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Thread: Children of Darkness

  1. #21
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    Flint’s shave proceeded in silence, and Luned assisted with his scalp while he trimmed his beard in a fine glass mirror. Before too long, he appeared much himself again, though the scribe couldn’t help but wonder if he’d grown again, as well. It was much subtler than the foot of height he’d gradually gained after initially ingesting Swaysong, and only really noticeable when he stood to wrap himself in a linen towel. As he towered above her, however, another thought crossed her mind: had he gotten bigger, or was she the one who had grown smaller? Did she really look different? She couldn’t tell.

    “Are you angry with me?” Flint asked. He leaned down slightly to speak, his voice soft.

    “No,” Luned looked up at him, relieved to see some brightness return to his dark eyes. “Are you? With me?”

    He wore his grief with such purpose that she almost forgot her guilt. “Never,” Flint finally replied. He reached up to brush some loose hair from her face but the way his knuckles glanced gently over her cheek felt tentative, unsure. She couldn’t blame him for his hesitance to accept this apparition.

    Luned recalled a moment after Flint had committed to the bracers to preserve his life, those years ago. He’d warned her that he’d want to hold her with nothing between them someday, something she could never allow. She’d never felt his embrace without a metallic chill before.

    The woman’s fingertips found the lace-lined hem of her camisole and liberated it from the waistband of her skirt, the keep’s cool air prickling across her stomach. She took Flint by the wrist to guide his arm around her waist and, to her relief, he allowed it. His other arm followed and as she draped her own over his neck, she felt his palms drift up her back and pull her close. For the first time, she felt the bare skin of his forearms around her, but it didn’t feel especially exciting or new. It just felt right.

    For a long time, Flint held her breathlessly tight, like a sob suppressed in one’s chest.



    In the dressing room next door, Vendesa had laid out some thoughtful gifts for both of them. For Flint, the mysterious grahf’s staff had managed to scrounge up new leather gear that would fit like a glove with a little breaking in. Even the shirt miraculously fit, though that wasn’t made of leather itself; the twilight silk sported slashed sleeves that allowed his hulking arms room to move and breathe, embroidered with such understated delicacy that he might have missed the intricate wisps of silver thread if Luned hadn’t pointed them out. It matched the bodice of her new dress, an airy design with low shoulders, and together, they looked almost civilized again.

    “He was expecting us,” Flint commented as he laced up his new boots. Also Gravebeard models, of course.

    “Apparently so,” Luned grimaced, looking over her own shoes. The burgundy beauts had held up to the fall about as well as her tattered, blood-stained skirt, and she set them aside in favor of the grahf’s replacements. “I’m sure we’ll find out the hows and whys of it very shortly.”

    As if on cue, Vendesa knocked from the other side of the heavy wooden door. “He awaits.”
    • • • art

  2. #22
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    Flint rolled his shoulders as he walked, side-by-side with Luned. For the first time in what felt like years - what had been years - he felt like himself again. Or perhaps it was more than that. He thought on it and couldn’t decide if it was the relief from the impossibility of having Luned back, or if there was something else he was missing. He felt improved, better than he’d ever been.

    This was an impressive house, but he felt nothing in the way of apprehension. He was assenting to this meeting as a courtesy.

    The house was old, certainly, but chillingly clean. The walls were dark scarlet-painted wood, and they were close, just barely leaving space for Flint and Luned to walk side by side. He could feel the velvety luxuriousness of the carpet even through the soles of his boots, and the way was lit with humming electric lights set inside yellowed globes near the ceiling. Of course a grahf would have money, but this place was ostentatious even so.

    The hallway turned on itself twice to carry them to the middle of the household, far from the industrial din of Alerar. The sounds of bells and whistles and steam-driven carriage wheels faded away, and without windows to tell otherwise they could have been anywhere. When the hallway ended, it was at a pair of handsome wooden double doors, attended by smartly dressed elves that opened the way for them.

    It might have been a study, the room they were let into, or a small library, or an office, or a smoking room. It had features to suggest each: too many lounges and sofas to be a private refuge, but too cozy and lived-in to feel fit for public occupation. “The grahf will arrive presently,” Vendesa said behind them. She excused herself, and the double doors were closed after her.

    Usually this meant they’d be waiting awhile, in Flint’s experience, but he took just one step into the room before a side door opened and a short, thin dark elf in silk loungewear hurried in with a smile and a nod. “Miss Bleddyn,” he said smartly, “Mister Skovik. A pleasure to see you both out and about after all your personal excitement. And no worse for the wear, by the looks of things. Congratulations to you both.”

    “For?” Flint said.

    “Not being dead anymore, I suppose,” Holjaer said with a grin. He was pouring something amber colored into a short, broad glass. “Want some?”

    “No thank you,” Luned said. Flint grunted and shook his head almost imperceptibly.

    “I didn’t think so, but I try to be polite,” Holjaer said, indicating a set of seats nearby with an outstretched hand while he took a sip.

    The seats were well-chosen: a large purple-cushioned couch for Flint and Luned to share, and the grahf turned a tall-backed chair around for himself. They all sat, Luned politely demure, Flint leaned forward with forearms over his knees, the grahf comfortable with his right leg over the left.

    The elf smiled charmingly at them, first at Luned then at Flint, then back again. He sat smiling like an idiot for a moment, took another sip, then set his glass aside. “I want you to kill Ezura’s daughter,” he said.

    Flint and Luned looked at one another, and then at the grahf, eyebrows raised.

    He looked between them. “Sorry,” he said. “Maybe I should start somewhere else. I’m Grahf Holjaer. Each grahf deals in something specific, almost more of a guild master than a parliamentarian or a senator or what-have-you. Some deal in the rails, or in textiles, or in infrastructure, or in...what? I don’t know, iron ore. Whatever. I deal in information and rumors. I know things.”

    “The spymaster,” Flint offered.

    “Mmm,” Holjaer said, pointing a finger at Flint while he took another long sip. “Something like that. Look, each grahf has to run a solvent business to maintain any kind of political clout. I don’t have any factories, or anything to feed to factories, so I have to know more than anybody else. Don’t mistake it for something sinister. Or at least not universally sinister. I keep the wheels greased for my contemporaries, and they keep me stocked in...you know, whatever, whiskey and silk. I’ve got a good gig, I’m not interested in plots and all that. At least, not personally. I just keep tabs for the people that are interested in plots and all that.”

    “I don’t mean any offense,” Luned said carefully, “but I’m not sure I’m following you. What does this have to do with Helethra? Or us?”

    Holjaer nodded. “It’s just, people think ‘spymaster’ and assume I’m playing some tricksy long game trying to take the throne or make pawns out of people. Like I said: good gig. I mean, look around. I’m really happy with how things are going. That’s why I want you to kill the kid.”

    “What makes you think she’s still alive?” Flint said. His face betrayed nothing, and Luned looked at him out of the corner of her eye.

    “Process of elimination, honestly,” Holjaer said. “It could be Ezura herself, maybe, but I doubt it. I know you two blew into town years ago and stirred up something ugly with Swanra’ann. I know Ezura was running some pretty nasty experiments out of her little museum, and I know she somehow crossed the underboss and got herself nabbed. I know the kid disappeared before then, because Swanra’ann didn’t get the kid. Then Ezura and the kid go off the map for a couple years, and now we’ve got things creeping up out of the sewers and causing trouble for Swanra’ann - a lot of trouble. It’s a little more complicated than that, sure, but that’s the skeletal framework of the situation.”

    “Whoever it is,” Luned said thoughtfully, “it sounds like you’re saying they’re causing trouble for Swanra’ann. Why is that a problem? I’d think that would make you happy, as a member of the legitimate government.”

    Holjaer made a sound as he sank back into his seat, swirling what was left of his drink. “Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.”
    Last edited by Warpath; 05-07-17 at 05:49 PM.

  3. #23
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    Holjaer laid out the story as he understood it.

    For months after they disappeared from Ettermire years ago, Swanra’ann had scoured every inch of the city. She’d tried to keep it a secret, but secrets were Holjaer’s thing. The fact that she’d tried to keep it a secret is what attracted his attention in the first place, and that’s what made him dig up the rest of the story.

    He found out about Flint and Luned, and the swaysong, and what had brought each of them to the city in the first place. He found out about Ezura and Helethra, and from there he traced their story back too. He told them that Ezura had been a very successful royal apothecary with a promising career before Helethra was born - neither Flint nor Luned knew that - but that not even he knew who Helethra’s father was. He knew there had been ill-defined complications during the pregnancy, and that Ezura had abandoned her career shortly before her daughter was born.

    Ezura opened her eerie museum of horrors a few years after that. She’d begun writing letters and scheduling meetings with other scientists, speaking to anyone that could tolerate her for more than a few minutes. Her obsession was mutation.

    Now, there have always been stories about monsters living in the sewers beneath Ettermire, Holjaer told them. The sewers were dangerous and largely unknown, and certainly home to strange wildlife that could, sometimes, be a danger. It wasn’t until after the museum, however, that more concrete stories started to emerge, and rumors became news.

    Of course, the grahfs hadn’t paid much attention then. Orphans are of limited use; missing orphans offered even less.

    Ezura began making strange friends, and began buying strange things from them. She wanted books at first, and then ingredients and equipment. She wanted things from far off lands: unicorn horns and salamander hearts, then exotic and darker things still. Things that legitimate alchemists and people of conscience don’t trade in.

    So she made a new friend: Swanra’ann.

    The criminal underboss had connections beyond imagining, and influence that stretched out all over the world, and no scruples to speak of at all. Holjaer heard a rumor that Ezura had asked for a virgin high elf’s heart, once, and that Swanra’ann had provided it at a steep price. Just a rumor, mind you, but…

    Well.

    Eventually Ezura asked for something that she couldn’t afford; something that Swanra’ann acquired anyway at great expense. When Ezura couldn’t (or wouldn't) meet the price the underboss set for the mysterious swaysong, Swanra’ann went looking for another buyer, and found one in Luned Bleddyn. Ezura, desperate, conspired to steal the swaysong for uses Holjaer could only guess at.

    And, well, they knew the story better than him from there. He told them what he knew, most of which was true: Swanra’ann blamed Flint, an employee, for the loss. Swanra’ann blamed Ezura for stealing the swaysong. And, eventually, Swanra’ann blamed Luned for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He figured Swanra’ann began cleaning house: first kidnapping Ezura’s daughter to draw out Ezura, which must have worked because Ezura disappeared soon after that. He figured somehow Flint and Luned had escaped Swanra’ann’s wrath by escaping into the sewers, which he knew they’d done once before with a little girl who was often seen coming and going from a sewage outlet.

    This, he assumed, had been Ezura’s daughter Helethra. This meant that either Ezura had slipped Swanra’ann’s clutches after all and was hiding out in the sewers, or, more likely, that Helethra had done so.

    Flint made a thoughtful sound here and interrupted the story. “And why do you assume either survived at all?”

    “Because someone is making Swanra’ann’s life a living hell,” Holjaer said with a shrug, and poured himself a fourth glass.

    Here’s what happened after Luned and Flint escaped.

    Swanra’ann began scouring the city, and things calmed down for a time. As far as the grahf council was concerned, the whole affair had been an interesting diversion for all of a month and now it was over. Back to business. But Swanra’ann didn’t seem to be letting it go. Holjaer found that very interesting.

    In time, he started to hear rumors that Swanra’ann was slipping - that her wealth and power weren’t what they were. That was, Holjaer told them, utterly unthinkable. Swanra’ann was old, as much a legend as a person, and her presence was inexorably tied to Ettermire’s underworld. She’d been Queen of the Pit when the grahf’s predecessor’s predecessor was kicking around, and she’d always been as good as infallible.

    But then he started seeing signs of it.

    She overreacted to every perceived slight, and went to war in situations where a strongly worded letter had once sufficed. Her foot soldiers, once unfailingly loyal, were beginning to skim and defect and, worst of all, spill secrets. Gangs were beginning to crop up that didn’t pay her tribute, and advertised themselves as such. She was slipping.

  4. #24
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    “Swanra’ann and I, we have an interesting dichotomy,” Holjaer said. “Her schtick is obfuscation, mine is revelation, you see? Not to say I just run around revealing secrets, but I like to know things and she very much likes to keep things to herself. It’s a tug-of-war, and I’ve always had to play it a little safe because, well, people that Swanra’ann doesn’t like tend to just up and disappear.”

    The grahf indicated Flint and Luned by pointing at them with his glass.

    “You know better than me,” he continued. “But all of a sudden, it’s easy to find out what she’s doing. All the protection rackets, all the backroom deals, all the grahfs on the take, all the factory bosses and foremen and guild yeomen in her debt...everybody is talking, and she can’t seem to shut them up. And you know what they’re saying?”

    Luned sighed. “I can guess,” she said. “Swanra’ann is under attack.”

    “Bingo,” Holjaer said, “and she’s losing. Now, I don’t know this, but the pieces all fit. I think someone has found a way to weaponize whatever is down there in the sewers, and they - she is pointing that weapon at Swanra’ann. I think Swanra’ann is spending her resources fighting that attack off, and has been for awhile now. And I think their little war is about to come to a head. That makes me nervous.”

    “Why?” Flint said.

    “I’m a grahf,” Holjaer said with a casual shrug. “The city is my responsibility. I need to hold it together. Maybe you didn’t hear me the first time: good gig.

    “Yes,” Flint said, “but isn’t this a self-correcting problem? One will triumph over the other eventually.”

    “Exactly,” Holjaer said, “and it’s starting to look possible that Swanra’ann is going to lose.”

    Flint and Luned look at one another. Holjaer looked between them.

    “I don’t think you’re grasping what Swanra’ann represents, here,” he said after a moment, setting his glass down for the first time. “Imagine a table or like, a stool or something, and it has three legs. You follow? Three legs holding this thing up. The stool is Ettermire. One of the legs is the citizens, we need them to work the factories, to produce things, buy things, so on. The second leg is the council of grahfs; we grease the wheels and feed the factories and keep things proceeding apace. And the third leg is Swanra’ann: the secret grahf.

    “She manages the necessary evils, guys. The black markets, the rackets, the underhanded shit that has to get done. She navigates the grey areas: the loopholes, the contractual disputes, the corporate espionage. No system is perfect, but Ettermire...Ettermire’s infrastructure is a runaway freight train barreling downhill, and we’re building the machinery as we go, even as this crazy thing is trying to shake itself apart. The image of perfect bureaucracy is as necessary as the ability to quietly subvert it...if we lose Swanra’ann, we lose everything. Society collapses, it’s as simple as that.”

    Luned frowned. “Do you know what she does?”

    “I do,” Holjaer said gravely. “We all do. She makes sure the grahfs know what she does. She wants us to be afraid of her, and we are. If we could excise her, we would. We would have done it decades ago. Hell, centuries ago, if she really is as old as she wants us to think she is. We probably could, but the cost…” He shook his head. “Even if we won, we’d lose absolutely everything anyway. She’s the devil, Luned, but we need her.”

    “Perhaps it would be for the best, then,” Flint suggested, “that your city did collapse. If its core is so rotten, why protect it?”

    Holjaer nodded. “Sometimes one of us makes that argument, but it’s hard to be that callous when it comes right down to it. I’m not stupid, Flint. I know I’m a rich piece of shit wallowing in disgusting levels of comfort while children are starving to death in the street. I know I don’t have a leg to stand on, morally speaking. But as bad as it can be here, it’s orderly. It’s utilitarianism. Chaos means more death and suffering, not less.”

    Luned put her hand lightly on Flint’s naked forearm before he could speak again. “Why us?” she said. “Why go to all this trouble to bring us to you and ask us to kill...whoever is behind all this.”

    “Because I think it’s Ezura’s daughter,” Holjaer said, “and nobody else has succeeded thus far. You know her, at least. You’ve been into the sewers, and came out alive. And neither of you can stay dead, apparently, so that’s a bonus. Look, I’m asking for help, here. I can pay you a boatload of money if you need me to, but honestly I’m hoping you’re just better people than I am and you’ll do it because it’s the right gods-damn thing to do. Before you showed up again, I was about ready to march three hundred men into the sewers with guns drawn and just...bury the whole thing. I need a better solution.”

    Luned sighed, and began to shake her head when Flint said, “We’ll do it.”

    “You will?” Holjaer said, glancing between them again with his eyebrows up. “You’ll kill Helethra? Or Ezura, if that’s who it is?”

    “We will fix your city,” Flint said. “We’ll stop the crisis.”

    Holjaer sagged back into his chair with a sigh, and took a long drink.

  5. #25
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    Later, Flint and Luned removed themselves from the grahf’s estate and promptly disappeared into the chaos of the city again. It was late afternoon and beginning to drizzle the grey, foul-smelling rain native and unique to Ettermire. Holjaer had supplied them with a daily stipend to fund their efforts, and Flint promptly spent some of it on an umbrella that he held dutifully for Luned. She sighed at his fussing, but used it as an excuse to throw her arms around his waist and turn their march into a romantic stroll.

    The rainfall had the dual benefit of clearing the streets around them and making enough white noise to drown out their voices beyond a few feet. They both felt the eyes of the grahf’s spies on them, but for the moment they needn’t fear their ears.

    “We’re not going to kill Helethra,” Flint said. “I only told him that to get his money.”

    Luned grinned up at him. “I know,” she said. “We have to figure something out, though. I don’t know how Hel could be fighting a war with Swanra’ann as it is, but even if Holjaer is right about all this, I just can’t imagine her being able to stand up to both Swanra’ann and the grahfs.”

    Flint nodded. “And Swanra’ann hasn’t abandoned her empire completely. That means she still has resources to bring to bear. She might be making preparations already, which may explain why she’s been withdrawing from her obligations. She’s winding up to throw a haymaker, and figures she can swing back around to the rest of us once Helethra is down.”

    Luned was quiet a moment, thinking.

    “Still, she’s more vulnerable now than she’s ever been, as far as I know,” Flint said.

    “We can’t just abandon Ettermire, though,” Luned said. “Holjaer had a point about that. I just walked through a relatively tame den of mobsters and...well, I don’t want to see what that place looks like without any checks and balances. I don’t want to see those people turned loose on the rest of Ettermire.”

    Flint shook his head. “I know,” he said. “I think he’s underestimating the influence the grahfs and their police would have. Those who benefit from a broken system rarely want to imagine the sacrifices they will have to make to see it fixed. I don’t trust them to make those sacrifices, though. We will need to find our own solution.”

    “Okay,” Luned said, pressing her cheek to his ribs through his shirt as they strolled. She closed her eyes. “So what do we do first?”

    Flint was silent for a long moment, thinking. “We need to know more,” he said at last. “We need to find Hel.”

    Luned made a face. “The sewers,” she said flatly.

    “Yes,” Flint said with a sigh of resignation.

  6. #26
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    This time, Luned didn’t hesitate in the mouth of the sewers. She stepped into the tunnel, turned, and offered Flint her hand. “Watch your head,” she warned him of the obvious. “Helethra protects this path. We’ll be fine.”

    Flint’s hand found hers and she couldn’t help but notice how soft it was without the usual callouses that had remained persistent even through the healing magic of the Swaysong in his veins. “Mm,” he grunted, stooped, and stepped into the darkness with her.

    Their steps echoed in the pipes, but not so loudly that it drowned out the distant skittering of who-knew-whats. The racket crawled up their spines with the muscle memory of terror, but still, they walked on.



    Pyralis welcomed them with as much hospitality as a sewer-dwelling orphan could manage. “Is this your… friend?” she asked as Flint stepped into the chamber behind Luned, finally able to rise to his full height. He stretched his back with an audible crackle.

    “Yes. Pyralis, this is Flint,” Luned introduced them. “Flint, this is my traveling companion, Pyralis.”

    “Glad you were able to find each other,” the elf girl offered a smile to the giant. “Please, come in. Um… make yourself at home?”

    Flint stepped further in to get a better look at their surroundings. In the darkest corner, on their pile of old blankets and rags, a couple of the smaller children napped. Otherwise, the space was empty, save the scattering of tattered furniture they’d liberated from garbage collection. There must have been decent ventilation here, as he felt just the slightest bit of air movement and the overbearing musk of sewage seemed to dissipate a little. As he observed, he felt something at his leg, and he thanked the gods it spoke up before he gave into the reflex to shake it off with the mercy he’d offer a giant cockroach.

    “Mister,” Lufe piped up, barely taller than the muscular knee he grasped. “How do I get big like you?”

    The giant stared down at him, processing the dirty little face that gazed back in such reverence, until Luned answered for him with some secondhand wisdom from Otto. “Eat your vegetables?”

    Instantly, both of the boys looked at her. “Gross,” Lufe sneered. From the matching grimace on Flint’s face, he agreed.

    “Sorry,” Luned chuckled. Pyralis covered a snort with her hands.

    They allowed the men a moment, Flint kneeling to better conspire. Much of his muttering was lost to the white noise of the sewers, but Luned caught some bits about “when I was your age” and “meat” and “one hundred push-ups”, at which point Lufe began to lose interest.

    “So, what do we do, Luned?” Pyralis’ young brow creased with worry, one hand braced against her tumultuous stomach. “Have you had a chance to think about it?”

    “A bit,” the scribe smiled, though it probably wasn’t very convincing. “We need to see Helethra. She won’t remember us, so we’ll need you to do some introductions.” Luned lowered her voice. “I haven’t forgotten about the doctor. I promise.”

    Pyralis shifted a bit on her feet. “All right. We’ll have to go now, though… she usually leaves around dusk.”
    • • • art

  7. #27
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    Helethra lived deeper underground than her found family of mutant children. Pyralis guided them without fear and meanwhile, the further they walked, the quicker any stray sound or sensation spooked the scribe. She held Flint’s hand with white knuckles, fingertips digging into his palm perhaps a little too hard, but fortunately, he didn’t seem to mind.

    Something they found pleasantly surprising about this journey was, despite the fact that they climbed further and further away from the sun down ladders and through pipes, it wasn’t nearly as dark as they’d expected. Luned had worried they’d be stumbling blind, but every time the black seemed to finally have enveloped their three figures, a new glimmer of light emerged before them. Usually, it was some sort of fungus or algae, adapted to glow in alien greens and blues. But now, as they entered a new chamber, they discovered a source of light in the water that rushed in an open pipe down the side.

    “I don’t remember seeing that last time we were here,” Luned muttered, afraid to send her voice echoing through the tunnels around them.

    Pyralis paused. It glowed an electric violet-blue, reflecting brightly in her pale eyes. “It started a few weeks ago after a raid on an unlicensed alchemist. Must’ve poured something potent down the drain.” And then, without a second thought, she jumped into the manmade brook. As she waded upstream toward the opening in the wall, she glanced over her shoulder. “Are you coming?”

    Luned might have argued, but animal shriek rang at them through the tunnel they’d just emerged from, and it was mighty convincing. She jumped on in, and Flint followed close behind.

    “At least it killed the leeches,” Pyralis laughed before continuing on her way. Luned felt faint for a moment, struck by the reminder of an unhappy memory, but Flint took her hand again, and they continued on.

    This pipeline got narrower toward the end, forcing Luned to stoop and Flint to nearly crawl. But at least they could see, and this water was… well, relatively clean. Finally, it opened up into a massive chamber, and the scribe realized she’d been holding her breath.

    The gray stone walls were tall, leading to a high ceiling. A couple rusted ladders led up the far side toward larger tunnels, just a hint of light filter down through them. Something had built a nest of sorts in one of the high corners and that was just about all there was of interest… that was, until Luned noticed the bones. Scattered all around lied the skeletal remains of what she now realized were giant rats, dozens of them, most in a pile against the far wall. The last time they were there, these creatures were alive, entangled and cemented together by their own festering feces and urine to create a living wall of their own. But something had apparently killed the rat king during their absence, only their scars to remind them –– but then again, even those were gone. The bite Flint had taken on the shoulder had disappeared after he drank the Swaysong.

    Luned had been so lost in her thoughts that she didn’t realized Flint had let go of her hand. He strolled over to one of the skulls, stared down at it, then pressed down on it with his boot. It popped under the pressure, crumbling into dust.

    In a far corner, Pyralis stood beneath the nest. “Hel,” she called tentatively. “We have guests.”

    What crawled out of the nest only contained the ghost of the child they used to know. Its arms stretched longer than any humanoid’s should, the joints bending in strange directions as it crept down the wall with astounding speed and grace. As it approached, it did so on hind legs, but nothing about it seemed elf-like anymore. The closer it got, the more it became apparent that some of the Swaysong had remained in Helethra’s system and had transformed her into the version of herself that she had idealized the most. And now that she was just a few arm’s lengths away, the alchemical light of the water reflecting softly off her form, Luned could see how beautiful she was.

    “Who are you?” Helethra spoke accusingly. Her hair was mossy now, impossibly soft-looking, with hanging tendrils that curled over her shoulders with delicate leaves. The bark-like substance that had been growing on her skin now covered almost her entire body. In some places, the bark showed fissures, out from which more life grew. Some of the glowing fungi had spread down her arms and legs, and she left traces of it in her footsteps. Her eyes were the same –– a warm honey-brown, and still so young –– and they glared at Luned and Flint without an ounce of recognition.

    “Hello, Helethra,” Luned replied. She kept her voice even and low, her posture relaxed. “I’m Luned, and this is Flint. You probably don’t remember us, but we knew you and your mother when you were little.”

    The child’s eyes blinked. “Is that so?”

    Flint, now standing beside Luned, wrapped his arm around her shoulder. “We’d gotten ourselves lost down here, and then you found us. You took us home to the museum and told us about your friends. We met Ezura, and…” he shuddered. “Bruno, was it?”

    “Bruno,” she glittered, grinning. Her teeth were jagged now, a couple missing, making for a rather menacing –– albeit genuine –– smile. “Haven’t thought about him in forever.”

    “We’re glad to see you so well after everything that’s happened,” Luned continued. “And I’m glad those kids have someone looking out for them. They really seem to admire you, Lufe in particular.”

    Helethra laughed. “Yeah, yeah.” And then something switched inside of her, hunching her posture. “Anyway, what do you want? I’ve got stuff to do.”

    Luned replied perhaps a bit too smoothly. “I met Pyralis by chance while traveling. I couldn’t believe it when it turned out you two knew each other, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the child I met those years ago. I figured I owed it to your mother to check up on you, see that you’re all right.”

    The girl-creature lifted her head, looking between the two strangers. “Do you know where she is?”

    “Who?”

    “My mother. Ezura.” A hint of panic reached Helethra’s vocal chords, twisting her mother’s name into a growl. “Where is she?

    The scribe paused in shock. Did she really not know? How…

    “She’s dead,” Flint said, matter-of-fact.

    Something changed in Helethra’s carriage, an alarming shift that transformed her from mutant into monster. She stood almost as tall as Flint at full capacity, but leaner, scrappier, more beast-like than he could ever manage. “How could you possibly know that?

    “Because I was there,” Flint answered. “I put the Swaysong in her hand and forced her to drink it.”
    • • • art

  8. #28
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    Flint sensed Luned tense beside him, could imagine her closing her eyes and holding a sigh. He’d been blunt, said too much all at once, and he knew it - he wasn’t stupid. She would know why though. He couldn’t lie anymore; he could never lie about this again. He’d never forget how he’d felt when Luned found him standing over Ezura’s mangled body, and never forgive himself for hiding the Swaysong from her after that. He had accrued enough debt by that act. No more, and never again.

    He stared into Helethra’s eyes as she searched his face, teeth bared. Rage, confusion, hurt, and...something else. He’d felt it the moment he’d laid eyes on her, and he thought she felt it too. There was a vibration between them, inside them. It was as if his entire body had been abuzz at a very specific frequency, but he hadn’t noticed it in himself until he felt echoed in someone else. Helethra had it too.

    A chill went down the brute’s spine and goosebumps ran down his arms in waves. It was almost an alien feeling, except he remembered it from a time before.

    Some part of him was afraid that Helethra could hurt him. She could be a physical threat to him.

    She was so close that when she huffed, he could feel her breath on his face. Her eyes glinted in the eerie light of that place. “You’re lying,” she said, voice raw, each word enunciated. It was as if her teeth could whittle the syllables down to sharp edges and spit them into his eyes. “You’re a liar.”

    The hum between them intensified, tension like a million steel strings between their inhumanly altered bodies, each stretched to their breaking points.

    And then Helethra turned her back to him and stalked off into the dark in three long strides, hissing. The invisible strings sang as the tension released, and the feeling was more than emotion - Flint felt light headed, like the sound was a real, physical thing, an actual throbbing in the air itself. He could feel it in his bones. He watched the rangey muscles in her back ripple as she disappeared. She felt it too. There was something…

    Flint shook his head and took a step back toward Luned, who sensed something was off beyond the obvious. She pressed her palm to the small of his back, as if worried he might fall.

    “What…?”

    “Swaysong,” he murmured wonderingly. “She has Swaysong.”

  9. #29
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    Pyralis had hurried them out of what they remembered as the rat king’s chamber and into a smaller nook in the sewers, clearly concerned that Helethra might change her mind and decide to do some damage. She was wound up, nervously shuffling around in an attempt to be hospitable, despite the fact that she lived in a dead-end tunnel at the bottom of a sewer system. Anything to avoid any more awkward confrontation.

    The young elf was fiddling with something in the dark, murmuring, as Flint crouched down to be at eye level with Luned when she sat on a stone bench along the sheet metal wall. Or a chunk of stone that served as a bench, anyway. The curve of the ceiling prevented Flint from standing at full height without tilting his head, anyway.

    “It makes sense,” Luned sighed. “I didn’t think about it before now because she’s alive, but...she was dying from whatever Ezura made her drink. I cast my spell and undid it, and then she was herself again. I might have overdone it a bit because she didn’t remember me anymore, but the physical changes were reversed…”

    Flint nodded. “But you cast the spell on me, too, after I drank the Swaysong. And it undid the changes for a moment, but the Swaysong came back.”

    Luned nodded vaguely, thinking. “Swaysong has some...property. Some function that causes it to bind to the body, recreate itself even when it’s undone or depleted. It must override the flow of time, even. I found a way to rewind each of you to a moment before you consumed Swaysong, but your bodies just...made more. So I took away whatever Ezura had mixed with the Swaysong, but the Swaysong eventually came back, without the rest of the mixture.”

    “But she’s alive,” Flint said. “No gauntlets.”

    “Clearly Ezura was trying to counteract the harmful effects of Swaysong. She was trying to make a chemical version of your gauntlets. And it must have worked to a degree, because Helethra was still alive hours after consuming it.” Luned shook her head, then sighed and looked up at him. “Without notes or formulas or even samples of what Ezura was working with, all I can do is guess at what she did. Or tried to do. And even then, her research was so advanced. What if it was all unnecessary though? What if Helethra didn’t need the harmful effects counteracted, and Ezura just ended up doing more harm than good?”

    “But then, how is she alive?” Flint said. “She was just a child.”

    Luned nodded, reaching out to touch his bare forearm. “Maybe that’s all it was? Her body and mind were better able to adapt because of her age or…”

    Flint frowned. “Or she’s just that focused. Has been that focused, even from that age. Knew what she was and wanted to be, beyond even a moment's doubt.”

    “Is that possible? She was so young.” Luned said. She didn’t want to believe it. “What did that woman do to her?”

  10. #30
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    “Child,” Flint said to Pyralis, causing her to peek around the corner at him wide-eyed. She’d stepped out of the nook, ostensibly to look for something she hadn't tried to define, but clearly hadn’t gone far. “We must speak to Helethra again. I have to make her understand.”

    “Um,” she said, glancing between the pair. Luned tried to look encouraging. “No offense, but is that a good idea? I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

    “Very few of my ideas are good,” Flint admitted. “Nevertheless, I have to try.”

    “You told her you killed her mom?” Pyralis said very quietly, so cautiously that it turned into a question.

    “I told her the truth.” He stood up, too fast, and his head met the ceiling of the nook with a resonant metallic gong. He grumbled and rubbed his scalp. The last time he was here, he couldn’t have reached the top of these tubes on his toes with both arms raised over his head.

    Luned was making a valiant effort not to laugh at him, but when she turned to add her voice to the discussion she saw that Pyralis was desperately trying to contain a giggle, and failing. The elf looked simultaneously mortified and delighted, somehow. The situation became so surreal that the scribe laughed and, now having permission, Pyralis laughed too. She still covered her mouth with both hands, and looked up at Flint to be sure. He looked between them, frowning.

    Luned shook her head at Flint, still chuckling, and turned to speak to Pyralis again. “I know we’re putting you in a difficult position,” she said. “I really do. I understand you’ve already done a lot for us. You’ve shown kindness to me that I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to fully pay back, so believe me, the last thing I want to do is create trouble for you in your home.”

    Pyralis looked at her feet and shook her head. “I know,” she said quietly.

    Flint sighed, but not irritably. His tone was suddenly gentle, which surprised even Luned. “This place and everyone in it is in danger,” he said. “Swanra’ann is desperate, and the grahfs will throw their support behind her if Helethra continues to push her campaign. Whether or not Helethra realizes it, we are the only allies she has, and she needs allies now. We need your help. She must be made to see this.”

    The elf girl mulled this over with a deep frown, and slowly, gradually, her eyes hardened. “Let me speak to her first,” she said. “Let me try to calm her down. She’s too mad right now.”

    “Okay,” Luned said. “Just...be careful, okay?”

    Pyralis nodded, once, paused a moment to work herself up, and then disappeared into the sewers again. Flint and Luned watched her go.

    “Helethra won’t stop pushing Swanra’ann,” he said. “She needs the war, at this point. The threat of the grahfs will only harden her resolve.”

    “We can’t know that for sure,” Luned said. There was no conviction in her tone.

    “Perhaps not,” Flint said, “but the look in her eyes...I’ve seen it before.”

    Luned nodded, toying with the material at the waist of her dress with her fingertips. “In the mirror,” she guessed.

    “Yes,” he said.

    “So we can’t kill Swanra’ann without dooming Ettermire, we can’t fight off the whole Aleraran military, and we can’t stop Helethra from bringing both down on her own head,” Luned mused. “What do we do?”

    “The best we can.”

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