In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.
- Albert Camus, "Return To Tipasa"
--THREE YEARS LATER--
There were too many holes left in the world, thought Erik.
He leaned his elbows over the railing of the Salty Stallion and gazed up at the stars—or, rather, at the dark pit where one star in particular was missing. Erdwin's Lantern had left no scar in the heavens when it fell, no ruined constellation to remind stargazers that it had ever been. Yet in Erik's estimation the sky hadn't quite seemed right since the red star had fallen, not even with Yggdrasil's light long ago restored. There was still too much darkness, where light ought to be.
But that was only to be expected, he supposed, in a world without its Luminary.
With Yggdrasil revived, balance had been restored, or so the bards liked to sing. But Erik had a hard time believing it. Erdrea had lost her legendary savior, her Guiding Light. And Erik, selfish as he was, couldn't help but feel that he had lost something far more precious.
If he squinted, he thought he could almost make out the Havens Above; a small blob blotting out the infinite reach of Yggdrasil's light. Erik had thought a lot about the Watcher over the years. The last of his kind, all on his own. Erik wasn't even sure the Watcher could count upon Cetacea's company; maybe sky whales only heeded the call of Luminaries who spoke fish.
It wasn't fair—that was an understatement—but this one small loss among many continued to needle at Erik like a rock in his boot. He would have looked after the Watcher, if only he'd had the means to get in the skies again. Certainly he wouldn't have left the poor boy to wander the ruins of his hometown for—well, however long Watchers lived. Erik would have made sure of it.
After all, Erik better than most knew what it was to be left behind.
He dropped his head with a sigh.
"There you are!"
Erik turned with a start to see his sister, Mia, wrapped in the Divine Robe of Queens—their booty from their latest excursion along the ass-end of the Snaerfelt. The robe fitted her nicely, he noted with no small amount of pride; the embroidered hems gently cuffed her wrists, while a jeweled collar swept low across her shoulders as if it had been sewn directly to her skin. She looked as if she ought to be holding court with Prince Faris or Queen Frysabel, arguing about land rights or Gallopolitan horse racers or whatever it was that nobles argued about.
Mia wasn't a child anymore. She hadn't been one for years. Neither of them had.
She drifted to his side, the gems on her dress catching the low light and sending it in a thousand directions at once. "I was looking for you."
He shrugged. "I've been right here. I mean, it's not that big of a ship."
"Hmm. Staring at Yggdrasil again?"
"Yeah, I guess."
"One of these days, you've got to tell me what it was like up there."
"I've told you already."
"Oh sure." She rolled her eyes, and suddenly, all her sophistication fell away and she was sixteen and bratty again. Thankfully. "'It was green,'" said Mia in a mock imitation of his voice. "'There was lots of weird shit everywhere. I'm Erik. Nothing fazes me. Also there was a campsite.'"
"Well, there was."
She lightly batted his arm. "You know what I mean. I want to know what it was really like. What really happened up there." Her voice grew hushed. "You saw the Heart of Yggdrasil, Erik. Only a handful of people ever have seen Her. You've got to tell me what it was like."
Erik closed his eyes, and just like that, he could see the flash of purple, evil light, racing his way; he could smell the singed flesh, the burning hair; he could hear himself shouting, screaming in terror—
My heart broke up there. And not for the last time.
"I don't know what else to tell you, Mia." He shrugged. "It was big and green and weird. I didn't get a good look at it. Jasper was too busy trying to kill us."
She sighed, hugging her arms to her chest. "Fine. I'm just curious, that's all. It's just—I missed so many things, you know?"
Erik's face softened.
"I wish I could show you Yggdrasil," he lied. "But I don't have the Orbs anymore."
Or the sky whale.
"Yeah. Um. So," Mia's gaze drifted out over the water, toward the dim haze in the direction of Puerto Valor. "Davé says we'll put into port tomorrow."
"That's right. Then we can rent ourselves some horses and get to Heliodor by sundown."
"It'll be nice to be on dry land again, don't you think? I think I've forgotten how to walk on a surface that doesn't pitch back and forth underneath your feet."
"Well, don't get too used to it. We're only ashore for a few days. Then we'll head back first thing after the ceremony."
"What?" She whirled on him, the jewels on her dress dazzling. "We're not even going to stay the whole week?"
"Why? It's just going to be a bunch of pompous, over-starched buffoons stuffing food down their gullets."
"But it's Jade's wedding!"
"Yes, and we'll be there for that part. But all the stuff that comes afterward is just stale cake and bad conversation. You won't be missing much, I promise." He smiled at her with more warmth than he felt. "Besides, we have things to do, right? Places to see, things to steal. You know the drill."
Beside him, Mia went completely still. Indeed, she looked so much like a statue that Erik's heart seized; only the sea spray whipping about the stray hairs around her face indicated that she had not, in fact, turned back into stone.
When she spoke again, her voice was low and devastating. "Where does this stop, Erik?"
She leveled him with a steady gaze, her chin jutting in the air before her. "This cross-country treasure hunt of ours. At what point do we sail into port and then, you know, not sail out again?"
"Don't you think Sylvando misses his boat? And Davé?"
Erik's cheeks felt hot. "Where's this coming from, Mia? You begged me to take you on this trip. You said you wanted to see the world."
"And we did. And it was amazing! Better than amazing. I couldn't have asked for anything better. But," Mia drew in a deep breath, "but we've been sailing the world for years now. Don't you ever get tired of traveling? Of not being home?"
"Hey." Erik grimaced. "That hovel back in Sniflheim—that wasn't a home."
"It was to me. But look, that's not the point. The point is I just want to be home, Erik. Whether it's there, or Heliodor, or Cobblestone—" she looked away briefly, fingers worrying at her fancy sleeve, "even that school you were telling me about sounds nice—it doesn't matter. I just want some place I can call my own."
"You mean our own."
Her eyes fixed on him, and Erik hated the pity he saw there; but more than that, he hated that it was well-deserved. "Oh, Erik," she said softly. "I would love nothing more. Honestly."
"I can hear the 'but' coming."
She laughed without mirth. "But," she continued, "this treasure hunt of ours—it wasn't only for my benefit, was it? Not really. You've always been searching for something, or someone," he could feel her eyes upon him, as keen and hawkish as ever, "that we could never find. Am I wrong?"
On the railing, Erik's knuckles grew white. Within him burned the desperate urge to hurl himself overboard, to swim away from this conversation, from her, from everything.
"No," he said, unable to meet Mia's gaze. "You're not wrong."
"So maybe it's time to be done with it. To say enough is enough, and let it go. You saved the world, after all. You deserve to move on, to live your life. To be happy."
"I don't want to move on. I want—"
Something I can never have.
The old guilt rose like bile in his throat. After all they'd been through, after all he'd done to her and then done to save her—how could he tell his sister now that she wasn't enough for him? That being together with her still left him empty inside?
What an awful brother he still was. Rotten to the core.
But… he supposed dragging her across Erdrea against her will wasn't really winning him many points, either.
"Maybe you're right. Maybe I've let this go on too long." The words caught in his throat, which burned as if someone were squeezing it. "When we put into port tomorrow, I'll, uh, I'll send word to L'Academie. Maybe they have an open spot for the fall semester."
"Really?" Mia clapped her hands together. "You promise?"
"Woo hoo!" She threw herself at him, just as she'd used to when they were little kids, squeezing him tight with arms that were a lot stronger than they looked. "You're the best!"
"Yeah," he sniffed, "and don't you forget it."
"I never could." She laid her head on his shoulder, and gave him another squeeze. "And, Erik?"
He laid one hand over her arm. "Yes?"
"For what it's worth, I'm sorry."
"You've nothing to be sorry about, Mia. I'll miss you, but I was on my own for five years, remember? I'll get over it."
"No, I mean—I'm sorry that we never found what you were looking for."
"Oh. That." Erik sighed, sinking into her warm embrace. Trust Mia to always land a killing blow. "Thanks, Mia. But it was never going to happen. It's not left in this world to find."
"I wish it were."
He let himself be held by her for a few more moments, then he patted her hand. "You should get down below. We have a busy day tomorrow. And a busy week ahead."
She beamed at him.
"You're the best brother ever!" She let him go, then bounced her way across the deck. When she reached the door leading to their quarters below, she cast one last glance behind her. "Don't stay up too late."
"Go on. I'll be down in a sec."
She nodded, then waved up to Davé up at the wheel, who saluted. Then she went into the hold, the door closing behind her with finality.
Erik turned back to the sea. Mia had grown up so much. She didn't need looking after anymore. Now she was looking after him, and didn't that just take the pot?
But she was right. This had gone on far too long. This moping, this emptiness. This unceasing ache deep in his bones. But Erik didn't know how to stop it. He felt like half of himself. Like a sky without stars.
He thought back to what he'd been able to say on that terrible day the Luminary vanished, the day his heart shattered for good.
"This isn't goodbye—not by a long shot! See you on the other side."
"Why," he muttered to the dark, "do I always make promises I can't ever seem to keep?"
Erik and Mia arrive in Heliodor. Mia does some shopping. Erik encounters an unlikely fan.
The last time Erik had seen Heliodor, it had been little more than a smoking crater, hollowed out by shrapnel and Mordegon's forces. Three years of near-constant reconstruction later, and the place still smelled more like a campfire than a city: Too much of mortar and dirt, and not enough of flowers and clean linens. It was a nice change from the open sea, of course; but it still overwhelmed Erik's senses, and not in a good way.
The fires had been put out, at least.
Work was left to be done. There would always be work left to be done, probably. But the people of Heliodor had insisted on rebuilding, as people always do, if for no other reason than they had no other choice.
For now, however, Heliodor's citizenry had set aside their trowels and their hammers to concentrate on the more enjoyable business of celebrating their beloved princess's impending nuptials. From every pitch and chimney waved jaunty pennants, and long garlands had been strung with care between the half-built houses and shops. Along the avenues twinkled multicolored paper lanterns, brought all the way from Phnom Nonh and etched with silhouettes of the royal couple.
Erik couldn't help but wonder what Jade thought of all this. The pomp and circumstance seemed so at odds with the serious, no-nonsense woman he'd traveled with so many years ago. But maybe she had changed. Maybe they all had.
"Heliodor! We made it!" squealed Mia. She nearly leapt off her horse in her excitement. "And it's not even sundown yet."
Erik slid from his own roan with considerably less grace. His back stung; his thighs ached. Three years also had passed since he'd ridden a horse with any regularity, three years that might as well have been a lifetime. He tossed his reins to a groomsman, along with a few coins.
"Are you serious?" he asked Mia, as he tried to stretch his legs without her notice and noted, out of habit, the guards patrolling the outer walls of the city. "We rode for ten hours. How do you still have so much energy?"
"Ugh. You sound like such an old man right now. Oooh, can we do some shopping?" Then, without waiting for a response, she pointed at a nearby stall. "Oh, wow! Snow globes!"
"Mia—Mia!" But she had already dashed toward the tent, her horse forgotten.
Erik rolled his eyes and tossed the groomsman another few coins, then patted his horse and hers farewell. He hurried after his sister, who now held one of the aforementioned gaudy trinkets to her eye, while the stall's minder peered at her with a lean, wolfish look.
"Aren't they so cute?" She shook the globe, and inside, a storm of white flakes began to swirl. "Look, you can see the Prince and Princess holding hands inside."
"How are you impressed by snow? You grew up in the Snaerfelt. And that doesn't look anything like Jade, anyway." He wrinkled his nose. "Or Faris."
"Eight gold," said the merchant, sensing his sale slipping away.
Erik squinted at him. "Why snow globes, of all things? The prince is from the desert."
"Sand can be white, too." the merchant said loftily. "Six gold."
"Two," countered Erik.
"You insult me, sir! Those figurines took me weeks to carve."
"I'm sure. That's why you managed to make only about eight hundred of them, right?"
Mia glared at him. "Erik." Then she leaned conspiratorially toward the merchant. "Don't mind him. He's always this grumpy."
The man nodded sagely. "Skepticism is natural, but my wares are second to none. Good sir, your sister clearly appreciates quality craftsmanship. Don't you want to make her happy? Five gold, and that's my final offer."
"Just give him the money, Erik."
Erik sighed. "Fine," he said, giving the man a few coins, "but next time, Mia, buy your own crap."
Gently he led her away from the stall and toward the great fountain, outside the reach of any other merchant hungry for easy marks.
Mia didn't resist. Instead, she shook her globe again, watching the flakes swirl. "Why did you insist on haggling? It's not like we don't have the money."
Reflexively, Erik's hand went to his purse. "Perhaps. But we shouldn't throw it away on useless junk."
She waved her hand at him dismissively. "Don't be such a Viking, Erik. What good is treasure if you can't spend it?"
"At least leave us enough to get a room at the inn." Erik chewed on the inside of his cheek. "If they even have any left."
Mia slipped the snow globe into the satchel at her side. "The inn? But I thought were going to stay at the castle."
"The castle?" Erik laughed. "That's a little outside even our price range, don't you think?"
"But weren't you and Princess Jade, like, best friends?"
Erik briefly recalled the MMA tournament, and his jaw twinged. "I wouldn't go that far."
"Oh." Mia's face fell. "Well, maybe Derk can put us up."
Erik wasn't quite sure how to answer her. Of course he ought to look up Derk; that would have been the proper thing to do, the friendly thing. But Derk would want to catch up on all the happenings of the past three years—or, worse, he'd want to reminisce—and Erik was already so exhausted that he had little appetite left for pleasantries, especially with another person from his past who'd left him behind.
"Derk's got better things to do right now than put up with the likes of us." He eyed the tide of tourists clogging Heliodor's still half-cobbled streets. "Come on, we really should get over to the inn. Maybe they still have some space in the cellars left."
"You there!" came a commanding voice. "Halt!"
Erik and Mia stilled as a guard approached. A familiar electricity raced up Erik's spine. His eyes darted toward the thickest crowds, the darkest alleyways—the potential avenues of escape. His fingers itched toward the daggers at his belt. "What seems to be the problem?"
"Are you—" The guard's eyes went wide. "Yes! It is you. Ser Erik!"
"Ser?" said Mia and Erik at the same time.
The guard beamed widely.
"Oh, it's a right pleasure, it is!" She extended her hand to Erik, who did not shake it. That didn't appear to dissuade her, however. "You probably don't remember me. We fought together—before. All this. You know. Well, maybe not together-together. That is, I was there when you jumped off Cobblestone Falls." Her voice took on a dreamy quality. "With the Luminary."
"Oh." Erik let his hands fall by his side, though it did little to relax the tension in his shoulders. "So you were one of the tin-cans who chased us through the sewers."
"Yes, yes I was. Sorry about that, by the way."
Erik waved a hand sarcastically. "Bygones."
Mia's brow knit. "Wait—did you just say Erik jumped off a waterfall?"
"That's right, miss. Didn't he tell you?" The guard elbowed Erik, who desperately fought to silence the instincts screaming at him to disarm the guard and run. "Don't want to seem too big of your britches, is that it? Oh, he's too humble by half, he is. I've heard that about you."
Mia's gaze bounced from her brother to the guard and back again. "A waterfall?"
"Not just any waterfall, miss. The tallest one in Heliodor!" Sensing a captivated audience, the guard leaned toward Mia. "Oh, it was incredible. A right chase, through the mountains, out the other side. Now they're backed up a corner; we got 'em surrounded, right? Blades out; nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Then the two of them, they just link hands and—boom! Off they go, right off the ledge, down to the drink below."
Erik, face burning, crossed his arms over his chest.
"We didn't link hands," he muttered.
"That's amazing!" Mia wheeled on her brother. "Why didn't you ever tell me this?"
Why indeed? Erik supposed he hadn't told her about Cobblestone Falls for the same reason he hadn't ever told her about what happened up at Yggdrasil: Because some memories were too close to his heart to share. He wouldn't even know how to begin to extract them.
"It never came up," he offered eventually.
"By Yggdrasil, Princess Jade will want to see you, and right away," continued the guard. "Come, come. Straight to the castle with you. I'll be your honor escort."
Mia hopped from foot to foot like an excited chickadee, while Erik bit back a groan. "That's really not necessary."
"Don't be silly. It's the least I can do after chasing you through the muck with the business end of a pike. Sorry again about that, Ser."
"Seriously, don't mention it."
Mia took his elbow and flapped it a little.
"I told you we should go to the castle," she scolded him. Then she scurried to the guard's side. "So tell me more. What did my brother do before he jumped? Was he really scared?"
"Only like he was about to piss his trousers, he did." The two began to walk toward the castle, Mia's braid swinging behind her. "But not the Luminary. He weren't fazed a bit, no miss. Not a hair out of place, even as he fell to his certain doom…"
It was too much to listen to. Erik waited until they moved out of earshot but not out of sight; then, with a growing sense of dread, he followed them to Heliodor Castle, eyes on the exits all the while.
Erik has a long-awaited reunion with an old friend, who, through great restraint, manages not to kick him in the face.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Erik had only ever seen Heliodor Castle's interior in ruins, so he had little insight into how successful its restoration had been. It looked fancy enough, he supposed, with sumptuous new carpets and gold glaze shining from every column and cornice. But despite his years as a thief, he'd never had much of a nose for finery. Treasures and artifacts, he could understand; but after a certain point, most rich people stuff looked to Erik about the same.
He could at least appreciate the tapestries, he supposed. Thick and brightly colored, they almost managed to draw the eye from all the scorch marks still on the walls.
The guard led Erik and Mia—well, mostly Mia—into a large atrium dominated by a fountain in the shape of a two-headed eagle, the Heliodorian sigil. Courtiers gathered around it like pigeons to crumbs.
At the center of this chaos stood a familiar figure. She wore a red, exquisitely embroidered cheongsam instead of her former traveling clothes—but it was her alright, her unmistakably long locks swept in a queue that dangled well past her backside.
Erik's heart thumped painfully. Was he—nervous? But that couldn't be. Surely it hadn't been that long since he'd last seen Jade.
Only… three years.
"Your Highness," said the guard, saluting as Jade turned and the crowd parted. "May I present to you, Ser—"
"Erik!" Eyes wide, Jade stepped forward. She didn't hug him—she wasn't, nor had she ever been, a hugger—but there excitement in her eyes and voice as she took both of his arms in hers and clasped them tightly. "It has been far too long!"
"Agreed." A familiar yet long-missed warmth buzzed in his chest. He'd kept away from Heliodor—too many memories, too many loose ends left dangling—and it wasn't until now, face-to-face with his old friend, that he found he regretted the choice.
"Princess, if I may—" began one of the courtiers still milling about behind Jade.
"Leave us," she commanded, her gaze never leaving Erik. "We are busy."
The crowd behind her grumbled amongst itself but began to disperse. Most of them didn't move far, however, instead choosing to linger at a barely polite distance, craning their heads in his direction, probably the better to overhear whatever it was that had so distracted Her Highness from their highly important queries.
Erik really didn't like rich people, even if technically he was one of them now.
"Yes, this is a surprise." A chill crept into Jade's voice, like frost overtaking a window. She smiled tightly, and the corners of her eyes hardened. Up close, Erik could see dark circles under her eyes and a shock of grey that had begun to form right at her hairline. "I did not know to expect you. I had hoped, of course; but then the invitation came back to the castle, unopened."
"Ah. Yes." Erik rubbed the heat from the back of his neck. "About that."
Mia swatted his arm. "You didn't tell her we were coming? What's wrong with you?"
Great. Just great. Erik had only been in Helidor for half an hour and somehow it had all already gone south. Again. Maybe this town was cursed.
"We were busy!" he protested. "The Phoenix Tear, remember? Running from vicious condors, trying not to fall off the side of a mountain?"
"Not like that would have slowed you down, would it?" Mia shot back.
"I see," said Jade, "that you haven't lost your love of throwing yourself from tall places."
"You're one to talk, Princess," he offered.
"Point taken." Jade turned to Mia then; her iciness instantly melting away. "You must be Miss Mia. Your brother told us so much about you, back when he still pretended that he had friends."
It was a low blow, but if Mia took notice of Erik's discomfort, she made no sign. Instead, she blushed to the tips of her ears. "At your service, ma'am."
Then she did the strangest thing—she curtseyed.
Erik's eyebrows shot into his hair. He had never seen Mia curtsey in his life. He didn't know she knew how.
Jade took her by the shoulders and raised her to her full height. "None of that now. I won't stand on formality, not with Erik's sister. He's family, which makes you family now, too."
If possible, Mia blushed even harder. And at the mention of family, Erik's cheeks felt pretty hot, too.
"Yes, ma—Pri—I mean—" stammered Mia, "Okay."
"Now," Jade's demeanor once again became brisk and business-like, "you two must be tired from your travels. Shall I call you a bath, perhaps some refreshment?"
"You don't have to do that," said Erik at the same time that Mia gasped, "Morcant's balls, yes."
Erik wheeled on his sister. "Mia! Watch your mouth."
Jade, however, giggled. It took years off her.
"Oh, Erik, I like her!" she said to Erik, the first real hint of good humor since they'd arrived. "Come with me. Let's get you both fed and watered."
Then she turned and strode up the stairs, clearly expecting them to follow. Which they did.
"She's so pretty," Mia hissed to Erik. "Why didn't you tell me she was so pretty?"
Erik shrugged. "It never came up."
She gave him a sour face. "Seems like lots of things never come up with you."
He shrugged again, to which Mia responded with an animal-like noise of frustration.
"You're hopeless, I swear. So tell me: Was she this pretty when the Luminary was around, too?"
"Erik," said Jade, cutting in as if she hadn't heard, even though Mia's sotto voce was so loud that Erik was sure half of Heliodor now knew of his sister's newfound infatuation. "The last we spoke, you were off on an ocean voyage to round up the world's treasures. Tell me, did you find what you seek?"
It was a question so pointed that he wondered if Jade had somehow had secreted spies onto the Salty Stallion who had given her a full dossier on the conversation he and Mia had had before coming to Heliodor. "Enough of it, I guess."
"Your exploits precede you, of course. I've had word from Queen Frysabel, Kainui, Don Rodrigo, even Queen Marina that some of their people's most prized heirlooms had gone missing. Yet somehow," she brought a finger to her lips as if deep in thought, "our own treasure vaults in Heliodor were spared."
Erik's wanted to sink into the floor. No, deeper. To the cellars. The dungeons. Maybe he could have his old cell back. "Yes, I get it. Sorry we didn't make it back to Heliodor earlier."
Jade waved her hand dismissively.
"I wouldn't have expected it. We're landlocked. But," her voice was carefully neutral, "you already knew that, didn't you?"
Erik's heart flopped again. He hadn't expected her to be so furious. After all, he and Jade had never been close—Or had they? Maybe he'd only imagined the distance between them. Maybe it had just been easier that way.
Morcant's balls, indeed. Not only was he an awful brother, but apparently he was an awful friend, too.
When they reached the top of the stairs, Jade stopped. "Here we are. You may use my private chambers, Mia. They're just through those doors."
Again Mia blushed. "I couldn't possibly, Princess."
Jade took Mia by the hands.
"It's Jade. Please, I insist." She winked at Mia, then signaled to an attendant. "Excuse me for a second."
As Jade made the arrangements, Mia sighed dreamily. "Oh Erik, how come you couldn't have fallen for her?"
Erik crossed his arms defensively over his chest. "The first time I met her, she kicked me in the face."
Mia frowned. "But I thought you two were best friends."
"I keep telling you—"
"Nevermind," she said, cutting him off with an imperious wave of her hand that looked an awful lot like the gesture Jade had used earlier. "I'm sure she had her reasons."
"I usually do," said Jade. "Miss Mia, my personal maid Eliza will assist you. Erik, come with me. I'll show you to your quarters."
Erik frowned as Eliza led Mia into Jade's chamber. He wasn't sure that he dared leave his sister on her own, in a strange castle, surrounded by rich people and their overflowing purses. And he wasn't so sure he wanted to be left on his own with Princess Kickyboots, either.
But the choice was made for him as Jade took him by the elbow and tugged him down the hallway, toward another flight of stairs.
"She'll be fine, I promise," she said without looking at him. "Quit being a mother hen and let the poor girl breathe."
Erik was in too much shock to protest. It had been a long time since he'd had physical contact with anybody who wasn't his sister—or, at least, contact that didn't involve punching or kicking. Even if Jade hated his guts right now, Erik wasn't really sure he minded. Just as long as she didn't let go of his elbow.
They went up one flight, then another. It was quieter up here, with fewer guards, and Erik felt the knot that had formed between his shoulders begin to slowly ease.
Mia would be fine. They both would be.
"Everyone else is already here," said Jade. "Serena arrived with the rest of the Arborian envoy yesterday. Sylvando's around here too somewhere, probably wherever the crowd is thickest. And, of course, there's Rab. He's been here for a month, at least. He says he's arranging trade deals for the Dundrasil reconstruction effort, but all I see is him eating my cakes and flirting with the scullery maids—"
Hearing his former companions' names made Erik's heart seize painfully. "Jade," he managed eventually, "I really am sorry. About everything. You know. The invitation. Not coming by sooner. I didn't mean to hurt you."
Something imperceptible between them shifted, and Jade let go of his arm. Erik missed her touch immediately. "It's alright," she said.
Erik shook his head. "No, it isn't. I wronged you, and I apologize for it. From the bottom of my heart."
"Why," she said softly, "did you stay away? It wasn't—" her eyes slid to the floor, "—it wasn't me, was it?"
"No! No, of course not. I was just—" He sighed. "Going through some things, I guess."
She nodded. "I understand that. But it would have been nice, maybe, if we could have gone through them together."
Erik had never felt so stupid in all his life. All this time, he'd thought there was nobody in the world who could understand his misery. But he wasn't the only one to lose someone precious in the Tower of Lost Time, was he? Jade had lost the only brother she'd ever known—again.
Yet another opportunity in his life that Erik had squandered.
The list must be a mile long by now.
"Yeah. You're right." Erik swallowed around the lump in his throat. "I see that now."
Jade swiped at her eyes with the back of her hand. When her hand fell to her side, she was smiling again—only this time, there was actual warmth to her expression, and it made her look almost like the Jade he'd once known.
"Well," her voice was brighter and matter-of-fact, "there's no fixing the past, at least not for us non-Chosen ones, right? All the rest of us can do is move forward." She stepped before him and tugged on a set of ornate doors, which opened upon a lavish suite. "Here. You can use this room to rest and relax in before tonight's banquet." She turned to him with a wide grin on her face. "Oh, Erik, I'm so glad you've come; really I am. Now everyone's together again. It'll be just like old times. As much as they ever can be."
"I guess." Erik frowned at the room. Something about the décor seemed familiar and slightly unsettling. "Where are we, by the way?"
"The guest suites. I've put you in Faris's chambers for now. His wing, really." Jade sighed so deeply that her shoulders sagged. "That man requires more space to primp than Sylvando's entire battalion of Soldiers."
"I'm not surprised. It's the hair. It's always the hair." Erik stepped into the empty room, taking in the porcelain washtub, the yellow silk canopies, the seventeen valises stacked by the armoire. "Are you sure this is alright?"
Jade nodded. "Of course. If Faris has a problem with it, he can take it up with me."
Erik hesitated, chewing over the question dancing on the tip of his tongue. "So. Um. I have to ask you something."
"I bet I can guess what it is," she muttered.
"Maybe." He squinted at her. "Faris?"
Jade didn't quite meet his eyes, instead staring off somewhere in the middle distance with a slightly sour expression on her lips. "Yes. Faris."
With one last look down the hall, Jade closed the doors behind her. "If you have something to say, Erik," she said, "just spit it out. Don't make me kick it out of you."
Instinctively, he took a step backward. "It's just that—well—he never really seemed your type, that's all."
"I'm a princess, Erik. My type is whoever provides Heliodor with the strongest alliance. Gallopolis has a lot to offer: a strong army, building materials, world-renowned experts in public works." She ticked the items off on her fingers. "And, of course, people. Heliodor needs people most of all."
"But he's ridiculous!"
Jade shrugged in response.
For some reason, that made Erik's blood boil. "Can't you just sign a treaty or something?
"Marriage is a treaty, among royals. Like it or not, this is just the way things are done."
"It's not the way it was done for Erwin and Eleanor."
A thin line appeared between Jade's brows. "They were a special case. Erwin had saved her from a dragon; that was birthright enough to the people of Dundrasil."
Considering this, Erik leaned against the wall, as far away from the seventeen valises as possible. "Maybe you should find yourself a big dragon. In fact, I hear there's one under this very castle."
"Not anymore. Hendrik took care of it. Look, Erik, I don't understand why you're pressing this. My people are fine with it. I'm fine with it. It is what it is."
"It's just—I don't know." Erik shook his head. "If he were still around, he might have been able to get you out of this. You wouldn't have had to get married just to get your town a bunch of drill bits."
"Oh. Oh." The tension melted from her shoulders, and Erik couldn't tell if he was grateful for it or not. "I suppose you're right about that."
Erik's throat felt suddenly tight. "Yeah."
"But you know," she tapped her finger to her chin thoughtfully, "If he were still around, I'd probably have had to marry him instead. And I couldn't have borne that." Her gaze sharpened. "Could you?"
"He was a prince, after all, and an alliance with Dundrasil would have been far more beneficial to both our kingdoms than me yoking Heliodor to Gallopolis. Or, should I say, our heir would have been more beneficial."
Erik wished she would stop talking. He felt like a cabinet of plates that had been through an earthquake, and every word she spoke threatened to throw open the doors wide.
"That's what it always comes back to for us, after all. An heir to unite the kingdoms, to secure the royal successions. At least with Faris, I can sort of grit my teeth, you know, and think of Heliodor. I'm not sure I would have been able to do as much with him." She wrinkled her nose. "I mean, imagine if you'd had to—you know—with Mia—"
Enough was enough. "Stop. Please. I'm begging you."
"But there must be somebody who strikes your fancy." Erik mulled the point. "What about Hendrik? I'm sure he'd jump at the chance to serve his queen in a more intimate manner."
"Perhaps." Her curdled expression fell away. "But he's not highborn and—oh, I don't know. Maybe I'm just not built that way. I don't—want what other women want. In that regard." She shook her head. "I can't believe I'm talking about this to you. In my bridegroom's chamber, of all places."
"Is it that," Erik wondered how to put his query in such a way that it didn't invite her to kick him in the face, "You're more of a—er—Frysabel, is that it?"
Jade glared at him. But when she saw that he wasn't making fun, she fell against the wall next to him and inspected the fine slippers on her feet.
"Honestly I'm not sure it would matter who it is. It just isn't what I want. I can't deny that it would be nice to fall in love. But, how should I put this: Bearing an heir is my duty. But the process of making one? It just isn't something I've ever been particularly interested in."
"What about at Booga's casino?"
She smiled sadly. "That was a bit different. Magic makes us all act outside ourselves, on occasion. In fact, I seem to remember you acting like a nice, polite boy with manners, once upon a time."
"Hey, amnesia isn't the same as a magic spell."
"Yet conveniently," she tapped the center of his forehead with her finger, "neither of us can remember what happened while under its thrall, can we? The time we lost is lost for good. And thank the Goddess for that."
Erik winced at her words. Already the Tower of Lost Time was never far from his mind; and to hear the Timekeeper's words echoed back to him from Jade's mouth sliced through him like daggers. "I suppose."
Perhaps sensing the shift in mood, Jade pushed off from the wall. "I apologize. You are tired from your travels and I have talked your ear off about—all manner of things. Take your time here. I'll have refreshment sent as well."
She then opened the doors and began to walk back down the corridor.
She turned, her long hair curling around her protectively. "Yes?"
Erik wasn't sure what to say, or even why he'd stopped her, only that once she left him, the moment between them would be over; and she'd be back to being the Princess, and he'd be—well, on his own. Again.
"Thanks," he said eventually. "I missed you."
She softened. "I missed you, too. Please, Erik, stay longer this time."
But before he could answer, she turned and was gone.
Jade is MY FAVORITE. (Okay, fine, fine. They're all my favorite.) So this fic was intended to be as much a fix-it for her storyline, which I felt was made exponentially worse in Act 3, as it was for Erik. (And Serena, but we'll get to her, won't we?)
Anyhow, I'm Flutiebear on Tumblr, too. Come say hi!
Erik gets asked to dance. A friend offers some wise words. A toast is made.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
"I don't even like ice cream," said Erik, the point somewhat dulled by the spoon still in his mouth.
"Then stop hogging all of it!" With one finger Mia snagged the lip of the bowl and dragged it back in front of her.
"Listen," Erik tugged the bowl back, "if you think I'm ever going to pass up free food, you've got another think coming. Do you even know me?"
"I know you're a freeloader." Mia yanked the bowl back in front of her so hard that little droplets spattered on her delicately embroidered sleeve. "Get. Your. Own."
She jabbed her thumb toward the nearest buffet table, which sported no fewer than three chocolate fountains, six trays of petit-fours—and, yes, a forest of dome-shaped scoops in every color of the rainbow. Towering over it all was an ice sculpture of a two-headed eagle rampant, its carven heads rearing in majestic nobility, or something. Honestly, it was all a bit much, thought Erik, even for Heliodor. Clearly King Carnelian was still trying to atone with his daughter for past transgressions.
"I could get my own." In one fluid motion, Erik stole his sister's spoon right out of her hand and flipped it into the air. Then, before she could catch it again, he swiped another bite. "But yours is right here."
"Ugh, Erik!" She slammed her spoon down and pushed away from the table in a huff. "You are so annoying!"
"Hey!" he called after her. "What about all that 'best brother ever' talk?"
Without turning around, Mia lifted her hand and threw him a rude gesture completely at odds with the fine gown and tiara that she wore.
Erik shrugged and slid the bowl back in front of him. "Have it your way. More for me."
Sometimes it was just too easy.
She'd get over it soon enough, of course; she always did. Hell, she'd probably forget all about him the moment some poncy Gallipolitan heir wearing entirely too many feathers asked her to dance. From what Erik could see, a few of them were considering their chances already.
His heart squeezed.
No, he told himself, this was a good thing. Mia wasn't half as hardscrabble as she pretended to be, and she deserved this. She deserved at least one night to be treated like a princess—even if acting like one still fell somewhat beyond her reach.
At least she looked the part. The Divine Robe Of Queens glittered on her like frost, and Jade's handmaiden had accomplished some sort of wizardry on her hair, sweeping it into an elaborate chignon studded with crystals. If half of Gallopolis weren't dueling each other for Mia's hand by the end of the night, it would be a miracle.
The orchestra started up a jaunty tune, and, just as Erik had suspected might happen, a battalion of nobles suddenly crowded around his grinning little sister like moths to a flame.
Erik returned his attention to the spoils before him. The best thing about all this was, the more attention Mia got, the less he'd get; and right now, all Erik wanted was to be left alone. He'd always hated functions like this: rubbing elbows with people who'd never known a hard day's work, much less frostbitten toes or empty bellies. He'd bumbled his way through the few high-class heists on which Derk had mistakenly brought him, and after prison, well, there really hadn't been much opportunity left for hobknobbing with the upper crust. Saving the world had been slightly more pressing.
Idly Erik turned the spoon around in the bowl and wondered what, if anything, would have been different if—if he were still around. He'd never been much for ceremony, after all, and most of the time he'd shouldered the title of "Luminary" much like an oversized coat.
Yet surely as the Crown Prince of Dundrasil he would have had appearances to make and obligations to fulfill. Rebuilding a ruined kingdom from the ground up would be no easy task, even for the Luminary, and who knows how many weeks or months—or, Yggdrasil forbid, years—at court it might have required. The poor guy would've been up to his eyeballs in ice sculptures and starched collars. Meaning Erik would've had little choice but to hold his nose and figure it out, too.
Assuming, of course, that he still would have wanted Erik to remain by his side once their adventures across Erdrea had concluded; and the Luminary had already made his thoughts on that possibility clear the moment he chose to turn himself into a column of light and vanish from Erik's timeline altogether.
This isn't goodbye—not by a long shot!
Yeah. So much for that.
Erik winced as his spoon clinked against the empty bowl. He really hadn't meant to eat the entire thing. But it's not like he had anything better to do, or anywhere better to be. Here he was, and here he would stay.
Once again, left behind.
"Hello there, Erik," lilted an airy voice. "Would you care to dance?"
Erik's head snapped up.
"Serena!" He vaulted over the table, knocking over the empty ice cream bowl and a few wine glasses, then enveloped his friend in a crushing hug so tight that she squealed, hopefully in delight. Erik spun her once, twice. "Damn, you're a sight for sore eyes."
When he once more set her on her feet, Serena was slightly breathless, but beaming. Though she pulled back from his embrace, her hands lingered on his shoulders.
"I could say the same for you. I haven't seen you in weeks. Or is it months?"
"Three years," he said sheepishly.
Her eyes went wide. "Has it really been so long? Oh, I do apologize. Time slipped away from me, I guess."
He shook his head. "You've got nothing to apologize for. I'm the one who hasn't set foot on dry land for more than twenty-four hours in a go."
"So I've heard, 'Erik the Blue,'" she said with a knowing smirk.
"Ugh," he rolled his eyes. "Don't call me that."
"It's one of only polite names I've heard." Her hand went to his hair, where he'd pulled back his overgrown bangs with a gold and crimson bandana. "Look how handsome you are, all dressed up! You look like quite the pirate king."
He grinned. "I shine up when I want to. But not half as well as you."
Reflexively, she smoothed down her dress, showing off the silver embroidery that tumbled down the front of it. "Do you like it? It's the Saintess Dress. I haven't worn it since our adventuring days."
"I thought it looked familiar."
She looked behind her before leaning in whispering conspiratorially behind her hand, "When I took it out from the trunk, it still had grass stains on the knees and troll blood on the hem."
A laugh burst from Erik. By Yggdrasil, he'd missed her. Her most of all, maybe.
"So," she held out her hands to him, "how about that dance?"
"Aren't I supposed to be asking you?" But he took her hand in his and led her to the dance floor, where already dozens of couples whirled about in synchronized frenzy.
"Maybe." She tilted her head in that Serena way, as if she were really thinking hard about his question. "However, I find that actually dancing, rather than waiting for someone to ask me, is ever so much more fun."
"Can't argue with that. Well, let's see how much we remember of what Sylvando and Rab taught us, shall we?"
With that, he lifted their linked hands and settled his other palm on her waist, then began to lead them through a simple box step. He wouldn't win any awards for elegance, but Serena didn't seem to mind, and at the very least, he refrained from stepping on her toes. Much.
"Sorry about that," he offered.
"Only if you don't mind if I do the same," she said. "I haven't had very much practice lately. People in Arboria aren't much for dancing."
"Seems to me you're doing just fine." And she was. Serena moved like air, stepping through each movement with fluidity and grace, while it took all of Erik's concentration not to look down at his feet. "It's strange to do this," he managed eventually, "when the floor isn't rocking back and forth underneath you."
"And without the smell of fish in the air," she agreed.
Erik laughed. "I can still hear the two of them shouting at us, can't you? 'Your right foot, honey! Your other right!'"
Serena giggled. "'Ye dance like my granny, an' she's been dead for fifty years! Och! Blimey!'"
Erik snorted, and the two of them lost several steps to laughter before recovering their sense of decorum and rhythm.
As he once more took Serena's hand, Erik caught a peek of Mia, who was dancing with Prince Faris. Her gaze, however, was fixed squarely on him, with her mouth agape.
He puffed out his chest a little. Good. Let her marvel a little at her older brother's luck with beautiful ladies. Nevermind that his feelings for Serena were and had always been strictly platonic.
Sometimes, though, Erik had wondered what might have happened between them in different circumstances, if he'd met Serena first instead of the Luminary. (It was natural to wonder, he'd told himself with only a small amount of guilt.) But wondering was as far as it ever went. Because by the time they'd all come to her rescue in that dank crypt—well, it was already too late. Erik was too far gone.
"It's good to see you again, Serena," he said. "It really is."
She squeezed his hand. "You as well."
"Your hair is getting long."
"It is! I had forgotten what one does with so much hair. I suppose I shall have to relearn. How have you been? Have you stolen all the world's treasures yet?"
"Not yet. I have to leave myself something to do for next week." He smiled. "And you? How's the book coming?"
"Much better, thank you." She took herself out for a spin, then whirled back. Serena was mostly leading herself through this dance, rather than relying on his humble skills; and Erik didn't really mind. Better that she have a good time than worry about placating his ego. "But it's so hard to remember all the places we visited, and the order in which we visited them. There were so many people, you see, and so many stories. Your letters have helped tremendously, however. Though I do wish you'd tell me more about how you and The Luminary first met."
"I thought I had," lied Erik.
She wasn't fooled. "Still as secretive as ever, I see? No matter. I shall get it out of you eventually. It was nice of you to send me the grimoire, however. It can't have been easy convincing Queen Frysabel to part with it." At Erik's silence, Serena peered more closely at him. "…You did convince her to part with it, didn't you?"
"Don't ask if you don't want to know the answer."
"Erik!" She swatted his shoulder lightly. "Krystalinda is going to turn you into a newt when she finds out."
He shrugged. "She can get in line behind all the rest. What's a pirate king without enemies?"
"Non-amphibious, for starters." Serena smiled fondly and shook her head. "And how is Mia?"
"Oh, you know. Still Mia, still a pain in my ass," he said, nodding his head in the direction of his sister across the dance floor.
"You wouldn't have her any other way." Serena followed Erik's gaze. "Goodness, she looks so pretty with her hair up! Very grown-up. And that gown suits her well."
"She stole it herself," said Erik with no small amount of pride.
Serena gave an approving nod. "She has very refined taste. My, but she does seem to be getting on with Prince Faris, doesn’t she?"
Erik's brows knit together. Now that Serena mentioned it, Mia and Faris had hit it off. She was on her third dance with the prince, by Erik's count; and he wasn't so sure that he liked that hungry glint in the Prince's eye, either.
"Yes," he had a hard time keeping the growl from his voice, "she does."
Serena squeezed Erik's hand in hers, bringing his attention back to her. "You should let her come stay with me in Arboria for a time. I could teach her the ways of being a Keeper! It's ever so much more than watching after the Luminary, you know. Or, at least, it is now." She frowned slightly.
"That's up to Mia." But not if she kept making cow-eyes at Jade's soon-to-be husband, he added mentally. When he'd expected her to dazzle the Gallipolitan nobility, he hadn't meant like that. "She'd also talked about going to L'Academie."
"Why, that's even better." Serena's eyes crinkled. "Wouldn't she just look precious in those little outfits? I can just imagine her in that jaunty cap, and the little red bow. It would suit her well."
"I think it suits everyone who puts it on." He grinned, thinking back on their adventures. "Except Veronica. Heh. Remember how silly she looked? So prim and proper."
"Indeed! Like the perfect little schoolgirl, so innocent and pure." Serena snickered. "Oh, how she hated it!"
"Remember when she tried to get into that bar in Lonalulu while wearing it?"
"And the bartender asked her to recite her multiplication tables instead!"
"Oh man," Erik shook his head, chuckling, "I'd totally forgotten that part."
The music changed then to a slower, more romantic waltz, which made Erik's neck feel hot and his feet feel two sizes too big. Try as he might, however, he couldn't lead Serena toward the edge of the dance floor.
But that was Serena for you. When that girl wanted something, she wouldn't let anything stand in her way.
"Serena," he said, the words tumbling from his mouth before he could stop them, "can I ask you something?"
"Of course. Anything at all."
"Do you—" He felt hot all over for even bringing it up, but he couldn't take it back now. There was no turning back the clock. "Do you wish we'd done things differently? You know. In—" He swallowed thickly. "—In the Tower?"
She was quiet for a long, long time; long enough that Erik began to wonder if she'd even heard him.
"S-Sorry," he stammered. "I don't know why I said that. We've only just seen each other again. I shouldn't have—"
She cut him off with a shake of her head.
"I suppose," she said, "there wasn't any we could have done differently, was there? It was all up to him in the end."
Erik drew a deep breath. "But don't you miss your sister? Don't you wish we could have gotten her back?"
"Of course I miss her. I think about Veronica every day. There are still times when I turn to the space beside me to tell a joke, or to make some passing remark, only to find there's nobody there. And then I remember that she's gone, and she's not coming back. That neither of them are. And it's like I lose them all over again." The set of her jaw grew firm. "You know, it's rather hard not to resent her—the other me—the me who gets to have Veronica, and him in the bargain. The me who never lost either of them." Serena dropped her head. "I think I even hate her a little."
Erik was grateful to be holding her hand, for both her sake and for his, because he wasn't sure he could have held himself up right now otherwise.
"I know how you feel," he said. "If it makes you feel better, I think I hate the other me too."
Though her eyes were watery, the corner of Serena's mouth quirked upward. "Now that I find hard to believe. Our Erik, hate someone? Never. You're too much of a softie."
"You're too kind, Serena, you know that? But you're wrong about me. That other me, I know him too well; and he was a right bastard." As he spoke, Erik could feel something bleak and cold welling inside him, a winter storm that he rarely had allowed to surface over the past three years. "He was still running from his problems. Hiding his real self from the world, from his friends. Looking for someone else to fix everything for him. And now—" The storm within him built to a howling pitch, "—he has everything I could ever want. And he doesn't even have the decency to know how good he's got it."
Serena chewed on her lip, her expression suddenly worried. "Oh, dear. Listen to us. We sound so bitter! It isn't what he would have wanted, for us to rue our choices. Or his."
"Who cares what he would have wanted?" Erik could feel himself going too far, but he couldn't stop; for inside him the endless winter had taken hold, the bitter winds ceaselessly battering his frozen heart. "He certainly didn't take into account what you wanted, or me, or anybody. He just did what he wanted, and damn everybody else. I can't forgive him for that. I won't forgive him. You know, as long as we're being honest, I think I hate him a little too."
A warm, soft hand touched Erik's cheek, bringing him back to himself.
"No," said Serena, "you don't."
Erik melted, just a little. "No. I don't."
"There you are." She let her hand fall away.
Erik realized then that they had stopped dancing; that Serena had guided them to the edge of the dance floor, next to the refreshments table. "I'm sorry."
Serena shook her head. "Don't you dare apologize for how you feel. I know it's hard. I know better than anybody. But you're not alone. I'm here, Erik. I'm always here."
Erik blinked away his suddenly blurry vision. "Thank you."
Serena squeezed his arm.
"You know, I just had an idea. We need something to raise our spirits." She leaned over to the table and took two flutes of a yellow liquid, handing one to him. "A little bubbly should do just the trick."
Erik felt wrung out, like he'd been dancing for days, but he smiled anyway. "Is that an official prescription from the party healer?"
"Exactly so. And you never argue with the healer. Let's raise a glass to the Luminary, Erik, you and me. And to those we've lost." She lifted her flute and pointedly waited until he had done the same. "And—" she took a delicate sip, "to those other us-es. May they rot in hell."
Erik nearly spat out the liquid in his mouth.
"You can say that again." He raised his glass again. "May they rot in hell."
"Very good," she said, and drained the entire glass in one go. "Now, I see that Faris has just taken Mia out on the floor again. It's rather inconsiderate of him, don't you think, to hoard for himself the attentions of a lovely young girl, when so many of his guests wish to get to know her? How else is she to learn how to mingle? To small-talk?"
"Certainly not from her big brother," he offered.
"Just so. And I believe that as the envoy of Arboria I am owed a turn or two around the dancefloor by his Highness's hand. So," her smile grew devilish, "let's go cut in, shall we?" But then she stopped herself, turning to Erik. "Oh, I'm sorry. There I go again. Would you prefer to ask me to dance this time?"
He laughed and took her hand. "Nah, I'm good. Go get 'em, Serena. Just like old times."
"Like old times," she agreed.
I love these two assholes so much. Can you tell? Act 2/post-game Serena is just SO GREAT.
Most of the players have been introduced now--we're about to get into the meat of the actual PLOT soon. *cackles in glee* Thanks for your patience on what is turning out to be a very long longfic indeed.
Feel free to hit me up on Tumblr (same alias). And thanks for reading, commenting and kudosing! Y'all are the best.
Erik hides the Declaration of Independence. There's a statue of a hero. Erik learns why you shouldn't go around putting your hand on strange plants.
Sorry about the delay in posting. This chapter gave me SO MUCH TROUBLE, mostly because Thanksgiving and some impending family stuff disrupted my usual writing schedule and threw everything off. (I'm still not entirely happy with it, but perfect is the enemy of good, and I can't write more chapters for this fic if I keep retooling this one.) Anyway, I hope this was worth the wait!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Holding his breath, Erik pressed his ear to the door. On the other side came the clang of many pairs of guard boots—still new, by the sounds of it. In Erik's experience, battle-tested Heliodorian metal tended to clunk in the heel, rather than clang.
"Which way did he go?" said a muffled voice.
"To the dungeons," replied another.
"He's headed to the sewers then," said a third. "After him!"
The footfalls continued down the hallway, then disappeared.
Exhaling at last, Erik pushed away from the door. He grinned as he removed his prize—a small, yellowed scroll—from its hiding place within his tunic. Man, he was good. They didn't call him the king of thieves for nothing.
Yet the thrill of this latest score lasted seconds. What with so many castle guards diverted to wedding duty, stealing the original copy of The Heliodorian Declaration Of Independence From Gallopolis had been easy—too easy. And these days, no matter what he stole or its value, it never really felt like it was enough.
Still, Erik supposed there were worse ways to pass the time between banquets than by giving Heliodor's finest a spot of unexpected exercise. City guards needed a good chase now and then. It made the naps they took while on duty all the sweeter.
Erik pushed away from the door and took stock of his surroundings. He found himself in a small inner courtyard which, from the looks of it, had been repurposed as a storage closet—albeit one that clearly had been abandoned for so long that not even the castle guards considered it worth their notice any longer. Several boxes and dusty wine barrels had been stacked along one wall, while various statuary and knickknacks and pots tumbled along the other. There was even a disused well, with a cracked bucket and several water basins piled nearby.
In the center of the courtyard stood a single, misshapen tree, which spread its meager branches up to the noonday sun. Erik felt bad for it. The poor thing deserved to be in a forest somewhere, soaking up sunlight and rustling under the stars. It certainly didn't deserve to be surrounded by rich people's garbage.
Erik startled as suddenly more clanging came from the other side of the door. Yikes. He must have really set those guards off. Maybe Jade cared more about the founding documents of her queendom than Erik had originally thought.
Well, then. He might as well get comfortable, since he probably was going to be in here awhile.
Sighing, Erik inspected the nearest pile of knick-knacks, running his fingers along the clutter as if he were six years old again and sticking his fingers in the ocean to determine the direction of the current. Some of it actually looked like kind of familiar, like the stuff he'd found in his travels. There were chipped tablets carved with hieroglyphs; pistons and gears lacking their machinery; fragments of intricately laid mosaic. Watcher stuff, he'd wager. Not that he knew what to make of it beyond that, but seeing so much of it collected in one place tugged at him in an odd way, like a fish hook had lodged itself deep in his gut.
He laid the Declaration of Independence on the nearest box, forgotten.
Had this stuff come from Havens Above? Or had it come from one of the other floating islands that had crashed to the ground? The Watcher had said that there had been thousands of islands once, each populated with funny little creatures just like him. But now, they were all gone. Only their discards remained.
A flash of light caught Erik's eye, and he peered closer. It appeared to be a statue—or, rather, the pieces of one, jumbled together in no semblance of pattern or order. But enough intact fragments of considerable size remained that Erik could see this, at one point, had been a person.
On each of the pieces was a tag; there was one on top of the stack as well. It read:
PROPERTY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF HELIODOR
ITEM #: 20xx-0175 (a-v)
SITE: OCTAGONIAN RUINS
COLLECTION DATE: xxxx
ARTIFACT COUNT: 23
NOTES: STATUE, "ERDWIN, LUMINARY OF LEGEND" (BROKEN)
MATERIAL UNKNOWN. ORIGIN UNKNOWN. GROUPING INCOMPLETE.
The Octagonian Ruins? Erik wondered if that referred to the place he and his friends had found a few years back, right after they'd defeated Mordegon. The place where they'd found the Wheel of Time, where Erik's life had first begun to fall apart.
Dammit, he'd pushed so hard to visit that stupid ruin. He couldn't have just left well enough alone; he'd always had that magpie instinct to chase whatever was shiniest, whether it was a cursed necklace that made statues out of sisters or a lost key that really should have remained lost.
Gritting his teeth, Erik turned away from the pile.
But… something pulled him back. A little voice inside him, the same one that had gotten him into so much trouble and out of it again, whispering, nagging at him to look again, look again.
So he did.
Erik picked up the largest piece. It appeared to be most of Erdwin's head. The carving really was exquisite, with the heavy rock cut so fine that Erik could make out individual threads of hair, even a few flyaways.
Bracing himself, he turned the piece over.
Erik wasn't sure what exactly he expected to see. Maybe the Luminary's face, staring sightlessly back up at him. But it wasn't his face in the rock, and in fact, there was something distressingly familiar about the long, spiky hair; the clever slash of a mouth; the chin that curved to a determined point.
The longer he looked at it, the more Erik felt like was at the bottom of a well and someone was shouting at him; only he couldn't hear what it was they were saying, just the echoes of it, and the echoes of echoes.
Erik's stomach twisted like it had back on the road to Heliodor, whenever his rented roan had taken a ditch at too quick a step. He fought the urge to throw the carved head in his hands against the wall and watch it shatter into a thousand pieces.
His face didn't belong on a statue. He was no hero. Heroes were selfless and brave and always acted for the greater good, and Erik was about as far from that as it got. He'd never had within him a single impulse that was heroic: only the instinct for self-preservation and survival, and the desperate need to find a shadow to stand in.
If he'd once saved the world, if he'd saved anybody at all, it was only because he'd lucked into finding the widest shadow of them all to stand in.
This was silly. He was silly. The likeness really wasn't all that similar, because he and Erdwin didn't look a thing alike. Erik had never worn a headband in his life, for starters. Bandanas, perhaps, but that was just to hold his bangs back, as opposed to whatever monstrosity that thing on Erdwin's head was.
Nevermind that the rock glimmering in the center of Erdwin's headband somehow matched the precise shade of his own hair.
Erik's hand floated to his bangs, as if to remind himself that they were soft and lightweight and not at all made of rock.
Then he forced out a breath and set Erdwin's head, face down, back on the stack. Enough of this. He already felt miserable enough as is; he didn't need somebody else's trash making him feel even worse. He turned his back on the statue and determinedly walked in the opposite direction.
His decision might have been more effective had there been anywhere else to go in the small room, but Erik had only taken one or two steps before he was almost on top of the wilting tree in the middle of the courtyard.
Only, now he could see that it wasn't just a tree; what he had mistaken for deformation was in fact a massive vine strangling its way up the trunk.
Wait—no, not a vine.
A Yggdrasil root, just like the sort that he and the Luminary used to find on their journeys together. The Luminary would lay his hand on them, and they would give him all manner of visions. Sometimes Erik would get to see them too, if he was lucky.
Erik skimmed his hand along the root. The skin of it was thick, solid; almost like dragon hide. It left a pleasant buzzing in his palm.
"Hey, Yggie. Long time no see." He fell to a crouch and dragged his fingertips back and forth along the vine, as if petting a horse's muzzle. "You still in there, or what?"
The plant did not answer.
Erik supposed he should feel silly, but he didn't, not really. Talking to a plant was not the strangest thing he'd ever done, not by far. And he found that he was glad of the root's presence, especially after that unsettling business with the statue. It felt like seeing an old friend.
The buzzing in Erik's fingertips grew stronger. Or maybe it was he who was buzzing, something inside of him thrumming like a struck bell.
Erik frowned. He couldn't recall ever having this kind of reaction to a Yggdrasil root before. But then again, he hadn't exactly made a habit of going around touching them. That had been more his provenance, not Erik's.
In fact, now that he thought of it, not once could Erik remember putting his own hands on an Yggdrasil root himself. Maybe that was a mistake.
Suddenly, the root began to glow.
"Hey, you good?" Erik tried to take his hand off the root, but it wouldn't budge. "What gives? What's going on? Yggie, can you hear me in there? Lemme go—"
Then the world went white.
No. It went light.
Erik doubled over. He felt as if he had been struck by lightning—or, more accurately, that he had become the lightning strike. His skin and bones coursed with electricity, pulsed with power. Every nerve aware. Alive.
Is this how it felt to be The Luminary? To let the light consume you, become you? Erik wasn't sure how the poor guy had survived it even once, much less the dozens of times he'd communed with Yggdrasil over the course of their travels together. (Maybe he hadn't. It would certainly explain a lot.)
Kaleidoscopic visions began to reel through Erik's mind: Colors he couldn't understand, shapes he couldn't process. There were sounds he could only smell, and tastes he could only feel. All his desperate senses fired at once, as a million experiences and sensations condensed to a single place and point of time—which was him. And through it all, Erik had the annoying feeling that he was missing something big and important: a familiar voice, maybe, passing on some secret message that he couldn't quite make out.
In time—seconds? centuries? Erik had no way of knowing—his senses began to adjust; and his brain began to parse where he was, and what was around him.
Sunlight. Erik was surrounded by bright, omnipresent sunlight. And suspended before him, in a curve that had no beginning nor end, was a core of something, a massive green knot that wept clear fluid and pulsed to its own heartbeat. It was… vines?
There was something about all this that seemed very familiar to Erik, like a dream he'd had before, perhaps many times, but which had vanished each time upon waking.
He peered closer. Yes…they were vines. And roots. And leaves. Thousands and thousands of the things, all tangled together, twisted and old, curling protectively around whatever treasure it was that lay buried deep within their heart. Erik squinted. There was something in there. No—not a thing.
"You're not really here. I'm dreaming," said Erik, though whether this was a dream or a nightmare, he had yet to decide. "You left. You're gone."
Only he wasn't gone. He hadn't left. He was right there, cradled—bound—in a prison of vines, not a hair on his head any different than the day he'd vanished three years ago. He was the same: absolutely, perfectly, the same.
Urgency prickled at the little hairs on the back of Erik's neck. He had the distinct feeling that he needed to do something, that his chance was once again slipping away. But what could it be?
Moments passed, or maybe they didn't. Maybe time had stopped altogether. That might have explained why Erik couldn't make himself move, even though every particle of his body strained towards the weeping, tangled heart before him, urging him onward, begging him to move, damn you, just move—
Yet Erik stood, as if rooted to the spot.
Little by little, the Luminary's eyes fluttered. Then, lifetimes later, they opened.
Only… there were no eyes behind his lids. Just light. Endless, invincible light. And it poured forth, around and through Erik, everywhere at once, seeking the shadows to fill.
Very slowly, the Luminary's perfect mouth parted. More light spilled forth.
Erik surged forward. "I—"
And then Erik was back in the courtyard.
He hugged his arms to his chest, shivering though he wasn't cold. Fat tears streamed down his face. He took his hand off the root as if it burned.
Slowly Erik stood. His knees wobbled a little.
"What was the hell was that?" he gritted out.
The plant did not answer.
"That was not okay, Yggie." He shuddered. "Not. Okay."
Wiping his face, Erik yanked open the door—guards be damned—and left the courtyard and everything in it. He did not once look back.
Duh-duh-duhhhhhhhn. The plot thickens! I realize this fic has had a slow start, but that's over now—a lot of things are about to happen all at once. So, as a wise man once said, hold onto your butts.
As always, feel free to hit me up on Tumblr. I'm Flutiebear there too. Thanks for reading and kudosing and commenting!
Still reeling from the vision he had earlier, Erik attends an opera.
Lots of notes today!
First things first: Thank you to everybody who's stuck with this lumbering giant of a fic so far! I apologize for the long wait between chapters; I had some family business to attend to this past week that took up the bulk of my time. I did get some good writing in, however, on this chapter and the next.
Second: I don't want to spoil anything, but there's a secret buried in Chapter 5, one that I hope you'll maybe go back and look for, should you get a chance. (If you did find it, good! :D) (If you can't spot it, though, don't worry. All will be made clear eventually.)
Third: Yes, the opera in this scene is THAT opera, from Final Fantasy VI, which is a game very near and dear to my heart. With two exceptions ("starlight" for "stars" and "winter" for "autumn"), I've used the SNES translation. It's the one I played first and therefore is the one that's "canon" to me, though I freely admit other translations are more poetic and more accurate.)
If you've never seen the opera scene nor heard the song, you should! It's iconic, and it's gaming history. Here's a few links to get you started:
* The actual in-game opera scene. This is the most complete version I could find, though it doesn't include the cute backstage scene between Locke & Celes before the opera starts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pe3pGU9jcag
* The full opera, as arranged and recorded for the Distant Worlds albums (the "official" symphonic arrangement of FF songs): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A2f-SeMxpkE
* A fanvid of the full opera (including the parts you don't get to see in game): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=36TdZx8VgbA
Whew. Okay, now, without any further ado, I give you: an opera scene.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It was the eve of Jade and Faris's wedding; and for one night and one night only, Heliodor Castle had been transformed into an opera house.
In the atrium, a stage had been raised. It was a complicated contraption that jutted like a chin into a modest orchestra, and it was framed by pink and sage curtains, the official colors of the Soldiers of Smile Theater Troupe. Fanning back from the orchestra was a makeshift rake, which allowed chairs to be squeezed into every remaining available space, including up the stairs and onto the balconies. Where all those chairs had come from, Erik had no idea. Perhaps even now, down in Heliodor proper, the townfolk were taking their dinners standing up.
That was, if there were anybody left to bother with mealtime at all. For it seemed that all of Heliodor, and most of the rest of the continent, had packed into the castle tonight. The room was thick with the warmth of perfumed bodies and hundreds of conversations buzzing at once. Not a single seat was empty. The first floor windows had been thrown open as well, allowing those curious about the famed Soldiers of Smile but not lucky enough to bear an official royal wedding invitation still to crowd around and gawk at what had been advertised as the show of the season, maybe even the century.
Tonight, in honor of Jade and Faris, there was to be a performance of "Maria & Draco," a famous opera from a faraway land. It was so famous, in fact, that even Erik knew of it, though he'd never seen it staged. Between saving the world and breaking his back for Viking brutes, there hadn't been much opportunity to go to the theater.
Erik and his sister had been seated with the Arborian envoy, up in the balcony stage left. He could see the whole production from up here, though his view perhaps wasn't quite as good as it might be with the other VIPs down front.
It wasn't so bad, though. Serena was here at least, happily munching her way through the box of Gondolian nougat that had been left as a welcome present in each of the guest chambers. Her presence helped settle Erik, as much as he could be settled.
"Whaf 'fong?" said Serena, her brow crinkling. "'Oo wook woo-wee."
"Come again? No, wait." As she opened her mouth, he held up a hand to stop her. "Chew, then talk."
Serena swallowed. "I said," her words still sounding a little sticky, "What's wrong? You look worried."
"That's just his face," said Mia. She was leaning over the balcony, scanning the crowd below. "The boom hit him a lot as a kid."
Erik scowled at his sister. "I'm fine." He crossed his arms and slouched back against the plush chair cushion. "Just a lot more people here than I'm used to, I guess."
It wasn't a lie, not really. But it wasn't the crowds that had him so unsettled.
It was that damned vision.
Erik couldn't stop thinking about it. Every time he closed his eyes, he could still see the roots, curling and pulsing; he could see that perfect mouth parting, the boundless light spilling forth…
For years Erik had dreamed of his erstwhile partner-in-crime, sometimes even nightly—until the dreams stopped coming, and that was somehow even worse—but this felt different. It felt as if a small candle had been lit inside him, a meagre flicker that the slightest breeze could snuff out.
And maybe it would be better for him, in the long run, if it did. Because it wasn't as if Erik hadn't already looked for the Luminary. He had. For long months, for years, he'd searched every treasure trove in Erdrea, every ancient ruin and decrepit library, for some way to bring him back; or at least a way to go to his side instead. But he'd never found anything.
And he still hadn't.
What he ought to do is tell Mia, or at least Serena, about what he'd seen. But Erik wasn't sure he could bear that either; the last thing he needed or wanted right now was more pitying looks and more eggshells for everybody to walk on.
Or, worse, for them to blow the candle out. He desperately wanted, needed that flame to shine on—if only for a little while longer. If only just for tonight.
Serena's hand on his knee brought Erik back to himself.
"Did you know," she was saying to Mia, "that once, during a performance of 'Maria & Draco', a tentacular fell from the rafters and onto the stage?" She pressed her hand down until Erik's leg stopped its restless jitter, then took her hand back and folded it in her lap. "The actors had to subdue it with stage props. Gosh, I do wish I had seen that!"
Mia's eyebrows shot into her hair. "But those things are huge! How did it get up in the rafters in the first place?"
Serena considered this carefully. "Perhaps it took the stairs."
Erik dipped his head to hide a smile.
"But that's not all!" continued Serena. "After they'd settled the tentacular, why, a notorious sky pirate suddenly burst into the theater hall, took everybody hostage, then made off with the leading lady…" Serena trailed off. "Mia? Mia, are you listening?"
Mia wasn't. Her attention had been caught by something in the crowd below. Grinning, she waved.
Erik followed Mia's gaze. Down in front, he spotted Jade, nose-deep in her program; and next to her was Faris, enthusiastically waving back to Mia, his hand moving as a dog wags its tail.
"Sit down." He gave the back of his sister's dress a hard yank until she stumbled back into her seat next to him. "You're spoiling the view."
She glowered at him. "Uh, the show hasn't started yet, dummy."
He shrugged. "It's never too early to be considerate."
Mia sighed a sigh so deep, so profound, that it seemed the air which she exhaled had been tugged up from the other side of the planet. "You're in a mood tonight. What's gotten into you?"
"What's gotten into me?" He picked up a program and pretended to leaf through it. "I'm not the one making googly eyes at a prince."
Mia's cheeks flamed. "Don't be stupid. I am not."
Over the top of the pages, Erik glared at her.
"Fine, so what if I am?" Her chin jutted into the air. "It's a free country."
"He's getting married in twelve hours." Erik narrowed his eyes. "To my friend. Whose house you're staying in."
"I know that," she grunted.
"Who also just so happens to have at her disposal the largest military force in the world. Have you ever been on the bad side of a fully armed Heliodorian battalion before? Because I have. Trust me, it sucks."
"I know that." Her voice, however, carried much less force than it had before. "Don't you think I know that?"
"So quit messing around."
"It's only in fun. I didn't mean anything by it. Besides," she added, "he's the one making overtures to me."
"He'd better fucking not be," growled Erik.
At that moment, Serena leaned over, her mouth still full of nougat, and shoved one of the candies from her box into Erik's mouth.
"Dear me, Erik, you simply must try this one," she said, voice muffled. "It's got hazelnuts!"
Erik tried to speak, but found he couldn't quite form words around the caramel gluing his mouth shut. He knit his brows at Serena and chewed furiously.
"Isn't it delicious? I knew you'd like it. So, Mia." Serena swallowed her nougat in one gulp and leaned over Erik to better speak with Mia. In so doing, she effectively trapped him against his seat. "Enough about boring old Faris. Earlier today I spied you chatting with another fellow. Charming man, I thought. He looked rather tall and strapping. Do tell us about him!"
Mia's expression went blank. "Faiz?"
"Ah, yes. That must be the one." "
"Um," her forehead crinkled. "What did you want to know about him?"
"Well—" As Erik swallowed his nougat at last, Serena shot him a warning glance. "Why not start with where you were headed? You two looked rather suspicious, I must say, bending your heads together as if in the midst of plotting something very naughty."
Erik's anger ebbed somewhat. He wasn't thick; he could see what Serena was up to. And while he instinctively recoiled from the concept of naughtiness as applied to his baby sister, he certainly appreciated her support on this matter.
"Yeah, Mia," he added, laying on his best overbearing older brother tone. "Where were you going? Should I be worried?"
"Nowhere exciting," she muttered, eyes drifting back over the balcony, toward the stage. "The stables."
"The… stables," said Serena, momentarily thrown.
"Yeah. He wanted to take me for a ride on his horse." Mia rolled her eyes.
Serena clasped her hands together. "How romantic!"
"I guess? I mean, Faiz is nice and all, but he's really into horses. Like, really into them." She made a face as if sucking on a lemon. Then she brightened. "But then we ran into Faris! And Sir Hendrik too."
"My two favorite people," muttered Erik, while Serena elbowed him in the ribs.
"And," she asked, undeterred, "what did you think of Sir Hendrik?"
"He's very tall," said Mia after some consideration. "And large. Also, he's not nearly as grumpy as you made him out to be, Erik. I mean, he's no Faris, but, I don't know. He seemed nice enough to me."
"Ugh," groaned Erik. He wasn't sure his sister joining the Hendrik Fan Club was any better than her mooning over Faris, but at least the Hero of Heliodor was still single.
"He is very nice," replied Serena, ignoring him. "And very nice looking indeed. Dear me, you should see him all covered in sweat, swinging at one of those practice dummies in the moonlight. It's enough to make you wish you were made of straw, too."
"Serena!" Erik wasn't sure whether to be scandalized or grossed out.
"What?" She smiled innocently. "I look."
Mia's gaze bounced from Erik to Serena to Erik again. She appeared not to have had any problem settling on grossed out. "You two are so old and weird."
Erik grinned at Serena. "Can't argue with that."
"Indeed," agreed Serena. They shared a fist bump, which made Mia groan in dismay.
Just then the lights in the atrium dimmed, and orchestral music, all horns and trumpets, swelled dramatically from the dark. Mia bounced in her seat a little, all disgust with her elders forgotten.
"It's starting!" she whispered.
Her smile so wide and unguarded it made Erik's heart ache. Maybe he ought to take a cue from his sister. Forget the stupid vision; forget Faris, even. Maybe he just needed to sit back, relax and lose himself in a spectacular show.
A single spotlight shone down on the darkened stage. Into the halo of light stepped a vaguely familiar young man in a pink and sage tuxedo. He clasped his hands before him and began to sing in a clear, piercing countertenor.
Erik squinted at the stage, then leaned toward Serena. "Is that—?"
"Yes. It's Bruce," she said, naming the drummer from Sylvando's parade. "I'd recognize those broad shoulders anywhere."
"Huh." Erik considered this. "He looks different without all the feathers."
"Wait until you see Sylvando," she said with a wink.
Before Erik could ask her what she meant, Mia turned to them both with a finger to her lips. "Sssh!"
Chastened, Erik turned his attention back to the stage. As the overture continued, he leaned over to take another hazelnut nougat from Serena's box. They really were quite good.
Eventually, Bruce finished whatever he was singing about—something about war and calamity; it was hard to tell, what with the words sung at such slow speed and high volume—then more lights went up, revealing a scene of jagged cliffs and sunset-darkened clouds.
More horns played as a man dressed in dark plate mail strode stiffly onto stage. This must be Draco, Erik guessed, the leading man.
Suddenly, a clutch of actors dressed in salmon-colored armor and holding cut-outs of strange-looking birds raced across the stage. One drew a prop sword that wobbled slightly. It knocked into Draco as the actors power-walked past him and into the wings.
Draco fell to his knees in ham-fisted agony.
"Oh, Maria!" sung the actor, his baritone deep enough to rattle bones. "Oh, Maria!"
Erik startled. He knew that voice.
It was Hendrik.
Erik snickered, even as both Mia and Serena swatted him from opposite sides. Of course Hendrik was Draco. In fact, knowing Hendrik, he'd probably leapt at the chance to dress up in his old battle plate and shout dramatically at an adoring crowd. Heck, he probably kept his kit polished for just such an occasion.
Though I call you from afar, continued Hendrik-as-Draco,
Will this message reach your heart?
Oh how I long to be with you…
Actually, he was pretty good, as surprising as that was. Still, Erik found it weird, almost too weird, to reconcile the man who'd bellowed at him across half of Erdrea with the man on stage now singing tenderly about secret messages and his longing for lost love.
The lights fell again. In the wings, Soldiers of Smile dressed in skintight black tugged at heavy-looking chains as if they were sail rigging.
Another curtain swept onto the stage in front of the cliff-face; this one had been painted to show a moonlit parapet.
The music softened, individual instruments falling away until all that was left was a single pianoforte. Its melody was slow and gentle and sad.
Onto the stage stepped another character; it could only be Maria. The player was dressed in an exquisite gown lined in pink silks and studded with diamonds, which caught the spotlight and twinkled like stars. An audible sigh of appreciation shivered through the audience.
Erik smiled fondly. It was Sylvando on stage, of course, because who else would it be? The moment Erik had heard that the Soldiers of Smile would be performing at Jade's wedding, he knew that Sylv would give himself the best role, or at least the role with the most male characters fighting over him. Some things never changed.
Erik tried to catch Serena's eye, but she was too focused on the stage below. She leaned forward in her seat, as if she were anticipating something very important.
Sylv glided toward center stage. In his hands he clutched a bouquet of roses, pink petals in perfect bloom. He tipped his face to the spotlight, taking it in like a flower soaking up sun. He looked, for lack of a better word, glorious; as if his whole life had been building to this moment.
Then in a tenor as smooth as silk, he began to sing:
Oh my hero, so far away now—
Will I ever see your smile?
Love goes away, like night into day.
It's just a fading dream.
Erik's mouth hung open. He'd always known Sylv could sing, but tonight, his voice was a choir of angels unto itself; it resonated throughout the room and raised little bumps on Erik's forearms and the back of his neck.
But there was something else about the music, too, something that made Erik feel every second of the past three years at once, every sleepless night and badly healed scar. His heart began to ache.
I'm the darkness, you're the starlight.
Our love is brighter than the sun.
For eternity, for me there can be
Only you, my chosen one…
Heat throbbed in Erik's cheeks. This was just a show, he had to remind himself, a show that was known for its cheap sentimentality and ridiculous plot. But Erik was more used to sea shanties and dirty Viking jigs; he'd never heard anything like this song before. A song whose lyrics felt so intimate, so familiar that it wasn't only like he already knew them, but like they'd been etched on his very bones.
He sneaked a quick peek at Mia and Serena, but neither had noticed his discomfort.
Sylvando swept toward the balcony in which Erik and Serena sat. Whether he could actually see the two of them with all those stage lights in his face, however, Erik had no way of knowing. He hoped not. Erik had the brief, wild desire never to be seen again.
His eyes shimmering with unspent tears, Sylvando stretched out one hand toward the balcony and, in a wavering voice, continued:
Must I forget you? Our solemn promise?
Will winter take the place of spring?
What shall I do? I'm lost without you.
Speak to me once more.
Erik had had enough. Swiping at his eyes with the back of his sleeve, he leaned over to Serena and muttered, "I'm going to get some air."
Without looking to see if she'd heard, he stood up and left.
Sorry to leave it there! The good news is, the next chapter is about 80% done. I'll post it in the next day or two.
Thanks as always for reading, commenting and kudosing. Y'all are the best!
Erik goes for a walk. Serena checks in. Enter The Sky Whale, stage right.
As promised, here's the conclusion of the opera scene! This chapter and the previous one are really meant to be read together, as you'll see soon enough. Enjoy!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Erik walked. He walked without really seeing where he was going; he walked because he needed some place to go. He walked because maybe, if he was lucky, he'd find a shadow big enough to swallow him up for good.
Before he knew it, he was up on the third floor of the castle, on the balcony that overlooked the palace grounds and, beyond that, the city of Heliodor. Nobody else was up here, thankfully; it was just him and the night sky. Though the orchestra still could be heard from over the balcony, Sylvando could not. That, at least, was something.
Erik ran his hands over his face, tugging and scrubbing at the skin, willing himself to regain some semblance of composure. It didn't help much.
Finally he let his hands fall away from his cheeks. He leaned his elbows on the railing of the balcony and, after looking everywhere else first, tilted his chin skyward.
Yggdrasil was bright tonight. Bright and beautiful. The sight made the back of Erik's neck prickle; he had the oddest feeling that She knew he was down here, on this particular balcony—almost as if She'd called him there Herself.
But that would be crazy.
"I'm still mad at you, you know," he muttered. "That was some trick you pulled earlier. And after all we did for you, too." He turned around, crossing his arms and leaning his back against the railing. Eventually, he spoke again, half-turning his cheek over his shoulder, "I guess there's no chance you'll just tell me what that vision was all about?"
He waited, not even sure what he was expecting, but disappointed all the same when it didn't happen.
"Yeah," he sighed, arms falling to his sides again, "I didn't think so."
Down below, the orchestral music changed to a jaunty ballroom waltz, the kind to which he and Serena had danced the previous night. It brought his thoughts back to the present, to where he was and why, and his cheeks felt hot all over again.
"'I'm the darkness,' huh." He shook his head. "Hell of a line. But I guess that's why I don't write operas."
A fresh, cool breeze kissed his cheeks and ruffled his hair.
Erik turned back around and watched the city skyline for a while. In the green light of Yggdrasil, the tarp-covered rooftops gleamed; scaffolding and house frames stretched to the sky like upturned hands. He remembered how Heliodor had looked when he first saw it, so many years ago: big, beautiful, a shining city on a hill. So different than the half-finished version of itself it was now.
But maybe that's just the way it was now in a world without its Luminary. Maybe it would always be stuck some place between broken and fixed.
"It's funny," murmured Erik, his voice gravelly, as if he hadn't spoken for years, "I didn't need him, you know? I had Mia, I had—well, okay, I guess I just had her. But I wasn't waiting for him or anything. I wasn't just sitting around in some tower, just waiting for my prince to come or whatever.
"But then I did meet him, and—I came alive. It was like I wasn't really all of me, before. I mean, I was me; of course I was. But he made me more." Erik had never said these things out loud before, and he wasn't sure why he needed to right now—only that now that he was finally saying them out loud, he couldn't stop. "Traveling with him, helping people, it was a better way of living. A better me. And now that he's gone, I can't go back to the way I was. I—" He licked his lips, which had gone dry in the cool air. "I don't want to go back."
Erik closed his stinging eyes.
"But I don't know how. I try to help people. I try to find their lost treasures, return the things they've had stolen from them by others. I try to be a better brother. I try to be the kind of person I was when I was with him. But it's not the same. Because I'm still just half of me. And I don't want to be half of me anymore. I want to be all of me again. I want," he let out a deep breath, "I want him."
It was the first time he'd ever said that out loud, too.
"I want him," he said again, stronger this time. "And—and if there's even the slightest chance—th-that you can make that happen—"
"There you are." Erik whipped around to see Serena, standing in the doorway, the wind catching the hairs at her nape. "I've been looking all over for you."
"Oh," said Erik, when he really wanted to say how much did you hear? "Uh. Well. Here I am."
"May I join you?"
He shrugged. "Up to you." He couldn't quite meet her eyes.
Serena nodded, then came to stand at his side. For several moments, she remained silent, twisting her hands together in the folds of her dress.
"You left in such a hurry," she began. "Is something the matter?"
He thought about lying to her. But it wouldn't have done any good. She would get the truth out of him eventually. He never could lie to Serena, not without feeling that he'd kicked somebody's puppy. "Yes."
"Would you care to talk about it?"
"Alright." She bowed her head. "You can, though. Talk to me about it. If you want."
He smiled at her, even though doing so made him feel sadder than ever.
"I know. Thanks, Serena. I mean it." He inhaled deeply and shook out his shoulders a bit. "You're missing the show."
"Oh, that's alright. I've only seen it a hundred times anyway. 'Maria & Draco' is a perennial favorite for the school children of Arboria." She chuckled. "Veronica must have played Maria for ten straight years."
"I… can't really picture that."
"She wasn't always an eleven year old girl, you know," she said. "Except, I suppose, when she was actually eleven."
And now she'd never be anything but, thought Erik. "What about you?"
"I'd play one of the chocobos, usually. Sometimes a potted plant."
She shrugged. "I didn't mind. You've heard me sing." Below, the music changed tempo again, this time to something more urgent and brassy. Serena lifted her face to Yggdrasil and closed her eyes briefly, as if in prayer. Then she turned to him. "I am glad to have gotten you alone. There's something I rather need to talk to you about."
"It's not about Mia, is it? Because if you think I'm going to let her just waltz in and steal a prince—"
Serena cut him off with a wave of her hand. "No, it's not about Mia, although all of Heliodor ought to be glad that she has a brother like you to watch out for her. It's about this."
She reached into the small reticule at her side and removed something. It was large and awkwardly shaped, enough so that Erik began to wonder what sort of holding spells she'd magicked on her bag—that is, until his brain caught up with his vision and he registered what exactly it was he was seeing.
It was a flute.
But not just any flute.
"The Calamus flute?" Erik turned it over in his hand. The Calamus flute was heavier than it looked, as if it were made of more than just gold leaf and bone. "Why are you giving this to me?"
"It's the strangest thing," said Serena. "I had a dream that I should."
"A dream?" His heart stopped. "Like—a vision?"
"No, I'd say it was more like the dreams my elder Benedictus used to have." Erik let out the breath he'd been holding, while Serena continued. "It was all very odd. I dreamt that I was in the cathedral, at morning prayers, as usual. Then in walked this little fellow with long arms and hands and very large eyes. He looked a bit like the Timekeeper, or those creatures we saw on the mural where we found the Wheel of Time. Except that those were white, and this one was black."
"Weird," said Erik.
"I thought so, too. But he was also rather charming." She smiled fondly. "Anyway, he spoke to me. He told me that I should give you the flute. That you would know what to do with it. So I promised him that I would, and he seemed very pleased about that. But Erik, I wasn't even aware you knew how to play."
"I mean, I'm no Sylvando," said Erik with a shrug. "But I can play a little. You have to learn all sorts of things when sailing with Vikings: pan pipes, lutes, anything that'll pass the time." He frowned down at the flute still in his hand. "Did he tell you what I was supposed to do with it?"
"Not a word." She considered this for a moment. "But it's the Calamus flute, isn't it? I suppose there's really only one thing it's meant for."
"But I don't get it. The spell doesn't work for anybody but him… Right?"
"That's what I thought, too. Still, the little fellow was rather insistent about it."
"Huh. Well, I mean, I guess I could give it a try. Don't get your hopes up, though," he added, though whether he was speaking to her or to himself, Erik wasn't quite sure.
He held the flute to his lips, then brought it down again.
"What's wrong? Don't you remember how the song goes?" asked Serena.
"Of course I remember. We all heard him butcher it enough. It's just—" His eyes flicked to Yggdrasil, briefly, before sliding back to Serena. "Don't you think this is all just a little—I don't know—convenient?"
Serena tilted her head. "Convenient? How do you mean?"
How indeed. "I mean, should we really be trusting some—" Erik bit back the word vision, "—dream? That creature could have been anything. It could have been nothing."
"Erik," she said in a lofty tone not unlike the one her sister sometimes had used, "if there's anything I've learned from our years together, it's that when somebody in a dream speaks to you, you should listen. Sometimes they can't speak to you in any other way."
Erik shook his head to clear it of the image of eyes opening, of lips parting, of light streaming forth. Then he remembered Irwin, and Eleanor, and it dawned on him what Serena had meant. "You really think Veronica--?"
"Maybe." There was a hopeful glint in Serena's eye. "Or maybe it's nothing, as you say, and the creature was just something I dreamt up. Either way, we won't know until we try, will we?"
Her gentle smile was a marked contrast to the music below, which had grown rather loud and insistent, as if a great battle were taking place on stage. It did little to settle Erik's nerves. He felt as if he'd swallowed a jar of butterflies that were now trying to break free.
"Okay. Here goes nothing," he muttered, and once again brought the flute to his lips.
And he played.
Cetacea's Lament: Ten simple notes, played simply, the way a Viking would do it. It got the job done, but Erik wouldn't be joining any orchestras any time soon, that was for sure.
When he was done, he waited.
But nothing happened. No wings appeared; no golden halo surrounded them.
"Nothing's happening," said Serena. "Maybe you should try again?"
"Or maybe it was just a weird dream after all," Erik muttered.
Neither of them moved for a long moment. Within Erik, the small candle flickered, and went out.
"Wait," said Serena. "What's that?"
Heart in his throat, Erik peered across the balcony to where Serena was pointing. Across the rooftops of Heliodor city, the horizon had taken on a golden tinge, as if dawn had come several hours early.
"Oh," was all he could manage.
"Could it be," Serena clasped her hands together, "Could it actually be Her?"
Erik put both hands on the balcony to steady himself. He couldn't find words to answer her. He wasn't sure he remembered how to speak trade tongue at all.
The candle burst back to life.
As the light grew brighter and brighter, Serena grabbed his arm, desperation and excitement gleaming in her eyes. "It is! You summoned Cetacea! How did you do that?"
"I don't know." He tightened his fingers around the flute to stop them from shaking.
"I thought only he could summon Her!"
"I thought so too!"
"I must have played the song a dozen times," she barreled on. "A hundred! But it never worked for me, no matter how much I wanted it to. But maybe She was just waiting for you all along."
"Me?" This was crazy. Everything was crazy. But the craziest thing was that the light on the horizon kept growing brighter and brighter, and closer and closer, until the whole sky was golden.
And then he could see Her, descending from the clouds: a great grey whale as enormous as an island. She was gentle and graceful as She drifted down, down on the air currents. Erik couldn't hear the orchestra anymore, only his own blood pounding in his ears; and then, the pure, mournful wail of the sky whale's song.
"Beautiful," he felt himself say.
"She is." Then Serena's eyes widened. "Err—Is it just me, or does it look like She's not going to stop…?"
Erik came back to himself then to find that Serena was right. Cetacea was almost upon them.
"Get back!" he shouted, even as the both of them began to race back toward the door from which they'd come.
As She approached the balcony, Cetacea's belly grazed the nearest rooftops, taking off several scaffolds and a clock tower. Wood splintered. Rock crashed. Erik's world rumbled. He threw an arm around Serena to shield her from falling mortar and pieces of brick.
Then Cetacea grazed the domed roof of the castle atrium, tearing a hole in it. Masonry crested around her like an ocean wave. Erik could hear the terrified screams of opera goers below.
Just as it seemed Cetacea would crash into the balcony, though, She stopped. One massive eye rolled toward Erik and Serena, and She let out a wail that rattled stone.
"Cetacea!" Erik ran to her, skipping over bits of smashed tile and slate. For a moment, he could do little but behold her, a grin stretching from ear to ear and warmth blooming in his heart.
Then he stretched out his hand.
Cetacea leaned into his palm—as much as a 300,000 pound space whale could lean into anything so small—and made a cooing noise loud enough to be mistaken for thunder.
"I missed you, too," he said, dragging his thumb across her iridescent skin.
"Dear Cetacea!" Serena hurled herself against the whale's side and rubbed her face against Her bulk. "Is it ever good to see you again!"
Cetacea cooed again, and Serena giggled.
"Ah, you even smell the same." She sighed happily, and turned one cheek toward Erik. "Well," she said, "you've summoned Her. Now what?"
But before Erik could even start to consider his options, he was startled by the sound of the door behind them being thrown open. He turned, his hand instinctively moving to where his dagger ought to be.
It was Jade.
And about fifty Heliodorian guards, who fanned out onto the balcony behind the royal couple.
"Now," Erik hissed to Serena, "we beat it."
Jade's eyes were wide as saucers.
"Cetacea!" Her voice wavered. "Is it truly You?"
If Faris took notice of what his bride had said, he made no indication. "What unholy abomination is this?" he cried. His hands shook; his eyes were wild, like those of a cornered rabbit. He looked much as he had facing down the Slayer of the Sands. "A monster come to destroy the castle and devour my beloved, on the eve of our holy vows!"
"That's—" Jade sucked in a breath through her teeth. "That's not—"
"Don't worry, my dear!" continued Faris. "I'll save you!"
He drew his sword and charged.
Jade discreetly stuck out her foot. Faris went sprawling to the ground.
As much as Erik enjoyed the sight, he wasn't about to stick around to see if it might happen again. Deftly, he leapt onto Cetacea's back, then turned to Serena, offering his hand. "You in?"
"Erik," she chided, ignoring his hand and hoisting herself up rather undaintily, "Do you even need to ask?"
"That villain is in league with the monster!" Faris had mostly regained his feet now, though his sword had slid several feet away and he had made no move to recover it. Clearly his courage, though greater than it once had been, still had limits. "He's making off with the Arborian princess! Stop him!"
The guards in front drew their swords and shuffled closer a few steps.
"Just—stay there," commanded Jade, pushing her hand firmly in the direction of the guards. None of them moved; their relief was palpable. In the meantime, she sprinted to the edge of the balcony, ignoring Faris's garbled protests.
"It is you. I must be dreaming," she said, as she leaned her forehead against Cetacea. Then she regarded Erik and Serena. Tears shimmered in her eyes. "She can't really be here, can She?"
Erik grinned. "You bet your ponytail She is."
"Erik summoned Her," added Serena.
"You got me." Erik's cheeks hurt from smiling so much. He hadn't felt this giddy in years, not since he closed his eyes and leapt off a waterfall to his certain doom. He extended his hand down to Jade. "Hop on, Princess. There's room. Just as long as you don't make us pay for your roof."
There was a childish glint of happiness in Jade's eyes as she regarded Cetacea.
And then it went out.
She stepped backwards. "I can't," she sighed.
Erik cocked his head. "Why not?"
"I'm getting married. Tomorrow." Her brow knotted. "I have to rebuild my kingdom. And now, apparently, my castle."
"Is that all? We'll have you back in time for your date with destiny, don't you worry," he said, even though he was pretty sure it was a promise he couldn't keep. He waggled his outstretched hand a little. "C'mon, Princess. Cetacea came here for a reason. Don't you want to find out what it is?"
"He's trying to kidnap the princess!" cried Faris. "Someone stop him!"
A few guards exchanged looks with each other and shrugged.
Rolling his eyes, Erik leaned toward Jade and said in a lower voice. "Look, I know you hate the guy. So come with us. So what if we're out past bedtime? Quit thinking of your damned duty for one second and follow your heart."
She stared up at him. Briefly, her eyes seemed to shimmer and turn red.
But before Erik could even be sure of what he'd seen, it was gone. Just a trick of the light, perhaps. For now, the only light in her eyes was one of firm resolve.
She grabbed his hand and tugged herself up.
"Are you mad?" Faris wheeled around, gaping at the soldiers who still hadn't moved. "Why are you all just standing around? He's stealing my bride! Get him!"
Just then, it occurred to Erik that Jade was a highly trained martial artist, one whose signature attack was that of beguilement. Throughout their adventures together, he'd seen her hypnotize all manner of man and beast.
And now, apparently, an entire platoon of her own guards.
Unfortunately, however, beguilement never lasted forever, or even for very long. Even now, some of the guards appeared to be coming back to themselves.
"Hey," said one of them, his voice muzzy, as if waking from a very long and good nap, "isn't that Erik the Blue?"
"Is he?" slurred another. "Looks like just a guy to me."
"A guy on a big fish," added a third, who rubbed his eyes.
"Wait," said a fourth, squinting, "isn't that the guy what stole the Declaration?"
"Yeah," said the first. "Yeah, mate? I think he is."
"Good, good, now that we're all agreed the ruffian currently kidnapping princesses is a clear and present threat," seethed Faris, "would someone kindly mind arresting him?"
"Alright, alright," muttered the first, "you don't have to shout about it."
"Uh-oh," said Erik. "Sounds like our cue to leave." He stared down at Cetacea's back. There were no reins or sails or anything. "Uh, Cetacea? Would you mind getting us out of here?"
A few guards started to look down at their scabbards with something approximating interest.
"Um, quickly?" said Erik. "Please?"
Cetacea's wings began to flap, and Erik let out a breath.
Then, suddenly, in the doorway, another figure appeared.
He'd almost left his sister alone. Again.
"Mia! Wait, Cetacea, it's my sister. Wait, please, just a second." Cetacea slowed her drift away from the balcony. Erik cupped his hands around his mouth and bellowed to his sister, "Run, Mia! You can still make it!"
Mia, her mouth wide open, did not move.
"Erik," said Serena, laying a hand on his shoulder with a worried glance to the nearest guards, "they're coming to. We really must be going. Now."
Erik nodded. "Mia!" he cried. "Come on! What are you waiting for?"
Mia closed her mouth. Her gaze drifted from her brother, to the sky-whale under his feet, then to Jade and Serena, then to the guards advancing on them all. Then, finally, it fell on Faris.
Erik knew his sister; he could see through her like glass. So he could see her thoughts churning now, chaotic, whirling: like disks in an astrolabe, perhaps, or sands in an hourglass that could only fall down, and never up.
She shook her head no.
"Mia!" cried Erik futilely. He surged toward her, and it was only when Jade caught him that he realized Cetacea was floating at least three floors off the hard, cold ground. "Mia!"
She mouthed something to him, and it took Erik a moment to comprehend what she'd said.
Then the first soldier was upon them, brandishing his sword.
Cetacea swerved out of range. Erik, Jade and Serena stumbled, using their hands and knees to hold onto Cetacea for dear life.
At that moment, Mia noisily fell to her knees.
"That monster," she wailed, taking her time through each syllable, each shake of her fists to the sky. Fifty-odd heads turned her way. "It has my brother, Erik the Blue, and his friends, the Sage Serena and our dear Princess Jade!" She paused for emphasis. "The Companions of the blessed Luminary!"
Mia was buying them time. Of course she was.
Erik loved his sister very much.
Faris ran to her side, and helped her to her feet, which she took her time in doing.
"Prince Faris," she wailed, clutching at his shoulder so that he could do little but support her entire weight, "of the noble Sand Knights of the kingdom of Gallopolis! Please, I beseech you, help my poor br—"
But those were the last words Erik could hear, as Cetacea spiraled away and into the clouds, leaving the ruined Heliodor Castle, Jade's betrothed and Erik's devious, infuriating, marvelous little sister behind.
Aaaaand they're off! That's officially the end of Act 1! Now, we get to the good stuff :) This is one of the scenes I've had in my head almost since I first came up with the idea for this fic, so I'm anxious to see if y'all like it.
As always, thanks for reading/commenting/kudosing. You're the best. (And feel free to bug me on Tumblr at Flutiebear)
And one last sidenote: Cetacea crashes into the castle at the precise point in the music that Setzer's airship does in FFVI. (Augh, what a great game that is!)
Erik, Serena and Jade process the night's events. Meanwhile, Erik decides to visit an old friend, and in so doing, meets a new one.
Sorry for the long delay between updates. The holidays hit my house harder than expected. But we made it through 2018! Woo hoo! Welcome to 2019, everybody!
They rode Cetacea in silence, each lost to his or her own thoughts, and it wasn't until the bright lights of Heliodor finally had faded from the horizon that anybody spoke.
"I cannot believe I just did that," said Jade, hugging herself. Though her voice was low, it carried easily. It had never been difficult to hold conversations on Cetacea; the wind that stirred one's hair and prickled one's cheeks always had had more of an aesthetic impact than an acoustic one. "I cannot believe I ran away from my own wedding."
"Isn't it thrilling?" said Serena with a happy sigh. She hadn't stopped smiling since their initial ascent. "It's as if you're some kind of princess, setting off on your very own grand adventure."
"Uh, she is a princess," offered Erik.
"Yes, but I mean a real one," said Serena. "Like, from a fairy tale."
"A… real…?" He shook his head. "Nevermind."
The sound of Erik's voice seemed to bring Jade back to herself. Her brows knotted together as she wheeled on him, her violet eyes blazing.
"You," she said through gritted teeth.
Erik took a precautionary step backwards. He didn't like that look in her eye. That was not a good look. "Me?"
"You did this." She jabbed a finger at him to accentuate the point.
"I'm pretty sure you chose on your own to come with us," he said. "And to beguile your own guards."
"You broke my castle. You summoned Cetacea." She advanced on him, and once more, Erik shuffled backward. He was quickly running out of room. "How did you do it? Why? How?"
"I'm not sure. Serena gave me the Calamus flute and I played it."
"You… played it."
He chuckled nervously. "That's what I said."
"Just like that."
"Yep." Erik cast a glance over his shoulder to the ground below. They were very high up now, and Jade was well within her optimal kicking range. "Just like that."
Jade's hands clenched to fists. Even in her ruffled opera gown, the princess cut an imposing figure indeed. "Here I thought only the Luminary could make the Calamus flute work."
"That's what we thought, too!" If Serena had noticed Jade's change in demeanor, she made no indication; her voice was light and cheerful as ever. "It appears, though, that our Erik has hidden talents."
"Does he now?" replied Jade, unimpressed.
Erik offered a weak shrug.
Jade crossed her arms, and Erik was glad for it, because he was almost certain that she couldn't kick him with her arms crossed.
"So what does this mean?" She could barely look at him. "Are you the new Luminary now?"
"No!" Erik hadn't meant to sound so sharp, but hearing Jade finally put voice to the worry that had been swirling in the back of his mind, ever since the moment he'd laid hands on the Yggdrasil root, was as sobering as any kick to the face. Suddenly, he was no longer frightened of Jade but irritated—infuriated, really—by her presumption that he was somehow complicit in this madness and not reeling from it like everyone else was, maybe even more so. "I'm not the new Luminary. There is no Luminary. Not anymore."
Jade shot him an arch look. "Then would you care to explain how you got the flute to work?"
"I don't know, alright?" He dragged a hand over his cheeks. "I don't know. Serena had this weird dream, I played the flute, and now we're flying through the air on the back of our sky whale, and nothing makes any goddamn sense anymore."
Jade narrowed her eyes.
"You're hiding something," she said acidly. "What is it this time?"
"I'm not hiding anything," he said quickly.
"Yes, you are."
"No, I'm not." Inwardly Erik groaned. He sounded just like Mia, caught with her hand down somebody else's purse.
Serena regarded him appraisingly. "You do seem rather distressed. Does it have anything at all to do with why you departed Sylvando's performance so quickly earlier?"
At the mention of the opera, Erik's cheeks burned.
"That's—I'm not—uh—" Briefly, he considered leaping over the side of Cetacea anyway and taking his chances with the ground below.
Ultimately, however, he decided that deflection, not suicide, might be the wiser course of action, and he angled himself fully toward Serena. "You know, I really can't believe you right now," he chided her.
She blinked. "Me?"
"It was your dream that started all this. Aren't you the least bit freaked out right now?"
"Not really. It was only a dream," she replied, as if it really were that simple. Then she wagged her finger at him, as if scolding a naughty kitten. "Now, Erik. Don't try to dodge the question. It won't work. Whatever is bothering you, you can share it with us. We're your friends, after all."
"Just spit it out already," added Jade.
Erik's gaze bounced from Serena to Jade and back again. But neither woman flinched, or backed down, or made any indication that they would let this drop, ever. He really did have nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.
He was a fish on a hook, dangling.
"I…" The truth was, he really should tell Jade and Serena about the vision he'd seen. If there was even the slightest chance it might mean something actionable, something real, then, as the Luminary's adoptive sister and former bodyguard, the two of them ought to be made aware of it sooner, rather than later.
But that was just it. Erik still didn't know what his vision meant, if anything at all. And it was bad enough that he'd gotten his own hopes up over it; he couldn't bear to dash someone else's, if and when the time came.
"I can't tell you yet." Erik closed his eyes, only to once again see twisted roots, the bound figure, the mouth opening as if to scream. He shook his head to dispel the image. "I will, soon. I swear. I just need a little more time to make sense of it all myself."
Jade let out a frustrated sigh.
"I need you to trust me on this," continued Erik. "It's hard, I know. I don't have the best track record on secrets. But can you do this for me, please? Can you trust me just a little longer? For now?" He met Jade's eyes. "For him?"
It was a low blow, maybe, but it did the trick. Jade slackened like a rope someone had let go of.
"For… him?" she murmured.
Swallowing thickly, Erik nodded. Maybe he shouldn't have said anything at all, because already there was too much hope in her eyes for his comfort. But he'd needed her to relent, to give him a chance…
"Fine." She inhaled, then exhaled deeply, steeling herself against an unseen foe. "Keep your secrets. For now."
"Thanks." Erik turned to Serena, who was gazing at the starry horizon with a faraway, inscrutable expression. "Serena?"
"Hmm?" She blinked rapidly and turned to him. "Oh. Of course I trust you. Always. But whatever it is, you mustn't wait too long to share it. You mustn't torture yourself over it, as you did with that business of the necklace."
"I won't," he promised, and he was almost certain that he meant it.
"Besides," Serena smiled, "Jade can always beat it out of you later, if need be."
Jade brightened at this, while Erik mumbled, "That's a comfort."
"So," continued Serena, clasping her hands together, "Now that we've settled all that, where are we headed again?"
"I—hadn't gotten that far, actually," said Erik.
"Of course you hadn't," muttered Jade.
"Listen, it's not like I'd planned to be going anywhere tonight."
"Be that as it may," she eyeballed him, "we still need a destination. We can't have Cetacea fly us across Erdrea for nothing."
Jade was right, of course, but Erik wasn't sure what to say or do. Who was he to hand out marching orders? He wasn't a leader, he was a follower. Even sailing with Mia, he had always been more comfortable letting her set the heading, while he concentrated on getting them there in one piece. What if he ended up sending them in the wrong direction?
But, he supposed, he had no choice in the matter now. He was the one who summoned Cetacea. That meant it was up to him to decide where to take Her.
Briefly, he wondered if the Luminary, back then, had ever felt how Erik did now: As if he were floundering in a great ocean, unable to see the shore. Erik wished he'd asked. Now, he'd probably never know.
Well. What would he do? Erik considered the point. The Luminary, if he were here, wouldn't have let indecision stop him. He would have looked for answers—or, lacking those, more questions to get to those answers.
What Erik needed now, he decided, was someone who could shed more light on the situation: Someone who knew lots about Yggdrasil roots, space whales and creepy visions about the Luminary. Someone who could be a guiding light, so to speak.
And Erik realized that he had a good idea of just where to find such a someone.
"Havens Above," he said. It was a slim hope, but enough to keep the candle within him burning a little while longer. "We need to pay a visit to The Watcher."
Maybe it was the Viking in him, but Erik had always liked sailing. He liked the breeze through his hair, the birds in the sky, the blue-black seawater breaking against the hull. Most of all, he liked how the world seemed to stretch on forever in all directions, a blank slate of infinite choices, infinite possibilities.
Flying on the back of a sky-whale wasn't much different. There was less salt spray, perhaps, but the same heady sense of freedom; the same stars reeling on high in a fathomless black sea.
Cetacea flew for a long time, long enough that standing became superfluous and Erik began to wish he'd brought dice or a musical instrument—a real one, at least—to pass the time. Eventually, Serena retrieved the rest of her candies from her reticule and shared them, and as the night stretched on, the three of them piled together in a heap, just as they used to, back when they all had to cram together into the same tent for the night.
The warmth and closeness was intoxicating, and Erik felt himself slipping closer and closer to the edge of sleep.
"Erik," murmured Serena muzzily from somewhere in the vicinity of his ankle, while Jade curled against his back. "I'm glad that we're going to see the Watcher."
"Are you?" His eyes drooped; the world swam. It was getting hard to speak, and think.
She nodded against his leg and yawned. "I wish Veronica could have met him. I think she would have liked him a lot. And Cetacea, too."
"'m sure she would've."
"There was so much in the world that she didn't get to see." Her voice was faraway, like Erik was hearing it from the end of a long tunnel. "I hope that she'll get to see it now, with all the other uses."
"I don't know what is going to happen next," she said, apropos of nothing. "I suppose it could be anything. But I promise you this: I shall see it through by your side, one way or another, for her sake as well as mine. As long as I live, Erik, none shall defeat you."
Erik knew that she was telling him something very important, and that it was also very important he say something reassuring back, but it was just so hard to make his mouth move through the thick fog of sleep that had almost overtaken him.
"Mmmph," he managed.
She fell quiet then, and Erik did too. The next thing he knew, Jade was shaking him awake.
"Whazza?" He rubbed at his eyes.
Dawn had stained the sky pink. The wind had changed direction, carrying a distinctly familiar, arboreal smell with it, a crisp breeze that was electric and alive.
Below them, the clouds parted. A familiar shadow came into view.
"Hey, wake up." He nudged Serena, who had fallen asleep with both hands folded beneath her chin, as peaceful as a Goddess statue. She sat up, blinking.
Down below, Havens Above looked much as it ever had, with the Temple of Dawn's golden dome catching the sunlight like a signal fire. The water in the temple's moat sparkled like starlight, while a riot of colorful flowers and grasses waved in the breeze. Wisps of steam curled up from the strange piston-stacks that still dotted the rim.
Erik's heart clenched. Havens Above was so beautiful. Yet seeing it now, he was struck by the same impression he'd had when first he'd seen the island three years ago: That it was missing the greater part of itself, like a statue found alone in a vast desert.
"What's that?" said Jade, pointing.
As Cetacea drew nearer, Erik could see a cloud of something dark swirling around the rim of Havens Above, gathering where the moat's outlet fell over the edge and into the sky. Icy dread pooled in his gut. His hand slid to the concealed pommel of his knife.
"I'm not sure," said Serena. "But whatever it is, it doesn't seem to be worrying Cetacea much."
Cooing reassuringly, Cetacea maintained her course.
As they drew closer, the cloud began to resolve into separate shapes. Big ones, small ones. Some as large as a house. Others, no bigger than a fist. The shapes swarmed and swelled, rising and falling, many moving together in concert, just like a school of—
"Fish," breathed Erik, relaxing his grip on his dagger.
Indeed, that's exactly what it was: Thousands and thousands of sky-fish, swirling together in a dazzling throng, their fins and iridescent scales flowing like a painting in motion. And it wasn't just fish, either; Erik spotted what appeared to be dolphins and sharks, crabs and eels, and even a few sting-rays caught in the eddies. The fog of creatures was so thick, in fact, that Erik wondered if, from the ground, it might appear as a great rain cloud, ready to burst.
A few of the larger sky-creatures broke away from the crowd and flew—swam?—to Cetacea. They nuzzled her in greeting, and from deep within Her belly came an answering call, clear as a musical note. The smaller creatures replied in high-pitched barks.
"Babies," said Jade in awe. "Cetacea, you're a mother."
Cetacea snorted, as Her pod of sky-calves curled up against Her side.
Erik cleared his suddenly tight throat. For years, he'd assumed that Mordegon had left the sky lifeless, barren. To see that that wasn't the case came as an unexpected, yet very welcome relief.
If only the Luminary were here; if only he could have seen this. He ought to have seen for himself that, even after the world had ended, life went on. Life always went on.
It might not have changed anything… but then again, maybe it would have.
Erik shook his head to dispel his thoughts and re-focused on the scene before him. As a sailor, he understood that fish never schooled for idle purpose, especially not so close to land; so he scanned the island for the reason why so many animals had gathered. It didn't take long to spot.
At the rim of the island stood a familiar, solitary figure. He was short and squat and dressed in salmon-colored robes, and from the top of his head jutted a long, straight nodule shaped like a trumpet bell. He had great, big eyes and a mouth made for smiling—which, at that moment, was exactly what it was busy doing.
One hand held a bucket, while the other swung about wildly. Out of it flew large chunks of—something, Erik wasn't sure what. Sky-worms? Cloud-krill? Whatever it was, the sky-fish swarmed it like ants to honey. And with every leap and jump they made, the Watcher made a strange noise, almost a squeaking. It took a moment for Erik to understand: He was laughing.
Erik's chest unknotted. The Watcher didn't look sad or lonely at all.
Life always went on.
Erik cupped his hands around his mouth. "Hello down there!" he bellowed. "Got room for a couple more?"
Finally, the Watcher looked up. If possible, he smiled even wider.
"FRIENDS!" he cried. "FRIENDS RETURN!"
Now the Watcher began to jump too, bobbing like a fishing lure, which in turn sent the hungry critters at his feet spiraling even higher. It was a tornado of fish, stretching higher than Heliodor Castle, blotting out the sun.
It was then that Erik glimpsed a small black thing by the Watcher. Strange that he hadn't noticed it before, but whatever it was, it had been standing in the Watcher's shadow, concealed entirely by the darker space, hidden from view.
Erik blinked, and it was gone.
Cetacea landed by the Watcher, who threw Her a hunk of something indistinct and flobbery that one of her calves caught instead.
Serena was first off Her back, and she marched right up to the Watcher and swept him up in a crushing bear-hug worthy of a brute twice her stature.
"My dear Watcher," she said, nuzzling his horn to his obvious delight. "Is it ever good to see you again!"
"We're sorry it has been so long," said Jade.
"WATCHER HAPPY," said the Watcher, his cheeks staining pink as Jade embraced him next. "NOT THINK HE SEE FRIENDS AGAIN. NOT WITH LUMINARY GONE."
"You knew about that, huh?" Erik slid from Cetacea's back, landing lightly on his feet. "I guess word travels fast in the skies."
The Watcher grabbed Erik next and pulled him into a squishy hug that smelled strongly of bait. "FRIEND TOLD WATCHER."
Erik blinked. "Friend?"
The Watcher nodded toward the shade of a squat bush, where the creature that Erik had spotted earlier now stood, unmoving.
"Oh, hello there," said Jade. She declined her head politely. "Charmed to meet you."
Serena bounced on her heels "It's you!" she cried. She turned to Erik. "That's the little fellow from my dream!"
Erik peered at the creature. It did indeed resemble the creatures from the mural—but whereas those had been white, this one was black, as black as the space between stars. It might have been cute, maybe, if it hadn't so strongly reminded Erik of the Timekeeper, and the worst day of his life.
The creature looked at the three of them with two oval eyes that were somehow hollow but not empty. When its gaze landed on Erik, something inside it began to churn, like a little red explosion.
Suddenly, the creature spurted several new appendages, each waving as frantically as a tentacular's arms.
"Uh," said Erik. "Hi?"
The creature lunged at him, surging, searching. Then, in a small yet fierce voice that pierced Erik's skull like a dagger, it screamed, "GIVE.IT.TO.ME, DARKSPAWN."
Erik makes a new friend, of sorts. Someone learns a thing or two about musical instruments. A decision is made.
I am SO SORRY for the long hiatus. A lot of Real Life stuff happened this year that kept me from dedicating myself fully to a long fic as ambitious as this one. But I never stopped wanting to come back to this, and I've always had plans to do so, once things quieted down a bit.
I'm back for good now, I hope. My goal is to keep updating at least once a month, maybe more frequently, we'll see. Thank you to everybody who stuck with this fic over the past few months, and who commented during the hiatus; your comments are the reason I decided to pick this up again during NaNo. Thank you.
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."