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Calamity Ascendant - Return of the Black Queen [Berseria/Zestiria]

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Naron, Jan 30, 2021.

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  1. VineShadow

    VineShadow Currently edging

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    Always glad to see this update. Keep it ip
     
  2. Threadmarks: 1.18 Echoes of the Past
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    They gave it two months of direct supervision before returning to their travels. Velvet figured that their staff could do without them at that point, at least for a few days. "It's an odd feeling," she admitted to Laphi as they stood in line for the teleportation gate. "Ever since you held that workshop, we have people go in and out of this room every day." For now that the seraphim around them learned how to use and operate the arte, the Bloodwing Butterflies had begun to make use of their god-given advantages.

    Laphi, meanwhile, threw her a winning grin as they stepped forward. "Don't forget that I had to adjust the formula to make it more efficient first. And that we had to run around replacing some of the other gates." She could only huff at that.

    "Perfectly right," Bell chirped from the spot in front of them, turning around with a bright smile. "Having a fast travel network like this is the best. You're a great boy, Laphicet, to bring us back this arte and to make it better for us. I can go visit friends in Hyland whenever I want now!" She barely stopped herself from rambling, one glance going back to the line. "But, uh, are you sure it's okay to wait like all of us? You're the bosses, so I wouldn't mind letting you skip ahead."

    Velvet shook her head at that. "We might do that if it's an emergency, but right now you were here first, so you go first." Then she threw a sly grin at the lady seraph. "But do keep in mind to hunt for intel while you visit your friends." They still needed to find buyers for the information, but their rise in the underworld had already begun.

    "Aye, ma'am!" She saluted and all three chuckled; Velvet adjusted her bracelet, made of crimson cloth just like Bell's scarf. Laphi wore the same as his fellow seraph and indeed, all of their Bloodwings had adopted a piece of dark red clothing to identify each other by.

    Once they all calmed down however, Laphi looked forward with a thoughful noise. "Honestly, maybe we should make this teleportation chamber a bit bigger. Put a few more artes inside so the line moves faster. And maybe set up a few lists so people can write down where they go and go as a group to save on mana?" His musings received a nod from Velvet while Bell turned back around to leave them be.

    "It's a good idea at least. I doubt this arte will ever get so cheap on mana costs that anyone but you can work it repeatedly."

    Their conversation continued in this vein until it was time for Velvet and Laphicet to head out for Ladylake. Velvet was meaning to visit Alisha, but learned that the princess headed out for a longer mission to subdue a group of bandits. Which led to them deciding to explore the surroundings a little more, especially the mountains up ahead.

    "I can feel the earthpulse sloping far ahead," Laphi told her a few minutes before sunset that same day. "It will turn completely vertical a bit further than I can sense and the mana moves downward, so that's definitely a lifepool there." Neither of them said it, but they both knew there was but a single lifepool in this area; the Empyrean's Throne had been built on top of it, to the glory of Innominat.

    "It's still a little weird how you give two, no, three different names to the same thing." Velvet cast a glance to her brother, who raised an eyebrow at her. "You have eathpulses that run horizontally or at an angle, you have lifepools that are vertical earthpulses flowing down, and lifesprings that are vertical lifepulses flowing up. They're all earthpulses."

    "They still need their own terms so people don't need to clarify which one they mean every time. If I say earthpulse, you think horizontal. If I say lifespring, you think vertical and up."

    "No, if you say lifespring, I think volcano."

    Laphi snorted about the quip. "Alright, that's a fair point. Mt. Killaraus was the only big lifespring on the archipelago after all." He then paused. "Actually, it might still be. The far north of Glenwood is in more or less eternal winter, so people don't really go there. That's where Killaraus should be now." He left it at that, letting the conversation peter out; night fell and they moved on, uncaring for the budding life around them or the fact any ordinary traveler should be tired and make camp. The prospect of ruins halfway up on the mountains already made her brother giddy, but they wanted to take a look at this village of seraphim, too.

    The only interruption appeared an hour later, when Laphi felt a source of Malevolence ahead. They slowed down on their way, illuminated by bright moonlight as the trees were sparse in this area. Neither sibling spoke much as they walked at a more sedate pace, until they saw him. He sat atop a sturdy branch on a tree, eyes that almost shone following their every move. When he cackled and hopped down to bar their way, Velvet extended her domain to no visible effect. She could see the darkness ooze out of him, took note of the dark leather garb covering his entire body bar the face. A pale face with a large mouth and visibly sharp canines. His features were just as sharp, fox-like, and a long mane of pale hair followed his motions.

    "What do we have here?" He giggled as he stalked closer, ignoring the fact neither of them showed any fear. "Two little morsels, wandering at night. Aren't you too far from home?" His grin widened further, turning truly maniacal as his gaze wandered between Velvet and Laphi. They just watched and waited for what he would do, reserving judgement. It may have been an act, after all. "Hah, not that it matters anymore! Come to me, little morsel!"

    Or not. He surged forward at an impressive speed and right at Velvet with his maw opened wide. He was even prepared to dodge or deflect a strike, had she been an ordinary or bonded human, or even a hellion of equal strength. As it were, she already stood where he would land and caught his arm in a vice-like grip. Thusly distracted, he failed to notice Laphi charge in from the side at equally overwhelming speed. A thin blade was thrust straight through his spine and at least one organ, making the hellion seize up.

    "I would feed you to my sister right now for the irony," Laphi told him with little humour, "but we want to take your things." He then retracted his blade and Velvet broke the hellion's neck for good measure.

    After that, they quickly rifled through his pockets; there was a familiar bone mask that Laphi identified as being identical to those worn by Scattered Bones assassins. Then they found some money, a plain steel ring of some kind, and... a strand of wine red hair. Velvet shuddered as she pulled that out of his pocket. "Okay, that one was creepy," she commented while scattering the hair to the winds. After wiping her hands clean, she devoured the corpse. Laphi withheld comment, but Velvet could see the distaste edged onto his face.

    They moved on and through the night after that encounter, interrupted by nothing but a few more bestial hellions on the way. It was hours later, as they closed in on a small patch of woodland right before the mountain, that Laphi stopped her. "There's a domain here," he told Velvet, who then peered around to see what he saw. It took some because she was less used to this whole matter still, but Velvet did notice the faint outline of something forming a transparent wall; it stood just a few dozen metres ahead, extending into the distance where it curved somewhat. An end was not in sight.

    "Whoever this is must be powerful", her brother mused as he stepped closer to study the domain. "Definitely a seraph, and from how this curves, it should cover this entire mountain." He craned his head and rose a few metres into the air, but then returned to the ground with a shake of his head. "No, too risky."

    Velvet examined the barrier as well, her curiousity sparked. She wondered just who might be capable of spreading something like this over an entire mountain. Or at least this side of it, to the point one could not see its actual dimensions. She could, Laphi could, the other four Empyreans could. Eizen, maybe, but he was a dragon. She put a hand on the barrier, felt it turn solid and resist her attempt to enter the area it protected. It would be easy for her to break through, but whoever put this up would have had a reason for it; startling them like that was unnecessary and might make them enemies. So Velvet drew back and turned. "We're leaving." she declared. "Whatever village is up there, we can poke it some other time."

    A disappointed moan sounded behind her. "Aww, and I was looking forward to exploring!" But Laphicet followed without actual complaints.

    Unnoticed by those two, up high on the mountain, an ancient seraph woke with a feeling of terrible premonition. He was short and his hair grey, but his mind still strong. Zenrus shuddered and did not know why; everything within his domain was in order, he could sense no danger having invaded the area. The village was safe.

    What he took from this feeling was that he truly got old and, perhaps, that the boys he raised might leave soon. Sorey's childlike curiousity had never faded and Zenrus knew that once this human boy left, he would not return to live with them again. Once he began to meet his own kind, he would remain with them. It could be any month now.

    The elder allowed himself a deep sigh and cast a glance at the sinking moon through his window, then lay back down and rolled onto his other side to try for some more sleep. Spring was upon them, so they had a lot to do in the morning.

    . .
    . .

    A week after their disappointing trip to the mountains, Laphicet left a yet unused gate. One he doubted any of the Bloodwings would consider using anytime soon, not after they were warned about the powerful dragon near it. Rayfalke Spiritcrest had not changed much in the months since his last visit, or at least he figured it had not. The snow was gone, which turned what he got to know as a tranquil realm of white into desolate grey and brown, with some blue and green mixed in where lonely plants or rivers made their home on the mountains.

    He could not sense Edna at first and considered going to look for her, but ultimately decided against it. The mountains were vast, so he might just wander the whole day without even getting close to the girl. Yet calling her to him immediately felt a bit mean, so instead he decided to check that shrine they found last time first. Chances were good that she built it, so she might be around. If not, he would signal her with a light arte.

    Laphicet did not make haste so much as that he chose a fast pace, wanting to make most of the day. All he had on him was a large pouch, carried in his arms and held as still as possible; he tempered his speed partly to not crush its contents. They were important.

    Half an hour into his trek, he was closing in on the shrine and a familiar feeling pinged his sense for mana; only barely at first, but quickly growing more pronounced as he neared his destination. Laphicet could actually see her by then: Edna was draped over the shrine's angular roof, lying on her belly right at the top and thus somewhat bent downward in both directions; her arms rested on smooth rock, serving as an impromptu pillow. Earthy orange hair fell freely and hid her face from view. She did not react to his approach.

    Seeing all this, Laphicet made sure to produce as little noise as possible; he approached the napping girl more slowly and put down the pouch at the shrine's base, then floated up until he could grasp for its roof. From there he let himself dangle and pulled up a bit. "Hey, psst! Edna! Wake up!"

    He would never know what went through her head in that moment; a whisper-shouted voice stirring her from pleasant slumber, only for her to turn and find amber eyes peeking over her shrine's roof, partly obscured both by his own blond hair and a curtain of her own. Edna blinked, light blue eyes slowly coming into focus as she stared dumbly for long moments. The boy peering over the roof did not vanish and admittedly found the sight amusing. He could not see much of her face, but what he saw appeared suspiciously red.

    Edna did not say anything in response. Rather, she rolled over and off the roof in the other direction. There was a thud and Laphicet let himself drop as well, picking up the pouch as he waited for the girl to make herself presentable. He figured it was the right choice to wait for a minute; Edna soon emerged from behind the small space between shrine and rock, unfolding her umbrella as she did. Her hair had been bound into the same sidetail she wore the first time, if somewhat messily. He said nothing about it and smiled at her instead; it was a girl thing he long since decided not to question. "Hello, Edna!"

    "Hello." She did not sound enthused, but one could rarely tell with her. She studied Laphicet regardless, obviously noticing what he held. "You're back."

    "You make it sound like I wouldn't visit," he returned with a smile before offering the pouch. "I figured you'd like some company and I brought some cookies my sister made." Cookies, he knew, were a good thing. Lailah had instantly brightened up even more when he brought her some the previous day.

    "And you make it sound like I'm dying to have company," Edna shot back while turning around, the umbrella concealing her once again.

    Laphi raised an eyebrow and almost snarked back at her, but decided not to this time; he did not want to go there just yet. Or at least not in the same way as her. Instead, when he failed to respond immediately and the girl turned back to look at him, his smile turned more impish. "I didn't and you know it. It's nice to be alone sometimes, but nobody can be happy being alone all the time. You might take to it better because you're an earth seraph, but that doesn't make you immune. I'm not going to leave before nightfall, so you can have this the easy way by sitting here and talking to me, or trying to run away and making me follow you around alllllll day."

    Even while drawing out the word, Laphicet hoped he understood enough about how Edna worked to get the answer he wanted; he would do either action, but he much preferred to talk to her normally. Edna, in turn, narrowed her eyes at him as if in thought. Then she grinned. "So you're the kind to follow a girl around even though she says to leave her alone, I see."

    Laphicet fidgeted a little at what he felt was an accusation, but the grin made him catch on before he said something dumb. So instead he quipped back: "It's for your own good, Edna. Besides, you shouldn't expect this to work all that well. Velvet teases me more about this than you ever could."

    "Oh? What would she be teasing you about?"

    He paused to take her in; Edna appeared actually curious instead of just playing along this time. Her face had lost some of its smugness for a softer expression, head tilted the slightest bit. He wondered if she really could not think of the reason, which he delivered in a deadpan much like her own: "Bringing cookies to a cute girl who looks my age."

    A beat.

    Edna did not respond verbally and reached for the pouch instead. Laphicet opened and held it out, letting the girl pick one of the many chocolate chip cookies Velvet baked. She stuck it into her mouth and chewed with audible crunching noises, swallowed, then immediately took another. Laphicet just grabbed a cookie of his own to nibble on, though it did not quite hide his grin; Edna made a bit of a face at being found out, but motioned for him to follow.

    They walked a hundred metres to the cliffside looking out onto Hyland, where Edna plopped herself down and Laphicet took a seat by her side; both kicked their legs idly, the cookie-pouch placed between them and Edna's umbrella put aside.

    While that initial part was a success however, a long silence then took hold of them. One which was only interrupted by the crunching of cookies being annihilated for a while, boy and girl both kept within their own minds. In the end, it was Edna who continued their conversation: "How old are you?"

    Laphicet eyed her from the side, unsure how he should answer. It was an odd question for him. "Sixteen," he finally decided on; the almost twelve years spent as a human, plus a bit over three as Innominat in the past, plus a good three quarters of a year now.

    Edna's gaze turned to him curiously, hand suspended in mid-air on its way to the sweets. She studied him again. "That's young. You're basically a baby." He just shrugged and she finished the original motion, then munched on her cookie in thought.

    "How old are you?"

    "Mhm, about sixteen hundred years? Maybe closer to seventeen hundred."

    One could really never tell with seraphim, though that was still young for their kind's standards. "Huh. You're a hundred times my age. But considering where you live, I bet we have about the same amount of life experience," he joked, then giggled over the flat stare that earned him. Edna did not actually argue the point, though.

    The silence settled in again afterward, leaving both to munch on Velvet's baking while they beheld the lands spreading out underneath. As the pouch grew empty, Edna turned her head back to him with a more contemplative expression; Laphicet met her gaze curiously and grabbed for another cookie, but found it to be the last one. He did not think much before offering it to the girl seraph, who took it after a moment's hesitation. Her finger brushed against his palm as she did, an odd moment of warmth.

    Just when she appeared ready to say something, a roar shook them both. Malevolence approached quickly and soared past in the form of Eizen. He arrived as fast as he left, leaving behind a shocked silence. Laphicet's eyes followed the dragon until it was beyond his senses, then he turned to Edna; her expression was carefully blank, though this time she could not fool him. Laphicet felt like drawing her into a hug, but stopped himself; Edna would not appreciate if he did. She was obviously trying to hide her feelings.

    At first, he almost made a horrible mistake; almost, he asked her whether her brother would really want her to spend her life like this. Then he thought better of it and carefully nudged her shoulder. "Tell me about him."

    "Hm?"

    Her gaze turned to him and he in turn motioned for where the dragon had flown off to. "Eizen. What was he like?"

    Edna went still for a moment, studying him carefully as she considered. The silence lasted long enough for Laphicet to reconsider his question, but she opened up before he could change the subject: "I haven't talked to him in a long time, but... back then, he was always there for me." Her gaze slowly fell from his face and back onto the lands below. Voice softer than he heard her before. "Eizen, he, he always looked out for me. A bit like your sister does. He played with me whenever I wanted to play, and he taught me everything I knew back then. He traveled a lot, but he always sent me letters and gifts to apologise for not coming home."

    He had heard a few things about Eizen, most of which fit with what she told him. Edna actually became somewhat animated, talking about days from when the two siblings were still living together. In the middle of a recounting of them building a sand fortress however, she fell silent and deflated. "Not that it matters," she muttered. "He's a dragon now. No shepherd could ever cleanse him and none ever dared to try attack him."

    Laphicet's expression fell as well, the only response he could think of being a lame "He does look kind of intimidating", which obviously did not help the matter. He wanted to hug her again, as it was the only thing he could think of to help at all yet knew she would not appreciate it from him. Velvet might have done it anyway, but he did not have that kind of confidence. So instead, he let the silence stew for a long while, berating himself.

    He then decided that the best he could do right now was to distract her; perhaps the next subject he thought of would at least not depress the girl any further. "I'm curious about something. What do you think of hellions?"

    At the very least, this got her attention. Edna turned back to him with a flat "what?"

    In response, Laphicet motioned for the thinning cloud of darkness left by Eizen's passing. "I get that Malevolence is dangerous to us, but hellions are little different from what they used to be at times. Velvet and I actually met a few on our travels that were pleasant to be around."

    After considering the matter for a few seconds, Edna just shrugged. "I don't have many hellions up here and none ever had their marbles together. Eizen wrote me about a few decent hellions he met a long time ago, but that might have just been him. He never liked lying to me, so I know those hellions did exist." She paused for a moment and considered him, then shrugged once more. "I don't really have an opinion on those, I don't care. They don't interest me any more than any other human. If they give in and fall, that's that. Maybe they're lucky and a shepherd comes by to cleanse them. Lucky them."

    She delivered the last part in an increasingly dry tone that made her thoughts on the matter rather clear. Laphicet just nodded his understanding. "I see."

    Edna then looked at him more directly. "What about you? What's your thoughts on them?"

    He did not need to think long. "As long as they retain their thoughts and behaviours, I do not see any reason to differentiate between humans and hellions. There even is one upside to their corruption," at which Edna's eyes widened in surprise, "in that resonance is no longer necessary for them to interact with us." He could not help but grin about the girl's reaction to hearing there was an upside to becoming a hellion.

    She then became thoughtful for a few long moments before her eyes focussed back on him. "What about things that weren't human before they turned?"

    Laphicet had to consider this a bit longer, but ultimately his thoughts were rather clear as well: "Beasts and objects are a different matter, especially objects that should not be alive. I don't think we should go out to hunt them down, but there is no reason to let them carry on. A shepherd coming by makes that obsolete, but without one...." he trailed off, his intended meaning clear.

    "So you think killing beasts is fine?" He did not notice how Edna's gaze flicked into the direction Eizen left in.

    "Yes and no. Wanton slaughter is... well, it's a solution, but not a good one. But if, say, a wolf comes at me in the woods, I'm going to fight it without holding back."

    "Ah, I see." Edna's fist fell into her open palm for emphasis. "So what you mean is that killing beasts is fine if they come at you, while a human in the same state would be subdued instead?"

    "Yes, exactly."

    He was glad to be understood, while the girl next to him seemed to be in thought about something. Laphicet knew he would change the subject soon, this time to something lighter; there were still a few hours in the day and he wanted to leave having made a new friend.

    They kept talking for a long while and Laphicet was glad he got Edna to open up to him at least a little bit. He would definitely visit her again in the future.

    . .
    . .

    Ladylake continued its slow descent into darkness. Malevolence slowly grew thicker as the people succumbed to smaller harvests and approaching strife. Their own twisted feelings would one day be their downfall, that she knew. Yet little had actually changed in the year since her last visit. Everything went slow and steady, just as they planned.

    Symonne wandered the streets of Ladylake with disinterest; her careful observation of people walking by and places she passed was born of obligation. Small, white heels clacked with every step she took, a sound unheard by the humans surrounding her. A thin, dark blue vest rustled around her sickly pale back in the breeze, more of a cape at the moment; her sides were bare, only a strip of purple cloth holding the back half connected to the front. Were the latter not stuffed into her thick belt, it probably would have been blown upward as well.

    A local seraph cast a look at her attire, but paid not too much mind to it; to humans, her bare arms and dark shorts that covered not even her thighs would have been positively indecent. To seraphim, it would be considered little more than an expression of personal style even on a waifish girl like her. What drew their attention was the somewhat empty gaze Symonne regarded them with, a disinterest beyond reason. The only time this expression shifted was when one of her thighighs began to slide down; Symonne blinked and stopped her walk, reaching down to pull it back up. The cloth began purple at the tip of her feet and slowly turned to black as it approached her thigh, leaving a stark contrast to the milky white skin between it and her shorts.

    Aside from when her attention was drawn by the clothing malfunction, Symonne's thoughts were occupied by the search for a suitable target. She almost floated through the crowd of humans, barely feeling their presence as she always did. Another stone to push down into darkness, another pebble to one day create that avalanche of Malevolence her master desired.

    Finding suitable targets, she found at times, was difficult with the orders she had been given. Make it slow, make it certain, leave no traces where possible. She could and had brought down entire villages in a single swoop, but each time her lord scolded her for either being too hasty or not being inconspicuous, which Symonne sometimes found unfair; if there was no one left to be suspicious because everyone lost their minds when they turned, she had by definition acted inconspicuous. But, as always, she agreed that she was in the wrong; her lord knew better, knew how to use her powers.

    Agreeing that she was wrong did not stop her from wondering, though. Wandering through Ladylake so full of water, she stopped at a small channel flowing by the main plaza to study her reflection. Thin lips standing out against her pale skin, a pair of big, lilac eyes under immaculate brows, and hair almost as black as the darkness she was to incite; the tips had turned purple at some point through her life, she could not remember when.

    She pondered the only bit of vanity she allowed herself, her hair being done up with a bright orange headband holding it in place. It almost looked like flower petals arrayed on a string.

    Why did he order her to go slow? What did they gain through this creeping corruption where a swift strike could decapitate a nation?

    Her hand went up to the headband, a moment away from tearing it off like so many times before. To pluck the flower. The Symonne in the water blinked back up at her.

    No shepherd had come in the last ten years, so there was no reason to be cautious. Perhaps it was hindsight, but they could have stood victorious long ago if only they struck with everything they had. She could not see what he saw.

    The hand lowered again, then twitched upward to push an errant strand of hair back into place. Symonne turned away.

    Lord Heldalf never gave his reasons when she asked, merely claiming a gut feeling. Claimed that they must not gain unwanted attention, yet never told her just what would be able to stop him; his small army of hellions and Symonne herself aside, he held enough power to challenge dragons without much risk. It made no sense, and so Symonne wondered. Her aimless stroll through Ladylake continued.

    She considered to check on Chancellor Bartlow to make sure her illusions, the 'visions' he saw, had led him down the correct path.

    In the end, what she could see wisdom in was the idea to prevent a long period of strife that would follow a fast strike. Where those who were steadfast fought back against the corruption. For an idle moment, she wondered whether the awakening of the other four Great Lords were his concern, for it was a valid one. Then she dismissed the thought, knowing that Maotelus alone held the power to wake without destroying the continent when he did; and Maotelus had fallen.

    In those musings, a half-forgotten memory interposed itself. Made Symonne lock up and shiver for a single moment. She immediately discarded the thoughts of gods and golden light.

    Before she could decide on which of her actual tasks to fulfill first however, a thin and wrinkled hand clasped her shoulder. The tranquility of Symonne's existence popped like a bubble and suddenly she was aware of the noise around her, of the smells. Lilac eyes blinked up as she turned to meet a light green filled with warmth. The wrinkled hand belonged to a wrinkled old woman, who stood taller than Symonne despite her obvious age and slightly bent frame. White hair was bound tightly yet a few bangs lay free, framing the elder's face like remnants of the snow that fell no longer. Mana thrummed through her being, telling of a seraph bonded to her.

    "Now, where would such a young thing like you go all alone, hmm?" She smiled down at Symonne, her grasp light and gentle. "How about you join me for tea, dear?"

    The seraph's entire being was seized up in surprise, to the point her mouth hung open. Part of her knew to decline, to get back to her mission. But another part, in these seconds, took note of the people around them whispering. Wondering if 'granny' had one of her episodes again. Something welled up in her at that, a feeling she would not be able to name until later. At the kind smile she was given. Pity.

    "Okay."

    This woman would be dead by the time darkness enveloped Glenwood. She was nothing and meant nothing. And yet, Symonne figured, she could spend a few hours on making her day better. They were playing the long game anyway.

    So she was led by the hand, through street after street. The elder did not seem to care or notice the people whispering about her odd posture, one arm still leading Symonne. She followed without complaint, ears taking in conversations the entire way where there had been little more than a buzz before. Her tranquil state of mind was broken.

    They entered a small, warm, cozy house and she was made to sit down on a wooden chair. Instead of the tea however, she was wrapped into a blanket first. "It's still awfully cold outside," the old woman noted kindly while tucking her in tight. "A young girl should stay warm."

    It had been cold, she realised; her skin almost burned in the sudden heat, still feeling clammy. Symonne blinked, her arms involuntarily drawing the blanket closer. Only they and her head were still free, but it was enough for now. She pulled her legs up until her knees hit her chest, the warmth beginning to fill her. A tray of pastries found its way in front of her, the tea following soon after. Unsure what else she should do, Symonne began to nibble at one of the treats while the smiling elder watched her. She did this on a whim and had no idea how to actually hold a conversation. The only people she talked to in a dialogue like this were her lord and some of their allies, not random old women. What could she talk about? Should she, even?

    In the end, thankfully, the elder spoke up first and gave her a direction: "I wonder, are you a traveler? I have not seen you around here before."

    Symonne did not react bodily, she merely sipped from the steaming tea before responding. "In a way. I travel between various places." She still hoped that being noncommittal like this was enough.

    "Oh my! I was a bit of a traveler in my younger years too. Ah, the many things one sees and people one meets!" The elder paused to reminisce about something or other for a moment, then threw Symonne a weak smile. "But these old bones aren't for traveling anymore. Would you tell me where you went and what you saw, dear? Share some of the many beautiful things out there with this old woman?"

    Symonne did not know about beauty, she had merely seen many things. But if it was just about what she saw and not what she did, she felt she could indulge the elder. So she spoke, of Pendrago and Lastonbell, of the tiny, vulnerable villages further out. She could hardly remember the people even though she paid so much attention to them then, not even their faces. "Lastonbell had a curious event recently," she found herself saying after a while. "A new tavern, one where anyone and everyone can interact with us seraphim." The elder perked up at that, motioning for her to go on; Symonne elaborated: "From what I found out, they have a seraph whose blessing allows to do this. It's a large place, built by seraphic artes and always full of people."

    She had observed this one carefully during her last stay in Lastonbell, going as far as turning herself invisible through her illusions to listen in on staff and the owners directly. Yet she found not a trace of action against the Lord of Calamity, so she gave the all-clear when reporting to her lord and moved on. The odd tingle in her core had been ignored as unimportant.

    The old lady listened raptly, then clapped her hands. "My, I would love to see a place such as this," she cooed, then mused with a soft smile: "A tavern where one can speak to seraphim. How grand it would be to meet one myself."

    It took Symonne some time of conversation before she realised what bothered her about that last comment. Her tale of the Lakehaven Heights stopped mid-sentence and she narrowed her eyes at the granny. "You can stop pretending."

    Kind green met suspicious lilac, but nothing happend. Symonne tensed a little within her warm blanket, mana flowing faster and ready to turn to ice or mist if something happened.

    Yet nothing did.

    The old woman began to grin then and sat a little more straight with a quiet cackle. "What an observant girl you are. I guess I'm getting thoughtless in my old days, that was rather blatant of me." She continued to chuckle at the confused seraph behind her hand, then took another sip of now lukewarm tea. "Would you care to give me your name? You are the most interesting one I met in months."

    She found herself not minding, weirdly enough. "Symonne. What's yours?"

    "People call me Nica these days."

    The elder pushed another pastry her way, which Symonne took without even thinking about it. Only when the strawberry sweetness hit her tongue did she realise and her thoughts began to slow. It had been a while since she just... sat. Came to rest like this. She had not eaten anything in an age.

    It felt... nice.

    Nica remained a gracious host and talked to her for a good while longer, then saw her off with a friendly smile and a pat on the back. Strangely however, Symonne's feet carried her back there the next day to talk to her again. This repeated the day after. She could not even tell why, but something about this old lady intrigued her.

    At the end of the week, the final day she had allotted to her stay in Ladylake, she realised she had done nothing productive at all. And somehow, that did not bother her much. Symonne decided to bring up the matter that did bother her as they sat together over tea again: "How do you do it?"

    "Hm?"

    "This... joy," she finally found how to put it into words, a lost look directed at Nica. "I do not understand how you can look at the end of your life with so much content. Do you not fear it? Do you not regret past deeds? All humans do in some way, I saw it everywhere. What makes you different?"

    She expected her question to turn the elder introspective. To make her subdued over being reminded of something she decided to try ignoring away. Instead, Nica began to cackle for a good long while. Long enough to confuse Symonne, long enough for the other woman to get up and wander over to a small, time-worn couch placed at the living room's far wall. She patted the spot next to herself as the mirth began to fade.

    Symonne followed the wordless invitation and found herself wrapped in a warm sidehug. She was fully aware of the heat in Nica's body, of the faint scent of cinnamon that clung to her. "Symonne," the elder started to catch her attention, "what you need to understand is that life without suffering is no life at all. Neither is life which is nothing but suffering." She gave the girl a gentle squeeze. "Humans and seraphim both, if we lived a life that consists of nothing but joy or sadness, we would never truly live. You can not appreciate the good times without having had bad times. The true beauty of our lives is to look back on it all and know you are right here, right now, through every single choice you made."

    Her words touched something within Symonne, the easy acceptance of a woman who knew she was to die soon. It bothered her. Could humans really be like that? It was almost a habit to follow up, but this once she also felt real curiousity about the answer she would get: "Yet, if you had the chance to undo all the pain you had to feel throughout your life, would you not take it? Undo mistakes you made? Do you not wonder where you could have done better, what could have been?"

    Nica shrugged in response, the motion being felt as much as seen with how close they sat. Symonne looked up at her searchingly when she spoke: "Of course there are things I could have done better, but why should I regret the life I lived? Due to all of it, I got to meet an old friend recently; didn't even know she was still alive, you know? Now I'm even more determined to carry on at least a little longer, see more beautiful things in this world of ours."

    Then she smiled down at the troubled seraph. "Why don't you join me for a while?" The proposal startled Symonne out of her own unintelligable thoughts, but the seraph did not leave Nica's hold. "Bond with me so I can show you this beauty, Symonne."

    Symonne stared up, eyes unfocussing as her mind began to race. She had her duty to sow discord and mayhem, but a part of her wanted to stay. To see just what Nica was seeing in this world. What could be so beautiful. That part told her they were acting slowly; most of her current work consisted of ensuring that nothing went wrong. She could afford to spend this time. Then, looking at the wrinkly smile given to her, she also felt worry clawing at herself. "Can you really support two seraphim at your age?"

    "Oh, don't you worry about that. Age doesn't matter and my resonance is strong. I can support three just fine."

    Symonne accepted the implications of that response without comment and nodded. Then she freed herself of the hug and took a step away from Nica before turning back, conflicted. "I... I need to think about it."

    She was gone before the "take your time" had been fully spoken.

    It took a week for her to come around and return. She had spoken to Lord Heldalf about the matter, unwilling to make this choice without his consent. He immediately told her to take a break, with her having worked on this plan of his harder and more fervently than anyone.

    So here she stood, in a nondescript living room that she so came to like. Before her an old woman smiling gently, and between them the broad side of a slowly turning arte circle. It was almost transparent, the formula etched into the very air; Symonne could read it if she so desired, but knew there was no need.

    "Do you want a pact name?"

    She immediately shook her head at Nica, almost but not quite remembering the time she had such a name and preferring not to. "No. You will receive my true name." She gently put her fingers on the circle, made her own mana flow into it to mix with Nica's; it quickly turned from transparent to a light blue. "I am Kyurib Ishuk."

    "Very well, and you accept me as your vessel?"

    Something grasped for her. It had been a long, long time since she bonded with a human. Symonne held her gaze. "I accept you as my vessel. Show me this beauty you spoke of." As she still spoke, she felt herself drawn forward, let the grasp pull her along first into the arte and then Nica. She flowed around this way and that before settling, close to but not quite touching either of the other two bundles that had not yet been introduced to her.

    The moment she vanished into her new vessel and could no longer see, old Nica's smile became toothy and sharp. "Symonne of the springs," she translated her new partner's name with ease. "Such a pretty name." Despite the gentle tone, her feelings were rather more pointed. She was looking forward to stirring up trouble. It had been far too long, in her humble opinion.

    A seraph dressed like this, looking so out of it before being spoken to? A seraph who traveled a lot and, by her own admission, carried a blessing of illusions. Nica had paid attention to how Symonne spoke, to what she said and not said. She had a theory. Illusions, she told Symonne when they spoke of her blessing, could be a precision tool and hammer alike, if one knew how to wield them. However, they were always lies to the hearts of the strong. Using them for anything but deception was difficult. But then again, one could also use deception for good if they did it right.

    Symonne did not seem to have caught her double meaning there. The old adage remained true, Nica knew. She would break that girl's bleak worldview over her knee. Even if the guess she made turned out to be wrong, doing so would create interesting waves.
     
  3. VineShadow

    VineShadow Currently edging

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    Well well well, unless I am misreading this...I can only say one thing

    Welcome back Magilou
     
  4. Threadmarks: 1.19 Release From Avalon
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    "Are you certain this is a good idea?"

    When the Crowes asked for his assistance, Sergei had definitely not expected to aid in this particular way when he agreed. His eyes wandered over the young woman in front of him, Margaret. She held her wooden sword to the ground just as he did, but her gaze was firm and her jaw set.

    "It is," Velvet confirmed from the side. She stood with her arms crossed, peering at the two combatants. "Laphi and I don't make for good sparring partners; he is a powerful seraph and I'm empowered by the same, so she stands no chance at all. You're still out of her league, but far less so."

    He decided not to point out the potential slight; she was not wrong. From his frequent visits to the Crowe's Nest whenever he was in town, Sergei long since learned how seraphim empowered a human they bonded with; the amount of physical attributes gained correlated to the seraph's strength, but even a weak one would turn a seasoned warrior into a monstrously powerful opponent.

    Still, it was curious. He studied Margaret once more, finding the girl's sword hand twitching ever so slightly. "I was wondering, with so many seraphim present, have you not bonded with one yet?"

    She made a face and shook her head despondently. "No one on staff is interested in going on long journeys like I wanna. Well, Zaveid comes by from time to time and I asked him, but he said no, too." Margaret stomped her feet and Sergei was surprised about the venom in her voice when she quoted him: "Says he 'doesn't wanna babysit some kid', the ass."

    "Language," Velvet admonished; Margaret did not acknowledge her.

    All Sergei could do here was nod, he felt. And play his part. Sighing softly, he regarded his opponent again; Margaret stood taller than most women now, though still only partway toward his or Velvet's prodigious height. Her bright blonde hair, short though it may be, was bound into a tight ponytail so as to not hinder her movements, a golden yellow and shining in the afternoon sun; her stance had become more calm if guarded, blade still pointed at the ground.

    From what he heard, the girl just came out of a major growth spurt at the end of Spring. Now that Summer arrived, he figured she would be used enough to her new height; her arms were still shorter than his, but she wore reinforced cloth for armour unlike he with his iron full plate. He had the higher reach and better protection, but she would be the more agile opponent in this matter.

    Idly, Sergei took note of how her armour was fashioned onto sturdy everyday clothes, a long-sleeved shirt and a pair of pants, both grey with white trims. He figured that she did not have the money at hand to go for something fancy; it might also be indicative of her chosen style of combat, which he had not seen before. At the same time, he began to feel odd in his polished armour. This would not be a fair fight, he knew; yet few fights were ever fair.

    He raised his wooden blade. "Shall we begin then?"

    Margaret's sword rose almost in tandem with his own, a fluid motion followed by three quick steps forward and a stab to his gut. Sergei stepped back to avoid it, then made to counter but found the girl leaving his reach. Her determined expression had slackened and she was fully focussed on him now.

    She began to circle around Sergei with measured steps, leaving no openings for him to exploit at first; he watched the girl dart into his reach to test his defenses, alternating between slow and fast approaches but always cautious. Sergei began counterattacking after his second parry, yet found his blade thrown off-course by a quick jab of her own each time. It was always the same motion, even. He continued acting slowly to fake the girl out, only barely making his parries and blocks. Once she even managed to get past his guard, her sword scraping over his chestpiece. His vital spots, the weakpoints in his armour, Sergei kept under better protection from her fast approaches.

    This slow dance continued for a short minute, Margaret getting close to poking her sword's tip into his elbow joint once in-between. Sergei waited carefully for his chance until, as she took distance from him again, the girl stepped onto a pebble and lost her footing for a moment. He lunged immediately, darting forward at his full speed and lightly slapping the flat side of his sword past her belated guard, into her gut.

    Margaret slumped immediately.

    "You're dead," Velvet commented from the side.

    Sergei mulled over the short fight, his own sword lowered again as he stepped back. "For having but a year of practice however, you were good." The girl perked up at that. "None of the usual beginner's mistakes, a firm stance, it took even a seasoned knight some time to get through your guard. I might have been able to force it earlier, but only because I have a decade and a half over you." He eyed her carefully and considered what else to say. "You're very aware of your own reach and your opponent's, that is good. But what you also need to consider is the ground you fight on. Rarely will it be solid stone, but that is your advantage as well if you can maneuver your opponent into stumbling."

    Margaret listened with rapt attention as he offered a few more suggestions, nodding at each one and promising to keep them in mind. Then they returned to their original positions and sparred again.

    Watching the two from the sidelines, Velvet and Laphicet both felt oddly nostalgic. They could see the stances, found them to be the same as what they once knew. Margaret flowed from offense to defense and back without any trouble, now merely lacking actual combat experience. Laphicet let out a soft huff. "It's incredible, isn't it? She took to this style so easily and mastered it in a year."

    "I wouldn't call it mastered," Velvet told him absently. "She mastered the basics that you're still learning, yes. But what makes Arthur's style shine is how adaptable it is, it doesn't work without actual experience. She won't actually master it for a few years longer, at least."

    Later that day, after the sparring session found its end and Sergei took his leave, Laphicet and Margaret were sitting together in one of the back rooms. While Velvet held reign over the tavern itself, the two of them were going over the money that went in and out; Margaret now assisted him with the books. Her handwriting and reading capabilities had progressed far enough to let her work independently.

    "I heard he offered to take you into the Platinum Knights," the boy seraph opened idly. He got a glance from his student, who finished a calculation on her small chalk board before answering him.

    "He did, but I told him no. Mom wanted me away from the knights and, I don't know, it'd feel dishonest to Velvet either way. And I want to travel a lot first." She groaned and buried her face in her arms. "Not that I can because no one wants to go with me. Why's everyone so skittish?" She received no response and soon cast a glance out from a curtain of blonde hair, watching Laphicet work. "Are you sure I can't bond with you?"

    "Maybe if you have some experience," he told her without looking up. "I am too strong for you."

    "You still fold whenever Velvet tells you to do something."

    "That's because Velvet is too strong for you, too."

    He grinned, knowing that she was pouting even without seeing it. Yet Laphicet also knew that this was a bit of a problem; Cynthia would not let her daughter leave the city on her own for anything beyond a short errand, at least until the girl turned seventeen. Having a bonded seraph would bring her around to let Margaret go earlier, they already discussed the matter. He did know two seraphim who might be amenable. Yet he doubted them both in that same moment.

    Lailah waited for a shepherd, still waited, and would not accept a fourteen-year-old for the position. Straight up, not a chance. She was a gentle woman and loved children, which would make her even less inclined to push such an important and thus stressful position onto one.

    Edna, in turn, seemed to be happy with just living on her mountain with Eizen. He might be able to ask this of her as a favour, but Margaret should have a companion who came along because they wanted to, not because he or Velvet asked them to; this, then, brought him to how he learned that his sister went to visit Edna as well, at least a few times. She probably did it out of a sense of obligation to Eizen, but he appreciated it nonetheless. Edna seemed to enjoy whenever he visited, even if she never said anything of the like.

    Either way, Laphicet kept his mouth shut. He did not want to bring Margaret's hopes up.

    Both of them went back to the books, but he continued to think of all the things and people. Zaveid who dropped by every three or four weeks, Aifread who was doing well and even came out ahead in several clashes with the knights by now, the two Forton sister working with him, Rodeen who was now holding sermons to half the bandit camp and Enid who rose to be Aifread's right hand. He then thought of Runette Forton, the cardinal; she was doing well for herself and delivered a steady stream of information to them through Morgrim.

    Then his gaze was caught by the working Margaret again and he had to smile. Where the girl's mother decided she was better off not knowing what the Bloodwings did exactly, or whom they were dealing with, Margaret herself had no such issues. When Velvet offered to let their partners in on what they were doing, she jumped on the chance.

    They still had the problem of Hyland to consider, Laphicet mused then. Outside of Alisha, whom he and Velvet both decided was unsuitable to be a contact, they found no good person to sink their hooks into yet. Great corruption surged through the young king's advisors; they were not actual hellions like some members of Rolance's court, at least not yet, but Laphicet figured both king and emperor were under enemy observation.

    So they had to contend with others for now. Find some more allies, strenghten their foundations, build up funds by selling useful information such as market data, and the rest would follow in time. He even managed to subsume some of the earthpulses right under Maotelus' nose. Not that it was much of an achievement just yet, considering how little attention the corrupted Empyrean paid.

    All in all, Laphicet figured, everything was going well.

    Little did he know, did anyone know, that soon a young man would set out into the world...
     
  5. Threadmarks: 2.1 Seraphim
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    On the day the Bloodwing Butterflies established contact with the Scattered Bones via messengers, a young man and woman met in the depths of an old ruin. Surprised by his kindness and carefree demeanor, Princess Alisha let herself be led upward and toward her original goal.

    At the same time however, the earthpulse atop this same mountain began to ripple and open. Another being stepped into old Zenrus' blessed domain, her structure so intimately familiar that he recognised it without even having to think. They had been comrades, friends, for longer than the youngest Empyrean existed. Had lasted through the many cycles of humanity's rise and fall together.

    He could tell the other seraphim were curious about his visitor; many had come out to see Zui Fuu once they sensed her strong presence, but they all stayed back when Zenrus himself strode out of his home. She looked no different from the last time they met, feathery wings immaculate and of a pristine white like the rest of her skin. Her stubby legs rested comfortably on the ground, long ears alert for even the smallest sound.

    "Zui! What a surprise!" He could not help but smile, something he had not done often in the last decades. Under the eyes of his people, he stood before his oldest friend and drank in her presence. They did not exchange any physical greetings, for they had long since grown beyond any need for them. "Are you crawling back out to ask for help again, little piggy?"

    He could not help but rib her a little; Zui merely let out a loud grunt and peered up at him imperiously. "As if I needed an old idiot like you to deal with my delicate artes. Get on my level first." Now it was for Zenrus to huff, but their little exchange could not continue beyond this; Zui lowered her head, one foot slowly circling over the soft earth. "I don't have much time, you know I can't stay away for long. I needed to speak with you."

    "Of course, of course. Right this way, and don't trip over any sticks again." He led his old friend into his own hut, ignoring the incredulous stares following them; there would be questions later. "But I meant it," he continued once the door closed behind them, "this is a surprise. What's important enough to leave the Heavenly Steppes unsupervised?"

    He could not see Zui's expression as he led the way, but her pregnant pause was hard to miss. When she did speak, she immediately interrupted herself as a few curious winds roiled through the window and beneath the door. Zenrus frowned before sending a spark of lightning along the trails of mana, which led to a few panicked yelps outside. Zui chuckled and cast an arte to seal the area off. "They are certainly lively," she commented while Zenrus added to her own defense. Then however, as they both sat opposite to each other, Zui changed the subject. "How is your shepherd coming along?"

    She knew he knew that this was not a courtesy visit and there was no time to waste, yet she stalled. It was a little shocking to Zenrus, after all this time. Or perhaps, he reasoned, whatever she visited about was related to the boy. "Is this about Sorey?"

    Zui heaved a deep sigh in response and lowered her head. "No, no. Apologies, even I still get nervous in my old age. I had to interfere in human affairs."

    Zenrus made to speak, but stopped himself and instead motioned for his friend to continue; he could ask clarification later. She would have a good reason to neglect her own duties to infringe upon his. Zui remained silent for long seconds before finding the words to begin: "Years have passed since Maotelus has been subdued by Malevolence. Darkness grows stronger slowly but surely, held back by something which I know not. Hellions and dragons walk the land in ever greater numbers. I waited a long time to witness your shepherd, Zenrus. But at this point, I feared he would take too long, falter before a task which grew nigh impossible over time."

    Well, he could understand her worries; his were much the same. Yet Zui had said this was not about Sorey, so it was simply a prelude. "I understand, of course I do. Twenty years is a long time for humans, doubly so for the flow and propagation of Malevolence. But you did not make the way to-" Zui fidgeted, no, twitched. A twitch he knew she would never make voluntarily.

    Looking closer, Zenrus noticed it for the first time: his friend was filled with Malevolence, the sensation hidden behind her mana to appear pristine. Another shock to his system. "Zui, what happened to you?" His old voice cracked with worry as he leaned forward to examine her, hands gently running over the rapig's back; he felt deeper into her being, felt darkness roil through the ancient malak. Her blessing of eternal purity had already removed much, going by the traces all over her; on a guess, she had been on the brink.

    Zui, still under his hands, spoke up: "A bit more than a year ago, I... ascended. To the sleeping god up high." As the words sunk in, Zenrus felt a sudden chill and paused in his examination. Every one that followed made him feel heavier, understanding before she even said it. "I still hope, still wish, for humans and malakhim to one day join hands. I could not bear the thought of taking so much of a risk."

    His hands fell and they stared each other in the eyes. Zui had done it, done the unthinkable. She committed the ultimate sin.

    "I awakened Innominat, as well as the first Lord of Calamity, now Empyrean Minkkubi."

    Her words struck like lightning, confirmation of his own thoughts. Zenrus stepped back and flopped down to sit, needing a moment to get his racing thoughts into order. Zui gave him that time, waiting patiently until he spoke: "How did they react, what did they behave like, and why did it take you so long to tell me?"

    His questions were succinct and his friend lowered her head in thought for but a moment. "Going with the last one first, I pushed myself to the brink drawing mana from the Malevolence-filled earthpulses, so I had to recuperate a bit first." He nodded, that made sense. "And the two young gods, they were... amicable. And amenable to saving Maotelus. Their thousand years of slumber fundamentally changed the nature of Innominat and turned this incarnation of him into an actual person instead of a husk. One of their first acts was to incinerate the remains of Artorius and spread them out onto our world."

    This... did not sound as bad as he had feared. He expected not to hear an apology, though; none were needed between two who knew each other as long as they did. Zui arrived to inform him of the situation, not beg forgiveness. They spoke a little longer of the new Empyreans and from what he heard, Zenrus figured there might be potential in the matter. "Can you still observe the human realms from within the Heavenly Steppes?" he finally asked. The intent of his question was understood and Zui nodded.

    "They spent most of the last year traveling, meeting people, setting roots. That aside, I doubt they will interfere with your shepherd unless he makes himself into a problem for them."

    Zenrus had to chuckle at that. "Well, that might be an issue. Sorey is stubborn to a fault."

    "Much like the man who raised him, then."

    He gave a snort and a telling look to the woman in front of him, then leaned back. "Ahh, he and Mikleo will leave soon. I can feel it. Those two only need a last push."

    "As it always was and always will be?"

    "Indeed." He threw a smile to his old friend. "Humans live such short lives, yet so bright ones." Some days, he wished he was not cursed with this longevity; once he ceased to pay attention for what felt like a moment, Sorey would have died of old age and turned to dust. Meanwhile, he and the other malakhim persisted, unchanging.

    Zui peered at him with a cheeky wingbeat. "Perhaps, then, having once human perspectives among the Empyreans might lead to further change."

    "Well now, we can at least hope for that. Take care on your way back, Zui."

    "I will. You do the same here."

    Abrupt it may seem to some, but they knew the conversation was over. Zui had to return to her own duties as soon as possible. So the two malakhim parted, the only true seraphim remaining beside the elemental Empyreans; it was only the six of them who were left of those who so long ago arrived in this world through the Heavenly Gate, now guarded by Zui Fuu until the day it would open again. The malakhim outside, whom were now also called seraphim through a strange twist of fate, received no answers to their curiousity. Zui took wing and ascended into the sky.

    Elsewhere, a group of three left the sprawling ruins and stepped into bright sunlight. A young woman with pale blonde hair. clad in fine cloth over her armour; two young men, both of average height and just a bit taller than the woman. One had messy brown hair, the other orderly blue tresses. Both were dressed more ordinarily than her, though the blue-haired one's features were a fair bit sharper.

    "Come on, it's just a few minutes from here to my home," the brunette man told his female companion; she appeared to completely ignore the other one and listened to him carefully. She did not seem to feel threatened by someone dressed in leather trousers and a simple blue shirt, either. His name was Sorey, and he had found Alisha after she collapsed in the ruins below. Behind her, unbeknownst to Alisha who could not perceive him, the water seraph Mikleo watched cautiously.

    Sorey led the way without much thought given to potential threats, being so close to home. Then however, he spied something in the sky and called out: "Whoa, is that a flying rapig?!"

    Alisha's head snapped up. "What, where?"

    Sorey pointed at the creature as it soared through the sky above them, yet Alisha did not see anything. Mikleo understood the problem before his friend did: "That's a seraph."

    "Wait, seriously?"

    Alisha had missed the response to Mikleo in her attempt to locate the rapig. Finding nothing still, she blinked at her odd new acquaintance before giggling. "Ohhh, that was mean, Sorey! I really thought there was one!" She laughed freely over being had in such a simple way, unaware that there truly was a flying rapig.

    "Uh, sorry. I really thought I saw one."

    Sorey scratched the back of his head and chuckled ruefully. Mikleo just palmed his face as they kept walking, unaware that a story was about to unfold.

    That very night, at the edge of a small woodland some paces away from Ladylake, a woman clad in black waited for her contact. Her face was obscured by a white skull mask that gleamed orange in the firelight; a torch illuminated her front, being stabbed into the ground a scant few metres ahead of her. They met off the roads, far away from prying eyes. She absently played with one of her throwing knives, flipping it up and down, catching the weapon at its handle or the flat of its blade. She did it both to kill time and to have the knife ready just in case. Whenever she shifted to just the right angle, a single strand of dark red hair glinted between mask and hood, discoloured by the moonlight or the torch in front of her.

    This woman's name was Rose. This night, she acted as negotiator for the Scattered Bones assassins' guild. She felt odd, calm mixed with curiousity mixed with worry. Everyone had been acting like a herd of headless chickens when the message appeared earlier that day, delivered right to her friend Eguile's hands. What bothered them, and her as well, was that no one saw the messenger. They were an assassins' guild, yet their best completely failed to spot someone walking straight up into the middle of their camp and literally putting a letter in Eguile's hand.

    Rose had read it several times, to the point she could almost recite it from memory; not that she needed to, it was standard fare. A curt introduction, a mention of the Scattered Bones by name, a time, a place, and an insignia. A sign which had popped up more often over the past months; a pair of crimson wings, known to belong to the Bloodwing Butterflies. The message was clear. She shuddered, wondering once again just what kind of creature could creep up on someone as capable as Eguile, then leave without being spotted by anyone. Her mind immediately jumped to ghosts and the shudder grew deeper.

    "No," she muttered to herself. "My people and I, we're real. We are true."

    Her fear should be illogical, should have been crushed under her determination long ago, but it refused to leave her be. Sometimes, she saw silhouettes or almost-heard disembodied voices; she knew it was her imagination and yet those feelings, those sensations would not leave her. Thankfully enough, there was none of that right now. No strange figures, no voices. Rose hoped it would stay that way.

    A twig snapped behind her and Rose took a step to the side on instinct, her knife ready. When no attack came, she turned around in a fluid motion, only to find a tall figure looming in the dark. Their appearance was as concealed as Rose's, hidden by a flowing crimson robe that the torchlight cast long shadows over. Something flickered behind them and put her on edge, but she paid it no mind while returning the knife to her belt; just a trick of the light, surely.

    Rose only needed a single gaze to be unimpressed with the attempt at a disguise, however. "Yeah, uh... nice try, but I can see your tits. Concealing them doesn't really work with girls that big. Should've bound them."

    If the stranger took offense with her giving lip, she did not show it. Haunting laughter echoed from nearby and made Rose flinch, but she caught herself. The other woman's words drew her attention away from the attempt of scouring the area with her gaze: "I'm not stupid and there would've been no disguising my voice to begin with." Said voice was a dark drawl that made Rose shudder, if not in fright this time. Just by that, she was dealing with the kind of lady she... appreciated. The Bloodwing seemed to eye her from behind that veil, somehow. "You are a woman as well."

    "Yep," she chirped, her winning grin hidden by the mask.

    She got a quiet huff in response and the stranger leaned against the tree she stood next to. "Just to confirm, you are the one the Scattered Bones sent to meet us?"

    "Yep... wait, who is 'us'?"

    Rose glanced around again without moving her head, but found no one else around. It was just her and that mystery woman, whose veil shifted without revealing anything; her posture had changed as well, turning from relaxed to alert, even a little tense. Rose tensed up in response, but then a voice whispered unintelligible things again and her muscles locked up for a moment. The torch flickered, drawing a longer shadow over the Bloodwing. "Don't try to play dumb," she growled. "You carry a seraph with you, so you know there's one with me."

    Now Rose was confused; her tension sapped away and she peered at the other woman, who was clearly seeing things that were not there. "Um, no? I've never seen a seraph in my life. How'd I know if there was one?" Much less 'carrying' one, whatever that meant.

    Perhaps it was her tone of voice, or maybe the benefit of the doubt given to Rose. She was not attacked and not called a liar; the other woman's tension seemed to shift somewhat and she leaned a little closer. Whatever misunderstanding led to this, at least it was not likely to end in a fight just yet.

    "You," she growled at someone not Rose, "come out, before I tear you out of her."

    Then the skin on her back tingled, the air shifted the slightest bit. Something was there, right behind her. Another voice whispered and the Bloodwing's veil shifted. She was looking at something over Rose's shoulder, who immediately threw herself four metres to the side with a startled screech, away from the ghost. Her pulse began to race almost belatedly, chest growing heavy as she rolled off her momentum on reflex and came up in a crouch. Frantic searching found nothing where she was before.

    The Bloodwing stood with her arms crossed, one finger tapping on her bicep. From where she now crouched, Rose could see something that looked like bandages up her sleeve. The mask strangulated her, she could not breathe. Through her panic, that wisp by the woman's side persisted. Then the air around her shifted and her chest constricted in fright, heart hammering against its confines in an attempt to escape. Rose's breathing grew laboured and her vision blurry. Only a faint "Stop that" reached her ears before the air fell still, but she couldn't breathe-

    Then something physical touched her and she started; crimson met her gaze even before her eyes focussed, the hand on her shoulder squeezing gently. "Relax. Deep breaths. In. And out. In. And out." It was a calm voice ordering her, and Rose did as she was told, eyes still wide as saucers, breathing. The whispers continued somewhere at the edge of her hearing, but that calm voice refused to let her focus on them, on what they meant.

    Time passed, she did not know how much. Her chest slowly stopped clenching, her heart stopped hammering its way out of her breast. Slowly, ever so slowly, Rose could breathe again.

    She had not panicked like that in a long time. And, with concious thought returning, her mind began to piece everything together. She looked up at the crouching Bloodwing, still remaining in this half-embrace she found herself in. "They're seraphim? Not ghosts?"

    It still made no sense for she had never seen any, yet this woman sounded so certain before. She continued to do so: "Yes. The one with you is a sharply dressed man with a top hat, his bangs are so long they cover his eyes."

    "A-and the other?"

    "Try to see for yourself. You were gifted with powerful resonance upon your birth; don't throw it away any longer." She was gently pulled to her feet and let go. Rose slowly turned her attention from the now silent Bloodwing and to the two wisps. Her heart seized up for a moment, but she forced herself through it with a mountain's worth of effort. Unless this was a cruel prank just for her, there were no ghosts. There were no ghosts.

    She peered through the moonlight and slowly, the wisps took form as she repeated to herself that they were not ghosts. There was the man her contact described, tall and with his arms crossed; he stood at a distance. Another stood next to him, obscured similarly to the human Bloodwing if with a few strands of hair falling out of their hood, not to mention much shorter.

    Rose slowly wetted her dry lips, swallowed a few times, and then spoke up: "I see... a girl next to him, but I can't see her face." She heard how weak her own voice sounded, but could not find it in herself to care. Strangely enough, her words drew a snort out of the other woman. More whispers began, but this time Rose strained her ears to truly hear... and the words became intelligible.

    "Just what exactly did she do to block her own resonance like that?"

    "I couldn't tell you. It started when she was still a little girl, she began to get scared of disembodied voices and ghosts."

    Her eyes were wide, directed at the two talking figures. "I can hear them... and so clearly." Then they faded from her sight entirely, their voices turning back to whispers that made the hairs on her neck stand up.

    The Bloodwing slowly reached for Rose's shoulder and gave it another squeeze. "It's fine. Take slow steps. You two," she barked at the two non-humans, "back into your vessels." A moment of further whispers passed, then she felt something brush against her before fading from her senses. Then there were just the two of them and Rose slowly continued to breathe.

    "Try to focus on this a bit every day until the block dissolves," the other woman advised kindly. "I never heard of anything like it before, but your bonded seraph should be able to help with the matter."

    As her focus returned, Rose realised she was drenched in cold sweat. She had completely blown the first impression of her guild. And her heart was still beating hard. She honestly did not care and rather gave in to curiousity while trying not to freak out: "What's that mean?"

    A moment passed in silence while the two of them returned to the torch, standing opposite of each other but at ease. The Bloodwing made a sweeping motion. "The seraphim in this world are capable of bonding with people or objects to stabilise themselves somewhat. They turn someone or something into their vessel by doing so and can then dwell within that vessel whenever they want. By their nature, they also improve their own vessels to a certain amount, to make sure they don't break as easily. Objects become more sturdy, humans turn outright superhuman. I'd expect that your physical prowess is unmatched even among your guild, which is because of that seraph dwelling within you."

    Rose listened carefully, her changing expression unseen beneath her mask. "Does that mean he can read my thoughts?"

    The Bloodwing shook her head visibly. "An old friend of mine once described it as being in a box. Just because you are in the box does not mean you can tell what it thinks or feels."

    That made sense to her. Rose nodded, took a deep breath, then frowned and thumped her chest. "Hey, you! Just so we're clear, getting into a woman without asking is poor manners! Especially as deep as you went!"

    There was no response, at least none she could hear. The Bloodwing palmed her face. "If you can joke around again," she judged, "you are good to actually negotiate; assuming you are allowed to do so for your group."

    She only barely remembered not to mention that she was the boss. "Duh, of course I am! Lay it on me."

    What followed was a not particularly interesting negotiation where Rose brought all her skill as a merchant to bear, only to find her counterpart with interesting propositions and no intention to talk exact prices. The Scattered Bones already possessed many allies and intermediaries, but the Bloodwing Butterflies were simply faster through a trick she was not told, as well as capable of acting with secrecy that put the assassins' guild to shame. They already gave proof of that by delivering that letter into the middle of their camp in broad daylight, with none the wiser about the messenger.

    The only direct comment she was given about the information brokers had been made without hesitation or doubt: "We're a young guild, but we will expand and thrive."

    "Hm," Rose could not help but muse. "I'll give you that, we don't have any front dedicated to information gathering." Even if most of them were created for that purpose at one point or other. "We do have to check all of our targets before the dagger falls."

    "Your targets? Not your clients?"

    Rose raised her eyebrow a bit, the motion unseen below her mask. "If the job is necessary, the client doesn't matter. That's our motto." She paused a moment to let the Bloodwing's noise of understanding pass. "So we have to figure out if the target deserves to die first. The thing is, we don't know how trustworthy your intel is."

    That earned her a soft chuckle. "Quite true. What would you consider a worthy sign of trust?"

    "How about the names of your bosses, and where we can find them?"

    The other woman considered this for a moment, then shook her head. "I can offer the position of our headquarters, but not the identities of our leaders."

    Well, it was worth a try. Rose mulled over the counter-proposal for a moment; she already decided to give them a chance, but the merchant in her shouted to milk this opportunity for all it was worth. "Okay, I'll take that, and... your face."

    A beat.

    "My... face?"

    "Yep, show me your face... and gimme your name while we're at it."

    Rose was almost sad that her winning grin could not be seen. The Bloodwing considered her offer for a few seconds before nodding. "Fine with me."

    "You have yourselves a deal then!" Rose almost chirped the words while holding out her hand, which was taken without hesitation. They shook.

    Then the Bloodwing took a step back and lifted her veil to reveal amber eyes and sharp features beneath. She pulled back her hood and flicked a braid of raven hair from wherever it was tucked before. "Velvet is my name, and you can find our headquarters in the Crowe's Nest tavern in Lastonbell."

    "Wait, the one where you can talk to seraphim?!" When she got it confirmed, Rose groaned and slumped to the ground in defeat. "I wanted to go the last time we moved through there, but we didn't have time!" Now she was doubly sad about it, especially after being reminded of the fact she did not get to go before.

    There was a moment of silence, which a glance to Velvet told Rose was because the other woman was amused, then she spoke up again: "All of us Bloodwings carry red scarves or something similar somewhere. It will usually be us initiating conversations and you can't expect everyone wearing red to be one of ours, but you can trust that no one not wearing red will approach you in any official function. We're... still working on a way to mark trustworthy allies to our members." Velvet closed her eyes as if to think, then added one more thing: "That aside, you can usually find me around the Crowe's Nest. I was on a business trip of sorts, which is why I'm here tonight."

    "Alright, noted." Rose considered the situation and decided they were about done with this meeting. So she pulled off her mask while rising back to her feet. A wink was thrown at the taller woman, who studied her curiously. "Now that that's over... how about I treat you to a drink?"

    There was a notable pause where Velvet looked at her with narrowed eyes; only then did she seem to realise. "Are you propositioning me?"

    "Well duh, of course I am!"

    She was, admittedly, a little surprised about Velvet's bluntness; though she appreciated it, as it saved time. And was that a hint of a blush she spied in the torchlight?

    "Sorry, I don't swing that way. And I'm seeing someone already."

    Now that was disappointing, but nothing Rose could do much about. She shrugged and threw the other woman a grin. "Sorry about that then. Should have known a gorgeous lady like you already has someone." At least she got Velvet to blush a little bit more and huff at the comment, though there was no other response. Rose dropped the subject there. "But really, if you need a place to rest, my camp isn't too far away."

    "I know." The certainty in her voice and her knowing smile told Rose their secrets might not be as secretive anymore. Velvet then shook her head again. "I'll be fine, but thank you for the offer. If there was nothing else, I should head back and pass on the news now."

    Rose considered for a moment, but then gave a shake of her own. "Nah, nothing right now. You'll stay in touch?"

    "We will. Have a good night."

    "Same to you!"

    They both turned to go their own ways and Rose had to admit she was a little sad she failed to seduce Velvet, but one did not always get what they wanted. So she shrugged off the feeling and took up speed. Speed she now knew she had because of a seraph.

    Left behind, voices carried through the night but were lost to any curious ears: "You could have come up with a better excuse."

    The silence was broken once again by Velvet's response: "That was no excuse, I am seeing someone"

    "...I don't believe you. Who is he?"

    "Someone nice. I'm not going to tell you for now, no need to start trying."

    "I still won't believe you until I see him."

    A long pause followed before Laphicet change the subject: "That woman had a worrying purity about herself."

    Velvet did not sound concerned, though. "Why is that worrying? Eleanor was pure, too."

    "Her occupation did not consist of killing people."

    Another pause as Velvet thought back. The Eleanor Hume she remembered could not bring herself to kill humans. She became horrified of having killed daemons, or hellions, after realising they were still people even after they turned. She remembered how Eizen once described it, that Malevolence was born by "leaving one's inner contradictions unadressed". Such as, say, taking a life and then pretending nothing was wrong. Eleanor maintained her purity through being the kind of person to accept her own flaws, address those contradictions, and work to alleviate them.

    "So you say that this woman has some way to address the fact she murders others."

    The response was nonchalant: "She said it herself: 'if the job is necessary, the client doesn't matter'; it sounds like a creed of honour, but it is also one of judgement. They judge for whether one deserves death, then become the executioner."

    "Hm, that makes sense." A pause. "Wait. Didn't Melchior stay pure through absolute faith in the righteousness of the exorcists?"

    "Correct. Despite the torture, experiments, executions, and other dark deeds he committed, there was never a speck of Malevolence within Melchior Mayvin." Laphicet did not have any audible reaction to the list of actions he just gave. It was merely recounting facts. He sighed then. "So I assume the Scattered Bones are the same. They have absolute faith in their judgement being correct. If they decide someone deserves death by their rules, then to them, it will be just and necessary."

    There was another pregnant pause as they both pondered the implications of all this. "This group is dangerous," Velvet summarised. "But we should be able to deal with them if we play our cards right."

    "I agree. We haven't found any hellions among them... beside that man you ate a while ago. So the group as a whole must be of great purity and mental strength."

    "Or all the weaklings were weeded out over the years and the rest is deranged."

    Laphicet's laughter rang out and the night swallowed them soon after.
     
  6. Windborne

    Windborne Devourer of Stories

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    Fun chapter. You know I’d totally ship Velvet and Rose. Two of my favorite Tales characters ever, they’d get along great, so I wouldn’t mind seeing them hook up.
     
  7. tnt

    tnt Getting sticky.

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    If were bringing shipping into this now...
     
  8. Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    Unfortunately, Glenwood is a supercontinent and thus all characters are landlocked until further notice. No ships in sight :V


    Joke aside, while relationships are a part of life, I am not just pairing up characters to have a ship. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it does not; I am not declaring this story free of any romance, but neither will I confirm its eventual existence. Feel free to discuss the subject if you wish, though I expect everyone to do so civilly.
     
    tnt and Windborne like this.
  9. Threadmarks: 2.2 Meeting People
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    Mikleo watched his brother with fond exasperation. They had only just left the mountain ruins and he was already running around with the biggest smile on his face. The sun stood high up in the sky, meaning they still had time to spend. Mikleo thought of the ceremonial dagger in Sorey's pack, knowing that they would not catch up to Alisha anytime soon; she left the previous day and, going by how Sorey spent several minutes just observing a stag and doe walking past, the distance would simply grow.

    Then his brother's attention was caught by the local flora. "Just look at these mushrooms," he called to Mikleo while darting over and examining his find; the forest up ahead would surely hold many more surprises. The water seraph followed with a shake of his head, but said nothing. Sorey had always been interested in all things of the world, from plants to history; no words could detract him.

    By himself, Mikleo wondered whether Sorey would pick up other hobbies once they reached the human realm; he long since figured that his particular fixation came from having little else to do up in Elysia, beside exploring and reading. Or listening to some of the older seraphim tell stories at the campfire.

    Days passed like this as they made their way in the direction Alisha told them; Sorey's curiousity morphed back into his usual sunny attitude, aside from the times they had to run away from wild hellions out for their blood. Mikleo was quite happy with that last decision, as he knew Sorey's thoughts on needless killing and also preferred not to get too close to the Malevolence. He carefully skirted around even the smallest clouds of it they encountered, just to be sure. Sometimes he wondered, though; Sorey had no problem hunting rabbits and fishing, though never more than he needed. Mikleo needed no food to sustain himself, so he refrained from meals.

    They reached Ladylake around noon of the third day since leaving home, having made some haste. The two were held up at the main bridge leading up to the city gate, though. Some kind of commotion led to a traffic jam and they stood in line waiting.

    Sorey, being Sorey, tried to remain in place before being drawn out of his shell by boundless curiousity; the first person he approached was a woman who could be anywhere from their age to her late twenties, with dark red hair and a cheerful grin on her face. She had been peering at them from time to time before already and Mikleo could sense a little more mana around her than elsewhere, but nowhere nearly enough for it to be another seraph. He shrugged it off and watched his brother talk, a little less comfortable than he had been at home. Perhaps the many people around made him a little queasy.

    Thus began their stay in Ladylake. Eventless, it would not be.

    Later on that same day, far to the west in Lastonbell, one of six teleportation artes in the newly created dispatching station began to glow and a seraph raced out. The two others on guard quickly left their posts when he called the news to them: a new shepherd had arrived.

    The news spread like wildfire among the Bloodwing Butterflies but was, surprisingly to the more cynical ones, retained within the organisation. Lastonbell remained unaware. When Laphicet heard it from his sister, he threw her a grin. "So it is time. Do we have anything on what kind of person they are?"

    Velvet, meanwhile, shook her head no. "We just know it is a man by the name of Sorey, no one so much as knows him. Average male height," she read off with a glance at the short report, "brown hair, appears friendly, no comment on resonance; he has two seraphim around and should still sleep off bonding with the second one."

    "Lailah?"

    "Yes."

    "Hm. Maybe I should pay her a visit and congratulate her?"

    At that, Velvet looked up from the parchment with a sly grin. "Visiting a pretty lady right after she bonded with another man? How bold, Laphi!"

    The boy just rolled his eyes and clapped his sister's shoulder. "Don't infringe on Edna's territory. She's better at this than you, anyway." Then, while he was already picking out a few things to take along for the trip, he cast a glance her way again. "What about the other seraph?"

    She turned back to the report in response. "Nothing, but he wears a lot of blue so we suspect water. His name is Mikleo and he is the quiet type. Probably attentive. Be careful."

    "Sure. I'll probably go tomorrow, it will be late in Hyland now." Laphicet cast a glance out the window and at the descending sun. Then his eyes went back to Velvet. "And I need another batch of cookies, we're running out again."

    There was a pause as the older Crowe slowly turned her head again to look her brother dead in the eye. "I made a big batch just for you last week," she drawled. If she expected him to wilt however, she was disappointed; Laphicet held her gaze.

    "And they're all gone," he responded without flinching. "Do you have any idea how many cookies Edna and Lailah devour each? If they weren't seraphim and thus don't gain weight, I could roll them around this time next year." He exaggerated a little, but it got him the desired snort from Velvet. Who, unfortunately, did not let herself be distracted from the contradiction in his words.

    "Except," she noted sweetly, "that you didn't visit Lailah in this last week. Are you trying to pretend you weren't sneaking a lot of them yourself?" Then Velvet pushed herself up with a sigh. "Just so we're clear about this, I won't scold you for eating sweets anymore. You're old enough to decide what you eat on your own, and you're responsible enough to keep it balanced, even if that doesn't mean much to a seraph." She left a pause at that for him to nod, then shook her head with a smile. "So give me a bit and I'll whip up another batch."

    The beaming smile was immediate. "Thanks, sister! You're the best!"

    "Heh, and don't you forget it."

    . .
    . .

    When Sorey woke, he felt oddly warm. For some reason, the human body entered a fever state while also massively slowing down its metabolism as it adjusted to a bonded seraph. He did not know how much time passed; it was three days back when he bonded with Mikleo, who he realised in that moment was sitting near his bed with a book in hand. Not that he fooled anyone, seeing how his gaze was directed out of the window.

    "Ah, Sorey!"

    His gaze flicked to the other side of his bed, where Lailah beamed down at him. She noticed his being awake almost right away and her call alerted Mikleo in turn. Sorey smiled up at the two. "Hey guys. What did I miss?"

    His brother huffed. "Us having to carry you here, for one. People thought it was a special shepherd power that you can fly around while sleeping." This, in turn, set Lailah off into giggles.

    Sorey glanced between the two of them before resting his head back on the soft pillow. "Oh well, I guess that's fine. How long was I out?"

    "About a day," the lady seraph answered him, having gotten a hold of herself. "We stayed by your side to watch over you."

    He closed his eyes for a moment and gathered himself, then pushed up and out of bed. "Alright, let's get ready then." Sorey quickly noticed a set of clothes prepared for him, atop a fine white cape with dark blue markings that he knew he did not possess. "What's that?"

    Mikleo glanced over from his book. "Alisha brought it this morning. Said it was traditional for the shepherd to wear." He made a bit of a weird expression, but turned back to his book before Sorey could make sense of it. "So congratulations," Mikleo muttered, "you're Shepherd Sorey now."

    Something was off, he could tell. Sorey pulled his shirt down and put the elation of truly having become the shepherd aside, glancing between the two seraphim. "Something else happened that you're not telling me," he judged. Lailah's smile grew a little stiff in response while Mikleo refused to meet his gaze.

    "Well, ah, this is a little awkward." His new friend coughed into her fist and motioned for his brother. "I am afraid I had to, er, sever your existing bond when you bonded with me. There was no real time to discuss it with those hellions around, but, well...." She let the sentence hang in the air and Sorey tried to understand why Lailah would do that; then he figured it was probably something about her duty. She tapped her fingertips together as her gaze alternated between the men, but said nothing more.

    For a moment, Sorey wanted to ask about reestablishing his bond with Mikleo, but then he thought; as shepherd, he would have to purify Malevolence and fight the Lord of Calamity, whoever they were. Bringing his brother into so much danger was... not a good idea, to Sorey. So he, too, kept his silence.

    After getting dressed and admiring his new garment for a moment, Sorey opened the door to his room to find Alisha standing guard on the other side; she was already turning, her eyes bright and a smile on her lips. "Good afternoon, Sorey! How are you feeling?"

    "Oh, I'm alright. Thanks for keeping watch."

    "It was nothing. Please, I had them prepare some food for when you awakened. Come along." She motioned to the right and marched on, leaving Sorey little choice but to follow; Alisha did not even seem to notice his surprise about her assertive behaviour, still so full of cheer.

    A late breakfast followed, with him and Alisha doing the talking; or rather, Alisha alone. She told him of the area, of the people, of all the things she saw on her missions so far. Lailah and Mikleo sat to his left and right respectively, the princess opposite to him and filling the silence as he ate. Then something odd happened. Mikleo's eyes shifted and alerted Sorey to a boy entering the inn, looking younger than either of them. Lailah was so focussed on Alisha's tale of the northern wilds that she failed to notice him; he stood out a little despite his simple brown trousers and white shirt, perhaps due to his light blond hair or the crimson scarf in summer. Maybe it was the gleam in his amber eyes that caught Sorey's attention, or perhaps simply the fact he made a beeline for them.

    Whatever it was, the boy waited patiently between Lailah and Alisha until the latter paused in her tale, eyes wandering over Sorey for a few moments. "So this is the shepherd I heard about," he then mused out loud with a faint smile. Lailah's head turned while he continued: "I'm glad I was still around."

    Sorey returned his smile then. "Yeah, that's me. You can count on me."

    Curiously, Alisha's expression slipped into confusion and she glanced around. "Um, Sorey? Who are you...." She trailed off and her eyes widened; Sorey understood as well in that moment, though his human friend quickly eyed their surroundings. "There are seraphim around us, no?" Without waiting for an answer, she then turned in her seat toward the direction he spoke in. "Oh, please forgive my rudeness, I can nomph-"

    She was shut up by a bag being pressed to her face for a moment, which the boy then let drop into her lap. He sighed and turned his attention back to Sorey. "Please tell her there is nothing to forgive." He repeated the words for a befuddled Alisha. "And that my sister made a bigger load for everyone here to share."

    He repeated that as well, then paused and looked at the boy seraph more directly. "What do you mean?"

    The answer was interrupted by Lailah clapping her hands in delight. "Oh my, Laphicet! I keep telling you there is no need!"

    "I'm aware, but I figured some celebration is in order to welcome the new shepherd. Take them as a congratulatory gift." He offered the group as a whole a bright smile that Sorey returned even without knowing what exactly this was about.

    He did not have to wait much longer to find out, anyway; Alisha had opened the bag and pulled out a biscuit to examine. "Looks like someone's gifting those to us four," Sorey told her with a grin. Her eyes only grew wider and she immediately turned back to... roughly where Laphicet stood, bowing her head.

    "Many thanks, oh kind seraph!"

    The boy fidgeted a little over the reverent tone but kept the smile on his face. Lailah giggled a little. "There is such a tough cookie hiding under that sweet smile, too," the lady seraph cooed, which immediately prompted Laphicet to sigh. Sorey's grin remained as he was unaffected by the pun, though Mikleo snorted quietly. Then she clapped her hands again. "But anyway, Laphicet, meet Shepherd Sorey and his friend Mikleo."

    They exchanged greetings and Sorey offered the other seraph to join them at the table, but he shook his head. "I'm sorry, but I was just in the area for unrelated matters, now I have to head back on home. It was nice meeting you, Sorey, Mikleo."

    He waved and made his exit then, leaving the four alone at the table; Sorey leaned back in his chair and made a thoughtful noise. "That was certainly something. Does he live in town, Lailah?"

    Alisha followed his gaze even though she could not hear a single word; a glance to the other human showed that she seemed to be straining her ears. Lailah offered a faint shrug. "I do not think so, to be honest. He first appeared a few months ago and has been visiting me every few weeks since. I quite appreciate his company."

    "Sounds like he is crushing," Mikleo provided from Sorey's other side. He wondered about that a little, but Lailah shook her head.

    "At first I thought so too, but now I feel he is just an earnest young man, who wanted to keep me company in my vigil. From what he told me, he is traveling with his sister." She then smiled at the two men and reached over to snatch a biscuit out of the bag in Alisha's lap. "I'm sure we will meet him again!"

    Meanwhile, Laphicet had started his walk back to the Bloodwings' base in Ladylake, a small safehouse at the outskirts of town. He did not pay much attention to the people walking around him and little more to the chatter about the new shepherd and other, more domestic news; it was still enough to notice a faintly familiar face coming straight at him. Snow white hair, vivid green eyes, a pleasant smile, old. Granny was up to something again.

    He made a few steps to the side so as to not run into her, but she did the same; when he met her eyes, she grinned at him. Then they both stood in front of each other, with a young woman walking into the suddenly stopping elder and apologising as she went past. Laphicet looked up at her. "Hello, grandma. Did you forget where your home is?"

    The needling only prompted a quiet chuckle before the old woman shook her head. "Nothing of the sort, my boy. We just haven't spoken in a while and I'm so curious how you're doing. Why don't you join me for lunch?" When he made to consider, she nudged him with a conspiratorial grin. "There's something in it for you, too."

    People around them were taking notice of the elder's odd behaviour, but then went on to ignore it. Laphicet had to admire how well she knew to play the senile old woman. Not to mention that he was curious what she meant; he did not lack for time at the moment, so he might as well. "Alright, let's go."

    So they walked through Ladylake, on a path that soon became somewhat familiar. Down a familiar road, to a small, faintly familiar house. Neither spoke on the way, the old woman just smiling to herself and Laphicet following. Once they were through the door however, she called out into the house: "Symonne, dear, I brought you something nice!"

    Almost immediately, a disinterested voice called back: "Is it another puppy?"

    As Laphi's attention left the elder, his senses began to pick up a big amount of mana just ahead. He blinked, alienated, while a wrinkled hand landed on his shoulder. "No, this one here is a little bigger."

    The exchange might have been funny normally, but right now he was just confused.

    A girl seraph then poked her head into the open doorway to the living room, black hair with purple tips hanging down and one bang falling over her eye that way. Lilac eyes examined him for a moment, almost clinically, before the girl's attention turned to the old woman by his side. "Did you kidnap another boy off the streets, Nica?" she inquired then. He could not see much more than her eyes and hair, but even Laphicet could hear the faint amusement in her tone.

    Nica, as he now knew her name was, cackled and pushed him forward. "No, no. This one followed me home, though I don't think we can keep him."

    When Symonne rounded the corner, what immediately drew Laphi's eyes was her rather... revealing attire. As in, he could not remember ever seeing that much rosy skin on a single person before while they were fully clothed. Her top was breezy, leaving both collarbone and cleavage as well as midriff revealed; it sat on her frame lightly and was tucked into a big belt that itself covered a good part of her shorts; shorts which were even shorter than what he originally picked as Innominat. The most covering she actually had were her thighighs.

    Dainty feet carried the slender girl closer, those lilac eyes roaming his form with curiousity. She tilted her body lightly, revealing bare sides without a care. A faint smile played around her lips, which Laphicet only noticed because he finally forced his gaze up. Looking at her face directly, he felt he saw her somewhere before. But he could not figure out when, or where. Shaking off those notions and doing his best to ignore burning cheeks, he gave a smile to the girl. "Hello, I'm Laphicet. Nice to meet you."

    "Symonne, likewise." She even returned his smile, if a little more coy than he was used to.

    "I adopted Symonne a few months ago," Nica threw in with a quiet laugh. "Taking a break from her travels did the girl good, now she actually smiles some more." She ushered them both into the living room as she spoke, but Laphicet could see his fellow seraph roll her eyes.

    "I can't even deny it," Symonne muttered, more to herself. He was about to comment that he finally got to meet granny's seraph, but then he realised the time did not add up; or if it did, only barely. Not to mention that there was still a seraph dwelling within Nica in this very moment.

    The elder made them sit down next to each other on the worn couch and gave them a wide grin. "Now, you children relax while I cook up something nice." They both accepted her pace, though with matching grins to each other as their thoughts were roughly the same: 'the old lady and her whims'.

    Unfortunately, with Nica out of the room and nothing else to focus on, Laphi's eyes began to wander again. He knew her from somewhere, but it would not come to him. He tried not to stare, he really did. Unfortunately, Symonne noticed anyway; instead of getting annoyed or whatever else he might have expected however, she threw him a coy wink. "You can look if you want. I wouldn't dress this way if I wasn't comfortable with being seen."

    She leaned a little closer and Laphicet leaned back unconciously, his cheeks flaming over her cheeky tone of voice. "I-It's rude to stare," he stuttered out after a moment, his brain having ceased to function.

    Symonne, though, merely smiled that coy smile and leaned in further. She casually ran a finger over his chest, peering into his eyes. "You can touch if you want, too." His face might have been on fire in that moment. Laphicet fidgeted a little, embarassed, and the finger retreated; Symonne's bell-like laughter filled the room as she left him be, lounging on her end of the couch with a wide grin.

    Nica leaned into the room in that moment; she beheld how her newly adopted seraph sat, noted Laphicet's pout, and huffed quietly. "I forgot it earlier," she called over to distract the two, "but tell your sister to come visit me again soon. There was something I wanted to talk about with her. You can come back to play with Symonne, too; the poor dear needs a friend."

    Symonne immediately made a face which Laphicet grinned over in turn; then he answered Nica with a bit of a thankful smile: "I can tell her that, but it might be a bit until we can come visit."

    "Ah, that's quite alright. Just make sure to tell her."

    Once the elder had returned to her cooking, Symonne cast a curious glance to Laphicet. "Your sister? How did you two meet Nica?"

    "Velvet fell for the granddaughter-trick," he deadpanned and was rewarded with a chuckle.

    "Ah yes, she loves that one." Symonne paused for a moment, but then seemed to give herself a little push and continued. "Just last week, there was this one guy-"

    So she regaled him with tales of the old lady's exploits, which Symonne herself sometimes aided when she felt like it. Laphicet listened eagerly and commented a few times, but she seemed to have fun just talking, so he let her. The only time Symonne stopped was when Nica began to serve lunch; she quickly hopped up and helped set the table, which Laphicet emulated a moment later. "She'd do it all herself," the girl seraph told him as they went, to a huff from her vessel.

    Having run out of steam after being interrupted however, she then turned her attention back to Laphicet as they sat down before steaming vegetables and rice with some pork mixed in. "You're traveling, right? What brought you here to Ladylake?"

    "Hm?" He finished chewing his brussel sprout and swallowed, then tapped his lower lip with the fork. "Well, I was in the area and heard about the new shepherd, so I came to check."

    Symonne's fork almost missed her mouth and she stared at him with widened eyes, a sight which neither he nor Nica missed. The old woman chuckled and threw Laphicet a wink. "Yes, I heard about him while out in town. I was going to, heh, take a closer look at him soon."

    He could not help but grin back. "Don't be too mean to him, yes? He's a decent person from what I saw. Princess Alisha seems to like him, at least."

    "My, my. Alisha, hm?" The elder rubbed her hands. "This will be fun."

    Not long after Laphicet left them to head home, Symonne went out to 'take a walk'. Not that Nica believed that one for even a moment.

    "Who would have thought that such a sweet tease was hidden under all the fatalism," she mused out loud, for only her old friends to hear. They had helped coax the actual Symonne out of that shell over the last few months. The girl still 'went on walks' from time to time, but what she actually did became fairly obvious beyond just a guess by now. To do it right after learning of the new shepherd. Symonne normally 'took a walk' after nightfall, and consistently so.

    Nica sat down on the couch and leaned back, feeling her old bones protest slightly. "Ah, woe is me under the burdens of age." Then however, her grimace was broken by a wide grin. "At least things will get interesting again."
     
  10. Threadmarks: 2.3 Light of the Past
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    "So," Velvet opened their discussion calmy, arms crossed and leaned back in her chair, "we have an in. You already made contact with them yesterday and we could place someone right with them."

    Laphi mimicked her posture and cast a doubtful look back. "We don't know if I can bond with him," he argued. "I don't want to bond with him even if I can, and no matter who we put next to them will get direct attention from our target." He almost counted the points off his fingers, much to Velvet's annoyance.

    "You're not wrong," she finally allowed. "It would be good to have someone on the inside, but the only person I'd trust with that is Eizen." Who was unavailable for draconic reasons. She sighed. "So our best option is to stay in the background and have the Bloodwings keep an eye on him, maybe help him out or give him nudges from time to time." A moment passed as neither sibling voiced disagreements or additions, which prompted another sigh from Velvet. "This was a shorter discussion than I expected. Do we have anything else important?"

    "In a way." Laphi sorted some papers he had prepared. "Marlind reported more Malevolence recently... and Rohan is missing."

    "Rohan, that was... the lord of the land there?"

    He nodded. "The one. The problem with him being missing is that a drake was sighted near the city." The two of them exchanged grimaces, the implications of that timing clear.

    However, Velvet raised a finger in thought to get her brother's attention. "I never heard about drakes before. How are they different from dragons?"

    "No one told you?" She shook her head and Laphi frowned. "Odd. It's a more recent differentiation. A drake is basically an in-between stage between seraph and dragon. From what the others told me, they can still be cleansed but only until they grow into proper dragons. You didn't see many in our time because you couldn't tell; maybe some others you saw were actually drakes, not that anyone would see any differences before Maotelus and the silver flame appeared." He paused for a moment to make sure Velvet understood, then returned to the actual subject. "Either way, I will let them know to stay out of danger zones and be careful; we can leave this be unless he turns into a full dragon. Marlind is not too far from Ladylake, so that might give us a better idea of Sorey's capability."

    "Agreed. Anything else?"

    Laphi consulted his notes again. "Well, next up would be Aifread asking for intel about Rolance's trade routes and knight presences around Zaphgott Moor." Velvet inclined her head, being familiar with that subject by now.

    Elsewhere, Sorey was wandering Ladylake with Lailah and Alisha. Mikleo made himself scarce the previous day and he was a little worried about where his brother went, but kept it to himself. He had other, more direct problems to occupy his mind anyway; such as how the people respectuflly bowed out of his way wherever he went. "I have to say," he told his companions after a while, "this feels kinda weird."

    Lailah merely wore a lenient smile, a weaker version of which Alisha offered him as well. "It is something you will get used to," the princess told him gently. "You are the shepherd now, which affords you some of the respect earned by every shepherd before you from the start. Just smile and keep going."

    He tried to heed her advice, but his face felt weirdly stretched the whole time. Yet people seemed happy enough with the whole affair, so he kept his thoughts to himself. It worked quite well and they traversed a good bit of Ladylake before someone did not move out of the way. Sorey, being in the lead, failed to notice Alisha's resignated slump. He moved toward the old woman and made to walk around her, but she stepped along and smiled up at him. "There you are, my boy! Ah, it's been so long!"

    He stopped, dumbfounded. "Uhh...."

    Vivid green eyes peered up at him and instead of reacting to his confused noise, she clapped her hands. "My, you've grown into such a fine young man, and so handsome," she praised before leaning to the side and taking in Alisha, her smile unwavering. "And you found yourself such a beautiful wife, too!"

    This misunderstanding was growing ever worse, yet Sorey had no idea how to respond; he just stared and tried to come up with something. The suppressed chuckling around them did not help, especially when he heard another clap from behind followed by Lailah calling out: "I had no idea, congratulations, Sorey!"

    Alisha kept strangely quiet until that point, but he did not want to be rude and turn around. She then spoke with her usual friendliness, though: "Hello, granny. I was just showing the shepherd around town."

    If she had hoped to defuse the situation, she hoped in vain; the elder just beamed at him. "My my, you became shepherd? That's my grandson for you! Come, come, a shepherd needs to eat a proper meal!" A wrinkled hand grabbed for his and took it firmly, calloused by a long life. The old woman began to pull him along. "And no one cooks better than granny!" she finished eagerly. Confused as well as uncertain, he let himself be led; Alisha caught up to his side and threw him an apologeptic look. All around them, people were wearing exasperated smiles or shaking their heads. Some still tried not to laugh at his predicament, others had given up.

    He managed to get a hold of his embarassment and wonder, but not before he was already through several streets and sat down at a stranger's table. Granny's cheerful hums sounded from the next room and his two companions were seated beside him. "What just happened?" he could not help but ask them quietly.

    Lailah chuckled, but Alisha let out a soft sigh. "I am truly sorry for not warning you," she whispered back. "I did not expect for us to encounter granny Nica today." A glance went to the kitchen to make sure the elder was not paying attention to them. "Her memory is not the best and she keeps mixing up her grandchildren every once in a while. It happened to me several times before." She shrugged helplessly, but at least Sorey understood now.

    Accepting his fate, he relaxed a little into the chair. "I guess it's fine then. I don't like pretending, but if it makes her happy...." He did not finish the sentence, but Alisha seemed to share his exact feelings on the matter.

    They were interrupted by granny shuffling back in to set the table. Four plates were placed, one in front of Lailah, to Alisha's initial confusion. The lady seraph threw Nica a knowing smile, though Sorey failed to notice; his eyes were drawn to the bookshelf in the room's back. This, however, the elder took note of before giving him a pat on the head. "Heh, you were always an avid reader. Help yourself, my boy; the food will take a little while."

    His previous thoughts forgotten, Sorey immediately stood and strolled over to the font of knowledge. His eyes were wide in wonder as he browsed through the titles and worn spines, focussed to the point he did not even notice Alisha following him. Sorey quickly found a well-read copy of the Celestial Record, his own favourite book. "Look," he told his companion excitedly while holding it up so Lailah could see it from her seat, "granny has one, too!"

    Both of them chuckled for some reason, mouths hidden behind their hands. He paid them no mind and carefully put the book back; he had his own copy after all. Alisha stepped next to him to peruse the old lady's books, pulling one out of the middle and looking at it; Sorey did not pay much mind until she spoke up: "How odd, I can not read that at all."

    "Hm?" When he cast more than a glance over, he realised how ancient this thin tome must be. An intricate symbol of some kind covered its front; its odd scripture appeared like something he saw before, however. The young shepherd leaned over to look and Alisha shifted the book so he could read it more easily. "Wow. It's not meliodasian script, that's for sure... wait." His eyes grew wide as an idea began to form. "Is that, is that! Granny!"

    The elder leaned into the room curiously and he held up the tome. "Is this book written in Ancient Avarost? Can you read it?!"

    "Why, yes," the elder told him cheerfully. Sorey almost drooled as she elaborated: "It's a well-made copy with childrens' counting songs, or so I am told. I never learned it myself, so I can't say if it's true."

    "So you know someone who can read it?" He had to meet that person and learn everything from them.

    "Um," Alisha interjected with a tap to his shoulder and a curious gaze at the book he now cradled in his hands. "What is so special about Ancient Avarost?"

    "You don't know?" Seeing her expression, Sorey pushed his excitement back a notch. "Sorry, got a little carried away." He then held up the book for emphasis again. "Ancient Avarost is one of the lost tongues and the most difficult one still remembered. It's based on impressionist script, so each character can have various meanings depending on the feeling its supposed to portray and what characters surround it. You have to intuit how the author felt while writing something to even start translating it, sometimes you need to rearrange the entire structure of a paragraph to get at the actual meaning, too. It's incredible!"

    Alisha listened curiously, trying to make sense of his description and understand how such a scripture would even work. Once Sorey had finished however, it was Lailah who spoke up from her seat: "Could it be that your seraph translated this text?"

    "Huh? Wait, what?"

    Sorey, his attention now drawn from the old tome, looked between Lailah and Nica; Alisha followed his gaze with some confusion, which only grew when the elder cackled and answered the question the princess never heard: "No no, dear. The woman I got it from told me about it a long time ago."

    Picking up on Alisha's confusion, Sorey made a motion for where his bonded seraph sat. "Lailah is still with us and, well. It looks like granny can see seraphim?" It came out as more of a question than he intended; Sorey cast a look at the amused elder, who tilted her head at him but said nothing.

    "Oh, I see."

    Alisha's eyes narrowed for a moment before she averted her gaze, then released a quiet sigh and took the book back from Sorey. Closing it carefully, she ran a finger over the almost bleached out cover. Its paper was brittle, much different to the parchment used these days. Yet Sorey and her could both still see the emblem drawn on its cover; Alisha traced it with her finger. "What an elaborate design," she mumbled in reawakened wonder.

    Lailah joined them to peek at it while Sorey already peered at the cover. This crest consisted of a succession of five rings, each smaller one placed within the next bigger one. The smallest was a dot, the biggest had diamonds drawn at each cardinal direction like a compass; halfway between each diamond sat another that turned into an arrowhead directed outward. "If its childrens' counting songs and written in Ancient Avarost, that might be Avarost's crest or something," he suggested.

    Neither Sorey nor Alisha saw Lailah's expression cloud over. The only one who noticed was granny, who left the room instead of telling on her. They ultimately left the ancient tome alone, as no true interpretation revealed itself. Unfortunately for them, Nica's seraph made no appearance despite Sorey's asking to meet them. "He is shy," she explained and wondered if they actually believed it.

    Now that the group of three left to investigate something closer to Marlind, she was cleaning up a little. That intriguing book remained on the table for now until she could sort it back in; the preservative artes did their best, but its age made great care a necessity regardless.

    That was when Symonne returned, seeping in through the window like mist and then taking physical form; Nica greeted her with a warm smile and a pat on the head. "Welcome home, sweetie. It's cold today and you have been out for a while, do you want to warm up a bit?"

    The seraph shook her head at that and regarded the room, the smell of food, the plates. "I'm fine. Did you act senile again?" Her matter-of-fact tone drew a soft huff from Nica.

    "Why yes, dear; you just missed the gentle shepherd and princess Alisha by a few minutes."

    Symonne had little more than a shrug for that. "What a shame."

    They traded these barbs drily, just as they always did. Nica knew Symonne was happy with that. The girl began to open up over time, just as usual. She hid a grin nonetheless, knowing that her trap had long since snapped shut. The old adage remained true; people could fight pain, but they could not fight happiness. She had never forgotten that lesson and never would, and so Symonne would fall to her whims through kindness and love.

    When she turned back to return that book to its spot however, she found Symonne rooted to the ground. Her face had lost all colour, returning to a state almost as pale as when they first met. Her eyes were locked onto the crest on display, unblinking. The crest of Innominat.

    Nica hesitated for a long moment, considering how to approach this. A voice whispered to her from within, guiding, and she began by slowly pulling the book away. Careful not to damage it, she returned it onto the bookshelf. Then she stepped around Symonne and got into a good position. Nica reached out carefully and, instead of gently shaking the girl like others would, she grabbed under her armpits in a single motion and pulled her up, locking the seraph's arms.

    Symonne shuddered and her head whirled around, glassy eyes searching for threats. Her form wobbled but remained as it was, whatever terror haunted her stopping her from manipulating it. She thrashed and fought against Nica's grasp with violent force that tore something in the elder's arm, but she held strong. There was no screaming and the thrashing ended after that first attempt. They stared into each other's eyes for long moments until Symonne averted her gaze.

    "You can let go now, I am fine."

    She did not sound fine, but Nica decided not to point it out. She lowered the girl to the ground and wrapped her in a tight embrace, small hands clutching her old robe. Nica stroked Symonne's back to comfort her. "Surprisingly fine, but that is something seraphim have over humans. If you were one of us, there would've been screaming and punches and artes."

    "I am aware. I have seen quite a few such people."

    She still clutched Nica's robe despite the blank statement, unwilling to let go just yet; the elder said nothing about it and held Symonne, glad that the reaction had not been worse. A human in her position was already bad enough, but a seraph could cause great destruction if agitated; yet seraphim, by their spiritual nature and longer lifespan, could heal greater wounds than most humans could.

    She kept her thoughts on Symonne's state to herself and pulled the girl along to sit on the couch with her. An absently weaved healing arte saw to whatever tendon she tore when restraining the girl, all of her attention on comforting her. "There there, it's okay. You'll be okay, Symonne." Her charge almost rolled into a ball on her lap, head resting on the old woman's chest with a tired resignation.

    "I won't pry," Nica started gently after a time, fingers running through Symonne's hair. "But bottling it all up isn't going to help you. I will listen if you want to talk about it." She received a soft nod that was more felt than seen, but Symonne kept her silence.

    Nica knew she would need to strategise with the others some more; they had made great progress over the months, but there were still areas they needed to be careful about. Yet Nica was optimistic; she believed in their combined effort and experience.
     
  11. tnt

    tnt Getting sticky.

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    Ok, I didn't think so before but now after that line I'm wondering if Nica is Magilou.

    Which on one hand is awesome, and on the other makes me wonder why she isn't trolling/helping Velvet out more.
     
  12. TheTentacleyFlipper

    TheTentacleyFlipper Getting out there.

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    Magilou's full name is Magillanica Lou Mayvin. Just something to consider.
     
  13. Threadmarks: 2.4 Machinations
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    The clapping of hooves on stone had become quite familiar to Sorey over the past two weeks. He slowly got used to riding a horse, just like he got used to being the shepherd; he found his way into armatisation as well, though Mikleo's absence bothered him. Sorey felt weird without his brother around, especially on horseback like this. Lailah gave him some pointers from within and Alisha had a few more on her snow white mare, but he could not shake the feeling. At least the horse they lent him was a gentle one that seemed fine with his clumsy riding.

    Alisha had taken him out of Ladylake to investigate some odd occurences around a small town by the name of Marlind. Weird weather had been observed recently and Lailah thought it was related to Malevolence. Mikleo was absent when they left and had not shown his face for a good while before then, though Lailah said he would be fine.

    Sadly, his prodding as to his duties as shepherd received no responses. Lailah kept suspiciously quiet whenever he tried to ask her anything. What kind of powers were there, how best to do his duty, who to look for, if there were maybe previous shepherds' companions still around to ask for advice.

    Now, after fourteen days in Lakehaven Heights and close to the large hill which marked its end, Sorey sighed and decided to try a different track. "Lailah," he asked, "is there a reason you aren't telling me anything about being a shepherd?" Alisha paid little mind to him, eyes on the road ahead; she thankfully got used to only hearing half of a conversation, though he still felt a little bad about that.

    From within Sorey there was a little twinge, then Lailah's voice echoed in his mind: "There is, in fact. You have to see, the silver flame is a special power I received through an Oath. Do you know what that is?"

    He nodded, even if she could not see it. "You take some kind of restriction on yourself to gain power. The tighter the restriction, the greater the power you can get. At least that's what my books said. Oh, and that humans can use an Oath to increase their lifespan, if it's strong enough."

    "This is about correct," she agreed gently. "As firekeeper, the arbiter of whom shall be granted the silver flames of purification, I require a great deal of knowledge. Not just of people, but also of our history. Knowledge lost in time, history better left unearthed. Knowledge that goes beyond seraphim and humans." She paused as Sorey grasped the reins tighter, wondering where this was going. He steered his horse to slow down and follow Alisha's up the slope, where his partner continued: "Therefore, to ensure this vital knowledge remains safe in the hands of those who will not misuse it, my Oath requires that I am knowing but ever unable to share any of it. A vow of silence. Likewise, I must not speak of previous shepherds or their companions, so that my current shepherd can grow on their own, acquire knowledge as they are able, to achieve true greatness on their own merit."

    She fell silent after that explanation and Sorey sighed. "Alright, I get it," he told the fire seraph with just a bit of disappointment. "It's a bit sad that someone who knows so much is right there and I can't learn anything interesting from her."

    "I'm sorry."

    "Eh, don't be. It's not like you have a choice."

    Alisha almost appeared like she paid no mind, but he noticed how her head was turned the slightest bit. She was listening in, even though most of the conversation would make no sense to her. Sighing again, Sorey just hoped Mikleo was alright. And that maybe he could find a way to set him up as Ladylake's lord of the land after all, so he would be safe.

    Elsewhere, Rose cursed quietly while her eyes flicked over her group's next job offer. "Fuck," she muttered at Eguile and Dezel, who leaned right next to each other without the former even knowing, "this sucks so much. Alisha Diphda of all people."

    Yet the name on that parchment did not change, no matter how much she wanted it to. Rose took a deep breath, closing herr eyes to consider. "Even if she's guilty, if we have to do this job, we will lose credence in Hyland for a generation. The people love her." Then those same lids slid open and she gave her right hand man a hard stare. "But we aren't going to let her public appearance fool us. Eguile, you're in charge of her dossier." Her command was taken with a nod and he wandered off.

    "Another matter," Dezel noted when Rose kept quiet afterward, "is that she is out with the shepherd right now. This is political intrigue either way."

    "You're right," she told him grimly. Then she waved him closer. "Contact the Bloodwings; they offered their services; so we're going to use them." And oh had it been a surprise when she finally understood the secrecy was because they were all seraphim. "We'll put them to the test with this one. If our dossier differs from what they send us, they fail."

    He nodded and stalked away as well, leaving Rose alone. After just a few steps however, his form became fuzzy to her eyes before pain split her brain apart. Dezel was gone from view entirely in an instant. Rose groaned and pressed a hand on her forehead, then trundled back to 'her' cart. "Resonance sucks," she muttered to no one, all thoughts of political fallout and other issues replaced by the dire need to lie down.

    For Dezel, walking the streets of Ladylake was mostly a chore. He pushed a stray kitten away from a wagon wheel on his path and otherwise avoided touching people; his winds gave him a firm idea of the surrounding area and the many different people moving in it.

    On his search for Bloodwings however, he sensed two familiar forms; the small, boyish ball of mana that was seraph Laphicet, as well as his unusually tall sister Velvet. He took a moment to ascertain his observation, then changed direction to meet them at the next intersection; both took note of him and Laphicet raised a hand in greeting, to which he nodded. Dezel fell into step with them and made doubly sure no seraph was nearby before speaking up: "We have a job for you."

    "I see," the boy answered him friendly while picking up his step; Dezel and Velvet strode a good bit faster due to their longer legs. "Who do you need to know about, and until when?" Velvet seemed to keep her eyes on the road and did not respond, probably pretended not to hear them due to the many humans around. Dezel understood that much, wishing that Rose were half as careful at times instead of trusting in him to cut off sound in time. He never should have mentioned he could do that.

    "Alisha Diphda, the princess. We are still, still contacting some people about the matter, so there is no set date for delivery yet." His speech had hitched there when a shudder went down his spine, hopefully unnoticed. His winds deteced nothing dangerous around, but he felt as if there were. He shook it off after a moment. "Can you deliver?"

    There was a short pause as the boy's head turned slightly to his sister, who in turn had started to look his way when he named the target. Dezel waited while they apparently communicated with but a gaze. "Yes," Laphicet then said. "It will take a few days at least, but we should have something for you next week. Payment can be determined later."

    This, however, got his attention and worry. He considered not saying anything, but in the end a single comment slipped out: "That much trust can get you killed in the underworld."

    Laphicet tilted his head at Dezel quite noticeably then. "If we fail," he lectured calmly, "that's on us. Otherwise, you're not dumb enough to refuse payment to a competent information broker, and we're not dumb enough to demand an exorbitant amount." He had a point, but he was still far too confident in this for Dezel's liking. Either he was foolish, or he could back it up. Going by what Dezel saw of the boy and especially his sister so far, neither of them were fools. He had a gut feeling that there was more to them, if not what exactly; his winds told him odd things whenever they got near the two, yet never anything clear.

    Either way, he gave the boy a nod and then broke off; what they did in Ladylake or where they went was of no concern to him. He had to get back to Rose and make sure she was alright, or perhaps to take a look around town. Right now, he still had to be careful. Perhaps though, he mused, these two siblings might be able to help with his revenge. A thought for later.

    And high up the royal palace, two figures were looking out onto Ladylake. Only one would be visible to passersby. Any passersby, be they human or seraph. This one was Hyaci Maltran, the Blue Valkyrie.Hyland's most prestigious knight had her hands folded and her eyes directed outward, almost solemn in her silence. To an outside observer, it seemed like she was in thought.

    To Symonne, who stood next to her under an illusion to conceal her presence and hide their conversation, she was explaining their progress quietly. A sort of report between equals that found its end: "Everything is still going according to plan. The shepherd's purification tour through Lakehaven Heights lowered overall Malevolence density somewhat, but it was little more than a drop on the bucket."

    Hyaci then turned her head, a sharp gaze taking Symonne in. "Now there is a shepherd active. Are you returning to active duty soon?"

    The seraph did not even look at her, a dull gaze aimed into the distance but seeing nothing. "I might," she offered softly, "if I need to." Her eyes flicked to Hyaci and took in her every motion, the signs of carefully masked wariness. She could read her like an open book yet had no desire to; this woman was loyal, much like herself. Or so Symonne thought, even though it made her feel a little odd. She blinked, the sight of Lake Perniya shining under the midday sun coming back into focus.

    Her response did earn her a narrow-eyed gaze from Hyaci, though. "Have you forgotten our goal," the other woman asked with attempted calm that belied a mixture of indignation and something Symonne could not parse. "Have you lost your will?"

    For the first time since their conversation began, Symonne took in the woman directly. Hyaci flinched ever so slightly, likely from knowing that a single word of warning from Symonne would see her own position plummet, if not her head roll immediately. They stood as equals, but only because Symonne had no reason to see herself superior or act as such. She had half a mind to speak that word to their lord, but ultimately forced herself away from such thoughts; they were both loyal.

    It took a while of silent staring for her to realise she was expected to answer. "No, but... I remembered a few things." Now that she saw again, Symonne noticed how pronounced Hyaci's cheekbones were. How rosy her skin, and carefully maintained her hair. Even her set of casual light armour could not hide her womanly figure. She was pretty, a matter which Symonne had only ever acknowledged intelectually. Now though, she could also appreciate it.

    Hyaci herself gave a soft nod while Symonne's thoughts wandered back to that little house she could spy even from up high. The old woman waiting there for her to return home. Something deep within her throbbed for a reason she could not discern, did not feel the desire to search herself for. "I am proud of all the work I did for our cause, but only in retrospect do I realise how tiring it really was. I'd rather stay on break a little longer, unless there is an emergency that requires my attention." She had spoken from the heart, yet it was not the affirmation of her loyalty that eased the throbbing. It was what came after. Symonne knew that it was dangerous to care so much, but she could not help it and did not want to stop.

    "I see." Hyaci turned back to look out onto the city they both sought to undermine, a thoughtful tone to her voice now. "Forgive me for the harsh words. You... relaxed, recently. Changed. I was worried and spoke without thinking."

    The knight spoke more for her own benefit now and Symonne knew it, but she said nothing. Hyaci cared much for her standing, which was the main difference between them. Yet there was truth to her words as well; Symonne had changed. She would not lie to herself; being with Nica, the snarky conversations, the food, the heartfelt conversations, sleeping in an actual bed, she... enjoyed all those things. She thought of that cute boy she got to tease recently, too; she had fun.

    Yet it was all for nothing and she so knew; once her lord Heldalf's plans came to fruition, it would all vanish. But they would not do so for quite a while.

    Perhaps, Symonne thought, his slow approach was not so bad. Nica was human and would die sooner or later; until then, she wanted to make the most of that time.
     
  14. Threadmarks: 2.5 Humanity's Will
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    A simple knock on the door brought granny out of her home, much as if she had waited for them; this was nonsense, Velvet knew, but she still got that feeling. The elder smiled brightly when she saw her and Laphi. "My, what a surprise that you come visit, sweetie! Come in, come in!"

    What stood out among her more normal attire was the dark red scarf, almost exactly the same as Velvet and Laphi wore. She had it slung tight despite the day's pleasant warmth; both siblings noticed and neither believed in a coincidence. Velvet let herself be ushered inside and played along until the door fell closed, then her face fell into a frown. "What do you want from us?"

    Instead of being intimidated or taken aback however, Nica smiled back at her and ignored the vaguely threatening tone. "My, so pushy. We have time, dear. Come in, take off your shoes, have a seat. I just made some stew."

    Velvet had half a mind to force her into telling, but calmed herself; this was still an old woman. Shaking the answers out of her would more likely hurt her than anything else. Meanwhile, Laphi's eyes went around the room before settling on Nica. "Where is Symonne?"

    "Out on a walk," their host told him with a sly grin. "I still think that's a cover for whenever she reports to the Lord of Calamity, she is remarkably bad at hiding that from a skilled observer."

    Nica had their undivided attention immediately. Instead of answering any of their unasked questions however, the elder shooed Velvet inside and to the table she had such embarassing memories of. Her mind roiled, thoughts racing; an agent of the Lord of Calamity, just in their grasp. The first one they even came by, if Nica was right. A cup of steaming tea was placed in front of her as she thought, no stew in sight.

    "I had a bit of a hunch," the old lady explained as she took a seat opposite to them. "Her mindset is odd and was even worse when I found her. The right kind of person to support a Calamity, not to mention the right powers. This little one weaves illusions."

    This news disrupted Velvet's train of thought, who could not help but groan. "Illusions again. Great."

    She was just about done with anything relating to illusions or affecting the mind. An Empyrean's lifetime was not long enough until she wanted to interact with that kind of thing again. Laphi hummed and sipped his tea, eyes averted as he thought. "Illusions make her a formidable opponent. Perhaps we should, ah," a glance to her that made it clear what he thought, "question her?"

    "You better not," Nica cut Velvet off softly. Both glanced her way, only to receive not a hopeful or worried look but a feral grin. When she elaborated, it was with glee: "I already worked my magic on her. She can push back against torture, withstand Malevolence and pain. But she can not fight the joy I gave her, understanding and appreciation."

    Velvet straightened unconciously; this odd woman leaned back in her chair as if to relax, taking in the two wary siblings as her grin grew wider. "The Bloodwing Butterflies make their return, I see. And from what I saw around town, they mainly consist of seraphim." She made a pause for effect in which, indeed, the two Empyreans tensed up a little. "Ingenious! I love it!"

    She began to cackle, then louder when she beheld their dumbfounded expressions. Velvet had no idea what to make of this anymore and neither did Laphi. Before she could ask what the elder wanted however, what game she played, Nica finished laughing. "Let me join," she told, no, demanded of them. "I am old, but I have done much and seen even more. My knowledge will aid you greatly."

    A moment passed in the strangest silence, leaving both Crowes reeling as they wondered just how they got from the Lord of Calamity to initiating an old woman into their shadow guild. As Nica drew out the pause, Velvet slowly studied her. She just knew it could not be this easy. "Just like that?"

    "Hah, of course not! I have a price, dear. One only you can pay."

    Of course she did. Velvet took notice of her brother's worried shuffling, this random woman somehow managing to make even gods feel uncomfortable. She had no idea what this price would be, but one thing was clear: Nica was dangerous, and she was willing to throw in her lot with the Bloodwings. Velvet also found herself deeply curious what this all was about. "Okay, what is it?"

    Granny's wrinkly face appeared to sharpen as she smirked, sitting more straight and almost gleeful. "I," she began slowly, pointing at herself, "want you," with which she pointed at a wary Velvet, "to act like a dove."

    That was it?

    She almost asked the question out loud when a memory returned unbidden. Her mind fell quiet, stunned into silence for the first time since her awakening. Perhaps for the first time in her life entirely. No thought was there, Laphi asking the question she had earlier but remaining unheard by his sister. She stared at this old woman, amber eyes meeting vivid, familiar green. A familiar grin. She vaguely felt a hand shaking her shoulder, but paid it no mind; all of Velvet's attention was on the impossibility before her.

    "No way."

    She cackled, loudly. It then turned into an actual laugh, which gave Velvet some time to snap out of her stupor. Yet some of it remained, for it was still impossible. Then again, what had this one ever cared about possible? "What," the elder asked her gleefully, "did you think a thousand years is enough to do me in? Me, Magilou Mayvin?" She then broke into laughter again while both Crowes stared at her. In these moments, their thought processes could be summarised in three questions: 'What?', 'How?', and 'How?!'.

    "Ahhh," she sighed happily after calming down, "you won't believe how worth it your faces made the entire charade."

    Velvet was still finding no words, head empty and chest beginning to throb. Laphi spoke in her stead: "That's... impossible. No Oath in the world could last you a thousand years."

    The old woman simply raised a finger at the boy and began to lecture with a more chipper tone: "But it can last me long enough to figure out an arte to rejuvenate my body. Took two hundred years of on and off experimentation, but it worked out. Not that any human could cast such an arte alone, and it needs to be reconfigured for anyone else, but eh. Either way, it takes a power boost from seraphim specialised in boosting others to cast. And not just one, but two Normins are what you need." She then paused and made to smile more softly. "Speaking of...."

    On cue, two greenish orbs flowed out of Magilou's body and took shape, took colour as they landed on the table. Two small, furred bodies with pointy feet and hands. One had purple fur, the other's was grey, but the bellies of both were of a creamy pastel. Slitted, clearly feline eyes took in the siblings, a bright smile and a small one offered; Bienfu righted his top hat, still covering his face from the mouth up with only holes for his eyes, while Grimoirh immediately made to lounge on her side, spectacles firmly sitting on her button nose.

    "This is incredible," Bienfu cheered while hopping around in front of Velvet, "I never thought I'd see you again, you know? It's been ages!" His high-pitched voice chased away the last remainder of shock. She slowly stood, ignoring the Normin in front of her.

    "I agree," Grimoirh noted from her own perch, eyes more focussed on Laphi but likewise ignored by Velvet. "Who would have thought that we meet again, after so long." She stopped when she realised Velvet paid no attention to her, walking around the table.

    Magilou watched her march and got to her feet when Velvet stopped in front of her. Then, ever so slowly, Velvet reached out and wrapped her arms around the old woman's shoulders. She drew her in cautiously, afraid she would break under her inhuman strength, and held her close. Magilou just huffed and hugged her back. "You better not cry on me, sweetie."

    "Don't tell me what to do." Velvet's reply came soft and was interrupted by a hiccup. "I thought I'd never see you again."

    They stood like this for a while, though Velvet had no idea how long exactly. Magilou said nothing until they separated and did not comment on her watery eyes. She did, however, give the taller woman a sly grin. "Besides, I recall that I bet you a hundred bajillion Gald that you'd survive. I had to stay around to collect, you know?"

    Velvet felt she should be annoyed, but the sheer joy of seeing her old friend again washed it away and made her laugh. "Of course you had to," she told her fondly. "And you'll have to stay around a bit longer, until I can actually pay."

    "That's the spirit!"

    They exchanged smiles and returned to their seats, observed by the seraphim surrounding them. Once she was back on her side of the table however, Velvet remembered Laphi's presence and motioned for him. "You never met formally, I guess. This is my little brother, Laphicet."

    Magilou just nodded while Laphi, despite the oddness of the situation, offered a friendly "Pleased to meet you, ma'am".

    "Be that as it may," Grimoirh chimed in slowly, gaze alternating between the two Crowes. "You were supposed to be sealed forever. What brought you back to us after just a thousand years?" Her tone sounded almost accusatory, but Velvet knew that was normal for her. A deep, listless voice that belied the sharp mind beneath.

    She spent a few minutes summarising what and who brought them back to Desolation. Laphi kept quiet the whole time, thinking about something she could not even guess at. Once Velvet was finished, Bienfu slumped entirely where he sat on Magilou's side of the table. "Oh, that's bad bad bad. If they brought you of all people, that means the world is in really bad shape, doesn't it? I mean, worse than we thought."

    He was looking to Magilou, who just snorted. "Eh, who cares," she brushed off her old partner's concern. "Shepsie's late, so someone had to come and fix it anyway. Might as well be them."

    It was then that Laphi sighed and palmed his forehead. "Of course, 'Nica' as in Magillanica." Velvet needed a moment to make the mental leap of his realisation, but then she remembered that this had been Magilou's original name, before she put it down.

    His comment earned him a fingersnap from Magilou, though. "Eeeexactly! Sometimes I go as Lou or May as well, but there has to be some variety!" She grinned while Velvet rolled her eyes, then leaned back in her chair with a content noise and changed the subject. "You know, I figured a thousand years are enough. I survived not only every other human, but even many seraphim and several empires. But seeing you... I feel like going another round." Her soft words touched Velvet, who could not help but smile back at the woman who once fought by her side. It felt as if no time passed at all, for a moment.

    Laphi broke the immersion, his curiousity breaking through again: "I wonder, if you can rejuvenate your body, why do you look this old?" Velvet already made to scold him for being rude before her mind caught up to the fact he was right; this one time, telling a woman she looked old was fine with her.

    Just as well, Magilou did not seem bothered; she just grinned again, her eyes almost twinkling. "Because I can mess with people so much better like this."

    And now she could not help but huff. "Typical." This was, without a shadow of doubt, Magillanica Lou Mayvin, or Magilou.

    Next, it was not Laphi who steered the conversation along, but rather Grimoirh; the lady seraph peered at Velvet from behind her spectacles, a small furrow in her brow. "You feel a little different," she opened toward the hellion of the group, "as if there was no Malevolence at all. What kind of effects did being sealed together have on you?" So she explained that as well, willing to indulge their curiousity. The matter of her divinity intrigued Grimoirh, surprised Bienfu, and amused Magilou. Much like their release from the seal had.

    "So you're a goddess now? Should I pray, oh Empyrean?"

    "Don't. Prayers grant me nothing either way."

    Laphi giggled from the side, then injected himself into the conversation. "Her name is Minkkubi." It gave their audience of three pause as they all seemed to translate the name back to its root.

    Grimoirh was first and spoke the correct translation out loud: "The Black and Red Goddess. An apt title, I feel."

    "Why not Pumpus?"

    A moment passed in absolute silence while the three seraphim gave Magilou incredulous stares. Velvet took in that and the other woman's grin, could figure there was a joke there, but had no idea what it was. "Why? That sounds dumb."

    Magilou then leaned forward and winked at her. "Because that is 'Velvet' in the ancient tongue."

    She had to stare at the elder for a long second, unsure how to respond to that. Then she just shook her head, which transitioned into a look at her brother when he piped up: "I thought about it back then, but that felt too mean." He grinned back at her while Magilou laughed.

    Velvet just decided to change the subject to something entirely different. "There was something I wondered about but couldn't ask anyone. Now that I have you here, I want to know." She leaned forward, gaze settled on the expectant Magilou. "What is this I keep hearing about 'Saint' Eleanor?"

    "Heh." She almost broke into laughter again, but left it at a huff. Velvet waited with one eyebrow raised until she began properly: "You're asking because she'd never accept being called a saint, aren't you?" A nod. "Well, obviously she wouldn't. But you know how it is, she died after a life well lived, at seventy-seven. No kids beside the countless orphans she played the big sister or aunt for whenever she was around, never married, always working. Needless to say, I survived her." The granny then began to show them a toothy grin. "So I pulled some strings to have her declared a saint posthumously. Maybe you noticed, but she had a few students of her own. They're still teaching her style with a few adjustments."

    Now it was for Velvet to huff. "Never change, Magilou." Then she began to muse a little. "Odd, though. Her style was devised with Artorius' teachings in mind, but I guess they wouldn't even know that, would they?"

    "Not a chance, that detail did not pass the test of time." Magilou thought for a moment before perking up. "Oh, yes. Something else interesting about that is how the most proficient current practitioner is her highness, Princess Alisha. I'm sure you met her by now, she's such a darling."

    "...now I feel weird," Velvet noted. "I'm pretty sure I compared her to Eleanor before."

    "You did," Laphi chimed in. "Any chance her soul reincarnated as well?"

    He received a shrug from Velvet and a curious look from the others. "Oh?" Grimoirh tilted her head a little so she could look at him more directly. "And what would that mean?"

    Laphi just stared back nonchalantly. "It means we met van Aifread last year, the real one reborn." For the first time since their arrival, it was now Magilou's group that showed open surprise. Her brother kindly ignored it and went on: "Which means we have a precedent and are in the unfortunate situation that there may be another one from our time regaining their memories and bringing down our little game of intrigue. There are candidates for... wait." He paused and narrowed his eyes at nothing, then shook his head. "No, Alisha can't be Eleanor reborn. She has no resonance, which I assume Eleanor had even after my domain fell."

    Magilou nodded before leaning back a bit and sipping her tea. "Ah, resonance. It is a property of the soul, so you actually can draw that kind of conclusion. Sadly, not the other way around. Anyone who had no resonance before may have gained it as they reincarnate, for all we know. They just would not lose it."

    "I'd doubt that Eleanor's reincarnation would be so filled with despair, either," Velvet chimed in, to curious looks from Magilou and the Normin. "She is so full of it that I could turn her into a therion, yet there is not even the smallest bit of Malevolence."

    "A strong will can hold back even the greatest darkness," Magilou offered sagely, only to become solemn as she continued: "For a time. I noticed that something bothers her and I lent an ear whenever I got my hands on her, but she keeps bottling up her issues." Then she huffed, shaking her head. "Well, at least we know she isn't Artorius' rebirth, either. She definitely has the force of will to be."

    Velvet threw the old woman a flat stare, but found herself agreeing. Laphi did, too. "I concur, her wings are strong. The only actual candidate we have, if we go by how far their behaviour matches up, is Melchior." Magilou twitched. "That aside, there is a seraph closing in, so we should change the subject."

    She tensed immediately, having half a mind to grab this illusive seraph by the throat until she spit out everything. Laphi's hand was on hers immediately, squeezing until she relaxed. He held her gaze calmly. "Is she trustworthy?" he asked with a nod to Magilou. Velvet paused momentarily, but told him yes; Laphi then squeezed her hand once more. "Then trust her."

    They heard the door open a moment later and Magilou began to chuckle out of nowhere. Bienfu loudly called hello and a female voice answered, not bright but more toward Velvet's own tonal range. Then she appeared in the doorframe and left the older Crowe conflicted.

    Laphi had not told her much about Symonne from when they last met. Just that she was a girl seraph living with granny Nica since a few months ago. He certainly had not mentioned that she was a waifish girl who looked like she needed a good meal and more hugs than she normally got. Her lilac eyes scanned the room with obviously trained precision, stopping on both siblings for a moment before moving on. There was a barely noticeable delay between her entering and the empty expression on her face washing away, around the time her eyes stopped looking at nothing despite falling on them. One side of her still wanted to force answers out of her. The other wanted to sit her down and cook for her.

    "So this is the sister I heard about," Symonne then chirped with an easy smile, skipping over to the table. She noticed the lack of available chairs and simply hopped up to sit on the old wood; her top fluttered from the sudden motion and revealed quite a bit of midriff, not that much of it was hidden to begin with.

    "The sister you heard about is surprised how you're running around," she could not help but comment while examining the girl's clothes. This earned her looks from Magilou and Laphi both, who knew she had worn just as revealing garb during her time of rampage; she paid them no mind and focussed on Symonne, who looked down at herself thoughtfully.

    "The sister I heard about is a prude, I see," Symonne countered with a giggle, slipping out of her white shoes and turning around to poke Velvet's chest with her foot. "Or maybe the sister I heard about has an interest in cute little things like little old me? Is it that, oh sister?" She received a few more pokes and ended up grabbing the offending limb, faster than Symonne could pull it away. Velvet was not sure if she was amused or annoyed.

    "The sister you heard about is taken and has no interest whatsoever in women. She is, also, worried about a minx corrupting her baby brother into depravity." Laphi slapped her shoulder while purposefully looking up at Symonne's face, though Velvet was grinning despite the little sting. The seraph girl chuckled and pulled her foot back once it was let go.

    "I like this sister I heard about. What's your name?"

    "Velvet. And you are Symonne."

    "Yup, the one and only. And don't worry," she added with a suggestive wink to Laphi who did not acknowledge it, "I only corrupt the good little boys if they want to be corrupted."

    "Good to know."

    She left it at that, for her brother's sake. Symonne already had a bead on him, starting to lounge on the table much like Grimoirh and having purposefully put herself so the boy could look into her cleavage if he lowered his gaze. Velvet exchanged amused glances with Magilou while her brother struggled to keep looking at her face, though the elder saved him by pushing Symonne off the table with a dull thud. "That's enough, we talked about sitting or lying on the furniture. Unless you're Normin-sized, you're not doing it."

    Symonne stayed down for a moment, but then Velvet noticed her skittering around below; curiously, she did not crawl up where Laphi sat, but rather on Magilou's side. She was smiling still. "Sure. Where do I sit then?"

    As if she had been waiting for that cue, Magilou rose and patted Symonne's head. "Oh, you can pick whichever place you want. I was about to go shopping. Velvet, be a dear and help me out."

    "Fine with me. What about these two?" She nodded toward Laphi and Symonne, both of which were looking at them curiously.

    Magilou grinned knowingly. "Oh, the children can play until we're back. Be a dear and get my basket from the pantry?" She made for the front of the house while Bienfu and Grimoirh began to fade into mist that followed her before settling within the old woman. Velvet gave another look to her brother, who seemed to have mixed feelings about this, and Symonne who smiled innocently. Deciding to play along after all, she began to move.

    Laphicet himself was already resigned to more merciless teasing when the door fell shut behind Velvet and Nica, or Magilou as her actual name was.

    Much to his surprise however, Symonne did not immediately jump at him in some way; she merely threw him a grin and then went to a filled bookshelf leaning against the wall. The girl seraph browsed through a few rows, skipped one, and then pulled out a book somewhere around the middle. She plopped down on the couch without so much as another glance to Laphicet, her smile having faded and replaced with a relaxed if blank expression as she began to read.

    Still no teasing.

    Blinking and hoping for his luck to hold, Laphicet snuck forward to test the waters. He looked over Symonne's shoulder to see what she was reading, only to find a familiar if old script. He could not help but ask: "You can read the ancient tongues?"

    She did not even turn her head. "A few. I always liked languages, but I rarely get to read anything in them these days. Nica is a collector of sorts, she has a few of almost everything still known around." Laphicet was still a little confused by this different Symonne; the cheer had gone in favour of calm. She was just so different from how she acted before, as if she were a completely different person. He was so absorbed in his own pondering that he forgot to do anything else, which prompted Symonne to turn her head after a few seconds. "Is something the matter? Do you want me to read it to you?"

    Laphicet blinked, his mind snapping back to focus. He shook his head and plopped down next to Symonne, still trying to decide whether to look at the book or at her. "No need, I can read this one myself. I just didn't expect you to just-"

    "Not tease you after that opening Nica gave me on purpose?"

    "...yes, that."

    Symonne's gaze went back to her book for a moment. Then she let herself fall to the side and nestled against Laphicet, who stiffened when he felt the warmth of her body against his. Symonne cooed. "But it wouldn't be fun if you expect me, now would it?"

    He had no idea what to say to that. His face was burning. Symonne giggled softly and leaned her head on his shoulder, peering up at him from up close to his continued embarassment. Then, as fast as she had approached, she leaned back away and sat normally again. "That aside," she told him with a wink, "while teasing is fun, it's only fun because you pout so cutely." Which of course made Laphi pout a little harder. "And you wouldn't if I did it all the time."

    His mind still rattled from the casual contact he was so unused to. It was not even bad in itself, she just kept tripping him up because he had no idea what to do. At the same time however, Laphicet remained aware enough to take note of Symonne's slightly odd tone. On a guess, he pushed a little: "Or maybe you're not feeling like it right now?"

    A momentary pause, though Symonne did not meet his gaze. "That, too."

    "Is something on your mind?"

    He received a sideeye glance from the girl, her brow creased in the slightest bit of a frown. "Yes."

    She did not elaborate and he decided not to pry further. Instead he changed the subject, his attention drawn back to the shelf. "Do you think granny minds if I borrow one of her books to read?"

    "Just be careful not to tear it." Her tone turned more flat as she spoke and then Symonne returned to reading her own book. Laphicet left her be and got up to find something for himself; just reading next to each other sounded like an odd way to pass time with someone else, but he also liked the idea of it. Velvet did not talk much during their travels, but Margaret was a chatterbox; being around her for a few hours tired him out somewhat. Be it his upbringing or his nature, Laphicet came to enjoy the quiet.

    Unsure whether Symonne was watching him and unwilling to check, he began to read the titles as they were written on the spines. Some he pulled out, but put back in thought.

    Then he came to the row Symonne skipped. It took him a moment to recognise the first title's script and he blinked, then went through the row. What drew his attention the most was a visibly ancient book, which he gingerly pulled from its resting place. On the cover, he found his own crest and his heart made a leap. He could hardly believe himself for making the assumption, but the odd feeling of melancholy that took hold of him remained nonetheless; Laphicet opened the book carefully and stared at the first lines in wonder.

    He never thought he would see this book again; Velvet would have to tell him how Magilou got her hands on it. This book, written in his hand. Written by his human hands. A copy he made so long ago, to sell it and buy a comb for his beloved sister.

    He felt like crying for some reason.

    "Anything special with that book?"

    The question snapped Laphicet out of his mood and he turned to Symonne with a faint smile. "I didn't think I'd find something written in Ancient Avarost here."

    Her gaze narrowed slightly and she fully turned her attention to him where it was just a glance before. "You can read Ancient Avarost?"

    "Yep."

    Symonne leaned forward then, her own book forgotten for the moment. She peered at Laphicet carefully. "You can read Ancient Avarost?" Her emphasis and doubtful tone made Laphicet's eyes narrow in turn, but she made a dismissive motion right after. "I could never get a handle on it; who taught you?"

    He felt a little miffed about the clear distrust in his claim. "I learned it myself, with a little help from my brother-in-law's notes." It was an accomplishment in itself and she understood that, too.

    Sadly, Symonne just raised an eyebrow at him. "Now I believe you even less. Ancient Avarost is the most difficult language still known, not something you can just learn like that. Especially not on your own." Laphicet broke the eye contact first, quietly admitting to himself that she had a point but also annoyed about her disbelief. Which was why her next words surprised him quite a bit: "But I don't think you're lying, either. I have seen through much better liars than you before. What does it say?"

    Looking up again, he found her eyes fixated on him. Laphicet almost wilted from the quiet intensity and turned the page, then stood still. Normally, translating Ancient Avarost took time and guesswork, but he had translated this entire book by himself before. He knew what those lines said by heart. So he recited them, his own nature.

    "Eight-headed is the lord of the land,
    with seven mouths to devour Malevolence.
    Through pulses of earth doth base natures flow,
    as He awaits the time of awakening."

    The first verse almost thrummed within him and Symonne grew pale, but Laphicet paid it no mind. He continued with the second verse as if in a trance.

    "Four Empyreans may tear Him asunder,
    but so long as there is one receptive to divine power,
    therions shall be forever reborn
    in sight of the full crimson moon."

    "Stop! StopStopStop!"

    He already drew breath to recite the final lines as well when Symonne interrupted him. Laphicet blinked and looked up again, to find the girl's eyes widened to an unhealthy degree. Her chalk white skin flared into mist in places before solidifying again. "Its, I, I believe you. Just, please put that back."

    She practically begged him to in a far weaker voice than before. Laphicet nodded slowly and she turned back to her own book at once, almost curling up; thus she missed his analysing gaze. This girl just gave away that she was old enough to have lived through the reign of Innominat and, more importantly, that she knew of his true form. At the same time however, his gut churned; he made her this way, pale and scared and twitchy. He did not like making others uncomfortable for no good reason, especially with how distraught Symonne appeared to be.

    His arms acted almost on their own as he put the book away and pulled out another at random while he thought. Then, just as he felt leather under his fingers, he remembered that there were still a few things in his pockets. Glancing down, he found he had grabbed the Celestial Record, whatever that was. Sneaking back to the couch, he sat himself down next to Symonne again and rummaged around for his emergency measure.

    Symonne was still focussed on her book, trying to pretend there was nothing wrong as her skin slowly returned to its rosy tone. Her focus broke when something interposed itself between her and the object in her hand; she went cross-eyed for a moment to watch the nondescript bag, then turned to a softly smiling Laphicet. He pulled it open to reveal a batch of cookies he brought just in case, but held her gaze otherwise. Both of them stared at each other for long moments.

    The stalemate was broken when Symonne lowered the book onto her lap and accepted the bag. "Why do you have that on you?"

    "Because," he explained as she inspected one of the sweets, "believe me or not, there is a surprising amount of female hermits around these parts. And being lonely is no good, so I visit them once in a while."

    "I get that. But why the cookies?" She actually put the treat into her mouth after asking and began to munch on it.

    "In case one of them takes offense with my presence. Sweets are great peace offerings for girls." He shared his wisdom with a sage nod, to which Symonne huffed.

    "I'm a girl too, you know?"

    He did not take the bait and rather decided to tease her back a little. "I guess so, but you're also a little boyish in your manners, so one could get confused." He had meant her bluntness and open nature, but she seemed to home in on another way it could have been taken. Laphi knew he made a terrible mistake when he saw her grin.

    "And you're kind of girlish at times, so you have to take my word for being one unless you want to check." She winked while popping another cookie into her mouth and Laphi's face grew hot again. He awkwardly averted his gaze and wondered if maybe he should flee through the earthpulse.

    In the end though, he managed to get over himself somewhat. "Okay, fair enough. Either way, I think you should have some cookies, so I gave you some. Need Velvet to make more, though."

    Crunch "You don't bake shose yourshelf?"

    He threw her a look, but she did not seem to care that she spoke with a full mouth. Laphicet shook his head. "I'm still learning how to do that and hers are just better." There was no immediate response, but the fact she kept reaching into the bag made her opinion on the cookies clear. He could not help but smile and settled into a more comfortable position to read, which she followed soon after.

    From the Celestial Record, Laphicet learned quite a few things. Many interesting tidbits were spread through this compendium of history, from before the age he was originally born in, the Age Of The Gods as they called it now, to this current Age Of Chaos. At the same time however, it taught him to double check everything he could not verify himself; there was quite a bit of nonsense there, such as Claudin Asgard being called the first shepherd instead of his student Artorius.

    At some point, he hardly even noticed through his own studies, Symonne leaned against him again. Not to tease this time, he noticed when he saw her just reading without even a glance his way; she just made herself comfortable. Strangely, this bothered him a lot less, even though his face grew warm at the close contact again. Laphicet slowly got back into his own reading, though. It was... nice.

    He could not tell how much time passed when Symonne spoke up; she turned her head somewhat to look up at him, curious. "Is your sister really married? She didn't strike me like the kind to settle down so young."

    Laphicet tried to remember what brought this on, but could not recall why she would ask. In the end, he shrugged, softly so as to not disrupt Symonne's head on his shoulder. "Velvet isn't. Our late sister Celica was."

    "Oh." There was an uncomfortably long pause as neither knew how to continue. Symonne did not meet his eyes. "My condolences," she finally settled on.

    "We were both little when it happened. It has been a long time ago." He almost shrugged again, but stopped himself. Then his gaze fell onto the girl by his side. "Do you have any family?"

    Unfortunately, his curiousity produced another miss; Symonne shook her head, still resting on his shoulder. Laphicet sighed. "I hope the uncomfortable subjects stop soon. I'm out of cookies to cheer you up with."

    At least it helped disperse the mood; Symonne threw a grin at him and turned a page. "Aww, don't worry. You're almost as sweet, so you will do fine."

    "You can't eat me, though."

    "Oh, I could~" She turned herself and pressed a little closer to Laphicet with a suggestive wink, which made it clear just how she meant that; this time he knew he was blushing furiously and not just feeling warm. Symonne then let off him and sat normally again. "But let's leave that for when I know you better." A moment passed in which he stared at her, the redness in his cheeks only slowly receding. When Symonne glanced back at him, she giggled and batted his shoulder. "Relax, I was joking! Nothing's going to happen."

    "Are you sure you can promise that?"

    "I'm a tease, not a creep."

    "Where does one stop and the other start?"

    She chuckled. "Knowing that line, my friend, is the art behind it."

    They grinned at each other, the mood having changed entirely at some point. He had no idea how, but he admitted to himself that cheerful Symonne was much preferable to sad Symonne. The conversation stalled there and both seraphim returned to reading in a more relaxed atmosphere again. Neither of them commented on the fact Symonne had just called him 'friend', though both had realised it after a few seconds. Laphicet was just happy that things ended up well.
     
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  15. Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    So yeah, here is the reveal everyone and their mother saw coming :V
     
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  16. Windborne

    Windborne Devourer of Stories

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    I’ll freely admit I didn’t. I thought it was Velvet’s best friend Niko reincarnated. Still Magilou is amazing and I love her, so I’m pleasantly surprised and not at all unhappy to be wrong.
     
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  17. VineShadow

    VineShadow Currently edging

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    Yup hahaha though you were indeed subtle you dropped enough hints that I pieced it together
     
  18. AzureGenesis

    AzureGenesis Getting out there.

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    Damn this story is fun. I didn't realise how much I wanted a continuation for Berseria until I found this.
     
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  19. Threadmarks: 2.6 Awakening
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    Rose could not help but whistle as she read through the report. A full dossier of data collected on Alisha Diphda, with in-depth details she somehow doubted even their own sources would be able to find. The Bloodwings delivered in full after a single week. And this time, she actually saw it happen: a seraph man with a red scarf simply strolled right up to their carts and put the package down next to Rose. Only when she kept looking his way did he react, offering a nod and a lazy salute before wandering off again.

    Now here she sat, with Dezel opposite to her as part of her daily ritual; the stupid block on her resonance loosened more and more, allowing her to keep up longer conversations without an immediate migraine. "You know," Rose muttered after a time spent reading, "I've never met her, but everything I heard fits with what's in here."

    "Did you find anything outstanding?"

    She held the dossier out to him in response, though Dezel made no motion to take it at first. "Here, read it for yourself." Her words were taken with his usual stoicism, though he then sighed and continued to ignore the offering. Rose's eyes narrowed a little, more curious than annoyed. Then she wondered. "You can read, right?"

    The answer he gave was... not what she expected: "I'm blind, Rose."

    "Wait, what?" She immediately put the dossier aside and dove forward. "Why didn't you say that sooner?!" Rose was on Dezel in a heartbeat, pulling his bangs aside despite his attempts to get away; milky white eyes lay beneath, unseeing. She did not even know seraphim could be blind!

    A harsh slap to her wrist made Rose let go, rubbing the spot while Dezel put his hair back in place. "I can read the winds well enough to know what is where," he explained curtly, "but they don't help me with reading. So what does that say?"

    Rose pout-frowned a bit over his behaviour and not answering the question, but she ultimately settled back in her place and picked up the parchment once more. "From what they gathered, Princess Alisha is the real deal. Kind, compassionate, strong, the ideal princess. We knew that much already and I guess I kinda figured there is more to it, but... ugh. Now I feel bad for her."

    "How so?"

    She sighed heavily and read the offending passages again. "This says her mother was a commoner and long since died, so she is basically on her own. Most of the other nobles and royals walk all over her because of it, but she just works harder for their acknowledgement. It says she got along well with the king when he was still a prince, but he didn't have time to spend with her ever since ascending the throne." Rose made a short pause and turned the page with a frown. "It's mostly like that. We have to wait for our own contacts to check whatever they can dig up, but I don't like the picture this paints."

    Dezel had his arms folded as she explained, his expression deceptively calm. "So you think she doesn't deserve judgement?"

    "Yep. Honestly, if all that is true, I think she deserves a hug." Or several. Probably several, in her opinion. As it were, the princess lived a completely different life from Rose. Yet now that she saw it in front of her like this, she realised she never considered the downsides a cushy royal life could have. Alisha did not have to fight for survival, or make the best out of what little money she had; she was never cold or missing for anything material. In turn, Rose had never been missing for the warmth of a family; the Windriders, and later the Scattered Bones, were tightly knit and supported each other until the very end. She could hardly imagine a life without them.

    "Hey Dezel?"

    "Hm?"

    "What do you think is more important? Money or love?"

    The question had just presented itself and Rose gave in to her curiousity; she was not sure which of the two she would pick herself. Dezel fell still for a moment as he considered, then his head rose a little so as to look her in the eyes. "Neither. You can't sustain those you love without money, and money alone is worth little if you have no one to spend it with or for."

    Her eyes widened a bit over the unexpected answer, especially about how thoughtful it was. Then she played over that feeling with a sly grin. "Aww, you little romantic! Is there someone you have your eyes on?"

    "No. I'm blind."

    His flat denial made Rose laugh heartily, the previous subject forgotten.

    That was when Eguile leaned his head into the cart with a curiously raised eyebrow. "We're going to open the shop soon, so please keep it down a little. People might get weirded out by our poster girl talking to herself."

    Rose flipped him off in response, but admitted to herself that he had a point. "Yeah, alright. And Eguile?" He stopped and waited for what she had to say. Rose threw him a grim look. "I still have to think it over, but right now it doesn't look like we're taking that job offer we got recently. Might need to talk to the employer about it." There was no outward reaction beyond a simple nod, but she knew the message had been received when he turned around to leave her be. Chancellor Bartlow had ordered the hit on Princess Alisha; the Scattered Bones would look into him as well and, depending on what they found, the blade may go to him instead.

    Once they were alone again, Rose slumped back down and sighed. "So much work recently."

    "There is always work for an upstart boss," Dezel threw in with a toothy grin. Rose gave him a flat stare that had no effect because he could not see it.

    "I'm the boss because we decided as a group, so shut it."

    "I know."

    This gave Rose pause. She studied her bonded seraph again and considered; then, she simply asked. "You've been around for a long time, right? Do you know what possessed them to pick me over Eguile?" This had bothered her from time to time over the years; she grew into the role, but there were others far more suited to it back then. Dezel leaned back to think, staying quiet for a good long while as he flipped the pendulum he used for a weapon up and down. A tic of his she noticed several times before, though it grated on her a little more than usual, with a potential answer so close.

    "For one," he started slowly, "you are the most unassuming of the entire group. You were at twenty-four and you are now at twenty-eight."

    Rose just threw him a look and wondered if they seriously picked her because of that. "Because I'm a woman?"

    "Partly, but also because you're the prettiest of the women around."

    She made to respond, but then stopped herself and decided to not let herself be distracted. "Okay, I'll let you get away with that one because I like the flattery." There was even a little grin.

    Dezel merely shook his head. "That has nothing to do with flattery and you know it. Anyway, that aside, after Brad died...." He trailed off, unsure how to finish that sentence. Rose's grin died as she remembered the man who raised her like his own daughter. After a few seconds, Dezel continued in a different manner: "while Eguile and a few others have more experience and might even be smarter than you, they all agreed that the leader needs not be the smartest of us, but the most charismatic. Which is, again, you."

    The seraph then threw her a small grin. "And if I remember right, you swayed a few with that boundless positivity you had, even right after the Windriders disbanded." Rose was so deep in thought now that she failed to notice his clenched fist.

    Meanwhile, in the earthpulse below Ladylake, an Empyrean spread her wings. Minkkubi had grown a great deal over the months, now having the size of most quadrupedal dragons; this still left her half the size of a single one of Innominat's necks, but it made her feel more comfortable in her own skin, or rather scales, nonetheless.

    From around the world, four slumbering Empyreans watched the youngest of their number. In their dreams, the gods still walked the world; almost as if they were human yet unseen even by their own kind. Today, their attention lay beneath the surface, in the very planet itself. A flicker of hope, of change.

    And below the Empyrean's Throne, the grand temple dedicated to the gods, Maotelus stirred. Deep within the dragon of light, his silver flame still fought back against the encroaching darkness. Yet corrupted his body was, steeped in Malevolence and turned an almost pitch black instead of his original pristine white. He had long since lost control of it, curled up in the large pool of mana the earthpulse ended in. But his instincts still worked, telling him of something odd, something familiar within the lifepool. Something that was there for but an instant before vanishing again. An imprint of something he knew but forgot, something he feared, something he hated.

    Almost, almost, the grand dragon remembered the light of yore. But then the sensation vanished and left him to fall back into nightmares.

    . .
    . .

    Griflet Bridge was destroyed, the path to Marlind blocked.
    On the way back and with the purified seraph Uno in tow, Sorey and Alisha were talking.
    "Some time ago I heard from a traveler," the princess told him thoughtfully,
    "that sometimes a human is reborn as a seraph."

    "It's true," Sorey answered. "They usually don't keep their memories, though."
    He paused for a moment and considered, then added to his previous words.
    "It's pretty rare, but there have been a few who kept theirs. There are even
    records of humans who remembered their past lives."
    He smiled at his companion.
    "Just imagine how incredible it would be to remember a past life. There
    are so many question I'd want to ask someone like that!"​

    In a fenced-off backyard, a teenaged girl was practicing with her blade.
    Her attention remained focussed on nothing but the stances she learned.
    Then, suddenly, her motions ceased.​
    Wide eyes stared at nothing.

    "I wonder how one would know it was a past life instead of just their imagination."
    "I'm sure there would be signs, Alisha. Like knowing things you couldn't know otherwise."​

    A clatter rent the sudden silence asunder, metal on stone.
    Margaret followed her blade moments later, clutching her head.
    "I can see the appeal, yes. I would love to meet someone like this as well...
    Someone who lived the distant past, oh how exciting!"​

    Tears rolled down her cheeks, eyes almost hollow as she stared at the ground.
    Once in a while, a hiccup or sniffle forced its way out of her.

    "If there's someone out there, I hope we'll meet them one day.
    Don't you agree, Alisha?"
    "I do!"​

    Time passed.

    At some point, Margaret pushed herself to her feet. An empty gaze came to rest on her sword; she picked it up with stiff motions, then sheathed it camly. "I need to know," she whispered to herself and skittered back inside.

    Morning at the Crowe's Nest was always a calm affair. Neither Velvet nor Laphicet required much sleep at all, so they were usually wide awake and working on their respective tasks around the place by the time anyone else rose. Breakfast was had just earlier and the tavern would soon open. Cynthia tended to the inn as she usually did, leaving the siblings on their own to relax for a bit.

    Their solace was broken soon, though; a distraught Margaret marched into their room, reddened tear tracks clearly visible on her pale face. She walked hunched forward, scared, and her lip quivered as normally bright eyes took the two in fearfully. Velvet immediately got up and put the tunic she was sewing on aside, then darted across the room to embrace the girl. Only that shaking hands were held out to stop her.

    Before she could ask what this was about, Margaret spoke up. "I, I need you to tell me something. It's really important, Velvet." She blinked down at the shaken girl in worry while Laphi watched the events from the side.

    "Okay, what is it?"

    Margaret took a deep breath and opened her mouth, then faltered and closed it again. Under their gazes, she refused to come near Velvet again when the latter reached out. She tried to speak again and nothing came out.

    Only on the third attempt did she manage: "Why do birds fly?"
     
  20. Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    And now for a twist no one seems to have expected :V
     
  21. S_K

    S_K Know what you're doing yet?

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    Damn. That’s… that’s something all right. Now I’m very interested in seeing where you go from here.
     
  22. Windborne

    Windborne Devourer of Stories

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    Fun chapter, one major error though. Rose is only 18 at the start of the game. She is certainly not 28. The Guard Captain dude wouldn’t keep thinking Rose and Sorey were married if they were so far apart in age. Also Rose and Velvet would make a cute couple. Oh and I’m guessing Margaret is Niko, though she could be Eleanor. Either would be kinda weird, but alright.
     
  23. Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    The age is deliberate, actually. It makes no sense that the Wind Riders would put a... what, fourteen-year-old in charge of their newly founded assassin guild, or let an eighteen-year-old take over the spot. So I aged her up to a point where it fits better.
     
  24. Windborne

    Windborne Devourer of Stories

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    You do you, but I always thought it made sense if you considered that Rose is very competent and had Dezel assisting her by being his Vessel. Sure normally you’d never consider it, but the Wind Riders were pretty much wiped out before right? Her being in charge since she was the most skilled sneakthief of the survivors just makes sense to me.
     
  25. Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    We have to agree to disagree on that one. I just can not see how Rose would get to be the boss at such a young age.
     
  26. Threadmarks: 2.7 ...
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    One could have heard a pin drop in the silence that followed Margaret's question. Velvet had no idea where it came from for but one moment, followed by a horrible suspicion. Yet all she got out was a soft "What?", eyes still glued to her distraught student.

    Margaret reached forward and clasped her hands around Velvet's arm, actually begging her. "Please tell me," she whispered. "Why do birds fly, Velvet? I need to know your answer!" There was an urgency to her actions and words that confused and scared Velvet.

    It took several seconds of staring before she managed to push back the shock; Velvet took a deep breath and gently put her hand over Margaret's. "Birds fly because they want to fly. Wherever they wish, however long they want, even if their wings are broken in the process. They fly because they want to, out of their own free will." Her answer had not changed from when she last gave it. To Arthur.

    Margaret shuddered but said nothing, instead turning her head to Laphi. The question remained unasked this time, but he answered without further prompting: "Birds fly because they must. My answer hasn't changed, sister," he added when Velvet threw him a look. "Birds were given wings to embrace the sky, and thus they must fly."

    His attention then went to Margaret, who let go of Velvet and was hugging herself, shaking. Laphi asked the question his sister dreaded: "What is your answer?"

    Margaret's wide eyes went back to them, her shaking intensified and it broke Velvet's heart to have this scared child right in front of her without being able to do anything. She wanted to reach out, yet the unconcious realisation kept her bound in place. Before her eyes, Margaret took a deep breath much like Velvet herself had; the girl's shaking calmed and faded, yet her eyes remained wide. "Birds fly," she began but hesitated, then forced the words out: "Birds fly because their wings are strong."

    Each word was like a punch to the face; the same words he had once given. She looked at this quivering child, a girl a good bit shorter than herself, years younger. A girl who soaked up the style she tought her, his style, whose heart was bigger than she herself knew, and who took responsibility for her own actions; a girl whose resonance was strong.

    They overlooked the most obvious of them all.

    Laphi kept a calmer head than she did in these moments. "Just to make absolutely sure," he opened with a glance to his sister, "you did not tell her about this before, Velvet?"

    "No. Did you?" Her voice was so weak, almost begging him to say it was him. The cruel prank would be kinder than reality.

    The answer she did not want came from Margaret: "You didn't." The girl almost collapsed into herself as she continued: "Neither of you. I, I just...." She trailed off, mouth opening and closing a few times as words failed her. Velvet had none either, just stared in indecision about what to do now. Then Margaret slumped to the ground, fresh tears quivering in her eyes. "I'm sorry," she gurgled, "for everything I did to you! I remember it so clearly and-"

    "Stop."

    Velvet had enough. She stepped forward and reached for the broken girl in front of her after all. Her feelings were roiling, roaring nonsencial actions in succession. Break down crying, tear her limb from limb, embrace her, comfort her, hate her, love her, despise her, turn her, break her. She ignored them all and put a hand on Margaret's head, nothing more.

    "But-" "Stop."

    The girl fell silent, staring up at her out of wide eyes. She was tense, obviously expecting to be struck. The sight made Velvet shudder again, to even consider hurting a child. She did not believe the words she knew she should speak, perhaps just not yet, but she would speak them anyway. Just like she told Seres so long ago. But first, she had to make sure. "You remember a life as Artorius Collbrande?" A nod, nothing more. Velvet nodded back.

    "Then this means you inherited his soul, but it doesn't mean you are still him. You are you, Margaret Randgriz, and no one else." Her words, final as they were in judgement and hollow in sincerity, merely made the girl cry again; Margaret hid her face and sobbed into her hands, a pitiful sight so unlike the man she once was. Velvet sighed; she could not bring herself to hug her, not just yet. She had worked things out with Laphi, figured out so many things, but the wrath still burned in her throbbing heart.

    Her brother carefully sidled up next to Margaret and pulled the girl into an embrace of his own, accepted her clutching him without much thought. His eyes were on Velvet, though. "I imagine that she needs time; right now, she was flooded in memories of a life several times longer than her own." He had a point, but she still stood uncertain. Some time passed like this; in the end, Velvet slowly stepped back and slumped onto her bed. Her thoughts went in circles for a while as she allowed emotions to surge through herself, hands clenching and unclenching. Laphi had Margaret in hand; she cried on his shoulder while he stroked her back.

    How long it was until she stopped crying, no one knew. They were not interrupted.

    After one last hiccup, Margaret fell silent. It was then that Laphi slowly dislodged the girl and held her at an arm's length. "You are not Artorius Collbrande," he began softly. "Yet you were once him, that is also a fact. Do not let this deter you from your own path, but use the knowledge it grants you. Arthur was a great man, not even Velvet is going to deny that." He cast a glance to his sister, who shook her head no. No one could deny it.

    Margaret simply stared a little longer, just breathing. Seeing her like this, eyes puffy and red, the snot her brother was just in the process of wiping off, pushed Velvet into making a choice for now. "You're going to take the today off after this shock. No work, no practice."

    "A-Actually, could I, could I do some training?" Margaret ducked her head under Velvet's sharp glare. "That, um, always helps me clear my head, is all." She was hesitant and broke eye contact within moments. But Velvet understood. She took in the girl's shaken expression and her current state, heaving a sigh.

    "Alright, but only a little. And only after you cleaned up properly."

    "Yes, Velvet."

    She accepted the decision easily enough before rising. The siblings both went along, waited as she washed her face, and finally led her down to the teleportation chamber. Or rather, to its back room, where the seventh and final portal was set down. The only connection to the Bloodwings' hidden base. Velvet felt numb all the way, trying not to let it sink in too much just yet. Margaret studied the gate with forced calm while Laphi powered it up. She glanced at Velvet then, but said nothing; they all knew where it led, what that place meant to them.

    Their transition was silent, Margaret's face empty as she stepped onto the solid stone of Innominat's lowest ring; she stood there and stared on without any visible emotion, took in the gaggle of seraphim going this way and that. Ever since they decided to turn Innominat's body into a base, Laphicet added rainbow roads connecting the various structures arrested in mid-air, their only other physical connection to Innominat the spires reaching up to his body.

    The three began to walk, up one of the gently oscillating bridges and to the administration; a cathedral in size, its dark blue walls stood almost ominous as seraphim entered or left alone or in pairs. Waves and smiles were exchanged between them, though no one asked about the mood they brought along. An upward stream of mana carried them onto the roof in a single minute, from where the procession carried on. Innominat had lost all wonder from when they first showed the place to Margaret and Cynthia; they just moved through the structures in use without really taking in their surroundings.

    To some relief for Velvet, the training facilities were deserted; a free-floating courtyard with an adjacent temple had been taken aside for them, the distance from Desolation and sturdy structures allowing to test even destructive artes without concern for damages or attention. Velvet had held combat practice for new recruits a few times, teaching them how to fight; Laphicet and some of the older seraphim held workshops on arte-weaving or the teaching of complicated artes from time to time.

    Right now, she would much prefer teaching others over trying not to stare a hole into Margaret's back. Perhaps she was onto something after all, wanting to practice. If Velvet did not suddenly feel like she had to keep an eye on her, she might leave to do that herself.

    The moment they returned to solid ground, Margaret stepped forward and went to her basic stance; shoulders tensed slightly, center of gravity lowered. The girl took deep breaths and drew her sword, then flowed into motion. Motion which, they quickly realised, was off. Velvet needed to watch a few iterations of the same spinning sidestep before she realised what happened, what tripped Margaret up; it only made her gut churn harder. "She's adjusting for Arthur's memories."

    "Who was noticeably taller than she is," Laphi finished her musings solemnly. His face did not give away what he thought of this entire matter. "I am not surprised that he internalised this style to the point he knew exactly how far which motion carried him."

    "Me neither. Do you think she got his muscle memory as well?"

    "Muscle memory is part of the muscles, Velvet. We burned those last year, so she can't. This is her own muscle memory working with and against her concious memories."

    The idle conversation helped Velvet keep herself grounded. She watched the girl who was, no, used to be her student with a sense of blissful numbness. The rage had faded into a faint simmer, allowing her to ponder. "I can't teach her anything anymore," Velvet told Laphi quietly, "now she has all of his knowledge." Then another thought followed: "How do we explain this to Cynthia?"

    She received a helpless shrug from Laphi. "I don't think we can, really. Unless she wants her mother to know and explains it herself." He fell quiet for a moment and chuckled humourlessly. "And I even said another reincarnate would make a big mess of things, just last week. I really didn't expect it to be like this." His next words were barely a whisper, but Velvet heard them: "I didn't expect Arthur."

    Neither did she.

    Shigure, Oscar, Teresa, she would have even taken Melchior over this. It would have been so much easier. Yet, Velvet admitted to herself, life had a habit of not being easy. She watched how, slowly over the minutes yet with surprising swiftness in total, Margaret's motions adjusted, became more fluid again. Her diminished height and reach in comparison to her time as Artorius were accounted for and the experience of a thousand battles let her adjust the stances even further. They were slight changes, almost imperceptible to anyone else; to Velvet who knew this style better than anyone bar Claudin and Artorius himself, each one caused yet more whiplash. Margaret's blade sung as it cut through the very air in precise motions.

    Her usual serene expression was amiss, however; Margaret frowned near-constantly as memorised distances failed to add up, strikes and parries against imaginary enemies finding her not where she intended to be. On they watched as she slowly began to mitigate this; Velvet could tell that she would need a while to get used to these changes in particular.

    An hour passed like this; none of the seraphim passing by came near, but most of them stopped to watch the practice for a spell. In the end, Margaret sighed and stood normally again. She made to sheathe her weapon without looking, but slipped up and missed the scabbard when it did not line up with the length of the blade she remembered wielding. The girl closed her quivering eyes for a moment before turning back to the two siblings, any indicator of her feelings wiped away as she approached them.

    "I will need a while to get used to this, I feel. But... thank you, for being considerate despite it all. Heavens know I do not deserve it."

    Something about her words was odd, but Velvet could not say what. She merely shook her head in response, still numb. "Think nothing of it." Glancing around and finding no one nearby to overhear, she allowed herself a deep sigh. "Just know that I never stopped loving Arthur, even after everything." Margaret stiffened under her gaze, but Velvet was mostly just trying to get the words out. "It's the same with Laphi. Both of them got punished long ago."

    This earned her a thoughtful frown, followed by a faint smile. "Your perception is unusual indeed. Just as well that you are already a Hellion."

    "I'll say."

    It was then that Laphi injected himself into the conversation: "Say, how does it feel like to be a girl?" When both women cast flabbergasted looks in his direction, he pointed at Margaret. "I mean, she remembers having been a man now, yes? I wonder how different it-" "Laphi, shut uuuup!"

    A furiously blushing Margaret then proceeded to cover his mouth, wide eyes directed right at him. "Why did you have to say it? I don't want to remember this, it's, it's...." She trailed off and almost burst into embarassed tears.

    This scene drew a laugh from Velvet, despite it all. "What," she asked lightly, "is it that different now?"

    Margaret glowered at the two of them and answered almost sardonically. "It's not the differences, it's the memories. I never even kissed a boy before and now, now I remember making Celica pregnant! Vividly!"

    And suddenly, the blush made sense. Velvet's grin fell at being reminded of her late sister, as did Laphi's. Thinking of Celica however, she remembered something else. Something she had held onto yet never wore, as it was not hers. She reached into her inventory and rummaged around for it, which gave Margaret time to get a grip. Huffing, the younger girl's face finally returned to a more normal colour. "That aside, well, all of my most recent memories are of being a woman. I miss the height I had as a man and I feel weaker in general, but I think I am more nimble like this." She moved her hips this way and that as if in consideration, then shrugged.

    "Might work better if you didn't take to wearing pants instead of skirts," Velvet quipped. A liability the fluttering cloth might have been, but it also allowed for splits that most pants would either impede or tear from. She then decided to ignore her conundrum a little longer and poke some more fun at Margaret. "Besides, you're missing out on the full experience with your boobs that small."

    This netted her a roll of the eyes and a shrug. "Meh, don't think I don't remember how much you complained about fighting when yours started growing. I'm quite happy with my modest bust, thank you very much." She thumped her chest for emphasis while Velvet chuckled.

    "That's fair. Being an Empyrean does have its perks though, I don't need to bother about that any longer." And good riddance, truly.

    "Or about them sagging when you get older."

    Any comment Margaret was in the process of making was drowned out by sudden, hearty laughter while Velvet mock-glared at her grinning brother. She was not even that annoyed, mostly just grateful for him cheering the girl up and trying to hide it, but the moment of levity did not last. She found it and pulled it out.

    "Margaret."

    The laughter ceased and made way for worried curiousity; Velvet's hand returned from the pocket dimension she carried around at all times, the keepsake hidden in her palm. She was careful not to crush it and made doubly sure no one was watching them right now. "When we woke up," she started slowly, "your... his body was still there. Preserved, somehow." Her meaning was caught and she had Margaret's full attention immediately. This time it was Velvet who could not hold her gaze. "We incinerated it and spread the ashes onto Desolation." A soft nod, acceptance. "But I kept this."

    She held out her hand and revealed the pendant she took from her brother's blade a year ago. Two artfully, if somewhat clumsily, carved white feathers on a dark, circular background. Margaret's breath hitched the moment she saw it, eyes growing wide and starting to quiver once more. She looked up at Velvet and then back at the offered trinket. Looked up and back at it. Slowly, hesitantly, she reached out; her motion paused more than once, as if expecting Velvet to pull it back. Laphi watched in silence.

    Velvet waited, her gut churning once more but any outward responses suppressed by her will. She waited until, ever so slowly, Margaret's hands closed around the pendant. Her fingers scraped over the older woman's palm, revealing that the younger one was shaking ever so slightly. She took the pendant with reverence, held it in her open palm to look at it. Then back up at Velvet, asking permission.

    Velvet nodded.

    Margaret shakily hugged the small thing to her chest, eyes closing. A trickle of silent tears ran down her cheeks. She stood like this for a bit, then expelled her breath in a deep sigh and pushed it into her pocket. "I would wear it at once," she mumbled sadly, "but it needs a new clasp first." Then her gaze turned back to Velvet. "Thank you, for letting me have this. From the bottom of my heart."

    Her earnest words almost made Velvet's own heart break once again. She felt a sting in her eyes as tears threatened to erupt once more, but Laphi chimed in and thankfully turned the conversation elsewhere: "I was wrong." He waited until he had both of their attention, then spoke to Margaret. "You inherited Arthur's resonance, which means I could form a pact with you."

    At least that kind of idea was easily answered; namely, with a firm look at her brother. "But you won't. After the last time you two went off on your own, I'm not going to allow it."

    Margaret lowered her eyes in shame, but immediately looked back up in horror when Laphi answered in a playful grumble: "There you go trying to suppress free will forever just once and she never lets you hear the end of it."

    "That, and the mental torture, and the religious indoctrination. Should I continue?"

    "H-How can you be so casual about this?" Now Margaret sounded positively scandalised, wide eyes wandering between the two. "So many people died, so many lives ruined, how...." She made a vague motion toward them without finishing the sentence. Laphi shrugged and Velvet did the same.

    "It's just... what's done is done, we can't change it anymore. I still love both of my brothers, I don't want to just look at the past and keep hating them for it." She tilted her head slightly at Margaret, unsure if her reasoning made sense.

    Laphi chimed in there. "Perhaps ascending into divinity helped, but we basically decided to let the past lie."

    "But that doesn't mean you can just make jokes about it!... Wait, divinity? 'We'?"

    Both of them shrugged and Margaret threw up her hands. "I can not... ugh, Crowes!" And she marched away, leaving behind a pair of somewhat befuddled siblings. At the border of the training area however, her previous annoyance had evaporated and she turned around once more. "I'd like to have some time for myself, to sort things out. That is alright, yes?"

    Velvet just nodded. "Sure, take all the time you need."

    Once Margaret was out of sight, she turned to Laphicet; all tension was gone from her form and she almost slumped. He felt he understood his sister in this moment, though his own mixed feelings were likely different from hers. "You were trying not to let it sink in just yet, weren't you?"

    "...yes. Excuse me for a moment." She fell still and he could almost hear Minkkubi's roar of primal rage, deep below in the earthpulses. He could definitely feel it, from the arte the other Empyreans taught him to connect with his sister's body.

    . .
    . .

    It originated from below Pendrago and sent minor earthquakes through the entire country, all the way to Ladylake. The entire continent Glenwood shook almost imperceptibly in these moments. Deep below the sibling gods, Malevolence suddenly jerked and began to boil everywhere, if just for a few seconds. Seraphim panicked, humans stumbled, old buildings and ruins fell where their structures finally gave.

    Van Aifread grumbled about half his crew taking a nosedive from the land's sudden lurch. Alisha Diphda took a knee to pray to the seraphim while Shepherd Sorey next to her asked Lailah what it could mean, to no conclusive response. His brother Mikleo, far away and exploring a different ruin, merely dove below a sturdy stone bench to not get hit by rubble.

    On her mountain, Edna felt it as well, a dark grasp on the land that let loose landslides as it shook the stone. She was perfectly safe on her perch up high... and yet, an actually audible roar from even higher dispersed the foreign presence on their home. Eizen circled above her, an everlasting guardian; were him being a danger for her not so ingrained, he would have shielded her from the unseen colossus with his body.

    A man steeped in darkness felt his very being contort for an instant, as something far greater than himself stirred in the distance. He could not tell what or where, just that it definitely existed. Maotelus did not react, likely having missed it in his final years. Heldalf took it as proof that his precautions had been correct, and to go even slower lest he draw the unknown leviathan's eye.

    The only ones who truly understood were a woman of the faith, who interrupted her prayer to listen to her goddess' rage, and an old woman in a cozy house, who laughed about her adopted seraph girl's sudden confusion.

    And Zaveid who paid it no mind, figuring that it was a woman-thing.

    The phenomenon did not repeat, and thus no one but the elder and the amused gods would remember more than the quakes beyond this day.

    . .
    . .

    Laphicet chuckled while his sister spent a few seconds screaming out her frustrations. "We can probably pretend this was some kind of natural occurence," he told Velvet once she finished. It was not even too far from the truth, anger was natural. "Just don't do that again in the next hundred years or so, yes?"

    The glare he got in response almost made him wilt; it definitely would have before his death. Velvet sighed and massaged her temples. "Just why did this have to happen right now?" She complained out loud. "I don't know what to think!"

    With many years of experience in understanding his sister, Laphicet went to respond to what she meant instead of what she said. "I'm happy we have Arthur back, too. In a way, at least." Then he became thoughtful, his eyes going toward the rainbow bridge Margaret left on. "Hm. Considering they both died within a few weeks of each other... this might be a hint for how the cycle of reincarnation works."

    His attempt to distract his sister was successful, too. Velvet blinked and turned back to Laphicet with a frown. "I thought you know how that works?"

    However she got that idea. He shook his head. "Not at all. I know to return the souls sacrificed to me after waking up, but that's all. The others can not even do that, I can't say whether being a sacrifice has any influence on the process, and we do not know how it actually works; where does the soul stay in the interim? No one knows."

    Some excitement actually stole its way into his voice as he explained, much to Velvet's confusion. Then again, she never really understood the joy of a great mystery to unravel; he did not explain it to her and carried on instead: "Either way, two are far too small a number to assume a rule. It doesn't help that most people who reincarnate as humans wouldn't actually remember anything. But if this pattern holds, we might see your friend Eleanor in, uh, about sixty years, give or take a few? Assuming that her memories awaken."

    Velvet just rolled her eyes at him even while he still spoke. "That's so unlikely we might as well ignore it," she answered once Laphicet finished. Yet he could see the faint smile the idea brought to her face. She even admitted it, with no one but him there: "But it would be nice. We argued a lot, but we always had each other's backs." She spent a few more seconds reminiscing, then shook it off and resumed their conversation. "Actually, how do human sacrifices work then? The way people make it out, you would consume their souls for energy... but how can you reincarnate them?"

    Laphicet blinked at her in confusion, then he let out a disappointed 'tsk' and shook his head. "Velvet, Velvet, Velvet." He prepared something behind his back as he spoke, chiding his sister a little bit. "A single human soul, or even two in my case; do you really think there is enough energy in one to give a god the strength to awaken?"

    She raised a finger as if to respond, then lowered it and considered the question. There was his chance! A swift motion followed and Velvet did not even see the glowing sphere coming before it slapped her in the face, dispersing into motes of light. This left her with a decidedly unamused look, eyes narrowed and arms close to being crossed. She definitely noticed the other, not glowing sphere he still held. "What was that for?"

    "That, dear sister, is basically what a human sacrifice does. There is a reason the texts specify a pure soul of strong resonance; the resonance is what it needs to actually be noticed." He then threw the dark sphere at her, which simply bounced off her chest and dissipated. "And free of Malevolence so the Empyrean does not crush everything near the sacrifice on instinct. Imagine someone setting you on fire while you sleep, how would you react?"

    "Point taken. So the souls are not food but rather a wake-up call."

    "Exactly!"

    He was glad that she understood so well. The metaphor was not completely accurate, but he felt it had been close enough. Velvet mulled the whole matter over for a moment, then she turned around. "I'll think about all this later. For now I'm taking a walk." She did not wait for his response, merely hopped over the floating platform's edge and flew away; Laphicet had no idea where to, but he figured his sister would know her own needs best. In a way, it gave him time to come to terms with the return of Artorius as well.

    He soon turned his attention upward on his solidified body. Access to the upper rings was restricted, mainly because the lower ring had enough space for the Bloodwings' needs. He considered floating up there to meditate for a while, but finally decided against it. Laphicet turned back toward the administration area and slowly began to walk, wondering what Edna would think of this entire affair. Or Symonne, for that matter. He was certain both were alive during Shepherd Artorius' time and Edna knew at least parts of the true story. Symonne might have insight about one of the greatest men who ever lived walking the earth again.

    Then again, he chided himself, he could not really talk to either of them about this. It irked Laphicet to keep secrets from friends, but there was too much at stake... too much that could go wrong if they found out.

    "Laphicet?"

    He became aware of his surroundings again, finding Margaret almost right in front of him. She still appeared distraught, if a lot more together than before. Yet she must have turned around while on the way back for some reason. "Yes? Is something the matter?"

    She fidgeted a little at first, but soon raised her eyes to meet his own. "I just tried to order my thoughts and remembered something. What happened to the Caelix?"

    He needed a moment to think about that. Though the pause was mostly out of embarassment. "I, uh, completely forgot it existed. Do you think it's still there?"

    "It was supposed to last for a small eternity," Margaret lectured softly. "Even unmaintained, there is a good chance for it to have remained operational." And he once again noticed how her speech pattern shifted, more in line with Arthur's now. Not exactly the same, but closer.

    Meanwhile, Laphicet considered the matter. If the Caelix had passed the test of time, they had to take a look posthaste and make sure everything was alright there. "Then we will go and check, right now if possible." He waved her to follow and sped up a little, then hopped off the road and onto a building it ran over without connecting. Margaret jumped right after him before realising she lacked a seraph's bond to make the ten metres uninjured; Laphi caught her halfway and lowered her to the ground gently.

    "Thank you. I... still need to order my thoughts, later."

    He said nothing and placed down another teleportation arte, then sensed outward for others to attune with. This new gate linked up with one far distant without any issue, much to his surprise. "The route to Hexen Island is still open," he mused out loud. "Convenient, that saves time."

    He channeled mana from his hand into the arte, then held onto Margaret with the other; they strolled through the gate a moment after it had finished forming. The transition was different, though. Not a quick leap as normal, but several nauseating lurches that ended with both of them being spat out into a small heap on black grass.

    "Oww...."

    He blindly patted Margaret's shoulder as she groaned and made to push himself up. Then his senses adjusted and he paused, unsure if he wanted to see what was around them. Going by how still the girl on top of him got, she had already gone ahead and opened her eyes. Sighing, Laphicet pushed off the ground and brought Margaret up by extension. Then he finally looked, to find the hellscape he already expected.

    An almost physical wall of black fog surrounded them, Malevolence thicker than he ever saw before. The grass had turned dark, what few trees there might have been on the island earlier were warped or gone. The land sloped into unnatural forms where darkness contorted it, the most outstanding being a looping slope closer to the isle's edge. He could not sense any hellions, but the fog may as well be hiding them.

    He was so morbidly fascinated that he completely forgot he could just eat it all.

    What saved Margaret's life a moment later was their peripheral vision. It made her step back in an attempt to dodge the lunging creature, and made him turn to interpose himself. Just in time, as something five times his size barrelled into Laphicet before being stopped dead. Several ugly crunching noises told of one of the 'hound's' many spines cracking, its seven paws making to grasp and scratch at them before a sloppy haymaker from Laphicet sent it flying.

    He could not see much detail with how fast it happened, but the grey fur and three heads did not inspire confidence. None of them were canine despite its wolf-like body structure. Moreover, he felt a stinging burn right in his front; Margaret gasped at the sight while he blinked downward. A hand slowly rose to tap the small hole in his clothes, scoop up a trace of golden blood as it trickled from where the central head pierced him with its short horn.

    "We have to leave," she told him while the 'hound' began to circle them. A moment passed, then a quiet "Oh". Laphicet turned to where she was looking, only to find the teleportation arte splintered; chances were it was already breaking down, the fact it remained functional for so long a miracle in itself.

    Thinking quickly, he picked Margaret up in a princess carry and took to the air. Her surprised "eep" went ignored as he tried to see through the fog, then sped off to where he figured the beach might be. A few minutes of fast, unsteady flight later, they touched down on sand as bleached as bone, with waves more Malevolence than water licking at it. Margaret shivered and hugged herself after being set down, looking around warily while Laphicet set up a few protective barriers around them; soft, golden light soon thrummed and illuminated their wide eyes.

    "We need to tell Velvet about this," he told her, to an immediate nod. Then he began the arduous task of setting up a new teleportation arte in a new location. At least they remained undisturbed.
     
  27. Windborne

    Windborne Devourer of Stories

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    Well damn that twist might have been foreshadowed, but the sheer audacity of the idea made it extremely fucking subtle. Congratulations on slipping by me again. Not often that someone can surprise me like this and to do it more than once? That tends to be done extremely competent authors, of which there are few, off the top of my head I can only think of Sanderson at the moment. So again congratulations.
     
    Naron likes this.
  28. Threadmarks: 2.8 Fallout
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    When Velvet showed up on Magilou's doorstep, her old friend could immediately tell she was distraught. She was ushered inside and sat down, with two Normin and a curious Symonne all crowding around the table; the only one who might have missed her state of being was Bienfu, but she could not say for sure.

    Now there she sat, silent and cradling a mug of steaming, sweet tea. Four pairs of eyes lay on her, waiting for Velvet to speak up about whatever bothered her. Her eyes went this way and that, but found only concern or curiousity in some capacity. It took her a while to find a good point to start from, but the others gave her time. Velvet's gaze went to Symonne once or twice, whose presence made this even more difficult to approach.

    When she did speak, it was with a heavy sigh. "I took a student, a bit over a year ago. A prodigious girl, with strong resonance." The fact she already kept an eye on Symonne was what let her notice how the girl seraph perked up. She was definitely listening now.

    "Surprising," Magilou commented from her seat while sipping her own tea. "I did not peg you for the type to take students." Bienfu nodded along with her assessment and Velvet had to huff.

    "Honestly, I normally wouldn't have. But she reminded me of myself when I was younger, so eager to learn and willing to work hard. Then she turned out to be a prodigy. Laphi practiced alongside her and knew most of the basic stances already, but she still overtook him in a few weeks." By the end of her recounting, she even smiled a bit despite her inner turmoil.

    "My, that is certainly prodigious," Grimoirh chimed in now. She tapped her grey-furred cheek as she pondered, the mature and calm tone of her voice making Velvet relax a little as it always had. "How far did she progress by now?"

    "In terms of skill, she is on par with... no, beyond most of the knights." The room was silent for a moment while everyone took that in. Magilou's eyes were narrowed the slightest bit as she tried to read the truth from Velvet's face while her seraphim were in various states of consideration.

    "Then what bothers you about it?" That was Symonne, eyeing her critically. Somehow, Velvet felt herself measured. "If she blossomed under your tutelage, what is there to be distraught over?"

    "She's fourteen!"

    Symonne flinched back when Velvet barked the words at her, a flash of anger and yet another impulse to tear something from limb to limb. She sat back down with a sigh and closed her eyes, feeling a migraine of sorts coming. "She's fourteen, Symonne. And she already wants to start traveling with what she learned." The girl gave an understanding nod, hopefully fooled by that general worry. "The only reason she hasn't run off yet is that none of the seraphim wanted to come with her; we made having a partner a condition. Either that, or when she turns seventeen."

    Velvet paused there to empty her mug in one, long gulp without any care for the heat. It did not hurt her anyway. "And earlier today, she awakened memories of a past life." She stared at the table, unwilling to look up just yet; trying to force herself not to show her heartache in front of Symonne. The silence held for a few long seconds as everyone mulled over her words.

    "I don't get it," Bienfu finally said while rubbing his oversized top hat, roughly where the back of his head would be. "I mean, I get this might be bad bad, but what's the problem? Was she someone famous?" The Normin stared at her curiously out of those big eyes while Magilou's narrowed suspiciously.

    Velvet shook her head, lying through her teeth on that one. "She didn't say who exactly, but I figure that it was not a kind life. Not an average one, either. She's still just a child, but... I have the feeling she will run off soon, with or without a partner. Those memories will make her start acting, if nothing else does."

    It was one of her worries, at least. Some things she could talk about right now. Symonne seemed to take it at face value, though the girl was damned hard to read for Velvet. "Act in which way?" she asked.

    At least that question was easy to answer, even without lying. "To make the world better. If she were a few years older, I'd have considered bringing her here to make her the shepherd. Her heart is big, and her will is even greater."

    "Hm." Grimoirh leaned forward a little, as well as a lounging Normin actually could do that. "Leaving home to aid strangers in whichever way is no small task. Her compassion must indeed be great, though at such a tender age I believe she has yet to understand the strife which lies on such a path. So you are worried about her wellbeing?" Velvet just gave her a flat stare and she took the implied answer with a faint smile.

    A moment later however, Magilou piped up with a mischievous grin: "I think there is something we can do to help out." She nudged Symonne out of whatever thoughts she had. "Say, dear, do you feel like going on an adventure?"

    It was not just Symonne who stared at the elder with incredulity, though Velvet did it for vastly different reasons. The seraph girl blinked up at Magilou, then tapped her ears a few times. "I must be mishearing, did you just ask me to babysit?"

    Her question drew a chuckle from the elder, who then shrugged. "Yes and no. If Velvet thinks the girl is competent," at which point Velvet nodded, "then she needs a partner more than a minder. But she is still fourteen, so someone responsible ought to keep an eye on her."

    Velvet had half a mind to demand Magilou's actual reasons immediately, but held her tongue. Barely. By biting down on it and tasting blood. She was never one for mindgames or intrigue, not like this. Not this... directly. Whatever goal her old friend had, one could not tell from just her words and actions. Yet Velvet trusted her, so she kept quiet. Instead, she focussed on the seraphim. Symonne had become thoughtful again while Bienfu looked between her and Magilou; Grimoirh just shook her head with a lenient smile, then winked at Velvet when she noticed her gaze. She got the message well enough', let Magilou work'.

    An uncomfortably long amount of time passed in silence as the girl considered Magilou's proposal. Velvet waited almost anxiously, even more so because she had become curious where this was going despite it all. When Symonne finally spoke, it was while rising from her seat. "I... need to think about this. Excuse me for now, Velvet. I'm stepping out for a bit."

    "Sure, take care." There was no acknowledgement of the words she barely got out to sound normal; Symonne turned into mist and flowed out of the nearest window, after opening it in that form.

    Green and amber eyes met immediately, but Magilou held up a hand to stop her from speaking. The elder glanced to her Normin, whose eyes were on the wall, wandering further and further to one side. Half a minute passed, then Bienfu piped up: "Okay, she's gone."

    Velvet immediately turned back to her friend with a growl. "What. Exactly. Was that?"

    Her now audible anger only led to an amused grin. "The next stage of my plan, sweetie. An old lady and two Normin are no proper friends for her, but your girl might just be what we need to get her to make a full turn."

    At least one of them remained calm; that allowed Velvet to keep herself in check as well, if still only barely. She wanted to break something, anything, and the table's edge splintered under her grip's inhuman strength. "This was reckless," she admonished carefully. "Margaret knows almost everything about us Bloodwings, except your identity and my own divinity... or, no. She knows that last one, too. Even with those memories giving her a better perspective, if Symonne catches on before she's subverted, we have to kill her."

    "Heh. Then thank the heavens for your being an Empyrean; looking at you, you would be overflowing with Malevolence right now if you weren't consuming it faster than you produce it. The whole game would be up anyway." Magilou ignored the renewed stare and leaned back. "Nothing worthwhile comes without risk, Velvet."

    "I know."

    "Then give your girl a chance. If you trusted her enough to let her know so much, she should be able to deal with Symonne, now that I had some time to work on her."

    She sighed in response and began to work on the table's broken end, just to keep her hands busy. Bienfu made a thoughtful noise into the momentary silence to get their attention. "I'm kinda worried about those memories. Are you sure they're from a past life? And, and do you really don't know who she was? Or wait, was it Melchior or something?" The Normin's eyes widened, likely remembering their previous conversation. "Oh please, don't let it be Melchior!"

    Velvet mutely shook her head and Bienfu sighed in relief. Only for his eyes to bulge out when she answered him: "I wish it was Melchior, that would be easier for me to deal with." She kept her silence on the actual identity for a moment longer, but the change in Magilou's expression made it clear she already knew, so she spoke the words out loud: "It's Artorius." Velvet's repressed emotions bubbled up again and she scowled. "That's how I know. She knew things I never mentioned in a single word. She picked up his style in record time even before remembering. Her will is extraordinary. She is the second coming of Artorius Collbrande."

    Silence reigned after her declaration, almost deafening. The table was presentable again at this point, splintered wood carefully shaved off and the rest smoothed out. A cursory inspection would no longer reveal the damage. Velvet folded her hands in her lap as the silence continued.

    Magilou eyed her for a long while before expelling whatever thoughts she had with a sigh. "I see. So that's why you came to me."

    "I don't know what to think," Velvet admitted quietly. "Margaret is not Arthur, but it's just... difficult. You're the only one I can talk to about this." The only one left to talk to, really. Except maybe Zaveid, who was out of touch.

    "Aww, how sweet of you. What about your brother?"

    She shook her head almost immediately. "It's different with Laphi. He stood with Arthur until the end and he's still so young. I don't know if he'd understand."

    The elder shook her head with a soft smile and tapped a finger on her partner's hat. "Bienfu, be a dear and get the special cookies, yes?"

    "Aye aye!"

    Velvet's gaze followed the Normin for a moment until he vanished into the kitchen, then returned to Magilou. She tried to ask with but her eyes, but did not receive a response. Grimoirh chuckled softly behind one of her paws. They waited like this until, a few seconds later, Bienfu darted back into the living room with a platter of cookies that had a curious red hue to them. He hopped up onto the table and placed it in front of Velvet without so much as rattling the baked goods, a big smile on his face.

    She huffed while the small seraph went back to his seat at the table's edge, unable to stop herself from smiling over the gesture. "You baked for me?"

    "Of course, sweetie. Go on and try them."

    Magilou's smile was surprisingly gentle at this point, enough to make Velvet feel a little bad that she had to remind her of the fact while picking up one of the treats. "I guess you forgot that I don't have a sense of taste, but thank you."

    She popped it into her mouth and bit down on it, then stopped as flavour hit her tongue. Velvet's eyes bugged out and she just stared at the amused elder, who leaned forward mischievously. "It seems you forgot that you can taste blood just fine. I put some chicken's blood into them, just for you."

    Flabbergasted, Velvet silently munched on the cookie. Then she took another. For someone who tasted nothing, even the iron taste of blood was incredible after so long. She emptied the plate in record time while the Normin exchanged a high-five. Magilou just grinned and left the matter uncommented.

    Once she was on the last treat and almost sad about it, her old friend continued their conversation. "But to get back to Symonne for a moment, she needs an actual friend. Now that we know this child holds Artorius' memories and apparently his compassion, I want them to bond even more."

    Velvet answered her after swallowing: "She doesn't need a minder, though." But all that brought her was a wink.

    "No, but that comment gave Symonne a nudge to consider how she could spy on a potential problem if she joined up. Seraphim and humans are similar in that regard, they take almost any excuse to do something they want to do but don't feel they should."

    She almost had to consider whether to roll her eyes or shake her head; in the end, she did both. "You're the worst."

    "Heh, and don't you forget it!"

    "Now," Grimoirh interrupted their banter softly while Bienfu placed another plate of blood-cookies in front of her. "With that aside, tell us about your feelings regarding this Margaret. They are certainly conflicting."

    Velvet hesitated for but a moment. She was here for this, no matter how much she would prefer to keep all those feelings to herself. So, taking another cookie, she slowly began to talk.

    . .
    . .

    Ladylake felt different, or so Symonne thought.

    Her feet carried her through now familiar streets, past faces she actually remembered. More curiously however, she came to like it. The feeling had been alien at first and still was from time to time, but... she did not miss the cold emptiness. It liked to return when she was alone, though ever less pronounced as time went on.

    She did not lie to herself, knew she had changed. Months ago, Symonne had felt numb to the world; only her mission mattered, to corrupt it all and shatter the illusion of reason, unite mankind as hellions. To see Lord Heldalf's dream come true. Her mission was not forgotten, but it had taken a backseat to all those other sensations. Teasing Laphi to fluster him, living with Nica and the Normin, reading books, even just these walks she started to take to report. It all grew dear to her.

    Not for the first time, Symonne wondered if this world was really so bad; if it needed to be washed away. A world full of tragedy it was without doubt, but there were kind people in it as well. People who appreciated even something broken like her for who she was. Then again, a part of her noted, Nica had no idea who Symonne really was; the Lord of Calamity's right hand woman. She liked to think the old human would welcome her just the same, but that was an illusion far more shallow than those she usually weaved.

    Perhaps, she thought, it was actually possible to change the world without Malevolence. Thinking back to Laphicet, she could not help but wonder; the boy undeniably left an impression on her, both with his smarts and how easily he could smile. He might be able to bring such change. Yet at the same time, it remained unlikely he actually would. Symonne shook her head and took in her surroundings again, taking note of the various people; no seraphim around, which was nice for the moment. She had to think some more.

    Either way, Nica was right; if Symonne went with that girl, she could keep a close eye on her and quickly report on anything problematic. Glancing up at the circular and massive city walls, a part of her wondered if she actually wanted to report. But it went ignored.

    Symonne's steps carried her along then, away from the city's outskirts. She leapt and formed a small rail of water to slide on, easily passing over an entire block before her feet touched solid ground again, right next to one of the many channels running through Ladylake. The rush of air had drawn a smile onto her face, even if it was just a short one. She still saw a trace of it in her reflection, right there on the water. Symonne walked closer to take herself in.

    A girl looked back at her; not just Symonne as there was in the past, but a properly washed girl with a faint smile on her face. Her posture turned from the usual listlessness or determined tension into a sly pose with cocked hips. Even her skin became more rosy, losing the unhealthy touch it had for as long as she could remember. She was pretty.

    Another might have asked if they really saw themself. Symonne, though, did not need to ask herself that. The words that left her lips were but acknowledgement of what happened: "I have changed."

    She looked into her own eyes, the lilac appearing a bit more vibrant than she remembered it being. Small hands patted over her body, but she could not find any structural changes; it remained as it were, if perhaps growing a little thicker around the hips. This told her that even subconciously, she was still seeing herself as she always had; yet her skin was different and she could not tell if her body adjusted based on her own perception or that of those around her. Either way, it remained in the same shape. This was who she was comfortable with, and this was how people saw her.

    Admittedly, the idea of suddenly growing a big rack amused her; the amounts of teasing she could dish out with that would be hilarious. But nonetheless, that would not be her. This was her. Petite, sly, cold, warm, insightful, ignorant. Fluid.

    Symonne stared at herself a little while longer, drinking in her own appearance. She liked this, she realised with some surprise. Liked having thawed by Nica's warmth, liked to express herself. Liked to flow freely again, like all the world's rivers.

    Without much thought, she stepped forward and sunk into the water with a little splash, letting her clothes fade away as easily as she weaved them. Her perception widened as mana seeped into the surrounding flow, let a small wave carry her along the channel and out into Lake Perniya. Symonne was hardly even corporeal in these moments, her very being now part of her own element. She wanted peace of mind, far away from the bustling crowds. She wanted to look at herself a little longer, to try understanding why she liked herself.

    A school of fish passed by her without paying attention and the light dimmed as she descended. The ground was almost completely dark, but she did not bother; she was the water and the water was her, she could feel what was where well enough. The bits of wood spread around, metal tools having fallen in long ago and gotten stuck. Something deformed served as a home for more fish.

    Symonne came to rest right there, far away from where humans could tread. She spread her partly formed arms and legs wide, floating spread-eagle like one would on the surface. Her eyes were open but unseeing, her being one of touch more than sight. The water hugged her body close, kept her safe; it was cold, but nowhere near as cold as she had been not so long ago.

    She did not know how long she spent down there, just feeling the waves and thinking. Trying to understand this new her and where she came from.

    Alas, as she had to realise once again, people were difficult to understand. Now that she began to live despite it all, that statement included herself.

    All she realised in this time was that she was not much opposed to traveling again.

    She had never tried to enjoy a journey before.
     
  29. AzureGenesis

    AzureGenesis Getting out there.

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    Oh man, I'm starting to get really invested in Symonne's character arc. Her and Margaret would be an interesting duo.
     
  30. Threadmarks: 2.9 Preparations
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    Velvet returned home late, yet she was still received by two obviously worried teens. It took only the beginning of their explanation for her to realise they were not worried about her, though. Once Margaret was done summarising what Laphi and her found on Hexen Island, they all agreed that this was not good. It was much the opposite of good in fact, if at least unlikely to be related to the Lord of Calamity.

    "Can we destroy it?"

    Her question was taken seriously by both of them, which told her enough of their own thoughts on the matter. Margaret spoke up first, brows furrowed while tapping her fingers together. "The Caelix is too intricate to be destroyed wholesale. Or, hm." She eyed the other two again, though this time with a certain annoyance. "Well, as Empyreans, for which I still await an explanation for," she noted with a look specifically to Velvet, "you certainly have the power to do so. But I don't think that you should. Hexen Island is far out to sea, but the Caelix' destruction while active might still have repercussions for Glenwood."

    Her memories being what they were, Velvet deferred to the girl's judgement. Laphi carried the conversation while she still considered: "And you are the only one who knows how to shut it down."

    Margaret nodded softly. "Melchior and I, well, Artorius were the only ones who knew. I still have to sort through that and it's hard to describe."

    "I figured it would be complicated," Laphi mused with a sideway glance to Velvet. "Chances are any existing interfaces are worn down after such a long time of working unattended, not to mention the Malevolence. We will have to clear it out first." The older Crowe met his gaze evenly, wondering what he was thinking about.

    "We can do that easily between the two of us."

    "Or," he answered with a little grin, "we use it for Margaret to gather some actual experience in this life."

    This time, even Margaret joined in on the flat stare leveled at him. "Me," she began, more baffled than indignant. "Go to Hexen Island. Without a bonded seraph. To fight opponents I can hardly track, react to even less, and that have accumulated enough power to injure a god." Her tone was devoid of any emotion bar incredulity, the concept's very essence filling each word. "Do you believe me suicidal?"

    "I mostly agree," Velvet noted toward her brother before giving Margaret a nudge, "except for one thing. If everything works out, you won't be alone for much longer." She paused for effect while the other two gave their full attention to her; Velvet smiled. "I talked to Ma-, er, Nica." Close. "She has a seraph girl around who might be interested in traveling with you, but she hasn't decided yet."

    Margaret's eyes grew wide over the news while it was Laphi's turn to be baffled. He blinked at Velvet, trying to comprehend. "You, she, she got Symonne to do this? I...." He trailed off, obviously unsure how to continue. Or how to feel about this. Margaret's gaze wandered between them.

    "Friend of yours?"

    Velvet pointed at Laphi with a grin. "Friend of his. Bit of a tease, that one."

    "Ah, I see. So Laphi's girlfriend might become my partner."

    Laphi opened his mouth to deny the claim, but then shook his head and ignored Margaret's grin. "She's a lot better at this than you are, I'll say," he noted. "And considering you, she will tease you too. I'm just not sure I can survive living door to door with her for a few days with my dignity intact." Velvet grinned at him, having a bit of an idea what he was worried about.

    Then however, her brother changed the subject, a little thoughtful as his gaze wandered between Margaret and Velvet. "But that aside, I guess I could bond with her for this one, as a safety measure."

    ...she could not let this opportunity pass by, not when it presented itself so easily. Velvet's grin grew wider. "Which one? Maggie, or Symonne?"

    "Velvet!"

    Margaret broke into laughter again while Laphi's cheeks began to get some colour. It seemed he had forgotten that a big sister was even better at destroying her little brother's dignity at every opportunity. Velvet chuckled as well and, once Margaret was done laughing, commented on the actual idea: "Anyway, you have a point, but I don't like it much."

    "Figures." Laphi thought about it for a little longer, then he shrugged. "Whatever. If she agrees, we have to consider how to play it with Symonne, too. She is an enemy at the moment, but one Nica believes we can subvert to our side."

    "...this is getting better and better," Margaret muttered, expression having fallen somewhat over this piece of news. "I remember being the first man to be called Shepherd. I remember dying by your hands, after so many atrocities. I'm a girl that has yet to see her fifteenth winter, and now I'm supposed to go on a training trip into Malevolence hell, with only someone serving the Lord of Calamity for assistance, while also playing games of intrigue. Anything else you need from me? May I solve the issue of the Empyreans' near-constant slumber while I am at it? Find a way to cure dragons? Oh wait, I know! Lemme ascend to godhood real quick, it's possible so I have to have done that before I turn eighteen!"

    She crossed her arms and stared at both Crowes. Velvet blinked back at her, baffled by the sudden surge of sarcasm. Margaret had a point though, she quietly admitted; this was a lot they heaped onto her plate all at once. She sighed, feeling sheepish about having forgotten the girl's age. "Sorry."

    "Yeah, sorry about that." Laphi considered the two women for a moment, then continued. "We can shelve the issue of Hexen Isle for a while; it kept to itself for a thousand years, one or two more will not do too much harm. Symonne is the bigger issue."

    Velvet nodded at him, a thought forming. "Agreed. But, considering the situation, we might get away with telling her straight-up that we know about her." She elaborated before either of the other two could interrupt. "Then we will show her one or two of the cards up our sleeves and strike a deal. Nothing Margaret might learn from her will be used against the Lord of Calamity, nothing she learns while bonded to Margaret is used against us."

    It was not a perfect plan, even Velvet could tell that, but it felt more promising to her than having Margaret play intrigue with Symonne. The girl herself shook her head, though. "I don't like that, either. It sounds like too much of a risk to take when operational security is the name of the game."

    She felt some exasperation over how contrarian the girl acted; the fact she was reasonable about it only made it worse. Thankfully for Velvet's mental state, frayed as it still was, Laphi played peacemaker. "You both have a point," he began with a glance between the two of them. "Let's leave that issue until later as well, once we see how Symonne acts. More importantly, you are going to leave soon, seraph or no."

    His eyes were on Margaret, who did not meet them and nodded. They had all known, from the moment Artorius' past came through. The girl herself heaved a sigh. "I heard what you said about me not being him, but...." she trailed off, heavy silence descending for a long moment. Again, Velvet could guess what she was about to say even before she got it out. "Just because I am no longer Artorius Collbrande does not absolve me from those sins."

    "It's a little eerie how similar you act," Velvet muttered, mostly to herself. Then, to Margaret: "Do you have any plans yet?"

    Her former student fidgeted a little before tilting her head, a shake aborted halfway through. "Nothing concrete, but... for now, I want to travel around and see if people need help. But for later, I want to become Maotelus' pactkeeper."

    "I can see why you would," Laphi answered her. "Though, in the interim, one of the other four might be amenable. And they're around."

    Velvet had agreed with the understanding. She did not agree with this, and threw her brother a flat stare. "Could you stop trying to give her overwhelming power right from the start?" The quip earned her two chuckling kids. Even Velvet herself had to smile a bit.

    Once they were done laughing however, Margaret leaned back and sighed wistfully. "I... that is, looking back at this past life, I never would have thought we would be together like this again." She did not spell it out, but Velvet knew. Laphi knew. How the time he spent with the Crowes was one of the happiest times in Arthur's life.

    Velvet did not comment. She simply gave Margaret a pat on the shoulder. "Catch some sleep and sort out your thoughts, chances are you're meeting Symonne tomorrow."

    "Alright. Good night."

    . .
    . .

    Elsewhere, the woman known as the Blue Valkyrie took a stroll by the lakeside.

    To Hyaci Maltran, frequent evening walks were a way to destress from the day's tribulations. To calm her feelings when they became hard to bear, to ponder difficult issues. To go over a day's events and ascertain she made the correct choices. Sometimes, to reminisce. Of simpler times, of her youth. To wonder how far her own student would go before breaking like Hyaci herself had. It was better now, of course, but Alisha was nothing like her; still so full of hope, so optimistic. Inspiring, in a way.

    Yet Hyaci also knew just what awaited. Who conspired in the shadows. What was a single princess' optimism when compared to the Lord of Calamity?

    She was drawn out of her idle thoughts by a loud splash. Snapping back to attention in an instant, Hyaci grabbed for her spear and turned to the disturbance, then paused. Before her, among the rippling surface, stood Symonne. A single glance was enough to take in her state of complete nudity, shining droplets running down her rosy skin. Soaked, black hair clung to her neck and the tips of her shoulders; the lilac of her eyes was more pronounced as she studied Hyaci, who arched an eyebrow in response. "Is there a reason for your casual public indecency?"

    The seraph blinked and glanced down at herself, then she rolled her eyes. A gesture that gave Hyaci pause, for she had never seen Symonne do it before. Mana quickly took the form of her usual garments, indecent as they already were to Hyaci's sensibilities. Symonne herself tilted her head somewhat, though the slightest smile played around her lips; yet another first. "You're just uptight," she chirped.

    Hyaci took a long moment to just... take in the rather quite visible changes in Symonne's behaviour. And appearance, for that matter. After getting a glance at her entire body, that nagging feeling of something being different had finally found something to latch onto; her skin changed from its previous, inhuman white hue toward a rosy, healthy colour.

    "I fail to see how upholding basic rules of decency can be assumed as 'uptight'", she finally answered, deciding to just keep up the conversation instead of arguing and see where it went. A nod was given to Symonne, who stood on the lake's surface. "I did not know you can do that."

    The girl herself shrugged after a clarifying motion toward her feet. "I rarely ever do," she admitted softly before stepping off the water and in front of Hyaci; they began to walk together, as they sometimes did. Only this time it felt a little different, more like two comrades walking and not her with a particularly intelligent hound. A hound with apparent news: "Either way, I will be leaving for a while soon."

    "You are returning to duty?" Curious indeed, seeing how Symonne had remained in Ladylake for the better part of a year. Hyaci took a look at the old woman she seemed to have taken a liking to, yet found nothing odd about her. Beyond that... peculiar sense of humour. More curiously, at the moment, was how freely the girl herself emoted; she shook her head a lot more pronounced, frowned, like an actual person would.

    "Not yet," she began slowly, "or somewhat, rather." Hyaci leaned her head toward Symonne to communicate her curiousity, which was noticed without doubt. "The elder I am observing has some friends of strong resonance, one of which took a compassionate student. This student will head out into the world soon, though she is lacking a companion at the moment. They asked me to go with her."

    As the girl spoke, Hyaci began to realise that she had rarely spoken that much in one go before; never about such a light subject, at least. She admittedly did not know which intrigued her more: this student, or how Symonne changed. In the end, she asked about the subject that would actually give her an answer: "What about that girl?"

    "She might be someone to keep an eye on, so I'm going."

    Or not. Grumbling internally, Hyaci accepted she would not get more than that and nodded; the wisdom in this choice was easy to see, having their trusted seraph in the center of potential trouble. Still, this was too little to work with. "What else can you tell me about that girl?"

    A shrug, much to her annoyance. "I have yet to meet her, but I know she is fourteen."

    This was at least something, or so Hyaci thought. She frowned and went through the handful of prodigies around Ladylake that she kept an eye on. None of them was that young. Telling Symonne so earned her a frown to almost mirror her own, followed by another shrug. "I will keep that in mind, but I can't say what it means yet."

    "Very well." If Symonne actually did not know more, she would have to accept this. "I will notify our friend of your departure." Her meaning was understood easily enough; even with no one in sight and under Symonne's illusion, she would not risk actually naming their true allegiance. It had always been like this beside that one conversation.

    Symonne's step faltered momentarily, enough for Hyaci to notice. When the girl caught up with her again however, it was with a thoughtful look. "Say," she started and met the taller woman's gaze curiously, "I never asked, but what made you join us? I know for a fact I never worked my illusions on you."

    She needed a moment to realise just what the girl asked her to reveal. The many thoughts and feelings that went into her choice. Casting that all off with a hollow chuckle, Hyaci offered a gentle if predatory smile to Symonne. "I want Hyland," she told her. Nothing more, three words that summarised her intentions quite clearly. Smart thing that Symonne was, she understood. She did not ask any more questions. Simply nodded and raised her hand as if to say goodbye, then split off and back toward the city, likely to go home.

    Hyaci carried on on her own path, unaware of the symbolism in this parting.
     
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