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Cornerstone Rewritten

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Lying placed a thin hand on the rune. Wisps of flux; locks of hair; strips of fabric, all littered the circles drawn out ahead of him. Lying stood, tails pulled tight behind him, afraid to disturb the carefully planned sigil. The complex work had taken days, months even if the gathering of the foci counted, and it was now ready to go. Lying had practiced with smaller worlds before, none even close to the size of his newest endeavor.

Kirin had been, to say the least, unimpressed. A world built for fun was nothing new, but to build one for the sake of drama was. They had shaken their head at Lying at his first proposal, but a dark sense of intrigue allowed their vulpine associate to continue the second time.

A world built for the sake of drama. To see how, if only enemies were kept together, a world would flourish, or crash and burn like many before. A world that had all the necessary materials for nuclear annihilation, and all the necessary materials for a beautiful peace. It would be up to them. Lying had his cast selected, had gathered scraps from their master clones while Xephos was distracted, and was ready to begin.

Week 1 - Cornerstone

The world spluttered to life. The center, a stone table surrounded by eight opposing chairs and a ninth at the head. From there the world expanded, forming metre by metre into a new planet. Villages sprouted, forests claimed any land they could, and islands rose from the ground. This world was fertile, rich in ores and gems, lush with fauna and flora, and it was all theirs.

Sjin was the first to gain consciousness. A stifled cough, eyes darting open to see an open sky, sun burning gently to the east. He sat up, bracing on the table, before sliding himself into the ninth chair. He took in his surroundings, storm clouds brewing far to the west, and a thick humid air settling on his skin. And then the others began to awake. Nano and Lalna sat to the far end of the table on the right, Benji and Strippin to their side. On the left sat Rythian at the furthest end, opposite Lalna, with Trott, Smiffy, and Ross filling the remaining left seats. Before anyone had the chance to start, Sjin stood, opening his arms and began to speak, only being halted by the sudden appearance of a Kitsune demigod in the middle of the table.

“Morning.” The delivery was calm, and while clearly spoken, his voice was everywhere, “Take a moment to adjust. A new world is always a little confusing.” Lying strode across the table, effortless in his movements, before sinking to the ground. A pale hand found its way to Rythian's shoulder, the mage flinching at the touch.
“I have a little game in mind for you. This world, as you can see,” he gestured to them all in a wide sweep, “is made of enemies. Rythian, to Lalna and Sjin. The Hats and the Fluxed ones. Nano and Sjin. None of you get along.”
“What about us?” piped Strippin, arm around Benji, “I don't even know these guys.”
“You're the, oh how to say it, mediators. This game is to see how you get along. We need someone to make sure they don't kill each other.”
Strippin sank in his chair, suddenly much more interested in the table than before.

“You heard, didn't you? I want to see how this plays out. Mostly for my amusement, and also for your own good. Some of you have been holding grudges for a long time.”
Rythian shook his shoulders, removing Lying's oppressive hand.
“We need to work together, mm?” he mused, eyes meeting those of all but the blond opposite him.
“Clever boy.”
“You’re an idiot Lying.”
The kitsune snorted, head and hands thrown back in laughter.
“You’re right! But think, dear Enderborn, how fun this will be. For me.”
With that, Lying stepped back onto the table, bowing in a circle to the nine around him, before twirling away into nothingness.

A moment of silence followed, broken by a harsh clap of thunder. The whole table jumped, standing or otherwise moving from the table.
“Alright people! You heard him! Time to work together.” Sjin raised his hands, “I’ll be mayor! Uh, HAT, was it? You guys build a base. Lalna, you and Nano go get some materials. Strippin, you go uh, mine. I’ll go get some farming stuff!”
“Do we get a choice here?” Trott mumbled,
“Do you want to sleep in the rain?” Sjin retorted, stuffing a bread loaf into his chest pocket.

The group dispersed, surveying the area for landmarks. Sjin walked away also, passing Rythian along his way, and pulling him by the elbow in his direction. The mage sighed, tagging along with the farmer.
“You seem stressed, Enderborn.”
Rythian chuckled lowly, nodding, “Aren’t you?”
“Of course. New worlds are always a pain.”
They reached the top of a hill, looking out across a thick forest. The bleating of sheep and the distant, but ever encroaching, patter of rain lead them deeper.

“We’re getting wool right? And meat.” Rythian studied the makeshift blade that Sjin had handed him, receiving a nod to his question. Sjin moved ahead, pausing when he noticed that the mage wasn’t following.
“Rythian?”
“Why’d you pick me.”
“What?”
Rythian was facing away, towards the clouds swelling above, fingering the blade in his hand.
“We’re not friends, Sjin. You know what you did to us.”
Sjin held his breath, padding towards Rythian,
“What happened, in the old world, was awful, Rythian. I know this now. We, myself and Lalna, did a lot of things that we regret. That I regret! I just want to start again with you. That’s what this word is for, I think.”
“It won't be that simple.”
“Of course not.”
“But you’re willing to try?”
“Of course.”
“Alright. Well, that rain is nearly here. We should hurry this up.”
“Talk about our dark, depressing pasts later?”
Rythian held back a snort, pulling up his hood, and raised his sword.
“Sure, Sjin.”

Chapter Text

Week 1 - The Storm

The walls were up when the storm hit. Any sensible man would seek cover. The HAT three were not sensible men. Trott reveled in the rain, happily continuing to fasten the roof together. It was a small building, foundations planted deep into a floating island they'd found not far from spawn. It was large enough for the group, at least. One room, space for nine beds, and a divider Smiffy had hastily thrown together for privacy.

A frail ladder tethered the island to the ground far below, and Lalna braced himself for a few minutes before making the ascent. The headwinds of the storm rocked the ladder, and it was only Nano beneath him, also climbing, that kept him moving. He stood at the top, warbling from the edge, before taking in the beginnings of their base. Their home, he supposed. Marble stone base, cobbled rock interspersed for structure, topped with tightly bound wood. Trott and Smiffy huddled against the near wall, binding together what he assumed was a section of roof.

“Can I help, at all?” he began, gesturing to the pile of shaven planks not far from the two. Trott gave a simple nod, handing Lalna a makeshift mallet they'd strung together from a loose branch and spare cobble.
“Don't bugger it up though. We'd like a roof by nightfall.”

Lalna laughed nervously, “What if lightning hits us? We're pretty high up.”
“Have you seen lightning, Lal?”
Lalna looked up towards the deep grey clouds, “No. But if it starts thundering again, we go down to the surface. I'm not taking risks that early.”
Smiffy waved a hand at him, “Pshh. You? Not taking risks? Nano what'd you do to 'im?”
She sighed, gently hitting his back as she sauntered past, placing a bundle of ores and coal on the ground behind him.
“I'll admit boys, I'm impressed you actually did your jobs,” she smirked, leaning her elbow on Smiffy's shoulder to talk to him,
“What do you take us for?”
“Stingy. Refuses to work with others. Only work if it benefits yo-”
“Alright alright. Well, it does benefit us, so stick it.” Smiffy jabbed a finger in her direction, before standing up and leaning the completed section of roof against the wall.

Ross, who'd been next to his own pile of roofing, stood up also. With great effort, and greatly overacted strain, he heft the rack onto his arm and briskly carried it inside. Smiffy was unable to lift his, Trott too, and so the two left theirs to Ross for transport. He was easily the strongest of their threesome, a werewolf from birth, and physically bigger by a long way compared to Smiffy's lacking frame and Trott’s walrus-nes.

Lalna heard Sjin before he saw him. A gasp of surprise, followed by “oh shit!” caught him off-guard. The man was soaking wet, having gone into the water to continue a chase after some animal, and Rythian, who followed close behind up the ladder, was equally soaked through. They each carried a sack each of various meats, skins of leather and wool, and a few bones. These were dumped unceremoniously on what would eventually be a doorway as the two made their way past. Sjin looked on impressed at the current state of their base, Rythian rather more skeptical of the situation.

The mage pointed stiffly at the roof sections, gathering water in the rain,
“Not very helpful there, is it?”
Sjin, following his hand, saw the roof and laughed, offering immediately to help put it up. Rythian followed suit, Ross too, and the three began the arduous task of roofing their little house. Lalna's concerns of the three acting as human lightning rods grew the longer that they sat up there. Strippin and Benji's efforts swapped their stone hammers and wooden joints for primitive nails and screws, but it seemed to also incite the thunder from above.

The first bolt of lightning shook the island, the bellowing thunder that followed dislodging screws from the wood from the heavy vibration. Rythian, however, kept working, brows furrowed and focused on the task at hand. Another bolt did nothing to change this, although others noted the increasing proximity.

Lalna was on autopilot when the third bolt struck. A bright flash blinded them all for a millisecond, his eyes adjusting only as a shape tumbled from the roof. He bound over, boots digging into the sodden earth, and grabbed anything he could before they fell off the edge. The white cloth in his hand strained under the weight it held, and in his panic, Lalna barely registered Trott and Smiffy pulling him from the edge, Ross leaning in to bundle more of the white cloth. It took a pained hiss from the cloth for Lalna to realise a person had fell.

Dark skin and darker hair slowly rose over the edge, hair singed and stood on end. He wasn't conscious. He wasn't breathing. Rythian had been struck, and Lalna couldn't look away. A morbid horror kept his eyes drawn to the mages face. A usually calm face, contorted in pain and shock. Trott peeled the mask from his face and Lalna had to once again take in the scars that stretched from one side of his face to the other. His earring had burned into his ear. He couldn't look away. The mage was alive, clear from the near constant hissing he made, but he was as conscious as the earth below him. Lalna was pulled away, Nano's hand on his shoulder as they carried Rythian into their home, out of the rain under the very roof he'd just been thrown from.

Chapter Text

Week 1 - An internal struggle

Lalna sat glued to his perch for hours. He watched the mage like a hawk, taking a break only when Sjin literally dragged him away to occupy him. As soon as he'd finished though, like a lost dog he returned to his spot: at at the edge of Rythian's bed. His hand lay just close enough that any twitch would be noticed, and he could be there.

It was guilt. He'd heard the murmurs from Sjin and the HATs. A million words flew through his head when he saw Rythian, and regret was certainly one of them. The feelings were confusing, were frustrating, were difficult. They were frankly unscientific. A mess. He decided on being a mess. It's not like Lalna was a stranger to emotions. He loved Nano, and he loved his cats, wherever they were, and he loved science. He hated sand and flux, and the unchecked sound of alarm clocks.

Guilt was new.
Lalna didn't like guilt.

Rythian awoke the next day. His back was burned and sore, and with no way to safely remove the metal, now missed a section of his left ear. A ring had left its mark too on his left ring finger, and a new vein-like scar joined the three on his chest. He sat up, winced and hissed, and locked eyes with Lalna.

“Oh.”
“Morning Rythian. Good to see you awake.”
“How?” He started, arching his back gently, “the lightning?”
Lalna hummed.
Rythian's face fell as more of him began to ache. Rythian looked as much a mess as Lalna felt, and he longed to explain his feelings to the mage. But it could wait. Rythian needed time.
“Why are you staring at me?” he stated flatly, absently running his finger over the burns on his hand.
“We need to talk.” Lalna said, finally looking at something other than Rythian, “Not now, obviously, but when you're feeling better.”
“Ah.” He took in a deep breath, before sinking back against the wall, “about?”
“Everything.”
“Us?”
Lalna hummed again. Rythian sighed his response, looking over to the window Lalna had become so interested in, blinking at the light pouring through. The storm had passed. Another storm brewed somewhere deeper though, and the two braced themselves for it's coming.

Chapter Text

Week 2 - A scientific paper on all the things you did wrong

Rythian was up and moving far sooner than Trott liked. He was the only one present with medical experience, and his trained eyes followed Rythian's every move. He noticed quickly how he moved with an air of uncertainty, kept close to the walls, how he seemed to tuck into himself when talking to others. Loud noises made the man jump violently, and it would take him a while to calm back down.

He was also avoiding Lalna at all costs. Any sight of the blond would have him walking in the opposite direction, or make him start a conversation with the closest friend he could find.

This went on for three days.

Nano became acting mayor for the new week, focusing the group's efforts on mining and resource gathering. Sjin and Rythian were tasked with building the smeltery, a large construction on the roof of their home. It allowed the mage to take a break if he needed to, but Rythian was eager to get out, and more importantly stubborn, and so they too headed into the mines for gathering.

“Sjin. Stay still.” Rythian called, voice barely above a whisper,
“What? Why?” Sjin replied, voice thick with panic. Ocean blue eyes met glowing sky, and he followed Rythian's pointed hand to a creature a metre or so deeper into the cave. It resembled an Enderman, if one had been sawn in half at each joint, then hastily thrown back together. It's eyes were large in its long grey head, and both stared blankly at Rythian. Neither man had armour of any sort. The denim of Sjin's overalls could protect from a light attack, but Rythian's heavier cloak sat up on the island, singed, and all he had between him and a potentially dangerous creature was a too-big shirt and an old, slightly burnt scarf.

“Don't look at it Sjin.”
“Rythian you're looking straight at it. What even is it?”
“Enderminy. They're just as dangerous as the larger ones, don't be fooled.” Rythian growled it's name, his left hand hovering over the hilt of his sword.
“It's done nothing yet.” Sjin said, relaxing, “it looks like a child.”
“I was a child.”
Sjin blinked, suddenly aware of what he'd walked into. A man forced to be an Endermage, face to face with one of the creatures that made him that way. He'd almost forgotten.
“Okay. Do,” Sjin turned to Rythian, “do we back away? We've got enough for this trip anyway, let's head back.”
“There's still more we can do.”

Sjin stomped his foot hard on the floor. The enderminy shrieked, teleporting away further into the cave, and Rythian jumped, unsheathing and dropping his sword.
“I've had enough of your bullshit! Go talk to him! That's what this is about!”
Rythian blanked.
“You're all 'go deeper’, and 'whats down that route’ because you don't want to go back and see Lalna. I'm right, aren't I.”
“You're no-”
“Rythian.”
“Fine!” He huffed, picking up his sword, “You're right! Am I not allowed to avoid him? He tried to kill me! Twice!”
“He also sat by your bed for twenty plus hours to make sure you didn't die in your sleep!”

Rythian opened his mouth, but no words came out. He slumped, sighing, eyes closed in defeat.
“What do I even say, Sjin? Oh, 'sorry for blanking you for days, let's talk about how you nearly killed me and my apprentice’.”
Sjin ran a hand through his hair, ear twitching, “if that's what it takes for you two to talk, so be it. You're giving me a migraine, the both of you. The sexual tension alone hurts my brain.”
Rythian flushed, stuttered out a response in a language Sjin didn't understand, and stormed out of the cave.

Lalna had since finished the smeltery, and was now pacing it's perimeter. They needed a lot of ore to test how effective the smeltery was, and he was waiting on anyone's return. He didn't expect Rythian, alone, to return first. The mage slipped the pack from his shoulder, dropping it at Lalna's feet, head gesturing to the smeltery.
“Set it up. Then we talk. I'll be on the back edge of the island.”
Lalna obliged, sorting through the pack for any iron, before dumping it into the smeltery. Hands in his pockets, he made his way down to meet Rythian.

The sun was setting. Under any other circumstances, Rythian would have found solace in that sight. He loved warmth. The heat from a fire, the cosy company of a close friend, the fuzz of a good drink. Sunsets too.
The footsteps beside him ruined this. Lalna sat to his right, keeping his distance from he mage.

Neither spoke for almost a minute, eyes both on the sunset.
“So-” “Ryth-” both began simultaneously. Lalna snickered, looking over to see Rythian flustered, his eyes shut in annoyance.
“This talk,” he began again, “what are you after, exactly?”
Lalna sighed, “it's complicated. Can I just talk, and you listen for a bit?”
“Sure.”
“Okay.” Lalna closed his hands together, “When I saw you on the ground, after you'd been struck, I realised something awful. It's kinda selfish, now I think about it, but I don't know what I'd do if you died. I feel… guilty. About what I did in the old world, about what I did to Blackrock, to Zoeya, to you. We used to be close. You were one of the first people I ever got super close to, and I ruined that. Then, cut to two years later and I rinse and repeat. I ruined your life Rythian.” Lalna paused, taking a shaky breath,
“I understand why you hate me. I hate me too, sometimes. And it's selfish, but I couldn't keep going if you died, knowing that I never got to apologise for being a monster prick. You and Sjin seem to be getting on okay and, if it's not too late, can we try that? Cornerstone means new beginnings right?”

There was a beat of silence. Lalna, inwardly berating himself, turned to look back at the sunset, before an arm pulled him closer.
“We can try again, I think. I've got more to say, believe me Lalna, but not now. This won't be overnight, mind. I'm still mad. Just a little less so.”
Rythian lay his head on Lalna's, “For now, little steps. Mm?”
“Sounds good. Sounds good.”
Lalna tucked his head into Rythian's shoulder, fitting it into its place. The sun continued to set, and while Rythian stayed focused on it, Lalna would admit far later that he stayed focused on a different view.
“Little steps.” he repeated, eyes closing.

Chapter Text

Week 2 - Flux sake

They were little steps. Lalna had talked to Nano about it afterwards, and she was eager to help push the two back together. She'd heard many tales about Rythian: this dark, brooding mage, with unrivalled power. A creature from another world. Lalna oft described him as such, but there were other stories. Ones of old friendship, of hands held through early caves and ramshackle huts.

To finally meet the mage was amazing. She had an interest in magic that Lalna had tried to help with, and now she could ask an expert. Not that she didn't know other magic users, of course, but Smiffy wasn't in her good books, and Lomadia and Nilesy visited far too rarely for any real sharing of knowledge.

Rythian was right in front of her, and she pounced on the opportunity the moment she could. If it involved Lalna, even better. The flux was an easy topic, uneasy in some ways, but simple to talk about. Rythian was rather mad that Lalna hadn't sought him out when Nano's flux worsened, the blond admitting that he'd tried, but Rythian was nowhere to be found.

“Last I saw, you were in the desert town. Got there, and there's no sign of you. Asked the villagers and they had no idea either. Ravs said you'd gone to the Twilight Forest, and to be honest, I thought he meant you'd died.”
“You don't know about the Twilight?”
“No?”
Nano bounced in her spot, eager to contribute.
“I do! It's beautiful there! I've only seen pictures though, I'd love to go some day.”
“Well mayor,” Rythian smirked beneath his mask, “It's an excellent source of rare material. If we want to speed up this resource gathering, it's an interesting place to try.”
Nano gasped, tugging at Rythian's arm, “let's go then? How do we get there?”
“You'll need a portal first.”
“Ohh.” Nano's face fell.
Rythian laughed, gently removing her hand from his arm, and put his arm around her shoulder,
“We probably have the materials already, my friend, don't worry about it.”
He gestured towards their wall of chests, ('incredibly unorganised, how do you live with yourselves, I almost agree with Lalna on making a storage computer’), making sure Nano followed.
“Flowers and water.”
“That's it?”
“I know, right! Really get the edge on those HAT fellows, m?”

Nano bound over to the chests and began her search. Lalna looked on like a proud parent, hands on his hips.
“How bad is the flux, Lalna.” Rythian asked, all mirth having left.
“What? Why are you asking me?”
“She's scared, I think. Doesn't like to talk about it. Mother disapproves, you know.”
“What do you need to know?” Just talking about it felt invasive.
“How long, how much, and how deep.”
“About two years. Covers probably half of her body now, and it's completely taken one eye. I don't know how deep it is. Does it permeate? Cause I've got some on my nose that's really pale is tha-”
“Yours is surface, yes. It might not always be right but it seems the deeper the colour - the deeper the Flux has infected.”
Lalna looked over at Nano, and at his hands, seeing the deep, thick purple running across both. He swallowed, his throat tight all of a sudden, and excused himself outside.

The fresh air was a temporary relief. Lalna's hands ached, the flux felt alive on his wrists as he absently pulled at them. He'd worn gloves before, to hide them from Nano, but those went sometime during the move to Cornerstone. It was his fault, his mind supplied, that she was this bad. Lalna didn't like guilt.

He turned heel and stormed back inside. Nano had returned from the chests, a bundle of flowers in her hands and a bright smile on her face. Rythian was smiling too, eyes wrinkled at the youngers joy.
“Ryth?” he said, “can you cure us?”
The mage glared at the flowers now. He stood up, plucked a silver flower from the bouquet, and nodded.
“Yes. I'll need a lot of these though. Ask Sjin, he's the nature-y one.”
Lalna saluted, taking the flower from Rythian, before making his way down the ladder.

Sjin didn't have any.
“If I'm being honest, I don't even know what those flowers are. I think they grow near silverwood trees, so that's your best bet. They're, uh, blue with silver leaves.”
“Thanks Sjin.”
“What are they for?”
Lalna had already started walking into the forest, stopping to shout “Who knows?” before breaking into a sprint.

Chapter Text

Week 2 - Into Twilight

Cold weather had gripped the land in the past day. Not enough for snow, but a hard frost crunched wherever they walked. Rythian and Nano were on the surface, where the frost climbed the trees around them, searching for a suitable spot for the Twilight portal. They'd been supplied with hanggliders, made 'lovingly’ by the HATs. It made travel from the island much easier, Rythian admitted, but the climb back up was still a pain.

The portal was dug not far from the ladder, atop a gently raised hill.
“Oh.” Rythian faltered, “Do we have a diamond?”
Nano's bucket stayed in her hands, water ready to pour, “Do we need a diamond?”
Rythian nodded, laughing quietly, “It's the most important part.”
Nano set the bucket down, descending into a fit of giggles.
“I can probably activate it myself?” Rythian flexed his hands over the hole, adjusting the wraps around his wrists, “if you'd like to pour the water in?”
“Oh! Yeah” she tipped the bucket, watching Rythian intently as he focused.
“I closed a Twilight portal before, opening one shouldn't be too hard,” he said, eyes glowing slightly.

The water swirled, circling in the hole counterclockwise, taking on a purple hue as it moved. It suddenly shone, thunder clapping somewhere above, before forming the shimmering pane of a portal. The mage stumbled, before steadying himself.
“One portal, open.”
Nano was beaming, amazed at the display. The portal was indeed open, wisps of magic lifting from it, and Rythian had opened it without the necessary components. She was staring at his face, the way his eyes lit up with magic, the way the scar on his eyebrow seemed to glow from within.

“I think we have a diamond, Ryth,” piped Lalna, who the two realised had been watching the whole time. He blushed as both sets of eyes fell upon him, “I uh, I think Sjin dug one up.”
“How long have you been there?” Rythian asked, stepping carefully down the slope.
“I don't want to sound like a villain but, uh, long enough.”
Rythian chuckled, putting a hand on Lalna's shoulder to steady himself, “you wish you were a villain, Lalna. Anyway, Twilight portal is open. Enjoy. I'm gonna go take a nap.”
“You're not coming?” Nano asked
“Nah. I've had my fair share of those forests. Lalna will join you.”
Nano shrugged, sitting down cross legged by the portal.

Lalna pulled out a basket full of silver flowers, and a sprig of silverwood saplings. He held up the sapling, holding it near his wrist.
“You said to get flowers but then I saw this.”
The flux writhed away from the sapling,
Rythian blanked, taking Lalna's hand in his, gesturing for him to remove the branch.
“Oh. Lalna you clever boy. It's the trees.”
Lalna tilted his head, confused, but basked in the praise nonetheless.
“Alright. You go with Nano into the Twilight; keep her safe. I'll go get more of these.”
The blond nodded, squeezing Rythian's hand before jogging over to Nano, who'd taken to dipping her feet in the portal.

Chapter Text

Week 3 - Enter Owl

The day began as normal. Sjin was up early, preparing breakfast alongside Strippin. The HATs were fast asleep, twisted up on their shared bed. Nano had, at some point during the night, stolen covers from many of the beds, gladly bundled up to the far wall. Rythian had borrowed the Rail bros shed, and had been there until the early morning, Benji coming to collect him. The white haired boy had spent some time investigating the mage's work, awed despite his lack of knowledge on the subject.

Sjin later found him sat with Lalna on the porch, weaving twigs of Silverwood into bracelets, Rythian humming contently in the morning sun.

It was time for a new mayor. All but the HATs agreed that Nano had done fairly well. The group had come far in only two weeks. A safe home, bountiful materials, and the hopeful beginnings of a farm on the earth below. Trott began to campaign, interrupted by a gentle knock at the door.

The nine looked amongst each other. They were the only ones, right?
Their hopes and fears were dashed when Lying burst through the door.
“Hey! How've you been? I thought I'd pop in, say hello, and leave you with a gift!”
Rythian growled, “What gi-”
“Ah ah!” Lying grinned, knocking the door away with his tail, revealing a person stood on the deck. Nano rushed past the group, jumping into her arms, shouting “Lomadia!” as she did.
Lomadia spun her around, setting her down with a tight hug. Nano took her hand, dragging the taller woman inside, pushing past Lying with her shoulder. The kitsune huffed, shrugging, before waltzing out the door again.
“Have fun! I'm watching you.”

Lalna was next to greet her, shaking her hand before hugging her. The HATs and Rail Bros waved, Sjin bounced on his feet, yelling his greeting, glad to have another farmer. Rythian was still, staring at the door.
They quickly fell back into place, Trott continuing his speech, of what they'd accomplish with him as their great leader, with his exceptional white hat.
He finished, bowing, and smiled wide when no one else stepped in to challenge him.
“Alright, I win?”
Lalna scuffed his foot, moving to the middle of the room in one large stride.
“We need food, we need armour, we need tools, we need power, and we need machines.”
“We need resource gathering, mate,” piped Strippin,
“Really,” Sjin started, also moving to the middle, “we need to sort our shit out. Get storage sorted, bit of spring cleaning.”
“I agree with Sjin,” Rythian mumbled.
The votes were cast, Sjin winning as Ross felt he “actually knows what he's doing y'know?”
Nano edged up to Sjin after casting her vote, whispering to consider Lalna's ideas.
He brushed her away, “We need to get food production up. Maybe, when you're mayor, you can do that,” he sneered, walking out the door.

Chapter Text

Week 3 - Flos Potentia
“Botania!”
“What?”
Rythian gestured to Sjin who, a few feet behind them, was hoeing at the stony earth with real ambition, “If we’re stuck working with Farmer Sjin, I thought it might be best for us to work on something a little more,” he raised his hands to emphasise, “magical.”
Lomadia held her hands to her side, pursing her lips, “What’s botania then? Magic crops?”
“Magic flowers.”
“Ah.”
“I’ve been collecting them for a while, alongside my other work. They have a range of uses, but we’ll most likely use them for making tools.” Rythian led her over to a small section of garden, bustling with flowers of all colours. They each glowed gently, emanating small particles into the air above them. He deftly plucked two pink flowers, tulip-like in their shape, and passed them to Lomadia. From a nearby chest, two books were taken and placed on the workbench beside it.
“Botania is an ancient magic. Luckily for us, there exists a tome bearing the necessary knowledge. The Lexica Botania!”
As he explained, he pressed the flower into the books. A soft green glow enveloped the empty journals, transforming them into heavy, green, leather-bound books.

“Well colour me impressed.” Lomadia stepped forwards, taking one of the Lexicons and leafing through the pages, “There’s some really advanced stuff in here. What’s Alfheim?”
“Never mind that.” Rythian flicked her book to a page near the beginning, “We’re starting with wands.”
“Oh! I’m a witch! I love wands.”
Rythian snorted, laughing into his hand, “Lomadia-”
“Don’t laugh! It’s true!”
“Fine, fine,” he swayed his hand, “Could you grab some sticks for this? Any will do, pick one that looks cool, I guess.”

Lomadia padded over to the treeline, nudging Sjin in the shoulder as she passed him. He was knelt down in the dirt, dusting soil over a bundle of seeds.
“You two don’t look like you’re farming.” he said, standing up.
“We’re doing, uh, flower farming.” Lomadia said, snapping a particularly gnarled branch from a low hanging oak.
“Does it make us food?”
“Well, no-” Rythian started
“Then we don’t need it right now.”
“Sjin, my back aches. I can’t really bend over to farm at the moment.”
Sjin’s tone shifted, “Oh. Is it that bad today?”
“Can I ask what happened?” Lomadia asked, returning to the two.
“Oh I got hit by lightning a few weeks back. Hurts a little still.” Rythian answered, absently rubbing his hand along his shoulder.
Lomadia blinked, staring at Rythian for a silent minute.
“What?” she mumbled finally, breaking her stare to look up at the island for a moment.
“What?!” she repeated, “And you’re just, what, up and fine! Are you burnt? Why are you not resting! What the hell!”

Rythian exchanged glances with Sjin at Lomadia’s display. She halted, grabbing Rythian’s hand and dragged him over to the workbench.
“Sit.”
He obliged, face apprehensive.
“Can I look?” she said, hand resting gently on his upper back. Rythian nodded, hands braced on the bench. Lomadia untucked his overcoat from his sash, rolling it up and out of the way, repeating the process with his shirt. Rythian sighed at her gasp, staring at his feet.
“By the gods. Rythian,” she muttered softly, “Have you looked after this at all?”

His skin was red raw, fern-like patterns running blush across his tan skin, speckled with darker spots. He grimaced as she ran a finger across one of the figures. They ran from the base of his back, feathering out as they climbed.
“Have you been treating it?” Lomadia asked, palm against his lower back, scowling at the heat she still felt from it.
“I forget to.”
“Rythian.”
He hissed suddenly, swatting Lomadia’s hand away as it moved higher.
“Hurts more there?”
He hummed ‘yes’, whining as she rolled his shirt back down.

“Gods.” Lomadia said under her breath, moving around to face Rythian, “Stop wearing that overcoat. Baggy clothing till the redness goes down, alright? And we need something to treat it better than, well, whatever you’ve been doing. Which I assume is nothing.”
He nodded along, staring at his hand on the workbench.
“Are you listening?”
“Yes, Lom. I’m just not really used to having to treat wounds. My magic usually heals them fine.”
“This isn't just a little bruise though. Maybe some aloe would work for it? Do we know if there’s a desert nearby?” she asked to Sjin, who shrugged in return.
“Helpful. I’ll see if there’s any alternatives. Hey! Maybe botania has something.”
“Maybe.” Rythian chuckled, “Can I continue now?”

Lomadia huffed, hand on her hip, as Rythian stood up.
“Can you at least rest for today? For my state of mind.”
Rythian considered it, removing his overcoat and tying it around his waist, humming a response as he looked at Lomadia’s face.
“Don’t look at me like that.”
“Like what?”
He did his best to replicate her expression, failing miserably due to the mask over his nose and mouth, “All sympathetic. I’m fine, really.”
“Ryth-”
“I’ll go rest though. Have fun farming with Sjin!” his hand brushed over her shoulder as he walked past.

Lomadia watched him climb the ladder, Sjin joining her side a few moments later. He sighed, gently elbowing the witch, getting her attention.
“He’s always been like this. Zoeya managed to chip away at it but since then, who knows how he’s been coping. Doesn’t look after himself well enough. It’s a shame, really.”
“Well, I know my job now.”

Chapter Text

Week 4 - Shut Eye

“Who will be our new mayor?” Sjin teased, eyebrows high and mocking as Ross, Smiffy, and Trott chanted ‘Four more years!’
“Ahem,” coughed Lalna, as he stepped up to challenge the farmer, “I will. This week, one team should sort out power; another get some magical crops going; another will set up a base in the Twilight Forest; and another needs to make a better way up to the island.”
Nods of agreement ran around the room.
“Hmm.” Rythian murmured, loud enough to draw attention, “While I agree with Lalna’s plan, I feel he may be a little ambitious. To accomplish all of that in one week, we’d need to be very diligent workers. We are not usually diligent workers..”
“Well if you’re only doing it for a week, then of course! This mayor system is flawed. If we only do what the mayor says for the week, then we’ll get nothing done, we need to set things up for the future. That’s what my plan is about.”
“In that case.” Rythian leaned against the wall, huffing gently.

Trott and Strippin raised their views, both standing against Lalna unsuccessfully. Lalna won by an exceeding majority, even Rythian raising his hand in his favour.
He strode to the middle of the room, chest puffed with pride.
“Well! As my first act as Mayor: We should have a rest day.”
“What?” Lomadia crooked her head,”
“You heard! We’ve been working hard for this past month on our home, on the farm, on magic and machines. Perhaps, we all deserve to take a day off.”
There was a prolonged pause as the nine considered his plan. A resounding agreement was come to yet again.

Rythian trudged to the plush sofa, more landing in it than sitting, and let gravity loll his head to the arm. Lalna watched him, sitting next to the mage promptly.
“You okay?” he asked, receiving a tired glare in response. He took a good look at Rythian, only now catching the heavy grey bags under his eyes, and the scratches and tears in the wraps along his arms.
“I’ve been working on the cure, Lalna.”
“Oh.”
“Yes. It’s nearly ready though. Well I say ‘ready’ like it’s a brew. It’s just magic, really, but the preparations are causing the largest delay.”
“You’ve not been sleeping.”
“I’ve been busy during the day. Nights mean I don’t get bothered too.” he yawned, emphasising his state, before swaying into Lalna’s side. He pressed his cheek to Lalna’s arm, looking up at the blond with only his eyes,
“If you don’t mind?” he mumbled.
Lalna nodded, stealing back his arm to drape it over Rythian’s shoulder.

Lalna awoke but an hour later, the space under his arm empty. The door clicked shut, so he stood and followed. Rythian kited his way over to a shed he’d seen Strippin and Benji build a few weeks back. He supposed it to be their base of operations, but apparently not. Once the mage landed, Lalna took flight himself. He found the door slightly ajar, a heavy scent of honey and dust made its way out of the opening. Rythian hummed within, a sad song he’d heard once before. A long time ago.

He poked his head through.

Rythian swayed to his song, overcoat dusting along the floor as he moved. The room was bursting with shelves, not a bare wall visible. The shelves carried jars upon jars of essentia of just as many colours, organised in a way Lalna could not guess. Sprigs and vines of Silverwood draped themselves along the wood, and the silver flowers he’d picked grew in pots along the floor. Two tables sat in the centre, dark brown wood and carved stone. Upon one sat the bracelets he had weaved with Rythian the week prior, and on the other a heavy blanket.

It was eerily similar to a room Rythian had built in their house once before, Lalna had thought, shaking it from his head with fear of nostalgia. Rythian’s ear twitched harshly, and he spun. Lalna jumped, losing his footing and crashing to the wooden floor.
“You could have just knocked.” Rythian tutted, padding over to the blond, extending a hand to him. Lalna gladly accepted, pulling himself to his feet.
“This is beautiful,” Lalna stared up at the room some more, brushing his hands along the table.
“Thank you. It should be ready to go tomorrow.”
“Really?”
“Mmhm. I’m glad you’re mayor. Can’t get in trouble for not doing my job if we’re doing this.”
“I doubt you’d be in trouble Ryth.”
“Those HATs will take any power they can get.”
Lalna laughed, revelling in the light chuckle that came from Rythian. He fumbled with his hands, looking ever so slightly up at the mage,
“You’re not wrong.”

Chapter Text

Week 4 - Afresh; Clean Slate

They’d decided on the Friday. Those who needed to know were informed of the three’s whereabouts if they were wanted. It had to be a private process, Rythian had stressed. Utmost concentration.

The sun had barely risen when they pushed open the door. Lalna, yawning, rubbed sleep from his eyes as he followed Nano, who bound through. She was frantic, energetic yet entirely crestfallen, a look of morbidity hidden behind the morning smile. They were both terrified, let this be known. Nano much, much more so. It had been three years since she was first tainted. Three years of headaches, of shooting pain, of visions and thoughts and sounds that were not her own. Three years of Mother.

“Nano, as much as I’d love to fix this as quickly as possible, Lalna will have to go first.” Rythian said, draping the blanket across the larger table, “If it goes wrong, he’s got less to go wrong with.”
Lalna nodded, determined. He put on a brave face, sitting up on the table, removing his shirt and folding it next to him. He’d worn a vest, Rythian’s request, so that all the flux could be seen. He looked down at his hands, knuckles paling as he gripped at the edge of the table, watching the flux writhe around his wrists. The silverwood bracelets sat loose around them.
Rythian motioned for him to lay down, and placed his hands over Lalna’s chest.

The mage’s eyes shut. Silence. The songs of birds and the whistle of the wind were silenced as if by divine. And light.

Lalna held his breath. Mother never bothered him like she did Nano. But now, inside his head, she was screaming. A low rasp, deep in his ears. He could feel the magic spread across his skin, pinpricks searching his arms. Mother gripped him now, his exhale came out pained and he tightened his grip on the table. Silverwood burned into his wrists. Burning. Screaming. He couldn’t breathe. His eyes shot open, his back arching as the magic latched onto the flux across his arms and pulled. He’d been grazed before, been slashed and serrated. This was new discomfort, new dysphoria.
And then it stopped.

Lalna exhaled sharply. Rythian stumbled back, resting against the smaller table. A bated moment passed, broken as Lalna slowly brought himself up. Rythian’s uneasy smile grew sincere as Lalna checked himself over, eventually laughing as Lalna sprung up and hugged him, spinning him around in his arms.
“You did it! Holy shit! You actually did it!” he shouted, nestling his head into Rythian’s chest. The mage kept laughing, relieved, and pulled away from the blond.
“Of course I did,” he smirked, hands busy with the silverwood bracelets on Lalna’s wrists, gently placing them into Nano’s hands as she joined them.

“Nano, dear,” Rythian hummed, “It’s going to be alright. I won’t say not to be nervous. You can’t help that. It’s a good sign that you’re scared.”
“Mother isn’t happy.” she said, eye looking past him.
“I know. I know.”
Rythian’s hand found her shoulder, and he guided her to the table. She undid her shirt, setting the silk into Lalna’s arms. Her vest underneath revealed the true extent of the flux. It spread up both arms, finding its way across her shoulders and around her neck. Lower, the taint strayed around her chest, having luckily weaved away from her heart. It fully coated both legs, bar the ankles and feet.

Nano bit her lip, breathing heavy through her nose as she stared at the wood between her knees.
“I’m fucking terrified guys.”
“Nano I’m about to make that fear much worse.” Rythian gestured for Lalna to come over from where he’d stood back, “Lalna? I’m going to have to ask you to hold her down.”
“What.”
“Mother,” he paused, considering his words, “Well, you experienced quite a lot of discomfort during the process, correct?”
“Sure.” He shifted on his feet, glancing up at Nano, who sat visibly shaking.
“Nano’s is far more advanced. If worst comes to worst, I need you to keep her down. Mother would like to hurt me, I imagine, and that won’t be good for anyone.”
She sighed, nodding gently.

“Shall we begin?” Rythian clapped his hands together, a hopeful smile spread across his face.
Nano mumbled a yes, lying down onto the table. Lalna fumbled with his hands, deciding to hover them above her wrists from the head end of the table. Rythian’s were placed over her stomach, gently grazing over the fabric of her vest.
And began again the light show.

Nano immediately began screaming. A low voice, not hers, came bellowing out. Lalna’s hands clamped around her wrists on instinct, and she quieted for a moment. Her eyes were open wide, left focused directly on Rythian. His eyes were shut, but he shifted nonetheless.
“You,” whispered Nano, “We don’t like you.”
He continued, stalwart.
“You’re hurting us.”
Steadfast.
“You,” she raised her voice, “You’re going to kill her.”
A low growl sparked from his throat. Lalna’s grip grew tighter.
”Can you live with that, Enderborn?”
Rythian’s hands balled into her vest, and the gentle blue erupted, violent, across her skin as he bared his teeth. It turned a sickening purple, digging harsh into her skin as it dragged the flux away. Mother began screaming again, back arching and arms flailing. Her knee kicked into the air, and if not for Lalna’s reaction, would have collided with Rythian’s chin.

Blood began to drip from Rythian’s nose, dribbling down his chin. His face stained red with strain and blood, dipped and swayed as the magic coursed through his body. In a second, everything stopped. His magic wavered, dragging back purple to his again splayed hands. Nano stilled, arms and legs sagging to the table. The silence was deafening. Another second passed, and the gentle rise and fall of Nano’s chest began again. Another second, Rythian dropped to the floor, collapsing on the spot.

Lalna mounted the table, bounding to Rythian’s side, pulling the mage’s chest to his ear. Satisfied with the thumping of his heart, he gently set him against the table, wiping the still dribbling blood from his nose. Nano mumbled above, and he stood again.

The change was astounding. Three years. It didn’t feel like three years, but in that moment of seeing her, taintless, the time spent hit him like a bomb. Unlike the white streaks that marred his skin where the flux had been, her skin was tinted a light pink. Her face was calm, and he brushed a stray lock of hair from her cheek. He would have to get used to this, he realised, but hoped in a way, that like the way you forget how someone looked with long hair after a cut, that soon the image of Nano in his head would be taintless again.

Shifting to his knees, he crouched down to Rythian.
“You okay?” he asked, hand finding itself resting against the mage’s cheek. Rythian groaned, eyes slowly breaking open, bleary and pale, and he looked up at Lalna.
“Mår bra, älskling,” he mumbled, head turning to lean into Lalna’s hand. He ran his thumb over his chin, reassuring, as Rythian closed his eyes again.
“Didn’t catch that.”
“M’fine Lal.”
He giggled, sitting against the table, leaning Rythian into his side.
“You’re bleeding.” Rythian’s hand made a feeble attempt to move, Lalna taking his shirt from the floor and pressing it into the mage’s nose. The blood flow was steady, and he was certainly concerned, but a small voice reminded him that he’d seen the mage lose much more blood before. He hissed quietly, hand reaching up to pull on his hair.
“Headache?”
“Värre.”
“Can I help?”
His head shook no, and he hissed again at the action. His eyes were closed again, and the blood hadn’t stopped.

A knock at the door made his heart jump to his throat. He saw green through the small pane in the door.
“Who is it?” Lalna called as loudly as he dared.
“Smiffy. We heard screaming. You good?”
Lalna looked to Rythian, slumped against his side, and up to Nano, unconscious on the table above them.
“Come in quietly."
The Slime gently pushed the door open, slipping through and pushed it to as gently again. He padded over, gasping into his hand when his eyes landed on Nano.
“Should I-”
“She’s fine. Just needs rest. If you could take her up? I can take Ryth.”
“Shit. Yeah,” he softly scooped her into his arms, tucking her head into his shoulder, and watched intently as Lalna brought Rythian to his feet. The mage was sluggish, one hand wrapped around Lalna’s shoulder, the other limp at his side, as he leaned almost entirely on the shorter.
“You got him? I can always go get Ross.” Smiffy whispered, heading towards the door.
“It’s fine.”

 

Rythian awoke with a splitting headache. The moonlight streamed in through the shear curtains, and illuminated a large cup on the side table. A note sat against it, reading ‘drink this’ in sloppy handwriting. Lalna’s, he recognised, and he sat up. The liquid inside was a bright red, viscous, and smelled like burnt fruit. He chugged it nonetheless, retching slightly at the feeling.
“Healing potion,” he muttered to himself, “made by Lalna.” He laughed through his nose, setting the cup down, and burrowed back into the quilt.

Chapter Text

Week 4 - Warmth

Love; an intense feeling of deep affection.
Synonyms: fondness, tenderness, warmth

He cursed his thoughts. He’d been alone with them far too long, swaddled in furs, bedridden. Nano had visited early in the morning, wrapping her arms tight around his shoulders and smiling a thank you into his neck. She was glowing. A delightful sunshine in the otherwise bleak bedroom. He missed her now, watching the clouds pass through the window. He’d been told of what happened. Smiffy had spilled, sat on the edge of his bed, recalling Lalna’s words from the day before.

Lalna had carried him up to the house, blood staining his vest and painting his shoulder crimson. He’d changed the mage’s shirt, bundling him in one of his own, and laid him to bed. Rythian’s heart ached. He wanted to see the blond. He missed him, no; longed to see Lalna. To give thanks, to give praise, to apologise for how he’d treated him. Lalna cared about him, and he felt disdain for his earlier actions. Twice now, the man had done all he could for him.
Twice now, Rythian recalled the repressed feelings that sat heavy in his chest.

His ears twitched as footsteps creaked on the stairs. A mess of blond peeked around the corner, eyes and smile wide as he saw Rythian sat up. He pranced over to the bedside, plonking himself down on the down mattress.
“How are you feeling?” he asked, leg bouncing in its place.
“Peachy. That potion was disgraceful by the way.”
Lalna chuckled lightly, swinging up onto the bed. Rythian edged over, allowing him to perch next to him, shoulders knocking.
“I did my best.”
“And I’m grateful.” He was. The headache was gone, and a nagging note made him wonder how much blood he had lost.
“I have to ask,” Lalna started, absently running a thumb over the whites of his hands, “How come you don’t get tainted? All that flux, and yet nothing! Not a speck on you.”
“End magic. Have you been to the End? Flux can’t hold onto anything there.”
“Oh shit.”
“What I did was take the flux into myself. The End magic, as much as I resent it, will kill it off like you would a cold.”
Lalna blinked, before reaching a hand up to Rythian’s forehead. He cupped around it, puzzled, pulling away when the mage’s ear twitched.
“What are you-”
“You’re pretty hot.”
“Pardon.”
“Oh! N-No! Not like that. Well, you’re not-not hot. Your head is. Fever.”
Rythian snorted, leaning into Lalna’s shoulder. The latter turned his head away, a furious blush spreading across his face.
“I knew what you meant,” he smirked, face falling slightly, “I’d like to say something. I’ve been thinking a lot today.”
“Go ahead.”

“You’ve done something odd, Lalna. I’m not sure how to word it. But, after everything that’s happened, you’ve managed to redeem yourself in my eyes. I saw you as an enemy. In my way for your own humour. I cursed you for what you did, and believe me, I still do. There are things I don’t think I can forgive. But in this past month here, in Cornerstone, you’ve been nothing but pleasant.
Twice now you’ve selflessly looked after me. You didn’t have to. I don’t see why you would. First the lightning, now this. My heart hurt when Smiffy told me! You make me feel safe! You! Lalna! I see you and there’s a dumb warmth. You and your dumb hair and your stupid grin and your beautiful eyes.”
“Beautiful?”
“Yes! They are! And,” he laughed quietly, “I’m glad that’s what you took from my speech.”
“No I was listening Ryth. I get it. I really do.”

Lalna let himself lean back into Rythian. The mage shifted next to him, tugging lightly at his shoulder as the two repositioned. Lalna sat between his legs, body curled into Rythian’s chest as their breathing synced.
“You called me ‘dear’ last night.” Lalna mumbled. He felt Rythian’s blush and smiled, leaning his head up to look at him.
Rythian looked down also, pressing a soft kiss into the thick blond hair.
“We’ll start again, mm?” he mumbled into Lalna’s head.
He nodded, closing his eyes.
“I’d like that.”

Chapter Text

The following weeks brought with them a warm spring air. Butterflies swarmed the flowered edges of the farm, crickets chirped along the evening paths. The bounties that this world came to offer began to truly flourish for it’s new residents. Their temperaments mild as the breeze, the ten began to travel in the balmy weather.

Just beyond the treeline sat a great lake, stocked to the brim with fish and other lake-life. Benji had come back from a fishing trip empty handed, eyes wide and pointing at an unseen boat. They’d yet to cross the lake, and some root of fear of the unknown kept them to their side. For now though, it provided a steady source of fresh food and a clean source of bathing water. The small pond that sat near the floating island deserved a break.

“I have a proposition,” Ross bellowed from the water, shaking dry as he rose, “Little competition.”
This grabbed the attention of those on the shoreline. Trott and Smiffy bound over to their partner, whispering between them a plan, no doubt rigged. Nano shared a wary glance with Lalna, giggling between them at the three’s antics. They weren’t a threat anymore, hadn’t been for a long while now. Didn’t mean they were any less scheming though.

“Alright!” Smiffy started, laughing through his words, “We have a game.”
Trott gestured dynamically, pointing towards the water, “Catch a fish!”
“Seems simple enough? You’re wrong!” Ross chimed, throwing his arms around the two.
“You gotta,” he snorted, “You gotta catch the fish in your fucking mouth!”

A chorus of laughter ran up the beach. Lalna scoffed as he pushed to his feet, sauntering towards the three, pulling his hair into a tight ponytail as he walked.
“You’re on.”
“Who else dares challenge us!” yelled Smiffy, shaking Lalna’s hand. Strippin quickly rose, followed by a seemingly reluctant Rythian.
“Alright boys! Lom, you wanna referee?” Smiffy continued. Lomadia shrugged, following the others to the waterline.

Removing his boots, Rythian stepped gingerly into the water. It was cold, the stone mossy under his feet. He shuddered at the sudden cold, rolling up his trousers to sit above his knees, wading to meet the congregation. Ross pointed to the shallows. A shoal of fish were visible, swarming around the rocks and grass. The six of them lined up, watching the shoal with harsh intent.
“Alright! No magic!” Lomadia called, earning a loud sigh from Smiffy, “gotta keep if fair lads. On your marks!”
Feet slipped forwards.
“Get set.”
Arms braced.
“Go!”
Five of them raced forwards, movement loud and brash. Rythian simply stayed still. Their intrusion would scare the fish straight to him. He considered the winning criteria for a moment though, and the idea of bobbing for fish wasn’t as exciting anymore.

Lalna paused, stilling as he caught sight of a small shadow near his feet. As slowly as he could muster, he crouched down, ready to pounce on his catch.
‘Plop’ went the pebble as it landed a few inches from his feet, spooking the fish back into the deeper water. He turned, finding the perpetrator a few feet away, rolling another stone in his hands. Rythian was smirking, stock still in the water.
“Oh I see. Sabotage?” Lalna mused, wading his way towards Rythian.
“No.” Rythian says coolly, eyeing the other four, most of them in similar crouching stances. He held back a laugh, before tossing the rock between Trott and Ross, who’d cornered a small shoal between them. The two yelled in surprise, eyes locked on Smiffy. Convinced it was him, the two began to swash water towards him, Ross running as best he could towards Smiffy and tackling him into the lake.

Lalna held his breath, snorting into his hand. He looked back at Lomadia, who gave a quick thumbs up and a giggle. Nano had stood up to watch the fight, doubled over in laughter. A spray of water to his side caught his attention, and he turned to face Rythian.
“Oh! We’re playing this game?”
“Perhaps.” Rythian crossed his arms, trying not to smile. Lalna bolted towards Rythian, gathering water in his arms, ready to dump it on the mage. Rythian snapped his fingers, disappearing. Lalna stopped in an instant, sudden hands on his back pushing him into the lake. He swallowed water, gasping for breath as he turned around. His vest dark with water and his hair stuck to his face, he scowled up at Rythian. Taking an arm, he sent a large wave of water at him, which Rythian attempted to dodge. In his movement however, he lost his footing, and slipped backwards into the water. Winded, his laughter was breathy and slow, and the wave washed over his head.

Lalna resigned to sitting in the water. The sun was warm on his skin, and it was worth the damp clothes for the striking smile on Rythian’s face. Rythian stood up warily, the too-big shirt soaked and his hair flat, and he offered a hand to Lalna.
“You’re the worst,” he refused.
“Yeah. Maybe.” Rythian smiled, crossing his arms.
They both looked over to a sudden yell, as Ross and Smiffy forced Trott underwater, whether for a fish or their own amusement it wasn’t clear.

A muffled shout from Strippin stirred them from their bout, all turning to face the man who held, triumphantly, a rather large fish between his teeth. Lomadia cheered from the shore, declaring him the winner of ‘this dumb contest’ and he quickly spat the fish into his hands, shuddering afterwards. Trott surfaced, disappointed, and glared as his partners. Ross shrugged, and waded towards Strippin, thumping him on the back with a congratulations. Smiffy ran as quickly as his legs could carry him, which lanky as they were was pretty quick, away from Trott, who gave chase.

The splashes lapped against Rythian’s legs. Realising that Lalna wasn’t moving any time soon, he resigned to sit next to the blond in the water. It had warmed up, or he’d gotten used to the cold.
“It’s pretty warm, huh?” Lalna wiped at his forehead, slicking back his loose fringe.
“Not that hot.” Rythian said, looking up.
“You lived in a desert!” Lalna laughed, jabbing at Rythian’s shoulder, who chuckled.
“And? That’s a lot hotter than here! What’s your point?”
“I,” Lalna stuttered, “Shush.”

“Are you coming back at all? We’re gonna go eat!” called Nano from the waterline. Lalna gave a quick nod, shakily standing, hand on Rythian’s shoulder as he pushed up. Rythian returned the favour, grabbing at Lalna’s arm to hoist himself up. The two nearly tumbled back into the water, laughing quietly under their breath as they made their way to shore. Strippin walked ahead, chugging from a flask, Benji peddling at his side, holding a second bottle up to his brother.
“Are we having the fish Strippin caught?” Sjin asked, laughing.

Chapter Text

Rythian blinks into consciousness. He feels the heat on his skin, the fire climbing high around him, and he knows exactly where he is. Shouting crowds his ears, and he falls to his knees. There’s blood on his hands, Teep’s, his mind remembers. He follows the past, hands cradling his head as he collapses to the blissfully cold ground beneath him. Sjin’s cautious laughter rings somewhere above him.

His chest tightens, hands- no, claws, dive to the dirt. He’s scratching now, digging into the earth with every noise. Then he hears him. Rythian remembers screaming. Here, in this memory, his voice roars. His ring pings, and he jumps up. Lalna flies a few metres from him, jetpack sputtering from overuse, and his face sours as he sees Rythian. He’s growling now, hands at his side clutching matching katars.

“You.”
Lalna gulps.
“You backstabbing fuck.”
Rythian charges, red matter katars swinging towards Lalna. He dodges, foggy mind too slow as two gashes make their way into his arms. He raises his hand, summoning an unsteady fireball and pointing it towards the mage. Rythian doesn’t flinch like Lalna had. Rythian sees the lapse in his face. He forgets that Rythian is a warrior, now faced with the warmonger floating barely a second away. Rythian’s eyes are glowing, a heavy purple.

A katar finds its way into Lalna’s back. Gasping, he looks up to see Rythian gone. A presence behind him is snarling, and he spins to greet bared teeth and wild eyes. A bandaged hand darts to his throat, pinning Lalna in a suspended place.
“Rythian,” he chokes, “I’m sorry.”
The mage is primal as he speaks, unblinking.
“You’re not. You’re going to pay.”
His hand tightens around Lalna’s neck, cutting off his lungs. He struggles, powerless to Rythian. The second katar joins its brother in his front, and he imagines for a split second the two meeting in the middle. Blood is pouring down him, he imagines. Staining the floor far below them, if not evaporated by the fire.

The fire he caused. The war he caused. Lalna feels nothing as he drifts out of consciousness. Rythian feels everything as the blond drops from his grip. He watches him fall, eyes trained on the blood that flies from the body. His heart rips in half.

“I trusted you,” he whimpers, “You were my best fucking friend.” Rythian feels the tear welling at the corner of his eyes, light blue again, and he screams. Wailing, 25 feet in the air, as the world burns around him. He sinks, from lack of concentration, falling to the ground near Lalna. He’s heaving, staring at him. The blood pools around him, thick in the heat.
“Rythian.”
He crouches, lifting Lalna’s head with a bloodied hand.
“I’m sorry it had to end this way," Lalna chokes.
“No you’re not.”
Lalna shoots him in the head.

Rythian wakes with a start, clawing at his hair, scream echoing through the shared bedroom. His knees draw to his chest, and he’s breathing so heavy that his lungs might just explode. His hands are at his face now, and he feels the dampness there. He’s still crying. There’s a pressure at his side, Nano clambering over from her cot to hold his arm down. She’s speaking but he can’t hear her. Lomadia is soon to join her, prying her arm from Rythian's. He whimpers, and Nano shoots her a glare as she replaces it on his shoulder. Another hand reaches his chest, and she’s pushing gently. He looks to her for a moment.
“Breathe.” She’s mouthing, pushing into his chest for a few seconds, then pulling away.
He follows, following her rhythm. He’s thankful for it. Lomadia moves to his other side, one hand rubbing circles into his back, the other keeping his arm down. He’s suddenly able to feel his claws- no, fingernails digging into his palm, and relaxes himself.

Lalna hears the scream and pales. He’s been working with the smeltery into the night, preparing wires for an upcoming project. He drops the cast, hands tensing at his sides. He knows that scream in the darkest part of his brain. His blood runs cold against the ambient heat of the smelter, and he leans hard on the nearest chest. Balling his hands into fists, he pounds at the lid of the drawer, biting down on his lip. He inhales sharp, and discards his goggles and his coat, and makes his way down the ladder to the bedroom.
Rythian is sat in the corner, panic attack still in full swing. Nano and Lomadia sit to his sides, while Strippin and Smiffy watch from their beds. The rest either slept through it, or were out working late too. Benji’s snores provided a welcome distraction.

He sidles towards him, fear pounding in his heart. The wood creaks under his light steps, and he holds his breath. Lomadia faces him, worried, and inclines her head to Rythian. Lalna, now gaining a closer inspection, abandons his wariness and walks the rest of the way. He finds his place on the edge of the bed, staring at Rythian. His face is tight, staring down at the quilt, seemingly unaware of his surroundings. So unlike Rythian to be this distant. His breathing is irregular, regular in some pace that Nano kept. His eyes flick up suddenly, a heavy purple. Lalna’s breath catches in his throat.
“H-Hey,” he chokes out, eyes meeting Rythian's in a deadlock.
“I don’t think he can he-”
“He doesn’t need to.” Nano glares at him upon being cut short, “I’ve seen this before. Way back. He’d have nightmares about the dragon, and he’ll kill me for this, but I had a way of calming him down. You’ll have to let go.”
Lomadia retreats. Nano falters, Rythian’s frail whimper from earlier fresh in her mind, before taking her hands away again.
Lalna scoots towards him, hands slow and methodical as one takes Rythian’s hand and the other lays flat on his chest. Strippin looks away, feeling as if he’s intruding on something very private. Smiffy’s eyes stay trained on the pair. He’s seen Rythian vulnerable before, back in the flux den, but this is a whole new experience.

Rythian’s hand is led to Lalna’s chest. It sits heavy on his chest, and Lalna ignores the purple eyes glaring into his soul. They sit like this for a moment, the air thick with unease. Rythian appears to faint, head lolling as he jolts towards Lalna. Lalna resists his urge to move, instead taking his hand from his lap and grabbing at Rythian’s back. The mage’s head finds Lalna’s shoulder and he heaves, sobbing into the blue shirt. Lalna leans his head on Rythian’s, humming a tune that Nano has heard Rythian hum before. Something pains in her heart at this.

She knew of their history. Late nights talking with Lalna had revealed things he’d kept deep under wraps. They’d sat on their roof, and he’d spilled about the war. She hadn’t been there. She was born of the second world, and his tales filled her with dread. No wonder Rythian had been mad. She was too, that her Lalna could have committed such crimes. But she looked in his eyes and saw the regret, saw the heavy burden he’d held on his shoulders, and let him talk.

Now she saw those talks in a different light. Lalna cradled Rythian, letting him shake. There’s an unspoken trust in the action, heartbeats synced, breathing together through one’s sobs. Rythian’s mumbling into his shoulder, choked words hitching as his voice falters.
“L-na,” he breaks.
“It’s alright. How do you feel?”
“Cold.”
Lalna giggles, hiking the quilt up and over Rythian’s shoulder with his free hand.
“Wanna talk about it?”
Rythian shakes his head, craning his head into the nook of Lalna’s neck.
“Later?”
“Yeah.”
“Okay. You’re okay yeah? You’re in Cornerstone. She’s not here.”
Rythian’s breath stops at the pronoun. He’s jolted back to the nightmare. To the recollection.
“It wasn’t her.”
Lalna pauses.
“Oh,” he purses his lips, “Oh no.”
“Later.” Rythian echoes, voice small into Lalna’s shirt.

 

His back aches when he leans back onto the bed. Lalna dabs at the tearstain on his shoulder with the hem of his shirt, eyes on Rythian as he settles. He halts as he moves to sit up, a hand at his wrist.
“Ryth?”
His eyes are closed, red and weary on the straw pillow. His wayward hand tugs at Lalna’s, his other muffling his muttered words.
Lalna makes out a quiet ‘stay’ and he flushes pink. He drops to his side, wary of bumping into Rythian on the small cot. It’s not made for two.
Rythian apparently disagrees, shifting over to let Lalna take more space.

“What are you doing?” Lalna asks, hushed.
“Making sure,” he lifts his hand from his mouth, “You don’t blame yourself. Come here.” On cue he lifts his arm, allowing a crimson Lalna to move into his chest.
“It was about the fight, yeah?”
Rythian hums a yes. Lalna feels the vibration on his head.
“Lalna?”
“Yes Rythian?”
“Go to sleep.”
“Will you b-”
“I’ll be fine. Sleep.”
Lalna mentally stores the sharpness in his voice. He’ll bother Rythian tomorrow to talk, obviously not wanting to ruin the current closeness.
He drifts off, mind swarming with questions, busy. Rythian’s breathing has steadied, and he mumbles a final apology into Rythian’s chest.

The morning brought a strong heat, they find, as Lalna peels himself from Rythian’s chest. Sjin, hair plastered to his head, oblivious to the night’s happenings, suggests that they take the day to visit the lake again. All but Trott, Smiffy, and Ross accept, packing dirty clothes into their arms and making their way through the roofed forest towards the lake. The air between the six present for last night’s bout is tense. Strippin keeps clear of Rythian, avoiding his presence out of embarrassment. Smiffy managed to avoid the others by staying home, and Nano wondered if this was his only reason.

She didn’t know how much Rythian remembered. In her flux-induced nightmares, she’d had nights disappear into stress, lapsed from her memory. The way he looked at her, signing a gentle thank you, warmed her cheeks and sedated the fear resting in her head. Lomadia received a similar gesture, although she was more forward with reciprocation, embracing Rythian in a tight hug. He strained, smiling, slipping a laugh as she finally let go. Lalna didn’t leave Rythian’s side. He was dead set on talking to Rythian, no matter the challenge.

He’d held his hand at one point, leading him away from the shore to a clearing not far from the lake. Rythian was again in Lalna’s purple shirt, the cotton far too baggy on him. He’d settled on tying it around his waist like a tunic. The Eye trinket sat around his neck, on the same leather cord it had always been on. Lalna found him with the trinket, and he’d never seen him without it. Lalna took a mental note to ask about it later.

Rythian shifts from one foot to the other, impatient. Lalna sighs, finding his words.
“You had a nightmare about me.” Rythian’s face betrays him, and he grimaces.
“About the war, Lalna. Not just you.”
“You’re lying.”
Rythian groans, leaning into a tree, “Fine! It was about you. When you,” he pauses, “When you killed me. When we fought, right at the end.”
“Oh.”
“I try to forget it, Lalna, keep it locked away,” Lalna reaches out a hand, shaking, “But it keeps seeping in through the cracks when I’m asleep. It’s there always. As much as we reconcile, it’s there when I close my eyes. The fire. The blood.” Your blood, he failed to say. “The laser of your rifle and then the nothingness.”
“Ryth.” Lalna falters. He hadn’t expected him to vent like that, and he feels the overwhelming urge to hug him. So he does. Rythian tenses as he gathers him in a tight embrace. It’s short and sweet.

“Do you want to keep talking?” He adds as he withdraws, looking up at Rythian. The mage swallows, looking towards the lake, and nods curtly.
“What are we?” Rythian asks.
“Friends?” Lalna supplies, not sure if Rythian expected an answer. He hums, mulling over his next words.
“After everything we’ve been through though, can it just be friends?” Lalna flushes, “I mean, we’ve killed each other, to put it simply. We’ve fought wars against each other. And now, just like that, we’re friends.”
“We’ve come a long way, Ryth,” Lalna hopes he hears the smile in his voice.
“Doesn’t it seem odd to you? Mortal, well, beyond Mortal enemies, at each other's throats for years.”
“We were in love before though.” Lalna says this so matter-of-factly that Rythian stops for a second. He opens his mouth to speak, and the lack of words tumbling out has Lalna fumble to get the next words in.
“I think you’re hung up on the middle. Not to say we should ignore it though, not at all, but you forget we had something before. We raised each other from nothing. Young adults, dumb and inexperienced in the world, causing chaos wherever we went.” Lalna chuckles, nostalgia filling his head, “And then it all came crashing down.”
“And then you killed the world.” Rythian says.
“Yeah.”
Lalna coughs, staring at Rythian. He’s red in the face, a hand packed into his chest.
“Yeah I did. And what, four worlds later, we’ve cycled back. I mean, Ryth, look at it this way! We’re talking! Having a conversation! Only took, what, four years?” Lalna snaked a hand into Rythian’s empty one, holding it up.
“We can go slow Ryth. I know you’re not healed from what happened, and I don’t blame you. I missed you, when you were gone. And I think a little bit of us needs each other.”
“Lalna.”
“Yes?”
Rythian tugs his hand down, his other finding the small of Lalna’s back and pulls him close. Their faces are so tantalisingly close, and Rythian closes the gap.

The kiss is brief, but by the gods if Lalna doesn’t relish in it. He’s breathless, and the scars brush against his cheeks in a sensation he’d long since forgotten. Rythian’s hands are tough, calloused, and his body beaten and scarred. His face was always so soft though, albeit the scratchy scars that stretched from the sides of his mouth to near his ears, wildly jagged and asymmetric. Rythian lets go, and he’s smiling. It’s small, Lalna wouldn’t have caught it from a distance, and he smiles back.

Someone wolf whistles from the shoreline, and Rythian freezes. Lalna clenches a fist, attempting to identify whoever called. He looks back to Rythian, who’s burned more shades red than he’s ever seen before. Satisfied that the mage won’t teleport away, his hand finds Rythian’s again, and he flashes a grin.

Chapter Text

A light ripple echoes out across the lake. Nano giggles, watching the bioluminescent algae bob in patterns, as she dunks her foot in again. The commotion from the morning hadn’t died down for hours. Rythian, bright red, had teleported somewhere far once the questions started coming. Nano didn’t blame him. Lalna had run off after him, giddy and laughing. Nano had stayed on the lakeside, roped in by Sjin to help assemble a small dock,

It held strong. It gladly supported both her, and Lomadia’s weight, sat together in the cool evening. It wasn’t cold, but she appreciated the radiant heat that came from Lomadia’s exposed arms.
“What did you want to ask?” Lomadia said, looking at Nano. She sat much taller than her, thick blond hair braided behind. Nano’s hair, short and cropped, sways gently in the wind.
“You were in the first world, right?”
Lomadia nods.
“Is this about Lalna?”
“Yeah,” Nano replies, wringing her hands, “Did you know him?”
Lomadia rears her head back, laughing heartily, “Oh Nano! Of course I did. He’s my brother.”
“What.” Nano deadpans, eyes wide.
“Well, half-brother. Same dad.”
“Holy shit.”
“What did you want to know?”

Nano mulls over her questions, “Well. Hmm. Lots of things.”
“We have time.”
“Rythian and him,” she starts, “They were a thing right?”
Lomadia nods again, letting Nano continue.
“Okay. How come Lalna betrayed him then?”
Lomadia sighs, drawing her braid over her shoulder to fidget with.
“That, I don’t know. You’d have to ask him that.”
Nano mumbled under her breath. She’d tried to earlier, Lalna dodged the question with practiced ease. He was clumsy, not daft.

A slip in the sand caught both of their attention. Lomadia drew her cutlass, standing over Nano with a single motion. Lalna shrieks, dropping his fishing rod. Sheathing her sword, Lomadia sighs, relaxing.
“Were you eavesdropping?” Nano accuses, jabbing a finger in his direction.
“What? No! I wanted to fish.” He scoops up the rod in his hand, brushing away the sand that clung to the line. He nudges into the space to Lomadia’s left, casting into the lake. His float glowing in the dark water.

He felt the tension.
“Have I interrupted something?” he asks, sincerely.
“Not really. We were talking about you, is all.” Nano cursed Lomadia’s bluntness, flushing red.
“Oh.” he mumbles, staring out at his float, “What about?”
“You never told me how the war started.” Nano blurts, regretting it almost immediately.
“Sjin. Not our Sjin,” he corrects, “You remember the Magic Police? It was that maniac. Rythian has other beef with Sjin though. It wasn’t supposed to be a war. I had a new weapon I wanted to test, and Sjin got involved. Scuffle turned to a battle, all sides got involved. Then the nukes.”
“You and your nukes.” Nano mutters into her hand.
“I really didn’t mean for all this to happen.”
“I believe you. It’s just the shock, y’know?”
“Yeah.” Lalna was silent after that, watching at his float.

It tugs under the surface once, and he braces the rod in his hands. It tugs again, the line straining with a groan, and snaps. He falls back, eyes wide and focused on the water.
“What the-”
“Duck!” Lomadia shouts, shoving her two neighbours down to the dock. Lalna’s breath hitches, the whizz of something passing over his back, mere inches away, causes his heart to pause for a moment. The three look back, a prismarine trident lodged in the sand.
“Drowned,” Lomadia says, staring at the projectile, “We need to go.”

A muffled murmur bubbles it’s way from the lake. Lomadia’s cutlass joins her side again. Lalna stands, a hand finding Nano and drawing her with him back to solid ground. Lomadia’s deep blue eyes scan the water. A familiar glow, Lalna’s float, rises to the surface. She soon sees the mottled head it’s tangled to. Sickly green skin breaks the surface, eyes hollow and missing. There’s nothing where a nose would be, bone poking through, bubbling in the water. It moans, emaciated hand reaching up to the dock.

Lomadia’s boot crashes down on it’s reaching fingers. They crunch, and the Drowned gurgles. Her cutlass moves with deadly accuracy, cleaving deep into the undead’s head. It cries out, congealed blood seeping into the water. Lomadia heaves the cutlass, ripping it away from the split skull, and kicks the head into the water. She wipes the blade on her thigh, sheathing it with a swish, and takes Nano’s and Lalna’s arms as she walks them back to the island.

From a tree, vulpine eyes narrow. He’d wanted more of a display, really. The Drowned sinks back below the water into the depths. Lying sighs, and waves his hand towards the lake. The water bubbles violently, steaming and stirring. More Drowned are born at the lake’s deepest pit. Skeletons rise too, joining their fleshed brethren in the cold night water.

He’s so bored.
Perhaps a little fight will spice up his little soap.
The kitsune doesn’t forget to summon a few purple creatures. Rythian was always the most fun to break.

Chapter Text

Rythian feels their presence before anything else. He’s so tuned, so attentive to them, that he feels sick as they begin to crowd Cornerstone. He hadn’t slept. Exhaustion claws at the corners of his eyes, and the ‘vwip’ of an Enderman shakes him. They’d been lucky, he assumes, that the usual monsters that populated their worlds had been few and far inbetween during their two months here.

Their luck was most certainly out. A sly peek through the kitchen’s window confirmed his fears. Hordes of undead roam the farm. How his chest curdles when he lays eyes on a crowd of Enderman. The End isn’t like the Brightlands. The gravity is different, time passes faster. He knows. The Eye around his neck burns.

A loud snap rips him from his thoughts. Strippin has burst the door open, shoving Benji through the door with one hand, the other firm on a crossbow. There’s blood on his jeans. Benji launches towards Rythian, taking his hand and running upstairs. He’s dragged along, looking back at Strippin who fires bolt after bolt out of view.
“Benji!” He shouts, tearing his hand free, “What is going on?”
“There’s monsters everywhere! We barely got back.” Benji is heaving breaths, bent double with his hands on his knees.
“Well,“ Rythian starts, cautious, “You got back, didn’t you?” He’s not used to playing the optimist. Benji looks up at him, eyes welling. Oh no.
“Was it just you two?”
“Y-yeah, but they,” he holds back a sob, “they swarmed us. I thought I was gonna die but Strippin- wait,” Benji pivots, bounding back down the stairs. Rythian follows, fearing the worst.

Strippin is still in place. He’s reloading the crossbow, door closed to. His breath is laboured, Rythian doesn’t see any obvious wounds. Benji barrels into him, hugging Strippin close.
“I’m alright Benji! I’m okay!” Strippin laughs, patting at Benji’s shoulders, “Close fuckin’ call though. Rythian you saw ‘em right?”
“Mmhm.” Rythian looks through the window again. There’s more Enderman. Shit.
“What do we do?”
“What do you usually do when monsters show up?” He deadpans.
“Oh. Kill ‘em?”
“Right.”

Strippin is walking with a limp. Rythian doesn’t press the matter. If he thinks he is fine to fight, he’s not one to challenge. Benji calls the others down, an early morning meeting in the ground floor.
Any lethargy is discarded at the sight of blood. Trott sees to Strippin, leaving Rythian to address the seven.
“Alright,” he coughs, clearing his throat, “We’re not alone here anymore. There are undead swarming the farm, and there could be more coming. Our luck is up.”
Silence. He’s not good at this.
“It’s not a problem! We’ve fought before, all of us. I’m sure some of us are rusty, but we’ll be fine!”
He’s really not good at this. Nano yawns into her sleeve, padding towards him.
“Lets kick some Zombie ass!” Her arms stretch into the air, punctuating her words. This stirs Smiffy and Ross, who whistle, cheering. Lalna chuckles quietly, walking over to a chest. Lifting the lid, he removes a ruby shortsword.
“We’ve actually been prepared for this for a while. Nano and I made a bunch of weaponry a few weeks back. It’ll be fun to test it out.” He smirks, handing out the swords.

Rythian refuses a sword, retrieving his own from the smeltery. He’d been there overnight, forging his weapon from memory. A shortsword, made of the purest silver he could find, hilted with darksteel. His blood was spilt in its creation, mixing with the metal. Inefficient in regular combat, the blade was built for one thing. It burns in his hand as he carries it.
“I’ll take the Endermen. The rest of you, do what you want.” Rythian says, sheathing the blade in his sash, “Just don’t die.”

They congregate at the base of the elevator. Ross sheds his shirt, allowing himself to turn. Fur erupts along his arms and back, teeth growing and claws bearing. Smiffy brandishes his wand, fire spilling from its tip, and clambers onto Ross’ back. The two bound ahead, Smiffy laughing wildly as he launches balls of flame towards the skeletons. Ross bounds towards the remaining undead, using his weight to slam into them, bone crushing underpaw.

Benji watches with bated breath. He clutches his crossbow close to his chest, orbiting Lomadia as she trudges forwards. She cuts her way through any undead missed by the barrelling werewolf and his pyromaniac rider. Nano, a sword in hand, follows Rythian and Lalna. Rythian draws his shortsword, and Lalna finally recognises it.
“Enderbane,” he blurts. Rythian blinks, nods, and gestures to a grouping of Endermen.
“They’re my job. You just focus on the zombies. And please,” he puts a hand on Nano’s shoulder, “Please be careful.”
She nods, holding up her sword, “I will.”

Rythian strides towards his charge, eyes locked upwards. He’s tall, easily the tallest of their group, yet the beasts stood a few heads above him. A voice growls inside that they’re easier to kill that way. He knows how their faces reflect his. His scars itch. The Endermen chirp and hiss, eyes trained on the sword as he approaches.

He teleports, swinging the Bane towards two of them. They blink out of existence, appearing behind him a moment later. He feels the air ripple with their movement, turning on the spot to run his sword through their middles. He strikes with trained precision, purple blood spilling onto the blade, and the grass behind them. His eyes are purple, pupils blown as he spins, throwing his sword into two more of the beasts. It comes so naturally that he holds back a smile, digging the Enderbane into the skull of the final.

Further into the forest he moves, the smell of blood fresh on his senses. Something behind him snaps, and on instinct he plunges his sword into its middle.
“Oh! Hello to you too!” Lying grins, arms flung wide. Rythian yelps, drawing back with a start.
“Shit! Shit! Don’t do that!” He shouts, staring at the hole in Lying’s stomach. Nothing seeps out. A twinge of fear settles deep in Rythian’s chest. Lying laughs, leaning his head to the side, and vanishes.
Rythian, brows knit in confusion, glances to where the Kitsune had gestured. A horde of Endermen stare back at him. He realises that the trees are different. Lying moved him.
“Bastard,” he mutters under his breath, spinning Enderbane in his hand as he tears towards them, instinct blaring control in his brain.

In Cornerstone’s shadow, the fight continues. Trott swings down on his glider, joining Smiffy and Ross as they continue their push on the lines of undead. They’re an unstoppable force. Bolts strike from above, Strippin and Sjin firing their crossbows to cover the ground team. Benji smiles up at them, blind to the dangers around him for a moment. A slash snaps him from his stupor, as he’s knocked to the floor. Lomadia stands above him, cutlass buried in the neck of a Drowned. A knife is embedded deep in her arm. He hears the way she snarls, ripping her blade from the creature, kicking its body away.
“You owe me for that kid,” She lends her good arm, pulling him up. His eyes are wide with shock, and the two hobble to cover. Benji tears off the hem of his sleeve, pulling it tight around Lomadia’s arm as she removes the knife. She hisses in pain. Benji winces, repeating apologies.

Lalna takes their place, Nano at his back in a practiced turn. A prototype blaster sits warm in his hands, grin set firmly on his face. Nano wields her sword, launching beams from it as it charges. They’re in sync, moving as one unit in that moment, firing to cover the HATs on one side, and Lomadia on the other.

Everything stops as Rythian appears in the sky, screaming as he forces Lying to the ground. Lying slams into the earth, wheezing as the air is knocked from his lungs. Rythian’s scarf is ripped, flapping useless in the wind. His arm is pinned around Lying’s neck, choking the Kitsune. Lying grins, eyes wild as chains snap into place, pulling Rythian back with bright blue magic. He hisses, biting with sharp teeth at Lying’s face, eyes a blinding pink.

Sound rushes back to Lalna’s ears, arms up to shoot down a Drowned that strayed closer towards them. The numbers have thinned. He can’t assume anything, but if Lying is behind the sudden appearance of the undead, then his distraction gives them a chance to retreat and regroup. He takes Nano’s hand, preparing to run towards the island. He’s halted by Rythian landing mere feet away. He’d been thrown, skidding across the hard earth. He’s up almost instantly, launching himself back at Lying. Brushing off his coat, Lying looks up at Rythian charging towards him, and laughs loud, head thrown back. Rythian’s moving too fast to stop, and snaps his fingers, vanishing. Lalna spins to find him, watching as the mage appears a large distance away, sword drawn as he slices through a line of undead, momentum carrying him through with ease.

Nano gasps beside him. Lalna pales, spying the wooden shaft of a skeletons arrow stood strong in her shoulder. She too stands strong though, raising her sword to evaporate the offender in one motion. Ross bounds over, Smiffy slipping off with grace, offering an arm for Nano to lean on. She accepts, bracing on him as she snaps the shaft.

Rythian is stood stock still, the only movement that of his shoulders. He’s heaving for breath. The telltale ‘vwip’ of an Enderman echoes around him. If he notices them, he makes no effort to defend. They close in on him. Lalna starts running, drawing his ruby sword, swinging at the closest Enderman. It slices into the beast’s back. Rythian snaps back into reality, eyes wide as they land on Lalna. He reaches out, fingers snapping. Lalna teleports.

He feels every part of his body move. It’s sickening. Yet he’s rushed with a thrill. He burns, frozen cold, as he moves through space. He reappears metres back, gasping for breath. Rythian tears through the Endermen surrounding him, teleporting to Lalna’s side.
“Nano! You need to go back. You’re hurt.”
“This? Just a scratch!” She laughs, flexing her arm for good measure.
Lalna inhales sharply, hands finding Rythian’s arm.
“You can teleport other people?!” He asks, incredulous, “I didn’t know you could do that!”
“I didn’t know I could!” He admits, looking over Lalna, “You okay?”

Any answer is cut off by a curdled shriek. Lalna’s pupils shrink to pinpricks, and he collapses into Rythian’s chest. Rythian’s arms move to support him, a hand brushes three prongs on his chest. His heart skips a beat. A prismarine trident is lodged in his back, the spikes barely visible, embedded so deeply. Blood pours from his front.

The second katar joins its brother in his front, and he imagines for a split second the two meeting in the middle.

Rythian chokes on his breath. He scoops Lalna into his arms, hands clear of the wound, and vanishes.The trident clatters to the floor. His feet find the floor of Cornerstone, and he stops. Lalna is gasping in his arms, whimpering, hands balled into Rythian’s coat. Tears roll down his face, mixing with the dribble of blood that leaks from his mouth. Strippin stands over them, having heard the commotion. He scrambles to find bandages as the others begin to file through the door. Lomadia and Nano are at his side, silent as Trott takes Lalna from Rythian’s arms.

He’s crying, choking blood onto the floor. Rythian feels powerless, heart racing in his chest. All he can do is watch. Lalna’s hand reaches out, and Rythian takes it eagerly. It’s cold in his grip. Trott’s arms are caked in blood, and it shows no signs of stopping.
“I can’t- There’s too much. Just hang on,” he talks to himself. Sjin crouches next to Trott, pressing a towel into the wound. His hands are shaking.

Lalna’s chest stops rising, his hand slips in Rythian’s.

Rythian blinks away, appearing in the air below the island. His eyes are primal, electric pink, as he roars. The Eye around his neck glows violent, floating in the air beside him. Lightning calls from the sky. It arches around the island, piercing the ground. Heat erupts from the earth, fire sprouting like weeds around the structures of the farm. It’s unbearable, evaporating undead in its path. Nano swoops past, leaping from her glider to the ground below. A patch of fire disappears upon her landing. Her skin glows down the right side of her body, purple on her skin. The patterns are familiar, akin to the flux her body once bore. Any undead that had been lucky enough to escape the fire are ripped apart, rugged magenta magic tearing through their bodies. From above, Lomadia fires rounds of magic.

Together they rain hell on their assailants. It ends in a minute. Rage simmering still, Rythian falls to the ground. His hands push up, shivering, and he vomits from exertion. Nano’s hand on his shoulder keeps him grounded.
He thanks her silently, trembling towards the lift up to the island.

Lalna’s breath is shallow, ragged as the holes in his back, but it’s there. Rythian collapses onto the cot, reaching a quivering hand to Lalna’s chest. The bandages are tight, blood seeping still. Less so, he notes thankfully. A sigh of relief leaves him. Rythian lays his head on the cot, closing his eyes, and passes out. Ross heaves him onto the nearby couch, Nano following close behind. She sits on the floor, head resting on Rythian’s thigh, eyes closed as she too drifts off.

“Ryth?”
Rythian mumbles in response, hand gently swatting at the cold sensation on his chest.
“Ryyyyyyth,” Lalna drawls.
Rythian opens his eyes a sliver, smiling at the sight. Lalna’s pale, but he’s grinning. Tight bandages, freshly changed, lace around his middle. His hair is a mess, tussled in every direction.
“Look! Look!” He’s giddy. Either blood loss, or whatever Trott’s got him taking, Rythian thinks. “We match!” Lalna’s hand brushes over the scar over Rythian’s heart. His breath hitches. He smiles through it, watching Lalna intently.
“Wait.”
Lalna’s hand snatches away.
“Where are the rest of your scars?” Rythian sits up. Nano slips, falling to her side, still fast asleep.
“My what?” Lalna looks down at himself, “What scars?”
“From when,” Rythian pauses, “from when- When I stabbed you. Here.” He gestures to Lalna’s stomach, just below the bandages.
“Oh. Huh. That’s odd.”

Chapter Text

“You are my Lalna, right?” Rythian asked, an air of uncertainty, looking Lalna up and down.
“Yes!” Lalna bleated, “I’m the same Lalna! I promise.”
“But the sc-”
“I don’t know why I don’t have them. But I promise I’m the same Lalna.”
Rythian sighed, eyes drifting closed. His hand drifted to Lalna’s shoulder, brushing some stray hair to his back. Lalna moved closer, knelt between Rythian’s legs.
“Alright. Shouldn’t you be in bed?” he gestured to the cot behind Lalna.
“I’m not tired.”
“You were impaled!” Rythian stated, hand running over the bandages, his voice worried.
Lalna laughed breathily, hefting himself up onto the couch. Rythian slung an arm around him, gently nudging Lalna’s head with his own.
“How do you feel?” He asked, Lalna feeling the words through his hair.
“Good? It doesn’t really hurt at all. How do you wear those bandages all the time though? These are so tight.”
“Mine aren’t to hold a wound shut.” Rythian absently inspected his hand, eyes flicking back to Lalna quickly.
“How long till I can take them off?” Lalna mused, pulling at a loose wrap.
“I wouldn’t know. You’ll have to ask Trott. I imagine it won’t be for a while though.”
Lalna groaned, nesting his head on Rythian’s shoulder.
“You’re sweet when you’re mad.” Rythian mumbled, deft fingers cradling Lalna’s chin. He flushed, leaning into the touch.

“Not to be weird but, uh, can I kiss you again?” Lalna asked.
Rythian faltered, exhaling sharply, “What has Trott got you taking?”
“Oi!” Rythian snorted at him, “Nothing like that! It was just really nice last time.”
Rythian was silent. Lalna almost regret talking before a hand on his ass made him yell. Rythian hoistes him up, supporting his chest with one arm, legs with the other. He planted a kiss on Lalna's cheek, settling him down on the cot in one stride. Lalna’s face burned red. He struggled, head craned up to see Rythian smirking above him. His eyes flicked to the doorway, as he stepped away from the cot to sit back on the couch. Lalna sat up to a warm hand at his chest, pushing him back to the bed.

“You need to rest,” said Trott, deadpan. His eyes were tired, dark bags prominent in the low light. Lalna opened his mouth in protest, cut off by a heavy yawn. He scowled through it. Trott dutifully checked Lalna’s bandages, nodding to himself about medical gibberish. Lalna's bandages wouldn't have to be changed for a while.

Trott's eyes turned to Rythian, who'd been watching with a sly grin.
“Rythian? Coat off. You got hurt and I wanna check if your back is okay.”
Rythian paused for a moment, staring at Trott. He’d forgotten in the panic. As if on cue, his shoulders began to ache with the realisation. He shrugged off his coat, folding it neatly to his side. Trott rolled up the sleeves of his shirt, trained hands gentle not to touch the skin below.
“Hmm.” Trott murmured, “Nothing too bad. Be careful.” He patted Rythian’s shoulder, smoothing down the fabric.

“How long till I can take the bandages off?” Lalna asked, curled onto his side.
Trott thought for a moment, “A few days.”
“Shit. Really?”
“Yeah.”
Lalna huffed, pouting into his pillow. Rythian chuckled to himself, watching Lalna's face. A part of him was reminded of Lalna, tired and stalwart, sat by his side after the lightning strike.
The least he could do is to be there with him. Company heals, Zoeya had said. And who was he to disagree with her words.

Rythian, true to his internal word, was Lalna's nurse for the next three days. Trott would enter to change the man's bandages and Rythian, taking his short break from the bedside, would make the three of them breakfast. Rythian was by no means a good cook, but the food was food.

Nano pried Rythian away eventually. After the assault the few days prior, the farm (and their surrounding grassland) was littered with the remains of the undead and the endermen that stalked it. Each taking a burlap sack, the two began to pick their way through the bones and pearls.
"How have you been? And since when were you such a talented mage?" Rythian asked, breaking the rather, in his opinion, uncomfortable silence. Nano dropped a pearl into her bag, unflinching at the horrific clack it made against the bones within.
"It was mother."
"What?"
"It was Mother, Rythian." She stated, callous, "You got rid of the flux, but I think I'm stuck with her for life."
"You seem well though." Rythian picked up a pearl, glinting it in the sun before stuffing it in his pocket, "Physically, at least. I'm here if you need to talk. And also, that magic was rather beautiful. I've truly not seen anything like it before."
"Thank you. It's abyssal."
Rythian hummed, plucking a bone from the dirt below. He enjoyed Nano's company. The two had common interests and, against his rather pessimistic worldview, her firey nature was a pleasure to watch. She reminded him much of Zoeya. He'd thought about her a lot recently. Reconnecting with Lalna only brought more memories with it; he missed her.

"Rythian!" Lalna's over-cheery voice ripped him from his thoughts. The blond jogged over, stepping carefully over the undead litter. Nano spoke first.
"You shouldn't be down here. Trott'll kill you if he sees."
"Psshh, he's fine. I got bored. Anywho, what are we up to? Can I help? Gotta exercise, y'know." Lalna bounced on his heels, clapping his hands together. Rythian exchanged a look with Nano.
"Good to see you're doing better. Looking a little red though." Nano smiled, dropping the bag to place her hand at her side.
Lalna blinked, inhaling sharply as he realised his error. He sighed, shrugged, and drew an all too familiar knife.
"Should've known you'd follow us here, Lalnable." Nano spat his name, venom in her tone.
"I'm not here for you, freak. I'm here for him." The knife pointed at Rythian, gleaming in the sunlight.
Rythian groaned and rolled his eyes.
"What do you want this time?"
"Oh nothing fancy, my love. Just some blood."

With that, Lalnable charged at Rythian. The mage moved to teleport, grabbed at the last second by a reaching hand. Nano watched as the two appeared a few metres above her, Lalnable dropping to the ground as Rythian reappeared beside him, holding the knife. It had blood on it. Her eyes glazed over Rythian, and then Lalnable.
"Who got cut?" Nano asked, drawing her sword to keep Lalnable on the ground. Lalnable groaned, sitting up slowly, wary of the blade inches from him. Rythian looked down at his chest, patting at himself.
"He did." Rythian pointed the knife at Lalnable, "the blood's too red to be mine."

"Well that didn't go to plan." Lalnable conceded, running a hand through his hair, "Why can't I have a sample?"
"Because you're a madman."
"Would a madman have a backup?" He grinned, rolling back as he launched an ender pearl behind him. Nano was too slow to intercept as the pearl landed, and Lalnable disappeared.
Rythian swore, staring at the grass where the doctor had been moments before.

Nano stared at the grass, slightly stupified by the apparent forethought of their assailant. A glimmer caught her eye in the undergrowth. A pristine droplet of blood, mulberry, hung from a blade.
"Rythian, are you sure it was him who got hurt?"
"Why?"
"Your blood is on the grass."
Rythian investigated himself again, hand recoiling when it reached his back. Fingers stained purple, he craned to look at it better.
"Oh the bastard," he muttered, "Nano? I think he tagged me."

Nano walked over to him, lifting his coat to inspect the wound. It was tiny, a rough pinprick on the left of his lower back. It was deep though, bleeding steadily.
"Damn. That's my bad. I taught him how to do it." Nano said quietly.
Rythian looked at her strangely for a moment, pressing the back of his hand over the wound.
"We have to go after him. I wouldn't trust him with anything, let alone a blood sample." Rythian stole back his coat, flattening it down, and padded towards where Lalnable had disappeared.

He knelt down in the dirt, hand over the imprint that Lalnable left in the grass. His eyes flashed purple, reacting with the remnants of the end magic from the pearl. His ears twitched and he inhaled deeply.
"I can track the teleports." He said, standing up straight.
And then he disappeared.

Nano watched the space, rather disappointed. She sheathed her sword and began to trudge in the direction she assumed Rythian was headed. A 'vwip' interrupted her walk, and she spun on her heel to glare at Rythian. Sheepishly, he offered a hand.
"Sorry. You want to come with?"
"Of course! I wanna kick his ass too."

Nano had used ender pearls before. Teleporting with Rythian was very different. It wasn't instant like she'd assumed, Rythian followed some rules it seemed. Her bare arms felt freezing cold, the rushing wind scalding hot, and when they reappeared she nearly fell to her knees.
Rythian caught her arm, stooping to let her lean on him. Looking up, both of them gasped.

They stood at the mouth of a great cave. The maw was immense, yawning, yet the sunlight barely made a dent on the swallowing darkness. Vines strangled the rock where they could and above the treeline, their island was nowhere to be seen. A small fenced yard sat to their left, a small variety of crops breaking through the tilled soil.

"Are you sure this is it?" Nano stalked forward, placing her hand on the brown stone. Rythian nodded.
"Positive. He used a lot to get here. It's quite a distance." He responded, joining her at the cave entrance. The shade was a pleasant relief from the late-spring heat.
"Hmm. I'm wondering if we could use Lalna's blood to make a Taglock on Lalnable?" Nano pondered, following Rythian into the cave. He raised an eyebrow.
"I'm not familiar with tags." He said, raising a small ball of light. The walls of the cave were slick, damp with moss and running water. Nano, after slipping for the third time, grabbed Rythian's hand. He squeezed it reassuringly, leading them both deeper into the tunnel.

The hair on Nano's neck began to stand on end. An electric thrum filtered through the air, buzzing in her ears. Rythian didn't seem to notice. She tugged on his hand, nudging her shoulder against his arm.
"Can you feel that?"
"The machines? Yes. We're close."

They were. The tunnel narrowed, forcing the two to walk single file, before opening up into a large atrium. Rythian held back a growl as he stepped on a clump of wires.
"Wait." Nano whispered, glancing over the empty room. It held machines, all active (not that she knew what they did, but the static in the air told her this much), but no sign of life. "Do you think this might be a trap?"
"You overestimate Lalnable." Rythian scoffed, moving to walk deeper into the room. Nano stopped him, arm blocking his path.
"No. I really don't. I don't know where you've been for the last couple years, but that mad man has caused us heaps of trouble. He kidnapped Lalna; cloned me; enslaved a town to make more clones, just to name a few. If he wanted to trap us, he could."
Rythian blinked a few times, biting his lip.
"He cloned you?"
"Her name is Specimen Five." Came Lalnable's response.

They looked up. True to his dramatic flair, the doctor stood on a raised walkway, one hand on the railing, the other gesturing to a figure beside him. Rythian cursed, staring at the flux. Both eyes were white, unblinking. Her hair was long, stained purple, trailing flux behind her. She was far more fluxed than Nano had been. Infact, he couldn't see a hint of skin showing through.
Lalnable chuckled.
"You want your blood back enderbabe?"
Rythian hissed. Nano did her best to keep a straight face at the nickname.
"Matter of fact, I do. Hand it over and no one gets hurt." Rythian swung a foot forwards.

Lalnable sighed, casually flinging a capsule over the railing. Rythian teleported, catching it. Pocketing it, he teleported again, grabbing Lalnable by the collar.
"I'm not an idiot, Hector. Give me my blood, not yours."
Specimen Five launched at him, crystal sword drawn from nowhere. It grazed his cheek.
"You leave boss alone!" She shouted, swiping angrily at him. Realising the erratic movement of her sword was the result of being completely untrained in using it, he disregarded Five for now. Lalnable had backed away, focused on Nano who, afraid to shoot and hit Rythian, was pointing her sword at the walkway.

He started running, teleporting midway to barrel into Lalnable, knocking him away from the control panel he'd reached. He yelped, swatting at Rythian between attempts to get up. Now with a clear shot,
Nano fired. The beam hit the railing between Five and the dueling two, snapping the walkway in half. The metal groaned, bending and falling to the stone floor. Nano watched as Five jumped from the railing, fleeing the scene. Rythian appeared a few feet ahead of her.

Taking her hand in his, he withdrew a vial from his pocket. Mulberry liquid swirled inside it. Stowing it again, the two teleported away, deaf to Lalnable's wild shouting behind them.

They collected their sacks before making their way up to the island. If anyone else had seen the commotion, they hadn't acted on it. Rythian had insisted on keeping them a secret from Lalna, for now at least. The bones were left for Sjin, as fertilizer for the farm, and the pearls were stored for future use. Rythian counted them.

Lalna was tinkering when Nano approached him. His prototype blaster had done well, but it needed a few adjustments. The device was deadly, no matter what.
"How are you feeling Lal?" Lalna jumped, too immersed in his work to hear her footsteps. Blushing, he rubbed at his neck, leaning on the worktable.
"Good! Yeah, good. Only hurts when I touch it." To prove his point, he poked at his stomach, wincing at the contact. Nano sighed, smiling, pulling him into a hug. He reciprocated, wrapping his arms around her shoulders.
"You okay?" He asked, leaning into her head.
"I love you Lalna. Be safe, okay?" She mumbled back, squeezing him slightly. He nodded, pulling away from the hug, perplexed but happy nonetheless.

Rythian instead approached Trott. He'd been out fishing, quietly glad to be rid of Lalna after two days of near constant care. The larger fish were tossed into their makeshift freezer, the smaller set aside for future bait.
"Hey, uh, Trott?" Rythian started, hands in his pockets.
"What?" Trott replied, monotonous.
"Do you have anything I can store blood in?"
Trott paused, slowly turning to look at Rythian. Rythian offered what he hoped was a hopeful smile (he wasn't often hopeful), withdrawing the two vials from his pockets.
"Can I ask who's blood?" Trott stood up, rummaging through a nearby chest in search of bottles.
"Mine and, uh, hmm." Rythian inspected the vial, "I get patient-doctor confidentiality, right?"
Trott nodded.
"Lalnable's."
Trott choked on his breath, sputtering.
"The psycho? He's here?" He shouted, gripping the bottles in either hand.
"Yes! But shhhh. He's far, far away. That and we sacked his base a little. He shouldn't be bothering us again."
Trott took the vials from Rythian, carefully emptying them into separate bottles. Considering a thought, Trott facepalmed.
"I'll keep it secret, only if you let me do a little test on your blood. It's purple, and that's not normal? I wanna know why."
Rythian, usually, would be disgusted by this notion. After his first spat with Lalnable, even walking into a clinic set his nerves on edge. Being tested on? Out of the question. However, Trott was a friend. Someone trusted, and someone easily punished if the need arose.

Steeling his nerves, Rythian nodded, waving 'fine' at the doctor.

He did not expect later to have the door barged through by Trott, holding a scrap of paper in one hand and a bottle of purple liquid in the other. Lalna shrieked, nearly falling off of the bed.
"Rythian! Are you aware that your blood contains Wither dust?" Trott yelled, panic clear in his face.
Lalna stared at him, waiting on an answer with bated breath.
"I… What? Wither dust? That's not- no, I was not aware that was in my blood."
"Well it is. Are you- do you feel sick at all?"
"No? Look," Rythian sat up, gesturing at himself, "I'm fine. I'm sure it's just some anomaly or the test was wrong. I'm fine."
Trott looked worried. Trott almost always looked worried, so this was clearly severe. He stared at Rythian, then at the bottle, then back at Rythian.
"Okay. But if you feel anything, let me know. Please."
Rythian nodded and Trott closed the door. Lalna picked up his book again, watching the door. He sat down, flipped the tome back the page on taglocks, folded the page in one corner and then stared at Rythian.
"What the hell happened today?"

Chapter Text

"Personally? No. Non-toxic means that it was likely toxic beforehand. I don't have bad luck, but there does seem to be some divine effort to put me through as much pain as possible, so if I even read the word poison I stay far from it."
"Even, like, pens and stuff?"
"Yes."
"Oh my gosh. What do you write with?"
"Ink, my dear."

 

Rythian woke with a start. Memories plagued his dreams and he'd slept little the past week. He'd been thinking about Zoeya. Reconciling with Lalna brought him joy of course, but also brought with it the sting of repressed memories. Facing his past meant facing his morality. The bad decisions he'd made. Lalna once told him that he was the only one who cared, and Rythian considered that he was correct. He was right for caring though.

He remembered the end of the second world. He remembered watching, powerless, as the wastes ripped it apart. Rythian, Zoeya, and Teep fled to the Twilight, living with the Mushroom Queen's people. It was their home when they needed it.
Rythian felt trapped. He had no magic in the Twilight. But he couldn't risk losing Zoeya again.

Rythian made a bad decision. Thinking back, it was the only correct decision for him. He hugged Zoeya, kissed her forehead, signed goodbye to Teep, and ran. As fast as he could, Rythian ran to the portal, passing through it and closing it from the Brightlands. Exhausted, he laid down on the ground, dying like the world around him as the wastes consumed it.

Zoeya had forgotten, in the move from the first world to the second, who she was. He'd helped her regain that. He wasn't going to let the wastes take it away again. The Twilight, if anything like the End, existed independent of the worlds. He could return there in the next one, or not, but no matter what: she would be safe there.

Rythian shook, sucking air through his teeth as he realised not once did he consider how she felt. Did she hate him now? Like he had hated himself that day. He didn't blame her if she did. He cared too much and it hurt him, it hurt others. He couldn't breathe.

Pressure settled on his chest, a pale hand taking his and holding it tight.
"In." Lalna squeezed his hand. Rythian did his best to breathe in. After two seconds, Lalna relaxed his grip.
"And out." Rythian exhaled, shaking.
They continued, Lalna whispering his commands, till Rythian could breathe again. He intertwined his hand with Lalna's. The touch, no - his presence was calming. A weight next to him, grounding him. He wouldn't ask questions now, Lalna knew to wait till Rythian was ready to talk about the attacks.

He was often never ready.

Spring left and summer took its place. Spring had been very warm and they barely felt the changing. The world did though. They lived on a slime island, which hadn't been a problem beforehand. Now, slimes, as far as we know, don't breed. New ones just appear. In summer.

The sound was a veritable nightmare for everyone. It was quiet enough to ignore while working but in the softer moments, while trying to sleep? The incessant squishing below drove them insane. Strippin was clearly sick of it, digging in the dirt around their foundations, trying to find the perpetrators. He was unsuccessful.

Rythian, clawing through his hair, jammed his knife into the wall beside him.
"I cannot deal with this." He growled.
A round of agreement echoed through the room.
"Someone has to do something."
"Can't we just kill them?" Ross asked.
"Short term? Yes. Long term? They'll be back next summer and I don't think I can handle it coming back " Smiffy laid his head on the table.
"So what, then? Do we move?" Benji piped, considering his options.
"We could? I woulda suggested just getting rid of the slime." Smiffy looked up, "we could always move down to the surface. We'd be safe down there now."

It was decided then to move their little homestead to the surface. It took a week, roughly, for them to completely resettle. They lifted furniture down on a temporary lift, Rythian teleported down what he could, and what was disassembled was carried down in slings. A raised hill sat plump, a small walk from the island. Their house was resurrected on that summit, overlooking the farm and the Flowerhouse. Rebuilding allowed them to expand. The communal bedroom wasn't exactly private.

"Do you think we went overboard?" Ross asked, wiping sweat on his shorts.
"Nah." Trott smiled, looking up at the structure.
The bottom floor was comprised of a main living room, sizable kitchen with now, thanks to Lalna, working appliances, a storage room, and Sjin's bedroom. Sjin's room was completed with a door that led straight out towards the farm, for efficiency's sake.

The first floor was all bedrooms. A squat hallway led to four doors. Nano and Lomadia shared, and their room was brimming with witchery equipment. Strippin and Benji shared, a balcony connecting their room to their station via rail. The HAT trio shared. Their bed filled a majority of that room, and gold painted walls were just the beginning of their hoarding. Lastly, the other balconied room held Rythian and Lalna.

To say their room was the most interesting was a disservice to the others. It was certainly the most unique. It looked like two halves cleaved together. No clear line separated the two, they hadn't taken to painting half the room black, but the divide between magic and science was almost humorous. Each had their side, pieced together by a double bed square in the middle. Rythian had joked about dyeing the quilt halfway.

A second floor held the smeltery, a small infirmary, and a myriad of workshops.

The slimes were killed, and the island fenced off to prevent them making their way down to the farm. Rythian found something final as he glided down from the island. He'd miss the view. The sunsets were beautiful, although, with the way that the sun wouldn't truly set now till autumn, he had time to find a new spot to watch them from. Nothing stopped him from returning to the island, he supposed.

Nothing stopped him from returning to the Twilight, he supposed.

Chapter Text

Let me explain for a moment how this world works. Imagine a solar system. Planets, moons, a singular star. Now, you look to the side and you can see four more identical systems. The same planets, the same moons, the same singular star.

The system furthest to the left is ruined. The planet is dead, brown and murky. The moon is shattered. The next system over is also ruined. The planet is a wasteland, desert and brown trenches. The moon spins closer every cycle. The third is lush, green and thriving, but empty of sentient life.

The fourth, the newest system, is Cornerstone.

Around these systems wraps four rings. Not literally, of course, but describing how this works is not an easy feat. These rings are the dimensions outside of the world systems. The End, the Twilight, the Nether, and Alfheim. They are constant, linking to every system.

This doesn't mean that you can travel back to other systems, no. But Zoeya's case was different. She was trapped in the Twilight, her domain, as the second world died. The portal back was destroyed. A portal did not appear again for another five years.

Now again, to note this, things work differently in these dimensions. Time, for one, moves much faster. The End is the slowest, with time in Alfheim moving around ten times as fast.

In the Twilight, one year on the planet equals roughly three in the dimension. Zoeya was not often patient. Fifteen years was a long time to wait.

She had been through a lot, Rythian thought as he stared at the portal. It was a long shot. She might not even be there. How was he to know if someone else had opened a portal, if she had left. It had been years.
"Are you sure about this?" Lalna's hand found his arm. Rythian nodded, and stepped into the Twilight.

The emptiness was sudden and left him breathless. He had no power here and the oppressive heat; the towering trees; the calls and whistles of fauna were quick to remind him. He drew his sword, Ruby (borrowed from Nano. He couldn't remember if Enderbane would work in these woods, and he didn't want to try it), left a waypoint, and began to walk.

His memory led him there. Rythian did not know these woods, but his feet did. The trees grew quiet. They were sending a message - an intruder, armed and dangerous, had entered their realm. Heavy stomping was quick to approach through the heavier silence.

Green scales, a maw of razor sharp teeth, claws and talons bared, a creature tore toward him. Rythian braced, sword ready in his unsure grip. The beast skidded to a halt, feet dragging in the mossy earth, stopping just a few metres from Rythian.
He stood to his full height, lowered his sword, and bolted towards the lizard.
"Teep! You got so big!" He yelled, taking his head in his wrapped hands. Teep grinned, wildly signing apologetic greetings.
"(I didn't realise it was you! Where have you been! It's been so long! I missed you!)" Teep nuzzled Rythian's hair before grabbing his hand,
"(I must take you to Zoeya! She will be so happy to see you!)"

Rythian let himself be led, hand in Teep's, and let his thoughts run wild. His blood ran cold at her name. The situation hadn't truly hit him, that he would see her again after all this time. Longer, even, for her. Would she be happy to see him? He didn't think so. He wouldn't be happy to see him.

The mushroom in the distant grew taller and taller. He smiled. Of course her castle was a giant mushroom. He was glad to see her tastes hadn't changed over the years. A sudden feeling of nostalgia rushed over him as they kept walking.
"Teep? Wait here, I'll be right back. I just want to check something." Rythian pulled his hand back, waiting for a reply from the lizard. Instead, Teep nodded, and sat down in the moss.

He knew where he was now. The panicked memory, like a sharpened compass, dragged him to his destination. A pit in the ground was what he remembered. A simple pit in the ground is not what he found.

A paved circle sat embedded in the earth, intricately carved with inset spirals and patterns of flora. Four pillars sat at the circle's 'corners', wrapped in vines and ribbon. In the centre sat a pool, empty of water, and a greying woman who hadn't heard his approach.

She was clearly of this realm, long ears and tail lagging behind her. Her hands were soft with fur, steel gray on the pale beige stone.
"Hello? Is this where the portal was?" He asked in their tongue, voice quiet. Her ears perked up, a great effort considering their length, and she stood up as quickly as it seemed possible.

Bright green eyes stared at him. He would recognise those anywhere.
"Rythian?"
Her face was devoid of emotion and Rythian, if he'd been able to teleport, would have most certainly started running by now. She was unreadable, expression blank for many seconds too long.

"Rythian?" She repeated, leaning towards him.
His mouth was dry. He nodded.
"Rythian!"
She ran towards him, arms outstretched, wild grin etched on her face. He flinched before squatting slightly, wrapping his arms around her waist and lifted her up into the air. Her hands found his shoulders, balled in the collar of his coat.
"You look amazing! Oh my gosh! Look at you!" Zoeya rambled, metal hand cupping Rythian's chin.
"Zoeya," Rythian found his words, "Gods, I missed you."
Their foreheads met, Rythian closed his eyes as Zoeya kissed his nose. She slipped down, feet meeting the stone beneath, hands still tucked into the fabric at his neck.

She was taller than he remembered, shoulders almost level with his. The radioactive green streak in her hair was still present, accented by watery greys.
"I'm so sorry," he started, "I left you here for- oh Gods it's been fifteen years for you."
Zoeya watched him. He continued.
"I shouldn't have done what I- shouldn't have closed the portal, I never asked what you wanted to do. I'm so sorry."
A finger, flesh and bone, pressed to his lips.
"I forgave you a long time ago."

"Why?"
Zoeya blinked, staring at Rythian for a second.
"You're stuck in your head again, aren't you?" She sang, pulling away and leading him to the pool.
Rythian stammered, letting himself be led again.
"You closed this portal. I watched it fall apart from this end and I was mad, of course, that you'd just up and left like that.
I remembered though, you'd talked about the wastes. You didn't close the portal to trap me. You did it to protect me, to protect Teep, and the Twilight. Could of maybe talked about it beforehand though? Lemme know next time, okay?"
"Zoeya, I-"
"Also, not to bring this up again, but you look incredible?"
Rythian choked on his laughter, head thrown down as a weight was lifted from his shoulders.

"So, why are you really here?" She grinned, tugging at his ear.
"To see you. And- and Teep, of course. I thought, after I'd, uh, apologised, that we could talk. A lot to catch up on."
"Ooh! Yes! What's the drama on the surface?"
Rythian chuckled,
"Well, we're actually on world four now. The third one just stopped working all of a sudden and now we're here. Lying is now a full-time God it seems, and Lalna found himself a new apprentice."
"Do tell."
"Her name is Nano Sounds. She's rather short, black hair, wears a lot of red. Quite a talented witch. We get along well."
Zoeya pondered for a moment.
"A witch? Working with Lalna?"
"Ah, yeah. Lalna's working with magic now. We're actually, to bring him up, uh, we're on good terms again."
"How good?"
Rythian didn't like the accusing tone in her voice.
"Good enough."

Last she knew, Lalna and Rythian were enemies with a measly truce holding them back. Rythian trusted Zoeya of course, and would be fine with her teasing, but was rather worried that telling her the two were a couple again might be a slight shock to the system.
"How's everyone else? Lom, Nilesy? Ravs?"
"Lomadia is great! She's with us too. There's a group of us, ten or so, living together. Lying started it as a social experiment but it backfired when we actually got along. Haven't seen Nilesy or Ravs yet, but I'm sure I will. I'll let them all know you're well."

And so they talked. About life, about magic, about flux and Lalnable, about being a Queen and a soldier. Words came so easily with Zoeya. She gave Rythian a tour of her castle, talking still about science and technology. Her work room looked much like Rythian's bedroom, he thought. A slightly jarring mix of magical alters and tables and whirring computers and cables.

After a few hours, the lack of magic became too much for Rythian to bear. They walked together to the new portal, Zoeya's hand in his, with Teep following a few paces back. Rythian stared at the portal, memories and emotions rushing through his mind like rapids.
"I'll come back." He said, squeezing her hand.
"Bring Nano, I'd love to meet her. Oh! And Lalna too." She punched her hand, "I've got a bone to pick with him."
Rythian chuckled, "Sure thing Zoe'. You can come visit too, of course. You're welcome in Cornerstone."
"I'd be disappointed if I wasn't." She joked, hand on her hip, "and Ryth? I love you."
His breath hitched. He pulled her into a hug, chin on her shoulder.
"I'll see you soon." He whispered, leaning back. He turned heel, waved at Teep, and passed through the portal.

Zoeya waited in silence for a moment, before laughing wildly into her hands. Teep padded towards her.
"(What's so funny?)"
"Good terms! Rythian forgets I lived with Lalna for a month. That man has four shirts!"
"(And?)"
"Rythian was wearing one of them."

Chapter Text

Echo was cold. She hated their cave. It was damp and clammy and the constant buzzing made her ears ache. It was nice to spend so much time helping her Boss though. Their latest project was immense, dabbling in forces previously unknown to bring the world under their control.

She felt bad for the beast in the tank. She empathised, having seen how malformed her four sisters were. Cloning was a tricky business, and with such unstable DNA too. The way that great green eye burned a hole in its chest, skin ridged and red raw. Hair, thick and brown, swirled in the viscous goop that surrounded the clone. That thick metal cord that latched onto their back like a parasite. They hadn’t opened their eyes yet and, not that she’d admit it was interesting to Lalnable, Echo was fascinated to see their colour.

She was entranced by Rythian. Who wasn’t, honestly? Glowing eyes and inhuman power stuffed into the body of your regular human. A delightful little mystery. Enigma, Lalnable would call him. A cute little pet name. The clone in the tank was a privy for her, allowing an otherwise impossible glance into Rythian’s space. This clone, this falsehood, would have to do.

She did feel bad though.

Hard steps stopped abruptly behind her. Echo heard him wipe his gloves on his coat.
“How is he?” Lalnable asked, loosening his goggles to fall around his neck. He spent another moment freeing the hair trapped in the buckles.
“Good.” Echo mused over the display near the tank, “When will they wake up, again?”
Standing over her, Lalnable rested his elbows on the panels, “Soon.” was his taut response.
Echo shivered.

Rythian, or rather the copy, suddenly twitched. A finger, joined by another, contracted quickly before the entire arm it was attached to pulled harshly towards its chest. Lalnable smiled.
The clone blinked their eyes open. The luminous pink was vibrant in the deep green light of the vat. The glow illuminated their features. Russet brown, a sweeping nose and high cheekbones. Ears, long and greatly inhuman, torn slightly, laid flat against their head. The eye that sat deep in their chest flamed with light, stuttering alongside its host.

Echo’s eyes locked with the clone’s. Brilliant pink stared into pale blue.
“Look at that power, Five.” Lalnable said, focused on the nonsensical readings of the display. How was she meant to look away. This was life, wasn’t it? She knew her boss had seen this all before, and she had too, but not like this. Not personal like this. Making a hundred copies was a chore, a task. A singular specimen, this clone, there was a connection.
Echo placed her palm against the glass.
The clone placed their hand against the glass.

“Five.” She pulled back, hand balling at her chest.
“Yes boss?”
“Fetch those manacles. We can’t have him ripping the place apart while we move him.”
“Yes boss.” Echo trotted away, pausing at the doorway to glance back at the tank. The clone watched her, eyes wide open. She waved before slipping around the corner.
They waved back.

Chapter Text

They’d made contact with the village across the lake. Needless to say, they were confused to find friends there. Littlewood, a fae that many had come in contact with, had been living with the villagers for a while, helping them develop their gardens and farms. Nilesy, fellow undesirable mage and local pool boy, had stayed with them also, expecting to continue his travels. He forgot, however, and had been in the village for almost two months now.

Lomadia was ecstatic, scooping up her friend in a crushing hug, kissing his cheek and twirled him around on the spot. Suitably reunited, the two excused themselves back to the lake shore to catch up.

Rythian, too, was glad to see him. Not enough to kiss the man, but enough that he’d make sure to let him know that Zoeya was alright. Perhaps he could get them all together, if Ravs ever made his presence known. Something ached in his head. Black stone and white floors. He shook those thoughts from his head and continued with his day.

It was two in the morning when the first wave hit. Four people shot awake at once, grasping at clothes and bedsheets, breathing hard or not at all. It wasn’t discussed later in the morning. Three days later, it hit again. This time, during the afternoon. Nano and Lomadia, tending to the apiary, suddenly fell to their knees, violent pain erupting in their heads. Smiffy’s snide remark at Trott was cut off by a strangled choke, as he fell back against the wall. Rythian, wand of the forest in hand, nearly passed out as the wave rocketed through him.

This time, they noticed. Sjin sat at the end of the table, having helped the witches back up to the farmhouse.
“What the fuck was that?” He asked, simply. He wasn’t really expecting an answer.
Murmurs and shrugs passed around the ten.
“I noticed, uh” Strippin began, “only the people who do magic got hit? Lom and Nano are witches, Smiffy does that thaum-y stuff, and Rythian has his magic. No-one else was affected, right?”
The mages nodded, sharing worried glances.
“What would cause that though?” Smiffy said, leaning his head on the table.
About half the table looked at Rythian. For once, he didn’t have an answer.
“I don’t know,” he said, stuttering slightly at the attention, “But I think I might know who caused it.”
“Lalnable.” Nano whispered. Rythian nodded.
“As much as I doubt he’s capable of it, he’s really our only suspect. That maniac had one thing going for him, and that’s that he stuck to science. If he’s playing around with magic now, I don’t even-”
“Okay.” Lalna interrupted him. “If it’s Lalnable, why would he be messing with magic on this scale?”
“Well, if he’s seeking to use it? It’s a great boon for whatever he’s planning. If he’s seeking to destroy it somehow, he’s cutting our group in half, and cutting off any magical weapons we have too.”
“Wait.” Lomadia paused, “We all draw from different sources though? He couldn’t just destroy all magic. That’s not possible.”
“If he can destroy the connections between our world and the other dimensions, the entire link will be lost. It’s all balance. Say, hypothetically, he’s breaking the link with the Nether. Even if none of us draw our magic directly from it, it still helps supply the world with magic. It’s complicated, I know, but even losing one link could destroy so much.”
“And we’re sure this is what’s happening?” Ross asked.
“Nope.”
“Great.”

Nano caught Rythian’s arm later that night, dragging him outside. Smiffy and Lomadia were sat there already, sat on the logs they’d arranged as benches. He stood awkwardly for a moment.
“You know more, don’t you.” Smiffy accused. “We were all hit by this, and if you think we’re not gonna drag as much info as possi-”
“He’s doing something to the End.” Rythian cut in, voice harsh. “Like I said, I don’t know what he’s doing, but I know it’s something bad.”
“Why didn’t you mention this earlier?” Lomadia said.
“Because I’m scared.”
“What?”
“I’m scared. Lom, you know Lalnable and I aren’t exactly on good terms. If he’s messing with the End, it’s to screw with me. He can cut me out of the picture directly, and weaken the rest of you in the same hand.”
“Hold on,” Nano stood up, “You said before that I ‘overestimated’ Lalnable. Now you’re just accepting that he’d destroy a whole dimension to fuck with you?”
“You’ve seen the scar on my chest,” Rythian spat, “Is it so hard to believe that I just wanted to believe, if even for a moment, that he wasn’t a threat? That maybe I could be happy here? I didn’t know you’d met before.”
“Rythian.” Lomadia stopped him. “That’s fine. We know he’s a threat now, and we can deal with it.”
“How do we deal with it, though? We have no idea what he’s doing, right?” Smiffy dropped his head into his hands.

“We could attack him now?” Lalna suggested, joining the group the next morning. “Assemble a little team, stealth our way in. Me ‘n Nano did it before. Blew the whole place up.”
Nano nodded.
“I can’t imagine he wouldn’t prepare for an assault. Besides, if you’ve done it once, don’t count on doing it again.”
“I mean, we could just nuke the place, right?”
Rythian punched him. In a literal instant, he teleported the foot between them to launch a fist into Lalna’s nose, sending him reeling back. Shaking, clenched fist still held up, now fresh with a coating of blood, Rythian gasped, suddenly aware of his actions, and vanished again.
“What the fuck?” Ross said quietly.
Lalna’s hands palmed at his nose, attempting to slow the blood flow.
“Fuck.” He echoed, “What-Oh. I said n- ah shit.”

Chapter Text

"We can't find him."
It was amazing how Lomadia said the exact words he didn't want to hear. It was nearing nightfall. They'd checked everywhere.
The island, the portal, even Lalnable's hideout.
Rythian had disappeared.

His face betrayed him and he hiccuped, sniffling slightly.
"Lalna? Hey, hey, hey- he's gonna be fine. Rythian's tough, tough enough to last on his own. You know that."
"Yeah," he squeezed his own hand, "It's just… hard not to be worried."

 

Rythian tore through space. His heart took him places he knew he couldn't go, then to places too close. He ran out of control in the middle of a forest, something clogging up his system. Sputtering and coughing, choking on dust, he fell to his knees hard. Fat tears rolled down his face as he gasped for breath, finding himself unable to regain his hold.

His magic was wrong. Something wrung his neck, tightening like a noose as he realised this.
"F-fuck." He coughed, hands digging into the cold ground beneath him. His magic was wrong. His magic was never wrong. It had been missing before, in the Twilight, but never wrong.

His mangled mind flashed through any possibilities. He wasn't sick, nothing seemed off or adjacent. The dips in magic the day before weren't the cause either. This was different. He felt like it had withered away.

Wither.
"Are you aware that your blood contains Wither dust?" Trott had yelled before, after the run-in with Lalnable. The bastard had poisoned him, hadn't he. Petty, snide bastard. Laced the needle with Wither dust.

Something real slang itself around his neck. Before he could react, a heavy boot slammed into the small of his back, scratching his face into the dirt. The rope tightened, pulled back, and he felt a second pair of hands secure his hands together behind his back. He couldn't do anything. Gods, it hurt.

"How's that dust treating you, love? Tracked your movements here. What caused that, huh? You went mental."
Rythian could only groan, twisting his head to snag some precious breath.
Lalnable tutted.
"Fight with someone? Some nice blood on that hand. I'll be taking that once we're home." He heard something heavy being raised into the air.
"Hang tight. Can't have you making this tricky."

The thump was audible in the dense woods. Blood trailed from Rythian's forehead, mulberry sticking in the teal grass. Lalnable had no qualms about dragging him back to his lab. Echo trotted obediently behind him, eyes trained on Rythian's face.

"Is he- ah. Coming around?
Rythian felt the bruising on his forehead, the black eye, the dried blood that crinkled on his cheek.
"Morning! Not that it would matter much, heh, if you hadn't made it. You're only a backup."
Rythian hissed quietly.
"Your hands are bound, and the chains will halt your magic. Don't try anything."
He blinked his eyes open. Lalnable crouched near his head, running a hand through matted hair.
"I'm sure you've caught onto our little experiment, always were a clever boy. Five?"
"Yes boss?" She chirped.
"Bring the power, I want to show our friend here."

Rythian's ear twitched at the sound of her return. Her footsteps were identical to Nano's. The same skip in her step. The other footfalls were alien.
Lalnable's hand was fire on his shoulder, pulling him into a sit. It was broken, definitely.
His eyesight was blurry, but he felt the way his heart stopped beating for a moment as he looked up to see himself.

The clone was perfect, save the lack of scars. He'd almost forgotten that they weren't always there. Their eyes glowed pink, violent in the low light. But, gods, Rythian really couldn't look away from the clone's chest. An eye of Ender, the same as the one that hung around his neck, was embedded into their skin. The eye was steadily glowing, pulsing like a heartbeat - it was their heart, he imagined - under the thin strips of skin that stretched painfully across it. It looked sore, flushed around the cracks of green. If it wasn't horrifying, it was almost pretty, in some eldritch way.

"This beauty is gonna let us do whatever we want."
"Bastard," was Rythian's retort.
"Hah! Perhaps. All I know is that we've won. All the power is in my hands. With this," Lalnable gestured to the clone, to the Eye, "I can tap into the End. I can take its power and do whatever I want. Your little posse can't do anything either, because I have you."
He waved Echo away, the clone following close behind her. Rythian felt sick when he saw the imprint on their back.
"You're a ransom, dear Enderbane. Remember that. If they come for you, I'll kill you. We'll let them know tomorrow. Sleep well."
With that, he stood up in one swift movement and stomped out of the cell.

Rythian didn't want to sleep. The throbbing pain throughout his body said otherwise. His eyes closed without warning and he fought, scratching his wrists to keep himself aware. It was not enough. He couldn't do enough. He felt useless.

 

Lalna didn't sleep. He waited, nursing a by-now cold coffee, slumped in the bench that say on their porch. There was no sign of Rythian.
The gentle vwoop from below did nothing to ease his mind.
He stood up, hastily plotting down his mug, leaning against the railing.

Lalnable stood below, one hand on his hip, the other gripping a thick metal chain. Lalna's eyes followed it to where it held two hands together.
"No." He choked, breath hitching in his chest.
Rythian looked haggard. Hair matted with blood, eyes bruised and exhausted, face battered and bruised. He looked defeated. Rythian had never once looked defeated. He fought. Rythian kept fighting, it was what he was raised to do. To see him like this, so small and beaten, hurt Lalna somewhere deep. He was angry, he was fucking seething.

Cornerstone awoke to his shouting. Ross held him back, withstanding the weeping screams that bellowed from the blond. Lalnable watched with sheer joy, wicked smile planted firm on his face. Echo had turned a blade to Rythian's neck when he approached.

"Look, let's make this simple. We have Rythian. We're planning a little something and, if you bother us? We'll kill him. Leave us alone, he'll return to you afterwards. Sound good?" Lalnable called, gesturing with his usual bravado.
"Good? You fucking maniac! What did you do to him?!" Lalna screeched, clawing at Ross' arms.
"That's fine!" Shouted Lomadia as she stepped forwards, a hand in front of her brother, "But you keep your promise. Or we'll rain whatever hell we can on you."
Lalna grunted, coughing wildly.
"You can't be serious? Lom what are you saying?!"
She glared at him before settling her attention back on Lalnable.
"I have a question for you though, Hector. You're not a mage, why mess with magic."
"Pshh. Simple, dear sister, simple. Level the playing field. Fight fire with fire, so to speak."
Lomadia, seemingly content with the answer, took a step back.

Lalnable clapped, tugging on the chain.
"Take us home, Enderbane."
Rythian flashed eye contact with Lalna and Lomadia, grimacing, before disappearing.

Chapter Text

Lying sat in the rocking chair on the porch, Rythian's normal perch. He knew this, of course. It was why he chose to sit there, waiting for the residents of Cornerstone to emerge.
“Motherfucker” was almost the exact response he expected. Standing swiftly, hand raised in an offering of peace.
“Strippin, Strippin, calm yourself.” Lying said calmly, bowing slightly. “I’m here to talk.”
“You tried to kill us last time we saw you! You wanna talk? I’ll give you talk.”
Lying caught Strippin’s punch in one hand, tails glowing great behind him.
“I am here to talk. If you don’t wish to, then bring me someone else.”

Sjin, Nano, and Lalna were collected. Lying let himself in, leaning against the closed door, heads taller than the three in front of him. Everyone (sans Rythian) was present though, eyes focused on the demigod.
“You’re missing someone, that’s obvious. I’m also not letting some trouble destroy my world. It appears, then, that we have similar goals. You want your little endermage back, and both of us, I’d hope, would like to keep living in this delightful little world.”
“I, well, yeah.”
“Wonderful!” Lying clapped his hands together, “I have a plan.”

Echo’s footsteps were Rythian’s only solace in that cell. She’d sat with him on the second day, brought him water, brushed the blood out of his hair, and just sat there. She’d asked him to call her Echo later on, when he thanked her. Rythian, he thought to himself, Rythian the loner, day made by the mere presence of someone familiar. Not that she was on his side, no, but she was far more tolerable than that feral scientist. He felt pathetic anyway, stewing away in filth like some prize. A ransom. Means to an end, almost literally. He could barely move, bones heavy and tired.

“You’re fascinating, you know that?” Echo mumbled. She’d started talking to him after a few days. He wouldn’t talk back. It hurt to speak, mostly, and honestly he wasn’t really up to it.
“Boss calls you an ‘enigma’. He’s right, but I don’t think it’s the right word. The clone is pure magic. They’re gorgeous.”
He hadn’t seen the clone since their first meeting.
“I’ve helped Boss with clones before, we made so many Lalnas. Heh. It was just work though. Something about you, though, about that clone. Is it bad that I feel weird about them? Being stuck in that tank, fully aware. We’re just using them, too. I know we’re trying to control the world but this feels… cruel. Before, it was an army. They weren’t aware, it didn’t feel as.. personal, I guess.”
Rythian nodded, letting her know he was still listening.
“You have a connection to the End that I don’t fully understand. If we destroy it, what happens to you?” She shifted closer to him.
He shrugged. “I die? Not sure.”
“Oh. Would the clone die too?”
“I don’t know.”

Echo looked at her hands.
“This is silly, isn’t it. Caring about a clone.”
“You’re a clone.”
“Boss doesn’t care about me. I’m a glorified assistant. He won’t call me Echo.”
“Why work for him, then?”
“Where else would I go?”
“With us.”
“What?” Echo almost jumped, wings fluttering against the wall.
Rythian coughed. “My friends are idiots. They’ll ignore Hector. But we’ll win, and you can come with us. I can cure the flux, Echo. You don’t have to stay with him.”
“He made me, I couldn’t just…” she trailed off, shrinking into herself.
“Most people leave the ones who made them. Parents, Gods, teachers.”
Echo blinked, thinking hard as Rythian descended into a fit of coughing.
“I don’t want the clone to die, Rythian.”
“Then,” he managed between breaths, “help us.”
Echo nodded.

Lying’s plan was interrupted by a letter, pinned to a rubber tree that sat at the edge of the farm, three days after he’d arrived.

“Cornerstone.
Rythian is fine. Lalnable plans to use a clone of Rythian to destroy the End, taking the raw essence to fuel his machinery and ego. With the End gone, who knows what will happen to this world, and the other dimensions. I can provide you with maps, anything you need to stop him. I can’t do this alone, and you can’t do this without me. You don’t need to respond. Give me five days.”

Nano read the letter aloud.
“It’s signed Echo? Who’s Echo?”
“I don’t care.” Lalna spat, “We need anything we can get, alright. We can wait another five days.”