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Whispers like the Wind

Chapter Text

Five long years of waiting. And now, it's time to make things right.

Dezel sprinted through the cobblestoned streets of Pendrago, Sorey and Rose right behind him. The night was still, yet foreboding. Even at this hour knights should have been patrolling the streets and taverns should have been lively with music, drinking, and gambling, but the streets were empty and all windows darkened.

He heard nothing but footfalls, theirs and Lunarre's, whom they pursued. The other seraphim had opted to remain inside Sorey, but Dezel was too jittery to tolerate just sitting around. He couldn't rest, not when she was here.

Her oppressive domain, unlike any other he'd felt before, sucked all vigour from the city; all was colourless and drab. It dulled his senses, even his wind senses. He could feel her influence, but he couldn't pinpoint her actual self.

Her voice came from nowhere. “You’d better hurry, girl, or you’ll lose him. Surely you won’t let him get away with such a vile betrayal?”

“Stop messing around and show yourself!” Dezel shouted.

“All in due time, good seraph, all in due time. This is only the opening act, after all. Relax.”

“I’ll relax when you’re good and dead!”

She laughed, a shrill sound that make him want to puke. He’d have recognized her by the sound of her laugh alone.

Dezel, do you know whose voice that is? Lailah asked hesitantly.

Was she really that slow to catch on? "She's the one I've been after for so long, the one who murdered my friend!"

"Murdered your friend?" Rose caught up with him, keeping pace at his side. "Dezel, what's going on?"

"You'll see."

"Oh, well, thanks. That's very helpful of you."

He said nothing. Ever since she'd consented to the Squire's Pact he'd known that, sooner or later, she'd have to learn about his past. About his sins.

Everything was necessary, he reminded himself. He had to do anything it took to prevent that manipulator from ruining more lives, and more importantly, he had to avenge Lafarga. Using some human to achieve those ends was nothing.

For five years, he'd told himself that.

Up ahead, Lunarre turned to the church square. And when they reached it, there he stood, just before the steps. The majestic shrinechurch loomed over him, a black mass in the dark of night. He shook with silent laughter.

Walls enclosed the square. He had nowhere left to run.

"Lunarre!" Rose approached him, her face flush, lip curled, daggers clenched in her fists. She took a wide stance. The others materialized around them. "I don't know what's gotten into you, but—"

She suddenly cut off as Lunarre ... transformed. That was the only word for it. One moment he had his own shape, and the next instant, an entirely new one had taken his place. The others shielded their eyes, so he must have been emitting brilliant light.

The domain disappeared. Dezel assessed Lunarre's new shape—slight, female, loosely holding a baton, and—

Dezel balled his hands into fists. "You."

"Yes, me," she said, smiling serenely. She turned to Rose. "What splendid anger you've shown me, girl. If it should blossom into hatred ... oh, but how happy he will be."

"That's cool," Rose said. "What did you say your name was again?"

"Symonne. It's a pleasure."

"The only pleasure I'll have is when you're good and dead," Dezel growled.

Meeting her again, for the first time since that day, overwhelmed him with the memory. Of waking up in a haze, unable to see; discovering Lafarga's broken body lying on the street, while oblivious humans milled around; finding the splintered remains of the disgraced Windriders, forced to go into hiding or be killed.

And the blame lay squarely on the shoulders of the one who stood before him. She who smiled slightly, slouching, lazily twirling her baton, as if her crimes were frivolities.

Her flippancy boiled his rage over. "You turn my friends into hellions and drag the name of the Windriders through the mud?! I'll kill you!" He ignored Rose's cutting look.

"Dezel, wait!" Sorey grabbed his arm. "She isn't a hellion!"

"Like I give a damn!" He lunged free of Sorey's grip, but Rose cut in front of him, blocking his path.

She stood with arms akimbo, her eyes narrowed. "Wait. Dezel, what the hell is going on? What do you have to do with the Windriders?"

Symonne giggled. "Do you mean to say that the girl still doesn't know? Oh, splendid, how splendid! The perfect scene has been set." She clasped her hands together. "Dear, dear girl, let me fill you in."

"She doesn't need to know anything," Dezel quickly said, sidestepping out of Rose’s path. "This is between you and me."

"Oh? And does the girl agree?"

"My name," she said, turning to Symonne, "is Rose. And if Dezel won't tell me, then—then yeah, I want you to."

Lailah touched her shoulder. "Rose, we need to be cautious about this. We can talk later, and—"

"I'm gonna hear what this all about right now, no matter who ends up telling me," Rose said, shrugging away from Lailah. "It's your choice whether it's gonna be you or not."

Silence.

Dezel stood utterly still.

Symonne spoke coolly and clearly, her voice carrying through the square. "In a desperate effort to preserve and continue the Windriders, who were his last concrete connection to—"

Dezel lashed out with his pendulum, but she nimbly dodged the strike.

"As I was saying. The Windriders were—" she dodged another "—his last concrete connection to—" and another "—his dead comrade—" and another "—and this seraph abused your remarkable resonance to—"

"Dammit, stop evading me and fight!"

"I'd appreciate it if you would stop so rudely interrupting me," she said. "I think this girl deserves to know the truth, don't you? Do you not feel any remorse for what you've done to her?"

He sputtered, "You—you have no right to talk of remorse, you—"

"Dezel. Shut up."

Rose didn't even look at him as she said it. She kept her eyes trained on Symonne, her lips pressed into a slight frown. Dezel opened his mouth to speak, but found he couldn't force even one word out.

"You were saying?" Rose said.

Symonne examined her fingernails, a smirk playing about her lips. "Over the past five years, your dear wind seraph has abused your remarkable resonance to periodically commandeer your body whilst you were unconscious. Did you ever wonder how you adapted to the powers of the seraphim so quickly? It wasn't because of natural talent or ability, no," she said, finally meeting Rose's gaze. "It was because he used you."

Rose let out a short laugh. "You're kidding, right?" She turned to Dezel. "Tell me she's joking."

"R-Rose ..." He didn't know what to say.

"No joke," Symonne said. "And that's not even the end of it. He was the one who steered you and your comrades into the darkness, recreating the honourable Windriders into an assassins' guild. And, in his quest to kill me, he set his sights on the power of the armatus, using you over and over again as a vessel to enact his vengeance. It was all right, he thought. It was all to avenge his friend."

"That's right," Dezel snarled. "And to take my revenge on you, I'd do it all again in a heartbeat!" He lunged at Symonne, and this time, she didn't avoid the strike; she blocked it with her baton.

"I see how it is," she said. "If words won't make you remember—well, like I said. I'm flexible."

She transformed again, instantly filling the air with malevolence. Pustules covered the hellion's slimy body, and Dezel had to cover his mouth to keep from gagging at the putrid stench that wafted from her. How fitting that one such as her should be so repulsive.

Lailah pinched her nose. "She turned into a hellion? Why?"

"More like, how?" Edna said.

"So you show your true colours at last," Dezel murmured, swinging a pendulum. He'd waited so long for this very moment.

Symonne pulsated, puffing herself up, then unleashed a surge of energy from her eye toward them. Everyone scattered.

"Lailah, we have to purify her!" Sorey said.

"Right!"

Like Dezel was gonna let that happen. But he'd let them think they could, for now.

Sorey armitized with Edna. He charged at Symonne from the side, avoiding her eye, but she swung one of her arm-like protrusions at him, forcing him back. In this state she certainly didn't look it, but she still had quick reflexes.

Dezel dashed around the square, then bombarded her back with the ends of his pendulums. With no way of protecting her rear, her only option was to clumsily shuffle her body around. But while she used her appendages to drag her body, she couldn't swipe at anyone. Their battle strategy would be simple, then: to barrage her from all sides, while avoiding her eye.

The others seemed to have reached the same conclusion. Sorey and Lailah attacked her from opposite sides, so no matter which direction she lumbered in, she was getting hit.

Dezel smiled. They all worked well together. He'd appreciated that, these past few months—fighting with people were actually competent.

"L-Luzrov Rulay!" Rose stammered, a few feet away.

She and Mikleo united, but only for a moment. Rose heaved, her hands on her knees, but when Mikleo approached her she swatted him away. "I'm fine. Go help the others."

"But—"

"I said I'm fine."

Mikleo nodded reluctantly and left. Rose stayed there, shoulders hunched, her entire body tensed as if waiting for a blow. Dezel smothered a pang of guilt. It's better this way, he told himself. Better to know than to live in darkness. Besides, he couldn't waste any thoughts on her right now.

He continued to strike the hellion with his pendulums. Maybe seraphic artes would have been more effective, but physically, violently attacking her felt better. Symonne was slowly, but surely, going down. After all this build-up, it almost seemed too easy.

"That the best you got!?"

Symonne spoke calmly, despite her injuries. "Try to remember. How and why did you lose your friend? After killing a hellion, what happens to its malevolence? Are you really so sure you want this to be your vengeance?"

Of course he should have expected nothing but nonsense from her. "Shut up! I've had enough of your crap!"

"My, my, you really are lost, aren't you. It's quite pitiful, really. Though I do understand how you got this way—ignorance is bliss, and all."

"I said shut UP!" He whipped her with the wind, tearing a huge gash in her side. Thick, noxious pus oozed from it. Symonne flinched from the pain, but still made no cry.

Sorey, armitized with Lailah, said, "Lailah, let's get ready to purify her!"

Now. Dezel dispelled his physical form. He'd have to be quick about this, so Lailah would have no time to use her right as Prime Lord to restrain him.

Rose leaned against a nearby pillar, hugging herself. Dezel slipped into her, like a sword in its sheath. Her consciousness nudged his own, and he quickly suppressed it. "Dezel," she mumbled, closing her eyes.

He opened them. A familiar power flowed through Rose's body. No more worrying about morality; he couldn't tolerate anything that would weaken his resolve.

This is what I have to do.

"Wait, Dezel!" Sorey shouted.

Dezel was vaguely aware of the others being held up across the square—another of Symonne's tricks, no doubt. Pity for her that she hadn't caught him up in it, too.

With his and Rose's power combined, he forged a flurry of wind daggers, ready to slash her revolting flesh.

Symonne closed her eye, perhaps in anticipation of death. Dezel faced her head-on, utterly unafraid. He'd spent five years searching for her, five years of frustration, desperation, and grit. And now, that time was at an end.

Good riddance.

"Any final words?" he asked her, mockingly.

"Just a few," she said.

Her eye opened. And in its pupil, Lafarga's face.

"How—" Dizziness and nausea washed over Dezel, breaking his concentration. His daggers disappeared.

He fell to his knees.

Nothingness.

Visions materialized before him. Visions he saw, actually saw. The colours, the shapes, the movement—they momentarily overwhelmed him. He pressed his palms to his eyes, and tightly gripped his forelocks. Having his sight so suddenly restored to him should have been a euphoric occasion, but instead, he was overcome by dread.

"Windriders, out!"

Dezel raised his head. The Windriders marched towards Pendrago between fields of golden wheat dancing in the gentle breeze, with Brad and Rose at the helm. He remembered this day as his last happy, untainted memory of the Windriders. The day before everything went to hell.

With a jolt, he realized Lafarga stood beside him. His mouth fell open.

Lafarga smiled, unaware of Dezel's inner turmoil, and beckoned him. "Come on, we don't want to fall behind." Lafarga was the shorter of the two of them, but with his hat on, they were of about the same height.

The vision shifted. Just before Pendrago Castle, surrounded by knights and Windriders alike, Prince Konan proposed to Rose. The beginning of the end. Rose smiled at Konan, twirling an auburn strand of hair between her fingers.

The same old feelings welled up within him—anger, despair, the barest resignation that the happiest time of his life was suddenly at its end. In only a few short days, he'd gone from a joyous life to a purposeless one. And he'd felt even worse at seeing how well Lafarga had taken it.

Another shift. Konan, burning with malevolence, ordered a squadron of knights away. Dezel recognized this, too, as the prelude to the worst memory of his life.

Rose approached Konan, her blue eyes wide and fearful. He gloatingly told her of Brad's capture. "That snake," Lafarga said. "What brought this on?"

"Don't you understand?" Symonne suddenly appeared beside them, and hatred surged in Dezel. "It's all because Prince Konan became a hellion, and at the urging of his hellion greed, he sought to eliminate all hindrances. And by now I imagine you've guessed what turned him into one, have you not?"

"Hm?" Lafarga looked at her with narrowed eyes.

She only smiled and inclined her head toward the scene before them, as if to say, Just watch.

Rose sunk to her knees, weeping for the loss of the man she'd always thought of as a father. Dezel wanted to tear his eyes away, but he couldn't. Konan watched her impassively, and Dezel's fingers itched with the desire to throttle the bastard.

Konan made an offer of leniency—just for her. Rose lifted her chin, glowering at him with utter contempt. He then crouched before her, a slimy smirk on his face, and swept a tear from her cheek. His hand lingered.

Rose placed her hands on his chest and pushed him, hard. He snarled at her as he fell. She scrambled to her feet, pulling her daggers from their sheaths.

Dezel froze. He knew he should do something—anything—but he could only watch slack-jawed as Konan, still on his back, amassed concentrated malevolence on the palm of his hand to throw at Rose.

Lafarga was the one to dive in front of her. He was the one who took the blow for her, just in time.

It should've been me.

Dezel knew what came next. Then, as Lafarga knelt had there, panting, badly hurt but not yet dying, Symonne had come and—

Rose lunged at Konan and stabbed him, right in the heart, killing him almost instantly. Her first murder.

Malevolence erupted from his corpse, and shot straight for the nearest living being: Rose.

Lafarga, his reflexes lightning-quick, dove in front of her again. The malevolence hit him directly in the chest, and he crumpled.

Dead.

Dezel's knees buckled. No. This can't ... this isn't what happened, it's all a lie, she—

"Behold!" Symonne said triumphantly. "This is the fruit of your blessing. Do you have any idea what people call those with this kind of power?"

No—

"Angels of death."

She cackled. It drowned out everything else, that screeching laughter, reverberated in his skull, crawled under his skin and tore him to shreds. He huddled, hyperventilating, burying his face in his hands. He remembered, now—her laughter, that's what he'd fixated on, willing himself to seal everything else from his mind.

Only later did he pick up the pieces. But by then, he didn't know the puzzle was yet incomplete.

Blackness, again. The black of blindness.

"Looks like someone finally remembers his past."

The hellion stabbed him with a tendril of malevolence. Pain flooded through him, and he no longer had the strength nor concentration to hold the bond between himself and Rose.

He suddenly lay face down, his nose pressed against the cold, dirty street. Rose was beside him, but not for long; the hellion swallowed her up.

But not him.

Rose ...

"Rose! Dezel!" Sorey's shouts echoed through the square.

"And now the real fun begins," Symonne said. "Shepherd. Pay close attention."

Someone raised Dezel by his armpits, flipping him over, pulling him away. Mikleo? Dezel struggled to shake him off—he wanted to fight too, to help save Rose—but he didn't even have the strength to free himself from the grip of some puny water seraph.

Mikleo lay him down gently. "Dezel, don't move. Got it?"

He wasn't ever one for following orders. As soon as Mikleo turned away, he strained to pull himself up. His body was aflame with pain, every nerve screaming at him to stop and rest, but he slowly, laboriously sat up.

"You mustn't!" Lailah shrieked, across the square. "Even if you purify the malevolence, she doesn't have the strength to handle the burden. If you do, Rose will surely—"

"But if we don't do anything, she'll become a hellion!" Mikleo said.

Edna shook her head. "Except her wounds will kill her even before that happens."

All my fault. All my fault.

"A Shepherd is faced with difficult choices sometimes, isn't that right?" Symonne said, pacing around them. "Better decide quickly, Shepherd. Your darling comedian doesn't have long."

Dezel couldn't let her die. He couldn't.

"Sorey!" he rasped. The exertion made him groan in pain, but no one heard him, since he was too far away. He spoke again, but this time he imbued his words with the wind, so that they carried to the others. "Everyone, get back for a moment. I have a plan."

"Didn't I tell you to take it easy?" Mikleo said.

"Just come. She doesn't have long," Dezel said, his speech punctuated with a cough. He didn't seem to have long, either.

Lailah cast a barrier between themselves and Symonne and her pet hellion. And Rose. It took enormous power and effort to do that, so it wouldn't last long. He'd have to explain quickly.

Symonne looked unruffled. "Oh, Shepherd, do quit your desperate flailing about. You risk making a mess of the grand stage I spent all this time preparing."

Dezel couldn't afford to pay her any attention, now. "Sorey, listen—" He flinched at a sudden pain that shot through his middle.

"Hey, don't push yourself," Sorey said gently, kneeling beside him.

"Just listen to me," he said through gritted teeth. "We have to ... sever the bond between Rose and the hellion."

"Even for the Shepherd, that would be nothing short of a miracle," Lailah said.

Why wouldn't they just listen? "Give me that gun you got from Zaveid. It can fire strength itself, right? Then I shall be that strength. I ... shall be your attack." He breathed raggedly, clutching his side.

Sorey's brow furrowed. "What do you mean?"

Edna, bless her, explained. "Even as he's absorbed into the hellion, he'll become an attack with a will of its own. He'll find the bond between Rose and the hellion, and sever it without hurting her body. At least, that's what I assume he means."

Dezel nodded.

"But that's just suicide!" Mikleo said.

I don't care, Dezel thought, and he smiled. "If I can summon up the last reserves of my strength and merge them with the power stored in that one remaining bullet ... then I can stay myself long enough to break the bond, while leaving Rose untouched."

None of them looked convinced.

Dezel sighed exasperatedly. "Sorey. Neither Rose nor I can afford to waste any more time. You understand that, don't you?"

Still, he hesitated. "There has to be another way. If we can just—"

Enough. The gun was still holstered at Sorey's hip. Dezel grabbed it, and before Sorey could swipe it back, aimed it at his head and pulled the trigger. He immediately dissipated.

"Dezel, no!"

Without physical form, nothing hurt anymore. A new power, even stronger than that of the armatus, coursed through Dezel's entire being.

For what would be the last time, he found refuge inside Sorey. I'm counting on you, he said. Don't mess this up!

Lailah's barrier shattered.

Sorey slowly stood, then turned to face the hellion.

"Lukeim Yurlin!"

They bonded. Sorey raised the gun and focused Dezel into it.

I have to save her. Then, and only then, am I allowed to—

Sorey pulled the trigger.

Dezel barrelled into the hellion. Malevolence muddled his senses and suffocated him, but he found Rose immediately: she was a shining beacon in the darkness.

With one quick slice, he severed the bond between her and the hellion.

Rose, I'm—

He winked out.

 


 

A moment later he awoke, lying on his back. Not dead, unless this was hell. Judging from the pain, it could very well be.

He heard voices nearby, those of his comrades. He reached out with the wind; the effort made him dizzy, but he needed to see.

Sorey, armitized with Mikleo, healed an unconscious Rose. Good—that meant she was alive. Hurt, but alive. At least I did something right.

Lailah and Edna stood to the side, talking quietly. He couldn't hear what they were saying, but he could feel the shapes of their words with the wind.

"... with Mikleo's healing, she should fully recover," Lailah said.

"Physically, at least." Edna propped her parasol up against her shoulder.

Lailah pursed her lips. Her eyes roved over the church square, and eventually, settled on Dezel. Her mouth fell open. "Dezel? Dezel!" She began to run over.

He wasn't in the mood to talk right now. He was barely holding on to consciousness, anyway. Letting go was a relief, one he didn't deserve.

Darkness overtook him.

Chapter Text

Rose opened her eyes.

She lay on something soft. A bed—duh. Her head felt fuzzy, her throat was sore, and her stomach ached a little. The beginnings of a hangover, it felt like, except ... not. She didn't remember drinking last night. Actually, she didn't remember much of anything, except leaving the inn after dark with the others to check out that client, and then—

Oh.

No. Can't think about that, not now.

She threw the covers aside so forcefully they slid to the floor. She tried to sit up, but as she did, the dull pounding in her head intensified into a searing throb. She gritted her teeth, bracing herself against a wave of nausea. Don't puke. Don't puke.

She had to get up. She had to do—something. Anything. Anything to stop herself from thinking.

"You're awake!" Lailah hastened to Rose's side, with Edna on her heels. "How are you feeling?"

"Fine," she croaked—her throat was parched. Edna wordlessly gave her a glass of water Rose just realized was in her hand, and Rose downed it all in about two gulps. She cleared her throat. "When are we leaving? Actually—where're we going next?"

"We're not leaving until you're better," Lailah said. "Wherever it is. Sorey hasn't decided, yet."

"But I'm fine," Rose insisted. She'd walked off much worse in her time. Maybe she did feel tired, just a little, but she doubted she'd be able to fall asleep again. The liminal space between wakefulness and sleep was where all the thinking happened, and Rose intended on staving off thought for as long as she could. "Where's everyone else?"

"Sorey and Mikleo are out in the city, something about 'Asgardian architecture' or whatever," Edna said, sitting on the end of Rose's bed. Lailah gave her a pointed look, which she ignored. "Zaveid—he's stuck around for some reason, by the way—he's somewhere downstairs. And Dezel's ..." She paused, face unreadable.

"Out," Lailah finished, looking as if she wanted to say more. Rose recognized that look—softened eyes, straight mouth, lowered brows—as concern. But she wouldn't have any of that. No concern, no talking, not now. Talking would be even worse than thinking.

She faked a yawn—well, it started off fake, but then turned real. "I'm pretty tired, actually. Maybe I'll sleep some more."

"Yes, you should get some more rest," Lailah said quietly. But she didn't move, and neither did Edna.

"Uh, guys? Mind giving me a little privacy? Unless you like watching me sleep."

"Right," Lailah said. She still had that look on her face. "We'll leave you to sleep. But Rose ..."

"Yeah?" She dreaded what would come next.

"If you ever need to talk, just ... you know we're here for you, right? All of us."

"Sure."

Edna left, but Lailah took a moment to pick up the fallen blanket and place it at Rose’s side. Rose avoided her gaze, and she left without another word, gently closing the door behind her.

As desperate as she'd been for them to leave a moment before, now, she felt a strange hollowness at their absence. Stupid.

The dull walls, the worn oak furniture, and the small window near the corner of the room gave little in way of distracting her, so she'd have to leave. Rose counted to sixty, then crept to the window.

It wouldn't budge at first, but with one hard shove, it suddenly slid open with a screech. She pressed her forehead against the cold window pane and breathed in the fresh air.

She waited, but no one came. Good.

She was one storey up by the looks of it, with nothing directly below her but the cobblestoned alley. The landing would be hell on her head, but other than that, she'd be fine.

One leg over, then the next. A moment of hesitation, and then she let herself drop.

Pain exploded in her skull when she hit the ground. She crouched there for a few minutes, her eyes squeezed shut, until it finally subsided. When she stood she was a little wobbly, but all in all, she was okay.

Now that she was actually out, she didn't even know what she wanted to do. A sea of people milled around the market, and their chatter didn't make her head feel too great, but she pressed on, letting herself be directed by the flow. A good crowd to get lost in.

Maybe the Scattered Bones would have another job, if anyone was around. Jobs were nice—in jobs, all she had to do was act on instinct, just do as she'd been taught. No thought necessary. They'd really have to be vigilant in briefing the next client, though, considering how the last one was—

Nope. Don't think.

So she walked, letting the sights, sounds, and smells of the city distract her. She passed locksmiths and shoemakers, cutlers and seamstresses, toy makers and brewers. She lingered a little by a bakery, savouring the warm scent of fresh bread, but quickly moved on when a nearby fruit vendor accosted her. She wasn't in the mood for conversation.

She didn't run into anyone she knew. Usually that would have disappointed her, but now ... she didn't know how she felt.

She wondered where Sorey and Mikleo were. She wanted to talk to them, but at the same time—not. If things could just go back to normal, then she'd know what to say. And then she wouldn't have to fear what they had to say, either.

But things couldn't go back to normal. Because—

Dezel. Walking in the crowd, alone, just like her. Coming straight for her.

She turned around and walked the other way. Don't see me, don't see me, don't see me—

"Rose!"

Fuck. She continued on, pretending not to hear him. Maybe he wouldn't be an obtuse jackass for once and actually get the message.

"Rose!"

She ducked into an alley. If she climbed the wall, onto the rooftop, maybe he'd lose her, and then—

"Rose."

There he stood, at the mouth of the alley, looking the same as he always did—too tall, standoffish, and so impassive he could've been made of stone. The same as always, except everything had changed. She wanted to punch him in the gut.

"Hey," she said, faking a smile. Maybe if she pretended nothing had happened between them, he'd go along with it. After all, he had much more to gain from that than she did.

He spoke in a low voice. "We need to talk."

"Really?" she said lightly. "I can't think of anything we'd need to talk about."

"Rose, don’t be stupid."

She stared at him. Stupid? I'm stupid?

Something in her stilled. Her body tensed, and her throat tightened, but somehow she kept her voice level when she said, "Fine. If you wanna talk, we’ll talk. You can start off by telling me why you—why you did it.”

"I ..." At least he had the decency to look ashamed. He spoke quickly, his words nearly tripping over each other. "I had to make things right, for Lafarga, and I was willing to use any means available. I know that's not a good reason, and it doesn't make it okay, but I'm sor—"

"You're right, that doesn't make it better," she blurted, folding her arms across her chest.

He turned his face away from her, his cheeks slightly flushed. "Back then, I wasn't in my right mind. Everything I'd loved had been torn away from me, and I—"

"Shut up," she said. "I don't want to hear your stupid excuses."

"If you didn't want to hear them, then why did you ask for them?" he said tersely, with his jaw clenched.

"I don't know!" Maybe because she wanted him to magically have a good enough reason to justify his actions. That way she could just forgive and forget, lock this all up and throw away the key, never to be hurt by it again.

But she was beginning to realize there was no reason good enough, no excuse big enough to pardon him. She turned around because she'd rather stare at the wall than face him, and hated the emotion in her voice when she said, "Just go away. I don't want to talk to you right now."

"But I need to know how I can make it better."

"How the fuck should I know that?" she snapped. "Isn't figuring that out supposed to be your job?"

She heard him take a few steps forward. "Rose—"

"I said go away already." When he didn't, she added, "And there's no point in trying to make it better. You can't. So fuck off."

Silence. For far too long.

"What, you're not gonna say something?" She whirled around. "Dez—oh."

He was gone. Probably dissipated into thin air. He had a habit of doing that mid-conversation, when it was about something he didn't like.

Well, you did tell him to fuck off.

"Idiot," she said. She didn't know if she was referring to him or herself. "Fucking idiot."

She stood there, listening to the muted sounds of the city. Tears forced their way to her eyes, and she dug her fingernails into her arms until they stopped. She hated crying.

When she'd finally composed herself, she left the alley.

A few hours later, she'd finally made her way back to the inn. Her migraine had come back with a fury, and she was hungry and thirsty; otherwise, she'd have stayed out for longer. Gladly.

Lailah scolded her for leaving without telling anyone, but Rose could tell she was more worried than mad. Rose said she was fine, there'd been nothing to worry about—she'd just needed a little fresh air, was all. Of course, Lailah didn't look as if she believed that, but at least she didn't say anything.

Rose almost wished she had. Not quite, but almost.

Chapter Text

Dezel felt awful, being in this place, but this was where he always seemed to end up. Throughout the day he'd tried going elsewhere, multiple times—it had been on one of such treks that he'd run into Rose. And in his senseless anguish following their confrontation, he'd returned once again, to the place where Lafarga had been killed.

Though every trace of him had been washed away by rain, and worn away by humans' trampling feet, Dezel remembered exactly on which cobblestones Lafarga had lay. His guilt smothered him, consumed him, as he mentally went over those stones, as he felt every every crack and tiny nick. But the shame was no less than he deserved.

He sat in a crenel atop Pendrago Castle's outer wall, his legs dangling over the edge. It wasn't the most comfortable spot, but at least he was alone. Directly below him, a knight captain shouted orders at his squad as they marched through a gate, although the captain's exact words were drowned out by the hubbub of the nearby marketplace. Knights from Pendrago always set Dezel on edge, because he knew very well that some of them had taken part in capturing and murdering his friends.

He sighed, leaning against the merlon. He'd been on the track to revenge for so long, it was hard to get off. His life's purpose, once again, had been snatched away. A false purpose, borne of his own willful ignorance, but it had been purpose nonetheless. He'd channelled every last drop of energy into it, but now he had nothing to aim for, nowhere to go. He couldn't even strive for Rose's forgiveness—she wouldn't have him. She wouldn't even look at him.

She was right, of course. He'd known the truth of her words before she'd even said them. He could never justify using her. All he had were shallow excuses, made even shallower by the fact that the only person responsible for Lafarga's death and the Windriders' ignominy was himself.

He pushed off from the ledge, holding on to his hat so it wouldn't blow off during the free fall, and landed lightly on the street below. He didn't know what he wanted to do. In spite of himself he'd enjoyed these past few months, travelling with those nutballs, but now he wondered if it wouldn't be better for him to just quietly slip away, unnoticed. If Rose wouldn't have him around, then the others wouldn't, either. The reason he'd left the inn that morning was because he couldn't stand their reproachful gazes. Ever since he'd woken up, they'd been awkward and distant around him, as if he were a leper. He couldn't blame them—he'd fucked up, royally—but even if they were right, that still didn't stop it from hurting.

"Hey, Dezel!" Sorey's voice carried over the din, and Dezel groaned. Just what he needed. Completely unaware of the humans who stared at him—or perhaps not unaware, but uncaring—Sorey bounded to him, threading through the crowd. He made sure to apologize to anyone he jostled, whether or not they cared. Mikleo trailed after him, keeping his own pace.

At Sorey's approach, Dezel couldn't help but notice his cape was covered in dust. Typical. He asked, "Where've you been?"

"Oh, just exploring the city," Sorey said, bouncing a little on his feet. "We haven't gotten an opportunity to get a proper look at it until now. I've always known Pendrago has a rich heritage, but man—we identified architecture from three different eras, and even from before the era of Asgard—"

"Hey, we don't know that for sure." Mikleo had caught up with them, and unlike Sorey, he didn't seem to have a speck of dust on him. "If you're talking about those corbels, there are numerous alternative explanations for their design that are just as, if not more, plausible."

"I guess you could be right," Sorey said. "Aaanyway, I don't think Dezel's interested in that kind of stuff."

"Not particularly," Dezel said, folding his arms across his chest.

Sorey looked at him, forehead crinkled. "Is something wrong? You look ..."

"... angrier than usual," Mikleo finished.

Of course they had to ask. "I'm fine."

"Okay," Sorey said. "Hey uh, Dezel, I was just wondering ... have you talked to Rose yet?"

"None of your damn business."

"I think we can take that as a yes, then," said Mikleo. More like Prickleo.

"It didn't go well, then?" Sorey asked. Dezel balked at the genuine concern in his voice.

"As well as could've been expected, given the circumstances."

"I know it's difficult, for both of you. But Rose isn't the type to hold a grudge for long, especially toward a friend."

Dezel shook his head. "Some things are unforgivable."

"I disagree," Sorey said emphatically. "Forgiveness is hard, of course, and it always takes time, but so long as someone is willing—"

"That's easy for you to say. You've never had to forgive anything this big." Of course, the damn brat was so perfectly good-natured, such forgiveness probably would be easy for him.

"Hey, lay off," Mikleo said. "Sorey's only trying to help."

"Yeah, well, he's doing a shoddy job of it."

"You only think that because you're—"

"Guys, now's not the time to argue!" Sorey said. At this outburst, a passing woman gave him a dirty look, pulling her son closer to her. Sorey's face reddened, and he continued in a lower voice, "Cool it, both of you."

"Sorry," Mikleo said, not sounding so.

"Whatever." Dezel turned and walked away.

"Hey, where're you going?" Sorey called.

"For a walk."

"But it's almost night! We're going back to the inn to have supper."

Mikleo said quietly, "Sorey, just let him go."

Dezel just kept on walking. He walked and walked, until Pendrago was behind him and the golden fields of Pearloats Pasture, glowing red in the evening light, spread before him. Free, at last ... even if he felt anything but.

 

 

Chapter Text

The beer was too light and tart for her tastes, but at least it wasn't sweet. The nice, wholesome sort of inns Sorey favoured never had any of the heavy stuff Rose really liked. She drank slowly, swishing it around in her mouth, savouring the bitterness. Trying to resist the urge to chug it down and ask for about a dozen refills.

They'd just finished eating supper. A pair of footmen, incredulous that two people had apparently gorged on six plates of food, had cleared the table at least a half hour ago. A crackling fire warmed the room, making Rose sleepy, although that might have just been the booze.

Zaveid sat at the head of the long oak table, telling stories about him and Eizen, Edna's brother. He gestured wildly as he spoke, laughing heartily whenever Edna interjected with digs that exposed his embellishments. Rose didn't pay enough attention to keep track of what they were saying, though. Right about now, she couldn't stand interacting with any of the others.

None of them treated her like they normally did. Literally overnight, they'd gone from bantering with her, regarding her as an equal, to handling her like glass. They were probably just trying to be nice, trying not to hurt her, but their caution only made her feel worse. Each time they cut off suddenly, or randomly asked how she was feeling, or looked at her with softened eyes, it was like a punch in the gut—a jarring reminder of what had happened. Only Zaveid treated her with any sense of normalcy, or at least he had at first.

"Hey, Rosie," he'd called across the table during supper, smiling cockily through a mouthful of goulash. "You're sure quiet tonight."

Everyone else had looked at him in censure, as if pointing out the obvious was a crime. "Am I?" Rose quickly said with a laugh. "Sorry about that. Guess I'm a little tired."

Lailah had promptly changed the subject, and since then, no one had said a word to Rose.

She wished the Sparrowfeathers were in town. They'd have chosen to stay at some rowdy tavern, with cheap ale and bawdy music. She could've used that, right about now—getting hammered with her friends, and for the night, forgetting everything. Flav was a faithful drinking buddy, always up for some fun. They'd flirt with cute serving girls, maybe gamble a bit, and end the night off with some clumsy drunken dancing.

Those were the best nights, the nights when nothing mattered and the only objective was to forget your cares. Even now the temptation of oblivion sang to her, but being the only drunk person around was never really any fun. Just sad.

When she stood, all eyes turned toward her. She felt strangely sheepish as she said, "I'm heading up. 'Night, everyone."

"Rest well," Sorey said.

Edna called, "Don't let the bed bugs bite."

"There are bed bugs here?" Lailah yelped as Rose shut the door behind her. She leaned against the door, sighing. They were good people. But sometimes, she just—needed some alone time.

That was a lie. Before yesterday she couldn't recall ever craving isolation, not even in the darkest days following the disbanding of the Windriders. The desire unnerved her.

She headed upstairs to their room.

Since the seraphim didn't need to sleep, a simple two-bedded room would do for their group. Rose never minded sharing a room—after all, she'd done so for most of her life—but they did occasionally get the stinkeye from an innkeeper. It didn't happen often, though, and she was glad. The less people who thought she and Sorey had a thing, the better, since Sergei Strelka and his Platinum Knights alone were bad enough.

The bed creaked as she sat on it. Drowsy as she was, she couldn't rest yet. Maybe if she drank a little more it would put her to sleep, and she cursed herself for not bringing her mug upstairs with her. She didn't want to have to go down again.

So why not go up?

The second time around the window slid open with a mere squeak. The evening air was nice and cold, but windy, which just gave her bad thoughts. She leaned backwards against the windowsill, scoping out the roof, and was satisfied with what she saw. The edge looked perfectly reachable, provided she stood on the windowsill and jumped. She did so, and pulled herself up.

The wind tugged at her clothing, her hair, and she momentarily wished she'd worn something warmer. She picked a random spot to sit on, somewhere secluded enough that people on the street couldn't easily spot her, but where she could watch them. The dark roof tiles froze her butt at first, but after a while, they warmed comfortably enough.

Even at this hour some people were out, bundled up in coats, illuminated against the street by the lamps. A nearby red-cloaked knight was having some trouble lighting one, as the wind kept blowing his flame out, and he cursed fluently each time it happened. Rose chuckled a little as she imagined what stiff-necked Sergei Strelka's reaction would be to such language—probably an even one better than Sorey's—but another strong gale took all pleasant thoughts from her mind.

She dreaded Dezel's return. No one had mentioned it, at least not in her hearing, but she knew they were all worried. Back in the dining room they'd all kept glancing toward the door, as if thinking he'd enter that way. Some seraphim chose to travel normally, by foot, but most preferred to glide through the ether, letting their physical bodies disintegrate then momentarily reappearing wherever it was they were heading. Dezel was definitely of the latter group, he'd scared her shitless more than once that way. Asshole.

"Don't tell me she took off again," said a sighing voice from below.

Rose crawled over and stuck her head past the edge of the roof. "Hey, Edna, I'm up here!"

Edna leaned back against the windowsill, arms crossed against her chest, looking unimpressed. "Oh. There you are."

"What's up?"

"Sorey wanted me to tell you that we're heading for Aifread's Hunting Grounds tomorrow, to look for Heldalf."

"All right," she said. That wasn't entirely unexpected.

"He also wanted me to tell you that if you don't feel up for travelling so soon, everyone would be fine with it if you took a rest—"

That idiot. "Are you kidding me? Just one day of doing nothing has me antsy as is." Well, that and other things.

Edna smiled. "I told him you'd say something like that, but he wouldn't listen." She paused, looking pensive. "Also ..."

"Yeah?" After Edna didn't answer for a few moments, Rose reached down, as far as she could. "Here, lemme help you up."

Edna stared at her outstretched hand for a moment, then said, "I can do one better." She disappeared then reappeared at Rose's side.

"Damn. Wish I could do that." So many jobs would've gone way more smoothly if she'd had powers like that.

"It's probably a good thing you can't, then." A strange look crossed her face, and she added, "Sorry, that was—"

"Don't apologize for treating me as you normally would," Rose blurted. "I hate it when you guys treat me like I'm some delicate flower. I'm not."

"Oh," she said. "Right. That would drive me crazy, too. I'll stop."

"Good."

Silence. Rose fidgeted with the hem of her shirt, and Edna still looked thoughtful. After a couple more moments, Rose decided to just cut to the chase already.

"Y'know, you're the last person I would've expected to come talk to me, especially when I'm like ... this." It was because of that that Rose didn't dread talking to her. Edna, she thought, could be trusted to not spout worthless platitudes, or to try to talk about feelings. She'd be real with Rose—but not sentimental. Rose had always liked that about her.

"Perhaps so," Edna said. "And for the record, I'm only here of my own volition. No one sent me to say this—I'm only speaking for myself, and no one else."

Well, that was certainly a start. "Go on."

"I'd ... like to apologize."

"For what?"

"I knew, pretty much from the beginning of our acquaintance, that Dezel was using you as a vessel."

Rose swallowed. "I see.” She tried to keep her voice chipper as she added, “So, did he tell you, or—?"

"He did, but only because I basically forced him to." Edna tilted her head back, looking at the cloudy night sky. "The first time you and I had armitized, you'd conducted far too much power, so much that it quickly wore you out. You fell unconscious, but instead of getting booted out like I would've with Sorey, I had complete control over your body. That, added with the fact that ever since we'd met he'd been practically glued to your side, and that he'd been a little too interested in the power of the armatus, really solidified it for me. When I presented this all to him in front of everyone else, he had to 'fess up."

"Wait." She felt sick. "Everyone knew? Everyone? And none of you even thought to tell me?"

Edna nodded.

She let out a breath. Okay. Okay, okay, okay. So they'd known. They'd known, and yet, they hadn't told her—not a peep. It was one thing to know that Edna knew, but it was quite another entirely to know that they had all known, yet not one word ... Unbidden, warm tears sprang to her eyes, and she hastily wiped them away.

Edna began, "If you want to be alone, then—"

"No, I'm fine. Really. And besides, there's more I'd like to know." Rose hated the slight quaver in her voice. She sniffled, a little, but that was because of the cold—not because she was crying. "How long have you guys even known him? I asked Lailah, a while back, but she'd been vague about it. I hadn't really thought much of it at the time, since sometimes she's just weird like that, but ..."

"Dunno how long the others have known him, but the first time saw him ... must have been that time you tried to kill Sorey." Rose smiled wryly at the memory. She was lucky he'd been such a good sport about it. Edna continued, "You collapsed right after we'd fled, and he appeared and whisked you away."

Rose pursed her lips. That had happened a lot, whenever she'd gotten in serious fights. She'd perform perfectly, feeling so irregularly powerful, but after a while, she suddenly wouldn't feel so good anymore. Sometimes she fainted. She used to think that was just her body catching up with all her used up energy, but now ...

"So I guess he was—" she struggled for a moment "—in me when I was conscious, too."

Edna looked down. "I'm sorry for not saying anything earlier."

"Did he say anything to you, that time?"

"I don't think so. The first time he spoke to us was in Marlind, at the inn. Don't you remember?"

"Huh?"

"I guess you wouldn't," Edna said. She rubbed her arms, to warm them. "Dezel, he'd—he'd used your body to come through the window to Sorey's room. Then he'd left your body and had a little chat with us. Asking why we were leaving Marlind, or something like that."

Rose shook her head. "I don't remember that at all. Did I say anything, after he'd ... left me?"

"You just stood there. You had your assassin gear on, so we couldn't tell what your expression was, but ..." She trailed off.

Bile burned the back of Rose’s throat. She hadn't considered that before—that other people could have memories of her, memories she had no idea about. Just how many people had met her while she wasn't herself? Even some of her family? She shuddered at the thought.

"I apologize for never telling you about any of this before now," Edna said quietly. "I was a coward, and I've no excuse for it."

"Thank you. I accept your apology." But she said nothing of forgiveness. That ... would be a long way off.

Edna nodded. "Sorry you had to hear it first from Pippi Longstocking, and not one of us."

Rose smiled a little at that.

For a few moments, they watched the street below them. Near the end a man draped his arm around a woman's shoulders. She, at least head and shoulders shorter than him, huddled snugly against his side.

"It's sure cold out here," Edna said. She splayed her arms and legs. "Look, I'm covered in goosebumps. Gross."

"Yeah," Rose said, still watching the lovers. The man leaned in and whispered something in the woman's ear, and she laughed while pushing him away. They proceeded out of sight. "I still wanna stay out here a little longer, though."

"Suit yourself. Just don't freeze your legs off, you'll need them for tomorrow."

She snorted. "I won't."

Edna waited a moment, then dissipated.

Rose wished the clouds would break, so she could see the stars, but wishing never changed anything. A gust hit her like a slap in the face, and she hunkered down in her spot, shivering.

After a while of thinking she decided that yes, in some small way she had noticed when things were amiss, these past five years.

Like when she was sorer waking up than she'd been before she slept, a sharper sort of soreness—not the dull ache from yesterday’s exercise, but the kind that came from recent exertion.

When there were little scratches on her arms and legs, bruises she didn't remember getting. Little smears of blood or dirt here and there on her clothing, even though she'd just put on fresh clothes before heading to bed.

Or when eight solid hours of sleep felt more like two.

She remembered once, in one of the Scattered Bones' former hideouts, she'd woken up on the complete opposite side of the room than she'd fallen asleep on. They'd all had a laugh about it, chalking it up to sleepwalking, even though she'd never sleepwalked before in her entire life—nor since. She'd cherished that memory, but now the mere thought of it made her stomach clench.

Rose had attributed all these things, at most, to her characteristic absentmindedness. That these were sort of things that just happened to everybody, nothing out of the ordinary.

But now she knew better.

She stayed on the roof for half the night, until she couldn't decide whether she was more cold or tired. Sorey slept soundly in their room, not even stirring when Rose's boots thunked on the wooden floor. Foolish boy would get himself killed with that kind of unguardedness. Even so, she was grateful he hadn't closed the window, even though he must've been freezing with the drafts blowing in.

As the window squealed shut he shifted in his sleep, mumbling incoherently. Rose's mouth twisted into what must have been a smile. Maybe he was naïve, but he'd be all right.

Exhausted as she was, even in that nice warm bed, it was nearly first light before she finally drifted to sleep.

Chapter Text

The morning sun warmed Dezel's back. Judging by how clear and open the air felt, he'd have bet the sky above spread azure and cloudless. Aifread's Hunting Grounds lay before him, a rugged landscape befitting its proximity to Morgause, all rocky ridges and sharp crags. Here, only thorny bushes and the hardiest of wildflowers could survive.

He'd spent most of last night in ethereal form, coursing along with the wind, but since the earliest hours of the morning—just when the birds were commencing their song and the sun was a mere sliver on the horizon—he'd travelled by foot. Still in a weakened state from two nights ago, having denied any healing Lailah or Mikleo had offered him, he relished in the bone-deep ache that crept into his legs, and the way his muscles strained with each step. It felt good.

Dezel knew he should go back. But he couldn't. Every time he considered returning, his mind, unbidden, conjured the impression of Rose's face when he'd tried to apologize. With the wind, he'd felt the revulsion clearly etched on her face—crinkled nose, curled lip, clenched jaw. Not sorrow, not despair. Disgust.

He used to think he'd reached the pinnacle of shame after he'd prompted Lafarga's death and the Windriders' disbandment. It had been far more than he could bear, and in the depths of his despair, frantic with grief, he'd made an oath.

Most seraphim, like the Prime Lord, or even humans like the Storyteller of Time, made noble oaths for noble purposes—fettering themselves, so to speak, so that they could use their unique powers for the betterment of all. But that's not what Dezel had done. He'd made a pathetic oath, for a selfish purpose.

To forget his shame, and the events leading up to it, he'd foresworn his own sight.

Even now that he remembered all, his vision still hadn't returned. When he'd woken yesterday, still blind, he'd vainly hoped his sight would gradually be granted back to him. Perhaps it hadn't because he didn't choose to remember—rather, he'd been forced to.

So his oath was not only pathetic, but pointless as well.

The old shame lingered, of course, but it was dwarfed by an entirely new kind of shame—a shame that gnawed at him, stripped him bare, hollowed him out until he was nothing but a husk. At least with Lafarga, though it didn't excuse him one jot, he could take a shallow sort of solace in that the outcome had been an accident.

But the moment he'd even begun to consider using Rose, he knew the act was reprihensible. Unspeakable. Yet he'd proceeded without hesitiation, to violate the one he was supposed to protect. That was truly unforgivable. He'd never blame Rose for hating him, or wishing him dead.

His only consolation was that she could never hate him more than he already hated himself. Even now, craven as he was, he toyed with the idea of relinquishing another of his senses in order to forget everything. That, or to walk off the edge of one of Aifread's Hunting Grounds' many cliffs, to plunge into the depths of the sea, pulled to and fro while his lungs filled with saltwater, as his mind grew hazy and dim ...

Two nights ago, he'd meant to die; to atone for his sins by way of sacrificing himself.

But he wasn't dead. Much as he'd like to be. As if I deserve such an easy escape.

He detected a flicker of movement to his right, and whirling around, he found himself face-to-face with, of all people, Symonne. He was too shocked to even recoil.

"We meet again," she stated, as if they'd just happened upon each other and that she hadn't been stalking him for who knew how long.

"What do you want?" he asked harshly.

Her lips twisted into a haughty half-smile. "Your friends have already replaced you, you know. Sad—you only had to leave for one night to already be superseded."

"Don't make me laugh. They need my powers." Who was it, Zaveid? He'd been hanging around like a leech before Dezel had left, the double-crossing son of a—

"Come, now, you can't be so dewy-eyed as to think they specifically need you. There are dozens of wind seraphim who would jump at the opportunity to become Sub Lord to the Shepherd. Ones without baggage," she said, putting special emphasis on the last word.

He said, "Lailah hasn't broken my pact." Yet.

His words were so empty, she didn't deign to answer with more than a short, contemptuous laugh.

Something punched him in the gut. He lurched, letting out a huff, but nothing more—he wouldn't give her that pleasure. A pressure on his shoulders shoved him to the ground, to his knees. He made a feeble attempt to slash at her with the wind, but she easily waved his efforts away. She strode toward him, holding her baton out.

He was too weak to fight. Too weak to even care. But even as he lay prostrate, heaving through gritted teeth, he burned with his hatred of her; everything else would fade away, but never that.

"If you're gonna kill me, just do it already."

"Oh, I don't think so. I have plans for you yet, angel of death." She slowly ran the tip of her baton down his back, almost like a caress. That scared him more than anything else.

For a moment, all was still.

Then he screamed.

 

Chapter Text

Sorey had said they'd be leaving Pendrago the next day, but they ended up waiting a full three days for Dezel to come back. Rose knew waiting wouldn't help anything—she knew he was long, long gone when he hadn't returned in the morning—but Sorey insisted.

Good and riddance were two words which perfectly described her feelings on the matter. What did Dezel think he was doing, anyway, just ditching them like that? Did he think they'd feel sorry for him? Like, Oh, poor Dezel, all on his lonesome, with not a soul in the world to care for him. Fuck him—he'd brought it on himself.

Sorey spent that entire first day hanging around the inn, eagerly anticipating Dezel's return. And whenever someone politely reminded him of his promise, he'd cheerfully deflect their concerns, saying something like, "We'll leave just as soon as Dezel arrives, he can't be long now," or, "I'm sure Dezel will be back soon. We can figure things out then." It was sick, the way he clung to false hope.

By the third day, he was a wreck—fidgety and restless, he paced around, only leaving the inn when coerced. "What if Dezel comes back while I'm gone?" he asked when Mikleo suggested they explore Pendrago some more. "Then we'll tie him down until you come back," was what Rose had wanted to say, but she'd kept her mouth shut.

During supper the last night, Lailah had tactfully reminded him that they needed to make haste. "After all, the Lord of Calamity won't stay in Aifread's Hunting Grounds forever." Her posture stiff, she watched him with a serious expression, her pale hands set primly on her lap.

He nodded. "When Dezel returns—"

"Sorey," Rose said. "He's gone. If he wanted to come back he would've by now, so let's just move on with it, okay?"

The way everyone stared at her, she wished she'd said nothing. Sorey was the worst, the way his cheerful mask slipped, revealing how anxious he really felt. He looked at her almost pityingly. "I'm sorry, Rose," he said quietly.

She'd wanted to snap, "Sorry for what?", but she'd stopped herself. Sorey didn't deserve her frustration. So she settled on, "I just think we have bigger things to worry about. Y'know, like the fate of the world?"

Sorey sighed. "I guess you're right."

"Of course I'm right."

The others looked relived. Thanks, guys, for making me do all the dirty work. Really appreciate it.

She was still pissed at them, pissed that they'd known for months what Dezel had done, yet had acted like everything was ordinary. A small part of her wished Edna had never told her—she hated feeling ugly toward her friends. They'd only been trying to protect her, which didn't make it right, but still ... she had enough on her plate without confronting them about it.

So she didn't bring it up. Just stuffed it down with everything else.

Zaveid still hung around. The newness of his companionship paired with the suddenness of Dezel's parting made Zaveid almost feel like his replacement. But that only made the loss of Dezel more stark. His absence almost seemed more palpable, more real, than his presence had been. Rose hated it. She hated being more aware of him now than she'd ever been while he was here.

The morning of their departure, Rose was the last one up. She splashed cold water from the washbasin over her face, though that didn't help her sickly pallor, nor the bags under her eyes. She ran her tongue over her chapped lips. Normally she'd agonize over such imperfections, but now ... she just didn't care that much.

She closed the door behind her. After five nights of warm beds, they'd be back to sleeping on the cold, hard ground, with only thin blankets and a dwindling campfire to keep them warm. Her entire life had been like that, but even so, after a period of luxury it would take some getting used to.

"Sorry for sleeping in," she said as she left the inn. Everyone else was waiting for her.

"That's all right—you need sleep," Sorey said. He hesitated, taking a look around the street. "I guess we'll have to leave Dezel behind."

Mikleo frowned. "I don't like the thought of facing Heldalf with only three Sub Lords, but I suppose it can't be helped."

"We've delayed far too long as it is," Edna said, setting her parasol on her shoulder. "There's no guarantee he'll still be in Aifread's Hunting Grounds. Not that there could ever be much of a guarantee, anyway, if we're going by his directions."

"Edna, that's just cold," Zaveid said. He was one of those guys who liked to stand with his hands in his pockets, thumbs sticking out, arms bent just so so that his biceps bulged. Not that Rose was complaining—just observing. Happily observing. "Here I am, trying to be helpful, and you just have to go and be all negative. What have I ever done to you, to deserve such treatment?"

"You want the full list, or just the abridged version?" Edna muttered.

He looked taken aback. "W-wait, you have a list?"

"Everyone," Sorey said. They snapped to attention. "We can't afford to wait any longer."

"Are you absolutely sure?" Lailah asked. "Dezel may have a difficult time finding us again, if he wishes to do so."

He nodded. "I'd prefer to have him with us, of course, but if it can't be helped ..." He grimaced.

"It's not your fault," Mikleo said. Rose got the impression it wasn't the first time he'd told Sorey this. "Stop beating yourself up for it."

"But—"

"He might not have much trouble finding us, anyway," Rose quickly said, impatient for this conversation to be over. "Wherever the Shepherd goes, there's always a buzz about him. So for anyone who doesn't have shit for brains, tracking us should be easy." Dezel was many things, but even she could admit an idiot wasn't one of them.

Sorey had that pinched look he always got whenever someone cursed. Lailah said, "She's right, Sorey. We should try to look at this from a positive angle."

Positive? Rose wasn't sure she regarded Dezel tracking them down as positive.

Sorey sighed. "All right. Let's go."

Finally, they were off. Rose never liked to stay in Pendrago for too long, since it was only a matter of time before someone recognized her as the late Prince Konan's fiancée. They probably suspected her of murdering him—they'd have to be stupid not to, really. She was the last person to be alone with him before his death, after all, and it wasn't like she didn't an obvious motive.

She hated to think of that day. The way Konan had changed in the last days of his life ... he'd never exactly been a saint, but he wasn't cruel. Her memories of that day were as stark as they'd ever been, but during the past few months they'd started to feel incomplete, like there was something she was missing. Now that she knew about malevolence and hellions, she had her suspicions about what had really been going on, but the only person she could ask was Dezel.

Fuck that.

Late in the afternoon, they reached a crossroads. Rose knew the area well—when she was a kid there was an inn at these crossroads, run by an old couple. The old man had kind brown eyes, and he'd always give Rose a honey cake whenever the Windriders stopped by. The woman would chide him for it, saying he'd spoil Rose's supper, a smile on her face all the while.

But they were both long gone now, and the inn was since abandoned. She and Sorey ate their lunch outside the dilapidated building—the air inside was stale and fusty, and besides, all the furniture had inexplicably been stolen—while the seraphim explored the place, unduly fascinated with it. Rose felt no such urge to explore inside those old familiar walls. Let the past stay in the past, or something like that.

It was just when they were setting off when Zaveid made his announcement. "Well," he said, "it looks like this is the end of the road for me."

"You're leaving?" Sorey asked, at the same time Edna asked, "You're dying?"

"Don't worry, dearest Edna, you can count on seeing me again," he said, grinning. "I'm merely departing from your company, for a time." Edna snorted.

"But why?" Mikleo asked.

"I've no desire to face the Lord of Calamity head-on. A big guy like him could trap me in malevolence, easy, and since I don't have a pure and stainless vessel like y'all do, I'd turn into a hellion just like that." He snapped his fingers for emphasis.

"Isn't there anything we could do to help?" Sorey asked, turning to Lailah.

"Only with a Sub Lord pact," she said.

"And since you already have the maximum amount of pacts—one f'r each element, y'see—the only way to offer me a pact would be to annul one. Specifically, the one with a certain wind seraph."

No one said anything.

Eventually, Sorey said, "All right. If it can't be helped, then ... goodbye, Zaveid. May you have a safe journey."

"Hey, I'm the one who should be saying that! Facing Heldalf, head-on? You're getting too big for your britches, Sheps," Zaveid said with a laugh. Then his face took on a more serious look. "Seriously, though—watch yourself, kid. Take even one false step, and ..."

"I'll be careful," Sorey said. "I promise."

"See that you do," Zaveid said, nodding. "Eh, I don't know why I'm so worried. After all, you have your posse to keep you in line. Right, Rosie?"

"Huh?" Rose had only been half-listening to their conversation. "Oh, right, sure. Yeah. We'll keep him in line." She promptly shut her mouth, realizing she was rambling, all too aware of everyone's stares.

The sun was low in the sky. By Rose's estimation they had two, maybe three hours of sunlight left. Enough to get a halfway-decent amount of distance away from here, at least.

"See ya, Sheps. Lailah, Mickey-boy, Edna ... Rose."

She could only manage a strained smile when he reached her. "See you," she said. And more quietly, so no one else could hear: "Sorry for not being myself."

"Hey, hey, there's no need to apologize for something like that," he said. "Just make sure to take care of yourself, yeah?"

Usually, getting told that annoyed her—it wasn't like she wanted to suffer, so why wouldn't she take care of herself?—but coming from Zaveid, she strangely appreciated it. She wondered how much he really knew about what had happened. Probably everything.

"I will," she said.

He placed his hand upon her shoulder before moving on.

After that, they were all much more sedate. Their imminent clash with Heldalf loomed before them—they couldn't afford to look back on what they'd left behind. Or who.

She was glad Dezel hadn't come back, no matter if it complicated things. Now, all there was left to do was wonder when they'd cross paths with him again. Hopefully no time soon.

Chapter Text

Dezel had never felt so alive. Despair, rage, shame, dread, and revulsion all jumbled into one, whipping up a tempest inside him. He screamed and thrashed, his breath rasping as he heaved between screams. He knew full well it did nothing but satisfy Symonne, but he couldn't stop. Everything hurt. He kept thinking, over and over, a never ending stream of fragmented thoughts; I can't stand this anymore, I deserve this, I'm going to die and I deserve this, I can't take one more second, I'm sorry Lafarga I wasn't strong enough, I'll kill her, I want to die, I'LL KILL HER FOR THIS, but time went on, uncaring.

He couldn't know how long he'd been suspended in this hell, smothered by malevolence, but he knew it didn't matter. In the eye of the raging storm, in the centre of it all, hollowness and apathy ruled. The winds of passion, no matter how fierce, couldn't erode the stronghold of desolation.

He'd never felt so dead.

All he could hear was his screaming and ragged breathing, all he could feel was his raw throat and the malevolence weighing down on him, pricking him like needles, and all he could taste was coppery blood in his mouth. With the wind he couldn't observe anything outside this bubble of malevolence, assuming there was an outside, because malevolence distorted and dispelled any attempt he made to use his power.

For the first time in his life, Dezel was well and truly blind.

If he hadn't been bonded to Sorey, he'd have transformed into a hellion within seconds of being entrapped. A small part of him wished he could—then everything would stop. Hellions didn't have to think or feel anything, or at least he didn't think they did. From that desire alone, he knew he was going insane. Sometimes he even hallucinated a presence, an ethereal figure much bigger than his own consciousness, nudging him. Calling to him. And the longer he remained, the louder the calling buzzed in his soul.

I want to die, I deserve to die, I've earned this, I'm sorry Rose, there's no end only this, I want to die, Rose, can't stand it, I'll rip Symonne's heart out with my own hands, I'll—

In a moment, everything vanished. Dezel hit the ground with a grunt, falling on his hands and knees. The power of the wind, the awareness, rushed at him. His mind still murky, the suddenness of the return of his powers overwhelmed him. His immediate relief at being free was checked by the stifling amount of malevolence that still surrounded him, thick as a fog.

"A pathetic creature," said a deep voice.

An immense hellion stood before him, human in shape but with the features of a lion. Thick malevolence emanated from the hellion, and the sheer amount of which could only mean one thing: this was the Heldalf, the Lord of Calamity. Beside him stood Symonne, tiny as a mouse next to a cat.

"Is this wretch really worth something to the Shepherd?" Heldalf continued.

Dezel didn't say anything—he was just trying to breathe.

"This seraph is his Sub Lord," Symonne replied. "If he wasn't, he'd have surly turned into a hellion by now."

"I know that," Heldalf snapped.

Symonne bowed her head. "I apologize, Master." Dezel found the submissive way she simply took Heldalf's thinly veiled contempt extremely satisfying. "Perhaps the fact that the Shepherd has not yet chosen a worthier candidate means this one still holds some worth for him."

"You may be right," he said. "The Shepherd is weak, indeed, to cling to such an inferior comrade. Corrupting him should not prove difficult."

Dezel raised his head. "No matter what you do," he said, his voice hoarse, "the Shepherd won't be swayed. He's too honest for the likes of you."

"Brave words, from a coward who fled his duty," Heldalf said with a sneer.

Dezel mustered what little moisture was left in his mouth and spat bloody saliva at Heldalf's feet. With one fluid movement, Heldalf approached him and kicked him in the face, sending him flying backward. Dezel landed on his back, sending a shock wave down his spine. He clutched his smarting, broken nose, warm blood spurting between his fingers, but the pain was worth it. Definitely.

Heldalf turned, his attention already diverted, to look off in the distance. "That blasted light. The Shepherd draws near." He sighed, wincing slightly. "He should arrive within the week."

"When the time comes, shall I obscure this one from his sight?"

"Do as you see fit," Heldalf said dismissively. "For now, restrain him again. His panting is beginning to weary me."

Dezel's entire body went slack. Before he could consider what was coming out of his mouth, he rasped, "Wait, please—"

Heldalf's booming laugh reverberated across Aifread's Hunting Grounds. "Please? So even one as proud as you will resort to begging." He shook his head. "A pity for you, to be tethered to such a worthless vessel. You would be far better off to be not cut off from malevolence, but to be granted the freedom it gives. You would make a fearsome dragon." He laughed again.

Dezel couldn't say anything. He only shook.

Chapter Text

 

A few months ago

"Hey, Dezel! You up to armitize?"

Rose's shouts earned her the attention of the wolf hellion. It lunged at her with a snarl, but Sorey cut it off. Outlined in radiant red, he cast a fireball at the beast, driving it back.

"You have to ask?" Dezel said flatly. His hands darted out as he imbued the ends of his pendulums with the power of the wind, but they just glanced off the beast's thick hide. He cursed under his breath.

"Just say yes," she said, resisting the urge to sigh. So much for trying to be polite.

Out of everyone, Rose knew Dezel the least well. He was one of those quiet loner types, the kind that gave gruff one-word answers to friendly questions and looked at you disapprovingly all the time. Pity his personality wasn't as attractive as his shoulders were.

"All right."

That would have to do. Rose took a deep breath, then called the true name that until this moment, she had yet to utter: "Lukeim Yurlin!"

Dezel disappeared, and instantly, Rose was aware of him inside her. Raw power coursed through her, wild and free as the wind itself, and at the same time, apprehension and fear slammed into her—Dezel's emotions. The armitization connection went even beyond power or heightened senses: she could feel his emotions as if they were her own.

His anxiety confused her. Sure, the hellion was tough, but they'd faced tougher, right? A moment later, however, Dezel's fear lessened—as if he were quashing it. So he didn't want her to know, the dork.

They made quick work of the hellion. The wind came easier to Rose than she'd expected—it was like she didn't even need to consider what she was doing, she just acted. Wind was such a commonplace thing—almost benign—but with it, she easily cut through the hellion's thick hide. Gradually, Dezel shed his fear and apprehension, and by the end of the battle, he seemed to be genuinely enjoying himself.

Together, Sorey and Lailah purified the weakened hellion, enveloping it with blue fire. Afterwards the purified wolf lay on the ground, unconscious but alive, and Dezel felt a surge of concern for the poor animal. Rose smiled, and thought, Nerd.

She dissolved their bond, but as soon as Dezel left her body she stumbled, suddenly woozy.

He clasped her shoulders, steadying her. "You okay?"

"I'm fine," she said, shrugging him off. "Thanks, though."

"Hm." He dissipated into thin air.

What a grump.


By Rose's estimate, they were about a day and a half's journey away from Aifread's Hunting Ground. Over the past two weeks the malevolence in the air had gradually intensified, to a nauseating degree. If the Lord of Calamity could produce this sheer amount and they weren't even close to him ... she didn't want to think about it. They hadn't run into a single hellion, either, despite the ever-thickening malevolence, and that freaked her out even more than if there'd been an entire army of them.

No Dezel, of course. Nobody talked about him—for the past week, no one'd even made a halting mention of him—but that certainly didn't mean he was out of Rose's mind. The mere thought of him disgusted her and made her furious, but she couldn't stop. Every time she tried to, a few minutes later, she was back at it again. Traversing the endless fields of Pearloats Pasture didn't leave much in way of entertainment, and most of the time everyone was too tired for anything more than small talk, so she had almost nothing to do but think.

About the past. About how things were between her and Dezel, before she knew. She'd ... liked him. Trusted him. Thought of him as a friend. And she'd thought he'd liked her, too. The way he'd always treated her like a little kid in need of a babysitter had been annoying, but Rose had thought it was just his weird way of showing he cared.

But she'd been wrong. He hadn't cared for her personal well-being—he'd only wanted to keep his perfectly crafted vessel safe, for the time he'd need to use her.

Nights were the worst. Her body was exhausted, but her mind wasn't. She obsessively reminisced about all the important battles she and Dezel had fought together—all the times they'd armitized together. Every time she'd accepted him into her body. It made her sick, but she couldn't stop. The fire trial, Forton, the water trial ...

Purifying the souls of all those abandoned kids at the earth trial. Lost kids always shook Rose up, and that time, it was so, so much worse than usual. After they'd separated, Dezel had asked if she was okay. Of course she'd automatically answered in the affirmative, but that hadn't stopped him from awkwardly raising his hand to touch her arm, just for a moment, before turning away as if nothing had happened.

That was a rare side of Dezel, one she almost never saw. She'd always thought that beneath his prickly exterior there was a sort of gentleness, revealed every time he healed a hurt animal or protected the humans he claimed to hate. That's what she'd thought.

She could almost still feel his touch now. It made her want to puke.

Originally the intimacy of the armitization bond had excited her, but now, she couldn't even tolerate the prospect of having to go through with it again—even without Dezel. How she was planning on effectively fighting the Lord of Calamity, she didn't know. She just didn't.

She never thought she'd be one to agonize over something like this. If someone revealed himself to be an irredeemable dick—fine then, she'd just cut him out of her life without a second thought. Simple. Effective. But it seemed like these past few weeks were only revealing that Rose wasn't quite the person she'd always thought she was.

The sun barely peeked over the horizon, but she and Sorey had already finished breakfast. Having gotten only a few hours of sleep for the millionth night in a row, she was exhausted. She sat on the damp, dewy grass, resisting the urge to rub her tired eyes as she packed her few belongings up. Once they started moving she'd wake up a little more, but she didn't know how long she'd be able to keep this up.

Sorey squatted beside her, a hairbrush in hand. "I think you forgot this."

"Oh, shit. Thanks." She jammed it into her pack.

He lingered. Rose realized, with mounting dread, that they were alone—the seraphim were a good thirty feet away, talking amongst themselves. Up until now she'd been careful to never be alone with anyone for any amount of time, especially Sorey or Lailah, but now she'd been too deep in thought to notice the others leaving.

Time for a delay tactic, then. "So I was thinking the other day," she said, putting on her best nonchalant smile, "why don't we get a small tent, to protect us while we sleep? I'm sure Mikleo would be glad to not have to protect us from the rain all the time. They can get pretty pricey, of course, and we'd only want the best, but I know someone who knows a guy in Pendrago who—"

"Rose."

She couldn't look him in the eye. "Yeah?"

"Can we talk about Dezel yet, or do you need more time?"

Sorey was oblivious most of the time, but sometimes he just saw right through her. She hesitated. "... Mmmight as well get it over with," she said with a sigh.

"You sure?"

She nodded.

He fiddled with the end of his cape. "Do you think—" He paused. "How do you think you'll feel, when Dezel comes back?"

"If he comes back," she said. "There's no guarantee he will. For all you know, we'll never see him again." If only I could be so lucky.

"But if he does—what do you intend, if anything?" After she didn't answer for a minute, he continued, "It's okay if you don't wanna talk about it right now. I can wait till later—"

"No, no, it's fine," she said. Waiting wouldn't make this any easier. "I ... I honestly don't know. I'd have to see how I feel at the time, when—if—it happens." She folded her arms across her chest. "But if everyone else wanted him to stay, I'd feel pretty bad about being the one to drive him away." That scenario had crossed her mind more than once.

"We'd all support you, no matter what. Dezel was in the wrong, here—not you. We'd all understand if you wanted him to leave."

"But if you annulled your pact with him, he wouldn't have a pure vessel, and knowing him he'd easily become a hellion."

"Oh." He frowned. "I hadn't thought of that."

"Dammit, Sorey, I'm supposed to be the dumb, impulsive one—not the one who thinks."

They both laughed—quiet, awkward laughs, more out of embarrassment than mirth. At least he found this as painful as she did.

And now he'd find it even more. "Edna told me you knew everything Dezel did, the entire time I've been with you." She watched him closely. Shame crossed his face and he lowered his eyes, giving her an inordinate amount of satisfaction. A moment later, though, he looked back up, and the intensity of his gaze flustered her.

"I'm so sorry, Rose." His eyes shone. "I know you're disappointed in me—as you should be. We've all let you down."

"Y-yeah," she said. His obvious sincerity made her uncomfortable.

"There's no real way for us to make it right," he continued, "except to say I'll never hide something like that from you ever again. And I'll encourage everyone else to do the same."

She wanted to punch him. Why did he have to be so pure? Why couldn't he just let her feel good about staying mad at him, if only for a little while longer? She couldn't complain about anything in that apology. It felt better to have a target for her frustration, rather than stew in directionless irritation. "Don't worry about it," she finally said. "It's in the past. I'll get over it."

He looked down again. "You're too good for me, Rose. I hope I can be a worthier friend in the future."

"Come on ..." It was her who didn't deserve him. Truly.

"Just—know this," he said, touching her arm in the exact same place Dezel had touched her. It took all her self-control not to recoil. "Everyone supports you. You don't need to carry this burden alone."

" 'Do as I say, not as I do,' I suppose." She smiled at him, and he sheepishly smiled back. After a moment of hesitation she continued, "When Dezel comes back, you have to stay out of it, okay? This is between me and him—just us—and I don't want you or anyone else to butt in."

"All right," he said. He looked as if he wanted to say more, but he held his tongue. Good.

"Thanks for coming to talk to me," she said. "You've made me feel a little better. I think." Just take your damn hand off of me.

"It's the least I could do."

"Well, yeah—it's the sacred duty of a husband to comfort his wife, isn't it?" She elbowed him, grinning.

He groaned, and finally, finally removed his hand from her arm. "You're never gonna let me forget that, are you."

"Nope!"

And they left it at that. Rose finished up her packing, stifling yawns all the while. She honestly didn't know how she'd react when she saw Dezel again—whether she'd try to punch him, start crying (Maotelus forbid), or just freeze up. At least all this thinking had one good outcome: she'd thought of some things she'd like to say to him.

Chapter Text

"It's time," Symonne whispered in his mind.

Dezel crashed to the ground. Numb relief clouded over everything as he pressed his forehead against the cold, cold rock, as he panted and his ears rang. He'd no doubt that they had only released him because they had something to do to him, something bad, but he didn't care—he didn't care where he was or what he was doing so long as he was out.

When he'd regained at least a bit of his sanity, he scouted the area. Symonne and Heldalf stood nearby, saying nothing, looking into the distance. Waiting for something. Dezel realized the malevolence was dissipating, if only a little—that meant that Sorey was coming. With Rose. What would she think, if she saw him in this wretched state? She'd probably be glad, and he wouldn't fault her for it.

He tried to get up but found he was restrained by a seraphic arte, forcing him to stay on his hands and knees. He instinctively hacked at the bonds with the wind, but since he was so weak, his efforts proved futile. Symonne looked down upon him, her lips twisted into a smile, before dissipating on the spot.

"Fuck you," he muttered.

"I'll pass," she said with a tinkling laugh. "Enjoy the show."

He felt a strange sensation, as if a hot, quick-cooling liquid were being poured all over him. Was this what it felt like to be covered by one of her illusions? Without sight, he couldn't know for sure.

Sorey and the others came within bounds of his wind senses. They jogged, close together, hugging the side of a ridge. He swallowed as he beheld Rose's form. Aside from her pursed lips her face was devoid of expression, her hair lank and her cheeks gaunt. She was tense, too—but then, everyone was.

He also noticed, with pleasure, that Zaveid was absent.

But what were they even doing here? Surely they weren't going to challenge Heldalf—that was just suicide. A small part of him wondered if they knew he was here and had come to save him, but he quashed such delusions. There was no way they could know.

They came within view of Heldalf. Rose took a sharp breath, flinching slightly.

"So the pitiful Shepherd returns."

"Heldalf!" Sorey looked confident, but he stopped a safe distance away. "This won't go like last time."

"You think so?" He laughed. "Do you really think you have the resolve required to defeat me?"

Sorey said, "With my friends—"

"Ah, but we are not speaking of them," Heldalf said. "We are speaking of you. I ask again: do you have the resolve?"

When Sorey remained silent, Lailah said, "Be careful, Sorey. You don't know what he's capable of."

"I know," he said quietly.

Heldalf snorted. "Go on, then, Shepherd. Show us all what a vessel you are!"

With that he lunged at Sorey, who barely managed to dodge. And instead of running, like he should have done, Sorey unsheathed his sword and began to fight.

"You idiot!" Dezel shouted, unable to help himself. Of course, no one heard him—

—save Symonne. "Be patient," she said. "Your time will come yet."

"Fuck off."

"Such a foul mouth," she said, mock-sighing.

He thrashed against his bonds, but to no avail. All he could do was watch the battle unfold. Heldalf was as skilled a fighter as he'd have expected the Lord of Calamity to be—his powerful punches whistled through the air, and though he was vastly outnumbered, he dodged most of the blows thrown at him. If Dezel hadn't been so horrified, he'd have been impressed.

Rose tended to hang back. That was wise—she was an incredibly talented fighter by human standards, but even as quick as she was, her daggers were mere toothpicks to the Lord of Calamity. She darted around looking for an opening, frustration written on her face, but nothing came.

The clear solution was armitization, even she must've know that, but she appeared to refuse to see it as an option. Dezel couldn't blame her. He clenched his fists even tighter, and thought, My fault—all my fault. How could he have been so stupid, so worthless?

However, even with Rose essentially out of the picture, Sorey and the seraphim held their ground. Had they really improved so much in the time since Dezel had left?

Sorey, armitized with Edna, came up from behind Heldalf and slammed his fist into his side. Heldalf grunted, falling to his knees, and coughed black blood onto the ground. He didn't get up.

Sorey hesitated, suddenly unsure. The situation must have struck him as wrong to him as it did Dezel. Good—he was learning.

Even on his knees, Heldalf was as tall as Sorey's shoulders. "Are you happy?"

"What?"

"One more strike like that, and you'll finish me. Can't you feel it?" He chuckled darkly. "You yearn for it. You crave the opportunity to prove yourself."

Sorey's brow furrowed. "Wh-what are you saying?"

Heldalf rasped, "Finish what you started with Forton." He smirked when Sorey flinched at the mention of the Cardinal's name. "By now, you must know that you cannot save me. Therefore—strike me down. It's the only way to save this accursed land."

Sorey separated with Edna.

"Sorey, wait!" Lailah looked pained. "If you finish this here, can you be absolutely sure you will not regret it later?"

"That's right," Edna said. "Did we really come all this way just to smack ol' Kittybeard around?"

Heldalf let out a heavy breath, clearly annoyed. What—did he want to die? "It is the duty of the Shepherd to quell the Lord of Calamity. I can assure you, you will not get another opportunity like this." When Sorey still did nothing, he sharply said, "Symonne."

She appeared at Dezel's side. "Yes, master?"

"Dispose of the extras."

With horror, Dezel watched as she placed everyone but Sorey—Rose—in bubbles of malevolence, and after that, he could no longer sense them. Rose. Everyone ... He cursed his own worthlessness, and his inability to do anything.

Heldalf slowly stood, and Sorey took a step back. "Come, Shepherd. Let us finish this once and for all."

"But—"

He lunged at Sorey, but this time, Sorey wasn't so quick to dodge. Heldalf's claws grazed his front, ripping his cape and scraping his flesh, and he hissed in pain.

Heldalf didn't stop there. He relentlessly pursued Sorey, wildly swiping at him, and it was all Sorey could do but evade him—sometimes. Not even a minute had passed before Sorey was at his limit, his clothing in bloody tatters, his breathing rapid and shallow.

Heldalf laughed derisively. "Don't tell me the tables have turned. Have you finally given in?"

"Never," Sorey wheezed. He took a few more gulps of air, then said, "I can see what you're doing, Heldalf, and it isn't going to work. I won't let you needle me." He leapt at Heldalf with the last reserves of his strength, but Heldalf easily blocked his thrust and shoved him to the ground.

"You remind me of the previous Shepherd. Stubborn and spiteful, until the bitter end." He bent down, grabbing Sorey by the throat, and lifted him high. Blood dripped from the gauges Heldalf's claws left in his neck.

"You knew him?" he choked out, clutching Heldalf's hands.

"He's the reason I became this way." He watched Sorey intently, but all Sorey did was uselessly pry at his claws. He sighed. "Do you not realize how warped it is to struggle so?" He didn't wait for Sorey's answer. "Symonne. I think it is time for your ... project."

She nodded.

What—

The illusion surrounding Dezel vanished, and Sorey's eyes bulged. Rose's screams became audible, but suddenly cut off as she fell to the ground in a heap. Tears streamed down her face as she sat up and looked around.

When she caught sight of Dezel, she froze.

Dezel was all too aware of his shameful position, the way he knelt with his face to the ground, as if bowing reverently to a superior. At this point, he couldn't even spit on the ground Symonne walked on. She easily knocked him onto his back, then placed the tip of her baton right against his throat.

"I've brought you a present, girl," she said, smiling sweetly at Rose. "Here before us lies the man who wronged you. Does it not please you to see him suffer?"

Rose stared at Dezel, deathly still. She opened her mouth, but nothing came out, not even a breath.

Symonne continued. "He used your body for his own selfish desires, over and over again, and then had the nerve to come to you in the guise of a friend. He's the one responsible for steering your life into the disgraceful direction it's taken. Doesn't he deserve to die, for all he's done to you?"

Rose met Symonne's gaze.

"Don't those of your profession dispose of people like him? People who, by all counts, only cause those around them to suffer?"

She swallowed. "I ... I—"

"Rose, please—!" was all Sorey could manage before Heldalf tightened his hand around his throat, cutting all speech off.

"I can do it, you know," Symonne said. Her eyes gleamed. "I can kill him. Just for you. You only need to say the word."

Rose let out a breath.

What little of Dezel's hope that remained had been swept away. Symonne, as much as he despised her, was right—he did deserve to die. He only wished he had, all those nights ago.

Not that it mattered. Now, he'd finally get his bittersweet release.

Chapter Text

"Don't those of your profession dispose of people like him? People who, by all counts, only cause those around them to suffer?"

Rose's mind screamed at her to move, to do something, but she couldn't move a muscle. She was paralyzed—with fear, with indecision, with overwhelming revulsion.

"I can do it, you know," Symonne said. Her eyes bore into Rose's own. "I can kill him. Just for you. You only need to say the word."

The sound of Sorey retching stole Rose's attention, if only for a moment. He no longer writhed in Heldalf's grip, but he stared at her, eyes begging for action.

In that moment, she knew. She couldn't let him die. She couldn't let her fear make her let him die.

But if she was going to do something, she couldn't do it on her own—she was still weak from marinating in malevolence. Really, there was only one thing she could do, but the thought of it made her want to hide.

Dezel lay completely still, a ruby red bead of blood sliding down his neck from where the tip of Symonne's baton lay. Had he given up, or was he already dead?

Only one way to find out. She let out a final, shuddering breath, then whispered, "Lukeim Yurlin."

She almost gagged as Dezel flooded her senses, but his seraphic intrusion revitalized her weary body. His emotions were a jumble she had no desire to get into, but his confusion was so strong it almost overpowered her own emotions.

She promptly expelled him from her body. Symonne glanced around, wide-eyed, and Rose decided to take full advantage of her distraction. It only took a few leaping steps to get behind her, and only a flick of the wrist to place a dagger against her neck. Symonne squirmed, but after Rose pressed the blade a little deeper, she froze completely.

Heldalf gazed levelly at them, though his grip on Sorey slackened, as evidenced by Sorey's sudden heaving. "You would kill even a seraph?"

"Murdering is my business," Rose said. "Or did you forget?"

He smiled and shook his head. "Symonne."

"Very well," she said, tensing.

He threw Sorey aside, then aimed his hand at Symonne and Rose. She thought, Even he wouldn't—

He blasted them with malevolent energy. Rose screamed—it seared the flesh on her arms and hands and ripped it apart, putting her in agony unlike anything she'd ever felt. Symonne took the brunt of the attack yet somehow managed to pull away. Her entire front was a bloody mass, and Rose had just enough clarity of mind to wonder if she were dead, though Symonne dissipated before she could even think to find out.

Rose wept from the pain, eyes squeezed shut, her shirt drenched with warm blood. She should've just slit Symonne's fucking throat and been done with it. She was dimly aware of the others having an altercation with Heldalf—Symonne must've released them as she'd left—but she didn't care anymore. She just didn't. Maybe she was just delirious from the pain, but she bitterly wished she never gotten mixed up with malevolence or seraphim or hellions.

A scuffle at her side. Startled, she opened her eyes, only to behold Dezel sitting beside her, green energy flowing from his hands to her mangled forearms. Blood smeared his face and matted his hair, and his nose looked as if it had been broken.

She tried to sit up.

"Stay still," he murmured, his voice gravelly. She wanted to push him away, but since that wasn't an option, she pretended he didn't exist. She turned her head toward the others.

Sorey and Heldalf faced each other, Heldalf looking completely fine, and Sorey panting, his cape torn and bloody, his legs shaking as he used his sword as a crutch. Lailah and the others stood at his side.

"Then if you will not see reason, let us finish this," Heldalf said, taking a fighting stance.

"I refuse that as well," Sorey said. "This is neither the place nor the time. I realize that now."

"So you say," Heldalf said, smiling grimly. "But one day, you will discover for yourself, the true nature of humans and seraphim in this world." He dissipated, and in a flash, his domain disappeared. Dezel heaved a sigh of relief.

Everyone came over to them. Lailah and Mikleo knelt beside her to help with the healing. Now that the pain had subsided to a continuous throb, she couldn't tear her eyes away from her arms—the way the green, red, and blue sparks danced along her them, making them itch, knitting new pink flesh together. The other two were much more skilled in healing than Dezel, but he stubbornly remained.

"Are you all right?” Sorey asked, sitting cross-legged by Rose's head.

She managed a weak smile, conscious of her tear-streaked face. "Just peachy," she said, her voice warbling.

Soon the healing was finished, leaving her arms feeling tingly. Resisting the urge to yank herself away from Dezel, Rose calmly walked to a safe yet inconspicuous distance away from him. She didn't know if her blood-soaked shirt would be at all salvageable. She examined the tattered sleeves of her jacket—yep, there was definitely no fixing those. Pity. She'd liked that jacket.

Sorey turned. "Dezel ..."

Dezel was suddenly so jittery, Rose thought he'd jump out of his skin at Sorey's address. "Sorey, I—"

"I just wanted to know if you're coming back to us. I'd like you to, but ultimately, it's your own decision."

Rose didn't look at either of them. She'd meant what she'd said a few days ago—she didn't want to be the one to drive Dezel away. But that didn't mean she liked having him around.

"You're our wind seraph, after all," Sorey said. "We'd have a ton of trouble replacing you."

Dezel hesitated, and Rose hated him for it. Just accept it and move on, she wanted to tell him. "... Are you sure?" he finally asked.

"Of course!" Sorey said with a genuinely happy smile, and in that moment Rose hated him, too.

"Anyway," Edna said, and Rose loved her for it, "now that we've gotten that out of the way, what about Maotelus? We haven't really determined whether or not he's connected to ol' Kittybeard."

Mikleo frowned. "This may seem strange, but when we were trapped by that malevolence, I thought I felt a presence."

"You did," Dezel suddenly said. "I felt it, too. I was in there for even longer than you, and I definitely felt something. Something big."

Even longer than you ... Lailah asked what was doubtless on everyone's minds. "How long were you imprisoned?"

He turned his face away. "Just a while. Does it really matter?"

They went on talking, but Rose couldn't move on from that thought. I was in there for even longer than you. Getting imprisoned in a bubble of malevolence had been just as torturous as getting sucked into a hellion. She didn't doubt Dezel had been trapped for quite a long time—he wasn't one to overstate his pain. On the contrary, the more he suffered, the less he showed.

So she wondered, just how long? A few hours, maybe a few days?

A few weeks?

She nearly shuddered at the thought. Not that she cared what happened to Dezel, but—he didn't deserve that much. Maybe.

"Rose, you coming?"

"Huh?" She looked around, only to realize everyone had begun to move on without her. "We're leaving?"

"It pays to pay attention," Lailah chided in a sing-song voice.

"You sound like someone's hokey grandma," Rose countered.

Lailah stuck out her tongue.

A little while later, once they'd settled down for the night, Sorey took her aside. "You sure you're okay with this?" he whispered.

"Yeah," she said. "I'll be fine. Don't worry." She noticed Dezel by himself only a small distance away from them, his head turned away, but Rose was sure he could hear them. She was tempted to say something nasty just to spite him, but in the moment, she couldn't think of anything.

"Thank you, Rose," Sorey said, bringing her back to reality.

She turned to looked at him. "For what?"

"For being so gracious."

Gracious? She didn't feel gracious. Did he even know what the word 'gracious' meant? "Thanks, I guess?"

"I mean it," he pressed. "In your circumstances, most would hold onto their grudge and vow revenge. But you haven't."

Rose went cold. "Don't say that. You don't see what goes on inside my head."

"Still—"

"Just let me do my thing, without making any judgments." The words came pouring out of her, and she realized that this was a confrontation long overdue. "Or at least, if you must make them, keep them to yourself. I don't like to feel like my every move is being evaluated. I know you're just trying to be nice, you're just trying to make me feel better about everything, but honestly, it's having the opposite effect. So just stop. Please." She glanced to the side to watch Dezel stand up and leave. Had he disapproved of her speech? Did it make him uncomfortable?

"I ... honestly hadn't thought about that," Sorey said, looking down. "I'm sorry."

"Don't sweat it," she said. Then added: "And don't you dare accuse me of being gracious for saying that."

He laughed a little. "All right. Good night, Rose."

" 'Night."

Rose went to bed shortly after he did. The low murmurs of the seraphim lulled her into a blessedly dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text

Though he couldn't see it, Dezel knew the carpet was beautiful. Covered with intricate, colourful patterns, it depicted an assortment of local wildlife—howling hyenas, sparring scorpions, and elephants that paraded the border. Thick vines snaked along the patterns, ornamented with deep red leaves and fat birds with rich plumage. At the forefront of the shop's display, the carpet swayed gently in the wind, bathed in the evening light. A true work of art.

Even if he couldn't technically see it, he could differentiate between colours by identifying the substances used for dye: blue from the roots of a common flowering plant around Lohgrin; yellow from the venom of a Zaphgott scorpion; black from oak acorns; and red, if he wasn't mistaken, not from the usual Mazro Ruvhodia but by the superior leaves of Laisle Leitna, more commonly known as satora, an incredibly rare fern from Plitzerback Wetland. Given how saturated the wool was with dye, it must have taken months to compile it all. Dezel knew well how hard they were to find.

He'd never forget the first time he'd laid eyes on the works of Lohgrin's resident carpetmaker, shortly after he'd joined the Windriders. As a rule he'd avoided human settlements, but Lafarga had insisted he come along.

Initially, Dezel had found the chaos of the market unnerving—so many humans in one place, shouting and laughing and pushing and sometimes fighting, how could they stand it without going insane? But then he'd seen the jaw-slackening wonder that was the carpet stall. So many vibrant colours, so many complex designs, and all crafted by mere human hands. Lafarga had laughed at his incredulity.

Lafarga. The thought of him made Dezel's throat constrict, but it no longer overwhelmed him. The shame and regret hadn't dulled, not a bit, but ... he was growing used to the constancy.

Now, he had a more pressing guilt to preoccupy him.

He turned away from the shop. A steady breeze glided along the street, sweeping up sand and dust. Merchants shouted their wares and customers haggled for lower prices, and though he tolerated the cacophony better than he had, he still didn't know how anyone could willingly live in it, day after day. And even like it. Humans were strange.

In Dezel's memory shops and stalls had packed the streets of Lohgrin's market, but now more often than not, empty lots gapped between stalls so that customers vastly outnumbered merchants. The talk of the town was that a rampaging elephant on Zaphgott Moor was trampling every merchant caravan in sight. A hellion, no doubt. He expected when everyone gathered at the inn in a few hours, Sorey would announce his plans to quell it.

Reaching another block, Dezel noticed something strange. Most shops were crowded over with customers, but there was one stall, just in the middle of the street, that had only one customer. He approached it, intending to investigate, and so intent was he on investigation, he nearly walked right into Rose.

He dashed behind a stack of crates. She hadn't noticed him, being too engrossed with watching the same thing he had been: the exchange between a merchant and his sole customer. It didn't look good—the customer had her arms folded across her chest, looking as if she were about to cry, while the merchant threateningly leaned over the crates which served as a counter, his eyes spiteful. Behind him was a shoulder-high pile of sacks.

She pleaded. "—don't see why you can't lower it for me, I've got six mouths to feed and I can't afford—"

The merchant's derisive laugh cut her off. "You think you're the only person around here with mouths to feed? No—you pay the full price, or you get nothing." He leaned back, clearly proud of himself. "Now, if you're not gonna buy anything, then scram before I have the guard arrest you for loitering."

She swiftly turned away. She swept past Rose, bumping into her, but Rose only watched her departure impassively.

Dezel knew he shouldn't have stayed. He shouldn't have even been watching Rose in the first place. But his feet remained planted where they were.

"You want anything, girlie?" the merchant called. Rose didn't react to his leer, but inwardly, Dezel fumed. "I've got you covered for all your baking needs. Yeast, flour—"

"About that." The merchant looked annoyed at being cut off, but she persisted, casually resting her arms upon his counter. "You're selling five pounds of flour for 70 gald?"

"Four pounds, actually." He scratched his armpit. "You interested?"

"Around here, isn't the normal price about 10 gald per pound?"

His face darkened. "So what?"

"You're way over-priced."

"What's it to you?" he demanded. "I put my life on the line coming here with that killer elephant on the loose, and this is the compensation I get? You Lohgriners are so damn stingy!"

She smiled at him. "May I see your seller's permit?"

For a split second his face fell, but he quickly drew up his arrogant façade. "No."

"Why not?" Her smile widened—she was clearly enjoying herself.

"Why not? 'Cause I'd bet anything you're planning on stealing it for yourself, that's why." He got really close to Rose's face, almost nose-to-nose, and added quietly, "And I don't know who sent you, but if you leave right now and keep your mouth shut, girlie, then maybe I'll let you off easy." He bared his teeth.

Rose didn't move a single muscle; only stared coolly back at him. When the merchant realized his bravado didn't faze her in the slightest, his eyes narrowed, but he was too stubborn to lean back.

This guy has no idea who he's dealing with, Dezel thought.

"All right, here's what's gonna happen," Rose said. The merchant's fists tightened on the edge of the counter until by the end of her speech, his knuckles were stark white. "You're gonna lower all of your prices to a reasonable amount—for flour, let's say 11 gald per pound. Actually, make that 13. Too low and they'll get suspicious you don't have a permit, which you would have if you weren't a complete moron but that's beside the point—"

"You—!" The merchant had barely raised a fist before Dezel, without thinking, shoved him back with the wind. He crashed into his stock and white powder clouded over him before the wind scattered it down the street. People covered their faces, and the fruit seller the next stall over looked more than a little miffed that his produce was now speckled with white. The merchant, no less speckled than the fruit, peered at Rose with utter bewilderment. She looked down at him, a strange smile on her face, an eyebrow cocked.

By now a small crowd had gathered the watch the spectacle. Not good—the guard could arrive at any moment. Rose and the local authorities never proved to be a good mix.

"You'll pay for every last penny of this," the merchant groaned.

Rose leapt over the divide, pulling a dagger from its sheath. He scrambled to his feet with a high-pitched shout, but Rose only crouched next to the toppled pile and cut open a sack. She ignored his curses and threats as she pinched some powder between her fingers, then raised it to her mouth.

She immediately spit it out. "Ugh, sawdust? Really?"

Some chuckles from the crowd. If Dezel could have seen the man, he'd have bet his face was bright red. "You lying bi—!"

"And what's with selling this crap at such a ridiculously high price, anyway? That's just idiotic. Even here, you can't be making much doing that." She suddenly laughed. "Oh, don't tell me—someone else ripped you off with this product since you were too stupid to actually check it out for yourself, so you figured you'd take it here to try to turn your mistake into profit?"

He scowled. "The sample they gave me was clean."

Rose laughed even harder.

To his dismay, Dezel noticed a pair of humans rounding the corner onto the street, dressed in light armour and with swords at their hips. Guards. Dammit.

Rose tsked, oblivious to the threat. "And all this without a permit, too. You are sad, aren't you." A man in the crowd laughed loudly.

The guards were nearly upon them, so Dezel was left with no choice. So much for hiding. He let out a breath, then sent a whisper in the wind, directly to her ear: "Guards approaching from the east."

She tensed in surprise, but with a glance, confirmed it was true. In one fluid movement she leapt over the divide and into the throng, ignoring the obscenities the merchant shouted after her. Her unusually stony expression betrayed her anger but, luckily for Dezel, she didn't spare a backward glance as she passed his hiding spot.

Well. It was about time he moved on, too.

When they saw each other again, she'd be justifiably angry. He shouldn't have been watching her, she was perfectly capable of taking care of herself, but—what if she'd gotten into trouble? Reckless as she was, she needed someone to watch her back.

It was a flimsy excuse, he knew. Even if she needed backup, he had no right to take that role for himself. He never had.

In the past two weeks, she hadn't said one word to him. But that didn't mean she ignored him. Oh, she pretended to, of course, but she always went rigid whenever she was in Dezel's presence, and only ever relaxed when she thought he was gone. As if she was subconsciously aware of his every movement, watching, verifying. He couldn't help but be reminded of one of the lessons Brad had ingrained in her: Watch your enemy.

He worried about her. She didn't eat enough, and she didn't get enough sleep, either. It was rare, a night she fell asleep before the early hours of the morning. Not that he tried to pry—really, he didn't—but he could instinctually tell when humans were asleep, by the way their muscles relaxed and their temperature dropped. While Sorey slept soundly beside her, Rose tossed and turned, occasionally sighing. Whenever a seraph neared she'd keep herself still and feign sleep, but the bags under her eyes in the morning gave her away.

She'd never had sleeping problems before. If she hadn't hated the very sight of him Dezel would have recommended some herbs that could help her sleep better, but he remembered too well her conversation with Sorey. She hated the thought of people scrutinizing her when she was in such a vulnerable state.

Still, if this kept up much longer, there might be more at stake than her pride.

But what could he do? Only she had the right to breach the wall between them—he knew that, now. And if she never did, well ... the choice was hers. Hers, and hers alone.

On his way back to the inn, he passed the carpet shop. A woman, dressed in silks, was buying the carpet he'd so admired. He sincerely hoped she'd give it all the appreciation it deserved.

Sorey greeted him when he entered the inn's common room, earning sidelong glances and raised eyebrows from the other patrons. Ever since he'd come back Sorey had treated him the same as he ever did without a hint of pretence, fool as he was. Lailah was much the same, though she gave him worried looks from time to time. Mikleo on the other hand was distant, but then, they'd never been such great friends to begin with. But Edna was always cold and dismissive, never even looking at him if she could help it. Her contempt stung, but he couldn't say he didn't deserve it, even from her.

Even if the past two weeks had been disheartening at times, Dezel wouldn't have traded his position for the world. His time away made him realize that right now, there was nowhere he'd rather be than with the Shepherd's group. He may have been the worst candidate for the job, and he certainly didn't deserve such a high station, but from now on, he was determined to never let go so easily. They were stuck with him.

After an hour of trying not to worry (and failing), Rose entered just as they were about to eat supper. She neither looked at nor spoke to Dezel, which worried him more than if she'd started to shout at him. Was she really planning on just ignoring what had happened?

The serving man kept his head bowed as he set their food on the table, as if he were afraid of offending the seraphim he could not see just by looking at them. Silly human—though perhaps not quite as silly as the humans who refused to believe they were there. Just as the man shut the door behind him, Sorey announced his intentions to check out and, if need be, purify the rampaging hellion.

Called it, Dezel thought.

"You mustn't get side-tracked in your search for the remaining Earthen Historia," Lailah reminded him. Earlier that day they'd been to see Mayvin, and after deciphering what cryptic things he'd told them, decided what they needed to do. Dezel hadn't expected Mayvin to be the Storyteller of Time, but it didn't surprise him, either—that old man had always been a little too perceptive for a regular human.

"But I also must not get so focused on my quest to save the world at large that I ignore the suffering of the people right in front of me," Sorey said, smiling.

Lailah nodded, satisfied with his answer. Rose's lips curved into a small smile, and Dezel thought he knew who she was thinking of.

The rest of the meal went peacefully. After Rose and Sorey went to bed, Dezel decided some fresh air was in order.

At night, Lohgrin was like a ghost town: utterly silent and still, with only the barest reminders that the living had ever crossed its streets. The wind had died down for the night, which always made Dezel uneasy, but it was nice to be alone. The only reason he wasn't in his immaterial form was because he wanted to feel the cool night air on his face.

Movement atop the outer wall. He froze. A night guard, maybe? He'd never encountered one before, but with that elephant hellion on the loose, it wasn't far fetched for them to start having some. The quickness of movement relayed urgency, so he concentrated on the person's shape, and ...

Rose. Dressed in normal clothes, so she wasn't on a job. She turned her head from side to side, obviously looking for something or someone, her footsteps silent despite her speed. Really, he should have known it was her by that alone. And with her speed, he'd be right in her line of sight in mere seconds.

He didn't know what possessed him, to just keep plodding along, but that's what he did. He didn't know why he didn't immediately dissipate on the spot—really, it's what he should have done.

Especially since the worst possible thing that could have happened did happen.

"Hey, Dezel!"

Her voice echoed through the air, reverberated off the walls. Dezel suddenly wanted to be anywhere but here, anywhere but with her, but he forced himself to stay put. Forced himself to face her. She jumped off the wall and landed in a crouch, only a few feet away from him.

He tried his hardest not to focus on her, so of course, it was the only thing he could pay attention to. Her chest raised and fell with her heaving, she shook her bangs out of her eyes, she lightly curled her fingers at her side. She looked up at his face. Feeling his cheeks grow warm, he turned away.

She finally said, "I didn't need you to interfere with that merchant."

"I know."

"Then why did you do it?" She looked at him flatly.

"I didn't really think about it." He was almost surprised she couldn't extract information from him just by her penetrating gaze alone. "It was just instinct, I guess."

She frowned.

If he could've figured out which answer she'd wanted him to give her, he would've given it. After she didn't say anything for a few long moments he said, as meekly as possible, "Is that all?"

"No." She glanced away. "Actually, I've been wanting to talk to you for a while now. But you've been avoiding me."

"You've been avoiding me too," he said defensively.

"True." She stared all around them—at the run-down blacksmith at the far end of the street, at the dusty-signed cooper across from them, at the shabby farrier directly beside them. They weren't exactly in a great part of town. The empty farrier's stable, covered in splinters, looked as if it hadn't been used in years. Rose glanced back at him, then away, then sighed. "I hate being mad at you."

... He'd heard the words right. It'd just been in the wrong order. I hate. Being mad. And you? I hate you at being mad. Being mad at you I hate. At hate I mad being you.

"Not that you don't deserve it," she quickly said. "Of course I do, what you did to me was fucked up. So fucked up. But ..."

But?

She hugged herself. "I hate this bitterness. It's not good for me. I want to be free."

He swallowed. It devastated him to say it. "If you want, I can leave—"

"What? No!" She rolled her eyes and sighed again, this time exasperatedly. "Don't you remember how badly that went last time?"

How could I forget? "Sorry."

"Don't apologize." Her words dripped with venom as she glared at the ground—glared at him. "Apologies don't cut it, especially not for you."

"Is ..." He trailed off, then tried again, in a small voice. "Is there anything I can do?" A question he'd asked himself, but hadn't found any answer.

She looked at him.

He resisted the urge to wipe his clammy hands on his pants.

"No." Her words came out slowly. "I don't think so."

Exhale.

Her gaze turned upwards. "If you wanna know if I'll ever forgive you or not, well ..."

"I don't."

She pressed her lips together, then said, "It's probably better that way."

They stood there for a while. Rose still had her arms around herself, still watched the sky. Dezel had accepted a long time ago that he'd never again be able to see the stars, but tonight, he'd have given almost anything to be able to take in their beauty once more.

She said, "I know you didn't do it because you hated me, or wanted to hurt me. But that doesn't change that you still did it anyway. I think that makes it worse—you didn't really want to, you knew how fucked up it was, but you still did it."

"I know." It made him sick.

Silence.

He had a sneaking suspicion that this would be the last time they'd ever talk like this. Maybe it was a stupid thing to ask, but he'd never know otherwise. "Why did you save me?"

"I wanted to save Sorey." She rubbed her arms to warm them. "And at the time, saving you was the only way I could think of to do it."

He cursed himself for his disappointment. Damned idiot. What did you expect?

"... But I think I would've regretted it if I'd let you die."

He didn't know if he'd heard her right—regret?—but even if he really didn't, he said, "I see."

"Anyway." She rubbed her nose. "That's all I really wanted to say, so." She turned to leave.

"Wait." She looked at him in askance. How to say this without coming off as a creep? "Um, I've noticed you've been having sleeping problems lately."

"I have." Her expression was unreadable.

He pulled a small package from his pocket. "If you chew one of these just before going to bed, you should sleep soundly for a few hours."

"Satora leaves?" She stared at it like she thought it was going to jump out and bite her. "How long did it take you to get that much?"

"I don't know." He did know. The past week when they'd been travelling through Zaphgott Moor, every night while she and Sorey were asleep—or pretended to, at least—he'd rode the wind to the outskirts of Plitzerback Wetland to search for satora leaves, till his hands and legs from the knee down were covered in mud and his exhaustion was bone-deep. He hadn't thought ahead to actually finding an opportunity to give them to her, but ... "Just a while. I'd been saving them for personal use," another lie, "but you need them more than I do."

"Thanks." As she took them the tips of her fingers happened to graze his, and a shock went through him at her touch.

He crossed his arms. "Good night, Rose."

She left. It wasn't long before she crossed the bounds of his awareness.

After that he gave himself up to the wind, letting it take him wherever it would. He didn't have to think, didn't have to feel. It was only until well into the morning, just before Sorey and Rose were due to awaken, that he returned to Lohgrin.

When Rose came out, she gave no indication of the significance of their talk last night—not a word, not a glance.

He didn't know why he couldn't shake the empty feeling in the pit of his stomach. Their talk had gone much better than he ever could have hoped for, hadn't it?

Chapter Text

"We need a plan, and a good one, or we're out. Any ideas?"

Rose wiped the sweat from her forehead. 30 feet below, an elephant hellion roared and thrashed around in its attempts to get at them. A pebble dropped to its demise from the plateau on which they stood, and she just hoped the plateau was as sturdy as it looked.

The hellion wasn't very quick, but it made up for that in ferocity. That, added with its massive tusks, the glowing blue death spikes all over its body, and the fact that it weighed a bajillion tons ... once it got going, it was near unstoppable. They weren't usually ones to give in, but in this case, continuing to fight on equal ground was little more than suicidal.

It was her who answered Sorey. "Maybe we can just attack it from here—that way, it can't get to us."

"You saw its thick hide," Mikleo said. "Even at a relatively close range, our artes did next to nothing. From this far away, they truly would do nothing."

"We can't just give up!" Sorey said insistently.

"I know," Mikleo said. He peered down at the elephant as if it were a puzzle and not a vicious killing machine. "I'll admit, I can't think of anything I'm certain will work."

"Maybe if we tire it out enough ..." Rose tapped her chin. "I mean, even a hellion has to sleep sometime, right? And then, once it's conked out, we pounce."

Edna rolled her eyes. "That's the dumbest idea I've ever heard."

"Hey, at least I've thought of something! If it's so easy, why don't you try coming up with a plan?"

"Coming up with a good plan is hard," Edna said snidely. "Coming up with a hundred bad plans is the easiest thing in the world. Why don't we pelt it with poison-tipped darts in the hope it'll inhale one? Or wait until a meteor strikes it dead? Or better yet, why don't you serenade it with your beautifully dreadful singing voice? Because I'm sure that has the best chance of making it drop dead than any of the plans you've come up with so far."

She folded her arms across her chest. "My singing voice is perfectly fine."

"If by 'perfectly fine' you mean 'perfectly horrendous', then sure."

"Edna, Edna, Edna," said a deep voice from behind them, and everyone swivelled around. "Don't sass your Squire so much."

There stood Zaveid, in all his shirtless glory. Even Dezel looked surprised to see him, and Dezel noticed everything.

Sorey recovered first. "Zaveid! What are you doing here?"

"Oh, I was just passing by. Don't mind me."

"Cut the crap," Edna said. "You know something."

He smirked. "Well, I miiight just have something cooked up—that is, if Dezel wants to hear it."

"Me?"

"Are there any other Dezels here?"

Dezel looked as if he were going to retort, but before he could Lailah said, "What do you have in mind, Zaveid?"

He spread his hands out, motioning as he spoke. "You wanna defeat a big hellion like that, you gotta knock it over first, right? That way it'll lose mobility and, in this hellion's case, the use of most of its limbs."

"Don't know why you're so proud of that, considering it's obvious," Edna said.

"Ah, but I haven't reached the heart of my plan yet, dearest Enda," he said with a wink, seemingly unaffected by Edna's flat gaze. "This is where me and Dezel come in. Y'see, if we held the ends of each other's pendulums and held 'em taut, I bet the both of us could trip that big ugly hellion. Especially since I hear Mickey boy over here can cast an arte that makes us invisible." He patted Mikleo on the shoulder, which the water seraph took with a grimace.

Rose frowned, staring at the hellion below. It had given up on reaching them, apparently, and now chased after a low-flying vulture. She looked over her shoulder at Zaveid. "Okay, one, how will you get enough leverage so the hellion pushing on the line doesn't make you fall flat on your face instead, and two, even if you found a way to do that, what makes you think your pendulums won't snap with that much pressure on them?"

"Simple," he said. "We use the wind to keep it taut. And as for our pendulums breaking? Nah, not gonna happen. They're sturdier than they look."

"They're the work of Synestra, are they not?" Lailah asked.

"Of course," Zaveid said, while Dezel nodded.

Sorey looked from Zaveid to Lailah, then back to Zaveid. "Synestra?"

"She's a seraph weapon maker," Edna said. "She likes making unorthodox weapons. Last I heard, she was crafting garden shears into a formidable weapon."

Mikleo hung on to every word with rapt attention, his fascination nearly palpable. Weirdo. "Did she make your parasol?"

"How very rude, Meebo." She jabbed the end of it at him.

"Hey, I was just asking a question!"

"Children, children, let's all get along now," Zaveid said, and nimbly dodged a jab from Edna toward himself. "Let's get back to the matter at hand. Is my plan amazing, or what?"

"It might work," Mikleo said. "Emphasis on 'might'."

"How do we make sure it charges at you if you're invisible, though?" Rose asked. At Zaveid's sudden smirk she quickly added, "And don't say 'bait'."

"C'mon, Rosie, it'll be fine! All you need to do is stand around, then make it angry—"

"It already is," Edna muttered.

"—and get it to charge full speed at you. Dezel and I trip it, it goes down, we keep it down, and we beat it. Simple."

"I can think of about, oh, ten different ways that plan of yours can go wrong," she shot back. Then sighed. "But if that's the only way, then ..."

Zaveid turned to Dezel. "So, Big D? What do you think?"

Dezel wrinkled his nose at the nickname, but said, "I guess I have nothing better to do."

"Hey, you owe me! You were the one who used my last bullet, I hear."

Rose perked up. When did that happen?

"I said I'd do it, didn't I?" Dezel said gruffly. "Let's just get this over with already."

So he prepared to Windrush them off the plateau. Windrushing seemed to be a sore spot for him, since using it to transport others required physical contact and he seemed touchy about being touched. Rose could relate, really—she didn't much like touching him, either.

She'd meant everything she'd said to him, that night in Lohgrin. She didn't want the exhaustion of being angry with him forever, but that didn't mean she could forgive and forget, lock it up, throw away the key. She'd never, ever forget what he did. She'd never forget his lies.

Everyone bunched together to latch onto him, and Rose lay one fingertip—the barest contact—on his exceptionally warm palm. In a flash they stood at the foot of the plateau, on the opposite side of the hellion. With relief, she ripped her arm away.

Rose, Sorey, Lailah, and Edna all stood around Mikleo, who prepared to cast his invisibility arte on Dezel and Zaveid when given the signal. A ways away Dezel and Zaveid stood opposite of each other, each holding the end of the other's pendulum, slowly backing away from each other until the lines were taut. Dezel's was a little longer than Zaveid's (there was a joke in there that Rose didn't wanna get into), so Zaveid wrapped the end of Dezel's pendulum around his wrist until it was taut.

Zaveid looked to Mikleo and solemnly nodded. He and Dezel soon winked out of sight. A strange sight—Rose had had that arte performed on her before, but she'd never seen it done to someone else.

They waited.

The elephant hellion came out from behind the plateau, head low to the ground in a brief moment of placidity. Rose couldn't tear her eyes from it; it was beautiful, in a grotesque sort of way. White veins criss-crossed its deep turquoise hide, and large blister-like spots dotted its sides and rump. Shining spikes jutted from its back and the end of its tail; great tusks protruded on either side of its face. A multitude of jagged blue shards jumbled together in its mouth, preventing it from fully closing. That must've hurt.

Its tail swung to and fro as it tottered along, for once almost seeming like a normal elephant. But its head turned, toward them. Rose's breath caught in her throat.

Then it roared.

Now, Rose liked to think she was pretty brave. Okay, maybe not so much when it came to ghosts and spirits and the like, but when it came to physical things? She considered herself at least somewhat dauntless. Intrepid, even.

But when that massive, colossal, gargantuan elephant hellion started charging at them, it took everything in her not to run. She bit her lip till it nearly broke the skin, kept her fists by her side and her feet firmly planted, knowing that if she even made one move she wouldn't be able to prevent herself from taking off.

And then Mikleo, the only one aware of Zaveid and Dezel's location, shouted, "What are you doing? Hurry up!"

"Where are they?" Sorey asked. Keep still, keep still, Rose chanted in her head. If they didn't move soon, they'd be trampled. Keep still. Keep still. "Mikleo?"

Sweat made Mikleo's bangs stick to his forehead, which was creased in concentration. "They're going—oh, cripes, everyone move! They're not gonna make it in time!"

Everyone scattered, in all directions. Lailah, with her long skirt, stumbled in her haste to get away. Rose grabbed her hand and yanked her up, pulling her along. "After we get through this I'm gonna kill you, Zaveid!" she screamed.

The elephant braked, bringing up a cloud of dust. When Lailah regained her balance Rose let go of her, and Lailah rubbed her shoulder with her other hand. Whoops, must've tugged too hard.

The hellion lunged at Sorey. Sword out, Sorey barely dodged, and just as the elephant passed he tried to slice its side. Judging by the sound alone—like metal scraping rock—Rose guessed it did next to nothing.

"Where are they?" Sorey shouted.

"They're coming!" Staff raised, Mikleo was still in deep concentration with casting his arte.

"Thanks Mikleo, that's super helpful!" Rose regretted speaking instantly, for it brought the elephant's attention on herself. It turned to her and Lailah and, with a huff, charged at them.

They darted in opposite directions, and the hellion pursued Lailah. Before it could get anywhere near her, however, Edna sent up spikes in its path. The hellion veered to the right, skidding, but crashed shoulder-first into the rock. Lailah topped it off by bathing it in white-hot flames, but the elephant emerged unscathed, easily regaining its footing. Just how tough was this thing?!

Snorting and puffing, its gaze turned to Rose. For a moment they stared at each other, the hellion's furious eyes boring into Rose's.

"Rose, don't move!" Mikleo shouted, just as it charged. "Zaveid and Dezel are there!"

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuckity, fuck. The moments stretched to hours. Rose backed away, unable to keep still, her eyes locked on the hellion. No guarantee, except for Mikleo's word, that Dezel and Zaveid were even there. Closer, closer, closer. Rose's heart caught in her throat. She couldn't remember how to breathe. Twenty feet away. Fifteen. Ten.

Abruptly the elephant's front legs folded, and tossed its head with a squealing roar as it fell with a sickening crunch. Rose couldn't help but wince. It tried to get up, to no avail: its legs were broken. That didn't stop it from roaring, though, and weakly thrashing around.

Dezel and Zaveid reappeared. "And that's how it's done!" Zaveid said, laughing.

"Still gonna kill you," Rose muttered. This ordeal had taken five years off her life at least.

"Oh come on, lighten up!" With his pendulum he slashed a row of spikes on the hellion's back, and they shattered into tiny pieces. Hey, that looked like fun. If she could get on the hellion's back, then—

"Get back!" Dezel suddenly bellowed. Rose turned in confusion, only for him to suddenly appear at her side. With stunning swiftness he grabbed her hand, his grip shockingly gentle. Instinctively she twisted away from him, but in a flash he Windrushed her back to Sorey and the others, and let go of her arm without so much as another glance in her direction.

Sorey's eyes were wide. "What happened?"

"Those shattered spikes on its back are emitting poison. Get too close, and you'll die almost instantly."

Zaveid, joining them, squinted at the elephant. "Yeah, I think I can sense something, but ... poison?"

"You can't reach that far?" Dezel's voice was flat, but his face beheld the hint of a smirk.

Mikleo stared at the hellion. "But the direction the wind's going ..."

"Lohgrin," Rose said dully.

"Can you do something to stop it from reaching them?" Sorey asked Dezel.

"We can disperse it with the wind so it's in tiny harmless quantities," he said.

Sorey nodded. "You do that. We'll think of how to fix this." Dezel disappeared, and Sorey turned to Zaveid. "Can I ask you to help as well?"

"Friendly reminder that you're the one who got us into this mess," Edna muttered, twirling her parasol menacingly.

"Hey, hey, watch where you point those words!" Zaveid said. "I'm on it." He dissipated as well.

Mikleo frowned, rubbing his chin, staring at the hellion. It lay limp, now, but Rose knew better than to think it had truly been defeated. "I suppose I could cast a protective bubble around us," he said. "But depending on how powerful this poison is, I may only be able to cast it on one or two people. Best be one, just to be safe. And I'll need someone to armitize with, too."

"I'll do it," Rose and Sorey said at the same time. She glanced at him, and he looked back at her, bewildered.

He said, "You don't need to push yourself—"

"It makes more sense for me to armitize with Mikleo," she said quickly. Armitizing—the first time since ... She was relieved she could keep her voice steady. "You're better at purifying hellions than I am, and that one down there's bound to be a toughie." She tried to smile at him in reassurance, but suspected her bared teeth revealed nothing but nervousness.

Sorey bowed his head. "All right."

As they prepared, Mikleo murmured, "You sure about this?"

"Absolutely." She'd have to get over her fear sooner or later, and better sooner than later. The anticipation made her jittery, but she took a few deep breaths to calm her nerves. Tried to, anyway.

Okay. She could do this. It was just Mikleo, after all—the guy couldn't even hurt a fly. He was terrified of dogs, for Maotelus's sake, even itty bitty ones.

She closed her eyes. Felt the hot sun on her face, the breeze on her back, her hair gently swaying against her cheeks. Let out a breath, let her body relax. She could do this.

She stated, loud and clear: "Luzrov Rulay."

One moment, she was entirely herself. The next, a presence pressed against her consciousness, against her very being. Nowhere to hide. No escape. She felt Mikleo's apprehension and determination, but in an instant they switched to optimism tinged with encouragement. At once she realized that he was trying to cheer her—after all, he could sense her emotions too—but she couldn't tell whether his reassurance helped or not.

But everyone was counting on her, and if she failed, they couldn't proceed. She had to focus. Merging Mikleo's powers with her own, she summoned his bow, and together they conjured an arrow of pure energy, shimmery and translucent. It wasn't a weapon they forged—it was the best damn protective barrier they could muster.

She nocked the arrow, drew, and released it to Sorey, who was already armitized with Lailah. As it connected the head exploded, covering Sorey from head to toe with translucent energy, giving him a soft glow.

He didn't waste any time getting to the hellion. Immediately he sent toward it the fires of purification, but they proved ineffective. The hellion tried to take him down with its trunk when he was within reach, but Sorey easily dodged. It roared as he pummelled it with fire, unable to move at all but wriggle a bit.

Rose regularly conjured arrows to shoot Sorey with to keep the barrier strong, and the steady routine took all her concentration. Conjure, nock, loose. Conjure, nock, loose. She lost herself in the rhythm, drenched in sweat that had little to do with the heat.

Eventually the job was done: in a flurry of bright blue flames the dread elephant hellion was purified, and malevolence's captive was finally granted back his true form. She and Mikleo shared their relief, but she quickly expelled him from her body.

He gracefully landed beside her. "Good work," he said, nodding.

"Likewise," she replied. It had gone much, much better than she'd expected, but her shoulders were still hunched, and it took more than she'd like to admit to resist the urge to hug herself. Everything was fine, but—was it?

The former elephant hellion turned out to be a wind seraph named Alken. He looked like a kind old man, with thick white eyebrows and a bald head. When he found out he'd been a hellion his head drooped. "What did I do?"

No one said anything, only staring at the ground or the sky or at anything but Alken. Rose very nearly rolled her eyes at the lot of them—telling him the truth was better than withholding it, because whatever someone's mind came up with was almost always worse than what had actually happened. She opened her mouth.

Dezel, along with Zaveid, suddenly appeared, and Dezel spoke. "You trampled over human merchant caravans. Barely any merchants have been able to visit Lohgrin because of you, and the people are suffering." He spoke simply, matter-of-factly, as if he were discussing the weather. Rose grudgingly approved.

Alken suddenly sat down on the ground, his arms dangling uselessly at his sides. "Oh, oh, I see," he breathed.

"But their faith is strong, even in these hard times," Sorey added, to soften the blow.

He peered up at Sorey. "How must I atone for what I've done?"

Sorey began, "It's not your fault—"

"Yes, yes it is," Alken said, shaking his head. "In my pride I'd thought myself immune to becoming a hellion, and in turn I let malevolence consume me. I, and I alone, am at fault."

Sorey bit his lip. "All right. If that's how you really feel, then ..."

"There's no way to truly right your wrongs," Dezel said. He had his arms folded against his chest and, as ever, his face was an unreadable mask. "But if you still want to try to atone, Lohgrin doesn't have a resident seraph."

Alken looked up at him like he was Maotelus himself. "No resident seraph, you say? Then I suppose I could ..."

"You'll need a vessel," Lailah reminded him.

"We can help find you one," Sorey said.

Alken smiled for the first time. "Ah, that may not be necessary. I may be able to use the tower as my vessel, assuming there are pure-hearted humans living there."

"Okay, that should work!" Sorey said, grinning back.

Alken then stood, and bowed his head solemnly. "Thank you for this opportunity, Shepherd, so that I may atone for my sins. I hope the next we meet, I won't be in such a sorry state."

Sorey bowed his head in reply. After Alken disappeared, he turned to Dezel and Zaveid. "Did your mission go well?"

"Of course," Zaveid said. "Thanks to us, Lohgrin is saved."

"Thanks to you, we got into that situation in the first place," Edna said.

"That's all in the past now," Zaveid said with a dismissive hand wave. "Speaking of the past, Dezel, you may not remember me, but—"

"I remember you," Dezel said flatly.

"You two know each other?" Mikleo asked.

Zaveid smirked. "Well, I did save his life when he was but a young little windboy."

Dezel, a "young little windboy"? Rose could hardly even imagine Dezel ever having been a child. Children were ... innocent.

Zaveid continued, "I suppose that's why you decided to take up using a pendulum, since you thought I looked so cool, right?"

"Whatever you say." Dezel dissipated, returning to Sorey's head, but Rose had still caught the colour on his cheeks.

"What about you, Zaveid?" Sorey asked. "Where are you off to?"

"Why do you ask? Are you so eager to see me leave?"

"No, not at all!" Sorey quickly said. "It's just, you came to help us with purifying Alken—which we're so grateful for, since we couldn't have done it without you," ignoring Edna's pointed look, "but now that that's over with ..."

"Hmm." Zaveid looked thoughtful. "Y'know what? I think I'll stick with you kids for a little while. If you'll have me, that is." He flashed a winning smile at them. Well, Rose found it winning, at least. Edna, on the other hand, made exaggerated choking sounds.

"Aren't you worried?" Mikleo asked, eyebrows raised. "You don't have a vessel. If we were to run into Heldalf again, there's no telling what could happen to you."

"I think I'll take my chances," Zaveid said lazily. "It's just so tiresome, being on my own."

"Poor you," Edna said. "Poor lonely Zaveid, all on his lonesome."

Their objective completed, they could move on to the next thing on their to-do list: go to Lhitberg Woods to find a priest they'd heard had a green iris gem in his possession. They were smack dab in the middle of Zaphgott Moor, and there was still Plitzerback Wetland between here and there, so it'd take at least half a month for them to get there. Rose hoped the priest would still be there when they arrived—they didn't have much time to lose.

They had their lunch in the shade provided by the plateau, and then after that it was back to travelling, with the seraphim riding along inside Sorey. In this strength-sapping heat, Rose lamented more than once that she didn't have a seraph's ability, to be able to shed her physical state. When they set up camp, Edna had the gall to complain about how much she and Sorey stank, so Rose did the mature thing and stuck her tongue out at the earth seraph.

Even as uncomfortable as their environment was, Rose was in a better place mentally than she'd been for weeks. She could attribute that to things looking up in the Shepherd's journey—they finally had a concrete goal in mind—but also because she was getting her full 8 hours of sleep every night. At first she'd considered throwing away the satora leaves Dezel'd given her, just to spite him and his hard work, but she was glad she hadn't. They worked far better than expected.

But that night, lying under the stars after taking her dose of satora, there was something she couldn't push out of her head. It had poked at her all afternoon and evening, but now she had time to truly dwell on it.

During the fight with the elephant hellion, after Zaveid had released the poison, Dezel had Windrushed her to safety. His approach had been swift, urgent, and unexpected, but his hold had been gentle. Light. She could feel it even now, a phantom sensation of his fingers delicately wrapped around her wrist.

She knew what she should have felt: disgust. But no matter how hard she reflected on her feelings, she couldn't find any disgust at his touch. Maybe unease, but not disgust; she probably felt more uneasy about her lack of disgust than at his touch in itself. She didn't know what it meant.

Chapter Text

 

No place on Glenwood had such diversity of flora and fauna as Plitzerback Wetlands did. It was truly Dezel's favourite place in the world, though he'd only been there twice before, both times before he'd joined the Windriders. Even as much as the Windriders had travelled, they'd never had reason to venture so far from human civilization.

That may have been why he liked it so much. Untarnished by human hands, life flourished. Dragon flies, frogs, turtles, herons, muskrat, this place had it all in its mucky goodness. Earlier in the day Dezel had come across tadpoles in the final stages of metamorphosis, and he'd been tempted to request they all stop so he could witness the transformation firsthand, but ultimately decided against it. Those nutballs probably wouldn't see the point of it.

Not everyone liked the mud. Edna and Mikleo, in agreement for once, were grumpy about any amount of filth that got on them, which was to say they were worse than a pair of Hyland Geese. It was their own damn fault for wearing such light-coloured clothing. Lailah stepped gingerly, wrinkling her nose at the mud, and somehow managed to keep it all off. Edna pestered her for her method of cleanliness, but Lailah changed the subject each time in that ridiculous way of hers. It must've been connected to her oath as Prime Lord, though Dezel couldn't see how.

Sorey, who'd smartly stuffed his cape in his pack, seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself in the mud, gleefully pointing out any animals and plants that struck his fancy. He had his priorities straight. Zaveid seemed more or less indifferent, though he loved to tease Mikleo and Edna about it. Well, only Mikleo now, after getting a few red, painful-looking welts the shape of the end of Edna's parasol.

At first Rose had sighed at the muck staining her white pants, but eventually ignored it. When Edna tried to commiserate with her over the state of their clothing, she quipped that she could always get a pair of new pants. At that, Dezel couldn't suppress a small smile—That's the Rose I know. As a kid she'd always loved to play in the mud, with never a care for how dirty she got.

She'd changed so much in the past three weeks, or rather, she was much more herself. She bantered with her friends, she enthusiastically ate every meal set before her, and thanks to the satora leaves she softly snored all night long. It was almost like nothing had ever happened. Not wanting to spoil her newfound normalcy, Dezel tried to stay out of her way as much as he could. It made him sad, but he wanted to keep her happy.

"Look, a turtle!" Sorey said, taking Dezel out of his trance. Sure enough, he was right—right beside the bank was a large snapping turtle. Better not get too close to it.

The idiot Shepherd, however, had no such caution. He bent down, saying, "Hey, big guy—!"

"Watch out!" Dezel shouted, but too late. The turtle snapped at Sorey's nose, only narrowly missing, and Sorey fell backwards, landing right on his butt with an, "Oof!" Mikleo didn't even try to hide his laughter as the turtle toddled to the water then swam away.

Zaveid watched the turtle's departure with a grimace. "I thought turtles were supposed to be gentle."

If there was a wall around, Dezel surely would have beat his head against it. Would these morons ever understand the importance of knowing the creatures around them? "Some are, but snapping turtles definitely aren't."

Edna snorted. "I guess we know what they're named for."

"Aww." Sorey tried to wipe the mud off the seat of his pants, but only succeeded in spreading it more. "Too bad. I wanted to make a turtle friend."

"That's no way of making friends," Dezel said. "I'd snap too, if some weird creature stuck its nose in my face."

"Hey, I'm not weird," Sorey whined. Everyone stared at him. "What? I'm not!"

Edna, hiding her smile behind her parasol, said, "We'll have to agree to disagree."

Sorey changed his pants behind a tree, and then they were off again. Soon enough, it was Rose's turn to point something out.

"I've never seen a toad like that before," she said, pointing to a Plitzerfrog.

Before Dezel could help himself he blurted out, "Actually, it's a frog."

A pause. He was sure she'd ignore him, as she'd done in the past, but when she replied he was so surprised, he nearly tripped over a muddy mound and fell flat on his face.

"All right, Mr. Smart Guy. Then what's the difference between toads and frogs?" She looked up at him as they walked, eyes locked on his face.

"There's none, technically—toads are frogs."

"But not the other way around?"

"Nope. All toads are frogs, but not all frogs are toads. Toads are stouter, and tend to have dry, warty skin—see, they generally live on land, while frogs live in water."

"Oh." She chewed her bottom lip. "So that means all the frogs here are just frogs, and not toads."

"Mostly, yeah, though sometimes the lines can get blurred. Nature isn't very categorical."

He realized that everyone else had stopped talking and were now staring at the two of them, and Rose must have realized this too, because her face grew suddenly warm. She promptly fell back in line with Edna and pointedly started talking about mabo curry buns, and Edna went right along with it, utterly straight-faced. Soon everyone went back to conversing amongst themselves, but Dezel kept to himself.

It was the longest normal conversation they'd had since ... then. Now that it was done and the shock had worn off, Dezel felt hollow, wishing it could've lasted for a little longer. Just for a minute, Rose hadn't treated him like the muck on the bottom of her boot.

He could've kicked himself. What right had he to desire such a thing from her?

That evening, they set up camp atop a relatively dry hill. Dezel sat beneath a lone tree, admiring the view so to speak. Water dappled the land, and tall grass provided cover for an innumerable amount of wildlife. Not far off a family of ducks nested peacefully. Dezel wouldn't tell the others about them—they'd only want to disturb their rest.

Lailah's fire kept mosquitos away, for the most part, but any who still ventured too close Dezel pushed away with the wind. Gently, of course, so as not to hurt them. As annoying as they were, mosquitos made good food for most of the inhabitants of the wetland.

It was a nice, relaxed evening. Edna may have complained of the racket the birds were making, but Dezel found it calming.

So when Zaveid approached Dezel, he tensed, regretting the end of his reverie. For all Zaveid's seeming lackadaisical attitude, he seemed to notice the motion, because he spread his hands out, palms up. "Hey, I'm not here for a fight. I just wanna talk."

"I don't see what you could possibly have to say to me."

"You've been sitting here alone all evening. Aren't you lonely? Need a little companionship?" Zaveid grinned, like he thought he was being funny. Dezel said nothing. Slowly, Zaveid's grin slid off his face, but he still persisted. "So, uh, what's up between you and Rose?"

Dezel fought down a flare of anger, and managed to say in a calm voice, "What makes you think something's up?" He hoped Zaveid would take the hint.

He didn't, of course. "She's been acting pretty cold to you, for starters."

Dezel wanted to answer with something harsh, but as he thought about it, his anger deflated. Rose's dismissal was justified, but he supposed that wouldn't be obvious to everyone. And it wasn't exactly Zaveid's fault for being curious, even if he had an irritating way of going about it.

"I hurt her," he said. "If you want specifics, ask someone else."

"Oookay," Zaveid said. "Hey, if you ever want any girl advice—y'know, wind seraph to wind seraph—just call me, all right?"

Of all the— Dezel's face darkened. "I'll have to decline."

Zaveid shrugged. "Suit yourself. Offer still stands, though." He returned to the others, humming to himself.

Dezel rubbed his temples, a sudden headache coming on. What had that been about? He almost would've thought it was Zaveid's own obnoxious way of showing he cared, but ...

Just before Rose settled for bed she swallowed her nightly dose of satora leaves, just as she had for the past two weeks. It looked like she was starting to run low—perhaps half of the original package was left. They hadn't passed any plants today, not that Dezel had noticed, but maybe he could go looking for some tonight. Give him something to distract himself with.

Chapter Text

 

Sooner or later, and no matter how much she tried to avoid it, Rose always seemed to end up in Pendrago.

They hadn't found any Earthen Historia in over a month. At the start of their search, in an apparent stroke of luck they'd found a few in quick succession—if it could even be called lucky, seeing so much horror. Rose was used to blood, used to death, but she wasn't quite used to grotesque hellion babies. That image had certainly kept her up at night.

But as soon as summer officially arrived, the roll they'd been on abruptly stopped, and being a big city, Pendrago seemed the best bet for finding clues.

They'd arrived in the morning, and though the weather was nice, the city seemed subdued. Meeting Sergei Strelka, they'd quickly found out why: a serial killer was on the loose, and the death toll had already reached 14. Everyone was on their toes.

Sorey thought the one behind the murders could very well be a hellion—the killer in Lastonbell had been one, after all—so with Sergei's approval, they were gonna check it out.

What was with Rolance and nightly serial killers, anyway? Hyland never seemed to have such problems.

There was nothing to do but wait for nightfall. Rose would've loved to have gone out with the others, but she had to lie low, what with knights prowling every street. Every time they met Sergei Strelka she had her heart in her throat, waiting for him or one of his subordinates to recognize her, but they never did. Maybe they thought the Shepherd would never keep company with the likes of a prince killer. Still, it was best to keep her head down.

She sat on a hard sofa in the inn's common room, beside the hearth. She wasn't alone, with Edna curled up like a cat in the armchair beside her, eyes closed, but she may as well have been since the earth seraph gave one-word answers to any attempts at conversation.

There was only so much sitting around she could take until she went loony. She tried reading a book, selecting one with a series of adventure stories, but her eyes glazed over before she'd read even half a page.

The only thing left to do was people-watch, but as dead as it was at this time in the afternoon, the only people around were two servers, one scrubbing tables and the other sweeping floors. At this point, she was beginning to envy them for having something to do.

A broad figure in a dark hood ducked in, and Rose watched him with interest. He slowly scanned the room, and when he peered at Rose she jumped up, starling Edna out of her reverie.

“What in Maotelus’s name are you doing here?”

“Looking for you, boss.” Eguille smiled at her uneasily, like he wasn't sure what she was going to do. After another quick look around the room, he removed his hood. “Are you staying here?”

“Leeet’s go to my room,” Rose said, heading for the stairs. Edna watched their departure expressionlessly, and when Rose glanced back once she’d reached the top, Edna’s eyes were closed once more.

After Rose shut the door behind Eguille, she pressed her ear against it, listening to a count of sixty. No movement—good.

When she turned to face him, she was unsure of what she felt more: unease or gladness. She'd given him, and everyone else, strict orders to never go to Pendrago. It was just way too dangerous to risk. And unlike some other people she could name, it wasn't like Eguille to disobey a direct order.

Something must be up.

She sat at the end of her bed—first checking that no one was hiding under it, just in case—then motioned for him to sit beside her. There may have been no one at the door when she'd checked, but she still kept her voice low. "So?"

"We've been offered a new job. Cedric Velarion."

Rose blew a low whistle through her teeth. Cedric Velarion was the general of Rolance's army. "Who made the request?"

"We tracked it down to Julian Alflatt."

Her eyes widened. "You sure?"

"Absolutely positive."

Well. Julian Alflatt was one of the most powerful lords in Rolance, second only to the king himself. Word had it that ever since Cardinal Forton's death, Alflatt had only extended his influence—clearly, his aim was the throne. But how did getting rid of Velarion help him?

Not that it mattered. "Cedric Velarion deserves judgment for his crimes," she finally said. "But we won't be the ones to dole it out to him. It's far too risky."

Eguille nodded. "I thought you'd say that." He paused, frowning. "There's was one other thing. Lunarre—"

Fuck! She'd completely forgotten him. Her words came out in a rush. "Where is he—do you know?"

"I was hoping you'd be able to tell me that," he said with a short laugh. "We haven't seen him for close to three months, now."

And it had been about three months since he'd betrayed them, she noted grimly. Her eyes hardened. “If you ever see him again, kill him immediately. That's an order. Tell everyone else, too."

Eguille's mouth fell open. "Boss?"

"He ... let's just say he betrayed us." It would take too much time to explain hellions, and even so, she doubted he'd believe her. "He's allied himself with enemies of the Scattered Bones, and of the Shepherd. Which, by the way, makes it doubly dangerous for you to be here,” she pointedly added.

He smiled. "I'll be careful, boss."

She smiled back, if weakly. Maybe there wasn't much to worry about on that front—Eguille had been the one to teach her most of what she knew about stealth. Even for a big man, if Eguille didn't want to be seen, he wasn't. He blended into crowds and darkness alike.

They talked for the rest of the afternoon, and well into the evening, too. They talked of normal things—plans for fall stock, prices, security measures. How everyone was doing. The Sparrowfeathers had set up camp about ten miles from Pendrago, in a thicket at the edge of a farmer's field.

The normalcy of their conversation refreshed her; for once, she didn't have to worry about the fate of the world. But it also made her realize that she missed the Sparrowfeathers even more than she'd thought. When the time came for Eguille to leave, she almost got to the point of begging him to stay a little longer.

No matter how much she or Sorey offered to buy him supper, Eguille insisted he leave, saying he wanted to be back at camp before nightfall. Rose supposed she could see the sense in that, even if she didn't like it. But just before he left, he took her aside.

"You doing okay, Boss? The Shepherd's treating you right?"

"Of course," she said. "What makes you think otherwise?"

"Ah, just wondering," he said. He ran a hand through his hair. "I guess that means you won't be coming back with me, then."

She pursed her lips in an attempt at a smile. "I'm sure you can cope without me for a little longer."

He nodded. "Of course. It's not the same without you around, but we'll survive."

Rose stared at the door for some time after he left. She'd been too busy the past few months to spare more than a passing thought of the Sparrowfeathers, but now ...

After dark, everyone left the inn. A curfew had been imposed on Pendrago, so the only ones out on the streets were them and the Platinum Knights. Street lamps cast long shadows on the cobblestones, leaving the alleyways completely dark. Rose eyed them uneasily whenever they passed, but nothing ever jumped out.

Lailah shuddered. "It's so creepy. It feels like something could pop out at me at any moment."

"Assuming the killer's able to see you, anyway," Rose said.

Mikleo grimaced. "If it's a hellion, it'll almost certainly be able to."

"But there's no guarantee that it is," Rose retorted, feeling contrary.

"How could a serial killer not be a hellion?" Edna asked, giving her a sidelong glance from under her parasol. Even in the dark of night, Edna had it up.

She had no answer for that.

From what they'd heard from Sergei, there was no connection between the murders. None that could be made yet, anyway. But after 14 murders, if there were a common denominator, surely it would've been found by now. A hellion, killing indiscriminately—that's what it looked like.

But even if she had no real reason to believe otherwise, Rose still had a bad feeling about it.

A scream shattered the calm. West, toward—the shrinechurch? Rose was running before she knew it, feet pounding the cobblestones, and she heard the others quick behind her.

In front of the open doors knelt Sergei, gently speaking to a woman sprawled on the steps. The candlelight from within painted the blood pooling around her a deep red.

Sweat beaded Sergei's forehead, and his gauntlets were black with blood. "They're inside the church," he told Sorey, his voice quavering.

Sorey looked to Lailah, but she shook her head solemnly. "That woman is beyond the reach of your powers."

He sighed. "All right. Let's go."

Why the church? Rose wondered. Sure, the place was big and full of hiding places, but as far as she knew, there was only one entrance. You couldn't hide forever.

But all thoughts of the coming search fled as they entered the chapel. A lone priest stood in a pool of red, bodies all around him, bright blood staining his white robes and hands. He gripped a bloody, dripping dagger. His lip curled into a bloodless smile.

Worst of all, Rose couldn't sense even a bit of malevolence coming from him.

"Father Amethor!" Sorey stopped short, his eyes darting around the scene before them. "You—tell me you didn't—"

"I did," Amethor said simply.

Sorey's hands knotted into fists. "But why?"

"You of all people should understand," Amethor said, raising his brow. He gestured all around him with his dagger. "These pathetic, whining creatures—always complaining of others, but never sparing a thought for their own folly. They are what's wrong with this world. They are the reason there is so much malevolence." He smiled. "So I disposed of them."

Rose’s eyes narrowed. All those people, lives cut short for—what? Some quack priest’s rotten sense of righteousness?

Sorey said quietly, "Lailah, is he ... ?"

"No." She said it wonderingly, her forehead creased. "He is not a hellion."

"Of course I'm not," Amethor scoffed. He stared directly at Lailah. "I am doing God's own work, am I not?"

Mikleo frowned. "You can see us?"

"Indeed, it was one of your brethren who charged me to undertake this task. Her attire may not have been what I would have expected from a seraph, but—" He stopped short, surveying them, chin held high. "I wonder that you do not seem to see things the same way."

Rose’s fists clenched at his haughty, holier-than-thou look. She'd been condescended to many a time in her life, but this was the first time she’d had it done by a wacky, serial-murdering prig.

"What was her name?" Dezel suddenly said. "The seraph who commissioned you."

"She never did trouble herself with giving me her name," Amethor said sadly.

Dezel let out an angry huff. "Did she have dark hair, pale skin, a baton, wearing only a vest and—"

"You seem to know her." Amethor took a step forward, his eyes glowing with fervour. "Is she not so regal, so magnificent? The way her soft voice tinkles like bells, and—"

"Father!" Sergei burst into the church, a squad of knights behind him. He stopped short of the carnage, face white. "What is the meaning of this?" He saw the dagger in Amethor's grip. "Don't tell me you—!"

"Behold, Captain." Amethor gestured with a flourish, his smug façade on display. "The fruits of my labours. Those who salvation has forsaken."

"You can't say that," Rose blurted out. She’d had enough. Anger flushed through her body, and she spoke louder, so her words echoed throughout the sanctuary. "How would you know that? Who are you, to say who salvation forsakes and who it doesn't?"

Amethor snorted. "I do not randomly kill, girl. I always watch my targets beforehand, to discern whether or not they can be saved, just as I was commissioned."

"Why, you're no better than an assassin!" Sergei said.

"An assassin?" Amethor's mouth twisted. "I do not kill for money—I kill for God. Not like those pathetic Scattered Bones, whom I hear kill for their own wicked sense of self-righteousness, but for the almighty righteousness of the one who created all."

"You, better than them?" Rose’s voice shook. Mikleo gave her a sharp look, but she ignored him. "They kill people with power—people who misuse their power to make others suffer. All you're doing is killing random people who don't affect anything, one way or another."

Amethor looked away from her, shaking his head and smirking as if laughing at a private joke. "Foolish girl. There are powers beyond those which you can see."

Sergei shook his head as well. "Either way, assassins or Amethor, they're relying on their own personal sense of justice rather than the common rule of law, and therefore are wrong."

"The law can't reach everyone," Rose retorted hotly. "Not in this society."

He bowed his head. "At that, you are right. But that's what I'm trying to change."

Before Rose could make a scathing reply, a heavy hand rested on her shoulder, stopping her. "Rose," Dezel said, voice soft. "That's enough." When she said nothing, he let his hand drop.

Rose stared sullenly at the floor. She knew she'd said enough, but he didn't need to rub it in.

The knights took Father Amethor away, then began to clean up the carnage. Sorey offered to help, but they declined him. Rose watched them work, wrapping up the corpses, mopping the blood off the floor, and fumed about what Sergei had said. The Scattered Bones were different from that serial killing maniac—they were.

"What's that?" Edna suddenly said. She pointed toward the left side of the pews where, in the centre of the first row, was the unmistakable glint of a green iris gem.

Sorey's forehead creased. "How ... ?"

"I could've sworn I looked in that direction earlier, but didn't see anything," Mikleo said musingly.

Sorey walked over and picked it up. "Guess it doesn't really matter how it got here so long as we have it now, right?"

"I beg to differ," Mikleo said dryly. "But for now, we should glean what we can from the contents."

Sorey nodded. "Let's go outside."

They huddled, shoulder-to-shoulder, in an alcove in the shrinechurch's courtyard. Rose couldn't shake the uneasy feeling in the pit of her gut. She wasn't sure if it was in anticipation of what they were about to see or what they'd already seen tonight, but whatever it was, it made her antsy. She resisted the urge to tap her feet as everyone assembled.

"Everyone ready?"

They each touched the gem. Sorey put power into it, and for a moment, it brightly glowed.

Then everything went black.

The general sat on a chair placed seemingly randomly in the middle of a messy room. It looked as if a twister had gone through—tables upturned, papers strewn everywhere, black and red ink blotching the walls. The only calm in the room was the general, his face stony, his eyes distant. Or at least, he seemed calm until Rose noticed him fingering the sheathed dagger at his waist.

In one fluid movement he pulled his dagger out and rammed it through his stomach, through his ribs and into his heart. If Rose had the capacity to gasp, she would have.

Blood gushed from the wound, soaking his clothes, soaking the papers on the white marble floor. With a grunt he twisted the dagger; blood dribbled from the corner of his mouth. He hung limp.

For an eternity, he stared at the floor. Rose desperately wanted to look away. An impossible amount of blood pooled around him in a steady flow—more than anyone could lose without dying—but his chest still heaved.

He raised his head. Pale-faced, he started at his bleeding chest in disbelief. With a pained hiss he pulled the dagger out, and though more blood gushed forth, he did not die.

His face contorted. Snarling, he stabbed himself over and over again, retching with each strike. But no matter how tattered his torso became, no matter how much he bled, he did not die.

Thus began a series of suicide attempts. He hanged himself until his face turned blue and his eyes bulged, but no matter how long his lungs went deprived of air, he did not die. He jumped from the city wall to the cobblestone street below, but no matter how much he screamed in pain when the bones in his legs shattered, he did not die. He set fire to his bedsheets, but no matter how long he burned, he did not die. Though he coughed up black tar after he swallowed poison, he did not die. He let his head sink beneath the water in his bath, but no matter how much water filled his lungs, he did not die.

In the end, the general sat in the same room he'd stabbed himself, but this time, the room was tidy. He held his head in his hands, weeping openly.

Rose returned to the present with a jolt. Legs wobbly, she sat down on the cold cobblestones, and everyone followed suit, looking just as stricken as she felt.

No one said anything for the longest time. Rose had seen so many deaths, been the cause of so many deaths, but this … this was something new.

Sorey shakily brought his hand to his forehead. His voice, breathy and barely above a whisper, shook. "He was so determined to end his own life. I just keep thinking of that. So determined, but … why? Why?"

"He'd lost his family, his friends, his soldiers, his servants—everyone he'd loved. His own child had been turned into a monster." Rose swallowed, thinking of Konan's betrayal. What happened to her wasn't even close to what had happened to the general, but still, she thought she could relate. "If the same ever happened to me ... I can't say I'd do the same, but I'd definitely do something drastic."

"But why didn't he die?" Sorey persisted. "No matter how many times he tried, he just got up again and again."

"I imagine it was part of his curse," Mikleo said. The way he stared at his feet, jaw clenched, belied his calm look. "The one that turned his baby into a hellion."

Sorey let out a thick breath. "No matter how horrible the things he's done in his life, he could never deserve to have something like that happen to him. Never." He'd said that every time after something horrible happened to the general. At this point, Rose was honestly beginning to agree.

Dezel snorted. "He was a coward," he said, voice hard. "Only a coward tries to take the easy way out. And for him, that applies a hundredfold."

Rose could have punched him. Instead, she glared at him. "Can't you have just a little compassion?"

He continued on as if he hadn't heard her. "If you lose everything, you just have to accept it and move on. You keep going. Otherwise, your life until that point's just been a waste."

She turned away from him, disgusted. She didn't know why she ever bothered with him.

Abruptly she realized where they were. The courtyard. She gasped, clutching her stomach, suddenly feeling like she was gonna hurl as a wave of cold dread washed over her.

She remembered everything, as if she’d been transported back to that night. One moment, a flash, and suddenly her body wasn't her own. It moved of its own accord with sickening familiarity, conjuring power, and she couldn't stop it. She needed to scream, but not even her mouth did what she wanted. Dezel.

She regained control for a moment, but it was too late. Malevolence swallowed her whole. She couldn't breathe. She couldn't think. She only had awareness enough for the revolting pain of malevolence, drowning in an unending moment of searing numbness. Dimly aware of her current surroundings,
she doubled over, shaking with heaving breaths.

"Rose?" Lailah was suddenly at her side, pulling her into the real world. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing," she said, voice tight from the constriction of her throat. She dug her fingernails into her palms. "I'm fine."

Sorey, on her other side. "Like hell you are!" His cursing was a measure of how alarmed he was. "What can we do for you?" He tried to gently take her arm, but she automatically yanked away from him. "Rose!"

So cold. I'm so numb.

"Let's get back to the inn," she heard Dezel say. "Standing in the middle of a cold, dark street isn't doing anyone good."

Bastard. He knew what was up—of course he did. For it to be him, of all people, to be the only one to understand what she needed ...

"I could use some sleep," she said faintly. Without consulting anyone else she ambled out of the courtyard, and she thanked all the gods she didn't believe in that the others wordlessly followed.

She kept herself tightly wound the entire walk back, giving such short answers to the others’ questions that they all but gave up halfway there. As crummy as she felt for making them worry, she just couldn't talk. She couldn't.

Once they reached the inn, she shook them off, heading straight for her room. She closed the door behind her and leaned back against it. Waiting.

For what?

Letting out that first shaking sigh was like severing the taut rope between herself and her sanity. Sobbing, she sunk to the floor, wrapping her arms around herself as if that would make her body feel like it belonged to her.

She stayed there for a while, even after she stopped shaking, or after her cheeks dried.

She thought she'd been healing. Sometimes—sometimes, sometimes, only sometimes—she'd been sorta okay with being around Dezel. Maybe it was because she'd almost forgotten what he'd done.

But she couldn't let herself forget.

With a singular purpose in mind, she rummaged through her pack and pulled out the bundle of satora leaves Dezel had given her all those weeks ago. He’d replenished it back in Plitzerback Wetland, embarrassedly dumping it on her then swiftly departing. She supposed he meant it all as an apology, but she knew the worth of apologies.

The window made not a sound as she opened it. Without hesitation she upturned the contents of the bundle, watching the leaves scatter across the street as the wind carried them. Her only regret, as she settled into bed, was that she could've made a small fortune from selling them instead of chucking them, but the deed was done.

Chapter Text

The stink of death lingered.

Dezel surveyed Horsa and nearly retched at what he sensed. Collapsed houses trapped dozens of bodies, adults and children alike. Those who did not die from being crushed had suffocated, their faces white as snow and and their fingers tinged with blue.

They were the lucky ones. Those murdered by the Stheno ... gored and mangled, blood spattered everywhere, their faces were permanently etched in terrified horror. Dezel passed over them quickly, bile burning his throat. Revulsion made every fibre of his being want to recoil, but he persisted. He had to be sure.

It didn't take long. Finally he retreated, though doing so gave him no relief.

"Did you find anyone?" Sorey instantly asked, his shoulders taut. Everyone was tense, each holding their breath. Rose had her arms tightly crossed against her chest, her face a grim mask.

"No."

With that single word, they all deflated.

But not Sorey. "Maybe we should look around. You could have missed someone, right?"

"The wind doesn't lie."

"But—"

"They're dead, Sorey."

He didn't want to say it. He didn't want to smash their hopes, especially after the Stheno had met its demise before Sorey could purify it. But he wanted to spare them from the sight of the broken bodies, the endless blood. They'd seen horrifying things on this journey, done horrifying things, but this ... this was something else.

Rose touched Sorey's arm. "Let's go. It's getting late, and I don't think we wanna camp anywhere near here."

He nodded, chin trembling.

They'd reach Lohgrin tomorrow, perhaps in the afternoon. Sorey believed they'd learned all they could from the Earthen Historia, so seeing Mayvin seemed the best course of action.

About two miles from Horsa Edna suddenly said, "Stop."

"What's up?" Sorey asked.

She didn't answer. She turned to face Horsa, and taking the handle of her parasol in both hands, pressed the tip of it against the dusty earth.

Zaveid raised an eyebrow. "Edna? Mind to tell us what you're doing?"

"Quiet," she snapped. "I'm concentrating."

Then came a rumbling, coming directly from Horsa. Lailah gasped; from this far away Dezel's senses weren't overly powerful, but that didn't matter so much when the ground itself was swallowing the broken village up. The process took mere minutes, but when everything was over, nothing marked the earth to betray that a human dwelling had ever been there.

No one spoke. When it was finished Edna slumped, breathing heavily, but when Lailah approached her she quickly stepped away. "I'm fine," she said, letting out a final huff. "Let's go." She started without them, ignoring their prying looks.

That Edna. Every time you thought you knew her, she'd do something to completely thwart your opinion. Dezel made a mental note, and not for the first time either, to never cross her.

They stopped for the night by a triangular formation of rocks that jutted toward the sky, each of them somber as they warmed themselves by Lailah's fire. Even Zaveid kept his mouth shut for once. Dezel sat a little away from the others, leaning against a rock.

Rose chewed on her lip as she stared into the flames, her knees drawn to her chest, and Dezel couldn't help but wonder what he was thinking. He'd been worried about her, ever since the episode at Pendrago's shrinechurch all those weeks ago. She put up a brave front, but Dezel could tell she wasn't as well as she pretended to be.

"Sorey," she suddenly said.

"Yeah?" He'd been morose ever since they'd left Horsa. Dezel knew his responsibilities as Shepherd weighed heavily on him, and with the events of the past few hours, it all weighed on him more heavily than ever before.

She turned to look him straight in the eye. "Did the Stheno remind you of Forton?"

He winced. "I ..."

"You can't afford to waver, not this late in the game. But if you can't stomach it, then next time you should let me know so I can take care of it." She flashed a dagger to show her meaning.

"Rose—"

"I meant what I said, back with Forton. Do you remember?"

Mikleo angrily opened his mouth, but Lailah stopped him with a hand on his own. "Leave it to them to sort it out," she said quietly. Neither Rose nor Sorey noticed the exchange; they stared each other down.

After a long moment Sorey looked away, and despite the tears brimming his eyes his voice didn't waver as he said, "So what you're saying is, I shouldn't hesitate."

"Do what you intend to do," she said simply. "And if you can't, leave it to me. That's all that I ask."

"Thank you," Sorey said. "I needed to hear that. I won't let you down again, Rose."

Dezel let out a breath he hadn't even known he was holding. He couldn't help but be a little in awe of her. Rose was intrepid—there was no skimping out on the truth for her, even if the truth was unpleasant. And she'd always been like that, for as long as he'd known her.

Sometimes—well, most times—she did put it more bluntly than necessary, but ... That's what I love about her.

...

No, no, not like—not like that. Absurd. He was fond of her, that was certain, but love? Romantic love was an entirely human concept. Seraphim rarely engaged in such trivialities, and the ones who did were regarded as silly. Besides, a seraph and a human, together? That just wasn't right.

He'd always cared for her well-being, of course. She'd been one of the Windriders, how could he not? He cared for her as any other.

... Now that, he knew, was a lie.

Desperate to focus on something else, Dezel tuned in to the conversation around the campfire. They'd apparently moved on from Sorey's hesitation, because Mikleo was saying to Zaveid, "I don't even know how you can stand going shirtless all the time. Aren't you cold?"

"Cold? Nah." He raised his arms, pressing his palms against the back of his head. "When you have guns like these, you're so hot that cold isn't even a concept."

Mikleo grimaced. "Forget I said anything."

"C'mon, Mikckey-boy, you should try it some time! Showing off your stuff attracts all the ladies."

"I think I'll pass, thanks."

"Oh, thank Maotelus," Edna said, letting her head fall back against the rock. "If you went shirtless I'd have to start calling you Nippleo."

"Nippleo?" Rose laughed, slapping her thighs. She laughed so hard she snorted, which only spurred her to laugh even harder.

Dezel straightened out his jacket, trying to keep his mind from the tingly feeling that was spreading throughout his chest. And even worse was that he realized how frankly familiar the feeling was.

He didn't know how long this had been in the making. Maybe when she'd gained the ability to see him? Or maybe even before that ... when he was using her. The thought sickened him.

It didn't matter. He didn't know how he'd felt then, but he sure knew what he was feeling right now.

She'd always been a shining beacon. He'd chalked up his feelings of vulnerability concerning her as guilt, but now he knew they weren't, not entirely. Rose made him feel more vulnerable than he'd ever felt in his life, but he found that he didn't even mind. A part of him wanted to run, but at the same time, he just wanted to stay close to her. He couldn't bear the thought of being separated from her.

But she hated him.

And he wholly deserved it.

Maybe that was a good thing—there wasn't a chance in hell of her reciprocating. His hopes were dashed before he could fully realize them.

Hope was dangerous. Hope was false happiness. Hope would prevent him from accepting the facts.

"Yo, D!"

Dezel suddenly snapped back to reality, only to discover that everyone was staring at him. Rose. His cheeks burned.

"Why the red face?" Zaveid asked with an obnoxious grin. "You looked pretty deep in thought. Thinking of a pretty lady?"

"It's none of your business as to what my thoughts are," he said tartly, painfully aware of how much hotter his face was getting. Oh gods, it's obvious, isn't it?

"Aww c'mon, don't be like that. We're wind brothers, right? You can tell your wind brother anything."

"Anything?"

"Anything."

"Then kindly fuck off." His stomach fluttered at the sudden smile that crossed Rose's face.

"Oof, Dezel, that hurts," Zaveid murmured, pressing a fist against his chest. "Right here. That hurts."

Lailah changed the topic of conversation from there, prompting Dezel to let out a small, shaky sigh. That had been far too close for comfort.

Maybe his understanding of his own feelings had changed, but that didn't mean much. He could take solace in that: nothing, truly, had changed.

That's what he'd keep telling himself, at least.

Chapter Text

Over the course of her life Rose had seen many die—naturally, it came with the job of an assassin—but Mayvin's death shook her to the core.

He'd died with his head on her lap, his brow beaded with perspiration and blood, surrounded by those who admired him. The Sparrowfeathers happened to be in town, so they held a short funeral for him. Rose gave her own speech at the grave, though now, she couldn't remember a thing she'd said.

She didn't tell any of the Sparrowfeathers how he'd died, and they asked no particulars, probably because it seemed obvious from his ripped, blood-soaked clothing. And even though she knew it wasn't her fault, Rose struggled with guilt; Mayvin had been a kind of mentor figure to her, one who always lent an ear in times of trouble, who guided her to answers in a way that let her figure it out herself. But he'd always kept a respectable distance, and now she knew why.

In some strange way, she thought she'd always known he was immortal. He was always just kinda there, y'know? Never changing. If stated outright she'd have scoffed at the idea of course, but now ...

After the impromptu service, there was nothing to do but head back to the inn. The city walls cast long shadows on the emptying streets, and beyond, the setting sun stained the sky pink. A chill wind riled up dust, and Rose was ever bladder they weren't going to camp out tonight.

While Sorey and the others went to the common room, Rose opted to join Eguille and Caliya in the stables. The inn was too small to have stableboys on hand at all times, but the Sparrowfeathers preferred to do all the caretaking of their packhorses anyway.

She slid the stable door shut behind her, pinching her nose. Urgh, horses stank. "You wanted to speak with me?"

"Right." Eguille brushed Theodore, their oldest and grumpiest horse. He was liable to give you a chomp if you dared to handle him in a way he didn't want to be handled, so Rose kept a safe distance from him at all times. "Lunarre has allied himself with the Rolance nobility."

Oh, fuck. "How did you find out?"

"A few weeks ago in Lastonbel, we nearly fell into a trap set by Fabian Cortello. He'd requested a meeting to potentially set up a job for us, but when we got there a squadron of knights, along with Lunarre, were waiting for us."

"Then what?" She dreaded the answer.

"Nothing, fortunately," Caliya said. She deftly picked rocks from Horace's hooves, shaking her chestnut hair from her eyes. The lantern light gave her dark olive skin a warm glow. "We escaped before they even saw us."

Rose rubbed the back of her neck, thinking furiously. "Damn. If someone as low on the food chain as Cortello knows about us, then …"

"We're fucked," Caliya finished. "It's probably safe to say that anyone with an ounce of influence in Rolance knows who we are. Maybe not this far out, yet, but it's only a matter of time."

Rose had been so caught up in the Shepherd's affairs, she'd never given much thought to the ramifications of Lunarre's defection. Just what kind of boss was she?

"We'll have to change things up," she finally said. "Feel things out. If worse comes to worst, we might not ever be able to trade in Rolance again."

"I suppose in this regard, it could be considered fortunate that relations between Rolance and Hyland are so tense," Eguille said with a wry smile. "Rolance won't rat us out—even if they hate us, it would seem too much like a gesture of goodwill."

Rose snorted. "Let's have a meeting tomorrow. Outside of Lohgrin, away from prying eyes and ears."

"Does this mean you'll be coming back, boss?" Caliya watched Rose, her gaze hopeful.

"We'll see," she said. The Sparrowfeathers needed her, but she still had to see things with Sorey through. The fate of the world and the fate of her family—how could she choose? She knew what her heart wanted, and yet ...

In the common room Rosh informed her that Sorey had retired for bed, so up the creaky stairs she went. She was greeted by quite the scene as she entered their room: Sorey sat at the edge of his bed, leaning forward with his hands clasped together, and the seraphim stood in front of him, at attention. As soon as he saw Rose, he said, "I've just decided what I'm going to do."

She managed, "Go on?"

"It's time to confront Heldalf, once and for all." He decisively pushed his palm into his fist. "To do what must be done."

"At this point, there's no reason to falter," Lailah said delicately, though the way she wrung her hands told another story.

"I see." She couldn't very well leave him now, could she? Not when he clearly needed her the most.

Sorey suddenly focused on her face, as if it was the first time he'd actually realized she was here. "What's wrong, Rose?"

"Nothing." She hesitated. "Well ... no. It's fine."

"It clearly isn't," Edna said. "Spit it out already."

Rose swallowed, pressing her lips together. No harm in them knowing, right? "There's been some complications with Lunarre's betrayal of the Scattered Bones. He ratted us out to the Rolance nobility."

"That's not good," Sorey said. Understatement of the century. "I guess you'll be wanting to help them out, then? They're your family, after all."

Rose paused, hyperaware of how the seraphim looked at her. Mikleo frowned slightly, Lailah's brow was creased, Zaveid's eyes narrowed, and though Dezel wasn't facing her, he was scowling. Then again, he was always scowling.

"No," she finally said. The seraphim visibly relaxed. "What you guys are doing is ultimately more important—even though the Sparrowfeathers are my family, how can that compare to saving the entire world?" The words were undeniably right, but it still didn't make them feel so.

"Are you sure?" Sorey asked, his gaze probing.

"Don't worry about me," she said brusquely. She'd made her decision, and she'd keep to it. "So what's the plan? Confronting Heldalf is all fine and good, but do we even know where he is?"

"Not yet," Mikleo said. "But if we go to a heavily populated area—say, Pendrago—we may get information on events that suggest his influence."

Pendrago again, huh? "I take it that means you're leaving again?" she asked Zaveid.

" 'Fraid so," he said with a grin. "You gonna miss me? They say absence makes the heart grow fonder."

She would, but she'd ever let him know it—she had to keep up appearances, after all. She wrinkled her nose, saying, "Uh, I'm gonna have to go with no on that one."

After a little more planning she and Sorey descended to the common room, and they spent the rest of the evening hanging with the Sparrowfeathers. Sorey got along well with them, but then, he got along with just about anyone. Rose couldn't help but think back to the beginning of their acquaintance, when she'd held him prisoner at Tintagel Ruins. The Scattered Bones had treated it as the serious matter it was, though you'd never know it from the way Sorey carried himself, all smiles and compliments for everyone. Typical Sorey. No one'd really been sure what to make of him, but now it was clear they all liked him.

She didn't see why the Sparrowfeathers and Shepherd couldn't travel together for now, so the next day, they were all to leave Lohgrin together. The seraphim seemed disappointed they'd have to ride in Sorey's head instead of the wagon, and though most of them got over it, Edna was, as ever, the most determined to be annoyed. More like the most determined to be a nuisance.

"What ever happened to giving up your set for your elder?" she demanded the next morning, as the Sparrowfeathers were packing up. Everyone was much too busy to notice Rose talking to her "imaginary friend".

Rose had to intentionally unclench her jaw before she could say, "You don't really need a seat, so—"

"How rude. Are you saying that I'm incapable of sitting? Are you telling me that my legs can't get tired?" Edna got up in her face, so she took a few steps back.

"Well, no, but—"

"I'll do it." Edna stood down, twirling her parasol on her shoulder. "But in return, I expect compensation."

Seriously? "Like what?"

"I want Dezel to make Drago Stew for supper."

Dezel, who Rose just realized was sitting atop the stable's roof, demanded, "What's this got to do with me?"

"Nothing, except I'm craving Drago Stew and you're the only good cook around."

"I'm not doing it."

"Then I'm not coming along," she said with a shrug.

Of all the things she could’ve gotten stubborn about ... Rose looked up at Dezel. "Come on, Dezel, just do it. Please?"

His mouth was a tight line, but for some reason, his face was slightly pink. Was the heat getting to him? It was his own fault for wearing such thick, dark clothing.

"Fine," he said tersely. "Just make sure we have all the ingredients we need." And with that, he disappeared. Edna, smirking, disappeared right after.

"Seraphim," Rose muttered, as if it were a curse.



Just after settling down on Zaphgott Moor the first evening, the Sparrowfeathers had their meeting. Ultimately, they decided it would be most prudent to head to Hyland for now, and perhaps in a few years send out scouts to check if the coast was clear.

But then there was the trouble of finding Lunarre, to make him pay for his crimes.

He wasn't an idiot. Cunning and pitiless—essential qualities for an assassin—but not stupid. Rose would bet everything she had that he was pent up in Pendrago, avidly waiting for them, living under the protection of his noble buddies. Of course, that wouldn't last long—Lunarre was too faithless, too fidgety, to keep the same friends for long. The Sparrowfeathers had time and time again forgiven his blunders, thinking it was only his tragic upbringing that made him behave that way, but now they knew better. Rose certainly wouldn't be making the same mistake again, trusting someone like him.

She and Sorey were heading to Pendrago now, so if in their search for Heldalf she caught in inkling of Lunarre's whereabouts, then maybe ... but she wouldn't risk the Sparrowfeathers for it. No, the Sparrowfeathers had to stay whole.

They all wanted to know what she'd been doing with the Shepherd these past few months. She told them the superficial stuff, like the various ruins they'd visited, their clashes with Forton, and the former Pope's new illicit business, but nothing deeper than that. She'd tell them the truth one day, maybe, but right now she didn't want to deal with their inevitable incredulity. She wanted everyone to enjoy themselves for the limited time they had together.

Traveling with Sorey had been surprisingly fun, but nothing could compare to being with the Sparrowfeathers, her big family of misfits. They came from so many different backgrounds, from Caliya growing up alone on the streets of Pendrago to Rosh's aristocratic Hyland upbringing, had such different temperaments, from Flav's infectious exuberance to Kira's quiet insightfulness, and of vastly different ages too, from Stephen the baby at 16 years old to Thomas with his iron crown of curly locks, but somehow they made it work. Common perception told that assassins were coldhearted, and perhaps the Scattered Bones were so to those who abused power, but they certainly weren't to each other. Coming back to them was just like coming home.

No, it was coming home.

The evening before they were to reach the Great Camelot Bridge, she caught Dezel in the act. She'd just returned from meeting the pair of scouts who'd scoped out the Grand Camelot Bridge (who'd told her the atmosphere seemed normal and there weren't more knights present than usual) when she happened upon Stephen, Talfryn, and Felice talking amongst themselves near one of the wagons. She was about to join in when she noticed Dezel leaning against the wagon mere feet away, facing them as if he were part of the conversation. No other seraphim were around.

He only noticed her approach when it was too late. She raised her eyebrows at him, and he opened his mouth to speak but promptly closed it again. She was tempted to sternly waggle her finger at him, but he dissipated into thin air before she got the chance.

Now that she thought about it, he'd seemed different this past week of traveling. More relaxed, less pouty. Rose supposed she could attribute that to the presence of the Sparrowfeathers, which surprised her—she wouldn't have thought that someone as solitary as him would find comfort in the presence of others, especially ones as boisterous as they could be.

Perhaps in a way, he regarded the Sparrowfeathers as much as family as she did. He must've missed the Windriders ... even though he'd been the one to fuck everything up. Then again, if anything, that very fact probably made it even worse. Only three of the Sparrowfeathers had been Windriders; the rest were dead and gone. The wounds were old, but she still grieved over the loss.

No, she couldn't see Dezel as being the sole perpetrator of that tragedy. He'd only been the instigator—the distrust and the corruption and yes, the malevolence, had already been there, only waiting for the spark to set everything aflame. It would've happened sooner or later. If later, maybe they could've saved more people, but ... dwelling on it wasn't going to help now.

Finally they reached the Great Camelot Bridge, but the atmosphere was not as expected. Usually the place bustled with jovial energy, but now, there was a certain hush. Business went on but it seemed tense, as if anticipation had squelched all mirth.

"I thought you said everything was regular," Rose muttered to Talfryn, who'd been one of the scouts.

"It was," Talfryn said. "Something must've happened."

It didn't take them long to find out what. "Did you hear?" a merchant cheerfully called to them as they passed his stall. "War is on the horizon!"

Rose and Sorey glanced at each other uneasily as Eguille asked, "How do you know?"

"A rider came this morning, bearing the official seal. Rolance and Hyland are at it again, and this time, it's gonna be a bloodbath." He eyed their wagons. "What'cha got? If it's food or medicine, you're guaranteed to make a killing."

"Thanks for the advice," Rose said blandly, pushing past him, and the others followed. The seraphim were out, crowding around Sorey.

"What should we do?" Mikleo's eyes were wide with worry.

"We should try to stop it before it starts, obviously," Rose replied. "We should try to find Sergei or Alisha, since they'd have the best idea of how to stop it." And may just be the only ones in power who actually want to stop it, she privately added.

"On the bright side, we have a pretty good idea of what Heldalf's doing right about now," Edna said, though the sour look on her face belied flippancy of her tone. "Even humans aren't stupidly bloodthirsty enough to start this war business again, so soon after last time."

"Oh, I dunno about that ..." Rose said. "Where to, then? Glaivend Basin? That's where the fighting was last time."

"Boss?" Talfryn asked. "What should we do?"

Rose immediately knew the decision she was going to make, but she didn't like it. She pushed back her shoulders, standing straight, and kept her voice hushed so no passersby could hear. "Go to Pendrago, and see what you guys can do to stop the war from that end. And if you happen to cross paths with Lunarre ..." She looked each of them in the eyes, one by one. They knew what they were to do.

"So you're not coming along," Felice said, her hands nervously clasped in front of her.

It wasn't a question, but Rose answered anyway. "No, I'm not."

Felice wasn't the only uncomfortable one—most of the others shuffled their feet, looked the other way, slumped the shoulders. Celine's direct gaze pierced Rose, and her slight turn of head toward them seemed to say, Tell them. They deserve to know.

True. It was such an important mission, and an extremely dangerous one too. Rose cleared her throat and said, "Sorey needs my help—specifically me. It would take too long to explain exactly how, but I promise you, I wouldn't be leaving you guys at a time like this if it wasn't important."

"Of course it is," Flav said, white teeth flashing with a sudden grin, his pale eyes mischievous. "You wouldn't miss the chance to kick noble ass for the world, boss."

"Hey, this isn't supposed to be a field trip! Don't be too reckless, all right?" Rose laughed in spite of herself. Telling him not to be reckless at all would be telling him not to be himself. "Let's all stick together until we reach Pendrago. Then we'll split." Suddenly remembering Sorey she turned to him, quickly adding, "Uh, if that's all right with you?"

"It's fine. That's the quickest way of getting to Glaivend Basin, anyway." He moved a little closer to her, and said quietly enough that none but them could hear, "Are you absolutely sure about this, Rose?"

"Positive." She'd made her decision. There was no going back now, no matter how uneasy she felt about it. That was that.

She wouldn't worry about the Sparrowfeathers—they'd be perfectly fine. They were assassins, the masters of their trade, and stealth was their forte. No way they'd let a traitor and a bunch of huffy nobles get to them.

Chapter Text

A breeze stirred on Glaivend Basin, whispering a warning of the coming war. It ruffled Dezel's hair as he sat in the mouth of the spacious alcove they were camping in for the night, embedded high in a steep cliff, practically unreachable save for his Windrush ability. Nights on Glaivend Basin were always chill since there wasn't much moisture to temper the air, but Lailah's fire made the alcove toasty. Still, Dezel preferred to have the wind on his face, even if it felt foreboding.

In his mind's eye Dezel surveyed the land, lazily letting the breeze guide him, not that there was much to see. The night was perfectly still, too still if anything. A while ago Mikleo had left, announcing his intention to scout for hellions and the like, even though he knew perfectly well that Dezel would sense any living thing that came near them, especially if it was tainted with malevolence. He figured Mikleo just wanted to be alone—he'd seemed even more pensive than usual this evening.

No one worried about him being alone, not even Lailah. He'd grown a lot on this journey.

Lailah and Edna spoke quietly as Sorey and Rose slept by the fire, both dead to the world. Rose lay her side, her legs slightly curled, her breathing slow and even. He felt like a creep for watching her sleep, but he just wanted her healthy and safe.

He curled his right hand, the one Rose had touched when he'd Windrushed her and everyone else up here. Even now, he could feel the phantom sensation of her soft fingertips on his palm. Stupid. He'd blushed, but no one had noticed, thank Maotelus. If anyone even suspected ...

"What do you think, Dezel?"

"Huh?"

Lailah repeated herself. "What do you think?"

"About what?"

"Do you think it's better to wear a skirt with tights, or without?"

He frowned. "Neither. Pants are just fine for me."

"Not on you, I mean in general," she said, giggling. "Personally, I think the absence of tights makes for an elegant look."

"You sure about that?" Edna gave her a sidelong glance, eyebrows raised. "I wouldn't want everyone seeing my splotchy legs if I were you."

"My legs aren't splotchy!" she squawked.

Dezel resisted the urge to bash his head against the stone wall. "This is the dumbest conversation I've ever heard."

"Let's ask Rose what she thinks," Edna said. "She can decide this once and for all—"

"No," Dezel said, quietly but emphatically. "Don't wake her. She needs rest." Her sleep schedule had just gotten back to normal, and she didn't need anyone going and wrecking that.

Lailah and Edna glanced at each other; Lailah beamed, and Edna dramatically rolled her eyes. Then they looked back at him, their faces suddenly wiped of expression.

He tensed, holding himself rigidly—like a rabbit who suddenly found itself amid a pack of wolves. One wrong move, and ... "What's so funny?"

Enda snorted. "You, you idiot."

"Your love for Rose is very moving," Lailah said, smiling softly, her hands gently clasped upon her lap.

He turned his face away from them. "I'm just concerned about her physical well-being. She's a human, after all. You know how fragile they are."

"C'mon, Dezel," Edna said. " 'Fess up to Cousin Edna and Auntie Lailah." ("Why can't I be a cousin too?!") "Just say the words, they'll make you feel better: 'My name is Dezel, and I'm in love with Rose.' "

"Keep your voice down," he growled, his face blazing with the heat of a thousand suns. It took everything he had not to dissipate on the spot—it would only make him look worse. "I'm not confessing anything, especially not to you. Not that there's anything to confess."

"Of course there is," Lailah said patiently. "You've been very obvious about it. Ever since we left Lohgrin, perhaps even before that, your behaviour toward her has been very peculiar indeed. You've been more abrupt than ever, yet at the same time, strangely accommodating."

He said nothing.

"Exhibit A," Edna said. "Two weeks ago, the day we left Lohgrin, I made the humble request that you make drago stew for supper."

"Oh yeah, you were humble all right—"

Edna continued as if he'd never spoken. "You refused me. But when Rose made the same request, you acquiesced, and your face went totally beet red. Much like it is now, actually."

"That doesn't mean—"

"Exhibit B: Two weeks ago, after Rose lamented she couldn't find any of her favourite type of mint in the Meadow of Triumph, you just so happened to find some on a walk."

"Or the time a few days ago," Lailah put in excitedly, "after Rose complained of dust getting in her eyes because of the strong winds, within the hour they mysteriously died down. For the rest of the day you'd seemed exhausted, even though we hadn't run into any hellions all day."

Edna said, even louder, "Or even when—"

"Be quiet, or you'll wake her up!" His entire face tingled, now, and he dully wondered if someone could get hurt from blushing too much.

"Stop yelling, or you're going to be the one to wake her up," Edna said levelly. "Although I doubt even that would get her up. She sleeps like a log."

That was probably true, both for her and Sorey. But still, if either of them heard anything, even just a few words, then—

"Here's how it's gonna be," Edna said, steepling her fingers, head slightly bowed. "I could tell Rose that you're in love with her—"

"Don't you dare," he growled.

"—but if you make me weekly payments of 500 gald, with a 10.5 percent interest rate from—"

"Edna," Lailah chided, "this is a serious matter."

"I am entirely serious, I assure you. I fully intend on getting windboy to buy my silence."

This was ridiculous. Dezel would have laughed if he weren't so miserable. "Is ... is it really that obvious?" he found himself asking.

"It's positively palpable," Edna said solemnly. "Even Sorey knows."

"He—what?!"

She smiled. "Well, maybe not, but he will once I tell him."

Dezel stood so quickly his head spun. "Don't tell him. Don't tell anyone!"

Rose's breathing hitched, and for a moment, everyone stopped to stare at her. She rolled over to her other side and her breathing stabilized—still asleep.

Sorey was still completely out.

"Dezel," Lailah said gently, "you will be glad to hear that while such relations between seraphim and humans are rare, they are not unheard of. If Rose wills it, you can—"

Dezel laughed scornfully. Not scorn for Lailah; scorn for himself. "There's no chance of anything between us. She hates my guts. I hurt her more than anyone's ever hurt her before, if you recall."

"But love conquers all!"

His mouth twisted. "That sounds like something Sorey would say."

"That doesn't make it any less true!"

Edna watched their exchange impassively, but when her eyes turned to him, he detected something almost like pity. Her honest, direct gaze told him: You're fucked beyond all hope, and it's your own damn fault. He couldn't disagree.

He sighed, tugging his hat lower. "Just leave me alone. I don't need your help or your concern."

Lailah leaned forward intently. "Just listen to me! You did hurt her, yes, but Rose clearly cares about you—"

He dissipated.

"Dezelll!" she whined, loud enough to wake the dead. "I was only trying to help!"

Just before he left earshot, he heard Rose groggily say, "Lailah, could you keep it down? Some of us are trying to sleep."

For a few minutes Dezel let the wind carry him, and just after their alcove left the bounds of his senses, he returned to his physical form. He just needed some fresh air, that was all. He'd return before dawn.

To his left lay a gently sloping hill, and he distracted himself by examining the burrow of a Merchioran hare; a mother and her kits huddled together, eight little heartbeats and a bigger one. The mother flinched as the wind passed over her, however, and he quickly retreated, not wanting to frighten her any more than he already had.

Lailah didn't understand. Rose, caring about him? She could hardly stand the sight of him, and she only spoke to him if she absolutely had to. Sure, she didn't outright revile him, but that hardly constituted caring.

If Rose found out how he felt about her ... gods. He'd rather die than face that. But he didn't think Edna would tell—she'd just been teasing him, getting her usual sadistic jollies. At least, he hoped.

Chapter Text

After spending so long in the barren Glaivend Basin, the greenness of Volgran Forest was mesmerizing, though the musky air made it difficult to breathe at times. The old, familiar path they traversed towards Lanstonbel filled Rose with nostalgia for days long past.

Apparently Sorey was on the same wavelength, because he sighed wistfully before saying, "This place brings back memories."

"It sure does. You give nice piggyback rides, dearest husband." She grinned at him, waggling her eyebrows.

Although he laughed, his cheeks reddened. "That's it. Next time we see Sergei, I'm telling him the truth."

"You better," she said. "No chickening out this time, either. If all goes as it should, we'll be seeing him before the end of the week, so tell him then."

"But when has anything gone the way it should?" Edna asled. She'd departed the cool, mucky forest, instead opting for the warmth of Sorey's head, and even now Rose still flinched at the incorporeal voice.

"Don't jinx it," Rose groaned.

The timing couldn't have been better—or worse. "Wait," Dezel suddenly said, stopping in his tracks. "Someone's coming."

"Is it a straggler?" Sometimes men would abandon the army and wander the forest. Rose scanned the immediate area, but nothing popped out at her as suspicious.

"Could be." He frowned, head slightly bowed. "He's headed straight for us, but judging by the path he's taking, I doubt he even knows it. Looks like his arm's broken. He's ..." His frown deepened, then his head shot up. "It's Talfryn."

"Are you sure?" What the hell would Talfryn be doing here? And for that matter, where was everyone else? She had a bad feeling about this.

"Positive."

As she was wont to do when she worried, Lailah had her hands clenched together. "But isn't he supposed to be in Pendrago, with the rest of the Sparrowfeathers?"

"Yeah," Rose said faintly, mind working furiously. Could they have finished their mission? She turned to Dezel, struck by his knotted fists and rigid posture. But of course—he'd be concerned for Talfryn and the Sparrowfeathers too, wouldn't he. "Lead the way, Dezel."

It didn't take long to find Talfryn. Frankly, he looked like shit; his shirt was ripped and his left arm was in a sling, but at least there wasn't any blood. His eyes widened as he took Rose and Sorey in. "Boss?"

Rose was by his side in an instant. "Are you okay? Where's everyone else?" He looked even worse from close up, dirt smudging his cheeks, bags beneath his eyes. "Did you find Lunarre?"

He winced. "More like Lunarre found us."

She stared. "What do you mean?"

"He and the knights caught us in Pendrago, hours after we arrived. Half of us escaped, but the others—if Eguille hadn't shielded me, I would've—" He let out a shuddering breath. "They're going to be strung up on the wall and executed in three weeks. We have to hurry." He cut off. "Sorry. I guess that's your call, Boss."

"Of course we're gonna save them," she said levelly, her tone betraying nothing of the panic welling up within her. Gods, this was just five years ago, just like the disaster that led to her being elected Boss in the first place. She tried to stuff her anxiety down, but didn't quite succeed; it wedged itself firmly in her chest, like a chunk of lead. She turned to Lailah. "Can we heal him?"

"May we?" Lailah, in turn, asked Sorey. He nodded.

Rose hesitated only a moment before murmuring, "Fethmus Mioma." Lailah's soothing presence flooded her senses as she placed her hands upon Talfryn's slung arm.

"Boss?"

"Shhh. Be still." She gently channeled a healing arte through her fingers, seamlessly knitting flesh and bone back together. As soon as it was done, she expelled Lailah from her body. "There. Now you won't have a broken arm holding you back.

"What d'you—" Talfryn stared down at his arm, his forehead creased, then moved it experimentally. "How ... Boss, how did you do that?"

"Let's just say it's a perk of travelling with the Shepherd," she said, and before Talfryn could say any more quickly added, "Who's with you? Is anyone hurt?"

He bit back whatever reply he'd meant to make. "It's—it's just me, Kira, Flav, Celine, and Thomas. Flav got a pretty nasty gash on his thigh, but other than that, we're all right." He'd untied the sling and now turned his arm this way and that, completely fascinated with his newfound wholeness. "For the past few days we've been trying to come up with a plan of action, to no avail. We need you, Boss."

The sincerity and desperation in his voice made Rose swallow. "I'm coming with you," she said. "It's just ..." She glanced at Sorey.

"You should go, Rose," he said. "We'll miss you, but we'll manage."

"Are you sure?" Even in a situation like this, she hated to just up and abandon them.

"They're your family," Lailah said. "We wouldn't dream of keeping you away from them."

She nodded. "I guess this is goodbye, then—for now, at least." But she hesitated; something didn't feel quite right, like she had unfinished business.

Her eyes fell on Dezel. As ever his arms were crossed and his expression stony, but there was something about his set jaw that made her speak without forethought. "You wanna come along, Dezel? I mean, if it's okay with Sorey."

"If Dezel wants to, I'm fine with him accompanying you," Sorey quickly put in. "I'd feel better if you had a seraph with you, anyway."

"A seraph?" Talfryn blurted out.

Rose raised a hand to shush him as she stared Dezel down. His shock at being so addressed was heavily apparent, from his arms now hanging limply at his sides and his mouth hanging slightly open. Well, she couldn't fault him for that, though in any other situation she'd have laughed at his incredulity.

"Why?" he finally asked.

"We could use some extra help," she said, making it up as she went along, "especially from a seraph. Plus, the Sparrowfeathers are kinda your family too, in a sense. Keeping you away from them at a time like this would be ... well, it wouldn't be right."

For some reason Lailah beamed at him, and for some other reason, he scowled. After he said nothing for a few moments, Edna prompted him with a hard jab from her parasol.

"Hey, quit it!"

"You're making everyone wait. Hurry up and decide."

He sighed. "All right, I'll go. If you're really okay with it."

"I am," she said, finding it was true. "Oh, Sorey, one more thing."

"Yeah?"

"If you see Alisha, tell her about Maltran."

He swallowed thickly. "All right."

"I mean it," she said. "If you don't do it, I will. And I'm terrible at breaking that kind of news to people."

"Don't we know it," Edna said, rolling her eyes.

Ignoring her, Rose said, "Then that's it. Come to Pendrago when you're finished up here—I'm sure it'll be easier for us to find you than for you to find us." Or at least, I hope so, she privately added.

Sorey nodded. "Sounds good. Goodbye, Rose. Dezel. We'll see you soon." And with that, they left.

"Lead the way," Rose told Talfryn, whose mouth hung open. Jeez, these two would have to get their acts together with all this mouth-hanging-open business, else they were liable to swallow a bee. Now that wasn't pleasant, she knew from experience.

Talfryn abruptly closed it with a shake of his head. "We're just at Tintagel Ruins. We thought maybe you'd come through here after checking out Glaivend Basin, so ..."

"Makes sense." She walked alongside him, with Dezel on her other side. She studied the wind seraph momentarily before turning back to Talfryn. "Anyway, um ... I know you can't see him or hear him, but this is Dezel." Talfryn's eyes followed her gestures, but they didn't light up in recognition. "And Dezel, this is Talfryn—but you already know him, I guess." Dezel nodded.

"Hi, Dezel," Talfryn said slowly, looking a little embarrassed. Rose supposed she couldn't blame him for any skepticism—the actual existence of seraphim was a difficult thing to take, even when you could see them.

"Hey," Dezel said, not looking any less embarrassed than Talfryn.

"Dezel says hey."

"You don't need to tell him that!" Dezel said at the same time Talfryn said, "I never thought I'd talk a seraph."

"That's pretty much been my life for the past few months," Rose said. "Among other things."

"Have you always been able to see seraphim?" he asked. "I don't recall you ever mentioning them before this."

"I don't think so," she said. "I guess just being around Sorey and his seraphim posse jolted my perception. Or something."

"... Posse?" Dezel murmured wonderingly under his breath. Then spoke louder: "You saw seraphim when you were younger, Rose."

"I did?"

"A few days after the Windriders found you, you saw me." His face coloured a little as he added, "You tried to pull my hair."

She had to smile at that. "Sounds like something little me would do." At Talfryn's confused look, she explained what Dezel had told her, and his eyes widened.

"You mean, Dezel's been around us that long?"

She looked to Dezel, and he nodded. "I'd joined the Windriders shortly after Brad took over. Someone ... introduced me."

"Wow," Talfryn said after she conveyed this. "It's a little freaky, no offense to Dezel. It's strange to think there's these invisible beings that could be around us at any time, even for years, and we wouldn't even know it."

That's what Rose had thought, too, when she'd been just getting started with Sorey and the others. But now ... now, she thought it must be lonely, spending your whole life around people who couldn't even see you, much less talk to you.

She wondered how the rest of the Sparrowfeathers would take Dezel's presence, or the news that he'd apparently been travelling with them for decades. She didn't know their opinions on seraphim, though she expected they'd skeptical of seraphim's existence; none of them were religious, seeing as how difficult it was to view the establishment in a positive light when you'd murdered countless corrupt priests.

When she'd first announced she was joining Sorey all those months ago, they hadn't said anything, but just from the looks on their faces she could tell they'd thought she lost her mind. They probably wouldn't be particularly receptive to the idea that seraphim actually existed. She could only hope that Talfryn's healed arm would be proof enough.

But all that was frivolous when compared with what lay before them. Rescuing their comrades from Rolance wouldn't be easy—she knew that much from experience. But she had no intention of letting things go the way they'd gone five years ago. This time, they'd use their heads. This time, they'd be careful.

She'd kept away from the Sparrowfeathers for too long, and it was hard not to blame herself for what had happened. If she'd been with them, she just knew it could've been prevented. If she hadn't ordered them to Pendrago in the first place, if she'd trusted her gut instinct to not let them go, then maybe—

"Don't blame yourself," Dezel said.

"Who says I'm blaming myself?"

"No one. You just have this look on your face," he said simply. "Lunarre's the one who decided to betray you all. He's the one at fault, not you."

"Oh," she said, chewing on her lip as she mulled on it. She appreciated the thought. He was right—Lunarre was responsible for his own actions, not her—but she still had to take responsibility, as leader of the Sparrowfeathers. She'd known the risks of ordering them to Pendrago, and now the worst had happened.

But beating herself up for it wouldn't save anyone.

Belatedly, she said, "Thanks."

Dezel turned his face away. "No problem."

She had to say, seraphim were embarrassed by the strangest things. Must've been the whole being isolated from society thing.

Talfryn glanced at her, clearly intrigued, but she chose not to sate his curiosity. He and the rest of them didn't need to know everything Dezel said.

From then on, they walked in silence, and Rose thought of Dezel's words. You just have this look on your face ...

She'd figured that Dezel had been with the Windriders a while, maybe a couple years before they disbanded, but it surprised her that he'd been with them for decades. He clearly knew her well, but to learn that he'd known her since she was little more than a toddler? How many of her worst moments had he seen, moments when she'd thought no one else was around?

He knew her. More than she knew him. But for him to have first known her as a frightened child on a bloodied battlefield, and then have used her for his schemes ...

He wasn't an evil person. Rose knew what evil people were like—after all, part of how she earned her living was discerning who was evil and who wasn't. Dezel clearly knew that what he did was wrong, he felt remorse for it, and what more, he seemed determined to never do it again.

But he'd still done it. Over, and over, and over again.

How could he do something so horrible to someone he'd known since she was a kid? That was what she couldn't wrap her head around. All that, just for revenge? She supposed she could appreciate that it had been revenge for the Windriders, however misguided, but ... it just didn't make sense.

Chapter Text

Dezel had no idea what just happened, but he found himself between Rose and Talfryn, sitting cross-legged on a cold stone floor in a circle comprised of the remaining Scattered Bones. This room had been their meeting chamber, back when they'd used the Tintagel Ruins as their main base—atop the ruins, its door was well hidden and narrow windows offered views of the ruins from all sides.

"Are we planning on having a visitor?" Kira asked, eyeing the space in which Dezel sat. As was her custom, her dark brown hair was pulled back into a long, thick braid.

Despite knowing no one but Rose could see him, Dezel felt self-conscious. He'd have been perfectly fine standing by the wall, outside their circle, but Rose had insisted he stay, and he hadn't had the heart to deny her.

Rose spoke firmly, not just addressing Kira but looking at each of them in turn. "We do have another member, but he isn't a visitor. His name is Dezel, and he's been with the Windriders and Scatted Bones longer than any of us—well, except for maybe Celine and Thomas." That was true. The ebon-skinned siblings had been even younger than Rose when Lafarga introduced Dezel to the Windriders, but now, prominent wrinkles scrunched at the outer corners of their eyes. "We just haven't been able to see him, for the most part, because he's a seraph. A wind seraph, in fact."

Dezel flinched, in spite of himself. No going back now—he was exposed.

No one spoke for a few moments. Kira, Thomas, Celine, and Talfryn all kept their faces expressionless, but Flavius raised his eyebrows, glancing back and forth between Rose and Dezel, or rather, the space he occupied. Dezel couldn't blame him for his skepticism, but that didn't stop it from chafing.

"I suppose it was this Dezel who healed Talfryn's arm, then?" Kira asked lightly.

"That was Lailah, actually," Rose said. "Well, it wasn't just her—we did it together, her and me."

Talfryn nodded. "You guys should've seen it. Boss said some sort of incantation, lay her hand on my arm, and boom! Healed." He waved his arm around for effect.

More silence.

Flavius started to laugh. "C'mon, Boss. You could at least try to make it believable."

"I'm absolutely serious, Flav," Rose said. She leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. "What do you think I've been doing the past few months? How do you think the Shepherd has such amazing powers? They're not entirely his own—they come from seraphim." She placed her chin in her palm in mocked fascination. "And just how would you explain Talfryn's healed arm, then?"

He pursed his lips. "Maybe it wasn't as broken as we thought it was."

"The bone was poking through the skin!" Talfryn said.

"Maybe you just healed quickly, then." Flavius shrugged. "Either way, I see no reason to believe a seraph did it. There's no concrete proof."

Oh, he wanted concrete proof, did he? With the slightest thread of power, Dezel ruffled the hair at the back of Flavius's head.

He whirled around and, seeing nothing, glanced to those on either side of him—Kira and Celine. "Whoever did that, quit it."

Kira arched an eyebrow. "Did what?"

"Blew on my hair. I know it was one of you!"

While Flavius faced Kira, Dezel ruffled his hair again, this time harder. Flavius whipped around to face Celine. "That's not funny!"

Rose glanced at Dezel, a small smile spreading across her face. He affected not to notice her.

Celine regarded Flavous coolly. "Brad always said that he'd felt a presence with us," she said slowly. "A feeling that came with the wind. I'd always chalked it up to his idealism, but perhaps ..." She looked to Rose.

Dezel's eyes suddenly burned, and he turned his face away. Lafarga—Lafarga must have been the one Brad talked about. Lafarga had always been by Brad's side; always been the first one to help. Faithful until the very end, when he'd given up his life for the apple of Brad's eye.

At such words from the most level-headed member of their group, Flavius deflated. "But ... how?"

Rose laughed softly. "I've been asking myself that same question for the past few months. How could an entire class of people live among us, and we don't even notice? Why don't they even try to make themselves noticed?" She leaned back against the wall, folding her hands across her lap. "But that's the wrong way to look at it. Why would they reveal themselves to us—who's to say we'd accept them? Knowing how awful we are at even accepting some of our fellow humans, I doubt we'd do much better with them." She paused. "That's one of the Shepherd's goals—to create a society in which humans and seraphim can coexist peacefully." She paused again, then suddenly seemed to come to herself, sitting up straight again. "Anyway! That's all beside the point. The point is, Dezel is here to help, and since none of you can see or hear him, I'll act as a sort of translator. Sound good?"

"Yes, Boss," they said. They still seemed shocked, but all things considered, they'd reacted much better than Dezel had hoped.

Rose gave a curt nod. "Now that that's settled, it's time to get up to speed with you guys. Talfryn's filled me in on the essentials, but tell me everything that's happened since you guys went to Pendrago."

Thomas told most of it. For the first few days, everything had been apparently normal—they hadn't heard a peep of anyone pursuing them. Still, they lay low. But on the fourth day, early in the morning while most were asleep, Lunarre and a knight squad stormed the inn they were staying at, putting the entire inn into a panic. The Scattered Bones that escaped only did so narrowly, and they only managed to shake off the knights' pursuit at Lastonbel.

"The only thing we know for sure is that Lunarre is in league with certain members of Rolance's nobility," Thomas finished. "I recognized one of the knights present. I'd happened to see him the day before the attack, under the employ of Julian Alflatt."

Dezel wanted to sigh. He hated human politics, and now, Pendrago's political sphere would likely be highly relevant to what they were doing. Lying, scheming humans—nothing was sacred to them. They'd commit the most barbarous atrocities to get ahead, all while pretending to be the quintessence of propriety.

"Alflatt ..." Rose said musingly. "He was the one who requested a few months ago that we take care of Cedric Velarion, right? I bet that's how Lunarre got close to him, posing as an assassin willing to do his bidding."

Thomas nodded. "That's what we thought, too. But last we heard, Velarion is still alive and well, spearheading the coming war against Hyland."

"Typical Lunarre," Talfryn said. "Fools around instead of getting the job done."

Flavius's thoughts on the matter were a tad more colourful. "The bloody bastard," he said, pounding a fist into his palm. "By now he's probably told everyone our secrets. All our contacts, all our potential safe havens, gone."

Rose sighed. "It doesn't look good, does it. I've done a bit of thinking myself, but first, I wanna hear what you guys think we should do." Dezel admired that about her—she always listened to her subordinates before making important decisions, never afraid to admit when they might know better than her.

He could hardly believe he was so lucky, getting asked by her to accompany the Scattered Bones. Spending so much time with her likely wouldn't be better for him in the long run, certain to only make him fall ever deeper ... but if he could support her when she needed it, it didn't matter. He'd take whatever he could get, and damn himself for it.

"Whatever we do, we don't have much time," Talfryn said grimly. "Executions take place on the night of a new moon. Taking away the week it'll take to get to Pendrago, we'll have just over a week to rescue them."

Kira frowned. "I guess a rescue mission to the castle dungeon is out of the question?"

"I'm afraid so," Thomas said. "It's exactly what they'd expect us to do, and I'm sure everyone here is well aware of what happened when the Windriders made such an attempt."

Kira and Talfryn hadn't been with the Windriders, but the rest of them had. Five years ago, after Rolance's royal family had betrayed them, their attempt to rescue their imprisoned comrades had gone awry. The prison guards had somehow been notified of the attempt before they'd gotten there, so instead of formally executing the prisoners as planned, they slit their throats in their prison cells. Eguille was the only one who escaped alive.

That was one of the last things Dezel had seen with his own two eyes—the Windriders' battered bodies, throats slit, their dark blood staining the straw on the filthy prison floor. His chest tightened at the memory.

"I doubt we could impersonate guards and infiltrate the castle, either," Thomas continued. "Lunarre's given them our descriptions, I imagine."

Rose chewed her lip. "So if a rescue mission's out of the question, then what?"

"Maybe we could take hostages," Kira said.

"Who's valuable enough that they'd give up half the Scattered Bones, though?" Rose raked a hand through her bangs. "With war on the horizon, everyone in the royal family except the king'll be in hiding. If we had more time, maybe we could cook something up, but ..."

Kira sighed, her shoulders sagging. "You're right. We'll just have to figure out some other way to convince them it's in their best interest to give them up."

After a moment of silence, Rose added, "There's another issue we need to take care of, too. We need to draw Lunarre out somehow, separate him from the nobles' protection so we can give him his due punishment."

Celine pursed her lips. "Well, that may be easier to achieve. All we'd need to do is convince his protectors that he's a liability, so they'd abandon him."

"Yes," Rose said. "And to do that ..."

No one spoke. Just then Dezel thought he had an inkling of an idea, so if no one else thought of something ...

"Rose."

Her eyes pierced him. "Yeah?"

He was terribly conscious of everyone looking at him—rather, not at him but through him—and he cleared his throat uncomfortably. "If we want to make the nobles do something, let's hit the where it hurts the most—steal their money. And so they know it was us, we can leave little notes at the scene of the crime, giving our terms: give us Lunarre and our comrades, or we'll only trash your homes more."

"I like the way you think," she said, a smile tugging at a corner of her mouth. Dezel's face burned, but fortunately, she glanced away from him as she explained his plan to everyone else.

"Hmm." Talfryn scratched his chin. "It could work. Especially in times of war, when luxuries are scarce ... guess that wouldn't apply to nobles as much, though."

"You think they'd care anyway?" Flavius asked with a laugh. "I think it's an awesome plan."

"You would," Kira said, rolling her eyes. But she was smiling, too. "It's still a good plan, all the same."

"How about you two?" Rose asked Thomas and Celine.

Celine was lightly tapping her fingers against her knee, a sure sign she was deep in thought. "It could work," she said slowly. "Especially with the implied threat that if, in the worst case scenario, they execute Eguille and the others, it doesn't mean we'll stop looting their manors."

"And we wouldn't," Talfryn said, an oddly fierce look on his normally nonchalant face. "If they go through with the executions, we'll burn the entire Rolance nobility to the ground."

"Of course," Rose said. "And you, Thomas?"

"Sounds good to me—though we'll have to be extra careful. Things are already tense with the war, so the nobility may be more antsy than usual. Threats are all well and good, but they might be so impulsive as to not think it through before acting." He paused. "Of course, that'll apply no matter what we do. It's a fine plan, Dezel," he finished, smiling in Dezel's direction.

Dezel tugged his hat lower over his forehead. "Thanks."

"Aww, you embarrassed him, Thomas," Rose said, laughing.

"Seraphim can get embarrassed?" Kira looked curiously in Dezel's direction.

"Oh, all that and more," Rose said. "You wouldn't believe some of the things I've seen. But we're getting off subject—let's make a concrete plan. Anything could change once we reach Pendrago, but at least then we'll somewhat know what we're doing."

So they planned, all the way to the early hours of the morning. Occasionally Dezel spoke up, and Rose listened attentively to him, looking straight at him, before translating for everyone else. It made him nervous, but he hoped it didn't show. Damn his feelings!

Even though the situation was grave, the Scattered Bones still joked with each other, still laughed. By the time the humans headed to bed, Rose's face had lost some of the tension that had accumulated over her journey with Sorey.

Here, with her family, she was home.

When the humans finally began to head to bed, sunrise was mere hours away. As they left the room, Dezel faced one of the windows, relishing the cool wind on his face. He thought he'd patrol the perimeter of the premises tonight, to make sure all was well before they left, but mostly to calm his jittery nerves.

But Rose hung back, and after the others were gone, went to his side. Dezel carefully kept his face composed, scarcely breathing.

Finally, she said, "Thank you for your help." She didn't look at him.

There were so many things he wanted to say. But he settled with, "It's no problem."

With a curt nod, she headed for the doorway. With one final backward glance, she retreated for the bedchambers.

Chapter Text

"There it is," Rose murmured. Pendrago sat on the horizon, a dark silhouette in the fading evening light, imposing even at this distance. The late summer heat seeped through her dark clothing, sweat making it stick to her in uncomfortable places. 

As she watched the city, memories came unbidden to her mind. The last time she'd been in Pendrago at this time of year had been when Konan was courting her. The thought of him no longer conjured rage, only resignation. She didn't really think of him much, to be honest. The past in which she'd been betrothed to a prince seemed little more than a fever dream.

"Are you ready, Boss?" Talfryn asked quietly.

"I'm always ready." She sounded more confident than she actually was, but as Boss, it was important to be seen as a strong pillar.

Once night truly fell, they planned to climb the city wall. Even in the best of times Rose wouldn't have risked going through Pendrago's gates in broad daylight, but now with war looming, only those with passports were permitted entry to the city. Even if they had fake passports, Lunarre had probably given the knights their descriptions. It wasn't worth the risk.

And on the subject of appearances ... Rose self-consciously rifled a hand through her hair. Because the redness of her hair was so vibrant, so distinctive, earlier that day Thomas had helped her dye it black with umbroot. Her hair didn't feel any different, but she didn't even want to think about how peaky the black locks must've made her look. Umbroot didn't have the pleasantest scent—kind of like pine with a bitter twist—but with a few washes of cold water, the smell had gone away. Mostly.

Shortly after darkness totally enveloped the land, Dezel finally spoke. It surprised Rose that he could be so on the nose about the time despite his blindness. The power of the wind truly was a magnificent thing.

"Are you ready to go, Rose?"

Rose turned to the others. "Everyone ready?" They all answered in the affirmative. "Okay. We're ready."

"Then let's go." Dezel set off, Rose jogged directly behind him, and the rest followed. That was how they were going to scale the city wall: with Dezel in the lead, informing Rose of the positions of any knights atop the wall, Rose following directly behind him, and everyone else following Rose. Sure, they probably could’ve done it without Dezel’s help, but Rose's philosophy was that if there's an easier way, take it. Pride didn't matter when lives were at stake.

With the moon a mere sliver in the sky, Rose couldn't make out more than vague shapes in the darkness. She just hoped it would be enough to get them through.

With plenty of large rocks protruding from it, Pendrago's wall was pretty easy to scale. In spite of everything, Rose thoroughly enjoyed the work—she could hardly remember the last time she'd been out in the dark of night on a mission with the Scattered Bones by her side. The first half of wall-climbing went so smoothly, she nearly slipped when Dezel projected his voice into her ear. "A pair of guards passed overhead, heading west. They probably won't pose a problem, but I thought you should know."

Rose let out a breath. She needed to get a grip, in more ways than one.

"Stop!"

This time Dezel's voice made her flinch so hard, one of her hands did slip. She had to scramble to stay on the wall.

“Sorry for startling you,” Dezel said. "The guards are coming back—I guess they reached the boundary of their patrol. We should wait for them to pass."

Come on. Her current handholds were mere stubs, and her footholds weren't much better. She couldn't move up because Dezel was in the way, and in the darkness she couldn't be sure if she'd step on someone's hand in lowering herself, so her only only option was to press herself against the wall. Lucky it wasn't windy. She couldn't hold this position forever, but so long as the guards hurried their asses up, it wouldn't be a problem.

"Damn. There's another patrol, coming from the east. They should run into the other patrol directly above us."

She could've groaned.

The first pair were close enough that she could hear them talking, so loud that the Scattered Bones wouldn't have even needed Dezel's help to avoid them. Not that she should have expected better from Pendrago's knights, really. With war afoot, the best would've gone to the border while the rest stayed.

They were loud enough to be heard by the new patrollers, too, because from the other side came a woman's voice: "Gilvary, is that you?"

"Smith?"

"What do you think you're doing here? This is mine and Tollen's patrol.”

"Couldn't be." Both pairs were nearly on top of Rose and the others, now; she could just make out the light from their lamps. "I distinctly remember our summons saying section 7-C. This is 7-C, right?"

Rose wanted to beat her head against the wall. Does it matter? Hurry up! Her fingers were starting to ache.

"But ours said 7-C. You must misremember, or there's been a mix-up."

"A mix-up?" The woman laughed. "You really think someone as anal as Yardley would mix us up?"

"Stranger things have happened. Maybe you'd better return to the barracks and make sure."

"What, and get in trouble for missing patrol? Not bloody likely!"

Rose gritted her teeth in her effort to hold on to the wall. Her fingers were cramping up, and any effort on her part to shift herself to better ground was in vain.

"Okay, okay, I'll go check," a knight grumbled. "You'd better be sure you're right, Smith, or Yardley will have your asses." He retreated, but as his footsteps faded, neither of the remaining three budged. They still debated the issue. Rose mentally screamed for them to leave, but unfortunately, her telepathic powers had yet to develop.

Her toes smarted from being pressed to the front of her boots in her attempts to stay on her inadequate perch. Her hands started to shake. Come on, come on, just a bit longer, they're bound to leave eventually—

Her fingers gave out, and with a strangled yelp she teetered backwards. Her heart leapt to her throat as she failed to claw her way back with her numb fingers and her feet slipped out from under her, but all it took was one moment before, inconceivably, she stopped in mid-air. Firmly held up, by absolutely nothing. Dezel?

The knight trio had gone silent. Damn, they'd heard her!

Apparently not well enough, thank Maotelus, because one stammered, "A-anyway, shall we continue the patrol until Gilvary returns? Can't leave the wall unmanned."

"Right. Let’s go."

Their voices retreated until, finally, Rose could no longer hear them. She hung rigidly in mid-air, and although she'd like to think that Dezel wouldn't let her fall, she was anxious to have firm ground beneath her. She didn't even want to think about how high they were.

Dezel said, "They're gone. I'll let you up."

He brought her up the wall smoothly, and it wasn't even a minute before he gently brought her to her feet at the top. She massaged her fingers, trying to rub the feeling back into them.

"Sorry," Dezel said. He was little more than a broad black shape in the darkness. "I should have noticed you were in trouble sooner."

" 'S'okay," she murmured. "Thanks for catching me."

"I was distracted by Pendrago's domain. It's ... well, you'll see once we enter."

She pursed her lips. Something wrong with the domain? Did something happen to Morgrim?

By now, most of the Scattered Bones had made it up the wall. Kira touched Rose's arm. "You okay, Boss?"

"I'm fine. Dezel caught me."

She couldn't make out any of their faces in the darkness, but to her mind, her proclamation was followed by awed silence. In a petty way she wanted to tell them not to be so enamoured with him, but she stuffed such feelings down.

She turned to Dezel. "Shall we?"

"Yes," he said. "There's a warehouse about fifteen feet below us, five feet away from the wall. The roof should hold the impact when we jump down."

Rose would've rather had a “will” than a “should”, but since she'd trusted Dezel’s judgment so far, she figured she may as well trust him again. She took a running start then leapt off the wall.

Pendrago's domain enveloped her, and "distracting" didn't even begin to describe it. The first moment she thought it was malevolent, but as the moment passed, she realized it wasn't. It was like sensing malevolence somewhere in the distance, except you weren't sure if it was there at all. The closest thing she could think of was Symonne's drab domain, somewhere in the space between purity and malevolence, but that wasn't quite right either.

She landed with a loud clang, but the roof held. A moment later, Dezel landed beside her. "The fuck's up with the domain?" she whispered.

"No idea."

Gosh, what was the point of living for hundreds of years if you didn't even know everything? Well, whatever. Now that everyone had gathered on the roof, she said, "Let's get going to the warehouse. I can lead from here." Even in the dim moonlight, she knew exactly where they were, and it was only a few blocks from their destination.

The city was absolutely silent. Rose supposed that, in a way, they were fortunate that the war was about to go on—there were less knights in the city than usual, so less patrolled the streets. It was a wonder there weren't more patrolling in the warehouse district, though.

Once they reached the warehouse, she had Talfryn and Thomas remove boards from one of the back windows rather than the front door—someone could notice the missing boards and get suspicious. The place had been boarded up for at least a decade, after all. Rose had purchased it on a whim at the beginning of her career as Boss of the Sparrowfeathers, and although she'd had the foresight not to connect it with herself or the Sparrowfeathers in name, they'd never actually used it.

Lunarre had only joined the Sparrowfeathers two years ago, and since no one ever talked about it—Rose herself had completely forgotten about it until Celine reminded her—she was reasonably sure that Lunarre didn't know of it.

The first floor held nothing but a few empty crates, but the second floor had a small living quarters, sparsely furnished with a small kitchen, an old table, and a bed without a mattress. It would have to do. They maneuvered their way through the pitch darkness, finally settling down on the dusty floor for a short sleep before dawn. 

But it didn't take long for someone to break the comfortable silence.

"Augh!" Across the room, Flav flailed around wildly.

"What?" Rose rolled over to face him, even though she couldn't see him. It sounded like he was searching for something on his hands and knees.

"I think a spider just crawled across my face."

Rose bolted to her feet. "Where'd it go? How big was it?"

"It was decent-sized," he said, still scrabbling around. It took all Rose's self-control not to hightail it out of there.

"Would you guys keep it down," Talfryn murmured, his voice muffled with sleep.

"I'm not going to keep it down when I know there's a spider in the room," Rose retorted. She hugged herself, trying to make herself as small as possible so spiders were less likely to climb on her. "Oh—hey, Dezel! You there?"

"Yes."

"Do you know where the spider went?"

"... Yes."

Oh, for fuck's sake. "And? Where is it?"

"Don't worry about it. I'll keep it away from you and Flavius."

She shifted uneasily. "That's not answering the question I asked."

"What would be the point? Should I tell you where all the other ones are too, just so you can kill them in their own home?"

"There's more?" The last word nearly came out in a shriek.

He grunted. "Like I said, don't worry about it." 

Gods, she should've known he'd be a bleeding heart when it came to spiders. "If I see so much as one spider, you're gonna get it."

"Sure." He sounded amused.

“What did Dezel say?” Flav asked.

Rose wearily sat down. “He says he’ll keep the spiders away from us.”

“Really? Thanks, Dezel! You’re a life saver!” He promptly lay back down. Rose was frankly jealous of his faith in the seraphim. Eventually, however, she managed to fall asleep. 

The very next day, everyone got to work. Kira and Talfryn scouted some of the places they planned to raid, while the rest of them scoured the city for new information. Rose and Celine began by visiting a popular bathhouse to pick up on the latest gossip.

Celine was the master of getting people to spill their secrets. She tended to be very quiet and reserved, but that worked in her favour—she didn't feel compelled to fill in any gaps in the conversation, so the other person had to do it for her, often saying more than they meant to. Rose knew from experience.

"Go to the men's side and see what they're saying," Rose whispered to Dezel as they approached the bathhouse.

"I wasn't planning on going to the women's side," he sputtered.

She side-eyed him, unable to keep the smirk off her face. "Good."

The way the baths worked was simple: first, there was a murky, lukewarm pool for scrubbing off dirt. Next came a larger, warmer pool for soaping up and rinsing it off. Then, finally, came the largest pool—a hot, sweet-smelling bath, designated simply for soaking up and socializing. As Rose entered this final bath, she noticed Celine was already in, chatting with a pair of older women over to the side. Rose opted for the opposite side of the bath, paying no more attention to Celine than her initial glance.

Most of the talk around her was of the imminent war with Hyland, of whose husbands, brothers, fathers, sons were conscripted for the army. More fool for Rolance for not allowing women into the army, Rose thought, though she did feel bad for the woman who cried for her son who’d been conscripted. For everyone’s sake, she hoped Sorey would succeed in stopping the war.

She settled into the water, a dreamy sigh escaping her lips. Sure, she was on the job, but that didn't mean she couldn't enjoy the soothing water. She couldn't remember the last time she'd had a hot bath. But she didn't sink any deeper than mid-chest, intent on keeping any moisture away from her hair. She'd bundled it in a dark towel, but she couldn't take any chances. If the wrong person saw the dye wearing off, it could spell disaster.

Her eyes met with the woman sitting closest to her, perhaps only a little older than her, with her dark hair held up in a messy bun. Rose smiled in a friendly sort of way, and the woman smiled back. Good.

"You're a new face," the woman said. "Don't think I've seen you 'round here before."

"I am," Rose said. "It's my first time in Pendrago. Since my husband’s been conscripted, I've come to stay with his second cousin."

They made small talk for a bit before they got to the subject of employment. As it turned out the woman, Fran, was the personal maid of Sophia Morgan, who was the wife of Arthur Morgan II, a member of Rolance's nobility and a prime candidate for a raid. Rose could hardly believe her luck.

"That's incredible," she said, faking enthusiasm. "It must be an honour, working for one of the wealthiest men in Rolance."

"Well, I work for his wife, not him," Fran said coolly. "But I appreciate the thought."

Hmmm. "It sounds as if you don't quite approve of him."

Fran looked away. "Well ..."

Rose leaned in a little closer, giving the air of confidentiality. Apparently it did the trick, because it got Fran to talk.

"He and my lady get into heated arguments over his gambling. Ever since his father died and gave him the rights to his family's fortune, he's been very irresponsible, little better than a child alone in a sweets shop. Even just this morning, they were arguing about Lord Arthur having the last of their savings moved from their country manor to the town manor."

Rose carefully kept her face neutral, but inside, she was whooping. Maotelus bless nosy servants with loose lips. "My, that sounds complicated. Has he been conscripted for the war?"

Fran nodded. "He's due to leave any day now. I do hope the war will smarten him up." 

Personally, Rose wasn't holding her breath.

After the baths she and Celine visited the market, but they didn't get any information as valuable as that given by Fran. In the evening everyone returned to the warehouse, and there, they decided to simultaneously raid two manors: Arthur Morgan's and Claudia Lawrence's. Rose, Dezel, and Kira would raid the former, while Talfryn, Flav, Thomas, and Celine would raid the latter.

So after night fell, Rose found herself perched atop the eight-foot wall protecting Arthur Morgan's town manor, along with Dezel and Kira. Illuminated by lanterns, knights were posted at every door Rose could see, not that she could see terribly much.

Kira carefully surveyed the manor. "Let's see, it was ... there!" She pointed. "See that small balcony on the east wing? It's unguarded. It was unlocked when Talfryn checked it this afternoon, and I'd bet it still is now."

Rose nodded. It could be risky, but it was their best bet. "Everyone ready?"

"Ready," Kira said.

Dezel grunted by way of answer.

Rose snorted. "Okay, let's go."