Tentacles flaring, the black blob rushed Erik in what might have been a terrifying advance, if only it weren't roughly the size of a housecat.
"Whoa there." Erik stuck out his foot, landing one boot directly to the creature's… head? Could that flat bit on top even be called a head? Aside from its tentacles, the thing didn't seem to even have distinct body parts; it was shapeless, like a milk-sopped slice of bread. "Down boy."
"Aww, how cute!" Serena cooed. "I do believe he likes you."
"Really?" Erik turned a skeptical eye on the creature, whose undulating tentacles continued to snap like vicious little whips. "I'd hate to see it dislike someone."
"GIVE.IT.TO.ME." Its voice was small, yet fierce, and the sound resonated through Erik's skull like a headache. "GIVE."
"Give you what?" He frowned. "You gotta be more specific."
The Watcher gasped. "FRIEND HEAR FRIEND?"
The question was confusing enough that Erik almost lost his balance; or perhaps it was the difficulty his foot had in finding purchase in the wibbly, wobbly jelly that the creature seemed to be made from. Either way, the thing pressed its advantage, reaching out with two slender arms to prod Erik right in the belly, hard.
With a hop, Erik recovered his balance, then renewed pressure on the creature. "This is what you want?" He removed the Calamus flute from his sash and, with one hand, held it high above his head. "Our flute?"
"GIVE.IT.TO.ME," it screamed.
Erik cocked his head. "Is it yours?"
He quirked one eyebrow. "That wasn't an answer."
"Okay, okay. I heard you the first eleven times." But rather than give the creature what it wanted, Erik firmly nudged it back with his boot. He'd been in the treasure-seeking business long enough to know that if somebody wanted an ancient god-summoning artifact that badly, they usually didn't have good intentions for it. He returned the flute to his sash, then held his hand over it for good measure. "How about I just hold onto this a little longer, okay, short stuff? In the meantime, you can settle down and explain what you meant by that whole Darkspawn thing."
By his side, Jade made an uncharacteristic squeak.
Erik chanced a look at his companions. While the Watcher seemed as delighted as ever, if not more so, both Serena and Jade were staring at him in open-mouthed horror.
Dread pooled in Erik's gut.
"What's wrong?" he asked, not sure he wanted to know the answer.
Jade blinked, then choked out, "Darkspawn?"
"Is it—speaking to you?" Serena's voice was barely above a whisper.
"Yeah? Can't you…" Erik's voice died away as he realized that Serena wouldn't have asked the question for any other reason than the obvious.
Unsettled and more than a little scared, he turned back to glare at the jelly-like creature. "Alright, you talking toasted marshmallow," he snapped. "What's going on here? Why can't Jade and Serena hear anything you're saying?"
If a glob without a mouth could smile, then Erik had the impression that this one was grinning like the marshmallow that ate the canary.
"DARKSPAWN.SPECIAL," it crowed.
"Quit—" Erik stopped himself before he said too much; at the moment, Jade and Serena were alarmed enough. "Quit saying that."
"What?" Serena clutched her hands together. "Please, tell us what it's saying."
"It wants the flute, and it won't tell me why." Erik shot the Watcher a meaningful glance, hoping to silently persuade the little guy of the importance of discretion, but as soon as Erik turned his cheek, another tentacle lashed his face until it stung. Erik swore. "You sure this thing is a friend?" he asked the Watcher. "Seems as friendly as a tentacular."
"FRIEND ANGRY," agreed the Watcher, his smile not slipping in the least.
"But, Erik," asked Jade, her voice taut, "What does it say of the Darkspawn?"
Erik gritted his teeth. "Not much. Just seems to be confused, that's all. Can I borrow that? Thanks."
In one swift motion, Erik grabbed the Watcher's now-empty chum bucket and upended it over the creature, covering it completely. Its tentacles retracted, though Erik could still hear several dull, yet furious thunks against the metal confine.
"You can cool down in there until you learn to play nicely with others," he growled.
Serena frowned at him. "Erik."
"What?" Crossing his arms, he sat down on the bucket for good measure.
"You can't just dump a bucket on somebody!"
Her hands went to her hips. "It's rude."
"So's smacking a guest in the face with your arm-noodles." And calling him the Darkspawn, thought Erik sourly. What did that even mean? The only person anybody had ever accused of being a Darkspawn was the Luminary, and he was long gone from this world. Was this some sort of guilt-by-association thing?
As Serena sputtered for a more convincing argument, the Watcher ambled over to Erik, then wordlessly put a hand on his shoulder. The Watcher's eyes were wide and deep and filled with unfathomable kindness, and suddenly, Erik felt very small indeed.
He sighed. "Fine. But if he comes at me again…"
The Watcher nodded.
With another sigh, Erik stood up. He put several feet between himself and the Watcher, who then turned over the chum bucket and freed the belligerent black glob.
The creature fixed its sightless sockets on Erik, and it seemed like it might pounce once more. But then the Watcher bent low and whispered something to it. The entity slumped. Slowly, its tentacles retracted, and the angry red light in its belly faded. It appeared to have lost all desire—not just for the fight, but even to exist at all.
"ALL BETTER," declared the Watcher, grinning like mad. He turned to Erik and his companions. "FRIENDS HUNGRY?"
The Watcher led them around the island to a massive, pistoning structure, carved with a stylized Watcher smile. From its top billowed steam, giving the conical sculpture an almost slime-like appearance. On the ground nearby stretched a large blanket that might have once been a tapestry; behind that was a crude lean-to made from twigs and branches.
Over his shoulder, Erik could still hear the coos and mewling of Cetacea and her calves, a song that somehow simultaneously soothed and rattled his jangled nerves. If this is where the Watcher made his camp, Erik wasn't sure how he'd ever managed to sleep. Then again, maybe he was used to it; maybe to sky-people, the racket was like cricket song.
The Watcher disappeared into the lean-to, then returned with a basket of rainbow-colored fruits, the likes of which Erik had never seen before.
Taking one of the proffered fruits, Erik bit into it. It was crisp, light, with a sweet taste that landed somewhere between a pear and an apple. Delicious. Erik was, apparently, famished.
"—And after Ceteacea showed up, we arrived here," Jade was saying, as she took a fruit for herself. "It's been a strange few hours."
"To be honest, we're still not entirely sure why the flute worked this time," added Serena. "It never has before."
Although Erik wanted answers as much as the rest of them, there was a presumption in Serena's tone that he wasn't so sure he liked. Part of him still clung to the idea that the events of the past few days had all been all random happenstance; a stroke of fortune, perhaps, for good or ill. But Serena, it seemed, had different ideas. He recalled the oath she'd sworn during the night, and now that he was awake, Erik realized how similar it was to another oath he'd heard her make, many years ago.
A chill crawled up his spine. Suddenly, he needed a change of topic; any change.
"Hey, Watcher," he said with as much lightness as he could muster. "So who is your new friend?"
The Watcher set the basket down next to the creature, who began to climb over it like a restless tabby looking for the perfect sunbeam in which to nap. "THE SPIRIT OF CALASMOS."
"Oh, like the flute!" said Serena.
The Watcher shook his head. "NOT CALAMUS. CALASMOS."
"Calasmos?" Jade frowned. "How odd. I feel as if I have heard that name before."
"It sounds familiar," agreed Serena. "Like something out of a dream…"
"Or a nightmare?" muttered Jade distractedly.
The name danced on the edge of Erik's memory as well, like a word or phrase stuck on the tip of one's tongue. But familiarity wasn't necessarily what bothered him about it, at least not at the moment. "Spirit, huh?" He narrowed his eyes at the creature. "Like the Timekeeper."
The Watcher nodded. He regarded the night-dark creature with fondness, or maybe pity; it was hard to read any emotion beyond his ever-persistent grin. "SPIRIT LOST. ALONE. NEEDS FRIEND."
"Lost, how?" asked Erik around another bite of fruit. His inquiry was rooted in wariness, not charity; even if the thing hadn't attacked him, it was still a spirit, and spirits meant Bad News. "Where are you even trying to go, anyway?"
"TO.THE.VESSEL," moaned the spirit. "THE.VESSEL.IS.GONE."
Erik frowned. "What the heck does that mean?"
"I.AM.HALF." Forlornly, the spirit kicked out its tiny legs and sat upon a piece of fruit almost half as large as its body. "HE.IS.HALF. TOGETHER.WE.ARE.WHOLE."
Slowly, Erik stopped chewing. "Oh."
"What's he saying?" whispered Serena.
Erik cleared his throat. He didn't know who or what the spirit meant by all that stuff about halves, but heat rose to his cheeks, anyway. "It says it's lost its vessel. Says it needs it to be whole."
"Then that's it!" She clapped her hands together.
"What's it?" asked Erik, then immediately wished he hadn't.
"Why we've come, of course. We must help him find his vessel again!"
"I dreamt of this, Erik." Her eyes caught the sunlight as she leaned forward, fists clenched, swept up in her own excitement. "I dreamt that this little fellow sought our help. We must be the ones meant to give it to him."
Erik regarded the creature as it stabbed at the basket with one arm, worrying a hole in the wicker, and wrinkled his nose. "Must we?"
"Serena makes a good point," said Jade. "Think of it: Yggdrasil gathered us all together again. She brought us here for a reason. This looks like a good reason to me." She glared at Erik down the length of her royal nose in an expression much like her father's. "And since when have you, of all people, been reticent to help someone in need?"
Erik chewed on his lip. A lot had changed in three years, and a lot hadn't, but he supposed now wasn't really the time to get into the finer points of his character growth.
The Watcher's already-large eyes widened like saucers. "HELP FRIEND?"
Erik's gaze bounced between the three of them, then back to the spirit. What his friends were saying made a lot of sense, but at the same time, a not-so-small part of him still wanted to shake the black spirit by its stabby little pyrosomes. Closing his eyes, he tried to listen to his instincts; he tried to think of what the Luminary would have done. But something inside of him was screaming, and screaming, and screaming, and the noise was so loud that Erik couldn't make out what it was trying to say.
"If it's the will of Yggdrasil," he muttered, "then I guess we have no choice but to help."
"Oh, goody!" cried Serena, hopping a little. "I knew you wouldn't let me down." She turned to the black creature. "Don't worry, my new friend. We are heroes, you know, and we are here to help!"
Help, however, would have to wait. Rather than immediately set forth, the four friends decided to set aside questions of where and how to begin their quest until the next day. Now that the world was no longer ending, it seemed acceptable to take their adventures at a ever-so-slightly slower pace.
In the meantime, the reunited friends (along with one spirit) spent the rest of the day relishing in each other's company: strolling the gardens, feeding the sky-fish and picking more fruit in preparation for their journey. As the sun set, Ceteacea and her calves retired to the clouds, taking most of the fish with them; so the companions built a fire and spoke of many things, long into the night.
After a time, Erik settled on the edge of the campsite, stretching out just as he used to. He didn't need to keep watch, necessarily; there was nothing left in Erdrea to threaten an island floating in the sky. Still, it was his habit, and probably always would be. You could take a thief out of the shadows, but not the shadows out of a thief.
Eventually, Erik drifted off to sleep—
—only to wake with a start. He'd been dreaming of something important, although he couldn't remember what; all he was left with was the sense of someone calling his name from very far away, or possibly from very near.
At once, though, he knew what it was that had woken him. He checked his sash.
The Calamus flute was gone.
Groaning, he got to his feet. Perhaps he ought to be more panicked about the flute's absence, but he was more annoyed at his interrupted sleep than anything else. He sensed a long journey ahead of him, and he'd wanted to get as much rest as possible before departing on it.
Besides, it wasn't like the culprit could have gotten very far, anyway.
Careful not to disturb the others, Erik left the camp and skirted the rim of Havens Above. As he went, he tried not to look too far over the edge; at this height the clouds made him dizzy, if he gazed too long into them. It was not unlike staring into the ocean on a cloud-covered night.
Thankfully, it wasn't long before he came upon the thief. The black spirit stood on the landing platform right before the large staircase, gazing out into nothingness. The thing was nearly invisible against the night sky, distinguishable only by the stars that it blotted out.
At Erik's approach, the spirit—Calasmos, was it?—didn't stir. One long arm clutched the flute.
"There, you tried it. Satisfied now?" Erik held out his hand expectantly.
Rather than hand the flute back, however, Calasmos sullenly lobbed it at Erik's feet.
"IT.DOES.NOT.WORK," it said.
"I could have told you that." Picking up the instrument, Erik returned it to the safety of his sash. "You kinda need a mouth to play a flute, you know? Also," he added, scrunching his lips grimly, "It doesn't work without me, apparently."
The creature regarded him, unblinking, soulless. "PLAY.IT."
Erik chuckled. "You gotta be kidding me."
"Oh, really? Must I?" Erik crossed his arms. "I didn't hear you say the magic word."
Erik shook his head. He had to give the little guy points for sheer audacity; it was like watching a Downtown rat-terrier bark its fool head off at a passing troop of guards.
"Cute," he said. "Real cute. Anyway, why do you need the flute so badly? Where is it you need to go?"
"Oh. That again." Erik fanned out his coat and sat down cross-legged next to the spirit. "So do you know where this vessel of yours is?"
When the spirit didn’t elaborate, Erik prompted, "And where is that?"
"WHERE.ALL.VESSELS.GO." The spirit's belly pinkened, ever-so-slightly. "TO.BE.REMEMBERED."
"Err, okay." Erik quirked one eyebrow at the spirit. "Calasmos, is it? That's a mouthful. Mind if I call you Cal? Or Callie?"
"Callie, it is," said Erik with a sharp grin. "You know, I can't figure out your deal. I mean, you're evil, right? You look kind of evil."
He shrugged. "Good point."
After a moment, the spirit spoke again. "I.AM.NOTHING.ANYMORE," it said, returning its mournful gaze to the world beyond the rim of Havens Above, and the patchwork constellations of city lights that clustered in the gathered darkness below. "NOT.WITHOUT.HIM."
Erik sighed, hugging his knees to his chest. As much fun as it was to needle the little nugget, he couldn't mock somebody when they were so clearly out of sorts. Besides, if anybody understood how Callie felt, it was him. "That's rough, buddy. It sucks to be—left behind."
The creature made a strange series of ticking-tocks, like a clock spring wound too tightly. It took a moment for Erik to register the sound for what it was: laughter.
Erik frowned. "What's so funny?"
"PITY.FROM.YOU." The redness in Callie's belly went dim. "FROM.THE.DARKSPAWN."
"Man, you really gotta lay off on that. Why do you keep calling me—" He lowered his voice to a whisper, just in case. "—Darkspawn, anyway?"
"THAT.IS.WHAT.YOU.ARE," rasped the creature. "SKY.WITHOUT.STARS. DARK.WITHOUT.LIGHT."
"Oh. Heh." Erik let out an enormous sigh of relief, then chuckled shakily. "So it's just a metaphor and not, like, a title or anything."
Callie tilted its head, like a confused puppy.
"I get it now, I guess. But," he added, "Don't let the girls hear you call me that. They'll get the wrong idea. They know the Darkspawn as someone else."
"THEY.ARE.WRONG," said Callie.
"Well, yeah." Erik frowned. "Everybody was, I guess. About him being the Darkspawn and all." He leaned back on his hands, staring up at the tiny pinpricks of light and the vast spaces between them. "He could never be anything like that."
"HE.WAS.NOT," agreed the spirit.
Erik eyeballed Callie. "You're being awfully agreeable right now. Are you trying to get on my good side so that I'll say yes to helping you?"
"YOU.ARE.NOT.NEEDED," said the spirit. "SERENICA.SHALL.ASSIST.US."
"Sereni—oh, you mean Serena." Erik let out a slow whistle. "Yeah, uh, definitely don't let her hear you say that, either. She's not a huge fan of her ancestor at the moment, and when Serena gets upset, she gets these puppy-dog eyes—" He shook his head. "Boy, even I can't resist it. No man can. But… you're not a man, I guess. More like a squishy little marshmallow thing." Erik shrugged, giving up. "What even happened to your body?"
He hissed through his teeth. "Sounds painful."
"THE.VESSEL.IS.GONE. ONLY.MEMORY.LIVES.ON," said Callie. "BOTH.MUST.BE.REUNITED.TO.REVIVE."
"So if we get your body back—"
"—vessel, excuse me. If we get it back, you'll be in one piece again?"
The creature inclined its head in what Erik assumed was a nod. "TWO.HALVES.BECOME.WHOLE."
Erik considered this, the thoughts drifting through his mind like ships to a harbor. Spirits, vessels, memories… it was all so tricky. Understanding seemed to slip through his grasp like so much sea foam.
But once, a lifetime ago, Erik had lost his memory: He'd been a vessel without spirit, so to speak, a shell of a man guided by instinct and luck alone. He didn't remember much of that time, and how he'd managed to survive, he had no idea, only that his body had clung jealously to life, long after the spirit inside was gone.
And a good thing it had, because eventually he'd found his way to the Luminary again—or, rather, the Luminary had found him, and then his memories had been restored, and he'd become himself again. No, more than that. Better. He'd been the Luminary's partner, and that was even better than being himself. It had been a better way of being.
One half, finding the other. That was his and the Luminary's story in a nutshell, from start to end. Two halves becoming whole, again and again and again.
Yggdrasil had brought him here for a reason, Erik suddenly thought; and maybe it wasn't necessarily that Yggdrasil needed something done, but that Yggdrasil needed Erik, specifically, to be the one to do it.
At once Erik became aware of the Temple of Dawn behind him, a great presence looming on the hill that he had refused to even so much as look at the entire time he'd been in Havens Above. He couldn't think of the Temple without thinking of the journey to forge the Sword of Light: of the Luminary resplendent in his glory; of his friends, united in fellowship; of the last real good times before the end.
The Temple simply held too many memories to bear.
But maybe, thought Erik, that was the point. For it wasn't just his own memories locked up in the Temple, but also Yggdrasil's.
They'd used those memories to find their way before. Maybe he could do so again.
Erik stood up.
"Be back in a bit," he said distractedly. He felt lost in a trance, pulled by his heart like a fish caught on a hook. "There's something—I need to—something I…"
He forgot to finish the sentence as his gaze drifted up, up, up. Heart pounding, he ascended the stairs; slowly at first, then taking the steps by twos, then threes.
When he reached the great door, he pushed the doors open, strode inside and then into the inner sanctum, where the eternal flame still burned, casting its light over three raised daises, and three small Yggdrasil seedlings.
Erik approached the nearest one and swallowed.
"Alright, Yggie." He brushed the vine with cold fingertips that only barely shook. "I'm ready this time. Show him to me. Show me the Luminary."