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Some nights, the ghosts still find her, undaunted by their graves.

In Gridania, the nightmares lessen, hidden away by towering trees instead of being framed by stone and spire at every turn. Rielle blooms brilliantly - flowering with a bright smile and sharp tongue under the snatches of sun through the sheltering canopy. Conjury comes to her easily, and the tittering of the Elementals is only matched by her new friends at the Fane.

Though he was never one for the forest, Sidurgu doesn't mind staying if it means watching her flourish. (And yes, that includes his near-daily routine of slaying ground squirrels and chigoe like any other adventurer, his experience as a mercenary be damned.)

But tonight, in the comfort of their temporary accommodations, he is reminded that mercy never found a place in Halone's repertoire.

Rielle wakes with a start in their shared bed - a harsh gasp, pulse racing like a rabbit’s, eyes wildly scanning the corners of the room, thin form curling into herself should something, anything try to hurt her. The aether about Rielle shifts and Sid stirs, faintly aware of the way she's squirmed away from him. He sleepily opens his eyes, limbal rings glowing faintly when he adjusts to the dark between midnight and dawn. He was a light sleeper, never falling too deep into the abyss of unconsciousness lest he break his constant vigil - a trait he picked up out of necessity, born from a fitful youth of running, running, running-

...Oh. His eyes widen in minute surprise. The gleaming wetness staining Rielle’s face does not go unnoticed, nor does the trembling of her shoulders when she bites back whimpers.

Sid never knows what to say when this happens; he's no stranger to nightmares himself, but the soothing words from Fray are lost when he feels something inside his ribs twist at the sight of her. She is just a child, they said. They were right, when she seems so terribly small in that moment.

So he waits, watching Rielle from where she barely peeks out of the covers.

“Another nightmare?” He finally asks, voice too rough and loud for his own liking in the room.

She nods. He silently slips out of the covers after letting his gaze linger for a moment.

He is familiar with the motions now, mentally recounting the steps Ser Ompagne would take for him when he was young. The dying glow of a dim lantern illuminates the room - just enough for him to pick his way around the small house without tripping and banish the dark from Rielle’s head. Anything to keep from reminding her of her incarceration.

Sidurgu scours the kitchen, lets a low flame warm his hands over the stove while he waits for water to boil, and inhales the scent of dried herbs as it fills his corner of the house.

“Here.” He holds the mug of fresh tea towards her, and watches as she takes a sip, her frame shuddering slightly when relief travels down her spine. “Better?”

She nods again, the same demure, despondent motion that she made a hundred times over after being plucked from the streets. There is a frozen sea in her faraway eyes, like a bird with clipped wings, still locked away in her mother’s cage.

Hot rage would be callous when the air feels as fragile as glass. Sidurgu sits at her bedside, simply letting her breathe and counting the seconds with each rise and fall of her chest until they become steady.

The wisps of steam between her hands eventually dissipate into nothingness. She sets the mug aside.

“...Do you think she would have forgiven me?” It is little more than a whisper when she breaks the stillness, half-choked and watery. In the emptiness of the house, it echoes in the confines of his horns.

“The way I see it, there is naught to forgive.” Sid replies plainly. Nothing wrong with wanting to live, Fray would say.

“She called me a monster.” Rielle says, her voice thin under the smell of herbs. Her cup sits otherwise untouched on her nightstand, growing cold.

“They called me a monster, too. Though I suppose I am in the business of proving them right.” Sid sighs, then frowns, because he's no good at this - Fray was always the one malms better with children. Any pithy comfort he could offer stuck in his throat like thick tar - but then he sees himself in Rielle’s place, when the aether swirls and flickers with sparks from the past.

( Ser Ompagne by his bed, a gentle timbre reading passages from the Enchiridion to lull him to sleep, a boy begging for forgiveness from those he left behind - their voices were muted, blurry echoes that he soon forgot, because ghosts couldn't speak, no matter how many times he engraved their names upon his lips each night. Not even Nhaama deigned to grace him with her presence when he gazed upon the full, ivory moon, and he could only wait in the cold, in the dark, for something that would never come. )

He thinks about that boy, and what he wanted to hear, during all those nights both alone and haunted.

“For what it's worth - while you may not have family anymore, you have me.” He says, taking her hand in his from where it rests atop the covers. “And no matter what happens, I’ll be there to forgive you.”

Her fingers close around his hand, tentatively, deliberately, hesitating - wondering if she deserves this kindness.

“Thank you.” She murmurs, the ice around her thawing slowly. He exhales in relief, letting her take solace in each scar and callus in his palm.

Sid watches the sunrise with her when it filters through the window, and lets it chase away their memories.

Chapter Text

“The covenant hath been severed,” Midgardsormr states when he first materializes in wisps of aether, voice proudly echoing among the white plains. He flaps his wings to buoy himself above the ravaged land, disdainful of the way the air is unnaturally still.

Omega’s rudimentary sensors lock onto his diminutive form and he narrows his beady gaze at the machine. An unwelcome guest. He lands, claws sinking into the dirt, fins minutely twitching as he scrutinizes the other.

“The land is dead. My children seek solace far above the clouds, away from the reaches of man.” He pauses to glance around him - he vaguely recognizes the lay of Silvertear, the basin hollowed and empty. “And now, my greatest foe would disturb my slumber once more, bearing the last light of a dying race.”

Omega only lets out a soft blip in response. Correct.

Midgardsormr sighs with an ancient depth, the motion traveling down the length of his body. Mortal affairs rarely interested the wyrm king, but the Mother of this star had grown terribly weak, too feeble for her words to reach him. He lowers himself to the ground, tail curling about his slender body patiently.

“Thou mayest be a pitiful fragment of thine former glory, but the ear of a wyrm transcends such petty constraints. Speak freely, for I would hear what hath transpired in my absence.”

An extended beat of silence grows between them, in the lifeless plain, one where Midgardsormr wonders if the other had finally ceased to function. Before he decides to retreat to the aether, the machination’s legs tentatively flex once, and Omega acquiesces to the dragonet’s request.

Its systems are partially rusted with disuse, slowly forgotten with each generation that inherited Garlond Ironworks. Still, it whirrs and clicks in the semblance of speech, sifting through its accrued datalogs and reciting the necessary files. The accounts are generally dry and impartial with the occasional attempt at extrapolation, but the glint of emotion in more recent logs does not go unnoticed by Midgardsormr. He says nothing on the matter.

Its interface flashes once when it finishes relaying the history of man’s downfall, the light dimming as if it had exhausted itself with the feat.

Midgardsormr lets out a deep rumble in thought - though, in his current form, it sounds closer to a coeurl kitten’s purr. “I see. ‘Tis a great tragedy my chosen should fall to this calamity.”

He pauses, bowing his neck and closing his eyes. A moment to mourn their all-too fleeting life.

Omega makes a questioning click.

“Doth thou not thinkest me able to feel sorrow?” Midgardsormr bares his fangs in a mirthless smile. “Mortal lives are naught more than a blink to my kind, yet we know the value of those precious to us.” Or, perhaps, that was the reason why - to watch mortals endlessly bloom and fade like the turn of the seasons made certain souls seem all the brighter in their pithy flicker of a life.

Omega is silent, recording the wyrm’s words.

Midgardsormr’s keen expression softens, fleshy wings tucked comfortably against his flank. “I sheltered them under my wing when they had no allies to turn to. On their journey did I watch them grow ever stronger, until they proved themselves worthy of my blessing. And soon, I found myself thinking of them as one of my own brood.”

His children were free to command their own domains as he slept at the lakebed, and he saw little reason to interfere in their endeavors. Yet when he gazed upon the one who upheld his covenant, he felt the same kindling fondness he held for his clutch when he first arrived on this star, curling his brilliant mane of fire around them when the night turned cold. Would that he could have shielded them from their unfortunate fate in the same way.

Midgardsormr shakes his head when the scattered memories of their escapades come to him in a deluge. He had been powerless, far too late to change anything when they needed his aid. He silently offers an apology to them, hoping it will find what remains of their aether through the vast nothingness. “I have lost children to war and disaster before, but never one so small and fragile.”

Omega makes another blip to fill the breath that follows. Midgardsormr hums lowly in affirmation.

“And yet, they live on. They were most gifted at sparking hope in the weary hearts of man and dragon alike. It is a beautiful thing, indeed.” He yawns, a plume of blue flame escaping his jaws before he returns to sleep. “There is naught to do but wait. Leave me to my slumber, and let us wake in another time, far from this dying realm.”

Chapter Text

“I would thank you to be still.” 

Y’shtola’s light chastising draws Anjali from his thoughts, halting the idle movements he's been making to stay his restless heart. In the dark of the other’s quarters, the candles cast their now-frozen shadows long against the stone. 

“Sorry.” He says, noting her ears expectantly twitching in his periphery. 

“I wouldn't mind otherwise, but it is tradition. It would be a disservice to both you and the Night’s Blessed to do a careless job. And,” Anjali can hear the wryness in her voice when she next speaks, “you asked, did you not?”

“Aye, point taken.” He nods, lips quirking upwards sheepishly, and promises not to fidget like a child while the other works. Y’shtola hums in satisfaction as she returns to the canvas of his back.

She was right, of course - he did ask for this. Anjali was ever curious about how she lived among the Night’s Blessed and enjoyed listening to her recount their traditions. He could always ask the residents about their way of life when they considered him a savior, but he found himself preferring Master Matoya’s accounts, delivered in the quiet of her study, or a secluded part of Rak’tika far away from prying eyes. They reminded him of simpler times in the Waking Sands, keeping her company as she sifted through research materials in the until odd hours of the morning by waning candlelight.

This particular visit touched upon the subject of upcoming festivities, upheld even with the return of the night. A night for remembrance and celebration of those who gave their lives, a night of laughter and chatter and feasting and dancing - Anjali can smell Runar’s cooking wafting through Slitherbough, but the only thing preventing him from helping himself was his curiosity regarding a certain tradition.

White paint is used in reverence, Y’shtola explained. Heartstones kept the soul safe, but what of the flesh of the turned? White wings are painted upon the backs of all of the blessed, symbolizing those of the sinless. The patterns were meant to bear some of their purity, and to protect those who would defend the wood… 

The strokes of her brush are precise but light, enough that he can ignore the sensation if he lets his mind wander.

He keeps himself occupied by silently cataloging the stash of belongings Y’shtola kept in her corner of Slitherbough. The Rising Stones had the benefit of a personal library for research, with multiple scholars taking residence in the Scions’ collection of literature. But without someone like Coultenet to periodically straighten the room, it seemed the other had a penchant for scattering her things about.

Anjali stifles a laugh. It feels as though he is in Matoya’s Cave again, with books and documents lovingly strewn about. He thinks about their first meeting here, among shadow-blessed stone, and speaks softly to not derail her current focus.

“Did you truly think me a Lightwarden when we first met?” He asks as the brush glides over his nape. 

A pause. The bundle of light fibers tickles his skin for an endless moment before she finishes the pattern. “Yes, I did. Suffused with such brilliance, I was without doubt that no other creature could hold that much light besides one that had been devoid of sin.”

His aether was amorphous, ever pliant when he continuously found new ways to wield it. Between pacts with ancient wyrms, his collection of soul crystals, and blessings from the Mothercrystal herself, it didn't surprise him that it would become distorted by light - but to be outright unrecognizable to one of his comrades was something he didn't anticipate. 

(And, if he's being completely honest, the thought still terrifies him.)

“What about now?” He always wondered how he looked to her each time they parted, wondering if this constant change was a good thing.

“Even now, bereft of someone else’s light, you are no less radiant.” She replies, quieter. No mention of the way his aether swells and squirms and shimmers like some barely-contained beast.

Her palm rests at the center of Anjali’s back, feeling the slow rhythm of his breath and heart. 

He tenses at the feeling. The touch is enough to feel intimate, for not many were privy to the collection of scars beneath his armor save for the occasional chirurgeon. He finds himself expecting the aether of a cure spell to press into his flesh, like the many times she had done before, but the cooling sensation never comes - just Y’shtola’s hand, small and warm.

“It makes me wonder, at times, if we have the right to stand by you. If we are even afforded the privilege of being smudged away into shadow.” Her words are no louder than a murmur. “I know you are fond of keeping your burdens to yourself to not cause others worry, but… you needn’t bear them alone.”

She no longer sounds like the unflappable Master Matoya. He cannot see her face from here, and can only fathom what kind of expression has overtaken her normally composed features. Anjali cannot conjure the words to soothe her worries, but Y’shtola has never minded the fact that words were not his forte.

The moment fades as soon as it had come when she starts painting another feathery wing across his back. Anjali still feels the ghost of her warmth on his skin long after it fades, even when her brush carries it away.

“There.” She finally removes the brush. “Perhaps this will offer some measure of protection the next time you must go alone… or at the very least, remind you that we’re here.” She straightens herself and beams at him, a familiar cross between cheeky and sincere concern.

“Thank you.” Anjali smiles and shrugs once, feeling the cool paint drying on his shoulder blades.

That seems to please her, because she tugs him to his feet by the wrist before turning her attention to the door. “Let us not keep Runar waiting any longer. He’s been terribly excited to show you new dishes now that we’ve established occasional trade with Fanow and the Crystarium.”

He nods and she guides him outside, where they find Slitherbough flooded by mirth and lantern light.

Chapter Text

“It felt as though I was being torn in half.” He starts, slowly, carefully.

It began where you first met, except you’re taking a seat at the Wandering Stairs instead of sequestered away in a private corner. Your plate is polished with a half-downed mug of cider to the side, because watching Granson talk of his recent travels is proving to be more interesting than the bitter warmth of a drink. There wasn't the opportunity to see the other in his cups when you joined him on the hunt, but tonight was to a moment of blessed reprieve when your paths happened to cross again.

He pauses and touches the scar on his face. A conversation about less-pragmatic escapades led to you asking the source of the scar across his brow and nose - though, you had an inkling as to what he meant when he told you he carved reminders of his vow into his flesh.

“It’s stupid, really. It seemed like a… not exactly a good idea at the time, but a fitting one.” He stares down the top of his tankard in his hands, as if trying to find some hidden truth in the liquid sloshing around inside. His cheeks are slightly flushed, and you can't tell if it's more from the glow or his apparent embarrassment. “Somewhere to put the anger and grief, I suppose, when there weren't any sin eaters to tear apart.”

He fidgets now, and you almost want to tell him he doesn't have to explain if it causes him discomfort. But he seems determined to give you the truth, after all you've done for him. So you wait, listen to the idle chatter around the stairs, wondering if you can pick out any voices you recognize until Granson speaks again, soft enough that you have to strain to hear him over the din of the Crystarium.

“It felt unfair. She didn't so much as touch me when she turned. Just… bowed her head, waiting for my blade to sever her in twine.” His hands are clasped before him, forehead pressed against them as if in prayer. As if asking for forgiveness again. “And every time I remembered, it didn't make sense to me. I was in so much pain, yet I was the only one unscarred by it all. That in itself was an agony I couldn't endure. So I took my trusted hunting knife - the one that I used to carve little statues and charms for Milinda when work was scarce, and... well, you know the rest.”

He laughs, a dry and empty noise as he shakes his head and rights himself. “Bled all over my clothes like the dumb bastard I was, and walked around the Crysatrium like that until some kind soul from Spagyrics took pity on me. It was a right mess.”

Granson quickly waves away the incident, the tips of his ears still red, eyes not quite meeting yours. You wouldn't mock him for it, and he knows this. But perhaps he just didn't want you to know of his least graceful moments.

“Anyways, you don't have to worry about me. I, uh, never had a chance to talk to anyone about what happened. But even if you're the quiet sort - after what you've gone through, I’d say you’d know that feeling better than anyone, sinner.” He glances above at the starry sky, drinks deeply of the night, then turns back to you. “I’m doing better now, I think. Easier to walk and breathe. I hollowed myself out for the sake of revenge, but it feels like things are starting to grow inside again. Just wanted to say thanks for that.”

You drum your fingers lightly on the counter of the bar in thought. Your soul crystal feels close to bursting, because you've lived his story before - several times over in the aether beneath the surface, and once in stone and snow and steel.

So before the ale truly takes him, you speak.

You tell him that he reminds you of a knight. Not of Branden or Dikaiosyne, but of a knight who was the same as him - lost, mourning, angry, fueled only by hate because it was the only way he could think to carry on. And then you tell him of his charge, of his closest companion, of his master. Of how he made peace with the world and learned to weld together the cracks in his obsidian heart.

You recite the words engraved in the deepest part of the abyss, holding them quietly like a precious artifact. From across the counter, Cylva listens with mild interest as she dries a glass.

“The flame in the abyss, eh? Quite the romantic way to put it. I’ll keep that in mind.” He understands, in a way, yet doesn't.

He spoke of the path, but he’s only brushed the surface of the abyss. A voice scoffs from the swirling aether of your crystal. His blade is painfully nascent.

And that might be for the better, when you are intimately familiar with how it consumes and suffocates. There is a flicker of envy, watching him come away unscathed, untainted when the thick mire does not cling to him - but mostly relief, because when he offers you a parting smile, you can find the young man full of dreams he spoke of in gentler memories.

It makes the blade hanging off your shoulders feel lighter to know he’d been spared the same fate as you. You say nothing more and watch his back disappear into the crowds when he bids you farewell.

Chapter Text

The nectar from Lydha Lran’s flowers is tasteless on their lips as the sticky, syrupy liquid slides down their throat. Not satisfying in the least, not enough.

They say nothing and set the cup down after the first sip.

The vibrant tea party continues regardless, the banquet hall a flurry of activity with pixies flitting about. The inside of the castle shimmers with bright light, overgrown plants with colorful petals, disorienting in their childish opulence. The shrill chorus of laughter bounces off the walls and pillars, cutting through their clouded mind and drawing forth slight smile from them when they're asked to a dance by several delicate hands.

It was a celebration for the king, after all. A feast of sweets scattered along the grand table, accompanied by ancient songs in children’s voices.

They thank the pixies when the festivities end, and listen to the sound of their giggles when they retreat on fluttering wings through the doors and windows. Dear, dear children who tried to soothe their ailing king with flowers and fruits and tricks - they cannot fault them for it, but it proves increasingly difficult to pretend their soul is not being rent to pieces.

Their cup sits drained of ambrosia. They are still parched.

They do not follow. They keep to the castle, iridescent wings folded on their back, foreign magicks buzzing through their fingers when they send the conjured flowers and trees away. They walk through the carpeted halls like a ghost when they retire to their chambers, long gown brushing the floor, mindlessly trying to keep their regrets at bay when the playful chattering of their subjects does not fill the air.

The light outside the stained windows is terribly beautiful, casting dancing rainbow prisms on the marble floor and detailed rugs.

It catches the surface of their skin - now close to flecks of porcelain - dyeing them in a writhing spectra. For a single, blessed moment, they are anything but pure white and sinless. But the ephemeral moment of relief vanishes when they duck further inside the halls.

Their vision is hazy when the light pricks their periphery, head spinning, eyes bright - they're more aware of the aether and how it shifts and swirls, wafting about enticingly with each breeze through the boughs of Il Mheg. They remember less with each passing hour when everlasting light renders time meaningless, their days a muddled collection of watching the calm surface of Longmirror lake from the windows, being spoiled and doted on by the pixies, adorned in flowers and playing games, constant movement and mirth, rarely affording them a moment where they could think on those they had left behind.

Ardbert’s voice is drowned out by sugary wings and growing light. It blinds and deafens, steals away memories of - who, exactly? Voices calling for them as they stood over the corse of a gilded angel, eyes the color of crystalline blessings, gentle hands with calluses on their palms, the whispers of someone who tried to riddle and bargain his way into Il Mheg again, only to be denied an audience with the king and promptly cast out.

They let themselves wander about as if in a fog - gazing upon the royal tapestries lining the walls and making up stories for each one, absently making dead plants flourish with a wave of their hand for their own amusement.

The only mercy is sleep, though even that is fitful when there is an unending brilliance behind their eyelids.

Feo Ul strokes their hair gently as they fall into the semblance of dark, pristine sheets curled around them as they are lost in the ornate bed. They lean into the featherlight touch, silently yearning for a past that no longer binds them, oaths that have turned to empty echoes, tears now turning to black ink.

“Your soul is still beautiful, cracks and all.” Feo Ul murmurs, a sad smile touching their lips as they continue their gentle affection. “Sometimes, I can't help but wonder what it could have been like if it didn't come to this… but your lovely branch will always be by your side. Sleep well, my beloved sapling.”