Snowflakes fluttered about, slow, lazy, inconsequential, as though this was merely yet another frigid Ishgardian Tuesday, not the day Sidurgu's world ended.
He would have won the trial if the judges had allowed him to keep his cane. Sidurgu knew it to be the truth.
Still, thinking in hypotheticals did nothing to change the fact that Temple Knights were carrying Fray's dead body to the Brume.
Sidurgu followed the macabre procession in order to retrieve what remained of the best friend he's ever had once the knights were done making an example of him. Always only a corner away to remain unseen.
Trouble started when it became clear that he wasn't the only one.
And, yes, Temple Knights disposed of executed criminals in the slums knowing full well that the impoverished locals would flock to the corpses like financial vultures. One final 'fuck you' to whoever they've just killed.
Meaning, company wasn't entirely unexpected.
These weren't from around here, however.
Most likely adventurers. Two miqo'te.
A woman with long, midnight blue dreadlocks, dressed in plate armour, and armed with sword and shield of a make foreign to Coerthas.
Her skin was a soft clay tone – much darker than Sidurgu had previously seen on anybody who was not an au ra – accompanied by red tribal war paint.
And a sickly pale man whose cream white hair was bound in some sort of elaborate braided up-do with bronze beads.
Tall by miqo'te standards, but still nowhere near elezen heights, or even Sidurgu himself.
A hefty tome marked him as an arcanist, and his aether tasted distinctly like Fray's conjury.
The two approached the discarded body after the knights left, and gathered Fray's Soul of the Dark Knight from where it had fallen out of his armour.
The crystal didn't take well to being handled after the fall, and Sidurgu heard the distinct plink of it shattering in two.
(It's the sound of his heart breaking.)
They speak in hushed whispers before departing in the direction of the Pillars, each taking one half of the soul crystal.
(Each taking one half of Sidurgu's heart.)
Sidurgu collects Fray, and buries him in one of their old haunts out in the central highlands where nobody will disturb him.
- - -
Rielle doesn't ask where he's been when he comes back to their home in the Brume late that night. He realizes she's trying to be considerate, but somehow that makes it all worse.
- - -
The woman becomes a regular fixture of the Brume in the weeks after.
She carries a greatsword now, and something about the way she moves is so very Fray that Sidurgu's stomach ties itself into painful little knots every time he sees her.
(He tries not to look, and fails. Just like he failed Fray.)
Sometimes the man accompanies her to the Forgotten Knight, and Sidurgu did a honest-to-gods double-take when he first heard him speak: mild on the surface, but cutting, sardonic once you start listening between the lines.
Like being gracefully asked to drown yourself in a freezing lake, and they're just so polite that you can't bring yourself to deny them.
(His teeth look just as sharp as his tongue is. As Fray's had been.)
He hadn't been this struck by grief when their master was killed, but he hadn't been as alone as he was now, either.
- - -
The Brume rumour mill soon informs him that their names are U'mikke and Sei.
They're in Ishgard under patronage of House Fortemps.
And the Inquisition is investigating them on accusations of heresy.
- - -
Sometimes he believes he sees Fray out of the corner of the eye when U'mikke is in the Brume. But it never lasts.
(He begins to think that nothing ever does.)
- - -
U'mikke was out in Whitebrim when everything finally caught up to her.
Her carelessness with the dark arts.
Something in her mind cracked when she was warned that the Inquisition may require her to surrender her weapon.
And even if the commander of the Front was willing to give a Warrior of Light the benefit of the doubt after injuring a good dozen of his men, the inquisitors weren't so kind.
They summoned her out to Behemoth's Dominion, of all dead places. And this time there was nobody to support her – no Sei, no Fray-shaped shade.
She defeated them anyway, and it's a mystery for the ages how the Inquisition ever expected to subdue the Eikon Slayer with three men.
This demi-goddess clad in steel.
Candy red blood dripped from her greatsword like a promise, and painted the pristine snow with delicious, violent shapes.
The commander of the doomed unit backed away into a tree, and held on to the trunk like to a saviour while she was measuring him up to decide if he was worth the effort.
(He could hardly harm her now. Not alone. But he would go back to Ishgard, and next time the Inquisition might be wiser.)
All Sidurgu wanted to know in that moment was whether she's going to kill the guy already or not.
The inquisitor used U'mikke's confusion at the sudden appearance of the au ra to slip away, littering threats all the while. Like he was the one allowing U'mikke to escape, the shite.
Sidurgu follows him, and finishes the job.
(It's the least he could do after disrupting her fight, though he never says so.)
When he shows her the sword of the inquisitor later in the Forgotten Knight, she is visibly shaken by the trophy.
Who would have thought that this rabid demon of a woman is so soft at her core.
That's one bad joke if Sidurgu has ever heard one.
- - -
The paladins of Ul'dah are sworn to the sultana. Which left the small question of what one of their number was doing all the way in Ishgard.
(There was a story to that, and Sidurgu would collect fragments of it for a long time. Mostly, Sei would be his source, even if he didn't know everything about the incident either.
The banquet would be the one thing U'mikke never openly spoke about, ever.)
It stood to reason that sparring against U'mikke when she used her longsword ought, by all accounts, be similar to fighting Temple Knights.
Except Sidurgu got his ass handed to him on a silver platter when he expected her to behave like an Ishgardian knight during their first match.
To start with, she had access to a number of potent light-based magicks designed to augment longsword and shield.
Meanwhile, the common Ishgardian foot solider preferred to wave their sword around like a child who has broken a stick off a tree.
Well, and that. That had been his mistake, hadn't it?
The personal guard of the monarch of the sultanate couldn't possibly be comprised of common soliders. Not by any definition.
- - -
Sei was a scholar by trade – a kind of Nymean battlemage specializing in healing and barriers.
But when he had tried to reconcile his rocky relationship with his birthplace – the Black Shroud – back in the aftermath of the Calamity, he enlisted in the guild of conjurers, and even went as far as to train in ancient Amdapori white magic.
Ultimately, 'it wasn't a good fit', he said.
Why, he never elaborated.
But whatever quarrels Sei may have with the forest and its magicks, none of it ever stopped him from tutoring Rielle when he realized that the girl had a talent.
The four of them would sit around their table in the back of the Knight, and Sidurgu could almost see the growth of Rielle's conjury day to day.
The soft glow in the girl's eyes when she lost herself in Sei's notes and formulas was a sight to behold. But then, her new teacher had won the trust of the padjal, and was an altogether stronger mage than Fray ever been to begin with.
(Sidurgu wished Fray could see her now. But, in a sense, he already could, couldn't he? Through two sets of eyes, too.)
One day, Sei offered, if the padjal allow it, he would pass on his Soul of the White Mage to Rielle.
Wouldn't that be just the perfect fairy tale ending?
(The pessimist in Sidurgu wouldn't shut up about how unlikely it all was. Too good to come true.)
Sei says Rielle would make a better white mage than he ever could. Purely on the basis that she cares for the art, and he doesn't.
- - -
U'mikke is downright elegant when wielding that hulking slab of metal they call a greatsword.
Watching her fight is like watching death dance, and Sidurgu earned himself a number of nasty gashes by stopping mid-battle to gawk at her like the idiot he is.
(He doesn't exactly regret it.)
Sei prefers the lighter claymores, but makes up for the lack of raw power by reaching deep into the abyss. The dark arts simply roll off his tongue, and the ease of it makes Sidurgu's skin crawl.
(Then he learns that Sei dabbled in black magic before, and it all makes sense.)
Between the two, they make one perfect dark knight.
It's more than anybody could ask of them.
- - -
They own a cottage in Gridania that's often unoccupied for days at a time because getting tossed around all of thrice-damned Eorzea is apparently an integral part of the job description of a Warrior of Light.
Sidurgu and Rielle are welcome to move in, but–.
Sidurgu isn't actually sure what his counter-argument is – U'mikke and Sei have already spent half of their stay in Ishgard over at his place, so the only difference that'd make is a real mattress instead of the sorry thing he's been using.
He concedes to the point that Gridania is a better place for a child with the blood of the dragon to grow up, so that's what they do.
Not like he could expect to change Rielle's mind when she's already been promised fresh chocolate croissants every day.
To be fair, Gridanian bakers do some amazing things to dough.
- - -
In the cottage, Sei is mostly the one who cooks.
Not because U'mikke is unable, but because she can't be bothered.
Sidurgu doesn't mind.
He would challenge Nidhogg himself to single combat for a bowl of Sei's pumpkin soup.
- - -
Back in Ishgard, whenever U'mikke and Sei stayed in the Brume instead of the Fortemps manor, there was an unspoken agreement that none of them gave a damn.
They all had more important things to worry about, back then, what with the Temple Knights hunting Rielle, and the death throes of the Dragonsong War, and Haurchefant.
(But Sidurgu didn't learn about that last one until much later.)
So while Rielle had her own room, all three adults sort of collapsed on Sidurgu's one (1) ratty mattress, and that was that.
I was something they never talked about, like how it seemed rude to prod at the traumas of the others uninvited no matter what the aetheric resonance of the soul crystals let them spy upon.
The first night the four of them stayed in the cottage together, they were going to make arrangements, but instead ended up in a haphazard pile on the gigantic couch in the living room.
When Sidurgu came to, the first thing he became aware of was the odd angle at which he was sit-sleeping, which gave him the mother of all cricks in the neck.
The second was how peaceful Rielle looked cuddled up in U'mikke's arms.
And the third, that U'mikke and Sei were slotted against either of his sides.
He was vaguely aware of U'mikke's tail twisting around his leg, and how their rib cages pushed against one another with every breath.
The fluffy tip of her lion's tail tickled him through the fabric.
Sei, on the other hand, stirred by Sidurgu's awakening, gave him a bleary, unconscious look before nuzzling closer into the crook of the au ra's neck, where he proceeded to mutter something incoherent for apparently no other reason than to feel his voice vibrate against Sidurgu's scales.
It was a miqo'te sandwich with au ra filling, and a side of elezen.
Sidurgu drifted back to sleep with the arrythmic hum of Sei's voice, and the steady reminder of U'mikke's ribs.
This. Things could stay like this, a thought fluttered by, although Sidurgu wasn't sure it had been his. Maybe Sei said that.
It didn't matter.
It was the truth.