Chapter 1: First Impressions
Shackled and shamed, Therion had next to no patience by the time he stumbled his way into Clearbrook. Despite being the closest town to Bolderfall, the trek hadn't been easy, with bandits and brigands lurking around every corner, and monsters hidden behind every tree. Normally, he was able to handle himself perfectly fine (partially due to the fact that he himself was a bandit of sorts), but with his dominant hand weighed down by Heathcote's damned bangle, his accuracy with knives was somewhat compromised; even though he considered himself to be ambidextrous, he still preferred using his right hand for light weaponry, but upon the fool's bangle lay a curse of sloppiness and frustration to be feared by thieves all across Orsterra. His aim was off, his balance was skewed, and Therion was all battered up because of it.
And so, upon crossing into the Riverlands, Therion decided it was probably best to stay a little longer than he'd originally planned. Not that he was happy about it - born into squalor in the Saintsbridge slums, the Riverlands had brought him naught but misery and misfortune - somehow coming home felt more like a kick to the gut than a warm welcoming back. But he'd passed through Clearbrook before, and he'd much rather travel to Atlasdam via a route he was already somewhat familiar with, even if that meant it would take longer. Besides, he wasn't partciularly fond of monsters, and although the Cliftlands and the Riverlands had their fair share, the Woodlands to the north were something else; anyplace with a corridor of forest nickanamed 'the Path of Beasts'" was someplace he wanted to avoid.
"Gods, when I get this damned bracelet off me, Heathcote's gonna pay." Therion muttered darkly to himself, messing with the cold band of metal encircling his wrist.
He continued following the river, until he caught a glimpse of chimney smoke billowing above the trees. He picked up his pace, relieved to find signs of civilisation at last; dark clouds rolled over from the east, and Therion didn't want to get caught out in the rain. He pulled his cloak tighter around himself, and dragged his scarf over his mouth and nose, aiming to stick to the shadows. There was a chance that the people of Clearbrook had caught wind of Bolderfall's resident master thief, and Therion had no intentions of running into any authorities. He was quickly met with a tall, worn, wooden sign, painted over with bold, white letters that demanded his attention:
WELCOME TO CLEARBROOK, POP.:
BEWARE: INCREASE OF VENOMOUS VIPERS TOWARDS EAST CLEARBROOK - RISK OF DEATH
PROCEED WITH CAUTION
"Well," Therion frowned, shoulders slumping. "I'll be damned. Even more monsters." Perhaps traveling through Clearbrook wasn't the best of ideas. Not that he had the time or patience to turn around now.
The overcast weather must've sent Clearbrook's residents running for shelter, as Therion found the streets to be relatively clear by the time he reached the village's main street. Both a blessing and a curse, he supposed - nobody was around to recognise him, but there was also nobody to steal from either. He'd scrounged up enough gold and leaves from Bolderfall's aristocracy before he left, so he had more than enough to see himself right until the Highlands. He contemplated finding an inn, and settling down for the night; there was no point in stocking up on supplies now, not with the cold already seeping into his bones.
Even with the streets vacant, Therion still found himself sticking close to the shadows where he could. It wasn't until he crossed Clearbrook's first bridge that he ran into company.
A man stood out in the rain, hair plastered to his forehead in sopping, brown tendrils. He paced back and forth in front of a small row of houses, muttering incoherencies to himself. He looked troubled, and Therion sure as hell didn't want to get involved in business that wasn't his own, so he veered off as far to the other side of the path as he could get, distancing himself from the man before he picked up his pace.
Unfortunately, his cloaked figure and quick footsteps weren't enough of a deterrent.
"Good afternoon, sir- miserable day, ain't it?" The man piped up after spotting Therion, right as he was passing by. "Couldn't help but noticing, but are you - by any chance - a sellsword?"
Therion lowered his scarf from his lips, keeping the back piled up over his head into a makeshift hood. He turned on his heel with the best glower he could manage. "Mind your own damn business." He chided, narrowing his eyes. Did he look like a sellsword? He wasn't exactly going for the approachable neighbourhood mercenary look.
Now that he was closer, he managed to get a better look at the man - tall and broad, with big, wide shoulders, and thick arms - bigger than he'd first thought, and Therion surpressed the urge to take a step back. His eyes were warm and kind, and despite his somewhat scruffy, backwater-type looks, the man was at least passingly handsome, in a rugged, country-boy kind of way. Therion guessed they were around the same age, though one would never guess it, given Therion's smaller, lankier stature (a consequence of a lifetime of malnutrition and stunted growth).
Despite Therion's standoffish response, the man smiled brightly. "Well, shucks, you know I didn't mean to pry! I'm sorry. It's just, I'm desperate, y'see." And the man took a step closer. He was at least a full head and shoulders above Therion, and although Therion was on the shorter side for a man of his age, he wasn't... well, short. "The name's Alfyn," the man introduced himself, smiling sweetly. "And I'm th' apothecary in these parts. There's me, and my buddy, Zeph, and we look after this here town, but lately there's been an increase of snakes in Clearbrook, and Zeph's darlin' little sister got bit pickin' flowers for her brother, and-"
"Stop right there." Therion insisted, holding his hands out in front of him. The guy was a chatterbox, he could already tell. "Why are you telling me this? I'm busy, I've got places to be."
"You look like a guy who knows his way around a sword. More than anyone else who lives round these parts, anyway. I don't recognise your face, and we don't get many travelers, y'see." Alfyn tried, eyes gleaming bright with hope. "An' I need all the help I can get- please."
Therion rolled his eyes. "Right, you got me. Maybe I know how to fight. But I have places to be- so, if you'll excuse me."
He started to walk away for the second time, disinterested in Alfyn's tale of plight. He didn't want to have to slow down for anyone, he didn't like others relying on him, or the risk of having to rely on others himself, so traveling companions were out of the question. All he had to do was find the dragonstones, and return them - how hard could that be? He didn't want or need this lumberjack of a doctor following him around. Besides, how could a man built like Alfyn ask for sword help from a lanky thief?
"I've got cash." Alfyn pitched, one last desperate attempt at securing help. "I can pay you for you time, and give you a place to stay for as long as you're in town, free of charge. And I'll fix ya up with some potions."
The rain thundered in Therion's ears, growing heavier with each passing minute. If he stayed out much longer, he'd definitely catch a cold, or a fever if he got unlucky. But the prospect of a roof over his head - free of charge - plus some extra cash, and healing remedies that usually cost a fortune for their ingredients alone... well, it was a promising deal. "I'm listening." Therion relented, stopping in his tracks.
Alfyn straightend up, eyes shining. "So you'll help?" He asked, fists clenching in excitement.
Therion turned slowly. "For the right price." He confirmed.
He ended up following Alfyn back to his home - a small shack of a house, close by to the terrace they spoke in front of earlier - and immediately, Therion scanned everything within his immediate vicinity, looking for valuables and trinkets, anything he could palm off from this overtrusting, niave apothecary. But the house was simple and mostly bare, aside from necessities. The kitchen and living area occupied one shared space, illuminated by a small, crackling fireplace. In one corner lay a washbasin, full of dirty, half-soaked clothes, and in the centre of the room a tattered, green rug had be laid in front of the fireplace, next to two armchairs in equal states of disrepair.
"It's not much, but it's home." Alfyn declared as he held open the front door. It wasn't like Therion could judge - or would, for that matter - he'd grown up on the streets of Saintsbridge, and had never had a home. Alfyn's place seemed cosy enough. "There's a bed upstairs, but as you can take it for as long as you need! You're my guest, an' all that."
Therion shook his head. "...That won't be necessary." He muttered. "So how long do you reckon this is going to take?"
Alfyn peeled off his soaked overcoat, and offered to take Therion's damp scarf and shawl, but Therion recoiled, unwilling to part with the shapeless cloak that secured his identity and hid his fool's bangle. He pulled down his haphazard scarf-hood. "Well, I was thinkin' of setting off tonight, after we've prepared properly. Poor Nina ain't got long, so we need to be quick. I reckon we should be back before daybreak."
"And what is it we have to do, exactly?" Therion asked.
"We gotta' get that snake's venom." Alfyn explained, sounding rather blunt. "I know, I know it sound crazy, but it's the only way." He led Therion over to the armchairs and gestured for him to take a seat. Therion was cautious, but sat down anyway, grateful for the warmth of the struggling fire. He debated clicking his fingers and tossing a few of his own embers in to help out, but he didn't want to show off all of his cards just yet.
"Right." Therion drawled, studying Alfyn carefully with his one visible eye. "And how come you can't swing a sword for yourself?"
Alfyn's laugh chimed throughout the room, hearty and light. "I ain't no sellsword, or fighter. I'm just an apothecary. Though, I can swing an ax like nobody's business, mind you. But I ain't never tried it on anythin' other than wood, and wood don't fight back."
I bet you can, Therion thought to himself, somehow baffled at the thought of this gentle giant picking daisies and herbs, instead of putting himself to better paid work, like fighting tournaments, or signing up to a mercenary group. He had the arms for it, clearly. "Alright. I can swing a sword, but I'm much better with knives and daggers, and throwing weapons." Therion admitted. "And I want payment upfront."
"I can give you your pick of my medicine cabinet tonight, but the money'll have to wait until we're done." Alfyn smiled, all sunshine and kindness, but there was something off about his unwavering positivity.
And then Therion realised the extent to which he'd fucked up. He'd followed a man he knew next to nothing about into his home, willed by the promise of good payment and a bed to sleep in, for the completion of a fairly simple albeit dangerous task. And now, Alfyn sat in the armchair closest to the door. He wouldn't have any problems with trapping Therion in, and sure, Therion probably had more wits and street smarts and speed than this airheaded doctor, but if Alfyn discovered the true nature of Therion's line of work, he'd have to leave Clearbrook sooner than he expected. "Fine." Therion growled through gritted teeth. "How much are we talking, anyway?"
"A thousand leaves? That'll get you far enough on your travels, right?" Alfyn suggested.
"It'll give me four nights in an inn at maximum. Call it two thousand." Therion bartered.
"Done." Alfyn agreed. He paused for a second or two, looking briefly confused. "By the way, I don't think I caught your name earlier?"
"It's Therion." Said the thief. The light from the fire danced in his eye, emerald and gold. "Now, about that snake..."
They set off for the Caves of Rhiyo at dusk, armed to the teeth with a variety of concoctions and vials of healing potions to see them through the night. Earlier, Therion sifted through Alfyn's stockpile of pre-made medicine, and picked a few things out for himself - a concotion to keep his energy up, three glass beakers of health-restoring potions, and a container of golden liquid that would supposedly bring him back from the brink of death - what Alfyn didn't know was that Therion had also slipped himself a few extras here and there, and he planned to go back for more. He'd take all he could carry and run to the Sunlands, but for now, Therion kept his thieving on the low-down. He kept his right arm tucked into his still-damp shawl, careful not to arouse suspicion. The fool's bangle would give him away immediately.
Alfyn talked his ear off for the entire hike to the caves, gabbering on about Zeph, and Nina, and their shared childhood in Clearbrook. He told Therion his life story, about his parents and their too-soon passing, and about how most of the kids in Clearbrook lost their families at some point due to poverty and disease. Therion fought the urge to scoff - it was nothing like Saintsbridge, he deemed - or even Bolderfall, that didn't have a lush, clean river flowing through it, or game hunting grounds on the forested outskirts. But who was he to judge another's poverty? To tell the truth, Alfyn didn't exactly seem well-off, and that troubled Therion.
No matter. If he didn't pay up, Therion would simply have to take matters into his own hands.
"And by the time we'd gotten back, Nina had pulled the whole vase o'er herself! What a mess- we spent all afternoon cleanin' her up." Alfyn recalled, throwing his arms about for exaggeration as he retold his many stories. Therion hadn't been listening, and he didn't intend on starting now. He carried on trudging ahead, leading the way even through Alfyn was supposed to be directing them both. "So... what's your story? How'd a guy like you end up a traveler?" Alfyn asked, closing the distance between their strides easily.
"Sorry. I don't do backstories." Therion scowled, messing with his scarf. He hoped that would be enough, but in the little time he'd had to get to know Alfyn, he'd figured it wouldn't be. The man was an unsufferable chatterbox.
"Oh, come on now!" Alfyn whined. He even had the gall to throw an arm over Therion's shoulders. "We're on a quest together! Least ya can do is lemme know a bit more about yourself."
Therion froze, and flinched away. He slipped out of Alfyn's grasp, and immediately turned to him, knife drawn. "Back off!" Therion yelled, eyes blazing.
"Woah, woah!" Alfyn laughed nervously. "Easy now! Didn't mean no harm!"
"Touch me again and I won't give you a warning next time, got it?" Therion practically hissed, his blade firm and steady in his left hand, still pointing in Alfyn's direction. The taller man nodded, sweat trickling down the side of his neck.
It'd stopped raining at some point during the afternoon, leaving the night somehow warmer and humid. Therion's hair was starting to curl at the edges, but still he refused to unravel his layers of cotton and felt. He tucked his dagger back into his shawl, a look of disgust etched upon his face.
Alfyn breathed a sigh of relief, and stayed a pace or two behind Therion when they resumed walking. "Quick fuse, huh?" He dared to accuse, with an expression somewhere inbetween mischief and fear.
"Spend a week on the roads by yourself and try to be any other way, I dare you." Therion countered. "How much longer til we reach these damned caves?"
"We're almost there," Alfyn promised. "...I sure hope we make it back in time."
"Idiot- look out!" Therion screeched, forcing himself into a dive to shoulder Alfyn out of the way of the snake's jaws. He wasn't kidding when he said he wasn't a fighter- gods, he hit hard (when he managed to hit at all with the bleeding ax of his), but he was much too slow, and soaked up hits from the smaller asps instead of jumping out of the way.
Therion's style was entirely different. In fights, he preferred not to be hit at all, thank you very much. Something which Alfyn failed to grasp entirely.
"Sorry!" Alfyn wheezed, lugging his weapon overhead. "Get a load of this!" His voice bellowed throughout the cavern as he cut down one of the smaller snakes, completely cleaving it in two. Therion grimaced, turning to their much larger target - the gigantic blotted viper that could probably eat him whole - and with three flicks of his wrist, he launched three flimsy-looking knives into the monster's underside.
"You have to concentrate." Therion instructed, his voice impatient and gruff. "Otherwise you'll miss- every damn time!" He distanced himself from Alfyn and the snakes, with all the grace of a professional dancer, and twice the speed. "Get back!" He ordered. As Alfyn shoved himself to the side, Therion reached a hand to the sky, outstretched, and summoned a plume of fire and smoke, seemingly from the depths of the Earth.
"Shucks!" Alfyn gawked, eyes wide. The blotted viper hissed and thrashed, it's tail whipping around amongst the flames. "Looks like I better up my game! Time to cool off!" Alfyn held his hands out in front of him, aimed at the viper, and a tall pillar of ice speared through the beast's entire head. With one final thrash, the viper's head lulled against the ice, and it fell limp and lifeless, scorched and impaled. The remaining asps had slithered off into the darkness as soon as Therion's flames flickered into life.
Therion braced himself, one knee on the ground, eyeing the snake cautiously.
"We did it..." Alfyn exhaled, breathless. "We actually did it!"
"We almost didn't, thanks to your clumsiness." Therion frowned, but Alfyn flashed him his winning smile anyway, and took out two empty vials he'd previously tucked away into his satchel.
"I'll fix you up as soon as I've collected the venom." He promised, uncorking one of the vials. He stepped over to the dead viper, ready to inspect it's mouth and fangs, but something wasn't right.
Therion moved with instinct. For the second time that night, he was over to the apothecary's side in an instant, muttering idiot as he shouldered him out of the way of the viper's final strike. Alfyn cried out in surprise, dropping his vials.
Something had pierced itself into Therion's shoulder, and the world suddenly went black.
"Wait!" Therion shrieked, arms outstretched.
He felt smaller, and colder. Somehow heavier. The corners of his vision were inky and blurred, and it was hard to see.
In front of him, standing tall, was Darius - his beloved partner - no older than eighteen, barely a boy, but still, not a man, hanging at the collar as a man twice his size held him aloft. Therion brandished his blade; a small, pathetic excuse for a capentry dagger. He couldn't remember where he'd picked it up from, or who it used to belong to. "Let him go!" He seethed, all rage and unchecked fear, bottled up into the form of a wayward, threatened twelve-year-old.
The man looked away from Darius for a second, before dropping him onto the cobbled street. He took a long, hard look at little Therion, before drawing his own weapon - a sleek, silver sword, the mark of a Knight - he pointed it at Therion. "And who are you to give orders to a guardsman? Ignorant street rat!"
Therion looked for Darius, but he was already scrambling away, halfway down the street by the time the guard had drawn his weapon, leaving Therion to tremble under his enraged gaze, alone. Without thinking twice, Therion lowered his blade and ran faster than his feet had every carried him, in the opposite direction of the guard, who came barreling after him, screaming.
"Gods, Therion- we've gotta' get you back to Zeph's! Come on, up you get- that's it- it's alright, I've got you!"
The scene changed, and Therion was lying on a moth-eaten blanket, staring straight up at the ceiling. Darius had left their safehouse furious, and for what? Therion wasn't sure.
He was fourteen now. He'd grown quite a bit, but he was still on the meagre side. Darius had laughed at him one night, and said something about him needing to put on weight, otherwise how was he supposed to take a hit?
Therion had brushed him off, and claimed he liked his size. He was quick, nimble, and needed less food - that probably wasn't true - but his aim was to not get hit at all.
He didn't know where Darius had stormed off to, but being left alone in a secluded cabin in the middle of the Frostlands had Therion on edge. There'd been rumours circulating the North, about kidnappers and human traffickers stalking the Frostlands, looking for easy prey: impoverished households with one too many mouths to feed, lost travelers wandering aimlessly across the tundra, directionless children with no guardians. In his developing years, Therion often wondered what it would be like if he'd grown up to have a normal life in Saintsbridge. What if the church had taken him in, and he'd been fed and clothed and loved? What if he didn't have to steal apples and bread from the local market to live?
If that were the case, maybe he wouldn't be in this mess, cold and alone, wishing for Darius to come back.
All of a sudden, the flimsy wooden was thrown open, and Darius stumbled in. No longer awkward teenager struggling to fit into his own skin, but a man with a fierce glare and a horrendous temper.
"Therion!" He boomed, and Therion bolted upright. "C'mere, you little rat!"
Fearing the consequences of disobediance, Therion pushed himself off the floor and padded over to Darius, all bare feet and aching chills as the howling wind pierced through the shack. Darius slammed the door behind him. Standing opposite his mentor, Therion could smell the alcohol on his breath, and immediately knew what was about to come.
"The copper's are on our trail." He spat. "An' it's all your fault! If you had've just let me kill that last cop in Stillsnow-"
Therion's brow furrowed. "But that would've put a bigger sentence on our-"
"Quiet!" Darius roared, and Therion was in the floor in an instant, backhanded and red-faced, his cheek stinging. "Now, to make it up to me- you're gonna stay here until the cops arrive, and you're gonna be a damn good diversion whilst I get away. I'll meet you in Atlasdam to the East in two weeks."
"Alone? You're leaving without me?" Therion gawked.
"Where's the problem? You're quicker, ain't you? You'll give the coppers the slip in no time." Darius scoffed, striding past Therion. He started to roll up the blanket on the floor.
Ten minutes later, Therion was left alone in their compromised safehouse, embarrassed and panicked and hurt.
"Just hang in there, buddy. Hold on- hold on, we're almost there. Can you still hear me?"
When he was sixteen, he fought back for the first time.
Darius was drunk again, absolutely off his trolley, and after a stupid argument about how they were going to split their treasure Darius took a swing at Therion. Instead of taking it, Therion ducked, ready in a fighting stance to swing back if need be. Darius' eyes widened, and his cheeks flushed red with anger. "Eh? And what're you gonna do, punch me back?" He challenged. Therion wavered slightly, refusing to speak, but keeping a steady, weary eye on his partner. Darius took a second swing, but Therion was always too fast for his partner.
"Darius, you're drunk." Therion insisted. "Please. You win, we'll go seventy-thirty, just stop this."
But Darius just laughed, cracking his knuckles. "Oh, no." His grin was cold and sinister."You decided how we'd settle this as soon as you opened your damn mouth!" And he charged at the boy, aiming his swings to hit hard. "This is a lesson you'll have to learn the hard way!"
Therion sidestepped most his attacks, slowly understanding that Darius was trying to hurt him. This wasn't some game. He grunted, stooping under a well-aimed right hook that otherwise would've collided with his jaw. He held his arms up in a block, shielding his face as Darius continued to back him into a corner. It wasn't until his back hit the wooden wall behind him that Therion snapped, and as Darius pressed on, the smaller thief countered one of his punches, slugging his partner right in the mouth.
Darius stumbled back, surprised that Therion had lashed out at all. He looked up, all that malicious delight gone from his face. Now, he was angry. Now, he was going to make Therion hurt. "How dare you-" he started, eyes blazing.
The guilt was already creeping up on Therion. He was such a damned, sentimental fool. He lowered his guard, the look in his eyes softening. "Darius, I'm sorry." He pleaded.
When Darius came for him the second time over, Therion didn't try to stop him.
He could barely see for all the light.
Someone hovered over him, a looming shadow, stark against the brightness. Warm hands held his shoulders, whilst a voice murmured something he couldn't quite make out.
Therion woke up, startled. He was sent hurtling into a panic, confused and afraid, unsure of his surroundings. He immediately latched onto the stranger's collar, forcing him away in an attempt to free himself from their grip.
"Hey- hey- slow down, it's just me! Therion? You're okay, you're okay-"
And everything flooded back to him. He was in a warm bed, someplace in Clearbrook, and Alfyn was holding him steady. "It's just me," he repeated, in his kind and caring apothecary's voice, trying to reassure his patient. "Take it easy, buddy. Settle down- you're alright."
Therion fell back against his pillow, breathing heavily. "We're in Clearbrook, right?" He asked.
Alfyn nodded. "Yeah. We're back at my place."
"And the snake venom?"
"We beat the viper, remember? All thanks to you." Alfyn smiled. "Do you remember much else from the caves?"
Therion shook his head. Alfyn sat on the end of the bed, and brought him up to speed on everything that happened since he blacked out - how he saved Alfyn from a nasty snake bite, but ended up poisoned and delirious for his troubles - Alfyn had to rush back to Clearbrook with Therion on his back, two vials of venom secured for him and Nina. Two days of broken sleep and nasty hallucinations, and Therion finally woke up.
Alfyn shifted in a stangely skittish manner. "You talk in your sleep, you know." He started, glancing at Therion.
Therion's blood ran cold. He looked down, and found himself dressed in too-big clothes that weren't his. An oversized green tunic, that dipped low enough to show off some of his nastier scars, amongst other things. The fool's bangle clanked around his wrist, no longer hidden by his shawl. "I need to leave." He declared.
"No, you don't." Alfyn insisted. "You need to rest. Another day, at least. I can't go lettin' one of my patients walk away without fully recovering."
But Therion was already clambering out of bed. He was somewhat unsteady on his feet, and his head was killing, but still- he turned tail and fled the room, ignoring Alfyn's protests. He stumbled down the stairs, and started searching the living room frantically. "Where are my cloak and scarf?" He demanded, as Alfyn followed him.
"I'm in the middle of washing them." Alfyn crossed his arms over his chest, leaning against one of the walls. "They're hangin' out to dry, at the minute."
"You went through my things?" Therion hissed, closing in on the apothecary.
"Don't worry." Alfyn reassured, flashing a toothy smile. "All your things are safe and accounted for. Except the extra potions you slipped out of my medicine stockpile."
Therion bristled. "So, now you know the truth."
Alfyn nodded. "It seemed strange that someone like you travels alone, but I get it now."
They stared each other down. Therion contemplated bolting- finding a nearby window and escaping before Alfyn could turn him into the Riverland authorities. He'd heard tall tales of the police in the Riverlands taking petty criminals to Riverford, where they'd face a court trial, and if found guilty they'd be hung or burnt at the stake. He wasn't going to end up like them. But to escape Clearbrook, without his shawl or his daggers, or any cash to get him by...
"Don't worry." Alfyn stepped forward and placed a hand on his shoulder, and Therion had to remind himself that he really wasn't in any position to be able to make threats. "I won't turn you in to the police, or send you off without proper treatment. You saved my life, and Nina's, too, so I figured I owe ya one now."
Therion pulled a face. He hated the idea of being indebted to someone else, or of someone else feeling indebted to him. It was extra baggage he didn't need. "Don't think too hard about it." He frowned. "You promised me two thousand leaves, and although I'm a thief, I won't say no to easy cash. Besides, how do you know I wasn't planning on robbing you blind?"
Alfyn shrugged. "I guess you already tried."
"Took what I could carry, and what you wouldn't immediately miss." Therion explained. He backed away slightly from Alfyn, fingers itching to play with the hem of his scarf, which he no longer had wrapped around him for protection. "Look, I appreciate that you took the time to fix me up and everything, but I'm fine and ready to go, and if you'd just pay me already, I'd be on my way. So-"
"Oh, but, y'see, I had something else in mind. Since you did try to steal from me and stuff," Alfyn waved his hands in dismissal, once again stepping closer to Therion, who slunk away.
"Personal space." Therion chided, deadpan.
"I want to go on my own journey." Alfyn announced. "Travellin' back and forth, helping people in any way I can- what's the point in bein' a backwater, country-bumpkin apothecary if your town can be fixed up by just one person?"
Therion clicked on immediately. "No." He shook his head, stern. "No- this wasn't the deal."
"But we make pretty good company, don't you think?" Alfyn pushed, his evergreen eyes sparkling. "We fill in each other's gaps! You're fast, and I'm strong- you're clever and calculating, and I'm caring- we could have each other's backs!"
"I don't think so, doc." Therion growled. "Just give me the money, and I'll be going, thanks."
Therion paused for a moment. "You can't be serious."
Alfyn laughed, becoming somewhat sheepish. He reached a hand up to scratch at the back of his neck, choosing now to avert his otherwise steadfast gaze. "I'm not exactly loaded, y'know..."
"You lied to me?" Therion accused, taking an aggressive stance, fists clenched.
"I figured I'd be able to make it up to yer somehow!" Alfyn insisted, arms up in surrender. "C'mon, I can get you the money! Just not now! But if you let me come with you-"
"In your dreams! I don't need extra baggage!" Therion spat, insulted.
"But wouldn't it be useful, having your own apothecary followin' you around?" Alfyn offered. The desperation was written on his face.
Therion's brain betrayed him for a minute or two, as he allowed himself to consider the possibility. No more filthy bandages, no more pus-filled infections, no badly-healed scars. He thought about what it'd be like to get a horrible cut, and not have it mar his body permanently. Maybe Alfyn could be useful... he'd already proved his worth. He was handy with an ax, if not a bit reckless and inexperienced, and he'd already brought Therion back from the brink of death. So why not?
"No further than Atlasdam." Therion stated, his voice blunt. "And I want that cash. We'll have to have boundaries, too, because I'm not thrilled about this-"
"Yes!" Alfyn cheered. "I'll go pack up!" He threw an arm around Therion's shoulder in a quick show of affection, before ducking upstairs to presumably collect his things, and Therion had to bite his tongue, lest he already retract the offer.
At Alfyn's insistence, they spent another two nights cooped up in his tiny home. Alfyn let Therion have the bed, saying that it was his duty as an apothecary to ensure his patient's comfort. Therion didn't argue much- he was still recovering from the poison, and his dreams were distressing enough for him to appreciate the softness of a bed. Even so, it was uncomfortable sharing a room with somebody else- Alfyn slept on the floor of his bedroom, on a small pile of blankets and fabrics. He snored loudly, and Therion could already tell it was going to take him a while to adjust to having a traveling companion. He wasn't happy about it, to say the least.
But he supposed it was his fault, to begin with. It'd been a while since he helped someone out, and even though he did it for the promise of money, he shouldn't have stopped to listen to Alfyn's troubles anyway.
Sentimental fool, he thought. What would Darius think of him now, marked by his fool's bangle, sick and injured, under the wing of an idiot medicine man?
For the umpteenth time since waking up from his poison-induced sleep, he contemplated escaped. With Alfyn asleep, he could find his scarf and the rest of his belongings, and be gone without his host even stirring. He could even get another shot at his medicine cabinet- Alfyn was way too gullible. Who on Earth would learn the the truth behind his occupation, and still choose to house him? What a fool.
But Therion continued to stare up at the ceiling, waiting until his eyes grew heavy and tired. He could manage babysitting Alfyn until they hit Atlasdam. Perhaps it wouldn't even take that long- he'd be able to chase him off before then, he reckoned.
In his dreams, he heard Darius laughing. So sinister and cold, it pierced through his very being, simultaneously making him want to run for the hills, and stand and fight.
"Such a fool, ain't you?" He crooned. "Ah, but some things never change, do they, Therion?"
Darius stood above him, taller than he ever remembered, taunting him with every word.
"We'll see how this ends," he told him. "I wonder how he'll try to kill you- the unkillable, master tea leaf, still just an idiot boy at heart. Good to no one, no good at all."
Chapter 2: Beyond the River
Hello again! Just a quick notice to say I'm sorry for the gap between chatpers one and two, but life does get in the way a little bit, and I'm working full time. Thank you so much for the response to chapter one! It's probably the most enthusiastic reaction I've had to a fic! This chapter was a lot of writing, and re-writing, and lamenting, and giving up, but now it's here!
Also, side-note: I've changed my handle from ClericNox to Carmine_Revenant! I apologise for any confusion this may have caused. You can also find me on Twitter now, as @revylei.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
In the two days following their agreement, Alfyn spent every waking hour preparing; mixing up concoctions, darting about Clearbrook in search of ingredients, visiting his patients with medicine stocks and kind words of good luck and farewell. Therion didn’t really mind, in all honesty - he was just happy to have a bed - it’d been a while, after all, since he’d stayed in such a warm and secure place. It was better than sleeping in the woods, high up in the treetops, and the fact that it was free of charge was just a bonus. Alfyn still insisted that Therion needed to take the bed, even though his sickness was passing. His excuses started to shift from ‘you’re my patient and you need the rest’, to ‘you’re my guest!’ . Eventually, Therion stopped arguing.
On the morning they were due to set off, the two of them trudged down to Alfyn’s living room and sat down on the rug in front of the unlit fireplace. Alfyn set out an old scroll of parchment containing a map of the whole continent.
“So we’re heading to Atlasdam in the north-east. Once we get there, I want my money, and we’ll part ways.” Therion explained, tracing his finger from Clearbrook, through the Sunlands, Highlands, and the Coastlands, counter-clockwise around the until he found Atlasdam in the Flatlands. “It’d be quicker to get a ship across the Orsterran Sea, but it’d be expensive, and I doubt I’d be allowed on board with this.” He gestured to his shackled wrist, and Alfyn nodded. "Not that we could afford it, anyway..."
“That’s fine.” Alfyn reassured. “The whole point is so I can do some actual travellin’, and I don't think sailors get seasick very much. There wouldn't be many people for me to heal .”
Therion inspected the map closer. It was beautifully made, and didn’t look like a standard-issue map, not with how beautiful the calligraphy looked. The illustrations depicting settlements and cities were stunningly detailed, and the paintwork - although somewhat faded - had a professional quality to it. “Where’d you get this?” He asked, curious.
“This old thing?” Alfyn grinned, feigning modesty. “It belonged to my great-grandparents. They were mapmakers from Stonegard, before they retired and settled in the Riverlands. They passed it down to my ma’, and then she gave it to me.”
“It’s nice.” Therion offered. Looks like it could be worth something. He held his tongue, but quietly decided that it couldn’t mean that much to Alfyn if he didn’t protect it properly, so if it ended up amongst Therion’s belongings by the time they parted ways in Atlasdam, then surely Alfyn would be to blame.
Alfyn hummed in agreement. “So today, I suppose we’re headin’ off to the Sunlands.”
“We are.” Therion confirmed, and Alfyn rolled up the map.
Somehow, Alfyn had already said his goodbyes to the entire village of Clearbrook. To everyone expect Zeph, at least, and his little sister.
“It’s not a big place.” Alfyn had said, days earlier. “It won’t take long to see everyone, and tell ‘em all goodbye.”
Maybe Clearbrook was small, but it had still taken Alfyn the best part of two days to deliver medicine reserves, and to visit everybody he’d ever tended to, so by the time Alfyn got to Zeph, Therion was downright bored.
“You’re leaving?!” Nina cried with wide, rapidly watering eyes.
“Aw, Nina! Don’t look at me like that!” Alfyn crumbled, opening his arms wide for a hug.
Therion stood awkwardly in Zeph’s living room, as close to the door as he could manage without looking overly skittish. Zeph was standing behind a counter with a cooking pot, and set aside his pestle and mortar upon hearing Alfyn’s announcement.
“Oh, Alfyn.” Zeph sighed, bracing himself for his dear sister’s tears as Nina started to cry softly into Alfyn’s tunic. He glanced at Therion for a split second or two, with a concerned look on his face. “You’re not going alone, are you?”
“How long do you think I’d last out there on my own?” Alfyn smiled sadly, and they both chuckled to themselves, clearly privy to some kind of inside joke at Alfyn’s expense. “I know what plants I can and can’t eat, and I’m strong enough to watch my own back, but what have I got against people in need? I’d be all outta’ coin before I reach the Sunlands if I don’t have someone to keep me right.” He nodded back to Therion, who clung to the shadows like he’d burn up the instant he stepped into the noontime sun. “Therion’s a traveler. He knows Orsterra, so if I go with him, I can keep him healthy and on his feet, and he’ll take me over to Atlasdam, an’ show me how to make camps, and stuff.”
Zeph sighed deeply through his nose. “Alfyn, can I talk to you in private?” He asked, his voice all pleading and earnest. “If you’re still packing up, I could meet you later tonight?”
Nina unwound her small arms from around Alfyn, and went to sit by the window, pulling up a chair. She rubbed at her eyes and sniffled, arms folded over the dinner table. She cast her gaze to the river flowing past their quaint little home, in an effort to hide her tears. A confused look flashed over Alfyn’s face for a few seconds, as his attention bounced between the two siblings like a yo-yo. “Sure, Zeph. I wanna stock up on some noxweed before we go, so I can meet you in a few hours?”
Therion pulled his scarf up and over his mouth as Zeph shot him another disconcerted look, but it was gone as quickly as it’d came. “Alright.” Zeph smiled, right before launching into a lecture on Alfyn’s excessive charity.
Charity won't be an issue, Therion thought to himself. Not with him around.
Therion waited for Alfyn on the edge of town at dusk, determined to leave Clearbrook before the sun disappeared completely below the horizon. Earlier, Alfyn suggested that perhaps they could stay another night and leave for the Sunlands in the morning, but then they’d never leave. Therion didn’t want to travel far at night, but he at least wanted to make some progress; it didn't matter if they camped out just past the faded Clearbrook sign that marked the village limits, just so long as they weren't on Alfyn's doorstep. Having home so close by would probably be a good thing for the apothecary, anyway, just in case something went wrong.
Waiting for Alfyn wasn't a complete loss, at least. He'd never admit it, but he was able to empty a few pockets under the cover of the night, playing his tricks on trusting workmen as they made the pilgrimage home for the night. He bumped into a young lumberjack and swiped a pretty gold trinket from his trouser pocket as he lowered his ax and blurted out an apology. It seemed unusual for a woodcutter to have such an item on his person after coming back from the forest with an armful of timber, but either way, it would probably fetch a few gold coins. He tried to study its features, turning it over in his hand so it caught the moonlight and reflected it back.
“Found anythin’ interesting?” By now, Alfyn voice had become familiar enough to Therion for him to not jump out of his skin.
“Nothing an apothecary would need.” Therion jumped off the fence he’d perched himself on and pocketed the brooch. “Are you ready, now?”
“Yeah. Zeph just wanted to talk.” Alfyn held tightly onto his bag strap. “He also gave me his medicine satchel. It’s old, but it looks good as new- I still feel bad about takin’ it. But he has mine now, so we’ll never be far from each other.”
Therion fought the urge to physically gag. “Cute.” He blanched.
“He was also worried about me- what, with this new unsavoury type of patient I’ve takin’ to savin’.” Alfyn teased, following Therion as he started to walk away from Clearbrook's town centre. “He didn’t want me gettin’ into trouble. Thought you might mug me as soon as we get out of town.”
Therion scoffed. “It’s dark. It’s cold. How do you know I won’t?” He challenged. “I'm quicker, nimble. Got a pretty decent inner compass . It wouldn’t be hard to lift your valuables and run, snatch that medicine bag right off your shoulder.”
Alfyn laughed, clear and bright, for perhaps the first time that day. In the short time they’d known each other, Therion had found it weird that Alfyn’s day had been mostly tearful. He was usually splitting his sides at his own unfunny jokes, or just laughing for the hell of it. It was surprisingly nice to hear it again. Comforting. “I’m not a traveler, and I’ve barely been out of Clearbrook, but I know my way around these parts well enough to give you a good enough of a chase.”
“I’d like to see you try.” Therion shook his head, a small grin crossing his lips. “I’m the fastest thief in the west, possibly in all of Orsterra. You couldn’t catch me if you tried.”
They bantered back and forth for a little while, and for half an hour or so, Therion forgot what it was like to fear betrayal.
They walked until it got too dark for them to continue. Therion conjured two little balls of fire - one in each hand - to guide them as they searched for a spot to settle down for the night. Eventually, they found a little alcove where someone had cut down a few trees, with just enough cover to hide them away from the trail they wandered down, and any watching eyes that may come with it.
Therion extinguished the light from one of his hands, and bundled up some fallen branches and sticks, arranging them into a pyramid in order to start a fire, whilst Alfyn struggled to drag over a hollowed-out log to their campsite.
“These parts are a favourite of the woodcutters back in Clearbrook.” He explained, once he finally dragged the fallen log over to their little campsite. “I never came this far out, but it seems like a good spot. Just a little too far out from town, too far for their doctor to stray.”
Therion clicked his fingers, and held his burning hands over the wood. “It’ll do for tonight.” He agreed. “I’ll take the first watch it you want, then in a couple of hours we’ll switch.”
“Sounds good to me.” Alfyn smiled, taking off his tunic. He sat on the log in his undershirt, and held out his hands to the flames. It was a cool night - nothing too chilly - but the fire was still very much appreciated.
“How do you do that?” Alfyn asked, gesturing to Therion’s hands. “Doesn’t it burn you?”
“Not really.” Therion shook his head. His fringe fell slightly into his other eye. “Magic’s in my blood, and I’m trained in fire-based charms and spells, but the rest of it never really interested me. It’s the magic that stops the flames from burning me, in the same way your ice magic probably doesn’t freeze you up.”
Alfyn hummed in response. He laid himself out on the log - it was just wide enough so that he could lie back comfortably - and he folded his arms back behind his head. “I getcha’. So were your parents scholars, or sorcerers, or somethin’?”
Therion remained silent. Once he finished with the fire, he started idly playing with the ends of his scarf. Then, a quiet “it doesn’t matter.”
“Aw, c’mon.” Alfyn pushed, lifting his head up to glance at the thief. “You know enough about me. My grandparents were mapmakers, and my pa was a scholar. He taught me a little bit before he died. I was only interested in ice magic because I always wanted it to snow durin’ winter. You got my whole life story, pretty much."
Therion moved away from the fire. If it weren’t for the analytical look in his eye, Alfyn would’ve assumed that he’d ignored him. “We leave at daybreak.” He declared, before hoisting himself up into a tree, close to Alfyn and the fireplace. “I’ll take first watch. If I can’t make it through the whole night, I’ll wake you up so we can swap.”
“Wake me up even if you can.” Alfyn insisted, talking at the trees when he loses sight of his guide. “Goodnight, Therion.”
“Night.” Therion answered, from somewhere above him.
Therion didn’t sleep at all, too hesitant to face his rapidly spiralling nightmares to close his eyes for more than a few minutes at a time. When the sun first began to spill out from over the treetops, he sighed heavily with relief, unaware that he’d started holding his breath at all. It calmed him, sometimes, to hide in the trees above the rest of the world, alone with his thoughts, in a place where he could just sit and hold his breath, counting to ten in between exhales. Somewhere where time would slow a little bit, and the Earth would allow him some degree of patience, so he could quietly think and adjust to his mind's mounting imbalances. It wasn't fair that he had these problems in the first place, but it was even unfairer that his chaotic, survival-driven lifestyle couldn't accommodate for them enough for him to even consider trying to fix them. Staying up in the trees offered him the next best solution, albeit a temporary one: the chance to slow down.
He was tired when the time came for him to start packing up, but he was accustomed to a lack of sleep, and in some cases he’d rather be sleepy than having to face the day with his head full of past demons and mangled snippets of days-gone trauma.
“Hey.” Therion muttered once back on ground-level. “Medicine man. Get up.”
Alfyn snored loudly, and shifted, rolling onto his side. At some point through the night, he’d managed to fall off the log without waking himself, and was now sprawled on the grass.
“Doc.” Therion tried again, prodding him gently on the arm with his boot. “We have to go now. If we don’t set off soon, we’ll not make it to the Sunlands for another few days or so.”
Still, Alfyn did not stir. Therion stared down at him, getting a good look at his face, a lot less self-conscious without the fear of being caught - Alfyn was the complete opposite of himself, in some ways, all sunkissed skin and rough stubble, where Therion was pale and gangly, and weirdly smooth, stuck with the inability to grow consistent or even facial hair - his satchel was tucked safely into his side, never out of arm’s reach. Therion nudged him a second time, a little harder this time, and Alfyn bolted upright.
“What’s it-” He blurted out, dazed and tired and confused. “Zeph?” He asked, squinting against the sunlight.
“Therion.” The thief corrected bluntly. “Get up. We’re leaving soon.”
“Therion.” Alfyn repeated to himself. He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, and then pawed at his left shoulder, clearly sore after sleeping in an uncomfortable position all night. “'Course.” He yawned, and reached for his crumpled up tunic. “Sorry for gettin’ up late. I’m all packed though, all I need is this here satchel.”
Therion turned away, tired eyes growing heavier against the glare of the sun. He wound his scarf tighter around his neck, despite the encroaching heat. The Sunlands would be nigh unbearable, if he remembered correctly. “We should fill up our canteens by the river before we set off.” He declared. “You’re in for a shock once we hit the Sunlands. If we want to make it through alive, we’ll have to be careful with our water.”
“Is it that bad?” Alfyn asked, pulling his vest over his head. “If I remember correctly, there are some rare plants only found in the Sunlands. Water retainin’ plants. I was hopin’ we could stick around long enough to find ‘em- they sound pretty useful, don't you think?”
Therion shot him an irritated glance. “We can look around the Sunshade marketplace, if you’d like, but sticking around the desert is asking for trouble. On the Eastern border between the Riverlands and the Sunlands, there’s a set of catacombs to the North. If we travel through them, we should be alright, but they're still about an hour into desert territory.”
Alfyn sighed. “Alright, you’re the boss.” He shrugged off his disappointment, and was back to his smiley self within seconds, trusting Therion to know best. He hadn't survived as long as he had on an empty head, after all. “Let’s get goin’, then!”
It took them a full two days to cross over into the Sunlands and find the ancient catacombs of which Therion spoke. They weren’t marked anywhere on Alfyn’s map, so all they had to go on was Therion’s instincts and wavering memory, meaning it took a little longer than either of them were comfortable with. Once they found the old, wind-beaten steps that led into a series of tangled, underground passages, Alfyn crouched down just beyond the entrance and pulled a small ink well from his satchel. Therion set both of his ablaze, and hovered over Alfyn’s shoulder, casting light across the old map as Alfyn scrawled Sunshade Catacombs, with Therion’s direction. His handwriting was a far cry from his grandparents' professional, looping calligraphy, but it worked all the same.
“That’s about right, I think.” Therion nodded, as they waited for the ink to dry. Alfyn had managed to slop a little bit from the bottle over one of his hands. When he eventually rolled the map back up, a few black smudges stained the reverse side of the parchment, vaguely resembling his fingerprints. Therion had to stop himself from chastising the apothecary for decreasing the map's market value.
“Grandma would understand.” Alfyn smiled sadly, tucking the map safely into his bag. The map contained all of the important routes and areas for navigating Orsterra, but none of the secret pathways or caves that Therion knew. “This is just me addin’ to their work, havin’ my own adventure.”
Therion hummed in response, stepping back and Alfyn rose to his feet, mindful of the thief's blazing hands. They pressed on, venturing away from the safety of the stairway that led deeper into the catacombs, away from the light of the scorching desert sun. It was fairly cool inside the catacombs, at least - a small respite - the day before, Alfyn had stripped down to his undershirt for most of the trek, and Therion refashioned his mantle into a hood, and tied his scarf around his waist like a sash. Therion was somewhat glad when Alfyn pulled his tunic back over his head, finding it increasingly difficult to not stare at his muscular arms. He chalked it up to Alfyn’s lack of scars, and how, despite being a woodcutter in his spare time, Alfyn seemed to be mostly blemish-free.
“Getting cold?” Therion teased, straight faced as he marched on ahead.
“It’s just a big change from bein’ up there,” Alfyn reasoned. “When we get to Sunshade, I wanna take a proper look at your face and neck. You look like you were gettin’ all burnt up in the sun, and I think I have a remedy that might help. I need to check us both for sunstroke, too.”
Therion flushed a little bit at the idea of having someone examine him closely, and shook his head. “Not a chance, medicine man.”
Alfyn made a disappointed noise from behind him. “C’mon, doctor’s orders.” He insisted. “You’re not still freaked out about the snake bite incident, are you? I only did what I did to look after you, I promise I didn’t see anythin’ I wasn’t supposed to. You’re a prickly guy, I get it, but us apothecaries have standards, and codes, and woah-”
Right in the middle of Alfyn's spiel, Therion stopped dead in his tracks, and the apothecary more or less crashed his back. He steadied them both with an iron grip on either side of the thief’s shoulders, catching the smaller man's stumble. “What is it?” He asked, and Therion had to stop himself from biting back out of irritation.
“Let go of me.” Therion demanded, deadpan, and Alfyn let his hands drop to his sides. “Look.”
Standing further ahead was a figure, just close enough so that they could see the light from Therion’s hands as it reflected against embellishments on the figure’s clothing. A woman, holding a lantern with a small flame that threatened to give out at any second. She was hard to make out in the dim light, but even from a distance Therion could tell she was beautiful, in a sort of nostalgic way. Her eyes, deep and brown, caught the light in such a way that when they locked eyes, Therion couldn’t help but feel some kind of kinship. They were endless and warm, but held a certain kind of hostility to them.
“Well met, travelers,” the woman called out, her voice low and husky, and Therion felt Alfyn relax against his back, still standing too close. “What brings you this deep into the catacombs of Sunshade’s forgotten nobility?”
“A merchant,” Therion spoke quickly, eager to have his say before Alfyn could blow their cover and make them out to be easy targets. “And a humble mercenary. Together, we are headed to Sunshade to conduct business. And what of yourself, milady?”
“A thief and an actor?” Alfyn half-whispered into his ear in his thick, country drawl, and Therion fought the urge to elbow him in the ribs.
The woman stepped closer, and Therion heard the chime of the bells likely sewn into her clothing. A performer, most likely- perhaps a dancer? She reached an arms length away, studying the pair in her lamplight, eyes flickering down to Therion’s burning hands. “A will-of-the-wisp, seeking to guide the lost.” She offered a delicate hand. “My name is Primrose, and I am a dancer.”
“Nice to meet ya’.” Alfyn stepped to Therion’s side, and offered his own, much larger hand. She took it with a smile Therion didn’t quite believe.
“A merchant, and a mercenary.” Primrose mused, studying the two of them. “Or a charlatan, and his bodyguard? Your acting is fine, but your dress betrays you. That bangle belongs to no well-meaning shopkeep.”
Therion bit his tongue. “Lofty accusations.” He managed through grit teeth. “We have no business in Sunshade besides seeking a room for the night.”
The woman smiled coyly. “A room,” she repeated, eyes dancing from one to the other. “Then perhaps neither of you could benefit from my services.” Therion swallowed hard, his cheeks reddening from embarrassment and rage at her implications. “But perhaps I could benefit from yours, if one of you truly is a mercenary?”
“No,” Therion admitted, and his tone fell flat. He dropped all pretenses of being well-spoken and noble, extinguishing the flames from his dominant hand, ready to pull out a knife if need be. “We’re simply travelers, journeying to Atlasdam. Sunshade is simply a resting stop, and we don’t need any more distractions.”
“Atlasdam?” Primrose perked up. “In the Flatlands? It seems Sealticge smiles upon me this day- I’m looking for safe passage that way, too. What’s your name, good sir?”
Therion moved to stride past her. “None of your business.”
“Aw, c’mon Therion!” Alfyn whined. “Sounds like this nice lady might need some help. You’re lookin’ for a sellsword, milady?”
Sirs and miladies didn’t sound right in Alfyn’s backwater accent, Therion decided, but Primrose didn’t seem to mind. “Why yes, I am.” She nodded. “I’m a dancer by trade, but I’m on a mission of sorts. One bourne from necessity, and revenge.”
Therion continued walking forwards, willing to leave Alfyn behind, if need be. One less child for him to worry about, in his eyes; no more business for Therion's Babysitting Service. Until the dancer continued-
“My name is Primrose Azelhart, you see, and I'm looking for the men who murdered my father.” She announced to the empty caverns, and Therion stopped dead in his tracks.
“Why didn’t you just say so?” He turned on his heel, sporting a somewhat misplaced grin. “How can we be of service?”
Primrose guided them through the Sunshade Catacombs with ease, taking them to an exit towards the North as she explained her story to the pair. “House Azelart is dead,” she declared, “and all for what? Money? Power? My father rots someplace six feet under Noblecourt, and I have yet to track down his murderers. Until today.”
Alfyn looked sombre, distant almost. First Therion, covered in scars from head to toe, with a hidden eye he presumed was blind or lost completely, with a head full of demons and a heart guarded by walls and chains; and now this lady, Miss Primrose, a desert flower with a voice as sweet as honey. With her captivating eyes, and smooth, dark skin, unmarred and pure, she had no business being as haunted as she was.
The world was a scary, treacherous place. From inside the confines of little Clearbrook, Alfyn had nothing more to worry about than age and disease. Realities that caught up to everyone. In becoming an apothecary, he thought he could fight at least one of those demons. But in meeting Therion, and now this Primrose - whose eyes shone with cold fire, like the kind nestled deep in Therion’s soul, like his magic; Primrose, who clearly lusted and longed for revenge, and three men, cold and dead at the end of her knife - he realised there were all sorts of ailments not so easily fixed by herbs and salves and banages.
“Gosh, Miss Primrose,” he started, unsure of what to say. “I’m awfully sorry about what happened to you. How can we help?”
Therion trudged behind them, weary and focused, but willing. Alfyn couldn’t help but think about the real reason he decided to help in the end.
“Today, a man bearing the mark of the crow - the mark of the circle that ended my father - arrived in Sunshade, and now I must track him down. This could be my only chance to redeem my family name, and bring my father justice.” Primrose explained, a dark look casting over her face. “Unfortunately, in doing this I’m more or less… resigning myself from my place of work, shall we say? If I am to be discovered, that is. Not that it matters too much.”
Therion cleared his throat and spoke up from the back of their party. “If I may,” he started, leeching off Primrose's narrative way of speaking with his own theatrics. “We can help you, so long as you realise than neither of us are trained killers. This oaf is a doctor and a lumberjack, so don’t let his size fool you into thinking he’s some kind of warrior, and my skills are a little more… technical, in nature.”
“Are you armed?” Primrose asked.
“To the teeth.” Therion confessed. “Knives and daggers and swords. The big guy knows his way around axes, but he’s still getting used to combat.”
“Gettin’ better fast.” Alfyn quickly interjected, and he wasn’t wrong. On their way over to the Sunlands, they fought several packs of monsters and animals, and Therion set himself about instructing Alfyn on tactical maneuvers, and on how to not get himself killed.
“That’s more than good enough.” Primrose reassured. “With the three of us against one man, we should prevail easily."
They emerged from the Sunshade Catacombs, and immediately all three bowed their heads against the sun, holding their hands up to shield their eyes. Alfyn peeled off his tunic again, and stuffed it into his satchel. “I could keep that scarf of yours safe in my bag,” he offered to Therion, as he watched him tie it tightly around his waist.
Therion stopped for a second. “No, it’s alright.” He decided, pulling his mantle up over his head like a hood. He settled it over his head and shoulders to protect his burnt scalp from any further damage, and draped the ends to fall over his collarbone in an attempt to hide his scarred chest. His shirt was far too low cut, suffering from a lack of buttons. Perhaps he could spare some of Alfyn's payment to buy himself a new shirt in Atlasdam, a fancy new one made from Wispermill cotton, like the ones all of the Flatland nobles wore.
In the light, he finally got a decent look at Primrose. She was exactly what he thought she’d be, all slim and slender, somewhat athletic looking, with toned arms and a firm stomach. She was dressed in traditional dancer’s garb: a light and breezy two piece, with a thin, transparent fabric settling around her shoulders, running down her arms. Her scarred arms, he noted, not as horribly maimed as his own, but the scars were there nonetheless. Small and light against her dark skin, so small he perhaps wouldn’t have noticed them, had he not been looking for marks and blemishes. He wondered if Alfyn had picked up on them, and if he’d insist on taking a look at them, like he’d tried to talk Therion into days ago.
Therion had declined. At first, he was as polite as he could manage, but when Alfyn became pushier he left their campsite in a sour mood, insisting he needed some alone time.
As they stepped out into the desert sun, he wondered if he’d found someone who was the same as him in Primrose; broken, battered, and bruised, but not beaten.
“From here, we should be able to track him down.” Primrose announces, gently placing her broken lantern down beside the exit to the catacombs. “It shouldn’t be too hard, especially not with you, Mr Thief. There’s only one way he could be traveling, if he came out of the catacombs here. We should-”
Her words caught in her throat as she realised where they’d come out to. Stepping away from the safety of the tombs, she stared up at a sheer cliff face, and her heart dropped into her stomach.
“What is it?” Alfyn asked, worried.
Therion stepped up, fingers finding two daggers strapped to either side of his belt. Above them, a round, middle-aged man held a much younger woman by the back of the neck, as if holding her aloft for all to see. The girl was crying, and visibly shaking in the older man’s grip. They were surrounded by guardsmen, all readied with curved blades and cruel faces.
“Yusufa!” Primrose cried, immediately readying herself for a fight. Purple wisps began to coil up one of her arms, dancing around her hand as she brandished an ornate dagger.
The round man didn’t look like an assassin. He was dressed too finely, and didn’t look dexterous in slightest. “Primrose, my dear kitten,” he crooned, and Therion felt his skin crawl - who knew how Primrose felt? “I fed you, I clothed you, I taught you everything you know - I gave you everything! And this betrayal, this knife in my back, is how you betray me?”
“Helgenish,” Primrose spat, all fury and disgust. Wrath and hellfire. “Let her go.” She stood firm, and Therion drew his knives. The distinct sound of metal swinging through the air echoed from behind, along with a laboured grunt as Alfyn swung his ax over one shoulder, nervous but ready.
“There’s no way back from this, dear Primrose,” Helgenish taunted, pushing the girl further towards the edge of the cliff. Therion could barely make out a whimper, and in a flash of scarlet and emerald, he’s transported back to a very similar scene, only the cliffside is red instead of brown, and they’re much further away from the ground- instead of Yusufa held aloft, it’s him, hanging delicately between the edge of the cliff, opposite a poisoned blade. He hears laughter- sick, empty laughter.
“Oh, Therion,” Darius purs. “This is the end of the line, mate. The end of you and me.”
“Therion!” Suddenly, Alfyn is on him, shaking his shoulders. “Therion? What’s going- snap outta’ it!”
He’s sent hurtling back to Earth, a little dazed. His eyes dart about, to Primrose, with darkness slowly consuming her entire form, to the guardsmen creeping out of the shadows on either side, flanking them, to the crying girl. “I’m sorry, Prim,” she sobs, shaking like a leaf. Her eyes shine like stars in the sunlight, all bright and blue.
“Yusufa,” Primrose barely manages to croak out her words. “Don’t apologise. None of this is your fault. I didn’t mean to put you in this situation, I’m so sorry.” She steels herself, and then a frighteningly calm but thunderous tone replaces her sweet talk, “Helgenish, let her go.”
Helgenish laughs again, and Therion has watched this scene play out in his nightmares for years. There's only one way it ends.
“No,” he mutters to himself, but it’s pointless. “No, no, no-”
Helgenish plunges a knife into Yusufa’s side, burying it to the hilt in her gut. Yusufa screams, and he strikes her in the back, knocking her off balance. She tumbles down the cliff face, displacing the knife, streaking crimson blood down the cliffside.
“Yusufa!” Primrose shrieks. She and Alfyn are already charging over to the wounded girl, as the guards ready their blades and narrow in from each flank. Therion pulls his battered sword from his hip, switching out his knives, standing defensively in front of his panicked companions.
“I can hold them off for a little while,” he says, voice unsteady. “But I’m not sure how long I’ll last without back up- not against this many.” He's made his way out of worse situations, but not after he's just watching a girl (himself) fall off a cliff (canyon).
Alfyn and Primrose are muttering between themselves. Therion casts a glance their way to find Alfyn with blood up to his wrists. His stomach churns unhappily.
When the first guard comes at Therion, he evades with ridiculous ease, sidestepping the swordsman’s blade and thrusting forwards with his own, but he comes up short. Sloppy, he thinks, and slow, too . Both himself and this poor excuse for a henchman. “This Helgenish man seems to prefer saving coin over quality,” he taunts, projecting his voice as much as he is able over the howling wind, wanting his rival to hear his confidence. His makeshift hood blocks some of the sand from hitting his face. “Is this all you’re worth?” He asks the guard as they cross blades, and he grits his teeth, steadying his grip.
Daggers were easy to pick up and easier to throw. It came natural. Swords, on the other hand, aren’t his strength. He’s never had proper training, so everything he’s learnt has come from what he thinks feels right, and through watching Darius and his enemies. But still, he’s confident he can hold his own against these men, and finds the validation he's looking for as he plunges his blade into the stomach of his opponent. He watches with cold eyes as the man falls to his knees with a gurgle. A thin stream of blood falls from his lips, and Therion presses a boot to the man’s shoulder, kicking him off the end of his sword. “Who’s next?” He challenges, willing his voice to be strong, because whilst he’s no stranger to death, or the concept of kill or be killed, killing people has never been his strong suit, and it never gets easier. No matter how much he pretends he's a natural at it.
In an instant, Primrose is by his side, holding her dagger at the ready. Her hair is swimming in the air, floating on the tendrils of dark energy that have near enough taken over her entire body. With a flourish, and a twist, she does a quick spin and the pair of men barreling towards them are enveloped in darkness. Therion catches his breath for a second, then pulls out a throwing knife, before hurtling himself at their enemies.
The battle is long and hard, especially when it’s Therion and Primrose fighting alongside each other for the first time - alone, without Alfyn’s help - but they work remarkably well together, for their first attempt. Or so Therion notes, a little wearily. Primrose lands the final blow, driving her dagger quick and fast into the chest of Helgenish, who was forced to enter the fight himself after his guardsmen proved to be incompetent.
“P-Primrose,” he croaks, wheezing hard, with the dagger of House Azelhart still buried to the hilt in his chest. “Y-You wouldn’t, my dear g-girl… I can m-make you a star… after all I’ve done, y-you wouldn’t do this to me, would you? We can put this all b-behind-”
“Go fuck yourself, master,” Primrose spits, winding back a darkness-encased fist. “After all you’ve done, to me- to Yusufa- to the other girls back in Sunshade… after conspiring with the men who killed my father, you deserve worse than to die by my hand!” She lurches forward and grabs her dagger by the handle, pulling it out only to drive it back in again, pushing further, further, as her magic seeps into Helgenish’s wound. He shudders, yelps, and Primrose flashes a fake, hollow smile. “Now, I only dance for myself.” She tells him sweetly, as he falls limp against her knife.
Therion watches on for a second too long with morbid fascination as Helgenish draws his last, laboured breath. He feels a little sick. Once he’s sure he’s dead, he rushes over to Alfyn, fearing the worst - that girl took quite the hit on the way down, and he knows better than anyone how unlikely the chances of survival are. But as he reaches Alfyn’s side, he finds the girl looking serene, with clean bandages wrapped around her middle. Bloodied, but breathing.
“She’s stable,” Alfyn reveals, fingers attached to the girl’s wrist, tracking her pulse. “For now. But she needs to get back to Sunshade immediately.”
Therion nods, and calls for Primrose. He helps Alfyn adjust Yusufa across his broad shoulders, making sure she’s steady and won’t fall for a second time. “First me, and now this girl.” Therion says, quiet, but he knows Alfyn can hear him. “You’re making quiet the habit of saving lives.”
“That’s what I’m here for,” Alfyn smiles, as they follow Primrose’s quickening steps.
Back in Sunshade, Primrose pays for a room at the inn and a meal for each of them, and after Alfyn is sure that Yusufa is stable enough to spend the night back in the dancer’s ward, he helps Primrose by carrying her over. Therion follows, for a lack of much else to do, with the key to their room tucked safely in his mantle.
“Send for me immediately if somethin’ doesn’t look right,” Alfyn tells her, in the most authoritative tone he can manage, and Primrose nods.
“Thank you. Both of you. Without your help, she might not have made it.” She admits with a solemn but relieved smile. "There were a lot of men fighting today. They could've given me more trouble than I can handle." Therion doesn’t think she’d have half as much trouble as she’s imagining, but he doesn't say anything. Instead, he stays wordless by Alfyn’s side, before Primrose closes the door, and they retreat to their own quarters for the night.
“What a day,” Alfyn sighs, putting his satchel down on one of the beds. “Sorry I haven’t got around to takin’ a look at you. How’re you holdin’ up?”
Therion shrugs, sitting by the headboard of the opposite bed. “I’m fine.” He states flatly. He takes out a few pouches of varying sizes that he’d hidden away in his mantle earlier.
“You sure?” Alfyn presses, ignoring the thief’s haul. “I think I saw a few cuts on you earlier, and that sunburn is looking nasty. If I treat you now, it could prevent scarring in the future.”
“What’s a few small trees to a forest?” Therion counters, keeping his gaze low as he runs his thumb over a shining gold coin. “Don’t push it, Doc. You’ve done well today. It’d be a shame to go and ruin it.”
Alfyn stares at him, anxious. He sighs deeply. “I won’t pressure you.” He promises, as he begins dressing down for the night. “But I’m here to help. What use am I on this little escort mission if you won’t let me heal you?”
Therion turns on his side, souring. “Ask me that again when you hand over the leaves in Atlasdam.”
“Therion, what’s wrong?” Alfyn tries, becoming increasingly frustrated with his aloof companion. “We won, today. We saved a life, we’re in the Sunlands. You’re one step closer to gettin’ rid of me. So what’s the matter?”
“Nothing’s the matter.” Therion huffs, staring straight ahead at the wall. “Just leave me alone.”
Truth be told, he's a little grumpy, running on little to no energy following their life-or-death battle on the sands, and his lack of sleep is starting to make his head throb. He closes his eyes and breathes deep. Alfyn sighs, and blows out the candle illuminating their room.
A few minutes pass, then a few more. Therion isn't sure if it's been a full hour or a quarter.
"I'm tired." Therion admits into the darkness, more embarrassed than anything. "Could you take a look at my shoulders in the morning? They do sting a bit."
Silence, then Therion can almost hear his companion smiling. "'Course, Therion." Alfyn murmurs, sleep thick and heavy in his voice. "You get a good night's sleep, now, an' I'll fix you up in the mornin'."
Therion exhales slowly, shakily. He didn't even know he was holding his breath. If Darius could see him now, all weak and pathetic, asking for help from a doctor of all people- instead of sucking it up and dealing with his injuries, and wearing his resulting scars like war medals- well. What would he think of him?
"Goodnight, Therion." Alfyn displaces the haunting image of Darius in Therion's mind, his voice calm and kind and all sorts of gentle.
"Night, Doc." Therion mumbles, closing his good eye, resting on the lingering thought that maybe- just maybe- there is some good still left for him in the world.
As always, I hope you enjoyed! I struggled a lot with this chapter, as I'm not very good at writing fight sequences, and I struggled with tenses a lot. Did the tense switch from past to present feel natural enough? If you find any mistakes, please let me know! Should I continue in present tense?
All comments, like, and shares are greatly appreciated- and please, if you liked this chapter, maybe come and find me on my Octopath Twitter (@revylei) and we can cry over Alfion together?
Chapter 3: Negotiations
Primrose advocates to join Therion's party; Therion needs to go to bed as soon as he wakes up.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Despite his mounting exhaustion, Therion didn’t sleep for very long that night. As soon as the unwavering desert sun peeked over the horizon, his body sprung itself awake like clockwork. The rickety blinds were uneven and bent in places, letting unwanted light into the room much too early, but the damage was already done; Therion was awake.
It took him longer than usual to force himself out of bed. Sunburnt, bruised, and cut into ribbons, he felt as ruined as his body looked. He breathed slowly, deeply, staring at the discoloured ceiling as Alfyn snored just a tad too loudly over on the opposite side of their narrow room - so loudly , Therion scowled - that was enough to get him up and moving. Somewhat reluctantly, he rolled out of bed, before dressing as quickly and as quietly as he could, ignoring the heat baked into his reddened skin.
Perhaps this would be the perfect opportunity to scout Sunshade without the company of his chatterbox companion. He tied his bootlaces whilst considering his options, casting an annoyed look in Alfyn’s direction every time he made a particularly loud noise in his sleep.
He could run if he wanted to .
With his companion still asleep, Therion was free to go. There’s no way Alfyn would be able to catch up with him, no way in hell - not even with the blessings of the twelve Gods - Therion was quicker than them all, even Aeber himself. He’d reach the Coastlands in mere weeks without anybody to slow him down.
But the cash really would help him out.
Whatever, he thought to himself. If I leave him now, he’ll never escape Sunshade. There are too many people here that could use an unpaid, all services included apothecary.
With all the grace and stealth of a cat, Therion balanced his steps on the tips of his boots to avoid loose floorboards on his way over to the door. He took their room key with him, intending to be back before Alfyn woke up so they could lock up properly after packing up. He closed the door behind him as lightly as possible, and took off in the direction of Sunshade market.
Alfyn woke up alone.
He sat up in bed, and stretched his arms above his head, glancing over at Therion’s bed. “Mornin’, Therion.” He smiled, but the thief’s bed was empty. His stomach sank immediately. If he were truly honest with himself, he didn’t exactly expect Therion to stay true to his word - he was still a thief, albeit a seemingly sympathetic one, underneath his frosty exterior - but he was still disappointed. Hurt. “Already?” He sighed.
And then he caught sight of a browning apple lying at the foot of Therion’s bed. There’s no way he’d leave without that, even if it was starting to look a little too unsafe for human consumption. Food was food, and Therion didn’t seem like the type of person to go about wasting it.
He shrugged off the uneasy feeling that had started settling in his stomach, and set about cleaning himself up for the day: washing himself down the in shower room, cleaning his face, and tying his hair into a messy knot at the back of his head. Who had time for anything more? Just as he’d finished dressing, someone knocked hard on the door.
As he expected, Miss Primrose stood on the other side, looking as inscrutable as she had the day before. Who else would be knocking on his door so early? “Mr Greengrass.” She nodded, eyes dark and unreadable. “Good morning. I hope you and your partner slept well.”
“Miss Primrose!” Alfyn beamed, holding the door open wide. “Come in, come in! Therion’s not around at the minute, but I’m here if you need to speak to someone.” He couldn’t help himself from slipping into his more professional persona, speaking as properly and as formally as he could manage. “Are you here for anythin’ in particular?”
Primrose took a quick look around the room, before opting to stand against the wall closest to the door. “Thank you. I’m here to speak to you about Yusufa, among other things.” She declared, watching him wearily as he moved to sit over on his now-made bed, overstuffed satchel by his side. “She seems to be doing fine, but I’d still like for you to check on her, if you wouldn’t mind. I can pay you for your troubles.”
Alfyn shook his head, hands held out in front of him. “Of course not, Miss Primrose. I wouldn’t dream of charging you or Yusufa for something like this. I’ll make sure she’d recoverin’ as she should be, but it’s on the house. You’ve done more than enough in gettin’ me and Therion a room for the night.”
Silence hung thick and heavy in the air as Primrose stared the apothecary down, quite blatantly suspicious. “...Surely not.” She frowned. “What makes you think I’ll believe you’ll work free of charge? This is your job, is it not?”
“Oh, it’s my job, alright. But I’m not like other doctors, I guess. You shouldn’t have to pay to have your life saved.” Alfyn explained. “Maybe it’s wishful thinkin’, but I like to treat others how I hope to be treated myself. One act of kindness can go a long way, Miss Primrose.”
“Please.” Primrose shook her head. “Just Primrose is fine.”
Alfyn didn’t argue. “Is that everythin’?” He asked. “Or was there somethin’ else? Because if that’s all, we can go and see to Yusufa, if you want.”
Primrose visibly tensed, squaring up her shoulders; she looked like she was preparing to walk out into a storm. “Your partner, Therion- where is he now? He said something yesterday- about heading towards the Flatlands. Atlasdam, I believe?”
“He’s not here at the minute.” Alfyn hedged. “Truth be told, I’m not sure where he is… but he should be back soon.”
“So he’s ran for the hills?” Primrose accused, and Alfyn winced. “Either that, or he’s out causing trouble for Sunshade’s residents.”
Alfyn shrugged. “Probably that. He seems to like trouble, from what I know of him. Or trouble likes him!”
“You say that like you've just met. So you two aren’t…?” Primrose asked, eyes narrowing slightly before she came to her own conclusion. “Ah. I see.”
Alfyn flushed. “Oh, Gods, no- what gave you that idea? We barely know each other, Dohter have mercy.”
“It’s nothing. Just… never mind.” Primrose waved him off. “Anyway. Altasdam. I would like to accompany the two of you, if neither of you mind. I don’t mean to impose, but I have a mission I need to take care of, and I need to head towards Noblecourt in the Flatlands.”
“Well, I’d love to have you along for the ride.” Alfyn smiled quite genuinely, scratching at the back of his neck. “But honestly, Primrose, it’s really more Therion’s decision than mine. Y’see, he is technically… escorting me? If you remember his complainin’ from yesterday, anyway. He’s not the most social of people.”
Primrose scoffed. “Ah, yes, I remember well.” Once again, she shrugged him off with a flippant wave of her bangled wrist. “I will be able to reimburse him, if that’s what he’s looking for. Although, I must say… it’s a little surprising to hear that he’s escorting you, and not the other way around. He’s good with a dagger, I must admit, but you have a lot more of an imposing figure.”
Alfyn guffawed with laughter, wiping at his eyes. “Don’t let ‘im hear you sayin’ that. He’s little, but he’s quick and fighty. He’s not the strongest, I suppose, but he knows what he’s doin’. Must’ve spent enough time on the streets to know how to survive, if I’m guessin’ correctly, and I’d never been too far outside my village until I met Therion.”
They talked and talked, and Primrose seemed to relax a little bit more with each passing minute. It was nice to see, the way she slowly lessened her guard. She was still careful and calculated in what she said, but at least she didn’t seem ready to bolt at any given moment. Eventually, the pair of them decided to step out for a bite to eat before going to see to Yusufa, just as the door swung open, revealing a somewhat disheveled Therion.
“Too damn hot.” He grumbled, his mantle draped over his messed-up hair. “Is it always this bad?” He hissed, casting his lone eye over Primrose.
“Yes, more or less.” Primrose drawled, and Alfyn noted that Therion didn’t seem fazed by her presence at all.
Although he’d rearranged his cloak to protect his head, Therion had still managed to obscure his bulging trouser pockets from view, and had his scarf wrapped loosely around his neck, covering his chest in lieu of his low-buttoned shirt. With a grunt, he tossed Alfyn a brown paper bag. “Share them with the girl.” He demanded, leaning against the door frame. “To what do I owe the pleasure, anyway?”
Primrose huffed and straightened her posture, sitting perfectly upright. “I’d wager I’m older than you, boy.” She soured, but didn’t seem too offended or upset. Alfyn passed her a glazed pastry.
“Hey, thanks Therion!” He grinned, barely restraining himself from tearing into his breakfast to avoid speaking with his mouth full - something he’d realised after just a few days that Therion detested. “Where’d you get these? I was sure for a little while this mornin’ that you’d just up and left me, you sneak!”
Therion rolled his eye, crossing his arms over his chest. “Very nearly did.” He insisted. “There’s a bakery down the road from here, a kind of quaint place. Not many staff. They didn’t notice a thing, I promise you.”
Primrose almost smiled. How skillful. “Must be easy work for a man of you repertoire. I wouldn’t feel bad, if I were you - the couple that own that bakery are a shady pair that definitely exploit the poor souls working under them.”
“Oh, don’t worry- I don’t feel a thing.” Therion stated, quite matter-of-fact, as he strode towards the centre of the room, languid and slow. “What do you want, Lady Primrose of House Azelhart?”
She stiffened again, but didn’t buckle. She took a deep breath, before plastering on a dazzling smile. “What I need,” she started in a low, husky tone, “is you.”
Therion wasn’t happy. He wasn’t fucking happy at all.
Between the two of them, Alfyn and Primrose had worn down his patience so much that he eventually relented to the idea of Primrose tagging along on their little tour of Orsterra. Alfyn and his incessant begging; Primrose, and her paltry attempts at flirtation to get on his good side. Not that he thought she was at all interested in him, or his gender for that matter. He even suspected she’d figured him out, too, if the sly looks she gave him meant anything - or perhaps that was his paranoia speaking - either way, it didn’t matter. He gave up, spinning on his heel with an exasperated “fine!” , before swiping up his rotting apple and heading for the door. “We leave now, or we don’t leave at all.” He sulked, knowing that Alfyn was likely already packed, and would want to check on the other dancer girl before they left, and Primrose would need to collect their things- slowing down their whole journey by at least another two hours. It would’ve been fine, he guessed, if he wasn’t expecting it to take weeks to traverse the Eastern Sunshade desert: it was huge, and all looked the same! At least Primrose might be able to shed some light on how to navigate them.
They checked out of the inn, and as they walked over to Primrose’s quarters Alfyn lectured him the entire way, rambling on and on about how he should at least let him inspect his body for injuries.
“Otherwise, what’s the point in having me around?” He pouted, but Therion shrugged and rolled his eye and wished he’d thought more about the practicalities of having a travelling apothecary when he was too touch-averse to risk baring skin in front of another human being.
Primrose seemed somewhat amused with their bickering, even if it was mostly one-sided. She led them to her dormitory, ushering them inside before locking the door behind her. “Just a precaution.” She explained. “Some clients can become pushy with their favourite dancers. We don’t want to let anyone unwanted inside.” She led them through raggedy silk curtains, and torn tulle drapes, towards the easternmost wing of the dormitory.
Therion had never rented a dancer, or even been to a show - it wasn't his thing, and most dancers were women, anyway - but as soon as he crossed the threshold into the dormitory he got the feeling that his presence wasn’t entirely appreciated. And why would it be? Two strange men being invited into the sleeping quarters of close to twenty women, all of whom had likely been coerced and abused by men like them before. Not only that, but he got the impression that Primrose wasn’t especially well-liked by her peers, if the glares aimed towards the back of her head were anything to go by.
Yusufa was laying in one corner of the dorm, behind a curtain of frayed, moth-eaten silk- the same colour as Primrose’s stage costume. Whilst Primrose invited Alfyn behind, Therion volunteered to sit and wait on the other side out of respect. Truth be told, he didn’t want to get any more involved than he already was- Alfyn would check over Yusufa, hopefully give her the go-ahead, and with any luck they’d be out of Sunshade before noon.
But then again, things never went his way.
The inspection lasted longer than anticipated, and somehow Therion let his guard down,falling asleep with his back against the wall. The dancers gave him a wide berth, avoiding Yusufa’s corner until Alfyn and Primrose emerged.
“Good to see that she’s still stable,” Alfyn breathed a sigh of relief. “That coulda’ gone a lot worse. Her stitches will need to come out within the fortnight. How’re you holdin’ up, Primrose?”
“None of my injuries were lasting, fortunately. Thank you, Alfyn. If it weren’t for you, I’m not sure Yusufa would still be here.” Primrose held one hand to her chest, and for the first time since their meeting, her smile finally reached her eyes. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like any leaves for your troubles?
“Don’t mention it. Just doin’ my job.” Alfyn smiled earnestly. He glanced over to Therion, a little surprised to find him passed out in the corner. “I reckon he’ll wanna start headin’ East before much longer, though. So you best pack up, if this is still what you want.”
Primrose shook her head in amusement. “You’re a strange one, Alfyn.” She followed his gaze over to Therion, getting a good look at the elusive thief without worrying about unsettling him. He somehow maintained a closed off look about him, even in his sleep. “You’re right, though.” She declared, tearing her attention away from Therion before she was confronted by the thought of how much he reminded her of herself, and the uneasiness that came with it. “I’ll go collect my belongings.”
Alfyn and Primrose loosely pinned together a plan on where to head next. Primrose knew Southern Orsterra, having already made the trip round from the Flatlands as a child. She suggested a fairly well-known hiking route from the Sunlands into the Highlands, and insisted she had enough experience with living in the desert to get them through without any of them succumbing to dehydration. They finalised an action plan, before Primrose ducked behind the silk curtain again to talk with Yusufa, who was awake but exhausted.
Stepping away to give them some privacy, Alfyn set about waking up Therion. He didn’t feel good about it, considering how tired Therion always looked, but if they were going to set off soon Therion had to be up and awake.
“Hey, Therion,” Alfyn kneeled beside him, shaking his shoulders lightly. “C’mon buddy, time to get up.” He murmured.
Therion’s brow furrowed, and his mouth twisted into a sleepy scowl. “Get off…” he mumbled. “Don’t touch me.”
Alfyn frowned. “Come on, now. I know you’re tired, but we have to get moving soon.” He took the chance to quickly inspect Therion’s face for any injuries, gently taking Therion’s chin in one hand to tilt his face. He carefully brushed back Therion’s sweeping fringe, barely catching a glimpse. Suddenly, cold hands started yanking at his collar-
“Hey, Therion- it’s just me!” Alfyn yelped, staggering away.
A flash of recognition tempered Therion’s death stare. If looks could kill, Alfyn was sure he’d be dead on his feet by now. Therion all but shoved him away, before shrinking back and pressing his shoulders into the wall behind him. “Get off me.” He spat. “Don’t touch me. Don’t touch my hair.”
“Alright, alright.” Alfyn felt his face heat up. “Guilty as charged. I was just tryin’ to wake you up. Thought it might be a good chance to check you over, with you sleepin’ an’ all. That way, I don't gotta bother you so much.”
“Don’t ever try that again.” Therion frowned, before struggling slightly to his feet, visibly exhausted. He looked a little mortified- falling asleep in a strange, unknown location, completely off-guard. “First the bangle, now this.” He muttered. “I’m going to get myself killed.”
“Not on my watch.” Alfyn insisted, as genuine and sincere as possible.
“Are we ready to go?” Therion asked, brushing him off.
“Almost- as soon as Prim’s done packing.”
“Great.” Therion sulked.
After she’d finished collecting her things, Primrose explained everything to Yusufa, who looked devastated but was too tired to argue.
“I’ll come back for you.” Primrose had promised. “And when I do, I’ll take you far away from here. You can come and live with me back home, in my family estate, and you’ll never have to worry about anything again. I’ll gift you silks and diamonds and gold, and you’ll never go hungry again. So please, wait for me.”
Her speech almost had Therion moved, but not quite. Primrose also announced Helgenish’s death to the rest of the dancers. As bold as brass, she admitting to the killing in broad daylight- she knew not one of the girls would report her, or even think about trying to cross her. Not with that House Azelhart dagger strapped to her thigh, not with the look of vengeance that sometimes crossed over her face. She instructed them to look after Yusufa, and insisted that one of them needed to take over the tavern in Helgenish’s place- and luckily for her, the rest of the girls seemed to tolerate Yusufa just fine. Alfyn offered to give the girls check-ups before he left, and so he had a little line of dancers, to whom he dispensed bandages for broken fingers, and salves for bloodied feet.
It was well past noon by the time they left Sunshade. Yusufa had wept softly when Primrose bade her farewells, swallowing down her sadness with kind words and a promise to come back for her dearest friend. With newfound purpose, she led the way into the golden sands of the Sunlands, taking them east towards the Highlands. Therion trudged along behind Primrose and Alfyn, feeling fuzzy from a night’s worth of broken sleep. His accidental nap left him feeling worse for wear, that was for sure.
They walked for hours, taking short breaks here and there. Primrose insisted that they stuck to a consistent pace. They had enough water to last the three of them for another day, but they’d have to reach an inn someplace towards the Eastern Sunshade Sands before then to restock.
“Hey Therion, how’re you holdin’ up?” Alfyn asked, as they stopped for a quick rest. The packs of lizardmen they encountered were getting stronger as they travelled further east, although Therion had to admit, Primrose really helped to bulk up their party a little more.
“I’m fine.” Therion insisted, scowling underneath his mantle. “If you need to dote on someone, go check on the Lady of the Manor.”
“Ah, but Primrose is faring better than us two, that’s for sure.” Alfyn grinned. “She’s used to this climate. Maybe we should’ve asked her if she had any clothing to fit the two of us, back at her place.”
“Maybe for Therion.” Primrose chimed in, overhearing the two of them from her place a few feet ahead of them. “But probably not for you, Alfyn. You’re a little bit bigger than I am."
Alfyn held a hand over his heart in mock hurt. “Wow,” he winced. “That cuts deep.” Therion tried to tune them both out; he could already feel a splitting headache coming on, what- between Alfyn’s constant background chatter, and the unforgivable heat. He sighed, and resigned himself to a grueling afternoon, before coming to a sudden stop.
“You alright, Ther?” Alfyn asked, stopping just ahead of him.
Therion held up a hand to silence him. Primrose stopped dead in her tracks too, seemingly catching on to Therion’s discomfort. “Is that…?” She started, but Therion jolted as the winds picked up, battering sand around them. Suddenly, the air crackled with electricity, and a bolt of lightning cracked down from above, smouldering the ground just to the left of Therion’s feet. Amidst the confusion, he was too preoccupied with avoiding the lightning strike to notice as a slender dart was fired into his side.
He yelped, and pawed at his shirt, tearing it slightly as he yanked at the dart. He wrenched it from his skin. “What the fuck?” He hissed. “Alfyn! Primrose! Get your heads down, we’re being ambushed!”
“Therion?” Alfyn struggled towards him, fighting against the intensifying sandstorm that whipped at their arms and stung their eyes. He held on tightly to Primrose’s wrist in an effort to avoid separation.
Another thunk, and a second dart hit his shoulder blade. He cussed, and involuntarily fell to his knees at Alfyn’s feet. The world gradually slowed, as Primrose hunkered down beside him. He could barely make out the scrape of Alfyn unsheathing his axe, as he barked instructions to Primrose on how to check him over for poisoning. A shrill, unfamiliar voice wailed in defiance and accusation. Primrose held tightly onto his hand.
And then- darkness.
Hey! If you're still reading this, thank you so much!
I'd like to start off with an apology: I wasn't expecting to take this long of a break, but life got in the way, as it has a habit of doing. I've finally had a chance to whack this most recent chapter out, and will hopefully have more time to dedicate to writing for fun. I've just been accepted onto my dream university course after dropping out of my old school last May, and I'm over the moon. Didn't think it could happen in a million years, but I suppose taking a leap of faith once in a while can be a good thing. So chase your dreams, kids.
Secondly, I'm sorry this chapter isn't as long as my average chapter, which seems to be around 6.5K words (no matter the fic- maybe it's a habit by now? idk). I really just wanted to get this one out there, finished and edited and all the rest, and tacking anything else onto the end of it felt like I was forcing the word count up. I rewrote the chapter three times, and was unhappy the first two tries, so although this third attempt is shorter than I would've liked it feels... right. I guess. So here we are.
To everyone who has commented: it means the world to me. Thank you so much for your kind words and patience. I'll try as hard as I can to get the next chapter up as soon as possible, and to also reply to some of the comments I've accidentally neglected in my absence. I also have an idea for an Alfion oneshot in mind, so I might get that out of my system beforehand? (I also need to tend to my Fire Emblem: Awakening fic, but it's so self-indulgent, it can wait).
I'm also planning on reworking Chapter 2 at some point in the near future... I'm so unhappy with some of the tense work in there, and how muddled it became towards the end. When that happens, I'll put a note in the description for a little bit.
That's everything for now! Hit me up on Twitter (@Red_Riviera) if you feel like chatting about Octopath!
Chapter 4: Nightmares, Light, and Lightning
Therion would be lonely if his past weren't so eager to catch up with him; Alfyn is determined to offer his friendship as an alternative.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
White. Everything was so white, so blinding.
Therion was lying on the floor, staring up into a blank expanse of nothingness. Strange. He reached his right arm up into the void, flexing his fingers to check for damage; nothing seemed broken, and he wasn’t in any pain.
“Back so soon, mate?”
He jumped to his feet in an instant, springing up like a startled cat. The hairs on his arms stood on end as his blood ran ice cold and an unpleasant shiver jittered down his spine. Bile rose at the back of his throat when his hands scrambled at his waist, looking for a belt that was no longer attached to his person- he wanted to throw up.
Darius sat a few feet away from him on an ornate chair, drumming his fingers on a red table cloth. A single candle, tall and thin, flickered a delicate light by his face. Drowned out by the brightness of the room, it gave him a sickly, haunted look. “Got to say, I’m surprised you’re back so soon.”
“What the fuck are you doing here?” Therion spat. “Where the hell am I?” He clenched his fists so hard his fingernails bit into his palms. All of his self-restraint was being channeled into resisting his fight or flight instinct, determined to stand his ground.
“Just checkin’ up on my favourite partner, is all.” Darius cooed in a sickeningly sweet tone- it was the voice he used to lure his victims into a false sense of security, the voice that got them in trouble just as many times as it got them out of it.
Therion wasn’t having any of it. He wasn’t in the best of moods to begin with, all nauseous from the headache-inducing light, and disorientated- he didn’t need Darius around to make things worse. “Bullshit.” Therion hissed, eager for Darius to get to the point so they could be done as soon as possible. “What the fuck do you want?”
Unfortunately for Therion, Darius was intent on taking his sweet, sweet time. His gaze was steady and unwavering, and kept Therion pinned to the spot. He stopped drumming his fingers against the table. “I’ve missed these conversations, I ‘ave. An’ I can tell you have too, mate- why else would we keep meeting like this?” He laughed, and it rang in Therion’s ears like churchbells, all haunting and hollow and hypocritical.
Darius pushed his chair away from the table like he was about to stand up, but Therion was quicker than he could ever hope to be; in the blink of an eye, he’d charged and vaulted over the red-clothed table, slamming his knees into Darius’ chest as he went. His beloved mantle just barely caught the candle, frayed edges catching fire as it collpased. The chair fell backwards under their weight, toppling them both over.
“Give me a fucking reason,” Therion screeched, righting himself on top of Darius so that he straddled his waist, as his hands closed around his neck, “why I shouldn’t end this all here and now, you fucking piece of shit!”
Therion squeezed harder, and Darius choked on his laughter. “You couldn’t if you tried.” Darius wheezed, prompting Therion to push down on his windpipe. He clawed at Therion’s scarred hands, trying to pry them off. “I’ve been ‘ere, on me Jack Jones, just waiting. ‘Cause I knew you’d come back. You always come back.”
“Shut up!” Therion barked, ignoring the flames slowly climbing up his back and arms. “Shut the fuck up and just die, will you?”
Darius barely struggled, hands hanging limp on Therion’s wrists. No matter how hard Therion tightened his grip, Darius’ voice sounded as clear as ever. “Stop pretending, Therion.” He growled, low and threatening, like he was the one in the position to be giving orders. He dug his fingernails into Therion’s wrists, scratching underneath the fool’s bangle. “You’ll never get rid of me! I’m not going anywhere!”
Therion glanced at his hands and found that both of his wrists were shackled instead of just one. A length of chain linked them together, and they rattled everytime he moved. He tightened his grip as hard as he could, pushing down, waiting to hear the crack of bone under his grasp- the wheezing of Darius’ crushed windpipe- but Darius was still laughing like a mad heretic. It made the urge to throw up almost unbearable. He lessened the pressure on Darius’ neck for a second- but before he could think, Darius was already bracing a knee against his chest, kicking him off.
“You’re not strong enough to kill me.” Darius taunted, gathering himself. He rolled onto his side, before pushing himself up and dusting off his emerald cape. Therion lay frozen on his back, paralyzed by fear and failure as the fire consumed him. He clutched at his bruised sternum, trying to contain the violent stammering of his heart.
With a grunt, Darius picked him up by the collar of his antle, hoisting him high above his head. Therion scrambled as his feet fangled off the ground, scratching Darius’ hands with the ferocity a caged animal, but Darius remained unscathed even where the flames touched him. “This’ll go on and on,” Darius warned, with narrowed eyes and an acidic tone, “because you just don’t know how to let go, and you’ll never be strong enough to stop me- to walk away.”
“Let- go-” Therion choked. His fingernails were caked in blood. He clawed and scratched and scraped, until the bones in his hands crumbled and his fingers turned to ash. He watched in horror as pieces of himself scattered and fell down his front, catching in the folds of his smouldering scarf.
Darius snarled and threw him down, and Therion fell through the ground; he cascaded through emptiness as the world turned from white to black, falling for what felt like an eternity, all the while Darius’ cocky laughter echoed in his ears. But he couldn’t fall forever- the impact was hard enough to shatter his legs and break a few ribs. His remaining good eye felt clogged and sticky, like he’d caught it on the way down, but he wasn’t sure. Something foreign and unpleasant bubbled in his lungs. He tried to breathe, but was left gasping for air as his chest wheezed under the strain- it was like drowning on land, and breathing in fire at the same time. Little by little, the flames subsided, and a gentle breeze dismantled his charcoaled legs, hips, abdomen- until, with his dying thought, he was left to belittle himself for his weakness as Great Condor shrieked from above.
Darius’ victorious cheers haunted him even in death.
Therion shuddered awake, springing into motion like a wind-up toy. He immediately reached out for the closest thing he could, desperate for a real, tangible anchor to the living world- to prove to himself that he was still alive and breathing and all in one piece, not ash and dust, or dead at the bottom of a ravine.
“Whoa there buddy, I gotcha’.”
Warm hands melted into his bare shoulders. In his confusion, Therion allowed it for a half-second too long. “A-Alfyn?” He croaked. His throat felt drier than the Cliffland Canyons, and his voice cracked from disuse. How long had he been out for?
Suddenly, Therion woke up a little more and became aware of their position- he practically jumped out of his skin. He scrambled, shoving Alfyn back a little too hard, before retreating into his bed covers and pulling the blanket up to his nose. “Where are we?” He mumbled into the cotton. “What happened?”
Alfyn smiled in the most miserable way, but still shuffled back to give Therion more personal space. By the looks of it, he’d been by Therion’s bedside for quite some time now. “The Eastern Sunlands Desert Inn. We’re still some ways off the Highlands, but we’ll manage once we’re all back on our feet.” He explained, reaching for his apothecary’s satchel. “We got ambushed- you, me, and Primrose. By a cleric and a huntress. But they’re mighty good people- they just mixed us up with somebody else.”
Therion found his clothes and scarf folded neatly on the table beside his bed. He quickly pulled on his tattered shirt, uncomfortable with conversing so casually whilst still sitting in his smallclothes. “They can’t be all that good if their fuck ups involve subduing civilians, for all they know.” He grumbled, somewhat displeased with Alfyn’s ability to find the good in absolutely everyone. He’ll grow out of it within the month , he thought bitterly to himself.
“No, no- it was an honest mistake, really.” Alfyn insisted. He started rummaging around in his bag for a few different ingredients, eventually coming up with a vial of green liquid and a handful of berries. He unceremoniously dumped them into the mortar that had been sitting beside Therion’s clothes on the table. “They were looking for a thief dressed in purple. Thought he was you, at first, but once they got a closer look they realised that you’re not the guy they were after. ‘Course, by then the damage was already done. You got hit with a real inventive arrow - a slumberthorn point - an’ it knocked you out for a day or so. Say, you didn’t dream up anythin’ nasty whilst you were under, did you?”
He did, and it wasn’t pleasant. Visions of empty white halls and emerald silks filled his head, alongside Darius’ echoing laughter that turned his stomach and made him want to vomit. He dreamt of Darius most nights, but this dream had been worse than usual - it wasn’t a memory, or a messed up version of something that had once happened. Darius was just around for the hell of it, and strangled the life out of him under entirely new circumstances.
“No.” Therion lied.
Alfyn raised an eyebrow, but didn’t question him further. “Alright, then.” He didn’t sound convinced. Perhaps there was no use in lying to an apothecary well-versed in extracting information and handling people, especially when this was his domain- Therion brushed him off anyway.
“Would you mind leaving?” Therion asked, his lips twisting into a frown. “I have no idea why I woke up in my smallclothes, but I’d like to finish getting dressed now, if that’s alright with you.”
“Ah,” Alfyn uttered dumbly. “Yeah- about that- I just had to check you over for injuries, since your reaction to the slumberthorn was so bad. You’re pretty susceptible to sleep-inducing poisons, it seems.” He explained in the most authoritative tone he could, before throwing his satchel strap over one arm and heading over to the door. He ground his pestle into the berries as he went. “I’m just in the room opposite yours. Come see me when you’re ready.”
His patient seemed more uncooperative than usual. “Yeah, yeah. You can drop the professional act, Doctor Greengrass.” Therion muttered unhappily. “You snore real loud on a morning, and you talk my ears off with your rubbish all day. You can’t pretend to be all eloquent and shit now.”
Alfyn stood in the doorway. His face crumpled up into an amused grin, eyebrows furrowing ever so slightly as he smiled. “When you’re injured, you’re under my care. So I can and I will.”
“Whatever.” Therion waved him off.
Only when Alfyn closed the door behind him did Therion let himself smile too.
Despite the sweltering heat, Therion made sure to bundle himself up properly. He didn’t know how much of his body Alfyn had seen, or how long he’d had to study the myriad of scars that ruined his chest, arms, and back, but Therion didn’t want to think about it. Before Alfyn, he’d never been treated by an apothecary, and he didn’t especially like the idea of him seeing all of the times he’d fucked up in taking care of himself; his handiwork with stitches was mediocre at best, and with a lot of his injuries Therion simply hadn’t possessed the knowledge or materials to properly fix himself up, which sometimes made things worse. He knew if he’d had proper care, he could’ve prevented some of his scars, and would probably look a lot nicer for it.
Not that it mattered now.
He locked up his room with the key Alfyn had left for him on the windowsill. Alfyn’s room was just across the hall, but he found himself wanting to crawl back into bed by the time he reached his door. He felt sluggish and slow, like his bones had been filled with lead in his sleep. It was an awful feeling that didn’t suit him well at all. His eyes were itchy and tired too, and his focus wavered from moment to moment.
It all felt quite unacceptable for a thief.
He found himself leaning against Alfyn’s door frame, tired and fuzzy and reluctant to enter. If he went in, they’d have to talk, and Alfyn would most likely insist on checking up on him properly. He’d babble his ear off and insist on giving him a minute-by-minute rundown of what happened during the day that he’d missed. Therion ran a hand through his hair, raking his nails against his scalp. It felt good to be up and about, at least, no matter how lethargic he was feeling.
He could hear voices from inside Alfyn’s room. Not just Alfyn’s voice, either, or Primrose’s- they had company. Two guests, by the sounds of it. Therion pressed an ear up against the door, letting curiosity get the better of him; he’d rather be prepared if he had to meet new people, not that he wanted to. Both young women, perhaps his age, from what he could hear. One of the women sounded quite delicate. Therion couldn’t make out what she was saying because of how quietly she spoke; it was like she didn’t want to be heard. The other woman sounded like her polar opposite, quite loud and outspoken, though she spoke infrequently compared to Alfyn. But then again, who didn’t?
Therion wondered, who could they be talking to? And then it dawned on him.
The cleric and the huntress.
Alfyn was about to try and make their group two people larger.
Why the pair hadn’t already decided to part ways with Alfyn and Primrose put Therion on edge. Why else would they stick around, if not for Alfyn beaming from ear to ear whilst inviting them to tag along, arms wide open? Gods, that fool was going to be the death of him, one way or another. Without realising it, Therion had started pacing quickly, striding in loops outside of Alfyn’s door, arms folded moodily across his chest as rapid-fire complaints bounced around his head.
The door opened and Alfyn poked his head out. “There you are.” He said, as if he’d been looking for him. “You comin’ in or what?”
Therion fixed the foulest glare he could on the apothecary. “Alfyn,” he started in a warning tone, “did you want me to come and see you for anything in particular?”
It was a test that Alfyn failed spectacularly. “Yeah, you gotta meet Ophilia and H’aanit, the cleric and the huntress.” He chirped, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “They’re right in here, and they’re dyin’ to meet ya! Plus, I gotta’ check up on you after.”
“Damn the Gods, Alfyn!” Therion cursed, shoulders tensing. “Do you have to go about befriending every single person we come across? Even the ones who try to kill us?”
Alfyn wilted slightly, but not enough to relent. “You don’t even know who they are.” He persisted, slipping out into the hallway and closing the door behind him, leaving the women to themselves for a few minutes. “I swear to you, they mean no harm. It was all just a big accident, and now they wanna make it up to us. They can’t be that bad if they’re willing to own up to their mistakes!”
Therion scoffed and rolled his eyes, shuffling back a little to put distance between them. “Please,” he drawled, slow and sarcastic, “you wouldn’t know bad if it strolled right up to you and lifted that damned satchel off your person.”
Alfyn barked out a clipped laugh, holding his hand over his heart in mock offense. “Wow. Cuts real deep, Ther.” He teased.
“Don’t call me that.” Therion managed through gritted teeth.
Alfyn ran a hand through his messy hair, knocking a few strands out of his pathetic excuse for a ponytail. He leaned back against the wall, and Therion felt his breath catch in his throat for a reason he couldn’t quite place. “Listen, Therion,” Alfyn started, uncharacteristically serious. “I know we’ve only been travelling together for a few days now, but I’ll be honest, I wanna get to know you properly before we part ways. So that we might send each other letters once in a blue moon - heck, I don’t know - it’s just- you’re an interesting guy, and I like havin’ you around. So I wanna do right by you, is all, and I wouldn’t ever wanna make you uncomfortable. But they just wanna make it up to us, stick around until the Highlands because they’re headed that way anyway, and then we’ll never have to see ‘em again. Sound fair?”
Therion was at a brief loss for words. He stared up at Alfyn, struck by his sudden honesty and transparency. “At least you’re being straightforward, for once.” He concluded, pulling his scarf up over his mouth to hide himself better, feeling a little self conscious. “But I’m not babysitting anymore of your new friends. You’re enough to deal with.”
“Aw, c’mon Ther,” Alfyn crooned, patting a hand onto his shoulder like it was the easiest thing in the world. “I’m not that bad with my axe.” Therion tried not to bristle at the contact, or the nickname.
“Whatever you say, medicine man.” He rolled his eyes again and fought the urge to yawn. “Seriously, though. It’s Therion.” He reiterated.
Alfyn laughed again, louder and happier this time, before stepping around Therion and pressing his fingertips lightly against his shoulders, nudging him forwards. “Come on, then!” He cheered. “Time to meet the ladies!”
The ladies, as it turned out, were exactly as Therion imagined them to be. Polar opposites, from how they spoke to how they carried themselves.
Ophilia the cleric probably had her picture printed in Orsterran dictionaries, next to the word “mild” . She was slim and lanky but unexpectedly tall; taller than Primrose, at least, but her figure was so slight that she didn’t seem it. Her hands, gloved in black leather, constantly clung to a wooden clerical staff, which hung an antique lantern at the end. It looked like it would fetch a few hundred leaves at least, probably more with the otherworldly blue flame contained within the lamp. For all of Ophilia’s demurity, her soft-spoken words held a strange conviction, like she knew herself well, and what she was about. She looked over Therion with an uncritical eye, and Therion couldn’t decide if it was her churchly nature speaking, or her apparent naivety that made her seem so non-judgemental.
Her partner, H’aanit the huntress, hailed from the Woodlands. Contrastingly strong and tall and well-built, large by every definition, she held herself like she knew she was a force of nature, and wanted others to know it too. She spoke fairly infrequently, but the sheer number of words she packed into her sentences made up for it. Her accent was peculiar, matching the aged dialect of S’warkii, one of the most remote settlements in all of Orsterra. Therion had never been there himself, but the Woodlands were close enough to Bolderfall that the local tavern sometimes saw visitors from across the border. A white panther-like animal lay at her feet, lapping delicately at one of its paws. Therion and Primrose eyed it a little suspiciously, and even Alfyn seemed slightly uncomfortable in its presence.
“So you must be Therion,” Ophilia smiled sweetly. With all the grace of a noblewoman, she stood and curtseyed delicately, mindful of the lantern swaying at the end of her staff. “I must be the first to apologise for all the trouble I’ve caused you. We mistook you for a thief who stole from the Church of Saintsbridge before crossing over into the Sunlands. He was dressed in a purple cloak, and it was hard to tell the difference because of the low visibility in the desert, but you look nothing alike apart from your clothes. I am terribly sorry. Please, believe me when I say Miss H’aanit has nothing to do with this, and as her employer I am ready to accept responsibility for my actions.”
Therion stared at her blankly. He pulled up his scarf a little higher and looked out the window, uncomfortable with making eye contact. “Don’t mention it.” He muttered, eager to speak as little as possible.
The huntress had her gaze trained on him the whole time, eyes sharp and piercing like daggers. “Nay, but it is I who loosened mine bow.” She declared, bold and undeterred by the quiet protests of Ophilia. “I couldst hath killed thee, hadst I been trying to takest thine life. A hunter from S’warkii never misses their quarry, and mine aim is always true. If thee must place the blame unto one of our heads, I behest you let it be mine own.”
“Uh.” Therion hedged, staring past the huntress in a lapse of concentration. Her words went in one ear and out of the other, becoming even more scrambled up as they passed through. “N-No need to worry about it.” He insisted, shrugged them both off. “No harm done, really.”
Primrose was lounging on a two-seater in the corner, looking awfully amused by the whole situation. She hadn’t said a word since his entrance; Therion assumed she was quietly analysing the three of them, trying to get a read on her new companions. Nevertheless, she had the ghost of a smile flickering at the edge of her lips, and a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. She seemed to hang on to Ophilia and H’aanit’s every word, prompting Therion to shoot a confused look.
“But Mister Therion, it is within the best interests of the Church to lead by example, and in the name of Sir Aelfric his holiness, I must atone for my sins against you.” Ophilia all but pledged, wringing her hands into her blessed staff. “If Doctor Greengrass sees it fit, I could perform a cleansing ritual on you to help restore you back to full health. That is, if your symptoms from the slumberthorn arrow still persist, and if Doctor Greengrass permits it, seeing as you’re under his care.”
Therion crossed the room and sunk into the seat next to Primrose. The damned cat at H’aanit’s feet perked up as he passed it, and Therion had to fight the urge to curl his legs into his chest, away from wandering cat eyes. “I’m fine.” He replied bluntly, uncomfortable with being the centre of attention. Alfyn guffawed, still standing by the doorway. He’d retrieved his pestle and mortar from Gods’ know where, and was back to grinding the same berries from earlier.
“He’ll be ‘right, but surely you could only make ‘im better, not worse, right?” Alfyn offered Ophilia that same sunny smile he’d offered to Therion the day they first met, and Therion couldn’t help but sour, sulking like a schoolchild at the thought of being under the care and control of someone else.
“I’m right here.” He snapped, frowning miserably. “And I can make my own decisions, thank you very much. I don’t need any more healing.”
“So cold.” Alfyn tutted. “Pay him no heed, Sister Ophilia. He’s just grumpy because of the heat.”
“If that’s settled, may I ask why the two of you are heading towards the Highlands?” Primrose finally spoke up. She fixed her attention of the two women, eyes glittering with curiosity. “It’s quite an unusual trek to make by foot- and a long one, too.”
“Well,” Ophilia started, clearing her throat. “I reside within the Church of Flamesgrace, alongside my father, the Archbishop, and my sister, Lianna. Unfortunately, my father fell quite seriously ill some few weeks ago, and my sister vowed to stay by his side in fear of his passing. I would have stayed by his side too - Aelfric, forgive me, for being such a negligent daughter - but, you see, dear Lianna was chosen as the Flamebearer for the Kindling pilgrimage. I decided to take her place so that she could spend time with Father.”
Alfyn whistled, long and low. “Gods, Ophilia,” he grimaced. Therion could practically hear the apothecary’s heart bleeding out already. “You sure got thick skin to be still be standing through all o’ that. I’m real sorry to hear about your pa.”
Likewise, Primrose clutched her hands together close to her heart. “My deepest condolences.” She sounded so quiet and solemn, like a part of her was mourning, too, for Ophilia and her father.
Therion didn’t know what to say, so he didn’t say anything.
Ophilia perked up a little, smiling in the face of her woes. “Thank you. It has been very helpful and motivating for me to have met new people on my journey, and I am quite fortunate to have your company this afternoon.” Her face was pretty and delicate, and she lit up the room when she smiled so genuinely. It put Therion a little on edge, made him wonder what she could be hiding. She placed a light hand on H’aanit’s shoulder, urging her to speak. “Miss H’aanit has been ever so kind as well. We’ve been travelling together since we met in the Clifflands. Technically, the Church has been employing her through myself to defeat a most fearsome beast, and most recently to retrieve the stolen treasures of the Saintsbridge clergy.”
“Aye. Mine cause is but a simple one: slay the beast known as Redeye, and bringen back mine Master.” H’aanit announced, like she was about to head off for war. If her expression was anything to go by, she was. The cat at her feet livened up, seeming to become much more excited and alert when hearing its mistress speak. H’aanit reached down to card her fingers through the cat’s thick fur, locking eyes with Therion as she did. Therion tried to look away before she caught on, but he wasn’t quick enough. “Prithee, do not be alarmed by Linde. She is as tame as any old house cat.”
Therion grumbled in response, but didn’t believe her for a second. Linde had eyes that saw right through his bullshit, and could rip him to shreds in seconds if she so desired. Those claws were nothing to laugh about.
“Can’t say I ever heard of such a creature.” Alfyn frowned. “Gotta be a rare kind of beast.”
“As rare as they cometh,” H’aanit said, looking troubled. “This beast, Redeye… it is the monster of myth and legend. One look is all it needeth, to transform any living, breathing creature into a stone statue.”
Primrose looked unconvinced. “Stone?” She echoed, raising an eyebrow. “Are you sure? How could that even be possible?”
H’aanit pursed her lips into a thin, straight line. “I cannot say for certain.” She admitted, looking as unsure as her audience. “But it is the work of no man, I assure you. My master, Z’aanta, is one of many hunters who hath been transformed. For Z’aanta, and the Knights Ardante, I must succeed in hunting Redeye, and delivering Orsterra from its terrible reign.”
Silence hung over their heads like a thick fog, impassable in the wake of H’aanit’s dire confession.
“Well,” Therion started. He pulled an apple from his cloak and tossed it into the air repeatedly, loosening the muscles in his wrist and fingers with every catch. “Seems like you two are under pretty strict working conditions, and I wouldn’t want to slow you down. I’m going to stay here for another day or so to rest up, I think, so they’ll be no hard feelings when you need to speed off into the Highlands.”
Ophilia beamed and rose, clapping her hands together. “Oh, mister Therion, don’t you worry at all! H’aanit and I may seem like we’re in a bit of a rush, but there’s always time to slow things down a little. With all that’s gone on in the past few days, taking it easy on the way into the Stonegard might be just what we need!”
Therion balked. No, thank you.
Unperceptive to his visible discomfort - or ignorant to it, perhaps - H’aanit nodded her head in thoughtful agreement. “I must agreeth.” She decided, with a small smile. “There is safety in numbers, and whilst Ophilia and I make a fine pair in combat, there is surely no harm in travelling in a larger group.”
“Excellent.” Primrose smiled prettily. “We’d be delighted to have you along.”
With a new plan of action freshly drafted, Therion’s ever-growing party set off East before dawn the following morning, much to his dismay. The whole ordeal of having two extra party members (so shortly after recruiting Primrose, too) was made infinitely worse by their steady ascent up into the mountains - something Therion wasn’t expecting to jar him as much as it did. But, with every step he found it harder to breathe, and his legs shook whenever he so much as glanced over the edge of their chosen hiking trail.
“Ah, there’s nothing quite like this, huh?” Alfyn cheered, as bright and happy as ever. He stretched his arms high above his head, interlocking his fingers and ironing out his tired muscles. “The fresh air, the cool morning breeze- what else could you want? And the view- it’s so amazing! Nothin’ like what we got back home. I think I could get used to this whole travelling deal.”
Therion disagreed. But, then again, he supposed he’d developed a bit of a habit when it came to disagreeing with Alfyn. Nevertheless, he grumbled something incoherent in response, and occupied himself with rewinding his scarf tighter across his nose and mouth, eyes fixed straight ahead. As he stormed on, H’aanit hung back, insisting that it would be safer for her to remain as far back as possible. “Monsters of any sort are no match for mine bow.” She explained, ready to knock back an arrow quicker than a wink. Linde purred happily, trailing after her master, practically bouncing with each step. As the desert sands of the Sunlands were gradually replaced by well-worn stone, the snow leopard became a lot more lively and animated. The unwavering heat must have been getting to her.
“I must say, the weather here makes for a delightful change from home.” Ophilia sighed in contentment, picking up on Linde’s cheery change in temperment. As they crossed over from the Sunlands, she removed her white sunhat and bundled it up safely in her too-small backpack, leaving Therion to wonder how she managed to fit all of her belongings inside - working for the church made it hard to pack light, it seemed - especially for a higher-up. “The Sunlands were a bit too intense for my tastes, but still enjoyable. This kind of weather is just right.”
Primrose hummed in acknowledgement. The bells sewn into her dancer’s uniform chimed with every step, as her new boots thumped against the worn hiking trail. Upon seeing her intentions to traverse the highlands in sandals, Ophilia insisted that Primrose wore her extra pair of walking boots; they were similarly sized, and fit as well as one could have hoped when borrowing an acquaintance's shoes; Primrose was really quite grateful for the trauma it saved her feet. “The Flatlands are mild-weathered enough.” She contributed, holding a hand above her eyes to ward of the sun’s glare. “I think I miss the weather there the most.”
And so, they climbed, and climbed, and climbed, and climbed- until their legs trembled and gave out beneath them, urging their party to set up camp for the night. They left the Sunlands before dawn to avoid the worst of the heat, and had only decided to settle an hour or so before the sun would start to set. All in all, they’d had a long day, and Therion was nothing short of exhausted.
His legs were unaccustomed to climbing steep hills and jagged paths. Even H’aanit, their fittest party member, struggled a little with such a new environment. By the time they stopped, Therion more of less collapsed next to an oversized boulder, uncomfortable and aching, but thankful for the rest. He was still feeling somewhat foggy from the slumberthorn, but thanks to Alfyn’s (unnecessary, unwanted) care, he was as good as he was going to get. Without an apothecary, he’d be much worse for wear- not that he cared to admit it.
“If we maketh camp here, I will go on the hunt.” H’aanit declared, all noble and brave, with her oversized housecat sitting proudly by her side. Primrose looked like she was about to say something in protest, but H’aanit simply held up a hand. “Please, do not worry thyselves. With Linde by mine side, I will returneth triumphant, and with enough quarry to feeden us all.”
Alfyn unfastened his axe from across his back and steadied it in a practised grip. “Well, that’s awfully kind of yer, Miss H’aanit.” He grinned, looking just as determined as she did. “If you can handle that, then I’ll go off and make sure we got enough wood to make a fire. I’m sure you three will be just fine on your own, right?”
“Of course.” Ophilia, nodding, resting her backpack on the ground. “Will you be alright on your own, Mister Greengrass?”
“‘Course I will.” Alfyn flashed a brilliant smile, and gave Ophilia a thumbs up. Therion rolled his eyes at the gimmickiness of it all. With Alfyn gone, at least he’d have one less running mouth to deal with. Primrose didn’t seem like much for conversation (not with him, anyway) and he was sure he could brush off Ophilia with enough practised ignorance- he was usually an expert at avoiding conversation- with most people except Alfyn, that was. “Then again, I wouldn’t mind if Therion wanted to come along.” Alfyn continued, like such a statement was he easiest thing in the world for him to force out of his mouth- like it didn’t sound weird at all, or selective. “You’ve been looking kinda sleepy, Ther. If you help me carry the wood, then I can give you a look over whilst we’re out there workin’. What do you say?”
Given the situation, and Alfyn’s insistence, Therion guessed two things: firstly, Alfyn didn’t want to go alone. He acted like it would be no big deal, and he’d be fine completing such a simple task by himself, but if he were really okay with it he wouldn’t have needed to come up with such an obtuse and flimsy excuse. Secondly, he wanted to talk. About what, Therion had no idea, but the idea of not knowing ate him up inside for some reason. “Sure.” Therion relented easily, despite the deep-set fatigue that was starting to worm its way back into his bones. “But you’re doing the heavy lifting, medicine man.”
H’aanit glanced over to Primrose and Ophilia. They’d both started unpacking their things, and unrolling their bedrolls. “Will the two you be alright?” She asked, clearly troubled by the idea of leaving the two women on their own.
“Please, Miss H’aanit.” Prirmose started, tossing her chocolate brown ponytail over her shoulder. “I see better at night than I do in the daylight. We’ll be fine.”
Ophilia had her staff strapped to her back, replacing her backpack now that they were settling down. The sacred flame burned bright and blue by her bedroll’s side. “Of course we’ll manage.” She reassured her partner. “If we come under any harm, Sir Aelfric will surely protect us.”
“Surely.” H’aanit agreed with a curt nod, no trace of sarcasm or disbelief in her voice. She had full faith and respect in her friend’s beliefs. “I will be no more than an hour.”
“Same here.” Alfyn chimed in, signing off with a two-fingered salute as he led Therion - not entirely unwilling - into a darkening ravine.
“You’re scared of heights.” Alfyn declared.
Therion blanked for a second as he processed Alfyn’s words, too preoccupied with ‘supervising’. He was leaning against a tree, arms crossed, pretending that he was being productive by watching Alfyn’s woodcutting technique and making sure he didn’t mess up. “What?” He muttered, unimpressed.
Alfyn grunted as he slammed the edge of the axe into his chosen tree for a fifth time. He was starting to make headway, but the trunk was thick enough for it to take a little while. “Heights.” He repeated, rolling his shoulders, before swinging the axe again. “You’re afraid of ‘em.”
“You sure you’re alright, doc?” Therion asked, unfolding his arms and straightening his posture. “Or is the mountain air getting to you?”
“Not as much as it’s gettin’ to you.” Alfyn countered. “There’s no use lyin’. I could see it on your face when we were hikin’ up that trail. You got all- clamped up and stuff. More than usual.”
Therion had to give credit where it was due- Alfyn looked like a bit blunt to strangers, but he had enough of an eye to pick up on the little things that made people tick. He continued to chip away at the tree trunk bit by bit, punctuating his words with each solid hit. “Don’t- worry- ‘bout it. Everyone’s got fears. It’s okay.”
“I live in the Clifflands.” Therion said, as monotone as possible. “You can’t be scared of heights if you live in the Clifflands.”
One more swing, and there was a very audible crack in the wood. Alfyn had cut through most of the tree, and the trunk had become unstable, ready to fall. “Get back.” Alfyn ordered, jogging over to the thief to tug him away. “Timber!” He yelled, all too cheerfully. Therion followed without protest, ducking away behind another tree as an echoing clap like thunder rang throughout the forest. Squirrels and mice and birds chirped away in fright as all of the nearby wildlife fled the noise.
“It’s okay.” Alfyn repeated, still holding Therion’s unshackled wrist in his gloved hand. “I’m scared of stuff too. Forest fires, floods, the plague- you name it. It’s alright to be scared sometimes.”
Therion pondered for a second too long before souring. He pulled his wrist away, looking totally fed up. “Sure, sure.” He hissed. “I bet it is. But I’m not scared of heights, trust me.”
“If you say so.” Alfyn relented. “Now, are you actually gonna help me cut this wood, or are you gonna supervise again?”
The thief snorted in response, ducking back into his scarf. “You got another axe?” He hid his grin in purple cotton, not that it mattered anyway. Alfyn could tell from the glint in his eye that he was smiling.
“Fair point.” Alfyn shrugged. He wiped the sweat from his brow and peeled off his green jacket, before setting himself back to work. “You know, Ther- if you ever wanna talk about anythin’, I got your back.” He smiled earnestly, all sunshine and rainbows and late-summer heat. Therion looked away immediately.
“Oh my Gods, stop calling me that.”
Hey! Sorry for the delay- I feel like I've been leaving it too long between updates, but this chapter has evaded me for quite some time. I've been struggling on-and-off with it since March, so I apologise for that!
In March, I ended up going to see Captain Marvel, which was a big inspiration for the opening scene. I really like the idea of your subconscious being an blank room, filled in with bits and pieces of memories vs. imaginations. I suppose it's kind of a cliché, buuuut once I got the idea down onto paper it felt wrong to change it. Nothing else really fit.
I also got a new job last month- everything's back on track and I'm quite pleased! Thank you for all of the kind words and congratulations that came with the last update!
As always, please, please, please help me improve! If you have any criticisms, please share them- if you think something worked particularly well, it'd be great to know! Call me out on my mistakes, and help be grow into a better writer. I'm doing this for fun, I have no background in prose or creative writing, so you know- I could use the feedback. This is unbeta'd, as always. Thanks so much!
- Rev x