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A Tome of Darkness and Light

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   Dusk had settled its mantle over Lakeland and the Crystarium.  Shadows from the trees and thick metal pillars had begun to lengthen and the crowds at the Musica Universalis bizarre had started to thin.  Many of the patrons returning to their homes either in the Pendants, the Catenaries or, as of late, outside the Crystarium in a small village that had sprung up in the weeks following the Warrior of Darkness’ return to the Source.  Alisaie still couldn’t help but marvel at all the changes wrought upon all of Norvrandt by the unassuming Hyurian highlander. Encouraging reports from across the beleaguered realm kept pouring in on a near daily basis and all said nigh on the same thing:  life was returning to Norvrandt as sure as darkness had.

   It was one of these reports from Amh Araeng that had Alisaie so engrossed that she didn’t notice the Miqo’te mage approach her table.

   “Pray, when was the last time you supped?” 

   Alisaie looked up to find Y’shtola holding two bowls of rich, aromatic stew with a loaf of bread, wrapped in paper, tucked under an arm.  The Sharlayan blinked in surprise.

   “Y’shtola, forgive my poor manners.  I didn’t see you there.”

   The silver eyed mage grinned ruefully, “Which argues my point that there is very little difference between physical sight and aether assisted vision.”

   Alisaie hastened to tidy up the missives strewn about the table, “I will take you at your word.  I often forget that you lost your sight in the lifestream, you get along so well.”

   Y’shtola set bowls on the table and, taking her seat, she set the bread between the two of them, “Between aetherial sight and my other senses, I wouldn’t consider myself blind at all.  Save for the occasional non-magical text or painting, I can ‘see’ as well as anyone.”

   “One could suggest you see more than most.  Urianger told me how you didn’t recognize Trae’s aether when you were reunited in Rak’tika… mm, this smells heavenly,” Alisaie lightly sniffed the steam coming off of her food,  “Thank you, Y’shtola.”

   “You are quite welcome now, eat.”

   An appreciative smile curled the corner of Alisaie’s lip as she tucked into her food.  It was only after the first bite hit her stomach that she realized how hungry she was.  Y’shtola, for her part, casually ate as she watched the Elezen aristocrat eat at a rate that narrowly avoided being unmannerly.

   She heard Mei-Tatch, the bartender’s assistant, approaching with the bottle of wine she had ordered with the meal.  Setting it down, along with two glasses, he quietly stole away but not before stealing a glance at Y’shtola.

   Alisaie swallowed a bite and nodded in the direction that the Miqo’te had departed,  “I think he might fancy you.”

   “Oh?” Y’shtola grabbed the bottle in one hand and a glass in the other.  Hooking the first joint of her index finger over the rim of the glass, she poured until she felt the wine lap against the tip of it.  She passed the glass to Alisaie, “What gives you that impression?”

   “He keeps looking over here,” she replied factually.

   “Does he?”  Y’shtola’s grin had the tips of her canines digging lightly into her bottom lip.  “That’s a good start, I suppose. However, perhaps a better indicator would be if he stops eating and buries himself in his work when I leave the Crystarium for Rak’tika on the morrow.”

   Much to her credit, Alisaie didn’t actually spit out the wine she nearly choked on at the mage’s casual but carefully chosen words, instead opting to swallow hard causing her eyes to water a bit.  Y’shtola’s unseeing eyes seemingly taking in her every movement. Alisaie couldn’t help but wonder just how much detail the mage’s magical perception rendered unto her.  

   “I-I wouldn’t know about such things,” Alisaie replied, gently clearing her throat as she set down her glass.

   “Wouldn’t you?  Come now, Ali. You yourself mentioned that it’s possible I see more than most.  T’is not my position to intrude into another’s affairs, I couldn’t help but notice how different your aether is now that our dear friend has departed to the Source.  When she was here and especially when you were with her, your essence was brilliant. However, in the days and weeks that have followed. I have noticed your own aether has diminished.   Much like when one is underfed and over taxed. And whilst I wouldst be inclined to dismiss this as merely a reflection, a common response to one being in the room with such a creature as is our beloved Trae.. I cannot.  For it doth seem that each time I have mentioned her name your energy verily radiates.”

   Alisaie looked away, a telling warmth creeping up her chest toward her neck.  She was not one who liked to discuss her personal feelings with others. The Leveilleur family was famous for their discretion.  In fact, it had been that legendary foresight that had vaulted their kin into the highest echelons of Sharlayan society. 

   However, it was this same acumen that turned her face back to that of her companion’s with a sigh, “I don’t suppose you would write said radiance off as a learned aetheric cue?”

   Y’shtola’s grin widened as she shook her head.  Alisaie held her face stoic for a few breathes longer before it dissolved into upwardly rolled eyes and a defeated huff of air as she folded her forearms on the table, head dipping for the briefest of moments before lifting it again, a measure of decorum restored to her fine Elezen features.

   “Is it that obvious?” she asked, not entirely sure if she wanted to hear the answer.

   The Miqo’te mage giggled, “I’m sure it isn’t as obvious to others.  By the nature of its existence, aether cannot lie. I only have vision because of it, so I have become accustomed to its many nuances.  There is a distinct aetheric connection between you and the Warrior.”

   Alisaie’s eyes widened a bit, “There is?”

   Y’shtola looked at her curiously, “You didn’t know.”

   “Know?  No, I-I mean I had hoped.. But, surely you haven’t failed to notice that she does not lack for admirers.  Some of whom are incredibly accomplished either in martial or magical arts and these gifts, although appealing in of themselves, are usually wrapped within an aesthetically pleasing figure.”

   “You speak of Commander Hext?”

   “Yes, and also Ser Aymeric, Lord Hein, you, my brother… even Lyna, captain of the bloody Crystarium guard-”

   “Me?” Y’shtola giggled but managed to hide her blush behind another sip of wine.

   “Of course.  One would have to be-”

   “Blind?” she offered for Alisaie.

   “Er, well, as a figure of speech yes… she would have to be blind not to see how beautiful you are.” 

   The smile on Y’shtola’s face was radiant, “Aren’t we charming?  I dare say you are far better with the fairer sex than your brother.  I don’t worry he will find a partner in his life. I do wonder how long it will take for him to shed his virginity, though.  He lacks a certain fire in his approach. A boldness that he is yet unacquainted with but you seem to have acquired.”

   It was Alisaie’s turn to blush, the apples of her cheeks turning a sunset shade of pink.

   “All that to say, in the matter of the Warrior’s heart, I don’t think your brother is any competition.  Despite how much he does admire her, I don’t think he would ever be able to win her over to romance.  The same can be said for Lord Hien and Ser Aymeric. Trae doesn’t deign to male company on the intimate level preferring fairer to the former. I have observed as would be male suitors approached her.  Her aether remains unchanged despite their best advances. The same cannot be said when it comes to female aspirants.”

   “Of that I was already aware,” Alisaie muttered.

   “Is that so?” Y’shtola asked incredulously. The Elezen’s eyes went wide when she realized she had spoken aloud.

   “I meant I had already deduced as much from our travels together. Not like we- or I.. I mean, perhaps... it's not the first time experiencing that sort of thing.. By the gods! Is it hot in here?”  She finished in a rush dropping her face into her hands.  

   “It sounds as though there is more to this tale than what you are telling me.”

   Alisaie nodded slowly, her face still in her hands before finally sighing and composing herself, “If I’m being fair, I haven’t talked to anyone.  Not even my brother.”

   “About?” 

   “My year at Amh Araeng, Tesleen, Trae...Then there is what she told me happened in the Bureau of the Secretariat.  What Emet-Selch told her in Amaurot, in the Qitana Ravel- what she saw when the Light nearly overtook her..”  The Red Mage trailed off, her eyes glazing a bit as she revisited a dark memory.

   Something in her words caught Y’shtola’s attention.  The older woman leaned back, thoughtfully rolling the glass stem between her fingers, “Mayhaps we might yet be of some use to one another, you and I.”

   “What do you mean?”

   “While our friend is away, I have taken it upon myself to find out what exactly happened to her in the Qitana Ravel.  How was her aether restored? How was she able to withstand the corruption for so long? I-I saw things in her aether that I have no words for… It was almost as if…” She shook her head to clear her thoughts, “Nay, now is neither the time nor the place to speculate.  I leave on the morrow for Slitherbough to retrieve some tomes I left behind. You have yet to go to the Greatwood, correct?”

   Alisaie nodded.

   “Then accompany me on my journey.  We’ll only be but a few days. I think a change of scenery might be of some good to you.”

   She thought about it for a moment.  There was little else she needed to do.  Most of her business had been settled at the Inn and since Tesleen’s death… she sighed,  “That does sound good. Very well, I am happy to join you. Trae did paint a glorious picture of tall trees that occasionally echo with strange singing.”

   “So she’s heard it too…” Y’shtola murmured.

   “I beg your pardon?”

   The mage shook her head, ears twitching reflexively, “T’is nothing.  It’s settled then. I’ll meet you in the Aetheryte Plaza at dawn. Pray, have a good night, Alisaie.”  Nodding towards the stars twinkling through the arch way in the Quadrivium, she said: “Enjoy those, she nearly died so we could.”

   Y'shtola stood and leaned down as she passed, she smelled of sage and honey and her lips brushed gently across Ali's delicate Elven ears: “If I were to guess at how she endured, I would say she most likely had a singular thought, a singular reason.  It makes one wonder what, or perhaps more succinctly, who that was.”   

   With that she drew back and continued on her way but not before catching her fingertips gently under chin of the fairer Leveilleur twin as she did.

   Left feeling more confused than before, the Sharlayan waited until the Miqo'te mage had disappeared into the Pendants before she grabbed the remainder of the bottle and began to pour.

 

~~<^>~~

Chapter Text

   Alisaie left the Wandering Stairs just past the eighth bell headed towards the Pendants Tower but not before having finished the bottle of wine Y’shtola had left behind.  Trae had given word to the Manager of Suites before she had departed to allow Alisaie to stay on in her room as a steward.  

   G’raha Tia had originally arranged for all of the Scions to have permanent rooms in the Pendants during their stay on the First.  However, due to the battle for the Crystarium and subsequent skirmishes throughout Lakeland during the final days of Vauthry’s reign, many refugees had sought shelter within its walls.  As fate would have it, Alisaie had temporarily given up her room to expectant first time parents.

   ~~

   “I’m sorry but there aren’t any rooms left open,” The Suites Manager spoke softly to a young Elven couple.  The baby bump on the young woman was exceedingly noticeable.

   “But we have nowhere to go!” The soon to be father was at his wits end.

   “I’m sorry but there is really nothing I can do-”

   She had heard enough, “Pardon my interruption, but they can have my room for the duration of her pregnancy.”

   Three surprised faces turned towards her.   She looked at each of them in turn with her gaze finally meeting the would-be mother’s.  The gratitude and relief she found there was worth any inconvenience she might endure.

   “Miss Leveilleur, your generosity is notable but- where will you stay?”

   “She’ll stay with me,” the dulcetly husky Highland brogue was unmistakable. 

   It was Alisaie’s turn to look surprised.  She hadn’t expected for Trae to give up her own space in order to accommodate Alisaie’s sacrifice.  Of course, it didn’t surprise her either, it was just the type of person the Warrior was. Blue met seafoam green and the corner of Trae’s mouth curled upward in an easy smile, “Unless, she doesn’t want to...”

   “No! I mean, yes!” She blurted out, much to her chagrin.  Trae’s brow cambered and Alisaie took a deep breath to compose herself, “If it isn’t a bother then, no, I don’t mind staying with you..thank you.”

   “Very well, it’s settled then,” her smile became radiant and the Red Mage found herself furiously fighting down the flush in her neck.  Thankfully, the Warrior of Light had turned her attention to the steward, “Please allow Mistress Leveilleur access to my room at anytime.”

   “Of course, Mistress Castellan.  I’ll make a note of it straight away-”

   The rest of the words were lost to Alisaie as the Warrior’s words echoed in her ears: ‘access, anytime’...

   ~~

   “Alisaie!”

   The memory awash with a flood of images so distracted her that she didn’t notice Ryne waiting by the concierge’s desk until she had nearly passed her.

   “Ryne. Pray forgive me, my mind was elsewhere.”

   “Back on the Source with the Warrior of Darkness?”

   It was a feat of will to keep her jaw hinged closed.  

   “Don’t worry, Y’shtola told me.” 

   The battle to keep her mouth from dropping was lost, “S-she what?”

   “She mentioned how you two discussed the Warrior of Darkness and how you were going to aid in her inquiry of what befell Trae in the Qitana Ravel,” Ryne replied looking a bit bewildered.  “Are you alright, Ali?”

   Relief flooded her chest, “Y-yes, I’m quite alright.  Just a bit tired, I’m afraid.”

   “Oh,” Ryne looked disappointed.

   “What’s wrong?”

   “I wanted to talk to you about our mutual friend.  Thancred and I have only just arrived back from the Empty-” she stopped, looking towards the Suites Manager.  “Perhaps, we could speak somewhere a bit more private?”

   “Of course! Right this way,” Alisaie replied, her fatigued distraction forgotten as she led the way up the stairs to the third floor through the gate to the last door at the end of the walk. 

   Reaching out, she laid a palm on the lock.  She had to hand it to the engineers in the Crystalline Mean, they had done wonders with thin mini-shards of crystal set into a lock.  The shard attuned to a person’s aether much like an aetheryte, making for an effective keyless lock.

   The sweet smell of citrus permeated the room and washed over them when the door opened.  It was a wonderful aroma, even if she and Trae had yet to figure out if the tiny orange fruits on the potted trees were edible or not.  Not that it would matter, the room itself was usually stocked with food at the Exarch’s direction.  

   Alisaie stepped in and gestured for Ryne to follow, “You must be hungry from your journey, can I offer you some tea or pastries?”

   Ryne looked a bit hesitant, as if unsure whether it was polite or not to accept.   Alisaie smiled gently, “I was going to have some myself.”

   The young lady simply nodded almost bashfully.  It struck Alisaie as humorous that this young girl would charge without second thought into a mob of sin eaters but put her in a situation that required one on one interaction and her inexperience was palatable.  Thancred’s influence, no doubt.  She gestured for Ryne to have a seat at the large wrought iron and wood table as she readied a kettle.

   “It’s good to see you back.  Alphinaud, Y’shtola and I had wondered where you and Thancred had run off to after Trae returned to the Source.”

   “Oh, I - I thought I noticed something out in the Empty, a light of some kind.  I didn’t know if it’s simply an echo of the Flood of Light or if it’s a lightwarden…” Ryne frowned in thought,  “All I know is that we should probably actually see what it is before too long. If it’s nothing, I would like to verify that it’s nothing.  But the Light itself seems far too strong, even from such a distance to be nothing... If it’s a lightwarden-” She glanced up at Alisaie who had leaned herself against a counter.

   “-Then the Warrior of Darkness will have to deal with it.”

   Ryne nodded, the laconism speaking in volumes the implication of her words.  Alisaie’s brow knitted together as all too familiar feelings of dread and worry for her friend began to churn in the pit of her stomach.

   “I would hate to ask something of her that might put her in danger.  However, she is the only one we know of that can neutralize a lightwarden.  Somehow, she managed to stave off the corruption of the Light which was fragmenting her soul, win against Emet-Selch and then emerged with her soul more... whole ,” Ryne looked at her, “Did she by chance mention anything to you before she left that might explain what happened?”

   “She-”  Ali started and then stopped, as memories from the night that darkness truly returned to Norvrandt, came crashing in.

   ~~

   There was a faint smile on the Warrior of Light’s face as the two of them walked back from the impromptu celebration at the Wandering Stairs.  A warmth buzzed in Alisaie’s belly, she couldn’t tell if it was from the mead or the company.

   “That was quite the party.  Let it not be said that the people of the Crystarium aren’t thankful to the Warrior of Darkness.”

   Trae’s smile grew a little, “Aye.  I think Ardbert would have liked it.  O’course, I’m of the mind if I enjoyed it- he did too.”

   Alisaie giggled, “I’m sorry?”

   The Highlander looked at her, “You know, Ardbert.  The Warrior of Darkness who came to the Source? The one who entreated Minfilia back here.”

   “I remember but isn’t he and the others dead?”

   “Aye, but he is… was… a spectre?  A shade?” Trae arched a brow trying to find the right words.  “What did Hythlodaeus say? That our soul color was the same, two parts of a bigger whole.  A soul that had been fragmented when the Source was splintered. It was Ardbert who gave himself and his strength to me but it’s not like I absorbed his aether because it was already mine…. Ours?  Best way I can describe it is: Ardbert and I share the same soul because we are the same soul. So, he didn’t give his strength to me so much returned mine to me,” Trae glanced over as they pulled up to the large double doors of the Warrior’s room, “I must sound drunk.”

   Alisaie hummed thoughtfully as the Highlander opened one and stepped aside to allow the younger woman to pass, “I wouldn’t say you sound drunk but I will confess that I might be a bit too tipsy to fully comprehend the nuances of this revelation.”

   Trae chuckled as she followed shutting the door behind her, “I suppose that’s fair there was quite a bit of ale.  Don’t let it be said that Giott skips on the- mm!”

   She cut the Highlander off mid-sentence with a kiss, pinning the taller woman to the door.  She hadn’t planned on it but something overrode her good sense as she pushed herself tighter against the Hyurian, lifting up on her toes to reach those delectably kissable lips, arms snaking up around Trae’s neck as she pulled herself deeper into the kiss as the Warrior's hands found their way around her waist. Strong fingers flexing into her lower back, hitching the fabric of her tunic up ilm by torturous ilm-

   ~~

   “Alisaie?”

   Ryne’s voice and the steadily strengthening whistle of the tea kettle cut through her revelry,  “Huh? Oh!”

   She hurried to lift the kettle from the heat, “My apologies, I-I just remembered something Trae had said to me-”

   She kept her back to Ryne as she readied the tea and recounted what the Warrior had related to her, irrationally afraid that her face or reactions to the memory might somehow betray what happened that night.  When she finally did turn back around she was, at first, relieved to see Ryne lost in thought but then curiosity replaced self-conscious apprehension.

   “Does that mean aught to you?” She asked setting a cup of tea before the red-headed girl whose turn it was to be lost in thought.

   “Perhaps.  There was something that Minfilia said.. and then when she-”  Ryne looked up quickly and stood, “Pray forgive me, Ali. I have to go.  T-thank you for the tea, I’m sorry.”

   And just like that the young woman was gone, leaving a very bewildered Elezen with two cups of piping hot tea and more questions than answers.

 

  ~~<^>~~

 

 

Chapter Text

   “It seems that whomever named this place was probably never accused of hyperbole,” Alisaie murmured as she craned her neck trying to see to the top of the swaying Greatwood canopy. 

   “While my studies of the ancient people of Ronka have been limited to the time beginning whence we came here searching for answers and allies amongst the Viis, I have found nothing to suggest a proclivity for verbosity,” Y’shtola said before patting Alisaie on the shoulder,  “Mind how long you spend staring skywards, Dear. There is a fair amount of indigenous fowl and more than a few amaro flitting above our heads.”

   Alisaie’s head whipped level, her eyes wide.  She couldn’t tell if the enigmatic smile that spread across Y’shtola’s face was one born of jest or not.  Although, the start of the morning chorus echoing through hazy dawn lent credence to her comment.

   “Come, let us away before Ru-”

   “Master Matoya, is that you?!”

   “Gods dammit,” she sighed quietly before turning towards the speaker who had emerged from a cluster of shadows just beyond a cooking fire nearby, “Hello Runar.”

   “Are you back from the Crystarium?”

   The eagerness in the Hrothgarn’s face would have been comical if it wasn’t so sincere.  His affection and longing for the Miqo’te mage was painfully apparent.

   “For now, but whether that becomes something of an extended engagement will remain to be seen,” Y’shtola’s disinterest was palpable.

   “This is good news.  I’m sure the others will be happy you have returned, nonetheless.”

   “I hate to be brief with you Runar but I have enlisted Alisaie’s help in a few matters and whilst I'd rather not be rude to either of you..”

   “Oh! Yes, of course!  Pardon my interruption,” he turned towards Alisaie, bowing politely before quietly stealing away.  

   “Shall we?” Y’shtola asked nary missing a beat.  

   Alisaie nodded and followed the Miqo’te mage past the cooking fire to the third enclave on the right. Y’shtola pushed open the door, revealing a nicely appointed cave complete with a wooden planked floor, large purple rugs and blue flamed candles that burned on violet clothed tables and in scattered wall niches.  The whole room was warm, dry and inviting which was quite an accomplishment given the nature of its architectural existence, to which Alisaie commended the mage.

   Y’shtola grinned ruefully, “I think I’ve seen the real Master Matoya out of her cave maybe a dozen times in all the years that I’ve known her.  It would appear I have retained a few of her more domestically inclined tricks than I had originally thought. Have a seat, Runar will be in with some refreshments shortly,” she gestured towards the table in the middle of the room as she shuffled past it towards a stack of tomes in the back.

   “How do you know?”

   “That cat is like clockwork,” she chuckled picking up a tome and thumbing open the cover.

   She glanced down at the title page and with a 'hmm’ snapped it shut before moving on.  Alisaie looked on in curiosity as Y’shtola continued on that way one after the next, looking for all the realm like she had sight.

   “Pray, forgive me for asking, but how do you know what you’re looking at?”

   “I’m going to assume my literacy isn’t in question,” the Miqo’te mused briefly before continuing, “Words have a power all their own.  Each one unique but when combined can bring forth the fundamental powers of creation. One could say that each has a special aetheric hue all of its own, much like individual souls.  I’ve simply learned how to read the colors and patterns.”

   “Individual souls,” Alisaie repeated folding her fingers thoughtfully under her chin.

   “I know that look well.  I have seen it a fair amount of times over the years.  Granted, I’ve beheld it more often on your brother’s visage than your own but I am certain both poses mean the same thing. Pray, what has engrossed you?”

   “It’s strange that you should mention souls and their unique complexion.  It’s the second time in less than a day that this very topic has come up-”

   The Sharlayan proceeded to recount the events of both the night before and the evening Norvrandt celebrated its freedom from the influence of Emet-Selch.  This time however she managed to lay out the story without betraying the heat she felt in her chest at the memory of the Warrior of Darkness’ lips on hers.  When she had finished she looked at Y’shtola who had taken a seat, arms folded on the table, perfectly manicured nails drumming against one arm.  

   “Hythlodaeus? A divided soul?.. That does make things more interesting,” Y’shtola spoke slowly, her sightless eyes focused on some void in the distance as she deliberated the new information. 

   “Oh?”

   “I do not know how much you know about the soul.  Most people toss the word around to describe the mutable, ephemeral aspects of their person: Their hopes, dreams, beliefs, morality... All the things that make up consciousness but have nothing to do with that which is the only thing truly eternal about them- their soul.   Think of the body as a house and the soul, its occupant. If and when the house is destroyed or deteriorates to the point it is no longer livable - the occupant leaves the house but that doesn’t mean the occupant ceases to exist. T’would seem that for us, once we leave our house, our souls lack the strength to enter another abode.  Emet-Selch intimated as much when he spoke about your brother’s ‘tattered soul’ not comparing to the souls of the ones he lost- the Ascian race.  However, it appears as though our dear friend Trae Castellan’s soul is made of sterner stuff than our own,” Y’shtola finished just as a knock sounded at the door, “That would be Runar.”

   The sounds of movement and quiet conversation all faded into a din as Alisaie considered the implication of mage’s words.  It wasn’t until Runar left and Y’shtola had settled herself down at the table with a tea service and a small soft leather journal in hand that Alisaie spoke again.

   “Are you suggesting that the Warrior of Light, my..er, our Trae- is an Ascian ?”

   “It’s a possibility that we should not dismiss.  Here,” she laid the journal on the table between them,  “This is one of Trae’s battle journals. She says she has always kept one but strangely doesn’t have any from before her arrival in Gridania.”

   Alisaie knitted her brow, “I think I remember that day.  Alphinaud and I had traveled to Eorzea to see for ourselves the realm Grandfather had died defending.  I remember it was just Bernhardt in the carriage with us then Alphinaud and I dozed off. When we awoke, Trae had appeared in the back as well.  It was exceptionally queer since the driver was on a strict schedule and didn’t stop once outside of the expected stages.”

   Y’shtola hummed thoughtfully, “Indeed.  Well, unless our friend herself remembers something about her life pre-Eorzea that she isn’t telling us, I feel speculating would avail us nothing.  Be that as it may, this journal is the latest in the Warrior of Light’s exploits as written by her own hand.”

   Alisaie’s eyes widened and the mage giggled, “Don’t look at me like that.  I did not come by this tome in some seedy fashion. Trae handed it to me on the day she departed for the Source.  ‘In case something should happen,’ she explained, ‘here’s all that’s transpired since I arrived at the First.’”   

   Blue eyes fell on the soft leather binding as she considered all that might be in such a record.  As if reading her mind, Y’shtola spoke “There is naught much in the way of personal reflections, if that’s what you’re wondering.”

   She sighed, “No, I suppose it wouldn’t be like Trae to pen a confession of ever feeling any sort of feeling ever.  Settling most often for the nod once, fist-to-palm sort of response to, well.. Damn near everything.”

   “She does pull off strong and silent well.  Shame though, I do enjoy listening to that Ala Mighan accent especially when it’s thick like hers or Fordola Rem Lupis’..”

   Alisaie bristled at the mention of the former Skull but kept silent.  She had forgiven the Resonant for nearly killing her after Trae had explained all that the Highlander had lived through.  After all, Lupis would spend the rest of her life in service to Ala Mhigo and the realm. She had tried to kill the Warrior of Light on more than one occasion and if Trae could forgive Fordola then so could she, in theory.

   “-I always wished Lyse had a more pronounced Ala Mhigan affect in her speech..” 

   The statement brought the Red Mage out of her reflections, “What did you say?”

   The Miqo’te opened her mouth to answer as a shadow of realization crossed over her features, “Nothing important, t’was merely rambling.. as I so often do.”

   “Y’shtola, you never ramble.”

   “I-” The inside of her ears began to flush pink, she twitched them backwards obstructing Alisaie’s view of them.

   All the pieces fell into place.

   “You like Lyse,” Alisaie stated as a matter of fact.

   Y’shtola sighed, “At least now we don’t have to have a protracted conversation as to why I am not interested in Runar.” 

   “Fair enough,” Ali conceded, she leaned forward and lowered her voice despite there being no need, “when did this happen?”

   A blush touched the mage’s cheeks, “After she revealed that she was not Yda and allowed herself to be herself, Lyse began to bloom into a self-determined leader, that’s when I began to have more romantic ideations towards her.  But, at the Battle for Rhalgr’s Reach, when Zenos was about to slaughter her.. That was the moment I realized I didn’t want to be in a realm without her,” she snorted lightly in derision, “And yet here I am, five years in a realm without her.”

   Despite her best attempts at dismissing the lonely bitterness, its shade touched the corners of Y’shtola’s features.  Alisaie studied her for a moment and then it clicked, “She doesn’t know, does she?”

   “I haven’t told her overtly, no.  I was going to speak with her after we had pushed back the Empire but the Exarch managed to delay my plans.  Trae told me it has only been a few months since I was taken but I don’t need to tell you of the years it has been for me.  What if I have changed into someone that she doesn’t know? What if who I remember her to be isn’t the person she actually is?  Surely I don’t have to explain that with our bodies at the Source, we have only aged the amount of time that has passed there. The same cannot be said for our mental, emotional and aetheric selves who have aged according to this time.  What if too many things have changed?”

   “Something similar happened with us. The Exarch pulled me out of the Source before I could tell Trae how I felt.  I mean.. I had started to- begging her not to leave me alone, making her promise me that we would survive together, stay together..  I was mere seconds away from confessing my heart to her- just to have that moment ripped away before I could. In the year that followed, there were times with Tesleen that-” Her eyes went wide as she realized that her attempt to relate to Y’shtola’s plight was quickly heading towards a full confession. 

   She glanced at the grinning Miqo’te who had settled herself comfortably back into her chair, “I do believe t’is time you told me everything, Alisaie”

 

~~~<^>~~~

 

Chapter Text

   A storm gathered on the eastern horizon.  Dark grey clouds obscured the orange evening sun, bathing the sky above the high stone walls of the Ala Mhigan Quarter in an apocalyptic sort of light.  Which seemed appropriate given that Trae could occasionally smell the smoke from the battlefields and forward camps whenever the wind would blow from a certain direction.

   Weary soldiers and the local merchants and vendors that attended them were all the souls to be seen.  Most of the vulnerable population had been pulled back before the fighting had begun, replaced instead by those drawn to financial boon of battle.  It was just as well, it kept those that needed the most protecting far from the fighting. However, what would happen if the fight was silently brought to them on a spring or summer’s breeze?  

   Trae pushed the thought from her mind as she made her way down the wide stone streets towards the palace where Commander Hext and General Raubahn had established a permanent headquarters.  Rounding the corner, her gaze was drawn to the palatial stone behemoth that loomed at the top of the street. 

   The side of her head exploded in pain. 

   Lancing through her skull, the agony bleached out her vision in a sea of white before the light and shadows coalesced to first form flashes, then pictures, then memories from seemingly another lifetime came flooding in carried on a wave of anguish.

***

   An esquite city.  Massive in size and scope.  Built in a style reminiscent of Amaurot but architectural trappings that could be considered a forerunner to the Ala Mhigan style.  Tall hooded figures traversed the streets, conversing on corners and living their lives seemingly unaware of any trouble. The city was familiar.  The inhabitants, achingly so. Looking down she saw that she herself was clothed in a long dark robe.

***

   “Trae?” 

   She recognized the voice and struggled to bring her conscious back to the present.  Teeth gritted, she reached blindly towards the origin of the voice. A gentle hand caught her own, steadying her and pulling her forward, arms wrapping around her.  Soft lips grazed the side of her ear,  “I’m here for you.

   Her head fell forward against soft skin as the torment caused by the Echo peaked before the vision slowly faded away, leaving the Warrior of Light shivering and short of breath.  When her senses came back to her, she noticed Lyse had laid her head lightly against the side of her own, her left hand soothing small circles against the small of her back while the fingers of her right hand played gently across the nape of her neck.  The Highlander felt herself relaxing into the embrace, the closeness felt nice.  She wouldn’t admit it but she had longed for the simple pleasure of intimacy.  But perhaps the ‘blessing’ of Light was actually a curse for there were many who admired and several who desired her but none whom she would have approach her.  Except for Alisaie, at least, that is what she had thought.

 

***

   The kiss had been a most welcomed surprise.  Alisaie’s mouth was soft and eager. The warmth from her lithe body spread through Trae’s, pushing back the bitter chill the Light had wrought within her.  She tightened her grip, Alisaie’s tunic hitched higher. She gently caught the tip of her tongue against the Red Mage’s upper lip, seeking an entrance that was immediately given along with a ductile moan.  Pressing her advantage, the Highlander pressed her thigh forward while pulling the elezen closer eliciting a surprised, approving gasp followed by sudden and unexpected, complete stop.

   “Wait,” Alisaie pushed herself off of Trae’s chest.

   The dark knight blinked in confusion, “What is it?”

   “We shouldn’t do this.”

   “What?”  The warmth began to ebb away.

   “I don’t think-” Alisaie began, then stopped taking a breath before blue gaze that was normally so bold, timidly avoided her own, “I don’t think we should do this tonight.  I don’t want it to be a mistake. I-I should go… and check on Alphinaud.”

   The words felt like a chocobo had kicked her square in the gut.  There wasn’t much she could do or say, the kiss had been spontaneous and Alisaie had been drinking.  She cursed herself for misreading the signs. After all, a Sharlayan aristocrat and heir of an Archon was a wee bit out of a hyurian highlander’s league no matter how many times she had caught the elezen staring out of the corner of her eye. 

   She nodded and righted herself off the door and straightened her clothing as her token stoicism, hidden underneath an easy demeanor took over.

   “I understand.”

 

 ***

   A look of relief washed over Lyse’s face when Castellan finally lifted her head.

   “By the gods, blood.  You had me worried.”

   “Had meself worried,” she attempted to grin but it ended in a grimace.

   “I don’t know what I’m going to do with you.  No one was expecting you! Tataru said you were indisposed.  We all assumed you had fallen into a coma like the others.”

   “Nothin’ quite so simple I’m afraid,” she replied gently pulling away from the Pugilist's hold. “We have much tae discuss but I wouldst discuss it in private.  Is there somewhere we can go?”

   Lyse nodded, “I know just the place.”

 

***

   The space that the cozy, twilight rooftop garden occupied smacked of Lyse Hext’s aetheric aura.  A low rock pool occupied a quarter of the space, the blue and red evening bloom water lilies in it having just opened their petals.  Lotuses, moonflowers and jessamine all had unfurled themselves to bask in the dark evening light.

   A small, nicely appointed wood gazebo with taut red sailcloth sides stood in another corner, a coal warmer and lanterns already smoldering within.  A table with chairs, a lounge chaise and a working desk all managed to occupy the tent space without it feeling cluttered.  

   But the beauty of the immaculate aesthetic was for the moment altogether ignored as the Warrior of Darkness cum Light recounted all that had transpired from the moment that she arrived at the First until she had returned to the Source.  

   The Commander for her part did her best to update the knight on the status of forces.  There was an eerie sort of stalemate that had the Alliance leadership uneasy and reports from Gaius van Baelsaur of multiple Black Rose production sites were deeply disturbing.   

   “But there’s something far more troubling if it’s true,” Lyse said quietly.  “There’s rumors that Zenos is alive.”

   Trae narrowed her eyes in thought.  Lyse continued, “But.. that can’t be true because we both watched as he performed seppuku.  We burned his body outside of the city walls.” 

   “Aye.  But are we sure that it’s Zenos?  Emet-Selch and the other Ascians have been cloning and possessing the Imperial royal family for generations..”

   “If anyone knew Zenos, it was Gaius.  Gaius swears it is him,” Lyse replied.

   Castellan sighed and rapped a knuckle against the table in frustration, “Godsdamnit.”

   “What’s wrong?  What does it mean?”

   “I’m not quite sure yet,” she admitted propping her fingers under her chin, “But.. I would wager it has something to do with the Resonant.  That was the only thing that made him different from any other garlean or hyur except for-”

   “Fordola.”

   “Aye.  I’ll be needin’ tae speak with her.”

   “Of course, I’ll send for her on the morrow,” Lyse replied.  “Speaking of on the morrow, I have an early meeting with Raubahn and the forward command duty officers if you would like to come.  That way you can get up to speed with the latest information.”

   Trae nodded as the pugilist stretched upwards, her breasts straining against the thin fabric of the simple red tunic she wore.  She didn’t quite manage to stop her gaze from falling on them before the Commander relaxed. 

   “Would you like a messenger to wake you or would you prefer that I arouse you?”  Lyse asked with subtle suggestion as she leaned closer, her eyes falling briefly on Castellan’s lips.

   The dark knight smiled.

<<<^^^>>>

Chapter Text

    Her lips tasted like the wine they had drank all evening.  She couldn’t quite remember why they had started kissing.  They had been laughing one moment as she had attempted to teach Tesleen a mambo that Hildibrand Manderville had taught Trae Castellan.  Somewhere between the high kick and twirl, Tesleen had lost her balance and crashed into a giggling Alisaie.    

   Tesleen’s hands vacillated between hesitant and impatient.  For her part, Alisaie’s heart and mind vied for dominance. It seemed like ages since she had left Trae as they readied for the field of battle.   She had wanted to tell her of her feelings. The ones that had first surfaced that starry night at Camp Overlook while both of them had sat with Ga Bu in his silent grief.  But that had been months ago and the Exarch had made little progress in either pulling the Warrior of Light across the endless expanse of time and space or finding a way to return her to Trae’s side.

   The kiss deepened, Tesleen’s tongue seemed almost urgent in seeking entrance.  The Elezen accommodated and pulled the woman closer, her hands working their way under the grey tunic.

   Logically she understood that there had been no declaration of feelings or was there any way that Trae could know how she felt, so she was free to do whom or what she pleased, but in her heart…

   She pushed the thought from her mind and focused on the sensation… or at least the ghost of the sense.  Alisaie thought it was the wine dulling her faculties at first but when Tesleen’s fingers drifted below the hem of her tunic finding the bare skin of her outer thigh and the sensitivity was equal to being touched over a heavy cloth, it occurred to her that there was indeed a side effect to her non-corporeal, corporeal form.  Alisaie ignored the obvious downside of the situation, intent on making Tesleen- dear, sweet selfless Tesleen- feel good, if only for the night.  

   She had watched for years as the Warrior of Light had given selflessly over and over again without so much as a gentle touch to upend the countless hours of battle, trials and endless errand running.  Castellan put up a good front but occasionally (usually in the moment after she was asked to fight some legendary force of evil) a look of superannuated exhaustion would pass over the Highlander’s fine features that she quickly covered with an easy smile and a ‘can do’ nod.

   Alisaie wasn’t going to let the emotional isolation that inherently befell many good leaders, forced to make tough choices, claim another that night- even if her heart wasn’t fully in it.  It wasn’t about what she wanted at the moment, but what Tesleen needed -

      ~~*~~

   A loud crack followed by the colorful cursing woke her up.

   “By the gods! Walking too complicated for ya?  Can’t add anything to the task like carrying a box of ‘tatoes?”  Cassana’s voice echoed off the canyon walls of the Inn.  

   She opened her eyes and stared up in the dim morning light at the roof of her tent listening to the Galdjent chasten whomever was unlucky enough to have dropped one of the crates from the supplies Alisaie had coordinated for delivery from the Crystarium.  She sighed and rolled over, the vivid dream nearly textbook accurate to the events that had transpired some six months past and she still regretted the whole affair- perhaps even more so, now that Tesleen was dead.  

   It had complicated things between them.  While Alisaie wanted it to remain a moment they shared once, Tesleen had fallen in love with the Sharlayan.  She could still remember the slightly detached look that crossed the blond woman's face when Ali had explained that she could not requite those feelings as her heart belonged to another.

   “I know you love Trae,” she spoke the words that Alisaie had not even uttered herself, “I suppose I was hoping that perhaps you could love me while she was away.”

   And she had, just not in the way that Tesleen had wanted and it had hurt her needlessly.  Alisaie fervently and futivily wished time and again that the evening had never happened.  She blamed the alcohol for her lapse in judgment. And it was that very reason why she had stopped kissing Castellan that night in her room. She didn’t want to make love to the Hyurian (after they had been drinking) only to have the Warrior wake up and regret it the next day.  That would be more than she could bear and that was a thought that scared her. 

   There was something that had begun to gnaw on the peripheral of her mind and that was how cool Trae had been towards her on the morning of her departure.  While she hadn’t expected a discussion on what had transpired she had expected... something. The Highlander had scarcely given her a second look before everyone was saying their goodbyes.  The dark knight did seem distracted and Alisaie decided to feign eager happiness at an opportunity to properly thank those whom had helped her.  While she was indeed happy to be able to express her gratitude in person, she would have much rathered walked through the portal to the Source with Castellan.

   She sighed and wondered what the Warrior was doing now.

      ~~*~~

   Her fingers tightened their grip in Lyse’s hair.  The Commander’s head bobbed lightly as she sucked Trae fully into her mouth, lips encircling her clit as she ran them the length of the engorged flesh.  The muscles in her legs began to tighten as she neared peak. Taking the cue, Lyse flickered her tongue against the underside of the Warrior’s clit.

   “Fuck!” Castellan growled as she came, hips jerking sharply, covering the pugilist’s mouth and chin in sweet, musky arousal.  

   Lyse hummed happily against the swollen twitching flesh, nuzzling it delicately as Trae’s fingers relaxed and began to massage her scalp.   She dropped a chaste kiss on the tip of the sensitive bud before crawling up the knight’s lean, muscular frame and straddling her hips.

   “You still taste good,” Lyse commented as she raked her nails casually down taut muscles, the skin of Trae’s belly prickling in the wake.

   The Warrior chuckled, “Thanks. I do m’best.”

   Lyse rolled her eyes with a playful swat, “Incorrigible.”

   “Aye. To a fault,” she agreed, a mischievous glint in her eye.  

   Pulling her arms to her sides, she wedged them between herself and Lyse’s legs- with a quick wiggle she hooked her arms over the blond’s muscular thighs and began to shimmy her way lower.

   “Where do you think you are- mmhh ,” Lyse bit her lower lip as Trae worked her tongue into her. 

   Deft fingers found her nipples, sensually rolling and tugging them as practiced lips and tongue mimicked the movements across her clit. She sucked gently on Lyse’s inner labia before pushing just the tip of her tongue past the tightening ring of muscles.  

   As the Commander neared her climax, she devolved into an incoherent mass of gasps and pleas before stiffening and shuddering as her orgasm overtook her, inner muscles spasming as she clamped down on Castellan’s head with such force that anyone else might have suffered injury at the thighs of the melee fighter.  Lyse finished and collapsed to the right panting,  “A girl could get used to that.”

   “Oh?” Trae chuckled as she wiped the silky arousal from her mouth and her throat where it had trickled down. 

   “Aye,” Lyse replied rolling onto her side, propping her head up with one hand while the other found her partner’s rather attractive collarbone and proceeded to trace it.

   “And are you getting ‘used to it’?  T’is the second time we’ve tusseled.  Correct me if I’m wrong but you made a point of insisting that you don’t ‘tangle twice’ and that our wee romp on R’halgr’s Palm t'was it.”

   A blush crept up Lyse’s neck, “I don’t recall saying anything like that to you.”

   “No?  You don’t remember at the end of our sparring match - lying naked in my arms and looking up at the clouds telling me: ‘I’ll spar anytime but I won’t tangle twice’.

   “Well…” Lyse took a deep breath, “I might have been a little rash with my words.”

   “A little?” 

   “C’mon, blood, you know how it can be.  You like someone and because you do, you foolishly try to appear distant or disinterested so that the person won’t know how much they affect ya. So sometimes you end up saying ridiculous things about tangling.”

   I don’t think we should do this… I don’t want it to be a mistake…   She passively wondered if perhaps this was the reasoning behind Alisaie’s words but, surprisingly, there was still a sting to the memory and Trae banished the thoughts from her mind.  Unwilling to think of one, whilst in the arms of another.

   “Are you implying a fondness for me, Commander?”  Trae japed in deflection.

   The Pugilist’s smile lacked the Warrior’s intended humor.  The former Scion leaned in close and kissed Castellan slowly, pulling away breathless when they finally parted.

   “I am very fond of you,” Lyse murmured tracing a finger along the Highlander’s jaw, “You can take that.. and me.. however you’d like.  If there’s anything I can do for you, you need only ask.”

   The Warrior of Light’s lips curled into a smile as she placed a light kiss on the Commander’s forehead, “I appreciate it and you, more than you know, Ly.  I’ll admit my timing is shite.. but there is something I need ya tae do for me.”

 

  <<<^^^>>>  

 

Chapter Text

   The fog was as thick as the darkness that had settled on Mor Dhona.  A misty chill added to the sense of foreboding that hung over the unassuming hamlet.  Something had drawn her out and she shivered a bit as she waited.

   “If you don’t mind my asking… what are you doing out here Ms. Baldesion?” The watch at the door of the Seventh Heaven asked, “T’is a cold night.” 

   “That it is,” Krile replied pulling her hood tighter, “but someone comes with the darkness.”

   “I can’t help but wonder if you are perhaps speaking of me?”

   Booted footsteps echoed off of the cobblestones and a moment later, a familiar figure emerged from the heavy grey miasma.  A genuine smile alighted on Krile’s features, “As I live and breathe, Trae Castellan. It is good to see you!”

   The Highlander dropped to a knee to hug the Archon in greeting.  After a moment, the lalafell stepped back in assessment.

   “I see you have yet to return to your first calling,” she plucked at the sleeve of the black fending coat the Warrior wore.

   “You disapprove,” Trae replied.

   Krile frowned, “Only because you were a truly gifted White Mage.”

   “I am a truly gifted Dark Knight, too.”

   Krile placed her hands on either side of the Highlander’s face, “Of this, I’m sure.  For that brilliant light within you that beckoned, summoned and wove the primal energies into powerful magick for healing to exist, a darkness of equal intensity must needs exist as well.  I just pray there is balance for I fear the effect triumph of one or the other would have on you.”

   A corner of Trae’s mouth curled into an enigmatic smile, “We have much to discuss.”

   ~~*~~

   In the hours that followed, Castellan recounted the events on the First.  She told Krile of her friend’s fate and her final words to the Warrior of Light. Her strange conversation with Hythlodaeus and the subject of G’raha Tia’s continued existence in the First rounded off two turns worth of talking. She spent the third turn discussing news from the Front and the rumors surrounding Zenos yae Galvus' reincarnation.

   “Zenos is alive and was able to displace Edilbus because of the Resonant?” Krile frowned, “That is a troubling development indeed.”

   “Aye. However, that’s beside the point.  What concerns me is that G’raha Tia was never specific on what caused the Eighth Umbral calamity.  All he knew was that the Scions of the Seventh Dawn and meself were dead, unable to prevent the centuries of fighting that followed.  The darkness and despair here flooded the First with Light. Here’s the rub- G’raha Tia is alive and well and our comrades are still stuck in another realm, which leads me to believe that whatever triggers the events of the Eighth Umbral has yet to occur because nothing has changed on the First.”

   “What do you mean?  From what you’ve said, Urianger surmised that the Flood of Light at the First was because of the Empire releasing the Black Rose poison as a last ditch effort to turn the tide against a winning Eorzea.  If the information that Estinien related to Tataru is correct- Zenos killed Emperor Varis to stop him from releasing Black Rose.”

   “Aye, he did.  But he did so only to prevent his father from spoiling his sport.”

   “What sport is that?”

   “To hunt me down and kill me, of course.  But, who’s tae say he doesn’t find our defenseless comatose comrades first and slaughters ‘em while they sleep, whilst I’m away, in a bid to provoke me?  My grief would blind me-”

   “-You would make a mistake,” Krile finished as realization set in,  “And just because the Emperor is dead that doesn’t mean any number of his warmongering, dimwitted Generals wouldn’t take it upon themselves to finish what their glorious Emperor started.”

   “Now ye see me concern.”

   Krile sighed, “Unfortunately, yes.”

   “Then, I pray yer forbearance in the guard I have arranged for you, Tataru and our slumberin’ friends… who send their regards by the by.  You’d be quite proud of Alphinaud’s political acumen. He credits you with his-”

   Krile held up a hand to silence the rambling Highlander, “You’re stalling.  Who is this guard you have arranged for?”

   The Dark Knight glanced over her shoulder towards the door that had swung open as if on cue.  A tall, hooded figure strode through it with a purposeful gait. The stranger pushed back her hood revealing sunset red hair and a bold violet Ala Mhigan facial tattoo.

   “I see you’ve brought Fordola,” the statement was matter of fact.

   “Is this acceptable?” Trae asked quietly, the concern for her colleague evident in soft green eyes. 

   “Your concern is sweet, Captain Castellan.  But I have seen Fordola’s past as you have. T’was not her that subjected me to those experiments.  I dare say she was, in her own way, as unwilling a test subject as I was. Zenos would have killed her had she refused and if it the experiment had failed.. Well, she would surely be dead.  Either way, I do not hold her responsible for the actions of the Empire and more specifically, Aulus mal Asina.”

   An almost imperceptible look of relief washed over the former Skull’s face.  Her shoulders seemed to relax a bit and Trae beckoned the other Highlander to join them.

   “Might I add that it makes a great deal of sense to pit resonant against resonant, in the event Zenos should attack.”

   Trae nodded and then nonchalantly added, “I was also hoping that maybe you could help Fordola hone her skills.”

   She blinked, “Beg your pardon?”

  “It’s obvious that Zenos has advanced far beyond what he was originally endowed with in regards to the Resonant.  Which means that like the Echo, the skill can be honed. If I’m not available, Fordola is the only person that could possibly stand a chance at defeating Zenos but she would be at a disadvantage if she doesn’t learn more.  You were a mentor at the School of Baldesion…” If the Mage didn’t know better she would have sworn the Maelstrom Captain resorted to puppy dog eyes, “Please?”

   Krile sighed.

   “You don’t have to do so every day," Castellan hastened a follow-up, "I’ve given Fordola strict orders to keep a very low profile while she is in Mor Dhona.  As far as we know, only you, me, Lyse and eventually Tataru will know about her presence here.  I think it best if we try and keep it that way.”

   “A prudent plan,” the Archon agreed. “Very well.  If Commander Hext has signed off on this then I don’t see why not.  As long as our friend here remembers to behave herself and doesn’t pick a fight with every low browed local that irritates her.”

   Fordola’s perpetual glower deepened for a moment but she said nothing, only folded her arms over her chest and huffed, “I’ll behave so long as those same low browed locals mind their waggin’ tongues and wanderin’ hands.  I don’t have time for donkeys that fancy themselves stallions.”   

   The healer gestured vaguely, “That’s good enough for me, I suppose.”

   “There is one more thing-”

   The Archon arched a sculpted brow, “Oh?”

   “Elidibus once spoke about the ‘true nature of the Echo’.  It led Minfilia and I to the sahagin spawning grounds were we watched as a Sahagin Priest who had achieved an advanced level of the Echo entered the bodies of fallen sahagin warriors, only to be absorbed by Leviathan later.  I watched as both Ysayle Dangoulain channeled Shiva into herself. Zenos became one with Shinryu after announcing that I dinnae have the first clue about the true power of the Echo.  Minfilia assimilated herself with Ryne..”  Castellan drummed her fingers against the table, “The school after your namesake spent decades trying to understand the connection between the Echo and the ‘Rejoining’- what if the true nature of the Echo is ultimately to rejoin itself?  What if the Echo is what remains after an eternal being is fragmented then scattered to different realms and then much like a river to the sea, the shattered energy is inevitably drawn back to its source tae be made whole once again?”

   Krile's brow knitted in thought, “That hypothesis or a variation of it came up a few times before.  It wasn’t a very popular one considering it essentially means that there is really nothing to be done about the Umbral calamities. 'The Rejoining will eventually happen, it's only a matter of time'. While it is theoretically sound from what we understand about aether and the evidence we’ve gathered surrounding the Echo- we didn’t ever really have any proof.  It’s not like we had seen the aether from one realm actually rejoin aether from the Source.”

   "Until now," Trae replied frankly, "Do you remember the leader of the Warriors of Darkness?" 

   ~~*~~

Chapter Text

   The Warrior of Darkness had finally returned from the Source and had promptly disappeared into the Empty with little more than a few words of conversation between them before Ryne had ushered her away.  

   For Alisaie, the wait was becoming maddening.  If the time spent apart had tempered her ardor it was quickly rekindled, perhaps even stronger, the moment she had seen Trae’s familiar smile.  But a week had passed since then and she was starting to get restless.  

   This same restlessness had driven her to conduct two patrols a day despite the fact that they hadn’t seen a single sin eater since the Warrior had defeated the Lightwarden Innocence.  However, that didn’t stop any number of things like sandsuckers, scissorjaws and ghilmans from presenting a threat to residents and travelers alike at Journey’s Head.

   She had cleared the northern and western quadrants of her route and was coming around to the south face of the Inn’s caldera when she noticed the Skyslipper that Castellan and company had taken into the Empty sat idle at the Derrick.  Alisaie’s heart picked up a few extra beats at the implication of the vehicle’s return but tamped that down quickly, unwilling to get ahead of herself in hope.

   Casually, at a pace that was just below a trot, she made her way towards the staging area.   A few yalms closer and she realized that there wasn’t anyone there except a lone Journey’s Head guardsman.  She frowned briefly but continued towards the Derrick

   “Nice night,” the Guardsman commented by way of greeting.

   “It is. By chance, have you seen which way the passengers went?” She asked pointing towards the now cooled vehicle.

   “Oh, aye.  Two humes- one with black hair, the other with red- headed towards Mord Souq.  They can’t be more than half a turn ahead of you. If you hurry you might catch up to them, the dark haired one was moving a little slowly.”

   She thanked the guardsman and started back towards the Inn, her stomach tight with worry and it was concern that governed her decision to hire an Amaro porter to take her to Mord Souq.  

   While there could be any number of reasons behind a person ‘moving slowly’, Alisaie decided that finding out first hand was a much more appealing option than staying at Journey’s Head or waiting at the Pendants for the Highlander to show up.  She wouldn’t be able to rest until she did and gods knew how long it would take for the wandering Warrior to finally make it back to either one of those places.

 

~~*~~

 

   Alisaie had grown quite accustomed to Dyalk, the Amaro kept at Journey’s Head.  The gentle beast had the young Elezen woman to the repurposed ruins of Mord Souq in very little time.  He flew precariously close to a tower but gracefully arched into a tight turn and landed deftly by the steps of the Atheryte. 

   Thanking the Keep who helped her down from the mount, she noticed that a conspicuously out of place, newly constructed tent, harboring a pile of supplies had sprung up suddenly in the village.  She surmised that whatever Thancred, Ryne and Urianger were up to probably had something to do with the latest addition and the out of place Crystarium attaché attached to it.  

   Figuring her colleagues had to be somewhere nearby, Alisaie ventured up the steps towards the Atheryte for a better view.   

   At the top of the stairs she spotted Ryne talking privately with another obvious Crystarium liaison in an orange and black shirt.  The two were deep in discussion about something and Alisaie was loathe to interrupt them. She instead made her way around to the south side of the platform, scanning the faces and vendor stalls for Castellan.  She’d reached the other set steps and was about to turn around when she caught sight of a long black ponytail and vicious greatsword.

   Relief flooded through Alisaie’s chest as she started towards the Warrior, who was talking with a Mord named Bhil Bil.  As she got closer she could see fatigue hung on the dark knight like a cloak but the eager creature seemed oblivious to the Warrior’s weariness.

   The Mord shook with excitement as it described its desire for Gigatender meat.  It tumbled over its own words, begging for the Warrior’s help just in the manner it presented its request.  Don’t do it.   

   She couldn’t explain why but some part of her prayed that the Highlander would ignore her instincts to help and put her own needs above that of another’s for once.  She had nearly reached the two when she saw the Warrior nod in acceptance of the request. The Mord clapped happily and tuttled away. 

   Godsdamnit.

   “I don’t suppose you just agreed to a dinner offer,” Alisaie said as she closed the distance between them.

   Trae turned, a tired but genuine smile alighting on her face as she beheld the Sharlayan mage, “Alas, no.  But even if he had, the last dinner invite I received ended abruptly when Thancred returned to Ishgard with you nigh on death’s door from a poisoned arrow.”

   Alisaie blushed, “I suppose I owe you an apology, then.”

   “No. You don’t owe me an apology,” Trae replied matter of factly, “You owe me a candlelit dinner.”

   The younger woman’s blush deepened, “I-I’m sure that could be arranged.”

   The Warrior’s smile widened. 

   “You’re enjoying this,” Ali’s blush receded quickly under realization.

   “Wee bit.”

   “I’m glad to see that your humor isn’t worse for the wear.  Although, the same can’t be said for your physical appearance.”

   “You wound me.”

   Alisaie rolled her eyes as she crossed her arms, “You know what I meant.”

   “Do I?”

   “When was the last time you looked in a mirror?”

   Trae smiled, turned on her heel towards the outlier town’s exit, “Probably not in a week or more.  Why? Is it that bad?”

   “No.  I mean, you are still as beautiful as ever-” the Highlander glanced over at her and arched a fine brow causing Ali to look away quickly,  “But you look tired and… are you limping?” 

   “No,” Castellan replied, faintly favoring her left leg.

   “Trae-”

   “I’m fine, Ali.  Just tired is all.”

   “Tired doesn’t cause limping, Captain.”

   “Aye, I know.  I might have hurt me leg in a rockslide few days back.  ‘Tis naught to worry about, lass.”

   The Warrior’s dodginess was beginning to raise questions in her mind but Alisaie left them unvoiced.  If the Highlander wanted to keep her own business, than it was not her place to push into it - but, she would be a liar if she didn’t admit it worried her.  Trae was one of the few people she trusted to be forthcoming, her sudden vagueness (while not any of Ali’s concern) bothered her a bit.

   “If you do not wish to discuss it, I won’t push the matter.  But I am concerned that whatever you just agreed to do for Bhil Bil will put you in undo risk given you present state.  Therefore, I am coming with you.”

   “What makes you think that I agreed to do anything?”

   Alisaie didn’t even dignify the comment with a verbal response instead opted for a pointed look that made the dark knight abandon her ridiculous obstinance on the matter and for just a brief moment, her weariness shown through.

   “Fine,” she acquiesced, “Bhil Bil said to look in the east for a gaggle of gigatenders.”

   “A gaggle?” she giggled.

   “Dunno what tae call a group of ‘em,” Trae admitted with huff.

   The conversation between them quickly fell back into the easy banter and warm exchanges that dominated most of their dialogue but Alisaie could see that the Warrior wasn’t quite feeling herself.  Occasionally, a painful wince would momentarily ghost over her features but Castellan was quick to recover.

   “So, how are things on the Source?”

   Trae frowned, “Strange.”

   “What do you mean ‘strange’?” she asked as they ventured further away from Mord Souq towards Samiel’s Backbone.

   “It feels like the breath before a trigger is pulled.  A moment pregnant with dreadful possibilities.”

   The comment was not one she expected, “Now that I think of it, I think I might like it better when you are being ambiguous.”

   Trae chuckled, “Now you know why I just smile and nod.  I am nigh convinced that the Realm is not ready for the truths that surround its existence.  The axiom of its bloody birth and certainly, not of what seems to be the natural outcome of such an imbalance in the universe.  No one wants to hear about that when there are mouths tae feed. So-” She lowered herself and her voice, directing Alisaie’s attention to three  young gigatenders milling about a ruined tower near Samiel’s ancient bones, “We’re going to make sure that those hungry bellies are fed while we save those we can still yet save and mayhaps we’ll save an extra realm or two on the way..” She pulled unstrapped the greatsword from her back, “You ready?”

   Alisaie had to tear her eyes away from the knight’s august, attractive features long enough to unsheath her rapier and levitate her crystal medium.  Taking up a dueling stance she nodded once, “After you, Captain Castellan.”

   “Wouldn’t have it any other way,” the Hyurian’s smirk bordered on seductive as the anticipation of the coming fight flooded her being.

   Without another word, the dark knight lunged forward, greatsword at the ready.  The first, smaller gigatender fell before Alisaie could even reach the engagement area.  Trae vaulted over the spiny body of the anthropomorphized plant by using her sword as a makeshift pole, landing between the remaining two cactuar like creatures. She unleashed a circle of dark energy, that damaged and taunted the fiends drawing their attention away from Alisaie, allowing the Red Mage to attack the attackers.

   No matter how many times Ali had seen her round up her foes thusly, it never failed to twist the young woman’s stomach into a knot as she watched the Hyurian disappear under an unforgiving tsunami of enemies and blows.   

   For her part, Alisaie unleashed a torrent of elemental attacks.  Preferring the use of magicks, for the moment, over her blade given the number of opponents.  Castellan was doing a fine job of inflicting physical damage and the battle would be over quickly.  But as the sounds of the wounded and dying gigatenders echoed over the empty landscape, it drew unwanted attention-

   “There,” the Warrior said between heavy breaths as the last gigatender fell, “That should be enough.”

   Alisaie approached as the knight pulled a boot knife and began to cut gooey green chunks of gigatender meat and stash them away. 

   “That went much faster than I expected.  I need to take you on patrol with me,” the Sharalyan commented.

   Trae laughed, “I’d be happy to go but I’m afraid you would tire of me-”

   “-I could never tire of you.”

   The Highlander caught her gaze and held it.  Alisaie could see the questions there but she deflected, “You are, after all, a Warrior of Light and Darkness - I don’t think there could ever be a dull moment with you.”

  “Uh-huh," Castellan stood and stepped closer to her, green eyes falling onto a soft mouth.

   She subconciously moistened her lower lip as warmth flooded her belly.  Before things could advance any further, a menacing shadow fell over them, blocking the light from the full moon. The warmth of the moment disappeared under the chill that ran up her spine.  

   Both women looked up. Straight into the angry red visage of the largest gigatender either one of them had ever seen. 

   “I-I think that’s the Maliktender,” Alisaie whispered, grabbing ahold of Trae’s bicep in fear.

   The massive gigatender looked at them and then furiously regarded the mutilated corpses of the flowering gigatenders. Its deep noise of rage shook the area around them.

   “Bugger me,” Castellan muttered, eyes darting around for a means of escape as she put herself between the gigatender and Alisaie.  Nothing readily presented itself. Realizing that there was only the possibility for one of them to escape, she fished a whistle out of her pocket.

   “You know that beautiful backstep you’ve mastered?” 

   “Yes.”

   “When I tell you, I need you to get as far away from him as fast as you can.  Take Ean and get back to Mord Souq,” Trae pressed the worn chocobo whistle into Ali’s hand.

   “But-”

   “Promise me.”

   The Maliktender’s roar cut off any response she might have been able to give.  Trae glanced up, then back at Alisaie before unexpectedly pressing forward to kiss her.

   The feeling was indescribable and she barely had time to register that she could actually feel Castellan’s lips before the Highlander pushed her away, “Go.”

   “Trae-

   A dark energy swirled around the knight’s body.  Aether hummed and sizzled the air around her. An inky black and purple miasma oozed from Castellan’s skin and coalesced into a red eyed doppelganger of the Storm Captain that stepped out from the dark knight’s body.

   “Go,” the shadow demanded in the Highlander's voice, billowing up into Alisaie’s face, stopping scarce milms from it.

   It was enough.  Alisaie bolted, backstepping from the field of battle, whistling for Ean even as she landed.  The black chocobo appeared from seemingly nowhere with a cry. Its attention was drawn towards were the fighting had begun in earnest.  She could see the animal’s confusion at being summoned so far away from his mistress.

   “Ean!” she called to him. 

   With a chirped whistle of recognition, the large chocobo trotted up to her, lowering itself so that she could grab a hold of the barding and swing up into the saddle.  Ean took to the sky and Alisaie rounded him towards Mord Souq, intent on bringing every able bodied fighter she could find, back with her. 

   She just prayed it wouldn’t be too late.

 

   <<^^>>

Chapter Text

   “Gods if you aren’t an ugly son of a sabotender,” Trae growled as she slashed at the incredibly aggrieved beast.  

   She wasn’t sure if her foe understood hyurian but it certainly seemed that way as the Tender spun itself in a circle trying to knock the Warrior back.  Trae barely managed to scramble out of range of a blow that would have left her stunned, if not completely incompacitated. Gritting her teeth, she vaulted back towards the red demon closing the distance before launching a (normally) devastating flourished attack that took a huge chunk of red Tender meat with it but did little to slow the massive creature.

   Her chest heaved from exertion and already she could feel fatigue creeping in.  It occurred to her that there was no way she would be able to stop the massive bastard herself but she had hoped (when she had formulated her half formed plan) to at least slow it down long enough to escape.  Unfortunately, she had not anticipated how much strength and stamina would be required just to defend herself.

   The red menace howled again.  The Warrior of Darkness dove to the left just as thousands of ilm length or longer spines skewered the space she had been in.  As she dodged, she prayed that Alisaie had made it back to Mord Souq safely.   

   If she hadn’t been otherwise engaged in fighting for her life,  Trae probably would have analyzed what it meant to have had such a thought at such a time as this but alas, the business of just staying alive was taking up all of her attention.  She filed the notion away for later as the Maliktender again attacked, she parried and the dance continued. 

***

   Alisaie remembered, much to her panicked anguish, what had originally beckoned her to Amh Araeng: there was none who could stand against the dangers of the barren waste.  And what had been true then was true now- there wasn’t anybody that could help in Mord Souq.

   Another roar echoed from somewhere in the dark distance.  The few Mord residents that were around hurried towards their homes, clearing the streets, hiding in ruined stone houses.  She cursed. If only any of the other scions were around..

   “Ryne,” she whispered and took off in the direction she had last seen the dual wielding damage dealer, Ean trotting dutifully behind her.

   Fortune was merciful as she caught sight of the young woman near the Crystarium tent.

   “Ryne! Thank the twelve you’re here! You have to come with me, Trae needs our help.”

   “What?” 

   “Trae and I were out hunting young cactuars when we were ambushed by a Maliktender.  She created a diversion so I could escape but she needs our help,” she explained in a rush.

   Ryne still looked confused and before Ali could explain further, another roar sounded from the distance.  This time, however, the cry was angrier than any of the others. Alisaie’s heart dropped into her stomach.  

   Please be okay.

***

   The moon had retreated behind a dark cloudbank. The sounds of fighting had stopped and there was no sign of Trae or the Maliktender.  Frustrated, Alisaie swore.

   “Is it a scion thing?”

   “What is?” Alisaie replied, adjusting her weight to try and see over Ean’s left wing.

   “The cussing- You and Thancred are both exceptionally creative at it.”

   “You should hear Y’shtola,” Ali murmured.

    As the clouds briefly parted, something caught her eye.  With a short whistle, she tugged on Ean’s reins and urged him towards a spire of rock that looked like a stone wave cresting from beneath a sea of sand, at the base of which, a large dust cloud had been kicked up.  

   Ean flew low and landed at the edge of the loess haze.  The airborne particles had already started to irritate her eyes and lungs as she dismounted.  She unclasped her jacked and pulled the fabric of one side over her mouth and nose to try as a makeshift filter.

   “Trae?!” She called and instantly regretted as some sand flew to the back of her throat causing her to cough.

   Ryne took over calling for the Warrior of Light as Alisaie composed herself.  The redhead had already yelled for Castellan twice when Ali thought she heard something.

   “Ssh,” Ali whispered grabbing a hold of Ryne’s elbow. “Did you hear that?”

   There was silence for a second and then the distinct sound of leather and buckles against rock, followed by a low groan.  The two young women briefly made eye contact before bolting in the direction of the sound.  

   They found the Warrior of Darkness, laying in a shallow divot, atop a cluster of boulders, under what appeared to be one of the Maliktender’s appendages.  Alisaie rushed over to Castellan’s side.

   “Captain, can you hear me?”

   The highlander just moaned painfully.

   “We’ve got to get her out of here,” Alisaie said, Ryne nodded.  “Help me get this thing off of her.”

   She reached for the red appendage- 

   “No,” Trae rasped, “Mine.”

   Alisaie stopped mid-reach, confused.  The clouds shifted again and in the moonlight, she could see that some of the spines from the half-yalm lengthed cactuar arm had pierced through the thinner parts of the Warrior’s fending coat and ovim trousers (whose unfortunate design exposed most of the upper right thigh).  Even in the half-light of the moon she could see that the flesh around the points of entry for the spines was as angry and red as the Tender’s. 

   Confused by what Castellan meant, Alisaie again reached for the appendage.  Trae gripped it tighter even though it drove the spines deeper.

   “Need it,” she wheezed, then coughed violently.

   “What is she talking about?” Ryne asked, concern evident.

   Alisaie furrowed her brow, something tickled at the back of her mind.  Something she had learned… it clicked.

   “Of course, cactuar venom.  The only effective antidote is made from the flesh of the beast.  Come on, help me get her up. Mind the needles, the barbs are venomous.”

   “That a lass,” Castellan wheezed, finally relinquishing her hold, allowing Alisaie to snap of the few remaining spines off the arm before tucking it away.   She had once had the unfortunate experience of being pierced by a cactuar’s quill. The pain had been excruciating, she wasn’t keen on repeating the experience any time soon.

   When ready they knelt on either side of the Warrior.

   “On my count we’ll get her into a sitting position and then up from there...1, 2, 3.”

   Trae groaned in pain as they heaved her upright. 

   “Ali,” Ryne hissed, looking at the Highlander’s back.

    Alisaie looked at the young lady confused and then followed her gaze to Castellan’s back, “Good gods.”

    Hundreds, if not thousands of the viciously long, barbed quills were deeply embedded in the dark knight’s back.  She couldn’t imagine the amount of force needed to be able to drive the spines through the thick leather of Castellan’s coat.  And, given that the long needles appeared to only be half visible, a good portion of their length was deeply embedded in the Warrior.

   “I don’t know how you’re still alive… let alone conscious, Captain.”

   “She’s not,” Ryne pointed out.

   Alisaie glanced up to see the Highlanders head hanging limply.

   “I should have expected that,” she sighed.  

   Concerned that Castellan could go into shock, she looked over her shoulder towards Snitch, one of three old watchtowers that had been repurposed into way stations for travelers and guards to and from Journey’s Head.  She had only recently resupplied the stop and it wasn’t likely the stock had been depleted. It was a better option that Mord Souq, where the few berthing spaces that weren’t claimed by the Mord were generally taken up by traders and travelers now that the region was now by and large ‘safe’.

   Ali whistled for Ean and with some coaxing, brought the chocobo low enough so that they could lay Castellan across the saddle.  It wasn’t ideal. There were several quills lodged across the Captain’s front as well. Alisaie prayed that it didn’t make things too much worse. 

   Arranging the Captain safely in the saddle, they headed towards the stone tower that loomed large in the distance.

***

Chapter Text

Hear-

   The soft sound of fabric against fabric, gentle breathing to her right. 

Feel-

   Smoldering pain lit up her nervous system, a warm body pressed against her arm.

Think-

   The events of the battle involving the Maliktender came flooding back. She remembered being knocked backwards, slamming her head against a rock and only barely managing to roll onto her stomach as the massive cactuar fired a volley of deadly needles in her direction. From the pain she was in, she figured a few must have hit. 

   She groaned and the warm body next to her stirred.

   “Trae?”  There was a sleepy quality to the question.

   “Aye,” She managed, her voice cracking from dry disuse.

   “Hold a moment,” Relief flooded Alisaie’s voice, “Try not to move.”

   She managed a pained terse chuckle, “I’ll do my best. But, there’s whispers not even death can keep the Warrior of Darkness down.”

   “Until the day it does,” Came an unamused response and the sound of a tinderstick being struck, “And how do you know about those rumors?”

   “I might have started them.”

   Trae thought she heard the word incorrigible tucked somewhere under Alisaie's breath.  She had little time to think further on it because darkness fled as flame took to wick and bathed the room in the warm glow of an oil lamp. 

   “There,” The mage puffed blowing out the tinderstick, “That should help.”

   Castellan noted they were in a square stone building that had been cleverly built for space by adding three buttressed alcoves attached to the central room.  In one was a kilned oven conveniently flanked by counters. A low fire smoldered within it casting a red glow through the grated iron door. Next to the canteen area was storage and a ladder led to a lofted second floor.  

   The makeshift double bed she lay in took up half of the third alcove.  The other half being occupied by the lamp atop a low table, also upon the table was a bloody pile of rags and a box full of ensanguined spines.

   “Two hundred and thirty five,” Alisaie supplied the answer before she could ask the question. 

    She picked up one of the quills and held it up to the light so Trae could see the offending item.  The shaft was the length of her own finger with two staggered, wickedly hooked barbs towards the tip that ended in a visibly sharp point. 

   “Two hundred and thirty five,” she repeated in a tone that bordered on amazed.  She glanced sideways at Castellan before setting the spine back with a sigh, “It took hours to pull them all from your body.”

   “I’m sorry.”

   “Whatever in the world are you apologizing for?”

   “Worrying you.”

   “W-what makes you-?”  Alisaie started and then stopped when Trae cast a pragmatic lift of her left brow in the Elezen’s direction.  She glanced away, “I’m that obvious, am I? Alphinaud would be so disappointed to know his sister lacks his political gentility.”

   “Doubtful. He’d be thrilled to know that he excels at something you do not.” 

   “There are many things in which he is far more talented than I am.”

   “But do you tell him?”

   “Of course not!” Alisaie was appropriately scandalized by the remark.  

   A small smile curled Castellan’s lips, “I rest my case.”

   Alisaie rolled her eyes and swatted Castellan’s arm playfully.  Her eyes went wide when she realized what she had done, “Gods! I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to hit you-”

   “Ali,” She caught the elezen’s hand before she could pull it back and without any thought to it, brought that same hand up and ghosted her lips over the back of the mage’s knuckles, “You dinnae hurt me.”

   A noticeable blush blossomed on the Red Mage’s neck as her blue eyes riveted themselves to the back of her own hand, “I-I should take a look at your injuries now that you are awake.”

   Castellan nodded, “Aye, let’s see what that bastard did tae me.”

   “Wait!”

   Before Alisaie could finish her protest, Castellan tossed back the covers exposing her naked, battered body.  She had had worse. Much, much worse. Granted, her back felt much more raw than her front but there was no way for her to look at her own posterior despite (according to Y’shtola) having her proverbial head there on occasion.

   A reddish film had crusted over the cross shaped holes the cactuar needles had left.  The injuries themselves were haloed by webbed inflammation and dark purple bruising. Although the pain she felt wasn’t nearly as bad as her abused body suggested it was still palpable.  

   ‘We can fix that.'

   “Eh, it’s not so bad,” She concluded optimistically.

   “You should see the back of you,” Alisaie replied her gaze politely averted.

   “What’s wrong with the back of me?”

   “If you were to try and move, I’m sure you would get a fairly good idea of the number of holes the Maliktender left in you,” Ali turned back towards her as she responded, careful not to let her gaze fall below Castellan’s upper chest.

   “Does it look anything like that?” 

   The Warrior pointed towards the injuries that bespeckled her legs, purposefully drawing Alisaie’s eyes down her naked body and past a most intimate (and immaculate) of places.  The Elezen blushed furiously as she dragged her gaze over Castellan’s exquisite form, “Yes. Just worse.”

   As she opened her mouth to reply, a wave of burning pain rolled along her legs and up her spine.  Her mouth snapped shut as a spasm ripped through her back muscles, forcing it into a slight arch.  

   ‘Let me out.’

   The darkness within her flared.  Inky black aether seeped from her skin.  She could feel her darker self stir. Awakened by the paroxysm, aroused by Alisaie’s close proximity, her aphotic proprium held on to the corners of her consciousness demanding control.  She gritted her teeth, resisting the siren’s call to abdicate command.  

   Not now .

   Darkness fled as the pain receded.  As her focus returned to the present, she noticed that Alisaie had abandoned any pretense of propriety in the face of her distress.  Of course, she had seen this raw concern in the Sharlayan before.  Castellan hadn't been unaware of her companion’s troubled glances while they fought to save Norvrandt as the absorbed aether of the Lightwardens slowly consumed her from within.  That same apprehension now lined Alisaie’s fine brow as she held on to Trae’s hand with both of hers. Her tension eased a bit as the dark knight began to relax.

   “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to worry you-”

   “Shut up, you don’t have to apologize,” Alisaie countered.  She took a breath and looked at Castellan squarely, “What was that?”

   “What was what?”

   “That dark aether just now.. I saw you- it- before with the Maliktender.”

   “Oh, that… that’s a long story.”

   “Considering that we need to wash the dried cactuar paste off of you, I would venture to say we have time,” Alisaie replied in a tone that left little room to argue.

   Trae desperately wished that Ali hadn’t brought the subject up.  There were still some things about her state of being as a dark knight that she didn’t fully understand.  She had worked bits of it out with Sid but she suspected that Rielle knew much more than she was letting on.  It had only been recently that Esteem had begun to appear on the field of battle. The first time it had left her feeling exhausted as if all the aether in her body had been drained and every time subsequent, the same feeling of depletion vexxed her.

   When she had traveled back to the Source she had asked Rielle about it.  The answer had been cryptic: 

   ‘Love is the source of your power.  Love will be the balm to your injuries.  Love is what will bring you back and make you whole.’

   “I’m not quite sure where to begin,” she replied, watching Alisaie gather supplies.

   “Might I suggest beginning where it started.”

   “A wise suggestion.” 

   “I’ve been known to have one or two on occasion.”

   She sighed in acquiesce as her companion sat a bowl of hot water and clean rags on the table, “It began on a cold evening not long after your brother, Tataru and I arrived in Ishgard..”

   ***

   Trae Castellan’s back was distracting.

   Although she was paying attention to the Warrior’s tale, every curve and sculpted muscle caught the eye, despite the maltreatment it had received at the quills of the cactuar.  More than once she had to chasten herself for lingering too long at the muscular curve of Castellan’s derriere. 

   There was something to be said about that, given the highlander’s story of her transformation from a white mage to a dark knight was fascinating.  The first time she had spent any real amount of time with the Maelstrom Captain was when she had enlisted her help in uncovering the mystery of Bahamut and her grandfather.  Trae had been an accomplished white mage then but also incredibly gifted in offensive magic. 

   It was her fierce drive and stalwart determination that first captured Alisaie’s heart and gave her a reason to fight.  The Warrior’s example inspired her to venture out on her own, intent on making her mark saving those she could just as Castellan was so inclined to do.  By the time their paths crossed again in Ishgard, the Highlander had already donned the mantle of a dark knight.

   As Trae recounted how she came to her powers, Alisaie vaguely remembered something being different between the Warrior of Light she met briefly before Ishgard and the one after.  Not that the difference had been an unwelcome or negative one. Just. Different. Darker. But definitely not malevolent.

   Castellan’s story shed light on the reasons behind her transformation: Fray, Sid, Rielle, the coexistence of darkness and light within her.  It was a rather glaring revelation when laid out sequentially.

   “She said love was the source of your powers as dark knight?”  Ali asked as she wiped the remainder of the dried poultice from the back of Castellan’s legs. 

   “Aye.”

   She had so many questions, “And when did you say that it first manifest itself?”

   “After we had arrived in Amaurot.  Before we confronted Emet-Selch, you and I had talked, do you remember?  It was in the fight that followed later against him in his true form that Esteem first appeared.”

   Alisaie knew exactly what conversation she meant.  It was the closest she had come to confessing her feelings since that fateful day the Exarch had torn her consciousness from the Source.

   “Do you remember that talk we had atop the tower in Mord Souq? I’m still of the same mind now as I was then.  I don’t abandon you, you don’t abandon me and together we make a difference in this fight.. If we keep taking that next step forward, there’s a chance we’ll find a way to save you,” She didn’t trust her voice not to crack with emotion, “So no matter how long it takes or how much it hurts, you can count on me to keep walking.”

   She had turned away from the Warrior of Darkness after she had spoken those words, not wanting her to see how much it hurt already to watch her suffer the ravages of the light within.   However, if Castellan’s dark spectre manifested afterwards then- her heart began to pound as the pieces fell into place and the implication of Castellan’s statement set in.  When Trae spoke again, it barely registered.

   “Beg your pardon?” 

   “I asked if we’re done, can I get dressed?”

   “Oh! Yes, of course.  I had Ryne deliver clothes for you to wear.  Your old gear is irreparable. We’ll have to pick you up new,” she said.

   Trae gingerly turned herself over.  Even though her wounds had closed, Alisaie could see that the Warrior’s pain still lingered heavily.  She brought over a pair of dark trousers and shirt as the highlander sat up and swung her legs over the edge of the bed with a slight groan.

   “There are few times I wish I would have stuck with the healing arts.  This would be one of those times. Alphinaud would be able to relieve your pain with a wave of his hand.”

   Trae laughed and then cringed, one arm wrapping around her own chest in a vain attempt to ease the discomfort mirth created,  “Healing isn’t quite as simple as that m’dear.”

   “I know.  But you, Alphinaud and Y’shtola all make it look like it is.”

   “Me?  The last person I healed was Y’shtola, after the attack on Rhalgr’s Reach.  That was ages ago. At least it feels like it was ages ago… Speaking of, I needs talk with Shtola.”

   “Last I heard she had returned to Slitherbough for the time being.  But there’s no way I’m going to let you travel alone in your condition.”

   “I’m fine.”

   “A giggle just caused you to double over in pain.”

   Castellan huffed a laugh and nearly fell over.  Alisaie said nothing, simply arched a brow as she folded her arms over her chest.  

   “Okay. Fine,”  The Warrior relented and the Mage smiled, “Oh, don’t look so pleased with yourself.  If you really wanted to help, you would do what you did last time.”

   “What did I do last time?”

   “Kissed me.”

   “I-I what?”

   “You. Kissed. Me.”

   Alisaie blushed,  “I was hoping you wouldn’t remember that or bring it up.. ever.”

   “Why?”

   She couldn’t tell if the pained look on Castellan’s face was from her current state of malady or if it was caused by something else entirely.  She didn’t want to be the source of any discomfort for the Warrior and despite the overwhelming desire to dismiss the line of inquiry with a vague reply, she didn’t know if she could go on withholding what was on her heart.

   “I didn’t want you to recall it because I’m embarrassed by my lack of decorum.  I find myself enamored with you and I didn’t want you to think me some silly girl who- mmh!”

   It was by far the most effective way in which anyone ever silenced her.  

   Trae’s lips were soft, warm and demanding and it overwhelmed her senses.  She was scarcely aware of the fact she could feel the brush of the Warrior's tongue and the fingertips that caressed over the back of her neck.  Nor did she notice the gentle pull of aether from her being- none of it registered back dropped against the promise that Castellan’s kiss held- that she would never leave nor abandon Alisaie.

 

~~<^>~~

Chapter Text

   The crepuscular creatures had descended on Rak’tika. The red hues darkened towards violet as the day capitulated to its caliginous conclusion.  She held onto Ean’s reins loosely in one hand as she leaned against the Chocobo’s powerful frame for support, his sleek black feathers downy soft.  He occasionally cooed a whistle, as they both watched the last of the sun’s rays sink behind the majestic greatwood trees.

   “I thought I sensed you- is this where you’ve been hiding?”

   “I’d hardly call watching the glorious golden cerise at the day’s end ‘hiding’.  The reds deep and bright.  The hues of orange warm and inviting against the cool lavender gathering of eventide that always presages the depths of zaffre..” She trailed off as she felt Shtola’s hand slip around her bicep and the mage pull up close, “I figured you would enjoy it too.”

   “You’re sweet,” she purred, “Thank you.”

   Trae said nothing choosing instead to lay her hand over the sorceress’ and enjoy a comfortable silence amidst the twilight chorus.

   “I had heard murmurings you had returned some weeks back.”

   “Aye.  I had been meaning to come to you sooner but I was held up by Ryne, Urianger and Thancred.  Then Alisaie and I ran into some trouble in Amn Ahraeng.. Speaking of, she should be along in a bit.  She didn’t want me to travel alone but she received news from Journey’s Head and had to attend to it,” she replied, straightening herself from leaning on Ean.

   The movement caused her still healing injuries to muster a protest against such things.  Trae cringed and stiffened, both reactions catching Y’shtola’s attention, “You’re hurt.”

   “I’m healing, there’s a difference.”

   “Ah, yes.  The other side of the same coin.”

   Castellan sighed, “It’s a long story and according to Urianger - I’m not allowed to speak of half of it.”

   Y’shtola frowned, “What do you mean according to Urianger you’re not allowed to speak about it?”

   “Do you remember how he likes to keep secrets and has done so on a handful of occasions only to have it come back to bite us in the arse?”

   This time the silence that stretched out between them was less comfortable and pregnant with tacit misgivings.  Finally Y’shtola spoke, “It would seem we have more to discuss than your recent travels and the events detailed in your journal.”

   “Aye, that we do,” Castellan replied turning on her heel towards Slitherbough.

   “You’re limping.”

   “I would say ‘isn’t it obvious’ but I realize my snappy witticism is void, if not a tad bit tasteless in present company.  Is there anyway I can assure you that my injuries aren’t that bad and you take my word for it?”

   She dipped under the hyurian’s arm with an affable laugh.  She came up underneath the taller woman’s shoulder lending her gentle support, “You’re wit is not tasteless, I assure you.  Although, I’ll gladly let you flounder as you try to atone for some self-perceived slight against me. It’s rather endearing.  As for the extent of your injuries, I wouldst believe you if you answer me this: have you seen a healer?”

   “Uh, well.. Alisaie attended to me wounds after I had a run in with a Maliktender.  Of course, that was after I returned from fighting the-” The Highlander caught herself and glanced sideways, “I mean… I might have conjured and tangoed with a few primal sized opponents and while Uri- er, uh, while there was an astrologian there. However I would be hard pressed tae say they were of any use other than pondering things around the area,” Castellan kicked herself inwardly for the involuntary dissemination of information.

   She was sure that Y’shtola caught the comments but to her credit she did not acknowledge them, “So the answer is no then?”

   Trae nodded.

   “How long have your injuries afflicted you?”

   “I dunno. It’s been about five days since Ryne and I got back to Amh Araeng and two days prior to that, I hurt my leg.” 

   “Then before anything else, I shall take a look at you.  No insult to the Leveilleur proclivity for the healing arts  but I am concerned that you aren’t recovering as quickly as in times past. I wonder, what has changed?”

   Trae glanced at her, “I was hoping maybe you would know.”

 

   ***

   It was a fantastic tale that only Trae Castellan could tell with any credibility.   Had anyone else told Y’shtola that a dark doppelganger had manifested itself to lead the Warrior of Light (who prior to that moment been a beacon of altruistic white magic) down a path that invariably lead to her becoming the Warrior of Darkness, she would have dismissed it as nothing more than ravings.

   But, Castellan wasn’t prone to verbosity and after fifteen solid minutes of talking, the Miqo’te mage was beginning to wonder if the dark double hadn’t gifted the Highlander with an inclination towards articulation.  Not that she minded, she got to revel in that delightful Ala Mhigan accent for longer.

   Her ears perked up as Trae described the manifestation of her own inner darkness and her attention was hooked when the Warrior recounted Rielle’s words to her:  

   “...All because you were too stubborn to die,” Sid finished, fierce pride evident in his voice.

   “And because of love, I’m sure,” Rielle turned towards Sid - who looked confused- and explained, “Being grim and dark will only get you so far, don’t you remember?  It’s like the moogles- like Ser Ompagne himself said. The flame in the abyss, the love you bear for the ones you hold most dear - that is the source of true strength.  Trae could never have made it this far if her heart wasn’t filled to the brim with love.”

    Something in the statement caught her attention.

   “‘The flame in the abyss’.. did she mean-?”  Y’shtola folded her fingers under her chin briefly in thought. 

   “Hm, I wonder-” She looked squarely at the Warrior, “I suppose there is only one way to find out.  Pray, take off your shirt Captain.”

   The Highlander lifted a brow, “Beg your pardon?”

   She didn’t dignify the question, designed to stall, with a response. Simply mirrored the Maelstrom officer’s feigned credulous expression and waited.  

   Trae rolled her eyes with a huff and began working the fastenings of her shirt, “Fine.”

   When she was down to her chest binding, Y’shtola began a cursory exam.  Her sightless eyes tracking the flow (or in cases of injury- diminished lack thereof) of aether through Castellan’s body.   Her hands hovering and soothing over Trae’s body meridians.

   “I don’t understand why I had to take off my shirt,” Castellan grumbled.

   “Because you know as well as I do that non-aetheric material such as fabric and leather obstructs the reading of qi.  Hush now and let me work.”

   The Warrior’s aether had always been powerful and unique.  It was incredibly easy for her to find it. However, there was something different about it.  She vividly remembered the quality and feel of Castellan’s essence as the Highlander had given some of her own vitality in order to save Y’shtola’s life at Rhalgr’s Reach.  However, the vibrational quality of the Warrior’s aether was now much lower than it had been before. As if the polarity of it had been realigned towards the umbral. She frowned.

   “I don’t like that look,” Trae said quietly.

   “I wouldn’t either knowing myself as well as I do.”

   “So very comforting,”  Castellan sighed, “Well, c’mon, don’t leave me in suspense.”

   “Patience.  I have an idea but there is something I need to test first.”

   Y’shtola drew on the elements around her, channeling the energy through her body, she summoned a simple healing spell hovering her hand over the Warrior’s heart.  The healing magicks glowed brighter as she pushed more towards the Highlander. However, as soon as the energy made contact with Castellan’s aura, the Warrior’s own aether overwhelmed and transmuted the highly vibrational astral healing towards the umbral.

   The miqo’te frowned thoughtfully, “Indeed, it’s as I suspected.”

   “What?”

   “There was, in fact, a side effect to your serving as a walking, occasionally talking, containment vessel for the aether of the Lightwardens.  Your own now seems to align towards the umbral. Which, unfortunately, is lessening the effectiveness of any external healing magick you recieve.”

   Trae knitted her brow,  “Well, shit. That’s going tae complicate getting injured.”

   “Yes, it is.  However, I believe your young acquaintance Rielle may have given you the answer.”

   “Oh?”

   “Yes.”

   “And that would be?”

   “Love.” 

   Trae looked skeptical so she continued, “Love is possibly the most powerful force in the universe and there is no purer aether in the cosmos. Its nature is also very unique in the fact that it is neutral in its polarity, able to exist in both states concurrently.  It started when you first absorbed Ardbert’s essence and used it to empower and heal yourself from the effects of the Light. Add to this your natural proclivity to channeling healing magicks, I believe that you would be able to heal yourself using the vibrational frequency of the emotion.  Withal passive love would do you no good, it would have to be of the more quickened variety- love in its astral state.”

   “And what exactly is love in its astral state?”

   Y’shtola grinned licentiously, “Do you really have to ask?”

   ***