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PostPosted: Thu Jul 23, 2015 2:39 pm 
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by RuwinReborn
Status: Public :diamond:



Fisco disliked the cold. He disliked it with a practiced, cynical distaste that he had been carefully cultivating over the years. He was affluent enough to mostly ignore the weather, it was true, and planeswalking away was always an option. But when his business and winter overlapped, it put him in a poor mood. It had his fingers aching through the gloves. It made his cigars taste funny. If it was snowing - and it was - the flakes tickled the back of his neck and the tips of his ears. Here, standing in the too-bright night, to the left of a pile of slush, Fisco puffed discontentedly at a lukewarm cigar. He disliked the cold a great deal.



The burned down building he was staring at was not improving his mood.



It had been this way for a while, if the cracked and blackened boards, covered in frost, were any indication. He tapped his foot against the cobbled street, frowning. He had come here looking for answers, and he supposed he had found them, but now he just had more questions. A cursory glance to either side revealed that the surrounding buildings were mostly untouched - maybe a few scorch marks. No. A deliberate, controlled fire. Anyone could have done it.



Which meant he suspected everyone. And that list was just too long.



But what really bothered him was not that one of his properties had been burned down - what bothered him is that he had not even been doing anything with this place. Not anything illegal, anyway. Or obviously illegal. He stood before the remains of a waystation for the poor - a place of refuge and sturdy, warm meals.



Fisco prided himself on being wealthy enough to feed entire planes, and the poor and downtrodden of this plane were numerous and disenfranchised enough not to look a gift horse in the mouth. The good thing about poor commoners? No one paid attention to them. Except Fisco Vane, of course. This had been the simplest and most extensive spy network he had ever set up on any plane. All for the price of some food! He had been proud of that - the secrets of the wealthy had reached his ears, and a small blackmailing business had been formed. Before he knew it his profits had increased a hundredfold, and he was more than happy to return a bit of the investment back to this hole in the wall.



He had opened two more. And while most people viewed whoever ran those places as saints of a sort, Fisco was more than happy to bring in the coin. He had checked the social climate (although not the actual climate, damn, but it was cold) often enough to know that anyone who did not have to go to one of these places, did not care about these places. Besides, they were under his protection.



Until this one had burned down, shortly followed by the other two, and he had stopped receiving money from his business here. For no reason. Accidental. Coincidental. He had strung up a few guards, but they could not tell him anything either. He had gotten no wind of interference, no one had heard any grumbling about the soup kitchens.



And then, suddenly, fire. Not even subtle. Just his businesses, no one else’s.



It reeked of foul play, and the only way anyone did this without someone in this chilly city knowing about it was if they had come and gone without being seen or heard. Masters of stealth… or a planeswalker. He ran through a mental list of his extraplanar acquaintances, grimacing.



Daneera would never set foot in a place like this. Not her.



Fabellian… No, he had no spine. Also, he was dying.



That dragon from - Well, Fisco could not be bothered to remember her name so he doubted she remembered his. Or cared. Too broken up over Syl and Chardis getting loose.



Now there was an idea… No, they would just level the city. This was targeted. Personal.



The Duchess…? Fisco shuddered. Gods, she could have this place. He would turn and leave right now, but this seemed a little messy for her.



That pharaoh… No, too subtle, again. He would come after Fisco if he really wanted to settle the score.



There was that diabolist as well… What was his name? All Fisco remembered was the shiny black armor and the martyred look he always wore. What a prat. No, not him.



It was not that fox. The less said about that the better. Or the siren. Or anyone else involved with that whole debacle with the Dual-Walkers. It still gave him a headache to think about.



Then, there was Beryl.



Yes, his best suspect was Trevanei but he had an uncomfortable feeling in his gut that she was not the one responsible for this. Too clean. Diana had reported what had happened with the Dentevi’s, and, well, Trevanei knew how to send a message if nothing else. And unless some random planeswalker had come and burned down his businesses specifically and for no reason, he was out of suspects.



Maybe he should pay Hartley another visit. She was friends with the pyromancer, and he was out of leads. There had to be something to work with… No one left a crime scene this clean. Not even him.



Fisco sighed heavily. His ears were going numb.



The worst part about all this was this was the fifth time on as many planes that he had found this. Everything burned to the ground. No signs of his contacts. Someone… Someone was doing this, but who? Why? And, more importantly, how? His people were trained, damn it all, and he should have been contacted! But everything just went dark, and by the time he got here-



A sniffle interrupted his thoughts, the soft glow of his cigar dying down as he exhaled a plume of agitated smoke. The sound had come from the ruins in front of him. He waited a moment, staring at the blackened bones of the building, but the sound did not repeat itself. Deliberately hiding, then. He narrowed his eyes.



"Get out here." He ordered softly, letting the growl carry with it a small amount of command magic. If whoever was there could not resist, they were not worth killing. But if they were camping in the ruins of his property, well… It took only a moment for the squatter to reveal themselves. A small boy. Fisco grimaced as he stumbled blindly from behind the fallen scaffolding, fear wide-eyes reflecting the snow all around them.



Useless.



"Get." He thumbed down the road, not bothering with the spell and hoping to be alone with his thoughts once more. As expected the boy - who was bundled up in some sort of thin blanket - scrambled away. Unexpectedly, however, he stopped after only a few hasty steps, feet sliding on the slush. Fisco glanced at those feet. Bare. His lip curled. "What didn’t you understand about ‘get’, kid?" He growled.



"I don’t have nowhere to go." The boy stuttered, turning around slowly. "Found a dry bit of ground and-"



"Save it." Fisco grumbled, throwing his cigar on the ground. He had no use for a burned down lot, anyway. Fisco knew wet feet - he knew cold, wet feet. They would be dead and blue before the night was over. "Come here." He ordered, and the boy did as he was told. Good. He did not have the patience for rebellion at the moment.



Thin kid. Dirty, ragged. Too dark to tell much, but Fisco recognized the look. Street urchin, probably an orphan. If his parents were still alive, he probably would have had it worse off anyway. Gods, it never changed, and it was putting Fisco in a bad mood.



"What happened to your shoes?" Fisco asked. The boy hesitated, but Fisco pinned him to the ground with his stare.



"Taken." He mumbled. Fisco felt his jaw flex. Of course. He flicked his head at the burnt down building.



"You used to eat here?" The boy nodded.



"And sleep." He added, and shivered in the cold. He kept hopping from foot to foot. "S’all gone now. Said it was an accident. Lucky I wasn’t there." He sniffled, and Fisco supposed he must have been crying. Because that was what children did when bad things happened. They cried. They never really stopped.



It never changed.



Fisco was silent for a long minute. The boy just shifted in place, over and over.



Fisco sighed, and snapped his fingers. The boy floated into the air with a small yelp as Fisco magically dried his feet. Another bit of magic appeared some thick woolen socks, and then some sturdy, sensible boots. The thin blanket vanished, and was replaced by a long, thick cloak that covered his head. Then Fisco dropped him back on the ground. The boy stared at him, awestruck. Fisco just grimaced.



"Listen, kid." He told the boy, putting his hands in his pockets and staring at him intently. A bit of the wonder faded from the boy’s face under Fisco's glare. "I’m going to give you some advice. Pay attention." The boy nodded mutely as Fisco pulled a cigar out of his coat. "First, get something sharp. Someone tries to take your shoes again? Knife ‘em and run. You want to get their eyes or their knees. Make sure they can’t chase." The boy flinched at the image, and Fisco lit his cigar. "Second, learn to steal. Take what you can but always less than you need, and only things people won’t miss." The boy frowned.



"My ma used to say-"



"Where’s your ma now, kid?" Fisco sneered around his cigar, and the boy shut up with a whimper. "That’s the third bit - you’re on your own. Get used to it. Fight on your terms. Run on your terms. Work on your terms - because all you’ve got is you, and you can’t trust anyone else." He exhaled a great deal of smoke, and tapped ash off of the end of his cigar at the boy’s feet. He was sniffling again. "Four, stop crying. You need that water inside of you." The boy nodded woodenly, and they stood in silence for a while longer as Fisco finished his cigar. He threw it on the ground, next to the other, and stepped on it.



"Last…" Fisco muttered. "If you’ve got to pay for something, pay for it up front, and pay it in full. You don’t want to be owing anything to anybody."



The boy hesitated.



"So… what do I owe you?"



Fisco snorted. Not such a dumb kid after all.



"Your feet." He replied drily. "Keep walking on them and we’ll call it even."



"Thank you." The boy muttered, though Ficso did not hear his heart in it. He just shrugged in response.



"I haven’t made anything easier for you, kid." Fisco said. "Don’t thank me for that."



Then, he left the plane behind, the child forgotten in the feverish tempest of questions that swirled in his mind. Hartley was his best option, and the thought made him grimace. Gods, but he was going to ask her for help and he could almost picture what she was going to say as he did so.



***


"Of course I’ll help!" Aloise said brightly, and Fisco Vane glared at her flatly. Well, that was really no way to react to someone who was willing to help him, but Fisco was Fisco. Impossible to please, but never really angry. Not over anything that made sense, anyway.



She had been surprised to find him knocking on her door earlier this morning - or rather, Lys had been surprised. Aloise had told the older woman often about Fisco Vane, and Lys was… Less than enthused with the visit. And, well, Aloise could not blame her because last time Fisco had stopped by, Beryl had shown up some time later half-dead with a head full of nightmares. Which… was both Fisco’s fault, and not. He had not done anything. Which was the problem, when she thought about it.



But that was neither here nor there. Fisco was dangerous, to be sure, but he was not dangerous to her. She had been careful about bringing him back home on their subsequent meetings, of course - he was still a wealth of knowledge! Sometimes, he just glanced at something she had been working on for weeks and made an offhand comment about it, solving the entire thing.



And, well, they got along. He might have even smiled once - genuinely!



It would be best to keep him out of Beryl’s way, however. She was still… coping.



"You didn’t even hear what I need help with." Fisco pointed out, disgruntled. He reached into his coat, and then glanced at the closed door towards the kitchen. Lys had made it abundantly clear that he was no longer allowed to smoke his cigars inside the house.



That had been an interesting conversation. Lys just had that way about her.



Fisco declined to pull out a cigar.



"Well, I can’t imagine it’s anything you thought I couldn’t help with." She pointed out, crossing her legs. Lys had been kind enough to bring out cushions for the chairs in the sitting room beneath the loft, and serve them both tea. Fisco’s remained untouched for the moment, but that was his way. He usually drank it in one go.



"That’s not the point." Fisco grumbled, scratching at the collar of his shirt. "You shouldn’t agree to things before you hear the terms."



"Oh, so this is a business proposal?" She inquired, smiling into her tea. Fisco sighed heavily.



"Gods, Hartley." He rubbed one hand down the side of his face. "Look- You’re friends with Trevanei, right? What’s she been up to?" Aloise felt herself become very still, and she set the tea cup on the table in front of her gently. When she did not respond immediately, Fisco went on. "I went looking for her on Aliavelli, well, what’s left of it. And-"



"You could track her down yourself." Aloise pointed out quickly, pursing her lips. Fisco blinked at her.



"...What makes you think I can do that?"



"Fisco, this may come as a surprise to you, but I am an intelligent and capable woman." Aloise reached into her pocket, and produced the little golden coin that Fisco had given to her when they had first met. "And I know for a fact that these? They don’t only work when they’re lit. Not only that, but the enchantments are layered so delicately that it’s difficult to tell where one ends and another begins. But I found them all! There’s the one to alert you, there’s a compulsion to keep it, one to make sure it’s never lost accidentally, and one to let you know when someone tries to interact with all the other enchantments!" She tossed the coin on the table, and pointed at it.



A small, white fire appeared in the center, and it highlighted a myriad of lines that criss-crossed the coin, and shot outwards, seemingly into space, before vanishing a short distance away.



One went directly from Fisco Vane’s chest to the coin.



Fisco raised an eyebrow.



"...Alright, you got me. That’s what the coin does." He shrugged. "So?"



"So," Aloise explained, raising her chin. "I know you can always feel where this coin - and probably all the others - are! And I’m certain you gave one to Beryl as well. I’d bet on it, if you want." At that, Fisco huffed a laugh, and shook his head.



"Hartley, you’re too clever by half." He leaned forward, and the fire in the coin went out. "I probably shouldn’t have to mention I don’t want that knowledge getting out."



"Fisco…" Aloise warned lowly, and he took a deep breath, nodding, before sitting back in his chair.



"Right, right…" He grumbled. "No threats." He rubbed at his face, the shadow of his hand causing the bags under his eyes to deepen. "Look, what are you getting at with all this? Yes, I know where Trevanei is. I was just wondering if you had talked to her."



Aloise paused here, and looked at Fisco Vane. Really looked at him. He was thinner, she thought, then when last she saw him. Admittedly, it had been a while. He never looked particularly healthy, but his hair had never been so… light. She could pick out individual grey hairs. He was getting older.



She idly twisted the crystal ring that was on her finger. Beryl…



"I have talked to Beryl." Aloise told him. "I’d rather you did not, though." Fisco gave her a strange look.



"...Are you hiding something from me, Hartley?" Aloise rolled her eyes.



"Fisco, she’s hurting." Aloise explained, exasperated. "You went to Aliavelli, you saw what happened. All I have is what Beryl told me, and what she told me wasn’t pleasant. I sorely wish she had never had to go through something like that." Fisco pointedly eyed the tea cup on the table, adjusting his collar.



"Well, she’ll need thicker skin than that-"



"Her sister is dead, Fisco. She was killed." She interrupted softly. He did not respond immediately to that. Aloise picked up her tea and sipped at it to ease her twisting gut. "She was distraught, Fisco. I’ve never seen someone so haggard with sorrow. I can’t even imagine..."



Fisco shook his head before lifting and draining his tea cup in one smooth movement.



"Yeah, well I can imagine." He growled. And… And that was more than Aloise had ever learned about Fisco Vane in such a short sentence. She looked away pointedly, because this was something private for him and if he wanted her to know more about it, she would. "Look, some of my businesses have been burned down and I figured Trevanei would be sore about Aliavelli so I came to talk to you about it. Just need to know if you think she’s involved."



Aloise’s first instinct, of course, was to be indignant. Of course Beryl was not involved, how could he think…! But Lys had once told her that first thought are deceiving - think a second time, and things become more clear. So, Aloise’s second reaction was to realize that this was probably the most thoughtful thing she had ever seen Fisco do.



She smiled softly.



"No, Fisco. She’s here most of the time, and she always takes your coin with her - though she doesn’t like talking about it." Aloise sighed, then. "You frighten her."



"Good." Fisco stated flatly.



"Not good!" Aloise told him reprovingly. "She doesn’t need the "debt" she owes you hanging over her head right now!"



"Then she should go about repaying it." He pointed out. "I haven’t even been hounding her about it."



"Fisco, I was there. ‘A favor for a favor’. I know you’ll have to approach Beryl in order for her to pay you back, and I know that you won’t do it as long as you think she’ll be afraid of you showing up!" Aloise clamped her jaw shut, but continued to glare angrily at Fisco. Fisco was nonplussed. She took a deep breath. "All I’m asking is that you give her the opportunity sooner rather than later. She needs to leave all this business behind her." Fisco frowned at her.



"You know, Hartley, some of us don’t get to leave all that ‘business’ behind us." He told her sardonically. "I’ve got to make a profit-"



"Do you really? Because I’ve never seen you less than well-dressed." Aloise pointed out sharply, and she could tell she was testing his patience because he stiffened and glared daggers at her. But he needed to hear this, she knew he needed to hear this - for Beryl’s sake, if not his own. "And I remember you boasting to me on multiple occasions that you have enough money and influence to retire a hundred times over! When is it enough, Fisco?"



Fisco lip curled up, and then his face went blank very quickly. He stood, and straightened his coat.



"I don’t have to put up with this." He muttered, adjusting the cuffs of his shirt.



"No, I suppose you don’t." She told him quietly.



"What’s that supposed to mean?"



"I mean what I said, Fisco. You don’t have to put up with me. Or anyone. And, really, I don’t think you do." Aloise shook her head, and stood up. It always surprised her that they were nearly the same height. Fisco often seemed larger than life. "You’ve never told me of anyone you know. Or care about. And at first, I thought it was because you were being you. Paranoid and tight-lipped. But… There really isn’t anyone, is there?" Fisco had watched her stand with the sort of wary patience that she had only ever seen rest upon his shoulders. "You’re alone."



Fisco snorted.



"Hartley, I appreciate the sentiment-" He swiftly held up his hand as she opened her mouth and gave her a stern glare. "-but I can only do what I do if I work alone."



"That sounds awful." She told him sympathetically, and he opened his mouth, then closed it again, brow furrowed. Eventually, he shrugged, but it was as though through a great weight.



"...It’s not so bad." He admitted with a heavy sigh, and rubbed the back of his neck. "Look, I didn’t think Trevanei was behind these arsons I’ve been dealing with. Just had to be sure. You never know." Aloise nodded. It made sense, she supposed. Beryl was a skilled pyromancer… reportedly. Aloise had never seen her produce more than heat or a small flame. And Fisco was practiced in the arts of healthy paranoia.



"What about letting Beryl off the hook?" She asked cautiously, with a small, hopeful smile. For whatever reason, Fisco’s lips twitched upwards as well, and he actually chuckled slightly before rolling his eyes.



"She doesn’t get off free - that set’s a bad precedent..." Fisco told her, scratching his chin.. "...but I suppose I can find something easy for her to do." Immediately, Aloise clapped her hands and did a small cheer. Fisco just stared at her flatly before swearing softly under his breath.



But he still smiled. A little.



Aloise composed herself and cleared her throat.



"I suppose we should make this official, then." She told him with mock severity, and held out her hand. Fisco raised an eyebrow, but took her hand anyway and shook it firmly.



"Gods save us, Hartley’s being official." He replied, smirking. "Let’s keep this between you and me, though. I’ve got a reputation to maintain."



"Oh no, we can’t have that!" Aloise laughed, shaking her head. "That’s fine, Fisco. She doesn’t have to know."



"Good." Fisco said, and reached into his coat idly. His hand stuck there, like he was grabbing something, and he sighed. "Look, I’m going to step out for a smoke. When should I expect Trevanei to show up?" Aloise blinked.



"Um, do you need to speak with her so soon?" She asked hesitantly, and Fisco shrugged, producing a cigar from his coat.



"You’re the one who wanted sooner, and I don’t have much time later, so sooner it is." He stuck the cigar, unlit, into his mouth. "Why, there a problem?" Aloise opened her mouth, thought better of what she was about to say, and closed it again. This… was probably the only time Fisco was going to be so lenient. Better not push him.



"No, no, not at all. She should be back soon." She told him with a smile. He watched her skeptically for a moment before shrugging and turning to step outside. Aloise’s hand immediately went to the crystal ring on her finger, and Beryl’s face briefly flashed in her mind. She was smiling, a small, delicate thing, but it made Aloise frown.



Yesterday, of course, had been Aloise’s Name Day.



Or, rather, an approximation of it. It was the day she and Lys had chosen for it, anyway. Midway through Spring, fifth Lunar, ninth day. Lys, of course, had made breakfast. Then, she was surprised by a visit from many of her friends from Lyriswood, the nearby Enlightened forest-city. They had each brought a small amount of food for Aloise’s lunch, and Lys had gone about putting it into a basket so that she, Beryl, and Aloise could go on a picnic after her visitors departed. It had been a lovely day, and Aloise would remember it fondly.



Of course, Beryl had immediately despaired because while Lys had given Aloise a lovely pair of silkspun gloves, Beryl - who had not been aware of the occasion - had gotten her nothing at all. And really, it was fine! She had told Beryl this several times, but Beryl had been adamant about rectifying the situation, and so had left with the promise of returning with something.



She had been so adorably determined that Aloise had not the heart to stop her. And she had seemed genuinely happy and… hopeful, about the prospect. With Fisco here, though… Aloise bit her lip. No, no, getting out from under Fisco’s shadow would be better for Beryl. Fisco might kill the moment, but it would still be meaningful for Beryl, to have done something good.



Aloise sighed, but squared her shoulders. It would work out, she just knew it.



***


Yesterday had been far too energetic for Beryl’s tastes. Thinking back, it was all a bit hazy.



The day had not even started out normally. Normally, Beryl awoke to the small sounds of Aloise waking up. Since they had returned from the Wanderer’s Heart, Beryl had been feeling… Better, but she still had nowhere else to go. She should probably have been trying to look for Alessa, but she could not bring herself to leave. Aloise and Lys both insisted she stay as long as she liked, and neither of them ever made her feel as though she was overstaying her welcome. Beryl slept lightly, so the soft sounds of Aloise getting out of bed usually awoke her.



Instead, she had awoken to the unfamiliar smells of cooked food and Aloise’s squeal of delight. Startled awake, Beryl had sat up immediately, eye wide, but Aloise was already out of bed and offering an apologetic ‘good morning’. Then, she had slipped on a pair of slippers and ran downstairs so quickly that Beryl was not sure exactly what had happened. Groggily, she had decided it was best to follow Aloise, though she decided against slippers and went for a robe Lys had loaned her instead.



As it turned out, unbeknownst to Beryl, it was Aloise’s Name Day yesterday. Lys had made breakfast for the occasion. Though Beryl felt guilty at the thought of the older woman getting up so early to cook such a magnificent spread of sausages, hotcakes, poached eggs, and various toasted treats, she could not deny their quality. Lys was an excellent cook, though she waved off any compliments as the three women chatted over the meal. Beryl felt much invigorated after breakfast, and Lys dismissed the both of them after they were full to get cleaned up for the day as she tidied the kitchen.



Beryl assumed that was to be the extent of the day’s festivities, but it was not to be. After she had bathed and dressed herself, she returned downstairs to find that Aloise had visitors. Beryl had never met any of them, but she assumed they were villagers from the nearby town. Beryl had also never been to the nearby town. It was often talked about and Lys made the trek there every day. At first, there were just a few people, and though Aloise and Lys introduced her politely, she felt out of place and uncomfortable. Aloise, of course, spoke with each of her visitors as though they were her closest friends.



Beryl mostly stayed out of the conversation. It would have been easier if it had just been the first six people or so, but after they left - and left behind a small quantity of foodstuffs as gifts - more showed up. Aloise, with her boundless energy, was delighted. At this point, Beryl was feeling a bit put out because she was beginning to realize that she had no gift to give Aloise, and the constant stream of strangers was draining her energy quickly. She dodged most questions, and thankfully, Aloise noticed her discomfort and implored Beryl to help Lys bring the gifted foodstuffs into the kitchen with a gentle smile. Beryl agreed immediately.



In this way, Beryl avoided most of Aloise’s visitors - who kept showing up, one after the other, for a few hours yet. Beryl knew Aloise was an endearing person who was easy to be friends with, but this was ridiculous. She could not claim to be a socialite, or even to have many friends. Aloise, on the other hand, knew every single person that walked through the door. Not only did she know their names, she knew their occupations, the recent goings-on in their lives, and the best things to say to make them smile and feel welcome.



Beryl had felt strongly that she did not belong there. What if she embarrassed herself? Or worse, what if she hurt these people? Aloise would never forgive, she would-



But then, Aloise would discreetly meet her eye, and smile warmly. Beryl was half-convinced Aloise was a goddess, because it just melted away all the anxiousness she had been feeling. It was wondrous that she could do so little, and still make Beryl feel so welcome.



Eventually, the visitors trickled away. Lys had packed most of the gifted food into a basket, indicated that they were having a picnic, and immediately hurried them both out of the house. It was a lovely spring day, and though Lys had got them out the door, it was Aloise who led them excitedly on a hike through the woodlands and into a favorite glade of hers. There, they lunched on a variety of cheeses, sweetbreads, and fruit preserves as the sun slowly slipped behind the trees. Aloise told several interesting stories, and Beryl caught herself staring at her while she spoke several times. Each time, she immediately occupied herself with something else while she made sure Aloise had not noticed.



When finally they returned home, Beryl was feeling tired, but content. It had been a good day, though the sun had not yet set, it would not be long. Lys had promised supper later that night, but as they returned home, she reminded Aloise very suddenly about the old maid, Jillian, who could not make the trek from the town to their home, and would she not like to go visit that older woman? Aloise, being Aloise, agreed immediately, and asked Beryl if she had wanted to come. Then, Lys had done something she had never done before.



She had asked for Beryl’s help.



And really, Beryl was flattered, but how much use could she be with preparing supper? Lys insisted that she needed assistance, and Aloise acquiesced, and promised to be back later. Then she was gone, and Beryl was uncertain exactly what had transpired, but she soon found herself in the kitchen with her sleeves rolled up, standing in front of a potful of potatoes, and trying to peel them.



She was also alone with Lys for the first time, which was why she was concentrating wholeheartedly on the spuds. Lys was… not intimidating, exactly, but it made Beryl nervous to be alone with someone Aloise respected so completely. Lys was Aloise’s guardian (and Beryl had never dared ask what had become of Aloise’s parents, afraid of the answer, afraid of so many things) and while the older woman had been nothing but kind, she would hate to misstep in some way and displease her. But… there was also a chance that, maybe if she impressed Lys, or something, that she could talk to her about how she felt. About Aloise. Maybe she had answers. Or, maybe she would deny Beryl any such chance and end the problem before it began. Either way…



"Beryl, dear, they are potatoes. You needn’t handle them like they are made of glass." Lys spoke up from beside the stove, and Beryl felt her face flush. She readjusted her grip on the potato, and angled the knife away from herself. So far, she had peeled six.



She mumbled an apology to Lys and continued working, this time with a frown. To her surprise, Lys laughed, high and clear.



"Are you apologizing to me? About potatoes?" She asked, and Beryl glanced at her. Lys was smiling warmly, though her hands were on her hips, since she had evidently already finished dicing the carrots for the stew. "No, that won’t do. Put that down, you timid thing. Come here." Beryl opened her mouth to speak, but then Lys just arched an eyebrow and she snapped it closed again. She put the potato and knife down, wiped her hand on the apron, and did as she was told.



She was taller than Lys, but did not feel like it. Simple as that. The older woman wore age gracefully, and with an air of wry wisdom. Her hair was white like spun sugar, but she was still as lively and energetic as the younger woman who she had raised. Lys looked up at Beryl, and folded her arms.



"You have something to say, and don’t know how to say it." Lys observed, and when Beryl’s eye widened in surprise, she smiled slyly. "Or, you are not sure if you should." Seemingly satisfied with… whatever she had been looking for, she turned around and gestured for Beryl to follow her to the stove. "It’s about Aloise." She stated for a fact, and Beryl suddenly understood how a read book must feel.



"I… yes." She admitted as she stepped beside Lys. The older woman hummed in response, and placed a pot filled with water on the stove top.



"Be a dear and light this for me, would you?" Lys implored off-handedly as she stepped aside to retrieve the carrots. Beryl hesitated.



"I’m… not sure,"



"I wouldn’t ask you to do anything I thought you could not, Beryl, dear." Lys interrupted briskly. "Come now, the stew must be ready before Aloise returns." Beryl shook her head, stepping away from the stove. She had not summoned flame since… Not since Aliavelli, and the Shifter. Not more than some inner heat, or light. She was not ready, it could, it might…



"No, it’s… I shouldn’t." She shook her head again, and looked away. "Please. You don’t understand." Lys had lifted up a chopping board full of carrots, and with a sigh, dumped them into the still cold water of the pot. She set the chopping board down once more, and turned to face Beryl with a soft look.



"Like a kettle, left too long on the stove but refusing to whistle." Lys said slowly, and Beryl blinked at her. "No, too gentle. More like trying to hug the wind, like holding in something that cannot be touched. Each moment it threatens to break away, burst away, from any of your weaknesses. You feel hot as it presses out against you and cold at the thought of when it might happen, who it might happen to, because you are not sure. You hold it tightly. Lock it away, like they locked you away." Beryl stared in shock as Lys made plain the fears of her heart. Lys just smiled, though it was sad and full of hurt... "Understanding is my job, Beryl, dear." She said gently. "The fire within you is an enormous, chaotic thing, full of potential destruction and heartbreak. You have seen so much of this. But…" Lys stepped aside, and indicated to the stove. "...it can also heat a stew, warm a lonely heart, or light a path fraught with darkness."



Beryl’s mouth felt dry, but she stepped forward, and let go. Just a little, with a wave of her hand. The stove lit. Nothing exploded. Beryl let out a breath she did not know she was holding. Lys patted her on the shoulder.



"Thank you, dear." She said quietly, and then moved away to rummage in the cupboards. Beryl felt… Better. Less nervous, but… How had Lys done that? How had she known? How- "You know," Lys called suddenly from across the kitchen. "Aloise would be lucky to have you."



Beryl’s thoughts came to a sputtering and clumsy halt.



"She- What?" Beryl managed to force out, spinning around to face Lys. The older woman had produced leftover sausage from breakfast, undoubtedly for the stew, and laughed as she caught sight of Beryl’s startled face.



"Oh, come now, dear." Lys said with a wink. "I’m not blind." At the implications of that statement, Beryl suddenly felt very warm, and it had nothing to do with fire. She wished she would melt into the kitchen floor.



"I… um." Beryl turned around stiffly, and marched over to the remaining potatoes, suddenly very, very interested in peeling them once more. She began at once, because what could she say to that?



"You should get her a gift." Lys suggested as Beryl hunched over the potatoes. The sound of splashing water accompanied Lys’ addition of new ingredients to the stew. "And let her know how you feel." Beryl managed a small glance sideways at the older woman, who was thankfully not looking at her. It gave Beryl a small amount of courage.



"...Do you think that will work?" She asked meekly, returning her attention to her… work. Such as it was.



"...My, you’ve never done this before, have you?" Lys replied, and Beryl tried to convince herself that Lys was talking about the potato peeling. "Beryl, you are a fine young woman, with a good heart and a gentle soul. Life has not been kind to you…" There was a pause, and the sound of stirring water, before Lys continued. "...and yet, here you are. Hurt, maybe, but whole. Aloise admires your strength, you know."



"She does?" Beryl wondered, hand trembling. It was bad news for the potato she was peeling.



"Oh, yes." Lys confirmed. "I’m sure she’s told you as much, but you thought, ‘Oh, I can’t be what she thinks I am. She’s too kind, too optimistic, too generous.’" Lys did a poor impression of Beryl’s voice, and it startled a laugh out of her. Lys chuckled as well.



"How are you doing that?" Beryl asked, hoping to change the subject. "You know what I’ve thought, or felt. Telepathy?" She had known telepaths. Astria… Astria had been a telepath.



The thought of Lys being a telepath was not a comforting one.



"Nothing so fancy, I’m afraid." Lys answered. "I’m just observant, and experienced. You’re not the first person to fall in love with Aloise, you know." She clicked her tongue. "Always the timid ones…"



"I’m not timid!" Beryl protested, dropping a potato for the umpteenth time. Luckily, it did not roll onto the floor.



"But you are in love with Aloise." Lys pointed out. Beryl fumbled the spud again. Warmth crept up her neck and into her ears.



"I… I…" Beryl felt her cheeks burning, and shook her head vehemently. "Can we please talk about something else?" She asked, almost begged. If she became any more embarrassed she was certain she would die on the spot. The potato peeling was not working as a distraction any longer, and that Lys had so deftly and quickly picked apart Beryl’s emotions left her feeling vulnerable. She very much wanted to hide.



"If you wish, dear." Lys conceded, and Beryl let out a sigh of relief. "However, just one more word of advice, if you’ll be patient with me." Beryl glanced at Lys warily, but nodded. She meant well, it was just… This had not gone at all how Beryl had imagined it. She had imagined Lys being affronted, or maybe dismissive, or… She had not thought that Lys would be so kind, if not exactly gentle. "I’m sure you’ve spent a lot of time worrying whether or not you’ll be the worst thing that ever happened to Aloise." Beryl froze, but did not turn around. She swallowed heavily. Lys was silent for a few moments, the only sound in the kitchen was that of slowly simmering water. "I think you should spend some time wondering whether or not you could be the best."



Beryl did not respond to that, and eventually, together, they finished the stew.



Beryl was pensive and nervous the rest of the night, but Lys never indicated they ever had any awkward conversations or said anything to Aloise about how Beryl felt. When Aloise returned, she was delighted by the stew and complimented them both. Beryl was happy she was back, though she was careful now to disguise exactly how happy. But she also wondered if she should hide it. Maybe Lys was right, maybe…



Lys had then presented Aloise with a pair of lovely gloves. Beryl was sure they were enchanted in some way, though as she watched Aloise’s face light up at the gift, she made up her mind. A few hasty apologies, a little determined insistence, and several hours later, Beryl found herself on the verge of locating the perfect gift for Aloise.



It was now, of course, that she was having second thoughts. Or rather, seventh thoughts. It was probably more than that, but she had lost track of how many times she had thought about it.



Aloise had detailed in one of her books - one of the books she had written, not one of the books she had owned - a lovely beach absolutely covered in pearls. The Pearl Shore, it was called by the natives of the plane of Handaru. From what Beryl understood of this plane, it was all one narrow strip of land that circled a single, enormous ocean. Aloise theorized that the world was flat, though the farther one got away from the ocean, the rougher the terrain became and, eventually, gave way to impassable mountains. It was fascinating, but Beryl was here for the pearls.



And pearls she had found! They were practically worthless on Harandu, and most everyone ignored them in favor of the harder to obtain precious metals of the mountains. Aloise, however, had described the pearls as "coming in many shades, all across the visible spectrum, and as beautiful as a summer sky after storm". She had not been wrong, and Beryl had not been disappointed in her search.



She had been hunting the beach for blue pearls for the better part of the day. Not just any blue pearls, though. She was looking for pearls the color of Aloise’s eyes. She found many - she could never forget what Aloise’s eyes looked like - though finding the right sizes had proved… trying. Still, at the end of the day, she had filled a small bag with pearls, and now they were laid out before her, some distance away from the shore as she stared at them blankly.



Pearls she could manage. Necklaces, she could make. Sentiments to go with the gift? The right words? She had no idea how to provide these things. She did not know if she could. Lys seemed to think so. Was that enough?



Her hands were idle, so she began meticulously organizing the pearls by size, from smallest to largest, and then to smallest again. Before long, the pearls were laid upon the sandy ground in a rough simulacrum of the necklace she wished to craft. She smiled softly to herself, because this had been a good idea. The necklace, at least.



She produced a bit of silver string from her bag. The bag, of course, held a bit of foodstuff and various tools and trinkets. Aloise insisted the Beryl ‘be prepared’, and had gotten her the satchel a few days after they returned from the Wanderer’s Heart. The string she had acquired simply enough from a nearby fishing village. She suspected it was, in fact, fishing line, but it was not the key feature, so she was not concerned. It would be sturdy, at least.



A small bit of magic saw to creating holes in the pearls, for her to thread the string through. Threading the pearls was also simple. When she was finished, she produced the two blunted fishing hooks that she had begged off the same fisherman she had gotten the string from. She swiftly broke one in half. The eye of the hook, she tied deftly and tightly to one end. The hook itself was placed back into her pouch, for her to dispose of later. The second hook, eye and all, she tied to the other end of the string.



Carefully, she hooked the one side to the other, and smiled.



It was just as she had imagined it.



Then, softly, she began to cry.



Because this was not going to work. Nothing ever worked. All of her best laid plans, all of her good intentions… They had always gone up in smoke, and why would this be any different? She was playing at being happy when she did not deserve it, pretending all of her past mistakes were irrelevant. But they were not irrelevant. They would haunt Beryl for the rest of her life, and Aloise… Aloise was the only person who made things better. The only person who gave her hope.



Beryl could not inflict herself on Aloise. It would be cruel to even try-



Unbidden, Beryl heard Aloise’s voice, like a whisper on the wind.



"Beryl…" Then, an image of a shock of golden hair, and Aloise’s concerned frown. Beryl touched the small, crystal ring on her finger almost automatically, but said nothing. Aloise was thinking about her. Worried. Beryl sniffled. Yes, that sounded like her. No matter what Beryl thought, or felt, or did, Aloise would worry.



And if there truly was something to worry about, she would face it. Unafraid. Lys had said that Aloise admired Beryl’s strength. Maybe it was time to be strong. Beryl dried her eye.



She could do this. She would do this. She had taken a chance with Aloise before, and that had been one of the most magical nights of her life. She could do it again.



She would do it again.



Beryl put the pearl necklace in the satchel Aloise had given her, and left Handaru behind.



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PostPosted: Thu Jul 23, 2015 2:40 pm 
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Fisco burned through his last cigar in a few minutes, and was now left standing stiffly on the front porch of Aloise’s home with nothing to keep him occupied. An unhealthy prospect, but not one he could avoid. He trusted Aloise to tell him the truth - she had not lied to him yet - but Trevanei… Well, she could be cunning, when she wanted. Even if she just put everything that displeased her to the torch. Fisco clenched and unclenched his jaw. Maybe he was being unfair.



Then again, after what he had seen on Aliavelli, maybe not. He was glad that he did not have to stay there long.



It did not really surprise Fisco that Aloise lived in a spacious cottage, at the top of a forested hill, surrounded by green clearings and sun-dappled trees. It was almost sickeningly quaint, to be honest, but that was Hartley for you. She did not have an insincere bone in her body. He had decided this place suited her almost before he even really thought about it. Some of that was because of the idyllic atmosphere and friendly folk who inhabited much of the forest.



Mostly, though, it was the slew of powerful, irresistible, and almost unnoticeable wards that littered the countryside for dozens of miles. Fisco had noticed them when Aloise brought him here to speak with Trevanei for the first time. She had walked right through them without blinking or explaining, and Fisco had nearly drawn up short. They were easy to miss, but that was part of it, he discovered. They were hidden in the trees, woven into the grass, whispered into the wind. Old magic. Powerful magic. Gentle magic, maybe, but no less dangerous for it.



He wondered, of course, who had the expertise for such masterful and thorough spellcraft. Then, he wondered exactly what the wards did. The second question he answered quickly: the wards were defensive, and had to be activated, not triggered. Someone held hundreds of these spells in check almost constantly. Most of the spells would simply banish or subdue intruders. As they got closer to the house, however, the spells became more potent, and less friendly.



The first question took a little while longer, but he had answered that one as well - it was Aloise’s guardian, Lys. Aloise had mentioned the old woman before, though Fisco had only encountered her for the first time today. She had told him, politely, that he was not allowed to smoke inside the cottage. Fisco had half a mind to protest, and then he saw it.



The house was warded as well. Every whorl in the wood, every cushion, every cup. Covered in protective magic so powerful it would leave him magically bound for a decade. Lys hand had been hovering idly over one of those enchantments even as she smiled sweetly at him. Wisely, Fisco had agreed not to smoke in the house.



Then, she had offered tea.



Somehow, that old woman had covered every inch of land between here and the nearest settlement with old, powerful magic, and as far as Fisco could tell, Hartley had no idea. Hartley, who made it her business to tamper with his coins, and then detect, identify, and replicate the manner in which he had achieved multiplanar communication. Hartley, who made it her business to stick her nose into every magical mystery she could get her good-natured hands on. She had no idea.



Fisco wondered what Aloise thought about Lys. Because Fisco thought she was terrifying. Luckily for him, she seemed to be the agreeable sort. He was glad he had decided to stay on Hartley’s good side, but he had a feeling he was on thin ice after the way he had dealt with Trevanei. Fisco grimaced.



It reminded him of his mansions. The magic was different - the effects, far less forgiving - but it was the principle. Give a mage enough time, and they could stop entire armies in their tracks with the wave of a hand. The spells that had been laid out here? They would stop more than armies. They would definitely stop him. He had to wonder what Lys was up to… if anything. What she was protecting Hartley from.



Not him, apparently. That thought both comforted and disgruntled Fisco. On one hand, he was not dead. On the other, Lys did not find him very threatening. Or at least, not threatening enough to blow her cover in front of Aloise. If… there was a cover at all? Fisco felt a headache coming on. See, this was the problem with sincerity: no one could tell when you were double-crossing them. Or not double-crossing them. Fisco sighed in disgust.



What did it matter. He was not here to delve into the inner workings of Aloise’s guardian’s mind. Whoever Lys was, and whatever she was to Aloise, was none of his business. They were happy and that was that, as far as he was concerned. It was more than he had ever achieved. Besides…



The hairs on the back of Fisco’s neck stood up, and there was a small noise like the sound of air decompressing. Beryl Trevanei had just reappeared several steps away from where Fisco was standing. She took a step forward, looking down at her pack before she froze. Fisco grinned as Beryl’s eye slowly rose upwards to meet both of his. She looked both horrified and mortified, and Fisco showed a few more teeth. There was blood in the water.



"Trevanei." He said casually, folding his arms. "I’ve been looking for you." Beryl stared at him for a split second, and then her eye darted to the house behind him. Instantly, her eyes flashed and her entire posture changed. Like someone had shoved an iron rod into her spine.



"Where’s Aloise?" She demanded, her voice low and threatening. Fisco cocked an eyebrow. If he remembered correctly, putting Trevanei on the backfoot was easy. Just had to shake her worldview a little. Granted, he had made a deal with Hartley… Probably better to go easy on her. Fisco shrugged.



"Inside, I guess." He told her. "But first, we’ve got a-"



"I want to see her." Beryl interrupted him. "And I swear, Fisco, if you-"



"Hold it." Fisco snapped, taking a step towards the pyromancer. "Better think twice before you start accusing me of things again, Trevanei." He told her lowly, slowly. Beryl kept her gaze on his the entire time. "If I recall, last time you did that, things didn’t turn out so great." He saw the muscles in Beryl’s cheek flex, and her eye flashed again, brighter. The light was deep and orange.



"If you’ve hurt her…" She continued, despite Fisco’s warning. The air around them grew hot, stiflingly so, and Fisco narrowed his eyes.



"That’s not an assumption you get to make." Fisco hissed. "I’m not here to hurt people - you’d be the first to know if I was."



"All you do is hurt people!" Beryl retorted immediately, stepping forward. "You-"



A cascade of water fell from the sky and soaked Beryl, from head to toe. She spluttered and stepped back, slipped, and then fell right on her rear. The air cooled down, and Fisco blinked. What-



Behind him, he heard stifled giggling. He whipped around to see Aloise looking down at them from the second story window, her hand over a large basin of water. Fisco’s eyes widened.



"Hartley, don’t you dare-" And with a wave of her hand, a sphere of water appeared directly over Fisco’s head. As gravity took its course, Fisco could only hunch his shoulders resignedly. This was a new coat.



As he wiped the water away from his eyes, he caught sight of Aloise floating daintily down to meet the both of them. She patted Fisco’s shoulder, and gave him a look of mock sympathy. He scowled at her, but any resentment just sort of flowed away. At least he had smoked his cigar before she soaked him.



Aloise walked past Fisco, and helped Beryl to stand. He watched her with mild disinterest as he magicked his clothes dry. These wrinkles would not come out easy...



"I’m sorry, I didn’t expect you to lose your footing." She told the other woman sincerely, though there was still laughter in her voice.



"I…" Beryl cleared her throat. "I’m glad you’re alright." She shot Fisco a reproving look, but he decided against acknowledging it. Aloise had the situation handled, it seemed, and she probably would not appreciate his method of ‘handling’ it.



There was also the wards. He did not think Lys was listening in, but he doubted he could get away with much before she intervened. Beryl might deserve a little comeuppance for assuming the worst from him, but paying her back for that would lose him more in the long run. He had never treated Trevanei with any sort of delicacy, so fair was fair, he supposed.



"Why wouldn’t I-" Aloise began while Fisco was thinking, and then followed Beryl’s gaze. She placed a comforting hand on Beryl’s shoulder."Beryl, Fisco is my guest. He wouldn’t hurt me."



"He…" Beryl began immediately, adamantly, before she met Aloise’s eyes. "Um…" Just like that, all her fire and steel was gone. Fisco raised an eyebrow slowly, and then raised the other as a healthy flush crept up Beryl’s neck. "...You’re right, I… wasn’t thinking clearly. I’m sorry." Beryl said, then she gave a modest chuckle. "Though, was the water really necessary?"



"Not at all!" Aloise confirmed happily, and Fisco sighed. Heavily, and with great weariness.



"Demanding payment for my wrinkled coat won’t get me very far, I’m sure." Fisco noted dryly, and he finally recaptured the attention of both women. If they had kept carrying on like that, Fisco’s teeth would have rotted out of his head from all the sweetness. "Let’s not make a habit of drenching me, alright, Hartley? Could’ve ruined one of my cigars."



"Oh, and if that were to happen, wherever would you find more?" Aloise clapped both cheeks with her hands, an exaggerated expression of concern on her face. Beryl let out a startled laugh, and Fisco scowled.



"That’s enough of that." Fisco snapped. "I’ve got business to conduct with Trevanei, so if you could give us a moment…" He stepped to one side, offering Aloise a direct path to the house. Aloise glanced at Beryl, who was frowning once more, and then gave Fisco a meaningful look. It took the greater portion of his willpower not to roll his eyes. What, she did not trust him?



...Right. That was fair.



"Beryl, I’ll be just inside the house." Aloise told the other woman simply. "You look famished, so I’ll make you some lunch, alright?"



"Oh…" Beryl’s good eye flicked rapidly between both Fisco and Aloise. "Yes, alright. I’ll discuss... business. With Fisco." Her voice held, calm and even, and Aloise smiled softly at her.



"Everything is going to be fine, Beryl. I promise." Aloise assured her, and this time, Fisco did roll his eyes. Fisco would say that Hartley was a "glass half-full" sort of woman, but she kept pouring it all out for other people. Worst case of bleeding heart he had ever seen.



"I…" Finally, Beryl’s eye rested on Fisco, and there was a hint of the iron in her gaze from earlier. Fisco returned the stare. "Yes. I’m sure it will be."



Aloise gave Beryl’s shoulder one last squeeze, and then walked past Fisco and into the house. Both of them watched her leave, though Fisco was the first to return his attention to Beryl. She kept her eye on Aloise until she disappeared behind the door.



"With all the staring you do, people might get the wrong idea." Fisco noted flatly. Beryl immediately jerked to glare at him, her face reddening swiftly.



"I- What?" She demanded heatedly, and Fisco snorted.



"Or the right idea." He said by way of answer, and then spoke again before Beryl could respond.



"Look, I’m calling in that favor, Trevanei. Let’s just focus."



"...Fine." Beryl replied, composing herself. She raised her chin. "I gave my word. What do you want?"



"You remember those collars, right?" Fisco said, grinning slowly as he did so. Beryl’s eye narrowed, and she nodded at him stiffly, but did not respond. Well, good on her to hear him out first. "Well, I’ve got a large backstock of them, and they’ve proven to be almost impossible to move. Besides the two-dozen or so I sold to the Dentevi’s, they’ve just been rotting in a crate."



"Good." Beryl told him flatly. Fisco sighed.



"Look. Trevanei." Fisco put his hands in the pockets of his coat. "Resent me all you want, I’ve been in this sort of business for the better part of eighty years. You know I’m not a nice guy. Hartley knows I’m not a nice guy. Most of the multiverse knows I’m not a nice guy. But what I lack in nicety, I make up for in intelligence." He raised one hand to tap on his temple. Beryl pursed her lips. "And those collars? Not a nice sell, sure, but not a smart one, either. Not anymore. It’s come to my attention that they’re more of a liability than anything. I need them gone."



"Gone where?" Beryl asked suspiciously. Fisco shrugged.



"Gone… Gone." He told her. "Destroyed, preferably. I know you’re capable of it. Diana told me so." Fisco saw Beryl’s face soften slightly at the mention of the angel.



"Why not destroy them yourself?"



"I can’t." Fisco wiggled his fingers. "Don’t have the know-how. Most of what I know is self-taught and less… subtle."



"Diana could." Beryl pointed out. "They’re evil. An angel could shatter it."



"You’re right." Fisco admitted grudgingly. "She won’t touch the things, though."



"Why-"



"What was that about no strings, no questions, Trevanei?" Fisco snapped, losing his temper. "Because I seem to recall that you’d do whatever I asked without running me through the ringer." He took a step forward as Beryl’s mouth clamped shut, and spoke lowly. "I’ve got more than a dozen competitors I can think of off the top of my head that really, really deserve a good firestorm, and I’m not asking you to do that, am I? I just want you to break a few pretty necklaces. That seems fair, doesn’t it? It’s what you wanted to do in the first place."



"...I’m just reminded," Beryl began slowly, "of a saying I once heard. ‘If it sounds too good to be true, it is.’" Fisco barked a laugh, and folded his arms. He jerked his head back towards the house.



"Hartley," he told Beryl, "is too good to be true. And yet, there she is." Then, he strode towards Beryl, who stiffened, and stuck out his hand. "So. Destroy those collars, and we’re even. You’ll never hear from me again if you don’t want to." Beryl glared at Fisco’s hand like it was a snake, but took it anyway and gave it a firm shake.



"Alright. I’ll do it." She told him.



"Good." Fisco said, then turned his back on the pyromancer. "Go eat lunch. We’re leaving immediately. And tell Hartley she’s coming along."



"What?" Beryl demanded immediately. "Why?"



"Hey." Fisco said, turning around and jabbing a finger at her. "No questions. She’ll want to come, so just go tell her so." Beryl watched him for a long moment, before he finally gave up trying to mollify her and stalked back towards the porch. He needed another smoke, but he was out of cigars. A damn shame. Beryl walked past him a few moments later, though they did not exchange looks or words.



Trevanei was a clever one - she could probably piece together what he and Aloise had agreed on, if she tried. The thing was, he did not think she would. Not really. She would not have believed him if he had told her about his deal with Hartley… inasmuch as it was a deal at all. No, he doubted Trevanei would ever think about someone doing something like that for her.



Not enough self-regard.



Faintly, he felt the impression that Diana needed to speak with him. He frowned, and mentally prodded the feeling. There was a sense of pressure, urgency, and concern… Something important, then. He glanced around the porch, eyeing the well-hidden wards and the magic infused within them. No, not summoning traps… probably. He could bring Diana here.



Fisco caught the scent of a snowbound field as he summoned Diana, and with it, the memory of his life, long ago. Too long ago. He was scowling as Diana appeared in front of him.



"Something wrong?" He grunted, though from Diana’s grave expression, he already knew the answer. Diana was only ever content to leave him be when life was nothing but sunshine and roses. When things got rough, she was the first person by his side and the last person to leave. Dependable. She was more of a boon than even he cared to admit.



"Another report." Diana told him quickly, flatly. "The coins - they’ve been compromised." Fisco blinked, then shot to his feet.



"What?" He hissed lowly, stalking away from the porch. He threw a wary glance at the house behind him. If Hartley’s meddling had caused this… Diana followed him closely, speaking quietly.



"You’re manufacturer on Zent is dead." Diana informed him. Fisco cursed.



"I haven’t had a new coin made in decades." He shook his head. "Hadn’t been planning on making more." He scratched his chin as Diana watched him placidly, waiting to be prompted. He sighed. "We’re certain she was killed over this, then. Not some Devotee madness?"



"Two of the coins had been branded into her eye sockets. Torture, it appeared." Diana said without inflection. Fisco clenched his teeth. Bad way to go. She had deserved better.



"So, what makes you think they’ve been compromised?"



"I lit one." She explained. "It exploded."



Fisco just stared at the angel. Then, he placed one gloved hand over his eyes, and dragged it slowly down his face.



"Someone," he muttered, "is trying to kill me. And no, it wouldn’t be enough to shiv me and be done with it - they’ve got to annoy me to death first. That’s what I think is going on here, Diana. Someone is trying to annoy me to death, and I think it’s working."



Diana did not respond, and it was silent and tense for a few long minutes. The implications were… not good. It would explain why Fisco had not heard from any of his contacts recently. They had all been blown to bits trying to do just that. Whoever he was dealing with… they knew how he operated. What he depended on. Whom he depended on.



He glanced briefly at Diana.



Then, he mentally bade Xeran to keep the Vault on lockdown. He got some impression of a bored reply, and then dismissed it from his mind.



"I’ll have to do the footwork myself." Fisco sighed, suddenly very, very tired. Diana placed a hand on his shoulder. It was cold, but Fisco leaned into it. "I’ll head to Zent. See if I can pick up the trail. Someone had to have seen… something." He said the words, but they felt hollow to him. He had said the same thing when he had went to investigate the arsons… Well, actually, he supposed the exploding coins explained that one.



"...You should rest." Diana told him quietly, very quietly. Fisco knew that she knew it was not something that she should be saying. That it was not her place to tell him what to do, or when to do it. "It would be simpler to-" She stopped speaking abruptly at the sound of a small squeaking noise, and Fisco glanced at her. She was staring at the house, away from Fisco, her face and body still as stone. Fisco shrugged her hand off of his shoulder, and turned to look himself.



Aloise was standing at the porch, with Trevanei. The scarred woman was watching Fisco and Diana with an unreadable expression, but Aloise’s hands were covering her mouth, and her eyes were wide with… surprise, he supposed. Wonder, maybe. His eye flicked towards Diana again.



He did not have time to deal with this.



"We’ll talk later." Fisco mumbled. "I’m sending you to the Vault - I’ll be along shortly. Tell Xeran to behave. Get those leftover collars out." Diana gave him a sudden, sharp glare, and Fisco gritted his teeth. "Now, Diana." He ordered. The angel’s face fell into an impassive mask once again, and she nodded. Then, Fisco raised his hand, plucked the familiar strings that held Diana close to his soul, and dismissed her.



She vanished in a flash of light, just as Aloise and Trevanei were approaching. Aloise managed to look both perplexed and disappointed at the same time, while Trevanei just watched him with a wary sort of resignation. That’s right, the pyromancer had met Diana before. Probably recognized her. Well, with any luck, Trevanei would save Fisco time by answering all of Hartley’s undoubtedly myriad questions.



"Fisco, who was that?" Aloise asked immediately, and Fisco’s shoulders sagged a little. Alright, maybe not.



"I don’t think you have quite enough gold for me to answer that question." Fisco pointed out, and then turned his attention to the other woman. "All set to go?" Admittedly, they did appear to be. Aloise, had changed into a loose and flexible red tunic, and had foregone the cloak for a light scarf around her neck. She had her pack slung over one shoulder, and a thick pair of walking boots on. It was a respectable get-up, if a little humble for his tastes. Beryl, however, had just put on a cloak, but otherwise appeared to still be wearing the sturdy travelling clothes he had met her in.



Trevanei opened her mouth, then closed it again thoughtfully, before turning to Aloise.



"Aloise, about your present…" She began, but Aloise shook her head quickly and vehemently, golden curls flying about.



"Later, Beryl, later." She said. "Let’s take care of this first, alright? It shouldn’t take very long." Fisco had momentarily become lost in thought, thinking about the coins, thinking about his Vault, thinking about everything that was going wrong, and it took him a moment to realize he was being addressed. He cleared his throat.



"Not long at all." He took a deep breath. "Right. Follow me - we’re going for a ‘walk." He just about took a step forward, but paused. "Also, if you ever try to go where I’m taking you without me, you’ll probably be killed as soon as you show up. And if you aren’t you’ll wish you had been. Keep it in mind, you two." Aloise gave him an unimpressed look while Beryl just seemed worried. Fisco chuckled, grinned, and stepped into the eternities.



After all this time, the Eternities were the old enemy he always knew they would be. All roiling chaos and grey nonexistence. Fisco liked things concrete, stable, and inside his control. The Eternities were none of those things - and yet, necessary for him to run his business. He had found that, over the years, many unpleasant things were necessary to run a business. The Eternities, as it turned out, were least among them.



Vaguely, he was aware of Trevanei and Hartley trailing along behind him, though he paid little attention to it. He focused on the little, hidden plane - innocuous by design - and focused on it, then focused on it again as his concentration slipped. The first line of defense. Then, all at once, he was on solid ground once more.



The entrance hall of his vault was modest, if massive. It was all made of dusty stone, half-lit by everburning torch light that never quite reached the ceiling. Exactly six pillars supported the ceiling, perfectly round and impossibly tall. The smallest sounds echoed here, and to illustrate that, he took a few steps forward into the dimness. Ahead of him lay an enormous, round door. Fisco had to admit that, in his younger days, he had not been very creative. His Vault looked like a vault, though he had learned as he had gotten older that if you really wanted something to stay hidden, you did not hide it inside the best-looking safes.



But, well, this was something else entirely. And… something was bothering him.



Two small puffs of air at his back informed him that both Beryl and Aloise had made it, though he kept his eyes fixed on the door of the Vault. He had been here many times, had sent Diana here many, many times… He took another few steps forward, and he heard Aloise and Beryl murmuring behind him. Something…



Wait.



Where was Xeran?



As Fisco’s foot slid forward again, it hit something small, but hard, and heavy. He snapped his head downward immediately, and then froze.



A collar. Iron. Six runes. On the floor.



"Get out." Fisco whispered, then spun around wide-eyed and wild, to scream at the two women behind him. "Get out of here! No-"



Then, they faded away, his world turned to blackness, and there was only the low thrum of malicious laughter to keep him company.



***


Aloise owed Beryl an apology, it seemed. Beryl had insisted, of course. Pleaded, really. She very seriously, very adamantly, had not wanted Aloise to come along with the both of them while Beryl did… whatever favor Fisco had in mind for her. Aloise had assured her that, if Fisco had invited her along, that it was not dangerous. Yes, she had been sure. No, Beryl, I trust him.



Well, shortly after arriving… wherever Fisco had led them, Aloise had awoken in a cell, with no recollection of how she had gotten there. It was dark, musty, and a little damp. She frowned into the darkness. She remembered… Fisco shouting. He had been worried. No… terrified. Something had gone very wrong, but sitting around here would not answer any of her questions. Also, she could not apologize to Beryl if she did not find her, so! It was time to get to work.



Aloise felt around on the floor. Dirt and straw. She felt her fingers along the walls. Stone… mortar. There was a single wooden door, slightly splintered and… poorly oiled. No windows. She closed her eyes, and sent out a pulse of magic to gather her surroundings… odd. Normally, she could feel anything within a certain distance of her body. But it was like everything beyond the room was… shifting. Changing. Like it was shadow. Some sort of prison, obviously, but why trap her here?



Oh, right, the door. She tried it. It was locked. Now the question was to rust the hinges off, teleport directly to the unknown outside, or wait and see if more information became available… admittedly, the rusted hinges one was probably the best idea. Her first ones usually were, but it was always good to-



Very suddenly, and loudly, the door slammed open. Aloise jumped, and a very large, very stern looking man in half-plate clanked into the room. Looks like more information had just become available! Third ideas were good too.



"Hello." Aloise greeted politely, if warily. "I don’t suppose-" With the swiftness of a viper, the man struck Aloise across the face with the back of his hand.



"Silence, witch." He sneered, which Aloise only heard vaguely through the ringing in her head. Oh… it was that sort of situation. She began to formulate a reply as he grabbed her roughly by the arm and dragged her out of the room.



"Really, I think-" A rough jerk on her arm cut her off, but she just grit her teeth and continued as he led her up a flight of stairs. "-that there has been a misunderstanding. If you would just-" The man threw the door at the top of the stairs open bodily, and Aloise’s words died on her lips.



Oh. Oh, no.



Before her was an assembled crowd, all hush, wary, and expectant. Several had torches, and several more, blades. In the center of it all was a large, wooden pole, complete with chains and tinder. Aloise had seen this all before - not in general, but in specific. She recognized some of these people, from long ago.



If she squinted, she could see her mother’s face in the crowd.



She felt her throat close up, her eyes stinging with unshed tears. She did not want to be here. She did not want to think about this place… what had almost been done. The man dragged her towards the stake. Aloise struggled, because, no, this could not be happening again, this…



...It could not be happening again. This was impossible. This was exactly as she remembered it. Aloise took a deep breath, and focused on the pain in her cheek. Much like the pain she had felt, from a similar blow, all those years ago. Just like that pain, it was dull, barely remembered, and easily forgotten.



The guardsman - she remembered his name, it was Clyde, and he had watched her while father was away, once - chained her to the stake. His movement were wooden, when she focused on him. Easy to discern for the illusion he was. Someone had not taken very much care in crafting this scenario. She lifted her chin.



"This isn’t real." She told no one in particular. "And I’m not afraid." The chains felt real, of course. She remembered their weight. But thinking about their weight reminded her of how old the memory was, how tired. How she had grown out of the nightmares, and the bitter regret.



How she had forgiven all these people. This vision… this ‘nightmare’ had no power over her. The guardsman went for the torch, moving like a puppet, and it all seemed like she was watching it happen from far away.



"I’m not afraid." She said, once more, with conviction. "And I am tired of this darkness." With that, she closed her eyes, and imagined the brightest, most beautiful thing she could think of. First to mind, of course, was Lys. Then, unexpectedly, but not unpleasantly, she saw Beryl. Strong, resilient Beryl, with her eye full of wisdom, and her sad, sad smile. Aloise wanted that smile to be happy, she wanted…



When she opened her eyes again, she was standing alone, in the darkness. The pain in her cheek was a distant memory. She saw herself glowing with a bright, inner light. Suddenly, the darkness around her began to take shape. It grew cold, and then she was standing in the middle of a poorly cobbled street on a dark, snowy night.



The street splintered into dark alleys and doorways, leading into unknown abodes and locations. Aloise frowned, wondering where she was now - and if even this was real. This city was nothing like the place of her birth. It was too untidy. No, she had been transported somewhere else… But how? And where?



And, most importantly, why?



Aloise folded her arms and frowned. This is what she knew: Fisco had led them to a plane of yet indeterminate nature, and warned them that showing up without him would be dangerous at worst and fatal at best. Immediately after having arrived here, Fisco panicked, and demanded they leave. Then, something had knocked her unconscious, separated her from Beryl and Fisco, and she had awoken halfway through what was arguably the worst memory of her life. There was clearly some sort of unpleasant magic at work here, though a strong enough belief had dispelled it.



Which meant that, whoever was doing this, was either not very strong, not paying attention, or had underestimated Aloise’s willpower. Or… some other factor she was not thinking of. It could be all three, or none of them, really. She did not have enough information. This was frustrating, of course, especially if it meant her friends were in danger, but she forced herself to remain calm. If…



Wait.



If that was the sort of thing she had woken up to, here…



Oh. She needed to find Beryl. She needed to find Beryl very, very quickly.



Aloise rushed down the street, ignoring the cold and the wet. This resulted, of course, in her not even noticing it anymore. Another illusion. Just where was this place? Dimly, ahead of her, she saw a light on in one of the ramshackle buildings. A change… If the illusion was losing consistency, something had to have been changing it. Or someone. She jogged up to the door and knocked, once.



Then again, louder. She sighed, and tried the handle. Locked. Of course. The windows were too grimy to see through, and the light was faint. Was it… dimming? Right. No more time to waste. Aloise stepped back, then positioned her boot directly over where the lock was. Then, she gave it a good kick.



The door splintered open, and she shoved it aside as she entered the building.



Before her stood the angel from earlier.



That was not the strangest thing, however. The angel stood stiffly, wings folded behind her, shoulders taut and tense. Her hands were behind her back. The room was almost stiflingly warm, and lavishly decorated. The carpet was plush and soft, from the look of it, and all the decor well cared for, and expensive. The angel was standing next to a large armchair, the back of which was facing Aloise. The front was turned towards a roaring log fire. The angel, it seemed, was just… staring. At the chair.



"Excuse me." Aloise called, a little out of breath. The angel did not respond. "Excuse me! Miss… angel? What are you doing here?" Aloise had no recollection of this angel’s name, or having ever seen her before, there was no guarantee she was even real. But illusionary constructs might be able to provide her with information, so… this could work? She was running out of options anyway.



The angel, of course, just kept staring at the chair. Well, alright. Something important about the chair, then. Aloise turned her attention towards it.



It looked like a normal chair, really - oh, there was someone sitting in it. She could see their feet now, lit up against the firelight of the hearth. There was an arm, hanging off of one side. It was… limp. Lifeless. Aloise felt an unpleasant churning sensation in her gut as her eyes fell to the floor. A Jakkardian gun, and suddenly, the faint smell of smoke. Aloies swallowed, and approached the angel carefully.



"Hey. What’s your name?" Aloise asked soothingly, trying anything to get her to look away from the chair. "Talk to me, please, I need you to- I need you to focus." She was standing in front of the angel, now. The angel was almost half again as tall as Aloise, in all black armor, standing still as a statue. Aloise was not certain she was even breathing. "Focus. Look at me. Hey, look at me! Look at me!" Aloise reached up to touch the angel’s face, but faster than lightning, the angel grabbed her wrist. Her nostrils flared, and she glared down at Aloise, eyes flashing, stony mask broken.



"Do not touch me, spawn of darkness." The angel hissed while Aloise made soothing noises. Her grip certainly was… strong!



"No, no, I’m not a ‘spawn of darkness’." Aloise told her. "I’m Aloise Hartley. What’s your name?" The angel narrowed her eyes.



"You…" Her eyes flicked back towards the chair. "Fisco was to bring you to the Vault. You should be trapped. Like him. Like the other woman." She let go of Aloise’s wrist, which Aloise was grateful for because it might have been about to break. "Explain yourself."



"Well…" Aloise began. "I woke up, and I was somewhere I… did not want to be. But, it was impossible for me to be there. It wasn’t real. The only thing that could hurt me was my fear and I’m not afraid, anymore. Not of that, not of anything."



"Everyone feels fear." The angel said with finality. Aloise smiled sadly.



"Feeling fear and being afraid are two different things." Aloise told her. "I feel it, but it doesn’t control me. It doesn’t color my actions, or effect my words." The angel said nothing, and just continued to stare at Aloise. "...Are you afraid of what’s behind me?" Aloise asked slowly, stepping in between the angel and the chair. She did not turn around, and continued to watch the angel. "You don’t master fear by confronting it. You master fear by accepting it." The angel’s eyes flickered behind Aloise, and Aloise shook her head. "No. Look at me." The angel did so. "Now, tell me what you saw, here. Why you are afraid?"



The angel was silent for several long moments, while Aloise waited placidly. She did not know much about this person, other than that she had seen her with Fisco, briefly, before Fisco had sent her away. Ostensibly, to… here. Wherever this was. But, even though Aloise had turned around, she knew what she might see. And if this angel was seeing that, here, where your worst fears come to life…



"I see my failure." The angel said, woodenly. "I could not stop him, I… wanted him to live. And he would not. He just… refused." Aloise swallowed a lump in her throat, even as she nodded.



"Okay. Alright. Now, take my hand." Aloise said slowly. "And close your eyes." The angel did as she was told automatically, and Aloise was surprised to find that her skin was cold and smooth, like marble. "This isn’t real." Aloise told her. "It can’t be real. We aren’t in this room. No one here has a gun. There’s no fire. No chair. And Fisco…" Aloise swallowed again, shaking her head. "...Fisco is just fine." At some point, Aloise had closed her eyes as well, and then, suddenly, the heat from the hearth faded. Aloise let out a breath she did not know she was holding, and looked around.



She was outside, in the dark, cobbled street once more. The only difference was that the angel was with her, and was staring up at the sky. Aloise dropped her hand quickly, and the angel gave her a mild, curious look.



"...My name is Diana." She said. "Fisco Vane has told me much about you, Aloise Hartley. He is not given to exaggeration, and yet I still believed he was." Diana turned her attention down the street, eyes narrowing. "I should have trusted him better. You are everything he said you are."



"Fisco confides in you?" Aloise asked, surprised.



"In his own way." Diana told her, but did not elaborate. Aloise blinked.



"Are you… lovers?" She asked tentatively, because honestly, Fisco having someone like that in his life would have just made Aloise’s heart swell with joy. Especially if it was this stoic, no-nonsense angel.



"If he had need of me in that capacity, I’m sure we would be." Diana replied flatly, and, alright, that was a little chilly. "But he does not. He needs someone to trust. He needs someone to talk to him. He needs someone to fetch his cigars. I am all of these things, and whatever else Fisco Vane needs."



...Interesting.



"Did Fisco create you?" Aloise asked because, while she was not sure exactly how that would work, she would be extremely impressed and probably give Fisco an absolutely ridiculous sum of money to show her how it was done.



"No." Diana said. "He saved me." Then, she turned to regard Aloise fully. "Enough questions, we must find him before it is too late. I had thought it was already too late but you…" She shook her head. "You have surprised me, and there is yet hope. Listen carefully, for I will explain this once and then you must away to find your wayward friend." Right! Now was not the time to interrogate the - admittedly, very interesting - angelic companion of Fisco. She had to find Beryl… hopefully she was alright. "This." Diana indicated to everything around her. "Is the work of a powerful archdemon named Xeran. Until recently, measures had been put in place to prevent him from ever rising outside of Fisco’s control. Those measure have failed. He hates Fisco Vane, and will torture him, destroy him, and consume his soul. Xeran’s powers are myriad and dangerous, but the ability to create this hellscape is unique to him."



"Why was he here in the first place?" Aloise asked. "Fisco’s a planeswalker - why keep him… wherever this is?"



"‘This’ is no longer anywhere." Diana clarified. "Xeran warps reality around his victims. These are not illusions, Aloise Hartley, and are in fact, very dangerous. The world around us takes on the shape of our fears and nightmares, pulling them from your mind even as you explore them. Like a waking dream, you experience your worst fears. In this way Xeran uses yourself against you, until you are too tired to continue fighting, and are easy prey." This was… very bad news. Diana pointed a finger at her, and she almost jumped. "You, however, are strong. Your mind is strong. Your heart is strong. Your will is strong. I do not know how, but Xeran’s magic has no control over you. Your will does not shape the nightmares. This… This is Fisco’s nightmare."



"Where is he, then?" Aloise asked immediately. Diana shook her head.



"Fisco’s will is wide as an ocean and deep as a well. As we get closer to him, it may become more obvious. I will go find him. However, you must find Beryl Trevanei. You know her. You know what this place will do to her." Aloise could not argue with that, of course.



"How do I find her?"



For the first time since Aloise had met the angel, her face softened somewhat.



"I would guess that you must follow the fire." She told her sadly. Aloise took a deep breath, and nodded.



"Alright. Alright, yes, I’ll do that. And then I’ll come find you and Fisco, alright?"



"Very well." Diana spread her wings, and launched silently into the air. Aloise watched her glide away, and then touched the crystal ring on her finger, whispering Beryl’s name.



She… thought for a moment she could hear Beryl’s voice… shouting? Or, screaming. Images entered her head unbidden, hectic, and… muddled. She could not make sense of it. The demon’s reality warping powers must have been interfering with the magic of the ring. Still, she was left with the faint impression of a direction, and headed that way determinedly.



All around her were worn down houses and broken stones, haunted doorways and shadowed alleys. Is this really the sort of thing Fisco was afraid of? It… seemed like the sort of place he would usually be, to her. But then, she did not really know Fisco Vane, did she. She had said he was alone, but he had Diana. She had assumed he would be at home in dark, cold places like this… but apparently it was his worst nightmare. Where was this, in Fisco’s memory? Why would the demon drag Beryl and herself into this at all?



Too many questions, not enough information. Maybe she would be able to piece more of it together when she found Beryl. With renewed determination, Aloise ran through the damp and darkened streets.



***


The first thing on Beryl’s mind as she came to was Aloise. Her eye snapped open, but there was only darkness. She clenched her teeth to stop from swearing, and tried to feel around. Everywhere she touched, she felt rough wood. She was inside? But where? Beryl stood up. The last thing she remembered was Fisco screaming at them, and then… nothing.



"Aloise." Beryl called, hoping she was nearby. "Aloise!" No response. Beryl reached for the crystal ring on her finger. She could find her with it, and then they could figure out what… A small hand grabbed her by the wrist.



"I’m right here, Beryl." Aloise’s voice floated towards her from the darkness. "What happened?"



Beryl felt immediately relieved, and sighed heavily. "I’m not sure." She explained. "I think Fisco’s up to something."



"You always think Fisco’s up to something." Aloise teased lightly.



"That’s because he’s always up to something!" Beryl insisted. "We need a little light, could you…"



"Do we?" Aloise prompted suddenly, her hand trailing up Beryl’s arm. "I don’t think we need any light at all." Beryl could not see, but she sensed Aloise very close to her suddenly as she placed her other hand on Beryl’s waist. "I think we’re just fine right here, in the dark. Alone." Beryl’s heart leapt into her throat, and she suddenly felt very, very warm.



"Um, Aloise, I think- Shouldn’t we be…" Aloise shushed her softly, and Beryl felt her breath over her neck.



"Beryl, we have all the time in the world." She said soothingly. "Everything’s fine. Stay here with me?" Aloise placed a hand on Beryl’s unscarred cheek, and Beryl felt her heart racing. This… This was not… Aloise tilted Beryl’s head downwards. "Please?"



"Aloise, Fisco… he might be in trouble…" Beryl whispered as Aloise snaked an arm around her waist, pulling her close.



"So?" Aloise whispered back.



Beryl froze.



"...So?" Beryl said after a few tense moments, placing a hand gently on Aloise’s wrist. "I may not want to help him, but you would. You should." Beryl pulled the hands off of her, grimacing. "You wouldn’t do this. You’re not…"



"Beryl…" Aloise whined. "Beryl, you’re hurting me…" Immediately, Beryl realized she was holding Aloise’s wrists a little too tightly, and tried to let go. But. She could not get her fingers to move.



Then, from deep within her, she felt something stir, and with it came a feeling of dread so intense her hands closed more tightly out of reflex. No, she - she couldn’t lose control. Not now, not after all this, not with Aloise right here, not-



But she could not stop it. She tried, but like an uncontrollable tide of rage, she felt the fire within her building, roaring, searching for release.



"Beryl, what’s going on." Aloise asked softly, panic creeping into her voice. "Your hands are so hot, are you…"



"Aloise, I-" But she started shaking, trying to keep it contained, trying to stop it, in any way possible. There had to be a way, there-



There was a terrible cracking noise, and Beryl’s spine arched with the noise, dragging Aloise’s arms upward.



Then, the darkness was lit up, viciously orange and with a terrible scream the likes of which Beryl had only ever heard in her nightmares. Aloise’s scream.



"No." Beryl whispered, as she watched Aloise burst into flame, and then began shrieking. "No, no, no!" She kept trying to jerk Aloise out of her grip, but it was no use. Aloise tried in vain to pull away, screaming, and… and the flames caught everywhere, the smell, the smoke... "Aloise I can- Let me… No, please, no!" Beryl shouted, trying to find someway to stop the fire, to save her, she had to, there had to be some way!



"Beryl!" Aloise shrieked. "Beryl, why!" And then, all at once, she shuddered, and went limp. Beryl fell to her knees, tears streaming from her good eye. In her hands, Aloise flaked and burnt away, until there was nothing but ash. Beryl’s stared, wide-eyed, at her soot-covered, unburned hands.



Beryl doubled over, and screamed in agony.



As she screamed, she let go, not bothering to hold anything back, not bothering to keep the fire within her. Maybe it would burn everything away! Maybe it would burn her away too - it was all she deserved! She could feel the heat around her, see the bright orange glow through her tightly shut eye.



It did not matter. Aloise was dead, and in her final moments, she had blamed Beryl. The fire would never burn away that memory, for as long as she lived. And… that was not very long at all. Not anymore. Let the fire take her. It had already burned away everything else.



As the fire roared around her, and Beryl waited for some sort of end, weeping quietly, she heard a voice. Faintly. It was just… too much, though. She wanted to believe that it was Aloise, but she had just seen… just caused… No, she would not be tricked into hoping. It was over. It needed to end. All she had to do was wait, and soon, it would be over, in the same way it had started. With fire.



"Beryl!" No. She would not acknowledge that voice. She was dead. Beryl’s mind must have snapped, she must have... "Beryl, I can’t - You need to let me through. The flames are too high!" Beryl curled more tightly into a ball, on her knees. "Beryl, I-" Then, silence, and for a few moments, Beryl thought that would be all. It was over. Finally, she could just… give up.



Then, she felt an impossibly cool hand on her shoulder.



"Beryl, look at me." Aloise said, and Beryl shuddered. No, she was burned, scarred, blackened bone, turned to ash, Beryl could not look she- "Beryl, look at me, now. Look at me." Beryl choked back a sob as she felt Aloise hand on her face, soft and insistent. Not again, no, not again… "Beryl, if you don’t look at me now, we are both going to die. Look at me." Finally, reluctantly, Beryl allowed her head to be turned, though she still held herself tightly, because she felt like falling apart. She did not know what she would see, what this voice would…



But it was Aloise.



She was sweating and desperate and red in the face. Her clothes were singed and she may have had some burns, but she was alive. She was not on fire, and… But she had just seen...



"Beryl." Aloise said calmly, despite the fire raging around them. "Whatever you’ve seen, it isn’t real. It can’t be real. I’m right here. I’m real. Take a deep breath, and focus on me."



"You- You-" Beryl sobbed. She could not get enough air into her body, she was…



"Beryl, take a deep breath." Aloise said, wincing, and then setting her mouth in a firm line. Beryl did her best to do as she was told. "I need you to put this fire out. Right now."



"I can’t-"



"You can." Aloise insisted. "I know you can. Focus on me, alright? I’m right here. Put the fire out."



"Aloise-"



"Put the fire out, Beryl." Numbly, Beryl just nodded, and inhaled deeply as she had been told.



She breathed in, and Aloise watched her, nodding her encouragement. And… she kept breathing, she drew in the heat, felt the fire all around her flicker as she returned it into herself. She breathed, and the flames flickered, and died. She felt the heat fall away, watched Aloise relax, and smile. She had…



She had done it. Just like Aloise said.



And. Somehow Aloise was kneeling before her, whole.



Completely drained, Beryl fell, sobbing, against Aloise. She had nothing to say, though, or rather, no way to say it. Her entire body was limp with relief. Aloise wrapped Beryl in her arms soothingly, making small calming noises as Beryl wept.



"There’s nothing to be afraid of anymore, Beryl." Aloise whispered. "Let’s get you some water, alright? We don’t have much time." Beryl laughed weakly at Aloise’s words, detaching herself from the other woman.



"It’s… good to hear you say that." Beryl said, and for the first time noticed that Aloise was… glowing? It was a soft light, and it did not illuminate their surroundings any, but… It was there, she could tell. Aloise dug in her bag for a waterskin and handed it to Beryl.



"What you saw…" Aloise asked as Beryl drank. "Was it bad?" Beryl’s emotions were still wildly outside of her control after having been eviscerated so thoroughly by… whatever that was. She just nodded. Aloise did not say anything else, and for a few minutes, they just sat in silence as Beryl collected herself.



"What is all this?" Beryl wondered eventually, wearily, staring down at her lap. Looking at Aloise was difficult, her heart was beating too fast. She was not sure if she would burst into tears or try to kiss her if she did, and was honestly not sure which would be worse.



"Diana - the angel that Fisco was with?- she told me there’s an archdemon on the loose. This is his doing." Aloise explained.



"An archdemon?" Beryl echoed. An archdemon. Beryl knew plenty of demons, but an archdemon? What did that even mean? "What does it want with us?"



"I’m… not sure." Aloise admitted. "I don’t think it’s paying much attention to us, honestly? I’m not sure we’d be alive if it was. Diana said that it hates Fisco and wants to torture him. We… really need to go find him." Aloise’s voice was calm, as always, but also anxious. Beryl pursed her lips.



"Maybe we should just leave him." Beryl suggested quietly. "We could planeswalk away, and-"



"Beryl!" Aloise admonished. "Absolutely not! He needs our help, just like you needed my help."



"Aloise, we’re in over our heads." Beryl protested, but refused to look at the other woman. "An archdemon? I can’t- We can’t fight that. I… I tried to fight something like that." Beryl shuddered, and rubbed her arms. "It’s not… It’s not possible."



Aloise was silent, and then very gently took Beryl’s hand. Just like before, it was cool, soft, and comforting. Beryl glanced at Aloise. She was radiant. Her eyes were quiet and kind, but disapproving.



"Beryl, what did you see?" Aloise asked her gently, and Beryl had to look away immediately. She could not hold Aloise’s gaze, but she also wished to hide the blush. "Tell me what you saw." Aloise prompted again, insistent. Beryl swallowed.



"I killed you." She whispered. "I burned you alive, I… I couldn’t stop it, and you…" Her throat closed, as she felt hot tears spilling down her face again. "I don’t want to hurt you." She managed, and it was all she could say but it would never mean enough. She would need a thousand words to explain to Aloise the crimes she would rather commit, the lives she would rather take, than see her hurt. Anything, anything at all.



Aloise squeezed her hand.



"I never told you this, Beryl." Aloise said slowly, as though sighing. "It didn’t seem appropriate, after everything you’ve been through. I wanted to spare your feelings." Aloise laughed breathily, ruefully. "It didn’t help much, in the end. But you should know." Aloise paused, and waited for Beryl to nod before continuing. "My family tried to burn me at the stake."



Beryl’s head snapped up, eye widening.



"What?"



"When I was little, I lived in a big, walled city." Aloise explained sadly, though still with a gentle smile. "They thought everything outside of the walls was dangerous and evil, so no one ever left. You… couldn’t leave, actually. There were no doors." She shook her head. "Well, I was just discovering that I could use magic, and I accidentally found myself outside of the wall." Aloise rolled her eyes. "I was terrified. I thought I was going to be eaten by monsters. But Lys found me, and I found out that the world outside was not something to be afraid of, but something to be excited about. I wanted to show everyone in the city what it was like. Tell them about it."



"They wouldn’t listen." Beryl observed, voice small. Aloise nodded, taking a deep breath.



"They thought… Well, they thought a lot of things." Aloise squeezed Beryl’s hand. "It was the worst thing that ever happened to me. I could even see my parents in the crowd. And as they lit the fire underneath my feet, and I thought for sure I was going to die right there. Well, instead I became a planeswalker!" Aloise laughed - she actually laughed, low and breathy. "It was the worst day of my life, and the best. I thought I was going to die, and instead, I was given the greatest gift I’ve ever received. If it wasn’t for what happened to me, I never would have seen all the amazing things I’ve seen, or made all the wonderful friends that I’ve made." Aloise took both of Beryl’s hands in hers, and held them together. "I never would have met you. I could never hate them for that, Beryl. I could never be afraid of fire. Not after everything that it has given to me."



"It nearly killed you." Beryl pointed out.



"But it didn’t." Aloise insisted earnestly. "Some things are dangerous, but they’re beautiful too. They’re a lot like you, Beryl."



"You think I’m dangerous?" Beryl whispered, keeping her arms firmly on their entwined hands.



"I think you’re beautiful." Aloise told her firmly, and finally, Beryl had to see her. She was smiling, sincere, her blue eyes shining, a small streak of soot on her cheek. She was so… perfect, even lost in this darkness, she was fearless and hopeful. She was… everything. She…



Beryl leaned forward and kissed Aloise.



There was not much thinking involved. Beryl was not even certain her brain was actually working, and then Aloise was kissing her back, chastely, and-



"I love you." Beryl murmured against Aloise’s mouth, and then pulled away.



Aloise was staring at her, wide-eyed, lips parted, obviously stunned. Like a bolt of lightning, Beryl’s mind caught up with her body, and her heart fell into her stomach.



"I shouldn’t have said that." Beryl said quietly, unable to look away from Aloise. "I-" Aloise reached forward as Beryl tried to speak, and placed a hand gently on her scarred cheek. Beryl’s mouth went dry as Aloise grinned, and very suddenly pulled her in for another kiss.



"You are a wonderful woman, Beryl." Aloise whispered, pulling away. "And I really, really want to talk about all of this with you. But right now we need to go and find Fisco, alright? Once we’re all safe, I promise, we’ll talk." Beryl blinked her one good eye.



"...This really is not the time, is it?" She murmured vaguely still unsure exactly… what had just happened. Aloise laughed, low and happy.



"It’s really not." She said sympathetically, and grabbed Beryl firmly by the hand before standing. She helped Beryl to her feet and, after making sure she was steady, looked around.



Somehow, during… all that, they had… moved? They were now standing in the middle of some sort of forlorn city street. It reminded her of her old home on Aliavelli, except significantly more… damp. Beryl cleared her throat, both to get Aloise’s attention and clear the butterflies that had suddenly infested her stomach.



"Where is this place?" Beryl asked, because it appeared to be deserted.



"Well, Diana said that the archdemon’s reality takes the shape of whatever his victims fear the most." Aloise answered thoughtfully. "Since we’ve broken free of the spell, she was convinced that this was Fisco’s… reality." Beryl looked around, unimpressed.



"...He’s afraid of being poor?"



"Maybe!" Aloise agreed readily. "We’ll have to find him and find out. It should become more obvious where he is as we get closer, so-"



"Aloise." Beryl said sternly, and only felt a little badly for interrupting her. "If we encounter this demon, I want you to stay behind me, alright? We’ll find Fisco, just-" She sighed. "Just, let me keep you safe. This isn’t… this isn’t going to be as easy as all that. Fisco might… We might not be able to save him."



"...I know." Aloise responded quietly. "But we have to try, Beryl. We have to."



"Yes." Beryl said, taking her hand. "We do." She nodded down the road, and took a deep breath. "Lead the way." Aloise nodded resolutely, and together, they walked down the dreary, cobbled road. Beryl was not sure where it would lead, but she would follow Aloise anywhere - even into Fisco Vane’s own nightmares.



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PostPosted: Thu Jul 23, 2015 2:40 pm 
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This was the worst case scenario. Anything that could have gone wrong, had. Somehow, Xeran had gotten free - and not only had he gotten free, he had gotten free in such a subtle, silent way that Fisco had not even sensed, or even suspected, that the demon was loose. Fisco had defeated Xeran before, of course. How else would he have gotten that damned collar on in the first place? But at the time, he had been more like a god and less like a merchant. Now that he was neither, Fisco doubted he would escape the encounter alive.



Attempting to planeswalk, of course, had been fruitless. Xeran always had a knack for binding people within his false realities.



Fisco found himself shortly standing within the dreary, cobbled confines of a rainy street that he knew all too well. Instinctively, he turned up his coat and grimaced. Xeran’s laughing still echoed in the darkness and, looking up, the darkness seemed to stretch on forever. Xeran had not shown himself yet, but it was only a matter of time. He would rub it in, to be sure. Make Fisco understand, completely, that he was within his power.



It is what he would have done, after all.



That hubris was exploitable - something he knew all too well. With some time to collect his thoughts and form a plan of attack, he might be able to outwit the archdemon. He could not face him in a show of force, after all… Or could he? Trevanei…



Gods, Trevanei and Hartley. Fisco dragged a hand over his face. This was a disaster.



"Worn out already, Vane?" Xeran’s voice hissed, seemingly from nowhere. Fisco grimaced.



"How’d you get free, anyway?" Fisco asked as he began walking. Well, if Xeran was going to throw him into a nightmare reflection of his home plane, he might as well make for the pub.



"You could not hold me forever."



"Actually, I could." Fisco pointed out, shoving his hands into his pockets. "That was the point. I didn’t craft the damned collar, but I made sure it stayed put."



"That worked out well for you."



"Are you going to kill me now, or just talk me to death?" Fisco growled, rounding the corner. Great. Another street, where the pub should have been. Xeran was not going to make this easy. "The faster we wrap this up, the sooner-"



"That’s right, Vane, hide behind that bravado." Xeran purred, voice slowly becoming guttural. "It will please me to rip it aside and feast upon your nightmares."



"See, I understand this." Fisco said conversationally, ignoring the demon’s threat. "I understand wanting to toy with me. Torture me. We’ve been through this song and dance before. What I don’t understand is why you aren’t getting more creative with it." Fisco passed by what he assumed was some piss-poor attempt at replicating the old tanner’s shop. Sure, that dark stain on the cobbles by the front door was there, but there was not any smell.



"I know what gets under your skin, Vane."



"And I know what gets under yours." Fisco sighed. "I’ve been doing it for a century."



"Fisco!" At the sound of Diana’s voice, Fisco whipped around and narrowed his eyes. She was gliding towards him, all solemnity and grace. Without waiting for a response, Fisco immediately attempted to dismiss her. Send her somewhere else.



She did not blink, or even notice.



"You’ll have to try harder than that, Xeran." Fisco growled, and held his hand out towards the false angel. Diana’s eyes widened.



"Fisco, what-" But then she was enveloped by a torrent of black smoke. Fisco continued on his way down the damp street without bothering to turn around and glare at the pile of ash. He clenched his teeth as Xeran’s chuckle rang against his mind.



"Just making sure you hadn’t gone soft." Xeran said.



"You wouldn’t let Diana roam free." Fisco turned sharply down a narrow alleyway, trying to find some shelter from the relentless, if imagined, cold. "You probably have her trapped somewhere."



"Do you know what her worst fear is, Vane?" Xeran hummed, pleased with himself.



"Yes." Fisco replied flatly. "Watching me kill myself."



For several long, tense moments, Fisco walked in blessed silence. Joy of joys, he had caught the demon off-guard. Now maybe he could find a way out of this mess.



Everything around him was of course, subject to Xeran’s whims. It had been over a hundred years since Fisco had encountered the demon at full strength, but it was not something he would easily forget. The last time he had let Xeran out for some ‘exercise’ was on Mavros, and even then, he had only unlocked four of the runes on his collar. Now, without the collar, Xeran was bound to have returned to his original form, though Fisco could only guess at what sort of effect the demon’s long imprisonment would have on his power.



He was hoping it would be diminished. Since he was not dead yet, he might be right.



He just wondered where, exactly, an enormous demon would be hiding.



As he exited the alleyway, he briefly heard the sound of rushing wind and then a flat, thumping noise. He turned immediately on his heel, glancing around the entrance of the alleyway, before his eyes rested on the ground behind him. Staring lifelessly up at him, eyes milky and dead, was Cosette.



Fisco turned his back on the body and hurried away. But as he walked, more specters of his past reared their heads.



He walked underneath the feet of Jackie DeCoeur, hanging from a signpost.



The lifeless, emaciated body of Daneera leaned haphazardly against a half-shut door, the weight of the corpse not even enough to push it open.



Denner Fabellian lay in a pool of his own vomit and blood, face-down.



Malzeth’s face was transfixed in a look of pure rage, even around the stake that had been shoved through his mouth.



Lucrecia lay in pieces at his feet.



Trevanei was on her knees, surrounded by scorch marks, staring at the sky, body gone stiff and cold.



"You could have helped." Xeran whispered, and Fisco bared his teeth. "But no, you couldn’t care. Not Fisco Vane. You had to hide behind contracts and money and greed. Then, you left them all behind. Each and every one of them." Fisco stopped walking, drawing his hands out of his pockets and balling them into fists. Another shadowy figure lay on the ground, not far from where he was. It was small, huddled. "You had to be sure they knew you were all business, because business was clean. Business was easy. Full of wit, full of wealth… and yet, so empty. And for all your gold… you just couldn’t afford to care."



"Xeran…" Fisco warned, voice low and rough. The figure before him was thrown into sudden and sharp relief.



"We both know what caring got you before." Xeran hissed. Fisco’s head jerked, but suddenly, he could not look away. The body was just as he remembered it - curled in on himself, hand clutched tightly against his chest because he just would not stop coughing. He just… Fisco shook his head.



"I’m going to kill you, Xeran." Fisco promised.



"What’s it been, Vane? One hundred and twenty years? And you never told anyone." Xeran taunted. "Oh, poor Fisco Vane. His baby brother dies of sickness, and suddenly the whole city needs to die."



"The whole city did die." Fisco snapped, stepping over the body, and continuing down the road. "I killed them all. Imagine what I’m going to do to you."



"But that wasn’t it, was it?" Now Xeran was just ignoring him. Great. Normally he would just tune the demon out, but the words were being spoken directly into his skull. The street around him was becoming noticeably darker and more distorted. Windows were too tall, or not there at all. Doors were partially opened outwards to reveal stone walls behind. He was getting close to… something. He just was not sure what. "You’d already gotten your revenge for Valto-"



"Don’t say his name!" Fisco roared, all the anger, all the fear and frustration bubbling to the surface in a tremendous shout. He lashed out at a nearby window, shattering it and feeling the glass bite through his gloves and into the skin of his knuckles. The glass did not fall, and instead remained suspended in place, but Fisco failed to care about the peculiarities of Xeran’s nightmare world. "You kill me now, Xeran, because if I find you first you’ll never get the chance!"



His voice echoed in the empty street. As he looked around wildly, he realized all the bodies were gone. Like he had been screaming into the darkness, at nothing. Shaking, Fisco inspected his hand. Blood, but not much. He could mend it, and the glove too. Later, later. Fisco took a deep breath, scratching his chin with his unwounded hand. Xeran had gone silent again. Was he distracted, or just letting Fisco stew in his own thoughts?



It would be just like the demon to let Fisco drive himself insane.



"...can’t afford it." Fisco’s thoughts ground to a stuttering halt at the sound of the voice, distant and muffled. Slowly, it grew louder. "Maybe if I talk to Dior…" Fisco found himself, suddenly, inexplicably, standing next to a window. Light filtered through the bubbled glass, and two shapes moved within. One was hunched over a table, hands splayed flat. The other sat, hands folded neatly before her.



"He won’t listen. You know him." Fisco’s mother pointed out, and Fisco Vane swallowed heavily.



"What else am I supposed to do?" Fisco’s father shouted, and then the lights went out. The glass crumbled away, along with the wall, and Fisco found himself stepping into the destroyed remains of a kitchen. His father and mother lay still on the floor, unmoving, white… cold.



"You’re making things up, Xeran." Fisco growled. "I never saw their bodies."



If the demon had anything to say about that, he remained silent.



Fisco stared at the two corpses for a moment, his lip curling back, before catching a shadowed movement out of the corner of his eye. His head snapped up, and he narrowed his eyes. That door had not been opened, before. His memories of this place were hazy, but he was certain that it was the door to Violet’s room. A trap, or just more taunting from the demon? What was taking Xeran so long to just end it, anyway? Or at least show himself, so Fisco could vent his frustration.



He made for the doorway, wishing with the sudden fervor of an addict that he had a cigar.



The room he entered was dark, of course, and Fisco accidentally kicked something wooden as he entered. A chair, from the sound of it. He did not remember… He did not remember what was supposed to be in here. A bed, maybe… a few of Violet’s… toys? Did she have toys? How old had she been? Fisco clenched his teeth at the sound of a footstep behind him.



"You left me behind." Violet whispered.



"I couldn’t find you." Fisco growled, before shaking himself. Violet was dead, damn it all. He was not going to be speaking to ghosts!



"You didn’t even try…" Violet accused. "You could have helped me, you could have-" Fisco felt a small hand on his back, and he immediately pulled away and lashed out. His wounded hand struck flesh, and there was a brief cry, before silence and darkness fell once more. Fisco flexed his cut fingers, feeling his face twist into a sneer. Damned… Demons. Xeran would… Xeran would pay for this. Bringing up his past like this.



It was still pitch black, of course. Fisco turned around and made for the door, only to find it gone. He sighed in exasperation. This was getting ridiculous.



"Well, the only person you haven’t thrown in my face is Metzo!" Fisco shouted into the darkness. "Let’s get this over with!"



"I don’t think that will be necessary." Xeran said, voice all sibilant smugness. "You already know what you did to him."



"I already know what I did to all of them." Fisco snarled through clenched teeth. "Now I’m just thinking about what I’m going to do to you."



"I didn’t want it to go this way." Xeran said, mockingly forlorn. "Yes, I had plans for you, Vane. It didn’t involve your familial problems. You tortured yourself enough over that, haven’t you? It just made you angry."



"Then why even bother?" Fisco hissed.



"Think of it as a favor of sorts." Xeran explained.



"For who?" Fisco demanded. "Me? You’ve got to be joking."



"No!" An entirely different voice, high, reedy, and grating, spoke from behind him. Fisco whirled around, eyes wide. There was an insane cackle. "For me!"



Then, Fisco’s chest exploded with pain.



***


Aloise would not say she was becoming discouraged, exactly. Frustrated, certainly. She and Beryl had been wandering this formless, dreary cityscape for the better part of a half hour, and nothing had changed. She was certain they had passed that building before, and the rain, though easy to ignore, was infuriatingly persistent. Beryl had not said much since they had set out, but still held firmly onto Aloise’s hand, which was a comfort. At least she would be certain Beryl was there. Getting separated now would be… bad, Aloise felt. Definitely a bad thing.



She glanced back at Beryl, who smiled encouragingly and… Hm. Aloise smiled back and catalogued the giddy feeling in her stomach for later - she had to focus on finding Fisco now.



Even as she thought this, she stepped in something that most certainly was not slick cobblestone. She was mildly surprised to find that the cityscape had suddenly begun to transform into a musty marsh, almost seamlessly. Buildings flowed into boulders, the ground giving way to small rivulets of water, about knee-high. Gnarled and vined trees, along with tall reeds, dotted the dreary mire and… Wait, Aloise had seen this place before.



"This is Takenuma." Aloise murmured, brow furrowing. She was not sure where in Takenuma this was, exactly, but she recognized the reeds. They were unique to the swamplands of Kamigawa.



"What?" Beryl asked as Aloise led her forward.



"A swampland on a plane called Kamigawa." Aloise explained in tandem with her internal thoughts. "I visited briefly. The flora is interesting but the bandits make cataloguing plantlife dangerous." She shook her head. "Nothing terrible happened here to me… Have you been here before? On accident, maybe?"



She glanced back at Beryl, who was watching the muddy water with a look of distaste. "Not that I can remember." Beryl replied. "This doesn’t seem like the sort of place I would forget."



"Not our memory, then." Aloise squinted into the darkness of the swamplands. "Why would everything change so suddenly? Maybe this isn’t Fisco’s memory."



"It has to be." Beryl insisted. "There’s no one else here."



"...I’m not so certain." Aloise tugged Beryl’s hand gently, and they ventured into the swamp. "This demon seems intent on causing us mental anguish. Maybe to feed on?" She hypothesized as they walked. "So it projects our worst memories back at us. Or… forms them, around us. We all carry shadows with us, I think." Aloise sighed, and Beryl squeezed her hand. "Maybe the demon just pulls from that."



"I don’t think it was expecting your light." Beryl noted, gesturing to the glow that still surrounded the younger woman. Aloise smiled.



"I don’t think so either. If it’s noticed that we’re free, however, it hasn’t come for us yet. I’d like to think that’s because we are being careful but…" Aloise bit her lip, and pushed aside a particularly dense clump of reeds. "It might just be busy with Fisco."



"What about the swamp?" Beryl pointed out, eyeing a nearby vine warily. "Is Fisco afraid of being poor and wet?"



"No…" Aloise shook her head. "Well, maybe. I don’t know what Fisco is afraid of. Or what his worst memories are. I thought that since we weren’t in either of our memories, that we were in his. But we wandered that city, and never saw Fisco at all. Either the demon was keeping us away deliberately, or the city was bigger than we thought."



"Not a comforting thought." Beryl said. "We could wander-" A sudden splashing noise caused them both to jump, and Beryl pulled Aloise closer before putting herself between her and the source of the sound. Beryl had one hand raised, while Aloise scanned the swamp for any signs of movement. The splashing noise continued, coming closer, and then…



A ratfolk - Nezumi, Aloise remembered - burst through the trees with a wide-eyed look of panic, ears flat on his head. He scrambled forward, towards them, and then tripped abruptly on something in the swamp and fell into the water with a cry. Beryl started forward, but Aloise held her back and gestured for her to wait.



A planar native - or a facsimile of one. This Nezumi did not exist, which meant that they were watching a memory… or at least, someone’s worst fear. The Nezumi came up for air, getting shakily to his feet, obviously winded, when out of the tall reeds strode Fisco Vane.



Aloise tempered her enthusiasm just as Beryl made a startled noise, and gave Aloise a confused look. Aloise squinted at Fisco, who appeared to be ignoring them as he walked effortlessly through the water towards the Nezumi. This Fisco was younger. No gray in his hair, no deep lines by his mouth or bags under his eyes. His eyes were just as sharp and dark as she had ever seen them, though. And, of course, he was smoking a cigar.



For his part, the ratfolk had begun to babble incoherently. Aloise could not make out the words.



"You don’t get to cross Fisco Vane and live, Split-Ear. Not when you owed me." Fisco said, voice all shadow and malice. The Nezumi immediately tried running again, but Fisco had evidently grown tired of the chase, because with a wave of his hand a dark form rose from the mire and seized the Nezumi by the throat. Whatever was holding the Nezumi never came fully into focus though, and continuously sloughed water. When Aloise stared at it, the water appeared to be falling slowly, and then returning upwards just to fall once more. An incomplete memory?



"I didn’t-" The Nezumi choked, voice shrill. "It wasn’t-"



"Save it." Fisco spat. "You’re a liar, Split-Ear. A damned good one. That’s why I hired you in the first place." He took a drag from his cigar, and walked towards the struggling Nezumi. "But you’d have to be twice as good at lying to pull something like that on me. I’ve seen all the tricks, rat." Fisco dropped his cigar into the swamp. "And you’re all out of them. I always get my due."



"Please-" Split-Ear choked, and Aloise looked away, because she knew how this ended. She knew what Fisco’s mercy looked like. She knew when he was feeling generous, or kind, and it was not often. The hard-eyed stare he gave the Nezumi was nothing like the sort of look he had given her when she bargained for Beryl’s freedom from debt. Beryl must have sensed Aloise’s distress, because she wordlessly pulled her close and turned her away.



"You owe me your life." She heard Fisco grind out. "I’m collecting. Consider your debt paid in full."



Then, there was a dull snap, and the sound of splashing water, and… silence.



When Aloise looked up, the Nezumi was floating in the water, head turned at an odd angle. Fisco was gone.



She and Beryl watched in silence for a long, uncomfortable minute. Nothing else happened.



"...Do you really think Fisco is worth saving?" Beryl asked, small, quiet, but not timid. Curious, maybe, but hard, like fire-wrought iron.



"He doesn’t need to be worth saving." Aloise whispered softly. "He just needs to be saved." Beryl only nodded, and Aloise was grateful for that. Aloise gave a last, mournful look at the body of Split-Ear, which had begun to sink into the mire, and turned to leave. Beryl followed silently.



"...Maybe it’s something Fisco regrets." Beryl speculated after a few quiet minutes searching the shadowy swamp. "Maybe he was thinking about it." She did not sound convinced.



"That seemed like the sort of memory that this demon would use to torment Split-Ear." Aloise mused. That poor Nezumi, dying all alone in Takenuma. She knew many natives feared the swamp - though it was safe enough if you were careful. There was a lot of superstition surrounding it.



"From what we saw, he’s dead." Beryl pointed out unhappily.



Aloise had a sudden, awful thought.



"You don’t think Split-Ear was real, do you?" She felt something twist in her gut, all bile and… She clutched Beryl’s arm. "What if he was real, and we-"



"Aloise, he looked through us, not at us. He didn’t even know we were there." Beryl told her, voice tight. Aloise inhaled deeply, and nodded. Right. No need for this place to get to her head. Just… apply a little rational thought. They would be able to tell reality from illusion.



"I’m not very fond of this place." Aloise muttered, and maybe she was sulking but this entire experience so far had been absolutely dreadful. She was worried sick about Fisco, she was worried sick about Beryl, and she could not guarantee to either of them that they would be safe and happy.



She did not have much time to sulk, however. Even as Beryl place a comforting hand on Aloise’s shoulder, someone fell from the darkness above them and crashed into the mire with a sickening crack. Aloise leapt to one side, but did not avoid being coated in fetid water and muck, and it did not appear as though Beryl fared much better. Beryl, however, was already moving - and Aloise immediately saw why.



Diana was struggling to stand where she had landed, teeth bared in pain. Aloise realized with a painful jolt that the angel was missing one of her wings, and her right arm hung limply at her side.



"Not much time!" Diana shouted as Beryl moved to help her up. The angel shrugged her off. "Xeran comes for you both. I found you just in time."



"How can we be sure-" Aloise began, but Diana strode forward - uneven, perhaps, but determined - and pointed her good hand at Aloise.



"Xeran’s shadows cannot exist within your light." Diana told her, and took another step forward, reaching towards the glowing halo that illuminated Aloise. The light shone on Diana’s upturned palm. "I am no shadow." The angel lowered her hand, and Aloise had no choice but to agree. Beryl had caught up to them both with a look of stony-faced worry, and Diana turned her attention towards the scarred woman. "Beryl Trevanei. You must keep her safe. Xeran has learned of your escape, and he is angry."



Beryl nodded solemnly at the wounded angel, and, almost instinctively, the scarred woman moved slightly in front of Aloise, as if to shield her from some unseen danger.



“Aloise will be safe with me.” She said.



Diana gave her head a stern shake. “None of us are safe, for as long as Xeran yet lives.” The angel held Beryl’s one good eye with her unblinking gaze. “Our one advantage over him is that he did not anticipate Aloise Hartley’s power to dispel his shadows.” Diana nodded slightly in Aloise’s direction. “You must protect her, at any price.”



“I know,” Beryl said. “I will.”



“You must-”



“If anything happens to Aloise,” Beryl said, her voice quiet but firm, “it will mean that I am already dead.” Aloise wanted to tell Beryl that, really, that would not be necessary, but… She saw Beryl’s face. The confidence, the surety, and Aloise knew it was true. That Beryl would die before letting anything hurt her and she felt honored and awestruck at the same time.



Diana must have seen it as well, because slowly, the angel nodded her head.



“Very well.” Diana said.



"What about Fisco?" Aloise asked quickly as Beryl squinted into the sky.



"He will die soon." Diana stated flatly. "You must get to him before that happens."



"How?" Aloise demanded, urgent and frustrated.



"You are the light, Aloise Hartley. Nothing in the darkness can be hidden from you-" Diana was interrupted by a cry of warning from Beryl, and then something very large descended upon them.



Aloise could not make out the archdemon in the darkness, but his form was immense. Xeran stood taller than some of the trees, crunching trees beneath his clawed feet without noticing. The only part of the demon that was properly illuminated were his eyes, and those shone with an eerie purple.



"I was just wondering where my other meals had run off too." The archdemon growled, taking a step forward that shook the earth. "Kneel before me now, and I’ll make this-"



Beside Aloise, Beryl lit up like a beacon, and a wave of flame as tall as the demon rushed towards Xeran. Water boiled along the way, and all around them the mire caught fire. Just before the flames hit Xeran, Aloise saw him, fully illuminated, his scaled and horned face a mask of indignant rage.



Then the flames enveloped him, and Beryl grabbed Aloise by the hand.



"Let’s go!" Beryl shouted as Xeran roared in rage and perhaps pain. Aloise complied wordlessly, and they began slogging through the swamp as fast as could be allowed.



"Out of my way, Diana!" Xeran screamed, and Aloise threw a look over her shoulder to see Diana standing resolutely between them and the demon. She did not respond, only raised her hand and produced a blinding beam of light.



"I will keep him here as long as I am able!" Diana shouted after them as Aloise returned her focus to keeping her balance in the treacherous water. She heard Diana cry out in pain, but bit her lip, and forced herself to keep moving. Soon, the sounds of the melee faded, and they were lost in the swamp once more - but they were making no progress, as far as Aloise could tell. Aloise feverishly ran through what she knew, trying to discover how to find Fisco.



Diana had said she was the light. Nothing could stay hidden. She could find Fisco - She had to. Just like she had found Beryl… No, she had used the Wanderer’s ring to find Beryl. Another way, then. Light. Her light. The light that had appeared when she had…



Aloise came to a realization so suddenly that she jerked Beryl forcibly to a halt.



"Aloise, what-" But Aloise drew Beryl close and looked directly into her good eye

.

"I love you." She said firmly, earnestly. This close, with Aloise’s light shining on her, it was easy to see the flush that covered Beryl’s face as her mouth parted in surprise. "And maybe - Maybe not in the way you love me. Not yet. But you mean so much to me. I want you to be happy, Beryl. I will do anything to make it so. Do you understand me?"



Beryl blinked once.



"Yes." She replied, voice small and wondrous. Aloise grinned.



"Good. Come here." And Aloise pulled Beryl down and kissed her soundly and deeply. She knew this was what Beryl wanted, and it was what she wanted too. She wanted to see Beryl smile, to see her sleep soundly and without nightmares. She wanted Beryl to look at her past without heartache, to learn, to grow, to become the wise and caring person Aloise knew she could be. That she knew Beryl should be.



She would love Beryl until the stars went out if that was what it took.



Beryl pulled away, gentle and slow, a soft look of contentment coloring her face. Aloise smiled again, and then closed her eyes, and focused on that look. She committed it to memory, and then brought to mind every good memory she had of the scarred woman.



She had met Beryl atop a hill, while searching for the Manalith. Aloise had taught her how to planeswalk.



Beryl had given Aloise her copy of the Arcanum Obscurata - a cherished heirloom.



Beryl had accompanied Aloise to the Wanderer’s Heart, and together, they had saved a dragon and ended an Ice Age.



The memories were few, maybe, but they were strong. They were full of excitement, happiness, and love. What was more, there was hope - hope for more memories like the ones before. A future full of love and happiness. It was these memories, these feelings, in a shadowy world that reflected her innermost thoughts, that would sear away the darkness with light.



When she opened her eyes again, she was standing in the center of a beacon of radiance. The swamp dried up, the trees shrank away, and vanished. The dark sky receded, and then, as though the light were washing away the darkness, they were where Fisco had first led them.



A massive, dimly lit chamber, with six pillars. Behind Aloise there was a snarling noise, and both she and Beryl whirled around to confront the sound.



To her horror, she found Fisco Vane.



***


Beryl had officially lost track of the situation, but she was doing her best to stay focused.



Somehow, Aloise had dispelled whatever nightmare world that archdemon had forced them into. Amazing, yes, but not the point at the moment. Beryl ducked a lance of sickly, purple energy. When Aloise had done away with the world of darkness, she had done away with it for everyone.



So here they were, scant yards from where Fisco Vane lay, and hiding behind a pillar from a towering demon with flesh like moonless midnight.



Xeran had appeared with Diana held in one enormous, clawed hand. He had immediately thrown the angel aside, however, howling in rage. His onslaught had begun immediately, which brought them to where they were now. Another blast shook the stone pillar they hid behind as Xeran wheeled into the air, looking for a better vantage point to strike them from.



"We have to get to Fisco!" Aloise said desperately, and Beryl understood the feeling. Fisco Vane was… Well, he was pinned to the ground like a stuck bug. Something - or someone - was huddled over him, all ragged clothes and fur… with a knife. Beryl had only gotten a brief look, but from what she had seen, Fisco did not have much flesh left on his arm.



She shook the image from her mind as Xeran soared into view before them.



"You think you can still save him, Aloise Hartley?" The demon roared mockingly. "He is mine, to hurt and command as I see fit. And when he is ready to die, I will refuse him the pleasure!" Beryl let the demon pontificate for a moment as she gathered herself, and then lashed out with a condensed ray of pure heat. It struck Xeran square in the chest, and he hit the ground hard.



He was on his feet in no time, but she and Aloise were already running. The form huddled over Fisco turned to regard them, and Beryl caught sight of beady eyes and yellow teeth pulled back into a snarl. Ratfolk? Back in the swamp…



"Another step closer and I cut his throat." The ratfolk said calmly, and with exaggerated quiet. Beryl almost did not hear it over the sound of Xeran’s outrage, but Aloise stopped in her tracks.



"You’re Nezumi." Aloise said in reply, but the ratfolk turned away.



"Oh, I am not. Now, be quiet, I’m working! Yes, working..."



"Please-" Aloise began, she was cut off by the sound of beating wings. Beryl whirled around and threw a fistful of flame at the descending demon, but it did not even slow him down. She gathered her power for another spell, but it would not be in time-



Xeran drew up short, just as a shimmering barrier of light sprang up between him and the two planeswalkers. Beryl glanced at Aloise, who was glaring at the demon with an intensity that Beryl had never seen on the younger woman’s face.



"Clever." Xeran noted, suddenly very calm as his massive form lowered to the ground. "Attuned to reject my very essence. I cannot move past it or harm you. Old magic, for such a young woman. Where did you learn it?" Beryl glanced around, confirming that the shimmering circle had completely hemmed both herself and Aloise in. For her part, Aloise did not respond to the demon, but only pressed her mouth in a thin line.



"Aloise…" Beryl began, but Aloise just shook her head quickly and adamantly. Xeran grinned, teeth all straight daggers and fangs.



"She won’t be able to keep me out for long." Xeran said. "I have forever. She has… a few minutes. Perhaps." The demon folded his wings with a flourish, and stepped carefully around the circle, eyeing those trapped within. Beryl stared back at him defiantly. Xeran shrugged. "I suppose I will tend to my other guest, then."



Beryl watched the great demon stride casually over to loom over Fisco Vane and the mysterious ratfolk. At first, he said nothing, and then he nudged the ratfolk with his clawed foot. The force of it knocked the ratfolk over, who immediately straightened himself with a hiss.



"Why is he unconscious?" Xeran demanded, voice low. "He can’t feel anything like that."



"Makes demands of me…" The ratfolk muttered. "The vile man passed out from the pain. He has suffered, and soon he will die." There was a short giggle, but it sounded forced. Xeran, however, did not seem amused.



"He can’t die here, fool!" Xeran hissed. "If he dies, the Vault crumbles, and we crumble with it!"



"He dies here, oh yes." The ratfolk replied. "There is nowhere else for him to die. It must be here. Now. I’ve waited… always get my due..." The ratfolk’s voice became more shrill the longer he talked, and Beryl was beginning to detest the small person more than she already did.



"You said you weren’t going to kill him!" Xeran roared, wings flexing in agitation.



"Oh my, I must have lied!" Then the ratfolk began cackling to himself. Xeran kicked the Nezumi in the stomach, and his diminutive form flew away into the darkness with a startled squeak. Xeran turned to the prone form of Fisco Vane, and snapped his fingers.



Fisco lurched with a wet, popping sound, and Beryl saw his eyes fly open. Then, he began to scream. She saw the barrier falter slightly at the sound. As she turned to Aloise, however, she saw that the younger mage had her eyes closed. Her lips trembled and tears ran down her cheeks, but the barrier held.



Beryl clenched her teeth. There must be something she could do…



"You don’t look so well, Vane." Xeran murmured condescendingly as Fisco stopped screaming and began taking in wet, ragged breaths of air. Xeran raised his foot and placed it atop the long, iron rod that was protruding from Fisco Vane’s chest.



Xeran leaned.



Fisco screamed again, and Beryl averted her eyes.



"Beryl." Aloise whispered her name, strained, and Beryl immediately leaned towards her. "The circle only stops the demon. Not you." Xeran said something else to Fisco, who continued to moan in agony. Beryl steeled herself. Never in her life did she think she would be saving the life of someone like Fisco Vane. And yet…



Wordlessly, she closed her eyes and focused on the pulsing fire within her. She remembered the fires she had set, the power she had unleashed, the buildings and… people she had incinerated. Pain, and numb heat. It was all raw and red like a recently scabbed wound, but she felt the inferno within her swell. The temperature around her rose, and then she opened her eye.



She was still watching Aloise, and for a split second, she imagined the mage burning away before her eye. Skin peeling, and flaking-



No. She could protect her. She had to. There was no other way, because Aloise had said she loved her. She had shown it, she had kissed her in that nightmare world, and Beryl would see herself burn before anyone else laid a finger on Aloise Hartley, ever again.



With this determination, she felt a fresh rush of heat, but this time, she was eager, and not afraid. It flowed through her like lifeblood and emotion, warming her arms and following her commands. For the first time, her power was exhilarating, and, most importantly, entirely within her control.



Not for the first time, Beryl spoke to the fire which burned deep down inside her. Not to plead, or to shout. No, for the first time in her life, she said ‘yes’ to the fire. She said ‘yes’ willingly, and she said ‘yes’ purposefully. She said ‘yes’ with no reservations.



In front of her, Xeran paused in his torture of Fisco Vane to sniff the air, before turning around

.

"What-"



“Enough!” Beryl screamed, and threw everything she had at the archdemon.



She angled the wave of concussive heat she felt flowing from her upwards, towards Xeran’s smug and scaled face. It fled from her in a roiling, near invisible cacophony of popping noise, and just before it reached the demon, the flames sprang into view, igniting the air and blasting Xeran completely off of his feet and into the air. Beryl was not finished with him, however, because she felt the fire catching on the demon, the fire surging in all directions, and took hold of it. Shaped it to follow the demon in his descent as he screamed and tried to put out the flames. She swirled the fire around him, keeping it moving, and then she raised her hand.



After a brief pause, the fire erupted upwards, towards the ceiling, illuminating the shadowy room with orange light and the demon was suddenly nothing more than a shadow within the flame. The great pillar spun and danced in place, the roar of the flame masking the roar of the demon.



Then, all at once, the pillar bulged outward, and dissipated. The fire vanished, and it left Beryl feeling cold and in shock. Xeran, smoldering, furious, but alive, focused his violet gaze squarely upon Beryl, and began closing the distance that she had forced between them.



"Raw power is something I can respect." Xeran hissed as he stepped over Fisco’s body. Fisco had gone perfectly still sometime during Beryl’s assault, and she was not certain he was still alive. "But you were foolish to use it on me, Beryl Trevanei. I am Xeran! Archdemon of Kesh! I have lived for hundreds of your mortal lifetimes, and I will live for hundreds more."



Beryl was exhausted after her attack, and she glanced at Aloise, whose brow was still furrowed in pained concentration. Xeran’s wounds began to close as Beryl returned her attention to him and… things were beginning to look hopeless. She was not… After so many years of fearing what her fire could do, after all the people it had hurt, now it was just… not enough.



Xeran stared at the two young planeswalkers hungrily, a smug smile forming as the barrier flickered.



Just as Beryl was about to gather herself for one last, desperate spell, a tiny form flew screeching out of seemingly nowhere, towards the demon’s head. Xeran raised his hand to swat the assailant away, but he - the ratfolk from earlier - twisted out of the reach of his claws with unnatural dexterity, took purchase upon Xeran’s shoulder, and began stabbing the demon wildly in the face, screaming all the while.



"You dare to attack me, to deny me, to hurt me! Hurt him, hurt you, hurt, hurt, hurt!" The Nezumi screeched. Xeran roared in outraged agony, and to Beryl’s shock, fell to one knee. "Stupid demon, served the Shark for too long, swam behind, dark in the water, deep in the water! Weak, too weak, can’t die for his death! You will die for his death!"



"Get off- You insolent-" Xeran could barely get a word in as he clawed futilely at the agile Nezumi that was tearing his flesh to shreds.



"Knows your weakness, Kesh-lord, knows who you are, what you’ve been, what to do! I learned your name, your place, and I said I’d help if you helped, but!" The Nezumi climbed atop Xeran's great horned head, and brought his knife directly down into the demon’s skull with both hands and enough force to drive it to the hilt. "I!" Another thrust. "LIED!" He shrieked, stabbing a third time, and Xeran went suddenly still.



With a great crash, the archdemon collapsed.



There was a resounding, sickening silence. Beryl stared wide eyed at the panting ratfolk, who was standing atop Xeran’s unmoving body, eyes wide and yellow teeth bared in a silent hiss. Suddenly, the ratfolk vanished from Beryl’s view as Xeran’s body rippled once, and then liquefied into a viscous, black substance. The Nezumi screeched, trying to leap out of the way, but the tar-like liquid rose up all around him, pouring into his mouth and invading his eyes, and all the while the ratfolk screamed. He screamed like Fisco had, screamed as his body writhed, as the black liquid consumed him, and his eyes flashed a dark, furious purple-



He - and whatever Xeran had become - vanished.



Beryl just stared at where the two had been, moments before, in dumbfounded shock. Aloise caused Beryl to focus again as she gasped, and the barrier around them fell.



"Fisco!" She cried immediately, and began running to his side.



The ground gave a sudden, violent shake.



As though jolted into lucidity by the shaking and Aloise’s voice, Fisco stirred, and managed to turn his head to stare angrily at the both of them. Beryl almost laughed - Fisco Vane, pinned to the ground, half-flayed alive and covered in more blood than Beryl thought could fit into his body, still had the audacity to appear indignant.



"Hartley." He growled, voice still strong, if hoarse and wet. "Look, I’ve got a handle on this, you’ve got to-"



The ground shook again, nearly pitching Beryl off of her feet. She grabbed Aloise’s arm, as much to steady her as to stop her from rushing to Fisco’s side. As Beryl got a good look at their surroundings, her single good eye whipping about in a frenzy, she saw that the ceiling was beginning to crack and splinter, letting in… something. Something… chaotic.



As though the Eternities were beginning to leak into the Vault.



Beryl’s grip tightened as Aloise struggled to pull away.



"Fisco!" She shouted again, though Beryl barely heard her. They needed to be away, and they needed to be away soon. Fisco was… Fisco was dying. Xeran had said this place would fall apart without him. He had been right.



Her eye rested on Fisco, who was watching the two of them with a pained expression. The long spear which had been shoved through his chest still pinned him firmly to the floor.



"Get-" Fisco growled as another tremor shook the Vault. "Get out of here, Hartley! I’ll be-" Another tremor, and this time Fisco cried out, though swiftly bit his tongue to stop the sound. "I’ll be fine!"



"Aloise, we have to go." Beryl whispered urgently, and as if to prove her point, a large chunk of the ceiling crashed to the floor a dozen paces away from where they stood. The floor shook with the impact, and scattered debris everywhere.



"He needs our help!" Aloise shouted, struggling futilely against Beryl’s grip. She had never realized how… fragile, Aloise truly was. Her hand fit easily over the other woman’s arm. Aloise turned, expression desperate and pleading. "Beryl, please!"



Beryl’s heart broke.



"Don’t you dare, Trevanei!" Fisco roared, propping himself up with one hand on the spear. Beryl felt a flash of anger, that even now he was going to push her, order her.. "You get her out of here. And we’ll be even.”



“But-” Beryl began.



No-" Fisco interjected, and then screamed in agony with another violent shake of the vault, but his eyes remained fixed on the both of them. "No strings! No. Questions! Get her out of here!"



"Fisco!" Aloise shouted a third time, and finally managed to pull Beryl forward a step.



"Leave, you stupid girl!" He bellowed, voice raw, eyes wide, and blood dribbling out of his mouth. His good arm shook, and then gave out, and he fell heavily against the ground as he released the spear with a scream.



"I’m sorry, Aloise." Beryl whispered, and Aloise whipped her head around once more.



"Beryl, we can’t-"



Beryl put her free hand on Aloise’s forehead, and closed her eyes.



Aloise went limp, and Beryl caught her, a thick line of tears streaming from her good eye. It was a simple sleeping spell, and would not last long. A small magic.



She gathered Aloise in her arms, and spared one, shaky glance at the Shark. She could not see his face. Perhaps he was already dead. Gripping Aloise more tightly, and praying to whoever was listening that the young mage would forgive her, she planeswalked away.



***


Fisco was in a great deal of pain, but at least he could suffer easily, now. Aloise had fallen silent, which meant she was either gone or dead. Either options were well outside of his control at this point. The stupid girl had a pair of lungs, he was sure of that.



He cursed himself for a fool, but weakly and without any malice. Of course Xeran had not been able to get free on his own. Of course he had help. Fisco had never seen that rat before in his life, and he had to admit, that was probably intentional. He would not be able to see his enemy coming if he never even knew they existed. He took a ragged breath. He could feel himself slipping away, but the pain remained. The Shark, bested by a Rat he never even saw.



Pathetic.



Vainly, he tugged at the iron rod that held him in place. Magical. Prevented him from ‘walking or casting. Some sort of… void rod. He could not focus enough to care, though. He was dying. That was all there was to it.



His Vault shook violently. His tongue was bleeding, and he did not have the strength to scream as fresh agony tore through his chest. Instead, he simply choked back a whimper, and stared at the ceiling. His vault. His vault was finally falling apart. All of his wealth. All of his trinkets. Gone, and him with them. Lost to the Eternities.



Well, good.



He had regrets, he acknowledged for maybe the first time. He had… so many regrets. He wished he had never culled the city of Rema. He wished he had never killed Dior. He wished he had been kinder to Violet, and not so angry with Metzo. He wished he could have told his father that he was proud of what he did, and tell his mother that he loved her. He wished he had never been so angry. He wished Diana had not been caught up in all of this. He wished he had been able to save Cosette. He wished he had never become a planswalker at all.



Nothing good had ever come from it. Nothing good at all. Not for him… Not for anyone.



His networks had been destroyed, along with his coins. They died with him. Everything died with him, and he was taking none of it beyond the grave. What had the point of it all been? He had suffered alone and paranoid for a hundred years, and he was just going to die and leave it all behind anyway. He could not make anything right. He could not…



"Fisco…" He turned his head at the sound, too tired and wracked with pain to bother with surprise. Diana… Diana, who had suffered at the hands of Xeran, no doubt. Diana, his perfect, marble goddess, with her eyes open and her face as implacable and smooth as ever, spoke his name. Even missing an arm and both wings, she was a tragically beautiful sight to behold. Time seemed to slow down, Fisco no longer noticed as the Vault tore itself apart. He focused on the angel as she pulled herself on to her knees, and then, with the surety of eternity, crawled towards Fisco. For the third time in his life, Fisco’s heart broke.



He began to weep.



"Diana, no, please." He found himself muttering futilely as she advanced. "Rest, doll. Just lay down, it’s over. Diana, I’m not-" He choked. "I’m not worth it. Lay down, it’s over soon anyway, lay…" His words became incomprehensible as Diana, crippled, covered in blood, reached his body.



"I… failed you." She murmured as she knelt beside him. She smoothed the hair out of his face with her one hand, trembling, her face still as a statue. He could not speak, he could only stare at the angel, and past her, as the ceiling crumbled above him, and the physics of his Vault became incomprehensible. Everything was becoming fuzzy around the corners, and the only thing in focus was Diana’s face.



He felt her place her cold hand around the iron rod.



She kissed him on the forehead, and when she pulled away, he saw, for the first time in the many years he had known the angel, emotion. Written across her face, plain as day. Regret, sadness, pain, but over all of this, as Diana, his angel, gazed down at him a look of purest love.



Then, Fisco breathed his last, and everything went white.



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PostPosted: Thu Jul 23, 2015 2:41 pm 
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Joined: Sep 22, 2013
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Aloise woke up in her bed, and stared at the ceiling. They had returned from Fisco’s Vault yesterday. Beryl had told Aloise that she had tried to go back, but it was gone. Like there was nothing in the Eternities where the Vault had been. Aloise believed her, of course. Beryl would not lie to her. She had Aloise’s best interest at heart.



Not Fisco’s, though.



Unbidden, tears sprang into her eyes, and she very quietly wiped them away while trying not to sniffle. If she did, Beryl would wake up across the room and she just- She just could not handle the look of hurt in Beryl’s eye. Beryl blamed herself, of course, no matter what Aloise said.



She just could not bear the thought of Fisco dying, alone, scared. Of Fisco dying, knowing that he had gotten Diana killed as well. She could not bear the thought of everything he knew, everything he was, ending on that little, dark plane because of the cruelty of a demon. Aloise did not understand what had transpired there - thinking back, she still felt like she had observed the end of a very long, very dangerous game.



She wished she had not.



She always knew that, one day, Fisco just… may not show up. When she lit the coin. And it was the first thing she had done, when she got back. Or rather, she had tried to. There had been a little spark, and then the coin had broken in half. She had resolved to repair it even as she wept over the broken trinket - still, it lay in two pieces on her bookshelf, and…



She never thought Fisco would end like that. She certainly never thought she would be there to see it. Never thought she would be so close, and yet so helpless.



Aloise let out a small, hiccoughing sob as quiet as she could, but Beryl still stirred. Aloise closed her eyes tightly, because if she looked at Beryl now she would just begin weeping all over again- But she heard Beryl get up from the cot across the room, and it was enough. Aloise felt her shoulders shake as she spilled silent tears onto her pillow.



She felt Beryl sit on the bed, delicately, trying not to disturb her. She was still so timid, so gentle, so frightened.



"I’m sorry." Beryl whispered hoarsely, for the hundredth time since Aloise had woken up in front of her house yesterday. "I’m so, so sorry."



"Beryl…" Aloise sniffled, and sat up in her bed to get a good, if tear-stained, look at the other woman. She looked tired, sad, and… resigned. The same look she had worn since yesterday. Aloise wanted it to stop. She wanted Beryl to be vibrant and content because Aloise did not feel that way right now and she needed an anchor. "Hold me." She implored, ignoring that surprise that flashed across Beryl’s face and scooting over in the bed while Beryl hugged her automatically. Aloise nestled into Beryl, and though the tears had stopped flowing she still felt miserable. She said nothing, however, because Beryl’s warmth helped. Her strong arms helped, and her heartbeat helped.



After several minutes of silence, Aloise thought she might be able to face the day.



"You’re not going to leave, are you?" She asked Beryl timidly, before clarifying. "I want you to stay."



"I…" Beryl shifted slightly, and pulled Aloise a little closer. "I’m not going to leave." Aloise nodded against Beryl’s chest, because she had never heard Beryl sound so sure of something. It was… nice, Aloise decided finally. She was sad, and… she still felt horrible, about what happened. Maybe Fisco was at peace, or... maybe he was not. She wanted to go back in time, to help… She wanted something to mourn, maybe. She did not like losing her friends. She doubted anyone did.



"I want to tell you something about Fisco." Aloise whispered, closing her eyes. Beryl placed a hand on her head, stroking her hair, and hummed an acknowledgement. Aloise sniffled. "He was having some sort of trouble when he came to visit. Someone had been burning down his businesses, I suppose. He thought it might be you." Beryl went rigid, but relaxed as Aloise hugged her tightly. "I told him it wasn’t. He believed me. He wanted to talk to me first. He thought you might be… fragile. He’d been to Aliavelli."



Beryl sucked in a breath of air, and held it for a moment. Aloise waited for her to say something, but eventually, Beryl just sighed heavily.



"Go on." Beryl murmured.



"I told him he should just forgive your debt because you needed to put it all behind you." Aloise felt new tears spring into her eyes, but she smiled fondly regardless. "He said it would be bad for business."



"That sounds like him." Beryl noted dryly. Aloise just nodded.



"Then I asked him if there wasn’t something easy for you to do. He said he could do that."



"The collars…" Beryl muttered. "That’s why he wanted me to destroy them. Just to fulfill the debt. He… really did that?"



"Yes." Aloise said. "He really did."



After that, Beryl said nothing, and they spent another several minutes in comfortable silence as Aloise dried her tears. Beryl, Aloise decided, was a very comfortable place to rest and recuperate. She resolved to do this more often, if the other woman was amenable to it. From the steady and gentle way Beryl stroked Aloise’s hair, Aloise thought she might be.



"I never gave you your present." Beryl said suddenly, and Aloise blinked.



"Hm?" Was all she could manage, because she was feeling sleepy in Beryl’s embrace.



"I got you a present, for your Name Day. Then… um." Beryl trailed off.



"Oh." Aloise murmured, and then, "Oh! Yes, I-" She took a deep breath and sat up, rubbing her eyes. "I completely forgot, Beryl. I..." And Beryl was looking at her with the small, hopeful smile, black hair all brushed back, a rosy blush creeping up her neck and coloring her cheeks. It was beautiful, but most embarrassingly, it was familiar. It was the same look Beryl had been giving her for weeks now. "I’d love to see what it is." She finished weakly.



"I’ll go get it." Beryl told her, climbing off of the bed. Aloise nodded, pulling her blanket up over her shoulders. Beryl left, and Aloise briefly heard her shuffling around in the adjoined workroom, before she reappeared, holding something delicate in her hands. She sat on the bed once more as Aloise leaned forward, her curiosity piqued.



It was a blue pearl necklace, shiny and simple.



"Beryl, it’s beautiful." Aloise told her sincerely, and grinned as Beryl flushed from the praise. "Did you make it?"



"Yes." Beryl confirmed. "I… The pearls reminded me of your eyes." Aloise laughed, because Beryl was absolutely adorable, and raised her chin.



"Put it on for me?" She asked coyly, and Beryl obliged, placing her knees on the bed to steady herself. The pearls were smooth and cool against her throat, and nestled comfortably at the base of her neck. She looked down at it for a moment, smiling because it was such a perfect, simple gesture. She looked up to meet Beryl’s eye, and then leaned forward to kiss her softly. "Beryl, you’re wonderful." She whispered against Beryl’s lips.



"I love you." Beryl replied, and Aloise felt something warm and pleasant within her stomach.



"I love you, too."



Half an hour later, they entered the kitchen still sleepy, but hand-in-hand. Lys, knowing that tragedy had struck the night before, just gave them both a sad smile and sat them both down for breakfast. She gave Aloise a comforting hug, and Aloise thought she saw Lys give Beryl a conspiratorial wink.



They ate in silence, mostly.



"I think I’ll make a monument." Aloise said quietly. "I don’t want him to be forgotten." Lys gave Aloise a curious look, and nodded, but Beryl said nothing. "...He didn’t have anyone else."



"I’ll help." Beryl said after a short pause, and Aloise placed a hand over hers.



"I’d like that."



She returned to breakfast, then. Pensive, sad, maybe, but willing to go forward. She felt that, with Beryl’s help, she could do anything.



***


Victoria Ferrar finished powdering her face just as a bell rang from somewhere far away in her mansion. With a pleased smile at her improved appearance, she gathered up her elegant dress and swept out of the room. She was expecting a guest, and no doubt her butler had already invited him in.



She took the steps down from the landing carefully - it would not do to break an ankle, even if her shoes were sensible - appraising her guest, who was speaking with her butler, Kriste. He was an older man, and some affliction had frozen half of his face in a slack, tired stare. His hair was mostly dark gray, with streak of white running through it. He wore a simple coat over a simple vest, and leaned heavily on a black cane. As she descended, he glanced up at her with a nod, heavy-set eyes tired and dull.



"Mister... Geraldo, was it?" She spoke cautiously as she approached, and he nodded a bit stiffly.



"At your service, Madame Ferrar." He spoke slowly, with particular emphasis on each word. He waved Kriste away impatiently, which prompted a flare of irritation in Victoria, though she squashed it. He was a simple, sick old man. Let him fuss. "I hear you have a bit of history I am deeply interested in - perhaps we can make a deal."



Victoria smiled politely. "In truth, Mister Geraldo, you would be doing me a great favor taking it off of my hands. My grandmother's legacy has been nothing but trouble, and I am just as interested in being away from it as you are in acquiring it." She motioned for Kriste, who was at her side in a moment. "If you would, bring a pitcher of iced water to the back of the garden, I will be entertaining our guest there."



Kriste murmured his assent and was gone.



"If you will follow me please, Mister Geraldo."



He nodded amiably, and limped after her as she led the way.



"My grandmother was adamant on leaving all that... nasty business in Rema behind, and always refused to speak of it." Victoria sighed, as she led the older man outside, and down a willow-strewn path. "Though I'm afraid she never outlived the stigma that surrounded her, and had the misfortune of passing that same stigma to her children and even her grandchildren." She glanced at the old man following her steadily, despite his limp, and he half-smiled with hooded eyes to indicate he was listening. They reached an iron gate, and she opened it for the gentleman, who thanked her kindly and waited on the other side before continuing on.



“'The Culling of Rema', I hear they call it.” The old man murmured, and he sounded a bit... smug. She glanced at him, but he just chuckled. "Superstition. Specters of vengeance? It was just a plague."



"Surely." Victoria agreed. "You are an expert on the subject?"



"Something like that." The man told her. "That's why I'd like to see this journal that belonged to your grandmother. To get a more complete picture of what happened. She was a survivor, no?"



"She was." Victoria murmured, and pushed aside a screen of willow leaves. "Here we are, Mister Geraldo." She motioned forward, towards a dappled sunlit clearing. Gravestones marked the eternal resting places of all those who had lived at the manor, and even a few others besides. Geraldo blinked, eyes taking in the sight, and then nodded at Victoria to lead the way.



She took him towards the back, to the older gravestones, and stopped next to five of the oldest. In front of one was a stone box, which Victoria motioned at.



"My grandmother insisted the journal be kept here - it was in the will. No one wanted it, but there are those who believe it is... haunted."



Geraldo chuckled, but it was dry and humorless.



"Haunted, indeed..." He muttered, and stooped down to the box. Before he opened it, however, his fingers brushed over the name and dates on the gravestone.



Violetta Ferrar.



He glanced at the headstone to the left of her grandmother’s.



"...Your grandfather." He murmured, voice low and speculative. "Was he a good man?"



Victoria frowned.



"I knew him only briefly, but yes." She answered, unsure of this line of questioning. Mister Geraldo was... just a historian.



"Were they happy?"



Victoria opened and closed her mouth. In all honesty, she was not sure. It had not occurred to her to think about her grandparents often, resentful as she was for the stigma that had come with her mother's maiden name.



"I like to think so." She replied instead, and Geraldo grunted.



He remained crouched in front of the gravestone for a long time before glancing at the four to his right. Victoria had been stoically ignoring those, and pursed her lips as Geraldo's gaze remained on them for a long time. The people named - not interred, of course, no one found the bodies - consisted of her late grandmother's immediate family. She had been insistent upon the memorial, of course. In her shoes, Victoria might have done much the same thing. But that had been a hundred and a handful of years ago. She found it difficult to care about people she had never known, or met.



“...She had three siblings, didn’t she?” Geraldo asked, voice rough. Emotional. “Where’s the third?” Victoria cleared her throat.



“From what I understand, he survived the plague of Rema as well.” Victoria explained. “She insisted that he was still alive, but no one ever found him.”



"...I'd like to be alone." Geraldo murmured. Victoria raised an eyebrow.



"Sir, that is most-"



"It wasn't a request." He growled, voice becoming sharp like the edge of a blade and losing all of its softness. Victoria stepped away as he glared at her over his shoulder, eyes suddenly dark and menacing.



"...I'll return momentarily." She managed, and then hiked up her skirts and fled the cemetery.



***


He ran his thumb over his father's name.



Basco Vane, Beloved Father and Husband



"Should've visited sooner." He muttered huskily. "Time got away from me, pop. It all got away from me. Shouldn't have done what I did. Shouldn't have done that to you."



His mother's headstone was impossible to talk to. Vivienne Vane, Beloved Mother and Wife. His throat would not work. He moved on. His older brother, Metzo.



"...Never became nothing to sneeze at, Metz, not like you said I would. Should've listened to you. I didn't... I didn't think." He ignored the tears, and reached with a trembling hand towards his younger brother's grave. Valto Vane. Little Vivi, dead for over a hundred years, at the tiny age of four.



"You didn't deserve what you got, Vivi." He choked, and sobbed. "You didn't deserve it, you were the best thing that ever happened to ma. I'm sorry. I'm sorry."



When he reached his sister's gravestone, he was beyond just a grim frown, his shoulders shaking. He rested his head against the cool stone, and stained it with his tears.



"Violet, Vi, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry, oh gods, I'm so, so sorry." He placed his shaking hand over the stone box. "You all deserved so much better than me..." He slid the top off of the box, gazing at the journal through his tears. "...But I was all you got. I was a stupid kid, Violet, I should've come back. Taken care of you, gods know I could have."



He placed his hand over the pliable leather of the journal's cover. He was frightened to read it. Frightened to be alive, frightened to have outlived so many people that he loved. He was frightened that there would never be a time when he was not.



He pressed his hand into the leather.



"I swear, I'm going to be better." Fisco Vane, tired, old, and crippled, but alive, swore. "I'm going to take care of those who matter to me, because I should've done it for all of you."



He lifted up the journal, and clutched it to his chest.



"...Took almost dying to realize how much I didn't want to. Your memory deserves better than me, but I'm all that you've got. So I'll just have to be worth it."



A cold hand alighted on his shoulder.



"...It's time to go, Fisco." Diana murmured, and he nodded before standing. He did not look at his guardian angel, but she enclosed him with both of her good arms and he felt the air stir as her wings beat.



"I'm going to make this right." Fisco managed, hanging his head.



"I know you are." Diana murmured.



***


When Victoria returned to the cemetery, Geraldo and the journal were gone. In his place was a single, white feather, which she lifted curiously. She had seen no birds large enough to create it. Had… Had he been a ghost? Victoria felt a chill run down her spine.



No. She would not dwell on this. She would have Kriste search the property for the old man, and if he could not find him, then so be it.



She glanced at the empty box, and placed the feather within, before closing the lid once more. Best to let the dead rest where they lie.



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PostPosted: Thu Jul 21, 2016 4:22 pm 
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>though Ficso did not hear his heart in it
Fisco

>You’re manufacturer on Zent is dead.
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