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“…and that’s the most of it.” Andrew finished. “How about you? Having any success?”
The specter beside him shrugged her shoulders. “As much as I can.” Azhara’s tails drifted as she stepped around him. “Yin has moved on, though I suspect she has only done so to keep looking for a way to return to her sister. She would never have found that here.”
“If she moved on, she must have been satisfied somehow.”
Azhara nodded slightly. “You have helped Yang back to herself, which satisfied her. Of course, there are still a few who refuse to leave.”
“I know.” Andrew bowed his head. “I’ve seen them.”
“I’ve seen you when you walk like us.” Azhara murmured. “I don’t believe the others have.”
“I haven’t let them.” Andrew replied quietly. “You can see through it though, due to your duties.”
Azhara nodded in response. “I have tried to tell her to seek out reincarnation. She could be with you again if she succeeds.”
“She’s too stubborn for that.” Andrew whispered. “I think she knows that I’ve been watching her.”
Azhara sighed and stopped in front of him. “Grace is waiting for something. Until that comes to be, she will not move on.”
“I assume you have no idea what that is.”
“Of course not.”
“Please help her find it soon.” Andrew bowed his head. “If she continues the way she is, she may grow restless. I don’t want to see her become a vengeful spirit or, even worse, to become an Astral pokegirl. That is not a true life. It would not be good for either of us.”
Azhara dropped to one knee when she heard the pure grief in his voice. “It is my sworn duty.” Before Andrew could react to her vow she faded from sight.
He took a few minutes to think after she left, the cool breeze in the clearing almost caressing him as it blew.
What could Grace be waiting for?
More importantly, what could he do to help her?
“It’s been six months. If you want to try something new, you’re going to have to show me you’re ready for it.”
Andrew stretched. “This isn’t enough?”
Daria’s expression didn’t change. “You’ve been able to hold this female form since before I even met you. No, it’s not enough. Show me the one I assigned you.”
Andrew scowled but shifted. As he had gotten more practiced the silver that marked his power - the bleed of excess magic - had diminished and now there was barely a shimmer while his body changed. Daria waited for his form to stabilize before speaking again.
“Your time is slow. The size is too small. We both know you can gain or shed mass while transforming so take the size I specified.”
The man in front of her grimaced. “Look, I haven’t been practicing this specific form that often. I don’t see when I’ll use it.”
“It’s good to have a second identity that moves like your real body. Even the difference between a man’s body and a woman’s body might be enough to throw you off in a hurry.” Daria cocked her head. “If you haven’t been practicing what I gave you, what have you been practicing?”
Andrew returned to normal. “If I show you, you have to promise to keep it a secret.”
Daria frowned slightly. “I’m your teacher. You shouldn’t hide things from me.”
“I’m trying to say that it’s covered under privacy.”
“Oh.” Daria’s look of confusion smoothed. “You know I respect that. The door is closed; nobody is watching us.”
“When I went to first visit Telpëlass after I discovered what I am, I told Kuu to keep me human by focusing on an image of my body. She got a little carried away fantasizing about what she wanted me to be and after it was all over I promised her that I’d learn to take that form.”
“I see.” Daria mused. “And this is what you’ve been practicing?”
Andrew nodded and raised his arms to his chest. A few moments passed as he concentrated before he spread them again, his body rippling out with the motion.
“That’s different.” Daria observed. “You slipped right into that.”
Andrew rolled his neck. “I’ve been practicing it a lot.” He waited for Daria to inspect him. “Everything functions the way it’s meant to.”
“I’ve seen a few true elves in my travels. I’ve never seen one quite like this.” She stopped in front of him. “You’re taller than before. And I must say, while the elf pokegirls are alluring because of what they are, I find this elf race incredibly intoxicating on its own.”
Andrew rolled his eyes. “Considering it was born out of Kuu’s wet dreams, that’s not surprising.”
“So it doesn’t exist? You’ve created it completely from scratch?”
Andrew nodded. “As far as I know this individual doesn’t exist.”
“That gives your power an interesting aspect.” Daria mused. “You’re a true shapeshifter, not just an imitator.”
Andrew frowned at her. “I figured that was obvious.”
“I didn’t have a case study proving it one way or the other.” Daria replied. “Your female form could have been some girl you knew. Your true form already exists. But this elf didn’t exist until you became him.”
“I guess so.”
“I want to experiment with partial transformations. For now, what enhancements?”
“I’m evenly matched with Kuu in strength and speed in this body.” Andrew replied. “Without my magic, of course.”
“Right. That’s enough.” Daria waited for him to return to human. “I’m satisfied that you’re experienced enough with shapeshifting to move on. What were you interested in?”
“Something you can’t help me with.” Andrew replied. “Sorry, but what I’m doing next won’t be with you.”
Daria barely acknowledged his words. “And that is?”
Andrew sighed. “It’s time I confronted my dreams.”
Daria slowly nodded. “I can bring you into dreamtime again.”
“Not like that. This is something I have to do in my own way.”
Daria didn’t look happy but she nodded again. “You will not try anything without myself, Lyn, or at the very least Gale being there with you.”
“I can’t promise that but I will do my best.”
Daria’s expression flashed to anger for a moment before she got hold of herself again. “That wasn’t a request.”
“I know.” Andrew walked away from her and picked up his water. “Daria, what I will be doing will be new even to Eywa. A form of magic that hasn’t been practiced, even on this earth, in centuries. The last known master died before I was born. My mother taught me some things, but what I remember is lost and fragmented. Eywa knows enough to help me piece back together what I remember but that means I’ll be with her when I try this. And she doesn’t allow anyone to come with me except for Kuu.”
Daria was scowling. “It might be time to break away from her.”
“I can’t. She’s taught me far too much.” Andrew shook his head. “She’s dangerous and trying to spirit me away. I understand that. But I need her.”
Daria flashed her fangs. “Fine. And when she betrays you I will kill her without question.”
Andrew cracked a smile at the angry Vampire. “I know you will. I trust you to.”
He turned away from Daria’s sudden look of surprise and walked to the door. “If that’s all, I…”
Andrew turned back to her. She visibly hesitated before moving closer to him. “Why do you trust me?”
“At the risk of sounding like a jackass, because you’re my pokegirl.”
“No, I understand what you mean.” Daria scowled. “And that’s a problem. I’m not your pokegirl. I’m nobody’s pokegirl. I’m my own person and this disgusting psychological trick does nothing to change that. I’ve been subjected to worse. I’ve survived worse. I am no more your slave than you are mine.”
“I didn’t say you were a slave.”
“No, but you assume that because I have bonded to you, as a pokegirl, that I can be trusted. That wouldn’t be true with a regular pokegirl and it sure as hell isn’t true with me.” Daria crossed her arms. “I really hope you haven’t decided to trust me just because of that.”
Andrew shrugged. “I seem to remember you and I having a similar conversation when Camiel and Albia first came here.”
“And another when you started courting the Megami.” Daria agreed. “Look, I’m a spy. I have been for almost my entire life. I can’t just turn off what I have spent years living and learning, and there is no satisfactory reason for you to trust me. Or them. With the others, sure. You’ve known them long enough that you know them. But me? You know who I am. What I’ve done. I am grateful that you help me but damnit, Andrew, if you just took a second to think about who was standing in front of you instead of looking at the cuddly body you’d run screaming from the room.”
Andrew chuckled. “Cuddly? You’re hardly cuddly. Small and cute and soft, yes.”
Daria’s eyes flashed and Andrew felt his feet swept from underneath him. Daria sat perched on his chest with a scowl. “I don’t appreciate your jokes.”
“Daria, as one old soldier to another, I trust you.” Andrew pushed her away and sat up. “I understand your deepest pains and deepest secrets. I know they’re there, and because I understand them, I trust you. There are things we each will carry for the rest of our lives, but fear and distrust should not be some of them.” He stood, extending a hand to her as well. “That is why I am able to hold myself at ease when you’re around me. It’s not because I’m ignoring who you are, it’s because we share something the others never will. It’s also why I ignored you when you questioned Camiel. When you questioned the Megami. Their scars run as deep or deeper than ours, deeper maybe than either of us can ever imagine. But they were cut by the same jagged knife that ripped both of us to shreds. So just like I give you trust, without any conditions, I give them the same.”
Daria stared at him. “You are far more idealistic than I realized.”
Andrew chuckled. “Trust me when I say I used to be exactly like you. It’s funny what happens when you’re torn from your world and thrust into an intermittent hell.”
“So you don’t need me?” Daria turned at the voice, blushing at who stood in the doorway. “Daria, I will excuse your behavior today. Do not attack him again.”
Daria bobbed her head. “I’m sorry, Alpha.”
“If he thought he was ever in danger from you, you would not be the first to know.” Melody replied grimly. “Andrew, I need to discuss some things with you.”
“Sure, I think I’m done here.” Andrew glanced at Daria. “Unless there’s something else?”
Daria wordlessly shook her head, watching the two leave. “You’re still a fool, Andrew.” Her lips broke into a radiant smile. “A beautiful, wonderful fool.”
Melody and Andrew walked for a minute before she sighed.
“So what do you need?” Andrew asked curiously. “Something happen at the house? I know Ishara was laying pipe yesterday.”
“Were it so easy.” Melody grumbled. “No, some other things have popped up over the last few weeks. Some good, some bad. I sent Fu and Lucina into Carlsbad a few days ago to get a status report from the Sheriff, since we’re staying well clear of the military right now. Supposedly they found out where the missing shipments went.”
Andrew raised an eyebrow. “And?”
“The traitorous soldiers? They were working with a group of bandits. That’s who attacked the shipments, according to the soldier who attacked you up there.”
Andrew sighed. “So the farmers are in danger.”
“Yea. They still don’t trust the military and that leaves them vulnerable.”
“If we go back there now I’ll get roped into hunting down the traitors.” Andrew shook his head. “We’ll steer clear. Damn.”
Melody watched him curiously. “That’s right, you were going after one of the pokegirls up there, weren’t you? Why’s that?”
Andrew grimaced. “I wasn’t going after her. I was interested, sure, but it was just one more thing I was thinking about. She’s not important.”
Andrew shrugged. “She was the leader of the herd. I didn’t necessarily want her, I wanted to get her on my side so we could snag one of the Milktits.”
Melody’s brow furled as she thought. “A Milktit. But… Why? What possible use could we have with a Milktit?”
“What’s about to happen in a month or two?”
Melody thought. “I don’t know. The house?”
Melody’s eyes widened. “Oh. The kids.”
“Yes. The kids. I can’t imagine Cristina willingly taking herself completely out of the action for the first few years of our children’s lives, and I know for a fact that Fu, once she decides to do the same, will be even worse. We’ve already talked about how everyone who wants to will help watch and raise them.” Andrew raised an eyebrow. “So what happens when mommy is off doing something and my son or daughter gets hungry?”
“She would have…” Melody trailed off. “Okay, I see the problem.”
“A Milktit is essential. Sure, Cristina and whoever else gets pregnant will be lactating normally. That’s not the issue. The problem arises when she wants to be away from the kids for an extended period. You ever experience a milk pump?”
Melody purpled. “Um, yes.”
She glanced away in embarrassment. “A couple of times, I’ve had that prank pulled on me where you accidentally drink untreated milk.”
“How did it feel?”
“Not… terrible?” Melody remembered. “Not that great, though.”
“Well the mother of my first children hated it.” Andrew recalled. “But with a Milktit, normal production can be boosted. Or whoever is watching the children can be induced to lactate. And I almost guarantee that she’d like getting milked more than Cristina or Fu would.”
Melody chuckled to herself. “We could still do it. Start a milk business. ‘Angel milk fresh today! Come back tomorrow for some sweet dragon nectar!’”
Andrew nearly choked on his own spit as he began to laugh. “I guarantee we’d have a market. Oh dear. No, I’m not going to put them through that.” He wiped a tear away. “Yet.”
Melody giggled along with him. “I understand the reason now. Why not go for it anyways?”
Andrew sighed. “I’d have to go back up there in person. I do that, people start asking questions. I reveal that I’m trying to snipe some of the currently unclaimed pokegirls, I’m going to become the bad guy. It’s really not worth the effort.”
“Was she interested in you?”
Andrew frowned at the sudden question. “She was half feral, so she was interested in anyone who seemed powerful. I barely got a chance to meet her. It’s really not a big deal.”
“No, I agree that we need a Milktit.” Melody replied. “This might be a good opportunity. Didn’t she fight Fu? And win?”
“She didn’t win.” Andrew amended. “Fu said she had potential, but that’s about it.”
“Coming from Fu, that’s some high praise.” Melody said with interest. “I kind of want to meet this Minotaura. I’m always happy to add strength to my harem.”
Andrew groaned. “Seriously? And here I thought you didn’t want anyone else.”
“That’s Cristina.” Melody replied smugly. “Me, I was ecstatic when you courted the Megami. And they’re pretty fun to be around, too.”
“Speaking of, how have they been fitting in?” Andrew asked. “I hung out with Skuld the other day and she seemed happy.”
“The Alliance is doing well, so they’re relaxing a bit.” Melody replied. “You’d want to talk to Belldandy for that. I guess they’ve been coordinating with the Alliance and Sisterhood Iain brought with him.”
“Eh. I don’t worry about them too much.” Melody smiled. “After all, they’re their own entity. Sure, they’re my sisters now, but I want nothing to do with the Alliance. Anyways. I want to meet this Minotaura and see if she’d be a good addition… If you can handle another pokegirl.” Her face grew worried. “That’s something I needed to talk to you about, actually. Why aren’t you sleeping?”
“Less than six hours a night. Sometimes you barely sleep and spend the night with two, three, even four pokegirls last Sunday.”
Andrew shrugged slightly. “I’m not tired, if that’s what you were worried about. So I spend my time with the women who want to be with me.”
“That’s what the scheduled afternoons were supposed to be for.” Melody said. “Night time is for resting.”
“Look. It wouldn’t be right to give everyone an hour during the day.” Andrew retorted. “If I’m doing an activity with someone, that takes time. If we run off and have sex afterwards, more time. I never expect to devote an afternoon to more than one of you at the same time. So if I haven’t had a chance to be with someone in a while, I spend the night with them. Honestly it’s none of your business who I sleep with.”
Melody quickly raised her hands. “I wasn’t trying to say it is. I was saying I’m worried about how little sleep you’re getting.”
Andrew shrugged. “I get all I need, so it’s a moot point. Was that all?”
Melody shook her head slightly. “Not quite. I spoke with Lucina yesterday. I’d like to make her the official head of your personal fireteam.”
Andrew blinked. “Personal fireteam?”
“It’s a fancy way of saying your guard.” Melody muttered. “Sometimes, none of us realize a situation is dangerous until it’s too late. I want to assign a few of us to be your first line of defense when the unknown comes to bite us in the ass.”
Andrew’s mouth thinned. “I don’t always need a guard.”
“I know that.” Melody quickly explained. “Please, understand that I’m not trying to force you into a situation like you had before. I’ve been agonizing over this for a week. I honestly believe that, in the end, it’s best for everyone if you have a few dedicated pokegirls watching over you.”
Andrew didn’t respond for a while. “You chose Lucina on purpose. You know I’ve already been having her pretend to be my guard.”
“Fine.” He looked at her. “Lucina is a good choice. Who else?”
“I won’t be making that decision. It will be up to you and her.”
“Alright, you have my attention.” Andrew muttered. “We’ll see how this works out before I start complaining.”
“That’s all for now then, except one thing. About the Milktit. If we do snag one, why not induct her into the elf court?”
“It wouldn’t be fair to her to use her like that. At that point she’d basically be livestock, and we’d be no better than some of the humans on your world.” Andrew replied.
Melody smirked. “So it’s okay if you’re fucking her, but it isn’t when you’re not? Why do I feel like this isn’t being done for her own benefit.”
Andrew gave her a blank look. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“You’re not just trying to get someone new into your bed?”
Andrew blinked, his jaw dropping after a moment. “What! Where’d that come from? Of course not, Melody. Are you kidding? I have so many women who love me already, I don’t need to go far to find someone who I can be with. There’s absolutely no reason for me to try to seduce someone new just for variety.” He scrutinized her. “Where did this come from?”
Melody’s face was glowing red and she dropped her gaze. “It’s a pokegirl thing.” She mumbled. “Sorry.”
Andrew reached out to stop her from walking. “Melody, I would never do that to you. To any of you.” His eyes searched hers and after a moment he smiled. “I have another meeting in half an hour.”
Melody responded by hoisting him into her arms and sprinting towards her bedroom.
It was dark. But then, it was always dark here. No sun, no light, only the inky blackness suffocating any positivity that was unfortunate enough to wander by. Anything here would need some other way of sensing their surroundings.
If they came here at all.
“You got it?” The voice snarled through a range of tones, each word forced past the twisted features of a monstrous face.
“Two fresh, just like you ordered.” The second voice was nothing like the first. Smooth, refined, but cut with an evil hiss. “You want them here?”
“Stupid. This place would kill them before I could.” The monstrous form shifted up slightly. “The broken city, yes. That would be an enjoyable hunt.”
The second figure swept its limb across the rotting table between them. “Payment. Half and half, as always.”
The second form turned faster, untold ages having honed its senses. It hissed - there was something where a hole in the wall had once been. It could feel how the permeating dark no longer flowed the way it should.
“I appear to be at a disadvantage.” The figure began conversationally. “What is your business here?”
In this place, no light shone. It was so deep into the lands of the dead that it had no name. A forgotten place, home to forgotten souls. They, the intruder had no interest in hunting. But the visitors, they were prey.
The suave voiced figure made a horrible noise when a brilliant spark flared. Only for a moment, but it was torture to eyes accustomed to the infinite dark. Across the table the monstrous figure roared. It had no eyes to blind, but it had other senses. It locked onto the brief spark of virtue and attacked.
The intruder made a disappointed noise when the abomination attacked the decoy. “A pity. Just as dumb as the rest.”
There was a deafening bang and the figure exploded, showering the room with heavy chunks of misshapen flesh. The second figure clawed at its eyes, finally turning to where it knew the intruder stood. “I can give you anything! I have allies, know of hidden treasures!”
The figure quailed when the intruder stepped towards it and murderous intent washed through the room. “I don’t fucking care.” The voice hissed. “You have allies, I’ll kill them too. You have weapons, I’ll destroy them all. Forever, so I stay strong.”
The figure opened its mouth again and gagged when it felt something hard shoved down its throat. “Aughhha!”
“Sorry, I couldn’t catch that.” The cold voice stated before a finger tightened on a remorseless trigger.
The first shot would have killed a human, the entire back of the figure’s skull blowing apart. But this was no human, not anymore, and the intruder knew that. So it fired until the soul was nothing but a trail of smoke swirling into the surrounding darkness.
The intruder stood over the dissolving souls until the room was empty again. Finally it sighed, sliding a heavy caliber pistol into a shoulder holster.
“Why does this place not cause me pain?” It asked quietly into the void. “Are my actions not righteous enough to cleanse my sins?”
There would be no answers here. There never were.
She relaxed, letting the tether that anchored her soul pull her out of the abyss. Maybe this time she would find them at home.
Azhaara looked up from her meditation when Grace materialized. “I had hoped you had moved on.”
The Mini-Top unbuckled her holster, letting the spectral weapon dissipate into nothing. “Sure.”
“Hoped. Not believed.” Azhaara watched Grace move across the clearing. “You’re drenched in shadow today.”
Grace stopped. “Am I?”
“How deep did you go?”
“As far as I could.” Grace ran her hands through her hair, watching as the gentle light around them destroyed the evil that still clung to her body. “How do I return to him.”
“Every time you ask the same question, and every time I have the same answer.” Azhaara replied gently. “You must find your own path. Reincarnation is possible.”
“It is not.”
“Then it’s not fucking good enough.” Grace spat. “I will not risk losing him.”
Azhaara gazed at her. Eventually she sighed. “He worries for you.”
Grace whirled to her. “He what?”
“Why are you surprised? He visits us almost daily and your name is always on his lips. He worries that you will become an untethered spirit because you refuse to follow fate’s thread.”
Grace looked uncertain for the first time in months. “I have seen him come here, but… He doesn’t respond when I call for him.”
“He hopes that by ignoring you you will pass on.”
“He doesn’t need you anymore, Grace.” Azhaara explained. “That is what he is trying to show you.”
Grace’s expression firmed. “He doesn’t know what he needs. He never has. He needs me, and I need him.”
Azhaara sighed when the spirit vanished. “There you go again.” She stared at the empty space for a while before shaking her head and returning to her meditation. How, Andrew? How am I meant to force her to let go? The only one she has ever listened to is you.
Kuu watched the meditating figures nervously.
Andrew’s lessons with Eywa had always kept the Chibaio mage at arm’s length. History was taught vocally, techniques mimicked or left to Andrew’s interpretation. The closest he had gotten to her was during one of Eywa’s semi-consistent advances, which he had easily deflected.
Now the two were in a world she barely understood, and far from her interference. Eywa would make a move. And Kuu would not be there to stop her.
He is not alone. Kuu blinked at the voice in her head. The witch does not know of me, and I am here.
Kuu let out her breath slowly. Right. Even though his twee couldn’t follow Andrew, his magic could.
Andrew looked around the twilight forest. “This is different than what I’ve seen before.”
Eywa rarely clothed herself but in the dream world she wore a ceremonial robe adorned with her own feathers. “It is because we are not here to travel, but to use our power. Her domain beckons us to stay.”
“Her as in nature.”
“Yes. As humans call her, Gaia.”
“I remember you teaching me about that. You always speak of Gaia as being a real being, yet also only an idea. Which is it?” Andrew asked.
“She is both, and neither. Within our world, the world of life, she is usually but an idea. In her domain, she can be as real as we are, and also not, for the realm itself is her body.”
Andrew nodded absently. “I’d always thought of nature as being life-giving only.”
“It is a common mortal mistake. Few realize that we live on only one side of a coin.” Eywa drew her robe tighter around her body. “Here, between the sides, we are free.”
“We are always nature’s children.” Andrew recited under his breath. “Even those who walk on the wrong side do so through her power.”
“The ones who abandon life, the… what do you call them?”
“They are Those Who Are Not. Your people had many names, as all mortals do.”
“Right.” Andrew thought. “Wendigo, skinwalkers, ghouls, we sure did have a lot of names for that kind of creature.”
Eywa inclined her head for him to continue.
“Anyways, them, they are what that verse is referring to, right? They’re death, not-life, existing on the living side of nature’s coin.”
“Then there is something that lives on the death side as well.”
Eywa frowned. “We do not go there. That is why Those Who Are Not still exist in our world – they were refused access to the between.”
“That doesn’t make sense.” Andrew grumbled. “If they’re aspects of death, existing in the living world, then it stands to reason that there are aspects of life existing in the dead world. Nature is balanced. If she was not she would not exist. Where do our people go when they die?”
Eywa had an uncomfortable look in her eyes. “They come to the between and become one with her again.”
Andrew turned to the nervous woman. “They don’t, do they? They pass on, through the between, and enter the world of the dead. And sometimes one of us who didn’t mean to finds themselves there as well.”
Eywa coughed. “I have told you what happens. We will not speak of this again.” She waited just long enough for Andrew to process her words before continuing. “Today you must not let her take you back. We are here so you can use her power directly, in a way even I have not done.”
Kuu’s watch was interrupted when a new voice entered her mind. “Afternoon, Kuu.”
Kuu blinked. “Hello?”
“It’s Cortney.” Cortney’s satisfaction bled through the link as she spoke. “In real time for once.”
“Real time? Aren’t we always?”
“No.” Cortney replied. “Before today, I’ve had to talk to your twee, who processed my transmission, then fed it to you. This delayed our conversation. Not by any amount you would recognize, but it was there. Today I am talking to you like they do. Like the twee do. Directly.”
“That’s… wonderful.” Kuu replied. “I think?”
“That’s alright, it’s an incredible accomplishment and is proof that I still can grow stronger, but we’ll just say it’s wonderful for now.” Cortney’s reply was tinged with annoyance. “Someone else will be more appreciative. Are you with Andrew right now?”
“I’m watching him, yes.”
“Well make sure he makes it to his afternoon appointment.”
Kuu frowned. “You distracted me from guarding him for that? You really do still need to grow.” Her twee severed the connection and Kuu turned her full attention back to Andrew, but not before a quiet giggle escaped her lips.
Back in the dream Eywa was watching Andrew struggle. Finally she shook her head. “Enough.”
Andrew released his focus, falling to his knees as his lungs pleaded for air. “I don’t understand.”
“You are fighting her. Why?”
“Was that what I was doing?” Andrew gasped. “I was just doing what I’ve always done.”
“When we shape our magic we are borrowing her power. You must follow her flow to succeed.”
Andrew shook his head. There had been an annoying buzzing piercing his thoughts ever since he had started trying to form constructs. “I’ve always done this. I can’t form my magic without using myself as the focus.”
“She is a better focus than you will ever be.”
“Maybe-“ Andrew started.
Repeat to me what she last said.
Andrew blinked at the voice. “Huh?”
Eywa cocked her head. “Yes?”
It is Hoshiru. Do not vocalize, instead remember what the witch last said. Andrew frowned, slowly running the words through his mind. He heard an angry hiss. She is bewitching you. THISis what the witch said to you.
In his mind’s eye Andrew could see Eywa speaking, her mouth moving out of sync with her words. “You do not have your own power. Everything you are comes from her.” Andrew responded as he had and Eywa shook her head. “Forget what you believe. Embrace us.”
The vision vanished and Andrew felt his heart beating faster. Who did he believe? Would Hoshiru have any reason to turn him against Eywa? No, he realized. Not falsely. They both needed the Chibaio mage to help their growth. But Eywa had always had her ulterior motive. She was here to ensnare him and bring him under Bjorn’s control. And she was centuries wise in this realm, a place he had only known for a year at best. It was not only possible, but likely, that she would make her move here while he was isolated and vulnerable.
Andrew swallowed. If Hoshiru hadn’t been awake, he would have been lost. He had grown careless, just like Daria had warned him.
Eywa was still watching him. “Is something the matter, Dewlen?”
Andrew flinched. “What did you say?”
“Is something the matter?”
“No.” Andrew raised his glowing silver eyes to hers. “My name is Andrew.”
Eywa’s eyes narrowed and the ground around him erupted, but Andrew was already moving. He didn’t have time to flow back into his body like he always did. He needed to get away from the danger first.
Kuu screamed in frustration and dove at the meditating figures, Hoshiru’s warning ringing loud in her mind. I’ll kill her! She thought desperately, her living blade sprouting from her fist. Andrew!
Andrew dove back, narrowly avoiding the grasping roots and staring at Eywa as the Chibaio advanced through the trees. “I should never have trusted you.” He called, allowing a bit of his hatred to give his words a murderous edge. “You betray my hospitality.”
“Not so.” Eywa replied calmly. “I have made no move towards you in the living world, where you lay claim. You are not of us, Dewlen. I never meant to treat you as such.”
Andrew cursed and retreated when she twisted the world around them once again. With every attack he was being driven further and further from his path home.
Kuu screamed in pain when the magical barrier blasted her away from the motionless woman. She could feel the magic snaring her, slowing her movements as she moved to try again. She countered with a haste spell, bringing her blade crashing against the wards again.
Within the dream Eywa didn’t even notice the desperate attacks on her body as she pursued the fleeing man. “There is only one way back to the living.” She called. “Through me, Dewlen. Give in.”
“Fat chance.” Andrew muttered.
“If you do not accept me, you will die.” Andrew shuddered at the glee in the Chibaio’s voice. “I will return while you remain trapped here. Your flesh will fall easily without you there to protect it. Not even your queen will be enough.” Her voice grew angry as she screamed her next words. “YOU SHOULD ALWAYS HAVE BEEN MINE!”
Kuu finally had to drop her blade, watching numbly when the wood shriveled and died. That shouldn’t have been possible.
“You did your best.” Kuu felt a set of hands grab her shoulders and pull her to the side. Daria grabbed her when she started to move back. “No, Kuu. Stay out of her way.”
Lyn’s breathing was measured but her rage was evident as she spoke. “I figured out how to kill you months ago,” she growled at the motionless woman, “and the only reason I haven’t done so yet is because he would say you deserve a chance to live.”
“She can’t hear you.” Daria said. “They’re both in their little dream world. I told him he shouldn’t have done it, but he insisted.”
Lyn’s breathing deepened. “He and I are going to have a long talk after this.”
Daria turned away when the Archmage cast her spell, a torrent of pure magic impacting the barrier before being quickly absorbed by the same ward that had killed Kuu’s sword. Lyn’s eyes narrowed and she shouted a command, the magic inversing and cleaving straight through the absorption field.
“LYN!” Daria screamed, watching in horror as the unchecked destruction rebounded within the barrier. Eywa had set up the wards to keep anything from touching either her or Andrew, but Lyn’s spell had bypassed the outer defenses. Now it was contained by the inner shell. A shell that held both defenseless figures.
Andrew felt tired. He was already drained from Eywa’s interference, and he wasn’t going to be able to defeat her and return to his body. She was speaking the truth when she said he had only two choices – give in to her, or be trapped in this world forever.
Lyn has arrived. She will kill Eywa’s body.
“At least she won’t get away with this.” Andrew replied. “I can’t return in time. I’m dead.”
Your body can not exist here.
There is somewhere else it can.
Andrew nodded as an idea hit. “You’re right. There is.”
Eywa slowly stalked towards the trapped man. He had nowhere else to go. He was as far from the living world as he could be. And he would not want to die. She smiled, a cruel thing that marred her beautiful face. She had won.
Lyn’s eyes widened and she tried to stop her spell, but the damage was done. The torrent of magic consumed one body, then the next, and the wards shattered. She collapsed as the spell broke apart, pure shock overtaking her thoughts.
Kuu howled, whirling and raising her hand before remembering her dead blade; she immediately reached back, drawing her bow and aiming an arrow directly at the trembling Archmage’s head.
Daria’s consciousness shut down as her logical mind took over. Is he dead. No. No backlash from broken bonds. Where is he. Not here. She glanced up to see Kuu drawing her arrow back and acted.
Lyn flinched when the arrow sank into the ground inches from her face. Kuu snarled, whirling to Daria and reaching for another.
“He’s not dead!” Daria roared, slamming her palm against the ElfQueen’s throat and quickly reinforcing the inhibiting magic. “Take a BREATH!”
Kuu gagged, clawing at the glowing collar around her neck before sinking to her knees as she fought to breathe. “She- killed- him.” She managed to wheeze.
“Is your bond broken,” Daria replied curtly, “or not.”
Kuu struggled for another few seconds before Daria’s words sunk in. She slowly calmed as she desperately cast out. “N-no.”
“Then he’s alive.”
Andrew gasped, sitting upright.
Cold, stale air filled his lungs. Everywhere he looked the colors seemed muted, dark. Some distance in front of him was what appeared to be a small town, buildings in all different styles – he saw a medieval cottage, modern concrete, and wooden construction all lumped together.
I am here.
Andrew steeled himself. “Twee?”
“I am here.”
Andrew slowly let out his breath. “It worked.”
“Hoshiru has informed me of what occurred. You were careless.”
“I was stupid.” Andrew corrected. “And you can save any lectures, because my women will say whatever you will and much, much more.”
“Where are we?”
“The land of the dead.” Andrew replied. “Eywa was keeping me from returning to my body in the living world, so I came here and brought it with me.”
“You – we – are dead?” His twee asked in surprise. “This is unprecedented.”
“No. I should still be alive.” Andrew pulled at his clothing, noticing the light aura that surrounded him. “We’re just in the land of the dead.”
“We should leave immediately.”
“As soon as I can figure out how, we will.” Andrew slowly looked around again. Besides the town there was a meandering path that vanished into the distance, and he could see ruined buildings dotting the landscape.
“I’m going to see if there’s anyone in that town.” He said out loud and began walking.
As he got closer he could see figures moving around. Most seemed humanoid from this distance. He was maybe a few hundred yards out when one of the figures noticed him. As Andrew watched the activity ceased, a few figures moving towards the edge of the town.
Andrew slowed to a halt when they got close. The faces on the figures were not friendly, and neither were the weapons they held.
“Um-“ he started.
“You do not belong here.” One hissed, hefting a spear. “Leave this place.”
Andrew took a step closer and the figures raised their weapons. “Life does not belong!” Another cried, aiming a crossbow. “Return to your own world!”
“I don’t know how.” Andrew said desperately. “Tell me and I’ll go.”
“Leave!” The first cried again.
“Leave! Leave!” The others chorused, slowly advancing on him.
Andrew was forced back as he continued to plead.
It is time to go.
Andrew ducked the first bolt, zigzagging across the plains and diving behind a large rock. He lay there, catching his breath, until the chorus of voices had faded into the distance again.
“Well that was pointless.” He gasped. “What now?”
Time has little meaning in the lands of the dead. In some places, it passes normally; in others, a second can be the same as a decade, and vice versa. But Andrew was not dead, and could feel when the world around him was not moving the way it should. He did his best to avoid those places, picking his way along the plains until he came to the edge of a ruined city. Taking shelter in one of the buildings, he gazed out over the desolate landscape.
“I’m not a lich.” He muttered despondently. “I don’t know how to escape this place. I’ve become what I theorized about.”
There will be paths back.
“Even if I find one, there’s no guarantee it will let a living thing escape. Or that it will take us back home.” Andrew leaned back against the crumbling wall. “And just like the regular universe, this place is infinite. I can wander forever and still not find what I need to, even if it exists.”
“We need an anchor to follow back.”
“And we’ll have one.” Andrew replied. “Azshara is bound to the garden. The issue is that I don’t think she can access this realm anymore, not after I anchored her in the living world.”
“Perhaps one of the others?”
“If I could find one of them, they might still remember where they came from.” Andrew agreed. “The issue there is that all the ones who might be here moved on. They severed their tie to life. There will be nothing to follow.”
Silence fell over all three minds for a while. Eventually Hoshiru spoke. We will not know until we try.
“You’re right.” Andrew pushed off the wall. “We won’t. Yin only recently passed on, so we might be able to find her.”
But Yin was gone; no matter how hard he searched he could find no sign of the Nereidame’s soul. He even braved the areas of altered time, running past torrential waters as he felt his life alternate between racing away and standing still.
“Twelve days, seventeen hours.” His twee reported. “And to you?”
“Ten hours.” Andrew groaned. “Please don’t lose track. If there’s any way to return to a certain time, I want it to be the same day.”
Has there been a soul yet who tolerated us? Hoshiru grumbled.
“Not yet.” Andrew sighed. “I don’t blame them. I represent what they’ve lost. I would hate me too, if I showed up like this.”
“Your cognitive functions appear to be failing.”
“Oh, haha, one idiotic sentence and I’m getting insulted.” Andrew grumbled. “I think we try to find where the garden bleeds into this realm. It’s our most likely way back.”
Within his mind his twee looked at Hoshiru. “I was not insulting him. He has already begun to deteriorate.”
Hoshiru nodded. The living are not meant to be here. It is trying to claim him. This is an old magic, as old as existence. We can resist, but we will not defeat it.
“What can we do?”
Pray, even though there is nothing to hear us.
Andrew stumbled, catching himself against a twisted tree. “Ow. Bit of a headache.”
He stared over the cluttered ground with a frown. Eventually he realized what he had noticed – a figure was slowly making its way towards him.
Andrew straightened. “Twee? What is that?”
“It is too far away to be sure.”
As the figure moved between the scattered trees and boulders Andrew began trying to calculate its size. It was about his height, but it was completely cloaked in darkness. He could make out no features beyond the lanky limbs and humanoid shape. Even the souls in the town had been recognizable.
Andrew pressed himself behind the tree when the figure got close. “What are you?”
The figure came to a halt less than twenty feet away. “I have been looking for you.”
Andrew grimaced and pushed himself further behind cover. “Who are you?”
The figure’s head tilted ever so slightly. “You don’t… recognize me?”
Something in the voice pulled at his memories but Andrew shook it off. “You’re nothing but a shadow. How could I?”
His twee screamed a warning when the shadow plunged its hand into its shoulder and pulled out an object, but Andrew hesitated. The movement, the shape…
He didn’t flinch when his cover was blown to pieces. All he could do was sob as the figure slowly came into focus, his clouded eyes clearing.
Grace stared at him sadly, her pistol drawn. “Have you already died, Andrew? I see your life in you, but it is nearly gone. How long did it take for you to give up hope?”
“No.” Andrew’s voice broke and he stumbled forwards, throwing himself into the Mini-Top’s arms and breaking down. “No. Grace, Grace, I see you. I know you.”
Grace sighed in relief, clutching him tightly. “That’s better. Now you burn as brightly as I remember.”
“Why did you still struggle on?” Andrew sobbed. “Every time I checked on you you were defiant as ever. Why did you have to worry me so much? Why?”
“There would always be a chance I could lose you.” Grace whispered. “I refused to let that chance exist.” She tightened her grip. “Besides, I always felt like I hadn’t finished what I was meant to do. Now I’m here for you again.”
“What happened? How long has it been? Did you finally let go because you thought I had died?” Andrew’s confusion was evident as he tried to make sense of the world.
“I came to find you immediately. Daria came to Azshara and neither of them noticed that I was listening.” She smiled at him. “That Vampire’s a smart one, you know that? She’d had maybe ten minutes to think and she already knew exactly where you’d have gone.”
“And it will be ten minutes when we return.” Grace stated firmly. “That’s one of the first things I learned, how to return to when I left, not just where.” She tightened her grip until there was no way for Andrew to do much more than breathe. “Hold on.”
“Ten minutes.” Andrew repeated as the darkness around them began to shimmer. “But how long was it really?”
Grace’s hooded eyes captured his. “An eternity or two is an easy price for me to pay, if it means you will live.”
“I wandered for weeks.”
“Yes. You did.”
And suddenly the darkness was gone, replaced by a… nothing. Andrew still felt Grace clutching him and in front of him an opening slowly grew.
“Now you’re safe.” Grace whispered in his ear. “You feel it, don’t you?”
Andrew nodded. The garden, Azshara, Telpëlass, all combined into a blazing beacon that drew him forwards.
“I’ve found my answer.” Andrew stiffened when Grace’s grip began to loosen. “You’re safe now.”
“I’ve given my anchor to you.” The Mini-Top said sadly. “I have nothing holding me to that world now.”
“What are you-“
“I’ll have to try for reincarnation.” Grace’s tone was bittersweet. “There will be a chance I fail. If I do, this will be goodbye.”
“I don’t want it to be!”
Grace smiled through her tears. “I’ll do my best so it isn’t.”
“No. You misunderstand.” Andrew closed his eyes, focusing inwards. To the magic that he had already used once. This time, with his hope rekindled from Grace’s presence, he knew he could do more. “I won’t let it be.”
Grace yelped when the magic surged over her body and she felt the gentle backwards pull vanish. “What are you-?”
“Azshara didn’t want to come back.” Andrew replied. “You do.”
Embrace us. Eywa’s memory crowed. Embrace me!
No. Andrew spat at the vision. I embrace MYSELF.
Panicked shouting was the first thing Andrew heard as they burst into the sunlight. Daria dove at him, yanking him free of Grace’s embrace and patting his body as if to reassure her that he was really there. “How in hell…” She trailed off when she realized that the feebly stirring Mini-Top had been just as real as he was. “Andrew…”
Andrew patted her as well for a moment before crushing her in a hug. “How long?” His voice croaked.
“I- I- It’s been maybe fifteen minutes since the-“ Daria stopped herself. “Since you left.”
“Get a pokeball, Gale, something, anything.” He pleaded, releasing her and twisting to watch Grace suck fresh air into her new lungs. “Please!”
Daria snorted but let go of him. “That’s probably the only thing you could have said that explains everything. Gale is on her way. I need to go get Lyn to stop trying to kill herself.” Before Andrew could question her the Vampire was gone.
Someone cleared their throat softly and Andrew looked up to see Azshara watching Grace twitch. “You happened?”
“She wanted to come back.”
Azshara nodded slightly. “And I did not.”
“You knew she was listening when Daria came to you for help.”
Azshara nodded again. “I can not go where you were. But I knew she could.” She smiled. “She was quicker than I could have been as well.”
Andrew looked down. “She wasn’t. She just refused to give up.” He looked back up when Azshara made an inquisitive sound. “She said an eternity or two was a fair price for finding me.”
Azshara winced. “You bringing her back was no coincidence. She paid her price many times over to live again.” Azshara bowed her head. “Cherish her as I know you will.”
Gale burst into the clearing a minute later, questions in her eyes but her hands only moving to treat her patient. “What happened?”
Gale nodded. “There will be a command meeting.”
Andrew sighed. “I know. For more than just this.” He shrugged when Gale raised an eyebrow. “Daria isn’t acting like there’s an enemy here right now, so I assume she’s been taken care of. Either way, today was a declaration of war.”
Melody – Wet Queen - Alpha
Cristina – (Blessed, Fiendish) Ophanim – Beta
Aella – (Hunter) Shinryu
Cortney – (Upgraded) Videogirl
Fu – Warvern
Lucina – Shadowcat
Nami – Sharptits
Constance – Tank Vixxen
Gale – Night Nurse
Shamira – Goldina
Nevaeh – (Blessed, Fiendish) G-Splice
Ann – Ice Empress
Nova – Blazicunt
Furia – (Fiendish) Wolf Queen
Rein – Myobu
Ishara – Romanticide
Kuu – Elfqueen
Lyn – Archmage
Yang – Nereidame
Daria – Vampire
Camiel – (Paragon) Archangel
Albia – (Hunter) G-Splice
Grace – Mini-Top