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When she was a child and still didn’t understand why a sword had been pressed in her hand, Yasha dreamt of growing up and becoming the Skyspear. That was a woman with power, with strength. She had control over not just her destiny, but the destiny of the tribe, and they all trusted in the Skyspear to do right by them. Yasha has now outlived that Skyspear, and many who earned the title after her. She knows why she holds her sword and what power from behind a blade means. She hopes she has done right by the others, but the only thing Yasha believes anymore is that she will never control any destiny, least of all her own. If she could, Yasha would be able to die.

The first time Yasha saw death, it was at her own hands and she was a teenager. Hunting that day had been put on pause, and her and the others of her age were to compete in fights for entertainment. She had been buzzing with excitement, finally she was old enough to participate in the event that would earn her Marking. She would be chosen for adulthood and Yasha would get to be important, not just one of the children who had been shuttered indoors for the day. The children are raised communally in the village so parents who have leadership roles in the tribe don’t show favoritism. She was a severe child, never prone to chatter even at an age where it would have been acceptable, always studying and learning. The children of her age were supposed to be like siblings (a word Yasha would learn much later) but she never felt a kinship with any, happier to memorize plants that were good for eating and practice with her weapon than play games with her peers.

That morning when the sparring trainer paired them off Yasha was to fight Kostya. They had been evenly matched most of their lives, and where Yasha was serious Kostya was laid-back. He was much more liked than her, better at making friends while she spent more time with her sword than she did other humans. But he was still good in a fight, and they went at one another ruthlessly for longer than they had ever been allowed to. Yasha didn’t understand the tightness of the air, why it felt like everyone was holding their breath while they fought until Kostya was too slow to deflect a blow and Yasha’s blade sunk into him with a sickening crunch. Paralyzed, unable to believe what she had done, Yasha sunk to her knees and bared her neck in preparation to be executed for murder on the spot. She broke one of the most important laws of the tribe, she just prayed her punishment would be swift. She waits and waits and then Kostya stops breathing. When he does a cheer erupts, her trainer is pulling her up to raise her fist in victory and Yasha now understands why the children don’t watch this day. She looks to the other children her age and they mirror her expression of shock. Yasha is suddenly very glad she doesn’t have friends, at least she’s not going to have to worry about which ones will be killing the other.

That night her kill was been celebrated over the feast that had been organized to mourn the passing of Kostya and two others. She was chosen to be the first of her age to spill blood, and that meant that Yasha got to pick were she would start after her Marking. She still doesn’t understand this, doesn’t understand how what they’ve done is allowed in the tribe. But she knows she can kill. So Yasha asks to work under the Moonhunter.

She can’t look at the children in the village the same anymore. She doesn’t want to know their faces, notice which ones are gone. She is the only one like this. Even the pair that were marked with her seem to adapt to it. Yasha just cannot understand, the callousness and celebration at the death of children every handful of seasons. The tribe is supposed to protect one another, not whatever this ritual is. Every time another couple gets paired of as mates by the Skyspear, Yasha feels herself relax more and more from a tightness she did not know she carried. To be mated means you will produce children for the tribe. Yasha already cannot look at the children, to be forced to look at them knowing that she grew one within her body and brought it to the world for it to likely die before adulthood. She knows herself well enough to know this would cause her madness.

Zuala joined the tribe around twenty seasons after Yasha’s Marking. Still mateless and in near indestructible fighting shape, combat with Yasha was one of the trials that Zuala had faced. She only agreed when the Skyspear promised combat to the death was not required for the Marking of someone who joined the tribe later in life. Yasha didn’t allow herself to breathe until Zuala had been marked in ceremony. Now she was tribe, now Yasha would be allowed to protect her. They work well together, and the Moonhunter assigns them as partners. Yasha, for the first time in her life, has a friend. And Zuala is beautiful, with dark blue eyes and chestnut hair the color of which Yasha had never seen before. Zuala lets Yasha braid her hair and will return the favor. Her own hair is the color of moonlight and Zuala thinks it looks best with silver beads. They sleep side by side in the house for unmated women and Zuala helps Yasha come out of her shell and convince her to, for the first time in her life, look at other people.

“What names do you like, for children?” Zuala asks one day while the both were on their bellies in marshland, waiting for the pack of beasts that had been coming to this spot regularly for the past two seasons.

Without hesitation, Yasha replies “Kostya.” And, after a pause “But we don’t get to name children. It’s the job of the Skyspear’s council,” she turns her head to thoughtfully eye the woman next to her “surely, they told you this.”

Zuala huffs, a fond grin ghosting across her face “I know. But my parents gave me my first name, and still ones after that.” Her smile deepens at Yasha’s transparent confusion “Like cub, little one, names that came from affection. My mother was fond of using kitten when I was getting into places I shouldn’t.”

She has to break eye contact to hide a smile of her own, but Yasha couldn’t bite back her teasing remark “I can picture that too easily, you being shooed away from fresh bread like the Lorekeeper does with the cats that get his jerkies that we’re not supposed to know about.” Talk of parents is something that is still strange to her. It’s strictly forbidden in village walls, but words whispered in the moorlands that the council cannot hear won’t hurt them.

Yasha is rewarded with a laugh from Zuala, one of her real ones that is so full of life and joy that Yasha is surprised the woman next to her doesn’t sprout wings and a beak and go join the songbirds where she clearly belongs “My parents used different names with one another too. Names of love.”

“What ones do you remember?”

“I heard my father use goddess divine once, which had my mother laughing so hard she had to sit down to recover. But the ones they used most often were the names of flowers we grew in the gardens.” She rolls to her side, and slowly trails a finger from bridge to point of Yasha’s nose, drawing out a full body shiver from the woman beside her “I was thinking Wildflower would be a good name for you. Free, blossoming in so many colors,” her voice drops to a whisper “and so beautiful.”

Oh is the only thought Yasha’s mind can form before Zuala leans in to kiss her. Yasha wants to stay there forever, fuse their bodies starting with their mouths. She understands now, why they stay celibate after the Marking because this is a feeling she could get addicted to. They do nothing more than kiss but Yasha has never felt more alive. They break apart when their prey comes, and they work as one to take down their biggest catch of the season.

“So?” Zuala asks as she ties the legs together so the two of them can haul it over their shoulders

Yasha fiddles thoughtfully with a turquoise bead that holds one of Zuala’s many braids in place. “Your hair is one of the first reasons I looked at you,” Yasha finds herself admitting softly “it’s so unlike anything I had ever seen, too beautiful to be real. Is… Is Cattail an unromantic name?”

There’s a soft thud as their prize is dropped to the group and Zuala turns to pull Yasha into another kiss. “No. You picked it just for me, I love it.”

It’s not too many seasons later that marry near the marshland where Zuala first called her Wildflower, Yasha binding their hands with spare bandages while they were out on another hunt. Women were never given to one another as mates, so they see no reason in waiting for the Skyspear’s words to break their hearts. They knew that once they were assigned to others that their duties would change, and they would not be allowed the freedom they had now. But it hasn’t happened yet. Yasha had proposed marriage, and Zuala had nicked the bandages the last time she brought the healers herbs that couldn’t be grown in the tribe’s village. They cannot have much, but they have this.

They allow themselves two things. Yasha and Zuala lay with one another, both nervous and inexperienced but they cover mistakes with laughter, and it feels so nice that both are thankful they had the courage to do so. They also allow themselves to make mating braids, but don’t tie them with beads. They’ll fall out before the day is over, but Zuala wants something real, something she can touch and feel, and Yasha had never been able to deny her Cattail of anything.

They returned to the village with a good haul, laughing while brushing shoulders, and are stopped by the Moonhunter at the entrance. “Huntresses, the healers are reporting missing supplies. You’ll forgive me for asking if you took them and forgot the proper ritual.”

Her words are too specific, alarm rises in her chest as Yasha’s lips try to form an objection when Zuala slings over her pack and opens it to hand them over with an apology. Zuala goes to pick up their prey again but stops when the Moonhunter holds her hand out in objection. The Skyspear joins them and picks up the bandages in examination. Yasha tells herself that they have no proof, they don’t know what has been done. But then the Moonhunter grabs for Zuala’s hair and her fingers find purchase on the offending braid, half unwound but still present, their act of defiance catching the sun’s last rays for all to see. They are descended upon, and Yasha feels herself being torn down to her knees while the Skyspear searches for her matching braid as the final offense.

“Please,” she begs.

The Skyspear looks at her without remorse and says coolly “The punishment for ignoring the law of the council is death.”

The one thing Yasha allows herself to regret is keeping her eyes closed. They take Zuala up to the stone table first, and when she began to scream Yasha had to close her eyes so she won’t join in. Zuala’s tongue is stolen from her, but the Trueseer was new to her job and clumsy at it. Her Cattail was laid out on her back and, mercifully, quickly choked on the mixture of blood and vomit that flooded her throat. The members of the council that were present were not happy with this easy death. Yasha was pulled up, thrown on the table next to Zuala, next to her wife, and she knew if she opened her eyes she would scream too but she would not be allowed the fast death that Zuala got. So she kept her eyes closed and refused to open her mouth.

Yasha doesn’t know how long she lasted before she died. Sensibly, she could only have been on that table for hours but at the same time her body ached like weeks had passed. It seems unfair that her body still has to ache after she’s died, and that she starts her afterlife on the spot she and her wife were executed. But at least her Cattail will be smug with the fact that she was right about what happens after death and the Lorekeeper was wrong. Slowly, Yasha pushes herself up and allows her eyes to finally open. When she does, she is face to face with the Trueseer, a woman who is most definitely not dead. Yasha blinks, and beyond the woman in front of her she can see her tribe, in routine observation of the bodies of law breakers. Slowly, her gaze falls to the body beside her, and she sees Zuala for the first time, dried blood spilt all around her head, eyes still open in confusion and grief.

It will register later to Yasha that the bloodcurdling scream came from her own mouth. But now, all she can see is the Trueseer in front of her before she lunges with her last weapons, her teeth, aimed at the woman’s throat. Before she makes contact, Yasha feels a ripping pain from beneath her shoulders and her vision goes black.

When she awakes for the second time, the area has been abandoned and she is holding a sword. Yasha reflexively pulls it out of the body she buried it in and the blood of the Skyspear coats her weapon. Dozens of bodies surround her, some hacked to so many pieces she cannot recognize the people they came from. She doesn’t care. Yasha straps the sword to her back after cleaning it, and drudges back through her own carnage to the body of her wife. She carries Zuala back to that spot in the marshland and dedicates herself to tending to the grave. When your mate dies, you mourn for a season before you must carry on. Yasha will break this law too, as she finds herself returning time and time again, with new flowers for her Cattail’s body to feed and for the Wildflower to tend to. Yasha wanders and hunts and tends to Zuala’s final resting place for so long she eventually loses track of the number seasons that pass.

When she sees her tribe again, they have a new Skyspear that Yasha does not recognize. She is greeted with screams and an axe through her chest, which Yasha pulls out and watches as her skin knits itself back together. She looks up, feels the pain beneath her shoulders again and cannot stop her vision from going black once more. She wakes up surrounded by more bodies, with more blood on her hands and not a single mark to show for it. This is when she realizes she is cursed with a body that will not let out when it should. All Yasha wants is to join Zuala in death and this is the one thing the universe will not allow to do.

She cares for her wife’s grave until the flowers die and do not return, and Yasha knows that her Cattail’s body is nothing but bones now. She still stays in the moorland because it is the only home she knows, and now her cycle is just wandering and hunting. She occasionally encounters other humans, but she cannot control her vision from going black and waking up surrounded by corpses. The death of others no longer provides her with the feeling of relief, so she does her best to avoid civilization. She tries not to think of the faces of the children she sees. Yasha occasionally dies at the claws of the beasts of the land, but those deaths won’t stick either. When the going is slow in the cold seasons, Yasha will test her body and determine what she can come back from. On a brave day, she cut off her sword arm and promptly passed out from the effort. When she woke up, her body was whole as if nothing of note had occurred. She stops feeling so brave after that.

Yasha wonders when she is going to die, wishes for it, pictures the day where a sword will go up through her gut and the gash will finally stay. Then she begins to dream of drowning.

 

---

 

As far as everyone is concerned, Fjord entered the world as an orphan even though he knows he was born to his mother and had to have held him and kissed him, even if it was only once. He’s cared for by the taxes payed to the town and nobody thinks of him beyond that. He’s an unattractive child with a skin condition that sends most running away. Those that don’t flee try to take him to a temple for purification of whatever spirit has taken hold onto his soul and leached its treacherous work out on his skin by stealing its color. It doesn’t help that he’s a sickly child too, and the healers who treat him do not make their opinions that his treatment is a waste of their time a secret. Fjord knows he only survived because the cook at the orphanage was fond of him and would pay for what was needed to care for him when the rest of the staff would argue he was wasting copper that needed to go to other children. On his last day there, the cook will admit to him that it was all because he has his son’s eyes and daughter’s smile. Fjord knows better than to ask why he’s never met the cook’s children.

For as miserable as it made him as a child, Fjord is thankful to have been abandoned in a port town. The dockworkers don’t care what you look like as long as you are a good worker, and Fjord is determined to not be a waste of the coin that went into raising him. He builds enough muscle in his teenage years to have the strength required to load merchant vessels but keeps himself limber enough that he can scale masts with ease. A strong body in a port town is not one that goes unnoticed, and for the first time people are staring at Fjord and he is happy to let them watch.

It’s while loading the Pink Giver that Fjord is introduced to Vandran. The man’s skin is darker than the places of Fjord’s that still carry pigment, making his bright teeth and sandy blond hair stand out even more. He speaks in a refined cadence, and Fjord can feel the authority radiating off his words as they leave that white smile. It doesn’t take much to convince Fjord to leave home to see the rest of the Menagerie Coast, and five years pass with the blink of an eye. Fjord is his mentor’s right hand and in charge of hiring and managing crew and they all trust him and respect him. No one comments on how his patches have spread from their time in the sun, it’s treated as something that marks him as chosen instead of cursed. The first time Fjord falls into bed it’s with a woman who calls his skin beautiful and gently kisses along the lines like she’s trying to memorize them as a cartographer would dedicate mountain ranges and rives to their memory. He’s surprised with how much he likes it.

He sees Sabian for first time since the orphanage not long after, miserable and drowning himself in ale at the cheapest tavern in Port Damali. Fjord offers him a lifeline and Sabian takes it. They’re sailing together, Vandran is also fond of his newfound friend, and the reminiscent teasing about his poor constitution and weight as a child don’t sting but instead fill Fjord’s chest with a sense of fondness.

They’re the only two out on watch one night when Sabian points out a patch of glowing jellyfish that reflect starlight and Fjord turns to make some clever remark when Sabian kisses him. He doesn’t kiss gently; he kisses like he’s a drowning man and Fjord is his only source of oxygen. It’s different, but Fjord likes this too. They share a bunk and Vandran allows them to become inseparable and for the first time in his life Fjord lets himself to be incandescently happy and truly begins to believe he can make something of himself, in this life at sea with a father and a lover.

It’s also night when Sabian leads the mutiny and Fjord stands with Vandran, but there is no calm starlight. Lightning strikes the mast twice and Fjord can almost convince himself that this is all some terrible dream until Vandran takes a killing blow meant for Fjord that comes from a crewwoman he hired. Betrayed at the promise of a higher cut. When Vandran falls, Fjord thinks of the munitions they’re smuggling that only he and the captain know about and decides, fuck it. The few that were loyal had managed to escape in a dingy and this ship is just him and the mutineers, so he blows the Tide’s Breath out of the water.

Fjord clearly survived the explosion through some fluke, and his lungs are so waterlogged he doesn’t know how he’s still breathing. By the grace of some long-forgotten god of the seas, the dingy is headed his way. Fjord weakly waves an arm to catch their attention, closing his eyes and floating on his back while listening to the oars glide across the water in his direction. His eyes shoot open when a hand goes for his throat and he is hauled up by his neck to come face to face with Sabian, those lips that Fjord used to lavish with such care and attention curled in a hateful snarl.

 “Unnatural freak. I took you to bed for this, and you can’t even do me the simple favor of dying with dignity.”

All Fjord can do is spit on him and wish he had time for a retort that summed up his feelings of betrayal, despair and disgust before Sabian’s sword runs all the way through his mouth and Fjord knows he is dead for good this time.

When Fjord wakes up again it is dawn, he’s spitting out seawater and that damned sword as half a dozen curses fly off his lips. There’s a chunk of wood blown from the mast near him and Fjord is too tired to be cautious or ask questions while he hauls himself out of the water onto it. Before he closes his eyes again, he throws the sword as far as he can and drifts off with the image of it sinking to the bottom of the ocean never to be used again comforting him.

The sword is back in his hand and Fjord yells in surprise before he throws it again. He’s dehydrated and hallucinating surely. He should be dead twice over at least, this isn’t happening. Fjord drifts in and out of consciousness countless times and tries to drown himself twice before he sees dry land again. The sword keeps coming back. Dragging himself to shade and fresh water, Fjord finds that the trees all hold a golden fruit. He should be careful, but his gut is too hungry to care, and Fjord feasts with all caution thrown to the wind and is able to fall asleep peacefully with a full stomach and soothed throat.

He dreams for the first time. He dreams of screaming, hands wrapped around an impossibly large sword, two mismatched eyes going black, and a woman with wings. Fjord wakes up in a cold sweat and convinces himself the fruit has caused him to hallucinate. He has the same dream for a week before he understands. This is why he survived. An ancient goddess of vengeance has chosen him to be her vessel, and he must find Sabian and make him die on the sword meant for Fjord. It’s the only sense he can make of it all.

Fjord makes his way across the island, eventually determining that he’s washed up on Bisaft, and is thankful for its small population, low danger, and abundance of fruit. He teaches himself how to wield the blade that is bound to him, a falchion he’s later told. The goddess from his dreams uses a much larger blade, but some of her movements are still helpful as he figures out his own style. He also falls into old habits; one doesn’t spend the better part of two decades making themselves invisible and easily forget how to. He takes the one thing he can to remember Vandran by, his accent, and travels all along the coast, never staying in one town for too long and picking up coin when he needs to by doing manual labor. He breaks bones and watches them heal, gets stabbed during a mugging and stands up a minute later ready to take his coin purse back. For all his attempts, Fjord cannot lose the falchion that tethered itself to him. There is one part of Nicordanas he avoids for forty years because he sold the sword to the blacksmith and when he returned, he was accused of fraud and killed by the proprietor for it.

He tries his best to properly worship the divine figure that saved him, but Fjord does make the mistake of trying to ask around for several years. In some towns, worship of unapproved gods will get you killed. He also has the misfortune of being shot in the throat with a crossbow bolt during a thunderstorm for practicing his technique in an attempt to deepen his connection. The guard is mortified when she realizes her mistake, and Fjord insists she’s fine, and look it must have just pierced his armor how lucky. She’ll have to forgive him for falling over in shock, no he didn’t die he doesn’t even have a mark on him, really, it’s all fine and water under the bridge. Thankfully, with time and practice Fjord has become much more convincing than he was as a youth. He’s being kept alive to enact vengeance, but that doesn’t mean that he should be constantly getting himself killed. Fjord may not have had much of an education, but he knew that it takes incalculable amounts of magic to bring back a body that has been left lifeless, the kind of magic that hasn’t been seen since the Age of Arcanum. It’s one thing to die accidently, but he won’t waste her divine powers by getting himself constantly killed. Fjord tries not to think about the magic that has bound the falchion to him.

Fjord loses his hopes of satisfying his goddess after a century passes. Sabian never returned to Port Damali, the smartest thing he ever did in Fjord’s opinion. You can only ask about an average looking tanned man with dark hair and brown eyes who may be working under a false name so many times before people start to look at you with pity for being given an impossible task or with suspicion that you’re a murder with a type. Fjord figured after a certain point that Sabian would come to him, but that never happens either.

He still stays away from Port Damali out of habit, only returning when he gets news of a funeral for someone he knew before his curse began. The cook from the orphanage died while Fjord was in Bisaft, not long after the Tide’s Breath was considered lost at sea. He still blames himself a little for that one. It doesn’t help his confusion that the goddess in his dreams starts shifting, sometimes with her black hair cut short and with matching violet eyes instead of just one and an infectious laugh that leaves the back of his neck aching when he awakes. Fjord tries to figure out what he’s done wrong that causes the change but all he can determine is that the laughter is at him for his failure.

He also finds himself unable to share a bed with anyone. Fjord doesn’t realize it initially, but when he does it feels like he’s died all over again. He knows he’s fit and considered handsome in the right light, and he thought he enjoyed sex even just for the sake of having it. But every flirtatious remark brings back the childhood digs that Sabian reminded him of, every time he swaps spit it feels like that sword going through his mouth and out his skull. Touch becomes unbearable, kissing feels worse than poison (Fjord can say that for certain now, another incident from his attempt at structured worship) and the thought of sex brings a physical pain that won’t heal like any of his other wounds. Sabian has to be long dead, but the final wound from his betrayal refuses to heal. It helps that Fjord doesn’t stay in one place for long, but his unique appearance doesn’t do him any favors. He begins to dress darker and darker, draping scarves around his neck and over his mouth, avoiding eye contact so strangers will stop comparing his eyes to sea glass.

Not long after the last person who knew Fjord as a child dies, a third figure joins his dreams. Copper eyes that veer red like the blood from his first dreams, the feeling of suffocation but from inside the earth instead of out on the sea, and even more laughter. None of this makes sense to him. Is it a third face she’s now showing, a threat of more violence and death? Fjord hasn’t aged a day since he was killed by Sabian and is doubtful his body will ever be allowed the rest that comes with death. He can find no new direction. More decades fly past and he keeps working and keeps wandering, wondering when a new aspect will join the triumvirate that she’s shown him already and confuse him even further. He finds himself wishing he had done a better job of keeping track of the time, but he’s been alone for so long he can’t be bothered to start now. No one had ever really cared for him other than Vandran, and all Fjord did with that affection was get him killed for it. He’s better off alone.

He’s doing labor on a winery outside of Feolinn when one of the other migrant workers convinces him to come drinking with him. At the tavern, they catch eye of adverts for a traveling carnival coming to town within the week, but the barmaid bitterly informs them that the carnival his been disbanded by an order of from the king of the Dwendalian Empire, which only interests Fjord more. His coworker wanders off and chats up a different woman and when Fjord goes over to catch up he’s still clutching the flyer, prompting this new woman to mention her cousin is housing some of the recently unemployed circus workers who had the misfortune of coming to town to share the bad news.

“They look like a fun bunch, but I can’t convince them to come out drinking with me.” She pouts. “My cousin lives two streets over, could I ask you to swing by with me and try one more time? I’m sure they’re just worried about not being welcome.”

Fjord agrees when his coworker does, who obviously is just trying for an excuse to get the girl alone in a room with a bed. Not for the first time, Fjord can’t bring himself to care. The girl looks strong enough that she will be able to fend him off if she’s not feeling it, and he would really like to not make an enemy at his place of employment. So, he’s following the girl down the streets and she’s chattering happily and has taken the arm his coworker offered her and that earns Fjord a grateful smile for allowing the opportunity to occur. She brings them to the door of a modest home and pushes it open. At a table sit two women and a man, passing a bottle of something clear between themselves. They look familiar, but he can’t place them. The girl makes fast introductions, and Fjord offers a hello when she points at him.

The olive-skinned man barks out a laugh and says “Why, that not how you sounded in my dreams.” And the recognition from centuries of worship finally sinks in.

It takes every bone in Fjord’s body not to flee, but he steadies himself with a deep breath, and for the first time in the two centuries since he crawled out of the sea, his childhood accent emerges and it manages “Well, it’s nice to know I’m not the only one having them.”

 

---

 

When she meets the others, Jester becomes thankful for her childhood. She had enjoyed it, but she needed to see suffering to truly appreciate it. Jester wishes that they all hadn’t had to meet the way they did, she likes to think they would have been found one another some other way in another, kinder world. The Traveler promises they would have, but Jester trusts most of what he says as far as she can throw him. Which, considering her hand phases through the green cloak when she tries to touch him, isn’t at all.

Jester is born Genevieve Lavorre to a courtesan with beautiful red hair and an even more spectacular voice. The only thing her mother gives her is piercing violet eyes, but Marion promises that her dark hair and freckled skin are just like her father’s and that makes her the best gift her mother has ever been given. Jester knows little about her father, other than that he was kind, handsome and wore many rings. Her mother stresses that the kindness is the most important part, but Jester cannot help but fixate on the rings and begins to collect them as a child.

She meets The Traveler when he helps her find a copper ring in the corner of the Lavish Chateau. Jester knows she shouldn’t be talking to strangers, but he’s helpful and doesn’t ask questions so she allows herself just this once. She is less enthusiastic to see him when he appears at the foot of her bed, but her mamma has a client so she cannot scream out for her. He introduces himself to her then, and he wins her over by telling her everything that is going to happen for the rest of the night. Jester cannot help but be enraptured by him. At the time, she was certain he was a god.

“Bluud, do the gods ever visit you at night?” She asks over breakfast

Her mother’s bodyguard chews slowly before he slowly replies. “No, Genevieve. Why, did you see one last night?”

That tells Jester everything she needs to know. She is young but she is no fool. She never brings up The Traveler ever again, but still allows herself to be entertained by him and play along in their games. Her mother was worried that she was fated to be a lonely child and finds relief in the idea that Jester has made up a friend for herself. Bluud played with her too, taking her outside to the markets where Jester would look at every man’s hand she could see, determined to find her father and find out why he left them.

Jester grows up and she learns when to be quiet, when to be witty and when to be a raging bitch. She helps wait tables at the Lavish Chateau, even at The Traveler’s insistence she should go out and see the world. Her mamma wants her close to home, and it’s all she’s ever known. Besides, her bed here is warm and her childhood sketchbooks live on the shelves. She’s getting rather good and is considering purchasing a stall at the market and doing portraits.

 Her mother’s love is what gets Jester killed. If Marion had loved her less, maybe she would have been able to let the offense slide. But they were one another’s whole worlds, and slight against her mamma was a slight against Jester. And Jester would not tolerate the disrespect of her mamma.

On the fifth time “Lord Robert” waltzes out of her mother’s room without paying, Jester catches him at the door and says he left something here on his last visit. She brings him back up the stairs, and giggles as she begins to disrobe him. He’s like all men who leave without paying, stupid, greedy, and convinced that everyone wants him. Jester has him chasing her around the room to try to catch her and tear off her dress when he runs through the doorway to the balcony covered by drapes. Jester slams the door shut and locks it with her key. If he wants to get off the balcony, he can jump and break his leg for all she cares.

The real mistake Jester made was not doing her research. The “Lord” was, in fact, a lord and did not take well to his humiliation. She is dragged out of work the next day by his personal guard, and only had time to beg Bluud to keep her mother from seeing it. They haul her across town and her execution permit is signed in front of the guillotine. Jester would have been scared if she had time for any emotion other than anger. How dare he, walk out and have all this money and then react like this when he finally gets what’s coming. You don’t get a portrait without paying the artist, or maybe he does, she considers bitterly. Lord Robert has the gall to be present for it too, standing over her when they force her to kneel. The last thing she does in spit on his shoes. She’s sure that he’s going to kick her head when it rolls off into the basket.

Jester wakes up in a pile of corpses. The stench hits her first and she is frightened for the first time in her life. The cloaked figure stands at the foot of the stack.

“Traveler?” She wonders, not sure if what she’s seeing is real.

A nod. “Yes Jester. Come on, it’s past bedtime, let’s get you back to your mamma.”

Jester knows when to be quiet, so she does as he says. She sneaks through the back door that doesn’t latch right and finds the Chateau empty. She doesn’t need to wonder why. The sound of sobs hit her ears as she slowly walks up the stairs, and only grows in volume as she approaches her mother’s door. She hesitates, but the Traveler nods again, so she knocks.

The wailing stops. Soft footsteps, and the door is cracked open. Her mother’s purple eyes shoot open wide and Jester is pulled through the doorway and into her mamma’s arms.

“My Sapphire, I heard – From here the blade – Bluud wouldn’t let me leave – Said – Only thing you asked –“ The Ruby cannot form a complete sentence between her sobs but Jester can’t be brought to care as she buries her face in the scarlet locks and holds her mother as tightly as she holds her. 

They stay awake for most of the night in their embrace. Dawn has not yet begun to break when her mother begins to help her pack. They will not question the gift that has been given to them, but both know that Jester cannot stay here. Her mother gives her every coin she has in her room, and most of her jewelry to boot. Jester would protest if she thought she stood any chance of winning an argument with her mamma. Clothes, provisions to last two weeks, and at the top of the pack, a brand new journal and ink. Jester allows herself one last hug in the doorway to her mother’s room.

“My darling,” her mother whispers in her ear “if this has happened to you then there are others like you. I do not understand the universe entirely, but I know that it would not ask you to go through this alone. Find them, cherish them, hold on to them.” A kiss on the cheek. “I love you.”

Jester gives her one in return, and sneaks out the way she came in. The Traveler gets her out of the city and becomes her companion on the road. They mostly walk, but they rent a horse every now and then too. She sells her artwork in towns when she wants to make some money, and Jester writes to her mother under the name Fiona Fancypants McGee. The Ruby takes delight to her alias. She saves every one of her mother’s letters, pressed in between the pages of the novels she treats herself to. No matter the state of her purse, Jester refuses to sell her mother’s jewelry. She bartends and waitresses and gets fired more than once for putting a customer in his place. One day, The Traveler points out that she appears to have stopped aging. Jester reminds him that she survived a beheading, and he agrees to not look a gift horse in the mouth.

The dreams started the night after her head reunited itself with her body, and Jester still doesn’t understand them. In one, she is so angry and full of rage she cannot see anything other than grey skies painted with blood. In the other, she is terrified, a sword in her mouth and water filling up her lungs. Her body always aches a little bit after waking up, like she had been laid out and tortured or blown to bits. The Traveler talks her through these dreams, but he can’t seem to make much sense out of them either.

When she’s robbed for the first time, Jester breaks the thief’s hand after he slashes her jugular. It’s also the first time her neck has been cut from front, and Jester does not enjoy the discovery that her voice takes longer to recover than normal. “Hey Traveler, you think I should figure out how to fight?” She asks, and with a nod of confirmation, she spends a week being her charming self in a farm town before a veteran offers to teach her how to swing an axe. Jester is delighted by the practicality and flexibility the weapon provides her.

She stays with his family for several years and grows strong while she carries bags of grain. Jester keeps trying to leave, but the veteran’s son makes her heart do funny things when he smiles at her. He becomes her first everything, but when he asks her to marry him, Jester knows she has to leave. She doesn’t grow old; she doesn’t get to have this. The Traveler agrees with a sad smile. She tells the boy she’ll think about it, and abandons the farm that night, leaving behind a note, her favorite ring, and a kiss on the boy’s cheek.

“It’s unfair.” Jester complains, wiping back tears.

The Traveler sighs “I know, my dear. Write to your mother, perhaps? She knows how to survive heartbreak.”

Jester feels a white-hot anger course through her body “My mamma loved my father and he left her, left me! How dare he, it’s not like he’s like me.” They had considered the idea that her gift had come from her father, but eventually dismissed it. Her mother had told stories of staying up all night to bandage his wounds after a knife fight and even the most severe of cuts cannot hold themselves in her flesh for more than a quarter hour. She tries to organize her thoughts and let The Traveler reply, but he just hums in acknowledgement. Stupid imaginary, friend, god, ghost, whatever. He can’t even be heartbroken with her.

She does write her mother about it, apologizes for not telling her sooner. Her mother first makes sure she has eaten the herbs that stop a child from quickening before giving advice. Jester wishes any of it resonated with her. All she can think about now is her father. She left home eight years ago and didn’t go too far, surely, he has done the same and she could find him now.

Jester spends fifty years on the coast in search of the kind gentlemen who looks like her everywhere but his eyes and comes up empty. Her temper is now always in danger of boiling over, and the fact that her dreams keep happening with a greater intensity does nothing to soothe her. She’s on the border of becoming a raging volcano, but before she can explode there’s a letter at the inn she’s currently working at from Bluud. Her mother has fallen ill and cannot get out of bed.

She doesn’t rest until her mother passes. Marion Lavorre dies peacefully, in her sleep. Jester spends a month awake, tending to her mother’s every need, caring for Bluud as well who stayed with her mother after she left the Lavish Chateau. He says nothing about her execution or her unchanged youth, which is appreciated. After all these years, her mother still keeps Jester’s journals in their bookshelf beside her bed. Jester returns most of her mother’s jewels to their places in her box and stays with Bluud for another month while they grieve.

One night, over wine after dinner, Jester finds courage to asks him. “Did you know my father?”

Bluud smiles sadly “No. I was hired at the Chateau shortly after you were born. I know he was a freckled tan man with shiny black hair and aquamarine eyes.” Bluud takes a long sip “That’s how your mother described him. And the rings, of course.” He nods to her fingers.

She’s not surprised, but that doesn’t mean the disappointment doesn’t sting. The wine buzzing through her system makes Jester honest. “Bluud, I fell in love. With a boy, my age, and he wanted to marry me.” She takes a shaky breath “I left him too, Bluud. I grew up with a heartbroken mother and turned around and repeated what my father did to her, what is wrong with me how could I do that to someone, someone I loved? He let me into his life and all I did was take his joy.”

A large hand cups the back of her head “Jester, you gave that boy memories he will cherish for as long as he has them. We don’t plan when we get to meet people or when they have to leave us. Your mother wasn’t robbed of her joy, it was given a new form in you.” Several beats of silence pass, and he fills their glasses again with the rest of the bottle. “Your mother and I cared deeply for one another. It wasn’t like that.” He adds with a rush when Jester feels her mouth drop open. “My wife died while giving birth a year before I started at the Chateau.”

Jester rushes to hold his hands in hers “I’m sorry,” she says softly “I didn’t know”

“Don’t be sorry Sapphire, only your mother knew. My daughter didn’t survive either. I had been sick with grief for so long and your mother was mourning her own loss. We found one another, and we might not have been intimate, but you can still love and care for one another. Heartbreak doesn’t ruin you for the world. You find other people to carry you, and you hold on to them. That’s what humanity is best at.”

They stay in one another’s company until the fire in the living room dies. Jester leaves home early the next morning on a mission.

“Traveler, you know my dreams.”

“Yes, I do, Jester.”

“We’re going to the library and you’re going to be my extra eyes. We are going to research and find these people. If they’re like me, then they’ve been around a while. And if we can do some dope shit, someone has to have written it down. People are nosy.” She feels confident, unstoppable.

He laughs with mirth “Nosy indeed, my dear.”

It takes a couple trips, and Bluud does his best to be helpful when Jester runs ideas past him over dinner. The moorland from her first dream is bugging her. It’s unique terrain, nothing like it is near the coast, but there’s a thread from her childhood and she just can’t pull it the right way.

“Well, there’s the Xhorhas Wraith.” Bluud supplies one morning between bites of fresh bread. “It was a story told to me as a child to keep me in line. You were always up to tricks, I’m sure you heard it too.”

Jester finds her answer in an ancient book of children’s fairytales from after the Age of Arcanum. A pale woman with black hair who aimlessly wanders the moorlands of Xhorhas. If she sees you, her eyes go black and skeletal wings emerge from her back and you’re as good as dead.

“Why is this in a children’s book.” The Traveler mumbles over her shoulder.

“I know.” Jester agrees, flipping the page.

Other sources call her Orphan-Maker, claiming she leaves only children behind in her path of destruction. There’s something that borders actual evidence in these books, so they agree it must be closest the truth. There’s nothing about a man who took a sword in the mouth and can’t be drowned, so they decide to chase a warm lead while they have it. One final night with Bluud, then they set out the next day.

It will take Jester months to get to Xhorhas and she will need to fake three passports. Before they leave the coastline, Jester wakes up to find that a crimson weasel has, well, weaseled its way into her sleeping pad. The Traveler thinks he would make a nice snack, but Jester decides he’s better suited as a scarf. When she remembers to, she sneaks him treats. The Traveler frequently wonders aloud if a weasel can die from diabetes. Whenever Jester asks what that is, he tells her not to worry.

The closer they get to the moors of Xhorhas, the more energetic The Traveler becomes. He wanders away from her, gives her heads ups and does his best to help them track. She knows she’s on the path now.

When they finally meet, it’s on chance. Jester isn’t expecting her, and clearly neither is the other woman. She’s humming to herself and lazily walking with no obvious direction. Jester begins to walk towards her, and she is closing in when she breaks a twig and Xhorhas Wraith snaps her head like a spooked animal.

“No!” she screams, throwing her hands out to prevent Jester from getting any closer.

The call rings out on the moor, and the woman appears to be waiting for something. Jester takes a step towards her, and the woman takes two back.

“It won’t happen.” Jester promises.

She shakes her head, begging “You can’t know that.”

Jester takes another step, and this time the woman doesn’t move. Jester takes another, and one small step at a time she makes her way until she is in front of the Orphan-Maker. Her chest is heaving with effort and tears are falling down her face. Jester brings a hand up to wipe her new friend’s cheek.

“We found one another. Whatever this is, we are not alone.” The half-feral woman gives her a nod and is pleading to her with an expression Jester cannot yet comprehend but will in time. “We’re going to be there for one another, from now own.”

The Xhorhas Wraith nods with ferocity, clutching Jester’s wrist “I will know you.”

It takes them a long time, but thankfully, that’s the one thing they have. Sometimes, they fight with such cruel words they need to spend a year apart before coming back together. They take turn sharing stories of heartbreaks. It takes Yasha ten months to learn how to read. It takes Jester the same amount of time to become a mildly proficient hunter. When they have bad days, they whale on one another, sword versus axe until they can’t muster the strength to lift their arms, if they’re still attached. The Traveler spends less time with Jester, but he still comes back. She tells him that he can go off and be a god of he needs to. He just laughs at her.

The first time Yasha sees her reflection in a mirror, she cries. Jester holds her while she tells whispered stories of hair like moonlight and the woman who braided it. Yasha does her haircuts now and tries her best to copy the techniques Jester remembers her mother using. Yasha can’t stand waiting tables so she starts taking jobs to hunt down wolves that are harassing flocks of sheep. Jester won’t let her go fight and die alone, but it turns out they’re both excellent at this, and it pays a hell of a lot better than pouring ale ever did. They occasionally get to kill a magic monster, and that pays even more.

And they carry one another. Jester couldn’t have asked for a better sister. She can’t quite remember the face of the veteran’s son anymore, but she hopes he moved on and had handsome children and died happy. She kisses other boys, girls, and lets her heart soar with the thrill of the touch of another. Not frequently, but when it’s worth the risk of heartbreak. Yasha still mourns her wife, her Cattail. Jester teaches her how to press flowers in between the pages of romance novels. They don’t stop dreaming of drowning, but they found one another, they know they can find him. They begin to work their way back to the coast that Jester came from, because that’s the only ocean they know.

As their task grows slightly more tedious, Yasha finally asks how she knew to find her. Jester tells her about the Xhorhas Wraith, screaming for vengeance and eyes black in rage. “And, they also call you Orphan-Maker,” Jester says, trying to keep her tone light for her friend “because you never killed a child. You could level an entire village, but the children would survive, always tucked away out of sight.” She doesn’t ask questions, just rubs Yasha’s back while she sobs hysterically and murmurs a thanks to the earth. Almost a century has passed, and Jester has yet to see the dark side of her friend. She hopes that finding one another has let Yasha put that part of her to rest, for the sake of the pain it clear brings her friend.

Then there’s one night, where Jester thinks the drowning dream is going to happen again. But that isn’t the ocean at storm, the midnight blue waves are hair instead of water. Jester feels like she’s suffocating, she’s terrified and so, so confused.

She jerks upright and makes eye contact with Yasha, who mirrors her. Wild eyes full of fright, but also excitement and hope. The barbarian woman gives her a nod.

“Another one.”

 

---

 

Mollymauk is born after the first time he dies. That’s how Yasha put it, and he finds himself enchanted with that description of events. It sounds much nicer than “woke up six feet under and clawing at a metal coffin”. Romanticizing life should always be this fun.

But that doesn’t take away the truth. His first memories are beating his hands bloody and screaming his throat raw while he tried to escape an underground cold tomb. He spends less and less time awake as he depletes the oxygen in his cell over and over and over again. His dreams, when he manages them, are full of similar screaming while covered in his own blood, feelings of suffocation but coming from all around and flooding his throat, and a woman with ruby red hair.

He tries to hold on to that last one. It’s the only pleasant one.

When he is finally dug out of the ground by two women, they tell him they’ve been dreaming of him for almost two months. They sleep soon after, all exhausted, and he only dreams of lungs full of water and a sword going through his mouth. The next morning the women, Jester and Yasha, tell him that they, whatever they are, dream of one another until they find each other. They haven’t been able to find the man that keeps drowning.

“But, of course! We haven’t even asked your name.” Jester is sat cross-legged, sketching something in a notebook. He likes her enthusiasm, despite the early hour.

“Well, good news, I don’t have one!” He tries to match her cheer and is only slightly thrown off with the look both of them give him. “What, are you going to tell me you both died and kept the memory of your past life?”

The giant woman, Yasha, wordlessly hauls herself up and away from the two of them, screaming when she’s out of a range where it would hurt their ears. Jester apologetically explains that, yes, in fact, they did have all their memories. It doesn’t take a scholar to puzzle out the ownerships of the dreams he lost last night.

Trying to hide his sadness, he offers “Well, then I suppose you should just call me Empty.”

Jester nods “MT. Got it.”

He realizes much too late that she’s using initials. Yasha also has to explain to him what initials are.

His companions are monster hunters, both skilled with weaponry to the point it makes MT terrified when they demand they teach him how to defend himself. He knows little, but he knows the road isn’t safe and that when his friends go on jobs, it’s up to him to protect himself and prevent their cart and horses from being stolen. He points out that Jester’s weasel doesn’t know how to fight but this doesn’t get him anything other than sharp teeth burrowed into the hand he’s holding Sprinkle with. When a noble pays the girls to go clean out an old crypt and find the money hidden within, they bring him back the gift of ancient twin scimitars and tell him to practice.

Yasha helpfully points out that he can’t die when he yells at her for running him through with her sword during a sparring session, and through blood, sweat and tears, MT finds himself getting better. So what if his first real life skill is learning how to hack apart a giant snake that’s been eating local cattle. It pays much better than farm labor.

Being reborn with the body of a twenty-something and the mind of a toddler has its moments. Not a lot are terribly fun, but it does mean he gets to see the world for the first time. Jester and Yasha spend months on the road telling him about an “ocean” before he gets to see it, and he can’t help but feel like their words have sold it short. He finds his eyes drawn to the large birds that skim across the surface

“Jessie?”

“Yes, MT?”

He puts his hand on her shoulder, so she’ll look up from her book and follow his finger to the birds “What are those called?”

And the infodump begins “Oh I actually know that one! They’re albatrosses, specifically a group of them called mollymawks. They’re really adventurous eaters and have these crazy breeding rituals that are so cool there’s an island not too far from here where they nest, you’ll have to see it sometime and also sailors are like obsessed with them because the souls of lost sailors live in them so killing one is like the worst thing you can do at sea the ocean will wreck your ship for it I think?”

While he receives swimming lessons from the girls, he gets scolded multiple times for being distracted. They don’t blame him for it though, not really, and they leave him be so he can scale a nearby cliff and listen to the gull calls.

After their beach day, MT asks over dinner “Hey Yash, you know how you said initials stand for part of a full name, and that when I want to, I can decide what they stand for?”

A gentle chuckle “MT, it didn’t happen so long ago I’ve forgotten.”

“Well, with today being the first time I got to see the ocean it seems like a big day, yes? Is it okay if you all call me Mollymauk now? If I can name myself after a bird?”

Yasha pulls him into a soft hug and kisses the crown of his head “Of course. Mollymawk. It’s a good name.” And Jester declares he’s going to be Molly to his friends, since he’s given them all nicknames now it’s his turn to receive one. The dreams of drowning lessen in their intensity after the ocean. Molly knows he can swim in it now, which helps. He feels like they must have been so close to him, still regrets that they cannot find their fourth immortal.

When he writes it down for the first time on a contract to hunt a monster, Jester has to be the one to inform him that he spelt it wrong. Mollymauk tells her he doesn’t care, and that reading is for fools with too much time to memorize scribbles anyways. Literacy lessons start after the job is completed.

Because of the first two weeks of his life, he understands that he’s immortal. But outside of training mishaps, Molly doesn’t die. He knows it’s because Yasha and Jester keep close to him and have taken dozens of killing blows meant for him while out on contracts. He doesn’t find dying a particularly unpleasant experience because he doesn’t know any better, but their protective nature starts to make him question his comfort with the act.

The T part comes later, when they join the circus at Jester’s insistence that they deserve a vacation. Full names are required for payroll (Yasha explains later that they will not have to roll their gold on the ground to collect it), so he picks Tealeaf because the tea at the inn that morning had been rather good. The carnival master gets a kick out of this and sends him to work with the fortunetellers.

They teach him how to bullshit and to tell people what they want to hear. He finds himself surprisingly thankful that they can’t actually read futures and pasts, because Molly isn’t sure he wants to know his. He’s carved out a life for himself here with his fellow immortal sisters, who cares who was driving his body before? He found it, and he’s going to keep it.

One of the children at the carnival teaches him how to sew when he rips a pair of pants while practicing with the acrobats, and he finds another thing he is good at. He beings to embroider the coat he bought four jobs ago, finally elevating his carnie persona to a level beyond capture in one of Jester’s caricatures that inspires laughter out of Yasha, who prefers to set up the tents and scare shady figures off more than she does to join in any of his performances. A shame, Yasha would make an excellent strongwoman.

Embroidery is also how he draws his own blood for the first time, causing the needle to run cold and he yelps out in surprise more than pain. Jester makes him do it again so she can watch, and it’s Yasha’s idea for him to try it with the scimitars. Ice crystals dance across the blade, and when he slashes Jester with it, she says it stings like nothing they’ve ever fought before. He’ll find out later from Beau that this ability has been observed and documented before, a man who was treated as a god back when magic ran free and there’s something about surviving jumping into a volcano and well, yes of course he has a flair for the dramatics but it doesn’t sound like anything Molly would have done. Religious cults are much too high maintenance.

Through trial and error, Molly also discovers that he can cause temporary blindness in foes and protect his friends from the poison that they encounter. Around this time is when Yasha confides to him about her wife, and Jester tells him about the cloaked man who has been with her since childhood. Molly wishes he had more secrets to share with them, something to balance the pain that they’ve lived through. All they ask in return is that he listens when they speak.

Jester learns how to tattoo from the carnies, and she’s not half bad at it. She’s had a long time to get good at drawing for as frequently as she does it and what is skin if not a new canvas for her. Molly tries to get her to tattoo him, but the ink never stays, his skin healing it almost as quickly as she stabs it. Jester thinks it is great practice, and Molly is bitter because he wants a sleeve. Liquor provides the answer one night, and when she adds poison to the ink it stays and Mollymauk is proud to have a red almond design on his hand. Yasha is, predictably, mortified but after a very long time spent haggling in several town’s worth of black markets for the right poisons and an accidental death, his first tattoo of a red-eyed snake is complete. After that, Molly lets Jester mark him up however she sees fit when her fingers itch to create something more permanent than charcoal on a journal page. One night, Yasha quietly asks Jester to do a traditional mate tattoo from her clan, and the next day she has a blue line going down her lip to her chin. Molly lets her know that Zuala must have had beautiful eyes. She agrees and doesn’t hide the tears that fall.

The lucky thing with carnival freaks is that a trio of immortals who have some magic running in their blood can fit right into the rest of the colorful characters. The unlucky thing is that a king will hear word of a magical carnival and demand it be shut down. Yasha volunteers them for the task of letting their next couple stops know that they’ve been forced to cancel, and they’ve got their excuse to disappear from these people for the rest of their lives. Molly doesn’t bother to hide his disappointment, but also knows that they’ve started to push their luck by staying with the same group for more than a handful of years.

The people in Feolinn are plenty kind and take the disappointment without too much complaint. A woman offers her home for the night, and she has an excitable younger cousin who wants them to go out drinking with her and tell her carnival stories. Yasha is tired though, so he and Jester provide the excuses of not wanting to cause a disturbance and wanting to head out early in the morning to the next town.

Yasha and Jester help with dinner to provide thanks for lodging (he crawled out of the ground fifty years ago and they still won’t let him cook Molly’s beginning to find this a bit offensive) leaving him with dish duty. After everything is cleaned and dried, Jester reveals a bottle of clear liquor she “borrowed” from their former employer. Yasha told them twenty seven years ago that she’s never been drunk in her life, so Molly and Jester have made it something of a personal mission to get her hammered or die trying. They’ve been at it for fifteen minutes when the cousin bursts back in with two strangers, but the one in the back, no Molly knows him, he doesn’t know how but he knows that he’s been dreaming about him since he crawled out of that metal coffin. She introduces them as Matthias and Fjord.

“Hello.” Fjord-the-not-stranger says in a drawl and Molly has to laugh because he’s spent his entire life listening to this man scream and beg for his life while he drowns, and he has never done it in that accent. And here he thought he was the con artist.

“Why, that not how you sounded in my dreams.” He teases, and Yasha kicks him under the table.

Fjord does not enjoy their speed of travel and refuses to spar with them. Molly is surprised that his toddler brain apparently took to this lifestyle better than the two hundred and thirty Fjord, but it becomes clear that it is because Fjord is weighed down by centuries of solitude and treating the three of them like a god he worshiped. Molly wants to find it funny, but instead finds himself sorry for his companion. He can’t blame him, if he had been having dreams of Yasha in her rage after he washed up on the shore of an island after improbably surviving the explosion of a ship he was working on, he would have thought he was chosen for a quest of vengeance too.

Molly, selfishly, enjoys having sleep be something that is entirely his own. He doesn’t dream of other people’s deaths, just his own inane bullshit, and if he’s lucky, some nights there is nothing. Fjord is quiet most days and they let him be, but always invite him on monster hunting jobs when they do go off to make coin. Yasha says to give him time. She says that for another sixty years. When Fjord confides in them about his magical sword, Molly is delighted to have a new power to play around with. They discover Fjord, if he focuses, can make the blade appear in his hand out of thin air instead of needing to rest if he loses it. He won’t admit it to them, but once they perfect the technique after a couple months, Molly knows that Fjord is more at ease. In other ways his change of mood is obvious because that’s when he starts coming out on contracts with them.

Things regress for a bit when Jester tries to flirt with him one night, at a tavern that should have been shut down decades back for its quality of ale alone. She quotes one of the thousands of trashy romance novels she picked up over the course of her centuries and Fjord freezes, spine ramrod straight. Molly thinks he forgets to breathe for a solid minute. Jester trips over her tongue apologizing and Fjord lets he know that it’s not her, and had his life been different then there could have perhaps been something, but not now.

Molly never learns what happened to Fjord, but it doesn’t take much to piece it together that it has something to do with why his ship exploded on the open ocean and that he feels duty bound to vengeance. He knows that Fjord eventually tells Yasha the truth because she says so but refuses to elaborate.

"It’s not my story to tell, Mollymauk. You didn’t tell him about my Cattail. Because that was for me.” Molly nods, and Yasha kisses his brow “Well, this is for him.”

That conversation gets forgotten rapidly though, because they start having dreams again soon after. A house on fire first, and then one where their skulls are cracked open in a cellar not two weeks later. Molly finds himself longing for the time when he got to dream about whatever his mind provided him. Jester is the one who places the accents, and Molly complains for three days straight when she tells him that they’re going to have to go to the other side of the mountain range. But they found each other so long after the dreams started there isn’t a terrible sense of urgency. Fjord is still a little awkward with them, but its charming and Molly can’t help but feel like he has completed their group. Even if, apparently, they’ve got to go pick up two more immortals.

As they make their way past Jester’s hometown of Nicordanas, to Molly’s dismay, a third new member joins the cast of their dreams. She’s also drowning. Molly considers bashing his skull in with frustration, but the knowledge that it will perfectly stitch itself back together is enough to allow Jester to just weave flowers in his hair instead. This option has him looking much prettier.

After a decade, they find Beauregard by accident while on a Jester-mandated research trip. She kills him four times in two days and wears his moniker of “unpleasant one” with pride. It’s Fjord’s idea to take her to a small town so she can burn through her anger in privacy. Over dinner one night they meet the other pair who had featured in their dreams. They’re not this lucky, it’s not supposed to be this easy. Maybe, Yasha offers, their luck has finally changed.

That night Molly dreams of prismatic butterflies and he cries for most of the next day he’s so happy to have his mind back as his own.

Teamwork is the hardest for Caleb, and Molly knows that he’s considering leaving them all. There’s the comfort that at the very least he can’t slit their throats at night because, well, the whole immortals thing. Molly will admit over his (permanently) dead body that he’s thankful that Veth keeps Caleb grounded and focused. But Veth also has some messed up morals. Why she steals from people when their merry band is never going to die is beyond him. Molly’s going to have to fix that so he stops paying on behalf her sticky fingers. Does he need gold? Not really, but he earned it and it’s his. Like his dreams. So what if he’s a little selfish.

The revelry of their group is increased by their new companions, mostly Beau. She draws out a wild youth that he never got to have. They have fun partying too hard and waking up in strangers’ beds. Fjord never joins in, but never judges them. Caleb normally bows out when Fjord does, always spending more time with his nose in a book than living in the real world and Molly knows that he’s adjusting so he lets sleeping dogs lie. Veth can be counted on for a good time, and Jester will stay for at least a drink most nights.

Yasha doesn’t go out much anymore, focuses instead on finding them work and planning their travels so they can keep as low of a profile as possible. Their numbers have grown, they stand out more and none of them fear a cage quite like she does. It would be easier to split up, but none of them want to. Their codependency is not without reason. On the mornings after nights out, when they come back with fresh faces and the hint of any love bites and bruised lips long gone, Yasha will smile at them over breakfast and call them lucky. It never feels like a good thing when she says it.

When it all goes to shit, Mollymauk kicks himself for not recognizing it in hindsight. The job was too easy, too odd, too good to be true. A mechanical creation in a prison gone mad, easy in easy out, very high paying. They put themselves in a cell at the promise of pay, Molly finds himself wishing someone wiser than him had put the dots together quicker. An older man with jaundiced skin appears and he’s slinging magic with precision that terrifies all of them.

“They’ve got chains!” Veth warns as she pops out of hiding to fire a crossbow bolt at one of the guards

Molly looks to Yasha, and her expression is grim. They have to know what the group knows about itself, and the presence of magic can only promise experimentation. Only way out is through, now.

When the man with magic lays a hand on arm, Caleb goes catatonic and Molly nearly dies twice to his ass out of his clutches. It doesn’t matter that he can’t seem to connect with jaundice skin, not now they need to run. Their path out is opened by Fjord and Jester, and Molly makes short work with the foolish few who stand in his way. Beau breaks her shoulder with a ugly crunch to knock down the door. They just escape the underground as the gas begins to pour in.

And it’s after they get out of the city and out of danger that Molly realizes they left three behind. He’s never been away from Yasha and Jester in his entire life, and Fjord was their missing piece and now Molly is stuck with a bunch of assholes he hardly knows. Caleb cries longer than he does over it and won’t stop apologizing. Molly can’t explain what happened, but he knows it’s not the man’s fault, so he presses a kiss to his brow like Yasha would for him and tells him they’ve got to soldier on. One of the first things he learned was how to use his swords. If there’s one thing they can do, it’s get their friends back.

When new dreams start of a sick forest and the clawing feeling of hunger, Molly should have known it was the start of the end. Veth freaks out and he’s the one to calm her down, and oh no Molly has seniority here, doesn’t he? Being the oldest of the younger pack of immortals means he’s in charge. That means he’s got to plan. Caleb is a good tracker and manages to find the ones who had been stolen from them. It helps that the horses dragging the carts need to stop to rest while they don’t. They burn through their food and water so that they’ll still be in fighting shape when they catch up.

When they go to break them out, Molly leaves Caleb behind and Veth to guard him. Caleb isn’t usually much help in a fight, but if that old man is still with the group, he runs the danger of becoming a liability. And Molly also knows that Caleb will run if he leaves him alone. So he takes Beauregard and it’s all fine and well until his stupid gaudy coat gets them spotted. Beau is faster than him, so he sends her to the cages to break out their friends and coats his scimitars in ice to prepare to hold the rousing caravan off.

His stand is ugly, and he’s quickly covered in blood and guts of questionable ownership. Molly’s hurting more than normal but it’s fine, he’s just worried and tired and they haven’t slept for three days. The ice fades faster than it should, which confuses him, so he cuts himself again and fuck does that sting he’s on the wrong foot to defend a swiping attack and he’s on the ground and then -

A glaive goes through his chest and Molly can’t get up and realizes that he’s not going to be alive when it comes out, and he doesn’t have time but to think, well fuck you too, and spit blood in his attacker’s face before everything stops. Mercifully, in death, Molly doesn’t dream.

 

---

 

What matters is that when he is born, he is special. A dual lunar eclipse marked his birth, and his father said that was when he knew their babe was full of magic. When Caleb thinks back on his childhood, he holds on to these words. However much he may want to forget, the memories are all preserved perfectly, like in amber.

But in childhood, Caleb isn’t his name, he’s Bren. Bren Aldric Ermendrud when his parents are cross with him. He carries magic with him before he can understand what that means, never sleeping in the dark because he can will globules of light into creation to keep him comfort. The family cat, a sweet thing named Frumpkin, also watches over him at night. When he’s having a hard time falling asleep, she dances and bats at the lights to elicit his laughter.

As he grows, he learns that two others in the village are like this as well. The village hadn’t seen magic in a long time, and all of the children being born in the same bountiful summer was seen as a blessing. They play frequently and become inseparable mess of limbs with an ever watchful cat weaving between them. Back then, their magic did not come from theory and hours poured over textbooks, it came from the creativity of children and testing out ideas on one another. Joy was their focus.

Eodwulf is proudest when he conjures a hand that will do the washing for him after dinner, Astrid can make a flame dance between her fingertips and frequently wows Frumpkin with it, and Bren loves his moats light, always three at a time like how there’s three of them. They never have to be alone in the dark, three summer children always touched by light.

They’ve almost reached adulthood when they’re taken by the academy, but Master Ikithon (a master of magic at only forty, Bren knows he does not contain his awe when he first met the man) promises he can catch them up to speed. They should have been discovered before they were preteens, but news of magic children in a little township travels slow to Rexxentrum and it has to come several times before they send someone to investigate. Magic is special, he tells them, provincial folk normally aren’t trusted to bear it. Wulf takes offense to that and almost refuses to come along, but he’s already not the type to abandon his friends. Their new instructor promises that they’ll return when they’re older and bring the prosperity given to them back to their homes.

Instruction becomes their lives. Bren is learning and he gets to belong with people beyond his parents and two friends. But he still holds them closest, whispering affirmations in their mother tongue in private when they won’t have their hands struck for it. Strid and he love one another, have since they were children and couldn’t understand what that meant. But they’re older now, they’ve changed along with their magic and they can see things that they were once blind to. Fire has become Bren’s specialty and Astrid’s attention has shifted to electricity, wielding lighting with a grace he previously thought only clouds were allowed. Eodwulf’s strength is still his ability to conjure something out of nothing, but he always had the best sense of who he was out if their trio.

The affection that comes from their love makes them soft. Wulf grows paranoid when he realizes, fears for them, begs them to keep it secret from their instructors. Especially Master Ikithon who watches them all so closely. Bren will not sacrifice his joy for safety, so they extend their attention to him. The trio had remained close, and if they appear too close it’s just an oddity they brought from their simple village. All of the Empire’s magic is concentrated into the academy and it still is so small and tight knit. Secrets travel, but if they can be muddled with truth then they often go overlooked. He initially shies from their touch, but Strid and Bren are nothing but patient and give Wulf the time he needs to grow into their affection.

When they near their twenty eight year and still have not completed instruction, Master Ikithon invites them to his home outside the city for private, focused instruction. The three share a small room, but none of them mind. Without the distractions of the city, magic becomes their focus every waking moment. Wulf in particular throws himself into study, spending much more private time with their instructor to the point where he doesn’t always come back to the room at night. Bren and Strid don’t mind and are more than happy to take advantage of a rare private moment. Their friend becomes quiet, eats less at meals, and the skin under his eyes grows darker by the week.

It took them too long to notice. Caleb doesn’t know if he will ever forgive himself for it. He walks in on Eodwulf changing one day, something that used to happen every day at the academy but hadn’t since the three had changed their residence. There are half a dozen large bruises flowing across his collarbone, and the implications of his pleading warnings all those years back finally falls into place. Wulf freezes on the spot, his eyes begging for silence. Bren looks away and acts like he didn’t see anything out of the usual. He’s rewarded with a sigh of relief and clap on the shoulder when Wulf passes him to leave the room.

Bren tells Strid that night, while they’re alone in the room curled up in the two beds they’ve shoved together. He has to pull her back down when she tries to fly out of the room find their friend. They both know they can’t beat their instructor in a fight yet, Ikithon could immolate them on the spot if he saw them as a threat. However long this has been occurring, Bren and Astrid have not been kept in the dark by accident. Not for the first time, he wishes for the comfort of his childhood cat. As he pulls the covers over her trembling body Bren, selfishly, is thankful that their lighter hair and soft faces mean they look almost nothing like Eodwulf, all hard jawline and thick black hair. He regrets the thought almost instantly, and cannot find sleep in his guilt for the rest of the night.

The next morning, Wulf says he’s going to start working out and invites the two to join him. Bren never had a body that responded well to exercise, but he’s hopeful that his friend will be able to leave his boyish, lanky frame behind with enough dedication. Astrid’s softer lines become hard over time and Bren takes to watching them over the edge of a book when they take up sparing. Time passes quickly in the slow pace of the Zemni Fields; Wulf fills himself out and starts spending more and more nights in their cramped room until it’s every night for a straight week. They allow themselves to cry in relief just that once under the soft glow of Bren’s dancing lights.

As they finish out their tutelage, Master Ikithon’s goals of instruction become less clear to them. He takes them alone and straps them to chairs and fills their arms with crystals until they pass out from the pain and are left to be tended by the other two. They take turns looking into a polyhedron that radiates more magic than the Assembly on a busy day. Maybe they should have, but they don’t question him about it. None of it can compare to what he did to Wulf, and as long as that is over, they won’t complain out of fear that their Master’s closer attentions will be turned to them. Under the stress, Bren and Astrid put their relationship on full pause. They can’t allow him the opportunity to hurt them another way.

They go back and forth from the city to the private house a lot in at the end of it. Members of the Assembly eye them out, ask them questions about Ikithon when he leaves them. Bren, Astrid and Eodwulf aren’t dumb. They know they’re having their loyalty tested. No, it is not odd that Master Ikithon has risen to such high a rank at a young age. He’s dedicated to his craft, and it’s rather nice that he found his calling so early and excelled at it. Of course he’s going to have opinions about immortality, they’ve all read their history of what magic could do when pushed to its limits. He’s a researcher at heart, but an excellent teacher. He’s given all of them his love of exploration. Ikithon lifted them from a disgraceful village that did not deserve their talent, they’d be overjoyed to serve King Dwendal any way they could from his nation’s capital.  

After their final return from Rexxentrum, Master Ikithon tells them they will receive a test tomorrow. This will complete their instruction and determine what roles they will take. Wulf has a nervous breakdown after dinner, so Strid makes a bed on the floor for them to sleep in together. Bren lays down on his friend’s other side, lightly running his hand along Wulf’s arm until he falls asleep under the soft glow of three globules of light.

When he comes to, he is alone in a forest. He knows these trees, he’s in the woods in Blumenthal, behind his home. It’s an hour and twelve minutes until midnight, he’s lost an entire day. And that stench in his nose, the ringing in his ears, if he believed in the gods, he would curse them out right now because that’s his parent’s voice’s but why would they be screaming like that why would that smell be trapped in his nose unless...

It comes back to him when he makes it out of the woods. There’s the straw, his home, his home burning from the flames he brought out of his own body, the screams, him breaking, Ikithon telling his schoolmates, no, his friends to fix this and she fixed it with a knife between his ribs and he threw him into the inferno he had created and he burned with his parents and he is dead. But how is he holding the ashes of his childhood home between his fingers now, and what could have convinced him to start the flame and his friends to dispose of him like that?

He can’t stay here, he’s never seen a student that failed examinations back in Rexxentrum and he knowsIkithon, if his master can make him and his friends do what they did, then he is more dangerous than the three of them ever guessed.

The dreams start that night, each more awful than the last. He appreciated his memory back when it had been full of spell books and incantations, but now it means terrors from the night follow him into the light. He can’t just suffer being burned alive, he also must be tortured, drowned, executed and suffocated every time he sleeps. He thinks he might be able to handle the constant death, but it’s made cruel by the love found in the cracks. An entire village raising him, a cook sneaking him extra scraps paired with a captain’s trust, a loving mother’s kiss on the cheek and two strong hands pulling him to salvation. The hope is a cruel touch and leaves him raw and wanting. He notices when another dream folds itself into the mix, because this one is confusing. The firm grasp of a father’s hands behind the nape of a neck cracking his skull open on a cold, unforgiving floor. That one, he believes he deserves.

What he doesn’t deserve the name given to him by the people he murdered. Of all the names he runs through, he keeps coming back to Caleb, so that’s how he begins to think of himself. Caleb is dirty and unkempt because nobody wants to look at a filthy man for too long. He keeps the scars left by his Master's experimentation hidden with bandages wrapped around his arms. Caleb also does not use magic and that means he has very little to offer others. He wishes, for a moment, that Bren had exercised more with Wulf, but wanting won’t give him a roof for the night.

What Caleb does have is his memory, so he familiarizes himself with the geography of the Marrow Valley and acts as a guide. It keeps him busy, doesn’t allow time for him to ponder how he walked out of those ashes. He’s leading a group of smugglers (he gave up on being picky about who he worked with the same time he started smearing mud on his face) through the Ashkeeper Peaks when he’s made the mistake of letting his mind wander and misses his next step. He tumbles off the steep cliffs with little more than a yelp as his head hurls towards a jagged rock one hundred and twenty feet below.

He wakes up again, and he can tell that maybe an hour has passed. The smugglers are long gone, if the quiet from above indicates anything. Caleb gingerly touches his face to assess the damages, only to find unbroken smooth skin. His mind jumps back to Ikithon’s lectures on immortality. He would suspect this to be his instructor’s work if he was still at the academy, but his freedom is all the evidence against that hypothesis that he needs. It takes the rest of the day to pull himself back onto the trail and he starts his journey out of the mountains in the opposite direction the caravan was going. They would have questions, and he has enough of his own right now.

Caleb tests his limits. He can go without food, water and rest but it severely weakens him. Without those things, his throat is constantly raw, and he is incapable of much more than shambling. If Caleb can give himself two out of three, he can function as usual but finds he’s ill-suited for a fight when he tries to defend himself against a wildcat. In general, Caleb makes a poor combatant. Most of his childhood scars are long gone, but to his irritation his arms still bear the marks of those cursed crystals. He breaks bones, stabs himself and throws himself off increasingly high surfaces. Decapitation takes the longest to come back from. The dying is never pleasant, but just like magic, practice grants him the patience to bear it.

During his self-experimentation, a sixth dream comes to him. A man and child hold him tightly while he tries to block out the sensation of a clawed hand forcing his head beneath rushing water. The child is a boy, no older than nine. Caleb wishes he could hug the child back.

He also wishes he had access to a library. Books have held the answers to his questions since the academy, and some certainty would be nice right about now. In his weakness, he uses a spell taught to him by Wulf, and summons a cat to his side. The purring soothes his mind, and Caleb can shift his focus from his undying self to the needs of an affectionate feline.

The cat pops in and out of existence, but not at Caleb’s will. He has no desire to attempt to control the magical creature. When he’s having a day more miserable than normal, the cat bleeps to him. Caleb likes to think he’s trying to make him laugh.

He gives up on honest work and lets himself succumb to his miserable existence. He can cut loose a coin purse if he needs to and pedantic counting can be helpful in shortchanging merchants who have better things to do with their time. Despite his revulsion with magic, Caleb is still drawn to artifacts that contain their power. He detects the faintest residue coming from a cellar in a two a penny inn. Two nights later he is arrested for breaking and entering, but does manage to smuggle out the amulet in his ratty coat.

The local jail smells of mildew and is bone chillingly cold. Caleb is dumped into the last empty cell, which isn’t saying much considering there’s only four. The woman next to him stirs at the noise and when her dark eyes connect with his blue, he feels as if he’s been light alight all over again.

“You!” she exclaims in a scratchy voice, sitting up straighter. “The two other children, the smell of burning flesh and woodsmoke.”

So, she dreams too. That’s a comfort. “Can I guess?” A nod. She seems confident but flighty, like she’s new to this. The most recent one then. “You have a son, and someone held you beneath the water for a very long time.” She nods again, and tears threaten to spill over.

A quiet mew comes from his window, and he can’t contain the small smile as the cat blinks back at him.

The woman cranes her neck to catch a glimpse. In the fait moonlight that sneaks past the bars, Caleb realizes that she has not been carrying a cheery expression like he assumed, but the illusion has come from a forced smile scar that runs almost up to her ears. “What’s his name?”

“Frumpkin.” Caleb says out of habit more than thought, and realizes they haven’t exchanged names “I’m Caleb Widogast.”

The woman squints at him. “Not…” She says while fiddling with a braid.

“Can’t say I’ve heard that one before.” Caleb tries for humor but doesn’t think he reaches it.

She seems to realize what she’s said at that moment. “Oh, no, sorry. Name’s not Not, it’s Veth.” She looks down at his bound hands and raises hers that have been chained the same. “Burglary?”

He grins. “Always nice to find a kindred spirit.”

“I’ve been here for a week for it and I’m not interested in waiting around much longer.” Veth nods at the window. “Got any plans for busting out?”

Caleb looks at the window to his cat, then down at his hands. The cuffs are solid, but not so tight that he couldn’t break his hands out. “Any good with a lockpick, by chance?” When she makes a noise in the affirmative, he shrugs. “Then if my cat can bring us one, we’ll just break our wrists and waltz out.”

She stares at him, bug eyed and mouth slightly agape. “Break our wrists? You’re mad then.” She hisses.

Veth is new new, then. “You haven’t noticed?” He asks, and when she just continues her stare, Caleb cracks a smile. He hasn’t had the opportunity to show off in a long time. He holds his wrists and bashes the metal cuff into his nose. It breaks with a wet noise, and his new companion grunts in disgust. He returns his hands to his lap, and within seconds his nose has perfectly realigned, the blood dripping down his face the only sign of anything amiss.

For the first time she really smiles at him, her scar deepening the effect. “Oh, now we’re gonna be in business.”

 

---

 

Beauregard Lionett knew she had shit parents, but she never appreciated how terrible they were until her mother found out she was pregnant again. A divine miracle. Her father snubbed her after mealtime that night, and her spineless mom followed suit. Beau wonders what the fate of that child will be if it’s another daughter. Will she get a son’s name as well? Distant vague attention from their father and whatever love their mother will sneak them when he’s not around? The taste of her dinner goes sour in her mouth at the thought. Beau hope’s she’ll have a brother.

As a child, her father would not hold her. That was her mother’s duty. He taught her arithmetic because he didn’t trust her tutors, and she had tutors because he didn’t trust the local school. She knows that her father came from nothing, but she wishes he would talk to her about it. Let her understand why he won’t kiss her cheek, look at her artwork, watch her do pushups. Beau abandoned hope for his affection in her early childhood. She found it from other people. In her youth, it was the tutors who praised her work and kids her age she could beat in fist fights. When she got older it was from the girls she would kiss in the storeroom. If she was lucky, she could even steal a hug from her mother. There was no greater thrill she felt, however, then when a group of thieves took interest in her for her combined set of skills. Screw her father and his standoffish treatment and her mother’s slowly swelling belly and the distance it put between them, Beau finally had people who cared and wanted something from her that she could give, for once.

All things considered, her father really should have expected this. She balanced the books and ran the counter, if anyone was going to siphon his wine and sell it at an upcharge in the Kamordah underworld, who else but her. It doesn’t make him any calmer when he finally catches her in the act. He flies into a rage unlike anything Beau had ever seen before, and he catches her off guard with his fist. She hits her head on the way down, and she can’t shake her shock that he’s actually doing something about it. If she had known that anger was an option, she never would have wasted her time trying to earn his affection. And if she pretends the hand that bounces her head off the cellar floor was gently holding it when she told him about a nightmare, that’s her business.

Of course he would leave her here to bleed out on the floor. Typical. Shame her brain hadn’t leaked out, because then her father would actually have to clean her up. With a headache worse than any hangover she’d ever had, Beau stumbled back up to the shop. She’s greeted by the shell of a hysterical man wearing her father’s clothes and calling her a spirit and banishing her. The emotion surprises Beau again, but she won’t pretend she didn’t see this one coming.

“Don’t forget to tell the new kid about me.” She grunts, pushing the front door open with her shoulder. She takes one of her father’s better horses and rides out of Kamordah within the hour.

She bounces between several caravans before she ends up in Zadash. She’s recognized by a contact from her bootlegging days and recruited to do a job. There’s a monastery in the Innerstead Sprawl with a library full of precious old books, and a big payday if she can nab a couple titles. Beau’s new to town, so she gets in the easiest way she can think of. She joins to monastic order of the Cobalt Soul.

And this is how she learns that the monks aren’t just librarians, they’re also monks who will beat the living shit out of you and Beau has never felt more alive. She takes to the training like a fish to water, even if she pushes back against her new authority almost every chance she gets. She never reveals her original intentions for joining because she’s not a rat, but lets her contacts know to buzz off and find different rare books to steal because she knows their faces and how they work. If Beau thought getting into fistfights was the most fun she could have as a kid, she should have known it would be even better with a body she had grown into and made her own. She’s shaved the under part of her head like she always wanted to, has skin that won’t hold a bruise, and a right hook that can break jaws. She feels unkillable.

It takes her a long time to come to terms with her dreams. Expositor Dairon forces it out of her one day during training. Ever since she left Kamordah, she has the same five dreams. She’s angry in two of them, screaming in rage and holding a bloody sword while wings break out of her back in the first, and in the second her rage is directed at a man she’s looking at so closely she can see her own reflection and the threat of the guillotine behind her. She suffocates in the other dreams, on either through drowning, by running out of air in a coffin, or on smoke. She can never predict which one will happen next, but she can now sleep through the night. Dairon proposes that she’s cursed, and Beau laughs for three uninterpreted minutes.

What she has noticed that has put her on edge is the hands in all of her dreams. In the one where she stares into the man’s eyes, she can see her entire reflection and she does not recognize the woman who stares back, short with a round freckled face and cropped black hair. But the color of her hands is wrong in all of her dreams except the one where she’s trapped in a coffin. She’s got a library at her beck and call, so Beau tries research on visions and prophets. Demid Sunlash tries to link her dreams to the moon and Beau runs up and down the stairs until her feet bleed so she doesn’t feel the need to hit him for it.

Ioun forgive her, she starts to keep a dream journal. The dream where she chokes on smoke is the rarest, but she cannot find any other significance. Slight variables change over time, but nothing that tells her anything new. Beau was never humble about her intelligence and her mind’s viselike grip on new information. She loves to learn and to notice how her world operates, if nothing else she has that. When she reaches out and comes up with nothing it makes her feel small again, that little girl whose father was teaching equations too advanced for her and the comprehension would slip through her fingertips. Beau did pushups back then to try to make something make sense, but thankfully the monks have given her a much more varied workout.

If you had told the Beau from Kamordah that a decade with monks would pass quickly, she would have called you a liar, as well as several colorful expletives, but that’s exactly what happens. She is proud of herself for never writing to her father. Damnit, she’s happy here, she’s found her purpose. Maybe it is just to punch things and dedicate libraries of books to her memory, but she has friends in Jennah and Madeer and whatever her weird relationship is with Dairon, she likes it. She’s got the layout memorized, is helpful when people visit the library and can provide them with knowledge, and the thieves with the gumption to break into a library watched over by The Knowing Mistress get to go to her school of hard knocks.

Her frustration returns when a new dream about drowning begins. The skin on her hands is still the wrong color, and this time there’s a hand on the back of her neck holding her face underwater. Beau can’t decide which of the two is worse. Both leave the taste of blood in her mouth.

To say she’s surprised when the group of four stumble into the library when she’s working is an understatement. She’s working the counter, Jennah says her people skills still leave a lot to be desired, and Beau is trying so hard. The day is late, and Beau is wondering if they’ll be having stew and rice when the door opens.

They stare at one another for several seconds. No one speaks, but when Beau sees their shortest member, tan freckled skin and black bob, she knows that her dreams have followed her or she’s going mad, or if she’s unlucky it will be both.

The man with white patches of skin offers his hand. “Fjord. It is certainly a surprise, but it’s good to finally meet you.”

“Welcome to the Cobalt Soul.” Beau says, more out of reflex than anything else. “The hour is drawing late, but please let me or any other assistants know what you need from the library.” Belatedly, she takes the man’s hand but there’s no strength behind her shake.

The one who looks like he’s masquerading as a human, black hair that looks blue when it catches the light and unnatural eyes that appear red, props his elbow up on her desk. “Well, at least let us know if you killed the bastard who cracked your skull open.”

“Molly!” The short one cries, smacking him upside the back of his head.

A false smile to mask her nerves. “You have me mistaken with some other woman. But do enjoy your time here.”

“You know us,” insists the beautiful one, who looked nervous to breathe when she first laid eyes on her, “We’ve dreamt of you, come with and let us explain.”

Beau refuses. She doesn’t desire to leave the monks and even if she had, they’ve made an error. She hasn’t died. She directs them over to Sunlash, hopefully his ramblings of the phases of the moons will run them off.

And then its up to her quarters and she has the privacy for a full blown panic attack.  When she closes her eyes, all she can see is the faces of the four strangers who claimed to know her, her father attacking her in the cellar and the way he had looked at her the next morning. Beau would have known if she died, if someone had brought her back. Force of nature will not scoop your brain back in between your ears for the hell of it. Sleep finds her, but it comes at the cost of missing dinner.

She’s dreaming of choking on smoke and pale hands when the fire begins. Beau thinks at first her dream has woken her, but the panic of her fellow monks alerts her that foul play is afoot. The Archive is up in flames. When Beau races downstairs, she knows that the books on magic history are the source of the flames and fucking, if this is the Assembly’s fault, I will kill someone. She dives in without a second thought, staying low to the ground and racing to the tomes. She fills her arms with as many as she can carry, and crawls back. Tubo meets her halfway, and wordlessly takes the books from her and she turns back to save more. When she returns after her third pass-off, a flaming beam falls square on her back and Beau, for the first time, gets to experience the sensation of her spine shattering before everything goes black.

Strong arms are cradling her and the heat from the fire is gone and, Ioun’s third eye, someone is carrying Beau. She swallows, expecting her throat to be screaming at her but finds it fresh and ready to go. She blinks her eyes open and the tall, beautiful woman from the library is her savior. Beau yells out in shock and tries to fight her way out of the grasp.

“Sorry.” The woman says, quietly and apologetic before she knocks Beau out with the pommel of her sword.

When she comes to again, the sun is high in the sky. She’s been propped upright in a cart being driven by one of the men, Fjord. The rest of her abductors are watching her, waiting for her to get the first word in.

“How am I not burned?” Her voice wasn’t supposed to be dripping in raw honesty, but she couldn’t take her words back now.

The short woman pats her arm. “Our bodies fix wounds at an unnerving speed. I think it’s so we can be better fighters, when gashes heal and broken ankles aren’t a concern, you’ll be surprised how much braver you can be.” She gives a friendly smile. “Oh, and I’m Jester!”

Beau nods. “And what exactly are we?”

“Immortals.” Fjord supplies from the front of the cart. “Our spirits cannot leave our bodies and we don’t age.”

Another nod. “Great, sure why not. All of us?” Affirmative noises from all sides. Beau sighs “Fuck this.”

With little warning, she throws herself at the figure sitting across from her, Molly. They roll out of the cart and by the time Fjord has pulled the horses to a halt, she’s snapped his neck. Jester reaches her first and makes the mistake of trying to restrain her. Beau leans into it, before dropping her weight and hooking her arm beneath Jester’s thigh so she can toss her so her throat will collapse between the force of her body and head, also killing her. She swears she hears a small squeak of panic when Jester's spine cracks. Beau's taken too long, when she turns to run there’s a sword going through her ribs and she gets pinned to the ground for good and she spits out a curse that would have earned her two days of cleaning the head archivist’s chamber pots.

“Yasha.” The barbarian woman says in introduction, pushing the sword even further into Beau. “We don’t kill our own.”

It’s only fair that she dies when her neck is broken.

Beau wakes up in the cart, sitting next to Molly this time. “Hello, unpleasant one.” He chirps.

She aims for his eye when she spits, but he lazily doges it. “So,” she breathes out “we really are immortal”

That smarmy grin again. “Seems like it.”

“Hm.” She watches Fjord and Jester opposite of them for a moment, the former worrying over Jester like a mother hen while she swats him away, focused on a sketchbook. “I’m going to take up smoking.” Beau decides.

"Fuck!” Molly curses, something bordering a mournful look in his eyes. “Yasha, why didn’t I think of that!”

The other woman is now driving the cart, as much distance between her and Beau that she can get. She gives him a look, but doesn’t dignify his outburst with a response.

They claim ownership of the dreams for her that night over dinner. The explanations, while none are pleasant, provide more comfort than she was expecting. She doesn’t elaborate on her first death although they give her the opportunity to do so many times. It’s unnerving, how they’ve all taken too her and given her space to eat besides them, treating her like an equal. They tell her that they’re trying to track down the two others that they still dream of.

After dinner, Beau waits for the rest of them to fall asleep before she pushes herself out of the borrowed bedroll.  If what they’ve told her is true, and Fjord is the only one who strikes her as being able to pull off a convincing lie, the dreams of the others won’t start up again when she leaves. Sure, she’ll still drown and be burned alive the rest of her life, but with as long as it took them to find her, Beau isn’t hopeful for a revelation to come in that department any time soon. She wants to go back to the Cobalt Soul, back to a library in civilization and read for a very long time until this immortal bullshit makes sense.

A branch breaks behind her. Godsdamnit. “Where are you off to?” Fjord has his arms crossed, posturing casually but worry clear in his green eyes.

“Nowhere.” Beau shoves her hands in her pockets in an attempt to look relaxed despite the tension winding up in her spine. “To piss.” She offers lamely.

He presses a hand to her arm. “They’re a lot. It took me almost a century to get used to them.” He laughs when she makes a face. “I know. But you’re much smarter than me, Jester won’t have to teach you to read through romance novels so that’ll save you some grey hair.” Fjord points to his few strands like he’s made an excellent joke. “I think you’ll be surprised, with both yourself and us. Please, come back to sleep. We can talk it out more in the morning.”

She lets him think she’s leaning to begin to walk back to camp then swoops down to grab the falchion strapped to his belt and swings it to sever the hand that’s holding on to her. Beau stabs it into his heart before he can do much more than gurgle out in surprise.

There’s no branch snapping in warning for the tackle that throws her off balance. Yasha’s mismatched eyes stare at her in disbelief as she pins Beau down with her bodyweight. Never afraid to fight dirty, Beau grabs a fistful of the black mane and pulls it, throwing her resistance off center so she can swing the other arm still holding the falchion into her side. Yasha screams, out of pain or anger it’s unclear, and maintains her impossibly strong grip as Beau rolls them. Unable to get away, Beau reaches out blindly before her fingers find purchase on a rock, and she swings it with all the force she can manage at Yasha’s head while the other woman thrashes beneath her like a pit viper. Her first blow misses, but the next once connects and the one after that and that. The iron grip slowly fades and Yasha smiles at her and almost looks proud, making something in Beau freeze as if Yasha’s gaze alone could hold her in place. A hand grabs her, pulling her off the temporarily dead immortal.

Holding her shirtfront is a disappointed looking Fjord. His other hand is still a stump, but evidently that hole in his heart sealed up quickly.

“You’ve got to cut this shit out.” He declares, before bashing his head into her own and the world goes dark again for the fourth time that day.

The anger slowly begins to leech out of her system, only because her new traveling companions (should she be calling them that if they basically abducted her?) refuse to ever rise to it. She doesn’t kill Fjord, Jester or Yasha after that first day because they only react to her outbursts with stale disappointment that feels like it’s been brewing for years. Maybe it has. And she’s played this game already with her father, and his feelings only revealed at the end. Beau can see their emotion when they talk, never bothering to complete sentences as they can all tell what the others are thinking, how they’re always checking on one another after sparring even though they know implicitly that they can never cause another personal harm and in how they touch. Yasha bestows all of them with casual kisses of affirmation on the brow, which makes Beau’s chest do something funny that she doesn’t have time to examine, Jester’s soft pushes that never meet resistance and constant passing around of a haggard animal that sort of looks like a weasel, Molly is just touchy in general and is fond of resting his chin on the shoulder of whoever he’s listening too. Fjord is treated with special care, and the three bask in the claps on the back he gives them.

Killing Mollymauk never stops being satisfying though. He’s arrogant and his dream was the most terrifying because she thought it was her. Maybe it’s not fair to blame him for that, but Beau can’t be bothered to give a shit. She does it three more times before Jester begs her to stop. As the girl cries over the corpse of her fellow immortal while his neck pulls itself back into place from the position she had popped it out of with a makeshift staff, Beau feels guilt boil deep in her stomach for the first time in as long as she can remember.

“Sorry.” She grunts when his chest heaves back to life.

Molly sits upright, stupid smirk ever-present and blows a lock of blue black hair out of his line of sight. “Oh? An apology from the one who uses her fists instead of words?”

His head gets pushed sideways by Jester, purple eyes dancing with fondness. “Hush.”

Beau pops down onto his level. “I mean it.” She says, stupid emotion making her sound raw. He gives her a careful smile instead of his infuriating one and pats her cheek. He also waits for her to continue, perceptive dickhead. “I used to think your death would be mine.” She holds her arm out to his for explanation, their skin the same deep tan except for where his tattoos bring unnatural colors. “I didn’t understand what was happening until I saw you, and then I was just angry that you’ve had me fear containment like that for so long.” Beau looks away, and adds, “I can’t imagine what it was like to wake up like that, have it be all you know for so long.”

“Worse than you can imagine.” Molly says as he rises, offering his hand so she can pull herself up. “Want to tell me what happened in that cellar?”

She hesitates, but she knows she won’t be able to keep it from them forever. No need to drag it out any further. “My father. He uh, isn’t normally like that. Obviously. Otherwise, you’d be looking at a permanent eleven year old.”

 Molly lets out a deep exhale. “If I knew all the gods, I would be cursing them out for you. That’s next level fucked up.”

A chuckle from afar. Fjord and Yasha are watching them, cart loaded and ready to go for the day. Yasha’s expression is impossible to read, carrying her routine world-weariness but also something that looks dangerously hopeful. Fjord is easier to read, an idea clearly brewing in his head.

“What do you reckon we take some time off in Trostenwald?” The man proposes. “Rent a few rooms at the inn, give our young Beauregard a quiet place to blow off some steam, maybe kill some wild animals that harass the livestock?” Before she can take offense to the idea she needs to be kept like a child, the rest of the group is nodding, Molly’s pulling her into the cart, and they’re headed south down the road.

As much as she resents it, Fjord’s idea isn’t half bad. She would love to be allowed to just completely rage for a while. Maybe they’ll let her spar with them, kill them each one more time just for the hell of it. Besides, she knows from bootlegging that Trostenwald is nice at this time of year, they always ask for extra wine for tourists passing though who spend the night. Given time, she could make this work.

 

---

 

Veth’s life begins and ends with Yeza. That sounds like something he’d say, the obstinate romantic. But really, who was she before her brothers dared her to kiss the quiet boy who lived on the other side of town, her first real act of bravery?

She was brave when she picked up the pieces after sickness stole her family from her, when she took up the crossbow to scare off traveling thieves who thought they stood a chance against quiet village folk, when she agreed to become a mother. Yeza would say his greatest creations were for her, emerging from his alchemists lab with concoctions to soothe her joints after long days in the garden, help her strength recover after Luc’s difficult birth, add new flavors to the wine they bought cheap from travelling merchants that turned those bottles into something worth their weight in gold. She loved him to the point of courage, and he loved her to the point of invention.

His illness throws them off balance. Luc wasn’t yet five when Yeza developed a frightening cough that wouldn’t go away. He would write to healers he met over the years and toil in the lab looking for a cure, but he lacked the energy to work for long. So, Veth passed their son into her husband’s arms and took up that hobby as well. She seared her eyebrows off twice. Luc had fun pressing his soft hands into the bare skin, giggling at the faces his mother made for him. Yeza braided her hair every morning, always with a gentle shower of kisses and his gratitude. She knows he feels useless, so Veth does her best to let her knows that she sees him. She compliments his cooking, is generous with her awe when Luc shows her the letters that his daddy is teaching, returns every one of his kisses with enthusiasm that she couldn’t fake if she tried. Every act the pair do for one another is out of a ferocious love.

But the ending. That would always be the bittersweet part. Veth can feel herself close to a breakthrough, spending more time tinkering with chemicals than out with her husband or visiting with friends. She’s got him taking a daily potion that make his symptoms easier to manage, and if she can just figure out what she’s missing then they may go away for good. This is when the marauders come, burning through the village and corralling their people in town. Like the rest of the merchant class, the Brenattos’ bodies aren’t as hardened as the rest of the farmers, marking them as different.

When the invaders find out about Yeza’s alchemical talents, they take him from the village and drag her and Luc off as collateral. Their leader can’t father a child between his four brides and demands a solution. Veth does her best to shelter Luc from it all and watches her husband’s condition grows worse as he tries to make do with poor supplies and stressful conditions. Their captors are growing impatient but Yeza’s unmanaged illness threatens to claim him before their anger does. Veth knows what needs to be done.

One of the women they’re trying to “fix” is sympathetic to their plight, so she gives them a hairpin hidden in their daily meal of bread and cheese. That night, Veth frees herself first before taking care of her husband and son and whispering instructions. Luc clutches to Yeza’s chest as Veth kisses both of their cheeks and promises to see them soon. Her husband palms her the vial of acid he had managed to create during their imprisonment, just in case. She heads off towards where the leader of the marauders sleeps and creates as much noise as she can.

She didn’t expect to attract the attention of the leader himself, but Veth is more than happy to oblige him to a fight. There isn’t much of one, she’s a small woman without much muscle, but it allows her to get close enough to pour the acid down his throat. He screams, scratching his neck bloody. Veth is pinned down and laughs when he convulses and chokes on the foam in his mouth.

“The others are missing!” Screams the eldest wife, pale face full of grief and anger, turning on the laughing woman. “You.” Her voice is venom, not unlike the one that took her husband. She grabs Veth with incredible strength, slamming her against a tall cart. Veth spits in her face.

The woman laughs, but without mirth. “You’re going to regret that.”

Veth doesn’t. The knowledge that her husband and son got away and are safe keeps her brave through it all. Even when the knife carves her mouth open back to her ears and Veth knows she’s screaming, all she feels is relief. When the first woman grows tired of cutting her up, she’s passed off to a cloaked figure. A jagged fingernail thoughtfully digs from her cheek to teeth and Gods does that sting. Veth figures she’s already got a signature, so she spits on this person too.

This earns her no anger. She’s held by her hair and dragged out to the woods until the figure stops and she can hear a gently rushing creek. The shock of cold water makes her gasp, and Veth instinctively tries to pull out. Those sharp fingers dig into the back of her skull and Veth can do nothing but gasp like a goldfish while water floods her lungs, through both her mouth and the holes in her cheeks.

Her husband is safe, and her son will get the chance to grow. Given that knowledge, Veth welcomes her death.

She wakes up covered in mud and coughing. Gods does her chest burn. Veth cannot stop coughing and each one hurts worse than the last. She’s shivering while she drags herself to an upright position and that’s when she realizes she’s still in the creek. Her heart sputters as she begins to drag herself to the shore, but the coughing will not give itself up. She feels like she’s still drowning even though she’s above the water and can barely have the cognizance to be thankful she’s made it to the muddy bank before she’s out again.

When she comes to again, Veth’s first instinct is to push herself as far away from the creek as she can without rising. Physically she feels fine, but her brain cannot wrap itself around the ordeal it survived. She wonders if this has all been some paranoid dream as she brushes her loose hair out of her mouth when she feels it. A scar, from her lips to apple of her cheek. She touches the other side of her face for confirmation. Its twin is there too. Somehow, Veth’s survived, and has been marked by her experience.

She takes the knowledge that her husband and son are safe and lets it sustain her. Veth is not so naïve that she thinks she can return home as if nothing has happened. Those type of marauders, they’ll talk, and her face will be known for the trouble she’s caused. She’s got to have figured out how she walked away, and then, maybe, she can return. Besides, Veth still has the problem of Yeza’s cure to solve. Time on the road and experimentation with other herbs may prove useful.

The dreams don’t make sense, until they do. Idyllic scenes of childhood intercut with violent death. She wakes with scents of iron, seawater, sunshine on a hot day, cool metal, woodsmoke and mildew still in her nostrils. Veth cannot explain her intuition, but somehow, she knows that she’s dreaming of the deaths of others. She needs to find these people. If they’re anything like her, maybe they have answers.

Veth makes herself a routine. Come into town, buy some rounds at the tavern, find out who’s got possessions worth stealing. Break in, take what’s valuable, then leave town. Sell off what she can when she can. Send what she can afford to Yeza and Luc, always anonymous. Experiment for a cure when she has time. She only ever struggles with the breaking in. It occasionally gets her arrested, but she has no paperwork and most local guard are too underpaid and underappreciated to be bothered to keep her held on fairly minor charges while sending out requests for identification across the empire. It helps that she tries to only steal from rich assholes.

That doesn’t mean it’s a stable lifestyle. When Veth is caught breaking into the cellar of a tavern, it’s her misfortune that the head of the guard is up for a promotion so he’s going to be diligent. But, if he had let her out when, she wouldn’t have met the other. He’s a dirty but she’d recognize him anywhere. Bren comes from a voice from her dreams, but he introduces himself as Caleb. She entertains the possibility of prying, but he provides her with an interesting demonstration regarding the rapidity that their wounds close that she decides to let him keep his reasons for his false name secret.

When Frumpkin returns with a single lockpick in his teeth right after the shift change, Veth snaps her wrists and breaks them out.

She didn’t mean to take on Caleb but the way he curls into himself reminds Veth of her son, and he’s clearly a bright young man himself. The crossbow she takes for herself out of the jail’s small armory is both helpful in protection and keeping the pair fed. Just because they can come back from the dead doesn’t mean Veth finds the experience a particularly pleasant one.

The dreams come up one night over dinner. Caleb is amused that she figured out what they were telling them when all he got out of dreaming was more confusion regarding their situation. She asks how he knew which dream came from her.

“Your confidence. You were so sure about it, but also terrified that you had been mistaken. I assumed you were the youngest.” He tries to dodge it, but still gets caught by her fingertips when she goes to shove at his head.

“Youngest my ass Cay-Cay.” Veth snorts. “Even though you died before me, I know I’m still older.”

He grins, unable to deny the truth, and boops her on the nose. “Older and wiser, brave one.”

Their laughter fills the quiet nights, and Veth finds herself watching the night sky for any falling stars. Both moons are visible tonight, Catha almost completely outshining the maroon Ruidus. Despite it being dark on Exandria, the sky is alight with soft greens, blues and purples with points of white light, a whole existence outside of the hunk of rock she was born on. The beauty of it all takes her out for a moment, and Veth remembers how deceptively insignificant she feels in her stubborn spot of the universe. Humans are so tiny, but something unheard of has awoke within each individual who visits her at night. There has to be some function, something they must do with it, why else would it have been given?

“Do you think we’ll ever find the others?” She breathes out softly, so quiet that he could pretend he didn’t hear it if he chose not to answer.

For a minute, she thinks that’s what he’s done. And then, just as softly, Caleb replies. “I hope so. The thought frightens me, but I think we both want to.”

They live off what Caleb can trap in his snares and berries when the season permits it. When they want something a little fresher, he’ll join up her in a tree and serve as her spotter while she takes crack shots that never miss their target. Veth doesn’t mean to, but sometimes she goes for days without thinking of her husband and his cure and her boy and his life.

On weeks where the weather grows too miserable to maintain a transient outdoor life, she’ll steal from whoever they can find and pay for a night or two in an inn and hot meals. They’re turned away once for Veth’s facial scars, and Caleb makes himself scarce for a week before he returns to their campsite with a beautiful porcelain half mask for her to wear whenever she feels the need. As she begins to hit the bottle heavier and heavier, Veth finds herself with a compulsion to pick pockets everywhere they go so she can live secure with the knowledge she has two gold to rub together to buy a drink. If he notices, Caleb has enough sense to not say anything about it.

It’s after one of their more difficult weeks, one where they each died too many times, (she fell out of a tree, he didn’t realize his game had been poisoned before it ended up in his snare, they both had bad berries, he lost his footing while crossing a river and hit a rock while being swept downstream) that Veth snaps and demand they take a break. She steals enough gold to get them a room and meals for a month in Trostenwald. Caleb is younger than her, but not that much, and the innkeeper assumes they’re lovers on a getaway. He goes pale and she’ll laugh about it for an hour later, but it amuses her too much to make any sort of correction.

They’re halfway through their stay when they meet the rest. When the girl who only has an inch on Veth enters the main room, she feels like they might as well have blown in with a gust of wind that threw open the shutters as well. And then they’re at the table, talking of dreams and waking up after dying, and Veth forgets to ask for the money back from her room before they’re swept up into the adventures of this new group.

Caleb doesn’t like traveling with them. He’s not much of a fighter and he keeps his survival abilities hidden from the rest, which irritates Veth to no end. But she refuses to leave with him whenever he asks her, so he stays. She’ll occasionally join them out on a contract, but Veth finds that she still prefers hunting game to slaying monsters. She did enjoy that manticore hunt though.

They all carry the weight of their years. Sharing with the group helps, and Yasha encourages her to write more back home, even if she has to remain anonymous. They spar together, pass around heavily dogeared novels, get into drinking contests, and dare each other to eat gross food. Veth had her husband and her boy, but she hadn’t ever really had family since her parents and brothers, not like this. It feels so, so good to be seen and held and loved.

Mollymauk uses a word over a miserable dinner of rations one night that makes Veth feel like a fool for not realizing it sooner.

“Immortal?”

Molly gives her a wild look. “Uh, yeah Veth. Thought you’d have pieced it together by now?”

She shakes her head. “No, no, I know we’re unkillable, but I didn’t realize it was like that.  With a name. Immortality is good for stopping illness too, not just knife wounds.”

“Veth, why does that matter?” Fjord asks carefully.

“My husband is sick.” Veth admits to them for the first time. “If we actually can’t die from disease and the like, then I’m going to give mine to him.”

Caleb frowns. “You know it doesn’t work like that.”

“Well, help me with your superior intelligence then, and let’s do some fucking inquiry into the subject before we dismiss it.” Veth hisses.

“You won’t find an answer you’re going to like.” Yasha says, matter of fact but also clearly bitter. “Believe me, I’ve tried.”

“Well, I’m working with a time limit.” Veth says. “Nothing like a little bit of pressure to get the ball really rolling.”

They start to frequent cities instead of townships. Caleb is her most consistent research companion, but Beau, and if she’s in the mood for it, Jester, will lend a hand as well. Most of what they find is shaky theory, and it all concerns turning oneself immortal, never breaking or transferring that power. Yasha finds them more work to help cover the library fees and the higher expenses that are associated with spending time in industrial regions. Veth is beginning to feel the weight of her impossible task when they take the fated Hupperdook job.

Their friends are captured, they don’t do captured. They need to rest now, but if they don’t get them back fast, Veth fears they’ll never see them again. The new dream doesn’t help her state, but Molly’s soothing hand on her back does a little, and starting their chase lets her feel something like accomplishment at least.

The first night they spend tracking the caravan, Caleb tries to convince her to ditch their friends three times, but she only smacks him for it the first time. Veth knows from Caleb’s half-given history who that jaundiced man was, so she tries to be gentle in her own odd way. She tries to get the truth out of him, that he would never do what he threatens because like it or not, these are their people now just as they were once each other’s and he cares about them and it is so much more impossible to bear this burden when you’re alone. He won’t. But she sees it in his eyes, especially when Molly leaves them behind on spotter and sniper duty, safely tucked behind a hill.

They see the Orphan-Maker for the first time when Molly dies and doesn’t come back. In the end, it is nobody’s fault. The lock is difficult, Beau also has to break the chains strapping their friends to the cart, Veth can only fire her crossbow so fast, and he thought that he couldn’t be killed so he fought with his usual reckless abandon.

(Veth will always wonder if she had gone, if she had broken the lock, would it have gotten them out in time to save him in time, or if this was just how it was always going to be)

When Yasha sees Molly’s unmoving form trapped beneath the glaive, her howl of grief is both haunting and furious. Then the wings burst out of her back, her eyes bleed black, and she’s a walking nightmare and tearing her surviving tormenters to shreds with nothing more than her nails and teeth. When her work is complete, she collapses and the wings fold back in.

It takes both Beau and Fjord to carry her out of the carnage she created. Jester takes Molly until Yasha is herself again. Veth wishes that they had managed to make it farther away from the spot he died, but she also knows that they’re all too full of shock and grief to be good for much more for a long while.

Caleb wraps the colorful coat tight, so the offending final wound is kept hidden before he stumbles off to be alone in his mourning, with a halfhearted excuse of keeping watch away from camp. Yasha spends the night making Molly’s face wet with her tears, begging him to come back to her, cursing him for his recklessness, and asking why. The rest of them wind up in a tangled pile of limbs a little bit away, doing their best to comfort and process.

“I still don’t understand.” Jester whispers, wiping her eyes with her cape. “Why now, why Molly?”

Fjord says what all of them have wondered within the last few hours. “Do you think it’s because of the new guy?”

Beau shakes her head. “No, look at us there’s so many of us together. If this was a numbers thing, nothing would have happened until after we found him. It’s not in the nature of magic to upset itself when it’s at an equilibrium.”

“Besides.” Veth says, trying to hold back more of her tears. “We’re supposed to do something with this, why else are we stuck here but still be allowed to find one another? Gift or curse, we’re supposed to use it. And what have we done with it?”

Silence passes for a while, before Beau says grimly “I haven’t done anything other than be an asshole.”

“We killed some monsters.” Fjord says. “If that even counts.”

Jester lets out a desperate, unpleasant laugh. “You guys, I’m so fucking sick of heartbreak.”

They don’t say anything for the rest of the night. They don’t sleep either but rise at dawn all the same as if they had. Morning is quick because they have no supplies to pack, they just wait for Caleb to return. Yasha cradles Molly to her chest as she leads them, searching for a burial site worthy of a once immortal man.

They eventually find one, off the Glory Run Road where the trees part for a stretch of meadow that’s beginning to grey in the winter. The earth is cold, and snow is beginning to collect on the ground but none of them care to notice as they dig his grave with their limited weapons and hands. By the time they’ve dug deep enough to give Mollymauk a peaceful bed beneath the dirt, every single one of them as spilt blood from busted knuckles and shattered fingers.

It’s quiet when they cover him, save for the sound of tears and the occasional strong gust of wind. What is there to say, what words can provide comfort when you have to lay someone that tightly tied with your own soul to rest, knowing you’ll have to go on living?

His grave is marked with a large stone that Beau and Jester roll out from the woods and by the fistfuls of flowers collected by Yasha and Veth. When a clutch of wagons pass by, Caleb and Fjord go intercept them to trade, and return without any coin but with packs, blankets, and lots of booze. They allow themselves this one final night, drinking over his grave and sharing stories. There’s more laughter, but they still allow themselves to cry.

Over a meager breakfast, Veth asks how they’re going to find the newest member. “We’re all having slightly different dreams for the past week. If we compare the facts, surely there’ll be enough to at least to give us a start.”

Caleb sighs. “Veth, I don’t know if – “

“He’s that way.” Yasha points north. “I don’t know how or why I know. But he’s there.”

Veth nods, encouraged. “He was hungry too; I know we can all feel that. I could smell the woods and tea brewing.”

“I saw the walls of a stone building.” Beau screws up her eyes in concentration, like she can will herself to remember more.

“He’s tall like Yasha.” Fjord adds. “Ghostly pale skin, and grey eyes. His hair was pink, somehow?”

Jester sighs, resting her head on her palm. “I didn’t hear anything other than rustling leaves. He feels so lonely.”

“He wasn’t always.” Caleb says, words bittersweet. “He played with his siblings in a blighted forest.”     

A beat of silence. “North of here, the Savalirwood has been growing sick.” Beau says. “At least, it was when I was still with the Cobalt Soul. Something’s corrupting the trees. But people still live there.  Would explain why he’s lonely, how he’s gone hungry.”

They all share a look and nod. Beau takes point on the road, Caleb falls behind her to help navigate, Veth next to him with her loaded crossbow resting on her shoulder, Jester and Fjord after, him quietly repeating details to her as she fills out a page in her sketchbook while they walk, and Yasha, with one final look over her shoulder, brings up the rear.

Veth takes Caleb’s hand as they begin their walk. She squeezes it gently twice, asking. He gives her one firm squeeze in return, and pulls her hand up to kiss it’s back. That answers it then. They’re with their family now, until each of their bitter ends. In a moment of either bravery or deadly overconfidence, she lets herself believe that it’s not going to end like this again.

 

---

 

The Savalirwood is dying and there’s nothing the Clay family can seem to do to stop it. The blight has been worsening since the children were born and it constantly looms over the Blooming Grove, threatening to break in but never quiet managing too. Before he understands how to properly ask for things from Her, Caduceus tells his mother that he hopes the forest will stop being sick in time for his new sister. She lets him press his ear to her swollen belly to listen to the baby while she braids his hair and gently warns that hope is a dangerous thing. Hope alone will not keep the terrible things of the world at bay from them. Worship does that, prayer does that. But it is not enough to just have hope.

Caduceus hears the whispers in Shady Creek when he’s allowed to join the supply runs. Those unnatural people, hiding out, worshiping that goddess that had been abandoned for a reason. They couldn’t be controlled, too wild too free. Putting them down would be for best, maybe then the woods would grow back. Aunt Corrin tells him not to listen, that they’ve been saying those things since before she was born, and if they were that hated no one would come to bury their dead in the graveyard now would they.

“Besides, that town is full of lawless thugs.” She adds while taking his empty teacup, disgust clear on her face. “Perhaps if they let Melora into their hearts, her lover would return their order.”

Laughter comes from outside the window. “I’m not sure they would see the return of Erathis as much of a blessing.” His mother says, basket resting on her hip and a razor in her hand. “Now Caduceus, stop worrying your aunt and come, do you want your haircut or not?”

He leaves the warmth of the house to join her, resting on his knees so that Constance has her height over him to get a clear view while she shaves his mohawk, the one that looks just like hers. As his eyes pass over the rings of stone tablets, searching for the names he has not yet memorized, he finds himself drawn to a bit of bog.

“Mom.”

His mother is finishing up the detail of the gentle swirl on the side of his head. “Yes dear?”

He points. “What’s special about that spot?”

She looks up, follows his direction and her face falls into a slight frown. “I don’t know dear. What does The Wildmother tell you?”

What does his gut tell him? “That I need to go to it.”

His mother pulls the razor away and folds it into her pocket with a nod. She’s no more than a half step behind him as he slowly walks over to the waterlogged moss. He crouches and begins to dig, but looks to his mother before taking more than a pawful of dirt. With another nod of affirmation, Caduceus burrows in. He finds what he’s been sensing and pulls it out.

In his palm is a large purple stone. Caduceus focuses on it, and suddenly he surrounded by a swarm of insects. They’re near deafeningly loud, and his mother cries out in surprise. Frightened by the noise, Caduceus drops his concentration and begins to check over her in case she got hurt as the front door is blown open. His father looks from him, to the stone in his hand, then to his mother. And suddenly everyone is crying but Caduceus’s needn’t worry, they’re happy tears.

That’s the day he learns what magic is, that it once was very real, but has since grown weak. His father tells him that while he can’t really use magic, he can sense it out. Aunt Corrin is giddy with joy the whole night and lets Caduceus hold their relics of Melora, items normally kept put away, so he can sense their faint energies. It feels funny, kind of like the buzzing of the insects but combined with a pull in his chest.

“We should have taken hope when you were born.” She remarks as they put the vestiges away. “Born in the sun with hair of snow, you’ve carried her blessings of change since birth."

From then on, Caduceus was always getting his siblings out of trouble. He makes sure they’ve kept up on chores, doesn’t let them pick on Belle for being the littlest, and takes the blame for any chaos they get up to. His parents know, but Calliope is too crafty for her own good. Caduceus is the fall man because their parents know he would never, not their gentle boy who’s kept grounded by that purple stone tied around his neck, so none of them get punished.

It is his fault, that one time they push Colton’s mattress out into the pond. But his parents don’t believe him, and Calliope saves his ass from getting beat when his half-drowned brother makes it back to dry land. It’s one of his fonder memories.

Caduceus has wondered if the way his family speaks is the origin of why Shady Creek thinks they’ve cursed the woods. The tongue they use for one another is not the same that is spoken when people come to their gates with a loved one to burry. It’s much slower, gravely. His father tells him it’s the language of beasts and leaves. The Wildmother would want them to be speaking it, it keeps them closer to her. As he learns the more complicated burial rituals with age and the variety of languages they’re spoken in, the idea grows on him. He also tries speaking in a combination of plant speech and the more common one to the fern by his bed. His mother always said exposure was the quickest way to learn.

They get distracted while trying to surprise their parents with breakfast one day, and Caduceus doesn’t quite remember how but they end up in the woods mashing up beets and mixing them with oil to Clarabelle’s manic directions. They collect mushrooms with greasy hair for an hour before circling back to the pond.

"His holds the color so well.” Colton says, trying to keep his obvious jealousy held back as he washes the oil and beet mixture out of Caduceus’s hair in the water.

Calliope barks out a laugh “Who knew your deer-tail hair would be good for something Caddy!”

Their parents are disappointed but are undercut by their aunt’s demands to for them to teach her their ways. After that, Clarabelle tries to turn anything she can think of into dye, from carrots to lemon to mud (the last one has debatable success). Caduceus grows attached to the pink and makes sure that his corner of their vegetable garden always has enough beetroot to keep the color fresh, no matter the season.

Growing into worship takes time, but whatever his magic is has his parents stressing on his devotion more than his siblings. Caduceus finds it easier once he understands what She is asking of him. Protect the wilderness. Hold back the darkness. Embrace nature, exist in harmony. Those are direct commands that he can understand. And his place in the Blooming Grove makes sense in those instructions. He gets better at learning what to ask of her and how. Caduceus becomes more introspective, less likely to wander out to the pond and cause a ruckus with the rest. Oversees more of the burials, prays more often than before so he can feel closer to Melora and better understand her signs. He doesn’t understand why, at the time, but his parents slowly let out a sigh of relief as his devotion grows.

His mother and aunt leave just before Clarabelle hits her teens. They don’t say it, but the whole family knows the Savalir has grown more and more ill with each passing season. And besides, his mother says with a smile as she cuts his hair one last time, they haven’t spoken to the Dusts or Stones in many seasons. Maybe they’ll find their solution in the clans and be home before his next birthday.

Caduceus hopes for this, prays for it every single dawn and evening until his birthday passes and they’re without word from either of them. Cornelius becomes stricter in his wife and sister-in-law’s absence, and Colton and Calliope are sparring every day and then Caduceus has a staff pressed into his hands. He’s awkward, still not completely grown into his body yet. (He doesn’t get much better when he stops growing)

It’s Clarabelle’s idea to put the crystal in his staff. “Keep your creepy-crawlies with you.” She says while securing the attachment. It encourages him to keep the staff on him at all times, which is something of an improvement, technically, maybe. His siblings are now less likely to pull something on him, apparently needing the threat of an insect plague and being smacked with a stick to hold their teasings at bay.

When their father leaves, it is with a set of rules. They are not to go into Shady Creek unless absolutely necessary. No one is to know that the children are living at home alone. Burials proceed as normal. Spar daily. None of them are allowed to follow. After their parting hug, Caduceus says he hopes to see them reunited soon.

Hope is dangerous, his father reminds him, and it will not keep the horrors out.

They do listen to him, for a good while longer than they expected to. It helps that Calliope gets on a crafting kick, determined to make them all armor in case they need to protect their home. She models Caduceus’s after the beetles he can draw out of the crystal. He grumbles during the time, having to collect much more specialized materials, but has to hold back tears when he sees the final product reflect sunlight. Calliope is so pleased with herself that her own design is almost identical. It’s much more fun to help her gather the requirements than being sent out alone. But without much of a task beyond keeping the Grove tended too, his siblings begin to grow restless.

Colton goes first, because he’s the oldest and that’s what you do when you’re in charge but also rebelling against your parents’ wishes. He reminds Caduceus that the hot season is coming, and that they’ve run low on sunscreen and “Melora, at least try not to be sunburned when we come back Mom will never let me hear the end of it.”

Calliope strikes out two years later. Always the pragmatic one, she makes sure to leave after taking them in town one last time, leaving pages of instructions all over the home ranging from recipes to funeral rights to morning exercises. Caduceus climbs to the roof so he can watch the light reflect off her chitin breastplate until she’s gone.

Clarabelle leaves last, tears in her eyes. He presses the last of that season’s beetroot into her hands, tells her to bring back any new sources of dye she finds. He doesn’t cry until she’s passed the iron gate.

Caduceus falls into routine. He tends the garden, brews tea, dyes his hair and keeps it cut, goes into town when he absolutely must, holds quiet funerals. He does stop sparring. It’s not as fun alone.

She’s gone for a decade when it hits him over breakfast. They may never return, and he will live and die alone, burying the bodies that come to him until he needs to be put in the ground himself. Caduceus thinks of becoming fungus while his family’s fate will forever go unknown, and the sickness of the Savalirwood that will overtake his home. He loses his appetite.

He tries to carry out his day, but the thoughts from breakfast chase him, bringing melancholy into every moment. At one point, he thinks he sees a figure at the fence, but when he reaches the gate nobody is there. Convinced he’s no good for the rest of the day, Caduceus goes to bed early.

Desire to rise out of bed lessens over the next few weeks. He drinks tea when he can be bothered to remember that his throat is dry, but Caduceus never finds himself hungry. Food becomes a reward, but he doesn’t do much that is reward worthy anymore. Even when he does manage a particularly beautiful funeral while in this state, he finds himself without energy to eat when it’s all over. He sleeps, then it’s a new day and he hasn’t earned food yet.

This cycle is interrupted one night by a cacophony of death in his dreams. Of course he’s dreamed of death before, he grew up burying dead bodies, but not like this. Not violent, not screaming. The first night he wraps himself up in one of his father’s cardigans and curls his fingers around a long-cold cup of tea outside the front door. His eyes catch movement by the gate again that threatens to steal the air out of his lungs in a moment of terror, but nothing dark and terrible will enter the graveyard, so he pushes the fear away.

He tries prayer, he tries to clean, he tries everything he can think, but the dreams do not stop haunting Caduceus every time he rests his head to sleep. He drinks teas from the families that make him more alert, which helps a bit. Once, when he feels very brave, Caduceus stays in the temple for a full transition of sun to moon to sun again, begging for her to let him know if his dreams are telling him what he fears. The Wildmother stays silent. He wills that to be a no.

Early one morning, Caduceus is brought to his knees out in the garden by an unseen stabbing pain in his upper ribs. At first, he thinks that he’s sensing nearby magic, but then the tears come. He weeps like a mourner, though he does not understand what he has lost. The agony in his chest does not go away. For a moment he worries he’s ruptured something internally, but figures that it will just kill him, and he can be thankful for it later. He stumbles inside and is asleep before the sun finishes rising. Caduceus still does not eat.

I hope, when I do perish that whoever finds the Grove will continue our work. Where did that thought come from? He crushes it. Hope is dangerous. It is not enough to hold back the terrors of the world. But Caduceus is so maddeningly exhausted as he pushes himself up to his full height over the garden that he lets himself think about that figure he keeps seeing by the gate. He’ll blame them for being the source of his weakness.

If the hunger claws at him for long enough, he discovers that he can rest without dreaming. That pain begins to feel good again, and the nights when it takes him are almost pleasant.

The morning after one of these nights, he goes to answer the door after the fourth knock and is surprised to realize that it is actually midday. Putting his weight on his staff, he undoes the deadbolt and slowly opens the door to reveal six faces looking at him expectantly. A piercing sensation runs through his skull as his chest buzzes at the sense of nearby magic.

All he can do is blink at them. “Hello,” he says slowly, doing his best to take the group in “You all have found yourself in the Blooming Grove.”

They’re an odd bunch but their faces are weary even as they investigate his own. If there’s one thing Caduceus can recognize, it’s when people are in mourning. So, he steps aside and let’s them inside.

“How did you die the first time?” the woman with the shaved undercut askes with crossed arms and an eyebrow raised in speculation.

“Beau be gentle with him” protests a woman whose clothes are even more elaborate than Caduceus’s.

Caduceus bows his head “No offense taken, but you all have made some kind of mistake” when he looks back up none of this scruffy group looks impressed by that. “This is a holy sanctuary and a graveyard. People come here to die and with their dead, but I cannot have died otherwise how would we be speaking?”

The woman with the undercut, Beau his brain supplies, pinches the bridge of her nose “Gods I’ve never had to do this before, it’s like you’re being willfully unobservant.”

“I don’t know Beau,” says the man with golden-green eyes while trying to hide a smile, “I recall you having a very similar argument with us.”

The shortest of their group, the woman with her hair in two dark braids, runs up and lifts up his shirt before Caduceus can stop her exploration “Look at him. I suspected with the way his cheeks hollow. Starvation.”

As Caduceus paws at her hands the copper haired man pulls his companion back. “Some folks have boundaries Veth, you cannot just – “

“But look at him I’m right! We all know its him, and he hasn’t realized it yet because he didn’t die properly the first time!”

This provoked an outcry from some of her friends and the bickering devolved at a rate Caduceus cannot keep up with until the woman at the back of their group held up her hand and they subdued themselves into a silence.

“Then he is the first of us to have a gentle introduction to death.” Her cadence makes Caduceus feel like she was speaking to him in Celestial and Abyssal at the same time, otherworldly and certainly ancient.

“I am going to ask you a couple of questions, and you are going to be honest when you respond.” She states, not blinking once the entire time “Jester and Beau will tell me if you lie. If we are mistaken, we will leave you in peace.” Caduceus gave her a dutiful nod that earns him a soft smile, one that looked like it carried years of sorrow for him.

“What is your name?”

“Caduceus. Caduceus Clay.”

“When was the last time you ate?”

“I don’t know.” He admits, ducking his head.

She looks past his shoulder. “Your foodstuff on the counter is covered in mold.” She says, not unkindly.

He follows her gaze, and knows his cheeks are tinged pink with embarrassment. “I’m sorry, you’re guests you shouldn’t have to see that.” Without thinking, he taps his staff so his swarm of bugs can escape the crystal on top, and he directs them to devour the offending scraps. The newcomers watch in stunned silence.

“Ah.” Caduceus realizes his mistake the moment after he’s done it. “I wasn’t supposed to show you that. Why don’t you all sit and join me for some tea while we sort this out.”

His odd magic is not as much of a concern as he feared it would be. He learns their names as the tell him what strange abilities they’ve discovered about themselves. A cloaked figure has been guiding Jester since childhood. Fjord has a sword that is bound to him, proves it by making it appear out of thin air in his hand. If she’s angry enough, wings burst from Yasha’s back. Caleb, Veth and Beauregard say they’re the normal ones, Fjord challenges that they just haven’t figured out what their gifts are yet. When Caduceus insists he’s getting a magical read off Caleb, he’s passed an amulet that none of them have been able to identify, but he can’t seem to trigger any spell out of it. Jester turns, looking for someone she does not find, and quickly sucks in her breath. A fierce moment of tension takes hold before it’s broken.

"Caleb does speak the language of magic.” Veth brags, waggling her eyebrows and succeeding in embarrassing man next to her.

"Caleb speaks Celestial.” Yasha explains. “As do I.”

"Am I going to have to learn it?” Caduceus worries.

“No, just a quirk we have,” Caleb says. “I also speak my mother tongue, Zemnian, and Veth is becoming quite fluent too.”

“I’ve always known them, Celestial and Abyssal, as long as I can remember.” Yasha says. “I could not imagine, having to learn from scratch.”

“Yeah.” An eyeroll accompanies Beau’s dry tone. “I used to be a monk, and something of a bad one because I ‘only’ learned two other languages.”

"Fjord and I only know Common, but that’s because we’re simple-minded and hundreds of years old.” Jester says, wrapping an arm around her companion’s neck and butting their temples together. “And you know what they say about old dogs learning new tricks.”

Beau snorts. “Your Common sounded more like Elvish when I met you. I bet you could pick it up with enough lessons.

“You think I could learn?” Jester asks, genuinely excited.

A shrug. “Sure, why not.” When that is met with a small screech of delight, Beau points at her, and says through a fond smile “Just don’t make me regret it. And we will be doing swears first.”

The chorus of groans that follows is interrupted by a harsh knock on the door. The group falls silent instantly, and all eyes shoot to the door. Some hold suspicion in them, others look dangerously expectant.

Caduceus’s are suspicious. “I’m not expecting anyone. Stay here.” He grabs the staff resting against his chair and makes his way across the room.

He carefully unlatches the door and is rewarded for his caution with the door being thrown open and a familiar figure pushing him into the wall next to the doorway.

“Don’t try anything,” breathes a gruff man. The very one who he’d caught glimpses of pacing outside the gate. Caduceus tries to find strength to push back, but has none.

“State your business!” Shouts Veth, drawing both the intruder and Caduceus’s gaze. She’s pointing a crossbow at them, and the rest of the group has risen from their seating in alarm. Fjord is already making his way to them, hand going for the weapon strapped to his belt.

The strength of the grip on his chin is more than enough for Caduceus to be forced to look back at the man.

“You were supposed to be alone!” He roars, revealing a handheld scythe as he turns towards Caduceus’s guests. Fjord is near now, and the man swings his weapon back with a furry in his eye. He doesn’t know where he finds the strength to, but Caduceus pulls the weapon back towards him, panic overtaking his body before logic can see that this will end in his demise.

As it makes impact, he hears rather than sees his house dissolve into chaos.

Fjord is next to him when he comes back gasping and with hands flying to his chest trying to apply pressure to a wound that is long gone.

"Hey, hey, it’s all good I’ve got you.” The other man says as he pulls Caduceus into a hug. They stay that way for a long beat, until his breathing can come back to something that could be described as normal.

Caduceus takes in the chaos that is the shared bedroom of his siblings. He shouldn’t have let it get like this; Calliope would kill him if she could see it. “I’m sorry about the mess.”

That gets him an honest-to-Melora wheeze. “You just came back from the dead and you’re trying to apologize for a mess?” Fjord asks, really, more like observes.

“Hm.” Caduceus settles back into the bed for a moment, tries to collect his thoughts. “When you put it like that, seems a bit ridiculous.” He died. Again, apparently. Wait. “That man – “

“Is taken care of.” Fjord assures him, squeezing his hand. “You’re one of us, Caduceus Clay, for better or for worse.”

The level of comradery these people have for a man they barely know both warms him and puts him slightly on edge. Then he remembers. The mess. Caduceus swings he legs out of bed; he needs to clean while the blood is still fresh.

“Wait.” He hands him a firm hunk of bread. “You need to eat something after a death like that. Your body will thank you for it trust me.”

Caduceus takes small bites while Fjord waits with him. The bread probably went stale a day ago, and it was of middling quality at best beforehand, but it comes with Fjord’s quiet company. It’s one of the best meals he’s had.          

The group explores the graveyard while Caduceus does his best to clean up the house. The manacles found on the intruder’s body indicates that he was probably a slaver. Caduceus wishes he was surprised by that, but he knows they type that hang near Shady Creek. However deserving of his death he may have been, Caduceus will not let his body sit and grow mold in his childhood home, and doesn’t want to run the risk of his family returning to an empty house and dried blood. He tidies up the mess left in his episode to the best of his ability, both so that they can rest comfortably in his home tonight and, you know. Just in case his family comes home.

When he exits the bedrooms and comes back into the main, the tall woman with a lip tattoo is still inside. The kitchen is tidy, her work. She’s watching her friends romp outside with a look of tenderness that suits her, despite everything else about her appearance and stature.

“You’re our leader.” He says. It’s not a question.

Yasha laughs softly. “I’m the oldest. For whatever that counts.”

Caduceus has about eighty six questions, but he can only start with one. “When you began to dream, how did you know?”

“I didn’t.” She admits in a soft exhale and tilts her head while she thinks on it. “I thought I was being punished. I had to be found by Jester to understand what it was.”

He blinks slowly. “Punished. Did you think you deserved punishment?”

“Yes, a thousand times over.” She glances down into the teacup that looks miniature in her large hand. “My wife died, a long time ago. Right before I did, for the first time at least. I know she would have wanted me to let go of that guilt by now. I’m trying to.”

A soft breeze floats past them into the small home, rustling the leaves of the plants hanging in the window. Yasha’s eyes focus on the small flowers blooming in one pot before she comes back to herself.

“Fjord and I, we were both alone for too long. That’s why this,” she gestures at the rest of the group outside as they tramp about, “Why it is important to us. We may drift apart one day, but for now. To be truly alone…” She pauses “I would not wish it upon anyone.”

“Me neither.” Caduceus whispers, forcing himself to keep an eye on the strangers. Because if he looks away, he’s afraid he’s going to here Clarabelle’s laughter and Corrin’s melodic humming.

Yasha recrosses her arms, shifting her weight on the counter. “I need to apologize for earlier, for implying that your first death was pleasant. Starvation.” She shakes her head, pulling herself out of a memory. “I’ve watched it before. It is an unpleasant thing, the way it plays tricks on your mind. I forget that things that aren’t bloody can still be violent.”

Caduceus shakes his head. “Nature agrees with that. If I’m being truthful, I think I starved to death a fair number of times, not just once. It was the only time I had a break from those awful dreams.” He can’t stop the shudder that follows.

“What did you think the dreams were, Caduceus?” She asks as she leans into the window. Sunlight catches the white tips of her hair and it reminds him of his father’s braids.

“My family has been gone from home for a long time. Trying to fix this.” He waves out the window past the walls that keep the Grove private. “I’ve started to believe they will never return. I thought the Wildmother was displeased with my weakness.”

Yasha looks at him. “We could try, try to find them.” She points at Veth. “She’s young enough that she still has living family too. She’ll understand it best if you need to talk, but we can all help at the very least.”

Caduceus searches her face for the catch but can’t find it. “Why?”

“I’m tired of death.” Yasha admits. “I want to help something grow; I want to fix something. Caleb, Beauregard and Veth are still so young that I don’t think the weight of time has worn them down yet. They’re weary in other ways. But not like we are.”

He knows he’s not terribly bright, but Caduceus feels particularly foolish when he realizes what feels off. “You lost one recently. One of you died.”

“Mollymauk.” She presses a hand to her stomach like she’s trying to hold in a wound. “We don’t know why, but one day it’s just going to all stop. And killing monsters is grand and all, but I can’t see what good it does anymore.”

His fingers ghost across the swirl shaved in his hair and is surprised by the grow out, he’ll need to freshen it up before they all leave. “In nature, no act is neutral. If you’re going out, removing the unnatural, you are causing change. Whether it is good or bad remains to be seen.”

Yasha shakes her head at him. “I don’t know if that makes me feel better or worse.”

He shrugs. “You can decide later. I’m not going to object to trying to find my family and bringing the Wildmother’s light back to the Savalir.” He tries to recall what the group was wearing but can’t recall any holy symbols. “Do any you still worship, after all your time?”

“Not anymore.” Yasha’s eyes are fond. “Beau still curses out Ioun though. And Jester still gets her visions from whatever that cloaked figure that won’t leave her alone is. Fjord –“ She halts, then softens her voice anymore like she shouldn’t be speaking on this. “Fjord was confused. He thought the dreams were divine visions. I don’t blame him, he’s had a rougher start than most of us, but… be gentle with him, when you talk about it.”

Caduceus looks for the dark haired man, finds him slightly away from the rest, gently touching one of the chicken of the woods growing out of a long dead stump. For an immortal pushing three hundred, Fjord looks so young just then, in awe with the world around him and it fills Caduceus with warmth. “I will.” He promises.

They head out the next morning and are patient with Caduceus while he locks the Blooming Grove up. He pauses at the gate, doubting his choice one final time, and Jester links arms with him and asks him about what he normally cooks when he’s got real food, not that moldy garbage his bugs devoured last night. So, he leaves home for the first time in so many years while debating the best vegetarian breakfast options.

He should have known that the slaver wouldn’t have come alone, but the sheer size of his new group should have made any ambush lying in wait think twice. Evidently, this group didn’t have much brain matter to go around. Caduceus is still reaching for his staff when the rest of them dispatch their attackers with a grace and speed his mind cannot follow. They go from being under attack to surrounded by eleven corpses in less than a minute.

“I guess now is as good as any time to tell you all I don’t know which end of a sword to hold.“ He says as he wipes a small splash of someone else’s blood from his brow.

Caleb raises his hand in a manner that calls for silence. He says something in a language Caduceus doesn’t understand to Veth, and she follows his line of sight before releasing a crossbow bolt up in the trees. A body falls from a tree more than forty feet away, dead before impacting the forest floor.

“They’re a perfect pair.” Beauregard grumbles as Caleb goes to retrieve the bolt for Veth. “Don’t bother trying to learn how to shoot, they’ll just mop the floor with you.”

The items they find at the slaver's camp are routine if the rest of the group’s reaction is to judge anything by. Caduceus doesn’t like the look of the stack of supplies in their wagon, and with some poking from his staff, a crate is revealed. Jester is upon it in moments, weddinging the lid off with her axeblade. Her voice is gentle when she extends a hand into the container. To the surprise of everyone around, Jester’s hand returns with a woman on the other side of it.

It’s one thing to know you’ve killed a slaver. It’s another to have to see what they’ve done to the people who have the misfortune of encountering them.

“Please.” The woman begs, her matted black hair adding to her desperation. “They already have my son and partner. I know where their nest is.”

 Veth makes quick work of her shackles and helps get her on her feet. She gives a deferential look to Yasha. Yasha nods, so Caleb pushes to the front of their group.

“I’m the tracker. Show me the trail and we will help your family reunite, ja?”

Caduceus takes up the rear as their pack falls into line. His heart catches, just then, with hope. For his family, old and new, for this woman, for Her plan and for his place in it all. And hope is dangerous, but he lets it settle and blossom. These are good people, and he’ll happily find his destiny with them.