Actions

Work Header

Fate Touched: A Cleric's Tale

Chapter Text


Not for the first time in the past three months or so, Ali couldn't help but wonder what in the Nine Hells she thought that she was doing.

She reached up and brushed a few strands of soggy hair out of her face, well aware that the pouring rain was making a mess of her already less-than-neat braid. It figured that, after several days of lovely weather while she'd been traveling, the moment she needed to try to look respectable was when the sky decided it was time to storm.

Her gaze drifted towards the large manor in the distance, looming over the rest of the town. It was difficult to see with water streaming down her glasses, making her vision waver in and out of focus, but it was still visible despite those difficulties. So far, everything was about as she had expected.

Ali had done research on the Bishop family the moment she had received the message requesting that she make her way to Baurus. It still made her raise her eyebrows, even all these days later. There was nothing particularly out of the ordinary in regards to the family, save a few ancestors a bit farther back in the family tree who had been renowned for their designs of traps and other such devices. All in all, they seemed like a perfectly respectable family from a perfectly respectable line.

Which made it all the more suspicious that they had contacted her in the first place.

She'd gone out of her way not to provide the temple with a great number of details regarding her plans when she'd left, and she knew none of the priests or scholars there cared enough for her to give her a recommendation if someone had come on a general search. So how had a messenger from the Bishop family found her in that ramshackle inn? And, more importantly, why her in the first place? She wasn't even a real—

No. Ali shook her head, cutting that thought off before it could even begin. That was why she had left the safety of the temple's walls, after all. She was going to prove that she was deserving of the honor Aureon had granted her, even if she hadn't wanted it in the first place. To the priests, to the scholars, to Nomi, to all of them. She was going to show them that it wasn't a mistake or a fluke, that there was a reason that Aureon had chosen her to be one of His clerics.

Nomi's face flashed in her mind, the pain as raw now as it had been over a year ago, and Ali abruptly started walking down the empty streets of the town. There was no point dwelling in the past. Nothing could undo what had happened. All she could do now was move forward and hope for the best.

And maybe get out of the damned rainstorm.

*

Even after almost a decade spent living in the temple, surrounded by humans and elves and all sorts of other people much larger than her, Ali couldn't help but miss furniture that was made to fit her size. Her feet dangled well off the ground despite her sitting near the edge of the chair, and her back ached slightly from her not being able to lean backwards. She wished that she could just pull her legs up under her, like she'd done many times back in the temple's library, but she did have at least a slight sense of decorum.

She let her gaze flicker toward Gerard, whoever or whatever he was.

Ali had assumed he was a butler of some sorts when he had first opened the door, but she was starting to question that assumption after spending the past ten minutes or so in his presence. She wasn't all that familiar with servants, but there had been a few occasions when she was acting as a scribe for the temple that she'd been brought along to record details of deals done in noble homes. Enough that she knew something was very off with the man's actions.

It was a mystery. And she very much didn't like mysteries. She'd never liked not knowing all of the facts, and it was becoming very obvious that there were so much things that she didn't know when it came to this whole situation.

The silence in the room was awkward, but Ali was used to that at least. It had been a lesson she'd learned quickly, back when she first began staying at the temple – put a bunch of scholars in a room together, surrounded by books, and it would either end in screaming arguments or utter silence. Given the two options, she preferred the silence.

Somewhere in the distance, someone banged on the front door. Loudly.

Ali jumped slightly and looked at Gerard again. He just sat there, the same slightly curious look on his face that had been there for the past ten minutes or so. There was a quick pause, then the loud knocking resumed with a noticeable edge of impatience to it.

He finally tilted his head, just slightly. "Oh, I should get that."

Without any true acknowledgement of her, Gerard stood up and walked out of the room, presumably heading back in the direction that they'd come from. Leaving Ali sitting there. Alone.

"What am I doing here?" she muttered under her breath, reaching her hand up to worriedly play with the end of her braid.

The way her life had been going lately, she was almost relieved when nobody and nothing answered her question.

*

It took longer than Ali had expected for Gerard to return with whoever had been at the door. Yes, it was a large building, but the room they were in was only partway down the hallway. It shouldn't have taken more than a few minutes, yet for some reason it seemed as if it was taking much longer than it should have.

She could hear voices outside the room, presumably out in the large hallway that led from the front doors, but they were somewhat muffled. She suspected it was the acoustics of the room working against them; she'd seen things like that before, back when she'd been a scribe. Nobles and others with money liked to design rooms that would help keep their privacy. It was only natural that the Bishop family would have done the same, considering everything she'd heard and read about them.

Ali clasped her hands together in her lap, the thought that maybe she should get up and poke her head out of the room crossing her mind for the third or fourth time in the past few minutes. She didn't necessarily think that she'd been forgotten, but considering how blasé Gerard had been about, well, everything when leading her into the sitting room to begin with, she couldn't help but wonder if he might be leading whoever else had arrived somewhere else entirely. And she was getting very close to hitting her limit when it came to sitting alone in silence.

Then there was movement in the doorway.

Ali quickly turned her full attention towards the door, stumbling slightly as she stood up from the human-sized chair she was sitting in. Before she quite knew what was happening, someone was making their way towards her. She looked up. And up. And then up a little more, because from her experience the elf standing there was tall even considering his species.

She was suddenly keenly aware that, if she stood up as straight as possible, she could just claim to be three feet tall. If one was rather forgiving with their math, at least.

Oh, gods. What had she gotten herself into?

The next moment or two passed in something of a blur, as the elf – Reisel, his name was Reisel, she needed to remember that much at least – shook her hand rather vigorously and then immediately took off to the other side of the room, his attention apparently focused on the same tapestries that had caught her on eye when she'd first entered the room. They at least had similar interests, or so it seemed. That was something.

A halfling girl appeared in the doorway a few seconds, all bright eyes and curly hair. And not a day over twenty, if she was even that old. The girl looked in her direction, her face lighting up, and she all but dashed in Ali's direction. "Hi, I'm Poppy!"

Ali blinked. "I'm Alionna," she said carefully, trying to resist the urge to pull away as the girl grabbed her by the hands and gave her a rather more vigorous handshake than she'd been expecting. "Alionna Undertree. But you can call me Ali."

"Put it back, Poppy."

Ali's gaze darted between Reisel, who had turned his attention back in their direction and was frowning somewhat, and the halfling girl. Poppy. Names, she really needed to remember to use people's names so that she wouldn't forget them.

Poppy shot him a hurt look that even Ali could tell was at least mostly faked, protests already on her lips. Ali took a moment to eye her a bit more carefully while she was distracted, trying to get a feel for the girl. It had been some time since she'd been around another halfling, after all.

This close up, Ali very much doubted that Poppy was actually of age. Not that she had any room to talk, considering what she had been doing in her late teens. She was still taller than Ali despite her age, by almost a good half a foot at least.

It was one thing to be shorter than a human and an elf. With even other halflings towering over her, though, Ali couldn't help but feel a bit put out.

Ali also noticed that Poppy was rather pretty, but she quickly pushed that bit of thinking to the side. She probably had close to a decade on the girl. Any thoughts even remotely along those lines were so far from appropriate that it wasn't even funny.

... and she suddenly felt the urge to apologize to Nomi for so many things she'd done and said during the first few years they'd known each other.

Another figure slipped into the room, an amused twist to the corners of his mouth as he took in the bickering Reisel and Poppy. He slipped past Poppy, reaching down to offer his own hand to Ali. "Tuck," he said, giving her a quick onceover followed by a wink.

"Ali," she said, smiling despite her best intentions as she looked him over herself.

Tuck was clearly a half elf, his features a careful blend of human and elf. He was a much more reasonable height than the handful of half elves she had known back at the temple, probably somewhere around five feet tall, but he still towered over her. There was a cittern strapped rather prominently across his back, loudly proclaiming to anyone with eyes that he was clearly a bard.

"Poppy, put it back."

"Put what back? I don't know what you're talking about."

Ali's gaze darted away from Tuck, flickering over the other two before moving back towards him. She was just getting ready to ask if they were always like that – since he clearly had arrived with them – when an unfamiliar human suddenly appeared in the room, as if by magic. He could have just slipped in the door when Ali wasn't looking, her attention focused on Reisel, Poppy, and Tuck. It was entirely plausible.

But if he was who she thought he was, then maybe it was by magic. The Bishop family was known for it, after all.

*

A calm, reasonable voice in the back of Ali's head was carefully listing out the multitude of reasons that saying "yes" to Ian Bishop's request was a bad idea. There were a variety of them, all of them quite sensible, and it would very much be in Ali's best interests to listen to them. She wasn't a fighter, not by any means, and a quick glance at the others made her suspect that she very much wasn't alone in that regard. All she was going to do was get herself killed sooner rather than later, if she agreed to this harebrained assignment.

The money wasn't an issue. She didn't need a lot of gold, after all. Most people were willing to host a cleric for a single night, for the sake of karma if nothing else. And the ones who didn't want to give something for nothing usually had some food or drink stores that she could purify in return for a meal and a roof over her head for the night, cleansing what was left of the previous year's harvest that was getting close to spoiling or refreshing a bottle that was closer to vinegar than wine.

But... he wanted them to go search for books. Tomes of magic and history. If nothing else, she was certain nobody would complain if she at least read a little bit of them once they were found, on their way back to return them.

Ali couldn't turn down the chance. She knew it and, judging by the hint of a smirk on Bishop's face when he'd told them what he wanted them to find for him, she suspected that he knew it too.

Still. Books. Did it really count that he was playing her if she was at least aware of it?

She felt a little better that she wasn't the only one who hadn't immediately jumped on board the moment Ian Bishop had made his request. The others had hesitated at least somewhat as well, clearly going through a list of pros and cons themselves.

Of course, now that they had all agreed to it, none of the others seemed to be taking their time any longer. The others were already heading to the door, the multitude of doubts and second-guessing running through her head apparently not affecting them in the least bit.

Ali reached out and took one of the remaining healing potions that their benefactor had offered, carefully tucking it away in her bag. She preferred not using them if possible, but it wouldn't hurt to have one on her just in case. Her magic was more limited than she'd like, and it never hurt to have a backup.

Life could sometimes take you down unexpected paths, after all.

*

Ali was starting to think that her current companions were completely insane.

She bit her lip as she stared at the rope hanging down the side of the cliff, a million and one reasons running through her head why trying to climb down it was possibly the most horrible idea anyone had ever had.

"There has to be a better way to get down there," she said, glancing over at Tuck. He, at least, looked about as thrilled with the idea of trying to climb down as she felt.

He nodded at her. "You'd think so," he said, glancing around the surrounding area.

Ali took a closer look around herself. She'd been familiar with areas like this once upon a time, before she'd left home to live at the temple. She couldn't even count the number of times she'd run around barefoot behind one or more of her siblings, ducking between trees and climbing over boulders. She knew there had to be a better way down, if they were willing to go a little bit out of their way.

From what she'd seen so far, though, the others weren't exactly bastions of patience.

There was a part of Ali that wanted to put her foot down and insist that they find another way down to the caverns. Yes, it might take a little longer, but still. It wasn't as if Ian Bishop had given them a timetable. They didn't have a deadline that they were rushing to meet.

Poppy and Reisel were already down there, though. They hadn't had any trouble. Why was she so convinced that she would?

Fuck it. She had to stop being scared at some point. What was the worst that could happen?

You could fall and die, a voice that sounded a lot like her mother's pointed out from somewhere in the back of her head.

Ali reached up and clutched the pendant she wore around her neck for a moment, hoping that maybe she'd get a little strength from it. Then she reached up and pulled off her glasses, carefully putting them away. She could just picture them getting shattered into a thousand little pieces, the way her luck had been going.

"I'm going down," Ali said as firmly as possible, hoping her voice didn't sound quite as shaky as she felt. She reached down and grabbed the rope, taking a deep breath.

Then, before she lost her nerve, she swung down and started climbing down the side of the cliff. Tuck made a spluttering sound behind her, but she didn't look back.

She'd done things like this as a child. It had been commonplace back then. Yes, she'd spent the better part of the last decade inside the temple, but there had to be something said for muscle memory. Even if any actual muscles she might have had back then were probably long gone from all of her years spent sitting at a desk. Still, surely she could manage a twenty foot climb as long as she had a rope to hold onto.

Because the universe hated her, it was just as she had that thought that her hand slipped. Her tight grip on the rope loosened before she had time to react, and she felt herself start to fall.

Ali's heart was pounding in her chest as she started to slide downward, not quite falling but only a moment or so away from it. Part of her wanted to reach up and clutch the pendant she wore around her neck, but the more rational part of her knew that would make her already bad situation infinitely worse.

This had been such a bad idea. Why in Aureon's name had she thought she could possibly do this? She closed her eyes tight, sending up a silent prayer.

Just as panic was starting to take hold, someone grabbed her. There was a grunt from behind her and a scuffling sound, as if someone had been pushed backwards a little, and then the world went still.

Ali tentatively opened her eyes.

Reisel had caught her as she'd slid down, keeping her from falling past the ledge he and Poppy were standing on. He gave her a grin when he saw that she was looking at him.

"Thank you," Ali said quietly. Or, at least, she attempted to say it. It took a try or two before her mouth had enough moisture in it to actually make sounds.

He nodded at her and stepped away, giving her a chance to move away from the rope so that Tuck could make his way down – hopefully in a less dramatic way than she had.

And then Poppy threw herself at Ali, her arms wrapping around her in a tight hug.

Ali stiffened slightly, not pulling away but not actually hugging the girl back either. Gods, she couldn't even remember the last time someone had hugged her.

No, that wasn't true. She could. It had been Nomi, just a few hours before that last argument they'd had. A full year ago by now. Over one. And that probably made it even worse, if she was honest with herself.

Poppy pulled away after a moment or two. "I'm glad you're alright," she said brightly.

Ali managed to give her what she hoped was at least a semi-reassuring smile. Then she glanced to her side, where the edge of the ledge – and the rather long drop down from it – was just a few feet away. Not quite ready to try and talk again yet, she took a few careful steps closer to the rock wall of the ledge. Just to be on the safe side.

*

If anyone had told her that she was possibly going to die thanks to a dead spider, Ali would have laughed at them. Or asked for a glass of whatever they were drinking, whichever seemed more appropriate. It wasn't even an undead spider, for the sake of the gods, just a corpse that had been booby-trapped if Poppy's yell of warning from a moment or two ago was accurate.

She didn't know what to do.

Her gaze flickered behind her to where Reisel and Poppy were standing, safely out of range of the poisonous dust that filled the air in front of them. She made a mental note to thank Poppy again for yanking her out of it so quickly, as soon as it had appeared. Then she squinted, trying to make out Tuck's form in front of her.

He was a good ten feet away at least, his exact position difficult to make out through the hazy cloud of dust. She could tell that he was hunched over, though, presumably trying to breathe through the hacking cough that she could hear.

Her magic wasn't going to be any good, not right now. She could heal a cut or stabilize someone who was unconscious, but she didn't have any way of helping someone who couldn't breathe through a toxic cloud that they were still standing in. What Tuck needed right now was someone who could control wind, not her.

But she was all that he had. Reisel and Poppy were both trapped behind her in the tunnel, with no easy way past her in the tight passage. Neither of them would be able to get in front of her to get to Tuck in time, even if they were much better choices than her when it came to something like this.

Oh gods, she was going to regret this, wasn't she?

Ali took a deep breath, filling her lungs with as much air as possible. Then she sprinted forward, squinting as the cloud of dust obscured her vision and tickled the back of her throat despite her mouth being tightly closed. She clutched at Tuck's side as soon as he was within her reach, pulling him forward with her. Just a little farther. She just needed to make it a tiny bit farther.

They broke through the other side of the cloud, the air around them immediately becoming clear. Tuck was still hunched over, desperately gasping for breath. Ali wasn't far behind him, if she was being honest with herself. Her vision had started to go a bit grey inside the cloud, but it was slowly clearing again now that she could breathe.

So of course that was when she heard the distinct whistling sound of an arrow flying through the air.

Ali jerked her head up just in time for her chest to explode in pain, an arrow jutting out of her flesh from a position that was worryingly close to her heart. She gasped and took a step back involuntarily, her vision going red for a moment. Beside her, she heard Tuck let out a cry of pain as well.

She reached for her pendant, her lips already forming a familiar prayer as she reached up to yank out the arrow with her free hand. And then she let a wave of healing rush over her.

Something or someone pushed past her, followed a moment later by a yell that was clearly coming from Reisel. She felt a few sparks on her skin, letting her know that someone was using magic nearby, but her attention was too focused on her own healing spell to pay much attention to it just then.

Her vision cleared after a moment or two, and she shakily straightened up. She needed to think. The arrows had come from somewhere, but where—

... oh.

Ali blinked. Then she shrugged, reaching inside herself for the sacred flame ability that she'd been practicing for months now. If Reisel wanted to make goblins glow bright green, she wouldn't judge him, not when it made them so much easier to see.

*

Ali was getting very tired of cliffs. And chasms. And long falls of doom.

"You have to be kidding me," she muttered under her breath, stepping to the edge of the chasm and looking downward.

The water twenty feet below was still and unmoving, which she supposed counted as something. It was still a long drop, though, and the rope that Poppy and Tuck had used to get across looked a lot frailer than she liked. Not to mention she thought it actually looked even worse than it had a few minutes earlier, before Tuck had gone across it.

Ali glanced back at Reisel, who was staring off into the distance looking as if he was lost in thought. She had a better chance of getting across safely than he did, she'd grant that much, but still. This had the potential to end so very badly.

Taking a deep breath, she took another look over the edge of the cliff. The fall wouldn't kill her, at least, if she did lose her grip again. It wasn't like it had been outside, where a misstep would have sent her falling straight into the ground below. She'd hit water here. She'd be fine.

Probably.

As long as there wasn't anything dangerous living in the water that liked the taste of halflings, that is.

Not for the first time, she wished that she could turn off her brain sometimes. She had been much happier before that thought had crossed her mind. Still, there wasn't any other good way across. She didn't have a lot of options.

"I'm coming across!" she called out nervously.

Ali reached out to grab the rope, but then she hesitated, remembering her previous luck just an hour or two earlier. Better safe than sorry. She slowly took off her glasses, carefully packing them away so that she wouldn't lose them. Just in case.

Poppy and Tuck were brightly colored blurs in the distance, too far away for her to make out any clear details without her glasses on. She took a deep breath, sending up a quick prayer to Aureon before carefully sliding her backpack over the rope.

She could do this. Poppy had done it. Tuck had done it. Both of them were larger than her. If they could get across, then the odds were high that she could too.

Ali took another calming breath and pushed away from the edge of the ravine.

Everything seemed fine for a moment or two. She was moving forward, a little slower than the others had, but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Except then she felt her arm start to slip from the backpack's straps.

The world seemed to slow for a moment. Ali saw herself slipping, felt her backpack starting to slide loose, and try as she might there wasn't a thing she could do to stop it. A rather impressive curse, one that she suspected even Nomi would be impressed by, started to form on her lips.

And then she was falling before she had a chance to say anything.

Ali didn't even have time to scream. One minute she was attached to the rope, trying her best to follow Poppy and Tuck across the chasm, and the next thing she knew air was rushing past her as she hurtled toward the water below.

At least she could swim. If she didn't land on any underwater rocks that she couldn't see, at least. Or wasn't eaten alive by a cave-dwelling water monster of some sort.

That was the only thought she had time to think before she hit the water a good twenty feet below.

She sank several feet below the water's surface simply from the speed of her impact. It was cool but not freezing, sending a shiver through her body but not causing any serious damage. Staying in it for an extended period of time wouldn't be a good idea, of course, but it wasn't going to silently kill her like the icy lake water back home could do during the winter. That was something, at least.

Ali luckily hadn't sunk too deep, and it only took a moment or so for her to get her bearings. Silently thanking her past self for having enough common sense to take the lightest armor the temple had to offer, she swam upward.

Her head broke the surface just in time for her to see Reisel's blurry form getting ready to take a running leap off the cliff above.

For a long moment, she thought he was going to jump in after her. Ali could almost picture it in her head, his tall form hitting the water beside her and immediately struggling to swim. She was already desperately making plans in her head, trying to figure out the best way to keep both of them afloat if he jumped in too. She wasn't entirely certain why her imagination seemed to think he didn't know how to swim, but she wasn't going to argue with it.

Then, despite the distance, he seemed to notice that she had made it back to the water's surface.

Reisel paused and straightened up, apparently changing his mind about jumping in after her now that he could clearly see that she knew how to swim. Ali sent up a silent prayer of thanks.

There was shouting above her that she couldn't quite make out, not with the distance and the fact that water was continuously lapping around her as she treaded water. She hoped they were trying to figure out how to get her back up there with them, though. Or, at the very least, how to get Reisel across without him joining her in swimming.

A small lump of something went flying across the chasm above her. Or it started to, at least. Whatever it was made it about five feet across before plummeting like a rock, looking as it was going to land just a few feet away from her.

Ali stared as it grew closer and closer to her. "What in the—"

An entire coil of rope dropped into the water near her.

If she hadn't been somewhat precariously treading water, Ali might have made a comment. Probably a bit of a smartass one, if she was honest with herself, considering the way her day had been going so far. Instead, she just shook her head and started swimming the handful of feet between her and the rope. Because losing said rope was the last thing they needed after everything else that had gone wrong.

*

If Ali didn't have to climb another rope for the rest of her life, she would be perfectly content. She'd never done so much climbing – and so badly – in her entire life.

She flexed her aching hands, sending a brief pulse of healing magic through them. They weren't bleeding, but they were a little raw from rope burn. There wasn't much she could do about the chilly water currently dripping from her hair and clothing, but minor healing? That she could work with.

A few feet away, Poppy and Tucker were arguing about trying to throw the rope across the chasm so that Reisel could get across, and Ali frowned even at the suggestion. She'd thought it was perfectly clear by now that none of them were exactly all that gifted at anything involving acts of strength, and she could almost see herself going swimming again in an attempt to find the rope when it inevitably fell.

Or, at the very least, someone going swimming after it. Personally, her vote was for anyone whose name wasn't Alionna doing it, at this point.

But, no. Just, no. That wouldn't do at all.

Ali reached up and touched the crossbow still hanging across her shoulder, her brow furrowing a bit as she gauged the distance of the chasm. It wasn't too far, not really. She'd have to be careful not to hit Reisel, but maybe...

"One of you hold the end of the rope," Ali said slowly.

The quiet sound of bickering that had been in the background for the past several minutes came to a suddenly halt.

Ali glanced behind her, where both Poppy and Tuck were eying her with a mix of confusion and curiosity. They'd already tied the rope to a nearby boulder, she noticed, but the way things had been going so far she wasn't going to risk their remaining rope on someone's knot-tying abilities.

"I'm going to use my crossbow to try and shoot it across," she said patiently. "You need to hold the rope in case I miss, so that we don't lose it."

Tuck opened his mouth. Then he closed it. "That's actually a really good idea."

Ali raised her eyebrows.

Beside him, Poppy nodded. "You should give it a try."

*

She was missing something. She knew that she was missing something. This was clearly a test of some type, that much was clear. The Bishop family was well-known for creating traps such as this one, and the odds of it not being one of theirs was slim to none. But what did it mean? What were they not seeing?

Ali clutched her crossbow tightly against her chest, trying to keep an eye on the skeleton that the others were fighting as well as the second one nearby that was starting to move. She knew that she should have known better to follow Poppy into the room, that she should have listened to Tuck when he'd made it quite clear that he thought it was a Very. Bad. Idea. But she'd never been good at turning down a puzzle.

"It's not a real word!" Reisel yelled out from somewhere behind her. "Above the mirror, it's not a real word!"

Not a real word. Ali's grip on her crossbow tightened. That meant it was a clue. But what did it mean? What was she missing?

A few feet away, Poppy grinned triumphantly as she reached into a bag at her side and brought out a handful of ball bearings. She tossed them on the ground in front of the just-starting-to-move skeleton, clearly hoping it would buy them a bit more time. "Do you think the skeletons mean anything?"

"Maybe?" Ali said, biting her lip.

The skeleton beside her suddenly collapsed to the ground, its unnatural movement screeching to a halt. "They don't have any eyes," Tuck pointed out.

"Eye sockets," Reisel said. "They don't have eye sockets. Skeletons never have eyes."

Ali froze.

"The skeletons don't have any eyes," Ali repeated slowly, her eyes going wide as she jerked her gaze back up to the word engraved above the mirror. Eye. I. It couldn't be that simply, could it? A basic riddle? Tirianisporitius. The letter "I" was in that word five times. But if she took them out...

Transport us. That's what it said. Those were the words they needed to say.

"Oh my gods," she whispered, not even trying to raise her voice enough for the others to hear. "I figured it out."

Beside her, she saw Poppy looking her way with a curious expression on her face.

Ali felt the corners of her mouth twisting upward into a triumphant grin. "Look at the word," she said, gesturing toward the mirror. "Then picture it without any I's."

There was a long pause. Then the room filled with a chorus of groans.

Ali took a step closer to the mirror, sparing the second skeleton a wary look as it started to shift a bit more pronouncedly. "Transport us."

*

Ian Bishop wanted them to do a job for them. A proper job, not just a quick search-and-retrieve one like he'd made them think he wanted.

Not for the first time that day, and possibly not for the last, Ali found herself wondering what she had gotten herself into.

She kept her attention focused on the conversations going on around her the best she could, but she quietly let her gaze move over the room while she listened. It had always been easy for her to slip into the background, to let others talk while she observed, and she found herself slipping back into that pattern almost without even realizing it.

It was easier that way.

She looked over at Risto again, frowning slightly as she quickly moved her gaze away from him. There was something so familiar about the human that had appeared alongside Bishop down in that treasure room. Her mind kept drifting back to the butler, or whoever he was, that had met her at the door that morning. There was some tie between Gerard and Risto, she was almost certain of it, but she couldn't for the life of her figure out what it was.

She was missing something again, just like she had been with the mirror. Ali wasn't sure whether or not she would be able to figure out the answer to this riddle, though.

"Why are you sitting here all by yourself?"

Ali jerked in surprise as Poppy plopped down in the seat next to her, a curious look on her face. She was still trying to think of a proper answer when Poppy continued as if she'd never asked a question in the first place.

"So, Aureon?" Poppy asked, tilting her head a little. "You seem to be big on him. What's the story there?"

Ali opened her mouth. Then she closed it. Ignoring the fact that she'd never heard anyone be quite so casual when asking someone about the deity they followed, that was a subject that Ali honestly wasn't certain she exactly wanted to talk about with someone who she'd only known for about twelve hours. Gods, she wasn't certain that was a subject she'd want to talk about with anyone, if she was perfectly honest.

Why did Poppy have to have picked that topic for casual conversation – and it was so very clear that's all it was, at least from Poppy's point of view – out of all the others she could have possibly chosen?

"That's—" Ali hesitated for a moment. "That's a long story, and perhaps one that would better be told later."

"Oh," Poppy said, her expression shuttering. "If you don't want to talk about it, that's fine."

When Poppy's face fell, it made her look even younger. Despite herself, Ali felt a pang of guilt.

"Let's just said that when I was about your age, I met someone who introduced me to Aureon and everything that he stands for," Ali said hurriedly, her tongue almost tripping over the words. It was more than she had meant to say, considering the others were still all but strangers, but she didn't necessarily regret it.

Not when Poppy shot her a quicksilver grin in return that almost seemed genuine.

*

"What do you say?" Ian Bishop asked. "Will you join them?"

Ali shifted uncomfortably, a thousand and one thoughts racing through her head as she stood there staring up at him.

She could feel the others' gazes focused on her, but she carefully avoided looking at any of them. They were nice enough, she supposed. They'd certainly gotten along well enough not to get themselves killed during their trip through the caves, which was a good sign at least. But this was her decision and hers alone, and she didn't want to give anyone else a chance to try to sway her.

Bishop seemed honest, she'd give him that much. He genuinely seemed to be worried about the home of this friend of his, although he was being rather blatantly vague about exactly what it was that he was so worried about.

Still, Ali was a fair judge of character and she tended to have decent judgement on most things, even when she didn't always listen to that little voice in her head that tended to give her advice like "stay in in the temple where you belong" or "keep away from ropes" or "don't go into the room with the suspicious mirror and no other exits". He didn't seem to be lying, at least not entirely. There was something else going on, though, that she couldn't quite put her finger on. A lie of omission, maybe? Perhaps there was more to this than he was saying?

It made her curious. And, if she actually listened to that voice in the back of her head for once, also a bit nervous.

And then there were the books he'd mentioned. An entire library full of them, if he was to be believed. That wasn't something she could easily turn down, for a multitude of reasons.

Ali clutched the book on Aureon he had handed her a few minutes earlier a bit tighter. She'd only glanced at it, but just a moment or two of looking through its pages had made it clear that it was almost priceless. An entire library worth of books just like it, tomes that might otherwise stay lost to the world...

Oh, Ali wasn't naïve. She was well aware that they were blatantly trying to bribe her into saying "yes", holding something in front of her that they knew would be a temptation. And they had picked the perfect bribe. It was clear that they had read her as easily as, well, a book.

She didn't want to do this, of that much she was certain. Books or no books. This wasn't who she was, not really. Ali wanted nothing more than to return to the safety of the temple, with its endless libraries and the winding corridors that she knew so well. She wanted to be just another nameless scribe, spending all of her free time reading the books that lined the walls and knowing there were more there than she could possibly read in an entire lifetime.

But if she were to give up so easily, then Nomi was right. Everyone back at the temple who doubted her was right. Ali didn't deserve to call herself a cleric of Aureon if she couldn't follow even His most basic requests of her. His clerics and paladins weren't meant to stay sequestered inside temple walls, studying knowledge that had been discovered by others and brought to be shared. They were meant to go out into the world and search for new ideas and lost relics, to bring books and tomes and stories back to the temple to share with those who weren't able to seek them themselves.

It didn't matter how much she wanted to go back to being nothing more than a scribe with aspirations of someday becoming a scholar. That wasn't the path that He had chosen for her.

Ali didn't have much of a choice in the matter, when it all came down to it.

Reaching up to squeeze the pendant that she had hanging around her neck, Ali sighed. "I need to do this if I'm going to show them," she said quietly, trying her best not to think about the multitude of terrifying experiences she'd been through the past several hours. She took a deep breath and looked up, meeting Ian Bishop's gaze. "I'm in."

*

Ali shook her head as the others hurried out of the room, their attention clearly caught by the promise of food and drinks. She couldn't blame them of course. She was hungry herself, after the day that they'd had.

Still, there were at least a few more things that needed to be taken care of if they were really going to do this. And she wanted to take care of it now, before she forgot.

"Was there something you needed?" Bishop asked her, an almost curious note to his voice.

Her mind flickered back to the two ropes that they'd left behind at the caves, as well as the almost ridiculous amount of trouble they'd had with them. "We're going to need rope," she said, looking up at him. Humans. Why did they have to be so tall? It was downright annoying to have to look up to them so often. "Will you be able to provide us with some?"

He raised an eyebrow. "Of course," he said matter-of-factly.

"Good," Ali said. "Thank you."

She nodded at him and started to walk from the room. Then she paused, her mind flashing back to that moment down in the caves when the skeleton had been just a foot or two away from her, so close that she wouldn't have been able to use her crossbow on it even if she'd wanted to do so. After a moment's hesitation, she turned back around.

Bishop was staring at her with an almost amused look on his face.

"Could I possibly get a dagger?" she asked.

An expression that she couldn't quite read flashed across his face before he nodded. "Certainly," he said. "I'll see that something appropriate is found for you."

"Thank you," she said again, giving him a polite nod.

Then she went to join the others for the meal he had promised them.

*

It was getting late. Ali wasn't entirely certain of the time, but she knew that it had to be well into the evening by now.

The others were slumped somewhat in their seats, still awake but obviously affected quite a bit by their drinks. Ali sighed, bringing up her almost comically huge glass and downing the rest of the wine that was in it. She preferred ale, truth be told, but it had been a long day and she wasn't going to turn down free drinks if someone else was offering them. Or free food, for that matter, especially when it had been quite a bit better than anything she'd had in weeks.

Ali was well aware of her limits, and she had no plans on getting anywhere close to hitting them. It looked like the others had no such compunctions, though. That was something she needed to remember, so that it didn't cause them trouble in the future. Reisel at least seemed to be able to hold his own, at least at first, but both Poppy and Tuck had quite clearly been lightweights.

Her mouth twitched in amusement. It was always fun drinking with big folk for the first time. They took one look at her and immediately made assumptions. It was a bit of a treat to watch them realize that she could hold her own quite well.

Still, it was probably time to go claim a room for the night.

Her hand slid down to the book in her lap. She'd been tempted to slide it into the bag of holding that Bishop had let her borrow, but she hadn't quite been able to let it out of her hands. Not yet, when she hadn't had a chance to read even a little of it yet.

She'd only glanced at it for a moment or two, but what she had seen... well, it was intriguing, to say the least. Maybe she had some time for a little bit of light reading as well, before she went to sleep.

Who knew what tomorrow might hold?

Chapter Text

Ali woke up to sunlight streaming in through the window of the room she had claimed the night before, signaling that she'd slept in later than she had in ages. She rolled over with a groan, burying her head in her pillow for a moment. She normally woke up with the sun, and it was commonplace for her to rise even before dawn.

Of course, she typically didn't stay up half the night reading. Looking back, that might not have been the brightest move she'd ever made.

Still, it had been worth it.

She sighed into the pillow and reluctantly pushed herself up into a sitting position, stretching a bit as she did so. She grimaced as her back popped rather more loudly than she was used to hearing. She was a little sore from the events of the day before, but other than a few aches here and there she felt fine.

The book about Aureon that Ian Bishop had given her the night before was resting on the bedside table where she had put it, and she couldn't help but smile just a little. She'd barely skimmed its surface, but she'd already found so many things that she couldn't recall ever hearing or reading about Him.

She knew that she was going to have to send it on to the temple eventually – that was what she was out here to do, after all, to find new information and then send it back – but it wouldn't hurt to study it thoroughly first. That was the one good thing about this whole mess, after all, getting the chance to be the first to read new books and gain new knowledge in general.

The smell of food cooking caught her attention, and Ali's gaze drifted towards the door. It was getting late. She should probably get dressed and head downstairs, to see how the others were faring.

Besides, she'd learned a long time ago never to turn down a free meal.

*

Ali looked up from her food at the sound of someone knocking on the front door.

Breakfast had been a fairly quiet affair so far, everyone more focused on their own meal – or, presumably, their headaches judging by appearances – than each other. Both Poppy and Tuck had looked fairly grey when they had stumbled downstairs a good ten minutes or so after Ali, and while food and coffee seemed to have put a bit more color into their faces there were still dark circles under their eyes.

Reisel, on the other hand, looked perfectly fine. He'd held his own much better than the others the night before, but Ali was still a little surprised not to see any sign of last night's festivities in his expression or the way he held himself. Of course, he was an elf, so he didn't need nearly as much sleep as the rest of them. That probably played at least part of a role in it.

The knocking on the door continued, a bit heavier than before. Poppy groaned, slinking a bit further down in her chair. "Will someone get that already?" she muttered under her breath.

Reisel's mouth slowly split into a wide grin. "I'll get the door," he announced to the room at large, his voice a bit louder than it probably needed to be. He all but jumped out of his chair and made his way out of the room.

Ali smiled into her mug of tea. Reisel could be a bit odd at times, but there was something about him that helped put her at ease.

Poppy grumbled something that Ali couldn't quite make out, but there was a definite derogatory tone to it.

Beside her, Tuck waved his hand in front of him. A moment later, a giant hand appeared out of thin air just in front of him – its middle finger raised very pointedly in Reisel's direction.

Ali's smile grew a bit wider. She carefully schooled it before setting her mug back down on the table, hoping the others were too hungover to notice her amusement. It wasn't quite proper for a cleric to find other people's pain quite so funny, after all, even if it was self-inflicted.

Then she turned her attention back towards her breakfast. It was actually quite good, and if Ian Bishop didn't have an issue with her eating her fill then she was going to do just that. Especially if they were going to be spending the next few days elsewhere, presumably depending on basic rations for their meals.

*

Reisel appeared back in the doorway to the dining room several minutes later, a tall figure standing behind him. Not quite as tall as him, but still. Tall.

Ali froze, her fork halfway to her mouth. She carefully put it back down onto her plate, deciding that she would have time to finish eating in a few seconds. Then she tilted her head a little, studying the unfamiliar figure standing in the entrance to the room.

It was a half-orc, probably a little over six feet tall. Ali thought that it was a woman, but she honestly wasn't entirely certain. It was either a somewhat feminine man or a rather masculine woman. Whichever the half-orc was, he or she cut a impressive figure.

Oh, wait. Those were breasts. Ali eyed the figure again with that in mind, paying closer attention than she had the first time. Yes, those were definitely breasts, and the cut of the clothing didn't seem to be downplaying them in any way. Which mean the half-orc most likely was a woman. One who cut a very nice figure, with that in mind.

... and it was probably best to cut off that line of thought before it went anywhere that it shouldn't, come to think of it.

Across the table from her, Poppy seemed to have noticed Ali's gaze drifting toward the doorway. Raising her eyebrows, she turned and glanced that way herself.

Then she shrieked and disappeared under the table.

Ali blinked in surprise, glancing over at Tuck in the hope that he might have an idea what that was about. His attention was focused on Reisel and the person standing behind him, though, and he didn't seem to notice her looking his way.

Another mystery, then. Perfect.

There was a chuckle nearby, and Ali let her gaze drift over to Ian Bishop. He was standing nearby, leaning casually against one of the walls of the dining room they were in.

"I believe at least one member of your group had asked for someone of the, uh..." Bishop cleared his throat, and Ali knew that she wasn't imagining the amusement on his face. "... strong fighting type to join you?"

Reisel raised his hand. "That would be me."

Bishop gave him a minute nod. "This is Yevka," he said, gesturing at the half-orc still hovering behind Reisel. "She's done some work for me before, so I thought she might be useful."

Ali tilted her head, studying Yevka more closely. The woman's face was guarded, her expression difficult to read, but there was something almost reassuring about her presence.

Or maybe it was just her muscles. Considering how the previous day had gone, her muscles were looking pretty damn good just then.

*

"Does anyone have any questions?" Ian Bishop asked, looking around the room.

Ali didn't burst out laughing. It took quite a bit of effort on her part, but she resisted the urge. She did shoot him a somewhat disbelieving look, though, which he rather blithely ignored.

She had nothing but questions at this point. The question was whether or not she wanted to waste her breath asking them, when she was well aware that the odds of getting a proper answer were slim to none.

Tuck cleared his throat. "Why us?" he asked, shooting Bishop a pointed look. "Why did you want us to go on this trip to this island?"

Bishop gave him a bland smile. "Why not?"

If anything, Tuck's expression grew even more pointed. "Why would you want a group of novice individuals doing something so important to you?"

Ali didn't say anything, but she did turn her attention a bit more fully toward Ian Bishop. She'd been wondering the same thing ever since she had received the message asking her to come to Baurus, after all. She hadn't quite worked up the courage to ask him directly herself, but if someone else was going to do it... well, just because she didn't want to ask the question didn't mean she wasn't interested in the answer.

Bishop gave Tuck a rather half-hearted shrug. "You passed, so you're not too horrible."

Ali narrowed her eyes. If that wasn't a complete non-answer, then nothing was. And, judging by the looks on the others' faces, they had noticed as well.

"What's stopping you from wanting to make this trip yourself?" Tuck pushed on, frowning a little.

Bishop shrugged again, the action much too casual to be anything but telegraphed. "Mostly? I have a lot of other things to do."

Tuck opened his mouth as if he was going to say something else. Then he seemed to think better of it and simply shook his head.

After a moment or two had passed, Bishop looked around the room expectantly. As if he was waiting to see if anyone else had any questions.

Oh, Ali had questions, that much was certain. Questions about this Dominik Amakur whose house they were being sent off to explore. Questions about why he had chosen them specifically. Questions about what she thought she was doing in the first place, going off with a group of adventurers, not that Ian Bishop would have any answer to that one.

She stayed silent.

When it became clear that none of them were going to say anything, Bishop held out his hand. There was a smooth white stone resting there, plain and ordinary looking, like something she might have picked up from beside the river as a child. The kind of rock you'd skip on the lake. Or chuck at your siblings' heads.

"This will bring you back when you're ready," he explained.

Reisel leaned in, studying the stone with his eyes. He didn't actually touch it, but Ali could see him flexing his fingers a bit as if he was trying to resist the urge to reach out towards it.

"When you are ready to leave, everyone will need to touch the stone," Bishop said.

Tuck's eyebrows rose. "We'll have to get pretty close to each other to do that," he said, his gaze flickering toward Reisel. "Really close."

"Any excuse you can get to grope other party members," Poppy muttered under her breath.

Ali bit back a laugh, but she wasn't quite able to keep the corners of her mouth from twitching. She was rewarded by a broad grin, not to mention a wink, by Tuck in return.

Bishop's gaze drifted over the room. "Does anyone have any more questions?" he asked. "Or are you ready to go?"

Poppy's mouth twisted into a sly grin that Ali didn't trust for a second. "Actually—"

Rolling her eyes, Ali turned her attention back to her breakfast. If they were going to be leaving shortly, then she wanted to finish her meal first.

*

"—someone on the greedy, dishonest side of things?" Poppy asked, just a little too eagerly. "Someone who you don't really like?"

As Ian Bishop sputtered out a response to yet another question from Poppy that he clearly didn't understand, Ali set her fork down on her now empty plate. She'd honestly been tuning out most of the conversation ever since it had become clear that Poppy was trying to find out where to sell some of the knickknacks she'd been hoarding the previous day, but it sounded as if the conversation might finally be drawing to a close.

Poppy opened her mouth to ask another question. Before she could say anything, though, a hawk suddenly flew through the doorway of the room.

Ali let out a squeak of surprise as it made a lap around the table, well over her head but still close enough to be somewhat disconcerting.

"Oh, fuck!" Poppy exclaimed, her hand going down to grab her crossbow. She brought it up, aiming it at the hawk as the rest of them stared. Or, in Bishop's case, looked far too amused. "There's a bird in here!"

Reisel glared at her. "The bird is mine."

Poppy froze. "Oh," she said, lowering her crossbow. Then she stuck out her tongue at him. "How was I supposed to know that?"

Tuck burst out laughing.

Yevka looked over all of them, her face almost expressionless. Ali felt a bit sorry for her, if she was honest. She had a feeling that the half-orc was already starting to regret saying "yes" when Bishop had asked her to join them.

Or maybe she was projecting again.

The hawk did another lap around the room before landing on Poppy's hand. After a moment's pause she reached up to pet its head, still looking like she wasn't quite certain putting away her crossbow had been the correct decision.

Ian Bishop sighed. Loudly. "Are you ready to leave?"

"Please," Tuck said, with more than a little emphasis.

Reisel and Yevka both nodded.

"I guess so," Poppy said, frowning just a bit at the bird still perched on her hand. It took off suddenly, flying over to land on Reisel's shoulder.

Ali shifted uncomfortably as everyone's gazes drifted toward her. "If everyone else is ready, then so am I," she said, not particularly trying to hide her reluctance.

Ian Bishop gestured for them to come closer to him.

As they all gathered around him, he held his hands out – the white stone clearly showing. He looked around and said with a hint of a smile on his face: "take a deep breath."

And then the world disappeared.

*

They reappeared at the edge of a ravine.

Ali let out a quiet "meep" and quickly backed away from the edge, her mind already flashing back to the previous day. She was tired of falling off cliffs, thank you very much, and she really had no intention of having a repeat of it.

The others were looking around as well, and she felt a little better to see that she wasn't the only one who was taking a quick step backwards.

Of course, then there was Reisel, who actually stepped closer to the edge to look down over it for a moment. "I think that I see the house down at the bottom," he said.

"I'm not climbing this time," Ali muttered under her breath.

She thought she was being quiet, but there was a quiet chuckle behind her. Neither Poppy nor Tuck were looking in her direction when she glanced over her shoulder, though, so she wasn't certain which one of them it was. Or if it was just her imagination.

"There's a path down this way," Reisel said, gesturing with one of his hands. The fact that he then started walking in the direction of said path made it clear that he expected them to follow him.

Yevka sighed and, without saying a word, started after him.

Poppy glanced over at Ali and Tuck. "I guess we're following him?"

Tuck shrugged. "Apparently."

Ali sighed and nodded.

"Okay then," Poppy said, reaching out to loop her arm in Ali's. Ali startled a bit, but she didn't pull away as Poppy started all but pulling her down the path beside her.

There was a long pause behind them.

"I guess that I'm going last then," Tuck said with a resigned-sounding sigh.

Up ahead, someone that sounded suspiciously like Reisel let out a laugh.

*

Reisel came to a sudden stop in front of them.

"What's wrong?" Poppy asked, letting go of Ali's arm so that her hand could reach back to rest on her crossbow. "Do you see something?"

He shook his head, his gaze drifting over the group for a second. He held out his hand, revealing the white stone that Ian had given them.

Tuck coughed. "I don't think it's time to head back quite yet."

Reisel shot him a glance, a hint of amusement flashing in his eyes, but otherwise he ignored both Poppy and Tuck's comments.

"Ali, you should take this," Reisel said, holding the stone out to her.

Ali stared at him for a second. "Okay," she said, a bit confused. "Why?"

"It will be safer that way," he said, handing her the white stone.

Still eyeing him warily, Ali nodded and took it. Then she carefully tucked the stone into her clothing, where she'd be able to get to it easily if needed. There was a padded area near her waist where she usually packed her glasses when she needed to take them off, at least at times when she wanted to keep them near her and not tucked away in her backpack.

*

"Reisel, what's your hawk's name?" Tuck asked suddenly, his gaze focused on the bird that was currently flying circles over their heads.

Reisel glanced back at him. "Oak."

Tuck blinked a few times but didn't say anything.

Poppy rolled her eyes. "You suck at naming your pets."

Ali snorted, but she didn't say anything. Yevka didn't make a sound, but there was a bit of a lightening around her eyes that made Ali think she was at least amused.

Reisel didn't say a word. He just shot all of them a somewhat enigmatic look before continuing to walk farther down the path.

"Well, that figures," Poppy muttered under her breath. She picked up her pace, forcing Ali to move a bit faster as well considering they were still arm-in-arm.

Ali took a deep breath before letting herself be pulled along, careful to stay away from the edge of the path. Yes, Poppy was between her and it, but still.

Better safe than sorry.

*

"Um, can anyone read whatever this is?" Tuck asked, leaning a bit closer to inspect a stone marker to the side of the path they were walking down. "I don't recognize it."

Reisel walked up and took a close look at it before shaking his head. "Unfortunately, no. It's not familiar."

"Unless it's in Common or Halfling, I can't read it," Poppy said, not even bothering to take a look.

Yevka didn't say anything, which wasn't really all that surprising. She did give a shrug, though, which Ali took to mean that she didn't recognize the writing.

Everyone's gaze turned toward Ali.

Ali shifted awkwardly. "I can take a look," she said, "but I can't make any promises."

She reached up to adjust her glasses on her face before walking up beside Tuck. The words carved into the stone were a bit worn but still clearly legible. Unfortunately, they also weren't familiar.

Still, maybe she could figure out something about them. Ali leaned in a bit closer, studying the script as closely as she could.

The alphabet was Dwarvish, that much she knew, but she'd been reading that language since she was just a small child and this very much wasn't it. Yevka wasn't showing any recognition, so it most likely wasn't Orc. Which meant it had to be either Giant or Goblin. Well, or Primordial, but Ali didn't even want to think about that possibility.

She frowned, studying the words a bit more closely. She'd been studying Giant for some time, and – while she was still far from being fluent in the language – she didn't think that was what this was. And, well, that left one real option.

"I think it's Goblin," Ali said slowly. "Well, it's possibly Giant. But I really think it's Goblin."

There was a long pause.

"Do you speak Goblin?" Tuck asked hopefully.

Ali looked at him and raised her eyebrows.

"I think that's a 'no,'" Poppy said in a mock-whisper.

Ali sighed. "It's not one of the languages that I can read," she agreed, reaching up to adjust her glasses again. "But if I'm right about it being Goblin, maybe we should keep our eyes open."

"I agreed," Reisel said firmly. "Let's keep going."

He turned and started heading farther down the path, followed closely behind by Yevka. Poppy shot Ali a quick look and held out her hand. "Coming?"

Ali glanced back at the words carved in the stone, trying to memorize them as best she could. "Give me just a moment," she said slowly.

Poppy sighed. Loudly.

Beside her, Tuck cleared his throat and shot her a sideways glance.

Ali shifted awkwardly at the attention. "Yes?" she asked, not quite certain she wanted to know the question.

"Just how many languages do you speak?" he asked, in a tone that she wasn't quite sure how to interpret.

Ali gave him a half-hearted shrug. "Six fluently," she said. "I'm studying a few more, but it's going to be a bit of a feat to get to a point where I can actually speak them properly."

He raised an eyebrow. "Six?" he repeated. "Six?"

"I like learning," Ali said sheepishly.

Then, with one more look at the unreadable words, she walked up to link her arm in Poppy's again.

*

Ali kept her gaze focused on the ground as they headed down the path. She wasn't an expert tracker by any means, but she still remembered at least some of the lessons she'd learned as a child. The various minutiae of the process were somewhat fuzzy in her memories, but that was to be expected considering how out of practice she was.

Still, she remembered the basics. That was the important thing.

There were tracks here and there, mostly those of animals but at least a few clearly from some type of smaller humanoid. Goblins, they had to be goblins, based on the writing they'd seen above. That wasn't anything particular new, though, considering they'd already guessed that they wouldn't be alone down here.

Ali stopped walking abruptly, studying the tracks a bit closer.

There was something recent, just a few days old, that seemed off to her for some reason. It looked more like something from a human or an elf, one of the larger races rather than one her own size. Surely Ian Bishop would have mentioned it if he'd known that someone else was heading to the house. So whose footprints was she seeing?

"Do you see something?" Poppy asked curiously, her arm still looped in Ali's.

"Maybe," Ali said, a bit distractedly. She tilted her head a bit before reluctantly looking up from the tracks. "Someone else has been down this way."

Poppy frowned at her. "Goblins?"

"No," Ali said, shaking her head. Then she paused. "Well, yes," she amended, "but not just them. The footprints are too big to be from them."

"Oh," Poppy said, turning her attention to the footprints that Ali had been studying. "I, uh, don't see it."

Ali couldn't help but smile, just a bit. "I'm kind of surprised that I did," she admitted. "I'm a bit out of practice."

Tuck leaned forward, towering over them. "Why did we stop?"

*

"I have a bad feeling about this," Tuck muttered from behind them, clearly not trying to be particularly quiet.

Poppy nodded. "Me too."

Ali didn't say anything, but she narrowed her eyes and let her gaze move carefully over the ground in front of them. The three of them were still standing at the bottom of the path they'd been following downward, while Reisel and Yevka made their way in the direction of the nearby tower of the somewhat decrepit manor home resting at the floor of the ravine.

Then her breath caught in her throat.

There was something odd about the ground in front of them. Well, she supposed it was technically the roof of the home that they were walking on, but still. The area below their feet. It took Ali a second or two to realize that the oddity she'd noticed was a rather gaping hole between them and the door to the tower.

And Reisel looked as if he hadn't noticed it.

"Watch your feet!" Ali called out, cupping her hands in front of her mouth.

Poppy jerked in surprise beside her, and Tuck spluttered. Ali ignored them, though, her attention focused on the two members of their group who were in a bit more immediate danger.

Both Reisel and Yevka immediately came to an abrupt stop, which was at least somewhat gratifying. They were willing to listen to her, at least. That was a good sign.

Reisel's gaze drifted down to focus on the hole she'd pointed out, clearly noticing it for the first time. Then he glanced back at Ali and gave her a nod.

Ali smiled, just a little.

*

Ali felt her heart pounding in her chest as she watched the others take a running leap over the hole that she'd noticed earlier, landing on the other side of it and slipping through the doorway to get out of the way. There hadn't been any issues yet, but... well, that's what she had thought the day before, and look at how well that had turned out.

There wasn't an underground lake for her to land in if she slipped and fell this time.

"Come on, Ali!" Poppy called, gesturing for her to jump over.

Ali just shook her head.

Poppy frowned at her.

Ignoring that reaction, Ali reached up to tap at Yevka's thigh.

It took a moment or two for the half-orc to notice, but she looked down at Ali after a moment or two. She didn't say anything, but the way she lifted her eyebrows spoke volumes.

"Could you toss me across?" Ali asked, not quite believing the words that were coming out of her mouth even as she said them. "I'd rather not risk it."

If anything Yevka's eyebrows rose even higher. "Uh, sure," she said slowly, almost as if she was waiting for a punchline.

Ali waited patiently.

"If you're sure," Yevka said with a shrug.

The next thing Ali knew, she was flying. Well, relatively speaking, at least.

Poppy yelped and moved out of the way as Ali landed in the doorway and immediately fell right on her ass. Still, it was better than the alternative.

"Well, that worked," Ali said, flinching a little as she pushed herself to the feet. She surreptitiously sent a quick wave of healing energy through her body, relieving at least a few of the aches and pains that she'd been feeling from the past day or so.

Then the smell of decomposing flesh reached her nose, and Ali's mind immediately went blank.

Trying not to gag, she moved out of the doorway to give Yevka room to jump across and get into the room. She let her gaze drift over the room.

It was in disarray, which was to be expected if the house really had dropped into the middle of the ravine like Bishop and Risto had said. The source of the smell quickly became obvious, though. There were several bodies sprawled on the ground around them, all of them goblins. And, judging by the visible wounds on them, they had clearly been killed by someone or something.

Ali grimaced, trying to bring her shirt up to cover her mouth and nose the best that she could. She leaned down to study one of the bodies, careful not to touch it.

"They've been dead for a while," she said, not particularly caring if anyone was listening or not. "Maybe a week?"

Nobody said anything, and Ali took that as a sign to move away from the body.

Poppy and Tuck were walking around the room, studying some of the doors. Yevka was trailing behind them, clearly keeping an eye on them.

Reisel was kneeling down beside another goblin body, and – judging by its appearance – he'd pushed it out of the way in order to look at the wall behind it.

Ali frowned and started walking his way.

Almost as if he sensed her presence, Reisel glanced over his shoulder and nodded at her. "Come look at this," he said.

Even though she knew that she should probably know better, Ali let her curiosity get the better of her. She quietly walked over and knelt down beside Reisel, trying to breathe through her mouth to avoid the smell coming from the goblin's body.

There were words carved into the wall.

"Oh!" Ali said, her eyes widening.

Reisel's eyes moved over the carved words. "I, the guardian of the gate, vow to protect my friends and my enemies," he read slowly. "To maintain the distance between the worlds. To give all that I can and to accept all that I must."

Guardian of the gate. That was familiar. Why was that familiar? She knew that term from somewhere or other. She knew that she had.

"Guardian of the gate?" Ali repeated slowly. "Guardian of the gate."

She was vaguely aware of Reisel standing up and moving away from her, but she didn't move her gaze away from the carved words. Damn it, she knew that she recognized this from somewhere. Not the phrasing itself, but.... something. She recognized something about it.

It was like a story she had heard. Familiar, but not quite...

... oh. Oh. A story. That's why it was familiar. The Guardians, protectors of the gates between the worlds. But it was just a legend. A myth. A fairytale for children.

Then again, most legends had at least some basis in fact. That was one of the most basic teachings of Aureon, after all.

"What have I gotten myself into?" Ali whispered to herself.

*

Ali reached up to rub the bridge of her nose as she studied the bodies resting on the floor of the small guard room they had stumbled into. They'd clearly been killed by a fall, which meant that it had probably been the house falling into the ravine that had caused their deaths.

Still, she couldn't help but think that she was missing something. She just couldn't figure out what it was.

Nearby, Poppy held up an arrow. "This looks weird, right?" she asked the room in general, not even trying to hide the fact that she was shoving a handful of coins from the floor in her pocket.

Reisel leaned in to look at it for a second. Then he raised an eyebrow.

"It seems to be magical," he said slowly. "I don't feel any energies from it, but maybe use it in a pinch?"

Poppy looked at it. "Huh," she said. Then she slipped it in with her other arrows before going back to picking up coins.

Ali didn't roll her eyes, but it took some effort. She was trying her best to remember that Poppy was just still just a kid, about the same age she had been when she'd first gone to the temple. She needed to be at least a bit forgiving.

Near the doorway, Tuck was shifting from one foot to the other. He was practically radiating boredom, and he looked like he was trying his best not to run out of the room and start poking things.

Gods, she was only 29. She was barely more than a kid herself in most people's eyes. Why in all the worlds was Ali suddenly feeling like the only adult in the room?

*

"Are you going to unlock it or not?" Tuck asked, raising an eyebrow at Poppy.

Poppy stepped back and stared at the locked door that she'd been working on for a long moment. Then she kicked it.

Nothing happened.

"It's harder than it looks," Poppy muttered under her breath, crossing her arms in front of her chest.

Reisel chuckled.

Ali reached up to rub the bridge of her nose again. She could practically feel a headache forming.

"Maybe Yevka could give it a try?" Tuck suggested.

Yevka shot him an extremely skeptical look.

So did Poppy.

"Do you know how to pick locks?" she asked Yevka.

Yevka snorted.

"Who said anything about picking locks?" Tuck asked. "I thought that she could just go at it like a battering ram, like she did to that one earlier."

There was another long pause.

Reisel glanced at Yevka. "Would you be so kind as to open this door for us as well?"

"Uh, sure?" Yevka said, and there wasn't a doubt in Ali's mind that she was wondering what she had gotten herself involved in.

Reisel took a step back.

Without another word, Yevka charged at the door. There was a loud cracking sound, but there weren't any physical changes to the door's appearance. So she reared back and hit it again.

This time, the cracks along its edges were a bit more noticeable. But the door stayed shut.

"Really?" Tuck asked.

Yevka frowned.

Without saying a word, Ali slipped past her and stepped up to the door. She stared at it for a second, studying the obvious cracks along its hinges. It looked like it was still standing by just a tiny thread.

"What are you doing?" Poppy asked.

Biting her lip, Ali brought her leg up and gave the door a firm kick. It didn't have much strength behind it, all things considered, but it was apparently enough.

The door swung open.

In the surprised silence that followed, Ali turned back to Yevka and gave her a grin. Yevka didn't actually smile back at her, but she did nod. And Ali didn't think she was imagining the amusement in her eyes.

*

"What in the—?" Poppy trailed off as she and Ali watched Reisel take a few steps away from the glowing orb in the center of the room. Then, without saying a word, he turned and sprinted out the door.

Ali blinked in surprise.

She and Poppy shared a look.

"I'm going to touch it," Poppy said, taking a few steps forward.

Ali stood there gaping for a second. "Wait, what?" she asked. "Are you sure that's—"

Poppy reached out and touched the orb.

"—a good idea," Ali finished with a sigh, her mind already flashing back to the room with the mirror the day before. She quickly glanced around, trying to see if anything caught her eye. Nothing seemed to be moving so far, but you never knew.

Tuck stepped into the doorway. "Hey guys, what—" He froze in place, gaping at the orb. "What is that?"

Ali shrugged at him.

"Tuck, you need to come see this," Poppy said, something just slightly off with her voice. "I really think you should look at it."

What in the hells? Ali's gaze jerked back in Poppy's direction, her eyebrows already lifting. Poppy didn't pay her any mind, though. Her gaze was focused entirely on Tuck.

Ali quickly followed her gaze.

Tuck was shooting Poppy a somewhat confused look, but he was already making his way over to her. "Really?" he asked. "Are you sure?"

"I'm definitely sure," Poppy said, nodding. "I think it's what you've been looking for."

Ali felt a chill run down her spine. Something was wrong. She knew that something was wrong. It was on the tip of her tongue to tell Tuck to stop, that he needed to move away.

... but if she did, then they might not ever figure out what the orb really was. And, well, curiosity had always been her biggest vice.

Tuck stepped up to the orb, so close that its light was reflected in his eyes.

She needed to say something. It was magic. It had clearly affected Poppy in some way. Damn it, she needed to say something. What if it killed him? What if—

Tuck reached out and touched the orb.

Poppy made a startled sound beside her, and her eyes went wide. "I, uh, don't know why I just said what I said," she said slowly, "but I think you really shouldn't have touched that."

"What?" Tuck exclaimed, spinning around to look at her.

On his back, his cittern started to glow.

Poppy made a strangled noise.

"What the fuck?" Ali asked the universe at large, her gaze focused entirely on the glowing instrument on Tuck's back.

It wasn't that she had an issue with swearing. She was quite good at cursing, in her honest opinion, not that anyone had ever asked. Ali had just never seen the point in throwing random curse words here and there, as normal parts of a conversation. They counted so much more when you only used them on deserving occasions.

This? Very much counted as one of those.

"What?" Tuck asked, spinning towards her. "You just swore. Why did you swear? What's going on?"

Poppy gaped at him. "Your thing," she said, pointing at his back. "The instrument. Lyra."

Tuck spun in a circle, almost as if he was trying to look at his own back. "What?" he yelped. "What about her? What's going on?"

Ali felt a pang of guilt bury itself in her chest and start digging in.

*

What was with this house?

Ali closed her eyes, taking in a few deep breaths and letting them out as the others crowded into the room behind the secret door that they'd discovered. She knew that she'd helped figure out how to get past the dragon statue outside, but she couldn't help like she'd still failed. It was clear in hindsight that the words they'd found carved in the wall outside were the key, but the thought hadn't even crossed her mind until Poppy had said something.

Not to mention, she still hadn't wiped away her guilt from not stopping Tuck from touching the orb in the previous room.

Oh, he seemed fine so far. He hadn't dropped dead, and other than the brief moment or two where his instrument had started to glow, nothing truly out of the ordinary had occurred.

But that didn't erase the fact that she hadn't known what would happen. And she had still let him touch the damn thing.

"Uh, guys?" Tuck's voice rang out clearly through the room in front of her. "What do you make of this?"

Ali took another deep breath. Then she opened her eyes and started forward. Woolgathering wasn't going to change what had happened, after all.

She stepped through the doorway. And then she froze in place, her eyes going wide.

There were books piled around the room, and – even though it clearly wasn't a library – there were enough tomes to make her inner bookworm start bouncing with happiness. That wasn't what had caught her attention, though.

No, it was the statues that made her look twice.

The room was filled with them. It wasn't easy to tell just how old they were, considering they were made of stone, but they were fairly well made. And the others seemed to be just as captured by them as she was.

Admittedly, it was possibly because they seemed to be keeping anyone from Tuck from entering the room.

Ali was just about to step forward, to try and see if maybe she could slip between some of the statues that seemed to be blocking the others from entering. But then she froze as one of the statues caught her eye.

Oh. Oh. A good dozen of the mysteries that had been dogging her ever since she'd received Ian Bishop's message were suddenly solved, just like that, and a good hundred more took their place. Because, damn it all, Ali recognized the face staring at her from that stone form. It wasn't exact, but it was so very similar to the one in her memories. They could be siblings, at the very least. Mother and daughter, maybe. Something. Something.

They had to be related in some way, that much was certain. Unless the artist just hadn't done a good job at capturing her face and it was who Ali thought it was, which was always a possibility.

It was a statue of a tall human woman, not quite standing a full six feet tall but only just shy of that mark. She was in her late thirties or perhaps early forties, a cloak pulled over her head so that her hair didn't show. Possibly because the sculptor hadn't wanted to deal with carving all of those ridiculous curls, if it really was her. Or anyone related to her, because she must have gotten that hair from someone.

Ali was willing to admit that it most likely wasn't actually Nomi. It was probably an ancestor, some distant relation who just happened to look just like the woman she knew. But still.

She wasn't blind. She'd seen the others' faces when they'd looked around the room, quick flashes of recognition that were there and gone almost before they had a chance to register. Something odd was going on – well, something odder – that much was for certain.

Still, they had other things to worry about just then.

Ali took a steadying breath and looked around the room again, trying to take in as much as she could about the statues spread around it. Just in case. She didn't know much about her companions, after all, and any follower of Aureon knew that knowledge was power. Even if they were a reluctant follower.

Other than the one that had caught her attention, there were seven others. A halfling dressed in armor that clearly bore at least somewhat of a resemblance to Poppy. Two dwarves, one in fighter plate and another in robes. A gnome in plain traveler's clothes. A Dragonborn in armor that looked to be made of some type of fur or hide, although it was difficult to tell from stone, with a tail trailing behind them. A tiefling woman with curved ram horns and very fine clothing that was reminiscent of what Poppy had been wearing when Ali had first met her.

And a half elf. With a cittern.

Another pang of guilt rushed through her, and Ali steadfastly pushed it back down. She'd have time to worry about that later.

*

Ali shifted her feet, doing her best not to look in Tuck's direction. She knew that it was probably completely obvious that something was up with her, but it didn't feel right to try to hide it. Not considering, well, everything.

Someone cleared their throat.

She startled, her eyes darting upward. Just in time to meet Tuck's gaze.

"Hey, is everything okay?" Tuck asked slowly, in a tone of voice that Ali wasn't quite certain how to read.

Ali quickly looked away from him. "Of course," she said quickly. "I mean, you know, other than the obvious." She gestured at the room full of statues, her gaze flickering back to him for just a second before darting back away.

Tuck didn't say anything for a moment. "So, I know we aren't exactly good friends or anything," he said slowly, drawing the words out, "but you really seem like you're avoiding me. Did I do something to offend you?"

Surprise rushed through her.

"What?" Ali finally met his gaze straight on, well aware that her surprise and confusion probably shone as clear as day on her face. "No! Of course not." A hint of a smile tugged at the corner of her mouth for just a second, before she could stop it. "Believe me, if you had done something to offend me, you'd know."

A relieved look appeared on Tuck's face, and – if anything – Ali felt her guilt increase. "Oh, well that's a relief!" he said, shaking his head. "Well, it definitely seems like something is wrong. This room is confusing sure, but I think there might be something else to it."

Ali couldn't help but look away again as he grinned at her, an open expression on his face.

"You can trust me!" Tuck said firmly. "I want us all to survive, and I know that I can't do this alone!"

Oh, gods. He just had to make this even more difficult than it already was, didn't he?

Ali bit her lip again, well aware that she was slipping back into that nervous habit but not caring enough to actually try to force herself to stop. Her gaze drifted past Tuck to focus on the cittern that was still strapped to his back. It wasn't glowing anymore, not like before at least, but it didn't do much to alleviate the guilt.

"Are you okay?" she asked quietly. "I mean, what with—" She gestured with her hands, not quite certain what she was trying to show with them but not entirely able to hold still either. "Everything that happened earlier. With the orb."

Tuck's eyes went wide. "Oh, the orb? That was crazy!" His gaze focused on hers. "What do you think happened back there? You said you saw something glowing? I almost forgot about it, what with this room and everything. What exactly happened? Do you know?"

Ali stared at him, just a little. She couldn't help it. The words had tumbled out of his mouth so quickly that even she was a little impressed, a steady stream of sounds without even a single pause for breath.

Then her brain realized just what he had said, and – if anything – she started chewing on her lip a bit harder. Enough that even she noticed that it was hurting, but as long as she didn't taste blood it was fine. That was what Nomi had always said, at least.

"I'm sorry," she blurted out. "About earlier."

Tuck stared at her blankly. "Wait, what?" he exclaimed, a hint of panic making his way into his voice. "What did you see?"

If Ali was a good person, she wouldn't take the out he had just given her. She'd tell him exactly why she was sorry, so that he'd know exactly what kind of person he had watching his back.

She'd never considered herself to be a good person. Not really.

"Your cittern started glowing," she said slowly. "After you touched the orb. It was magic. Some type of enchantment, maybe? I'm not sure, but it was definitely magic. And I should have—"

She trailed off, looking away. That was more than she'd meant to say.

"Oh, well yeah," Tuck said slowly, "I really wish I knew what it was... but, wait." He eyed her eagerly. "Do you think you can help me figure out what happened?"

Ali shifted nervously. "Um, maybe?" she said slowly. "I have a little bit of magic, obviously. And I've spent the last decade studying at the temple. There are a lot of wizards there, so I've picked up some things." She paused, tilting her head a little. "You'll probably want to ask Reisel too, but I can definitely try to help."

Tuck grinned at her. It wasn't fair that he could look so damn happy for her when he barely even knew her.

She gave him a weak smile. "And who knows?" she added. "Ian Bishop promised me books, after all. Maybe one of them will help?"

Tuck nodded, and for just a second Ali thought that she had managed to convince him that everything was fine. Then he looked at her again, really looked at her, and she felt her heart sink.

"Yeah, maybe..." he said slowly, a hint of confusion in his voice. "So is that it? I don't want you to feel like you have to avoid me or anything, especially if there was nothing you could have done anyway. I don't know what I would have done in that situation!"

Ali felt the guilt flair in her chest again, and for a moment she thought that it was an actual physical pain. She flinched. Damn it.

"But I could have done something," Ali said quietly, the words escaping before she could stop them. "I knew something was wrong."

Tuck shot her a puzzled look.

"I told you," she said, the words spilling out before she could stop them. "I spent the last decade at the temple. I've been around magic since I was a kid." She took a deep breath, mentally bracing herself. Her words were getting faster and faster as she spoke, almost tumbling over themselves in their hurry to escape. "I was standing right there. I knew it was magic. I knew Poppy was acting odd. I knew—"

She cut off abruptly. It was too much. She was saying too much. She had said too much.

Tuck stared at her.

"Wait, wait, wait, slow down a second," he said, his tongue almost tripping over his words again. "For one, Poppy is always acting weird. Secondly, you spent how many years in a temple? Was that by choice? And finally, what exactly could you have done to help?"

Ali's fists clenched at her sides.

"Poppy's 19," she said dryly, "it's practically a requirement that she act a little weird."

She took another deep breath, hoping it would help calm her racing heart. It didn't.

"I spent almost a decade at the temple," she said, and for just a moment she felt herself disappearing into her memories. She quickly shook her head, keeping her mind firmly in the present. "I was 19 when No—" She hesitated. No, it would be better if she kept Nomi's name out of this, for now at least. "When someone took me there for the first time. I loved it. I could have stayed there forever and been happy."

Tuck was staring at her, a hint of confusion on his face.

Ali shook her head, and she couldn't quite keep the bitterness out of her voice when she added: "But it wasn't meant to be, so that's that."

Oh gods, she didn't want to answer his last question. Part of her, a large part, hoped that maybe she had said enough. That he wouldn't notice that she hadn't answered everything that he had asked.

"Yeah, Poppy will come around eventually, I guess," Tuck said slowly, his gaze focused on hers. Ali wanted to look away, but she couldn't quite force herself to do so. "And I'm sorry to hear that you had to leave, but I'm definitely happy to have you with the group."

Ali couldn't help it. She flinched again.

Tuck's eyes narrowed slightly. "Look, if you want to keep some things to yourself, I understand," he said, and gods damn him he seemed so earnest. "You don't seem like the type of person who would purposefully neglect helping others in dire need, so I trust that you will make the right decisions."

Ali opened her mouth. Then she closed it.

Tuck was still staring at her.

"I almost stopped you," she whispered. As if that might somehow keep him from hearing her. "Stopped you from touching the orb, that is. I knew it wasn't right. I was going to grab you, to tell you to wait. But—"

He was already shaking his head. "The look on Poppy's face looked sincere for once," he said. "If it was calling to me, I had to see what it was. I don't think you could have stopped me."

Ali couldn't help it. She snorted. "I don't know about that," she said, a wry grin tugging at the corners of her mouth despite the situation. "I've had a lot of practice making people much taller than me do what I want."

Then she realized what she had just said, and she could almost feel her face turn red.

Tuck waggled his eyebrows at her. "Oh, really?" he asked with an almost devilish grin.

"But I still should have tried," she said hurriedly, trying to cut him off before he had a chance to say anything else.

He stared at her for a second, taking her in. His grin didn't disappear, but it did fade a little. "So, what did you think was going to happen to me exactly?"

Ali dropped her gaze. "I don't know," she admitted reluctantly, and – damn it – there was the guilt again. "But I didn't say anything because I was curious. I wanted to know what would happen, and I just—" She hesitated for a moment. "I let it happen."

There was a long pause.

"So maybe I misjudged you then," Tuck said slowly, and Ali grimaced. It shouldn't hurt so much to hear that tone directed at her from him. It really shouldn't. She'd barely even known him two whole days, for the sake of the gods.

Despite all of that, it did.

"I think that I misjudged myself," she whispered, looking away from him. She couldn't meet his gaze. She just couldn't. Not when she could have gotten him killed because of her damn curiosity.

Damn it, she shouldn't have listened to Nomi. She should have stayed in the fucking temple where she belonged. Aureon could find another damn cleric, someone who had actually wanted to be a servant of the gods. All she'd ever wanted was to learn.

"For all I knew, you could have been killed," she said, a little louder than before. Because, damn it, he deserved to know just what kind of person he had watching his back. "And I just let it happen, because I was fucking curious."

Silence. Tuck didn't say a word.

"I shouldn't have listened to her," Ali continued, and this time it wasn't aimed at Tuck. "I should have stayed in the temple, where I belong. I told her. I told all of them. I never wanted any of this."

She closed her eyes, breathing deeply. And she waited.

There was a long pause.

"Whoa, now back up there!" Tuck said, and damn it he should sound angrier at her than he did. She could have gotten him killed. "Luckily, nothing happened, and honestly it seems like I've gotten better at playing good ole Lyra anyway, so we lucked out this time." He paused for a moment. "But if we are going to be in a group together, I would love it if we could trust each other with things."

Ali just stood there, not quite certain what was happening. He should be furious at her. Why wasn't he angry?

"Now who is this person you keep referring to?" Tuck asked curiously. "Is it that 'No' someone you mentioned before?"

... and of course he just had to have picked up on that slip of the tongue earlier. Why couldn't he be just a little less perceptive?

Ali couldn't help it. Her gaze flickered over to the statue that she'd noticed earlier, the one that bore a striking similarity to Nomi. When she glanced back at Tuck a moment later, there wasn't a doubt in her mind that he'd noticed.

"Yes," Ali said cautiously, not entirely certain how much she should mention. "She's a... a friend, that I've known for a long time."

Tuck stared at her, a knowing look appearing on his face at the slight hesitation before the word "friend." Ali could feel her own face heating up, and she knew there was no possible way he could miss her blush.

"She must be pretty special to you," he said slowly. "And clearly she must be pretty special to someone else too, if she's immortalized by that statue."

Ali hesitated. "It might not be her," she said. "It's probably not her. The statue, I mean. It just—" She bit her lip. "It looks like her. A lot."

Tuck smiled at her, and there wasn't a hint of anger or deception in it despite everything she had just told him.

Guilt. So much guilt. She was very much feeling all of the guilt just then.

"Nomi," she said quietly. "Her name is Nomi."

Tuck opened his mouth, as if he was about to say something. Then he closed it. He opened it again... and then, once more, he closed it. Judging by the look on his face, he'd been about to say something less than appropriate and had thought better of it at the last second.

It might have been amusing, if they'd been talking about anything – anyone – else.

"She looks beautiful," Tuck said, his gaze drifting over to the statue again. "I'm sorry you had to leave her side."

Ali didn't flinch this time. It took a lot of effort, but she held it back. "So am I," she said, trying not to sound bitter. She wasn't entirely certain that she succeeded.

Tuck tilted his head, almost as if he was studying her. There was a long pause before he said anything else.

"Hey, I meant it when I said you look like a very nice person," he said, "and I think we're lucky to have you with us. I hope we can learn to trust each other, because we're not going to survive these crazy trials without each other."

He paused again.

"And if you can tell me what happened to Lyra," he said, nodding at the cittern hanging at his back, "I would be deeply appreciative."

He smiled warmly at her.

Ali gave him a tentative smile back. "I'll try?" she said, not quite able to hide her hesitance. "I'm, uh, not used to working with people."

"Tuck!" Reisel yelled. "What's taking so long? I thought you were bringing me more books!"

Tuck startled.

Ali couldn't help it. Her smile grew a little wider.

Maybe things weren't quite as bad as she'd thought they were.

Chapter Text

Oh, this was going to end so badly. She just knew it.

Ali stood in the doorway to the small side room they had stumbled across a few minutes earlier, staring with wide eyes as Poppy and Tuck poked at the wooden keg sitting inside of it. The keg that was very obviously moving. Which, in her opinion, meant they should leave the damn thing alone and just keep making their way down the hallway.

Not that she expected any of the others really cared all that much for her opinion.

Tuck frowned at the keg for a long moment. "I'm going to stab it," he said decisively.

Poppy's eyes went wide. "What?" she asked, spinning around to face him.

Ali took a large step backward. Then, just to be safe, she took another one as well. She could hear movement in the hallway behind her, presumably Reisel and Yevka heading their way to find out what was going on.

Tuck reached up and stabbed one of his daggers through the top of the keg.

The blade went through the partially rotting wood easily, and for second or two it looked like nothing had happened. Then ice started moving up the dagger, sliding up the blade and onto the hilt.

With a curse, Tuck let go of it and took a step backwards. Poppy did the same, a wary look on her face. "What in the—"

Before she could finish speaking, the ice coalesced into a small, imp-like creature. It stood on the top of the keg for a second, beside Tuck's dagger, looking down at Tuck and Poppy.

Ali stared at it, a flicker of recognition running through her head. Oh, damn it to the hells.

"Guys," she said, trying to keep her voice as calm as she could manage, "I'm pretty sure it's some kind of elemental."

Tuck's gaze flickered over to her. "Well, that's great," he said. "Any idea how to fight it?"

Ali gave him a weak shrug, her hand going back to rest on her crossbow.

"Crap," Poppy muttered, reaching for her own weapon.

Tuck's mouth twisted into a smirk as he pulled out another dagger. And then his hands burst into flames.

Or, more precisely, that's what appeared to happen. There was something just a tiny bit off about the fire leaping off of his hands, and – although she couldn't quite place what seemed wrong – Ali suspected that it was probably some type of illusion. Still, it seemed to do the job.

The imp jerked back, more out of surprise than anything, and Tuck's dagger connected solidly with it as he lunged forward.

With a hiss, the imp surged out of the room. It lunged over Ali's head, so quickly that she couldn't quite tell if it was flying or jumping from wall to wall.

Poppy shoved past her, crossbow in hand as she rushed out into the hallway, and she let one of the bolts go flying after the imp. It hit the creature in the back, and there was another hiss…

... and then the imp exploded, sending ice shards spraying through the hallway. A few of them landed harmlessly at Ali's feet, an inch or two away from actually doing any damage. Judging by the curses and grunts of pain coming from a bit farther down the hall, Reisel and Yevka hadn't been quite so lucky.

Ali muttered a rather emphatic Dwarvish curse under her breath. Then she turned back towards the doorway and had to resist the urge to bark out another one.

Tuck was looking at the keg again, which seemed like potentially the worst idea ever considering the circumstances. It wasn't moving any longer, so that was something. Still, the way things had been going, Ali couldn't help but be wary.

She reluctantly took a few steps into the room, moving closer to the keg but being careful not to touch anything. Her hand still rested on her crossbow, her grip on it tightening a bit as Tuck reached out and pulled his dagger loose from the wood.

Nothing happened.

Tuck let out a relieved sigh, and Ali released a breath that she hadn't quite realized she was holding. After a moment's hesitation, she moved her hand away from the crossbow.

"Where are the others?" Tuck asked, glancing back at her.

Ali shrugged at him. "Probably still in the hallway," she said. She could hear voices outside of the room that sounded like the other three, but they were distant enough that she couldn't quite make out what they were saying.

Tuck shook his head but didn't say anything. Instead, he leaned in a bit closer to the keg. "What do you make of this?" he asked, gesturing at the design that covered its sides.

Curious despite herself, Ali took another step forward. The emblem decorating the keg was that of a fish, but it had some definite dragon-like attributes to it. Still, it didn't seem familiar.

"I think it's just decorative?" Ali said slowly, a slight lilt to the end of it that she suspected made it come off more like a question than a statement. "Maybe Dominik liked dragons?"

Someone cleared their throat directly behind her, and Ali jumped a little as she spun around. Reisel was standing there, his gaze focused on the keg. She hadn't even heard him come in the room.

"Ali, do you want to try drawing it?" he asked, not even looking at her.

Ali couldn't help but let out a soft bark of laughter. "You really don't want me to try to draw something," she said. Oh, she could do basic sketches – any scribe could – but something as elaborate as the design on the keg was asking a bit much.

Besides, she was almost entirely certain it was decorative. It would just be a waste of time to draw it.

Reisel raised his eyebrows. Then, without another word, he pulled out a sheet of paper and started to scribble something on it.

"Hey, what's going on?" Poppy asked, slipping past Reisel into the room. Yevka was behind her, a somewhat amused look on her face.

Tuck gestured at the emblem on the keg. "Reisel's copying that," he said. "Just in case."

Poppy looked at him. Then she looked at Reisel. Then, with a look on her face of utter confusion, she looked at Ali. "Oh," she said. "Uh, why?"

Ali shrugged.

Tuck opened his mouth, presumably to answer, but before he could say anything Reisel held out the drawing he had been working on. "How's this look?" he asked.

Tuck burst out laughing, and Poppy followed suit a moment later. Even Yevka snorted, which Ali took as probably a bad sign.

"Let me see," Ali said, despite her best judgement. She leaned forward and craned her neck upward, trying to get a good look at Reisel's sketch.

She didn't laugh. It took a lot of effort on her part, but she didn't laugh. It liked somewhat fish-like, at least, which was… something, she supposed.

"Oh, for the love of the gods," Ali muttered under her breath.

Reisel gave her a sheepish shrug, but he didn't say anything.

"Fine, fine, you've made your point," Ali said, reaching into her bag to pull out a sheet of parchment. "I'll draw it."

For the gods' sake, even she could do better than that.

*

Ali stayed well back from the others as they made their way down the hallway, several of them poking at different doors as they walked down it. In theory, they were supposed to be checking them for traps before opening anything, but… well, so far, she hadn't been given a lot of reasons to trust them when it came to not almost getting her – or themselves – killed.

She eyed Tuck and Reisel warily as she slipped past the door of the room they were studying. The quick glimpse she caught of its inside revealed bare walls and not a single piece of furniture, but they both seemed to be looking around it fairly intently.

"Once we're done here, we should go to an asylum," Reisel said, just loudly enough that she could hear it as she walked by.

Tuck snorted. "I'm telling her that you said that, Reisel."

"I hope you do!" Reisel shot back.

Ali shook her head and kept on walking. There wasn't a single doubt in her mind who they were talking about, and it definitely wasn't her. Or Yevka, for that matter. And, while she did like Poppy, she didn't particularly feel the urge to cause any drama.

Up ahead, Poppy disappeared through the door she had just unlocked. She was gone for less than a minute before she reappeared in the doorway, making a series of very odd hand gestures in Ali and Yevka's directions.

Ali glanced up at Yevka, who had been staying somewhat back as well, and raised an eyebrow. Yevka gave her a shrug before starting in Poppy's direction.

After a moment's hesitation, Ali followed her.

"There's some weird writing on the wall," Poppy whispered as soon as they were both within earshot. "Ali, can you read it?"

Ali gave her an unsure look. "Maybe?" she offered. "It depends on whether or not it's written in a language that I know."

Poppy rolled her eyes. "Well, why don't you go look?" she asked, reaching out to pull Ali towards the door.

If she had wanted to fight back, Ali thought she probably could have resisted. There was a hint of curiosity playing at the back of her mind, though, that kept her from doing so. Besides, it still smarted a bit that she hadn't been able to translate the words they'd seen on their way down to the house. Her pride kind of hoped that maybe this time it would be something she could actually read.

The room was dark, lit only by the lantern that Poppy had apparently sat down on the floor just inside the doorway. It took Ali's eyes a moment to adjust, and even then the shadows made it somewhat difficult to read the text engraved on the nearby wall.

But she could read it.

"It's Draconic," Ali said, narrowing her eyes. It had been awhile since she'd spoken the tongue out loud, but it came back to her fairly quickly as she read the words carved in the wall. "[[Here there be dragons.]]"

Poppy shot her a look. "And what's that mean in Common?"

Oh. Yes. Actually translating the words might be helpful.

"Here there be dragons," Ali said. "That's what it says."

Poppy grimaced. "You don't think that's a warning?" she asked. "Like, there are actually dragons in here?"

Ali shrugged. "No idea."

Poppy opened her mouth as if she was about to ask something else. Then she closed it, shaking her head. "Come on, let's go take a look and see what exactly it is that I saw sleeping over on the other side of the room."

Ali didn't swear. It took quite a bit of effort, but she held it in. "Wait, what do you mean, what you saw?" she asked, her voice going up in pitch a little. "And why didn't you mention it before I went in the room?"

Poppy just grinned at her and slipped into the room, grabbing the lantern from the floor as she did so. After a moment's pause, Yevka followed her.

Ali stayed exactly where she was. Enough was enough. She wasn't going storming into a dark room, with no idea what was waiting for her, when there was a fucking warning about dragons carved into the wall in Draconic of all languages.

There was a loud shriek inside the room.

Oh, for fuck's sake.

Ali leaned back out of the door, looking in the direction of the room that Reisel and Tuck had been exploring. "Guys, we may have a problem!" she called out. "Get in here!"

Then, pulling her crossbow off of her back, she hurried in the direction that Poppy and Yevka had been headed in.

*

Ali rolled her eyes as the obvious posturing going on as the others tried to interrogate the kobold they had stumbled across. The poor creature was clearly terrified, not that she could blame him. If she'd woken up to find herself surrounded by, well, them? She suspected she'd be pretty scared herself. Or, at the very least, extremely confused.

Still, she held back. If the others wanted to try to get some answers out of the poor kobold, they were welcome to try.

"Don't you know who we are?" Tuck asked, his voice getting a bit louder. "Do you not recognize us?"

Try being the important word there, of course. Ali sighed.

The kobold sputtered, stumbling over his words a little as he tried to reply to Tuck. "Yes!" he exclaimed. Then he shook his head. "I mean, no. No. No?"

Tuck crossed his arms in front of his chest. "Which is it, yes or no?"

The kobold stared at him blankly.

Ali rolled her eyes again and took pity on the poor kobold. He was clearly terrified, and there was no chance of him actually answering any of their questions if he was too scared to even speak with them.

"[[I saw writing in the other room,]]" she said, walking up to the kobold and speaking quietly in Draconic.

She tried to keep her voice as calm and reassuring as possible, although she wasn't quite certain how well she succeeded considering Draconic was her newest language. At the very least, she suspected that her accent was somewhat terrible.

The others were shooting her wary looks, probably due to her suddenly speaking a language they didn't understand, but Ali ignored them for the time being. "[[It said 'here there be dragons.' Do you know anything about that?]]"

The kobold's eyes had gone wide when she'd started speaking Draconic, and he took a step closer to her. "[[Yes, yes]]," he said, nodding wildly at her. "[[The goblins took our companion dragon!]]"

Ali felt her heart skip a beat. "[[Your companion dragon?]]"

The kobold nodded again.

"Does anyone else know what she's saying to that thing?" Poppy asked, not even trying to keep her voice down.

Ali shot her a quick look but didn't reply. Instead, she gave the kobold what she hoped was a reassuring smile.

"[[When did they take your dragon?]]" she asked gently.

The kobold wrung his hands. "[[Long time ago,]]" he said. "[[A long time ago.]]"

Ali narrowed her eyes at that, but she didn't push him. She got the impression that he might not be the best judge of the passage of time, and she was trying not to scare him.

Tuck pointedly cleared his throat. "What's he saying?"

"That's what I asked," Poppy muttered.

"He says that goblins took their dragon," Ali said, switching back to Common. She kept her eyes focused on the kobold, who was looking nervously from her to the others.

There was a long pause. Then the room exploded into a relative cacophony of questions.

*

"Meepo, the keeper of the dragon," the kobold said, shooting Ali a somewhat desperate look as he answered yet another one of the questions being thrown at him from all directions. "I'm Meepo."

"Why are you here?" Reisel asked. "Why aren't you with the others of your people?"

"And where are the goblins?" Tuck cut in.

Poppy cleared her throat. "What about the dragon?"

Yevka just glared at Meepo, her arms crossed in front of her chest.

Ali sighed, reaching up to push her glasses a little higher up on her nose. Meepo was obviously trying to convince them to go find the dragon for him, wherever the goblins had taken it. The question was whether or not they wanted to do what he was asking of them.

Her gaze drifted over to the cage nearby, the one that Meepo had indicated the dragon was usually kept in. It was ten to fifteen feet across, large but not ridiculously so. If the dragon easily fit in it, it couldn't be too big.

But it was still a fucking dragon.

"I don't know!" Meepo exclaimed, his voice squeaking a bit. Ali hadn't heard the question he was answering, but his reaction was enough to draw her attention back towards the conversation.

Poppy was glaring at him, her hands clenched into fists at her sides. "Why you little—"

"[[Meepo, where did the goblins go after they took your dragon?"]] Ali asked in Draconic, cutting Poppy off before she could say anything that would make things even worse.

Meepo blinked at her a few times. Then, hesitantly but without the veneer of terror that he'd had when answering everyone else's questions, he pointed to the far side of the room. "[[They went that way.]]"

Ali nodded at him. "[[Thank you,]]" she said. "[[That's very helpful, Meepo.]]"

His mouth twitched, just a little. It wasn't a smile, not quite, but it was close.

Poppy turned and glared at Ali. "It's not nice to speak a language that nobody else can talk!"

Oh, for the love of—

Ali turned toward Poppy and shot her an irritated look. "[[I'm trying to make him trust us,]]" she said rather pointedly in Halfling. "[[I thought that speaking his first language might help.]]"

There was a long pause.

"[[That actually makes sense,]]" Poppy said slowly, a slight accent to her Halfling that Ali wasn't used to hearing. It made sense, though. Felgen was quite a distance away, and – while she hadn't had a lot of chances to speak Halfling during her time at the temple – the handful of times that she had, she'd noticed something similar. And Feldris was even farther from the town she had grown up in than Felmalein had been.

"I'm starting to feel a little left out here," Tuck said, glancing over at Reisel and Yevka. "What about you guys?"

Ali didn't roll her eyes. It took a lot of effort, but she resisted the urge. Instead, she turned her attention back to Meepo.

"Were the goblins by themselves?" she asked, staying in Common this time.

Meepo didn't reply for a second. Then he shook his head. "No, no, not by themselves," he said. "They had a big thing with them."

Reisel raised an eyebrow. "A big thing?" he repeated. "Can you describe it?"

There was a pause. Then Meepo shot Ali a hesitant look before glancing back at Reisel. "Big?"

If anything, Reisel's eyebrows went even higher. "Like her?" he asked, gesturing at Yevka. "Bigger?"

Meepo frowned, a confused look on his face. "Big," he repeated again. "Kind of like her? But not like her."

Reisel stared at Meepo. "What do you mean?" he asked. "What—"

"Let it go, Reisel," Poppy grumbled, cutting him off. She glared at Meepo. "I don't think we're going to get any good answers from him."

"The question is what we want to do," Tuck said. "Do we go after the goblins or go talk to the kobolds?"

Reisel gave her a confused look. "What?" he asked. "We clearly go after the goblins."

Yevka nodded.

Poppy stared at Reisel. "No, we should go talk to the other kobolds," she said slowly, as if it was obvious.

"Why?" he asked.

Poppy kept staring at him. "Why not?"

Ali just sighed.

"How about we take a rest while we figure out what to do next?" Tuck suggested.

*

"You're a dragon keeper, right?" Yevka asked, a hint of dry humor in her voice that Ali wasn't used to hearing. Then again, she wasn't used to hearing Yevka's voice in general. The half-orc hadn't done all that much talking since she'd joined with them.

Meepo nodded, chewing on the rations that Reisel had given him. "Yes, yes, the very best."

Yevka raised her eyebrows. "And your job, I'm guessing, was to keep the dragon?"

"Yes," Meepo agreed, still nodding.

"Have you ever considered a different profession?" Yevka asked.

Meepo's face fell, and he seemed to shrink in on himself a bit.

Ali sighed, but she didn't interfere. Not yet, at least. Instead, she quickly let her gaze drift over the room, trying to get an idea what the others were doing.

The book on dragons that they'd found in the room with the statues was resting in her lap. There hadn't been anything in it that was extremely helpful, but there were at least a few facts in it that were new to her.

On the other side of the room, Tuck was fiddling with his cittern. Poppy was sitting beside him, shooting banter back and forth with him every few minutes.

Reisel was still reading the book that he'd found, although he'd been somewhat cagey about what exactly it was about. The quick glance that Ali had gotten of it made it look like it was something about the planes, which was a bit ironic all things considered, but he didn't seem all that inclined to share it right now.

Maybe later. It wouldn't hurt to at least ask to see it, after all.

Once it was clear that the others weren't planning on talking with Meepo again any time soon, Ali put her book back into the bag of holding that Ian Bishop had let her borrow. Then she stood up and walked over to where he was sitting, plopping down on the ground beside him.

Meepo looked over at her curiously. There was still a little bit of fear in his eyes, but he didn't look nearly as terrified as he had when talking with the others earlier.

"[[What does your dragon look like?]]" she asked him, tilting her head a bit.

Meepo swallowed the last bite of rations before answering. "[[Zoreth is white,]]" he said. "[[She's very beautiful.]]"

White. That meant ice.

Ali swallowed, visions of all of them being frozen solid in a block of ice running through her head. Her mind flashed back to winters in Felgen, back when she had been a child. Beautiful, but deadly. That's what people had always said about the winter storms, the ones that tore down trees and froze the lake solid and killed anyone foolish enough to venture out when the wind was still blowing.

"[[Very beautiful,]]" Meepo repeated, more to himself than to Ali.

*

"Reisel, we're leaving!" Tuck called over his shoulder. "What are you doing?"

Reisel waved his hand in their direction. "I'll be there in a moment," he said, heading in the direction of the cage that Meepo had indicated the dragon usually stayed in.

Poppy groaned. "You couldn't have done that while we've been sitting here for the past hour?" she asked, shooting him an annoyed look.

Reisel raised an eyebrow. Then, without saying a word, he reached down and scooped up some of the dragon waste that littered the cage's floor.

And he threw it straight at Poppy.

"Oh fuck!" Tuck exclaimed, ducking out of the way.

Yevka grumbled something under her breath and moved as well.

Ali didn't waste her breath. She just grabbed Meepo and pulled him after her, moving out of its path as well.

Poppy jumped back with a curse, the waste landing harmlessly on the floor in front of her.

All of them stared at Reisel.

"[[They're weird,]]" Meepo said quietly to Ali.

Ali didn't look at him, but she did nod. "[[Very.]]"

*

"What are we going to do if our friend betrays us?" Tuck asked softly as they watched Meepo walk over to the kobolds in the center of the room they'd just entered.

The kobolds had been patrolling when they'd first walked in, but now they were standing there with their weapons out, eyeing their group with more than a little wariness.

"He won't," Ali said, being sure to put a little more certainty in her voice than she actually felt.

Beside her, Poppy's hands were twitching like she was trying to resist the urge to go for her weapons. "If he does," she said firmly, "I'm killing him."

Yevka nodded.

Ali sighed. "He won't," she repeated.

Ahead of them, Meepo wasn't trying to keep his voice down as he walked up to the other kobolds. "[[These warriors,]]" he said, gesturing back at them, "[[they have come to see Krask.]]"

Tuck leaned in closer to Ali, despite the fact that he still towered over her. "Hey," he whispered, "what are they saying?"

Ali sighed. Then, mentally keeping her fingers crossed that Tuck spoke Elvish, she replied to him in that language. "[[They're taking us to see their leader.]]"

A confused look appeared on Tuck's face. "[[Why are you speaking Elvish?]]" he asked slowly. But, thankfully, not in Common.

"[[I don't want to let them know yet that I speak Draconic]]," Ali said, a bit pointedly. "[[It might be useful later if they think none of us understand what they're saying.]]"

Tuck stared at her for a second. Then he reached up to rub the back of his neck, giving her a sheepish grin. "[[Oh, well, yeah]]," he said. "[[That makes a lot of sense, actually.]]"

One of the kobolds who had been patrolling looked over at them and narrowed their eyes. Then they nodded.

*

Ali kept her eyes open as they followed Meepo into the large, rectangular room that the kobold's leader had apparently claimed for himself. Marble pillars lined the room, leading the way to an ornate throne-like chair at the fair end of it.

There was a kobold sitting on said throne that Ali assumed was Krask. The clothes he was wearing were much nicer than those worn by the other kobold they had seen, and there was a clear difference in his bearing compared to, say, Meepo.

There were three kobold standing on either side of the throne, presumably acting as guards. And, while she didn't see any more than those six, Ali suspected there were probably others nearby. This had the potential to go very badly if they weren't careful.

She really hoped the others would be careful. But she wasn't necessarily holding her breath, considering everything that had happened over the past day or two.

As they slowly made their way through the room, Ali's eyes were drawn to the top of the high-backed chair that Krask was sitting in. There were several items sitting there, and from the way they were placed it seemed fairly obvious that they were being displayed. Most prominent was a very well-crafted saber, with a scroll on one side and two jars of potions on the other.

Krask stared down at them as they walked up, his gaze flickering toward Meepo for a moment before coming back to settle on the rest of them. There was an inscrutable expression on his face that Ali hoped was a good sign rather than potentially a very bad one.

She took a deep breath. They could do this. They just needed to be very careful when it came to what they said and did.

And, because the gods apparently had a sense of humor, that was when Tuck opened his mouth and started talking.

*

Ali glanced over at the kobold walking beside her. She had been the one to grab Meepo's arm in the first place, pulling him along with them so that Poppy wouldn't have any reason to berate the poor creature more than she already had. It had surprised her when he'd grabbed her hand in return, almost clinging to her as they made their way down the dark corridor.

It was a comforting presence, like Poppy had been earlier when they'd been making their way down the path outside. She'd almost forgotten what it was like, to have people at your side when you walked into the darkness instead of having to walk it alone.

… and she must be getting tired if thoughts like that were popping into her head.

Shaking her head in dry amusement, Ali thought back to the conversation they'd had with Krask. There had been several times when she'd been expecting the worst, a spell ready at the tip of her tongue if things had gone badly. Despite several missteps, though, Tuck had done a fairly decent job of talking them out of the worst of it.

Krask hadn't been able to give them much more information than Meepo had already provided, of course. Still, the slightly detour had at least some benefits. She suspected that Meepo wouldn't have joined them as a guide if it had been his own decision, but apparently having the leader of the kobold offer them his services had been enough to convince him.

Besides, even though it had been more than a little cryptic, they had gotten one bit of potentially useful information from Krask. And just because they didn't know what he had meant right then, it was something to remember for the future. Knowledge was power, after all.

"We found it. It is the home of a great dragon, and those goblins had invaded it. We decided to reclaim it for dragonkind."

If nothing else, it gave them some more questions that needed to be answered at some point. Especially since the dragon motif of the home had been very noticeable ever since they had first made their way inside it.

Up ahead, Poppy had stopped in front of a closed door. She was doing something with the lock that Ali couldn't quite make out, but – based on previous experience – she suspected it probably involved trying to pick it.

Ali came to an abrupt halt. "[[Let's stay back here until she gets that door open,]]" she said quietly to him, her Draconic flowing a little bit better than it had been earlier. She was still somewhat rusty with it, but speaking it so much over the few hours was definitely helping.

Meepo shot her a curious look.

"[[We've had bad luck with locked doors,]]" Ali explained.

He still looked a little confused, but he didn't press the issue. Meepo just took a half-step back, so that he was standing directly beside Ali.

She gave him a reassuring smile.

*

Ali took a deep breath as she stepped into the room after Poppy, squinting a bit as she tried to make out details in the dim light being emitted from the lantern. There wasn't any sign of movement, like Poppy had said, but still. Better safe than sorry.

There was a fountain to her right with writing carved into it that she could tell was Draconic with just a quick glance. To the left was a large door with skeletal dragons curving around it, with more intricate writing carved into it. And directly across from the entrance to the room she had just walked through was another door, this one much more normal-looking.

"Reading is your thing, right?" Poppy asked, pushing Ali forward a bit. "What do all those weird words on the fountain say?'

There was a snort from behind them, but Ali couldn't quite make out who it was. She suspected Tuck, of course, but she didn't know for certain.

"Let me take a look," Ali said with a sigh, stepping away from Poppy and moving closer to the fountain.

The fountain looked to be long dry, with not even a hint of moisture in it. It was intricately carved, though, something that didn't look like it should be hidden away in a random room.

Frowning a little, she let her gaze drift over the words carved into the fountain. "Let there be life," Ali read slowly, translating from Draconic into Common as she spoke.

There was a long pause.

"What does that mean?" Poppy asked a bit plaintively.

Tuck grinned at her. "Well, we all know that life needs things to live."

The rest of them just stared at him.

His grin faded a bit. "I thought it was funny," he muttered under his breath.

Poppy rolled her eyes at him. Then she looked away from the fountain toward the door with the carvings on it. "What's that say?" she asked, glancing back at Ali and gesturing toward the doorway with her eyes. "Is it just as cryptic?"

"Probably," Ali said, raising her eyebrows a bit. Then she obediently looked toward the door, frowning a little as she read over the Draconic writing on it. She knew all of the words, but they weren't the easiest to try to translate into Common without losing at least some of the meaning behind them. "It translates to something along the lines of 'channel good, open the way.'"

Poppy muttered something under her breath that Ali couldn't quite make out, but she thought that she did hear several rather impressive swear words mixed in. Then she stomped off in the direction of the door.

"Are you sure you want to do that, Poppy?" Reisel asked.

Poppy ignored him, already pulling out her lockpicks as she made her way over to the door.

With a sigh, Tuck started walking toward the door as well.

Something wasn't right. Ali wasn't certain what it was, but she was definitely getting a feeling that she was missing something. That they were missing something.

And that was when a giant blade sprang down, missing Poppy by a hair's breadth as she flung herself out of the way.

Ali gaped for a moment, her heart feeling as if it had leapt all the way into her throat. Then she dashed over to where Poppy was sitting on the floor, already looking her over for any signs of blood as she flung herself down beside her. "Are you alright?"

Poppy gave her a shaky grin that didn't come close to meeting her eyes. "Hey, it's me. I'm fine."

Ali took in a deep breath and let it out. Then, just to be on the safe side, she did it again. By the time she was done trying to calm her breathing, Tuck was standing over them. Both Reisel and Yevka were making their way over as well, while Meepo was hanging back somewhat with a terrified look on his face.

"Well, that didn't work," Reisel said dryly as he stepped up, his gaze moving toward the door.

Poppy snorted. "No kidding."

Ali stared at the writing on the door again, the simple lines of Draconic almost mocking her. Channel good, open the way. That's what it said.

"Any ideas?" Tuck asked, crossing his arms in front of his chest.

Channel good, open the way.

"Don't touch the door?" Poppy suggested.

Channel good, open the way.

Ali's hand drifted down to touch the pendant that she wore around her neck. It wasn't anything fancy, just a simple symbol of Aureon that Nomi had given her when she'd first realized that the dreams she'd been having weren't just dreams.

"You've been chosen," Nomi had said, smiling as she'd put it around Ali's neck. "This will be a reminder of that."

Ali hadn't been able to smile back. She'd tried, but she couldn't do it. Not considering the circumstances. "How could I forget?"

"Should we try the other door?" Tuck asked. "Ignore this one?"

"We're not just going to ignore it!" Poppy exclaimed. "What if there's treasure behind it?"

Reisel raised his eyebrows. "Poppy."

"What?" Poppy snapped back.

Channel good, open the way.

"I think that I have an idea," Ali said slowly, pushing herself to her feet. She held her hand out to Poppy, who took it after a second's hesitation and let Ali pull her up as well.

The others looked at her expectantly.

Ali took a few steps closer to the door, careful not to get within range of the blades that Poppy had set off. She wasn't foolhardy, after all.

"I don't know if this will work," Ali said, not trying to hide her uncertainty. She wasn't entirely certain what she was doing, just that it was worth a try. "I'm kind of new to being a cleric."

"What are—"

Poppy's voice rang out behind her, but her words cut off with a yelp a moment later. Judging by the hushed whispers that followed, including a rather prominent "fuck you!", Ali suspected that one of the others had done something to quieten her.

Ali appreciated it, if she was honest.

Closing her eyes, she reached down and held her pendant in both of her hands. It felt slightly warm to the touch, and couldn't ignore the sense of rightness that rushed through her even if she had wanted to do so.

She didn't know what words to say. There were technically prayers to Aureon that she had learned, carefully worded pleas written centuries ago by followers long dead, but they were just part of the rote of becoming one of the Seekers. The power wasn't in the words, not for this.

No, for this, she didn't need to focus on her brain. She needed to focus on her heart.

There was a flash of… something. Ali couldn't have described it even if she tried. It was a feeling in her heart and her head and her body all at once, that sense of rightness from earlier increasing tenfold and shifting into something else entirely at the same time.

And then, just as quickly as it had appeared, it was gone.

With a gasp, Ali opened her eyes. Just in time to see Poppy walk up and push the door open, with no sign of the earlier trap.

Her breath caught in her throat.

"Hey, good job, cleric!" Poppy said, grinning brightly at Ali. "I guess you did it!"

Ali looked down at her pendant. "I guess that I did," she said slowly.

She wasn't quite certain what to think about it, to be honest. On the one hand, it was nice to get a confirmation that Aureon hadn't turned his back on her, considering how the past few years had gone. But on the other, well, she'd never asked for any of this. Would it have really been the worst thing to happen if He hadn't shown her favor?

Poppy was almost bouncing as she stood in the now open doorway, clearly wanting to find out what was behind it. Ali forced herself to smile, even though she didn't quite feel like doing so, and slowly started into the room.

Then she froze in place.

There were several sarcophagi laid out around the room, with an obsidian shrine laid out at the far end. Ali couldn't quite make out what was on top of the shrine, not at that distance with such dim light, but there was clearly something there.

Poppy must have thought so as well, because she immediately dashed off in the direction of the shrine.

Biting back a curse, Ali stared after Poppy at a much slower pace. She glanced back over her shoulder a moment later and didn't bother biting back a rather emphatic Dwarven curse this time.

"Don't touch anything!" she snapped a bit more forcefully than she'd intended.

Tuck and Yevka, who had been making to open the nearest sarcophagus to them, both froze in place. Then Yevka nodded, moving her hand away from the stone.

Oh gods, this was going to end so badly. She just knew it.

Poppy was standing just in front of the shrine, but she thankfully seemed to have listened to Ali's warning to Tuck and Yevka. She wasn't touching anything, just staring at the three potions and three scrolls sitting on top of the shrine.

She raised her eyebrows as Ali walked up. "What do you think?"

"I think we should take a closer look before touching anything," Ali said. "Just in case."

To her surprise, Poppy nodded. Then again, she had almost gotten cut in half just a few minutes earlier. Maybe that had been enough to calm her exuberance down at least a little.

Ali looked down at the shrine, careful not to touch any of the items on top of it. Then she frowned, her eyes drawn to a slight indentation that didn't seem quite right.

"What do you make of that?" she asked, gesturing at the odd seam.

Poppy's eyes lit up and, before Ali could say anything else, she reached out and did something with her hands.

A hidden compartment popped out.

Ali flinched, her gaze immediately moving away from the shrine and darting around the room. Nothing seemed to be happening, though.

Sending up a quick prayer of thanks, she looked back down.

There were five carved statuettes of dragons resting inside the hidden compartment, each made of different materials and painted differently. They were colored in the metallic colors: brass, bronze, copper, gold, and silver.

Ali tilted her head.

Beside her, Poppy reached out and picked up one of the statuettes.

Ali's eyes went wide. "Wait, don't—"

There was a scraping sound behind them. Poppy grimaced as she met Ali's gaze.

"Oh crap!" Tuck's voice rang out from the lower part of the room. "Those are skeletons!"

Fuck, fuck, fuck. With a side of fuck to be on the safe side.

Ali didn't even attempt to soften her tone as she glared at Poppy. "And that's why I said not to touch anything!"

*

Well, that could have gone better.

Ali let her gaze drift over the room as she plopped down on the floor, her ribs aching a little from where one of the skeletons had caught her earlier.

Meepo was sitting in a far corner of the room, occasionally looking in Ali's direction as if to make certain she was still there. She smiled at him whenever she caught him in the act. He'd helped in the fight, whether or not the others wanted to admit it, and that skeleton that had been attacking her could have done a lot more damage than bruising her ribs if he hadn't taken it out with his sling.

Yevka was polishing her weapon in the opposite corner of the room, somewhat pointedly not looking at any of them. Not that Ali could blame her. She wasn't entirely certain what the half-orc had been expecting when Ian had hired her to join them, but she suspected it probably hadn't been this.

Reisel was reading a book that Ali had pulled out of the bag of holding for him, only occasionally glancing up at the others. His attention seemed to be focused almost entirely on it.

And then there were Poppy and Tuck. They were sitting as far from each other as possible, and Tuck kept shooting Poppy baleful looks when he thought nobody else was looking. He also kept very noticeably massaging his hand.

Ali couldn't blame him for being a bit upset, considering Poppy had almost hit him when she'd shot at the skeleton next to him earlier. Considering she'd been standing next to Poppy when it had happened, though, she was pretty damn sure that it had been an accident. Poppy had looked pretty damn worried for a moment or two, until she was certain that she hadn't hit Tuck by mistake.

Of course, it was his own damn fault that his hand was hurting. He should have known better than to try to punch a skeleton.

Still, things were clearly tense between the two of them, and Ali didn't see it ending well.

"Hey, Ali?"

Ali jerked in surprise at the sound of Reisel's voice coming from above her, and she looked up. He was standing over her, the amused look on his face making it clear that he'd noticed her surprise.

"Yes?" she asked.

"Can we talk?" he asked. He glanced over at Tuck, who hadn't noticed them yet. "The three of us? In private?"

Ali gave him a skeptical look. "Sure," she said slowly. Then she switched to Elvish. "[[How private does it need to be?]]"

Reisel opened his mouth. Then he closed it. "[[That's a good idea, actually.]]"

*

Not for the first time in the past few days, Ali couldn't help but wonder what she had gotten herself involved in.

Missing women who may or may not be in the house they were in. Rifts to other planes of existence. People disappearing into thin air.

And those damned statues.

High Magister Sylvara Liamdrial. That was the name that Reisel had given for his mentor. Another Guardian, or so it seemed. Yet another piece of the puzzle that she was slowly putting together in her mind.

Ali believed in coincidences, but only to a certain point. And they were well beyond that point by now. She didn't know all of the details, not yet, but she was getting there.

A flash of movement caught her attention, just for a second, and she glanced over at the corner of the room. Meepo had gotten up at some point, and he had apparently slipped back into the room with the fountain. He had just come back in through the door and was making a beeline for the corner he had claimed again, his eyes wide.

Poppy glared him for a moment before standing up and walking out of the room, presumably to see what had spooked him.

Ali frowned. While she understood being cautious, Meepo had been nothing but helpful since they'd met him. She didn't expect Poppy to suddenly become best friends with him, of course. The outright hostility she kept showing towards him was getting old, though, and it wasn't exactly helping convince him that they were trustworthy.

She'd say something to her later, when nobody else was around.

"I'm going to grab the stuff from the altar," Tuck suddenly announced to the room. "Keep an eye out for skeletons."

Reisel chuckled.

Yevka muttered something under her breath in what sounded like Orc. Ali didn't speak the language, but it didn't sound particularly complimentary.

Tuck stood up and walked toward the altar.

Ali frowned and pulled out her crossbow, just in case. She honestly didn't think there was any more risk, now that they'd already set off the trap, but still. Better safe than sorry, after all, especially considering their luck lately.

Up at the altar, Tuck reached down and picked up the dragon statuettes from the hidden compartment. Then he froze, his gaze focused on them.

"Um, guys?" he said in a somewhat strangled tone. "You need to see this."

Chapter Text

"Um, guys?" Tuck said in a somewhat strangled tone. "You need to see this."

Ali glanced up at him. She'd been putting things in the bag of holding as he picked them up from the top of the altar and handed them to her, but now his gaze was focused on the five dragon statues that she and Poppy had found earlier.

"What about them?" she asked curiously.

Tuck shot her a confused look. "They look different!"

Ali tilted her head and took a closer look at the dragons. They looked the same as she remembered from earlier, one of each of the metallic colors. But maybe there was something subtle that had changed, that she hadn't picked up on? She hadn't really paid all that much attention to them earlier, after all, not once the skeletons had started to attack them.

"They do?" she asked slowly. "How? I'm not seeing it."

Tuck stared at her as if she had just grown a second head.

Ali shifted uncomfortably.

"What's going on?" Poppy asked, fiddling with the potions on her belt as she walked up to them.

"The statues!" Tuck said, his voice a little louder than before. He all but shoved the miniature dragon statuettes in front of Poppy's face.

Poppy went a little cross-eyed as she stared down at them. "What about them?"

Tuck's eyes were definitely looking a little wild now. "What do you see when you look at them?"

"Uh, dragons?" Poppy said slowly, a slight lilt at the end making it sound more like a question than a statement.

Not that Ali could blame her. She was pretty confused herself.

Tuck gaped at her. Then he turned toward Ali. "What do you see?"

Ali looked at him. Then she looked at the five dragon statuettes he was holding for a second before turning her gaze back towards him. "Is this a trick question?" she asked a little skeptically.

"Does this not look like Ian Bishop?" Tuck asked a bit frantically, holding up the gold dragon.

Poppy shot Ali a worried look. "[[Did he get hit in the head earlier?]]" she asked in Halfling.

"[[I... don't think so?]]" Ali replied after a second's hesitation.

Tuck ignored them, not that he could have understood the conversation in the first place, and held up the brass statuette. "And doesn't this one look like Risto?"

Reisel stepped up behind them. "What's going on?" he asked curiously.

"Tuck's lost his mind," Poppy replied, glancing up at him.

"I'm not crazy," Tuck snapped back. He held up the bronze statue. "This one's a male tiefling."

Reisel looked at the statue. Then he looked at Tuck and very pointedly raised his eyebrows.

Poppy brought her finger up and twirled it beside her head.

"This one's a young-looking elven woman," Tuck said, ignoring her as he held up the silver dragon. Then he held up the copper one. "And this one's a half elf man wearing leather armor."

There was a long pause. Tuck's gaze moved somewhat wildly among them, as if he was hoping someone would chime in and say they saw what he was seeing.

"They look like dragons to me," Yevka said dryly, stepping up behind them.

"Me too," Poppy agreed.

Reisel nodded.

Tuck turned his gaze somewhat frantically toward Ali. "Could it be magic or something?" he asked.

Ali bit her lip. "It's possible," she agreed. "There could be some type of spell on it so that it looks different to different people."

Tuck let out a relieved sigh.

"But you're sure you didn't hit your head during the fight, right?" she added skeptically.

The relief on his face shifted into a bit of a hurt look. "No, I didn't hit my head."

Ali gave him a quick onceover, but she didn't see anything out of the ordinary. There wasn't any sign of blood or bruising that she could see that would indicate a head wound, and it was possible that there could be some type of magic in play. Considering everything else that had been happening since they'd arrived in the house, she wasn't willing to completely rule out that possibility.

Poppy suddenly grinned. "Hey Tuck," she said, her voice overly innocent. "Stand still for a second."

"Why?" Tuck asked, turning toward her.

Ali took a quick step back. She couldn't help but notice that Reisel and Yevka did the same.

Poppy muttered something under her breath that Ali couldn't quite make out, but after a decade at the temple she recognized a spell being cast when she saw it.

A very fake-looking illusion of a dragon's face appeared directly in front of Tuck, hovering in front of his own face.

Tuck yelped and took a step back. "What did you just do?"

Ali glanced at Poppy and raised her eyebrows. She hadn't picked up on her casting any spells earlier, but if she had magic then that was something to keep in mind.

*

"Which way do you think we should go?" Poppy asked quietly, gesturing out at the hallway in front of them. It split just a little past them, one branch curving out of sight to the left while the one to the right was lined with doors.

Tuck made a somewhat elaborate show of shrugging. "I don't know," he said. "I'm apparently crazy, so maybe you shouldn't ask me."

Ali's mouth twitched, just a little, but she managed to hold back her smile.

Poppy stepped out into the hallway, holding out the lantern so that it was lit up a bit more. "Should we split up?" she asked.

"It might be a good idea," Reisel said.

Ali was just about to chime in with why that would be the worst idea possible when a flicker of light from the lantern caught her attention. She snapped her mouth closed and took a step forward, her gaze focused on the open door at the end of the right corridor.

"Meepo and I will take the left hall then," Poppy said decisively. She reached out and grabbed Meepo's arm, all but yanking him towards her.

Meepo let out a quiet yelp.

Ali reluctantly pulled her gaze away from the doorway she'd noticed. "Poppy," she said, in what she hoped was a stern voice. "Be nice to him."

If she hadn't already known how young Poppy was, the look that she shot Ali would have made it clear in a heartbeat. It was just the right mix of petulance and annoyance that only someone under twenty could master.

Meepo stared at Poppy with wide eyes for a moment. Then he turned his gaze toward Ali, a somewhat terrified look on his face.

"[[Don't take anything she says to heart,]]" Ali said to him in Draconic. "[[She won't hurt you.]]"

There was no mistaking the skeptical look that he shot her as anything but what it was.

"[[She won't hurt you,]]" Ali repeated. Then she shot Poppy a pointed look. "Behave, Poppy."

Poppy muttered something under her breath but didn't argue. She just started down the hallway, all but pulling Meepo behind her.

There was a long pause.

"Are you sure that's a good idea?" Tuck asked skeptically.

Ali reached into her backpack and pulled out a candle, lighting it before the dim light of the lantern completely disappeared around the bend in the corridor. "Probably not," she admitted. "But I'm starting to figure out that arguing with Poppy is pointless."

Tuck sighed. "Well, you're not wrong there."

Reisel chuckled.

"Come on," Ali said, gesturing at Tuck to follow her. "I want to see what's in that room down the hall."

Tuck hesitated for a second. "Shouldn't we leave someone here, to guard our backs?"

Yevka didn't look even remotely surprised when everyone's gazes shifted toward her after a moment or two. She gave them a nod. "Fine."

"I'll stay here with you," Reisel said.

Yevka nodded at him.

Ali glanced over at Tuck. "Coming?"

"Sure," he said with a shrug.

"Good," she said, grinning at him. She raised her candle and started down the hall. "I think that I saw bookshelves."

Reisel made a somewhat strangled sound behind her, and there were suddenly footsteps hurrying after them. "Wait, what?"

*

Ali had to give Ian Bishop credit where it was due: he hadn't lied about the quality of the library.

She freely admitted that the sound she made when she walked through the door and saw shelves upon shelves full of books was less than dignified. Then again, she honestly didn't care. Not considering just how many books were there, some of them on topics that she hadn't even known there were books about in the first place.

As bribes went, it was a very good one.

She ignored Tuck and Reisel as she made her way through the room, studying the shelves as best she could and occasionally pulling out a book to flip through. The bag of holding that Ian Bishop had lent to them rested comfortingly on her shoulder, and – while she knew there wasn't room in it for everything in the library – she fully intended to pack as many books as possible into it.

Out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw a flash of light.

Frowning a little, Ali turned around and tried to figure out what it was that had caught her attention. She took a few steps forward, studying the bookshelf that the glimmer had come from. There was a small silver something resting in front of the row of books on it, surprisingly clean considering the layer of dust on everything else.

She reached up and adjusted her glasses as she took another couple of steps toward the bookshelf. The specific shelf that had caught her eye was just shy of three feet from the floor, right at eye level for her. Narrowing her eyes, she studied the glint of metal.

It looked like some type of necklace or pendant.

Ali bit her lip, wavering for a moment or two about whether or not to touch it. Normally she wouldn't have hesitated, but things had been... well, odd, ever since they had arrived in the abandoned home. It might be smarter to ignore it, to pretend that she hadn't see anything.

But curiosity had always been her weakness.

She stepped up onto her tiptoes, studying the necklace a bit closer. From this distance, she recognized the familiar silver book hanging from the chain. It was the symbol of Aureon, very similar to the one that she wore around her own neck if a bit more ornate.

Ali reached up and grabbed it from the shelf.

The necklace felt almost warm to her touch, and she gasped a bit as a rush of something went through her. She didn't have words for it, not really. It was a feeling more than anything, a sense of rightness. Almost like going home after a long day.

"Did you find anything?"

She let out a startled gasp at the sound of Tuck's voice coming from behind her, and she slipped the necklace into the small pouch at her side that she used for holding her glasses when she wasn't wearing them at night. Then she spun around.

"Damn it, Tuck," she said with more than a fair bit of chastisement in her voice. "You scared me."

He gave her a sheepish grin. "Sorry," he said. His gaze drifting down to the pouch at her side and then back to her face. "So?"

Ali gave her what she hoped was a reassuring grin and then gestured around her. "I've found lots of books," she said cheerfully.

He stared at her for a second before nodding. "Books," he repeated. "Yeah, I can see that."

"Um, guys! Guys! We have a problem."

Ali and Tuck shared a look before turning towards the doorway. Poppy was just hurrying through it, looking around a bit frantically as she came into the room. When she saw the two of them standing there, she hurried in that direction.

"What kind of problem?" Tuck asked worriedly.

"Goblins!" Poppy said. "At least a couple of them, maybe more. I don't think they followed me, but they were definitely there."

Ali grimaced. It wasn't a surprise, considering they were purposely looking for goblins. Still, it wasn't exactly good news either. And if Poppy and Meepo had gotten close enough to see them, then there was a definite chance that the goblins had seen them as well. Which was...

... wait.

Ali narrowed her eyes, looking around the room. Reisel was making his way over to them, obviously drawn by Poppy's yelling, and there was a flicker of movement in the doorway that looked like Yevka. But she didn't see Meepo, now that she was looking for him.

And Ali couldn't help but notice that there was a somewhat guilty look on Poppy's face.

Oh, gods. What now?

Ali crossed her arms in front of her chest. "Weren't there two of you?" she asked dryly.

Poppy shifted a bit. "No," she said with such obviously feigned confusion that it was almost painful to watch. "There's always been just one Poppy."

Ali shot her what she expected was a thoroughly unamused look. "Poppy."

"What?" Poppy asked, her voice going a bit higher. She also dropped her gaze so that she wasn't meeting Ali's eyes.

"Poppy."

Poppy shook her head. "I don't know what you're—"

Ali cut her off mid-sentence. "Poppy, where is Meepo?"

Poppy scuffed her feet for a second before sighing. "He got scared off by the goblins."

Ali narrowed her eyes and studied Poppy closely for a second. The story was believable enough, she supposed. It certainly rang true. Still, she knew Poppy well enough by now that she couldn't help but be at least somewhat skeptical.

"Where did he go?" she asked.

Poppy shrugged.

There was a part of Ali, a rather large part, that wanted to interrogate Poppy a bit more. It probably wouldn't do anything other than waste time, though, based on past experience.

"[[For fuck's sake,]]" Ali muttered in Dwarvish, mostly because she knew it would annoy Poppy if she spoke in a language that she didn't understand.

Then she spun around and headed for the nearest bookshelf, grabbing books at random and shoving them into the bag of holding.

There was a long pause behind her. "What are you doing?" Reisel asked.

"Knowing our luck, this is going to be our only chance to get any books from in here," Ali said. "I'm taking as many as I can."

"Oh," Reisel said, sounding surprised. "That's a good idea. Let me grab some too!"

*

After ten minutes or so had passed with no sign of goblins pouring into the room to attack them, Ali was starting to think that maybe they'd gotten lucky for once and the others hadn't been noticed. She had no idea how many books she'd shoved into the bag of holding so far, but she was starting to be a bit pickier about the ones that she was grabbing with no imminent attack coming.

She thought that she felt a pulse of heat at her waist.

Ali froze, her gaze drifting down to the small pouch hanging there. Then, biting her lip a little, she reached down and pulled the necklace out.

She studied it for a long moment, her eyes drifting over it. There wasn't anything special about it, not really. Yes, it was a little fancier than some of the others she'd seen back at the temple, but she'd seen nicer as well. Some of the nobles back in Felmalein and the surrounding area, the ones who donated their money to Aureon's temple if not their time, had worn much more ornate symbols.

But there was something about it that kept drawing her eye.

"What could it hurt?" she asked quietly, more rhetorical than anything since she knew the others weren't close enough to hear her. Reisel was over on the other side of the room, piling so many books on a desk that she was worried they might not all fit into the bag of holding. And she could hear Poppy and Tuck talking elsewhere in the room, out of her direct line of sight.

Ali reached up and put the necklace around her neck.

For a moment, nothing happened. Then there was another flash of warmth and, as she watched, both it and the pendant she was already wearing started to glow.

And then, with a flash of light, there was only one chain around her neck.

She gasped and yanked the necklace back off, her eyes studying it a bit frantically. It looked different, almost like a combination of the two rather than one or the other.

A memory flashed in her head from well over a decade earlier, back when she'd been nothing more than a girl still living in Felgen. She and Nomi had been sitting in a back corner of her uncle's tavern, poring over books and sipping at ale, when she'd asked about the ornate symbol that the paladin wore.

"It was a gift from Aureon. Lots of clerics and paladins have them, at least the ones who He truly favors."

Ali's breath caught in her throat as she stared down at the necklace. It still felt warm in her hand, that sense of rightness that she'd felt the moment she picked it up not fading in the least bit.

She didn't know what to think about that, if she was honest with herself. And she doubted that she really had the time to process it properly, not now. Not here, with goblins nearby and a bunch of strangers that she barely knew at her side. Maybe it would be better if she went with the time-honored tradition of denial, at least for now.

"I don't know what you're talking about!"

Ali jerked her head to the side at the sound of Tuck's voice. In the short time that she'd known him, she'd never heard him speak in a tone quite like that.

"Your name is right here!" Poppy exclaimed. There was a quiet thudding sound. "Look! Look, it says so right fucking here!"

Frowning, Ali grabbed another book or two from the nearest shelf and shoved them into the back of holding. Then she hurried in the direction that Poppy and Tuck's voices were coming from.

When she came hurrying around a shelf a moment later, she saw the two of them standing several feet apart and pointedly ignoring each other. Both of them were holding letters, the movement of their eyes making it clear that they were reading them.

"What's going on?" Ali asked slowly.

Poppy's head shot up. "His dad," she said, pointing at Tuck, "apparently had something to do with my dad disappearing back when I was a kid."

Ali very carefully didn't point out that, technically, Poppy was still a kid. Instead she walked towards them. "What do you mean?"

"I found letters," Poppy said. "Well, and my dad's journal, but the letters are the important thing right now."

"What do they say?" Ali asked, raising her eyebrows.

Poppy reached out and grabbed the one that Tuck was holding, ignoring his rather loud "hey!" She held it out toward Ali. "Take a look for yourself."

Ali took the letter from her and looked down, her eyes already moving over the words.

Birmar --

I hope the days are treating you well. It's been so long since we've spoken--Poppy must be what now, nearly 12? I'm sorry I haven't been around to see your younger one yet, but perhaps, I will be soon.

I know you've retired and I have no right to ask this of you, but there are rumors. Some believe there's a group forming. They seek to... Well, Zora thinks they want to open everything, and you know if something's bad enough to scare Zora, it's enough to fucking terrify the rest of us mere mortals. You don't have to do anything, but I want you to know that everyone's closing ranks. This is big, Birmar. This is really big and probably horrible, and I want you to know, even if you can't come.

The youngest Bishop boy has been called. They're saying he's some sort of prodigy or something, but it seems they say that about all the kids these days. Just what we need. Another fucking prodigy to save us. There was another boy, Christopher something, who got called with him and he gave them a big fucking no. Sometimes, I wish I had had the courage to do that years ago. Sometimes, Birmar, I wish we had never gone into those catacombs. They say it doesn't matter. That it'll find you anywhere, but I still blame you and those fucking catacombs.

I'll be by Feldris about a week after you should have gotten this letter. We'll catch up. Old times and all. I've been doing a lot, keeping busy. I looked in on Tuck, but I just... he looks so much like his mother. I know you'll do what you have to. You always do. But stay with them as long as you can. You never know when it will all be over.

I'll see you soon. Don't worry about writing. I'm on the move, but I'll drop by in Feldris and we'll talk.

Take care,
Feratuck

She was frowning by the time she looked up. The letter answered some of the questions that had been plaguing her for the past few days, at least to some extent, but it also replaced those questions with brand new ones.

Tuck held out his hand, and Ali handed the letter to him.

"When did you father disappear, Poppy?" she asked curiously, glancing over at her.

Poppy's arms were crossed in front of her chest, the other letter held loosely in her hand. "About seven years ago," she said, still not looking at Tuck. "And now I know that his dad had something to do with it."

"My dad disappeared ten years ago," Tuck snapped at her, a tiny bit of heat to his voice that Ali honestly hadn't been expecting. The near-constant smile that he'd been wearing had faded, replaced with a tired expression. "He left when my mom died. So if you saw him seven years ago, congratulations! I hadn't seen him in three years by then."

Poppy was still frowning, but she at least was looking at Tuck now. "Oh," she said, her voice softer than before.

"Can I see the other letter?" Ali asked quietly.

Wordlessly, Poppy handed it to her.

Birmar -

I have not had the pleasure of meeting you, but Zora told me that you were reconsidering. I wanted to tell you that I understand, that we all do. This is a big thing that is being asked of you, and we have all had to consider what it really meant to us and to the people we care about.

It was a choice for the ones who started this all, for the very first that there ever were. This was something they brought upon themselves, a responsibility they chose to bear, and as such, choice has always been the most important part of our organization.

It may not seem like a free choice, but it is. I have known those in the past who have declined, and they are some of the most wonderful people I know. We all have our responsibilities, and this is not something that is fair to ask of everyone. I, myself, almost ignored the call, but I wanted to share with you what my mentor said to me many years ago.

We are not only responsible for what we do, but also for what do not do.

Do what you think is right, what you can sleep with at night, and everything else will fall into place.

Your friend, regardless of the decisions we make,
Tafari

"What have we gotten ourselves into?" Ali asked quietly as she finished reading the letter.

Behind her, someone cleared their throat. "That's a good question," Reisel said.

Ali didn't shriek. She jumped a little, and she might have gasped, but she didn't cry out. She counted that as a win, considering she hadn't had any idea that he was there.

"I'm assuming Birmar is your father, Poppy?" she asked, handing the letter back to her.

Poppy nodded. "Yeah," she said. "And Feratuck is, you know, Tuck's dad."

"Do any of you recognize the other names?" Reisel asked curiously. "Zora or Tafari?"

He had apparently been reading over her shoulder the entire time. That was good to know.

Ali shook her head, her gaze moving over the others. Both Tuck and Poppy were shaking theirs as well.

"There were some other names in here," Poppy said slowly, picking up a book that Ali hadn't noticed before. Presumably the journal that she'd mentioned earlier. "One sec, let me see if I can find any of them again. I remember there was one that ended in -mi. Romi or Lomi or something like that."

Beside her, Tuck's eyes had gone wide and his gaze flickered in Ali's direction.

Ali grimaced. "Nomi?" she asked.

Poppy's head flew up. "That's it," she said. "Nomi!" Then she tilted her head, frowning a little. "Wait, how did you know that?"

"Because I know her," Ali said tiredly, reaching up to push her glasses a little higher on her nose.

Poppy opened her mouth. Then she closed it, shooting Ali an expectant look. It was clear that she wanted more information than that.

Ali sighed. "Do you remember when we first met?" she asked. "When you asked me how I became a cleric?"

"No, not really," Poppy said, shaking her head.

Despite herself, Ali couldn't help but smile just a little. "Nomi was the person who introduced me to Aureon," she said. "She's one of his paladins. I've known her since I was a few years younger than you are now."

Poppy made a thoughtful sound. "Huh," she said. She glanced back at the journal. "I wonder if there's anything else in here that you guys have heard about."

*

"'... fuck the Seekers.' Huh. Whoever these Seekers are, my dad really was pissed at them."

Ali groaned. She didn't meant to do it, not really. It just slipped out.

Poppy raised her eyebrows. "What?"

Tuck and Reisel were both shooting her curious looks as well. As much as she might wish otherwise, there was no getting out of answering the question. Not without causing a lot of distrust, at least, and that was something that Ali would rather avoid.

"I know who the Seekers are," she said quietly, with more than a little reluctance.

"Oh!" Tuck said, his eyes lighting up. "That's good then!"

Ali grimaced.

Poppy glanced over at Tuck and shared a look with him. "Or maybe not?"

"That's what people call the clerics and paladins of Aureon," Ali said. "They're the Seekers of the Knowledge."

Poppy looked at Tuck. Tuck looked at Poppy. Behind Ali, Reisel made a thoughtful noise.

"My dad really didn't like them," Poppy said carefully. As if she was worried about offending Ali by telling her that her father hadn't been a fan of her order.

Ali gave her a half-hearted shrug. "I don't like some of them," she said. "I can't really blame him all that much."

The relieved look on Poppy's face might have been amusing under different circumstances.

Ali wasn't entirely certain whether or not the others had realized that, technically, she was one of the Seekers as well. If they hadn't picked up on it, Ali wasn't sure she wanted to tell them.

"What about the goblins?"

All four of them turned around to look at Yevka, who was standing nearby with her arms crossed in front of her chest. Her gaze was moving between them and the doorway, and it was clear that she had been guarding their backs.

"That's a good question," Poppy said, frowning.

"Yeah, it is," Tuck agreed. He glanced over to the left. "Hey, Meepo? Did you notice anything about them that Poppy missed?"

Poppy's eyes went wide.

Ali jerked in surprise, twisting her head to follow Tuck's gaze. Meepo was standing in the corner, hunched over a little. He'd had a nervous, almost scared look on his face ever since they had found him, but just then he looked absolutely terrified.

"How long as he been there?" Poppy hissed at Tuck.

Tuck just shrugged at her.

Ignoring them, Ali started walking in his direction. Meepo cowered away from her a little, and his gaze moved uncertainly between her and Poppy.

Ali narrowed her eyes.

"[[What happened?"]] she asked, speaking Draconic and purposefully keeping her voice low. She had her suspicions, but she wanted a confirmation from him before she said or did anything.

Meepo stared at her for a moment. Then his gaze moved past her as he stared at something over her shoulder. Presumably Poppy.

"[[Don't worry,"]] Ali said firmly. "[[I'll keep you safe. Just tell me what happened.]]"

Meepo made a keening sound. "[[The other one said she would kill Meepo if he said anything.]]"

Ali counted to ten in her head. Then, when that didn't make her any less inclined to turn around and strangle Poppy, she counted to ten again. This time in Halfling.

"[[What else did she say?]]" she asked.

Meepo wrung his hands in front of him.

"[[Meepo,]]" Ali said gently, "[[what did she say to you?]]"

"[[That she didn't trust Meepo,]]" he blurted out. "[[That if she thought Meepo was going to betray you, she would kill him.]]"

Ali spun around. "Poppy!"

Tuck took one look at Ali's face and stepped away from Poppy. Poppy's hands clenched into fists at her side. "What did I do?" she asked.

Ali just glared at her.

Poppy shifted uncomfortably for a second. "What?" she grumbled. "Did you really think that I'd do anything different?"

"Yes," Ali snapped back, "but I guess that was pretty stupid of me."

She tried her best to ignore the way that Poppy's face fell, ever so slightly, at her words. It was more difficult than she expected it to be.

*

As they made their way down the corridor, heading in the direction that Poppy had said the goblins were, Tuck slipped back to walk beside her. Ali glanced up at him. "Did you need something?"

"What was up with that necklace?" Tuck asked quietly.

Ali stumbled a little, almost tripping over her feet. She reached up to grab the pendant she was wearing. "What are you talking about?"

Tuck just gave her a look. Not, not a look. A Look. She could practically see the capital letter in front of it.

"Gods damn it," she muttered under her breath. "I knew that you'd noticed something. I knew it."

"It was kind of like what happened with my cittern, wasn't it?" he asked.

Ali shrugged. "I don't know," she said. "Maybe? It's kind of hard to explain."

"Want to try?" Tuck asked.

"Not particularly," Ali shot back, a little bit more harshly than she had intended. She immediately grimaced. Poppy was already more than a little pissed off at her; the last thing she needed to do was upset Tuck as well. "At least, not now. Can we at least wait until we know we're not walking into a goblin-filled ambush?"

Tuck had the good grace to look a little embarrassed. "That's fair," he agreed. He paused for a second, a thoughtful look appearing on his face. Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out one of the dragon statuettes from earlier. "Just checking, but what do you see?"

Ali looked at the statue in his hand. Then she looked back up at him. "A possible concussion," she said lightly.

Tuck sighed and put the statuette away. "It was worth a shot."

Ali glanced over her shoulder, at the doors that were disappearing around the bend behind them. "Do you think those bedrooms are anything other than, you know, bedrooms?"

"No idea," Tuck said cheerfully. "Do you actually think our plan's going to work?"

She didn't laugh. It took some effort, but she bit it back at the last second. Mostly on the assumption that at the very least it would make them much less stealthy if she burst into hysterical laughter just then.

"The plan where you and Poppy are going to make a roaring illusion of a red dragon to go in front of us down the hallway?" Ali asked slowly.

Tuck nodded.

Ali's gaze flicked down to the crossbow she was holding in her hands, primed and ready for when things inevitably exploded in their face.

Tuck followed her gaze. "So that would be a 'no', huh?"

"Let's just say that I'm not holding my breath," she said dryly.

*

"I can't believe it fucking worked," Ali repeated for the third or fourth time over the past ten minutes or so.

So far, things had been going fairly well, despite the fact that the goblins had clearly known they were coming. The illusion that the others had put up had been quite a bit more realistic than she had expected, and – while she was fairly certain the goblins knew it was a fake by now – it had done its job.

Now she just had to figure out how to get over the damn barricade in front of her without getting herself killed in the process.

Ali looked up at the barricade that the others had climbed fairly easily. It towered over her even more than the first one they had crossed had. And Yevka was already on the other side, having fun tearing into the goblins based on the sounds that she kept hearing. Which meant that Ali couldn't ask her to toss her over again, like they'd done the last time.

She was going to have to climb it if she wanted to join the others on the other side. Fuck.

"Hey, Ali!"

Ali looked up. Tuck was kneeling on the top of the barricade, looking down at her.

"Could you do me a favor?" he asked.

"I'm not lending you any weapons," she said immediately. "Not unless you promise that you won't throw it across the room if it doesn't work."

Tuck grimaced. "It was Poppy's," he said. "I wouldn't do that to something I borrowed from you."

Ali sighed.

"I don't want to borrow anything," Tuck said. "I just wanted to see if you could heal me a little." He gestured at the arrow wound in his shoulder that was still bleeding somewhat sluggishly. "I'm going to try something stupid, and I'd like to be at my best when I do."

Ali stared at him. "You do realize that I can't bring you back from the dead if you get yourself killed, right?" she said slowly.

Tuck waved his hand. "I'm not going to get myself killed," he said. "Probably."

For once, she listened to the little voice in her head telling her to keep her mouth closed or she was going to regret it. Instead of saying anything, she simply stood up on her tiptoes and reached up for him. Tuck lowered his arm, so that her hand touched his.

There was a soft glow as she whispered under her breath, and the blood streaming down his arm slowed to a trickle. Then it stopped completely.

Tuck grinned at her. "Thanks!"

"Don't get yourself killed!" she called out as he disappeared from her line of sight.

She grabbed the barricade and started to pull herself up on top of it. This was going to end badly, she just knew it.

*

"What in the Nine Hells is going on in there?" Ali asked, sitting down on the top of the barricade and looking down at Poppy.

She'd heard a loud, thundering wave of sound, followed by a several screams that had cut out rather abruptly, but she'd still been trying to climb the barricade at that point. Now that she was on top of it, she got the impression that she'd missed the last part of the fighting. Meepo and Poppy were the only two of the others that she saw, although there was a nearby door that was wide open.

Meepo glanced up at her and shook his head.

Poppy stopped looting goblin corpses for a second and looked up at Ali. She shrugged. "Tuck blew up the room and got hurt again?"

Ali gave her an unamused look. Then, taking a deep breath, she jumped down from the barricade. She stumbled a little when she hit the ground, but she didn't fall.

She'd count that as a win.

"Oh, and he broke my shortbow in half," Poppy said, sounding thoroughly smug.

Ali blinked in confusion and glanced over at her. "Why do you sound happy about that?" she asked. "Weren't you just yelling at him because he kept throwing it when he missed a shot?"

Poppy winked at her. "He paid me more than it was worth."

Well, that made sense. Considering it was Poppy.

Shaking her head, Ali walked over toward the doorway. Reisel was yelling in a language that she didn't understand as she stepped into the room.

The others were gathered around one goblin that was still standing. It was staring at them with wide eyes, shaking its head frantically up at Yevka.

"What did I miss?" Ali asked curiously as she walked up to the group.

Tuck grinned at her. "We have a new guide."

Ali blinked. "Oh," she said, glancing warily at the goblin. "That's good, I guess?"

Reisel reached behind him and pulled some rope from the bag on his back. "We should probably tie him up," he said. "Yevka can drag him behind her."

Yevka's head spun in his direction.

"You're the only one with any muscles," he pointed out.

She snorted. Then she nodded.

"Once we're done with him," Tuck said, glancing at the door they'd entered the room through, "we should head back that way. I saw another door that I wanted to check out."

Poppy snorted as she walked towards them. "Because running into unknown rooms has worked so well for you so far."

Tuck just grinned.

*

"[[Stay here and guard our backs, okay?]]" Ali told Meepo, giving him what she hoped was a reassuring smile.

Meepo nodded seriously at her.

Giving him one more smile, Ali turned and made her way toward the door that the others had disappeared through. She wasn't entirely certain what they had found in there. All she knew was that Reisel had stuck his head out a few seconds earlier, told her firmly in Elvish not to let Meepo into the room but that she needed to get in there, and then disappeared again.

The room smelled like death.

There were multiple cages in it, some of them empty and some not. The others were gathered around a cage on the far side of the room, where she could see what looked like a human sitting inside it. But her gaze was drawn to the other cages.

Ali ignored the others for a moment, instead focusing her attention on the unmoving kobold in three of the other cages. The human was moving. The kobold weren't.

"I think they're all dead," the human said weakly, presumably speaking to her.

So did Ali, if she was honest, but the healer in her wouldn't let her not check for herself. It only took a second or two to know for certain that all three of them were already gone.

Her hand went up to wrap around the pendant she wore, and she whispered a silent prayer in her head. It was to Boldrei, not Aureon, but she thought that He would probably forgive her. Boldrei was the goddess of her youth, after all, the one who had watched over the funerals of her childhood. Besides, He couldn't be that upset with her for sending a prayer to His wife. And if He was, well, He was the one who had chosen her to be His cleric. She hadn't asked for it.

The human was watching her closely when Ali opened her eyes, an almost respectful look on his face. Tuck was kneeling beside the cage he was in, clearly casting some type of healing spell, while Poppy fiddled with the cage's lock.

Ali tilted her head, studying the man. No, not a man. He was still a boy. Sixteen or seventeen, perhaps, old enough to be on his own but not quite an adult in the eyes of any of the races. His brown hair hung limply around his face, and his face and chest were a mess of dirt and bruises. He was wearing nothing but a pair of worn breeches, the occasional shiver shaking his frame.

"Ali, this is Karakas," Tuck said, glancing back at her. He gave her a pointed look. "He came here looking for Eleanor."

It took her a second to place the name. When she did, her gaze immediately darted toward Reisel. Eleanor. The daughter of Dominik Amakur, the man who had owned the house they were in. The woman that Bishop and Risto had asked Reisel to keep an eye out for, that he'd told Tuck and her about when they'd rested earlier.

Reisel shrugged at her.

"How long have you been here?" Ali asked, turning her attention back to Karakas.

The boy gave her a weak shrug. "A few days?" he said, a lilt at the end making it sound more like a question than a statement. "Four, maybe? Or five?"

The door to the cage suddenly popped open.

"I got it!" Poppy said proudly. She grinned at Karakas, blatantly looking him up and down in the process, despite it very clearly being neither the time nor the place.

Ali sighed. Poppy was young. She needed to remember that.

Tuck reached down and helped Karakas to his feet, his own eyes wandering a little before Reisel pulled off his cloak and handed it to the human. Karakas gave him a thankful smile and pulled it on.

Gods, she was surrounded by children, wasn't she?

"We should camp," Yevka said. She pulled on the rope she was holding, forcing their goblin prisoner to move closer to her.

Ali glanced at Karakas. He was standing on his own two feet, which was a step in the right direction, but judging by the way he was swaying slightly she wasn't certain how long it was going to last.

"Camping sounds good," she said. "Any ideas where would be safe?"

Poppy cleared her throat. "What about the library?" she asked. "It only had one entrance that we saw, so it would be easy to keep watch."

Tuck nodded. "Sounds good to me," he agreed. "What about the rest of you?"

Reisel and Yevka nodded. After a second, Ali did as well.

*

In front of her, Karakas turned to Tuck and gave him a serious look. "Have you been called?" he asked quietly. The words were still crystal clear in the stillness of the hallway they were walking down.

Ali's steps slowed for a moment, earning her a worried look from Meepo. The kobold hadn't strayed far from her side since the fight with the goblins, and – judging by the worried looks he kept shooting in Poppy's direction whenever he thought Ali wasn't looking – she doubted that was going to change.

"I think so?" Tuck said slowly, his hand drifting behind him to touch the cittern that hung at his back. "I think that's why Ian sent us here."

Karakas stared at him for a long moment. Then he shook his head. "That's not how it's supposed to work," he said. "People aren't usually sent to be chosen. It happens when the time is right."

Poppy snorted, glancing over her shoulder at them. "Tell that to Ian Bishop."

Karakas looked away, a troubled look on his face.

"What exactly do you mean by 'called?'" Reisel asked curiously, looking back himself.

For a second, it looked like Karakas might actually answer the question. Then he shook his head, looking away.

Tuck gave him a curious look. "If people aren't normally sent to be chosen, then how does it work?"

There was another long pause.

"Most are chosen by the item," Karakas said, almost reluctantly. From what Ali could tell, walking behind them, he didn't quite meet Tuck's gaze when he replied.

Ali's hand dropped down to the pendant around her neck, a hint of warmth still emanating from it when she cupped it in her hands. Oh. Oh. That explained a lot, actually.

Gods damn it.

Chapter Text

Despite the fact that less than an hour had passed since they had made their way down the hallway the first time, the walk back in the direction of the library felt completely different for some reason.

Ali wasn't entirely certain why it felt that way to her. Maybe it was their lingering wounds from the fight with the goblins. She didn't know about the others, but the half-healed hole in her shoulder where she'd gotten hit with an arrow was aching all the way down to the bone despite the fact that it wasn't bleeding any longer. Not to mention she felt drained from using so many spells in such a short amount of time.

If not that, then maybe it was Karakas. He was staying close to Tuck and shooting the rest of them wary looks even as he all but tripped over his own feet from exhaustion. He was tangible proof that Ian Bishop had left out quite a bit when he'd sent them on their way. Yes, they'd had their suspicions, but it was something else entirely to know there was more going on than met the eye.

Or maybe, just maybe, it was this whole Guardian mess in general.

Her hand slipped up to wrap loosely around her necklace again, comforting and alien at the same time. She still had more questions than answers, but just the thought of being forced into another role that she hadn't asked for was enough to leave her mouth tasting like ash.

Ali hadn't asked to become one of Aureon's clerics. He had chosen her, for whatever reason, and that had been that. The last thing she wanted was someone or something else pulling her in another direction, like she was nothing but a puppet.

Was it really so much to want her life to rest in her own hands rather than someone else's?

She half-listened to the conversations going on around her as they made their way down the hallway, her thoughts focused more inward than outward. Still, she knew better than to not pay any attention to their surroundings. They'd learned the hard way just how dangerous that could be.

Meepo was a comforting presence beside her. The kobold was clearly still terrified of Poppy, and he had barely left Ali's side save for a few times during the fight with the goblins.

In front of them, Poppy came to a sudden stop in the middle of the hallway. "Where are we headed?" she asked. She bristled a bit when everyone looked at her. "I mean, are we going to split up and take the bedrooms that we saw earlier or—?"

Poppy trailed off and shrugged, her gaze moving around the group.

Tuck grinned and gave her a wink. "I volunteer to share with Karakas."

"Of course you do," Poppy muttered, shooting him a dark look.

Ali reached up to rub the bridge of her nose, and she could almost feel a headache starting to form. Before she could point out just why splitting up might be a bad idea, Reisel cleared his throat.

"Are we certain splitting up would be wise?" he asked.

"No," Ali said quickly, cutting in before anyone else had a chance to say anything. "At least, I don't think so."

Tuck shot her a quicksilver smile. "You just want to spend more time looking over all those books in the library."

Ali couldn't deny that was at least a small part of why the idea appealed to her. Still, it very much wasn't the only reason. "Yes, of course," she said dryly, "it couldn't possibly have anything to do with not wanting to get killed by goblins in my sleep."

Meepo made a quiet yelping sound and took a step closer to her.

"Safety in numbers," Reisel said, nodding.

Poppy's gaze drifted over all of them. "The library it is then," she said decisively.

*

Ali woke up to someone shaking her. She jerked upward into a sitting position, squinting at the blurry figure she could just make out in the dim light.

The suspiciously halfling-shaped figure.

"Poppy?" she asked, reaching down to fumble for the pouch she kept her glasses in. "Is that you?"

Poppy laughed, which answered that question rather clearly. "You're really that blind without your glasses?"

Ali rolled her eyes but didn't answer as she pulled her glasses out and put them on. The world immediately sharpened and went into focus.

Still grinning at her, Poppy stood up. "You and Tuck are up for watch," she said. "Reisel and I didn't notice anything out of the ordinary during ours."

Stretching a bit, Ali pushed herself to her feet and let her gaze move over the room. Reisel was shaking Tuck awake, a bit less gently than Poppy had been with her. Then again, it looked like Tuck was taking much longer to actually wake up than she had.

"Get some sleep," Ali said, giving Poppy a nod. "We'll wake you up if anything happens."

Poppy grinned at her before turning and heading off in the direction of her bedroll.

Ali reached down and pulled the book on Aureon that Ian Bishop had given her out of her bag. She wasn't necessarily in the mood to read – and, oh, did that say a lot about how she was feeling just then – but she suspected it would be better than sitting in silence and trying to stay awake.

She glanced over in Tuck's direction. He was awake at least, glaring at Reisel's back as the elf settled in to trance for the next few hours. He hadn't actually gotten out of his bedroll either, choosing instead to merely prop himself up on one elbow without even sitting up completely.

He didn't seem to be paying all that much attention to her, at least not just then.

Shaking her head, Ali walked over to one of the nearby chairs and climbed up into it, pulling her legs up under her. She angled herself so that she could see the door clearly, and then she settled in to read, at least for a little while.

If Tuck wanted to talk to her, she was certain that he'd let her know. Not that she'd be all that heartbroken if he didn't want to continue the conversation they'd been having earlier.

*

A shadow fell over her.

Raising her eyebrows, Ali glanced up. She didn't think they were quite at the midway point for their watch, but it was probably getting close. Tuck hadn't said anything to her since he'd finally stumbled out of his bedroll and sat down in one of the empty chairs, a piece of paper clutched in his hands that she suspected was the letter from his father that Poppy had found earlier. She'd almost started to think that maybe the entire watch would pass in silence.

Tuck was standing there, shuffling a bit and not quite meeting her gaze.

Shaking her head, Ali closed her book. "Did you need something, Tuck?"

His eyes met hers, and he gave her a sheepish grin before nodded. "It's been a little weird, don't you think?" he asked. "Everything that's happened since we got here?"

Ali snorted. "I think that's an understatement."

There was a long pause. Then Tuck chuckled. "Yeah, I guess so," he said. He took a few steps away and grabbed one of the nearby chairs, pulling it a little closer to her.

He froze a moment later as it made a loud scraping sound as it moved across the floor.

Grimacing, Ali glanced over at the others. Yevka was stirring a bit, but she didn't look like she had actually been woken up. The same was true for their goblin prisoner. Meepo, Poppy, and Reisel didn't look like they'd been disturbed at all by the sound.

Tuck let out a relieved-sounding sigh before dropping into the chair that he'd moved.

Ali shook her head in amusement. She felt it start to quickly die a moment or two later, though, when Tuck bit his lip and gave her an almost hesitant look.

She'd only known him for a few days, but she'd very much gotten the impression that it was never a good sign when he looked diffident.

"What happened to you in the library?" Tuck asked, gesturing at the necklace around her neck. "You know, with that?"

Ali stilled, her hand coming up to rest on the necklace. It wasn't unexpected, that he was bringing it up now. She'd all but told him that she'd talk to him about it later, after all.

But still. It wasn't exactly a topic she was all that eager to discuss.

"That's a good question," she said slowly.

Tuck raised his eyebrows.

Ali sighed, moving her hand away from the pendant. Then she carefully reached back to grab the chain it was hanging on, pulling it off.

He followed it with his eyes.

"Is it just me, or does it look a little different?" Tuck asked curiously.

"It's not just you," Ali said, running her fingers over the necklace resting in her hand.

Tuck shot her an expectant look.

"I found another necklace, back in the library," Ali said, not quite meeting his gaze. "Similar to mine, but not exactly the same. When I put it on, well, this happened."

She looked up at his face. Tuck was staring at her rather blankly.

"Uh, what happened?" he asked carefully.

Ali held the necklace up by the chain, so that he could see it more clearly. "They merged," she said. "They turned into something new."

Tuck stared at the pendant for a second. Then he raised his eyebrows. "Is that... a cleric thing?" he asked slowly.

Ali snorted. "Hells if I know," she said, giving him a shrug. "I mean, I've heard some stories about things like this happening, but I just thought they were stories. Still, I guess that anything's possible when the gods are involved."

"That's a good point," Tuck said, nodding. He paused for a second, almost as if he was trying to make up his mind whether or not to say something. Then he gave her a somewhat serious look. More serious than she was used to seeing from him, at least. "Have you considered the possibility that it might be a Guardian thing? Like what happened with Lyra?"

She looked away from him, focusing her gaze on her holy symbol instead. It was familiar yet alien at the same time. "I've considered the possibility," she said slowly.

There was another pause. "You don't sound all that happy with the idea," Tuck said.

"No, I guess that I don't," Ali said, a little more shortly than she'd intended.

The next pause was even longer than the one before it.

Then, without warning, one of the dragon statuettes from earlier was shoved in front of her face.

Ali stared at it blankly, her eyes almost crossing as she tried to focus on it. Then she looked up at Tuck, who was wearing an almost pathetically hopefully look on his face.

"What do you see?" he asked eagerly. "Does it look different now?"

If Ali was honest, she was fairly certain that the statuettes actually did have some type of enchantment on them by that point. Even if Tuck had hit his head or gotten dosed with some type of poison earlier, enough time had passed that he shouldn't still be seeing the same hallucination. The fact that he still seemed to be seeing them as humanoids instead of dragons pointed towards magic rather than a need for medicine.

But where was the fun in admitting that to him? Especially considering the stunt he had pulled during the fight with the goblins, running headfirst into a room full of them and almost getting himself killed in the process?

Ali gave him what she hoped came across as a concerned look. "Make sure you get some sleep when we go off watch, okay?"

Tuck stared at her blankly for a second or two. Then he sighed and reluctantly put the statuettes away again.

Trying her best not to smile and give herself away, Ali let her gaze drift over the room. The others were all asleep, or trancing in the case of Reisel. The goblin was leaning against the far wall, still tied up fairly tightly with rope. He was asleep, or at least he appeared to be, but it seemed to be a fitful one.

Ali bit her lip, her mind flashing back to the script they'd found on their way down into the ravine. She'd never really considered Goblin as a possible language to learn, simply because there were so few resources out there on it. It had chafed, though, looking at the words inscribed in the stone and knowing that they meant something but not knowing what.

She glanced over at Tuck. "Watch my back, will you?"

He blinked at her. "What?" he asked.

Without saying anything else, she hopped down from the chair she had been sitting in and made her way over to where the goblin was resting. Tuck made a few spluttering sounds behind her, but she ignored him. If he could stab random inanimate objects and run headfirst into rooms full of goblins, then he damn well couldn't say anything about her walking across the room to talk to a goblin that was tied up and relatively harmless.

Once she reached the goblin, Ali knelt down in front of him and studied him for a minute. He was a little taller than her, probably around the same height as Poppy, and this close she could tell more clearly that he was clearly resting fairly uneasily.

Not that she could really blame him. They had killed all of his compatriots, tied him up, and dragged him along with them, after all. But still, he was alive. That had to count for something.

Ali reached out and nudged the goblin awake.

The goblin's head jerked up after a couple of nudges, his eyes going wide when he saw Ali standing there. He didn't say anything, but the panic on his face was obvious.

Ali smiled at him. "How would you like to make a deal?" she asked, tilting her head.

The goblin stared at her. Then he started nodding frantically. "Yes, yes," he said, "a deal."

"Let's say that I keep the others—" She gestured over her shoulder. "—from treating you too badly. And in return, you teach me at least a few words in your language."

There was no mistaking the look of utter confusion on the goblin's face for anything but what it was.

"No trick," Ali said, holding up her hands. "That's all I'm asking for. You teach me a few words, and I'll try to keep you safe."

He was a prisoner. It's not like she would let them hurt him too much, even if he said "no." He didn't know that, though, so it couldn't hurt to try.

"Okay?" the goblin said slowly, almost questioningly. "I can teach you."

Then his eyes went wide, his gaze darting behind her shoulder to focus on something. Or someone.

Ali rolled her eyes. "Yes, Tuck?"

Behind her, Tuck chuckled somewhat sheepishly. "Language classes?" he asked, a hint of amusement in his tone.

"I like to learn," Ali said, shrugging a little as she glanced over her shoulder at him. "Knowledge is power, after all."

Tuck grinned at her. "I'm starting to see that," he said, nodding. Then he knelt down in front of the goblin and settled a pillow that Ali hadn't even noticed he was holding behind the goblin's head.

Ali couldn't help but smile at him.

*

"Hey, Ali!" Tuck called out softly. "Our watch is over!"

Ali startled, glancing up from the piece of parchment that she'd been writing on. She wasn't foolhardy enough to untie the goblin – he was a prisoner, after all – but she'd memorized enough of the Goblin script they'd found earlier to write at least a few words, once she had started running out of basic items in the library to learn the words for. Almost a decade working as a scribe had at least a few positive aspects.

It was a good start, at least. She at least had an idea how the pronunciation worked, and the fact that she was fluent in Dwarvish and familiar with Giant was helpful when it came to learning how the script corresponded with words. She was going to need more practice, a lot more practice, as well as either another tutor or at least a book to work from if she wanted to speak or read the language with any degree of skill.

But, still. It was something.

"Thank you," Ali said to the goblin, nodding at him. "I'll let you get back to sleep."

The goblin eyed her warily for a moment before nodding back. Then he leaned back against the wall, his head resting on the pillow that Tuck had given him, and closed his eyes.

Ali pushed herself to her feet, stretching a bit, before walking towards Tuck.

He shot her an amused look. "Did you have fun?" he asked.

She ignored that question. It was quickly becoming clear that was the only way to deal with Tuck sometimes.

"Should we wake up Karakas?" Ali asked, glancing over at the kid. He looked even younger, sleep smoothing out the stressed look he'd been wearing on his face.

Tuck just gave her a look.

Ali nodded. "Yeah, I didn't think so," she said, agreeing with his unspoken statement. "Let him sleep."

"Do you want to wake up Yekva?" he asked her. "Or should I?"

She grinned at him. "Thanks for volunteering," she said cheerfully.

Tuck opened his mouth. Then he closed it and just shook his head, not even attempting to hide the amusement in his eyes.

Winking at him, Ali picked up the book on Aureon that she'd left sitting in the chair she'd claimed earlier. Then she turned and headed back towards the spot on the floor where she'd left her blanket and backpack.

She just hoped that she could fall back to sleep. She much preferred taking either the first or last watch. Trying to fall back to sleep after waking up in the middle of the night had never been all that easy for her, but she knew that she needed the rest.

*

She was standing in the middle of the temple in Felmalein. Ali couldn't quite remember what she'd been doing, but it had been important. That much she knew.

Ali startled, looking around in confusion at the temple. It looked the same as it always had, but she couldn't shake the idea that something felt off about it.

With a slight tilt of her head, Ali started walking down the hallway she was in. Familiar faces walked past her, priests and scholars and others who called the temple home, seemingly going about their daily business. None of them seemed to be paying much attention to her, but that wasn't exactly anything out of the ordinary. Especially not for the past few years, at least.

She supposed she couldn't blame them. Many of them had been at the temple for much longer than her, dedicating their lives to following Aureon's words. To see someone like her be chosen to be one of His clerics, someone who had never particularly considered herself to be a dedicant, and then to watch as she tried time and time again to fight back against being chosen in the first place...

... no, she couldn't blame them at all. It hurt, of course, being spurned by people she'd known for so long. But it wasn't like any of them, save Nomi, had ever been particularly close to her.

Without warning, the world seemed to shift around her.

Ali blinked in surprise as the corridor disappeared, replaced by the temple's library. She spun around, a little disoriented by the sudden change, but the comfortingly familiarity of the library helped it fade quickly. She'd spent many long hours in the library, poring over books or copying texts or—on more than a few occasions—curled up in a corner chair asleep over whatever she had been working on.

People were sitting at tables around her, talking quietly among themselves. The sound of pages flipping filled the air, along with quills scraping against paper and parchment.

A familiar form was standing in front of her.

Ali felt her heart leap into her throat as she stared at Nomi. She was only a few feet away, standing beside a table stacked high with books. One of the many priests at the temple was standing beside her, and they were talking quietly. Ali couldn't quite make out the words, but there were serious expressions on both of their faces.

Chewing on her lip a little, Ali started to walk towards them.

And then there was nothing. Absolutely nothing. There was blackness and silence and an emptiness that seemed to sink into her very soul.

Without warning, the library reappeared in front of her. It was exactly the same and yet completely different at the same time. The chairs and tables were still exactly as they had been a moment or two before, books and papers piled high on them.

Yet there wasn't any sound. The room was silent. And completely empty.

The people were gone, chairs still pulled out from the table where they'd been sitting. Nomi was gone. The priest that she'd been speaking with had disappeared.

She was utterly and entirely alone.

*

Ali's eyes shot open, and she was halfway sitting up before she realized where she was. She slumped back down onto her blanket, her breath coming out in short gasps as she tried to calm her racing heart.

It had been a dream. Nothing but a dream. At least, gods, she hoped it had only been a dream.

What the fuck had that been about?

The odds were that it had just been her imagination playing tricks on her. That's probably all that it was. She'd been on edge the past week or two, ever since she'd gotten that damn message from Ian Bishop in the first place. Add in everything they'd been finding out about the Guardians, and the Seekers, and how it all seemed to tie together somehow... well, it wasn't all that unexpected that she was having nightmares.

For just a moment, Ali thought that the holy symbol around her neck felt somewhat warmer than normal. By the time she'd brought her hand up to clutch it, though, the feeling had faded.

"[[Please let it have been nothing more than a dream,]]" she whispered quietly to herself in Halfling.

Ali took another deep breath, trying to calm herself down, as she pulled out her glasses and put them back on. Then she took a look around the room. The others were stirring around her, and judging by the looks on a few of their faces she couldn't help but wonder if she hadn't been the only one who'd had unpleasant dreams. The only one who didn't look like he'd just woken up from a nightmare was Reisel, but then again he'd had the last watch so he'd been up for hours.

Still, it wasn't as if she was going to be the one to bring it up. Taking one more shaky breath, she reached up to touch her braid, grimacing a bit at how loose it was. She could probably get by with more day of leaving it up, but any longer than that and she was really going to need to brush it out and braid it again.

Nearby, Poppy sat up and stretched.

"I was really hoping these last few days were a nightmare," Tuck said loudly as he sat up in his bedroll, a dramatic flair to his voice that instantly had Ali waiting for the inevitable punchline. "But here Poppy is."

It clearly took a moment for the words to sink in, but after a few seconds Poppy's eyes widened. She glared at him, crossing her arms in front of her chest. "Fuck you!"

Tuck grinned.

Ali rubbed the bridge of her nose, but she didn't bother saying anything to either of them. Instead she merely slid over so that she wasn't on top of her blanket and started rolling it up.

"How did you end up in that cage, Karakas?"

She paused, turning her attention away from the belongings she was in the process of packing up. Tuck was crouched near Karakas, a curious look on his face. He reminded her of nothing more than an oversized bird just then, the way he was tilting his head curiously and studying the kid.

Ali bit back a laugh at the thought.

"There were goblins?" Karakas said slowly, an inflection at the end making it sound more like a question than a statement.

Her amusement faded a little as she rolled her eyes. What was with all of these humans and their absolute refusal to answer a simple question? Gerard, Ian Bishop, Risto, and now him. It was getting very old, very quickly.

Tuck seemed to be thinking something similar, as he opened his mouth to ask something else. Before he could say a word, though, he suddenly spun around and smacked Poppy – who had apparently slipped up behind him – on the hand. "Keep your hands off of my Lyra!"

"It wasn't that hand!" she exclaimed, shaking her hand and glaring at him. "It was my mage hand!"

"Well, I can't smack that one," he shot back.

Ali sighed and wondered, not for the first time, exactly how old Tuck actually was. Poppy was still a kid, so she was willing to excuse at least some things, but she'd gotten the impression that he was at least a little older. Old enough that her patience was wearing a bit thin, considering everything that had happened the last few days.

"Hey, Karakas?" Tuck asked suddenly, and Ali turned her attention back towards them. He was holding out one of the dragon statuettes again. "What do you see?"

Karakas looked at the statue. Then he looked at Tuck. "A dragon?"

Tuck's face fell. Behind him, Poppy went off on a giggling fit.

Without saying a word, Tuck put the statuette away. Presumably with the others.

"Speaking of dragons," Reisel pointed out, clearing his throat. "We still need to save Meepo's."

Karakas's head jerked in Reisel's direction. "What?"

"You heard him," Yevka said dryly. She was standing off to the side, leaning against one of the walls and chewing on some rations.

"You're going to save a dragon?" Karakas asked skeptically, looking around the room as if he thought someone was about to chime in and tell him that they were joking.

Not that Ali could blame him.

"Yeah, that's what I said!" Poppy cut in. "Just that same way."

Karakas stared at her. "You're going to save a dragon?" he repeated.

"Apparently," Tuck said cheerfully.

Karakas stared at him blankly. "A dragon?" he said yet again.

Reisel shook his head. "A white one," he said, nodding. Then he waved his hand at some rations, clearly casting something on them before handing them over to Karakas. "Breakfast?"

Still eyeing him a bit warily, Karakas reached out and took the food he was being offered. "Thank you."

Reisel didn't say anything for a second. Then he cleared his throat. "So, you came here looking for Eleanor?"

Karakas nodded slowly, as if he thought it might be a trick question. Then he took a bite of food.

"Ian and Risto didn't mention you," Reisel said pointedly. "At all."

Karakas shifted a little, an uncomfortable look on his face.

Oh. Oh. Ali met Reisel's gaze for a second, and the two of them shared a look of understanding. Then she looked away. That explained the footprints she'd found outside, the ones that were too large to belong to goblins.

"Ian and Risto don't know you're here, do they?" Ali asked quietly.

Karakas didn't quite meet any of their gazes. "Okay, okay," he said reluctantly, "they might not have technically sent me here."

*

"It sounds to me like Ian's pushing you guys," Karakas said, his eyes wide as he glanced around the room. He'd looked more and more surprised and confused as they had explained why they were there, like he couldn't quite believe what they were saying.

"No shit" was what Ali wanted to say in response to Karakas's somewhat incredulous statement. She stayed quiet, though, instead trying to process everything that he'd told them as they'd been eating.

Most of it hadn't been anything particularly new or surprising. They'd already figured out that the Guardians were supposed to guard gateways to other planes, although it had been nice to get some confirmation of it. And the letters they had found the day before had made it fairly clear that both Poppy's and Tuck's fathers had been – were? – Guardians, as was Nomi. Add in the fact that Reisel had already figured out that his mentor was one as well, and it had become clear that was the reason they specifically had been sent here.

The fact that Ian Bishop was trying to push them into becoming Guardians themselves wasn't all that shocking. Not to them, at least. Karakas's reaction was a bit surprising, though, as if he really couldn't believe that Bishop had sent them there for that reason.

The confirmation that people really were disappearing, that Ali wasn't certain what to think about.

Beside her, Poppy suddenly giggled.

Ali frowned and followed Poppy's gaze. Meepo was sitting beside their goblin prisoner, trying to feed him. The goblin was staring at the food with a horrified look on his face, though, almost as if it was poison. Meepo rolled his eyes, sat the bowl of soup on the floor, and walked off – leaving the goblin unfed.

She narrowed her eyes as she turned her attention back towards Poppy. "[[What did you do?]]" she asked in Halfling.

Poppy grinned at her. "[[Nothing,]]" she said in an innocent tone that Ali didn't believe for a second.

"Poppy," Ali snapped sharply.

It took a second or two, but Poppy's grin faded. "[[We were talking about how Reisel's cooking tastes like shit if he doesn't use magic on it,]]" she said, shifting uncomfortably. "[[So I undid the spell he cast.]]"

Children. She was surrounded by children, and it was getting old fast.

"[[Fix it,]]" Ali said firmly.

Poppy frowned.

Ali glared at her. "[[Now.]]"

With a dismissive shrug, Poppy muttered something under her breath. Ali felt a familiar prickle rush over her skin, a sign that a spell had been cast. Giving Poppy one last annoyed look, she pushed herself to her feet and made her way over the goblin.

Ali could feel the others' eyes focused on her, but she ignored them. If someone wanted to ask a question, they could. Otherwise, she wasn't in the mood to deal with any of them just then. She'd made a promise to keep the goblin at least somewhat safe, after all. And she kept her promises, whether the others liked it or not.

*

Karakas eyed Ali warily as she walked up beside him in the hallway. She hadn't spoken that much to him, all things considered, not as much as the others at least.

"Can I help you with something?" he asked, more than a fair bit of curiosity in his voice.

"Do you recognize the name Nomi?" Ali asked quietly, not entirely certain she wanted to know the answer.

Karakas blinked in surprise at the question. Then he nodded. "Oh, yes," he said. "I've met her. She's nice."

Ali bit her lip. "When was the last time you saw her?"

Karakas thought for a second. "A few months ago," he said slowly. "Maybe a little longer?"

Her heart skipped a beat.

"But it's been within the last year?" Ali asked, not even trying to hide her relief.

"Yes, I think so," Karakas said, shooting her a confused look.

Ali closed her eyes for a moment and just breathed. That was something, at least. Less than a year. He'd seen her since she'd left the temple.

She'd been trying not to worry that Nomi hadn't returned to the temple like she normally did, even as more and more time passed. The fact that they had argued hadn't exactly been a secret. Ali had assumed that Nomi was avoiding her, putting off returning for even a short amount of time so that the two of them wouldn't come face-to-face. But then this whole Guardian mess had come about, with stories of people disappearing into thin air, and a part of her couldn't help but think the worst.

"I'm assuming you can't tell me anything more about the Guardians than what you've already said?" Ali asked. "What with me not being one?"

Karakas hesitated. "I'm really not supposed to."

Ali very carefully didn't point out that he'd already told them quite a bit that he'd claimed he couldn't say to non-Guardians. He was just a kid, after all. One who was clearly heads over heels for Eleanor and completely in over his head.

He shot her a somewhat nervous look, like he wasn't quite certain how she would react to what he was about to say. "You know, that's nice," he said, pointing straight at Ali. Or, more precisely, at her pendant. "But it's not enough. You haven't taken the oath."

Oh, fuck.

Ali closed her eyes. Damn it. Damn it all to the Nine Hells. That's what she had been worried about, ever since the moment she had picked up the pendant. She'd already been chosen by Aureon, whether she liked it or not. At least this time she had a choice, at least according to Karakas. Unless she specifically swore the oath, said the words and meant them, she was free to walk away.

It was something. She'd take whatever she could get at this point.

"I'll keep that in mind," Ali said, nodding at him. Then she fell back, letting him walk ahead of her a bit.

As soon as she did, Reisel stepped forward to take her place at his side. He leaned down a little so that he could say something to Karakas in a tone too quiet for her to make out.

She sighed.

"Having fun yet?" Tuck asked cheerfully.

Ali glanced up. He'd appeared beside her at some point and was walking side-by-side with her, a big grin on his face. It was clear that he thought everything about the Guardians was some type of exciting story, and he seemed thrilled by the idea that he was one – even if he hadn't even known what he was doing when he said the oath, back at the dragon statue they'd found.

"Just so you know," she said quietly, "being called by someone or something isn't always all it's cracked up to be."

Tuck blinked at her in confusion.

"I'm just saying," Ali said. "It's something you should keep in mind."

He didn't say anything for a second or two. Then he cleared his throat. "What if being called will lead you to Nomi?"

Ali snorted. "Being called is what cost me Nomi in the first place," she said, not even trying to hide the bitterness in her voice.

She apparently spoke a little louder than she'd intended, as Karakas turned away from his conversation with Reisel and glanced back at her. "You do have a choice," he said. "You know that, right?"

Ali nodded. "Oh, believe me," she said, "I heard that part." She looked away. "I didn't have a choice the first time. There's a reason I haven't taken any oath yet."

*

Poppy hurried ahead of them as they made their way through the room they'd fought the last group of goblins in the night before. The bodies were still on the ground where they'd left them, the faint stench of decay already starting to fill the air. The door they'd noticed on the far side of the room was still closed, and she fiddled with it for a second before pushing it open.

Then she stopped in place and immediately started backing up.

"Uh, guys," Poppy said quietly, as soon as she was close enough to the rest of them for conversation, "I think that I might have found the dragon we were looking for."

Beside her, Meepo's eyes went wide and he grinned broadly.

Reisel glanced at him. "Meepo," he said slowly, "what do you think the dragon would do if you went in? Would she attack you?"

Meepo shot him an indignant look. "Zoreth would never hurt me!"

"Are you sure?" Tuck asked.

Meepo nodded. "Very sure," he said. "She would never."

Poppy shrugged. "I say we let him go in first then."

Yevka tightened her grip on the rope she was using to make their goblin prisoner come along with them. She frowned a little, but she didn't argue.

"Are you sure about this?" Karakas asked skeptically.

Meepo glanced over at Ali, a curious look on his face. As if he was waiting for her to tell him what to do.

It took her a second or two to remember that she'd asked him to watch the goblin as they walked down the hallway. Mainly as a way to keep him away from Poppy, since she wasn't in the mood to deal with any more bullshit that morning. Afternoon. Whatever the hells time it actually was, since it was hard to know for certain with no sunlight to judge by.

"[[Are you sure Zoreth won't hurt you?]]" Ali asked in Draconic.

Meepo nodded firmly. "[[Yes. She won't.]]"

"I'll watch the goblin," Reisel said, his gaze moving between the two of them.

Without saying a word, Yevka handed him the rope she was holding.

Biting her lip, Ali nodded at Meepo.

He shot her a grin before starting toward the door. Yevka followed close behind him, Karakas and Tuck at her heels. Poppy hurried after them a second later.

After a moment's hesitation, Ali followed. There was a sinking feeling in her chest, and she couldn't shake the feeling that she was missing something. That something was about to go wrong.

Meepo walked into the room, slipping a little – presumably on ice – as he walked through the doorway. Then he disappeared from her line of sight.

As she watched, Karakas tried to slip past Yevka. Before he could, though, Tuck reached out and grabbed him by the shoulder. He froze, looking back at Tuck for a moment. "Wait," Tuck said, shaking his head. "Let him try."

"Are you crazy?" Karakas asked, loud enough that Ali could hear him even from where she stood. "It's a dragon!"

Inside the room, there was a loud roar.

Yevka muttered something that Ali couldn't hear from where she was standing. Then she rushed through the door, weapon in hand. The others were close behind her.

Ali came to a halt, her eyes going wide. She could feel her heart pounding in her chest, and that feeling of wrongness she'd been feeling for the past few minutes all but exploded.

Beside her, Reisel dropped the rope he was holding and rushed past her. Their prisoner squeaked as he fell on his ass at the unexpected action, the goblin's eyes going wide as he stared at the open door. Then he started scooting across the floor, towards the wall, as if he was trying to put as much distance between him and it as possible.

"Stay here," Ali said firmly, turning and glaring at the goblin.

He stopped in place, staring at her. Then he nodded frantically at her. "I will," he agreed. "I will."

*

Ali slipped through the door and then came to a sudden halt, her eyes focused on Meepo. He was frozen completely in a block of ice just inside of it, his body held solidly in place.

"Fuck." The word was barely audible even to her, more of an exhale of breath than actual speaking.

Damn it. Gods damn it. She'd never seen it in action, but she recognized it from descriptions she'd read in books. There was no coming back from something like that, not without a much more powerful cleric than her to intercede on his behalf.

He was dead. Meepo was dead.

And it was her fault. She was the one who told him to go in after the dragon, rather than staying out where it was safe. If she'd told him to stay out there and keep guarding the prisoner, to let them handle it, he'd still be alive.

It was a dragon. A fucking dragon. She should have known better than to believe him when he said there was no chance Zoreth would attack him.

Ali took in a deep breath and held it for a second, willing herself to calm down. She didn't have time for this. Not right now. She could feel tears pricking in the corners of her eyes, and she pointedly blinked them away. Later. She could process things later. For now, she needed to try to keep the others from getting killed as well.

She took the time for one more exhale. Then she stepped deeper into the room.

The others were fighting, and it didn't look like it was particularly going all that well. No one else was dead yet, which she counted as a small blessing, but unless she did something fast she wasn't certain how much longer that would be true.

Oh, hells. She knew what she needed to do. She didn't want to do it. Gods knew she didn't want to do it. There wasn't any other option, though, not if she wanted to end this quickly.

She took another step forward, trying not to let panic overwhelm her when the movement caught the dragon's attention. It turned its head toward her.

Someone yelled her name. She thought it might have been Tuck, but she wasn't entirely certain. She had other things to focus on just then.

Ali caught the dragon's eye, fighting back a flinch when it turned its gaze directly on her. It was huge compared to her, and if it were to attack then she didn't like her odds. Still, she had to try. She reached up and touched the pendant she wore around her neck, doing her best to open her mind like she'd been taught to do back at the temple.

And then she let her suggestion fly towards the dragon's mind, as true as any physical weapon.

She knew how the spell worked, in theory at least, but she'd never cast it before. There had always been a part of her that didn't feel quite comfortable taking away someone's free will, and even then she could hear that quiet voice in the back of her mind arguing that it still wasn't right. Then an image of Meepo's frozen body popped into her head, and that quiet voice suddenly silenced itself.

"Do not fight us," Ali said, and her voice was as cold and hard as the ice that covered the floor and walls. The ice that encased Meepo's body. "Come with us somewhere safe."

For a long moment, nothing seemed to happen. The others were still yelling, attacks flying toward the dragon, but Ali ignored them. Just then, she and Zoreth were the only ones in the room.

"Do not fight us," Ali repeated firmly, her gaze not moving from the dragon's face. Her hand tightened around her necklace. "Come with us somewhere safe."

She could tell the moment that the spell took hold, the tenseness in the dragon's body smoothing out to be replaced with something akin to complacency. Its eyes, bright and feral, suddenly went a little dull. She tried her best to ignore the pang of guilt she could feel in her chest.

"Stop attacking!" Ali yelled, her voice almost echoing throughout the room.

The others all came to an abrupt halt. In any other circumstances, it might have been comical. Or possibly even unnerving, considering all of them had actually listened to her without question. As it was, Ali was too numb to feel anything other than a deep-seated exhaustion.

It had worked. It had taken a little longer than it should have taken, but it had worked. She should have done it from the very first. If she had, then maybe Meepo wouldn't have died.

With an exhausted sigh, Ali started walking toward the dragon.

"Are you out of your mind?" Tuck hissed, his grip on his dagger tightening as she walked past him.

"She's under my control," Ali said dully, not even glancing at him as she reached out to gently touch the dragon's flank. Zoreth shuddered a bit at her touch but didn't pull away. "As long as none of you attack her, she'll come with us peacefully."

There was silence for a moment.

"You can do that?" Poppy asked, and in that second she sounded achingly young.

Ali closed her eyes for a moment and took in a shaky breath. Then another. And another. "Apparently," she said quietly, as she opened her eyes again. "Can we please leave now?"

There was a long pause.

"Let me do one thing first," Reisel said quietly.

*

Ali stood back and watched as Reisel used his magic to slowly melt the ice from Meep—from the body.

There was a surprised look frozen on the body's face as it started to fall. Reisel reached out and grabbed it as it fell, stopping it from hitting the ground. Meepo – no, not Meepo, damn it all it was now was a body – looked tiny in his arms.

The body. That's all it was now, a body. It wasn't Meepo.

Ali felt tears pricking at the corners of her eyes, and she forced them back. She focused her attention on the dragon instead. The last thing they needed was for it to get free.

Reisel scooped up the body in his arms and straightened up. Then he glanced over at Ali.

"Can we please go?" she asked tiredly.

Tuck walked up beside her, looking unusually subdued. "Yeah," he agreed. "Let's go."

He and Reisel left the room, Poppy behind them. Ali nodded for Yevka and Karakas to leave as well. She wanted to stay beside the dragon, just in case, and she'd rather they all be well ahead of her.

"Come on, Zoreth," Ali said quietly.

Then she started out of the room as well.

The goblin was still sitting where she had left him, his eyes going wide when he saw her walk out of the room with the dragon at her side. He didn't argue at all as Yevka grabbed his rope and pulled him to his feet, and he hurried after her with the occasional glance backward. He clearly wanted to be nowhere near the dragon.

Not that Ali could blame him all that much.

Without saying a word, she started walking slowly back the way they had come. Zoreth walked beside her willingly, without any protest.

*

Ali watched as the kobolds carried the body away, and she felt a burning at the corners of her eyes again. It wasn't fair, damn it. She'd liked Meepo. He'd helped them. He'd saved her, several times, over the past day or so.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Tuck talking with Krask. The leader of the kobold nodded and reached up to grab the saber that was displayed prominently on the top of this throne. Then he tossed it at Tuck, who fumbled it for a second but caught it before it hit the ground.

She forced herself to turn her attention towards the two of them.

"Have you seen a young human woman around?" Tuck asked.

Krask stared at him for a moment. "No, no humans," he said. Then he reached up and grabbed one of the potions that had been resting near the saber, throwing it toward Tuck as well. "You have kept your side of our deal, and I have kept mine."

Ali couldn't help but think that was his way of telling them to get the hells out of his throne room.

Tuck apparently agreed, because he rather quickly nodded. "Thank you," he said. Then he gestured for the others to follow him and started toward the door.

As he walked away, he handed the potion that Krask had given him to Poppy.

Ali took in a shaky breath and took a step forward, so that she was facing Krask. She nodded in the direction that the other kobolds were leading Zoreth off in.

"[[Keep her safe this time,]]" she said quietly to him in Draconic.

Krask's eyes widened, just slightly, presumably at her speaking his language. Then he nodded at her.

Ali gave him a respectful nod. Then, without another word, she turned and headed in the direction that the others had gone in.

Ahead of her, Tuck passed the saber over to Reisel.

Reisel came to an abrupt halt.

Frowning a little, Ali hurried to catch up with the others. She caught up to them just in time to see Reisel put the saber back into Tuck's hands.

"I will not take the blood payment of this blade," Reisel said firmly. He crossed his arms in front of his chest.

Yevka snorted and leaned against a nearby wall. The goblin did the same, albeit a bit more warily, as if he wasn't certain what to expect them to do.

"Did you just say blood payment, Reisel?" Poppy asked, frowning.

He looked at her. "Yes," he said matter-of-factly.

If anything, her frown grew even more pronounced. "What does that mean?"

Reisel didn't answer.

Behind her, Karakas was watching everything with a somewhat worried look.

"I can't take this," Tuck said slowly, his gaze focused on Reisel. "It's yours."

He tried to push it back into Reisel's hands.

Reisel gave him an unreadable look, turned, and started to walk away. The saber dropped to the floor.

Tuck stared at his back with a completely flabbergasted look on his face.

After a moment or two of hesitation, Poppy walked over and picked the saber up. "I'll just, uh, hold this for him."

*

Ali leaned against the wall and reached up to rub the bridge of her nose. They had decided to go in search of the rest of the goblins, for better or for worse, and their prisoner had been doing a decent job of leading them. Reisel had pulled Tuck to the side up ahead and was having a muttered conversation with him, though, one that she had no interest whatsoever in hearing judging by the looks on their faces.

Hence the stopping well behind them.

Poppy sidled up to her.

Ali glanced over at her with more than a little reluctance. Her frustration from that morning was gone, replaced by an exhausted numbness. She honestly didn't even have the energy to be angry, not just then.

Poppy shifted awkwardly from one foot to the other. "[[Are you alright?]]" she asked quietly in Halfling. "[[I mean, I know I was, well... kind of mean to that lizard and all. But I know you really seemed to like him. How are you doing?]]"

It felt like a dagger to the chest.

Ali gave her a half-hearted shrug, willing her face to stay expressionless. "[[It is what it is,]]" she said quietly. "[[I just... I wish I could have done something different. To save him.]]"

The fact that she couldn't do anything meant more than Poppy probably realized. She'd already made it clear that she didn't know what it meant to be a cleric of one of the gods. That she didn't understand just what it meant, that Ali wasn't able to save him. That she didn't have the power to ask for him to be spared.

If anything was a sign that she wasn't cut out to be a cleric, that was it.

Poppy faltered for a second or two. Then she nodded, hesitated again, and leaned in to give Ali a quick hug.

Ali stiffened at the unexpected touch, but after a moment or two she forced herself to at least attempt to relax into the hug. Then movement off to the side caught her attention, and she yanked away. "What the fuck is he doing?" she hissed, switching back to Common instinctively, her eyes going wide.

Poppy followed her gaze.

Reisel was holding a dagger to Tuck's throat.

"Holy shit!" Poppy yanked out her crossbow, spinning around so that she could aim it at Reisel. "What the hells, Reisel?"

*

For the first time since their little group had left Ian's manor, the silence around them was awkward instead of comfortable.

None of them, save for Reisel and Tuck, had any idea what the fuck had happened earlier. Neither of them had been very forthcoming, to say the least, and the tension in the air was thick enough to cut with a blade.

All of them, Ali included, kept glancing at Reisel. He hadn't said anything to anyone since the incident earlier, but none of them was quite willing to turn their back on him. Not without knowing what in the Nine Hells had happened to make him pull a blade on Tuck, of all people.

For the first time since all of this had started, Ali really realized that the people she was traveling with were complete strangers who she knew absolutely nothing about. She'd known, of course, but she hadn't thought much about it. Not until now.

Beside her, someone cleared their throat.

Ali glanced to her left, not particularly surprised to see Tuck walking beside her. He gave her a weak grin that didn't quite meet his eyes.

"How are you feeling?" he asked quietly.

She gave him a half-hearted shrug.

Tuck stared at her for a moment. Then he moved in and wrapped his arms around her in a surprisingly tight hug, almost causing her to trip over her own feet considering she was mid-stride when he did it.

It caught her by surprise, despite the fact that Poppy had done the exact same thing not more than ten minutes earlier. She immediately tensed. Then, very hesitantly, she hugged him back.

"What can we do for poor Meepo?" Tuck asked quietly.

Ali didn't say anything, not quite meeting his gaze.

Tuck opened his mouth, as if he was about to ask something else. Then his eyes went a little wide, and he fell back a little.

A moment later, Reisel took his place at her side.

She shot him a wary look.

"Ali, are you alright?"

Not quite sure what to say, Ali just nodded.

"From our time here, I believe you to be a good person," Reisel said. "You helped rein in our initial bloodthirst toward Meepo."

Ali didn't say anything. She couldn't. It took everything she had not to look away.

Reisel frowned a little at her lack of response. Then he nodded and sped up his stride, walking ahead of her again.

She... really had no idea what that had been about, if she was honest.

A moment or two passed, and then Tuck slowly stepped back up to walk beside her again. She glanced over at him.

Tuck gave her a look, and she abruptly remembered his question right before Reisel had interrupted.

Ali gave him another shrug. "He's gone. There's not really anything to do now." She looked away from him. "I couldn't do anything."

Tuck snorted. "I actively stopped Karakas from going in to save Meepo," he pointed out.

Ali looked away from him. "I'm the one who told him to go in there in the first place."

"But how were we supposed to know that the dragon would turn on its handler?" Tuck asked. "I mean, Meepo apparently loved it."

"I should have," Ali said sharply. "It's a dragon. I've read enough about them to know that it was a possibility."

Tuck's eyes flashed. "In that case, we all should have," he snapped back, a hint of firmness in his voice that she wasn't used to hearing. "It was a fucking dragon."

Ali looked away. "My spell worked," she said quietly. "If I'd slipped in and cast it right away, I could have saved him."

"My spells worked too," Tuck said, "and, like I said, I stopped Karakas from going in right behind Meepo. If you feel any blame, I feel just as much."

Ali gave him a weak smile. Then, without another word, she started to walk away.

"All we can do is try to do better by Meepo," Tuck said, raising his voice a little as she walked off. "We can certainly mourn the loss, but we should learn from his death."

She didn't have the heart to tell him that there wasn't anything to learn from Meepo's death. She'd already known that she wasn't cut out for any of this, after all.

*

Ali stood at the bottom of the huge pit in the floor in front of them, frowning as she watched the others climb down into it. There were twisted vines coming up out of it, sickly-looking yet surprisingly hardy considering there was no sunlight to help them grow.

Tuck walked over to stand beside her. "Why do we have to keep climbing?" he asked a bit plaintively.

"I was thinking the same thing," Ali said a bit weakly.

"It can't go any worse than last time?" he said lightly.

Ali just frowned.

He didn't say anything for a moment. Then he clapped his hands together. "Tell you what," Tuck said, "I'll go first this time."

Before she could say anything, he grabbed the rope and started climbing down.

"I'm going to regret this," Ali muttered under her breath. Then, with more than a little reluctance, she started down the rope as well.

She just hoped she didn't fall and die. The way the day had been going, she wouldn't be surprised if that were to happen.

*

Ali frowned as she stared at the sickly tree growing alongside the vines and other plants.

A tree shouldn't have been able to grow so far underground. The moss on it had a somewhat fluorescent glow to it, and she supposed it could have possibly have been enough to help. Still, it was clear that someone had been tending to the tree. It hadn't grown naturally, not without at least some help.

The question was who was it helping it grow?

"This is weird," Tuck said decisively.

Yevka snorted. "No shit."

"I'm with her," Poppy said, her own gaze focused on the tree.

Ali nodded.

Without another word, Tuck started walking toward the tree. He pulled out one of his daggers as he made his ways towards it.

"Tuck, what are you doing?" Poppy asked warily.

He glanced over his shoulder and shot them a grin.

Ali's eyes went wide with realization. "Oh, for the love of—"

Tuck shoved his dagger into the tree.

There was a long pause as all of them held their breaths. Well, as all of them but Karakas held their breaths, at least. He just shot Tuck a very confused look.

"Why did you just do that?" he asked in confusion.

"Because he's an idiot," Poppy muttered, not even trying to be quiet.

Ali let out the breath she was holding when it became clear that nothing appeared to be happening. "Well, at least nothing attacked us this time."

Karakas glanced at her and raised his eyebrows. "What?"

"Like I said, Tuck's an idiot," Poppy repeated. "Can we go now?"

*

Ali stared as Poppy and Tuck all but dashed out of the room they'd been exploring, eyes wide and weapons out. Poppy shut the door behind them and took several steps away from it, watching warily as if she expected it to explode.

"What just happened?" Ali asked slowly, not quite certain she wanted to know the answer to that question.

Tuck gave her a weak grin. "It wasn't me this time."

"I, uh, attacked some moss," Poppy said. "And then I flirted with it. I don't think it went well?"

Ali stared at them. Then, without a word, she turned and headed back down the hallway towards where the others were waiting.

Down at the other end of the hall, Reisel raised his eyebrows.

"Don't ask," Ali said, as soon as she thought she was probably within earshot.

He frowned for a second before nodding. Then he turned and opened the door just behind him, glancing into the room. A moment later, he jerked back and slammed it shut. "Nope."

Poppy pushed past Ali, walked straight up to him, and shoved it open again. Her eyes went wide. Then, crossbow still in hand, she took another step or two forward and started firing.

Reisel muttered a rather emphatic curse in Elvish before hurrying in after her.

"Take your damn saber!" Poppy said from inside the room.

Oh, that didn't sound good at all.

Taking a deep breath, Ali followed them into the room. And then immediately froze in place, her eyes going wide as she stared at just what they were trying to fight. She'd never seen one in person, only drawings in books. She'd never expected to see one in person, if she was honest.

"Is that a fucking spectator?"

*

Not for the first time over the past few days, Ali couldn't help but wonder just what she had gotten herself involved with. If she had known about even half of the things that had happened to her over the past few days, she never would have come to Baurus. She would have burned that damn message from Ian Bishop as soon as she'd received it.

She'd just fought a spectator. A gods damned spectator. And she'd lived through it.

Ali took a deep breath and let her gaze drift over the room. Poppy looked surprisingly spry, considering how close she had come to dying just a few minutes earlier. If Tuck hadn't reached her in time, there was a good chance she would have...

... and, no, she was not going to think about that. At all.

But, yes, Poppy looked fine. She had opened a chest on the far side of the room, presumably what the spectator had been guarding, and was trying to shove gold from it into her bag. Based on the way she kept glancing around the room, it was clear that she was hoping the others wouldn't notice.

Ali wasn't going to call her on it. It's not like she had much need for gold.

Shaking her head, she let her gaze drift over the room some more. Yevka was standing in the doorway, their goblin prisoner visible in the hallway behind her. She'd let go of his rope for the fight, not that Ali could blame her, but he didn't look like he was trying to get free. Not yet, at least.

Karakas and Tuck were standing nearby, quietly talking to each other. They were far enough away that Ali couldn't make out what they were saying, and she wasn't sure she wanted to know.

And then there was Reisel, who had apparently taken the saber back from Poppy when she'd offered it to him. He was holding it up to his mouth and apparently talking to it, and Ali definitely didn't want to ask any questions about that.

"Ooh, what's this?"

Ali glanced back in Poppy's direction and raised an eyebrow. Poppy had picked up a rather ornate-looking crossbow that was rather oddly a shade of green rather than the more normal brown, and she was studying it with a critical eye.

"Do you mind if we take a rest?" Reisel asked, glancing up from his saber.

Tuck looked over at him. "Sure," he said. "Then let's find out what's behind that door over there."

*

"My name is Poppy Silverbrook," Poppy said somewhat cockily, staring straight at the elven man – Belak, that's what he'd said his name was – standing in front of them. "I'm the leader of this group."

Ali barely even heard her. Her attention was focused on the giant tree behind the druid. Or, more precisely, at the face of a young human woman that kept flickering in and out of focus in its bark.

Eleanor. It had to be Eleanor.

Ali stared at the tree in horror. What in the hells was going on?

Belak was standing in front of the tree was still ranting, waving his staff about as talked about his plans to bring the Feywild into this world. Ali wasn't a fool. She'd read stories about the Feywild, lots of them, and she knew just how dangerous it could be. The idea that someone would want to throw open a gate between this plane and that one, to make them one... it was terrifying.

Gods, what had she gotten herself into? This was too big for her.

A good fifteen feet away from her, Reisel leaned in and whispered something to Karakas. His eyes went wide, his gaze snapping toward the tree.

"Please say he didn't tell him about Eleanor," Ali muttered under her breath.

With a wordless yell, Karakas charged the tree.

Belak's form suddenly shifted. Where an elf had been standing, there was suddenly a bear.

Ali gaped at him. "You have to be kidding me."

This was going to end so badly.

*

Ali shot a frantic look over her shoulder. Karakas was still standing beside the tree, clearly trying to pull Eleanor out of it or take her place or something. Whatever he was doing, it wasn't helping them, and they were on their last legs.

She threw herself at Tuck's unconscious form, reaching for her magic to at least stabilize him. She wasn't sure that she had the power to actually heal him, not just then, but she could at least keep him alive. At least, she hoped that she could.

Poppy dropped down beside her, a potion in hand, and shoved it in his mouth.

"This isn't exactly going well, is it?" she asked dryly, glancing over at Ali.

Ali managed a weak grin as Tuck's eyes shot open and he sat up, coughing.

Reisel stepped past them, his bow up as he shot arrows at the bear.

"Karakas!" Poppy yelled, glancing over her shoulder.

He didn't even glance their way, his attention focused on the tree.

Tuck followed Poppy's gaze. "Snap out of it!"

Ali didn't even bother trying. She'd seen the look on his face. Nothing short of a miracle was going to drag him back into the fight.

"Help me up," Tuck said grimly. "I have an idea."

Poppy stood up and offered him her hand. As she pulled him to his feet, Ali stood up as well.

"What kind of idea?" she asked warily.

Tuck didn't answer. Instead he took a few steps forward, holding his hands out. She could feel the magic building.

Poppy frowned. "What is he doing?"

Ali took several steps forward, moving closer to him. "Tuck, what are you—"

The air around her suddenly became thick with some type of poisonous cloud, clearly a result of whatever Tuck had been trying to do. Whatever it was, it had gone wrong. Or, at least, she assumed it had gone wrong. If this is what he'd actually intended to do, she was going to kill him herself.

Ali started to cough, her eyes watering.

In front of her, both Reisel and Tuck dropped to the ground. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, with a side of fuck just to be on the safe side.

She reached out and grabbed at Tuck, yanking at him in an attempt to pull him out of the cloud. Nothing happened.

Ali could feel her own breathing growing ragged, and dark spots were floating at the edge of her vision. With a few more mental curses, she dove out of the cloud of smog and started taking in deep gulps of clean air.

Poppy stared at her. "What in the hells just happened?"

"Tuck," Ali said, giving her a weak shrug.

Poppy opened her mouth. Then she closed it. "If he doesn't get himself killed, then I'm going to kill him."

"Get in line," Ali muttered. Then she pushed herself to her feet and turned back to look at the cloud behind her.

Reisel and Tuck were both sprawled out just inside it.

"We have to get them out of there," Ali said, frowning.

Poppy nodded. Before she could do anything, though, Yevka suddenly pushed past the two of them and ran straight into the cloud.

As they watched in surprise, she yanked both Reisel and Tuck out of the cloud. She gave them both a grin and then launched herself off the edge of the ledge they were standing on to go after Belak.

He'd apparently fallen off the raised area they were standing on at some point, and his bear form had disappeared. His skin was covered by what looked like tree bark, though, which Ali thought probably wasn't a good sign.

She had other things to worry about just then, though.

"Damn it, Karakas, we're dying over here!" Poppy yelled, turning towards the tree behind them for a moment. Then she dropped down beside Reisel and fed him a healing potion.

Ali didn't even look to see if Karakas had listened this time. She was too busy pulling out a healing potion of her own, her hands shaking a little as she brought it up to Tuck's mouth.

His eyes shot open, and he started to cough.

A wave of healing magic rushed past her, and Reisel jerked up with a gasp.

With wide eyes, Ali looked over her shoulder. Karakas gave her a nod, clearly the one who'd just healed Reisel, and then took off in Belak's direction.

"Stay here," Ali said firmly, glaring at Tuck. Then she pushed herself to her feet and rushed to the edge of the ledge, trying to ignore the drop in front of her.

She narrowed her eyes, focusing in on Belak. She brought one hand up to wrap around her necklace, the other outstretched in his direction.

And she brought down sacred flames right on top of him.

Belak yelled in pain, his bark skin disappearing to reveal regular flesh.

There was a rush of movement beside her, and she glanced over to see Tuck standing there. Before she had a chance to say anything to him, he brought up a dagger and threw it directly at Belak.

The elf's eyes went wide and, without a word, he collapsed to the floor of the cavern.

He was dead. It was over. Thank the gods, it was done, without any of them dying.

Tuck grinned at her a bit dazedly. "See? Everything can be solved by stabbing it with a dagger."

Chapter Text

Chaos. That's what she was surrounded by. Pure, unadulterated chaos.

Ignoring everything going on around her just then, Ali plopped down on the ground. She was too exhausted to do much of anything else, if she was perfectly honest. Her head was aching, a sure sign that she'd used too much magic in a short amount of time, and her breathing was still harsher than she'd like thanks to that poisonous cloud from the hells that Tuck had accidentally let loose on all of them.

Still, they were all alive. That was the important thing. For now, at least.

She'd been worried for a moment or two that they weren't going to end the fight with as many people as they'd gone into it with. And while the others weren't much more than strangers to her, after a few days with them she didn't want to see any of them dead. She was a healer, after all. Even if she was still trying to figure out what that meant, it still counted for something.

Ali caught movement out of the corner of her eye, and – with more than a little reluctance – she turned her attention towards whatever or whoever it was that had caught her attention.

Just in time to see Poppy go stomping up to Karakas and reach up to grab him by the shirt.

"What in the—" Ali cut herself off, letting out a quiet groan as she pushed herself to her feet. It took quite a bit more effort than it should have, which probably wasn't a good sign.

Poppy yanked at Karakas's shirt with a surprisingly amount of strength, all things considered, forcing him to lean down somewhat to be more at her level. "What the fuck is going on?" she snapped, glaring at him. "What the hell just happened?"

Karakas spluttered for a second, very much looking his age just then. Not that Ali expected Poppy to notice, considering she probably wasn't all that much older than him. They were both still kids, even if neither of them seemed to want to admit it.

"What do you mean?" he asked, his eyes wide as his gaze darted around the room.

Poppy jabbed her finger in the direction of the tree. "That!" she snapped at him. "Your girlfriend in the damn tree!"

Karakas opened and closed his mouth a few times, as if he wasn't quite sure what to say.

Shaking her head, Ali slowly made her way over to the two of them. She could see the others doing the same, Reisel and Tuck both looking like they felt even worse than her. Yevka, on the other hand, seemed perfectly fine. If anything, there was even a tiny bit of a bounce to her step, as if fighting crazy druids was her idea of fun.

Which explained quite a bit about Yevka, now that she was thinking about it.

"What's going on?" Tuck asked, raising his eyebrows as he came up to stand beside Poppy.

Poppy gestured at Karakas. "He was just about to tell us what's going on with the woman in the tree," she said pointedly.

Tuck's eyes flickered toward the tree and back again. "Eleanor?"

"I don't really care what her name is," Poppy snapped back. "I'm more interested in answers."

Karakas's gaze moved over the three of them before darting upward, as if he was looking at something or someone behind them.

"Answers sound good," Reisel said, his voice coming from much closer than Ali had been expecting.

Tuck shuffled a bit. "They have a point."

Ali didn't say anything. She agreed with the others, but there wasn't any reason to waste her breath. Either he was going to tell them or he wasn't.

Karakas gave them all a rather desperate look. "She's blocking the gate," he said, his eyes going wide. "There's a gate in the tree, and she's blocking it."

"Why did you think it would be a good idea to try and switch places with her?" Poppy snapped. "I saw you. That's totally what you were trying to do."

Karakas shook his head. "She can't leave."

"Of course she can," Poppy shot back. "It can't be that hard."

"You don't understand," Karakas said, a bit more heat to his voice. "She can't leave."

Ali frowned. She didn't think that she was imagining the slight emphasis he'd put on "can't" that time, which seemed to imply—

—oh. Oh fuck. If Eleanor was blocking the gate, literally blocking it...

Tuck cleared his throat. "Why not?"

"Because then the gate will be open!" Karakas exclaimed, his voice steadily growing louder.

Ali bit back a curse. She had been expecting bad news. This? Was even worse than she'd thought it might be. Based on the bits and pieces that Karakas had told them so far, as well as the stories she'd heard, if Eleanor were to move from the tree without someone taking her place... well, bad things would happen.

"Who opened the gate?" Ali asked quietly, trying not to flinch when everyone suddenly turned towards her with varying looks of surprise on their faces. Almost as if they'd forgotten she was there. She really should be used to that happening, considering how often it had occurred back at the temple, but it still managed to catch her off guard when it happened. "I mean, I'm assuming it must have been closed at some point. What changed?"

The others were still staring at her, and she shifted a bit as she tried to hide just how uncomfortable it was making her.

Karakas opened his mouth. Then he closed it. "Someone had to have taken something," he said, a hint of doubt in his voice. "That would have broken the binding. Whatever it was, we have to find it and put it back if we want to have a chance of closing the gate."

"Any idea what it was?" Tuck asked curiously.

Karakas shook his head. "No."

"Figures," Poppy muttered.

Karakas shot her a dark look. "No, I don't," he repeated, turning back towards Tuck. "But I know who might."

Ali couldn't help it. She glanced at the tree, where Eleanor's figure was still clearly visible. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw several of the others follow her gaze.

"You want to talk to the tree?" Poppy asked skeptically.

"I want to talk to Eleanor," Karakas shot back.

Poppy opened her mouth as if she was about to reply. Before she could say anything, though, Reisel leaned down a bit and rested a hand on her shoulder. "Poppy."

With a muttered curse in Halfling that was actually quite impressive, Poppy yanked her arm out from under Reisel's hand. She didn't say anything else to Karakas, though.

"Fine," Tuck said cheerfully, clapping his hands together and ignoring the dark looks being shot at him from basically everyone, "let's go have a chat with Eleanor."

*

It was odd, having a conversation with someone through a third party, but it was better than the alternative. Ali couldn't help but keep a close eye on Karakas as he passed Eleanor's answers along. Only the bare minimum of him had disappeared into the tree, everything save for his arms below the elbows still showing, and she meant to keep it that way.

Karakas seemed to think that slipping into the tree completely would let Eleanor go free, but Ali had heard the doubt in his voice earlier. Until they knew for certain it wouldn't cause both of them to be stuck in there, she wasn't letting him risk it if she had anything to say in the matter.

Not that she could really do all that much if he did try something. Other than yell for Yevka to grab him, at least. Younger than her or not, Karakas was still human, and he towered over her like everyone else did.

"Eleanor says that it was something called the Ring of the Spirit Hunter," Karakas said slowly, his voice sounding somewhat distracted. "That's what they took, what broke the binding. We need to find it and put it back if there's any chance of closing the gate."

Ali felt her breath catch in her chest.

She recognized the term "Spirit Hunters." They were an order of knights – a fairy tale, she'd thought, but then again that's what she'd thought about the Guardians until a day or two ago – that helped protect their plane of existence from the Feywild.

Beside her, Tuck glanced over at her and raised his eyebrows. He clearly had picked up on the fact that she'd recognized the term.

Ali shook her head at him, pointedly turning her attention back towards Eleanor. It wasn't important, not really. She could fill them in on the history of the order later, when things weren't quite so pressing.

"Should I go look around for this ring?" Reisel asked curiously.

Karakas shook his head. "No," he said. "It won't still be here. We'll need to find another one."

"Oh, is that all?" Poppy grumbled.

Tuck elbowed her in the side. Or, at least, that's what it looked like he was trying to do. There was enough of a height difference between them that he had to duck down a bit for it, and Poppy easily dodged his arm and ducked behind Reisel.

"Does she have any idea where to look for one?" Ali asked patiently, pointedly ignoring the minor commotion happening beside her. "Or who took this one?"

Karakas frowned. "Yes," he said slowly. "She thinks that the Seekers have a ring, but she doesn't know who took the one that was here. Probably not them."

Poppy glanced at Ali immediately, as soon as she heard the word "Seekers."

There was a part of Ali that knew she should probably say something. She was one of the Seekers, after all, in name if nothing else. If the Seekers had a Ring of the Spirit Hunter, there was a good chance it was somewhere back in her temple in Felmalein. Theoretically, at least, she should be able to help them find it if it was truly needed that much.

She couldn't quite get her mouth to work.

"Ali?" Poppy asked, more tentatively than Ali thought she'd heard her be since they had met. "You're one of the Seekers. Do you know anything about this ring?"

Karakas's eyes widened a bit, his gaze moving down to look at the holy symbol around Ali's neck as if he hadn't actually looked at it before. He pulled away from the tree, the bottom of his arms reappearing.

Ali opened her mouth to reply.

Behind Karakas, Tuck tilted his head before taking a few steps closer to the tree. Then he reached out and poked at it a bit.

His hand started to slide into it.

"Tuck!" Ali snapped. He ignored her. Everyone else followed her gaze.

And then Tuck disappeared completely into the tree.

"Oh, you have to be kidding me," Ali muttered, barely holding back several strong curses that suddenly seemed more than a little appropriate.

Poppy apparently didn't have any such compunction. Her reaction was much more vocal, although Ali suspected at least a few of the things she was suggesting weren't physically possible.

Reisel reached up and rubbed his face with his hand. Ali didn't think she was imagining his quiet groan.

Karakas stared at the tree, a shocked look on his face. "But if he's in the tree, then why didn't—"

Without warning, Tuck suddenly flew out of the tree. His ass hit the ground a few feet away, and he grimaced.

Ali hurried in his direction, her eyes already moving over him to make sure he was fine. Tuck was already scrambling to his feet before she could get there, though, a hint of guilt flickering across his face as if he knew just how ridiculous an idea it had been to do what he'd just done.

As soon as he was standing, Karakas shoved him hard enough to make him stagger back a step or two. "What the fuck were you thinking?"

Poppy looked like she wanted to shove him too. Instead, she crossed his arms in front of her chest and glared at him. "What the fucking fuck were you fucking thinking?"

"I don't know!" Tuck exclaimed, his gaze focused on Karakas although the way his gaze had flickered to Poppy for a second made it clear that he'd heard her. He was waving his arms a bit more wildly than usual, and Ali ducked to avoid getting hit by them. "You're obviously in love with this woman and willing to do anything for her! I wanted to get some actual answers."

Karakas opened his mouth as if he was about to argue. Or yell. Possibly both, and Ali very much understood that urge.

"Did you get any answers?" Ali asked, cutting Karakas off before he could say anything.

Tuck grimaced. "Maybe?" he said, and there was no mistaking the question mark at the end of that word. "I think we should talk. All of us." His gaze flickered to Karakas again. "We could give Karakas here a little bit of privacy to talk to Eleanor."

Oh, Ali didn't like that idea even a little bit. She very much didn't trust Karakas not to try to switch places with Eleanor again the moment their backs were turned.

She opened her mouth to say as much. "I think—"

"Okay," Reisel said, turning and walking a bit away from the tree.

Poppy shot Tuck a dirty look. "If you say so," she said before turning and following Reisel.

Yevka just nodded.

Ali closed her mouth with a sigh.

Tuck raised his eyebrows at her. "Ali?"

"Fine," she muttered, gesturing for him to lead the way. "Let's talk."

She glanced behind her as they walked away. Karakas was standing beside the tree, his gaze focused intently on Eleanor's visage in the bark. He wasn't trying to disappear into it, at least not then, which was a step in the right direction.

Ali just hoped it lasted.

"Did you find anything out by being an idiot?" Poppy asked, as soon as Tuck stepped within earshot.

Tuck shot her a dirty look. "I wasn't being an idiot," he said.

Yevka snorted.

"I'm pretty sure you were," Reisel said. "Doing stupid things without thinking about them, that's the definition of—"

"Eleanor told me not to let Karakas take her place," Tuck said quickly, cutting Reisel off and very pointedly not glancing in Karakas's direction.

Not that it mattered, considering Poppy, Reisel, and Yevka all immediately glanced his way. Ali resisted the urge to facepalm, but it was somewhat difficult.

Yevka looked back at Tuck. "Why?" she asked, frowning.

Tuck shrugged. "She didn't say," he said, "but she was pretty emphatic about it."

"I don't think he's going to leave without Eleanor," Reisel said slowly.

"If wants to stay in a damn tree, then I say we let him," Poppy grumbled somewhat petulantly. She very much sounded her age, and Ali had to quickly hide a smile despite the situation. "Maybe Eleanor will be happier to leave this damn place than Karakas."

Tuck grimaced. It looked like he was about to make an argument, and – from what she knew of Poppy – Ali thought all that would do would be to make her dig in even more.

"Eleanor specifically told Tuck not to let Karakas take her place," Ali pointed out. "If we ignore her, do you really think she'd be all that happy with us? Or willing to leave?"

Poppy opened her mouth. Then she closed it, frowning.

"That's a good point," Reisel admitted slowly. "I think we should bring Karakas, but—"

"But what?" Poppy prompted, after Reisel trailed off and didn't continue his thought.

Tuck sighed. "But he has to be willing to leave for the stone to teleport him."

Poppy rolled her eyes. "Then we leave both of them."

"We're not leaving both of them," Tuck snapped back.

"Well, why not?" Poppy asked, a stubborn look appearing on her face. "If neither of them want to leave, and we can't force them to leave, why not leave them?"

Yevka shifted. "I could knock him out."

As one, they all glanced at her. Yevka gave them a toothy grin.

"Would that work with the stone?" Tuck asked, glancing at Reisel.

Reisel's face went blank for a second or twenty, as if he was deep in thought. "I have no idea," he said cheerfully, after a long pause.

Tuck's gaze immediately shifted toward Ali instead. "What do you think?"

Ali frowned, thinking for a long moment. She wasn't familiar with the exact enchantment that was on the stone that Ian Bishop had given them, but she'd seen a few similar objects during her years at the temple. Most of them shared at least some things in common.

"I think that it would probably let us a bring someone along if they're unconscious, willing or not," she said slowly, "but I'm pretty sure it definitely wouldn't bring them if they were awake, not if they didn't want to come."

Tuck grimaced. "I'm not sure clocking Karakas over the head and dragging him along with us would end well."

Ali glanced at him. "I'm just giving you facts," she said, with more patience than she actually felt. "I'm not recommending anything."

Reisel suddenly swore. "I think it's a moot point."

"Why?" Tuck asked, frowning at him.

Ali didn't bother asking. She just turned around to look behind them, where they'd left Karakas standing beside the tree. Just in time to see him disappear completely into it.

"[[Well fuck,]]" Ali muttered rather emphatically in Dwarvish.

"I don't know what you just said, but ditto," Tuck said.

*

"You're sure that Karakas isn't going to be stuck in there forever?" Poppy asked for the third time, eyeing Eleanor's bark-covered visage with more than a little trepidation. Her image was clearer than it had been, but she was still in the tree. That was enough to keep Poppy from trusting her.

Well, that, and Poppy's obvious jealousy of Eleanor in regards to Karakas. Teenagers. Ali had almost forgotten what it was like to be around them.

"I'm sure," Eleanor said, sounding amused. "I've always been stronger than him. Once we're done talking, I'll make him leave." Her mouth curled up in the corners. "Whether he likes it or not."

Ali tried to force herself to smile, but she couldn't quite manage it. Her mind was still racing with everything that Eleanor had told them about what was going on. She'd been so more forthcoming than Karakas had been, giving them so many answers, but if anything it had only caused Ali to have more questions.

Older Guardians were being killed out by a group called the Devoted, who were presumably behind this gate – and maybe others – being opened. That's why presumably Ian had pushed them into this whole mess in the first place, because there were so few Guardians left and their ranks desperately needed new blood.

They wanted to open all the gates, to let in all of the planes. And that was something that all of them could agree was a really fucking bad idea.

Gods, what in the hells had she gotten herself into? Ali was in so far over her head that she didn't even know what to think anymore.

There was a pulse of warmth against the skin of her chest, and Ali reached up to wrap her hand around her holy symbol more out of instinct than anything. She pointedly ignored the way that Eleanor glanced at her, almost as much as she tried to drown out Eleanor's words from earlier. You haven't answered the call.

No, she hadn't answered any damn call, and she had no plan on doing so. Not until she knew a lot more about what was going on. She hadn't gotten a choice the last time, and she wasn't going to simply roll over and let something else take over her life without giving her any say in the matter.

"Do you have any more questions for me?" Eleanor asked.

Ali snapped her gaze upward, forcing her wandering mind back to the conversation at hand.

Tuck glanced around. "I don't think so," he said. "Anyone?"

Ali joined in with the others as they shook their heads. Eleanor smiled and nodded. "Keep him safe for me," she said to Tuck, and it was very clear from her tone that it was a statement and not a question.

Then, before he could say anything, she seemed to sink back into the tree.

A moment later, Karakas went tumbling out of it. Unlike Tuck, he was able to keep his feet when he was pushed out, but he stumbled a bit before managing to catch his balance.

"Well, that was anticlimactic," Poppy muttered.

Karakas just stood there, his gaze focused on Eleanor's face in the tree. He didn't even seem to have heard Poppy.

Ali took a few steps forward. "Are you going to try to go back into the tree again?" she asked, glancing up at him.

There was a long pause, and she almost thought that he hadn't heard her either. Then Karakas shook his head numbly, a dejected look on his face. "No," he said. "She won't let me take her place."

Ali reached out and awkwardly patted him on the arm. He didn't even seem to notice.

"So," Reisel said slowly, "does this mean we're leaving now?"

"Gods, I hope so," Poppy said.

Tuck shook his head. "I don't want to leave just yet."

Ali didn't sigh out loud. It was a close call, and she had to fight the urge, but she was able to keep it to herself.

"Of course you don't," Poppy grumbled, shooting Tuck an unamused look.

"I mean, I really want to take another look at that room we found," Tuck said, glancing around at them, "the one with the statues. And there was another door out there—" At that, he turned and gestured in the direction they'd come from. "—that I'd like to explore."

Karakas's gaze drifted back toward Eleanor's face, like he was trying to memorize it. He clearly wasn't paying any attention whatsoever to them.

"So do we want to go take a look around?" Poppy asked. "Then we can leave."

"Or we could rest here for the night," Ali cut in. "I don't know about you, but I'm exhausted. Not to mention I'm pretty sure most of my magic is drained right now."

Tuck waved a hand. "I'm sure there's nothing to worry about. What could happen?"

Yevka shot him a very unamused look.

"I'd like to point out that Meepo told us there was a large something with the goblins who stole the dragon," Ali said tiredly, reaching up to adjust her glasses. "And, you know, he could have been talking about Belak. But unless he was wondering around in bear form, I kind of doubt it."

Personally, she had her suspicions about exactly what it was that he'd been talking about, considering her rather incomplete knowledge of goblins and larger races that were often found with them. She wasn't certain, though, so there wasn't any point in bringing it up. Not until they'd decided what to do next, at least.

As it was, there was a long moment of silence.

Reisel grimaced. "I'd forgotten about that."

"Me too," Poppy said reluctantly.

"Not to mention," Ali continued, doing her best to ignore the fact that she was apparently traveling people who forgot things like being told there were large creatures around that would kill them, "our goblin friend who I'm sure is long gone by now since we left him out in the hallway? He mentioned that there were more goblins 'down below.' And I'd like to point out that we haven't seen any goblins since we got down here."

There was another awkward silence.

Tuck suddenly clapped his hands together. "So, who's for camping here tonight?" he asked brightly.

*

Ali sighed as she noticed Reisel glancing over at her for the third or fourth time in as many minutes. She suspected he was trying to be subtle about it, but he wasn't doing nearly as good a job as he seemed to think at remaining unseen.

"Did you need something?" she asked, raising her eyebrows.

Reisel flushed, just a little. Not for the first time, Ali couldn't help but wonder how old he was. Oh, not his actual physical age; she suspected he had decades on her, at the very least. He acted so young sometimes, though, to the point where she couldn't help but wonder what the equivalent age would be for a human or a halfling.

Without actually answering her question, Reisel stood up. Leaving his rations sitting beside his saber on the ground, he walked over to where she was sitting and dropped down beside her with a rather unfair grace.

Even sitting, he still towered over her.

"[[I've noticed that you're very gentle,]]" Reisel said quietly in Elvish.

If anything, Ali's eyebrows raise even more. "[[I'm not entirely sure what you mean by that]]," she replied back in the same language.

Reisel shrugged a little. "[[Don't think I didn't notice how kind you were being to our goblin prisoner,]]" he said. "[[Not to mention poor Meepo.]]"

Ali stilled a little, but she forced her face to remain expressionless. She didn't want him to see just how uncomfortable she still was.

He apparently didn't notice. She wasn't entirely certain if it was because she'd done a good job at hiding her emotions or if he was simply that oblivious.

"[[I'm not sure if you've noticed,]]" Reisel said, "[[but elves tend to be a bit higher than thou sometimes.]]"

Ali couldn't help but smile at that, just a little. "[[Elves have been known to visit Aureon's temple from time to time,]]" she said. "[[Overall, I'd agree with your assessment.]]"

Reisel shifted a bit awkwardly. "[[I have seen death, but I have not been a party to it before now]]," he said. "[[I've hunted animals, but I've never caused the death of a sentient being.]]"

It took a second for Ali to understand what he was trying to say. When she did, her smile quickly faded. "[[Neither have I]]," she said simply. "[[What is this about, Reisel?]]"

He shifted again.

Ali tilted her head, studying his face. "[[Reisel?]]"

"[[I lashed out at Tuck because he so recklessly became a Guardian and is pushing us to join as well]]," Reisel said, the words almost spilling out of his mouth.

That... hadn't been where she'd been expecting the conversation to go.

Ali studied his face for a long moment before giving him a tired smile. "[[It was his decision to make,]]" she said. "[[Just like it's yours, and Poppy's, and mine.]]" She hesitated for a moment before adding: "[[I just hope this isn't a decision that Tuck is going to regret.]]"

Reisel shook his head, his eyes going a bit distant. "[[I can't tell if these Guardians are good or evil. I know they have to be one or the other, but I can't tell which it is.]]"

Frowning, Ali bit her lip. "[[From my experience, there are lot of shades of grey in the world]]," Ali said carefully. She still didn't have the best read on Reisel, especially considering he'd pulled a knife on Tuck just the day before. "[[There are very few things that are pure evil. Or pure good.]]"

The look that Reisel shot her was very skeptical, as if he'd never even considered the possibility. And it all but confirmed her earlier thought that he had to be pretty damn young for an elf.

"[[There's a lot of things in the worlds that are a mystery]]," Ali said quietly.

For a long moment, she didn't think that Reisel was going to reply. Then he slowly nodded, an almost thoughtful look on his face. "[[Maybe you're right]]," he said. "[[Elves can sometimes take too long to learn before they really experience life.]]"

*

Ali was starting to find that she really didn't like taking third watch. Staying up late for first watch or getting up early for fourth watch were fine, but waking up in the middle of the night and knowing she was going to need to try to fall back asleep? It was, apparently, something that she wasn't all that fond of doing.

It was surprising just how much she'd learned about herself over the past few days, since she'd first arrived in Baurus.

A few feet away from her, Tuck cleared his throat.

Despite her better judgement, Ali glanced over in his direction. Tuck was fidgeting uncomfortably, and for just a moment she was reminded almost painfully of Jowan. Her younger brother had done the same thing when he had been a kid, every time he wanted to say something that he knew was going to upset her.

He was probably around the same age as Tuck, now that she was thinking about it. And, oh, wasn't that odd to consider? Despite the letters they'd shared over the years, in her mind there was a part of her that couldn't help but still picture him as the thirteen-year-old boy she'd last seen him as.

"Yes?" Ali asked, raising her eyebrows.

Tuck grimaced a bit. "So, Ali. About something you said earlier." He shifted awkwardly in place. "I hope you don't mind, but I'm a little worried."

Ali closed her eyes for a second and took in a deep breath. Then she opened them and reluctantly met his gaze. "What I said about being called not always being a good thing?" she asked, even though she knew damn well that's what he was talking about.

Tuck nodded. "Well, yeah," he said. "What exactly did you mean?"

She reached up to wrap her hand around the holy symbol she wore around her neck, more out of habit than anything else. It was comforting in its own way, despite her many, many, many misgivings about a lot of things that had happened to her the past few years.

"How much do you know about how someone becomes a cleric?" Ali asked quietly.

Tuck gave her a half-hearted shrug. "Not much."

She looked away, not quite meeting his gaze. It was easier that way.

"I've known Nomi since I was even younger than Poppy is now," she said slowly, trying her best to push any unwanted emotions out of the way for the time being. "She's the one who brought me to the temple. I wanted to learn, and she made it possible."

She heard a soft shuffling sound, as if Tuck was shifting in place a bit. He didn't say anything, though, so she didn't look at him.

"I wasn't a dedicant of Aureon, back at the temple," she continued. "I lived there for years, without actually worshiping him. Honoring him, sure, but not—" She trailed off for a second, biting her lip. "Then I started having dreams."

Tuck cleared his throat. "Dreams?" he asked, more than a little confusion in his voice. "What kind of dreams?"

"They were a sign," Ali said quietly. "That Aureon had chosen me. To be one of his clerics."

There was a long moment of silence. "Oh," Tuck said finally. "That's... good?"

Ali couldn't help but laugh, just a little, at that. It didn't have much humor in it.

"I didn't have much of a choice in the matter," she said, a little shortly. She'd thought that she was ready to tell him more, but it was harder than she'd thought it would be to actually tell someone about what had happened.

Tuck shifted uncomfortably. "If you don't want to talk about, you don't have to," he said. His eyes told a completely different story, admittedly, but Ali appreciated the gesture nonetheless.

Ali sighed. "I'm not exactly popular back at the temple," she said, her voice getting quieter almost of its own accord. "A lot of the priests, the acolytes... they weren't happy with someone who wasn't even a dedicant becoming one of the Seekers. I mean, they obviously didn't say anything because who's going to argue with one of the gods?" Other than her, at least. And that was the trouble, wasn't it? "But it was still obvious."

Tuck didn't say anything, but his gaze was focused on her. He was clearly paying attention.

"It wasn't my choice, becoming a cleric," Ali continued, looking away from him. She didn't want to see his face, not right now. "It just happened, and I had no say in the matter. I tried to ignore it at first, to pretend that it hadn't happened."

Tuck cleared his throat. "I'm assuming that didn't work out for you?"

Ali let out a quiet huff of laughter. There wasn't any amusement in it. "How'd you guess?" she asked quietly. "Let's just say things didn't work out the way I'd been hoping. In a lot of ways."

She trailed off. There was more she could say, so much more, but she didn't think she could handle having that conversation just now. Not with someone who was, for all intents and purposes, barely more than a stranger.

It took a moment, but Tuck seemed to figure out that he wasn't going to say anything else.

For a second or two, Ali thought that he was going to press the issue. She'd skimmed over quite a few things, and – no matter how he acted sometimes – Tuck wasn't stupid. He had to have noticed that she hadn't said almost as much as she had said. If not more.

Then his face smoothed out, and he nodded.

Ali let out a breath that she hadn't even realized she was holding.

"Like Karakas said, it's your choice," Tuck said with a smile. "But, you know, joining the Guardians? That could be your chance to get Nomi back."

Ali's hold on her holy symbol tightened, and she had to consciously force her fingers to loosen their grip on it. She'd hoped that he would understand what she was trying to say, that he'd get why she was so hesitant about this whole Guardian business, but it looked like he hadn't gotten it.

"And if I do it for her, then it's still not really my decision, is it?" Ali asked, more than a little bitterness in her voice.

Tuck flinched, just a little.

Ali looked away. "I'm going to go walk around," she said. "We don't want anything to sneak up on us or anything."

*

Ali was back in the temple. She was in the library, and it was empty.

She spun around, her eyes wide as she looked around. It was a dream. She knew that it was a dream, because what else could it be? It felt almost like a continuation of the last dream she'd had, and there was something odd about it. Something...

It felt real. Real, but a dream at the same time. Just like the ones she'd had when Aureon had chosen her.

Ali spun around, her eyes wide as she took everything in. There wasn't any movement, not even a hint of it. Everything was still in a way that the temple was never still. No people anywhere.

For a moment, just a single second, she heard something like a whisper. It was gone almost as quickly as it came.

Biting her lip, she took a step forward. She recognized the table in front of her, from her dream. It was the one that Nomi had been standing at, the piles of books still there.

She reached out and touched them, taking a look at the titles. They were books on the various planes of existence. Narrowing her eyes, Ali stared at them for a long moment before sighing and stepping away. There had to be something else out there. She was missing something. She knew that she was missing something.

With one more look at the stack of books, she turned and started to walk away. She heard another hint of a whisper, but there weren't any words in it. It was just a sound.

Nothing seemed out of place as she walked through the library, and yet everything seemed out of place. There was the occasional book on the floor, as if someone had been holding it and had dropped it. There were papers and parchments resting on tables, quills resting on top of them as if the person who'd been writing had simply dropped it.

Or disappeared.

"Is there someone out there?"

Ali's eyes went wide as the vague whisper she'd been hearing suddenly became audible, and she was able to make out words. That wasn't the surprising part, though, the part that caught her attention.

She recognized that voice. She'd know it anywhere.

"Nomi?" Ali asked, spinning around. She didn't see any movement, but she knew that voice. She knew it almost as well as she knew her own. "Nomi, where are you?"

"You have to come here."

Ali kept spinning in circles, her eyes wide. "To the temple?" she asked, even though she already knew the answer.

"Yes."

*

Ali jerked awake, her eyes going wide as she sat straight up in her bedroll. "[[Fuck,]]" she muttered, barely even aware that she'd reverted to Halfling out of habit. "[[What the hells was that?]]"

Several feet away from her, Tuck sat up with a wordless cry. Ali's gaze snapped over at him.

"[[Fucking hells!]]" Poppy yelled in Halfling, sitting up in her own bedroll. Her eyes were wide as she glanced wildly around.

Reisel was already awake, sitting cross-legged near a small fire that he'd apparently built up. His already pale skin looked even paler than usual, and there were dark circles under his eyes. He must have been out of his trance for quite some time, but he didn't look even remotely surprised at their rather loud awakenings.

"You had dreams too?" he asked quietly.

Tuck didn't say anything. He just nodded wordlessly, crossing his arms tightly in front of his chest. He looked almost like he was trying not to be sick.

"Fuck!" Poppy said rather emphatically, reverting back to Common.

Ali just took in a few shaky breaths, trying to calm herself. She looked around the room, trying to get a feel for where everyone was.

Yevka was sitting near Reisel, watching all of them with a curious look on her face. Unlike the rest of them, she didn't look particularly like she'd had any type of dreams. Karakas was still asleep, despite the commotion.

"I saw my mentor," Reisel offered up. His tone of voice was calm, but there was a hint of emotion in his voice that wasn't quite hidden. "Months from now. She talked to me."

Poppy made an odd, somewhat strangled noise as she pushed herself to her feet. "I saw my mentor," she said, sounding more than a little confused. "Someone killed him. I saw him die. And then... and then there was a mirror, and he was alive. A different him, I think?"

"What the fuck?" Tuck asked, his gaze drifting between them. It sounded more like he was asking the universe at large rather than one of them. "I mean, that's what I saw too. Sorta. My mentor, Annesson. He was... he looked bad. And he wasn't being given any choice. He was a prisoner."

Ali swallowed. Hard.

"What about you?" Poppy asked, glancing at Ali. "Is that what you saw too? Your mentor."

Ali shook her head. "I don't have a mentor," she said.

"But you did see something?" Reisel asked, tilting his head curiosity.

The vision of the temple, empty and quiet, flashed in her mind. "I saw my temple," she said softly. "Except it was empty. Everyone was gone, like they'd disappeared into thin air. And—"

She trailed off, biting her lip.

"And what?" Tuck asked, his voice still sounding a little weak.

"I heard Nomi," Ali continued, looking down at her hands. They were shaking a little. "She said that I needed to come back."

No one said anything for a moment.

"What the hells?" Poppy asked, her voice a little shrill.

Tuck grimaced. "I never thought I'd say this, but I agree with Poppy."

"Can we get out of here?" Ali asked quietly. "Soon?"

Without a word to any of them, Poppy muttered something under her breath. There was a flash of light from her hands that Ali was fairly certain came from magic, and she suddenly looked much cleaner and more put-together, almost like she'd washed her face and brushed her hair – despite the fact that she clearly hadn't done either of those things.

"I'll wake up Karakas," she said brightly.

Yevka snorted. She'd been watching all of them with a somewhat confused look on her face, but she hadn't said anything.

"How is he still asleep?" Ali asked, frowning as she glanced over at Karakas's still form. She narrowed her eyes. He was breathing, wasn't he?

Reisel smirked a bit. "Someone was up late," he said a bit too brightly. "I think he was eavesdropping."

Ali opened her mouth. Then she closed it, narrowing her eyes, because Karakas and Reisel had taken the watch before her and Tuck. If he'd been awake that meant he'd probably heard—

Tuck grimaced, as if he was coming to the same conclusion as her.

"Has anyone seen my saber?" Reisel asked suddenly, looking around a bit wildly. "I can't find it."

Yevka glanced at him. "It's in the tree," she said. "It was there when I woke up. Did you not put it there?"

"It's where?" Reisel asked, his eyes going wide.

Ali's gaze snapped toward the tree with Eleanor in it. She could still see the human woman's face moving around somewhat in the tree, and she seemed fine. Yevka was right, though. The saber was sticking out of the tree.

"Why did you stab the tree?" Tuck asked, frowning. "You yelled at me when I stabbed a tree."

Reisel frowned. "I didn't!" he protested. Then he stood up and stomped over to the tree, clearly trying to pull his saber out of it.

From what Ali could tell, he wasn't having much luck.

*

If Tuck didn't stop wandering off, Ali was going to kill him herself. She swore to the gods that she would.

"Why did he think it would be smart to check out that last room by himself?" Karakas asked, shooting Ali a confused look as she grabbed her crossbow from where it was resting on her bedroom.

The others had immediately sprinted out of the room as soon as they're realized that Tuck had disappeared, but she and Karakas had been a bit farther away. And she wasn't rushing anywhere without her weapon.

"From what I can tell?" Ali said dryly. "Tuck doesn't think."

Karakas opened his mouth. Then he closed it, shrugged, and started toward the doorway of the room at a fast walk.

Ali glanced back at the tree, where Reisel's sword was still sticking out of it. "Hey, Karakas?"

He looked back at her. "Any idea what happened with the sword?" she asked. "I can't help but notice you didn't look that surprised to see it there."

Karakas grimaced, just a little. "I think the sword was hurt that he refused it."

"The sword was hurt?" Ali repeated, her hand drifting up to squeeze her holy symbol again. "Ignoring the many questions I have about that, why would it stab the tree?"

If anything, he looked even more uncomfortable. "It used to belong to Dominik," he said. "I think... well, I think that it might have been trying to get back to Eleanor."

Then he turned and continued quickly out of the room.

That made a lot of sense, actually. If the sword was sentient, in some way, Eleanor was the closest person here to Dominik.

How was this her life? Just how?

"Do you know whose necklace this used to be?" Ali asked as she hurried after him. He was walking quickly, but considering the size difference between them, she was almost running to keep up.

Karakas didn't glance back at her. "Seraphina, I think," he said. "I'm pretty sure it might have been hers."

It was a name, at least. That was something.

"Help!" Poppy's voice echoed through the hallway. "I think the moss might have just killed Tuck!"

Ali didn't even bother swearing. She just went into a full sprint, heading down the hallway towards the one door they hadn't opened the day before. Karakas apparently had the same idea, and with his longer legs he beat her to the room.

And, because she was apparently surrounded by people who didn't think, he rushed straight in without even pausing.

Poppy was standing just inside it, shooting rather fruitlessly into the room with the green crossbow she'd found. She was aiming at a writhing pile of moss that seemed to be moving on its own accord. Tuck was sprawled unconscious on the ground near the moss, his face pale and his eyes closed, and Reisel was kneeling beside him trying to pour a healing potion down his throat. Yekva was hacking away the moss, her attention focused entirely on it.

"What the fuck?" Ali asked, bringing up her crossbow but not taking any shots with it. It was moss. What was a crossbow bolt going to do against it?

Sacred flame. She needed to call down sacred flame. That would probably be helpful. Maybe?

*

"Can we please get the fuck out of this room?" Ali asked weakly. Her voice was quieter than she meant for it to be, barely more than a whisper.

Her head was splitting from where she'd apparently hit the ground after the moss had attacked her, draining pretty much all of her strength and energy in one powerful hit. It had been her own fault, getting so close, but Karakas had been fading fast and she'd needed to be close to him to use her healing magic. She didn't regret it, not really, but she wanted to leave before anything else happened.

The others were poking around the room, seemingly convinced that everything was fine now that the moss was gone. Ali didn't trust it, not for a second.

"Guys, can we please get the fuck out of this room?" she asked a little louder.

She saw movement out of the corner of her eye, and Ali narrowed her eyes before starting to step backwards towards the door. It looked suspiciously like the moss was starting to regrow itself.

Karakas glanced at her and narrowed his eyes. Then he followed her gaze. "We should leave," he said raising his voice. "Now."

Ali didn't wait to see if the others came before speeding up and getting the hells out of that room. She did, however, stop just outside of the door to make sure that everyone made it out.

Tuck was noticeably quiet as they made their way back towards the room where they'd camped the night before. Ali hoped that meant he had at least realized how stupid it was that they'd almost gotten killed by moss, just because he'd gotten bored and wandered off. She wasn't foolish enough to think that he'd never do it again, but maybe it was enough to make him think twice next time.

She hoped that it was, at least. Especially if they went their separate ways once they got off of this island, like the plan had been. He was going to get himself killed within a week at the rate he was going, if he didn't have anyone to keep an eye on him.

A rush of healing magic went through her body suddenly. Not a lot, but enough to make her various aches and pains fade a little. Ali glanced over at Tuck. He gave her a quicksilver smile and a small nod before looking away.

Ali couldn't help but smile. Just a little. He had a good heart, she'd give him that. No brain, but a good heart.

"I'm going to go talk to my saber," Reisel announced, his voice almost booming in the stillness as they stepped though into the large room where they'd camped the night before.

His rather unexpected proclamation was met by a loud moment of silence.

"Okay?" Poppy said, a lilt at the end of the word that made it come across more like a question than a statement.

"I'll make breakfast," Yevka muttered, heading straight to the dying campfire. Reisel had been working on getting food together before they'd rushed out, and Yevka easily picked up where he'd left off.

Tuck walked over to his bedroll and dropped down onto it, noticeably not saying anything. Or meeting anyone's gaze.

Shaking his head, Karakas walked over to sit down near the fire. After a quick glance back at the tree, where Eleanor's face was still clearly visible, Poppy hurried after him.

Ali sighed and headed for her bedroll. She needed to sit down and pour some more healing magic into her body, judging by the various aches she was feeling.

Poppy glanced up at her as Ali walked past where she and Karakas were sitting. "Can we go back to Ian's manor now?" Poppy asked. It came out almost like a whine.

Tuck looked up at that. "Maybe a rest first?" he suggested. "Just in case, you know, anything else goes wrong once we get back there?"

"We don't need any more bright ideas from you," Poppy snapped.

Ali sighed, reaching up to rub the bridge of her nose.

"I'm not suggesting we sleep for the next eight hours or anything," Tuck said with a shrug. "Just, you know, a short nap?"

Poppy grimaced but, after a long moment, she reluctantly nodded. "I guess it wouldn't hurt."

Ali nodded. She could feel a familiar pressure building behind her eyes, a sure sign that a headache was forming, and she'd used much more magic than she'd intended trying to keep everyone alive back there. Including herself.

"A short rest sounds like a good idea to me," Ali said. "Just to be on the safe side."