Sozo Chronicles

Sozo Chronicles

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A vast land where spirits, and not gods, rule over the land, where the line between good and evil are blurred, and where you will be forced to take a path. There is no neutral ground here.

745 readers have visited Sozo Chronicles since Moonscar created it.

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This will all be filled in soon. I need this as a placeholder for now, so...

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Taylor woke with a start, her eyes flying open as her chest seized with sudden, gasping breaths. Her hand ached, gripping something she didn't remember having before. Her other arm, well, at this point there wasn't too much hope for it. It was relatively useless save the fact that it hurt like hell.

When she opened her hand, she saw the vial, and nearly dropped the whole thing.

What on earth did this mean?

Sitting up, Taylor observed the faint blue light, her brow furrowing as she tried to contemplate what it was. It felt warm in her hand, and glowed when it was closest to her heart.

And then...the glass shattered.

Startled, Taylor watched as the light merely absorbed into her skin, filling her with an odd, but not unpleasant tingling sensation. She shivered, her nose scrunching as she looked down at her hand.

"That was weird." she muttered, glancing to the doorway. Huh. Maybe the door was unlocked. Where were the others?

Standing, she shuffled over to the doorway, her bad arm hanging limp at her side as she reached for the handle. Locked. Her brow knit together.

"HEY!" she shouted, rearing back and kicking the door. "I'M JUST GOING TO KEEP MAKING NOISE!"

The door flew open, which would slam into Taylor and cause her to fly backwards. In the doorway was Tau, who had bandages around his chest, where the skin was slightly burnt from the attack from the dragon. His mouth was in a deep frown. "You keep making noise, and I might see more favor in cutting out your tongue." he spat darkly.

She stumbled back, but couldn't help the smirk.

"You're the dumbass that tried to reel in the dragon, right?" She looked him over, then shook her head. "Looks like it didn't turn out so well for you."

With a glower, Tau reached for his belt. The knife he drew made a small shing! He flipped it in the air, and the hilt twirled once before landing back into his hand. He approached Taylor with a smirk. "You've exhausted your chances." he said. "But don't worry. It won't go to waste. I'm sure it'll be good dog food."

A hand clasped onto his shoulder.

"Prepare for an emergency landing. Captain's orders." Came Zhubin's voice. "We're in Sozo territory, I trust you realize what that means?"

Tau turned to look at Zhubin, shrugging away from his hand. And, with his appropriate distraction, Taylor reared back the same foot she'd kicked the door with, and got Tau in the nards. The man crumbled, dropping the knife and grabbing his crotch.

"Nah, that'll make good dog food."

Rolling her jaw, she looked to Zhubin, then gave an apologetic shrug. "Sozo, huh? Sounds like a fantastic idea."

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"Alright," Oliver shouted as the ship began to approach the ground. Everyone was top-side. Zhubin was keeping an eye on Taylor, Tau had taken to a corner to lick his wounds. Railynn was present at Rien's side, staring at the ground, and Benny was at the helm, with Doc standing close by.

"Everyone brace yourselves! Morgan! Initiate reverse thrustors to soften the landing!"

And the ship began to shudder, slowing its descent before finally settling against the ground with a massive 'thud'. Taylor looked all around, wondering if she could make a run for it, but Railynn was close to Rien's side, and she wasn't about to leave without her.

"So what now?" she asked no one in particular. Doc snorted, and turned to go get something from below.

"Where's mah walkin stick!" Benny hollared. Oliver ducked the old man's flailing arms, then descended to the main deck before laying a hand against Railynn's arm. The woman flinched, but did nothing otherwise.

"Alright then, set up a perimeter. Nobody comes within three hundred yards of this ship." he insisted. "We leave at dawn."



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As morgan fired the remaining thrusters, He escorted Lerot to the hatch he'd be jumping out of.

"We won't have the chance for you to escape once we land, so you'll have to get off before hand. There's a river coming up, I'm going to try and keep us over it long enough for you to jump for it, we're about forty stories up now, when I give the signal, go. It's gonna hurt but you should be fine....right?"

"That's fine by me." Lark nodded, his expression solid. He was going to help his friends no matter what happened to his body.

"Good luck." Morgan nodded with a pat on the other man's back. And went back to the engines.

a little louder, he gave a hard knock against the machines, and Lark leapt without hesitation, plummetting through the air down towards the river that waited for him.
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Morgan walked up to the deck like nothing had happened and milled about. "Well....it's going to take a bit of time to repair the damaged thruster. But I'll get it back up as fast as I can."

He glanced at Taylor for a moment. "I'm sorry about the other guy. Unfortunately he got caught by one of the thrusters and well....."

He shuddered.

"If it's any consolation, it was probably quick."

It took a moment for the words to sink in.

"Wait," her ears were ringing, and she felt dizzy. Railynn was staring at the pair, her eyes wide with horror. "Wait you mean...he's dead..."

No. He couldn't be. The man was lying. "I thought...I thought he got away with Blue..."

She couldn't breathe. Her good hand came up to cover her eyes, drag down her face. Doc looked annoyed. "Couldn't that have waited?!" she hollared to Morgan.

"Now she's going to pass out!"

"We can leave her, then." Oliver scoffed. Their words blended together for her. She just...couldn't function properly. Duke was gone...Lark was dead...what on earth was she supposed to do now?

But she looked to Railynn, saw the mirrored agony in her eyes, and suddenly realized. Her. Taylor had to stay strong for her. So, the woman focussed for a second on her breathing, closing her eyes, pushing conscious thought away, and simply relaxed.

"Ok." she breathed.

Rien walked forward, beckoning to Railynn. "Lets take a look around, shall we?" he said to her, with no compassion whatsoever for Taylor's loss. Inigo, the youngest of the pirate groups, seemed slightly uncomfortable with tha situation, but said nothing. Tau had a cruel scowl fixated on his features, and in the cold that blasted out at them as Rien opened a door, it might have stuck that way.

"Well, well. What do you think, Captain?" said Rien, moving to the side and gesturing out of the door. Everywhere. Every inch of the woods they had crashed in was carpeted in snow. The elf grinned. "Stranded in frozen water. How terribly inconvenient."

Inigo shivered, and Ilona, who had come up to the deck finally, clasped the front of her shirt, which was too low cut and meant for the tropics, with her hand. "We'll need heavier clothes." she commented.

"We have them." Oliver replied with a dismissive wave of the hand. "Below deck. I don't travel without preparation. Rien, dress your charge appropriately. I don't need her freezing to death, even if you seek to keep her warm with those hands of yours."

"Understood, captain," said Rien, leading the elven girl off into the bowels of the ship.

Railynn was wiping at her eyes, gritting her teeth to keep herself from bursting into tears. She didn't look towards Taylor, even though she could feel the other woman's eyes on her.

Benny came waddling up from below, dropping cloaks as he went. "Found em Capn! But no sign of my walkin stick!"

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Huffing, desperate, shuddering breaths escaped Lark as he climbed onto the river bank. As he crawled along the ground on his hands and knees, Lark's body shook fiercly in an effort to warm itself. The young man soon fell onto his back, his hands cuppoed around his mouth as he shivered, unable to summon the strength to move. He was so cold that it hurt, and that probably didn't help the searing pain in his legs. He knew that he'd get banged up from the jump....but he wasn't expecting this damn cold. It paralyzed him, making him want to do nothing but lay there and shiver.

But Lark knew he didn't have time for that.

Slowly he got to his feet, teeth chattering as loud as machine guns, and pointed himself East. He wouldn't let the girls down, he would get to the city and get help.

Within the white snow, which would come down upon him nearly as thickly as a blizzard. Behind the curtain of white, a larger, darker mass stood in front of the small, grey-haired lad.

It was at least ten feet in height, and much, mucn more in length. Enough that the tail end was disguised by the thickness of the falling snow. With each step, the ground quaked, and as it advanced for Lark, for it knew exactly where he was, the beast let out a low, gravely chuckle. Six eyes opened up upon the sides of its head, which collected snow.

Lark stopped and raised his head, the sounds catching his ears sending him into an alerted state of mind.

Crap....he did not have time for this.

He could try to run...but it sounded big, and the snow would slow him down. And he didn't have the energy for the alternative...

So instead, Lark fought his shivers and lowered his arm to his side, the quiet sliding of his baldes echoed along the frozen ground.

The beast did not seem frightened, nor did it seem to even know that Lark had the blades in the first place. It lowered its head, whick seemed to be covered in bone, rock, and earth, next to Lark, eyes peering at his level. They were not just the beady black eyes anymore. They seemed intelligent. Human.

It reached one of its twelve legs out toward Lark, and on its journey the creature began to rapidly shrink, and the limb morphed from its gnarled form to a slender, smooth hand that reached out and grabbed Lark's shirt. Staring back at him was no longer the monster from before, but a young, nubile woman, standing in the blizzard, nude.

"Found you."

Lark's creeper meter spiked and he raised a brow. The Phrase confused him, seeing as he had no clue who this woman was, never mind what she was....or why the hell she would stand in this freezing cold in...nothing.

The blades stayed extended and Lark stood on his guard....or rather he would've wanted to, if a sudden sharp pain didn't shoot up the length of his leg and into his spine. His knee gave out and Lark fell onto the other, hissing in pain through chattering teeth.

Quickly he picked his head back up to lock his eyes on the woman's face.

The woman's eyes pinched in concern, her fingers coming up to run along his cheek. "Oh, you poor thing," she said. "Here. You won't have to suffer for much longer."

From the sky, ropes descended, and a second dark figure, wrapped up in a cloak, slid down them, an arm curling around Lark's waist before pulling him up into the sky.

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The Harpy's Talon was a grand skyship. Held up by a large zeppelin balloon, the ship sailed the clouds in almost complete silence. At the bow, the carved, wooden figurehead lay, looking outward. It was a woman covered in feathers, with talons where her feet and hands should have been. The traditional harpy.

As the boy was pulled up onto the deck, he would find arms wrapping around his shoulders and arms, carefully dragging him across the smooth, polished floor until he was in the center. He was let go, and several blankets were deposited onto his body.

The thumping of boots landed in front of him, and if his eyes guided upward, the boy would find a woman wearing a long, dark cloak. She had an eyepatch, tattoo's running up the side of her face, and a smirk. "Ahoy," she said, folding her arms. "What is it tha' the wyrm wench has brought up today?"

Several other women stood behind her, dressed just as heavily in coats and furrs. One had short, choppy blonde hair, a boyish figure, and blue eyes that nearly seemed to glow. A second had a pair of ears twitching back and forth upon her head, grinning at him with teeth like a coyote's, and the third had their face concealed.

The fourth was the woman who had approached the boy down below, grabbing for a coat to tug over her shoulders.

Lark stared with a rather...well...pissed off expression at the women. He was silent as he regarded all of them, although careful not to look at the one that had got him into this mess. As he watched the look on his face got colder and colder, nearing the freezing conditions in which the rest of his body felt.

Until finally.

"More fucking pirates..." He grumbled. "As if that other damn ship wasn't enough."

The woman in front of him, with the eyepatch, rose a brow. "Ahh, so you be familiar with them scurvy dogs! There be no other explanation, I s'pose. So you can be tellin' us the condition of their ship and crew, so that we might quickly makin' a plan to stop their tomfoolery wi' a wannion."

She knelt before the boy, elbow on her knee. "From the looks of it, them scallywags didn't do well to treat you right."

".............." Lark didn't change his face, but a brow was certainly raised. He looked away from this woman to one of the others. "Do you actually understand her?"

The shorter, blonde woman came forward, giving a short laugh. She offered her hand to him. "We are hunting those pirates. We've been hunting them for a while, now. Since you were their captive, or something of the sort, we were hoping you'd know what was going on with them. We have one woman undercover there, but we haven't been able to contact her. What's your name? I'm Yanni-Cai, and this-" She gestured to the woman with the eyepatch, "Is Anahera, our captain."

Lark watched the hand he was offered carefully, he didn't want to trust these women, but the thought of Taylor and Railynn on that ship convinced him rather quickly. He seized her hand and got to his feet in a hurry.

"Alright then, if you're hunting those jackasses," Lark said briefly, through chattering teeth. "Than I can lead you to where their ship has crashed, but we have to hurry, I'm not sure how much longer my friends will be okay."

"Alright. But let's get you warmed up, alright? You'll be the one who wont be okay much longer if we don't stop you from getting frostbite or worse now." She did not let go of his hand when he had taken it at first, and used the grip to lead him into the stomach of the ship.

Lark tired best he could to pull the woman along back towards the deck. "No waiting or anything, just get me a blanket or something and I'll make do. Please, I don't want to waste time, my friends are in real danger."

Yanni looked back, toppling after him. Her striking blue eyes held his own with an understanding. She nodded. "Alright. If your fingers lose feeling, though, tell someone."

The woman who had only been wrapped in a jacket came over to him, along with the captain. "Come, join me at the front," said Anahera. "An' talk to me." He would be lead nearer to the bow, where only Anahera and Yanni followed. "You be tellin' me this man's got yer friends? An' what of the ship? Are they crashed?"

"They should be grounded." Lark said quickly. "Turns out they have a prisoner in charge of their engineering equipment. I managed to convince him to lie to the crew and cause the ship to crash himself. He said he'd try and stay along the river. If we follow it I'm sure we can find them, once we're clsoe enough I can pinpoint them exactly."

"That be a great advantage for us, laddie," said Anahera. She reached over to pat him on the shoulder. "Alright. Weigh anchor and hoist the mizzen!" she cried to her crew, who quickly scrambled to get the ship moving. Soon, the winter breeze and the snow whipped at their faces like needles as they quickly were guided down the river.

"The fuck is a mizzen?"

Yanni leaned over toward Lark, speaking into his ear. "It's...the sail. She means we need to get going." she informed him.

"Well, yeah..." Duh. Lark kept the last part to himself and closed his eyes, focusing on the sounds that floated in the air...

He frowned almost immediately.

"Why is it nothing can ever be easy?" He sighed.

"Well, then nothing would be worth it, would it?" said Yanni, looking over the edge as they followed the river. "It's the strife, the challenges, that make what we want the most something worth it."

"Well if that's the truth then...well...I definitely have something to look forward to after everything is said and done."

Something caught his attention and he frowned.

"Something has happened....one of my friends seems to have been separated. And that shitty crew is on the move with my other friend."

"How do you know?" asked Yanni, looking down. "We can't even see them yet. Do you have some kind of supernatural sense of the world?"

"In a word, yes." Lark said, eyes still closed. "I can sense the faintest of sound waves. In other words, I can hear them and where they are."

"That's amazing," breathed Yanni, grinning at him. "What else can you hear? It must be wonderful."

"No offense but, I'd rather save the conversations until after my friends lives aren't in danger."

Yanni looked away, scratching the back of her neck. "Ah...right. Sorry. Got a bit excited..."

There was a loud yell from Kaliska topside, and the coyote woman walked along the bowsprit, balancing on the thin pole excellently. "There they are!" she cried, pointing down. "The Nightengale's ship!"

Anahera walked down the steps to the edge of the ship and began to order her crew around. "Excellent! Get in positions! Imani, you be goin' down first-" She looked around, toward the bow. "Kaliska and Yanni will be followin' up behind! Child! You'll be comin' wid me." she said to Lark. "Quickly!"

Down below, the Nightengale camp had burst into a flurry of activity. The guards who had gone out to surround the camp and go on watch quickly returned to arm themselves, and Lex took Tau along with him back to the deck of the ship. "Arm the long guns!" he shouted. "Beth! charge the electron cannon!"

The girl responded with an 'Aye!', before springing into action, climbing to the deck of the ship before disappearing below. The click and whir, and the loud, massive sound of turbines beginning to charge thrummed through the air, as snow continued to blow nearly horizontally. It was blinding, but shadows from the overhead ship covered the camp, pointing out the location.

Down below, Railynn stood off to one side, staring straight up with a wide smile on her face. Without hesitating, she put her fingers to her lips and blew a long, high whistle.

Lark's eyes opened and his fist closed tightly. "Time to go." He growled, the shivering of his body coming to an immediate stop. He didn't like having to rely on another band of pirates for this, but he didn't have much of a choice. He couldn't sense Taylor anywhere nearby...and the only trace he could sense was so faint it made him frown.

Well, one thing at a time, first he had to get Railynn away from all these pirates, then he would go find Taylor.

Either way, he was going to get those girls home, no matter what it took. He was so focused on the situation at hand, he didn't notice at all the playing card that floated through the air past his head.

Imani saw the machine that Doc was charging, and immediately began her change. As she leaped off of the Harpy's Talon, dashing the jacket onto the deck, she grew what must have been twenty times her size, from a stunning woman into a fearsome monster.

Landing, she shook the earth, all two hundred feet of her length smashing trees and leaving deep, three-toed imprints in the snow. Her six eyes, three on each side lining the length of her head, peered around until they locked onto the cannon. Without hesitation, she bounded towards it, ten foot in height lifting itself up to grab the machine and turn it away.

Meanwhile, Yanni, too, jumped deck, pulling off her gloves and flinging them away, revealing the blue gems embedded in her skin. As she fell, they glowed, and before she hit the ground, she pushed out her feet to create a massive force below her and slow the fatal descent.

Lark looked sharply towards the sound of the whistle and almost, just almost, breathed a sigh of relief. As he stood beside the captain of the Harpy, Lark lost to the temptation of blowing a whistle of his own, loud and crisp, piercing the air sharper than any trumpet or beating ofbeating of drums. He was here to get his friend back, and from there, he'd chase down Taylor, wherever she may be.

"I'll leave the ship to you then." Lark said aloud, the message would be Anahera's warning before he siezed a rope into his hands and tied it to a banister. "My objective is my friend, you can do whatever you want with the others."

Anahera cried out, "Wait!" as he got ready to leap down. "It's dangerous down there!"

Chaos had errupted, more of a panic now that Imani's massive form had essentially dropped out of the sky. Oliver was screaming unintelligibly, signaling for his men to fall back.

Beth screamed, firing her pistols at Imani's eyes as she backed up, turning and throwing herself over the edge of the railing and into the snow below. One of the bullets ended up smack dab in the monster's eye, which caused her to close them all and take a step back, one claw grasping at the busted, oozing organ. Benny had occupied a canon beneath the deck, and at the sound of Imani's landing, turned and began to rapid-fire the energy-infused canons into the monster's abdomen. At first, they simply lashed off of the spirit's hide, but soon began to crack it.

Railynn took the opportunity to run for it, making a break for the trees where, perhaps, she could find a little more help, as well as a chance to lure Lark away to safety.

Yanni ran past Railynn, then pointed to the ship. "Get on! You'll be safe up there!" she cried as she leaped atop Imani's hide, then propelled herself up into the air with a powerful force blast, descending upon Blind Benny with a powerful force punch aimed for his jaw.

But then Benny did something that would have surprised them all.

He brought up his cane, too quickly, and aimed it for Yanni. Should her trajectory remain sure, her face would have met with the end of the cane like a comical cartoon rendition.

"Take that you bitch." Benny huffed, steeling himself like the old salt he was.

"Get back in the kitchen."

Yanni was propelled down to the ground, smashing into it. Meanwhile, Imani recovered, and had effectively crawled atop the energy cannon, reaching out to grab Benny in one of her many talons. The old man grunted as the claws grasped him, and, unable to do anything further, simply relented. Beth, Tau, Oliver and many of the others had begun to beat a hasty retreat back behind the ship and further into the woods.
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On the deck of the Harpy, a playing card came to rest. Only to be picked up by a young man with sharp yellow eyes.

"Well, looks like this vacation is paying off already." Calvin smirked as he looked over a banister down at the fighting below.

"The show certainly seems interesting."

A pair of furry arms would curl around Calvin's shoulders, a deep growl humming against his neck. "What a pleasant surprise, Calvin. Didn't know you were desperate enough to track me this far!"

"Desperate?" Calvin mused as he continued to watch the fighting. "I just happened upon you completely by chance. I didn't know you were part of a ship's crew. Hopefully your partners are better fighters than you, or they are in serious trouble." He grinned.

"So, shouldn't you be trying to help them? Or are you just the cook or something?"

"Don't you try. I'm backup, for now. The two down there are handling things fine. What's your reason for following, Calvin? This isn't chance. I've fought you once and I already know that's not it."

"Sure you fought me, but if I recall the outcome of that little spar was pretty clear." Another smirk. "Just because you try to fight me, doesn't mean you know me. For example, I'm honestly here by completely random chance. I got bored of bumming around Gambits watching nonsense after nonsense, so I decided to take a trip, go where the wind takes me, so to speak."

He turned his attention back to the fight. "I'm actually quite surprised I happened upon my old play thing, maybe I'll get to watch it win something for once."

"Your old plaything? I'm really hoping you aren't talking about me." she replied, standing up from her position and backing away. Anahera called for a retreat for her two fighters, who came back, slowly, onto the deck.

Imani tossed Benny into a corner, then curled up, shrinking as she cradled her shot eye. The bullet was still in it; she could feel it. The beast whined.

"Well, barbie, shouldn't you be going? Your friends need you." Calvin's smirk faded slightly, very slightly. "If it means anything, I'm considering rooting for you."

"Anything that comes out of your mouth is as good as bile to me, Calvin." hissed Kaliska. She hopped down onto the deck, narrowing her eyes at him as Anahera gave her a long lecture.

Calvin's smile recovered as he gave a small wave before looking over the banister. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that aside from the shaos on board that other ship, there was another interesting scene unfolding.
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Railynn spun on her heel, staring towards Yanni as she ran past her, and then looked up to the ship above her head. It wasn't a good idea. Not at all. She didn't want to get back on a pirate ship.

"Laark!" she called up to the ship. "Get down here!"

Lark heard his name come from a familiar voice and needed no more time to think. He wrapped the rope around his arms and waist and hopped off the edge of the Harpy, rappeling down to the ground. And Railynn ran up to him, smiling wide and waving a hand before she skidded to a stop in front of him.

"We don't have much time." she insisted breathlessly. "We need to go deeper into Madeva."

Lark gave Railynn a slight hug, and then nodded.

"I told Blue to stay at a distance but track me as best he could, call for him now, he should be able to pick us up if we get into the forest. I don't trust any of these pirates, I just want to get out of here and find Taylor."

"Oh, don't be so...hasty, little elf."

Rien's smooth voice reached the ears of both Railynn and Lark as he came out of the shadow of the ship, dressed in his long, billowing cloak, vivid against the white snow. "Come, Railynn. Come to me." He beckoned to her, hand out.

Railynn was still curled gently against Lark's side, due to the embrace and the cold. When she heard Rien's voice, she abruptly stiffened, turning to look at Rien with widened eyes before hurriedly turning to Lark.

"Blow my eardrums. Deafen me. Do it now." she insisted in a furtive whisper.

Lark took only a seconds hesitation as he glared at Rien before he quickly removed his own headphones and placed them securely over Railynn's ears. Once on, the woman was as good as deaf, the enchanted accessory blocking all sound. The girl blinked, a sudden smile spreading across her face. Her eyes found Rien's again, and she pointed to her ears.

"CAN'T HEAR YOU!" she shouted with sudden glee.

It was a less drastic measure than blowing her ear drums. Lark poked her forehead and then pointed to the woods. It was a simple command, run. A small, 'meep' emitted from her throat as she looked from his hand, and then to the woods. Her eyes widened with understanding.

She wouldn't be able to, but Rien would certainly hear the long and slow scraping sound of bone against metal as Lark's blades extended.

He wasn't there when she was taken the first time, he certainly wasn't going to allow it now that he was. Railynn grasped his wrist, tugged him down so she could kiss him on the cheek, then let her lips hover near his ear.

"If we get separated, just get as far away from this place as possible and I'll come find you." And she let go of his hand, backing up and turning to sprint for the woods.

Rien's haunting laughter would grasp them colder than the icy air that surrounded them, his hand lifting. The small razor spheres came lashing from his pockets and, like bullets, sped toward Railynn and Lark. One for each.

The one for the small elf, however, was not made to harm her; just knock off the headphones.

The projectile aimed for Railynn hit true, but did not much more than bounce off. The headphones were enchanted a long time ago, something Lark invested in at a very young age. They were spirit bound, among other things, holding with a grip tighter than atoms.

As long as Lark willed it, those headphones would never be removed from Railynn's head. The force of the blow, however, coupled with the rotating razor blades, cut a deep groove into her cheek, causing her to stumble to one knee and grasp at the freely bleeding wound. She grit her teeth, gasping through the pain, and swore she felt a whistle of air through the deepest part of the wound.

Blood stained the snow scarlet as it dripped through her fingers. She got back to her feet, glanced back only once, and continued forward, at a slower pace this time.

Lark saw the bullet that was aimed at him travel as if it were a fat fly, cutting it out of the air as he shot off his own foot straight towards Rien.

He couldn't use any offensive sonic attacks without his headphones, his ears were already in enough pain just by taking them off. He would have to rely on his years of fighting experience for now, unless the situation got...drastic.

Rien was ready. His moves were quick and fluid, and it was not until the very last second that Rien dodged to the side, slipping around behind Lark, where he aimed a well-placed elbow strike for the back of his neck.

Lark was not naive enough to believe a blind charge would ever catch anyone with any fighting experience, so when he saw Rien move to the side, he was already leaning forward a bit, shifting his weight down toward the ground and shooting a hand out.

Rien grinned, flattening himself against the ground as he aimed to sweep for Lark's feet. This was the plan; he was planning for the boy to jump.

Instead of a leap, Lark stood on his hand and spread his legs in the air. As his hand was swept, annoyingly, by Rien's maneuver, Lark brought one of his legs cutting down, aiming to smash his heel into Rien's shoulder with his entire body weight. Yes it was awkward, and left no real means of fancy recovery, but that was his style after all, mixing street fighting and dancing.

The elf went down, the heel slamming into his shoulder, snow flying upward as he collided with the ground. He was not out, however. He reached out to grasp Lark's foot, drag him towards him, and kick his heel into the boy's crotch rather forcefully.

Rien was a dirty fighter.

Lark winced and squeezed his eyes shut out of the pain...the inhuman and criminal pain. His teeth ground against one another and a hiss of air escaped his lungs.

Well that certainly pissed off Lark.

In a fit of fury Lark tried to latch a hand around Rien's ankle in a vice, after that, he would bring the blades of his weapon cutting down through the air to pierce right through the elf's leg and into the ground. Rien, however, had planned for this, and quickly summoned one of the razor spheres to come down and bat Lark's blades out of the way.

And to accompany the pain between his legs, his ears began to ring as he prepared his next move.

Rien tried to slither away, and indeed, he summoned yet another two of the Ketraja to sllice into Lark's chest, to cut off his wrists, but-

"Hey! Kid!"

The panicked cries of the woman who had helped him on deck would catch their attentions, and before the razor blades could even get close to Lark, her shadow passed over them, and the Ketraja passed through her.

With a pained hiss, she landed in the snow, painting it red.

Lark's attention faltered for the slightest of seconds, before they focused back on Rien's face.

The grip on the Elf's ankle would tighten as Lark pulled the man with all his strength, dragging him across the ground towards him. The blades retracted and Lark's jaw set as his right arm cocked into place by his head, his hand in a tight fist.

In less than a seccond, Lark put all of his weight and swung as hard as he could, aiming right for that fricking face he wanted to rip to shreds.

The ground began to tremble.

At first, the rumble was faint, and it faded away to nothing, but by the second time it came, and then the third, the jarring tremble of the ground got progressively worse, shaking the snow from the trees and sending it tumbling to the earth. Through the gale of snow, a bitter, icy wind blew towards the brawling pair, combined with the bone-chilling bellow of an unseen monster.

Its massive leg, as thick as a tree, came against the ground within sight, shattering the frozen ground as the gale swirled around its ankles. The massive snow-spirit bent over, looming over the pair, and there, sitting on his shoulder...

...was Railynn. And she had the biggest grin on her face too. Though, admittedly, her teeth were more than likely chattering like crazy. It was, after all, very cold.

"Riieeeen!" she shouted down to the elf. "Where you going?"

"Trying to get away, little elf." was all Rien managed to say before the fist landed in his face. His brittle bones might have cracked. It might have also been another unfortunate sound, but that would be the mystery for a while. He kicked out again for Lark's chin, trying to daze him.

Lark took the kick to the chin, the force of it tilting his head up a bit, but the thin layer of protection he was able to create diverted most of it. Lark was sure to respond in kind, grabbing Rien by the collar to hold him in place for yet another strike, and again Lark tried to shove his fist down Rien's throat.

Railynn wanted to jump in to help out Lark, but it seemed her snow-monster had different ideas. Straightening and taking two long steps over to the ship, he began to kick it in, the sheer force of his blows buckling the wood, and caving it in in places. By this point, the pirates of the Nightengale had all but scattered into the wilderness.

Rien's head lashed to the side with the strike, blood splurting from his nose, his lips, as his teeth cut his gums. He reached up to grasp Lark's wrist, turning to look at him in a daze of his own. Before Lark would be able to land another blow, a sharp, but short pain would run up his arm before the limb simply went limp. Rien tried to get up and swiftly run in the other direction, the Ketraja flying back to meet him.


Lark was furious to watch Rien retreat, but as much as he wanted to pursue, the young man knew he had bigger priorites.

That wouldn't stop him from siezing a good sized stone and sending it streaking through the air at Rien's head though.

"Railynn, time for us to go find Taylor." He called, his friend would be able to hear his voice, as Lark's headphones allowed the familiar wavelengths through.

Lark's brow narrowed as he tore his eyes from Rien's frame, to the injured woman who lay nearby. Slowly he got to his feet, shaking his numb limb until he regained feeling in it. He carefully turned her over, trying to get her face out of the snow, and sat her up a bit, carefully leaning her onto his knees.

He looked her over once and shook his head, turning it up towards the ship in the sky above him.

"Hey! You got wounded down here."

Railynn was on the ground in moments, and the snow monster disappeared with the next gust of wind. The wound on her face looked worse than it actually was, and her hand was covered in the blood that had seeped from it. Numb with cold, she stumbled over to Lark's side, collapsing to her knees next to him and letting her chin fall to her chest, her lungs heaving for breath.

So tired. She was not only feeling her own exhaustion, but Rien's too.

"We should go." she warned him, looking up at his face.

"No more pirates."

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

It didn't take long for the pirates to unload the most basic of necessitites from the bowels of the ship, and into the small clearing that they had landed in, alongside the frozen riverbank. Just a few short hours was all they needed, and Oliver had established watches for the evening, shifts and rotation assignments, while the others either rested, or guarded the prisoners.

It only seemed natural that, as evening settled in on the small band of vagabonds, the captives would hover close to one another, piled beneath blankets that had been provided for them. Taylor had her head leaning on Railynn's shoulder, and the other girl was gently running her fingers through Taylor's shortened hair.

They were both silent, with Rien hovering close by, seeming keen on making Railynn understand that she wasn't her own anymore. Tau and Doc sat on a crate on the opposite side of the camp, while the rest gathered to sleep in a tent that had been errected close to the center of the small formation. Oliver, naturally, had his own tent amongst the others that had been pitched.

"Why is it that I can't seem to get anything right?" Taylor murmured suddenly. Railynn lifted her head, glancing to the other woman before furrowing her brow, and encouraging Taylor to turn and look at her.

"Don't talk like that." she insisted. "It isn't going to do you any good."

Taylor obstinately glanced away, her lips pressing into a thin line. "You're collared. Duke is gone. Lark is dead. I can't use my arm...it can't possibly get worse than this, Railynn. And half of this wouldn't have happened if I'd just..."

"What?" Railynn said, too sharply. "Done nothing? Been passive? Don't be ridiculous, Taylor. Things are going to work out." Of course, Railynn couldn't bring Lark back, but there was still Duke wasn't there? There was the whole of Sozo to think about. And there was so much going on outside of the narrowed focus that Taylor had. It was hard to explain, especially when she was in no condition to recieve the information.

Taylor laid her forehead against her knee. "Why can't things just work out?" she finally managed. "I'm so tired of fighting for the things I want."

Railynn sighed, her eyes softening. "They wouldn't be worth the effort if you didn't have to fight for them." she told her. Then, glancing to Rien, and looking back to Taylor, the girl leaned forward and whispered,

"How fast can you run?"

Taylor glanced to Railynn with a furrow to her brow. "What?"

Railynn leaned forward, wrapping her arms around Taylor's neck. "Leave me behind, okay? I've got it all worked out. Run to Karyuse. Find Enda. She'll help you find Duke."

And the girl withdrew, taking a blanket with her as she stood, turning back to look at Rien. Then, in spite of every instinct of her being screaming to do the exact opposite...she moved closer to him, stood at his side.

"Aren't...you cold?" she asked, glancing up to his face.

Rien turned his head to look at her, his fingers curled in toward his palms to warm them from the cold. Ever so slightly, as well, they shook. He was used to the warmer areas of Sozo and Terra, so, yes. He was cold.

"Why, isn't someone a bit compassionate right now?" he said, turning to her. "Perhaps you've finally come around." He opened his arms wide for her. "And perhaps you're simply freezing, as well. Come on. Don't hold out on me now."

"I'm holding out on the promise of 'killing with kindness'." she replied, her nose wrinkling slightly as she watched Rien open his arms for her. Her brow furrowed minutely, but she stepped forward, closing her eyes as she folded herself against his chest.

She tried to pretend it was someone else, but it didn't really help. Rien had this...scent to him, an allure that was hard to ignore. It was as unnatural as it was attractive, and no matter what she did, she could never get it out of her head.

Perhaps a symptom of the collar.

Taylor was watching them, sitting in a slight crouch, and waiting.

He held her in a gentle embrace, hands wrapping around her waist and shoulders. He laid his cheek atop her head.

Her hands slipped to the small of his back as she stepped closer, one leg stepping slight beyond his.

And that was when she pushed him, her foot locked at his ankle so he'd have nowhere to go but down. And, in that moment, Taylor sprang forward, racing into the woods as fast as her feet could carry her.

And try as they might, it would seem that the woods themselves wanted to conceal her. Tracks disappeared, and the snow began to fall in thick flurries, hiding her rapidly retreating form.

Rien was caught off guard, and found himself falling down to the ground, back hitting the cold snow. His hands reached up to grasp Railynn's arms, attempting to thrust her away from him as he stood up and looked around. The other girl was gone.

"Captain!" barked Rien, whirling around. "The archer's escaped!"

Oliver came barreling out of his tent, cloak hanging loosely about his shoulders. He glared into the forest, brow furrowing as the snow concealed the direction that Taylor had run in.

"Let her go. She's next to useless, and the snow will claim her before we ever get a chance to find her."

Railynn rolled to her hip, getting her knees underneath her before she managed to get to her feet, the blanket hanging loosely from her shoulders.

Don't stop running, Taylor.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

She couldn't feel her feet anymore.

She'd been running for what felt like hours, and when she was sure that no one was following her, she slowed down to a walk. Even then, she found it harder and harder to continue moving. Her body was numb, and every breath she took felt like a knife to her lungs.

The earth tilted, her knees giving out as she fell into the snow, cradled by the thickness of a snow bank. When she felt the dampness beginning to seep into her bones, she lifted a hand, clawing at the ground, trying hard to pull herself back to her feet.

But she couldn't. She was so tired...and she was done running.

With a soft sigh, the woman closed her eyes, and began to drift.

The Between grasped Taylor like a child to its mother, pulling her into its rolling hills and thick mists, which once again swallowed the woman whole. Just like before, there was a small clearing that allowed her to see the one man who could also drift between worlds. He had a cloth wrapped over his eyes, and was crouched to one knee on the ground.

He was so ragged. So torn. The edges of his clothing were blackened and burned, and the skin on his cheeks and brow, where they were not concealed by the cloth, was reddened.

When she opened her eyes again, she was lying on her side, her skin pale, and her lips a faint shade of purple. While Duke seemed to have suffered burns, it was obvious that she was freezing.

"Duke," she murmured, close enough to weakly reach to touch the back of his hand. Her fingertips were like ice. "Your eyes..."

He reached up, grabbing her fingers, pressing his thumb against her knuckles. He shook his head. "It isn't a problem," he told her. "You're in Madeva, aren't you?"

She sighed, weakly grasping his hand as he grasped hers. "Yes. I was trying to find someone...I just got so tired, I couldn't push myself to keep moving forward." The grip on his hand slackened, but she didn't take her eyes away from his face.

"What was that you gave me before?"

His brow furrowed. "You weren't supposed to come." he said to her. He pressed her fingers to his forehead, a Pakechan gesture of forgiveness that would be foreign to her. "It's my fault." He took in a heavy breath, facing the ground. "It was a spirit."

Finally, he lifted his head at her, and it was almost as if he were peering at her through the bandages. "I've been meaning to tell you something," he said. "I-"

Tendrils of mist reached to curl around her abdomen, her legs and her chest, and with a furtive tug, she was pulled free of Duke's grasp.

"No, dammit," Taylor whispered, far too weak to fight against it as she was pulled away from him. Her eyes searched his face, trying to see through the cloth. "I'll find you." she promised.

"I'll find you and fix this."

When he felt her fingers slip out of his hand, he rose, calling. "No! Taylor! Taylor! Don't-"

--------

In the barren, snowy wasteland of Karyuse's backyard, with heavy, broad clawprints making deep depressions in the ground. There were two distinct trails. If one were to follow them long enough, the clank and clunk of armor would be all too obvious.

"You daft squirrel. Gone and forgotten our winter coat, have we?" came the voice of an all-too-familiar knight. Taylor would feel her body sway from side to side, sloped over the broad back of some animal. "What do you think we do with this one, Lori? Keepin' her as a pet or are we skinnin' her?"

"Seems a bit grizzly, even for you. Glad Indomitus isn't around or he'd be tanning MY hide for that." Lori smiled, her teeth blindingly white against her dark, dark skin. She waved a hand dismissively to Taylor. "Should hurry though, if this one has any hope of keeping her toes."

Taylor groaned, shifting her weight momentarily, before remembering that her arm didn't work. She rolled her head to one side, gazing up at Enda through squinted eyes.

"Spirits be damned." she muttered. "I should have known you'd show up right when I'm at my worst."

"Aye! A bright and shining knight in armor for the poor, destitute, icicle of a ranger!" she announced smugly, tilting her chin up. "Oh, but look here, Lori, she spoke! That one could go in for the circus! Now, should we go on back to the castle? In this blizzard, the only thing that's alive we've found."

She squeezed the sides of the creatrure, urging it into a gallop. The low, monsterous whinney that came afterward echoed out into the woods and shook the snow from the trees.

Grunting, Taylor struggled to pull one leg up, forcing her way to a properly seated position astride the strange mount that Enda had brought. However, sitting like that proved to be a challenge too. She kept swaying, hardly able to keep her eyes open, and that one arm of hers hung limply at her side. At one point, she fell back against Enda, and while she grimaced and tried to sit back up, she was simply too tired, and too frighteningly chilled.

"Enda," she managed, gritting her teeth. "I...Lark's dead. Duke is missing...my friend Railynn was kidnapped by pirates, and for a little while I was with her too. She helped me get away."

She lifted a hand to clasp her aching, useless arm. "Things have been awful. I knew I needed to find you. We need to help her."

"You need to help yourself." Lori said knowingly. "Child, we cannot go running off on a wild goose chase as cold as it is. You will die on us if we linger for too long."

"And, for the first time, Lori gives us a piece of wise advice!" said Enda, reaching up at her head. She drew down a pair of goggles over her eyes. They were made of brass and copper, not the plastic that Taylor would be used to seeing in Terra. "The blizzard's getting worse, Lori. We actually need to be careful." She leaned in over Taylor, suddenly frowning.

"Lark's dead, you say?" She shook her head. "Disappointing. I liked the lad. I did."

Taylor glanced sideways and up to Enda's face, and in spite of being freezing, there was an agony behind her eyes that spoke a little more on what she was really feeling, even if she was too exhausted to properly express it.

"Died trying to help us." she murmured, shaking her head. "I'll...miss him."

But...as much as she wanted to give up...she couldn't, especially now that she had help.

"Onward then, ladies and squirrels!" Lori hollared with a laugh.

"Who's a lady? Surely, you aren't talking about me, Miss Black Beauty," snickered Enda before lashing the creature into a swifter gallop. "Hyah!"

----------------------------------------------------

Taylor dreamed of blackness, if that could be considered dreaming at all. It filled her, suffocated her, left her desperate to claw her way back to the surface her consciousness offered. This was not the Between. Duke wasn't here. Why couldn't she see him?

And yet, when she finally managed to do that, she was more confused than she had been while sleeping. She stared up at silken drapes, a painted ceiling, gilded arches and soft colors, all of it in pristine fineness that offered no comfort of familiarity. She sucked in a deep breath, her hands clenching at silk fabrics, and struggled to sit up.

"Where am I?" she insisted loudly, looking all around with widened eyes. Where had she seen this before? Had she seen it before? Now that she had a chance to focus on the room, it was beginning to look more and more like a place she'd been.

"Where do you think you are, ranger?" came a voice that would definitely strike her as familiar. She turned her head in the direction the voice came from. Coming into the room was a knight dressed in a green tunic and formal pants. Her hair was up in a ponytail, and she looked the very same as the night at the ball. Grasping the sword at her side, she came up to the woman. "You've bene out a while, sleeping beauty. And yes, I understand that reference. I was in Terra long enough." She sat on the bed, grinning at Taylor.

"You nearly died out there, y'know. How are you now?"

"Alive." Taylor replied, her eyes slightly widened. "As I often am after, y'know, nearly dying." She looked down at her left arm, done up in a silk sling, her brow furrowing in frustration. She wiggled her fingers, and then her toes, confirming that they all still existed. The cold hadn't taken them, thankfully.

"We're back in the palace then." she said, shifting so she might throw her legs over the edge of the mattress. "I can't stay here." Too much to do. She had to get back to Railynn. She had to find Duke. There were people who needed her, and she couldn't just be lying in bed like this. She eyed Enda.

"You're all dressed up." she murmured with a furrowed brow.

"Alive and well?" said Enda, sitting on the bed next to Taylor. She reached up a hand to put onto the ranger's shoulder. "Don't you dare go anywhere. You're hurt, and the worst blizzard of the year is howling outside." She glanced to the large glass windows of the bedroom, crusted in frost, with nothing but white behind it. "Everyone's staying indoors. It's suicide to go out there for long." Getting up, the knight raised her hand, and a golden light spilled from her fingertips and out the door. "I'll get you something warm to eat. To drink. You never had dinner here in the palace last time, now did you?"

She sat back down, elbows on her knees. "Dressed up? Hardly. This is what I wear around the palace when I'm not in armor. It's not always the most comfortable thing to wear, you know. Speaking of which, Cass is coming with a few gowns for you. He's excited."

A pause.

"Gowns?" she repeated, glancing up and down what Enda was wearing. "Why can't I wear what you're wearing? You're a woman. In slacks. Can't I do the same? Gowns are a waste of fabric..."

"I'm a knight!" replied Enda with a laugh, arching her head back. "I'm allowed to wear this. Knights don't wear gowns! But you're a guest. A woman guest."

Taylor scowled. "I'm a ranger!" she replied sharply. "Rangers don't wear gowns!" She suddenly looked down at herself, realizing she wasn't in her clothes, but a shift.

"...who undressed me?"

"Who else?" asked Enda. "Cass and the medic."

A faint blush tinged her cheeks, but she nodded, pursing her lips as she scooted closer to the edge of the bed. The shift fell in loose folds of fabric around her ankles, and she walked over to the window, standing by the tall panes of glass as she lifted her good hand and pressed it to the glass. Frigid.

Railynn was out there, somewhere, in the hands of those pirates.

And Lark...

Steeling herself, she took a deep breath, running a hand over her face and wrapping her arm loosely around her waist before turning back to Enda. "How long do I have to stay here?"

Being stuck in this castle was going to drive her crazy.

"I don't know. Until you heal, perhaps." said Enda. "Which will be a while. We have a statue to a medical spirit here. Maybe you can pray to him a bit and he'll help, but he's usually off and about."

The woman made a face. Gritting her teeth, she glanced back to the window, running a hand over her face before letting her good arm fall to her side. "There isn't a prayer that's going to help any of us now." she murmured.


------------------------------------------------------------------------------

In spite of herself, Taylor had taken to wandering around the massive castle, up and down stairwells, into secret nooks and crannies, and to all of the spirit statues that stood at attention in various places around the property. She was never allowed to travel outside, and though she didn't have an escort specifically, she had this vague sense that the guards who lined the walls were keeping a sharp eye on her.

She avoided the larger rooms that were more populated, and tended to hide from site when dignitaries or other important figures meandered the halls. They often spoke of business, or the war that was beginning to grow, and occasionally she heard snippets of gossip about romances and 'he said that she said's. It bored her.

What she was really trying to do was figure out how to get the hell out of there. She didn't like the idea of being held here. She wanted the privilege to leave if she wanted to. It didn't necessarily mean that she would...just for pride's sake, she wanted to be able to go anyway.

It was late at night when she finally returned to her room, to find that a fire had been lit in the grate, and her sheets turned down. She looked at the bed, unable to help but wonder where Duke was sleeping, or Railynn, or L--

Silently, she crossed from the bed to the window, taking a cotton afghan with her and wrapping it around her shoulders loosely with her good arm, before sitting by the chilled glass.

Quickly, footsteps echoed through the hallways, clack, clack, clacking at an easy pace. Two multicolored eyes peered in through Taylor's door. Quietly.

Once they found their target, cheekbones rising to narrow their eyes in a smile. "Wonderful! Ranger Taylor. I thought I'd find you in here!"

Striding in happily was the very familiar, redheaded young stylist. He brushed off his rather expensive, gold-trimmed vest as he approached her. "I was told you were in need of proper apparel. How have you been? How is that arm of yours?"

Taylor turned with a start at Cass's sudden exclamation. As he began to walk in, she stood to her feet, wrapping the blanket a little more firmly around her shoulders. "Cass." she greeted, her smile not as enthusiastic, but certainly friendly. She decided not to inform him that whoever said she needed apparel could shove it someplace painful.

"The arm is healing." she said. "I'll need to strengthen it eventually." Letting the cloth fall away from the shoulder, the naked, ugly scaring certainly looked like it was healing up. She could move her arm a little more.

"As for how I've been...I've managed to survive. I think that's an accomplishment." She looked him over, her expression smoothing over.

"How have you been?"

"Quite excellent!" he replied, not bothered in the least that it was so late at night, or that he had, without permission or warning, simply waltzed into her room. "I really am sorry to hear about your arm, but perhaps I might be able to help with that. It should not be hard to construct something that will not hinder your arm. You would not mind, now, would you? Walking around the castle looking like a commoner, so a certain lady said it, is not a good way to be inconspicuous."

He approached her slowly, shoes hitting the marble with the same clacks from earlier.

"I didn't realize I had any reason to hide." Taylor replied cooly, though, part of her had a feeling that he knew she was lying. She watched as he approached, forcing herself to relax a little bit as she began to prepare for the inevitable.

"But if this'll keep that infernal Knight's mouth shut, then I'll do whatever she's suggested." She extended her uninjured arm for him. "Do with me as you like."

"Hide? Certainly not, but I wouldn't want the same eyes on myself that prey on you. Trust me, Lady Taylor, it isn't the nicest world within this castle, despite how glorious it looks. All roses have thorns. All mushrooms hold the threat of being a leech. Ah...though I'm not sure you'd understand those. I know you are not from this world." He scratched the back of his head meekly.

"Do with you as I like? Well...I feel as though that is entirely too much freedom, but I will try. Follow me, will you?" he said, turning and departing quickly.

She did, following as silently and swiftly as his shadow might. She hovered close to his side, keeping back a pace so that he could lead her along to wherever it was they intended to go.

"Where are we going?" she asked quietly, her voice echoing dangerously around the stone halls.

"To my room. Where I can measure you again. I wanted to make sure nothing about you had changed since you last departed." he said, though the real words were "I want to make sure there are no weight variances."

As they passed the quieting hall, Cass reached for the knob of a rather tall, white door. He pulled it open, then walked inside, where Taylor would soon find herself surrounded by bolts of cloth and linens, smooth silks, countless decorations, and a variety of tailoring tools. In the corner was a small bed, no doubt where Cass slept.

"The other may be more outfitted, but my personal room has the selections I prefer best."

She was a bit bedazzled by the colors that swirled around her, her hands clutching at the afghan she hadn't yet discarded. Pausing for a moment as he explained, she meandered over to a bolt of emerald green cloth, her fingertips smoothing over the velvet as a small smile pulled at the corner of her mouth. There was something magical about what Cass did. She was just, well, not the greatest of specimen.

"It certainly does." she agreed, her eyes moving back to Cass. "You know, I'm more afraid of these dresses than I am of the noblemen." she quipped, though, it was pretty clear that she wasn't being entirely untrue either.

"Afriad of the dresses?" Cass could not help but laugh. "For a woman who I've heard so many stories about, riding dragons and braving dangerous woods, I'm certainly amused. What could a dress do you you, Lady? They're hardly the monsters you've, no doubt, defeated in the past with ease. Knight Klee has told me about them. When you two were fighting to save an entire world from a monster who's name I could not begin to pronounce!"

He pulled at the green cloth that Taylor seemed attracted to. "Is this the color in your favor?"

Her cheeks tinged pink. "I suppose." she replied, feigning indifference. She stepped around the other and walked to where she could see a window. "I don't...consider them anything more than what was necessary, I suppose. Enda had a great time, and if I were honest I'd admit that there were some good times to enjoy, but so much happened..."

She shrugged.

"Regardless of whatever dangers I may have braved, wearing a curtain around my legs certainly wouldn't make my job any easier."

"Then we make it less of a...curtain. Freedom of movement is certainly something Knight Klee enjoys, as well. I simply cannot get her into anything that includes a skirt. She'd rather be taken as a man." He shook his head, completely unable to understand the aversion to the lovely dresses he made. He puleld out the green cloth, looking it over with a tender fondness.

"Alright. Lets get you measured, Lady Taylor."

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It had been a strange experience, existing in the castle, living amongst nobles, like she was walking in a dream. In the back of her mind, she knew that Duke was out there somewhere, blinded and injured, trying to survive with Luli. Spirits only knew what that woman was up to.

Lark was gone. Railynn kidnapped. So much was going on outside of the castle walls, but she was removed from all of that, like a sparrow who had her wings trimmed.

She knew of a sauna, open to the evening air, but so high above sheer cliffs that it would definitely be a death wish to attempt climbing down. With far too much on her mind, she headed that way, the swirls of her skirts swishing around her ankles as she moved.

She came to the edge, staring out over the distance, chilled from the high mountain air and the bleakness of the atmosphere. Her breath left her in a cloud, brow furrowing as she continued searching, searching for what...something she couldn't find.

"Duke." She said in a soft sigh. More than anything, she wished he was here, if only to tell her how ridiculous she looked in this dress.

There was a creak of the door to Taylor's right, suddenly, and it swung open. Strangely enough, if she had expected to find anyone there at all...there was nothing. The wind had blown it open, with a frightful bang onto the wall. The breeze whipped by the trees with an eerie howl.

She cried out sharply, spinning around and staggering back, her hands clutching the fabric of the cloak that hung from her shoulders. Her eyes, wide with anxiety, scanned the doorframe, the door that swung aimlessly, and the trees that rustled violently in the breeze.

A snow spirit leaped by underneath, flakes in the wind just barely making a recognisable figure. It blew down the mountain, out of sight.

Leaving just Taylor and the wind.

Shuddering involuntarily, she made her way over to the edge, one hand reaching out to steady herself against the stone parapets, and then, against her better judgment, she looked down.

And two pairs of eyes looked back up at her, the whites all around them visible, almost glowing for their brightness. They stood out from an oily, black body, devoid of hair, simply staring until a slit appeared where its mouth should have been.

Rows, upon rows, upon rows of teeth grinned back at her.

"Spirits!"

She stumbled back, wishing more than anything that she had her knives on her. Anything was better than this awful dress, and being one arm short certainly didn't help. Heart pounding, she turned and rushed for the door, eager to get back inside, perhaps to drink with Enda.

It was clear that she wasn't sleeping enough. So very clear.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Naught but the sound of her breathing, and the impact of her body against a rubber mannequin could be heard through the secluded training room. Enda had given her a few exercises to strengthen her arm, and she'd gone at them with gusto.

She could feel it, the ache, but it was good kind of feeling, and as she allowed herself to move through the motions, she could feel her body falling into the movements as easily as if she were walking, or breathing. Fighting was second-nature, and making it look like nothing at all was a talent.

If the mannequin fell, she righted it, up until she couldn't make herself move anymore. When that happened, she let herself sit, rubbing at her sore shoulder and tilting her chin to her chest.

"I'll get out of here." She said to herself, looking towards the door. "Soon. I will." Somehow.

Scrtch scrtch scrtch.

Scrtch.

Scrtch scrtch scrtch.

It started very silently, at first, the small sounds of scratching. It was as though someone was digging their nails against soft wood. It gradually became louder, and as soon as Taylor lifted to inspect the sound, which came from behind a large pillar, it stopped.

A small animal scurried to the other side of the room. Perhaps it was someone's pet. Or a rogue animal let in by accident.

Taylor furrowed her brow, rising to her feet and crossing over towards where the animal had disappeared, just behind a few mats. She hesitated, hoping it wasn't something venemous.

She lifted her foot, nudging the mats with the toe of her boot before taking a step back.

A rat, more than likely.

But as soon as she nudged toward the mat, where the rat quickly scooted from toward the door, the noise started again.

Scrtch scrtch.

This time, like nail against rough cement. Closer, now. But not in front of her...but...behind.

Scrtch.

Gehehehe.

She spun around, her breath catching in her lungs as she took another hesitant step back. "Whose there?!" But there was nothing. Not anything she could see, anyway. But...the sound continued. Behind her. Over her shoulder this time.

Scrtch. Gaha! Scrtch.

And this time, when she turned around, only darkness would envelop her.

She hadn't had time to sit, or lie down, yet upon awakening in that familiar haze, she found herself lying down. She wasn't in the sparring clothes either, but one of Cass's gowns. It splayed around her figure, in that cold grass, like liquid that had been poured overtop of her.

Grimacing, she sat up, looking around for that one face she'd been most eager to see. Where was he?

"Duke," she said, her voice flat. It never echoed here. The air was always so close.

"Here."

He was right behind her, their backs nearly touching they were so close. He sat with his elbows upon his knees, looking straight ahead of him. Dark shadows lurked in the mist, and Duke's eyes, though burnt still, followed them. "Where are you?"

"The castle at Karyuse," she breathed, her eyes flickering out towards the shadows that danced in the mist. "I thought it was safe, but there's something lurking there. I can't explain it."

She glanced over her shoulder. "You?"

"Shyshallow." he replied, trying to turn around. "There's something wrong with where you are. Something's trying to come through." He scratched at the peeling skin around his eyes, which looked much better than before, though they were still badly damaged. "Be careful."

"I'm trying." she replied, her voice low. She felt strange, like something, on the outside, was touching the bare skin of her arms. She reached for his arm, gently clasping his hand.

"The princess is keeping me there, like I'm some kind of prisoner. I haven't seen the outside in weeks." Her brow knit. "I can't help but feel like she knows something."

That feeling, the squirmy sensation of being touched came over again, and she grimaced.

"I'm going to get out of there. I have to. Staying might be the death of me."

"Getting out might be, as well."

He turned around completely, then, to face her, his blue eyes just peeking out from between his blackened lids. As though they were clear skies after a terrible storm. He reached out a hand to grip her wrist, but before he could...

"Taylor!"

Icy, white hands wrapped around the archer's waist, dragging her down into the darkness once more.

Those eyes were the last thing she saw. She barely had a chance to grasp for his hand before the darkness swallowed her up, like a thick, black pool of warm water.

On awakening, she found herself staring at the ceiling, breathing hard. The crawling feeling had disappeared, but the image of his eyes still lingered in her mind. She slapped her hands to her face, gritting her teeth before she shoved herself to her feet, walking to the mannequin and kicking it so hard that the head tore clean off.

Growling, she turned and stalked from the room, tension making her spine rigid.

She needed to find Enda.

Especially with he princess keeping a close eye on her. From right behind one of the pillars. Still and white as a marble statue.

Grinning.

Grinning.

-------

Enda had been walking down the halls hastily after hearing about Taylor's collapse. She needed to see her. She needed to find her. "Taylor!" The knight called, her brow furrowed deeply. She brushed past several ladies in waiting, nearly pushing them over, and stormed down the hall. "Where's Taylor? Do you know where Taylor is? Someone has to know!"

The knights hand slid down her face until she turned towards the woman's room. She had to be there, right? "Taylor! I'm coming!" cried Enda one last time, storming down the extravagant left hallways, where Taylor's room lay. But before she was able to take the final turn, a guard, clad in his silvery armor, lowered his spear to block the way.

Enda glared, placing her hand onto the weapon to shove it out of the way rudely. "What are you doing? I'm one of your head knights. You're not in any position to stop me." The weapon came back down, blocking her path.

"Princess' orders. She's questioning the traitor."

"Traitor? What traitor!" Enda cried furiously.

Taylor's eyes flickered towards the door when she heard Enda's angry cries. She said nothing, however, her expression was dark, her stance tense. She was staring at the woman across from her, a woman who, at one time, had groveled on her knees to beg for Taylor's forgiveness.

She was not groveling now, and Taylor was not of the inclination to perform similarly.

"So, Highness, am I to know of my crimes?" she asked, her hands gripping into tight fists. Cass had made her a dress of midnight blue, dark, to match her mood. "Or are we going to continue to play games? I know you've been keeping me here against my will, and it is not because I've done anything wrong."

"What crimes? We are simply trying to keep the knight Klee under control. She will simply do nothing but persist if we give her any other excuse!" chirped the Princess, sitting at the edge of Taylor's bed. "I am only doing you a favor, Ranger."

She spoke so softly- so genuinely! But more than a few things had changed about the princess to help Taylor see through the gracefully spoken lie. The princess was now deathly pale, unhealthily so, like the snow that fell right outside her windowsill, and dark circles hung below her eyes. Her lips were unnaturally red. Like a fresh apple. Or like fresh blood. How had everyone failed to notice such drastic changes? The way she hunched over, how her mouth hung open in an almost hungry gape. Zombie. She was a zombie. A doll. A tool.

"You shouldn't have to worry at all."

Taylor stared for a long while.

"What's happened to you? Why won't you let me leave?"

She took a few steps back, closer to the doorway, as if she intended to flee. What had possessed the princess? Was it the same ugly darkness that had consumed her parents too?

She turned her head over her shoulder.

"Enda!" she shouted. "Enda, I'm alright." It would be okay. She hoped, anyway. Her eyes went back to the Princess.

"You have to understand...I need to get out of here. There's someone I need to find."

The princess tilted her head to the side, then laid herself onto the bed.

The door slammed behind Taylor, and there was a distinct click as the lock slid in place. "No. Things...will be...completely fine...if you stay here."

Taylor spun around, staring at the door with wide eyes, before turning to look back at the princess.

"This is where I'll have to politely disagree, highness." she said, looking around for something, anything, that might get her out that door.

Nope. The only way out was the window.

The corpse of a woman followed Taylor's eyes. At first, she seemed so fragile that she would even have a hard time getting up from the bed, but this soon proved false. Inhumanly fast, the princess slid from the bed and was crawling toward Taylor, her eyes inking over black, till only small white dots could be seen within the pupils. Her body lost all semblance of fullness, and her skin sucked in toward her bones.

"YOU'RE NOT LEAVING!"

The princess' screech was frightening. Demonic. Several voices fused into one raspty cry.

Oh, Spirits...

"ENDA!" Taylor cried in panic, grabbing the closest thing to her...a chair, and heaving it over her shoulder before swinging for the princess's head. She stumbled back a step, her back meeting the cold, hard glass.

The creature leaped after her, soaring through the air, just before she grasped Taylor's shoulder in her cold...scratchy fingers, drawing her with her as the window shattered into millions of light-reflecting shards, which carried down the cliff with he Princess.

Enda had burst through the door just in time to witness the fall.

"TAYLOR!" she all but screamed as she hustled toward the window, looking out, willing and ready to jump if need be.

She was there, perhaps ten feet below the window's edge, clinging like a mad woman to a stone parapet that was dangerously slick with ice and snow. "Enda!" she gasped, briefly meeting the other woman's eyes.

"A rope! Quickly!"

"Rope? Who needs a rope?" sighed Enda, closing her eyes. Her hand wrapped around the hilt of her sword, drawing the clear blade free from her hip. She then placed both hands upon it, and a wind stirred her hair.

A spirit that often wandered around the Karyusian grounds flew down from the rooftops. The same that Taylor had seen just the previous day. Summoned by the knight's call, a stone shelf slid out underneath Taylor's feet, and several more after that, completing wobbly stairs.

"You forgot who I am and what I can do, didn't you?" said the knight smugly.

"I'm not in a position to think clearly, Knight Klee!" Taylor replied, unsteadily putting her feet down on the stairs, before beginning the tentative ascension. Enda was smirking, but Taylor was clearly frightened. Her dress was torn, and she was bleeding in places where the glass had cut her.

She steadied herself on Enda's arm as she finally stepped back into the room, her body shaking from the cold and the stress of the ordeal. Looking down at herself, she shuddered and closed her eyes.

"I need to leave, Enda." she murmured.

"As soon as possible."

"You know what? I was thinking the same thing. There are strange things going on here...and I can't say I'm terribly fond of the changes. I mean, look at this! Why would the princess take out the windows? There's a draft!"

Pulling the Ranger in, Enda looked down the mountain, making sure, making sure...

"She's gone...for now. The guard outside is knocked cold, but I think you startled the whole castle."

"Just...help me get what I'll need. I know where I'm going." she said, dusting glass shards from her hands as she looked about the room. Nothing useful in here that she'd want to take with her.

"A cloak and a horse....how far is Shyshallow from here, Enda?" she asked, turning back to look at the Knight.

Enda urged Taylor on, peering outside of the door before rushing out. Her sword was sheathed, just to avoid suspicion. She could not be seen as an enemy to her own house, especially at a time like this. Even for Taylor.

People were rushing through the halls, inquiring about the loud noises and the whereabouts of the princess. Enda stood straight and acted blissfully ignorant of what was going on. "Out of the way! I've got a meeting to attend- will you move?" she spat coarsely at anyone who dared clog the halls. With Enda's reputation, people moved out of the way rather hastily.

"Shyshallow is quite far away, Taylor. I have a friend who can help you get there, though. I-"

There was a shrill scream, so piercing that Enda closed one eye and cringed slightly at the sound. She twirled around to face a window. Yet another that soon shattered into small shards as a body was tossed onto the ground, dyed in red and white.

The princess. Dead.

And crouching on the window sill, dressed in Karyusian garb, was Ateles, cheek in his hand,looking down at the princess as though he were surprised. "Oops." he grinned.

Enda was speechless as chaos broke out around her, and she grabbed for her sword. "Taylor...get out of here now, if you can. Get to the barn - take the best Vulk you can find, it doesn't matter!"

She pulled her sword and rushed toward Ateles, flames igniting around the knight in a brilliant display of light.

Taylor stumbled back, eyes widening as she focussed herself, turning and beginning to run down the hall. She shoved people out of the way, the skirt of her gown swirling out around her ankles as she pushed past. She saw a break, an opening in the crowd, and made for it, gritting her teeth before making one final push and running at a full sprint down the hall.

Stone stairs fell before her, and she descended them quickly, picking up her skirts to avoid tripping over them before she pushed herself into a run as she reached the lower landing. The hall was cavernous, but the shadows concerned her. Things moved that shouldn't have, and whether it was fear or adrenaline or something similar, she didn't stop moving...

...that is, until a thick hand grabbed her arm and jerked her to a stop. She saw the glimpse of metal, the knife in hand. Reacting immediately, she spun, delivering a vicious kick to the man's knee.

It shattered, his leg bending at an awkward angle. He howled in agony, and Taylor, in a burst of panic, snatched the knife from him and in one, swift motion, sliced his throat wide open. No armor at the neck.

Arterial spray decorated the polished white marble as he collapsed, silent and gaping, and she was left to stare.

"...M-Miss...Miss Taylor?"

A meek, frightened voice came from behind the ranger, barely audible within the madness. Turning around, Taylor would see the redheaded designer for the royal house. Trembling, eyes wide, mouth open in a gape.

Her head snapped in his direction, and she felt her heart sink.

"Cass, I..."

"THERE SHE IS!"

Taylor's gaze snapped back to the half-dozen guards who were barreling towards her at an alarming rate. Swords drawn, there was determination in their eyes, and she knew they weren't coming to check on her well-being.

"I'm so sorry," she said, loud enough for Cass to hear. She looked to him one last time. "I have to go."

Knife in hand, she turned to sprint down the hall, throwing herself against a side-door that she knew lead to the bottom level, and the armory. Once through, she barred it from the inside, and quickly disappeared into the darkness.

-------

The yard was empty, with all of the guards piled inside the castle in search of her, and most likely, Ateles. She was clad in white, wearing an insulated, form-fitting tunic and slacks. Brown leather boots kept her feet dry, and the cowl and cloak she had wrapped around her shoulders guarded her from the wind. A pair of knives were strapped to her hips and, beneath the cloak, the rib of a bow protruded. The quiver of arrows she held in her hand.

She only felt sorry for the lad she'd stolen these from for a minute, up until the point where guards passed her by without so much as a glance. She made her way to the stables, as Enda had told her, ducking inside and turning to select one of the massive Vulk. It resembled a silvery furred wolf, in many ways, or perhaps a coyote or fox. The royal greens and golds were dyed into the saddle. It stood up, towering over Taylor by at least a foot. Curiously, the animal sniffed at her, before walking out.

"Come on," she murmured, reaching for the reins.

"We got a long trip ahead of us."

Funnily enough, there had been another Vulk right outside, just standing around, all saddled up, packed with a variety of pouches and satchels...and weapons. It rose its head to stare at Taylor and her own ride... just before someone fell out of the sky, landing on its back. With a yelp, the animal sprung into action, sprinting down into the nearby woods.

Ateles hooted in excitement and looked back towards Taylor, the biggest smug grin on his face.

Taylor's eyes narrowed, smiling beneath the cowl.

Swinging up onto the Vulk's back, she dug her heels in, taking a tight hold of the reins and encouraging the animal into a sprint. It exploded from the barn, sending a few stableboys scattering as they ran across the yard. It wasn't long before she was right on the flank of Ateles' mount.

"Couldn't you have been a bit more subtle?!" she shouted over the roar of the wind. The castle was beginning to fade into the distance as the forest blocked her view.

"They didn't HAVE to know it was you!"

"You sound like an old love of mine. She didn't understand the enjoyment in being an assassin, either. If you're not loud about it, you're not doing it right!"

He galloped ahead of her, the tails to his coat flickering upward, revealing their blackened edges...and the rather angry burn on his skin. Either the adrenaline rush kept his pain at bay, or he was mad. Possibly a mix of the two.

It didn't escape her notice.

Pushing the animal to run up alongside him, she gestured with her gloved hand to the wound on his back.

"When we set up camp, I want to take a look at that!" she called. Last thing he needed was some kind of ugly infection. He'd be completely useless, and they wouldn't be in a position to seek help.

"Look at what? You've been a bit touched in the head, haven't you?" he called back, keeping his eyes on the castle a moment just to make sure they weren't being too closely followed. There were several figures in the distance behind them. "We won't be stopping soon. I hope you understand."

He couldn't feel it? That wasn't good.

"I do." she called back. "Regardless. That burn is going to bother after a short while. Just let me know. I'll be able to find something to help it." She hesitated a moment, glancing behind at the figures that were beginning to disappear.

"Can you take me to Shyshallow, Ateles?" she asked.

"Shyshallow? Mnn. I'm not sure. That's a far ways away. It'll be another two weeks to get there from here."

"Take me half-way, then tell me the rest of the way." She said, nearly insisting. "I'm going with or without you, Ateles. You owe me anyway. If the princess hadn't smashed herself out the window in an attempt to drag me with her, you wouldn't have gotten your hands on her."

"You really think that? Huh." he said, musing. "I might have to change that later on."

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"Here it is. Impressed?"

As the mist from the morning parted, its tendrils curling away from the landscape, a truly impressive scene unfolded before them. It was something one would only see in paintings. They were on a sandy beach, but there were no waves ebbing onto the shore. Before them stood an endless expanse of water.

Completely clear, completely still water.

None of it was deep. One could see all the way down to the bottom. The deepest was perhaps ten feet in some spots, and no more. But that was all it was for miles and miles. Here and there, a tree sprung up, weeping its leaves into the water, but they were few and far apart. The solitude of the area was heavy. There was no life. No fish. Just sand.

"Shyshallow. The most dangerous and largest lake in Sozo," explained Ateles. His voice was the only thing to pierce the silence. That, too, was heavy. It bore down upon them like an elephant on their shoulders. "We'll need a boat."

Taylor gazed out across the open water, struggling to remember the last time she'd seen so much of it all in one place. With a sigh, she glanced back to the animals they'd brought with them, before walking over and beginning to remove the bags they'd strapped to the saddles.

"Suppose we can't wade?" she asked, glancing back towards the lake. "How large is large?"

She began to look up and down the coast for some kind of boat. If not, they'd probably have to put one together themselves.

"You want to die early?" Ateles asked Taylor. He rolled his eyes. "One foot in, you'll probably die. The water's fresh. Completely drinkable. But I wouldn't drink it. It'd be better for you to see."

He walked down the bank, the mist curling away like a frightened herd. "Follow me. There's a pier down here...somewhere. It's been a while since I've been here."

As he walked a ways, he eventually found himself squinting at something in the distance. A dark shape. "Found it. Now...try not to react too badly to the ferryman. You'll probably not see his face, but in case you do, it's alright. Alright?"

"Alright." Taylor replied, picking up a satchel and slinging it over her shoulder before following after Ateles. The whole time, she kept looking out over the lake, wondering at what the danger could be. Then again...

She thought of Luli, how delicate and soft and beautiful that woman was. She was quiet, innocent on the surface, but deceptively deadly.

Adopting that mindset about anything she might happen across in Sozo, Taylor pulled her eyes away from the water, and followed Ateles along until the ferryhouse came into sight.

"Y'know, I used to have a wicked ugly scar that went all the way across my face." she informed him mildly. "So, this ferryman of yours probably won't surprise me too badly."

Ateles looked over his shoulder at her, taking his toothpick out of his mouth.

"It's not scars that you'll be afraid of. Scars leave you without, not with extra."

He bit lightly onto his toothpick again and walked on down into the ferryhouse.

Pursing her lips, she jogged after him, coming up to his side as the ferryhouse came up close. There was the boat, the pole that would push them across. While Ateles went inside to meet with the ferryman, she went out on the dock, taking a moment to look down into the glass-clear water, at the boat that was meant to carry them across miles of water.

Pausing a moment, she gazed out towards the horizon, wondering and hoping that Duke was alright. Even though she knew he'd be fine, for now, it still made her anxious.

That collar...

"I'll come on my own time." she whispered under her breath. She would not go running to Luli like some dog.

As she neared the boathouse, the rott was the first thing she would notice. The wood was black and peeling. The walls were falling apart. The floor creaked beneath Ateles' feet uneasily.

"Hello?" he called. "Anyone in here?"

It was barren, save for two chests in the room.

Taylor came back, glancing into the room after Ateles. Her eyes flickered around, looking for some kind of sign of the ferryman.

"All of that anxiety for nothing," she murmured, walking in and walking over to the chests. "What do you suppose is in here?"

She reached to open the first.

Ateles grabbed her wrist, his eyes directed down the hall tot he next room of the ferryhouse. "I woldn't do that." he said to her, trying to pull her up.

There was a creak behind them. The sound of water trickling.

There was someone at the entrance.

Taylor slowly stood, both hands coming up in a surrender position. Glancing behind her, the woman kept a wary eye out for whoever was lurking nearby.

"I don't like learning the rules as the game goes along." she said in an undertone to Ateles.

"I didn't think you'd go ahead and open something that's obviously not yours." he replied,

"The shack was empty..."

He looked behind him, at the long shadow cast upon the wall. "You certainly seemed to think so."

The shadow peeled from the wall, standing as a very tall, dark figure in a cloak. It swayed from side to side gently, staring at them, no features able to bee seen. The ground beneath it began to flood with clear water.

"Ah. Good to know you haven't left," said Ateles. "I'd like a trip across Shyshallow. My friend and I. You...can do that...right?" Ateles looked back at Taylor, briefly widening his eyes as if to say, "Well...get ready."

Taylor felt the compulsion to stare, but schooled herself not to. She took one look at the ferryman, offered a brief smile, and then looked to Ateles. Her eyes widened in response as she hooked a thumb over her shoulder.

"I got all the stuff sitting by the dock." she explained. "Ready when you are."

With that, she backstepped before turning on her heel and disappearing out of the boat house.

Soon after, Ateles walked out after her, his gait slow and easy. "Do you have everything?" he asked her, motioning toward the Zulf, who sat by calmly, expectantly. Tails wagging. "We can't take them. They'll sink the boat."

"Yeah. I'm sure I do." Taylor looked back towards the Zulf, a frown pulling at the corners of her mouth. With a quiet sigh, she moved towards them, jogging up and taking one of their great big heads into her arms.

"Head back home," she murmured. "You guys know the way. We can't take you with us."

The one she held emitted a pathetic little whine, it's great big tongue dragging across her shoulder before it pulled away, giving the human pair a pitious look before turning and walking off into the woods. The other one hung back, watching them, as if waiting for some signal that they were only playing.

Then, with a whine of its own, it too disappeared.

Taylor's brow knit. "That was oddly emotional." she muttered under her breath, before turning to walk back to Ateles.

"I'm ready if you are." she said, looking from the ferryman to Ateles expectantly.

He nodded, slipping his bag over his shoulder as he walked off over the pier. Each and every step groaned and squeaked dangerously, but Ateles walked confidently across the boards. As he walked down it, the mist would part again to reveal a boat not unlike a gondola. The ferryman was at the tip, with his back to both patrons. His cloak dipped into the water, trailing.

The boat was made of the same rotting wood as the ferryhouse, and it gave off a very musty smell that caused Ateles to wrinkle his nose. At the front of the boat was the carving of a skeletal humanoid, which held a lamp and a burning flame out in front of them.

Taylor followed after, confident as a result of Ateles' confidence. She paid the squeaking no mind, carrying the burdens over her shoulders before handing them off to Ateles and climbing into the boat. It rocked, which unsettled her a moment, but she regained her footing and quickly found a seat.

"How long should this take?" she asked in a low voice, unwilling to disturb the peaceful quiet that had settled over the lake.

"A few days, if we go quickly. There's no wind and no current. We also have to be very careful." replied Ateles, stepping into the boat, which sunk momentarily with his weight, before bobbling back up. He sat, cross-legged, in the middle of the boat. "There should be a few islands in between. We do what Mass Boatman, here-" He jammed his thumb in the direction of the willowy figure at the head of the boat, "-directs us to do. He knows this place better than anyone. Ever."

As soon as they were both comfortable, the pole that the ferryman had been holding pushed them off, and they were sailing across Shyshallow. Ateles looked toward the pier before the mist began to gather around it.

Briefly, a sense of anxiety would grip them both.

"There's no turning back. We're at the complete mercy of Shyshallow now. Can't even swim to the shore at this point."

She closed her eyes, taking a few slow, deep breaths before opening them and looking to Ateles. "So, what is it about this place that makes it so dangerous?" Of course, she wasn't trying to be a smartass, she was genuinely curious.

"Is there magic here? Spirits?" She looked out towards the shore, which at this point she could no longer see thanks to the mist. She continued to speak in that low tone. Anything barely above a whisper sounded too loud, like she was shouting.

It was going to be a long boat ride, she realized.

Ateles leaned back, and scratched the spiky stubble on his chin. "No magic." he said. "There's one spirit, but not one that'll hurt us." He looked out over the water, then fished something out of his pocket. A small piece of leftover bread, a few days old. "Bossman," he called, holding it up. The mysterious wraith turned sluggishly to look at him, then nodded.

With his approval, Ateles tossed the bread out into Skyshallow.

It didn't even hit the water before there was a great splash, and the food was snatched out of the air. Then, stillness. Silence. "Shyshallow is only bountiful in its predators. Anything that enters can and will be eaten."

Taylor's eyes were wide.

"Good enough reason." she murmured, shifting positions so she could peer over the edge of the boat. She could see nothing but sand, and as tempted as she was to run her fingertips across the surface of the water, she resisted. Even though she couldn't see the dangers lurking, she knew, certainly, that something was going to bite her head off if she got too close.

"I think Duke mentioned this place once." she murmured, knowing Ateles could hear her. "He never talks at length about anything, but he did mention a lake clear as glass, miles wide and filled to the brim with dangerous creatures."

Gazing out across the water, she folded her arms and rested her chin on top of them. "What's Desera like?"

"What's it sound like?" he asked her, chuckling. "Endless dunes of sand and mountains. I came from Fespa, that borders it. The people are browner than my own and are experts with magic. It's where the use of magic originated." he replied. "They use boats to sail across the sand. It's a useful way to travel with all the wind. There's plenty of old temples and the sort all over. A real place of adventure."

She grinned. "Sounds like a good time."

Glancing down at her hands, she flexed her fingers in towards her palms, turning them one way and another before resting them on top of her knees. "He said I could find answers there." she said to herself, shaking her head as she looked out across the lake. "Perhaps the answer lies in the magic. I don't know." She rolled her jaw, before leaning her face into her hands and rubbing at her temples.

"Hey, Ateles..." she started, her brow furrowing in thought. "Have you heard of these..collars," she made a ring around her neck to demonstrate. "Thin and black, they meld to the skin with a spell, some sort of a spirit binding...have you ever seen them?"

"Hmm..." said Ateles, letting his head lean back on a seat as he thought. "Spirit bindings...I've seen it happen, mostly with marriages. When I visited Jedaris there was a lot of human traffiking, and thay used 'em to make sure the slaves stayed in place. Who's it you know that's got one? Is it you?" he asked her inquisitively. "Is it that bad?"

She shook her head, her brow furrowing a little. "I had one, but I managed to get it removed." For a price. "No, it's Duke. I don't know how it happened, but the woman he used to travel with," that he was currently traveling with, "...managed to get a second one on him. I just...wasn't sure if there was a way to bypass the fail-safe."

She was hoping there was a way she could remove it without killing him, or herself, in the process.

Ateles mulled the thought over a bit whilst taking a pipe from his pack. He stuck it in his mouth, but didn't pack it. Not just yet. "I know slaves who made a contract with a greater spirit, but sometimes the price wasn't all that worth it. Something that ties in with the collars that makes the tie absolute is a specific emotional attachment. It doesn't have to be love, or even any other kind of fondness, but any kind of strong feeling for the opposite person. If he can get rid of that, then he'll be on his way to getting rid of it."

Hatred.

If there was one thing Duke knew, it was how to be angry, and not just angry, but hateful. He could cling to that feeling and let it fester until it made him a diferent person on the inside. She'd watched it, and watched how different feelings had made him a different person towards her.

Perhaps not love, but definitely friendship. There was no doubt in her mind that he cared for her well-being, probably in a way he'd never cared for another person in his life. Not since meeting Luli, anyway.

"I see." she said, her eyes dark with contemplation. She glanced to Ateles. "It's...difficult, but your answer's probably the only one that has made any sense." How long had it been? Years?

"Just can't stand the thought of him being subject to her. Not again. At the very least, I know now what it is that she really wants."

Ateles nodded, but gave a moment of contemplation.

"You think there's a part of him that likes it?" he asked her.

Her brow knit contemplatively. Her first impulse was to rebel, to immediately deny it, but as she thought more on it, she couldn't help but wonder.

"I think...I think it's all he's known. Since coming to maturity, what he was familiar with was that relationship with her...so, perhaps...not like it in the sense of taking joy from it...just that he knows what to do, how to behave. He could identify himself that way, in relation to her."

She bit her lower lip thoughtfully. "Maybe he doesn't know how to be his own person. Not really."

"Hmm. Are you sure it's something he actually wants to end?" He leaned back, hand coming to his chin. "He's taken so much time just to get as far away as possible." His eyes aimed at the sky. "And when I first met him...there was something strange about the way he carried himself. Not twitchy, but...hungry for something. He was restless. I don't think I saw him sleep the whole time."

"I'd like to think so." she said softly, this time sounding unsure. She shrugged, trying to play it off as if it were nothing. "It's hard to say. It's rare that I get a decent conversation out of him, and he's been gone for so long..."

Her eyes were distant as she stared out over the still water. "I wish I knew what he was thinking, half the time."

The other half, not so much.

"I've always thought that he was a little odd. He's thought things I'm sure I'd never want to inquire about. Not that he'd give me the answer." He leaned his head so far back that he was staring at the ferryman. "What do you see in him?"

Her eyes narrowed slightly. "It's difficult to explain. At first there wasn't much of anything except irritation. He used me to get away from her, and I felt compelled to help because, well...I had nothing and no one. I was looking for my mother at the time, and traveling with him became the only option." She thought about the collar, the poison, things Duke had later apologized for.

"But there was something about him, something in me that drove me to want to know him better, to see beyond thick skin and his guarded eyes. We went through so much, and over time I learned that we weren't as different as I'd thought we were. He understood what I'd been through, in a way no one else could."

She glanced to Ateles. "I don't even know if it's love so much as fondness, or appreciation. I'd die for him, even though I'm certain he'd hate me for it."

This time, instead of asking more difficult questions, Ateles smiled. Why, she was so much like her.

"I guess there isn't much more I can say, then." the assassin told her. He adjusted his position, laid his head down, and drifted off to sleep.

Taylor stayed awake for a long while afterwards, her head swimming with thoughts she'd rather not let worry her. None of it mattered, right? Duke didn't return the feelings, so all of this was just...well, water under the bridge, a lost cause. Duke wasn't hers, so it didn't matter why he was in the collar. It didn't matter if he wanted to be that way or not.

But...was that why he didn't want her following? Not for safety's sake...but because he simply didn't want to be rescued?

Disconcerted, she lay down and forced herself to close her eyes, unable to wipe the vision of his eyes, bright with anger, fixing on hers as his lips curled into a snarl.

-------------

It had been several very long, very slow, silent hours.

There was no sound at all except for the ferryman's occasional paddle through the water. No flutter of wings. No splashes. Not even Ateles' small snores were able to pierce that maddening pressure that brought the silence down upon them. Nothing, it seemed, would be happening. Not anytime soon.

...or perhaps not anytime at all.

....

....

....

The hours crept by. One by one.

Would it stop? Would there be an end in sight?

One, two, three four.

One, two...three...four...one...two....three...

"...do you hear that?" Ateles suddenly said, his eyes flying open. He didn't move. Just spoke and listened. "It's faint, but I can hear it. Just barely. Do you? Wings. I hear wings."

It took her a moment to recognize that he was speaking to her. She followed his example, keeping unusually still as she looked towards the sky. She closed her eyes and struggled to listen.

"...yes. I do. Is it something we should be concerned about?"

"Perhaps. Birds don't have any reason to come here, now, do they?" He tried to peer through the mist, up at the sky. Shadows dodged from here to there, right out of the corner of his eyes. "Don't make any sudden moves."

She lay still, having caught sight of the shadows that he was seeing. Swallowing down her nerves, she slowly turned her head, just an inch or two, to look at Ateles. "What is it?" she breathed, her eyes flickering to the ferryman.

Apparently he was going to be of no help. None at all. He was simply standing still, trying to get them across the trecherous lake.

Ateles, very, very slowly, reached for his sword. "Get ready. I don't know what it is, but it's nothing good."

They were flying in a circle around them, now. The shadows all lined up. They were large. How large, Ateles couldn't tell, but big enough to be harmful.

Taylor glanced towards her bow, lying just to her right. The quiver was elsewhere, above her head and beyond her reach. She'd have to move quick, and under Ateles's cover if she was going to be useful at all.

"You've never seen those before? Huh. They look a little familiar."

She edged her toes into the wood, gently scooching herself, inch by inch, closer to the quiver.

"Familiar? Well...I can't quite tell. I don't know what they are. I can't see them, spirits be cursed." he muttered, his fingers sliding down the textured hilt of his Rataan. Then, before either of them knew it, before either of them could react, one of the shadows swooped down, grabbed the ferryman in its claws, and disappeared into the mist.

"Now! Now, Taylor, quick!" hollered the assassin, leaping into action. He drew his sword out with a short shick and whirled around madly, trying to find out where the next bird would swoop down.

She snatched up her bow, before reaching for the quiver and rolling to her knees. Getting one foot underneath her, she knocked an arrow to the bow, aiming at whatever she thought was suspicious, and lying in wait.

"Why the hell would they take the ferryman?" she muttered, glancing to her right and carefully aiming her bow wherever Ateles wasn't looking. The rocking of the boat disturbed the water, and she glanced curiously towards its surface, wondering...

"I don't think the boat could be smaller."

"I couldn't agree more." The boat rocked dangerously as Ateles turned around, trying to find out where the ferryman had gone. "He's the only one that can get us across." he replied. "They're trying to maroon us." He looked toward Taylor. "Are these the enemies you were talking about? That you seem to make everywhere you go?"

"At this point, I wouldn't be surprised." Taylor stumbled briefly, groaning and readjusting her footing before taking aim again. She watched the flickering in the clouds, her one eye narrowing slightly while the other remained wide open for aim.

With a soft sigh, she released an arrow high, watching it sail away, and hoping that it might hit something.

"I'm used to enemies of substance, that bleed..."

"Enemies of substance..." muttered Ateles, spinning around on the boat, none too roughly. For such a rough man, his steps were startlingly delicate. He looked down at the water, then at the boat, then gave his eyes to the sky. "We're in a very unfortunate position, Taylor."

Yeah, no kidding.

"Do you have any spells? What combats shadow? Darknes...think!" he rasped.

Taylor's brow furrowed in thought, eyes closing briefly as she wracked her brain for a solution. What fought shadows? What dispelled them? Light? But from wh-

"Fire." she breathed, her eyes finding her bow. She glanced back to Ateles.

"Brace yourself." she warned. "I'm not sure how this is going to turn out, but it's better than nothing."

Whipping out an arrow, she knocked it to the bow, drawing back hard on the string. Her knuckle rested against her cheek, eyes straining to find the shadows that streaked overhead. She saw them, hovering just out of sigh, watching and waiting.

She murmured something under her breath, a word that echoed faintly across the waters, in many voices. 'Oros'

She released the arrow, watching with wide eyes as a spiral of fire errupted from the arrow's head, splitting the mist like a knife through butter.

As soon as the fiery arrow burned through the mist, the shadows became frantic and wild. The arrow struck one of the shadows dead in its heart, and it plummeted down to the water. There was a loud, echoing spash and a sizzle. The remaining shadows seemed to dissolve into the mist after the loss of their brethren. Ateles stood still in the center of the boat, cautiously keeping a lookout, listening intently just in case they decided to come back...

And when he was sure that they would not, he brought his gaze down onto the water, toward where the bird had fallen. "We need to get over there." he told her.

"If you want to grab that pole," she jutted her chin towards the fallen pole that the ferryman had left behind. "You can push us along that way and I'll keep us covered." Her eyes never left the sky, another arrow knocked to the bow as she watched and waited for an attack that was almost certain to come.

Ateles looked down, spying the pole that had fallen whent he ferryman had been snatched up. He made sure to grab the dry end, and stray away from any water that splashed onto the boat. Even if a small drop got onto his skin...it wouldn't be lethal, but it wouldn't be pleasant.

He dipped the pole into the water, and began to move the boat over to the spot where they had seen the shadow fall. The mist curled around them, allowing them clear view of the water below the boat, but nothing above. What they came upon had Ateles frowning in digust.

"Spirits Staretel and Liina..." muttered the assassin, "...those weren't shadows we were fighting."

In front of them lay the corpse of a giant bird, the flaming arrow stuck in its throat. It had fallen upon a rock, its wings, twenty feet from tip to tip, sprawled out to either side, trailing into the water. Where the water and the wings touched, Shyshallow turned onyx.

"Ink magic. Who exactly did you piss off, Taylor?"

Taylor glanced to the monster, her attention faltering as she took in the whole of it. Eyes wide, her brow furrowed, she stepped delicately towards the edge of the boat, staring at the creature in wonder.

Inside her chest, she could feel something stir, some kind of warmth that flared, before clenching tight on her ribcage. It startled her, causing her to drop stance and clutch at her chest.

She grimaced, shaking her head for a moment to clear it, before looking to Ateles.

"I think there's something I have that...that they want."

That blue light that Duke had given to her...

Ateles looked up, staring at the ranger. "What's that?" he asked her, reaching out the pole to prod the animal. In a flurry of inky feathers, it spasmed, then dissolved entirely into ink. "...huh."

"I wish I knew." she rubbed at her neck, shaking her head before looking skyward. "Where the hell are we going to find the ferryman?"

He scratched his chin, then began to push away from the ink bird. "I don't know," he replied gravely, "But it'd be best to just get away from all this black water. Ink magic is bad luck. It's got strange properties to it- stranger than other magic. Even if someone isn't using it...it's got a will of its own." He had them sailing away until the waters became clear again, and all noise once again subsided.

She relaxed a little, watching Ateles as he began to push them along. The look in her eye was almost apologetic.

"I wish I could give you the fine-print about helping me." she told him, sinking to a seated position. "But I'm afraid I don't even know what the rules to this game are. If it was as easy as 'someone wants me dead', then the objective would be clearer, but..." she shrugged, shaking her head.

"It isn't, and it's driving me mad trying to figure out what exactly is going on. The only thing I know is that we're going to find more answers on the other side of this damned lake."

Ateles steered them as best he could, but without the ferryman, they were completely lost. A small fear was slowly easing its way into Ateles' gut. It was incredibly easy to become lost in Shyshallow. Very, very few knew how to navigate it. Ateles was not one of those few.

"Not to put a dampener on things," he told Taylor, "But we might not be able to get on the other side for a very long time...if at all."

"Huh."

She took her bow, stringing an arrow and loosing it over Ateles' head. The fire errupted shortly thereafter, burning away the mist. It was an attempt to try to clear a path so that they might see what's going on.

Of course, she didn't know that it would work, but it felt better than sitting in the boat and panicking. What she didn't expect was for the arrow to hit something ahead, and create a gigantic torch out of a standing tree. Ateles stared.

"Good job," he told her, moving the boat towards the tree. "You either have dumb luck or someone's really looking out for us..." As they approached it, the boat hit something. Sand. A bank. Ateles perked a brow and leaned over to inspect it more. He nodded. "Looks like we've found ourself an island."

Taylor grimaced, staring at the massive, burning tree. "That was a bit more dramatic than I expected it to be..."

But, the idea of getting out of the boat was sorely tempting. She stepped closer to Ateles, looking past him, and the bank, to the small forested island. "How big is it, do you think?"

With the mist, it was difficult to tell.

"I don't know, but there aren't many islands in Shyshallow. If we're lucky...or if I'm right..." He reached out a foot to step on the sandy bank, hopping away from the water's edge, "Then this should be Maynei Island, which is quite huge. Populated by a tribal people." He took the head of the boat and drew it half onto the shore. "Lets hope that I'm right."

Taylor hopped out of the boat, before grabbing onto the edge and helping Ateles pull it up the rest of the way. Afterwards, she reached to grab a few of the satchels, swinging them up onto her shoulders before hauling them further up the shore.

"Well, whoever's on this island is going to know we're here." She looked again to the tree, which burned with an eerie intensity. Something naggled at her, a sneaking suspicion that the fire she used wasn't like normal fire at all...

"Maybe that'll let them know we aren't ones to be messed with..."

"Or maybe you've caused us to attract some unnecessary attention." Ateles replied, one hand on the hilt of his sword as he further ventured onto the island. It was covered with wiry, dry bushes with no leaves that towered over their heads. The foliage were all a tangled mess of black and white branches. It made sense why Taylor's arrow had burned at the tree so easily. But there was something odd about the growth of the dry twig forest. They made a sort of...arch, and there was a definite path that lead deeper into the island.

"Perhaps we should venture further. What do you think?" Ateles asked.

She took a deep breath.

"I think our only other option is to sit around and wait for the ink magic to find us again." she replied, glancing to meet his eyes. She took one of the satchels with her, making sure her bow and quiver were within easy reach. She looked to the boat, wondering if the ferryman might find it before they returned, then turned to the path.

On unusually quiet feet, she ventured ahead, cautiously taking in her surroundings the way only a Ranger could.

Ateles traveled after her, his steps as light as her own. He glanced behind him every now and again to make sure nothing else was bringing up the rear. He did not like Shyshallow. It was filled with too many surprises and too many unknowns. Even the crowded courts of the palace didn't make him so jumpy.

They would walk for another good ten minutes through the brambles, occasionally having to duck and weave where pointy branches grew into the path. Eventually, Ateles placed a hand on Taylor's shoulder to just stop.

"I'm going to go mad if this goes on for much longer." he told her, closing his eyes. "It feels like it's just not going to end."

"I'm glad I'm not the only one." Taylor replied, feeling compelled to whisper. "Should we go back?" she wondered, reaching up to give his hand a brief squeeze before stepping out from his grip and taking a few steps ahead.

She wondered why the branches were so dry. Everything seemed dead, and with so much water surrounding this place, it hardly seemed likely that the island couldn't survive.

"What would we go back to?" he asked her, running his fingers through his hair. "There's got to be some sense to this. Maybe if w-" He paused, whipping around. "...did you hear that?" he said, whipping around again. He began to sprint down the path, a thorn catching his shirt and dragging him back.

It went off again.

It was almost a scream, but low and raspy. It wasn't human at all, but...perhaps it was a bird. "Again?" The flutter of wings. Not the big, heavy wingbeats of the ink birds, but a distressed flap.

"Easy," she nearly shouted, jogging after him and gripping his shirt as well as the thorned branch to unhook it. The thorn caught her, drawing blood, but she ignored the sting and looked forward down the path.

"Come on," she encouraged, jogging rather than sprinting, ducking low to avoid more thorns and glancing left and right in search of whatever was crying out to them. Part of her wondered why they didn't go the opposite way, but Ateles was right. There really wasn't anything back there except the bank.

Hearing the animal cry again, she skittered to a stop, and turned right, trying to peer into the mist. "I think its this way..."

Ateles followed after her until the brambles gave way to a small clearing. It went off into several other paths, their destinations unknwon. But there was one thing that caught their eye.

There was a bird, a pure white bird, stuck in a mess of brush and thorn. It flapped frantically, crying out its grey beak into the air. Blood dotted its white feathers from the gash in its talons.

"...a real bird." mused Ateles, right in time for his stomach to complain. "Speaking of which...I really haven't eaten anything in the last few hours."

"Wait, wait," Taylor moved past Ateles, jogging towards the injured animal before reaching to help release it. Her own arms were protected from the white sleeves of her outfit, but that didn't stop her hands from getting caught. By the time she actually managed to free the bird's wings, her skin was scratched all over, and bleeding. She got a hand around its neck, above the shoulders, and grasped its feet before pulling it free.

"Shh," she cooed, looking down into the creature's strange red eye. How curious. "Do you often see animals like this around here?" she asked the other.

"I haven't," he told Taylor, "But I don't come around here often." He looked at the animal, which curled its legs in towards itself, and stared at Taylor, and only Taylor. It seemed to incline its head at her.

The woman thinned her lips, staring at the bird before glancing to Ateles. "I get the sense that it understands." she said, suddenly feeling very strange, holding the possibly-sentient bird the way that she was. Gingerly, she released its neck, and allowed it to adjust its footing so that she was holding it on her hand.

"Next time don't go throwing yourself into a thorn bush." she reprimanded.

The bird flapped its wings stubbornly and grasped Taylor's hand in its two claws, then began to crawl up her arm to her shoulder. There, it cawed, not quite like a crow would, but with the same raspiness. Ateles looked at the bird doubtfully. "You think it'd run away..." he told her, walking alongside her as he looked at the ocean of brambles around them.

"So...what to do now..." he mumbled.

"I've got this thing with animals." Taylor tried to explain, taking care to keep her face turned slightly away. She didn't quite trust the animal to not attempt to poke her eyeball out. She turned, planning to head back towards the path they'd originally taken. "Perhaps the ink magic dropped the ferryman around here somewhere?" she suggested. "I mean, it's either continue to explore, or go back to the boat."

She wondered how difficult it would be for her to shoot with the bird sitting on her shoulder. Regardless, she walked with the intent to continue along down the path.

"If it dropped him, you think he's got high chances of surviving?" Ateles pointed out, motioning to the sharp, dry branches all around them. If he had fallen on them, then he was either torn into shreds, drying, or dead. "I'm trying to be realistic. We'll probably not have the chance to find him again. Either he's birdfood or he's been claimed by Shyshallow."

The bird, from Taylor's shoulder, called hoarsely at Ateles, as if to argue, and them fluttered from Taylor's shoulder to a nearby branch, which stuck out from the rest of the brambles. It called for them again, and then began to fly down one of the many paths around them.

"He never struck me as a physical being," Taylor retorted. "Then again, if the birds could carry him away, then it would make sense."

The bird's cry startled her, and she ducked away as the bird burst into flight, alighting on a branch and crying at them once again before disappearing down one of the paths. For a moment, she stopped to watch and then, with a glance at Ateles, began to follow.

"Beats standing around here," she said in explanation as the mist swallowed her steps. Ateles glared at the bird, watching Taylor follow it down the bramble path. He grit his teeth, looked to the side in embarassment, then followed them. Reluctantly.

"...it's a friggin' bird..." he muttered. "You really think it's gonna lead us anywhere but a dead end?"

"Do you have any better ideas?" Taylor asked, her voice floating towards him through the mist. It was on all sides, and the bird was staying just ahead, enough to lead her on in the way that she should go.

"I'll keep track of where we're heading in case we get lost, don't worry."

"...mnn, alright." he mumbled, giving a shrug as he continued to follow the white bird and Taylor. The raven had landed in the middle of the path now and was walking down it as fast as its little legs could carry it.

"It's waddling." Ateles commented.

Taylor, thoroughly amused at this point, started walking side-by-side with the bird. "Indeed it is. Definitely a more graceful flier than she is a walker." The bird cawed in responce.

She continued to look on ahead. "I wonder if this means we're getting close."

"Close to what? What could it possibly be trying to show us?" asked Ateles, irate even as the bird suddenly took off into the air again. It vanished into a patch of mist ahead, and called to them from beyond.

"Who knows?" Taylor said with a shrug, deciding to jog after the bird this time. "Damn all this mist! Where the hell did it come from anyway?!"

"The water's always warmer than the air, here. Closer to Desera it clears. Well, a little." replied Ateles. As they walked further into the wall of mist, the man stopped. He lifted his hand and pointed ahead. "Look."

There was a faint glow ahead, just bright enough to take their attention. It was also tangled within the brambles- something hung by a thin black chain. Perched above it, on a branch that stuck out and was devoid of thorns, was the white bird. It bawked at them.

She paused in her steps, leaning forward and peering into the mist. "Why does that make me more nervous than the bird did?" Still, she drew close, to the point where she could see the chain...even reach for it.

So she did.

"If I die here," she told Ateles as she grasped the chain, "I wouldn't recommend eating the bird."

The bird flapped its wings, but did not leg go of the branch as it watched Taylor reach her hand into the brambles to snatch the chain. When her hand wrapped around it, the amulet's glow died completely.

Ateles sniffed. "Kinda disappointing...I thought it'd explode or something."

"How morbid." Taylor replied, pulling the chain out and holding it in her hands. Lifting a brow, she looked pointedly at the white raven. "What's this for?" she asked it, sighing as she ran her fingers over the smooth surface of the pendant.

After a moment's thought, she slipped the chain around her neck, surprised at how light it felt.

"Keep walking then? Back the way we came or further into the island?" she asked the assassin.

Before Ateles could reply, the bird fluttered from the branches, grasped the chain of the amulet in its claws, and pulled it off of Taylor's neck. The amulet flared to life again in the birds grasp, much brighter than before, piercing the mist as it flew. Ateles began to bolt for it.

"Something's really strange!" he cried back to Taylor. "If you couldnt' tell already! Follow it!"

Oh, yeah. So he was the one advocating to follow the thing, now. Taylor watched him run for a second or two before shaking her head and running after him.

"Damned bird was just using me to get to the necklace!" she shouted, catching up to him and pacing herself just behind his stride. "What exactly do you expect this is going to lead to?"

"I don't know!" said Ateles, skidding in the sand as the bird suddenly changed direction, flying down another path, "But it better be worthwhile, because it's going to get us lost in this place!"

"Not if I can help it." Taylor muttered, skidding and changing directions. What would Duke think of this? The whole chase was for the birds.

So to speak.

"Yeah, and what are you gonna do?" the assassin cried back. He looked behind him, just as the bird turned direction again. He frowned, then pulled his sword, whacking at the brambles with it and making a noticible missing chunk in the dry bushes. "There we go."

He made the turn, and just as he did, skidded again, this time to a halt. Water sloshed up on shore, and Ateles held a hand up to tell Taylor to stop. He was right at the edge of the bank, looking at the bird with the amulet.

And that bird with the amulet? Was on top of their boat.

"...well, spirits." he smirked.

She skidded to a halt just behind Ateles, staring at the boat, the bird, and the ambulate, before heaving a sigh. "Ground zero." she said with a small smile.

Glancing to Ateles, Taylor raised a questioning brow. "That amulet supposed to help us?"

It was clear that there was something she was missing.

The bird lifted the amulet in its talon and jingled it, calling after them in that hoarse voice. "I guess so." said Ateles, hopping into the boat. He picked up the pole, and looked towards Taylor. "Coming?"

She climbed in after him, for once welcoming the rickety old boat. Anything was better than the maze that island had turned into. She hoped, more than anything, that she might see some sunlight soon.

"I was born here, yet I can't help but feel more and more like an alien on my own planet." she muttered to him, checking to make sure she had everything she'd brought with her.

"Your own planet?" Ateles asked quizzically. "Where else would you be from?" He shook his head. "I think this lake is getting to you, but that's alright. It's getting to me, too." He pushed off of shore, and just as they floated out into Shyshallow's waters again, the bird took off, the amulet dangling, clearing a path for them.

Ateles stared, but not for long. He was sharp, and caught onto what was happening fairly quickly. "Smart spiritdamned bird..."

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"...finally. Taylor, we're here!" called the assassin in his rough, dark voice. He turned around to face the shore, where he saw Desera's white sands, and the dock's rotten pier. "...five hours later...and we're finally getting out of this damn lake..." he then muttered sourly, pushing the boat after the bird, toward the dock.

She clambered out after him as soon as the boat came close enough to port. Oddly enough, her legs felt like jelly beneath her, and it took a moment for her to regain her footing before she was standing tall again, looking out towards the sands with a furrow to her brow. White sands. It was certainly bright.

But she'd made it. She was that much closer to getting to where she needed to be.

"We've crossed a lake of poisoned water, and now we're meant to cross an ocean of sand?" she asked him. "Are there people close by?"

"Well, see how it's still a little cold? We're in the small desert before the mountains." He pointed to the distance with a long, bony finger, where large mountains sat. The ocean of sand was pretty flat, but the mountains were distant. "Beyond those, we'll find a little village that'll carry us anywhere we need a lot faster than on fo-"

"There was a creak to his side, and the flap of wings. Ateles quickly turned, looking for the white bird, which was sitting at the entrance of the shack that sat at the side of the water. But there were still wings beating. Heavy.

"...I hope that's not what I think it is." the assassin groaned.

Taylor was staring skyward, looking around her in an effort to locate the source of the wing-beats. Pursing her lips, she pulled out her bow and knocked an arrow to the string. "Should we get in the shack?" she asked him, her brow furrowing. "Get out of sight?"

Damn those ink monsters. She was beginning to wish she had a better handle on what was going on. Ateles drew his sword and spun it once in his hand. "Maybe. That bird hasn't done us any wrong yet."

He began to walk toward the shack, and just before he could make it, from the mist, the great black ink beast descended and tried to swoop the assassin up in its claws.

"Ateles get down!" Taylor hollared, taking aim and firing an arrow for the bird's heart. Like before, and without Taylor's knowledge, the tip of the arrow burst into flame, creating a spiral of fire that trailed behind it like a comet's tail.

Just as quickly, she reloaded a second arrow and fired again.

"Spirits be damned," she hissed, advancing up the dock and following the animal with her eye and her weapon.

Ateles had only just been able to duck before the arrow was released, hitting the bird right in the chest. It screeched, then beat its massive black wings again, trying to lift into the air before the second arrow hit its leg. The ligament melted onto the ground, creating a black pool in the sand.

The assassin, before Taylor had been able to realize it, had climbed the little shack, and charged off of the edge, jumping higher than a human should have been able to handle, into the air. He swung his sword into the burning beast, right into a wing. With a scream that rang with despair, the ink creature flew off into the mist, angling towards the water.

Ateles landed on his feet, looking toward Taylor with a great big grin. "About time I get some action. Good shooting. Where'd you learn?"

"Taught myself." she replied. "Unfortunately I learned at a very early age the easiest way to kill a man." She glanced from him to the top of the shack.

"Were you born able to jump like a primate? Or did they teach you that learning to become an assassin..."

"I'm an avrille. Not just that, but I'm the ape. Or rather...the lemur. Which is the best primate of them all." He gave her a grin before a loud splash could be heard in the distance. His head whipped around to face it, but he couldn't see a thing. The white bird fluttered to Taylor's shoulder, the amulet bouncing against her collarbone.

"Looks like we're good for now," he said, walking toward Taylor with that same grin. Funnily enough, as he neared her, the man suddenly burst into a run, a frown on his face as he rose his sword. It looked like...an attack.

"...Taylor. Taylor, move! Behind you!"

Oh great...

Blind shots were not her forte, but that didn't mean she wouldn't give it everything she had. Quick as a blink, she pivotted on her heel, her right hand flying back to pluck an arrow from the quiver so she could quickly knock it to the string. All in the same motion, she pulled and released, the arrow flying through the ink bird's wide-open gullet.

After that, she merely sidestepped the carcass as it went crashing into the lake beside her.

A sigh. Then, "You scared the hell out of me running with that damned blade!"

She looked over her shoulder at him, but her lip twitched, hinting at her feigned annoyance.

"Thanks for warning me though."

"Of course. And in any case, I wouldn't blame you. If a famed, skilled, dashingly handsome assassin is running at you with a sword, you're allowed to panic. For more than one reason." A grin, and the man looked down at the bird in the water.

"You've got some pretty good reflexes. You're built for survival." he told her, sheathing his sword. He looked around for anything else, and seeing that all had become calm for now, walked towards the shack. "Let's see what our white feathered friend wanted us to see in here-"

Taylor was wont to lower her bow, but she did anyway, keeping a sharp ear out in case something else decided to attack her from behind. She came up behind Ateles, stepping around to the side so they could peer into the shack together.

"Doesn't smell much better than the last one we saw." she noted, her nose wrinkling slightly. Ateles nodded in agreement before suddenly stepping back, hand coming over his face.

"...it smells worse." he hissed, just as a strange shuffling came to his ears. Then...a squelch. He further explored the shack into the next room before scoffing. His sword sang through the air, and a squak rang out before the sound of liquid pouring onto a wooden floor followed.

"Well, I found our ferryman." Ateles said. "And he'd dead, half-eaten, and rotting. Didn't know he was part octopus. Makes a lot of sense."

"Oh, ugh." She followed after him tentatively, glancing through the first room before peeking into the second room where the ferryman had inevitably passed. "Good thing we didn't let those ink birds grab us." she said, looking a bit peeved. How the hell were they supposed to make it through Shyshallow on the return trip?

If there was a return trip.

"Come on, probably best that we start walking. Put as much distance between us and that damnable lake."

With an audible shink, the Rataan blade that Ateles carried was sheathed. "Good idea," he replied to her, looking the bird on her shoulder in the eye. "So, are you going to show us the way again?"

The bird lifted up its head to scoff. "I guess not." the assassin replied. He gestured to the door. "Ladies first."

And out fluttered the bird. Ateles looked at Taylor. "Well, I did mean you..."

Her lip twitched, and she reached out to pat him on the back. "Come on then."

She disappeared out of the shack, pleased to be able to breathe the fresh air again. Clearing her lungs of the stink of the dead ferryman, she rolled her shoulders and began a steady march through the sand towards the mountains that marked their finishing point. If it was anything like Shyshallow, it would be days before they reached the foothills.

Her brow knit. Who knows how much longer, Duke. At least I'm making progress...

To what end? Well, that had yet to be seen.

--------------------------------------

Oh...this place again.

Though her health was better than the last time they'd met, she couldn't help the sense of anxiety she got. She knew how this would end. They would speak until one or both of them were crudely ripped away to the land of the living, and she hated it, each and every time.

She dusted away the fog that clung to her hands, and looked ahead.

"Duke?"

"Here."

The man that answered her sat on a flat rock, elbows on his knees, staring straight ahead. He was in a rather sober mood, though that wasn't surprising in the least. He blinked his eyes once, and rubbed at the skin, where dead flakes fell. He turned his head, staring at her with those ocean blue eyes.

He could see again.

"What's happening?" he asked her.

She turned around to face him, slowly walking over on silent steps and sitting down on the ground next to the rock. She met his eyes, her expression relaxed.

"We made it across Shyshallow." she said quietly. "Ateles and I. But it wasn't without its challenges..." Faltering, she looked ahead, pulling her knees up and wrapping her arms around her knees. "We encountered ink magic. It killed the ferryman and nearly got us too." A soft sigh.

"But Desera's a few day's journey ahead. What about you?"

His eyes narrowed. "Ink magic?" he questioned. Duke looked into the mist, then back at Taylor. "Who's after you using ink magic?" came his second question, slightly more irritable. Or was that worry?

"Get away from it. Don't make a scene," he told her quickly. He shook his head. "Always getting into trouble..."

She rolled her jaw, doing her best not to smile. "Who would want to use Ink magic? Why?" She reached over and nudged the side of his knee.

"Don't keep secrets. We could use all the help we can get right now."

Concerning. She had sensed the change in tone.

"Not anyone uses ink magic," replied Duke. "Not everyone can control it. Only a small group of magic weavers can manage such a feat." he informed the ranger. "I don't know who they are. Luli speaks about them. She..." He paused for a moment, and it took him a while to speak again.

"...I think she's afraid of them."

Her expression fell. It was difficult to imagine Luli being afraid of anything. "Ateles thinks I have something they want." she said, bringing her palm up to rest against her chest.

"You remember the vial you gave me." she said, her brow knitting. "What was that? The small blue light..."

He didn't let her finish her second question. "Ateles?" he piped up. The man stood up suddenly. "You're traveling with...the assassin?"

Starlted, she sat where she was and stared up at him for a second before standing too. "I thought I already mentioned that, Duke. He saved my life."

"...he's an asshole."

Duke stared at her dolefully. "That's why I left him behind. I thought he'd die."

"Think so? He's remarkably good at surviving, and he's been kind enough to me." she replied. "But don't worry yourself. I'll make sure it's just me when we finally see each other again."

If.

Biting the inside of her cheek, she forced a small smile.

"Tell me about the light?"

He looked away, threw a hand up, seemingly in frustration, and sat back down onto the rock. There was a sneer on his face as his eyes searched the ground. "Something Luli wants." he said at last. "Something she's trying to get. I gave it to you, so she can't find it."

She watched him, tilting her head to one side as she gazed at the ground.

"I'll make sure she won't then." she said quietly. "And in the meantime, maybe I can figure out who is sending the ink magic after us."

"Don't. Just try to get away from it." replied Duke, clasping his hands together. "What's Ateles been doing?" His eyes floated up to her. "Has..." He trailed off. He was about to speak without first thinking about it. He seemed slightly taken aback at his own actions.

"He's a womanizer." he finally said.

"I think I can handle it." Taylor replied with a smile. "He's charming, at least, he thinks he is, but it's behavior I'm used to." She glanced to his neck, where the collar rested, and shifted back to meet his eyes.

"What happens after Desera? Do I keep wandering? Am I to come find you?" Should she just leave and to back to Alsund?

She didn't know, and it was driving her crazy.

"I am not sure," he replied. "I'm uneasy thinking of what lies ahead." Because he did not know exactly what would lie ahead. He brought those sky blues to her face and stared for a very long time through his bangs. "When you don't know where to go, a path will be chosen for you, anyway."

He...feared those words. There was a sinking feeling in his gut.

Her lips pressed into a thin line. "We'll figure something out. We've always operated best with spur-of-the-moment decisions." she said, before glancing away. She put her head into her hands, massaging her temples. Her hair was getting longer, now. It fell past her shoulders and got into her eyes.

"There's a lot of things that should have happened to us that didn't. We'll take our future into our own hands."

"And what shall we do with it?" he asked then. What a question it was, even for himself. For as long as he could remember, there were two things only that ever formed his future.

Luli, and the thought of Luli's death.

But there was a new player in all of this now. Taylor. And she had caused many more possibilities to form. There was no plan anymore. There was horizons that he could not see the direction of. Did it scare him?

Well, it was certainly bewildering.

"Whatever we want to." she replied. "I'll go where you go, so long as you'll have me, and if whatever future you want doesn't include me, well," Her smile was a little sad, but it was still a smile.

"I'll make sure you're a free man before we go our separate ways."

He did not speak to her after that. His eyes, gazing into the distance, were thoughtful, but cold.

The mist came over them, enveloped them, and soon, the dream was over once more.

She woke not long after, staring at the predawn sky. It wasn't unusual that she felt confused after encountering Duke, but today she felt a bit more clear-headed about what she was supposed to do.

She considered leaving, going back to Alsund once she figured out what was going on here. She wanted to take Duke with her, but perhaps they needed time to figure out what was going on, and their next plan of action, before she needed to devise a way to somehow get him away from Luli.

If she could, that damned collar.

Standing, she stretched her arms high over her head, feeling the vertebrae crack before she let her arms hang loose and proceeded to dust sand off of her tunic and slacks. Glancing around, she peered through the gloom in search of Ateles.

He's a womanizer.

She snorted at the memory, unable to help the smile as she walked on soft steps towards where she thought the assassin might be. But...there wasn't much around. A few sand dunes, the shack behind them. A few wind carved boulders up ahead. The assassin was nowhere to be found, however, the blue, decorative cloak he had been wearing trailed atop a dune, dancing with the wind.

Blowing out a sigh through pursed lips, Taylor turned to grab up her bag, and her weapons, before slinging them over her shoulder and trailing through the sand to retrieve the cloak. Sand, sand and more sand. Like Shyshallow, but dry.

"Ateles?" she called, her voice caught up in the wind. Shaking her head, she grasped the cloak and pulled it free, tossing that over her shoulder too. Where the hell was he?

"Ateles!"

As the woman moved up the high dune, she would get a good look at the rest of the desert. And before she got to look down from the massive dune-

"Duck. Duck! DUUCK!"

A wall would fly up in front of her, its shadow cast long over the desert. The structure flew over her head and landed on the other side of the dune. It floated down the sand as though it were water. It was...a boat, with several large sails, like the wings of a dragon, carrying it.

And, guiding it, sitting right atop it with a little grin on his face, was Ateles. He looked up to her like a child with a new toy. "Look what I found!"

"Found?!" she shouted, scrambling to get back on her feet. The sudden boat in her face had left her scrambling backwards, tripping and rolling down the dune and sending her bag and quiver scattering. Dusting off sand, she slipped towards the other supplies, collecting them into her arms before finally looking up and getting a good look at what Ateles had acquired.

Needless to say, she was impressed.

"She's beautiful." she called up to him, picking up the pace so she could walk alongside. "Now come off that Captain's seat and help me get our stuff inside. And quit smirking, it's creepy."

But she was grinning too. The sleek build of the vessel reminded her of fishing boats she'd seen back on Alsund. She'd never sailed on one, but she had always dreamed of it. The ocean was lovely and frightening, but it was an adventure all the same.

"Creepy? You want creepy?" Ateles' expression turned from a smirk to a smoulder. He rose a brow.

"You look like you need to relieve yourself." Taylor replied, her expression flat. She held up the packages.

"Help me."

Ateles reached up onto a mast and pulled a lever. Several mechanisms could be heard rolling and screeching inside as the sails all flattened to the mast and folded inside of it, preventing the wind from taking the structure away. There were two more levers he pulled to do the same, and one last to cause several square blocks of wood on the side of the boat to lean the boat on its side. The assassin jumped down, then moved toward Taylor, arms open to take the load.

"Yes, princess. Anything for the princess." He bowed to her deeply. Sarcastically.

She handed over a couple of things, before tossing his cloak over his head, and moving with her own load to climb into the boat. "Where did you find this thing anyway?" she asked, making her way over to what she assumed was the stern of the craft. "It was just...lying in the middle of the desert?"

She found that hard to believe. Surely someone would come around to claim it.

"Pretty much. Partly dug into the sand. I couldn't find myself sleeping- not like a rockhead like you." He smirked. "So I ventured out and found this thing." He climbed the boat in three wide steps, placing the supplies underneath a small compartment underneath a removable plank of wood in the middle of the vessel. "It's pretty neat. Must have been left over from a nomad tribe or something!"

"It is." she admitted, ignoring the jibe about her sleeping habits. Not like she could help it. "Think you could show me how to steer one of these things?" she grinned at him.

Yeah, that was an accident waiting to happen.

"That wouldn't be a bad idea. If something happens to me, then you'd be left stranded." said Ateles. He looked around briefly, searching for something. "Hey," he said to Taylor, "What happened to that bird? The white one?"

"Beats me." Taylor said with a small frown. She'd never been good with keeping pets. "That bird and the amulet were strange. I thought I'd get used to it, as long as I've been here, but things just continue to surprise me."

Something landed on her shoulder just then. Ateles foulded his arms, unsurprised. "Well, looks like we're not shakin' it off that easy..." he mumbled. The bird on Taylor's shoulder fussed at him, then crawled down the ranger's side to drop the amulet into her pocket.

Taylor's eyes widened, and she turned towards the raven with a quirk to her brow. "And where have you been all this time?" she questioned. The bird merely ruffled its feathers and settled comfortably against her shoulder. She considered reaching for the amulet in her pocket, but figured the bird might snatch it out of her hand.

"Alright then. I'm feeling more like a pirate every minute." she mused with a small smile. Glancing to Ateles, she merely shrugged.

"To Desera?"

"Pirate!?" Ateles' fell backwards in laughter, feet flying up in the air. He flipped back onto his feet with a loud thump. "No! This isn't anything like being a pirate! This is sand sailing. It's like an ocean, sure, and yeah, it's a boat, but this is the ocean of the nomads." He kicked the side of the main mast, and the mechanism inside of it released the sails, which snapped taught, full in view.

"My people. I'm home!" he cried, just as the boat began to sail across the dunes. It was slow at first, but quickly picked up pace as Ateles reached for a long, hollow piece of wood that jutted from the stern and turned it, which steered the sails in the right direction. There were four smaller knobs upon this device, which Ateles would occasionally turn when the wind picked up or died down a bit more.

Taylor felt a thrill run through her, her smile widening as she moved forward towards the stern of the boat. She wanted to sit up there, to watch as the sand flew by beneath them. Grasping one of the tethering ropes that held the sails wide open, she leaned against the rail, looking to the mountains ahead. When was the last time she'd seen mountains? It had to have been a year, at least.

The ocean of the nomads.

Something about this place stirred her. She bet it was the likelihood that she was going to get answers soon. She didn't even know what questions to ask...but she sincerely hoped this trip would bring a lot of things to light. They sailed up a dune, picking up speed even still, and, with a cackle from Ateles, they went flying up into the sky, soaring for a few terrifying moments before landing onto an opposite dune.

"This is the life! Forget Shyshallow!" he cried out in a whoop of joy.

"Gladly!" Taylor was clinging to the rail for her very life, but she was having an incredible time. Airborne. They were flying!

She seemed to acclimate pretty quickly, gaining her 'sea legs' so to speak in just a matter of an hour or so. The raven on her shoulder probably wasn't too terribly happy, but she wasn't in a position to care much about what the bird wanted. She was content to just watch, even occasionally leaning out over the stern to give herself the illusion that she was flying. It was amazing.

They were leaving Shyshallow behind. They left the cold behind. The royalty. The castles. Back with the thieves and the nomads. The deserts and the heat. The raw adventure. They neared the mountains quickly, soaring occasionally over the dunes. The raven fluttered its wings with every jump, clinging to Taylor's shoulder with a death grip.

"So, what are you hoping to find here?" Ateles asked Taylor. "In Desera?"

"Answers." she replied, hanging back near where he was steering the vessel. "I've come to accept that there are forces at work here that I won't ever understand. My inclination has been to come here. I'm supposed to find someone who is going to help me."

She gave him a wry smile. "I'm acting out on blind faith here. It's amazing I've gone this far without going crazy."

"You think you haven't gone crazy?" replied Ateles with a smirk, right as they went soaring over a particularly large dune. "Think about it. Look at what you've done! Look where you've even dared to travel!"

"Aaaaaaaaiii might be a little crazy." Taylor said, clinging to the rail as she bent her knees in anticipation of impact. "I mean, I've done a lot of stupid things in the past, but all for a purpose. I guess the kind of crazy I'm talking about is the kind that tends to be more destructive than beneficial." She looked towards him with wide eyes.

"But hey, you're crazy too. So don't sit there and try to make it out like I'm the one with all the issues." She grinned.

"So why are you helping me, to this extent? I'm curious."

"Well," he began, turning the sails to avoid a bed of very sharp rocks protruding from the sand. A fond smile came upon his face. "You remind me of someone, just a bit, that I once knew. Brash. You've also got something you want to do; something you won't be abandoning." His eyes stared ahead. "You're strong, though normally I wouldn't admit it. You've been through quite a lot, haven't you?"

"Depends on what you mean by a lot." Taylor replied, her voice unusually soft. She was leaning against the platform that supported helm, watching Ateles' face, the look of concentration written into the creases of his brow.

"My life hasn't been easy, if that's what you mean. I used to have scars that was more testament to that, but a witch inadvertently stripped me of them." She waved a hand in the air flippantly, looking tired, all of a sudden.

"If I wanted to be honest with myself, though, I'm not sure I'd change anything."

"It's made you who you are now, hasn't it?"

"Crazy and all." Taylor replied with a small laugh.

"Crazy and more. Where would you be if not for that?" he said, weaving to the right. More rocks. Hmm. Ateles frowned at that.

"Hold on tight. I don't think our ride is going to go smoothly for long."

She moved to stand at his side, spacing her legs and bending her knees for better balance and shock absorption. With her hands carefully placed to catch her if she happened to lose her footing, she looked on ahead towards the rocks that jutted out of the sand.

"We'll be fine." she told him, and told herself. She couldn't help the spike of anxiety that drilled through her chest. Looking up at the Raven, she perked a brow.

"You could just fly, you know..."

The bird merely held on for dear life, looking disgruntled.

"Hmm." he mused, watching the rocks pass by them. He found a nice dune overhead, which he steered toward. "If I get to that one, right there, then we'll get over the bulk of them," he told her. "Do we have any water, just askin'? I mean, we're trecking over a desert. We'll find some when we get to the mountains, but when-" He waited for the boat to take the ramp, and as it soared again, and he was about to speak, his open mouth turned into a gape.

Something jumped over the sandsailer, blocking out the sun with an ear-splitting roar. Large plate scales adorned the back of the animal, and its mouth...oh, it's mouth...sectored into five parts, with rows, and rows of deadly little teeth.

As they landed, Ateles ran to the back of the sandsailer. "We've got a wyrm!" he cried.

"Woah!"

Taylor had to sheild her eyes from the sand that fell down in a fine shower as the monster soared over their heads. She ran with Ateles to the back, staring towards the rippling monster as a smile broke out over her face.

"Pull up alongside it!" she shouted at him, turning and running for her bow and quiver. Grabbing up a length of rope from one of the satchels, she tied it to the end of the arrow, leaving the extra length loose before knocking the arrow to the bow.

Ateles stared after her, stunned. "You're crazy! You actually are legitimately crazy!" he called, just before jumping back to the helm.

As the ship drew closer, she let the arrow fly, smiling as it burrowed deep through the scales that lined the animal's body. She gave a firm hard tug, drawing it closer even as its echoing roar made the sand rumble.

Then, when she figured she was safe to jump the distance...she did just that.

She jumped off the damned boat, and onto the damned wyrm.

The assassin made sure not to sail too far away as Taylor went out of her mind and began to ride the beast. The bird had fluttered away from her and was now sitting atop the mast, with the amulet in its claws.

The wyrm struggled with the woman on its back, and it knew- it knew!- she was there. It began to dive under, trying to get her to release it from her grasp.

Gritting her teeth, and regaining her balance, she pulled back on the rope, forcing the monster to keep its head up.

"No you don't, you mean old bastard." she muttered, lowering into a crouch, one hand on the rope while the other gently flattened against the monster's back. She looked over to Ateles.

"You can keep the boat!"

"And you can keep the wyrm!" Ateles replied. The beasts were majestic, in their own way, but having lived in the deserts gave Ateles an aversion to the beasts. They had decimated so many homes in the past.

The wyrm lifted over the sands again with an indignant cry.

Taylor couldn't help but smile, emitting a cry that harmonized with the roar of the beast beneath her. She rose to stand, feeling the pulsations of the animal beneath her, and relishing the feel of power and control that came along with it.

She rode like that for a short time, and was just about to debate waving Ateles back so she could jump ship, when the unthinkable happened.

Something blotted out the sun, and when she looked up, she could only watch as the second wyrm, easily twice the size of the one she road, slammed its open mouth into a segment just behind where she stood.

Taylor was thrown, and she hit the sand hard enough to send stars across her vision while the monsters began to thrash.

"Taylor!" cried Ateles, turning the boat around. He ran to the side, locking the controls as he reached an arm out to try and catch Taylor. He would miss by an inch. "Taylor!" he screamed again, trying to turn the boat away from the thrashing creatures.

She rolled with the impact, finding herself partially buried in sand by the time she'd rolled to a stop. Grimacing, she pushed herself to her hands and knees, glancing backwards just in time to throw herself sideways as the larger wyrm's tail smashed down into the sand where she had been lying.

White-faced, she got on her feet and started to run. The sickening sounds of the large wyrm breaking open the shell and carcass of the smaller one rang out across the desert, and she could feel the trembling in the ground.

That was when the sand became like liquid beneath her feet, and she tripped, falling flat on her face just as another wyrm surfaced, carrying her with it on its back before she lost balance and rolled, hitting the ground with enough force to knock the breath from her lungs. On the other side, another wyrm appeared.

It was turning into a frenzy.

"Ateles I need a line!" she shouted, ducking as another tail came slamming down. They were everywhere, and she was smack dab in the middle of it.

"Trying!" he called to her, weaving between the bodies of the wyrm with the boar as he tried to doubletask. He looked for rope, or...something as the boat sailed towards Taylor again. One of the wyrms dove behind the boat, causing it to rush forward. With a surprised yelp, Ateles was thrown to the front of the boat.

This wasn't looking good for either of them.

In the distance, it looked like things were finally beginning to clear up. She ran for the sand that didn't seem to be dug up by wyrm, unaware that there was a smaller monster on the prowl a hundred yards behind her.

As Ateles got up, rubbing his head, he looked around, seeing that a rope was trailing over the boat. Where...had the rope come from? He followed it, watching as the white bird flew to Taylor.

"Well, if that thing isn't some kind of spirit, then I don't know what it is..." he mumbled, running to steer the boat closer to the ranger.

Taylor turned a hard left, grimacing as the monster sailed into the ground where she'd been standing, hitting it full-force with a 'thud'. She saw the raven coming to her with the rope, and immediately grabbed for it, waving for Ateles to keep the boat moving. She'd run. She'd get dragged along, but she was going to get on the damned boat.

It drew closer, and in spite of her exhaustion she began to pull herself up, hand over hand. A lone wyrm investigated them from afar, but turned back to the feast of the other carcass.

"Ateles," she grimaced, getting her hand up on the rail. He came to her aid, pulling her up hastily as the bird perched on the opposite side of the railing. Once up, Ateles took to steering as quickly as he could just to get them out of there.

"I didn't know that they traveled beyond the mountains. Someone must have introduced them here..."

Taylor merely lay on her stomach, catching her breath and absolutely covered in sand.

"Whatever."

Ateles gave a relieved sigh. "Thought you were gonna get eaten out there," he said to her, sailing toward the mountains as quickly as the boat would allow.

It would be some time before Taylor decided to move. She did end up peeling herself off of the floor, dusting sand off of her arms and attempting to run her hands through her knotted, unruly hair. Sighing to herself, she made her way back over to lean on the helm next to Ateles.

But her eyes moved upward, towards the bird.

"Do you think that thing's a spirit?" she asked, quirking a brow.

He looked towards the white raven, which puffed out its chest proudly. "I wouldn't be surprised." He looked back, once, at the giant sand wyrms. "We're going to be sailing until nightfall. Hopefully not past. The mountains are our best bet for some peace and quiet."

"I hate to be the bearer of bad news," she informed him, looking lazily ahead. "...but if I'm around, there really can be no chance for peace and quiet."

She eyed him. "Don't throw me overboard, you hear?"

"...oh, I was just thinking about it, too." muttered Ateles. He looked ahead. They couldn't go back now. So, still, he pushed on. "Don't jump overboard. I seem to persue trouble too much, too."


________________________________________________________________________

She stood at the bow, one hand wrapped around the grappling ropes that tethered the sails to the deck. She'd been up there for hours, standing and watching for the outcropping of stone that threatened to tear at the hull of the ship.

She licked at her dry lips, eyes straying towards the darkened shadows that represented the mountains in the distance.

"Aim towards your ten o'clock." she called back towards Ateles, who was manning the hull.

"They're getting closer together. We may have to stop soon."

"Got it!" Ateles yelled up to the ranger. The boat slowed as the spined sails thinned, leaving them at a crawl through the mountains. Ateles knew they would have to stop eventually and make the rest of the journey on foot, but it did not stop him from making it as far as he could before they hit that point. "Well, we made it a lot farther than I thought we would. Haven't run into anything, either." said Ateles. He aimed his eyes to the sky, where the night's wings quickly spread. "We need to make camp soon. It's getting real dark."

"And I wasn't gifted with being able to see at night," she called back, her eyes never straying from the playing field. Her eyes narrowed, and she leaned forward rather suddenly.

"Cut the sails!" she suddenly cried. "Ateles!"

No sooner had she spoken had Ateles reached for the lever to shut the sails into the slits in the masts, letting the boat slow. Ateles ran up to the bow. "What!" he cried. "What's going on!?"

Her lip twitched as she turned around to look at him.

"We've run out of sand, it seems."

Lowering herself to the edge of the gunrail, she slipped over the side of the ship and disappeared from sight.

Ateles looked over the side, his hands clinging to the railing as Taylor disappeared. He chewed on his lip in thought before grabbing his sword and jumping down after her. "Taylor! Where'd you go?"

"Did you know there's caverns down here?" she called back to him, her voice echoing from a distance. It bounced off stone, but sounded dulled and quiet, as if the fog was choking off sound.

"I'm a bit too conscious of my own health to keep going without a light, but...this must go on for miles." She turned back around, approaching Ateles from the darkness.

"So, we can make camp in here. At least get out of the weather." She looked past him, towards the gem-encrusted sky. "Can you smell the rain?"

Ateles landed with a dull thud, feet slapping onto the sand. He looked around, unable to see much through the mist. "Rain?" he asked her, closing his eyes to focus. He took in a breath. Smelling rain. So close to the desert, still? Well...they were mostly in the mountains, he supposed. For a moment, he clambered back up the boat with minimal effort, and grabbed his cantine. There was only a few sips left.

"We should be able to refill here!" he called back to her, gathering up the blankets beneath one of the benches. Out fluttered the white raven, which caused Ateles to cry out in a voice several octaves higher than normal. The bird zoomed down into the fog and landed on Taylor's shoulder, the pendant in claw.

"I'm awaiting the moment where you reveal the significance of this little gem," Taylor said absentmindedly to her feathered companion, reaching a hand back to gently stroke the bird's breast.

She emerged from the fog, taking what she could carry from Ateles' burden, and began to walk into the crags of stone. For some reason, she felt uneasy about the caves. It unnerved her to think that there was miles of open space that stretched beneath her feet. Not only that, but she got the strange sensation that they were being watched.

"Are we alone, little friend?" she asked the raven, her eyes looking around, trying to spot shadows in the mist. The bird let out a hoarse rasp, jingling the amulet in front of her. The object lit up, clearing a path in the mist in front of them.

She hesitated.

"Ateles?"

Pointing in the direction the light beam was directed, Taylor looked back over her shoulder at the other man, her arms otherwise occupied with the burden she carried. "I think the bird has a better idea of where we're going."

She glanced down into the darkness, feeling a shiver run down her spine.

"What do you think?"

Just as Ateles leaped down from the boat, the bird began to flap nervously and caw. It gripped Taylor's shoulder tightly and jangled the pendant, looking around.

As soon as Ateles hit the ground, it all gave away beneath their feet. Hundreds and hundreds of hands reached up to grab at their legs and ankles, and an eerie green light oozed from the cracks in the ground, revealing skeletal faces beneath them. The assassin kicked and pulled and drew his sword, slashing at the hands. "What...!" he spat, curses in a language Taylor didn't recognise spewing from his lips.

Taylor side-stepped as the bird frantically flapped at her shoulder, turning her face away and ducking slightly as the wing-beats stirred up her hair. It was in that moment that she saw the ground fall away. There was little she could do to stop herself.

Grimacing, she cried out sharply as the hands seized at her ankles, upsetting her balance and causing her to fall into the middle of the mess. She felt herself getting dragged down.

A very real fear gripped her as she scrambled for purchase, fingertips brushing against rock as she mercilessly thrashed against the many hands that continued to drag her away. But her hands were slipping, finally pulling away.

"Dammit, no!" she cried.

"Taylor!" cried Ateles hoarsely. He reached out to grab her hand. "We can't lose each other! There's a large cavern or something down there! Look!" He pointed down, where the cracks became larger, where the bodies parted to reveal a glimpse of what was below.

"We might die."

She made one last sweep, grasping his hand firmly as she looked down. Her brow furrowed.

"I might." she corrected, dragging herself closer to him. Her hand was cold, and her fingertips trembled faintly. She shook her head again, chancing a look down.

"I might die. But you...maybe if...you don't have to."

"What do you think I can do?!" hissed Ateles as the arms layered over them, again and again, drawing them down. He slashed at them again in frustration, but where he chopped one off, five more rose up to drag them underneath until they were engulfed completely.

"It's not you they want!" she hissed back.

"Brace yourself!"

It was a long, long fall. Almost so longthat it became monotonous. The bottom of the cavern was much farther than Ateles had guessed. He had just enough time to sheathe his sword and spread out his arms and legs, looking down. What he thought he saw was solid, black ground waiting for them. He had no idea how to get out of this one, so he looked up at Taylor.

"This didn't go too well, did it!?" he just managed to hollar over the rush of air as they fell.

"Sometimes it surprises me just how quickly things can turn sour!" she shouted back, resisting the urge to curl in on herself. Her arms ached, and she was sure she was bleeding in one place or another from the skeletal claws digging at her skin.

"I'm just sorry that you got mixed into this!" she finally added, her eyes widening as she looked past him, towards the ground below.

This was horrible.

"Hey, at least if I'm going to go out, it's with a bang!" he shouted back, looking at the ground below. "...or a splatter."

The ground rushed up to meet them quite quickly, but instead of the event of unceremonious explosion of body parts, there was a splash. Ateles flailed inside frigid water, which nearly knocked the breath out of him. He swam back up to the surface, completely surprised. "Spirits!" he gasped, thrashing.

She realized at the last second what they were coming up to. Her eyes widened with fright, and she ducked her head against her chest as her body slammed into the water. It stunned her, momentarily, but that hardly mattered.

She did not resurface, as Ateles had. She couldn't swim. And the black water was beginning to pull her further down.

Ateles looked around for Taylor, confused further. "Hey!" he shouted. "Where are you? Tay- whoa..." He found something bump underneath his feet, and flailed more eratically. He placed his hand on his sword hilt, ready for something to come out and try to devour him, as this is how these things usually went, but made another gasp as...he rose out of the water entirely. He was sitting down, looking around frantically before he figured out what happened.

The floor from below had lifted to just an inch below the water. "Hey. Taylor? Taylor!"

Spots had errupted in her vision, her arms reaching for the surface that didn't seem to be getting any closer. Just as it seemed as if her lungs would give in to pull in a mouthful of water, something struck at her heels, rising quickly and steadily and carrying her effortlessly to the surface. Her legs folded, hips coming into contact with the hard surface as the water continued to grow more shallow. When her head broke free, she coughed out water, her palm slipping as she fell to her side. She coughed, gasping for air as she turned on her back to stare at the distant ceiling.

Her eyes closed, chest heaving, still dumbfounded by the who scenario.

"Can't swim," she choked out an explanation to Ateles as his cry echoed around her. It was embarrassing to admit, but good for future reference, she supposed.

Ateles got up onto his feet, bending a bit from the sudden added weight to his clothing. He walked over to Taylor, holding out a hand to her. "Yeah, well it's funny you decided to leave that tidbit out. Especially sailin' over Shyshallow. A lake." He lifted a brow, frowning as he looked over the woman's shoulder. There was nothing around for miles. Just water.

"Feels like we're right back to square one." he commented.

She gripped his hand, pulling herself to stand and looking back over her shoulder in the direction he was gazing.

"Don't be so sure." she warned him. Truth be told, she was too nervous about sinking beneath the surface to venture beyond what she knew was solid ground beneath her feet. She couldn't see anything at all, and it was disconcerting. "Everything that's happened to me since I've been here has been for a reason." She glanced at him from the corner of her eye.

"So...something's going to happen. Something's coming."

She was certain of it.

The assassin looked around wildly, drawing his sword for the umpteenth time within the hour. He tensed, keeping vigilant. "How come you're so sure?" he asked Taylor. "I don't see nothin'."

Oh, but for some reason, he could feel that something was drawing close, making awful waves of despair wash over them thicker and more suffocating than the water around their ankles. "I'd say get ready, but you knew before I did."

There was a low, hollow note that emanated from the space around them, like the beat of a large drum. It beat again, and again, forcing their heartbeats to beat with the drum, forcing an illness called dread into their gut. Ateles' knees bent, but he kept standing, feeling a pressure heavy on his shoulders. Then, right in front of them, from the black water, rose a figure just as dark, with a veil pulled over its head, all the way down to its feet, into the water.

The figure was a giant six times Taylor's and Ateles' size, but it stool like a slender column, with pasty white, clawed hands resting at its side. Ateles sneered, taking a wobbly step back. The claws of the figure's hands dug into the skin of its fingers, chipping away flesh with compulsive twitches of movement. The skin was scabbed, oozing, and dripping with blood and pus. It only stood, however, watching the two, peeling away at its skin. Just its presence was enough to make Ateles dizzy. Something about it...

It was all she could do, to watch and wait, as the ominous beat of the drum tolled around them. Her hands clenched into fists at her side, eyes flickering over the water. She held her breath, hardly daring to move even though she could feel the presence drawing closer.

Then, when it reared its head, she stared at its concealed face, taking in a single deep breath and exhaling as she closed her eyes. Something inside of her fluttered, lending her warmth, almost like encouragement, rather than fear. But the magic that this spirit worked was potent. It nauseated her, but she stood tall (if a bit bedraggled).

"You brought us here." she spoke, her voice echoing strangely around the cavernous meeting place. "Why?"

The spirit did not answer with words, though it did lift its head, causing the veil to pull against the water, making a ripple that danced against their ankles.

Ateles fell to his knees, then onto his hands, unable to hold his weight. The sword clattered to the ground just beneath the water. The man nearly heaved.

Taylor's eyes widened as she witnessed Ateles' collapse. "Stop it!" she shouted towards the unsightly spirit. "Leave him alone!"

She bent and scooped Ateles' sword from the ground.

Instead of stopping, the terrible being rose its hand, very slowly, patiently, or perhaps in a manner that suggested it was painful to move, and grabbed its veil. Upon giving the cloth a small tug, its threads plucked away from the water, now sending waves over the assassin, who collapsed onto his side, vomiting violently.

The veil slid over the figure's head, but did not fall, barely hanging on, draped over the figure's head. Where it edged off, one could see spotty white flesh, clinging to bone with no meat or blood in between.

Furious now, Taylor swung the sword at the spirit's abdomen, unsure of what it would do, but no longer with any other options. She didn't know where her bow was. "Stop this!" she shouted again, gritting her teeth.

"He's got nothing to do with this, with me! Just leave him alone!"

The sword fwipped right through the creature's robes, and they remained unharmed. However, Taylor certainly would get a reaction out of it. One of those bloody, clawed, white hands shot out to grab Taylor's face, engulfing it in its giant palm, lifting her.

The sword fell from her grip, shock at the creature's sudden assault sending her into a near-frenzy. She gripped at the creature's bony wrist, her feet kicking as a choked cry squeezed out of her lungs.

She supposed she was getting what she wanted.

The being's hand tightened around Taylor's head, applying a steady, deadly pressure. However, before it could go too far, a crack echoed through the desolate space around them. The dark creature let out a terrible screech of nothing put pain and flung Taylor, staggering backwards itself. It crumpled, then began to sink into the water, cradling its demonic limb.

She slammed into the stone, stars errupting behind her eyes as she rolled and tumbled, finally sliding to a stop not a few feet from where Ateles was. She groaned softly, her head lifting as she watched the spirit sink and fall away. Her eyes looked skyward then.

Oh this isn't good.

As the spirit vanished beneath the now gentle waves, Ateles found the nausea and the dread sink away with it. After a short moment of being able to control his breathing, he wiped his mouth, then propped himself up onto one hand. His forehead rested on his knee, eyes closing as he tried to steady his vision.

"You...you...alive, ranger?" he cried out weakly. "You didn't die on me this early, did you?"

"Not dead yet." Taylor groaned, shifting to her knees. "What about you? Are you okay?" What the hell had happened? Why had the spirit let her go? She put a hand to her chest, feeling that same warmth die down, only to be replaced with the cold dampness that surrounded them on all sides. She again looked skyward.

"There's gotta be a way out of here..."

"Well, we ain't gonna find out if we sit around here, huh?" said Ateles, getting up onto his feet. He swayed, but caught his balance just in time. His hand reached down into the water, finding his sword. He picked it up, but did not sheathe it. He might need it sooner than he hoped.

"There's nothing but water around, but if we keep going off in one direction, we should find something eventually. Let's hope that thing doesn't come back!"

"If the floor disappears I'm screwed." she told him honestly, ashamed to admit it. "But don't try to hold me up if that happens. We'll both end up drowning."

Still, she decided that she was going to walk behind Ateles. If he went in the water first, at least he'd be able to get himself back out. If she did? Well...

"I didn't realize the spirits in Sozo could be so ugly." she mumbled under her breath, hoping that thing that had disappeared under the black surface of the water couldn't hear her.

Ateles began to walk, dragging the tip of his sword in the water. He was hunched over, the sickness from the spirit's appearance still lingering, but slowly disappearing. "Spirits..." he began, eyes warily scanning the water's surface, "...can come in whatever shape or form they want. They usually stick to what they represent." He straightened up, rolling his shoulders back.

"So whatever that thing is, it's not anything good, or beautiful, or enlightening. Which goes without saying." His feet trudged through the water, making small waves. There didn't seem to be an end in sight, and hope dwindled. "We fell a long way." he stated. "I don't think we're in our realm anymore."

There was a moment where Taylor thought she'd stepped on nothing. Her hand latched out immediately to grasp Ateles' forearm. After a heartbeat or two, she let him go.

"Wait, realm?" she asked rather suddenly, turning to look up at her companion. "You mean to say there are more than one here?" It made sense, of course. The spirits had to have a plane of their own to reside in. Mortal realms were not meant for the supernatural. Not for long periods of time, anyway.

"How the hell did we end up in this place then? I mean, we physically fell through the floor. Ceiling. Whatever." She looked up, but couldnt' see anything. "I wish I didn't come into this having to learn the rules as I went..."

"We can only go to other realms by strong magic or by the invitation of a spirit. Obviously, since none of us cast a spell, someone invited us here without our consent. I'm thinking our friend back there." he informed her, jamming his thumb towards the spot where they had been assaulted. "For some reason, either he was focusing on gettin' me sick, or..." He looked over his shoulder at her.

"...you've got some explaining to do. If you even know what's goin' on." He tilted his chin up to look down at Taylor, but kept shuffling on. All too soon, he stopped, staring straight ahead. It had vanished quickly, but Ateles knew he had seen something.

"I might be going mad, but I'm hopin' you saw that, too." said the assassin, pointing to the small ripples out in the distance.

She hadn't seen whatever he saw in the water, but she saw the ripples. She didn't take another step closer. "I know there's something there."

Friendly or not? Well, it was anyone's guess at this point. "As far as...what's going on, I can only theorize, and even that would be generalized. I promise I'd tell you..."

Ateles nodded to her answer, which only raised more questions. However, that was not currently his main concern. Something moved out of the corner of his eye, and he whipped around to catch sight of it.

"See it? It was right there!" he hissed, raising his sword as he followed the ripples. He turned completely in a circle following the thing until it finally showed itself.

A big, black, oily fin popped out of the water, taller than both Ateles and Taylor should one have been standing on the other's shoulders. The arch of the fin dramatically receeded back into the body, and trailed the rest of the way down. As far as they knew, the thing was at least fifty feet long. It circled them, edging out of the water, little by little, until they could just see the pectoral fins, from which trailed the cloth that both travelers had seen on the frightening spirit before.

"...it's not done with us yet." Ateles spat. "Run!"

She didn't need to be told twice. Wishing now more than ever that she had her weapons (since the bow and quiver had gone missing after she fell), she took off in a sprint, sending up arches of water with each step. All the while, she was very aware of the fact that the possibility of her falling right into the water again existed. Either that, or this damned dragon that was pursuing them would catch her in its teeth. She had nothing but her knives...

Oh, but wait...she skidded to a stop, turning around to stare at the monster. It had tried to hurt her, hadn't it? What had come of it then? The spirit had been forced to recede. She didn't know why or how, or what caused it, but it had happened. Was it worth chancing it a second time?

She supposed if it caught up to her then she'd find out. "Hey! You great, stupid metaphysical being! Is that the best you got?!"

Ateles looked back at Taylor as though she were insane. "What are you doing!?" he growled. "Our goal here is not to die. Or do I have to remind you?" He had jogged ahead a step or two before stopping to stare.

The creature, by this time, had stopped circling, and turned to look at them directly. At first, it's approach was slow. Gradual. It rose out of the water bit by bit, revealing its terrible, frightening face. It had two bulbous, white eyes on either side of its head, and they stared at Taylor with a lifeless, blank expression. That was not the worst, however. Far from it. The nightmare came as the thing opened its gargantuan, gaping mouth.

It was so black, so dark, within the spirit's maw, that one could not see if there even was an end. Thirty feet high, and thirty wide, it approached the pair.

And stopped.

A frigid air reached through their skin all the way to the bone when it breathed. All became deafeningly silent. More silent, even, than Shyshallow. Then, as gradual as its painstakingly sluggish approach...there came a cry. More soon joined it, though they started as quietly as a mouse's squeak. Before long, there was a chorus of moans and weeps, sounds one would utter in the grasps of death, as one's heart was pounding, as fear grasped it, as the very pits of the afterlife ripped it away. As darkness closed in.

Just as the gaping maw before her. And, from it came not only the ghastly wailing of the deceased, but their owners, as well. It happened so suddenly that even the assassin, more familiar with death than he would have liked to admit, could not hold back a shriek of fright. Pale, long, eyeless faces shot out from the creature's jaws, hands, with fingers long and bony, greedy to grasp life once again.

She gasped, her mouth opened in a silent cry as she went to her knees, throwing her arms over her face as she felt, rather than saw, the spectres pass over, around, and through her. She remembered this feeling. She remembered what it was like to teeter on the edge that divided life from death. She remembered that, remembered the emptiness...she remembered what it was like to awaken, to feel again.

That warmth grew inside of her, steeling her. Slowly, she lowered her arms, staring into the void with wide eyes. She got her feet underneath her, easing to stand as the wailing continued, threatening to tear her apart from the inside out.

"I'm not afraid of you!" she suddenly cried.

The souls reached out to Taylor, then stopped short, laying their hands against a barrier that had placed itself between them and their precious prize. As their hands touched it, light flared from their fingertips and burned them, causing them to shrivel back and retreat with pitiful squeals. Bitterly, the spirit closed its mouth, and began to sink back down into the waters away from Taylor.

Ateles was more amazed than he had ever been in his life, looking upon her. He ran his fingers through his hair, eyes as wide as saucers.

"...I don't know how you managed that one, princess, but I'm not gonna look a gift horse in the mouth. Let's find a way outta he-"

Before he could finish, the rumbling of the ground beneath their feet came to his attention. He slipped as part of it gave away and disappeared in the water. He recovered, but came to understand what was going on. He ran.

"It's making the ground sink again! Taylor!"

"Frightening spirits isn't going to do me any good now!" she shouted back, stumbling away from a ledge that had broken away and disappeared beneath the black surface of the water. She ran too, but in no particular direction. At one point, she nearly lost her balance and fell in, but that was quickly corrected, and she stumbled to one side. But she was on a platform now, it seemed. Everything around her small spit of land had sunk. She had nowhere to go.

Chest heaving, she looked to Ateles as her own bit of solid ground began to sink.

There was still a slim pathway between them that was remained, and Ateles had seen it. He exchanged glances with her, and crossed the pathway as quickly as he could. As the island began to diminish, his shoulders slumped, and he sheathed his sword.

"End of the line." he said, back to her. "I don't see us gettin' out of this one, Taylor. I'm a pretty terrible bodyguard."

Her heart hammered in her chest, but she nodded, taking his hand and giving it a squeeze.

"For what it's worth, I've died once. It isn't so bad." She looked up at him, and gave him a slight smile. "Kinda nice, actually. I'm only sorry you got dragged into this with me."

"I dragged myself into it." said Ateles. "Ain't your fault." He squeezed her hand back, but let go as a single column kept them out of the water. He could see it now, the beast lurking below, waiting to take them both. As patient as death always was, for it knew an end would always come, no matter how long it took. And it was grinning. Ateles saw that, too.

"Well, shit, you're just gonna take me to the part of the After reserved for nasty killers like me, aincha?" the assassin sneered. "Well, you're a bitch."

"We'll be going to the same place," Taylor added quietly, her eyes on the water.

He looked up, hoping to find sunlight just one more time before he died. Maybe up high, beyond the break in the ceiling that they had fallen through. He took in a deep breath, not ready for his end, but accepting it all the same.

His eyes squinted as something hit him in the face in a puff of white feathers. He flailed, reaching to grasp it, but it had already moved to land on Taylor's shoulder, jingling the amulet at her. Its claws grasped at her skin hard enough to pierce it.

Taylor's hand immediately went to the bird, having to side-step to avoid falling into the water. She turned to look at it with wide eyes, her lips parting with her surprise as she merely shook her head.

"You've gotten us out of dicey situations before, little one." she said quietly, glancing to Ateles. "Good timing."

She took the assassin's hand again.

The bird fluttered its wings, then dug into Taylor's skin again, this time drawing blood despite any complaints she might have had. It then began to drag the amulet through the small, bleeding wound in her shoulder.

There was this brilliant, blinding flash of light that often signaled the completion of a spell. The bird took off into the air, and as it did, grew rapidly into a slightly different creature. It became larger than a horse, with wicked talons that could easily grasp a full-grown man, and a wickedly curved beak with a pointed end. It flew around them, avoiding the water and the blackness that overtook it. Ateles looked relieved. "Right when I thought we weren't gonna get out, the damn bird-"

Something whipped out of the water- an obsidian tendril- and grasped at Ateles' ankle, pulling at him. More popped out, threatening to take them down. The assassin grit his teeth, then grasped at Taylor's wrist.

She latched onto him too, bracing herself in the event that he was pulled under. She met his eyes with an uncertain look of her own.

"I don't know what it is about you, Taylor, but you've got somethin' special. Somethin's telling me you've really got to get out of here." he said. "So, well, I'm not gonna apologise."

His muscles tensed as he looked the bird in the eye, tilting his chin up at it in a nod. Before she could say another word, Ateles' other hand tightened on Taylor's wrist, he sunk low to the ground, and then tossed her high into the air.

The bird dove low enough to catch her in its claws, then aimed up for the skies.

"Ateles!" she screamed, grimacing at the talons dug into her. "Dammit what are you doing?! Go back for him!"

She struggled against the bird's grip, feeling a wrenching hopelessness tear at her chest as he faded from view. Before long, she stopped struggling. She could only stare. He was gone. He'd died for something as insignificant as her own safety.

"YOU'RE AN IDIOT!" She screamed finally, her expression twisting as agonizing reality began to settle in.

Ateles gave her a salute as the black tendrils overtook him, a smirk on his face.

"Yeah, I know." he chuckled, sliding his sword out of its scabbard. "That's what she said, too." He looked down into death's jaws. "I'm comin' for you, Avia."

The island fell down, and the water stilled.

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