Carnage spreads out before her in all directions. Fresh blood drips from her sword to pool at her feet. Overhead the sky is dark with clouds, but there is no storm in them. Like the snarling howl of an unseen beast echoing from the shadows of a cave, so too does her forgotten past echo in her mind where all she can make out is the sense of dread and shame that she both wishes she could remember yet hopes she never does. She drops her sword to cover her eyes. She already knows what she will see if she looks around the battlefield, whose faces will stare blankly at her from where they fell. Members of her tribe. Zuala. The Mighty Nein. Molly. Tears mingle with the blood on her hands.
A faint rattling rumble reaches her ears. Thunder? She opens her eyes in hope. The clouds are as flat and foreboding as ever. The sound is coming from somewhere close by. Yasha turns to search for its source.
It’s a wagon. A simple wagon drawn by two pale horses and driven by a cloaked figure. Somehow a road has appeared through the heaps of lifeless bodies and the wagon is making its way along it in her direction. The person driving the wagon has their hood up, obscuring their face. Yasha can sense they are looking at her though. She walks to the road to meet them.
The figure tugs the reins to stop the horses. They reach up and pull back their hood. The entire cloak vanishes, revealing a long lean body clothed in a leather jerkin and patterned leggings. Familiar red eyes twinkle above a fanged smile like campfires guiding her home.
“Well this place is a fuckin’ nightmare, isn’t it?” Molly offers her a hand. “D’you wanna get out of here?”
Yasha’s heart stumbles. “Molly?” Tears cascade from her eyes. She wipes them away, but more take their place. “Molly is that really you?”
Molly snorts softly. “I’m not that fiendish fuck who hangs around here sometimes, I can assure you that.” He beckons with his outstretched fingers. “C’mon, I want to take you somewhere nice.”
It has to be him. Yasha can feel it. She takes his hand and climbs into the seat next to him. Molly snaps the reins to encourage the horses onward. Yasha takes a moment to just stare at him. He’s exactly how she remembered, though without his beautiful coat. She remembers the others left it on his grave marker. There is a spark of sadness in her heart that he doesn’t have it in the afterlife.
“W— Where are we going?” she asks.
“Somewhere nice,” Molly replies.
Yasha frowns. “You said that already.”
“So I did,” Molly says with a cheeky grin. “And that’s all I’m going to say because you know how much I love a good surprise.” He waggles his head. “Alright, one hint. You can thank my replacement for giving me access to this place.”
“Yeah, him. Lovely fellow, isn’t he? Has a nasty case of tunnel vision sometimes, but his heart’s in the right place. He wants to help all of you, and that is more than fine by me.” Molly turns to look at her. “How’ve you been, though? Other than the usual?”
The flow of tears that had reduced to a trickle now resumes full force. “I’ve missed you so much.”
Molly’s smile fades. “I’ve missed you too, dearest.” His tail flicks against her back. “What are you doing sitting so far away from me? Come on, you know I don’t bite.”
There’s barely a gap between them, but Yasha scoots until their sides are firmly pressed together. Molly puts his arm and tail around her. She rests her head on his shoulder. He even smells the way she remembers.
“Why don’t you get some rest?” Molly suggests. “I don’t think your sleep actually counts if you’re stressed out while you’re unconscious.”
“Okay.” Yasha closes her eyes, relishing the closeness of her lost friend as the wagon rolls along.
“So that’s what your dreams look like?” Molly says. “Actually not as bad as I thought it’d be, based on how you described it. I thought there’d be mountains of corpses and rivers of blood and all that. But it is gruesome, to be sure, and I’m glad I can get you out of that, even if it is just for one night.”
Yasha leans into him harder. Of course this is a dream, but she doesn’t want it to be. She doesn’t want it to be only one night. She wants Molly back for real. “Why only one night?”
Molly’s shoulder shrugs beneath her cheek. “There’s rules about these sorts of things, apparently. Normally I’d say ‘Fuck the rules,’ but the gods are uh…a little more strict than your average Crownsguard. I am supposed to be dead, after all, whether we like it or not, and the dead have their place. Fortunately, dreams are juuust liminal enough to blur the lines drawn by the Divine Gate, and you’re allowed to enter that space if you have a very, very good reason, like delivering messages or omens or warnings.”
“And what did you bring?” Yasha asks, dreading the answer.
“A message,” Molly says with another little shrug. “An important one, of course, or they wouldn’t have let me out here, but also pretty simple, actually. I’ll tell you when we get there.”
The road becomes smoother. The wagon seems to glide along, more like a boat on a river. If it weren’t for the continuous sound of the rotating wheels, Yasha would suspect that the wagon had turned into a boat somehow. She opens one eye enough to peek at the road ahead. There is no road. There’s nothing. However, the horses pulling their wagon, while the same pale color, now shine like dim stars in the darkness. Molly’s grip on their reins is lax, as though he’s only holding them as a formality. They know where they’re going. Molly knows where they’re going. Yasha’s curiosity is on the verge of maddening.
“We’re almost there,” Molly promises.
“There.” Molly’s voice is teasing. Yasha knows that tone. She won’t get any more information out of him. She shuts her eye again, though her leg bounces with impatience.
They ride in silence for a while. Molly rubs Yasha’s arm tenderly and his tail squeezes her the way it used to when they sat around the fire with the carnival. Yasha hugs Molly around his waist. He hugs her back.
“What’s it like being dead?” The question had to be asked. Yasha has spent all this time wondering and worrying about what happened to those she loved when they were no longer with her. Even if this is all a dream and her mind is making this up as it goes, having some sort of answer might give her closure.
Molly sighs. “Pretty boring sometimes, to be honest. Life is full of unexpected things and mistakes and…and new stuff. Death gets predictable after a while. A short while. Feel free to resurrect me if you ever get the chance down the line. I know it’s bloody expensive and you all are very busy these days, but the good news is I’m not going anywhere.”
Yasha tightens her grip. “I wish you could just come back.”
“Same. Doesn’t work that way, though. It can’t. Can you imagine the chaos if everyone could pop back and forth between being alive and dead? It’d be absolute madness, completely overthrow the world as we know it. Granted, there are some people out there who have figured out how to tweak the system, but even they have limitations on how it works.” Molly chuffs a short laugh. “And it’s not for everyone, for very good reasons.”
“Then can I stay here?”
Molly’s tail twitches. “No. That’s part of my message. Almost there.” There’s the sound of shaking reins and the wagon picks up a little speed.
Yasha has another question she’ll kick herself if she doesn’t ask. “Have you seen Zuala?”
“Can’t say that I have, love. Sorry. I think she’s under a different domain. Then again, I haven’t explored everywhere yet, so maybe I will meet her someday. I’d like to. I think we’d get along marvelously. We could spend eternity talking about you until it is your time to join us.” Molly pats Yasha’s head. “That’s not happening any time soon, though. You’ve got stuff to do, annoying as that sounds. I’ll tell you all about it in a minute.”
After a while the road grows bumpy again. It jostles here and there at first, but then it’s as though they’re driving it over a lesser-traveled dirt path after it rains. It smells like rain too, a gentle rain that came and went swift enough not to soak everything while still leaving droplets glistening in the trees like stars.
Molly kisses the top of her head. “We’re here.”
Yasha opens her eyes and immediately has to blink them to adjust to the sudden glare of sunlight. She rubs her face with the heels of her palms. The first good look she gets of her surroundings takes her breath away.
They’re in a forest clearing. The road they took comes right up to the edge of the tree line. Beyond that is an area about the size of a town square, bathed in the golden rays of the sun that shine down on an expanse of tall grasses and wildflowers. Bees and butterflies and other delicate insects flit from flower to flower. Birds sing in the trees around them. Yasha’s ears, trained by a thousand hunts in the marshes, pick up the sounds of animals moving in the underbrush. Her attention is on the beautiful colors in front of her though, the many shades of green, the vibrant yellows and reds, the patches of blues and purples, the scatterings of white and black. The air is thick with their scents, so sweet and so strong that Yasha takes deep breath after deep breath to try to comprehend it all.
“Do you like it?” Molly asks hopefully.
“It’s… This is… I…” Yasha has no words. Instead she grabs Molly in a hug. “Thank you.”
Molly laughs, wrapping his arms around her. “There’s more. I’m gonna need your help with the keg.”
It’s at that moment that Yasha notices the simple wagon Molly picked her up in has transformed into the wagon they used to travel in with the carnival. The horses are the same pale ones, but their coats have maintained the glow from that in-between space, gleaming like sunlight on silk. They munch placidly and happily on the grass at the clearing’s edge as Molly leads Yasha around to the back. The interior is similar to what Yasha remembers. However, it’s now only furnished for one occupant. The décor is distinctly Molly, a jumbled riot of colorful fabrics, soft pillows, various glittering trinkets, and the more Yasha examines it all the more odd little details catch her eye. One of the pillows is embroidered with a cat surrounded by what look like arcane glyphs; each wall has a sword mounted to it, one golden, one dark, and one with barnacles on the hilt; a platinum flask sits at the edge of the bed; there’s a set of inks and brushes lying beside a pile of paper, the topmost sheet of which has several doodles on it; another pillow has a symbol stitched into it that Yasha thinks might be the one for the Cobalt Soul; and hanging from the frame of the ceiling are bundles of dried flowers.
What Molly draws her attention to is a polished wooden keg in the corner. He helps her pick it up, then grabs a large covered basket and makes his way towards the center of the clearing. Yasha follows, the keg hefted up over her shoulder. It’s lighter than she expected, though she can feel its contents sloshing inside with every step and she can tell it’s nearly full.
They walk to a spot where the grass grows close to the ground. It creates a soft cushion beneath them. Molly takes the cover off the basket, unfurling it into a blanket big enough for them both to sit on. Inside the basket is a picnic: fruits and cheeses, a fresh loaf of bread, some smoked meats, and a paper box that Molly opens to reveal chocolate-dipped cookies.
“I thought this would be fun,” Molly says. “Haven’t shared a good meal with someone in a long time, and of all the people to share things with I’d rather it be you.”
Yasha is stunned. “Molly…this is all so wonderful, but…”
Molly pats her spot on the blanket. “Better hurry up before someone tries to wake you.”
The thought hadn’t occurred to her. She doesn’t want this dream to end. She doesn’t want to go back to a world without Molly in it. With no hesitation, she plops onto the ground. Molly takes out a knife and begins slicing the bread.
“How much do you want?” he asks.
“I— I’m not really hungry,” Yasha admits.
Molly grins. “Then it’s a good thing that eating when you’re dead isn’t about whether you’re hungry or not; it’s just about enjoying it. Works the same in dreams. So, how much do you want?”
The bread does look good. It smells freshly baked as well. “I’ll…I’ll take half,” she says.
“Excellent choice.” Molly rips the loaf in two chunks and hands her the larger piece. He cuts two slices from his own, which he uses to make a sandwich of meat and cheese. “Dig in,” he urges before taking an obscenely huge bite.
Yasha puts down her bread in favor of a plum first. She had never had plums until she joined the circus. She had never had many fruits. Plums were her favorite, though. She liked the texture and the blend of sweet and tart flavors, more subtle than other fruits like peaches and lemons that were overwhelming sometimes. This plum’s flavor is even more subtle still, like the memory of a plum rather than a real one. It isn’t real, after all, so she isn’t too surprised. Despite that, it’s delicious, and Molly brought a whole bowl full of them.
“They’re your favorite, right?” Molly asks when she takes a second one. “Was it plums or apricots you really liked?”
“It’s plums,” Yasha assures him. “Thank you, Molly.”
Molly smiles with a short sigh of relief. “You’re welcome, darling.” His tail tip swishes happily as he bites into his sandwich.
Yasha enjoys the picnic as long as her patience will allow. The rest of the food also doesn’t have as strong of a presence as she expects, but what she can taste of it is incredible. The cheese is soft yet sharp, the meat is tough but not too tough, the ale is sweet and does tingle in the back of her head after a cup or two, though not enough to distract her from her curiosity.
“Molly,” she asks, “where are we?”
“Mm!” Molly hastily swallows his mouthful of apple. “Right, forgot. Was too busy just…just being here with you.” He gestures to the clearing around them. “This is the divine domain of the Wildmother. Apparently Caduceus gave me to her as a ‘gift’, so I’m free to walk between this afterlife and…well, let’s just say the other option I have isn’t nearly half this lovely. There’s a lot to this place, since, being the Wildmother, she in charge of, y’know, anything and everything that could be considered wild. Forests, oceans, deserts, plains, but not a city to be seen anywhere. Little villages here and there, people who’ve come together for eternity or however long they feel like it, but no vast and powerful civilizations like the Empire or the Dynasty.” He nods in satisfaction. “Much less complicated. I like it here.”
That brings Yasha some comfort. At least Molly is in a place where he can be happy. “And… And what was the message you wanted to give me?” If it was something important enough that he was allowed to bring her here, she wants to hear it.
Molly straightens his posture. His tail curls around him, making a circle like the base of a statue. His expression becomes serious. The line of his brow is firm and he tilts his chin up. He takes a deep breath. “You,” he says in a profound tone, “are going to be okay.”
Yasha waits for the rest of the message. Molly simply nods curtly, then goes back to eating. “That’s it?” she says.
“Yep.” Molly crams a cookie into his mouth. It leaves a smear of chocolate on the corner of his lip and a dusting of crumbs on his chin. He chews and says nothing more.
“That is what you brought me all this way to tell me?”
Molly shrugs. “It’s something you needed to hear.” He takes a swig of ale. “You’re heading back into Xhorhas. You won’t be near your tribe, but you’ll be closer than you have been in a while. The others are going to look to you for guidance because they think you know the terrain, even though you’re about as familiar with it as they are. You’re traveling with two humans into a place where their kind is most definitely not welcome. It’s going to be rough, but you are going to be okay.” He reaches over to pat her on the shoulder. “A dead man’s promise, can’t get much better than that.”
“Do…you know anything else about what’s going to happen?”
“You’d have to ask someone who hangs around the Raven Queen that question. I know a guy, but he’s about as easy to get an audience with as his Matron.” Molly pats her again. His eyes glow with sympathy. “I do know there’s a chance you’re going to run into some big trouble, and I can’t tell you what it is because I’m not that certain, but I can tell you that you are going to be okay.”
Yasha puts her hand over his. “‘Big trouble’?”
“I don’t need to tell you all the worst-case scenarios,” Molly says. “Your tribe had their warnings about what went on in the north. Well, you’re heading straight into that, and you’re pretty much literally a walking beacon for attention.”
“But I am going to be okay?” Yasha asks with a little smile.
Molly smiles back. “I promise.” He holds up the paper box. “Cookie?”
They continue their picnic, mostly in silence but occasionally reminiscing on old times. They avoid the topic of Molly’s death and anything that came after. Yasha doesn’t want to focus on how sad she has been without him. This dream won’t last forever, and she needs to make every second count.
When the food is all eaten, Molly lights up a cigarette. Where it came from and where he got the spark to light it, Yasha isn’t sure. The fragrant smoke dances through the air up towards the sky. “Not as satisfying as the real thing, unfortunately,” he tells her. “At least I have an unlimited supply.” He inhales a long drag and lets it out with a sigh. It smells like spices and long nights in front of the campfire. “I do miss getting intoxicated. You can only go so far here before everything just kinda…evens out.” He shrugs. “Like I said, if you get the chance to bring me back, I wouldn’t say no. Just make sure you’ve got plenty of booze and other fun stuff on hand for me. I have a lot of catching up to do.”
Pain weighs down on Yasha’s heart. She curls up on the blanket with her head in Molly’s lap. He strokes her hair, toying with the braids and doing his best to smooth out the mats. “I want to stay here, just for one more day,” Yasha says. “I don’t want you to leave me.”
“Technically you’re the one leaving. I wish we had more time too. I miss you.” He chuckles to himself, but the edges of his laughter are dulled by sadness. “I’d say being separated from you is killing me, buuut...”
Yasha curls into herself tighter. “Are you going to be okay?”
Molly pats her on the back. “Yeah, I will. I’ve been meeting new people here and there. Some are fun to be around, others not so much, but I’m not lonely. Not really. I kinda am. Being in the Mighty Nein was great. They’re all absolute disasters but that’s what made them interesting. You take care of them for me, yeah?”
“I will. Are they all going to be okay, too?”
“Sure, if you help them.” Molly ashes his cigarette into the dirt. It crumbles away into nothing. A moment later he’s got a fresh one in his mouth. “And if they help each other. The good thing about my death — other than the fact that Lorenzo left everyone else alone after he finished with me — is that it reminded those fuckers that life is too damn short to not make friends, especially with the people you’re around every day.” He pauses to take a pull of his cigarette. “They could be better about enjoying the little things, but they’re making progress. I’m proud of them. …And I miss them.”
“They all miss you, too. I can tell.”
Molly huffs a short laugh. “They’d better fucking miss me. I was an absolute delight. Caduceus is a sweetheart, but come on. There’s no substitution.”
Yasha clings to Molly. “There really isn’t.”
The two of them stay like that through two more cigarettes. Molly strokes Yasha’s hair and Yasha tries to get some rest while savoring her situation. Despite all the food she ate, she doesn’t feel bloated or sick, or any different from before she started for that matter. She hopes that Molly has days where he does nothing but feast, sampling every tasty treat he could possibly want with no worry about overindulging. It’s what he deserves.
Molly is stubbing out his fourth cigarette when Yasha hears voices in the wind. “We’ve got to get going.” “I’m not gonna be the one to wake her up. She nearly took my head off last time.” “Come on, Fjord, don’t be such a wimp.” “Leave him alone, Nott! He’s not a wimp! But seriously you guys, someone needs to wake her, so who’s it going to be?”
“Ah,” Molly says. “Sounds like our time is up.”
Yasha bolts upright. “No,” she whimpers. “No, I don’t want to go. Molly, please.”
Molly scoots over to grab her in a tight hug. “You’re going to be okay, Yasha.”
“I won’t. I can’t be without you.”
“Yes you can. You’re a strong lass.”
“She’s not snoring, so maybe she’s already awake?”
Yasha grips Molly tight, as though she can bring him back with her if she tries hard enough. “I love you.”
“I love you too, Yasha. Take care of yourself, and them.”
“I want to stay.”
“I dunno, her eyelids are twitching. That means she’s dreaming.”
“You can’t. You can think of this place whenever you need to, though.”
“Boulder, Parchment, Shears, loser wakes her up.”
“You’re going to be okay.”
“I don’t want to go…”
“I don’t want you to either, but you have to.”
“No, no Molly don’t…”
“Alright, here goes.”
“No, don’t say it…”
“No no no no…”
“I love you.”
“No no no no no no no—”
Yasha wakes halfway to being on all fours, her wings unfurled from under her shawl to take up her side of the dome. Her vision has the familiar haze of rage at its edges. Through that haze she sees Beau stumbling back away from her, the others watching from a safe distance. Yasha is breathing heavily. Tears burn hot behind her eyes. She blinks until the feeling subsides and her vision returns to normal.
Beau takes a step closer. “Hey, Yash, you okay?”
Yasha retracts her wings around her, but they do not vanish. “Yeah, I… I will be fine.” She sniffles. “I was dreaming.”
“I knew it!” Nott exclaims.
“Well, we’ve gotta go,” Beau says. “We’ve still got gods know how much more of this fucking tunnel to get through, and the sooner we start moving the more ground we can cover.”
“Yeah, okay.” Yasha rubs her face. Her fingers trace over a spot on her forehead where she can feel the lingering phantom of a kiss. She takes a moment to replay the entire dream so she can commit it to memory. Already some of the details are slipping away. She squeezes her eyes shut and concentrates. The feeling of sunshine on her face. The vibrant colors of the flowers. The taste of fresh plums. The smell of Molly’s cigarettes. The sound of his voice telling her that she’s going to be okay…
The Mighty Nein pack up their things and prepare for another day following this tunnel. The food Caduceus conjures is bland and disappointing compared to the picnic Yasha shared with Molly. Part of her wants to go back to sleep so she can try to find him again.
As they set out, Beau comes up to her. “You sure you’re alright?” she asks.
Yasha nods. “I am going to be okay.”