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Fate Touched: A Cleric's Tale

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Not for the first time in the past three months or so, Ali couldn't help but wonder what in the Nine Hells she thought that she was doing.

She reached up and brushed a few strands of soggy hair out of her face, well aware that the pouring rain was making a mess of her already less-than-neat braid. It figured that, after several days of lovely weather while she'd been traveling, the moment she needed to try to look respectable was when the sky decided it was time to storm.

Her gaze drifted towards the large manor in the distance, looming over the rest of the town. It was difficult to see with water streaming down her glasses, making her vision waver in and out of focus, but it was still visible despite those difficulties. So far, everything was about as she had expected.

Ali had done research on the Bishop family the moment she had received the message requesting that she make her way to Baurus. It still made her raise her eyebrows, even all these days later. There was nothing particularly out of the ordinary in regards to the family, save a few ancestors a bit farther back in the family tree who had been renowned for their designs of traps and other such devices. All in all, they seemed like a perfectly respectable family from a perfectly respectable line.

Which made it all the more suspicious that they had contacted her in the first place.

She'd gone out of her way not to provide the temple with a great number of details regarding her plans when she'd left, and she knew none of the priests or scholars there cared enough for her to give her a recommendation if someone had come on a general search. So how had a messenger from the Bishop family found her in that ramshackle inn? And, more importantly, why her in the first place? She wasn't even a real—

No. Ali shook her head, cutting that thought off before it could even begin. That was why she had left the safety of the temple's walls, after all. She was going to prove that she was deserving of the honor Aureon had granted her, even if she hadn't wanted it in the first place. To the priests, to the scholars, to Nomi, to all of them. She was going to show them that it wasn't a mistake or a fluke, that there was a reason that Aureon had chosen her to be one of His clerics.

Nomi's face flashed in her mind, the pain as raw now as it had been over a year ago, and Ali abruptly started walking down the empty streets of the town. There was no point dwelling in the past. Nothing could undo what had happened. All she could do now was move forward and hope for the best.

And maybe get out of the damned rainstorm.

*

Even after almost a decade spent living in the temple, surrounded by humans and elves and all sorts of other people much larger than her, Ali couldn't help but miss furniture that was made to fit her size. Her feet dangled well off the ground despite her sitting near the edge of the chair, and her back ached slightly from her not being able to lean backwards. She wished that she could just pull her legs up under her, like she'd done many times back in the temple's library, but she did have at least a slight sense of decorum.

She let her gaze flicker toward Gerard, whoever or whatever he was.

Ali had assumed he was a butler of some sorts when he had first opened the door, but she was starting to question that assumption after spending the past ten minutes or so in his presence. She wasn't all that familiar with servants, but there had been a few occasions when she was acting as a scribe for the temple that she'd been brought along to record details of deals done in noble homes. Enough that she knew something was very off with the man's actions.

It was a mystery. And she very much didn't like mysteries. She'd never liked not knowing all of the facts, and it was becoming very obvious that there were so much things that she didn't know when it came to this whole situation.

The silence in the room was awkward, but Ali was used to that at least. It had been a lesson she'd learned quickly, back when she first began staying at the temple – put a bunch of scholars in a room together, surrounded by books, and it would either end in screaming arguments or utter silence. Given the two options, she preferred the silence.

Somewhere in the distance, someone banged on the front door. Loudly.

Ali jumped slightly and looked at Gerard again. He just sat there, the same slightly curious look on his face that had been there for the past ten minutes or so. There was a quick pause, then the loud knocking resumed with a noticeable edge of impatience to it.

He finally tilted his head, just slightly. "Oh, I should get that."

Without any true acknowledgement of her, Gerard stood up and walked out of the room, presumably heading back in the direction that they'd come from. Leaving Ali sitting there. Alone.

"What am I doing here?" she muttered under her breath, reaching her hand up to worriedly play with the end of her braid.

The way her life had been going lately, she was almost relieved when nobody and nothing answered her question.

*

It took longer than Ali had expected for Gerard to return with whoever had been at the door. Yes, it was a large building, but the room they were in was only partway down the hallway. It shouldn't have taken more than a few minutes, yet for some reason it seemed as if it was taking much longer than it should have.

She could hear voices outside the room, presumably out in the large hallway that led from the front doors, but they were somewhat muffled. She suspected it was the acoustics of the room working against them; she'd seen things like that before, back when she'd been a scribe. Nobles and others with money liked to design rooms that would help keep their privacy. It was only natural that the Bishop family would have done the same, considering everything she'd heard and read about them.

Ali clasped her hands together in her lap, the thought that maybe she should get up and poke her head out of the room crossing her mind for the third or fourth time in the past few minutes. She didn't necessarily think that she'd been forgotten, but considering how blasé Gerard had been about, well, everything when leading her into the sitting room to begin with, she couldn't help but wonder if he might be leading whoever else had arrived somewhere else entirely. And she was getting very close to hitting her limit when it came to sitting alone in silence.

Then there was movement in the doorway.

Ali quickly turned her full attention towards the door, stumbling slightly as she stood up from the human-sized chair she was sitting in. Before she quite knew what was happening, someone was making their way towards her. She looked up. And up. And then up a little more, because from her experience the elf standing there was tall even considering his species.

She was suddenly keenly aware that, if she stood up as straight as possible, she could just claim to be three feet tall. If one was rather forgiving with their math, at least.

Oh, gods. What had she gotten herself into?

The next moment or two passed in something of a blur, as the elf – Reisel, his name was Reisel, she needed to remember that much at least – shook her hand rather vigorously and then immediately took off to the other side of the room, his attention apparently focused on the same tapestries that had caught her on eye when she'd first entered the room. They at least had similar interests, or so it seemed. That was something.

A halfling girl appeared in the doorway a few seconds, all bright eyes and curly hair. And not a day over twenty, if she was even that old. The girl looked in her direction, her face lighting up, and she all but dashed in Ali's direction. "Hi, I'm Poppy!"

Ali blinked. "I'm Alionna," she said carefully, trying to resist the urge to pull away as the girl grabbed her by the hands and gave her a rather more vigorous handshake than she'd been expecting. "Alionna Undertree. But you can call me Ali."

"Put it back, Poppy."

Ali's gaze darted between Reisel, who had turned his attention back in their direction and was frowning somewhat, and the halfling girl. Poppy. Names, she really needed to remember to use people's names so that she wouldn't forget them.

Poppy shot him a hurt look that even Ali could tell was at least mostly faked, protests already on her lips. Ali took a moment to eye her a bit more carefully while she was distracted, trying to get a feel for the girl. It had been some time since she'd been around another halfling, after all.

This close up, Ali very much doubted that Poppy was actually of age. Not that she had any room to talk, considering what she had been doing in her late teens. She was still taller than Ali despite her age, by almost a good half a foot at least.

It was one thing to be shorter than a human and an elf. With even other halflings towering over her, though, Ali couldn't help but feel a bit put out.

Ali also noticed that Poppy was rather pretty, but she quickly pushed that bit of thinking to the side. She probably had close to a decade on the girl. Any thoughts even remotely along those lines were so far from appropriate that it wasn't even funny.

... and she suddenly felt the urge to apologize to Nomi for so many things she'd done and said during the first few years they'd known each other.

Another figure slipped into the room, an amused twist to the corners of his mouth as he took in the bickering Reisel and Poppy. He slipped past Poppy, reaching down to offer his own hand to Ali. "Tuck," he said, giving her a quick onceover followed by a wink.

"Ali," she said, smiling despite her best intentions as she looked him over herself.

Tuck was clearly a half elf, his features a careful blend of human and elf. He was a much more reasonable height than the handful of half elves she had known back at the temple, probably somewhere around five feet tall, but he still towered over her. There was a cittern strapped rather prominently across his back, loudly proclaiming to anyone with eyes that he was clearly a bard.

"Poppy, put it back."

"Put what back? I don't know what you're talking about."

Ali's gaze darted away from Tuck, flickering over the other two before moving back towards him. She was just getting ready to ask if they were always like that – since he clearly had arrived with them – when an unfamiliar human suddenly appeared in the room, as if by magic. He could have just slipped in the door when Ali wasn't looking, her attention focused on Reisel, Poppy, and Tuck. It was entirely plausible.

But if he was who she thought he was, then maybe it was by magic. The Bishop family was known for it, after all.

*

A calm, reasonable voice in the back of Ali's head was carefully listing out the multitude of reasons that saying "yes" to Ian Bishop's request was a bad idea. There were a variety of them, all of them quite sensible, and it would very much be in Ali's best interests to listen to them. She wasn't a fighter, not by any means, and a quick glance at the others made her suspect that she very much wasn't alone in that regard. All she was going to do was get herself killed sooner rather than later, if she agreed to this harebrained assignment.

The money wasn't an issue. She didn't need a lot of gold, after all. Most people were willing to host a cleric for a single night, for the sake of karma if nothing else. And the ones who didn't want to give something for nothing usually had some food or drink stores that she could purify in return for a meal and a roof over her head for the night, cleansing what was left of the previous year's harvest that was getting close to spoiling or refreshing a bottle that was closer to vinegar than wine.

But... he wanted them to go search for books. Tomes of magic and history. If nothing else, she was certain nobody would complain if she at least read a little bit of them once they were found, on their way back to return them.

Ali couldn't turn down the chance. She knew it and, judging by the hint of a smirk on Bishop's face when he'd told them what he wanted them to find for him, she suspected that he knew it too.

Still. Books. Did it really count that he was playing her if she was at least aware of it?

She felt a little better that she wasn't the only one who hadn't immediately jumped on board the moment Ian Bishop had made his request. The others had hesitated at least somewhat as well, clearly going through a list of pros and cons themselves.

Of course, now that they had all agreed to it, none of the others seemed to be taking their time any longer. The others were already heading to the door, the multitude of doubts and second-guessing running through her head apparently not affecting them in the least bit.

Ali reached out and took one of the remaining healing potions that their benefactor had offered, carefully tucking it away in her bag. She preferred not using them if possible, but it wouldn't hurt to have one on her just in case. Her magic was more limited than she'd like, and it never hurt to have a backup.

Life could sometimes take you down unexpected paths, after all.

*

Ali was starting to think that her current companions were completely insane.

She bit her lip as she stared at the rope hanging down the side of the cliff, a million and one reasons running through her head why trying to climb down it was possibly the most horrible idea anyone had ever had.

"There has to be a better way to get down there," she said, glancing over at Tuck. He, at least, looked about as thrilled with the idea of trying to climb down as she felt.

He nodded at her. "You'd think so," he said, glancing around the surrounding area.

Ali took a closer look around herself. She'd been familiar with areas like this once upon a time, before she'd left home to live at the temple. She couldn't even count the number of times she'd run around barefoot behind one or more of her siblings, ducking between trees and climbing over boulders. She knew there had to be a better way down, if they were willing to go a little bit out of their way.

From what she'd seen so far, though, the others weren't exactly bastions of patience.

There was a part of Ali that wanted to put her foot down and insist that they find another way down to the caverns. Yes, it might take a little longer, but still. It wasn't as if Ian Bishop had given them a timetable. They didn't have a deadline that they were rushing to meet.

Poppy and Reisel were already down there, though. They hadn't had any trouble. Why was she so convinced that she would?

Fuck it. She had to stop being scared at some point. What was the worst that could happen?

You could fall and die, a voice that sounded a lot like her mother's pointed out from somewhere in the back of her head.

Ali reached up and clutched the pendant she wore around her neck for a moment, hoping that maybe she'd get a little strength from it. Then she reached up and pulled off her glasses, carefully putting them away. She could just picture them getting shattered into a thousand little pieces, the way her luck had been going.

"I'm going down," Ali said as firmly as possible, hoping her voice didn't sound quite as shaky as she felt. She reached down and grabbed the rope, taking a deep breath.

Then, before she lost her nerve, she swung down and started climbing down the side of the cliff. Tuck made a spluttering sound behind her, but she didn't look back.

She'd done things like this as a child. It had been commonplace back then. Yes, she'd spent the better part of the last decade inside the temple, but there had to be something said for muscle memory. Even if any actual muscles she might have had back then were probably long gone from all of her years spent sitting at a desk. Still, surely she could manage a twenty foot climb as long as she had a rope to hold onto.

Because the universe hated her, it was just as she had that thought that her hand slipped. Her tight grip on the rope loosened before she had time to react, and she felt herself start to fall.

Ali's heart was pounding in her chest as she started to slide downward, not quite falling but only a moment or so away from it. Part of her wanted to reach up and clutch the pendant she wore around her neck, but the more rational part of her knew that would make her already bad situation infinitely worse.

This had been such a bad idea. Why in Aureon's name had she thought she could possibly do this? She closed her eyes tight, sending up a silent prayer.

Just as panic was starting to take hold, someone grabbed her. There was a grunt from behind her and a scuffling sound, as if someone had been pushed backwards a little, and then the world went still.

Ali tentatively opened her eyes.

Reisel had caught her as she'd slid down, keeping her from falling past the ledge he and Poppy were standing on. He gave her a grin when he saw that she was looking at him.

"Thank you," Ali said quietly. Or, at least, she attempted to say it. It took a try or two before her mouth had enough moisture in it to actually make sounds.

He nodded at her and stepped away, giving her a chance to move away from the rope so that Tuck could make his way down – hopefully in a less dramatic way than she had.

And then Poppy threw herself at Ali, her arms wrapping around her in a tight hug.

Ali stiffened slightly, not pulling away but not actually hugging the girl back either. Gods, she couldn't even remember the last time someone had hugged her.

No, that wasn't true. She could. It had been Nomi, just a few hours before that last argument they'd had. A full year ago by now. Over one. And that probably made it even worse, if she was honest with herself.

Poppy pulled away after a moment or two. "I'm glad you're alright," she said brightly.

Ali managed to give her what she hoped was at least a semi-reassuring smile. Then she glanced to her side, where the edge of the ledge – and the rather long drop down from it – was just a few feet away. Not quite ready to try and talk again yet, she took a few careful steps closer to the rock wall of the ledge. Just to be on the safe side.

*

If anyone had told her that she was possibly going to die thanks to a dead spider, Ali would have laughed at them. Or asked for a glass of whatever they were drinking, whichever seemed more appropriate. It wasn't even an undead spider, for the sake of the gods, just a corpse that had been booby-trapped if Poppy's yell of warning from a moment or two ago was accurate.

She didn't know what to do.

Her gaze flickered behind her to where Reisel and Poppy were standing, safely out of range of the poisonous dust that filled the air in front of them. She made a mental note to thank Poppy again for yanking her out of it so quickly, as soon as it had appeared. Then she squinted, trying to make out Tuck's form in front of her.

He was a good ten feet away at least, his exact position difficult to make out through the hazy cloud of dust. She could tell that he was hunched over, though, presumably trying to breathe through the hacking cough that she could hear.

Her magic wasn't going to be any good, not right now. She could heal a cut or stabilize someone who was unconscious, but she didn't have any way of helping someone who couldn't breathe through a toxic cloud that they were still standing in. What Tuck needed right now was someone who could control wind, not her.

But she was all that he had. Reisel and Poppy were both trapped behind her in the tunnel, with no easy way past her in the tight passage. Neither of them would be able to get in front of her to get to Tuck in time, even if they were much better choices than her when it came to something like this.

Oh gods, she was going to regret this, wasn't she?

Ali took a deep breath, filling her lungs with as much air as possible. Then she sprinted forward, squinting as the cloud of dust obscured her vision and tickled the back of her throat despite her mouth being tightly closed. She clutched at Tuck's side as soon as he was within her reach, pulling him forward with her. Just a little farther. She just needed to make it a tiny bit farther.

They broke through the other side of the cloud, the air around them immediately becoming clear. Tuck was still hunched over, desperately gasping for breath. Ali wasn't far behind him, if she was being honest with herself. Her vision had started to go a bit grey inside the cloud, but it was slowly clearing again now that she could breathe.

So of course that was when she heard the distinct whistling sound of an arrow flying through the air.

Ali jerked her head up just in time for her chest to explode in pain, an arrow jutting out of her flesh from a position that was worryingly close to her heart. She gasped and took a step back involuntarily, her vision going red for a moment. Beside her, she heard Tuck let out a cry of pain as well.

She reached for her pendant, her lips already forming a familiar prayer as she reached up to yank out the arrow with her free hand. And then she let a wave of healing rush over her.

Something or someone pushed past her, followed a moment later by a yell that was clearly coming from Reisel. She felt a few sparks on her skin, letting her know that someone was using magic nearby, but her attention was too focused on her own healing spell to pay much attention to it just then.

Her vision cleared after a moment or two, and she shakily straightened up. She needed to think. The arrows had come from somewhere, but where—

... oh.

Ali blinked. Then she shrugged, reaching inside herself for the sacred flame ability that she'd been practicing for months now. If Reisel wanted to make goblins glow bright green, she wouldn't judge him, not when it made them so much easier to see.

*

Ali was getting very tired of cliffs. And chasms. And long falls of doom.

"You have to be kidding me," she muttered under her breath, stepping to the edge of the chasm and looking downward.

The water twenty feet below was still and unmoving, which she supposed counted as something. It was still a long drop, though, and the rope that Poppy and Tuck had used to get across looked a lot frailer than she liked. Not to mention she thought it actually looked even worse than it had a few minutes earlier, before Tuck had gone across it.

Ali glanced back at Reisel, who was staring off into the distance looking as if he was lost in thought. She had a better chance of getting across safely than he did, she'd grant that much, but still. This had the potential to end so very badly.

Taking a deep breath, she took another look over the edge of the cliff. The fall wouldn't kill her, at least, if she did lose her grip again. It wasn't like it had been outside, where a misstep would have sent her falling straight into the ground below. She'd hit water here. She'd be fine.

Probably.

As long as there wasn't anything dangerous living in the water that liked the taste of halflings, that is.

Not for the first time, she wished that she could turn off her brain sometimes. She had been much happier before that thought had crossed her mind. Still, there wasn't any other good way across. She didn't have a lot of options.

"I'm coming across!" she called out nervously.

Ali reached out to grab the rope, but then she hesitated, remembering her previous luck just an hour or two earlier. Better safe than sorry. She slowly took off her glasses, carefully packing them away so that she wouldn't lose them. Just in case.

Poppy and Tuck were brightly colored blurs in the distance, too far away for her to make out any clear details without her glasses on. She took a deep breath, sending up a quick prayer to Aureon before carefully sliding her backpack over the rope.

She could do this. Poppy had done it. Tuck had done it. Both of them were larger than her. If they could get across, then the odds were high that she could too.

Ali took another calming breath and pushed away from the edge of the ravine.

Everything seemed fine for a moment or two. She was moving forward, a little slower than the others had, but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Except then she felt her arm start to slip from the backpack's straps.

The world seemed to slow for a moment. Ali saw herself slipping, felt her backpack starting to slide loose, and try as she might there wasn't a thing she could do to stop it. A rather impressive curse, one that she suspected even Nomi would be impressed by, started to form on her lips.

And then she was falling before she had a chance to say anything.

Ali didn't even have time to scream. One minute she was attached to the rope, trying her best to follow Poppy and Tuck across the chasm, and the next thing she knew air was rushing past her as she hurtled toward the water below.

At least she could swim. If she didn't land on any underwater rocks that she couldn't see, at least. Or wasn't eaten alive by a cave-dwelling water monster of some sort.

That was the only thought she had time to think before she hit the water a good twenty feet below.

She sank several feet below the water's surface simply from the speed of her impact. It was cool but not freezing, sending a shiver through her body but not causing any serious damage. Staying in it for an extended period of time wouldn't be a good idea, of course, but it wasn't going to silently kill her like the icy lake water back home could do during the winter. That was something, at least.

Ali luckily hadn't sunk too deep, and it only took a moment or so for her to get her bearings. Silently thanking her past self for having enough common sense to take the lightest armor the temple had to offer, she swam upward.

Her head broke the surface just in time for her to see Reisel's blurry form getting ready to take a running leap off the cliff above.

For a long moment, she thought he was going to jump in after her. Ali could almost picture it in her head, his tall form hitting the water beside her and immediately struggling to swim. She was already desperately making plans in her head, trying to figure out the best way to keep both of them afloat if he jumped in too. She wasn't entirely certain why her imagination seemed to think he didn't know how to swim, but she wasn't going to argue with it.

Then, despite the distance, he seemed to notice that she had made it back to the water's surface.

Reisel paused and straightened up, apparently changing his mind about jumping in after her now that he could clearly see that she knew how to swim. Ali sent up a silent prayer of thanks.

There was shouting above her that she couldn't quite make out, not with the distance and the fact that water was continuously lapping around her as she treaded water. She hoped they were trying to figure out how to get her back up there with them, though. Or, at the very least, how to get Reisel across without him joining her in swimming.

A small lump of something went flying across the chasm above her. Or it started to, at least. Whatever it was made it about five feet across before plummeting like a rock, looking as it was going to land just a few feet away from her.

Ali stared as it grew closer and closer to her. "What in the—"

An entire coil of rope dropped into the water near her.

If she hadn't been somewhat precariously treading water, Ali might have made a comment. Probably a bit of a smartass one, if she was honest with herself, considering the way her day had been going so far. Instead, she just shook her head and started swimming the handful of feet between her and the rope. Because losing said rope was the last thing they needed after everything else that had gone wrong.

*

If Ali didn't have to climb another rope for the rest of her life, she would be perfectly content. She'd never done so much climbing – and so badly – in her entire life.

She flexed her aching hands, sending a brief pulse of healing magic through them. They weren't bleeding, but they were a little raw from rope burn. There wasn't much she could do about the chilly water currently dripping from her hair and clothing, but minor healing? That she could work with.

A few feet away, Poppy and Tucker were arguing about trying to throw the rope across the chasm so that Reisel could get across, and Ali frowned even at the suggestion. She'd thought it was perfectly clear by now that none of them were exactly all that gifted at anything involving acts of strength, and she could almost see herself going swimming again in an attempt to find the rope when it inevitably fell.

Or, at the very least, someone going swimming after it. Personally, her vote was for anyone whose name wasn't Alionna doing it, at this point.

But, no. Just, no. That wouldn't do at all.

Ali reached up and touched the crossbow still hanging across her shoulder, her brow furrowing a bit as she gauged the distance of the chasm. It wasn't too far, not really. She'd have to be careful not to hit Reisel, but maybe...

"One of you hold the end of the rope," Ali said slowly.

The quiet sound of bickering that had been in the background for the past several minutes came to a suddenly halt.

Ali glanced behind her, where both Poppy and Tuck were eying her with a mix of confusion and curiosity. They'd already tied the rope to a nearby boulder, she noticed, but the way things had been going so far she wasn't going to risk their remaining rope on someone's knot-tying abilities.

"I'm going to use my crossbow to try and shoot it across," she said patiently. "You need to hold the rope in case I miss, so that we don't lose it."

Tuck opened his mouth. Then he closed it. "That's actually a really good idea."

Ali raised her eyebrows.

Beside him, Poppy nodded. "You should give it a try."

*

She was missing something. She knew that she was missing something. This was clearly a test of some type, that much was clear. The Bishop family was well-known for creating traps such as this one, and the odds of it not being one of theirs was slim to none. But what did it mean? What were they not seeing?

Ali clutched her crossbow tightly against her chest, trying to keep an eye on the skeleton that the others were fighting as well as the second one nearby that was starting to move. She knew that she should have known better to follow Poppy into the room, that she should have listened to Tuck when he'd made it quite clear that he thought it was a Very. Bad. Idea. But she'd never been good at turning down a puzzle.

"It's not a real word!" Reisel yelled out from somewhere behind her. "Above the mirror, it's not a real word!"

Not a real word. Ali's grip on her crossbow tightened. That meant it was a clue. But what did it mean? What was she missing?

A few feet away, Poppy grinned triumphantly as she reached into a bag at her side and brought out a handful of ball bearings. She tossed them on the ground in front of the just-starting-to-move skeleton, clearly hoping it would buy them a bit more time. "Do you think the skeletons mean anything?"

"Maybe?" Ali said, biting her lip.

The skeleton beside her suddenly collapsed to the ground, its unnatural movement screeching to a halt. "They don't have any eyes," Tuck pointed out.

"Eye sockets," Reisel said. "They don't have eye sockets. Skeletons never have eyes."

Ali froze.

"The skeletons don't have any eyes," Ali repeated slowly, her eyes going wide as she jerked her gaze back up to the word engraved above the mirror. Eye. I. It couldn't be that simply, could it? A basic riddle? Tirianisporitius. The letter "I" was in that word five times. But if she took them out...

Transport us. That's what it said. Those were the words they needed to say.

"Oh my gods," she whispered, not even trying to raise her voice enough for the others to hear. "I figured it out."

Beside her, she saw Poppy looking her way with a curious expression on her face.

Ali felt the corners of her mouth twisting upward into a triumphant grin. "Look at the word," she said, gesturing toward the mirror. "Then picture it without any I's."

There was a long pause. Then the room filled with a chorus of groans.

Ali took a step closer to the mirror, sparing the second skeleton a wary look as it started to shift a bit more pronouncedly. "Transport us."

*

Ian Bishop wanted them to do a job for them. A proper job, not just a quick search-and-retrieve one like he'd made them think he wanted.

Not for the first time that day, and possibly not for the last, Ali found herself wondering what she had gotten herself into.

She kept her attention focused on the conversations going on around her the best she could, but she quietly let her gaze move over the room while she listened. It had always been easy for her to slip into the background, to let others talk while she observed, and she found herself slipping back into that pattern almost without even realizing it.

It was easier that way.

She looked over at Risto again, frowning slightly as she quickly moved her gaze away from him. There was something so familiar about the human that had appeared alongside Bishop down in that treasure room. Her mind kept drifting back to the butler, or whoever he was, that had met her at the door that morning. There was some tie between Gerard and Risto, she was almost certain of it, but she couldn't for the life of her figure out what it was.

She was missing something again, just like she had been with the mirror. Ali wasn't sure whether or not she would be able to figure out the answer to this riddle, though.

"Why are you sitting here all by yourself?"

Ali jerked in surprise as Poppy plopped down in the seat next to her, a curious look on her face. She was still trying to think of a proper answer when Poppy continued as if she'd never asked a question in the first place.

"So, Aureon?" Poppy asked, tilting her head a little. "You seem to be big on him. What's the story there?"

Ali opened her mouth. Then she closed it. Ignoring the fact that she'd never heard anyone be quite so casual when asking someone about the deity they followed, that was a subject that Ali honestly wasn't certain she exactly wanted to talk about with someone who she'd only known for about twelve hours. Gods, she wasn't certain that was a subject she'd want to talk about with anyone, if she was perfectly honest.

Why did Poppy have to have picked that topic for casual conversation – and it was so very clear that's all it was, at least from Poppy's point of view – out of all the others she could have possibly chosen?

"That's—" Ali hesitated for a moment. "That's a long story, and perhaps one that would better be told later."

"Oh," Poppy said, her expression shuttering. "If you don't want to talk about it, that's fine."

When Poppy's face fell, it made her look even younger. Despite herself, Ali felt a pang of guilt.

"Let's just said that when I was about your age, I met someone who introduced me to Aureon and everything that he stands for," Ali said hurriedly, her tongue almost tripping over the words. It was more than she had meant to say, considering the others were still all but strangers, but she didn't necessarily regret it.

Not when Poppy shot her a quicksilver grin in return that almost seemed genuine.

*

"What do you say?" Ian Bishop asked. "Will you join them?"

Ali shifted uncomfortably, a thousand and one thoughts racing through her head as she stood there staring up at him.

She could feel the others' gazes focused on her, but she carefully avoided looking at any of them. They were nice enough, she supposed. They'd certainly gotten along well enough not to get themselves killed during their trip through the caves, which was a good sign at least. But this was her decision and hers alone, and she didn't want to give anyone else a chance to try to sway her.

Bishop seemed honest, she'd give him that much. He genuinely seemed to be worried about the home of this friend of his, although he was being rather blatantly vague about exactly what it was that he was so worried about.

Still, Ali was a fair judge of character and she tended to have decent judgement on most things, even when she didn't always listen to that little voice in her head that tended to give her advice like "stay in in the temple where you belong" or "keep away from ropes" or "don't go into the room with the suspicious mirror and no other exits". He didn't seem to be lying, at least not entirely. There was something else going on, though, that she couldn't quite put her finger on. A lie of omission, maybe? Perhaps there was more to this than he was saying?

It made her curious. And, if she actually listened to that voice in the back of her head for once, also a bit nervous.

And then there were the books he'd mentioned. An entire library full of them, if he was to be believed. That wasn't something she could easily turn down, for a multitude of reasons.

Ali clutched the book on Aureon he had handed her a few minutes earlier a bit tighter. She'd only glanced at it, but just a moment or two of looking through its pages had made it clear that it was almost priceless. An entire library worth of books just like it, tomes that might otherwise stay lost to the world...

Oh, Ali wasn't naïve. She was well aware that they were blatantly trying to bribe her into saying "yes", holding something in front of her that they knew would be a temptation. And they had picked the perfect bribe. It was clear that they had read her as easily as, well, a book.

She didn't want to do this, of that much she was certain. Books or no books. This wasn't who she was, not really. Ali wanted nothing more than to return to the safety of the temple, with its endless libraries and the winding corridors that she knew so well. She wanted to be just another nameless scribe, spending all of her free time reading the books that lined the walls and knowing there were more there than she could possibly read in an entire lifetime.

But if she were to give up so easily, then Nomi was right. Everyone back at the temple who doubted her was right. Ali didn't deserve to call herself a cleric of Aureon if she couldn't follow even His most basic requests of her. His clerics and paladins weren't meant to stay sequestered inside temple walls, studying knowledge that had been discovered by others and brought to be shared. They were meant to go out into the world and search for new ideas and lost relics, to bring books and tomes and stories back to the temple to share with those who weren't able to seek them themselves.

It didn't matter how much she wanted to go back to being nothing more than a scribe with aspirations of someday becoming a scholar. That wasn't the path that He had chosen for her.

Ali didn't have much of a choice in the matter, when it all came down to it.

Reaching up to squeeze the pendant that she had hanging around her neck, Ali sighed. "I need to do this if I'm going to show them," she said quietly, trying her best not to think about the multitude of terrifying experiences she'd been through the past several hours. She took a deep breath and looked up, meeting Ian Bishop's gaze. "I'm in."

*

Ali shook her head as the others hurried out of the room, their attention clearly caught by the promise of food and drinks. She couldn't blame them of course. She was hungry herself, after the day that they'd had.

Still, there were at least a few more things that needed to be taken care of if they were really going to do this. And she wanted to take care of it now, before she forgot.

"Was there something you needed?" Bishop asked her, an almost curious note to his voice.

Her mind flickered back to the two ropes that they'd left behind at the caves, as well as the almost ridiculous amount of trouble they'd had with them. "We're going to need rope," she said, looking up at him. Humans. Why did they have to be so tall? It was downright annoying to have to look up to them so often. "Will you be able to provide us with some?"

He raised an eyebrow. "Of course," he said matter-of-factly.

"Good," Ali said. "Thank you."

She nodded at him and started to walk from the room. Then she paused, her mind flashing back to that moment down in the caves when the skeleton had been just a foot or two away from her, so close that she wouldn't have been able to use her crossbow on it even if she'd wanted to do so. After a moment's hesitation, she turned back around.

Bishop was staring at her with an almost amused look on his face.

"Could I possibly get a dagger?" she asked.

An expression that she couldn't quite read flashed across his face before he nodded. "Certainly," he said. "I'll see that something appropriate is found for you."

"Thank you," she said again, giving him a polite nod.

Then she went to join the others for the meal he had promised them.

*

It was getting late. Ali wasn't entirely certain of the time, but she knew that it had to be well into the evening by now.

The others were slumped somewhat in their seats, still awake but obviously affected quite a bit by their drinks. Ali sighed, bringing up her almost comically huge glass and downing the rest of the wine that was in it. She preferred ale, truth be told, but it had been a long day and she wasn't going to turn down free drinks if someone else was offering them. Or free food, for that matter, especially when it had been quite a bit better than anything she'd had in weeks.

Ali was well aware of her limits, and she had no plans on getting anywhere close to hitting them. It looked like the others had no such compunctions, though. That was something she needed to remember, so that it didn't cause them trouble in the future. Reisel at least seemed to be able to hold his own, at least at first, but both Poppy and Tuck had quite clearly been lightweights.

Her mouth twitched in amusement. It was always fun drinking with big folk for the first time. They took one look at her and immediately made assumptions. It was a bit of a treat to watch them realize that she could hold her own quite well.

Still, it was probably time to go claim a room for the night.

Her hand slid down to the book in her lap. She'd been tempted to slide it into the bag of holding that Bishop had let her borrow, but she hadn't quite been able to let it out of her hands. Not yet, when she hadn't had a chance to read even a little of it yet.

She'd only glanced at it for a moment or two, but what she had seen... well, it was intriguing, to say the least. Maybe she had some time for a little bit of light reading as well, before she went to sleep.

Who knew what tomorrow might hold?