Interlude - Threads

Alster is ours and, thankfully, Leonster endured long enough. Bloom escaped, but with the worst of winter fast approaching, we decide it's best to just… let him do whatever while we desperately attempt to help the people. Food stores are low, hunting is sparse… not to mention that many lost their homes. Winters are considered 'milder' here in the Manster District than in Isaach, but that doesn't mean that people can go without shelter. Particularly since the weather is prone to rain (but not outright storms, thankfully!).

There's a lot to do before we can push forward. But, we're glad to do it.

At first, I wasn't sure why I had woken up. It wasn't yet late enough for Hestia to need to head outside again, and there was no screaming or anything that hinted there was some sort of emergency. Just me curled up with Seliph, with him holding me tightly even while fast asleep. Dopey as it sounded, I couldn't help but smile at his sleeping face, just because. I wasn't sure why it had an effect on me, since I'd seen it many times over the years. Even as close up as this. Maybe it was just an extension of how he always seemed to make me smile? And, just like my feelings, I had become so used to it that I never noticed? Possibly. Either way, I smiled and I absently ran my fingers through his hair, careful to not pull on any tangles I found. I didn't want to wake him. I just wanted to play with the strands a bit, before dozing off in his arms again.

But then came a knock on the door and I realized that it had been that sound that had woken me up. I pushed myself up a bit with a frown, wondering just who it could be. None of the Tirnanog group, because they would've just walked on it. None of the rest of my friends, because they would've said something. Especially when there was a third knock, a little louder than the last two.

"What is going on?" I whispered, voice still a bit raspy from grogginess. Hestia emerged from where she'd been sleeping in the bathroom, yawning loudly before padding to the door. "She's in no hurry…" I tried to sit up fully, but Seliph suddenly yanked me down to hold me even tighter. "Seliph?" He groaned and buried his face in my neck. I squirmed a bit from how ticklish it felt. "I think we need to get the door."

"If Hestia's not worried, I don't see why we can't sleep more," Seliph grumbled, all but pinning me to keep me from sitting up. I had to laugh a little, because I happened to agree, and I hugged him back, letting him curl up against me. "You're comfy." Still, there was a fourth knock, and it was definitely insistent. I heard Hestia scratching at the door curiously, though thankfully, she hadn't actually opened it yet. "Ugh…" He sighed and propped himself up to kiss me sweetly, and I couldn't help but hum in delight. "Were did we leave our robes again?"

It took a bit to find the robes, as well as Seliph's sleeping pants and my nightgown. But Hestia helped us out and so, we were able to open the door before there was a fifth knock. However, I had to say… our guests were unexpected. It was Inanna, who rubbed at her eyes to try and stay awake, as well as one of the younger children, an orphan who had been among the refugees and now had nowhere to go. They clung to Inanna's hand tightly with hands that shook, half-hiding behind her with wide eyes. For some reason, there was no sign of Eresh.

"I'm sorry… I know it's late…" Inanna yawned, rubbing her eyes more insistently. Seliph leaned against the door frame to listen, and I petted Hestia to keep her from darting off in curiosity. "Or early. I don't know. Time shouldn't exist during sleeping hours."

"I quite agree," Seliph replied, laughing a little. Though I could see the exasperation in his eyes, and in how his smile was a bit thinner than normal, I knew he was doing his best to not let Inanna or, worse, the scared child know. "What is it? Hestia hasn't woken us yet, so I'm assuming no one is dying."

"I'm not too sure, really, but…" She gestured at the younger child. "There's apparently some strange noise in one of the rooms? Anat and Sandas didn't hear it in theirs, but everyone in Miri's room is frightened. I left Eresh with them to reassure them." Good choice. Eresh was quickly becoming as adept as Hestia when it came to comforting, a good thing given how many traumatized children we watched over.

"A strange noise?" Seliph pushed off from the frame and crouched to better look 'Miri' in the eyes. "Can you tell me what sort of noise it is?"

"It was some… some scratching?" Miri mumbled, her voice trembling. She clung tighter to Inanna's hand, with enough strength that Inanna winced. "Scratching… crawling… it reminds me of the sounds of the priests hunting while we hid under the floor. Hoping to not get caught." I frowned and caught Inanna's eye. Her sad eyes and slight nod confirmed it. Her village had been Hunted. I was curious as to what exactly had caused the sounds, but… well, it didn't matter. "It's…"

"In that case, we should see to it ourselves," I answered, gently nudging Hestia forward. She instantly pressed herself to Miri's side, licking her hand to soothe her. I understood now why Inanna had decided to get us, despite the unholy hour. If the sound triggered memories of a Child Hunt, then they might not calm until one of us leaders saw to it. And aside from some of the adults, only Seliph and me were here in Alster for the time being. "And if it is a mean ol' priest, we'll beat him up." I grinned at Miri, and she tentatively smiled back, clutching at Hestia's fur. For his part, Seliph sighed, shook his head, but made a point to ruffle Miri's hair reassuringly. "Is it just that room?" Inanna nodded, smiling sleepily. "Okay, tell us anything else you can think of on the way? No matter how insignificant it might appear."

While I'd intended to just hear more about the 'scratching' noise, Miri accidentally took it as a prompt to talk about the day. Which I could complain about, especially since it helped her noticeably relax. Inanna chimed in with details of her own, and Seliph and I made sure to ask questions to keep the conversation going (after exchanging a bit of an amused look). Hestia, of course, did her best to be as cute as possible (not very hard at all) and be the support Miri needed to feel perfectly safe. And help Eresh with the same thing when we actually arrived at the room in question, which… definitely had more children than usual. Seemed like those in Sandas and Anat's room had decided safety in numbers would make everyone feel better.

"Oh, Your Highness, my lady!" Roxana blurted, rushing over to us, with her caracal at her heels. Unlike Inanna, she was wide awake and a little frazzled, probably because she was the oldest in the room. Despite that, though, I was pleased to see that her nightgown finally fitted her properly, though I knew that had more to do with Maliya gathering all those with some form of sewing talent to take things in than Roxana (and the other refugee children) being able to eat themselves back to a healthy weight. "I'm so sorry for disturbing you…" She bowed apologetically, and I glanced around the room curiously, noting Anat and Sandas were talking with some of the others, while Neith and Mursi did exactly what Hestia and Eresh were doing. I knew giving them the animals was a good idea. "We've been trying to locate the sound on our own, but…"

"You're so quick to bow," Seliph teased, laughing a little. He smiled warmly when she tentatively glanced up. "It's fine. I'd rather be woken up than to hear later that you all had such a restless night." That was half of a lie. He would have felt bad, but he also wished he was asleep. We'd been up early for meetings. "So please, don't apologize."


"Hey, Prince Seliph, one of the kitties scratch you?" Anat asked suddenly, startling all of us (and stopping Roxana's half-formed protests). She yawned and rubbed her eye sleepily, clinging to her doll (the one 'borrowed' from that village girl) to make sure she didn't drop it. Neith twined about her legs, trying to get her attention, probably to get help with the sniffling girl next to her. "You had red marks on your back…"

"I do?" Seliph replied, a note of surprise in his voice as he brought the collar of his robe down so that he could try to look himself. I purposely busied myself with making sure Hestia wasn't scaring any of the children to avoid blushing because… ah… I knew where those marks had come from. I knew very well where they had come from. "Huh. I suppose a kitty-cat did scratch me. But I'm fine, Anat. Promise."

"If you're sure…" She yawned again, this time making a little noise. "So early…"

"I wonder if it's the same one that sometimes scratches Mursili," Sandas mused, absently petting Mursi the same way he stroked a younger child's hair. It was kind of an amusing mental image, even if I felt like I might die from mortification. Especially as the other children became curious. Inanna and Roxana even shared a confused look as they helped Miri settle back down into her blankets. "Actually, I think I've seen some others have-"

"Kitty-cats can get over enthusiastic in their affection," Seliph interrupted with a smile. It almost hid his faint blush, but he disguised it by conjuring up some light-globes to make it easier for everyone to actually see. And to chase away the shadows where 'something' might be hiding. "Now, you all haven't been able to find the source?"

The answer was 'no, they had not', since the children who normally slept in this room were too frightened and the ones who came in had prioritized making everyone feel better while Inanna and Miri had gotten Seliph and me. So, Seliph and I wandered the room, making a good show of checking everywhere to help reassure everyone that things were safe. So, when the noise did sound again, a strange scratching sound, no one was afraid, but it was easy to 'hear' why they had been originally. It traveled weirdly through the room, making it hard to narrow down the location. But, thankfully, wolves had good noses and as soon as Hestia was sure the children would be fine without her comforting bulk, she assisted in the search and I opened one of the small storage closets in the room (since the room itself had been used for storage before being converted into a room for the children). And was promptly tackled by a furry armful of leaping… well, not impossible, because it was me and these things tended to happen to me. Still, I could be forgiven for being a little surprised.

"So… uh…" I began, desperately trying to form coherent words and coming up short. In my defense, most of the room was like that. Seliph even tiptoed over to poke the stripped side of the bundle of fuzzy fur happily chuffing in my arms, to confirm it was real. "Okay, who hid a tiger cub in the closet?"

Things were a little… okay, things were a lot chaotic after that. From the children wanting to coo over the adorable cub, to reassuring the soldiers that all was well, to organizing things… it took quite a while for Seliph and I to actually meet Shanan and Oifeye (the only other 'leaders' in Alster currently) in Oifeye's study to actually discuss what the hell just happened. I had to say, though, that Oifeye's long-suffering groan was hilarious to hear.

"Why does this keep happening?" he complained, rubbing his eyes. He was seated at his desk, with papers all over the place, and giving me a dark look. "Well, then again…"

"I've got Mursili and Niamh looking into how the hell a tiger cub snuck in," I reassured quickly, biting back a bit of a laugh. I just couldn't help but find this all terribly entertaining, particularly since the cub was curled up in Shanan's lap, as happy as can be. "Current theory is that the guards saw a wild animal and just assumed things. Which is bad. Very bad. There shall be much scolding." I had to muffle a snicker when Oifeye groaned again, completely exasperated by all this. "I've also got them looking for more, which is why Hestia isn't here. She's helping them." And likely would head to the children's room to continue providing comfort. Just because the scare turned adorable didn't mean it hadn't been a scare, after all.

"We don't need more!"

"If one snuck in, then more could've," Seliph pointed out, leaning a bit more against the wall. Like me, he was struggling to not laugh, though I supposed we could blame Shanan. He was so hesitant about the cub that it was just cute! He even sat stiffly on the floor, like he was afraid even relaxing might jolt the cutie! "We also need to keep in mind that we could have an angry, full grown tiger prowling around." This time, Oifeye just let his head fall to his desk with a distinctive 'thump'. "I do agree that there's quite a few, though…"

"Honestly, we should take it as a sign of how bad things are," I pointed out, my own good mood fading as I thought about it. I scooted closer to Seliph to lean against him and fussed with the hair hanging by my face. "Wild animals normally avoid humans. If they're coming so close that we keep getting things like this…" Then it meant that either the animals were edging closer to humans in the hopes of food, or that humans had to go farther out for adequate hunting and foraging (and, thus, exposing impressionable baby animals into thinking humans were 'normal'). "Ideally, the little one has a mama that's looking for him, but given the last few, we can't assume that." We… also had to consider the possibility that he'd been abandoned, but he seemed a little too old for that. But it could also be my instinctive objection to the thought of parents abandoning children, even animal-parents. "We might get a few more incidents like this as winter claws in."

"But hopefully, the efforts we're making now, and plan to make in the spring, should help with the food problem." Seliph gently bumped his head against mine reassuringly, and I smiled up at him. "And then we shouldn't have more baby animals joining us. Though considering the 'collection' of orphans we've picked up…"

"It's certainly an… interesting problem," Shanan murmured, hesitantly petting the tiger. He chuffed and pressed his head more firmly into Shanan's hand, and Shanan smiled softly. "I'm reminded of when… oh, gods, what was his name? I can only think of the ridiculous nickname Quan gave him. Or was that you, Oifeye?"

"Are you talking about when Gandolf or whatever his name was massacred his own people to get to us?" Oifeye asked softly, slowly straightening so that he was sitting properly. Both Seliph and I tensed at the name. We hadn't heard much about him, but we'd heard enough to know what they were talking about. "I remember. Blood everywhere. The infirmary overfull with the injured and the dead. We had animals then too."

"And afterwards, many of them stayed with us in Evans. And remained in Evans when we moved to Agusty." Shanan slowly relaxed as he continued petting the tiger, who had his eyes all scrunched up in pleasure. I had to grin at the sight. "I wonder if they're still there?"

"Could be. Verdane certainly hasn't been a friend of the Empire. I wonder if we could get a message to them…" Oifeye frowned thoughtfully and scribbled something down. "But yes, I do remember. I suppose something similar will happen here?"

"I… wouldn't be too sure on that," I said slowly, my good mood once again faltering as I thought of the children. Inanna, Anat, and Sandas were definitely staying with us. They had said as much, and I doubted any amount of arguing would change their minds. And the others, like Roxana… "We can try, but many of them are so grateful that they insist on helping. And, to be frank, we do need that extra help."

"Not to mention that many of them feel like they need to be a part of this, in order to move through their own pain," Seliph added softly, closing his eyes. He and I had talked about this just yesterday, truthfully. "The very young, I'm sure we can convince, but…" The rest would stay. To help. To 'fight' in the only way they could. To move forward and find their own answers to the complicated mess of a world we lived in.

"...Well, it won't be the first time a child brattishly insisted on staying with the army," Oifeye noted with a half-smile and a pointed look towards Shanan. Who just as pointedly ignored him. Both Seliph and I had to chuckle at that. "We'll figure it out. There's still also more of the District to liberate. They could want to stop at Manster." That was quite true. "So, since I doubt Shanan was paying attention, can you explain again the precautions set up?"

Shanan half-protested being used as a 'reason to repeat things', but the four of us did laugh and Seliph and I explained again what all had happened. During that, Mursili arrived with a reassurance that the children were doing well (and that Hestia was with them) and a report, confirming our suspicion on how the tiger cub had been able to just waltz on in, though how he had ended up locked in a closet might forever remain a mystery. Closest guess we had was that the children had been playing hide and seek earlier and might've left it open after using it as a hiding spot. No other tigers had been found yet, cub or otherwise, but everyone would be on the lookout. As it was, though, there was no reason not to head to back to bed and, after checking in on the children to make sure they truly were fine, Seliph and I did just that.

"The others are going to laugh themselves silly when they return and hear about this," I 'complained', unable to keep from laughing. I was actually a little glad we'd have a silly story to tell them, since we were all neck-deep in trying to help the western half of the district recover enough to survive the winter. "Though, I do kind of wish it had happened when… you know… the sun was up?"

"Please don't remind me," Seliph groaned. And then yawned because it was still a ridiculous hour to be awake. "Hestia's with the children, right?"

"And they had already taken her out with the other animals, yes." Though, now I was reminded of Anat's comment and I couldn't help but tease. Just a little. "Also, did you really have to say those marks on your back were caused by a kitty-cat?"

"Of course. One with sharp 'claws' at that." Seliph smirked at me before taking my hand and gently kissing it. Followed by him kissing each one of my nails. My face went red, but I had to smile. "And I think I shall look on them fondly, because of just why they're there."

"Just fondly?" I glanced around to make sure no one was around before quickly kissing him and grinning at him. "Well, if you happen to catch the kitty who caused them… I'm sure she wouldn't mind making sure you were more than fond? Or maybe adding a few?" With that, I 'escaped', running back to our room, glancing back only once to make sure he caught the joke and implication. Seliph lingered back for a moment, to regard me with a lovingly sweet smile before he grinned and chased after me.

It was fine if we stayed up late. We didn't have any morning meetings tomorrow.

The next morning, one other tiger cub was found, a sweet and quiet girl who had ended up in the stables. There was no sign of an adult tiger anywhere, sadly, so it was decided that the tiger cubs would simply join the rest of the animals that stayed with us. Or, rather, they would stay with Shanan as both firmly attached themselves to him. It was hilarious adorable, or at least, I thought so. And made me remember what Lewyn had said about Od's blood and animals… if I didn't think Oifeye would give me a lecture from hell, I'd be tempted to see if I could get some for Larcei and Ulster. Just because.

And it did make for a good distraction when all of us finally got together a week or so later, for a War Council, alongside the stories everyone else brought. Like the children who ended up falling into the moat at Darna because they were trying to dance like Lene and Ares had to fish them out (and Sarabi jumped in to 'help'). Or Arthur and Tine sharing how well Melgen was recuperating, now that they didn't have so many refugees. And, of course, the tales Leif and Nana shared about how Leonster and the nearby villages were beginning to thrive again.

But, unfortunately… not everything shared was good. For instance, Diarmuid and Yuria had to help a nearby village move to another one because, despite everyone's best efforts, there was no salvaging their fields. Fee and Iuchar had traveled to check on some villages no one had heard from in a while, and found nothing but corpses and ruins. Lester and Patty had escorted Lana to nearby villages who were filled with the ill and injured, breaking almost every staff they had brought and using every dreg of the medicines with them. Larcei and Ulster led some bandit hunts, but no matter how many were slain, even more seemed to bubble up from the depths to replace them.

Then, of course, came the news I had known would be coming. Though Salem himself had declined speaking to us directly (too nervous in crowds and a want to help Linoan, Sara, and the other healers in the infirmary to free up both Lana, Nanna, and Yuria for the meeting), he had told Leif everything he knew about Julius and the Loptyrian Empire. And Leif laid it all out methodically, so that there were no doubts. Julius had been, essentially, the first sacrifice of the Loptyrian Empire. And, just like the other sacrifices, there would be no saving him.

"So, essentially, the only victory this war will have is right over his corpse," Ares summarized once Leif had explained everything. He was, as he had been before, seated at the window with Lene next to him, away from everyone. But I didn't miss how his eyes focused on Seliph, watching him closely. "Can you do that? You're softhearted with complete strangers."

"...I will save my little brother, as I will save Jugdral," Seliph whispered softly, keeping his gaze on Ares. Though he spoke with conviction, his hands shook and he leaned heavily on me. But… but I was glad I had warned him ahead of time, because it meant he'd had time to think about this. And it meant that he had only needed one of us (me) to support him, leaving the others to support Yuria (who was shaken about her twin) and Tine (who had known it was coming, but still found terribly bitter because of how much he meant to her loved ones). Which they did, in two large groups. The only ones actually at the table were Seliph, myself, Leif, and Nanna. "The latter is my duty, as a prince of the realm, and one that I have always known."

"And the former?"

"It is my wish, as an older brother. And…" Seliph's voice cracked and his eyes shone with the tears he refused to shed. "If that is by blade, then so be it."

"...I've said this before, but I feel like all of you forget you're human sometimes." Ares sighed gustily, while Lene smiled and bumped her shoulder against his arm. "You're allowed to scream about how unfair it is, you know. And I swear that if you're going to say something like 'it is nothing different than what others go through', I'm throwing something at you." Since that had been Seliph's response, he kept silent. "We need to give you lessons in being selfish."

"I fear I am too selfish as it is, though." And a pillow flew right at Seliph's face. I only caught it because Lene had signaled a warning to me a split-second before Ares actually threw it. "I… where did that even come from?"

"Lene brought pillows because the window is cold, but I'm used to worse." Ares smiled at Lene before focusing back on Seliph. I tentatively glanced at everyone else, but Leif winked and Nanna smiled reassuringly and pointed to the groups. This was, at least, buying more time to make sure everyone was okay. "But you're allowed to be angry."

"I am, but…" Realization dawned in Seliph's eyes and he smiled. "Ah, I get it now. Ares, this isn't my first time hearing about this. I've known for… however long it's been since we reclaimed Alster."

"Really?" Ares frowned and raised a brow, radiating skeptically, but he just laughed softly when Seliph pointed to me. "Ah, yes, how could I think otherwise? Given how often Riona eavesdrops."

"You make it sound like it's on purpose!" I protested, sulking. And giving Seliph a bit of a better hug because even if he knew already, it was still… "In this case, I… uh… actually, I can't think of how to phrase this without making it sound like I looked for Salem. Which I didn't."

"Salem told me that he and you had talked," Leif added softly, smiling reassuringly. He raised a hand to get Ares to look over at him and Nanna. "He had nightmares of his… departure from the priests and was taking a walk to help himself relax again." The pause made me think that the departure had involved a lot more violence than departures normally warranted. "He ended up crossing paths with her while Hestia was… being Hestia." There had never been so accurate a phrase. "I figured that she had, at least, told Seliph when I learned that. Though, not anyone else?"

"Ulster knew, because he knew something was off with me, but…" I shrugged, smiling sheepishly. "We were in the middle of an operation. A big one. Then we focused on recovery and…"

"I imagine it was hard to speak of. Especially since it gave new meaning to his request to 'save' him." Leif was perfectly right, and I almost hated it. My heart ached keenly at the memory. "Feel a bit better, Ares?"

"I do, actually," Ares confirmed without the slightest bit of hesitation or embarrassment. He glanced over at the groups, frowning. "Maybe I should've brought Sarabi in after all." Or Hestia. But Hestia was helping comfort some patients in the infirmary, and Sarabi was getting a bath with some of the other animals. Inanna and Roxana had insisted. I just hoped they wouldn't lose too much blood from scratches. "Regardless, yes, I do. I figured this was them being them again. And no, you can't say anything because you're like them too. Just a bit lesser." Ares frowned and Leif immediately raised his hand in surrender. Which got laughs out of all of us. "The amount of babysitting you all need is ridiculous sometimes."

"Ares has been fretting terribly as soon as your report started," Lene 'whispered'. Which wasn't even close to a whisper, only some sort of mockery of it. But it made Ares glance to the side, now embarrassed. "Careful. He's probably as much of a fretter as Finn and Oifeye."

"No wonder he and Father get along so well," Nanna teased, not bothering to pretend with 'quiet'. Hilariously, Ares's face was turning a little pink. And Lene drew attention to it by poking his cheek. But Nanna was nice enough to distract. "Ah, everyone…"

"Everyone wrapped their head around that?" Lene smiled warmly as everyone began dispersing from the groups at last. But it was all to stand around the room instead of by the table as was 'proper'. Couldn't blame anyone. "I'm going to say right now that any and all speculation is going to be put on hold until later! Otherwise, you'll get all wrapped up in it and forget about the present!"

"Wow, we could've used you back when we were children," Diarmuid immediately teased, grinning playfully. Yuria leaned against him, scrubbing tears from her face, and he absently used his sleeve to help her. "But, then again, you would've met Ares much later, and what a travesty that would've been."

"Almost as much of a travesty as not saving the fun tales for now, because going from all the sads to another sad really didn't help anyone," Patty added cheerfully, even bouncing to show off her energy. She was grouped up with Iuchar and Larcei by the far wall, and her energy almost hid how Larcei was grinding her teeth in frustration and how Iuchar whispered reassuring things to help her calm down. "That said, I do have a question that might be important to keep in mind if nothing else."

"I don't think that'll count for 'speculation' in that case." Diarmuid looked to Lene, and she made a show of thinking before nodding. That let everyone else get settled in their new places, including Ulster coming to Seliph's side to support him and give me a bit of a break. And let me hold Seliph's hand, which quickly turned into Seliph just absently playing with my fingers, tracing shapes on my palm and whatnot. "So, Patty?"

"The Tome of Loptyr." And whatever good mood that might've been sparked fled like a mouse before a cat. "Do they have it? The stories say that no one knows what happened to it in the aftermath, so, maybe they took it or something?"

"That is…" Leif began, frowning. He stopped himself, though, and shook his head before turning to Nanna. His eyes were dark, but it was hard to read anything other than that. His expression was blank as well. "You should say this."

"...Yeah, probably," Nanna sighed, clasping her hands in front of her. Sensing something was off, Lana left where she'd been with Lester in the corner to come to Nanna's side and rest a supporting hand on her shoulder. Nanna smiled at her in thanks; Arthur joined Lester in the corner, leaning Fee and Tine at the wall by the window, with Tine looking so resigned as she rested her head on Fee's shoulder. "The answer is… yes, they do have it." Well, that was just great. "But… but they didn't take it after the final battle of the Holy War." Nanna paused, either to gather her thoughts or to give us time to prepare ourselves. Or… who knew. "Leif? I… I don't..."

"Yeah, okay." Leif smiled wanly before looking at everyone. Taking care to meet everyone's eyes at least once. But then his eyes focused solely on Ares. And I had a terrifying feeling of just why that was. "It was in Agusty. It seems like the royal line was tasked with hiding the tome, a secret passed down only from ruler to ruler."

"But Chagall killed his father before being told, so he didn't know and, thus, didn't protect it as he should've." Nanna's hands shook in front of her, and she looked down to try and hide her face. Lana moved so that she had her hands on her shoulders, a supportive half-hug. "So, they took it from the vault then." And then she fell silent as the full weight of the words hit us. Truly, truly hit us.

They had been involved with Agustria's civil war, hadn't they? Just as they had been involved with Verdane's attack on Jungby. All for… for their plot. All for their goal. Cause chaos in Verdane, location of the Spirit Forest, to find Deirdre and capture her (and only failing then because she fell in love with Sigurd and left with him and the army). Then, they did the same thing in Agustria, to gain the tome (and successfully kidnap Deirdre). They had… they had… what else had they been involved in? The destruction of Isaach? The devastation in Silesse? Just how much… how much...

They hadn't needed Arvis at all. Not for anything but fathering a Major Loptyr. No, but they had played on his ambitions and trust issues to secure their Empire and make sure he played his role well. The 'king' of the board, moved about as a piece just like everything else. Just like… like our parents. Sigurd, our parents, the army… everyone we ever cared about, positively or negatively, had been nothing more than pieces on a board, played brilliantly by the Loptyrians.

So, what about us? Were we also pieces? Were our victories just some plan, a way to get rid of 'inconveniences' without getting their hands dirty? Were we just… just…

"Wonder why they waited so long." Iuchar's quiet musing startled me from the spiraling thoughts, and I jerked my head up towards him to see him surprisingly thoughtful. "Why did they wait until he was a teenager, or almost a teenager?" he repeated, sounding almost absent. Like he was simply thinking aloud. But the question was surprisingly good for grounding… well, for grounding me, at least. I still wished I had Hestia, though. "Wouldn't a baby have been easier to manipulate?" Lene frowned at him, no doubt for the speculation, but surprisingly, she held her tongue, some sort of suspicion blooming in her eyes. Good suspicion, not bad. "So, why?"

"...Maybe because of Duch… of Aunt Alicia?" Tine whispered hesitantly, her voice shaking a bit. When all eyes turned to her, she half-hid behind Fee, who held still so that she could. "It's just a thought, but I know that she and Manfroy hated each other, and Manfroy really hates Conall for being her son. And I remember Ishtar telling me about how she always warned them about Manfroy."

"In other words, despite all their planning, a single person delayed things significantly. Perhaps this is even why there are these… oh, I don't know… flashes of his old self amidst the violence? The young prince having enough sense of self to resist what is happening? And, thus, delaying things further?" Iuchar smiled, though it was a little meek. "Admittedly, it's simply speculation, but I feel like when you think of people as anything but people, you forget how they can forge their own miracles. You see it all the time in stories, but even stories craft the heroes into something larger than life." He laughed sheepishly, reaching up to adjust his headband. "So… uh… point, point… I totally had a point here…"

"Basically, you're trying to remind everyone that even if the Loptyrians meticulously planned everything, you can still stand up and flip the board," Lene summarized, nodding in agreement. Her eyes gleamed in triumph, and I was impressed she had figured it out so quickly. "I was thinking of reminding the group that they always get really antsy when everything seems to go to plan, because no strategy survives first contact with the enemy, but I like what you're saying better." She laughed and looked at everyone with a smile. "And even if they're playing, aren't you all the group that has used enemies' expectations against them? Repeatedly? So, no getting bogged down in what-ifs, okay? Think too far ahead in the dance, and you're just going to get your feet tangled."

"...I'm repeatedly reminded of how lucky we are to have everyone," Seliph murmured after a moment, smiling a bright smile. It instantly made everything feel a lot lighter and the world better, though that could be my heavy bias. "You're both quite right. So, back to the present. Is there anything else that should be discussed?"

"Hmm… oh, right! Ares!" Lene poked Ares's arm to get his attention. And then kissed his cheek to make sure she had it. Not a single one of us could keep from snickering when he instantly smiled at the gesture of affection. "Back at Darna, you were mentioning those prisons or whatnot you had to escort Loptyrian Priests to as part of your duties with Brams. And that you thought you should bring it up to the others?"

That certainly changed the subject, and the room became lively as talks focused on that. Everyone more or less stayed where they were, only coming near the table when we had to look at a map, but plans were drafted, to be refined after confirming things with scouts, while Leif and Nanna promised to talk more with Salem and Sara about other places of interest. And Patty volunteered to head an exploration of the Yied Shrine, just to see if there were more things (and to see if there were any items that Inanna, Anat, and the other Loptyrian children had left there). All in all, it ended up being the perfect way to end the meeting, because we felt like we were actually doing something instead of being trapped by our own anxieties.

"Ah, Riona!" As we were all leaving to settle whatever we had to settle before our next set of duties (and travels in some cases), Shanan called out to me. He raised a hand to make sure I saw him down the hall, as if he'd be hard to miss with two tigers at his side. Menis, the girl, sat quietly on his right, while Alexander, the boy, happily skipped about his feet while staying mostly on his left. "Sorry, but I'd like your help with something," he explained. "You mind?"

"You don't even need to ask, Shanan!" I laughed, beaming. This… I couldn't help but like it when he asked for help. Both because it felt like he was acknowledging how we were all getting stronger, and because it meant he was relearning to not do things alone. "Explain on the way, okay?"

One step at a time. That's all we could do, at the moment. I needed to remember that.

Ares remembered the rough locations of five different spots he had escorted Loptyrian Priests to. Salem knew of two more, while Sara knew of one that her grand… that Manfroy had visited fairly often in the past. It took the scouts a bit to confirm the locations, but eventually, all eight entrances were mapped out. Combined with Patty's expedition to the Yied Shrine, that made for nine exploration groups to plan out. Which, surprisingly, involved even more logistics than scouting groups. Mostly because we had no idea what we'd find, even more so than usual.

"I still maintain that being so deep underground is one of the worst things ever," I grumbled, covering my mouth with a scented cloth Maliya had insisted I carry before heading out on this expedition. And gods, I was glad for it. Even with the scent being faint due to time, it made breathing bearable in these mold-encrusted halls. "I feel like once the continent chose to drive the Loptyrians here, everything became inevitable." If only someone could've reached out sooner… "Ugh… no time for such thoughts. I'm moving forward."

I ended up being one of the leaders sent off for exploration, one of the closer ones that had a higher likelihood of people or prisoners, according to Sara. After all, it was the one Manfroy frequented. There was a worry of him ambushing us, again, but that was why Ares had insisted on traveling with me. If any of us were going to be ambushed, it would probably be me (because Seliph and Yuria were remaining in Alster for this).

"You done conversing with yourself?" Ares asked, barely glancing at me as he broke another locked door with all the ease of brushing something off a table. Inside we had blood, blood, and blood and mold ridden books that were impossible to even pick up without them falling apart. Again. "I'm beginning to think they just have a fetish or something at this point. This is the tenth room we've found alone that's been like this."

"Look, the last thing we need is the mental image of Manfroy having sex," I groused, scowling at him even as we continued down the hall. I'd had everyone split up in groups once we had gotten to the main interior, and Ares had insisted on staying near me (especially since Hestia was back at Alster). I could only hope the groups led by Mursili and Niamh were having much better luck. "I mean… since Sara is around, we know something like that had to have happened at least once, but…"

"Then don't mention it!" Ares scowled at me before covering his own nose and mouth with one of the scented cloths. "Ugh… the smell is even getting to me, and I've dealt with things like this before."

"Mercenaries scavenged ruins?"

"More like battlefields. To reclaim Lord 'So and So''s most prized sword that he left on the battlefield while fleeing and leaving his men to die. That sort of thing." We passed by another door and Ares just kicked it open this time instead of breaking the lock first. But the inside was… actually different. But… uh… "We certain that some lack of morality wasn't accidentally bred into the Loptyrians at one point?"

"Inanna. Anat." Though they were an immediate counter, I had to admit that Ares might have some sort of point. After all, the room we had opened up was like some demented version of an infirmary. Except the bodies were tied up on long slabs of stone, cut open and their organs for spread out all over the place. Like they'd been studied. The meticulous notes, written in an even hand and set carefully to the side, away from the blood, confirmed such suspicion. "Why would they do this?" Even if it was to study the bodies… based on the blood splatter, they'd been alive when first cut open. Why not just cut open the dead? I knew from Inanna how they viewed corpses, so… "Let's… gather the bodies and…" I passed by one, a woman not much older than me (which already hinted they were not from 'Child Hunts') with one of her legs messily stitched up, as if it was simply to 'close' the leg instead of actually heal. I smelled the infection and almost gagged… until I realized something. I smelled infection. As far as I knew, the dead didn't… exactly… "Oh, please no…" Please, let me just be mistaking the smell for rot or something. Please...

"Why do I have a bad feeling about what you're about to say?" Ares, meanwhile, was gathering the papers. I almost protested, but I bit my tongue. If it was here, then maybe we could at least use the information to save people. Even though at my core, I wanted to just burn it all because of how it was most likely obtained.

So, instead, I leaned in close to the girl, ignoring the rank smell as I rested my ear against her chest. It moved, and there… there was a heartbeat. "She's alive."

"Of course she is." Ares immediately ripped off his cloak and passed it to me. Something relatively clean to wrap her in. "I'll check the others. You administer first aid to her."

"Got it."

Ares found one other alive, a young boy whose arm was twisted around and around again, before someone had allowed it to 'sit' and heal wrong. He was so far into unconsciousness that he didn't so much as twitch as I re-broke the arm in an effort to properly set and bind it. For the woman, I had to rip out the stitches to clean the wound and purge the infection. She, at least, feebly whimpered and jerked from the pain. In fact, she even opened her eyes once. Just once, and they were so bleary that I wasn't sure she saw anything, but I made sure to smile at her. Just in case. Then it was back to tending to her wounds, as well as the boy's.

"This is going to be fun telling Inanna about," I whispered at some point while I worked. Ares just grunted in response, helping me when I needed it and basically turning the entire room upside down to see if there was anything hidden. And reading through the notes since he only really needed one hand to pick up things. "I wish I could hide it, but that would be worse."

"I am beginning to wonder how she's so moral, considering what I'm reading here," Ares noted, ripping the ropes off of one corpse so that he could set them down gently on the floor. And then kick over the table they'd been strapped to. "It's like the one, or ones, who did this didn't even think of them as human."

"Perhaps a generational thing?" Inanna was among the first Loptyrians in a hundred years that could grow up in the sun, without fear of the flames. "Or… well, perhaps there were different 'sects' or something? Like how we have countries?" They used to live underground. I found it very hard to believe that there were underground ruins spanning the entire length of Yied.

"You know; that's a good point. And each one could've taught their people something a little different. Like fables. Or how approaching a bear really should get you eaten, but you apparently never learned that." I snorted a laugh, startled by the joke. Especially since I hadn't encountered a bear in quite a few years. "That could be something to ask Inanna, then. Or, perhaps Salem would be better. Could be that the lines between groups blurred once they were allowed to travel freely." He turned to face me, nodding to the two survivors. "Think they can handle being carried by us? Or should we go with some sort of sling?"

"I… honestly, I have no idea." I sighed and looked at the two. I didn't even know they'd make it back to the sun, much less anything else. But, I had to try. I couldn't just write them off or anything. That was another reason why I couldn't be a healer, as Mom was. "We should've brought one of the healers with us."

"Then we'll get them. Everyone has been marking their paths, after all." That was true. "I think we should at least carry these two out of the room, though. If they're going to die, they can at least die in a place slightly different from where they were tortured for knowledge." Ares glanced at the papers he still held. "...I would like to think that the information can be used to help the healers work more efficiently."

"But, if we find them, then those who did this… will die." I made sure to catch and hold his gaze. I hoped… he would get what I was asking. "No second chances or anything. No mercy, save for a quick death."

"I'll make sure you don't forget." He smiled slightly, yet softly, and I smiled back, relieved. Because even with my resolve, and even with my acknowledgement that it was okay to keep things 'simple', I knew the chances were high that I, and the others, would fall into old habits. That was just… how I was. Painful as it was to think, it was likely something I would have to be aware of until the day I died. "I'll take the boy."

We both moved the two as gently as possible, taking care to give them as much support as we could. I fussed over how we laid them down, mostly because I just… I didn't want to leave them. Since they were alive, that meant that someone had recently been here. For all we knew, they could still be here, and if they were, then… but I wasn't sure how best to carry them and, honestly, if they didn't have internal damage of some kind, I'd do… something. It was a bit hard to think, really. Well, for me. Ares was already heading down the hall, though at a very quick pace. I lingered and fussed, while he actually went and did something. Really showed the difference in maturity there…

I sighed and made myself stand, reminding myself that I had to keep moving. But before I could take a step, I heard something… weird. Very weird. It almost sounded like a flute. No, not even 'almost'. It was a flute. I was sure of it. And the source was somewhere in the room, so I returned, even though I was reasonably certain that there could be no one playing a flute there. Still, I heard it and I looked around slowly, wondering if maybe there was some sort of device that was playing it? I mean; I wasn't sure how that would work per se, but there were stranger things in the world. And it would've made more sense than an invisible person playing a flute. Which was what it appeared to be, as I saw no one. No one and nothing, besides what had been here when Ares and I first stepped inside.

At least, until I noticed something that had definitely not been there earlier. There, underneath one of the few tables Ares hadn't turned or kicked over (mostly because it was wedged into the corner), was a feather. A pure white feather, the same size as a pegasus's, and far too clean to have been in this room from the start. But it was also not something Ares and I could've tracked in. So, it was… terribly strange. And because I was a curious one, instead of running like a smart person, I instead got on my hands and knees and crawled under the table, looking for some sort of clue. I found one instantly; the floor shifted under my hands. A quick brush of the dust and I was easily able to find a door. It took a bit of finangling to actually get it to open, because it was heavy, but I managed and found a staircase, heading down. And though I knew I shouldn't, knew that I should at least wait (if not go and catch up with Ares), I crawled down, moving carefully to lessen the chances of me slipping. After all, a hidden staircase under a place like this? Made me think that… that there could be people here.

I still had to scowl when I made it to the bottom of the staircase and found the source of the flute at last. Lewyn. He was casually leaning against the wall, playing a song that I thought I might've heard Fee hum a couple of times. It was pretty, but annoying. Him being here was annoying. He was supposed to be helping in Leonster (which was very far away from where we were) and if he had somehow gotten down here before Ares and me, that meant there were more entrances than I doubted we had time to look for. And I was prepared to yell at him for just appearing without telling us (because I doubted he would've left a note or something), but the words died when he opened his eyes and I realized something even stranger than the flute and feather and him being here. The Lewyn I saw looked more like the Lewyn I had seen in the pictures than the one I had come to know personally. Eyes dancing with good humor, a touch of a smile on his face even while wearing a serious expression… hell, even his clothes were different. Still subtle on the elegance, but somehow livelier. Like it was put on for sheer fun and the wearer intended to live up to the intention.

He gestured for me to follow him, not saying a single word (which was also very weird), and I… well, followed. Because this was all weird. This was all very weird. So, in silence, we walked and, slowly, I began smelling the distinct iron smell of blood. The nauseating smell of mold, dirt, and other things piled on top of each other because no one bothered to clean for gods knew how long. Surprisingly, no death, though. Nothing like rot. The closest was the smell of infection. And that last one hinted to where he was leading me before I snapped my fingers to create a small ball of fire and confirm everything with my eyes. Dungeons, just like I'd originally suspected. Dungeons, with people within. Living people who hissed and whimpered at the fire.

"Easy, it's okay," I reassured, rushing to the closest cell. I smiled at the people within, a group of three of indeterminate ages. They were too thin and filthy to try; I could count their ribs through the rags they wore as clothing. "I don't know how long you've been down here, but I… I'm one of the Scions of Light. One of Prince Seliph's." Felt weird to use that title to address myself and even weirder to use a title for Seliph. But the fearful hope that flooded their eyes made it worth it. "I'm here with a group. We're going to get you out of here." Even if I had to melt the locks, but providing Ares came back soon, I wouldn't have to. "I'm going to check the other cells, okay? Rest and try to relax. You're leaving this hell today. I promise."

I turned to address Lewyn, to ask how he knew about this place or if he conveniently had keys, but he was gone. Just… poof. Gone. What the… did he do something with the wind? I mean… Ugh, he could've at least stayed to help a little. Would it have really killed him? But I supposed it didn't matter. Not really. I could yell at him later, so instead, I focused on the people trapped here. Walking to each cell, reassuring them individually that yes, help was here. Yes, this was real and certainly no dream. Not all looked to me with hope or anything. In fact, some looked at me with heartbrokenly dull eyes, eyes that whispered 'why could you have not come sooner?'. Eyes I had no answer to, and my heart keened as I thought of who all had probably died. And how long they'd been here.

"Hmm? So, you're the one breathing life into this hole?" Only one of the prisoners talked to me, a woman with long and tangled green hair and matching eyes. She held two children protectively against her, and used one of her legs to further shield them. Her other leg was mangled, broken a dozen times and left to set until it was twisted and incapable of holding any weight. "Hmm… strange," she continued, studying me closely. I glanced around, and noticed this was the very last cell, right up against a wall. No other entrance in sight… how had Lewyn gotten in here, then? "You look like Alicia."

"Pardon?" Well, that sure as hell got my attention. I feared I'd snap my neck with how quickly I focused back on her. "What was that?" I asked, mostly because I wasn't sure I'd heard her correctly.

"Could be the lack of light, but you look like a friend of mine. Alicia." The woman leaned a little forward to get a better look at me, and I thought of the stories I'd heard. Of the green-haired, green-eyed dancer who helped Mom in the infirmary so much, who was good friends with her and Lewyn and Erinys. Who had disappeared after leaving Lene at Darna, which wasn't very far from here… "What's your name?"

"It's… it's Riona." No way. There was just no way. "Caitriona, but I go by 'Riona'. I…" My voice cracked as the pieces slowly slid into place. "I am the daughter of Alicia and Chulainn. Their eldest."

"Oh, well, that'll explain it." Sylvia smiled, and the smile was just like the ones in all the pictures. "I knew something good would happen today. Glad to see my intuition was right."

I was probably going to put this down as the gods apologizing for what happened at Belhalla all those years ago, because holy hell.

"I'm going to be sick…" I groaned, dropping the papers I'd been reading and leaning back in my chair. I rubbed at my eyes as if that would somehow erase the memory of what I'd read, but of course, there was no such luck. "How do people even think this way? I don't think I'll ever understand…"

Ares had found me down in the dungeons not long after I'd realized Sylvia was there and, while lecturing me about being on my own, he'd broken the locks and we'd gotten everyone out. Due to the former-prisoners' conditions, it was decided we would rest in Darna for a time, which also gave ample time to read through all the various books and papers Mursili and Niamh's groups had recovered. Something I'd dove into immediately after sending a message off to Alster informing them of our delayed arrival (and of Sylvia's survival). Some were histories, some were detailed theories of spells, some were various bits of knowledge (such physics, a study of the stars, even in-depth discussions and observations of the wildlife), some were medicinal in nature (not just the body either, but the mind, based on the notes for herbs and concoctions that helped those whose anxiety overwhelmed them on a daily basis or who heard/saw hallucinations)... things that were almost startling to read, considering how most of my encounters with Loptyrians go. Things that told me that Inanna, Anat, Salem, and Sara… that they weren't 'exceptions that proved the rule' or anything. Things that reminded me of what Patty once said Dew told her, about how the 'nice' and 'moderate' Loptyrians were killed or twisted because of who was in power, but they existed.

Then you had stuff like what I was reading at the moment. Things that weren't actually written by Loptyrians, but (based on the continued use of 'heretic' and 'Cursed God') were likely written by the people of the desert. Books and notes confiscated (stolen) from villages and abandoned churches. Books that detailed how… how the Loptyrians hadn't been the only ones doing human experimentation. And I used 'experimentation' loosely because I couldn't see any reason for doing them besides a lust for torture.

"You okay, Riona?" Sylvia's voice was a strangely soothing combination of lively and calm, even with the clunk of her cane punctuating each word. "Your pretty face is all scrunched up," she commented, carefully leaning over my shoulder to peer at my face. Her hair had been so tangled that we had to cut it short, but she took it with grace. As much grace as she did her crippled leg, which I thought would've shaken her more since she had been a dancer. But, then again, who knew how long it had been? "Read something sad?"

"More like read something that I never will understand." I sighed gustily and swung myself forward to better look at the papers. "Plus the moral and ethical concerns of even reading through to see if there is anything that can be used to help people, considering just how the information was obtained." I knew that, pragmatically, I should use anything I could to protect the people who trusted me, but…

"I'd say that you don't make that decision on your own. Talk to Ares, for instance, or wait until you're back in Alster and bring it up then." She smiled sweetly at me, and I nearly laughed at myself for once again forgetting that I was part of a team and overthinking myself into circles. Gods, you'd think I'd know better by now. "Besides, you've been cooped up in here all day. With no sunshine. You're a delicate flower, you know."

"I don't think anyone has ever described me as 'delicate' before." Still, this time, I did laugh and stood with a stretch and a squeak. "Surprised Mursili or Niamh hasn't gotten me yet."

"Mursili was, but I had a request, so I offered instead." She hooked an arm around mine and led me out of the room I'd been studying in. "I'd like to visit Claude."

"Oh, of course!" That should've… that should've been one of the first things I'd done! Though, she had been very tired due to everything, and even now, I worried about her stamina and general health. The arm around mine was unnaturally bony and I half-feared I could see the crevices of her elbow joint. "Should I carry you?"

"Mmm… no, not yet, at least." She laughed, a bright and beautiful one, and looked up at me with dancing eyes. "I want to stretch my legs a bit more!"

"If you're sure." I couldn't help but marvel at her cheer. Particularly since I'd done my best to fill her in on all sorts of details on the way between here and the prison. Meaning she learned just what happened to most of her friends: death, death, and more death. "I'm impressed that you can smile so…"

"Dancers are good at smiling, and I've a lot to smile about." She shrugged and wobbled a bit on a staircase as we stepped outside. I lifted her slightly to make it easier on her. She wasn't used to her cane yet, and… well, these steps were still a bit unsteady. Darna was still rebuilding, after all. "Not all of my friends are dead. All of their children are alive and doing well. I'm not in that stinky cell anymore. You told me that Lene is alive and well." Yes, but we didn't know about her son at all... "So many people are healing… yeah, with scars, but healing is healing. They're no longer bleeding until there's nothing left to bleed." She laughed and waved at some people passing by, who were carrying large baskets filled with colorful cloths. They laughed and waved back before bowing at me. I made sure to smile. "I could focus on the sucky stuff, but that won't do me any good. Life sucks, but that doesn't mean I can't find joy in it anyway. I learned that as a child."

"I… I see…" I'd remembered Shanan once telling me of Sylvia's incredible resilience, but to see it firsthand was just… amazing. I had no other word for it. "Well, I suppose when you put it that way, there is a lot to be grateful for."

"That's something you should keep in mind too." Though her eyes still danced, there was a seriousness to her expression as we walked down some lesser used paths to Claude's grave. I worried about how maintained they were, but the main streets were crowded and that seemed much worse. "I won't say you shouldn't think on the dead and those you couldn't save, but you should always remind yourself about the good you've done as well. Otherwise, you're just going to get caught in a dark spiral to nowhere."

Like earlier, with the papers… "Why am I getting this lecture?"

"I saw your brokenhearted expression when you were carrying the corpses out." ...Ah… well, that was… something I couldn't deny… some had been so young… "Sigurd always had that problem too. Seeing the negative, never quite realizing the positive. It was endearingly frustrating, that he never realized just how brightly he shone. Even at the end." I bit my tongue just in time to keep from snarking about 'yeah, fires are bright' because… well, I knew what she'd meant. "Well, besides the fire, I mean." Besides, she supplied it herself. "Ugh… I forgot just how big Darna was!"

"We're not much farther." I did have to smile at the subject change. "I wonder if the flowers are still there."

The answer ended up being 'no but yes'. The flowers Tine and I had left weren't, but new ones had replaced them. And whoever had replaced them had made sure to tie them into little bouquets with ribbons. A small incense burner flickered with a quiet flame, its smoke carrying a faint scent of lavender that lingered around the grave like a warm blanket. And there were even small letters tucked carefully into a covered box, which hadn't been there last time I'd been here. Though I knew I shouldn't, I took a quick peek, and saw the first one was from a mother, thanking 'Father Claude' for saving her little girl from the plague all those years ago.

"Hey, Claude, I made it," Sylvia whispered, sitting down in front of the grave. Her good leg was tucked under her, while her other one was stretched out next to her. "And, guess what? Lene's okay. You probably already knew that, of course, but I wanted to say it anyway. Quite lucky, really. I knew leaving her at a covent or whatever was risky, but they were gaining on me. Wonder if you gave her your luck, to make sure she'd be okay. I know I wished mine would go to her and Coirpre, for their safety." She closed her eyes and smiled. A bright and warm smile. It made my heart ache, looking at it. "I miss you. I miss everyone, truthfully. But, don't worry. You know how tough I am. I'll keep on living, for everyone."

She didn't say anything else aloud, just let herself feel the wind blow. Let the smell of the incense and the flowers waft over her. I fussed over the grave, making sure there were no weeds and that the box of letters was in a safe place where no water would leak into it. Just little things to give her as much time as she wanted and needed. I honestly should've just left, but I was worried about her health. I hoped Claude wouldn't mind; I didn't think he would. At least, based on the stories I knew.

"I love you, Claude." With those words, Sylvia opened her eyes and she smiled at me. "Mind helping me up?" I was at her side in an instance, and we soon got her standing, though we… ah… almost forgot her cane. "Whoops~!"

"That could've been interesting," I teased, helping her steady herself. I then held still until she tugged me down the path, ready to leave. "We could stay a little longer."

"The living cannot carry the weight of the dead. Their backs will snap eventually." She looked up at the clear sky with bright eyes that practically sparkled. I half-wondered if they were unshed tears, but I couldn't ask. "And I have my memories. Those are more important to me than his grave. I just had to see it. I'll visit again when everything is settled."

"I… I see." Growing up as I did, with the people I did, she was just… I thought of Shanan and the guilt he carried. Oifeye's regrets. Aideen's sorrows. The nightmares we all had. And here she was, 'dancing' through life still. It was baffling, really. But, I did… like it. A lot. "I wish I could think that way."

"It's got its downsides. Trust me. And I've years of experience with it." She looked at me with a bright grin. "But, don't worry. I'll help from now on, okay? I'm sure you all need another adult around."

"Gods, tell me about it…" I had to laugh, and she soon joined in. And though she didn't look back at the grave once, I did. Just a quick peek.

For a blink, I thought I saw Claude's ghost standing there with a warm and loving smile. But then the image was gone, and I had no proof at all that he'd been there in the first place.

A few days later, we left for Alster. The former-prisoners came with us, just for better medical care, so the journey was slow. But that simply gave Alster plenty of time to prepare for our new arrivals, so I didn't mind. And I minded even less when I saw that Shanan was back from his own expedition, and that Uncle Finn and Aunt Lachesis had returned from Leonster. Because it meant they could greet Sylvia with Oifeye, and I got to watch that happy reunion.

"My gods, you can't be Shanan! Shanan is supposed to be tiny!" Sylvia laughed as Shanan lifted her out of the wagon we'd borrowed from Darna. Someone would take it back with extra supplies in the next couple of days. "You're all big!"

"Yes, I got that growth spurt, just as I said I would," Shanan replied, barely setting Sylvia on the ground before hugging her tightly. She hugged him back, clinging a little. "I can't believe you're okay…"

"I'd say the same, but I knew you all were fine. My intuition said so!" Still, Sylvia began crying tears of joy and relief, and she rubbed at her eyes when Shanan released her. Just seconds before Aunt Lachesis slid up to hug her. "Yikes, tight! Ribs exist, Lachesis! Why do you always forget ribs exist?"

I lingered back, helping the others in the wagon disembark and get them to soldiers who would escort them to… wherever they would be going. It was just… nice to watch, really. Uncle Finn and Oifeye did try to hang back a bit, to give Sylvia room to breath, but she jumped on Uncle Finn (well, hopped) to hug him and that just dragged Oifeye into the mess of hugs and laughs. I wondered if they'd act the same if (when) we saw Dew. I'd like it, because it was just so wonderful to see their smiles. To see the hope they hadn't dared to hold onto was actually answered.

Lene's bright laugh caught my attention, and I saw her rushing up to greet Ares before helping to move things inside. She looked at Sylvia curiously, and for a moment, I held my breath. But then she shrugged and headed inside without a backwards glance and I realized that she… she hadn't recognized her. Not at all. And at first, I wondered why, but then I remembered how… well, I didn't think any of the adults had brought up Lene's parentage to her yet. And, if that was the case, then her only images of her mother, of Sylvia, would've just been the vague memories she had. Even though she once had told me she had learned dancing not just for money, but also in the hopes that she'd somehow come across her mother… even though her mother was right here…

"No, no, it's fine!" Sylvia's laughing voice… I barely heard her through the storm of my thoughts, but when I looked over, I saw her smiling, even as the other adults looked worried. Aunt Lachesis and Uncle Finn in particular. "Of course she's not going to recognize me," she continued to reassure, and with a heavy heart, I realized what they were talking about. "She was all little! I'm just glad to see that she's fine, just like my intuition said. There's no need to push."

"Are you sure, though?" Aunt Lachesis asked, clinging to Sylvia's arm. I knew, knew, she was thinking of her own reunion with Diarmuid. The pained look in Uncle Finn's eyes hinted to the same. "I mean…"

"She's alive. She's well. She's happy. I could want for nothing more. Particularly since, you know, I left her behind." Though Sylvia smiled, she said the words firmly with a distinct edge to them. 'End of discussion.' "I am curious about Coirpre, though. I know Claude would've gotten him to some sort of safety before getting caught, particularly since no one made any mention of a little boy or the Valkyrie Staff, but…"

Discussions continued, with Oifeye and Shanan taking over so that Sylvia could have the change in subject she wanted and so that Aunt Lachesis and Uncle Finn could calm down a little. But I couldn't blame them, because I was upset. After all, Sylvia had only 'left behind' Lene to protect her, just as the rest of our parents did. But I bit my tongue as I realized something. I… we had grown up knowing what had happened. We had known our parents didn't truly abandon us. Aideen, Oifeye, and Shanan… they had made sure we had known. They had made sure we knew that they had loved us, that we hadn't done anything wrong. They had made sure we knew that if our parents could, they would've come back for us. And, hell, we saw it too, with the ghosts of our parents and with Aunt Lachesis and Uncle Finn (who never left-left, but had still longed to see us).

But Lene hadn't had that luxury. She hadn't had caretakers to tell her just why her parents weren't around. No one to reassure her that yes, she had been loved and that war was just terribly cruel. To her, her mother just… just left her and disappeared. And while that meant Lene hadn't been hunted by soldiers as we had… while that meant she had stayed safe from that particular danger, it had led to her having a lonely, rough life filled with its own sorts of dangers. Anger… anger would be expected. Even if Lene had wanted to meet her, anger really would be more than expected. And I couldn't help but wonder if what Sylvia really wanted was to avoid that anger for the time being. Because even if she was resilient, she was still healing and…

"Riona!" Lene pounced on me with a big hug, kissing my cheek in greeting. "You shouldn't stay outside so long," she teasingly scolded, taking my hand to lead me through the busy courtyard. I caught sight of Sylvia watching us leave with a smile. "You'll get a sunburn!"

"I put on lotion before we marched off today," I protested, forcing myself to relax. Even if I wanted to somehow intervene or get involved, I had no idea how. And there was a lot to do. So, honestly, it might be best to just… just do as I did. Be Lene's friend, and be ready to support her whenever the truth did come out. "I think Larcei would've kick me if I hadn't."

"Lana too! We had a few try to be all strong and confident, only to pass out from sun poisoning just a couple hours ago." Oh, yikes, Lana was going to be in a mood. "Hestia's with her to sweeten her temper a little."

"What? No Ulster for that?"

"Sadly, Ulster is still out and about. I think she's cranky."

"Aw, my poor little sister! I must rectify that with books!" We both laughed at that, and almost walked inside. However, just before we did, a small shadow darted over my feet, and I looked up just in time to catch a brief glimpse of a dragon before it disappeared behind a cloud. I frowned at it, narrowing my eyes. Dragons didn't normally fly this far north, though. Not unless they had a rider… and the two dragon knights in Leif's army were in Leonster, which meant… which meant that had no doubt been a scout. Maybe with the excuse of delivering a letter to Ares from their princess, but...

"...That's the second one I've noticed this week." Lene's voice was quiet as she looked up at the sky with me. "Retaking Leonster, conquering Alster… the other nations are noticing."

"Yeah…" I watched the skies a while longer, to see if our scout would come into view again. But they didn't. Just a quick pass by… hopefully not something in detail. Noticing, watching, but hopefully not planning… "Have you reported it?"

"Not yet. Thought I'd wait until either I saw a second one, or until Lewyn got back from Leonster. But, of course, Lewyn's still there." She made a face, but I had to bite my tongue to keep from yelping. If he was there, then how the hell was… "Let's head inside. Ares mentioned you all found some morally dubious things too. We'll want to organize it before calling a Council, right?"

"Yeah…" Thousands of questions streaked through my head, but I shook my head and focused on the present. It was all I could do, for the moment. "We will."

I just had to hope that I could wrangle some answers out of Lewyn whenever I next saw him, and pray that Travant didn't strike while we were trying to recuperate. I wasn't sure any of us wanted to think of what to do with him, and Thracia, yet. I certainly didn't.

Author's Notes: Haha… been a bit? Three Houses has consumed my life (and, well, life stuff happens). But anyway, here we are? Why tigers? You can blame a mental image that wouldn't leave me alone. 'Menis' is a greek word for 'wrath', and, iirc, it's one of the first words (if not THE first word) of the Illiad, specifically describing the wrath of Achilles. Ayra's Japanese name (Ira) is literally the Latin word for 'wrath' (though I think I've read something about it also being a diminutive for 'Irina' and 'Irene', which mean 'peace'). As for Alexander… well, you had Alexander the Great and all, but more importantly… 'Lex' is often a nickname for 'Alexander'. Yes, he named the tigers after Ayra and Lex. (Look, I promise that not every char is getting a pet or anything. Promise! I just get weird ideas while sick, and I've been sick)

Here's the fate of the last of the Gen1 chars, Sylvia. Aside from dropping Lene off at an orphanage in Darna, nothing is known about what happened to her in-canon, so I went with this. I wanted a bit of a contrast with Lachesis and Diarmuid's reunion. The Loptyr Tome having been hidden in Agustria is mentioned in Manfroy's oneshot in Memoirs of the Lost.