#2071

“You can talk to her, if you want.”

This was it; they had finally arrived. After traveling south from the ruins of Lunanoff,sailing across the Bay of Pitch, laboring their way through the mountains beyond Dull, and fighting their way through the undead keepers of the Raven Queen’s temple, Ro and Ilkan and their new companion workplace associate Mage finally stood before the infamous goddess herself. However, their hope to be reunited with Dhashi, and subsequently rid of Mage, was not to be fulfilled; the goddess explained that Dhashi wasn’t yet ready to return to the mortal world, that she needed more time to train before she could act as the Raven Queen’s champion. They would all be together again soon, she promised, but not yet. Disappointment weighed on Ro and Ilkan, two battle-hardened warriors who would never have guessed the absence of one irritating, hyper-optimistic teenager could hurt them so. The Raven Queen understood, of course. The Raven Queen had dealt in death and loss since the beginning of time.

“You can talk to her, if you want,” The Raven Queen, who towered over the three cursed companions as she sat on her throne, motioned toward the scrying bowl at her feet. Mage, bored now that the killing was over, picked her nails with a knife. Ro resolutely shook her head, eschewing anything the goddess of death might offer and holding fast to her raging grief. But Ilkan nodded and moved toward the bowl. “I’d like to,” he said, voice uncharacteristically thin. The Raven Queen held her hand over the bowl and the mirror-clear surface shimmered, then stilled again. Instead of Ilkan’s reflection, the water showed a man garbed in the brimmed hat and sarape of a gunslinger. “Mercer,” she said, “put Dhashi on.”

“Got it,” The gunslinger tipped his hat to the goddess and then turned to someone beyond the mirror’s edge. “Dhashi!” he yelled. “Dhashi, the boss wants you! …Dhashi, c’mere! Stop paintin’ the ravens’ claws and–” Behind him, a mass of black wings and pink glitter shot past. “DHASHI GET YER BUTT OVER HERE.” Mercer disappeared, replaced by a Dhashi who looked fairly unchanged, albeit paler and a little diminished in some essential way. She waved hesitantly and managed a fairly good approximation of her usual smile. “Hi Ilkan…”

“Hey,” The goliath waved one giant hand in return. He was already fighting back tears. “How are you?”

“I’m okay,” Dhashi shrugged a little, suddenly shy for all that she had been longing to speak with her friends again. “It’s not so bad here. Mercer’s nice. How are you?”

“I’m.. we’re…” Ilkan glanced over to Ro’s stiff back and shrugged as well. “You know.”

“Yeah,” Dhashi wiped at her eyes, then managed a truer smile. “You guys are doing really well, though. I’ve been watching.” A moment of silence passed, strained with all the things that could be, but were not, said, and then Dhashi brightened a little. “Can I say hi to Charlie?” Ilkan managed an honest chuckle at the eagerness on the aasimar’s face and nodded. “I was just about to get him out,” he said, pulling the little glass bowl out from where he had stored it in his pack before the battles in the temple. He held it over the scrying bowl and the little fish inside swam around in its usual unhurried manner. “He misses you.”

“Hi Charlie!” Dhashi wiggled her fingers at the fish, who didn’t seem to notice at all, and wiped away more tears as they continued to fall. “Thank you for taking care of him, Ilkan. I miss you guys so much. I’m trying really hard so I can come back soon.” She turned her head to look at something or someone beyond the scrying bowl’s surface, then looked back at Ilkan with a bittersweet smile. “I should go. Say hi to Ro for me, okay?” Ilkan nodded. “Okay.”

The mirror’s surface shivered and cleared, once again reflecting only the Raven Queen’s temple and Ilkan’s tear-streaked face as he turned away. As he carefully returned Charlie to the relative safety of his pack, he caught the sound of a surreptitious sniff from Ro’s direction. When the party gathered back together, though, she had her emotions under their usual tight rein.

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#2070

“A Candlenights celebration? We have to go! Please please please?” In the tavern common room, Dhashi turned her wide blue eyes back and forth between Ilkan and Ro, bouncing eagerly on the balls of her feet as she did. Candlenights was her favorite holiday and she absolutely couldn’t miss a chance to celebrate it in the big city. She was sad that she couldn’t spend the holiday with her fathers, of course, but this would totally make up for it.

“Will there be food?” Ilkan asked, and Dhashi knew she had him. “Lots!” she replied. “And most of it fried.” The goliath shrugged. “I’m in.” They turned their attention to Ro, who scowled over her tankard and jerked her head in her version of an eye-roll. “Fine,” she muttered. “I suppose we could use a break from saving the world anyway.”

“Ohmygosh yay!” Dhashi dashed up to their rooms in a blur of ribbons and glitter to change into a more holiday-appropriate outfit.

– – –

“Oh my gosh, everything’s so beautiful!” Dhashi’s eyes glimmered with the reflection of the colorful lanterns bobbing in the air above the festival. Her outfit, a monstrosity of red and green ribbons, white lace, and little bells that tinkled every time she moved, blended in so well with the festival’s decorations that several passersby assumed she was one of the performers. As Ro and Ilkan stared dubiously into the packed crowd, the assimar danced back and forth to a tune only she could hear, apparently, and tried to catch snowflakes on her tongue. But then a chance gap in the crowd revealed the rows and rows of game booths, the giant prizes caught Dhashi’s attention, and she went bolting into the crowd with a trailing, “Ooh, games!”

“Aaaaaand there she goes,” Ro sighed, wondering how they would ever track Dhashi down in the chaos. “Bloody hell.” She turned to her companion, who already had his nose in the air sniffing out the direction of the food vendors. “Shall we hunt down some of that promised fried food first?” she suggested, and would have lost Ilkan in the crowd as well as he ran off, had he not stood several heads above everyone else. Ro followed after at a more sedate pace, using her swinging cane to clear a decent path through the crowd and begrudgingly admiring how fast Ilkan could move when food was involved.

– – –

Stuffed animals, lanterns, charms, dolls, there were so many prizes to choose from that Dhashi couldn’t pick which game to play first – until she reached the last stall and stopped short, staring up at its rows and rows of glass bowls, each with a goldfish or betta fish swimming lazy circles inside. Her eyes somehow managed to get even wider and she hurried up to the counter. “Oh my gosh,” she asked the bored teenager running the booth, “how do I win one of those fish?”

“You gotta knock three statues down,” The teenager mumbled around her mouthful of gum, raising one lazy finger to point at the setup. “It’s five gold for three balls.”

“Okay, I’ll play!” Dhashi threw down her gold, collected the balls, and tossed them with zero skill at the wood statues stationed in rows. One of the balls managed to hit, knocking one statue down, but the other two flew too wide. The teenager yawned and tossed a floppy lock of dyed black hair out of her eyes. “Too bad,” she said woodenly. “Want to go again?” Dhashi pursed her lips and slammed down another five gold. “Yes!”

Miss. Miss. Hit? No, miss. Miss. Miss. Dhashi exhaled furiously, glaring at the traitorous, clearly rigged game. Still, she set down another five gold, and then another, and then yet another after that. As before, she missed most of the time and failed to knock down three statues even when she did hit. After each attempt the teenager would repeat in the same disaffected tone, “So close. Want to try again?” and Dhashi would throw down her next five gold. She went to do this a final time… and found her wallet empty. Her eyes filled with disappointed tears. Her bottom lip trembled entirely of its own accord. All she wanted was one little fish… She’d never had a pet before…

“Oh good lord,” Ro, fried dough in hand, had been watching this pitiful display for some time. The tears were too much even for her, though, and she dug out five gold. “Here, take it, just… don’t cry.” She set the gold on the booth’s counter and Dhashi wiped away her tears, gazing up at the jenasi with awe. “Really?” she asked, sure this must be a trick of some kind; Dhashi knew she wasn’t exactly Ro’s favorite person, and certainly not high enough in her esteem to warrant such a gesture. But Ro waved at the proffered gold and went back to eating her fried dough. “Yes, really.” Dhashi stared at the game uncertainly, then shook her head. “I’m too nervous!” She grabbed Ro’s free arm and tugged her forward. “Will you do it? I keep missing.”

“What? Oh, bloody hell,” Ro transferred her dough to her other hand, picked up one of the balls, and tossed it at the game in one fluid, careless motion. She hit one of the statues dead on, and as it tumbled down it took two others with it. Dhashi squeaked in triumph; the teenager clapped slowly, snapping her gum. “Congrats,” she sighed. “Which one do you want?”

“Um…” Dhashi stared up at all the bowls, unable to decide which fish she liked most. Then she knew. “The saddest one, please,” she requested, knowing the prettier, flashier fish would all find homes before the end of the festival. The teenager rolled her eyes but did bend down to pull out a dusty bowl. Inside a betta fish swam in idle circles, its scales a dull brownish-green that matched the algae growing on the inside of the glass. It was, admittedly, not a very lovely or lively fish; yet Dhashi accepted the proffered bowl like it was filled with gold, hugging it to her chest. “I’ll name you… Charlie!” She beamed up at Ro. “Thank you thank you thank you thank you!”

And that is the story of how Dhashi the magical girl warlock aasimar found her familiar, Charlie the depressingly bland betta fish.

#2069

Alice stands on the dark beach with sword drawn as she watches the figure walking out of the waves. Water streams from Mage’s tangled hair and tattered black garb; the moonlight illuminates her white skin and glitters in her hard green eyes.

Eye.

Alice frowns, studying her enemy more closely. The iris of Mage’s right eye has gone black, and from the edge of her collar some sort of black scar or tattoo creeps up the side of her face like a lightning strike, cutting even through her eye. Though she can’t tell for sure, Alice suspects the black substance originates with the hook which has already transformed Mage’s right hand into sharp black claws. Despite the warm night, Alice shivers.

“Alice…” Mage bows with a flourish of her clawed hand. The movement is almost too grandiose to be purposeful, as if the woman is inebriated. “I’m honored to be greeted by the mighty captain herself. Then again,” she snickers, “there’s no one else on the island to do it, is there?” Alice just sighs. “You’re wasting my time. Did you come to taunt or fight?” Mage mimics the sigh. “Oh Alice, you think you have it all figured out.”

“Taunting it is,” Alice stabs her sword into the sand at her side, then crosses her arms. “Okay, get on with it, it’s the middle of the night and I’m tired.”

“I’m sure you are,” Mage tilts her head and her voice goes light and lilting. “What keeps you here, guarding this empty rock in the middle of the ocean? They’re not coming back. Any of them. They’ve moved on, forgotten who they were, forgotten who you were. Do they call to you in their dreams anymore?” She takes a step toward Alice. “Do they answer your coded letters or leave you sigil graffiti?” Another. “Do they even know you’re still here, still fighting?” And another. “Do they know how tired you are, how alone, how close to giving up?”

“I will keep fighting through my very last breath,” Alice, goaded by the uncomfortable truths in Mage’s words, takes a step forward herself. Her arms drop, hands clenched white. Mage just winks and replies, “You keep telling yourself that. But remember, I don’t need to. I don’t need to kill you. I don’t need to break you. I just need you to see the truth. Once that’s done, this could all be over. You’re the one who keeps it going. You’re the only one who still believes. If you just admitted that it’s done, that he fucked you over and now they’re all gone, this tragic little kingdom in ruins, you could rest.”

“Are you offering a truce?” Alice snorts, partly at the thought but also partly as a sign of bravado. This isn’t like their normal trading of insults. “That’s not like you. Maybe you’re more exhausted than I am. You’re not looking too well these days.”

“I was betrayed too, you know,” Without warning, Mage’s mocking demeanor falls away, replaced by a snarling, teeth-baring anger edged with madness. “It was my home; they were my friends; he was my mentor. Do you think any of them stuck around after he left?” She barks out a laugh. “The ones who wanted something from me did, for a while at least; the rest fucking ghosted. And the ones who were lost, permanently lost – do you think I don’t remember them? That I don’t mourn them?” She shakes her head. “I was not born of the void to oppose you, Alice. I have a past too. Remember that.”

Alice wants to hold onto the anger and adrenaline that push her through these confrontations, but exhaustion wells up and extinguishes what energy she has left. She gestures wearily toward the breaking waves and sheathes her sword. “Go back to your ship, Mage. That hook’s getting the better of you.”

“You will die defending nothing, Alice,” Mage almost spits the prediction with the force of her anger, but her next words are softer. “And it will be such a waste. Don’t you wonder who you are, besides his scapegoat?”

“Goodnight, Mage,” Alice turns and starts back toward the lighthouse. Her nemesis says nothing in return, but her accusations and questions are not so easily dismissed. Alice knows she will get no sleep tonight.

#2067

She is steel wrapped in silk, head held high as she stands before a jury of closed minds and bitter hearts. Her own father reads out the charges (“witchcraft”, “sorcery”, “necromancy”, even “treason and rebellion” thrown in for good measure) and though he never meets her gaze she keeps her hard eyes locked on his face. Blessings last longer than curses and so she blesses him silently; blesses him with long memory, with long life, and with much time in which to remember her. Not just black hair and red lips, white skin and emerald eyes, but the carelessness of her laughter, the swiftness of her mind, the grace and surety of her every movement. No matter how many thousands of years pass, he will remember every aspect of the daughter he cast out – and he will remember this moment clearest of all.

She, for her part, already seeks to forget it all. Even as the court moves through the formalities of her punishment she is already discarding useless memories: the marble halls where she danced through the night (“exile”, her father declares), the silver trees and water sweet as wine (“may never return, nor seek to contact”), all the people who claimed to love her until she began seeking real knowledge (“surrender your name and your past”). Only when the king holds out one hand and demands, “Your ring,” does she turn her attention outwards again. The guards shift as if preparing themselves for battle but she does not fight; she merely lifts one pale hand, removes from it the little silver ring she has worn for two millennia, and drops it into her father’s waiting palm. Her eyes sweep over the assembly and her upper lip curls in disgust.

She says, “You may have my name; I neither need it nor want it. But yours you should cling to as long as possible, for by the time I return to this place it will be naught but ash and all your names lost to the wastes of time.” With a final glance to her father she adds, “You will weep to be so alone.” And with that she turns away from the court, walking out with the composure of a queen and nothing but the silk dress she wears to call her own, and she is no longer ———. She is nameless, homeless, kinless. She is nothing and no one.

She reaches the edge of her father’s lands by nightfall. Beyond the immortally green elvenwood the earth slumbers in winter’s deep grip. Any other traveler would shiver, turn away or beg shelter somewhere, but not her. In the shriek of the wind she hears welcome, wanderer… and in the distant cry of ravens we have been waiting for you… and she is not afraid. She will never be afraid again.

#2065

“Goodbye, friends!” Remr, standing on the stage where Never would soon play, waved to Dhashi, Row, and Ilkan as they disappeared into the Candlenights crowd. “They were nice,” she commented when Never came up behind her carrying an awkwardly shaped instrument. “I hope they get uncursed and… stuff…” Her voice trailed away.

“Uh, Remr,” Never shifted the heavy object in their grip, “can you move please? I kinda need to put this right where you’re standing.” But the Tiefling didn’t seem to hear them; she was staring into the milling crowd of revelers, frowning as if something there puzzled her. Never was about to ask what she was looking at when she shouted, “Wait!” and jumped into the throng of people. Never, who was honestly pretty used to Remr running off in pursuit of something science-related, set down the instrument and continued to prep for the show as if nothing had happened.

– – –

“Wait!” Remr pushed through the knots of slow moving people, using her Tiefling height to her advantage. Somewhere ahead of her, glimpsed briefly every few seconds between a gap in the crowd, a flash of lavender skin or white hair revealed her quarry. They played cat and mouse in this way through the brightly lit streets, past games and food vendors, performers and fortune tellers, all the way though the Candlenights celebration and into the dark city streets beyond.

Now that they were away from the crowd it was easier for Remr to see her still fleeing target. It was definitely another Tiefling with lavender colored skin and long white hair. The Tiefling dashed down a side street and Remr followed right on their heels, breathless but determined to continue the chase as long as she could. Luckily for her, the street down which her prey ran was a dead end and as she skidded around the corner she found the other Tiefling trapped by a high wall. Face to face, Remr was positive now of the other’s identity and they both stared across the distance between them for a tense second.

“I knew it was you,” Remr took a hesitant step into the alley. “La’lua, what happened? Why did you stop answering my letters? I thought…” She shook her head. “I didn’t know what to think. What are you doing here?”

“Remr…” The other Tiefling grimaced, her tail darting back and forth anxiously. “I’m sorry, I wanted to reply, I did, but there was no way…” She backed up a step. “I can’t explain. Just forget I was here, okay?” La’lua’s eyes flickered to the rooftops above and Remr knew what would happen. “Lua, wait!” Remr broke into a run, but before she could close the distance La’lua bent her knees and leaped high into the air, catching the edge of a rooftop and disappearing over the adjacent wall. Remr slid to a stop and caught her breath, dashing away the tears of frustration as they fell.

– – –

Remr reappeared during one of the band’s breaks, wandering backstage with an aimless expression as she searched for her bag. Never looked up from retuning their lute and asked idly, “Who were you harassing for a sample of their skin this time?” Remr didn’t answer. An uncharacteristic frown tugged at her mouth and her eyes were unusually distant. “Remr? Hello?” Never waved a hand in front of her face. “You okay?”

“Huh?” Remr blinked as if waking from hypnosis. “Uh… yeah. Totally. I just thought I saw the… churro cart. But, uh… they were out.” She managed a poor imitation of her usual smile to cap off the obvious lie. “Bummer, right?” Ignoring Never’s perplexed stare, Remr grabbed her bag and backed up. “Anyway, um, I should probably go do… science… stuff.” She flashed very half-hearted fingerguns at her friend. “Catch ya later.” Never watched her go, then went back to tuning the lute with a shake of their head, muttering, “She gets weirder every day.”

#2062

“You can watch them. But you can’t help.”

Dhashi leans over the Raven Queen’s stone basin, hands gripping the sides. Tears roll down her cheeks and splash into the water below, sending ripples through the image displayed on the surface. “Row…” she sobs, “Ilkan…”

Through the basin she watches her friends struggle to grasp what has happened. In the living world there is nothing left of her, only a smear of black ash, her staff, and Charlie the betta fish in his little glass bowl. Row kneels over the ashes, nearly hysterical with guilt and disbelief; Ilkan, tears even leaking from his own eyes, gently scoops up the fish bowl and cradles it in his giant calloused hands.

She watches Row smear a palmful of ashes onto the knitted scarf Dhashi made her. She watches as Ilkan and the priestess Solenna try to resurrect her, not knowing they will summon someone else into the aasimar’s body. A champion, the Raven Queen had said, sent as a ringer to ensure the party’s success against Bezos. Mage, the champion is called. But this Mage is a cruel soul, mocking and arrogant, and her presence only serves to rub salt in the wounds of Dhashi’s friends.

She watches as the trio travels on to the next temple, even more eager now to see this awful quest done. She watches Row try to drown herself in drink, in battle, in anything that makes her feel differently or not at all. She watches Ilkan shoulder Row’s grief and carry it silently with his own, just as he carries the little fish bowl with such care. She watches a stranger parade around in her body, someone far stronger and cleverer than she, and Dhashi wonders – just for a brief, lonely second – if her friends are better off with someone more useful than her.

Dhashi watches but can do nothing to comfort her friends, to let them know that she is okay, if not… okay. She can only hope they find the strength in their grief to keep fighting, to complete the quest for which she died. They do not trust the creature that inhabits her body and she does not either, but she knows she must trust the Raven Queen. The goddess is not unkind, after all; she told Dhashi she had done well by her friends, and Dhashi knows it was not the Raven Queen who made Row use the curse. Plus, she has already told Dhashi that she might return to the living world, albeit in the goddess’ service as another of her champions. The girl agreed without hesitation or question. She must go back as soon as possible. What will her friends do without her?

Eventually her tears are too many and she must turn away for a moment. But she will continue to watch. She will be with her friends even if they cannot see or hear her. She will become the Raven Queen’s champion, no matter what this means, and she will return to her friends. She will tell Row it wasn’t her fault. She will tell Ilkan he’s not as unfeeling as he pretends to be. They’ll keep traveling together and do good deeds and save the world again, maybe. Everything will be okay.

It has to be.

#2060

Dhashi dreams of a lightless corridor. Even her highly sensitive aasimar eyes can detect no light, and only her outstretched hands touching dry, flat stone tell her she is hemmed in on two sides. The hairs on her neck tingle and she walks carefully forward, hoping to find an intersecting wall against which to put her vulnerable back. The walls seem to curve slightly as she walks and around the bend she begins to detect a faint orange glow. Foreboding settles heavy and cold in her stomach at the sight; she freezes, heart hammering in her chest and temples, but a sound like chains rattling behind her drives her forward again. She sprints down the dim corridor, one hand trailing against the stone wall, and with another turn suddenly bursts out into a fierce red light.

“Pop… Dad… no!”

The corridor is gone. Dhashi stands in a clearing lit red by the flames consuming the nearby farmhouse and, farther back, the fields of crops. At her feet lay her fathers, their throats cut and torsos impaled. The wide pool of blood seems to flicker and ripple in the firelight. Tears stream down Dhashi’s cheeks at the sight but terror holds her in place, unable to move either toward her slain family or away from the carnage. She can only sob, horrified, and urge herself to wake up.

The hot, dry wind carries the sound of a low chuckle to Dhashi and she finally tears her gaze away to find its source. A figure stands on the deck of the farmhouse, apparently unbothered by the surrounding inferno. It wears heavy black robes which obscure its figure, as well as thick bandages across its face. Seeing Dhashi’s attention, it smiles through a gap in the bandages, a wide gash of a grin with a mouth full of needle-like teeth, and speaks in a rasping, sibilant voice the girl cannot understand. Through other gaps in the bandages red eyes begin to open and focus on Dhashi, slitted pupils blown wide as they bulge.

The figure raises a hand and a crushing weight closes around Dhashi’s slim body as if an invisible fist has gripped her. Its arm lifts and she mirrors the motion, rising into the air as the grip tightens. She kicks desperately, unable to breathe with her chest so constricted, her vision darkening at the edges. Somewhere, distantly, a raven crows.

Dhashi woke with a cry, her cheeks and collar soaked with tears. Beside her, Row also jerked awake, hand moving automatically for her staff. From the jenasi’s unsteady breathing and jumpy nerves, it was easy to see she had been visited by a nightmare of her own as well.