I don't know how I'm going to organize this but hoo boy. if I need to individually take it paragraph by paragraph this is going to be a LOT.
The ceremonies would irritate Lirit even if they weren't fairly disturbing in the general sense, if only because she absolutely despises wearing the robes. The fabric is so cheap. It chafes at the neck, where the hoods attach to the collar, poorly sewn with equally cheap thread, and the seam prickles at her skin no matter how she tries to adjust the fabric.
The blood is also an issue.
With the ceremonies. Not the robes, obviously.
One can't be picky, though, with necromancy. If Lirit were truly squeamish about the blood, she would have been deanimated long enough ago that she'd be nothing but rot. Lady Corliss knows Lirit's distaste, despite her best efforts. Hopefully the lady doesn't hold it against her. If anything, it allows more opportunity for Lirit to prove herself, when the less coherent corpses pass the goblets around and Lady Corliss chooses her to assist in the drawing of the circles. She has a steadier hand than most, in the order.
Today, the circles are already drawn when the order enters the chapel and takes their places. More complex than any Lirit has seen before, including the ones she opened her eyes to see, after her own raising. The corpses, empty-eyed but even-handed, slouch out from the chambers behind the dais, carrying between them a long, narrow box of old, dark wood.
It isn't exactly a coffin, despite the shape. There are air holes bored into the corners. Lirit fails to observe the shape with any intensity. A glimpse won't do any good, regardless of the contents. her duty is not to wonder, anyway. Her duty is-
She glances towards Lady Corliss. The lady's eyes burn, hard and triumphant, her lips already twisting with spellwork that bleeds subtly through the space.
Lirit plants her feet more solidly, and she feels the rest of the assembled order do the same, their energy circling and assisting Corliss' weaving.
Another troubling aspect of the ceremonies. Or- not troubling, exactly. It only... gives her pause, perhaps. The drawing of power is necessary. No one necromancer could do the work, it is only through cohesion that the order may do anything important at all, but-
It is unpleasant, of course. Lirit imagines that it is less so, for the living members of the order. Even if Corliss managed, through uncharacteristic negligence or cruelty, to sap the very last drop of magic from their fingertips, they would not die. It might harm them, in other ways. Illness or distress or other complications unforeseen, but it would be rather different than if the same recklessness were committed against Lirit. Her continued existence is predicated on the magic itself. If the last of it were pulled from her, she would be dead.
More dead, rather.
Corliss wouldn't. Overdraw from any of the order, that is. She is meticulous, careful, steady. It only feels as if the life is being wrung from Lirit like water from a rag. She can endure. For her family, it is an easy sacrifice.
Though, sacrifice would imply that the energy Corliss takes is her own. No, the magic that holds Lirit's body upright was something the lady and her order imparted to Lirit in the first place, and if she wishes to take it back-
Certainly Lirit cannot complain. Once, she was dead, and now she is not. That is a gift. Lirit is grateful for that.
The pull lessens, the sensation of suffocation (or something like enough to it) ebbs again. The living members of the order sigh in relief, and Lirit echoes the sound in solidarity. The energy swirls, deepening the color around Corliss' fingertips, hollowing the room and darkening the edges of Lirit's vision as Corliss focuses all of the energy into a pinpoint, a sharp sort of darkness that hangs from the tip of her finger like a drop of syrup, threatened by gravity. She lowers it, slow beneath a stream of clever spellwords, and places the energy into the center of the amulet on the altar. It absorbs as if a sponge were inlaid in the tines of the silver rather than a sharp-cut, colorless gemstone.
Colorless- until the moment the energy settles, and then there is a breath of stillness before a rush. Lirit's ears pop, and two or three of the other robed figures in the circle flinch or lift their hands to clutch at the sides of their heads.
The flood of magic ends as quickly as it started. The gemstone gleams deep with color, now, shifting between wine-red and a blue like bruising when the flame flickers behind it. The box, the one that is not a coffin-
Dead recognizes dead. A nod in passing, so to speak. Lirit knows, as the moment passes, that this was a ceremony of killing. There had been something alive, in that box. Lirit hadn't sensed it, then. The amulet holds its essence now. In the single moment in between those two truths, Lirit could feel something familiar, an exhale of a soul untethered.
But the moment is already passed when she recognizes it. It does not matter, regardless. This was necessary. If Lady Corliss wished this ceremony, then it was important and needed. Lirit must trust to that, as they all do. They are necromancers. Lirit could no more be squeamish about death than she can be about blood. A baker cannot mourn the yeast that burns in the oven. Not if she wishes to eat.
Corliss exhales, her palms pressed flat to the altar on either side of the amulet for a long moment, and then she smiles, the shape of it only a suggestion beneath the shadow of her hood.
She raises the amulet, and the necromancers bow. The entire circle as one entity, the hems of our robes brushing the stone floor in a simultaneous ripple, and when they raise again the aura of ceremony dissolves. Lady Corliss pulls her hood down, her smile more apparent, and she cradles the amulet in her palms before she draws it back, tucking the silver into the folds of her robe, where it will be safe. Mott, her second, comes up beside her and whispers into her ear. He leaves his hood up, but I recognize his frame. He is broader at the shoulders than any of us by a considerable margin. Also, none besides him would be so presumptuous as to invade the lady's space without asking permission first.
Corliss nods, and without a word to the gathered circle, she slips through the door at the back of the chamber, deeper into the catacombs. Mott stands straighter in her absence, and begins to usher the congregation out the other way, towards the more domestic portions of our compound. As the living relax their shoulders, tugging down their hoods and beginning to speak in low murmurs, as they retreat towards their beds or the kitchens or the library to recuperate their energy, Mott aims his attention towards Lirit.
"Lirit," he says, and without meaning to she raises her eyes to meet his. His gaze hardens, obvious even shadowed by his cowl, and she lowers her head again before his irritation has time to curdle. "Clean this up."
Lirit nods, head still bowed, and holds herself still as marble until he leaves as well, following Corliss deeper rather than going to rest with the others.
Lirit understands her function, here. Her use. The other necromancers could perform the same task, with somewhat more effort, but- it's mutually beneficial, this way.
Magic like this is unsteady, and it bleeds. Death spreads like soot. It catches in the lines of fingers, drifting into corners and staining whatever it touches, even after the fire is doused. And, of course, in the same way that a neighbor might smell the smoke from a thousand tiny fires in the building next door and grow concerned, other mages can easily smell the reek of necromancy left to linger. It would be dangerous, to let such sorcerous detritus accumulate in the rafters, behind the drapes.
The other necromancers could do this, too, yes. But Lirit is made of that same energy, animated by it. She is able to draw the power back, in the wake of such ceremonies.
It is only fair, she supposes, since the drawing of the power is more exhausting for her than it is for her living cohorts. It's only fair that she is allowed to reclaim the remnants of that energy again, when Corliss is finished with it.
Lirit pulls her hood down, finally, tugging the tie at her neck until the seam no longer chafes at the nape of her neck, and then she turns to her task.
She walks the lines painted on the floor of the chamber, slow and careful. She unmakes the circles, dispels the blood, and she breathes the energy back into herself where she finds wisps and motes and eddies stuck stubbornly in the natural magic of the air. Breathe, here, is a metaphor. Her lungs - most of her organs - exist more as monuments to their former purpose. Lirit could pull air in, if she wished to, though she has no need for breath. The organs are more useful for the purposes of speech, if they are useful for anything at all. The sensation of drawing back the magic, however- it is analogous, in her mind.
Or, she thinks that it is. What memories Lirit can summon from her life are not so granular that she can recall the specifics of something so constant and mundane as respiration. Why would she have bothered committing that to memory? But it feels like a parallel, at least. Moreso than, say, eating.
Other necromancers would require tools, for this. Wands, to manipulate the energy. Crystals or baubles or lodestones to draw in the power for later use. For Lirits purposes, her own body serves. The magic is meant to fit there, now. It settles within her bones, within the preserved tissue. She can almost taste it between her teeth, electric and tingling. A particularly vicious scrap sticks beneath the altar, and when she kneels to press her hand to the stone, it glows beneath her palm, as hot as skin until she draws that heat into herself instead.
Lirit hears the click of one of the doors behind her, from the catacombs, but she does not rise, yet. Mott prefers her kneeling, when he enters, and if it is Corliss, she will understand Lirit's deference just the same. She draws her fingers in the seams between the stones, while she waits, catching the softest dusting of magic that managed to settle in so small a space.
No footsteps. Lirit blinks, suddenly unsettled, and she risks raising her eyes towards the inner doors, uncertain if Corliss will be watching, or if Mott might be looking for an excuse to take issue with Lirit's progress, but-
No one is there. The door hangs cracked open, just a couple inches. She didn't imagine the noise, but- she can't see anyone there, and none of the circle are close enough that she can sense their particular necromantic magic.
A ghost, she thinks, madly, and then she presses her lips together to keep from laughing. It's the sort of thought that isn't Lirit's, exactly. Or- it's the sort of thought that exists as a residue of the Lirit who lived before she was resurrected. If Lirit were afraid of ghosts, once-
She wonders, for a moment, if she would have been frightened to see herself as she is, now. Looking at a ghost. Or, a corpse, at least.
"Are you alright?"
Lirit whirls, but the awkward angle kneeling forces the motion halfway into a collapse, her hip bouncing awkwardly off the stones and her palm only barely catching her weight.
Someone stands at the other doors, obscured by one of the circle's robes, but-
If Lirit cannot not sense their magic, they are not one of the circle.
"No, really, are you alright? I didn't mean to startle you, I swear, I just-"
"Y-you don't belong here," she manages, uncertain how her voice can sound breathless when she does not need to breathe. She scrapes her palm on the edge of the stone as she pushes herself off, scrambling to her feet as best she can, reaching to grip the clasp of her robe so it doesn't slip from her shoulders entirely. "I may not have the skill of my Lady but I will still defend-"
"It is you. Fuck."
The figure darts, their body a momentary blur, their breath catching in a laugh, and Lirit should-
Do anything, really. She's scared, perhaps. Or maybe it's the laugh that stills her tongue, her hands, her magic. She doesn't even think to put up a shadow of a ward, she doesn't think to yell for help, or to alert the order, she only thinks-
Three thoughts, simultaneously.
She thinks, their feet are utterly silent on the stone, no wonder I could not hear them cross the room. She thinks, I know that laugh. She thinks, what an idiotic way to die.
Warm, warm arms wrap around Lirit's torso, pinning her arms to her side, and then they lift her into the air for just long enough for her to kick her feet, a wordless noise of shock and indignation slipping from her lips before they set her back down, still laughing in that breathless, distractingly familiar way.
"Lirit," they say, words precisely as warm as their skin, and they move to grip her shoulders rather than embracing. "Lirit, by gods and demons and the fucking stars, I thought you were dead."
Lirit blinks, unbalanced in every way it might be possible to be unbalanced. "I am," she says, without really meaning to. The words sort of slouch out from her lips, uncertain and ashamed, and then she shakes her head. "Who- you aren't meant to be here. Who- who are you? How did you-"
"You are dead," they say, their own voice gone empty and soft as their grip on Lirit's shoulders loosens, and she forces herself not to lean forward to follow their palms when they pull their hands away entirely. "You are dead. I thought- I thought it was just... a trick of the light. It's so damn dark down here, and I thought- down there, I thought it was just- ash. You really are dead."
"Who are you?" Lirit asks again, trying to furrow her brow in a reasonably threatening way. "Why does that- no. That doesn't- matter." She grits her teeth, and sucks in a breath through her teeth so she can shout for help.
The stranger's hand clamps over Lirit's mouth before she can form the words. Their palm is so soft, and the heat- again, the shock of the heat is almost more than the shock of being held, their other hand curling around Lirit's back to press her still against their side.
"Shhh, starlight," they say, hissed gentle by Lirit's ear. "Shh, remember, this game is between you and me. You wanna catch me yourself, don't you? This is just between you," they release her mouth to tap her nose with a finger, "and me."
Lirit gasps in another breath, she needs to scream, but-
She goes still.
("I wasn't going to break the rules!" Lirit insists, scowling, and she smirks enough to tell Lirit that she knows. "You are the dirty rotten cheat, Essa, you- oh, my birthday is off limits, how could you think-"
"You weren't supposed to catch me delivering your present, starlight." Her dark eyes glint, warm and irritatingly fond as she leans back in the windowsill. "You are getting wise, aren't you?"
"Of course I-" her heart stumbles. She scoffs, or- tries to. She summons up a frown, but she knows that it will be weak. She knows Essa will see through it. "A- you got me a- a present?"
She leans forward again, fingers clutching the sill and her legs crossed with deceptive laziness. Her face is too close, suddenly, her dark eyes like glass, catching the light from my candle. "I did. Of course I did. Now," she leans even closer, a smile curling her darkened lips, "you just have to find it.")
Lirit shakes her head. She shakes it again.
Lady Corliss says that Lirit died tragically. Lady Corliss says that Lirit must release the memories when they come, or they will only bring pain.
"I... I don't-"
She doesn't need to breathe. The way her throat tightens shouldn't mean a thing.
"Lirit," Essa says, their voice terribly gentle.
"You shouldn't be here," she hisses, because that, at least, is safe. It is true. Her voice won't catch properly and her throat hurts in a way that does not make sense and the memories linger and twitch at the base of her skull but- "You shouldn't be here!"
They exhale, an exasperated sort of sigh, their shoulders sinking as they press a hand to their mouth. They swipe the hand up, scuffing over their hair and dislodging the hood in the process, and their face-
("Easy, now, don't hurt yourself-")
It's the familiarity, more than anything. Essa's eyes are dark, so dark, pupils indistinguishable from the iris like little round windows into the black of night, flashing with obvious concern as Lirit stares. And the hair- shaved at the sides, the top pulled back neatly into a bun at the back of her head, tinted a warm, deep purple.
Lirit knows that she uses cosmetic magic to shift the color of her hair at a whim. She knows that this sort of magic, limited illusion, this is the only sort of magic that she knows. Everything else she can do is purely skill, purely practice. Lirit knows that she should call her her, just now, because this is the color of hair she wears to accompany that whim. Flame-orange would prompt a they, much rarer green would mean he, gradients to mean multiple at the same time-
Lirit doesn't have the first clue how or why she knows these things. Or- she can assume. She can assume, the memories sloughing off layers of rot and disuse as Essa tilts her head, her mouth twisting in exasperation and concern while Lirit stares at her and does not breathe, playing at the existence of a statue.
"Lirit, I didn't know where you'd gone, but I-"
A bell sounds, deep in the catacombs, hollow metal ringing in alarm, and Lirit stiffens as Essa curses under her breath.
"What- what did you do?" Lirit says, her tone more accusatory than questioning, and she heaves a sigh.
"Look, Lirit, you should- come with me. Let me get you out of here, and then you can explain where the hell you've been, and I can explain-"
The heat of Essa's palm against her own. She tries to take Lirit's hand, and she- she flinches. She jerks her hand away, pressing it to her chest, leaning back.
"I don't know you," Lirit lies, and her mouth twists down. "I can't- I can't leave. This is my home. I need them. I need-"
How long can Lirit linger, without Lady Corliss' magic to sustain her? She doesn't have the faintest clue. She's never had any urge to test that limit, before.
"Are they keeping you here?" she asks, her voice low and serious and fierce.
Lirit laughs. She can't help it. It scrapes her throat oddly, as it comes up. "Without them, I would be nothing but rot and bone."
"Are they holding you against your will?" she tries instead, even more sharpness in her tone.
"I wouldn't exist without them," she says. "They are my family."
Essa's mouth presses flat, tight, her dark eyes unreadable for a moment.
The distinct slap of boots on stone sounds from deeper in the catacombs, easier to pick out since this intruder left the inner door cracked open. Lirit tries to flatten her expression, but when she looks towards Essa again-
Too quick. Lirit's back hits the stone before she registers the clever sweep of Essa's foot, the opposing heat of her palm flat to Lirit's chest, making her body a lever in the air as she neatly tips Lirit from vertical to horizontal in a motion she cannot even see. Lirit notices the grime on the ceiling before she recognizes Essa's other hand, cupping the back of her skull to keep it from cracking against the stone below the way her shoulders did.
Wouldn't that hurt her hand? she thinks, disjointed, and then, no breath to be knocked out of you. What excuse could you possibly have?
"Sorry," she says, murmured close by Lirit's ear before she straightens up, smirking again despite the gleam of worry in her eyes. "I won't twist your arm to leave, starlight. Not my style. You can at least say I snuck up on you, this way. But- find me?" her smirk tips, slightly crooked, slightly weak. "I know you can. Get the hell out of here and find me, okay? We'll- we'll figure it out, starlight. If you want us to, I know we will."
She pulls the scarf at her neck up, over her nose, and then she winks as she pulls the hood down as well, obscuring her face almost entirely. She turns for the door, feet still soundlessly light, and Lirit-
"Thief," she blurts, the memory too strong, and Essa's eyes crinkle at the corners, gleaming dark and deep with inexplicable joy, and Lirit can hear her laugh as she slips through the door, towards the shallower tunnels, towards escape. "Thief! She's a thief-"
Lirit rolls, twisting up to her feet and shouting after the thief as Mott barrels into the room behind her, his face twisted with fury and blotched red at the cheeks, and he clamps Lirit's shoulder in his enormous palm, squeezing hard enough to press her back down to a knee. "Which way," he snarls, and since Lirit would prefer to keep that arm, she points with the other, biting her lip to keep from yelping with the pain.
Pain. Lirit doesn't breathe, she doesn't eat, she doesn't sleep, the only reason her organs don't rot out of her ribcage is because they've been pickling in magic, but- yes. Pain, yes, she still feels. Lady Corliss has not mentioned, yet, why that might be true.
Mott releases her shoulder. More accurately, he shoves her aside with a snarl and she collapses back to the stones as he crashes through the door in pursuit of the thief, and Lirit curls into herself for a moment, clutching her shoulder with her eyes stinging.
(Are they, she wonders, holding me against my will?)
She rolls from her side onto her hands, slowly aiming upwards, and then she feels Lady Corliss enter, her magic roiling in cool, furious waves.
She grips Lirit's shoulder (the one opposite from Mott's manhandling), and hauls her easily to her feet, as if Lirit weighs nothing at all. Lirit keeps her eyes low, shuttered, her lips twisting with the anger and frustration she does, genuinely, feel.
"Did the intruder damage you?" Corliss says, gripping her chin and raising her face.
Corliss' eyes gleam deep, deep blue, sparking with more magic than pigment. Lirit shakes her head.
"S-surprised- stunned me. Didn't hear her coming until- until-"
Corliss' eyes flick to Lirit's shoulder, and she realizes that she's clutching it in her free hand without meaning to, without noticing. "That?"
Lirit stills, and swallows her discomfort. "M-Mott," she manages, after a moment, and Corliss' eyes go cool, understanding. She nods, and then she releases Lirit's chin.
"Keep your head down. She won't escape, and she will regret every single part of our lives that she has touched."
Corliss' voice comes in a blazing snarl, like a blade being sharpened, and Lirit feels her insides curdle with guilt as Corliss strides towards the door to follow Mott and Essa, magic curling dark and crackling around her wrists.
"W-wait-" she stumbles after her, only a step, hesitating when the Lady aims the blue of her eyes towards me again. "I can help, can't I? Let me- let me help. Let me help catch her."
Corliss fixes her eyes on Lirit for a lingering moment, and she feels- pierced. Seen, as if her gaze scrapes past Lirit's skin, past her skull and into her mind. She tries not to squirm, beneath that gaze.
"... No," she says, eventually. "Stay out of the way. Do your duties. Mott and I will handle the thief, and then we will discuss a tightening of our security."
She says nothing, but something in her stance- stills, almost predatory, and the words vanish from Lirit's tongue before she can fully voice her protest. She drops her own gaze again.
"Stay out of the way," she says again, more of a hiss in her tone. "Behave."
"Y-yes, my lady."
Lirit waits, eyes on the floor, until she feels Corliss' magic drift away, her footsteps clipped and sharp as they depart in pursuit.
And then, Lirit is alone.
The room is hollow, empty even of the last remnants of energy from the ceremony. She's already done her job, here, and reclaimed what scraps of life she can.
She feels remarkably unrefreshed, despite that. The ceremony must have taken much more out of her than she realized. Or- or maybe she's simply too thrown to feel better, now.
She inhales, and exhales a sigh. An unnecessary little play-act for no one but herself, and she feels embarrassed almost immediately.
Well. No more magic to scrape up from the flagstones, but that doesn't mean there's nothing here to clean up, in the more physical sense. She drifts in concentric circles, catching any remnants of blood and paint left on the floor, and then she washes the altar, a simple and familiar ritual of cleansing. The box, the not-coffin, it's too large for Lirit to carry out on her own, and she's not particularly adept at the sort of physical manipulation magic she would need to drag it back out to one of the storage rooms.
She touches the stone anyway, just for a moment, on a strange sort of whim.
There's no body inside.
Lirit blinks, and shakes her head, and pulls her hand away from the box. She can't see inside, she wasn't trying to sense anything, she doesn't know- how she would know that. She doesn't know how, but she does know that it's true. The box was not empty when the others carried it in, but it is empty, now. Which means that the ritual Lady Corliss performed wasn't simply a matter of using a death to charge that amulet, it was... something else. Something more complicated.
Something none of Lirit's concern, she reminds herself. Lady Corliss only has the power to protect the circle so long as they trust her, and protect her in turn, and protect their home.
Precisely as Lirit failed to do, when she let Essa- when she let the thief traipse on by with barely a breath of protest, let alone any attempt to capture or fight her.
(Find me? I know you can.)
She seemed so certain. How in the world would Lirit know how to find her? And- why would she want her to?
Lady Corliss told Lirit to stay out of the way. She should- she should do as she was told, she's already done enough damage today, hasn't she? But-
If Lirit can find her, then-
If she can find her, she can take back whatever the thief stole, and she can fix this.
"You keep... freezing. What are you thinking about so hard, this late at night?"
Lirit jolts, and whirls, and Essa leans lazy in the doorway, lamplight behind her lighting the purple of her hair like a gentle violet halo.
"Stop doing that!"
She grins, though there is a sort of tension to the curve of it, a sort of strange sadness. "I'm not going to change the way I walk, Lirit. You just need to get better at listening."
She clenches her fists, scowling, and-
Recognize the memory. She's not here. She's not.
Lirit closes her eyes, takes a deep breath she does not need, and when she opens her eyes again, the thief is gone. The doorway is gone, no more warm worn wood, no more lamplight, no more cool air of the city at night. Only stone, and dust, and flickering torches, and Lirit, alone. It's not real. It's not now. It doesn't matter.
It doesn't matter.
Lirit knows that place. She's seen it before, other memories that linger and tease, other memories of familiarity that she has been trying so hard to bury, but-
Wherever Lirit lived, when she lived, Essa would visit there. Her home. Wherever that was.
In the city, she knows. She can always hear the bustle below, when she lets herself remember, or when the memories insist on themselves too strongly to deny. The bustle of the city below, colorful kites twirling from towers above and around. Pigeons and doves on the balconies that someone scolds Lirit for feeding, but she never listens.
Could she... find it? Could she find that place, and- and find Essa there as well? If she knew the thief before, if she can catch up with her and take back what belongs to the order-
Or- she could tell Lady Corliss. She could tell her that she remembers this thief, that she knows where she might go, that she knew her in life. Lady Corliss might know better than Lirit does, where she might start, in trying to find her old home. Corliss knows more than she prefers to say, for Lirit's own sake. For all of their sakes.
Corliss would be disappointed. Lirit knows she would. She might- if Lirit admits to the memory of this- Essa, if she admits that she recognized her, if she admits that she knows who she is- Corliss might think that Lirit let her go on purpose. Might think that she lied (did she lie?). Bad enough that Lirit succumbed to the temptation of the past, that she- she's curious, she admits that much to herself, she shouldn't have let the memories freeze her the way they did, and that would be disappointing enough for the lady, but-
Lirit can't admit that she got a good enough look at Essa to recognize her, even, can she? She can't admit that they spoke. Enough time to speak is enough time to act, she could have done something, could have fought her, could have aimed her magic at her- Lirit is not the most skilled in the order, but she knows she could have done something. Could have marked her, at least, or- drained her, anything. Instead, Lirit stood and shook and hesitated, and she cannot let Lady Corliss know how deeply she failed.
If Lirit finds Essa herself-
Foolish. Dangerous thought. She hasn't been above ground by herself since she was resurrected, and she can hardly go traipsing through the city alone, can she?
And- and it's mad to think it would come to that, anyway. Essa- the thief will be caught before she leaves the compound, so Lirit won't need to do a single thing. It won't matter that she recognized her, it won't matter that she was recognized in return. The thief will be dead within the hour- if she's lucky. She'll be as dead as Lirit is, and the past will stay where it belongs.
They can't find her. Like smoke, like a dropped pin. No one says that she has escaped, but they all know.
Lady Corliss is furious, in her calm, quiet way. Mott is less subtle. Lirit is almost glad, that she doesn't need to eat, if it means she doesn't need to endure the rolling, antagonistic discomfort of supper at that particular table. She helps the constructs and thralls bring out the platters and goblets and, as soon as it is appropriate, she retreats back into the kitchens.
They are not angry with Lirit, in particular. She knows they are not. Essa must have passed nearly every one of the order and still escaped, so it cannot possibly be Lirit's fault entire. Essa slipped past Lady Corliss herself, so- she can hardly be blamed, can she? Can any of them? Mott is convinced the thief must have performed some magic of her own, to infiltrate and escape. Obviously, Lirit can't disabuse him of that notion. She wouldn't be able to explain how she knows. Unless a simple glamor is enough to fool him, Lirit doubt that magic is what Essa used for her evasion.
Even on an ordinary day, the kitchens are safer than the main table, despite the lack of a closed door between them. There is enough space back here, at least, and none of the other necromancers tend to bother sticking their noses into the more practical running of the order. That's work for the dead. Back here, it's quiet. No likelihood of interrogation, no awkward sitting still and silent while the living eat and Lirit pretends she doesn't miss it. Seren caught her staring, once, over a pie Lirit cared enough about to grace with a careful, complicated lattice top, and she learned rather firmly that the rest of the order do not appreciate, in any way, being so carefully scrutinized as they eat.
The funny part was, Lirit wasn't observing all that carefully for the sake of seeing them eat, she was only trying to remember. She still possesses a sense of smell, though, since breathing is more of a choice now, than a necessity, so too is smelling things. Rich, dark berries, sugar, tender golden crust, glossy with an egg wash-
Lirit still enjoys the smell of the thing, even if she'd wind up retching if she tried to swallow a bite for herself. She was just trying to remember, if she had ever tasted that specific sort of pie, before. It seemed familiar.
But, apparently, the staring was unsettling for them. Lirit supposes that's fair. She'd think a necromancer would be less off-put by the dead, but... perhaps that's too much to ask. She doesn't blink out of necessity either. When she's startled, when she's thinking hard and the muscle memory takes her, but- if she doesn't think about, she'll just... stare. The desaturated corpse-eyes tend not to do her many favors, either.
She doesn't spend much time in the dining room, these days, all in all. She's glad for that, today, because it means no one will notice if she's all the more desperate to be away from the rest of them, just now. She can't stand the aura of vitriol for any longer than is strictly necessary, and this way, she can get a start on cleanup, as well. The thralls do well enough with that sort of task, simple and mindless, but... well, it's quicker if Lirit helps. Goes more smoothly, too. They don't exactly think, in the strictest sense, so their problem-solving isn't the keenest, and some tasks go more smoothly when Lirit is there to direct.
The unfortunate side effect of a mindless task: the mind is not otherwise occupied.
So, despite her escape from the anger of the other room, she still finds herself thinking of the thief.
She knew Lirit's name instantly, without question. She said it with-
A number of different somethings.
Lirit hangs her head, frowning, and she passes a bowl to one of the thralls to dry. It doesn't notice her distraction; she can be grateful for that.
She said Lirit's name, and she tried to take her hand, and she called Lirit starlight.
And she stole Lady Corliss' amulet, and escaped with it.
And Lirit is the only one who saw her face, and she's the only one who has even a shadow of a chance to find her.
Lirit feels like a disobedient child for even thinking of it.
(You aren't going to call for the guards, starlight?
No. This is between you, and me. I can stop you myself.
If Lirit can come back, head high, amulet in hand- Corliss will see that she was right to bring Lirit back. Won't she? She'll have to see. Lirit just has to prove that she was worth resurrecting.
Lirit doesn't think very much about the benefits of not needing to sleep like the living sleep. It's something of a trade; She does still very much need time to settle her mind, to rest, to gather her strength so as to not start to crumble apart, or to settle her magic so it does not begin to vibrate her body to pieces. It's a delicate balance, but- she is still conscious throughout, and it can be put off for much longer than mortal sleep, if she's feeling stubborn or if she has work to do, or a book she can't seem to stop reading.
Tonight, it has other benefits. No one is awake to see Lirit pack a small bag of her things, or to witness her slip a crystal of stored energy into her pocket, or to notice as she bundles into one of the sets of 'street clothes' the more trained necromancers wear when there's need to slip through the city above without being noticed. She grabs one of the ones with a hood deep enough to obscure her face, and she takes a pair of gloves, as well. Someone would need to look rather closely to notice the desaturation of Lirit's skin on just her hands alone, but she would rather not risk any more than she needs to, with this mad endeavor.
(It is madness, obviously. Lirit hardly knows what she's looking for. But-
Lirit knows that the memories are somewhere within her. She knows that she can find it, if she pushes hard enough. She knows she can find the thief.)
(She certainly seemed to believe that Lirit could.)
It won't be all that hard to leave the compound. She hopes. The guards are meant to stop others from finding their way in, after all, and- well, all of us know about the secret exits, in case of disaster. She would prefer not to use them, if the less dramatic exits are passable, but Lirit know they are there. It's simply a matter of staying unseen, and moving quickly.
Lirit falls into fortune at the second exit she tries. It's only a thrall guarding the door; one of the necromancers disobeyed instruction and passed their duties on to the dead, despite the dangers of doing so. Dangers like this: Lirit breathes a soft laugh, relieved, and she steps out of the shadows. The thrall stares straight ahead at the door, mouth pressed flat into a line, eyes blank and distant. It does not move, does not even look at Lirit as she walks towards it, and it remains precisely the same as she edges sideways to slip past, unlatching the door and stepping out, and then closing it again behind her.
Thralls are simple. Animated, but unconscious, unthinking. They are dolls, wound up with magic and set to simple tasks, or simple rules. The rule that this one was given was likely along the lines of, do not allow any to intrude into our compound. It has no rule, no if-then in its instruction, for anyone going out. If Lirit did not fit into its guidelines, it very likely did not even perceive her at all. Which will work in her benefit, when she is, eventually, missed.
Lirit pauses, with the stone door behind her, and leans back against it for a long, cool moment.
She can count the number of times she has stepped outside of the compound on a single hand and have fingers left over. She's a liability, Mott says, always with a sneer. The dead are harder to hide than those who raise them, Corliss says more mildly. They are right, of course. Lirit is grateful for their concern, even if it has limited her experience rather substantially.
At the moment, however-
It is not that Lirit is afraid of the surface or the city, exactly. She's not afraid, she simply do not prefer to dive into situations quite that unfamiliar, no matter the reason. Even before she died-
Her memories are, of course, slipshod at the very best, but she possesses none whatsoever that would suggest that she ever frequented the streets of the city. What little of her memories she's been disobedient enough to catch and keep suggest that her life, as it were, tended more towards cloistered than worldly. She supposes that's cause for some measure of relief, if that means there is less experience for Lirit to have forgotten in the first place. Less loss altogether.
Lirit doesn't have the luxury of time to worry over her- worry, though. One stolen (borrowed, certainly, she absolutely intends to bring it back) charged crystal will keep her from collapsing for a few days, depending on how drastically she strains herself in the interim, but- she needs to find Essa- find the thief, recover the amulet, and bring it back home before that time runs out.
She pushes herself off the door, and she aims her feet towards the living city above.
The exits from the compound are all, themselves, underground, so as to avoid detection. Most of them let out into various lesser-monitored portions of the sewer system, one or two lead to the basements of abandoned buildings that Lady Corliss owns obliquely through proxies or false names, one winds all the way to a natural cave system at the very edge of the city, and one (rather cliched) exit opens into a secret trapdoor in a mausoleum.
Lirit avoids that last option. The sewers seem safest, considering that she cannot know for certain if Corliss might post guards on the buildings she owns, as an added precaution, and considering that the cavern leads to the outskirts, and Lirit has an inkling that her destination is closer to the heart of the city than not.
The sewers aren't all that much more vile than the tunnels below. Then again, Lirit doesn't need to breathe, so she doesn't need to smell if she doesn't want to.
She does not want to.
She peeks up through a number of stone grates before she finds one that seems like an exit that will suffice, tucked into an alleyway rather than on a wider street. It's the dead of night, but Lirit isn't going to risk any more than strictly necessary. She manages to push the stone slab aside with some degree of difficulty (she is a necromancer and a corpse, she has very little muscle with which to work) and then she scrambles out into the shadowed dark between the buildings. She hauls the slab back into place, and then- hesitates.
She should- leave some sort of marker, she thinks. So she will recognize the way back. But doing so, that comes with its own risks. If- when they follow her, it will give the order much more information with which to track her, and worse- if any from the city guard or whatever other forces would like to uproot our lives happened upon it- there's the chance that they might be able to use even so small a clue to find the compound, nestled safe beneath their feet.
No. It's too dangerous, too much like a true betrayal. And- regardless. Lirit likely won't be able to find her way back to this one particular sewer grate, likely won't be able to retrace her own steps with such granularity once she wanders off into the city, but that doesn't mean that she can't find her way home. If nothing else-
Lirit closes her eyes for a moment, despite the darkness. She feels, into her own self first, and then when she finds the tether of her own magic, her own animus, she feels out, tracing it back. She can feel Lady Corliss' particular, distinctive magic. The magic that summoned Lirit back to life in the first place. Lirit would know it anywhere, and if she just- feels-
It's vague, still, the direction. More like a compass, or like sensing the wind. But Lirit knows that if she wanted to, she could follow that sensation. She could aim her feet and go, and she would find her way back to her lady.
For now, she places that feeling at her back. Distance is probably safer.
The city is terrifyingly huge, the starlit sky wide and far too high, far too open, but at least now, in the night, it is reasonably quiet, reasonably settled. When dawn comes, it won't be quite so kind or forgiving.
First steps settled. She's out. Now-
Now she just has to find one elusive thief amongst thousands in an enormous city.
The most she has to go on, if Lirit wishes to try to find the place that was her home in life, is the window, the balcony from her memories, as nebulous and tangential as that is. She can remember, uncertainly, the skyline, the shapes of the buildings below, the colorful kites tied to the railings, tied to the rooftops a bit further below... perhaps if she climbs, perhaps if she can find somewhere high, she can recognize something, or at least get a better idea where she might be able to find buildings that look more like what she can remember.
She glances up, eyes the yawning expanse of sky above the buildings, and shivers. Unfortunate. Well, she has very little choice, she supposes. She won't find anything just skulking around in rotting alleyways until some guard finds her or until some poor soul decides she's suspicious enough to bother with. Better to try to do the obvious things (climbing buildings, honestly, she can already tell she's going to regret this) while it will be easier to stay unseen in the process.
Lirit keeps to the alleyways as she looks for a way up, despite her face being obscured and the fact that she has seen next to no one on the streets at all. She isn't even entirely certain what time of night it is, but considering the sheer silence, she has to assume that they must be closer to dawn than to dusk.
She finds a ladder, and she steels herself to climb it. It's only sky, after all. Simply because Lirit is far too used to low-ceilinged caverns, doesn't mean that the emptiness of the sky is actually a threat. It only feels like a yawning maw. It only feels like if she misses a step, she might fall upwards into the expanse.
The ladder leads to a lip of a roof, only partway up, but behind an unlocked gate a narrow staircase leads a little further up, to a wider roof and another ladder, and then another ladder, and then (her head spins, it cannot go much higher, can it?) another ladder, and then when Lirit sees at least one more layer of ascent she decides-
Well, she's already high, isn't she? It won't hurt to get a look at what she can see of the city now, from this height, and then she can decide if she'd like to make the trek any higher despite the swooping sensation in her stomach.
This high, her theory proves accurate about one thing, at least. She can see the way the edges of the clouds are going grey off to her right- tomorrow is approaching quickly, which- makes Lirit feel even more nervous about her prospects, but- if she can't see anything in the dark, at least she won't have long to wait before a little more detail will be revealed.
However, what detail Lirit can see is somewhat frustrating.
There are kites everywhere. Lirit's balcony must not have been particularly unique.
She hadn't noticed it, not consciously, but now she looks out over the dim city and its fluttering of paper wings and she realizes that since the moment she pulled herself out of the sewer, she's been able to feel the faint touch of the wind. Even in the alley, and more and more so as she climbed. And if there are unattended kites trailing from every railing and rooftop and parapet, that must mean that the wind is fairly constant, up here. Constant, and with enough speed to keep all those wings aloft.
Lirit closes her eyes again, but she can't feel any magic in the wind. No more than the ambient magic of nature, at least. If there is some magic keeping the wind high, here, it must be either too complex to sense, or distant and large. Or, for all she knows, it might be purely meteorological. Maybe the shape of the valley in which the city rests is just such that the wind is a perpetual presence. That sounds right, but Lirit can't be sure if that's memory or assumption.
It's unhelpful, no matter the cause. Lirit sighs, and sits with her back against the cool stone, leaving the ladder up to the next level a few inches to the right, a threat she'll deal with when the sky lights a little more.
That was the plan.
Dead recognizes dead. She feels the moment- a subtle little turn on the level above.
It's not a person. Lirit knows that immediately, but she's already halfway up the ladder before that knowledge sinks through to her conscious mind. She slings a leg over the railing of the next roof, pulling herself up, and the flutter of startled wings nearly sends her tumbling back over the edge before she catches herself. Pigeons- or maybe doves, or maybe both. Lirit likes birds, but- it's dark, and she hasn't exactly seen many up close since she's been dead. Not many feathered things, lingering in the underground.
She shakes her head, focuses, casts her eyes around, and she spots it with her senses before she spots it with her eyes.
Another little bird, of course. What else would it be? Lirit drops to her knees beside the creature, only half-noticing the second pigeon, still alive, feathers puffed and chuffing as it places itself between the recently dead bird and Lirit.
She shouldn't use what little power she has on so small a thing as this, she thinks, but her fingers already smooth the rumpled feathers, the spark of magic shooting straight into the bird's heart, the muscles and bones knitting back together together. The thing jolts awake with a flutter, awkwardly puttering from its side to its feet, and-
Just in time, just barely in time. Any longer, and- and the little bird would have been just like Lirit. Only a few moments dead, and it could still, technically, be called a healing, and not a resurrection.
(Lirit doesn't know if it would have changed anything, if it had been dead for a little longer, if that would have stopped her from pouring out a little life for something that needed it more urgently)
The bird and its newly returned partner coo and strut, that stilted little pigeon step, weaving a little knot around each other until one of them hops just a hair too high and they both startle into the air, whirring together as they flutter off into the darkness, barreling down into the city, leaving Lirit alone, knelt at the edge of the open air, that terrifying space above and below.
Alright, she thinks. She shouldn't have done that. She has no time or energy to spare, in no uncertain terms.
Lirit pulls her legs up to hug against her chest, resting her chin on her knees, and she smiles as she waits for the sun to get a little closer to the horizon.
It's probably for the best, in honesty, that she needs to wait for the light to continue her groping, uncertain quest, considering that she did not have time, earlier in the evening, to do her meditation between her panicking and packing. Now, if nothing else, she can focus herself, can pretend to breathe as she takes stock of her body and mind and spirit.
When the light comes, it almost makes the width of the sky worse. Less of a void, more of a ballooning vastness that Lirit can't help but feel is waiting for her to trip up into.
The birds come back, before too long, as Lirit sits and waits and manages her magic. She knows without thinking, without any attention at all, which bird in particular is the one who was recently somewhat dead. It glimmers to her sight, or to some other sense that she cannot interpret properly.
Of course they come back; Lirit realizes, eventually, that part of the building behind her on this level seems to be a dovecote, thrumming with life and feathers. She wishes she had some sort of feed, for them, though- she supposes they probably have a proper time for meals already, and someone to care for them. The place is well kept enough that Lirit knows that much, at least. If no one took care of these birds, Lirit absolutely wouldn't have been able to find a patch of unsoiled rooftop on which to sit.
They don't come all that close. That isn't surprising. Animals are typically somewhat nervous about the scent of death, barring corpse-feeders. And barring, apparently, the recently resurrected. The somewhat undead bird and the bird Lirit assumes is its mate don't keep quite such a distance from her as the rest of their brood seem intent to.
The bird perches on the nose of her shoe, for a few minutes, even, ruffling its feathers and preening briefly, and Lirit isn't a fool, she knows that these birds are someone else's responsibility, and obviously she isn't in a position to be looking for pets, especially considering how unsuited a pigeon in particular would be to subterranean life. She isn't a fool, no, but-
She still smiles, and curls her tongue to imitate their cooing as best she can, laughing when a few of the birds startle, and the others all tip their heads back and forth, trying to puzzle out the new noise.
She used to love birds. The realization is sudden, untied to a specific memory, but Lirit suddenly knows. She thinks, perhaps, that she might have kept doves herself. Or- maybe she simply had a feeder that she liked to watch from her home. She can't be certain. Either way-
She loved birds, before.
(Not suited to subterranean life; no wonder she hadn't thought of this before, no wonder the memory hadn't struck her, no birds at all to prompt the memory, so deep under the city)
She still does, actually. She coos again, to watch them bob their heads in curious response.
Grey creeps over the city slowly, a counterpoint to the limited spots of warm yellow from torchlight scattered across the streets below, and Lirit realizes with a frown that there's not going to be any sort of lovely, picturesque sunrise waiting for her. The clouds are sulky and low and persistent, though they aren't still. That low wind presses them along the sky in a relentless current, though there is no sign that the supply of clouds is in any way finite. They simply pass from one horizon to the next with the inevitability and numbers of a marching army.
The light is enough, though, eventually, that Lirit can get a better look at the landscape. The new lighting shows even more kites scattered across the skyline, and highwalks and bridges from rooftop to rooftop that Lirit recognizes with an internal sense of obviousness, as if she should have known, of course. Another remnant from the past life, that memory. She knows that those few times she's broken the surface with her order in the last few years, they have rather strictly kept to ground level, the alleys and buildings with blocked windows in particular.
The highwalks will be useful, though. The only memories that Lirit has unsurfaced so far have been near that balcony, near Essa, and she doesn't know how in the world she would find that place from ground level. She'll be able to keep her feet in the air, even if the wideness of the sky makes her feel wary. The clouds are a bit of a boon, in that capacity- they feel like much more of a buffer than the night sky did before, all wide expanse and pinprick light. As the light grows and the sky becomes slowly more visible, Lirit feels more and more like she isn't going to fall upwards at the briefest prompting.
She picks out a route from her vantage, because she knows the building she's looking for is on the inner curve of a valley, overlooking either a river or just a dip of land in between it and another rise, and she can see a winding depression that cuts through the city, and if she can just get closer, maybe she can tell if that is what she's looking for. It will be quite a walk, but-
She doesn't have much of a choice at this point. She can't go back, not until she finds the amulet. If she comes back empty handed, she may as well just deanimate herself.
Lirit stands, stretches her body like working old leather, creaking and wincing, and then she bids goodbye (for now, she says, perhaps too optimistically) to the pigeons.
She follows her planned route for a few rooftops, picking her way across narrow skybridges and railinged walkways, stepping quietly further into the city, down and down, but-
The city is waking up. The birds were a little bit early, a prelude, and now- Lirit hears murmuring, footsteps, laughter behind stone walls. She pulls her hood down, obscuring as much of her face as she can, and she wishes-
It's an echo, but Lirit means it still, after she realizes. She wishes Essa had taught her just a little of her glamor. She would need to worry so much less if she could simply wave her hand and obscure the death-grey of her face, even just a few shades. The hood only does so much, and using it this way is bound to draw eyes, no matter how badly she wants to pass unseen. Perhaps especially because she wants to pass unseen. She'll simply need to hope that the folk up here are more preoccupied with their own mornings to worry about Lirit trying to cross the city.
Her route becomes harder to follow, the further in she gets. It's difficult just to tell one building from another, from this other perspective, and besides that, she needs to duck around and take different ways when the path is otherwise occupied, or when she realizes that what she took for a general path is actually some sort of rooftop garden, obviously owned, obviously not meant for outside pedestrians to encroach upon. The specific route isn't all that important, she decides, as long as she doesn't stray too far from her less general destination.
When Lirit finds this place-
(If Lirit finds this place?)
When Lirit finds the amulet again- what is she going to do about Essa?
It can't happen as it happened before. Lirit cannot let herself be stunned by memory, cannot allow the thief to confuse her, to distract her, to fill her mind with unneeded memory and potential pain. She cannot allow herself to be so weak. She is a necromancer- or, nearly one, at least. She is trained, she can fight, she could put her thumb to Essa's pulse and draw out all the life Lirit would need to get herself home and more.
She could. She should. She knows the way to do it, knows how to manipulate her own magic, her own essence into a void with which to draw from another. If Lirit comes back to the compound, back home with not only the amulet, but with the assurance that the thief died for her crimes against Lady Corliss-
Lirit doesn't know how long she's walked without thinking of the destination when she shakes her head, projecting a sigh, but- when she looks up, she goes utterly still.
Home. Her home.
Instinct, she thinks, vague and distant. She should have thought of it earlier. Just follow her own feet where they want to go-
It's just one particular shape, one particular building-among-buildings across the river. She shouldn't even be able to pick out one building from the others with the way they all crowd each other, sharing walls and overlapping from one level to the next, but she knows precisely, precisely the shape. She knows the yellow-white stone of the walls and the yellow-green of the leaves in the garden, the particular way the ladders criss-cross down to the edge of the water, where Lirit knows without knowing that she used to clamber down with her shoes in her hands to wade in the shallows, while someone- someone used to chide her for getting the hems of her trousers and skirts damp.
She's not close enough, yet, to see it well, but she has no doubt whatsoever. This is it. This is home.
This used to be home.
Lirit picks her way across rooftops, descending slowly until she's at level with one of the bridges that crosses the river itself, a little ways down along the bank from the house she knows-without-knowing. Though out of sight behind the trundling clouds, the sun is at least a half an hour risen, and Lirit needs force herself not to flinch at the noise and persistence of the crowds that have been building slowly around her, more and more as she descends to ground level.
At least the glut of bodies means that there is less chance of anyone in particular noticing her. She's just one among many, nothing to notice, nothing special. She isn't even the only one wearing her hood up; it seems to be a reasonably common trend, even.
She tries to ignore their chatter, despite being unused to so much noise. She finds herself mostly successful, if only because she can't seem to pick out any particular, specific conversational nuance among the dull roar of so many people speaking.
There is a tone, however, that she cannot help but notice. There's a wariness in the air, an uncertainty. She can't dredge out why, but-
People seem... scared. Or- not quite that far. Nervous, at the least. Apprehensive. Lirit feels like it would not take much of a push to shift them fully into scared, however.
The crowds thin, though, as Lirit turns her steps towards her old home, so she cannot continue to absently puzzle out the fragments of conversation passing her by. The crowds thin rather drastically, in fact. Only a few seem to pass this particular way, up this particular street, and Lirit tries not to allow herself to succumb to nerves.
She fails, a bit, when she sees the boards fixed across the doorway, and the streaks of black above it and the windows.
It's odd. Lirit knows, if her heart still beat, exactly the way it would pound if she saw this exact sight.
The building looks abandoned, though it does not look entirely in disrepair. There was a fire, obviously, but the damage doesn't look... structural? As well as Lirit can tell, herself, which is not particularly well, in all fairness. She does not think that architecture was among her hobbies, in life. But- the building hasn't collapsed, and Lirit can see signs of people still living in the buildings that adjoin on the left and right.
It shouldn't be... dangerous, to go inside. In theory.
Getting in without being seen is another story entirely.
There are far fewer people in this area altogether, though whether that is because of the obvious tragedy (Corliss warned her, didn't she? Corliss warned that Lirit's death was tragic, that she wouldn't want to know, that it would only hurt, and yet-) or because this is simply not a commonly traveled route, not leading anywhere needed or interesting, that remains unseen. Lirit's memories are not nearly granular enough to provide her with that detail, as to whether there was much foot traffic passing in front of her home while she lived.
She realizes, probably belatedly, that she has been standing and staring at what remains of the front facade for what was likely a deeply suspicious length of time. She shakes her head, huffs a false sort of sigh, and then she turns and pretends to pass on by. She remembers just enough, just the vague shape of where home is, and she can circle around, she can pass by the entrance again from a slightly different angle, and not be quite so obvious this time.
Thin crowds or no, there are still more than enough people in the area that Lirit knows that she'll be absolutely seen if she tries to peel back the boards across the door, or to crawl beneath them, or to attempt to do something similar with the similarly boarded windows. She furrows her brow as she lets her feet draw her past, circling around for a third walk-by, when she remembers-
The water, shoes in her hands, the ladders from the pebble-strewn bank up to the back garden, meant to be pulled up at night so none could come creeping in-
But the ladders were down, when Lirit looked from across the river. The ladders were still down. Whatever happened, happened during the day.
(Or, perhaps, someone else let them down, after the fact.)
The river is almost more familiar than the front door. Lirit wonders, again, exactly how much of a little hermit she was, in life, if the main entrance of her home conjures less affection than the hidden alcove of greenery and water behind and below the garden.
There are a few boats on the water, but they all pass quickly, busy with their own worries, and no one seems bothered to notice Lirit as she tugs her boots off with a finger, gripping them by the laces as she steps across the very edge of the shore, the pebbly sand or sandy pebbles, damp and familiar and utterly strange.
The stone and sand are a warmer, richer palette of colors than her own skin, just at the moment.
Lirit knows the exact right ladder when she reaches it. She knows this spot, of course. There is a spindly-branched tree, struggling up from the stony ridge that curves from the bank up to the base of the building above, its leaves curling down to trail in the water, shading a sort—of alcove just beside the sturdy ladder, reddish wood and twine.
Lirit pauses, helpless against the urge, and-
Yes, exactly where she expected- a little wooden seat, sloppily carved from the stump left from a tree much older than the bending attempt rooting in the sandy ridge beside it. Lirit reaches and- her palm fits, so precisely, in the ridges of the wood. She pulls her hand back.
She edges towards the trunk of the tree, reaching down between a crook of roots, knowing that the particular angle hides a gap that looks much smaller than it is, and then she pulls out a small, plain wooden box, clasped with a simple metal latch.
"I couldn't keep it," she murmurs, without really meaning to. "I couldn't... I couldn't keep it, but I couldn't throw it away, either."
She brushes the top of the box, dislodging some dirt that obviously fell from between the roots, and then she- she bites her lip, and she places the box back precisely where she found it, hidden safe beneath the tree.
Better not to know, she thinks, despite the vague shape of memory stinging at the back of her mind. Better to let it stay buried.
She turns to the ladder, instead, and climbs.
She doesn't look over her shoulder as she does, despite the way her back prickles with nerves, with the worry of pursuit. It would look much, much more suspicious if she were to betray nervousness clambering up towards one of these houses, wouldn't it? And it's unlikely that anyone else would be able to tell, at a glance, which ladder even leads to which house. Lirit only knows the difference because it matters to her.
She clambers back to her feet at the edge of the garden wall. Or, wall is generous. It's really more of a railing at the edge of the steep, steep riverbank leading back down, and above there are bowers and trellised vines, unruly and unkepmt in a way that makes Lirit's chest hurt oddly, that makes her squint and stare in uncertainty. It isn't supposed to look like that, her memories say.
Well, of course not. She remembers what they looked like when she was alive. That was quite a while ago, now.
The garden is still beautiful, though, even if it is quite a bit more wild than Lirit's hazy memories would prefer. The plants blend with the architecture and the landscaping- half the fences are actually trellises, and the shape of the buildings seems intentionally planned to give the appropriate shade to each type of plant as it needs, with the more shade friendly flora close by the overhanging edge of the building, above which-
Lirit knows (and she is becoming quickly sick of knowing) that her own room sits up there, overhanging the garden, and below it the river. The most beautiful view in the entire city, her-
Someone. Someone said that.
(Why, Lirit thinks, can I remember that thief? Why can I remember her, and not my own family? My own blood?)
(You don't need so deep a tragedy, burdening you, Lady Corliss says, fluttering her eyes closed, turning her head aside, and Lirit decides rather quickly that she is right.)
There's nothing important in the garden, not really. It's just in the way of where Lirit needs to go. Or- she hopes so. Hopes that she was right, about what Essa meant down in the compound. If she's wrong-
Well, considering that won't do any good at all, will it? She shakes her head, and then she tugs a bit of ivy aside to make room to pass through, and then she opens the door to the house itself.
Lirit hopes that her assumptions about the structural integrity of the building are accurate, because it looks like every inch of stone within the house has been utterly scorched, blackened beyond recognition. She can see the vague shape of what was once furniture, can see the light filtering through the overlapping slats of wood boarding the windows from outside, but none of the shapes resolve into anything that Lirit can recognize. It is so ruined, so utterly destroyed, that the sight of the space does not even prompt a whisper of a memory at the back of Lirit's mind. There is nothing left, inside. There's nothing here to remember at all.
Lirit envies that, a little.
She shakes her head, veers slightly to avoid bumping her hip on a crumbling black pile that she cannot guess the former purpose of, and approaches the stairs.
They are stone as well, thankfully, and slightly less blackened than the rest of the room, and Lirit's steps disturb the ash to reveal hints of that soft yellow-white still there beneath the layer of black. The narrow hallway on the landing between the stairs and the rooms (her own, at the far end, and others- her parents, perhaps? She doesn't know. Cannot say. Perhaps they were only storage.) is less burned as well; Lirit imagines that there was just... less to burn, here. Was there anything in the hallway at all? Carpets, tapestries, paintings? She cannot say.
But she knows which door would have been hers. Was hers, once. At the far end, of course.
No one has bothered barring the inner doors (why would they?), so all Lirit needs to do is lift her hand to the wood, and push.
She stands for a moment, instead, worrying her lip between her teeth and staring at this incredibly slight barrier, thinking that the wood- it should be reddish. Ruddy and rich, with whorls contrasted with pale strips, cool and smooth to the touch, not- blackened and cracked, and warped slightly out of its frame.
She puts her hand to the door, and pushes. It whines, straining, and hangs halfway from a single hinge as it swings inward, and Lirit squares her shoulders and walks through before the nerves still her steps.
Lirit does not know if it is better or worse that she can still recognize this room through the destruction. The balcony doors are likely the main culprit for the recognition. Even cracked and broken, Lirit can still see the view- the view that drew her here in the first place.
There are less kites, just now, hanging outside. The strings tied to the railings are burnt as well, untethered to anything at all. From here, Lirit can see the lingering remnants of damage to the tops of the taller plants in the garden below, though- her stomach pulses with sudden relief, the belated realization of how lucky it was, that the garden survived the burning. The stone of the house must have turned it into something of a furnace, aiming the heat upwards through the cooling vents. The garden's position half in the shadow of the building, half tucked by the riverbank- it must have been enough to keep it from burning entirely. Or- maybe it was just that by the time the fire spread to outside the building, the guards and helpers had gathered enough to keep it from burning down as well.
Lirit shakes her head, forces herself to focus within the room itself, rather than on the glimpse of greenery out the balcony doors.
She regrets the attention, rather quickly.
(pull the doors open, let the wind through to tug the beaded curtains in noisy ripples, it won't rain for hours yet despite the curling purple clouds, no worry for the instrument, only the accompaniment of the coming storm to the darting of Lirit's fingers across the strings of the harp, only wind and distant rumbling thunder, and the familiar ease and contentment of having the home all to herself)
She shakes her head, trying to disrupt the fierceness of the memory, her hands curling automatically into the proper shapes-
Her harp. She forgot about her harp. She cannot help but search the space with her eyes-
The fire was too strong, of course. If her harp were still in this room when it occurred, it would be utterly indistinguishable from the rest of the debris.
Not that it matters. Not that it-
(she wondered, about the callouses on her fingers, preserved and permanent despite their disuse, preserved like every inch of her undead body, unchanging memory of an instrument she did not even know about)
(she curls her fingers, twitches a useless parody of a musical phrase, plucking empty air)
She shakes her head. That isn't why she is here. She isn't here for memory. She isn't here for the past. She is here because that fool of a thief gave her a clue as to where to find her, and Lirit is going to. Lirit is going to find her, and kill her, and bring the amulet home.
She sucks a breath of air into her lungs, holds it there, and then exhales a sigh, unneeded but comforting. She realizes that she closed her eyes against the memory, and she grits her teeth as she opens her eyes again.
It's just a room. Just a burned room in a burned house, full of the burned leftovers of a life that doesn't matter anymore.
(the shelves for her trinkets and books were the same warm red wood as the door)
If the thief is going to meet her here- she should prepare.
The char and detritus makes this sort of magic easier. She etches little circles onto the sides of the doorframe, carves a more subtle circle onto the floor in the middle of the room just in case the first trap doesn't work, and then-
What else is there to do?
Lirit goes and lowers herself to sit against the wall opposite the doorway that leads back down into the rest of the house, ignoring the ash, knowing it will be the same color as her robes regardless. She sits, and stares at the threshold, and she waits.
It's a matter of conserving energy as much as anything else. Between the bird and the wracking memories, Lirit feels worryingly more drained than she should, so shortly after her departure. The crystal sits in her pocket, waiting to be tapped, but- the longer she waits for that contingency the better. Better still if she can finish this unpleasant business before it comes to that at all. She can come back home with the thief's corpse, the amulet, and without having stolen an ounce of energy. Ideal, ideal- unlikely, but ideal.
She drifts back into meditation, circulating the magic within her as efficiently as possible, letting it swirl and circle and feed into itself without draining, and she- drifts, for a while, watching the doorway, watching the way the light from the balcony at her back slowly paints across the wreckage.
The changing shadows are risky to watch. She can feel the edges of memories threatening close, hinting at old pain and old pleasure made indistinguishable from pain by distance, and she finds herself closing her eyes to avoid these subtle triggers more and more often as the hours wend by. Not the safest, no, but- the trap on the door should suffice, to ensure that no one could sneak up on her all that well.
Her fingers keep- twitching. She remembers a song, or- a melody, at least. It catches in her head, uncertain and unfinished, looping a musical phrase over and over, but she cannot remember how it is supposed to go, and it won't seem to leave her mind so long as it remains incomplete. She twitches her fingers, plucking air again, trying to think, what note comes next? How does the phrase resolve, how does the rhythm go-
"I was kind of worried you wouldn't come, if I'm being honest."
Lirit keeps herself from jolting hard, but only because she feels so distant from her body that she feels distant from the surprise, too. She tugs her awareness back, shifting out of her meditative state with a more subtle shudder, and then she opens her eyes.
It's- fully dark, now. Near fully, at least. That particular shade out the window- it's either just or just past sunset, judging by the pinks and yellows staining the edges of the clouds. There's nothing to light any of the innards of this hollowed out old building, though, so the darkness has already spread from the corners out to obscure the majority of the already soot-darkened space. Essa stands like a planted flag of saturation among a monochromatic, grim field of charcoal, and their hair is orange today, with just the hint of purple at the tips. It nearly matches the sunset, or perhaps the sunset is only complimenting the colors.
They are also, importantly, standing in the threshold of the balcony, not the door back into the rest of the building.
Obviously. Lirit knows, of course, that she should have seen that coming. Would have seen that coming, if she hadn't been so adamant about stifling the memories. No single past event flashes bright in her mind to mock her, in restrospect, but- a hundred moments flicker quick and light past her, greetings at the balcony railing, jaunty farewells before a leap into the darkness, gifts left just outside the balcony door-
Essa is a thief. Of course they weren't going to come traipsing in the front door.
Lirit stands, slow and deliberate, trying to keep her face neutral and unconcerned as Essa stares her down.
"If you didn't think I would come," she says, slowly, her tongue feeling a little thick and strange, "why bother to try to meet, then?"
Essa rolls their shoulder, a shrug exaggerated far past the casual. "I'm an optimist? Or- I'm a pragmatist. If I was wrong, I wouldn't lose out on a whole lot, just coming here to check. If I was right, well- I get to see you again."
"I don't think that's quite what pragmatism means."
They laugh, quick and then gone, and they aim a look towards Lirit that dances on the edge of searching.
"I'm still surprised," they say, shrugging again. "Not least of which because you don't look nearly happy to be here. Not that I can blame you. I expect that it's a bit of a... an unpleasant reminder. I'm sorry this was the only place I thought you might remember, or- the only place we'd both know, where we could meet privately."
Lirit does not want to think about that. At all. She came here for one single reason, and that reason-
"Do you still have the amulet?"
"Do you still have it?" Lirit hisses, because if she needs to go to whatever hole this thief keeps their ill-gotten goods piled up, she will, but certainly it would make her life (undeath) substantially less irritating if she could just- divest this crook of the trinket and go home. Tonight. As soon as possible.
The thief stills, just enough that Lirit notices, and then they put a hand to their hip and cock it out, grinning wide and easy as they draw their eyes over Lirit.
"You wanna come over here and frisk me, rich girl? Wanna make sure I haven't taken anything too valuable to give up?" They lower their chin a little, like a challenge, grinning up at Lirit and lifting their arms lazily above their head. "Go on, I won't give a peep of protest if you think I deserve a little roughing up."
Their tone. It's too warm, too familiar, too teasing, and Lirit feels- her heart doesn't beat, her blood does not rush, her cheeks cannot flush, but all of them want to. Lirit plants her feet flat, scowling as hard as she can manage.
"I am not looking for a play-act, nor am I looking to be teased. Tell me where the amulet you stole is and we can be done with this. It does not need to be any more unpleasant for you than it will."
The thief lowers their arms, slow, tilting their head and eying Lirit with some calculation.
"Hmm. Well... here I was, hoping for a tender, romantic reunion, and all I get are demands and poorly-constructed threats."
"Poorly constructed! As if you have the first idea the proper way to construct a sentence, let alone a threat, and! And you must be absolutely out of your mind if you think yourself in a position to critique me when you are little more than a petty thief, no honor to speak of, no-"
Years of skill and practice. Essa grips Lirit's chin in one hand before Lirit realizes that the thief has even moved, and then they tilt Lirit's face up towards them with a smooth, cool expression.
"I may be a thief, starlight, but there's nothing petty about me. You know that already."
Lirit does. Enough. Enough to have known that the dig would get the thief to step closer. And then-
Essa releases her face, her own expression going chagrined, as if they hadn't actually meant to grab Lirit like that, but when they step back-
Lirit twists her wrist, triggering the circle scraped into the blackened floor.
Simple, in a room like this, especially with the encroaching night. Strips of darkness peel themselves from the corners of the room, winding like ribbons into the air and then twining around Essa's legs, and then their midsection and arms, pinning them to their side and stopping them entirely in their tracks.
They exhale, sharp and surprised, and then they raise their eyes to Lirit's again.
"Petty thief," Lirit hisses again, stubborn, and then she raises her chin. "Where is the amulet?"
Essa exhales, their lip twitching in a way that almost hints at a smile, and Lirit's own scowl deepens. "Well. Can't say I was expecting that. You've been learning some new tricks, since I knew you, haven't you?"
"I'm not some child you can talk down to and tease and torment, thief, if I ever was. I am a necromancer, and I will take back what you stole."
"You. A necromancer?"
The dubiousness is so obvious as to be a physical miasma, syrupy and uncomfortable, and Lirit knows she would be blushing, were she still alive.
"Your cult lets the dead raise the dead? That's interesting, if nothing else."
"I-" her mouth snaps shut, teeth clicking audibly. "They- it isn't a- the inner workings of my order are not your business, no matter your breaking and entering, no matter where you stick your nose."
"So..." they purse their lips, tilting their head. "They don't let you raise the dead."
"I am still in training!"
Essa smiles, at that, an odd little flash of relief entering their eyes. "You are... still adorable. I don't know how that's possible. You should just be heartbreaking, really, but- how are you still cute?"
"I- I- I am neither of those things, thank you very much. Currently I am- I am going to- I should be a threat." She pauses, makes a frustrated, wordless noise, and then she draws the thin, sharp blade from the sheath at her hip, hidden beneath her cloak, and charges ahead before the amused smirk on Essa's face can make her feel any more stupid. "I am a threat. I could kill you right now. I should. But- first. You are going to tell me where the amulet is. The faster you explain, the quicker and more painless this will all be."
Essa's face betrays substantially less fear than Lirit would prefer, despite the dagger.
Lirit glares, putting one hand to her hip as she threatens with the other. Essa keeps mum, apparently ignoring the slowly constricting strips of shadow wrapped around their body below the shoulders. Lirit glares harder, going still in the way she knows tends to unsettle the living, and Essa's expression, if anything, hedges towards a subtle sadness.
"Tell me where it is," Lirit repeats, voice icy and stiff.
"Mm, no. I don't think so."
"Tell me where it is," she snarls, "or I am going to kill you."
"No you won't."
"You're here on your own," Essa says, their tone casual and breezy, and Lirit knows that if they had hands free they would be ticking off points on their fingers. "If you told the cult- sorry, order, that you knew where to find me, they would be here too, and I'd be sunk. You don't have any other clues at all as to where I would be, or you wouldn't have sat in this house for hours just waiting for me to wander in and meet you-"
Lirit stiffens, eyes widening, and Essa gives a momentary smirk.
"Yeah, no, I know. I saw you climb the ladder this morning. I'm a thief, not an idiot. I know how to case a place so I don't get ambushed. So, I know you're alone and you don't have a clue. I expect that you don't actually remember all that much about me, but even if you did, you wouldn't know where to look for me. And obviously you don't have any other way to track the thing, or you wouldn't have resorted to following up with me, considering that you don't seem all that keen on rekindling whatever it was we had between us when-" they pause, just a moment, "when you were alive."
"You- I- you don't know what I'm capable of. Even if I don't get the amulet back, you don't think bringing your corpse back to the order would be enough? Even if I don't possess the skills to find what you stole, you don't think that my lady could drag it out of you? Even dead? She could puppeteer your unbreathing body and make you smile as you tell her the precise location of her amulet."
Essa purses their lips, frowns. "Is that what she did to you?"
There is a current beneath the words, subtle and hard to place, but Lirit realizes after a moment that Essa sounds as if she is suppressing some measure of vicious, hot anger. Like magma, held pressurized beneath stone, threatening to hiss and spit out into the open. Lirit opens her mouth, uncertain, not knowing why this thief would be angry about-
"Is it?" Essa insists. "Did she- is she puppeting you now? Is that what this is? You're still in there, but- but she's making you do things?"
"N-no, that isn't- I'm- I'm not like the thralls, I am an apprentice, I am me, not-"
"That's another thing. You're still Lirit. They still call you Lirit?"
"That is my name," Lirit hisses, "of course they call me Lirit."
They let her choose. When she was coming into herself, when she was wobbly-legged like a deer and still barely coherent, Lady Corliss told her that she could keep her name, from her old life, or she could choose a new one. Lirit knew she wouldn't be allowed to keep anything else, knew that it would only be painful to remember, knew that it was best to forget, but- surely it couldn't hurt, to keep just that single piece, could it?
It was a test, of course. Nearly everything in the early days was a test, in some way. Or a trial. Or an evaluation. It was a test, and Lirit knew, the moment they said, weakly, quietly, that she thought that her old name still suited, would still fit-
It was a test, and Lirit could tell from the look in Lady Corliss' eyes that she had failed. The lady obviously allowed this failure - Lirit still goes by Lirit, obviously - but that didn't mean that there weren't repercussions. Subtle ones. Nothing actively harmful, but still. Mott's sneering was almost comical, or- it would have been, if his opinion in the early days did not utterly crush Lirit's spirit when it turned sour. Corliss was cooler, after she chose her name. Cooler and more distant, and Lirit would squirm beneath her judgment, would wince bodily every time her instruction brushed even obliquely past Lirit's name, with cool disdain.
"If you remember that much," Essa says slowly, "why did you never come home?"
Lirit realizes that she's dropped her gaze, and she darts her eyes back up towards the thief. They haven't moved - obviously, the magic holds strong, still - but Lirit regrets looking again.
So far, Essa has mostly kept their expression smug, with lingering hints of worry, sorrow, confusion-
Now, though, they look hurt.
"You-" she swallows, and drops her eyes. "You assume that I remember quite a lot more than I do, thief. My name- some things remain, that's all. Some things remain." She shakes her head, and then she takes a step closer. "Are you going to tell me where it is, or am I going to need to bring you back to th- back home and add a number of unnecessary steps to my already irritating day?"
Essa smiles again, the hurt buried and that irritating fearlessness back on display. "Aw, you have some chores to get back to after you're done fetching the groceries? I'd apologize for ruining your day, but I don't like to be insincere."
"Liar," Lirit hisses. "You love to play at insincerity."
Essa tilts their head. "I thought you said you didn't remember anything."
"I said I remember less than you think. Some things come back when I don't want them to, especially when the past comes barging in to my li- er."
"Your life?" Essa raises an eyebrow. "So to speak. Sorry, I didn't mean to barge."
Lirit narrows her eyes. "I don't think you mean that, either."
"Well..." the thief shrugs, as best they can against the lashing strips of magic. "Well. I didn't mean to barge in on you, at least. If it wasn't obvious, starlight, I thought you were dead." They pause, and then they give a very hollow laugh. "I was right, but- obviously I couldn't have expected to see you up and walking around, scrubbing tiles for a cult. If I knew-"
Their mouth hangs open for another moment, and then they sigh and shake their head.
"If you knew," Lirit says slowly, "it wouldn't have changed anything. Your... friend, or- whatever this body was to you, she is dead. Knowing that I was out there wouldn't have changed anything."
A flash of anger, flaring in the dark of Essa's eyes, and then their lip curls.
"You don't know a damn thing about what it would have changed. Your parents might be gone, but there are still people who missed you, who grieved you, and- oh." A pause, syrupy thick. "You... you didn't know. Oh, Lirit, I'm sorry, I thought you would remember- I thought you'd've realized-"
(screaming, down the hall, as the black over Lirit's eyes blocks her vision, as the tension at Lirit's wrists holds her arms stiffly immobile behind her back, screaming that makes her own lungs burn with sympathy, screaming that makes the tears streaming down her face rush all the faster, because she knows, she knows, she knows-)
Essa cups her cheek in one hand, her palm warm like life, a small noise of sympathy humming at the back of her throat, and Lirit-
Realizes that she must have released the shadow tendrils enough for Essa to pull a hand free. She stiffens, and steps back, and raises her hands to gesture with her blade, winding the black back around Essa's wrist and binding her back in place.
"Stop. Stop trying to distract me, stop trying to remind me, stop trying to destroy me and just- give it back! It wasn't yours to take, it wasn't even mine, just- give it back! If you just- let me bring it back, and I don't even need to hurt you. I don't care where you go or who you steal from next, I just- I am bringing that amulet back with me. This is non negotiable. One way or another, with you breathing or without it, I am bringing that amulet back."
"So stubborn," Essa says, breathing a laugh. "At least that stuck."
"Okay." Essa's expression goes flat, their body going oddly still, predator still. "Kill me, then."
"I don't have it. I'm not telling you where it is. You've made your terms clear, Lirit. Those are mine. They don't seem particularly compatible, so- going by what you've already laid out, there's only one solution. Kill me. If your nasty little leader down there can actually control my corpse enough to torment the answer out of me, there's nothing for it anyway. I'm not going to tell you where it is, so you'll have to kill me to find it."
"Why? What in the world could it possibly matter to you? Why die for it? That's nonsense."
"You're here," Essa says, pointed. "Ready to die for it. How is it less nonsense for you?"
"Do you even know what it is?"
"I know it was my job to steal it back. I know that your order was trying to do something dangerous and dark and deeply magical with it. I know that I'm not fucking telling you where I put it. So, kill me, Lirit. You said you would, you laid down your ultimatum, and there's mine. I'm not telling you. Kill me."
"You're mad," Lirit says, pulling her head back. "Truly."
"I'm as stubborn as you, is what I am," they counter with a grin.
Lirit stares at them, bound and entirely at her mercy, and-
(Lady Corliss would expect a corpse. It would be so easy, wouldn't it? Just- tilt their head back with the bindings and slit their throat with her blade, bloody but quick, or- constrict the shadows, suffocate the thief, strangle them, maybe snap their neck with the tendrils, might be the fastest, least painful- just end it and then drag the body underground and find her way back to the compound, back to where she knows who she is and what is expected of her, where she will be taken care of-)
(like this, starlight, and a hand at her waist, the music from the party back inside drifting muted and mellow and warm through the windows, and Essa's grin so wide and knowing as she taught Lirit a less formal way to dance, bouncing and bubbling with laughter)
"You're mad," Lirit says again, more quietly.
"Are you going to do it or not, starlight? I don't imagine you have all night." They half-smile, their lip quirking crookedly up. "C'mon, it's not hard, is it? Just squeeze with these clever shadow-wraps of yours. Or use that little knife, if you're feeling hands-on. You're a necromancer, right? Make a new corpse to play around with."
"I don't- be quiet, will you? I- I will, I only-"
The words sound weak, even to Lirit's own ears.
"Either kill me, Lirit," Essa says, "or let me go."
"I can't let you go," she snaps. "I can't go back without the amulet. I can't-"
"Then kill me."
"Stop saying that."
"Why? It was your idea, wasn't it? You're the one who said-"
"I know. Be quiet and let me think."
"Most killers don't spend a lot of time thinking about it after they've committed to the whole murder thing, in my experience."
"You know many killers, then?"
Essa pauses, then grins hard. "Now who's stalling, yeah?"
Lirit- knows she would be flushing, if she still had a pulse to pound in her cheeks. She's beginning to hate the sensation, familiar as it is.
Essa stares at her, then the smile fades, just a bit.
"C'mon, starlight. Kill me."
"I said- I said to stop saying that."
"And I asked why. Which you ignored. Kill me. That'll shut me up, won't I?"
"Stop egging me on."
"Because I don't want to!" Lirit throws her hands down at her sides, fisted and digging nails into her palms. "I don't want to- I just- I just want to go home, but I can't without that stupid necklace, and- and I want to go home but- but I can't think and it's all burned down and I can't even remember who I'm supposed to miss, and the fact that I want to remember is a failure that I will suffer for, and I don't know who you are but I know how you laugh when I step on your toes and I don't want to kill you but I need to kill you or I'm going to rot and I- I don't- I'm not the person you remember, either, and I never will be, even if I remember, Lirit is dead and I'm just a- a- a shallow echo using her limbs and hoping that no one notices how badly I do so, and I- I might be good at the magic but I don't want to kill, shouldn't necromancy be about bringing things back when they shouldn't have left? Shouldn't it- but- but I'm just an apprentice and I hardly know what I'm talking about, and- and I don't want to kill anyone and I don't want to kill you-"
She's too close. She's not in control. She feels hands on her shoulders, the warmth of Essa's palms, hears Essa tsk at the back of their throat, shushing gently. The knife slips from her grasp to clatter to the floor and she lifts her hands, pressing them over her face, burying her mouth behind her palms so she doesn't say anything else ridiculous and absurd and dangerous and true.
"Stop that. Stop calling me that."
"Because she's dead. You're deluded if you think- if you think just saying that-"
"I know. Lirit. Look. Look at me?"
Lirit snarls, stubbornly pressing her palms harder against her face, and Essa's hands shift, after a moment, their gentle, soft fingers slipping around Lirit's wrists. They tug, softly enough that Lirit knows that she could resist, that the thief is giving her every opportunity to rebuff, to continue to- to hide like a child behind her hands, as if not seeing Essa is enough to make them disappear. It's- foolish. All of it is foolishness.
Lirit lets Essa pull her hands down, gritting her teeth and forcing her gaze not to rise to the thief, and she realizes belatedly, with no small degree of dismay, that her trap has entirely dissolved, the shadow tendrils dissipated back into the ash she summoned them from. There isn't even the hint of darkness left to stain Essa's clothes.
"You're ruining everything," she manages, her jaw still clenched tight. "You've ruined all of it."
"That seems a bit melodramatic, don't you think?"
Gives a sharp, surprised noise, halfway between a laugh and an indignant huff, and she looks up without meaning to, brow furrowed in a glare. When her eyes catch on Essa's, though, those dark dark eyes gleaming in the low remaining light from the dusk outside, the bubble of rage pops.
"What, exactly, did I ruin, then?" Essa says, calm and slow, and Lirit bites her lip. "What did I do that was so bad? Besides the stealing. I know you're morally opposed. As ironic as I find that, considering the necromancy and murder threats."
It was all buried deep before I saw you, Lirit does not say. I managed to keep all of it tucked away, where it couldn't hurt me. You broke it. I'm not supposed to remember.
Lirit grits her teeth, and then she pulls back just enough to make the thief release their grip on her wrists. She lowers her hands back to her sides, instead, fisting them there to make her fingers stop twitching.
"You won't tell me where the amulet is," she asks, though her tone is more a statement of fact than an interrogative. Essa shakes their head, lip quirking into a half-smile. "Fine. Fine. But- why did you steal it in the first place? Why infiltrate us at all?"
Essa's smile fades, slightly, and they sigh and take another step back, leaning casually against the wall in a way that Lirit feels should be rubbing soot all over the back of their jacket. "I didn't steal it," they say, and when Lirit scowls and opens her mouth to argue the point, they raise a finger in the air. "I didn't. I told you- I was hired to steal it back. Your lot stole it first. I just happened to take a job to find it and bring it back to the people it was stolen from originally."
What is it. Foolish question, of course. Don't say it like that, at least- obscure the precise truth, and-
"What did they tell you it was, then?" she asks, arching her brow.
Essa presses their lips together, and then they sigh again. "Supposed to be some sort of powerful magical artifact. Held in the care of one of the more powerful magical families in the city." Essa pauses, at that, eying Lirit for a moment before they continue. "Until they were killed, and the amulet was stolen."
"Powerful magical artifact could describe a thousand things in the city," Lirit complains. "Do you even know what it does?"
"I don't know, they described it like a sort of sponge, I guess? Look, you know that arcana isn't exactly my thing," they say with an exaggerated grimace of distaste, and then they pause and roll their eyes. "Or- you did know that. I guess that might have gotten lost in the cracks somewhere. It collects magic, or something. To be wrung out at will, if the practitioner using it knows how the hell to work the thing."
"Which you, of course, do not."
Lirit narrows her eyes. "The amulet is a magical conductor," she says slowly, "meant to house powerful energies. To be discharged later. And you... you thought nothing, then, of taking it from a cult - as you keep calling us - of necromancers, and handing it off to whoever hired you... without taking into consideration whatever sorts of magical energies it might have absorbed in the interim?"
There is a pause.
Essa's face pales, just enough that Lirit can see it.
"That could kill someone, you know. Unchecked, volatile magic ceremonially bound into such a small thing, waiting for some unsuspecting nobody to trigger it..."
Lirit, in truth, has less than an ounce of an idea what might happen if any practitioner were to needle at the artifact, or as to what Lady Corliss even put into the jewelry while it was in her possession, during that ceremony.
Essa does not need to know that fact, however. They don't need to know anything about that at all.
"Fuck me to the fucking sea and back," Essa mutters, and then they draw a hand through their hair, scowling. "Alright. This has been fun- no, that's a fucking lie. This has been- enlightening. Maybe. It's been something. I'm glad you're- undead. I'm glad you're not currently rotting. I don't know how to- say this in a way that's not wrong, actually, because I keep wanting to say I'm glad you aren't dead, but that's only sort-of right." They shake their head, the bun at the back of their head just loose enough to bounce with the motion. "I need to go- talk to some people, actually."
"Excellent," Lirit says dryly, and then she reaches down to retrieve her blade, sheathing it again before she- stokes up her nerve, takes two steps forward, and reaches to tuck her hand through the crook of Essa's elbow. Essa jolts, just a little. Likely from the chill of Lirit's skin against their own. "Shall we?"
Essa's expression goes even sharper with surprise, and then they laugh hard. "You- yeah. No. I told you I'm not telling you where the amulet is, and I'm not that fucking dumb."
"You won't be telling me," Lirit says. "You'll be bringing me. Let's get to it, yes?"
"No. Obviously not."
"I remember you," Lirit says suddenly, and the thief jolts again, their expression going stricken for a fraction of a second before they smooth it over. "I remember enough. I remember too much, and- I can't-" she huffs a breath, looking away. "I can't kill you. Obviously. And if I can't kill you- I'm- I'm stuck. Here. Alone. In the house this corpse once belonged to. And I don't- know who I'm supposed to be, if I can't go back to my family. To- any family. And you- clearly I mean something to you. Clearly she means something to you." She gestures down, indicating her body more than her self. Distance without distance. "I don't think you actually want to leave me alone, or you wouldn't have told me to find you, and you wouldn't have trusted me to be able to do so. It was- risky, in more ways than I think you're willing to admit. And- congratulations, I suppose. I'm stuck out here with you, now, so- I may as well see where this goes. And- besides. What in the world do you expect to do, if I'm telling the truth? Will you dispel the magic in the amulet? Can you, with the certainty that you will do it correctly, and correctly enough so as to avoid collateral damage entirely? I'm not so confident, I should say. I remember the sort of magic you are capable of, and while it is impressive on its own merit, it is not exactly compatible."
Muddy the truth with lies, make the lies indistinguishable from the truth. If she can just get close to the amulet- maybe she doesn't need to kill the thief. Maybe if she just brings the thing home, things will go back to normal. Maybe that will be relief enough.
Essa eyes her, sharp and searching, and Lirit thinks- Lirit worries, perhaps, that the thief is more on to her than she would prefer, but-
Essa sighs, readjusting her arm so that Lirit's own can rest curled around it more easily.
"You think you could actually do something about the amulet, if it's been charged with some dangerous energy? You said you were still training."
"My whole existence is predicated on siphoning necromantic magic into my body to keep it stable and continuing. I am confident."
Confident enough, at least.
Essa hums, a hedging sort of noise, and then they look away. "There are- the people who hired me- they won't want to see you. We won't be able to go in, I don't think. You'll need to stay outside. Can you trust me enough for that?"
"What choice do I have?" Lirit laughs, feeling a little mad with it. This next part, Lirit knows that it is entirely, wholly true. "If I cannot go home, I may either stick by your side, or wander the streets and hope for the best. This seems preferable. At least I have some confidence that you won't just attempt to banish me."
"Well." Essa looks away, towards the windows. "I wouldn't know how."
"I know. Shall we?"
"This is stupid," Essa mutters, but they start walking anyway. Towards the balcony, rather than the door. Again, Lirit thinks she should have seen that coming. The doors are broken, hollowed out to just hinges and the bottom corners, so Essa doesn't stop until they reach the railing. They aim a glance towards Lirit, then, as they drop her arm so they can swing their body in one easy, smooth motion over the railing to hang on the other side, and then they swing their body to the side, catching on the ivy-clung lattice below and to the side of the balcony.
They tilt their head back up, then, raising an eyebrow at Lirit.
(Essa's dark eyes, shining up even in the dark, a teasing challenge they know Lirit won't rise to- she can't just leave, can't just-)
"Think you can climb down, starlight?"
"What choice do I have?" Lirit says again, shrugging. She grips the railing, leaning carefully against it to look over the climb down, to try to figure out how to- how to place her feet, where best to grip. "I'm sure I can... figure it out."
Essa hums, eyebrow raising dubiously, and then they swing their body again, throwing themself from the wall and landing easy on their feet in the garden below.
"Yeah, no. Better idea. Jump."
Lirit leans back from the railing, eyes widening. "What? No. That's-"
"Jump," Essa says again, patient, "and I'll catch you. Just- climb over the railing, lower yourself until you're hanging, and then drop. I'll catch you."
"You- that sounds far more risky than just- trying to climb, don't you think?"
"Not with your noodly arms. You're not really built for strength, starlight. I don't trust you not to take a tumble, and I don't want to be a few feet too far to one side or the other when your grip gives out."
"I'm not some weakling, Essa, I-"
Essa jerks, just a little, when Lirit says their name. It felt strange on her tongue, she'll admit. Electric, too familiar, too distant.
"Just-" Essa sighs. "Either climb down or let me catch you, alright? I'm not going to push."
Lirit swallows, eyes the trellis with trepidation, eyes Essa with further trepidation, and then she sighs as well. "Alright... alright. Fine. Don't- don't drop me."
(Don't drop me, and Essa lifts a hand, crossing her heart before she swings the both of them in an elegant circle, and when she dips Lirit, so careful, her hands so much stronger than they look, Lirit can't help the way her stomach swoops with delight, the way her lips bubble over with laughter)
She bites her lip, and then before she can think too much about it she hooks a leg over the railing and swings herself over to the other side. At least this way, her back is to the thief. She doesn't need to see whatever look is on their face. She doesn't want to see if the thief remembers, too.
Gingerly, Lirit lowers one foot, shifting down until she can't go any further without scooting her other foot off the edge of the balcony, leaving her hanging by her hands. It's- hm. She feels, perhaps, that this would have been more difficult, if she were still alive. Her muscles don't strain in quite the same way. She can feel, at the back of her awareness, the way that this is burning through some of her energy, but it doesn't burn like she remembers the strain of exercise did when she still lived.
She shuffles, shifting her grip down, gripping the edge of the stone rather than the railing, and then when she can't move any further down without managing a jump like Essa, she tilts her head, glancing over her shoulder. "Are- will you-"
"I'm ready. You can let go."
Lirit bites her lip hard, sucks an unneeded breath into her lungs, and then sighs it back out. "D-don't- don't drop me," she says again.
"I won't. Go on."
Lirit squeezes her eyes closed, tries to remind herself that the fall isn't even that far, and then she releases her grip.
Essa makes a noise, an oof of lost breath as Lirit lands in their arms, and then they give a low sort of chuckle.
"You can open your eyes, starlight. I've got you."
Lirit does, huffing irritably at the gentleness in the thief's tone, but-
She probably should have expected Essa's face to be that close. Obviously. Their eyes are always so dark, like ink, but- this close she can see the difference, the line between pupil and iris, the bare hint of color, the richest, darkest brown in starburst lines through the black. Their mouth is pulled into something like a smile, edged with wariness, their brow furrowed, and-
Lirit feels the beat of their heart, thrumming in their chest, close against where Lirit's shoulder presses. She can feel it in her palm, gripping Essa's other shoulder instinctively, close to their neck. It's uncanny, distant, so so familiar.
(Lirit is surrounded by the living, with the order, but- no one ever touches her. She is grateful for that, typically, but-
She did not realize how shocking it would be, to feel the pulse of a living person again.)
Their heart is also, Lirit thinks, beating just a little too fast.
"Here," Essa says, their voice somewhat more flat than it has been, and then they angle their grip, allowing Lirit to lower her feet to the stone path below, letting Lirit adjust to vertical again before they remove their hands entirely. "Told you."
Lirit blinks, slowly pulling her own hands back, placing them awkwardly at her sides. "T-told me?"
"That I wouldn't drop you. C'mon."
"Where are we going?" Lirit asks, falling into step behind the thief as they pick their way through the overgrown garden with a practiced ease.
"If I told you, that would defeat the whole purpose."
"Oh please," she complains. "I've been underground since I died, I can hardly remember the city at all. I'm not asking what street you've hidden the amulet at, I'm asking if we're going to some- some thieves den or- what have you. I want to know what to expect. And how carefully I need to pin my hood, for that matter."
"It's dark," Essa says, shrugging. "It'd be difficult for folks to see that there's anything strange about you with the light this low. We won't worry about that until we get closer. And- thieves den? Really? Do they have you reading pulp novels in the underground, then? I would expect a necromancer cult to have better things to do."
Lirit huffs, skipping a few steps closer so she can glare at Essa more effectively. "I don't know what to expect, you scoundrel. How could I know? Even if I remembered- I remember enough to know that there is plenty that you never told me, out of mistrust or pragmatism or whatever else. How would I possibly know where you spend your time?"
"I didn't tell you things because you wouldn't have wanted to know, starlight. If I told you, you would have felt obligated to tell someone else, because I was a dirty rotten thief, and you were a good little rich girl, and you liked knowing what our places were."
Something in Lirit burns at that, while something else wants to curl up and die of embarrassment. "D-don't- don't call me that. It's demeaning."
Essa doesn't look back, hopping down over the back wall of the garden, sliding down the ladder with their palms and their feet outside the rungs rather than climbing down properly. "Don't pretend you don't like it, Lirit," they say, voice mild and still not looking, and Lirit feels the burning in her stomach intensify.
She shakes her head, then scrambles over the wall and down the ladder, rushing to keep up as the thief slips down the second ladder entirely before Lirit is even halfway down the first.
"You still- you still didn't answer. Where are we going, though?"
"My place, first. My current place, I mean. I need to pick up some things. And then we'll skip over to the folks I brought the amulet back to, and you can drain whatever malevolence your cult put into the thing before it hurts someone."
Or, she can take it back to where it was, before the thief got their hands on it. One or the other.
"Your place?" she asks instead, hopping down to the pebble and sand bank and then wincing as her ankle wobbles awkwardly against a stone.
"Careful, rich girl," Essa murmurs, their eyes on the river. "And yeah. Again, it's nothing permanent, but it's got a roof, for the moment."
"You don't... have a home?"
"I didn't say that. Come on, this way."
They pull aside a handful of brambles, revealing another narrow walk over pebbles along the riverside, opposite from where Lirit approached originally. Lirit follows, less wary than she should be, perhaps, and Essa picks their way confidently along the bank, nimble footed and quick, clearly expecting Lirit to keep up. She manages well enough, but- she is out of practice, so to speak, with more natural terrain. Today is, in fact, the first day since her resurrection that has seen her put her feet to any sort of flooring besides smooth carved flat stone.
Farther down the bank, Essa kneels by another patch of thick, dead branches, and Lirit has just enough time to catch up as the thief tugs the thatch aside to reveal a small boat, narrow and flat-bottomed, with a long thin oar tucked down by its side.
"Oh," Lirit says, glad for her lack of respiration, since it means that her voice isn't panting and strained from half-running to keep up with the thief. "Right, you said you were watching from the other side of the river, didn't you?"
"I did," Essa says, dragging the boat out and then shoving it partway onto the water. "But that's not where we're going. That was just a good lookout spot, to keep an eye on the place while I waited to see if you'd actually show up. I wouldn't want to stay there. Wouldn't want to-"
They pause, a little sharp, like something snapping in half, and Lirit- doesn't know exactly what that means, but she's wary enough not to push.
"Is it big enough to seat two, then?"
"Just barely," Essa says, narrowing their eyes down at the smooth dark wood of the boat, as if scrutinizing the finish. "It'll do. Get in, I'll push it off."
Lirit presses her lips together, uncertain more because she doesn't think she's ever been on a boat- no, flicker of a memory, high railing far above the smooth surface of a lake, or- a false lake, above the dam, she half-remembers. She's been on a boat, but- a much, much larger one. Much larger. She's never been on anything this small or close to the water, she thinks. Can she- swim?
She flicks her tongue out, wetting her lips nervously. "I don't suppose- I don't suppose you know whether or not I know how to swim, do you? I haven't yet had cause to find out, and... well."
A tension Lirit hadn't noticed in Essa's shoulders shifts, somewhat. Not quite softening, but- slackening, a shade of defeat in the motion.
"I don't know," they say quietly. "It won't be an issue, though. We only need to go a little bit downstream. Easy. You won't even touch the water."
They don't say I promise, not this time, but Lirit hears it in their tone, anyway. It's implied. Or- maybe Lirit just assumes. They always seem to sound so certain.
Lirit nods, after a moment, and then delicately steps into the boat, only wobbling slightly as she sits, gripping the sides a little too hard. Essa doesn't say anything else, but they hold out the oar and Lirit dutifully takes it, holding it awkwardly across their lap. Essa twitches their lips in an almost-smile, rolls their shoulders, and then they shove, grunting under their breath as the press the boat off into the current, hopping up and in at the last possible moment, flicking the tips of their boots through the shallowest edge of the water as they go. They hop nimbly over Lirit, somehow not rocking the boat as they go, and then they lower to perch on the seat just in front of her.
Lirit passes them the oar as they settle, and they give a slightly less strained smile as they start to maneuver the boat through the water with an ease that really doesn't surprise her. Lirit is plagued by memories of this thief, and thus far- she doesn't think that any memory she has of them has ever revealed them to be less than entirely competent at anything Lirit has ever seen them do. It's almost uncanny.
"You know... I thought that the dead couldn't cross running water," Essa says after a little while, their voice mild and without inflection. "I didn't think about it until just now. Maybe I should have been more considerate."
Lirit laughs, a surprised, fluttering noise, and then she shakes her head. "I- well. I think, perhaps, that works on ghosts. Perhaps. I would need to meet one to ask."
Essa glances over their shoulder, raising an eyebrow skeptically. "Hm. I can't tell what part of that might be a joke or a lie, and that is, may I just say, deeply unsettling."
Lirit smiles, pure innocence, cheeks rounding and her eyes crinkling at the corners, knowing somewhere in the back of her mind that this particular smile tends to make the thief-
(soften, smiling in helpless response, and they shake their head and pretend to scowl and look away)
Startle, slightly, eyes widening as their fingers flex against the oar. The boat wobbles for a half second, but Essa quickly rights it, dipping the wood back into the water. Lirit's face goes blank in surprise of her own, suddenly uncertain, and she drops her eyes.
"I've never met a ghost," she says, a little quick, a little clipped. "The lady speaks of them as if they are real, though. It would not surprise me, at this point. Certainly, it would not be the strangest thing I have seen. That they might be stopped by running water as I am not... I cannot say if that feeling is borne from truth or speculation or folklore. My memory is... is spotty, and it is so about things far more important. I cannot say. I... apologize. I'll refrain from making light of that sort of- of subject, in the future."
Essa turns their head aside as they row, the rhythmic motions not slackening or showing any signs of suffering for their lack of direct attention. They sigh, gnawing their lip for a moment before they shoot a wary look over their shoulder at Lirit.
"You didn't bother me, joking about it. Cope however you'd like to cope. That wasn't- it's fine. Don't worry about it."
It was the smile. Lirit knows it was. She just doesn't know... why, exactly. Why it would be an issue. Especially considering-
"I... I thought I was still- I thought you said I was still cute," she manages, her voice mortifyingly meek despite her best efforts, and she adamantly refuses to raise her eyes when she sees the motion of Essa glancing back towards her again in her periphery. "I didn't think- just- smiling would-" she pauses, clears her throat. "That's the first time you- you've looked at me as if I'm as horrifying as I am. Strange response to a smile. That's all."
Essa turns their body back towards the front of the boat. They row, silent for a long moment, as Lirit stares at her hands in her lap.
This is incredibly foolish. She knew that when she decided to try to trick the thief into getting her close to the amulet again. This is absurd, and suddenly that knowledge feels like a hot coal at the base of her throat, clogging the airways she doesn't need to use, thick enough to make her feel devoid of words as well as breath. This is, frankly, stupid. She should just throw herself out of the boat and sink to the bottom of the river, should just sit down there until the magic left in her body drains away entirely and she can be a proper corpse, can decay like Lirit should have. She's going to die again anyway, likely. Either Essa will bring her to somewhere that the city guard can cut her to ribbons, or she'll wind up back underground with a deeply disappointed Lady Corliss, and she will be lucky if the lady deals with her with her own hands, and does not simply allow Mott to take her apart piece by painful piece for her failings and betrayals. Mott already looks at her like she's meat. She knows he would like to do plenty more than that.
"Wasn't expecting to see that smile," Essa murmurs, their face still aimed stubbornly forward. "That's all. It's been... it's been a long time, Lirit. I just wasn't expecting it, and you... you've barely smiled, you know. Since I found you again. You've barely smiled at all."
That can't be true, can it? Or- no. Even if it is- the thief was paying that close attention, to Lirit's expressions? That seems-
"S-sorry," she says, automatic and uncertain, and Essa's shoulders stiffen.
"Don't apologize for smiling, starlight. Even if you were just doing it to tease me, you shouldn't apologize for smiling. That's ridiculous. Do they not let you smile down there? Is there some rule against necromancers smiling that I should know about?"
Lirit laughs, startled, hiding her mouth behind a hand, and when Essa tilts their head just enough to glance backwards over their shoulder, she realizes- that was intentional, too. Making her laugh. Trying to put her at ease.
"Well... there isn't a rule, so far as any have been told, to me. But- but they certainly act like there is."
Lirit certainly doesn't think she's ever seen Mott smile. Not without a layer of cruelty to it, at least. And Lady Corliss only gives that mild, subtle, brief smile of indulgent patience. That's the most and the least of it, so far as Lirit's memory can find.
"So you're out of practice, is what you're saying."
"I suppose so."
"Hm. Suppose I'll just need to find some reasons to make you smile, then. Gotta stretch the muscle while you can."
Lirit purses her lips to hide another smile without thinking, graciously declining to mention that her muscles don't exactly stretch anymore. It is a struggle not to correct the thief, but- she knows what Essa means, and- she really doesn't feel like throwing it back in their face, or- reminding them again that she's only a walking corpse. Not worth adding to the unpleasantness of their interactions for the sake of pedantry.
"We're getting close," Essa murmurs, narrowing their eyes at the far shore and angling the oar. "I know what I said before- that I wasn't worried about people noticing that you- noticing you, but... maybe that was optimistic. When we land... will you let me layer a little magic over you? Just a little. Something to obscure, to make people's eyes glaze on by. That's all."
Lirit hesitates, but only for a moment. "I suppose that would be wise. Better to trust your instincts." She pauses, then laughs lightly. "I don't expect that you would have gotten very far in your line of work, taking unnecessary risks."
"No," Essa says, tone a little grim. "I absolutely wouldn't have."
Essa's brow furrows with focus as they press the boat towards the shore, carefully skidding them onto a small patch of mostly sand among the larger rocks. They hop back out onto the bank almost before the ship stops moving, already dragging it the rest of the way out of the water. Lirit hops out, taking the arm Essa offers as she wobbles uncertainly on her feet, and then she- stands awkwardly aside as the thief shoves the boat into a narrow space between some craggy grey stones on the steep bank, hiding the narrow shape entirely once they tug out a thick piece of brownish greyish burlap from the bottom of the boat, draping it over top and making the shape look like nothing more than another indistinguishable rock.
"You have... rather a lot of tricks up your sleeve," Lirit says.
"For the same reason I don't take unnecessary risks," they reply, grinning sharply. "Alright. Come here, then. If you're sure you don't mind a little glamor."
Lirit shakes her head. "It's- yes. Go on, go ahead."
Lirit laces her hands together in front of herself as Essa steps closer, lifting their own hands and hovering them just barely away from Lirit's face, close enough even that she can feel the heat, ticking against her cheeks.
"Sh-should I- should I close my eyes?"
"If you'd like," Essa murmurs, giving a shrug, and then their lips quirk up. "It'll tingle, a bit, but that's all it should feel like. If you can feel it at all, I mean. I don't know how that works for you, like this."
Lirit swallows, not sure what to do with Essa's face so close, their skin held just barely away from Lirit's own. She closes her eyes, deciding that's safer than the alternative. "I- I can feel things, well enough. I don't know precisely how magic will feel, though, considering-"
Lirit feels Essa pause. "Considering?"
"That I- that I am, essentially, animated by magic. Not the same kind, of course, but... still."
"I don't... I don't think that it would interfere with your whole... deal. Wouldn't make sense if it did, right? It's just- cosmetic, at most."
"No," she says, shaking her head very very slightly so that the motion doesn't cause her cheeks to brush against Essa's fingers. "No, I wouldn't expect it to interfere. Go on."
There is a moment, drawn and charged, and then Lirit feels- a tingle, yes, like Essa said. Like static, almost, radiating from Essa's hands against Lirit's face.
"Alright?" Essa murmurs as they work, and Lirit feels her stomach twist oddly at their gentle tone.
"Y-yes. Yes, it's- fine. It's fine."
"This is easier when your eyes are closed," Essa says quietly, with the tone of an admission. "Easier not to think about..."
Lirit hums, light, her lips pursing in a wry, flat smile. "I suppose the whole bleached out, milk-white, unblinking eyes could potentially, possibly be seen as somewhat unsettling, to someone who isn't accustomed to spending time with the dead," she says, tone airy and exaggerated, but Essa doesn't laugh, and she can't see what expression the thief wears while her eyes are still closed.
There is another moment, as the magic settles, a silence, and then Essa says, "I don't think it would bother me as much as it does, if it were someone else. Do you- do you remember, what color your eyes used to be?"
Lirit swallows, unwilling to open her eyes, now, even though she feels fairly confident that Essa has pulled their hands away again.
"Were they... were they dark, like yours?"
Essa breathes something like a laugh, but not quite. "No. Not your eyes. Your hair was dark, though. Ink. Or- raven feathers."
When Lirit woke, her hair was black. As time passed, though, beneath the earth, it started growing in bleached grey at the base. Dead roots. It looked- so absurd, that sharp line where the black ended and the silver began, and she just- she hadn't been able to stand it. The reminder of the dying, the reminder of the time that was passing, postmortem. Eventually she sharpened a dagger and slashed all the black away, leaving her hair short and ragged and purely dead, as she was. No more reminders.
Not on her body, anyway.
She swallows, uncertain, still not opening her eyes. It's- strange, while this particular discussion is taking place.
"Wh... what color were they, then?"
"You can open them, now. It's alright, I've finished."
Lirit frowns. "Are you going to tell me or not?"
"Open your eyes," they insist, and Lirit scowls as she does, glaring before her eyes are entirely open again.
And then she blinks.
Green. Her eyes are- were- are green.
Essa holds a mirror up, an oval that's small enough to fit into their palms, but they're holding it close enough to Lirit that she can see her entire face, changed as it is. It's a skillful layer of magic, woven over Lirit's face like a mask. They left her hair in the same style, short ragged waves clouding around her head, though they tinted it more blond than grey, saturated somewhat more. They treated her skin similarly, simply applying a dose of color over the pale, freckled curve of her cheeks. Her eyes-
Were her eyes really this bright, before? This vibrant? Or- or is that just the exaggeration of memory, shifting Essa's application more bold?
Lirit blinks, startled to see someone alive blinking back at her from the mirror.
It's only an illusion, she knows. It's temporary. But-
Oh, she thinks, her stomach lurching. This is- this is precisely what Lady Corliss meant, she thinks. When the magic fades- when she's nothing but a walking cadaver again-
It is going to hurt.
She swallows, and drops her own eyes. Essa lowers the mirror as well, and Lirit struggles to find voice before the thief does.
"Thank you," she manages after a beat, her tone very careful. "I don't imagine anyone would look at this and think I was- well. It's very convincing, anyway. Thank you. I knew you had skill, but- I don't think I knew you were adept enough to do... this."
"It's nothing particularly fancy," Essa says, nonchalant as they tuck the mirror back into a pocket Lirit had mistaken for a seam. "Just a bit of color, mostly. I'm very, very good with color."
"Clearly." Lirit pauses for a moment, and then a thought occurs. "Are you- are you certain, though, that this won't be-"
Essa frowns when she trails off, glancing over their shoulder with a raised eyebrow. "Won't be what?"
"Won't be... w-worse, for you. Won't make it- harder. To see me. If I look more like- like she did."
"Like you did, you mean."
Lirit scowls. "That's- debatable. Semantics, at best."
"Fine." Essa shakes their head. "Fine. I won't argue the point. But- no. Or- maybe it'll be a little more difficult, but it would be worse, I think, to try to make you look like someone else. It was weird enough just making your hair blond instead of black, and I only did that because the black would be difficult to fix on your hair when the color is so much different, now. Keeping it the same paleness eases the effect."
"But- but you won't-"
"I'm already bringing you with me, alright? There's very little that we could do to make this situation more painful."
Lirit leans back, just a little, at the sharpness in Essa's tone, but before she can respond, the thief shakes their head again.
"No- I'm sorry. I don't mean that. It's just- trying to put a fancy coat of paint on it won't make anything any better. I'm fine. This is- fine. It's just a little magic, and I'm good at this particular sort of illusion. It's fine."
Typically, people who are fine don't need to insist upon it quite so much. Lirit purses her lips, but declines to comment. "Alright. Well, thank you, anyway. Where- where are we going, now? I don't expect that your little hideout is tucked down by the riverbank, is it?"
"No," Essa says, aiming their eyes up towards the overhanging edge at the top of the steep embankment. Lirit can't see much of anything up there, this time of night, but apparently Essa can see enough, and their face settles, apparently satisfied with a lack of danger. "It's a little ways in. Stick close behind me, and pull your hood up. The glamor is good, but we'd still better not take any risks."
"Alright." Lirit nods, falling into step behind the thief as they turn to lead her away from the water, showing Lirit the way to pick out a set of hidden steps carved out of the stone, trailing up towards the buildings above.
The city is calm again, dark and muted, and they don't see any other people at all for the first few blocks. There's a guard with a torch around the third corner, but Essa seems to know that he's coming before he even rounds the building, and they grab Lirit's hand, tugging them behind a column and partially hiding her body with their own until the patrolling eyes pass on by entirely.
"C'mon," they say, safe in the dark again in the wake of the torch, and then they tug Lirit's hand for only two full steps before they let her go again and start to dart forward, with Lirit falling into step again, pretending not to feel the lingering tingle of warmth on their palm. They duck into a narrow crack between buildings, a rarity with the way the architecture is arranged, tightly packed buildings with adjoining walls, stacked together high and arching over the roadway itself in places. The artificial cavern, rectangular and even darker than the street outside, is slim enough that they both need to angle their bodies sideways to shimmy through, and Lirit can't see past Essa to glean the first clue where it will let out. The only thing to do is follow, hoping that this route will lead somewhere a little brighter.
She's grateful, as well, that she doesn't need to breathe. It would be a little crushing, here, if she did. She wonders how Essa deals with it- if they're just used to this way, or if it's still difficult for them. Perhaps difficult the way that the open air had been difficult for Lirit, when they had stepped out of the tunnels. In honesty, despite her uncertainty about where this path will lead, Lirit is almost relieved to be tucked back into so tight a space. It isn't cozy, but- Lirit knows that there is something reliable about narrow spaces. She likes to be able to put out a hand on either side and press against a sturdy wall with both.
The tunnel-alley opens out after two or three turns, and Essa exhales an obviously relieved breath, their shoulders relaxing as they twist to walk more naturally again rather than in a sideways shuffle, rolling their arms over their head to stretch as they go.
Lirit was expecting another road, when they crept out of the darkness again, but they appear to be in something like an exaggerated version of the little rectangular cave, almost an unintentional courtyard tucked between what Lirit assumes are the squared backs of buildings surrounding. She squints up, and after a moment her sight resolves to see the hint of city-dimmed stars, a thin stripe peeking between the tops of the structures surrounding. Lirit expects that it's likely still very dark here, during the day, if that little glimpse of sky is all there is.
Lirit nearly bounces into Essa's back, not realizing until almost too late that the thief has stopped walking again, their face aimed upwards as well. Lirit skips back before they can notice the near-collision, and then she follows Essa's gaze, up the back of the building, until she spots-
One single window, high and small, with a candle lit on the sill. Lirit darts her eyes around the other uneven, rectangularly jutting walls, and she sees perhaps three more windows at all, two of which look to be boarded closed and the last of which is so utterly dark that Lirit is not convinced that it is a window at all, and not just a particularly deep recess in the walls, an accidental gap.
The lit window is apparently a concern, because Essa's brow furrows as they lower their eyes from the flickering light, and then they glance back towards Lirit with a look of uncertainty.
"Alright," Lirit says, "what is it? What's wrong? Is your- your safehouse, is it compromised?"
Essa breathes a laugh, apparently startled by the particular direction of her suspicions.
"No," they say, shaking their head. "Nothing so sinister. But it... it was supposed to be empty, and if there's someone up there... I think I know who it is, and that complicates things a bit."
"Complicates things," Lirit echoes, raising an eyebrow. "Complicates them how, exactly?"
"If I'm right about who's sitting up there right now, it means you can't come in. You'll have to wait out here while I get my things."
"But- but you said- you did this whole disguise! I look perfectly alive, there's no reason to make me wait out in the alley in the cold-" she pauses. "Not- not that the cold matters, that was more- an expression, I suppose, but-"
"You can't come up."
"Why did you even bother with the glamor if you intend to-"
"You have to stay here," Essa snaps, her dark eyes gone sharp, "because they will recognize you, and I'm not going to hurt them like that. Not while you're still- not while you still don't even know what you want. It wouldn't be fair to do that to them, and I won't. So you'll just have to suck it up and wait down here like a big girl for couple damned minutes. Can you do that?"
Lirit snaps her mouth shut, her teeth clacking together in her surprise. Essa's tone blazes, heat and a current of protective fierceness that Lirit doesn't know what to do with, but even leaving that aside-
I'm not going to hurt them like that. Not while you're still-
The implication- or, the logical step, there, is that Essa knows the hurt of seeing Lirit like... this, having known her before. Because it hurts Essa, too. Which-
That awareness keeps drifting, in and out of Lirit's mind. She knows that it must, that Essa is holding themself very steady in the face of that hurt, in the face of... whatever Lirit means to them.
Who else is left to remember Lirit? Who would-
Essa let slip, somewhat accidentally, that Lirit's parents died when Lirit did. So, who else? And who that would be tucked away in a thief's safehouse in the night, expected enough that the thief would not be at all surprised to find them waiting?
She shakes her head, only to clear it, and when the motion makes Essa scowl more deeply she raises her hands, placating. "I- yes. I can wait. It's- it's fine. It isn't any concern. I know you aren't just going to- to leave me here, of course. I... I understand. I wouldn't want- I wouldn't want to hurt anyone, either."
Essa's frame softens, tension dissolving somewhat in a sigh. "Obviously," they mutter, and then they run a hand through their hair and shoot another look at the flickering window above. "Okay. Here-"
They lead Lirit over to an unremarkable section of wall, and then they gesture vaguely up. "This is a blind spot. None of the windows have a view of this particular corner, which makes it perfect."
They lift a hand, dispelling a minor glamor that hides a seam in the stone, and then they push against the slab that their magic reveals, pushing open a door. It moves completely silently, despite its obvious weight, and the space it reveals inside is so utterly dark that Lirit would believe equally that it dropped off down a hole or dead ended a few steps in.
"Just... keep against the wall, here, and you'll be out of sight. I'll be as quick as I can. Okay?"
Lirit bites her lip, then leans to press her back against the stone beside the door, clasping her hands in front of herself and trying to give Essa an encouraging smile. "Okay," she says, feeling oddly meek. "Okay. I'll be- I'll be right here."
Essa manages something like a smile in return, their brow still furrowed. "Try to... try to stay quiet. Chances are it won't matter, but..."
"Better not to take the risk," Lirit answers, quiet. "I know."
Essa nods. "Good. Good. I'll be- I'll be quick," they say again, and then they duck into the doorway, and pull the stone back closed behind them. Or- nearly closed, at least. Lirit can see the seam, cracked just barely open, dark even in the darkness.
Lirit intends to wait until she can't hear Essa's footsteps before she even moves an inch, but- well, Essa doesn't exactly make noise when they walk. It's uncanny. They move like a cat. Lirit waits a minute or so anyway, and then she sighs, sinking down with her back to the wall until she sits, her knees pulled up against her chest.
Someone who knew her in life is waiting, by that lit window above Lirit's head. Someone she knew. Someone she should remember-
She blinks. Shakes her head.
She shouldn't remember. She's not supposed to. It's dangerous. It's the path towards pain and dissatisfaction, and Lirit's place is with the order, not with those who failed to keep her alive in the first place.
Lirit pulls her legs tighter against her chest, dropping her forehead to thunk off her knees.
She doesn't have to follow Essa, to get an idea of what's going on in there, does she?
Lirit raises her head, her lips pursed, too curious to resist now that the idea has struck. She doesn't even need to move. She can be perfectly obedient and still...
She casts a tendril of magic out, death sensing for death, until she finds what she's looking for. She doesn't even quite know what it is until she reanimates it, and then the cricket springs up at her command, landing light on the back of her hand.
Poor thing is far enough gone that she couldn't have brought it back to true life if she tried. It's missing a leg, even, but Lirit flicks her other hand out, humming gently, and a substitute curls itself out of the shadows, forming a simulacrum of the limb.
She leans closer, presses a thumb against the bug's head, and after a moment of consideration (she's not skilled enough, yet, to extend more than a single sense to the creature) she whispers, "Listen for me, little one. Go on."
She feels the layer of echo as her consciousness envelops the cricket's auditory awareness, and then she lifts it up above her head, willing it to hop up to the stone, and then climb towards the window. A little push of magic, minor prodding from her will- it climbs quick and easy with its new leg, and Lirit can't see it as it finds the sill of the candlelit window, but she can hear the subtle change in atmosphere, the slight crackle of the flame in a hearth, the muffling of the wind outside by the stone walls. She can hear footsteps, too. Pacing, she realizes after a moment, when the steps prove to be cyclic in volume and pace. They aren't going anywhere, so much as circling, at least as far as Lirit can tell with only the sound to aid her.
A door clicks open, and Lirit does not hear other footsteps to accompany the noise. Essa, obviously. A theory which she finds herself vindicated in a moment later when she hears a new voice gasp in surprise, and then Essa's more familiar one shushing gently.
"Just me, just me, it's alright. I didn't mean to scare you."
"You!" the voice huffs, grumbling wordlessly for a moment. "You- you didn't scare me. I only-
"Jumped a foot in the air. A totally normal way to react when you aren't scared. Right."
Lirit regrets, for a moment, not choosing sight over sound, if only to have seen that.
(She does not regret it, however, for the sake of not falling face-first into another memory at the sight of a forgotten face. The voice is enough, already. She can feel her throat tightening with the urge to hitch breaths she does not need to take. She can feel a pulse, a dark bubble of inexplicable guilt in the pit of her stomach. No, the voice is enough. She doesn't know if she could have withstood the sight.)
"I thought you would be back this morning," the voice - she? Lirit thinks she remembers - chirps, stubborn and insistent and childish in a way that stirs some worry at the back of Lirit's mind. "I didn't know where you were, I thought-"
"I'm not so easy to get rid of as that, kid." Essa sighs, and Lirit hears the sound of a chair scraping across a stone floor, presumably as the thief sits. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to worry you, either. Especially considering that you were supposed to be back with your aunt. You know. Where I told you to stay?"
"Aren't I safer here? No one even knows about this place."
"That only stays true as long as no reckless little kids leave a trail back to my favorite hideout spot."
"I'm careful! I'm always careful! I just- I didn't want to just- sit there. I was- I was worried that-"
A pause, long, and Lirit can only hear the shifting of cloth for a moment, and then the second voice inhales sharply and exhales in a huff.
"You finished the job, you got it back and you got your payment, and- and I was worried that you might not come back. Anymore." Another pause, and then, much more quietly. "That's all."
Another shifting noise, the light squeak of wood, and Lirit imagines Essa raising back to their feet.
"Oh, kid. Of course I was gonna come back."
"You took so long, though," she says, her voice thick, layering accusatory anger over obvious distress. "I thought-"
"I wouldn't leave you, kiddo. I'm not gonna do that to you, I swear. The job-" they sigh, deep and exhausted, and Lirit realizes that their voice is much less stiff, here. Much less careful than it had been, when they were speaking with Lirit herself. "Look. I was never just here for the job, kid. I thought... I thought you knew that? I thought..."
They trail off, and Lirit hears the other person sniffle, just slightly.
"I... I thought- I thought so, I just... I don't know."
"I was never just here for the job," they say again, more firmly. "It was a convenient excuse, and if the money makes your aunt feel better about the whole thing, fine. I'll give all of it right back to you, if you want-"
"Don't you dare."
Essa laughs, low and fond. "I was here in the first place because I care- because I cared about Lirit. I stuck my nose in because I needed to know- I needed to know why. I needed to know who did it, and... and I stuck around because you are a stubborn, reckless little brat and you need someone more street smart than your poor aunt to make sure you don't get yourself killed."
"I care about you, too, kid. And- and I know what it's like, to feel like everything has been taken from you. I know what it feels like, to be left without anyone who understands. I wouldn't just leave you with that. I'm not going to disappear just because we found the necklace, okay? I'm not going anywhere. I promise."
Another brief pause, and then a sigh. "I- I know. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have worried."
"You shouldn't have snuck out again. Your aunt is going to be terrified."
"She knows that you'll take care of me," she mumbles, and even without sight Lirit knows that she's kicking her boots off the stone as she does. "And- and I'm always fine. I'm- I'm the one who's fine, right?"
Essa hums, hedging. "Historically. I guess. If that's how you wanna think about it. But that's not an excuse to be reckless."
There is a longer pause, then, but after a few moments Essa sighs.
"I'm not staying, though. I just wanted to stop by to grab a few things, and then I-" a pause, and then very quietly, "ah. Shit."
"Wh-" she laughs, light and surprised (Lirit ignores the way her stomach swoops, the way her face feels waxen and stiff). "What was that?"
"Er- no, I just- realized something." They sigh again, a ragged, irritable exhale. "I was going to grab some things and then head over to visit your aunt, actually. I'm... concerned about the amulet. Considering who had it, before. I've been- talking to someone who knows a bit more about necromancy, and... I just want to take a look at it."
"You've been... talking to someone who knows about necromancy?" she says, sharply dubious. "After everything you went through to get-"
"I know. Kid. Kid. I know, I know how that sounds, but- you know what I can do with magic." Another pause. No noise, but Lirit imagines the thief's hands dancing through the air, glittering with glamor. "I don't know anything about how to make sure the necklace is safe to handle for you and your aunt. I need to make sure you'll be okay, okay?"
"Mm, but- but how did you even find-"
"You trust me, don't you?"
"Do you trust me?"
A sharp, little exhale.
"You know that I do."
"Then trust me now. I know what you're going to say-"
"If you're going to go to Zolona's house I am coming with you."
"I knew you were going to say that," Essa says in a groaning drawl, and Lirit imagines them scrubbing a hand back through their hair in exasperation. "Yeah. Exactly. If you're going to be coming with us-"
"Then you need to listen to me. Right now. Yes, I have the necromance-" an awkward stretch of the word, and then, "necromancy expert downstairs in the gully. I was bringing her with me so she could help figure out how dangerous that thing is, now, and what we could do about it. So, if you're coming-"
"You have to stop interrupting me. I know this is a lot, I know this has been- a weird couple days. But you have to listen to me right now, because it is important. When we go downstairs, I need you with a hood up. I don't want her seeing your face. I don't want you seeing her face. I don't want you to speak to her, and I'm going to ask her not to speak to you. I know all of this probably sounds like overkill, and I know that I'm probably making all of this sound even scarier, but- it's important that you listen to me. Understand?"
"I... I think so. Why... is she dangerous? If she's dangerous, why would you bring her to my aunt? Won't it be safer to bring the necklace to her?"
"She isn't dangerous to me, and she won't be dangerous to you, or Zolona. Trust me. I just... I don't want her to know anything about you, if I can avoid it. It'll be safer, that way. And- if things do go sideways, I need you to promise me, I need you to swear, that you'll do what I say. If I tell you to run, you run. If I tell you to leave me behind, you do it. Can you do that for me? Can I trust you, too?"
"I- Essa, I won't just- just leave you, I can't-"
"I'm not asking you to leave me. I'm asking you to trust that I'm clever enough to handle myself, and if I tell you to leave without me, it means that I have another plan that I don't have time to explain. I'm just asking you to believe that I know what I'm doing, so I don't have to worry about you. If I know you'll do the smart thing and listen to me if we get ourselves into trouble, it'll be a hell of a weight off my shoulders. Now. Can you do that?"
Inhale, exhale, shuddery and weak.
"I... I can. I will. I won't let you down."
"You couldn't if you tried, kiddo," and the distinctive ruffle-yelp combination of the thief tousling the kid's hair. "Alright. Let me grab my bags. Snag anything you brought, and then let me go down first, okay?"
The noises fade, then, mostly the rustle of fabric and the creak of leather and the occasional murmur about where something might be hiding, and Lirit inhales a deliberate breath, holds it in her pointless lungs for a moment, and then sighs out her connection to her little servant, releasing the poor thing to rest, again.
It's a short wait, then, until the stone slab door shifts back open again, Essa's silent feet creeping back out into the slightly less pitch dark of the alleyway (the gully, did they call it?). The thief's eyes flash in a quick circuit, narrowing briefly before they notice Lirit tucked down beside the door, still curled half around her own legs, eyebrow raised in their direction.
"Did you get what you came for?" Lirit murmurs, and Essa's face goes a little stiff, careful.
"Little bit of a change in plans. We've got a tag-along."
"Is that... wise?" Lirit asks, pressing her hands against the wall to help slide back up to her feet. "I thought that it was... potentially harmful, if she were to recognize me."
"Yeah. It would be. Which is why you're gonna keep your hood up, and you aren't going to say a word to her. And hopefully she won't say anything to you, either. You'll keep on opposite sides of me, and you won't try to look at her. Is that understood?"
Their voice is so different, now, than it had been upstairs. The gentleness is gone, the fondness- leaving only a fierce layer of defense, stern and inarguable.
Lirit doesn't blame them. The child- the young woman- the kid that Essa is protecting- Lirit understands. If she were trying to keep some kid safe, she wouldn't want to let them interact with some dangerous undead creature either.
(That unease at the pit of her stomach has been growing since she heard that voice, roiling and reeling. Lirit feels desperate to reach, to grab this child's shoulders and pull her safe against her chest. She feels desperate to shove that slab door shut before the child can join them and simply run and run and run, until the entire world is between she and Lirit. It feels dangerous. It feels like everything.)
"I won't say- I won't say anything. It's- I don't want- I don't want to know. I shouldn't know. Here."
She lifts her hood, shifting until it sits almost over her eyes, and then she adds a layer of shadow, a weave of darkness hanging from the hem of the hood to further obscure her face.
"Not- not to discount your work, of course, but-"
Essa laughs, surprised. "No, no. No offense taken. Thank you."
"No gratitude necessary. I am... rather fumbling, and I know I am a source of- discomfort. I would like to avoid as much damage as possible."
"Incoming and outgoing," the thief mutters, and they shake their head quickly before they turn back to the doorway. "Okay. Just- stick close. I'll have her go ahead of me. It's a little bit of a walk."
They nod, and smile very slightly, and then duck into the darkness for a few moments. They return with their little accomplice in tow, plump-cheeked beneath her hood and pouting before Lirit steels herself and drops her eyes. She's small, either a short teenager or a tall child, and she clings to Essa's hand as the thief tugs her along.
"Okay, I'm coming-" she hisses, and Essa makes a sharp, wordless noise of warning. The child settles, then, exhaling a huff as Essa nudges her to walk in front of them.
"She knows the direction," Essa explains, tone flat. "You stay at my back. If I say stop, we all stop. The guards are flighty right now, so if one spots us, and I say run, you run. Try not to get split up if you can help it, but worry about not getting grabbed first. Do not slow down. Do not speak up. And yeah, kid, I see you fidgeting. I know this seems like overkill, but trust me. You don't live to a retiring age in my line of work unless you're really clever, really careful, and really lucky. Only two of those you get any control over, so you damn well better make the effort, or the luck will fuck you. Yes, I cursed. We're moving past it. In fact, we're moving. Feet forward, kid."
They pat the child on the shoulders, nudging her forward, and she breathes something between a laugh and a scoff as she obeys, shaking her head beneath her hood.
Lirit presses her mouth closed, firm, and she nods when Essa gives her a backward glance over their shoulder. She falls into step quickly, trying to imitate Essa's stride to keep her footsteps lighter as they duck down through another narrow crack in the wall, impossible to see from anything but the correct angle.
This route is, thankfully, shorter, so there is little time to worry about the closeness of the walls surrounding or to become uncomfortable with shuffling sideways before they are deposited back onto the wider, cobbled streets. The child doesn't hesitate at the change; she only veers to the left and keeps her pace steady, moving them close to the sides of the buildings to take advantage of the shadows cast from the lamps that hang higher between the buildings above the street. Lirit doesn't know how much the shadows would actually help if someone were to happen upon them (isn't sure why, precisely, someone seeing them walking the streets at night would be so terrible in the first place, not that she intends to ask), but it certainly feels safer, so she understands the urge.
Their path leads them higher up into the city- not up the rooftops to the highwalks, but up the natural hill of the city, into what Lirit recognizes as a somewhat less affluent district. It does not look dilapidated, by any stretch of the imagination, but after her own enormous home (even blasted to a shell) on the riverfront and the surrounding sprawling structures, Lirit recognizes the disparity. The houses here seem even more tightly packed together, which she would not have thought possible, and the stone seems less... stable? Perhaps? There are cracks, here and there, at least, though whether they are cosmetic or structural is impossible to tell, for Lirit.
Essa grips the both of them by the shoulder, one in front and one behind, to haul them back behind a closed-up merchant cart, squeezing hard until the guard at the corner of the next street passes by, and then they give a sigh and wince as they help the child back to her feet. Lirit manages fine on her own, and honestly- something in her stomach, or something she does not want to remember, perhaps, is in full agreement that it is far more valuable to help the child than herself. Or- maybe its just a natural sort of instinct, protectiveness over the young. Perhaps an odd instinct for the dead to keep, but she isn't particularly bothered. Or- she isn't as bothered as she should be. Or- she isn't as bothered as her order would expect her to be.
The child goes a little more slowly, after that, as she leads them from what seems to be a residential area into something that looks more like a sector for shops and offices. She moves more carefully at the corners, more attentive to the way the light shines to anticipate torches among the lanterns. They don't encounter anyone else, excepting one or two moments of slowing down to let a guard finish the turn he was already making away from them, and she draws them to a stop in front of a building that Lirit doesn't think she would have noticed, if she hadn't been led here.
Oh, well. No.
She would have noticed.
Because this place is another horrible capsule of memory, waiting to crack open in front of her.
It's less overwhelming than her home, which Lirit is immediately grateful for. Her fingertips shake, and she worries- how much more exertion will she be able to endure, before she needs to tap into her stolen crystal? She had been hoping- hoping to go back underground before she needed to, but- it is looking less and less likely.
The building isn't quite a shop, exactly. It's more like a garden trapped in a strange maze of rectangular stone. The sign hanging from the overhang of the second level reads Zolona's Garden, but Lirit knows instantly that it isn't just that- she knows that it's something like a plant shop, an arboretum, a butterfly garden, an apothecary, and a tea shop all tumbled together, and the whole structure thrums with so much distracting, distracting life that it makes Lirit's mouth feel dry. She feels-
Dead. The awareness of the state doesn't really pierce her consciousness all that often, leaving aside the practicalities. It isn't something she needs think about, in contrast to any other way, but-
She can hear, even out on the streets, the low chirruping thrum of the insects that populate the garden, and she can feel the trees and bushes and vines and grasses and ferns and mosses tucked lovingly into this little urban sanctuary.
In contrast, Lirit is an empty, lurking corpse, quickly running out of time.
Lirit drops her eyes, clenching her teeth. She shifts towards Essa, and then raises her hand, palm open, in a wordless question when the thief glances towards her. She thinks they understand her general concern, her uncertainty, and they nod.
"Kid," they say quietly. "Go in first, see if Zol is awake. If she is, send her down to meet us at the back door. If she's not, you come unlock the back for us- yes I could just pick the lock, but that would be impolite, please just- go on. Please."
The child hesitates, just for a moment, and then she nods and goes to the front of the garden, reaching carefully to pull a key out from her skirts and clicking open the door. She glances back towards them, just quickly, her face only a suggestion beneath the shadow of her hood, and Lirit keeps as utterly still as she is able, hoping that her own shadowed face is enough. Essa, beside her, gestures sharply with their hands, and the kid huffs hard enough to move her shoulders before she slips entirely inside, pulling the door back shut behind her.
Essa sags, slightly, once she's safely inside. "Okay," she mutters. "Back door. This way."
"Is there a reason we didn't all go in the front way, besides keeping me further away from the child?" She drops the shadow slightly, so Essa can see her flick a smile as they look towards her over their shoulder. "If not, I still understand."
Essa's face betrays nothing, and they turn forward again to lead Lirit around towards the back of the building, through another narrow (though less narrow than the last few) alley. The back of the building looks even more like a garden than the front- a narrow, tall courtyard filled with even more plant life, with trellises lined high up the walls, so far up that Lirit can't quite see the tops of the vines against the stone. There are metalwork benches and carved stone steps, a little fountain draped with lilypads and what looks like glimmering magic lights hung over the entire space. It's beautiful, all told, and it makes Lirit feel sick to the stomach with a single look.
"I wanted to be able to explain," Essa says, apparently unaware of Lirit's sudden sense of dread, "how this next part is going to go without needing to dance around anything for- for the kid. You're going to need to stay outside, at least for a bit, while I explain your suspicions about the amulet to Zolona. Then, if she agrees, I'll bring the amulet out to you, and you'll do whatever dark necromancy you need to do to make it safe again."
"Alright." Lirit purses her lips. "Impolite, for the record."
Essa narrows their eyes. "What?"
"Dark necromancy. Dislike what I am all you want, but if I am right and I use what skill I have to make something less dangerous, you can hardly claim that magic as morally wrong, can you?"
"Now who's arguing semantics?" Essa scowls, then blinks and shakes their head. "It doesn't- matter. Look. Is that acceptable, or are you going to argue about it? Because we don't have a ton of time before the kid comes back or sends the greenskeeper."
"It's... fine. It's fine."
It doesn't matter whether or not Lirit goes into this place. As soon as she gets her hands on the amulet-
So far as she has seen, so far as she remembers, there's nothing that the thief will be able to do to stop her, if she bolts. If she's worried, she can just throw a ward up at her back. More shadow tendrils, even, to slow her pursuit.
"I don't- want to come in, anyway," she mutters, looking aside. "I'd prefer not."
"... you remember... something?"
"I know I knew this place." She keeps her eyes down, her mouth curling into a frown. "That's enough. Enough to know I don't want to see more. Same with- her," she adds, quick and uncertain, and then before Essa can do more than twitch, she says, "I know she's- something. Special. Maybe. I know she matters. It's important- that- that you're protecting her. Someone should be."
Essa doesn't have the chance to respond to that, because the door clicks open and the child pokes her head out. Lirit has just enough time to see that her hood is down before her brain kicks in and she whips her own head away, raising a hand to resummon the shade to obscure her face again.
"Aunt Zolona is getting up, she'll be ready to talk in a few min-"
"What are you doing?" Essa hisses, stalking to the door and placing themself bodily between her and Lirit. "I told you to send her down if she was awake. I don't want you out here. Get inside and go to bed."
"You aren't my mother, Essa, and Zolona started waking up when I came in, it wasn't my fault-"
"Get inside now," Essa snarls, and then, quietly enough that Lirit thinks that she isn't meant to hear, "I don't want her hearing your voice. Get inside. Please."
The child inhales, pauses, and then after a moment there is a sigh and the sound of her footsteps retreating back into the building.
("Yes, mother," and a teasing, bubbling laugh, and Lirit snickers into her hands as her shoulder bumps against-)
Essa stays by the door, their head pressed against the frame, their palm on the handle as they breathe for a moment, and then they sigh more deeply and glance back over their shoulder at Lirit. Lirit, who is rather grateful for the obscuring on her face, just at the moment.
"Sorry about that," they say, sounding distinctly embarrassed. "I- I know I'll need to apologize to her, too, for snapping, but- I was trying to keep you from..." they bite their lip, sighing again and drawing a hand through their hair, and then they narrow their eyes. "You put the shadow back up?"
Lirit- nods, not trusting words for a moment.
"You- thank you. But I can't tell- did you- see her?"
"A- a moment," she says, her voice coming out in a rasp. "Only a moment. If I don't think about it. I should be. Fine. I think. I just- I can't think."
"You can't... think?" Essa says slowly, and Lirit grits her teeth.
"About her. Not safe." She pauses. "Don't know why I'm- speaking this way."
"Kind of sounds like you're... panicking, just a bit. Forgive me for saying."
"No, that sounds... accurate. Shouldn't you go inside?"
Essa glances towards the door again, and then they step away, coming closer to Lirit. "Not if you aren't okay, starlight," they say, halfway to a sigh, and the edge of reluctant fondness in their voice makes all the crashing panic in Lirit's head freeze, and then start moving faster. They think, perhaps, if they still breathed, they would be hyperventilating. "Hey, look-"
"I'm fine," Lirit says, keeping the words from shaking by forcing them to come out without any actual breath. It isn't exactly an effective method; if anything, Lirit sounds like she's hissing.
"Yeah, and I'm a secret princex."
Lirit chokes, half of a laugh. "I'll be fine. If I can just- not think about her. It'll be fine. It'll be better. I just need to- banish the thought. As it were. Ha, ha."
"You..." Essa frowns, brow furrowing in something like sadness. "You don't... want to remember her?"
"Remembering will make all of it worse. It's too- much. And I'm dead. It doesn't matter. She-"
Lirit pauses, biting her tongue.
"You can't... finish that sentence, can you? Because you know she does. You can't say she doesn't matter, because she does."
"Stop. Can't think- can't- remember."
"If I told you her name, right now, what would happen?"
Lirit's eyes widen, and she feels her grip on her magic waver, just enough. The shade on her face fades again, dripping thick dark shadow onto the ground by her feet, staining the grass. Essa pauses, too, apparently at the look on her face.
"You should go inside," Lirit whispers. "And I'll wait here."
"Y-yeah," Essa says, tone muted and wary. "Yeah. You're... probably right. I'll be as quick as I can. No one should come back here to bother you. Just- keep the hood up, alright?"
Lirit nods, summoning what energy she still can to obscure her face, trying to affix the shade there so it will not slip again without substantially more disruption.
Essa pauses by the door again, then glances back with their expression searching and open.
"I'm... sorry," they say again after a long moment, and then they disappear inside.
Lirit stands alone in the dark for a long moment of her own, and then she steps stiffly over to the carved stone lip surrounding the small pond, and sinks to sit. She sits, and the pond burbles gently behind her, and Lirit hates that that is familiar, too. She wonders how many times, before, she's been in this back courtyard, wonders how many times she has sat exactly here, and then she- grits her teeth and presses a hand over her mouth and reminds herself-
It's better not to know. This parade of past- it's a test, perhaps. It's a test, like all the other tests Lady Corliss has put before her, and- and she cannot fail this one too. It feels like she is. She cannot.
Movement at her periphery, and Lirit glances up to catch-
Silhouetted shape in the window, above the garden-shop. Obscured by beaded curtains, but- Lirit can still see it. See her.
She knows it's the girl, watching her in return.
She pulls her hood down further, ducks her head, and pulls her hands into the folds of her cloak so she can wrap them around her midsection, as if holding her own insides still.
(Don't think about it. Don't think about her. You are dead. She is alive. They are alive. There is nothing left. There is only the family that brought you back. The world destroyed you once. Do not allow it to do so again.)
One of the trees close by the fountain is ailing. Lirit can feel the hovering miasma of unwell, drifting from the branches, and she knows (doesn't mean to know) that Zolona endures an ongoing battle with beetles, an invasive infestation creeping through and devouring the leaves, despite her efforts at eradication.
Lirit sucks her bottom lip in between her teeth, bites down, and then sighs for no one but herself.
She feels out. She lets the shadows of night be as more and more hands, searching out the invaders, touching gentle at the backs of shells, sensing the familiar sting of the life of a parasite, and then-
A sound like a handful of seeds dropping to the ground, and Lirit feels a minuscule pulse of energy sink into her sternum and then dissolve as she sucks the life from a hundred lentil-sized insects.
She only holds the energy for a moment, however. She curls it around her fingers, shaping it, bolstering it with her own power, her own intent, and then she sends it back, winding around the core of the ailing tree, encouraging and nourishing and hopefully, hopefully mitigating some degree of the damage.
(More energy she cannot spare to spend, on another life that cannot possibly matter.)
(She feels calmer, with the effort. More steady. Like breathing, the inhale, hold, and exhale of that borrowed life.)
Movement at her periphery, shaded above. The child at the window again, moving. Lirit does not look up, this time. Safer to sit, and wait, and try not to think about anything from the before time.
Better to think about the amulet. Better to think what, exactly, she is going to do when Essa comes back out with her prize.
(The funny thing is, Lirit can feel her pigeon, a pulse of life tethered loosely to her, sleeping somewhere fairly close. She must have come out of the underground not too far off from here, without an ounce of recognition.)
(The funny thing is, Lirit feels safe here, despite the anxiety. The bowers of green and brown draping over her head are a comfort, a shield from the wide, cold sky. She feels anchored, rooted. She always liked plants.)
(Was this why she liked plants? This place? This Zolona, whoever they are?)
The door opens, Essa's shadowed form slipping out and clicking the door back shut behind them almost as if they're afraid of letting the light out.
Lirit stands, as they come closer, their expression shuttered and unreadable, and then they lift out the amulet.
When Lirit reaches, however, they pull it back to their chest.
"Just a moment. You said you would make sure it was safe, and if it wasn't, you said you could drain whatever necromantic energies were stuffed into it. Zolona says it used to be a clear gem inlaid here, so I'm assuming this two-toned thing is your c- your order's doing. If you do anything, anything at all with this amulet that could hurt that kid inside..." they pause, inhale, and then they square their shoulders, lowering their head to fix Lirit with a steady glare. "I will kill you again. And this time you won't come back."
Lirit considers that.
Well. She has no intention whatsoever of hurting the girl. As soon as she can bury herself again - somewhat literally - she will, and then none of them will need to worry about whose corpse she is parading around ever again. Taking the amulet won't hurt anyone.
"That sounds more than fair," she says, after a moment, and Essa's lip twitches with a buried laugh. Apparently they weren't expecting Lirit to agree quite so readily, or to neglect to argue about the threat of death. "May I?"
Essa eyes her warily for another moment, their hands curled protectively, and then they sigh through their teeth and hold the amulet out, dropping it by the chain to hiss into Lirit's hand.
("You caught me fair and square," the thief says, leaning closer with a sharp grin. "Well done. Hold your hand out."
"For what?" she asks, curling suspiciously back, and Essa's grin softens.
"So I can give it back, of course. The game's no fun if there aren't some consequences if I lose, y'know?"
Lirit hesitates, scrutinizes the thief with a pout, and then-
Lifts her hand out, palm up.
Essa places her palm down over Lirit's, warm even through the leather of her gloves, and Lirit's breath catches as she feels something soft fall into her hand before Essa draws her arm back, her thumb tracing the side of Lirit's hand in parting.
Surprise makes her heart thrum, sharp, but the thief darts back before she can say anything, twisting over the balcony railing and disappearing back into the dark of night.
And Lirit looks down at her hand, uncurling her fingers, and-)
"A flower," Lirit says, under her breath, and Essa blinks, their fingers flexing enough that they drop the amulet the rest of the way into Lirit's hand all at once.
Lirit furrows her brow. "Why... why did you try to steal a flower? It was from my garden, sure, but- why would you steal that?"
Essa looks stricken, their lips parted in a pained little noise, and then their expression shutters and they look aside.
"Because I wanted to give it back to you if you caught me," they say, flat and toneless. "I wanted to make you blush. Are you going to look at the stupid necklace now or aren't you?"'
Lirit blinks. She- she had nearly forgotten. Forgotten where she is, when she is. Forgotten that she's not Lirit. Not really. Just- just a dead thing, a dead thing who occasionally remembers more than she should.
She looks down at the amulet in her hands, so small a thing to cause so much trouble. The chain is silver, the setting the same, if a little tarnished, and the gem- yes, still that twin-toned wine-red and bruise-blue. She narrows her eyes, feeling for Corliss' magic, for the footprint of her order, and-
It's more subtle than Lirit would have expected. No pulsing waves, no screeching signal. If anything, Lirit needs to push a little, to feel the energy push back. In fact, when Lirit tilts her head curiously and feels with a more subtle finger, she can sense- wards, obfuscation, a burying of the necromancy, as if Corliss hadn't wanted this thing to be able to be sensed at all, by other mages. A necromancer would smell it eventually, of course, but another mage... unlikely, without some particular training, or particular reason to look deeper. Odd, odd that, because it means-
Lady Corliss must have meant to use it outside the compound, of course. If it had been meant to sit down in the dark with them, there would be no call for subterfuge. It would be surrounded by necromancy, so hiding its nature would be utterly useless.
"Well?" Essa says, and Lirit holds up a hand.
"A moment. I'm... it's strange. A moment."
She holds the amulet higher, pursing her lips as she angles her head for a better look, trying to puzzle out what the enchantment... curse on the gemstone even is. She had assumed, from the shape of the ritual, that it had to be some sort of charging, some sort of effort to imbue the stone with some sort of energy or power, perhaps a curse to be released on a certain prompt, but... this is different. Strange. She's never seen anything quite like it, before. The closest thing is-
She feels at the crystal in her pocket with her other hand, sensing the very faint edge of the power stored within.
It's insulated, she thinks suddenly. Like stone made in such a way to trap cool air inside and block out the heat. Like the crystal meant to house life energy without leaking it in the interim. This is meant to store something, but- something a bit more substantial than a meal for a raised dead like herself. The wards on it are stronger, and more subtle.
"Is it going to hurt anyone?" Essa presses, and Lirit frowns, thinking hard.
"I don't... I can't say, yet. I don't think so. Not without prompting, but... there's something else, something..."
"If it isn't dangerous-"
Lirit lifts a hand, hovering her finger over the facets of the gem, feeling-
A spark of magic jumps from the edge of the crystal to her finger, sparking like static electricity, a jolting little pulse, and in the back of Lirit's mind, she can feel a scream.
An unfamiliar voice. A memory, but not one of her own. The sensation of being bound and gagged, shoved into the back of a carriage and dragged through tunnels that Lirit does know, the careful stonework of the compound. The claustrophobia of a narrow stone coffin, the tongue still buried beneath the gag, nothing but darkness and fear and distant chanting, and-
Lirit nearly drops the amulet.
"There's someone inside of it."
Essa blinks. "There's- what?"
"There is someone trapped in the gem."
"That's something you people can do?"
"I don't know!" Lirit gestures, carefully not with the hand still holding the amulet. "I didn't know! I thought they- we- I didn't know what the ritual did, I just knew I had to do it. They usually aren't that complex, but we all just do what the lady tells us, it's her ritual, and- apparently it was meant to put a- a- a person into this- this stone."
"Get them out of there, then!" Essa says, half a yelp, their eyes wide and horrified.
"I- what?" Lirit shakes her head. "I don't know how. It took the entire order to do whatever put him in there, how do you expect me to pull him out myself? I'm only- I'm apprenticing, I don't know-"
"If there's a person in there, we need to get them out."
"I know, of course we d-"
Of course we do? Is that- no. No, that isn't right. That's not- she can't just- she needs to take the amulet back, and- and-
Both. She has to find a way to do both.
"I-" she pauses, bites her lip. "I don't know how to do that. But someone at the order might be able to. I need to bring this back, and-"
"No. Absolutely not. I'm not stupid, you just want to bring it back to your goddamn lady and get a pat on the back for doing as you're told."
Well. Yes. But-
"Do you know any other necromancer that could pull a whole person out of a gemstone?" she asks. "Do you know any other necromancer at all?"
"I shouldn't need anyone else," Essa snaps. "I have you."
"Well, I'm not good enough. Either I bring this back to the people who have the first clue, or you need to have the- the gardener upstairs make peace with inadvertently holding some mystery person hostage in a gem for as long as the amulet remains in her line."
Essa pauses, pressing their lips together tight for a moment. "I didn't say you aren't good enough," they say first, muted. "And- we can figure something else out. It's not like only a necromancer can undo the work of a necromancer, obviously, there are- there are clerics, and- arcanists who specialize in curse-breaking, even if it isn't a curse exactly, I'm sure that someone could find a way to pull them out-"
"Him. I know it's a man, I could feel him. For a moment." She pauses. "I think he was- reaching out. It's hard to tell, but-"
"All the more reason not to bring him back to the damned cult, Lirit! They're the ones who put him in there in the first place, you have to understand that, don't you?"
"You aren't going to convince me to turn my back on my f-"
"If you call those people your family right now, and right here," Essa hisses, sharp with their eyes flashing, their voice fierce but wavering, "I will not be able to stop myself from doing something stupid and violent."
Lirit watches them, stilling entirely, and then they hazard a vague smile. "Second threat in a rather short time, Essa. You are a thief, aren't you? You're beginning to sound like a brute instead."
"You wouldn't know a damn thing about a brute, rich girl. You're just so spoiled that everything seems brutish."
"I've been living - for a set definition of the word - in a slowly molding cave system for the last year or so. If I were ever truly spoilt and that wasn't simply your way of teasing, I'd say that time is gone."
"I can be teasing and you can still be spoiled," Essa mutters. "They can both be true."
"You're trying to distract me."
"You're trying to distract yourself, I think," Lirit says, tilting her head. "Do you truly know a practitioner of the skill required to dispel magic like this, then? Or are you simply desperate to find a solution besides my own?"
Essa sneers. "Do you truly believe that your order will simply undo what they clearly put such ritual and effort into doing in the first place, or are you just lying?"
Lirit glares. Essa glares back.
Lirit breaks first. She has the inkling that she usually does.
"I don't know how I would convince them," she says quietly. "But I don't have a choice. You seem surprised that I haven't exactly been flinching when you threaten me, but I don't think you understand. It doesn't matter if you kill me. If I don't go back to the order, I am going to die sooner than later anyway. Same result if I go back now, without the amulet. The lady would be sympathetic, but- Mott might crack my skull in two, and I do not think she could justify defending me, not when I've disobeyed so utterly and disappointed beyond reckoning. This is all... prolonging, I suppose. Delaying. I should be grateful, perhaps, for- the time beyond death I have been granted already, but... I keep trying to find a way to... to... to return to the way things were before you crashed into my home." She pauses. "Crashed into my home again, I suppose."
"Why do you think they're your only option?" Essa murmurs, sounding shaky and weak. "Why can't you just- leave? Why would leaving kill you?"
"Because I am not a full necromancer, and I do not know how to animate myself. And- and if I want to try to keep myself alive on my own, I don't know how to do it without hurting anyone else. I don't know how, and- I don't want to hurt other people to keep my own self upright. I don't want that."
Essa stares at her for a long moment, and then they swallow and say, voice rough, "What, exactly, makes you think that your order isn't already hurting people to keep you going, Lirit? You know what they do. Why is it different when-"
"I owe them my life. In the most literal of possible senses. And it's- it's different. It's different if I- if I'm the one who does it. It's different if it's my hand. My choice. I only- there is a difference between a dog at the hearth being fed and a dog tearing open refuse in an alleyway. I-"
"You aren't a dog," Essa says, fierce, and then they step closer, scowling as they raise a hand, almost touching Lirit's face before they think better of it, moving the hand to gesture instead. "You aren't an animal. You're a person and they- they did something to you to make you think so lowly of yourself, they must have-"
"The only thing they did to me was bring me back," Lirit says, her tone somewhere near a snarl, and Essa's eyes go- cold, and then sympathetic, and then determined.
"What makes you think," Essa says, slow, "that they weren't the ones who killed you in the first place?"
Lirit leans back, pressing her hand over her sternum. "That- how- how dare you? How-"
"How dare I? What do you even mean, how dare I? You know what they do, what they're capable of. They stole someone and shoved them in a rock, how could you be surprised by the suggestion that they might kill you, too?"
"I'm- I'm one of them, I'm- they wouldn't- they wouldn't hurt-"
She remembers Mott, suddenly, in all his sneering, vicious, unsubtle hatred. Remembers every pain he has seen fit to visit upon her, with little more than a severe glance from Lady Corliss as penance. Remembers how he will shy from any possible touch of Lirit's skin, unless he means to hurt her. Shoving her to the ground, gripping her wrist far too hard to drag her along the hallways, striking her cheek if she speaks in a way he disagrees with-
"They wouldn't kill me," she finishes, stiff and uncertain.
"They did," Essa says.
"They did," they repeat, stubborn, and then they work their jaw for a moment before they continue. "I know they did. I know they did. Because this amulet- this amulet was taken from your house, from your family. That's why I was hunting it down. Because it was the only thing besides your body that was stolen during the fire, and it was the only clue we had to find the people that killed you and your parents. The only clue."
Lirit stills, something like panic gripping her ribcage. Essa turns, pacing as they speak, apparently unwilling to look at Lirit's expression as they continue.
"And it was just- there. Stupid fucking amulet, all this fucking trouble, just sitting pretty in a hole in the ground, and you- you were too. You were some- some fucked up prize they stole after they killed the best cleric in the city and the guard captain who were trying to hunt them out."
(Mother in her armor by the door, Lirit's father helping to fix her gloves, making sure she remembers an extra tie for her hair, swiping her canteen to steal a sip before she leaves, teasing about how every time she takes a sip through the day she'll remember his kiss, and her mother scowls through a smile and says kissing your backwash, perhaps, and Lirit rolls her eyes over her breakfast and thinks that her parents are the most absolutely embarrassing people in the world)
"That's the truth, and I know- I know it's horrible. I didn't want to tell you, but- but if you're this deluded about the cult and their intentions- I can't just let you go back, still thinking they give the first shit about you. They don't. You're just convenient for them. To them you're just a- a fancy little toy they want to wind up and set to cleaning their ritual chambers after your mother put so many of them in the dungeon and the ground, and- and you're more than that, you're so much- you're worth so much better than that, and I refuse to let you go grovel to the people that killed you in the first place."
Lirit remembers the crackle of the fire, the pure darkness of the blindfold, helplessness of restraint, the screams of her parents in the other room, the terror-relief of knowing that it was only the three of them home, so-
She remembers the blindfold, the bindings, the thick-handed grip on her shoulder, shoving down-
The thick handed grip- familiar. Her own shoulder twinges in sympathy.
Mott. There, holding her down as her parents died.
No. No, she must be mistaken, must be- conflating memories, making herself confused, the thief is confusing her, that's all, it can't- they didn't-
"I'm sorry," Essa says again. "And I'm- I'm sorry it took me so long to find you. They're... all things considered, they're incredibly skilled at covering their tracks."
"They have to be," Lirit mumbles, halfway to automatic. "Or mother would have-"
A pause, aching and long.
"I'm sorry," Essa says a third time, ducking their head, and then they sigh. "I just... don't think you should bring it back to them. Not if we have any other option at all. Not if we have a shadow of an idea how else to help you."
"Help me?" Lirit gives a laugh, small and mostly breath. "Help me with- help me how? I know that you certainly aren't going to take up your hand at necromancy, and if you let the girl at it I have this- nagging notion that I would be furious with you. I don't think you would support such endeavors either way, but it bore mentioning. There's nothing to help me with, unless you are planning to put me out of all of your misery. I suppose this all means that you and my- her family, they never had the chance to bury her, obviously."
"Don't be- don't be glib. If we can help you somehow-"
Essa pauses, their head tilting, and then they wince just a moment before the silhouetted shape of a person slips from the shadows behind them, darting in between them and Lirit in a low, defensive stance as Essa lifts a hand out.
It's the girl, Lirit realizes almost instantly. Even shadowed, there is something too distinctive about her to ignore. She-
She's changed clothes, since she went inside. Her short travelers cloak has been discarded, and her hair is down, curling in loose waves to her shoulders. She's in sleep clothes, Lirit realizes- barefoot, even, her toes digging into the dirt of the garden.
"Get back," she says, her voice chirping and sharp, and Essa jolts.
"No, no no no, kid, get back inside now, or-"
"It's not safe, you have to get inside, that thing is dead-"
Lirit laughs again, a little choking, and the child-
Scowls fiercely, her hands outstretched, and then she casts-
The glow of the magic from her hands illuminates her face, the grey of her eyes, the freckles dotting her cheeks, the determined pout of her lips, and Lirit knows that if her heart still beat, it would have stopped, just now.
(Oh, Larc, oh no, you've grown up-)
Her little sister. Of course Essa hadn't wanted them to meet. No wonder, of course-
How did she forget? How could she forget? How could she? How-
(stench of smoke in her nose, her mouth, catching in the tears soaking the blindfold, and all Lirit can think beyond the screaming panic is thank every god that Larc is at the garden, tonight)
And then the magic flares, burning Lirit's eyes, knocking her down to a knee, cringing behind her hands to block the light. Lirit can feel it more than see it as it manifests around her; a braided golden rope hanging around her in a circle in midair, trapping her, binding her in place.
"It's dead, look! When you came inside I watched it out the window and I realized- the whole time, the whole time, Essa, it didn't breathe, not for a moment, and-"
"I know, kid- would you please drop whatever the hell you just-"
Lirit wobbles getting back to her feet properly, the hood on her cloak slipping from her head, the ward burning the shadowed glamor away, and when she straightens and raises her eyes-
They lock with Larc's, for a long, frozen moment, during which Lirit's mind screams.
And then the barrier drops, along with Larc's hands, the glowing gold cord fizzling and dissolving in the air as the suggestion of burning against Lirit's skin and eyes fades as well.
"No no no no, oh, kid- it's alright, it's gonna be-"
Larc slaps Essa's hands away when they reach to grip her shoulders, her eyes burning and bright with tears, her movements jerky and strange. Lirit thinks, based on the way her shoulders heave, that she might be hyperventilating. Lirit envies, a little, the ability to do so. She thinks she could do with it, just at the moment.
"Don't touch me! I can't- that's- it's-"
"I know. I know-"
"I know. Kid, c'mon, let me-"
"I said don't touch me, Essa, I- you- you knew, and you-"
"I didn't want you to see her like this, I just- I didn't want you to have to deal with- with-"
Me, Lirit thinks. You didn't want her to have to deal with me. At all, if possible. Oops.
"She's dead," Larc says, somewhere near a moan, and Lirit ducks her head.
"You should- you should drop the glamor," Lirit says, muted and hurt, and- Larc sobs, once, quick and surprised as she covers her mouth with a hand at the sound of Lirit's voice. "No point in... hiding it. Anymore."
Essa cringes, rubs awkwardly at their own wrists, and then they sigh and gesture with a hand, and Lirit feels the vague tickle of the magic dissolving from her face, her scalp. Larc sobs again, her shoulders wracking and her body half folding, shrinking in on itself. Lirit can imagine well enough what she sees, and she lowers her eyes again entirely, half-wishing to sink into the dirt and disappear.
She deserves rather worse than that, for forgetting her own damn sister.
(She forgot everything else, obviously she would have forgotten this too, just part and parcel of the whole situation, obviously but-
It's different. When it's Larc, it's different. She shouldn't have forgotten. She doesn't know if she can forgive herself for it.)
"Why- why didn't you tell me?" Larc whispers, weak and ragged, sinking further, nearly to her knees, and Essa makes a small pained noise as they sink to their knees beside the teen, touching her elbow gently now that she's given up on telling them not to touch her. "Why didn't you say? You let me walk two feet from her for miles and- and- and you told me not to- today, when we get the amulet back, you don't say? Essa- Essa you promised-"
"To look out for you, and that's exactly what I was trying to do, little bird. I'm so, so fucking sorry. I am so sorry, I just- I didn't want to hurt you. I didn't know what was gonna happen, and I didn't want to hurt you."
Steps back, slowly and quietly, until she feels the stone bench behind her, and she can sink to sit properly, absently tucking the amulet into the pocket of her robes so that her shaking hands don't drop it to crack against an errant stone slab in the walkway beneath her feet. She doesn't have half the mind, just now, to think whether or not a physical impact might break the curse or, alternately, just kill whoever is stuck in there. Better not to risk it.
(could take the amulet and run, a tiny voice says at the base of her skull, but- her legs are wobbly, near-shaking, and- and she doesn't want to, not really)
Larc rocks on her heels, her face pressed hard against Essa's neck, and then she smacks her hand into the thief's shoulder hard and sudden, and Essa jolts.
"Ah- kid, what-"
"Lying to me. My sister-"
"Is dead," Lirit says, and despite her very quiet tone, Larc goes quiet as well. "I'm whatever could come back. I don't want you to... to get your hopes up, too badly. I'm only... I'm an echo. I'm inexpertly held together. I'm not forever. I'm not what you want me to be."
"I know how undead work," Larc snaps, her head whipping up and the tracks of tears shining on her cheeks. "I know."
"You've been training," Lirit says mildly, bemused by the idea. She's certain that before she died, her sister knew as much about holy magic as Lirit knew about bricklaying, which is to say, nothing at all. This is new. "Learning new tricks."
"Tricks nearly knocked you on your ass," Larc mutters, and Essa makes a tsking noise at the back of their tongue. "You shut up, I'm still furious with you."
"It was my idea," Lirit lies, not entirely sure why she's doing so. "I told them not to tell you."
"Oh shut the fuck up," Essa says, straightening up. "You didn't remember, don't lie, not now. Just- tell me, right now, do you still want to go back to them? Look at her, and tell me you want to go back to them."
Lirit closes her mouth, presses her jaw tightly closed, lowers her face, and glares at the thief.
"You don't," Essa breathes. "I knew- I knew you wouldn't."
"Go back to who?" Larc asks, darkly.
"You're barefoot," Lirit says. "You should go back inside."
"Don't be stupid. I live here now, I've got more garden between my toes than anyone should. I'm used to it."
"You'll get cold."
"Don't be stupid," Larc says again, more sharply, and then she looks to Essa for a moment before she pulls herself slightly from the thief's grasp, shifting her body to face Lirit a little more directly, shifting near-imperceptibly towards her. "What did they mean, you didn't remember? Did you- I know some side effects of resurrection magic, I know... What did you forget?"
"Oh," Lirit says. "That's easy. Everything." She smiles, unhappily. "I forgot everything."
"I barely remembered my own name. I barely remembered that I was supposed to have a name at all. I didn't even remember that I had parents until this morning." She pauses. "Logically, obviously, I knew I had parents, that isn't what I meant, but-"
"You forgot... me?"
"I forgot everything," she says again, pretending not to notice the way her voice shakes. "I'm- I didn't mean to. I didn't- they told me- they told me it would hurt- would hurt too much, to try to remember, and I- I believed them, because I didn't remember... I didn't have enough of my mind to think that maybe I shouldn't. I didn't know anything but them, and the way they took care of me. That was all I had, and I didn't know that there was more I should have had, more I should have known. I'm- I'm sorry. Larc- Larc, gods, that name sounds- Larc, I didn't mean to- to leave you. I'm-"
"You didn't leave her," Essa says, tremulous. "You were killed and stolen and lied to. You- you aren't the one who needs to apologize, and the people who should are pretty goddamn unlikely to."
Lirit shakes her head. "But I should have- should have tried harder. Done what I was told not to do earlier. Remembered you- you're important, and it makes me feel- sick, sick that I didn't... that I still- I still don't remember enough, there's still gaps, there's still so much that I don't know, can't remember, can't place, can't be certain of- there's still a mountain to be made out of what I don't know."
"Yeah, and none of that is your fault."
Essa glares hard, dark eyes inarguable, and then they look towards Larc for a moment. She's still breathing too hard, half folded on herself, and Essa half-picks her up, half-hauls her, gently, by the shoulder to sit on a wrought metal bench beneath a tree a few feet away, so her knees at least won't be knocking on the stones of the path. Larc doesn't resist the maneuvering, and when Essa sets her down she curls her knees up towards her, tucking her bare feet onto the bench as well and pressing her face into her legs, wrapping her arms around them too, cocooning herself as Essa squeezes her shoulder in sympathy.
"You didn't tell me about her either," Lirit says, surprised when her tone comes out mild, and Essa scowls.
"Yeah well, you told me like seventeen times that you weren't supposed to remember and you didn't want to remember and every time I tried to remind you of something you looked like you were either going to snap in half or- throw a tantrum at me. I was going to say "try to kill me," but frankly, starlight, I don't know if you can project that particular breed of anger. You always just look pouty. Not very frightening, I'm afraid."
"I don't care about being frightening." Lirit shakes her head, looks towards her- her sister for a moment, still curled and breathing hard, and then she darts her eyes back towards the thief. "You took care of her?"
"Zolona took care of her," Essa says with a shrug, averting their eyes entirely and putting a casual hand to their hip. "I was just... around."
"That's not what it sounded like. Sounded like- sounded like you got-" Lirit pauses. "You threatened to kill me for her. That's not just around, thief."
Essa twitches, cheeks darkening slightly, though it seems more from the word thief than the accusation of care. "Yeah, well, I could have done more."
"Shut up," Larc mumbles through her knees, tone too weak to be a growl though clearly the intent is there. "Let me follow you around like an idiot puppy and play-act at being an apprentice thief when I needed- when I needed-"
"Hush," Essa says. "Call yourself an idiot again and watch what happens. And- you weren't even learning from me that much. Think I could have pulled that magic trick just now? C'mon."
"That still isn't just being around," Lirit insists. "You took care of m-"
The wind rustles through the leaves in the bower above as Lirit's words stutter out, uncertain. Essa's face goes soft, sympathetic, and they step closer to her on cautious, silent step.
"This is... the most idiotic thing I've ever done. The moment I recognized you I should have deanimated myself because- because I'm not going to last without the or- the- the cult, and I don't want to hurt her- hurt you- hurt anyone else when you need to mourn m- mourn Lirit again. I shouldn't have- shouldn't have let this happen, shouldn't have let the rot beneath this city touch you. I didn't even know I cared about you but I still should have known better."
"You know that's ridiculous, right?"
"It isn't. I was warned. How can a corpse be a comfort to anyone? I was only ever going to be a- a shoddy reminder, a twisted echo, I was only going to-"
Hands on her shoulders, a firm tug and Lirit falls forward forward into Essa's arms as they go down on a knee in front of Lirit's bench. They duck their head, tucking their face into Lirit's neck, their arms curling around her back and squeezing, enough that Lirit knows she would lose her breath if she had any breath to lose. As it is, she can't draw in a breath to protest, or- she doesn't know if she would protest, but she feels as if she should say something, regardless, should say anything even remotely coherent or- or- should say something to remind the thief that they are hugging a dead person and the dead person is only half here to feel it-
Essa is so warm. Feels like a furnace pressed against her front, arms wrapped like burning branches around her shoulders, their face like a small sun tucked against her neck, their breath coming unhappy and quick, not quite tearful but not quite not, either.
"You have to stop," Essa breathes, harsh through their teeth, "saying things like that about yourself. You forgot. You couldn't remember, but that isn't the same thing as being a different person. You can't- you can't keep acting like we'd be better off if you disappeared, if you weren't here. Do you have any idea how much a little more time means, starlight? The chance to see your face again, hear your voice again, to get you to scowl at me like that- just one more time? I would- gods, Lirit, I would have- two days ago, I would have given nearly anything. Everything I've ever stolen, I'd give it all back, if it meant- if it meant I could hold you like this."
"But- but I'm not-"
"You're you." Essa squeezes harder, just for a moment, and Lirit laughs compulsively, a stuttered little ha of sound. "I don't know why you think you aren't you. Everything you've done- said- even when you didn't remember anything, even when you were forcing yourself to act the way you thought you should- you still were yourself, starlight. You were just- yourself with less context, less knowledge. You're- you are. You're you. You're only you, starlight."
"S-stop calling me- stop-"
"Why?" Essa says, and then they lift their face away from her neck, jaw set firm. "Why don't you want me to call you that? Because if it's the same bullshit thinking-"
"I can't-" Lirit shakes her head. "I can't hear you call me that, I can't- it makes me remember too much and I don't- I can't- it makes me want to-"
Essa doesn't interrupt this time. Lirit's words stop, anyway. She knows what it makes her want, Essa calling her that. She knows she wanted it before, too, and she knows that it wasn't allowed, even then. It wouldn't have been proper, and- she doesn't think the thief meant it like that. Not with some stubborn, spoiled noble, some little rich girl- no, the thief couldn't have wanted the same.
Essa shifts, their eyes flicking between Lirit's own as she drops her gaze in uncertainty, and they move one of their hands away from Lirit's back, lifting it instead to- to brush her neck and then up to cup her cheek, their palm hot enough that it makes Lirit want to close her eyes entirely, like being submerged in a hot spring, like being buried in blankets by a fire.
"What does it make you want to do, starlight?" Essa asks, their voice a low, low murmur.
A few different things, she thinks, closing her eyes as if that might do a thing about the tears gathering there. She swallows, feels herself trembling, tries so, so hard to hold herself still. Statue-still, dead-still. Perhaps that will be enough to make Essa remember what she is, will be enough to make the thief let her go. And-
"You should be worried about Larc, not me," she rasps, weak.
"I can be worried about both, asshole."
Lirit chokes, a harsh little laugh, wincing when the laugh breaks into a weak sob, the tears escaping their bounds when she flutters her eyes back open compulsively to give the thief a sharp look.
"Oh, starlight," Essa says, their thumb raising from her jaw to brush away the tears, and then they sigh, and squeeze Lirit tighter once more, and then they release her and take a step back, their mouth turning in the frown of someone trying to puzzle something out. They turn towards Larc after a moment, and Lirit follows their gaze and finds the girl still half-buried behind her knees, staring hard-
Directly at Lirit. It would be unsettling if Larc's face- if Larc herself weren't such a bonfire of comfort. Lirit looks at her, safe and real and here, and it's like- like finally regaining a sense she didn't know she had lost, as if her ears had finally popped.
Lirit opens her mouth, meaning to say-
I'm sorry, again, she thinks, but the words don't come. Her fingers twitch, slightly, the urge to- to go over there and just touch Larc, as if touching her will convince her that her sister is real, is safe and here and- as if that would make a single thing better for either of them. For any of them. As if that wouldn't make things worse, likely.
She drops her eyes. "What do we do now?" she asks, aiming the question vaguely in Essa's direction, and the thief sighs.
"Find a cleric that can pry a soul from a gem, I guess? Which we won't be able to start on until morning. I can... ah, shit. I was going to say I can put the glamor back up and we can bring you inside for the night, just- post up until dawn and then go try to figure something out, but- your aunt. I could maybe do a more complex glamor, just have you stay silent, hope that she trusts me enough to... but..." the thief sighs again, and behind them Larc sits a little straighter, frowning.
"You want to lie to Zolona, too?"
"It wasn't their fault," Lirit says, automatically, without thought, and then she cringes when that makes her sister look towards her again. She lets her eyes sink to the dirt again, pretending not to have spoken at all.
"I don't want to lie to Zol," Essa mutters, scuffing a hand through their hair (if they keep it up, Lirit thinks absently, they're going to need to redo their bun; it doesn't look quite so neat and tidy anymore). "I don't know how to explain any of this, though."
"Obviously," Larc says, her voice a clear complaint. "Considering that you haven't actually explained any of it to me, yet. I still don't know- how in the world you got resurrected, where you came from, where you've been-"
"The necromancers," Essa says, half-sighing, sounding like they'd rather be having their hair plucked strand by strand, "that I've been tracking down. The ones who-"
"Killed my family," Larc chirps, her tone bright and her expression vicious. Lirit blinks, pulling her head back in surprise at the venom, and then Larc's eyes dart towards her again and she amends, voice weaker, "Killed my parents, at least."
"Killed your family," Essa echoes, and then they bite their lip. "And stole the amulet. They brought her back. I don't know why-"
"I don't know why, either," Lirit says when Essa glances towards her. "I know what they told me, but- I don't know, anymore, how much I can... believe. Obviously."
"What did they tell you?" Larc tries, her voice a little like a reaching hand. Uncertain, but- trying.
Lirit swallows. "That... that I was killed cruelly and unfairly, and- they chose me to bring back. Because the lady- er- their leader could sense a great potential for necromantic magic within me, and- they did not want such potential wasted while they could prevent it. Now, though... Essa thinks-"
"It was just part of the revenge, I think. On your- your parents."
Lirit thinks for a moment, and then blurts, "I'm so- so grateful that you weren't there, Larc, I can't- I don't know what I would have-" she pauses, breathes a laugh-sob, and then wobbles through, "I'm grateful it was me and not you."
"Don't- how could you say that? Don't-"
"I'd do it again if it meant you were safe. I would."
"I'd rather you were here. I'd rather we be together. Lirit- you're my best friend and- and I couldn't even bury you."
Lirit shudders, body going tense, and Essa steps carefully between them.
"Alright. Alright, I think- I think we're slipping past- strategy. I think we're all- tired, and I don't think we need to just- make each other upset. I know that wasn't your intent, kid, don't give me that look, you know what I mean. We should- go to bed. It's already late, and if we want to start towards getting any of this sorted as early in the morning as we can, we should- crash now, unpack later."
"Undead don't need to sleep," Larc mutters, eyes darting towards Lirit and then away.
Essa blinks. "Is that- right?"
They look towards Lirit and she shrugs with an awkward half-smile, nodding.
"Not- not as such. Rest, regain energy, yes, but not sleep."
"Huh," Essa says, eyes glazing past her towards the middle distance for a moment. "You must get so much done."
Lirit shocks into a laugh, almost a giggle, and then she shakes her head. "Hence me cleaning the floors," she mutters, and Essa's expression shifts dark again, just for a half-second, before they shake their head.
"Okay. Okay. Alright, Larc- this is your family, I'll leave it in your hands. Do we tell your aunt, or do we-"
"Do we tell me what, dear?"
Lirit ducks her head automatically, pulling the hood back up and angling her body away, and she hears Zolona laugh dismissively from the back door.
"Oh, darling, I've already seen. There's no cause for that." Her voice is conspiratorial, somehow both chastising and comforting at the same time, and when Lirit flicks her eyes back towards the woman (familiar- not in the same way Larc or Essa had been, but- familiar still, in her gauzy draping fabrics, her hair dark and shiny like chocolate, down in loose waves that go to at least the middle of her back, her hands folded primly in front of her stomach, her deep eyes catlike and mellow despite- everything, really- and Lirit buries an urge to bolt towards her and bury her face in the softness of her aunt's shawls), Zolona turns her attention towards Essa instead. "Now, I would ask why one of my nieces is curled on the bench, pale as a sheet and trembling, but I expect the answer to that question lies with my second question, which is... Essa, dear, would you care to explain why my other niece is standing, quite dead, in my back garden, in the middle of the night? And, if I may, why you would think it roguishly stealthy to hold a rather energetic argument with aforementioned dead niece rather close to my bedroom window, very soon after having woken me up to take back the heirloom amulet stolen from my dear dead brother's home during his murder?"
"I- ah, well- that's-" Essa looks properly unsteady on their feet for perhaps the first time since Lirit has met them again, their eyes wide and their lips curling into a somewhat panicked smile. "Zolona, I'm- sorry, I didn't mean-"
"Didn't mean what, dear? For me to look out my window at my niece's raised voice and see, rather literally, a ghost?"
Essa presses their lips together tight, for a moment. "Y-yeah. I mean, yeah. I absolutely did not mean for that."
"Hm," Zolona says, her eyebrow arching before she turns towards Larc, who has managed to uncurl from the bench. She stands when Zolona's attention lands on her, stiffening preemptively, and Zolona says, "Dear heart, run inside, would you? I would like to have a little chat with our soft-footed friend and... yes."
Lirit's stomach curls with discomfort, even as Larc shakes her head sharply.
"No, no- I'm not- I'm not a little kid who needs to be kept away from all the scary stuff anymore! Please, I-"
"Your legs are shaking, I can see that you've been crying, and I would very much like to allow myself a bit of profanity in response to this particular turn of events, and I prefer not to use those sorts of words in front of you."
"But- she's my sister, you can't just send me to my room to-"
"Inside," Zolona says, a little more sternly though her volume does not raise. "We won't be long, I promise."
Larc bites her lip, shakes where she stands, and then exhales shakily as she takes a couple halting steps towards the door, glancing unsurreptitiously towards Lirit as she goes, but at the doorway she pauses again, her shoulders sinking.
"I- I- I already lost her once, I don't- I'm afraid I'll go inside and- she'll be gone again and I'll never-"
"I'm not going anywhere," Lirit says, the words tumbling out of her before she can think better of them, before she can think of all the reasons not to promise to be around as a corpse for this poor kid. "Not so long as you want me around."
Larc looks, for a moment, as if she might protest- or, no, not protest, but- argue against some part of what Lirit just said, but after a moment she just sets her jaw and lowers her head, and then she slips past her aunt and into the house again.
Zolona's frame shifts, a little, after Larc goes inside. It sharpens, somewhat, though she retains that gauzy, drifting air, her eyes are pointed like a blade, and she clasps her hands in front of her stomach in a way that makes Lirit suspect she would rather be doing something dangerous with them.
Lirit goes still, herself, knowing better than to be the first to speak, just now. Essa opens her mouth, but Zolona gestures, then, an easy and inarguable flick of her hand, and Essa snaps her mouth back shut without protest. Zolona refolds her hands in front of herself, then glides closer to Lirit slowly, tilting her head to peer down at Lirit's face as she resists the urge to squirm with discomfort.
"So," she says, "Essa found something else that was stolen from my family when they found those murderers and fiends in their little den. What are you, then? A construct built on her scaffolding? A simulacrum? A particularly cruel wind-up toy, powered by necromantic intent?"
"She's- she's Lirit," Essa says quietly. Zolona gestures again, gentler but no less inarguable, and Essa ducks their head.
"Well?" Zolona says, still staring down at her, and Lirit forces herself to raise her eyes to meet Zolona's with no small degree of stomach-wrenching discomfort. Her eyes are grey, a little darker than Larc's, warm and sharp at the same time as she scrutinizes Lirit with slow care. "Exactly what sort of dead are you? Because I would hope that, if my niece were brought back to life by any means, clearly soon enough after her death to avoid the majority of decay, she would have come home not long after. So, dear, would you care to share the precise nature of your resurrection and return, or shall I kindly ask you to deanimate yourself before I do it for you?"
It's strange, the tangle of shame (ordinary, familial, disappointing an older relative through some immaturity) and guilt (what she is, what she isn't, what she has failed to do) and relief (safety, here, in the adult who might actually know better) that roils in Lirit's guts. She twists her fingers together absently, gnawing on her bottom lip and hunching her shoulders automatically, and then when Zolona makes a prompting noise and arches her brow higher, Lirit straightens her spine, wincing and chastised without a word.
"I- I don't know what I am," she says, eventually, only managing to meet Zolona's eyes for the briefest of moments before she needs break the contact. "I don't know."
"I'm correct, though, I assume?"
"About- what? Which part?"
"You... inhabited this body not long after the point of death."
"That's... that's what I understand, yes. I was not... particularly- particularly coherent, at the time."
"Particularly coherent," Zolona echoes, her fingers drumming in a line down her own forearm.
"I couldn't remember anything. About- about who I was, or where I was, or- or what had happened to me. They- explained, somewhat-"
"They lied," Essa interrupts, and Zolona finally aims her gaze towards the thief again, her expression severe as they wince.
"I would ask you to let her speak for herself. I am rather direly curious to know precisely how this one thinks."
Lirit presses her mouth together tight, for a moment. She remembers, in a small, worrying flash, that her aunt has a mountain more of patience for flora, than she does for other people, including the ones she cares about. Direct, Zolona is.
"I'm not a construct," Lirit manages, because at least that she knows for certain. "And I'm not a- a recreation. I'm- I think, I think that I'm as much of Lirit as still exists at all. I don't know if I'm truly, genuinely the girl that died, your niece who died, but- but I hope I am. I wish I was. Now that I- now that I know, the lies and the- the control that they had over me, all I want- all I want, all I can seem to want in the world is to make sure that the people that I remember are going to be safe and happy, and- I don't know how to do that, when all of what I am is- painful. Painful at best."
Zolona stares at her, head tilted just slightly, hands still pressed together, the gauzy fabrics draped around her form rustling absently in the bare wind. She tsks quietly, at the back of her mouth, and then she ducks her head in a way that might have been a nod before she turns away from Lirit and back towards the building.
"Inside, then. You may be dead and the thief may not care because they are young, but these old bones don't prefer to stand out here in the cold wind for no good reason when there is a perfectly good building with well-cushioned seats so close by. I expect that you won't be running off this time, hm?"
This last bit she aims at Essa, and they press their lips together awkwardly before they shake their head. "N-nah, no. Doesn't seem like- or, I mean-" they pause, blink as if trying to steel themself, and then they try again. "That would be rather rude to you, I think, ma'am."
Zolona doesn't scowl at the honorific, but her lips do press a little tighter together as she strides to the door and pulls it open. Larc nearly falls out, yelping without a hint of self-consciousness as she pinwheels her arms for balance and then leans back, expression almost comical in its guilt.
"Only told me to go inside," she chirrups before Zolona can comment, her arms held stiff straight down at her sides, her eyes wide but not looking at any of them.
Lirit shoves her palm against her mouth, hard, mortified to hear herself snort as she tries to stifle a laugh at the look on her sister's face. Essa jerks their head towards her at that, their mouth curling into a bemused smirk as Lirit forces herself not to giggle like a fool. She sucks in a breath to hold, hoping that will do something for the stuttering laughter, but when she notices Larc glaring at her in indignation, her elbows out as she plants her hands at her hips, the breath stutters out of her lungs in a louder, more helpless laugh.
"Don't laugh at me," Larc snaps, stomping her still-bare foot against the ground with a slap, and Lirit tries, again, to stifle the giggling. With very little success.
"Sorry," she manages between bursts of breath. She really wouldn't have thought it would be so difficult to stop laughing, considering that she doesn't need to breathe anyway, but all that seems to be doing is making it so that there's no impetus to stop laughing. No need to breathe, so- no need to stop laughing, really. Not physically, at least. "Just- spying, and that look. Sorry, sorry, trying to stop-"
Larc's nose twitches, her lips still firmly in a pout, but Lirit knows instantly that her sister wants to laugh too. It's obvious, that little twitch like a blaring horn, like a streak of paint on an otherwise blank wall. She huffs, then, turning and folding her arms over her chest, and then she sticks her nose in the air and spins on a heel to march further into the house and out of sight.
Lirit shakes her head hard, trying again to suck in a breath to hold to suppress the half-hysterical urge, and she very deliberately does not look at either Zolona or Essa as she follows the former into the house, the latter following her. Just- ridiculous, giggling like a child, especially after- all of today. It's just nonsense. Dead woman laughing.
But- at least it amused Larc, in some small way. That's something.
She can't hear Essa walking behind her, which is almost a comfort, even as it unsettles to hear no one but still have the door click shut behind them. Inside-
Inside is nearly impossible to distinguish from the outside, excepting the distinct lack of the wind. There are exactly as many plants in here as there are in the garden out back, and the floors are cool white stone slabs along a center walkway with very slightly raised beds of soil for the flora on either side, with baskets hanging from the ceiling and trailing vines on trellises a few inches from the walls. She has two thoughts simultaneously, a question and its answer; the concern of light indoors to sustain such growth and then a flash of memory, carefully engineered skylights and mirrors to convey the daylight into the space.
The entire ground floor is like this, she remembers. There's something with the basement, too- the drainage from this floor dripping down into a carefully controlled dark greenhouse, growing... fungus, perhaps? Pale little sprouts, and twisting bulbous things in rich dark soil. Water trickles from an aqueduct setup near the ceiling, rolling in a contained little river in a circuit around the room, catching in a few smallish pools at strategic points, filled with aquatic plants and little ecosystems of fish.
It comes over her in one rush, so quick that she suddenly knows all of this in the space between one step and the next.
She remembers, also, that she loved it here. She would bring her harp here on the days she would visit, waiting until Zolona closed the gardens to the public so she could play either here, with accompanying trickle of water and peep of frog and buzz of insect, or out in the back garden when she felt brave enough to let more of the city hear her song.
(she misses the harp more, each time she remembers)
(it's easier to remember and to mourn than it would be to do the same for-)
"Now," Zolona says, turning smoothly on her heel to face her and Essa again, her draped shawls twirling with an ease so practiced that they do not even brush the surrounding crowded flora. "I believe you said that you do not sleep, is that right?"
Lirit nods, not trusting her voice.
"Hm. That is well enough, but the rest of us mortals are, rather unfortunately, burdened by bodily needs, and I cannot approve of allowing my niece to continue neglecting sleep for any longer this evening. You as well, darling," she says, tilting her head towards Essa, who proceeds to wrinkle their nose in obvious protest. Zolona only smiles, though, mild and regal. "The guest room is already done up, just as you like it."
"I don't- like it any particular way," Essa mutters, the last half so quick that it blurs into a mumbling run, nearly incomprehensible, and Zolona ignores them again.
"You can stay down here if you'd like, or you can spend some time in the underground greenhouse, if you'd prefer."
"You- want me to stay?" Lirit says, her throat catching oddly. "Here?"
Zolona's expression doesn't change, nor her stance, but something softens. Around her eyes, perhaps. "I think that would be best, for the moment. Certainly my niece would prefer if we didn't lose track of you until we have... a better idea of precisely what do do. Considering the tenor of your conversation in the back garden, as well, I believe it would be prudent to each take some time alone to consider some of what we have all learned recently. In the last few minutes, in the case of at least one of us. Pondering is beneficial," she says breezily, gesturing with a hand and letting the tassels at her wrist dance in the air, "in moderation. It allows for better decision making, so long as one does not allow oneself to fall into the mire of too circuitous thought."
"Thinking good, overthinking bad," Essa says, half-smirking, apparently having found their conversational footing again, and Zolona blinks slow like a cat, ducking her head in a vague agreement.
"So," Zolona says. "I'll be off to bed. Essa dear, make certain that the girls-" she pauses, just long enough for Lirit to notice, "each find their places to rest. I know Larc intends to be stubborn about it if she's allowed, and she listens to you better than she listens to me. Your stubbornnesses are compatible in a way that hers and mine are not. Would you be a dear?"
Essa nods, smile twitching a little wide. "Yeah, no worries. Get some sleep, ma'am."
Zolona nods as well, turning on a heel to glide out of the room, between a pair of plants that apparently obscure another passageway, calling over her shoulder, "How many times must I tell you, dear, to use my name?"
"I'll stop when you stop calling me dear, ma'am."
Zolona's laugh drifts back through the leaves, soft and mellow as her voice, and then Lirit is alone with Essa again.
For a moment, at least, and then Larc slips down, dropping from the branches of one of the larger indoor specimens like a monkey, her bare feet thwapping against the stone.
"I'm not going to bed," she says immediately, breathlessly, and Essa snorts a laugh. "I'm not! How could you expect me to sleep when-"
Essa shakes their head, stepping closer, and Larc makes a knowing noise of protest a half second before the thief darts, almost too quick to see, dropping low and then jolting forward, scooping one arm around Larc's side in such a way to toss her over their shoulder in a single motion. Larc yelps, then makes a catlike noise, half-howling wordless indignation as Essa continues to move, striding towards the same hidden gap in the trees that Zolona took to bring her further into the house.
"Be right back," Essa calls over their shoulder, and Lirit thinks that she sees the thief wink above Larc's back, quick and subtle as the girl wriggles stubbornly. Essa heaves, tossing Larc into a more secure hold, and she growls again, a tantrum so familiar that Lirit can't help her smile.
Larc catches her eye in the doorway, just for a moment, glaring hard with a pout on her lips. "I'm not done with you yet!" she says, her determination defanged somewhat by the shrill distress in her tone as the thief bounces her slightly against their shoulder, but the both of them are gone before Lirit can respond.
Lirit sinks to sit, then, on carved-stone lip of one of the aqueduct pools, and-
Ponders, she supposes. As Zolona said. Her own mind seems far too loud, compared to the quiet of suddenly being alone again. The dribble of the water and the noises of the small specks of life in the garden help, a little, but-
Lirit's mind pounds, too much knowledge, too much memory, too much pain and pain in potential. Something else, too- a warm bleeding feeling at her core, behind her sternum, pulsing desperation. She looks at the girl- at Larc- at her sister and she feels fierce, like she could fight an army if she were between them and Larc. Lirit wants, with a desperation bordering on insanity, for the girl to be safe. Tucked careful, somewhere that no one could possibly hurt her.
The fact that Essa clearly feels quite the same is- something. That feeling seems to concentrate in her stomach, a sort of aimless fluttering, and in her hands, tingling with the desire to- reach. Reach, and hold. The thief has held her twice, now, in embrace, and both times- Lirit was too confused and too conflicted to really think about it. About the context, about the implications, the meaning. About how Essa meant it, and how Lirit... how Lirit might want them to mean it.
She doesn't know, exactly, how she would prefer the thief mean it, but... she's thinking about it, at least.
Pondering, she thinks again, Zolona's steady grey eyes flashing for a moment in her mind.
"Okay," Essa says, and Lirit jolts hard. As usual- damned thief and their silent feet, damned thief and their easy stealth. "Oh, ah. Sorry."
Lirit puts a hand to her chest, as if she has a heartbeat to slow, and then she scowls. "I could almost believe you mean that one," she snipes as she stands, and Essa's mouth twitches, nearly a smile.
"Wonders never cease, starlight, because I actually did. I didn't mean to sneak, I just- forget, sometimes."
"That you're as silent as a damned cat?"
They shrug. "More than, I would think. Have you ever heard a cat? They're noisy little creatures the majority of the time."
Quiet as a ghost, Lirit thinks, but she decides instantly not to voice the thought. She shakes her head instead, trying to scowl. "A rude approach, either way," she says, muttering.
"Just this once, I didn't mean to," Essa says warmly, mischievously, and Lirit shakes her head with a sigh. "Look- are you going to stay up here, or downstairs?" They pause. "Are you... going to stay here at all, or are you gonna try to duck out without saying goodbye?"
Lirit, vaguely embarrassed for not even having thought of disobeying Zolona, feels her eyes go wide. "Ah, er-"
Essa must be able to read her enough, because the tension in the thief's shoulders that she hadn't quite noticed relaxes, their shoulders sinking. "I get the urge. Goodbyes are wretched, and sometimes... it's just easier. I don't think the kid would forgive you, though."
Lirit drops her eyes, and shakes her head. "No, no. I rather think she wouldn't." She bites her lip for a moment. "Downstairs might be... better. More familiar."
"You remember it more?" Essa asks, tilting their head curiously, and Lirit resists the urge to wince.
She watches the thief twitch, recognizing the implication of the caverns and tunnels beneath the city as familiar, and then their face goes still, waxen. They nod stiffly. "Do you remember the way?"
"Not even the slightest bit," she chirps, trying to clear a bit of the heaviness that gripped the thief so suddenly, but they only nod again.
"Alright. This way. Duck your head through this doorway, there's a low branch here."
Lirit obeys, the motion coming automatically, her hand raising to touch the bottom knot on the limb absently as the thief pulls open a hatch door and starts to climb down. Lirit follows, the darkness pooling beneath almost comforting, too.
"Zolona will kill me if I light a lantern or even a candle down here," Essa mutters, their face only barely lit by the ambient drifting shafts from the room above, the shadows pronouncing the roundness of their cheeks and lips. Lirit looks away. "Apparently the mushrooms she grows down here don't really care for the light."
"Warm, damp, and dark," Lirit murmurs, glancing into the darkness, and there's a beat before Essa replies.
"Apparently," they say again. "Are you sure you want to stay down here? It's just going to be- you and the dark, really. You could stay upstairs in the river room, or with the ferns in the front, maybe-"
"This is fine," she says, quiet. "When you close the trapdoor, it won't actually be as dark as you'd think."
Essa stares at her, dark eyes narrowing dubiously. "How could that possibly be true? Unless you're planning on summoning some magical light, which, again, I don't recommend unless you want the mistress of the house to absolutely destroy you-"
"Close the trapdoor, then. You'll see." She pauses. "If you'd like, I mean. I'm surprised they haven't shown you, yet."
"I don't..." Essa bites their lip, eyes flicking towards the ladder again, and then they sigh and hop a rung up so they can reach the door to heave it closed above them. "I don't stick around for very long, usually. This is the exception."
"Why not?" Lirit asks, feeling safer in the question when the hatch seals shut and the darkness subsumes the both of them. It's easier when she cannot see the look on the thief's face. "You don't want to get too attached, that's it, isn't it?"
She's teasing, a little, and she hears Essa breathe a laugh just before-
Not all of Zolona's fungi are bioluminescent, but- she has enough specimens that when their eyes adjust enough to catch the dim, subtle light, they can see the space better than they could with even when the trapdoor was open, letting in the light from the garden above. This light is more diffuse, more evenly spread throughout the space. Lirit can see the way the greenhouse (so to speak) is arranged, now, nearly the same as her remembrance, though this memory is a little more (no pun intended) dim. There are cylinders of soil, wrapped with careful netting and hung like thick ladders from the ceilings, each with a delicate system of dripping water to keep them properly damp, and each cylinder is peppered with little caps of growth. Most of the hanging planters seem exclusive to single types of mushroom, though clearly the spores have caused enough cross contamination that there are out of place caps and fingers of fungus on most of the cylinders. The bioluminescent specimens are mostly scattered across the walls, puckered stone polka-dotted with capsules of net-trapped dirt from which the fungi grow. The glowing caps intersperse the rest of the space as well, though, rogue mushrooms popping out misplaced among the other species.
Essa's breath comes shallow, shocked, and after a moment Lirit shucks up the sleeve of her robes past her elbow, and then she lifts out a hand, brushing the tip of her pointer finger feather-light over the cap of one particular glowing mushroom, a species she recognizes vaguely at the back of her mind.
It buzzes subtly brighter, a burst of glowing spores showering down from the gills beneath the cap, dusting Lirit's wrist and forearm beneath the hem of her robes, still glowing upon her skin.
She smiles, oddly comforted, and then she raises her eyes to the thief again.
"See? Not so dark, after all, is it?"
Essa's expression is- something. Frozen, for starters. Stricken, maybe. Their lips hang barely parted open, their breathing still shallow with something like shock, and then they sway slightly forward, their dark eyes even darker down here.
"Starlight," they breathe, and then they reach out, ghosting their palm over Lirit's arm, over the glow, the heat of their skin tickling against Lirit's own despite the lack of true contact.
Lirit swallows, uncertain. "They- these ones are magic," she explains, for lack of anything better to say. "A few of the specimens in here are natural - a lot of mushrooms glow, actually, though some only glow in their- roots, I think, would be the common way to think of it, I can't remember the word aunt Zolona used - but these ones in particular, the brightness, and the way the- the spores carry the light as well, these were enhanced magically through generations of- of careful tending. They're not edible, that high a concentration of magic isn't particularly good for most people, but they aren't toxic. Zolona doesn't grow toxic mushrooms - not in this particular room, at least - so there's no worry there, with- with skin contact. Not that that would matter to me anymore, but if you were concerned about touching the spores, there shouldn't be any reason for-"
"Lirit," Essa murmurs, shifting closer, dangerously close, their body seeming even hotter, here in the dark. They move their hand back, just a little, and delicately take Lirit's hand, lifting it towards their face, the thin glimmer of the spores lighting their serious expression in gentle pale green. "Do you remember..."
They drift off, lips still parted though no more words follow, and Lirit feels her skin tingle at the contact, the subtle callouses on Essa's fingers fascinating against her own. She swallows, and then she ducks her head, trying to meet the thief's eyes.
"I remember... some things. I remember that you convinced me to dance, once."
Essa twitches, muscles tensing for a moment as their eyelids flutter, their lips pressing hard together before they shudder out an exhale. "That was... an interesting night," they say, their voice surprisingly calm. "Do you remember, though- do you remember the first time I called you starlight?"
As soon as the question escapes their lips, Essa's face goes stiff, cheeks tightening in a subtle wince, as if they regret the words the moment they say them. Lirit- considers. Tries to sift through the shaded collection of disconnected, contextless moments of past with the thief that she's gathered over the last few days.
(starlight- starlight- starlight-)
(but no source)
She bites her lip, shakes her head very gently, almost apologetic, and the thief's thumb brushes the heel of her palm. "I thought... maybe... the freckles? Like- stars. Perhaps."
Essa laughs, half a breath of it, and Lirit tries not to feel foolish, utterly and completely, glad for once not to have a heart that beats so that her cheeks cannot pink with her embarrassment. It's- ridiculous. Considering her own features feels strange at the best of times, and considering why the thief might have given her such a ridiculous pet name-
Essa lifts her hand further, raising it as if to get a better look at the glow dusting her inner wrist swirled up towards the crook of her elbow, but when her hand is close enough Essa closes their eyes, lowering their face to press their lips to Lirit's pulse. Or- where her pulse would be, at least. Lirit imagines the thud of her own heart-
No. Not imagines.
(The first time she meets Essa in the garden, predicting that he would come that night, hiding behind the fountain until she saw the shape of the thief in the dark, the rich green of his hair almost black in the night-
He hadn't even looked surprised when she bolted from the shadows, accusations on her tongue. Danced circles around her in the night, disappearing behind trees, trailing a hand over her shoulder when he dared close enough, eventually letting her march up to berate him face to face, complaints and irritation bubbling from her tongue until the look on his face caused her words to trip over themselves, stammering and eventually-
"Wh- what? What in the world are you looking at me like that for? I told you, I'm not going to let you in, I caught you this time! That's the game- I catch you, you leave, yes? You're the one who convinced me not to just call for my parents, you're the one who said- why are you looking at me like that?"
He smiles, softer than his usual smirk, and reaches to take her hand. He pauses, a hair away, checking her expression-
Giving her the chance to pull away, she realizes, some part of her mind going blank, and she stills as he finishes the movement, gently lifting her hand and turning it, palm up.
"I've never seen you like this before," he murmurs, thumb brushing the heel of her palm. "Starlight on your skin, like this. Look," he says, bowing his head, closer to her skin, murmuring soft. "Look how it makes you glow."
He kisses her wrist, then, eyes closed almost reverently, and Lirit freezes, pulse leaping and thundering hard, so hard that he must be able to feel the way it jumps against his lips.
After a moment (an eternity) he sighs against her wrist and then flutters his eyes open as he straightens, still pressing her hand within his own, tucking it against his chest for long enough for her to feel his heartbeat in return as he lifts his other hand to tuck a lock of her hair behind her ear.
"Fair and square, starlight," he says with a smile. "Caught me. I suppose that means I'll just have to try again, won't I?"
He lifts her hand again, pressing a kiss to his knuckles and winking, startling her into a breathless laugh, and then-
In a single motion, he drops her hand, vaults over the railing, and disappears down into the dark.)
Lirit sucks in a breath to hold, to keep herself from saying anything stupid, and the thief squeezes her hand, pulling it to press against their chest.
(their pulse drums hard, this time, and Lirit wonders how much worse it must have been, to press their lips to a wrist with no pulse at all)
"Starlight," they say again, soft, and Lirit can't stand it.
She lifts her free hand, covering her eyes. "See how it makes you glow," she blurts, words running together in their uncertainty and terror, and she hears Essa exhale sharply, their hand twitching against her own. "Essa-"
"I can't- believe that worked," the thief mumbles, sounding distinctly embarrassed. "You really- you remember?"
"It was the- the same kiss," Lirit manages, grit between her teeth. "Only this time I was actually glowing and you weren't just- just- flattering me to distract me long enough to escape-"
"That- that isn't why I-" the thief tenses, squeezes her hand again. "That isn't why. Hey," their other hand brushes over her shoulder, up to cup her cheek, beneath Lirit's hand still hiding her own face. "Starlight, c'mon, you knew that, didn't you? You had to have known. You knew, didn't you?"
"Knew- knew what?" Lirit tears her hand away from her face, pulling her other hand from Essa's grip as well, pretending not to feel her stomach sink when the thief flinches, blinking in surprise. "How would I know anything? Especially now, Essa, how can you expect me to know anything now? I can barely remember, I can't control the things I do remember, and even leaving that- even simply looking at what I do know- how would I have known anything you meant? You never told me a thing that wasn't flattery or bluster or teasing or taunting, you never told me a single thing real, it was all a dance and a game and a play-act in the dark, and I hated the way you made me feel, I hated it, I hated the way I felt every time I saw you-"
"How-" Essa pauses, swallows, the lines of their face strained and uncertain in the half-light of the bioluminescence, and they do not try to reach for Lirit again. Their fingers twitch, barely, towards her, but they drop them to their sides instead. "How did I... make you feel? I never- I never meant to make you feel bad, Lirit. I- I want you to know that much."
Lirit huffs, glancing away for a moment. "Fine."
"No," Essa says, shaking their head. "Not fine, Lirit. You hated the way I made you feel. That- that's awful, and- I didn't mean for that. Please just- tell me what I did wrong? How did I- how did I make you feel?"
"You made me feel stupid," she says first, half a snarl as she turns back towards the thief. "Like a stupid little girl who didn't know anything about anything, like I was never going to be clever enough for you, like you were always laughing at me when all I wanted was for you to look at me. I felt like I was never, ever going to be able to catch you, not in any way that mattered, and even when I did it would always be because you wanted me to, and- and I felt so, so stupid for trying, for wanting- for- for wanting-"
Essa breathes, shudders on the exhale, leans a little closer with mournful eyes and their lips pursed into a pained frown. "I'm... I'm sorry. I thought- it was a game, it was, but- I thought we were both playing. I didn't realize that you felt- I thought you knew. I owed you, for not selling me out that first time, and- and then I owed you for every time after that, and I thought you knew-"
"Coming back over and over again just to prove how much smarter you were than me, trying to-"
"Wh- no, starlight, no no no, that- I didn't come back to- no. Lirit-" they lift their hands again, and Lirit frowns suspiciously but does not pull away as the thief presses their palms to Lirit's biceps. "Lirit. I came back because I wanted- because I thought you were having as much fun as I was. And because I- I wanted to see you again. I knew I'd never have any other excuse to get to see you, you were- so, so unbelievably far above me, we wouldn't even see each other in the market because any market your family would attend would chase my penniless ass out with a broom, Lirit. I just- I'm sorry. I'm sorry if I made you feel that way. No- I'm sorry that I made you feel that way, I never meant for that. Not in a million years. I- I thought you knew."
Lirit works her jaw, knowing that her face is screwing up in some baffling combination of the feelings she can't seem to untangle from between her ribs.
"Well," she manages, sounding uncertain and flat. "You should have said. I don't know how to read minds, you know. I don't now, how on earth would I have back then?"
Essa laughs weakly, shaking their head, and then they glance up, meeting Lirit's eyes through their eyelashes. Lirit pretends not to shiver, pinned by the attention, by the heat of Essa's hands on her arms.
"I'm sorry for that, too. It's easier to tease. Even if I mean it, it's easier to pretend... to exaggerate it and then pretend that the feelings are-" they shake their head again. "I'm sorry."
"Stop. Stop it."
"Stop- apologizing?" they ask, raising an eyebrow.
"Yes," Lirit says, stiff.
"I'm making you uncomfortable again," Essa muses, and then they sigh.
"No, it's just-" Lirit jolts forward when Essa starts to drop their hands, inadvertently (she hopes) pressing into their palms again. "You already did. Apologize. You don't need to- to say it again. You didn't mean to hurt my feelings. I understand. I- misinterpreted. It was just a game, and I overreacted."
Essa opens her mouth, closes it, opens it again, and narrows their eyes. "Wait. That's what you thought I- meant? Wait. No, I think we're still... speaking somewhere past each other, somehow."
Lirit frowns, a little afraid that it will come out as a pout. "You said," she argues. "Not minutes ago. You said that it was a game."
"I mean- it started that way, maybe, if I'm being generous to myself and my intentions, but- that wasn't all it was. You-" they pause. "I was going to say, you had to know that, but I'm beginning to realize-"
"Why do you think that I'm going to know things through the magic of implication? I can hardly understand when people speak directly to my face on frequent occasion! What in the world would make you think that I understood things you thought and never said?"
Essa shakes their head, their mouth curled into something between a grimace and a self-deprecating grin, and then they groan gently and tip their head back to sigh at the ceiling. "Okay, alright, I'm an idiot, noted." They drop their head again, tilting it slightly and meeting Lirit's eyes in a way that- sparks, oddly, jolting Lirit still again in surprise. The look on Essa's face- it reminds them of a hundred half-buried memories, a look like- playful hunger, the cat about to swat at the mouse again. Or-
They skate their hands up from Lirit's shoulders, drifting them in parallel up to tickle the column of Lirit's throat, and then they cup Lirit's face, heat and heat and heat against her cold skin.
"Apparently I have to be more direct with you, starlight. I thought you were just being coy, but-" they pause, pain slicing through their expression for a moment. "You died not knowing how I felt. Gods." They exhale, a blow to the stomach and not a sigh. "It's- gods but it's a miracle that I can- that I can fix that, now."
"I don't have anything on me to steal you rotten pickpocket," Lirit blurts, helpless, half a memory on her tongue, hoping to knock away some of the seriousness in the thief's tone, in their expression. They smile, a little, but they don't laugh as they tip Lirit's chin a little higher.
"There's one thing, maybe two," they murmur. "It's the thing I wanted, the only thing I wanted, after a while. Why I kept coming back. Once or twice I stole pieces of what I wanted," they say, and then they pull one of Lirit's hands up again, kissing her knuckles, winking (starlight), and then they draw Lirit's hand to their shoulder, as they had done the night they convinced her to dance. "Bits and pieces, trying to play clever for a long, slow burglary, but- I think I changed my mind."
Lirit's stomach sinks, uncertainty and confusion. "O-oh," she says, half convinced that Essa is going to let her go, which is the worst thing that could happen just now. The second worst is that Essa might keep holding her, which is starting to feel as if it might set her entire body on fire. "Oh."
"I think I'd prefer it, starlight, if you gave it to me because you wanted to, instead." They pause, and brush their thumb over Lirit's cheek with a weak smile. "And if you don't want to... I'll still be here."
"If- if I don't want to-" she feels her eyes darting, caught between the darkness of Essa's own. "If I want to give you what?"
They breathe a laugh, leaning closer. "Really, really not capable of picking up implications, then. Understood, starlight. I want-"
Heat, a searing brand, hot and soft as the flick of fire against Lirit's lips, and she closes her eyes automatically as she leans into Essa's arms. The kiss is slow, warm, tender until Essa pulls slowly away, one of their hands delicately holding Lirit's chin.
"I want your heart, starlight," they say softly, still close enough that their lips brush Lirit's own as they speak. "I did, back then, and I still do now. I want your heart, and I want to give you mine."
Lirit hasn't felt this breathless since she lost her breath in truth.
"O-oh," she says, close against Essa's lips, and the thief pulls back, just enough that they can meet her eye, searching and- worried. Or- scared, even. Scared that Lirit might-
She tilts her head up again, catching Essa's lips and closing her eyes. She wraps her arms around them, feeling their warmth, not thinking until perhaps too late that she's probably dusting off those glowing spores onto Essa's lower back with the embrace. Well- they probably won't mind too terribly, she reasons, and then Essa flicks her tongue against Lirit's lips and reason takes a momentary break.
By the time they break the kiss, Essa panting and Lirit feeling like she should be, Lirit's lips feel warm as life.
"That's- that's why I hated the way you made me feel," she admits, her eyes still closed as she leans her face against the thief's neck, suddenly shy.
"You made me feel like I wanted to do that. And- and I didn't think that you wanted the same. I thought- I thought I was just some- some silly little rich girl you liked to tease."
"You can be both things at once," Essa says mildly, and Lirit jerks her head back, gasping in indignation, bordering on hurt, but the look in Essa's eyes, the mischief and fondness and nearly blinding joy, all of it stops the hurt before it can truly form. "Teasing! Teasing, sorry, I should have thought that through better, we talked about this minutes ago. Sorry. I know two ways to show affection and I can't be kissing you every moment. I need to breathe, occasionally."
"I don't," Lirit mutters, and then she kisses them again.
The reality of it clicks in her head a moment later, and this kiss breaks quite a bit more quickly.
"You thought of something," Essa says quickly, pursing their lips. "You froze up. Did I- do something?"
"No. No, I just-" Lirit leans back, biting her lip as Essa gently releases their grip, watching uncertainly as Lirit puts a step of space between them. "I don't... I don't think this is- a good idea. We shouldn't be- you shouldn't be- be treating me this way. You can't want-" she inhales for the next word, but fails to say it, and Essa ducks their head, brow furrowing.
"I do," they say, firm and mild, and Lirit shakes her head.
"No, no- you don't understand. You said- you said, when we were- the game, when you would visit and I would try to- to catch you. You said that you wanted to steal my heart. Right?"
Essa softens, their mouth tilting into a crooked smile. "Yeah. More and more every time I saw you. Sorry, again- I really did think it was obvious."
"S-stop, stop apologizing." Lirit presses her eyes closed, shaking her head hard and trying to steel herself for this next part. "The problem- the problem is, my heart-" she bites her lip hard, too hard, knows immediately that she'll need to use some of her energy to heal that. "I'm dead, Essa. I'm dead. You don't- you don't want a heart that doesn't even beat. It's no good to you. It's nothing. There's- there's no one left for you to hold, and I'm sorry. I'm- I'm glad you got to tell me what I was too- too stupid to realize when I was alive, but- but we're both too late."
There is a beat, and Lirit tries not to pay attention to the way Essa breathes, shaky, before they huff a breath and-
Another kiss, warm and firm and Essa's arms wind around her shoulders, fingers digging into her hair and moving her head so that Essa can draw their lips down from the corner of her mouth, along her jaw, down her neck- planting kisses at the juncture between her shoulder and her throat, nudging her cloak aside and then drawing her mouth back up, nipping gently at the skin below Lirit's ear. Her stomach jumps, undignified gasping noises escaping her lips outside of her own control.
"Hm," Essa says, tone mild even as their lips brush against Lirit's throat. "Kind of doesn't feel like it's too late, starlight."
"I- I- Essa I'm dead."
"And still arguing with me. You gonna keep doing the rotten things and pretend like you aren't allowed to do the pleasant ones? Oh, sweetheart, you don't need to punish yourself for being dead."
"But- but you shouldn't- you shouldn't let yourself-"
"Care about you?" Essa laughs, leaning back and smiling so sadly that Lirit's heart - still as it is - feels like it flips over in her chest. "Starlight, I never stopped caring about you. This is- this is the first time in a year that caring about you hasn't hurt, at least a little bit."
"But it's going to hurt again, Essa," she breathes, struggling to keep her voice coherent, audible. Struggling not to lose her words entirely. "It's going to- I don't know if I'll survive tomorrow, you'll need to- to- if you missed me once you'll need to do it again. This is why they didn't want me to remember, this is why I was supposed to let myself forget-"
"They didn't care about your hurt, Lirit, that's not-"
"This is why, because even letting you see me walking around, play-acting and being a dead woman, it's- it's cruel, that little girl upstairs is going to need to mourn her sister a second time and it's not fair, it's- it's not fair. They should have left me dead. If they wanted to kill me they should have just killed me and then left it alone, let me rot like a proper corpse, let me be mourned and not- not whatever half-truth this is, half-dead and uncertain-"
"Lirit. Lirit. I know you don't need to breathe but for fucks sake take a breath. Give me some room to work, here."
Lirit laughs, startled by the casual exasperation in the thief's tone, and Essa shakes their head with a smile when she slaps a hand over her mouth to keep from dissolving in hysterics. Rather literal hysterics. Her head swims, her eyes pricking with tears, her throat tight and difficult and her other hand trembling against Essa's lower back.
"Starlight," Essa starts gently, and when Lirit shakes her head they try again, "Lirit. Sweetheart. My little rich girl-" Lirit snorts, and Essa grins triumphantly before they lift a hand to her cheek, brushing away the tears Lirit intended to ignore. "Whatever it takes, I am not letting you go, ever again. Whatever they did to you, we can deal with it. Whatever you need, we can find a way. Whoever I need to steal from- well, I'm pretty goddamn good at it, aren't I?"
They lift their other hand, and Lirit jolts to see the amulet pressed against their palm as they waggle it in the air, raising their eyebrows with a smug little smile. "When did you-"
"Literally before Zolona even came outside. Sorry, sweetheart. I wanted to make sure you didn't have a crisis and run off with it before we could talk about it more."
Lirit works her jaw, compulsively frowning, and then she sighs. "Fine, fine. Keep it, I don't care. I'm not going back."
Essa- sags, a little, ducking their forehead to rest on Lirit's shoulder for a moment before they breathe a very careful breath and then tilt their head enough that they can press a kiss to Lirit's shoulder through her robes. "As I was- as I was saying. You goddamn distracting little brat. No matter what it takes, I am not letting Larc mourn you again. And I don't think Zolona's planning on it either. And if Larc knew we were even having this conversation, she would be absolutely fucking shaking with fury. Never seen more righteous anger in another human being in my life. Here I was thinking that you were indignant, before I met that little spitfire properly."
"Be nice to my sister," Lirit mumbles, and Essa breathes another laugh.
"I am. That's what my compliments sound like. Look, look, starlight, you're not- you're not whatever you seem to think you are. You are Lirit. Just because you were confused and lost, and lied to, it doesn't change who you are."
"You don't know that," Lirit says, glancing away.
"You- you don't know anything about necromancy," she says, shaking her head. "How would you know? My soul- Lirit could be- passed on entirely, in the afterlife, reincarnated, dissolved to dust, and I could just be- some ill-formed animus that just- acts the way this mind used to, because that's what it was built to do, because that's what it's used to doing-"
"Okay," Essa says, flat and unimpressed. "I don't believe any of that, but- even if it was true. Even then. Who cares?"
She waits, for a moment, processing, and then she shakes her head again, certain she must have misheard.
"What... what do you- what do you mean, who cares? I care! You should care! My- Lirit's family would care! I'm not real!"
"Sure." Essa shrugs. "If you're right. You do realize, starlight, that people change, don't you?"
"What are you talking about?"
"Even if you never died, Lirit, you would still be a completely different person today than you were a year ago. That's what growing is. I'm not the same person that I was when you were alive either. You realize that, right? I'm not- I'm not that Essa, anymore. That Essa barely cared about anything but themself. That Essa-" they grimace, gritting their teeth. "I don't particularly like that person. I don't... I had fun, playing with you. That was the most real part of my life, but- aside from that, I didn't have... friends. I had contacts, at best. I didn't care about anyone but myself, and- and I'm not like that, anymore. I care about you. I care- I care so much about your sister. I care about that old weird woman upstairs who likes to bully me into sleeping on occasion, too. And- and I wouldn't have that if I didn't care about you first. Caring about you now, however you are, whoever you are, whatever you are- even if, by some curse, I do need to mourn you again, it would have been worth it, for the chance to tell you how I feel, and for a chance to finally, finally kiss you, starlight. I'll be grateful for that forever. For the rest of my life, at least."
"But... but- if I'm a different person, how- how could you- how could you even know if you care about me the same way you cared about her?"
Essa rolls their eyes, smiling fondly, and Lirit can't help another scowl. Essa grins wider, then, pointing at her.
"That! Exactly that, sweetheart. Look at you." They laugh, dark eyes glimmering in the low, low light. "I spoke to you for maybe thirty seconds downstairs in the cult hideout and the first thing I realized after my brain stopped shrieking at me that I had hit my damned head was that you were still exactly as cute- that you were cute in the exact same way. Whatever you think is different about you, starlight, there's far, far more that's exactly the same. You even wrinkle your nose the same way. Ha! See?"
They smirk, flicking Lirit's nose with the tip of a finger, and Lirit scowls harder. "I don't... I still don't think- I don't think we- we can."
"Don't think we can what, exactly?"
Lirit feels, again, that she would be blushing, if she could. "That we can- court."
Essa presses their lips together tight for a moment, visibly suppressing laughter.
"Stop that. I'm being serious. I don't think you can- can court a corpse, Essa."
"Rich girl," Essa murmurs, their voice aching with fondness, and then they lift Lirit's hand again to kiss. The sensation hits her cheeks again, the tingling that accompanies the urge to blush, but she holds her tongue for a moment. "Gods but I missed you. Starlight, you can hold me just as well as you are."
"You keep saying but, starlight."
"Because I'm dead, Essa. I'm- cold, my heart doesn't beat, I can't blush no matter how hard you try, I can't- you can't make me go breathless anymore, because I always am. I'm dead."
Lirit blinks again, then rocks on her heels, sort of swaying in Essa's arms, gesturing wildly with a hand.
"And?! What do you mean and? I'm dead, I don't know how much more clear I can be about this. I'm a corpse. I'm decay, I'm nothing-"
"You're not nothing," Essa interrupts, finally sounding like they're taking this seriously again, their voice firm as they lean forward, knocking their forehead against hers like a cat. "And the thing is, Lirit, that none of the rest of that matters. Not really. You're dead, and I want to kiss you. You're cold, and I want to hold you long enough that you feel warm again. Your heart doesn't beat, and I still want to rest my head on your chest, or rest your head on mine, and we can share what I have. I can't make you blush, and I'm damn well going to keep trying. I can't make you breathless... actually, I don't believe that one. You sounded pretty damn breathless by the time I was done kissing you, starlight. Whether or not you need the breath, I think I still had a little bit of an effect, at least."
Lirit ducks her head, half-hiding against Essa's shoulder, and sighs. "I... I should have kissed you outside my birthday party," she mumbles, and Essa squeezes her tighter.
"I should have kissed you so many times, starlight. But... we both thought we'd have more time," they shrug. "We couldn't have known. No point beating ourselves up about it."
Lirit sniffles, only steady because of the way Essa is holding her. "I suppose so." She sighs. "You should... you should go sleep, shouldn't you? If you were watching me in the house since this morning, just waiting- you must be tired, and- you can't exactly sleep down here."
Essa eyes the fungi, eyes the rough stone floor, and then twists their lips into a wry smile. "Mmm, I suppose not. Though..."
Lirit raises an eyebrow as the thief carefully loosens their grip, allowing Lirit a little bit of space.
"Though?" she echoes, vaguely wary.
"I think it's probably a little too soon to invite you to share a bed, huh?" Lirit startles automatically, the desire to blush almost making her feel lightheaded, and Essa laughs, drawing their hand through her hair, mussing the wavy mane of it. "Plus I doubt you want to sit on the edge and watch me while I sleep, considering that you don't need to."
Lirit works her jaw for a moment, struggling for words, and then she manages, "W-well... I suppose we shouldn't- shouldn't rush things, not while... while everything is so- fraught. And I should... take some time to- to think. About what you've said, and- about all I've- everything I- remember, now."
Essa nods, their expression going gentle. "That's fair enough. And... you're sure you want to stay down here?"
Lirit smiles, and then she lifts out a hand, brushing over one of the mushroom caps again and prompting a small detonation of glimmering spores. "Yes. This is... this is more than enough. It'll be easy to think, down here. No distractions, and I'll feel... safe. I always- I always liked it down here."
"Alright. That's good." Essa says, and then they lean to press a soft kiss to Lirit's cheek. "I don't know if you remember the layout, but- if you need anything, we'll be just upstairs, okay?"
"Okay," Lirit says, and then she- shores up the nerve, and leans up to place an echoing kiss on Essa's cheek as well, delighted when the thief gusts out a pleased, breathless noise. "Sleep well, you complete rapscallion."
"Sorry I can't say the same, starlight," Essa says with a grin. They duck their head, then, a subtle nod, and then they turn and climb the ladder back upstairs, the light from the room above momentarily stunning both of their eyes to blinking until Essa calls one more goodnight over their shoulder, and then they close the hatch, plunging Lirit back into darkness.
The glow of the mushrooms slowly brightens again, and Lirit closes her eyes for a long, long moment. She knows that she wouldn't be able to hear Essa's footsteps above if she tried, but she imagines the thief pausing, a moment, above her head. Imagines them touching their lips, perhaps smiling. Eventually she opens her eyes again, adjusted fully to the darkness again, and Lirit can see the shapes of the walls and hanging planters around her in the low, green glow.
It's harder to see, in this coloring, the saturation-bleached paleness of her own skin. It's harder to see herself at all. She could be anyone, dusted with glimmering light.
Night crawls slow, Lirit's thoughts quick and jolting by comparison, and she can feel the sensation, tickling at the edge of her awareness, of decay. Dead recognizes dead, and Lirit can feel the strange half-life of the fungi, the little destruction in their roots. It's something familiar, oddly, something her body, as it is, seems to half-understand instinctively. It's a welcome distraction, something present to keep her from falling too hard into the mire of her own confusion and uncertainty.
Essa wants her, somehow, impossibly, regardless.
For the moment, at least. Until the shock of Lirit's undeath fades, until the thief realizes exactly how little is left of Lirit...
She can't expect Essa to follow through. It wouldn't be fair.
... she'll stay for as long as Essa and Larc and Zolona want her to, though. It will hurt, when it ends. It will hurt all of them. Lirit isn't strong enough, though, to make herself leave.
The light of the mushrooms waxes, wanes, intermittently pulsing in little sections at some unknowable, alien stimulus that Lirit couldn't possibly understand. It helps, providing at least some way to study the time as it passes, proof that the time is passing at all. She won't be able to tell when the sun rises, really. Perhaps the stirring of the life above might be enough for her to sense, if she's acclimated enough to the silence down here by then. Perhaps if she's calm enough, by then. She doubts she will be, but- the thought is still there.
She feels something else.
In the dark, dirt and stone above and below and surrounding, alone-
Like breath. A hissing, soft and subtle, like the movement of lungs, like shifting sand. She blinks her eyes back open, dread suddenly flaring deep in her stomach, but-
Blackness. Utter and complete. She wants to raise a hand, wants to lift it out to brush over the mushrooms again, a little light, just a little, just enough to confirm what she knows, to confirm that she's alone, down here. That she's safe. The hatch hasn't opened again since Essa left, she should be- alone, down here, she shouldn't be able to hear-
She can't move.
Like her body is made of wood, suddenly. Stiff and immobile. Rigor mortis manifesting far too late, and a sensation like suffocation, despite the obvious lack of need.
Help, she thinks, blank and weak and stunned. This- is this- did she wait too long, to use the necrotic charge in her pocket? Did she wait too long and now Essa will step down that ladder in the morning to find an honest corpse, another sting of loss and another disappointment and-
She stills, the terror tightening and sharpening focus. Lady Corliss' voice, resonating soft at the back of her skull, like a murmur in her ear. Undeniable, inarguable, her master. Her lady.
"Lirit... I cannot tell if you were taken from us, or if you ran. It breaks my heart, the idea that you might leave us. That thief came back, didn't she? She confused you, and she stole you away from your family, didn't she?"
Still, still, still as death, think nothing, say nothing, don't breathe-
Ha. Very funny.
"Lirit. I know you're there, little ghost. I know you can hear me. I brought you back to life, Lirit. Of course I can always find you."
"M-my lady," Lirit rasps, entirely without breath. Not even the tips of her fingers will obey, not even a twitch. The words feel more in her own head than on her tongue.
"Well done, little ghost. No fear. I know precisely where you are. We can reach you before dawn."
Freeze. Too much. Can't let her know-
The lady pauses, a breath of anticipation, a wordless question.
Think. Think. Can't let the lady come here. Can't let her harm- any of them.
"I- I can- I can escape on my own. I can come back to you."
"Can you, little ghost? Curious. Why take so long, then?"
"Trying to- to find the- the amulet. They've given it to someone else."
"Hm. Who, precisely, are they?"
"Th- the thief. Just the thief. Tried to catch them but I wasn't- I underestimated. I'm not as strong as- as you, or Mott. I'm sorry. I'm- I'm sorry, my lady. I shouldn't have left, it's all my fault, I'm-"
Lirit obeys, mind racing, panic screaming, hoping that enough of her past subservience remains to make the lies taste like truth.
"Now..." Corliss continues, a low sibilance in the inescapable black. "The matter of your disobedience will be addressed when you come home, of course, but... I'm certain that it can be overlooked. I trust Mott to detail whatever punishment would be appropriate."
Lirit shivers, whimpers without meaning to, and-
Realizes, suddenly, something she should have realized ages ago. The strategy of Corliss' management. The way she allows Mott to do whatever he wants to Lirit, even damaging her and allowing Corliss to weave her wounds back together. The way she allows the rest of the order to sneer down at Lirit and grind her under their heels, while the lady may stand aside and then provide an ear, may seem a gentle, easy hand in comparison. The way Corliss has molded Lirit's afterlife, to make her more frightened, more small, more easy to hold and hide and use. Made her rely on the lady, and treat her like some benevolent queen.
It jolts through Lirit, suddenly. A spike of indignation, a spike of hate. It feels- good. Satisfying. Because she knows, deep down in the pit of herself, that the necromancer deserves it.
"Yes, my lady," she says, her voice blank as she rolls over this new sense of sharpness within herself. "I'm sorry, my lady."
"It may be forgiven," Corliss says, magnanimous and low. "Where is the amulet?"
"I- I don't know. I know they don't have it anymore, I think they-"
"Do not forget, Lirit, that I know where you are. You are with... people you should not be. You don't know where it is? Think, and think carefully before you continue. There are limits, you must know, to what can be forgiven."
Lirit does think, for a moment, forcing enough control of her body to wet her lips.
"They thought it might be cursed," she says, after a moment. "Since the gemstone was so changed. They said they brought it to a cleric in the city."
"And you have remained in the... residence, for what reason, precisely?"
"I had to- infiltrate, to discover where the amulet had gone. I couldn't sense it, as if it had been warded from discovery."
Lirit knows, knows, that Corliss is the one who caused those wards, but she suspects that Corliss does not think her smart enough to have made that assumption.
"That does not answer my question."
Hm. Not untrue. She grits her teeth.
"I was waiting for them to sleep before I made my escape. The old woman keeps strange hours, I think."
Not untrue, either, if Lirit's memory is to be trusted.
"I didn't want to- to look at them, very much," she adds quickly, pitching her voice uncertain and strained. "Something about them- my mind- it wanted to run back, and I know that I shouldn't. I didn't want to- to disappoint you." She pauses. "Any more than I- than I already have, simply in trying to do this on my own. I only wanted- my lady, I swear, when I left, all I wanted was to prove to you that I could fix this. That I could make up for failing to stop that thief when they invaded our home. I wanted to prove that I- I was worth bringing back. I wanted to prove that I could do something of use, that I'm worth more than- than what Mott and the others think of me. I'm useful in more ways than- than how they use me."
"Your reasons, little ghost, are commendable, but do not think that I could justify allowing you to go unpunished. I cannot grant you special treatment just because you are my project, you must understand. If any of the others had done what you have... it is already enough special treatment that I have not cut your strings the moment I made this connection. I want you back, little ghost. You will need to endure whatever my officer decides is appropriate for your transgressions, but I will have you back with me."
Everything in Lirit goes still, at that, a well-trained rabbit response to such words, such threats. Freeze, do not speak unless told to, do not move unless directed, do not struggle- take your punishment and be grateful when you are whole enough to crawl away to the lady's arms, to be put back together again. Freeze, and send your mind away, into some silent box. Keep your body far from you. Do not think. Do not feel. Endure.
Distance from her own body-
That's precisely what Corliss is doing to her, to keep her motionless in this strange, horrifying trance state, this untrue darkness. She's been here before, of her own doing, and- she knows how to get out.
Like opening a door, now that she has the key. She can feel her limbs again, can feel her body entirely, and the voice in her mind fades to a muted murmur, far more distant.
Corliss calls her name again, sounding strained and strange and firm, and Lirit-
Closes her eyes, and severs the connection entirely.
Whatever Corliss thinks of that, she'll need to deal with the fallout later. For the moment-
The order- the cult, they know precisely where Lirit is. She cannot let them come here, cannot let them burn this place down like they burned her old home. She cannot, will not, let them hurt her sister. Not any more than they already have.
There isn't time to think, to strategize, and even if there were- what in the world does Lirit know about strategy? The best she has is... hope, and a fierceness caught behind her ribcage. She does not think she has ever felt quite so angry before, not really. Like a waterfall, pushing her down.
She plucks one of the mushrooms first, on a whim, and tucks it into the sleeves of her robes, and then she silently bids goodbye to the room (it really is her favorite, down here, so calm and quiet, despite- everything in her own head, just now) and climbs carefully and quietly up the ladder again.
It's still quite dark, upstairs. None of the lanterns are lit, so the only thing to keep Lirit's feet underneath herself is the gentle starlight through the mirrored skylights, and the low flicker of the torches and lanterns out on the streets, through the front windows of the other room. She avoids that, though, deciding that it's safer not to take the front door. The passageway that seemed to lead up the stairs lays between her and the front, anyway, and- she'd rather not risk it. No one in this house, so far as Lirit can tell, is going to agree with her, if she needs to explain what's going on. No one would let her leave on her own.
She creeps to the back door, carefully unlatches it, and opens it as noiselessly as she can.
It's not as good as her thief would have done, but- Lirit has learned a trick or two, perhaps.
She jolts at the figure in the dark of the back garden, shadows hiding it for a half moment before Zolona lights a match, flaring light across her features and kindling the ember-glow in her curved, narrow pipe. She drags in a breath, exhaling smoke like a dragon around her mild, considering face.
"Evening," she says, soft. "Or- morning, perhaps. I think I can see a touch of light to the east. Can you?"
"I- I don't know," Lirit manages. "I think I would have died of fright if I hadn't already crossed that bridge. Do you sit out here to scare escapees every night?"
Her eyes gleam softly in the subtle glow of her pipe, and Zolona makes a small, soft noise of consideration. "Well... your sister does so enjoy her attempted nighttime chases with that thief," she murmurs. "Though that is not why I sit here. It is difficult to sleep, is it not? Or... I suppose you wouldn't know, anymore."
"I suppose not," Lirit says, uncertain, and then she takes an experimental step towards the back gate, towards the alley that leads back out to the streets.
"I cannot stop you," Zolona says, shrugging very slightly beneath her dark shawls. "I have nothing I could possibly threaten you with. That is not my realm. It was my sister-in-law's, though I suppose that did not serve her terribly well, in the end. I would tell you, though, that you should not go. Not if you do not wish to take a knife to the heart of the little girl upstairs, first. And the thief as well. They pretend, I think, not to care, but... they are a better pickpocket than they are an actor. I know, because they keep stealing my herb, as if that will do anything for my cough. Petty little thing, as if I am not an herbalist, as if I do not know what I need."
"I- I don't have a choice. I need to- to leave, and quickly, and I can't let them know where I'm going."
Zolona considers, for a long moment, smoke drifting in clouds around her face.
"I think... that you are my niece. I think that you are her, brought back. Even changed, and cowed, and nervous. I think you are my Lirit, who would sit in the dark with the bitter oysters when you were too anxious, and who would bring me baskets of your extra breads and biscuits and experimental cakes, when you had more than your parents and your sister could all eat on your own. For those who come look at the plants, you would say. The plants can eat the light, but the visitors would like something more solid, wouldn't they?" She shakes her head, and the memory shivers through Lirit at the words, the basket with the yellow cloth she would wrap the baked goods in, to carry them across the river. "You were sweet, and bright, and perhaps a trifle spoiled and haughty. I expected you to grow out of the spoiling, eventually. Your mother would not have let such things grow unabated."
"I... I'm glad you think that," she manages, struggling not to use her aunt's name, or- struggling with whether she should or not. "But- but that's not why I need to leave."
"That poor girl has only just barely begun to heal, you know. Months I could not draw her from her rooms, here. Months. I would not like to do it again."
"They know where I am," Lirit blurts, and finally, finally, Zolona looks something other than mild like a waiting cat. Her eyes widen, then dart to the back gate, and then back to Lirit as her frame goes wooden and stiff. "The- cult. They can find me, or- the lady can, because she made me, and- and if I stay here, they'll come and get me, and then we'll both have far more to worry about than whether or not Larc is heartbroken. If she's heartbroken, well- at least she'll be alive. I won't- I can't stay and- and let them come here and destroy this too. I need to go, and I need to go now. Far, and fast, and- and without anyone else there to get hurt, too."
"What... what will happen to you?"
Lirit opens her mouth, closes it, opens it again. "I don't... I don't know. I have- I have a few ideas."
Half ideas. At best. Better not to advertise that.
Zolona lowers her head, sighing out a pale shred of smoke. "The thief will be... furious. You should know that."
"I'd rather that they be alive, too. I'd rather them be furious."
"They will be furious with me, importantly. I promised that they could sleep, and sleep easy, since I would not let anything happen with you. I do not particularly enjoy being made a liar, darling."
"I- I'm sorry. I wish I was- more like them. Then I could have gotten away and you never would have seen me at all."
"Hm." Zolona shifts, then stands, and steps closer. Lirit tries not to flinch, but- she doesn't know what Zolona intends until the woman's arms wrap around her shoulders, a gentle hug buffered by the layers of luxurious fabric draped over Zolona's shoulders. Lirit stiffens, for a moment, but- it's too easy, too familiar, too right to sag, softening into the embrace. It won't last, it can't last, but- she'll take this little piece, this smallest bit that she can get, before she runs away from- all of this. She can't protect any of them if she's here, and- they deserve protecting.
(She's beginning to understand why her mother became a guard, why her father chose healing.)
"I'm sorry," she whispers, losing the shape of the words into Zolona's shawls, and her aunt shushes her with a gentle hand rubbing circles over her shoulderblade. "I have to- to go. I have to lead them away before it's too late."
"Go on, then," Zolona says as she breaks the hug, leaning back and squeezing Lirit's shoulder with one hand for just a moment longer before she turns, walking slowly to sit at the bench again, settling precisely where she had been a few moments before. "You must do what you believe is right, dearest. I will do my best to explain, when the morning comes more fully."
"I- I'm sorry," Lirit says again.
Zolona waves a hand, dismissive. "No you are not, or you would not leave."
"I'm sorry I'm leaving her again," she says, strained. "I didn't have a choice, last time, and-"
"It rather sounds as if you do not have a choice this time either, my dear. Go on, then. I expect that you have very little time to waste."
Lirit nods, and- marches to the gate. She pauses there for a moment, then glances towards her aunt again. She leans back on the bench, her eyes closed and the air around her still with haze.
"Tell- tell the thief-" she pauses, bites her lip. "Tell her I'm glad that they could help me remember, just a little more."
"Understood. Nothing for Larc, dear?"
Lirit feels her face crumple, her weak smile dissolving, and she rasps, "I already said I was sorry, right? That's- that's the whole of it, I think. That's the important part. And... I'm proud of her, though I don't know if she wants to- to hear that, from me."
Zolona purses her lips, nods, and then lowers her face, lifting the pipe to her lips again.
Lirit isn't expecting a goodbye. She'd rather not give one, anyway. It'll feel too permanent, then. Like this- she can still hope she'll get the chance to say goodbye someday, later. Or maybe that she won't have to. Optimistic, but-
She carefully closes the back gate behind her, leaving the sheltered gloom of Zolona's back garden, putting the low buzz of life and the rustle of leaves and the lingering scent of smoke at her back, and then she slips out into the dark of the city.
The streets feel emptier, now. It's likely just a trick of the mind- they were plenty empty on the way here from Essa's safehouse, of course. They only saw, what, one guard? Maybe two? And Lirit does need to duck into the shadows between jagged corners of buildings to keep out of sight of an armored woman with a torch as she creeps through the dark. It's only that she's alone, now. It's only that Zolona's garden had reminded her exactly what it felt like to be completely and utterly surrounded by life, cradled with it.
Another pre-dawn in the city, shadowed and slow-greyeing as the sun lingers like a threat below the horizon, stalking closer by degrees. The city will yellow and pink with it soon enough, but for the moment, the sky goes sheet-grey, the flickering gold of torchlight washed out and overwhelmed by the river-rock expanse slowly lighting above.
It's... interesting, to have these physical reminders, the natural demarcation of time, again. Beneath the earth, in the compound, the passage of time was assumed, but not seen. There wasn't even really a need for clocks, since the lady and her hands would simply allocate tasks to the lesser necromancers as they wished. Lirit thought that the lady and Mott might have watches, tucked into their garments, to keep them aware of the way the world above moved, but she was never entirely certain about that.
As the daylight slowly creeps closer, as the safety of night recedes, Lirit's footsteps slow, an unpleasant awareness no longer able to be buried in determination.
She doesn't have the first fucking clue what she's doing.
Her plan, such as it was, boiled down to, get as far away from Zolona's garden as physically possible, so Lady Corliss has no reason to go there to find her. Which is partly nonsense, because that idea only works if Corliss actually believes Lirit about the amulet not being with them. She's counting on a lot, with regard to the wards on that amulet being effective even to the person who set them.
She doesn't have anywhere to go, is the thing.
Going back to the safehouse or back to her burnt-out home would be disastrous, considering those would likely be the first places that Larc and Essa might check. Completely defeat the purpose, if they can find her. Lead the cult right to them, that way. No, it's better if she goes-
She knows where she cannot go. The issue is, the places she cannot go make up the entirety of the places that she even knows about, up here. If her memory held any other locations of importance in life... they were not strong enough memories to keep, postmortem. Which is deeply frustrating. She can't simply- wander the streets until she finds a hole in which to crawl, hoping for the best, can she? She can't simply hope that no one notices the lack of life in her visage, or if she uses some magic (how little energy does she have left, she wonders, to spare for such things?) to obscure her face or to discourage others from noticing her, how can she be certain that it won't simply attract other, more pointed attention? She knows that the... the ruling body of this city, what even is it? Damn her latticework memory and damn it again. But- she knows that they have soldiers and guards who have some level of knowledge of arcana, who would be able to sense necromancy in particular and would be more than worried about it.
So where to go? Where is there?
Somewhere public is her first inclination. Somewhere the cult won't be able to surprise her, won't be able to corner her. Somewhere they would need to expose themselves to get to her. But- anywhere too public would up the odds that her own... call it, state as mortally unwell might catch someone's eye.
The worst part about this is how much it feels like she's giving up, on Essa, on her family, on the mystery of the amulet. She didn't want to leave any part of it behind, but- Corliss forced her hand. So-
Can she find a way to force Corliss' hand in turn?
A cult of necromancers beneath the city. The hazy, indistinct knowledge of the city guard trying to flush them out. The murder- the assassination of the captain of the guard, and her husband, a healer, and their daughter, just for good measure. And that daughter undead-
She knows too much.
Her feet slow, her chin dropping as her eyes sink, unseeing, towards the cobbles slowly tinting gold and blush. She absently angles her feet to the side, having just enough presence of mind to not come to a halt in the middle of the street.
She knows too much about the cult. Its operations. Its location. Its leadership. And Corliss knows that, which- must be why she's so desperate to bring Lirit home. Gods only know if she plans to let Lirit continue her undead existence the moment she has her under her thumb again, considering. If Lirit ran away once... how could the lady be sure that she wouldn't do it again? How could she be certain that Lirit hasn't already told someone something dangerous, damning?
And if Corliss is already under the assumption that Lirit left with the intention of betrayal, and not the reality of- of complete and entirely unearned loyalty being demolished by the vicious application of truth and memory-
Why not make some of it a reality, then? Why not give the cult precisely what they deserve, and what they already assume they have coming?
So... where does someone go, when they wish to help destroy a necromantic circle?
Lirit has two ideas. She knows where each of them come from for painfully obvious reasons, because each is shaped like the shadowy memory of a parent that she still cannot quite remember well enough for comfort.
She could go to the city guard directly. Offer information, offer her knowledge, offer a way in the door. But- she knows (without knowing) that the chances of reaching a point of conversation with the city guard as an undead creature are... slim. Lirit is dangerous, so far as they would be concerned. An undead of any caliber would be treated the same. An abomination against the-
Crown? There's a crown, Lirit thinks musingly. An abomination against the crown, they would consider her. They wouldn't trust her word, and they would be more likely to destroy her before she managed two words about amnesty or alliance or anything else at all.
Alternatively, she could find her way to the healers of the city. The Clerics. She doesn't... remember the shape of any particular faith, in the city. Doesn't remember any particular faith from her own past, from her own father. Whatever he believed, either it was personal to him in a way that he did not press upon his children, or it simply did not make enough of an impression upon Lirit in life to stick around. She doesn't remember much, but she knows that there are... temples, she thinks, dotted throughout the city, of varying sizes and scopes. She remembers-
When she pushes past a distinct pulse of sorrow, she remembers one that her father liked to visit. Lirit doesn't know if he was a permanent speaker there, if that was his job, his congregation or what have you, but- she has enough of a memory, enough of an idea where it is. Her current bearing had been a strange little loop, resisting the urge of her feet to bring herself back home by simply keeping herself walking in a strange trajectory, the blazing knowledge of her home a talisman at the edge of her vision, always at her left. As long as she doesn't walk towards it, she should be safe, even if she's probably too close to be truly safe. At least she has a reasonable feeling of where she is, this close.
She doesn't remember much wandering outside her home, still, but- little walks in the immediate area- it slips through the cracks, a little, and the route between Zolona's and her own home is well-trod enough. She expects that she would have recognized it easily and with no small degree of panic, the night before, if Essa hadn't taken her somewhere entirely new, first. It threw off her sense of direction more than enough to disorient, but- leaving Zolona's, it was too natural entirely, to come this way, to come towards home. Even if she knew, of course, that she couldn't actually go home.
The temple is close. An easy walk, if she chooses. But-
What makes her think that the clergy will be less likely to destroy her in haste, when they realize exactly what she is? They might be more primed to see her as some wretched, unholy abomination, meant to pluck at their sympathies and tempt them to some evil. That's how the cult would have used her, isn't it?
(That's how the cult has used her, she thinks. Even those memories feel distant, now. The way Corliss had maneuvered her in the early days, in those strange little field trips to the surface, when Lirit could hardly speak for her confusion, when her steps were wobbly like a fresh born fawn.)
(She doesn't remember why. She doesn't remember what they used her for, then.)
(She doesn't want to.)
So. The temple.
Because even if they don't believe her, even if they cast some- some holy light upon her and burn her to a husk- that's not so bad, really, is it? She was meant to be dead more than a year ago. If it catches up to her... well, it's not like she hasn't had more than her fair share of extra time, by now.
And she just... has a good feeling, about this one.
It's still terribly early, the sun not having yet peeked a proper flash over the line of the horizon, and when Lirit recognizes the shape of the temple at the far end of a particular street, she is still one of less than a dozen people within sight entirely. Apparently this area of the city is not terrifically popular, at this time of day. Early morning is not the time for existential, religious crises, she muses. That's more a middle-of-the-night dilemma.
She pauses, on the street outside.
The idea that a resurrected creature would not be able to enter a religious building, sacred ground-
It's the sort of thing Lady Corliss would sneer at, smirking that self-satisfied smirk over her tea. And- whatever Lirit feels about Corliss currently (difficult to elaborate, in any capacity), the lady does know more than any living person should, about the nature and application of necromancy. She would know, if a temple would repel an undead, or- kill them. She would know.
Lirit steps up to the threshold, dread and uncertainty crashing in her guts. She pulls her hood a little higher, worrying her lip between her teeth, and then she summons just a little bit of shadow. She can't pull off a glamor like Essa can, but- shadow, she can do. Just enough darkness at the eyes, and she can mimic irises that aren't milk-white and clearly dead. Her skin will still be unpleasantly desaturated, but- hopefully that and the freckles will be enough. She also takes a moment to ward her energy, weaving the necrotic animus within her body around itself, tightening the web, making sure that there won't be any errant tendrils of energy, any loose flares with surprise emotions. If she can weave it tight enough, it shouldn't be possible for anyone to sense that she is not alive. She forces an inhale, exhales slow, and then she (remembers that this is not the sort of place for which someone would need permission to enter) presses her palm against the pale wood of the doors, and presses, careful and slow.
The wood does not immediately ignite the palm of her hand upon contact, which is a good sign. The air inside doesn't burn her skin. The gentle sound of chimes doesn't clatter in her ears and send her to her knees. It's only a temple, only- only stone and song, and the subtle scent of incense drifting on the air. She steps through, and closes the door behind her.
The interior is lit dimly, candles rather than lanterns, and the windows are narrow and stained in blues and frosted to white, though the light outside is not yet bright enough to carry through them with any vibrancy. The low benches are entirely empty, thankfully. She can't see anyone in the front room at all, and after a moment paused just inside the threshold she doesn't hear anyone further back, either. She can feel the distinct thrum of life somewhere close, a few little spikes, but they aren't close enough to worry. Seems that she'll have a few moments to think, to collect herself, before anything happens.
She picks her way on careful feet (never as quiet as the thief, damn them) through the rows, picking an altar at random to duck her head beside, noting the scraps of offerings, dried flowers, citrus peels, colorful pebbles, a small wooden toy-
She doesn't remember the name of the goddess this particular alcove is dedicated to, but- something about this one feels pleasant. Not that she assumes that the goddess would have any pleasantness to spare for Lirit herself, of course. Abomination, and all that. She sighs, lowers her head a little more, and tries to gather up the nerve to pry back open the trapdoor in the back of her mind that would allow Corliss to sink her claws in again, would let her feel where Lirit is. Dangerous, dangerous of course, but- Lirit can't wait too terribly long, or she had no guarantee that the lady won't do something to Zolona's in the effort to snatch her back up. She needs to draw them away.
(Bringing them to an unsuspecting church isn't exactly a noble maneuver, but- she has very little choice. Besides, who would have a better chance of staving off a clutch of necromancers, right? And- they'll only be unsuspecting until she tells them what to expect. In theory.)
"May I help you, child?"
Lirit manages not to jolt too violently, though her boots do scrabble audibly against the stone floor as she twists towards the voice.
Hood low, hood low, she angles her head carefully, even as the sight of the woman behind her startles her further.
She's tall, built like a soldier or a wrestler more than a priest, her shoulders broad and muscular even beneath her pale linen robes.
(She feels less worried, very suddenly, about the idea of the necromancers surprising this person)
(She also, very suddenly, pulses with a flash of memory, this woman broad-shouldered and grinning and clapping her father on the back at their front door, congratulating him on-)
She ducks her head further, because if she knows this person and she is supposed to be dead, that's even more reason to obscure her face as much as physically possible. She forces a startled breath from her own lips, because that's what would have happened if she breathed absently anymore, and places a hand over her heart to emphasize her surprise.
"You-" she gasps, shakes her head, and then tries again. "You frightened me," she says, trying to keep her voice low enough that it won't be recognizable either.
(It's been more than a year. She won't remember enough to notice, will she? She won't possibly.)
"Ah, well... I apologize, child. You must have been too deep in your own meditation to hear me, hm?" Her voice is warm, comforting like hot spiced wine, familiar only in a vague sort of way. The woman pauses, and Lirit nods an affirmation, if only to avoid the need to speak again. "Do you, perhaps, need help with something? It's a strange time to visit the temple. Not that there needs be any particular reason, of course, but... well, I hope you will forgive me as well for presuming."
"No, I-" Lirit pauses, her mind rolling down off a cliff at the combination of inputs and the panic of actually trying to explain any of this. "You knew- this is going to be- a lot."
The woman blinks, then smiles with a gentle sort of bemusement. "Well, I rather hope I can do something to lessen that lot, if you came here for some sort of help."
Lirit nods and swallows. "Yes, I-" she grits her teeth, inhales sharply, and turns her face more carefully away, just in case. "You know- knew- you knew Vittor, didn't you?"
Even out of the corner of her eye, Lirit can see the woman stiffen, the smile at her lips fading, slightly. When she darts her eyes towards the cleric, there's something a little shocked, a little sad, on her features, before Lirit carefully hides her face again.
"I did," she says, after a beat, tone more muted and serious. "I knew the whole family. Vittor's hands would always shake too much when he had to treat his wife, so- that usually fell to me, if Sana were injured in her duties. He hated to see her hurt. He was a good man."
Lirit fumbles with the clasp of her cloak, struggling against an overwhelming pressure in her throat. A little avalanche of memories, each falling on top of the last, colliding and confusing and suffocating, and she can't speak at all for a long moment. She focuses on forcing herself to breathe instead, a steady if strained in, and out, and in, in the hopes of at least maintaining the illusion of life a little longer.
"Why... why do you ask this, child? His memory is a fond one, but... also a rather sad one, unfortunately. I speak of him often with friends, but... rarely do I hear his name from strangers."
"He- he-" Lirit stutters again, in, out, follow the priestess' example, easy, in and out and in. "When he was- before. Before, he was- was trying to- to do something about the... the..."
She can't say it. How strange. And how deeply, burningly frustrating.
"He had many noble goals, and many ideals, I'm afraid you'll need to be somewhat more specific if I am to help you, child."
(a flash of leftover irritation, a memory (shorter, looking up much further into this woman's kind eyes) of snapping at being patronized so, she is not a child, she is not-)
(she was, of course, of course she was, only a child would be so furious at being called such)
"The necromancers," she says, only a whisper, and she does not look so she can only hear the rustle as the woman beside her jolts in surprise. "He and m-" another pause. "He and Sana were both trying to do something about them. It's why-"
Another sentence she cannot seem to finish.
"Why their family was targeted," the woman finishes, muted. "Yes. I know."
"Is- is anyone still- is anyone else- were they they only ones? Is anyone else still fighting as they were? Trying as they were?"
"Child... this is a very dangerous time, and a very dangerous question to ask within it. Vittor and Sana were not the only ones targeted over the last few months. Many homes have burned, you must have seen the smoke- from anywhere in the city you can see it."
Anywhere in the city, perhaps, but not-
She stays silent, still looking away, waiting for an answer.
"Child... what is your name?"
Lirit shakes her head, a quick little jolt of denial, her words lost in a small noise at the back of her throat.
"Alright... alright, child, easy now. I'll start, then. I'm Clairmonde. I am a Priestess in this temple, though you need not call me anything but my name. If you don't want to share your name... I won't press. That's not the purpose of places like this. This is a place of sanctuary, and shelter, and comfort. If I cannot provide that for you, the least I can do is refrain from causing you discomfort otherwise."
Lirit remembers. Clairmonde, kind priestess, often at their table, often in their kitchen, teaching Lirit tricks and techniques for her baking, bringing fancy flours and foreign spices to experiment with, pretending not to see when Lirit would taste-test from the bowl, so long as she let Larc do the same in turn.
How many, Lirit wonders. How many shards of memory wait to pierce her at each new introduction? How many people has Lirit forgotten, buried, annihilated from her mind?
"Are you... are you alright?" Clairmonde says, gentle and low. "If you are ill, I am, of course, a healer-"
"I'm- fine," she says, half-gasping, and then she shakes her head. "I'm not ill, at least. I'm sorry. I don't mean to be- trouble."
"It's quite alright, child. I only... you keep holding your breath, and I want to make sure-"
Lirit winces, forcing herself to keep the rhythm going, forcing unnecessary air into her lungs to sigh out. "Nervous- nervous habit," she manages.
"I must say it isn't a good one," Clairmonde says mildly. "You might faint, if you aren't careful."
"I know," Lirit says. "I know. I won't."
"It's alright, child. We'd take care of you, even if you did."
"Is there- is there anyone that you- you wouldn't take care of?"
Clairmonde stiffens again, surprised, and then tilts her head to the side. Trying to get a better look at Lirit, perhaps. She tries not to squirm in response to the scrutiny, tries to focus on pretending to breathe like a normal person.
"What... what exactly do you mean, child?"
"What would it take," Lirit manages, words rushed before she can overthink them, before she can think better of them, "for you to turn someone away, when they needed help?"
Clairmonde thinks, for a long moment, and Lirit does not have any evidence for this feeling, but she senses that the priestess is taking the question seriously, and trying earnestly to consider it. She drums her fingers off of her chin slowly, lips pursing and her eyes narrowed in a thoughtful squint, and then she nods, as if to herself.
"If someone came, and they needed help, earnestly, I believe that we would never turn them away. That is our purpose, our duty. To help, to heal, to protect those who need it."
"Even if that person was something- terrible?"
"If they were..." Clairmonde looks at her again, her head taking on that angle of scrutinization, brow furrowing. "Child, I would say, I think, that no one is something terrible. I would say, if someone had done something terrible, my sisters and I may be obligated to inform the authorities if the situation demanded, but- this place is a sanctuary. No one is anything too terrible to deserve sanctuary. I, personally, would be hard-pressed to say that anyone could be undeserving of kindness for anything at all. Cruelty after cruelty serves no purpose but itself, and cruelty cannot ever heal. My business, child, is healing. Whatever you think you are, whatever anyone has told you about your nature, whatever it is, whatever you seek to hide about yourself, you are not undeserving of care. You are not undeserving at all."
"Oh," Lirit says.
"Oh no, oh child- breathe for me, will you? I'm terribly sorry, I didn't mean to make you cry."
"It's- I- don't apologize," Lirit stumbles, because she can't focus on breathing right now, and at least speaking forces enough breath to be convincing. "Don't apologize, don't- it's very kind of you and you are very- kind, and generous, and- thank the gods that someone like you is here for- for when people who- deserve it are-"
"You deserve it too, child. Don't think that you don't."
Lirit laughs, brittle and choking and without air, and Clairmonde makes a small noise, sympathetic and unhappy.
"You wouldn't say that if you knew," she gasps, and oh, no, this has gotten so terribly far away from what she was supposed to be doing. She shakes her head hard. "No, no this isn't- this isn't why I came, I don't need comfort or solace or redemption, I need- I need to know who I can go to, if I have information about the necromancers and I want someone to use it, to stop them before they hurt anyone else. Can you help me with that?"
Clairmonde pulls her head back, lips parting as she stares for a beat.
"O-oh. Oh child- oh, you've gotten into something more dangerous than you could possibly understand."
Lirit laughs again, a little more darkly, and the priestess snaps her mouth shut, blinking. "No." Lirit smiles, without teeth. "No, I understand the danger rather intimately. Which is why I- I know I need help. But I am- I am uninformed, about the city, about- about who to go to, who is in charge or- who is safe, but- I hoped- I hoped I could trust you. The priestesses. I hoped."
"You can trust me, child," Clairmonde says, sounding pained. "You can. Trust is not the dilemma, I'm afraid. I don't know if... if there's anyone left, to speak with about the..." she drops her voice to a whisper, "the necromancers. Child, I don't know where you come from that you know about poor Vittor and Sana but you don't know about... about the new captain, about the temple burnings, about the undead attacks, about the prince-"
Lirit pulls her head back, overwhelmed by the sudden slate of information (undead attacks- gods but she knows from the other side, though she never knew, never wanted to know what Corliss did with the dead they raised as mindless thralls, rotting upright), and makes a strained noise without meaning to.
"But- the necromancers are... they are more dangerous now than they ever have been. I am one of the remaining few, the half of my priesthood that has not vanished in this grim tide. My capacity for assisting you is... is much more likely to be in the capacity of tending your wounds, hiding you away somewhere safe, providing shelter. I don't know, dear child, who would even be left, to fight these nightmares."
Lirit stills, and stops pretending to breathe.
"They're winning, is what you mean," she says, slowly, and Clairmonde sighs.
"I certainly hope not. I certainly hope, dear child, that the prince will return to us, and the morale of the city will be restored, and the captain of the guard will be replaced with someone who has - forgive me - some sharper damned teeth. For the moment, though, I'm afraid..."
"There's nothing to be done."
"I'm sorry I cannot give you better news, child. Please, please don't despair."
"Do you slay the undead, here?"
Clairmonde jolts hard, breath gusting from her lips in a startled half-laugh. "Child-"
"Do your priestesses and healers slay the undead, when such opportunity presents itself?" she asks again, trembling.
The priestess inhales, exhales, and takes half a step closer. "One, perhaps two? I or my sisters could handle, could set to rest. We are not, however, a fighting force, as it were. I don't believe we could help you in that way-"
"You could put a single undead to rest," Lirit echoes, feeling strange and distant and still wet-cheeked past her own liking. "You yourself?"
Clairmonde sighs again, deep and unhappy, and then she nods. "I can. I have. It breaks my heart, to have to do so, every time."
"Then... I am sorry, for this. One more, to put to rest, if you feel obligated to the task."
"Child... who did they take? Who did they pull from you?"
Lirit chokes, not a laugh, and then she holds our her hand. "I won't show you my face," she says, warning, "but... take my hand?"
Clairmonde furrows her brow, but after only a breath or so she does, reaching out and very, very gently slipping her hand around Lirit's much smaller one.
"Oh- child, you're freezing, you should have said-"
Lirit doesn't say a word, waiting for the priestess to realize.
"Child... oh, oh no, no-"
"If they cannot be stopped, I want no part of this. If I cannot protect- protect the people who matter by fighting against the cult, the best place for me is in the ground, where the lady cannot use me for some more cruel purpose, for some other hateful cause. I told you- if you knew what I was, you would not be so kind and gentle to me. You are... unequivocally generous of spirit, but- I don't deserve an ounce of it. I won't move, I won't raise a hand, I'll simply- close my eyes, and let you do... whatever it is that a healer would do, when someone's time has passed."
Lirit does just that, pressing her eyes closed and trying to ignore the ragged way the priestess breathes, trying to ignore all of this and think, instead-
Mellow dark, warm skin, Essa's laugh.
She doesn't realize what's happening until the hood pools down around her shoulders, tugged by Clairmonde's hand, and she cringes back, her hands reaching automatically for the clasp at her neck, gripping the fabric to pull it back up.
It's too late for that, though, because Clairmonde's eyes are wide and horrified and she lunges forward, her sturdy body wrapping inarguably around Lirit's.
"Oh child, oh- oh darling child oh I thought- I thought I was letting memory get the better of me but- oh Lirit it is you it- you-"
"Don't- don't don't-" she gasps, shaking her head fruitlessly and failing to pull away from Clairmonde's strong embrace. "Don't look it'll be easier if you don't look don't-"
"I'm so, so sorry child, I'm- oh I missed you so terribly, Lirit-"
"She's gone they made me something terrible you- you're a priestess you need to end it, please- please-"
"Oh sweetheart." Clairmonde leans back, still embracing Lirit firmly, and then she lifts a hand to brush the hair out of her face, cupping her cheek, smiling too sadly to bear. "Sweetheart, no."
"But- but you have to. You- you- you protect people, and you destroy evil. That's- I don't remember much but I remember that, I remember what my father did."
"That's true," Clairmonde murmurs, rocking them gently, soothingly. "That's true, dear child. I protect people, and destroy evil. And you- oh Lirit... you are not evil."
"I- I'm- I'm a corpse, why do you not understand-"
"It does not matter to me one single whit what you are, Lirit. I already explained that, didn't I? I do not care. I care who you are, and what you do. You're here - and gods, oh gods I missed you, dearest child - and you would rather die than perform an evil against another. How could that be anything but goodness, child? How could you look at yourself and not see?"
Lirit holds herself stiff, resisting the urge to sag into the priestess' arms and comfort. She doesn't know- she doesn't know. None of this seems right. None of it seems like anything real. Undead creature seeks holy woman for destruction, holy woman refuses to do so. Why- why-
"If there's no one left fighting them, it doesn't matter what I- what I want. They kept me docile and unknowing and mindless for a year. How can I possibly continue, knowing that they could do the same again? That I could be- be cast back into that oblivion and be powerless to stop it?"
"You aren't powerless. Not so long as you still possess free will, child, and clearly- clearly you do."
Lirit- shakes her head, stiff, uncertain, and Clairmonde inhales and then exhales, slow and deliberate, before she releases Lirit from her embrace.
"If I... step into the back, child, for just a minute or so, will you leave? Or can I trust that you will still be here?"
"I don't- I don't know why you want me here if you aren't going to- destroy me."
"Will you stay? Please?"
Lirit ducks her head, worries her lip between her teeth, and then nods, still uncertain and stiff. "Alright. If- alright."
"Thank you, child." Clairmonde smiles, stepping towards the door to the inner chambers. "Only a moment, I swear to you."
Lirit isn't sure if it would be better or worse if the priestess were lying, and leaving entirely. Or, perhaps, going to fetch someone higher in her priesthood to do something about Lirit, one way or the other. She doesn't respond, preempting the weakness in her legs instead to sit on one of the low benches close to the shrine she had been examining before Clairmonde had entered. She doesn't look up, so she only hears the click of the door a belated moment later when the priestess ducks into the back again.
If she had breath, she would have been holding it tight until she were alone again. As it is, Lirit sags, pulling her legs up towards her on the bench and hugging them against her chest tight for a long moment, rocking and trying to get herself back under control.
She can imagine-
The problem is, she can imagine so easily, too easily, how Essa and Larc and perhaps even Zolona would react, if they knew what Lirit had just tried to do, tried to get the priestess to do. She can imagine Essa's indignant, righteous fury, entirely overwhelming their usual lazy calm, their veneer of self-assuredness. She can imagine the betrayal. Larc, she can imagine- crying. She's already seen that rather recently, for similar reason, of course, but this- what had her sister said? The very last thing-
I'm not done with you yet!
She shakes her head, resisting the rather tempting urge to bury her face in her hands and weep.
... Zolona would be furious with her as well, in that cool, magnanimous, deeply knowing way. She would be disappointed, which is almost worse.
Lirit huffs, letting her legs drop to the floor again. It isn't as if she wants to die. She just- (feels the glimmer of the necromantic charge in the crystal in her hip pocket, feels the subtle shiver of life further in the temple, feels pinpricks of subtle deaths everywhere around her) she just doesn't see what choice she has in the matter. She is already dead, it shouldn't be so terrible a thing to just- commit to it, should it?
She's already dead. She's already buried and gone, already past all use-
Well- alright, that's... melodramatic, perhaps. Past all use, as if the ord- the cult hasn't been using her for menial manual labor and amusement for the last year. Buried and gone, as if-
That might have been true a few days ago, but- then Lirit went and unearthed herself. She's not buried anymore. The cult and Lady Corliss might have been the ones to resurrect her body, but Lirit is the one who clawed her way back to the land of the living. Gods know that Corliss' underground kingdom certainly doesn't count as the same.
What good can she be, though, if there's no one she can go to, no one still fighting these monsters the way her mother did? The way her father did? What can she do if the sorts of people brave enough to do something about the necromancers are already dead?
There has to be something. There has to be something.
The inner door creaks again, and Lirit carefully does not flinch at the noise as the priestess steps back in. Clairmonde is not nearly so silent as her thief, footsteps thumping gently off the stone floor as she approaches.
"Here, child," she says, and Lirit forces herself not to flinch again, sitting up straighter as the priestess takes a seat beside her and-
Places something into her hands.
Lirit's fingers curl around the wood, her other hand drawing delicate just barely above the strings, and- Lirit holds her harp, her little wire harp that sounds like bells and windchimes, in her lap again.
"I thought-" she rasps, not enough breath beneath the words to support them. She sucks in a gasp to try again. "I thought it burned."
"It was in the garden," Clairmonde says with a sad sort of smile. "Your sister... she couldn't keep it. She wanted it somewhere safe, but she couldn't endure... she couldn't keep it close. So-"
"She asked you to keep it safe," Lirit murmurs, the base of her skull buzzing, her fingertips tingling with instinct, with memory, with desire. "She asked you to-"
"You said you didn't remember very much... is that right?"
Lirit swallows and shakes her head. "More, the more I... the more I seek out familiar people, places, the more comes back to me, but- much seems to have been lost. I don't know- I don't know how much is just gone forever."
"Can you remember how to play? You look... your grip is correct, I think. It's been a while since I've seen anyone pluck at those sorts of strings," she says with a gentle, shrugging laugh.
"I don't... know," Lirit says, but she lifts the instrument a little higher, into a more natural position on her lap, curling her body around the wood and wire, drifting into the ease of it, the natural familiarity of something this body has done hundreds and hundreds of times, even if those times were long ago.
Her fingers drift, so natural and easy, moving like liquid as she plucks across a song- a song she only remembers as it strikes her ears, liquid silver notes filling the warm space of the temple like another sort of offering, her hands moving almost entirely without will, a possession and control far more welcome. She closes her eyes entirely, knowing that she does not need to look at the strings to know where she is plucking, and she leans in to the embrace of the song, feeling the movement of the piece as it carries her through, as she carries herself.
She realizes that she's humming, maybe three bars after she starts. So strange a sensation, no matter how many times it happens. Memory without memory. Her mind running away without her. This is... this one, however, is unequivocally the most pleasant of her experiences with her old life returning. There's no- no baggage, here. No pain. Only music, and feeling, and she can nearly smell the scent of the storm over the city out her balcony as she plays.
Her fingers don't hesitate, don't stumble, but by the time she nears the end of the song they do feel stiff, out of practice. She missed-
Ah, alright. One little lance of pain. But- much less so than any of her other memories. There's little to regret, here, because while Lirit missed (somewhere, deep down) her harp, it isn't as if there was any pain for the harp to experience in return. It isn't as if the harp missed her, and it isn't as if the harp needs to endure any fraught, complicated feelings about Lirit playing it again. It is only... Lirit did not make music, for a while, and now-
Now she can, again.
The song runs out, eventually, no matter how endless it feels, and Lirit hesitates for a moment, considering another that she almost remembers, another that she thinks would come back to her if she just... slipped into the notes, but- she sighs, instead, and lowers the instrument. She presses her lips down into something like a frown, and she lets her eyes open again.
"Oh- ah, I apologize, priestess, I-" she shakes her head, sharp. "I didn't mean to- to make you-"
Clairmonde gently dabs at the tears on her face with a square of cloth, gesturing dismissively with her other hand. "It's alright, dear child. It's been so long, that's all. No one in the priesthood knew how to play that particular type, and... I couldn't bear to hear anyone fumble with it after you used to play so beautifully. I forgot how... how well you played." She pauses for a moment, her expression considering as she sniffles slightly, and then she meets Lirit's eyes cautiously. "Do you feel better, now?"
Lirit blinks, surprised. "Ah... I... I suppose that I... I do, yes. I suppose I do."
"Good." Clairmonde smiles gently, placing her hand on Lirit's forearm. "I had hoped that would help, at least a little. I suppose it could have backfired somewhat, if- if your memory were less accessible, but... I'm glad."
It was a masterful maneuver, in truth. Very clever. Tactile, in a way that made it rather difficult for Lirit to disappear inside of herself.
"Thank you," she manages in a small voice. "I really was- convinced that it had been burnt to cinders with everything else."
"I'm glad," Clairmonde says again, quietly. "Now..." she shifts in her seat, leaning forward with her hands braced on the lip of the bench. "Would you like to... perhaps explain a little more thoroughly, what sort of trouble you're in, and what sort of help you need?"
"Not... particularly," Lirit admits, sinking further in her seat, feeling oddly childish. Probably doesn't help that the priestess keeps calling her a child. "They brought me back to life," she says quickly, without inflection. "I didn't remember anything, and they discouraged me from fixing that, saying that it was not the way of things, and that it would be too painful for me to endure if I did chase the threads of memory when they came to me. They used me for- amusement and menial tasks, extra shifts since I don't require sleep, and they used me in rituals, taught me how to manipulate the energies they worked with. Taught me how to do some small necromancies, the sorts of things that wouldn't make me too dangerous, I think. Enough to animate the small dead, when needed, or to keep the energies from their rituals from growing too out of control to avoid notice from the world above. Enough to sense, and shadow, and..." she sighs. "They made me undead, and then they made me a necromancer, and I'll be honest, Clairmonde, I hadn't thought, until just now, about how that would... how that would burn in my parents. How deeply they would despise what the lady turned me into."
"They wouldn't despise you no matter what, dear child."
Lirit closes her eyes. "How it would break their heart, then."
Clairmonde's hand touches the tip of her chin, lifting her face towards her, though Lirit does not open her eyes.
"They would be brokenhearted if you were dead and gone, dear child. The relief of speaking to you again, the joy- were they here as well, child, they would be so, so grateful to have the chance to simply know you again. To tell you that they loved you. To hold you and see you smile and listen to you laugh."
"You have to stop," Lirit mumbles, "or I'm going to cry again."
"I'm sorry, child," she says, dropping Lirit's chin. "I don't mean to upset you, I swear. It's only that I don't want you to think your parents would ever, ever think ill of you. They loved you endlessly, dear one. They loved you so, so, so much."
"Yes, and they both killed undead as their occupations, Clairmonde. I don't know how far their affection would extend-"
"It would extend to wherever you were, dear child. You are not some mindless creature, not some thrall or creature possessed. You are, near as I can tell, yourself, Lirit. More sad, yes. More nervous, more frightened, more cold- in physical form, not in personality. You seem rather valiantly yourself, despite a lack of knowledge, even, and if your sister were here she would tell you the same."
Lirit twitches, at the mention, and the priestess pauses in her speech.
"You... you've seen her already," she says, "haven't you?"
Lirit- nods, stiffly.
"Why... pray tell, child, why do you look guilty about that?"
"Because all of them are going to be furious with me for leaving in the middle of the night," she rushes in one breathless run, "but- but they don't know about the- I only left because I was- was putting them in danger by staying and I couldn't stand it so I- I had to, I swear, I wouldn't hurt Larc if-"
my life depended on it. Strange phrasing, for her.
"Alright, alright, be calm, child," Clairmonde says, patting her hands in the air soothingly. "I know you wouldn't. But- why would your presence be a danger to them? You clearly wish no harm, and if they taught you their magic then surely you have some control, otherwise it would be dangerous for them to even keep you around, wouldn't it?"
"No- yes, no, I can control- it wasn't me, me myself, being there, but- but the lady- Corliss knows where I am. She brought me back, so her magic- her magic is what animates me. Everything that has been-" she hesitates. "Every bit of energy after the fact has simply renewed the magic she worked on this body in the first place. She has a connection to my undeath, and she knows where I am." Lirit pauses again, then groans and buries her face in her hands. "I didn't mean to bring danger to you, Clairmonde, forgive- I barely remembered this place, I didn't know it would be you, I just- I thought that a temple- healers, I thought they would be able to help and- and I didn't have anywhere else to-"
"This temple and its counterparts are precisely where you are supposed to go when you have nowhere else. No matter what, child. A sanctuary is not of much worth if it cannot endure a little danger, a little strain, is it?"
"I... I suppose not, but- but you didn't ask for this, for me to come barging back into your life like-"
"Like the miracle of the lost returned, Lirit. Like a miracle."
Lirit works her jaw, and looks towards the priestess for a long moment. She doesn't speak, but- she doesn't try to hide the stubbornness in her eyes, the clear indication that she does not, in any way, feel like a miracle. She feels rather more like an abomination. A curse, perhaps.
Clairmonde narrows her eyes, equally stubborn, and reaches to squeeze Lirit's shoulder.
"So," she says. "Some danger, because this lady of yours knows where you are, and knows you are here. This is something, at least, that we can do something about."
Lirit blinks, watching with some bafflement as the priestess stands again, rolling her broad shoulders as if she might be about to start lifting and moving the benches with her bare hands.
"Er- we can?"
Clairmonde grins. She lifts her hands out towards Lirit, flapping her fingers back in invitation until Lirit relents and allows the priestess to take her hands and lift her to standing.
"Wards," she says, with obvious relish. Her smile deepens when Lirit blinks in further surprise, and she releases one of Lirit's hands and squeezes the other as she starts to lead her towards the back rooms. "Don't worry," she says when Lirit stumbles nervously, "this early, I'm the only one here. I likely will be until the evening, in fact. Most of my priesthood is busy at the other temples in the..." she hesitates, "less affluent parts of the city, and this temple in particular hasn't been- well, popular, since..." her smile fades, a little, and then she scowls. "Oh, cursed be. Since your father died. It's hard to maintain a presence and a reputation when your high priest is murdered by the craven fools he vowed to protect you from, poor thing. But! The wards-"
She leads Lirit through a hallway and then into a smaller chamber, clearly a living space, full of bookshelves and tapestries and a low bed topped with a truly absurd amount of pillows. Clairmonde releases Lirit's hand to go rifle through her shelves, her cabinets tucked beneath. She narrows her eyes, muttering low under her breath as she goes, her hands dexterous and quick, and then she quickly lays out a pair of books and a number of small trinkets out on her bed. She spins to face Lirit again, then, hands on her hips and that determined grin still on her lips.
"Wards. I'm certain, if they've been teaching you anything worth anything down there, you've got at least a mild handle on wards."
Lirit pauses, then nods. "Somewhat. Conceptually, at least. I don't have much cause to practice them myself. That's... for the protectors, more. They don't like to put me on those shifts, if they can avoid it. I understand more about why, now, I think."
Clairmonde does an exceptional job of pretending not to show a flash of deep sadness at that, and then she nods. "That's fair enough I suppose. I, however, have been rather adeptly trained in the art. They aren't just for keeping injury away, or blocking physical pressures, however. There's more esoteric threats a good ward can block, too. Like eyes, that you'd rather not be seeing you. Like observation or tracking or other nasty, gnarly, invasive sorts of nonsense. It's a lot that you can do with a ward, if you know how best to wield it. And I, my dear child, very much do."
"So," Lirit frowns, "You think you can... ward me from her perception?"
"From her sensing at a distance, at least. Magic like that, magic that connects you to the heart... I suppose the soul, of something, that is rather powerful, but you can very much do your best to at least provide some sort of block on the sensation, to scatter it and make it harder to pinpoint, or to deflect it and make it appear to come from somewhere else, or to mirror and replicate the signal so thoroughly that it becomes impossible to tell which signal is the true one amongst so many duplicates. It's just a matter of which sort of ward to try first." Clairmonde touches her fingers to the tip of her round chin, brow furrowed fiercely with thought, and then she eyes Lirit with consideration.
"What?" Lirit says, uncertain. "Why are you looking at me like that?"
"You've had a glamor or two on you in the last day or so, yes?"
"Er- yes? My own, this morning, briefly, and- and a f-friends, before that."
"The thief's, you mean. Don't think I don't know that one's particular magic, dear child. They are trouble and trouble again, but they've got a fair bit of skill. I could do a better job with this ward with their help, gods preserve me for admitting so. It's a matter of skill, nothing to do with morality, but-"
"They're not all that bad," Lirit mumbles automatically, without thinking, and then she feels that damn urge again, the tingling in her cheeks of a blush she cannot give anymore. CHUNKY SODE. 
"You cannot know, dear child, how many, how many times I have heard you say that, child. It has been a long time, I admit that I missed it. I still don't know if I agree, exactly, but I understand. You fully know that she's a thief, and yet-"
"She doesn't steal from people who don't have more than enough already," Lirit snaps, and then she blinks, confused. "Or- um."
"I've heard you say that, as well, dear child. Oh, no, I understand. And I know that you're well aware that that includes you as well, dear. The rich, I mean. Or-" her face falls. "It did, I suppose. It did, once. I don't... want to make you think about that, I'm sorry."
"It's- it's alright. I'm not- bothered. I'm not bothered by that. I've been dead for- for a year, Clairmonde. I've been dead and I've known that I was dead for a year. It doesn't surprise me, you know."
"I suppose, I suppose that's fair, dear. I'm sorry. I'm simply not so used to it myself. I'm sorry."
"It's alright," Lirit says again, shaking her head. "People keep- apologizing to me for things that they couldn't possibly be responsible for. I don't know what to do with that... I don't know what to do with that at all, really."
"That's- fair, dear child." She shakes her head. "Regardless. Regardless. That isn't what I was saying, anyway. If you are concerned with your... lady, as you call her, tracking your whereabouts through her connection to your animus, that's something we can do something about. Just tell me which sort of ward you believe would work the most effectively. Duplication, redirection, or a sort of... defocusing, making it harder to pinpoint precisely. Which would you prefer, child? The ward is for you, so... I would like to give you the options."
Lirit worries her lower lip between her teeth, her brow furrowing again.
"I suppose..." she pauses, thinking hard, thinking about- trying to force herself to think about Lady Corliss, despite the way her mind would like to shy away. It's like... a curse itself, the thinking. She knows that it isn't true, but she feels as if thinking about the lady is enough to give her a window into Lirit's mind, and that is- truly terrifying. She would rather just be dead, but- that's a bad, destructive instinct, she knows.
(No one who loves her would want her to feel that way, she knows.)
She shakes her head. "Not the redirection, I don't think. That would be- dangerous. Providing a different, entirely unknowing target to the cult- that's far, far too dangerous, I think. Duplication would irritate her most, would- would infuriate her. Diffusing the signal and making harder to pinpoint... I think she would take that as a challenge. I think it would... make her feel smug, and dangerous, and... I worry that it would still be enough to let her find me, eventually, especially if it would still provide a range within which to look, but... oh, I don't know."
"It sounds, dear child, as if you think the best option is the lattermost, but you are still worried about it. Which, of course, is entirely fair. Would you want to go ahead with it, then? I don't know how... quick or specific their tracking is, of you, but I imagine that you would like to get yourself hidden as quickly as possible, so we can begin to take next steps for ourselves without as much fear hanging over our heads. Yes?"
Lirit pauses. "Next steps?"
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves, child." Clairmonde smiles gently, then taps her fingers off of one of the books laid out on her bed. "You being here does change some things, but before we do anything about that, we need to make sure that you're safe."
"That you're safe," Lirit corrects. "If they can find me, they could hurt you. That's the whole reason I left-" she presses her lips together, shakes her head. "I didn't know you were here," she reminds. "I came here for help, not to get a friend killed. Go on, do whatever you need to do."
Clairmonde watches her for a long moment, as if debating whether or not to unpack all that, whether or not to interrogate any of Lirit's confused mentionings, but she only nods, after a moment. "Alright. But- you can help, you know, if you'd like."
Lirit blinks. "I- I can?"
"If you'd like," she repeats. "Only if you'd like. Here, let me show you."
She knocks one of the books open with a careless motion, and the pages flop out to show handwritten instructions for a ritual. Lirit leans closer curiously, tipping her head to the side to get a better look at the diagrams of the flow of energy, bemused when she finds it familiar- familiar in her undead life, and not familiar from her time before. It looks rather similar to some of the ward work the cult would do to obscure their own magical presence. There's something poetic about that, she thinks with a slight smirk.
"How should I assist?" she asks, feeling somewhat more confident now. "Directing the energy, containing it, weaving loose threads back into the tapestry? How would I best help the process, Clairmonde?"
The priestess smiles with some satisfaction, apparently pleased by Lirit's eagerness, and then she nods. "We don't need much room for this one if it's only going to be placed upon one being, so if you wouldn't mind- sit, here- the edge of the bed is fine if you wouldn't prefer to sit on the floor. There you are, perfect. Now... hm." She taps her chin with the tip of her finger, thoughtful. "Managing the energy might be a prudent idea... considering our purpose, yes, I think that would be best. Lower the chance of any errant scraps of necromancy escaping, if you try to weave in any excess. I'm afraid that my own skills have not been honed in a particular way so as to prepare me for subtle magic. When I draw in the energies of the gods to use... well, they are what they are. I do not often try to change them, or obscure them."
"That makes enough sense," Lirit murmurs. "So I should just... sit? And let you work, and- try to manage the external flow of the energy, outside of your own ritual."
"That seems to be the best course of action, yes. Are you ready, child?"
"I don't see why I wouldn't be," she says with a shrug. "Faster the better, right?"
"Indeed," Clairmonde says. "Get comfortable, then, child, and prepare yourself. This might... feel strange, perhaps? It's meant for use on magical items, primarily, but I should be able to adjust it enough. It might tingle, though I don't know how that will feel to you in your... current state," she finishes delicately.
Lirit doesn't waste time dithering, she just closes her eyes and leans slightly forward on the bed, waiting to feel the start of the magic the priestess is going to weave around her. "Ready," she says. "I'd ask you to tell me when it's done, but I rather expect that I'll feel it, won't I?"
"I would be surprised if you didn't," Clairmonde says with a hint of laughter. "Especially considering that you wished to be an acting participant. Alright, dear."
It does tingle, sort of like that bloodless sensation of an almost-blush, but not limited to her cheeks. It starts at the farthest parts of her body from the center, in fact. The tips of her toes, the top of her head, the tips of her fingers when she experimentally stretches her arms to the sides before she tucks them back together on her lap, waiting for when she'll want to gesture when she's manipulating the errant scraps of energy from the ritual.
It tastes of peppermint, which makes precisely zero sense. It makes no sense, but- the moment the magic activates properly, the back of Lirit's tongue tingles too, and it tastes of peppermint, a flavor so bright and distinct that Lirit knows it with certainty despite not having eaten since her death.
She tries to ignore the sensation for now, noting it for if she needs the anchor later, and she casts her awareness out, feeling for the edges of Clairmonde's magic as she works.
She was not wrong, before, when she admitted that her particular magical training was not preoccupied with subtlety. The priestess glows like a small sun already, and she has barely begun to work. Lirit begins to work as well, taking the threads of Clairemonde's loose, unchecked brightness and weaving it into itself, making it less visible to other observers and also stronger at the same time. She can sense when Clairmonde notices the difference, and she can hear, distantly, in and outside of herself, the priestess breathe an impressed sort of laugh.
Draw in some of the excess, too. Into herself. It isn't the sort of magic that her animus is meant to recycle for the sake of sustaining itself, but... she is running rather low, as it is, and it would delay needing to use the cult's contingency for just that little bit longer. Clarimonde is putting so much excess into her spellwork anyway, not conserving an ounce of power- would she mind? Would she even notice, really, if Lirit simply- skimmed a little off of the edges of this spell? She was simply sending so much off anyway. Why would she care if Lirit just... took a little that would otherwise be wasted for herself?
She could just... catch a little of it in a different web, and draw it into herself. Easy. Clean. No need to harm anyone. It might take some... finicky processing, magically speaking, to make it work as something she can... consume, so to speak, but- she's confident that she can.
An edge bows, gleams, flares. She's distracted. She furrows her brow, screws her eyes more tightly shut, remembers, belatedly, that she has a body, and refocuses on the actual task she is supposed to be concerning herself with. If she truly thinks that she needs energy that badly, badly enough to steal some, the least she could do is just- wait until they're done, and ask Clairmonde directly. That's the person thing to do, rather than- the necromancer thing to do. A necromancer would siphon energy from a practitioner meant for another purpose without asking. They would. Lirit has watched them do it, in fact. Stealing from each other, stealing from her in petty little moments of selfishness, hoping to be more impressive for the lady by stealing little nibbling chunks of energy to use in ceremonies or in tests.
... it always worked, impressing the lady, thought Lirit suspects now that even her pleasure in their performance was part of some test, or- long term manipulation, to make the necromancers distrust each other. Easier to keep them under her thumb, if each of them were groveling for her attention, rather than working with each other. Same reason she never bothered to keep any of the living from knocking Lirit down a metaphorical peg any time they could get away with it.
Clairmonde works diligently, entirely unaware of Lirit's brush with moral uncertainty and unhappy memory, the ward raising slowly around her like a strange, thick mist in the magic. She can still, oddly, taste the mint at the back of her throat, but it's easy enough to ignore. She's used to ignoring her body, and- it's easier when she's paying so much more attention to the things happening around and outside of her body, anyway. She can feel, somewhat, the way the ward will move with her, not a specific radius of a low grade signal imitating her own magical signature, but- like a real cloud, hazy and drifting, around corners, in eddies and whorls, naturally thinning and thickening at natural unpredictable points, not only obscuring Lirit's own energy (hidden and diffused among the rest) but also but making it entirely unclear where the center of the ward would be, so she cannot be tracked that way, either. She could be at any point within the cloud at all, and it would simply swirl around her, or waft over her, or curl around her. It's brilliant, honestly, and it will work even better if she keeps herself moving in the interim.
She feels the moment that the magic seals, her own energies hidden and caught in the hazy ward, and she takes an extra moment or two in the subspace of her mind to ensure that the edges of the magic are clean even if the edges of the false faded signal are not, wrapping up loose ends and hiding seams where she can, making certain that she is as invisible as possible.
"You are rather good at that, aren't you?" Clairmonde says, sounding honestly impressed, and Lirit sighs back into herself and blinks her eyes back open with a somewhat shy smile as the priestess observes her. "I suppose they really did teach you something. I had assumed, to be entirely honest, that they had just been- stringing you along, somewhat, with promises of eventual magical prowess, if you simply did as told for a little longer, and then a little longer again."
Lirit looks askance, not really willing to examine the degree to which the cult did do that, precisely that, before and during her training. "Thank you," she manages, muted. "Was it supposed to taste like peppermint?"
Clairmonde stares at her, and then bursts into a laugh, deep and true as she holds herself up on one of her bookshelves. "Can't say I've ever heard that one before!"
"Well," Lirit hedges, embarrassed now, "I suppose it's been long enough since I've tasted anything, after all. I could have been imagining it."
Clairmonde winces, just slightly, which wasn't exactly what Lirit was going for. She looks away from the priestess, then, trying to diffuse that momentary tension, and then Clairmonde hums lightly.
"Well, now that that's sorted... I imagine we should get a move on, yes?"
Lirit blinks, glancing back towards the priestess, who has begun to snatch up a few small satchels and shovel carefully selected books and baubles into them.
"Get- get a move on? Where- where exactly-"
"Away from here, at the very least. If this is the last place your former captors - er, what have you - could sense you properly, then we should make ourselves scarce before they start to sniff around, shouldn't we, child?"
"Well... yes, yes I suppose that makes sense, but- where, exactly?"
Clairmonde shoots a grin over her shoulder, sly and pleased, as if she's been waiting for Lirit to ask.
"Through - oh, I've always wanted to say this - through our secret passages, of course, child!"
Lirit stares. "Secret passages."
"Yes! Dear, stand back. Oh, I've never gotten to show them to anyone before! They must stay secret, of course, you know," she says, tone playfully gossipy as she turns to one of the bookshelves, indistinguishable from the rest, and then she gestures, flicking her wrist with a flare of healing magic. There's nothing to heal on the shelf, of course, but when the magic makes contact it fills something hidden, behind the wall, and there is a click before the shelf slowly slides back, and then swings inward, showing a narrow stone space.
Another set of tunnels through stone, Lirit thinks, neither happy nor displeased about this turn. Mostly, she's beginning to wonder how much of this city is built around tunneling like moles. She likes moles, but- considering the obsession with the kites and the wind and the clear deference to the mountains, she would have taken this place as more external than internal. Then again, maybe it's a matter of facade and truth. Or just two facades.
She shrugs, regardless, and ducks into the passageway as Clairmonde gestures enthusiastically, losing a little bit of her fire when Lirit doesn't react with any particular excitement herself.
"Hm," she says, carefully closing the door-bookshelf behind them with a click and summoning a little orb of pale yellow light at her fingertips to illuminate the passageway. "Perhaps I exaggerated the amount of... delight there is to be gleaned from a secret passageway..."
Lirit snorts a laugh, mildly mortified by the noise, and then she shakes her head. "They're fascinating and mysterious by nature, Clairmonde, don't worry. It's very interesting that you have one in what I have to assume were your private chambers but- terribly sorry, my friend, but- I have been living in a series of rather secret tunnels and caverns for the better part of the last year." She pauses. "Or, perhaps the worse part, but that's neither here nor there, I suppose. It's very well kept, down here, I will say. Only a little bit dusty. I've definitely seen worse maintained secret tunnels."
Clairmonde glances over her shoulder to check Lirit's face, apparently unsure as to whether or not she's kidding, and then she smiles a little less manically.
"Mm, I can only take credit for the little bit of the passage that leads my way, though the rest should be equally well maintained, even if we've been a bit... scattered, lately."
"We," Lirit murmurs, pursing her lips. "You keep half-implying..."
"It isn't as if we were some dire, dramatic secret fellowship or anything nearly so melodramatic, though your father liked the idea of secret codes and whatnot, but- there was suspicion, that the cult had necromancers embedded in other organizations. The priesthood, for one, and the guard, and somewhere close to the royal family, as well. More and more likely it seems he was right, after all, though... I still cannot say for certain." She shakes her head, readjusting, and then she stands a little straighter. "We were not a secret organization, but we were... something."
"Alright," Lirit says dubiously, keeping pace with the taller woman as best she can. "I don't have the first clue what that means, obviously, because it was one of the most vague sentences I've ever heard."
Clairmonde pauses, then laughs, shaking her head. "Alright, alright. The prince - gods protect - was concerned about the necromancers, and he met with the captain of the guard- rather, he met with your mother, and your father, and he asked them unofficially to look into the cult in any way they could, to collaborate with only people they trusted, and to report to him quietly when they found evidence or weaknesses or anything at all."
"And then the cult killed them," Lirit murmurs, eyes down so she doesn't see whatever look Clairmonde shoots back over her shoulder towards her.
"Not so immediately, child. The investigation went on for a couple years, in fact. Long enough that we all made some rather decent strides- we found hideouts and stashes of cursed objects, books, energy stored in jewels and arcane focuses. We managed to arrest a number of them, using the official capacity of your mother after we exhausted our less-official means behind the scenes. It was a much more fair fight, back then."
"And then something... changed?"
Clairmonde sighs, ducking to avoid a low-jutting protrusion from the wall. Lirit doesn't bother to duck, it's still well above her head.
"They started getting smarter. We arrested the person we were told was their leader and he squealed to the guards almost instantaneously, because he was as craven as he was cruel, but when we raided the location he fed to us, it was already abandoned." She sighs again. "And filled with-"
"Traps," Lirit says, blankly. "Traps, I know the type. They would have- triggered when someone living entered, drained nearly all of their life, and siphoned it into a number of small, weak undead that would finish the job, and then they would shamble off to attack whoever else was alive and close."
Lirit notices, too late, the look that Clairmonde throws over her shoulder at this little explanation, and she snaps her mouth shut with a wince.
"S-sorry," she says after a belated moment, looking at the stone floor instead of at the priestess. "Sorry. I wish- I wish I didn't know these things either."
"It's... you're quite alright, child. I was only... surprised, that's all." She inhales, then exhales more slowly. "You're right, of course. That's precisely what happened. Somewhat more direly, even, because the first one in, the one who triggered the trap, was one of my order, young but brimming with potential, and brimming with magic, so when the circle activated... well, there was rather a lot of energy to draw in, and the thralls that animated were- were very powerful. He- Mihr died very quickly, after that, and we lost- two more, before we realized we were very much out of our depth. Your mother held the door closed behind us, and your father and I and the rest of the remaining priesthood summoned enough light to immolate the inside of their base. Necessary, if we did not wish to die, but... well..."
"It meant that you destroyed any evidence that might have still been there to be claimed inside of the building. And- your friends."
"And our friends," she echoes, sad in a tired sort of way. "Indeed. Mihr, and Isda, and Caronise, all lost in one single, awful day." She pauses. "Single... ah, no, can't say that, exactly. There were multiple awful days, following that one."
"I'm sorry," Lirit says, quietly.
"Don't be, dear child." She glances over her shoulder again, backlit by the magic in her hand, and the curve of her cheek suggests a small sort of smile. "We lost you, as well, on one of those days. It isn't something for you to be sorry over. It was," she continues, facing forward again, "difficult, admittedly, to not only lose them in truth, but- to be forced to destroy their bodies, as well. There was a safety, at least, in knowing that the cult could not abuse their memories that way, but- it was tragic regardless. Rotten, to use holy fire against the bodies of our companions, even... even with no choice."
"Isda was your-" Lirit starts, memory flashing, but her voice cuts off before she can finish the sentence. She doesn't- she doesn't think she ever knew, exactly, what Isda was to Clairmonde. "Er- sorry."
"We were close," Clairmonde murmurs without inflection, not looking back. "I miss her dearly."
Lirit manages, with some effort, not to say sorry again. She was alive when that happened; she couldn't have possibly stopped it. Feeling responsible is not the same thing as being responsible, she knows.
"So... you said- I imagine that things didn't take much of a turn for the better after that, right?"
"No, not as such. Things... escalated. The leader of the cult was executed for his crimes, though he claimed that the trap was not his doing, not directly. He claimed that his second was ambitious and ruthless and that we would regret- oh, on and on with begging and threats combined. He was gone, but- the cult worsened, both in impact and in their ability to elude us. It was as if we had trimmed the excess, cut out the less effective and allowed for the lean and ruthless to thrive, and to snap back all the stronger. We were left on the defensive, after that. Mihr was our most skilled healer, and without them we were left much more vulnerable, and Caronise dying meant that her partner left our fold as well, too stricken with grief to continue the fight. We began to lose more encounters than we won, and we continued to lose... friends. Your parents-"
Clairmonde cuts off entirely, and after a few long steps Lirit realizes that she's not going to continue on her own.
"My parents... obviously I know they died as well. They- they burnt the house. I saw the- I saw what's left. The garden is still there, mostly. Overgrown, but- beneath the house, so it didn't seem to take almost any of the brunt of the flames."
"Yes. Yes, they burned them. Seemed like- some sort of payback, for immolating their hideout, the way they... did it. We weren't sure, for a long time, if... there was a third body, in the home. It took a long time to discover- that the third body wasn't you. It was another cultist, must have been a last- last hurrah from one of your parents, likely your mother if you'll forgive me saying."
"Papa was never a fighter," Lirit murmurs, and then she slows for a moment, narrowing her eyes. "Papa. That's new," she muses. "That is to say, I'll forgive, easily. I'm fairly sure that neither of them would hold that against you either."
Clairmonde nods. "So... they were killed, and you- you were missing. We lost them, and we lost you. The three of you were the last, after a downward struggle over the course of months. Once they were gone, it was over. And- no one was brave enough to do anything about it, myself included. What could I have done on my own? I'm as much of a fighter as your father was; I'm only of use to the effort if I am helping someone else. Healing, or warding, or providing some sort of enhancement."
"I very much doubt that your friends would approve of that assessment of yourself, Clairmonde," she says. "Of either your use or your bravery. You wouldn't have been part of the group in the first place if you weren't brave."
The priestess ducks her head, her steps steady and not slowing, though the light drops slightly. "Perhaps," she says in a murmur. "But it wasn't enough to save you, was it?"
"No one expected you to. Not on your own. To be entirely honest, I didn't even know I needed saving."
"But you did," Clairmonde says. "And those of us that were left did. And we- we failed you."
"We failed you. You- you are only beginning to remember who you are, and still you came here, not because you remembered me, but because you felt, somewhere deep within yourself, that you had a responsibility to do something, anything that you could do, to try to bring the cruelties of these necromancers to light and to justice, and when you believed it impossible, you wished to do what small, small thing you thought you could to help, even if it meant destroying yourself so as to make it impossible to use you for evil. You are- they tried to mold you into something they could use, and you defied them."
"I- well, I don't- I don't know about all- all that."
"I do, Lirit. I do. You've done something so terribly good."
"I did something stupid," Lirit admits. "I didn't leave because I realized they were evil, I left because I thought I could impress them if I took back something that was stolen from them, not realizing that it was mine to begin with, or- belonging to my family, because I didn't even know I had a family, besides them. I left in the effort to make the necromancers respect me more, and I only- I fell into recognizing my past. By chance. And even that- I went kicking and screaming and denying, denying, denying until I- until I couldn't deny it a second longer without entirely lying to myself."
"What makes you think that's any less impressive, dear child? What makes you think that isn't even more incredible?"
"My plan was to kill the thief, Clairmonde," Lirit snaps, terror somewhere behind her ribs, squeezing her still heart. "I was going to find them, and kill them, and bring the amulet back to my lady, so she would praise me."
"But you didn't."
Lirit scowls. "Obviously. Obviously I didn't, but that was my intent. That was the entire reason why I snuck out of there and came to the surface."
"And despite that, dear child, you overcame, and you found your own better angels. What would you do, now, if you opened your eyes and found yourself back where you started? What would you do, then? If you had another chance, what would you do differently?"
Lirit works her jaw, clenches her teeth, fists her hands at her sides, and very deliberately does not meet Clairmonde's eye as she glances over her shoulder again for a moment.
"Come, child. You must have some answer, hm?"
"I'd leave faster," Lirit mutters. "I don't know. I don't know what I'd do. Probably something entirely foolish. I'm not strong enough to do- to do anything, but- if I knew then what I know now, I don't think I could make myself leave without trying to fight her myself. I would be- obliterated. But I think I would have to try, anyway."
Clairmonde sighs, and Lirit can hear the smile in it. "You cannot see yourself clearly, dear child. So brave, so like..."
"Larc is the one who's like our parents," she mutters quickly. "Little healer-in-training. I expect I can blame you for that? She put me in a circle last night, you know."
"Ha! Clever child- well, she's been wearing me down, slowly. She's too young for proper training, but just try and enforce that limitation on her and see how well that goes for you. I doubt it would go much better than it did for me."
"Or for Essa," Lirit adds. "She does know that she can't be a thief and a priestess at the same time, doesn't she?"
"Stubborn as a stone, that one," Clairmonde hums. "Speaking of which-"
"Stones, or my sister?"
The priestess turns one last corner, leading them towards what looks like a dead end until Clairmonde lifts out the little light in her hand, sinking it into the wall in front of them. The interlocking stone unlocks, or- appears to for half a moment, and then it disappears entirely, revealing itself as illusion and showing the dark wood of the door beneath. Clairmonde summons another little lance of magic, slipping it into the keyhole as if it's an actual key and twisting, and when the door swings open-
"No, you must be kidding."
"I- no. Really?"
She steps through, her words lost in dubious noises, and when Clairmonde drops her light and closes the door behind them, the glow of the fungi slowly fills the space around them again.
"Straight into Zolona's basement," she says, near hysterical. Either with tears or actual humor, she truly can't tell. "I didn't have to- I could have come found you without any of them worrying at all. Without risking the city guard or- maddening. Alright, perhaps you should go up first, if Zolona won't be surprised by your sight, because I imagine they'll be rather baffled to see me come out of here after I left out the back last night. Zolona in particular will be put out, I expect."
"She will be glad to see you, don't be silly."
Clairmonde faces the wall for a long moment, working some magic to hide the doorway again, though it would be incredibly difficult to spot down here in the dark regardless.
"Well... regardless, they likely won't be happy if we need to get a move on rather quickly."
Clairmonde glances up, her face oddly lit in the bioluminescent glow. "What do you mean?"
"I was here before I came to you. It's still not safe. If this was the last place they could track me to- we need to go somewhere else. Obviously."
"Hm." Clairmonde nods slightly, lips pursed thoughtfully, and then she steps past Lirit to climb the ladder up. She knocks on the floor first, a quick rhythm of percussion, clearly a signal if not a code, and then she reaches for the handle.
She stops, before she turns it. Her brow furrows, her lips parting as her eyes flick oddly back and forth, and then she reels back, reaching to pull a bar closed across the trapdoor, locking it from below just becore it bangs from the other side, rattling in its frame.
Lirit startles, dropping into a half-crouch instinctively, though she manages not to yelp. Clairmonde drops down the ladder in one motion, catching her landing deftly and scowling up at the trapdoor as it slams again, and they both hear a distinct snarl.
Lirit feels it, then, dead recognizing dead. She can feel the bleeding stench of it roiling down as the creature above them spikes with rage at being denied. She can't discern the exact sort of abomination rampaging in the garden above, but- she knows that signature, knows the work of her cult, even through the barrier of the floor. It's sloppy work, or- careless work, at least. The thing is hemorrhaging energy, burning itself out, a summoning impetus of fury without any mitigation or safeguards of even a clean boundary to itself, and Lirit-
Lirit feels the tether, too. Someone is guiding this thing, though- not deftly. Now that she's paying attention, she can hear the low murmur, a steady stream of chanting above, and when she narrows her focus she can feel... she sags with relief. Three living beings, alongside the familiar signature of the single necromancer, and its wretched little pet. Her family- her family and Essa are alive, still. What state they'll be in- less clear. She isn't skilled enough to pinpoint where they are in the house, only that they are in the house, and she can't feel whether or not they're injured, or captured, or even conscious. She just knows that they aren't dead.
She sets her jaw. Well, it's a start, anyway.
Clairmonde pants, stepping slowly back as she stares upwards, eyes on the trapdoor as it rattles hard in its frame.
"That- isn't good," the priestess murmurs, her eyes wide, and then she looks to Lirit. "We need to- run, before they break clean through that door."
Lirit opens her mouth, closes it, and then tilts her head. "What was your role in the secret group? Did you fight at all, or did you just bolster the fighters?" She shakes her head. "No time. Never mind. We can't leave, Clairmonde, Zolona and Larc and Essa are still up there. You're attuned with life, aren't you? You should be able to feel them- better than I can, even. Above, there, yes? We can't leave. They're still alive, but gods know if they will stay that way once we aren't here distracting that- thing."
Clairmonde stares hard, her lips pressed tight enough together that they go pale. "To answer your original question," she says, breathless and halfway to whisper, "I was a healer, not a fighter. I don't- I don't know how to-"
"Step back from the ladder," Lirit whispers, jerking her head aside, and the priestess does so, bolting on tiptoe into the corner, half hidden behind a hanging rack of mushrooms. Lirit takes Clairmonde's place, staring up at the trapdoor from the base of the rungs. She- does not actually have any clue where the note of confidence in her voice comes from, considering that she feels utterly terrified. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that she's more terrified for her sister and her aunt and her thief than she is for herself. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that she knows these necromancers, what they can do, what they can make. Their frequent failings.
The beast above shows no signs of tiring as it assaults the trapdoor, which is- to be expected. The thing might run out of energy, eventually, but it won't fatigue, as Lirit herself does not. It will only stop beating itself against the wood when it falls apart entirely, or when the necromancer holding its tether tells it to stop.
Lirit climbs enough rungs that she can lift a hand, pressing her palm to the ceiling just beside the frame of the trapdoor, feeling through to get a better sense of location, and perhaps to try to suss out a little more what sort of monstrosity the cult has dragged into her aunt's home, this morning.
"Can you sense them?" Lirit hisses, glancing back down towards the priestess, and she stares up at Lirit with wide eyes for a moment before she bites her lip and clasps her hands in front of her mouth and closes her eyes, the energy around her settling as she focuses on her magic.
She exhales slowly after a long moment, and then she nods as she blinks her eyes back open in the near-dark. "Higher up," she whispers. "One all the way upstairs, two- not right above, higher than the necrotic sinks in the fabric but not so high as the third. On the landing, perhaps? Hiding?"
Lirit pulls her lips into half a frown, still uncertain. "Let's... let's hope so. And no one else you could sense?"
"Another darkness, but further away. Outside, I think. By the front of the garden, maybe guarding the entrance."
Lirit nods. Makes enough sense. Someone on the door, weaving an enchantment to force people to forget the front of the shop entirely, to discourage them from going inside or even noticing it.
Lirit replaces her hand on the trapdoor above, ignoring the way the priestess below gasps in concern. She isn't going to open the door, though. Not yet, at least-
Ah, it's one of the dogs. Utterly silent except for the scrabbling of claws and teeth against the wood, but that's only because Lady Corliss is extremely particular about their beasts. She prefers them not to make any noise. She seems to like silence in all the creatures under her control, Lirit muses, and then she shakes her head. She feels through the wood again, filtering her focus through the starburst of energy at the sloppy resurrected heart of this thing, until she can pinpoint the tether, the thin and uncertain line of connection and direction from the necromancer into the animus of this beast. A single point of control- and a sloppy one, at that. Either Corliss was in a hurry, sending this group, or- perhaps she cares even less than she lets on. Or, perhaps, she just did not have any faith that her followers would meet even the most feeble resistance here.
Lirit buries a smile, and then she pulls.
The tether snaps from the necromancer above, and Lirit hears them gasp an obscenity, their low chanting spellwork cut off as Lirit tries to take the tether for herself. In the meantime, though, while it hangs unconnected from the dog-
They created it with a single purpose, Lirit knows. Hunt, and kill. Now that its collar has been loosened- it turns. The necromancer screams.
Lirit tries to ignore the sounds, focusing instead on reworking the restraint on the beast, weaving it into her own will and reinforcing where the fool above had left it weak and vague and lazy. Complacent, she thinks. The cult has gotten too used, in the last year, to having no one competent left to oppose them, and now the lower ranks are sloppy and complacent and full of themselves. Lirit ignores a crunch above her head, and she rattles off a string of rhyming words to seal the connection.
The dog goes still, above. Lirit takes a moment, reaching through to see the garden above without opening the trapdoor just yet.
It's an uncomfortable perspective. Odd, to realize that she hasn't seen quite so much blood since she left the underground. It smells oddly sweet, to the dog. It obscures the other scents, the mingling dirt and water, the irritatingly vague scents of the quarry, here-but-not-here, that it couldn't find before the noise from below. It wants to continue to dig. It wants to rend and rip and tear and bite, rip and rip and rip and rip and-
Lirit tightens the restraints in her mind, drawing in a fruitless breath and then exhaling slow, forcing calm, and then forcing calm down through the link, as well. The dog resettles its feet, paws uncertainly at its muzzle, and then- backs slowly away from the body and the trapdoor, and sits.
No room for sloppy work, here. She waits another long moment, taking the time to work the tether into something more nuanced, less a leash and more a harness, more difficult to break and with more control over the creature. She has the dog lay down, to test her level of control, and then she nods with satisfaction.
"Alright," she says, still somewhat quiet out of an abundance of caution, and then she opens her eyes and unlatches the trapdoor again in the same moment, pushing it up and open before she can lose her nerve, ignoring the terrified warning noise from Clairmonde below.
The dog doesn't immediately rush her when she sticks her head through, and the necromancer- well, dead recognizes dead. She knew when it happened, even if she was otherwise occupied with the dog at that particular moment. She'll worry about the other necromancer outside when she needs to, but- for the moment, she hauls herself up out of the basement, gesturing for the priestess to follow.
The body is a bit of a mess, but Lirit has enough experience by now to ignore that. She still pulls down a canvas tarp from one of the hooks on the wall to cover it, though. Seems the polite thing to do in someone else's home. The dog doesn't move at all while she does this, and it doesn't move at all when Clairmonde follows her up into the garden either. It's utterly, completely still. Dead still, she thinks with an inner roll of the eyes. It doesn't blink or breathe or pant, like a dog should. All of its energy, Lirit knows from their connection, is currently being utilized in the effort of refusing the urge to destroy. That was the only purpose it was resurrected for; that is the only objective it can even understand, to what minimal degree it can understand anything at all, anymore.
"What... what, precisely, did you do, child?" Clairmonde asks, her voice hushed and uncertain. "What did you do to him?"
Lirit resists a laugh. "I severed his connection to the thing he brought here to do his dirty work for him," she says. "He brought this thing back to life with the sole purpose of making it kill, and then he did a sloppy job of ensuring that he even had any control over it at all."
"You made it kill him," she says, her voice even lower, and Lirit doesn't bother to resist, this time. She just laughs, a short, unhappy bark.
"He came here to set an unhinged, bloodthirsty animal on my family," she says. "If he made a bomb and threw it into the window, I would not feel guilty for throwing it back out, even if it blew him up in the process."
Clairmonde's face shifts from suspicious to contemplative, her broad shoulders sinking with a sigh, and then she nods. "I apologize, child. I'm not- it has been a while, now, since I've needed to- to come face to face with such violence. I never managed to grow accustomed to it at all, if I am to speak with honesty." She pauses. "Did you... know him?"
Lirit considers that, glancing towards the canvas sheet.
He was one of many, in truth. Scrabbling lower acolytes, desperate for approval but with precious little to offer the lady that couldn't be overshadowed by the rest of their order. The only person lower on the rungs- was Lirit herself, of course. She doesn't think she knew this one's name, but- that is mostly because he and his fellow acolytes were determined to either entirely ignore Lirit as if she were another mindless thrall, or to torment her in whatever small ways they could accomplish without getting themselves in trouble for it. They came and went, as well, those of his status. There were... accidents. And lethal squabbles between the lowest status in the cult. And occasional... punishment, amounting to sacrifice. Lirit rarely had the chance to commit any of the acolytes to memory before they became little more than memory anyway.
"In passing," she says, eventually.
Larc swings down from the trees, launching herself from midair directly into Lirit's chest, nearly knocking her over. Lirit bites her lip hard, struggling to maintain focus and using the pain to keep herself centered. The dog twitches where it lays, but it does not disobey her continuing control.
"I cannot- I cannot believe you. I can't believe you would do that to me- that you would-" she presses against Lirit's chest, somewhere between a hug and a push, her hands gripping Lirit's shoulders for a half second before she curls them into fists and pounds weakly off of Lirit's collarbones. "You left me. You-"
Lirit's throat catches, her eyes heating, and she shakes her head to clear it, forcing herself entirely still and gritting her teeth. "Please don't cry Larc please don't cry I can't- I can't handle that right now and I am trying very hard to keep this dog from killing all of us. Please. I'm sorry and I'll apologize again when we don't- when we aren't still- fucked. Please go upstairs," she finishes in a rush.
"I am not leaving you again! I know what happens when I leave you, I am not going to do it and you can't make-"
"If I lose my focus this creature is going to tear your throat out and then it will take turns with the rest of us, will you please be in another room away from it? There's another- Clairmonde. Another one of them outside, too. Please. Please. I am begging. I came back. Not leaving while anything could hurt you. Not going anywhere until you're safe, at least. Please."
Larc looks up into her eyes, lip pulled into a distinct pout as she scrutinizes Lirit's strained expression, and then she eyes the dog - unnaturally still, milky-eyed, emaciated sinew and patched, stringy fur - and then the canvas tarp that is slowly staining dark over the mangled shape on the floor. Her stubborn expression cracks, just slightly, and she swallows with discomfort before she takes a step back.
"M-maybe I should- should go- go tell aunt Zolona that- that she should be- okay to come out of her- saferoom. Maybe."
"A clever idea, child," Clairmonde says gently, "go on, then. I won't let anything happen to her, not even herself. I promise."
Lirit breathes a laugh at that, surprised, and then Larc glances towards her one more time before she disappears upstairs again in a flurry of speed.
Lirit sags in her absence, her chest thrumming with uncertain pain as she struggles to maintain control.
"What are you going to do with that thing?" Clairmonde says, sounding deeply worried, and Lirit grits her teeth.
"Smart thing to do, maybe, would be to- to set it out front and let it take care of the other one, too, and then destroy it."
Clairmonde stares at her, eyes wary. "I'm sensing that you might not be enthusiastic about that option, child."
"Smart thing, maybe. But it's what they would do. I don't- I couldn't take control without breaking the control that he had, first, but- I don't want to- to use this thing. I just want it to- to get to rest like it should have done."
"That sounds... better," the priestess says, quietly.
"We'll figure out the other one somehow," Lirit mutters. "They aren't exactly brawlers, you know. If they brought this thing, they probably intended to let it do all the- the dirty work."
Clairmonde doesn't respond to that, exactly, though she looks uncomfortable again for the moment. Lirit turns from her, looking at the unmoving dog lying on the floor, now, its cloud-white eyes staring at nothing at all. She kneels closer, feeling through the tether when the beast trembles, her proximity renewing its desire to rend and rend and rend-
But she tugs the leash, and it settles again.
"Can you... fix it?" Clairmonde says. "Make it more like- well, you?"
Lirit twists her lips wryly, reaching to place a hand on the top of the dog's head, between its ears. It trembles again, bloodlust and hatred alone.
"There's nothing left in here to fix. They didn't bring back a dog, Clairmonde. They reached into the corpse and kindled only the parts of the body, the mind, that seek destruction. Just unwavering hunger, and fear, and pain. The rest of it has rotted through. The only thing to do is... let it rest."
She strokes her hand back, the patchy fur and dry skin beneath catching uncomfortably on her palm, and she starts to pull.
"Poor thing can still have at least a little bit of use, though," she murmurs. The energy they used to animate this creature- it's just energy, really, and it's only the way it was applied to the beast's mind that made it a monster. In Lirit's hands, however-
She draws the energy into herself slowly, letting the dog run itself down like a clock unwinding. Through her fingertips and her palm, buzzing rivulets running up through her arm, up and into her chest, pooling at her core and diffusing. It's easy to do, really. Natural- or, as natural as anything can be for Lirit in her current state. She is made to survive on energy like this, and this wretched creature was poorly constructed, leaking that energy already like an old cracked bucket. All she needs to do is tip the bucket fully, and pour.
It doesn't even resist. Once she begins to draw the energy out, the dog settles entirely, the fury dissipating the exact moment it no longer has the drive to sustain it. The milk-white eyes close, the tension in the dog's frame easing, and then it goes still.
Lirit feels better. Hates that she feels better. Hates that she's being made to feel guilty for undoing the work of the cult. She sighs, stroking her hand gently over the top of the dog's head before she rocks back on her heels, rolling to stand again.
"We'll still have to deal with the other necromancer," she says, turning towards Clairmonde again. She's staring, still, one hand curled in front of her mouth and her eyes wide with worry, and Lirit pretends not to be worried herself, that the priestess doesn't trust her anymore after that display. "We'll have to hope they thought that- that scream wasn't this guy here. Which is probably true, otherwise they would have come crashing in here already, I think."
"They- they wouldn't have sensed all- all that? The- death, and what you just did?"
Lirit worries her lip between her teeth for a moment. "They would have sensed a death, yes, but- most of them don't feel things the way I do. That's a function of what I am, not of my training as a necromancer. They're better at-" she looks at the dog. "Summoning. And violence. And less good at paying attention to what's going on in the magic surrounding them."
"So what do we- do about it?"
"Actually, preferably, we get my family and Essa and we just- escape. We have the tunnels, we can go. Before they even know what happened."
"That sounds ideal to me."
Zolona drifts out from the passageway between the trees, looking far less harried than she probably should be with Larc clinging to one of her hands and scowling.
"Why did no one tell me that we have secret tunnels? That seems like information that I should have, you know, especially if things like this are going to be happening-"
"Things like this are not going to be happening, and they should not happen. This will not be repeated, if I have anything to say about it."
"But there are literally secret tunnels under your house-"
"Oh, there are tunnels under the entire damned city," Zolona says dismissively, gesturing with a hand, and Lirit laughs without meaning to at the surprise of her aunt cursing.
Essa follows them out, their hair orange again today as they drag a canvas bag behind them with another slung over their shoulder. "You didn't need to know, kid," they say, their voice stiff, and when they raise their eyes past Larc and Zolona they give a curt nod to the priestess. They look at Lirit, after that, for only half a breath, and- their dark eyes flash, their jaw tightening with- something. They shutter the expression too quickly for Lirit to interpret, though, and they hand one of the bags to Larc, nudging her shoulder with their hand. "Congratulations! Things suck currently, and now you need to know."
Larc pouts, resettling the satchel strap across her body, and then she looks towards Zolona again. "We're gonna go through them?"
"We'll have to," Lirit answers. "There's another one of them outside and I'd rather not wait to find out if they're alone or if they're just the scouting group." She pauses as Zolona carefully steps past the canvas-covered body on in the middle of the garden path, and she winces. "Ah- sorry about- well."
"Leaving?" Essa says, their tone entirely lazy, and Lirit presses her lips together. Something about the thief's inflection- there's something going on there.
"I think she means the mess, dear," Zolona says breezily. "I'm not particularly concerned. I've been meaning to put new stones down for the path anyway. When all this blows over I'll see about some nice granite slabs-"
"I can't really stress how little time we have right now," Lirit rushes out, uncomfortable but unwilling to let that get anyone killed. "They'll know something's gone wrong very, very quickly. Clairmonde, lead the way down?"
The priestess nods, gesturing, and she climbs down the ladder with Larc just behind.
"Where are we going, anyway? How many places do these tunnels lead to? Do you use them all the time or just for secret missions? Have there ever been any cave ins? How many? Is there anything scary in the dark down there, or is it just like- rats and stuff?"
Lirit tries valiantly to maintain her worry and seriousness, but Larc's enthusiasm is nearly catching. She needs to press her lips together tight to keep from grinning wide, which would be deeply inappropriate at the moment.
Speaking of, Essa brushes past her with their own expression entirely neutral, almost belligerently so, failing to meet Lirit's eyes as they usher Zolona down before them and then twist to climb down the ladder themself.
Lirit feels her stomach churning, uncertainty and guilt and nerves all tangling together, but she doesn't really know what it is that the thief is feeling, just now. She doesn't know which part of her own existence is the most objectionable, at the moment, though she could make a number of guesses. She's a bit of an inconvenience, all around. Gods know that none of this would have happened to any of them if Lirit had just... kept her head down underground, and never tried to remember.
She has an inkling that Essa's issue is more specific, though.
The thief pauses with their head just above the level of the trapdoor, working their jaw with their brow furrowed in frustration for a moment before they huff a sigh. They flick their eyes up towards Lirit for a moment, opening their mouth-
But then their eyes fall past Lirit, and widen.
"Behind you behind you-"
Lirit spins, raising her arm just in time to catch the jaws of the dog, allowing it to sink its teeth into her forearm rather than her stomach or her chest or her face, depending on how high it managed to leap.
Stupid, she thinks as she collapses backwards under the sudden weight, her backside hitting the dirt only a foot or so away form the trapdoor. Completely stupid. She should have been paying attention, should have felt the creature reconnecting to the necromancer outside, should have felt the damned resurrection-
She can feel it now, for all the good it does her. She can feel the leash the woman outside has wrapped around this thing's throat, and it's a substantially more clever and unyielding than the binds the other necromancer had been working with. Lirit wonders, absently, if the one outside actually made this thing, and just allowed the other one to grab the leash for a moment, to come inside. The dog's teeth sink further in, and it gnashes silently, shaking its head back and forth and tearing. Lirit only barely muffles a scream.
It's- shockingly difficult to think, through this much pain. Her instinct is to heal the gashes on her arm even as they form, but- obviously that won't do any good so long as the damned dog is still tearing at her. It's clawing at her with its front legs, too, but its claws are much more dull than its teeth, and much less useful. If she didn't just drain this thing a few moments ago she wouldn't even have the energy left to heal herself, but-
Well- huh. That's an idea.
She uses the proximity and the fissuring rage in the creature above her and yanks with her magic, opening the hungry void at her center and simply- sucking in energy from the other undead creature directly from the point of contact of its teeth in her skin. It's easy for a moment, and the creature begins to slacken like a kite in a dying wind.
Then, Lirit feels the necromancer - still outside, still playing careful and clever and distant - pour another jolt of power into the creature to make it rally, a flare of distant anger singing through the magic as well, frustration and stubbornness that Lirit can feel in the pit of her own stomach, and she buries another scream behind her teeth as the dog redoubles its thrashing.
Lirit knits back together what she can of her arm with the little boost she pulled from the dog, reconstituting her skin and then yanking again as soon as the dog clamps its jaw shut.
Whoever is sitting out there trying to kill Lirit at a distance is either going to run out of energy or they're going to damn well need to come in here and kill Lirit themself.
Lirit moves her other hand, gripping at the dog's tattered throat, gripping the matted fur, letting her hand become another point of contact through which to draw the power through to herself. She finds the core, the little bundle of spellwork meant to keep this thing moving beyond its death, and she starts sucking the vitality straight from the source, taking far faster than the manipulator outside can possibly replace, snarling compulsively through her teeth as she rolls, pinning the dog against the floor with her free hand and a knee even as the creature clamps its jaw tight and does not release, stubbornness set against stubbornness as Lirit draws the life from this thing again.
"Just- stay- dead," she snaps, recklessly tearing her arm out of the dog's teeth, regardless of the way that tears her skin open again. She'll have more than enough left to heal it, she thinks, if that idiot on the street doesn't stop pouring themself into this creature. It should be obvious, by now, she thinks, that she can take everything back.
She presses her other knee down on the dog's muzzle, pressing it against the dirt and holding its jaw closed. Without that threat she focuses on the animus more directly, tugging and pulling at seams until she unravels it from the center of the dog entirely, and she feels the creature go all at once, the entire body stiffening with rigor mortis instantaneously. She- snaps her teeth and the animus shatters, dissolving into formless energy, and Lirit feels the necromancer outside fail to understand exactly what happened, feels them continue to pour energy straight into Lirit's hands, and Lirit-
Lirit knows she could kill them. It's a direct line, straight to the source of life in the person who just tried to kill her, to hunt and annihilate her family, her thief. She could.
... not this time, at least.
She pulls at the cord for a half second, anyway, a vicious sort of warning, and she can feel the necromancer's heart stumble with weakness at even that little bit of an intrusion, and then Lirit releases the connection, like letting go of a rope in a tug of war and letting the opponent fall right back into the mud from the force of their own stubbornness.
Lirit exhales shakily, shoving the dog to the side, and she doesn't have much of a chance to do anything else, because Essa hauls her bodily closer to the trapdoor, wrapping their arms around Lirit's shoulders and gasping against tears, their chest heaving with the heaviness of their breath. Lirit realizes, belatedly, that the dog attacked her less than three seconds ago. All of that- scrambling and fighting and snarling and deanimating and nearly killing- all of that happened in the space of perhaps three breaths.
"You're alright you're- we'll wrap your arm oh my gods Lirit oh fuck oh-"
"Climb down," she manages, feeling overwhelmed and unsteady. "Can't follow until you-"
The thief makes a growling noise of their own, and then they pull Lirit into their arms entirely, managing to stand on the ladder anyway, apparently balanced with only their legs somehow, and then they glance down quick to check and they-
And manage to land heavily but deftly between the other three, snapping quick and imperious direction for someone to close and bar the trapdoor above. Lirit can only half hear them, though, because her mind is too busy buzzing wildly against the rush in her ears, as if the two are competing for dominance somehow. It's- annoying, actually. She wishes she could just faint and be done with it, like she used to when she was alive. Then she could just- wake up underground, probably still in Essa's arms, probably somewhere safer-
"- okay, you're okay, you're going to be okay," she realizes that the thief is chanting, and she can hear Zolona and Clairmonde murmuring ahead of them as the latter opens the passageway. Essa carries her through, still murmuring that stream of words above and holding Lirit close and careful against their chest, their heart thudding quick and hard enough that Lirit can hear it. She- she likes the sound, even though she wishes it would beat a little more gently, a little less frantically. She lays her head down on Essa's shoulder, suddenly exhausted, wanting to feel their heart a little bit closer, and the thief's words stumble a little, their throat moving as they swallow. "Lirit. You aren't- say something? C'mon-"
"I'm fine," she says, half-whispered, and the thief makes a dubious noise. It's- true, though. She feels overwhelmed, and it is going to hurt when she needs to stop and fix her arm properly, but- she has about double the energy that she had when she climbed out of the secret passage into Zolona's basement this morning. She's buzzing with it. She feels incandescent. Burning. She feels-
Alive, almost. Not quite- but- almost.
The closest she's felt since the resurrection, at the very least.
"I'm alright," she says instead of trying to explain. "Shaken, that's all. Too much- too much energy all at once, I think. I haven't- I haven't done anything like that before. Not that much that quickly, that's for sure. Are- are you alright? I- I- it only got- me, right? And- they didn't find any of you before we came?"
"I'm- we're all fine, starlight. Not a scratch."
Essa glances down, though Lirit can't see their face with the way her own is tucked against the thief's neck. They huff a breath, and shake their head just a little. "Yeah, starlight, I swear. Nobody else got hurt."
"Where are we going?" Larc murmurs, jogging quick between Clairmonde and Zolona ahead of the pair of them. "Are we going to the temple?"
"No," Lirit says emphatically, and Clairmonde shakes her head at the same time.
"No, child. When- well, it won't be safe, there, at the moment."
"I left because I realized that the cult could track me just- just by me existing," Lirit manages, mumbling the words close against Essa's neck to make them easier to get out. She doesn't need to see any of their expressions like this, either. Ideal position, when she's certain that she's disappointed all of them in one way or another. "Found Clairemonde almost by accident. Or- my feet knew where to go, even if I didn't. She warded me from detection, but- I had already been there for a while, and I don't- I don't know how carefully the lady is watching my movements. We can't know if they'll go there next."
"But you are warded now?" Larc asks, watching Lirit over her shoulder. "I can't- I don't think I can feel it," she says, her lips pursing.
"That is rather the point, child," Clairmonde says mildly. "If you could detect the ward that was meant to hide her from detection, that would certainly make for a very lousy ward, wouldn't it?"
"Huh," Larc says. "Yeah, I suppose so. But- where, then?"
"There are other places," Zolona says, her voice still mild and disaffected, and Larc scowls hard, planting her hands on her hips.
"I am sick to death of the vague answers! Is it far? Because I couldn't see what was going on up there but I heard it, and Lirit's arm looks like a melon that got run over by a cart and we should do something about that soon. And, might I say, I think I might deserve a straight answer every once in a while, since apparently I've been living on top of secret passageways for the last year."
"Longer," Lirit mumbles, "I would guess."
Larc whips her head back towards her, mouth agape, and Lirit shrugs.
"Our parents were apparently in charge of this group hunting the necromancers, so- I would bet some coin on there being some of these tunnels at home, too." She glances towards Clairmonde, noting that her ears and the back of her neck are turning pinkish even in the dim light of the illumination she's carrying in her hand. "Yeah, I'd bet coin on it."
Larc pouts for a moment, but then her eyes flick down, and her expression stiffens, going more serious very quickly. "Can- can we stop down here? No one can get down here, right? We can just- stop for a second. Can't we?"
"We should keep moving," Clairmonde says, her brow furrowed as she eyes a turn in the tunnel ahead with some skepticism. "I don't know-"
"I want to fix my sister," Larc snaps, and the adults both stumble, turning over their shoulders to look at Larc for a moment, and then Lirit. Lirit ignores another urge to flush with the attention, closing her eyes against Essa's neck. "Please," Larc adds, more quietly. "She- twice. The dog- she's hurt."
"M'fine Larc," Lirit says compulsively, though she knows-
"You be quiet, you wouldn't know how to take care of yourself if I wrote you a step by step guide," she says, and Lirit can feel her glaring even with her own eyes closed. "I want to stop."
Lirit feels Essa's steps slowing, and she knows her sister has won this one. She tries not to smile too obviously as the thief steps to the side of the passageway, crouching awkwardly so they can gently lower Lirit to the floor, settling her with her back to the wall. She tries to frown at the delicacy of the motion - really, she really is fine, she swears - but the thief doesn't acknowledge her, moving to sit a little to the side as well with a sigh.
"Here," Larc says, kneeling and suddenly very close, and Lirit forces herself not to flinch. "Here, let me-"
Lirit pulls her arm back, wrapping her other hand around it carefully. Larc scowls stubbornly, planting her hands on her hips again as Clairmonde gingerly settles beside them as well, leaning closer.
"Don't be stubborn, you're hurt and I'm training to be a healer. I can help."
Lirit shakes her head. "You're a healer, Larc," she says, trying to keep her tone gentle. "And I'm dead. You can't heal this. I need to- I can fix it myself. Don't worry. I was just- overwhelmed, in the moment. That's all. Here, it'll just take-"
"Wh... what?" Larc eyes her suspiciously, lips still turned in a pout. "What is it?"
"Hm," Lirit says, uncertain, and then she turns towards Clairmonde. "Can you... do a ward to hide magic while it's being cast? Because I don't know if this is going to be hidden by the ward from before, and if it isn't, it's going to be very distinctive. Very hard to ignore, for- certain people. Especially if we're underground."
Clairmonde furrows her brow, glancing down to the injury and then quickly away. Lirit doesn't blame her for that; it looks absolutely wretched, even after her in-the-moment patch job. Or- maybe it looks worse because of that, actually. Partially knit back together and torn back open in the same moment? Not exactly pretty. And to a real healer, it probably looks even worse. She doesn't bleed like a person does, anymore, but the tissues in her arm are still full of fluid as well as magic, and when torn or punctured- they're currently... well... oozing. Not blood, either, or- not living blood. It's viscous and purplish-black, an unpleasant sort of ichor. The only reason it doesn't smell is because of the magic that keeps Lirit's body from rotting altogether.
It also, pointedly, hurts. The only thing keeping her hands from trembling violently is the way she's holding one of her wrists in her other hand. She doesn't actually know if anything has hurt quite this badly in her entire death, or her entire life. She can't remember- no, perhaps one. She vaguely, vaguely remembers something else with her arm, long ago. When she was smaller.
"I think... yes, child," Clairmonde says with a firm nod. "I could put up a little obfuscation for you, if you needed me to."
"That would be the best idea, I think," Lirit murmurs, staring down at the wound and carefully angling her arm so the slow-dripping ichor will run down her fingers and not up her arm towards the hem of her sleeve. "Please. Quick? If you can. I wouldn't want to- rush you. But-"
"But you're bleeding and that looks like it-" Larc pauses. "Does- does it-"
Lirit feels the gentle buzz of the ward settling around her like an old, soft blanket, and she hopes that Larc will just drop the subject instead of making her admit anything. She doesn't wait, she just moves her hand, pressing her palm over as much of the gash as she can cover and hissing a compulsive breath through her teeth as she takes a chunk of the energy she just stole from that horrible dog and expends it to knit the flesh back together.
It hurts more, while she works. She bites her lip to bury a whimper, furious to feel the prick of tears at the corners of her eyes. Moving the skin and muscle, forcing it to regenerate, almost cauterizing it with the fizz of the magic- of course it hurts. Of course it hurts, like setting a bone would hurt, but-
She seals the skin last, closing the fissure, and then she swipes her other palm over the new skin, wiping away the ichor so she can make sure she hasn't missed anything, and the skin is brand new and oversensitive and-
"- alright, she's okay, she's alright, look, she's opening her eyes-"
Lirit blinks up at Clairmonde's face, trying to process the priestess' words as she- brings her hand up clumsily, pressing to her forehead and groaning vaguely. Larc kneels next to the priestess, breathing far too hard for comfort with her eyes wide and bright, and Lirit frowns.
"What- happened. What- how did I get down here," she manages, her tongue feeling odd and slow as she realizes that she's horizontal, half-pillowed on Clairmonde's knees, her head in the priestess' hands.
"You collapsed," Essa says, their tone sharp and almost- angry, maybe? "Your eyes rolled back and you just- boom. Down. What the fuck."
Lirit closes her eyes, groaning again at the odd pounding in her head combined with- just- not having a clue how to respond to the animosity in the thief's voice.
"Sorry," she says, but when she moves to try to sit up, Clairmonde puts a hand on her shoulder to keep her down.
"Please don't apologize for fainting, child. Clearly you didn't expect that to happen, either. But- I want to know why it did before I let you try to sit up again, alright?"
Lirit looks away, as if the stone wall of the passageway might hold some great mysteries to be unlocked.
"I don't- know."
"I expect it was something with the healing?"
"Fixing," she mutters. "I'm not alive, I can't be healed."
"Fine, fine, if you insist. The mending, then. Did something go wrong? Your arm looks much better, but clearly..."
"No, it- it went- fine."
"Too much energy expended? Are you-" she hesitates, moving her hands in the air as if she's trying to pluck a specific phrasing from the air. "Are you... running low, on your... on the energy you draw from?"
Lirit wishes, briefly, to sink down into the stone. "N-no. No, I'm- rather set on- that. For a while. When I- deanimated the dog, see, it- I just- took that energy. Both times. Seemed the- the safest thing to do with it."
"So what happened?" Larc snaps, leaning closer, her eyes still far too wide. "I don't- you should have let us help."
Lirit closes her eyes again. "I'm- fine. It won't happen again."
"Are you sure, Lirit?" This from Essa, now, back to standing now with their voice still sharp. "I don't want the kid to need to see that again."
"It just- hurt. More than I was... expecting. I didn't realize I was- I didn't think I could still faint. I don't sleep, so why would I be able to..." she shakes her head against Clairmonde's legs. "I know better now. And I don't- I don't plan on needing to do that again any time soon. No more dogs," she says wryly, but no one responds with a laugh.
Clairmonde helps her, after a moment, supporting her shoulders as she gets her legs under her again, sitting awkwardly sideways as she leans against the priestess.
She makes the mistake of glancing up, then, and Essa-
The look on Essa's face is- vaguely murderous. She looks away again quickly.
"I'm sorry," she says again, quickly. "I didn't- realize. It won't happen again. I'll be- more ready, next time."
Lirit jolts, startled when she realizes that Essa has dropped to their knee beside her, lifting a square of cloth to clean the smears of black off of her arm and her hands without a word. They work delicately, their plump, nimble fingers taking care to nudge the cloth between Lirit's digits, and then they toss the cloth aside, apparently unconcerned with it. They keep hold of Lirit's hands, though, and they press their thumbs against the backs of her hands until Lirit flicks her eyes up to catch their own, wary and worried.
Their eyes are so, so dark. Especially down here, especially when they're this close. "Do not apologize for being hurt," they say, slow and firm, and Lirit feels the telltale tingle of a blush that wants to fill her dead cheeks. "I didn't know-" they pause. "Undead can still feel pain?" they ask, sounding- almost mournful.
Lirit looks away. "I don't... I don't know, in general. I don't think that most of them do. But- I do, yes."
"You don't... breathe."
Lirit pauses, then shakes her head.
"You don't sleep." Another shake. "You don't eat. Or drink." Another shake. "But you still need to feel pain?"
Lirit's lip twitches, up into a wry sort of smile. "I don't know if need is the word, exactly, but-"
"Couldn't you have just-" Larc pauses, and Lirit and Essa both look her way, the latter's expression jolting in a way that makes Lirit think that maybe, perhaps, the thief had entirely forgotten that there were any other people here. "Healing, like healing the living, that hurts too. Obviously, you're- unnaturally pulling muscle and tissue and skin back together, of course it hurts, but that's why we're trained to use magic or medicine to numb the area first, so it's not as bad. Why didn't you just do that if it was gonna hurt that much?"
"I-" she manages, and then she snaps her mouth shut again. She looks down at her arm, unmarred now, and remembers-
"I told you that you should have let us help," Larc says stiffly, her hands on her hips even as she kneels on the stone.
"I didn't- think-"
"No, you didn't."
"In my training, they- never- mentioned numbing. As an option. I assumed- it didn't work the same, on- on the undead. I just assumed-"
Lirit looks down at her hand, looks up towards the two healers within literal feet, and- she doesn't know if she actually wants the answer to this question.
Everyone is looking at her, now, she realizes, all of their faces radiating varying degrees of- sympathy, sorrow, pity-
Still anger, on Essa's face. She drops her eyes, and she gently pushes away from Clairmonde's supportive hands and forces her legs back beneath her properly, only trembling a little when she stands up straight.
"It's- if there is a next time, we'll try it," she says with a shrug, feigning a lack of care. "I feel- better, now. I'm fine. And- we need to get somewhere safe. It's possible that the necromancer outside Zolona's will assume we ran out the back door, but- we can't count on the idea of them not finding the tunnels. We need to get above ground."
"You keep saying things like that," Larc says. "The necromancers are subterranean?" she asks, one brow raising pointedly, and Lirit can't help a breath of laughter.
"More or less," she says with another shrug. "Which is why I'd rather not be, at the moment."
"Next stop isn't terribly far off," Zolona says, somehow still sounding mildly bored. "If we're popping our heads up where I believe dear Clairemonde intends to. I expect she's who we are technically following, at the moment?"
Clairmonde flushes, her lips pursing. "I don't know how comfortable I am with that arrangement, but-"
"You are the last remaining member of the cadre of hunters my brother and his wife organized, are you not? I expect that puts you rather in a position to lead, wouldn't you say?"
Clairmonde's jaw tightens, and she turns her back to Zolona, aiming her eyes down the passageway instead. "It... no, it isn't far, now," she says, eventually, her tone strained. "Come now, children- er. Come now, please."
Lirit keeps pace, the pounding in her head abating fairly quickly, the buzz of the new energy settling into her body properly, the tingle of her new skin slowly fading into the background. She ignores the way she can feel Essa's attention, the focus of their eyes on the back of Lirit's head, despite the fact that she still cannot hear the thief's feet on the stone. Larc walks beside her, a little too close, her jaw set stubbornly though she keeps glancing nervously towards Lirit and over her shoulder towards Essa.
The funny thing, down here, is that the passageways back to the surface are hidden from this direction, too. Clairmonde nearly misses their exit, apparently, if the way she half skips backwards with a little oop is any indication, and then she runs her hands over an unused torch holder hung on the stone. She taps the metal with a finger, moving the little magic spark of light from her hand and into the metal holder, as if there were an invisible torch with a visible flame perched within it, and- the seams of the wall between the stones along one particular line crack, widen, and swing inward to reveal a doorway.
Lirit wonders, bemused, exactly how many doorways they've passed, unnoticed, on the way here.
"Come now, up and in we get," Clairmonde says, smiling sharply and gesturing until the rest of the group hustles past into the small dark chamber hidden behind the wall, and then she slips in behind them, drawing the magic back with her and making certain that the stone seals back up tight behind them. "There, there we go."
Zolona presses the next door open, managing a delicate motion of the wrist as she does, and then she resettles her shawls around her shoulder with a sigh, hiding her hands in the folds and letting Larc and Essa step through to the next room first.
"Well," Essa says, "this is grim."
They stand in an obviously abandoned temple; the windows boarded sharp, the benches cracked and covered in dust and debris, the ceiling punched through with a hole and half collapsed, the candles unlit.
"I know," Clairmonde says, her voice forlorn. "But I know it's safe. The doors are boarded too, and the exterior is so overgrown that no one could possibly get in. And why would they want to? It's been out of use for years now."
Larc swings her head around, taking in the rot and the motes of dust tumbling in the air with their disturbance, the desecrated, abandoned altars lining both sides of the walls. She does a fairly decent job, trying to hide the distress on her face, but the way she clasps her hands in front of herself gives her away.
Zolona manages to drift through the space as well, carefully not allowing the hems of her garments to touch any of the debris. "It will be quiet, if nothing else, I suppose. Not even the gods, left, to speak to here."
"I'm doing my best, you know," Clairmonde hisses, her tone surprisingly sharp, but Zolona ignores her, wandering towards one of the altars in particular. The priestess sighs, shaking her head. "There is a hidden exit in the back, it should be safe to leave that way when it gets dark if no one has any better ideas about where we should have come out."
"This seems... fine?" Lirit says, trying to placate though she has no idea at all what makes this any worse than anywhere else in the city. Abandoned shrines are sad, certainly, but- beggars can't be choosers, can they?
"Oh, it's fine enough," Zolona says, and then she leans down over one of the shrines, lifts a hand out and gestures and- one of the candles lights, a quick little flare of magic.
Lirit blinks, and shoots a look immediately towards Larc, who meets her eyes with exactly as much surprise as Lirit feels.
"You- wait. You can do that?" Larc says, bolder than Lirit, and then she raises her hands into the air. "How many secrets does this family have?"
"Not many more left, I'm afraid," Zolona murmurs, still leaning close over the shrine. "This is the temple where your father trained. It was where our parents took us when we were young. Our mother was a priestess, as well. She died before we were grown."
"Did you..." Lirit hesitates, gnawing on her lip for a moment. "Did you train, as well? That felt like-"
"Very good," Zolona says, her voice breezy and approving. "Excellent catch. Though I'm surprised my training still shows through after all these years."
"You were going to be a priestess?" Larc asks, and then she bounces on her heels. "Oh, why didn't you say anything? You could have helped me practice when Clairmonde was too busy with her own temple-"
"I couldn't have trained you if I wanted to, darling," Zolona calls over her shoulder. "I'm so woefully out of practice that you surpassed my particular skill by the first time you healed a paper cut. I never got particularly far." She shrugs. "It did not call to me, as it called to your father. I have my own ways, of connecting to the gods, to the forces of life and nature."
"Parlor tricks, darling," Zolona says, finally glancing over her shoulder with a serious look. "A little light is not all that much to remember. You could do infinitely more than I, in this specific arena. In fact- come, dearest. Light the rest of these for me, would you? This altar could do with a little bit of cleansing, and I'm far too distant from my studies to manage on my own."
Larc flushes, dark beneath her freckles, and then her lip twitches towards as smile and she darts towards her aunt.
Lirit watches them for a few moments, her chest aching at the sight of her sister and her aunt working gently together to clear and clean and rekindle the little shrine, and then she feels more than sees Essa slip up beside her, watching as well.
"I'm still- hurt," the thief says, without preamble, and Lirit whips her head towards them, startled and confused. "I won't lie about that. But- I know that's not important right now."
"You're hurt?" Lirit says, quiet but sharp, instantly frantic, and then she steps closer as she runs her eyes down the thief's body and back up quickly, trying to scan for some hidden bandaging or less hidden blood. "Why didn't you say-"
Essa stares at her, their eyebrows flying upward, and Lirit- recognizes her own idiocy just two sentences too late.
"Ah." She drops her hands, her stomach twisting, and then she drops her eyes as well, shockingly embarrassed. "Right. Of course. You meant-"
"Upset," the thief corrects, something bemused in their voice, and then Lirit can see in her periphery as the thief shakes their head. "But this isn't the time," they say again. "Now that the kid is distracted- are you actually alright? I know that you can't- that you don't want to worry her, I understand the urge, but- if there's something else wrong-"
"I could have killed the necromancer outside if I wanted to," she blurts, still looking at the overgrown mossy stone between them. "I had the opportunity because she was playing stupid feeding her energy into that monster, and- I could have just killed her, and I didn't. And I don't know what to do with that. Because I know that she would have killed me and she would have killed you and she would have killed my sister and my aunt and Clairmonde too just to clean up, and I could have killed her and I didn't and- and I don't know how to feel about that. And my brain keeps buzzing with- I think I took in too much, maybe, with that dog, and- I know you're furious with me and I don't know what to do about that, either. And now I'm not even physically hurt anymore, which means that you won't pity me enough to touch me for a moment, and I wish I knew how to be- better or I wish I was just- either dead or alive and not this, but-"
"I'm not- hey, hey-" Essa steps closer, their dark eyes bright with concern as they lift a hand towards Lirit's arm. She could pull back, she knows, but she goes still instead, and the thief caresses their palm up and down Lirit's bicep, running their thumb across her shoulder. "I'm not angry with you. I'm not. And I wasn't- I wasn't carrying you out of pity."
"That- that's not what- why do you look so angry, then?"
"Because these fuckers keep trying to hurt you, and because they made you feel like you're nothing," Essa hisses, low and half-growling. "Because they dragged you back into life without your say-so and they made it so you don't have any of the good things but you still experience pain. Because they maybe kept you from remembering the tragic parts of your life, but they definitely kept you from every single good thing, too. Because they apparently let you put yourself back together with extremely painful magic without even offering the option of making it hurt less. I'm angry because I feel completely fucking powerless to do anything about these monsters and I know that if they have their way, they'll just keep hurting you."
Lirit goes completely still, uncertain and thrown by the intensity in the thief's eyes, their voice.
"I'm not..." Essa sighs, leaning even closer, slipping their arms around Lirit's back in a loose sort of hug. "I'm not mad at you, starlight. I'm mad for you, because you don't even seem to realize that you should be absolutely fucking furious on your own behalf. You deserved- you deserve better that them, better than everything they've done to you for the last year."
"I..." Lirit swallows, warm from Essa's skin where it touches her, unsettled and oddly shy. "I don't- I don't know what to say," she decides, eventually, and Essa half smiles, their lips tilting up on one side.
"Say that I'm right and you deserved better?" they try, clearly joking, and Lirit wrinkles her nose.
"I- well, I probably- did. I don't exactly have a lot of context from which to draw any comparisons, but- if you say so, I suppose." She pauses. "But- wait. No, you aren't mad at me, but- you're- upset? Hurt, you said hurt."
Essa blinks, apparently having forgotten where this conversation started, and then they let their eyes slide to the side, sighing slightly. They don't pull away, or drop the hug, but- the tension returns, somewhat, to their frame.
"Well... yeah, Lirit. Yeah. I'm pretty damn hurt that you- that after all we talked about last night, you still thought it was a good idea to run away before sunrise without saying a damn word. I'm glad you came back, and I'm glad you're okay, but- yeah, I'm not exactly happy about how the last twelve hours or so have gone."
Lirit ducks her head, wincing hard.
"Zolona said- said she would try to- explain, for me?" she tries, and Essa frowns harder.
"Yeah we didn't really... have much time for conversation this morning. We'd barely woken up and gotten told that you were gone when I needed to stop to hide a small child in a tree and then try to lead an undead dog on a goose chase, which failed because someone knocked on the basement door. So, no. Zol didn't really get a chance to tell us why you left, which I really didn't help by snapping at her. Which I'm not going to apologize for, by the way."
Lirit bites her lip. "Okay. Alright, I didn't- I didn't know how- when-" she sighs. "Shouldn't have... left that on her shoulders, anyway. Look, listen- I- I didn't want to leave, but- I had to. And I knew if I- if I tried to stop and convince you- I knew you wouldn't listen, and I knew it would just- waste time."
"You had to leave?" Essa asks, their brow furrowing incredulously. "Why would you have to leave? You should have talked to me-"
"Lady Corliss was in my head," Lirit hisses, glancing aside to make sure that Larc is still busy with their aunt while she speaks. "She invaded my thoughts in the dark of the basement and she knew where I was, and she paralyzed me and she talked about coming to get me, and I knew that if that happened, it might have gotten all three of you killed."
Essa frowns hard, their dark eyes flicking between Lirit's own. "So you- run?"
"I lied about where the amulet was, and I thought I could- I thought I could draw her away. I was going to- I thought I could get her to chase me instead of bothering with the garden. I wanted to get her away from you, I couldn't let her follow me there and hurt you, or hurt Larc-"
"And how did that turn out for you, then?" Essa asks dryly, and Lirit snaps her mouth shut.
"I didn't know," she manages, mortified by how strangled her voice sounds. Essa looks somewhat chagrined, but Lirit only shakes her head. "I didn't know, I didn't- I thought she was after me, I didn't think she would care about- about where I wasn't, anymore, and I know it wasn't the best decision but- but I didn't think I had a choice, I couldn't just sit down there in the dark and wait for the necromancers to come and hurt you- if me just being near you was enough to put you in danger- I couldn't, I just couldn't- I couldn't justify it, I couldn't allow myself to be a danger to you if I could pull their attention away, pull her attention away-"
"You still should have tried to talk to me," Essa says. "You wound up with Clairmonde, and- she's annoying, but it's good that you found her. She's-" Essa sighs. "She's exactly who I was thinking of conscripting to try to investigate this stupid amulet anyway, and to- try to figure out something for you so you wouldn't need to worry so much about your whole... necromantic energies thing. We would have wound up going to her anyway, and we wouldn't have been separated when the literal dogs came sniffing at our doors."
"I didn't know where I was going when I left," Lirit admits in a mumble. "I only- came upon the idea of going to a temple when I- when I realized that the lady must be- terrified of what I know, and what I could tell someone else. I thought- maybe they'll kill me, but- maybe I'll be able to tell them something useful about the cult first, or-"
"Please stop with the self-destructive tendencies," Essa breathes, their grimace tilting in the vague direction of a pained smile. "You aren't fucking expendable, and I'm gonna keep saying that until you get it through your thick, undead skull."
Lirit shakes her head again. "It's not about that, it's about- I'm already dead, Essa. I can't- I can't let any of you die if I could just-"
"I'm already dead!" she hisses again, still conscious of her sister in earshot. "If I wind up in the ground, it won't be near as terrible a loss as if it happened to you, or gods forbid-"
She doesn't finish the sentence, but Essa's brow furrows harder again anyway, their dark eyes blazing with heat before they glance towards Zolona and Larc as well, wary. "That's all entirely and completely bullshit, I'll start there, but we do not have the space for that conversation right now. Look- I'm assuming that you only came back to Zolona's after you found Clairmonde because- what, did she ward you?"
Lirit huffs, but then she nods. "She didn't tell me where we were going, actually," she admits. "But- yes. She warded me from detection, or- at least, she warded me so that it would be substantially harder to pinpoint my location. She made my signature more like- a cloud, rather than a spotlight. She wasn't... as helpful as I was hoping she would be, about- using anything that I know about the cult to try to stop them, though."
Essa barks a laugh, loud enough that the other three glance towards them, and they shake their head. "Yeah, no, the disappointment isn't an unusual experience so far as I can tell."
"I just- I don't know who else to turn to, to try to- could we go to the..." she purses her lips, "the guard? I can't imagine that- that losing their captain meant that the entire organization dissolved, right? There still have to be people doing something about the necromancers, aren't there?"
Essa drops their eyes with a sigh, their lip curling wryly. "Well... I'll be honest, starlight, I don't know if anyone is going to be concerned enough about them right now to stop and help us. Unfortunately."
Lirit pauses, and then she tilts her head. "Alright..." she says, brow furrowing. "You do realize, thief, that I have almost literally spent the last year living under a rock, don't you? That I have less than zero idea about the state of the city? That I would have none context whatsoever for your implications regarding the priorities of the city guard? I cannot interpret certain subtext when it comes from people that I am, loath as I am to admit, a little obsessed with, and I cannot begin to express how little I would be able to deal with subtext about things I don't have the first clue about regardless?"
Essa blinks, then presses their lips tightly enough together that they go white. Lirit can't tell, quite, if they're trying to press back against a laugh or something a little more hysterical than that.
"Ohhh," they breathe, and then in one long rush of breath they say, "you don't know about the prince you wouldn't have any reason to know about the missing prince-"
"The prince-" Lirit says, leaning back in confusion, and Clairmonde glances towards them again as Lirit shakes her head. "Did you say missing?"
Essa lets Lirit pull away from the loose hug, lifting a finger to snap in the air. "Vanished. A few days ago, now. Maybe longer? It's hard to tell because the Queen obviously didn't want people to panic about it for as long as she could possibly keep the whole thing under wraps. The city is spooked, though, it's why I've been so careful about the guards-"
"She- doesn't know about the prince?" Clairemonde says delicately, and Lirit scowls, turning with her hands planted on her hips.
"Of course I don't know! A corpse doesn't naturally glean random political knowledge from their surroundings just because that would be convenient. Do you think I stopped in the market and asked the most popular vendor for the gossip? I'm literally an undead thrall with an overdeveloped sense of self and zero social skills who was kept underground by manipulation and guilt for the last year. I didn't even know we had a prince until the priestess mentioned him in passing this morning! I knew there was- I was fairly certain there was a crown? But even that was a guess."
"Wow," Larc says, tilting her head at the side of the room. "Someone needs to go back to school."
Lirit glares for half a second, and then she blinks and- bursts into a laugh, startled by the absurdity of the whole mess. She shakes her head.
"I look forward to the opening of the Larc School For The Reeducation of Repentant Undead," she lilts, gratified when Larc gives a laugh of her own. "In the meantime, however- if no one is going to be able to help us because they're all too busy searching for a royal runaway- what in the world can we do?"
She's posing the question to the room at large, feeling- lost, if she's honest, but she aims her eyes towards Essa and Clairmonde in turn, hoping for perhaps a little pragmatism, or at least some pious wisdom. Or- failing that, at least she can gauge from their responses precisely how fucked they all are, now.
Essa frowns, lifting a hand to press to their lips as they glare thoughtfully at the dusty stones at their feet, working through that in their head. Clairmonde, for her part, looks vaguely guilty, which is odd. Or- interesting, maybe. She isn't sure. Larc looks like she's in the beginning stages of planning a glorious revolution, so Lirit hopes that the adults come up with something soon. Zolona-
"We can do very little but continue to survive," her aunt says, her voice sonorous and disaffected, as if she hadn't been chased out of her own home less than an hour ago. "Well?" she asks, when her smaller niece and the priestess both shoot her unhappy looks. "What do you expect we could do against them, between us? I am a botanist with an affinity for mycology on the side. If the little queen of the underground invites me to tea, I'll be certain to poison it for her, but in the meantime my particular skill set is an ill fit. This one-" she gestures towards Larc, "is skilled with her healing and her wards, but all that will do is make her a more tempting target, especially considering that this cult has proven themselves entirely willing to kill children to make whatever point they believe needs making at the time. The real priestess is a coward and could not fight if a small seabird attempted to engage her in combat."
Clairmonde inhales sharply, a small noise of indignation as she crosses her arms over her chest, but she either doesn't have the time or she doesn't have the gall to speak back to Zolona before she continues.
"The thief can fight, in their own way, but I very much doubt that they would survive long against monsters, or in a brawl. They're better suited towards infiltration and stealth and, perhaps, assassination."
"They aren't a killer," Lirit says, frowning, and Zolona gestures in an oddly agreeing sort of way with one dramatic hand.
"Precisely. And you, dear, are... well. You may be particularly suited towards getting under their skin and destroying their constructs and their other raised creations, but- I do not think that you would like to kill, either," she says, oddly gentle, and Lirit looks away rather than meeting her eyes. "You cannot possibly fight all of them alone."
"And we wouldn't let you," Essa adds, firm.
Lirit glances towards them, worried, but the thief looks calmer, now.
"So- you're saying Clairmonde was right? Even though I know- I know how to find them, I know their wards and their defenses, I know exactly how many there are and I know- specifically which of them are good at fighting or good at summoning and I know where each of them are weak- even though I know all of that, you're saying that there's just- nothing that we can do about them? There's just nothing at all that we could possibly do, nowhere we could possibly turn? The best we can hope for is to- to hide and just hope that eventually they get bored of trying to find us? That's bullshit."
"Complete bullshit!" Larc echoes, and Lirit shoots her a look, despite the little flare of warmth in her stomach at her sister's quick and vicious support. "There has to be something we can do."
Clairmonde sighs, crossing one arm over her chest and lifting the other so she can gnaw on the side of her thumb for a moment. "See, only a few days ago, I would have suggested- I would have said that we should skip the intermediary steps and simply- take the matter straight to the prince. Our little organization was his idea in the first place, and if anyone had the resources to help us, to put us in contact with other people with the necessary skills- it would be him. But..."
"But he's nowhere to be found," Zolona says, halfway to a sigh, "and as a result, the queen has rather more pressing matters to deal with than our own, doesn't she? She's hardly going to have time or inclination to speak with any of her subjects when she is very likely busy pacing her chambers in distress and overseeing far too closely all her searching efforts."
"So what do we do, then?" Larc snaps, half a moment before Lirit intended to ask the exact same question. "We don't exactly have all the time in the world, here, not if that- that necromancer can track my sister, and not if she's going to need another source of energy eventually. Undead run on energy, purely that, and unless we can provide, the spell animating Lirit is going to wind down like a clock, and- and- we can't let that happen, obviously, and we're not going to find some magical wellspring hiding in a destroyed temple!"
"Well," Clairmonde says, her tone hedging towards disagreement, "if we were going to find a wellspring, we'd have much better chances in a holy place, even if it had fallen by the wayside."
"I don't... I don't have the first clue whether or not holy magic would..." Lirit hesitates, "agree with me, let's say. I suppose we could try, but-"
"I don't think we should risk you like that," Essa comments quickly, leaning against the wall between a pair of dust-covered shrines. "Not unless we don't have another choice."
Lirit hums, considering. "But- it might be better to at least test it before we're stuck with no other options. I have... a little backup, I've been trying not to tap into it because I stole it from them and I'd rather avoid using anything they've given to me, if I can, but- it's there, if I truly can't function otherwise. I expect it wouldn't be all that hard to just... test something? A little, little bit of holy energy, and we'll just- see if it- burns. Or something. I can't be so unsteady that a single drop would destroy my animus, can I? I've survived this long."
"You survived mostly underground with a bunch of assholes who like keeping you around to play with," Essa growls, and then they flick their eyes towards Larc for half a heartbeat before they continue, "I don't mean to say you've been more coddled in your afterlife than in your life, but- you haven't exactly been fighting priesthoods since you were resurrected, right? The cult has been operating mainly uncontested since- since you died."
"I... I suppose that's true. But that still doesn't mean that I'm that easy to kill."
"Forgive me for not wanting to risk anything we don't have to," Essa grumbles.
"We already lost you once," Larc says, half under her breath, and Lirit needs to bite her lip when her throat starts to feel tight and close again.
"I'm not suggesting we play fast and loose, here," she manages with a fairly passable shrug. "I'm just saying that it's probably better to test the idea when we can do it on our own terms, and when we have other options in our back pocked to fall back on, rather than waiting until the clock is nearly run out and then just closing our eyes and hoping, you know?"
Essa sighs. "That's... also fair, I guess. Well, next time you're feeling run down or next time we happen upon a holy wellspring, we'll see what happens. In the meantime-"
"That still doesn't help us figure out next steps, I know," Clairmonde says with a sigh. "I'm sorry, children. I was never meant to be- I was always in a position of support, never- never combat, nor organization. I don't know how to- to find them, or fight them, or-"
"Or anything of any particular use to anyone," Zolona murmurs, breezy and light. "Don't worry, dear, we all know. Best just stand aside and let the criminal, the undead, and the teenager put together a plan for us all, hm? It's far better an option than taking any responsibility yourself, I imagine."
Clairmonde flushes bright, pink splotches on her chin as she clenches her jaw. "Why are you- what in the world have I don't to you? I don't deserve such-"
"Oh, you poor thing," Zolona says, her voice dripping with false, saccharine sympathy. "I'm sorry if someone was mean and hurt your little feelings."
Essa's eyes dart between the two, their expression flattened with discomfort underpinned by a subtle curiosity, and Larc scowls.
"Why don't you just say it, then?" Clairmonde snaps, squaring her wide shoulders and glaring at Zolona straight on, some of the meekness that usually accompanies her frame receding. "Go on. I know what you think, I know you've thought it this whole time, so why don't you just say it and have it out? If you cannot speak with me reasonably, I don't know how you expect we'll all survive this together, so- just say it and have done, already. Tell me. Tell me what you think of me. Do it!"
Zolona sneers, lifting her chin to glare down her nose at the priestess. "I don't know why I should need to bother, if you already know. I cannot imagine that you are unaware of the weight upon you, the burden of your failures."
"Fucking say it," Clairmonde snarls, stomping close enough to glare the shorter woman in the eye. "Go on!"
Zolona stares up at her for a long moment, her eyes flashing. "Fine. It's your fault my brother and his wife and my niece were killed," she says, and her tone isn't even angry. She sounds- matter of fact. Almost bored. "I know that you know it, of course. I despise you for your cowardice, and I despise you for your spinelessness, and I despise you for the fact that you continually fail to either improve or to in any meaningful way make up for your failings. That you were ever even included in the group in the first place is a baffling misstep, one that you personally should have corrected by declining the invitation with the full knowledge that you could not possibly honor that responsibility."
Zolona looks, truly, as if she could continue, but Clairmonde's face has gone ashen, and she presses a hand to her chest as she stumbles back a step. "Gods above do you truly think so low of me? Do you truly-"
"I truly think that you are responsible for a number of deaths that are fully personal to me, and countless others that have transpired as a result of your failure to your team, and the destruction that followed."
"What- perhaps I was- a poor choice for the group, I knew that, I always knew, but- but Vittor insisted. He- he believed in me, and-"
"And he was wrong," Zolona says simply, "and he died for it."
"And I did everything I could, while I worked with them! I did everything in my power, I- I pushed myself, I did, you don't get to tell me that-"
"Can you look me in the eye, priestess, and tell me that you do not blame yourself for Vittor and Sana's deaths? For Lirit's? For the others before them?" Zolona stands straighter, and despite the fact that she needs to raise her face to look at Clairmonde straight on, the tilt of her head still looks sharply regal. "Look me in the eye, and tell me. Go on, dear."
"I- I-" Clairmonde swallows, her eyes flicking aside, and then she grits her teeth and huffs a breath, staring down the other woman. "Of course I blame myself. That does not mean that I am solely responsible."
Zolona- breathes a little laugh. "I did not say solely, dear."
Clairmonde stiffens. "You said it was my fault. That implies fairly specifically-"
"What do you intend to do with that guilt, then, dear? What have you done with it, besides hiding away in your temple and comforting the lost with platitudes, while those who murdered my family continue on undaunted, unmolested in their efforts to destroy and to defile? What, priestess, have you done, to continue my brother's work, after you took his mantle?"
Clairmonde goes silent, for a long moment, and then she- half-gestures with a hand, her mouth opening, but she snaps her mouth back closed quickly. She tries again, after a moment, her movements strange and jerky and agitated. "I didn't- I- I couldn't- I can't do it on my own, Zolona, how could I? What good would I do by myself? All I would have done was throw my body onto the pile, if I tried to confront them by myself. Do you- do you truly think that I should have just dove headfirst into the underground and gotten myself killed for nothing?"
Zolona stills, dangerously. It reminds Lirit distinctly of a snake going still before the strike.
"Do I think..."
"We were friends, Zolona. We were."
"Correct. We were. I tend to avoid friendship, these days, with cowards."
"I did not choose to be the one that survived! Blind luck, Zolona, it was luck-"
"You swore to me," Zolona snaps, her voice finally slipping from that cool, detached disdain to a truer fury. "You swore on your life that you would keep my brother safe." She lifts her chin further, eyes flashing. "He is dead. You, however, are not."
"Would you prefer that I died with him simply because-"
"Yes. I would."
A long beat of silence follows, uninterrupted shock as Clairmonde's hand slowly drops from her chest to her side, and then she breaks eye contact with Zolona and turns entirely aside, walking with stilted steps towards one of the shrines along the wall, her face entirely blank.
When the pause draws longer, Essa clears their throat, then wets their lips when that draws at least some attention their way.
"Alright," they say, slowly, "I don't... feel particularly comfortable with the energy in this room right now, but- we're kind of... stuck together, for the moment-"
"Unless, of course, you would like to run off home, dear," Zolona says mildly, burning with subtle venom, and Clairmonde's frame tenses even further, her shoulders tightening upwards with a tremble. "This isn't your fight, anymore, after all."
"I think that's enough," Essa says, quietly but firmly. "C'mon, Zol. This is doing the opposite of helping," they say, and then they lean closer, hissing under their breath in a way that Lirit isn't sure she's supposed to be able to hear. "Larc doesn't need to hear this shit. Neither of them do. Dig up your grievances on your own time, this is life or death."
"I know, dear heart," Zolona says, her voice milder. "But the situation being life or death is why I would prefer to know that everyone involved can be trusted to protect the lives of the vulnerable that we are responsible for."
"If you want me to leave, I'll leave," Clairmonde says, still facing the wall, her voice entirely without inflection. "I want- I want to help, I want to be- I want to be of use. I don't want to walk away, but- if you cannot endure my presence without-"
"Oh! No, dear," Zolona shakes her head. "I can endure perfectly well."
"Do you want me to leave?" she asks again, more firmly, and Zolona-
"The issue, I find... the issue, dear, is that I find that it doesn't matter what you say to me. You could swear your life, swear your honor, swear your afterlife on the promise of protecting my nieces, now, and- I could not possibly believe you, after... after Vittor. Even if I wanted to, I couldn't."
"Do you want me to leave?" she repeats, turning her head just enough to glare over her shoulder, and when their eyes lock, Zolona is the one who looks away first.
"I won't believe you," she says, muted, and then she raises her eyes again. "... promise anyway."
Clairmonde's jaw stiffens, and after a beat she turns and comes close to the other woman again, her expression hard as she reaches and grips one of Zolona's hands, squeezing tight in her own wide grip.
"I would die to protect them. I swear to you. I won't- I won't fail, this time."
Zolona sniffs delicately, her lip jutting out in a vague sort of pout (it is the first time, perhaps, that Lirit has recognized the similarity of face between their aunt and Larc), and then she sighs. "Try, my dear, to live and protect them, would you?" she says, and then she presses her thumb into the back of Clairmonde's hand for the briefest of moments before she retrieves her hand from the priestess' grip and turns to the others. "Alright, alright. Dramatics aside, darlings. Priorities. Ensure that our dear Lirit continues to be untraceable for the purposes of those necromancers, first. Discover a reasonable way to sustain her existence in the long term. Investigate and, preferably, remove the human person from the amulet that I should be able to simply have as a sentimental reminder of my brother."
Clairmonde blinks. "Wait. What was that last one?"
Lirit blinks. "Oh, gods. Did I forget to mention that part?"
"A person?" Clairmonde prods, her eyes going wider.
"Lirit could sense that there was a- a person who had been confined in the crystal of Vittor's old amulet," Essa says with a grimace, and then they flash the necklace in their palm, a deft little gesture, showing off the discoloration of the jewel. "Apparently the cult can just do that, now."
Lirit shakes her head as Clairmonde gapes, unsettled. "They can't just do it, Ess, it's- deeply difficult. The ceremony required nearly the entire order to achieve, and it was... rather draining, all things considered. Lady Corliss demanded perfection, and said that anything less would result in- in a failure that she was not willing to forgive. It was tricky, to say the least."
"Well," Essa frowns. "I suppose that's something, at least. We won't have to worry about them just- doing that, on a whim. A bit of a relief, that. Back of my head, I was worried that one of them might sneak up on me and pop, suddenly I'm in a crystal. Can't think of something worse, really, than being stuck inside of something I'd rather be swiping."
Lirit snorts, glaring halfheartedly at the thief. "Rapscallion," she mutters, and then she shakes her head again. "The trouble with that, however, is... well-"
"If it was that difficult to do, it'll likely be very, very elaborate to undo," Clairmonde finishes, folding her hands together in front of herself. "Likely."
"It's warded very severely, as well," Lirit explains. "I don't think the lady wanted anyone to be able to find it, to track it. I don't know what she meant to do with him, but clearly she didn't want anyone to find him." She smiles wryly, shrugging with one shoulder. "The benefit to that specific point, however, is that-"
"She can't track it herself," Larc finishes, bouncing slightly on her heels. "Oh, that's excellent."
"Which is, I think, part of why she was so damned furious when you stole it," Lirit says, glancing towards Essa. "She knew she wouldn't be able to find you unless you were extremely obvious about it. And- considering that no one would have seen you going in or out if you didn't stop to harangue me, not a single one of us would have even noticed you."
Essa smiles slightly, bobbing their head back and forth in a so-so gesture. "Yeah, maybe, but- honestly, starlight, even if I didn't get spotted, I'm pretty sure that the cult would have been smart enough to check with the only surviving members of your family eventually, even if they didn't have any other clues. Things like to go home, if they can. I think your lady would have been clever enough to look, and- fuck but I hope I would have been around to help, if that were the case."
"That isn't what happened, child," Clairmonde says gently. "No need to agonize about it."
"I'm not," Essa says, shaking their head. "Just pointing it out. I don't think that Lirit getting tracked doomed us, you know? I think it just sped up the process of them coming to case the garden."
"Are they going to- burn it?" Lirit asks, wincing. "I know they- they like to make points, and- if they can't find us, if they don't know how or where we escaped-"
"I should very dearly like to see them try," Zolona purrs, and then she rolls her shoulder. "In fact, I would be deeply disappointed if they did try, and I were not there to see the fallout. My home is very specifically and very elaborately warded. I've put some great effort and great pains into protecting my specimens and my ecosystem. If they attempt fire- it will not go well for them."
That could mean a number of different things, keeping in mind both Lirit's own training with the cult and her vague memories of what little she knew of wards in her time living. Mostly, she kind of agrees with Zolona; she hopes that if they did try something, she would be there to see them catch the rebound.
"Alright," she says aloud. "That's a weight off my shoulders, if I'm being perfectly honest. I know you think they would have come to the garden eventually anyway," she says in Essa's direction, "but I did still feel- somewhat guilty. Knowing they're unlikely to do much damage is a relief. So-" she bites her lip. "Could I- take another look at the amulet, maybe? I still don't think there's much that I could do about it, just now, with my particular... training, but- maybe between myself and the priestess and- and the healer-in-training, perhaps we could at least get a better idea of what we might need, if we want to evict our possible friend from his current tenancy."
Larc giggles, just a little, at the phrasing, and Clairmonde nods somewhat solemnly. Essa frowns, but they open their hand and offer the amulet out anyway, their brow furrowing as they glance down at the trinket.
"It's... can I just say, it's deeply strange to know that I've been just, carrying around a person. I know I've known that since last night, but it's still, just- so fucking strange."
"Well," Lirit laughs, lightly, the metal and crystal both cool as her own skin, "yeah. Feels equally strange to know that you just handed me a person, for the record."
She looks down at the inlaid gem again, then, watching the way the faceted surface flickers between deep red and deep blue, and she can remember, now, the ice-clear crystal her father wore at his hip every single day, the way his thumb would brush the surface as if he were gleaning its clarity, or maybe its solidity, when he was uncomfortable or uncertain.
It looks like a heart, now, in a way. Full of blood and ichor. She doubts very much that her papa would have liked to brush his thumb on the crystal like this.
She thinks, though, that if he were here-
He would know far better than she ever would, how to fix it.
"May I?" Clairmonde says, stepping closer, and Lirit holds the amulet out in her open palm.
"You can only really feel the spellwork on direct contact," Lirit explains.
The priestess nods as she lifts a careful finger to run along the rim of the setting, probing as if she's looking for where the gem might be loose, or as if she's trying to scuff out some grime caught in the seam. Larc steps closer, too, pursing her lips and tilting her head to the side like a bird as she watches the priestess examine the jewelry.
"I see what you mean," Clairmonde says in a murmur, and then she hums under her breath as she touches the tip of her finger to the stone itself.
Lirit wonders, for half a moment, if that's a particularly good idea, and then she feels the pulse, that same scream from before, when the man in the crystal sent her his memory to her the previous night. Clairmonde yelps and pulls her hand back as if burned, clutching it against her chest with her eyes wide.
"Could you please attempt a little care?" Zolona barks, standing stiff and dignified by the single lit shrine, her eyes flashing with concern. "We know what this cult is capable of, the least you could do is ward yourself before you go sticking your thumb in their pies, don't you think?"
"I didn't even reach out magically," Clairmonde says, a stunned note in her voice.
"Did he show you the coffin, the kidnapping?" Lirit asks, and the priestess nods, her eyes still wide.
"It was- horrifying, truly. The gag- the blindfold-"
"Did you get anything else?"
She shakes her head, her breaths beginning to slow as the shock fades. "I will admit, child, that somewhere within me I was hoping that perhaps you were mistaken about the nature of the spell upon the amulet... this is... rather dire, I think. I've never seen anything quite like it, before, especially not with the context of it being so well warded against detection as well. Clearly this is- an abominable thing to do to a person, though we know that they are quite accustomed to doing abominable things, so- why put forth so much effort to hide this one in particular? I do not think that I could sense his presence if he were hidden beneath the chair in which I sat."
"I know what you mean. The lady truly demanded subtlety with this one, and... I don't know what it is about this spellwork that demands such. Though, if it's unique..."
"Maybe it's not the spellwork that needed to be hidden," Larc says, her lips pulled into a considering frown.
"Hm," Lirit says, glancing towards the multicolored faceting again. "So you think it's... the person, then? I'll be honest, I've been assuming that he's another from the priesthood, perhaps someone that displeased the lady in some particularly grievous way."
"Have you asked him?"
Lirit blinks. "Well- what?"
"Have you asked?" she repeats, in a childish sort of well obviously tone, and Lirit bites back a laugh. "If he can show you bits and pieces of being kidnapped, couldn't he tell you other things too?"
Lirit looks down at the stone again, considering. "He didn't seem to have all that much... control, or agency, in there. It seemed like he was just showing the last few things he remembered, and if he showed Clairmonde the same thing... it might be more of an echo than a communication."
"But have you tried?" Larc insists, pouting now, and Lirit loses the fight, one small laugh jolting from her lips and prompting her sister to scowl more darkly. "You won't know until you try, and if he's in there and trying to communicate-" she huffs. "Can you imagine how frustrating that would be? What if he can hear us, and he can't say a single word? What if he's just- stuck, and aware, and trapped and silent and scared and alone? He isn't alone, though, and- and he needs to know that he's not, he's not alone and we're here and we're going to find a way to fix it." She pauses. "Somehow." She pauses again. "Well? Are you going to try or not?"
Lirit bites her lip, not sure if she should laugh or, perhaps, bite back tears at her sister's priorities, her compassion. Even after all this, after being made an orphan and- she shakes her head. She doesn't exactly have the time and space to get maudlin about everything her family has been through, does she? If she starts, she doesn't know if she'll ever be able to stop.
"Okay, okay, I'll... I'll try to see if he's- if he's aware, in there." She narrows her eyes at the inlaid gem. "I don't know if this is going to work at all," she warns, "but I'll try."
"Okay," Larc agrees, nodding vigorously. "Good."
"Are you certain you wouldn't like the priestess to do this, dearest?" Zolona asks, something of a warning in her tone, and Clairmonde straightens, opening her mouth as if to agree, but Lirit shakes her head.
"I think Essa can speak to the fact that I didn't react quite so violently when I first heard him in there. No offense intended, ma'am," she adds, conciliatory in Clairmonde's direction. Essa nods, though they are very clearly frowning. "And... well, as much as I am unhappy with the truth of this at the moment, I did help weave the magic that trapped him in there in the first place. If anyone can speak to him through it, I imagine it would be me." Or Corliss, she doesn't add, her lip curling wryly. Perhaps Mott, as well.
"If you think it best, child," Clairmonde says, her voice delicate.
"Well," Lirit says, "I certainly wouldn't disagree with a little help? The sorts of wards I've been taught to do would likely not be of any particular help, here. I'm a little worried that trying to reach in might make this thing... pulse, if you know what I mean."
"I think I do," Clairmonde says, eying the amulet warily, and then she begins to weave her fingers through the air. "Just in case, child. Better to have the protection, just in case. And if- well. I won't put the thought in your head, but- I'll add a few other sorts of... barriers. Just in case. This is the creation of the necromancers, after all."
Lirit presses her lips together, something like a smile. "I did investigate it a bit, yesterday," she admits. "It doesn't seem like it could be any sort of weapon, regardless of the antidetection wards."
"I'm more worried-" she sighs. "I'm uncertain about the safety of opening your mind to a stranger in any circumstances, child. You understand, don't you?"
"Oh," Lirit laughs. "Well, yes. No, that makes perfect sense, of course. I'll be... I'll be careful, but- but I'm not going to let an abundance of caution prevent me from even reaching for him. I helped put him in there," she says again, "whether or not I knew it, and- the least I owe him is the chance to say something."
"I suppose that'll have to do, so far as comforting words go," the priestess sighs, and then she twists her wrists, sealing the ward around the pair of them tight. "Go on, then, child. You should be as safe as I can possibly manage. Larc, dear, if you would like to reinforce the edges, that would certainly be a welcome help."
Larc's eyes brighten, and she bounces on the balls of her feet before she steps closer. She doesn't lift her own hands, only tilts her head and hums under her breath for a moment before something flashes in her eyes and Lirit feels the barrier surrounding them strengthen. Noticeably.
Lirit looks towards her sister for a concerned moment, and then shoots a look towards Clairmonde instead, searching. The priestess gives nothing away, though, her own eyes already closed in concentration. Lirit suppresses a sigh, and instead decides to follow suit, sparing a small, hopefully reassuring smile towards Essa before she closes her own eyes and aims her focus inward, and towards the amulet.
She feels for the edges of the magic, trying to summon to mind the spark she felt the echoes of when Clairmonde had been zapped, trying to summon the memory that Lirit had been imparted with on her own, the night before. Trying to recapture that specific energy, and trying to find the precise angle at which to apply herself to the gem now to replicate it. What had she done, before? What prompted the fissure-
She was trying to find out what it could do, she recalls. She was probing the wards, trying to determine their purpose, their direction. She had pressed, with just the littlest magic of her own.
So what happens, then, if she presses with just the littlest bit more?
She frowns, eyes still closed, and she presses both of her thumbs against the cool, smooth face of the gemstone in the silver. She imagines hands within pressing out, then dismisses the fantasy in favor of potential.
(If she were on her own, maybe she'd pull her own charged crystal out, maybe she'd pour all of that energy into the thing and just see what happened, see if she could force something drastic-
But her sister is here. Feet away, at the most. She isn't going to risk anything she can afford not to.)
She sends out a spark, to start, and the amulet presses back, presenting her with that exact same series of flashes. The gag, the underground, the coffin- Lirit presses against that, presses through, tries to give the impression of attention through the wave. She still isn't sure, but- she tries to show enough energy to let the person in there know she's listening. If he's conscious, if he has more to say, if he can hear her in return-
There is something, there. Some- buzzing, almost, or- a gasp without a gasp. Like the gem is trying to vibrate in its setting, like it is warming to her touch, despite the fact that her touch is not warm. Lirit narrows her eyes, leans closer, pours just a little more of her own energy into the amulet.
The color- the crystal itself reacts, the colors brightening slightly, becoming more saturated beneath her thumbs, and she tries to project her thoughts into the crystal the way that the crystal projected into her mind, into Clairmonde's. She thinks, as clearly as she is able, can you understand me?
There is a beat, and then-
"Lirit," Clairmonde says, her voice shivery with effort and concern, but Lirit shakes her head.
"It's alright, I think- I think he's just trying to-"
Another tug. More insistent. Her mind tries to shy from it, but- this is what she wanted to happen, isn't it? She wants to help him. Lirit thumbs the surface of the gem, the smooth cool facet, and then she closes her eyes, and follows the pull.
Her mind rushes (reminds her of the spinning in her mind the first night she ever drank in earnest, the thick heady rush of red wine, the way it felt like she was falling, even standing still), and she tries to steady herself through it, but- it accelerates, and she loses track of her own limbs, and she thinks she hears someone cry out-
Oh, it's like the fainting, earlier. A little. It's like that, because it's like nothing at all.
She can't feel her body, truly. She can't really see, just a suggestion of blackness and then it fills in around her with greyish clouds, pulsing with color like inks mixing in water. Her body doesn't follow, but when she looks down, she can see a sort of... impression of a body, like her attention is the thing that's filling out what she expects to be there, like a painting in motion, or like a dream. Like what she vaguely remembers of the way that dreams looked, at least.
"Who are you?"
Lirit pulls her attention away from her pseudo-body, looking up among the gauzy clouds. A man stands there, feet apparently supported by the nothing, his body far more solid than her own in this uncertain space. His skin is copper-brown, his hair cascading black waves, his eyes as dark as Essa's and full of fear and suspicion, a clean, trimmed beard framing his frown, and-
"I like your nightclothes," she says, almost without meaning to, and the man startles into a laugh. He wears green, rich and deep, the shine suggesting either satin or silk, and that combined with the style suggests nobility of some stripe. "They look comfortable."
"I wouldn't have chosen to be in them still," the man says, his frown returning with somewhat diminished strength after the laugh. "I wasn't given much of a choice."
"They pulled you from your bed," Lirit suggests, a twinge of sympathy at the center of her chest, and then, "I'm sorry."
"Who are you?" the man repeats, and he seems... a little closer, now, though Lirit doesn't think that either of them actually stepped closer. This place doesn't seem to need them to. "How did you get- wherever we are?"
"Technically," Lirit says, "I don't think that I am here. What do I look like, to you? Because I seem to be... somewhat formless, from my perspective. You look like a handsome man in nightclothes with very shiny hair."
He laughs again, shaking his head. "You look like a silhouette," he says, "or a ghost."
"Close enough, I suppose," Lirit murmurs. "There's a group of necromancers in the city," she starts, and the man's expression immediately stiffens, the surprise of laughter iced out by sudden seriousness. "They- I assume they kidnapped you, and then they- they put you inside a gem. Gods know for what purpose, but- that's as much as we've been able to figure out. We're trying to find a way to get you out."
"A- gem?" he says, pulling his head back.
"Sorry," Lirit says. "Yes. I don't... I don't know the exact methodology, I don't know if your body is still sitting in that coffin, or if- if we'll figure this out and suddenly there will just be a man there, next to the amulet, but-"
"Who are you? How did you get here? Who- you've mentioned a we now, a few times- who are you with? How did you get me away from them?"
Lirit feels something odd in her body- or, her "body," at the very least. A diffusing, as her mind spins in different directions to try to chase all of his questions at once. She tries to shake the feeling, trying to focus her form.
"I got here- there is a priestess and her apprentice warding us from detection, at the moment, and- and I didn't mean to come in here with you, truly. Not in this way, at least. I was just trying to- to communicate, to find out if you were still conscious in here, if you could hear us."
He pauses for a long moment, his brow furrowing over his dark, thoughtful eyes. "I... it's difficult to... to say. How long have I been in here? It's very difficult to... to think, to remember."
Lirit feels another pulse of sympathy, and she ignores the way she can half-see her shadowy body pulse in truth. "Two days, I think? If my count is accurate. It's been a strange time for myself, as well, I admit."
"I've been... in and out, I think. After the coffin- I thought I was dead. I was certain, in fact, that I was just- dead." He looks around himself, eyes tracing the indistinct shapes of the color-shifting clouds. "I cannot say that I am entirely convinced otherwise, just yet, in fact. This seems like some sort of... purgatory. But- I can hear, a little bit. Outside of the amulet. If I... if I focus. It isn't as if there is terribly much else within to focus on. I can pay attention to what I can feel and hear from the outside, or... or I can turn inward, and consider my failings. There have been some endless... hours, I imagine they must have been, since you seem to think I've only been in here for days, there have been some endless hours of darkness and silence. I don't seem to sleep, here, but I expect those outside still do."
Lirit thinks about this poor man, alone and unceasing, slipped into a hidden place at Essa's bedside while they slept. "I'm sorry," she says again, and the man aims his gaze towards her, a spark of curiosity in his eyes.
"This is the most present I have felt since I was placed here," he says, something prodding in his tone, and Lirit tries to nod. She isn't sure if the motion carries through.
"I tried to get through to you by putting a bit of my own energy into the crystal directly, into you, when I could feel you. You showed me the last night, I think, the kidnapping. I was just trying to speak with you."
"So you said," he murmurs, his expression still considering. "You still haven't told me who you are."
"I don't know if my name would mean anything to you," she says. "I'm no one important. I'm with the priestess Clairmonde, if perhaps you know that name? And- Zolona, of the garden."
He barks a laugh, a rich and joyful sound, and then he shakes his head. "Oh, perhaps I am dead, then. Those two would not work with each other again if the world were ending. Go on, try another one."
"No- well, they aren't working together happily," Lirit says. "I think they're both there for- for someone else."
The man shakes his head again, still chuckling lightly, and then he sighs with his eyes downcast before he aims his gaze towards Lirit's presence again. "So you're with... the remnants of-"
"Of..." Lirit would tilt her head, if she could find her neck. She would bite her lip as well, as she considers an appropriate level of secrecy. "Oh, gods take it," she mutters. "Clairmonde, at the least, used to work with a team that - from what I've been told - the prince arranged to be created. A group formed for the purpose of hunting down the necromancers."
He stares at her, eyes narrowing, his lips pulling into a strange sort of frown.
"The prince," he says, his tone vague.
"Apparently so," she says, hoping her tone conveys well enough her desire to shrug.
"Tell me who you are," he says after a beat. "Even if you think I will not know. I would like to know your name, at least."
"I suppose that's fair. My name is Lirit."
The man- he does move this time, his leg jerking backwards as if he means to step away, and suddenly there seems to be a much wider gulf of space between them. His eyes go wide, wary, and then horrified.
"Oh," he says, and then again, "Oh." His gaze drops, a slow sinking that makes it clear that he isn't really looking at anything. His gaze is somewhere distant, beyond, and his face goes completely still and slack. "So... I am dead, then."
"Wh- no, you're stuck in a stupid amulet, I swear, I have you in my hands, in the world outside. I have my thumbs on the face of the gem."
"Lirit," he says, flat and certain, "a Lirit who would be with Zolona of the garden and priestess Clairmonde- that Lirit is dead."
"How do you know of me?" she says, and something about this place makes her feel deeply untethered, unconcerned, unreal. There is some other, better way to respond, she knows that in the recesses of her mind, but her first concern, just now, seems to be- "Yes, obviously. How do you know that I'm dead?"
"Oh," he says, and he sinks down, curling his body towards his knees, and he laughs joylessly, his tone shaking. "Oh, I have so much unfinished-"
"You aren't dead," Lirit says again. "At least, I don't think you are. Not yet, not properly. If Lady Corliss meant only to kill you, I am quite certain that you would be, and it would have been much more simple than this. She tends towards the elaborate when she wishes to make a point. You aren't dead, yet."
"You are," he says, halfway into his knees. "You are, though. I instigated your death when I convinced your parents into my own little war and clearly the gods have not forgiven me-"
"You aren't dead," Lirit insist. "You're trapped. I am dead, but- it's complicated. Lirit is dead. The cult brought her back." She shrugs as best she can, rolling one vague, ethereal shoulder. "I'm... I don't know who or what I am, in truth. People keep insisting that I'm Lirit, but... I'm still not entirely certain, on that. I think it might be more complicated."
"You're..." he blinks up from between his knees, his eyes narrowed, and then his face twitches and he jolts upright like an arrow, his lip curling in a sneer. "You're undead," he hisses. "The cult brought you back? So- so they've sent you in here to torment me, then? Further punishment for the sin of crossing your lady," he says in a vicious sneer. "Well- very well, then. I- I can't deny what I deserve, the proper payment for the harm I brought to you and your family-"
"Sorry," Lirit says, uncertain and bemused, "I don't... actually know what you're talking about. I'm- a thief I knew when I was alive, they stole your amulet - or, the amulet you're currently stuck in, at the very least - and I snuck away from the cult to try to chase them down, to get the amulet back. Except- after I left, I began to remember things."
Lirit gestures, on instinct, and the clouds to the side of her form the vague shapes of her memory, the colors shifting appropriately to show a shadowy echo of Essa, perched on the balcony railing with their leg slung lazily to kick over the edge, a gleaming smile on their face. She gestures again, the silhouettes of her parents at the front door, the stolen sip of water, the suggestion of a kiss. Another motion, and- the harp on the balcony, the storm out the window kicking the hanging kites into a joyous frenzy as if dancing to her tune.
"I started to remember all the things they told me I shouldn't, and- I realized what they did to me. And I realized that I can't go back. So- no. I haven't been sent by the cult to torment you, for whatever reason you seem to think you might deserve such. I'm sure you are perfectly kind, if the cult meant you harm. They seem to mean harm to many who are perfectly good and kind. And brave."
The man's eyes linger on Lirit's memories as they slowly fade back to formlessness, and then he looks carefully at her own shape, and slowly it seems that the two of them close the distance again, though again, neither of them truly move. Lirit thinks she might be irritated by this space, if her own mind did not seem to be taking influence from it while her body is... elsewhere.
"I should admit," she says gently, "that before I remembered who I was, I did contribute to the ceremony that placed you here. I did not know what the ceremony was for, as the lady does not often share those details with the rest of us, but- I don't think that's very much of an excuse, is it? I still played my part, and I regret it, now. I hope that I can find a way to fix it, and come some way towards making up for my mistakes."
"Lirit," he says, soft, and then he lifts a hand in her direction, though he doesn't try to place his palm against her indistinct edges. "Is that why you look like this, here? Because you're dead?"
Lirit considers that, humming. "Perhaps? I had been wondering, actually, if I look formless because my own body is still on the outside. This might be evidence that the lady put your entire form into the amulet, with that ritual. Which would be good for us, honestly, in the long run. If we broke your spirit from the amulet, but you woke in your body still deep in the cult's compound... well, that would be entirely disastrous, don't you think?"
He blinks, still watching her carefully. "You seem so calm, about all of this."
"I think that I won't be, once I'm outside, again. It's easier, like this. The space... it responds to me, and I think I'm responding to it, as well. Are you alright? Aside from the obvious discomfort of your position. It doesn't hurt, in here, does it? I don't feel any pain, but... I expect that's because I am distant from my body, again."
He shakes his head. "Not hurt, no. I haven't felt much of anything, in here. Physically, at least. It's... there's so little, in here. No chill or warmth, no breeze, the clouds aren't even soft, because I can't seem to get close enough to them for touch. It's just- numb. Disconnected. Difficult to think, easy to drift."
"I'm sorry," she says.
"You... Lirit," he says, his head tilting to the side. "You don't know who I am," he says slowly, "do you?"
She pauses. "Am I supposed to?"
The man jolts into a laugh, visibly shocked, and he waves his hand in the air as he shakes his head, as if dispelling smoke. "Oh gods, gods forgive me, this is-"
He steps closer, a very deliberate motion, and the space seems to obey his intent, placing the man face to incorporeal face with Lirit. He smiles, somewhat pained, and then he- he lifts his hand, cautiously and carefully lifting the uncertain shape of one of her own limbs, the hazy shifting mass stilling slightly at his touch, solidifying enough to look like the shape of a hand, and the touch tingles, all energy and potential.
"Lirit," he says, his tone full and charged, "from the bottom of my heart, I am sorry for all the evils I have brought upon your family, and upon yourself. Without my stubbornness and my insistence... without my interference, you and your parents would have continued on, alive and happy and unharmed."
Lirit wishes she could blink, tries glancing aside uncomfortably to replicate the feeling, and then she laughs awkwardly with her hand tingling sharp in the man's gentle grasp.
"I don't- sir, I don't know what you mean. My mother- whatever you think you've done, my parents were stubborn themselves, and- insistent and interfering, I can assure you of that."
"But I was the one who encouraged all of this, trying to exterminate this nest of venomous beasts. I condemned all of us to pain, because I didn't understand the scope of what we were up against."
"If..." Lirit tries to squeeze his hand in return, and the man gusts a breath. "I suppose, if you say so. But- whatever blame you think you deserve," she says slowly, thinking, "I will insist that the cult themselves bear the brunt of responsibility. And when it comes to my parents, to Clairmonde and the others in their group- it was the prince that encouraged the lot of them to fight, wasn't it? You cannot blame yourself, sir."
He lowers his head, pressing his lips together tight until his face falls out of sight, his shoulders shaking silently for a moment before he looks up at her again, his face twisting into an exhausted sort of smile. "A pleasure to finally meet you, Lirit, daughter of Sana. I am truly sorry that it could not have happened under better circumstances."
Lirit pauses, and then jolts, the realization snapping into her like a strike of lightning. She sees the hazy edges of her form jolt as well, like the hair of a cat standing on end.
"Oh. Oh. I- forgive the insult of my- my lack of- of recognition of your-" she pauses. "I... I do not know if I can kneel, in this form," she mumbles, and the prince laughs again.
"I certainly wouldn't expect you to," he says. "Do you- you understand, do you not? My apology- my guilt-"
She shakes her head, or tries to. "My mother was a warrior and she would have found a way to fight these people on her own, even if you never assigned the task to her directly, and papa- papa followed where she lead. There's no cause for guilt, your- highness?" She winces, and the only point of her form that feels steady is the wrist that the prince holds. "M-majesty? I can't- remember-"
"Drace. Drace is perfectly alright, I assure you. We are inside of a gemstone on an amulet, I refuse to be distracted by decorum."
"You- you are being- you're the prince," she says, feeling vague and vacant again. "You thought that I was your tormentor only moments ago, and-"
"I do not think that either of us can... lie, here. Not properly. It all feels so close to you, doesn't it? Like the whole space is yourself, as well. The clouds are an extension of yourself, are inside of yourself. I don't think you can lie to me here. I don't think I could lie to you, either."
"I don't know how we're going to get you out," Lirit warns, her tone pleading, and the prince smiles very gently. "I'm sorry. I wish-"
"Don't wish," he says quietly, squeezing her hand again. "There is no need. You are your parents' daughter, Lirit. I have full confidence that you have inherited their brilliance and tenacity and heart, even now."
The clouds surrounding Lirit tint vaguely pink. Lirit considers them absolute traitors. She huffs without breath, looking away, thinking hard, and then she blinks.
"You- I imagine magnanimity comes with the crown, your- er. Drace, but- aren't you younger than me? There is hardly call to sound so knowing about my birthright."
His smile goes a little sheepish. "Perhaps so," he hedges. "Forgive me for that, as well, my ghost."
Lirit flinches, the echo of Corliss' voice ringing in her ears-
Ringing through the space, as well. The clouds form strange echoes, close and distant, that particular curve of Lady Corliss' smirk, little ghost as another shackle around her neck, and the prince keeps ahold of her formless hand even as the space between them widens, suddenly, leaving Lirit feeling colder as Drace stretches his arm towards her to maintain the point of contact.
"Don't," she says, quite softly, and Drace's eyes dart through the dimming clouds surrounding her with wary concern.
"I apologize," he says, quiet and gentle, and the space between them softens again, until Drace doesn't need to stretch to keep hold of her hand, anymore. "I had no idea."
"You would have no reason to," Lirit says, managing another shrug. "Despite your efforts, I expect that you never... actually met the lady, did you?"
He hesitates, his eyes glancing to the side, and- the clouds behind him ripple, the suggestion of Corliss' smug smirk reemerging, painted darker and more grim.
"Only... only the once, very briefly, before- this. I am uncertain if you could consider something a meeting if one of the parties is bound and gagged, and only has his blindfold removed for a brief moment of gloating."
Lirit laughs, the edges of her form bouncing in a way that bounces the clouds closest to her as well. The prince smiles in response, slightly lopsided, and then-
He blinks, and his gaze slips away from Lirit for a moment as his mouth curls down into a thoughtful frown. His eyes dart back and forth, as if he's looking through the pages of something Lirit cannot see, and then he blinks again and raises his eyes to lock with her own, lifting his other hand to join his first, his fingers curling around her false wrist and making it flare with strange energy, half-solidifying at his touch.
"I remember- bits and pieces are... gaining context, now. The energy you gave to me so I could bring you here to talk- it's helping me understand."
"U-understand?" Lirit echoes, uncertain.
"I was- lost, before. Truly, truly lost, before you started- pushing. I was... terrified, and I did, truly, think that I was dead, so- I did not try to understand. I simply... waited, for something to happen to me. To pass on, or- to fade, entirely. For something. The things I felt outside- I only half understood them, and I could not seem to focus, but- now, with just the smallest bit more..." he smiles again. "I remember you, now."
The clouds flush again, a darker pink, and Lirit doesn't know where to look.
"I... we haven't met, before now. I am somewhat certain that I would remember if I had been graced with meeting the prince in my life- my- my living life, if that makes-"
"No," he shakes his head. "I never... unfortunately, I never had the chance to meet you before- before. But- I've been sitting in this- this amulet, and..." he looks aside again, and his brow furrows, but he still smiles, clearly bemused. "I knew I wasn't alone. There was a time, brief, when I was in her hands, deep beneath the stone, and I could feel her gloating even in my confusion and torpor. But-" he glances up. "They stole me, didn't they? Your thief."
"Essa isn't- mine, exactly," Lirit blurts.
He nods, regardless, as if she's just confirmed something for him. "I've been in their pocket, for the most part, excepting just now, and the last time you- pushed. Is that right?"
"Not... quite," Lirit says, trying to think through the timeline. "They stole you, and- brought you to my aunt. To Zolona. She had you for a little under a day, I would think, and then Essa brought me to the amulet so I could look and see- exactly what the cult had done to it. And- to you, though I didn't know that at the time." She pauses. "You have been in Essa's pocket since I first felt you push back, though. She stole you back from me before we finished that conversation, the rapscallion."
"You sound so fond," Drace says, still smiling.
"I am," Lirit says, and then she freezes. "Er-"
"Cannot truly lie, here," he reminds in half a sing-song, his eyes sparking. "It's charming, I think."
"You- you are fond of me being fond of them?" Lirit asks, incredulous, and then she's stunned to see the prince's cheeks darken, just slightly.
He shakes his head after a moment, as if clearing it. "So- I've been in their pocket since you woke me, that first time. I don't know how aware I was, before that, if at all. I only remember the barest suggestion of places, voices, feelings, but- after that, I was... aware of you, at least, when you were there. I was aware of... of the thief."
His smile tilts a little odd at the word thief, his gaze looking somewhere past Lirit again, and she realizes with no small degree of mortification that the clouds around her are forming the subtle suggestion of memories, careful dancing and teasing touches and a kiss upon the wrist.
"They liked to touch face of the gemstone in their pocket, I think," Drace murmurs, thoughtful. "I didn't realize that's what it was, at the time - I did not know what imprisoned me, until you joined me for this extremely illuminating conversation - but I remember the sensation. I remember their thumb... they mutter to themself when they are alone, as well, did you know? Planning conversational points... charting ideas for approaching situations, reminding themself of names and places and ideas for the future...."
He looks up again, and Lirit realizes rather belatedly that the prince has been holding her hand for a time that feels rather extravagant, by now. How long has it been? How long has she been here? Is time even passing, in this in-between space?
"They were terrified when they realized you left, you should know."
Lirit shakes her head. "I don't- that isn't fair, I know you're- trapped and also used to having your way, but- that isn't fair to Essa. They didn't know they weren't alone, you can't just- say things about them. They didn't know."
He blinks, then frowns, then looks away. "A-ah. No- I swear, this isn't some... some sense of- of entitlement to Essa- to the thief's time or words or- privacy. It was simply that-" he opens his mouth, catches a breath in his lungs, and when he exhales his expression is so terribly soft that it makes Lirit want to lean forward, inexplicably. She thinks- she thinks that he is closer, suddenly, with only the desire, unspoken, in the air between them. "It's simply that while I was there, hidden, subsumed... their voice and their presence and their mood, it- it permeated this entire space. They did. It was as if I was- as if I was a very small part of them, rather than myself."
"That sounds... terrifying," Lirit says, and the prince blinks, as if that thought had not at all occurred to him.
"Losing yourself entirely in another person? Of course it does. Especially if you had no choice whatsoever in the matter. How are you not furious?"
"It isn't as if that's what they meant to do," he murmurs, looking down again. "You told them that there was a person in the amulet and they insisted so, so quickly that the both of you needed to free the trapped soul. I felt- Lirit, believe when I say, even the brief, brief time I spent in her hands was more than enough for me to know what my fate would have been if the thief had not interfered. This prison- this place is shaped by the energies surrounding, and when I was with her, it- it was much, much worse than this, I can assure you. In Essa's hands... it softened, and warmed, and- gods above, I could almost rest. Not that aimless drifting, but- rest. While they did, at least. It felt safe. It felt warm, and when they-"
He stops, stilling a little more fully, and his cheeks darken again in a way that Lirit is far more confident she isn't imagining.
"When they... what, exactly?"
"I- I very much doubt you would be happy to hear a stranger discuss- it isn't my business, truly. I apologize, again."
Lirit stares at him, trying to puzzle out-
He's been somewhat conscious since Lirit gave him the little pulse of energy in the garden last night. Before she and Essa had the more fraught part of their conversation in the basement. Before they-
The entire space tinges red, this time, and Lirit can see her own edges fraying with embarrassment, the solidity of her arm beneath the prince's hand failing, somewhat.
"Oh," she says, and Drace's expression goes pleading.
"It isn't as if I... as if I were here purposefully. I know you know that, I know-"
"Oh," she says again.
"It was- deeply comforting, to be surrounded by that much- that much affection, pure and warm and... gods. I apologize, again, Lirit."
She- she shakes her head. "Is-" she gently pulls her hand back, and Drace's smile goes a little wincing as he releases her hand. "Is that why you seem- is that what this is about? The-"
"Holding your hand?" he asks, and he sounds sad. "Why would you think I would need- I could have done that simply out of gratitude for having someone to talk to, having someone here to help me understand where I am and what I am and how I came to be here, but- it isn't that either of you have put your emotions in my head, Lirit."
"That's exactly what it sounds like, Drace," she says, firm, and he sighs.
"No- it isn't like... it wasn't an imposition upon myself. It was more... I could see how Essa sees you. I could see how you see them. It was as if I could see all of it, and I could feel- the warmth between you. I could see their charm and cleverness and ill-hidden compassion, and you- you know, don't you, how beautiful you look, to Essa? You know-"
"People truly need to stop telling me what I must know before my skull pops right off of my spine," Lirit mutters, and the prince breaks into an outright guffaw.
"You're stubborn and sweet and kind and beautiful and your pout is the most tempting thing in all of creation."
Lirit wonders, vaguely, if this space is going to be stained permanently pink.
"I'm dead," she says, halfway on automatic. "I don't think I count as much of anything, anymore."
The prince- pauses.
"Oh," he says, rather gently. "Oh, it's... it's truly very sad, that you believe that enough to say it here, of all places. You are... you count for rather a lot, Lirit. Not many would fight the way you do, after so much pain and so much encouragement to do ill, instead. You-"
"You have only been watching me for a day and a half, perhaps," Lirit mutters, quick and dismissive. "You cannot know me in so short a time."
"But Essa does," he counters. "They believe in you. They love you."
"You- you can't just say things like that," Lirit hisses, glancing aside as if the thief might overhear, somehow. "Stop."
He opens his mouth, then closes it again, looking properly chagrined. "I'm sorry. I know you didn't... neither of you asked to have me there with you. It isn't fair for me to insinuate myself into- it isn't my place, no matter-"
He pauses, and now Lirit suspects that the pinkish tinge in the air is focused on him, and not on herself.
"I don't know how, yet," Lirit says, trying to steer the conversation safely away from Essa and their feelings one way or the other, "but I won't stop until I find a way to get you out of here. And then- then when you have your own mind and body back, when you aren't trapped and scared and forced to- to occupy a pocket, then I hope that perhaps you'll be able to forgive me my part in all of this. And- forgive us for carting you around like a good luck token, as well."
"If you think you require forgiveness," he says, rather gently, his thumbs still shockingly warm against her indistinct form. "I'm not so certain that you do."
"Yes, well," she huffs. "Perhaps you'll feel differently when you are no longer quite so influenced by the people holding you."
"You seem to be under the impression that I am going to resent the both of you when I escape this prison," he says, squinting curiously. "You don't know the gift that is your presence, do you?"
"Stop," Lirit says again, and she tries to firm her voice. "I don't know what you- want from me, but-"
"Your presence," he says again, calm and steady. "Weren't you listening?"
"You are-" Lirit laughs. "Bizarre. Are you always like this, or is it just this place?"
"I feel- more free, in a way," he admits, "but- no. Much to my mother's irritation, I am just... like this, as you put it. My apologies. I have a rather easy heart, and the pair of you-"
He lifts one of his hands away from hers, upturning his palm as if he might cup her cheek, but-
There is a tug.
The prince pauses, surprise painting his features, and then he sinks into a resigned sort of smile.
"Leaving so soon, ah-"
"I'm- I'm sorry," she says, and- before she can think better of it, she lifts her other hand (indistinct, formless), and she brushes it across his cheek, tingling with energy and potential. "I'll- I'll find a way to get you out. I'll find a way to speak to you without- losing myself in the prison, too."
"I know you will," he murmurs, pressing her hand against his cheek briefly, and for just a moment, it feels like something real, something solid. "I have the utmost faith in you and yours. Tell Essa-" he pauses. "Well. Perhaps it would be best if I waited until I could tell them for myself. If nothing else- let them know... I'm glad that they took me, when they did."
"I'll find another way to speak with you," Lirit says again, feeling the pull like a riptide, like tilting of gravity, and the prince's hands fall away from her as she starts to slip backwards. "I'll get you out. I- I will, I promise-"
The prince grins, warm and unafraid, and as he nods Lirit feels something snap like a cord being pulled tight, and
She's on her back on cracked stone, weeds brushing her cheek, the vaulted ceilings of the temple above, with shafts of sunlight slipping between unrepaired cracks in the roof, and the amulet- just torn from her hands, the chain still dragging against her fingertips.
She blinks, fluttering her eyes hard, half expecting the shapeless space of clouds and colors to surround her again, and then the reality of her surroundings settles more solidly, the gasping breaths of the living beings around her stuffing her ears. Clairmonde breathes hard, her hands outstretched, maintaining her ward even still, and Larc clutches at the larger woman's arm with her eyes screwed shut and her face pressed into her shoulder, gasping in a way that suggests tears. Zolona is still and silent, of course, but her stillness is- sharp, and uncomfortable, until Lirit catches her eye, and then the older woman exhales sharply, a clear crack showing on in the mask of her implacable expression. Essa-
Her head rests on Essa's legs, and the thief is the one who has pulled the amulet from her claw-fingered grasp, and their body curls protectively down over Lirit, their expression twisted into a terrified scowl until Lirit looks towards them. She uncurls a hand from the tangle of the chain, lifting it towards Essa's face, just barely touching her cheek.
"Oops," she manages, weak and uncertain, and the thief laughs and sobs in one breath, their face crumpling hard. "Um. How... long was I in there?" she asks, delicately. "Not as long as it felt, I hope..."
Essa shakes her head, and Lirit feels droplets - tears - splash down onto her cheek, trickling down against her thumb on Essa's face.
"Long enough," Zolona says, her tone still steady though perhaps a little breathless, and Lirit winces.
"S-sorry. I didn't realize it would do that, either. I'm not hurt, though, I- I think my- my mind, or- my spirit just... went elsewhere, for a little while."
"And if your spirit is not inhabiting your body, Lirit," Essa snarls, glaring down at her through their tears, "what do you think that does to you?"
Lirit blinks, presses her mouth more tightly closed, and then wets her lips and looks away. "W-well-"
"You died, and- no, before you start, you were really dead- your body had nothing in it, no magic, no- no soul, nothing at all, because everything got sucked into this stupid fucking amulet and it nearly took you away from us again-"
"He-" she ducks her head, worries her lip between her teeth, glances up through her lashes to check all of their expressions as she says, experimentally, "he told me that his name is... Drace?"