Cinders and Smoke

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Author's Note: I love Lenus, and I love Drake, and I love the unremittingly depressing. I also love the Legend of Dragoon, but I'm not making any money off of this, so please don't sue me.

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They say not to go to the caves north of the city.

He'd snorted at this, just as he'd snorted at Don't go to the temple in the mountains and Don't break out of Hellena Prison using homemade incendiary devices and piano wire. He isn't much for being told where not to go.

When he presses, they tell him about the dead sea dragon, and all the ghosts of the people it murdered. Faceless drowning victims, they said. A burned woman who utters nothing but curses.

He'd snorted again at that. Burned. By a sea dragon.

They don't have answers for that, but he doesn't care by that point. He'd found what he was looking for, just as he'd found what he'd been looking for all those years ago when he'd stumbled out of the woods and into the temple. An abandoned place, where nobody dared set foot. Perfect.

Besides, the guards are already looking at him sideways too much as it is. It could be the shifty set to his shoulders, the perpetual odor of gunpowder coming from his clothes, or hell, his hat, but it's too familiar a look for Drake. He makes his way north.

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She swears more than anyone he's ever met, living or dead. Not even clever swearing, no labyrinthine tangles of invective and foulness- just endlessly repeated strings of filth. Who she's cursing is never distinct; names surface, then are buried beneath an avalanche of fucking kill that motherfucker, cocksucker thought he knew more than me, gonna show him someday, come over here and say that, I'll kill you kill you kill you, repeated into the dark until the walls bleed curses. Her voice is raw hamburger, dripping despair and confusion like a throat-cut bull on the butcher's floor.

Listening to her makes his head hurt.

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He knew about Mayfil.

The old fairy stories about winglies and flying cities had never mentioned the city of the dead, but sometimes it had been all Shirley could talk about.

In that respect, she'd been purely ghost-like. A fly trapped in amber, eternally circling old trauma. It was easy enough to see, locked in time as she was, young, beautiful, and very, very dead.

Late at night, her fingertips had dripped scarlet onto the temple flagstones, torn from a bowstring that had gone to dust millennia ago.

There had been times when she'd really looked at him, and seen him for who he was. An old, used-up bandit with gunpowder burns on every finger. And then she'd talk about Mayfil, and Dragoons, and when this temple had been built, and what saving the world had been like. On bad nights, she'd floated through the ruins, over the waters of the lake, calling out the same six names, over and over again.

But he knew about Mayfil now. That great, black sewer drain somewhere in the far north, sucking all the dead of this world down into its heart.

Except for the Dragoons, she'd said. They didn't count.

She hadn't said why, but he'd learned to quit asking her questions long ago. She was dead, and it only confused her.

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Sometimes she's armored. Blue, shining armor like water on a dragon's scales, her hair held back by a diadem the color of cracked ice. Sometimes she's in normal clothes, a bandana the color of clotted blood tight across her forehead, matching her eyes, and matching the gut wound she's always clutching closed, with hands covered in gore to the wrist.

She doesn't see him. Not truly. There are times when she almost looks him in the eye, or hurls ice spells that almost work in his general direction, but she doesn't ask him his name, or ask what he's doing there, or why he's watching a crazy ghost batter herself to non-death against the walls. She isn't Shirley. Other people don't exist.

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They've lowered the sluices over in Lidiera, and blocked off the path leading to the deeper part of the caves.

That doesn't deter him. It's a trap. It's just another trap. An obstacle, like greased stairwells and caltrops on the garden lawn. It's less work for him in the long run.

He soaks himself to the hips making the jump over to the other side, and for a few, heady moments he vividly sees himself being sucked down underneath foaming green water and limestone until his bones wash out with the tide, but he makes it.

He hauls himself up, feeling the howl in his joints that means he isn't as young as he was, and ignoring it. He takes a step, stumbles, and catches himself on the wall of the cave, and is promptly jolted to his core.

It is haunted.

Newer and stronger and angrier than Shirley ever was, and the feel of it crawls up his arm and digs behind his eyes and yowls in the cavern of his skull. Dead, dead, dead, and not quiet about it

And then he hears the screaming from deep within the caves.

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She's claimed the central cavern as her haunting site, never roaming beyond its confines. The sea-dragon's bones sprawl every-which-way across the stones, the curving spinal column disappearing somewhere under the water. In the heat of her rages, great, roiling shadows thrash across the cavern's walls, as if Regole too is a heartsick ghost, pounding on the walls of reality.

He watches, quietly. Sitting on a stone, smoking a pipe, his battered old hat resting on one arthritic knee, the smoke curling up above him like a question mark.

Sometimes she tires herself out, her death wound spattering the stones around her as fresh as the day she'd received it. She'll pant, looking around as bereft as a child. Sometimes, she'll sit down next to him, moving awkward and slow, the smoke wafting through her. A tough, bulldog face with a hatchet chin, and shifting, maroon eyes that never lose their confused, restless hopelessness.

Once, she looks at him, and says, very seriously, "I really would have loved you, you asshole. As best I could."

Her voice is like bones cracking underfoot, and Drake wonders if this is how all Dragoons end up.

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She'd left him. His ghost woman. Worshipped for a thousand years as the White Lady of the mountain, and she'd up and left him.

To look for her comrades, she'd said. In the ruins of the ghost city.

A greasy ex-bandit-cum-temple-guardian didn't have a hell of a lot of options in the world of today, but staying and rotting in the temple didn't seem like much of a choice.

Lohan was too dusty, and Fletz frankly nauseated him, but when he'd stumbled across Fueno, something about the place told him that it was the perfect place to quietly drink himself to death.

The logic of it had seemed perfectly reasonable at the time, the way that everything seems perfectly reasonable at two in the morning with several gallons of cheap brandy in your gut. He'd beat her to Mayfil, that was all. Clean and simple. It hadn't worked, because in the end, it was the drama of it that eluded him.

Dying's a trap. A honey-coated, razor-wire trap, and he'd always made a point of it to never fall for his own.

Shirley had worn her death like a songbird in the emperor's palace.

This ghost, however, was like a coyote gnawing its own leg off.

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He assumed that she'd been one of the companions of the people who'd invaded the temple, cut down by her own. He could see why. She had probably been crazier than a shithouse rat in life as well as in death- anyone would end up killing her just to get some peace of mind.

"Where's the little girl?" she asks him, her nails digging bloody crescents into her palms, her crazy red eyes boring through him.

He shakes his head slowly.

"The little girl," she insists. "She was mine."

"Ain't nobody here but me, sweetheart," he rumbles to her, the unexpected gentleness making his voice grow rocks in the back of his throat.

Her jaw clenches shut, and her fingers relax. "I haven't," she says slowly, eyes panning round looking gutted and lonely. "I haven't got anyone else. It's dark, and it's hot, and I can't fucking find you."

"I'm here, sweetheart," he says, one old man to a ghost who isn't listening.

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He doesn't know why he doesn't leave, but he suspects it's for the same reason he'd spent so many years in the mountain temple. He'd been old then, and he's even older now, and there is a ghost who needs him.

How this ghost needs him exactly, he doesn't know. This crazy, nameless ghost, who'd died mad and was slowly going madder in the dark, doesn't seem to need anything more than the darkness to scream in, but still, he stays. He's rigged a couple thousand pounds of rock to come pouring down on anyone who tries to get into this place, and the entire back reach of the caverns is basically one enormous snare.

He's built his own Mayfil.

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He's an old man who talks to ghosts, and he's made a place for himself here. The ghost shrieks herself hoarse in the small watches of the night, and Drake watches, and smokes, and thinks about his life. He thinks about monsters and men with wings on their back, who will never fly their way to the death city of the north. He thinks about temples in the mountains, and caves by the sea, and the ghosts who dig their fingernails in and refuse to leave these haunted places.

He thinks about Shirley. He thinks about his ghost woman in the walls, with the red, thistledown hair and the goddess eyes, and the bow-torn fingers that wept onto the floor for everyone she couldn't save.

He thinks about nothing in particular.

The ghost lifts her eyes to his, and they are swimming with ugly, embarrassed tears. "My life," she says slowly, "is for you."

His fingers catch slowly at the air around where her head would be.. Trying, awkwardly, to comfort, and failing. She doesn't even see him. "I know, sweetheart."

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