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“You’re doin’ fine?” Edér asks, glancing at Aloth over a pint of beer.

“A little shaken and disgusted, I suppose.” The elven wizard arches his eyebrows, confused. “Aren’t we all?”

“Was talking to Iselmyr,” Edér laughs, trying to lighten the mood and raise their spirits, but his laughter is forced and everyone could hear that if they knew how to listen. “Thought you’ve lost her on the way or something...”

Aloth sighs in exasperation. “That’s not how it works...” He grimaces. “Though that would certainly solve the problem. But that’s...”

“Not how it works,” Edér interrupts, mimicking the elf’s tone and manner of speaking. “Got it the first time, you know.” He takes a gulp of ale. “Sorry, just... Feels strange. As if we’re missing something.”

“Your self-preservation instinct?” Pallegina supplies with half a smile, half a grimace. What others at the table cannot see is that the small feathers at the back of her neck are ruffled slightly.

“Never had that,” Edér replies, laughing.

They all echo his laughter, a bit more easily now. It’s heartfelt, even, because they’re anxious and unnerved, and honestly trying to remedy that. Something isn’t right, and though they have no idea, they can still feel it – that empty space just beside them. Oh, yes, they can. Even Kana, usually so talkative, doesn’t speak, playing a melancholic tune quietly.

Durance is silent, too, eyes focus on the contents of his mug. Only once his head snaps up and he looks at the Watcher, briefly but intently. Of all of them, he is the only one that not only senses something but feels it, gropes blindly in the darkness until his hands find a tear in the fabric, and then he lights his staff and examines the damage, not knowing what caused that and what used to be there, but seeing the hole.

The Watcher meets the priest’s gaze steadily. Memory, so short and fallible, he thinks, almost amused. If Durance looked more closely, he would recognize what is missing, he would see the torn threads and notice how familiar they look.

A pity, the Watcher thinks briefly. She was quite a pretty thing – her mind was, such a pretty and intricate device. With such interesting memories and past deeds reflected there. Of all the people, she was the one that should have understood. But underneath it all, under all the determination and wish to act, to change something, to remake a small part of the world how she envisioned it – underneath it all she lacked courage. Oh, not the courage to fight for what she considered right, not the courage to look danger and death in the eye and never falter, not even the courage to forgive Durance for the past – even he recognizes that required bravery, and can appreciate that, even if he thinks punishment is better than granting absolution.

She looked death in the eye, but when she looked into his eyes and mind she flinched, in fear and disgust. He laughs quietly; she had the strength to pity him, but not enough to admit how similar they were. She made excuses, tried to convince herself she was doing the right thing.

Which she was; he finds manipulation a practical tool, and what are tools for but to be used? But she lacked the courage to name what she did for what it was, she turned away when she saw someone employed the very same method for his own advancement.

That, he was fine with; fear was just another tool, after all. He could even pardon her for looking into his mind without permission – he was confident that with the right arguments, he could make her see reason. Except that she didn’t listen, terrified by what she saw in his thoughts – a twisted mirror image of her own mind and powers, of what she could be, had she only let herself. He thought of it as advancement; she thought it an abomination, and it was slowly driving her mad, to see that in his mind constantly, to be reminded of that every waking moment, and even in her dreams.

He could not risk her betraying his secrets, could not risk her revealing his plans to his companions. Could not afford to let her go, lest she was found by Thaos’ spies. And it would be a pity to simply snuff out such a pretty mind.

I will remember you, he promised as the pool of blood was seeping the life out of her, and the power of her mind was trickling into his own to strengthen it. He does; he remembers, cherishes his new skills. Regrets she couldn’t be persuaded; what a useful agent she would have made – invisible but seeing all. So gifted, but too fragile; strong enough not to bend, but when the trial came, she shattered.

No one ever saw her; no one but him. He can still see her sometimes, in a stray thought he’d never think or a memory that is not his. Not unlike an Awakening, he supposes. Except that while Iselmyr still bickers with Aloth, she is quiet, as she had always been, more a shadow than a real person – not that much of a change. But now she is a shadow cast across the canvas of his mind, and thus visible, if only for him. Not a total waste; the best he could do. He has never been pious, but waste is among the few things he considers sin. Waste and breaking his word – that is why his promises are always so very careful; he gives them freely and readily, but few stop to think and decipher the real meaning of his words. Deception through truth is much better than lies.

He was completely honest about one thing, though – he is going to put an end to Thaos’ schemes. And the Leaden Key – he will take care of them, too. But it would be a waste to destroy such a well-designed machinery, wouldn’t it? Much better to take it for himself; he has plans, too, after all. Plans that include power and glory... and perhaps a blessing or two from Woedica. Wouldn’t the Queen be grateful to the person who’d give her back her throne? Thaos has conveniently set everything in motion, crafted each step of the plan so carefully... All is ready, and all the Watcher has to do is get rid of him and take all the credit. Not very just, perhaps, but certainly something Woedica could appreciate – or at least understand. They could see eye to eye – the world as a chessboard, and people as pawns to be moved across it.

The Watcher smiles at the thought that perhaps Woedica should pick her chosen ones more carefully. But those imperfections are what allows to manipulate people best, he knows that very well. Sometimes simple surprise can also work –like the sudden revelation that stayed his hand in Sanitarium. But never again.

Last time they met, Thaos hesitated as well, if only for a while. A grave mistake. Literally, or so he hopes; an adversary who hesitated once might do so again. Next time they meet, Thaos will die. For the peace of the Watcher’s mind, and because he holds a position of power, is the most influential of all kith in Eora, even though most don’t see him. Just as well. One cannot kill what one doesn’t see.

It amuses him to think that perhaps he should be grateful to his former mentor for the accidental Awakening and all the trials that followed. Because without that, he would have remained blind to so many things that had been before his eyes the whole time. And now that parts of the past are revealed, his path is clear before him.

He had always been good at reading people, at making them do his bidding, either using pleasant words or enticing promises or subtle threats, and sometimes just force; playing them like chess. But he saw only a fraction of the chessboard. Now he can glimpse its entirety – many levels, intertwined. A challenge like none other; a challenge he cannot resist. He has learned many things about himself on the way; things most people would turn away from, things his companions would turn away from. He didn’t. He furrowed his brow and took a magnifying glass and studied his mind, like a real scholar should, because this is a belief – the only true belief – he shares both with Thaos and Lady Webb alike – that knowledge is the pinnacle of all power, and the main tool of gaining influence.

He smiles, perhaps a bit overconfident and with too much pride – but he feels entitled to that. He knows himself well, through and through, weaknesses and strengths, and is sure of his abilities; he’s learned from old mistakes and now knows how to avoid them. And, having followed Woedica’s history, if not exactly the tenets of her faith, he is certain of one thing – the Queen blesses those who choose themselves.