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Fantasy Even Dragons Have Their Ending ||Closed||

Sub Genres
Adventure, Magical
OOC
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Reynarda

Nerdy Vampire
Bram was attempting to follow the whole rocks-have-different-meaning explanation--which sort of made sense, he supposed. But then the snobby kid suggested May do a demonstration, and Bram turned to that with interest. The grass growing was super impressive, as was the pot boiling.

"There is nothing wrong with intuitive magic," Vlad said once Alex had given a small lecture on the Wiccan religion. That had been a tad bit surprising, but welcome. "I would argue much of it is. In fact, slayer magic's potency is entirely based on how it is interpreted by the caster and the one it is being casted on." Which was why, as a vampire, studying it was a double edged blade. He could use the knowledge to deal with it, but his knowledge served to make it more potent on him. But Vlad had decided the payoff was worth the sacrifice. Fortunately, few outside the monster slayers of the Coastlands knew it's rituals, and Bram couldn't--or perhaps wouldn't--practice it.

Vlad's eyes brightened when May offered him tea. He loved all manner of hot drinks, and enjoyed trying each region's offerings. "Yes, please, I would love some." He strode over to Starless' saddle bags and took a small cup from one of them. Returning with it, he extended the cup so that May could fill it. "Thank you so much for sharing."

Bram grinned and accepted the apple from Kaida. "Thanks." He sprawled out on the grass nearby and munched cheerfully on his apple. "Don't see many elves out this way. What brings you out here, if you don't mind me asking?"



Starless flicked her tail in lazy contentment. It was nice to be in the company of a like-minded soul. And she understood running from family. She would not have understood such a thing until Bram had allowed her into his mind, but she understood it now. She chuckled at Ellery's explanation of how Teddy had been unfazed by Alex.

We are in similar situations, then, Starless said. While no one is hunting us per se, neither of my charges are welcome with their own people. So we avoid all others of their kinds and travel, doing what we can to protect the peoples of these lands from monsters and evils. That is why we joined this quest so quickly. And I am of course concerned about the darkness that had corrupted the hearts of my western cousins.

Starless paused. She didn't want to stray into territory that might make Ellery uncomfortable, but she also wanted to best protect her own charges. What Starless knew about the situation was based in the little knowledge Vlad had about demons and the like, and his knowledge was severely limited. She decided to approach the question with a delicacy that would give Ellery an out if it was not something she wished to discuss. Besides, Starless did not want to alarm Sasha much, either. She decided not to call it what it was. This darkness is a great evil, yes? Do you know much about it?
 

Mikotsuhime

Elder Member
May wilted a little bit under Alex’s explanation, scrunching up his nose.

“Hm, I think I kind of understand? Although that talk is all a bit complicated for me. As I said, we follow a different religion, and I’ve never really thought about the way that other ones might use their magic. But I guess we agree that inuition is a good thing, at least.”

He poured Vlad his tea and smiled brightly, happy that he had a chance to help.

“Yeah, no problem! We grow these back home so we always have a lot of them,” he explained as he handed Agni his ring back. The dragon took it without a word and slid it back onto his finger.
 
Slayer magic. Alex assumed Vlad was speaking of Bram’s people, not hunters and slayers alike. While Witch Hunters often used various forms of magic in their craft, having an affinity for cursed and bewitched weapons (not that they would ever admit to utilizing witchcraft in their crusade against The Great Evil), they did not possess their own personal brand of magic. Alex was familiar with the idea, though Vampire Slayers had never been something he cared to bother himself with. The few he had run into in his time had been hopeless against him. Laughable, really. But then, witches were not their forte. Obviously.

Alexander shrugged at May’s response. Not everyone was equipped to enter into a debate on the philosophy of ‘magic’ and its many differing forms and properties. He had been intrigued by this ‘dragon-protector-baby god-thing’, and had anticipated something from him, but Agni had remained quiet. Alex watched him with curious eyes, not one for manners and perfectly willing to stare.

~

Ellery was silent for a moment as she considered Starless‘s question, as well as those the dragon had most likely wanted to ask, but had found too rude in their directness.

“Not nearly enough,” she replied, holding Starless’s gaze as she spoke. “And not as much as I had hoped. The being that influences your cousins, as well as the men they are aligned with, is not of this plane. She is a being of both great evil and great power. Her sole drive is power and dominance, and she will not rest until her vision of a world beneath her heel is realized. It will take time, but her influence will stretch across the earth until all fall victim to her wiles. A handful of the stronger-willed people and creatures may be able to resist, but by then, it will be too impossible of a fight to even consider. She will seek out those most susceptible, and wipe out any who attempt to resist.”

Sasha did not like the sound of this person at all, if it even was a person. No one had managed to explain just what this ‘evil’ was, and though Ellery had admitted to finding herself not as informed on the being as she had wished, Sasha was sure she knew enough to be a prime source of information. But, she was dancing around the heart of the problem.

“What is she...exactly?”

Ellery’s eyes flicked over to Sasha, and she hesitated. He was not dumb by any means and she could not hide her truth from them for long. They should be aware of what they were going up against. She figured the knowledge would not keep them from risking their wellbeing for the kidnapped children, but she feared Alex, Teddy, and she would be on their own after that.

“A demon. The demon,” Ellery began, taking her time as she chose her words carefully. “She reigns in Hell as Queen, and she has come to our plane with the intention of reigning here as well.”

Sasha frowned, eyes dropping as he considered this revelation.

“Demon?” He turned his eyes back up. “I suppose if dragons and magic-wielders can exist, then why not demons? Although, my knowledge on them is limited to the few stories used to scare children into cleaning their rooms or not staying out past dark.”

“She is beyond anything you have heard, I can assure you,” Ellery continued. She turned back to Starless. “I expect nothing of you or your companions, and respect whatever you decide in regards to your involvement in the matter.”

~

Margaret spun to find Lily awake and unscathed. She breathed a relieved sigh, before dropping back to her knees and gathering both Lily and Beth.

“Alright, this is it. Ready?” She turned her eyes on Beth, who gave a multitude of enthusiastic nods, and then Lily, whose smile and stance said it all. Margaret held back a proud tear. She hoped against all hope that this would work and they would make it out.

The commotion echoed painfully within the dark underground hall as children were herded from their cells. Their own cell door flew open with an excruciating cry of rusted metal on metal, and three Riders began yanking children to their feet and shoving them out with the others. Margaret maneuvered Beth and Lily through the crowd, dodging the Riders as they exited and joined the other children at the center. They were all pushed into two lines and once everyone was accounted for, they began their march down into the the mountain.
 

Starlit Night

Junior Member
“Not at all,” Kaida said lightly, tasting the stew while she considered her answer.

It was good: full flavored and hearty. The flavors might have melded better had there been more time to let it cook, but such was the case with stews. It did not detract from the enjoyment of it now.

“It had been many years since I last travelled,” she said, after a moment. “I was needed at home, for a time. Once the troubles were resolved, a friend suggested that I take some time away.”

To regain perspective, she thought, though he hadn’t said so. Because duty was duty, and life was life, and when the boundary between the two began to blur, Len stepped in. And because it was Len, she listened when he told her to go travel.

He always had known her too well.

“When I did, I began to hear disquieting things about the Dragon Riders, so I came north. I wanted to see if there was any truth to the rumors—I had friends among their number, years ago.”

She gave a slight shrug, as if to say, ‘and here I am,’ and lifted her bowl to sip at the broth.

“And you?”

~

“It’s okay if you don’t really get it,” Teddy said to May, since Alex seemed more interested in watching Agni than keeping up the conversation. “I didn’t either, at first. If your version of magic works for you, that’s the important part, isn’t it?”

Vlad’s addition, however, was too intriguing to let pass by.

“How does that work, then?” she asked, fixing on the vampire with bright-eyed curiosity. “If the one the spell’s being cast on doesn’t believe that the magic would do anything, would it just fizzle out? Or would it still work, just not as well?”

~

Lily made a soft sound of surprise when Margaret drew her and Beth close, hesitating for a second before giving in and catching the other girls’ sleeves, one in each hand. It would help them stick together, she justified to herself, as she nodded once in reply. That was all there was time for.

The screech of the cell door opening made Lily wince, but her grip on Margaret and Beth didn’t falter, and with Margaret guiding them through the crowd, they made it into line without being separated.

Lily had only a vague impression of the forced march through the twisting tunnels of the Mountain—that of tramping feet and uncomfortable jostling, lit by flickering firelight. Between one moment and the next, it seemed, they were at the workplace and the Riders were barking orders, passing out the digging tools and carrying baskets.

A basket was pressed into Lily’s hands and she grabbed ahold of it automatically, keeping her eyes down lest she somehow catch the Rider’s attention. Not yet, her heartbeat seemed to say, beating a staccato rhythm in her chest.

Not yet, as the first group was pushed forward, her among them.

Not yet, as the children with tools began to dig, occasionally punctuated with a sharp exclamation when they struck stone instead of earth.

Not yet, as she filled her basket with the debris, dirt and smaller stones.

Not yet, as she bumped her shoulder lightly against Beth. As she lifted her basket with a huff of effort, purple eyes flicking up to catch the other girl’s gaze.

Now.

She turned, and the basket slipped out of limp fingers, dropping to the ground with a loud thud and the clatter of fallen stones. Heedless of it, Lily swayed in place, eyes fluttering closed—and then she crumpled forward, resisting the instinct to soften her landing.

She hit the floor with a bone-jarring thump, and lay still.
 

Reynarda

Nerdy Vampire
Bram nodded. He had heard about elves and traveling. Still, he enjoyed talking to a bunch of different people and learning of them and their culture.

In response to her question, he shrugged. "Vlad and me hunt monsters. He caught wind of the strange things happening to the dragons and dragged me this way trying to figure out what it was. I came along, of course, because hunting evil is what we do. That's pretty much it." He shrugged again and munched thoughtfully on his apple. "I'm glad you came along. I always thought elves more kept to themselves."




Vlad accepted the tea eagerly. "Thank you." He folded himself into a sitting position and sipped the tea. He let out a contented hum. "This is good tea."

At Teddy's question Vlad's eyebrows lifted. Sighing, he slid hair from his face while he gathered his thoughts. "Oh, it still works. Part of it has to do with the universality of the symbol. If it is a very common one that many people understand, it is more powerful. It is obscure, it hold less innate power. The strength of the spell is also determined by the difference between the caster's strength of will and the victim's strength of will." Vlad sipped his tea. "Slayers have found away around obscure symbols. A common practice is to explain to the trapped vampire just what the symbols mean. Usually, fear is enough for the meaning to settle in and the magic to work its worst." He rolled his shoulders to hide a shiver. "However, if one has a very strong will, it is possible to override the true meaning of the symbols with an imagined one."

He was about to add that he used that little trick daily, but stopped himself. "It is not a very pleasant magic. There were healing spells and other helpful spells, but those fell into disuse and were lost to time." Sipping his tea, he realized he had just lectured on slayer magic without really summing it up in a succinct statement.
"Ah, to answer your question, it depends on the will of the one not believing. If their will is stronger than the caster, the magic will have little to no power over them."




Starless flicked her ears, but that was the only sign she gave that the information had any effect on her. The Queen of Hell. Lovely. Not of this plane, but she was fairly certain she remembered something in Vlad's thoughts about someone having to give her a door.

But a powerful demon--no, the powerful demon--was not something she necessarily wanted to tangle with. She figured that was what it would come to whether she liked it or not. Vlad had muttered something about the end of the world, but he tended to be a bit dramatic.

But as she listened to Ellery explain to Sasha, she flicked her ears again. Ellery was taking it seriously, and the dragon had already decided that the familiar was wise.

Starless sighed when Ellery returned her attention to her. No, I am afraid it will not be my decision. I could give them the best advice and they would do whatever they wanted. I know the minds and hearts of my riders. They will want to rid the world of this demon. Vladimir will see it as logical. Bram will see it as the right thing to do. You will have allies if you wish it.
 

Mikotsuhime

Elder Member
Agni met Alex's stare head on, a slight frown coming to his face. He was trying to hide the fact that he was growing a little bit flustered, and instead tilted his chin back, crossing his arms.

"Is there something you need?" he asked rather pointedly.

May glanced back at him, but then decided that the talk of slayer magic was far more interesting, and listened to Blad's explanation with rapt attention.

"Hmm... I've heard of the case where magic depends on how well the caster believes in their work, but I've never heard of magic that depends on the person it's being cast on having to know the meaning too," he mused. "Though I can't say I really like the idea of casting magic on people. I mean, I am ok with healing people and stuff like that, but casting actual magic beyond that on a living thing feels... weird and invasive."
 
Agni’s question did not break Alex’s steady stare in the slightest, and he watched the boy a few more seconds before speaking. Alex had a knack for making people squirm; no one liked being stared at by a homeless, borderline psychotic witch.

“No,” Alex replied plainly with a shrug. He considered Agni’s question for a moment longer, and then added: “Which form is your original one? The dragon, or the boy? Or is it something else we haven’t seen yet?”

~

Ellery felt a significant weight lift from her shoulders when Starless confirmed that her companions would both be intent upon seeing this through. Starless seemed a tad more hesitant, but was loyal to her companions and would follow them wherever. Ellery could empathize with such a notion, as the majority of situations she found herself in would not be made possible were she not bound to Alex. That being said, she would not trade him for any other witch in the world. Past, present, or future. Their time together was destined to be short-lived, but Alex had a way of making every second of every day worthwhile and meaningful.

Ellery’s thoughts drifted, as they often did, to her witch. This time however, instead of a frown and worry lines etched into her brow, a warm smile lit her eyes and the corners of her mouth turned upwards ever so slightly. Ellery was silent for a moment, before turning her eyes on Sasha.

“I appreciate you, and you,” her eyes moved to Starless. “I believe it was Fate who brought us together, setting our paths to cross at just the right moment. In our time of most need, I never could have imagined this group of strangers, all from different walks of life, all risking their lives for the sake of children they do not know. It is a beautiful thing to be a part of.”

~

Beth settled into the rhythm of the group, grabbing a bucket and scooping up the rubble and debris piling up behind the bigger kids, who were toiling away at the rock wall before them. She crouched low and wrapped both arms around the bucket, near the bottom. She drew the bucket close to her body and braced, pushing up with her legs and squeezing the bucket tight against her chest. Once she had succeeded in hoisting the bucket off the ground, she waddled up the sloping cavern and out into the opening at the top, where children were dropping their buckets for another group to take them the rest of the way out of the mountain. Beth continued in this fashion, all the while doing her best to keep an eye on Lily, so she would not miss her queue.

Margaret joined the bigger kids at the wall, wielding a pick, which she had chosen over the shovels and spades that were also available. She managed to wiggle her way to the end of the line of kids, furthest from the Riders standing guard, and closer to the small tunnel that had been dug out years before, but boarded up once it was determined to not be stable enough for the intended purpose. The narrow tunnel was dark and foreboding, and yet it was supposed to be their salvation.

Margaret glanced over her shoulder and scanned. Nothing. She turned her eyes forward before the Rider could catch her, and swung her pick down on a particularly stubborn rock. It gave way, and Margaret jumped back as her corner of the wall crumpled. The tunnel filled with dust and not even the Rider was saved from falling into a sudden coughing fit. Margaret used this opportunity to glance over her shoulder a second time. Her frown deepened, and just as she went to turn her eyes back forward, she caught sight of Beth. Her shoulders relaxed in her relief. Another quick scan and she found Lily as well. Good, they were both still okay.

Margaret returned her attention to her work. Three boys on her right were clearing the debris from their area, pulling away the loosened rocks and tossing them into the growing pile behind them. Margaret dropped to her knees to help.

Every time Beth passed Lily, she braced. Not yet. Beth was growing impatient, and tired of carrying these buckets back and forth. She passed Lily for what felt like the billionth time, glancing her way without making eye contact so the Riders would not see anything. The empty bucket hung at her side, bouncing against her leg, and she slowed. Maybe Lily would do it before she had to carry another bucket of rocks up the mountain.

Beth set her bucket down by the pile and dropped beside it, slowly picking out rocks and setting them neatly inside, doing her best to go slow and kill time, but still look like she was working. She filled her bucket, and wrapped her arms around it like before, drawing in a breath and bracing as she lifted it off the ground. Still nothing. Beth fell in line behind a group of particularly slow children, and was preparing herself mentally for the long climb upwards, when Lily suddenly hit the floor in front of her.

Beth froze, and almost forgot her own roll in this charade, staring down at Lily, wondering if maybe this was actually real. It looked real. She blinked, and shook her head. Oh, right, the distraction.

Beth dropped her bucket, and it crashed to the floor. She was careful to toss it away from Lily, but ended up spraying a group of kids with rocks instead. A few cried out, others gasped as they jumped out of the way. One started whimpering, the big baby. Beth did not have time to worry about them though, she has a job to do. The show must go on.

She dropped to her knees at Lily’s side, and threw her arms in the air.

“Help, please!” she cried out, waving her arms around and looking around for one of the Riders. “Oh God, ‘ave mercy! She’s so young! Please, somebody! Anybody!”

A Rider finally showed up, cursing under his breath when he saw Lily on the floor. He dropped beside her and hovered a hand over her lips.

“She’s only a child, good sir! An’ she’s dead! What’re we gonna do? How’re we gonna move on? Can we ever move on?”

“She’s not dead,” the Rider grumbled with a roll of his eyes, though his shoulders relaxed and there was relief in his voice. “She’s breathing. I think she just passed out.”

“Wha’da’ya mean she’s not dead?!” Beth continued, her hands pressing into either side of her head as she blinked down at Lily with feigned horror. “She looks dead!”

“Will you cut it out?” the Riders snapped, fixing Beth with a stern look. “She’s fine. Stop scarin’ the rest of the kids. Jack! Get over here!”

A second Rider maneuvered his way through the crowd of gathering children, and stood over Beth, a deep frown upon his face.

“Melkiel’s not gonna like this,” Jack grumbled.

“We’ll worry about that after. Get Johnson down here, he needs to have a look at her. I don’t think I should move her ‘till he’s given the clear.”

“What about the other kids?”

“Get them back to their cells. We can’t have ‘em fallin’ out on us, we need ‘em alive.”

Jack nodded and turned to find a few more Riders who had come down to see what all the fuss was about. He barked at them to get the children back to their holding cells, and then went off to find the doctor.
 

Starlit Night

Junior Member
“Generally speaking, we do,” Kaida said mildly. “Moreso of late.”

Of course, what she considered to be ‘of late’ likely extended past Bram’s entire lifetime. The thought gave her pause, and for a moment she wondered just how long it had been, exactly, since her people had last mingled freely with the rest of the world’s inhabitants.

Too long, perhaps.

“Monster hunters, you said?” she asked, tucking that question away for another time. Her gaze turned to Vlad, where he sat explaining Slayer magic to the two attentive young ones, and she considered him for a moment before looking back at Bram, quietly inquisitive. They made an interesting pair, particularly for monster hunters.

~

Teddy didn’t mind the lecture, or even seem surprised to have sparked one. (After years of traveling with Alex, she was well and truly used to it.) On the contrary, her eyes brightened as Vlad settled in to explain, and she went politely quiet to listen.

“Vampire slayers?” she asked when he was done, beginning to frown. Similar to Witch Hunters, maybe? She’d heard about the latter from Alex and Ellery, but not really about the former. Still, if the two were anything alike... “That does sound...unpleasant.”

Beyond making the magic effective, telling someone you had trapped exactly what nasty things you intended to do to them seemed like a great way to make them really, really scared, and—maybe it was just because Hunters and Slayers seemed like they’d be similar, and she knew she didn’t like Hunters, but that seemed horrible. And to have the lost parts of their magic be the healing had to say something about the priorities of Slayers.

They were talking about the magic itself, though, not how it was used, so she kept those thoughts to herself.

“Does it?” she asked May, only curious, not doubtful. She wouldn’t know. “Do you mean you tried it before and it felt weird, or just thinking about it feels weird?”

She had another question for Vlad, too, but for now it would have to wait.

~

Lily should have softened her landing.

Her left shoulder had taken the brunt of the impact, but the side of her head had still hit the ground hard enough to hurt, and the chaos that followed her fall—Beth’s voice was nearby, the words recognizable if she focused on them, but beyond that the swell of voices jumbled together into one discordant mass—made her ears ring.

Her thoughts had scattered, but she had held on to the one that had brought her to this position—let myself fall, stay still. So she stayed still, even when someone larger and heavier than Beth dropped down beside her, as something moved near her face and a male voice rumbled overhead.

She didn’t like having her eyes closed. When they were closed, she couldn’t watch, couldn’t gauge the Riders’ reactions. Couldn’t see what he was doing, if Beth was alright, if Margaret—

Margaret. Had she managed to get away? Had the distraction worked?

Lily wanted to look, to see if Margaret was still there among the other kids, and in that moment she couldn’t remember why she shouldn’t. Her eyes fluttered open, and she lifted her head to look groggily around—or she tried to. But moving made her surroundings spin, and she squeezed her eyes shut again with a low noise, lifting a shaking hand to her head.

The fall had been an act. Her reactions now were not.
 

Reynarda

Nerdy Vampire
Bram smiled politely, trying to remember when he had last seen an elf. He had definitely seen one, but he was pretty sure he had not spoken to one. Kaida offered no further explanation on why her people had withdrawn, however, so he let the matter drop.

He caught the glance at Vlad and the curiosity in her eyes. Bram shifted slightly, eyes darting to his companion. Vlad was lecturing on Slayer magic--Bram could tell by the animated way he was speaking--or, it probably sounded normal to most, but Bram knew Vlad's enthusiastic voice when he heard it.

"Yes," Bram said, taking a bite of his apple. She hadn't been asking a question, but he felt the need to say something. He wasn't exactly about to explain why he--a self-proclaimed monster hunter--was partnered with a vampire. Still, he appreciated several people seemed to have figured out what Vlad was, but none of them were freaking out or trying to stick silver into his heart (Bram had tried that, anyway, it hadn't worked).

Bram cast about for a subject change. "So tell me something about your culture--you don't have to if it's invasive, sorry," he added quickly. "I just love learning about other people."



At Teddy's question, Vlad nodded. "Yes, they are fairly similar to the witch hunters I am sure you have crossed paths with. Typically, they have little care for the person aspect of their prey and see only creatures who need to be exterminated." Vlad said this matter-of-factly, but tasted bitter in his mouth. Frowning, he twisted his lip.

"It is weird and invasive," Vlad confirmed, giving May a crooked smile. "But it can be countered." He nodded to the young mage. "And what do you typically use your magic for, then?"



Starless dipped her head with a smile. One of my Riders does not believe in Fate. She chuckled, glancing at Bram. But I am inclined to disagree. It is truly fortunate.

She turned her eyes skyward. The night approaches. Do we need to plan for our attack on the mountain, or should that wait?
 

Mikotsuhime

Elder Member
Agni couldn't help but frown at Alex's question. It could just be idle curiosity, but he also couldn't help but wonder if it was something more sinister. The guardians were not demons, not like the ones that he had used earlier, but they were beings of another plane. He didn't know if his own kind could be trapped by contracts or the like, but he figured that he should be cautious.

He couldn't help but flinch ever so slightly when it was mentioned that his true form might not have been seen yet. Agni hadn't known he'd been so obvious about it; most people assumed the dragon to be his real shape. He never, ever wanted to be put in the position where these people had to see his real body.

"They are all me," he said after considering his answer for a moment. His morals would not allow him to outright lie, and his manners would not allow him to ignore a direct question. "To try and select an 'original' is pointless. This body exists to appear as I wish it to."

May, who was still half paying attention to the conversation on vampire hunters, hummed as he turned his ear towards Alex.

"That's not his real body, is what he means," he interjected, and Agni glared at him. He had been hoping to keep that information private, but May had always been the type to optimistically open up to his companions.

"Serpent," Agni warned, but May just rolled his eyes.

"If we're going to be working together, they need to know how you work," he protested, a pensive look coming to his face as he scooched back a bit. He cleared the rocks from the ground in front of him and drew a line in the dirt. On one side he drew several stick figures, and on the other he drew a blob with many, many eyes and sharp teeth. Agni had been hoping to ignore him and pray that whatever explanation he gave wouldn't be too dangerous, but his curiosity drew him in forward. When he saw the crude drawing, he gave May a very indignant glare.

"I do /not/ look like that," he insisted, and May snorted.

"Well, you're big and scary, that's all they need to know," he said. "Anyways, it's like... This side of the line is us. It's our world, our plane, everything we know exists here. The guardians, like Agni, exist on the other side of the line. It's like... I guess it would be kind of like how the demons you guys talk about exist on another plane? It mirrors our world, sort of, but... it's different."

May drew an arrow from the big angry blob shape to a new stick figure, which this time had a big frown and very angry eyebrows. Agni made a very accurate recreation of the expression as he glared at him.

"The guardians can't actually interact with our world the way they are. You can't just cross over between planes like that, it doesn't work." Well, May could, sometimes, but he was a pretty special case, and he didn't actually want to try explaining that one to a bunch of strangers. "There are places where you can sort of interact through the veil, but the only one I know of is in the caves back home on the island. But that's not really important. Basically, in order to actually exist and stuff over here, a guardian needs a host body. Like... an anchor, I guess, or a tether to this reality."

Agni crossed his arms, and he didn't look too happy about it, but he allowed the explanation. He supposed that this /would/ be important, if they were to be working together.

"Once a guardian combines their magic with a common object, that becomes the tether. It collects more and more magic over time, allowing them to do more with it, and access more of themselves and their consciousness over here. The longer a guardian's host body lasts, the more powerful it is. But in the end, it's just a puppet. If Agni were to die in battle, he wouldn't actually die. He'd just lose his tether to our reality," May finished. Agni looked a bit uncomfortable, but he slowly nodded.

"Dying is extremely inconvenient, however," he cut in, his nose crinkling up. "I do not /want/ to die, if possible. However it is, I suppose, less... permanent than if any of you were to pass. But if you treat me as a shield, or an object to be used, I will leave this expedition at once, children be damned."

May frowned at that, but he understood Agni's line of thought. Dying was /painful/, and terrifying, and even if he could come back from it, he would have to start anew in a new body, without his strength or magic to back him up. He could tell that the others knowing even this much was bothering him a lot, so May reached back and put a hand between his tense shoulders, squeezing reassuringly until they slowly started to relax.

"Anyways, I guess that counts as a culture lesson," he said with a little grin. "The guardians back home help us live peacefully on the island. Each one has a 'job' that they do, and in return, we give them tribute, and help them enact their wills, if it's reasonable."

He turned to Teddy, tilting his head to the side as he thought about it.

"I... I haven't really tried it," he said, though that wasn't really a straight answer. "It's just... The thought of overriding somebody else's will, or doing something to their body that isn't intended specifically to help it, it just... It feels wrong."
 
Alex watched as Agni worked out an answer that was not an answer. He could appreciate the reluctance to share, and it only made the challenge of extracting information more enticing. The witch was never one to shy away from such a challenge. A little game of wit was just what he was after. Until the little mage jumped in and gave it up anyway.

“I see,” Alex mused, sitting back a bit, though his eyes remained on Agni. He found prolonged staring broke a majority of the tight-lipped. “Familiars exist in a similar manner. Their true selves are only revealed in their own plane of existence. While in our plane, they take different forms. Their forms however, are not of their own choosing. They are assigned by Fate, who designs them for their witch to-be. I am curious about this term you use—‘host’.” Alex’s eyes and attention shifted to May here, leaving Agni be for the moment as he studied the little mage carefully.

“You speak so cavalierly. I assume this ‘host’ you speak of was not once a living being with its own mind and soul. I could not imagine one such as yourself, who claims an aversion to utilizing magic on others, would condone this unless it were otherwise.”

~

Ellery followed Starless’s gaze, blinking up into the darkening sky as she drew in a long and calming breath. The dragon was right.

“We will reach the forest’s edge by nightfall tomorrow,” Sasha advised. “There’s no knowing what we will find, and we should be prepared to act as soon as we arrive. For all we know, the children are already…”

Ellery set a hand on Sasha’s shoulder and offered a warm smile that seemed to penetrate his very soul when his eyes met hers. “There is no use in despairing. We keep our eyes forward and on the task ahead. I have faith our courage will be rewarded.” Ellery pushed herself to her feet and extended a hand to Sasha, who took it.

We must gather and plan for what is ahead.

I know, I know, just gimme a sec. I’m working on something.


This is not a game, Alexander. Your petty quest for intellectual dominance will have to wait until after the children are rescued and after Lilith is dealt with.

You’re no fun, y’know that?

So I have been told.


~

Beth could not help the flutter of her heart and the chill that gripped her as she watched Johnson examine Lily. The Rider, who was apparently their resident doctor, set two fingers to Lily’s neck to confirm a heartbeat. He then held his ear barely half an inch from the girl’s mouth as he listened to her breath and watched her chest rise and fall.

“Everything seems normal,” he announced, at which Beth released the breath she had been harboring painfully in her lungs. Johnson spared her a glance, not entirely sure why she was still there.

“I think they’re friends,” Mathias, the first Rider who had found Lily and Beth, explained.

“I’m not sure that really matters right now,” Johnson turned his attention back to Lily and reached forward to open one of her eyelids so as to examine her pupils.

“Well, I thought—“

“There was your first mistake. She’s awake.” Johnson pushed back to his feet, brushing his knees off. “Now get them both back to their cells before Melkiel finds out what happened here.”

Mathias blinked down at Lily, taking a second to process.

“Mathias,” Johnson barked. “Now. This can’t happen again. Melkiel is not in a forgiving mood of late. It would be wise to avoid trying his patience.”

“Yeah, of course, you’re right.” Mathias shook his head in his apology. “Sorry, I’ll get them back. “C’mon girls.”
 

Starlit Night

Junior Member
No elaboration was forthcoming, so Kaida returned Bram’s polite smile with a pleasant one of her own, and let him change the subject. It was only curiosity that led her to ask, and curiosity need not always be satisfied. They had met only this morning, after all—she would not begrudge her new traveling companions their secrets, so long as they did not endanger the group.

“Not at all,” she said, the corners of her eyes crinkling in a way that made her smile much more real. “Though I confess that with such a broad question, I am at something of a loss as to what might interest you...hm.”

There was always the obvious solution, she supposed.

“I could tell you about these, if that would suit?” she asked, gesturing broadly at her face to indicate the silver runes around her eyes. They tended to draw questions. “Or if you have any particular questions…?”

~

Well, that definitely sounded like witch hunters. Teddy’s frown strengthened, a building thundercloud on her usually sweet face, before she caught herself and smoothed her expression back into something calmer. They were only talking about them, there were no hunters of either sort around to be upset about. No need to get worked up. Still—

“That’s horrible,” she said frankly, because it bore being said.

She had been only kind of listening to the exchange between Alex and Agni so far—habit more than anything, so she’d know if she needed to step in. But Alex’s question about Agni’s original body caught her ear, and she glanced over, interested—particularly at Agni’s response.

‘They are all me,’ he said, and it sounded so much like something that she could have said about her own shapeshifting that her eyes went bright with eagerness. Was Agni—?

But no. May’s explanation proved it to be something different, more like Ellery’s shifting than her own. Teddy sat back, a little disappointed, and shifted her focus to the stick figures May was drawing in the earth.

The angry eyebrows really sold the whole picture.

“Nobody’s an object to be used,” she said immediately, looking up at Agni. Angry eyebrows or no, spoiled lordling impressions or no, that didn’t change. “And nobody wants to die. That’s why we’ve gotta make a plan, so that nobody will die. So it won’t be a problem.”

She didn’t look at Alex, or at Ellery.

May’s answer to her question was a welcome diversion, and she tilted her head a little as she considered him, attention catching on that first sentence--maybe because he sounded just a little unsure of himself. But then she thought about the rest of what he had said, and she scrunched her nose, disturbed.

“Yech,” she said, eloquent. “Yeah, it does.”

~

Lily was recoiling from Johnson’s reaching fingers before she even fully processed what was going on, and her head decidedly did not appreciate the sudden jerk backwards. But the sharp pain was receding into a quieter ache, and the clash of noise from earlier was separating back out into individual voices and understandable words. While Johnson snapped at Mathias, Lily held herself very still and tried to breathe evenly, blinking rapidly as the world settled tentatively back into place around her.

She was clutching a handful of Beth’s skirts, she realized, though she couldn’t remember when she’d grabbed them. For some reason, it was hard to make herself let go.

She turned to look at Mathias when he spoke directly to them, though she kept her eyes low and she didn’t look into his face. She didn’t want to get up, but she wanted to stay under the two men’s eyes even less—so she bit her lip and pushed herself obediently to her feet.

Her legs wobbled underneath her, an unpromising start to the long march back to the cells.
 
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Reynarda

Nerdy Vampire
Bram appreciated that Kaida did not press the issue. He really didn't want to explain how that had come about, and Vlad probably would start throwing things at him if he did, anyway.

He hesitated, waiting to see if he had offended her. When she smiled, he relaxed and smiled back. "Oh, sorry," he said. "Uh..."

But she came up with her own, and Bram nodded eagerly."Yes, if you would."


Vlad nodded, agreeing with Teddy's assessment of slayer magic. It was horrible. But then she grew distracted by the witch continuing to question Agni, and Vlad couldn't help turning to watch the stick-figure drawing as May explained. His lip twitched upwards into a smirk as May added angry eyebrows.

However, he was having a little trouble understanding the "host body" explanation. Surely Agni wasn't stealing someone else's body and shuffling their soul over into the corner or something. Because that sounded horrible.

At May's declaration that overriding someone's will felt wrong, Vlad's lip twitched into a mirthless smile. "I conquer. Overriding someone else's will is wrong."

He was suddenly very aware of his companion behind him, but he didn't look at Bram. Instead, he cocked his head at Alex. He really did enjoy digging at people, didn't he? He probably gave his poor familiar ulcers.

Starless rose and stretched not unlike a cat. Little Fire, we are going to plan.

Oh, good
, Vlad responded. How was your discussion with Sasha and Ellery?

Informative. They both have good hearts.
You?

This is an interesting lot,
Vlad chuckled. But, I think we can trust them well enough.

Starless Night Sky turned her attention to Sasha. Who is leading this planning? Perhaps you know the area better than any of us?
 

Mikotsuhime

Elder Member
A stormy look overcame Agni's features, and the obvious offense he took to Alex's question was obvious.

"I would /never/ use a living creature as a host," he snarled, because that was /wrong/. It went against everything that he knew and everything that he believed in. To override another's will was the antithesis of what they stood for as guardians. To even imply he would do such a thing was a great offense.

"It's an object," May clarified. "Usually we have, like, treasures that act as the link. Ceremonial items and stuff. But Agni wasn't really... planned."

Agni glared at him. he didn't want to explain that, and he crossed his arms, digging his fingers into his biceps.

"If you must know, the basis of this body is a teacup," he said bitterly. "I will not show you, because I refuse to expose myself in such a base and uncouth manner."

May offered an apologetic little smile, but then Agni turned towards Teddy. He seemed... impressed, a bit, at her words. Pleased, if nothing else. The fact that, even after explaining his origins, she saw him as a living being made him happy. Many others from the outside world did not share the same views, and it was refreshing to know that he didn't have to fight to be recognized.

"Yes, well," he said, a bit thrown off, but he couldn't hide that he was preening somewhat. "I am in agreement with that. I will gladly offer my assistance to others, should they require it, as I am a protective deity."

May rolled his eyes, but he at least managed to keep himself from snorting. Teddy had managed to wrap Agni all around her finger, and he doubted she even realized it.

"Yeah. It's just... It's bad," he said, because there wasn't anything else to say about invasive magic than that.
 
Teacup? More like teapot, the way the baby dragon’s top was about to blow. Fortunately for all, Alex kept this thought to himself, distracted when Ellery and her new friends rejoined the group. His eyes met Ellery’s for a moment, before nodding and turning his attention to Sasha.

“Alright, big guy. What’ve you got?”

Sasha’s eyes settled on Alex for a moment as he took the boy in. From what he had seen thus far, Sasha did not much care for him. Whatever he had that kept Teddy and Ellery around, Sasha failed to see it. The ex-Rider turned his attention to the others, choosing not to dwell on his distaste. He settled down beside Teddy, joining what had become a makeshift circle around the small fire at the center.

“We will reach the forest’s edge by nightfall tomorrow,” Sasha began, repeating for the rest of the group to hear. “Nightfall would be best, for though Dragons see well enough at night, their Riders do not. I would prefer to have a day of rest before confronting the Mountain, but I do not believe we have that sort of time. The children do not have that sort of time.”

When Sasha fell silent for a prolonged moment, Ellery joined in. “We have discussed two teams—one to infiltrate the Mountain and find the children, and the other to draw the Riders out with a distraction, keep their attention so that the children can be carried out safely.”

“I can keep Lilith’s attention for however long y’all need,” Alex offered.

Ellery hesitated, “I am not sure that is desirable attention in your current state.”

Alex shrugged her concern off. “Climbing a mountain isn’t desirable in my current state, either. I’ll be fine.”

Ellery was silent, knowing full well she was not going to be able to change her witch’s mind. She sighed, but said nothing else on the matter.

“While I would enjoy nothing more than to see Melkiel’s face when he realizes I’m alive, I know the mountain passage. I will lead the group chosen to shepherd the children out of the Mountain.” Sasha joined back in, covering for Ellery as she had him. “Mariah, you will join me.”

Alex looked up to see Mariah standing behind Sasha. He had forgotten about her—where had she been this past hour?

Mariah frowned. “I was hoping to fight.”

“There will be time for fighting. We need as many hands as possible to help with the children. Who knows what state they are in. They may not be able to walk on their own.”

Mariah was silent for a moment, and her eyes flicked over to Alex, catching his gaze for a few curious seconds.

“Fine,” she relented, and then turned on her heel and went back to her horse, who was busying himself with an apple. Alex watched her go, trying to decide if the moment they had shared had been more foreboding or arousing. Why could it not be both?

~

Mathias shut the cell door behind Beth and Lily, locked it, and left to find Johnson to be certain Melkiel had heard nothing of what had happened. Beth waited until Mathias’s footsteps dwindled and then disappeared before releasing the breath she had been harboring in her lungs.

“Boy, that was close,” she whispered, trying to keep her voice down, which had never been her strong suit. She turned her eyes on Lily and hesitated, biting at her lower lip for a second before asking, “You okay?”

She had believed whole heartedly that Lily had indeed fainted, and hoped the girl had not hit her head too hard. She had sold the distraction, that was for sure. Now it was on Margaret. Beth hoped against all hope that the elder girl had made it out and was coming back for the rest of them.

~

Margaret remained still, tucked inside a dark tunnel just large enough for her to crawl into. It was about an hour before the commotion died down and Beth and Lily were taken back to their cells. No one had come down shouting about a missing kid, and Margaret was certain she was in the clear. She stretched out as best she could, twisting to peer into the darkness before her. For all she knew, the tunnel continued into a dead end, or it would drop hundreds of feet, further into the mountain and not out of it. All she knew was that Beth and Lily and all the others were counting on her, and she needed to do something. She drew in a breath and crawled deeper into the tunnel, pushing her hands out ahead of her as she felt her way through.

The tunnel went on forever. Margaret felt her heart sink into her stomach with each passing hour. Sometimes her hands slipped beneath her as the tunnel descended deeper into the Mountain, and other times she had to dig her shoes into the walls as she climbed up an incline. It was about five and a half hours before she saw light ahead.

Margaret moved quicker, drawn to the light. The tunnel began to shrink and she had to drop to her stomach to drag herself towards the tunnel’s exit. And when she finally got to it, it took all her strength to force herself to wait and listen. Heart-pounding minutes passed before she slithered head-first out of the tunnel and dropped to the ground. She blinked against the flickering glow of torches, turning her eyes on the large tunnel she now found herself in. She did not recognize it, but the air felt lighter here, fresher—not so stuffy and thick. She was certain she was close to an exit. She pulled herself to her feet, dusted hands on her pants, and moved with silent feet in the direction that looked the most promising.
 

Starlit Night

Junior Member
Teddy, for her part, had no idea why what she had said made Agni look at her like that. It...was good that he was happy, though? Especially since it seemed to distract him from getting angry at Alex.

“Oh, would you?” she said, brightening with honest appreciation. She hadn’t expected—well, she hadn’t thought much about it, really, but if you had asked her earlier then she wouldn’t have expected Agni to care much one way or the other about helping out the rest of them. He just...hadn’t really seemed the sort. But maybe she’d misjudged him? After all, he had chosen to join the group and go save all of the kids from town. Underneath the arrogance, maybe he was actually nice! “That would help a lot!”

She smiled at Sasha when he came over, and shifted closer to Alex to make room for him. Ellery joined them by the fire too, and Teddy glanced over at her, recognizing the look in the Familiar’s eyes. Time for things to get serious, then.

The timeline Sasha gave was much more useful than her previous knowledge, which had basically amounted to ‘if we keep going in this direction we’ll get there eventually.’ Teddy hadn’t ever needed to know how far it would be to the Riders’ Mountain, before. Tomorrow night, though—it was sooner than she’d expected, and she chewed that over for a minute, trying to make it feel real. She didn’t quite manage it, but that was alright. They’d get there tomorrow, and then it’d feel very real indeed, she thought.

The two groups she remembered from the day’s ride, and Ellery’s suggestion to split up. Which. She still wasn’t happy about it, but she could accept it. It did make the most sense.

So of course, Alex had to say something that made her seriously reconsider how safe it was to leave him unsupervised.

“I hate that idea,” she said with affected cheerfulness, and absolutely no expectation that that would change anything. Ellery will be with him, she reminded herself sternly.

...And that lady won’t, joined the reminder, her eyes intent on Mariah as the woman returned to her horse. Whatever Alex’s thoughts on the matter were, Teddy had no trouble deciding how she felt about Mariah staring at Alex like that.

It wasn’t positive.

“I can go with you, too,” she made herself say, before instinct overcame resolve and she refused to be separated from her family. Reluctantly, she pulled her gaze away from Mariah and looked at Sasha instead. “I’ll be more help with the children than with the fighting.”

~

“They are called saena,” Kaida explained, settling into her topic with warm goodwill. “You can think of them as—prayers, of a sort, or as gifts. They are how we ask our deities for their blessings.”

Automatically her eyes flicked up, towards the patches of sky visible through the trees. But the moon had not yet risen, and she returned her gaze to Bram.

“Generally speaking, saena are given from one person to another, rather than chosen for oneself. Our children are gifted their first saena here,” she said, touching her hand lightly to the her chest, near her heart, “by their parents. Protection, health, and good fortune are all traditional themes for the first. Others may be gifted by a mentor to a student, for example, or between close friends, spouses, other family, and so on.

“On a few occasions, however, one may choose saena for oneself. These,” here indicating around her eyes once more, “I chose when I reached maturity.”

There was more she would have said—these few sentences, while enough to give the general idea, could not hope to explain saena in any detail—but her eye caught on Sasha and Ellery coming to join the circle around the campfire. It seemed that the time for lighthearted talk was past, for now.

“Ah, it seems we are to plan, now. If you would like to hear more, I would be happy to discuss it with you again later on.” She smiled at Bram, before turning her attention to what Sasha and Ellery had to say.

She listened carefully without interrupting, gaze following each speaker in turn. Lingering on Alexander, as his Familiar and their child companion each objected to his offer. Then on the displeased Mariah, here again among them now. But where had she been?

“A moment, please,” she said, when there was a pause. Of the questions that she had, something told her that this one needed answering first. “Lilith?”

~

Somehow, Lily made it all the long march back to the cells. As the door locked closed behind her and Beth, she sank down to the floor and blew out an exhausted breath, pulling her knees up and resting her head on them.

She lifted her head again when Beth spoke, though, blinking up at the other girl for a moment. Her head was still sore, so she was gentle when she rubbed at it, but she mustered a rueful sort of smile anyway.

‘I’ll be okay,’ she tried to convey with the smile.
 
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Starlit Night

Junior Member
Some among the Riders grumbled about the extra watches, the extra scouting, the reduced leisure and rushed meals—quietly, so that no word would make it back to Melkiel’s ears. Aislinn was not among their number, tiring though the extra shifts were. They gave her and Kieran an excuse to be regularly out of the Mountain, and in that at least, there was a small blessing. She had always done her best thinking while flying, and that was even more true of late. Out in the clear air, with the wind in her face and Kieran’s comforting presence beneath her, she could shake off the strange heaviness that weighed on her in the Mountain’s halls. Now, even when she was alone in her own rooms, she couldn’t ever quite relax.

And there was so much that needed thinking over.

Fifty more children—that was how many this last raid had been sent for. To Doth, a quiet farming town with little to draw travelers’ attention. She could not count on another band of unusually brave travelers challenging the Riders and their dragons. Better instead to assume that the children would be brought, and Melkiel’s demands met.

But to what purpose were the children wanted? Not for labor—the first groups of stolen children had been shoved into cells and left largely alone, and it was only recently that they had been put to work in the tunnels. Besides which, children did not make the best laborers, and at only an hour of work each day, the excavation seemed more like a means of giving the children exercise than any true need for working hands. They were not here to become new Riders, either, though at first she had thought that might be it—never mind how foolish it would be to bond kidnapped children to newborn dragons. But they wouldn’t need this many children for that. So for what, then?

She had reached no satisfying conclusions by the time she and Kieran had had to turn around and wing homeward, their scouting shift completed. Found no explanation for the scores of children trapped in the belly of the Mountain. All she had, as she settled Kieran back in his cavern to rest and ensured that he would have plenty to eat, was the dread curdling in her stomach.

It made her own meal, snatched from the bustling kitchens and carried away to eat in peace, fairly unappetizing. She made herself eat it anyway.

Very soon, the last of the children would be settled in the cells, and finally there would be enough—even if she did not know for what. Her instincts insisted that she couldn’t afford to wait and find out, and Kieran agreed. The children had to escape tonight. Lost in thought, Aislinn wound her way through several lesser-used passages, chewing mechanically on food she didn’t taste.

The soles of Aislinn’s boots were made of exceptionally supple leather, for better purchase on Kieran’s smooth scales during midair maneuvering. This had the added benefit of making her steps all but soundless on the Mountain’s stone floors; and this, in turn, was what allowed her to spot the child before the child saw her. A girl, perhaps ten or twelve, dusty and dirty and somehow far from the cells below. She was facing away, moving silently down the passageway.

Aislinn blinked once, then twice in quick succession, but the girl did not disappear between one moment and the next. Huh. Not a hallucination brought on by a lack of sleep and too much thinking about the children, then?

The child, entirely unconcerned with questions as to whether or not she was real, continued down the passage. The remainder of her bread and meat forgotten, Aislinn followed in equal silence.

The girl must have had little, if any, idea of where she was going, but whether by good luck or keen judgment she picked paths that led closer towards the passage out of the Mountain. Aislinn trailed after her like a larger shadow, part of her impressed by how well the girl was doing. The rest was busy trying to figure out just what she was going to do with this unexpected development. If a child was found wandering the tunnels of the Mountain, security around the cells would increase, and the more guards there were the more difficult the escape would be. And the closer they came to the main paths, the greater the risk of discovery grew—

Their luck held until they came to a juncture of several paths, all converging on one larger passageway, and the approaching tramp of boots and a discontented voice could be heard. Aislinn paused, half-hidden in a shadow; ahead of her the girl froze, then ducked quickly into an opening, and Aislinn’s heart jumped in her chest because that wasn’t an exit. Just an alcove, shadowed enough that it must have looked like one at first, but definitely not deep enough to hide her from the guards.

Nothing for it.

As the two men turned the corner and came into view, Aislinn stepped out to meet them, angling herself so that looking at her would put their backs to the child.

“Wyatt, Daniel,” she greeted, and the two jolted, swinging around to face her. Daniel was the one she had heard talking; complaining to Wyatt, no doubt, and now uneasy about what might have been overheard. “Your turn on guard duty?”

Behind them, there was a flicker of movement. Aislinn didn’t let her gaze stray towards it, but made a mental note of which path the child had slipped into.

“Oh, hey,” Daniel said, relaxing when he saw who it was. Aislinn wasn’t known for ratting others out. “Yeah. Straight from patrol, too.”

Aislinn raised her eyebrows to look surprised. “No break in between? Did you get a chance to eat?”

Wyatt huffed a wry laugh, but didn’t comment. He never was the most talkative sort, but that was alright. Daniel had that part handled.

“I wish,” he said, annoyance bleeding back into his tone. Aislinn made an inquiring noise; he needed no further urging. “The rotation’s kept me hopping—not a bite since breakfast, and that was skimpy. Guarding, then patrolling, and now straight back to guarding! How’re we supposed to keep this up, ‘s what I wanna know. A man’s got to eat!”

He probably hadn’t been paying enough attention when the schedule was drafted, and someone else had pulled one over on him to nab a better break time for themselves. Aislinn did not air this thought.

“Rotten luck,” she said sympathetically, and popped the last of her meal into her mouth. Daniel’s eyes followed the motion as she chewed and swallowed. “Tell you what. You taking the post just up ahead?” Wyatt nodded. “Why don’t you two nip down to the kitchens and grab something—they still had plenty of leftovers when I stopped by. I’ll hold your post ‘til you get back.”

“You are a goddess among women,” Daniel said fervently, and Aislinn quirked an amused smile while Wyatt rolled his eyes.

“And flattery will get you nowhere. Go on, get, I don’t have all day.”

They went, Wyatt dropping a quiet, “Thanks,” as his singular contribution to the conversation. She waited until their footsteps faded away, then turned, searching out the path the girl had disappeared down—

Oh, gods.

Aislinn ran, as quickly as she could without making much noise, because if the child heard her coming she might well bolt ahead, and that would be—bad. Very, very bad. Because the path that they were on led deeper into the mountain, and only went to one place: a Queen’s lair. And this Queen had a clutch of eggs.

Few things were more dangerous than a nesting dragon. The Queen would be hyper-alert to any threat, and an unknown person invading her space would not escape unscathed.

Aislinn ran, and prayed she wouldn’t be too late.

Then—relief, as she turned a corner and spotted the small figure ahead of her. The child hadn’t gotten too far ahead, hadn’t yet stumbled into the lair. Aislinn slowed, the need for silence overtaking the need for speed, and slipped up behind the girl.

One hand caught the girl’s arm in a firm grip, at the same moment that the other flattened carefully over her mouth. They couldn’t afford a scream, now.

“Not that way,” she said, low and urgent, because this was the most important thing. Even if the girl got away, hopefully she’d at least run back the way she’d come. “It’s dangerous.”
 

Reynarda

Nerdy Vampire
"Saena," Bram repeated thoughtfully. He listened intently. Marks that were gifted to others? That sounded fascinating. And they asked deities for blessings? Were they magic, then?

But they were gathering to plan. "Thank you," he told Kaida. "I appreciate you taking the time to teach me. Your saena are beautiful."

With a groan, Bram stood. "I should join my companion."

Vlad could not help be incredibly amused that the object that tied Agni to this plane was a teacup. And his pleasure at Teddy's response made Vlad's lip quirk all the way into a smile.

Starless settled behind Vlad, huffing hot air into her Rider's hair affectionately. Bram sat next to Vlad, ruffling his hair. Vlad shot him a look out of habit, but Bram didn't even notice as he leaned back against Starless.

"I'll be part of the distraction with Starless, and I volunteered you to be part of the rescue party," Bram told Vlad.

Vlad nodded, but Starless scowled. She didn't like the idea of her rider being deep in a cavern where she couldn't get to him if something went wrong.

"Do not do anything stupid," Vlad told Bram with a scowl. "I cannot come rescue you."

Bram rolled his eyes. "It'll be fine."

Vlad seriously doubted that, but this was the best plan. He would just have to deal with whatever chest pains came his way. He frowned at Alex. "Are you sure that is wise?"

But Ellery had already said as much, and Vlad doubted Alex would listen to a vampire he had just met if he wouldn't listen to his own familiar.

When Kaida asked about Lilith, Bram nodded. He was also curious about that. Who on earth was that? She had a creepy name. One glance at Vlad confirmed at his vampire companion knew. Oh. Oh, dang. Was it a demon or something, then? Probably, based on the way Vlad was twisting his lip.
 

Mikotsuhime

Elder Member
Agni was at least glad that they were planning now rather than asking invasive questions and mocking him. He seemed like he was only paying a little attention, but May could see the way that, though his gaze was distracted by the nearby treeline, he was listening intently.

Two groups, one a distraction and one a rescue party. One was more likely to be involved in actual combat, while the other focused on avoidance. Agni pursed his lips.

He had assumed that he and May would be on the distraction team. May was very good at loud explosions and reckless fighting, and not at all good at stealth, and his healing abilities would be most helpful in direct combat. Agni could act as a mount, but he was very reluctant to do so. Allowing himself to be /ridden/ was humiliating.

But now that he thought about it, he wasn't entirely sure that was in their best interest. Obviously the group sneaking into the mountain should be smaller. So far it seemed to consist of Teddy, Vlad, Mariah and Sasha. Sasha had clearly been a warrior in the past, but the past was the past, and Agni was not sure that he would do well as a combatant, should the need for that arose. The others seemed competent enough, however three capable fighters to escort a group of children that could number fifty or more did not seem sufficient.

"The serpent will assist with the distraction," he decided finally, and May nodded. He had been expecting that. "I will go along with the infiltration group."

May's head snapped up, and he turned to Agni in surprise.

"You what?" he asked, and Agni gave him a very unimpressed look. May, however, did not back down, worry and confusion very clear on his features. "No, seriously, what? We're splitting up? I thought you were going to turn into a big dragon and sort of whoosh up and--"

He made a series of waving gestures with his hand, then a 'bam' noise as his hands smacked into one another. Agni had no idea what his display meant, but he assumed it was something ridiculous, as usual. He, again, did not look impressed by the antics.

"That was an option," he said, resting his chin in his hand. "You are far more suited to combat than stealth, and you can provide healing in the battlefield if necessary. However..."

He trailed off, and May's eyes were wide as he watched him think it over.

"Wow. You're actually serious about this, huh?" He asked, and Agni glared at him.

"Of course I'm serious," he grumbled. He knew why May would have his doubts, of course. Agni thought of what any of the other guardians would do in this situation, and the general consensus was 'leave it alone'. The children were not his worshippers, and his people over the centuries had withdrawn mostly from the world of man to sleep away their days in their own dimension. Agni had questioned the Tiger, once, why most of the guardians were not actively seeking to better the lives of their charges. She had looked at him pityingly, and gently ruffled his hair before telling him that he was still so young.

He resented it. He hadn't been brave enough to think so at the time, but...

May was watching him, and slowly his expression softened.

"If you think you can handle things on your own, then your shapeshifting will probably come in handy with the stealth mission," May said. Agni frowned at him, unsure of that, but he felt a bit better that the older boy seemed to trust him with this.

"Don't tell them that," he grumbled. "I won't break the rules for this mission, children or not."

May raised his eyebrows, but he was still smiling.

"Yes, yes. Nobody said you had to copy anyone, don't worry. I was thinking more for guiding them out and stuff," he said brightly. Agni wasn't sure he believed him, but he had settled a little bit by now. This whole ordeal was feeling quite real by now. He had expected his trip to the mainland to be nothing but pandering to the high priestess's desire that he learn about the world, but...

He was going to do something. He was getting the chance to actually be a protector of men, and the knowledge was finally sinking in. He wasn't quite sure how he felt about it, outside of 'surreal'.

"Anyways, I guess that's settled. Everybody's assigned now, and what not," May continued, then frowned. "Although, yeah, I'm also curious about this Lilith. A dragon rider?"
 
While Ellery felt she would be useful assisting with the rescue, she knew leaving her witch was not an option. It went beyond simple loyalty and concern for his wellbeing, to something far deeper. To be honest, she was not sure she was capable of leaving her witch in peril. She had never done it before. But his incapacitation meant hers, and she was certain Lilith would not let the others be simply because Alex and her were taken care of. They would have led this group to their deaths for nothing.

Sasha was watching Ellery, whose eyes had dropped to the ground as she mulled over the task before them. The plan had been laid out and everyone had a role to play. Now all that was left was patience.

Everyone’s staring at you.

Ellery blinked and looked up, eyes shifting from Alex to Sasha, and then the others.

They’re asking about Lilith. Up to you what you wanna tell ‘em. You know my thoughts on sharing.

Ellery sighed. She knew she could not avoid Lilith forever. She had spoke the name a few times already, but it was time for the rest of the group to know. But how and where to start? She desired brevity, but knew it was important to leave nothing out that might mean the difference between life and death.

“Lilith, we believe, is the one behind the darkness that has taken hold of the Dragon Riders,” Ellery finally started. Her eyes flickered back to Alex for support, but he was fiddling with something in his pocket and offered no assistance. He had a strict policy against oversharing, and his and Lilith’s story was highly personal. Ellery was left to continue on her own. “She is a demon.”

Sasha shifted at the word, still not used to it being spoken aloud as fact, and not some ridiculous story told around a campfire. Their own campfire be darned.

“There are different stories on how she came to be, most echoing the mysoginistic themes of old, bitter men. She was not always a demon, but twisted into one by dark ambition. She rules over Hell as its Queen, and seeks to claim Earth for her own. Fortunately, without a sufficient host, her power is limited to small influence, as we have witnessed with the Riders. Unfortunately, Alexander is the host she seeks. With him, she will be at full strength, and she will do whatever it takes to claim him.”

“And the children?” Sasha asked when Ellery paused.

“We believe she is building resources. Souls, a person’s life-force, are a powerful energy source for fueling magic, and child souls are pure and unstained. They will not be harmed before she is ready to use them, for she requires the souls to be strong. But I can assure you, the moment she has enough souls and she has claimed Alex, every single child in that mountain will succumb to a torturous death so unimaginably painful that I would not wish it on even the worst humanity has to offer.”

Ellery hesitated, and then added: “Of course, Lilith is our problem. Alexander and I have brainstormed a few options for handling her. The first order of business is to rescue these children, so that she cannot harm nor use them. Once the children are safe, there is no need for you all to remain. We can handle the rest.” She knew it polite to not expect their companions to stick around to assist in cleaning Alexander’s mess, though she hoped Starless had been correct in assuming at least the Hunter and the Vampire would lend their aid. Politeness aside, Ellery knew Alex, Teddy, and she were no match for Lilith. Not in their current state.

~

It was fortunate that a hand lay across Margaret’s mouth, for she let out a startled squeal that might have echoed off the tunnel walls and blown her entire plan for secrecy. Of course, the fact that there was a hand over her mouth meant her plan was already blown. Margaret froze for half a second as her brain flooded with a sudden rush of paralyzing fear, and then frantic problem-solving. Once the paralysis wore off, she instantly began to fight. She spun to face her captor, and jumped back in an attempt to yank herself free. The elder woman was much bigger than she was however, and her yanks were met with minimal progress.

“Let go of me!” she managed to hiss, keeping her voice down to a harsh whisper.

~

There was no telling what time it was in the large cavern where the children were kept. The darkness was eternal and all-encompassing. It soaked into the walls, bones, and flesh. That perpetual chill that told of the utter lack of sunlight, the darkness only broken once every hour as a patrol passed through, an oil lamp held limp at their side for their eyes had adjusted to the darkness long ago. It blurred the line between dream and reality, for even though one might open their eyes, they might as well have left them shut. It was this darkness that made Beth certain she was dreaming when she was startled awake, and opened her eyes to find nothing.

“Hello?” her voice was meek, shivering. She blinked in the direction of the cell door, only knowing it was there because she had fallen asleep with her feet towards the back of the cell. She strained her ears, but there was only the steady hum of about a hundred children snoring soundly on the stone floor. She paused, and then lowered her head and closed her eyes.

A whisper.

Beth jumped up, holding her eyes wide as she strained to see into the dark. “Who’s there?”

No answer. Beth swallowed, too scared to blink. “Anyone th-th-there?”

Still no answer. She waited, holding her breath as she listened through the sleeping children. Fifteen minutes passed, and her eyes grew heavy and she slid back onto the floor.

Something brushed across her face. Beth jumped to her feet, chest heaving as she turned around, arms out, trying to grab at whatever had touched her. Her hands met air.

“Lily? Lily, is that you?” Beth’s attempt at a whisper was interrupted by the shaking of her voice. “Lily?”

Something moved beyond the cell door. Beth took a step back, and tripped over another child who had been curled up asleep. She crashed on top of them, and they squirmed and pushed her aside with an irritated, half-awake grumble. Beth, now on her hands and knees, felt her way around the child and back to where she thought she had been sleeping. She pawed at what she thought was Lily.

“Lily,” she hissed. “Someone’s in here.”
 

Starlit Night

Junior Member
She is a demon.”

Kaida didn’t blink at this frank declaration, but her face grew very still, like the mirrored glossiness of deep water that could hide anything in its depths. It remained so as Ellery elaborated, weaving a terrible tale of evil ambitions and children gathered for sacrifice. Smile gone, expression remote and unchanging, she looked almost like a different person than the one who had enjoyed discussing culture with Bram just shortly before.

It was easy to forget, in lighthearted moments, the ageless nature of elves.

“I see,” she said when Ellery had finished, quiet and without inflection. For a long moment, that was all, uncanny gold eyes taking in the witch and his Familiar, and the child that accompanied them. The child, Teddy, was not skilled at hiding her true feelings like her older companions were; her face was a book laid open for any to read, and Kaida learned near as much from the child’s reactions as she did from Ellery’s explanations.

Teddy had looked more and more distressed as the Familiar spoke, but not surprised—more as if certain fears had been confirmed. The surprise came towards the end, when Ellery said that they could handle this demon; at that her eyes went wide, and she turned as if to say something, before catching herself and staying silent. But she could not hide her worry, not how it pinched between her brows nor how it filled expressive eyes.

“And if you cannot handle the rest?” Kaida asked at last. “If Lilith should claim Alexander as host, what then?”

Briefly, her eyes looked beyond them all, distant and unfocused. She thought that she could guess.

She needed to be sure.

~

The fighting was expected, but Aislinn still approved of how quickly the girl jumped into action. If she hadn’t been expecting it, the yank backwards would have been enough to pull the girl free of a lax grip—as it was, Aislinn just tightened her grip, and caught a thrashing wrist with her other hand to reduce the child’s maneuverability. It didn’t seem like she would scream now, past the initial shock of being grabbed.

“I will,” she said, dropping urgency in favor of a steady, calming tone. She was going to have to, sooner rather than later. She needed to get to the guard position before Wyatt and Daniel returned from the kitchens, and she certainly couldn’t drag this child there with her. But she couldn’t just set her loose to wander the Mountain with no idea of where she was going, either. “Once I’m sure you’re not going to run off. Right now, I need you to calm down.”

Time was ticking. Could she convince this child to trust her before she got herself caught?

“Are you trying to escape?”

She could think of few other reasons for one of the kidnapped children to be here, but still she paused to gauge the girl’s reaction before continuing.

“I’m not going to hurt you, and I won’t send you back, if I can help it. But you can’t go this way. It won’t take you out—this tunnel leads to a dragon’s nest, and the Queen will attack you if you enter. Do you understand?”

~

Lily was asleep. She thought she was, anyway, because just like when she dreamed, she wasn’t in control of her body. She lay still save for the labored rise and fall of her chest, eyes open and staring into the gloom. There was something out there. She knew it, just as certainly as she’d ever known anything, even though she couldn’t see it. She didn’t have to. She could feel it. The shadows seethed with it, something ancient and nameless that twisted and creeped over her skin and froze her from the inside out, like someone had reached inside of her and turned her core to ice. Her mouth was dry, dread curdling in her stomach—

But—

Wait.

That wasn’t right.

She never felt the fear, while she was dreaming.

Someone spoke. Lily almost couldn’t hear them, over the whispering that filled her ears, sibilant and barely audible. She tried to block them out, tried not to listen too closely. Something very bad would happen, if she heard them clearly.

The voice spoke again. This time, Lily recognized it as Beth’s. It seemed to come from a long way away. Beth sounded scared; Lily was scared, too. She wished she could say something, so that they could be scared together, but she couldn’t even lift a hand. Something was weighing her down, pressing on her chest so that she could barely breathe.

Beth’s hand brushed at Lily’s arm; Beth’s voice hissed her name. As suddenly as if some spell had broken, Lily could move. She gasped in air, near silent even in her fright, and her small, clammy hand grabbed for Beth’s and held on tight.
 
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Reynarda

Nerdy Vampire
Vlad's lip twisted further, but Bram wasn't watching. He was staring at Ellery. "Hold the f--"

"Abraham," Vlad quickly interrupted. Good grief, there were children present.

Bram shot him an annoyed look. "What do you want me to say? Hold the fangs up?" He ignored Vlad's wince at the vampire curse. "Fine. Hold the fangs up, Ellery. This demon lady, she's going to use children? And you didn't think we would want to know this before now? Look, I get that this demon wanting to use the kid as a host is your business, but it stops becoming your business the second it involves other people."

To his surprise, Vlad did not fuss at him for being rude, which meant the vampire agreed. Emboldened by this, Bram nodded along with Kaida. "She makes a good point. I'm guessing bad things happen if Lilith gets her demonic hands on Alex, so how about we not let that happen?"

Vlad paused before lifting his eyes to Ellery. "Have you considered this might be a trap? A way to draw you and your witch to Lilith?"

"Should we make sure she doesn't get to the kid?" Bram asked.

"Alex," Vlad murmured, guessing Bram had forgotten his name.

"Is there really any reason to use the kids they kidnapped if she can't get her hands on Alex?" Bram asked, using the witch's name to prove to Vlad he did remember it. "Perhaps we should have another group with Alex to make sure he doesn't get... y'know. Possessed. Vlad's got experience with demons."

"Books!" Vlad said quickly before anyone got the wrong idea. "I have read books only. No practical experience."

"Yeah, but you held off that... what'd you call it? Hellfire? You held that off well enough. And you didn't really think we're just going to walk away from this when the kids are safe, did you? This is what we do, Vlad. Hunt monsters. Demons are monsters."

Behind them, Starless hummed in pleasure. See? I knew you two would not be able to turn away from this predicament.

You already offered our help,
Vlad huffed.

Well, duh, Bram said. He didn't exactly like being linked up to Vlad's thoughts via Starless, but whatever. The way she relayed them to him was way more informative than Vlad would have otherwise been. Starless informed Bram that Vlad found her offer annoying despite having fully planned to help from the start. Yeah, that's Vlad. Anyway, tell him demons can't be worse than vampires and this should be not as hard as he thinks will be.

Tell that idiot I said he had better take that back this instant! Demons are evil incarnate! Vampires are another species that live on this plane and--

Tell him nobody cares.


Starless blew a puff of smoke into the air and shifted so that Bram's and Vlad's heads knocked together.

Having a thicker skull than Vlad, Bram recovered first. He flicked his attention to Alex. "No offense or anything, kid, but if that demon tries to use you as a host, you don't really look in any state to refuse."

Bram admittedly did not understand how that all worked--did they need permission? Kinda like vampires. Not that vampires actually needed permission to enter a place, they were just a lot stronger if the energy of a place wasn't going after them. And vampires didn't possess people. So not kinda like vampires. Whatever, his point still stood.

"And if that happens, it sort of seems that rescuing the kids would be a moot point." He paused. "Vlad always corrects me when I'm wrong, so I must not be."

Vlad was poking at the spot on his head that would have a welt in a few minutes. "I do think we need to consider the possibility that this is a trap," he said. "But I am not sure what to do about it if it is. I am not certain any of us are ready to take on the Queen of Hell, but I do not see any way of avoiding it."
 

Mikotsuhime

Elder Member
Both Agni and May went very still at Ellery's explanation, the dragon god's back straightening and his posture stiffening, while May just looked shocked. After a moment, the smaller boy let out a sharp and loud laugh. Agni shot him a glare, but he couldn't help it. This witch was the vessel for some kind of world ending evil being that needed his body to work in this world. God. And here May had thought he was the only harbinger of the apocalypse here. Maybe they should start a club. Or a therapy group.

"S-sorry," he said after his laughter died down, his cheeks flushed as he cleared his throat. "It's not funny."

Agni's look was harsh, and if he had been agitated before back at the Inn in town, he was downright anxious now. May was no empath, but even he could feel the nervous anger coming off of his companion as he stood up.

"You speak of this so calmly," he said, his voice not quite trembling with anger, but almost. He seemed to share Bram's opinion, and May was sure that if he had known what the word 'fuck' meant, he might have used it instead. His eyes snapped to Alex, narrowing in a mix of frustration and genuine confusion. May fidgeted, wondering if he should stand up and usher him away from the group before he said something particularly rude, but he didn't know how without standing out.

Some level of righteous anger in response to this news was expected, but...

"It seems that the solution is obvious," the dragon said, his nose scrunching up. "Why have you not killed yourself the moment that you learned of your fate as this vessel? The moment that this threat became apparent?"

May bit down hard on his lower lip, his fingernails digging into the palms of his hands. He understood where Agni was coming from, he really did. He knew that he wasn't trying to be cruel, or making threats. He truly didn't understand, and that was the only reason May didn't slap him for being rude.

"Agni," May began, but Agni turned to him with his mouth twisted, his own fists clenched.

"It is the obvious solution. This boy is a threat to the world and the people in it. His existence is a threat to the children we are going to rescue. Why is he still alive?"

His voice was raw, and May deflated a bit. He could tell that he was upset. Hell, May was upset, although it was more of a muted sort of pain and misunderstanding. He, however, had long since learned that the world was unfair, and did not follow the same rules for everyone. It was a lesson that Agni had yet to experience, and he could already tell that the younger man did not like the knowledge.

"Do you want to go for a walk?" May asked, softening his voice to try and avoid a blow up. Agni glared at him, and for a moment, his form seemed to ripple. His fingers were claws, his skin was pitch black scales, he had many, many more eyes than he should and twisted horns curled from his head. The changes did not happen all at once, but flowed across like ripples, there one second and gone the next. May drew in a breath and reached out to take his hand, but Agni pulled it away.

"What /right/ do you have to live?" he snarled, turning his eyes on Alex. His pupil's were slitted and his irises seemed to reflect the light, his gaze decidedly inhuman as his skin continued to shift with his emotions. "You-- You have a responsibility to end your life, and the threat it represents. How dare you continue to live knowing the harm it could bring to others? To the world itself? How /dare/ you?! Why do /you/ get to--!"

May grabbed his wrist and pulled him back firmly, placing one hand on his shoulder and squeezing so hard that his knuckles turned white.

"Agni. Stop it," he said, his voice sharper than before. Agni turned to him, pain and anger and frustration clear on his face. May just felt tired, and kind of like he wanted a hug. He didn't know how comfortable he was asking for one in front of all these people, though. "Go for a walk, ok? The river is nearby. Go take a bath, cool off and come back."

It was not a suggestion, but there was a softness behind his voice that made Agni's shoulders slump like all the fire had been taken out of him. His fists were still clenched tight, but the rippling had stopped, and he no longer looked like he was ready to skewer somebody. He let May hold his wrist for a moment more before he pulled away and trudged off in the direction May had indicated, disappearing into the trees. The river was close enough that May was sure he'd hear if something happened to him, but he didn't really have the energy to accompany him or comfort him at the moment.

Instead, he tried to smile, though it was a little wobbly.

"Sorry. He... He didn't mean to be mean," he said, though he was sure it fell flat.

He fidgeted with his many bracelets, and pretended to be optimistic.

"I... I don't really know a lot about demons. They're not quite the same as the guardians I grew up with. But we will help, any way we can. Agni wants to help too, I'm sure, and he won't actually hurt you, I promise! Please don't think badly of him, he's just... He doesn't really understand some things."
 
It was not surprising that everyone had questions. But they were right--she should have told them sooner. To be honest, she had hoped to not have to say anything at all. But, Alex was getting worse. He was not recovering as fast as he should. It had been hours since their confrontation with the riders and he was barely at half strength. There was a time Alex could have taken Lilith on his own, but that time had long since passed. They needed help, and these people needed the full truth.

Before Ellery could decide which question to answer first, Agni stood. Ellery watched the dragon cautiously as his voice rose and his temperament flared. She shifted, and a blade slid from its dimensional sheathe and appeared in her hand. She waited, eyes narrowed, prepared should the dragon lash out.

Alex simply watched. His knees were pulled to his chest and he was leaning back on his palms, his eyes on Agni as the boy expressed his deeply felt concerns. The witch waited without saying a word until May managed to calm the dragon down and send him off for some quiet time.

Alex snorted at May's apology. "Yeah, okay, he can try."

"Alex, please," Ellery sighed. The blade had been resheathed and the weight of this conversation had returned to her shoulders.

"Killing Alex would not stop Lilith," the familiar explained. "Alex is her desired host not because it is destined to be, but because he is the only currently living one of his kind. Half-witch, half-human."

Alex shifted uncomfortably, eyes flicking over to Ellery before they returned to the fire at the center of the group. He did not like discussing such personal matters, but Ellery was adamant it was necessary. They could not keep running from the truth. The stakes were too high.

"Witches are forbidden from laying with humans, and any children born of such a relationship are killed upon birth, along with their human parent," Ellery continued. "Alex was only allowed to live because his mother had a theory about his ability to be a vessel. Demons cannot possess witches, they possess humans. Human bodies, however, are weak and cannot support the demon for long without deteriorating, and Lilith is a particularly powerful demon. Alex's human half allows the possession, and his witch half helps him support Lilith's power. You were witness to a small demonstration of this earlier." Ellery hesitated. "If you kill Alex, it might delay Lilith's rise to power as the Coven creates another vessel, but it will not prevent it."

"Also, y'know, I want to live," Alex added. Ellery shot him a look but said nothing.

"As for this being a trap, it undoubtedly is. Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of avoiding it now that there are children involved. I would rather focus our energies on saving the children, and worry about our next steps once the children are safe."

~

Margaret opened her mouth, a childish retort poised on her tongue, but closed it shut instead. Nest? Queen? That did not sound good. The sharp defiance in her eyes faltered.

"Please don't take me back. I promised them I'd find a way out. They're just kids."

~

When Lily's hand found Beth's, Beth clutched her friend for dear life. She had not realized she was shivering until she tried to speak.

"You feel it, too?" Beth knew Lily would not give her a verbal response, but the question was more rhetorical anyway. She knew Lily had felt it. Whatever it was. "Do you think it's gone?"

A pebble crunched beneath a heavy heel, and Beth shut her mouth and held her breath. She stared wide-eyed into the dark, holding as still as she could despite the thudding of her heart against her chest and the shaking of her hands.

Another pebble crunched closer, and the cell was growing warm around them. Sweat beaded at Beth's hairline and caught in her lashes. A footstep this time, right outside the cell. The heat grew terribly uncomfortable, and Beth could not hold her breath anymore. Each one grew more and more labored as the heat intensified.

"I know you're in here," it was a soft and sinister hiss that sent a shiver down Beth's spine. "You fancy yourself some kind of prophet, eh? Cowering behind children, too scared to face me yourself you have to speak through mindless puppets."

Beth felt as if she were on fire, and she clung desperately to Lily. She tried to hold her breath again. The voice was louder this time, and it felt as though it were inside Beth’s head.

“I smell you, prophet. You cannot hide from me.”
 
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Starlit Night

Junior Member
Teddy startled at May’s laugh, so out of place in the tense atmosphere. He was right, it wasn’t funny—none of this was funny. But then, it hadn’t sounded like a happy laugh.

She didn’t think about it long, though. Because Agni stood up, and he said—

He said—

Horror rose, sharp and nauseating, and Teddy choked on it. She didn’t speak—couldn’t speak—couldn’t stop the poisonous words that burned like acid in her ears. But she was ready, should Agni try to carry out his ‘solution,’ muscles tense and gaze unblinking. She wouldn’t win. Agni was stronger than she was.

It didn’t matter.

What right do you have--

How dare you

You have a responsibility to

a duty to

You were a mistake


May sent Agni away. Agni went. That was good. Agni went away, and Teddy should have been able to relax. But something was burning in her chest, hot and painful, and now it had nowhere to go.

Then May turned back to the group, and—

Teddy found she could speak after all.

“He didn’t mean to be mean?” she repeated, voice shaking. She wasn’t scared. She was angry. “He told Alex to kill himself!

“Who is he to decide who does and doesn’t have the right to live?” she demanded, suddenly on her feet. She didn’t remember deciding to stand up. She didn’t care. “Nobody can control the way they’re born! How dare Alex be alive? How dare he—“

Teddy cut herself off, face pale, eyes bright with fury and rising tears.

She shouldn’t be doing this. She shouldn’t be fighting with people who had just agreed to help. She shouldn’t be snapping at May—he wasn’t the one who’d said such terrible, terrible things. Teddy jerked in a breath, hands clenching and unclenching by her sides. Her eyes snapped towards the river—with effort, she yanked her gaze away. Going there now would be bad.

Ellery was going to explain. Calm, responsible Ellery was going to explain why killing Alex wouldn’t work, because that was something that someone thought would solve anything, and if Teddy heard a word of it she was going to scream or cry or both.

“I’m sorry.” she said. To May, because it wasn’t his fault what Agni said. She had to force the words through a closing throat. Then, “I can’t be here right now.”

Alex would be safe. Ellery would make sure of it. That knowledge was the only thing that let Teddy turn, shifting into cat form and disappearing into the trees, in the opposite direction than Agni had gone.

~

Ellery did not answer her question. It was unclear whether by design or simply because there was too much to address at once, but Kaida was quite aware of the lack, either way.

She weathered the outbursts from both young ones without overt reaction, save for the focus in her eyes when Agni’s words threatened to cause a clash. But no violence came. Instead, first Agni then Teddy pulled themselves away, one towards the river and the other into the woods. In a better situation, she would have offered to go after one of them. She did not, now—there was too much at stake to give up on this opportunity for answers.

So long as they did not stray too far, she would hear if either of them came to trouble. It would have to be enough, for now.

“It may not be possible to divorce the two. Say that we rescue the children, as we intend to,” Kaida said quietly. “But in the process, Alexander is overtaken. Can you say that the children will still be safe?”

She indicated Bram with a slight tilt of her head, the first movement she’d made since Ellery began her explanation.

“Bram makes a reasonable suggestion. Is there a means of preventing Lilith from possessing Alexander?”

~

Aislinn considered the child, surprised that she seemed to settle so quickly. So she was scouting, looking for a way to get the other children out? They’re just kids. To her eyes, the girl was still a kid herself.

She did not say as much.

“I don’t intend to,” she said, easing her grip. “None of you should be here in the first place. If I let go of you, will you run?”

~

It wasn’t gone. Lily could feel it, still, and she squeezed Beth’s hand just as tightly as Beth clutched hers, heart pounding in her chest. Something was out there, and it was hungry.

Movement, outside the cell. A scuff of a foot, pebbles shifting. Lily’s eyes darted towards the noise, blindly searching the darkness. The air warmed around them, stiflingly heavy, but even as the sweat trickled down her skin Lily shivered, the cold deep inside of her untouched by the heat. All she could hear was herself and Beth struggling to breathe, mingling with the beating of many wings.

(wings?)

A flash of color at the corner of her eye, but when she turned to look there was nothing there.

When she turned to look there was fire—

Dragons fell from the sky, the earth beneath her feet trembling with the force of the impacts. The sunlight filtering through smoke was weak and wavering, and pale ash drifted softly down. Silent, she moved through a battlefield painted bloody red, surrounded by the fallen.

In the distance, there was a man. His shoulders slumped, his sword hanging heavy from his hand; he stared at her as she approached, his eyes weary. Her hands spread wide, gesturing to their ravaged surroundings. He didn’t understand—his brow furrowed, lips moving in question. In answer her hand lifted, pointing beyond him to the Mountain. He turned, not yet seeing, and her feet carried her past him.

The Mountain burned, flames she did not feel licking at her bare feet as she walked forward into blistering heat.

At the heart of the fire, a person stood alone. At a distance she stopped, feeling the malice that seeped off of them to stain the very air. With her gaze heavy upon them they turned, and for the first time, she saw their face between the flames. Black curls framed triumphant blue eyes and a cruel smile, and the man met her gaze and narrowed his eyes.


I know you’re in here,” he hissed, as clearly as if he’d spoken in her ear. “You fancy yourself some kind of prophet, eh? Cowering behind children, too scared to face me yourself you have to speak through mindless puppets.”

Someone laughed, high and shrieking. The fires raced down the mountainside, consuming everything in their path.


I smell you, prophet. You cannot hide from me.”

In the darkness of the cell, Lily stared into empty air with unseeing eyes. Her racing heart and too-quick breathing had slowed, all at once, and her hand in Beth’s gone limp.
 
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