Chapter 1: Fjord
It's eating at him. Something is wrong with his body, has been since he woke. Muscles trembling, in his belly, shaking and shivering like his guts are icy cold. Fjord coughs up salt water and sucks in a sobbing breath, and coughs up more. In his dream the eye is watching, pushing.
R E T A L I A T E
Fjord doesn't know how. He's had this dream twice since they were taken, and he can't seem to get the terrible, looming presence of the eye to understand: awake, he has no means of retaliation. He can't see, speak, or move in these enchanted shackles, and it feels like they feed on him.
He would love to tell the crushing weight of the eye that he is open to ideas, but even in the dream Fjord is pinned in place, helpless to the tides and hopeless in his chains.
It's another lungful of water before the Presence lets him be, coughed up partially through his nose, painful and brackish and heavy.
He teeters between awake and unconscious, and doesn't know what to make of it all. Retaliate.
He can't move, but he can think. He thinks about his sword, and feels its weight straining just beyond the nullifying field of the chains. If he just keeps working at it, maybe, maybe---
Fjord keeps his eyes shut and tries to breathe as quiet as he can. He imagines his falchion in painstaking detail, and tells himself he'll start by cutting his way free.
The smell of brine is his only company.
Chapter 2: Jester
Jester has never been without her friend but here she is truly and completely alone, and it is terrifying. The trouble is, in some ways, Jester doesn't know where here is, exactly. How did she get here, and why is she here, and why is she alone?
She can speak, feels her throat buzzing with the effort of projecting her voice, but no sound comes to her ears. She tries again, then tries to scream, and feels her throat burn like she's hollering at the top of her lungs--
Nothing. Just the cloying, terrible light of this lonely place, that is both in the middle of nowhere and locked away. It's a familiar, if small, back room. She smells the stink of stabled horses nearby and thinks surely she is somewhere with the Nein. Except-- none of them are here. No one is in the room but her. Not even Nott, or Beau.
So they have abandoned her too. She thinks this and has to sit down on her bed, because the thought that she won't see the others again makes her want to cry until her eyes fall out and then probably die.
For a while, she does cry.
Her tears hurt in this place, sting her eyes and nose and make her feel her stomach cramping. She tries to do it quietly, though the more time she has to think of why they've left her all alone, the worse it gets. Her chest hurts. Her eyes feel swollen, she can't breathe through her nose. And...no one comes.
No one will come, will they? She's alone, and they're not coming back.
All Jester has left are pictures of them, on her desk and easel, on the wall above her childhood bed. She wipes her eyes and tries to stop sobbing. Nothing helps. She would give anything to have her friends back-- all of them or any of them. That the Traveler is curiously silent is maybe the worst part of all.
Eventually, the tears and misery gel into a solid mess of exhaustion. Jester is too tired for more. She lays on her side in the bed of her childhood and tells herself to be thankful for what she has. The memories, at least.
She should feel happy, maybe, being back in Nicodranus, but something is missing. Not just her voice, not just her friends, but something else, something important. Her paintings, she thinks, something is wrong in them.
Jester has drawn the Mighty Nein many times now; most recently was in Hupperdook. She touches the face of Kiri, of Fjord, of Nott. She misses Nott. She misses everyone. But why does the picture look like they are all pointing behind her?
Ignoring her misgivings, she looks at the next, from Zadash. This, too, is wrong, all wrong, the faces of her friends twisted with fear and horror, pointing behind her as if in warning. Jester glances over her shoulder, heartbeat racing, but there's nothing. She looks back and there are no paintings. There is a book. (She can't read it, but somehow knows that it is a book of the Traveler's thoughts.)
She tries to ask the Traveler to say what he thinks of her, but her voice is a raspy half-whisper, unintelligible.
She looks around for an exit out into the garden. There are no doors in this room.
She looks back at the desk. There is no book.
She looks at her hands, and they're fading, and she screams and screams and screams, crying desperately for her friends, any of them, all of them, but no one seems to hear her.
When she wakes in the cage in her dirty travel clothes and sees Fjord, unconscious, she has a disconcerting moment of relief. Jester immediately is guilty, for that, but she is not alone.
At this moment, anything, anything would be better than that.
Chapter 3: Yasha
The cold bites even in her dreams, because her fingers are frostbitten. Yasha knows this is a dream. She holds herself in it because when they are asleep, Lorenzo cannot torture them.
She knows Fjord and Jester are alive because she's seen them when she's conscious.
Something else is troubling her.
She feels on the crisp chemical crackle of the air the Stormlord's voice, speaking to her. What he is trying to tell her is a thunderous lie.
Mollymauk has not died. She won't believe it, won't allow it. Her sibling and heart's closest friend is immortal, housed inside her memory and protected on all sides by her will alone.
Yasha will not yield.
So she ends her dream and wakes in time to catch the sound of Jester softly crying. This, for Yasha, is an unfamiliar and confusing situation. She feels a rage threatening in the pit of her belly, hearing Jester's voice sound so hurt and small; this is wrong, as wrong as what the Stormlord said, and if she doesn't fix this she will start to lose control.
"Jester," she says. Nothing more, but the sniffling stops, and after a moment Jester's trembling voice answers her.
"Yasha?" She can imagine Jester wiping at her nose. "I- I'm sorry if I woke you up. You probably need your sleep to keep your health up, huh?"
"No, it's fine."
Jester has nothing to say to that, for several seconds. While the silence builds, Yasha struggles to figure out what she should say.
"I heard one of them say Fjord has a fever," Jester adds in a worried half-whisper. "He keeps spitting up water, you know, like the one time? I heard him choking on it earlier. He won't wake up."
"He'll be okay."
"But how do you know?" Jester asks, fearful instead of coy like she would usually be. Yasha's rage nearly blinds her at the thought that these slavers might have injured Fjord, imprisoned her and had the audacity to make Jester sound so scared and unsure.
"Cause we are going to break out of here," Yasha hisses, fueled by the deep and abiding sentiment of fuck you.
Behind them both, Fjord's weakened, queasy sounding voice suddenly blooms through the dark of the room that is holding their cages.
"Did I hear something about breaking out of here? I could really...go for a little bit of that, if you don't mind."
"Fjord!" Jester says, sounding somewhere between crying all over again and relieved. "Are you okay?!"
"Not great. Yasha, did you have a plan?"
"Yes. I am going to try to call down lightning until it answers."
"Oh...uh, okay, then."
"I would try to help, Yasha, but I can't hear the Traveler at all right now and I dont know why."
She hears a little clank from Fjord's cage, and tries not to let it break hear concentration. Yasha is staring ceilingward, and feels her body beginning to shift and change, feathers itching as they pop out along her back.
"Now see, that's interesting, Jester, cause I can't summon my sword or do any magic right now either. D'you think these manacles are the reason behind it?"
Jester says, "Probably."
Yasha calls down a bolt of lightning with every fiber of her being, and then a shock strikes her-- not from outside, from the storm she was trying to create, but rather from the chain around her wrists. It's some kind of dampening field, and it feels like being socked in the jaw by a wind elemental.
Yasha yelps, and the other two fall silent a moment before both inquiring a little fearfully,
"Yasha? Are you okay?"
She shakes her head as best she can until the dizziness starts to settle. Her eyes feel like they're rolling around in her head, and her stomach is complaining, though she hasn't got anything in it to lose.
"I need a new plan."
Beau wasn't expecting this, this softness wrapped around her and strength bearing her up. She feels powerless and uneasy and the lingering, astringent odor of smoke is exacerbating the headache built up behind her eyes. Her pockets feel so weighed down with dirt, and her chest is tight with something close, something she is trying to forget. The woman speaks to her in elven, a soft, constant, distant, unintelligible song of words, whispersoft on her brow. They trade salty kisses, though Beau wouldn't mind tasting the elven woman's lips again, if she wasn't so tired and sated, drifting and drowsy. A kiss on her cheek, and Beau turns her head to meet it, kisses back, bites lightly, softly. The elven woman bites too, laughing a little.
She has compartmentalized: for this night, she wants to be the best, most attentive and enjoyable customer this woman has had all week. Beau's fingered her and licked her and sucked her nipples, and gotten plenty of attention in return. They've had wine together and the elven woman blindfolded her and fed her dinner, bite by bite. At this point, Beau wants a bath, and when she says so, the woman leads her behind the partition, where a clay tub stands, and activates a rune on it. It begins filling with gently steaming water, and Beau marvels at the clever arcane trickery here.
"It is pulling water in from that elemental plane, and passing it briefly through the plane of elemental fire," says the woman cheerfully, as she grabs a pitcher from the shelves behind the tub, and begins pouring some kind of soapy oil into the waters. It smells earthy and sweet, some mix of roots and lavender. Beau lets herself be helped into the bath, and moans louder than she has all night when the just-a-little-too-hot waters first hit her aching skin.
The bath is a blur of being finger-fucked, held, and kissed so ardently she feels special. This woman is very clever at her work, and Beau enthusiastically expresses her gratitude until sleep overtakes them both.
It's a deep, dreamless sleep, and that was the point.
In the morning, Beau picks up the grief she had put away, and sharpens it into a tool. Mollymauk will fund his own resurrection: Beau will see him back. Then grief won't be necessary. This is no different from the other shit Lorenzo's done to them, and the solution is simple. They will find and free their friends, they will slay their enemy. They will save Nila's child. And surely, surely, they will find a priest, or a miracle-worker, and they will bring Molly back, see him again.
That is what Beau tells herself, as she stumbles down the stairs. It was easier being night-Beau, but she can't give up yet.
Planet Caravan by Black Sabbath
Chapter 5: Keg
Every night leading up to this night has been nightmares for Keg, vivid and gruesome, the incessant and unwelcome flashback to when she'd left. She can plan her impossible revenge, her rescue-mission-gone-suicide-run, she can even smoke until her nerves stop shaking her hands, but at night her mind has been mired in the memory of the worst of it all, and frankly, Keg is scared shitless. She puts her foot in her mouth to the goblin girl and the grunge wizard, she watches Beau go to bed with a sex worker and wishes it was her Beau had asked to bed tonight, and she drinks herself stupid. Nila and Keg are sharing a room, after all, and that's just one more thing to be afraid of. (Does Nila realize that Keg used to work for these guys, for these monsters? Even if it was brief? Does Nila know that Keg may have enabled Lorenzo to steal away her son? And if she did know, would she kill Keg in her sleep? Would she eat Keg's face off?)
The plan is, be drunk, so drunk the memories can't wake her, shake her. The plan is, be too out of it to cry or scream.
No plan survives first contact, though. Now, more than ever, she knows that to be true.
Run! she screams, over and over and over again, but the figure of--
The face of--
They never turn to her, they never answer. Now there's more than one, more than one she's trying to warn. They turn away, the tiefling's bejeweled horns catching the light as he smiles at her friend, and they talk together. (It was someone else her friend was talking to that night, Keg remembers it all so clearly. They died, too. The tiefling is going to die, she has to warn him. And her friend, she has to stop-- she has to tell them--)
There's a hand on her shoulder, sweaty, too hot. It holds her back. There's an oily feel of it as it squeezes harder when she fights to get free. Another hand pulls her down, a hand of mud and dirt this time. It drags her into the ground, inch by inch. Keg opens her mouth to shout at them both to run, or maybe scream for help, panic swirling, but a third hand claps over her mouth, slick with blood, and silences her.
Keg screams and screams, and screams until (thankfully) her body jerks awake with a cough and a sob. She's been crying in her sleep and she needs to piss so bad she might die. And there's Nila, huge and silent above her, and for a moment Keg really thinks she's going to die and reels back instinctively. In the dark like this, Nila's soft doe eyes are alien and gleaming.
"Are you all right?" Nila asks. She doesn't move closer; maybe she sees the prey-fear in Keg's eyes.
"I'm-- yeah, uh-- yeah. Yeahhh. I'm gonna go to the. Uh to the loo. I'll be. Yeah. I'll be back."
And Keg runs, because that's all she knows how to do anymore.
This is not now. The when is not immediately apparent, but it will come to him in time. For the moment, there is the field outside the cottage, and the overwhelming scent of spring flowers clustered on the hill, and the brambles of wildberries behind the building, next to the woodshed. Further back from the hill is the unbroken forest, black bent trees towering the further away they rise, knobby pines and great gray walnuts, and the occasional red flash of a hagberry. There's snow dusting his shoulders, as he turns away from the forest and back to the house. Spring, wasn't it? The flowers can tell him. Foxgloves and roses and mallows and marigolds: late spring, then, early summer. He brushes the snow off and steps inside the house.
It's dear to him, with its four ground-floor rooms and its cellar. A vivid blanket thrown over the back of the single stuffed chair reminds him of a myth he read about the Raven Queen. Scratchy dyed wool, that blanket, woven in geometric patterns that call to mind the bounty of the land in shining greens and golds and blues. On the mantle is a perfectly preserved bouquet of mallow leaves, tulips, and daffodils: white, yellow, gold. It's just before sunset, now, and the evening meal is in preparation. He can hear Eodwulf speaking from the kitchen.
"Du brauchst unbedingt Hilfe."
It smells of onions, parsnips, fresh-picked mushrooms. Dinner will be soon, he mustn't leave them on their own; he steps inside, and he is starkly conscious of his disheveled appearance, but Astrid and Eodwulf don't seem to notice. Their faces are too serious, concentrating; Astrid chopping onions up to add to the stew. Her hair is very short now, because it was getting so warm that she cut it all off. Eodwulf is vain, braided his hair and pinned it high. His face is speckled with sweat as he stirs the pot, and sighs, lifting his free hand to wipe at his brow. There is not much time, and the stew is smelling very close to done. Some spices in there, and flour made with the millet Caleb ground up earlier, to create dumplings. All of them are hungry. All of them are tired. It has been a long day, learning to prepare this dish.
"Caleb, deck den Tisch."
"Ja," he says, automatically. Sometimes he doesn't like to go along with Eodwulf's leadership, but it's easier not to fight and there's still so much to do, anyway. He goes to the cabinet in the third room, the room where lessons and food are taken in, where the cottage has its only table. It is still shining with varnish from last month, fresh and soft and smooth, fully dry now. The little imprint in its corner from his finger still stares back up, incriminating, and Caleb chews his lip to keep his focus. He should have admitted the mistake when it happened, but he had not wanted to re-do the work. Now it torments him, that little dimple in the finish. It is only a matter of time before it will be found. But that time is not now; now he has something to do. He turns to his left. The dishes are in the rosewood cabinet, and they are dusty. He brings them out, sets them down on the table. "Wo ist das Handtuch?"
"Im Keller," Astrid answers boredly.
"Ja, ja, ja. " He remembers this now: this is seventeen years ago. There isn't much time, and the bowls are so dusty. No, no, this won't do at all. Indeed, Caleb remembers everything now: that dishcloth he needs, yes, it's in the cellar, in the cellar. He rushes back outside and around the side of the house, past the stump they use to chop wood when it's the colder months. He makes a mental note of the axe, which is where it ought to be but looking rusty after the rain. Everything back here looks unused, in fact. The wildberry bushes are overgrown and unpicked, the axe is rusting. Even the cellar doors are splintering and unpainted, unprotected from the elements. Caleb crouches down, and unbolts the doors. When he stands up, he pulls them open, and shakes off that lingering sense of displacement. Time to focus.
Caleb calls an orb of bright, steady light to his shoulder. It hovers there like a guardian, just above and behind his face so it will not blind him, and as he steps down into the musty room, he scans the shelves for his target. The dishcloth is a little gray thing, hanging off the corner of the tallest shelf in the room. On his tiptoes, he can just reach it. He thinks to himself that while he's here, it would be good to grab the candied pears. Eodwulf can prepare them in a tart for dessert. That would be wise. He remembers having this idea, and that it is a good idea, and agrees with himself, pairing thought with action. When he picks up the jar in hands, his fingers look too small to him. Disconcerting. He throws the dishcloth over his shoulder, hurries up and out of the cellar. (Not too fast, of course, he closes and bolts the doors behind himself.) Some dust from the cellar sticks in his nose and his eyes water, but he doesn't quite sneeze. It's cold here in the lengthening shade, the sky all golden-rainbow with sunset. It's breathtaking.
No time for that. He rushes inside, the candied pear jar cradled in both hands. He sets it on the counter to the right of Astrid, and then darts back into the dining room. Caleb is fast, hands steady, dismisses his light, wipes down each bowl and places them carefully before each chair. Four chairs, four bowls, four places set out to exact measurements. Astrid and Eodwulf always have him set the table because his memory makes him good at it. He can be precise, he can make it look beautiful and intentional while they make food that doesn't taste like sludge. An equitable arrangement. His breath whistles in this throat, caught on some pollen or something. He clears it, looks out the window.
The last rays of day are slipping past. Buttery yellow sunlight is dappled over him and the wall behind him, dripping, almost viscous. The bowls are clean. Good, yes. He sets them down, gets out the silverware. For stew and the roast in the oven they will need plates, soup spoon, knife, fork, dessert spoon for the candied pears, cup for water, cup for wine. There's no time at all, no time, but Caleb rushes around the room as fast as his feet will take him, wiping down pieces as he goes. His heart is in his throat, painful, by the time that time is up.
The places are perfect. He tucks the cloth into the back of his waistband, stands at attention in the corner of the room, and eyes his handiwork, itching to fuss at it further but knowing that he no longer can. Astrid enters the room, carrying the roast and setting it before the head of the table. Eodwulf enters with the pot of stew, and sets it upon the stand at the center of the table.
Footsteps, soft as a spider, click over the wooden flooring in the house, and Caleb tries his best not to flinch.
Father Ikithon is there now, taking his seat at the head of the table. Caleb is to pour first, water into all the water cups. Next will be Astrid with the wine, and finally Eodwulf will have the task of serving out the stew, then the roast, and then they may finally, finally eat. Caleb's stomach is turning in anticipation. His mouth is cottony, dry. His lips feel chapped and cold.
"Es ist vielleicht zu spät," says Father Ikithon, and that's-- not what he said, not really, but Caleb is moving because it is time to do his job, and he doesn't dare question that cryptic irregularity in what otherwise is a memory running like clockwork.
He feels Father Ikithon's eyes upon him, and sees those skeletal fingers steepled patiently, and pours: first the head of the table, then Eodwulf, Astrid, himself. Caleb is biting his lip so hard it bleeds, but at the last his hands betray him, trembling a little. The water sloshes over the edge of the fourth cup, making a dark spot of moisture on the pure white tablecloth, and he feels the pit of his stomach drop out from underneath him.
Then: unfamiliar sounds and feel, smells of incense, liquor, oil, Nott's snoring across the room, his winter coat, too warm indoors, oh.
"It was a mistake," he tells himself, but he is not sure who the words are for. "Ein Fehler unsererseits, das ist alles."
Just one more thing that he will fix. Just one more.
I am not fluent in German, I have taken classes for a year and used leos.org. If any German-speaking readers come across this and I have done poorly, I would be extremely in your debt if you could make note of any errors in my dialogue for this chapter!
Chapter 7: Nott
Nott has simple dreams, not because she is a simple person, but because she is an honest one. Her knotted hair is being brushed out while she sits on a deep, soft tapestry of the platinum dragon. She can feel that just on the edges of her awareness, Mollymauk is here.
She starts crying, big fat tears that tumble down her face and make her nose start running, but she doesn't turn around. That's not how dreams work. Nott knows.
"Hey," says a voice that isn't as familiar as she'd like. Lavender fingers twirl in her tangled hair, and there's not a pause, exactly, so much as a sigh. "Really, dear? Tears for me?"
"Shut up," Nott says, all garbled and snot-soaked from crying. She rubs at her eyes and says plainly and truly, "I love you, Molly. Not like. In a weird way or anything, because I don't really have any interest in...that, but. You know."
"Yeah, I know," Mollymauk laughs.
"Like, a brother or something, maybe. A distant cousin."
"An amicable roommate?" Mollymauk suggests, his voice warm with humor.
Nott smiles and says, "Yeah, like that."
There's nothing to be sad about here. Everything is nice here, and now that she's gotten that off her chest, she feels a lot better.
Behind her, Mollymauk hums and starts working on her hair again. He brushes it until it's frizzing, and smooths it out. Nott hands him flowers over her shoulder while they talk, and lets him braid them into a crown atop her head.
"Everyone is trying to get you back. And the others, too. I don't know how much stuff you get to see when you're a dead guy. I guess technically you were already sort of undead, right?"
"Ehh." Mollymauk makes a vague, wiggly hand gesture. Not a lot of help, there.
"Well, anyway, if we can bring you back, we totally will. But, uh. I don't really know how we're going to pull that off. Any ideas?"
There's a sense of a shrug, and a playful laugh. She catches the flash of a colorful sleeve out of the corner of her eye. A lavender hand holds out a mirror to her, and lets her take in her changed appearance. Pretty blue and pink flowers circle her head, woven into a thin braid that does the same. A couple of bright yellow dandelions are poking out on the right side, too. They don't match, but she kind of likes it better this way.
Mollymauk's reflection in the mirror looks proud of his work, and comfortable. He smiles a little, cocky.
"Keep trying, I guess. If there isn't anyone there, there isn't anyone there. Not your fault, miracles aren't cheap, they say."
"We thought, you know, might be a risk you'd come back on your own, too. But we couldn't just wait there, since it might take a while, I figure."
Not that Nott is not patient enough to have waited, if they had no reason to leave, of course. As it is, there are three-- no, four more people yet-living who must be reached before they are too far to recover. After that, after that there will be time to go back and get Mollymauk.
"Nah, I understand," Mollymauk says, easy as pie. Just like that, shrugs it off. "Besides, one of the folks you need to rescue is Yasha. I'll feel a lot better once she's safe."
"Yeah," Nott agrees. She isn't sure when the fear she felt about such a huge woman had turned into fondness, but it has. And she misses Jester terribly. "If you do come back, though, Caleb left you a note. You know, in case you don't remember anything again."
The dream is quiet, Mollymauk just sitting there behind her, head thrown back so he can stare up at the sky. She can't look, it's too bright; Mollymauk seems to like what he sees, though. And the dream, which was so solid and simple, begins to get fuzzy, and vague, and Nott realizes that she's about to wake up.
As the dream is disappearing, Mollymauk says wryly,
"Maybe if I do forget the rest, I'll get to remember how to read."
Chapter 8: Molly
This is something he didn't prepare for, really; and he never talked about it with anyone because he didn't want to think about it, so the opportunity to prepare is well and truly missed, one single regret in a short life lived otherwise spotless, one-hundred-percent-regret-free. Mollymauk lingers, like spidersilk blowing on a cool wind, trailing skyward and then going still again, and he resonates with the world's low melody. He braids flowers into Nott's hair, and reaches out to Jester, gives her a little push out of a prison her mind had made. He touches Gustav, drawn through a mournful loneliness to the man who made a home for Mollymauk when so many others would have been afraid. It seems like he has to reach very far to do it, in one way, but in another it's just there, right beside him, Yasha and Gustav and Toya and-- oh, but Gustav's dreams are of toil and trouble, and worry. Mollymauk lies to him that everyone is okay. It's not a big lie, more telling a fortune, really. Because, after all, everyone will be okay eventually, one way or the other.
Gustav is too tired to wake out of his dream, but accepts Mollymauk's offered hand. Mollymauk tries to remind him of coffee and stale pastries, cured ham, summer heat, travel dust: and he feels the tension in Gustav's shoulders ease.
Mollymauk eases too, a little strand of something tight and painful finally unknotted. From Gustav he goes to the twins, and throws down a firecracker while he's passing through, just sudden and loud enough that he only catches the whisper in each dream of Molly? Is that-- before he's gone again. He kisses Toya on the forehead, softly, then Yasha, too. He can be everywhere and nowhere like this, and it's incredible. As long as someone is thinking of him, he can be where ever they are, too. He's a thousand sparkling stars over the sleepy cold of Wildemount.
Some people, however, are studiously not thinking of him; he can feel the pressure of them on the border of his awareness, whatever awareness this is, both pushing and pulling, equal and opposite desires to deny and to obsess. It's flattering, but also sad, because he would like to see Beau. Ah, well. Maybe some other dreamtime he will walk in and surprise her, congratulate her, mock her. She'll say fuck you! and he will laugh and wink and elbow her. Then get a hug. He'd like a hug.
It could go on like this, forever or not at all. He senses that time, always marching before, is malleable to him now. Maybe he exists only in that he remembers he exists, and no moment forward past his memory means anything. Maybe he never really existed in the twisting ether of fate and time at all, and only now sees that life itself is an illusion. He doesn't know, he hasn't studied the philosophy around this sort of scenario. He hasn't lingered on it, he hasn't worried about it.
What matters to Mollymauk is that he is still Mollymauk. Lucien, whoever or whatever he was, can shove it-- this is Mollymauk's afterlife, even if it was Lucien's body originally. There's something nice about that, knowing that he doesn't have to share with anyone anymore.
Between one moment and the next he is not alone. There is someone beside him here, an old friend, or maybe a new one. He can't be sure, they are hard to look at.
"Not so empty anymore, hm?"
It's a voice like the absence of sound, like he had to cut the words out of a sheet to see them, only he doesn't remember ever doing that before. It seems like there must be an easier way to read words, and so there is surely an easier way to hear the voice that speaks, but whatever it is, he doesn't know it. Maybe the problem is that he doesn't technically have ears, right now. Or much of anything, really. He feels like a reflective surface being held up to a dark room.
"It's a shame, really. I like what you've made of yourself. I'm impressed, I should say."
Mollymauk tries a raised eyebrow, a lopsided smile. These things came so much more naturally when there were muscles and bone and blood to move around. Like this he's not sure the meaning is conveyed. He feels intensely aware of the lack, not just in himself, but in his guest.
He says, haltingly, "Thanks, I think."
"Really. You did a good job."
On this subject, he has no expertise, only lots and lots of advice. Mollymauk woke up once in a cold bed of dirt, and tried to smother the memory for the rest of his life with better things. Mostly, he likes to think he pulled it off. Mostly. He tried to be good to people, to bring smiles and do things and feel things, as many things as a body could do. He kissed pretty boys and strong ladies and he laughed and danced and dreamed and felt, and lived every second knowing it was stolen, sort of. That's maybe the part that makes him pause, now. Is he supposed to give this up? The memories he made, the time he took?
"I don't know, I tried--"
It's very quiet, now, as still as the snow-covered, frozen ground.
"I think I was just trying to make things work, and I feel like somehow that didn't quite go my way. But, yeah, I mean thanks. I guess I'm glad. I'm glad I got to try. I'm glad I did a good job."
A hand that is not a hand rests on his shoulder that is only a memory of a shoulder. He shivers, up and down the core of him, and leans into it.
"If you decide you'd like to come to my realm, you'll be welcome," and for a moment he is certain this is a woman, masked and merciful. The name tickles at the back of his memory, but doesn't manifest. "but there's no hurry. What's yours is you, Mollymauk Tealeaf. What a good, fine person you've made! That will endure, no matter what you decide to do. Remember that."
Something feels unfinished. He can't put his finger on it. (Can't seem to touch anything anyway.) Another cool breeze starts, and shakes over him, and for a moment he is under the unforgiving winter sky, staring up and through the dirt, and everything feels stiff and cold. He doesn't like that.
Mollymauk wrinkles his nose, or remembers what it was like to wrinkle his nose.
"Well, thanks, I think. But I'm just going to wait here, a little longer."
The not-pressure on his shoulder squeezes, gentle and reassuring, and the masked figure stands back up.
"I thought you might."
Memory is a funny thing, and haunts her dreams, and lives in her heart, and her parents are a pair of warm hands wrapped around her while she hides from the noises of nighttime. The cottonsoft touch of the orange-and-yellow tunic her parent used to wear is a comfortable haze of familiar as she buries her beak there, cooing softly. Smells of smoked seeds and pipeweed, just like always, and above her is the soothing sound of crackling flames, echoed back. Just a little, there's a smooth black nothing sense where her siblings ought to be, but when Kiri's mind turns that way a gentle blue hand holds hers.
"Come on, Kiri!" singsongs other-parent-Jester. "You say, 'I am very sweet!'"
Kiri doesn't know how to tell other-parent-Jester that words, spoken words, are so new and precious to her. In the dream, she answers with the happy sounds of her earliest memories: softly lapping water, the crinkling sound of hay as you bed down in it for the night. It was a sort of language, an amalgam of sounds that don't hold the same value as words to most, but it means the world to Kiri.
In the dream she shows other-parent-Jester to the tradestall where her parents put up their handiwork for sale. Both are clever with their feathered fingers, experts at weaving patterned cloths. She makes the clacking sound of the loom rolling over in their little house, and points to a dress in pink with purple and blue striping along its hem and sleeves, because she thinks it's just the sort of thing that other-parent-Jester would like. There are whispers of the rest of the Mighty Nein; other-parent-Caleb's warm hand and soft voice; other-sibling-Nott, worrying that Kiri will get lost. But she is not lost, because she is safe with New Family, and other-parent-Jester now can see the beautiful work that Kiri's parents sell to make enough coin to feed their flock. It is a happy dream.
Comforted, she wanders on, making the sounds of the industrial mill down the path from New Home. She is sure her other-parents will stay close behind her.
On finishing Nott's chapter I realized I needed to actually have ever heard Kiri to be able to write a dream for her. Now I have! Thanks to anyone who has read this story for your time. I hope you enjoyed it!