Chapter 1: Prologue
Honeydew wakes up.
Honeydew opened his eyes.
White moonlight was billowing through the window and into the room, accompanied by a light breeze. It gently brushed through Honeydew’s beard as the glow prompted him to wake - he sat up in bed with a grumble, kneading roughly at one eye. He glanced at the expanse of bed next to him, looked up at the clock, and sighed.
The pillow was dented but undeniably void of user, blankets roughly shoved aside. Honeydew had no idea how frequent Xephos’ nighttime jaunts were – usually he would remember to close the curtains after peering out, and rarely jostled enough to wake Honeydew from his slumber. On those rare occasions the guilt that stole across his face would prompt him to settle back under the covers and wrap a protective arm around his friend. Sorry, he would mutter, face pressed into Honeydew’s hair. I’ll stay.
It wasn’t like Honeydew didn’t understand .
Still bleary, he shuffled himself out of the duvet and steadied himself on the bedside table. The room was still faintly unfamiliar but the motion was half muscle-memory.
No response. Well, Honeydew hadn’t exactly expected one; he had to remain quiet out of respect for everyone else in the house. He padded out of the room and down the stairs. Despite the hour, the armoury light was on, fizzing in its socket. Daisy’s many weapons and half-finished breastplates littered the edges of the room, some shining, others dull. Her continuous restless tinkering had infected the whole space and Honeydew shivered with secondhand energy.
As usual, the kitchen door was ajar, permitting a sliver of the yellow light that flooded the armoury. He peered in and spotted the object of his search sitting at their dining table.
Xephos was looking decidedly rough. The shock of his missing right eye had yet to wear off, lids sutured shut, work neat but still cartoonishly graphic. His good eye, bright blue and sharp, was shadowed and pink with exhaustion. The top two buttons of his red silk shirt were open, airing an old lightning bolt of scarring.
Despite himself, Honeydew couldn’t help but compare him to the mental image of Xephos a mere year before. It twisted painfully deep within his chest. The months after defeating Israphel had ripped away the comfortable rhythm of adventuring, reduced their days to paranoia and nights to sleeplessness. Seeing Xephos in the sallow glow made Honeydew crave the vitality of his laughter. Often he wondered whether the killing of their enemy had killed something of themselves.
Honeydew pushed the door open and Xephos’ head snapped up in response, startled.
“Xeph,” he said, and made a beeline for the nearest chair, hoisting himself up in an ungainly scrabble. “You’re up late. Er – early.”
“Hah. Yeah.” Xephos rubbed his neck. “Suppose I am.”
It was a conversation learned by rote, a paint-by-numbers.
“Couldn’t sleep? Too warm?”
“Something like that.” He raised an eyebrow. “What’s your excuse?”
“Missin’ you.” Honeydew winked.
Xephos rolled his eye and huffed. An errant finger traced the edge of a glass abortively, not wishing to be caught in the act, but still drawing attention to itself in its reticence. Sure enough, the contents were clear; when Honeydew glanced over his shoulder, he could spy the half-empty bottle resting on the counter behind him. A puddle of liquid glistened where Xephos had misjudged the location of the glass and spilled the drink onto the varnished wood. It was one of the odder quirks of his disability. Honeydew stifled a chuckle. It was wrong to laugh, really – this happened far too frequently, both the spilling and the drinking. Depth perception was a bitch.
“Seriously, friend.” Approximating a scowl, Honeydew caught Xephos’ eye. “I’m not the one drinking gin at 3am. Again.”
“I – I know, I just –“
“I’m not mad, but you know – “
Their stilted sentences were bitten off into silence. In the past their discussions had rolled easily into one another, a stream of consciousness from two minds. Sure, it'd mostly consisted of drivel or terrible blue jokes, but it was hard not to notice the lack of the connection that sparked so naturally between them.
Xephos stared directly ahead, mouth pinched, and Honeydew made sure not to waver in his gaze.
“I’m still ready to talk whenever you are, mate,” he murmured, and watched Xephos’ brow crinkle. He’d said it once; he’d said it a hundred times. “Like, whenever. I know there’s a lot you’re carryin’ on your own, and I don’t wanna be that guy, considering, but yeah. When you’re ready, I’m ready.”
Xephos’ answering smile was shaky. “I know. Thank you, friend.”
The moment dragged its heels and finally departed. The script was complete. Exhaling in unison, they both slumped a little in their chairs, Xephos snatching up his glass gratefully, Honeydew stretching out over the counter with an exaggerated yawn. Somewhere above them a door thumped open and shut.
“What’s tomorrow, then?” Honeydew asked.
“Not sure, to be honest. Might read a bit.” Xephos sipped at his drink. “You?”
“Diggin’, probably.” Having cleared the local mines of old debris and monsters, Honeydew was monopolising on the stagnant local mineral trade. It paid well, and comforted his dwarven bones to be below the surface. “Swampy and Jasper are an arse to work with at the best of times, never mind together. So I’m stayin’ away from that mess.”
“I know we’re scraping at the bottom of the barrel a bit, but even then, not the pair I would’ve chosen to fix the town up.”
Honeydew grimaced. “Well, Swampy’s good at plant shit, ain’t he, although he keeps callin’ Lys a fascist because he wants to rebuild all the old houses, which is kind of an abuse o’ the word, if you ask me. The park’s lookin’ lovely, though. Jasper thinks he’s good at interior design. ‘Thinks’ bein’ the operative word. I keep havin’ to intervene so that everyone in town ain’t living in rose-on-pink houses.”
“Yikes,” Xephos said, mildly.
“Yeah.” Everyone else in town could consider themselves damn lucky that Honeydew was willing to deal with uppity bullshit from the two of the most demanding blokes in Mistral. “No idea how Lysander puts up with him.”
“I think there are some… benefits.” The words came out in an awkward rush, Xephos clearly picturing the same unfortunate visual as Honeydew, a vague suggestion of ball gags and bars that Honeydew actively suppressed. “For a man of such, uh, interests. Well. There you go.”
“And te think you called him handsome .”
A flush prickled across Xephos’ cheeks, painting him a pleasant red. “I – I, well, he is! Lysander is a fine looking bloke. Un-unfortunate taste, I suppose.”
Kinda looks like you, Honeydew thought, biting the words back and settling on a snort. It was a shame that Xeph hadn’t really taken to anybody else that they’d met – while Honeydew flirted with every girl who caught his eye, Xephos hadn’t so much as winked suggestively at any handsome men. Assuming that he only liked guys. It certainly seemed that way, and he rather looked the part, if one could surmise such a thing from grooming alone.
Perhaps it was for the best. Neither of them were much in the place for relationships.
“Unfortunate,” Honeydew echoed. “Or not. I haven’t exactly asked, cause why would I, but you don’t exactly seem to be one for BDSM, Xeph. Unless I’m mistaken about ya.”
Xephos wheezed out a chuckle. “You aren’t. Maybe I did dodge a bullet.”
“Or a whip,” Honeydew added, wisely.
“Or a whip.”
Another hiccup of laughter. Xephos covered his mouth with his hand, although it was obvious that he was grinning, and Honeydew’s heart skipped gratefully at the sight. “Never gonna forget that mansion,” he muttered, half to himself. “Fuckin’ pink.”
“Nothing wrong with a bit of pink, friend.” In spite of his words, Xephos sounded doubtful. “I mean. There was quite a lot of it. A lot of rugs . Never quite understood the rugs thing.”
“D’you ever… y’know.” Honeydew shrugged, feigning nonchalance with semi-success. “Miss it?”
He received a long silence.
“Adventuring?” Xephos finally replied.
Another pause, briefer this time.
“Of… course. All the time. Things have just… changed. Y-y’know?” A stray hand moved to thumb at the stitches over his missing eye, a tic that Xephos had acquired recently, likely as unconscious as any other habit. “If things weren’t so different, then maybe I’d suggest going back out there. But they are different. I suppose, if adventure comes to us…”
“That’s usually the way,” Honeydew chuckled, weakly. “Two unluckiest bastards in the world.”
“You have no idea.” Xephos shrugged. “It is nice to have a steady home. And a bed, christ on a bike, did I miss beds. And – and reading books. Not a lot of time for relaxation when you’re out there.”
“I always thought you were illiterate.” This earned a definite glare, and Honeydew winced, waving his hands in an expedient retcon. “In English! You’re, y’know, the man from space and that. Dunno why you would be able to read our writing.”
“I literally speak the same language as you, you bastard.”
“It wasn’t an insult .”
“ Gee, Xeph, I’m surprised you can read . What’s not insulting about that?”
Honeydew huffed. “Plenty o’ people can’t read. Doesn’t bother them.”
“People in tiny little villages in the middle of bloody nowhere, maybe. Illiterate .” Xephos shook his head. “This is why I like KP better. He’s always nice to me.”
“KP is nice to everyone. Resurrection’ll do that.”
“That’s obviously not true. You come back from the dead all the time and you’re an arse.”
Honeydew attempted a mock gasp of offence, failing when it melted into a chuckle midway. “Well… anyway.” Slumping down from his chair, Honeydew patted his friend on the arm and yawned excessively. “I gotta sleep.”
Xephos smiled. A layer of his exhaustion had slipped away over the course of their conversation, leaving him far cheerier and infinitely more pleasant on the eyes. “I’ll be upstairs soon,” he promised.
“Better had be. And remember what I said.”
“Of course, friend.” A glass was raised to the air in brief acknowledgement.
Which was rather difficult to buy. They had rehashed the conversation countless times, in countless places, in varying states of coherence. Blind drunk, through tears, in passing mutters, while one was bleeding all over the other – Honeydew had offered his comfort before, and knew he would offer it again. They were books half-open, emotionally available and painfully restricted simultaneously, only capable of conveying the words that were already printed there.
As such, Honeydew paused at the doorway and turned back with a determined expression. “We’re gonna be alright, yeah?”
“Yeah.” Xephos did not sound as sure and nodded nonetheless. “Goodnight, friend.”
When Honeydew woke again, several hours later, Xephos was indeed lying by his side, an arm encircling his midriff. His face was peaceful in sleep, mouth slightly parted as if to speak. The fresh morning air smelled of new grass and yesterday’s rain. Honeydew smiled, nestled into his friend’s enveloping grasp, and shut his eyes. They could afford a few minutes more.
Chapter 2: The After
The battle ends.
The time after the battle was irrelevant. It had to be, even if they made bare-boned plans, discussed dreams in the dead of night. There was no guarantee that they would defeat Israphel at all; while they were ostensibly invulnerable, neither hero knew just how long that safety net would last. Every death could be the one that stuck and they became increasingly careful as the final days approached. Xephos took to meticulously checking over their weaponry in preparation, visibly afraid, yet always ready with a comforting word to his dear friend. It was obvious that he did not hold success to be assured. Honeydew decided that the after would have to deal with itself – so far as they were concerned, it didn’t exist. The now was all that mattered.
But then the after arrived.
Three figures staggered out of the nether portal, all in varying states of disarray.
At the precise moment that Peculier’s feet touched the outside world he slumped, nearly taking Daisy for a tumble, arm still looped over her neck. Xephos’ coat was loose over his shorter figure, spare set of trousers rolled up at the ankle – scarcely a picture of heroism, and yet he exuded a fantastic sense of life. His fresh skin was the flushed pink of a newborn’s and he took in the world with the same expression of wonderment and fear. True, the dead rarely expected to see another day, and here he was, revived by the same sturdy hands that held him close.
“Careful, sweetheart.” A faint ash cloud rose up from the charred fringes of Daisy’s hair and clothing. “Help soon.”
“Yes,” Peculier piped. “Need a, a drink.”
“I think – I think we used the water gourd,” Daisy muttered, quickening her pace. “Not far.”
They lapsed into silence, hurrying through the slurry of sand that enveloped the portal, desert reaching into the horizon in waves of gold. Honeydew hobbled beside them. His stunted dwarven gait was further impeded by the man slung over his shoulders, unconscious and very much the worse for wear. Most of the blood on his face had been sluiced off by a hasty pouring of water; it left a dappled impression of translucent red across his cheek, right eye messily bound with the hem of Daisy’s dress. His breathing was light and his face was void of expression.
Honeydew winced at the itch of his own bandage, identically placed for a near identical injury. Scorches of red lined his torso; the skin was already blistering in the sweltering desert heat, promising a thoroughly unpleasant recovery. Xephos’ weight against his back was all that kept him from falling to his knees and curling up in the stagnant grains.
There should have been euphoria.
Or, y’know, some kind of victory. Maybe that would come after, Honeydew mused, once they were healed and healthy and could indulge in their success. Against all the odds they had defeated… him, and hell, they deserved to enjoy that. For now, though, all he felt was a strange sense of grief. The future was as foreign and featureless as the dunes before him.
Onwards they stumbled. Wind carried flurries of grit into their eyes, mouths, noses, bit into exposed skin and left it red raw. Honeydew slipped and righted himself in a terrifying loss of control; almost unnerving was the silence in response, Xephos still comatose and breathing soft murmurs into his ear. Even the scent of the land was dead, a stifling heat with no character.
“Up there!” Daisy cried, voice distant. “A ship!”
He lacked the room to tilt his head – Honeydew could just spy the wooden belly of an airship out of the corner of his good eye. Initially aimless, its prow caught sight of the heroes and gave an eager leap in their direction.
“Lysander,” Honeydew croaked, fighting against the sandpaper that had replaced his throat. “God fuckin’ bless you.”
Hanging in the air like a bluebottle, it came to rest above their heads and sank in increments, slumping in the sand. Lysander’s head appeared over the side of the balcony. “Quickly!” he yelled. “So we don’t get stuck!”
Honeydew shifted Xephos about on his shoulders. “Lemme go first. I think I just about got the energy to get him up the ladder.”
Evidently Daisy recognised the determined glint of his eye, for she stepped back and nodded, one hand soothing circles into Peculier’s shoulder. Honeydew did possess the strength – just. He clutched his friend tightly with one hand, other sliding up the length of the rope and resting just shy of the next rung, heave-hoing the two of them together. The ground vaulted ever further beneath them. To his deep relief, Lysander hurried over to help pull him up the final few steps, levering Xephos carefully onto a worn passenger seat. His head lolled until it found a suitable dip and then rested there.
“Excellent to see you,” Lysander said, patting Honeydew brusquely on the arm. “Is he –“
“You too, pal. Uh, he passed out jus’ before we got out of the Nether.” Dropping to his knees, Honeydew checked Xephos’ pulse – fast, shallower than usual, but definite. “Yeah. His eye’s totally buggered, though.”
“God damn. Well, there’s a bed in the hold, just down the stairs, we should move him there – may I ask how -?”
A creak in the rope bridge announced the arrival of the next passenger. Lysander immediately leapt up to offer assistance, apologetic hand raised in a pause, then slack with shock as Peculier fumbled his way up and onto the ship.
“Good god.” Tears threatened at the corners of Lysander’s eyes. “I thought I saw another person down there, but I never imagined… Peculier. My friend.”
“Still here,” Peculier chuckled. “I’m as surprised as you are.”
They hugged for a brief moment, both blinking furiously when they parted. Honeydew chuckled in spite of himself. Sappy buggers.
Daisy embarked with the greatest ease of all of them, taking only the proffered hand of Lysander, and smiling wanly in recognition. They muttered together for a brief moment, far too quietly for anyone else to hear; it occurred to Honeydew that they knew each other better than anyone else on the ship, having grown up together in Mistral City. Better than himself and Xeph, which was an idea that barely connected in his brain.
A hand descended upon Honeydew’s shoulder and he leapt to his feet in surprise.
“Want me to help you?” Peculier asked, sturdier for being stood upon solid wood rather than the shifting landscape of the sands. “Lift him, that is. I assume that Lysander has somewhere better for him?”
Honeydew nodded. Leaving Daisy and Lysander to talk, they hoisted Xephos up, Peculier offering sturdy hands about the man’s chest, Honeydew lifting the legs, so that he hung like an awkward hammock between them. On the first step Peculier let out a churring puff of air.
“You sure yer alright?”
“Quite fine!” Peculier shifted his arms to accommodate his burden more comfortably. “I feel better with every passing moment.”
Well, Honeydew knew bullshit when he heard it, but did not argue the point. “If yer sure. We’re jus’ takin’ him to the hold.”
They edged forward; every movement exacerbated the stinging heat that seared across Honeydew’s chest. Sunlight still beat down on them with vengeful effort. It was no small relief when they entered the cool belly of the ship, swallowed by the scent of the timber, conservative bed waiting in an open side room. They lay Xephos in it and he offered a single blessed exhale.
“There. Easy.” Despite his confident words, Peculier looked ragged from the effort.
“Go dote on Daisy, you silly bugger,” Honeydew said, half into his beard. “I’ll stay here.”
He sat upon the nearest stool with a definite bump. Peculier did not need the convincing – he took his leave gratefully, and Honeydew perched by his friend’s bedside alone, ears straining at the faint noises above. Voices travelled the length of the ship for a few minutes more. Without warning the whole structure shuddered and rose, a swooping sickness turning over Honeydew’s stomach at the unfamiliar sensation of flight.
Halfway through their ascent Xephos woke, in groggy increments of growing confusion and pain.
“Hey, hey now,” Honeydew soothed, holding Xephos down as he struggled to sit up, hyperventilating. “It’s gonna be okay, you’ll be alright, we’re, we’re on the airship.”
“ Hurts,” Xephos gasped. “ Hurts.”
“Y-yeah. Shit.” Loosening his grip, Honeydew dashed to the nearest chest and plucked out a weak health potion – barely enough to heal a decent cut, but an effective anaesthetic. “Here, pal, drink up, good man.”
The red liquid was gone in mere seconds, so eager was Xephos, spluttering as some went the wrong way. A few of the lighter grazes healed over on his chest and arms; he patted at Honeydew in half-conscious gratitude.
“Where’re we?” he slurred, still twitching lightly.
“Headed to the nearest town, I ‘spose,” Honeydew replied. “Wherever that is. Lysander’ll know.”
“But I, I was –“ Wincing, Xephos reached for his bandages. “My, my eye -?”
“Don’t touch it, honestly, you don’t wanna make it any worse. We might have to close it up, or somethin’, jus’ to warn you.” Taking both of Xephos’ hands in his own, Honeydew squeezed them tenderly, noting the new bumps and lacerations. It was perhaps a bad time but – god, he wanted to say something, while they were alone and in relative peace. “Look, you don’t hafta worry about what Israphel said, okay?”
“Y-you heard – “
“Yeah. Course I heard. But it’s okay, alright? Who cares.” Honeydew laughed weakly. “Probably jus’ trying to wig you out.”
But Xephos wouldn’t meet his gaze. “No,” he started, and turned a delicate shade of puce. “Ugh.”
“Jus’ sleep, friend. And either way – you know I don’t care, right? It don’t change nothin’.”
On the word ‘sleep’, Xephos had sunk into his pillow, furrowed his brow, and scowled. By the end of the sentence his expression had smoothed: he was out.
They landed shortly afterwards, in a little hamlet with one very practical doctor. Upon their arrival she was immediately ready to assist, accepting only a few gold bars of their accumulated wealth and gesturing to her home. Several sick beds were set up inside, one in use, two free albeit rumpled. Xephos was immediately deposited into one and given another potion. After a brief discussion, Daisy took the other and winced in relief at the unfamiliar comfort.
“Here I must leave you,” Lysander said. “But I will return soon, do not fret. Askle is as good a place as any to recover from your battles.”
It was certainly peaceful. Like any town so close to the desert wastes, the wall loomed over it in an ominous blot of shadow, but it was a good distance from any of the breaches that had occurred in the past months. The doctor’s home was easily one of the biggest, split in half to accommodate the sick bay and private living quarters.
The doctor was called Lamark. She seemed to approach any problem with one fastidious mindset: brutal efficiency. As soon as Xephos showed sign of waking she was at his side, hair bristling.
“Th’ hell…?” he mumbled. “Who’re…” He caught sight of Honeydew and blinked. “Wha’s going on?”
“Sick bay, friend,” Honeydew replied. “This is the doc. She’s gonna fix up yer eye.”
“Doctor Lamark,” she said. “I have a few questions for you, if you feel you can answer them.”
“Um. Yeah?” Xephos grimaced at the sudden imposition of information.
“So. We have a few options regarding your eye,” Doctor Lamark said. “I took a brief look at it before you woke and the damage is far too extensive to be fixed. As to how we remedy this - you can choose. We can make a glass eye of some kind, which can be removed, but that would take a while to produce. The other, more drastic option, would be to seal your eye shut completely, and to use an eyepatch. Assuming you would want an eyepatch, of course…”
After a long moment of consideration, Xephos mumbled ‘ the latter, please’ , gaze steadfastly resting upon the ceiling.
“Alright. We should start as soon as possible.” She picked up a set of rubber gloves, face set into a grim line. “If you’re sure.”
“I am,” he said.
“I’ll have to anesthetise you first… Mister Peculier, Honeydew, if you would leave?”
An argument rose to Honeydew’s lips before he even had the chance to think about it, biting at his teeth. Anticipating this, Peculier lay a heavy hand on either shoulder and piloted the dwarf to the door, shutting it firmly behind them.
“I can help,” Honeydew insisted. “Please. I don’ wanna leave him.”
“He’ll be better off in the hands of the Doctor. Besides which, he will be asleep for the procedure. Much as he would appreciate the loyalty of your gesture upon waking, he can hardly do so now.” Plucking awkwardly at Xephos’ coat, Peculier shook his head, and smiled. “Your care for your friend is admirable, Honeydew.”
“He’d do the same fer me.”
“I am sure he would. Now, could you help me find a shirt somewhere around here…?”
Begrudgingly, Honeydew did.
When Peculier finally allowed him back in, the blanketing silence was thicker than the muggy heat of the room. Xephos was lying back in the bed; his face was heavily bandaged, but cleaner than it had been before, minor injuries swept away with potions. As was becoming the norm, he was deep asleep. His mouth sat slightly open.
Lamark was washing her tools at the sink, and turned at the sound of Honeydew’s entry. The water ran a thin red, diluting slowly to clear.
“Let him rest,” she said.
“Was gonna,” he assured. The gurgle of the drain lilted gently throughout the room.
“I’ll see to your burns shortly.” Lamark dropped her used gloves into the bin. “It won’t take long.”
“Alright. And so, er, you really did…?”
“Remove what was left?”
“Yeah.” Honeydew shuddered. “That.”
“Yes. Absolutely unsalvageable. Fairly gruesome, but not the worst injury I’ve had to deal with. Enucleation happens a lot with archers in the area.” He blinked. Lamark sighed. “Enucleation. Full eye removal.”
“Mr Xephos made it rather easy by not having terribly much to take out. Whatever gave him that injury did a thorough job.”
Mister Xephos sounded so thoroughly strange that Honeydew choked on a giggle. It didn’t do much to mitigate the nausea bubbling in his throat.
Dark oak timbers were the primary building material of the house, and Honeydew couldn’t resist wandering its secretive hallways, pushing his nose into any room that allowed him entry. Scratching at his bandages, he padded along a particularly gloomy hallway, then paused. One of the doors was ajar. He peered in and found it was a bathroom, lit by a sallow candle.
Daisy was teetering in front of a mirror with a knife in hand, cutting indelicately at her hair. Months of incarceration had rendered it long and matted; it fell away in swaths of corn yellow and dirt. She sang a song to herself in time with the wet slices of the knife.
“Hello, Honeydew,” she sighed, eyes still following the motions of her hair. “You can come in if you want.”
“Need any help with that?” Honeydew asked, hopping onto the edge of the bathtub. “I cut me own hair from time to time. Not well, like, but still.”
“Maybe the washing,” Daisy replied.
Upon closer inspection, one could see faint scarring running along her arms, a lance of old white piercing the skin of her collarbone. One of her eyebrows had been split.
Asking her to recount the horrors of her imprisonment was out of the question, but Honeydew couldn’t help wondering. Her cheeks were still full. What the hell you ate in the Nether beyond mushrooms he didn’t know… he couldn’t exactly see Israphel popping out to the local farm to get fresh food.
“I’m just getting the worst of it off.” Another wave of yellow sank to the floor. “I’ll use some scissors on it after. Not that I care very much. Sort of hard to care.”
“You don’ have to. Yer naturally pretty anyway, sweetheart.”
Her reflected smile in the mirror was soft. “Bless you, you flirt.”
“Post-kidnapping not appropriate, then?” He gave her a wink as she set the knife down.
“Most people would probably think twice about it,” she laughed. “But then, that’s why you’re fun. Now here, fill this bucket with warm water, and we’ll get this dirt out.”
It quickly became half-mechanical, Honeydew sluicing Daisy’s hair with water as she built up suds. The first few washes came out brown; slowly but surely it turned from corn to a lighter hue, its old buttery glow. They both muttered their approval. She sat back and allowed Honeydew to cut it neat, hands running through the damp weight of it, until she was sporting a youthful bob, and the months of neglect were all but forgotten.
“Now we just wait for it to dry,” she said. “But you did a great job. Thank you, Honeydew. You’re an angel.”
“Naw,” he mumbled. “Jus’ trying to be a good friend.”
“We don’t deserve you.” Daisy pressed a kiss to his cheek, snorting when he blushed and hid behind a hand, the other flapping in embarrassment.
Usually, Honeydew was not prone to light sleeping. That night, however, he awoke with a start, gaunt nightmares just out of reach.
Dull pain throbbed in his burns. Hushed voices susurrated in the night air; as his eyes adjusted he recognised two black boots beside his head, pacing the length of Xephos’ bed and narrowly avoiding his own bedroll. Hitched breathing underscored their discussion, low groans and whimpers floating down to the ground.
“ Do you have anything that can settle him down?” the boots asked, tapping their toes.
“ A sleeping draught might help…”
“ He’s already sleeping.”
“Yes, but it induces dreamlessness. As for the fever, only the usual medication. Would he have contracted illness somewhere, perhaps? I disinfected his eye quite thoroughly.”
“I have no way of knowing that,” Daisy said, now familiar in the gloom. “ Best person to ask would be Honeydew.”
“I don’t want to wake Mr Honeydew if he’s resting, his injuries require –“
“I’m awake,” Honeydew announced, and fumbled to his feet, extracting himself from his covers in a clumsy struggle. “ Wha’s going on?”
“Xephos is sick.” Moving aside to allow him standing room, Daisy ruffled her cropped hair and sighed. “Got a bit vocal a while back.”
True enough, a sheen of sweat had gathered over Xephos’ forehead, pallor daunted, face drawn.
“ We ain’t been around any diseases or anythin’.” Honeydew chewed at his thumb. “Nothin’ at all. Unless it’s taint, in which case, we’re both fucked, cause I’ve been around the sands just as much as him.”
“You have dwarven constitution in your favour,” Lamark noted. “… I’ll keep that in mind. We have struggled with the infection of the desert for many years now.”
“Fumblemore made a potion that fixed KP right up when he was sick.”
“And what was in that?”
“Ur.” He chuckled. “Dirt and some golden apples in a bucket o’ water. And some feathers, I think.”
“…Golden apples, then.”
“Dunno what you could possibly mean by that. Fumblemore is an esteemed crazy bastard.”
“I’m sure he is, but I’ll skip out on the dirt if it’s all the same to you.” With a huff, Lamark waved a shooing hand at Daisy and Honeydew. “To bed, both of you. I’ll deal with this difficult customer.”
For a week, Xephos writhed in his fever, and still nobody could fathom why. As the doctor had indicated, none of his wounds had caught infection, and no potion or apple alleviated its severity. The sickness defied logic and cure with all of its might. For all intents and purposes, they were stuck in the hamlet, not wishing to move such a severe invalid; it suited Daisy and Peculier well enough, exhausted as they were.
Honeydew kept a close watch over his friend at all hours. One of his burns had become infected thanks to its exposure to the sand, requiring frequent care and change of dressing, so the doctor did not mind his presence at Xephos’ side.
It had been two days since the battle. It felt like eons or minutes, and the images would not leave Honeydew’s mind.
Shifting in the wobbling bedside chair, he pressed a cold cloth to Xephos’ brow, and received an incoherent mutter in response. N, n, Xephos said, not him. Sweat left him with a constant unhealthy sheen, wiped away in his unhappy writhing, glistening upon his lips as he mumbled like the oracle. Whether any sense could be derived from his garbled prophecy seemed unlikely. Often he recounted the words that Honeydew had overheard and which had changed everything.
I am you.
Spat, not said.
Unbelievable, until Xephos’ eye had widened with something too much like recognition, and the pallor of his face reduced to ash, and actually they did look similar in the shape of the jaw –
It didn’t matter.
I will always be you, and this shall never end.
It did matter. Of course it mattered.
Israphel was Xephos. Supposedly.
Or – supposedly – had been Xephos, because Israphel was dead. Sure as his beard was ginger, Honeydew would never forgot the weight of the final blow, axe sinking deep into the carapace of Israphel’s chest. What stained the handle was not blood, instead something wine-dark and thick, an ooze of corruption pooled beneath the corpse still lying on the netherrack, never to rise again. Shuddering breaths had left Honeydew standing watch, waiting for the monster to die, only to realise the breaths were his own. A short distance away, Xephos had crumpled to a ball just as still and silent.
Above all else it just didn’t make sense. Unless Israphel were a previous Xephos somehow… and at the thought Honeydew shook his head. It couldn’t be true. The bastard had simply been gaining an edge, pushing the favour of the battle in his own direction. Stress had rendered Xeph suggestible.
He was thinking too much. Honeydew knew he usually could do to think a wee bit more, if anything, but then he usually had Xephos to do all that for him. Now he’d barely had reason to speak in days, besides stilted conversations with Peculier, and advice from the doc. Daisy slept almost as much as Xephos did.
“C’mon pal,” he muttered. “Wake up.”
“I wasn’t supposed to survive our adventure.”
Peculier spoke into his constitutional glass of whiskey, loud enough only for Honeydew to hear.
“I wonder how she did it,” Peculier continued. “I’ve never heard of such a thing. Besides Israphel, and the gift of the Heroes, but those are quite different things.”
There had been bones; then there had been a man, still aged by Israphel’s curse, breathing deep lungfuls of scorching nether air. Daisy had dressed him, woken him, carried him across the inhospitable wasteland. All without so much as a word of complaint.
“Women,” Honeydew replied.
“ Women .” Peculier agreed.
“Just.” Xephos’ breath was heavy, hand leaden against Honeydew’s arm. “Just about.”
“Feelin’ any better, pal?”
“…sort of.” Pinching his nose, Xephos grimaced. “Where are we?”
“Little town a short ways off the wall. Askle, I think. ‘Bout a week since… y’know. People are starting to catch wind of it. Only reason the townsfolk aren’t getting’ lairy about us taking up all their sickbeds.” Thumbing the duvet, Honeydew bit at his lip. “What’s the last thing you remember?”
“Hm.” Xephos sank into his pillow. “Vaguely remember reviving KP. Not much after that. Airship?”
“Yeah.” He deflated. “Oh. My eye.” Xephos stared dejectedly at the ceiling for a melancholy second, before turning to study Honeydew. “And yours.”
“It’s just a scratch.”
“Even so, friend… that looks like it’ll scar.”
“I’m a dwarf, it’s a damn miracle I ain’t scars all over.” Brandishing one arm, he gestured to the unblemished map of his skin. “See? Nuffin’. I’m a disappointment to my race.”
“It’ll make you look tough, I suppose.” A current of amusement ran through Xephos’ voice, tired though it was. “My tough dwarven friend. The girls will be even more crazy about you now.”
“As if that were possible,” Honeydew preened.
“I’ll just look like a shit pirate,” Xephos snorted. “It hurts less, now. Are the – are the others okay?”
“Think so. KP is getting’ used to being, y’know, alive, and Daisy is catchin’ up on months of sleep. She’s doin’ better than expected. Hardy lass, that one.” A strange pride welled up in Honeydew’s chest. “Yeah, they’ll be alright.”
“Good. That’s good. Uh. Does… Peculier know?” Xephos chuckled nervously. “About my being – y’know. Israphel.”
“You are not .” Honeydew clucked his tongue. “So no, I haven’t told him about that.”
“I am,” Xephos insisted. “And you should.”
“Quit,” Honeydew snapped, mouth leaden. “We aren’t telling him shit. You don’t know that our good pal Izzy was telling the truth! Sounds like the kind of thing the bastard would lie about.”
“Oh, it’s true alright.” There was a grim edge to Xephos’ tone.
“And how do you know that?” Even as he spoke, Honeydew regretted the growing aggression of his words. Hot panic rose to his head when he so much as thought about it, and the fear was all too easy to strike punishment like lightning, lashing out unscrupulously.
“He… showed me. It’s hard to explain. But there can be no doubt about it. I am Israphel. He was me.” Xephos sounded sick; he looked sick. “When Peculier finds out, he’ll run me through. As he should.”
“Quit talkin’ like that. He’s our friend.”
“I kidnapped the girl he loves and destroyed his family.”
“That wasn’t you! ”
“It was! I – “ Xephos squeezed his eye shut. “I’m tired. I don’t want to argue. And… he deserves to know.”
“Fine Tell him when you’re ready. He’s got enough on his plate at the moment looking after Daisy.”
Instead of replying, Xephos shuffled further into his covers and fell silent. Honeydew thought he had fallen asleep again, until the irregularity of the rise and fall of the blanket made that impossible, and a slow guilt seeped into his bones. The fear that Xephos somehow knew that Israphel was right made Honeydew’s hands shake.
“Hey. ‘m sorry.” There was no shift in the bedcovers. “Yer frightened. So am I. God knows what must be goin’ through your head, and ya don’t have to tell me… although I would prefer if ye did.”
With deliberate slowness, Xephos extracted himself from his hideaway. Face gleaming with tears, eye still bright from the fever, his pathetic demeanour was both jarring and pitiful. “What the hell do I do?” he croaked. “How am I supposed to cope with this?”
“I - I don’t know.”
“Right. Bloody fantastic.” Xephos raised his eye to the heavens in general with a scowl. “That makes two of us.”
“Oi. Don’t get snippy with me, Spaceman.” Though it took some effort, Honeydew managed to prise a hand loose from the covers and intertwine his stubby fingers through Xephos’ slender ones, a meeting of two strange creatures. “We’ll just have to take it a day at a time, yeah? No point in torturin’ yourself.”
“I’ll try my best,” Xephos mumbled, thumb tracing the texture of its roughshod partner.
Lysander returned a week later. By this point Xephos was physically on his way to recovery, but had grown increasingly quiet, veering between long dour silences and desperate talkativeness. His eyepatch had been sewn together as well as it could, a simple black covering held with an elasticated string. Honeydew had also been allowed to remove his bandages and was enjoying the smooth comfort of a green tunic that a resident dwarf had gifted him. It was vaguely silken, tied about the waist with a belt, and neatly trimmed with a darker fabric.
“It’s been an age since there’s been another dwarf about here,” they had said. “And it’s too big fer me. You seem tall enough. Keep your wounds protected ‘n all.”
“Why thank you,” Honeydew replied. “Very kind.”
“The doc said ya needed somethin’. And I don’t wear it, so don’t mention it.”
Both Daisy and Peculier were dressed in a mishmash of lent clothing, some articles better fit than others. Peculier’s trousers rolled up five times at the ankle; Daisy swore her way through a horde of tightly fitted dresses before finding one that was remotely comfortable.
A crowd had gathered outside of the hamlet to watch the airship’s descent, all muttering in a grave hum. Children peered excitedly upward, enjoying the display, their parents trying to reign them in with guiding palms. Several of the guild members were talking pointedly about how they thought it worked. The other dwarf took one look at it and shook their head emphatically.
This time Lysander let the ship hold itself in midair, anchored by a huge metal weight that soared down off one edge of the ship and sank a foot into the dirt. Lysander hopped down the ladder with ease, two rungs at a time, at a speed that made Honeydew wince. Bloody Skylords. More confidence than sense. Indeed, he tilted his head a moment at the audience, wrinkled his nose, and immediately dismissed them, no doubt used to curious eyes.
“Sorry I was away for so long, friends,” he chimed, clapping his hands together. They were clad in an unfamiliar pair of aviator’s gloves. “I hope this time has been optimal for your recovery!”
“Somebody’s cheerful,” Peculier muttered through the side of his mouth.
“Been to see Jaspy, I’ll bet,” Honeydew replied, and struggled to hide his grin as Peculier fought a grimace.
Mercifully, Lysander was paying them no mind, instead looking Xephos up and down. “Good to see you up and about, my friend,” he said. “The eyepatch becomes you! It has a certain flair.”
“ Definitely been to see Jasper,” Peculier sighed.
The hand clasped on Xephos’ shoulder could have been a spider for the look he gave it, although he mustered a smile. “Uh, yeah. Thanks Lysander. Good to see you too.”
“To Mistral?” Lysander asked of the group in general.
“What remains of it…” Peculier turned to Daisy, taking her hand in his own. “I forgot to tell you of Mistral’s fate. But I can recount it as we travel.”
She gave one hesitant nod and led the group to their vessel.
Chapter 3: Mistral
The remains of a town poke through like ashen ribs.
While the fight against Israphel had been intimate, the heroes and the villain, it had spooled out into the world beyond.
Honeydew watched with no small horror as they passed the smoking wreckage of buildings from above, ashen plumes just shy of the ship, villages silent. From his place at the wheel, Lysander recounted the battles – how the cultists of Israphel had been pulled from the ground like worms and exterminated with force, friend against friend, neighbour against neighbour. The threat to their leader drove out the most belligerent of followers and they had made motions to overthrow any powerful figure they could. A kind of hysteria had spread like infection from town to town. By the first weeks end, the fires stretched from one coast of the land to the other.
Not again , was all that Xephos had to say, knuckles white against the edge of the ship. Honeydew did not try to understand what that could mean. Xephos still had a tendency to say strange things at present, and it was already well learned that asking about it got you nowhere fast.
“It’s been two weeks now,” Honeydew noted. “How’s it still burnin’?”
“Nobody wanted to put the fires out and be seen as sympathetic to the cultists,” Lysander replied. “So they spent the past fortnight slowly dying alone.”
“Would you?” Lysander’s expression was harder than flint, and colder. “After all that the cult of Israphel has done to you?”
“I ‘spose not.” Wind whipped across the deck of the ship, pulling his hair out of shape, biting at the curves of his ears. “We all like ter think we’d be better than that, but honestly, yer right. Can’t say I’d be startin’ the fires, but I wouldn’t be puttin’ em out, neither.”
“You’re an honest fellow.” Lysander sounded oddly warm. “I think you’re right.”
“Quite right,” Xephos echoed, broken out of his spell. He was leaning miserably on the railing of the ship.
“In any case…” Honeydew scratched idly at the wood. “You seen Mistral lately, Lys? It ain’t a pretty sight.”
“I sailed over fairly recently, yes. Bogbeard has done a number on what remained of Mistral, but really, the fires and the fallen airships are the worst of the problem. I merely hope he can be reasoned with.” The ship took a sudden lurch to the left, almost tipping the pair over the edge as they reset their course. “Those brothers are a damn nuisance at the best of times. Fumblemore is a senile old bat, but Swampy retains most of his faculties, and that makes him even worse –“
“You really wanna rebuild it all?” Honeydew cut in, stymieing what had been working up into a truly impassioned rant. “It just seems like… a lotta effort.”
“It was his home,” Xephos murmured, facing away. Immediately Honeydew thought of the Yogcave, fought down an answering sorrow at the crater that now blighted the old landscape they had claimed.
“We must rebuild.” Determination made the Skylord sound even more portly than usual. “The town was mine to protect, and it is mine to recreate. It will no doubt take a long time, and many of the residents fled to Icaria, but if we can put in the work, I see no reason that our old home cannot be even greater than it was before. And… I admit, it is partially for our good friends.”
All three turned to look down the airship, where Daisy and Peculier were stood together. Daisy had buried her face in Peculier’s shirt, his arm protective about her shoulders, a small but steady pair.
“Poor thing,” Honeydew commiserated.
“She loved that town as much as I,” Lysander said. “If not more. It was a fine place to be a child.”
“If I may ask, where did you grow up, Honeydew? I know very little of your pasts – and you are under no obligation to share, of course.”
It took Honeydew a moment to drag up the vague memory he had of Khaz Modan, the fine dwarven clan in their stone-hewn hold. “A pretty normal dwarf childhood, I guess,” he said, scratching at his beard. “Me dad took me down the mines a lot, and the kids liked ter take part in the work. Played a lot, chased each other round the lava pits when we were feelin’ stupid. Got bollocked for that. Khaz Modan was a great clan though. Sometimes wonder why I left.”
“I can’t confess to have heard of it,” Lysander replied, hand loose on the wheel. “Another landmass, I imagine. It sounds pleasant though.”
“Oh, aye. Ideal for a young dwarf.”
“And you, Xephos?” The tone of the question was unconvincingly light.
It took Xephos a moment to visibly register it, and when he did, he frowned. “I don’t really remember, to be honest with you.” He shrugged. “Space travel can mess with your time perception and memories and stuff. Do miss space though. Big ol’ place.”
“You’ll have to take us someday,” Lysander smiled.
“Reckon you’re right.” Xephos covered his mouth with a slender hand.
Mistral was mostly wreckage, the charred corpse of a town. Trees colonised every free patch of earth with the ease of an uncontested army. Long dead fires had left strips of black soot like scars, and the barest of skeletons poked out through the noise of the wreckage, signifying where houses had once stood. The only place that remained mostly undamaged was, mercifully, the graveyard, which brought immediate relief considering the proclivity for people to turn undead at the slightest hint of bother.
They approached the destroyed city from over a hill, where the airship nestled comfortably in the grass. Walls shielded some of the damage from view, and Daisy’s declaration that it perhaps ‘was not so bad’ quickly became a disheartened sigh once they were encased in the damage.
“My papa’s workshop…” she rubbed at her forehead, eyes struggling to take it all in at once. “I can perhaps scavenge materials from the basement, but…”
“At least he wasn’t here during the fire,” Peculier muttered. “I wonder where he got to… not still in Terrorvale, surely…”
They shared a pensive look.
“We can go see,” he suggested. “If you wish, my love.”
“I would.” Daisy pressed a kiss to Peculier’s cheek; the expression of gratitude on his face was so sincere that Honeydew had to look away. “Thanks.”
Pacing the streets, the group was silent. The town drew attention, a horrified fascination, just as the aftermath of any crash would. Half-forest, half wreckage, Honeydew despaired at the idea of having to fix it all. Eventually they reached the edge, at which point Lysander leapt up onto a jutting section of wall as a makeshift podium.
“My friends,” he announced, slipping into a politician’s crafted speech. “I know it doesn’t look… fantastic. The work will take a long time. But! With the help of others, I know we can restore our old home to its former glory, if not greater. Mistral is under my rule … and Jasper’s, I suppose. It is our duty to honour the deceased and rebuild our home.”
“We’ll need somewhere to sleep,” Peculier pointed out. “I may be hale, but I’m still an old man.”
“A few houses survive.” By way of indication, Lysander gestured in several unhelpful directions. “All on the outskirts, as one would imagine. But I think there should be one big enough for all of you, and I will stay in my airship.”
“So we’re jus’ gonna nick some poor bugger’s house?” Honeydew asked with a snort.
“That is the long and short of it, yes,” Lysander mumbled. “Everyone is either in Icaria or sadly passed, so it’s not really a problem. If they return… we will work it out then.”
The house was not huge. It sat by the least damaged section of wall, only licked by the flames. For the most part, it was empty – a few cups and odd bits of cutlery sat lonely in their drawers, some shirts lay moth-chewed in the bedroom cupboards, but otherwise it was basically open for the taking. Whoever had once lived there had obviously left in no terrible hurry.
“It looks like they moved out, and nobody had a chance to buy the place,” Peculier mused. “I could be wrong, though.”
“Doesn’ really matter, cause it’s ours now,” Honeydew declared, thumping his backpack to the ground. The gesture was supposed to demonstrate his claim but fell rather flat considering his possessions amounted to a bundle of potions, his old clothing, and a metric shitton of maps.
“What’s the bedroom situation like?” Daisy was already looking through every available cupboard and scowling at the dust.
“Two, according to Lysander.” Oddly, this made Peculier turn a new shade of pink. “One for us, and one for the heroes. There’s only one bed in both of them, though, so if you want us to get a second bed up there – “
“We’ve been sleepin’ on anythin’ available for a good year, friend.” It was barely a consideration; Honeydew didn’t even look to Xephos to confirm it. “We’ll share.”
They wandered through the front room, the minute library, the kitchen. An empty room sat at the back of the house and it was quickly decided that it should become the new armoury. Up the stairs were the two bedrooms, and, mercifully, a bathroom with a proper bathtub, four golden legs curled against the wooden flooring.
Xephos was following Honeydew around with a half-shuttered expression.
“Bougie, ain’t it?” Honeydew fiddled with a tap and grinned as water sputtered forth. “Lookit that! Running water. S’like a whole other era.”
“Certainly is, friend.”
“Fancy a bathe? We can wash our clothes while we’re at it.”
Xephos looked doubtful. “That’s probably not a good idea.”
“C’mon, pal, I know we’re both blokes, but we gotta get clean sometime. Rivers don’t always cut it.” Decided, Honeydew turned the hot tap to full, listening to a heater system clunk irritably to life somewhere in the bowels of the house. Nodding, he searched around in an overhead cabinet, and found a sealed glass bottle of a liquid that was violently viscous and pink.
To his surprise, Xephos had removed his coat, eyepatch and shoes, and was standing by the tub with a confused air.
“It’s not gonna fit us both,” Honeydew said. “So go on then. You first.”
It took him a long moment, but Xephos finally shook himself into action, pulling off his shirt and trousers and wincing at the temperature of the water. Even so he sank into it, clutching his legs to his chest with one arm, reaching for his clothing with the other. It didn’t occur to Honeydew to be embarrassed – they’d both seen it all before. Perks of living it rough was the comfort they had around one another.
“Here,” he said, offering the bottle. Xephos worked the lid off and watched as the contents slowly oozed out into one palm.
He worked the soap into the shirt and it gradually loosened some of the dirt it was caked in. Frustratingly, one of the only ways of obtaining more clothing was via regeneration, and neither of them particularly enjoyed looting old bodies, although it was necessary. They did have a few spares, but as a rule, they would wear an outfit until it was almost threadbare before changing.
Honeydew washed Xephos’ hair and grimaced. “Greasepot,” he complained. “How do you live like this, huh?”
“I don’t really notice,” Xephos replied, wringing out the shirt and hanging it over the edge, picking up the next item. He froze as a drip skirted down his nose. “Eye,” he said, gruffly.
“Shit, sorry.” Honeydew tilted his friend’s head back a touch. “Does – does it still hurt?”
It fell silent. Honeydew watched as Xephos pressed suds out of the black of his trousers, all in bitten off motions that bordered on angry.
“You okay?” The question came out in a rush, Honeydew knowing that he’d never ask otherwise.
The movements became less sharp, until Xephos was holding the material in white-knuckled hands. He was shaking under Honeydew’s touch.
It was evident from the click of his jaw that Xephos’ teeth were clenched, holding captive any words that could slip through. His breathing had grown light and rapid.
“You don’t wanna talk?” Honeydew asked, hurrying round the side of the bath and kneeling there.
Xephos shook his head.
“Alright. Let me try relax you a bit, huh, friend?” He pried Xephos’ hands away from the trousers, leaving them to soak the floor, and repositioned himself at Xephos’ back, sturdy fingers pushing insistent but kind into his muscles. The response was a satisfied exhale, a long moment of considered motion, and a slow sinking further into the water, until his dark hair was floating strangely around his face. Honeydew ran his fingers through it, watching the bubbles slip away and disappear.
A hand eventually rose from the water and found Honeydew’s own.
“Thank you.” Xephos’ face was clear. “Friend.”
“Anythin’ you need,” Honeydew replied. “Take yer time. After all, ye gotta deal with my beard next.”
They both chuckled.
For the first few days, the group merely picked through wreckage, seeing what could be salvaged. It was not difficult to tell what was due to the fire and what could be attributed to Swampy’s impassioned terraforming – the trees dotted all over the place were bloody annoying, and every inch of open stone was covered in moss. Everything that had been wood was burned beyond repair, but the stone buildings survived with bearable scorching. With the vague idea of covering ground in decent time, they split up, Daisy and Peculier assessing the houses that survived. Lysander, Honeydew and Xephos were to search for any surviving supplies and check over anything that didn’t fit the broad category of ‘house.’
They drifted along the various sights of the city. A few of the fountains were still working, although they were all a less than fetching shade of green. Swampy had possessed the good sense not to bother the cemetery much, besides one taunting tree.
“Look what he’s done to the tennis court,” Honeydew griped. It looked more like an orchard than any kind of sporting arena. “How the fuck ‘re we gonna play tennis now, huh?”
“We never play tennis,” Xephos said, fingers struggling in the accidentally stifling grip of Honeydew’s hand. He was being trailed along behind his friend like a tall red kite.
“But we coulda, right?”
“We could,” Lysander interrupted. “This is an easy fix.” He frowned. “If you call tree felling easy.”
“Sure,” Honeydew boasted, flexing his free arm. “Easier than minin’.”
“Then that can be your job.” Checking through a list on a very long roll of paper, Lysander worried his lip, a motion that Xephos was mirroring almost exactly. “We really should move onto supplies. It’s going to be difficult feeding ourselves otherwise.”
“Can’t we go out hunting?” Honeydew shrugged. “We’re used to livin’ wild.”
“I’d rather not rely on that.” Amusingly enough, Lysander looked a little green at the suggestion. “ I don’t enjoy hunting, anyway. If you want to, then sure. But – uh, the first place on this list…” He sighed. “I suppose you will not want to go into what remains of Granny’s shop.”
Honeydew considered this. It still smarted, and he couldn’t bear to think of the foul zombie they’d encountered in the ruins, but it had been a long time ago. Or it felt that way, at least. It would be disingenuous to pretend their bond had been anything terribly meaningful , although he’d had a lot of admiration for the old bird. Yeah. Bless her heart. What a lady.
“I’ll be alright,” he announced. “Xeph can be my moral support.”
He squeezed the hand in his own and was rewarded with a yelp.
“Certainly.” Lysander led them through the vaguely defined streets, pausing to wave at Daisy as she looked up from a notebook.
The café had suffered badly from the fires, to the extent that most of the walls were non-existent, a few beams running upwards and petering out when it came to the roof, most of which had become the floor in a fit of pique. Honeydew held back a sniffle at the sight. Ever the explorer, Lysander ventured out amongst the rubble, hopping the counters and peering at the floor.
“Now… there should be…” he disappeared momentarily, followed by a cry of success. “Here! The cellar.”
What he had found was a trapdoor; it sprang open as soon as he let the latch loose, throwing up a cloud of dust and revealing an ominous black well of darkness below. They descended the rackety steps in single file, Xephos lingering a moment on the top step before following. An unholy smell underscored the overwhelming must. Cold seeped in from underfoot.
“There should be a light in here somewhere…” Lysander fumbled about, finally happening upon a lever. Redstone lamps flickered on, one by one, until the entire expanse of what could only be a bunker was visible.
“Holy shit,” Honeydew whispered. “She was a fuckin’ prepper.”
“This can’t be for one person…” Lines of shelves stretched from one end of the cellar to the other. Lysander considered a nearby stack of cans, rusted with age. “No, this must have been for the whole town. Gods, this may even date back to Verigan’s day.”
“Might do.” Honeydew tugged at Xephos. “C’mon pal, let’s nosy.”
“Okay,” Xephos said.
Working from one end to the other, they catalogued a concise list of the contents, Lysander noting everything in his own book. Most of the immediate shelves contained perishables, items intended for use in the café – unsalvageable cakes, packaged meats (the source of the stench; they immediately took them upstairs and threw them out), coffee beans and a few kegs of ale. Further back, the items grew more long-lasting. The cans contained something called ‘baked beans’, which Honeydew had never heard of but Xephos seemed to know, judging by his lustful expression. There were more cans containing dried fruits, mostly strange things like ‘kiwi’ and ‘pineapple’, which were equally foreign.
“Let me try a kiwi,” Honeydew said, pulling at the tab.
“I really wouldn’t,” Lysander warned. “You don’t know how long those have been down here for.”
“Someone’s gonna have to,” he noted. “Be it me or someone else. And I have my dwarven genetics on my side.”
“You’re sick at the drop of a hat.”
“And you’re no fun,” Honeydew scowled. “Lighten up, Skylord.”
Kiwi was odd. The slices were thin and bright green and bone-dry, chewy when he bit into it, tasting of age but also something sharp. It was really only a ghost of what the actual fruit must have tasted like, but it was good.
“Have some,” he said, offering the open can to Xephos. “They’re alright.”
Xephos gave a wry smile. “Kiwi,” he said, and put a whole piece in his mouth. He hummed. “Not too bad.”
They worked their way through the rest of the can as they walked along the aisles. The whole row of heavily salted fish didn’t come as much of a surprise, although Lysander was positive that it was fairly fresh, replaced by Granny Bacon before her unfortunate demise. There were bundles of savoury herbs, something dried that Lysander called a ‘lemon’, huge sacks of wheat, unbothered yeast. Towards the back of the room –
“Shit me, that’s a lot of alcohol.” Wiping dust from the labels, Honeydew tried to read the names. “This one’s an ale. And that’s a whisky.”
“There’s absolutely everything.”
Lysander was quite right about that. Bottles of every size and colour sat in rows, sending off a glow of rich browns and oranges, some unfamiliar, some known. All were dusty, besides a few newer additions, and they were mostly beer.
“I’m not writing all of that down,” Lysander muttered. “Not right now. Seems the only thing we’re really missing is meat and vegetables… and Swampy can start a farm easily…”
Honeydew grabbed one final kiwi can on the way out, and shut the trapdoor with a snap.
Lysander looked nothing short of grave. He clasped his hands together and sighed. “Jasper should be arriving today.”
His eyes spoke of imminent sleeplessness, and every other person in the room radiated worry. They had scattered across the bare kitchen, sitting on mismatched chairs or, in Daisy’s case, on the table. Once again Lysander had found a box to function as a podium. It seemed pointless with so few listeners.
“That is not really what I am concerned about,” he continued. “I also sent a message to Swampy. Or, I tried. Whether or not he shall receive it is another question, and if he does, it’s hardly guaranteed that he will help in the slightest.”
“What’s the situation like if he helps?” Daisy asked.
“Hopefully he will terraform the town as we ask.”
“And if he doesn’t?” she said.
“We have to chop down all the trees manually.” Lysander removed his hat, ruffling his dark mop of hair. “Which would be an absolute pain.”
“Even I couldn’t do that,” Honeydew hummed. “Not on me own.”
“Bold to assume you’d be the best at it,” Daisy interrupted. “I’m a bloody blacksmith.”
“Who’s been where for the past year?” he pointed out.
“That’s absolutely not my fault,” she snapped. “Maybe if you useless lot had saved me faster . And I kept my strength up. Have you tried doing press-ups on netherrack?”
“Gotta confess, I haven’t.” Honeydew squinted at her. “You and I could give Swampy some convincin’, if you catch my drift.”
“He’s a god,” Peculier said, plaintively. “Or is he a demi-god? Either way, I do not know that he would be terribly intimidated.”
“ Regardless ,” Lysander said, loud enough to regain the floor. “They will be arriving soon. And when they do, we will have a town meeting.”
“What about Fumblemore?” Peculier asked. “Mrs Miggins and Mrs Perrywinkle? Father Braeburn? They all fled to Icaria, surely we could contact them.”
Any mention of Icaria made Honeydew’s ears prick up. The fabled city by the wall where absolutely everyone seemed to go – and yet he’d never seen the damn place. Maybe someday he’d get the chance.
“I would rather have a home for them to come back to.” Lysander fiddled with the brim of his hat. “That, and I would like to start work as soon as possible. Swampy is somewhat… vital to this mission. Jasper is perhaps not vital but he is my boyfriend.” The last sentence turned into an embarrassed mush. “He is very bored waiting for Skyhold to power back up again.”
“Not a fan of Chloe?” Honeydew chuckled.
“Not in the slightest.”
“Alright, then.” Daisy hopped down from the table and stretched. “Seems to make sense. Only worry is how tired you’re gonna be, Sandy.”
“ Please don’t bring that name back,” Lysander groaned, pulling his hat over his head until it almost covered his eyes. “I will try to keep him under control. Honestly.”
“Whatever you say, Sandy,” she trilled.
In his usual style, Jasper flew in on a jazzy orange aeroplane, landed haphazardly on the only portion of open ground available, and kissed Lysander fully on the mouth the moment he dismounted. “Hey, sweetheart!” he said. “It’s so good to see you again.”
“Good to see you too,” Lysander mumbled, bright red. “Enjoyable travels?”
“Oh, perfectly lovely!” He dusted down his red jacket, which, Honeydew realised, looked very much like Xephos’ own. It only took a glance to see that Xephos had immediately come to the same conclusion and was not happy about that fact in the slightest. “Hello all! Looking delightful as ever.”
“Is it just me or has he gotten nicer?” Peculier asked, through the side of his mouth. “It’s weird.”
“Ugh, not sure about that eyepatch though, spaceman!”
“Rescinded,” Peculier said, aloud this time.
When they eventually gathered for the meeting, back in the kitchen (their de-facto base of operations, it seemed), Swampy was already there. All blinked in surprise. He was leaning on the table, making branches grow out of the knots in the wood.
“Heeey guys,” he drawled. “Thanks for the in vite. That was like, very considerate of you all.” Then he dug around in his satchel and produced a hemp bag, throwing it at Daisy, who had only just walked through the door. She fumbled to catch it. “A gift of some happy plants,” he said.
“Thanks, Swampy,” she sighed. “I think.”
Honeydew didn’t bother to expend the energy necessary to wonder how Swampy had gotten into the house, or indeed how he had arrived without their noticing. Wondering about Swampy Bogbeard could take up far too much bloody time if you indulged it.
Xephos’ face was overtaken by an anxious frown. He perched on a chair at the back of the room, fingers tapping out private messages to his knees. Honeydew took the seat nearest, hummed a line of a song with lyrics far too blue to voice, and turned to his friend.
“Let’s hope this ain’t gonna be too boring, huh?”
“Mm.” The tapping became smaller and Xephos shrugged. “I wouldn’t bet on it.”
“At least Swampy and Sandy can piss each other off a bit.” To Lysander’s misery, the name had stuck with incredible immediacy, mostly (and very openly) because it annoyed him.
True enough, there was already a great deal of gesturing to what had once been the table, and absolutely apathetic pipe smoking. Swampy had just like, returned it to its natural state, man , as Lysander insisted very loudly that no tree looked even remotely like this. Thus far Honeydew had never actually seen the pair interact, although given Fumblemore’s presence in the town once upon a time, it could only be assumed that Swampy had visited Mistral too. They certainly spoke with familiarity.
One by one, the branches gradually receded, until only one was poking up in the dead centre of the table. It gave absolutely no signs of budging.
If Swampy weren’t so peculiarly dense and persistently smoked out, Honeydew would’ve thought it a statement of intent. The moment anyone brought up the chopping down of trees, or removal of the tumorous blot above the town, he started to argue in a stoned yet surprisingly forceful manner. Neither he nor Lysander resorted to yelling. Jasper did. Daisy would have turned to fists as easily as turning to shouts. Peculier, as usual, tried to hold court.
Honeydew knew that it was really none of his business. Sure, he was gonna help, but it wasn’t his town, and the likelihood of him coming up with anything worthwhile was low at the best of times. So he kept his trap shut and waited for any kind of plans to form around him; an itch of frustration built at the lack of interaction from Xephos. Usually they would share snarky whispers, private jokes -
Honeydew turned, but Xephos was gone. He hadn’t heard him leave; if anybody else had, then they’d not said a word. Even his chair was at an angle, as if nudging towards the door, eager to escape.
A cold drip of uncertainty started in the pit of Honeydew’s stomach.
He looked back, watching as Peculier finally took to his feet, hands out placatingly. All eyes were on the fight. It took very little effort to creep out of the room and into the start of a smattering rain shower outside, one that stamped his clothing onto his skin. There was no obvious flash of red amidst the black and green that defined the town.
He wandered along the cobbles, tiny amidst the high spires of crumbling wood. Besides the insistent rush of the nearby fountains and background hum of rain, it was hushed – eerie, unnatural, the same quiet that had echoed through the Hand, the strange temples they had discovered.
The name was swallowed into the air, travelling nowhere.
God, it wasn’t like he could go far . Unless he’d taken a jaunt along into the woods for some reason, Xeph had to be somewhere nearby. Honeydew just wanted to – god – talk, or something.
As if to spite him, the rain only grew in its intensity, until it was coming down in sheets. Visibility was nigh impossible, as Honeydew was forced to constantly blink water out of his eyes. He took a constitutional break underneath a half-standing roof, mulled over the options, and ran back to the house. Not much point in half-drowning when somebody clearly didn’t want to be found.
Peculier was holding the door open a fraction, head peering out, then swung it wider to allow Honeydew access. Curiously, the room was now empty.
“Where did you go?” he asked, a touch frantic at the sight of the dwarf looking more like a drowned cat than anything else. “It’s horrible out there. And isn’t Xephos with you?”
“Nope. Went to see where he’d gotten to, only for the fuckin’ heavens to descend on me.”
“We’ll get you something to dry off with – I’m sure Jasper will have some towels.” A pause. Peculier frowned. “Wait. So where is Xephos, then?”
“Bugger if I know,” Honeydew said. “Out there somewhere.”
“Heavens, I hope he’ll be alright. It was getting rather heated in here. Can hardly blame a man for wanting to get out.” He gestured widely at the room in general. “As you can see, we decided that it was, perhaps, better if we kept certain parties apart. You can join Daisy and Jasper if you want, they’re in our room –“
“Nah, reckon I’m alright. Not sure I’d be any help. A towel sounds fuckin’ fantastic right about now.”
It wasn’t until much later, once several accords had been reached and reported back to Honeydew, that he saw his friend returning. Wrapped up nicely in a blanket, he sat by the window of their bedroom; sure enough, an errant Xephos emerged from the side streets. He was bone dry. He also appeared singularly distressed.
The slinking figure entered the house through the back, tiptoed up the stairs, and slipped through the bedroom door, not noticing that the room was occupied.
“Hey there,” Honeydew said, loud as he could manage.
Xephos jumped a good foot, and wheezed in unhappy surprise. “Christ on a bike,” he mumbled. “Don’t do that.”
When Honeydew chuckled, it was strained. “Sorry. You… uh, have fun? With whatever you were doin’.”
“Just a walk,” came the clipped reply. “You know.”
Bullshit , Honeydew wanted to say, just from the lack of a state his clothing was in. Xephos was a poor liar. His cowardice subdued his tongue, however; instead he followed some menial tack of conversation, but didn’t miss the relieved heave of Xephos’ shoulders once the moment had passed.
I've gone through and added links to all the artwork for the story. Thanks for reading!
Chapter 4: Disconnect
Connections are made only in the dark.
The axe had fallen long, long before Honeydew realised who, exactly, it was falling towards.
Israphel blinked up at him with shocked blue eyes, straining in the darkness. A mop of dark hair splayed out against the rocky red. Instead of carapace, Honeydew had sliced through flesh and bone, blood unmistakable as it stained the head and handle alike. It was on his hands, his fingernails, speckled along the skin like so many freckles, marks unwashable.
“No,” he said, and then, “fuck.”
Horrifyingly, Xephos smiled, before a fit of coughs brought flecks of red and spittle to his lips. A hand groped weakly at Honeydew’s wrist. Honeydew couldn’t bear to look – tried not to - but the fingers at his pulse were insistent, digging in until he caught Xephos’ gaze, the rattle of his breaths, the dark slick dripping from the corner of his lips.
“Thank you,” Xephos choked –
- with that, Honeydew awoke.
And immediately tottered to the bathroom, where he threw up neatly into the toilet, shaking the whole while.
He liked to believe that the Israphel thing didn’t bother him. For the most part, it was true, and he certainly didn’t care where Xephos was involved, he’d love his best friend regardless of anything, fucking anything. But there was a voice in the back of his head that said you killed him , didn’t you .
Yeah, god. He had.
He’d killed Xephos.
Or, a Xephos, anyway, which really didn’t make it any better.
Once he felt like he resembled a dwarf again, he navigated the pitch black hallway with difficulty and clambered back into bed. Moonlight cast a box of light over his friend’s face, illuminating the mess of his hair, the scarred pink skin surrounding his eye socket. Mouth open just a fraction, Xephos looked to be halfway through a word, some unfinished thought that he’d tried to cling to before dropping off. His arms looked empty; Honeydew slotted himself into their reach and was drawn close, a nose burying itself in his hair, small sigh of contentment breathing into the base of his skull.
How the hell a person with Xeph’s heart and silly sweetness became a creature like Israphel was absolutely beyond Honeydew’s comprehension. The arms that always clutched so tightly around him – even in sleep – were warm, sturdy, comfort beyond comfort. What little contact Honeydew had suffered with the monster had been unfailingly frigid. Those black nails that had swiped so close to his eye…
He gently took Xephos’ hand and studied it in the dark. Certainly pink, not white. His fingernails were encrusted with dirt and dust but they were hardly black, stumpy rather than sharp, nibbled on in moments of anxiety.
“Gross,” Honeydew muttered, fond, and allowed the warm breath at his neck to lull him away again.
Anticipating months of work, even the most bare-boned of plans were set in motion posthaste. Honeydew was given an axe and a set of shears and was put to work cutting down the trees that Swampy refused to move – his decisions were seemingly random, removing some plants and insisting that another remain exactly in place. Even if that place was directly in the centre of a cobblestone path. Still, better that than nothing at all, and Honeydew took some comfort in the repetitive swing of his axe, the groaning crackle of the trunk as it fell. Adventuring had made him strong; at least this would keep up that strength.
Lysander collared Xeph into checking through the finer details of the store room, seeing as the spaceman lacked any other concrete role. It was not an enviable job. After four days of meticulous cataloguing and more than a little sampling, they were only just wrapping up, and had required a break in the middle of the week as Lysander threw up something very out of date for several hours.
“I blame the canned tuna,” he had gritted out, face obscured by the toilet bowl rim. “That looked – ugh – far too old.”
Why in the merry fuck Sandy had thought to try out any kind of perishable meats was absolutely beyond Honeydew’s comprehension. From the long-suffering tilt to Xephos’ mouth, he pondered the exact same question, and when Honeydew asked later that evening, he could offer only a shrug and punctuating sigh.
Most nights, Honeydew would return to a quiet house and a basic stew, sitting with whoever was available and having a chat before retiring to bed – usually with Xeph already conked out under the duvet. The last night of that week, however, visibly differed from a few streets away. Axe slung over one shoulder, walking home after clearing out the remains of Astley’s house, Honeydew had to pause and blink at the blaring yellow light pouring out of his own windows. From where he stood he could just pick out jangling notes of music, reaching out like eager sparks of the veritable bonfire that was the house.
Pushing his exhausted legs to hurry, he found the kitchen door open and waiting.
“Honeydew! Come in, come in, so I can shut the door.” From nowhere, Daisy appeared, pulling him into the room. Sure enough, every available light had been turned on. A record player sat in the corner of the room and belted out music, records of all colours stacked on top of it, ‘PROPERTY OF JASPER’ scratched into their multicoloured centres. During the day somebody had placed down a rug and hung a painting of a whirling night-time scene on the far wall. Most noticeable was the bottles littering the table – few the same. Everybody had taken up position, either chatting amiably or, in the case of the Skylords, dancing.
‘Sampling the stock’, indeed.
To Honeydew’s surprise (and subsequent guilt), Xephos was also present, chattering away to a bemused Peculier. He spotted Honeydew at the door and waved him over with a languorous hand. Ignoring the desire to simply fall flat on his face and sleep, Honeydew propped his tools against the nearest wall and approached the table. It was now mercifully flat, Lysander having taken a saw to the final branch that was Swampy’s creative middle finger.
“Honeydew! Friend! Look. I have discovered gin,” Xephos announced. He was holding aloft a glass of clear liquid, and he was leaning at a merry angle in his chair. “It’s very good, Honeydew. Do you want some? You should have some. I’ve had three. I think? Or four. I don’t know. Anyway you should have some.”
He offered the glass, then pulled it back towards himself, then offered it, and finally decided to hold it to his chest.
“This one’s mine though. Don’t drink my gin.”
“Alright,” Honeydew said, thoroughly bemused. Alcohol was not something they’d had much contact with, besides ale, and he’d never seen his friend properly drunk before.
“That might have to be your last,” Peculier said, struggling to hide the laughter in his voice. Being a more sensible bloke, Peculier had settled for a tankard of what looked like cider, and was nursing it slowly.
“ Fffuck you, KP, you don’t know what’s best for me,” Xephos insisted, rolling the swear from his tongue. “I can handle my alcohol, and I can definitely handle a few gins, and it’s mine anyway, so – fuck you!”
“As you say, Hero,” Peculier demurred.
Forseeing a long night ahead, Honeydew sat on a free chair, momentarily thanking all that was holy for the relief.
“Sure I can’t have a wee sip?” he asked, eyeing the formidable bottle that Xephos had placed conspicuously close to his arm. “Don’t want te waste a glass if it ain’t to my likin’.”
Xephos let out a wounded sigh. “I suppose. But only because you’re my best friend. And only a sip.”
He let Honeydew take the glass, fingers tightening as he did so. Honeydew rolled his eyes and took a minute pull at the gin, aware of Xephos watching his moves very closely indeed, perched on the edge of his chair. He need not have worried – it tasted like nothing Honeydew had ever experienced, and he gagged. The closest thing the dwarf could compare it to was the smell of the liquid that his clan had once used to bleach new cloth.
“What the fuck, Xephy? That’s disgusting.”
“No it’s not. Give it.” The gin was back in Xephos’ grasp within seconds, cradled as though it could be offended by Honeydew’s dislike. “More for me,” Xephos sniffed. “And Daisy, because she has taste.”
“Good fer you.”
Honeydew poured himself a nice, sturdy ale, and settled in.
He didn’t think he’d heard Xephos blather this much in the whole of the past month. Where all the kindness in Honeydew’s heart hadn’t got Xeph talking, drink loosened his mouth with a terrifying ease; Honeydew’s jealousy rankled against his goodwill. In his endless patience, Peculier entertained the inane chatter with gently sarcastic responses. Childish and half-content with it, Honeydew nursed his drink closely, enjoying the friendly buzz, never quite gone enough to ease his unfamiliar grudge. Far more pleasant to listen to Peculier’s chatter, Daisy’s opinionated replies, Jasper and Lysander’s barely-veiled flirting.
Eventually Xephos decided to pass out in Honeydew’s lap, which was fine. Honeydew ran his fingers through already greasy hair and dozed in and out of half-dreams. He felt out of place in all of them.
A month rolled into two. Israphel was like a distant nightmare, half-forgotten amidst the building of houses and late dinners, awakened only in the private darkness of Honeydew’s dreams.
He didn’t tell Xephos about them. It would have been hard enough to broach the topic in the first place – hey, I keep dreaming about killing you, ain’t that awkward – nevermind actually discussing what they could mean. It was self-evident. Talking to Daisy or Peculier was also out of the question. He’d been unable to find a way of conveying the contents of his subconscious that didn’t give away the secret wholesale, and it was not his to tell.
Not that Xeph was really talking to him anyway.
It was radio silence from his friend most days, a sort of willed mutism that left Honeydew stranded. Perhaps if they worked together it would have been less severe, but Xephos was delegated to the simplest and shortest of jobs, Lysander entirely aware that anything too intensive would never get done. While Honeydew started on demolishing the ashen frames of buildings, Xeph lived in a cryptic half-presence, sometimes disappearing for whole days and returning to the house with the same troubled expression that he had worn after the first town meeting. He veered between cold and nervous with the indecision of a metronome. Sometimes the apathetic slant of Xephos’ mouth awoke an old dread in Honeydew's heart, although he couldn't parse his own feeling.
Honeydew mulled this over for the umpteenth time as he sheared back a curtain of ivy, balanced on an aging ladder, Jasper's dulcet tones providing a soundtrack to his work.
“Left a bit… right a bit… left a bit… left a bit more… no no, now it's MUCH too far left…”
And so on.
Without looking Honeydew could picture the hawkish fury taking over Lysander's expression, the pitiable Skylord trying to line up a replacement beam with its opposite. Why don't you do it if you're going to be so bloody difficult, Honeydew thought. You don't have to -
“Why don't you do it, if you're going to be so damn difficult,” Lysander snapped, and Honeydew choked back his laughter. “You don't have to look at me like I'm an idiot, either.”
It was, perhaps, a testament to Honeydew's spending too much time with them that he could predict the arguments before they started. He'd become an excellent oracle in all things Skylord. Maybe he was just going mad. In any case, he tuned out the rising wave of bickering and clipped a sheet of ivy down, falling in one sweeping drape. All for the bonfire, that, unless one wanted to make a dress out of it. He wouldn't put it past Daisy to try.
“Excellent work.” An escaped Lysander beamed up at Honeydew, Jasper cursing violently at having been tricked into taking hold of the beam. “Indeed, you have been a great help. You’re far more mature than I gave you credit for, Hero.”
“Gee, what a compliment,” Honeydew grumbled, throwing the shears down with a clatter before descending the ladder. “Regular charmer, you.”
“Hm. Yes, that was worded rather poorly.”
“I think what ye meant was ‘thank you’.”
“Indeed I did,” Lysander chuckled. “Thank you.”
Honeydew blinked, and finally registered the lack of weight on the other side of the bed.
He didn’t really know what to make of it. At first he waited on the telltale gurgle of pipes, or the hiss of the bathroom sink, and found that neither was forthcoming. Much as he attempted to drop back into sleep, his mind couldn’t accept the lack of a partner, and Honeydew decided to go and see where he could possibly have gotten to.
At least Xephos was easy to find. He was spooled out on the table, gin bottle protectively clutched in one hand, eyepatch in the other, head flat against the wood. Snoring accompanied the slow tide of his breathing.
Much as it pained him to do so, Honeydew nudged his friend awake. “C’mon pal,” he mumbled. “This ain’t a good place to sleep.”
“Mm?” Xephos lifted his head, blinked one bleary eye. A grand smile overtook his face. “Oh, hey! Hi.”
“This isn’t very comfortable…” Kneading at what was surely going to be a truly fantastic headache come morning, Xephos propped himself up a touch, and smacked his lips. “Not comfy.”
“That’s what I was sayin’. Now, let’s go upstairs, yeah?”
“Not just yet, friend.” He waggled the bottle. “Gotta finish this u p .” He relished the ‘p’ with a loud pop.
Honeydew stared at it. It was at least half full, and by now he could surmise that it was also very alcoholic.
“Don’ think you want ter do that, unless you want the worst hangover of yer life.” Well – it would only be the second hangover of Xephos’ life, as far as Honeydew knew. The morning that had followed the alcohol ‘sampling’ had been thoroughly unpleasant for just about everybody, save for Peculier (who was eminently sensible) and Jasper (who could handle himself terrifyingly well).
“Psss shhh ,” Xephos spluttered. “Hangover… schmangover. I’ll be fine. I’m always fine . So you can go riiight back to beddy.”
“Cause people who are fine drink in the dark at midnight,” Honeydew deadpanned. “Get up, piss’ead.”
Determined to be as troublesome as possible, Xephos curled in on himself and shook his head. “Nuhuh. Makes me happy, Dew.”
“I promise you, it don’t.”
A nervous thought awoke unbidden; once it was there, Honeydew could not shake it.
“Hey, uh, Xeph. You haven’t done this any other nights, have you?”
“What? Nooo. No.” Xephos wouldn’t catch his eye, instead shaking his head in a vigorous, and patently dishonest, denial. “Never.”
“Just tonight.” Honeydew asked, without wanting the answer.
“Maybe a few others.” Like a dog, Xeph planted his head on the table and rolled it to one side, where he couldn’t be caught in the headlights of his friend’s judgemental stare. “One or two or three,” he said, muffled. “Or four or five.”
Maybe Xephos knew far better about his propensity for hangovers than Honeydew did.
No doubt, he could have continued listing numbers upwards ad infinitum, but it made no difference to the leaden weight in Honeydew’s chest. One night, ten nights, twenty – it was all the same.
“Oh,” Xephos sniffed, having turned back to gauge his friend's expression. “I made you sad.”
“Nah, friend.” Cursing the obviousness of his tears, Honeydew patted Xephos on the back, and attempted a smile. “Jus’ worried, is all.”
“I made you sad,” Xephos continued, voice rising. His eye was bright, teetering on tearful. “I’m a bad friend. Shouldn’t make you sad. I’m bad.” He was sniffling, quavering. “I knew I was bad. I killed all those nice people and now I hurt my best friend in the whole world.”
He started to sob obnoxiously. Honeydew cursed.
“ I’m so-rry!” he bawled. “ I’m so so-rryy!”
“It’s fine, I forgive ye, now please, please be quiet, people are tryin’ to sleep –“
Immediately Xephos quieted, blinking his one bloodshot eye. “Sorry,” he whispered, and put his gin bottle down with a resolute thunk . “Bed now.”
The heavens parted in a chorus and Honeydew let out a deep sigh. “Yes. Bed. Lets go, shall we?”
It took a decent amount of corralling to get Xephos up the staircase, and an insufferable five minutes to convince him to drink some water. Only once he was passed out on the bed - which had happened almost the moment he touched the mattress, an action that Honeydew begrudgingly thought impressive – were his fingers persuaded to open and release the eyepatch.
“Come help me make bread,” Daisy said, and Honeydew knew it wasn't an offer but a command.
Most things with Daisy were commands. Both he and Peculier knew well enough that her requests were few, for all the tongue-curling sweetness of her voice. This time her look filled the odd midpoint between stern and kind.
“A’ight,” he agreed.
Late morning light edged softly through the windows, dust particles drifting aimless in a private dance. They didn’t own aprons, so Daisy grabbed two lengths of green criss-crossed cloth from a cupboard and pinned the ends together once around Honeydew’s neck, then used a length of string to affix it to his waist. With ease she made one for herself and began to measure out ingredients - sugar, flour, salt, yeast - occasionally directing Honeydew to do one thing or another. He did not complain about the humdrum nature of the tasks; he recognised a means to an end when he saw it.
“So,” he said, watching the pinched motions of her hands. “How are you?”
“Honest answer, or answer to put you at ease?”
“Honest, if you feel like givin’ it.” Unbidden, the corner of his eyes creased. “God, don’t miss a trick, you.”
“I try. And actually, I’m alright,” she mused. “I mean. I’m not. All things considered, could be doing worse.”
“Could hardly blame ye for it,” Honeydew commiserated. Like everyone else, Daisy’s eyes were grey-rimmed when scrutinized closely, face drawn towards neutrality in its resting state. “Sandy not working you too hard? Kinda feels like he ain’t got a ‘stop’ button.”
“Eh, a bit. Depends on what we’re working on. But I like having work to do. It takes my mind away from that godforsaken fortress.”
“Makes sense. I always did like a bit of diggin’ to get my mind off things.”
“Dwarven stereotype to the core, huh?” Daisy dropped the dough onto the table, sprinkling flour as she did so, and paused. “But… Honeydew, are you okay?”
Question far too pointed to be anything other than the cause of the conversation, he stalled. “I… I dunno. Nobody’s really asked me that as o’ late.”
“Yeah. That’s what I thought.” She sighed. “I know you do a lot to look after everyone else, Honeydew. It’s admirable, it really is, but do you ever think about looking after yourself a bit? You’re always worrying after Xephos and… I mean, yeah, fair enough, but whatever’s fucking with him is obviously not something that we can fix. Plus like – “ The bread she was working received an unnecessarily rough pummel. Honeydew winced. “- he’s kind of being a dick.”
“He’s just – it’s hard –“
“I know it’s hard. You think I don’t know what trauma’s like? I’m tired of it, Honeydew, tired , because any damn thing triggers a response - emotional, flashback, whatever. Peculier’s a dear for looking after me when he has his own problems, but I’m an adult. I have to take some responsibility for myself, no matter how shit I feel.”
Honeydew had no reply.
“He’s willfully letting himself get worse,” she continued. “And it hurts you. None of us are blind, you know, although some are more… permissive than others. Sandy especially. Better to force Xephos to work than leave him to his own devices, frankly. As things are... if Xeph wants to wallow in his own goddamn misery then fine. Can hardly stop him. But you should talk to him about it.”
“Okay.” Indignance bloomed in Honeydew’s chest like late roses, thorns and all. “I think I might know him better than you do.”
“Look - don’t get me wrong, Honeydew. I like Xephos. I do.”
“Could’a fooled me.”
“If you care about him as much as you do, then he must be okay.” She offered Honeydew a go with kneading; still miffed, he shook his head. “Honestly, I’m not going to judge him based on how he is now. Obviously he isn’t his usual self. And… anyway. You. How are you? ”
He kicked his legs and frowned. Daisy didn’t seem to mind his lack of immediate response, instead focusing on the precise folds of the dough, salting it a little. The time to think was much appreciated. How was he?
Besides the nightmares – recurring, always unpleasant, mostly relating to killing his best friend –
Maybe that wasn’t so great.
He wasn’t unhappy. Lonely, sure, quieter than he could ever remember being, but then that was just for want of a conversational partner. Sometimes the stress of it all became oppressive and he’d find a quiet place in the barren town to sit alone. Mostly he missed the joy of travel, but he didn’t want to go off by himself, and it was pretty obvious that Xephos was done with adventuring. For good reason, much as it smarted.
That was what it boiled down to, really, wasn’t it? Ever since they’d first woken up on that beach it had been Xephos and Honeydew against the world, against the gap in their memories which defied explanation. Wherever Honeydew was, Xephos would be, usually with a laugh already stocked up for whatever dumb joke Honeydew spouted. Follower or leader, Honeydew wasn’t used to being without his second half. Ugh, put like that, they sounded like an old married couple. But it was true – he had never gone so long without hearing that wheezing laughter.
“I miss him,” Honeydew blurted. “I miss adventuring. I feel so fuckin’ stagnant, like… purposeless, or somethin’. My best friend won’t bloody talk to me or anyone and it sucks.”
Daisy paused mid-motion.
“You miss adventuring?” she asked, too casually.
“Course I fuckin’ do.” Christ, how long had it even been… months, at least, and Honeydew felt the lack of it like an arrow to the chest. “It’s the only way te live. Travelling every day, discoverin’ new shit, meetin’ people – crazy bastards, some of them. Most of them. Eatin’ slap up meals. It’s the good life.”
“Sounds it.” If her tone was mournful, he didn’t mention it, watching as she lowered the dough into a bowl. “Being the damsel in distress fucking sucks.”
“I can imagine,” Honeydew commiserated. “Not much to do in a cell.”
“You’re telling me,” she snorted, and pushed the bowl aside. “It needs to rise. While we’re waiting, you should talk me through what you and Xeph got up to. KP only has so much of the story.”
“I ain’t much of a wordsmith.”
“That hardly matters.” Daisy rested her chubby cheeks in her palms and gave the kind of open smile that demanded all the secrets in the world. “I want to hear anyway.”
Initially the words were a stumble, Honeydew trying to recall the first months after waking on the sands, able to recall the precise flighty hush of the waves but little of the building of the Yogcave. In stronger voice he relayed the crashing of the Celaeno, the ruins of their home and traveling to Mistral.
At some point they had settled into grooves in the table and became so engrossed in the tale that the entrance of Peculier didn’t register until he, too, sat and began to interject where possible. Wordsmith or nay, their travels had been so fantastic that the story easily wove itself into a complex tapestry. Honeydew was touched by it. As with anything, the memories had started to settle into the back of his mind like an untouched photo album - the action of cracking it open made him heady with nostalgia.
They gave the dough more than enough time to rise.
Like it or not, Honeydew found that he had internalised some of what Daisy had said. Skittish all of a sudden, questions pressed themselves against his teeth whenever Xephos was in the room, suppressed only by the far stronger urge to flee. Fight or flight - it was nothing more than that age old conundrum, and, being a coward, he chose flight every time. The outlier was night, in which he stared at the ceiling and luxuriated in their closeness. In the wee hours it was all too easy to pretend that the hands of change had never grasped them so tightly. Sometimes the nightmare returned, sometimes Xeph cried out and struggled, one hand always protecting his face. Sometimes - well, sometimes they slept. Bloody miracle.
After a few weeks of indiscreet dodging, Honeydew was presented with an inescapable opportunity. Declining a game of cards in the kitchen - Jasper would win, anyway - he edged open the door to the bedroom and found Xephos awake. Abandoned red coat a splash of colour against the plain bedcovers, Xeph had taken to the desk and was scribbling furiously into a notebook. It looked homemade.
“Evening,” Honeydew coughed.
While the response was not the usual jump of surprise, it still took Xephos a long moment to reply. “Evening,” he said, not turning an inch. The scratch of his quill became frantic.
“Finished up the Church of the Holy Record today,” Honeydew confided, perching on the edge of the bed and trying to appear nonchalant. It failed spectacularly. “Can’t really put in the stained glass yet, o’ course. Otherwise - clean as a whistle. Clean as a kinda rusty whistle.”
“You uh - done anything nice?”
“You even listening to me?”
Scritch scritch the quill said, grating against Honeydew’s skull. Scritch scritch scritch.
Finally the sound stilled, arm paused in comical mid-motion.
“You gonna look at me, or what?”
In slow increments, Xephos turned around. He looked like shit.
“You look like shit,” Honeydew said, and regretted it the second it escaped.
Understandably, Xephos flinched. “Haven’t been sleeping,” he mumbled.
“I know that.” More often than not when Honeydew lay awake, Xephos also did so, his breathing too uneven to be that of rest. Still he held his friend close.
All the words that had been storing themselves in the back of Honeydew’s throat were threatening to spill out, and he took a steadying sigh. “I feel like we don’t talk,” he managed, still more accusatory than he desired. “At all. I jus’ - I miss you.”
“I miss you too.” Xephos spoke as though he were a million miles away.
“I’m right here. It - it’ll make ye feel better. To talk about it.” Honeydew’s hands were shaking; he folded them in his lap. “Please.”
For a moment, the tension drew tighter, gazes properly meeting and communicating. And then Xephos’ eye shuttered. He ducked his head and swivelled back to face his book, back an arch of shame. “I can’t,” he said, almost too quiet to be heard.
“You can’t?” Honeydew’s voice was loud in his ears, head ringing at the insult of it. “Two fucking months and you can’t?”
“I’m sorry -”
“Jesus Christ. See if I care.” Arms pushing him off the bed, Honeydew found himself at the doorway, staring at the floor. It was wooden, scuffed from use, black marks streaking along it thanks to the old owner’s boots. He wanted to say fuck you or something similar, but it was a needless cruelty, and he swallowed it down. Instead Honeydew walked away without another word.
ughgfjghghghblhblh writing hard
Chapter 5: Visitation
Old lives shimmer with the promises of the past, just as a new face appears to haunt them.
Generally speaking, Honeydew was not inclined to arguing. He didn’t take shit lying down - well, he thought he didn’t, anyway - but he wouldn’t go out of his way to blow up on someone. No point to it, besides soothing your own anger, and it just made things awkward.
Oh boy, had he made it awkward.
When Xephos crept out of the room that night he didn’t have the balls to follow. Instead he had the joy of listening to the distant sound of Daisy chewing Xeph out at 6am, pretending to still be asleep as his friend returned like a wounded dog and crawled under the covers. It was on the tip of Honeydew’s tongue to apologise; he did, a few days later, but only for being harsh. He couldn’t apologise for prying in the first place - not when he hadn’t been wrong.
The house was empty as Honeydew came searching for his hammer. A cluster of cups sat around a pitcher of freshly made apple juice; he drained one in a few energetic gulps, blessing its tang. All the hair on his arm stood on end and he shivered in an impossible breeze. He paused, listened.
Not so empty after all - somebody was in the room above, and he needed only one guess to work out who.
He walked upstairs in a quiet patter and approached his bedroom. Sound was coming from within.
Xephos was crying. The door was half open and tauntingly framed the scene; he was either oblivious to the footsteps outside or didn’t care. He sat on the bed facing away from Honeydew, head buried in his hands, shoulders shaking as he choked. The bright wheeze of his laughter had never been further away; Honeydew was terrified at the distance of those memories, how blurry Xephos’ smile had become.
He didn’t sleep; he barely ate. If it carried on he might just wither into nothing at all.
They hadn’t killed Israphel only to have him destroy them completely after the fact. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. They were supposed to defeat Israphel, return in exhausted triumph, and live on the spoils until they wanted another adventure. Instead the cold taste of reality had washed them up, half-drowned, onto an inhospitable shoreline. But then, Israphel was not supposed to be Xephos. That was the crux of the thing. It would eat Xephos alive and take Honeydew for seconds.
In the room, it was almost silent, dimmed down to the occasional thick sniffle.
“God,” Xephos chuckled, almost too quietly to be heard. “I really am pathetic, aren’t I? He was absolutely right.”
A private shadow seemed to cast over him, then, darker than the rest of the room, although Honeydew suspected it to be a trick of his own imagination. He was almost grateful that no face was visible.
“I was absolutely right,” Xephos repeated, a breath on the still air.
If Honeydew had wondered about the discussion that had passed between Israphel and his friend in the Nether, he suddenly had an inkling as to what it was. He stood in the doorway for a good minute or so. The words that had fought up to his teeth had returned, only now they tasted bitterly of regret, and wouldn’t form. Exposing himself as a voyeur on Xephos’ breakdown was so shameful it made him feel sick.
Working with Peculier was always pleasant, especially as he suggested a drink afterwards, tasting his way through the selection they'd found. After one particularly gruelling day of scrubbing down the tepid fountains, they collapsed onto the sofa in the lounge. It groaned under their shared weight.
“So,” Peculier began.
“Yeah. Xeph.” Honeydew immediately wanted the conversation over. It’d been heading towards him all day, with all the dread of an oncoming train. “Gotta admit, things ain’t gettin’ better.”
“That was the impression I got, yes.” Popping the cap of his beer with a satisfying tock , Peculier poured out a substantial drink for himself, waggled the bottle at Honeydew, and poured another. He passed over the mug. “Anything that I can do?”
“Probably not.” Honeydew took a cursory sip. A dark ale. “Don’t think any of us have the answer. I don’t even know how to start.”
“I think he’s depressed,” Peculier said. “As I was when I lived in Terrorvale. Some people, such as he and myself, do not cope well under mental duress. It saddens me greatly that he’s so afflicted. Your fight must have been a hard one.”
“I wish I knew how to make it better,” Honeydew mumbled, staring at the floor. “It ain’t right, us bein’ like this. I jus’ don’t know how to get it through to him.”
Peculier offered a commiserate chuckle. “The mind is a powerful thing, hero. Why, had you not found me when you did, I truly believe I would have drunk the poison I brewed.”
“That is not to say - ! I am not suggesting –“ Covering his face with one palm, Peculier gave a heaving sigh. “I must think before I speak. No, I doubt Xephos of anything so dire. He has you, Honeydew, and Israphel himself could not tear you two apart.”
There was a long silence.
“He is also invulnerable,” Peculier added.
“That don’t make me feel better.” Honeydew growled.
“I’m sure it doesn’t. I’m sorry.” A sturdy hand came to rest upon Honeydew’s shoulder; Peculier’s expression conveyed a sympathy which was wholly sincere. “There are details to this that you know, and I do not. I’m not sure why you have decided that they must be secret – I trust that it is for the right reasons, and I will not push it. Do not worry yourself too deeply, Honeydew. He will be okay. As will you.”
For a long moment Honeydew watched Peculier from the corner of his eye. He chuckled. “Ah, yer too nice, KP.”
“I’m just honest.”
“Exactly.” For most people, honesty would not be so kind. It was an admirable trait that Honeydew envied. “How’s things with the missus?” he asked. Much as they lived in the same house, Peculier and Daisy had been left to it as the heroes had their private dramas.
“Better than I could have hoped. I do not know how a woman in the prime of her life can be with an old man such as myself, but she says she is happy, and I would hate to doubt her.” His eyes were rich with love. “I only hope I can continue to give what she needs.”
Honeydew couldn’t hold back his snort. “Hey, KP, you’re a catch . Not every lass could say her bloke chased her and died tryin’ to save her. Besides which, you ain’t that old.”
And he really wasn’t. Taint had sapped all the strength from Peculier’s frame, reduced him to bones and sallow cheeks, but that was quite a while since by anybody’s measure. He’d filled out from his travels. He looked - 50, maybe, a sturdy middle aged man, which was an improvement from the frail figure that had looked ready to blow over with a breeze.
“Still, I’m not what I was,” Peculier said, fighting a smile.
“How old… were ye? When it started.”
“...Late twenties, early thirties.”
“Oof. Makes sense, lookin’ at your sister.”
“You better not be looking at her,” Peculier joked. “No, no, it would be an honor to have you as a brother, Honeydew.”
“Let’s not go that far, pal. We only agreed to a drink or somethin’. Besides which, she’s a tough lass. Got the impression she wasn’t lookin’ for happy matrimony.”
“That’s Isabel, alright.” While Peculier was laughing, his brow furrowed in a wistful arch.
“Guess it’s been a while, huh?” Honeydew himself hadn’t seen her since… well, shit, BBQ bay. He’d thought it was more recent than that.
“To say the least. I miss her. She is all I have left.” Taking a long sip at his drink, Peculier turned pensive, eyes resting somewhere in the middle distance. “We have all lost much. Stoneholm culled by Finbar, Mistral ruined, Skyhold reduced to two…”
“Four, technically. Xeph and I are honorary Skylords. Kinda shit at flying, mind you, so I think Sandy was just bein’ nice.”
This got a chuckle. “I am sure it was not so bad, although you would certainly not get me to pilot a plane. Hm. I suppose it was not you who flew the Hold to Chloe?”
“Naw, that was all them. Jasper wasn’t too delighted about it, but Webley reckoned that the engines were the only thing powerful enough to overload the robot. God. Thing. Whatever.” A distinct recollection unburied itself, the sensation of wind whipping in his hair as they crossed the skies, Skyhold engines roaring below him like it was the end of days, which - well. Almost. It had been such a rush, to set it all up, Webley trembling at the unfamiliar strain put upon his emaciated body. Then there was remaining pulp of a dwarf that they had to step over, reeking worse than the overwhelming scent of oil. Honeydew grimaced. “Finbar’s corpse was still on the floor as we were hookin’ it up. Fuckin’ gross.”
In a rare expression for him, Peculier looked sheepish. “I may have let my anger get the best of me there.”
“Can’t blame ye. He was a right wanker.”
“What he was saying about Daisy… safe to say that I saw red.” His quiet shame perplexed Honeydew. It was perfectly understandable. Hell, Honeydew would have done the same if it were Xeph. Peculier shrugged. “It is the people that matter, in the end.”
“You got her back, man.”
“ You got her back, for which I am endlessly grateful -”
“Mate. We were useless without ye. We had our hands held half the bloody time anyways, if not by you then by someone else. Don’t downplay what ye did.” It wasn’t really his place to say it, but Honeydew did so anyway, because KP needed to hear it. He reached over and patted his friend’s hand. “Your father would be proud of ye.”
The simple sentence rendered Peculier speechless for a moment. “Thank you, Hero,” he managed, around a crinkling smile.
Honeydew smiled back, stared into his mug, and sighed.
“... I should talk to Xeph, shouldn’t I.”
Seeing Peculier’s expression was not necessary to know that it was kind; he spoke with undeserved gentility. “Healing is something you both need, Honeydew, and talking is generally a pretty good place to start.”
Looking up from his book, Xephos gave a small smile. His eyepatch was lying on the rumpled mountain of covers, and he was perched on the edge of the bed, as if about to take flight. He looked less tired than he had that morning. It was obvious at the time that he had barely slept, offering Honeydew a cup of coffee and an arm to lean on with an unspoken apology.
“Hello,” Xephos said. “Were you needing something?”
Immediate feeling flooded to Honeydew’s stomach; he practically launched himself at his friend, ignoring the gentle oof in response.
“Promise me you ain’t gonna go anywhere.” Honeydew pressed his face to Xephos’ shirt, a puddle growing out and colouring the blue stripes darker. “Promise me. Cause I’m scared, Xeph. I don’t know what you’re gonna do anymore. I can't - can't lose you.”
Xephos was deadly still. Eventually, a stuttering hand came to stroke Honeydew’s hair, and when he spoke his voice was choked. “Course I’m not going anywhere. I’m gonna be right here, as long as you need me.” The hand rested against Honeydew’s back, warm and almost steady. “I’m sorry that I ever made you think… that I would.”
“Shut me out,” Honeydew mumbled.
“Yeah. I'm sorry.” The hand moved lower, pressing a soothing circle into Honeydew’s shoulder. “I was, I was,” Xephos shivered. “I'm scared.”
“I know. Think we all are. But you’ve got reason. And that’s why you’ve gotta talk to me,” Honeydew squeezed his friend tighter. “Or at least eat properly, christ.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’ve decided, gotta pick myself up a bit.” The words were slightly absent. Something must have happened, but Xephos didn't elaborate on what it was.
“Well I'm not helping anyone wasting away up here, much less myself.” Xephos shivered. “It's fucking lonely when you don't talk to anyone, turns out.”
They shared a weak chuckle and a smile. Squeezing Honeydew somehow tighter, Xephos rested his face atop his head, nose poking oddly at the crown of Honeydew’s skull. “Love you, friend,” he said, muffled.
“I love you too, Xephy. But what's brought this on?”
“I just - nothing. Everything has its breaking point, I guess.”
It certainly does , Honeydew thought, memory of the dreary figure crying on the bed rising unbidden. Israphel’s words returned to him, and sank teeth into his heart.
“You ain’t him,” he insisted, still more into Xephos’ front than anything else. “You ain’t Israphel. Yer much more. Yer kind and sweet and an idiot, and -”
“It’s okay, friend,” Xephos chuckled. “I don’t need an ego boost. I know. I know, okay?”
He wasn’t sure that Xeph did know. Maybe this was just the time it had taken, a complex puzzle only possible to slot together in one's own mind, and therefore a burden all Xephos’ own. Without being told Honeydew couldn’t begin to guess at all the pieces. It niggled in the back of his mind for a moment; then he dismissed it. All would no doubt reveal itself in its own time.
“You promise me?” he said, sitting back on his haunches to catch his friend’s gaze, a single watery blue eye. “You promise me you ain’t gonna waste away anymore?”
“Didn’t I already say that? Yes. I promise.”
“And no more drinkin’.”
At this, Xephos did hesitate. “ Less drinking.”
“Hmph. Fine. Less drinkin’.” Honeydew scowled. “And more sleep if you can.”
“I’ll try.” A cheeky grin spread across Xephos’ cheeks, so familiar and so absent as of late that it made Honeydew blush. “Only if I dream of you,” he teased.
“Oh, I have missed you,” Honeydew said, and didn’t care if he sounded like a prat - his friend certainly didn’t seem to mind.
The flood receded. Neither Xephos or Honeydew were inclined to pretend to be happy about things – they weren’t – but they started to joke again. To talk. Xephos spent his days reading, walking, writing. He spent his nights with his gin, but never in the amounts he had drunk before, and when Honeydew inevitably appeared, he didn’t argue. Their dialogue became scripted in its repetition, a soothing mantra; they consequently lost sight of what the words even meant.
“Hey,” Xephos said, one such night when he had not indulged very much. “We should go on a trip. Just us.”
“Ooh, thought you'd never ask. Where are you thinkin’?”
“Well,” his smile became lopsided, halfway to daring. “The Yogcave was what I had in mind.”
Honeydew chewed at the inside of his cheek.
“We don't have to!” Waving his hands in awkward conciliation, he shook his head. “It was just an idea. If you were up for it. Instead we can -”
“No,” Honeydew mused. “That sounds kinda nice. We can take some bedrolls ‘n shit. Might wanna keep a couple swords handy in case o’ creepers, but… yeah. Why not?”
“Alright. Nice.” Xephos’ voice was carefully light but the smile on his face gave away his relief. Not for Honeydew to question the things that Xeph considered important, be they gin or trips to abandoned houses, so he patted his friend on the back and studied the moon waxing outside through the window.
They set off at the crack of dawn, when the skies were still deep ocean blue and cloudless, sun teasing its fingers at the edge of the horizon. Both Honeydew and Xephos had filled their trusty travel bags with all they could possibly need, bedrolls strapped to the top. Daisy pressed a few fresh bread buns into Honeydew’s waiting arms.
“For the journey. You stay safe now, boys.”
“Yes mum ,” Honeydew deadpanned, grinning. “Will do.”
According to experience, the journey would take a day on foot. This was, perhaps, an overshot - the last time they had walked it they'd been helping KP along the whole while. Between two hale adventurers they could no doubt make it by late afternoon. Danger ought not to be a great concern, but they were prepared for any eventuality, Honeydew wielding his trusty axe - the very same that had executed Israphel. Curiously, Xephos was carrying both his sword and a hunting bow. He was perfectly proficient with both, of course, but as Honeydew had pointed out, a bow was not such a great weapon for someone with limited depth perception. Xephos seemed to think ‘he could handle it’.
Walking past the fountains out to the town entrance sparked an old nostalgia in Honeydew’s gut. It seemed that Father Braeburn ought to appear from nowhere singing in his strange warbling tone, Lysander spouting facts as Peculier hung from one arm and seemed less than interested in the trivia, a whole adventure waiting expectantly at their feet. Instead he had the fresh tang of morning air prodding at his nose, Xephos stoic beside him. As if he would ever be anywhere else.
They skirted out of the front gate and located the remains of the path out of town. It was cobblestone, worn and damaged, covered in dirt such that the grey tops of them just poked through the prevailing brown.
“It’s just straight ahead anyway,” Xephos said, doubtfully. “And KP gave me a map.”
“I think I’ve jus’ about had it with maps, but if we gotta…”
With a shrug Xephos started walking in his lolloping stride. Every single step of his required at least two from Honeydew, who cursed his diminutive figure, and yanked at the hem of the red coat threatening to vastly outpace him.
“Mind slowin’ down a bit? Me dwarven legs can’t keep up.”
“Oh, sorry, friend.” Xephos obligingly slowed down. “How’s that?”
“Much better, thank you. Yer like a Great Dane or somethin’.”
“What’s a Great Dane?” With a shift of his backpack, Xephos tilted his head, the little tic that meant he was probing his memory or wrestling with a problem.
“Oh. It’s a type o’ dog. Big as anythin’, with long legs.” The tilted head gazed down to catch Honeydew’s eye, and compounded the image of a confused dog so perfectly that he had to bite down a laugh. “Yeah. They’re pretty great.”
“Thanks, I think.”
Once the animal comparisons started they didn’t stop, Honeydew babbling on as Xeph listened obediently, neither paying much attention to the road. So long as creepers kept their distance it was safe; for once the green bastards eyed up the heroes and decided not to take their chances. Maybe it was the diamond sword poking out from Xeph’s belt. He didn't know if they were clever enough to recognise weaponry.
At midday Honeydew fished about in his pack for the breadrolls, taking one for himself and offering the other to Xeph. He broke the roll into two crumbling halves; it was excellent, of course, and pleasant to watch the countryside go by as he chewed on his meal. Once Mistral was a dot of civilization in the distance they enjoyed the company of the rolling hills, wildflower meadows and open plains, oak and birch trees dotting the grassland. Clutches of young saplings were battling for the snatches of sunlight that filtered through the tree branches.
It was, Honeydew realised, summer. Early summer. Seasons were long and the weather temperate in their corner of the world, but he still recognised the healthy flush of wildlife in its prime.
“Gorgeous out, ain’t it?” he said, around a mouthful of bread that flattened the ‘s’ into a lisp. “Real lively.”
“If by lively you mean swarming with bloody flies, then yes, I suppose so.” Xephos batted at a wasp with a scowl, caring little for its aggravated buzz in response.
“That’s just yer human blood.” To his memory, Honeydew had never been bothered by many insects. It was something he’d read about, once, somewhere, something about smells and hormones and shit. In retrospect, it had probably been pretty unscientific, but if he could pretend to be knowledgeable on a topic then that was a boon. “It’s got a better scent, I think, and tastes nicer to them. Dwarves ain’t as susceptible.”
Xephos affixed him with an unreadable look. “Well,” he started, in a dry tone that he hadn’t employed in quite some time. “First off, wasps don’t suck blood, so that’s irrelevant here. Secondly, I’m pretty sure that insects use CO2 to find food, so that’s absolutely applicable to all humanoids, including dwarves. Unless you guys have funky breathing apparatus, which would be news to me.”
Damn it. “Shut up with all your science shit,” Honeydew huffed. “I read it somewhere, okay?”
“Then it was wrong.”
“God, yer no fun.” They walked a few more paces. “What is CO2?”
“Carbon dioxide.” Xephos said, as if that explained anything.
“Uh, okay. Ta. Still don’t get bothered by ‘em.”
Falling into their natural bickering, the walking became mechanical, and they settled into an old rhythm. In the later hours of the afternoon a deer flitted through the trees and startled Honeydew half witless. Xephos, sharp as flint, drew his bow in a fraction of a moment and had an arrow through its head before it had run a hundred yards.
“Do not remember you bein’ that quick on the draw,” Honeydew muttered, still shaken. He used his hunting knife to carve out the choice selections of meat from the kill, pulling the remainder out into the trees to decompose naturally.
“I’d been watching it,” Xephos said, cryptically. “Now, come on. We don’t have a lot of daylight left, friend.”
Emerging from the plains, they reached the broken bridge, still half submerged in the river. It had thawed since their last crossing; thankfully, the waters were still, and it took only a minor effort to clamber from section to section, worn stone peeking out in the dusk light. At the first sight of the pyramid the silence they had lapsed into grew thick; the bare bones of the rotting Celaeno still littered the beach. A weathered chest was still perched atop the wood. Tentative, Xephos unhooked the latch, only to fall back as sand poured out.
“This is fucking weird,” Honeydew mumbled.
In the half-light of twilight the whole area was both intimately familiar and intensely strange. Shadows obscured the landscape he had known so well, and yet it was still their old home, regardless of the distance of time. Perhaps he hadn’t realised just how long it had been , when it felt both like yesterday and a million years ago. Judging by the lost expression his friend was wearing, the feeling was shared. And there - the eyepatch, ever the reminder. Half-consciously he reached to the faint scar over his own eye, then to the faded marks obscured by his tunic.
“We should get into the cave if we don’t want to get caught out by something,” Xephos said, distantly.
“If it ain’t overrun already.”
While the disoriented aspect of Xephos’ face did not shift, he managed a concerned scowl. “We’ve slept in worse,” he replied, visibly aware of the fact that they had acclimated to their bed.
The passage by the destroyed portal was longer than Honeydew remembered, and pitch black, torches long since burned out. Lighting them all with his flint and tinder was an obvious waste of time, even to him, and so they fumbled through the dark towards the slightly-less-dark of the Yogcave. It presented itself to them in a wild landscape of gaping crevices, water crashing down from an interrupted stream.
Orange light flickered into life as Xephos produced a torch, holding it in front of him as a meagre guide.
“Wouldn’ have hurt to do that five minutes ago,” Honeydew grumbled.
“Sorry,” Xephos said. “I was distracted.”
It hadn’t exactly occurred to Honeydew to do it either, so he let it go, choosing instead to clamber the short distance up to the only surviving floorboards of their house. Moss had started a half-assed war against the wood, and the old staircase still wound up (terribly, it was fucking terrible even now) into nothing. Chests sat crooked in corners and their furnaces were blackened with use. The waterfall spattered against the edge of the room as if it were a feature. Really, it was an absolute mess.
Honeydew snuffled pathetically into his knuckles as Xephos tucked the torch into a suitable corner, casting a nostalgic silhouette in his vibrant red.
“Fuck me, I missed this shithole.” Cruel words had never been spoken with such loving conviction; Honeydew patted the walls with the comfort of a good friend. “Good ol’ Yogcave. Ye didn’t deserve what ye got.”
“Do you think we’re safe enough in here?” Xephos asked, peering into the chasms around them. Any rocks that had been dislodged by the TNT would have fallen by now, sure, but monsters thrived in the dingy and the discreet.
“With a torch…” A quick assessment of the surroundings suggested a definite difficulty for anything with less that half a brain in getting in. Honeydew confessedly knew that he was not far from this category. “Yeah, we’ll be alright. Can’t see zombies gettin’ in here if we cover up that staircase. Maybe skeletons would give it a pop… but nah. Ain’t been anything for them here in a long time.”
“Fair enough,” Xephos conceded, and started up one of their old furnaces. It spat out a mouthful of ancient soot before accepting the offering of coal, chuntering away happily enough, until the cave was rich with the scent of freshly cooked meat. In the meanwhile Honeydew threw a tarp over the top of the stairway and rolled out their beds.
It was rather nice.
“It’s rather nice, this,” he said, once they were huddled close together in their bedrolls, listening to the lolling rush of water nearby. “Bein’ out and about again.”
“Thought you’d like it,” Xeph chuckled. “Kinda owed you at least this much, friend. Although, yeah. It is nice.” He fell quiet, disconcerted. “I didn’t realise how much I missed it out here.”
“We put our heart n’ souls into it. ‘S no wonder.” Shuffling closer towards his friend, Honeydew gave a suggestive wiggle, and grinned when the desired arms reached out and pulled him close. “I mean, it wasn’t a mansion.”
“It was, as you said, a shithole.” Xephos’ laughter breathed hot against Honeydew’s ear. “Our shithole. We had a lot of fun.”
At that, they lapsed into silence, both wrapped up in separate thoughts.
‘What do you think would’ve happened if we’d never left the cave?” came Xephos’ eventual question, wondering and a touch hesitant. “I think about that from time to time. Bugger if I know the actual answer, I just -”
“- it’s interestin' to think about, I get ye.”
“What do you think?”
“Oof, yeesh.” Worrying at his lip, Honeydew took only a cursory moment to produce a response. “Gee, I dunno, Xeph. Probably would’ve gotten it lookin’ cozy, maybe started a little farm or somethin’. Maybe coulda visited Terrorvale to pick up shit we couldn’t make ourselves. Real domestic.”
“Real domestic sounds just fine to me, pal.”
It sounded pretty good to Honeydew too. Even once they had ceased chatter and started to drift off on their strange sleepover, he mentally flicked through their nonexistent life like the pages of a catalogue, the fishing trips and the home decor, settling in and building things from the ground up. It was good, lovely, even, but it failed to satisfy the itch of adventure that he’d craved when they first set forth years ago, and failed to satisfy the tension under his skin that still refused to shift.
He opened his eyes and in his darkness he could still see the spot where Israphel had first teased them with arrows and then flitted away. Back then, they hadn’t known who the bastard was, nor why he had taken such an interest. In fact, they hadn’t actually known the answer to the latter until recently. Israphel had no doubt been concerned about the sudden appearance of his old doppelganger.
Over in the distance, out of sight but certainly there, rested the pyramid. The memory of reincarnating for the first time sat strong, seeing Xeph cry miserably, head in hands, by the edge of the lava. Then, of course, the blind shock when Honeydew was right there behind him.
It was pretty funny, in retrospect. It hadn’t been at the time.
By the time they set off for Mistral a few days later, Honeydew was still half-submerged in recollection. In an ironic twist of fate, it was Xephos who couldn’t get a word out of him the whole journey, and subsequently settled into an entertainingly hypocritical huff about it.
Am I a bad person for wantin’ more? Honeydew pondered.
Probably yes, the universe seemingly replied one night.
There was a thump in the lounge.
Honeydew’s back immediately stiffened in response. He’d just come down for a glass of milk in the early morning, awoken by his natural body clock, now synced up with Xephos’ habits, although that night he’d extracted himself from a tangle of limbs. Jesus, if they were getting burgled, he would never wish for excitement ever again in his foolish dwarven life.
Fuckingfuckfuckshitfuck , Honeydew thought, trying to settle his cup down noiselessly, fumbling for the tabletop in the dark. The door to the front room was halfway ajar and he ducked behind it, blessing his tiny stature and socked feet in as many languages as he knew. Which was two.
Daring starting a slow course through his veins, he edged closer to the gap and peered in, eyes straining. The front door was open; light from the few working outdoor streetlamps offered a traitorous glow. And, sure enough -
- somebody was in there.
What initially appeared to be a trick of the lowlight resolved into a caped figure, supplanted by the image of a bat in Honeydew’s overactive mind. Black folded itself around them in heavy drapes. They were facing away from him, hands stuffed into one of the shared drawers, rooting around and peering at papers. A hood obscured anything of their head, and they had slung a messenger bag over their shoulder.
A definite zeal took root in Honeydew’s gut. Who the hell did this bastard think they were, coming into their house, looking through their shit - he managed to just squeeze through the gap in the door and hide behind the sofa, which was daunting red in the dark. His heart was hammering in a steady drum.
The figure did not notice.
An idea that he should yell for help briefly skittered through his mind and was dismissed. No time - the moment that the intruder knew they had been discovered they would be out the door, long before anyone else could wake up and make their way down the stairs. Just this once it would have been useful to have Xeph up. Historically he’d been a good soundboard for ideas, although KP was the one who came up with the best plans and - ah, fuck it.
Bent further down, the figure had moved onto the second drawer, having found nothing of interest in the first. Tiptoeing as best he could, Honeydew crossed the distance between them on the roughshod carpet, bounced on the balls of his feet, and launched himself at their shoulders with arms out in tremulous hug.
Somehow, his stubby fingers caught the front of their cape and sent them sprawling. Their attempt to stand and unhook his grasp overbalanced them both, stumbling in an unfortunate arc sidewards, both toppling to the ground in a disorganised tangle. Confusion had afforded Honeydew the upper hand; he promptly sat on them and grabbed one shoulder, twisting it towards him.
“Let’s see have a look at you, you bastard - “
It was Israphel.
A sharp hysterical yelp forced itself from his lips and he wheeled back. Only it wasn’t Israphel - the face that leered up at him was a mask, eyes scorched red, mouth pulled into a permanent scowl, all else a shimmering white. The only humanity revealed was a few locks of deepest brown that had escaped from beneath the hood and fallen over the tip of the mask. Never had Honeydew encountered such a thing, but it was easy enough to assume that they were a cultist. Mother fucker.
Taking the opportunity provided, said cultist bucked against Honeydew’s weight and freed one arm, shoving him backwards and directly into the corner of the drawer with a hefty clunk . Pain exploded from the concentrated contact point and he swore, hands reaching instinctively for the injury, distracted from the shuffle of body as the cultist broke out from his hold and reached desperately for a hold on the doorframe. Much as Honeydew attempted to regain clutch of the cape, it was fruitless; they were gone, running out into the maze of Mistral, swallowed by the night.
Still massaging the trickle of ache that flared at the back of his skull, Honeydew stood helpless in the doorway. His throat felt tight in his shock. For months he’d been rankling on the mundanity of life, doing as he was told, working hard and trying to ignore how greatly he missed the thrill of the adventure. In that time he’d forgotten the looming horror of threat . It had been so long since they had faced the actual end of the bloody world that he couldn’t quite believe it’d even been real, and his worry over Xeph had shrunk the great blaze of crisis to the halo of one personal flame. And now, after so long, the danger had delivered itself right back to their door.
He wasn’t smart enough to guess precisely what it meant, besides one obvious truth: it wasn’t over.
It wasn’t over yet.
Lost in his musings, Honeydew missed the loud clatter of footsteps on the stairs and the kitchen door swinging fully open, almost smacking into the wall.
“Dew?” Xephos asked, approaching from behind him. His voice was rough and half-aware, nervous. “Dew, what happened?”
“He’s back,” Honeydew said, hands gripping the door far too tightly out of fear, excitement, and he was mildly ashamed that it was both.
“Who’s back? What are you doing? I heard noises -” A hand found Honeydew’s shoulder and turned him around, the other tilting his head upwards to meet Xephos’ one eyed gaze, all concern. “What happened?”
“Israphel.” Even the name made Xephos flinch, and frown.
“That’s impossible,” Xephos insisted. “He’s dead. Besides, besides me.”
Honeydew did not respond. His eyes had picked something out in the dark, and for all Xephos repeated his questions, cast in the faint light from outside, Honeydew’s attention favoured his discovery. A messenger bag sat crumpled a few feet away; he broke out of Xephos’ grip and snatched it up in triumph.
“Wake up KP and Daisy,” he crowed, making his way to the kitchen. “We have some investigatin’ to do.”
Chapter 6: Rebirth
An old tomb of occultism stands waiting for them in the brash.
Upon finding that the matter was perhaps not totally urgent, Xephos allowed their housemates some more time to rest. Honeydew slumped impatiently at the table and stared at the bag, which he had yet to open. Doing so with others seemed more - significant, in its way. He watched as Xephos started to pull a bottle of gin from below a counter and then guiltily shoved it back, opting instead for boiling water in the ancient rusted kettle they had found and sanitised. Frankly, Honeydew would hardly have minded a little tipple himself, but he didn’t pursue it.
“He ain’t actually back ,” Honeydew clarified, observing the shake of his friend’s hands. “Got overexcited. Sorry. I mean, he might be, but I wouldn’ be able to tell ye either way.”
The kettle came to a boil and Xephos extinguished the flame beneath it, pouring the boiling water into a teapot. It had a chipped spout, and, lacking a proper sock, they had taken to putting the tea leaves into a makeshift cloth sack that was just porous enough to make a decent brew.
“What did you mean by that, friend?” Xeph sounded injured. “Not really your sense of humour to joke about that kind of thing.”
“Nah. It wasn’t a joke. Jus’ - get us some tea and I’ll explain.”
A comfortable silence settled as the pot brewed and two mugs were filled, one passed across the table, the other nestled tight within Xephos’ grasp. “Go on then,” he urged, sitting with his back flush to the chair. “Give me the story.”
Managing to keep his embellishments to the minimum (hard, for the dwarven way was to exaggerate) Honeydew told all. Xephos listened with his head tilted, brow furrowed, one hand holding his cheek, the other at his drink. When the brief story reached the uncovering of the mask he balked.
“A mask,” he reiterated, expression grave. “A mask of Israphel’s face?”
“Very stylised, but yeah. The pale bastard himself.”
“Right. Fuck, okay. And then…?”
“They took their chance as I was freakin’ out and acquainted me head with the edge of the drawer.” Honeydew scowled. “Got outta my grip and they were off, into the night. Had half a mind to follow but - nah, no use.”
“His cult. I didn't even think.” Xephos chuckled, then laughed, hands covering his face, until the sound of it was sodden. “Scared the life out of me, friend.”
“Yeah. Really wasn't thinkin’.”
Excitement was still sitting hot in his stomach, immune to any level of sensibility. He could pretend it was anything else that had gotten him speaking so foolishly; it wouldn't be true. He wanted this. But when he observed the discreet attempts Xephos was making at dabbing his eye free from tears, it cast enough of a shadow of doubt that the feeling abated a touch.
“Talk to me,” Honeydew said.
Fingers circling his right temple, Xephos took a constitutional breath and frowned, eye creasing at the corner. It was odd to watch the other attempt the same.
“God,” he started, then stalled, already choked. “It's. It's just -”
It didn't surprise Honeydew that his immediate reaction would not be jumping for joy. And yet.
“I thought it was over,” Xephos murmured. “It was supposed to be over .”
It was a night amidst a dozen others, but Honeydew still remembered it, when he dared to ask ‘do you ever miss it?’ and the pause had dragged so far that a spoken answer was unnecessary. There was no reason that Xeph would ever want to adventure again. Of all of them, besides perhaps KP, he had lost the most. The eye, most obviously, but also something of himself, something equally irretrievable. Selfish, for Honeydew to glorify the past when it had caused so much harm.
“We don' have to pursue it,” Honeydew replied, although the words were lead in his mouth. “We don’ have to think about any of it ever again."
Xephos snorted. “That's not true and you know it.”
“I'm dead serious, Xeph.”
“As am I, Honeydew. If we're in danger then we have to respond to the threat, like it or not.” Another laugh. “As for not thinking about it - I promise I'll tell you when I find a way of doing so if you promise the same.”
“Alright, you dour bastard.”
A solid thump from above elicited a jump from both of them, Honeydew’s pulse regaining its flighty hammering, Xephos an inch away from knocking his tea off the table. In breathless silence they listened to the pad of feet from the far bedroom to the bathroom, the creak of the door, and the gurgling of the drains as they rattled about the house. Then the door creaked once more, the footsteps retraced their path, and they heard nothing but the wind outside.
After a second, Honeydew caught Xephos’ wide gaze. “God. Look at us,” he snorted. “Pair of paranoid buggers.”
“I would say we have earned that right.”
“Ay, maybe so.”
“You can go back to bed for a bit, if you want.” Hands innocently pointed away from the cupboard, Xephos gave a gracious smile. It was patently manipulative. Goodness only knew how he’d ever manage to lie under pressure.
Deciding not to call him out on it, Honeydew just shook his head. “Ah, ‘s almost dawn anyways. Give ‘em another half hour.”
Looking out into the pitch dark of the outside, Xephos frowned. “And how do you know that?”
“Dwarven sense. We live underground so much that we have a natural sense for time, y’know. Helps us regulate our sleepin’.”
“Is that one of your ‘very true facts’, friend?”
“It is.” Honeydew coughed. “But there’s also a clock behind yer head.”
In a small arc, Xephos turned to observe the very existent clock, then kneaded at his forehead. “I mean. I knew that was there. Shut up. I’m tired.”
“Sure.” Sometimes, Honeydew wondered if he wasn’t smart one.
By the time they had gotten Daisy and Peculier awake and dressed, the sun was already rising and lilting soft light through the kitchen window, trailing along the floor, and revealing the rich leather of the bag sitting on the table. They were clustered around it, story told once more. Peculier chewed at his lip throughout; he asked after details of the cultist, and didn’t attempt to hide his concern at Honeydew's lack of identifiable description, should they wish to capture the intruder. Daisy, meanwhile, employed a fantastic poker face which was so carefully blank that it could only have been practised.
All that being said, they turned to the bag.
It was made primarily of leather, belts and buckles a worn silver, insides lined with sheep pelt. The stitching was unusually precise. Valuable, then - a personal heirloom, or a decent spend. Whoever that cultist had been, they would be missing it.
“Shall we just - tip em out?” Honeydew asked.
“By all means,” Peculier said. “Carefully, mind.”
Honeydew took the bottom of the bag and tilted it. A small collection of items slithered out onto the table, and he looked them over one by one.
First, a compass. It was cheaply constructed, silver sheen mostly worn down to a dull steel, and the letters engraved on the back were impossible to parse, just streaks without coherence. Its red hand spun wildly until it pointed true North and settled obediently. It was, perhaps, better made than the crappy things that they had thrown together on their travels, but then they weren’t blacksmiths by any measure. Nothing special - he handed it to Xephos, who slipped it into his pocket.
Second was a letter, which Peculier had been reading with furrowed brow. The reason why became immediately clear - it was coded. “Gibberish,” he grumbled. “Unless one of us can decode it.”
Honeydew just laughed. “Fat flippin’ chance.”
Peculier deflated. “Well, quite.”
“We could give it to Lysander.” Peeking over Peculier’s shoulder, Daisy mouthed the random collection of letters, although it afforded them no more sense. “He’s the cleverest. Or the most educated, at least.”
They set it aside on a chair.
For all Honeydew had built it up in his imagination, the bag was turning out to be fantastically dull. There were a few safety pins that had rusted beyond use, a half-full water skin, two old biscuits and a quill. The third item of any real note was a silver comb. It had three hairs poking out of it, thin and swirling tauntingly around the teeth of the comb. All it really told them was that the owner had dark curly hair - which Honeydew already knew. He was starting to give up all hope of uncovering anything worthwhile when the best find yet fell into Xephos’ hands.
“A map,” Xephos said, flatly.
He unfurled it to its full size, dog eared edges curling over the table edge. Even from first glance it plainly depicted Mistral city and the surrounding forest. Several landmarks had been perforated by pins; the scrawling font of cursive named a few. Most obvious was a location in the forest that was circled twice in red.
Temple , it read.
“At least we know we ain't up against a genius,” Honeydew chuckled.
“Yeah, no shit.” Annoyance and amusement warred on Xephos’ face. “Somebody didn't think they'd get caught.”
Leaning over to see the marking, Daisy hummed a private tune. “We have to go check it out.”
“Yes, I suppose we do,” Peculier muttered.
Without thinking, Honeydew looked to Xephos. His expression sat at ‘openly resigned’; he caught Honeydew’s concerned gaze and shrugged, small smile playing at his mouth. Nothing for it , it said.
“How far away is it, d’you reckon? Travel-wise.” Honeydew couldn't read maps at the best of times, much less judge distance. It would have been fine if Xeph were any better, which he wasn't.
With a squint Daisy found the conversion rate and tapped her chin. “Hm. Not… that far, actually. Five hours on foot.”
“Ah, that's not so bad. But if we're going to be away, we ought to warn Lysander.” Peculier took another glance over the table. “It would be rude to disappear without a word.”
Honeydew repacked the bag, although the map defied all his attempts to fold it as it has originally been found.
“C’mon then,” he muttered. “Ain't gonna waste time if we can help it.
Bag slung over one shoulder, Honeydew hurried through the streets of Mistral, Xephos clinging to his hand. In the dawn light the improvements to the town were obvious - all the blackened spines were gone, houses half-built, few as they were. God knew it could take a year or more yet, but it was a far cry from the husk it had been.
The Skylord airship was nestled in the hills, where it was now sinking comfortably into a groove - it would need sailing soon, if Lysander didn’t want the damn thing to adhere completely to the surrounding terrain. A few minutes and they had all clambered on deck. Jasper’s presence was so immediately obvious that it took Honeydew aback; there was a collective wince at the pure saturation of decoration that covered the outer walls and the mast, mostly in the form of ribbons.
“C’mon,” Honeydew muttered, and rapped smartly on the Captain’s quarters door. The thick oak muffled his effort somewhat, enough that he had to repeat the motion a minute later, and was holding his fist up to the door a third time when Lysander appeared.
He was visibly mussed, with a bedhead that stuck up in spikes at the back. He was also not wearing any pyjamas - instead he had wrapped a bedsheet around his waist. Implication barely covered it. Much like the sheet.
“G’morning, gentlemen. Lady. What brings you here at this hour?” He rubbed his eye with the palm of his hand.
“We have news,” Daisy piped up. “But for fuck’s sake, please put some clothes on first, Sandy.”
He looked down and chuckled. “Ah, yes. I will - only be a moment.”
Pivoting sharply on one foot, he disappeared into the Captain’s quarters, not bothering to hide the odd curve of red marks that trailed down his back. Peculier coughed.
“At least he’s open about it?” Xephos said, charitable even where his tone would not comply.
“We all know they’re together,” Daisy sighed. “Really do not require physical evidence.”
Though he did not voice it, Honeydew very much agreed. Did that make him a hypocrite, considering certain old ladies and cakes? Maybe.
He looked over his shoulder at the clutch of people behind him. With a yawn, Daisy leant up against Peculier and received an immediate arm around her shoulder, comforting enough to draw a catlike grin in response. Xeph looked as sleepless as ever - Honeydew nearly felt bad for interrupting the one night where he had been resting properly, but then he could hardly help when they got burgled. Much like Honeydew, Xephos was watching KP and Daisy cuddle with a fond smile. Perhaps a touch of jealousy.
The door swung open once more to reveal a fully dressed but still sleep-rough Lysander. One side of his collar was poking up; Honeydew decided not to mention it. It mercifully covered up the start of the bruising.
“So,” he said, jovial. “Tell me what’s going on. And, uh, try to do it quietly. Jasper is asleep.”
The last sentence was false in its lightness. What, precisely, waking up Jasper would result in was unknown, but the nervous tilt to Lysander’s mouth said easily enough that they would prefer not to find out.
In low voices, they told the story from start to end, pulling out the map to show him the temple. His face underwent quite the journey as the tale progressed - surprise, concern, anger - and settled on worry, brows drawn tight. They even showed him the encrypted note, but he couldn't make head or tail of its mangled letters.
“This is most troubling,” he muttered. “You have to go and find this temple, of course.”
“We shouldn't be too long,” Daisy promised. “We know the town is important to you.”
“Yes, but, by the gods, if we are under threat then we must respond.” Lysander smiled graciously. “Take all the time you need, Heroes. Adventure calls.”
“Thank you. You're a good fellow, Lysander.”
Taking Peculier's words as his leave, Lysander wished them well and disappeared into the bowels of the ship. Honeydew only half-listened to the following discussion about food and travel, mind skipping over the events of the early morning once more. Xephos tried to get his attention as they walked back and achieved nothing. The mask… Never before had they encountered a cultist in disguise, but then they had been men of power, kings or vampires or cutthroat pirates. He'd never considered that Israphel worship could take place among common peasants, although the uprising had brought that to the surface. He had the feeling that they would be seeing those masks far more often.
What did Israphel even offer to these people? He pondered this as Daisy handed him food to put in the messenger bag, a collection of fruit and savory snacks that he registered the weight of and little more. Surely Israphel wouldn't deign to share his powers with the poor and the weak. He threatened their very existence, promising to rain down Armageddon. For the life of him, Honeydew couldn't parse why any bugger would want that.
“Ready to go?” Xephos asked. He'd strapped his old scabbard to his belt, diamond sword secreted within its deceptive leather exterior.
“As I'll ever be,” Honeydew replied, and shoved his own axe through the loop of his tunic.
Map reading was immediately delegated to Daisy, who seemed at least slightly more competent than the rest of them. Without many landmarks, working out their precise location was a nightmare, using Mistral as their sole true point of reference. Between herself and Peculier they kept to a sensible path; it was a pleasant kick of nostalgia for Honeydew to travel alongside the old man again. Another member for the ‘has come back to life and feels kinda weird about it’ club.
Accurately enough, they traveled for around five hours, until the sun was directly overhead and shining white through the branches of the forest. Just as Peculier noted that they ‘might just possibly be lost’ there was a sharp gasp from Daisy.
“Over there!” she said, through a muting hand.
“Well, fuck.” Honeydew caught her line of sight and scratched his head. “That's a temple, alright.”
The temple was large but cleverly discreet amidst the foliage, roof touching the uppermost layer of branches, draped in yellowing curtains of ivy that obscured much of its sandstone walls. What stone could be seen was ornately chipped into decorative panelling. Its roof was sloping, a quartz portico shading the entrance, pillars engulfed in vine. Daisy was first up the steps; she held her ear to the large oak doors and worried her lip as she listened.
“ Nothing ,” she mouthed.
“I still do not think that we should risk it,” Peculier murmured. “Four against a group - they are odds I do not like.”
“There’s gotta be a back entrance, right?” Xephos jabbed a thumb in the direction of the right side of the building. “Worth a look.”
They tried not to crash too conspicuously through the undergrowth that lined the exterior, crushing the bracken underfoot and swearing quietly when a bramble snaked its way around their legs. Sure enough, there was a backdoor - much smaller, nestled into the wall like a mousehole, sat at a slight angle as it swung on its hinge. Being the smallest Honeydew took the initiative and peered in. Nothing, or rather, nobody, was inside. Instead he was met with a stock room of some description.
“ C’mon, ” he whispered, and tiptoed in.
It was a low-ceilinged room, enough that Xephos had to duck his head to fit. All around were empty sackcloths, dustings of flour spilling out over the stone floor, a few apples lying bruised by the door. Two of the walls were lined with shelves that had been cleared of any contents.
Again, Daisy leaned her ear to the door and frowned.
“ Still nothing.”
“Nothing at all?” Peculier replied.
“ Dead silent,” she murmured, and opened the door a crack, just enough to see in. From their limited field of vision no movement was obviously visible; keeping to the walls, they moved into the next room.
It was mercifully much taller, more of a hallway than anything, looming up to the full height of the roof. More doors lining the walls, more empty shelves… the silence that permeated the building was so absolute that Honeydew released some of his nervous breath.
“I think we’re alone,” he said, in a quiet rumble.
“I think you’re right, friend.” Xephos hushed. “Still, we should check.”
“Split up?” Daisy suggested.
A chorus of nods. No discussion was necessary - Daisy and Peculier disappeared into a side room and started to converse in low mutters. That left Honeydew and Xephos to take their own path.
Quite without thinking, he headed towards the panelled double doors that sat at the end of the hallway, presumably towards whatever meeting hall they used; Xephos voiced no complaint and trailed behind, stumbling over the aged flagstone. Without bothering to check for voices within, Honeydew reached up for the high doorknob. It was shaped like a knocker, engraved metal stained black as pitch, and it was uncharitably far above Honeydew’s head.
“Do you want me to get it?” Xephos offered kindly, still in a whisper, watching Honeydew fumble to catch it with the tips of his fingers.
“I’m fine .” At that, he bounced up to tiptoe, grabbed the knocker, and tested it. It swung round to the right; the door opened.
“And so,” Xephos announced. “You have defeated their first puzzle: height.”
“Oh, you’re a right bastard, you know that?”
The bright grin Honeydew received was a resounding yes , enough to make him sigh and shuffle through the gap in the door, leaving Xephos to follow.
It was unexpectedly shadowed, ceiling still metres above them, a ripple of plum curtain falling across their eyeline in a consuming wave. All was cast in a rich purple. Again - silence, and a stale air that made every hair on Honeydew’s neck stand on end, palpable in its enmity. With a precise tread he paced to the edge of the curtain and looked out into the space beyond. He was correct in the guess that it was a hall - it was huge, lined with pillars, and absolutely deserted.
“I reckon we’re good,” he muttered, pushing the fold of fabric aside and ducking under.
They walked to the centre of the room. A red carpet traced a line from the entrance - presumably the one they’d avoided upon arrival - and clambered up a wide set of steps, framing an altar. Unlike the rest of the temple, the altar was composed of nether quartz and polished to a searing sheen. Netherrack blazed unending in iron wrought fire bowls, the only source of light in a windowless cavern. Rows of benches stretched from end to end.
“This is fuckin’ weird.” Tight discomfort had taken hold of Honeydew’s gut; he grabbed Xephos’ hand for a brief moment, feeling his friend squeeze back in response.
“Just a bit,” Xephos replied. “It’s so… empty.”
The only real sign of life was the flickering netherrack and the dirt and dust underfoot, some of which streaked away in the telltale lines of a brush.
“Shall we have a look around?” Xephos asked. “It seems unlikely we’ll find anything, but -”
“Worth a shot.” Honeydew nodded, and started to wander through the pews.
He listened to the regular rush of his breathing for a moment, eyes straining, catching nothing on the ground.
“Um, holy shit.” Xephos was inspecting the sandstone bricks of the walls. “Come look at this.”
Honeydew joined his friend and gawped. Murals lined the walls, prophetic storyboards. Some were unrecognisable, events already passed, featuring people they would never meet. Many heroes met sticky ends. Then - to Honeydew’s surprise - Peculier, recognisable only in his age, tortured by the figure of a looming Israphel. He skipped ahead a few carvings and frowned.
It was undeniably them, tall and short, dwarven and human, wielding their weapons in defiance of a hyperbolically large enemy. Yet these depictions had been vandalised. A chisel had been taken to their faces, so that, instead of minute features, there was nothing but a concave scrape of stone. The same was true of every identical panel within his sights; the only difference was the vehemence with which the destruction had taken place. In some, it was only the faces. On others, the entirety of Xephos had been mangled to an unrecognisable crater. On one the defacer had taken the time and care to intricately chip out the right eye on both of their faces.
Looking up, it appeared that the efforts had stalled up to a certain height. At 6 feet, the work was sloppy; after that the murals were untouched.
“Someone doesn’t like us very much,” Xephos said, placing the tip of a finger into the dip of a once-Honeydew.
More curious was that the murals stopped there. End of the line. No more Israphel - or, nothing more that they knew of. Prophecy wasn’t Honeydew’s strong suit but he knew that it was an inexact science, if it was a science at all. Watching Nubescu mutter over huge cauldrons could have been nothing more than a big show to drag a couple more gold bars out of them. It was impossible to know. He’d totally forgotten what she’d bloody said.
These pictures were accurate, in their way. Just judging by the age of the stone and the wear and tear of time, they must have dated back some years, enough to make it more than present documentation. Shitty to realise that KP’s suffering had been written in stone from the start. Annoying to realise that their success or failure was an unknown.
He took a brief look at the earliest of all the carvings and found it taught him nothing. It was just Israphel emerging from what appeared to be a coffin, long, thin and upright. Not a hint of Xephos about him. God, maybe he was a zombie. A zombie Xeph.
“Anything interesting?” Xephos asked, still fixated on a human-shaped dent in the wall. “Information?”
“Nothin’ we didn’t already know. Israphel was a right dickhead. ‘S about it.”
“Kind of scary. That we were fated to do this.”
Still Xephos observed the gouges in the wall, expression distant. “I didn’t really believe in it much, at first.” He laughed. “I suppose I wanted to believe that we had a choice. Now I’m not so sure.”
“There ain’t any carvings beyond this one,” Honeydew pointed out. “So there ain’t any more prophecy.”
“Just because we don’t know of it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Man, that was a lot of negatives in one sentence…”
“Yer a lot of negative.” At that, Honeydew nudged Xephos, hard. He stumbled and scowled. “What we don’t know ain’t gonna hurt us. So what if we ain’t really got any choice in the matter, if we feel like we do? Blissful ignorance, Xeph.”
“I suppose,” Xephos replied, doubtfully.
“Besides which, we actually bloody won. Most of these buggers didn’t.”
Observing the series of beheadings, burnings, stabbings and shootings, Xephos sobered up. “Mm. Obviously our predecessors weren’t as… invulnerable as we are.”
“Count yer blessings. Look, that one’s being boiled in oil.”
By the time they had winced over two dozen horrible ends, Peculier and Daisy appeared, both empty-handed. Peculier was not shocked at the sight of his own mural, although his mouth drew itself out to the thinnest of lines. The lack of any Daisy carvings offended her more than anything.
“What’s the damn point of getting imprisoned for months on end if you don’t even make it onto the prophecy wall?” she grumbled.
“It sorta is bullshit,” Honeydew concurred.
“But,” Xephos cut across, foot tapping code onto the flagstones. “You didn't find anything?”
A nervous glint sitting heavy in his eye, Peculier nodded. “All empty. Nothing of any value turned up. I should think that this temple has either been out of use or was very hastily evacuated this morning.”
With only a little thought, Honeydew doubted the latter. Unless the cultist had run from their home to the temple in the space of an hour or two, there wouldn't have been the time.
“Guess the cull thinned the numbers,” Daisy said.
“Didn't thin them enough.” When he recieved a collection of surprised looks at the resentful weight of his voice, Xephos coloured and scratched the back of his neck. “Uh. Anyway. We don't really have any leads.”
“Is there anyone we could ask?” In spite of herself, the eager tilt of Daisy's hands betrayed a deep-set curiosity.
“... Adaephon might know something of the temples. If he's still alive.” Peculier grimaced. “Taint is unkind but it did not kill me in all my years.”
A moment of silence fell. Peculier studied the floor, Daisy rocked on her heels, Xephos chewed at the skin of his thumb. Sharp pain sparked from where Honeydew had absentmindedly worried at his lip, and the taste of iron tang sat at the tip of his tongue.
“It's the best we have,” Xephos concluded, gazing into the middle distance.
“Then we should set off immediately.” A familiar resolve took its place on Peculier’s features, and he rested one hand on the arm of his beloved, who looked up and smiled. “To Mistral, for supplies, and then - to Verigan’s hold. I only pray that my uncle still lives.”
sorry this took so goddamn long i been a busy bee
Chapter 7: Archive
Verigan’s Hold - stalwart against the sands, and the home of the answers that they seek.
The hallmark of a past age, when the Templars had taken responsibility for the safety of the common man, before Israphel had scattered them to the winds. It still stood proud by the wall, although the sands had encroached over its battlements and teased with their supremacy. As the Heroes approached, their spirits were diminished by the sight of the Hold in such a state, even if the sand was never to spread.
Honeydew winced at the sight and the sun burning hot over the horizon. They’d slept a few hours back home before resuming their travels; he and Xephos had hit the mattress of their bed and passed out, hard. For once his mind had emptied completely and no nightmares had plagued him, just the soothing black of dreamless sleep. He’d awoken to darkness outside. Xephos had been snoring soundly, face tilted into a damp patch on his pillow, dead to the world.
The Hold seemed like a memory from another life, it had been so long since they’d last seen it. He'd forgotten its majestic spires, the grand stone stairs rising up from the ground, the austere walls that had held out the enemy for so long. Since they had last visited, it had suffered even greater attack from the desert beyond, enough that the battlements frothed over with yellow and their feet crunched through fallen grains.
“This is not promising,” Peculier muttered.
The fountain in the centre of the courtyard spewed no water, its bowl bone-dry. Honeydew ducked to fish out the gold pieces that had been thrown into it and quailed under Daisy’s disapproving glare, yanking his hand back out, only to pocket a dozen coins once she had moved ahead.
Inside, the Hold was cloaked in a thick silence. The air was stale and smelled only of aging must. It reminded Honeydew of Stoneholm, in a way - they shared the same atmosphere of lost days, a community gone without a hint as to where. Time had been cruel to the both of them. It would be good to see the building properly put to use and bustling once more… if they could only find people to join the Templars.
They followed Peculier up the steps to Adaephon’s bedroom, a straggling line of ducklings following an unruffled mother. To the surprise of nobody, the door was already open, inviting them in. Honeydew felt a chill of relief at the sight of Adaephon in his bed, and not a wall of dried blood, limbs akimbo on the floor.
Adaephon was asleep, head lolling on his cushion, previously burnt skin now a dusty grey-brown. The rise and fall of his chest moved in time with his whistling breaths - an unhealthy rattle that emanated from somewhere deeper than his throat. Dust had settled around much of the room. Honeydew swiped a finger across the top of the crafting bench and grimaced at the smudge of grey that coated it.
“‘S a bit bloody mucky in here,” he said, scuffing his shoes at the dirt and sand that had adhered to the floor. “Don’t reckon our good Templar has given this place a clean in a fair while.”
“Probably not,” Peculier replied, grimly. He walked to the side of the bed and shook his uncle’s shoulder. “Uncle. Uncle, wake up.”
It was singularly ineffective. Adaephon gave a jangling snore and rolled onto his side. To Honeydew’s right, Xephos unstoppered a water gourd with a round pop , stalked up to Peculier, and upturned the gourd directly onto Adaephon’s face. Water slopped out in a thick stream. A fair amount landed in the Templar’s open mouth.
Adaephon spluttered and waved his arms in a writhing tangle, bolting upright. Droplets spattered down his face and onto the covers.
“Wh - “ he started, and blinked at the people in his bedroom. “H - wh - again with the water?”
“It worked the first time,” Xephos said, simply, and patted Adaephon on the shoulder. “Good to see you again, Templar.”
“And you, Hero.” He did not sound so sure. By increments the gloss of sleep fell from his eyes and Adaephon recognised his other guests. “Peculier!” He hurried to get up from his reclining position and stumbled, one hand at the headboard, the other at his forehead.
“Careful, uncle.” Peculier provided a steadying grip and allowed Adaephon to rest his weight against his side. “I am glad you are living. I confess, I did not know -”
“I am still wracked with taint,” Adaephon admitted.
That much was clear. Much as Peculier had once been reduced to a pasty pallor and an unnatural level of weakness, the skin about Adaephon’s wrists was tight, and the natural lines of age about his face had deepened. His tan - many years in the making - had faded significantly, although it would never fully disappear.
“I could say the same of you, nephew,” he continued. “And the Heroes. I did not know whether I had seen you for the final time, sending you to the accursed spider tree! But you are all here, and…” His gaze stalled at Honeydew’s scar, then alighted upon Xephos’ eyepatch. “...mostly in one piece.”
He caught sight of Daisy, who had become engrossed in his copy of the Templar’s Codex. “And who is this?” he asked.
“This is the woman we spoke of,” Peculier replied, sheepish. “My - partner. Daisy Duke. Uh, Daisy, this is my Uncle, Adaephon P - Antioch. Adaephon Antioch. The Templar King.”
“A pleasure to meet you,” she said, tucking the codex under one arm and moving to shake his hand.
“Same to you, fair lady. Out of Israphel’s clutches at last.”
“And not a moment too soon,” she chuckled faintly.
None of them had thought to bring a golden apple, so Peculier and Daisy assisted Adaephon downstairs as the Heroes grappled with his old crafting bench and the necessary ingredients. It was a little difficult to perform the alchemy from scratch - sadly, mushing some gold and an apple together was not sufficient for making anything that would actually work - but they eventually produced a golden apple. It wasn’t as lustrous as it could have been, but it would do.
“Ye can see the family resemblance a wee bit,” Honeydew said, watching as Xephos held the apple to the light, brow furrowed. “Now that Adaephon ain’t burnt to high heaven.”
“Just goes to show what living by the desert can do.” Xephos shrugged. “I preferred him before, though. He looks sick as a dog.”
“Well - yeah. It’s just not a good look.”
“You ever wonder why we didn’t get sick?” Ignoring the mystery illness following the fight, of course. Honeydew had pushed that out of his mind, for the most part. It didn’t fit the usual M.O. “Tainted, that is. We were around the buggerin’ sands enough.”
“I mean, we weren’t there that much, friend. Templar Adaephon has spent years right next to the desert. Our exposure wasn’t nearly so severe.”
“KP, though? He didn’t spend decades ‘round here, did he?”
Polishing the apple with the hem of his jacket (a bad idea, as it was definitely in need of a wash), Xephos nibbled on his lip. “Maybe we are a bit tainted. Just not enough to notice. In fact - no, I definitely am.”
“Oh.” Honeydew blinked. “Ye are?”
In a smooth motion, Xephos raised a sleeve. “Feel my forearm,” he said.
Despite a hundred immediate misgivings, Honeydew did so. It was a little tougher than usual. The skin flaked under the pad of his finger. Almost like a rash, without any of the discolouration.
“That could jus’ be allergies,” Honeydew scoffed.
“I asked Peculier. It isn’t.” And with that, Xephos took a bite of the apple.
“That’s fer Adaephon!”
“He won’t need all of it.” Again, Xephos brandished his arm, where a soft illumination was bubbling below his skin. “And that was more than enough. Seemed stupid to waste a whole apple on something so small.”
Be it taint or something else, at least the cure had worked. It was something that had always bothered Honeydew deeply, the varying symptoms that every sufferer had displayed, and he had frequently puzzled over what the sickness of the sands would do to him, given a proper chance. Not explode, like Baako. He shuddered at the memory. No matter how often his friends mocked his weak stomach, that upheaval of dinner was most certainly justified.
Extinguishing the torches as they went, Xephos and Honeydew descended the stairs and met the rest of the group at the table, where Daisy and Peculier had been filling Adaephon in on what he had missed. Apparently Adaephon had attempted to clear the Hold, only to have fallen ill once more, and, exhausted from his work, hadn’t had the energy to fend off his sickness. How he had thought himself capable of shifting the metric shitton of sand, Honeydew couldn’t fathom, especially when the baking heat of the sun bore down most hours of the day.
“I felt it when Israphel was defeated,” Adaephon said, around a mouthful of apple. “Over time, Templars became attuned to the presence of evil. Even weakened as I was those months ago, the shift was dramatic, and for a moment I breathed as though with new lungs.” He took another bite. A glow shifted subtly beneath his skin. “I had it in mind to travel out and find you, but the Hold was in an even worse state, if you can believe it. And then a month ago - well, you can surmise what happened.”
“You should have sent us a letter,” Peculier said. “To let us know you were ill.”
“I wouldn’t have known where to send it, nephew.” In a move that made Honeydew shudder, Adaephon ate the core of the apple in one bite, leaving only a shimmering stalk pinched between thumb and forefinger. He paused to chew, and nodded. “I had accepted my fate. Perhaps I do not look it, but I am old, and I thought that it may be time to pass on the mantle…”
“Not yet, Templar,” Daisy butted in. “I think Peculier and I would like some time to relax before he takes on that kind of responsibility.”
“Quite right.” Adaephon chuckled. “Well, you came here for a reason. What did you want to ask?”
Daisy described the temple in some detail. “We wanted to know if you'd heard of any others,”
“Temples… I only know of them in passing. They are mentioned in a few of my books.” Turning to the Heroes, Adaephon gestured in the vague direction of the stairs. “You remember the archives? If there’s any information to be found, it will be there.”
Indeed Honeydew did. The memory had blurred with the sheer excess of excitement that had followed, but he recalled the warmth of a day by the desert, pressed to Xephos’ side as Adaephon read his story aloud, voice rich enough to evoke a fantastical montage in his mind. The Tale of the Sands , he had called it.
“We can go and look, if you think that’d be helpful.” Xephos caught Honeydew’s eye. “I dunno if you guys wanted to do anything else, while we’re here.”
“I would kinda like to catch up with my sort-of-uncle,” Daisy admitted.
“And I would like to get him looking marginally healthier,” Peculier added, tapping on the table. “Like it or not.”
With a word of warning about the state that the archives might be in, Adaephon gave them some general directions and a nervous smile, aware of the probing conversation he was about to be subjected to. Honeydew hot-footed it out of there, taking the steps two at a time.
“Hang on, hang on, slow down!” For all his legs were lanky sticks, Xephos struggled to keep up. “Wait for me!”
Heat from the morning sun beat into their skin as they emerged on the roof. Wading through the slurry of sand, they found the archives, door only halfway visible behind the invading sea of yellow.
“Uh, shit.” Xephos scratched at the back of his head. “You got a shovel?”
The door knob was just reachable; Xephos clambered up the miniature dune and stooped to turn it. He then promptly disappeared in a disorganised whirl of limbs as the mound he stood on gave way, spilling out onto the archive floorboards, thankfully just shy of the aging red carpet sitting askew in the middle of the room.
“Yer a right genius, ye know that?” Honeydew clambered in after his friend and shook his head at the mess. “What did ye think was gonna happen?”
“This, just about,” Xephos grumbled, picking himself up and dusting himself off. “We shouldn’t be wasting time.”
Besides an extra layer or two of dust, their surroundings were mostly unchanged from their last visit. Bookshelves, stacked to the point of bulging downwards with the weight, rose up to the height of Honeydew’s head. A few books were lying around with their pages on display. The nearest, balanced against a precarious stack, displayed a list of POTENTIAL SYMPTOMS FOR TAINT, every word in capitals and in the shakiest hand Honeydew had seen since Enoch’s maddened scribbles. No prizes for guessing why that was in plain view.
As far as he could tell, there was no particular ordering to the shelves. A collection of Templar Codexes huddled together in the far left corner, and a cluster of thick red historical annals had for the most part been put together in year order, although a couple had started to explore the other shelves.
“The hell do we even start?” Honeydew wondered.
“Uh… you take the left side, I’ll take the right… and I suppose we just work through them.” Xephos grimaced. “Hopefully we can work out which books might be relevant just based on the contents or something.”
“That’s gonna take all day!”
“Maybe.” Xephos ducked down and pulled the first item off the shelf, a slender volume bound in black leather. “Who knows, maybe it’ll even be interesting.”
“The hell did you get so peppy about readin’?” In spite of his grumbling, Honeydew mirrored Xephos’ actions and started yanking books out. It was harder than it looked - they had been wedged together so tightly that removing one almost sent the whole shelf flying. “Buggering hell.”
“When you called me illiterate,” Xephos replied, distractedly.
“Let it go, Xeph.”
In a bid to be unhelpful, many of the covers had no titles, just warping leather stained in varying crimsons, browns and blues. Honeydew opened the first book and turned to the contents page, where it read:
Sword maintenance - polishing, buffing, sharpening
Minor blacksmithing for the eager swordsman
So you stabbed yourself - how to apply medical aid
So you stabbed a friend - post-accident etiquette
Mythical swords and debunking the mysteries
My family sword is haunted??? The hilarious history of ghosts and weaponry
For all some of it seemed potentially entertaining, it was definitely irrelevant. Honeydew tossed it over his shoulder where it landed in a crumpling of pages.
“Honeydew,” Xephos warned. He wasn’t even looking, nose buried between age-curled pages.
“Sorry.” Honeydew retrieved the book, tried to flatten the folds, and shut it with excessive care.
After an hour of searching, the ‘irrelevant’ pile behind Honeydew had grown to towering heights, and not one book had proven itself useful. He’d found volumes on potioneering, illicit spells banned by Verigan, theories on the ancient world, even a children’s book with Property of Karpath scribbled in the front. Most interesting was a disintegrating pamphlet about astrology.
“Apparently I was born under the stars of greatness.”
Xephos scoffed from his corner. He had travelled much farther around the bookcases in the hour than Honeydew had managed. “It’s all crap. You know that, right?”
“Why’s this crap and all the prophecies aint?”
“Prophecies have some relation to real life. Why the hell being born under a star would affect your personality or fate is just… ridiculous. Plus, stars don’t just disappear when they’re not visible. It’s all to do with rotation of the planet, and -”
“ Apparently,” Honeydew cut in, rolling his eyes. “Apparently you are destined to be a visionary.”
“Gee,” Xephos deadpanned. “Thanks.”
It took a moment for the insult to become clear. “Oh.” Honeydew raised a sheepish hand. “Sorry. I didn’t think about that one.”
“No kidding. Is that all?”
“Somethin’ about… here. Destined to be a visionary, to either change the world or be changed by it. Dunno if it means anything seein’ as you’re a spaceman and all, but it’s kinda cool either way.”
“It doesn’t mean anything, period.”
That settled the matter efficiently. Honeydew shoved the pamphlet aside and struggled to extract a book the size of his head. Unlike the others, a title was printed along the side in gold leaf, and the thread binding the pages was not visible against the leather. MISCELLANY OF GENERAL WORLD HISTORY it declared itself to be on the spine.
Hefting it onto the floor, Honeydew carefully peeled over a few wafer-thin pages and scanned the contents. Helpfully, the author had split the chapters by year. Year 0 alluded to something that was only known as ‘The Rebuild’. It piqued his curiosity; Honeydew was about to have a read of the start when the name Israphel caught his eye.
“Might have something,” Honeydew announced, Xephos finally raising his head in response.
Page 1023, year 466CE. Grabbing a fair wedge of the paper, Honeydew found himself near enough to his goal, and flicked through the remaining pages to the first mention of Israphel. Xephos was at his side, own search abandoned, eyes trawling the page for anything relevant.
“Ah, here,” he muttered, and pointed to a line of the densely packed script. “ It was at this time that the monster Israphel first made himself known. Few met him, and even fewer lived to tell the tale. In the village of Haemwold, where pagan ritual was a cultural norm, the construction of one of the first hellgates resulted in the appearance of said monster, and the destruction of the town. The survivors described him as ‘pale as death, taller than any man, and with eyes of hellfire’. This was to be the first of many such attacks, although it would be several years before worship of Israphel as a deity spread across the land.”
There Xephos stopped in his reading, a frown at his brow. “The rest of the page is about a cat-god.”
The next mention of Israphel occurred ten years later, then five, then twenty. Each account mostly detailed his crimes and the number of the dead, although information on his worship also started to build up. It seemed that the world at large had viewed him as a demon; as such, those without strong alliance to the moralistic powers of the good gods had started to pray to him, build monuments and give offerings. Success was mixed. Israphel was certainly powerful, but he was no god. On the off chance that they managed to be in the right place at the right time, his followers would receive fantastic gifts and deeds. Otherwise they functioned on blind faith and hope.
It differed from the cultists they had met on their travels. These people wanted good harvests, revenge on a neighbor, influence in their towns. Were the name different, Israphel would be indistinguishable from any other minor deity.
Year 578CE produced a promising result.
“ Pagan worship was becoming more commonplace, and increasingly organised, largely due to the guiding influence of the major world religions and their structured systems. Kat-va worship was undertaken in secret underground caverns, mostly in the wet Northern regions of Tyrn. Israphel worship began to settle into temple regions, with several setting up in the Stave Desert, and at least one hidden near Icaria, although exact locations cannot be verified. The Cult of Israphel became famous for its secretive nature, and focus on anonymity.”
That explained the mask. Further reading spoke of a backlash against paganism, a cull of surprising severity that the cult managed to survive in its highly private state.
“So,” Xephos said, once they had scanned the rest of the book. “I guess the one by Icaria was the temple we found yesterday.”
“Either that, or there’s two. We can check, I suppose.” Honeydew reread the section and frowned. “Where the hell is the Stave Desert?”
“Beats me. I don’t remember KP ever mentioning it.”
“It ain’t the one right next to us, is it?”
Scratching at the stubble of his jaw, Xephos shook his head, although his brow was furrowed. “I doubt it. The sands were seen a virus, right? I don’t think they’d give a virus a proper name.”
It was a fair point. “I s’pose Adaephon will know. Jus’ hope it’s not too far outta the way.”
“I hope it’s not been abandoned,” Xephos mused. “It would be good to actually get some idea of what the cult is up to these days.”
“Aye. Feelin’ a bit left in the dark.”
“The feeling’s mutual, friend.”
While they took a cursory stock of the remaining archives, none of it added to what they had already unearthed, although Xephos had to be dragged away from a book about the magic of flight. Satisfied, they heaved their find out of the room; neither of them could shut the door with the sand still slumping through it, and they settled on leaving it partially ajar.
All was quiet in the main hall. Adaephon and Daisy were working on repairing the tattered Templar flag that had hung from the gates, a cocktail of potions sitting half-finished at his elbow, mostly for health restoration, although a few for long-term fortitude were mixed in. KP was swearing under his breath at the brewing stand. Lugging the book in his stodgy grasp, Honeydew waddled down the stairs and let it fall onto the table with a slam that reverberated like a cannon blast throughout the room. Daisy put a hand to her chest, wheezing in surprise, Adaephon jumping in his chair, KP whipping around only to pinch his nose in annoyance.
“We found it,” Honeydew said, lamely.
The flag was quickly folded by Daisy and Adaephon took his place at the head of the table. Musing over the words the Heroes directed him to, he tapped out an inconsistent rhythm on the wood, and nodded. “Yes… the Stave Desert. I have heard of it. It is, unfortunately, over the ocean, on the continent to the East. You would have to speak with the Shiplords to find passage there.”
“We’ve met one before, Shiplord Hubert,” Xephos piped up. “He seemed friendly, if a bit odd. Will it cost, do you think?”
“For food and board? Definitely.” Adaephon shrugged. “I have only travelled with them once, when I was a much younger man. It only cost us a bit of gold, and the Shiplords were very kind. Exuberant, some of them, but kind.”
“And the other was in Icaria…” Touching Daisy’s hand, KP cast her a meaningful look. “We meant to go there anyway, to see if your father was there…”
A plan was quickly drawn up. In order to find the other temples in good time, Peculier and Daisy would remain on land and travel to Icaria to scope out the surroundings and hopefully uncover the whereabouts of Mr Duke. They’d checked Terrorvale out a few months back and found it abandoned; at this point Daisy was starting to lose hope of ever seeing him again. That left Honeydew and Xephos to find the Shiplords and sail over to the desert.
“We’ll find you when we’re done in Icaria,” Peculier promised. “Shouldn’t be too hard to locate you if history tells us anything.”
“A tall man in a red coat and a dwarf in a green robe is pretty specific.” Daisy chuckled to herself, and patted Peculier’s hand. “We’ll have a nice time. Should probably stop by Lysander’s ship and tell him, though.”
Adaephon showed them the location of the port on Karpath’s map. It straddled the wall that stretched out to the East, the last link in a chain of little villages, and was creatively named Eastport . It looked like it would take a good two days on foot. This wasn’t of any concern to Honeydew - he was more than used to the nomadic style of life, although he hadn’t missed the often rock-hard beds that village inns supplied. What he would miss, undoubtedly, was the security of having his own bedroom, a place to gather his meagre belongings and feel like he had a home.
It was already mid-afternoon. Adaephon and Peculier went out to hunt and catch up, the former now much steadier on his feet, wielding a sword with a regained confidence. Having decided that it would be preferable to stay the night, and leave first thing, the remaining trio attempted to clear up the mess on the roof, with mixed success. The shovels Adaephon managed to unearth were already rusted to a burnt umber. Honeydew found his enthusiasm for digging vastly outstripped his own common sense (as per usual) and his eager shovelling simply moved the huge pile of sand from the edge of the roof to the middle. Xephos and Daisy, on the other hand, tried to throw the sand over the edge and back into the desert. This worked marginally better, but took so long that the overall difference was negligible. By the time Peculier appeared to tell them dinner was ready, all three were exhausted and dismayed.
“Balls to it,” Honeydew grumbled, throwing his tool down with a clatter.
The rich scent of freshly caught and cooked beef suffused the hall, paired with the dying sputter of the furnace as it was extinguished. A chipped set of fine plates and cutlery had been set out on the table, book languishing beside the farthest chair, as nobody had been able to conjure the strength to carry it back to the archives. Honeydew sat beside Xeph, suddenly ravenous. He barely remembered to clasp his hands together as Adaephon muttered a carefully worded prayer to Notch - they never bothered with grace at home, and Peculier similarly hurried to bow his head.
“I must thank you for visiting me,” Adaephon said to the room in general. “I would no doubt have continued to waste away without your assistance. So - thank you.”
They ate in relative quiet, discussion flitting between the fastest path to Icaria, the quality of silk coming from the North, finding a general cure for taint - all things that Honeydew had only glancing knowledge. He offered the occasional input and otherwise focused on chewing through his steak. Peculier had never been the best at cooking, still well evidenced by the charred exterior of the meat. Honeydew had often wondered whether Peculier thought that it smelling good meant it tasted good…
Well. He wouldn’t be cooking for them again anytime soon. It was odd to realise that they would all be split up once more, as they had been in the past. Whenever Peculier had left Xeph and himself to their own devices, they’d floundered in his absence, usually finding the right path via a mixture of dumb luck and guidance from their various allies. They wouldn’t have a Lysander to give them planes, or a Moira to hide them in the secretive alcoves of Stoneholm. It would just be Xephos, Honeydew, and a map.
Assuming they didn’t get lost on the way to the harbour, they’d also have to get themselves over to this other continent, and find the desert. As far as Honeydew knew he’d never sailed an ocean before. Although… nobody seemed to know of Khaz Modan. It was one of the little inconsistencies in his history that had been bugging him since he first woke up on the beach years ago.
To Honeydew’s left, Xephos was relaying the tale of how he’d lost his eye, looking more like he was facing a zombie than a curious Adaephon.
Honeydew tuned it out. It wasn’t dinnertime listening. Even the vague hint of the memory made him want to gag.
Dessert consisted of ice cream, frozen absolutely solid from months in the underground pantry. It was a rare delicacy, most people lacking the tools necessary to make it, never mind a room cold enough to freeze it properly. The sole downside of this was that consuming the damn stuff turned into a mining expedition in miniature, using a spoon as a woefully inadequate chisel. Daisy didn’t bother, sitting with her arms crossed until the ice cream had softened enough to get into. A sharp pain started up in Honeydew’s head when he chomped down on a sizeable mouthful. For a horrible second he thought he had been poisoned; before he could yell in disapproval, the sting faded away, almost as quickly as it had arrived.
“Honeydew, you really should find Xephos.” Waving his spoon in an expressive arc, Adaephon gestured to an empty chair and a block of pink dessert sitting in a melted pool. “He’ll miss out otherwise.”
“Oh, for the love of…”
The effort of getting into his food had distracted Honeydew completely from the disappearing act of his friend. In spite of himself, an old paranoia starting marching at the back of his thoughts. What if Xephos had decided he didn’t want any part of this, what if he returned in a stony yet shaken silence as he had done in the past, beyond any kind of comfort that could be offered? This change wasn’t one that his friend had wanted. Quite the opposite.
Relief flooded Honeydew’s hammering heart as he found Xephos stood by the battlements, leaning on the stone and watching the sunset. The sky above them was clear, but in the distance a cluster of clouds were bruised rose and peach, gold light peeking through as they sailed on a soft breeze.
“Thought you’d buggered off,” Honeydew said, voice carrying in the still air.
“Just wanted to get outside for a bit.” Shrugging his shoulders, Xephos looked back at his friend with a small smile. “Sorry to worry you.”
“Worryin’ me is all ye fuckin’ do, pal.”
“I’m always okay.”
“We both know that ain’t true.”
He walked forward to where Xephos was balanced on the stonework. It was a nice view, he had to admit.
“Xeph,” Honeydew said, a little more seriously that he’d intended. “If you don’t wanna go on another adventure, ye really don’t have to. I mean it.” It was a struggle, and the words were a choked mutter, but he managed them. And it was honest - always harder to tell an unwanted truth. For him, anyway. “If you wanna stay in Mistral an’ help out, then I ain't gonna blame you. I mean - it'll be lonely without ye. But I want ye to be happy.”
“Don't be stupid,” Xephos muttered. “I can't leave you, Dew. I’d follow you anywhere.
Even though the words weren’t imbued with any particular passion, the sincerity of the statement rendered Honeydew speechless. He twiddled his thumbs. Realising, perhaps, the dull intensity with which he had just spoken, Xephos coloured and looked back out to the sun. It was little more than a flare above the horizon. “You - you know that. What I said the other day. I meant it.”
“Besides, that wasn't what I was thinking about.”
“What were ye thinking about, then?”
At that, Xephos fell silent. Honeydew managed to hold his tongue, in spite of the curiosity that threatened to break the brook of his mouth.
“I was just thinking,” Xephos eventually continued, pulling at a scab on his right hand. “Israphel is me. And if I know myself - which I hope I do - he won't have made this easy on us.” He grimaced. “Whatever his cult is planning, they'll be desperate to stop us at every turn.”
“That ain't any different to what we're used to.” The sun was setting in earnest now, touching the very tips of its fingers to the horizon. Honeydew rested his chin on the edge of the nearest abutment. “It ain't as though our previous adventure was a breeze, right? Vampires, zombies, fuckin’ creepers the size of houses…”
Xephos raised an eyebrow.
“Alright, so maybe Creeper Boss wasn't actually that big,” Honeydew admitted. “But the point still stands. We're pretty bloody incredible, for a pair of idiots.”
“Mmm.” Xephos chuckled. “Just wish I had any clue what was waiting for us. That's all.”
Well, Honeydew could certainly sympathise with that. He was clueless more often than not, and even with that precedent he recognised that they were more… in the dark than usual. It wasn't like KP could tow them along like particularly talkative dogs as he had in the past.
“We'll be alright.” Patting his friend on the arm, Honeydew yawned, mind turning to the promise of a soft bed. “Now c'mon, pal. I dunno about you but I could do with a nightcap. I heard Adaephon talkin’ about some finely aged whisky. Oh, and your ice cream melted.”
“Yep. And that’s entirely yer own fault.”
Chapter 8: Martha
There's a house on the hill.
It was only by the minor miracle of the spare room doors being reinforced that they weren’t overflowing with sand like the rest of the Hold, located in one of the spires and as such protected from the potential enemies that might try attack sleeping visitors. Honeydew had padded around his private room for twenty minutes before a thump from below prompted him to go to sleep. Initially he had felt a little guilty for keeping Xephos up with his pacing, then found it rather funny to imagine his friend hitting the ceiling with a broom or something, no doubt grumbling to himself.
Aged as it was, his bed was comfortable, and Honeydew took up his worrying in the more relaxed position of lying on his back, staring into the rafters of the tower above. Oak beams crisscrossed into a web. It reminded him, distantly, of the twisting madness of the minecart tracks below the Hand.
The downside of invulnerability was managing to forget that other people could, in fact, die. Permanently. While having to observe your own corpse was definitely disturbing at best, it was surely nothing compared to the finality of an actual death. Memories of hauling the occasional ex-Xephos into a grave would plague him from time to time, but Peculier's dying had kept Honeydew up sleepless even after the battle was over.
If they’d just gotten in different carts…
He shook the thought off. There was no point in dwelling anymore, not when KP was alive and probably fast asleep in a nearby room. And they needed to be alert tomorrow, when they set out for whatever was waiting for them.
In spite of himself, Honeydew managed to close his eyes and gradually drift away, furrowed brow losing its knots and smoothing in sleep.
With heavy heart, Honeydew settled his satchel evenly at his side, filled with his old supplies, weapon strapped secure by his right hip. He watched Xephos do the same, sword hissing into place in its scabbard. Despite the early hour, the sun was already rising, lending its light to the sprawling courtyard of Verigan’s Hold.
“You see Peculier and Daisy at all this morning?”
Honeydew shook his head at Xephos’ question. “Nope. Guess their journey ain’t so urgent as ours.”
“Adaephon said he’d come out and point us in the right direction.” Toying with the sellotaped map, Xephos grimaced. “I’m willing to bet we’ll need it.”
Were it possible, they’d leave the map behind in its rightful place, hanging in the holder that had waited so patiently for its return. If it survived this journey, perhaps they could redraw it onto another parchment and use that instead. The sellotape wasn’t very flattering.
Dressed in a simple peasant’s garb, Adaephon hurried out to see the heroes, followed by Peculier and Daisy, the latter of whom was still wrapped in a blanket. In Adaephon’s hands sat something wrapped in a blue cloth, which he offered to Honeydew.
“As thanks,” he said.
Inside the cloth sat a pair of metal binoculars, weighty to hold and chill to the touch. They were obviously complex, with little dials to adjust the distance and the focus, polished to a shine. Honeydew put them to his eyes and then zoomed into Xephos’ nose as close as he could manage. He cackled.
“If you’re quite done with those,” Xephos grumbled, snatching them away. “Thank you, Adaephon. I’m sure it’ll be invaluable.”
“Gives you a little more ease in finding your way. In the past I would use them to check for changes in the desert, or get an advantage against monsters trying to sneak into the Hold. Thankfully, that is no longer necessary.” Leading them out of the grand entranceway and to the stairs, Adaephon’s head bobbed thoughtful in the memories. He looked far less grand without his Templar garb. “Yes, I am sure they will serve you well. Have you a compass? The map? Enough rations?”
“Aye to all the above,” Honeydew replied.
“Then I’ll let you say your goodbyes and set you on your way.”
Shuffling from foot to foot, Peculier lost his voice for a moment, before hugging both heroes in turn. “I will miss you both terribly.” His already thick accent became even harder to understand when it was choked with emotion. “Thank you for everything, and I hope that we will be reunited soon. We will join you in the continent as soon as we have finished our duties here. No doubt fate will put us back on the same path before too long has passed.”
“Aw, you sappy bugger.” Honeydew hid behind his hand, as though to disguise a blush. “We’ll miss you too, KP. God knows we never know what to do without ye.”
Daisy allowed herself to be hugged around her blanket. “Do me proud, boys.”
Xephos gave a slightly mocking bow. “As you wish.”
“Be safe out there,” she warned, suddenly serious. “We don’t know much about the lifestyle on the other continents. I’m sure it’ll be fine, but, you know, don’t go looking for trouble.”
“I’m pretty sure this whole adventuring lark is the definition of trouble,” Honeydew deadpanned.
“Well, exactly.” She shook her head, laughed, and then smiled. Regardless of the bags under her eyes, Daisy looked lovely in the morning light. “You look after each other and I’ll look after this handsome man.”
It took Peculier a moment to register who she meant. He jumped slightly and blushed. “Oh, uh. Thank you, love.”
With one final check of items and look at the map Honeydew and Xephos descended the steps, waving furiously at the trio that they had left behind, until they disappeared back into the bowels of the Hold, presumably for some breakfast. Honeydew wiped a tear aside. Didn’t do to get upset. They set off walking north-east as they had been directed by Adaephon. In their favour was the fact that C.H.L.O.E sat about halfway along their path to the coast - and the Skyhold hovering above her would provide a good landmark.
“No we ain’t.”
“Yes, we are. Do you know where we are? I don’t. We could be walking back towards the Hold for all I know.” Xephos waved his arms in open frustration, and managed to look like an overlarge bird taking flight. “It’s only been a few hours and we’re already lost.”
“God, yer negative. We’ve been walkin’ in what’s mostly a straight line, pal, so we managed a full one-eighty without either of us noticin’ -”
“I just dislike not knowing where we are -”
“Use the bloody compass then!”
There was a long pause. Honeydew came to a stop, standing in the middle of a dense fern-littered wood, and glared. “Don’t tell me you ain’t been using the compass this whole time.”
“I forgot,” Xephos admitted, avoiding his friend’s accusatory gaze.
“Gimme that map.”
Retrieving his own dented compass from his satchel, Honeydew aligned the compass and the map and found they were walking almost true north-east, and just a wee bit more north than east. Nothing to worry about. Honeydew decided that he would act as navigator for a while and quickened his stride, Xephos falling doggedly into line behind him.
In the forests it was cool, shaded, and they chose the base of a great old oak to eat lunch under, discussing their expectations for the sail ahead. Even in spite of the darkness of the trees they encountered no monsters. Perhaps they were kept at bay by the inhabitants of the villages that the pair would pass by every now and again. Perhaps they simply knew it was better to wait until night. Either way Honeydew was not about to complain. He hated the undead bastards, and he’d actually taken the time to clean his axe not so long since. Blood had a way of staining the wooden handle.
Just as they were about to pack away their midday meal, Xephos wandered into a nearby clearing and peered out into the distance, binoculars pressed to his face.
“I think I could see the underside of the entry island,” he informed Honeydew afterwards. “Skyhold’s kinda to the right of us. Which is what we want.”
After another hour of walking, Honeydew rather regretted not owning a horse. His legs were burning from the exertion. The scars on his tummy were itching. Worst of all, Xephos had started whistling, a jaunty little tune that wobbled in time with his long-legged strides.
Honeydew thought himself very patient indeed for managing to keep his mouth shut.
It was late afternoon when they were plunged into shadow. Like a tunnel, sunlight poured in from where they'd been walking only moments previous, a yellow glow visible somewhere amidst the treeline.
“Either I'm losing my sight in my other eye,” Xephos muttered, “or we're underneath the Hold.”
Sure enough, Honeydew found a break in the tree cover and found a ceiling of netherrack far above them. The test of fire. As they navigated the darkness the silence became oppressive, jumping at every branch snapping underfoot, the rare skittering of rodents as they fled the sudden invaders. All signs of life, from the twittering of birdsong to the eager chitters of squirrels, were gone.
They, uh, maybe needed to get Skyhold back to its place over the ocean.
Eventually the distant glow of light drew close, and they emerged on the other side. Xephos exhaled a heavy sigh. “Think I might need a sit down after that, friend.”
“Right ye are.” Without a second thought, Honeydew found the brightest spot and sat in a heap. “That was bloody 'orrible.”
Just as the sky started to turn a burnt orange, Honeydew and Xephos approached the village of Crowscry, apparently not so innovative a name considering the nonstop cawing of the birds swooping overhead. Fields of glowing golden corn started to break up the treeline, stone path crunching underfoot. A small grain silo passed by them on the left. Suddenly the shade of the forest was gone; the Heroes blinked into the setting sunlight.
“We should find somewhere to sleep,” Xephos said. “Seems like a nice enough town.”
Honeydew could agree with that sentiment. Farmland stretched out to the right, rustic houses cluttering the land on the left. The scent of freshly baked pie wafted on the breeze and made Honeydew’s stomach rumble in protest.
“Let’s have a look, shall we?” he suggested.
Following the promise of pie, they found themselves on cobbled streets. Nobody crossed their path. In spite of the darkened windows of the houses, the pair started to feel watched, until Honeydew was actively peering in to ensure that nobody was inside.
A few streetlamps were lit even at this hour.
“Well they can't have been lit by a ghost,” Xephos observed. “Someone must be here.”
Along a side street sat an inn, advertised by a hanging sign that was charred along one edge and slightly chipped, mug of ale painted with questionable ability on one side. Lights were visible inside. As the Heroes approached, the ever present smell of apple pie grew ever stronger, until Honeydew's stomach gave a rumble rivaling a clap of thunder.
He pushed the door open, poking his head inside. The collection of tables were clustered in the centre of the room like harassed sheep, and were mostly empty of patrons, besides a few gristled old men and a washed out woman with a baby.
“Cheerful bunch,” Xephos whispered. The nearest man overhead his comment and gave a sour tuh in response.
Better not to offend the locals immediately. With his winning smile on, Honeydew approached the bar. It was being worked by a mousey lady, whose doubtful once-over almost killed Honeydew's words the moment they rose to his tongue. Almost.
“Evening, ma'am. We're two travelers, just passing through yer fine town, and we were lookin’ for somewhere to stay.”
She grabbed a mug from the counter and washed it. “Sorry,” she said, eyes down. “No rooms open. You can't stay here. Maybe the next town over.”
“Are you full?” Xephos asked.
“No. But our rooms are closed to outsiders.”
“That's ridiculous. You're an inn.”
“We aren’t taking any visitors,” the innkeeper insisted, wiping her hands on her apron. “Can’t trust strangers round here. And the town’s in mourning. So, sorry, but you’ll have to move on.”
“Ain't there anywhere else we should sleep?” Honeydew threw a few coins down, which were thoroughly ignored. “Some nice soul?”
“Right, well you're bloody helpful. C'mon, Xeph.” Fighting the foolishness he felt, Honeydew snatched the money up and dragged Xephos out behind him. As they walked through the streets he could feel the eyes on him once more and he grew even angrier, until they reached the road they had arrived on. He punted a stone halfway up a field and was faintly relieved of his annoyance.
“There's no way we'll reach the next town before sundown.” Xephos was glancing between the map and the trail back into the forest. “We'll be better off camping out.”
“And watchin’ for monsters all bloody night.” The inevitability of it deflated the last of Honeydew's vigor, and he started to walk. “Let's get to it, anyway. The more light the better.”
Both were lamenting a night of keeping watch in the forest when a cry carried through the air.
Honeydew paused mid-complaint and peered around, not catching sight of anyone or anything.
“ Hello! Up here!”
Atop the nearest hill of farmland, cast in shadow by the setting sun, a figure was waving. “Do you need a place to stay?” it asked, voice carrying down the slope. “I have beds!”
Honeydew and Xephos shared a look.
“If yer offering!” Honeydew yelled.
The figure just gave a beckoning motion and disappeared into the house perched on top of the hill.
“Are we supposed to, uh… trust that?” Shuffling from foot to foot, Xephos cast a glance at the imminent hallway of trees, and then back up to the farmhouse above them. “Just… walk into a stranger’s house?”
“KP was a stranger when we met him, and he’s one of our best pals.”
“Knight Peculier almost poisoned us, in case you had forgotten.”
“Ur.” Actually, Honeydew had forgotten that little fact. He huffed and shook his head. “Look. Do ye want to stay up half the night, or do ye want to brave the super scary quaint little cottage? Cause, frankly, I’d rather get chance gettin’ poisoned.”
“Fine.” Xephos rolled his eye. “Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Trudging up the pathway to the top of the hill, Honeydew took cursory glances at the fields surrounding them. One was filled with neat rows of cabbage, not quite fully grown, and remarkably free from insect nibbles. Another was sprouting what looked like carrot leaves… or maybe they were coriander. Not his strong point, plants. Honeydew knew just enough about them to tell that this crop was particularly lush.
“Never got our food to grow like this, huh, Honeydew?” Picking a nearby stalk, Xephos took a sniff, then a bite. “Mm. Mint.”
“I distinctly remember livin’ on a meat-based diet back in the day,” Honeydew chuckled.
“We sure did, friend.” Xephos paused to dwell on the memory and shuddered. “God, did I miss vegetables.”
For all he loved his hearty steak and sirloin, Honeydew gave a hum of agreement. They were nearing the crest of the hill; again, a distinct nervousness clouded Xephos’ expression, and he allowed Honeydew to take the initiative and go first. It really was a quaint old place. Aging limestone made up the walls, roof of hewn stone slats sloping down either side, with flagstones sprawling into a messy porch. Hanging baskets brimming with lavender hung from hooks embedded into the walls. The wooden birch door was open, and somebody was moving around inside.
With a resounding internal here goes nothing , Honeydew poked his head through the doorway. “Hello?”
To his surprise, the person who met his gaze was a young girl. She leant back from her place at the stove and grinned, waving a gloved hand. “Hey! Come in, come in. I’m just making dinner.”
Thrown off balance, Honeydew walked in, followed by an equally confused Xephos.
“Sorry if this is a bit strange,” the girl laughed, discarding her cooking gloves on the counter. “We get a lot of travellers passing by since the inn closed, and I just can’t let people sleep in the forest… I’m Martha, by the way. Martha Faeweather.” She extended a hand. “Nice to meet you.”
Martha was only about 5 feet tall, skin a deep tan, boasting a head of wiry chestnut hair that exploded like a dandelion clock. Her face was lean and handsome, but young - surely still a teenager with some growing yet to do, naivety evident in her sparkling eyes. Honeydew immediately liked her. He took her hand, shook it, and smiled back. “I’m Honeydew. Nice to meet you too, lass.”
Judging by the comfort with which Xephos also shook her hand, he felt a similar sense of ease around the girl. “I’m Xephos. Thanks for letting us come in. The people in town weren’t the friendliest bunch.”
Martha gave a solemn chuckle. “Ah, well, they aren’t, these days - “
There came a loud bubbling from the stove, and she swore. “Shit. One second.” The gloves were back on, wooden spoon stirring something with an earthy scent, and Martha nodded in the direction of the table. “I gotta finish this stew. You guys take a seat. Or lay the table, if you want, the bowls and stuff are in the cupboard by the sink.”
Wanting to be helpful, Honeydew fished out three bowls and handed them to Xephos, who set them down, along with a set of cutlery for all of them. Martha continued to mumble over her cooking with the same intensity as a witch’s brew. Taking his seat at the table allowed him to take stock of the room. It was, in many ways, a very stereotypical farm kitchen, blue rug covering the chilly stone floors, walls painted with whitewash. A vase full of flowers that he didn’t know the names of sat in the centre of the table, mixed without any apparent care for order. A child’s painting of the same vase with different flowers had been hung on the nearest wall.
“Nice house you have here,” Honeydew said. “Very cozy.”
“Thank you,” Martha replied, not turning away from her cooking. “It came with the farm, of course. It’s pretty old. Two hundred years, I think? At least that. My dad told me once.”
“Huh.” It certainly looked it. “You lived here all your life, then?”
“Pretty much. I was born in the South Marina, where my mum’s family lived, but we moved here when I was only very small. I certainly only remember the farm.”
“Are you here alone?” Xephos interrupted. He was sitting with one hand propping up his head, eye narrowed curiously.
“Yeah.” She brought the stew off the boil and extinguished the flame beneath. “Just me.”
“You’re a bit young for that, surely.”
“I’m seventeen.” Apparently Martha thought that was old enough, because she said nothing more for a few seconds, then sighed. “It’s complicated. In any case, I’m glad you two turned up, this is way too much stew for one person.”
She hefted the tureen over to the tabletop, narrowly avoiding slopping half the contents onto the floor, and produced a ladle from somewhere in the many cabinets. The stew that consequently filled Honeydew’s bowl did look pretty good - he thought he could spy beef, mushroom and celery in there, to name a few.
“It’s not poisoned, is it?” Xephos asked.
For a second Martha looked appalled, then burst out laughing. “God, no! Where’d you get that idea?”
“Just something a friend of ours once did.”
“Doesn’t sound like much of a friend.”
“Nah, Peculier’s great.”
“Peculier?” She raised an eyebrow. “Like, as in, Isabel Peculier?”
Honeydew perked up at the mention of the name. “Oh, no, her brother. Although we know her too.”
Realising that he was neglecting his food, Honeydew braved a mouthful of the stew, and found it was more than acceptable. It wasn’t refined, but it tasted good and sated his hunger, so he started to polish it off.
“You must have travelled quite a fair bit, to know the Peculiers,” Martha urged. “You must tell me something about yourselves. So I don’t have total strangers sleeping under my roof.”
After a nonverbal questioning glance, Xephos took the initiative. “You could certainly say we’ve travelled a lot, yes. Myself especially. I’m not actually from this planet.” Recognising the inevitable logic of the statement, he raised a hand. “I’m human, before you ask. Just not from here. I’ve been adventuring with Honeydew ever since we met.”
“Are you from space too?” Martha demanded of Honeydew, dinner completely forgotten.
“Er, no.” He blushed at the attention and shrugged. “I’m native. Dwarf from the clan of Khaz Modan, although you’ve probably not heard of it. Couldn’t stick with the traditional way of life and somehow got stuck with this idiot.” He chuckled when Xephos opened his mouth to protest and then clicked it shut again, glaring. “We’ve seen a hell of a lot. Ain’t much that can surprise you when you’re one of the Heroes of Minecraftia. ”
“As in, like… those Heroes? The ones who fought Israphel?”
It was odd to hear the name from the mouth of a stranger. Honeydew nodded. “Yeah, the pale faced bastard himself.”
“Huh.” Chewing thoughtfully on her meal, Martha took a long moment to gather her thoughts, brow furrowed. “That’s - I mean, really cool. And sorta odd.” She let her spoon fall back into her bowl. “You wanna know why the townsfolk are so standoffish? It’s because of all the fighting that followed Israphel dying. We lost a lot of people to that, trusted members of the community, although I was never very close with the town. But it… it also happens that my dad died fighting against the cultists. And it’s all Israphel’s fault that it happened in the first place.”
There was a long moment of silence.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Honeydew said, as soothingly as he could muster. “No mum around either?”
“Not for years,” she muttered, before smiling sheepishly. “So that’s why I’m here by myself, anyway. Have been for months, before you start worrying.”
“So you're responsible for the farm? It's so well kept.” While Xephos’ question was purposefully casual, Honeydew didn't miss the smooth change of topic, and was inwardly glad.
“I suppose. Can't claim all the credit though. The previous owners performed a lot of harvest rituals back in the day, and now the land basically looks after itself.” She shuffled in her seat. “We tried to find out which minor deity it was that they appealed to, not that that lead anywhere. Probably Roman. He's good at that sort of thing. But it's only a guess. In any case, I just sorta sow the seeds I want, keep them watered, and voilà, perfection.” Pausing in her chatter to breathe, Martha took in the perturbed silence and worried her lip. “Oh, man, should I have just said Notch or something? Roman is a good deity, honestly -”
“No, no,” Xephos chuckled. “It's totally fine. We're just neither of us religious.”
“Not at all?” She sounded genuinely shocked.
“He ain't.” It took Honeydew a moment to pry up the loose boards of his memories and remember what his father had always said. “I think I was pledged to uh, what's her name, Draca. Can't say I've kept up with it though.”
Now Xephos looked totally lost, an expression that wasn't all that unfamiliar. As the resident spaceman, he had no frame of reference for the sprawling pantheons that Honeydew had dutifully ignored in favour of adventuring. All that posturing, visiting churches or temples, finding offerings… he could manage by himself, thanks.
“Man, Draca's an old god. Haven't seen that name anywhere besides books.”
“She was never the most interactive, to be honest with ye. Just liked dwarven gold.”
“Does she answer petitions?” Martha had taken to eating furiously whenever anyone else was talking and had spattered stew in a half moon around her bowl.
“Can't say I've tried.”
“Hm.” She rocked back in her chair. “You should. If you remember the rituals.”
He didn’t. His parents had only ever done that kinda stuff in the presence of the clan, and he’d not paid the slightest attention to it - even as a kid, he’d been a bit of a dreamer. “I might,” he shrugged.
Martha began to badger Xephos about his home planet, openly dissatisfied when he had few answers and more sheepish evasions than anything else. While his friend was under interrogation Honeydew finished the last of his stew, washed his bowl in the ceramic sink, before peering through the door to the rest of the house. He looked back and found the others fully immersed in whatever they were discussing. Well - no harm in having a nosy if they were going to spend the night.
The rest of the cottage was quaint but not stifling, kitchen leading to a flagged corridor with doors on either side and an open room at the far end. Said far room seemed to be some kind of communal sitting room, with hand-carved chairs, a rocker sitting worn in one corner, and a coffee table littered in books. Tapestries hung between the sparse windows. A shrine sat at the room’s far left, with a rustic clay figurine that was presumably Roman, and a few candles, all blackened at the wick and wax dripping down the sides.
Honeydew paced around the floor’s thin carpet and riffled through the selection of books. He recognised none of them. Titles like Past Ages , The History of Worship and Ritual, Ancient Kings and Before the End Times stood out in particular. A bit of a history buff, then. Could be useful.
He reached down for the dog-eared copy of Before the End Times, flipping to a random page and blinking at the mention of robots. Not so well kept a secret as he’d thought.
“You like my collection?”
Honeydew whipped round to find Martha leaning against the door, grinning. Behind her, Xephos was peering into the room, curiously studying the tapestries. “That’s only a small selection, of course, but you can read whatever you like. The rest of the shelves are in my room.”
“Avid reader, are we?” Honeydew shut the book and placed it gingerly atop the others.
“The farm doesn’t take as much work as you’d think,” she replied, stepping aside to let Xephos into the room. “So I need something to do in my spare time. Plus my Dad always liked me to read. Said that it was important to be educated.”
“He’s right on that front,” Xephos interrupted, looking over the statuette on the altar. “We never read, and we’re total idiots.”
Martha covered her mouth and snorted indelicately. “You defeated Israphel, you can’t be that stupid.”
“Believe me, we can.”
“You’re a bit mean to yourselves. Tell you what. Let me get us a pot of tea and you can tell me about your travels. Then I can be the judge on this.”
Her china cups were a chipped around the rims, paint decoration faded from exposure to light and years of use, one lacking a handle at all, which Honeydew took. Similarly the chairs had aged heavily and the wood worn - a net benefit, given that they were much more comfortable to sit on because of it. He let Xephos do most of the talking. Martha seemed to enjoy it, leaning against the coffee table with shining eyes, gasping at all the right moments. She took particular offence to Enoch (which was entirely reasonable, christ), falling quiet only when it got to the final battle.
She worried at her lip, gaze straying over the eyepatch.
“See?” Without a second to think, Xephos flipped it up, revealing the sutured wound underneath. “Yeah.”
Honeydew looked away. It was a private moment, for all he'd seen it a hundred times before, and he was more than happy to avert his attention for a moment.
“That's… ow. That sucks. Why would Israphel do that?”
Martha's voice was thick with sympathy and poorly disguised fascination; Honeydew was willing to bet that she was grimacing.
“I wish I knew. To leave a message, probably. He wasn't really the most forthcoming guy.”
“Did it hurt?”
“I'm sorry.” Martha sounded sheepish. “Thank you for showing me.”
“It's okay. I need to get used to it.”
Honeydew turned back and found the eyepatch had been flipped back into place, Xeph sipping delicately at his tea, Martha drawing lines on the table with her index finger.
“Shall I show you to your room?” she eventually offered, enthusiasm battered a bit.
“That'd be great.”
Like the rest of the house, the spare room was sparse, walls egg-yolk yellow with a wooden floor. Two beds sat against opposite walls, untouched, headboards dusty. A table with a dead vase of flowers sat beneath the window. The sky outside was a deep blue.
“Ugh, let me replace those.” Martha grabbed the vase and disappeared. “Make yourselves comfortable!”
Not needing to be told twice, Honeydew slung his bag at the foot of his bed and jumped into the covers, throwing up a cloud of dust. Xephos did much the same, and grumbled. His feet hung off the end of the bed. Also on the bedside table was a candle in a silver holder, which Honeydew lit.
Martha reappeared. She'd pinched a handful of lavender from her hanging baskets and filled up the vase, until the violet blooms burst out with the same vigor as her hair.
“Sorry it's so dusty in here. I don't really clean this place.” She settled the vase back on the table. “The bathroom is just down the corridor. I'll be staying up a bit longer, so look for me in the sitting room if you need anything.”
“Thanks, Martha. This is amazin’, honestly.” Honeydew looked to Xephos, who nodded in agreement. “Yer a sweetheart.”
She grinned. “Aw. Well. Goodnight.”
“You too. Sleep well.”
The door clicked shut behind her, and moments later quiet music started up a few rooms away. Xephos was staring at the door with a furrowed brow.
“What do you think,” he murmured.
“What do I think about what?”
“You know.” Xephos looked at Honeydew as though he were being stupid, which, for once, Honeydew found rather unfair. “Inviting her along.”
Honeydew gawped. “Are you gettin’ paternal all of a sudden?”
Usually their fellow adventurers were older than them, or at least more experienced. It helped to balance out the inevitable incompetence of their duo, gave them a bit of a guiding eye, assisted them in their battles. Truth be told, Honeydew was slightly intimidated by the idea of having a teen tagging along. If she even wanted to. They'd have to… act as guardians or some shit. Be good examples even. And Honeydew wasn't particularly capable in either field.
“She's seventeen, Dew. She's not an infant.”
“Still ain't an adult.” Honeydew frowned. “Since when are you the guy tryna convince me?”
“Well… she just seems lonely.” Xeph studied his fingers as they toyed with the covers. “Alone up on this hill with no parents and a farm to look after. Doesn't seem like the townsfolk get involved either. And, you know, she's obviously pretty smart. We could do with that.”
He moved to sit next to his friend, resting his head atop Honeydew's own. “I know what it's like to be isolated. It seems a shame to let her suffer it.”
At that, Honeydew understood. “Let's ask her tomorrow.”
Two arms wrapped themselves around Honeydew's torso. “Thanks, friend. It'll be good.”
A few minutes later Honeydew tiptoed out of the room and into the bathroom. On his return journey he caught sight of Martha walking around in the kitchen dressed in a near-floor length nightgown, humming cheerfully to herself, apparently unperturbed by the stone floor chilling her bare feet. Honeydew paused a moment to watch and smile before returning to his bed for the night.