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Kire and Gavin glanced at Rab, then both turned towards the commotion as Ysaryn and Zeke’s argument reached them. Kire frowned when Zeke leveled his accusations at her, while Gavin looked at Rab, wondering what he was here for. When Ysaryn gestured for Kire to take Rab with her, hinting at his blood, the Empress looked to Gavin, who nodded. “It’s possible,” he murmured, before turning to Rab, speaking to him in a soft voice to explain that they were going to Amria and would need his help with something important.

“We will take him, then. And if he grants us permission, we will use it,” Kire said to Ysaryn and Zeke, though the latter wasn’t listening. “Ysaryn, I trust you. Uvano is not my city, I am not its ruler, so what is best for it, I will leave in the hands of those trusted with its care. But don’t keep anyone in the dark for too long. It’s best he knows as soon as possible,” she added, turning to Zeke. “Seems nothing will change your mind about me, Zeke,” she said, her blue eyes trained on his angry stare. “Blame me all you want if that makes you feel better. For as long as you work together to keep Úvano safe, it doesn’t matter; I intend to keep my promises, and my fealty to this city.”
She looked to Rab next. “I’m sorry if this is confusing, but we’ll explain everything when we’re on the other side.”

After a few moments for Gavin to explain to Rab how the gate worked and what he would feel passing through it, all three of them crossed over. Kire gave Rab time to get his bearings back, standing in the Seer’s chamber, looking out the other windows, a thoughtful frown on her face.
“Wait here for a moment. I need to talk to Ed and Jan first,” she said to them, disappearing into her portal. Several minutes later, she reappeared.
“What was that about?” Gavin asked.
“Told them to prepare for an urgent meeting later.” Kire rubbed her face. “Alright, let’s go.” She gave a small smile to Rab. “Sorry for yanking you around like this. One more trip.”

The three of them stepped out of Kire’s portal and into the edge of the forest, near where she had seen Ruli last. “Hey. Ysaryn suggested Rab might be able to help with the search,” Kire said as soon as she neared Ruli.
“It’s possible, right?” Gavin put in, trying not to sound too hopeful. “Or at least we could try it.”
Kire nodded. “It’s worth a shot, I think. I just spoke with a priestess for the Goddess, and I’m hoping the gamble we’re about to try will get Solaralai to cooperate. The local lords will not be happy, but…” She frowned, her voice trailing off as she anticipated their reactions. Especially not too long after just retaking the Capital and consolidating her rule, stirring up possible conflict like this was a delicate matter. And if they refuse? It’s one thing to build alliances when it comes to a common enemy, but when it comes to worship…

“You might wanna sit down for this one, Rab,” Gavin said. “There’s something you should know.” As Gavin gave Rab more details about what it was they were trying to do and why he was needed here, Kire looked at Ruli, trying to gauge the state of his mind at the moment and hoping he could see she wanted Envy back, too.
“What do you need for this to work? Just say the word.” She reached for him with her scarred hand and squeezed his gently.
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Rab's brows furrowed as Gavin begen to explain what was happening. Along the flux of armed elves around, and the yelling between Ysaryn and Zeke, he was visibly uneasy, the pink-hued sclera of his eyes largely visible in his anxiety. That they'd be taking him away, even for his help, didn't seem to put him at ease any. He looked between Ysaryn and Kire when the two spoke, his greyish skin paling.

Ysaryn only nodded once. Zeke looked livid about being spoken about but not informed. He turned to round on the elf again, who raised her chin and held her stance, every bit determined not to bend to his temper. Hesitating, Rab followed Gavin and Kire, listening to Zeke and Ysaryn snarl at each other with bared teeth.
But, upon approaching the gate, he grew interested, losing a bit of his apprehension. He'd seen Ysaryn and the others walk through it and disappear. Aeron and Gavin had both explained to him what it was, even if Rab hadn't ever completely understood. Now, he was going through it! What an exciting experience for him to behold!

-Not exciting.
Nauseating and disorienting. Rab bent over before kneeling on the ground, groaning. No, not ground. Floor. Of some strange looking chamber. Kire disappeared again, and Rab signed I do not like to Gavin twice before he felt like he could sit upright again. By then, Kire had reappeared, looking worn.

Another portal, Rab found this one only slightly less disorienting. He only signed I do not like to Gavin once, this time. He could see Ruli, and began to make his way toward the blond on shaky legs.
He looked up as the trio approached, the look in his eyes making Rab feel more anxious. Something was very wrong. He looked around, seeking Envy, or Aeron, only to find Gavin preparing to tell him more.

Ruli watched as Gavin sat down beside Rab, informing him of Envy's absence. Abduction. Whatever they'd decided to call it. Ruli closed his eyes slowly and sighed, squeezing her hand back tightly. His brain wouldn't work. Envy knew more about location spells. "I need Envy." He said hoarsely, his throat dry. Another sigh, and he raised his head again, trying to force himself to think. After a few minutes, he listed the ingredients he would require. The same items used before when they had used the spell in the caves. He wasn't confident. Envy was the one who had been good with the last half of the spell. Ironically, Ruli was the more blind one in the end.

He twisted slightly to glance at Rab again, who looked as well as Ruli felt. "He's our best bet." Ruli whispered to Kire. Despite the whisper, Rab's half-elf ears heard the words, and he turned to face Ruli, looking unhappy.

"Bring me Daryll, too. He and Gavin will need to help. Where is Ysaryn?" He noticed her absence.
Rab glanced to Kire in time to see her shake her head, and he declined in signing his response. As Kire explained that the elf remained in Úvano to look for more items to trace, Ruli shrugged. He doubted she'd find much. Rab was their best bet, he was certain.
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Kire didn’t like lying to Ruli about Ysaryn, or not being entirely truthful with him, at least, but the elf’s warning about Ruli returning to Uvano in its present state echoed in her mind. As Gavin apologized to Rab for the discomfort of two portals in succession, Kire looked around at the three men, all of them looking lost, all of them needing guidance from precisely the person they needed to locate. Gavin, despite the determination he had put on earlier, had become more dejected, seeing how forlorn Ruli was. She took in a deep breath. Okay. She gave Ruli’s hand one more squeeze for comfort before letting go. “Okay,” she murmured out loud this time. “Everything you need, we can find back at the Tower. The alchemy chamber is at your disposal; I'm sure Daryll won't object. I'll leave you to talk to Rab while Daryll gathers what you need."

She returned to camp to fetch Daryll and found, to her surprise, that Sid was there. Ysaryn, what in the seven hells? No wonder Zeke’s angry. The empress withheld the deep sigh at the thought of confronting the dark elf about this. “Does she know?” Kire asked Narda, who nodded. Suppressing another sigh, she called to Daryll, and together they returned to the Tower. Ed and Jan were waiting for them there, and while Daryll made straight for the alchemy chamber, Kire immediately explained what they knew so far.

Gavin, meanwhile, was deep in thought as they waited for the supplies, reminded of his strange dream of being buried in the Tower, and in the forest, of the dead girl, and the mysterious figure. Some part of him felt he should know who these two were. When the Wyvern and the Gemini cross paths, blood always follows… The remark disturbed him, but not just because of how ominous the visions had been. Why the Wyvern? The Gemini? He had assumed that the visions were speaking of the deep enmity between their families, but what if the voice was speaking of particular persons from each house? He glanced at Kire. Us? But we’ve only crossed paths once…what does ‘every thread’ mean? He tried not to think about the vision of the dead woman. That chilled him to the bone.

It was a while before she and Daryll returned, Kire already looking more worn, though the moment she and Daryll approached, she steeled herself and hid it from her face. "Do you know where sunstone is quarried?" she asked Ruli, as Daryll went over the supplies with Gavin. "I spoke with Risa and a priestess of Solaralai earlier named Zeltzin. She seems convinced building a temple to her here would solve the problem, which part of me doubts, but I'm taking whatever slim lead we have over none."
"If sunstone's the same kind of stone the Ziad temple's made of, can't you just use that? Does it have to be new stone?" Gavin asked. "We've already been there, and the wards are already broken."
"I don't know. I'll have to ask Zeltzin." The thought of deferring to some fanatic didn't sit well with her, and that sentiment she wasn't able to hide from her expression. "I have a feeling Solaralai would just love me to crawl around the desert to look for new sunstone myself." She ran her fingers through her hair, shaking her head. "I'll have a tent set up so you three could get to work on these."

“We still don’t know why Envy was taken. A threat?” Daryll asked. “And…I had a vision of a woman that turns out to be real. Nothing to do with Solaralai—though it did serve to split us up earlier, which was when Envy was taken.” He paused at this, brow furrowed. “A distraction? Why would a goddess need to split us up? Unless…there is a limit to her power. She’s had to have exerted too much of it, trying to control these villagers, giving visions left and right, and kidnapping Envy."
"Let's hope you're right, and Solaralai can't stretch herself too thin. If she needs temples to focus her power, that's another obvious limit. I'll be back later, I need to take care of a few things."

Gavin watched her make her way back to the camp. "She's really the sort of person who needs to be doing something, isn't she?" he asked him. "I feel like I'm drowning, can barely keep my head screwed on straight." He glanced at Ruli, knowing he felt the same.

"I hate to say it, because I wish it was otherwise, but--she's used to it," Daryll replied, arranging the materials he had gathered from the alchemy chamber. "She has to keep moving or she knows she'll drown, too. And with the crown, a lot more people will go down with her if she doesn't keep her head high. Many days, I'm still amazed she hasn't broken under that weight, though she's also had her lowest days. But this..." His voice trailed off. "I can tell she's struggling a lot more. She can't just brute force her way through this one, no matter how strong her will is. And she knows it."

Gavin nodded, then turned to Ruli. “There’re key parts of this spell Envy didn’t want to teach. I assume that's the blood magic ban,” he said. “It’d take a while, but maybe we can improvise the rest with Amrian magic. Might work better too, if we’re trying to trace him in Amria.” He tilted his head, looking at the older sorcerer. "If the goddess doesn't want you remembering anything, something about you is important somehow. We might havta start seriously thinking about why."

A tent with provisions was soon provided for them to work on the tracing spell. Kire was quiet, letting them concentrate on this task, while her own mind was occupied with the next step. Find sunstones, consult with Zeltzin. Now and then her thoughts returned to the dragon and the temple in the vision she had been given. And, further back, the visions she had been getting each time Ruli used his Touch on her. All of those visions always involved the two of them. Something about that nagged at her, like her mind was just on the verge of guessing at their importance, but their meaning lay just beyond her reach.
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Ruli inhaled again at the thought about leaving for the Tower. Leaving this place, where he'd last seen Envy. Despite the fact that it was to help find his friend, leaving this place felt like turning his back on his foster father. His relief when Kire said she'd leave him here and bring what was necessary for the spell was enough to make him exhale heavily, relieved.

"What?" Ruli asked about sunstone. It felt as though only seconds had passed, the topic change so sudden, but looking at Daryll and the arrival of supplies told him he'd been lost in thought for a lot longer than he'd originally thought. "Oh. Yeah, I do. Envy would send us now and then while working underground.
"Zeltzin?" He blinked at her. He curled his lip, shaking his head. Clearly he had his own opinion of the woman.

Slowly, feeling as though he were chained to the earth and the tether strained against his neck, Ruli rose. Even as he approached Daryll and Gavin, he felt guilt strike him for every step. He struggled to focus on Daryll's words, frowning at the entirety of the idea that Solaralai had to separate them in order to kidnap. This weakened, cowardly goddess, if that was even what she really was.
He glanced over his shoulder into the forest, as if he's see the deity crossing her arms at his blasphemy.

When Gavin spoke about Envy's restrictions on teaching, Ruli turned back around, feeling strangely disappointed the goddess wasn't there. "Right." He said about the blood magic. He couldn't think straight. Gavin's words about altering the spell to fit Amria's atmosphere both sounded ignorant and smart. But he couldn't decide which.
Crouching, he rubbed at his brow. "Rab." He said with a sigh. "If you'll allow, we'll only need a drop of blood. You're the best bet we have of finding him, considering you're the only other Kartaian descendant here."
Rab nodded enthusiastically, even if the anxiety in his eyes didn't quite match.
"Whatever the bitch is trying to hide from me, I don't care about right now. Our focus is Envy. I-"
Daryll's words interrupted his thoughts again; why they'd been separated, each given visions, and why one led them to a woman with psychic powers. Why Zeltzin was pushing for a temple. Why Kire wanted the same stone to be used. He rubbed his face again. "One thing at a time, please!" He snapped out loud.

Rab glanced uneasily at Gavin, then back at Ruli. With a sigh, Ruli shook his head. "Sorry."

When the tent was set up and they went inside to begin their work, Ruli had them run a few test spells first, especially after finding his wards around the palace had been a lot stronger than he'd intended, originally. Gavin was at least right in that they needed to recalibrate for Amria. Though he was glad Gavin seemed happy to take charge there, as Ruli was too impatient to focus accurately.
Daryll helped them with dosage, explaining how much of what he used to achieve certain results, and when compared to what they used for the same results in Persis, they worked to sort out an appropriate amount.

By the time they were finally beginning the tracing spell, the sun had fallen. Ruli tried to see the silver lining in the delay, deciding that it would be better that it was dark when they found Envy. Not bothering with the Kartaian's careful ban on blood magic around Gavin, Ruli pricked Rab's skin with a blade and squeezed a few drops into the bowl. He instructed both Daryll and Gavin to hold onto his wrist, in case the spell were to show them somewhere either recognized.

But it showed him nothing.

Nothing but blackness; different than the blackness of the shadows in which he Walked, but ... nothing.

It didn't work.

Ruli set down the bowl and leaned on the table, staring down at the ingredients they'd used. Recounting. Recalculating. Everything had been done right. Everything pointed to Envy just ... not existing.

With a desperate roar, he thrust his arm across the table, sending the bowl and its contents flying against the canvas wall of the tent. Rab tensed, sensing easily the failure of their work, his eyes falling to the small wound on his arm.
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Gavin hadn’t realized he had been holding his breath as he and Daryll held onto Ruli. His eyes never left Ruli, watching, waiting, hoping that the older sorcerer would see something, anything. But when Ruli leaned against the table, the young mage’s heart sank. He stumbled backward, sitting down on the ground with a thud, dazed, choking back a cry even as Ruli roared out his despair.
“Hey, what—oh.” Myka had stepped in, the alarm on her face quickly turning to sadness, realizing what had happened. She stood there for a moment, looking to Daryll, who only shook his head in silent reply to the unspoken question. “Shit.”
Daryll placed a hand on Gavin’s shoulder. “This is not your fault. This was complex magic we had attempted. We will try again, when we’re ready.”
“I don’t know what else to do. This was our best shot,” the lad muttered quietly, not rising from the ground even as Daryll did. The Wyvern scholar sighed, looked around the tent, then went to Myka.
“This isn’t your best shot. This is the first day of disappearance, we’re all working with a lot of unknown variables and we’ve been rattled by what’s happened today. You need to rest,” he said, though part of him knew they would more likely just stew in their failure. At the moment, there wasn’t much else any of them could do. He knew how that felt, to have the world yanked from beneath one’s feet, the feeling of everything you loved slipping away. The Wyverns knew that all too well.
“You go tell Kay,” Myka murmured. “I’ll go make sure they’re fed and looked after.”
Gavin looked up as Daryll, then Myka left to take care of things. His body trembled, tired from the effort, exhausted from the emotions that threatened to burst out of him the way it did with Ruli. He pursed his lips and looked at Rab. “You did good. I’m sorry. I—” He clamped his mouth shut again and covered his face. You’re a mutt. A failure. The ghost of Ikegai’s voice echoed in his mind. You’re nothing without me. “No. No, no, no,” he murmured over and over.

Kire hadn’t left the town the whole day. Though she was anxious to know the results of the spell, she stayed clear of the tent, knowing they needed space to work on the tracing, and knowing how much Ruli, especially, needed much more effort to focus his mind away from the spiral of despair that lingered at the edges of his consciousness. She had gone back and forth between the camp, the edge of the forest, the town, afraid to miss a single new development, good or bad, that could happen any moment within the afternoon. A few more times throughout the day she’d had to assuage the local lord’s fears about the forest growing, or more people suddenly bursting into flame. She knew if they even so much as thought she couldn’t handle the situation, they’d resort to a more violent way of solving it. Already they had begun to think of permanently driving out the people in camp, or suggesting to her that perhaps the Empress’s armies should converge around the camp, ready to act if things escalated. She had answered that last one with a stare that brooked no further argument.
By evening she had begun walking back to the camp after yet another attempt to investigate the forest’s perimeter when she saw Daryll walking towards her looking worn and dejected. She didn’t need to hear what he had to say to guess what had happened. Truthfully, she had hoped, too, that there would at least be some good news to come out of their efforts to trace Envy, most especially if it meant that she didn’t have to kowtow to Solaralai by building the temple. But with their efforts exhausted for now, she had no other recourse but to put faith in the building of the house of worship. “Faith,” the Paladin muttered under her breath. Alright, we’ll try it your way.

She made her way towards the tent in time to see Gavin shuffle out of it, looking numb. He glanced at her and mumbled something about lying down to sleep as he walked off, arms crossed. She spotted both Ruli and Rab inside, along with the scattered remnants of the spell’s ingredients along the floor and spattered on the tent. “Rab, you too, time to rest. There’ll be a room for you, and more food. Sid should be along for a break, too.” As Rab was led out, Kire turned to Ruli. Even during the discussion and preparation earlier, he had been unfocused, impatient, listless in turns. She could only imagine how heavily this failure weighed on him now. She stepped closer, trying to gauge his mood before reaching out for him to pull into an embrace, knowing nothing she could say right now could offer comfort. “First thing tomorrow, I’ll start on the temple idea,” she murmured after a couple of moments of silence, pulling away. “I’ll take care of it. Rest here for now. Alright?” She held his hand gently as she spoke before turning back. “I’ll get started on preparations.”

Her first stop was back in Uvano. It was eerily quiet, perhaps due to the measures Ysaryn had put in place. Concentrating, she tracked down the elf as quickly as she could manage through her signature. “Ruli and Gavin were unsuccessful. First thing tomorrow, I’m fetching Zeltzin,” she said as soon as she saw Ysaryn. “Tell her I want to start on the temple as soon as possible. And—one more thing.” She looked at her friend, hoping she didn’t look too impatient. “I need to know what, exactly, you are doing here, what it’s for. If you’re going to ask me to keep the others on my side of the gate, I need a good reason. We have enough to worry about, all of us.” She sighed heavily. “Tomorrow. First thing.”

Kire’s next stop, however, was the North. Elva was easy enough to track down; it seemed she had been staying in the infirmary, watching over Lyta. When the healer spotted her, Kire put a finger to her lips and beckoned her cousin to step out with her. “What is going on?” Elva asked.
How is she doing?
Mm. No change so far. For as long as she is calm, or as close to calm as she could get—she’s a skittish one, mind—everything seems under control.” She looked Kire over, sensing the tension in her. “I take it things aren’t looking so great?
With another heavy sigh, Kire told her what had happened leading up to this evening, and what she was planning to do tomorrow. Elva frowned, shaking her head slightly. “I know what you’re going to say,” Kire began. “I don’t like it either.”
“Gods.” Elva ran her fingers through her hair. “Did you come to see Lyta? Talk to her about her power?
Kire glance at the entrance of the infirmary. “Let her rest for now. Don’t tell her the Empress is looking for her. But I might see her tomorrow. Right now I just—I need to sort out my own head. I feel like I’m shooting an arrow in the dark.
She returned to the camp and made her way to the inn where Ruli and the others had been given lodging. Gods, she wanted to rest so badly, but she felt she couldn’t sleep, either. So, instead, she resolved to keep watch for a few more hours, hoping she’d tire herself out enough to get at least some rest before the meeting with Zeltzin tomorrow.

Dawn found her slumped against the headboard of her room, having only just had a few hours of sleep, as she had anticipated. She groaned, rubbing her face, cursing the day and what she was about to face. Don’t tarry. Envy and your people need you. As soon as she was ready to leave, Kire Portaled into Uvano, ready to meet Ysaryn and Zeltzin.
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Ruli bent low into a crouch beside their workspace, his head in his hands. His head spun, his anger and despair at war with one another. "There is no 'try again'." He said bitterly to Daryll. "This was it. It was done correctly. And there was no answer." He inhaled, pressing the heels of his hands to his eyes.
Daryll replied that this wasn't it, and Ruli swallowed the urge to shake the man. His mention of rest wrenched Ruli's thoughts off track; the idea of leaving this space to rest while Envy was missing, suffering through fuck knows what. He growled into his hands and rose again, staring down at the table, once more recounting and recalculating.

Somewhere, through the numbers and volumes, he heard Gavin reassure Rab. Blinking, Ruli turned his head toward the two. "You both did well." He reassured as well, then he frowned at Gavin seemed to panic. "Gavin. Hands above your head." Ruli said firmly, turned to crouch before the young man. "Whatever just went through your head, don't let it through again." Ruli said fiercely. His blue eyes pierced into Gavin's, his attention latching onto the lad in vain hope to escape his own inner dread. "I need all of that brain in your skull. I can barely do this, but I can't do it at all without you."

He stood up again, watching Rab sign quickly. Ruli shook his head. "No, Daryll's right. Rest." Ruli sighed, having no intention at all of doing such a thing. Once more, his eyes fell on the table, replaying it all in his head. Every ingredient. Every turn of the pestle. The pronunciation of every word of the spell. The length of time he waited until he was sure it had failed. Something had to have gone wrong. Maybe Daryll was right. Maybe they should try again tomorrow. Minds refreshed.

The sudden embrace around him pulled him from his thoughts, and Ruli blinked to find Kire. His shoulders sagged slightly, his hands wrapping around her waist. She smelled of sea salt, and smoke, and that same, fresh clean air he always sensed when he Touched her mind. So lost was he in her comforting embrace that he was confused when she mentioned the temple, not quite sure what she was speaking of. Vaguely, he could recall mention of it, but it seemed a pointless thing at the moment. All he could think of was that he didn't want her to go. She stepped back, and Ruli opened his mouth, the words to ask her not to leave him on the tip of his tongue.
But he nodded instead, turning away from her. "Right." He said, feeling strangely uncomfortable. Cold, in an unfamiliar place, without his longest friend. He moved his feet, following to where the others had lay down. Passing Gavin, he flicked the young man's shoulder gently. "Speak your mind." Ruli demanded, once more using Gavin as a distraction.

-------
Ysona was eating in the caves, spooning a thick mixture of something that reeked of fish and seaweed, mixed with cooked rice. She glanced up as Kire appeared, one of her pink eyebrows raising. "Busy." She observed, going back to her eating as Kire filled her in on what had happened so far. She nodded as Kire instructed her to inform Zeltzin that she'd be needed, making a note to send word up to the priestess. Risa would be beside herself, losing her priestess to some foreign empress over some ordeal she was not involved with. The thought amused the elf as she cleaned her spoon with her tongue.

Kire's demand for information, however, made the dark elf pause, her eyes roaming Kire's face. "Fine enough." She sighed, setting the empty bowl and cleaned spoon aside. "My Father is not so forgiving of men. He sees them and still desires to slaughter. Envy was ... sort of wall. Father would not cross. 'At least an elf is in charge.'" She mimicked with an eyeroll. "Envy gone, so Father will burrow through to slay. Only, now is me." She gestured to herself as she reclined in her seat. "He will not slay daughter. Unless I give him reason to. I remove the girl who heals, as she would be one of the first target. Zeck, Father eyes, but respects. Rulitus is threat. Rulitus is dumb." Ysaryn wrinkled her nose apologetically, but her gaze was steady and determined. "I take town so Father cannot. If ..." She paused, thinking. "When Envy is return, job is done."

She gave Kire a dangerous smile, her pointed canines showing. "I may like the bloodshed, but only against enemy. Not against family and friend." Waving a hand, Ysaryn seemed to dismiss the empress. "Go and rest. Tomorrow, the priestess will be waiting."

True to her word, when Kire returned in the morning, Zeltzin was standing uncomfortably beside the dark elf, her arms folded. Perhaps it was the cool, underground chamber, or the armed elf beside her, or both, but Zeltzin looked relieved when Kire appeared. "Well met, Empress Akire." She bent into a polite bow. Ysaryn eyed her curiously, then looked back to Kire.
"Risa ever so delighted to spare the woman." The elf said, smirking. Even Zeltzin chuckled beside her.
"You have taken up my offer on my assistance with the temple?" The priestess cupped her hands over her heart. "I am delighted beyond words to be able to help spread Her influence."
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Gavin, who had been so deep in thought that he had barely registered Ruli entering their sleeping quarters, snapped his head towards him when he felt the touch on his shoulder. “Well—you already told me I should put it out of my head,” the young mage muttered, sighing. “Some part of me is still in that dark corner, y’know. Still hearing his voice, his claws around my mind.” He shut his eyes, rubbing his face as if waking from a nightmare. “Sorry. I’m—I’m putting it out of my head. I know Envy wouldn’t want to see me like this.”

He huffed, crossing his arms over his chest as he glared at the ceiling. “The other thing I was thinking about was that—thing I saw in the forest. It’s all so—familiar somehow. I don’t know why, but it reminded me of the last time I saw my mother.” The vision of that young woman’s death still horrified him, but now the rest of the vision had started to bother him, too. That hooded stranger… He had forgotten, or perhaps willfully put out of his mind, much of the day of his abandonment, but this—could it have something to do with her?

“Ruli. What would Envy want us to do?” he said instead, veering his mind away from it. He didn’t know if he wanted to pull at that thread, though something inside him felt that, whether he wanted to or not, it wasn’t up to him. “He wouldn’t want us to give up, right? And he’d want us to help in any way we can.” Gavin let out a breath, as if exorcising the lingering voice of Ikegai that prodded at his despair.

--
Kire offered only a curt smile in greeting, her eyes lingering for a moment on the dark elf beside the priestess before turning her attention back to Zeltzin, inclining her head to acknowledge the bow. Yesterday’s events, plus Ysaryn’s explanation for her sudden takeover of Uvano, had not helped her already restless mind. She did smirk back, however, at Ysaryn’s remark about Risa. At Zeltzin’s words, though, her slight frown returned.

“This is to help my people,” she said; though her face didn’t reflect anger, her voice was firm. “At the moment, my lack of understanding is staying my hand, but if I find out that Sola—the Goddess intends further harm upon Amria, or wishes to attain dominion over our lands, I will act accordingly.” She let out a deep breath. “I will take you to the camp where they are being kept. All of you will be closely watched. Once we have appraised the situation together, and once things have been explained to the local lords, we will begin planning the temple. Understand that, though I am Empress, introducing a new religion to people who have known no other gods is—a delicate matter.”
She pursed her lips, as if still unwilling to bring Zeltzin over to her world. “Thanks for the help. Keep safe, Chieftess,” she said, before holding out her hand to Zeltzin. “We’ll be taking the more direct route. This is—not going to be pleasant. Take deep breaths.”

They emerged from her portal at the edge of the forest, but some ways away from the camp. Kire wanted to see how Zeltzin would react to the forest first, if she really could sense anything related to Solaralai in it. And she didn’t want her immediately encountering the people in camp before having a further appraisal of what the priestess could do, or how much she knew. She waited as patiently as she could to see if Zeltzin needed more time to catch her bearings.
--

Myka hadn’t slept that well, herself. She was sure she wasn’t the only one; everybody was on edge. Annoyingly, the ones who seemed the calmest were the new ‘devotees’ of this Goddess, like they had just suddenly found the purpose of Life and couldn’t wait to spread the good news. Something about that rankled, stirred up her own complicated feelings about gods and prayer. Wishing she was back at the Wench, Myka went to fetch herself a tall mug of coffee then saw Narda speaking to—what was her name again? Holly?
“What was that about, Nard?” she asked, after the giantess had gently dismissed the somber-looking woman.
“She came to me, all scared and concerned. That she might harm people or, more importantly, that they might wish her harm for what she and her husband had let happen back in their hometown.” Narda rubbed her nape. “The Wyvernling will probably not be happy about what I just did, but…I had asked her how much control she could manage with that strange magic of hers. Given that she had a small town under control, I just felt it would be useful if when she finds herself in danger here-if something goes wrong here with the worshippers and the whole lot, that she can use that magic for as long as she can handle it. With my blessing.”

Myka cringed. “A whole camp full of magical people with no fuckin’ clue where or how they got their new power? What could possibly go wrong with that idea.”
“Not true. It’s ‘The Goddess’,” Narda interjected with a snort. Myka shook her head. “Anyway, as torn as I am about this decision, I have to go back to my own lands. This is sorcerers’ work, and I am feeling utterly useless. Besides, I must investigate the matter with those borderlands. Let Kay know, will you?”
Myka could see how much Narda wished she could stay; the giantess didn’t need to explain that she wanted to help Kire, and she wanted Envy found as soon as possible, too. “I will. I’ll have to go back to the Wench soon, too. We both know the crew can handle themselves, but I feel I’d be more help there, gathering information.”
Are you sure you wouldn’t rather ogle that new healer Ysaryn had brought along?” Narda said, arching a brow with a slight grin briefly tugging at her lips. Myka kicked her on the shin, making her flinch and curse.
Be off with ye, foul creature. And take care of that stubborn ass of yours, alright? We don’t know what else we’ll be facing soon.

Once she had seen Narda off, Myka walked towards the healers’ tent. “Knock-knock,” she called, peeking in. “Morning. How are you managing?” she asked, once she’d spotted Sid. Already she could hear Narda’s teasing voice in her head and Myka pouted.
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Ruli shook his head somberly. "Envy never let any of us give up anything." He sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "Remember when Callha tried to give up meat because some boy she liked refused to eat it? No, that was probably before you joined us." Ruli sighed. "He paraded around eating meats of every kind; dried, roasted, smoked, until she caved."

"Envy isn't a diet preference, but he's family. To all of us. He took us all in when we didn't have anywhere else to go. So we're not going to give up. If I have to tear Amria and the Gods apart to get him back, I will."



Kire's sharp answer did nothing to wither the eager expression on Zeltzin's face. She did, however, noticeably bite her tongue when Kire mentioned her actions were to prevent further harm. Zeltzin very much believed that the Goddess had not done any harm at all. She nodded complacently when Kire set down her terms, and smiled warmly when Kire said this was a delicate matter.
"I understand completely, Empress." Zeltzin said patiently. She turned and bent to Ysaryn, who ignored her almost completely.
"Be well." Ysaryn said instead to Kire, stepping away from the two as Kire warned the priestess of their abrupt departure.

Zeltzin, to her credit, handled the portal exceptionally well. Beside going rather pale and swaying for a moment on her feet, she appeared to be unbothered. Clearing her throat and patting down her robes to rid them of wrinkles that weren't there, she turned and offered Kire a small grin. That was her thanks for the means of travel, perhaps, as the priestess said nothing else before she turned to take in the forest.
She was silent for a long time. Her hands clasped gently before her, her eyes wide as she took in tree after tree, studying each one as if wondering if it were the Goddess in disguise. After perhaps five minutes, she turned toward Kire. "May I step closer, Empress?"



Sid glanced up when Myka 'knocked', grinning softly. She'd taken her hair down to sleep, her sandy blonde hair in a twisted, crimped mess over her shoulders as she laced her boots. "The cots are oddly more comfortable then the bed I have at home." Sid offered. "That, or I was too exhausted to noticed." Despite the implication, Sid smiled proudly. Like she was glad to be busy and needed.
Finished with her boots, she raised her arms and went for her hair, twisting it up and out of her face, making sure to gather every single strand. "Do you know where we can find breakfast? I'm famished."
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The young mage swallowed, nodding. “Okay. Okay,” he murmured, crossing his arms as he glared up at the roof. “We’re getting him back. No matter what.”

Gavin had a hard time falling asleep, his mind going through that moment when he let go of Envy and the visions began. Gods, that poor girl, who was she? And why did his gut fill with dread and sadness at the sight of her? Ignore that voice in your head, he chided himself silently. [/i]Envy wouldn’t want you to think you’re worthless. He wouldn’t want you to give up. He wouldn’t blame you for this.[/i] But he couldn’t completely shut out the voice that reminded him of his enslavement, the voice that told him trouble followed him everywhere. Blood always follows. He shut his eyes tight and turned on the cot he had been provided, wishing he could push all these omens and voices out, get rid of them or replace them with something else.

He turned to see the swish of a travelling cloak as she slung it around her shoulders. “D’you have to go?” he asked, his voice still small.
“You know I do. But I’ll be back by nightfall, like always.” She always had such a stern face, but every time she looked down at him, saw the sadness in her boy’s eyes, she would soften and bend to kiss his forehead, ruffling his hair. “You know I will always take care of you, Gavin. Everything I do is for you.”
“I don’t wanna go tomorrow,” he said quietly. “I don’t wanna move again.”
The woman paused, then crouched down again, nudging his chin. “You know we’re running from the bad shadows, my son. We have to keep moving. But—someday, you won’t have to run anymore. You’ll be safe, and taken care of. I will make sure of that. Now, be a good lad and stay here, alright? And when you see Briar…” She paused again, her voice trailing off as her lips twitched. He didn’t quite understand the look that had come over her. “You obey him, no questions. Alright?”


When Gavin opened his eyes, it was just before dawn. He hadn’t had that dream in a long time. Mother—no, Carina. She stopped being Mother when she left. Somehow, it didn’t seem like chance that he would be reminded of her now. He didn’t know either whether to feel guilty for not having thought of her all these years, or even what he should be feeling at the sudden resurfacing of the memory. The young Gemini rubbed the sleep from his eyes as he sat up, thinking about how he had never really had the proper time to think through what had happened to him when he had been abandoned. He had to survive as a little boy under a cruel man, only to be later brainwashed by a blood mage and his doll. He looked down at his calloused hands for several more minutes before he sighed and shook his head. Envy has done more for me than you ever did, he thought stubbornly as he got off the cot to get ready.

With an almost furious determination to forge ahead and get these thoughts out of his mind, he went over to where Ruli had been resting and nudged him. “Hey. Let’s stuff ourselves. And then, time to tear apart Amria and the gods, right?” he said, then paused, looking up. “Wonder if there’s a way to tear a god apart, literally. Would you know? I’ve been thinking, if the sun goddess is worming her way into Amria, where’s the moon god gone?” He looked at Ruli again, then shook his head. “Yeah, coffee would be good. And we better check on Rab.” Without waiting for Ruli, Gavin turned to make his way to where breakfast was served.

--

Kire was a little disappointed that the portal didn’t completely shake Zeltzin’s composure and so didn’t feel compelled to return her small grin. The Paladin tried to force herself to think objectively, that Zeltzin at least truthfully believed that she, and Solaralai, were acting on everyone’s best interest, whether or not the result was bad. Taking a deep breath to calm herself down, she watched as the priestess observed the trees in awe, wishing she could see what the woman was sensing, if she was even sensing anything at all. When Zeltzin asked if she could step closer, Kire nodded in assent, following closely behind her as the priestess explored. Signatures change, she thought, clinging to this thought. She knew this, had said as much to the others. Had seen it in Gavin. Had sensed it in the boy. What if that had happened to Envy? What if she couldn’t feel him now because, at the moment, the goddess’s own aura was masking it? Even as she didn’t want to get her hopes up, she clung to this idea, deciding she would pursue the matter later with the help of the others. Solaralai’s presence was overwhelming, her signature everywhere, but maybe Kire could learn to separate her influence from weaker traces.

“Are you seeing or hearing anything?” she asked as she tried to see if there was anything in the air, a change in the signature, any sort of sign that could tell her anything new. Just hearing her own voice aloud within proximity of the forest was disturbing, as if the trees sought to blanket every sound she made and stifle her into silence.

--
When the pirate caught sight of the healer’s grin and unruly hair, she had to suppress a laugh. Oh no, she’s adorable. With Narda’s jest fresh on her mind, Myka shook the thought free from her mind, though she did take a moment to stare as Sid laced her boots before grinning in apology. “Yeah, sorry about that. You’ve had a bit of a whirlwind first day here.” She gestured for Sid to follow. “Come on, let’s get you a proper Amrian breakfast.”

Gavin was already there in a tent inside the camp, with a frown on his face as he stuffed himself like the demons were urging him to hurry. “Er. I know we make a mean breakfast but I didn’t know it was that good,” the pirate chuckled, before going over to pile sausages and mash onto a plate for Sid. “So I’m thinking,” Myka said, handing Sid the plate before beginning to fill her own, “these people, with their new powers and such, they’re gonna need some help to cope. I’m not a healer myself, but I remember Elva, Kire’s cousin, saying something about how you have to heal both the mind and the body a lot of the time. They’re confused, and this goddess’s voice is, I guess—like this constant blaring noise in your head. So. Gotta find some way to steady the head so the body follows, until they wouldn’t need these wards. Everyone else is thinking about the magical side of this problem, but maybe there’s something that the healing arts could help with better.”
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Sleep evaded him. Ruli lay sprawled on his back, his hands tucked behind his head as he stared upward without actually seeing what was above him. His head still felt sun warmed against his hands, and Ruli couldn't remember if that was normal or not. He could still feel the hot sand he walked upon, still feel the dry air as he shouted for Envy.
The taste of the concoction was still in his throat, the odor of it coating every bit of him. When he did close his eyes, he could see a blackness entirely different then the one that had answered the tracing spell.

He'd left. Ruli remembered that with heavy guilt. After Ziad fell, he had left, to ashamed to join the others as they took refuge. All those months away from Envy. Away from home. Time he should have been helping his friend heal, learn how to be without his eyesight. When Envy could have soothed the sharp edges of Ruli self-hatred in the way only that giant elf could.

Ruli hated himself for it.

His thoughts circled around and around, the sharp teeth of self loathing and guilt biting at Ruli hour after hour until the sky began to lighten. As if summoned by Ruli's realization that the night was ebbing, Gavin appeared beside him and nudged him, inviting him to eat. Ruli wiped the emotion from his face, refusing to allow Gavin to see him struggling when he'd told the lad not to allow any doubts in just hours earlier.
"Coffee first, Gav." Ruli said tiredly as Gavin rambled questions about the Moon God.

Not bothering with boots, as usual, Ruli shuffled toward the smell of breakfast, his eyes roaming it to see what called to his stomach, when he heard the pirate woman's voice and he turned his head. "Morning." He greeted, his pale eyes landing on a familiar pair of dark ones.
"You look like shit." Sid crooned at him, grinning far too brightly for how early it was.
Ruli puffed air out of his nose, though he didn't quite feel the amusement he portrayed. "Thanks."

Some of the amusement faded from Sid's eyes as she sidled up to the blond and nudged him affectionately, a silent offer of a shoulder should he need one, before she helped herself to the display of food. Ruli silently followed her example. He sat beside Gavin, while Sid joined Myka across from them. His head propped on his right fist, he toyed with his food while he listened with one ear to Myka's thoughts.
"Elva isn't wrong." Sid said, seemingly toeing the line between digging into her plate with complete animalist hunger and trying to hold a shred of dignity and grace. "Without being able to rest their minds, it won't be able to tell their bodies to begin recovering." Her shoulders raised in a shrug. "Only thing I can think of that will help while this sort of magic torments them would be to render them unconscious, but even then, there's no promise this won't haunt them while they slept."

She turned toward Ruli, who stared at his plate with bleary eyes. "Could you make wards for them? Smaller ones, I mean?"
His eyes rose after a few seconds, and he went still as he backtracked to recall her question. Then he blinked. "I could." He realized. "Small things. To negate magic. Without knowing precisely what I'm dealing with, there's no promise it would work the way we want."
"Even a dimmer would help." Sid offered, trying to meet him half way. She knew he was preoccupied, and knew why. But she couldn't ignore the people around her that needed help.




Zeltzin lowered her head in gratitude when Kire allowed her to get closer, the priestess's chin low as she watched her foot, mindful not to step on any vine or plant of the Goddess's creation. It was slow going before she reached the tree nearest her, and Zeltzin raised an apprehensive hand to touch the rough bark.
"Oh, yes." Zeltzin purred. She didn't turn around to look at Kire, her head craned back so she could look up the length of the tree. "She is everywhere. Her magic coating this place. I can taste Her in the air, as if it is full of Her tears." Her fingers stroked the tree, then Zeltzin looked away and slowly began her trek to the next tree. "I hear Her whispering to me." The woman said, her voice light with joy; a mourning widow hearing her beloved's voice from the afterlife after too long in silence.

More silence from the priestess as she came to the next tree, placing her hand upon it as she did the first. "There is anger here. Her anger." At last, she turned toward Kire, her eyes colder then they'd been a moment ago. "She's been wounded. How have your people offended her, Empress?"
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Despite the situation, Gavin snorted in amusement at Sid’s greeting, while Myka snickered. “I like this one,” the pirate remarked as they took their places around the table before discussion went to how they could help the people changed by the goddess to control their powers, nodding at the idea of wards. “Yeah, I think I prefer going in that direction for this, especially if you’ve got all these confused folk wanting to worship some Goddess that just popped out of nowhere—well, from your world, but you get what I mean,” Myka said, unconsciously muting the word ‘goddess’ as she spoke. “Maybe that might even be a way to help sever the connection to Her, if She’s really messing not just with their bodies but with their minds.”

Gavin was silent, thinking things over as Sid talked about smaller wards for the Amrian fire-wielders, until Myka made that last remark. “Y’know, at the height of Ikegai and Akuma’s control over me, it’s pretty hard to go against the voices in my head telling me to do as I’m told. It’s like sleepwalking, like I’m watching from a window the things I’m doing with my own two hands, while another part of my mind recalls the spells, says the words.” He swallowed, frowning down at his breakfast, before he looked up again at Ruli and the others. “But there were times the hold was weak. Else, I wouldn’t have helped you or Kire take them down in Cordon. It was something about the dagger Kire left behind, the one I found in Ziad. Like it was a—a beacon. An anchor. I dunno why exactly. But it was a solid reminder that there was someone out there that could end them both, someone who could fight Kartaians and escape. The knife didn’t match up to what Ikegai had been telling me about this monster he said was hunting him, and that kinda cracked the almost total hold of his power over me. So I held onto it. I felt the most awake whenever that knife was in my hands somehow.”

The young mage frowned again, as if trying to remember something that stayed at the edge of memory. His right finger twitched, as if wanting to trace something. A letter—no, a rune ? A shadow of a dream, or a memory, flashed in his mind. His mother, face obscured by a cloak, murmuring something as she bent over him, her thumb brushing over his forehead. Was she writing something? In his dream, she had bent to kiss his forehead, but this image was…different. “I dunno either if the Go—if She is controlling ‘em the same way I was controlled, or maybe she’s just kinda whispering something and triggers that part of a person that wants to believe in somethin’ higher. But maybe, yeah a ward, or an anchor? Enchant something that would remind them of a good memory, or someone they love, or—or something.”

--

Of course she is everywhere, Kire wanted to answer back, but she kept her mouth shut, waiting for Zeltzin to finish speaking. Despite her suspicions, she followed the priestess’s lead, careful with the way she moved about in the forest. Still, Kire so badly wanted to snap and ask her what it was, exactly, that she was hearing from Solaralai that gave her such joy. It bothered her still, how the woman kept her composure, kept insisting on Solaralai’s benevolence despite the goddess’s intrusion upon her land, upon her people. And Envy’s absence. Zeltzin had said earlier that the Goddess never was the punishing kind, but Kire didn’t believe it.

Her doubts were confirmed when Zeltzin turned to her with a much different expression. There it is. Kire preferred that; hostility was much more believable an emotion to her than this feigned benevolence. The Paladin again swallowed back what she really wanted to say: how have MY people offended her? They have done nothing! “My people have, uh, not met Her before today,” Kire said instead. “If there’s anybody at fault here, it would be me. What I asked earlier, about what She would do if her temple had been tampered with—that was me. In my fight against Kartaians some time ago in Ziad, the temple had been damaged.”
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Ruli nodded, struggling to think and focus without any sleep from the night before, his mind still circling around his failed spell and his lost friend. Gavin's words came in and out, Ruli barely catching that their control over the lad slipped here and there, weakening when he had on him that blade of Kire's. Something of an anchor that would tie them to reality, regardless of whether or not they welcomed the Goddess's intrusion.

"It would take far too much work to look at each individual and find some happy memory." Sid argued gently, her fingers flicking toward Ruli. "By the end of an hour of looking from person to person, he'd be too exhausted to work."
"I won't get into anyone's heads." Ruli insisted with a soft shake of his head. "They've have enough violations and unwelcome control."
"What can you do?" Sid probed.
He raised his shoulders, then looked to Myka. "Would a coin work? Amria's got coin currency, yes? Presumably with the empress's profile stamped on it? Er, is she a good memory? I should know that, first. Not everyone takes pride in their governing faction."




Zeltzin's expression shifted as Kire explained what she had done, bordering on shock and ire. "You damaged the temple?" She asked, as if hoping she'd heard the Empress wrong. When Kire did not correct her, Zeltzin raised her shoulders as if to shake off a bad feeling. "Even those savage monsters knew better then to touch the temple. It was the only thing that survived in that city, I know it." The priest frowned at Kire like she was no empress at all but a child who had destroyed something precious and had lied about it. Disappointment raked her.
"Your answer is simple, then." Zeltzin explained. But she inhaled, drawing a deep breath as she closed her eyes, calming herself. When she opened them and faced Kire once more, the disappointment and ire was gone. Instead, that passively pleased look was back. "No doubt She shadows you for your transgression. Have no fear. We can build Her a new temple here, so that Her eyes can focus and not spread to your unsuspecting people. I will remain and help in every way I can, of course." The grin Zeltzin wore suggested this was a very generous offer, indeed. "We'll start right away. Show me to a table with equipment, I will begin drawing the plans, and we will make right this grave wrong."
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Myka nodded at Sid’s explanation, then again at Ruli’s assertion, which Gavin also appreciated.
“Isn’t there some way to just, er, nudge them to think of whatever memory they like best without having to poke around individually?” the pirate asked, mouth half-full with food.

Gavin grimaced. “That’s tricky. Say, we put something, an enchantment, a rune, that orders their brain to think of a happy memory, sure it could work, but we’ll have no control over what that memory is, or what direction the mind would go. What if Solaralai reinforces herself as a good memory, for instance. The anchor has to at least be like a concrete connection or something.”
At the mention of coin, Gavin perked up, then fished something out of his pocket. When Kire paid him and Ruli for their services the other day he had only been paying close attention to counting everything and making sure the gold was real before setting the rest aside. He did keep a few pieces on his person just in case. On the obverse were symbols he presumed were inscriptions of some kind written around the margins, with the stylized Wyvern he had seen around the Palace in the middle. On the reverse was, indeed, the profile of a woman with long hair and a solemn expression. “Not the warmest face,” Gavin commented, then pausing, realizing that Kire’s default expression wasn’t always so friendly anyway.

When Ruli mentioned knowing what that was like, Gavin looked up from the coin and grinned. “When you say you should know that, d’you mean not liking the current ruler, or if Kire is a good memory?”
Hah!” Myka laughed, reaching to playfully smack Gavin’s arm. “Good one!”
Gavin smirked a moment longer before going back to the question of the token, peering down at it more seriously.
“Hard question to answer, isn’t it?” Myka said with a shrug. “Of course we’d say she is, because we know her. But for the rest of the empire, especially so soon after she had just fought a big battle to reclaim a throne she’d lost? Whether they think she’s good or bad, they’d also associate her with war.”

“The boy she rescued from the fires yesterday, though,” Gavin put in, lazily twirling the coin. “That’s a concrete memory, directly related to the coin’s image. We could probably test it out on him? Er, carefully. I know we warded their camp itself to suppress their new magic enough, Ysaryn was right about it being like something stewing inside waiting to get out. And they’ll have to leave camp at some point.” He let the coin spin and fall on the table. “So. Maybe see if the memory of Kire helping him could be a happy one, or at least a calming one, something to focus on. Can we store that in the coin? If that doesn’t work, maybe something else these folks value that they could hang onto. If they got something personal on them, a sentimental object? ‘Course coins would be easier, since they’re all the same. I think.”

--

Kire expected the condescension, though it didn’t mean she liked it any less, nor did she still feel particularly sorry for what she had done to the temple. She couldn’t wrap her head around the idea that all this trouble was because of that, but nevertheless she accepted something had to be done to rectify it, if only they could get somewhere with Solaralai. Zeltzin was not the first person to be disappointed in her. “Simple,” she repeated under her breath, not wholly convinced. There was nothing simple about this. When the priestess’s features shifted back to that gods-be-damned infuriating placidity, Kire likewise took a deep breath, feeling like her next words foreshadowed something gravely wrong.

“Alright. A temple then. And Sol—the Goddess will not take it out on my citizens.” She paused, however, not moving just yet. Kire did not at all like the idea of bringing Zeltzin anywhere near the afflicted people at camp. Nor did she want to leave the priestess alone here, or unsupervised for even a moment. She could take her back to the Tower, but then she’d still need to come back here, and interact with builders and other workers if she were to supervise the building of a temple. “This temple…this is all she is asking for?” she said, wanting to be sure. If the Goddess went back on her word, Kire would have the precedent to make an enemy out of Zeltzin. “I will take you to the town not far from here. I’ll have escorts for you. For safety.” Kire didn’t elaborate whose safety she was more concerned for as she finally held her hand out to the priestess. “We’ll take the faster route.”

--

Daryll joined the others in the middle of breakfast, his expression tense. “Kire is back,” he announced. “With—the priestess. Zeltzin?”
Myka frowned as she finished her coffee. “And? What does she want? What does…her Goddess want?”
Daryll huffed. “A temple. Kire says it’s to make up for the one she had destroyed in Ziad. Gods—fuck,” he muttered, rubbing the bridge of his nose, his mood worsening as he uttered the curse. “Kire’s called for her to be watched at all times; they’re setting up another tent for the priestess as we speak. Kire doesn’t want her meeting the townsfolk just yet. Understandably. I don’t like this one bit,” he said, crossing his arms. “I’ll be joining her shortly; I want to hear for myself what this woman has to say on behalf of her deity.”
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Ruli nodded as Gavin explained how a happy memory would backfire. With Solaralai messing with their heads, who knew if she was forcing the idea that she was a happy memory, a salvation in a life broken by hardship. Not so unlike Gavin and Ikegai; the lad had wanted something better, and Akuma and Ikegai latched upon that like parasites.
Magic was finicky. "There's also no promise that placing magic summoning and attaching to a good memory would somehow set off alarms, or create some adverse effect." Ruli explained between bites. "Last thing we want is to hand someone a happy memory anchor and for the Goddess's magic to coil and strike, feeling its threat. Its better just to offer something to subdue surrounding magic, and create the effect of peace. if, for no other reason, then perhaps they won't let the item go or set it aside."

"That sounds like you want them to form dependencies." Sid frowned. "Addictions."
"Isn't that all religion is?" Ruli asked, his tone flat.

Gavin's quip about Kire had Ruli flicking a bit of vegetable. "Don't bite the hand that feeds you, boy." He answered, though he did look mildly amused. "I meant I needed to know if they like her or not before attaching anything to the coin. If they dislike her, it won't work."
"I doubt they'll grumble too hard about receiving a free coin." Sid mentioned, taking a sip of her tea.
"Kire's help with the boy is a start." Ruli said, still hunched over his plate. "But not everyone was saved by her. If we want this done quick, she'll likely need to address them each, display her help, so that they'll see her as a beacon of peace, at least for now. Hopefully it will be enough to make them temporarily forget about the recent war."

He pushed his plate away, his food barely touched. His stomach felt heavy as though he'd eaten, though it churned and ached enough to remind him he had not. Behind them, outside of the tent, he heard a strangled noise, and turned his head. "In here, Rab." He called, and a second later the half-Kartaian entered, towering over the others. He looked mildly uneasy, but sighed in visible relief upon finding the others. He raised his hands and signed quickly, finishing with a smart clap. Ruli exhaled. "I'm sorry we left you. You were sound asleep, I felt no need to bother you, but, tomorrow, I will. We won't leave you alone again."
Rab frowned at him, but came around to sit himself beside Sid. She wordlessly took Ruli's plate and set it before Rab. Both the males glanced at one another, but when no objection was uttered, Rab bent over the plate to begin devouring.




"Simple." Zeltzin repeated, her eyes watching Kire carefully, as if well aware of the skepticism the woman had and was waiting to parry it. When Kire seemed to accept the terms of appeasing the Goddess, the Priestess grinned. "I cannot say, yet, if this is all She will require." Zeltzin answered truthfully. "Her influence, at the time, is like a newly sprouted vine, swaying and searching for something on which to climb. The temple will be the trellis, allowing Her to focus. Once it is made, perhaps She will be able to give more guidance. Perhaps She will be sated and retreat to being ever-watchful, once more. Time will tell."

Silence passed between them again, the priestess waiting for the empress to object, ready to explain in simpler details why she must not refuse, but, again, Kire seemed to decide to move forward. Zeltzin bent her head in a slight bow of thanks as Kire promised her an escort. Zeltzin did not explain that she felt as though it were an unnecessary offer, likewise deciding against objections where this uneasy agreement lay.

She followed Kire out of Solaralai's forest, making her way to the town on sure feet, her head held high. Her eyes took in the people worldessly as they drew near; not all of them were under Her influence, but she could still sense her Goddess here, like a phantom wind carrying a blessed scent. The priestess even inhaled deeply as they came to a stop and Kire gave the order for a tent to be erected for the woman. Not too close to any of the the others, Zeltzin noticed. It was only now that the priestess wondered whose protection the Empress was concerned with.
However, she offered no ill-toned word, deciding to stand still beneath the beneath the sun and observe as the tent was raised and accomodations were brought in; a cot, a table and chairs, a small box full of papers and graphic, a candle, another box Zelztin didn't see but was sure had some purpose.

Whenever Kire looked her way, Zeltzin smiled, her face an example of friendly patience.




Rab had emptied his plate when Daryll came in, his pink-hued eyes rising curiously. Ruli, hearing that the priestess was here in the town with Kire, frowned. And when Daryll announced the Goddess wanted a temple, Ruli gave a low, animal-like growl. "Keep her far from the townsfolk." Ruli said grumpily. "Anything we do to keep the villagers calm, she'll undo."
"Are you going with him, then?" Sid asked, unsure of Daryll's name yet.
Ruli shook his head. "I don't like the priestesses. Anymore then I like the Goddess they serve." His lips curled in disgust. He'd told Kire that his tribe had been the one to sell out the rest of the elves to the Sun-Goddess, which, technically, put him in good standing with the Bitch, but he still had no desire to stand in front of one of Her preachers. He wanted no part in any of it.

"When Kire's not occupied with her, think you can send her our way?" Ruli asked of Darylll, instead. "We're trying to think of ways to get the magic to lessen its grip on the people, we may need her."
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Daryll nodded. “I’ll tell her. But let me have a quick bite first. Can’t be thinking about how to beat a literal god on an empty stomach. Now give me a rundown of what you might need her for.”
“We’re basically thinkin’ of making a talisman, an anchor of sorts,” Gavin replied, before letting Daryll know what they had been debating over a few moments ago.
“So we aren’t just relying on magic-suppressing wards for each of them?” the Wyvern scholar asked.
Gavin shook his head. “Wards to suppress magic are one thing, Daryll, but we were debating on whether it might be better to kinda give them a bit more something to help shake off Her mental influence on them. Kire might be a big enough of a flesh-and-blood figure to hold onto.”
“I do understand Sid—you’re Sid, right? It’s been a bit of a whirlwind, we haven’t been introduced yet,” Daryll put in, before turning to the others again, “but yes, the concern about building an addiction is valid. Still, at this point, we need something that could beat Solaralai’s voice. And if there’s anyone who doesn’t want to be outdone, it’s my cousin.” He paused, starting on his breakfast while contemplating something.
“Besides trying to help these people here, and trying to get Envy back, there’s someone else who might benefit from learning to control a new power. Lyta. The woman we had rescued from her family yesterday. She’s at Elva’s, and though it doesn’t look like her new ability is similar at all to the Goddess’s influence, it seems it is just as volatile, and tied to her emotional state. If there’s something that could help her temper that, this might be it. Maybe later we can test this on her too, at least after we’ve made some headway here.”
“What did you say her thing was again?” Myka asked.
“Uh. Moves objects with her mind.” Daryll gestured with one hand as he took a sip of coffee. “And from the way her family treated her, she always felt like she’s in a heightened emotional state; she was afraid she’d hurt us with the objects.”
“Ooh, that’s neat—I mean, yeah that’s a lot for an ordinary woman to handle, but also, if she masters that, that’s a pretty handy thing to have,” Myka replied, trying not to look too intrigued by this knowing the girl had suffered a lot because of it. “I mean, wouldn’t you want a power like that?”
“Magic’s like a wild horse,” Gavin muttered over his own mug. “You’ll have to tame it first. Or it kicks you in the face.”
Daryll did look like he was contemplating Myka’s question though as he went on to finish his breakfast as quickly as he could without choking on his food. “Alright. I’ll go fetch Kire for you.”

Kire stared at Zeltzin as workers helped prepare her own tent and tools to help her plan the temple, along with a crude map of the surrounding area. When the preparations were done, she wordlessly beckoned the priestess to enter. The Paladin tried to keep as neutral an expression as possible, even as her gaze betrayed how much she didn’t want to let the priestess out of her sight, didn’t want a single action to escape notice, as if the smallest of gestures from Zeltzin would summon Solaralai. After everything she had been through, she had always felt ambivalent at best and disdain at worst towards the gods and towards faith, though she did do her best to make sure her citizens felt free to worship who they wanted to. But watching Zeltzin work, seeing her placid expression, and especially hearing her pontificate about the wonders of Solaralai’s mercy, Kire remembered the moment that broke whatever faith she could possibly have in divinity: the day shortly after the Black Storm when funerary rites began for all those who had perished, including her mother and father. The priest had been some middle-aged Amrian not familiar to her—she presumed many of those that lived in the Capital were injured or dead. She had been too young, she knew, to preside over something like this, but she knew it had been her duty to appear adult enough. She knew the shell-shocked look in her eyes, the same emptiness of expression that had been captured in her royal portrait after the coronation, was apparent enough for all to see.
The priest had droned on with some general words on grief, but what got seared into her memory was how he had talked about finding the blessing in disaster, that the gods must have had a reason. Kire sighed, lips pursed, as she recalled a deep, burning hatred for the man in those moments, a great enough hatred that she had almost asked that they have the man locked up and executed for even uttering the words. The hatred abated when he stopped talking, and she had gone back to that gnawing emptiness that came with the great grief from her loss. That was then, this is now, she reminded herself as Daryll entered the tent. And like it or not, this priestess is your only lead.

“They’d like to know if you can spare a moment,” he said. Kire pursed her lips, then glanced at Zeltzin, as if imagining she would burn down this new tent the moment she stepped outside. “Has she done anything suspicious yet?” Daryll asked, sensing her unease. When Kire shook her head, Daryll beckoned her to step outside. “The guards are watching her. And you’re needed. If she does anything, you won’t be too far.

Kire was still tense when she joined Ruli and the others, her thoughts circling around what Zeltzin must be doing in the tent. But seeing them gathered there, she sighed, resolved to focus on the task in front of her rather than worry about the damned priestess. Briefly, she let her gaze linger on Ruli, wanting to know how he was coping. He had been so distraught yesterday. She wished she could tell him that they’ll get Envy back, offer him more comfort now. She touched his hand briefly, gently squeezed before letting go. “Let’s get to work,” she said. “Daryll said you needed me?”
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Sid, across from him, froze when Daryll addressed her, nodding quickly to confirm her name before resuming her meal. Ruli folded his arms and leaned on the table as the group caught Daryll up, his eyes trained on the table. When the scholar said Kire hated to be outdone, Ruli's mouth twitched slightly, noticed only by Sid, who gave him a passing glance.
His second of amusement failed when Daryll mentioned Envy, the sinking feeling of failure washing over Ruli like a shower of ice. His thoughts spiraled again; he should try another scrying. Should try it with a few different ingredients, maybe. He could try it with more blood. Rabs, and maybe his own. Rab was half Kartaian, but Ruli was what his ancestors had called Solaralai Blessed, if there was such a thing.

"How did this girl get this power if she's no where near here?" Sid asked, setting her fork on her now empty plate. She raised her hand to offer Daryll a casual wave as he departed, turning her head toward Myka. "What magic would you have if you could pick that sort of thing?" She wondered, changing the subject. "I'd ask for healing magic. Just to touch someone and stitch together skin or ease a headache."

The conversation circled around in hypothetical magics; all participating but Ruli, who kept silent, his head down as he leered at the table. He only opened his mouth to translate for Rab, who said that his chosen magic would be to change his appearance. Clearly, he had reservations about the stares and winces he got walking around his his half-breed form. It was different here, he signed. They don't look at him with fear and disgust, but with simple wonder.

Kire's scent filled the tent, which spurred Ruli into raising his head at last to glance at her. He could smell the priestess's incense on her, albeit faintly, which made Ruli want to instinctively recoil away, but he refrained. Beyond the incense, he could tell she was anxious and worried, struggling to pull her focus away from what was happening outside the tent.
He held her gaze without blinking, not sure what she could read in his expression, but when she touched his hand and squeezed it, Ruli felt a whisper of comfort. For just a few seconds, the ice in his belly melted.

It was gone as quickly as her hand, and Ruli looked back down to the table, ignoring the dark gaze that rest upon him from across the way. "We're considering using you to counter the Goddess." Sid said, tearing her eyes from Ruli to look at the Empress. "Our idea is to offer the people effected tokens of magic suppression, possibly bound to an Amrian coin. Which bears your face."

She fell silent as Gavin offered more information, though Sid once more stole a glance to Ruli, itching to kick him under the table and get him to speak up. But Ruli just seemed to leer at the wood in front of his crossed arms, his eyes shifting in subtle movements as if he was reading invisible writing etched into the surface. It was impossible to tell if he was trying to plan out their next steps, or if he was struggling to move beyond Envy.

Kire joined them at the table to discuss their options, circling around the suppression magic, the way they could adhere it to coins, and, Sid insisted, on Ruli managing to find a way to get the magic to ebb when this was over. Allow it to slowly drain off the coins so that those who could potentially become addicted to it wouldn't be struck with any sort of withdrawal symptoms. Ruli, rubbing his forehead with his fingers, promised to put an effort into managing such a thing.
Honestly, to him, it seemed an impossible task. But he knew Sid wouldn't let it go. She had a history with addicts, he knew, so he wouldn't begrudge her for it.
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