Everything, everything was dark. That was normal, but something seemed a little off. Leo strained against the metal, against the confines of their body and the warmth that couldn’t reach the polishing. They couldn’t detect Aiolia’s cosmos within the temple, warm as it usually was with a friendly scent of starlight. But he hadn’t arrived last night, and it was not like him to leave them alone for so long.
They strained a bit more, focusing what little sense they had to detecting that familiar cosmos within the boundaries of Sanctuary. Most of the other Gold Cloths were in their respective temples, from easygoing Aries at the foot of the hill to Pisces still boiling with rage at the summit. But Aiolia was nowhere to be found, and strangely enough, Leo couldn’t detect any of the other Gold Saints, either. Most of them should’ve been there. The Holy War hadn’t started yet, and Athena herself hadn’t even returned.
Movement had not come to them in a thousand years, but worry clouded the stars within them. It was not like Aiolia to leave. It was even less likely for all of the Gold Saints to have vanished during the night. How had they done it again, back then…? They’d learned millennia ago to stop trying to move, it was never worth the agony when they could simply teleport around and make their disapproval known through their cosmos.
Is anyone there? they called, shifting glittering lights into position, listening for the other cloths to notice. Can anyone hear me?
The wind began to blow, a harsh breeze sweeping across the hilltop and down to the valley, a shimmer of stardust. You need to go, Leo. Within the hill.
That voice was familiar - a barest trace of a voice, the idea of sound within the wind. Sanctuary was a graveyard, and Leo remembered offering their cosmos to the ghost of the wind, back when he’d been a body and not a formless mass of raw grief.
Help me, Leo said, and it was not a request but a fact. The wind blew a sigh, and the lion’s mask upon their helmet shifted, gold engravings in the form of eyes flickering open with a golden light. The Leo Temple, somewhat clean and clearly in use, flickered into view.
They shifted, setting a metal paw onto the floor. It clicked against the marble, a soft noise that held no trace of magic. They raised their paw again, and set it down, waiting for the nigh unbearable agony that came with any sort of independent movement. Nothing. They shook out their mane and twisted their head each way. Aiolia’s scent still filled the temple - he had been here recently, and lived here for years - but he hadn’t been there in a couple of days. Leo stepped off the platform - no pain, marvelous! - and onto the carpet. Euphoria filled them, the scent of glorious freedom, and they sprinted forward, tail whipping behind them--
--Directly into the doors of the room in which they were kept. They felt no pain against the physics of the collision, falling forward into the door and their back hips recoiling upwards into a half-somersault against the door. It didn’t hurt, but it sure did feel awkward.
Nothing had felt awkward in four thousand years. Am I free? they wondered, the thought a split second long. They backed up, swinging their hind legs back onto the carpet, and let out a howl. Less feline than canine, but a howl nonetheless. The Saints below in the hill might have heard the misery. The Gold Cloths around them surely only heard the euphoria.
Pisces hadn’t heard a howl like that in three hundred years. Nobody had known. Nobody had known, and they hadn’t been able to tell anyone, three hundred years of slow madness, four thousand years of resilience gone in a single Holy War. Go, said a voice, a voice they knew who had offered his heart in the three hundred years since. Go, now. Avenge what you meant to. The corruption can’t hurt you if it’s Athena’s name you’re screaming.
They wanted, for a moment, to ask what Lugonis meant, his haunting, tired voice drifting within their fins. But that howl… Leo.
It had to be Leo.
They burst from the pool, metal-muscle memory propelling them forward, shifting until gut became legs, fins became vambraces, a gaping maw became a helmet, a gilded mask pressed into the metal that hadn’t been there a moment before. No, they knew Aphrodite was going. They knew what Saga had been. They knew what Shion and Albafica had done, and they had done everything in their power to ensure nobody noticed the thin violet engraving inside their left thighplate.
A wail erupted from them, crazed and vengeful. I’m going, they meant to say; what they said to the world was “Aaaaeeeurgh,” and they felt Lugonis smile as they bolted forward, pushing the doors of their chamber open into the Pisces temple proper and down the hallway, grabbing Aphrodite’s white cape from the hook as they passed the entryway.
The doors to the temple opened before they got there, roses all around the perfectly trimmed hedges. Sunlight shone down upon them, setting the water drops on their soaking wet body aflame, and they laughed.
Tried to, anyhow. All they heard escape their breastplate was another wail, insane-sounding, like they’d lost all reason. They surveyed the temple grounds for a moment, the view of every other temple below them within view. Leo was the only other cloth that had discovered freedom, standing on top of a collapsed column - a twinge of regret, it was a nice column before Aiacos had ran facefirst into it - but doing the same as them.
“Aiolia’s gone,” Leo called, a voice Pisces hadn’t heard in millennia.
They answered with a wail of agreement, “Aaaueeugh,” and sprinted down the steps, jumping at the last one, springing themself down the hill. They caught the free corners of their cape and it caught the wind, sailing them directly to the other cloth. The landing wasn’t pretty. It was a landing nonetheless, and Aiolia wasn’t there to be upset about the small crater in his front yard.
“Where do you think they are?” Leo asked, twisting towards them and posing with one paw held aloft and their tail in the air.
“They went east,” another voice answered, and the two cloths turned. Sagittarius held their position a few temples up, bow over their shoulder and arrows stuffed inside a hind leg. “Something took them all and went east. There’s not a single human here, not anymore. We must have been forced into a brief hibernation to have not noticed.”
Pisces glanced at the both of them, wondering how they had so easily regained communication when their thoughts seemed incapable of translation. They shifted their left leg behind their right, covering it with the cape. Nobody could know. Nobody could know.
They sighed inwardly and gave the two a mild scream of a counterpoint. Someone has to stay behind and watch the Athena Cloth, if she hasn’t awoken. Wasn’t she trapped too?
“No, I don’t- don’t think so,” said Cancer, having just climbed up a temple down from them, sopping wet and in bearer form. “Athena would never have d- d-” They erupted into a wail not unlike Pisces’ attempts at speech, shaking their clawed helmet from side to side. Pisces knew what that meant, and bit back a laugh. Oh, they’d known about that. Albafica had never been the only one. If Aries and Libra weren’t screaming too, that would have been a miracle.
“So we all go,” Leo said. “We’ve got to find them, they’re not much without us and I don’t want Aiolia left alone for too long.” Sagittarius let out a whistle and beckoned them with a gauntlet, sliding easily down from the roof of their temple to the stairs, trotting down to the bottom of the hill. Pisces gave a scream of a sigh, reached for their cape, and followed them down.
Virgo had the maps they’d needed - when was the last time they’d been the ones navigating, honestly? - and nobody had really expected Gemini to be one of the cloths who hadn’t regained speech yet, but somehow they’d managed to cobble together a plan. Sagittarius was right when they’d said that there wasn’t a human left in Sanctuary. Several of the other cloths had arrived to watch their meeting, bronze and silver and one very confused Phoenix who didn’t know how they got there and didn’t remember how to talk either.
Leo made the shift to bearer form quite easily with Ilias’ guidance. They inched over to Sagittarius, leaning into their shoulder-hip and letting out a breath of starlight when the centaur draped a wing over them. It had been so long, and half of them had been driven far enough into madness that they couldn’t speak any more.
Virgo rolled up their plans, Cancer pacing the length of the square, Gemini screeching at any Silver cloth ballsy enough to get close to them.
“Sagittarius, Leo, Pisces, you’re the first team out. Do any of you need anything before you go?” Aries asked. Leo shook their head with a growl, and Pisces beckoned them forward, spinning on their heel towards the stairs.
“Aaaaaueeeugh,” they said, the words a pained screech in their breastplate, and headed up the stairs. Come with me, I know the best way out, their cosmos meant. Leo felt the pressure of a pair of gauntlets on each side of their abdomen, lifting them gently onto Sagittarius’ back.
“Hold on, little one,” they said, and Leo did, sliding their vambraces around the centaur’s waist, ignoring the jeer from Capricorn. Sagittarius took off to follow Pisces, who seemed interested in leading them all the way up the hill, for some reason.
They followed their companion up into the Pisces temple, through the main hallway directly to the back. The entire place smelled a bit too much like flowers for Leo’s tastes, and they could see the barest trace of a spirit beside Pisces, white clothes and marigold-coloured hair tied in a messy ponytail. They hadn’t really acknowledged Lugonis’ existence, only knew he was there and talked to Ilias on occasion.
Leo leaned into Sagittarius’ back, grateful that they’d been paired together. They knew Aries wouldn’t have separated them, not after how long it had been, how close they’d always been - the euphoria of moving was nothing compared to Sagittarius’ comforting presence. They shifted up on their back, resting the chin of their helmet on their shoulder. Sagittarius reached over to rest a gauntlet on their leg, gently rubbing in reassurance.
It felt so good. They almost closed their eyes to enjoy it - Aiolia always did that, and fighting his habits proved difficult - until a violet glimmer caught their eye.
A single swirling strand of engravement on Pisces’ left thigh. A rose stem, elegantly carved thorns every so often, glittering a violet that Leo had spend four thousand years associating with ‘danger’.
Cloths were not violet. Cloths were never violet. Leo tapped Sagittarius’ shoulder-hip, gesturing as quietly as they could to Pisces’ thigh. Sagittarius’ cosmos tensed in alarm, then relaxed, following the cloth and the spirit through the temple as if they hadn’t seen anything. That’s bad, Sagittarius whispered.
That’s very bad, Leo agreed, leaning into their back, hoping for reassurance that they were seeing things wrong, that it was a trick of the light, that it was maybe even just a bit of dirt; the panic rose through their breastplate and their mane, threatening to bubble over and spill out of them.
Relax, little one, Sagittarius hissed, hopefully quietly enough that Pisces wouldn’t here. Don’t let them know we saw that. It might go away on its own. Leo felt the pressure - a bare shimmer of warmth - rub against their thigh. Sagittarius saw it, Sagittarius could handle it. Pisces pushed the doors to the temple’s back gardens open, and Lugonis disappeared.
“Aaaauegeugh,” they said. In here, there’s a way to where we need to be, they meant, and they crossed into the gardens easily, without a care in the world, like the poison they infected every bearer they’d ever had with wasn’t a concern. Perhaps their being incapable of speech had something to do with that single violet swirl.
It wasn’t comforting. Pisces lead them through to the very back of the garden, to what looked to be a shady spot by a column, overtaken by rose hedges, lined with some odd flower Leo didn’t recognize. Pisces knelt and pushed a bush out of the way. Before Leo could get a look at what Pisces was looking for, a light shimmered from whatever it was, blue and violet and gold all at once, it was danger the way battle was, in the way seeing a Spectre in Sanctuary was, in the way watching Sagittarius fall to a Judge of Hell was, and Pisces turned their mask towards them.
“These bastards-- they’ll have him,” they said, and their voice sounded warped, almost electronic when Aiolia’s radio wasn’t getting a good connection, full of grief and raw anger and the words almost didn’t seem distinguishable from each other. They choked out another dry screech, one with no meaning besides mourning, and Pisces slipped into the tunnel made of shimmering light. Sagittarius swore under their mask, a curse several hundred years old, and pulling Leo close to ensure that they wouldn’t let go, followed them in.