Anima: The Masquerade

A (Hopefully) Unneeded Contingency

My Dearest Markus,

I regret to inform you that the news I bring is not of good tidings, but of a bitter tribulation for the both of us to face. To speak plainly, I am going some place from which I can never return. It would seem the court has deemed me irrecoverably influenced by necromancy. I am too much of a risk to keep within society and must be cast into the basement level of The Temple of The Eleven for safe keeping.

While the world may be safe from any damage I may unintentionally inflict upon it, I fear that my own safety is far from guaranteed. I can only imagine what may be within the lower level of the temple. Given my lack of self defense this ordeal is more than likely a death sentence for me, so even now I may be nothing more than a corpse rotting on the cold stone floor.

I am frightened of what I may find, and it is unlikely that sleep will come to me tonight. I know that you may be angry at those putting me away, but neither you nor I have anyone to blame but myself.

In my recent travels, I found myself in a toxic environment surrounded by the corpses of my friends. I was offered shelter by what seemed like a kind soul who snatched my friends from the brink of being lost forever: something I would have struggled to do in my state of exhaustion at the time. It was only later that I found out this “friend” was necrotic in nature.

I told myself it didn’t matter so long as I could save my friends from the slow and painful death that would be brought on over the next several days. But, I knew better. I should have turned everyone around and found a different solution. It wasn’t that I couldn’t pull my allies together and survive, but that I didn’t.

Now I find myself full of regret and shame for what my actions brought upon not only myself, but several other innocents who’ve performed countless acts of heroism. With this in mind, if I am to be found guilty of such a crime in the eyes of the law, then I will gladly except whatever punishment follows.

Just know that I never stopped loving you for even a moment. I would have done anything for a chance to feel your beautiful face on my finger tips one more time before leaving for good. Even though I long for you it does not mean your heart should linger on me. I beg you to bury your bitterness and find not only peace and closure, but to once more find love if you ever feel the time is right. I can die in peace knowing you will live a long and happy life.

Thank you for everything you’ve done for me, Markus. I don’t regret a single second we spent together, whether in laughter or sadness. The time we shared is more precious than any amount of gold or material wealth in this world; Never forget that.

Your lover,


Satisfied with the contents of the letter, Lydia folded it neatly and sealed it closed in an envelope. She carefully wrote Markus’ full name on the front and blew on the ink to accelerate the drying process. Certain that everything pertaining to the message was in order, Lydia tucked it in her over-shirt for safe keeping. It was unlikely that it would ever need to be used, but it was better to be cautious than to be locked away without ever having a chance to say goodbye. She only hoped that the judgment would see things her way and it would never have to be delivered.

Can you say "Acrophobia?"
If she couldn't before, she can now.

Lydia huffed for air as she ran as fast as she could across the bridge. Harlan, Mappo, Glasgow had all been practically slaughtered the moment their opponents started taking the fight seriously. Panic raced through her mind and a blur of “what ifs” rushed in circles and disrupted any trace of rational thought. Right now she had to run for her life, or everything they’d fought for and sacrificed would be gone.

Without allowing another step, Lydia was pulled to hard stone that made the bridge. It had taken only a few moments for the masked figure that had just finished off the last of her friends to make up the hundreds of feet she’d put between them. It easily overwhelmed her with its strength and tugged her head back to pull her ear close to it’s mouth.

“You and your little gang of heros were useful for a long time,” it whispered almost gently in her ear as she fought to escape his grasp. Lydia felt a cold hand grip her neck and lift her off of the ground. The girl released a choked scream as she was overwhelmed by both fear and pain as the fibers in her neck threatened to tear. Gripping the masked figure’s wrist with both of her hands, she supported as much of her weight as she could despite the feeling of her throat collapsing under it’s fingers. “But not anymore,” it sneered as Lydia felt it begin to drain her life energy.

She kicked and struggled feebly as it slowly walked with her held up off of the ground. Lydia was uncertain how much longer she could remain conscious from the lack of oxygen, and that was if she wasn’t sucked dry first. The wind picked up as the masked figure approached the edge of the world’s surface. “Good bye, little Oracle,” it taunted cruelly before releasing its grip. Feeling herself plummet, Lydia reached for the cliff-side, but her hands found only air. Her speed quickly increased and Lydia realized this was the end of everything. Disappearing into the fog below, her scream of terror faded with her.

“You don’t think this is even a little silly,” Markus asked playfully.

“Of course not, star-gazing is romantic blind or not,” Lydia assured him as she lay in the middle of an open meadow chest down with her head on Markus chest.

“So what, you want me to enjoy it all by myself while you lie her bored out of your mind?”

“I’m not bored. What made you think that?” Lydia raised her head to direct her attention to Markus.

“You went quiet, that’s all.”

“I was just listening to your heart,” she explained as she set her head back down, “it makes such a beautiful sound.”

“That’s because it’s madly in love. Hadn’t you heard?”

“With who,” Lydia asked curiously to play along.

“The most beautiful little brown-haired girl it’s ever seen.” Lydia smiled and brought herself into a close embrace.

“I love you too, Markus.” The two remained together quietly under the stars for nearly an hour, both simply enjoying the presence of the other. Lydia had been mulling over how to approach a difficult subject of conversation. “I know I haven’t told you yet,” she finally managed before hesitating and taking a deep breath.

“Tell me what?”

“I’m leaving again. I have to attend the matter of the new Mars Tower Grand Cleric in Eternia, but this time I’ll be gone for a long time.”

“How long is a long time?”

“Until I’m ready to come home, I suppose.”

“This all seems rather sudden don’t you think,” Markus suggested. “Where is all of this coming from?”

“I suppose it would seem that way. I’ve actually been thinking a lot about what you told me several years ago. How I needed to live first before I could help others to live. To solve my own problems before I could help solve theirs.” Markus breathed deeply and thought on his words while selecting them carefully.

“I suppose I did say that. A part of me wishes I hadn’t.”

“You don’t think I should go then? I guess I can stay if that’s what you want.”

“No, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I did say it was only a part of me. The rest of wants you to go out and see the world if that’s how you feel.”

“Well, I won’t be actually seeing anything in a literal sense,” Lydia giggled. Her expression softened before she reached up to stroke Markus’ hair. “Will you wait for me? I understand if you can’t, I just need to know, please.”

“Every morning on the cliff overlooking the docks until my heart gives out and my body turns to dust.” Lydia laughed to hide how flattered she felt by his commitment.

“Thank you, Markus.”

Lydia flopped onto the hard ground after having her momentum slowed by some form of magic. She could feel her arms shaking uncontrollably as she pushed herself into a sitting position. Her heart was still pounding and her mind still rich with the surge of adrenaline. A strange smell filled Lydia’s nose in her first few breaths before her eyes and lungs began to burn. She coughed violently and covered her mouth and nose with her cloak.

“Mm? You’re alive!” Spoke a strange, high pitched voice. Lydia froze under the unexpected attention.

“Hello?” Was it hostile, or malicious? Perhaps whoever this was could be of aid. She would soon find out for sure.

Back in Black
Fade to Black

The light faded from my eyes and I experienced the most pervading pain I have ever felt right down to my very bones. Then I was dead. I don’t remember anything during that time. Then the pervasive pain was reversed and air filled my lungs. I sorely wished I had been left in peace. No man should bear the pain of death more than once.
It got me thinking about Draco. All I could think about when he passed was if there was any way to bring him back. Now, I doubt myself. I saw him in the soul flow. Or at least I think it was him. He was at peace. He was free. Free from all this suffering and pain. I do not think it would be fair of me to take that peace away from him, simply because I could not cope with his loss, or even if I felt he could do so much more good. It is not my place to decide such things. Instead I should honor his memory and leave him to his well deserved rest.
I had died fighting. I could not have asked for a more honorable death. But that honor was taken from me and now I am filled with fear.
When I awoke, I was in the worst place I could possibly be. A punishment worst than death. I had failed Eternia. At every turn I was blocked by magic, by powerful figures and circumstances beyond my control. Every stride I took to try to stop events from transpiring ended in failure. Since I met the Oracle, I have been imprisoned, tortured, possessed, beaten, ridiculed by friend and foe alike and bullied by those who bed with power. My best friend died and I was unable to protect the people of my city. The only good thing that had happened to me in that time was the unlikely meeting with my beloved, Megan.
But I was tossed over the edge. Torn from the world I had known, I was still alive, yet possessed no way to return to my beloved. I pictured her on the alter six months hence and the tears that would fill her eyes. Her heart broken and it would be me that had made her so. I had left her nothing. Just some money to keep her happy and a fading dream that was our love.
I wasn’t dead yet. There was still a chance to make it to my wedding. The single thought consumed my mind. I would try every second so long as I drew breath to return to the world above and reunite with my beloved. If I could not, if there was no way to return and all that remained for me was to wait beneath the world I had known, I may as well be dead, for no punishment could be worse. To know the pain and despair that would follow and being unable to do anything to prevent it. Trapped in a hole with an undead court jester. No. To have the world I had known, my love and my life torn from me, and then my own honorable death even stolen from me and to know that I could do nothing to prevent the disasters that await… That would be hell.
So I must try. With every fiber of my being. I must not rest until I return. For not doing so would be a fate worse than death.
I have done some thinking upon it. Upon the fevered dream of my return. If I return to that world, to my beloved I would leave all of this behind. I would marry my beloved and start a family. Take over the family business for my father in his old age. Create a life that I could leave behind and say “I did this. This was my work” and leave something for my beloved should I die.
If I leave it behind, someone else will rise up in my place. Wherever there is evil, good will rise up to meet it. There are plenty of powerful figures in this world to set it aright, once they see the world for what it is. Why should it be my responsibility? I’m just one man. I’ve been given a second chance to live a normal life. I have nothing the masqueraders want anymore. They would have no quarrel with me. If I let them be, I would be free to live a happy and normal life.
So I must try to return to the world, or else die trying, for there is nothing else I can be. For my beloved, for my father, and for myself.

The Rain Subsides...

Lydia lay in her bed restlessly as she tried to fight off the dark cloud that seemed to hover over her head in recent weeks. Anxious nights and lack of sleep were almost becoming the standard in the wake of Draco’s death. On top of that, recent revelations about the true nature of the world had come to light. It was mind blowing to think that the existing world had turned out to be so much larger than was taught in her classes as a child.

Plant life she’d never even dreamed off remained undisturbed just beyond the horizon. Not to mention these “machines.” It had become apparent that the world she knew as at least held up, if not sustained entirely, by these towers of metal. How many of these machines were there? Were any more of them inhabited with human life like this one, or were they all just feral or barren as the two others had been?

There would be no answering such questions from the comfort of her bed. Even still, information on the nature of these machines was scarce. Ronald himself seemed unfamiliar with the majority of the world’s true nature.

Lydia decided there was little point to both thinking more on the matter as well as simply lying down and fruitlessly trying to sleep. She wandered over to her desk and resumed her place in her book. It spoke of the nature of souls and the soul flow. If there were to be any answers pertaining to preventing what happened to Draco in the future, it would be here.

It was unclear how to approach the problem, other than the fact that it should be done on a spiritual level. After another couple hours of reading, Lydia sighed in frustration as she closed the book and set in on her desk. There didn’t seem to be any methods of calling souls from the flow without being some form of deity or delving into necromancy She stood from her chair and decided to go out for a walk in the late night breeze. The sound of the waves at the coastline were soothing, often helpful in clearing her head and bringing about inspiration.

When she arrived at the shore, Lydia removed her shoes and strode ankle deep into the cold ocean water. The waves kissed her shins as she took a deep breath to smell the ocean air. “If only I could linger on the shore forever,” she thought to herself as she walked along. Her daydream was interrupted by the feeling of a small and blunt object that jabbed her foot.

“Ow!” It had hurt enough that she’d blurted out involuntarily. Curious as to what such a sharp object was doing so far from the rocks, Lydia bent over to find the intruder that had invaded her silky smooth blanket of sand. At first, it felt like a rock until she noticed moving bits on one side. It was a hermit crab. “Hey there little guy,” Lydia smiled and stroked the shell of the crab gently. “What are you doing all the way over here away from the shelter of the rocks? It’s dangerous out in the open.”

Her fingers brushed over the peculiar spiral shape of the shell as she made her way to the cluster of rocks that sheltered an entire zoo of life. Setting the crab down, Lydia sat on the rock to scare off any birds that might want to eat it before it had ample time to scurry off to a hiding. She got to thinking about hermit crabs and their shells as she fell into a relaxed position to lay down and listen to the waves.

Lydia cocked her head after a few moments as she considered how much could be learned from such a simple creature. Interestingly enough, after some time, it seemed that the crab may just have provided an answer to her problem.

If Draco had been a hermit crab, he’d have become vulnerable when his shell was smashed. It was obvious that such damage would be unmanagable, and that the crab may choose to run off to the ocean to seek cover. In Draco’s case, no longer having a body, his soul sought refuge in the soul flow. But what if she could catch the crab before it had time to run into the ocean and find it a new shell? Lydia smiled at the thought of it. She was certain she’d read of some way to transfer souls into objects, dead bodies, or even living people. Despite having read of it years ago, she’d dismissed it as an immortality gimmick; jumping from body to body to avoid every truly dying despite the old body being left to decay.

It was then that a sneak wave washed up over the rocks and drenched Lydia in ice cold water.. She gasped and jumped up from the rock on which she’d been so complacent only moments ago. The cool breeze now felt ice cold as the girl shivered and collected the thoughts that had been scattered by the uninvited guest.

“Shame on you,” she turned to the ocean and shook her fist at it as if it were a sentient being, “you’re mother must have taught you better than to be so rude!” Imagining the ocean snickering back mischievously, Lydia frowned and made her way back home to warm up before she had time to catch a cold. Certain she had earned funny looks from the few late-nighters she passed on her way back in the temple, Lydia pressed forward quickly to avoid as much embarrassment as possible.

The unexpected water had arguably ruined the whatever good mood the ocean might have normally brought her. Regardless of the results of the outing, she’d finally made some desperately needed progress in her research. Perhaps after a warm bath and a few pages of her favorite romance, restful sleep would finally find its way to Lydia once more.

From Fuzzy to Spanky
Or something like that...

It’s hard to say what’s possessed me. I guess there’s some semblance of desire still within my bones. When Draco died… I don’t know. Something in me changed. Draco was an ally to me, a kindred spirit. He understood more about me than perhaps I even did. He’s gone now. And with him all that he lived for, and died for. Just like that. There was nothing left. He was a difficult man to remember, due to his heritage. And what exactly did he leave behind? A small family, nothing more. His deeds will be forgotten and he left no legacy. I feel as though I am the only one who will truly bear his memory. It was I who knew him best, and even at that I feel like I knew so little.
As I thought about him in his passing, I thought more and more about my own life, and what I was leaving behind. All I seem to have done is brought danger to myself, my friends and my family. And if I were to die there would only be regret and the passing vision of a fool. My father would mourn his foolish son, and there would be a small funeral maybe. That’s all. That’s not good enough.
I spent so much time scorning personal glory, desiring to do good deeds for strangers and taking none of the credit. Now I wonder about the other version of myself, and what it can leave behind. The black mask I wear to scorn my own glory is only part of my story. The young man known as Harlan MacAlistair has much he can leave behind to better this world.
I decided to propose to her. Megan. She refreshes my spirit and makes me feel as though the other half of me has a purpose too. I know that I put her in danger when I bring her to Eternia, but I cannot help it. Maybe I can start a life with this woman, and leave behind children. Perhaps we can build a legacy together, and maybe, just maybe make this world we live in a little bit better. But I’ll have to be careful for her sake. It’ll take some practice. I know that I am reckless, and it will take some time, but I must find a way to live through this. For her.

Consumed by Bitterness

Two months after “Eye for an eye”

“Hold still,” Lydia scolded, “you’re only making it harder on yourself every time I’ve got to find the wound again.” Lydia was knelt on the floor of Markus’ bedroom next to the bed where Markus sat. The skin on his lower thigh was red and irritated around the edges of a ragged laceration.

“Yeah,” Markus grunted as the girl dabbed the wound with a warm cloth, “well it wasn’t so bad a few days ago.”

“You shouldn’t have waited so long to seek medical attention. You’re lucky the infection isn’t worse than it is.”

“Well, I am a hunter. I can’t exactly afford a doctor.”

“You could be more careful then,” she suggested. “Surely you had to have seen that boar coming?”

“Have you ever been chased by a boar? They’re fast. I was lucky to get away with just a cut.” Markus cringed once again as Lydia rinsed the rag and applied it to the open skin once more.

“Well, I’ve never been foolish enough to get in the way of one,” Lydia teased with a chuckle.

“Are you done? That boar got my leg, but you’re sure not doing my pride any favors.”

“Yes, fine, I’m done. I’m just about finished with your leg as well, just let me dress it and it’ll be fine if you take good care of it.” Lydia wrapped a couple of passes of bandage over the injury before cutting the length away from the roll and securing it in such a fashion that it wouldn’t come undone too easily.

“Thank you. Why are you doing this exactly? Is it because you love me so much?”

“Well sure, but that’s not the only reason. As an Oracle, I do my best to provide comfort to anyone who seeks it. That includes alleviating physical pain physical pain from wounds like yours,” she explained as she placed the roll of bandage back in her bag and pushed the bowl of water to the side.

“I know, I’m just too difficult to resist,” Markus flexed with playful arrogance as if Lydia could see what he was doing.

“Oh, hush. Looks mean nothing to a blind girl.”

“Ouch. I’m not sure whether that was a compliment or not,” Markus noted.

“You know I didn’t mean anything malicious. All I’m saying is that I found beauty deep inside that was more than some infatuation that only runs in the skin.” Lydia stood and slung her bag over her shoulder.

“Uh, thanks,” Markus finally managed to say after nothing nearly as gracious came to his mind. “Are you leaving already?”

“As much as I’d love to stay and talk, I do have other duties to attend to. I can’t forsake those even for you,” Lydia forced a smile through her disappointment.

“Actually, uh, I think my um… back hurts. Yeah. my back hurts. Can you fix it?” Lydia barely managed to contain a snicker at Markus’ pathetic excuse to convince her to prolong her stay. Lydia hesitated with a mischievous yet nervous smirk like a school girl ditching class for the first time before finally setting her bag back on the floor.

“Lay down on your chest then, I’ll see what I can do,” Lydia played along with his plea for help. Markus did as he was told with an ecstatic grin and Lydia found her way to the bed and climbed on top to straddle his lower back.

She pressed her hands to his spine and rolled her palms up toward his neck before veering off to each shoulder and massaging the thick muscles. The girl explored his shoulder blades and mid-back with her finger tips then repeated the process with varying patterns to keep any one sensation from being predictable.

“Actually, your back is a mess,” Lydia finally commented after several minutes of silence.

“Of course it is. It had to be to get you to stay longer. I won’t complain about having your legs around me like this either-OW!” Markus cried out in pain as Lydia pressed down with a sudden jolt of surprising force, earning an audible pop from his upper spine. “Oh, that feels good. I didn’t even know that was there.”

“You really should take better care of yourself. You’re going to be a ruined old man one day if you keep this up.” Lydia continued to work the knots out of his back with her palms.

“Maybe I will,” he replied before thinking a moment, “or maybe you’ll be here to take care of me until I die.”

“Back massages won’t save you forever,” Lydia giggled as she bent over and pecked Markus on the cheek, “but they’ll do for now.”

“Then you’ll just have to get creative, won’t you?”

“I suppose I will.” Many minutes passed and Markus practically melted on the bed under Lydia’s experienced hands. Without realizing it, he was soon overcome by the somnolence that followed the warmth and comfort and slipped into unconsciousness. Lydia noticed the shift in his breathing and smiled. His body was still taxed in its effort to fight of the beginnings of infection that had developed and required rest to continue its effort. “Sweet dreams Markus,” she whispered before delivering yet another kiss to the top of his head.

Lydia crept off of the bed slowly and felt around on the floor until she found her bag. She slung it over her shoulder and quietly walked over to the door and slipped outside, using the magic aura from the tower to slowly find her way home.

The evening after arriving in Mercuria

Lydia faded into reality from her daydream. The memory had been a pleasant one while it lasted at the very least. Sitting up in her chair from her slumped position over the table, Lydia emptied the remaining half of her pint of ale into her throat before refilling it again and resuming her position one more.

Why did Draco have to die? It seemed as if time had frozen as she heard the muffled scream of pain followed by the gut wrenching sound of tearing bone, muscle, and cartilage. She remembered the warm spray of blood that had hit her in the face, causing her to wonder for just a moment if it was her own that had been spilled. But it had to be his.

Could she even have stopped it? Her rational mind would always promptly answer “no” every time she asked herself the question. Yet, the storm of anger, fear, and sorrow overpowered its quiet voice and left her to wonder if she really could have prevented his fate. If there had only been some way of knowing what was to come.

On that note, Lydia pulled on the silver chain that draped under her shirt around her neck and stared at the smooth, spherical, light violet stone that hung from it. It glowed brightly in her fingers unwaveringly.

“Damn you,” she cursed at the stone before tearing it off and throwing it on the ground behind her, “we could have saved him if you’d only work for once!” It bounced once and rolled into the corner of her chambers as if to wait patiently for its companion to love it once more. Lydia emptied another pint of ale before leaning back on the table.

She badly wanted to talk to Markus. He’d been there for her as soon as she was allowed visitors during her recovery from her punctured lung. However this time she couldn’t stand the thought of allowing him to see her in such a sorry state, simply keeping faith that he would someday understand why she hadn’t come to see him after months of absence. Instead Lydia continued to drown out her sorrow and self-hatred with alcohol in hopes that such bitter feelings would trouble her no more.

Mind if I use your couch?
Just for a night or two...

A tired and grumbling Draco awoke in the black of night to the sound of someone tapping on his bedroom window pane. It took him a moment to recognize the sound, and twice as long to decide that it deserved his attention. Who on earth could it be in the dead of night? He fumbled around for the oil lamp on the bedside table, and eventually got it lit. He was hesitant to go to the window. Was someone trying to break into his home? It was hard to say.
“Draco.” Came a faint whisper from the window.
Draco raised an eyebrow and stumbled over to the window. He set down the lamp and grabbed a knife from the bedside table. Just in case. He pulled back the curtain and waited to strike, lest someone should make a sudden move. However, his fears were not realized and were replaced by surprise. He opened the window. “Harlan?”
The youth was slumped against the outer wall of the house and breathing heavily. “Yeah. It’s me.”
“What are you up to?” Draco asked, wondering if perhaps his childhood rival had some sort of trick up his sleeve.
“Nothing. I need your help.”
Draco couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Yeah, right.” Draco said, shutting the window.
Another rap at his window and he opened it again.
“I need your help. Please.” Harlan repeated.
Draco could hear the desperation in Harlan’s voice, but he was still leery. “Why would you want help from me?”
“Just get out here and give me a hand, will you?”
Draco shook his head and shut the window. He had half a mind to leave Harlan out in the dark of the night. However, he had a feeling the somewhat persistent boy wouldn’t let him rest unless he went out there, so he resigned to sneak out of the house and see what his rival wanted at this ungodly hour.
Outside, his eyes went wide as he saw Harlan still slumped against the building and noticed a dark splotch on the wall in the pale moonlight. He held up his lamp to get a better look and saw that Harlan had been cut deep just below the ribs.
“What the hell happened to you?” Draco asked.
“I just need a place to stay until I heal. Okay?”
“What the hell did you do?”
“I just got into a fight is all.” Harlan lied.
“Right. And I’m sure you didn’t start it.”
“He didn’t need to steal from the blacksmith’s forge. I just did what was right.”
A very confused conversation, involving a thief, Harlan and a seemingly enraged mule, later Draco helped Harlan into his home to give the boy some room on his couch.
“I didn’t know he had a knife.”
Draco slapped his palm on his face. “He was stealing weapons from the blacksmith…”
“Look, the point is, there was a knife and I’m not invincible, okay?” Harlan sighed.
“Okay. So why were you out there in the first place?”
“Have you seen what has happened to this town lately?”
Draco could hear the sorrow in his rival’s voice.
“Someone has to stop all this criminal bullshit. The guards aren’t doing anything. I had to do something.”
“Yeah, but why you? Let someone else do it. Oh, wait. You’re in it for the glory.”
“Don’t you dare tell anyone it was me. That’s not what this is about.”
“Then what is it about?”
“Someone has to protect the people in this city. These people deserve better than that.”
“The people in this city are the people who are committing these crimes. You want to save them from themselves or something? You’re wierd, dude.”
“Yeah. Well, that’s what needs to be done, and I’m the only one stupid enough to do it.”
“You got that right.” Draco folded his arms. “Why did you come to me. I’m the last person who wants to hear from you.”
“Because you’re the only one strong enough to understand.”
“What do you mean?”
“You may not be as incredibly awesome as me, but I’ve seen you. You fight for what you believe in. Even if it’s not against criminals or monsters or whatever. You’re a good man somewhere under that cold, scaly, ugly exterior.”
“I mean it. So just let me stay here until I can go back home. And don’t tell a soul, okay?”
Draco thought about it for a while. It would almost be satisfying to watch his archenemy suffer under the stifling gaze of his authoritative father. But something inside him told him not to. There was something more between the two of them at that moment. A bond, almost like a brotherhood. He wondered what would happen when he let Harlan stay. Then he yawned and decided to figure it out in the morning.

Crouching Titan, Hidden Ronald

Lydia trudged forward monotonously through the cool and shin-deep sand as she and her companions pressed forward through the night. The dry air left a thirst for water in her mouth that she worked hard to ignore. Everyone else was busy keeping a close eye on the stars and working together to make certain the path traveled was the correct one through the shroud of illusion that would otherwise trick any who entered into wandering aimlessly.

It hadn’t taken long for Lydia to realize that the keen sense of direction she’d obtained in her blindness had been rendered worthless by the illusive trickery. It was more than simply sight that would fall prey to falsified sensations, but all five senses together for a terrifyingly disorienting surprise. Having been able to contribute very little, Lydia had settled for wandering in thought as she kept her left hand on the cliff-side with her right hand around Kaylee’s wrist.

Every so often Kaylee would give Lydia a soft tug to pull her out of the path of a rock or around a sinkhole. The treacherous environment made walking unassisted nearly impossible without suffering serious injury or risking death in some cases. Lydia felt a little embarrassed that she was unable to handle a task as simple as walking through the sand which had been so trivial for all of her companions. It was easy enough to dismiss the thought and try to remember her presence was well worth the extra trouble when injury or illness came about, but somehow it continued to gnaw at her in the back of her mind.

“Hold up,” Mappo outstretched his hand to signal the group to stop. “The stars are not right,” he pointed to the sky. Lydia sighed as she remained unable to see what he was talking about. As far as she was concerned, her point of contact on the wall should have made it impossible to get turned around. While it frustrated her, she was also wise enough to know that such was the nature of powerful illusion magic. Kaylee put her hands on Lydia’s shoulders and pointed her in the correct direction of travel. Once again Lydia placed her hand on the wall in hopes of catching the illusion magic with its hands in the cookie jar.

It wasn’t long until Lydia once again went into autopilot and began to process her thoughts and memories. Her mind settled on Ronald, a figure she’d now met twice: Once in the Trial of Darkness, and again only a couple of days prior as Ray placed the orb he carried on a mysterious pedestal.

He’d told Lydia she was once more in the Realm Between Worlds, and that it was curious that a mortal had been in contact with the soul flow so many times without death ever being the cause. What Lydia had found peculiar was that Ronald knew of the second instance, something she’d never told anyone about, not even Annabelle, lest her secret be exploited if it reached the wrong ears.

Lydia had always taken Ronald for an ordinary man who’d been a figment of her imagination, but such an assumption was being quickly crushed by each new visit to the Realm Between Worlds. Her second journey had been the only reason she knew the first was involving the soul flow to any degree. All on its own, this fact negated the theory that Ronald was any sort of ordinary mortal at all. Furthermore, on her third journey to the Realm, she’d met Ronald yet again where he not only revealed seemingly omnipotent knowledge, but had told her she was always welcome to visit him at the Scarlet Precipice.

Lydia recalled how her heart felt as if it had stopped in that moment as she heard those words. Her mind flooded with questions that thirsted for answers, but before she could even peep the first syllable, she’d found herself flat on her chest on the stone floor she’d fallen unconscious on in the first place.

Having never been to the Scarlet Precipice, the only conclusion she found herself able to come to was that the massive titan she’d seen only twice before, once on the horizon sitting atop the Precipice, was indeed Ronald. There was no solid proof, but all of the facts seemed to point to him.

“Wait!” This time Harlan had spoken up. Lydia sighed as once again her companions readjusted their direction of travel. No sooner than she’d tried to re-obtain her train of thought, an ominous howl shattered the silence. Lydia clung tightly to Kaylee who’d she still been holding by the wrist.

She’d been lucky enough to remain unscathed in battle, but for how long? Despite the fear of an early end to a would be disappointing life, Lydia took a deep breath and released her grip on her companion. Kaylee would need to move to fight the terrors that would soon prance down the cliff side.

So would Lydia if they decided she looked like a delicious target.

Eye for an eye: Part II

Lydia awoke shivering cold and soaked as the water from a shallow stream only an inch in depth tickled her cheek. She cringed at a familiar sense; pain that shot through her leg when she tried to move. The cave, thanks to a sort of skylight formation in the top, was lit just brightly enough for her to inspect the damage from the wound. Finding her calf in a bloody and dysfunctional mess, the girl shuddered and poked at the torn flesh on the edge of the injury. It was the same wound that had been left by the beast in the Trial of Darkness. Looking around, she could see trees that had managed to form out of the small amounts of sunlight in the cave, various smaller formations of plant-life, and a spring that had pooled off to the side.

“Hello? Is anyone there? I need help,” Lydia called out. As she listened for a response over the trickling water, only her echo throughout the caves returned a reply. Unable to think of another course of action, the girl stood on her weak, trembling legs and hobbled downstream to seek assistance. Her progress was slow and painful, but in time she saw a change in scenery.

The stream flowed into a river of massive proportion. At its edge stood a small dock to which a humble boat was anchored. On the edge of the dock stood an old robed man with a long beard. He held a pipe in one hand and a staff with a lantern tied off to the end in the other. Lydia hurried with a heavy limp down to the dock to meet the old man as he puffed on his pipe as if waiting for someone to come along. As she grew closer, the man looked up and squinted suspiciously while he exhaled a small cloud of smoke into the air.

“This is no place for you, child,” the old man stated, “go back to wherever it is you came from.” Lydia swallowed nervously as she built up the courage to disobey his orders. She’d been told countless times to obey her elders, but this was hardly the time to respect such a rule.

“Can you help me?” Lydia shivered and hugged her chest to try to keep her freezing bones warm. There was no telling how long she’d been laying in ice cold water and the blood loss wasn’t helping at all.

“No. Be gone,” the man answered stubbornly. Lydia looked around for further options, but the robed man was the only thing in sight.

“Please, I’m lost and hurt. I think I might be hypothermic.”

“I can offer you no help, young lady. Wounds like yours are not easily healed. The soul does not simply regenerate like the body.”

“S-soul?” Lydia stuttered anxiously at the context of the word.

“Perhaps you were unaware that you are not in the world that you know, girl. There is fair reason for you to have regained your vision. You dwell in the realm between worlds. I guard passage to the soul flow.” Lydia cocked her head in confusion. How could he know so much about her? Even still, it hadn’t occurred to her until now, for some reason, that she was in fact blind.

“Am I dead then?” Lydia asked promptly, eager for an answer.

“Dying. Your lung is punctured and your carotid artery has been nicked. If your shot had been any cleaner you would already be dead. Though I suppose you have not escaped such a fate just yet. Until your connection to your body is completely severed I cannot allow you to pass beyond this point, nor may I leave to assist you.”

“What exactly are you saying?” She couldn’t imagine she’d shot herself with a bow, even if Markus hadn’t been there to help.

“Foolish girl,” the old man chuckled, “so young and ignorant of your own feelings. Few live to be injured like you have,” explained the man as he gestured to her leg. “Damage suffered to the soul is more often than not fatal, and yet here you are like a resilient little amaranth in the snow.”

“ A very beautiful bit of poetry sir, but what does that have to do with anything?”

“My point is that reactions to such damage are always different. Souls are just as diverse as people. You have chosen to suffer as you make your enemies suffer. Penance for spilled blood as an exact copy of any harm done to a living thing. ”

“I haven’t chosen anything.” Puzzled by the man’s words, she tilted her head slightly.

“Oh, but you have. Your mind may simply not realize it. I think you’ll find that if you search deeply enough, the wound that threatens your life at this moment is entirely self-inflicted. You see, pain in the soul affects you far more strongly than that of physical pain. Your very essence knows suffering greater that most men who fight in war. But, unlike those men, you have a kind soul,” the man explained, “and you wouldn’t see anyone harmed by your own hand. Not even a simple boar. So you rip yourself apart from the inside to pay for your crimes by inflicting the same wounds on your body as you delivered to theirs.”

“I don’t completely understand how I’m supposedly so committed to this. I feel bad about killing that boar, and yes I’d feel terrible if I ever hurt or, heaven forbid, killed someone. That hardly means I want to kill myself over a stupid pig,” Lydia raised her voice irritably.

“The soul and the mind have a will of their own. It is the combination of the two that define the individual. But enough of this, it is time for you to leave. Your will to live is weaker while here at the threshold of the soul flow, and it is not yet your time to die. I cannot allow you to heed its call. Not yet.”

“What? I still have so many questions!” Before she could say anything else, the old man outstretched his hand toward the girl. She grew dizzy as her vision blurred before falling limp on the dock and blacking out.

What seemed like moments later, Lydia awoke and gasped for air, immediately followed by a tearing sensation in her chest. Her body felt like lead and breathing was difficult and extremely painful.

“Am I dead?” Lydia was completely disoriented and her memory of events in the realm between worlds was foggy at best.

“Thankfully not,” Annabelle, Lydia’s mentor through most of her journey to becoming an Oracle, gave a sigh of relief. “You’re lucky a physician happened to be nearby during the festival. Mr. Hewitt spent all night making certain you didn’t bleed to death. He had to go in through your sternum since your wound isn’t responding to magic.” Lydia remained silent for a long moment as she touched the stitched incision on her chest.

“Am I going to die then?”

“I don’t think so. I’m not as seasoned as Dr. Hewitt, but I believe you’ve finally stabilized.” Annabelle softly touched Lydia’s head and brushed the girl’s hair out of her face. “I’ll let you rest, you’re going to need as much as possible.” Annabelle stood and walked to the door before turning to speak one last time. “Just call out if you need anything, don’t try to get up and do it yourself.”

“Alright, Anna. Tell Mr. Hewitt I am grateful for my life.” The woman departed from the room and Lydia was left alone. She thought on the words from the old robed man, coming to no further conclusion on what to do about her new-found helplessness. “How am I to defend myself or those around me if the need arises?” The thought of being even more defenseless than she already was in such a terrifying situation made her sick to her stomach. Deciding it was unhealthy to dwell on such dark possibilities, Lydia quickly disposed of the thought and rolled over on her good side to get some much needed sleep.

Roving in the Shadows
and the darkness found there...

Harlan pushed his way from the abandoned ruins, powdery grey dust covering the front of his shirt. He coughed for a moment before getting back onto his feet. His legs were sore and he knew he would need to stop to rest somewhere safe. Draco, Lydia, Mappo and Kaylee followed close behind and made their way out into the vast plains that spanned the greater part of the Eternian mainland. The clouds overhead hid the sun from view and the dreariness of a frustrating and difficult journey set in.
Harlan walked over to Mappo, hopeful to spark a pleasant conversation and ease the weariness of his mind. However, the great giant was of little conversation. He shrugged and said a few words, but it seemed to Harlan the great man wanted nothing to do with his conversation.
Disappointed, but hopeful, Harlan approached Draco. The young man scoffed and told Harlan to leave him alone. Not wanting to spark more conflict, Harlan went on his way.
The future of the MacAlistair family went next to Kaylee, who seemed reluctant to have a conversation. “No offense, but I’d prefer to have an intellectual conversation or none at all.”
A little put off, Harlan went next to his favorite companion, the Oracle Lydia. He sat down on the edge of the wagon whilst the Oracle rested within. He waited a moment, for fear she might chastise him, and after he was certain that she was willing to tolerate his company, he asked simply “How are you doing?”
“I’m fine, thanks.” She said simply. “How are you doing?”
Pleased that the conversation might turn to a pleasant one, Harlan answered. “To be honest, a little tired and a little down. Nobody seems to be eager to talk and everyone’s quiet. We had a rough task solving those puzzles, I thought everyone might be keen to celebrate a small victory. I don’t know why everyone is so quiet right now.”
The Oracle smiled and said simply “It’s because you’re an imbecile.”
Harlan shook his head in confusion, not certain he had heard her correctly. “I’m sorry, what was that?”
“I said you’re an imbecile.”
“That’s not a very nice thing to say, I mean…” He went on before she interrupted.
“No, it’s accurate. You’re an imbecile. You’re the single most unintelligent human being I’ve ever had the misfortune of knowing. You run your mouth with nothing but stupidity. You have nothing constructive to say…”
“Hey! What’s the deal?”
The Oracle ignored him and continued. “All you do is run off foolishly into danger, ruin every attempt to do anything constructive and the only thing we can figure out that you are good for is punching things like some unintelligent oaf. You’re worth nothing to me or anyone else, and you can’t seem to figure out that none of us like you one bit. Are you simply deaf, that you don’t hear our discontent with your company? Go! Get lost somewhere and don’t trouble us again. We’d rather be alone and on our own out here in the dangerous wild than have you as a complete and total liability whilst you remain in our company. Get lost. You are a worthless person.”
“I can’t believe what I’m hearing…” Harlan said quietly in disbelief.
“Believe it!” The Oracle said, standing from the wagon and staring right at Harlan, her eyes suddenly no longer clouded. “You are nothing more than a pest.” Even as she said it, her mouth unhinged and opened twice as wide as it should. From her mouth poured the horrid form of a monstrous snake, black and terrifying. It hissed and opened it’s mouth, its eyes no more than slits as it threatened to devour its prey. Its fangs extended and it snapped.

Harlan woke in a sweat, his skin cold, his pulse racing.
“Is everything alright?” Came the Oracle’s voice.
“Huh? Yeah, I’m fine.” Harlan said hesitantly. “I’m fine.”
“Were you having a dream?” She asked.
“Oh. Um. Yeah. Just a dream.”
“What was it about?”
“Nothing.” Harlan said, looking down. “Just the dark.”
“Will you be alright?” She asked him.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be fine. I’ll be by your side to look after you.” He said. After a brief pause, he turned quietly over and pulled his blanket over himself. Come what may. He thought.


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