Nadia was here. Nadia could see what had happened to him.
“ Don’t look at me! ”
Lucio’s first instinct was to try to cover the horns with his arms, and then the scars with his shirt, immediately hiding further behind Julian to use him as a shield for the rest of his horrible twisted body. It was too late, she’d already seen it all, but it was the principle of the matter.
Another thought occurred to him, a flash of paranoia he wasn’t sure was his own that drove him to grab onto the gangly arm that was protecting him and nearly yank it right off pulling him closer to his level, panic rising in his chest. “How did she-- did you tell her I was here?!”
“When would I have the chance to tell her anything? I was with you the whole time!” Julian was pulling back, looking shocked and rather hurt at the implications.
“I don’t know! Maybe you sent her your bird before you came here! You said you were going to turn me in at the start--”
“Why would I do that now !?”
“ I don’t know! ”
Nadia’s voice sighed. “No one told me. I came here of my own accord.”
Through the corner of his eye he saw movement, and instinctively he lashed out with his left hand - his claws caught empty air, but two dark arms caught his and promptly slammed him into the wall, keeping him pinned there. Bright green eyes bore into his soul again, contained in an expression of barely repressed rage. Nadia was standing right behind them, still staring at him.
“Don’t you dare attack the Countess,” Arsenic hissed.
“Please don’t crowd him,” Julian said, uncertainly, resting a hand on their shoulder. “He’s stressed out enough as it is.”
This turned out to be a mistake, as they promptly whirled on him instead. “Stressed out? He’s stressed out?? How about me, Julian? You think I’m not stressed out? I was worried my fucking FIANCE was DEAD in the water somewhere! On the trip to his homeland to fucking marry him! What was I supposed to do without you?! Did you think about that?!?”
At once the taller man cringed away as if struck, clear guilt on his face. He hadn't been thinking at all and they all knew it.
"Don't yell at Jules, it's not his fault--" He wasn't thinking either as he shifted from his place against the wall to reach for the captain, trying to keep them away from Julian.
With that same violent suddenness that reminded him of himself, they whirled back toward him, striking him across the face and shoving him back up against the wall while he was still reeling from the pain, trying to hold it together, trying not to let Nadia know just how weak he'd become. He didn't bother fighting it, staying where they put him.
"You're absolutely right! It's yours!"
It was, wasn't it? He could hear Jules' rant in his mind, the one he thought he was directing to the Devil. Everything was fine until he came in. He'd ruined everything. Like he always had, and always will.
"I know," Lucio said quietly. "I'm sorry."
His captor's grip faltered, mouth half open as if they had been about to give him their own version of that rant, immediately derailed. "You're what now?"
"I'm sorry ." He put more force behind it this time, wincing as his voice cracked.
".. you have changed."
Nadia was approaching him again, regardless of the potential danger, that same graceful, confident stride. She had aged just as gracefully, not a trace of silver in her hair, now floor length, a few wrinkles at the corners of sharp eyes, along her brow, defined and yet barely noticeable. She didn't look like a Countess, she looked like a queen.
She came to a stop next to Arsenic, within arm's reach, and immediately he turned away from her, remembering what she would be seeing.
"I didn't want this," He gestured at his horns, shifting on his hooves. This was meant for Arsenic as well, before they got any ideas to the contrary. "I tried to stop him but I couldn't--"
"That is not what I meant, Lucio. I believe this is the first time you have actually verbalized those words in my presence.”
".. yeah, actually."
The captain slowly released him and stepped back, something more like guilt in the place of rage, once again clearly not expecting him to show his underbelly and unsure of how to proceed without that righteous fury to guide them. They probably had a whole speech prepared on the way over.
Lucio remained against the wall just in case, a brief flicker of disappointment he knew wasn't his passing through his mind. He wondered why the Devil was disappointed. Perhaps he’d hoped they would beat his ass. There was an edge of longing in it that didn't quite fit, though the beast remained unsettlingly quiet, content to let him try to puzzle out unfathomable intentions.
He glanced back toward Nadia just in time to watch her hands come for his face, and for a brief moment he saw avian features over her human ones, large red eyes and an owl's beak. He fell dead still, almost paralyzed, allowing the soft brush of her fingers along his temples, even as he could hear both Arsenic and Julian trying to warn her against it.
"The High Priestess. She told you." He blurted out, biting back a whimper. “But how did she --”
A flicker of lavender wings in his mind, quickly consumed by crimson fog, sudden and familiar pain left in its wake. He felt a shift of weight, tense and suspicious.
"I do not know. All I know is that I have been having dreams -- or maybe visions -- of you for years." She gently turned his head this way and that, examining him. "At first I thought it was a guilty conscience, of sorts. I did not know why, I still believe we made the right choice. We could have simply killed you."
He shuddered, but said nothing, just letting her handle him as she pleased, claws digging tightly into his palm to keep from striking. His left arm felt hot and restless, as if it was actively straining against him to strike, needed to strike, needed to push her away like she had done to him years ago.
But he couldn’t. He didn’t dare move.
Her eyes moved to the ugly purple scarring across his heaving chest, magic burned into the flesh, reaching to touch it and then drawing back with a frown, even before he flinched. "I did not see when these were made. They may have already been there when the visions began. But last night.."
She was looking up, past his face.
"I saw what he did to you. Vividly. I was there, I felt it, as intensely as if it was myself. I knew I had to find you before it was too late.” Clear worry was on her brow. “I had hoped you would learn to take responsibility for your mistakes in a far kinder manner."
He heard the others' frantic voices again, his only warning before Nadia abruptly stepped forward and wrapped both arms around him in a tight embrace, pulling him close and burying her beautiful, regal face into his neck.
"I am truly, deeply sorry." She sighed, and it sounded like she had been holding that in for a long time.
For a long moment, he just stood there, dumbstruck. It took him that much longer to realize what exactly she was doing.
The idea of escape never surfaced in his mind for a moment. His mind was in disarray, feeling that barrier against another breakdown cracking, splintering, blinking back tears as he desperately tried to hold onto some shred of composure before it all broke apart. She couldn’t see him break. Not like this.
Slowly, carefully, hesitantly, unsure if he was allowed to touch her, his arms began to coil around her, holding her much less tightly in an awkward embrace of his own. She tensed but didn’t move away, and in fact seemed to tighten her grip, accepting this.
All at once his body crumpled, nearly collapsing onto her, dangerously close to dropping to his knees and begging for forgiveness, instead clinging to her and sobbing into her shoulder, his grip tightening on her fine clothing but not enough to damage it any further than his tears already were. He didn’t know when was the last time she’d held him like this. When she’d cared about him like this.
He didn’t deserve it. He couldn’t possibly push her away.
“I missed you, Noddy. I missed you so much. I missed you and the Palace and my dogs and the Masquerade and sleeping in a real bed in a real place and having somebody, anybody I could just talk to--”
All at once it was pouring out of him like the tears, unable to stop, even if he knew there was an audience. He was drowning and she was the only anchor.
“I was alone and scared and it was so horrible in there, you don’t understand, I just-- I just wanted things to go back to how they were before I died, when people cared about me. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I want to go home. Please don’t send me back.”
Don’t trust her.
The burn of claws was at the base of his skull again, as if he was trying to pull him back, out of her arms. He couldn’t understand it - she was just hugging him. She was too noble to bring a knife for his throat, let alone slit it in the midst of an emotional torrent. She wouldn’t attack him while he was defenseless.
“Oh, I-- I should not have done this. Forgive me.” Her voice murmured against his throat, her body tensed further against him, like holding onto a steel wall dressed in finery. “I can take you home, but you are not going to like it.”
“You can?” He managed, cold dread beginning to gather in his gut all over again.
Nadia slowly began to extricate herself from his grip, her face grim. She looked as though she was on the verge of tears herself. “You are hereby under arrest for trespassing in Vesuvian territory, in direct violation of the edict I gave you at the Devil’s Gate.”
Lucio stumbled back against the wall, shaking his head. He felt as though he might collapse, spindly limbs shaking beneath him. Immediately Arsenic and Julian were flanking him, the first mate holding him steady while the captain stood between them and Nadia, serving as a shield despite being the smallest one in the room.
She had hugged him, and now she was betraying him. The Devil was right.
“Surely the Lazaret doesn’t count as stepping foot in Vesuvia,” Arsenic quickly chimed in, with all the assertion of someone who wasn’t talking to the current Countess of Vesuvia.
“ And all of her territories.” Nadia sighed. “This wretched place falls under my dominion as well.”
“There has to be some kind of legal loophole to get him out, or at least in a position that isn’t rotting in prison for life. ”
“He doesn’t even have feet.”
One bronze hand raised, silencing any further argument. “The most I can offer is a fair and legal trial - but I cannot go back on my word as Countess, especially for .. sentimentality’s sake. I cannot allow my feelings to cloud my judgment.”
The hand outstretched towards him, albeit with a magician in the way.
“Lucio, please. Come with me willingly. I do not wish to harm you.”
The world shifted red as he stared at her hand, his own hand gripping Julian’s arm to keep himself on his trembling hooves, unconsciously pulling him closer. What would happen to Jules? Or Arsenic? They were accomplices. They had been harboring him. They would go down with him, wouldn’t they?
Why did he care?
“Rest assured, I will have the best magicians available to work on a solution to your current affliction while you are in custody.”
If you go with her, death is assured. The Devil’s voice murmured solemnly into his ear, nearly at the same time. For you, and the rest of them.
One mistake is all it takes, isn’t that right?
“I-- I can’t. I don’t want to die in prison.” He glanced towards the others, then back to her. “They-- they were taking me out of Vesuvia, before-- all of this. I was leaving. Just let me leave. I won’t come back, I promise.”
Her eyes remained hard, but her brows furrowed, for a moment looking as if she might crack.
“Noddy, please . Let us go.”
Distantly he could hear Malak’s alarm call again, a renewed flare of panic in his chest. Guards, guards, quickly, guards.
“Did you come alone?” Julian’s voice asked.
Nadia’s shoulders slumped, her hand drawing back. “Unfortunately, I did not.”
Movement drew his attention to the decrepit doorway behind her, and the openings in the walls around them - humanoid shapes, too many of them, dressed in the unmistakable colors of the Vesuvian Royal Guard, surrounding the crematorium. Pinning them in. Pinning him in. He was trapped.
“I did not know how hostile you would be when I found you, so I took some precautions,” The Countess explained. “Do not worry, they have strict orders to bring you in alive - but they are allowed to use force if necessary. Please do not make it necessary.”
She was withdrawing, straightening to her full commanding stature and stepping back as the guards in the doorway began to file into the room, more closely surrounding them. Arsenic stepped back as well, moving from standing in front of him to standing at his other side, their hand resting on his shoulder and pulling him close while their eyes remained on the guard.
“When I give the signal, I want you to run as fast as you can.” They murmured into his ear.
Julian edged that much closer, a wry grin on his lips. “Thinking of getting rowdy?”
“Being in good standing with the Vesuvian government was nice while it lasted.”
“I-- I want to get rowdy too.” Lucio managed, glancing between them. “I can fight.”
The captain shook their head, squeezing his shoulder. “No, you have to run. My lifeboat’s moored on the shore behind the crematorium, we’ll hold them off as long as we can and then meet you there. You can leave without us, I can’t stop you, I just-- really rather you didn’t.”
That was a fair assumption to make, though it stung. He bit his lip and glanced between the two of them again, that odd cold feeling coiling in his gut. Eventually he’d have to find a word for it, if it was going to keep happening to him like this.
He looked directly at Arsenic. “I don’t understand. You-- you were going to turn me in. This is your chance to get rid of me. Why are you helping me?”
“Julian’s not the only champion of lost causes.” They snorted. “In fact, I had the title first.”
“Darling, if you’re making this into a competition of who has made the most bad choices, I’m afraid both of us have you beat.”
They muttered something along the lines of ‘it’s not my fault you had a head start, old man’ before releasing him and stepping towards the guard, straightening up to their own commanding stature, Malak puffing up his feathers on their shoulder. They were looking past the wall of bodies directly at the Countess, holding her gaze.
He immediately grabbed Julian’s arm again and hissed into his ear. “What’s the signal?”
“Have you come to a decision?” Nadia was saying, gazing down at them imperiously.
The captain swept forward in a deep, dramatic bow, bent too far down to actually represent anything but disrespect. It reminded him of Jules. Malak squawked and took wing, perching on the rafters and scowling down at them.
“Yes, we have, Your Excellency.”
Tyrian eyes narrowed, but she continued to watch them expectantly.
“While we appreciate the thought, I’m afraid we’ll have to decline your generous offer to take this miserable sod off our hands.” They straightened up and shrugged. “I regret to inform you that we will be taking our leave, with or without your permission.”
Lucio was about to ask if that was the signal - and then they promptly wound up their arm and punched the nearest guard full force in the face.
All at once the room around him descended into chaos, the rest of the guards swarming the captain en masse, Julian pulling himself free and diving into the melee, gangly arms swinging, yelling like a wild man. Limbs and bodies flying all over the place, bare-knuckle brawling like a bar fight, the scent of blood practically singing in the air.
And they expected him to stay out of it??
Over the writhing mass of bodies he could see Nadia looking dead at him, eyes wide in alarm as she must have realized they were nothing but a distraction.
Against every fiber of his being screaming to join the fight, he turned on his monstrous heels and bolted for one of the openings in the wall, claws outstretched to catch any stragglers.
“Quickly! Seize him!”
Another wave was pouring into the room from the openings, most of them headed for him instead of the others. His claws caught on fabric and flesh, using that momentary resistance to fling his victim at their comrades, putting some distance between them and knocking them to the floor, accidentally trampling over them with his hooves in his haste to get past them.
He could hear the pounding of steps behind him indicating part of that pack had caught wise and was coming after him from the rear, rapidly approaching, more rapidly than he could move, even on these strong legs. He hunkered down to shoulder the ones in the front out of the way, and found himself snatched back and thrown to the floor before the first man was down, unable to recover before they were piling on top of him, pinning him down with their weight.
No. No, he refused to let it end like this.
With a frustrated cry Lucio thrashed and kicked against them, managing to twist himself over on his stomach and nearly getting his hooves beneath him before someone was grabbing his arms and roughly pulling him back.
He heard a similar cry and glanced up in time to see both Arsenic and Julian given the same treatment, undoubtedly distracted from their fight by his predicament.
They had lost. It was his fault.
Nadia sighed and stepped towards him again, and this time he attempted a snarl in lieu of lashing out with his claws, baring sharp teeth and desperate intentions. She flinched back accordingly. He refused to feel bad for it.
“I suppose I should have expected something like that. Take him to the ship.”
“Yes, milady.” The strong arms holding him abruptly yanked him upright, beginning to drag him back towards the opening in the wall. He dug his hooves into the floor as hard as he could, to make their job that much more difficult.
“Wait a moment, Your Excellency - may I have a word with him?” Julian’s voice piped up. “It shouldn’t take very long.”
She frowned. “Are you going to behave ?”
“You have my word.”
“You expect me to trust the word of a pirate.”
“And a friend.”
After a long moment of deliberation, she reluctantly nodded, allowing the man holding his doctor prisoner to release him.
Something in his tone didn’t sit quite right, but relief still flooded him as Julian approached, leaning down towards him and gently cupping his head between both hands as if he meant to pull him in for a kiss. For the moment he stopped struggling, leaning into his touch.
Jules would save him. Wouldn’t he?
Uncertain grey eyes bore into his own, as if he was trying to stare past him. He sucked in a deep breath, leaning closer in until their foreheads touched, gathering strength in the silence. The longer there was silence, the more his relief began to fade into dread, as if he knew what he was going to say and didn’t want to hear it.
“I accept your terms.” He murmured, finally, grim determination on his face. “I can get you out of here.”
There was a shift of weight in his mind, stepping forward as if called. He realized where he was looking. Who he was talking to.
“What the hell are you doing?!” Lucio immediately jerked his head back, trying to break that tender grip. This couldn't be happening. This couldn’t possibly be the secret he was hiding from him. His vision was steadily growing more red. “You’re not-- he’ll kill you!”
“I have to do this.”
“No, you don’t! Arsenic, tell him!”
Somewhere behind Jules, Arsenic was just staring at the both of them, slack-jawed and paralyzed as they seemed to realize what was happening as well.
“Listen to me,” The grip against his jaw tightened, painfully, pulling him forward again. “If I don’t do this, he’ll kill you instead. I’m sure of it. The minute you’re taken out of here, he’s going to consume you. You’ll be gone. You won’t exist anymore, you understand? I can’t-- I can’t let that happen.”
“And you expect me to be fine with that happening to you ?!”
Julian was smiling, a sad sort of smile that made his heart hurt, eaten up by the crimson fog like a portrait slowly burning into ash. The last he saw of him was that distant look in his eye.
He was compelled to do this, he realized. This wasn’t his own choice.
“It’s alright. You’ll have other doctors, other friends. You don’t need me.”
Something inside him snapped.
“ I love you, you fucking idiot! ”
Both the hands cradling his face and binding his arms faltered in the vacuous silence that followed, and just before the Devil’s weight slammed into the forefront of his mind he twisted around and kicked his captor in the gut as hard as he could, bolting outside through the brief opening in the ranks left behind.
He didn’t know if he was going the right way, he just knew he had to go . If there was one damn thing he was good at in this world, it was running away from danger.
The red in his vision began to fade, the Devil’s influence shifting to grab onto his new legs instead, making every frantic step as heavy and painful as possible, trying to drag him back, drag him down. He could hear his voice, refused to listen, let him snarl and growl uselessly against his mind as he pushed onwards despite feeling like his hooves were about to fall apart.
Ash and stone became ash and twigs became a blur of shadow and light and foliage as tears were gathering up in his eyes, forcing him to tear blindly through the dark forest, the pain in his chest outweighing the burning in his legs. He felt like he was going to die again.
Bastard. Monster. He knew he was going to pull some kind of stunt like this. He couldn’t let him have anything for himself. He wondered if Jules would have been so quick to needlessly sacrifice himself if he hadn’t tried to heal him, hadn’t already put a bit of the bastard in his head.
… he would. It was Jules. He’d been trying to tell him, maybe even ask him for permission to do it, and he didn’t even notice.
What did he even need Jules for? Why did he need Jules, specifically?
..was he going to be alright without him? Would Arsenic know how to fix him?
He felt the urge to double back to check on Julian, maybe bring him with him, and for a moment he almost did-- clamping down on it and running faster as he realized it was probably a ploy from the Devil.
Julian didn’t need him. Julian would be better off without him.
It wasn’t an uncommon thought, especially here, but it hit him so much harder this time, like someone had slammed a sword through his back, slicing through his heart and dragging him to the ground in a boneless heap of limbs and emotion.
Distantly he realized his hoof had caught on something and that was what sent him to the ground - but he couldn’t get up either way, managing to pull himself up onto hands and knees before violent sobs racked through his twisted body, sending him back down into the dirt. He curled up where he fell, drowning again without an anchor.
I love you, you fucking idiot!
He was the fucking idiot.
He shouldn’t have said it, put a name on it. Even if it was true, and he was certain it was - Jules didn’t need to know, was fine not knowing. Told him as much. And yet he just fucking said that , in front of God, Nadia and everyone. He should have tried harder to push him away before it got that far. He should have been strong enough to push it aside, bury it, destroy it, like everything else he didn’t understand.
And then maybe, eventually, it would just go away.
… he wasn’t sure if he wanted it to go away.
It wouldn’t make a difference. Julian was stubborn enough to hold onto his. Julian would keep chasing after him until one or both of them died or something worse. And if the Devil didn’t kill him now, he would have to keep fending him off him. He wasn’t strong enough to keep that vigilant, not anymore.
He didn’t want to be alone again. He’d grown used to the bastard’s companionship, having one person in two realities that he could trust. But for his safety, he couldn’t let him catch him. He had to be alone.
A raven’s shriek startled him from his reverie, too close for comfort.
Of course. Malak was tracking him. Never trust a bird.
Lucio scrubbed at his eyes and staggered to his hooves, the burning in his legs now somewhere higher up, crushing his spine, as if the Devil was trying to lift him by the scruff or push him back to the ground and hadn’t the strength for either. Compared to the pain already twisting through his heart, it was practically nothing.
Had to keep moving. Had to outpace his thoughts. Couldn’t let himself keep thinking about it. He knew for a fact he could spend hours thinking about it, paralyzed in an emotional stupor.
He stiffened as he felt a sudden weight on his horns, falling dead still as it moved to his shoulder instead, the all too familiar points of avian claws in his skin, the less familiar tug of a beak in his hair, either trying to preen him or trying to gain his attention or some combination of the two. His throat tightened, threatening to start sobbing all over again.
“Don’t do this to me, bird.” He murmured. “Go back to Jules.”
The bird remained on his shoulder.
“I’m serious. You need to tell him I’m not coming with them. I can’t.”
He wasn’t sure if Jules even had that kind of connection with him, considering his decidedly non-magical background - but it was worth a shot, wasn’t it?
When Malak continued to not budge, he sighed and reached up to scritch him with his flesh hand, barely feeling the nips from his beak. “Okay, you can come with me, on the condition that we part ways at the shore. Deal?”
A noncommittal croak. Stubborn, just like his master.
What the hell was he supposed to do now? Was he supposed to stick with the plan? He couldn’t face either of them now. If he found the boat, where was he supposed to go?
He didn’t have anywhere to go. He had nothing and no one.
Right back at square one, except he was weaker and more useless than he had ever been before, even when he was dying.
A half choked sob escaped him before he could stop it, and he felt the gentle tug of a beak in his hair again, giving him something else to focus on before he could start drowning again. He resumed scritching, a wry smile playing on his lips.
"You better stop that before someone thinks you care about me. S'fine. I'm fine."
His egress was that much slower now, to account for his passenger and the lingering ache in his legs. He just had to hope he'd gotten enough of a head start before collapsing pathetically in the dirt to afford a more careful pace.
To distract himself from distant thudding that sounded like footsteps, both too close and too far away, and the gnashing of restless fangs inside his mind, he talked to Malak.
Talked at him, really. Told him anything that came to mind - battle stories, things that had happened in the realms, how when he was very young he thought his mother’s familiar could read his mind, somehow, and would pass that onto her. He remembered trying to convince Jaeger that the moon wasn’t real, just to see Mama’s face when he told her.
“One time he caught me doing something I wasn’t supposed to, so I tried to bribe him with a rabbit. He threw its guts on me and tattled to Mama anyway.” He sighed, lips twisting into a pout. “Awful bird. You’re a good bird. You’d take a bribe, right?”
A harder, more insistent tug on his hair, almost as if he was trying to pull it from the root.
“Hey, no, ow-- it’s a reasonable assumption, I mean Jules would take a bribe--”
The tugging didn’t stop, and in fact felt like he was yanking his head back - at the same time he felt his hoof slip on a hard edge, both hooves sliding out beneath him and aimlessly kicking at the air as he fell backwards into the dirt. He wasn't sure what sound he just made, but he was glad no one but the bird was around to hear it.
Malak fluttered onto the ground next to him, and he lurched forward with a snarl, preparing to give him an earful for knocking him on his ass.
The words died in his throat as he caught sight of the path before him.
It was overtaken by a large, oddly round chasm surrounded by ashen stone, both natural and unnatural, a gaping void with no apparent bottom. He hadn't noticed it before, too busy running his mouth. He had almost walked straight into it.
After a moment, he numbly reached to stroke the raven's feathers. "G-good bird."
Without his own voice as a distraction, the distant thudding had grown louder, footsteps drawing that much closer, the murmur of human voices echoing throughout the dark forest.
The pit ahead of him looked too wide to go around, not without potentially butting him back up against the search party - and like hell was he going to try walking across it. Climbing down there on its own looked like a death sentence, even if he had normal feet.
Once again he was trapped between death and the void.
What a shame. I suppose you should turn back .
His hand immediately came up to slap at the side of his head, not prepared to hear that voice again yet, so focused on his predicament he’d forgotten to keep tuning him out. “Shut up. Shut up, you did this, this is your fault, I don’t have to take advice from you.”
Lucio hissed and staggered to his hooves again, unable to keep them still, nervously pacing at the rocky edge, trying to look for a solution that wasn’t simply crawling down a steep cliff face if he wanted to keep going. It was looking more and more unlikely, and the anxious stamping wasn’t helping in the slightest.
“Bird. Bird, gimme a rock. I don’t wanna fall over.”
Malak croaked and hopped back up onto his shoulder, depositing a small stone in his outstretched hand on the way up. He immediately chucked it at the abyss.
He could clearly see its long descent into darkness - but at the start it made a soft splish sound, as if falling into water instead. At once he closed his eyes and furiously shook his head, and when he opened them, he found there was the glassy water of the pond Julian had taken him to in the place of the abyss.
Not a pit. Not a chasm. Just a pond.
God, the bird must have thought him an idiot, being scared of a pond.
Beneath the surface he could see movement again, small ripples of light instead of dark bodies swimming around. There was that odd calling , whispering from the water in the absence of the Devil’s trickery. Warm, almost inviting, a gentle pull of magic.
It wasn’t just a pond. It was a portal.
Oh, that wasn’t much better, was it? Given where unknown magic portals usually led.
He began to pace again, once again weighing his options. He still couldn’t turn back or go around. It was the realms or certain death. Death or death.
Something behind him clattered, manmade, and he whirled back to see how much closer his pursuers had come, fast enough to nearly dislodge the raven from his shoulder. He found nothing but the haze of foliage, a distant shuddering of leaves giving a clearer indication of where they were. Not distant enough.
He couldn’t be sure that wasn’t another trick from the Devil to keep him here while they caught up. He couldn’t trust his senses at all.
Turning back to the pond cemented this, as in its place now was the wide open maw of one of the creatures that lurked in deep water, the heat of its breath on his face, the acrid scent of decay nearly choking him, his chest seizing up in panic, nearly dropping him back on his ass on the shore.
It couldn’t be here. It couldn’t be real. It looked real. That was just water. It had to be.
Are you sure you want to risk it?
Inside its throat he could see the glimmer of lights from before, still calling him, a deadly lure. The one thing that he could trust was real about it, he hoped.
The Devil was very clearly trying to keep him from going in. That meant he had to go in. No matter what it looked like, or felt like, or smelled like. He looked towards Malak, still perched on his shoulder, wondered how much he could see, if anything.
“Okay, change of plans. We part ways here.” There was an ominous hiss from the creature - pond - before him and he flinched, clamping his eyes shut and shaking his head. “You stay here and tell Jules-- tell him not to come after me. Okay? I have to do this alone. I have to set things right.”
If his escape from the realms had ruined everything, then returning to the realms would fix it.
He felt the bird’s weight move off of his shoulder without protest, the thumping of wings somewhere higher up, presumably into a tree to keep watch. He could still hear the creature in the water shifting in its tiny prison, sounding very real and alive and hungry. He pressed his right hand over his eyes to keep them from opening again, no matter how much he wanted to.
It was just water. Just water.
The Devil’s voice was growling against his ear again, growing more frantic, but once again he refused to listen to it, backing up a few paces from the ashen stone and then launching himself directly into the creature’s mouth, just as hot and lifelike as he expected, threatening to crush him as the water pulled him under.
It was a trap. It was killing him. He shouldn’t have--
No. Focus. There was nothing there but water and magic. Magic water.
He could feel the all too familiar sensation of magic tugging at his bones, trying to draw him through the veil, time coming to a stop. Even though he knew what that feeling was now, it didn’t make it any less welcoming, so much more comfortable than the one in Arsenic’s ship. He could also feel his body beginning to slip, as well as the Devil pulling back, trying to get away from it.
Lucio mentally dug his fingers into his own body and the fur of the dark presence inside his mind before forcibly shouldering his way through.