By Stent Firefight (“Lucky” Krelle Ninefingers) and Lily Troxler (Apothecary Fromm)
Image courtesy of www.cherrys.com and http: //i413.photobucket.com/albums/pp212/SleepingSickness_2009/blackroses.jpg
Content Level: Forsaken
Rated MATURE for Alcohol Reference, Comic Mischief, Crude Humor, Cruelty to Seabirds, Drug Reference, Fantasy Violence, Mature Humor, Simulated Gambling, Strong Language, Suggestive Themes, and Squick.
Note from the authors -
These two are ridiculously fun to play. Thanks to everyone who gives us sweet, sweet RPs and helps us motor this sordid tale along. It's a lot more fun to be squicky when there are people to do it in front of!
Returning readers may wish to review earlier chapters, as chatlogs have been digitally remastered for optimal literary enjoyment.
Table of Contents
1. The Hook
2. Highs and Lows
5. Lily's Bad Day, Part 1
6. Lily's Bad Day, Part 2
7. A Warlock, A Warrior, And A Man With A Gun
8. Two Weeks Sober
10. Off the Rocker, Off the Wagon
11. Two Hours Sober
12. Hostage Transfer
13. The Gun
14. The Duke
16. Old Wounds
17. Four Days Sober
20. Thin Ice
21. Poor Aim
24. Strange Ties
25. Big Game Hunting
35. Gift of the Magi
36. Ownership Papers
37. The Talk
38. "Oh, shit."
39. Tea Time
40. Inside Sources
41. This Will End Badly
42. Girl Talk
45. Dear Lily
46. Breaking Up, Breaking Down
47. In Dreams
48. Into the Dragon's Den
50. Served Cold
51. Twelve Hours Sober
53. Bane is an idiot [working title]
55. Stent Hampton
56. Little Talks
57. Requiem, Part 1
58. Requiem, Part 2
The canvas rose up to hit him. He pawed at it uselessly, trying to feel its name in the weave. Was this the bed? The rug? The narcotics in his flesh tugged ideas away from his brain, refusing to let simple connections be made. There was a fire nearby, he could smell the coal. For a twisted minute he thought he was back in the Blade, safe...
A pale, hooded form appeared above him, the shadow-shrouded silhouette swimming in his vision. Small, hard hands rolled him onto his back. The light flared, throwing rainbow auras around the dancing shapes before him. The shadow-creature was silent and soft as it pulled his wrist - and started to bind him to the table again.
“No!” a stranger said, the hoarse voice loud in his ears. He tried to pull away but the vice-like claws were inescapable. He knew that he was not safe - he was still in Trace’s home, in the “playroom”.
The shadow-spirit slipped her hood off with a sibilant hiss. A mane of pale hair framed her face, each unruly spike haloed in its own shimmering blind spot. Empty eyesockets looked down at him, the brows above them knit in concern. The ghost reminded him of Lily.
A low voice ground through the air, gears rolling across his chest, the sound pressing him down. “... does she need her eyes?” it asked.
Stent did not recognize the sound. Were the others here already? What day was it? How long had he been unconscious this time?
A new voice answered, the sound pink and breezy. “Don’t think so... “
“Take’m” the Lily-shadow above him said.
The succubus sounded so much like Lily... oh Light it was Lily, she was here, it was not safe, she would get caught he had to warn her away away from here.
“No,” the stranger’s gravelly voice said again, it was his, he was saying it. No, Lily, run, what are you doing here? Please not this, not for you, you need to be safe and away! He grabbed at her wrist, trying to make her understand. She had to go before she was caught.
Lily gently pried his hand from her wrist and kissed his knuckles. He tried to touch her face, to cup her ruined cheek as his bone-dry throat struggled with sounds. "Lily don't - it's not safe - you have to go..."
“Shh, Stent, you’re home,” the shadow said.
It was Trace. Lily had been captured, trying to get him out of here. He flailed as she pulled his hand away from Lily’s face, forcing it down to the table beside him and binding it there.
“Shhh, Stent, shhh,” Trace crooned, the purple words petting at his face. He jerked his arms but could not free them from the chains. The protests lodged in his throat, blocking his air. She would not let him speak the words. Her lavender sounds of gentle soothing stole his breath away. His gaze raked the room like a drowning sailor searching for something, for someone to grab and push under. All he could see was Lily, trapped here with him.
Lavender lips brushed his forehead. A gentle kiss.
He screwed his eyes shut and turned his face away, irrationally hoping to be unseen, a child covering their eyes when they hide.
He heard Lily’s voice, the sound searing red like blood across his closed eyes. “It’s alright,” she whispered brokenly, trying to comfort him even now, even here. “Y’r home now... Trace can’ get t’ya n’more...”
The words whipped him, flaying his skin from his bones. He shook, refusing to talk, to play Trace’s game. He could not think or focus.
The pink voice spoke again. “So. My vote’s just for killing her.”
The lavender tendrils curled around his ears. “We got any crushed velvet around here?”
NO NO NO
The golem spoke again, gears churning in greasy air. “I think Lily would have some objections to that.”
He couldn’t -
She was -
And he -
The colours of the voices blended together as they plotted, weaving a burial shroud in the air. Snakes curled around his wrists as beetles and spiders crawled up the table legs towards him. He could feel their footfalls shaking the earth, making his chains rattle in his head like chattering teeth. He could not look, could not watch, he was not even man enough to do that, he could only lay there.
Offal. Refuse. Can’t think. Can’t move. Just endure it. It’s all you’re good at.
The shroud descended, covering him in suffocating darkness. They had bound him and left him with the snakes and spiders and scorpions and Lily was there too, sobbing her dry whispered sobs in the darkness.
Miranda rolled over in bed beside him, shaking his chest. “Stent. You’re having a nightmare,” she murmured.
He grunted, turning towards her. “Sorry, Randi,” he mumbled, sleep making his voice hoarse. He reached for her and she curled against him, her head on his arm, his hand finding the small of her back as the strawberry smell of her soap wafted up from her tangled hair. He planted a kiss on her forehead and went back to sleep, seeking a dreamless place where he could rest in peace.
50. Served Cold
The ship rocked gently on the tides of Howling Fjord, creaking comfortably like a worn rocking chair. There was no sound in the hold save for those hushed creaks and the faint lapping of water on the hull below. The air was cool and salty, but almost uncomfortably heavy in the dark little room.
Lily checked the chains one last time. Satisfied, she flicked the needle of the Spinal Healing Injector and rammed it into the nape of Trace's neck.
Trace surged to consciousness, flailing her arms as she came to, her last memory of being attacked. As she realized that she was chained up, blind, and that her legs didn't work she started to break down. She screamed in panic, feeling her legs to make sure they were there, then her face. She shrieked louder when she realized that her eyes were completely gone.
Lily clasped her hands behind her back and watched in silence. She could almost hear the dagger at her belt singing to her, urging her to draw it from the sheath and across Trace’s throat so it could taste her veins...
No. She deserves far worse than a quick death. The rogue’s beleaguered thoughts flew back to the Blade, when she had laid the glassy-eyed sheep-Stent on the cot; when the Polymorph wore off and she’d tied him down so he wouldn’t hurt himself or the others with his delirious flailing; the frailty of his grip as he’d grasped her wrist and how feeble his struggles were as he tried to pull away; his haunted protests and panicked thrashing as she tried to comfort him.
How he screwed up his eyes and grit his teeth and flinched away when she kissed him.
Her heart broke anew at the memory, sick pain shooting up to her shoulder and down her arm and causing her hand to clench around the hilt of her knife. She had drawn back, then, and Stent had fallen to shuddering with his hands balled to fists at his sides. Only when Krelle had tucked Miranda against him on the cot had he quieted.
The hilt of Lily’s knife creaked in protest as the vicegrip of her bony claws tightened around it. The blade was halfway from its sheath when the Ranger before her began thrashing, snapping the rogue from her dark reverie. Lily slowly resheathed the knife as a hateful purpose coursed through her.
The Ranger must suffer.
Trace flailed around, sobbing. Once she established what parts of her were still there she tried to figure out where she was, feeling and tugging at the chains. She pulled herself up to a sitting position and hugged herself, rocking back and forth.
"Comf'tr'ble?" Lily asked, her voice almost as cold as the water the ship bobbed in so merrily.
Trace sucked in a breath, realizing that she was not alone in the room. "Troxler!" she hissed. "Unchain me at once! You impudent little wretch, the Lady will have your entrails stretched on a pine for this!"
"Th'Lady...ain' gonna know," Lily murmured. She crouched down and leaned forward to rest her elbows on her knees. " 'ow're...y'feel'n?" she rasped.
"How am I FEELING? You have lost your felsworn mind! What the fel are you thinking, chaining me here like this?!"
Lily watched her captive like a starving dog watches a piglet totter around its pen. "Y'din' answ'r...m'question."
"I'm pretty fuckin' pissed off, Troxler," Trace hissed through her teeth.
"Y'c'n feel...ev'rything...but y'r legs...right?"
"What did you do?" Trace demanded in a whisper, her hands balled into fists.
"I sever'd...y'r spine," Lily hissed simply. "I did'n' take...y'r eyes though. That was Krelle."
Trace went ashen at the first statement. She kept her empty eyes closed but frowned in confusion. "What - Krelle? Ninefingers? What does she have to do with us?"
"Y'didn' do...y'r homework," Lily chided. "Krelle's...m'boss."
"You're a Deathstalker!" Trace protested angrily.
Lily hissed--though it was difficult to tell if she was angry or laughing. "Not n'more," she snarled. "Amb'rmill's...m'last job. There was a...misund'rstandin'...with Duke." She stood up and padded quietly around to the other side of the blinded Ranger.
Trace kept her head pointed towards where Lily had been, though it was slightly lowered as she tried to hear where the rogue was. "It's immaterial," Trace said flatly. "The Tong has bitten off more than they can chew this time. When the Lady finds out what you've done -"
"She won't," Lily hissed sharply. "M'gonna...torch y'r house. Y'had a...terr'ble accident. No surviv'rs. No r'mains."
Trace turned her head slightly towards Lily's voice but seemed less panicky. She glowered at the floor near Lily's feet. "Very neat," she said, her voice scathing. "You've clearly thought this through. This is about Stent, isn't it?" Trace added in a whisper. "You're fucking crazy."
Lily barked a harsh laugh. "Yeah...this's 'bout...Stent. Y'thought...I was jus’...gonna roll ov'r...'n let y'have'm...didncha?" Her fingers twitched.
"You're crazy," Trace whispered again, shaking. "We have one night together and you do this? You're insane, Lily Troxler."
Lily jerked violently at that, springing to her feet and seizing the chain around Trace's left wrist. She yanked it hard and shrieked, "SHUT UP! Y'come 'round...Amb'rmill act'n all...sweet 'n kind...an' then y'ABDUCT Stent...an' y'have th'NERVE...t'call ME CRAZY?"
She abruptly threw the chain to the ground stepped back to turn to the wall, leaning against it on her hands and gouging the wood with her claws--trying to regain control.
Trace was silent for a moment, behind Lily's back. When she spoke it was quiet, with an amused kind of venom to it. "Is that what you heard? That it was an abduction? I guess that's what it would look like to someone who didn't understand Stent like I do. That's how he likes to be treated, Lily," Trace continued quietly, her lip curled. "You didn't see him chained up when you and your tauren arrived, now did you? He could have left. He would have, if he had wanted to."
Lily raked her hands down the wall, gouging ten deep grooves in the wood. " 'e was...dop'd t'th'gills...Trace," she snarled. " 'e barely ev'n...recogniz'd Frost."
"That's all part of the fun," Trace said plainly. "I did lie to you a little in Ambermill, when I said I wanted Stent sober. He and I get high as kites together all the time. We've done it for years. You still don't get it do you? I was doing you a fucking favour, taking him away. Stent's capacity for a loving relationship died when he did. All that's left now is the deliciously perverted masochistic streak. He likes to be controlled. He likes to be abused. I bet he just loooved it when you burned him. He followed you around like a puppy after, didn't he?"
Lily froze, staring at the wall between her hands.
"Did he thank you for it?" Trace continued quietly, mocking Lily's ignorance, enjoying this reveal. "A quiet little 'thank you, Miss', so dignified. That's all he wanted from you, Troxler. He was grooming you to be his next owner. He likes to top from the bottom - to be in control of a relationship, and just let the girl think that she is."
"Shut up," Lily hissed. Her claws closed around a shard of timber and she tugged. A six-inch splinter broke off in her hand.
Trace continued, insistent. "THAT's why I came to see you in Ambermill. I wanted to know what kind of girl he was getting his claws into. And I found you. You had no idea; I had to stop him."
"Shut up," Lily snarled, turning the wicked shard over and over in her hand.
"I took him back because I can handle him - and I enjoy handling him!" Trace continued, louder. "Stent and I make a fine couple. He would only ruin you, then toss you aside when you caught wise... or when you asked for more than just the occasional kiss of affection." She broke off in a sneer. "You're probably a virgin aren't you. Gods. What would you even DO with him, Lily? Do you have any idea how twisted his tastes are?"
"Shut UP!" Lily whirled around like a dervish, snapping her arm in a whiplash and hurling the splinter at Trace. The barb sliced across the Ranger’s jawline and nicked her earlobe before clattering against the wall into the dark.
Trace flinched at the cut but did not break down again. "So that's the game plan?" she asked, quiet again. "You kill me and get him to yourself? Fel."
"Not...quite," Lily panted, her voice shaking nearly as much as her body. She stalked across the room and retrieved the splinter from the floor, wiping her thumb over the bloody edge and staring at the Dark Ranger. "Y'said y'like...t'get high?" she asked, keeping her voice low to mask her jittering rage. "Mebbe this...won' be ‘s...bad f'r ya...'s I plann'd, then."
Trace tensed, following Lily with her eyeless gaze as she moved across the room.
The clicking of her claws against the splinter kept an even tempo as Lily crossed the room again and opened a satchel with her other hand. She drew out a metal cup, a waterskin, a wickedly sharp syringe, a book of matches, and three small packages before turning to Trace. "So wat firs'...th'smoke...th'drink...'r th'njection?" she asked, finally managing to keep her voice steady.
"Go fuck yourself, Troxler," Trace said in a hoarse whisper. "You're completely deranged."
"Th'njection, then..." Lily agreed. She took one of the packages and unwrapped a small vial that nearly glowed in the dark room. With the splinter tucked under one arm she took up the needle, jamming it carefully through the cork at the top of the vial and drawing the plunger. She flicked the barrel as she stood and padded over to Trace, stopping just out of reach. "I'd say...this'd only hurt...a bit," she mused balefully, "...but I don'...think y'll feel't...t'all, really..." She crouched and picked up one of Trace's deadened legs by the ankle, stabbing the needle into her thigh and squeezing the plunger.
Trace realized too late what was happening. She took a swipe at Lily after the rogue had finished, hissing at her. "You are completely deranged," she insisted. "Are you going to hunt down all the girls he's fucked? How about all the girls who've slapped him? I bet you know a few."
Lily crouched there like a gargoyle, staring at the Ranger. "Might b'fun," she snarled, keeping her tenuous grasp on control. She took the splinter out from under her arm and began rolling it between her hands. "He'n I...could do't...t'geth'r. 'e want'd...t'be here f'r this...y'know."
"D-did he?" Trace asked, a brief shudder running through her. "Then why isn't he here?" A flush slowly crept up the Ranger's cheeks. She frowned intently, trying to focus.
" 'e's goin' through...wat y'r gonna be...'njoy'n," Lily growled. "Though his's...prolly gonna go...fast'r."
"That's... you're..." Trace faltered, losing her train of thought. She leaned back against the damp boards of the ship's hull, staring at nothing with her eyeless sockets. "... this is good shit," she murmured eventually, acknowledging Lily's ability to procure quality drugs.
A manic rictus grin split Lily's face as she watched. "Now, tell me...wat happ'n'd...with Stent. Wen y'bduct'd'm."
"Uhh... Stent needed to relax. He was all, y'know. Kiddin' himself. I just helped him relax the way he likes it," Trace mumbled, closing her eyes. She smiled, her lips slightly parted. "We had fun."
Lily twitched. The splinter tumbled faster between her shaking claws, but she pressed on.
" 'ow'd y'...'elp'm?" she hissed.
"I didn't want to wait for him to fall off the wagon again," Trace sighed. "Sometimes he takes so looooong... I just gave him a little push. Hee. A prick for a prick. He stopped fighting after that." Trace's face clouded over slightly. "Mostly," she slurred, amending her statement.
Fury flared in Lily’s lungs and she whipped out with the splinter, slicing a mirrored gash across the other side of Trace's jaw. The rogue surged back onto her feet and paced the room, snarling incoherently.
Trace flinched and flailed a bit, sputtering, but calmed down again quickly. "Oww," she whined. "I 'unno why you're maaad," Trace complained. "He had op-shuns..."
"Options?" Lily spat, whipping around to glare at her. "Wat options?"
Trace had slumped over, a vacant expression on her flushed face. "Hunnh?"
"Wat options," Lily snarled, stalking over and shaking Trace's chains, "...did Stent have?"
"Uah-ah-ah! He could write you th'note or ...huhhh... we could'a gone t'find you..." she blinked, then waved a hand slowly in front of her face as if she were trying to see it. "He said h'wanted me ta h'mself... said... mmm... no don' 'nvolve 'er. S'cause he likes me more. Hee!"
Lily gave the chains one more vicious yank and released them. She clutched the bloodied splinter in her hand as she stood over the Ranger, shaking. "Y'made'm...write th'lett'r?" Her voice wavered.
"He ... hnnm, no, sorta, yeah? I wanted t'see 'm tell you t'your face buuuuh he said nono leave Lily 'lone, I'm a write a letter, see, he showed me what it said 'n' we sent it." Trace took several long moments to consider. “S’cause he didn' wanna washte time lookin' f'r you, skinny ass, he wanted t'get busy bangin, mmm yuh."
Lily’s fist tightened around the splinter until the wood creaked. "So y'jump'd'm...n'y'drugg'd'm...n'y'took'm back...t'y'r place?" she breathed.
"Oh yeah," Trace breathed, smiling vapidly. "We fucked f'r houuuurs."
The splinter came down with a wet thunk, pinning Trace's hand to the floorboards.
Trace squealed, tugging at her hand ineffectually.
Lily flexed her claws, wanting little more than to wrap them around Trace's smooth throat and squeeze. Instead she rose and returned to the packages on the floor. She picked up the second small packet and emptied the powdered contents into the cup, then sloshed in water from the skin. The rogue swirled the mixture as she turned back to Trace, kneeling beside the Ranger and tugging the splinter free. "Here," she crooned, gripping the back of Trace's head and pressing the cup to her lips. "This'll make't...bett'r."
Trace drank it, whimpering and spilling a little bit by accident--but she was thirsty and it tasted good. Lily waited until the cup was empty before tossing it aside. She rocked back on her heels and waited for this second batch of narcotics to kick in.
The Ranger started giggling after only a few minutes, gradually building into a deep, hearty belly laugh--despite her injuries and bleak future. Lily seethed and paced. She’s not supposed to be enjoying this... With a snarl the rogue returned to her bag for a third time and rolled a few pinches of the third packet into a piece of paper. She licked the lumpy, inexpertly rolled joint closed and lit it with a match from her belt. A thin line of smoke curled from the tip and she sneered at it, thankful she did not need to breathe.
“I got...a presn’t...f’r ya,” she muttered darkly as she approached the Ranger. Trace lolled her head around to grin stupidly at the rogue. Surprisingly, her face registered some shred of recognition and she frowned slightly.
“Whu kinda prezzent?” she mumbled as though her tongue had swollen.
“Jus’ r’lax,” Lily crooned, putting gentle pressure on Trace’s shoulder to lean her back against the wall. She held the cigarette to Trace’s mouth and watched as the Ranger took a deep drag.
“Haaaah, good,” Trace giggled through a haze of smoke. She leaned forward when Lily withdrew the joint, bow-shaped purple lips seeking the drugs like a hungry grouper’s. Lily crouched patiently, offering and drawing back the spliff until only a stub remained.
"Why'd y'do't...Trace?" Lily growled quietly, withdrawing the joint from the Ranger's lips. "Why'd y'really take'm?"
Trace exhaled sweet-smelling smoke in Lily's face. "I didn'. He wuz mine all along," she slurred in protest. "...didn' take n'th'n..."
Lily pressed the smoldering blunt to one of the cuts on Trace's jaw. "Why?"
Trace mewled helplessly, crying and trying to pull away.
The Forsaken snarled and mashed the joint into the floorboards, seizing the Ranger roughly by the shoulder. "WHY?"
"Why whaaaat?" Trace whined.
"WHY'D Y'TAKE'M?" Lily shrieked, shaking her.
Trace flailed ineffectually, pawing at Lily's face. Her good hand scratched Lily on the cheek as she tore her bandana off and waved it around like a flag. "C'z he's MIIIIIINE!"
Lily snatched her bandana and lurched back, knuckles white as the fabric they clutched. Her foot whipped out almost of its own accord, catching Trace in the ribs.
The elf collapsed. Lily stood panting over the unconscious prisoner, quaking with unutterable rage and grief and adrenaline. She shakily wrapped the bandana back around her face and tied it tight beneath her hood, then slumped against the far wall to put distance between herself and her captive.
Her claws twitched and clicked against each other, having no totem to trifle with. As she stared at Trace’s prone outline in the gloom the Ranger’s words came flooding back over her. A chill washed over the rogue, cold as the swelling tides, and she shook uncontrollably for what felt like hours.
Eventually the shaking subsided. Trace had not moved save for a slight shift and a groan, so Lily heaved herself to her feet and swept out the door without a backward glance. Her soft boots thumped hollowly on the wooden stairs up to the deck where a crisp breeze ruffled the edges of her hood. The air stung in her empty eye-holes as they locked on the cumbersome silhouette of a zeppelin just making berth in Vengeance Landing.
Good. Lily had a job to do.
51. Twelve Hours Sober
Stent stared at the fire in the brazier but his eyes were unfocused. He was a million miles away. His hands trembled off and on.
Isabellia hummed pleasantly to herself as she cleaned some surgical instruments. “You were standing under cherry trees, now a tree trunk keeps me company. You won't answer, but you sure can shake away your trouble, whatever you make...” The elf inspected a scalpel blade then nodded, satisfied, and put it away. She glanced at her patient, a worried frown knitting her brow. She poured some cold water into a tin cup and knelt before him, holding the cup to his lips. "Small sip."
Stent blinked. He slowly refocused, lifting a hand to the cup. He sipped obediently.
Isabellia dipped a cloth in the remaining water and dabbed at his forehead.
Stent let her, not particularly caring about anything. He felt wrecked.
“Stent, sweetie..? Are you up for another Cleanse just yet?” She lightly bit her lower lip, looking him over with concern.
Stent shuddered, looking away. "Sure," he lied, his voice hoarse. "Sounds awesome."
Isa nodded once. She handed him a strip of leather from the table. “Clamp down on this with your teeth. You know the drill.”
The hunter took it emotionlessly, the gesture automatic. He stuck it in his mouth and bit down.
Isabellia sighed softly and stood. “Be brave, Stent. It won't be long.” She hesitated - Stent had his thousand mile stare on and did not seem braced for this. After a moment she held her hands out and chanted, holy magic surging into him.
The Forsaken jerked violently, his head cracking back against the table he was leaning against as the Light wracked his already emaciated frame. A strangled "Hnngk!" escaped him. When the magic surge faded he nearly collapsed, barely catching himself on his hands as he fell to one side. He blinked, staring at the floor. He let the leather strip fall out of his mouth, not bothering to catch it.
Isa sighed softly. She knelt behind him and took the tin cup and cloth from the table. The elf gently dabbed at where he cracked his head.
Stent's arm nearly buckled but he caught himself and slowly sat back up, shoving himself back up against the table leg. He rested the back of his head against it, closing his eyes and panting. “...why am I doing this again?”
“I was told to put you on the fast track to being clean. The fast track isn't especially gentle,” she sighed.
“Right...” he muttered, remembering that. “Why'm I cleaning up, again?”
“A number of reasons, I suppose.”
“I can't think of any right now,” he replied. It came out in a whisper.
“Working with us was contingent upon you being clean. You didn't do this yourself.”
Stent spoke with his eyes closed. "No. Not this time." You have, though. You probably will again. Because you’re a junkie and you always will be.
“It isn't fair,” Isa complained.
“Sometimes I think it would've been better for everyone if I had just stayed in the 'City. Better f’r Lily. Better f'r the Tong. Better f'r me.”
“I wouldn't have ever met you then.”
That made him smile sourly. "Light forbid I should deny you that privilege."
“Be self-deprecating all you want. I meant it wholeheartedly. And we're a family, Stent.”
“Mm. So far I've thrown up on you, been sick a lot, passed out twice, and nearly smacked you while hallucinating once. I think your criteria for good company needs tweaking,” he suggested wryly. He felt more alert - the paladin’s cleansing ritual was slowly but surely stripping the poison from his system. Pity that shadow priests could not do it instead. Suck it up, it’s only a little pain. Nothing worse than you deserve.
"It's my criteria to make,” Isa chided him. “You're good company. You also aren't the only one who's been force-fed doses. Everyone pulled me through that. This is...well...cathartic for me, I guess.”
Stent opened his eyes, turning his head slightly to look at her. Pretty little elf. How could such a pretty elf be so annoying? “I guess I can understand that. Pay'n it forward,” he agreed. He rolled his head back to stare at the fire again. Sweat trickled down his temples and neck, a by-product of the cleansing. He imagined each drop carrying a little bit of the drugs away from him. “I wonder whose hand I'll get to hold,” he mused. A sudden terrifying image of Trace injecting Lily hit him like a mace. Lily is alone with her and it’s your fault what else will you inflict on that girl?
He leaned forward with a groan, hiding his face in his hands, his elbows propped on his knees. “Gods...”
“What's wrong?” Isa asked, concern clear in her voice.
“Isa, what am I doing? Dragging Lily into... fuckin'... this garbage...urghh...” You are a terrible person.
He shook his head. "I’m a terrible person," he agreed with himself, not looking to be refuted by anyone.
“You look me in the eyes and tell me you 'made' Lily do anything,” Isa challenged him.
You did you know you did. Stent did not lift his head, nor did he answer the elf directly. “I've hurt her badly, Isa. I've done nothing but hurt her or piss her off. It was fun at first 'cause I hated her but now I don't and I just want to die and save her any more trouble.”
“And yet here we are. She'll really hate you if you make that choice for her.”
“Urgh. I know. Gods damn it. And she's off alone with Trace. No good will come of that. We were supposed to kill her together. Fucking Trace. That bitch fucks up everything she touches.”
“I think those days may be behind her now,” Isa murmured softly.
Stent barked a short laugh that made the knot in his chest ache. "She left on a high note," he said sourly. “Some carrion eater will probably choke on her. The woman was fabricated out of spite and venom and jealousy and madness. I think she's an old god in disguise.” He looked up at Isa seriously. "Never stick your dick in crazy," he warned her.
“I try to keep mine out of most things,” she smirked wryly, eliciting a similar expression from him. “I can empathize, though. I was head over heels in love with a woman who got upset one evening and nearly killed my sister with a punch in the throat.” She shook her head at herself.
Stent whistled softly through his teeth. “I didn't know you had a sister.”
Isa nodded gently. “She was shot and killed in front of here a year and a bit ago. When we first really got into it with the goblins... they thought she was me.”
Stent sighed. "I'm sorry," he said simply, meaning it.
Isabellia looked away. “She was a bard, Stent. Nothing else. She played the lute to make people happy.”
Stent nodded slightly. "That's how it goes, isn't it. It's never the people who sign up for it that eat the shrapnel."
Isabellia shook her head. “You can't beat yourself up for what Lily does,” she insisted, returning to her previous train of thought.
Oh yes you can you bastard. "Even when she's doing it 'cause of me?"
“She's doing it for herself. Who do you know offhand who could make her do something she didn't want? Miss Krelle, Mr. Poxsore, Nerrok... It's a pretty exclusive club.”
“It's not that straightforward. Lily's so young. In some ways... she's very predictable,” he hedged, unwilling to explain how easy it was to manipulate the little rogue. Partially because it would embarrass Lily but mostly because it would really show what a shit he was.
“All the more reason. Either things will work themselves out or they won't. She's young. If they don't, she'll consider it a lesson learned. We all need them.”
Stent sighed quietly. Yes. You can be a lesson about the dangers of liking people and scar her further. Perfect. He lapsed into a brooding silence, staring at the fire.
“I think it'll work itself out, Stent,” Isa said softly. “I really do.”
The elf gave him a tentative little pat on the shoulder that made him feel worse. He drew his knees up and hid his forehead against his crossed arms, determined to wallow in toxic guilt and useless self-recrimination like the perennial fuck-up he so clearly was.
It took nearly all of her willpower to keep her mind from whisking back to the ship in the Fjord, to the bitter venom lodged deep in her thoughts. With extreme effort she was able to keep her face and body relaxed and calm despite the smoldering hate and grief that burned her heart and lungs. A gruff thanks to the zeppelin attendants. A slight nod to the guards in Brill. A duck of the head to the innkeeper.
“Booka...match's, please,” she muttered. She drew a near-empty lamp from her cloak as she’d practiced in her mind on the zeppelin ride and mused, “Hrm, bett'r add...s'm lamp oil...t'that. Gett'n low.”
A clink of silver and Lily was outside again in the sour air of Brill. She paused by the door to fill the lamp with oil, unaware of the cat-sized scarab until it landed directly at her feet and splayed its wings.
“Waugh!” she exclaimed, startled. She took a healthy step back from the giant insect and stared at it, her ruse momentarily forgotten. “Wat th’fu...?”
The scarab buzzed and wove in a lazy figure-eight pattern before her. It repeated the motions once, twice, three times, then clicked loudly. Sickly bright violet and acid green runes flared to life across its back.
Lily took another hasty step back. “Bleugh...magic...” She squinted at it suspiciously. “Where’d y’come from...bug? Did Insein...send ya?” Though she muttered this to herself more than the insect, the little creature rocked from side to side at every syllable--looking for all the world as though it were considering her words. Abruptly it skittered forward and hunkered down at her feet.
“EUGH getoff getoff getoff!” she snarled, dancing away to avoid its scratchy little feet. The scarab reared and pedaled its tiny front legs as if it were some kind of insectoid horse, but scuttled backwards half a foot and sat still before her.
She glared at it. Stupid fuckin’ magus sending her stupid fuckin’ bug... Resentfully she crouched down and offered a hand to it as though it were a shy dog. The insect crept up to her hand--runes flicking on along its back one by one--and gently pattered its antennae across her fingertips. Lily tensed, waiting for the bug to bite her, or explode, or something equally horrid.
Instead, the little creature tottered forward and rested the front of its body on her hand.
Lily stared down at the insect. Such a small thing, and so trusting. She could not help but smile as she gently tilted her hand to set the beetle on the ground and carefully scratch behind its feelers. “Ok, ok...’nuff,” she growled, her ugly mission drawling back into her mind. “Okay bug,” she said as she stood, “ 'f y'are...from Insein...y'c'n tell'r I'll...be back inna...few days. I got some...business t'take...care of.”
The little creature had returned to tracing figure-eights into the dirt as she spoke. Lily watched for a moment before shrugging and stalking toward the small copse of trees on the edge of town where Volant skulked.
The bug followed.
Unable to shoo it away, Lily allowed the insect to tail her to the base of a gnarled pine. She peered up into the branches, calling out softly. “Volant?”
The nether ray detached himself from the tree and dropped toward them in a shower of pine needles. Instead of barreling into and snuggling his master, however, he screeched to a halt about ten feet above her, focusing all five of his horrid gray eyes on the scarab.
The insect flared up, splaying its wings--runes a-blazing--and giving an ugly clicking hiss. Volant shrank back from the threat display, cowering behind Lily and whimper-hissing at the aggressive scarab. Lily looked from one to the other and scowled. “Oh f'r fuk's...sake, Volant! Wat th'fel's...gott'n into ya? 's jus'...a lil bug.”
The beetle settled, preening its mandibles with one leg before trotting over to sit by Lily and watch Volant. The gigantic nether ray bristled but dared not challenge the little bug, instead keeping Lily between the scarab and himself as much as his giant frame would allow.
“Fel, Volant...don' be such...a baby,” Lily hissed. She gave the ray a pat on the side of his lumpy head, calming him considerably before scooping up the scarab in one arm and vaulting onto Volant’s back with the other. The nether ray relaxed as soon as the threat was out of sight, and Lily dropped the offending scarab into her lap as she leaned forward to direct her mount to their destination.
* * *
A mailbox stood sentry before the quiet house just outside the Sepulcher. On the side of the mailbox a name was painted in spiky, precise lettering.
A shadow detached from a tree across the road and flit back and forth in a lazy zig-zag down the front path. Only when it melded with the deep pool of shadows by the front door did Lily step out of it, glaring bitter hatred at the house. Here, secluded, her suppressed emotions bubbled furiously back to the surface. Rage and confusion screwed up her eyes and her hands slowly balled into fists. She stood frozen, staring at the house until the scarab thumped its carapace against her leg as a cat would.
Lily jumped and stared down at the little bug for moment before swallowing her nerves and stepping to the door. “C’man,” she rasped hoarsely, “we got...work t’do.”
The door was unlocked and creaked quietly on its hinges at her push--as though a gust of wind had blown it open. Lily and her insect companion checked the entirety of the first two floors at a creeping pace. Satisfied there were no traps or enemies lying in wait, Lily returned to the kitchen.
The door to the basement stood silent and mocking.
“You don't want to go downstairs, Lily.” Shivering dread crept over the rogue as she recalled how anxious Fluxie had been to leave the house. “We should really head home with Trace and not go in the basement.” Something lay behind this door that the little mage had very much not wanted Lily to see...
Lily took a breath and the door handle simultaneously, holding the first as she turned the second. The door creaked ominously as it opened onto the yawning darkness below. The little rogue took the freshly-filled lamp from her cloak and lit the wick, holding it before her as she descended into the darkness. The scarab thumped gracelessly down the stairs after her.
Ten minutes passed before Lily came back up the stairs, forcing herself not to run. Her face was ashen and blank; her hands trembling; her heart hammering. She shut the basement door carefully and leaned her back against it, sliding down to sit on the floor. The scarab turned three times and flopped down on the cool tiles beside her.
Lily stared straight ahead. She was vaguely aware of the creature beside her and dazedly lifted a trembling hand to rest on the scarab’s smooth back. Her mind churned with what she had seen in the dark below Trace’s house and it felt as though a current were fed through her limbs as the gruesome thoughts led a sickening parade through her head. It was all she could do to stay seated here on the floor--to not run far, far from this house and never look back. Her heart twisted painfully as she imagined Stent bound in that hell...
She abruptly took a shuddering breath and rolled to her feet. Without a word she extinguished her lamp and set about preparing the house. The scarab helped, shredding pages of Trace’s books and shuffling tinder against walls and into corners.
Lily worked mechanically, doing all she could to tuck the sickening horror of this place into the back of her mind. She plucked a book of matches from her cloak and began tumbling it in one hand, beckoning to the scarab to the other. “C’mere,” she growled, helping the bug scramble up onto her shoulder.
It tapped its antennae against her neck, almost as though to signify it had a stable grip on her pauldron. She flinched away, swatting the delicate antennae away from the scar tissue. She paid it no more mind than this, flipping open the book of matches and lighting them with the practiced air of a pyromaniac. She set merry little matchheads to every pile of tinder from the second floor all the way to the front door. Tendrils of smoke were already beginning to curl through the house as she slipped out the door and shut it carefully.
The insect on her shoulder thrummed as though delighted with their results as Lily slipped around the back of the house and scrambled up to the treeline on the hill. Thick black smoke billowed from the house as the distant Sepulcher church bell sounded a far-off alarm. The little rogue leaned back against a tree and watched with a bleak expression as the house buckled and charred.
The scarab clicked in appreciation, lifting itself on its spindly legs to watch the destruction. They had done good work. The house was too far gone by the time the townsfolk could organize a squad to fight the fire, and they were left standing uselessly in the yard as the house yawned wide and collapsed in on itself in a crackling inferno. The runes flared over the scarab’s back, illuminating the side of Lily’s face in a sickly glow as the beetle tipped from side to side as though prancing in happiness.
Lily let out a shuddering breath and realized she had been holding it since the arson began. She could not keep her hands from resuming their trembling, and the quake spread up her arms and shoulders, then her entire body. She leaned against the tree and shook for a long while, unable to deny what she’d seen, what Trace had said. It’s true. It’s true. The future terrified her.
The scarab quirked its antennae as if surprised, but merely nestled itself against her shoulder as though trying to prove it was there--something a little more concrete than the ashes of some creature’s terrible house. Lily became suddenly aware of her companion again and shuddered violently; as if pressure had been released from a valve her trembling died down and she lifted a hand to gently rub between the insect’s antennae. “Good boy. Girl. ...watev’r,” she mumbled thickly. She scooped the bug from her shoulder and deposited it on the ground, then took a moment to set her face back into her usual scowl; to hide the vulnerable emotions away beneath her surly mask. “Y’did good,” she repeated, stronger now, “but now...y'gotta go back...t'Amb'rmill. I can'...take y't'th'Fjord. Y'd prolly...freeze t'death. 'f Insein's...wond'rin where...I am, tell'r I'll...be back in...a few days.”
The scarab’s runes thrummed and he pointedly skittered onto her left boot.
“No, bad. Go home.”
It clamped its little barbed feet into the top of the leather. She shook her boot gently to dislodge the insect but it held fast and she relented. “Fine. Y'c'n...come t'th'Fjord. But 'f y'freeze...m'gonna hafta say...I tol' y'so.” She scooped her little helper up and returned it to her shoulder. “Y'r gonna hafta...be real quiet, though. I don'...want any...distractions.”
As if honoring this code of silence the scarab went limp as a kitten held by its scruff, flopping silently across her shoulderguard.
53. Bane is an Idiot [working title]
Jozakka edged carefully through the door of the Blade. “'Ey, mons.” Bane walked in behind him, humming and carrying a pile of blueprints.
Isabellia nodded at the newcomers, "Hi Bane. Joz."
“Evenin’,” Bane greeted Isa distractedly, then noticed Stent. The Gilnean unrolled one blueprint before nodding to the other Forsaken. “Welcome back.”
Stent made no reply, staring into the brazier as if he had heard nothing. He was shivering sporadically and, oddly for a Forsaken, sweating profusely.
Jozakka frowned thoughtfully beneath his mask and he pulled it from his face to tuck into his belt. The troll eyed Stent up and down. “Ja boyfrien' don't be lookin' too good, Tophat,” he commented to Bane. “What ja do to 'im?”
“I'm helping him to detox,” Isa explained.
“No answer, then?” Bane asked. He didn't even LOOK at Stent.
“What?” Stent asked hoarsely, blinking at the other Forsaken.
“I said welcome back.”
“He's not fully recovered, Bane,” Isa shook her head.
“I'm shocked he isn't dead,” Bane said sourly.
Stent twitched an eyebrow, not sure how to take that.
“Evenin', zombehmon,” Joz greeted Stent. “Why ja look like ja just was on da wrong end'a some of da Tophat's lovin'?”
Bane tipped his hat at that.
Stent shook his head slightly. "Been a long twenty four hours, Joz."
The troll nodded in sage agreement.
“Relative to how it could be, he's doing remarkably well,” Isa said.
“Joz. Listen to me,” Stent pointed a shaking finger at the troll. “Never stick your dick in crazy.”
Jozakka laughed. “Too late, mon.” He looked up as Zojamba and Adarakh came in. Greetings were exchanged all around--Adarakh got himself a beer and settled in to read through a scroll while the two trolls lit up a hand-rolled smoke the size of a cigar and started to pass it around, talking amongst themselves.
Bane was grumbling. Eventually he shook his head. “I cannot understand you, Stent. Right when I think I've seen the height of stupidity, you break that barrier.”
Stent gave Bane a confused look. "You don't have any crazy exes?" he asked defensively.
“No. I don't. And I didn't MAKE them crazy, either.”
Stent grunted. “Dude, I didn't make her crazy. She was fuckin' nuts when I met her.”
“Stent, why did you do it?” Bane demanded.
“Cause she's hot?” Stent offered, a bit taken aback by the hostility.
“So that's it? Jackass.”
“Fuck off, Bane, sometimes a guy just wants a lay. It's not like she cared.”
Bane stared at him, momentarily speechless. “Did you see her?” he demanded.
“Ugh. Hard to miss her,” Stent grunted.
“She was literally stuck in the fetal position CRYING for a DAY,” the Gilnean continued accusingly.
“Despite Bane's fantastic attempts to console her,” Ada called over helpfully.
“Fucking jackass,” Bane spat, though it was unclear if he meant Ada or Stent.
“ ... wait, what?” Stent asked, lost. “... are you ... wait, what?”
“I am refraining from kicking your ass because there's no sport in it right now, so I'd recommend not getting up,” Bane grunted.
Stent got up, pushing himself up unsteadily to his feet using the table. "Since when do you give a shit about her?"
“Lily didn't deserve that shit from you,” Bane shot back. “Doesn't matter WHAT she did, no one deserves your bullshit.“
“Oh what the fucking fuck?” Stent cried hoarsely, hanging on to the table. “I’m not talking about Lily.”
“Then WHO THE FUCK ELSE?”
“TRACE FUCKING VOLTREX,” he yelled back. His knees wobbled.
“Who the HELL is that?”
Isabellia sighed softly and stood. She shook her head. “Sit down, Stent. Please.“
Stent frowned at Isa, about to say no, but then she asked nicely. "Fuck's sake!" Stent slumped back down, muttering sulphurous curses.
Bane turned around. He GLARED at Stent.
Stent flipped Bane off. "Get your head out of your ass. I was talking about my ex - Trace. What the fuck."
“I don't give a rat's ass about your ex's and how crazy they are or aren't.”
Stent leaned back against the table, glaring at Bane with the last of his strength. It was a good glare, he thought.
“Listen to me. Right now,” Isa told Bane firmly. “You'll have all the time in the world to take him to task over whatever misdeed you judge him to have committed. Right now he needs to recover and THIS. ISN'T. HELPING.”
Bane glared as well as he could past Isa.“I give a grand total. Of zero. Zero fucks about that.”
Stent was glarin' it up right back at bane. Hard core. “No no, I'm gonna set'm straight. Bane, you stunned shit. I didn't leave Lily. An' that letter wasn't my idea.”
“Shut your cockholster and listen to me before I pass out from sheer rage at what an asshole you are.”
”This isn't a polite suggestion,” Isa said icily. “Lay off of him right now, Bane. Stent, quiet.”
“Woman you are... hgnn..” Stent caught himself on one hand as a sudden wave of dizziness hit him. He carefully leaned back against the table leg, frustration and embarrassment written on his face. “Motherfucker.”
“Pinkskin, mebbe ja let Joz put et simpleh, ja heard?” the troll offered to Isa.
“I have this, Joz,” she answered without looking away from Bane. “Thank you.”
“Fuckin'.. kids... 'n' their...” Stent muttered.
“I'm older than you, jackass,” Bane called over.
“Uglier too!” Stent shot back.
“...one more, Bane.” Isabellia held up her index finger. “One. More.”
“Well, I'll admit, my face got the shit torn out of it...” Bane muttered, yielding ungraciously.
“Isa just... let me defend myself against that... at least,” Stent complained.
“No. Time and place. This is neither.”
“I wanna hear this,” Bane crossed his arms. “What excuse he has for the shit he pulled.”
“You will. But not tonight.”
Stent closed his eyes, gritting his teeth. “You are a raging harpy,” he told Isa, but there was no heat in it. He was so tired.
“If this keeps up one second more, you'll see my wings.”
Adarakh whistled low at the threat. Stent shut the fuck up. He had tasted enough Light magic for one night, thanks.
“Dammit,” Bane swore, turning back to his blueprints on the table.
“Are we good?” Isa asked him, folding her arms across her chest pointedly.
“No. But I can wait,” he grumbled.
“Good. Make sure that you do.”
“Jus' tell him,” Stent muttered.
“No, Stent,” Bane disagreed. “I'm hearing it from YOU. Later.”
Stent leaned back against the table with his eyes closed. “Fine. Shithead.” He sat quietly for a few minutes, getting his breath back as the trolls offered their huge cigarette to everyone and chatted idly about how awesome it was. Strangely, he found that he did not even want to take a drag on the troll’s weed. Normally he would have been all over free drugs but the thought of smoking right now turned his stomach. He tried to concentrate on the smell of the coal brazier instead of the dreamvine and peacebloom. A wave of nausea racked him and cold sweat broke out at his temple and down his spine. He silently vowed that if he threw up, it would be on Jozakka.
When the nausea had passed Stent felt a bit better but it still galled him that Bane had so completely misunderstood what had happened. He felt put-upon. Surely he had done enough terrible things worthy of derision, he did not need to be hated for something he had NOT done? Or at least, not done on purpose. He drew a long, shuddering breath, and spoke calmly so that Isa wouldn’t get her incredibly tightly-wadded panties in yet another knot. “Bane. I dated a Dark Ranger called Trace Voltrex for a few years.”
“What Ranger would date you?” Bane asked around a cigar.
Stent paused, his eyes still closed. "Shut up. Listen."
“She recently found out I was seein' Lily,” Stent continued his story. “She thought it was a bad idea. And told me to go back with her. An' I said no. An she jumped me just outside of Brill and injected me with like, three different kinds of happyjuice. An said I belonged with her an' couldn't I see that I was bad for Lily an' she was gonna fix everything.” He paused for a moment, catching his breath, then continued. “An' she made me write Lily a letter. I left Miranda so that Lily might figure out what happened. An' the crazy bitch took me to her pad in the Sepulchre. Where Lily found me, doped to the gills. An' now I'm here, and Lily has Trace. Ok? Ok.”
Bane sighs. “Fuck all of that shit. When a crazy bitch tells you to leave and go with her - to coin a phrase an old fishing buddy of mine said - YOU SHOOT THE HO.”
Stent looked pained. "Isa," he complained. "Bane is victim-blaming."
Isabellia took a small pull from Joz’s blunt, looking between the Forsaken men. “Have you two finished?”
“I need Bane to tell me how I was wrong to get ambushed some more,” he answered her.
“You insisted on saying your piece, Stent. You can't cry if he doesn't like what it was. Now we're done with this.”
“For tonight,” she added. “Understood?”
“I never once said that I blame you, Stent. But next time? Just shoot her and get it over with!”
“Bane -” Isa sighed.
“Shut up Bane!” Stent fumed. “Fuckin' hell. I shot at her. Argh. Where's m'gun, I'll shoot you!” Stent lifted his head with effort, looking around. Miranda was just out of reach but he grabbed at her anyway.
Isa stepped over and delicately pushed his rifle away from him with her toe.
Stent gave her a surly glare. “Woman you are worse than Lily. I hate you.” He gave up, closing his eyes and resting his head against the table again.
“My gun is better anyway,” Bane smirked. “I made a new bullet type last night for Riven, wanna try it?”
Stent ignored the taunt. Isa just sighed.
Stent feigned sleep until Isa finally left. The blood knight admonished everyone to leave him alone and shot a few more threats at Bane about what would happen if he messed with one of her patients. It would have been touching if it wasn’t so damned annoying! Stent did not like to be fussed after. Isa’s healing would have been way more appreciated if she would just... stop apologizing for hurting him all the time. She winced more than he did! Racken fracken nice elves and their stupid holy magic fraken...
Eventually Bane finished his own cigar and rolled up his blueprints. “I'm going to the Forge. I need to get to work on something.”
Stent cracked an eye open. “No, fuck that. C'mere Bane. I need to punch you in the face.”
“I will kick you,” Bane said flatly, coming over. “In the jaw. SO HARD.”
Stent smirked at Bane. “Seriously. Come here.” The smirk drained off his face as he peered up at the Gilnean. "Is... Lily ok?"
“Last I saw she was crying in the fetal position. I had to carry her here from the UC.”
Stent groaned, closing his eyes. He spoke quietly, his voice still hoarse. "I took a shot, man. At Trace."
“Did you miss?”
“She went invisible. Stupid slut.”
“If you want me to, I can blast her in half for you,” Bane offered.
“Lily's got her now, last I heard. I uh... Don't think there'll be much left to shoot.”
“Well. If she's stuck with Lily then I feel sympathy for the bitch. That is a SHITTY way to die. For ANYBODY. And this is coming from a guy who fuckin' bled to death because a five-foot midget.”
“Don't. She deserves it all.” Stent grinned suddenly, inordinately proud of Lily. “Lily shadowstepped her. Shivved her in the spine. One shot,” he said, clearly in awe.
Bane shook his head. He turned to go but paused and spoke over his shoulder. “Oh, Stent? Your handwriting sucks balls.” He smirked.
Stent dragged his eyes back to Bane. “Eat a dick,” he said suggested with no heat in his voice.
Bane laughed a hollow, sardonic laugh as he headed out to forge a new gun.
A stroke of luck found Trace unconscious when Lily crept into the hold with her passenger. The little rogue swept off her cloak and gathered it into a little nest, depositing the scarab in the center and gently shoving it into a far corner.
Then she kicked Trace awake.
The Ranger wheezed, coughing up blood and bile and cringing away from Lily’s merciless boot. She stared blindly at nothing as Lily stepped back to balefully admire her handiwork.
Trace had apparently regained consciousness several times while the rogue was away, for she lay in a puddle of her own sick and there were ugly marks on her wrists where she had tried to wriggle out of her chains. Her empty eye sockets yawned wide and haunted and her body convulsed with the excruciating withdrawals. Sudden tears leaked from her eyelids and she began sobbing loudly, the dried rivulets of mascara running afresh down her cheeks. “Please,” she blubbered brokenly. “...please...”
Lily watched in furious exultant silence. Yes, cry, you monster, cry like he did... A stab of guilt lanced her heart and she nearly gasped, imagining all at once that it was again Stent lying in chains, writhing and crying and begging for her mercy. She took a step back, staring in horror at the pitiful creature slumped before her. She deserves it, she tried to convince herself, disbelieving the words even as she thought them. She tried to steal him from you, tricked him and drugged him and...
Lily stumbled back another step. Trace turned her ruined face on the rogue and those empty sockets stared into Lily’s soul, stripping away all her defenses and baring all her pain and fear and remorse to the choking cabin air. Lily bit back a sob of her own and flinched away from those horrible empty eyes, her own gaze raking around the room for anything to land on other than her prisoner. Her frantic stare alighted on the bloodied splinter that had so easily sliced open Trace’s face; a wave of nausea overtook the Forsaken and she fell to one knee to clutch her stomach.
You did this.
Lily’s heart caught in her throat.
Look at what you have done; what pain you have caused. He would not have suffered so if not for you. He was better off in the ‘City, drugged stupid and safe and happy. You ruined him.
And now her, too. She was beautiful and terrible and dangerous. Now look, look at what you have done; what ruin you have caused. She was a beautiful weapon, strong and cruel and sharp. You’ve destroyed her.
And you! What right have you to any of this, you stubborn, ignorant child? You are selfish, clumsy, blind. She was right--he deceived you, fed you upon your own swollen ego and sucked up the dregs. He likes you because you are a monster, just as she is.
“SHUT UP!” she shrieked at herself, clutching temples with her claws.
What would you do with him? How long would it take before you kept him in a dungeon like hers? She gave him what he wanted and you ruined her for it.
Lily snarled helplessly, rocking back on her heels and curling forward on herself. Trace gave a broken sob from the corner and Lily’s head snapped up, staring at the convulsing Ranger.
She was trying to save you from yourself and you have tortured her for it.
“No,” Lily snarled at the room. “No...”
Look at her! Look at what you’ve done!
“No!” She rocked forward to her feet and stood, shaking, staring at Trace’s huddled form in the gloom.
Look upon your work, you monst--
“NO!” Lily shrieked, pouncing across the room onto the Ranger. “YOU DID...THIS TO...YOURSELF! YOU...WILL NOT...MAKE ME...FEEL SORRY...FOR YOU!” she screeched, emphasizing each word with a brutal kick. The elf jerked away from the first blows but was knocked mercifully unconscious by the third kick. Lily did not stop, spilling her hatred and tension and horror over her rival in a torrent of screaming thrashing hopeless rage. She did not stop when Trace’s weakened spine snapped, nor when her head lolled to the side at an awful mocking angle. She did not stop when her foot caved in the elf’s ribcage, nor when the body slumped over, free of the chains. She did not stop until she slipped in the gore, falling sideways and crashing heavily on the rough wooden floor.
The mangled corpse lay before her, nearly unrecognizable in the dim light. Lily stared mutely at it for a long second before her guts knotted and she scrambled to the side to wretch violently. Adrenaline and bile coursed through her body and she lay on her side panting and sobbing in the dark. A shuffling in the corner choked her to silence and she slowly turned to stare dry-eyed at the scarab huddled in her cloak. The runes upon his back glowed bright and ugly, lighting the room in shifting violet and green like some sickening aurora. Fear clenched cold around Lily’s guts as the realization of the witness took hold. She pushed herself up with shaking hands and reached for her dagger.
That’s right. Just another helpless victim to murder for your own convenience.
Lily gave a choked sob as sour regret quenched her fear and her hand dropped away from the weapon. Exhaustion suddenly settled over her like a heavy blanket and a numbness spread from her brain to the rest of her body in a fuzzy rush. Without looking at the crumpled mess in the dark behind her she shuffled to collect her cloak. The scarab scuttled hastily away as she neared but she was too tired to make a grab for the creature. She pulled her cloak from the floor and dragged it across her shoulders, drawing it around to conceal some of the gore splattered across her front. She turned wearily to the insect huddled against the wall and beckoned it over with a tired wave as she drew her hearthstone from the folds of her cloak. The beetle seemed to consider for a moment, runes shifting and antennae tasting the air--then it scuttled over and clambered up her arm to its perch on her shoulder.
Lily keyed her hearthstone and closed her eyes as the sparking magic flooded the room with sharp green light. The rogue held very still, unable and unwilling to face the bloody wreck behind her. She squeezed her eyes tighter and clenched her jaw as the swirling energy closed around her body, whisking her far away from that awful place and the terrible things she had done.
55. Stent Hampton
The weight of the blanket around his shoulders brought some comfort, even if there was no warmth for the blanket to hold in. It spoke to him of a cold winter bed - if you could but wrap yourself tightly enough and stay for long enough, it would eventually be warm. His wiry frame shivered, rattling his teeth, but the heavy wool blanket contained him, cocoon-like, as he endured yet another painful crysalis of withdrawal.
The drugs Trace had given him had stopped his heart but shooting pains in his arm and shoulder told him that it would likely shudder back into a stuttering beat soon. The pain was familiar at this point and not entirely unwelcome. It usually signalled the beginning of the end of withdrawal and with Isa’s help it had come sooner and more gently than usual. The tradeoff was enduring the Holy Light she had to wield in order to purge the poisons from his system. He was determined to sweat the rest of it out himself. It felt more like self-flagellation, less like being racked.
A ghost opened the door. Dark brown spatters of dried blood marred the purity of her white leathers. Her blood? Or the demon’s? Fear shut his throat. He watched her from the corner of his eye, making no move to greet her. What had Trace told her, in her last hours of agony? What final venomous barb would he have to contend with, shot at him from beyond the grave? The ghost’s countenance gave him no clues but he could guess. The worst she could have said was the truth.
The vision crossed the room to where Miranda slept unloaded and gathered her up. She turned away from him and collapsed on a cot as though she had fallen in battle, the illusion completed by the gore on her limbs and the stillness of her chest. Lily did not have to breathe and seemed too tired to bother.
Miranda’s arm looped about the little rogue, gathering her in as she -
Stent blinked hard. The gun lay still in Lily’s arms.
Miranda sat at the foot of the bed, her head in her hands, her face hidden by her matted curls and her mourning veil. Her shoulders shook in silent grief until she dragged in a sobbing breath, clenching her hands slowly, her nails gouging her skin -
Stent shook himself, trying to stay focused. He wanted to yell at the ghosts around him but part of his mind kept his mouth shut fast. Lily is sleeping. Be silent. Don’t wake her. Your pain has troubled her enough already.
A shadow passed between him and the brazier. He looked up slowly, his eyes travelling over the folds of a richly embroidered dress cut in a Kul Tiran style. The butterflies worked into the fabric fluttered on the blue silk. Miranda was bending at the waist to look down at him, hands on her knees and an impish grin on her face. Her auburn hair was piled high on her head for the summer festival. One green eye and one milky white sought his. She looked startled at the expression on his face when his eyes met hers and her smile faded -
Stent stared at the brazier, his knuckles white as he gripped the blanket tighter. Pins and needles danced up his arm, over his heart. He ducked his head, resting it on his knees as he hugged his legs to his chest. The needles in his skin turned red hot, searing pain shooting up his arm to his ribs. He sucked a breath in and held it as his heart started again.
Time passed. Slowly.
The pain receded eventually, taking a breather in the corner of his ribcage before round two. His mind had cleared, the ghosts of his life gone for now. Lily was still sleeping on the cot - at least he had not woken her. He watched her, remembering nights when he had watched Miranda, unable to sleep himself. He missed the rise and fall of her chest, the steady rhythm marking time, silently promising that this too would pass.
He was sitting by the cot. His arms and legs had carried him over here without informing his brain. His mutinous fingers brushed Lily’s flaxen hair, so, so lightly. An errant wisp of the silk slid over his fingers. His skin was coarse enough that he could barely feel the lock as he gently tucked it back behind her ear.
His lips wanted to kiss her awake, to speak soft words of apology, to heal the wounds that he had dealt her, to soften her heart until she dropped her guard again and let him in, even for a moment.
He caught himself mere inches from her skin.
With a muttered oath he pulled away, crawling back over to the post by the brazier and sitting against it again. Stent sat in silence, his arms on his knees and his chin on his arms. He stared through the floor, lost in his own thoughts.
When Lily finally stirred his eyes darted over to her but he did not move otherwise.
She rolled onto her back and stared at the ceiling. After a time she took a deep breath and gently pushed Miranda to the side, sitting up slowly. She did not look at him. Lily sat still, staring through the cot. Eventually her hand slid sideways to rest on Miranda's stock--her fingers stroked the smooth wood lovingly. "She show'd me...wat happ'n'd." The crackling of the brazier nearly drowned out the explanation, the rogue was so quiet.
Stent’s gaze returned to the safety of the glowing coals. He was still shaking slightly from his fit earlier. He started to speak but had to cough and clear his throat - his voice was hoarse when he spoke. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. He sounded broken, even to his own ears.
Lily shivered and moved as though she would turn to him... but she stopped, half-turned, staring at the smooth dirt floor. "It--..." She cut herself off and curled her legs up against her chest and hugged them defensively. He suspected that her mind had flown back to the wicked page with the words that had shredded her heart. Brutal in their truth, merciless in what they did not say.
"I'm sorry," he whispered again, not expecting forgiveness, not looking at her. He was not apologizing, he was articulating - in a gravelly whisper - this simple fact.
"Yeah," Lily rasped. "Me too."
The brazier crackled in the silence between them. A coal cracked in two with a pop, sending sparks toward the ceiling.
"I kill'd 'er," she admitted, fury and guilt warring in the undertones of her quiet voice.
Stent looked up slightly, watching the sparks as they faded on their way to the sky. He unfolded his arms and ran his hands over his hair. The blanket half fell from his shoulders. "I guessed," he said flatly, staring into space. There was a brief moment of silence before his next words betrayed his thoughts. "I couldn't even help you with that," he whispered. "Gods."
"Stent..." The word wavered, too many emotions behind it; she took a shallow breath. Her hand closed around the rifle and she turned, swinging her legs off the cot. The little rogue rose as soon as her feet touched the cool floor and she strode across to him, her eyes downcast to the rifle. She crouched and set the their savior on the ground in front of him, then reached out and adjusted the blanket around his shoulders. Her gaze rested on the fire in the brazier.
Stent ran his hands through his hair, then clenched them into fists of frustration behind his head, looking down as she adjusted the blanket. His gaze went to the rifle and he relaxed slightly, his fingers unclenching around his hair. "I'm glad she spoke to you," he said quietly.
"Yeah. Me too," Lily repeated softly. She hesitated for a moment and he thought that she would sit closer, lean against him, let him wrap an arm around her now that it was all over...
But it wasn’t over yet.
Lily braced her hands on her knees and levered herself up. She moved to the brazier and held her hands above the fire as though trying to warm away an ache. After a long silence she murmured, "She was beautif'l."
"Yeah," Stent replied quietly. "She was. Did... " he paused, clearing his throat. "What did she show you?" he asked, forcing himself to say the words, wondering if Lily would answer.
He watched Lily’s face closely. It softened at first as she hugged her arms over her chest. The faint trace of warmth faded from her expression though, replaced by a lingering melancholy. "She tol' me...'er fav'rite story..." Lily all but whispered.
Stent frowned slightly, not sure what to make of that. He stared at the gun. It was unhelpful as always. "What did you... " he cleared his throat. "You said that she showed you. What happened. What did you see?" he asked slowly, not sure if he wanted to know the answer.
"I saw..." Lily trailed off, staring into the fire. She frowned. "Miranda show'd me...wat loss looks like." She hugged her arms tighter. "An' that...y'd been tak'n. That y'din'...leave," she whispered.
Stent made a strange sound, half laugh, half choked sob. "No. I didn't leave." He rubbed his hands on his face. "... Trace found me."
"I know," Lily mumbled. "I saw y'pinn'd...by a dem'n. Miranda hat'd 'er." She turned slightly, gazing over her shoulder at the weapon. "Y'lost." It was clear that she did not simply mean the battle. "Miranda...din' know...where y'were. She...she wasn't with ya." An expression of dread flicked briefly across her eyes. "But she show'd me...y'r dream," she croaked.
Stent looked up, staring at her in horror. Oh gods no. "Which dream?"
"Th'chains," she whispered hoarsely.
"The..." he deflated. "Gods. Ok. That's... ok." A shiver wracked his body and he pulled the blanket tighter around himself, leaning back against the post. Just the dungeon dream. Not the beach. Not the bed. Not the battlefield. "Please don't visit my dreams, Lily," he asked quietly. "They're not safe for you." What a magnificent understatement. But you dare not be more explicit, or she would go anyway.
"Okay," she agreed softly. She watched him in her peripheral vision, her gaze settled on Miranda. "Y'woke up, then," she continued quietly. "Miranda tol' me...t'hurry. We were...outta time...an' y'were sca-" she stopped abruptly, clipping the words off with a click of her teeth.
"I was scared," he agreed quietly. Stent was old enough, had seen enough in his two lives to be able to admit it.
Lily nodded. She spoke without meaning to, a question burning a hole in her tongue. "She said I...Miranda said...I r'mind 'er...'f someone..." she whispered. Her hands were shaking.
"Who?" Stent asked automatically, still staring into space.
" 'er daughter..." Lily breathed.
Stent leaned his head back against the post, closing his eyes, a pained expression warring with a wry smile on his face. "That'd be Liria," he said softly. "Our youngest."
"Tell me," Lily asked in a whisper. "Please."
He looked over at her, trying to figure out why she wanted to know. It was not hard. Did Lily have a family to remember? Did she have a mother, come to that? Had Miranda stepped into a role or a gaping void in her heart? "Come and sit with me, I'll tell you the story," he sighed, giving in already.
She turned from the faint warmth of the brazier and walked to him, settling against the post beside the hunter.
Stent sat up a bit straighter and leaned his elbows on his knees, loosely linking his fingers together. His gravelly voice softened as he began his story. “The dark portal opened almost forty years ago. I was twenty when it happened, but I was eighteen when I met Miranda.
“She was sixteen... gods she was beautiful. Striking, is what it was. Her mama was Kul Tiran and Miranda had gotten her auburn hair. Most gorgeous colour you ever saw, and she was the only girl in the village who had it. It was her one vanity... She always kept her hair long. It was thick and soft as silk. It had a wave to it... in the summer heat it would bunch into a thousand little curls and she would brush it out each morning to get the knots out, cursing how thick it was, but if you ever suggested that she cut it short she would look so horrified...” he laughed quietly despite himself, remembering the gasped “Stent!” of shock every summer when he would make the suggestion.
Lily shifted beside him, leaning towards him slightly as she listened. Stent lifted an arm, beckoning her over. She scowled at him but he just smiled, holding his arm out. “Truce,” he suggested softly.
She stared at him, her expression impossible to read under her mask.
“Just while I tell you about Miranda, and the kids,” he urged gently, using the same tone as he would on a cornered wild animal. “C’mon.”
After a moment she reluctantly scooted over beside him. The rogue was tense as a coiled spring but permitted him to loop an arm around her shoulders under the blanket. He smiled, pausing for a moment to enjoy the feeling. He had a lot to say to Lily today and he might not get to hold her again by the time he was done.
“Where’d...y’meet‘r?” Lily asked quietly, staring at the gun on the ground in front of them.
“At a robbery,” Stent smiled.
* * *
“Mind the horses son, your Ma and I gotta go and sign a few things,” Wil Hampton said as he climbed down from the cart’s seat.
“Sure Pa,” Stent agreed easily, sliding his lanky frame off of Brin, the family’s big Bay gelding. He gathered Brin’s reins and walked him over to hold the harness of the two sturdy ponies that were pulling the cart. His father helped his mother down from the cart and they disappeared into the bank together.
Stent looked around, curious about his new home. His parents had sold their farm and purchased a house here in Milhorne, a small but busy village near Brill. Both of Stent’s sisters were married and had homes in Brill and Ma had wanted to move closer to them now that they were having babies. With only Stent left at home to help out with the farm the choice had been an easy one. Stent’s uncle was a tin and coppersmith in Milhorne and had promised Stent and his Pa that they could find work with him easily enough.
Milhorne was not large compared to Brill or the capital of Lordaeron but Stent had never been to either of those places. To his eyes the village of five thousand was exciting and cosmopolitan. The bank was large - two stories high - and the dusty roads along the shop-lined main street were bustling with carts and horses and tradespeople. Three girls his age walked past along the cobbled sidewalk, eyeing him with obvious curiosity. He grinned, tipping his wide-brimmed hat towards them. “Ladies,” he greeted them, eliciting three giggles as they hurried past.
The young man grinned. I like it here already, he thought, watching the three girls walk away. One turned back to peek at him and he gave her a wink. She grinned and shot him a wink right back before turning back to her two friends with another giggle.
“Yup,” he said to Brin. “Way better’n the farm.” The horse nuzzled his cheek and Stent pet Brin’s head absently, still watching the road. He adjusted his rifle strap over his shoulder, already wondering if he could join the army. The kingdom was always looking for new soldiers, the way he figured, so surely they could use him. Even if he couldn’t read he was a damn good shot. Maybe he could get stationed in Brill, to be near his family. It did not really matter where he was stationed, though, to him. Anything was better than being a smith’s apprentice. Ugh. Cooped up all day with Uncle Denis and Pa in a sooty, hot, cramped little shop. No way.
His thoughts were interrupted by a commotion off to his right, in one of the smaller shops. He heard voices raised in anger then a bang like a firecracker. A handful of people burst out of the door, pushing each other, crying “Help! Help! Get the watch!” and “Warlocks!”
The crowd began to scatter away in alarm, a large space forming around the shop front. Stent quickly looped Brin’s reins around the cart, instructing the animal to stay, and headed against the flow of bodies. He caught the arm of a man who had run out of the shop.
“Hey! What’s going on?” Stent asked.
The man pulled his arm away. “It’s a robbery! There’re two warlocks in there! Stay away, boy - the watch are coming, leave it to them!”
There was another crash from inside the shop and a woman screamed. A quick scan of the street told him that no members of the watch were in sight.
“Fuck that!” Stent swore, unslinging his rifle. He ran up to beside the window and peered inside.
It was a jeweler’s shop, full of fine necklaces and laces and frilly things that ladies liked to adorn themselves with. One dishevelled looking robber was busy stuffing a sack full of the pieces that were on display while an imp cavorted on the table beside him, leaping around like a deranged monkey. Beyond him was another man, threatening the shopkeep at swordpoint behind the counter. It seemed that two shoppers had been trapped in the back of the store, unable or unwilling to run past the robbers to get out.
As Stent watched, the imp picked up a pendant and shrieked, twirling the bauble in one hand and lobbing a bolt of green fire into the wall with the other. The fel magic seared a chunk of plaster off the wall, which tumbled with another crash onto several bolts of silk, eliciting another startled scream from the back of the shop. Delighted by the screams, the foul creature spun on the spot, shrieking back at the shoppers. It raised another fire-licked hand, readying a throw.
Stent stepped in front of the window. The stock was against his shoulder, the sights aligned. The imp pulled his hand back to throw. Stent squeezed the trigger. The window shattered, the crack of the gunshot assaulted his ears, the imp’s head exploded in fire and smoke and brine.
Stent saw the man at the back spin towards him, sword drawn. The warlock in the front of the shop dropped his bag of loot, turning on Stent and raising his own flame-wreathed hands. Stent dropped to the ground as a bolt of fel fire blew through the empty window right over his head. A man shouted in demonic inside the shop and another started chanting.
With a muttered oath Stent rolled away from below the window and scurried around the corner of the building, staying low. He dropped to one knee at the corner, using the building as partial cover as he raised his gun and aimed it at the window, waiting.
He held his position. The chanting got louder. The warlock whose imp he had shot stuck his head out the window, looking for his assailant.
Stent squeezed the trigger.
The top of the warlock’s head vanished into a pink mist. His body crashed onto the glass shards still lining the bottom window sill and lay impaled there, blood flowing freely out of the fresh corpse onto the ground. People in the streets screamed and the mob surged further away from him.
Stent rose to his feet but paused as a rumbling boom erupted from the shop, making the ground shake. A terrifying voice spoke, the sound coming out the window as if from a deep pit.
“Send me back.”
“Oh shit,” he murmured, pressing his shoulder against the side of the shop and peering around the front. He hesitated but another voice rose from inside - a woman’s voice.
Stent could not help himself. He ran in a crouch back to the window, peering over the corpse of the warlock to see inside.
A voidwalker stood in the middle of the shop now, blocking his view of the still-living warlock as it held the shopkeep up by the throat. Stent chambered another round, knowing that it would take more than one rifle shot to kill a demon of that size. But who -
“Stay back, girl!” a man shouted, his voice menacing. “I’m warning you!”
“Miranda!” a woman begged.
There was a strange, silent detonation, like a shockwave through the air. The voidwalker froze - then slowly put the shopkeep down. It turned towards the back of the shop.
“No!” the man’s voice cried. “You must obey me!” he screamed as the demon turned on him.
Stent watched, mouth agape, as the huge blue creature raised both arms and slammed them down on the warlock, falling upon him and bludgeoning him down to the ground, the bulk of the demon still blocking his view of the fighting. As the demon crouched over its new target, however, it revealed her.
A young woman stood in the shop, her arms raised in effort as she channeled fel magical forces. Her long auburn hair rippled and jerked in the arcane currents around her as she controlled the summoned demon. Her face was contorted in a rictus of hatred as she spat out demonic command words to subdue the creature. At first Stent thought that she had been injured by the imp but he learned later that the burns spattered across the right side of her face had been caused by cooking oil when she was young, permanently disfiguring her. Her right eye was milky white. Her perfect lips were crimson red and shaping the sounds for foul magic, her upturned hands were curled into claws. As the screams from the last robber finally cut off, Miranda brought both hands down in a vicious swipe, hurling one last command word at the demon. The voidwalker vanished in another soundless explosion, the shockwave knocking Stent’s hat off.
He stood slowly in the sudden silence, gaping at the girl he would love for the rest of his life.
56. Little Talks
“Of course the watch showed up after the warlocks were dead,” Stent continued, still grinning at the memory of his first sight of Miranda. “We told ‘em that the warlock had lost control of his demon, which wasn’t exactly a lie. Miranda’s mom wanted her to keep the fact that she was a warlock secret. Locks weren’t exactly popular and Miranda was already a pariah because of the burns on her face. She didn’t have a lot of friends - most of the folk wrote her off as a witch and tried to avoid her.”
“A witch?” Lily asked, frowning.
“Yeah... people are dicks. When you don’t look like everyone else, everyone else decides they don’t like the look of you. But Miranda didn’t give a fuck about what other people thought. Miranda’s Pa was killed by a warlock and she was determined to learn as much as she could about them so she could fight ‘em better. Remember, this was before the portal opened, so there weren’t a lotta demons walkin’ around, and warlocks were less common. She never kept any familiars out and about either - that would have been a good way to get lynched in Milhorne anyway.”
Stent rubbed Lily’s shoulder with his thumb as she leaned her head against him, both of them looking at the rifle on the ground instead of each other. “Lessee,” he mused. “After the watch grilled us, Miranda and I got to talking. Turns out she was the niece of a cooper - a barrel-maker. And you know what barrel makers need a lot of?”
“Copp’r hoops?” Lily guessed, a faint smile on her face despite herself.
“You got it. So that was the end of my thoughts of joining the watch. Working with my uncle meant that I got to see Miranda pretty regularly. We had her and her Ma over for dinner one night and it went well. After that we started stepping out. We were married a year before the dark portal opened and Miranda gave birth six months after that. Another scandal,” he added wryly. “We ought to have been wed as soon as we found out that she was pregnant but she refused to be rushed...” the smile in his voice faded as he continued his story. “She gave me a son. Devyn, after my grandfather. He was a frail little thing though... he got sick when he was just a few weeks old...” Stent had to pause and swallow, blinking at the sting in his eyes. Even after all these years... “I’d give an arm to be able to hold him again in the other,” he murmured, finishing his thought. He coughed in embarrassment as he realized that he said that out loud.
“Miranda was devastated,” he continued after a moment. “She blamed herself. Said that he had been so sickly because of the fel magic she used while she was carrying him. I still don’t know if that had anything to do with it but she never forgave herself. We were going to try again but then the portal opened and all of a sudden the world was at war.
“We were both fighters and we were both sick of Milhorne. The rumours about Devyn were vicious... Looking back, the watch were actually pretty understanding of me breakin’ Ferrel’s nose, being a grieving father and all, but some things you just can’t un-hear no matter how many teeth you kick in. Miranda and I enlisted and left to fight the demonic horde pouring in to the Eastern Kingdoms.
“It was terrifying. The horde swept through the different kingdoms with hardly any serious resistance. They sacked Stormwind... I guess you know about this already though.”
“Not... ‘xactly,” Lily hedged.
He could feel her tensing up defensively under his arm. Eager to keep her lulled by the story, Stent continued. “Well they did. They kicked the Azerothians’ collective asses. It turned into a rout. Lothar led the last of his forces north to Lordaeron - where Miranda and I were from - and we joined up with the elves and dwarves and made the Alliance.
“The orcs had come North, chasing the humans, trying to finish the job they had started in Stormwind. It was a bit of a different story now, though. This was around year six, I guess... The new Alliance started winning fights and taking prisoners.” He snorted. “I was all for executing every orc we caught, but orders were orders. Miranda and I were sent to help guard one of the internment camps. Ugh... I don’t know which was worse. The battlefield full of screaming, berserking orcs and their pet demons or sitting there day in and day out guarding the prisoners. They all got sick, you know. Like, quiet and weak. Miranda said they were in withdrawal from the fel magic that made ‘em all crazy bastards in the first place. She always kept in touch with other ‘locks and mages about that kind of stuff. I didn’t care, really. They were a lot less trouble to watch when they were wasting away but I still felt like an asshole doing it.
“After a while most of the orcs were captured - aside from those Warsong fuckers. Gods they were hard to kill. The Frostwolves were lurking up North, too, but we didn’t know about them. Miranda and I were sick of war. We left for the south lands, looking for a new start. We settled in New Stormwind... they just call it Stormwind now, mind you.”
Stent sighed, leaning his head back against the post. He absently rubbed Lily’s shoulder with his thumb as he thought back to his human life. “Those years spent in Stormwind were probably the best years for us,” he mused. “It was large enough that the people weren’t all country bumpkins. Miranda and I were veterans so for the first time she got nods of respect in the street instead of superstitious points and whispers. She really blossomed there. Two years after we settled in Stormwind we had Cadie. I guess that was about eleven years after the portal opened. Miranda was very careful not to use any fel magic while she was with child and I s’pose there might have been something to that ‘cause Cadie was a fat little pumpkin. Such an easy kid... She was all smiles and curly black hair and big blue eyes. She looks a lot like my oldest sister used to. Still plump,” he smirked.
“When Cadie was four we had Jakob. He’s got my colouring too. Lanky little dark-haired monkey, that kid was. Fel, he got into everything. Cadie doted on him like only a big sister can. They were inseparable as they grew up - it surprised us, really. I mean they were four years apart but he followed her everywhere.
“Two years later and we had Liria. She had her momma’s hair and her momma’s ‘fuck you, buddy’ attitude. She was a hard kid - stubborn as an ox. If you told her to try it one way she’d try the other way first. I think she might’ve turned out a lot different if her momma had been around as she got older...
“Miranda and I re-enlisted when Liria was six. No - wait, she must’ve been seven, ‘cause Cadie was thirteen when she cut her hair short. This was in year 24, I think, when Thrall was kicking up shit in the internment camps, wavin’ around his doomhammer. Suddenly orcs were a problem again. There was a new call to arms so we answered. My sister Elsie took the kids and we both signed up for another tour. It’s funny... we always swore we’d never take marching orders again, but having kids changes your thoughts on a lot of things. We couldn’t just sit in Stormwind and wait for it to get sacked so... we enlisted.”
Stent sighed quietly, remembering the return to war. “Miranda was an unholy terror on the field,” he said softly. He closed his eyes, savouring the vision that his mind conjured of his wife in her fighting prime. “We weren’t just taking orders any more. We were fighting to keep our children safe. It felt much more personal. Miranda delved deeper into fel magic than she had ever dared before...
“Heh. I remember one time we were posted on a small rise, firing at a group of orcs who were attacking our position. A few rogues snuck up on us though, got right up close before they attacked. One knocked my ass down with a mace to the back of the head. They should’ve sapped Miranda! She saw me go down and then this orc appears out of the shadows... well she just about lost her shit. I come to, my vision is swimming, and all I see is two dead orcs and a huge purple demon ripping apart a third. Scared the living fel out of me... I was grabbin’ for my gun, slurring my curses like a half drunk asshole, and she drops the orc and turns to face me, then morphs back down out of her demon form. Heee... I nearly peed,” he admitted with a dry chuckle.
Stent’s smile faded as the train of memories followed the tracks to their inevitable conclusion. He had to swallow the lump that threatened to rise in his throat before he continued. “We visited the kids a few times, of course, but we were away a lot. Pretty common in times of war, I guess - they were lucky to have a good home with their aunt...” Stent fell silent as his memories came back to him. It was painful to face them after having tried so hard to forget them over the past decade but it was a good kind of hurt, in a way. He almost felt like he was strong enough to face them now without running off to hide in a bottle. He let them play through, not trying to distract himself.
After a moment Stent blinked his stinging eyes, realizing that he had stopped his story. Lily was sitting still and stiff, waiting with a surprising amount of patience - or trepidation - for him to continue. He cleared his throat roughly then disentangled himself from the little rogue. “I need some water,” he excused himself as he rose, draping the blanket around her shoulders.
His knees were weak as he crossed the floor of the Blade to the jug of water Isa had left for him. He poured himself a cup carefully, so that his trembling hands would not spill any. He took a sip then kept his back turned on Lily as he continued. “Miranda died in the line of duty in year 26. I went home to be with the kids for a while but … I couldn’t stand it. Everywhere I looked - I mean, I kept waiting for her to come around the corner, into the kitchen, or out in the yard... And the kids didn’t need me. I mean Cadie was a woman grown, practically, and Jakob was turning out fine. Liria... made it pretty clear that she didn’t want me around. I felt useless,” he admitted quietly. He let out a long breath, craning his neck as he looked up at the ceiling. He heard Lily shift behind him. He made an effort to relax his tense shoulders and turned around, leaning back against the heavy workbench for support.
She was watching him with her guarded, inscrutable look. His fingers twitched, wanting to pull down her bandana so that he could better read her expression. He crossed his arms, tucking his hands under his elbows, and continued in a stronger voice. “I told myself that it was undeath that turned me into a junkie but it started then. When Miranda died. I just kept myself busy with bottles and battlefields until I died too. I was in Stratholme, posted for who knows what duties. We all got sick. I don’t remember much about being in the Scourge but I remember the feeling of Sylvanas pulling us free of the Lich King’s control...” He paused, struck by a thought, and had to chuckle dryly at himself. “I guess you’re not the first to haul me out of a bad place.”
Lily hunkered down beneath the blanket, watching him, hunched like a vulture.
Stent looked away from her, awkwardly searching for words to explain what he had been thinking about for days. "I... Ah. Undeath was... I mean... I pretty much gave up on having a normal kind of life again. Human-normal, that is. It was almost a relief, being in the 'City. I was surrounded by other outcast, cynical assholes. I didn't have to keep trying to be a good father or keep feeling bad about all of my screw-ups... Kinda like goin' to hell and finding out it's not so bad after all, I guess. You sorta say 'well fuck it' and just... go along."
Stent's eyes wandered around the room as he spoke, not seeing anything, looking everywhere but Lily. The easy tone of his storytelling had been replaced by an awkward hesitation.
"I guess ... I mean.... Ugh." He let out a short, sharp breath, annoyed with himself. "I mean I wasn't always ... like this."
"Like wat?" she croaked. Her voice was husky and she coughed to hide it.
Stent set his jaw, a frown appearing on his face as he got tired of his own shit. He met Lily's eyes squarely, his arms still crossed on his chest. "I wasn't always an addict. A pleasure-seeking, selfish, cynical asshole. Well actually I was always an asshole," he amended quietly, looking away again. "But not ... anyway! Miranda's death - it kicked out the supports of my life. Dying just finished the job. I didn't have a reason to bother trying anymore so I didn't. I just embraced the proverbial shadows and went with the flow. The flow in the Undercity doesn't exactly lead to crystal clear waters though." Stent's mouth twisted as if he was tasting something sour.
He closed his eyes briefly, letting out another short breath. He subconsciously tightened his arms across his chest. "This might sound weird but whatever." He swallowed and cleared his throat. "Lily - For the first time since Miranda died, I've met someone who makes me want to at least try to be a better person." He looked down. "I'm just not sure that I remember how."
Lily crumpled up like a drying leaf, hugging her legs to her chest. She tucked her chin behind her knees and stared in silence at the floor.
"I just... wanted to tell you that," he said, his voice softer now, a hint of a tremor in it to match his shaking hands. "I'm done with games - I don't want to hurt you again. Ever. I just... want you t'know that since you asked me to play straight with you, I will. Even if..." if you never want to see me again. He had to pause to clear his throat. "If whatever," he finished lamely. Stent glanced at his drink beside him on the table but made no move to take another sip, instead staring at his feet.
"Y'r wrong," Lily choked. She screwed her eyes shut and took a breath. When she spoke again her quiet voice dripped venom. "M'jus'...like th'rest...'f'm. Ain' worth't."
Stent shook his head, disagreeing. He stared at his feet as if they owed him answers. "I'm sorry I wasn't there when you killed Trace," he said with feeling. "I should have been there. To shield you from her. She's a banshee-spawned demon-bred harpy." He looked up at Lily, some of the anger he felt at Trace evident on his face as he levelled his piercing gaze at her. "What did she tell you?" he demanded.
Lily flinched as though she could feel him staring. She tilted her head forward and jammed her forehead against her knees, mumbling at her thighs. "Th'truth."
"Bullshit," he said flatly. "She was crazy, Lily. The truth as she saw it had a handshake relationship with reality at best." Stent unfolded his arms so that he could hang on to the side of the table he was leaning against. His legs had little strength in them but he stubbornly stayed standing, not wanting to impose on Lily again. "Just... tell me what she said so I can undo how she hurt you," he pleaded, his fingers digging into the boards.
Lily barked a sharp exhalation of breath - either a humorless laugh or a dry sob. "She said," the little rogue grated through clenched teeth, "that y've got...twist'd tastes. Y'r a masochist. Y'like...t'be push'd...'round. Y'were...groom'n me," her voice cracked and she stopped to take another breath, "...t'be y'r next...own'r." She gasped another breath, curling her thin frame into as tight a ball as she could. "An' she...call'd m'insane...'n she was right," she finished, barely louder than a whisper.
Stent winced. "Ugh. Trace," he muttered. That was what he had been afraid of. Now he had to undo the damage without lying or Lily really would want nothing to do with him. His knees nearly buckled at the thought of going through all this just to lose his connection with the little rogue now. He gave up on his legs and lowered himself to the ground, sitting with his back to a table leg.
"Right. So. First thing," he started, marshalling his thoughts. "I am a little bit like that, yeah," he admitted, reaching up to pat the table, searching for the water. His fingers pulled the jug down off of the edge and mostly caught it, only spilling a little. "But that's no big deal. It never bothered Miranda,” he said, casually tossing his trump card in the pile. “It was just a game we played for fun. She'd humour me every now and then. She had her own games, anyway." Oh the games we would play. "The thing is, this whole... being Forsaken thing...Well. People tend to get carried away with themselves and forget that it's a game. Trace wasn't playing. It's why I never loved her. She was a fucked up chick, right out of the gates. She thought safe words were synonyms for a vault." Stent took a drink from the jug, carefully setting it on the ground beside him when he was done.
Lily had not moved from her blanket cocoon.
Stent sighed. At least she had not run away screaming yet. Or stabbed him. "I wasn't grooming you for anything, either,” he continued. “That's fucked up." Not like she needs grooming. "And third, you're not crazy. Why the fel do you think you're crazy?"
She choked on a laugh-sob again, digging her claws into the leather of her boots. “Y'know... how I... kill'd 'er?" she snarled at her knees.
"I drugg'd 'er... w'th three kindsa... chem'cals... then let'r... sweat'm out... whille I burn'd...'er house down." Her leather boots groaned in protest as her claws gouged them. "Then I..." The leather gave way and her claws sank through into her legs. "...I kick'd 'er...t'death," she whimpered lamely.
Stent watched her steadily for a moment. "... Ok. What's the crazy part?"
Unable to curl in any further she simply sat and shook with silent sobs.
Stent's hands flexed impotently. After a moment he leaned forward, rolled up to his hands and knees, and crawled over to her. He gently took her wrists and pulled her claws away from her legs. "Lily - being merciless isn't the same as being crazy."
She offered no resistance, her bloodied hands hanging limply from his - but she was shivering, a vicious trembling running through her bones. The little rogue did not move or speak. Just sat.
He moved up until he was sitting beside her, facing her. "Lily, c'mere," he murmured, pulling her gently against him. "You're not crazy. Seriously. You're just very vicious."
She melted onto him, shivering from her core. Her eyes were still shut tight though they seemed perfectly dry - but her sobs were thick and her nose sealed. She lay her head against his chest, apparently unable to speak or move or cry.
Stent rocked her gently. After a moment he lay his cheek against her hood as she shivered against his shoulder, holding her with one arm and rubbing her back with the other.
"I'm sorry that when you got what you thought that you wanted, it blew up in your face," he murmured. "But the fact that you feel like this about it tells me that you're not crazy. Crazy people think they're serving some kind of higher calling, or dishing out justice. You and I know better. We're just vicious sods when it comes to protecting what's ours."
She whimpered and curled up against him. Eventually the shivers died down. She took a shuddering breath and stared at the floor, mumbling huskily, "I was ex'cut'd...Stent."
Stent kept holding her, rubbing her back. "What for, hon?" he asked softly.
"Mmm. Who'dja kill?"
She clenched her jaw and hunched again, curling up beneath his arm. "A rival. F'r...r'venge..." The little rogue abruptly pulled away, turning her back to him and hugging herself. “'ve nev'r...been good, Stent. 've always...been vicious...'n spitef'l...'n cruel. Not like you." Her claws began digging themselves into the leather again, this time at her shoulders. "Not worth't."
Stent let her pull away, his hands falling into his lap, but kept an eye on her claws. "Uh. I never said I liked good people," he pointed out gently. He sighed. "The problem here is that if I say I like terrible people you'll be sad 'cause you'll think you're a terrible person, and you don't want to be. If I say I like you because you're a good person, you'll think I'm wrong and hate yourself some more..." Stent looked pained as he thought out loud. "Lily..." He glanced around for help. His eyes landed on Miranda. "... why don't you go back to sleep?" he suggested gently. "We're both exhausted. We can talk more in the morning."
Lily nodded slowly, ungripping her arms and rolling unsteadily to her feet. She stood there a moment, teetering, holding her breath as though she were about to speak. Eventually she let the breath out in a long wavering sigh and turned to Stent, offering him a hand up.
Stent took it, standing carefully. "Take the cot again, if you want."
She stood there for a moment with his hand in hers. Her thumb traced over his knuckles as she stared at his hand, so much larger and more worn than her own. Her messy claws released his fingers slowly. She shrugged and let the blanket slip from her shoulders, then whirled it around and settled it on his.
Stent tucked it around his shoulders, already shivering in exhaustion from the conversation on top of the fit he had earlier. He leaned over and picked up Miranda, holding the rifle close to him for a moment. Randi, he begged his wife silently. I need you to dreamwalk with Lily again. Please. I have to fix this, Baby, please help me fix this. He sealed his plea with a kiss, like always.
The rifle grew cold in his hands. His shivering intensified and he shoved the rifle at Lily abruptly, swaying on his feet as the room grew darker. "Take her," he said, his voice strained. "I need t'lie down. Sleep tight."
Lily reached for the rifle but froze with her fingers around the barrel. It must have felt warm to her because her dry, empty eyes widened and flicked up to Stent's face. "No," she murmured, worry and guilt crinkling her flushed face. "No, Stent."
Too late, too late! He gave her a crooked grin, though it was strained. "Take her," he insisted in a gasp, "before I drop 'r."
"Stent," Lily said urgently, gripping his forearm to steady him.
His knees gave out, his eyes rolling back in his head as he slumped to the ground, the rifle falling from his suddenly nerveless fingers.
* * *
"STENT!" Lily cried as he fainted. She threw her weight back and counterbalanced him, lowering him gently to the floor. She stood there for a moment, the gun warm in her hand. "Please, Miranda," she croaked. "Please don'...take't...from him..." The rogue slung the rifle over her shoulder and hooked one arm under each of the hunter's, dragging him gently to the cot. With some effort she placed him on it and carefully tucked the blanket around him. After a moment of thought she lay Miranda on the blanket next to him and sat, quietly stroking his hair from his forehead.
An hour later the two of them lay unconscious, Stent on the cot and Lily draped next to him, her head on his shoulder and her hand resting on Miranda's stock.
57. Requiem, Part 1
The wagon rumbles mushily down the road, multicolored spokes all turning the same muddy brown as the rain and hooves and wooden wheels churn the road to slop. Icy Silverpine rain hammers the faded red roof above you--but the rain is the least of your worries. Howls follow the wagons; howls that get closer by the hour, and though the Troupemaster puts on a brave front you can tell by the way his shoulders are set so straight and so tight that he is afraid
You hear Jim and Hector muttering from the front of the wagon. We're almost there, one says, and the other grunts. There is something strange in that grunt, something unhappy and something damning--but you don't know what it is, nor why. Those two have been whispering since the fork in the road, thinking you can't hear them--but thirteen years of noiselessness have made you so much more aware than you ought to be. You have concluded that there is something at the end of this road that they both dread facing; this cold road that seems so distantly familiar to you though the rain and the fog and the mud.
The rain melts the scene away, replacing it with darkness. A wall of sharpened logs stands guard on the right and watery lights twinkle through the sodden night to the left. You must have been asleep when the troupe made camp for now the wagons are parked against this wall. The Troupemaster is out there, his red and gold traveling clothes soaking and sad. He is speaking in hushed tones with some hooded figures, wrapped warm and dry and safe from the rain and the cold. Neither they nor the Troupemaster seem happy, but their sharp whispers are muffled by the rain. You are both curious and afraid that the Troupemaster will catch cold; you tug one of your rough blankets from the wagon and hop out into the rain and the mud, hustling over to toss it around his shoulders. He is startled and blinks rainwater and surprise from his eyes as you stand there, grinning. One of the robed figures steps back in alarm and mutters a by the Light! and you suddenly feel that you should really have stayed in the wagon.
The rain mercifully melts this scene as well. Replacing the shame is a gloomy Silverpine morning in a tiny walled town. The troupe wagons huddle like exhausted beasts against the wall by the gate and the manor house looms sullenly on the far side of the hamlet--keeping close watch on the shacks of the villagers as might a hungry wolf. You are exploring as you often do, though this sorry little town has very little to offer your skulking curiosity. There are some boys here--but you learned, years ago, that boys are cruel and best admired only from a distance. To do so is trivial, of course. These boys are particularly easy to watch, too, though the reason makes your stomach knot.
You hide in the hedge and wait. You needn't wait long, for she comes out of the house at nearly the same time every morning--right after breakfast, where she sits at the table with her father in silence. You know because you watch them from the elm across the garden from their dining room; every morning the servants lay out the toast and jam and eggs, and every morning the noble and his daughter seat themselves at the table with two empty spaces. Every day they eat in silence, then the father excuses himself and leaves, and the girl finishes her food in solitude. Then she comes out to the garden, and that is when the boys arrive.
They think they are stealthy, creeping up to the hedge and furtively pulling the branches aside. They think they are clever and quiet, stifling their grins and jostling each other. You take a silent pride in watching the watchers, for they know nothing of stealth, nothing of quiet. You hide in the hedge and watch them as they watch her comb her hair and sing.
You are jealous, of course. Jealous that she is so pretty, that her voice is so lovely, that the boys all come here every morning and afternoon and evening to listen to her song and watch the comb course through her hair. Jealous that they don't make warding signs at her or threaten her with rocks. Jealous because you just know she knows they watch, that she comes out to the stone bench with her comb and her song on purpose, to bask in the attention. The thought twists your guts and makes you so, so bitter. But at least it keeps the boys in one place.
The scene darkens--it is evening. You have moved back to the elm. You are thinking. The servants cleared the dining table nearly an hour ago, and the house has gone quiet and still.
There is something wrong with this house.
You had not noticed it at first. Yes, there was the pall of mourning, the servants and noble and daughter wearing black in the memory of their loss; the empty seats at the table; the rooms that were never lit, even in the evenings. Yes, there was death in this house--the mother and son had been lost. Though they didn't say how, it was obvious from the way the noble's eyes hardened or the daughter cringed whenever a stray howl drifted over the walls from the trees beyond.
But that is not it.
There is something else--the servants are so quiet, almost...fearful. They do their duties in near silence, jumping like rabbits if a stray teacup should break or a serving tray rattle. They go about their cleaning and serving and then practically flee the house to their quarters.
And they never venture into the east hall.
You slip from the tree and slink forward to the rear kitchen door. It has been long enough; you know the noble and his daughter are asleep, and the servants have fled to cower in their own beds. The lock is simple and easy to pick. With no trouble at all you stand in a forbidden place, your soft shoes silent on the kitchen tiles.
You head east.
The hallway is carpeted in rich red and you sneer to yourself at the decadence of nobles. You are more than silent as you glide down the hallway--you are a ghost, black and white and ghastly. You drift past a dining hall, one that looks terribly familiar... but it is not enough to draw your interest, for there is a door at the end of the hallway and it is padlocked.
Jim was the one who taught you to pick locks. It may come in handy, he said, and though neither of you spoke it you both knew that you shared that dark curiosity; that nagging urge to go where you were not welcome, to see that which they wanted no one to see. Jim taught you well, and the padlock clicks with quiet disapproval as it releases.
The stairway beyond is not what you expected. You had thought this would be a splendid room--perhaps the mother's sunroom locked away out of grief, or the son's private study full of hunting trophies and dusty memories.
You did not expect this oppressive silence, nor these stone stairs leading down into gloomy guttering torchlight.
For the first time in your history of intrusive exploration do you feel a sense of unease; as you carefully descend the steps you feel as though the very eyes of the house are upon you. You reach the chilly flagstones and shiver, though not because the basement is cold, but because it is not a basement at all. It is a dungeon.
There are four cells, three with heavy iron bars and filthy mats and chains. These are empty. The fourth is a door, a huge heavy oaken door with metal bands and a slot a the base for food and a barred window at eye level. There is both a heavy beam and two sturdy locks fastening this door, and you know, you just know, that there is someone inside.
The door is before you. You can almost feel the thing behind it breathing. Your legs twitch and wish to run but the fear wriggling in your chest cannot overcome the curiosity chewing at your mind. You stand on tiptoe and peer between the bars, peer into the dark at this forgotten prisoner.
Fangs. Fangs and matted fur and pointed ears and shredded noble's clothes. You stare into the round yellow eyes and they stare back, some feral recognition arcing between the two of you. You remember these eyes--they watched, bored, thirteen years ago as you balanced so carefully on the back of your beloved dancing bear for their amusement. These eyes--though they were not yellow then, but brown--had flicked to the side and alighted on the pea-shooter. Then they had met yours again, for the briefest moment before your world descended into whirling bloody roaring terror.
The eyes that stole your voice are the last thing you see as something heavy thuds into the back of your skull.
* * *
A part of you understands. Logically, it is now much harder for you to explain what you saw. You would not have been able to speak it, of course, but now you cannot write or draw it, either. Not that the nobleman needed worry. Your terror would have kept you silent.
But some small part of you understands that he took your eyes out of fear.
Everything is black. You awaken in a pulsating groggy haze and try to open your eyes but cannot. You can hear the Troupemaster and the noble shouting. You can hear the fear edging their voices. The noble is furious; the Troupemaster doubly so. None are allowed within the house, the noble says, and the girl has paid the price she earned. The Troupemaster does not say it but you realize he knows there is more to it than simple trespassing. You struggle to cry out, to open your eyes--you paw at them and feel nothing behind your sagging lids, and you suddenly understand that like your voice, your sight is gone.
Panic seizes you and you thrash about, and Jim and Hector are there to hold you down, and Eliza is there murmuring soothing things to you--but there is fury in her voice, you can hear it. Not for you, of course, but for the monster that is even now forbidding your troupe from leaving the wagons.
The sounds fade away. You do not know how much time has passed--it is so difficult to tell, now--but things are worse. Not for you in particular, for with the passage of time you have relearned how to move about, and have taught yourself to navigate with your hands and your ears. You have made a map in your head of the tiny town within the walls, the wagons here, the servants’ quarters there, the horrible looming manor yonder. The quarantine has been lifted in recent days because everyone who can heft a rifle is needed to help hunt for food.
The wretched little town is starving.
The Troupemaster has gone out with the others today. You always worry when it is Jim or Hector or Eliza or one of the others' turn to go, but when the Troupemaster must hunt you simply cannot sit still. You pace behind the wagons with your hand on the wall; toward the gate, away from the gate, toward, away... a restless track over and over until he returns.
Something is amiss.
You hear it before the others do. The hoofbeats. The howls. You rush to the end of the wagon train and listen, straining. You hear the frantic panting of a galloping horse, then the terrified pounding of feet, then... claws on the leaves. You try to shriek and manage only a dry cough, but the guards already know--they are scrambling to open the gates for their master as he gallops home.
The noble does not slow as his mount barrels through the gate and he wheels around the well in the tiny town square (you can hear the horseshoes sparking on the cobbles) as he yelps at the guards to close the gates. Your heart and lungs jostle each other in your throat as the guards shout that the others are just there, clearing the trees--but the noble screams at them that there is no time, the monsters will be upon us do you want everyone to die you fools close the gates!
And you can hear them beyond the creaking doors, the Troupemaster's ragged breath and the snarling and the cracks of rifles and the screams as those in the back are taken down. Then the boom of the gates and the bloody shrieks and you run, you run as fast and as far as you can from the sound of the only man you'd ever wish to call a father being ripped asunder by a hundred teeth.
You crash into the hedge. It snares you and traps you and you hang there sobbing dryly because no matter how many times you have wished to cry the tears cannot come since he took your eyes. He has taken everything from you, your voice and your sight and now your family.
Everything has been stolen from you. He deserves just the same.
The house is chaos. There is no one in the kitchen as your soft shoes pad carefully across the tiles. You head east, guided by instinct and your hands. The cursed hallway is as deserted as before. The lock yields just as easily, for you do not need your eyes to pick locks.
The darkness does not bother you this time, for now it is all you know.
The bar is heavy, but you manage. The locks are huge and old and stubborn, but you manage.
The beast within keens and strains against his chains as you open the door. He can smell the fresh air, you imagine, can taste the freedom at the top of the staircase. You retreat, feeling your way up the stairs and away from the clattering chains as swiftly as you can manage.
As you close the kitchen door the voice lilting across the garden stabs you in the chest.
She is at her bench, you imagine. It is where she always goes to draw attention to herself, when she is lonely or frightened--so often. But the town is in a panic, and you doubt there are any boys in the hedges to discreetly ease her worries. Though really, it would not matter even if there were.
You creep forward, feeling out the path under your shoes. You have studied this garden enough to know where it is, and her lovely voice guides you.
She does not expect anyone here, and you have grown oh-so-quiet in your years of silence that she does not realize you are there until your slender fingers wrap around her throat and her lovely song breaks in a startled sob of terror.
By the time they discover you she has gone silent and still. Your ears sting with the riot as they wrench your fingers from her bruised neck and loop the rope around your own. You are dragged across cobbles and up rough wooden stairs and the noble is shrieking at you and bawling, but you cannot tell if the grief he spews forth is even shaped into words. The drop takes you by surprise and you realize in a flood of horror that it has not broken your neck, that the noose is biting into your throat and you are choking and cannot breathe and muffled by the sound of your own pulse roaring in your ears there is screaming and splintering wood and howling...
... and sudden confusion as two strong hands grip you under the arms, lifting you up. You drag a ragged breath, a riot of sound assaulting your ears as the shouting of men and the roars of the feral monster blur together, the sobs of the nobleman beat in counterpoint with the throbbing of your heart. The memory-turned-dream threatens to overwhelm your senses as it rebels against this intrusion. This is not how it is supposed to be!
Your feet hit solid wood boards.
58. Requiem, Part 2
"Enough," his voice was rough, silencing the dream beyond the porch. The noose was loosened, then vanished. "Lily, open your eyes," he said more gently.
She did, prying them open as though from a long sleep. They were there: she was whole, her fluffy colorless hair long around her shoulders and her strange red-violet eyes staring fearfully. Stent cupped her face in his hands, his skin warm against hers. "I'm sorry to interrupt you but I couldn't watch any more of that," he confessed, examining her with an angry frown that did not match the tenderness of his touch.
Stent looked... different. It took a moment to pin it down, lost in the logic of the dream, but he was human again. The deep lines on his face had faded. His dark hair was cut short and spiked up awkwardly at the back and his wrung-out frame was better filled out, making him merely lean instead of lanky. He looked to be in his thirties in the dream though it was hard to tell his age in the soft glow of the sunlight. Lily stared at him, shame and sorrow and guilt burning at her pale skin. She tried to pull away.
He did not let her pull away easily. A moment after she stepped back his arms were around her again with no intervening movement. His lips pressed against her hair as she ducked her head.
"You'll have to be worse than that to shock me, Lily."
She shook and cried, tears coursing down her tattoos for the first time in nearly two years. She did not try to embrace him in return because she did not deserve to, she was a murderer and a monster and deserved no one's pity...
Stent pressed his lips together, visibly frustrated. He closed his eyes and sighed. "Randi?" he called plaintively. "She's not listening."
The scene jerked. Lily and Stent were Forsaken again, standing on a battlefield in Deathstalker gear. "I don't know," Stent said as if he were in a conversation. He looked down at Lily, peering at her as though trying to divine a way to reach her. She looked away from him, staring out at the bleak scene around them. It was dusk, the sun setting red in the western sky. Broken standards, hoof-churned earth and puddles of water from a recent rain covered the otherwise barren landscape. There was no sign of the armies that must have fought here.
"Maybe," he agreed dubiously, still talking to thin air. Stent lifted a hand to Lily's chin, stroking her cheek with his thumb. "Hey.”
She shivered and her attention flickered up to him.
"You're looking with your human eyes." He took her by the shoulders and turned her around. A standing mirror was in front of her, the ornate cedar frame worked in Gilnean style. She shrank back against his hands, away from the mirror. Her reflection showed her human self - a pale, skinny albino girl that she barely remembered - but her reflection’s eyes were missing. Stent’s reflection was his Forsaken self and looked horrifying, holding the human girl by the shoulders. "You need to stop using her eyes," he repeated. He pushed Lily towards the mirror until she was inches away from the cringing girl in the reflection. "Take her eyes out and give ‘em back to her - it's the only way you can see the truth."
Her heels churned the mud as she tried to resist. She stood paralyzed before the mirror, staring into the hollow sockets of the false reflection. "I can't..."
"Lily, you have to," he repeated, a note of urgency in his voice. "They're coming. You can't be a weak human when they come, you have to be strong..."
Lily realized suddenly that the scene around the foursome had changed. They were no longer on the battlefield, but in a forest. A howl rang through the air, answered by another on the other side. The feral cries sent shivers up her spine.
Stent's hands tightened on her shoulders. "Give her back her eyes, stop using them to see, you have to see with these," he urged.
Lily was holding a small box marked with the sigil of the Undercity. She knew that she only had to open it to use the Lady's gift of vision - but she had to give up her eyes first in order for it to work. Her heart fluttered wildly at the howls, a moth trapped beneath a glass. She clutched the box to her chest with one hand and raised her shaking claws to her face, watching her reflection trace her fingers up her cheek, so afraid of what she would find.
A dark shape flitted among the trees. Stent spun around to put his back to hers, his rifle in his hands.
Lily's reflection looked increasingly panicked as their hands move up their cheeks. As Stent spun around the reflection was freed from his grip and she lunged forward, out of the mirror, grabbing Lily's wrists. She opened her mouth to beg Lily not to give up her humanity but only a familiar hiss of air came from the scarred throat. Lily gasped a ragged breath.
Stent did not seem to notice - his attention was focused on the howls. "I don't know how you manage this," he complained to the red-headed witch who now stood beside them. Miranda. She watched the trees warily, her hands raised as if to cast, but did not answer him.
Stent raised his rifle as a worgen burst through the treeline. The beast leapt once, twice, clearing yards of distance as the hunter took careful aim. Lily could see the beast's reflection in the mirror past Stent's shoulder. It was the nobleman, his hands out in murderous claws, lunging for her throat. She and her reflection tried to scream but no sound came.
There was a sharp CRACK as Stent fired.
The nobleman-worgen vanished. Lily knew that they prowled the trees again, working their way back towards the dreamers.
"She's too strong," Stent hollered to Miranda over the howls. "I can't -"
With a sudden jerk Lily's reflection pulled her through the mirror.
The little rogue landed in a new scene. She was dressed as a troupe member, wearing her old human clothes. She was among the wagons. They had been travelling and had stopped in a field for the night. It was one of the good times - a rabbit stew was cooking over a jolly fire and smelled wonderful. Her friends - her family - were gathered around the fire. Jim beckoned her over to a seat near him.
She was confused but the smell was strong and delicious and numbed the fear and surprise. She smiled, the memory of the mirror quickly fading as an older one took its place. A few steps and she was sitting beside Jim, warming her hands in front of the dancing flames.
He gave her a wink, nudging her shoulder with his to get her attention. "Look what I found at our last stop," he said quietly, not drawing the attention of the others. He showed her a padlock in his hands.
"You haven't had the chance to have a go at one like this yet," he said, slipping it to her. "Give it a try, see if you can get it open without my help."
She grinned and nodded, slipping so far into the scene that she forgot that here she could speak. The lockpicks were there in her pocket as they always were and she curled her knees up to her chest to disguise her work from the others. The clicking of the picks was lost in the cheerful murmur of her Family and the merry crackling fire.
The lock was old and stubborn and difficult to open. But she managed.
"Lily?" Eliza sounded alarmed. "What are you doing?"
The lock popped open, releasing the chains on the worgen prisoner who bounded free, scattering the troupe members.
"Lily, what did you do?" Jim cried, aghast, stumbling backwards over his seat as the worgen raced toward him.
Lily opened her mouth to yell, to draw the attention of the beast, to help...but a strangled sob was all she could manage.
The scene fell to chaos. Eliza screamed in pain and fear as the worgen pounced upon her. The Troupemaster was riding hard towards the wagons, calling the alarm that other worgen were hard at his heels. The wagons were on fire. Jim was dead, his chest torn open by savage claws. Lily raised her hands in horror only to see that her own claws were bloody and dripping down her wrists.
She heard Stent's voice, frustrated. "For fuck's sake!" he shouted. The sound was muted as though he were speaking through a wall.
The fire flared up, phoenix wings rising from the sides. "Here!" a woman's voice called.
Lily's shadow was cast in stark relief on the caravan in the sudden blazing light of the fire. She backpedalled away from the heat, throwing up her hands in vain to shield herself from the flames. Her shadow reached out for her, grabbing her by the arms and pulling her effortlessly away from the light. They fell through darkness, landing in the hedges by the garden.
The mime and her shadow watched as the noble girl combed her hair, singing her lilting song. Lily's face furrowed in bitter jealousy. A distraught blind girl crept along the path behind the beautiful and sweet noble girl. What a pale, loathsome thing the rogue was, all washed out like a ghost, groping like some eyeless cave-dwelling wretch. Lily's shadow gripped the back of her neck, her fingers like frost-rimed steel. Lily had to watch.
The rogue was only a few yards from the princess when an outraged howl rang off of the walls. The half-freed worgen boy from the dungeon surged through the door, broken chains flying behind his wrists and ankles.
The worgen saw the blind rogue and rushed her as the pretty girl screamed, running away. The shadow dug her nails into Lily's pale skin as the worgen mauled her memory-self. This is how it should have been.
The tears that would never come flowed so freely now. She nodded.
There was the sharp CRACK of a rifle shot and the shadow vanished, its hold on Lily released. A second CRACK and the worgen evaporated as well.
"... trying, but she's hiding," Stent's voice ghosted through the air. "I don't know," he said after a pause, answering someone that Lily couldn't hear. "Lily? Lily!" he called, from nowhere.
She gasped, trying to call out. Hhh, hhh!
"There!" his voice came closer now, more certain.
Miranda stepped out of the bushes. She waved a hand and the scene hazed out into blurred, smokey shapes. Lily stumbled toward the vision, desperate tears of relief tracing down her tattoos. Miranda caught her in a fierce hug. Stent was there, his rifle in hand, wearing his Deathstalker officer gear. Relief was evident on his face.
"I dunno which of us is better at beating ourselves up," he said, slightly out of breath. "But you're really givin' me a run for my money. You gotta stop this, Lily."
She buried her face in Miranda's warm hair and tried to breathe. Miranda pet her, soothing sounds low and quiet from her mouth.
"Can't you take yes for an answer?" Stent asked, frustrated.
The scene around them resembled the cottage porch but something was wrong. The glow was missing. The boards were old and neglected. The stream and willows were gone, a peculiar blankness taking their place beyond the step.
Lily did not deserve to be at the cottage. She was polluting it. The rogue pulled away in horror, staring mutely at the dilapidated home. She backpedaled for she had to get away from Miranda before polluting her, too... The steps caught her by surprise and she stumbled backward from the porch.
"No -" Stent called, reaching out to her.
She fell backwards, over the cliff edge and into the Cleft of Shadows.
The impact as she hit the hard-packed earth below knocked the wind from her lungs. "Lily!" she heard Stent cry - or did she imagine it? She realized that she was lying on the warlock and scrambled off - but it was not him. It was her mirror image - the human Lily.
The human girl was gasping. Lily's fall onto her had knocked her breathless. She needed help. The rogue scrambled to her knees and reached down, wishing for all the world to help but unknowing how.
The girl gasped air in as Lily somehow helped her. She sat up, hugging her real-self close as she caught her breath. "Please," she whispered, panting. "Don't let me go. I'm all you have left of them." She grew insistent, clinging to Lily. "They are the only ones who cared, who loved you. They raised you. Don't turn your back on them - on yourself." The mirror image's nails grew longer, digging into Lily's back uncomfortably. The image seemed to solidify as Lily wavered. "You need to accept this pain. You deserve it. You -"
"Fuck everything about this," Krelle's voice came sharply from above them.
Her boss, friend, and mentor leapt down from the Slow Blade's ledge, landing smoothly beside the entwined Lilies. Krelle stood, a solid figure in the hazy dream world. She radiated competency, certainty. She looked Lily straight in the face. "I'm your self-respect."
Lily stared at her, dumbstruck.
"And I sure as fel didn't hire Limp-wrist McWhines-A-Lot here," she continued. "Get her off of you, Troxler. We have work to do."
Lily’s obedience was almost mechanical. At once she pushed, trying to extricate herself from the grip of her long-nailed doppelganger. The mirror-Lily hissed as she was pushed away but only backed off a few feet. "Self-respect?" she wheezed. "What is there to respect? A selfish chit of a girl who stabs first and thinks never? Who ruins everything just because it is better than she is, more beautiful than she is?"
Lily crab-walked a half-step back from her snarling self, certainty wavering.
"You don't have to listen to Doubt," Self Respect said flatly, stepping up beside real-Lily and helping her to her feet. Lily stood and stared, first at her horrid reflection and then at Lucky Krelle Ninefingers.
"We don't deserve to be happy," Doubt hissed at them.
"You go too far," Self Respect answered flatly. "You would have us incapacitated by our past. That was then! This is now. We need to move forward. We're useful here - and we are part of a family again." Krelle grabbed Lily and hauled her up the cliff to the Slow Blade, somehow. "You're so obsessed with what you were that you forget what you are," she said in her patient, teaching way.
She pulled Lily by the hand into the Blade. "There are other things you need to see, and they're a hell of a lot more important than the ghosts of Gilneas past." Kareth ignored them, as always, as they crossed towards the back room. Lily did not resist, following with hesitant curiosity.
The door opened. Nerron was leaning against the recoldulator, drinking a beer. A small trickle of blood was running down his back. He grinned, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand as he spotted them. "Hey Hon," he greeted Lily.
She began to smile but the expression froze half-formed at the sight of the blood. He ignored the blood, apparently unbothered by it.
"Good to see you. Thought you'd be running around in the bushes and gankin' rich kids all night."
She cringed. Nerron just grinned, shaking his head. He walked over to her and looped an arm around her shoulders, giving her an encouraging squeeze. "Laugh it off, Sugar, it's the only way to let it go."
She swallowed her fear, forcing herself not to look at the door, for she knew she would see Doubt standing there. The half-smile returned and she tried to laugh but managed only a nervous hhh hhh hhh.
Nerron was not fooled. He gave her a big-brotherly look, a rare serious expression on his face. "Everyone makes mistakes, hon - but this wasn't one of them," he said, referring to when she had stabbed him to prove her loyalty for her Claw trial. "I would have been disappointed in you if you couldn't do it. Relax. You did good."
Doubt's scorn at the statement was almost palpable in the air.
Nerron's glance flicked up to the human ghost. He looked her up and down with only the faintest interest. "Well there's a broad who could use a good deep dicking if I ever saw one," he commented.
"Pretty sure you'd never get it up, tryin' to nail a face like that," Poxsore quipped. Doubt turned her scowl to him, to no effect. "Yeah, there's the face that launched a thousand ships. In the opposite direction." Pox glanced at Lily and nodded in approval. "You look better without the eyes."
Krelle took Lily's elbow and steered her deeper into the Blade, to the bunkroom. As they entered Ryni popped up from her bunk with a grin. "Lily!" The blood elf leapt to her feet and rushed over for HUGS! Lily raised her arms in alarm to catch her fellow rogue, the tiny elf nearly bowling her over. Ryni gave her the biggest hugs! "Are you ok?!"
A hesitant nod.
Ryni stood up again, grinning, holding Lily at arms' length to inspect her. "Good! I like you just the way you are! Yup! Don't ever change, y'hear me?"
The Forsaken shrugged lamely.
Ryni's pigtails bobbed as she gave an exasperated little shrug, mimicking Troxler. "We're friends, right?"
Lily nodded, more surely.
"An' you like me the way I am, right?"
"Does it surprise you that I'd like you too?" Ryni asked, smiling.
Yet another nod.
Krelle moved, stepping up beside Lily. The two of them were on the rock ledge in the Valley of Honor. They took a seat, casually.
"S'funny, for years I didn't remember anything from my human life,” Krelle said, picking up the story from where she left off just now. “So I had nothing to compare this to. But I didn't think it was so bad."
"Really?" Lily's voice said, echoing from the memory. "Took ya... years?"
“Yeah.” Krelle laughed quietly. "I was given the name ‘Lucky’ when I woke up partly because I didn't remember anything. I have to agree with Hakk's assessment. Nothing that has come back has been worth recalling."
"Huh. 'm... sorry," Lily said.
"Thanks," Krelle answered sincerely. "It's ok, though. It's like … they are someone else's memories. I'm not that girl. Her memories are useless baggage to me. I'm very, very glad I didn't remember them at first, either. Y'know why? Cause I would've thought that I was her, and that those things happened to me. And that would have fucked me up. But I'm not, and they didn't. So it's ok."
Krelle reached up and pushed her goggles up onto her forehead. She rubbed her empty eye sockets. They were smooth and healed-over looking but held no glow. She looked down at the valley, then up at the sky.
Krelle lay back, resting her head on her hands so she could stare up at the stars. "It ain't half bad, unlife," the rogue said quietly. "I'll take it."
"That's different," Doubt whispered. "You're not her."
Lily kept her gaze fixed firmly on Krelle. To turn to her right would be to accept Doubt's presence.
"Doubt can be useful sometimes. All the shadows can," Krelle continued casually, as though they were still chatting idly. "Did I lock the door? Do I have enough poison? Should I replace that buckle? These are all useful doubts. They prompt you to action... The purpose behind pain is to help you avoid something that hurts you. The purpose of doubt is to steer you to a better course. When pain is caused for its own sake, it's a disease. When doubt cripples you and prevents action, it has gone too far," she says, shooting an eyeless glare at Doubt as she finished.
"She has been ignoring me since she rose," Doubt hissed back, still unseen by Lily. "And look at the mess she has caused already!"
"Trace had it comin'," Self Respect replied, her tone flippant. "Krelle woulda done worse."
"What about Stent?" Doubt hisses.
"Pff! We're the best thing to ever happen to him! He's sober. He's ALIVE again. Wasn't he spiraling into such a funk that we thought he was turning into a rotter? Now look at him! He owes us big time.”
"He thinks that we're something we aren't," Doubt insisted. "He's in love with Miranda still and we can't compare to her. She's beautiful and perfect. We're broken and -"
Self Respect held up a hand to silence Doubt. The voice cut off, the sudden silence resentful. "This is my rock," Krelle said calmly. "It's my turn." She looked at Lily. "When I met you - when you were still working as Endicott's 'trainee' - I knew right away that I wanted to hire you. We moved quickly on that. Do you remember?"
"Do you think I'm good at picking people to hire?" Krelle asked reasonably.
Lily nodded several times in rapid succession. For emphasis.
"Well then you clearly agree that you were a good hire, since I'm the one who picked you, right? Right. D'you think I would have been interested in her?" she nodded towards Doubt. She saw Lily’s hesitation. "It's ok. You can look at her," Krelle whispered, putting a hand on Lily's shoulder.
Lily was afraid but the hand on her shoulder was strong. She looked to her right.
A shadow separated from the rest at the edge of the stone. It slithered forward, crawling like a naga with long skeletal arms. Doubt's body tapered into a ghost's tail behind her, half-seen. Her eyes and mouth were empty, open holes, swallowing anything that got too close to them. Her white hair floated about her as if she were underwater. She hissed at Lily, the sound coming from deep in her throat.
Lily recoiled against Krelle and stared in shock at the thing.
Krelle moved to put herself between Lily and her doubt. She planted her feet on the stone, exuding certainty and competence again. "Enough! We might've made mistakes but we will use those to learn so that we don't make them again," Krelle told the shadow. "You can't trap us forever. We deserve to find happiness. Now get off my rock, I'm not done."
Doubt hissed again at Self Respect but withdrew into the shadows like a tentacle curling back into a dark recess under the sea. Krelle turned back to Lily, about to speak, then paused peering at her. "You're looking at yourself all wrong," she noted. "Why are you still using those?" she pointed at Lily's eyes. "You won't be able to see yourself right if you're using someone else's eyes, Lily."
Lily put a hand to her face again, following the curve of her tattoo up to her lower lid.
Her finger found a smooth glassy object in her normally empty eye socket. Krelle nodded encouragingly. The eye felt suddenly very wrong, slick and cold and numb. She scrabbled to remove it, digging behind the orb with her fingers. The suction from her empty socket made it hard to pull the eyeball out but it eventually popped into her hand with a solid tug. It was a glass eye with a pale red-violet iris.
Krelle smiled in approval. "It gets easier with practise. But you have to watch out - they sneak back in."
Lily looked at Krelle, seeing her with a peculiar double vision. Her left eye saw a small, weak-looking, unintimidating girl. Her right saw past Krelle's body to the lightning-crackle of activity in her mind as she juggled a small criminal empire, balancing risks and rewards and loyalties and strengths. Underneath it all was one absolute certainty: There are no 'good guys' or 'bad guys', Krelle knew. It's just us against them. That's all there is to it.
"You need to take another look at the way things are," Self Respect said firmly. "And don't take any more shit from Doubt!" she added. "We didn't let being an outcast mute blind girl stop us from causin' some shit when we were alive. We're made of sterner stuff than that shadow would have us believe." She grinned, a wicked, Forsaken expression. "And we're in a pretty good position to cause some serious shit now, aren't we?" Krelle pointed at Lily, her arm straight. "Get to work."
"Yes ma'am," Lily rasped, finally finding her voice.
Lily turned, back at the Blade. Stent was there. His wretched expression brightened considerably as she walked in. "Lily!"
"Finally," Kareth muttered, his back to them.
Stent crossed the floor towards her. She watched him walk, her vision still curiously doubled. Her human eye saw a monster, a decrepit mockery of a once-proud fighter, stalking towards her with an unearthly glow in his eyes.
Her cleared vision showed... Stent Firefight. The man she hauled through withdrawal, who drove her crazy, who leapt off the cliff for her, who chased her to the Fjord, who told her that she made him want to be a better person. Ryni's voice came back to her. "Does it surprise you that I'd like you too?" it whispered, incredulous.
Stent's hands found her shoulders. "You're doing it," he whispered, amazed, staring at her eyes.
"What?" she asked, barely a murmur. She had found her voice but it was still very small.
In answer he pulled her back to the mirror. It was framed in carved horn now, in the orcish style. He moved behind her, holding her shoulders as they gazed at the mirror. Her curiously doubled vision still showed both versions of him, but also of herself.
On one hand she saw a blinded mute with bloody claws who had willfully destroyed every piece of beauty that she could not have. She was broken. Nothing coming from a life so tortured could ever be whole.
Her vision shifted, the candlestick becoming two faces as the young woman looked back at her. The posture was not hunched in defeat, it was crouched in wary readiness. Skills learned in self-defense in her human life were being put to good use now as the Forsaken moved through the world, not as an outcast but as an equal in her own society. She was competent, and she was dangerous.
"Lily," Stent began to say, then stopped. He closed his eyes and kissed her hair.
Her image in the mirror shifted again. A new woman stood in front of her. She was lovely and terrible. When she unleashed her wrath it made his heart stutter in delight. When she let down her carefully-maintained guard for him, however briefly, it created a moment he cherished like a gem. The woman was beautiful, her scars only proving her resilience and battle-hardened soul. Despite her strength there was a lingering fragility, as if she has been over-tempered and become brittle. He wanted to shelter that lest she shatter. He would follow her orders into the Firelands if she asked it of him. He could not help it. She was a vision.
Lily drew back from the reflection in surprise. She pressed against him without meaning to, blinking at the woman in the mirror. As she stepped back the vision blinked back to her own, wavering in the double-sight.
Stent looped his arms around her, leaning down to whisper in her ear. "Take yes as an answer."
She held his arms in hers, hugging them to her. "...Yes."
He nuzzled her ear, hugging her close to him. "Thank you," he murmured.
The lucidity faded with the spell but the dream continued. As her last shreds of control seeped out the corners of the dream Lily raised her hand to her other eye and pulled. The glass eye popped out of her socket easily and dissolved into dust in her hand. Warm relief radiated through her skull and she turned to Stent. His arms tightened around her as their lips met.
It was a good dream.