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fast and deep as the river runs your heart

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It’s a strange thing, to miss a home, rather than people.

In Phi’s memories of her childhood, there’s little attention or love for the stone buildings or sloping lawns. Her thoughts have always gone to her siblings instead, all the treasured details of them written deeper than her bones.

It’s a new sort of sting, to miss her home, with its windows thrown open and the cat curling her tail by the sill. Strange to miss the view from the bedroom, looking out over the border valley full of purple heather and white clover and the gentle swell of the sun. Strange to know that the quilt Len pieced for her marriage-gift waits in the cedar chest at the foot of her bed, beside the curtains that Terry’s mother had once embroidered.

Missing, though, missing isn’t new. It’s a familiar weight on her shoulders, heavy as her armor but harder to take off.

It’s easy enough to abate, with her companions and with the frantic pace of all that’s going on around them.

Kithri reminds her of Len sometimes, her prematurely grumpy eldest brother who could certainly be as loud and crotchety and determinedly protective. Kithri shoves pies at people the same way Len tucks scarves around the necks of siblings twice as big as he is, and Kithri’s irreverence, though chipper, reeks of the same burdens.

It sets Phi’s back up, at first, because she doesn’t need a mother, nor a grandmother – Len and Ronan are as close as she has to parents, because Phi’s parents are a blank page that will never be filled.

But Kithri is friendly and not overbearing, and Phi – yes, Phi understands her, is fond of her. Kithri is still fighting, even with all the weight on her small shoulders, and there is much to be respected there. Kithri is ready to murder a man who wants them to be complicit in slavery, and that says a great deal.

Fuck, but Phi is not ready for that. It sounded almost… easy, in that tavern, to seem to agree in order to rescue those people whose freedom had been stolen.

Phi thinks it’s at least half superstitious nonsense that says half-orcs feel things more deeply and viscerally than others, but she’s already on edge at the thought of people being subjugated and treated like objects, and when she sees the crate, everything in her seizes and burns.

How many hours had she quavered in culverts and spaces small as coffins, all in the name of unlearning her fear of cramped spaces? How many dark, hot hours, trembling and biting back screams while not knowing what tortures might come next? And for how many years after had she had to control her breathing, fight to keep her mind clear when her work necessitated crouching in tight quarters for ambushes?

The swing of her sword is no conscious thing, pulse pounding and stomach twisted until that terrible box is nothing more than splinters.

Lauren is the first to meet her eyes, and there’s a burning confidence there, and Phi knows that her instinctive response, more than any words she could say, has won any small part of Lauren’s fragile trust.

After, Phi sits on the deck under open sky, and runs her fingers over her wedding-bracelet, restless and quiet. Lennart Crestmaker is dead, but sometimes Phi fears she’ll never be free of him.

Her quest companions are tactful or wary enough not to inquire further on the rest of their trip to the island that homes that last, mysterious dragon.

And after that treacherous trek and all their failed care in not disturbing the sleeping dragon, there isn’t any peace. The revelations about the other still-living dragons, the spikes in Quil’s magic, the truth of Seath’s plans, those reduce everything else to petty concerns. Seath, unchecked, will destroy the world, and if all they can do is follow Lordren’s words and warn the other dragons, they at least must try. Even if that means they never see home again.

The rift, unavoidable, is a deeper and more intimate wound.

The battle of Waterdeep is nothing to Phi, but Sobak. Oh, Sobak is another story entirely. Being sixteen is another story entirely.

These days, it’s no secret, and even so, her companions may not know, under Phi’s bulky armor and forest green-grey cloak and the perceived androgyny of Orcish faces, but Phi knows, feels as deeply and intensely uncomfortable in her skin as she did when she truly was sixteen. Her stomach churns, she feels like ducking into her shorter, shaggier hair, until Sobak calls her from the woods, and her heart tears.

He looks as she remembers, a tall half-orc man with broad shoulders, deadly upright grace, and thick tusks, always serious until a rangy smile splits his face.

“Girl,” he calls, this man who has somehow always known her.

Rage and sorrow and horror crash over Phi like a tsunami, and she has always been good at hiding things but Sobak sees right through her and it floods out of her mouth. Everything, everything.

Sobak believes her, believes, as he always did, in duty and preservation. She watches his face split with grief and joy when she tells him about all that Jorani has done since Crestmaker’s death, about the hope in their burned-and-salted world, about her marriage. And then she watches him die again by his arrow-bane, and has only a salute and reverence to offer, this quiet piece of her heritage returned to this man who gave it to her at all.

This time, Phi is not a too-competent barely-adult mechanically destroying a group of raiders. This time, Phi does not have to dig a grave with trembling arms alone. This time, Phi does not have to sit, blood soaked and heartsick, in a crumbling watchtower with no one beside her.

They find Seath’s letter on a raider’s corpse, and it’s almost a relief. A relief, that an evil dragon wanted a good man dead, and not Lennart Crestmaker trying again to rip Phi’s heart out of her.

Valira and Quil watch Phi with uncertain pity, and Phi can’t find it in herself to explain. How can she explain the stakes that drive her to turn down a chance to save the past? Surely, in their eyes, she must be pitiless, a monstrous pragmatist with little love or honor to her name.

In the morning, a cloaked figure offers Phi a chance to relive it again and Phi, with every ounce of training, with every measure of conviction that she cannot allow things to become worse if this is real, turns it down.

On the Jeno, Phi bursts into tears and Quil hugs her tightly. Phi appreciates the comfort, she does, but Quil’s face is screwed up in concern, and instinctively, Phi tries to comfort her instead. She’s spent her whole life trying to shield those younger than her, and Quil is only nineteen, younger even than Owain and Ifan.

And this is an old wound ripped back open, not a new gouge. Still, it’s agony all over again.

Sobak has always seen her. Sobak was the only other half-orc in the entire army, who would sweep Phi away after grueling weapons practices and sit with her, painstakingly teaching her Orcish, gruff but fond. He noticed too the way she flinched from the human name that sat wrong on her shoulders and when he offered her an Orcish name, it was Phi. Phi, which sounded enough like her other name it could almost be a nickname, which meant the rushes on the river, which was a name without a gender.

He wasn’t Lanra, who was Phi’s best friend and so had always known, but when Phi had told him, simply nodded and accepted it, and snapped “Girl!” at her the next time he’d wanted her attention. It had been an easy acceptance that Phi had never known what to do with.

She misses him, all these years later. She aches with fresh loss, and cries until she can no longer remember how his breathing gurgled to a slow stop. (That’s a lie, she knows that sound too well.)

But she can’t let herself dwell, because Valira and Quil need her, and Kithri is still missing. Besides, they meet Arfil, who tells them in his disjointed, halting way that the rift is nothing more than a tool turned to evil use, and it’s just another cruelty perpetuated by someone who wants to manipulate her. Phi is much more used to that than to miraculous second chances.

All the same. All the same, she gathers up the letters that she’s written, mostly to Terry, one or two to siblings back home, and sends them while they’re still in Theogonia. It’s worth enduring the stares on the way to the docks, to make sure her loved ones know she lives, know she loves them.

But then Valira vanishes, too, and Quil and Phi are pulled into another rift all together. This time, it’s Phi who must follow Quil through her worst nightmare.

Quil, distressed and panicked, tripping over herself in desperation, will do anything for the chance to save her sister, and even though Phi knows this is a cruel trick, she understands. If it were Iain or Eddie or Owain or Ifan, Phi would do the same, anything to save them from the horrors she knows they’ve endured. And so Phi follows without hesitation, because Quil is a friend and Quil loves her sister.

They wander into the Beastlands, where a youthful but unmistakable Arfil snarks at Quil as she tries to work out how to get back to the ruined tower of her past with its sudden and many portals, and Quil sets a plane on fire to get free. They tumble through to Arcadia, where a still-young Arfil agrees to create a portal for them, and in the meantime, find an echo of Quil’s mother, sans daughters and tragedy, and Quil is quiet, quiet, quiet. Arfil, oblivious to their turmoil, is nearly a century old.

The portal spits them out at old-Arfil’s feet, and the rift is still there, and Quil, consumed with grief, throws herself back in.

When they stumble through the Nine Hells, Phi catches Quil time and again before she can fall, and Quil looks at her and smiles. It’s strange, to be trusted without hesitation or fear, to have someone rely on her to catch them without recoiling in the aftermath. But then, Phi imagines that Quil understands that feeling too, and it’s no small thing to build a friendship on, the awareness of how dangerous someone could be and trusting their intentions implicitly.

Quil, impatient, emotional Quil, who wants and tries and cares so very deeply, reminds Phi of no sibling in particular. Her traumas are written deep in her brows and her caution, but they’ve not been deliberately inflicted on her, and Quil trusts others, even if she doesn’t trust herself. Her recklessness and boldness, her earnest conviction, is not driven by fear, and it is admirable.

Her sorrow, when the Cordelia they find is nothing more than a cruel illusion, is deep and clear, but it doesn’t lessen Quil’s resolve.

It helps, to have that determination nearby when Phi could so easily be overwhelmed by memory, by cave tunnels and Arfil and cultists. The cultists make Phi think of Michelle, intense, fearful Michelle, snarling renegade bandit queen who only knows how to protect others by claiming them, even the vulnerable men who flock to her banner, as much charges as minions.

Where Ronan would cry with and for them, his arms tight as metal bands, and Tomas would let them crawl into his bed after nightmares, Michelle would let her hands flutter over their shoulders, dark eyes fierce and unrelenting.

“You’re mine,” she would insist, possessive and resolute. “If he hurts you again, I will stab him for it.”

Michelle’s knives had never touched Crestmaker, but the worst of the older soldiers and mercenaries, she had driven out. It had been a comfort, to be so violently loved.

When Phi watches the cultists scurry to do Quil’s bidding, she thinks it is a dire shame that Seath does not love or protect his minions as deeply as Michelle does hers.

Their trip to Erelest is calm and easy, and Phi spends time with Quil and Valira (worrying, always, about missing Kithri) as well as Lauren. She spends her time with her notebooks, fleshing out the sketches of cities while she listens to Valira chatter with the sea birds. Phi draws the giant rats and the horizon, plays with designs of long-reach bladed weapons. She writes letters that she’ll send all in a bundle at the next major port.

Erelest is hot and humid, and even in their brief time in the Wizard Idilus’ home, Phi sees books that Allan would itch to get his hands on, as much as the library at Theogonia. Allan would understand better than Phi the way the planar magics work, would sit and explain them patiently at her elbow, absently flicking spells to illustrate points or tidy his flurry of notes. He would have been happy here, she thinks, happier than he had been under the tutelage of the vicious, power-hungry arcanists who were willing to do anything for the power Crestmaker would grant.

Allan would admire Idilus, and that makes Phi fond of him, no matter how painfully raw the subject of the Tower of the Cerulean Sky is.

Erelest is a kind reprieve, for all their trouble with a pickpocket and the news that Idilus’ crystal has indeed been stolen long before.

There’s nothing that could prepare her for what they find on the red dragon’s island, their next perilous destination. No dragon, only four of Seath’s minions, intimidating and deadly.

They struggle as best they can, but Quil and Valira go down quickly, crumpling under the onslaught, and Phi hits back with everything she can, every scrap of strength and training in her bones to try to save these women she’s become so fond of. But even that fails her, and the half-elf paladin, the leader, finally strikes her down.

Phi’s heart breaks as her world goes dark.

She doesn’t dream, in the unconscious month of travel, and perhaps that’s for the best. When she comes to in the cramped prison cell, she almost wishes she were still lost to the world. Phi hears Valira, hears Quil, and she’s overjoyed that they’re alive, but.

But their captors have stripped her of everything. Enough clothes for modesty, but that’s nothing to faze her. No armor, no sword, her hair spilling loose around her shoulders, and not even the bracelet around her wrist. She’s vulnerable, in a cage that’s not small, but shrinks in around her.

Phi tips her head back against the wall, closes her eyes, and reminds herself they can’t rip away the tributes inked into her skin, nor the vows she’s spoken, nor the methods for coping, painfully learned.

She thinks of Lanra’s protective bulk, always a comforting presence, drinking with her late into the night, his soft grin as warm as the fire as he snugged an arm around her, easy and tactile. She thinks of Tyler, back before either of them were sent away to fight. “C’mere, rabbit,” he’d say, and beckon her over to lean back against his chest while he cooked, when she was still small enough to lean there, obediently tasting his new experiments that had nothing to do with his poisons. She thinks of Ifan, giggling and squirming while she bundled him in her embrace and covered his tiny face in kisses, trying to give them in return, delighted and easily trusting. Of Owain, grumpy and grumbling even as he pressed his face against her shoulder and clung to her tightly, when she’d come home the first time. She thinks of Gari, exhausted but still coaxing Phi to sit and let her card her quick and clever fingers through Phi’s hair, a litany of bad puns and snark that made Phi muffle her own tired laughter. She thinks of Kal, the tall blue dragonborn who willingly follows her into trouble and right back out, her dearest friend outside of her family.

She thinks of Terry in the mornings, quiet and affectionate and still half asleep when he comes to find her, wrapping his arms around her and propping his chin on her shoulder with a soft, content sigh. The way he kisses her without awkwardness for her tusks, which he thinks are endearing. The way his eyes go sweet and fond and nearly-yellow in the pale light, meeting her adoration with his own. The easy rumble of affection when he responds to her teasing with flirtation, twining his scarred hands with hers.

Her breathing still comes quickly, but Phi can keep herself together enough to open her eyes, to be something like functional when the thief who had once stolen Valira’s purse unlocks all their cell doors. Her gear helps, too, and she’s surprised to find her bracelet nestled in her tunic, but slips it on gratefully all the same.

She’s willing to die, when they’re caught once more and Seath wants to force them to murder his brothers, if that’s what it takes to keep the world a little safer. Phi doesn’t want to, but she will – thirty years is so much longer than she’d ever thought she would have. They’re years that have given her more than she could ever have imagined, and that’s enough for her.

Valira surprises her, quick and clever and firm enough that she gets through to Yondalla, Kithri’s beloved goddess, secures them help even as Seath bundles them off on a ship to do his bidding.

Probably Phi shouldn’t be surprised. Valira was a little harder to learn than Kithri or Quil, because Valira holds herself back, just a bit, wary and more comfortable with nature than with people. She is also deeply pragmatic, ready to do whatever might be necessary, her iron will easy to overlook when shyness or awkwardness overtakes. But Valira, Phi knows, will always find another way to do things if she finds the options objectionable.

Valira, after all, is the one who will take the help of a demon to save them all from a Drider in a long-drowned cathedral, when destruction seems inevitable.

They’re separated on the way back up to the surface, and Phi worries desperately about her friends, hopes that at least they’ve managed to stay together. She is used to traveling alone.

Oh, she’s become accustomed to the company, but a long, lone trek is nothing new to her. Phi consults maps and townsfolk, and sets off to their meeting point.

It’s strange, a little, to spend nights in taverns without overindulging in alcohol and finding fleeting company for the night, but she doesn’t miss that. It’s just… odd, still. She laughs, though, when she turns away the few advances she garners.

Relationships had always been something dangerous, letting people close something to fear, but Lennart Crestmaker is dead and Phi has someone she trusts with her uncanny and feral heart.

It seems fitting that, during a stop to port, she receives a stack of Terry’s letters and reads them on the next leg of her journey. Terry writes about the mountains and coasts he’s seen, the people he’s met – of course he does, because Terry is easy-going and affable, and makes friends easily – and the oddities of various markets. He doesn’t draw, not like Phi does, but he pays attention to things, “I saw a dagger that reminded me of you” or “They had orange, red-specked flowers unlike anything I’ve seen, so I’ve dried some to take back to Iain” and the like scattered across his letters. He gives her playful accounts of Lanra’s reactions to wherever they happen to be, because he loves her brother as much as she does and is always up for a bit of trouble. He gives replies to the concerns and worries she’d written of, and though they’re problems a season out of date, it soothes and warms her all the same.

He’s so earnest, so solidly straightforwardly willing to trust her with the most uncertain and vulnerable parts of himself that Phi can never help responding in kind. Terry holds her confidences like they’re something precious, and she tries her utmost to show the same regard.

“I know,” he always says, when she fears the stuttering attempts of her counterfeit heart are insufficient, and takes her hands in his, cradling them and careful of the permanent crook of her last two fingers. “You have a sunset glow in your eyes all the time. You shine with how much you love.”

Phi sometimes feels like she could glow, with all the love she holds for him. His love is a warm, easy acceptance, good-humored and engaged, and she basks in it.

Carefully, she adds the latest letters to her bundle, and spends a handful of days writing her replies.

Finally, finally, she arrives in Noreen, and just too late. Too late, because the Jeno has exploded and their company is gone. Too late, because Valira and Kithri have vanished. But early enough, at least, to comfort Quil, to catch up on what’s happened while Phi has chased them around the coast.

Quil is so much stronger than she gives herself credit for. Scattered enough to nearly drown as a fish on land, but clever enough to find the remnants of the Jeno, and clever enough to rescue the bard who rained a hurricane down on Seath’s boat and inadvertently freed them. Stalwart enough to continue, even with all the misfortune that constantly besets them, and magic that ages her four years without warning.

Valira, too, because Valira is all tilted-chin and hard line of a mouth when she catches up to them at Solomon’s cabin. She dismisses the problem of the rifts with a wave of her hand, and strides forward to trick and fight her way up a mountain, stonewalling the demon pouring poison in her ear, when Phi knows how insidious those twisting suggestions are. Valira is strong as an oak, strong as a mountain, and still melts in the face of mammoths, delight lightening her features as she runs her hands over their trunks.

It’s a welcome bright spot, because Phi looks in the faces of these high-mountain druids and knows them. She sees their high-cheekbones and ice blue eyes and platinum-fair hair, and in them, she sees Ky, an answer to a question she had never asked. She resists the urge to touch her fingers to her side, swallows down the ache, and very carefully does not ask about children or even lone adults who went missing, three decades and change ago.

Ky is a wound that has never quite scarred, her cheeky, treasure-hunting brother who trailed after Sobak too, her brother who adored her. He had come home scarred and quiet and clouded in grief, abstracted and cracked clean through, and any glimpses of who he had slowly been coming back to were cut short by one of Crestmaker’s men, in the chaos of that final overthrowing. Phi had only seen him lying crumpled on the flagstones after, when Ronan’s wail of grief pierced all of them to stillness, and she still dreams of it, a nightmare that wakes her faster than even the ones of blood on her hands.

Shulva, she thinks, may see some of it in her face, because dragons see too much of everything. If he does, it doesn’t turn him from her.

Still, dealing with the ice mephits is a good diversion, and stomping and roaring behind Quil makes Phi think, ridiculously, of Eddie as a tiny half-elf with his messy mop of black hair and big blue eyes, shrieking as she balanced him on her own small feet and stomped him through a city built of twigs.

Always, always, Phi has wished she could spare her younger brothers more than Crestmaker’s death eventually had. Her older siblings, too, and the griefs that keep them from sleeping. She’s gotten so much better, better with a sword than any mere soldier in an army, but she can do so little in the face of these impossible arcane feats and it makes her feel so small. Because she was not there, the demon wrenched away another piece of Valira’s soul, when enough has been stolen from Valira already. Because Arfil and Paladine are being tortured, like Kithri was tortured, and they have both given so much for this world, should never have to endure that sort of pain, and twisting, dark agony stretching endlessly.

All they can do, any of them, is endure and try to rush ahead of the destruction of the world. They race through the Underdark, which is a disaster, but they survive, which is miraculous in itself. They retrieve Keane and the Jeno’s crew from the Beastlands, where the giant rats were waiting to greet them affectionately. Kithri comes back to them, sorrowful and resolute, and she looks better than Phi had feared she might.

And then Solomon asks them to retrieve his cousin. The Haoti Ewhoza slumped in a fire giant’s prison bears little resemblance to the arrogant paladin who taunted them on the bridge to Seath’s castle or struck them down on the red dragon’s island. Phi wonders, passingly, if Ewhoza was the one to place her bracelet amongst the rest of her things, and what, if anything, that would say about him.

Ewhoza is not a good person, but it’s not like Phi can lay claim to that either. She hates what they’re doing. Phi feels no better than the man tried to break her and her siblings.

She knows they can’t trust Ewhoza. She understands Solomon’s conviction that there’s something in him that could be redeemed. But sometimes she thinks that killing him would have been kinder than this. It’s cruel, dragging someone, no matter how spiteful and remorseless, down to the depths of a cathedral that might as well hold death.

But, redemption is not something she would deny someone, especially someone whose soul has been whittled away by a demon. It’s no guarantee, but Phi has loved people who have done terrible things. Phi has done terrible things. She hopes, quietly and uncomfortably, that he’ll be sincere, that he wants to find a better path for himself. He reminds her a bit of Michelle, if not so terribly frightened, and she clings to that, because sympathy is better than unfeeling apathy or cold remorselessness.

This desperate quest stretches on and on, complications piling on one another, and Phi is so stressed, so tired. She feels the ache in her bones. Once, she’d never thought she’d live long enough to feel echoes of the old breaks. She swears sometimes that she can feel spidering along her leg and the sense-memory of her broken fingers while she waited for them to heal with no magic, only pain and what splints she could improvise. Even though she knows it’s only in her head, there’s the pull of the scar cutting across her torso too, the one that nearly killed her.

But, because she must, Phi pulls herself together and keeps going, head down and dogged. She has friends and companions, and they have a list full of relics to find, and a god and his vessel to save. It’s an impossible task, but what does that even mean in these impossible days?

Impossible days indeed, because she has to face down an old mercenary, one too cruel (or maybe just too unreliable) even for a warlord. In the aftermath of that fight, she places the hilt of Haoti’s broken sword on Gruumsh’s altar, because while she has never loved his rage, she does not believe the human myth that his rage is baseless. Rage has let her swing her sword when she thought there was no more strength in her, has let her kick her feet fiercely into attackers who would have overpowered her, and let her rear up to crush the nose of a man who threatened her brothers.

He is not her god, but he welcomes her offering all the same. It’s a strange experience, even after traveling with Paladine and having Yondalla answer the questions of her companions.

But perhaps it’s foreboding, because Quil says, offhandedly and unaware of the import, that Lennart Crestmaker is leading the orcs’ rival tribe.

And Phi freezes cold.

It’s half memory, half recalling standing in front of a tall human with sharp cold eyes who looked at her like he was evaluating a weapon. The man who made her a weapon, who made Damon walk the dark blind until his feet bled, who battered Len, his own son, so thoroughly for loving the rest of them that he pushed everyone else away. Lennart Crestmaker created the bars for her cage so strong that Phi still cannot entirely break them.

The other half, the more insistent half, is the knowledge that Lennart Crestmaker is a creature made entirely of vengeance. If he is alive, he has plans to wreck them for their betrayal. He will not hesitate to strike Jorani down. He will not hesitate to break Gari, snarky, pun-loving Gariel, next in line to be warlord after her mother, for her defiance. He will murder Phi’s husband simply for thinking that any of them are people, not relentless automatons of destruction and death.

If Phi had not found out, if Phi lets him live. Even if she must go alone, there is no option.

She doesn’t have to go alone, of course, because these women have adopted her as thoroughly and fiercely as she has adopted them. It is… easy, for Phi to miss that, hard still to realize that people can grow attached to her, and it is a warmth she clutches when all her limbs feel cold.

Ultimately, Lennart Crestmaker falls to the ground, and his army is routed. There’s a flicker of guilt for Valira, relentlessly practical and sturdy Valira with her heart of good earth, and Quil, sweet and caring Quil whose feelings run so deep and true it’s astounding, nearly dying, coming so close for the sake of Phi. She is still too much of a soldier to discount their bravery and loyalty with doubt or regret, and is mostly just floored by the depths of it.

Phi kicks Lennart’s body and spits on its wreckage, and then lets her allies burn all that remains on the field.

There is your offering, Gruumsh, she thinks, there is a piece of my heart carved out for you. War enough is coming, and let this settle any scores between us.

There is no response, because Phi is not Kithri, not Valira, not even Urien, who only lives by Ulla’s grace when Crestmaker nearly sundered her.

Phi thanks her friends, her companions, even Haoti Ewhoza, who she is less worried because of and more worried for, these days. She does not say more and they do not ask.

She wants, almost, to tell them. If not everything, then enough to explain what about this man drove her to destroy lives and risk them all. But Crestmaker, well and truly dead though he is now, built her cage so well.

He drove her into small boxes, and while Phi has had to learn restraint, she has never had to learn silence. She grew up watching what happened to those of her siblings who caught his attention, what sorts of things drew ire from their instructor-jailors. Phi very quietly pretended not to be a girl until she was fourteen and sent with Sobak and a sword to patrol the border. Phi kept her drawings secret from everyone but Lanra, and burned what she could bear to. Phi has been fiercely, utterly protective of her younger brothers always and likewise adoring of her elder siblings (even Samar, her bright and glowing brother, who was clever and vicious and died when Phi was still unsteady on her feet), and buried her secret wants under that.

Phi nearly buried her soul to survive, so panicked at the thought of attachment that she turned even gentle Kal away because he had wanted more than her bed. Loving Terry, and being loved, was a daring thing, one of the first she’d chosen for herself.

It’s why, even though she knows very well that Kithri’s skepticism has nothing to do with her, the insistence that Phi’s marriage might not stand in the way of romance grates at her. Phi knows sex, likes sex, has had a great deal of sex without attachment, but Terry is a vow she means in her blood and bone, commitment meant more than Phi’s fear or skittish nature.

(Their wedding is a bright memory in her mind. Urien and Len had embroidered the dress she’d worn, Lanra had swung her around like she weighed nothing in his arms with pride in his eyes, Tyler had smoothed her hair back from her face while tears welled in his eyes, and Iain had come to her with hands overflowing in flowers. Terry had been the one to weave her hair in a braid that cold spring morning, had looked at her like she was something impossibly wonderful when he realized that the flowers that shared a name with his mother were tucked into her hair, and she loved him, loved him as crushingly as the deep sea.)

Her art is hers now, sprawled on maps and notebooks and letters, the papers that sit freely on her kitchen table careless of who sees them, and she is hers now, without fear of retribution or rancor, and her siblings are brightly glowing beacons worth every trial Seath throws at her.

Her words, though, her words are still such hidden things. She was as much a mother as a sister to Eddie and Owain and Ifan at the least, loves them as dearly as her own could ever be, and still she cannot tell them, cannot force a bond on them that they have never broached with her. She cannot break her silence and tell these people who love her, who trust her as implicitly as she amazingly trusts them, what has caused these shattered pieces she is trying to reforge into someone coherent.

And they love her anyway, more a miracle than any god in itself.

She is quiet when they complete their negotiations between goblins and tree-men, but feels a little more like herself when they finally reach Astora. By then, she has written letters, to Terry and Lanra, to Gary and Len back at Fairpoint Hold, detailing as much as she dares reveal in such an insecure medium.

I am unutterably relieved that you’re alright, she writes to Terry with a mercilessly steady hand. She pictures his expression of surprise with ease, thinks fondly of the way he would curve a hand to her cheek in silent question (his wedding bracelet, carved jet inlaid with tigers eye, present even in her imagining) even as he would repeat her words back to her. If I had failed in this, he would have done something horrible to you, and that is something I could not bear. I love you, and will collect on all the fretting you no doubt want to express once we’re home. Stay safe, dearheart, and come home to me. Things are dire, but I will do my best to come home to you, one way or the other.

Phi wishes she could tell him in person, but a letter will do for now. She sends the whole package off with a request for anyone who can be spared, but has little hope – she doubts any of her siblings have the magical reserves and knowledge for teleportation.

They secure the word of wizards and mammoth-warriors (Ky, Ky, oh, Phi hopes the afterlife will be kind enough to let her see him once more, clear and shining and himself again), and lose Haoti to the demon that shatters him, and cannot even tell Solomon before he breaks the news of the Tarresque to them. There’s no time to process that before Seath appears and they have to flee further, and the whole timetable is moved up abruptly.

The advancement of their goals lies on the other side of the world, three months sail away, and it is unbearable. Arfil and Paladine suffer and suffer and suffer under Lloth’s cruelty. The Tarresque tramples cities they mourn and cities they really don’t, and they could have done nothing to prevent the devastation. Phi thinks of all of her siblings, each and every precious one of them, and her friends and her husband and even the kind people they’d met along their journey, and hopes they are alive.

Kithri finds her on the deck and speaks to her of Elysium. Phi listens, because she thinks Kithri needs someone to hear her, and shares her flask and takes her hand, and understands. Oh, she understands.

Valira takes the loss of Haoti to heart, and Phi may not know what drives it in all its complexity, but she knows the weight of what-ifs and doubt and things that try to drain souls, so she sits with her, too, and asks about growing things.

Quil talks with her, too, because they have been tumbled together by events most often, and there’s something to be said for that, and they speak of homes and fear and siblings as much as either of them dares.

Phi promised Quil, back on the streets of Theogonia, that she would help her save Cordelia, bring her back entirely, and Phi does not make promises lightly. When this is done, they will. She promised, too, to do what was necessary if the demon overpowered Valira, but she will destroy the demon before that happens and help Valira free herself from its insidious malice. She knows also that Valira regrets not knowing what happened to the sheep in the Underdark, and if it is in Phi’s power, she will help Valira find out and keep her promise if she’s able. (Haoti, for Solomon.)

She has already offered her home to all of them, but. She will offer again. Quil, who loved her bees and quiet meadows, wants desperately a place to be unafraid. Valira speaks very little about her home, and Phi suspects she has nowhere to call home any longer. And Kithri – well, Phi imagines that Kithri could use another place where she is known, where she can shove pies and advice against romance at people. Phi won’t force them, but, well, she would like to bring them home with her, if they succeed, and offer some of the hard-won peace and the understanding she knows will be given to them all.

Phi is so proud of them, so desperately admiring of these women, how much they’ve learned and how far they’ve come, and she is so heart-burstingly proud to walk beside them. They are good people who cannot see how good they are, kind and generous and if anyone can save the world and push back darkness, it is her imperfect, earnest, emotional friends.

She knows that, even when distant Irrythil is full of stonewalls and blockades. She knows it even when Seath hurtles them into some parallel realm and they fuck up badly on the half-chance of rescuing Arfil, make enemies of people who were in the same position they once were, and Ewhoza is not so unfathomable after all.

She knows it with deeper and deeper certainty when they encounter an arrogant, murderous cult, and the cruelty of celestial Deva, when they face down Sulyvhan, the false pontiff, and his demon, and do not stumble.

They encourage Phi to take up the pontiff’s impossible swords and she does. The swords, blazing and powerful, are nearly as tall as she is, and yet she handles them as easily as the long sword she’d worn at the start of their journey. Phi does not know if she can be trusted with this much power, but. But that is no reason to shirk it, because fear drives destruction, and if she is uncertain, she will strive to be worthy and upright and merciful enough to wield something so deadly, and not lose herself in the process.

It weighs on her mind as she trails after the others as they wrap up loose ends, and offers to stay with the storm giants as they gather up the iron needed to take down a dragon. She takes the time to center herself, to breathe deeply and sketch the mountains and great beings, the Dwarven city so unlike anything she’d seen before. When the rest return with the gold, Phi feels steadier than she has in a month.

Returning to Astora in a blink, when it had taken a season to travel hence, is disorienting. André tells them he needs a month for the casting, and their desperate mission now has a deadline.

A month, to try to rescue Arfil and Paladine, and to do their best not to perish in the attempt. Strategically, it’s a risk, but Phi will do it anyway. She thinks the others know that, and when she looks at their faces, at Quil’s eyes so fixed against losing someone else she loves, at Valira’s stubborn-set jaw and the ruthless conviction that cloaks her, at Kithri’s tremulous hands and angry, hard eyes, she knows they would do this either way.

(She leaves her letters, hopes they will not have to be sent, hopes that their intended recipients are alive and safe.)

By the grace of Yondalla and her love for Kithri, and Quil and Valira, brilliant and brave and beautiful, they all five escape Lloth’s clutches alive. The demon web is dark and imposing, but Phi does not feel trapped, not with these women beside her.

Arfil is quiet and unfocused, and Phi understands that, moves with the care she’s learned around so many survivors of torture and trauma, and handles him as carefully as Ronan ever had Ky.

Again, Quil saves them, takes a page from Valira’s book and bluffs Lloth’s handmaiden with wild grace. They escape, as intact as it is possible for them to be. They face a horrible moral dilemma and Phi, because she too is ruthless when she must be, asks Quil to disregard her instinctive and wonderful concern for sovereignty.

Arfil returns to them from Banishment’s demiplane, sans Paladine, and he is pale and thin and wild about the eyes, and silent as he drains a drink and a flask and goes to sleep. She will not blame him if he hates her for this.

They fight a kraken that is sundered by her swords and the powerful magics of her friends while it claws at them uselessly from the shallows.

Phi takes Arfil aside and offers him the chance to go, to be anywhere but at this final, terrible fight. He is still weak, still healing, and his aged body trembles, but his eyes are steady when he shakes his head.

She understands that.

They retrieve their cannon and make for Amana’s lonely, empty island, and send out their final call. In the far distance, storm giants begin to tear down the stones of the castle on its lonely rock.

Something calls them to a space where the other-Seath’s broken, petty party waits, and they falter and fail under the seamless teamwork and trust that Phi’s companions have built, this long year.

When they stumble back into sunlight, with Seath in sight and the sudden fear that maybe they have spent too much of their power, Paladine does the miraculous. Phi hears a god in her head for the first time, hears his trust and affection even as her fatigue fades and reserves swell. If she will ever pray to any god, though she is no paladin, she will pray to him.

Seath sets down, and Phi fights with everything she has, pushes herself beyond every limit because these people she loves cannot die and this world, full of terrible and wonderful things, cannot be abandoned, and Phi cannot die before she sees her youngest brothers grown and happy.

Seath falls with little fanfare. Lloth, in physical form, only holds out a little longer.

It should feel strange, how swift and hollow their demises are, but then, Lennart Crestmaker had fallen so easily under sword and magic.

Phi’s chest heaves for breath as Quil’s haste spell wears off, drained and trembling as the weariness of her muscles sets in, and she leans against her sword for steadiness.

For so long, Phi has felt so small, but this is a new and awe-inspiring sort of small, to know what she has helped to accomplish, to look at these heroes and legends around her and know that she will be counted among them. It’s a place she never thought she would be.

There is much still to do, ends to tie off and promises to repay, but their quest is done.

Phi can go home, can see those she loves, and bring these dear companions with her.

Though she’s sweat-soaked and exhausted, it sits bright and shining in her, brighter even than victory.

There may be a long road home, and a longer one still to peace, but there is no one else that Phi would rather walk beside.