Actions

Work Header

This Mangled Grove (Of What I Know)

Chapter Text

Daggers of ice pierce his skin. Small, sharp shards. He blinks himself awake, back to the land of the living, and stares blearily up at the sky. The daggers keep falling, but the night is thick and black, and he can’t see the sheen of metal. His head aches, and he blinks again, harder. There is no ice, he realises, and there are no daggers driving into his skin, but something is still striking his face.

Oh. It’s raining. He raises one hand limply in wonder, catching icy water in his palm before it falls down again, landing with a sharp slap by his side. It won’t move again, no matter how much he tries. He’s on his back in the slick, churned mud, and it’s raining.

Someone, somewhere, is shouting. The shouts pierce him too, but they drive through his mind likes spears instead of aiming at his skin. He wants to shout back, but raising his head feels impossible, and he can’t move his hands anymore. He’s tired, but he still wants to shout back. He wants to say something. Anything.

Anything would be better than lying like this, on the ground and not moving, not speaking--and he doesn’t know why he so urgently wants to answer, because he can’t make out the other person’s words, let alone who they belong to, but he can hear how desperate they sound. How desperate he sounds.

At least, he thinks it’s a he, but he doesn’t know. He doesn’t really… know much, right now.

Except that it’s raining.

It feels like a slippery sort of betrayal, to close his eyes and let the world dull to blackness when somebody, somewhere, is shouting that desperately. But his head aches at the back, near the base of his skull, and his hands won’t shape the words he wants, and suddenly he doesn’t have much of a choice in the matter.

*

“Your name,” repeats the pretty lady with the long, golden hair. “Oh.”

He frowns, though it sends a pang of hurt through his cheeks and jaw to do it. Everything hurts.

Yes. My name. And thank the Goddess that he can still do this, that he hasn’t forgotten how to make his hands speak for him, although the words come so slowly and jerkily that he thinks his brain tried to forget. Just like it forgot everything else.

And yours, too, he adds. Please.

The lady sucks in a sharp, slightly hurt noise. “Oh. You really don't remember anything?”

No.

He eyes her incredulously. Why would he lie about that? What good would that do? Was he a liar, when this lady knew him? Does she even know him?

“Oh,” she says faintly.

For a minute, he thinks she’s going to leave him in the lurch. No answers, no clue where he is or why he’s here, or what his name is. The thought makes him panic, though he keeps it hidden, clenching his hands to keep them from giving him away. But she gathers herself after a few tense moments of silence, and offers him a tremulous smile.

“Well, that’s okay. We’ll just have to remind you, won’t we?” She extends her slim, bare hand and tilts her chin up ever so slightly. “My name is Serena. We’re friends, or I’d like to think we are.”

She doesn’t sound too sure, which makes no sense. Surely she’d know? Maybe she’s lying. Or maybe he’s just not a very friendly person, he thinks, with a growing sense of unease.

“And you--you asked us to call you El.”

El. He puts the word on the tip of his tongue, but it feels wrong there. He can’t even get it past the roof of his mouth. He didn't try to speak when he woke up, but with Serena’s voice echoing the room, it feels rude not to try. But no sound comes out, and it’s rather a relief not to hear it, so he stops trying. Clearly that’s not something he needs, or does. He puts the word at the front of his mind instead, swilling it about. El. It doesn’t sound like him. El. But he doesn’t know what he sounds like at all, really.

He catches sight of Serena’s hand drooping, and reaches out to shake it, gently. Her smile strengthens. He might not know what he sounds like, or what he was like before, but he knows he isn’t an impolite person.

E-L. Like the letter. Is it short for something?

Serena looks stricken, but she hides it quickly. She’s not very good; her face is an open book, a map of her heart, but she tries. And that’s telling in itself.

Why wouldn’t she tell him about his own name?

“You know, I think there’s a story there, but I’m not quite sure,” Serena says, with a nervous little laugh at the end of her sentence.

It is, emphatically, a lie. He doesn’t need to know who he is, or who she is, to know that she’s lying.

“There’s probably a lot we should talk about, but for now, why don't I fetch you something hot to eat while we wait for the others get back from town?” But it isn’t a question, and Serena is already up, brushing off her skirts and bustling out of the room. Her smile doesn’t dim though, so he doesn’t think it’s anything he did. She just needs a minute.

When the door shuts, he looks around the room. He did the same thing when he woke up, wrapped tightly into starchy sheets and feeling sick to his stomach, his head pounding with pain, but it’s easier to take everything in now. The physician came in briefly to force water into him and touch his wounds. When she realised he knew absolutely nothing, she reared back, frowned, and then promised to be right back. But Serena came back instead.

He doesn’t trust her. He feels like he should, and it hurts to ignore that feeling, but he can’t trust her. Not when he is so unsure about everything, and not when she lied about something as simple as his own name.

There are pots, bags, a flower-pot, and a sparse bookshelf in the room. He lingers on each one to distract himself. Nothing personal, no homey touches, so clearly not somewhere he frequents, although it’s nice enough. The window lets in a block of light, and through it, if he cranes his neck, he can see a patch of brickwork, a slice of roof, and a balcony full of flowers. It’s not an infirmary, but it’s not quite someone’s house either. Probably an Inn, judging by the busy sounds of people talking and walking in the street below.

The lack of familiarity is so striking, suddenly, that he leaps towards the one hard fact that he has, and clings to it. Wrapping his fists in the bedsheet that tucks in at his waist, he pushes against the worry that wells up inside him, and clings.

El. It’s a name, it’s a fact, and it’s a piece, even if it isn’t the whole puzzle. El. He nods. It’ll do for now.

*

“No magic,” says the physician grimly, pulling her hands away from his temples. “No contact with physical magic. That means spells, charms, anti-spells and hymns. No magic, understood?”

“For how long?” Serena asks, appalled.

El rubs the back of his head, where the pain is still present. It’s not just them in the room anymore. People crowded in (his ‘party,’ if Serena is to be believed, his party of friends, though he sees no reason to trust her yet) the minute they could, bringing bags and herbs and bottles of viscous liquid. El refused to touch a single one of the gifts, though he left them at the end of the bed where they were placed. He was polite about it, but he wasn’t about to drink some potion that a stranger had handed him; he’d barely even touched Serena’s soup.

The physician shrugs. “For as long as it takes.”

There’s a short man near the door who sighs deeply at the news, and a tall girl beside him dressed in dark green that frowns. Serena puts her hand over her mouth. El didn't get everyone’s name before the physician barged in with her satchel thrown over her shoulder, ordered everyone to move at least three feet away, and briskly set to work.

But the last person in the room, a little girl in a crisp uniform, huffs at the news. He’s pretty sure she’s called Veronica. He’s also pretty sure that she’s not as little nor as girlish as she first appears, though he can’t say why he feels that way.

“What do you mean, no magic?” Veronica demands. “Surely magic should be able to fix him!”

“Magic is what did this to him,” the physician says. “Look, I’ve not seen a curse as tricky as this in a while, but so far as I can tell, it’ll wear off on its own. Might take a while, though. No telling how long, really, but if you bombard him with magic, or spells, or whatever else you’ve got up your sleeve, he’ll end up in worse shape than before. That’s the nature of this kind of curse.”

The air in the room grows a little colder with the news. Like hope was a physical thing, a spark of warmth and now that it’s snuffed out, the warmth has gone with it. El would like to tell them not to give up quite just yet, that he’s perfectly fine not using magic until his memory comes back, especially considering he doesn’t know any magic and isn’t sure he wants theirs near him, and that he’s still perfectly capable of doing things without his memory, but they’re all too busy talking about him like he’s not here.

“That might prove to be a problem,” the tall girl says.

“What if he gets hurt?” Veronica says, her eyebrows pulled down. “We always use magic to heal each other. And he always gets hurt. What are we supposed to do if he gets attacked in a fight, or falls down a well or something?”

“Stock up on rope,” the physician says dryly.

Serena puts her hand on Veronica’s shoulder, her nails digging in. It’s a sure sign for her to stop talking, and he doesn’t think it will work at first, because Veronica puffs up like an enraged fish, all round cheeks and furious, indignant eyes. But she stops. She deflates. She’s mulish and muttering, but she stops.

“This is stupid,” Veronica says.

“It is quite risky,” Serena agrees.

“Aye, but have we got a choice?” The short man shakes his head. “It’s a big world. There’s plenty to be done, and maybe we’ll find some answers along the way.”

“Oh great,” Veronica says, her voice seething with sarcasm. “Let’s just waltz off into the big wide world, which is full of monsters, and hope that we find him some magical cure that isn’t magic before we run into anything with teeth. That sounds like a great plan!”

“We’ll just have to do our best to keep him from harm, and make sure it doesn’t get any worse,” says the tall girl, her hand resting thoughtfully on her chin. “Protecting him was always what brought us together before. It’ll be the same now.”

It rings through the room like some kind of oath, a vow of sorts that has everyone’s backs straightening. They nod and murmur while the physician snaps her satchel shut and strips off her gloves, and El stares blankly from face to face, the entire conversation lodging in his horrified mind, but they don't seem to see him.

Okay, no.

El swings his feet over the side of the bed, dislodging the sheets. He’s wearing clothes still, trousers that feel too loose and grubby, and a shirt that the physician kindly left buttoned up, but it’s still awkward when he stands. He rolls up his sleeves. The room falls abruptly silent.

I am still here, El signs pointedly, sharply. I would like to get dressed now, if you have all finished discussing me.

The words are still not quite right. His voice is still not quite right. And it digs at him, to know that something so fundamental to him is now shaky at best. It’s perhaps the most painful bit so far, in all the confusion, the bit that drives home how much of himself that he’s missing. But there’s nothing he can do about it right now.

What he can do, though, is get everyone out of this room.

“We’re not… discussing you,” Veronica says, though she glances about sheepishly. Then she waves a hand dismissively. “Oh, look, nobody minds if you get dressed here! We just need to wait for Erik and Sylvando to get back and then we’re out of here anyway, but--”

El must make some sort of expression, because Serena steps in. He doesn’t even know who the people in this room are, let alone two more that are apparently on the way. He’s not about to get dressed in front of them, or follow them willingly wherever they lead, and he’s had quite enough of strangers already. He doesn’t want two more--no matter what the little tug in his gut says.

“Of course we’ll let you get dressed,” Serena says, cutting her off. Veronica makes a mutinous noise, but the short man joins in before an argument can start. El looks at him properly for the first time, at the quiet wisdom to his brow and the rumpled, shiny beard, and the strength in his jaw. He looks like a figure from a storybook. A wise old King, perhaps. Or a cryptic Sage on the road. El turns his eyes away briefly. There’s something very knowing in his gaze.

“Aye, we will. You take as much time as you need, lad, and don't let us bother you.” The short man winks, picking up a staff that’s leaning against the wall. “When you’re ready, come downstairs and we’ll have a chat. I may have only been your Grandfather in practice for a wee while now, but I reckon I’ve still got some stories to tell you.”

Grandfather? That stops El short, prompting a quick burst of disbelief and curiosity, but he doesn’t stop everyone from filing out. He wonders if the short man said that on purpose, to keep him rooted here, but he manages not to ask just yet. The tall lady sweeps him a smile, a bracing, warm smile that he doesn’t know if he deserves, and Veronica studies him like he’s a particularly interesting bug for a moment, though there’s a look in her eye that’s not far away from disappointment.

“You really don't remember?” Veronica says, her voice a little softer than before.

When El shakes his head, she pushes her chin up, huffs, and then storms out.

“As riveting as that was, I do have places to be,” the physician says, in a rather droll tone. “I’ll leave a copy of this with you, and one with your Healer.”

She holds up a roll of parchment. El didn't even see her writing it, but sure enough, the ink is fresh when he unrolls it. Some of it has smeared. The smudges all look unfamiliar, but he knows enough about the circumstances to recognise that it’s a list of medicines.

“Oh, that’s me, I’m a Healer,” Serena says, taking the other copy. “Sort of, anyway. My, that’s a lot of herbs. You’re quite sure that this version of magic is safe?”

The physician nods, getting up from her chair. “Certainly. I could bore you with academic references, or I could assure you that consumable magic is very different to relic magic, or archaic spells. You swallow one of those herbs, and you’ll get rid of your headache, even if it takes twenty more minutes than usual. You let someone cast Heal on you, and you can say goodbye to anything left in your head immediately.”

El focuses on breathing very steadily. There’s a lot in his head, even if he’s not sure how to reach it. He’s more than his memories. He must be. At the very least, there’s potential caged in his skull, and he’s not about to risk it over a trifling spell or two.

I promise to be careful.

“It’s your head, kid. But I’d stick to that promise, if I were you.”

The physician leaves them on that sombre note, her smart shoes whipping down the hall. The door doesn’t quite swing shut before El sits quickly back down on the bed, his own weight suddenly too much for him. His knees quake a little, but his head feels quite clear. The beginnings of a plan start to form in his head.

Nobody told him anything, while he was there. Nobody gave him his real name, because he doesn’t think El is all of it, and nobody really introduced themselves properly, or said hello warmly, or offered anything other than concern for how he was going to cope with the numerous fights they seem to plan on getting into. He swallows. Something keeps poking him, some long lost emotion that tells him to stay, tells him not to get too far into this plan, but it’s already forming. He doesn’t want to stay here, like this, with people he doesn’t trust.

“This must be quite a lot for you,” Serena says. She doesn’t sit, but she does place her hand on El’s, just for a moment. It’s not unwelcome, but all it really does is confuse him. “The physician said to stimulate your brain, to jog your memory, but she also said to rest. We have to buy most of these herbs and ointments in town, I think, but for now--why don't you try resting, and we can get to the ‘stimulating your brain’ part later?”

Woodenly, El nods. Like a little puppet with a bored string-master. Before Serena can leave, he grips her elbow and asks her for one last favour.

Please, could you tell me the names of the others? He doesn’t buckle under her confused, wide-eyed stare. I know your name, and V-E-R-O-N-I-C-A. But I would like to know the names of everyone that knows me here.

“I’ll do you one better,” Serena says firmly, a thread of sorrow tangled in her words. “Let me just… oh, here we go.”

She finds the ink left behind by the physician, and steals El’s copy of his medical instructions from his lax fingers. El watches as she writes. Her hands are confident, her penmanship perfect, and she writes quickly but for longer than he expected. He catches a sliver of a word (--ik) and his head hurts, like a sharp shot of pain, before it’s gone. She blows on the parchment when she’s done, and then rolls it up tightly.

“Here,” she says, handing it over gently. “Hopefully that will help.”

El doubts that it will, because he isn’t going to read it. Not until he’s far away from wherever this place is, and perhaps not even then. He only asked her to settle his curiosity, and to see if it would spark something, and--most importantly--to throw her off the scent. But as much as he knows he has to leave, has to get away and make a plan without these strangers interfering with it, he also can’t shake the feeling of guilt as he tucks the parchment away in his pocket.

I think it will, El signs, smiling weakly. Thank you.

Her eyes are achingly kind. The silence she leaves behind when she shuts the door is less so. Almost like it’s reprimanding him, despite the fact that he’s sitting quietly on the bed, unmoving.

But if he’s going to be reprimanded, it should be for something he’s done, not something he’s thinking about doing.

El dresses quickly. He doesn’t know when he learned to tie his shoelaces with such speed or precision, and he wonders briefly who taught him--maybe that Grandfather downstairs, if that’s who he truly is, or perhaps a mother he hasn’t met yet. And that is not supposed to be a thought he should have to endure, he thinks, as he stuffs his arms into a dark tunic and bites back a sob. His shoulders shake with them anyway. He’s making too much noise. He’s making too much noise and taking too long, and there’s no guarantee the window out of this room even leads anywhere, so he has to be fast, just in case he needs a new plan.

But it does lead somewhere. He knew it when he glanced over and saw a balcony on the other side, that there would be a way across, or around. There is a vague, shivering flicker of memory when he opens the window wide, letting in a rush of cool air and noise; a memory of hands on his waist. Hands on his waist, strong and sudden as he wobbles, and the night air on his skin, and a bottomless drop beneath him as he fought not to gasp or tip sideways, forcing his unsteady feet along a thin rope. And then a hushed, amused voice right by his ear that sends a shudder through him, murmuring, “Derk’s shop is over the wall, not under the cobbles. I’ve already taken a leap of faith for you once since we met. Twice is pushing it, don't you think?”

El blinks. He stands, frozen, with his hand on the windowpane, and sucks in a breath. That was a memory. The only memory in his vast, clouded mind from before he woke up in that bed.

Why is he doing this? Why is he running away from the very little that he knows, from a place that holds the vague promise of safety? He swallows. The people here--they’re not unkind. And they must know something about him, something about what happened to him, and who he was before this. Maybe they really are his friends.

The light breeze stirs his hair, tickling him. Almost like a whisper in his ear. El jolts into action, scrambling forward as his hand--the one he could barely move in the rain he can barely remember--burns. It burns and pulls him forward, like there’s a bright hot coal buried under his skin. He doesn’t look down, but it’s easy to know what the whisper wants. It wants him to leave.

It is time, says an earthly voice in the wind, a voice rooted in vast things and the beginnings of fear. Hurry.

El loops his legs over the window and climbs out, landing securely on the balcony. The parchment remains curled up in his pocket, and the bag he snatched from the pile near the dresser fastens neatly to his back. There is a plank of wood at the end of the balcony, connecting to a nearby roof, and beyond that is the bustle and song of an entire world that he doesn’t know. The urgent voice in the wind grows faint and vanishes, but he knows he has to follow it anyway. He clenches his burning hand and doesn’t look down.

It’s terrifying. It’s breath-taking. It’s probably a very bad idea, and it doesn’t seem like he has much of a choice but to go through with it.

But he has a name and a memory now, so El clings to them both and takes off at a run, leaving the window wide open behind him.

Chapter Text

Erik stares at the open window, at a loss. He can feel his mouth moving, but he’s not sure any words are coming out, so he clamps it shut and backtracks to the doorway. A quick check at the number painted on scratched oak makes him frown. Nine. It’s the right room, and when he pokes his head back inside, he spots their belongings in various hidey-holes. But one particularly important thing is missing.

He crosses the room and pokes his head out of the window. Phnom Nohm gleams back at him, shining like a dirty copper coin. People below don't bother to look up at the blue-haired boy hanging out of the window, taking in the busy streets with narrow eyes. One of the houses across the street is cloaked in scaffolding. A builder sipping a hot drink catches sight of him, jerking back slightly; he waves uncertainly, and Erik scowls, slamming the window shut.

His heart is doing funny things in his chest. Trips and flips. He can’t help but feel like something is very wrong.

“Alright, let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Erik says aloud, to the cold, quiet room.

It shouldn’t be cold because the window should have been shut tight, the lanterns lit for extra warmth. And it shouldn’t be quiet, because El should be there to squint and smile at him, teasing him with drawn-out chuckles.

An uneasy glance at the window and a swift trip down the stairs later, and Erik is accosted by Mony.

“Woah!” Erik says, swerving sharply to the right, but Mony catches him in a grip that just won’t budge. Over his head, the barman polishes a glass and looks vaguely apologetic. Mony babbles on about the influx of people in his Inn despite the loss of the mural, talking Erik’s ear off as he tries to scoot past.

“Uh huh, that’s great,” Erik says absently, scanning the room.

And over there, where he left them, are all his friends. Impossible to miss. Sylv is spinning some sort of story, hands moving wildly through the air, though not as wildly as his hips, and Veronica doesn’t seem that impressed, but she’s still paying avid attention to the tale. He watches Serena pick up her wand and put it back down again, hands fluttering like she doesn’t know what to do with them. She’s much more subdued than usual. No sign of Rab or Jade, which makes his pulse settle a little.

“El must be with them,” Erik says, smiling with relief at a startled-quiet Mony, who opens and shuts his mouth uselessly. “Better get over there, then. They’ll be missing their center of attention.”

He leaves Mony in the hands of the patient, tired-looking barman, sidling up to his group. They don't notice him, not at first. Not until he clears his throat pointedly, crossing his arms over his chest.

“That was fast,” Sylv exclaims, dropping his story and his hands all at once.

Erik rolls his eyes. “Funny. You could have told me he was with Jade and Rab.”

“Oh, I’m sorry!” Serena twists in her seat, furrowing her brow. “I thought they went off to speak with the shop-keeper about the Magic Key. I didn't even see them walk upstairs!”

“Neither did I.” Veronica frowns, but shrugs it off quickly. “Oh well. It’s Sylv’s fault. He was telling tales about the circus, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to mock him for lying.”

“Oh listen here, little lady—”

It’s easy to tune their bickering out. Erik does it all the time, and the rest of the time, he’s the one that’s started it. He pats Serena’s shoulder until her frown falls away, and she smiles up at him, reassured.

“I hope you told them to come down soon,” she says. “I really didn't want to leave El all alone up there, but I couldn’t… well, he clearly wanted to be alone. And I couldn’t handle how he looked at me, as though…”

Erik’s heart starts pounding again. Not that it ever stopped its crazed thumping, not really, but now it really picks up, beating him for his idiocy.

“What do you mean?” Erik asks.

“Well, you must know.” Serena sighs, lowering her head. “As though he didn't know me. And of course, I know he doesn’t know me, or at least, that’s what he believes, and that’s why all of this is so horrible, but I really—”

“No,” Erik says, abrupt and harsh enough that everyone falls silent. “That’s not what I... that’s not.” He stops and starts again, speaking through a dry mouth. “You said I should tell them to come down soon. But there’s nobody up there.”

Veronica whirls around. “What?”

“There’s nobody up there.” Erik’s hands drop to his sides, numb, and he feels a little like the floor just got up and walked off without him, leaving him wobbling on uncertain ground. “El isn’t up there. That’s why I thought he was with Rab and Jade, but if you’re saying they went to see the shop-keeper, and nobody saw them go up or down, then…”

The doors to the Inn squeak open. Rab bumbles in, with Jade chuckling at his hip, and Erik almost feels hopeful. Almost. But the feeling isn’t even fully in his chest before the door swings shut again, leaving just the two of them standing there.

“You better by hiding El in your beard, old man,” Veronica snaps suddenly, bounding forward to glare up at Rab. Rab looks taken aback, but maybe it’s more to do with the way Veronica’s snappish tone trembles at the edges.

Jade grows tense. “He’s not with us.” She meets Erik’s eyes, steady and dark with sudden realisation. “He’s not with you?”

When he shakes his head, it’s with a heavy feeling in his heart.

“The window was open.”

Three seconds. Erik counts them, his throat itching. Each one is like a drumbeat in the dark. There are three seconds of pure, stunned silence, and then a match is struck and light blooms, and the drums fade as everyone erupts into panic.

*

“The shop-keeper said there was most likely a touch of unfriendly magic on the key, mingling with the good magic,” Jade explains, holding it up. “I expect Dora left it behind as a little parting gift.”

“Horrible gremlin,” Sylv mutters.

“Mmm,” Rab agrees quietly, leaning against the mast. He’s been quiet all day.

They’ve taken up root on the deck of the Salty Stallion, but the ship hasn’t moved one inch away from the Champs Sauvage. And it won’t. Not until they find El. It floats near the short pier, swaying gently back and forth with the lull of the waves. There are birds in the air, screeching their sorry tales for all to hear, and in the distance, the lump mages join in for the chorus with the gasp of sizzling magic.

Erik paces back and forth near a trio of barrels, massaging the back of his aching hand. He punched something much sturdier than his fist after they scoured the town and found nothing, not even the vaguest inkling of where El had gone, and he’d regret it if he weren’t too busy regretting everything else.

“Erik, honey,” Sylv says, but Erik ignores him, still pacing.

The Magic Key looks unfriendly enough on its own, with big loops spanning the top and a complicated structure making up the end. But in the middle loop, at the very top of the key, there is a single shard of plum-purple, the shattered remains of a crystal filled with dark, pulsing magic.

“The shop-keeper seemed to think there shouldn’t have been a crystal here at all,” Jade says, tapping the key thoughtfully against the palm of her hand. “So I can only assume that the magic was stored there.”

“It must have smashed in El’s pocket during our fight with those damn Brollygaggers,” Erik mutters, still pacing. His voice rises with every step. “We wouldn’t even have been fighting them if he hadn’t promised to help that little man. And you think, what, the evil shadowy magic spilled on him when it smashed? You think that’s why he’s gone off the rails?”

Gone off the rails. It’s a funny way of putting it. A funny way of saying: he’s injured, he’s lost his memory, he doesn’t trust his friends, and he’s disappeared into thin air. A funny way of saying that he’s not safe and he’s not here. Hilarious, really.

“That seems to be our best bet, but we can’t say for sure,” Jade says. “And we won’t know anything else until we find him.”

“Perfect,” Erik snarls, turning sharply at the end of his route.

“Erik!” Sylv snaps.

“What?”

“You’re wearing a hole in my boat! Stop pacing. You’ll be no good to him if you collapse from sheer exhaustion.” Sylv clucks his tongue, sighing heavily. “Okay, downstairs. You desperately need some beauty sleep, and there’s nothing left for us to do until Serena and Veronica get back anyway.”

They went off to check L’Academia once more, though it’s unlikely that they’ll find anything. Erik complains and protests, but it gets him nowhere in the end. Sylv escorts him downstairs, practically lifting him off the ground, strong hands wrapped around his shoulders, and he begrudgingly lets it happen.

It’s dark and quiet in the hollowed out skeleton of the ship, the air tinged with salt and mead. Dave knocked a barrel over the other day, and the liquid seeped into the softening wood of the stairs. Erik doesn’t mind it, but it makes him crave a drink. He pushes through the door to the nearest bedroom. Hammocks swing from the ceiling, and the cots are laden with abandoned shirts and twisted sheets. Erik turns to snap at Sylv, but gets a nudge backwards for his trouble.

“Look, I know we’re all a little on edge, but you have to pull yourself together,” Sylv tells him, pushing him down on the nearest cot with one finger. “You’re being embarrassing.”

Erik lands with a bump. The sheets feel cool even through his fabric of his trousers, and the thin straw mattress squeaks beneath him.

“And give me that,” Sylv says, snatching Erik’s aching hand up and examining the bruised knuckles. There’s blood welling up there, but most of it is dry now. “Honestly, darling. If you wanted to spar, you should have just said so. No need to take it out on my innocent little barrels.”

“Can it, Sylv. I’m not in the mood.”

“Well, aren’t you a delight?” Sylv rolls his eyes, and in the next minute, there is a soothing coolness on his skin. He watches the bleeding edges of his split knuckles knit tightly back together under a wash of green light, and the pain recedes—dragged away by something much kinder than Erik could ever hope to be.

“Thanks,” Erik says quietly, a little reluctant. He sighs shortly. “Sorry. I know I’m being…”

“Oh, honey.” Sylv pats his hand. “Don't hurt yourself. We know you’re only in a tizzy because you’re missing our favourite little leaf. But we’ll find him! Sylv’s Detective Agency never lets a case grow cold.”

Sylv’s Detective Agency had led them inside a mural, where they battled a sentient painting intent on splattering them on the ground like a particularly macabre attempt at abstract art. But Erik wants to keep his joints intact, so he doesn’t point that out. He sinks his head in his hands instead, burrowing deep into a darkness that doesn’t feel half as lonely as a ship without El in it. If he stays here, eyes closed and quiet, then he can convince himself that El is on deck, handing Serena fruit and conversing with Rab and poking gentle fun at Jade, who pokes back much more harshly but always smiles too.

There’s a tug on Erik’s wrist. When he comes out of the dark, El isn’t there. But Sylv is, watching him with no small amount of sympathy, and a small smile that makes him smile too, no matter how weak it is.

“Cheer up, honey. I know it goes against your cynical little soul, but try having a little faith. Not just in us, either.”

“Yeah?” Erik looks up properly at that, dropping his hands. “And who am I s’posed to have faith in, Sylv?”

Sylv looks at him like he’s stupid, and yeah, he probably deserves that. The pieces click together in his tired, tender brain.

“You’re talking about El.”

“Well, he’s not let you down so far, has he?” Sylv chucks him under the chin with his thumb and stands, smoothing off his dapper suit. “So have some faith in him, too.”

Of all the things Erik’s come across in his travels, El is the first person to spark that genuine flicker of faith in him. A belief that things will be alright. He wouldn’t have leapt if he didn't believe in the Luminary, and he wouldn’t have stuck around if he didn't have faith in El.

“Thanks, Sylv.” And then, “If anyone asks, this never happened.”

Sylv waves a hand, scoffing on his way out the door. “Oh, please, darling. I have a reputation too, you know.”

*

One foot in front of the other. It’s his favourite philosophy.

Erik has quite a few philosophies, little mantras that keep him going, and most of them he keeps close to his chest. Most of them he picked up when he was stuck hauling crates and picking pockets for a bunch of people bigger than him, people who knew how to hit where it hurts. Most of them tell him to keep walking, keep running, because the bad stuff will catch up eventually.

One foot in front of the other, says the voice in his head, but for once Erik can’t listen.

The Elysium Bird is dead.

The stench of monster is thick in the air. There’s black ichor on the ground, and a haze of smoke, but it’s all been there a while. After hours of crawling and climbing through the Eyrie, following the trail of vicious, poisonous monsters, they’re all exhausted and running low on magic. And the Elysium Bird is dead.

Erik plays with his knife. It’s the first thing he learned to do when he got hold of a dagger; if you mess around with your weapons, you master them quicker. Some people saw a kid in the corner playing with sharp blades and they scoffed, shaking their heads as they threw back ale that burned in all the right ways. Some saw soft skin and a deadly glint and rushed to intervene. But Erik kept easing the dagger through his fingers until the movements were quick and sure, and it’s been years since he nicked himself.

Now he knows that if he picks up his blade from his belt, he’s got a better chance of sticking a monster right in the eye if he flips his hold first. It’s awkward, otherwise. He knows the many ways he can fling a blade, switch grips, swipe upwards. He can drop it on purpose and pick it up again mid-air, slicing into the meat of a thigh. He twirls his blade over his knuckles, and it’s not cocky, not arrogant the way he usually pretends to be; it doesn’t hide the trickier, more complex feelings behind a veneer. But there is a thread of confidence in the action, firm and unyielding.

It’s there now. He needs it, that confidence, because everything else is falling apart so unsurely, and his mantras no longer stick.

“This is the right place, isn’t it?” Jade swings her Trident over her shoulder, tucking it into an intricate structure of hidden belts and buckles on her back that he has no desire to understand.

“How many Eerie Eyrie’s do you think are out here?” Veronica rolls her eyes, stalking across the clearing. She stops near the point of the grassy arrowhead. “Oh, yeah, this is the place alright! Look!”

She points, but Erik doesn’t need to move to see what she’s pointing at. He spotted the empty chest immediately, the lid tipped up in a mocking laugh. And that, paired with the suspicious absence of the greedy, ferocious monster that supposedly haunts this place, can only mean one thing.

Rab sighs, leaning heavily on his staff. “The orb is gone.”

His voice has a strange weight to it, a gravity that pulls them in. A slick metallic sound jolts Erik from his musings, and he realises that his dagger is safely ensconced in its holster, his feet already carrying him towards Rab. He’s not convinced the old man doesn’t have a bit of Kingly magic in his voice alone, because they’ve all circled him like a crown.

“El must have taken it,” Rab tells them gravely. The wind picks up his words and drifts them through the air. “I had hoped we might find him here, waiting for us, but I think we’d best drop that line of thinking. He’s not waiting for us, wherever he is. I think something else drives him now. It’s the only reason I can think of, for why he ran. Even with a foggy memory, he shouldae known better than to up and leave us behind.”

“Something else drives him?” Erik crosses his arms over his chest, frowning. “What does that mean? What drives him?”

Rab meets his eyes; there is a wealth of sorrow there, like the kind that pools when he thinks of his daughter, in the dusky evenings. Now he thinks not of his daughter, but of his lost grandson, and the similar look of grief in his eyes is jarring enough that Erik stiffens with anxiety.

“The World Tree guides him, lad. Mighty Yggdrasil.”

“Yggdrasil,” Serena repeats, resting one hand gently on the scrap of collarbone visible over her dress. “Oh, no.”

Veronica curses, grimacing. Then she stomps off, poking around in the nearby bushes and trees, muttering angrily but with less volume than usual. She keeps her back to them.

It makes a sick sort of sense.

“He’s still gathering the orbs, but he’s on a different path now,” Rab says. “I noticed, as I’m sure the lot of ye did, that he went for the bag with the other orbs in. He’s got the lot now. He might not have his memories, but he knows he needs the orbs. And I can only assume it’s because the World Tree wants him to find them.”

“He is the Luminary,” Sylv points out, not sounding particularly happy about it. “That’s his path, isn’t it?”

“But he’s El too,” Erik snaps. “He’s not…”

He isn’t just the Luminary. There’s more to him than what he’s been asked to do.

“Aye, he is.” Rab looks at him gently; it’s more than Erik can take. “On a good day.”

“But right now, it isn’t a good day,” Jade says, resting her hand on Serena’s elbow. “He can’t remember all the parts of him that make him more than the Luminary. All he has is the World Tree’s guidance.”

Rab spreads one of his hands, as if to encompass his Grandson, lost as he is. “If ye take all those bits away, strip him to his bare essentials… then you’re left with something easily directed. Something that is just the Luminary. He isn’t waiting for us because he disnae know he needs us. He’s doing what needs to be done. It’s his birthright that’s driving him now.”

“He’s still El,” Erik insists, though the wind picks his words up too, and carry them away with ease; they are much fainter and lighter than he wanted them to be. “All we have to do is find him, so we can remind him that he’s more than the Luminary.”

“He’s both,” Serena says quietly, and Veronica echoes the sentiment, though she doesn’t turn. Erik watches her swipe at her face, head ducked out of sight, and his chest aches. They have always understood the path of the Luminary better than any of them. They’ve always been fiercely protective of him, but not afraid to tell him when he’s being an idiot. There’s no awe over his status, but there is an admiration for who he is.

Serena shakes her head, her voice spilling out of her in a worried, frustrated tremble, “Oh, wherever he is and whoever he is… I just hope he’s alright.”

Worry pierces Erik deeply. Like a spoke, sudden and unexpected. He breathes around it, and his mantras begin again, because there is no use standing around worrying. It won’t do anything. One foot in front of the other. Don't look back. Don't let the bad stuff catch up.

“We should have come here first,” Erik says, shaking his head in frustration. “We should have come straight from the mini medal place to here, as soon as we knew where this orb was. We shouldn’t have rushed ahead to Phnom Nohm.”

“He still would’ve ended up with the orb, either way, lad.”

Maybe, Erik thinks grimly, staring at the empty chest at the end of the clearing, as hollow as his own. But at least that way, El wouldn’t have had to fight the Elysium Bird all on his own. At least that way, Erik wouldn’t be standing here with his fists clenched, picturing El lying in some dark, muddy part of the forest, hurt and alone, with nobody there to patch him up.

“Okay, that’s enough dilly-dallying!” Sylv chirps, clapping his hands to dispel the dark, dismal mood. “You might be enjoying the scenery, but I hear there are better views up North, and I think it’s time we take a little trip, don't you?”

North. Erik frowns lightly.

Serena blinks at him in surprise, suddenly flanked by her sister. “What on earth do you mean?”

“Surely you can’t expect us just to leave,” Veronica says incredulously. “We haven’t found him yet!”

“And I don't think we will, darling. Not here anyway! He’s slippery, that one, and if he’s got a big, beautiful, bossy Tree telling him where to go, then I doubt he’s wasted much time sitting around here, hmm?” Sylv shakes his head, stalking towards the edge of the clearing. “Maybe he can’t Zoom with his head in a pickle, but there are other ways to get around, and anyone would give that boy a space on a boat, with eyes like that.”

Erik scowls, withdrawing his knife again. His knuckle stings faintly, a phantom ache.

“Besides, we have a lead now!”

“We do?” Serena stares after him.

Rab and Jade chuckle as one, and Jade wraps a hand around her wrist to lead her gently forward. Rab gestures them all ahead of him, settling back into his quiet, watchful stance, and Erik begrudgingly starts walking.

“He’s following the orbs, idiot,” Veronica says, as though she hadn’t been in the dark too, only half a minute ago. “We just have to keep an ear out for orbs too, and we’ll find El.”

“Oh,” Serena says, with grateful relief. “Oh, that’s a much better plan than anything we came up last night, isn’t it, Veronica?”

Veronica scowls. Sylvando’s fond laughter echoes through the clearing. Erik pauses a beat too long, reluctant to leave the last place he knows El was. He stands in the piercing quiet, swallowing back a lump of regret and sorrow, and blinks against the sudden, swift wind.

But he’s not one for standing still. And Rab isn’t one to enable him.

“Come on, lad.” Rab pokes him in the back with his staff. “One foot in front of the other.”

Erik flicks his dagger warningly in Rab’s direction, earning a gruff chuckle. And then he’s walking, following the thread of his friend’s voices, the plan settling in his chest and filling him a fresh surge of faith. They’ll find him. Together, they’ll find El.

One foot in front of the other. Don't look back. Don't let the bad stuff catch up.

Erik puts his foot down and thinks, don't let the good stuff get too far away, either.

Chapter Text

The land of snow and ice is a nightmare. A living, breathing nightmare. El stuffs his freezing hands into the warmth of deep, stolen pockets, teeth chattering as he stomps through a thicket of trees.

The boat that he stowed away on lies in rotten pieces near the dock. It struck a jagged hunk of ice not far from the Kingdom, and it was sheer luck that kept El from drowning when the hull filled up with water. He clambered up the stairs, coughing and spluttering, and threw himself in a hastily-assembled lifeboat amidst squawks and panicked yelps. The other sailors didn't know his face or his name, just that he rose from their ship, streaming water, and threw himself from the collapsing deck. He’d kept quiet and still as they sailed from Champs Savauge to the North, hidden in the belly of the ship; a few pilfered pulpy fruits and a skein of water kept him going until they crashed.

All the while, a sap-soaked voice in his ear urged him to hurry.

The sailors had nothing to say when they finally steered close enough to the dock, their ship sinking behind them. El had slipped away while the mood darkened and the curses began, heading not for the warmth of the glowing campfire in the near-distance, but for the arch of pale stone to the West. Beyond it was a vast space filled with snow.

It was very easy to get lost.

El hugs his arms around his chest, his bag digging into the small of his back, and bitterly regrets not following the lure of hot, welcoming flames back to the campfire. He’s not sure how long it’s been, but there’s no more food in his bag, and he’s running rapidly low on herbs. He has a feeling he hasn’t even scratched the surface of this place.

A monster growls on the other side of the thicket, low and hungry. El pauses, crouching amongst the frosted ferns. Everything here is hungry. Creatures prowl through glittering frost, their ribs sticking out beneath layers of ragged fur. He’s dodged the shards of magic thrown by chittering lamps and sliced through the few things brave enough to charge straight for him. It’s been a few hours, now, since the ship sank. He’s starting to feel like one of these hungry creatures.

And to the tree return, whispers the voice of Yggdrasil.

El grits his teeth. Yggdrasil. It’s the World Tree’s name, and it’s one of the few things he recalls now that he’s let his lost memory settle. El knows approximately three things about himself, all learned over the last few days, but he has boundless knowledge of the World Tree. It hurts to think about it. It doesn’t seem fair.

And to the tree return.

El huffs out a sigh. It hurts, it doesn’t seem fair, and above all, it’s exhausting.

The monster lurks a little longer in the trees, and then moves on. El gives it half a minute before he stands, nursing his aching hands, and ploughs forward. He leaves deep tracks in the snow that vanish soon after, covered with thick, fresh powder.

Yggdrasil whispers something else, but Her voice is lost to a piercing wind. In the growing darkness, El spots a flicker of mellow orange. It burns like a beacon in the bleached landscape.

His heart jumps with hope and relief. With tired, determined steps, El follows the beckoning finger of fire.

*

A hand pressing cold materials into his own. The smell of the forest all around them, damp and deep. A warm chuckle that mingles with the crackle of cheerful campfire. The hiss of copper melting under his unsure hands, and the bite of a hammer crashing into his fingers.

“Careful.” The voice has a blue tinge to it, a cloud of amusement that clings to every dip in the vowels. “You’re not much good to me if you break your bones, even if I do get a nice dagger out of it. Maybe I should have started you off with something smaller, huh?”

El has the distinct impression of being flatly unamused, even in the face of more laughter—and then he wakes with sparks in his stomach. He sits bolt upright in bed, blinking hard. He brings one finger to the tip of his other index finger, and then curves it against his palm in a hook. Letters. E and R. In the haze of sleep, El isn’t sure why, but he thinks it spells out a beginning.

When the haze drops away, El puts his hands in his lap and shivers. It sounded an awful lot like the voice he heard when he stood near the window, back in the copper town. But it was just a dream.

It was just a dream, but it made him feel warm inside.

Jittery, El slides his feet out of bed. Last night he found a cabin pressed into place at the end of a short, narrow path, cosy and out of the way. Almost completely obscured, and easily missed, if not for the blazing fire in the hearth. He checked the area last night, but there was nobody around, and no sign of anyone coming back, either.

Except for the fire. But he knows by now that some things are easily explained by the persistent presence of magic in the world, even if he can’t use it.

The fire has died down now. The logs are nothing but charred sticks, and ash coats the remains like a blanket. El stands, blinking in surprise when his back cracks before he busies himself with the fire.

It’s a very rustic kitchen, but it’ll do. He stokes the flames and rubs salt into fresh meat, diligently not thinking about the blood on his swords. He rifles through a crate of squash and cuts one up, shredding the softened meat inside into strings. He’s going to need oil to clean the blades. Oil and water, and a clean rag.

He cannot help but think that he wouldn’t have done this before. Hunting, or fighting so savagely in a frozen wasteland, or cooking on his own over a piping hot stove. There is a brief flash of standing at the stove, but the perspective is all wrong; he is looking up instead of down, watching a bubbling pot with wide, curious eyes. He hears a soft, booming laugh to his side, and someone explains how long the stew will take to cook in lilting, valley-soft tones. Then he blinks, and the warm ghost at his side is gone. The squash sits in mushy ruins in his hands.

Maybe he would have left hunting to other people before now, or maybe he only ate things that grew in the ground, or maybe there was some magical solution to that too. He just knows that he aches a little at the thought of eating alone on the edge of the bed, bloody swords stacked against the door, but he does it anyway.

Yggdrasil is more than far enough away, even to those standing beneath Her. That’s without considering the trek on foot. He has a mighty distance to cover, and he can’t afford to collapse on route from hunger.

El wraps the thin covers over his feet and eats with his fingers, angling his head to stare out of the open door. Snow falls, but far more gently than yesterday. A bitter wind whips around him, promising more of a fight later.

For now, though, he eats and plans and grabs at the edge of his dream.

*

Sniflheim. El learns the name from a merchant standing on the dock, after he finally finds his way back to the Kingdom. The sailors that towed him unknowingly across the raging seas are gone, but a few washed-up bits of wood remain littered on the nearby rocks.

“I can’t get through!” The merchant looks extremely disgruntled, shivering near some old crates. “Look at those gates, son, and tell me that looks natural to you. It’s never this bad, not even in the harshest winter. Sniflheim prepares for such occasions! Something must have gone horribly wrong.”

El tells him no such thing, but he’s inclined to agree. The gates were bright enough to catch his attention the first time he saw them, but with aching hands and a shivering soul, they weren’t enough to stop him in his tracks. The bright, vivid colours are only enhanced by the glittering sheet of ice obscuring them, creeping into the hinges and glossing over the thick, heavy stone.

“Well?” the merchant demands, his hat trembling with distress. “Nothing to say, boy?”

El signs something short and sharp. The merchant bristles; clearly unused to the language of hands, he suspects El of being foul-fingered, and it’s not long before he stalks off, muttering about the insolence of youths.

Youths? El ponders this as he treks towards the campfire. Is he a youth? He supposes so. He wonders when he was born, and where; was it somewhere grand and sprawling, like this Kingdom, or was it somewhere small and comfortable, where he grew up playing games in the river and chasing friends through the long grass?

It matters not. Yggdrasil’s firm, gentle voice plays in his ears. It matters not.

El sighs. He supposes it doesn’t.

Hurry.

El bypasses the fire, its eternal flame flickering kindly in the bitter cold. There is a statue there with equally kindly eyes, but he skirts awkwardly around the goddess and heads for the end of the path instead. He finds a very small clearing overlooking the sea, and a never-ending stretch of stone wall.

But eventually the wall does end. It sinks into a snowy cliff, but in the midst of all the rocks and white slush, there is a vivid red door, splashed there like a warning. Untouched by ice, with circles inlaid in the heavy, jarringly-bright paint.

It doesn’t budge beneath his hand. El shoves and heaves, leaning his whole weight on the door, but nothing moves. The hinges don't give or groan. He grinds his teeth and steps back, almost slipping in the snow. It’s softer here, almost like water. He frowns and kneels down, ignoring the icy wetness seeping through his trousers. The water is murky, and there are prints there, little twists in the mud. The mark of impatient heels. Like someone’s trekked through it recently.

El huffs. He stands again and wipes his hands absently on his shirt, leaving wet marks on the purple fabric. He cranes his neck and takes in the walls, towering silently over him. The stone looks smooth and unmarked. Solid.

Yggdrasil is silent.

El sheaths his swords, tightening the buckle of his bag until the strap sits tight on his chest. He doesn’t know what the shining orbs in the bag are for, but the World Tree insists that they’re important. He can’t have them falling, or breaking, or shattering his hopes.

The harsh weather seems to have made the walls slick and smooth rather than pockmarked. But El digs a hand into the stone anyway, steadying himself, and with Yggdrasil’s urgent voice in his ear, he begins to climb.

*

El twists in mid-air. The air punches out of his lungs when he hits the ground with a sharp smack. He lands on his stomach, the orbs safely ensconced in butter-soft leather, and coughs until his throat hurts.

His vision blurs, and suddenly he is five and falling from a tree, leaves and dirt caught in his stinging fingers. There’s a girl crying nearby, her panicked tears urging him up off the ground.

You must get up.

El coughs again and hauls himself up, heart still pounding. Climbing the wall was a stupid idea, especially with nobody around to catch him. But the strange branch weighed down with orbs glows near these walls, and he knows even without Yggdrasil’s comments that he has to get inside. He has to get inside, but his stomach aches and his lungs are burning, and he only made it halfway before he slipped and almost broke his spine.

There has to be a better way to do this.

*

The snowbank cushions his fall. It was easier to climb the walls once he used the cliff, and skirting the top of the tunnel that lead to the open snowland had given him a head-start to the top of the Kingdom wall. Then it was a matter of perseverance and ignoring his raw fingertips.

El sprawls for a minute in the thickly-packed snow and shivers, panting. He checks the bag with trembling fingers, fumbling the clasps, and sighs. The orbs shine dully in the dark. They’re safe. He didn't break anything, not even a bone, though it was touch and go for a while.

When he wipes his hands on his shirt this time, the marks he leaves behind are red.

“Young one.”

El surges forward, stumbling down the snow-bank until his feet hit solid ground. The ice here is slick, but not so slick that he can’t hold his defensive stance. He turns his head, hunts through the sudden deluge of snow with wide, piercing eyes, but he can’t see anyone. The voice seems to come from everywhere all at once, carried on the brittle wings of snowflakes.

“Oh, there is no need for such dramatics, darling boy. Although I admire your form.”

El keeps still, searching until—there. A shadowy figure near a lone tree, barely visible through the snow. It almost looks like it’s… hovering.

Smoothly, El reaches back and unsheathes his sword. He doesn’t want to be left without a voice, but most weapons require his hands, and he’d rather be silent than defenceless.

“Nothing to say?”

The figure drifts closer. At first he sees nothing but snow, but then the haze of white lifts, and the flakes spiral off to bother some other part of the Kingdom. A woman appears out of the snow. The first thing El notices is… not the long lace-up boots, if he’s perfectly honest, but he tries valiantly to pretend that it is.

She chuckles. It is a strong sound, like a hot smoky drink on a bitterly cold evening.

“So sheepish. What a treat. Tell me your name, little lamb.”

El fumbles slightly with his sword, but he’s getting better at signing with something in his hands. And it’s only two letters. The woman tips her head to the side, long hair tumbling over her shoulders as she hovers over the ground.

“Ah, interesting. I know not what language you speak, but that is no matter. I can easily take a peek at what you wish to tell me.”

She grins, shark-like.

El doesn’t get a chance to respond before he feels something cold spread across his cheekbone. He whips his free hand up to find frost fanning across his skin like a scrap of lace. For a moment he thinks she’s going to freeze him, and he steels himself to run—towards her or away from her, he doesn’t yet know—but then the frost sinks.

It’s the only word for it. Pressure on his cheekbone makes him wince, before the cold sinks beneath his skin like the moisture it is, seeping into his skull. He closes his eyes against an instant headache, but the pain dulls quickly. He hears that chuckle again, but this time it reverberates through his skull like whale song through the sea.

The woman is a witch, El realises, with quiet horror. And she’s inside his mind.

“Oh, please, call me Krystalinda.”

He drops his sword before he can swing it, numb to the bone.

*

Krystalinda is powerful, but not as awful as El first feared. He stands there, unable to move, and waits for the pain or the blackness to hit him. But nothing happens. He cannot move, and there is a blue-ish sheen over the world, but nothing happens.

Except, that’s not quite true.

“Do not panic, little one. I did not even try to trick you with dear Frysabel’s sweet face, so you may trust me. I am in your mind, but you may have a glimpse of mine too. It is only fair, is it not?”

The underlying promise that he will not last long if she doesn’t like what she sees makes him shiver. It doesn’t matter if he glimpses her memories, because she has all the power. It is enough to spark panic and fear in his chest, and he struggles against his invisible bonds.

Faintly, the mark on his hand begins to glow.

But the light snuffs out just as quickly when a barrage of images swallows him whole.

Krystalinda, flying over the fountain in the middle of Sniflheim. A pretty voice asking her for a favour—though that fades before El can grasp it. A monster bellowing in the woods. People freezing in their tracks, encased in ice, and a Kingdom brought low beneath a never-ending snowfall. A reflection in a pool of frigid water, of blonde hair and round glasses, and a grimace that does not suit the face. Then the reflection turns sharply, and El sees himself climbing over the wall, nothing more than a smear up near the sky. He feels Krystalinda’s curiosity, and her suspicion, and he doesn’t need a reflection to see the disguise melt away.

The images stop there, but he’s seen more than enough to know that she’s the danger lurking behind the walls of Sniflheim.

And dangerous she is, but she is powerful too. And with that power comes control. She rifles through his mind with a worrying ease, but she doesn’t leave any rips or gaps. When she finally pulls herself free, he opens his eyes to see her standing over him, thoughtful. He doesn’t remember hitting the ground, but his bag lies safely to his left, buried in the snow, and he’s definitely not standing. He feels like he went three rounds with a glacier and lost.

“Now, this is a tricky one. I did not expect this. But if nothing else, I know your language of hands now.”

And she proves it, although her words come with the jaggedness of ice, shaped with the roughness of winter.

You did this. El gestures at the snow packed up against the walls and the distant, unmoving shapes in the foreground. He thought they were carts or stalls, but some look to be too… vertical for that to be true. Thin and vertical. Almost like statues.

“I did.” Krystalinda does not sound remorseful, but she doesn’t sound very proud. “It is what needed to be done. And it was fun, I mustn’t forget that. I hope my memories did not hurt your pretty little head, but I sense you have seen worse. In fact, I know it.”

Shakily, El signs, What did you see? In my head. You must have seen something.

Krystalinda sighs, and with it comes a gust of cold air and a flurry of snowflakes. “I saw everything. That is a nasty curse upon you. I saw every single one of your memories, little one, but I sense that you are not so fortunate. You cannot see past the darkness in your own mind, can you?”

She nods before he can respond, hunkered down on the ground with his sword glinting in the snow. A thin, corpse-blue hand enters his vision. El squints at it, and then up at her arched brow and pursed lips.

“Stand, child of the World Tree. I will not harm you.” Her lips curl. “For now, at least.”

It is not much of a promise, not from a witch. But it seems better than no promise at all. The World Tree doesn’t warn him away or tell him to fight, although She doesn’t seem particularly vocal at the minute, and El wonders if it’s because of what the witch knows now. Krystalinda only said that he couldn’t view his memories, but he felt her sneak past the darkness in his mind and see for herself. It feels odd and uncomfortable, knowing someone else was in his thoughts, and he shivers even as he accepts her hand.

“Perhaps it was not necessary to search so furiously, but I have no regrets. I make a habit not to bother with them.” Krystalinda shrugs, an expressive motion that makes her chest heave; El politely averts his eyes, blushing. She chuckles. “Ah, so polite. You are not like the others. That really is rare.”

You know who I am now. You know more than me, is what he doesn’t say.

Krystalinda’s icy gaze seeps into him. “I do. Though I think I do not know the whole truth. For how can I truly know you, when you are missing so many parts of yourself?”

El swallows around the lump in his throat. He’s cried more times than he cares to admit recently; climbing over rooftops and hiding in the darkness of ships, and wiping his eyes in cabins where the fires are warm but the sheets are too thin. He doesn’t want to cry here too.

“I will say this. Perhaps I do not know all of you, but I know that you are El, and that you have come in search of the blue orb.”

Do you know where it is?

Krystalinda waves a hand, her bottom lip pushed out. “Bah! Of course. There is not much that I do not know, in this Kingdom. In most Kingdoms.” She smirks. “The blue orb is locked away in the room of treasures, beneath the castle. I am afraid the key comes at a price.”

A price. El signs the words as flatly as he’s able, his mouth a thin line. Money? I have D-R-A-S-I-L-L-I-O-N coins.

A sharp pain makes him blink, and curl in over his stomach. It’s his head that hurts, but the weight of it and the sudden sharpness makes him bend. He struggles against a weak cry, blinking back tears that freeze on his cheeks.

Drasillion. It’s not a word that he’s thought of before, but it is one that fits in the deep, heavy hollow in his chest. But the more he thinks about it, and the warped, shining coins tucked into a pocket of his bag, the more his head aches. He can feel Krystalinda watching him curiously.

“The price for the blue orb is the bleeding head of an old monster of mine. It stands in the Hekswood. I have sent a few errant Guards after it, they have yet to return, and there are more traversing the seas as we speak. I will send them in too.”

She looks harsh again, her mouth tipped in an unnerving, hungry smile. El blinks through tears of pain and nods woodenly. It’s not a threat or a bargain, or even an offer, but he nods anyway. She’ll keep sending people in until her monster is gone, and though Yggdrasil whispers in his ear, El finds the strength to ignore it. He doesn’t know what sort of person he was before, but he knows he isn’t the type to leave people in danger. If he can help, then he will.

I need the blue orb. I can slay your monster. I want to help you.

“I know. When you conquered the walls alone, without assistance or keys or magic, I knew you would have to be strong and powerful. You piqued my curiosity, and you have not proven me wrong so far.” Krystalinda steps closer. “But battles are for later, when you are at your full strength. Come, my little lamb. Think not of painful things.”

The hand that guides him through the icy paths is just as cold as the falling snow. But it is just as gentle too. They reach a campfire not unlike the one outside the walls, settled near the steps of a frozen building, and Krystalinda lights the wood with a wild, sweeping motion of her arm. Fierce orange flames crackle to life. Her mouth twitches in distaste, but she says nothing as El staggers towards the flames, exhausted. His fingers are still bleeding slightly.

“I have stirred things loose in your mind,” Krystalinda says. “The darkness in your mind is like a fog, and it is where your lost memories live. It is a shield, but a shield has more than one side. It will keep your past and the pain at bay, so long as you turn your thoughts to other things. If you prod the wound, you will only irritate it further.”

El bites his lip until it bleeds. Drasillion. Dundrasil. Coins buried in the earth, no longer useful but still so very important, even if nobody else thinks so. He feels the hard ground beneath his knees and dull heat on his forearms, and belatedly realises that he’s kneeling, head in his hands while the fire burns before him. He takes a shaky breath and pushes away the onslaught of almost-memories.

There is something so undoubtedly missing that it hurts to think about it, and it isn’t his memories. Those are missing too, clearly, but there is something else. Something else whose loss he feels keenly.

And perhaps it isn’t a person, or a thing, he thinks, as he stares into the fire. Perhaps it isn’t one single, concrete memory that he can grasp and hold onto. Maybe it’s simply the loss of so many moments around a campfire just like this.

As soon as the thought hits him, a wave of pain does too. It’s biting and sickly, and it makes his stomach roll like the churning waves that brought him to this nightmarish Kingdom.

Krystalinda clucks her tongue, summoning a chair of ice. It erupts from the ground with quiet, explosive cracks, spokes of clear ice taking the shape of a small throne. The noise stuns him, and he blinks hazily at the ice seeping across the ground. She settles into her throne like a true queen.

“What did I tell you? You must stop thinking about it. Your wound will heal with time, no matter what the tree believes, and all will be as it should. But you must stop thinking of your past for now.” She leans in slightly. “I know curses, little lamb. I know them intimately, and yours is dark and dreary. Not as dark and dreary as being trapped in a book for, oh, ages, but close enough.”

That is enough to have El lifting his head, distracted. With distraction comes a reprieve from the pain, and he lets the shimmering wisps of broken castles sink back into a dark, deep fog.

I feel like there might be a story there.

Krystalinda smiles widely. She dives into her tale, weaving it with exaggerated pouts and a dark, sorrowful tone. El turns his palms towards the fire and welcomes the heat, watching snowflakes melt in the air above the flames with a faint hiss and a sizzle, turning to vapour. It is quiet, here, at the campfire, but Krystalinda’s voice soothes the wrongness of that. .

Yet the feeling of missing something doesn’t fade, and El knows—without diving into that darkness—that he wouldn’t want it to.

*

The serrated sheen of dark magic that shields his memories from view is eggshell-thin, and the cracks are getting thicker. Krystalinda called it a shield, but El isn’t so sure now. Whatever she did while digging through his mind has left marks behind, and they do not glow.

The Hekswood is bright and menacing. Light arcs of the ice and snow, blinding him as he turns corners and slices through winged creatures.

He’s been here for two days. Maybe three.

He found two of the errant Guards still standing, and pointed them back the way he came. He knows that despite what he said, Krystalinda will have sent more Guards by now, if they’ve reached Sniflheim. He didn't mean to take so long, but even though the Hekswood is small, it seethes with magic.

And the monsters inside it are not afraid to use it.

He remembers the physician’s words, the warnings. No magic. No spells, no physical magic; nothing was supposed to touch him if he wanted to heal. But there are only so many times he can flee and dodge before he grows too tired to keep walking, and the monsters aren’t stupid. They don't always let him run.

It explains the cracks in his shield. In his curse. And Krystalinda, though she likely didn't know at the time, hasn’t helped things along. He’s not sure if the mind magic she used was strong enough to undo all this time he’s spent trying to heal, but he hopes not. It definitely didn't do anything good, though, that’s for sure.

The darkness isn’t letting out memories, but it is letting in pain, and he can barely see through the intense snowstorm as it is, let alone with the way his eyes and mind are aching.

El reaches into his pocket and withdraws an herb, swallowing it down as he nears the end of the path. He needs to be careful; he doesn’t have many left. There are no more monsters around, but he can hear a distant, frantic noise. The sounds of battle, muffled by the fierce wind and thick snow. It seems to have come out of nowhere.

And then quite suddenly, the snow lessens slightly. A man stands there, heaving out breaths as he grasps a gigantic sword in his hands. Long, violet hair swept back from his severe brow, he glares at El with a look of such hatred that he takes a step back.

El very much doubts that this is Krystalinda’s monster, but he grips his sword tightly anyway.

“Darkspawn,” spits the man.

The name lands somewhere between El’s ribs. Like a shard of glass, it digs into his skin and sits there, puncturing the soft parts of him. He knows that name, and he knows that voice, but the feelings that come along with it aren’t friendly. He has a vague swooping sensation in his stomach, like he’s being chased.

El sets his weary mouth and raises his sword. He doesn’t know who this man is, but he has a strong feeling that he’s a complete bastard.

Things move very quickly after that. Too quickly. Hendrik, as he calls himself, speaks with honour and a strong voice, and he fights like a vicious machine. El barely keeps himself upright, though he does better than he thought he would. When the beast lumbers out of the Hekswood with a roar that could bring down mountains, El finds himself somewhat grateful that Hendrik isn’t on its side.

Doesn’t mean Hendrik’s not a bastard.

Careful, Luminary.

Yggdrasil’s voice startles him, and he sidles away from a burst of magical snow just in time. The beast roars, pulsing with icy magic, and he staggers back, panting and wiping his clammy hands on his trousers. He grips his sword tighter and charges in, Hendrik just a step behind him.

The beast falls.

There is no time to celebrate. El breathes in the harsh silence, but then Krystalinda descends from the sky in a dizzying cluster of snowflakes. She takes El in with a sharp, searching look, and smirks when he nods.

“Are you in league with the witch, Darkspawn?” Hendrik demands, backing away with a curled lip. “I should have known. Darkness follows darkness.”

“You are not as much fun as the other one!” Krystalinda calls, laughing. She talks, but El is only half-listening. He vaguely takes in Hendrik’s shock and suspicion, and the presence of an amulet, and Krystalinda’s mocking words, but it is hard to pay attention with Yggdrasil’s voice all around him.

She speaks firmly, fiercely. The orbs. One is coming to you. The other is within reach. Collect the last orbs and find me, Luminary.

L-U-M-I-N-A-R-Y.

He spells the word out shakily. It settles into the hole left behind by the word Darkspawn, soothing the sting of a name that isn’t his. Shouldn’t be his. But what does he know, he thinks with despair. Maybe he is this Darkspawn. Hendrik seems to hate him enough to believe it, and the word feels like it belongs to him and him alone, like he’s heard it before. Maybe the title of Luminary belongs to someone else, someone with less darkness in them.

No. The World Tree speaks gently. The Mark of Light burns bright in you. Luminary. My Luminary. I chose you for a reason.

The mark on his hand glows again. It’s bright and burning and it cuts through the dark fog at the back of his mind, cleaving it cleanly in two. He sees it imprinted in the darkness when he shuts his eyes, watching it glow on the back of his eyelids. He hears Hendrik and Krystalinda barking back and forth, and he knows he needs to open his eyes, but he can’t.

Krystalinda said there was a darkness in him, and El couldn’t help but believe it to be more than a curse. But now, with the mark of light burning in him, there’s no room for anything dark at all. There is only a vast, loving light.

El chokes on a sob. When he opens his eyes, it’s to an angry burst of red in the snow and an arc of magic headed straight for him. He doesn’t have time to wonder if Krystalinda meant to aim for him or not before the magic soars over him, and he collapses, strings cut, and falls deeply into a cocoon of deep gold.

*

When he wakes, it’s with a jolt. Veronica is the first person he sees.

There is a scholar, too, but all he sees is her red hat and her red coat and her curve of her staff. There is something mesmerising about her. Something that has him quirking a small smile that he doesn’t understand.

“Of all the idiot, bone-headed, stupid things you could have done, running off like that really took the cake! Stop smiling like that. And what made you think it was a good idea to try and fight a monster like that all on your own? And with Hendrik too! Honestly! Sometimes you’re so stupid I can barely stand to look at you!”

El sits in the same cabin he was so alone in previously, and tries not to grin. It’s remarkable different to the last time he saw this girl and her brash demeanour. He’s been sleeping, Snorri tells him tactfully, while Veronica pauses for breath, for precisely one night.

“Very curious thing, too, when they brought you here,” Snorri says, peering at him clinically, like he’s worthy of dissecting. “I thought you were dead, but you were glowing like a lantern. Most peculiar! Veronica has been taking excellent care of you.”

“Snorri!” Veronica snaps, putting her hands on her hips and alternating her seething glares between the two of them, her cheeks red. “Stop all that staring and waffling and go and fetch the others, will you? They’ll want to know that he’s awake.”

When Snorri simply blinks at her, quite perturbed, she sighs and throws her hands up.

“Oh, fine! I’ll do it then, but you can come with me to help track everyone down. They won’t have gone far, but I’m not marching around in all this snow trying to find everyone.” She stomps her foot once. “It’s freezing.”

Snorri shuffles off out the door, mumbling and chuckling under his breath, and Veronica marches after him. El blinks. He still has no idea what’s going on, only that he woke up in bed with fewer aches than he thought, and found Veronica leaning over him with a frown and a cloth in her hand.

El shifts on the bed, and it creaks beneath him. He’s barely taken a breath before Veronica whirls around. She points a finger at him, deadly serious.

“Stay put. I’m only going to be gone for five minutes, okay? If you try and run off again, I’ll use Sylvando’s whip to tie you to the chair, understand?”

She’s gone before he can protest, the door slamming shut behind her.

The orb. Quickly.

El startles, but settles again as that ghostly voice grows gentle. Still urging, but gentle in a way that only the World Tree can be. He slides off the bed, silent as snow, and finds a crop of bags propped up against the far wall. His bag is there too, and he checks it to make sure nothing’s been taken or broken.

When he’s satisfied that it’s all as it should be, he rifles through the other bag until he finds it.

The Purple Orb.

A soft, weathered sigh fills the cabin. The air is suddenly warm, like that of a spring day, and carries with it that earthy scent of a morning after rain. El breathes his own sigh and adds the Orb to his collection. He doesn't question how the others had it, or how the World Tree knew they would.

One more. And then to the tree return.

One more. El fastens the bag and puts it over his shoulder, seeking out his swords. He frowns when he can’t find them, but there are no other weapons here either, which means they must be outside. Maybe they didn't want to bring them inside in case he woke up and tried to fight them, or maybe they were too dirty, and needed to be cleaned.

Either way, he needs to find them before he reaches Krystalinda.

He remembers her magic, and something in him sinks uncertainly. If she meant to aim for him, then their reunion won’t be quite as happy as he hoped, and he highly doubts she’ll just hand over the last orb if that’s the case. But if he can get there before everyone else, then maybe he’ll be able to convince her.

Either way, he’ll need his swords.

El throws a glance at the door, and then turns on his heel. The window takes a moment to open, but when the shutter finally bursts free with a crack, he crawls out of it and lands on his feet within seconds. Snow crunches beneath his boots. The crisp, cold air bites at his nose and fingers, but he pushes away the discomfort. He needs to move.

He has one foot forward when a voice cuts through his determination.

“Y’know, the first thing I learned about escaping a cell was to never go for the same exit twice. If you’ve done it before, and you’ve got a bit of a reputation already, then it’s better just to chuck the whole routine and start over. Otherwise it’s predictable.”

Stopping isn’t a choice. Even Yggdrasil couldn’t push him forward; even the gold light couldn’t make him move. Stopping isn’t a choice, and El stops because there simply isn’t anything else he could possibly do.

There’s a boy leaning against the tree opposite the window. Directly opposite the window, which means he was waiting for El’s escape. His hair is blue and his shirt is far too low for weather as cruel as this, but if he feels it, he doesn’t say. El’s swords are near his feet, but that barely matters now. Everything feels like it’s coming from the other end of a very long tunnel; every rustle of leaves and distant birdcall is muted, lost.

“El,” the boy says quietly. The word is strained; it sounds achingly tender, a hurt too sweet to hear.

El meets his gaze, caught. Darkspawn and Luminary are titles. He knows they belong to him, though he’s not sure how.

“El, you with me?”

But that, right there, is his name. Said so very quietly. El blinks slowly, drifting forward on unsure feet. Yggdrasil murmurs, hushed, but the boy has very intense eyes and that drowns everything out. He’s playing with a dagger, but it doesn’t feel like a threat, not with the way his fingers are trembling. Barely enough to be noticeable, but trembling all the same.

E-R-

El starts to sign, and then he stops. He drops his hands. He can’t quite remember the rest, and the boy’s face creases up in pain before his expression smooths out, blank.

It’s a very good mask. El almost believes it.

Sorry, El signs.

The boy snorts, shaking his head as he tucks the dagger into his belt. “You don't remember my name, or where you were born, but you remember that word. Why am I not surprised?”

An underlying thread of amusement wraps around those words. The other end of the thread wraps around El’s hands and stops them in their tracks. It’s familiar amusement.

The voice from the window. The hands on his waist. The laughter from his dream.

El tips his head up and stares at a blazing white sky, because he’s not sure he can stand to look at that boy’s face—so clear of emotion, with his eyes so deep with hurt and hope.

There’s a tree up there in the sky, somewhere. Her roots are tethered in the hearts of all the souls She grew with Her own tender hands. Their tether is the strongest: the Luminary and the World Tree. El can feel it. He doesn’t quite know what it is, but it feels like a vine-like thread wrapped around his heart, tugging him forward. Away from this place. He wants to go where it leads him.

But then he tips his head back down and meets the searing gaze of a boy with sea-blue hair, and he can feel something different.

Not a root or a tether, wrapped around his heart, but perhaps the half of it that he didn’t know was missing.

Chapter Text

‘Sorry.’

Part of his name. That’s all he got—that, and an apology—and he knows he should be grateful for even that much, but he isn’t. Erik wants to kick and punch and shatter the problem in two. He wants to climb through the locked, wary cell of El’s mind and steal the curse right out from under his nose. He doesn’t want bits and pieces and the barest hint of curiousity.

Erik wants to go home, but home doesn’t remember him. Home is too busy apologising.

‘I feel like I know you,’ El signs, when he’s finished studying the sky and the tree that lives there. When he’s finished looking at Erik like he isn’t quite sure what to make of him. ‘It’s on the tip of my tongue. But I can’t reach it…’

Erik clings tightly to the hope that swells in his chest.

El huffs, shaking his head. ‘Sorry.’

That word again. The hope breaks like a wave, and he says, sharper than he means to, “Don't worry about it. You got knocked about a bit, so I’m not surprised you’re all loopy. Oh, and that whole dark curse thing.”

The surprised, quiet laugh makes his breath stutter. El looks oddly bewildered, like he didn't expect Erik to be funny. Or maybe, whispers the ever-horrid voice in Erik’s head, he’s just not laughed since he left.

With swift, precise movements, Erik sheathes his daggers and swipes the lifeless blades from the ground. Snow falls from where it’s settled on the leather coverings in dribs and drabs. He adjusts his grip until he’s holding both of them out, hilt-first, to the suddenly unmoving figure in front of the open cabin window.

“I think you might need these.” The words come out surprisingly smoothly, considering Erik can feel them turning to rock and ash in his throat. “If you’re planning on going that way, you’ll have to deal with a pretty pissed off Ursa Major, and you’re not gonna want to take it on with your bare hands. Trust me, they bite.”

Eleven steps forward. Just one step, his boot sinking in the soft snow. It’s enough to bring him into the blinding light, away from the shade of an overhanging tree that climbs high into the sky, forming an arch over the cabin. Sunlight darts off the snow, illuminating the harsh lines of his face, but softening his confused frown.

It really is him, Erik realises, with a dazed sort of blink. Battered and tired, and thinner than he should be, but still him.

‘You really want me to have them?’ El signs, narrowing his eyes. ‘You’re handing them over? Just like that?’

“Seems that way, doesn’t it?”

He doesn’t like the suspicion in El’s eyes. There’s never suspicion when they’re together—not aimed at each other, at least. Hell, the very first time they met, Erik snapped at him from another cell, dragged him down into the sewers and got them both chased by a dragon off a cliff, all while keeping his identity a secret, and El didn't once look at him with suspicion.

‘Throw them on the ground. I’ll pick them up.’

Erik swallows past the ache in his chest. “See, orders like that will make a guy think you don't trust him.”

There’s no change in El’s expression. He manages to give off an aura of polite, stubborn discomfort, as though he’s sorry about all of this, but he’s very much not going to change his mind anytime soon. It’s actually familiar; he’s seen it dozens of times facing situations that neither of them particularly wanted to be in, but where El was determined to help even though it was inconvenient. Whenever someone needs something that can’t be found until it’s nighttime, or raining, or happens to be in the pockets of some enormous aggressive monster, and El promises to help despite all the chaos that will inevitably follow, Erik is treated with that look.

It’s almost comforting. He shakes his head with a rough chuckle and tosses the blades forward, careful to aim for a patch of snow somewhere in the middle of the two of them. Stabbing El isn’t really going to prove that he’s trustworthy. The minute the blades hit the snow, sending up icy halos, El darts forward, a blur of purple, and snatches them off the ground. His right foot digs into the snow as he skids to a sharp stop, clutching both hilts like a lifeline.

Bone-dry. That’s the current state of Erik’s throat right now. He closes his mouth with a click and puts his hands up, palms facing outwards. All the soft, squishy parts of him unguarded.

“Hey, calm down. You’ve got your swords, and don't think I didn't notice that you’ve switched weapons since you ran out on us, by the way. What happened to the broadsword?”

One of the blades lifts marginally as El inspects it. He seems to find his grip fairly quickly, straightening up out of his offensive stance. What was he expecting? A dagger to the back, or a boomerang to the face? There isn’t a single earthly circumstance that could force even one of Erik’s cells to harm this boy: his body is made to protect him, to uphold him. It makes no sense to see fear and suspicion there, but that’s what he sees.

El slides the blades into the loops of his belt, where the sheaths fit with soft snicks into their buckled homes. It’s surprising of him to let his guard down—or it would be, if Erik didn't know how fast he could move.

‘Who are you?’ El signs stiffly, peering at him as though he already knows the answer, and doesn’t like it. But he doesn’t know the answer, and that’s the whole problem.

Well, not the whole problem—Erik’s not that arrogant. But it’s a very big part of the problem, if nothing else.

“You almost had it,” Erik says, and then, “A friend. I’m a friend, El. I’m not surprised you finally snapped and nearly attacked me though.” He jerks his head at the swords, hanging limply from El’s belt. “Figure I’ve made enough bad puns to earn a beheading, at least.”

El hesitates. Something strange drifts across his face, before he signs, ‘There is no such thing as a bad pun.’

The sentence rings a bell, but Erik still blinks for a minute, brow furrowed. “Huh?”

‘A pun is a bad joke doing it’s job right. That’s what you said, isn’t it?’ El creeps closer, leaving hesitant imprints in the snow. ‘I remember that. It was dark and we were—in a hot place? A step. There were hot springs of water, and monsters, and we had been running. You made a pun.’

The words register like a wound, a sudden, aching wound across his chest. Erik sucks in a breath and nods sharply, tongue-tied. He remembers that too. It was just after they fled through the Doors of Departure, Hendrik on their heels, and landed in the craggy, dust-baked Hotto Steppe. El had tripped near the signpost, once they found out where they were, and Erik had managed to catch him, waggling his eyebrows and making several comments.

“I told you to watch your step,” Erik says, grinning through the ache as the memory fades. “And I stand by it, you know. There’s no such thing as a bad pun; they’re bad by design, so they’re only ever good.”

El shakes his head, a small, muffled laugh escaping him. This one is more genuine, like he pulled it from the past. It sets Erik alight. It’s almost embarrassing, really, how much that laugh warms him up and chases away the residual ache in his chest. Invigorated suddenly, Erik lowers his hands. So what, if El doesn’t remember everything? They can make new memories, and Erik can tell him the old ones like they’re stories in a book.

Erik laughs too, catching El’s attention.

He remembers El whining and covering his face in second-hand embarrassment, or perhaps just blatant shame, and he recalls the argument that followed with a gooey sort of fondness.

‘That was you, right?’ El signs, suddenly unsure. ‘I feel like it was. I remember how bright you looked.’

Erik coughs. While El flushes under his stunned gaze, the snow picks up, falling fast and thick. There is no predicting the weather this far North, nor how long it will rage and howl for.

“Yeah, that was me. We’d just got to Hotto. You really remember that?”

El shrugs uncomfortably, glancing to the side like he’s listening to something, some far-off siren’s call—and between one minute and the next, he has a weapon in his hands, and he’s charging forwards with intent.

“Woah!” Erik leaps to the side in shock, hissing like a scalded cat. Both hands in the air, he blinks at the sharp point of El’s sword and traces a circle in the snow with unsteady feet, backing up until the cabin presses into his spine. “Hey, woah, hey! What happened to the laughing and the blushing? I was enjoying that. Let’s go back to that.”

The blush returns, but El doesn’t laugh. What he does do is sheath his sword and flash Erik an apologetic smile. Sorry, that was the only way I could think of to get you to move. I want to stay… believe me, I want to stay. But I have somewhere to be.’

And then he whips around and takes off through the trees.

Erik gapes after him for half a second before his brain jerks back to life. Cursing, he scrambles forward and gives chase, determined not to lose sight of El. He isn’t hard to keep track of, a smear of purple in a bright world of swirling snow that gets kicked up in his wake, but he’s fast, Erik has to put effort into his sprint to keep up. He yells over his shoulder, a cursory sort of noise just in case the other idiots are close enough to hear him, but he doesn’t stop to check.

He’s not letting El get away this time.

*

The Ursa Major comes out of nowhere. Blanketed in chunks of fallen snow, fur matted with dirt and slush, it sizes them up. Drool falls from its maw like icicles. Erik skids to a halt, kicking up a curtain of ice a few feet from where El has crouched, panting.

“Damnnit!” Erik curses as the monster lumbers closer. “Can’t we catch a break out here?”

The curve of El’s spine tightens like a rope, pulled taut in his presence. Staying and fighting the monster with Erik is at one end of the rope; he wonders what’s gripping the other, and he hopes it isn’t more running away. But he needn’t have worried.

There is no world, no matter how unkind, and no beginning, middle or end that features Eleven running away from someone that needs his help.

El glances at him, a question in his eyes.

“Eyes up front.” Erik slides a dagger free and holds it like a friend. “I’ve got your back.”

Battle is never as quick nor as seamless as Erik would prefer; he likes the fast-paced thrill of it, sometimes, and the knowledge that he is useful, that he is doing something good with his hands at this very moment. The pounding of blood in his veins makes him feel alive like an old heist used to. But someone always gets hurt. He’s acutely aware of their last battle together, where El went down under a plume of cursed purple smoke and didn't get back up again, lying prone beneath a crying, dismal sky. It makes him edgy. He sticks far closer than he should, crowding into El’s space and taking more hits than he needs to.

But beneath the panic and the tense, fraying focus, there is a fluidity that’s been missing. A space at his side that he’s grateful to fill. Between strikes, Erik ducks a blow, rolling to the side and coming up to see a brilliant grin on El’s face. He manages to return it, his chest easing, and then another blow lands and they both surge forward again.

When the Ursa Major hits the ground, along with the rest of the curious sabrecats that showed up to poke their snouts in, and the air is filled with the dust of dissolving bodies, Erik slides his weapons away and breathes deeply. He digs into his pocket and pulls out an herb, passing it to El by habit. The three seconds of hesitation between his fingers and El’s isn’t habit, but he tries not to make a big deal out of it. Soon, he hears the parchment wrapper tearing in half, and then little munching sounds that have him swiping a hand over his brow to bury a grin in the crook of his elbow.

“Good job,” Erik says, after they’ve caught their breath. “All in one piece?”

’Mostly. You aren’t hurt.’

It’s not a question. El puts the wrapper away and nods in satisfaction, scanning Erik from top to toe. It occurs to Erik, then, that maybe he wasn’t the only one on guard for most of that fight.

“No, I’m fine,” Erik says. “And we better move unless another one of those things shows up. There’s bound to be more than a few monsters lurking ‘round these parts.”

El scans him up and down again, slowly, thoughtfully. Almost like he’s in a trance. There’s something in his piercing gaze that forces Erik to be still.

’We?’

“Yeah, we. Unless you don't want my company.”

El signs absently, ’Never said that,’ but he appears to be thinking about something else. Or rather—listening to something else.

Nobody said anything about the cursed key causing hallucinations, and there was no act of possession to go along with the memory loss. Not as far as they know, at least, but El hadn’t exactly stuck around for them to ask questions. It’s possible that in the days since El’s been gone, new symptoms have cropped up.

“Isn’t that a fun thought,” Erik mutters to himself, sending a grouchy look up at the sky, where the verdant tendrils of Yggdrasil’s branches stretch across the bright, clear blue. He waits while El listens to his secretive, silent voice, and contemplates shouting for Rab or the others; they can’t be too far behind now.

El slashes at the air in a frustrated motion, turning to sign at—absolutely nothing. Not that Erik can see. And isn’t that a fun thought too, the idea of invisible things hovering around his cursed, compromised companion?

Erik puts that aside. He can worry about that later.

“Uh, not to interrupt your little chat or anything, but in case you haven’t noticed, we’re kinda in the middle of a frozen wasteland. Not exactly the place to stand around and do nothing, is it? Unless you want to freeze to death, of course.”

El turns in surprise, hands falling.

In the silence, Erik thinks he can hear footsteps from behind him, but in all likelihood, they’re far-off. Sound carries in the Snaefelt. Things that sound close could be a thousand miles away, deep in the frost, and something lurking behind you could seem like it was a mile up ahead. It’s a horror that he learned when he was young.

El lifts his hands again, a glint in his eye—and Erik knows this boy. So he knows that there are going to be protests, and arguments, and even more distractions while he plans his next move.

And that just will not fucking do.

“Look, let me spell it out for you,” Erik says, strolling forward casually to poke El in the chest, the muscles bunching in his jaw as he forces out a smile. “I’m coming with you. Whatever’s going on with you besides the memory curse, that’s your business. I’m not gonna ask questions unless you want me to. But we were travelling with you because you needed us, and we needed you, and that hasn’t changed.”

El’s eyes are wide, and he’s close enough that Erik could just pull him in and refuse to let go. They don't hug. Not really. But right now he could make an exception, if it meant keeping El close, if it meant he had a way of hiding from the ragged, hopeful look in El’s eyes.

“You’re gonna keep running, right?” Erik murmurs. “And as long as you do, I’m going to keep running after you. Whether you like it or not, I’m not letting you go on alone, El.”

There is a long moment of quiet. Then El breathes in so steadily, closing his eyes in what appears to be relief.

His lashes fall like ships on the prominent wreckage of his cheekbones. Erik catalogues every shadow, the evidence of each frown that’s crept in since he left, and the stark outline of worry in the corners of his mouth. He adds it to his registry, the place where he keeps an in-depth leather-bound account of his observations regarding El, the Luminary, his friend.

It must have haunted him, to be alone. The Luminary’s destiny belongs to him alone, but El was never supposed to get there by himself. Erik swore it from the day they met.

“Hey.” Erik crowds closer, his hand straying until he can grip El’s shoulder. “Hate to break it to you, but just because you don't remember how annoying I can be, doesn’t mean I’m going to stop. You’re not getting rid of me.”

El shudders at the touch, and then his eyes fly open. There’s too much there for Erik to unpack, so he steps back with a sharp smile.

“You good?”

’Good enough. You can tag along.’ El flashes him a smile full of teeth and jagged relief. ’But only if you can keep up. I won’t slow down for you.’

And then he’s off again, with Erik laughing at his side this time.

*

They nearly don't make it.

Erik has one knee against the ground and is breathing hard when the others burst onto the scene, throwing fireballs and status spells around like ribbons. Erik backs away, dragging a frost-bitten El behind Sylvando as he shimmies into place.

“You catch your breath, darlings, and leave the hard work to us.” Sylv winks, his whip curling around the length of the arm. “Not much of a surprise at this point, hmm, Erik?”

Erik bares his teeth but doesn’t respond. El feels like ice in his grip, shivering under a heavy dusting of snow. Truthfully, he seems to have avoided most of Krystalinda’s attacks, though that doesn’t mean she pulled her punches when they did land.

’Medicine?’ El signs, his fingers trembling.

“Last one.” Erik warns him. “Savour it. You’ve eaten me out of house and home.”

‘My favourite,’ El signs. ‘Dry, chewy leaves. Who would rush this?’

The colour returns to El’s cheeks as he swallows the herb and sinks back against the wall to watch the battle. Krystalinda hovers in the air, shrouded in a blizzard. Her honeyed laugh echoes around the frozen town.

Erik hates it here. He hates the cobbled, icy pathways and the fountain in all it’s angled, geometric glory. He despises the glimmering gates and the rooves that slant down to let the snow tumble off them peaceably. He can’t stand the little paddock full of animals and the people that walk the streets. He hates it here with every fibre of his being, and he craves it with a part of him that he’s long-since buried, and yet it is undoubtedly worse to be here when everything is still and silent, when the people remain rooted to the ground and everything he hates and loves is frozen solid.

Sylv shouts something that sounds marginally mocking, and El huffs an incredulous laugh from beside him. He elbows Erik gently to get his attention, startling him from his narrow-eyed appraisal of the frozen statue manning a vacant stall.

‘Are they always like this?’ El asks.

Erik moves to answer, but a victorious shout from Veronica and a blast of heat from her fireball has him shielding his face instead, ducking away from the intense warmth.

“No,” Erik says, when they both surface again. “Sometimes they’re so much worse.”

El laughs with his eyes, more than his mouth, but it’s there too. A tilt and a hint of surprised joy in the corners that were previously full of worry. Even if they all end up as snowmen for the foreseeable future, Erik thinks, it will have been worth it just to see that laugh again.

“I’m turning into a sap,” Erik murmurs to himself.

He waves away El’s look of confusion just as Krystalinda utters a sharp, pained cry, and crumples like a castle of sand.

“Quick! Snorri, say the spell!”

The world is a rush of confusion and colour. Erik plants his feet, ready to rush forward if things go wrong, but the scholar stops stumbling over his words and sucks the ice witch into a dreary-looking book.

El makes a small noise beside him, like a protesting cry caught in his throat. Erik looks at him askance, but his gaze is fixed firmly on the book. There is something regretful in his expression.

The Queen that takes the witch’s place is familiar, if only vaguely so. But it is enough to set Erik on edge, to have his teeth digging deep into the meat of his lip.

“Hey,” Erik murmurs, catching El by the elbow before he can storm towards the promise of his orb. “I’m gonna wait outside while you guys handle the boring bit. But I’ll still chase you down if you decide not to stick around, so. Don't run off, yeah?”

El narrows his eyes, batting absently at the empty space beside his ear, as though to beat back a bothersome fly. ‘Are you hurt? Do you need… anything?’

Around them, Sniflheim has come alive. People that were mid-shout finish off their calls with a gargle and a burst of noise, and lights flicker to life in windows as though they had never gone out in the first place. A man with his foot frozen in mid-air takes a step forward and plunges deep into a pile of snow, tumbling to the ground in shock. The rest blink in bewilderment, rubbing their chilly hands together to get the feeling back into them.

Life and light and happy sounds. Exactly the way it used to be when Erik slunk through over the years, escorted by rowdy, jeering crowds of Vikings that roared and loomed and worked him to the bone.

El catches his jaw in a gentle hold suddenly, breaking through the layer of memory. Erik breathes through the shock of it, dimly registering the cold touch to his skin, and the everlasting warmth beneath it. El holds on a little longer, a sort of nostalgic smile sweeping across his face, before he retracts his hand.

‘Sorry,’ El signs quickly. ‘You went somewhere, but it didn't seem like a nice place. Can I do anything?’

Cheeks warmed, Erik shakes his head, gesturing for El to head on with the rest of the party. “Nah, but thanks.” The fact that he wants to help is more than enough, the fact that he cares despite some darkness hiding their history is mind is enough. “I’m just gonna wait by the docks, if you need me.”

El nods, backing up to where Serena is waiting on the bottom step. The others have congregated near the fountain, but he can see them watching, waiting.

“No running off, yeah?” Erik calls, before El can get too far.

El turns with a small grin. ’No promises.’

That would be worrying, if it weren’t for the steady light in his eyes. Erik watches him leave, throws a wave to Serena, and then ducks around the building to avoid most of the street, heading for the wide, open gates and the wide, open sea that awaits.

*

Half an hour later finds Erik hauled up on a barrel, foot kicked up as he avoids the curious gaze of a nearby merchant and focuses on sharpening his knives instead. The slide and shriek of metal against a whetstone is comforting, soothing in it’s rhythmic familiarity. It urges the panic welling in his chest down from a dull roar to a quiet simmer.

“Oi!” Veronica shouts, startling him into looking up. And there she is, hands on her hips, her red hood dipping down over her messy blonde fringe. She stops at the end of the dock to stare at him, and then huffs when he shows no sign of moving. “Don't think I won’t come to you. You’ve got some explaining to do!”

“Do I?’ Erik pockets his whetstone and fiddles with his dagger instead. “That’s news to me. How’d it go with old Queenie?”

Veronica snorts, marching closer until she can haul herself up onto her own barrel. Her feet swing idly back and forth, nowhere near to touching the ground. It brings a grin to Erik’s face that he doesn’t bother to hide.

“Turns out the Queen was still trapped inside the grimoire, and it was only my quick, clever thinking that exposed the witch for who she really was.”

“Yeah?” Erik chuckles. “Look at you go.”

“Where did you run off to?”

“I just needed some air,” Erik says, with a slight wave of his dagger. “Where’s El?”

“Inside the Inn, being fussed over by Sylvando. He wants to do a strip-search to check for injuries.” The look on his face must be priceless, because Veronica cackles, kicking her little feet in glee. “Oh, stop looking like that, you’ll give me a cramp.”

“It’s what you deserve.”

“Ha! Goddess, you’re so mopey when you’re away from him. You could have solved that by coming in with us, you know.”

Erik ignores this. “So, what’s the plan? Rest up at the Inn and convince him you guys aren’t evil.”

“Jade suggested we stay at the campsite instead, since that’s where we usually spend the night. She’s hoping it will jog his memory.”

It’s not a bad plan. Erik nods, twirling his dagger absently. They do spend most of their nights in the wilderness, waiting for the rain or the rising sun. It’s where Sylv taught Rab to juggle, and where Jade delivered a stunning kick to Serena’s shin when she crept up unannounced, only to spend the rest of the night curled up together, apologising and trading self-defence tips in equal parts.

“Good shout, but I was thinking more long-term.” Erik flips the knife and then taps it against the side of the barrel, thinking. “He got the orb, right? And that’s the last one, and we’ve finally caught up with him, so that only leaves us with one destination. Think we can convince him to make the trip to Arboria?”

Veronica shrugs. “Hopefully. If not, we’ll tie him up with one of Sylv’s whips and drag him along with us. Otherwise he’ll just run off again. Oh!” Her eyes get wide and bright, and she turns with a smile that speaks volumes about how much danger Erik is in. “That reminds me!”

Veronica punches him hard in the shoulder. It knocks him off the barrel—she’s never needed fireballs to be the strongest person in the room—and he staggers to his feet with a yelp, clutching his arm and scowling.

“Hey! What the hell was that for?”

“You were supposed to keep watch by the window just in case he ran out, while I went to look for the others!” Veronica hops up so that she’s eye-level with him, standing on top of the barrel with a wild look in her eye. “Not run about like idiots, fighting everything you came across and nearly getting yourselves killed.”

“Careful,” Erik warns her, straightening up. “You almost sound worried.”

Veronica growls, clenching her fist. Sparks dance around her knuckles. Her little nose goes up in the air, and she jumps down with another growl, storming away only to come marching straight back again.

“I can’t believe you didn't even wait for us before you tried to take on a witch! You’re both complete pig-headed idiots. What were you going to do if he ended up hurt?”

“I know he can’t be healed by physical magic, but I don't know any healing spells anyway, do I?” Erik reasons, getting irate now. “That’s why I made sure to have enough herbs before I even stood guard outside the cabin.” When she scoffs, he raises his voice and adds, “And besides! I knew you were on your way.”

“But we weren’t, were we? We went to the Library, like we planned, because it was still important! It’s a good job we did, too, or we wouldn’t have known about the beast or how to put the witch back in her book. Not that it worked anyway.” Veronica wrinkles her nose and huffs, before crossing her arms over her chest. “You’re lucky we came when we did.”

“Don't you think I know that?” Erik swallows the sharp jolt of fear at the thought and glares at her. “I’m not an idiot. I knew we couldn’t take her on alone. But she didn't put up much of a fight until you all came running in, and it was either let him run off on his own or stay by his side. What the hell was I supposed to do? He doesn’t trust us enough to stay!”

“I know!” Veronica shouts, throwing her hands up with an abrupt, deafening shower of sparks.

The dock falls abruptly silent. A few harried sailors duck past and hurry through the gates up ahead; Erik snorts, but otherwise stays quiet. The air feels like it’s thick with emotion, like he’s wading through an impossible portion of syrup. He has to frantically beat back the urge to retreat; now isn’t the time to pretend not to care. This isn’t about him, or what he chose to do. It’s not about him running, not really.

“I know that,” Veronica says again, quieter this time. When she hunches in on herself it makes Erik want to kneel and wrap her in a hug. A gruff hug. Not that she’d allow it, and not that he’d ever do it, but the thought is there, and he doesn’t know quite what to do with it.

It reminds him of another young girl not far from here, frozen just like the people in Sniflheim were, shining just out of his reach.

“He’s fine,” Erik murmurs. “I think he’ll stay with us now. He’s not hurt, and we made it out fine.”

Veronica snorts. “Only because the witch went easy on him. They had a nice talk while we were making sure the Queen was fine—apparently, they met before the rest of us got to Sniflheim, and she helped him with something. So she’s not all bad. And I know he’s fine now, but it was still scary, finding him like that. Lying in the snow, fighting that beast with Hendrik.”

Erik expels a sigh, watching it curl like dragonsmoke in the frosty air. “Yeah. Yeah, it was scary.”

“And it’s so frustrating!” Veronica snaps, before subsiding into quiet again. “Because we can’t heal him without making him worse, and he doesn’t even know that we want to help. He looks at us like we’re strangers. Or ghosts. He doesn’t remember us.”

Erik slumps back against one of the barrels. He’s been trying to push it away since they caught up with El. Watching him sleep in the cabin, face gaunt and drawn, was enough of a kick to the teeth. Seeing the window of the cabin open wide, later, while Erik kept watch because he knew this boy even when he pretended not to for his own heart’s sake, even when he wasn’t known in return. He had kept watch and waited with bated breath, unsure whether he wanted El to stay inside where it was safe or come creeping out to prove him right.

Either way—it hurt, that he would try to run again. That he didn't trust them enough to even stick around and see what they had to say.

“This sucks,” Erik says succinctly. “But… I don't think it’s all bad.”

Veronica tips her head towards him, her hat flopping curiously to the side. “Mmm?”

“He—uh. He remembered something earlier.”

Veronica brightens up, pulling herself away from the barrels. “He did? What was it? What did he say?” Then she pauses and adds, “Not that I was really that worried. It doesn’t matter.” Another pause, and then, “Well? Go on, then! Spit it out.”

“Uh-huh,” Erik says, dry as anything. “Look, it wasn’t a big deal, but he remembered something we did before we found you in Hotto. A joke I made.”

It’s not much, in retrospect. It isn’t boxes under the falls and the thrill of the jump. It isn’t the quiet, contemplative nights in the Manglegrove, where they first started to know each other. It isn’t the blinding, ceaseless faith that threads them together, flickering like a light in the dark.

“That’s good,” Veronica says firmly. “Maybe he’ll…”

He lets her ramble. A group of figures pour out of the gates to Sniflheim, one standing further apart from the rest. Even from here, Erik can see the wariness in El’s stance, but he isn’t running. He’s staying put, watching Rab gesticulate wildly while Jade offers him another medicinal herb.

A joke that he made months ago is not much of a memory at all, in retrospect.

But, Erik thinks, as Veronica muses on the promise of more memories to come, and they begin the slippery walk back to the gates of Sniflheim, where El and their friends are waiting—it is warm, and it is a start, and it is enough.

Chapter Text

Night creeps in quickly. A fire burns bright in the middle of camp, framed by blankets and bedrolls and stiff figures trying to appear relaxed. Like a chess game where all the pieces are sentient, and fully aware that the repercussions of one misstep are harsher than waddling off to the side of the board.

El still isn’t quite sure which missteps could be made, or what the repercussions are, but he has a feeling that it all hinges on him.

His bedroll feels heavenly beneath him. Even a thin layer of fabric between roots and hard ground is enough to make it feel like he’s sitting on a cloud. He’s sore from all the fighting, and it would be easy to fall asleep, if not for the words drifting through his head, the ones spoken in that earthy, rich tone.

He shouldn’t even be here. He had work to do, and Yggdrasil agreed that the time to leave had long since passed, but he couldn’t find it in him to move.

Please, Luminary. You must hurry.

The quiet chatter from across the campfire grows abruptly silent when El jerks as though hit. Veronica and Sylvando close their mouths and watch him in concern as he settles back in his cross-legged position, stretching his eyes wide to stay awake.

“Hey.”

The blue boy that followed him (and yelled at him and let him go, but not alone, never alone) sits in the dirt. Right beside El, skinny legs sprawled like needles in a heap of dark wool. The dirt clings to his boots. He casts a casual look at El, almost blank in its lack of emotion, lack of character.

El lifts one hand in a wave. The casual look cracks cleanly in two.

“You look like you’re about to drop,” Erik says.

Erik had cornered him before they left Sniflheim. They didn't go far—just to a small clearing overlooking the water, one that he had bypassed before. Erik had kept his hand on El’s wrist, holding on loosely, but with an edge that screamed I don't want to let go.

El’s skin had itched, and his feet had begged him to move. All the while, the World Tree whispered in his ear, urging him to run.

But then Erik had taken one look at him and said, “No running off, remember?”

And suddenly the only option was staying right by his side.

That didn't mean he wasn’t being pulled apart inside, though.

‘I feel like I might drop,’ he signs. ‘Need a hand with anything?’

“You know, usually when people feel like dropping and look the way you do, they go to sleep.” Erik prods a finger at the bedroll underneath him, mouth tilted in amusement. “Wanna give that a try? It’s never steered me wrong before.”

Sleep requires trust, and El has no room for either in his day. He pastes on a smile instead that feels as fake as Erik’s casual mask, and shakes himself to stay awake.

‘I’m fine like this. I think I need to be doing something.’

“Yeah,” Erik says, no longer amused. In fact, he almost looks rather sad. “Sleeping. Look, ever since I started travelling with you, I can rely on one thing: no matter what tomorrow brings, it’s never a dull day with you. You’ll need all the sleep you can get, and something tells me you’ve been skimping on it lately.” Erik scans him shrewdly. “That’s not like you. Usually it takes me hours to get you to open one eye.”

El swallows back the rising tide of panic. It’s thrilling, to have all of these pieces of him put out there in the open, but it comes with an eviscerating sort of pain. To know that Erik knows him, but not how he came to… it hurts.

He wants to know.

‘How did we meet?’ El asks.

Erik’s hands clench, one wrapped tightly around his own knee. “Huh.” He relaxes his hand, flexing his fingers, and says, “I never thought I’d have to have this conversation with anyone, let alone you.”

‘Let alone me? So it wasn’t an ordinary meeting then.’

Erik flashes him a quick grin. “I like to think it was one of a kind. Not many meetings start with a dragon, you know.”

From across the fire, Veronica snorts and adds, “No, just magical mishaps and missing sisters.”

“A pot dragon is technically a sort of dragon, isn’t it?” Serena muses.

“I hope you’re not suggesting that you’re little romp through the sewers was more exciting than our passionate first meeting!” Sylv exclaims, draping the back of his hand delicately over his forehead. “Darling, I chained up a big, nasty scorpion for you!”

This receives a flustered, scowling, two-fingered salute in response. El blinks at the onslaught of words and shoves his bewilderment further down. Yggdrasil is speaking, but he can’t quite hear Her over everyone’s fragmented stories. And he finds that he’d rather listen to them.

“How did we meet again, Erik?” Jade puts her hand to her chin, thoughtful. “Ah, yes. Wasn’t I utterly thrashing you in a tournament, while you stood there with your mouth hanging open?”

“You’ve remembered that wrong.”

“Aye, sorry lad, but I’m with Jade on this one.” Rab chuckles. “You were a wee bit slack in the jaws.”

“Alright, that’s enough! Seems like I’m the one with the bad memory, seeing as I forgot how nosy you lot are. Jeez, can’t even have a private conversation anymore.”

I’m the one with the bad memory, Erik said.

Except that’s not quite true, is it? Because El doesn’t have a bad memory. He has no memory at all, barring the few flashes that had slipped through the cursed smoke in the back of his mind. He muses over them, opening and closing his hands in his lap as he tries to think of what to say. The others argue with each other, voices friendly.

“Hey, he asked me for the bedtime story, not you lot,” Erik eventually snaps, hunching down against the rock behind him.

Sylv lets out a soft, “Ooh!”

El jolts. A bedtime story. Hurriedly, he signs, ‘I didn’t mean—’

“I know you didn’t,” Erik mutters. “But I hate to break it to you, but you’re just as human as the rest of us. You need sleep, and frankly our story is the best out of all of them, no matter what anyone else has to say about it.”

Our story. It’s enough to drown out Yggdrasil’s voice entirely. She lets out a sigh that swims on a breeze, cool on his face. Instead of reprimanding, it feels almost understanding. El waits for a scolding, for an urge to hurry, but all he gets is a soft, fading, whisper: Soon, Luminary.

Vaguely unsettled, El loosens his tense pose. He pushes back against the rocks too, before letting his eyes fall to half-mast. He won’t sleep, but there is no harm in closing his eyes. Just for a moment.

“Alright. So I was in a cell, for completely innocent reasons, when some guy gets dragged down and immediately starts making a racket…”

*

El wakes up. This in itself is odd, considering he intended to stay awake until the others drifted off and then—and then do what? Run? He already knows he doesn’t want to do that. But he can’t stay here either, in the circle of dampening firelight, with people that desperately want him to know them. To remember them.

“Wakey wakey, sleepyhead.”

The surface underneath him isn’t as soft as his bedroll, but it is warm. El shifts, curling his arms around it, and startles slightly when it coughs beneath him. There’s a heartbeat beneath his ear. He stiffens, but he can’t quite bring himself to move away from the warmth. Like a cat in a spot of sunlight, he stretches until there’s another cough, and then reluctantly peers up.

Erik looks back down at him. He looks torn between panicked and comfortable. It’s a strange look, like he can’t decide whether he wants to pull El closer or kick him across the campsite. El feels absolutely no shame in curling a little closer, covering his mouth with a yawn while Erik gets redder and redder.

“Uh, you know you’re lying on me, don't you?” Erik says. His hand hovers lightly against the small of El’s back.

El smirks, slow and sleepy.

“Oh, that’s—” Erik snaps his mouth shut, scowling. “Nice to see you haven’t lost your jackass sense of humour. Come on, up and at ‘em.”

Eventually, El does get up; for all of Erik’s complaints and grumbling, he doesn’t seem keen to make him move. The others wake up slowly too, although Serena seems to have been watching them, her eyes kind and rather amused at Erik’s expense.

With morning comes breakfast. Jade found eggs nearby - she was always a good gatherer, she tells him, when he takes his food with cautious hands, though she is an even better hunter - and there is a frothy, hot drink that tastes like heat and sweetness. El sips it greedily.

“Made it myself,” Rab says, with a hearty chuckle, watching El with keen eyes. “Good to know ye still like yer old Grandad’s recipes, eh?”

El wipes his mouth, clutching the flagon tightly. He doesn’t ask a question, but Rab must find one in his face anyway.

“Oh, aye. That recipe came from the heart of Dundrasil. Our old, sweet home. Ne’er a finer castle ever existed than Dundrasil, ye mark my words. Ah, it was your father’s favourite drink, that.” Rab leans in and winks, despite the wistful sadness in his eyes. “Yer mother liked her drinks a lot stronger.”

“Rab…” Erik begins, but El shakes his head.

‘I want to hear it.’ El puts the flagon down and leans in, his signs steady and strong. ‘I want to hear everything.’

“That’s a pretty long list,” muses Veronica, cross-legged on the opposite side of the dying fire. “Won’t it hurt to hear? I don't know much about memory curses, but dark magic is usually painful. It has side-effects and consequences.”

Another shrug has Erik stiffening at his side. “We’re not doing this if it hurts you. Your memories aren’t lost forever, and you’ll get them back eventually. Nobody has to do anything drastic.”

And wouldn’t that be nice, if the memories came flooding back of their own accord? El shakes his head slowly, thoughtfully. He wants that to happen. He believes that the memories aren’t lost. But for right now, there is so much he doesn’t know, and a little pain is worth what he might find if he does some digging.

‘I had a thought,’ El signs. ‘Maybe, by knowing you, I can know myself.’

Sylv lowers his drink with a slight crinkle between his brows. “Explain, darling. You want to get to know us?”

El shrugs. ‘If tell me about our past, and maybe I’ll remember something. If you tell me about yourself, then maybe I’ll remember knowing you. And that might help me remember who I am, too.’

Silence reigns around the campfire as they exchange looks. Then Sylv claps his hands together, a happy little laugh falling from his lips.

“I’d be delighted, darling! We can share stories, and you can let me brush that mane of yours.”

“If there’s one thing Sylv can do, it’s talk about himself,” Erik adds, in an undertone that has El chuckling.

“It does sound like a splendid idea,” Serena says, sharing a look with her sister. “Perhaps it’s something we can do whilst we travel? We aren’t far from Arboria now, although it will take a few days to reach the peak of the Highlands. We may even find someone who can help us when we get there.”

But something about that strikes El as odd. Maybe it’s the old lingering distrust of Serena, which makes him feel vaguely guilty in a way that he doesn’t want to examine, but he gets the sense that nobody in Arboria will be able to help him with this.

“Father Benedictus probably knows something about breaking dark curses,” Veronica says, nodding, but she looks troubled. “I wonder…”

They wait, but it’s only when Jade softly prompts her to speak that Veronica jerks out of her daze. Her expression brightens, and she climbs to her feet, reaching for her staff.

“Well, there’s no use hanging around here! We won’t know for sure until we arrive in Arboria, and we can’t do that unless we get a move on. Come on, you lot!”

*

There is a dragon encased in ice. El stands, fingers numb, and peers into one gravely furious eye. He can feel the malice pouring off this ancient creature, seeping through the icy cage that keeps it trapped.

“El?”

‘That thing is still alive.’ El stops signing and reaches out, gliding his fingers over the smooth, slippery surface covering the dragon’s snout. ‘I can feel it. Can you?’

A deep, dark noise shudders through the ground. It comes from beneath it, where half of the dragon writhes in agonised silence. But it isn’t fully silent, El realises with horror. Amidst the shuddering and the crack of ice, there is a voice. A cold, cruel voice.

“You must be Yggdrasil’sss chosssen. The World Tree has alwaysss made foolish decisionsss, but to choose you? To choose thisss?”

A shard of breath falls from his open mouth. El rips his hand away, but it’s too late; the eye is moving, rolling in the socket as the dragon tries desperately to lay its gaze on him.

“I sense a darkness in you,” hisses the dragon. “It is not yours, and yet it lives in you. How is this posssible? How is he, marked with light, a host to such darknesss?”

Then, just as El is about to reach for his blade, the dragon’s voice turns dark and menacing and full of intent. “Give your darknesss to me!”

“What the - !” Sylv spins around on the ice and makes eye contact with El, which is when he realises; they cannot hear the dragon.

But they can feel the earth move under his roar.

“Give it to me!”

“El!” Erik wraps an arm around his waist and yanks him aside, just as the ground begins to rumble. They slip on the ice, bashing knees and gripping each other tightly. Over the sudden pounding in his head, El hears Sylv gasp and the sound of footsteps as the party swarm him, but all he can focus on is the heaviness in his eyes.

Erik holds him. His other hand comes up to hold El’s waist too, keeping him upright, but he slumps anyway. Lands on his knees. Feels hands skittering along his shoulders and hears the panicked shouts - and then there are other, different shouts. Overlapping like frantic music.

The rain feels like daggers against his skin. But it isn’t raining now, not where he is. El lifts one hand to study the rain as it glitters on his numb skin. El plants his palms against the ice, the cold searing his skin. His hand falls. He lets out a strangled gasp. He blinks. He blinks again. There are feet all around him, and someone is kneeling in front of him, holding his shoulders desperately. The cold anchors him to where he is, rather than where he was.

It was a memory, El realises. Fragments of a memory. Pieces of the night when the dark curse settled in him, ripping his memories from him. The past had briefly become the present, and with it came an astounding rush of understanding.

Erik was the one shouting. While he lay in the dirt, staring up at the rain with glassy eyes that turned it all to a haze of piercing steel, Erik was shouting. Trying to get him to wake up. And El had been trying to respond because he couldn’t ignore that voice. Erik’s voice.

“El?” Erik touches his chin, tilts it up so he can see the blind panic on his face. “You with me?”

El nods shakily, swiping a hand over his cheeks. The tears keep coming though.

“Oh thank goodness,” Sylv exclaims, brushing a hand over El’s shoulder. “You scared us half to death, honey. What was all the banging? It felt like Erdrea was doing a little shimmy for us.”

“I’m more worried about you touching that dragon,” Erik says. “You went all weird and foggy in the eyes, and then everything started shaking. You sure you’re okay?”

‘Sorry,’ El signs. ‘I don't know what happened.’

It is Jade that helps him to his feet, Serena hovering at her shoulder. Erik kneels for a minute more while Jade passes a handkerchief over his cheeks, embroidered with emerald lettering. She dries his tears while he stands there, a strange warmth turning gently in his ribcage. This doesn’t feel familiar, exactly, but the expression on Jade’s face is a balm.

“There we go,” Jade says, folding the handkerchief carefully in pressing it into his palm. “I don't know what happened, but I think it’s best to get away from this place until we figure it out. The Arborian Highlands are beyond this Fjord, and we can rest there. You can walk beside me, El.”

It’s a nice way of letting him stand on his own without letting him be alone. El nods, glancing over at Erik as he climbs to his feet. He looks shaken, his fingers twitching near his dagger. The look he shoots the dragon in the ice is incandescent; El half-expects it to go up in smoke from the glare alone, but it remains mercifully trapped. Veronica scoots a little closer to Erik and elbows his hip, jerking her head forward. Whatever they talk about, El isn’t privy to.

“I think we should take a look at the instructions the physician left for you, El,” Serena suggests, as they reach the edge of the cavern in the ice. “It wouldn’t do to miss something, and if you’re having moments like that, or painful experiences, there might be an herb we can use. Magic is too dangerous and would likely only make things worse, but there are plenty of solutions in the natural world that could ease your mind!”

El moves to protest, but Jade cuts in. “That sounds like a good idea, Serena. If there’s anyone I trust to take care of him, it’s you.”

This brings him up short. He stumbles a little on the snow-covered rocks, before righting himself and clambering up the last of the ridge. The pathway to the Highlands sits like a fat snake in the distance, curved possessively around a hidden, Holy place. He helps Jade up the rocks, and then - after a moment’s consideration - he holds out a hand for Serena too.

She takes it with a quiet, “Oh!”

El pulls her up over the ridge. He’s not sure why he did it - it’s not as if she couldn’t climb it herself, after all. But something wouldn’t let him abandon the moment. Jade’s words creep into the back of his head, and he glances down into the Fjord, where Erik and Sylv appear to be squabbling over something, but there are no answers there. Erik doesn’t look at him.

The memory of lying in the rain lingers. He can still hear Erik shouting for him to stand, to get up, to wake up and say something and stay with me, El, you hear me, you have to stay with me.

The ground rumbles again, but with less vicious intent this time. El turns sharply on his heel.

“Do not run from me, Luminary. I can give you what you sssseek. Give me that darkness, and I shall return your memories to you. It is the only way.”

The temptation steals his breath for a moment. Yggdrasil is oddly silent. He contemplates turning around, but then he shakes himself; there is too much malice in that voice for him to trust its intentions.

“El?” Serena asks gently.

El shakes his head. He signs, ‘When we get away from this place, we can talk,’ and then he takes the path away from Sniflheim.

*

At the nearest campfire, El finishes telling part of the truth and accepts the surge of questions with grace. But he doesn’t get a chance to answer them, because Erik makes a loud noise and grins sharply.

“You’re hearing something,” Erik says, snapping his fingers triumphantly. “I knew it! You were acting all squirrelly, like you were having a private conversation, but there wasn’t anybody around. Someone was speaking in your ear, weren’t they?”

There is only one sign that means ‘Yggdrasil.’ El uses it now, and taps Erik on the ear. The touch startles him, and all around the campfire, mouths drop open like trapdoors.

“The World Tree is speaking to you,” Serena says, soft and reverent. “Oh, my.”

Dinner is quiet. El does most of the talking, which is quiet by nature, and then tucks into the bread roll thrown his way. Sylv, it seems, is an excellent baker when he’s not busy entertaining, and he uses a strange concoction of blended spices and flour to make a soft, sticky dough. Then he breathes fire on it, and the dough turns crisp and golden.

While El takes a bite and swallows an appreciative noise, the others confer.

“It does make sense that Yggdrasil doesn’t want you to stay with us,” Veronica finally admits, looking cross with herself. “We learned all sorts of things in Arboria that might help us protect the Luminary, but it was all… fiddled with. The history, I mean. It’s not...”

Serena and Veronica share a glance, before they both sigh.

“It’s not permitted,” Veronica says. “Talking about it.”

“Not permitted?” Erik asks, while El turns the information over in his mind.

“Oh, it’s complicated,” Serena says, her mouth crumpled. “Very complicated. But I always felt that it could have been much more simple, if someone only took the time to explain it to us. There was a rule, you see, that had to be adhered when discussing Yggdrasil. You have to do it with the utmost respect.”

“Well, that doesn’t sound too bad,” Sylvando says, after a beat. “Honestly, honey, I thought you were about to drop some big drastic bomb!”

Veronica’s little snort cuts off the murmur of agreements.

“Look, it’s not a bad thing, to respect Yggdrasil. She’s the source of all life.” Her expression softens. “She’s our Protector, and She is good, I believe that. I believe that with everything I am. But we were never allowed to ask questions! And there are some stories, some old stories, that got swept away.”

“Hidden,” Serena adds. “Hopefully not erased, because I doubt Father Benedictus would do such a thing, but he did hide them.”

“But too bad for him!” Veronica exclaims. “Because I’d already looked!”

“Wait, just hang on there lass,” Rab says, holding up one hand to stall the conversation. “I’m havin’ a wee bit o’ trouble with all this information. I just cannae get ma head around it.”

And El can agree, because he cannae get his head round it either.

Veronica sighs, and sits up. Her expression grows very serious, and she laces her hands in her lap. Even El leans in, waiting.

“People used to say that Yggdrasil was wild. I mean, She is a tree, so that makes sense, but there’s more to it than that. There was a passage in a book that I read once, about how ancient serpents used to flock to the World Tree, long ago. They were flying serpents, creatures of greed and malice, and they went to Her. To be healed of any wounds, and blessed with strange powers.”

‘The dragon did seem familiar with the tree.’ El taps his fingers thoughtfully against the top of his bit of bread, then bites down with a shrug. Once he’s swallowed, he looks up and catches everyone looking at him with varying degrees of fondness. ‘What?’

Jade laughs softly. “The funny thing is, I think I missed even your terrible eating habits.”

“Me too.” But Veronica sounds preoccupied. “The dragon in the ice might have known Her. It might have known what people used to say about Her, that she was wild and didn't care as much about - well, no, that’s not true. Yggdrasil always cared about us, about the lives she creates. But…”

‘She cares about all life,’ El signs. ‘All of it at once. She has to do what’s best for the world.’

A tense silence follows his statement. Rab puts down his empty flagon and sighs deeply. “Aye, I wondered. It does make sense, what the twins and ye have to say about it. What’s best for the world, in this case, is the Luminary.”

“What are you saying?” Serena puts her hand to her mouth, her eyes creased with worry.

“I dinnae think for one second that the World Tree had anything to do with that curse. But I do think She was wilder than we remember, like ye said, and some of that wildness remains. I think She saw a chance and took it. Some have guessed that if El weren’t El, then he’d only be the Luminary. That if you take away all the parts of you that matter, all the important bits that make you El - like your memories of friends and family and happy times - then all that’s left is the Luminary. Someone with a destiny that can save Yggdrasil.”

I did not quite believe it, comes that sap-soaked voice. Yet I had to try.

El remains quiet. He won’t tell them what was just said, but he knows they must have seen something in his face change, because their eyes drop. Erik shifts closer, a warm presence at his side.

I thought that if I took away the time it would take for you to trust your friends, you would come to me and we could fix all of this immediately. But you are not only the Luminary. You are yourself, and that is why I chose you. The people you love are part of you. They are a part of what makes you my only hope. Forgive my desperate measures. I was wrong. I will wait for you, Eleven. Luminary. El.

El tips sideways and lands against Erik’s shoulder.

“Woah,” Erik says softly, but he presses a hand gingerly to El’s back. “Hi there. Take your time.”

Take your time, Yggdrasil tells him gently, and just before she fades for good, El hears her add, But perhaps not too long.

He can’t help but chuckle, despite how wrung out he feels. A weight that he hadn’t noticed before lifts from his shoulders, and he breathes in long and slow before sitting up properly. Again, he doesn’t share what was said, but only because it isn’t something he can put into words.

‘When we get to Arboria,’ El signs. ‘That’s where we find Yggdrasil. Isn’t it?’

Veronica shrugs. “It’s not the end of the journey, but yes. We’ll have to speak to Father Benedictus, and then I imagine he’ll want us to travel through the First Forest, but it all starts in Arboria.”

“You have a question, don't you?” Erik asks.

El hesitates.

“Aye, ask away, El. Whatever it is, I’m sure we can do something about it!” Rab puffs up, a beam on his face. “Go on, lad.”

‘I want to take longer than we need to,’ El signs. ‘I want to delay the trip to A-R-B-O-R-I-A. We can still travel there, but I want to set up camp near here, and wait.”

Baffled looks are passed around the group like hot stones. Sylv is the one to lean in and ask, “Care to tell us why, darling?”

‘I don't remember you. Any of you. All of my memories are hidden behind dark, cursed smoke, in my own mind. If we’re going on the next part of our journey together, then I would like it to be with people I know and trust.’ El glances at Erik, taking in the sad, encouraging look on his face. ‘I would like to get to know you, but there isn’t time if we head straight for A-R-B-O-R-I-A. I know we have a time limit, but if we can, I’d like to make some time for you right now.’

*

The days pass blissfully slowly. Sylv regales El with stories every night. Little bits of their past together that he should already know - and when he doesn’t respond to Sylv’s gentle prompts and questions, Sylv doesn’t complain. He brightens the moment by leading him right to the conclusion, and puts on a show while he’s at it. He is a noisy, friendly burst of light and colour and teasing jokes. It doesn’t take long for El to like him.

Rab doesn’t have many stories for him, not of their time together. But he has stories of the world, of the places he’s seen and the people he’s met. He tells El the history of these places, and then outlines his own history in soft, nostalgic tones.

“Ye never knew yer parents, and I’m sorry for that. Maybe ye couldn’t have that time with them then, but ye can have as much as I can give you now.”

Both of them end up in tears more often than not, though El’s eyes are the quickest to dry.

The place they pick to camp is on the outskirts of the main path. Veronica assures him that they don't get many visitors, and that the place should be fairly deserted. It’s unlikely that someone will spot the small cluster of bright, cramped tents, and if they do - well, everyone here can handle themselves, El included.

But Jade doesn’t quite believe that.

“I saw you fight Krystalinda,” she says, kicking him lightly in the shin on the third day. “It wasn’t bad, but there’s always room for improvement. We sparred often, once we travelled together. You even bested me in battle the first time we truly met. I want to make sure you haven’t lost everything I’ve taught you.”

El gets up hesitantly, but even as Yggdrasil tells him to leave, to run, not to trust them - he joins Jade in the small clearing off to the right of their tents. Halfway through Jade correcting his stance, Erik comes to lounge on the grass and mock him mercilessly.

“You’re supposed to run away from her feet, not into them,” Erik tells him, as he stands and pants and prods gingerly at a bruise, watching Jade with a wary, impressed gaze. And then Erik adds, “I don't think dodging means what you think it means.”

El copies Erik’s two-fingered salute, glaring. Jade swings her boot in an upward arc. Erik laughs at him when he falls on his face - not once, but twice. Afterwards, El is sweaty and bruised, and he aches unpleasantly, but he also knows how to hold his own. He can get two or more hits in before Jade throws him on his back.

‘That was brilliant,’ El signs, and Jade stops wiping her brow to smile at him, soft and crinkly-eyed.

Erik drawls, “It was also brutal.”

El sighs, and falls forward onto Erik. He makes sure to cover as much of him as possible, hiding his sweaty forehead in Erik’s neck while he wriggles and complains, whining of all things.

“El, come on,” Erik says, trying to push him away; the roughness of his fingerless gloves catch on El’s hair. “You stink.”

“If Erik is saying it, then it must be fairly bad,” Jade says.

El grins into Erik’s shirt. He can’t help but notice that despite the pushing and the swearing, Erik’s other hand is wrapped lightly around his hip, holding him in place. Seems like he doesn’t mind the smell as much as he pretends to.

When he’s bathed in a nearby stream, the aches become a little less pleasant to deal with.

El takes his time to find Serena. He isn’t outright avoiding her, but he doesn’t go out of his way to join her either. But this evening, El steps around his usual seat beside Erik, and taps Serena lightly on the shoulder. She’s reading a book, a spoon halfway to her mouth, and she looks up with a surprised gasp at his touch.

“El! Goodness, what happened to you?”

El touches the faint bruise on his cheek, and smiles wryly. “J-A-D-E happened. I hate to ask, but can you help?”

Serena drops her spoon with a clatter, a dainty noise escaping her. She sets everything down and reaches for her bag, which bulges a little more than everyone else’s. “Of course, of course! Now, let’s see here…”

Cross-legged on the dewy grass, El lets her dab a strange purple paste on his cheekbone. Then she takes his hands and wraps a cloth around his fingers, dampened with a foul-smelling oil. He wrinkles his nose, and she laughs.

“Yes, it’s not the most pleasant of aromas. But it does excellent things for the joints - the healing potential is astronomical, really, if I could only find a way to grow the specific flower that produces the pollen I need. But it grows in very particular temperatures, and I’m afraid - oh, I’m rambling, aren’t I?” Serena withdraws her hands suddenly, her smile falling. “You have somewhere to be, I expect. I apologise for keeping you, but here, take this herb with you. I think it might help with your headache.”

El blinks at her. ‘How did you know about that?’

“I…” Serena twists her fingers together, and smiles wistfully. “I know you, El. Whether you remember it or not, we used to be friends. You would come to me with your headaches, so we tried different a few different herbs, and this one was the most effective.”

All of a sudden, El feels like the worst person alive. He lets his shoulders slump, and signs, ‘I haven’t been a very good friend, have I?’

Across the fire, Veronica cackles suddenly, pointing at Erik’s unimpressed expression. Sylv, kneeling nearby with his own bowl, starts to chuckle too.

“I think you’ve been a perfectly good friend, given the circumstances,” Serena says, drawing his attention back to her. She sniffs tearfully. “Though I do wonder… why is it that you disliked me the most, out of all of them?”

El shakes his head. It wasn’t dislike, and to some extent, it wasn’t even distrust. It was probably an odd mix of confusion and not knowing who to turn to, but the fact was; Serena was the person he saw first, the person who looked at him like she was expecting more any moment now, and El couldn’t give it to her.

‘I did not want to disappoint you.’ El takes a deep breath, staring into her wide, bemused gaze, and signs, ‘You seemed so kind. I know you were lying about my name, when we first met… for the second time, I guess. But you still seemed kind. And after that, too, I could see how nice you were and how much everyone loved you. You all look at me like you’re waiting for something, and you were the first person to do that. I can’t give you what you want, though. I don't remember you, even though you were asking me too. I didn't want to disappoint you, so I avoided you, and the more I did, the more guilty I felt -”

Serena grabs his elbow, stifling his words but not stopping them altogether. She has tears on her cheeks, and she sniffles before pulling him into a gentle embrace. It grows very tight, very quickly, as though she knows how much he needs this. And he does. He does need this, and something inside him must remember it, because he relaxes.

“Your name,” Serena says quietly, “is El. Sometimes Eleven, and sometimes the Luminary. In Arboria, we grew up knowing you as Erdwin. Sometimes, when I look at you, I still see you as your ancestor. It’s all we were told, that we were descendants, and that was all that was important. When I first met you, you told me your name was El, and it shocked me even though it shouldn’t have. I expected you to be Erdwin.”

Her hands tighten in his shirt. “I am infinitely glad that you are not who they told us you would be. But when you lost your memory and you didn't know yourself, suddenly, Erdwin was all I could see.”

The breath rushes out of El slowly. He feels an intense surge of dislike for Arboria suddenly, and clings to Serena when she tries to pull away. She pats him clumsily, and he knows she’s okay, but he still doesn’t want to let go.

Across the fire, the laughing and squabbling grows quiet, before there are footsteps running towards them. They don't quite manage to pull away before Sylv throws himself at them, wrapping them in a huge, squeezing hug.

“I’ve been waiting for ages to get my hands on you, honey,” Sylv says, pressing a kiss to El’s temple and squishing him close. “And it’s always a pleasure to hug you, Serena, darling, as you well know. No group hug is complete without the whole group.”

They both laugh, and El holds on tightly.

*

Six days into their delayed camping trip, El creeps away from the group. He leaves the bag of orbs where they are, tucked away in a tent, and finds a place to sit. Just a small clearing where nobody will bother him.

There are fireflies in the sky. They glow gently, hovering over waxy leaves and bumping gently off tree trunks. El slides down against a tree and watches them, watches the light that fills the clearing. Then he looks at the mark on the back of his hand. Small, faint fireflies look brighter than anything that could possibly live inside him, but people all over Erdrea expect him to shine. And they expect it to happen soon.

Leaves rustle as someone draws near. El wonders briefly if he should panic, or leap into action, but then Erik starts muttering about bugs, and he relaxes. No need for battle. Of course it was Erik that found him. He’s not sure why he’s surprised.

“There you are. Wondered where you went off to.”

Erik’s feet enter his vision, and El follows the line of his legs, looking up until he finds the hand outstretched towards him. Erik has a casual smile in place, and his hair is in disarray. He waggles his fingers.

“Need a hand? You’re gonna get a cramp, sitting there like that. Something on your mind?”

Somehow, El makes his words look quiet. He watches his own hands distantly as he signs. Perhaps he’s finally growing into this language that he should have already known. Either way, his words look quiet and come softly, and with very little hope in them.

’I’m not going to remember, am I?’

Erik jerks, the shock rippling through him visibly.

’I’ve been trying,’ El signs. ’Believe me, I have. But I won’t remember, will I? All of these stories you keep sharing… they don't even feel distant, or familiar. They feel brand new. Like they came from someone else’s life.’

Erik drops his hand; it lingers listlessly at his side. “El…”

‘I thought if we spent time together, if I learned what we’re all like together as a group, I thought I’d remember, but I don't, it’s all gone, it’s all gone!’

El throws the words into being so harshly that he feels the forest grow still around him. A firefly drifts closer, and then comes to rest on a leaf, as though this part of the clearing is untouched by time, by movement.

But then Erik breaks the silence. “Maybe they did come from someone else’s life.”

This time, El is the one to jerk back in shock.

Erik falls to his knees heavily, all of a sudden. He crouches in the dirt and he latches onto El’s hands, holding them close. His fingers are warm and sure. His eyes hold everything that he won’t let himself say. El looks intently, tracing every unspoken word.

“Maybe this is a new you, yeah?” Erik tries for a smile. “A new, fresh start. Who cares if you don't have your old memories? You’re still you. And if you were more than Yggdrasil’s Chosen from the very beginning, then you’re more than that now. You’re not just the Luminary and it’s not just about doing what you think you have to do - and dammit, I wish you could see that, but I -”

El slides their hands apart, only to grip his wrists instead and pull Erik towards him. He curses, caught off guard, and falls against El’s chest, still held, still halfway through his speech, still unaware that El plans on kissing the words right out of his mouth.

“ - I don't know how to make you see,” Erik continues, “that we love you even when you don't know us. I love you like this, and that’s not going to change even if you don't remember. You’re still you, El, and I love you because - ”

El kisses him, but not to stop the words. He pulls Erik as close as he can, close enough to climb into, close enough that their hands and mouths and stuttering breaths blend into one person, one person that feels gloriously alight and can’t stop panting against soft lips. Erik takes his jaw in his hand and tilts it roughly, but his mouth is gentle. The song of the fireflies is not enough to break them from this quiet, mesmerising spell. El kisses him until his mouth is numb, until his fingers quake.

Then he pulls his mouth away. But they stay close, and when El can think again, he signs, ‘Will you teach me? All the things I’ve forgotten, I mean.’

Erik’s throat bobs as he swallows, and his voice is much gentler than usual, tempered with something raw. “Gladly.”

El smiles, and he can feel it glow. He isn’t sure about the old El, but he knows that this one will love Erik easily, quickly, and with everything he is.