you, Symonne. What are you going to tell your boss?"

    She froze up again, only to hear and feel Velvet chuckling. "Yeah, we knew. But it's fine, you don't need to worry too much."

    It was not much of a consolation, especially so because Symonne could not understand. "B-But why? Is he not someone you're after? The Malevolence, the dead, I-" "Shh."

    Velvet shushed her and gave another soft smile. "I try to be more of a proper Empyrean, but that's easier said than done. I'm definitely not going to smite you for acting by your own desires unless you get in my way too much, but I am still selfish at heart. Killing the Lord of Calamity is not a priority to me." Their eyes met and she saw the fire burning within Velvet's. "Saving Maotelus is."

    Oh.

    With the realisation came... laughter. Symonne could not help it, morbid, broken chuckles rolled out of her throat as it became clear how meaningless this all was. "Ohoho, this is, hahaha, that's even worse!" She giggled into Velvet's chest, confused tears brimming in her eyes at the weird feelings she felt. "He isn't even your goal, he's collateral damage!"

    Velvet let her laugh and giggle, merely stroked her back until she calmed down; at this point, Symonne was basically on her lap and did not care for it. When she kept her quiet after that, Velvet sighed and began to whisper to her: "You remember that malak boy I had with me back then? The one who saved me from myself?" A nod she probably more felt than saw. "Phi, he's my saviour. And when I sealed Innominat back then, he stepped up to become the new fifth Empyrean. I can't allow him to end like this, corrupted."

    "I see." She felt empty now, but simply walking away until that stopped was no option; especially so because Symonne knew it would never truly stop. She had tried to run away from the past, only for it to come knocking a thousand years later.

    Hands still stroking Symonne's back and head, Velvet took her silence as a chance to continue the conversation: "I don't think you should tell your Lord of Calamity about this, though." Lilac eyes turned more attentive now, peering up at the other woman. "If you do, a lot of people will die in the fallout, for no real change of the result where it matters." A soft squeeze. "I don't think I'm too weak to fight him... or her, we haven't even figured that out."

    "Him." Velvet paused for a moment, probably in surprise, but Symonne had no reason to keep Heldalf's gender a secret. This did tell her that they had yet to find him, after all.

    "Alright, him. But as I said, it is two Empyreans against one Calamity. And we have the elemental Empyreans' backing, at that. He won't win."

    She stopped Velvet's carefully worded ramble there: "I know. What you're trying to do is make sure I'm no spiteful bitch who'd sabotage your actual goal. I can't change the result of a fight, but I can influence the body count, and the fate of Maotelus." Symonne looked up and their eyes met. She saw worry in Velvet, but also hope. Pity. Some kind of desire. Her pretty face was actually quite expressive. Neither spoke for a long moment as she weighed her options; spite was something she could consider, but ultimately, that was not her. "Don't worry. I've never been a spiteful person. I just, I will need time." She paused and cuddled a little closer. "But thank you, for being honest with me. I won't tell."

    Symonne was embraced once again and settled, the cold fading somewhat. Velvet did not seem to mind her presence, she just held her. "And thank you for doing this for us," she told Symonne quietly. "How about we make it a deal? You don't report on us or whatever you and Maggie get up to, we won't probe you for information on him?"

    Only now did it occur to Symonne that Velvet did not even know Heldalf's name. By all accounts, she should probe the girl in her arms for every bit of knowledge, yet she did not. Was it kindness? Pity? Chance? Symonne could not tell and, quite surprisingly even to herself, did not care. She just cared for the warmth, for having hope, for being intact.

    She did not know how much time passed exactly, but at some point Symonne managed to get her thoughts... not in order, but under control. She breathed out softly and pulled back a little. "I will try to treat Laphi as Laphi and not as Innominat, but it won't be easy."

    Velvet let her go without resistance, a smile on her face once again. "He will be happy that you're at least trying for him. He never had any close friends before Maggie, Edna, and you."

    One of these names she did not know and that made her curious. It also made her feel a little weird, but she paid that sensation no mind and promptly forgot about it. "Who is Edna?"

    "A seraph girl who lives alone on a mountain."

    So that sweet boy adopted more than just her, so to speak. He really was nice, everything Symonne saw and heard of him spoke to that. Yet he was also Innominat, the suppressor. The same being that put her very soul in chains so long ago. Which of these names was more important to her? Thinking and breathing, Symonne slowly retreated from Velvet's embrace. The blanket slid off her form and she soon mustered up the will to weave clothes out of mana, her usual style. They wobbled for a short while, but centuries of practice made sure she could soon keep them steady even as distracted as she was.

    A choice, to dwell on the past or look at the present. Another might call the latter as taking a risk, but both options could lose her a great deal. Either the only friend she ever had and the warmth she could now feel, or her soul. Except that by all accounts, losing her soul was not guaranteed. The rest was. That made it simple.

    Symonne stood and Velvet followed. She saw the other woman's curious gaze and threw her a smirk, if still somewhat shaky. "If I'm already giving this a try, I will do it properly. Let's go."

    "Go for what?"

    "Not 'for what', Velvet. 'Where' is what you want to ask, and the answer is 'back'." Velvet's visible incredulity, from her raised eyebrow to her hesitant posture, quite succintly summarised how Symonne felt about the matter. But she would try, at the very least. "Let's go, before I get second thoughts."

    After sighing, Velvet nodded and took her hand to lead her; it made Symonne feel smaller than she was, but she also appreciated the gesture and squeezed. Velvet squeezed back as they wandered through the forest. Time passed far too quickly; one moment they approached the teleportation gate, the next they were back in that living room. Symonne steeled herself already, even though they found no Laphi in there. The furniture had been returned to normal and Velvet dumped the dirty blanket on a chair. After checking for her brother, she led Symonne along into one of the connecting rooms, which she knew was Margaret's.

    There they found him, tending to the softly snoring girl; he dabbed sweat off of her forehead as they entered, careful with the feverish girl. "It's good that the metabolism slows down," he mentioned softly without turning around. "I have the feeling far fewer humans would want to be bonded if they had to deal with the usual consequences of sleeping for a day or more." She left that uncommented, as did Velvet. Laphicet did not seem to expect an answer, he just finished cleaning Margaret and put the water bowl he used away. Only then did he turn around, eyes widening somewhat when he saw Symonne standing next to his sister.

    Her own eyes were wide, too; she was scared, knowing now that there stood a living god. He could end her with little more than a thought if he so wanted. Yet he did not. Had not, despite having known her true allegiance. Symonne forced her fear down and let go of Velvet's hand. "Show me that arte again."

    The surprised and confused silence that followed was not broken by Laphi, but by his sister. "I still don't get it."

    She clearly prompted Symonne, who sighed but did not take her eyes off Laphicet, the boy befuddled as well. "Exposure. Keep exposing yourself to something that creates fear, and in time your fear response will dull. So you will show me that light until I no longer freeze into a statue... or melt into a puddle."

    Laphi did not look convinced. "That... doesn't sound healthy." He did not sound convinced either. "Are you sure?"

    Symonne nodded. "It's going to be horrible, but it's fast and I'm not going to get anywhere if I do nothing. And I do like being your friend."

    She thought his expression brightened somewhat despite the worry. He exchanged a glance with his sister, who stepped aside so he could walk up and lead her elsewhere; Velvet stayed behind, probably to look after Margaret. They wandered down the stairs in silence, back into the basement and into a different set of rooms. Her mind screamed 'torture chamber' for an insane moment, but it turned out to be just a barren room holding little more than a table, three chairs, and some parchment.

    "I never put much thought into how to heal a mind," Laphicet admitted once they were inside, "but I trust you."

    She almost laughed. Her experience with friendship had only ever been that of an outside observer until recently, but she was absolutely certain that they went at the entire matter in a completely unorthodox way. Not that she minded, she knew that Laphi cared; being so expressive when agitated seemed to run in the family. Symonne had just never looked too closely, or lacked pieces to the puzzle to gauge them properly.

    Taking a last deep breath, Symonne forewent the chairs and sat down on the ground. Laphi did likewise and waited for her to give the go ahead, which she gave with a nod.

    This would not be a good day for her, she knew it even before the light began to shine. But maybe, just maybe, tomorrow would be better. And the day after even more.

    Then she beheld Innominat's golden radiance and her concious thoughts faded for pure terror once again.
     
  6. Threadmarks: 2.13 Meanwhile in Ladylake
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    "Holy shit, is that girl for real? She's nineteen!" The others in Rose's group of five grinned over her outburst; Dezel, the number six only she could see, huffed with barely audible amusement. She flipped them off in an attempt to air her befuddlement and amazement alike. "Fuck you, I'm right!"

    They had made it far enough from the royal villa to converse openly again, certain that none pursued them anymore. An attempt to deliver Chancellor Bartlow to the knife, foiled not by inability or new information, but a princess too kind for her own good. Or perhaps there was more to it; the point she made still rang in Rose's ears: "This man is too important for the prosperity of Ladylake."Perhaps it was not just kindness, but also calculus; Rose could not deny that Bartlow was highly intelligent, to have risen this high from the peasantry.

    No one had responded to her earlier assertion and Eguile returned to the original subject after a few more backstreets they walked in silence: "She's certainly something if she speaks out in favour of the guy that negotiated a hit on her."

    "Yeah."

    "True that."

    "Agreed."

    Rose felt similarly, but kept quiet for now as they all stripped down to shed their dark assassins' garb. Dezel stood watch while Eguile passed around the bags with their everyday clothes, prepared at this spot in advance; a dark corner that no one really went to, especially at night. Well, any would-be robbers were probably long gone after seeing the smallest trace of their bone masks. Rose could not help but smirk over that; she was the most dangerous thing in the area.

    Then however, her grin faded as the heavier thoughts returned. The intel they got from the Bloodwings was right; Alisha Diphda cared a great deal about her country and her people, to the point she would plead for a corrupt man's life due to his importance said wellbeing. Rose was not sure what to think now; her first instinct about someone who appeared like a saint was always to suspect skeletons in their closet, but there were apparently none to be found. Nothing beyond minor vices, such as favouring expensive sweets.

    They finished changing and wandered out onto the mostly empty streets, with Juliette being slung over Eguile's shoulder. As the only other woman in her current group, it was either her or Rose; the idea being that if any passing guard asked, they would tell the woman being carried drank too much. To appear as if they visited the tavern, which was technically even true, seeing that other Sparrow Feathers were there until they got the signal; all for the sake of a good cover. And despite the fact the knights had more than their fair share of women, they believed the drunk excuse far more easily this way than if one of the men were carried while the girls still walked on their feet. Assumptions and all.

    The group as a whole stayed quiet until they were back with their carts and inside; the wind shifted while Dezel sealed off the travel of sound, making it impossible for anyone outside to hear them. Juliette, once set down, threw a casual salute into the room that missed him by a mile. "Thanks for the help, man!"

    Eguile nodded in agreement. "The assistance of a seraph sure is convenient."

    There was some agreement from the rest, though Simon shuddered and ran a hand through his curly black hair. "It's kind of scary that the Bloodwings are mostly seraphim," he told them. "I was thinking, we'd never even know without Rose."

    There was a conversation to be had there, but she did not feel like thinking a lot tonight. That could be saved for tomorrow, or someone else. She just threw a grin at Simon. "Damn right, on both counts. Now who's up for drinking the night away? Today sucked!" This earned her some laughter and agreement.

    Juliette poked her with an elbow and a wry grin. "I have the feeling the day is not the only one who will suck a lot before dawn." Her note brought more laughter, even from Rose. If Dezel's eyes were visible, she just knew, he would be rolling them.

    Keeping up, Rose raised an eyebrow at her fellow woman in mock anger. "Did I stutter? Fill me up and then fill me up again, easy as that. Now bring out the beer!"

    There were some calls of "Sure thing, boss" and continued laughter. Much better. Rose sighed and noted by herself how Dezel left the place; he was shy like that, despite the fact this was nothing unusual. Then someone pushed a wooden mug into her hand and she decided to put this weird night aside; it was time to unwind.

    Elsewhere in the city, Alisha and Sorey sat together with Lailah and Mikleo; she had invited the shepherd and the two seraphim to her own home, uncertain about what happened earlier in the night and unwilling to just send them back to the inn Sorey stayed at. Now that she was made Sorey's squire and granted the ability to interact with the seraphim, she could even tell them that directly.

    Lailah had her arms crossed, brow scrunched in thought. "I heard whispers about the Scattered Bones, but to see them work is something else." There was silent agreement, even from Alisha; she never encountered them before, only heard of their work; men or women ending up dead with a ceremonial dagger implanted in their heart, its hilt engraved with the guild's famous phrase: 'May these weary bones find peace'.

    "So who are they exactly?"

    Her eyes went to Mikleo, who had asked the question that probably bothered Sorey as well; with both of them having lived up high on a mountain, Alisha figured it made sense they were unaware and spoke up to rectify that. "The Scattered Bones assassin guild has been active for a few years now, their highest value being honour. As... odd as that may sound." She had seen the confused looks the men gave her, but did not comment further. "Word of mouth is that they only take a select few contracts and never move for personal gain, but rather for the greater good. There seems to be some truth to it as well," she mused, "considering that I was apparently their original target."

    A part of her was terrified, but she felt mostly just confused by the whole night. That Bartlow wanted her gone was no surprise, she had put a lot of effort into thwarting his more dangerous ideas while also channeling his capabilities in more useful manners. For the assassins to not come for her at some point, that was unexpected.

    "I heard word that they never hunt for the innocent."

    Alisha gave a nod to Lailah, agreeing with her statement but still caught in her own thoughts. She was guilty of many things, or at least she felt so. She could have been better, always better. Could have done more. But in the end, Alisha knew not to trust these thoughts of hers. They always came unbidden, and thus she gave them the only treatment they deserved: to be ignored. One could only do as much as one was able to, doing more would destroy a person. And if she was destroyed, she could not help anyone anymore. At least she liked to think she was helping, but-

    Sorey snapped her out of that beginning spiral, his tone distasteful. "I don't like it." All attention went to him and Alisha quickly willed her conflicted feelings down, into the depths where they belonged. Sorey seemed to be free of such, he simply frowned. "No one should have to die, there have to be better ways to punish someone."

    Then again, even to her such a stance was naive. Many deaths could be prevented, yes, but all of them? She wondered just what held such conviction, if it was foolish or brilliant; yet she also wanted to believe that it was possible, that he was possible. She felt a little better recently, even; ever since becoming the squire. Ever since she was given eyes to truly see the world around herself. Alisha sat quietly still in the silence left by Sorey's declaration. She wondered, tried to remember if, perhaps, she held the same view as him when she was younger. Her memory was not the best at times, but she felt like it fit. To have truly believed that all life was sacred. Reality crushed that belief and reformed it into a more pragmatic one, but there might be something she could not see that he did.

    What Alisha clearly remembered were the words the Celestial Record gave her, when she was seeking guidance and purpose still. "It is our duty to transcend the possible, and achieve the ideal," they read. A famous quote sadly forgotten by most, words that moved her to tears the first time she read them; these words had inspired her to become a knight instead of a courtier, alongside the shining glory of Hyaci Maltran. Even now, she found herself reciting the words under her breath.

    Much to her surprise however, Sorey heard them. His attention turned to her and he grinned. "Claudin, the Hero King, right?"

    Having been caught doing something childish embarassed her a little, but Alisha did not let it show and nodded softly. Lailah and Mikleo turned their attention to her then and she felt like she should speak. "I always looked up to them, you see? The heroes of the past who turned our world for the better. Claudin, Artorius, Eleanor, they all inspired me to give every day my all and push as far as I could go." Even if that meant having to fight her own weak will and traitorous mind. "I am just, well, not really getting anywhere at an acceptable pace. Change takes a great time to be implemented properly, but I will never stop believing in it. In time, mankind will certainly be elevated."

    Much like before, she knew she meant those words. Despite the fact parts of her wondered if she would ever see it, if she really likened herself to heroes of ages past, if there would really be another like them. She just told herself there would be, as long as there were those who desired to bring forth change. No matter how futile it felt, Alisha would carry on the torch until someone better suited arrived to receive it from her. Someone like, maybe, the man in front of her, who appeared a little surprised by the conviction even her measured words conveyed.

    Lailah clapped her hands in delight and dispersed the moment's oddity. "That is a wonderful stance to have, Alisha!" she cheered, smiling brightly at the other woman. "It is such a shame you were born without resonance; you would have made a wonderful shepherd of your own."

    Sorey snapped his fingers at that. "Actually, that reminds me. Can there be more than one shepherd? Or, well, can there be more than one seraph with the flames of purification?"

    Due to the attention shifting back to Sorey, no one noticed the momentary grimace on Alisha's face; she quickly schooled her expression so even Mikleo's idle glance her way failed to uncover how deep the innocent comment had hit. She knew Lailah meant no insult and that there was nothing she could do about how she was born, but it still bothered her to keep being confronted with this harsh reality. Just because she had no resonance of her own, a path to change, to transcend, was barred to her forever. The only reason Alisha still walked a few steps on it was Sorey's kindness. The small part that whispered he merely needed her prowess or connections and she would be dropped at the first opportunity, she ignored with an ease born of many years dealing with the same.

    Only if one listened to a voice did it gain power over oneself. Even if it was one's own voice that spoke.

    She listened with half a mind to Lailah's explanation of multiple seraphim being able to take the same Oath she did and receive the silver flame, whatever that meant. She felt it was not her place to ask, or that she would even remember it if she did. In her own head, she dwelled on the matter of resonance and the shepherd. Of hellions and Malevolence.

    She would not falter, not for herself but for her people. No matter the odds, no matter the task, Alisha would give everything she had so that they would not suffer. That no one had to suffer, as best as she could make it so. Now she had a more direct way to go about that, even.

    Things were looking up, or so she thought.

    But somehow, she could not shake the feeling that it would not last.
     
  7. Threadmarks: 2.14 Onset of a New Journey
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    It was the third day of Margaret's slumber and her fever notably subsided over night; she would wake soon, that much Laphicet knew. Right now however, his mind had disregarded the issue of their youngest agent. For he was on a mission, perhaps the weirdest one he was ever on; even weirder than the days of teaming up with Niko and Arthur, to prepare a cake for Velvet's fifteenth birthday without her finding out.

    Symonne did not flee them over night like he feared, she stayed; both the first and the second night. But she definitely changed from her previous behaviour. The girl now divided her entire time between looking after Margaret and staying near him, this exposure she spoke of; Laphicet understood the idea of getting used to something one was scared of and thus lessening the effect it had, but he still did not think it was healthy to constantly hurt oneself like Symonne did. He almost shuddered again, thinking back to the many tears and the anguish; what the previous day taught Laphi was that he hated seeing her cry, or scared. That she was afraid of him made it even worse, that he could not even hug her to spend comfort.

    "Let's stop, please. I can't watch you keep hurting like that." He had hugged her anyway on that first day, feeling far more powerless than a god ever should. Her will was strong without doubt, for him to break first on just witnessing how far she was willing to go. For him, no less.

    But he was getting distracted; Laphicet's thoughts returned to the present and to his newest observations. Whenever Symonne thought he had not seen her yet as they would meet up around the house, she quickly hid herself away or went another way to avoid him. That much, he understood. It was not what bothered him, even though it stung a little.

    Laphicet was not entirely sure because he had never been around Symonne for over a day in one go before, but she definitely acted different when they were together, such as right now. To make sure he was not just imagining this, he decided to put it to the test; though in an unusual way, which he hoped no one would ever learn about. As, for the last few minutes, he had been staring at Symonne; not sneaking glances as he did from time to time, but openly staring. Ogling, even. Symonne had yet to say a word about it; he saw her opening her mouth a few times, but she bit down on whatever she meant to say without fail.

    They did not really talk, just quietly stewed in the other's company; it was not even an entirely uncomfortable silence to him, just... weird. Still, Laphi kept staring and clamping down on his nurtured instinct to avert his gaze; he knew she noticed, was sure anyone would notice with how blatant he tried to be about it.

    Laphicet himself took notice of something as well: Symonne was actually really pretty. He did not pay more attention to the details before, especially while trying not to stare, but now he realised her petite figure was quite endearing. Silky looking, black hair that framed rosy skin and ran out in purple tips, bright eyes, a cute button nose, a slender build in revealing clothes that he actually let his eyes draw this time to no reaction from Symonne, and her legs appearing longer due to the dark shorts and purple thighhighs she wore; dainty fingers were playing with a streak of water she created with an arte earlier, making it flow around them in a steady stream.

    Laphicet gave it a little longer just to be sure, quietly admitting to himself that he was not unhappy about the chance; rude as ogling a girl like that was, he still appreciated the sight. Even he could not convince himself it was only to confirm his theory; confirmation, he had five minutes ago.

    At last, he sighed audibly before focussing his gaze on his friend's face; she looked back, curious and thankfully without any visible fear, though her shoulders tensed a little. "Are you really sure staying around me is good for you?" he asked. Symonne tilted her head, but Laphicet did not give her a chance to deny it; he threw her an unamused look. "You stopped teasing me entirely. You try to avoid me wherever you can. Forcing yourself into my presence isn't good for you, Symonne. I don't like that."

    She opened her mouth as if to respond, but hesitated and stayed quiet for an uncomfortably long moment. Then Symonne sighed herself and had the water around her hands disperse. "So you did do that on purpose. I'm just...." She trailed off, tried again and found no words; this repeated several times.

    He hated to see her so insecure, too. Knowing that it was him who did that to her, simply by existing. Yet all he could do right now, this he learned from Velvet during their youth, was to smile and hide his own feelings. "It is just as well that Margaret will wake up soon. You should take some time to take all of this in, then we can try again if you want."

    Symonne blinked at him, tensing a little more. Her hands opened and closed slowly as she seemed to try reading him. "You, you want me to leave?"

    He almost spoke without thinking. Her tone was weaker than before and that question felt like something he should give more than just a short confirmation. Living with a girl for all his life helped notice this, even it was one as straightforward as Velvet. Laphicet ultimately explained a little more nuanced and closer to his feelings: "I don't want you to stay if it makes you feel bad. You're my friend, Symonne."

    It took a little bit, but the girl seraph seemed to understand; she started to smile softly, relaxing a little more. "I guess you have a point. I'm getting better around you though, it was just two days so far."

    Laphi gave her a soft nod. "You are, but still. I marked down all the locations where we hid teleportation gates on a map for you two to take along, so you can come visit easily. Take it a little more slowly and recuperate, then come back, okay?" For some odd reason, Symonne's cheeks acquired a dusting of pink that was difficult to actually see; Laphi noticed, but was unsure why she would be blushing. Did he say something to embarass her?

    This was a question Laphicet did not really find answers to until Symonne got over whatever it was. She took another deep breath and leaned closer, a little grin proud on display. "So. Do you want me to strip?"

    A non-sequitur if there ever was one. Laphi stared at her blankly. "...why are you asking me that?"

    It was the wrong question, he knew it the moment her grin widened. "Well, you didn't really get to enjoy the eyefuls you got the last few days, did you?"

    He groaned and felt his own cheeks grow warm. "I'm sorry for caring more about you than your body, Symonne."

    "But my body is a part of me, too~"

    His forehead hit the table, to a soft yet short giggle from where his tease of a friend sat. At least she tried, even if it was to his embarassment. "Two things about that," Laphicet muttered without looking up, "first is that I'm impressed you got that skill to mastery instead of going with conventional clothes, and secondly, I can tell we're making progress by the fact you managed to keep a hold of them since yesterday." It had been around twenty-four hours that she no longer ended up naked with each pulse of his golden mana, but it would still take time for her to get over this entirely. If she ever did.

    Chancing a peek, he found Symonne nodding softly to herself. "Yeah, progress is there. But honestly, I like being able to modify my clothes with little more than a thought. And, you know, turning to mist to dodge something doesn't go over well with any corporeal clothes, so I'd end up naked anyway."

    "...that's a fair point."

    This was when Margaret traipsed into the room, saving him of having to discuss the matter any further. "G'morn'g," she mumbled and cast bleary eyes at the pair while they returned her greeting, if much more coherent.

    "It's noon," Laphicet supplied helpfully, which only prompted a tired groan from the girl. Having his head raised once more, he noticed that Symonne seemed to be in a better mood now; she was smiling a little over Margaret's bedhair and generally disheveled state.

    The human girl glanced between them for a moment, then focussed on her new partner. "Symonne, uh, you're a water seraph, right?"

    "Yes?"

    "Can you splash me with cold water, please?"

    Laphicet raised an eyebrow at that; he pointed to the side. "We have some pots full of water right there."

    This got him a grumble from Margaret, who picked at her nightgown as it clung to her form. "I meant from head to toe. I'm sleepy and sweaty and urgh, please make me clean!"

    Both stared at the whining girl for a moment, then Symonne let out another soft giggle and got up, likely to do as she was asked. Laphicet quietly pointed to the adjacent washroom and his friend threw him a kiss in thanks before pushing Margaret out of the room. "As you wish, but don't complain later."

    Needless to say, Margaret did complain.

    It was a few hours later that the two girls were getting ready. Symonne could not help but be amused by Velvet having packed a few bags for them, which was followed by Laphi putting some kind of arte into one and then stuffing the other two inside. A quick check of her own, after flinching over the sight and feeling of his active mana, revealed a room-sized storage space inside. They were definitely looking over their young friend, if in an odd way.

    More importantly however, the mother she had yet to speak to was not happy. She stood with her arms crossed, a soft but firm frown etched onto her face. "Margaret just woke up earlier and now she's supposed to leave town already?"

    Velvet stood in front of her with a similar posture, but no real heat in it. She nodded easily. "You have a point that it's fast, but Maggie isn't the type to let us stop her. So I'd rather she leaves where we can see her and doesn't sneak off over night."

    A sharp look went to the girl in question, who averted her gaze sheepishly; Velvet apparently figured her out with ease, though Cynthia did not seem surprised. "I know, but it's still frustrating how fast things are happening. I didn't even have a chance to talk to this Symonne yet."

    Considering that she did not make more of an issue of the matter, chances were Margaret and Velvet already talked to her about the former's departure. Either way, Symonne carefully reached over and gave Laphi a nudge while avoiding his gaze. He got the message anyway and extended his domain further than just the bottom floor, to surround them; Symonne shuddered and had to fight hard to shake it off. She did not manage to cast off the feeling of dread, but it was enough not to stand frozen when Cynthia's sight adjusted. She even managed a little wave and a big smile. "Hello!"

    Cynthia blinked, followed by throwing an unamused look to Laphicet, who whistled in faux innocence. Velvet huffed. Then the woman turned her attention to Symonne in full, eyes running over the girl more critically than leering. Worried about her child, most likely. Wondering what kind of person Symonne was, taking note of her, by human standards, lewd way of dressing. She was not that easy to read, but the way her eyes moved this way and that, from Symonne to Margaret and back, made it clear enough.

    Deciding to be nice instead of confrontational, she slid forward on a small rail of water, one foot placed on the other and balancing effortlessly. "It's nice to meet you, I'm Symonne. I kind of envy Margaret if beauty like yours is what she can look forward to growing into." It was not even a total lie; Cynthia had reached her mid or late thirties considering Margaret's age, but did not appear older than her late twenties. She was not done up like the noble ladies and princesses, but there was a kindness and maturity to her that would put many to shame. Besides, flattery never hurt.

    The human woman appeared surprised but also mollified and gave a soft huff of her own. "Aren't you a cute one. I was wondering what kind of person my Maggie might take along on her journey, but this is a pleasant surprise." Her body language said something closer toward not having expected Symonne, so she took that to mean Cynthia had imagined far worse.

    After making an understanding noise, Symonne took the other woman's hands into her own and put on her best smile. "I get that, ma'am. Your precious daughter is heading out into the world, far too early and with just me for company." Cynthia blinked and Symonne held her smile. "But you really don't need to worry. We can teleport back here every once in a while and I'm going to make sure she doesn't get hurt."

    Now it was Margaret who shook her head and turned away from the scene; Symonne noticed the Crowes throwing each other knowing looks, too. Cynthia seemed somewhat reassured at least, nodding gently. "Alright. We have to get to know each other better when there is time, but at least I know she has someone along for the journey."

    . .
    . .

    Velvet could not help but sigh as they escorted Margaret to the gates. Cynthia had come around and seemed to like Symonne well enough, but sending out a girl this young still did not sit well with Velvet herself. Memories or not, Artorius or not. That was another problem she still had to sort out fully. Symonne's episode over the last few days only pushed it off for a bit as Velvet worried about the seraph girl's condition; she appeared to be over the worst of it, but again, she was going out into unknown and danger.

    On the other hand, she argued with herself while Margaret talked to some of her friends, Symonne might be part of the greatest danger around, so they should be fine. Velvet knew she was a worriwart, she just could not help it.

    "And make sure to remember it all, you hear me? I want to hear everything when you're back!"

    "Of course, I will. But it might be a while, don't forget about me in the meantime."

    "We'd never!"

    There was some laughter among the children and Margaret said her goodbyes, then their little group was moving again. Cynthia, Laphicet, and Velvet herself went along to see the girl off at the gates; much as Laphi predicted, it was the gate leading toward Hyland. Curiously though, more and more people crossed their path despite it being the afternoon. Housewives and workers alike called encouragements and wished Margaret well, with some even stopping for a word with her. Many more waved from a distance before hurrying on their way.

    "You're popular," Symonne commented idly after a while.

    Seeing how Margaret was busy talking to an older man from the church then, Laphi took over answering and stepped next to Symonne. "Everyone knows she can talk to seraphim, they knew it a good while before we opened the tavern. Ever since, she has been a bit of a person of interest around town. Word still travels fast here, too; I don't think we told anyone about her departure."

    "Ah, yes. I get it now." Symonne was oddly quiet about it, a slight frown forming as she watched those interactions take place. Velvet watched the seraph girl in turn, much like her brother did. She wondered where the usual comments were, but then decided it was her still reeling from the past few days.

    They needed far longer to reach the gate than expected; at this point, Velvet figured they only had a few hours of sunlight left. And it was not even done, for a squad of fully armoured knights expected them when they arrived, the tall form of Sergei in the lead. His usual, stern frown was mostly absent and replaced with a surprisingly gentle smile as he eyed the procession. A woman dressed in robes of blue leaned at the wall behind him, but stayed silent for the time being.

    "I heard that young Margaret is leaving us today," Sergei began and inclined his head toward the girl in question. "and I see that word traveled not just to me. I wish you good luck and safe travels."

    "Thank you, sir. I will be careful out there." Margaret answered without hesitation, standing straight and unbent. Velvet found it quite fit her, though some of the knights appeared a little confused by the girl's behaviour. She really was not like most fourteen-year-olds.

    All of them were a little surprised when Sergei stepped forward, though. "If it is alright with you, young lady, I have to insist to test your skill once more, if just to ensure you are ready for whatever may lie on your path ahead." Margaret tensed and Velvet's eyes narrowed while the seraphim appeared more confused. She let her former student handle herself, though. Cynthia appeared even less happy, but a tap to her shoulder from Velvet made her stay silent for the time being.

    "I...." Margaret glanced around the small audience they gathered, then back to Sergei. Her shoulders slumped ever so slightly before straightening out as she took a deep breath. "Very well. I wish for you to know though, that our situation from before is now inversed. I am bonded to a seraph and thus defy the means of all but the very greatest humans."

    There was whispering among the small crowd of onlookers, with Laphi snorting and even Velvet having to bite down on a laugh. Cynthia warred with confusion, worry, and curiousity, while one or two of the knights seemed unhappy with the way Margaret just spoke to their commander, but stayed their hands when he merely nodded. "So I heard and it may be true. But I then must insist all the more, for I wish to behold the heights one can reach through the bond with a kind seraph."

    He was an impressive man nonetheless, of a strong mental fortitude and purity. A good man, so Velvet saw. Margaret might have seen the same, for she drew her blade in a smooth motion; polished steel sang as it was presented in a two-handed grip, held close to herself in a simple guard position straight up. Sergei did much the same, his armor clacking in the sudden silence. People gave them space and left an empty ring for them to spar in.

    Sergei then cast a glance at their surroundings, the main road they were currently blocking. "Perhaps we should move aside so as to not hinder traffic."

    Even he was left stunned by Margaret's certainty when the girl responded: "This will not take long enough to hinder anyone."

    She already moved on the last word, a lightning fast dash right at her opponent. Velvet saw it happen, the seraphim saw. She was decently fast to their perception, but painfully so for outside observers. Little more than a blur and yet, her first attempt to 'strike' Sergei's throat was blocked. Be it instinct or experience, this mere man took a blow capable of cutting through solid stone on his blade and kept standing despite the force behind it. Margaret was stopped dead in her tracks as the two pushed against each other, slowly forcing Sergei back a step. Only now did the crowd catch up, after the clang of metal on metal faded and surprised gasps rang out.

    They separated and Margaret took two steps out of her opponent's reach, rotating as she did to align her blade with her body again. The two watched each other, waiting for the other one to make the next move. Sergei's face became a mask of concentration.

    When nothing happened for a second, Margaret surged forward again, appearing to do the exact same thing she did before if slower. Velvet had many painful memories of Arthur telegraphing his attacks like that, to bait his opponent. Sergei took the bait, not expecting it to be thus; he raised his blade in the same manner as he had before, only to receive something close to a brutal spinkick into his armoured stomach instead. For the first time in their dozen spars, it was him who went to the ground, rolling almost into the crowd from the force. Margaret landed on her feet, hair rustling and sword flashing as she returned to her basic stance, then flowed forward.

    Sergei was still in the process of getting up when cold, now nicked steel touched against his armoured throat with a click. He blinked up at his opponent in shock, a girl more than ten years his junior. Then however, he smiled and lowered his head in defeat. Margaret's focus broke into a smile as she retracted the weapon and sheathed it slowly, to applause from around them. "Yet it lasted longer than one would expect," she offered together with her hand.

    "Truly, this is magnificent." Sergei took the hand and was pulled up easily, augmented strength allowing to do so despite the fact he was decked out in full plate. Now dented full plate, Velvet noted.

    Margaret saw it as well and winced. "I, uh, sorry about your armour. I think I can pay for having it fixed?"

    She received a confused look before the older man looked down and realised what had happened. He then raised his hands defensively and shook his head with a laugh. "No, no. It was my desire to test your mettle despite the many warnings and despite having an idea of the situation after my previous conversations with the seraphim. It would not be right with me to punish a child like this for getting carried away."

    Sergei picked up his sword from where he dropped it, sheathing the weapon as well. "Either way, this was a learning experience for me as well; something that money can not buy."

    At this point, Symonne leaned closer to Laphi with a soft frown: "Is he for real? People like that are rare, but I can not say for sure if he is just saying these things."

    Velvet smiled over the situation as a whole and took to squeezing Cynthia's shoulder, who was still staring in awe. Laphi went to answer his friend in the meantime: "From what I saw of him, he is. He definitely is and yes, it is a rare quality. We looked into him too, he is a man who earned his title as knight commander."

    Looking around, Velvet took notice of how the other, somewhat younger knights had lost their animosity in favour of awe at this child taking down the strongest man they knew. People around them were already chatting about what they saw while Margaret and Sergei exchanged a few more words, well wishes and the like. Then they shook hands and separated, him calling his knights to order and marching off, her returning to the group she arrived with.

    "Maybe we can get outside without any more interruptions now," Velvet teased once Margaret reached them. The girl lowered her gaze in obvious embarassment, but perked up when another voice called out from the side.

    "One more, I am afraid."

    It was a voice Velvet heard before, though not often. They all began to walk as another figure joined them, the blue-robed woman who had been there this whole time. Watching. Her eyes were on Margaret and Symonne primarily, though she offered Velvet and Laphi a curt nod, which they returned. "Hello Sindra," her brother greeted politely. Then, seeing Symonne's curious look, he elaborated: "Seraph Sindra is lord of the land around here, and one of Margaret's friends. Don't let the detached tone or behaviour fool you, she is actually quite friendly."

    "I see." The two water seraphim sized each other up for a long moment, then Symonne grinned and stuck out her hand, walking backward to keep up with the rest. "Nice to meet you, I'm Symonne."

    "Likewise." Her hand was taken. "So you are Margaret's partner. I always wondered who might step up to go with her, but I would have thought them to be a local seraph." It was as much of a question as a comment and they could all tell.

    Symonne simply shrugged. "Seems like no one around is awesome enough to go for it, so I had to pick up the slack."

    She grinned and after a moment, Sindra let out a soft huff. "You may have a point, even. Do you know any healing artes?"

    The sudden shift in subject did not seem to bother the shorter seraph, who nodded and made a so-so motion. "I know enough to treat wounds if need be. Nothing super potent, but it will do in a pinch."

    "And as a matter of fact," Margaret chimed in curtly, "so do I." Using the moment of distraction her comment created, the girl stepped forward and swept Sindra into a big hug. "I'll miss you, but don't worry. I'm going to visit and then we can talk again." The other woman appeared befuddled for a moment, but then she hesitantly wrapped her arms around Margaret's back. Velvet just shook her head over how well she could handle a detached woman like that and ignored the few passersby staring; Margaret was currently hugging empty air to their perception after all, though they could all tell there must be a seraph present.

    "I look forward to it," Sindra finally answered as they separated. She wore the faintest smile for a moment before fading away. Margaret waved after her departing particles and then turned back to the gate that towered basically right in front of them. They all wandered over to the border, guards kindly inclining their heads and giving them space. Traffic was slow this day, they appreciated it for the occasion.

    Cynthia was the first to give her daughter a hug this time, who bore it with a smile. Even when her mother started to mutter encouragements and whatever helpful advice she had from her own few times of travel. Velvet gave them the moment and nudged Laphi toward Symonne, who eyed the two humans curiously and with something Velvet would call longing. Not much of it, but some.

    Her brother hesitated for one long moment, but then stepped forward; the sound of his feet alerted Symonne, who turned her head and... flinched, ever so slightly. Velvet saw it, Laphi saw it, and Symonne knew it without doubt. Again the boy paused, hesitant to get closer when his friend was still scared of him. This time, Symonne took the choice off of him by closing the distance and hugging Laphi. He stiffened in obvious surprise while the girl seraph began to show a soft smile. "Take care while I'm out, yes?"

    Velvet felt a quip on the tip of her tongue, but she held it in. Now was not the time, not to mention that her brother already answered in a similar manner: "Don't worry, I'm tough. You take care, too." She took note of how carefully he held his friend and wondered, once more, if perhaps 'friend' was a misnomer. Then again, Niko and her had been teasing each other a lot as well without there being any more than friendship. Time would tell, in that regard.

    Cynthia and Margaret separated, so Velvet took the opportunity to give the girl a quick hug; she would be fine and they both knew. Her mind was still in some turmoil from what she learned not too long ago, but it had mostly settled. Some time apart would do her good as well. Then, when Laphi and Symonne separated, she left Margaret to her brother and gave Symonne a gentle clap on the shoulder. "You will be fine?"

    "Should be," she returned with a nod. "But this goodbye is taking far too long. Going by Laphi's map, we will be back in a few weeks or so. Maybe two months."

    "Heh. Agreed."

    They exchanged smiles and then Margaret stepped forward from where she was talking with Laphi. She gazed into the distance, the forest looming ahead and the mountains far beyond, then glanced back at the small group seeing her off. Her eyes closed for a moment, but her shoulders straightened. Symonne darted to her side as if having been given a cue and both waved at them. Velvet waved back, as did Laphi and Cynthia.

    They watched the two begin to walk, quiet for the moment; watched on for many minutes until the odd pair vanished into Volgran Forest.

    To Margaret, things quickly became quiet. It felt like moments until the first hour of her journey passed by. She still delighted in the sporadic birdsong and other sounds of nature all around her in the forest, even if few creatures came close to the road. Symonne had since retreated into Margaret's body and there was not a soul in sight. It felt a little odd to be so tranquil, especially for a girl who lived all her life in a bustling trade hub like Lastonbell. For the moment however, she simply breathed the scent of wood and earth while marching on, elated to be on her way.

    "I have to admit," Symonne's voice echoed in her head, "when he said he wanted to see your power, I thought you'd cast an arte of some kind. Any reason you didn't?"

    Margaret hummed and considered the question, head rotating over a cracking sound to her right but finding a deer and dismissing it as not dangerous. "I thought about it, to be honest. Artes are almost impossible to cast without a bonded seraph after all. But I felt a show of force is better than doing magic."

    "Makes sense." The pause that followed drew quite long before Symonne spoke up again, drawing her partner out of observing a sparrow take flight. "It should be easier to conceptualise how much stronger your body became than to measure any esoteric talent such as artes." She nodded, but the seraph girl was not done. "And on that note, please tell me you know you don't need the invocations. I see too many idiots who fully believe they are part of the arte."

    Margaret could not help but chuckle about that. "Not to worry, I am well aware. Although for some, the invocation is part of the arte; as far as I know, the practice mainly developed as a way to center oneself while casting, to tie the words to the movement of mana through one's body." She paused for a moment to drag some other memories from her life long past back. "And unless I am mistaken, those idiots you mentioned can be faked out by pretending to need the invocation. Or using a different one to prevent them from knowing which arte you are about to cast."

    Symonne remained quiet again and the human girl marched on, careful not to trip. She figured she had another two hours of sunlight, at the very least. Difficult to tell without a belltower to tell her the hour, though; she never even realised how used she was to these things.

    "That's pretty clever, actually. I have to keep it in mind."

    "Thank you!"

    At first Margaret was quite happy, until she realised she just told an agent of her enemy how to get better at fighting. At that point she frowned, but figured there was little she could do about it; traveling together meant to talk to each other. Velvet and Laphicet had their reasons for this, probably, but she could not fathom why they would take the risk.

    Silence swept back in at that point and Margaret sighed quietly; people often assumed that a journey was full of great events and adventure, but most of the time it was simply boring travel. She remembered her time as Artorius, how often 'she' was just alone with her thoughts for weeks and months on the road, sometimes sharing the fire with other travelers. At least she had Symonne around this time, so there was someone to talk to. Even if she was technically an enemy, perhaps they could become friends anyway.

    Thinking of her, the seraph girl spoke up in her mind again: "Where are you headed exactly? Hyland we know, so I guess Marlind?"

    "Yep, Marlind is closest so we're going there first."

    She was about to continue, but Symonne chimed in before she could: "Actually, why Hyland?"

    Her question gave Margaret pause and made her consider what to say. She had no great reason, just her own. This had to be enough. "When I thought about it, well, I thought I lived all my life in Rolance, so I want to see some of Hyland first." There was probably still much to see in the Empire, but her feelings remained the same. "Anyway, I was thinking to go around Glayvend Basin with how they're gearing up recently. This might cost us some time."

    "Actually, you could go right through."

    "How so?"

    "My blessing is to weave illusions, from small things to elaborate creations. I can hide you from prying eyes."

    "Ohhhhh!" This explained a few things to her, not to mention the possibilities it opened. "That's crazy useful, Symonne! Thank you for telling me!" Her enthusiasm might have flustered the other girl, who kept quiet for a little while. Enough time for Margaret to keep musing on the matter. "You can do so many things with illusions. It's kind of sad, though. Doing good for others with it directly sounds really hard." She remembered how dangerous Melchior had been, turning friends against each other and breaking the minds of great men and woman through leaning on their weaknesses. Yet she could not think of a way to use such power in a really beneficial way.

    "I know," Symonne finally muttered. "Nica told me much the same, and I agree. Sometimes I wonder if it's really a blessing and not a curse I inflict on others."

    Margaret opened her mouth to deny it immediately, but she actually had to think about it; that kind of belief made sense and she doubted that just denying it was enough to make a convincing argument. But then again, thinking back to her studies under Velvet and remembering how Velvet once studied under 'her', she felt she knew what to say.

    "I wouldn't say that. Not all blessings are directly beneficial and more importantly, yours can do many good things with enough creativity and thought. You just have to keep at it."

    She received no response, and that was that for their conversation.
     
  8. soraalcard

    soraalcard Getting some practice in, huh?

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    So symone is a water seraph in this fix. I could have sworn that her element was void.
     
  9. Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    We never really get anything on her element, and the only non-elemental seraphim we ever see in Berseria are both Laphicets; meaning, a god and a fragment of one. Of the four elements, Symonne always struck me as water, and it worked well with Melchior being described as ice.
     
  10. Warscar5697

    Warscar5697 Making the rounds.

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    I dont think it's ever actually stated. All we know is her ability to weave illusions and how she uses it.
     
  11. auzzie

    auzzie Not quite ded yet

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    Just binged this and I can honestly say I can't wait for more. Love the characters from Berseria, and honestly anything done to Zesteria is an improvement.
     
    Naron likes this.
  12. Threadmarks: 2.15 Memories in Amber
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    Night had fallen, a fire crackled merrily, a tent was set up with some difficulty... and pained groans were filling their little clearing. Margaret was miserable, for she had forgotten something vital. Now that the initial enthusiasm subsided, she remembered that she was not Artorius. Her body lacked the endurance built up by the journeys she remembered, yet she had walked for hours. Her feet were throbbing in pain even now that she had them put up, which prompted another groan from her. Symonne sat opposite of the fire without any visible sign of pity, though she did catch the rapig currently cooking over it.

    "I was curious about something," the seraph girl finally opened, eyes still focussed on the fire in front of her. Margaret hummed to communicate she was listening and her partner continued: "Why do you have a last name? You're a peasant, right?"

    That was not the question she had expected, but at least she could give an answer to this one. "You're right, it's a little odd. From what Mother told me, Randgriz Inn has been in my family's possession for generations. At some point people just started calling us that, so we have a last name. You know, 'the Randgriz girl' or something like that." She pushed a few more sticks into the fire, taking note of how Symonne's gaze followed her motions.

    "Huh, interesting."

    Margaret did not comment on the fact Velvet, too, had a last name. She knew it was more common back in her original time, but admitting to that would feed valuable intel to Symonne; no one had told Margaret that her partner already knew about this. Neither could she tell that Symonne was having similar thoughts about the Crowe siblings. Both of them knew, yet neither spoke of it.

    She took the silence to study her companion once again, but somehow her mind returned to Celica. Perhaps it was the black hair they both had, even if Symonne's turned purple at the tips. Margaret sighed and hated her hormone-addled self. This was all so complicated. Thinking of the subject however, she became curious. "Symonne? Do you like Laphi?"

    "Hm? Yeah, he's a sweet boy."

    Margaret quickly shook her head. "No, not like this. I meant romantically. You two get along so well, so I was wondering if, you know?"

    Symonne's expression became blank in an instant, though a frown soon broke through; it already felt like it gave the answer away. In the end, the seraph shrugged. "Don't know," she muttered to the crackling flames. "I've never been in love before, so I can't say if what I feel is that."

    That was sad to hear, or so Margaret thought. Even just remembering the way Arthur felt while he was with Celica made her relax. "Love," she began without truly realising, "is a wonderful, complicated, horrifying thing. It makes you go above and beyond for those in your heart, pushes you to your limits, and makes you happier than most things could ever hope to make you." She stopped herself from elaborating on the horrifying part, of the emptiness and self-loathing that followed losing that love.

    Looking up, she found Symonne's eyes firmly on her own. "You remember being in love?" A nod. "What was it like?"

    "It's... hard to describe. Tranquil. I remember being able to rest after a life full of struggle. To just take day after day in peace, knowing someone was there."

    Symonne did not respond to Margaret's soft words and they fell back into silence.

    Back in Lastonbell, Laphicet was busy doing the books. Numbers were easy to him, for they always acted in the same way and with the same rules. It was something he could just do without needing to take great care. At the same time, the work did not help distract him from this weird feeling. Like something was missing, or that he forgot something. He could not figure out what it was.

    Thankfully, a distraction announced itself rather quickly, just as it entered the room: "Now look at that, our resident nerd is at it again."

    "Hello, Zaveid."

    "Heya, kiddo."

    He only looked up after finishing a column, only to find their infrequent visitor standing in front of him with his usual, confident grin. It faltered a little when he looked Laphicet over, though. "What's with that look? Something on your mind?"

    The boy could only shrug and close his folder. "Not sure, something is bothering me but I don't know what it is." He then put on a smile for Zaveid. "Anyway, you haven't been here in a while. Where were you?"

    "Ah, y'know, this place and that. Mostly northern Rolance, but I was passing through." Zaveid made a dismissive motion even while he pulled a few sheets of parchment out of his pouch; the same one Laphi put a storage space into a few months ago. "Here you go. Might need some more bullets soon, though."

    Laphicet paused for an instant as he put the papers down, then threw a glance at his... friend? "How many do you go through in a day?"

    "Uh... enough?"

    He let out a deep sigh and produced another pouch filled with compressed mana bullets, which was taken from his hands with a cheerful grin. "At least there won't be as many hellions around the area for a while." Glancing down at the notes however, Laphicet could not help but add on something else: "It always surprises me how neat and concise your writing is, considering, well, you."

    "Heh, that's fair." Zaveid leaned onto the table and watched how the other seraph began to mark the most important points in his notes, then colour code some others. "So, anything happen while I was out?"

    "Not really," Laphicet told him idly as he worked. "Everything is proceeding at a good pace. Although, there is one thing that has a bunch of connecting issues. Margaret awakened past memories much like Aifread. She headed out earlier today after one of our human members found her a partner."

    "Huh, now that's a surprise. Any idea who she was before?"

    "Yes."

    "...well, who is it?"

    "That isn't my place to say, I think." He paused to chance a look, finding Zaveid's eyes narrowed. He was a smart man and could likely guess, but Laphicet would keep his mouth shut about this one.

    After a moment of quiet staring, the other man rolled his eyes. "Alright, fine. What about her partner, then?"

    This, he could answer. "Symonne is a water seraph. Kinda snarky, and a bit of a tease. No, scratch the bit, she's a big tease. Really insightful and observant, too. Also, uh...." He trailed off, feeling an odd weight in his gut. Zaveid's eyes narrowed at him and another grin began to grow, though it fell away when Laphicet found the words to describe what he meant: "She used to be tethered to Melchior. I think she never quite recovered from it even after she was no longer suppressed. She reacted really badly to seeing my mana flow."

    "Ah, gotcha."

    That sounded a bit too calm. He glanced up again, to find Zaveid's expression unusually somber. Laphicet turned his head properly and waited for the other seraph to speak, which he did after a moment of tense silence. "The way I see it, kid... you don't ever forget it. Or, no, not like this. You can forget being tethered, put it behind you, but your soul won't ever forget that. It always remembers that light and reminds you that yes, there stands a god right in front of you. I get it, too." It made sense, even.

    And as if to pretend his previous words had never been spoken, Zaveid leaned closer with a wink. "Anyway, she cute?"

    They exchanged a long look, one seraph exasperated and the other amused. In the end, Laphicet decided not to be snarky and stay with the facts. "Very." Though the thought of letting Zaveid near her bothered him for some reason. He wondered about that, but got distracted by the next question.

    "You after her, then?"

    Laphicet did not respond beyond a shrug. He had no idea about these things and was still hoping he did not lose his third ever friend entirely over their shared past. Zaveid's eyes narrowed a little as he studied the younger seraph. "Alright, I'll ask differently. You happy when she's around?"

    "Um, yes?"

    "And you have fun spending time with her?"

    Outside of the times he had to watch her turn into a sobbing mess? "Yes?" He was starting to get a little confused about these questions, admittedly. "Aren't those things that are just as true for a good friend?"

    "Ehhh, kinda but not really." Zaveid made a so-so motion and leaned in with a grin. "Here's a little something you might wanna know: the line between good friend and lover is thin at times. If you love someone, you also get along with them like they're your friend or it won't hold. They're just more than that."

    Laphicet listened curiously, wondering. Growing up really was complicated. His thoughts were still with the way Zaveid spoke, though. He knew this subject better than one would expect, considering his usual macho behaviour. "You speak from experience?"

    "I am." He did not elaborate and Laphicet did not ask. "Anyway," Zaveid continued with a renewed grin, "I can give you some advice on how to sort your own feelings, but you gotta figure things out on your own. You gotta figure out how to approach a girl yourself, too. No help from me there."

    "...Considering your general behaviour, I am probably better off doing that anyway." Laphicet's quip only made him laugh, which the boy took as a cue to change the subject. "Where are you headed next?"

    Zaveid leaned back and against the wall to give him space. "Got some business in Hyland." He stayed quiet for a moment, then elaborated: "Gonna pay Eizen a visit."

    Laphicet threw him a sideway glance, well remembering what Zaveid said about Eizen before. "So you're checking up on Edna?"

    "Might as well, she's a cutie."

    He could not help but chuckle about that. "You're not wrong, but her sarcasm kinda stings."

    "You met her? Ah, yeah, obviously. But boy, you do have it bad for the snarky girls, don't you?" Zaveid probably hoped for some kind of response, but Laphicet could only shrug again. "Alright, fair enough. You're kinda lucky Eizen isn't in a state of mind to threaten you over not touching her, y'know? He was kinda overprotective the whole time I knew him."

    "So Velvet told me." Laphicet huffed and shook his head. "I don't really understand why, though. Edna can look after herself."

    "That she can. But it's the same reason Velvet looks after you, that guy is a big softie when his baby sister's involved."

    "...I have yet to hear Velvet threaten either Symonne or Edna about me, so that's probably not quite the same."

    He got a pat on the head at that point while Zaveid chuckled. "Yeah, but it's the same principle. Kinda hilarious that god's big sister can still make him go to bed on time, ain't it?" The wind seraph did not even wait for an answer as he swaggered toward the door. "Anyway, I'm gonna go spend some quality time with Velvet now. See ya!"

    Laphicet just rolled his eyes and got back to work. By himself, he had the feeling Zaveid would only get himself in trouble with Velvet. But that was his funeral, he was old enough to make his own choices.

    A few more minutes were spent reading and copying notes, but Laphicet ultimately set down the quill with a sigh. His jumbled thoughts were going everywhere except to work and he could not focus anymore. A moment of consideration and he got up, having decided to take a walk to clear his head. Before he even made it so far as to finish cleaning his workplace however, another thought struck his mind: he had spent the last few days with Symonne, who was not well. Perhaps he should check up on Edna, just to make sure nothing happened to her. He doubted anything could happen, but the worry he still felt was easier applied to a friend he could reach.

    So instead of walking outside, his feet carried him down to the teleportation hub and from there to the Spiritcrest. Cold air hit his nostrils immediately, though he took note of the elaborate platform a certain someone crafted all around the gate; Edna had not yet tried to learn how to use it, but she seemed fine with having it there.

    Stepping out of the small cave, Laphicet beheld the by now familiar mountains. While night had already fallen over Lastonbell, the evening sun's orange rays still illuminated Rayfalke Spiritcrest; being able to actually see how the sun appeared to travel from west to east still amazed him, despite knowing it was actually the planet's rotation making it appear that way.

    Laphicet wandered around and to the higher crests, where he knew Edna preferred to sit and peer down at the world. It took him a little while as usual, but he could soon sense her presence and simply flew up the last bit. The seraph girl was lying on her back when he hovered over the cliffside, eyes closed; her umbrella lay folded by her side and she smiled for a reason Laphicet could not guess. It was a nice smile, more at ease than he usually saw Edna.

    He slowly floated to the edge and passed it, settling down next his friend as quietly as possible. Another minute passed before her eyes opened. "Hello," she offered in a tone more bored-sounding than she appeared otherwise. Laphicet could not help but needle her a little.

    "Hello, Edna. It's rare to see you smile like that." And as if she had not even realised before, her expression turned completely blank. They both knew he already saw it, but he did not comment. "What were you thinking of?"

    It was quiet for a few long moments, then Edna sat up and scooted next to him. "I was reading some of my brother's letters," she told Laphicet softly. That was intriguing.

    "In your head?"

    She nodded. "My blessing preserves specific memories and calls them back. The paper he wrote on turned to dust by now, but I have them with me still."

    She likely failed to notice how soft her voice became, but Laphicet did. He could not help but smile, even though he was struggling to conceptualise such a blessing. "Huh. I can't imagine what that must be like."

    "Like so."

    Edna's gaze turning to him was the last he saw of her, then the world changed; for an instant, he was back at Aball. In perfect clarity he remembered, the weak scent of Spring coming in through the window, flowers blooming everywhere. He could feel the warm and homey flavour of Velvet's stew on his tongue, see his sister and brother-in-law chatting about the goings-on in Taliesin, almost hear Arthur's chuckle. It was intense, as if he were really back there, yet gone as fast as it appeared; Laphi blinked, wide-eyed, once more seeing Edna watch him curiously.

    "I can't see what memories others have, though," she finished.

    Laphi did not respond, mind standing still as he leaned forward; he never really thought of Aball since his death, not truly. Looking back now, he cherished the peaceful days with his family. Every single one of them. And yet, he would do the exact same thing again, no matter how often he were given the choice.

    He blinked, only to realise that his cheeks were weirdly warm; another blink had wetness slide down his skin. Edna was still looking at him, he noticed, but she stayed where she was; one hand of hers twitched, but she did not act; Laphicet blinked a few more times and wiped off his tears. Silence reigned between them once again until Edna averted her gaze. "It should only show you fond memories," she muttered softly.

    "It did. I just... haven't thought of home in a while." Not like this, at least. He knew Aball was lost forever, but there had always been a disconnect between his lives as Laphicet and as Innominat. Now he felt like that disconnect grew weaker, if it had not vanished entirely.

    Edna made to turn away, but then paused and returned to sitting normally. She fidgeted a little, though. "Where is it?" she asked next. "Your home?"

    Laphicet sat quietly for a long time, his silence being all the answer Edna likely needed; she lowered her head, but in the end he still felt like telling her: "Aball is no more. It used to be a small village far north of Ladylake, close to the sea." After a few more moments, he heaved a long sigh; Laphicet realised he hated lying to his friends; he always hated lying in general, but his position did not allow to always be truthful. But could he risk coming clean to Edna?

    Before the boy found an answer to this conundrum, she changed the subject. "What's your blessing, then? I showed you mine, so show me yours."

    Being forced to make a choice, Laphicet decided to be careful for now. No matter how much he hated the fact he had to. "I'm sorry, it's just... not something I want to talk about."

    Now it was for Edna to stay quiet again, only to then avert her gaze entirely and mumble an apology. Laphicet turned back to her with a puzzled look. "Why do you apologise?"

    "I didn't want to push bad memories onto you like that."

    She had not, really. Only pushed him to actually confront some of the issues plaguing him as of late. But her quiet admission and the care it implied drew a smile from Laphicet nonetheless. He leaned back to look at the sunset. "It's fine, you couldn't know. But... is this okay for now?" He put his hand over hers as he asked, much to Edna's visible surprise. She even flinched lightly, but he held on and waited for whether she shook him off. "I don't really want to be alone with my thoughts."

    Ironic it was, how he had visited to make sure she was alright, only to realise that he himself was not. His lost home merely added to the doubts Symonne's fear instilled, just like the fact he was lying to his only other friend beside Margaret.

    Edna's hand twitched once, twice, but then she carefully turned it around and clasped his; neither of them acknowledged that, but Laphicet was glad nonetheless. Perhaps he could not tell her everything now, but there was time. The tender feeling of holding her hand right now was enough to calm his worries, at least for the moment.

    They remained quiet after that, just watching the sunset together.
     
  13. Threadmarks: 2.16 Past and Present
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    Edna wondered just how this happened.

    Being moody after another visit from Zaveid the previous day, her heart made a leap when she felt another seraph's mana at the edge of her perception. Then it turned out to not be Laphicet as she expected, but Lailah. She had not seen Lailah in centuries. And the other seraph brought a shepherd. Whom Edna then had to save from Eizen, but that was beside the point.

    She remained uncertain just what exactly convinced her to leave the Spiritcrest and help Sorey, but his earnestness was probably a major factor. He cared in a genuine way that reminded her much of Laphicet, she could admit that much to herself. It took a single conversation and an impromptu grave marker for a random hellion to notice.

    Edna spent most of the journey to Marlind getting comfy within Sorey, as well as getting used to how crowded it was in him. Most of the rest of her time went into practicing with the silver flame of purification, helping out with a few hellions they came by. She never saw that many in such a short time before; although, admittedly, the silver flame was cheating: douse the hellion once and the fight is won. No need to so much as beat it up, which she was not entirely sure she liked or disliked; venting frustrations was easier when she could hit something she knew would keep coming at her.

    Either way, had she not had semi-recent company in form of a sweet seraph boy over the past year, she probably would feel a lot more on edge from the constant chatter around her. Sorey talked a lot and about many different things, once again with a similar earnestness to himself. He appeared interested in everything that Lailah or Edna could tell him, though the latter wisely kept quiet about how much she actually knew. As much as Zaveid rubbed her the wrong way, she listened when he told tales of his travels.

    Now however, they were standing in front of a roaring river where a bridge once was. Destroyed by a corrupted seraph that Sorey managed to quell before he turned into a true dragon. Dragons were another reason Edna made the leap and went with him; he promised he would look for a way to return Eizen, caring for a random stranger in such a way that simply baffled her. Yet he was genuine, even though Edna wondered by herself; she clamped down on any doubts of it being possible, though. At least she had to try.

    Now they were discussing how to play this. And by 'they', Edna meant the other three. She was standing a few steps from the cliffside, gazing out onto the current. She never saw such a swollen river before, wondered how deep it was and how fast. Like most earth seraphim she could not swim, so she made sure to stay distant from the drop. Dozens of people were settled in a small camp a few dozen metres distant; most of them were workers who brought material to build a new bridge, but nothing was built yet. The river flew too strong at this time of year, as Summer faded and Autumn settled in. Dark clouds promised more rain even now, but what made her sigh quietly was the fact they were still arguing.

    "I mean, I get it," Sorey said in that moment, probably waving his arms in some way as she noticed he often did, "but it still feels wrong to just leave these people here without helping them. Why does the shepherd need complete neutrality, anyway? I can't help anyone if I stay out of everything, right?"

    "Not quite," Lailah returned primly, as she did this whole exchange. She certainly had more patience than Edna. "The shepherd's main duty is to cleanse hellions and keep the people free of Malevolence, not to tend to their other, more worldly concerns."

    Edna continued to ignore the bickering trio in favour of studying the stream; her senses told her that the riverbed lay at least a dozen metres deep. She would love to swim in it, but that would drown her; maybe Laphicet knew how to swim and could teach her? Or Velvet?

    Her wondering when she might next meet either of the two siblings was interrupted, much like the argument behind her, when heavy steps darted up their little hill. She could feel them quite clearly, belonging to boots of iron and accompanied by the clatter of armour. Turning to the newcomer, Edna beheld a woman about halfway between herself and Lailah in height, clad in light, brightly coloured armour. Sand-coloured hair clung to her sweaty forehead and her breathing came quick when she stopped before them, a spear or lance clasped onto her back. "Sorey! You made it!"

    The other three turned to meet the newcomer, so Edna made a full turn as well to study her more closely. Knightly she was, standing straight and with a gentle smile as she greeted everyone.

    "Yeah, we did." Sorey scratched the back of his head as he glanced at the camp behind them. "I already saw that things aren't as good as they could be. Why are you so out of breath?"

    "Oh, well, I was patrolling the surrounding area for hellions to cleanse." The woman breathed more deeply by now and wiped her brow with her gauntlet. "The workers are still in a good mood, but I fear for what might happen if the construction is stalled too long. We may have to cross elsewhere ahead of the caravan." She then hesitated for a moment, eyes going from Sorey over Mikleo and Lailah to Edna, then back. "But enough of me, how was Rayfalke?" Before anyone could even answer, she followed up with a rather more curious question: "Did you see the dragon?"

    "Yeah, just like you said." Sorey nodded somewhat solemnly while Edna's chest tightened for a moment. Her eyes narrowed as she beheld the woman again, but the only one who might have noticed was Mikleo. He did not say anything about her annoyance with people treating her brother like a landmark, but by the grimace he sent her way he understood. Then however, Edna was distracted by her shepherd. "He really was as terrifying as you said, one roar and the mountain shook."

    "And guess who figured his best course of action was to face him?" Mikleo chimed in with a roll of his eyes, which made Sorey wilt and Lailah chuckle. Edna had to huff as well while the young water seraph continued: "If Edna hadn't been there, we might have become lunch."

    She only realised what he did a moment later, when all eyes went to her. Smooth, surprisingly so for what she saw of him so far. Sorey took the hint and put on a smile. "Oh, right. Alisha, meet Edna, she's an earth seraph who agreed to bond with me and help purify hellions. Edna, meet Alisha, she's my squire."

    Alisha did not give her a chance to quip, she immediately bowed at the waist. "It is an honour to make your acquaintance, seraph Edna."

    She had to take a moment to just stare, trying not to blush when she heard Lailah chuckling at the side. Alisha remained as she was for several seconds before straightening again, which left Edna with time to deliberate on what to say. Her first question, she figured, might as well remain on the previous subject. "Likewise. Do people talk about dragons a lot, or are you just a nerd?"

    More chuckling while the squire blinked at her owlishly. Edna rolled her umbrella on her shoulder, waiting with one eyebrow raised. When it became clear she expected an answer, the other woman started hesitantly: "Well, it is not either of those. Last Winter, I met a traveler who climbed the Spriticrest. There were always rumours of dragons up there, but she told me rather vividly how powerful the creature truly was."

    Last Winter? Edna's eyes narrowed as she thought, there was only one woman who passed by where she could see in the previous year.

    "Huh, she must have strong resonance to have seen him." Sorey's gaze wandered between the two women. "Did you talk to her, Edna?"

    "That depends." She turned her attention back to Alisha and raised her hand as high as she could. "This tall, long, black hair? Chest a little bigger than Lailah's?"

    There were a few striking details about Velvet, but her height and hair were the most notable of them. Edna just added the boobs because she could, and because it forced Alisha to look that way to measure with her eyes; she fidgeted once she realised what Edna just made her do, but did not say anything about it. "Yes, that sounds about right. I forgot her name, I am afraid. She did not speak of meeting any seraphim up there, though."

    "She probably kept it under wraps because you were not able to perceive us at the time, or because you were in public," Lailah told her gently, not having commented on the previous matter. "Some much rather have peace from people interested in their resonance, or their doubt of it."

    "I see. She was rather quite friendly, though." Alisha frowned, gaze directed downward for a moment, but then she shook her head and looked back up. "Be that as it may, what were you discussing before my arrival?"

    Now it was her time to shine. Edna raised her hand with a mirthless grin, then pointed it at Sorey and the other two seraphim. "Those three clowns can't agree whether to build or not build a bridge. Which is a bridge they obviously couldn't cross before we got to it, as there is no bridge."

    Sorey and Mikleo both went cross-eyed as they tried to parse the sentence, Lailah chuckled, and Alisha went right back to frowning. Instead of joining her snark however, she addressed Sorey curiously: "Why is it that you should not assist?"

    "Well, uh, I kinda want to, but Lailah also has a point that I shouldn't get involved in those things too much, or everyone might start expecting me to take that kind of work off their shoulders. Or get scared of me if they see me do superhuman things, but I think that's more of a secondary thing."

    Alisha listened to him calmly and offered a single nod. "Hm, I believe I can follow that reasoning and it does make sense from the point of maintaining the shepherd's neutrality." She paused, perhaps for effect, and all of Edna's hopes for a near resolution were destroyed with her next words: "However, I can not in good conscience agree with it. Even as your squire, I am still a knight of Hyland. Rebuilding this bridge will take at least a year and the work can not even begin until the water level lowers in Winter."

    And instead of three clowns arguing, there were now four. Edna stepped back again, sighed, and turned around to gaze at the river once more. This was annoying, those four were annoying, the humans praying a little bit down the river were annoying.

    Through her mood however, Edna noticed something curious; those human workers were not praying for a seraph to return the bridge. They prayed for the water level to go down soon, so that they could start building. Their pleas called to any seraph who might listen, so Lailah and Mikleo could both hear it as well if they actually took a moment to listen. A glance behind her told Edna that neither would do so anytime soon.

    But indeed, they did not expect someone to come and do their work for them. All they wished for was an issue they could do nothing about be solved. She figured she might as well throw them a bone, if just so they could finally get going. Not to mention that some of the workers had begun to notice Sorey and Alisha arguing on this hill and were watching them, so it was high time.

    Her mana flowed almost gently, from her body into the ground. The earth began to rumble and everyone noticed; Lailah and Mikleo both turned their attention to Edna immediately while the other two were looking around.

    "You, Alisha."

    The young woman turned to Edna as well upon being spoken to. "You can tell that bunch that I heard their prayers." The earth shifted under her will while Edna continued to direct mana into it, forming bedrock and pushing it out of the riverbed. She threw a flat stare to Sorey, who watched curiously. "You have an earth seraph right here who is done with you all wasting our time."

    A row of evenly spaced pillars rose from the lake, casting back large waves of water as they took their places. The earth continued to shake and she could hear exclamations from the common folk. What would Laphicet think if he saw her do this right now? Would he rib her for being too soft? Probably, he and maybe Velvet might be able to tell she did want to help, even if she would never say it that way.

    As the tremors died down and Edna let go of her mana, she felt like sinking to the ground, but forced herself to stay steady; she was not going to act weak here. She still had to take deep breaths after such an exertion, only barely able to stop her legs from shaking. Only after she made sure she was steady did the seraph girl turn around, a confident, smug grin on her face as she beheld her companions; Alisha was looking past her at the solid pillars with wide-eyed awe, as did Mikleo. Sorey's eyes were on Edna herself and he wore a big smile that made her wonder again, if perhaps he figured her out already. Was she that bad an actress?

    Lailah, ultimately, appeared thoughtful. She did not share her thoughts with them, though.

    The moment passed and Alisha perked up, then strode over to the workers who still looked upon the lake in awe. "A kind lady seraph has answered your pleas!" she shouted over the river's gurgling and the excited murmuring. "Shall this suffice as a foundation to build a new bridge?"

    The overseer snapped to attention immediately and the rest followed right after. "Of course, your highness! We will begin immediately!"

    'Your highness'? Edna's eyes were on Alisha again, but then she left that be for a moment. Everyone was in high spirits, so she allowed herself a bigger smile and turned back to look at her work. It was quite orderly, all pillars being in a straight line; a quick burst of mana into the ground gave her a better idea for its composition. She made doubly sure each of them was completely stable, which they were.

    "I can not thank you enough," Alisha addressed her from the side. Edna blinked and wondered when she got there, but shrugged it off while the other woman bowed her head again. "It means a great deal to me. Thank you."

    She could just play it off, but not in a way that did not imply she felt good from being helpful. Which she did, surprisingly; her first true voyage from home and she learned she liked to help others, while knowing she did not want people to know that. So instead, Edna decided to change the subject: "You're royalty?"

    Her question made Alisha perk up in surprise. "Well, yes. Though nowhere close to succeeding His Majesty the king, I am a princess of Hyland." The others nodded along, so Edna took it at face value. She also decided to keep an eye on Alisha, maybe learn more about how to act like a proper lady.

    "Alright." Edna vaguely considered poking fun at her, but nothing good came to mind quickly. Not to mention that she was tired. "Anyway, I'm going to take a nap." She quickly dispersed into mana and settled into Sorey, her voice echoing through his and Alisha's minds: "Wake me when we reach Marlind."

    While Edna napped however, Sorey could not help but feel a little sheepish over how people were cheering for him and Alisha. He figured it was an impressive sight to see two people hop over dozens of metres between those stone pillars above a roaring river, but being cheered at just for doing what he usually did remained odd. At least Alisha seemed to have fun; she whooped happily with every other jump, enjoying the full power of a seraph's bond coursing through her.

    However, this was most of the excitement they got for a few days. The road to Marlind remained mostly free of hellions. Edna did not actually nap the entire time, so she and Alisha could get acquainted; that girl really had a quick wit and a sharp tongue, mercilessly abusing Alisha's reverence of the seraphim to pull pranks on her. Or perhaps Alisha just played along, he could not say for sure. Either way, what Sorey noticed as the days passed was the Malevolence continuously getting more dense. They burned away the bigger clouds they could reach, but the land had grown dark under blackness, flakes of it floating in the air.

    When they reached the city, the black flakes created a fog that made seeing Marlind's other side difficult. It was midday, but the Malevolence made it appear like dusk. The people were subdued, but word of Alisha's arrival still spread quickly and improved their mood somewhat. The gentle shepherd was quite welcome as well; the medicine they carried definitely did its part in lifting their spirits, even if it came too late for far too many. Sorey tried not to look too hard at the rows of bodies covered by straw mats.

    "I am not sure how much I can be of assistance," the mayor apologised when Sorey and Alisha managed to get a hold of him. "We still do not know where the plague originates or what transmits it." He could not know the answer to both was 'Malevolence', but Sorey kept quiet about that. The older man looked like he ran himself ragged already, but he still wore a smile for them. Or maybe because of them. "Of unusual occurences, what comes to mind is the museum at the edge of town. It seems to be haunted, or so I was told."

    Sorey took note of Edna and Lailah perking up, turning their heads while the mayor spoke, but he could not look at what they were seeing without being rude. Alisha was giving him a thoughtful look now. "This sounds like something we want to investigate, does it not?"

    He gave a nod, but was prevented from answering out loud when a voice spoke up behind them: "Um, excuse me?"

    Shepherd and Squire both turned around, to find a woman about their age. She stood a little taller than Alisha and was clad in white with silvery accents, though her shirt and pants had turned grey from dust and were a little dirty. Blonde hair close to gold in colour fell down to her shoulders openly, framing a heart-shaped face. Sorey blinked at the sight.

    . .
    . .

    Laphicet floated around the Spiritcrest, more worried than he was in a while. He normally should have seen Edna by now, having run around the highest mountaintops for a good hour. Yet she was not there, nowhere to be seen. At first he just figured she left her usual haunt and took a walk or something, but his mind began to paint more grim pictures after a while. It only got worse when he saw Eizen resting on a large plateau, rolled into a ball and snoozing. What if he ate Edna?

    His chest became painfully tight at just the thought and he tried to chase it away, but it remained persistently stuck to the back of his head like a parasite, refusing to be dislodged. Laphicet's course repeatedly brought him back to the resting dragon, the third time close enough for Eizen to notice; he opened slitted eyes and stared up at the intruder, then began to growl. Only to freeze in place when Laphicet growled back in seven voices, a note of power in them that made the beast hesitate and slink away the moment the greater dragon's attention turned elsewhere.

    He tried to calm himself and returned to Edna's vessel, the shrine she built mainly for the memory of all the travelers her brother ate over the centuries. There were only some traces of mana left, meaning she had not been around for a while. Mana did not linger long in one place.

    Looking closer at the shrine however, he noticed something odd as he rounded it fully: the ground was uneven where it should be smooth. Blinking, Laphicet threw himself into the air to get an overview. What he saw made the worry melt, made relief course through his entire being. He sighed and turned away after reading the message left for him; Edna left her mountain, telling Laphicet not to wait for her return. Saying that they would definitely meet on the way; he hoped they would. Desolation was a big place, but then again, as much as he refused to believe in fate, these things had a habit of working out.
     
  14. Threadmarks: 2.17 Cooperation and Conversation
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    "Um, excuse me?"

    Shepherd and Squire both turned around to find a woman about their age, standing a little taller than Alisha and clad in white with silvery accents. Her shirt and pants had turned grey from dust and were a little dirty. Blonde hair close to gold in colour fell down to her shoulders openly, framing a heart-shaped face. Sorey blinked at the sight. The woman glanced between them with a soft if hesitant smile. "I just happened to overhear your conversation. Would you mind if I joined you?"

    The mayor injected himself into the conversation there, eyeing the new arrival just as curiously. "My, another traveler. I don't think I saw you in town before, lass."

    "I just arrived an hour ago."

    Her gaze already went back to Sorey, who shook his head to her request. "Sorry, but I don't think that's a good idea. It could be really dangerous in the museum, so...." He trailed off, unsure how to finish the sentence without being rude. The woman merely smiled and tapped her scabbard.

    "Not to worry, I can defend myself if need be."

    He knew this was not a good idea but she seemed eager. Still, Alisha appeared to have similar thoughts. "I am not certain this is appropriate, and I would certainly not want to drag another into such issues."

    The stranger's attention had gone to Alisha and she seemed confused, head tilted ever so slightly. That was when Edna poked Sorey's back with her umbrella. "She has a seraph along, you can stop trying to dance around the subject. Maybe try hula next time, I hear that might be more your style."

    "Wait, really?"

    Mikleo's murmured "what is hula?" went ignored while the mayor's confused attention alternated between them all; Sorey had turned his head to Edna and the stranger seemed to regard empty air as well. Alisha talked to him quietly then: "Please be at ease, the gentle shepherd is speaking with one of his accompanying seraphim."

    The older man's eyes widened at that and he quickly bowed his head. "I see, my apologies." After another glance at the situation, he inclined his head. "I believe that with everything in good hands, I should take my leave now. There is still much to do, I hope you understand. I would not want to presume to tell the gentle shepherd how to do his work."

    "Oh, uh, sure. Take care, sir."

    "You as well."

    And with that, the mayor left them alone with a woman who suddenly smiled a little brighter, eyes on Sorey. "You're the shepherd? That's incredible, such a small world we live in!" She eagerly stepped forward and shook his hand with a lot of enthusiasm, which had Lailah chuckle. "I'm Margaret, nice to meet you."

    He needed a moment to gather his bearings, a little flat-footed from the cheerful reception. "Yeah, nice to meet you, too. I'm Sorey." He then motioned for his companions. "This is Alisha, Mikleo, Lailah, and Edna over there." The earth seraph had made to lounge on a nearby bench, apparently done with standing around. She did not greet Margaret like the others did, simply looked her over.

    Before their conversation could go anywhere else however, mana seeped out of Margaret and quickly solidified, a cheerful voice already speaking before the seraph took form: "Now what did I just hear?" True to her feminine tone, it was a girl quite similar to Edna in height and shape, if dressed a bit more sinister and with black hair instead of ochre. Her clothes were a lot more provocative, too; Sorey could see her belly button and a good bit below her collarbone, almost more skin uncovered than covered by her breezy vest. The shorts were much the same, leaving her thighs free, though she wore purple thighhighs that covered most of her legs. Before either of them could comment, the girl had darted over to Edna and examined her from up close. Uncomfortably up close, Sorey noted by himself. "Edna, yes?"

    "Yes." She was handling this better than Sorey would have, tone remaining flat and composed despite the other girl's face being but a hand's width away from her own.

    "Hm. Curious. Did you use to live on a mountain?"

    "Yes?" There was some inflection there now, curiousity or confusion mostly. "How do you know that?" Sorey wondered as well and a glance to the side showed how everyone was watching the exchange by now.

    The other girl grinned and retreated out of Edna's personal space. "Small world indeed. You're cute enough to draw Crowes, aren't you? Both of them, at that." She giggled when Edna's posture changed at the mention, though its meaning was lost on Sorey. He had seen no birds around the Spiritcrest.

    "Ah." Margaret sighed and shook her head, then turned to Sorey and Alisha. "It seems those two have mutual friends. Please do not mind Symonne trying and failing to be clever about it."

    "I can hear you, you know?"

    She stoically ignored the comment, though Alisha took the chance to step forward with a critical stare at the now named Symonne. "Be that as it may, I have to insist you cover yourself properly. Dressing like this is inappropriate."

    Symonne turned her attention from Edna and to the scandalised princess, then looked down at her attire. Sorey had seen a lot of people walk around like this and saw no real problem, but Alisha probably knew better than him what went for human customs. Symonne, however, merely put her hand on the bits of string keeping her top together. "I don't think it's inappropriate, really. As far as I recall, Hyland's only requirements for public decency are to cover your chest and your crotch, which I am. Everything else is my choice."

    Alisha's mouth opened and closed as she tried to come up with some kind of rebuttal, but the fact she had none told Sorey that Symonne was right. Margaret sighed. "Of course she read the legal code just in case." Shaking her head, the other woman walked next to Alisha and softly tugged on her jacket. "Please drop it. Knowing Symonne, she will just go in the nude if you keep insisting."

    "...you're no fun, Maggie."

    The pair exchanged looks, one flat and the other amused, while Sorey continued not to see a problem. The other seraphim appeared as nonplussed as he was, though Alisha seemed to be out of it still. A few deep breaths were what it took for her to calm down. "Very well. I will not say anything, but please do know that I disapprove."

    "So noted." Symonne even saluted at the princess, a wide grin displayed for all to see. Lailah shook her head in what may be fondness by this point.

    Sorey took the opportunity to address Margaret in the ensuing silence. "Anyway, I'm happy you want to help, but this is kinda sudden, you know? And I'm not sure if I should involve others in my duties like that," he added with a glance to Lailah, who nodded gently.

    The other woman made a thoughtful noise before shrugging. "I can understand that, but I want to help these people nonetheless. And as I am neither a herbalist nor a doctor, all I can do is investigate the Malevolence in this place."

    "Meaning," Symonne piped up from Sorey's other side, "she will get herself in trouble either way, you just get to decide whether you can keep an eye on her while she does." The seraph girl put on an innocent look while her partner threw her another flat stare, their interaction bringing a smile to Sorey's face; it seemed that humans and seraphim could live together just fine, even outside of Elysia.

    "You two seem to be good friends," he could not help but note. Both turned to him at that, then glanced at each other. Then they both shrugged and Sorey continued with a quick look to Lailah. "But I guess it's fine if you come along for a bit. I want to have this cleared up as fast as possible, so thank you for the help."

    "Alright, then off we go," Symonne cheered and pointed in a direction. She immediately led the way and Margaret followed without comment, so Sorey did the same; everyone else fell into step around them, though Alisha and Lailah exchanged amused looks at the side. He could understand that, the girl's cheer was a little infectious despite the dire situation.

    After some thought and a mental push to actually make conversation, Sorey made some faster steps to catch up with Margaret and tapped her shoulder. "I'm curious, how long have you two known each other?"

    She looked from him to Symonne at that. "Oh, well, about a month? I did not keep an exact count, but we met shortly before I left home." Margaret glanced back at Sorey, who could not really hide his surprise.

    "Just a month? I didn't, I mean, uh... how to say this?" He fell quiet and tried to come up with a good description while Margaret waited patiently. The others around them seemed to listen in, everyone being quiet; yet he could not find the right words and it became increasingly embarassing.

    Surprisingly enough, it was Symonne who came to his rescue after a while: "You mean we act too familiar for knowing each other such a short time?"

    "Yeah, exactly." He nodded and smiled at the seraph girl thankfully, then motioned for his companions. "I mean, it's like, Mikleo and I are like that but we're brothers. And I've had Lailah and Alisha around for a few months, but, uh, it doesn't really feel like we're half that close?" The women appeared to think this through, though both of them nodded. Symonne and Margaret shrugged once more.

    "Perhaps it is the different circumstances," the human woman offered. "You already had someone you are close to, so there was no real need to forge a closer bond with someone else. Symonne was all I had for company for a month in the wilderness, so we talked a lot to pass the time. We are both lost souls of a kind, too."

    Symonne huffed but did not deny the last comment; she turned around to walk backwards though, to look at them all. "It was probably that we only had each other for company, yes. There was a lot more focus on the respective other and thus, a stronger bond. But I think we have a good synergy, too." Her gaze raked over Sorey and Mikleo, then Alisha and Lailah, then Edna. "And you guys look more like a ragtag group to me, right now. Because I see five people who are a little too skittish in reaching out to others."

    Sorey could not help but avert his gaze, which made him fail to see how everyone except Edna did much the same. He tried to be more outgoing and he enjoyed talking to people he already knew, but it was not that easy. Thankfully, the museum's looming structure came into sight to distract them, all sharp angles and dark wood. He could not tell if the colour was due to Malevolence, though; mutated bats and birds populated the roof and streamers of liquid darkness ran through every opening. A cold wind ran over the group as a whole and made most of them shudder. Symonne, curiously, remained unaffected.

    "I was curious how a shepherd works anyway," Margaret muttered and stepped back with a nod to him. Sorey took that as his cue and pulled on the heat burning close to his heart.

    Lailah taught him how to harness the silver flame, how to draw it out and spread it wide. It was an easy power in itself, point at hellion and make sure the flame can reach all the Malevolence. For something this big however, he decided to start big. "Lailah? Do you think we can clear the roof in one swipe?"

    "Hm." She put a finger to her chin, porcelain skin wrinkled the slightest bit in a frown. "I believe so. If you would, Sorey?"

    "Alright." She became immaterial and returned into his body while Sorey felt for their bond, another thing Lailah taught him. There was familiarity there between them, but different to the open friendliness between Margaret and Symonne. He took a deep breath, let Lailah's mana circulate through his body, and pulled out the blade she gifted him when they first met.

    "Fethmus Mioma!" His call of her true name would not reach the ears of anyone but himself, lost amidst the roaring of flame that engulfed him, her, them. A seraph's spirit and wisdom and will, a shepherd's body and strength and heart, turned into one, bound together by the the seraph's true name.

    When the light faded and the others could see, their whole body was alight in an ethereal glow. Their hair had grown long and wisps of flame danced around it, the catalyst transformed into a greatsword twice the size of any human. Their heart sang as they focussed, mana pulsating like a volcano on the cusp of eruption. But it would follow their order, flowed as was demanded. They harnessed the gentle, silvery warmth from within and then made it flow through a blade held high. Flames engulfed their weapon, silver and full of hope. Purification was afoot, though the sprawling building itself would require to be entered for a proper cleansing. It was no matter, that they knew. The result would be the same.

    With a shout, they brought the sword down in a mighty swing, releasing its burning shroud to lash out, race up to and over the rooftops before descending in a graceful arc. Malevolence was set alight and burned, quickly becoming fuel as the silver flame spread like any regular one. It did not pass through the heavy roof, but quickly covered its entire surface from the large tear in the darkness their initial strike created. Some birds took flight out of instinct, but most of the rest remained and were returned to normal. Where the fire faded, there was no trace of Malevolence left.

    "Says they aren't close, but they can armatise."

    They glanced at Symonne, who was eyeing them with an arched eyebrow. They had known, but also not known, that armatisation required a certain level of familiarity. Although... "A shepherd who can not trust their firekeeper is no shepherd at all, which makes this a moot point in regard to our previous conversation." After saying these words, their voice carrying an odd echo from combining two, they gently split apart into their components. Sorey and Lailah they became once more, the experience a little bit unsettling as it always was; it felt like he had not truly been himself in the aftermath.

    They watched the flames spread and engulf the roof fully before fading out after they consumed all of the Malevolence. Margaret observed until the very last moment, eyes wide and obviously in awe; the others exchanged lenient smiles over that, all of them having been much the same the first time they saw such a spectacle. In the end, they entered the museum together and Sorey pushed himself to ask another question: "Say, which road did you take? We didn't see you on the way to Marlind... and Griflet Bridge was still destroyed, come to think of it."

    It only occurred to him now and their companion averted her gaze for a moment. Mikleo made a thoughtful noise and addressed Symonne, who was glancing between them all: "What element are you?"

    "Hm? Water."

    "Ah, I see!" Lailah clapped her hands. "So they could have crossed the river at any spot!"

    Symonne nodded and Margaret agreed with a soft nod of her own. "That is true, we could have. I'm not sure if the road we took has any name, really."

    . .
    . .

    It amused Symonne a great deal how happy Margaret was not to be found out; she hid it well, but seeing how chipper she became after the subject was mentally marked as done made it quite clear. Not even too surprising, seeing how the two realms were currently at each other's throats. For now, at least. Once Laphicet or Velvet willed it, those hostilities would cease. Likely after Heldalf was... taken care of.

    Their own work here was rather boring, too; mostly just watching the shepherd at work, seeing how the silver flame made non-issues out of hellions and Malevolence. Margaret took to guarding the rear just in case, her blade held steady if at ease. Symonne simply spent her time gliding around the bunch on a thin rail of water, exploring the exhibits; art was not one of her preferred things in life, but she could still appreciate a good painting.

    What she could also appreciate, once the girl remembered their previous conversation, was Edna.

    "You know Laphicet?"

    She acted and sounded nonchalant, but there was an eagerness to her body language that her face hid far better than the rest. Symonne almost grinned and turned to her fellow woman. "Yup, we met by chance a little while ago, and now he's my friend. Same for you, isn't it?" The confirmation was taken in stride, though her question made Edna hesitate. Curious, was she unsure about their friendship like Symonne was deep down? Did she know of Innominat? Or was it simply her not wanting to admit something personal like that?

    "...yes. He and Velvet stopped by a year ago and kept visiting since."

    "Heh, I can definitely see why they would. You're such a cute one. I needed a mysterious old lady to beckon them back most of the time." She leaned forward and gave the befuddled girl a pat on the head, receiving no answer and thus continuing. "Then again, you have to be more than just cute to get visits from those two. So that would make you..." Edna stiffened a little and Symonne grinned wider. Too easy. "Super cute!"

    She giggled, as did Lailah and Princess Alisha who were apparently listening in. Edna's surprise became blankness once again and the girl took a step back from her, then turned around to study another painting. She slowly rolled the umbrella on her shoulder, obstructing Symonne's view; the water seraph quickly reached out with her blessing and weaved an illusion of herself still standing where she was while hiding the real her from sight and sound, then snuck around to see what she did. Only to find a little surprise: stoic Edna, beet red in the face and with quivering eyes.

    Symonne blinked and almost slunk back on instinct. She expected a blush or something, but not that the girl was on the verge of tears; that one was on her, she underestimated how susceptible this one was to teasing. Or perhaps to compliments, now that she thought about it. It might have been the fact others were listening in on it, too. Either way, Symonne was left feeling a little guilty as she returned to where her illusion stood and replaced it. Edna turned around a few moments later, no trace of her previous state still visible. She was good at hiding it, the casual obstruction of view with her umbrella a well-planned maneuver to hide herself away.

    When their eyes met again, Edna grinned in a faintly amused yet mostly smug manner. "I think he's more interested in me being so down-to-earth, being an earth seraph and all. Or he's taking pity because he's too nice for his own good. Velvet is more grounded, but she just sees a sibling-substitute and plays big sister."

    Add low self-confidence to the list. Or self-deprecation, perhaps. Symonne shrugged either way. "Sounds about right. How many more earth-related terms can you weave into the conversation?"

    "Don't know, that depends on which grounds you take. Could be a few, could be a mountain." The grin was growing wider and Symonne felt she got the idea of interacting with Edna. Just don't try to have a heart-to-heart, and pretend she does not emote in most of the usual ways. Shy but trying to hide it, perhaps. So she just smiled back.

    "That does sound like a solid reasoning, yes. So, what brought you to leave the mountain I was told about?"

    Edna shrugged softly, but averted her gaze for a moment before forcing it back. "Felt like it." Lie by omission. "But I seem to fit in, so I try not to rock the boat." It took her a moment to catch that one; she only did when Lailah started laughing, which led to a rather confused werewolf ahead of them being bathed in purifying flames. The creature turned back into a very confused man who was apparently staff and quickly went to the main entrance hall like all the rest.

    Edna idled away at that point to help out elsewhere, and next it was the princess who approached her. By charging in and deflecting an animated armour as it made to strike at Symonne. Empowered flesh held heartless steel at bay without much trouble and a gout of flame from Mikleo turned the golem back into an exhibit. Symonne mostly watched, having been ready to dodge just in case. "Thank you," she told Alisha politely.

    "Think nothing of it." The other woman smiled and made to walk by her side; it was obvious she had something to say, but she hesitated for a while. "I was meaning to apologise," she finally started, though not meeting Symonne's gaze. "My earlier behaviour was out of line, I should not have presumed to criticise a seraph's choices."

    A gust creeped under Symonne's shirt and made it flutter, as if the very building was laughing at Alisha. The seraph girl shrugged. "I'm well aware I'm toeing the line of human sensibilities, but this is who I am and I refuse to pretend being anyone else." The subject was over with that, in her opinion; Alisha seemed to think the same because she nodded thoughtfully. A princess who always kept up appearances despite it all, she probably had different ideas on this.

    They fell quiet and listened to other people talking; Sorey and Margaret were discussing their respective sword styles, the former being self-taught and the latter telling the story of how her teacher-to-be just walked into town one day and then agreed to teach her in exchange for room and board. It did sound like what she remembered of Velvet Crowe, too; the fact Margaret did so well in utilising Artorius' style, she had gotten used to over the last month.

    "Actually, I was meaning to ask," Alisha finally piped up again, a curious gaze lying on Symonne, who gave her a nod. "I heard that most seraphim do not look their age, so I was wondering about that." Not an actual question, but what she wanted to know was clear enough. Symonne shrugged.

    "I think I completed my first millennium a few years ago, but I didn't really keep track." She noticed the other seraphim glancing her way and raised an eyebrow back as best as she could with them being in different places. "What about you three?"

    "I wonder," Lailah began in an attempt to sound mysterious, Edna just kept quiet entirely.

    Mikleo did not seem bothered, though. "Twenty, same as Sorey. We grew up together." She had half a mind to pity him; he was still so young and already had a human he felt so close to; Sorey's death, be it in a year or sixty, would devastate him.

    "Oh my." Alisha looked from Mikleo to Sorey, distracting people for a moment. "I had no idea you were a year older than me."

    The shepherd just scratched his cheek with an awkward smile. "It kinda never came up."

    Right now however, Symonne had found better targets. She did not let the two humans distract her from that; she could tease Margaret about being far younger, but this sounded like a better surprise to come up later. No, her eyes were on the other seraph women. "What is this, I wonder? Are our resident grandmas too shy to say their age?" She giggled when both of them turned their attention to her, then crossed her arms and looked back. "Well? We're waiting."

    With everyone's attention on them now, Lailah sighed softly. "It would have been nice to create a bit of mystery, but alas. I should be a few years younger than you." From which she gathered that Lailah had not lived through Innominat's reign; Symonne herself was not even five when she was tethered.

    "About sixteen hundred years," Edna finally added, surprisingly subdued. "But I might have lost a few decades, I don't really keep track either." She immediately kicked a mutated rat in the face as if to ward off any commentary.

    "So all of us are still fairly young, with one baby," Symonne concluded with a grin in Mikleo's direction. He glowered at her but said nothing, probably having seen Edna's smirk returning.

    "My, then, if I may ask: at which point would a seraph be seen as an adult?"

    This time it was Margaret to speak up, holding a soft smile for Alisha as she answered the question: "Mikleo is an adult, even if the others tease him for being young. I am surprised you never asked the seraphim that before, really; it was one of my first questions once I found out they live so long." Alisha grimaced ever so slightly, but Symonne was likely the only one who noticed it. Margaret went on gently, explaining to nods from Lailah and Sorey: "You can not determine the age or maturity of a seraph based on their appearance, as it shifts based on their own self-image and the image others have of them. Symonne and Edna are petite like they are not due to youth, but because either they themselves, or others, have that appearance tied to the idea of Symonne and Edna. You have to watch how they behave to figure out if they are mature."

    Margaret then turned her head to look between the scattered seraphim; they had stopped at this point to talk this out. "Although I am still unsure about one thing. I know your appearance changes if your self-image does. But can you change gender?"

    No one answered her. Truthfully, Symonne had no idea; from the look of it, none of the others knew it either. Margaret shrugged at that and dropped the subject, turning back to Sorey. "Now, you were telling me about the Celestial Record?"

    "Oh, right." They got to walking again, the experience less clearing out a large area and more a casual stroll with some battle. Sorey smiled and presented a well-read copy of the popular book. "I'm honestly surprised you haven't read it before."

    "Indeed," Alisha agreed from further behind them, now taking up the rear. "I read it a decade ago for the first time, though I did not understand it entirely at that age."

    Now Margaret was the one embarassed; she fidgeted and it took Symonne a moment to figure out why. Her realisation came at around the same time her partner explained: "I, uh, couldn't read until last year."

    And from there, it only took a split-second to understand what likely happened. Symonne could not help but ask: "Laphicet?"

    Margaret nodded. "Laphicet. He was really surprised when I said I couldn't and took to teaching me the same day."

    It was not too surprising with how helpful that boy always tried to be, but Symonne still had to smile over it. She could not really continue on that track, though; Mikleo muttered a comment of his own, probably louder than intended: "This Laphicet seems to be everywhere. Lailah knows him, Edna knows him. He was there the day Sorey woke up, too."

    "Mhm, you have a point there," Lailah agreed thoughtfully, one eye on Symonne. The water seraph did not notice anything like distrust, but she also knew that secrets were best kept where nobody knew there were any. Standing out bred curiousity, even if it was inevitable for a god who walked amongst men.

    Sorey chimed in next, visibly confused: "Wait, most people can't read?" He got dumbfounded looks from Alisha and Margaret both, which made him wilt a little and start to justify himself: "It's, uh, sorry. Gramps taught me so I just thought everyone learns it somehow. I can't imagine not being able to read."

    "I concur." Alisha sighed softly and observed at the area around them, not a hellion in sight for now. "Perhaps we should take a short break before sweeping the rest of the building?" There was general agreement and the group as a whole settled around the room; only then did the princess continue: "But to get back to the subject of literacy, it is... not deemed a necessary skill for the peasantry. Marlind is a town of scholars and getting educated is easier here, but even then it is not universal. It does not help that learning to read and write takes a good amount of time for comparatively little gain outside of scholarly work. Which is, I admit, a little confusing; do you desire to become a scholar, Margaret?"

    The girl shrugged and mulled it over for a moment, which made it quite clear to Symonne she still had no idea she was talking to a princess. "Well, I think it was just a general quality-of-life thing. Being able to read can earn you money in the right circumstances, but it is also helpful to acquire knowledge, which is important for one who wants to travel like myself. Though, admittedly, they probably mostly did it because my resonance is strong and I need every advantage I can get. So I am not surprised the two of you are literate as well, seeing how we share this quality."

    Her smile did not last for long when Alisha averted her gaze almost immediately; Sorey and Mikleo began to look away sheepishly as well while Lailah's bright expression dimmed.

    "I am afraid you misunderstand," Alisha offered softly before Margaret had to ask. "I do not possess any natural resonance. Sorey made me his squire and granted me the ability to see what you always saw."

    Symonne kept quiet from where she sat next to her partner, simply watching the princess sitting by herself; Edna was doing similarly, though she rather explored the various exhibits in the room. The other three were sitting together, with Lailah and Mikleo flanking Sorey. Perhaps the shepherd's group was not as united as it appeared.

    Margaret, however, was looking between the other two humans. "I am... confused," she admitted. "I was not aware one could just grant another resonance. A Great Lord I could believe doing that," at which point Symonne almost snorted before realising that Margaret knew. She missed the rest of the sentence, going over what they talked about the past month. Never once was Innominat mentioned or so much as alluded to, both of them apparently trying to not let the other know.

    Shaking off those thoughts, she watched Shepherd and Squire trying to explain how the practice worked and failing. Lailah did not seem willing to speak, so the water seraph rolled her eyes; trying to keep the truth under wraps, the firekeeper was. Clearing her throat to get their attention, Symonne leaned her head back against the wooden wall, explaining mostly toward Margaret: "The shepherd does not grant any resonance that wasn't there before."

    Alisha blinked at that, but Sorey seemed suspiciously aware. Symonne continued: "It is a trick similar to the sublord's pact that allows even someone of weaker resonance to bond with several seraphim. In effect, what the squire's pact does is sharing Sorey's resonance with his squire; think of it like pooling the content of two glasses, then equally distributing it to both." She created an orb of water that she split into two smaller ones for emphasis, then turned to Sorey. "I hope for you that your resonance is strong enough to be shared with someone who has none. You're going to feel it soon if it isn't."

    She could tell the others all fell somewhere between curiousity and confusion, but Sorey himself said nothing. No one but her noticed during the ensuing discussion, how the man in question appeared to hold back, obviously unsure of himself. To Symonne, it was obvious he already felt the consequences of spreading his resonance thin. She even felt a little sorry, though for Alisha rather than Sorey; the princess would receive another harsh disappointment in the near future. Perhaps the last one needed to break her.

    Then again, she had thought Alisha Diphda would break years ago, yet whatever they threw in her way only made her try harder.

    At this point however, Symonne noticed something else; Margaret had taken off her shoes and was rubbing her feet, trying not to grimace. So Symonne simply interrupted the ongoing discussion: "Looks like the two of us are heading back early. Maggie is too proud to admit her feet are killing her," she added as an explanation to the confused looks that brought her.

    Sorey took the distraction immediately and snapped his fingers, an understanding smile on his face. "Right, you probably walked since morning."

    "Odd," Mikleo chimed in with a glance to Symonne herself. "Don't you know any healing artes to help her with?"

    She shrugged at that and Margaret shook her head. "Symonne and I both know basic healing artes, but I would refuse them every time. This pain is transient, so no one should waste mana on it." She got to her feet with only the slightest grimace.

    Now Edna interjected herself in the conversation though, a smug grin pointed right at Margaret. "Imagine having to walk the whole way. Humans sure have it hard."

    The other girl rolled her eyes back and shrugged again. "No harder than having to bind myself to people or objects for safety."

    "Though hardness depends on the who and what," Symonne added with a grin. "Maggie is softer than the eternal ice I dwelled in a few hundred years ago. And she is a girl, so not that hard."

    ...huh, since when could she mention and think of Melchior without shuddering? Thoughts for later, it was playtime. Margaret played along after all, an eyebrow raised at Symonne: "Isn't that just different parts, though?"

    "Like your head?"

    "I wasn't thinking of that, but yes."

    They both broke into giggles when they saw the expressions surrounding them. Edna's smile was still there if dimmed, Lailah appeared mock-scandalised, with a hand in front of her mouth, and Alisha frowned the slightest bit over their subject of conversation. Sorey and Mikleo were looking at each other, confused. "Do you know what that was about?" the human boy asked his brother, only to receive a shake of the head. At that point Alisha was staring at those two instead, now dumbfounded.

    After a few silent seconds, Sorey seemed to put the subject aside and tried for a smile in Margaret's direction. "Anyway, it's fine if you head back now to rest up. You two were a great help, thank you."

    Margaret already opened her mouth to argue, but a sideway glance to Symonne made it clear this would not be tolerated. So she simply nodded and smiled back, easier than the shepherd had. "Always a pleasure to assist. I wish you all good luck."

    By herself, Symonne thought they would definitely need that luck.
     
  15. Threadmarks: 2.18 Broken Squire
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    Symonne observed, as she often did; Margaret was unfazed, methodically working through her meal. She sometimes offered a bite to the other girl, who took it off her fork without much thinking. They were sitting at one of Marlind's inns, currently devoid of other patronage; Symonne had a minor illusion over their table so they could talk in peace, none of their words passing to anyone outside and their eyes merely seeing her partner eating.

    The girl kept pushing herself over the previous month, always going until her feet began to hurt and then a little longer; she definitely had the experience of a traveler, but her body lacked it. She also took on a bit of a tan after wandering through Glayvend Basin for two weeks, Symonne noted idly. They talked about quite a few things during this month, but nothing groundbreaking came up; they got used to each other, fought together. Now, Symonne had something more curious to bring up. "Were you going to tell me about Innominat sometime soon?"

    Margaret stiffened, fork halting halfway to her mouth for but a moment. Many others may have missed it with how fast she caught herself, but Symonne saw. She smirked victoriously before reassuring her... friend? "Don't worry, I figured it out on my own before we left Lastonbell. How long did you know?"

    She received a cautious look that made her figure Margaret was also aware of who she actually worked for. It may just be general caution, though; the Empyreans were a difficult subject at the best of times, especially with one nearby.

    Symonne waited patiently and in the end, her partner sighed softly. "For a while," she admitted while putting down the fork. "I think they took pity on Mother and I, or maybe it was because I was Velvet's student, but they could have simply pushed our inn out of business. They turned us into business partners instead, and they did tell us... most of everything. I only learned Velvet is Empyrean as well a week or so before meeting you. And Mother said she didn't want to know, all this was too much for her."

    "I see."

    She mulled that over, wondering about Margaret's flat tone. As if she was reciting something, or perhaps trying not to show emotions. In the end, Symonne could not tell for sure, so she rather placed a little trap: "Alright, I just wanted to have it mentioned. That's one less secret you have to keep from me."

    Her partner did not stiffen this time, though her eyes sought Symonne's. Both girls stared at each other, suddenly aware that the other knew. Margaret sighed. "I'm sorry, but I have to."

    "I'm not blaming you. This is a difficult balancing act we're playing and you're young." Margaret nodded and went back to eating while Symonne continued: "I'm honestly more surprised they would just tell one of their most guarded secrets to anyone they don't have to tell, but you're probably onto something with the matter of being Velvet's student. That kind of bond can make people act differently than they normally would. And honestly," she finished with a little grin, "they are both bad at secrecy. They're just too honest."

    Margaret snorted and tipped her head to Symonne in agreement. The human girl probably did not even realise that she was almost as bad as the two Crowes in that regard.

    Instead of poking that subject for longer though, she had something else to talk about. Something more relevant. "That aside, Sorey's resonance is weak."

    Margaret blinked and nodded at Symonne to continue, her mouth full of meat. Having her attention, the seraph frowned. "Not pitifully weak in the sense that he can barely perceive seraphim, but weak. He tried to hide his reaction earlier, but the squire's pact is already affecting him negatively. He might be able to bond with two seraphim normally, without a sublord's pact, but that is probably his limit."

    She thought back to Nica, who did not seem at all inconvenienced by bonding with her while already being bonded to two Normin; then again, Symonne never checked whether those might be easier on their vessel. Margaret swallowed her food and considered, then glanced around out of habit before remembering no one could hear them anyway. "Are you sure? He seemed to be a natural with armatisation."

    Symonne shrugged at that. "Perhaps he is, but that doesn't change his resonance. That boy is stretching himself thin to fill shoes two sizes too big for him. It's not going to break him immediately, but it will eventually."

    Margaret sighed in response, clearly sad but not denying her assessment or defending Sorey. She certainly held wisdom that no child her age should hold.

    Their conversation was interrupted by a seraph man with a red scarf walking up and wordlessly putting a small parcel on their table; he nodded at the two before leaving the inn as fast as he entered. Symonne immediately put her hand on it before her partner could reach. "Finish your food, Maggie."

    The girl looked put out, but she did as told. Symonne took the opportunity to finish what she was saying: "Sorey is in a perilous position; his enemy is entrenched and has eyes and ears in many places. He's had decades to gain personal power. Sorey's chances are little better than if he tried to fight Velvet, if victory is possible at all." Margaret already knew, or at least suspected her allegiance, so she could speak in vague but clear enough terms.

    Margaret nodded again, though she wore a thoughtful frown while chewing the final bit. After swallowing and sipping from her juice, she voiced her thoughts softly: "But, isn't it also impressive?" Symonne arched an eyebrow and her partner elaborated: "He has to push himself so much and does it without complaint, not because he has to but because he wants to. His wings are strong and they will carry him far."

    "Yet he might end up breaking them in the process of flying further than he should."

    Symonne's response drew a grimace from Margaret, but no denial once again. She simply sighed. "I might end up doing the same thing, you know?"

    Her comment just made the seraph girl huff. "Young fools are endearing like that," she told her friend sagely, then followed with a renewed grin, "but you're a lote cuter than Sorey, so I'll forgive you. And you have Velvet to hammer some sense into you already." A thought struck her at that moment and she studied Margaret more closely. "Say, did you do something like that in your past life?"

    The girl stiffened before averting her gaze and nodding; she did not say any more, though. Symonne let her be, well aware that whatever life she lived was a source of distress for her friend. Deciding to change the subject with Margaret done eating, Symonne unwrapped the package they received. Soon enough, her fingers revealed a plain wooden case about as long as her arm from wrist to elbow. She could feel some weak traces of mana from within, now that she had her hands on it directly.

    "Hm, I wonder."

    The girls exchanged glances while Symonne pondered what it might be. Yet she had no concrete idea for what the Bloodwing Butterflies would send them like this. Part of her wondered why Laphicet did not deliver it himself; he definitely could have and she definitely missed him by now.

    Regardless, she left the honour of opening the case to Margaret, who did so without hesitation; this revealed to them a dagger, imbued with intricate runes that formed a familiar yet unrecognised arte. On top of it lay a little note that Margaret picked up while marveling at the artwork; Symonne ran an analysis-arte over it at the same time and her eyes widened. "This is a divine artifact," she told her friend softly. "Freshly made, too. They sent us a catalyst for armatisation."

    "Oh. Wow."

    They both stared at the ceremonial weapon a little longer, then at each other. Symonne was not sure she could armatise; she could allow it, but whether she was able to form a union with anyone, she did not know. Margaret seemed to be doubtful as well, so at least they both had their reasons not to expect it to work without a lot of practice. Now however, she pointed to the parchment in Margaret's hands. The other girl handed it over and Symonne read it quickly; just a note from Laphicet, telling them not to overwork themselves and to visit soon. Some part of her hoped that 'everyone misses you two' also included him missing her.

    Looking back down at the dagger, she could not help but huff. "Of course he would. I didn't even consider that a god would obviously bring along new divine artifacts. It has been centuries since any new ones were made."

    "So there is only a small number of them still around?"

    Symonne nodded and made a sweeping motion while explaining. "Lords of Calamity destroyed whichever artifacts they could find, but at least some survived to this day, usually as heirlooms or hidden in ancient ruins. The world is big after all, they can not check everywhere." Admittedly, Heldalf had also made to destroy several dozen divine artifacts, yet he could never get at Ladylake's sword in the stone, with Lailah standing guard. Others likely survived as well, considering Sorey's group. She did not know if all three seraphim had a catalyst on them, but it would not surprise Symonne.

    Margaret hummed with renewed cheer as she strapped the dagger's scabbard to her belt, right next to her actual sword. Then her expression fell. "Now I miss home even more. We should head back for a day or two soon."

    "Agreed." Symonne glanced from the empty plate to her friend, then to their new weapon. "Should we go and test that?"

    A moment of hesitation held them both tight, broken when the girl nodded. The wooden case went into storage and she paid for her meal, then got up and left for the nearby forest. Some protection from sight was good for them, though they both took note of the air shaking on the way; they both figured it was Sorey fighting and moved on.

    Once they were both happy with the distance they took from Marlind, Symonne raised one finger at Margaret. "Let me explain the procedure, just to be safe."

    She received a nod, though the other girl also tilted her head slightly. "Did you armatise before?"

    Now it was for Symonne to be a little sheepish; she averted her gaze and shook her head softly. "No, but I heard about the theory." With no further comments from Margaret, she continued after a moment's pause: "To start with, both of us have to agree to the procedure; it's impossible to force a seraph or a human into armatisation without changing the arte or manipulating the person a lot." The latter of which she could do with enough time and the former of which had been done long ago. "Anyway, before activating the arte we are... supposed to grasp for each other, somehow. I'm not sure how that translates into actions, though. Then you call my true name to activate it."

    Margaret nodded and drew the dagger, what faint light shone through the dark fog around them enough to make the runes glisten. Small amounts of mana were channeled into it, slowly, as the runes truly began to shine in their own light. Just when the light grew in intensity, Symonne felt her very bond with Margaret begin to pull at her; Margaret gently grasped at this most basic connection, calling her forward. Symonne not only allowed it, but reached out with her own mind to pull as well, drawing herself closer. Her body lost coherence, flowing back into her vessel.

    Margaret had her eyes closed and breathed deeply, felt the water seraph flow through her veins, become her blood, become her. In turn, she became Symonne. They both felt how their essences touched, though still separated.

    "Kyurib Ishuk!"

    The name left Margaret's lips as she called out to Symonne, unheard by their surroundings for it became light before it was fully spoken. Mana surged through human and seraph, unmaking that which made them different...

    ...and they became as one.

    She slowly opened her eyes to study her surroundings. Beheld the mana dancing with Malevolence all around herself. Water formed under her will, requiring not even a proper arte; it formed into a still surface in front of her, a mirror as tall as she stood.

    Staring back at her with a piercing glare was a different person; her body remained lean, her face retained Margaret's heart shape, but her hair turned midnight black. Her pants and shirt both became navy blue with golden trims. Her eyes gleamed in ethereal lilac.

    Next her attention went to the arte's addition, for around her floated no less than a dozen partly material daggers; neatly folded into two lines of six that formed wing-shapes over her back, they snapped forward on her command, each by itself and all at once.

    Her practice was cut short by a hellionised wolf, having followed the spectacle. Its flight-instinct suppressed by Malevolence, the beast growled and charged without hesitation, ready to tear out her jugular in a single leap. Two souls sang in harmony when she merely stepped aside, pulling on her daggers while the wolf crashed through her water mirror. Three of the dozen lashed out, skewering the creature's head, neck, and heart before it returned to the ground. Its legs gave out on impact and there was not even a whimper. Purplish red blood soaked the grass.

    On her mental command, the daggers slid out of their prey as if they were fluid, which was not too far from the truth. She took another step to the side before forming more water and turning it into a thin rail, on which she hopped to slide around several trees. Upward and down, a simple motion for the miniature tide under her foot. She slid along like an ice skater, carrying all the experience and control of Symonne while analysing her surroundings with Margaret's keen eyes.

    With little more than a thought, the pull of a mental muscle turned her daggers into a full circle, rotating in front of her for a few seconds. The blades sped up to form a shield with whirring sounds, then separated as each went onto its separate path before falling still in the air. She let out a deep breath and came apart at the seams, a bright glow preceding her separation into two.

    Margaret and Symonne had returned to being themselves, both a little more tired yet with the biggest smiles on their faces. They succeeded.

    "This was... wow."

    Symonne could only agree. "Yeah."

    They were not just pushed into the same being, they truly became one. Their thoughts aligned in harmony, joining together and surpassing the individual powers of both.

    Margaret could remember the strength of Symonne's will, her sorrow, and that she fought some kind of struggle deep down; she said nothing, but felt she now understood her friend a lot better.

    Symonne in turn remembered the feeling of being truly physical, not malleable as she normally was; she felt more real in these moments, almost invincible even.

    The girls grinned at each other, more at ease now. Margaret spoke first: "I can work with this."

    Symonne nodded before giving her partner a little push. "Agreed, but now you'll actually go and rest up. Practice is good, but armatisation is tiring." Her pushing received no resistance and Margaret began to walk. Neither of them mentioned how they pulled it off on their first attempt.

    They both left, giving the wolf corpse a few parting glances; it was accurately killed in a way that made absolutely sure while expending a minimum of mental processing power; they had enough of the latter to control all twelve daggers individually, what with having two minds in total and only one body to control. But they agreed that being resourceful was always a virtue.

    On their way back into Marlind however, the two girls came by Alisha, who trudged the path. Margaret waved the moment their eyes met, happy to see the other again, but her own expression dimmed a little when she saw how obviously Alisha had to force a smile. Symonne's eyes narrowed and the three met halfway, with Margaret immediately examining the other woman for injuries. "Is everything okay? Did something happen?"

    Alisha's eyes had been on Margaret the entire time, not a glance spared for Symonne. When she broke her silence, it was with a sigh as she hung her head. "I am afraid Symonne was right. Sorey lost his sight earlier and almost died for it."

    The seraph girl sighed in turn while Margaret's eyes widened, but Alisha quickly continued when she noticed: "He is quite alright. Just, the source of the Malevolence was a drake, so that one crucial moment could have been it. I, I asked Lailah to remove the squire's pact right afterward. I am sorry if you wished to speak to me, Symonne, I... I can't." Her voice became weaker toward the end even as her eyes flitted around, trying to spy a being she could no longer see.

    Margaret hardly even hesitated, she just bridged the distance between them and wrapped her arms around Alisha, who stiffened in surprise. "I'm so, so sorry to hear that. Will you be okay?"

    The two stood like this for a long moment, then Alisha slumped forward and weakly returned the hug, hiding her face from Margaret's eyes. Her voice was deceptively calm, if still so brittle: "I will be, sooner or later. But for what it is worth, thank you. Your concern is quite appreciated, Margaret."

    "Not a speck of Malevolence," Symonne muttered from the side. Margaret threw her an annoyed look, but the seraph paid no mind to her partner; her eyes were captivated by the former squire.

    Then Alisha pushed out of the embrace and studied Margaret momentarily. "I just thought, your resonance is quite strong, no? I am not concerned for myself, but for Sorey and the seraphim; their undertaking is so much greater than mine." She folded her hands in front of her chest as she voiced her plea: "Would you perhaps be willing to take my place as his squire and help him?"

    Margaret blinked at her owlishly, then took a deep breath and lowered her head to think; Symonne tapped her shoulder right after. "Do you even need to think about this?"

    The girl just made a shooing motion toward her partner and gave the proposal due consideration; only then did she raise her head, looking Alisha straight in the eyes. "I am afraid this is one of the few things I just can not do for you, Alisha. For now, I wish to aid the people in this world in any way I can, which I heard is not allowed to the shepherd."

    "I see."

    Even though she said she understood, Alisha still looked dejected to Margaret's eyes. The younger girl sighed sadly and put a hand on her pauldron. "Come on, I walk with you for a bit. If Sorey looks like he really needs the help, I can see about traveling with him for a while." She received no refusal and the two got to walking without any comments, so Margaret made to continue: "Though I feel we would not get along. You and Sorey both, you hold yourselves to much higher standards."

    This brought her curious looks, not just from Alisha, but from Symonne as well. It was the other human who inquired further, though: "Whatever would you mean with that?"

    The girl sighed then, uncertain how to explain. Or rather, how to word it best. "I, I do not see wisdom in attempting to save every last person. I would not hesitate to strike down one whose continued existence were to lead to greater evil." Symonne huffed as she realised that Margaret had difficulty putting it in a way that did not sound insulting.

    Meanwhile, Alisha had inclined her head in response, but soon heaved a quiet sigh of her own. "I can not begrudge you that. Similar thoughts have gone through my own mind many times. Many people are not beyond salvation if you just extend a hand, but some, some are. I had to make that choice myself in the past. Dozens of lives saved and turned around, but seven had to die, and died by my hand."

    She did not say any more, but her soft tone told them both enough. Margaret quietly took her hand to squeeze it. "I see. My apologies then, I had the wrong idea about you."

    "Curious. The notorious peacebringer is actually willing to spill blood as a last resort."

    Symonne's comment went ignored as Margaret rather continued talking to Alisha. "I assume you did not bring up such considerations with Sorey?" The older woman merely shook her head, just as expected.

    They walked with Alisha for a little while, a heavy sort of silence spreading that was only broken when the former squire stopped in her tracks. "I believe this is far enough," she decided before offering Margaret a more genuine smile and clasping her hand. "Thank you for taking the time for me, truly. And please, watch over Sorey as best as you can. He means well, but he has never been amongst humans or close friends before and frankly, it shows."

    "Alright, I will. You take care on the way back to Ladylake." And with that, she embraced Alisha again, who wrapped her into a much tighter hug this time. "Until next time we meet."

    "Yes. Yes, I look forward to that. Do stay safe yourself, Margaret. And Symonne as well."

    They stood and watched Alisha walk away, until she was but a dot in the distance. As Margaret turned around to make her way back to Marlind however, Symonne nudged her side with a pointy elbow. "So, how does it feel to have met, talked to, fought with, and embraced a princess?"

    The blank look followed by barely suppressed screaming made her bend over in laughter.
     
  16. Threadmarks: 2.19 Falling Down
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    Far distant from the unfolding tragedy, high up a mountain now almost deserted, a goddess stalked along the only existing path. Her stride was full of purpose, hands clenched into fists. Calm her expression may be, but her heart was not; it clenched painfully at the thought of seeing a good friend reduced to a monster. Worry gnawed at her, sadness tried to gain a hold but was repelled. She went anyway, despite the pain she knew lay ahead. Her power and presence were yet contained within herself, a draconic body resting in the earthpulse right beneath Rayfalke Spiritcrest.

    Malevolence began to flare weakly as she neared, a blanket of darkness suffusing the area surrounding him. Velvet absorbed it all with little more than a thought, knowing her destination nearby.

    After that and through a steady cloud of misty darkness, he came in sight when she scaled another slope. His scales were pristine in their dark grey hues, a wiry body resting, curled up. Even breaths drew in Malevolence before expelling it from the creature's nostrils, eyes closed on this first glance. Then he noticed her presence, lids sliding back to reveal slitted pupils the size of Velvet's head. His form unfurled in a fluid motion, a long neck and tail flowing outward while a domain surged around them to capture what seemed like prey. Just like she observed before, Eizen appeared less massive than he actually was, standing many times higher than her with his wings spread. As unfitting as the comparison was, he stood more with the wiry grace of a cat than the sturdiness of a dog.

    Velvet let the dragon roar at her in challenge before unleashing her own power. The domain that was his to this moment became hers, emptying of Malevolence as she drew it back in; her blessing established itself and she changed with it. The skin flaps that so looked like bandages pulled back to reveal crimson flesh on her left arm before it grew, losing the human proportions and turning into a vicious, jagged claw.

    Eizen's roar stopped short, though she could not tell if it was out of instinctive fear or recognition.

    "It's been a while, Eizen."

    Velvet did not expect anything to come of it, but she had wanted to speak with him for a while now; with Edna gone, she could finally do so. Even if he would not answer, it felt good to at least say goodbye. She remained standing where she was, holding the dragon's gaze.

    Then he surprised her yet again.

    "Vel...vet."

    Her eyes widened when she heard it, the low rumble of Eizen's voice, distorted by his draconic body. He spoke slowly, hesitantly, but he did speak. Velvet's chest clenched again but this time in joy; she began to smile and took a step closer, then another and another. The dragon let her, head following her motions. "So you're still there."

    "Barely." The dragon shuddered and shook itself, a motion little different from a dog yet far more violent due to his size; Velvet ignored the cloud of dust it threw up. "Spea...king, di... diff... hard."

    Her lips twitched upward. "Well, obviously. Your mind has been choked by Malevolence for ages. Don't say any more, okay? Just listen." She spoke softly and reached out a hand to put on his head, which he pulled back from. The hand faltered and returned to her side, but Eizen did lower his head to the ground and lay there, watching her. She took that as agreement and sat as well. "I am back here because Maotelus... Phi is in danger. And on the way, I guess I picked up a few strays. I don't even know where to start, but I guess this may be good? During my time sealed with Laphi, Innominat, I ascended to godhood myself. I am Empyrean now." To emphasize, she pulled open the earthpulse and reached out with her front paws, quickly climbing onto the Spiritcrest with her second body.

    Eizen had looked up when a black rift appeared on the ground behind Velvet, fifty metres wide. He had tensed when claws bigger than his own reached out of the opening, but her raised hand stopped him from doing anything else. "This is me," she continued as her own draconic form rose from the darkness. "I am Minkkubi, the goddess of darkness. Patron of all that have fallen to Malevolence and final arbiter of Desolation. Or... something like that, we're still figuring that out."

    Her old friend raised his head to study Minkkubi, the Empyrean gingerly unfurling herself into a somewhat more massive form than his own. After devouring so much Malevolence and growing for over a year, she stood a metre or two longer than Eizen. Yet at the same time, she did not even begin to compare to any of her fellow Empyreans.

    She continued to speak after that, telling her friend of her journey; he simply listened, eyes never leaving Velvet until, when she came to her first visit to the Spiritcrest, his head jerked up to look around. "Edna, where?"

    His sudden worry drew a smile from Velvet, who shook her head gently. "She went on a journey with friends, a young shepherd came by a few weeks ago. Don't worry, we will keep an eye on them."

    He let out a low growl at that, but did not say anything.

    She enjoyed this conversation, one-sided as it was. Yet even then, even though Eizen remained coherent, Velvet knew her blessing was just a stopgap measure; it would not last. But at least she now knew he was still there, still fighting that which wanted to wrest control from him. As he always had. "Hold on, Eizen. Laphi is figuring out a way to turn you back. If you want it." He looked at her for a long time after she said that, but did not respond; it took a while for Velvet to realise she was crying and to wipe at her face. "Sorry about that, I just, I don't like seeing you like this."

    Eizen hesitated for a moment, but then his head drew closer and pushed against her chest. Even though the motion would have outright broken a mortal woman, she figured it was the weakest he could do and gave him a pat. "Thank you."

    She left soon after, her domain receding and returning Eizen to his internal struggle. The dragon went back to sleep, but Velvet was still crying even as she walked away; her heart throbbed both in joy and sadness. Her old friend was still there, which meant he could be saved. Yet this also meant she could fail at saving him.

    She had to talk to her brother about this.

    Further to the west, Margaret made it back to Marlind without interruption beyond a few stray hellions. She remained embarassed about having failed to treat a princess as she should have. Which was why she continued to pout at her grinning seraph friend.

    Pout and grin both fell away when they saw the crowd in the town square. "Seraphim in there," Symonne told her quietly, "Sorey must be doing something."

    Getting closer, they found a bunch of tough-looking men and women standing opposed to the shepherd, a few dead dogs strewn across the area for some reason, and Sorey himself talking to a ragged and muscled man. Margaret quietly stepped next to one of the watching knights. "Excuse me sir, would you happen to know what is going on here?"

    Her helmet moved ever so slightly as she cast a glance Margaret's way before coughing, clearing her throat. "We, ah, received orders to march for Glayvend Basin and push Rolance again, ma'am. The gentle shepherd is worried for the people here and tries to negotiate for these mercenaries to escort them to safety."

    The girl nodded, then sheepishly lowered her head. "I see. Thank you, and apologies, ma'am. It is difficult to tell a knight's gender while fully armoured." Symonne was staring off in the direction of Glayvend Basin, currently thinking of something else.

    "It is quite alright, I understand." The older woman leaned a little closer to whisper conspiratorially: "I got them wrong a lot when I was younger, too. Really takes wearing the armour yourself before you realise how to tell men and women apart."

    Margaret left it at that and bowed her head in thanks, to which she received a nod before the knight turned back to whatever Sorey was up to. Margaret hesitated for a moment and, after looking at the crowd, carefully raised one hand to poke Symonne's rear for attention. Worry gnawed at her heart after hearing this, both for the soldiers and the people. When her friend turned, she nodded toward the commotion. Symonne got the idea and made to turn, but then poked Margaret's butt in revenge before darting away. The younger girl just rolled her eyes, their entire exchange unseen by all. A copy of Symonne appeared next to her moments later, visible and audible not even to other seraphim; illusionists were quite versatile like this. "For one thing," the copy began immediately, "Sorey sucks at negotiation. Five thousand Gald is overpriced for an escort job away from a battle that hasn't even been fought."

    The human girl ran some numbers in her head and had to agree. She could interject and help Sorey, but he would never get anywhere if people kept making his life easier, so Margaret stayed where she was. She waited for a minute or two, unable to hear the conversation up ahead over the muttering around her. Worry about the upcoming battles, for the town, for families and loved ones were thick in the air. But no Malevolence. Yet.

    Symonne's illusion snapping her fingers alerted Margaret to new information. "Let me rephrase my earlier statement: Sorey does not suck at negotiation. He just doesn't seem to have any idea how to do it at all. No attempt at haggling, no nothing. He just coughed up the money and from what Lailah said, it's basically all his savings."

    Margaret frowned at that and muttered to herself; carrying five thousand on her person, or even having five thousand for herself would have been unthinkable a year ago. That was what their old inn earned in a busy week or two, before the staff's salaries and other expenses took a big cut out of it. Their earnings tripled since the Crowe's Nest opened its doors, though. Every day was a busy day due to the seraphim, not to mention that Velvet's food was as delicious as she remembered it being. A nearly perfect business strategy, she noted idly; draw people in with the prospect of speaking with an actual seraph and Velvet's cooking to bring them back

    Granted, Margaret did have four thousand Gald and a few coins on her person; the Bloodwings had some reserves set up already and Velvet insisted she take enough money to cover her bases in an emergency, which she did. Sorey seemed to have gained funds from elsewhere, seeing as he obviously did not take money for doing his duty. Alisha, most likely.

    Well, he had no Alisha anymore. Which meant he really was throwing all the money he had into helping these people.Admirable, Margaret found, but also shortsighted.

    Symonne's illusion vanished and the girl herself wandered back with a confused expression while the mercenaries spread out around town. "I, um, underestimated the heart of these people," she told Margaret sheepishly. "The leader, Lukas, only asked for two thousand after Sorey just agreed to it. Said he was only testing Sorey for his intentions."

    "Then Sorey is quite lucky," Margaret muttered back. She knew there were good men out there, but not all of them and not even the vast majority. "Funny, I'm more pessimistic about this than you are."

    Her friend huffed and shrugged. "It happens."

    Then again, it was still a relief to know there were still good people. She decided to join as well and do her part in helping out, traversing the slowly dispersing crowd, back to where Sorey and Lukas were talking details. Mikleo tapped his shoulder and pointed to them, at which Sorey turned his head before brightening. "Oh, Margaret! Are you feeling better now?"

    She just smiled back and nodded. "Right as rain. I heard something happened?"

    Lukas looked her over curiously, then nudged Sorey. "Who is she, boss?"

    "Oh, this is Margaret. She helped us out earlier and she's good."

    "A pleasure."

    "Yeah, I could tell. And likewise." His eyes narrowed a little as he shook the girl's hand, studying her and finding even someone more than a head shorter unflinching. Her gaze remained calm, feet braced ever so slightly; ever ready, even if he were to use the greeting to pull her in. There was an understanding between them; Margaret saw the stance of a man who fought for a living, who had waded through battle after battle and come out on top. She took note of scars that spoke of injuries braved, while Lukas beheld a near-perfect stance even at rest, ready to react even to the unexpected. He felt the callouses of rigorous training on her fingers, yet also noticed signs of youth that should not be there.

    Their hands separated and Lukas continued to frown. "How old are you?"

    Margaret looked back up at him for a moment, unsure what to say while Symonne giggled with a finger pointed at her. In the end, the human girl sighed. "I was born in Winter. This is my fourteenth Summer."

    The seraph girl continued to laugh when she saw the flabbergasted looks from her fellow spirits. Lukas just nodded, but Sorey blinked in shock. "Fourteen? You look older than that."

    She shrugged at that, having no words in mind to speak. Lukas huffed. "I'll take your word for it. Young or no, I can tell you're skilled and that's all that matters."

    This time, Margaret smiled again. "Then I assume there will be no one disagreeing with me joining you for a while? I do not expect payment, doing my part in protecting these people is all I seek."

    "Aye, fine with me. You got a problem with it, boss?"

    Sorey lamely shook his head and Margaret smiled at him now. "Marvelous!"

    Suffice it to say, she had to answer questions about her youth for the next two days. Sorey attempted to get her to return home until she was older, Mikleo agreed with him, Lailah was more curious than admonishing, and Edna, unaware of how humans worked, needed Symonne to explain what the problem was. Then it took three more days to reach Griflet Bridge with the villagers in tow, kindly without more babying from Sorey.

    The bridge's new foundation itself had already received sturdy, wooden planks for foot traffic and lighter carriages to pass over. Unfortunately for Margaret, she could not spend much time taking in the beginning effort, as a contingent of Hyland's troops awaited them on the other side.

    It turned out, Alisha was taken into custody and back to Ladylake on "suspicion of having used the shepherd to plant discord among the populace, and aiding the Rolance Empire in its invasion". Margaret and Symonne could immediately tell what it really was, though; a false charge meant to strongarm Sorey into fighting for the kingdom of Hyland. If he refused however, Alisha's enemies at court may just have her executed for treason.

    "I just don't believe they would dare," Symonne muttered while they watched from next to Lukas. "The populace loves her, there might be civil war if their favourite princess is executed on this particular charge. It's too fleeting, too out-there. They wouldn't believe it even if it were true. One sentence into the right ears would devastate Ladylake." Margaret nodded along and, as she beheld the conflicted Sorey, she had an idea.

    Some quiet discussion later that had Lukas' brows furrow, Symonne sent an illusion of herself forward, hidden from sight. This illusion slowly marched into Sorey's field of vision to gain his attention. "Do not answer me," the fake Symonne told him and the seraphim with him, "just listen. Margaret and I have friends who can get Alisha out of there. We will bring them in, so give the answer you want to give instead of the one they want to hear."

    Even if reason dictated that Alisha would be safe, Margaret knew that humans were not reasonable creatures. So she would do what she could.

    Sorey pondered the seraph girl's for a long moment, as did his companions. Then he closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and looked up at the general on his horse. "I'm sorry, but I can't do that."

    The man schooled his expression quickly, but some had still noticed his surprise. He nodded. "Very well, Shepherd. Have a good day." Then a wave of his hand had another, unarmored man hop onto a horse and turn around to ride back to Ladylake. The troops moved on, past the muttering townsfolk. Looking back to Margaret, Sorey found that her gaze had hardened; she gave him a nod before turning away and toward the road. Symonne vanished from his side and appeared next to hers, which drew surprise from them.

    "Excuse me," Lailah muttered as she made to walk, "I wish to have a word with Margaret before she departs."

    He let her go and turned to the other two, a little curious. "Did you see what Symonne was doing? Was that an arte?"

    "Maybe her blessing is teleportation," Mikleo theorised in turn. Sorey nodded, he could see that.

    Edna's eyes had narrowed and she only snapped out of whatever thoughts she had when Sorey nudged her shoulder lightly. She blinked, then shrugged. "My brother wrote me about an arte of his to teleport with, but I don't know it. If this were an arte, we would have felt the mana build up. So I say blessing."

    "...this is the first time you agreed with me, isn't it?"

    "Don't get used to it, Mibu."

    Mikleo just sighed while Edna turned to watch the soldiers march over the impromptu bridge in lockstep, column by column. Then the water seraph met Sorey's eyes. "Are you sure we can trust them with this?"

    It was clear who he meant, and what. Sorey nodded immediately. "Yes." Margaret may be young, but she was competent. He trusted her.

    Next, Lukas walked over to them with a nod. "I guess the plan doesn't change; I heard the kid talking to her seraph friend, she's got guts if nothing else." Sorey owlishly stared at the taller man, who grinned and pointed his thumb at where Margaret stood talking to Lailah. "Smart one, too. I never would have thought of exchanging messages over seraphim."

    "He has a point," Mikleo agreed while Sorey nodded.

    Further down the river, Margaret firmly shook her head at the firekeeper. "I am afraid not. It would be an honour to be squire, but my goals lie elsewhere at the moment. Perhaps I will reconsider the matter at a later time."

    The fire seraph bowed her head at that. "I understand. It is not a matter to be forced, but I thank you for giving it due thought and being candid with me. Many would simply jump at the opportunity to take a position this close to the shepherd. Will you two be alright?"

    The girls nodded almost as one and Margaret smiled softly. "I am glad you understand and yes, we will be fine. Will you?"

    Lailah made to answer, but hesitated and glanced back to Sorey and her fellow seraphim, the former talking to Lukas. She considered the matter for long moments before giving her answer: "Yes, I believe so. Our road may be difficult, but we will manage. A shepherd can not afford failure, and neither can I."

    Symonne's eyes narrowed a little, but she said nothing until after they exchanged their goodbyes and separated. Once they did however, her frown became more pronounced. "Not being able to afford failure does not mean they will not fail. It sounds more like she is lying to herself."

    "Perhaps she is," Margaret agreed softly, the two of them making to walk as well. "I am more concerned about the fact she seems to have brushed off Alisha as the squire entirely, as if she hardly cares. Or perhaps it is because she cares most about making the shepherd succeed." Reason would dictate as such, but it bothered her nonetheless.

    "Anyway, we will walk downstream for a while and cross the river, then return to Marlind. I need you to hide me from sight until we reach the Bloodwing outpost."

    "Can do."
     
  17. Threadmarks: 2.20 Determination From Within
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    The evening had been surprisingly calm with but a dozen patrons thus far; Velvet took the chance to take it easy in the kitchen, her staff chatting while they watched the various meals. Seraphim did not eat and lacked digestive limitations, thus they did not know how to cook meals suitable for humans; that was why she personally taught them all how to cook. They were doing well now, with and without the small group of humans she hired over time to assist. While the serving staff consisted almost entirely of seraphim, the kitchen staff had an even spread by now.

    Just as Velvet checked the curry stewing over a fire, the door opened noisily; a glance to the side revealed an unexpected sight, that of Symonne entering her domain. She immediately garnered everyone's attention, but went straight for Velvet with clear urgency: "We're back and we need you for something."

    Those around them got attentive, but only the Bloodwings actually understood what this might be about. Velvet gave none of them a chance to ask questions and simply followed Symonne out of the room. On the way out, she clapped Louis' shoulder and motioned for the curry she was watching. He nodded immediately and went for it.

    She found herself in the living room soon after, seated at a table with their suddenly returned travelers and Laphicet; Cynthia as well, seeing that Margaret dragged her along. And the tale they told did not sound good; by Velvet's estimate, Princess Alisha had been captured at least a week ago, so she would have been rushed back to Ladylake; it took the girls four days to return to Marlind for the teleportation gate, that was enough for a good horse.

    When Margaret finished, her mother was looking down at the table. "I never imagined," she muttered softly. "How could those people treat one of their princesses like that? The merchants and travelers always tell me how good things are going in Hyland, but...." She trailed off, at a loss for words; a searching look was thrown to the others.

    "Alisha is an odd case," Symonne finally commented. "Her mother was of common birth, and so most of the nobility refuses to treat her as an equal, even more so because she champions the common people to the point it costs the nobles. You will be hard-pressed to find a peasant or merchant who doesn't at least like her, though."

    Margaret nodded along while the rest had listened curiously. Velvet agreed with Symonne's assessment, though she could not help but ask: "And how much of that was you?"

    Cynthia's gaze wandered between them, the only one yet unaware of the full story. Symonne fidgeted a little and refused to meet Velvet's gaze, which told her enough.

    "It is just as well," Laphi added into the silence with a sigh. "We can't take the risk of them actually executing her. Or even just let her wither away under house arrest. Shepherd Sorey is important, so Alisha, who is closer to him than most, needs to be freed. That's what you came back for, right?" Both girls nodded and he rose. "I will go see her, the guards can't notice me."

    He had a thoughtful look that drew Velvet's attention. She tapped his shoulder as he walked past her, admittedly a little worried. "What are you thinking?"

    Calculating, that was the impression he gave her in that moment. Laphi carefully picked his words when he spoke: "From what I gathered, both from you and literally anyone else who spoke to her, Alisha Diphda is compassionate, driven, kind, and smart."

    Velvet's eyes narrowed at that, though she was interrupted by Symonne cooing and wrapping an arm around her brother. "Aww, do you have a crush on her?"

    His "No" was so flat that the tease paused in surprise, though it did not stop Margaret from joining in: "I bet he's more into the naughty girls." Which prompted Symonne to giggle softly, arm still slung around Laphi's shoulder; she seemed more at ease around him now, which was at least one good thing to happen today.

    Either way, Laphi rolled his eyes before meeting Velvet's stern look. His own expression grew more serious and he gently plucked Symonne's arm off. "I guess we have to thank you either way, if you were a part of creating this scenario." The seraph girl's smile faded and she looked at him almost blankly.

    Velvet did not stop him when he left the room, rather she prepared to follow. Cynthia, meanwhile, looked between her daughter and said daughter's partner. "What did he mean with that?"

    She left the two to their fate of having to explain the situation.

    . .
    . .

    It was difficult not to think, or so Alisha found. She was trapped in this small room, but a few dozen paces wide. Without her armour, for it had been confiscated, clad in but a simple dress. Almost a peasant's dress, which she knew was a deliberate insult. It did not matter.

    She had done any exercise she could think of doing in such a room, had drenched herself in sweat until her muscles ached everywhere; the guards thankfully left her alone, but now she was tired. So tired. Usually she would do something when it came for her, read a book or patrol or review reports, yet she had nothing today. She was alone with her thoughts and the reality of her own failure. It had been a chore to get out of bed, she just kept lying there until midday before finding the strength to get up. There was no purpose to her anymore, no more reason to push beyond these transient feelings.

    Bartlow had struck harder than she expected. Or maybe it was another who finally decided to get rid of her; not a word of what few supporters among the upper nobility Alisha had, her under house arrest at best and in the night before her death at worst. Help would not come and she was defeated.

    The guards did not treat her badly, at least. They would not let her out, but none of them had unkind words for her. They were respectful, even; not that it did her any good. No matter how considerate that woman was when she told Alisha of the shepherd's refusal to comply with the condition to her freedom, it did not change reality; deep down, Alisha knew it had only been a matter of time. This time, she lacked the will to chase those thoughts away.

    And yet, Alisha was glad that Sorey did not burden himself with her; she knew she was not worth throwing away his duty, his sacred neutrality. Yet the thoughts plagued her and she was out of options to distract herself with. So she wondered, thought if, perhaps, things could have been better if only she acted differently, but failed to think of a single matter that could have been improved. Only changed, or made worse.

    Perhaps this was her failing. That she could not see more than a path which led to failure. Maybe she should have played her cards closer to the chest, conformed more with Bartlow's schemes to redirect them. But ultimately, she also knew she lacked the patience for that; seeing people suffer when she could prevent it, even just the slightest bit, was not something Alisha could do. Maybe if she had considered the long term more carefully, she could have done better.

    Still she felt useless.

    Having held the power to truly change her realm for the better, yet having it taken from her before she could do much of anything; now she knew just what she had and that it would not come back. Not ever. This hurt more than making no progress to speak of, seeing a chance and having it snatched away through nothing but how she was born. It was not fair.

    However, nothing in life was fair. Alisha took a deep breath and opened her eyes. She knew life itself was not fair, it was cruel. That was what made humans different; they held the potential to be kind instead.

    She cried earlier, in the safety of this little room. The tears were held back on the road, only let out where none could see. It would not do to bother another with her misfortune. This, at least, Alisha wished to retain. Her dignity, or what few shreds of it she had left. Perhaps she should have resisted her arrest instead of complying; even as a fugitive she could have still done something.

    Slowly, ever so slowly, Alisha breathed in. And out. Her body was calm even if her mind remained in turmoil. She rose from the ground and traipsed to a small bucket of water they brought her earlier, knowing that no one would check on her for a while yet. She disrobed on the way and picked up a washcloth; yet another intended insult, she knew. She did not care.

    The water helped wiping away the sweat and tear tracks, but it could not wash off the sense of defeat; she was going to die without accomplishing anything. Either swiftly through execution, or slowly by withering away.

    Yet even those thoughts were slowly drowned by her calm. The repetition of wiping herself down helped. By herself, a simple thought filled Alisha's mind: she did not want to die.

    But she would die. She would die.

    Alisha felt strangely calm despite that. No fear, just certainty. If she had no choice, bemoaning her fate brought her nothing. If she was already going to die, it would be with what dignity she still had left intact. Perhaps, she thought, she could do more in her next life.

    "Not a speck of Malevolence, even now."

    Alisha snapped out of the dark thoughts and turned her head, eyes wide. There sat a boy on the small bed, hair like spun gold in the last rays of sunlight. He was clad in pristine white clothes, shorts and robe, dressed reminiscent of the highest of the ecclesiarchy. Alisha gaped while the boy smiled at her without a trace of warmth

    "Hello, Alisha."

    "H-How do you know my name? Who are you a-and-"

    She cut herself off and took a deep breath. Surprised she may be, but this did not do. Breathing out, Alisha restored her normal demeanor, voice growing stronger. "How did you get in here?"

    The shadow of a smile ghosted over her unknown visitor's face. He crossed his legs and placed his hands on them, gaze firmly meeting Alisha's own. "I am Laphicet Crowe, a seraph. We met before, but your eyes could not yet see then."

    She stared at him for a long time after he said that, unable to comprehend what she was seeing. "So I am hallucinating? I am Squire no longer, I should not see at all."

    He inclined his head, agreeing with her. "My blessing allows me to boost your resonance far enough to see anyway. I am quite real. Now, I believe you met Margaret a bit over a week ago?" She nodded numbly and he motioned for someplace beyond the room. "Ordinarily, Shepherd Sorey would have followed Hyland's demands to fight war for them if it meant to protect you. Margaret offered him another option, to ask others for help in freeing you."

    It was hard to believe. Alisha still sat numb, trying to understand that there was someone who did care enough to do this. She shuddered, not from emotion but from cold; only then did she realise she was still sitting on the ground in her unmentionables.

    "I, ah, could you perhaps turn around for a moment?" He did without hesitation, turning his back to her and staring out the window with a curious sound. Alisha paid it no mind and bustled around for another chemise and dress. Yet she still reeled and wondered. "Why would you go so far for me?"

    "That," the boy started a little more slowly, "is a bit complicated. The short of it is that Margaret likes you and I think you don't deserve this."

    Alisha slowed, a simple dress in hand, and turned her eyes to the patient seraph. The words forced themselves out of her throat before she could stop them: "How could I be deserving of anything at all, after being consigned to death without ever accomplishing anything?"

    Laphicet sat quietly for long seconds, silence disturbed only by the rustle of cloth. He sighed. "That just reinforces my own thoughts. Please trust me on this, I know what it feels like to be powerless." There was no response because Alisha had none, but he continued on his own after a little while: "Now for a more relevant question, Alisha: do you want to go?"

    She hesitated again. "What do you mean?"

    "A new chance lies ahead of you, but taking it means you have to leave a lot behind."

    "I want to."

    "...that was fast."

    And it was the first time Laphicet displayed emotion, even if it was an actual deadpan instead of his detached behaviour so far. Alisha carefully slipped into the other dress they had prepared for her and fastened it at the back with careful motions. "I was thinking earlier that I want to live," she told the seraph quietly; it felt like a confession. Perhaps it was. "Even if I have to throw my dignity away, I want to live. So I will go."

    "I see. Can I turn around?"

    "Yes. Thank you for your consideration."

    He slid off the bed and met her gaze again, the detached expression gone and replaced with an actual smile. Yet he said nothing and neither did she; Laphicet made two steps and began to glow in golden light that engraved itself into the ground. Alisha watched him, forgetting to breathe at the beauty of it; like a small sun that illuminated the night. She watched artful characters and forms being put into place for several minutes, unable to form words and simply admiring the display. Even Sorey's flame of purification lacked this ethereal beauty.

    "Do you have anything else you want to take along?" he asked kindly, without averting his gaze from the incomplete arte.

    "...no, not in this room. My belongings are likely under lock and key."

    "Yes, I suspected as such. We will not be able to make a detour like that, I am afraid; I can send someone else to get your things later, though."

    "How so?"

    Laphicet looked up at her, a sinister shadow cast over his face by the groundbound light. He did not need to say anything though, Alisha merely tapped her chin without regard for the sight. "Oh, I see. No one would be able to see a seraph entering or leaving."

    "Exactly." The light winked out, except for a faint golden glow; an intricate design covered half of the available floor. "This is done, too. Step over here into the center, Alisha." She followed the order without complaint and Laphicet joined her. He pointed one palm at the ground before seeking her gaze. "What I am going to do is teleport the two of us out of here, far away. It will feel a bit weird, but that's nothing to be concerned about."

    She had no idea what teleportation was supposed to be, but right now felt like a bad time to ask. So Alisha stayed quiet and watched Laphicet pulse mana into the inert arte, making it activate; a golden fog formed right in front of them and the boy motioned for it. Then he walked into the fog and was gone. Alisha blinked, looked around, and then quickly hopped through as well.

    For a moment, all was light and the young woman fell through a long, bright tunnel. It ended as soon as it began and Alisha almost stumbled, but managed to stand firm. Her bare feet dug into grass and its chill hit her moments later.

    They were outside. Not just past Ladylake, no. Before her, Alisha saw the sea. A peculiar smell assaulted her nose, that of salt and water. Endless waves hit the cliff she stood on, faint golden light making them shine; night had already fallen on the capital, but here, far up north, a tiny bit of the sun remained visible. Alisha marveled at the sight, but a greater shine from behind made her head turn; the gate she arrived through began to glint under Laphicet's hand. She could not tell what the seraph did, merely that it was magical; which was why Alisha turned back to look at the sea instead. Fading sunlight warmed her, but Autumn was near if it had not arrived already; the night would be cold and she was not dressed for it.

    Staring out at the ocean's endless expanse, it finally hit home; now she had done it. She fled captivity. Any power she might have held, Alisha possessed no longer; she would be declared a traitor to the Kingdom of Hyland, removed from her positions, and sought after throughout the realm. All she now possessed were the clothes on her back.

    Alisha thought she should be devasteted, but she felt little different to normal. For now, she simply breathed and enjoyed the scent of the sea. Her vision grew blurry after a time. She stood like this for a long time, watching the sunlight fade and night fall once again. Only it was a different night.

    And all around Glenwood, people took notice.

    Shepherd Sorey beheld the night sky tinged red, looked up at the full crimson moon, and marveled. His accompanying seraphim had varying reactions, but all of them joined the discussion he began; they all once wondered or were wondering just what may have brought forth such a phenomenon.

    Runette Forton interrupted her evening prayer to gaze out at the alluring yet frightful sight, silent in her appreciation. The moon cast long, bloody shadows.

    Van Aifread glanced up at the sky while many of his underlings pointed in wonder and began to chat. None dared disturb the odd melancholy of their boss, however. He had no words for them and silently urged his horse forward.

    Margaret Randgriz noticed when she avoided her mother's irate and disappointed gaze, but could not think much of what she saw outside the window when Cynthia's lecture resumed.

    On two tall mountains up high, a dragon and an ancient seraph respectiveyl peered up at the night sky. Eizen remembered, always remembered, the night he and his marched to kill the exorcist legates; Zenrus remembered as well, but rather the many sacrifices committed over the millennia.

    Lastly, close to Glayvend Basin, a man stood alone and soaked in the crimson moon's light. His body was liquid darkness, his hands had become great paws, his head that of a lion. He calmly watched as he often did, to the conclusion of his plans. His claws flicked a few times as if in premonition, just like the last times the moon changed colour. He knew this reaction was Maotelus' doing over their bond, but never figured out just what was so significant to the dying god.

    By Alisha's side, Laphicet studied the sky as well. "It's been a while since I saw a scarlet night," he mused out loud. "How fitting."

    She did not know what he meant. For the moment however, Alisha did not care. She simply drank in the sight, one she only got to see every few years. For a single moment, she was at peace.

    However, her legs slowly lost their strength and she began to shake, then slumped to the ground; wetness ran down Alisha's cheeks and she desperately covered her eyes, to no avail. She could not help but sob as reality crashed down on her.

    She was free now, but freedom cost her everything she ever had and ever was. Her possessions, from armour and weapon to her home, her knighthood, her flimsy royalty. Gone.

    She could not help but cry, no matter how much she wanted to stay strong. The tears refused to stay in, so she let them out, her sobs growing louder and beginning to wrack her body.

    Alisha did not know how much time passed, but eventually a pair of arms gently wrapped around her. She was pulled against soft cloth and a warm chest underneath. Laphicet.

    Yet no matter how much being reminded of his presence made her try to pull herself together, she failed. The tears kept rolling down her cheeks, the sobs persisted. After a time, she simply accepted it and clutched the boy in her arms, crying into his chest. He gently rubbed her back, her head, whispered to her, and Alisha was grateful for it; truly grateful, for this was the first time ever since she lost her mother that anyone offered such comfort to her.

    She cried for a long while and then, at some point, another body joined the embrace; Alisha could tell from the warmth pressing against her cold back, from the second pair of arms wrapping around her. She did not care who they were, she just cried it all out, alternated between whimpering and wailing.

    It was freeing, in a way. Alisha had no idea how much time passed until she was spent.

    In the end, her throat was hoarse and her eyes burned; she did not yet move, indulging in the warmth while it lasted. It was comforting, ever more so than she felt in a good long while.

    Alas, all good things had to end; a calloused hand cradled her face and turned it away from Laphicet's chest. The boy let go and so did she, allowing herself to be turned. Only to come face to face with someone familiar. Amber eyes almost shone in the light, smooth skin discoloured by the full crimson moon. Black hair billowed behind her like a cloak, a few strands framing her soft expression.

    "O-Oh. I... I am so sorry, but I forgot your name."

    She knew where they met and even what they spoke about, but the name was gone from Alisha's memory. Thankfully though, the kind woman did not seem to mind. She simply nodded. "It's Velvet." Right, exactly. "Are you alright now?" Alisha had to think for a moment and Velvet corrected herself after a moment: "No, that's a stupid question. Are you feeling better?"

    She could not help herself, having been seen so weak. Heat pulsed through Alisha's face, any blush hopefully hidden by the red light and shadows falling on them. She just nodded and muttered a quiet thank you, which made Velvet smile; the other woman let go of her but remained sitting, then patted the spot next to her. Laphicet immediately moved to her other side and Alisha joined them tentatively.

    "I, ah, did not expect to see you again. I had hoped, but those who venture out into the world rarely return. I am glad that we meet again."

    "I feel the same, but it could have been under better circumstances."

    Velvet let out a soft sigh and looked up at the sky; from where Alisha sat to her left, she could see that the arm on this side was heavily bandaged. She tapped her shoulder softly. "How did you get this injury?"

    A confused glance went her way, but quickly turned to understanding. Velvet shook her head. "That's not an injury," she explained. "It's just how it is." She raised her arm a little and the bandages shifted around loosely, then shrugged. Alisha nodded, uncertain what to make of this; her gaze wandered back to Laphicet.

    "Um, do you, ah, know each other?"

    "Laphi is my little brother."

    "Oh, I see."

    She simply accepted this as fact; weirder things had happened this day and she did not feel like questioning everything. She cried her heart out, had been comforted, and now she just sat and felt the cool night breeze dry her tears. Or perhaps it was the ocean breeze, she could not say for certain.

    Silence reigned between them, not awkward as she expected but rather just... quiet. Serene, even. It took some time until Alisha found herself ready to speak; once she did, she turned her gaze first to Velvet, then to Laphicet. "I, I would like to thank the two of you. It matters not to me how, but I am grateful that you aided me in a time of dire need." She received smiles in turn.

    "Think nothing of it," Velvet answered, the bandaged hand squeezing her shoulder. "Do you have any plans for what comes next?"

    She had to shake her head at that. "I am afraid not. I did not expect to get out alive and now I have nothing left to my name. Neither status nor belongings." She could not help but chuckle, which earned her a raised eyebrow. "Well, at least that means I no longer have to try deciding between all the options I had before."

    Nobody laughed at her attempted humour, not even Alisha herself. Yet Velvet kept looking her over, carefully searching for something. Their eyes met and the taller woman finally asked: "What do you want?"

    "I, um, I just told you I do not know what to do. I-" "Not what you want to do. What do you want?"

    They stared at each other. Velvet had put ample emphasis on the intention of her question. She remained calm even while speaking, but Alisha could feel the intensity in her gaze; it was all the more powerful beneath the blood moon. In the end however, she had to lower her head in defeat. "I do not know that, either. Perhaps I never knew." Or perhaps she simply did not want to admit what she truly thought. It did not do to desire such, even if it was a human failing to do so anyway.

    Surprisingly, Velvet sighed loud enough to make Alisha look back up. The other woman shook her head. "Alright, then I will just make my offer." Velvet closed her eyes in thought while the former princess watched her curiously. The pause was long enough for her doubts to resurface, long enough for Alisha to speak up: "I, I do not think I can be of much use to you. Without any resonance-"

    A single finger landed on her mouth, a finger wrapped in bandages. "I think I'm starting to understand," Velvet muttered. Alisha's eyes were on the hand she looked at; the bandages began sliding back from their position, revealing red flesh underneath; it almost pulsated in the equally crimson moonlight.

    Velvet pulled back her finger and studied that very hand, rubbed the sickly discoloured limb. "Resonance is not the be-all, end-all." she told Alisha softly. "I didn't have any, either. I never needed it to be happy." She glanced at Laphicet, who shuffled a little awkwardly. "But what I see in you, right now, isn't a desire for resonance, Alisha. You want power."

    Alisha flinched.

    "Enough power to make a difference, to change the world. Am I wrong?"

    She opened her mouth to deny it, but no words came out; as shameful as it was, Velvet hit the nail on the head. What Alisha Diphda yearned for in this very moment was power; enough of it to finally turn Hyland into a better realm, to make the world a better place. She could no longer meet the other woman's gaze. "You are right," she admitted quietly. "But what else could stand up to the hellions if not seraphim?"

    Velvet did not respond immediately, merely sized Alisha up. Her brother answered in her stead, his eyes almost gleaming in the night: "Another hellion could. A will strong enough to persist even through the transformation can make a person even greater."

    The very concept Laphicet just presented should revulse her, the thought of giving herself away like that. Yet, what else could she do but consider his suggestion? As a mere human she could never hope to compare and he had a point; she met hellions strong enough to give Sorey and three seraphim trouble, most of it only mitigated by the fact a single hit with the purifying flames meant victory. She sighed deeply and shook her head, in the end. "As tempting as it is, I can not justify letting myself fall for power just like that. I feel I should be revulsed by the very thought, but I am just tired right now."

    Now however, the seraph boy began to grin. "I was not talking about letting yourself fall. But I understand, you could not know what was before there were shepherds." Velvet rolled her eyes, but kept quiet while her brother explained to a curious Alisha: "Before the silver flame appeared a thousand years ago, there were therions. A small number of special hellions that can absorb and digest Malevolence safely. Therions couldn't return someone to normal after they turned, but they could lower the general amount of Malevolence suffusing an area and cleanse the souls of all that they devoured, so that they may be reborn pure. They even grew stronger from doing so under the right circumstances."

    "That, I...." Alisha trailed off; she had no words for what he just explained, but her mind was running a mile a minute. Thinking, wondering; if he brought this up right now, perhaps...?

    "Just listen for now," Laphicet interrupted her odd state of mind. "Therions need not be human, the only quality they require is a great purity of impurity. A strong calling of one of the eight types of Malevolence. Greed, conceit, lust, cowardice, obsession, selfishness, wrath, and... despair."

    He left a pause before the last one and Alisha's eyes widened in realisation; they knew. Somehow, they figured out the empty void where her heart should be, despite all of her attempts to conceal it. The pieces fit themselves together and, slowly, she began to hope. An insane idea for an insane woman on an insane night and yet, she considered. Then she stopped to think.

    "Alright."

    Velvet had just opened her mouth, but then she blinked back at Alisha; her head was empty, decision made. She stared at the other woman, who frowned. "We wanted to tell you the important parts first."

    She shook her head, face cast in shadow. "I don't care, not right now." New tears made her vision blurry as she plead. "Just make me one, or tell me how to."

    Velvet's head turned to her brother and they exchanged a glance she hardly saw. Alisha wiped off her tears and took a deep breath, daring not to hope. A soft sigh caught her attention and Velvet turned back, ushering the former princess to her feet. "Alright. It's not like the process is irreversible. If you want it undone later, any shepherd can cleanse you." Alisha nodded while Velvet turned to Laphicet again, the two women facing each other. "Can I trust my instincts on this?"

    Alisha waited, shivering under the cold air but also excited; there was some morbid fascination about what she might turn into, too. Hellions did not retain their human form after all, though... looking at Velvet, at the crimson flesh beneath those bandages, perhaps some did.

    She only realised she missed part of the conversation when Velvet placed that same bandaged hand on Alisha's collarbone, a warm, pulsating palm lying flatly on the thin cloth of her dress. Alisha's eyes quickly fixated on Velvet's while the other woman began to exude clouds of darkness which turned the area around them black; a spark of crimson here and there, but she could no longer see... and then she could. All the Malevolence bunched up into a single, thin tendril that began to turn into dozens of strands at the tip.

    It scared her, more than anything ever did. Velvet gave her one long look, but Alisha stood firm and nodded. She had nothing else anymore, but right here, right now, she knew she wanted this; she was sick of being powerless.

    The strands poked Alisha's skin in various places and began to sink into her; she felt the Malevolence surge through her body, a sense of wrongness first just passing through but soon taking root everywhere.

    Then something pulsated deep within herself. Right where her crushed heart should be, where she hurt so often, the Malevolence anchored itself. It stopped feeling alien then and something tore audibly even while Alisha's sight went black. She felt herself flicker, senses sharpening, then her sight returned; a wave of darkness blew outward from her body, obscuring everything except the crimson glow of Velvet's hand. The woman in front of her quickly absorbed the Malevolence and then everything was still; even the animals had grown silent.

    Alisha did not need to see Velvet's smile to know it happened. She felt better yet worse than ever; her body felt stronger, greater, but her mind was suffused with melancholy.

    Alisha thought she had already lost everything she ever cared about before. Now she had even lost her humanity.

    And yet, she could not find it in herself to be anything but ecstatic about the prospect.

    She became a therion. The first in a thousand years.
     
  18. Warscar5697

    Warscar5697 Making the rounds.

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    Yo, I wonder what she's gonna look like and what her powers are.
     
  19. Threadmarks: 3.1 New Beginnings
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    Under the crimson moon stood two gods and a therion. Not that Alisha was aware of the former, though to her they felt like gods regardless.

    It took her a while to wrestle the sense of melancholy under control. She took deep breaths, calmed herself ever so slowly. With each one she smelled the earth, the salt of the sea, and even... a hint of strawberry? Those scents and many more stood out, far more clearly than ever before. Perhaps it was just her imagination, but the surroundings appeared brighter as well, more detailed; Alisha squinted, trying to see as much as she could. The siblings watched on quietly for a time, but in the end Velvet disturbed her tranquility: "How do you feel?"

    Though soft, her question came loud and made Alisha flinch in surprise. She ducked her head for a moment even while turning to the other woman. "Please do not shout at me, I can hear you just fine."

    Velvet blinked, but lowered her voice as requested. "I wasn't shouting. Your hearing got better."

    This brought Alisha up short. She felt her ears curiously, but nothing appeared different about them; her curiousity was piqued nonetheless. "Oh, this happens when one turns?"

    Her inquisitive gaze clearly lay on Velvet's gleaming arm, which the other woman did notice. She simply nodded. "I've been one for so long that I forget others don't know these things. What exactly changes is purely individual, but my senses grew better too." So now she had confirmation that her benefactor was a hellion as well. That was soothing, in a way.

    Laphicet chimed in at this point, gaze wandering between the two. "Statistically, you find greater variety in hellions with greater qualities of the people." He explained more toward Alisha than Velvet, though his sister listened as well. "The many lizardmen and werewolves, among others, are born from average humans without any greater qualities. Therions generally sidestep this matter, though." He studied Alisha again, more thoughtful than before: "I am more surprised that you retain your humanoid form; most therions also have a bestial form they take first." A quick glance went Velvet's way, the older woman's unamused look not lost on either of them. "Not like it did not happen before."

    Alisha let this sink in and tried to keep the news about Velvet in mind. She had other, more pressing matters to ask about. "I see, so likely my sight, smell, and hearing have improved. Are, are there personality changes?" Her elation abated somewhat as she realised she might no longer be who she once was, but she remained positive about her situation. Velvet just shrugged.

    "It's possible. I know one man who lost most of his emotions when he turned."

    "But therions usually stay the same," Laphicet added to his sister's commentary.

    Said sister nodded to him and then eyed Alisha with a hint of a smile. "We were planning to tell you all this beforehand, so you could make an informed choice."

    The erstwhile princess dragged her feet in response, unable to meet Velvet's gaze. Before she could apologise however, Alisha became aware of another sensation. Something on her back, swishing left and right and scratching lightly against her skin in places. And once she became aware of that, she felt something odd right above her rear... and the breeze hitting her bare back, even if it was not cold. She blinked and reached behind herself to find out what it was, only for her hand to immediately sink into soft fur. It felt no different than if she ran it through her hair. Though this was a lot more voluminous. "Um."

    Alisha glanced back to the siblings, who waited patiently. So she turned her head and found... her hand on a tail. A big, bushy, foxy tail the same pale blonde colour as her hair. It had grown from her tailbone, covered in fur thick enough to cover most of her back from where it sprouted. As it grew out however, it tore her dress and chemise. Both garments were hanging on by a few threads.

    She quickly wrapped her arms around her front to keep the clothes in place and heard Velvet huff. Laphicet kept quiet though, which she was thankful for; her face felt warm again and this time she might actually blush if anyone pushed the matter. While she bunched her dress however, Alisha felt it drag over some spots on her belly and blinked down at herself. The embarassment was already mostly forgotten in favour of curiousity; she glanced at the siblings in front of her and considered, then spoke: "Laphicet, could you turn around please?"

    The boy did as told without question while Velvet eyed her curiously; Alisha let go and the front of her dress fell off at last, hanging from her waist where she found patches of fur. Blonde fur, once again the same as her hair, only visible in the crimson moonlight; these stubbly hairs would probably remain somewhat hidden in normal lighting conditions, she figured.

    Velvet stepped closer to examine her while Alisha carded through the thick fur; they were just small patches, no bigger than a ring she could make with her thumb and index finger. Yet it felt kind of weird. Not to mention that she did not feel cold despite the breeze hitting her exposed body in the middle of night. "Is resistance to heat and cold a part of becoming a hellion?"

    "Yes, it is," Velvet agree idly, stroking her chin at the curious sight. "And for your skin, I would say you got off lightly. Other therions I knew grew scales like a snake or had their skin turn to bark like a tree. You can shave those off if they bother you."

    Alisha was curious about those other therions, but also somewhat relieved not to be burdened with such changes. Then she looked back down at herself and could not help but muse out loud. "I believe I have to shave either way." When Velvet threw her a look, she elaborated. "It is expected among the knights to keep body hair short or away where possible. To prevent infections of wounds and spreading of sicknesses from loose hair."

    "Ah, yes. It's good to know people still remember that."

    That was a curious thing to say; Alisha took note of the words and their implications, but decided to ask later when Laphicet spoke up and would forget about it entirely. "If you're done looking yourself over," he chirped from where he was staring out at sea, "Velvet, could you make Alisha some clothes to wear so we can see about her powers?"

    "Alright, alright. Let me do this real quick so my baby brother doesn't have to be embarassed about a pretty girl being nearby."

    Alisha could not help but huff at that; she actually smiled, even though she did not join in on the teasing. It was nice, to see these two just acting like siblings. Then however, her attention was taken up by seeing Velvet draw on the Malevolence and form it into a simple dress, black and red. She noticed Alisha looking and held the garment out to her. "I can teach you how to do this later."

    The younger woman thanked her quietly and disrobed to change; Velvet helped her without prompting, to which she offered a grateful smile. Once it was done however, Alisha had to look down at the last remainder of her old life, torn apart and lying in the dirt. She could not help but feel there was something symbolic about this. She could not stew on that for long, though; Velvet put a hand on her shoulder for attention and began to explain: "Therions can do a few things immediately after turning. What do your instincts say?"

    This gave her pause and distracted her from the situation somewhat; Alisha listened into herself, to her surprisingly calm if subdued feelings and the oddity that was having a tail; it felt alien and yet natural at the same time. After a second or two of listening, she learned one more thing about it; a motion done for the first time yet feeling as natural as breathing, she opened her mouth wide. The second mouth, sprouting from her back. Alisha felt her tail part as warmth surged through it. Craning her neck revealed rows upon rows of teeth, saliva dripping down from almost all of them where they formed within her bushy fur. The maw even elongated, reaching from her lower back up a little past her head if she spread it.

    Alisha stared down into the fleshy, teeth-lined insides, and snapped her tail shut again. Her heart began to beat thunderously, but she managed to calm herself with a few deep breaths; this was more what she had expected from turning. Surprisingly enough, it did not terrify her as much as she thought it would. Mostly, Alisha was curious now. She opened her maw again and turned around to show Velvet, who carefully examined her teeth without touching them.

    "That looks promising," she commented. "You can't really use it in direct combat, but anyone who tries to hit you from behind gets a nasty surprise."

    "Agreed," Laphicet chimed in from a little further away. "But it's probably not as effective as yours, Velvet."

    "You have a tail?" Alisha made a half-turn to look at Velvet again, maybe find the tail she assumed they were talking about, but saw nothing despite her improved sight. The other woman hesitated for a moment, but then she let her arm extend into a crimson claw big enough to close around a person's waist. A single finger was as long as Alisha's arm to the elbow and the new therion studied it with great interest, any embarassment forgotten. "Oh, I see. That certainly seems more useful. Is it, um, also a mouth?" In response, Velvet's palm opened up like no normal flesh should, revealing rows upon rows of razor sharp teeth. Alisha swallowed, pulling back a little. "Ah. Well, I believe I am better served with a tail either way. I could not use such a hand while holding my spear." Then she glanced at the nodding Velvet. "You are a therion as well, then?"

    Surprisingly, that question made her benefactor giggle softly before she shrugged. "I don't think I can still be called a therion, but yes. I was." Then Velvet looked down at her claw thoughtfully. "Be careful about letting people touch your tail," she advised. "The reflex to bite for anything in reach might be stronger than you expect."

    Alisha vowed to commit that to memory, although she knew quite well there was no one she knew well enough to allow a touch in the first place. She almost sighed at that, but decided not to dwell on it; in time there may be someone she could get close to again. Just, not Sorey. He certainly would not accept her like this. To distract herself from the dour thought, Alisha directed her gaze back to the two siblings. "What else is there about being a therion?"

    Velvet frowned in thought, but her brother did not have to think long. He stepped next to his sister with a friendly smile. "All therions have a greater form they can access. Or, should have. I'm not sure Velvet ever used hers. It usually is the first form a therion takes after transforming, but, well, maybe that changed since the last time a therion was created." He glanced to his sister for some reason and she rolled her eyes. Alisha listened attentively. "It sometimes happens on its own when a therion is overwhelmed by emotions, too. Go on, try to transform."

    She turned to Velvet, who shook her head immediately. "I can't help you with that one. If I have a form like that, I never used it."

    It felt as if she wanted to say something else, but she stopped herself. Alisha paid that no mind, though. Rather, she felt into herself once again, knowing that those in front of her were patient. One hand she softly pressed against her chest just to feel the pressure; Malevolence pulsed within and around, Alisha now realised. Darkness seeped from her entire form, but most of it was drawn back in before it could spread. More of it danced all around them, flakes of a black more pure than any coal.

    Her lids fell shut and Alisha attempted to focus. Deep within, she knew, just knew there was something. A pit of endless despair that assaulted her with dismal thoughts and misery when she paid attention to it, but within lay more. Just in her grasp, if she could bear the feelings it carried.

    Alisha Diphda had never given in to her own darkness and she would not start now. Within her own body she reached out without knowing how, like moving a muscle she always had yet never knew, and touched the sensation and feelings right under her fingers. Then came a horrible cracking sound as her bones shifted and grew, the flesh and skin following. It did not hurt, there was merely a surge of emotions she pushed aside. Within the span of a second, Alisha fell to her hands and felt her body shift, shift, shift until she was not even bipedal anymore. Her legs turned to hindlegs, her arms to forelegs. Hands and feet became paws, her face contorted and grew a sandy blonde fur, eyes shifted in their positions as her field of vision expanded.

    She blinked at the surprised Velvet, now at eye level with her. Laphicet was looking at something behind Alisha and after a moment of silent surprise, the young therion turned her head. Her nose took in even more scents than before, but she remained shocked by the sight of a massive, canine body of sorts. Long, strong legs and thick fur that covered all of it, the exact same colour as Alisha's hair.

    Velvet was the first to speak, voice almost deadpan in how unpertubed it sounded: "You're a fox."

    That she was, except for the fact she had more than one tail in this form. There were five of them, spread like a fan from her backside and each one several metres long; long enough to reach all the way forward to Alisha's muzzle. Instincts told her to tear into the two in front of her, but Alisha fought them down. Darkness howled in her soul, reined in by force of will. She was in control.

    Taking a few steps in a circle and then failing to stand on two legs later, she pulled on herself and drew the fox back in; it followed her will without issue and moments later, Alisha was back. Unfortunately, her sudden increase in size tore her clothes away entirely, leaving her naked before the siblings. Velvet draped another dress over her without hesitation and she forgot about the issue in seconds when her fellow therion spoke up: "That should be the basics. Which leaves only the question of what you're going to do now."

    Alisha started while Laphicet nodded, the boy almost thoughtful. "Princess in exile, knight no longer."

    He sounded surprisingly nonchalant, which made her hesitate. Then Alisha lowered her head with a soft sigh. "Even if it mattered, I do not have any plans yet. But before I can do anything else, I need to repay you for giving me this opportunity."

    To her confusion, Velvet's first reaction was to sigh as well. Laphicet chuckled. Alisha received a firm look by the older woman then, followed by a shake of her head. "You owe us nothing," Velvet declared gently. "We decided to grant you this power because we understand your struggle. To want something but lack the strength or the means to achieve it."

    "So if you want to thank us," Laphicet took over, "spread your wings and soar higher than anyone ever believed you could. We know you won't abuse the power of a therion, thus you were chosen."

    Velvet nodded to her brother before addressing Alisha again: "But if you have no plans yet and no place to go, how about you come with us for now? We can at least offer you a place to stay and figure things out."

    Alisha stood still, stunned; she could feel more tears welling up to cloud her vision over just how kind these two were. Part of her sagely said this had been their goal from the start, to indebt her and then just offer like this, to make Alisha think she was free while she was not. She viciously submerged it in the depths of her heart, refusing to think the worst of people without due reason. They gave her this without naming a price, they saved her. Now they wanted to aid her even further; perhaps it was just a place to stay for them, but to Alisha, it was more. For as long as she could think back, no one had ever been so good to her; the only exception was her own late mother.

    Another part of her wanted to decline after everything these two already did for her, but Alisha shut that up as well. She wanted this. She was crying, but neither of them seemed to care.

    "I would love to," she forced out through the lump in her throat. "T-Thank you, from the bottom of my heart."

    . .
    . .

    It had become quiet among the Randgriz family. Mother and daughter were waiting, all words spoken. Margaret had received a stern lecture and only barely managed to convince her sole remaining parent to let her keep traveling with Symonne. The water seraph herself was currently sprawled out on the ground, using her hands as a pillow as she waited. She owned up to working for the Lord of Calamity and even Margaret was surprised by how high she actually stood in the hierarchy, but apparently Velvet made a deal with her about that.

    After that lecture, oddly intimidating despite her memories of much fiercer foes, they spoke at length about the journey so far. At least her mother let that convince her somewhat not to insist on Margaret separating from Symonne. Though going by her frown, she was still contemplating to shoo her daughter to bed as she tried to before. Their eyes met and Margaret crossed her arms. She would stay stubborn about this, needed to know that Alisha was alright. Only then would she be able to sleep.

    "I never liked scarlet nights."

    The staredown ended and both womens' eyes fell onto Symonne, who was glancing out of the window. She did not acknowledge them really, but both humans knew she was talking to them. "Everything looks so eery when bathed in dark red light, more so than normal."

    "Yes."

    "Agreed."

    In the past they had to use candles to illuminate their home after nightfall, now they had light artes to make it bright. Even so, the tinge of red falling through the window gave it all an odd hue.

    "Why is it that the moon turns red every few years, anyway?"

    Margaret turned back to her mother, a little surprised she did not know before realising that the knowledge had been rare even in her past life. Before she could speak however, Symonne did: "When the moon stands just right in relation to the planet, it draws mana from all around that fills the sky. The moon itself doesn't change colour, but this mana somehow changes the light that falls through. Scarlet nights are nights of magic, of change, and of sacrifice."

    She took notice of the older woman startling and shrugged, still lying on the ground. "If you made the right sacrifice in the right place tonight, you would be able to wake an Empyrean. That's how much mana is in the air."

    As if on cue, the door opened and Laphicet entered. Margaret half suspected he did it on purpose and felt disgusted with her past self's actions yet again. Even if the boy agreed to it, it was just not right. She had heard quiet footsteps outside even while Symonne spoke, the owners of which now followed Laphicet into the room. His domain surrounded them again and removed the need for an illusion to speak with her mother.

    Velvet, Margaret already expected. She did not expect Alisha to follow the siblings, meek yet curious as she studied her surroundings. The princess only needed a second to take notice of the people looking at her; Cynthia Randgriz gasped quietly at the sight of her tail, Margaret Randgriz hesitated, and Symonne waved from her spot on the ground. That was, Symonne waved until Laphicet bent down, threw her over his shoulder, and deposited her on the couch next to Margaret, who chuckled. It happened so fast the seraph girl did not even get to playfight back.

    Yet it was easy to see in a bright room, the Malevolence surrounding Alisha Diphda.

    The silence held even after everyone had taken their seat. Velvet and Alisha sat separate from everyone else, with Laphicet having taken a seat next to Symonne, who studied the new arrival curiously. Margaret just had no words and apparently, neither did her mother. Fortunately, Symonne found her voice soon, addressing Velvet: "She definitely wasn't like that when we saw her last. Did she finally break under these hardships?"

    Laphi chuckled and shook his head even before his sister could, giving Symonne a pat on the shoulder. "No, quite the opposite." He cast a glance at the young woman, who kept her silence and seemed to wait for them to address her; on a guess, Margaret figured she was surprised to not be met with hostility.

    Either unaware or uncaring, he kept going: "I was wondering about something, actually. Has the Lord of Calamity been hunting children of strong resonance over the years?" That question, out of such a sweet boy's mouth, made all the women bar Symonne and Velvet stiffen. Everyone except Alisha knew why the seraph girl was the one he asked and if Margaret's guess about her smarts was correct, Alisha would figure it out soon enough.

    As for Symonne, she quietly gauged Laphicet for a moment, then folded her hands. "Any he could find," she admitted. "You figured it out based on how few with resonance remain, right?" Her partner did not need to say it out loud, but Margaret had an idea that she played a vital part in this matter. A seraph could best tell those who perceived her, after all. Velvet obviously made the same connection, though Laphicet simply nodded as if he figured that already. He pointed toward the young woman seated with his sister.

    "A good thing she held none, then. If I may introduce, unnecessary as it is, Alisha Diphda, wayward princess and, as of tonight, the only existing therion."

    "Ah, a pleasure."

    Alisha meekly lowered her head in greeting while Margaret's eyes widened. Just a fraction, yet she saw the same happen to Symonne. A therion, born in this age. The possibilities of that, of Alisha, they were suddenly beyond her imagination. Before she could speak however, Velvet focussed on her. She even waved off her mother. "In a moment. First of all, Maggie, why are you still up?"

    Right. It was late at night. Margaret averted her gaze. "I, um, wanted to wait for you to get back," she mumbled. The look that earned her made it rather clear she should not expect to remain and so she rose; part of her wanted to just stay, be stubborn, but she was tired and exhausted from her worry for Alisha. "I'll take my leave now. Good night." A chorus of responses followed her on the way to the door, though Margaret stopped with Alisha and found the energy for a smile. "We will speak later, but for now, I am glad you are well."

    The older woman peered at her in obvious surprise, but soon smiled back. "Thank you. And thank you for caring, Margaret." Her smile was small and strained, but it was also honest. They nodded at each other and the younger one left.

    Perhaps it was the silence of the night, or the fact she had left the door ajar on purpose, but she could clearly hear the question Alisha asked the room once she left: "If I may ask, why would staying up late be a problem for her in particular?"

    "Because," Symonne then told her with audible glee, "she isn't quite fifteen yet. Surprised?"

    She did not hear any further responses, but imagining them was not at all difficult.

    While Margaret was the first to turn in, everyone else followed before long. Sometime in the midst of night, Alisha came to rest at an unfamiliar place. She stared at the ceiling, covered by a rather thin blanket; Alisha was used to thicker ones from home, but understood things were different among commoners. It did not bother her too much, for she could not feel cold anyway.

    Hearing that Margaret was almost five years younger than her had been a bit of a surprise and made the girl's maturity a little eery, she had to admit that to herself. Likewise, being greeted and treated so kindly by a woman she never met surprised Alisha just as much. She had not even begun wondering if they would really accept her in their home when such worries were already destroyed by a kind smile. Yet she noticed how Cynthia Randgriz's eyes kept wandering to her tail, to the thin cloud of Malevolence surrounding her, even now.

    The thoughts roiling through her body and mind insisted she did not deserve such kindness, but she was aware that her own insecurities spoke and not reason. Alisha ignored those thoughts and turned, eyes closed. The darkness behind her lids only held more bothersome thoughts, but those too she put aside. She would make sure not to overstay her welcome; she would figure out where to go next and what to do.

    A quiet noise made its way out of Alisha's throat and she hugged the blanket to her chest. Weirdly enough, right here, right now, after having lost everything and becoming a being of despair, she felt more hopeful than she remembered being in a long while.
     
  20. Threadmarks: 3.2 Companions
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    Waking up to the toll of a bell was somewhat surreal.

    Alisha had gotten used to inns from her travels as a knight, had long since become acquainted with the bare comfort of a bedroll while camping outside, but this morning still felt different. Even though this was an inn, seeing how she did not really make a guest; she was not paying for her stay, for one.

    She felt the urge to just stay in bed and doze as usual; Alisha could not remember a time without it. Only today, she failed to shake it off immediately. Where she normally would have forced herself up, now she stared up at the smooth ceiling and considered the merits of just lying here and waiting for something to happen.

    Minutes passed.

    She was tired of working herself to the bones for nothing. It was easier to get up in the past, for her people, but now she had no one to fend for anymore. Not in the same way. Sorey came to mind once again, but Alisha knew he would hate her for willingly becoming a hellion. Or, as much as someone like him could hate, anyway. Not to mention that she threw away nearly a decade of work without a second thought.

    Her tail twitched against the mattress, making Alisha realise just how stiff it felt; she quickly rolled onto her side and swished it back and forth a few times. The motion almost pulled her blanket off entirely. Perhaps, she figured, she should no longer lie on her back like this; pins and needles in her tailbone were a new kind of uncomfortable experience she could live without. But this only served to remind her of what happened. She was a hellion now, of that there was no doubt.

    Perhaps related to that, Alisha was hungry. So, so hungry. So hungry in fact that it confused her; she hardly ever felt hunger, only forced down her daily meals to stay healthy. Alisha did not enjoy eating beyond her occasional snacks, but she knew from years past that only eating when she was hungry would make her lose too much weight. Now she was ravenous and felt as if she could eat an entire pig, nay, a cow.

    Then there were footsteps on the floor and Alisha's ears twitched. She followed the sound, listened to how even those steps were, almost a rhythm. Like a clock. Tick, tock. One and the other, it was hypnotising to listen until they stopped... right outside of her room. Alisha's head turned to the door, the young woman curious who might be looking for her. A gentle knock sounded and she sat up to answer: "Come in."

    Her voice was the slightest bit hoarse, but Alisha ignored that in favour of taking in Margaret; the younger girl poked her head into the room first, hair done immaculately. "Good morning," she mumbled softly and waited for Alisha to respond.

    "Good morning. Please come in." She figured that Margaret's hesitation was due to Alisha herself being a hellion, but she appreciated the girl's presence nonetheless. Though Alisha had to admit, awkward silences were not something she was used to. Silence, yes, but not awkwardness.

    In the end, Margaret spoke up without meeting her eyes, and without entering: "Um, breakfast is ready soon. If you need help getting dressed, I can, you know, help out? I'm no maid, but, uh...."

    She kept bumbling her way through the offer and Alisha understood; this had nothing to do with being a hellion after all. It made her smile and push the blanket aside, her borrowed nightgown rustling the slightest bit. With people being awkward about her status, she could deal well enough. "It is quite alright, though I appreciate the offer. But if you could show me how you do your hair?"

    "Oh. Sure." Once it was clear Alisha did not object to her presence, Margaret entered the room at last; she carried a set of clothes that were placed on the now empty mattress. "Velvet told me to give those to you," she explained to Alisha, who nodded despite her surprise.

    "Velvet is awake already?" They had spoken for a while the previous night. She knew it was not early, having had heard the bell toll at least twice more before Margaret arrived. Her host shrugged.

    "She always gets up before everyone else. It's kinda weird, you know? We're already early risers, but she's still up before us and at work."

    "My, that is impressive." Alisha mulled it over for a moment, but then her eyes went back to Margaret. "As is your own diligence, really. I would have to force myself out of bed every day."

    The other girl huffed while Alisha began to dress herself, unconcerned for the presence by her side but listening to her response: "It's not all that impressive, honestly. I have to force myself, too. Usually by dunking my head in a bucket of cold water. It was just necessary because I had to work. Now, well." Margaret hesitated for a moment, then shrugged again. "We have more staff and earn more money since Velvet and Laphicet came here, so I don't need to help out anymore."

    Alisha made an agreeing noise and tied the waistband tight. If this were a fancy dress like she had to wear for official functions, Margaret's offer of assistance would have been quite necessary; putting one of those on without a maid to help was a chore and a half. This, however, she could do by herself; it was a simple pair of pants and a cream coloured shirt, the latter with a missing spot in the back to fit over her tail's base. Both were made from cotton and the undergarments Velvet silently handed her last night were wool; not as pretty as what Alisha was used to, but much warmer.

    "They are both quite kind, are they not?"

    "Yeah, they are. But pretty dangerous, too. If they want to be, I mean."

    "Because Velvet is a hellion?"

    "Um, yes, but also no?" Margaret fidgeted when Alisha turned to her at this point, then pointed behind herself. "Give me a moment to gather some things, then I will explain that one. Oh, uh, is that alright?"

    "Of course. Please take your time." Contrary to what Alisha just said, the other girl rushed out of the room with superhuman speed. She could not help but smile; it was adorable, in a way. Maybe a little belittling of Margaret to assume Alisha would be too full of herself to put on a pair of pants on her own, but that could be forgiven. A lot of people had odd ideas about royalty... and admittedly, she could imagine at least one or two of her half-siblings to be that decadent.

    She brushed over her borrowed clothes and looked into the room's sole mirror, a surprising commodity with how difficult glass was to get. Ignoring the tail and the fact Alisha's skin was a little too smooth for a common woman, she felt she did look the part. It was an odd realisation, no matter how often she dressed up this way out of curiousity. Margaret's return distracted her from those thoughts; the girl carried a comb, a brush, and a few other things that were all put down on the small vanity Alisha already stood in front of. Now the younger woman was smiling. "Come, sit. I'll do your hair."

    Alisha did as she was told and watched Margaret in the mirror; she seemed more at ease now, though that turned back to apprehension almost immediately. A glance was given toward the wayward princess, who felt like sighing. "Please do not treat me any different than anyone else, Margaret. My status as royalty means nothing between us."

    "Oh, ah, okay."

    She was still hesitant, which greatly confused Alisha, now that she thought about it. "You did not seem to have any issue with doing so when we first met." A moment of silence and a mumbled response followed. "Pardon, I did not catch that."

    Margaret spoke a little louder this time, enough for Alisha to hear: "I, I didn't know. Symonne only told me after I already acted so familiar with you."

    She did not know. That was significant, Alisha's name was known throughout Hyland. And just in that moment, another toll of the bell outside made her realise just where she was brought. Alisha had yet to leave the house she stayed in, but now there was no need. "I see. We are in Lastonbell, are we not?"

    "...yes."

    That explained a few things. Alisha nodded to herself and left it at that. Margaret, meanwhile, began to prepare her things and softly ran the brush through Alisha's hair. It was obvious she took great care with it, which the older woman was grateful for. After a time, she decided to chase the renewed awkwardness away: "You meant to tell me in which way Velvet and Laphicet are dangerous?"

    "Oh, oh, yeah. Sorry, I got distracted." She paused there and her motions slowed down, but did not stop. "As you may have noticed, Velvet is quite powerful in her own right. This is twofold; the first part is that she has a natural talent for the blade she wields and possesses years of experience with it."

    She hesitated there as if to consider what to say, so Alisha filled the silence with an understanding noise. "I think she mentioned that her teacher was quite thorough with her."

    "So I hear." Margaret actually chuckled at that, the brush still running through Alisha's hair. "She definitely was with me. But that aside, Velvet is highly skilled. This in itself would already make her a serious opponent for any knight in either realm. Now add to this the superhuman power of a hellion, and on top of this the unique power of a therion. She combines all of this with a ruthlessness in battle that makes her the last person in this world I'd want to oppose."

    Alisha frowned at this point, uncertain. "Could you explain what is unique about therions? I do not see how being able to digest Malevolence is in itself a boon to combat prowess. And, well, Velvet does not seem particularly ruthless to me."

    The girl in the mirror shrugged, even though her expression turned somewhat blank for some reason. "She is kindhearted, yes. But there is fire in her very soul and thoroughness to her actions. Once her sword is drawn with the intent to kill, she will. Without hesitation. She just prefers to be kind where she can."

    She nodded at that and reminded the younger girl of her other question: "And the uniqueness of a therion?"

    Margaret frowned now, almost imperceptably so. "I am surprised they didn't tell you beforehand. A therion devours Malevolence, yes. But under normal circumstances, the therion is supposed to send that Malevolence elsewhere." Alisha frowned, but she got no chance to interrupt. "The details of that do not matter right now, what matters is that you are not bound to an earthpulse. Which means that all the Malevolence you devour, all the power you take, is yours. If this tail of yours consumes a hellion, you take all the strength and powers of that being as your own. The same happens if you devour a seraph, for that matter."

    "I would never!"

    "I'm aware, don't worry. What I mean is, well, you can assimilate everything and everyone. If you eat well, you can be the most powerful being beneath the Great Lords within a century. Maybe within the decade, even."

    Alisha's indignation over the perceived accusation vaporised while Margaret laid it all out. The way she explained was concise and enticing, but also incredible. She could not help but wonder if it really was that easy. And Velvet had that same power. Had it for a while now, said there were no therions in a thousand years. Alisha had suspicions, now that she was reminded of the matter. But she did not feel like sharing them, or confronting her benefactor with undue wariness. So rather, she asked another question to make sure. "Say, do hellions still age?"

    "Not that I'm aware of," Margaret told her idly. Alisha left it at that and vowed to herself to keep the secret. Velvet was ancient, this much Alisha understood. Especially Sorey must never know.

    Thinking of Sorey however, she now had to think of people in general. Of Margaret, standing behind her without a care where most others would likely take distance from Alisha. Her tail was pressed against her back between the two of them, perfectly visible and twitching every once in a while. She could not help but ask: "Does me being a hellion really not bother you?"

    The younger woman shook her head softly and put the brush aside. "Not at all. Velvet is a hellion, I met a few others on the way to Marlind, and it generally hardly matters. You have not lost your mind when you turned, that's enough." She hesitated and then huffed. "I'm probably biased, though. You're a good person to your very core, not even Malevolence can take that away. I'm not going to judge you for having a tail, especially not a cute one like that."

    Her little joke made Alisha giggle; her tail wiggled on its own until she got it under control again, which prompted Margaret laugh as well. Seeing her at ease reminded Alisha of another matter, though: "I really did not expect you to be so much younger than me."

    She was not even fifteen after all, not quite yet. Alisha had figured they were the same age from her demeanor and appearance. Margaret dragged her feet for a moment and then shrugged it off. "It just so happens. I think it's my behaviour; most girls look a little older than they are, don't they?"

    "Mhm, I agree. You are quite calm and thoughtful, not to mention reliable. That does make you appear older, definitely wiser than most at your age are. Including myself, that is." She looked into the mirror for Margaret's reaction, but there was nothing there. Only an unreadable expression on her face while she examined Alisha's head. After a few seconds, she softly put her hands on the older girl's shoulders and gave them a gentle squeeze that confused Alisha.

    "If you ever need to talk, I would listen." The words were quiet but sincere, but offered no clarity; for a moment she wondered, but Margaret did not explain the non-sequitur and rather squeezed her shoulders again; then she changed the subject: "If you don't know what to do next, how about you join Symone and I? We would love to have you."

    Their eyes met in the mirror, Alisha's a little wider than before. She needed a moment to shake off the surprise and smile, this time one that was not even entirely fake. "Thank you for the offer, I will give it some thought."

    At the same time, Symonne tried to escape awkward silence elsewhere in the large building. It was one of the private rooms, yes, but her current only company did not know what to say either. After how they parted and with what Symonne now knew... she probably should have expected this. Sometimes she had wondered if being around Laphicet was worth the effort, but she did like him. They were friends.

    Yet neither of them knew how to break the ice after their initial greetings, they merely sometimes looked at each other and then away again. It took a while until that changed. When it did however, Laphicet managed to surprise her once again: "Do you want to know my greatest fear?"

    Symonne started and eyed him a little more inquisitively. "What brought that on?" She could guess, but wanted to hear it from him; Laphicet lowered his head a little.

    "I just thought it's not fair if I'm the only one who knows what you're afraid of. Even if I am responsible for it."

    "Aww, that's sweet." She dropped her light teasing after that and became serious. "But are you sure? I could use this against you later."

    Laphi just laughed softly and shook his head. "Your illusions can replicate people and places, but not feelings. Maybe you could do it with one of Melchior's old rituals, but I doubt you remember any of them."

    "...that's true. And odd? I don't understand, do you fear failure? Loneliness? I can replicate those." It took Symonne a moment to realise she was defending her illusions. Laphi shook his head again and tried once more, obviously aware what he just implied.

    "I'm not downplaying your blessing, Symonne. It's one of the strongest, most versatile I have seen so far." Then he paused and sighed, not meeting her eyes. "But it can't replicate inaction."

    A beat.

    The two seraphim sat in silence for a moment and Symonne digested what he told her. She gave herself the time, found she did not understand, and spoke: "...explain."

    "I was born sickly... actually, is the Twelve-Year Sickness still around?"

    "A rare occurence, but yes. I saw a few cases over the years." She knew the symptoms and how the condition ended with a young death around the twelfth birthday. Her chest tightened painfully at the implication. "You had it?"

    Laphicet did not look at her, he just carried on without even much of an inflection: "Yes. I was born weak and suffered from periodical fevers that only grew worse over the years. We never had much money, but I know my big sisters did whatever they could. So did our brother-in-law, after meeting our oldest sister." A soft smile now played around his lips, but he still sighed. "Velvet always was the best sister I could ask for. She cared for me more than her own life."

    He fell silent with his fists clenched, shaking and almost slamming them onto the table they sat at. Symonne could see it, but said nothing, just let him speak his mind. He did and slowly, Symonne understood what he meant before. "I can't imagine what it feels like to have your will and feelings stripped away. But likewise, you can't imagine how much it hurts to have both and be unable to do anything. I couldn't eat what I wanted to because I needed to eat healthy food. I couldn't go out to play when I felt like it, only on my few good days and even then just an hour or two. All I could do was sit inside and read books, or lie in bed and stare at the wall until the pounding in my skull stops."

    "...and then you died?" she could not help but ask, a morbid fascination and curiousity burning in the back of her head. She wanted to ask questions but held back, knowing that he was already pushing himself to tell her this.

    However, Laphi shook his head and offered her a wry grin. "I knew I was dying, so I decided to become the second sacrifice needed for Innominat's revival."

    This time, her eyes widened. She had to know. "You did? Why?"

    It might have been the wrong question, or something he thought was obvious. Laphi frowned and clenched his teeth, glaring at Symonne in a way that made her feel like running from the angry god; but she crushed the instinctive response and stayed, waited for him to talk.

    When he did, it was with forced calm: "I couldn't do anything all my life, Symonne. And all of a sudden, there was a chance to do something, to bring forth enough power to change the world for the better. If I had the choice to wither away and die a meaningless death for a meaningless life again, or to give it for a chance of change? I'd do it again. No matter how often I had that choice, it would always end the same."

    He actually leaned forward to the point he was standing when he was done, but sat back down once he realised. "Sorry."

    But he did not need to explain himself, Symonne understood it just fine; this was something deeply personal he shared with her. It made her feel a little more at ease, a little more comfortable being with her friend. A little more special, too. She considered what to say for a moment, what to do, and then stood. Laphicet watched her walk around the table; Symonne spoke only when she stood in front of him: "I think I get it now. You were right, my illusions can't replicate something like that."

    She did not like admitting it despite all her mixed feelings about her blessing, but it was the truth. With that said, she leaned down and kissed Laphi's forehead. Just like that, the heavy mood was gone. The seraph boy stiffened for a moment while Symonne cupped his face with a soft smile; he averted his gaze.

    "Stop teasing me."

    "I'm not. But I think what you did was brave, Laphi. I don't know if I could have done such a thing in your situation." She kept holding onto his face, staring into his amber eyes thoughtlessly; they were wide and the soft skin under her fingers grew continuously warmer. Symonne needed a while to realise she phased out and a moment longer to let go. "Sorry."

    His face was flushed and he averted his gaze for a moment, but then forced himself to look back, voice soft. "It's fine." For a moment he made to say something else, but stopped. Symonne waited for whether he would speak his mind after all, but nothing followed. She took that as her cue to go ahead.

    "Can I ask a question about... this?" Laphi nodded and she sat in the chair next to him. "I understand that Velvet herself didn't take your death well, but what of your oldest sister and her husband?"

    Symonne knew it was not appropriate to ask, but she was also morbidly curious; the face her friend still made had her feel a little bad, but he did answer her, if reluctantly. "Celica died years earlier. Her and Arthur's unborn son was the first sacrifice to Innominat. And Arthur himself, well, he was the one to sacrifice me. That's why Velvet wanted to kill him so badly, we, uh, neither of us had the heart to tell her or try to convince her."

    A moment passed in silence while Symonne took this in and worked through the implications. Then she put her head in her hands, both at the obvious if understandable failure on the siblings' part and because of the realisation whom they were talking about. "You lived somewhere in the boonies," she began in clear disbelief, "and your oldest sister just so happened to stumble over Artorius Collbrande?" And how stupid was Symonne herself, for not having figured that out when Velvet told her of her past a month ago? She all but said it!

    Laphi just shrugged weakly. "She did. It's sad, honestly. They made each other so happy." Then his posture shifted and he threw Symonne a curious look; she tilted her head wordlessly and waited for whatever question he had. That did not prepare her for what exactly it was: "Say, do you know what it feels like to be in love?"

    She blinked once, twice, before it fully registered. Then she had to sigh. "Margaret asked me something similar, right on the day we left Lastonbell. I never really knew anyone well enough to fall in love with them. I was... different than I am now."

    "Oh."

    Her friend just lowered his head again and poked his chest, roughly where a heart would be were he human. "Velvet's best friend snuck me a few books as I grew older, but I never really understood how romance works. I still don't get it. Is it supposed to feel like I do with Velvet? Different than that?"

    Symonne rolled her eyes at that, realising where the conversation was going. She was a little hesitant to broach this particular subject with Laphicet of all people, but at the same time she had no idea why and pushed the feeling aside. Then she poked his cheek to draw attention back to herself. "For one, there are different kinds of love. What you feel for Velvet definitely is love, but not the romantic kind. I think. Sex is a part of romance for most people. Do you want to fuck your sister?"

    Making the question blunt had the effect she was going for, at least; Laphicet blushed, actually blushed, and spluttered a denial. Symonne had to grin, but held back on further teasing.

    Then he asked something which stumped her: "Is s-sex even relevant to seraphim?"

    Now that the question was implicitely about herself, she felt her own cheeks warm a little and almost averted her gaze; but that would have made it worse. As far as she knew though, the best response began with a shrug. "Not really, we don't procreate like humans do. It's basically like eating, we can do it if we want to." But for that question, she figured a little more teasing was fine after all. So her grin grew wider, more sly, and she leaned closer to run a finger over Laphi's chest. "Soooo, it sounds like someone is interested. Do you want me to teach you?"

    She had hoped for Laphi to squeak or blush a proper crimson; sadly, he just averted his gaze and gave no real response for a time. When he did, it was little more than a soft muttering: "You shouldn't say things like that. It's mean."

    "I-"

    Symonne stopped herself when she realised what she had been about to say. That she would not actually mind doing as she offered, if he wanted her to. Odd, but she truly was not opposed to the idea. The silence lasted for a time that Laphicet used to calm himself. Symonne was still mulling over her own thoughts when he went on the offensive. "You know a lot about this stuff, right? But you were never in love?"

    She snapped out of her musings and eyed him, thinking back to her own experiences. Symonne did not say anything at first, but then something in her gave. It was clear what he wanted to know and he had told her something deeply personal earlier. Maybe he would not judge her too harshly. She hoped he would not even while she began. "I, uh, yeah. I had a, a bit of a crazy phase a few hundred years ago. It wasn't pretty and I'm not proud of it." And in trying to dance around the subject, she only made him more curious. So Symonne sighed and said it. "Animals, mostly. All kinds of animals, and some humans here and there. Illusions mean I can interact with them even if they can't see me, but I spent a few decades just watching them go at it, too."

    She had wondered back then, if physical intimacy might be something she wanted. So she made people willing with her illusions in one way or another but found nothing to help herself.

    At this point, Symonne could not meet his gaze anymore; her cheeks burned hotter than they ever had. She never thought she would tell anyone about this in particular, but here she was. Then a hand took hers and she looked up, to find Laphi smiling despite his own blush. "Well, I guess we all have done some things we aren't proud of." He meant his time as Innominat, to which Symonne slowly shook her head.

    "It's not the same, I don't think. You just snap your finger and someone is suppressed. It's a... much more involved process with my illusions." She played out entire romances with some people, made them fall in love with a recurring illusion, yet had felt nothing back then. Now she felt shame over having played with those hearts like she did, but all of them were long dead. It was much too late to make amends of any form, at least to them.

    But she could be better now.

    Laphicet took Symonne's hands and looked into her eyes, chasing those downcast thoughts away. "You may be right," he told her softly and with a squeeze, "but my sins still weigh greater. But who I was or why I did as I did does not matter, not anymore. I must not forget, but I won't let it weigh me down as I shape my own future." He paused there, thinking, but Symonne had no words to speak. She just stared back, mesmerised, until he continued. And she hung on every word. "Arthur once asked me why it is that birds fly. He liked that question, so simple yet with so many facets and interpretations. I told him birds fly because they must fly. I live and feel because I must. I move onward because I must. And you must, too."

    He said no more, but Symonne understood. There sat a boy who had desired a proper life so much he would not acknowledge any shackles. Because even the smallest weight on his fragile self would have held him on the ground, forever away. A tear rolled down her cheek, just one, but she paid it no mind. Laphicet wiped it away gently and smiled at her. Symonne smiled back.

    "I don't have your sense of self, but I agree that dwelling too much on the past won't help me. I changed a lot, this last year." Ever since meeting Nica, and also Laphicet. "So thank you." For being her friend, for giving her a chance despite everything. For being more than just the cruel god she remembered.

    She almost leaned over to close the distance, but stopped herself. For all the bravado and teasing, Symonne was not entirely sure about this yet. If she could or should go through with it. There were limits she had to adhere to and Laphicet remained delicate.

    In the end, the moment passed. Her friend broke their eye contact first, but the silly grin he had remained. He perked up and stood, gently pulling Symonne along. "It should be time for breakfast now."

    She followed without complaint.

    . .
    . .

    It was a quiet affair at first. Velvet had still been setting the table when Margaret and Alisha wandered in, soon joined by Laphicet and Symonne.

    Having lived near the snakes at court for most of her life, Alisha could tell the mood was tense. She was well aware of the reason, too. A therion sat in their midst, a hungry therion. She caught Cynthia throwing her glances from time to time, curious more so than cautious, while Margaret ate in complete silence. Velvet watched her brother eat, who in turn was busy kicking at Symonne under the table. Alisha knew that because she sat next to him, and because the seraph girl kicked back just as cheerfully. Neither of them let it show on their faces.

    Alisha focussed on her meal as well and though it was nothing special, it spoke to her. Simple yet nourishing, not to mention tasty. Just bread and butter and some eggs and a bit of ham. But she was also hungry. So hungry. So she ate her entire portion without much thought, but felt it would be rude to demand more. Her stomach, unaware of such thoughts, growled loudly enough for others to hear. Velvet's eyes snapped to Alisha in an instant and the others had heard as well. She ducked her head and did not dare raise her voice: "Ah, could I bother you for another... helping?"

    She had not even finished by the time a second plate was placed on the first, with the same meal yet again. She blinked up at Velvet, who wore a faint grin. "I figured that might happen. Be careful about this, though; I couldn't feel full anymore after I turned, so you might have the same thing."

    The tension dissipated somewhat and Alisha thankfully picked up her fork again. But seeing that the subject had been broached already, she decided to try conversing. "Actually, I just feel really hungry. Which is odd because I hardly ever did the last few years." Now she had Margaret's attention, but thought nothing of it while she chewed.

    Cynthia took a look at Alisha and made a thoughtful sound. "I was thinking you're a bit thin, ah, Alisha."

    Going by her expression, she had just remembered she was talking to royalty. And then remembered Alisha's insistence on not being treated any different from everyone else. The erstwhile princess swallowed and answered her host quickly: "I never had much of an appetite and I feel anything I did eat was used up during exercises and training." Velvet's frown was noticed and Alisha answered before the other hellion could even comment. "I am aware I need to eat more while in a phyiscally taxing position, but I can assure you that my diet was suitable. I just...."

    She coughed and fell silent, unsure how to explain it. Symonne saved her then: "She just went hungry in favour of feeding her subordinates when supplies got scarce."

    The responses her nod to Symonne garnered were... varied. Margaret nodded as if she expected something like this, Laphicet sighed, Velvet palmed her face, and Cynthia's eyes widened the slightest bit. Perhaps in awe. Probably awe. She immediately bustled into the kitchen and returned with a third helping; Alisha had already annihilated the second. She thanked her host sheepishly and got to work.

    Halfway through however, she realised this should not become a trend. Not like this, at least. So she looked up and around. "That aside however, is there any way I can make myself useful? I can work." She was healthy and refused to just take such generosity without repaying it. No one even attempted to make the suggestion of taking it easy. This prompted some discussion between Cynthia and Velvet though, which boiled down to Alisha being unsuited to help in the tavern proper due to her tail. Followed by Alisha having a miniature mental breakdown when they explained the tavern's concept to her. A place to freely interact with seraphim for everyone.

    But of course, this also meant everyone would see her true nature.

    "I'll take her into the kitchen," Velvet noted in the end. "We always need more hands at the true frontier."

    "The barmaids will zap you if they hear that," Cynthia teased, but any potential retort was preempted by Alisha raising her hand weakly.

    "I, ah, am not sure how much help I could be. Outside of smoking meat and a few basic campfire meals, I have never cooked anything."

    "Anyone can cook as long as they follow the recipe." Velvet dismissed her concern with a wave of her hand, but offered Alisha a smile after a moment. "And I wrote them all down in detail."

    Cynthia nodded her agreement. "Though it helps to be taught by someone as proficient as you."

    "Actually," Margaret chimed in softly with a glance to Velvet, "I was wondering for a while now, why do you need those overly detailed recipes? I kept forgetting to ask about that."

    The older woman's look became a flat stare directed at her student. "I have no sense of taste."

    Mother and daughter had much the same reaction; their mouths dropped open. Alisha covered her own gaping expression and Symonne just blinked before leaning closer, curious. "What's that have to do with anything?"

    "She used to taste-test a lot." Heads turned to Laphicet, who nodded to his sister. "To get the seasoning as precise as possible."

    Cynthia got over her shock quickly this time and agreed with him. "It's important to make sure the food is good. I can't believe I never noticed." Margaret nodded along with her mother, but Velvet herself simply shrugged and responded to the room in general, but obviously also to Alisha in particular: "It is how it is. I lost my sense of taste when I became a hellion."

    Alisha reflexively took a bite from her bread, clearly tasting its mild flavour. Laphicet huffed, being the only one who noticed. He smiled at the younger therion from his seat. "Don't worry, that one was unique to Velvet. You would have noticed earlier, anyway. There may be comparable changes of your own, but it doesn't seem to be anything we can tell immediately.

    "I can't believe it." Margaret was still staring at Velvet. "Your food is as good as Mom's, but you're like that?" This, however, prompted chuckles from Symonne and also Velvet herself.

    Alisha watched the entire situation with a certain envy in her heart, but also joy. They included her in this moment, even if she was a stranger to them. It was a kind gesture.

    Margaret had her head lowered and considered something now, apparently having shaken off her surprise. Alisha met the younger girl's gaze twice, though those attentive eyes were wandering from person to person; something happened in this young mind, Alisha could tell. When Margaret spoke, she immediately changed the subject: "I was just thinking, the Caelix still needs clearing out."

    "Wait, what? The Caelix is still active?"

    Symonne stared at Margaret, but it was Laphicet who answered her: "We went there to check recently. It's still active and infested." When he saw Alisha's and Cynthia's lost expressions, he elaborated for their benefit. "The Caelix is a powerful arte built on an island far out to the sea. It was cut off from the known world centuries ago. I don't know how many cycles of venomisation the hellions there went through, but they're incredibly powerful and need clearing out before the arte itself can be shut down."

    When it was clear he was done, Alisha asked for another clarification: "Pardon, what is venomisation?"

    "When hellions eat other hellions," Symonne supplied as if she already expected the question. She motioned for Alisha. "Venomisation is treated as a ritual even though it isn't. It's just one thing of darkness eating another and taking everything from the victim. As far as I know, the only hellions that don't go insane from doing that are therions, which are specifically made for this purpose." Alisha felt very small for a moment, but Symonne's reassurance helped.

    Then Velvet added another source of worry: "But venomisation still creates powerful hellions." She looked at Margaret sternly. "Incredibly powerful, mindless, insane beasts."

    "They stand between us and the Caelix proper. We originally thought about sending Maggie in for practice, but shelved the idea for the time being. She would have gotten killed without a partner and I'm banned from bonding with her."

    Laphicet delivered this without much thought and no one contested it much, though Cynthia stiffened. Velvet threw her brother a dirty look. "No one bonds with you for the time being."

    Which... prompted a playful huff from Symonne. "But the normal bonding is still allowed, right?"

    The older Crowe gave her a blank look, which was soon replaced by a grin. "Knock yourself out, then. Out, not up."

    Alisha took a moment to register the wordplay, then, on a whim, she decided to join in for once. Her widened eyes were no act, but the hand she put in front of her mouth was. "Oh my, I had no idea you had that kind of relationship."

    Symonne started to giggle while Laphicet sighed heavily and said nothing. Margaret's ears were visibly red from the implications, but she, too, did not react much. She merely let the mirth happen for a few seconds before returning to the subject at hand: "Our situation remains the same, though. We have powerful hellions that need to be cleared out, I would like for Alisha to join Symonne and I on our travels, and this is a good opportunity all around. For us to get a feeling for the others, for Alisha to practice with her powers, to get this done."

    A nod was given to the former princess, who had not been surprised by the news. They had spoken about that earlier, after all. And now that Alisha had time, she figured out an answer.

    "If you would have me, I would be delighted to lend my aid."
     
  21. TheDisturbedDragon

    TheDisturbedDragon *FWOOOOOOOOOSH*

    Joined:
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    Well. That just happened... I look forward to seeing how this changes things!
     
  22. Threadmarks: 3.3 Forgotten Island
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    Plans were made, but despite Alisha's eagerness to begin, they spent the day resting. Or rather, something of the like. Margaret and Velvet taught her the basics of cooking, only to find an eager student quite capable of following instructions. Not to mention that many of the human members on staff first learned about hellions when encountering her, though no one seemed to be horrified like she expected. Regardless, for women used to hours long marches or battle, a day spent preparing food was restful indeed.

    Only in the evening, once the tavern began to truly fill, did they all gather below in the Bloodwings' teleportation chamber. Alisha remained unaware of the shadow guild's presence, too awed by all the new experiences and sights to notice anything odd. Velvet and Laphicet stood in front of the three women they would send into danger. The older Crowe's gaze went from one to the other as she instructed them curtly: "This is a test more than anything else. The hellions on Hexen Isle are among the most powerful in the world. We don't expect you to pull it off." She was well aware of Alisha's tail drooping, noticed the other signs of disappointment among all three. It made her smile. "Maybe you'll surprise us."

    Margaret perked up first and nodded, but Velvet simply carried on: "You have a week to clear the island proper. Kill everything, there were no humans there and any seraphim would be dragons by now. Laphi or I will check on you periodically."

    Her tone was calm; no one reacted, but they all heard her. Laphicet took over from his sister at this point, just as calm but with narrowed eyes: "And we trust that you're responsible enough not to get yourself killed. You are not to leave the island unless you give up, we will bring provisions and such as we visit."

    No one complained or made any comments, so they were led to one specific teleportation arte which Laphicet opened for them. They all stepped through and the siblings followed. Within a minute, they were there.

    Once they stood upon the thorny sand however, all three women shuddered. Human and seraph and hellion alike. They beheld how stone had grown roots and turned into unnatural forms, how plants grew upside down from the ground or in mid-air. The very beach they stood on was not the usual colour of sand but reds and blues and blacks. Curtains of darkness hung thick over the entire area, turning it to night despite morning's sun shining above, unseen by the five beneath.

    Symonne shuddered. "Brr, how can there be so much Malevolence in one place without anyone noticing? Did it float that far away from Glenwood?"

    Margaret turned her attention to her partner at that point, a little worried. "Will you be alright?"

    In turn, the seraph girl nodded and gave a shaky thumbs-up. "I'm fine. My vessel is pure and my will is strong, I can bear this."

    Alisha had since turned to watch the endlessly expanding sea in awe, so no one noticed how Velvet's and Laphicet's eyes turned to the island's distant center. It was visible from where they stood, risen from the ground on a gently sloping hill of black stone. On this hill, so stark white that they almost shone against the everpresent Malevolence, were bones. Huge bones and many, still lying as the creature had fallen a thousand years past. A dragon, felled long ago and put to rest. Both siblings knew the history behind it, but neither said anything.

    Moments passed and eventually, Velvet took Alisha aside while Laphicet quietly spoke with Symonne and Margaret. "Keep an eye on Alisha," he told them softly behind a screen of air to ward off eavesdropping foxes, "she's stronger than when she was human, but it won't be enough. She can't armatise like the two of you." They all remembered how Alisha needed an explanation of why armour was unnecessary for her. It had included a bent dagger and the slightest nick in her skin. Both girls agreed with him, knowing how new all of this was for their newest ally.

    The blonde in question was currently in the middle of a breathing exercise, courtesy of Velvet. Malevolence surrounding her broke off in thick streamers that followed her breath; darkness flowed into her mouth and nose, into the open maw that was her tail. It was slimy, hot, cold, raspy, silky, thin, thick, and a thousand sensations more as she devoured it. "It feels odd," Alisha told her tutor of sorts after a few more breaths. "I can feel it settling."

    "I'm not surprised, there is a lot of it here. You're doing well."

    "Thank you."

    This continued for another minute before Velvet deemed it enough. Brother and sister gave the group one last look and bid them goodbye, then left through the same portal they arrived from. It glimmered softly on the ground, surrounded by their main camp to be; they had yet to set up. The three were left in a somewhat sheltered position between a bright red dune and the sea, though even the water was black around Hexen Isle's shore. Mighty pillars of stone reached skyward in the distance, vaguely visible through haze darkness.

    The three women glanced between each other, unsure what to say. Alisha was the first to speak, eyes on Symonne: "You implied you were here before?"

    Margaret averted her gaze, unnoticed by the other two. Her partner simply nodded, but did not elaborate much. "In a manner of speaking. It's not a nice place to be," she deflected.

    Some of Margaret's old memories were tied to this place. They were not good, not at all. Malakhim brought to be turned into dragons, to be held as cattle. To produce Malevolence forever in an attempt to sustain Innominat indefinitely. However, she expelled all the bad thoughts with her next breath; the past was the past, but she needed to focus on the present now, which was why she roused the other two: "Shall we get going? We can build our camp after getting the lay of the land."

    "Sure."
    "Very well."

    With her companions in agreement, they found their first conundrum; how should the three form up? Margaret pondered what she knew of their capabilities, frowning ever so slightly for a moment. Then she pointed. "Let's try an inverted speartip for now. Alisha and I in front, you in the back, Symonne. You're our only active caster and yes, I know you can hold your own in melee. But right now we need a stable formation, even if we break it later."

    Symonne mulled this over, her commentary already expected and disputed preemptively. Alisha nodded first. "This sounds workable," the therion agreed. She focussed for a moment and formed a black spear out of Malevolence, the first technique Velvet taught her. Clothes she had yet to grasp, but a weapon was easier. A few test swings were made and Alisha nodded to herself, then aligned with Margaret. Symonne followed without any complaint, forming a rough triangle with the other girls.

    They progressed slowly, eyeing the ground and expecting an ambush on every step. Symonne's sense for hellions was useless here, where Malevolence surrounded them on all sides. Alisha was stepping lightly though, an odd look on her face. "I feel so much lighter," she told the other two. "I understand that I am now so much more durable than I used to be, but I am quite used to wearing armour."

    Margaret understood, though it was Symonne who answered idly: "It's just not worth the hassle of putting on and carrying the weight. Unless mundane gear is heavily enchanted, most hellions and humans with a bonded seraph have a natural durability to match or greater. Not to mention the strength to go through such durability. Any regular armour would slow you down and any normal weapon breaks without leaving more than a scratch."

    "So I saw." Alisha let out a soft sigh, but remained alert even through their conversation. "I feel I will still need some more time to get used to this. And this." She flicked her tail a little for emphasis, faintly rustling her shirt. Right, her tail; Margaret found that cute and creepy at the same time, both for what it truly was and because it had just appeared on a person she remembered not having any such thing.

    Symonne did not seem as confounded by it though, eyeing the appendage curiously. "Can I pet it?"

    "I think not." Alisha threw the seraph a careful look, her tail stiffening ever so slightly. "Even the fact we barely know each other aside, I have yet to train the reflex to bite out of me. So no."

    The shorter girl nodded and made a quiet noise. "Aha, so you're one of those." Though her comment was not quiet enough to escape Alisha.

    "One of what, exactly?"

    "A prude."

    Margaret may have had to giggle a little about the flat look Alisha threw behind them, but she reined herself in quickly. "Enough teasing," the younger blonde admonished after a moment and cast her gaze around again. "Symonne didn't mean any insult and we need to watch out."

    Whatever Alisha was about to say, her words became a sigh and she nodded to Margaret. "Very well." Symonne refrained from commenting, but the lack of a retort was an answer in itself. Once silence reigned again, the three left the sand and treaded on more solid ground, toward the hills separating beach and island. A small passage led right through its center, a few metres wide and dozens long.

    Then a tree appeared amidst the fog and made them stop. Between the dark blue stone walls, the creature stood. Not made of wood, but rather a more sinister mark. Where any normal tree had bark, this one bore scales. Another creature wailed far away, but the colossus stood silent. It's trunk wavered and bent, a spine unlike any real tree, on legs that were roots yet free. Two gaping maws opened across its length, but snapped shut with titanic strength.

    Three dozen glimmering branches swayed in still air and the creature glared at them out of no less than nine eyes, arrayed in a circle. Some had slitted pupils, others round ones. Alisha took a step back in visible revulsion, but no more than that. Margaret and Symonne rather studied the hellion as it began to hobble forward; its root-legs were many, but short. Its approach was slow if determined and after a moment, Symonne called out: "It's looking at you, Alisha. Might be sensing you're a hellion."

    "Marvelous," the older blonde deadpanned; The other two silently agreed with their foxy friend's lack of enthusiasm. Margaret drew her blade and Symonne materialised a scepter; Alisha's spear was already raised.

    They watched the creature lumber closer, ever so slowly and at a pace they could outwalk if they so wanted. Margaret took a deep breath and exchanged nods with Alisha. "Unfortunately for this beast," she stated grimly, "it will not be fed today. Ready?"

    "Yes."

    "Ready."

    A dark blue shine illuminated the front line from behind as Symonne began to focus her mana. Alisha took the first step forward and remained ahead as Margaret charged, both of them rushing the wary tree. They hammered into it a moment later to a surprised hiss as Alisha's spear took its lowermost eye. It leaned backward immediately, back and back and back until its crown touched the ground, at which point Margaret darted past; she had intended to cut off two of its spindly legs, but the blade bounced. Her eyes widened and she threw herself aside to evade a half-dozen wooden spikes, then turned to keep facing her opponent.

    The tree snapped forward and hurled Alisha off, completely ignoring the storm of ice Symonne unleashed like a summer breeze. The flying therion slammed into a wall and left an indentation, crumbling rock all around her as she fell to the ground; moments passed as if in trance, but then she rose again.

    Margaret charged at the creature from behind, but it was a tree; it had no vulnerable backside, as she learned a moment later. What was worse, the thing simply bent its trunk and slammed it into the retreating girl, throwing her a dozen metres; Margaret landed hard on her back, all air pushed out of her lungs. She saw only black for a moment, but then her swimming vision focussed and she quickly got up. Her bruised side continued to throb, but it was fading already; the throbbing in her arm was not. She looked down, tried to move it, and hissed. Broken.

    A shout drew her attention back to the fight, where the tree was busy hammering Alisha into the ground with its scaly hide. Stone and earth flew under the force of each blow and then it suddenly changed direction, began to hammer at another spot where nothing was. Symonne darted in and grabbed Alisha, pulled the moaning girl away from their opponent.

    Margaret held her arm still and waved with the good one. "R-Retreat," she called shakily, but the word felt felt bitter on her tongue.

    They had fought for twenty seconds, if even that much. Maybe ten. The only one not yet maimed was Symonne, who hefted Alisha onto her shoulders and dashed away; Margaret strode after them, unwilling to run and rattle her arm.

    . .
    . .

    Alisha was in shock. Not from pain, but from anguish. They had arrived on Hexen Isle to learn to work together, for her to get accustomed to her new powers. Only for the first opponent they met to destroy them in seconds.

    She lay on the ground and breathed while Symonne put her fractured ribs back together; Margaret cradled her recently healed arm and grimaced, but Alisha could tell the younger girl was thinking. Time passed and in the end, the younger blonde sighed. "We will have to try again," she ground out, "this time with another opponent. Perhaps the tree was but a fluke."

    The other girl was grasping at straws and they all knew it, but nobody said so; Alisha wanted it to be true, too. She felt so weak once again, as if nothing had changed after all. The thought opened a deep pit in Alisha's stomach, one she did not want to even consider. She blinked up at Margaret and nodded. "Once I am ready, we can go."

    Speaking no longer hurt, but Symonne was panting at this point. She had brushed up on healing artes and they were useful, but she needed a lot of mana to cast them at the strength they needed. Another few minutes passed until the seraph girl leaned back with a sigh. "Alright, done."

    Alisha got up and gingerly tested her range of movement, nodding her thanks at Symonne. "All good, thank you very much." The other woman just waved it off and caught her breath, then they headed out again, this time around the tree to find another hellion..

    And were soundly defeated again.

    And again.

    And again.

    Hours passed as a routine established itself; the three found an opponent, managed to attack it swiftly, then were completely crushed when said opponent fought back.

    In the evening, or what they felt was the evening, they surrounded the campfire quietly. Alisha's insides were burning as Malevolence surged through barely healed flesh. Symonne's head rested on Margaret's shoulder, the seraph too tired to replace her top or heal the thin, bluish lines running over her entire upper body. Alisha raised no complaints with Symonne's partial nudity, as it was just them and the girl gave everything she had putting human and hellion back together a dozen times.

    Deep down, Alisha wondered. This place was horrible in all aspects; even the thick Malevolence she devoured near constantly did nothing to help. There was so much of it and the hellions were so malformed, she wondered if Sorey could cleanse this. If the silver flame could burn this away. She did not know. This thought made her wonder how Sorey would treat an opponent he could not cleanse? He definitely could not defeat these creatures, that much she knew; not now, probably not ever. And they told Alisha she might be that powerful in a decade, the thought alone was ludicrous.

    In the end, she could do nothing. Just like before. She was meaningless.

    A faint golden shine from next to her drew Alisha's gaze, but she did no more than move her eyes. Margaret barely turned her head and Symonne's eyes fluttered open; they beheld Velvet's arrival a moment later, the smell of warm food wafting around her. It woke them up a bit and Alisha's stomach growled for attention. She felt so empty, just wanted to fill it.

    Velvet made to speak, but remained silent after getting her first look at the three beaten girls. She took in Alisha's partly torn-out fur, Margaret's dull look, and Symonne's general state, her smile dropping away. "Rough day, I see. Here, eat, it'll help." She methodically distributed plates of food and silverware, then sat with them as they began to eat. Alisha had to stop herself from just slamming her face into the food like a pig, so hungry was she. She kept inhaling Malevolence without even noticing.

    No one spoke, all of them defeated. Velvet's gaze wandered between them and once they were done, with only Alisha taking seconds, she sighed. "Do you want to stop?"

    Alisha's shoulders slumped even though she expected the question. Symonne frowned where she sat, but said nothing. It was for the best to retreat here, the therion knew; they could do nothing.

    "No."

    She looked up, as did Symonne. Margaret had spoken, all blankness gone from her expression. She held Velvet's gaze calmly, absently caressing a scar on her wrist; one beast's fang almost took the hand off earlier. Nothing else was said, the fire's crackling unbearably loud in this silence.

    Then something snarled in the dark and all four women rose. A mix of wolf and plant and beast charged out of the darkness, one of the monsters they fought before. Alisha knew it must have followed their tracks, it had found them and they would die now.

    Except they did not.

    Velvet was already in front before Alisha got to her feet; they all scrambled up and watched the grotesque monster halt as a crimson claw closed around its forward snout. Shadows ran over its silhouette, the fire illuminating several other drooling maws hanging open.

    All was still for a single heartbeat, the monster just as surprised as the girls. Then Velvet squeezed and a sickening crack rang out; the beast began to thrash, but this time it was not the predator; Velvet just raised an eyebrow and searing lines of red shot from her fingertips, running through the monster. It was cut apart without any resistance, a howl dying in its many throats.

    Alisha could only watch in awe and dark envy; she saw the pieces fall and be devoured by Velvet's hand. Each one was drawn in slowly, to more crunches and wet tearing noises. They all heard, they all saw, they all watched. Alisha wanted this. Velvet had done it so effortlessly, as if it were nothing; yet Alisha was still feeling so many minor wounds all over her body, slowly closing from the Malevolence she ingested.

    They kept watching in a daze. A beast that they could hardly scratch, which could have rent any of them asunder with a casual flick of one of its seven paws. Broken in an instant. Once it was done, Velvet sighed for some reason and settled back down at the fire. Her claw returned to being a hand and she motioned for the others to sit as well. They did. The silence was almost deafening now, even the hellions were still. Just like before.

    Minutes passed.

    Symonne had averted her gaze and was looking at no one; Alisha's shoulders were slumped. Margaret had said they would stay, but there was nothing they could do. When she glanced at her fellow blonde however, the girl was not looking down. No, nothing like that. She was grinning. It was just the beginning of a grin, yes, but enough of one to catch Alisha's attention. Seeing she had been noticed, Margaret spoke: "I have an idea." Symonne looked up as well now, waiting expectantly. Velvet motioned for Margaret to speak and Alisha nodded, all eyes on the youngest of their group. The grin turned outright nasty now. "Thank you for reminding me, Velvet. Therions grow their power incredibly fast if they're fed well."

    Velvet blinked at her, as did Alisha. The basic idea sounded fine, but this still had the issue of feeding Alisha something. Perhaps if they asked Velvet to kill one for her, but she doubted this would go over well with her benefactor.

    Margaret seemed to think differently, though. She pointed at a curious Symonne. "So tomorrow? First thing in the morning, you and I will push our Armatus to its limits and kill one of them. We're going to feed it to Alisha," she continued while pointing at the younger therion, "and then Alisha will pick up the slack while we recover."

    "And if that isn't enough to bridge the gap?"

    Margaret was grinning at the seraph girl, determination burning in her eyes. "Then we repeat this until it is bridged."

    Velvet began to grin as well, but Alisha was fidgeting. She did not know if she could live up to such expectations. Yet it was a chance; moreover, she could help. "I can utilise my greater form," she offered into the silence. "At first I figured it would not help here, but perhaps that will be enough."

    Then something occurred to her and she turned more directly to Margaret. "But, say, I thought only a shepherd may armatise?"

    The other girl gave her an odd look, likely surprised by the question. "Why would they?" she asked back. "A shepherd is not inherently special except for wielding the flames of purification." The younger blonde stated it so matter-of-factly that Alisha immediately felt silly for having believed it so easily. Then again...

    "I recall Lailah describing it as a power of the shepherd. So far, I had no reason to doubt her." She held Margaret's gaze for a moment before averting her eyes. "So far. I have no reason to assume you are lying to me, either. Perhaps I am too trusting."

    "You're too reverent of us seraphim," was what Symonne chimed in with. She stepped forward and poked Alisha's chest, making the tired girl lean back a little. "You put us on a pedestal and treat our words as gospel, but it's simply not true. We are people like all humans, we have our own thoughts, we can be wrong, and we lie." Each of these points hurt a little, but Alisha nodded sadly for as long as Symonne spoke. It made sense, but working this truth into her devotion to the kind seraphim was difficult; she had only heard legends of them until a few months prior. They were not what she expected when she did get to meet them, but Lailah in particular had been so radiant; Alisha asked no questions of such a figure, which she now realised was an error.

    So she looked down at Symonne, bruised and still baring her chest to the world. Then to Margaret. "I know you are both tired, but could you demonstrate? Just for a moment, so I can know what you tell me is the truth?"

    To Alisha's surprise, the shorter woman grinned up instead of being indignant like she feared. Symonne threw a glance to Margaret, who simply nodded and drew her secondary weapon; a dagger of truly beautiful design, ornamental in its creation. A little like the sword in the stone. Margaret noticed Alisha's calculating look and presented the weapon. "Armatisation is not a privilege, Alisha," she explained gently. "It is a special kind of power, achieved through understanding and trust. Friendship, if you want. And an arte, a powerful, complicated arte; this here is an armatisation catalyst, specifically keyed to water seraphim. Now behold."

    Symonne had walked back to her partner while the latter spoke, now she turned into mist which flowed toward Margaret. The human girl's mouth opened to speak a word, a name, but Alisha did not hear. She merely saw the various symbols ignite in a dark ocean's blue. It quickly flowed through all of Margaret's body, taking Symonne along; blonde hair became black, a tanned complexion paled, light blue eyes turned lilac. For but a moment, Alisha beheld the etheral glow of an Armatus. Different than the three she saw Sorey use, wielding two wings of daggers instead of bow or gauntlets or greatsword. She bowed her head and the glow faded, both girls splitting apart.

    Symonne stumbled and Margaret grabbed her arm, steadying her. "Whew," she commented, "this still feels weird."

    The whoozy seraph rubbed her naked shoulders and Alisha took notice of the fact her wounds had vanished. She did not comment on that, though; Sorey and his partnered seraphim always seemed better off after armatising, too. "Thank you for indulging me."

    "Think nothing of it." Margaret offered Alisha a weak smile, which the therion returned. Then she turned to the fourth woman present. "If even armatisation is not enough, we will return at this time tomorrow."

    Velvet just nodded, but a smile was playing around her lips. "Very well. Good luck to the three of you, then. Eat plenty and get a good night's sleep. You will need it here."

    Her advice was well-meaning, but it still felt belittling to Alisha. She stomped down on the impulse to be catty and watched her benefactor leave the same way she arrived earlier. Then her eyes strayed to her companions and the annoyance found another target. "Would you finally cover yourself up, Symonne?" she snapped, which surprised the seraph girl. Symonne opened her mouth, but paused when she saw Alisha's expression in the firelight. A new top formed out of mana and she wordlessly settled down at the fire again, with Margaret doing the same. Alisha nodded and offered a quiet "Thank you". Then she grew curious and sat as well, grabbing for another helping. "Is there any particular reason you do not care about being so... free... with your body?"

    Alisha tried not to think the word slut or any variation thereof, but she had been brought up to think in such a way. It was still rude to call her companion that, even in the sanctity of her own mind.

    Symonne simply shrugged, explaining herself without hesitation: "I don't think I've ever cared much. My body is my body and if someone wants to look at me, that's fine. I'm confident in my looks if nothing else. The important part might be that it's my body and I don't care what anyone else thinks I should do with it." She stared into the fire, head tilting this way and that while musing out loud. "But I guess I should clarify that looking is not the same as touching or the like. Anyone can look at me as much as they want. It's a compliment to me if I'm so enticing they can't keep their eyes off me. But I'm not going to let just anyone touch me."

    "Could have fooled me," Margaret drawled in response, to which Symonne gave her a stink eye.

    "...Laphi is an exception and you know it."

    "I recall you making the same offer to me two days after we met."

    "I was teasing and you know that, too."

    "Teasing, yes. Certainly."

    She could not help but chuckle about the banter, though neither of the other two seemed to take notice of it. Symonne was annoyed and Margaret kept deadpanning at her.

    "I was teasing!"

    "You are rather intense in your 'teasing', no?"

    "It's a fine line and I walk it masterfully."

    "More like stumbling, really."

    At this point however, Alisha clapped her hands to distract them both. "Okay, that is enough. I believe that your definition of teasing may go a little further than that of most, but I also believe you only mean to tease and not... offer invitations." Her cheeks warmed a little with the euphemism, but Symonne nodded gratefully. Alisha wisely said nothing about Laphicet, though she was curious. However, it did not feel like something to ask a woman she barely knew. "I think I understand you a little better as well, so thank you for that. I still do not agree on baring myself like you can simply do in public, but I understand."

    She was still thinking slut, but Symonne seemed happy enough.

    Margaret changed the subject afterward, eyes on Alisha. "I was wondering, what is your greater form exactly? What do we have to plan with?" The therion indulged her readily.

    "A fox with several tails like this one. I remember being on eye-level with Velvet when I entered that form before." Margaret nodded and thankfully did not ask for a demonstration in turn; Alisha would have to strip down for that, else she were to destroy the clothes she had been given. Then again, looking down at herself, they were so torn she almost beat Symonne in how indecent she looked. And she had just been given these clothes, too. Her sigh was barely audible, but the other two hardly missed it in the silence. Neither girl asked; rather, Margaret looked around and tapped her finger against the crystallised sand she sat on. "Symonne, do you know any artes to set traps with, or to set up alarms? Someone could hold watch, but all of us need the rest if possible."

    "I do. Just need a few minutes to set them up."

    "Please do, then."

    The seraph girl hopped up and strolled away to start setting down gleaming patches of mana; they quickly became inert, connected by various glistening strings. Symonne even brought up a translucent dome around them. "In case something wants to fly in," she told the other two with a shadowy grin. Alisha and Margaret spent that time setting out their bedrolls, close to the fire. They only needed the two, seeing how Symonne could simply rest within her vessel. Alisha had to yawn and they quietly wished each other a good night.

    Lying down under the stars was always a serene experience; today however, Alisha found, it was different. There were no stars, just a curtain of roiling darkness above and all around. Only the breeze told them of a world behind the inky black, bringing with it the scent of salt. She pondered and waited for sleep, listened to the firewood cracking once or twice.

    "Alisha?"

    Drawn from her thoughts by the quiet call, she turned her head, currently trying to lie on her belly. Margaret was eyeing her, face cast in shadow by the dying light. "It's cold. I know you aren't affected, but I am. And I can't afford to get sick and, well, is, is it okay if I slept next to you?"

    It was indeed rather chilly, though Alisha suspected that her young friend was not just asking due to the warmth of huddling closer together; this place was not nice to be in. So she immediately rose and pushed her bedroll over, giving the younger girl a tender smile as she settled down again. Her own blanket was draped over her side and she handed the other end to Margaret, who put part of hers over it. It was warmer like this.

    Then Symonne manifested above them with a disappointed noise. "Tsk tsk, what is this? You could have asked me, too!" She immediately floated under the blankets and hugged Margaret from the back. "There, three makes a proper pile." It may be a trick of the light, but Alisha thought she saw Margaret roll her eyes. But she did not complain and simply relaxed into her pillow.

    So it was that the three came to rest and soon fell asleep, one after the other. Margaret's doubts pushed back for a few blessed hours. Alisha's worries lessened by the elbow lying warmly against her own. And Symonne, who remained cuddled against her partner, simply felt happy.
     
  23. Threadmarks: 3.4 Rising Up
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    Another weird morning.

    Once again, Alisha woke in unfamiliar circumstances. Her bedroll was spread on sand the size of raw gemstones and about as friendly to walk on; a single ray of sunlight pierced through the veil of Malevolence clouding the entire island. As if in defiance of reality, this one ray had decided to fall right into her eyes as they opened. She squinted and turned her head away. In turning however, Alisha found herself face to face with Margaret. The other girl slumbered peacefully, Symonne no longer draped over her but rather nestled against her side.

    Alisha's tail swished a little under the blanket, but she managed to hold it still before it pulled the whole thing away. It was not like a dog's tail that just began to wag based on her emotional state, but sometimes it just did something. She would have to get used to that, like many other things.

    This was her second day as a hellion, more or less; technically the third, considering the time difference between Lastonbell and Hexen Isle. Either way, it would be an eventful day; they only arrived, but might leave in a handful of hours if they were found wanting. She did not want that; all of this, becoming a hellion, a therion even, had been for the purpose of gaining power. She wanted it, wanted the strength to bring change. No matter how strong the hellions here were, she would not leave today. Even if that meant putting her life on the line, Alisha vowed to herself that she would stand victorious; no, they would. For she was not alone. This young woman and the seraph she bonded with, they would take part in this glorious day.

    Alisha merely had to convince herself of that glory yet; so far, it was just a little chilly. She never slept close to the sea before, but even that she could not enjoy; all the water was black and none of the ocean surrounding them could be seen through the Malevolence. Then again, she was a therion. It might be unfair to the other two, but Alisha could wash off the sweat, blood, and dirt from yesterday's failures. They managed to get most of it off without touching the water, but, well. It was tempting. Seeing that neither of her companions seemed to be waking up yet, Alisha quietly rose and put the blanket aside. She then stripped down and left what was more rags than clothes behind; it was a shame about the garments, they barely protected her modesty after but a single day.

    A refreshing dip in the black water later, Alisha strolled out and left behind a patch of clear blue; she took the Malevolence surrounding her as a snack. Not that it lasted, seeing how more darkness immediately began to seep into that spot, turning it just as black as it used to be. She paid it no mind and dried off with a few rags, the rustling of which woke Margaret. The younger blonde blinked up at the sky and closed her eyes again. Then she jerked and sat up, the motion in turn rattling Symonne awake.

    "Good morning, Margaret, Symonne."

    "Hey."

    "Hrm."

    Symonne immediately turned immaterial and flowed back into Margaret after grumbling at them. The girl chuckled weakly and winked at Alisha. "Someone is not an early bird."

    She could not help but join into the laughter, mouth hidden behind her hand. "But neither are you."

    "And neither are you."

    Alisha inclined her head and took to putting their bedding to air out while Margaret warmed up the food Velvet left with them. Only the two of them ate that morning, Symonne using the time to snooze a little longer, safely hidden within Margaret. Their conversation over breakfast was basically nonexistent, neither woman in the mood for chit chat. At least, for most of it. Margaret ended this toward the end of their meal: "May I do your hair again?"

    It startled Alisha a little, but she liked the idea well enough. "Of course, but I would like to do yours in exchange."

    "Sure."

    The work was quiet again, but it helped Alisha find some calm. Margaret seemed to be much the same. When both of them were done, Symonne flowed out of Margaret. She formed wearing a mixture of frown and pout, eyes directed on the black sea. Her only comment to that was a muttered "can't even swim here," which made Margaret take a thoughtful look at the water. Then she glanced at her companions.

    "Do you think we could take some time to swim here, once the island is cleared? I would love to try."

    "We do not have unlimited time, I am afraid. But I am rather curious about the experience myself." Alisha did not mention that she already took a dip earlier, merely looked at the beach in contemplation. "I never had time for such things before." Always practicing, patrolling, attending court, and so on. It was a novel experience.

    Margaret, unaware of those thoughts, smiled brightly at her companions. "Alright then. We are going to go above and beyond today to make progress, will destroy all the hellions on this island and cleanse it thoroughly, and finally take a break to swim in the ocean. How does that sound?"

    She stood and held out a hand to Alisha, who took it with a somewhat feral grin. "That sounds like a marvelous idea," the older blonde agreed.

    Symonne slapped her hand on top of theirs without hesitation, grinning much like the resident therion. "I'm in! Let's get to it, what do we kill first?"

    "The tree." It had only taken a moment for Margaret to respond; Alisha nodded at her, agreeing with the choice. The tree, the tree was their first opponent on this island. Fitting, then, that it would also be the first to fall against them.

    The three returned to the previous day's formation and headed out, anxiety in their hearts and determination in their souls. No one spoke. It was far too soon that they reached the passage through solid rock, seeing how it lay just a few hundred metres from their camp. The tree remained in its spot, perfectly happy until it saw them; Alisha noted how the lowest of its eyes was open. She pierced it the previous day, but the creature apparently regenerated.

    Curiously, the monster growled at them and turned away; Alisha studied it for a moment, then threw her companions a look. "Is it, um, emoting to leave it alone?"

    "It seems so. Be that as it may, please wait until Symonne and I-" "Wait."

    Margaret stopped when Alisha interrupted her; the therion had one hand raised, though she too ignored the annoyed hellion. "I need to prepare myself first, if you would give me a moment."

    The tree was still watching them with its leftmost eyes, but seemed uninterested in another battle. Alisha felt that its gaze was on her more than the others, especially when they gave her room. She glanced to her left and right, making sure the walls were far enough away. A dozen metres in either direction, as well as up. That was acceptable, though she had to be careful if their opponent got around her.

    She took a deep breath and focussed, grasped for the darkness within once more.

    Behind her, Margaret watched a familiar yet new transformation. She remembered them from before, but even Artorius had never seen one from up close like this. Darkness flowed from Alisha, a hint of blonde in the black all that they saw of her. The tree had turned back in alarm and watched with them, beheld the therion's body contort and grow. And grow. And grow. Alisha fell onto all fours and Margaret saw the vague outline of a muzzle grow from her 'front'. Sand-coloured fur grew out of the dark shape, covering it; the darkness released itself in a cloud which pushed Margaret herself back.

    It had happened within a single second, but that was enough time for everyone to ready themselves; the tree leered at the fox facing it, twice the width and thrice the length of a horse. If Alisha raised her head the slightest bit, Margaret would be able to stand beneath it. A menacing growl thundered out of the therion's throat, answered by their mark's own. Then however, five long tails opened and turned into monstrosities of spittle and teeth; the hindmaws began to suck Malevolence out of the air in thick streamers while the fox howled.

    Margaret took a moment to behold the intimidating yet majestic creature in front of her, then someone tapped her shoulder. "More of a wolf," Symonne threw in casually while she stepped next to Margaret, who heard her voice shaking. Regardless, they nodded at each other and stepped forward, Symonne already losing coherence. Margaret kept her ears open in case Alisha lunged at them from behind, but she doubted it; the tree's attention was focussed on the fox behind them, which suited her just fine. The drool running down its vertical maws she could have lived without, though.

    Margaret put her hand on the dagger and pulled at their bond to initiate the arte; Symonne followed her call and spread through the human girl's body. They needed no more words, bar two.

    "Kyurib Ishuk!"

    With Symonne's true name as their catalyst, they became one once more. The light drew their mark's attention from Alisha and even the fox watched in awe. Eight floating daggers arrayed themselves in two wings of four as what was more than just Margaret plus Symonne revealed herself. Without hesitation, she marched forward and drew Margaret's sword with a swishing noise as it cut the air.

    The tree braced itself for a charge, which was obvious to expect. So she charged. Her daggers arrayed themselves in the split-second between lunge and impact, forming a circle and shooting off like arrows. The tree bent aside as she charged for its lowest eye like Alisha had before, but the motion was expected and accounted for. Reinforced steel slid into her target perfectly, eliciting a grunt. Then the daggers struck all its other eyes and gouged them out, making the monster howl; she took one step back before it swung around, slamming her into a wall. Stone shattered violently and she felt something break in her right arm.

    Undeterred, she switched the sword to her left and grabbed the broken one's sleeve with her teeth. Arte circles formed in front of her, pointed at the thrashing tree; it was hammering its top at the ground all around to sweep the intruder away, no longer able to see her. Alisha watched the daggers continue to stab at the hellion, though they gave it little more than scratches. Looking up, she decided to change the target; mental commands went to the weapons, which quickly adjusted their course and rose to assault the thinner branches. They were arms, one and all, trying to whip at whoever held the daggers; sap rained down from dozens of small cuts, then, silently, a pillar of ice slammed into the creature's face.

    She was a radiant figure amidst the darkness of Hexen Isle, standing before the wall she had just helped break, now quietly stepping away from her opponent. When the tree's maws began to glow, she immediately threw herself sideways; a beam of searing heat ran through the wall and cut it apart, its excess heat washing over both her and Alisha, who shied away.

    Ignoring its outburst, the daggers continued to harass their blinded prey, two of them now diving to cut at its root-legs instead. More sap began to coat the greyish black ground, turning it into an odd sort of brown with pink dots. Admittedly, she had expected to fight the monster more closely, but she could live with this. Arte circles formed all around the tree and she added an illusion of herself standing on its opposite side.

    The beauty of illusions, she knew, was that if they felt real enough, they could injure. It was not her, yet the tree's body felt the nonexistent sword carve into its bark and was hurt by it. Tiny blades of water slashed forward to engulf the creature from every side, tearing off a few chunks of its thick hide. The eight real daggers continued to dance amidst branches and roots. Throughout it all, the hellion kept hammering its body into the ground where the illusion stood, furiously trying to kill something that kept attacking even though it felt the impact and knew it should be crushed. She watched on, careful nonetheless. Silent as well, to not tip the creature off.

    Daggers danced, water and ice flowed around, and the tree stopped howling. The hellion seemed to crouch and... struck its roots into the ground, becoming completely stationary. Then it continued to slap at the annoying daggers, though several of its branches had been cut off by now. She tried to ignore the painful pulses running through her broken arm, shifted her weight ever so slightly. Pushed her foot sideways to compensate. And the tree turned around, facing her once more. Her eyes widened and she took a full step, but the maws already lit up.

    It lined up on her perfectly and let loose another beam; the fire ran into a shield of ice and melted it in an instant, the very instant it took for her to drop. Heat seared over her back and peeled off skin under her torn shirt, then she was up and changing position. The tree followed her motions perfectly, this time sending a stream of flame at her feet that sent her flying when it blew up the ground. She tried not to bite her tongue and alighted in the air, a rail of water forming for her to land on. She slid along and waited for the next attack, but none came. The tree was turning this way and that, toward where various rocks landed on the ground.

    A larger one slammed into the ground and it turned that way, sending out another beam; that was when she understood: the creature's roots were feeling for vibrations in the ground. Clever. She just hoped it would not have a way to find her in the sky, too. Slowly, she began to slide along and tried not to make any sounds once the latest explosion's echo faded. Her daggers rose from the tree's top where they had landed earlier; now that she had the presence of mind to focus on them, they got back to their gruesome if effective work.

    Then she slid by and took off another two branches with a single swipe of her blade. A large block of ice rammed itself in the creature's maw as it opened wider, the beast turning its attention upward. Its spine bent and snapped back, trying to smash her out of the sky; the tree missed. It need not have hit either way; not just her arm was throbbing now, but rather her entire being. The Armatus would not hold any longer.

    But she forced the arte under control, pushed herself just a little further. Two souls sang as one and within their song, they held together but a moment longer. She turned on her rail of water as it extended itself before her feet, by her command. She dove lower and aligned her blade, all eight daggers following. All the mana she had left flowed into the weapons and formed a sheen of water around each. The tree did not notice her approach; it tried to bend when the sword cut into its side, but the rush of fluids pushed it back, uprooted it in part. Then the daggers rammed into the opening, releasing high-pressured jets of water; they tore the wound open further and further, then fell. The rail faded and she fell with her weapons.

    Then it was Margaret falling, with Symonne not even materialising; her partner remained within, the dagger safely returned to its sheath.

    She tried to bend her body and felt burns ache on her back, but it bent far enough. Margaret lost her sword as she caught the fall on her good arm and turned it into a roll that ended on the wall. Her bloody back made her shriek in pain when it hit the stone, but the sound was strangled by the explosion of sensations in her broken arm. She came to rest where she lay and watched the tree; cut all over, bleeding droplets of sap from uncountable wounds, half of its 'face' ripped off by that last charge. But it still stood and was slowly digging back in. It already turned toward Margaret, though much slower than before.

    It never got the chance to finish them off.

    Alisha barreled into the monster with a savage howl, bodychecking the larger creature off-balance once more. It bent backward and made to strike at her, but the therion's maw closed around its weakened bark; wood splintered noisily and Alisha continued to charge away before it could grab her. Two tails tore parts out of the ever growing wound as well.

    Margaret sat and breathed and watched; she felt Symonne's hand land on her own and hissed softly to acknowledge her.

    The tree managed to dig most of its roots back into the ground by the time Alisha finished her turn; its spine bent sideways and the creature turned, visibly wincing when its gaping wound was rattled. A rivulet of pinkish brown sap ran down its side right below one of the two great maws. Alisha charged again without hesitation, slamming into the disoriented creature and pushing against it; her speed and weight bent the tree again, but it was still heavier than the fox and pushed back with all its strength. With her momentum stalled, Alisha was now pushing against her opponent with her frontlegs.

    The onlookers saw cords of muscle move, clench, shake. The fox buckled and took a step back with one hindleg, the tree bending closer to a straight position; then however, her tails became active. They jerked at first, then tapped around and stretched toward the tree's one great wound. It pushed her back another step and a third, an ominous glow already in its maws; the hellion merely needed to align itself properly for a killing blow. Alisha knew it, too; she took a half step and braced herself once more, her tails sliding over its bark as if to feel without looking.

    Then one found the wound and dug into it, a hell of teeth biting into the vulnerable flesh beneath the bark. Sap sprayed out of the wound and the tree yowled in pain; it only grew louder when a second tail found its way into the hole. Then a third joined in and took up the remaining space. All three slowly slid further inside as they ate into the living monster; the renewed and excruciating pain finally made the tree relent. Alisha took a step forward as it gave ground. Then another.

    Her opponent bent backward as if to give, so fast that Alisha stumbled forward and down; the tree bounced back and hammered into her head. Something cracked audibly and the fox was thrown back, into the air... and halted, for but an instant. Yet the force behind the strike was stronger than the tree in the end; Alisha's tails tore out a large trail of innards from its wound, which led to another spray of sap and a howl. The fox herself flew until she impacted the wall with her broken skull and dropped there, falling limp.

    Margaret had to help. She needed to force herself up and do something. Symonne's hand squeezed her arm gently, maybe to agree. But before they even got to their feet, they noticed that Alisha was not yet beaten. Her tails kept eating, pulling in the gore trailing all the way to the rattling tree, pulling on it; the monster wheezed, showers of sparks shooting out of its maws. A wave of hot air followed.

    Seconds passed and the creature continued to fail at using its powerful attack. It wobbled in place, roots grasping at empty air and arms jerking erratically as they kept bleeding. Margaret watched it grow slower still. Then she watched Alisha rise. The fox winced and jerked, even limped, her left hindleg injured. But she stood. Her eyes were focussed on the other hellion; she was a therion and, so Margaret and Symonne saw from her stance alone, she was the predator today. Before her sat prey. She limped forward, spittle flowing down her actual muzzle and all five tails. The tree swirled her way but missed, uprooting itself and falling sideways.

    Alisha limped toward the fallen giant and put her frontpaws onto it. Once more her tails dug into the wounds, this time sinking in far faster; the tree wheezed again and tried to shake itself, but a hard tug made it fall still. Another tug from all five tails and the bark became brittle in places. A third one and it tore open. A tearing sound rang out and the tree came apart in the middle, falling in two and lying still.

    For a moment, Margaret expected the fox to howl over her victory; Alisha did not, though. She simply lowered her head and tore into their fallen foe. With all six mouths she dug into every squishy bit she could get.

    As she devoured the flesh and innards, Alisha's head slowly realigned and seemed to heal. Her bad leg shifted ever so slightly and soon stood firm once again. Malevolence continued to flow into her maws, both from their surroundings and the hellion. When nothing soft was left to be devoured, the fox's attention turned to its bark; Margaret was still reeling from her part of the fight, else she would have been more affected by the sight of a giant fox nibbling on wood. Successfully so, even; bit by bit the exoskeleton broke off and was ground to paste with loud crunches. Patches of torn fur regrew alongside the therion's other regenerations.

    Human and seraph watched the spectacle for many minutes, breathing slowly and nursing their own wounds. Symonne absently cast a few minor artes once she absorbed enough mana from the area to cast again; they used all of her reserves in that final blow against the tree monster.

    Margaret groaned softly at her friend. "My back first, please. The arm is-" "Broken, I know. I felt it." Symonne made a face at her, obviously not enthused about having to share that particular sensation during their Armatus. Margaret just nodded; a being as malleable as a seraph could not break anything, so this was an unwelcome first for Symonne. She idly felt for her pendant, ran her fingers over the slightly rough wood. It was still in one piece and undamaged, thankfully.

    To the background of loud crunching and the occasional squelching sound, Symonne began to treat the worst of the damage her partner took. It was an arduous task that would take hours to complete, but they were both in a better mood than yesterday; the plan worked. Their therion was feeding.

    In time, Alisha finished her meal, taking a step back from the torn up ground where a tree used to lie dead. When she reverted to her human form, all that remained of the monster were the signs of battle, a few crumbs of bark, and a carpet of sap-like blood. The surviving hellion stood and turned around, naked after her borrowed clothes were destroyed entirely; Alisha did not even notice her state while she stumbled over to the other girls. Though, admittedly, Margaret's clothes were more strips of cloth after this last fight. She paid little mind to it and rather laughed up at her new companion, who grimaced back and sank to the ground with a groan.

    "I, I think I ate too much," Alisha muttered in response to Margaret's curious look, beginning to rub her belly; only then did she realise her nudity, but dismissed the fact much like Margaret had. She groaned again, tired and miserable for a much different reason than the other two. "Please give me some time to digest."

    Time was something they had. Margaret just nodded, but Symonne added to it in a chirp: "Can do, Maggie needs treatment anyway."

    So they sat and breathed. The fight was over, they won. Margaret winced every once in a while and felt her arm throb, Alisha patted her belly, and Symonne was busy channeling her artes.

    Once she grew bored with her own injuries however, Margaret's gaze strayed to Alisha. She knew it was rude to stare, but curiousity got the better of her; perhaps there was also a memory or two of Celica in her mind, but that may just be her own conscience trying to find a justification. In the end, it did not change the fact she let her eyes wander over the older woman's fit form. The blonde fur intrigued her at first, but something else became far more interesting to a fourteen-year-old. "They're a lot bigger than they look normally."

    It took Symonne snorting for Margaret to realise she said it out loud. Alisha turned to her as well before looking down and sighing. "I can not keep destroying the clothes people gift me," she muttered, but then threw a blank look at her companion. "That aside, is now really the time to compare bust sizes, Margaret?" The therion paused there and her tone changed from reprimanding to intrigued: "Is that something commoner girls actually do? I thought that was just in the books."

    Margaret fidgeted a little, unsure of what answer to give; she had no idea. Symonne saved her this time, leaning over with an impish grin. "Oh? What kind of books would that be?" She got no response, even after a playful poke into one of the small patches of fur. Once it was clear there would be none either, the seraph made a dismissive motion. "And no, it generally isn't. Maggie is just fourteen and horny; think you'd let her touch?"

    Alisha calmly shook her head while Margaret bopped Symonne's. "No. Bad Symonne."

    "Perhaps once we know each other better... and are not in lethal danger."

    "You're surprisingly calm about this whole situation, you know?"

    Symonne's comment was made with a nod toward Margaret, whose cheeks had begun to turn red by this point; she had not expected Alisha to answer as she did. In difference to their youngest, the therion did not appear fazed at all. "I was taught to remain calm from a young age," she explained with a shrug. "But more than that, I see nothing worthy of embarassment. I was fourteen and curious not so long ago as well. I understand. So if you were to have any questions," she added with a smile to Margaret, "you can ask me anytime."

    "...thank you."

    "And, well, I guess I have little to be embarassed about when the only people present are an exhibitionistic seraph and a girl whose clothes are so torn I can see everything anyway."

    "..."

    Margaret sighed even while her cheeks grew hotter and a shade darker; Symonne laughed though, with Alisha joining in. Then the seraph girl grinned and made her own clothes dissolve. "There, now we match. Three naked girls on an island full of hellion beasts. Huh, that makes me think, do those things still pro-" she was cut off by another bop on the head. Margaret gave her a stern look.

    "No."

    "You're no fun."

    "No. We are not going there, unless you want to volunteer for a field experiment." Symonne fell quiet and pouted at her; at least Alisha found amusement in the whole matter, going by her smile. Margaret left it at that and leaned back the slightest bit, at least her back now free of pain. "I guess I should have expected you to... bind your chest? That was definitely no corset, so I would guess bindings."

    "You are quite correct. Have yours been growing recently?"

    "Only a little. I asked my mother why hers are bigger, but she said it only happened when she was pregnant with me. Before that she had about this size, too." The younger girl cupped her breast for a moment and shrugged at her companions. "I'm not going to cry about it. My body type is better suited to an active life."

    "I concur." Alisha may have wanted to continue, but her stomach grumbled and she pressed a hand to it with a grimace. "This feels incredibly odd, I admit. I feel so warm inside. As if-" she burped out a tongue of fire and stopped to look, as did the other two. Alisha blinked and breathed in deeply, then out; flames flowed out of her mouth and heated up the area around their group. Beads of sweat formed on Margaret's forehead when her companion let out another fiery breath. Symonne reached over to clap her shoulder, at which point the mesmerised therion's attention snapped back to them; she cut off the flames and ducked her head. "Ah, apologies."

    "I, er, take it the fire breath is new?"

    "Indeed. I could not do so before, this is definitely the odd warmth in my belly. It is spreading through my body at the moment, but I presume this will not be an issue in the long term. I feel quite well, all things considered." Alisha's gaze went back to where she devoured the tree, perhaps only now realising what she did.

    Margaret could not help but lean a little closer. "What was it like? You know, the taste and stuff." The other woman did not turn back, she simply looked at the dried blood.

    "I can not say," she answered absently. "I was so focussed on my new body, on the fight, I barely remember the taste. On my tongue I still have this vague impression of dry bread, or something else with little taste of its own. That may have been the bark. I am uncertain if I like this sensation." A pause, then Alisha did turn back to them. "Perhaps Velvet was lucky in a way, having lost her sense of taste. She can eat these things without needing to taste them."

    They lapsed back into silence after that, spending minutes and then an hour just recuperating. Margaret slowly returned into her own head now, running through shock and panic for a short time; she almost died. They all almost died. But then she relaxed, knowing they were all still alive.

    As if to spite her, the next horror came crawling through the pathway in that very moment; her breath hitched when she saw it coming from the main island, feelers sensing for the area they were in. An array of seven mantis claws scrabbled ahead of the beast, all attached to the forward-facing side and covered in thick, golden fur. These claws were followed by a bulbous body in the same colour with no other limbs and no eyes; at least, none of either Margaret could see. But fangs it had; fangs as long as her arm, arrayed around the limbs with those seven claws. The body was as big as Alisha's fox form and with it came a smell usually associated with lightning. Sparks crackled along the fur.

    Alisha rose to her feet immediately, holding out her arm in front of them. "Stand back, you need to recuperate further. I will do this on my own." Margaret made to protest, but Symonne clapped a hand over her mouth and helped her up. They glared at each other for a quiet moment, but the human girl relented quickly; her arm was still broken and needed treatment.

    Thus they retreated under the protection of an illusion while Alisha changed form again; the fox and... thing sized each other up, Alisha doing so mainly to give her allies time. Margaret glanced back from time to time, but Symonne did not keep her around to watch. So she sighed and called out to the therion; just a simple order: "Retreat if you can't win, yes? Don't forget that!" The fox huffed and one of her tails waved at the two girls, which Margaret took as acknowledgement. She slowly vanished in the fog and around a corner in the path; only moments later, the sounds of battle began.

    Growling, clicking, thundering steps, the buzzing of lightning. A number of crashes and swishing noises she could not figure out what they were about. Then a column of bright, orange-golden flames lit up the darkness ahead. A wave of heat followed, making Margaret sweat once again; the air was almost too hot to breathe for a moment, burning in her throat and lungs.

    Then followed more buzzing and crackling, crashes, howls, and more fire. It continued for a while and ended only when Margaret and Symonne had already reached their camp; they watched and listened, perfectly able to follow the fight... until it ended, with a familiar beam of flame scything through the air a few dozen metres to their right. Followed by five more of the same kind, fanned out around the first one.

    After that, silence reigned, excepting an idle comment from Symonne: "Looks like she won." Margaret nodded to her friend; she gingerly held out her broken arm as best as she could and Symonne began to mend it.

    By the time Alisha returned, still naked but with a beaming smile on her face, the bone was mostly put back together. The princess skipped in joy and flopped onto her face in front of them, transitioning into a groan. "Augh. Your plan worked, Margaret. I was victorious. We can make proper progress no-augh!" She actually managed to sound chipper toward the end, but finished groaning again. "Ugh, just not now. I, I am so full, I need to rest. Maybe take a nap or something like that. If I eat any more, I might just, well, either pass out or throw up."

    Margaret leaned over and gave Alisha's shoulder a sympathetic pat. "It is just as well," she consoled the other blonde. "I will need some more rest. Symonne looks better than I do, but that doesn't mean much. Another hour or two to recuperate sounds good. None of us should go alone."

    The therion nodded, but did not look up; she continued to lie on the ground, perfectly happy where she was. Then her head rose. "While I am still coherent, Symonne, could you explain how I weave clothes for myself? At least, if the principle is the same between using mana and Malevolence?"

    "Sure, just let me finish this here."

    "Of course. Margaret's health takes priority."

    They fell quiet again, the silence rather quite companionable until Margaret broke it; she felt it needed to be said: "Congratulations, Alisha. Even with just what you ate so far, I would presume you surpassed Symonne and I in raw power. Not just either of us, but both of us together. The number of people capable of dueling you will be fairly limited; once we are done here, there will be close to none." The words tasted a little bitter and she could not help but add: "being a therion is kinda unfair, honestly."

    "Thank you." The older woman raised one hand to wave at her, though she was reluctant. "But we are on the same side, are we not? I do not think there is any need for envy or jealousy."

    "It's not that. It's, well, urgh." She almost waved her arms, but Symonne quickly held the one she worked on still. Margaret sighed. "Perhaps it is, envy at least. You deserve the power without doubt and you will use it well, but I am looking at my own path. The only way we can still compare is with our Armatus, through cleverness and teamwork. The only way I could still match you, as you are now, would be to bond with one of the Great Lords. Maybe an Armatus with one of them could still surpass you at the power you will have in a week. Even if I spent a lifetime honing my skill and growing more experienced, I could never match you on my own again." She hesitated and tried to put her feelings into words: "I am not going to stop just because you had an easier time of it, and I am aware you will have to face different challenges than those of strength going forward, but I still feel a little bitter right now. It will not last, I can promise you that... I'm sorry for ruining the mood."

    "It is quite alright, I understand." Alisha raised her head and offered a weak smile to Margaret. "Truth be told, I am still not believing that I just managed to fight back this creature on my own. I think I melted a crater of glass into that passage earlier. Just three days ago I was confined to a small room and waiting for my execution. I do not begrudge you these feelings. It feels unfair even to me, as the one benefitting."

    Symonne cut in there, nonchalant: "Life isn't fair, it's as simple as that." Then she grinned at them both. "And we all know that."

    "Aye."

    "Indeed."

    The seraph girl huffed; her arte winked out and she gave Margaret's arm a clap. "There, all better. It's good that you work through those feelings of yours, Maggie. We will get some good practice in going forward; Alisha can no longer be beaten in raw power, but there are other ways. So we need to work on the assumption that Alisha wins unless someone can stop her otherwise, and build our team based on that."

    The human girl nodded in agreement and settled next to Alisha, who had turned onto her back by now. Margaret nodded down and spoke at the group in general: "Agreed. I think I will take it as a challenge to get better and fast, and together we can always leverage greater force if all else fails. Our duty is to prevent others from taking you down, Alisha. Let us work on that with the other critters on this island, later."

    The others voiced their agreement and they began to chat about strategies in-between bouts of comfortable silence. Symonne imparted the basics of creating clothes to Alisha and soon, another two hours had passed. Margaret discarded the scraps she wore before, having turned them into bindings for her chest and shorts more in line with Symonne's preferred style of clothes; Alisha stepped forward in a basic, monocoloured tunic and Symonne herself decided to remain naked for the time being.

    As comical as they looked, their intentions with the occupants of this isle were rather quite sinister. It was still their second day and they all agreed that Alisha would be feasting like an empress for the rest of their stay.

    So they headed out again, for there was still much work to do.
     
    VineShadow, auzzie, Menosay and 4 others like this.
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