…Stray Birds…

"The tides are shifting.. the sea breeze feels heavy against my face. The storm approaches. Once this storm passes, our world will be vastly different. Breathe it in. Breathe in this vibrancy, this life you know. It will not last forever..Tthe tide is rushing in, and I long to be alone with this broken world once more" -Skuld, Asmodian NPC

Tears filled her eyes, threatening to spill over. It just wasn't fair. He had no right to accuse Shilo of trying to usurp power, not when Espe himself was not being as strong a leader as he could be. He glared at her now, unyielding despite a woman's tears.

"If you really think like that, then you are a fool and have no place with us." He didn't even wait for her response, just reached out and ripped the legion cape from her shoulder.

Blue eyes cast down in embarrassment. Why is no one saying anything? The words screamed in her head, but failed to reach her mouth. She was being ousted for defending Shilo, her friend, and not one of the many she would have done this same act for… none stood up for her. The need to run grew stronger, an urge sitting deep in the well of her heart to hide in shame. Espe didn't wait for her to leave - he walked away first, and the others had no choice but to follow.

Zive paused, looked like he was about to say something, and went silent. The despair grew larger in her heart that even Zive would say nothing to her. Shilo was long gone, else Echo would have followed him in this turmoil, which meant that she was utterly alone as, one by one, they all followed Espe. One was left standing. Sweet Serre with eyes brimming over in mirrored despair.

"You can't leave. You didn't mean that."

"…I don't have a choice now." And she didn't. They stood in the middle of the wilderness, and Espe had just taken with him her friends and her home. Her family. Echo was alone now in a wilderness that was unforgiving.

"SERRE!" The shout came from a distance, and the red-head flinched at her name. She threw her arms quickly around her friend and was gone.

"Please come back! You have to!"

As if Echo had the choice. Espe was a short wick, and she has decided to burn the candle at both ends. The only road before her now was riddled with monsters and enemies, and so she walked alone.

"She didn't mean it!"

"Zive, don't be a fool. She said exactly what she thought."

"Echo was just defending Shi-"

"YES, I KNOW!" Espe rounded on his second-in-command. "She was defending someone who was leading the legion against my wishes, who was deciding without my approval what and where they go. And when I decided I didn't want a puppeteer in my legion, Echo says how I'm not a good leader. How I don't care about this group, of how I am a weak leader. Lies! None of you would follow me if I were weak, if I did not have everyone's best interest at heart."

"We can't just leave her out there."

"Where she is doesn't matter to us anymore. The words out of her mouth were that she didn't want to be with us. Her choice to leave, not mine. I just took the initiative to remove her, formally."

"Please, Espe, reconsider."

"Echo and this legion's goals do not match. This topic is over with, Zive."

Eyes opened to the darkness of his room. Even now, Zive could recall the conversation clearly. Over a year had passed, and the situation had not resolved. Echo had gone missing, the last image he had of her form as a weeping figure on the road. The girl had never come back to the legion home for her belongings, not even for her pet. The small bird was in his possession now, a bundle of feathers with beady eyes and a long beak. It was sleeping in its cage, where he had kept it since returning home a year ago. Anytime he so much as referenced Echo, his leader would bristle with tension, his childish stubborn streak persisting still.

Espe and Shilo had come to terms in the bloody fist way, the latter forming his own legion and brawling against his former allies until Espe had no choice but to acknowledge him for leadership qualities. The two legions merged, and their forces were stronger than ever. Zive was still second-in-command, but Shilo had a say in everything and his advice was always considered.

"Awake again?" Shilo's voice rang out in the darkness.

"It really is creepy that you can tell," Zive whispered back.

"It actually isn't. You want to know the secret?"

The cleric propped himself up, dark eyes adjusting to the shadows to make out the templar's form. "I'm listening."

"You go quiet." The words were spoken softly.

"I go quiet? What's that supposed to mean?"

"You stop mumbling."

"…So…you are saying that I talk in my sleep?"

"All the time."

"…And what kinds of things do I say?"

"Oh, all kinds of things. Mostly nonsense, sometimes you bark commands."

"And what was I saying tonight?"

"Her name."

Silence settled over the two, thick in their room.

"You haven't let go."

"And you have?" Anger was building up in him now, sudden and surprising even to himself.

"No, I haven't. I miss Echo, I was in love with her just as much as you were, but there's no way to find her. She left no trace."

"No one just disappears without a trace," Zive was bristling now, fists tight and knuckles grey in the dark.

"Apparently, she did. Espe took her legion cape, her home, her family, and left her to her own devices. That's all we know. That's all you told me."

"She left because of you."

"You think I don't know that? It hurts, and I hate myself that this resulted because of me. It warms my heart to know she stood up for me, but I would have rather she kept her mouth shut and stayed home!"

"Can't be helped. She was always an open book, said what she felt."

"I beat myself up over it every night. I'm sure you know the feeling." There was some groaning of the other bed, of Shilo's massive form rolling over.

"I want to find her," Zive heard himself say.

"How do you intend to find someone who was lost a year ago?" The words hung sadly in the air, any intended harshness lost upon speaking.

"I don't know. Looking. Actually going to look for her."

"It's been a year. The trail is cold."

"I know that, but I can't get over her, as I'm sure you haven't either."

"Espe won't like it."

"He can suck it. I'm not happy with him in this matter. I wasn't then and I'm not now. The difference is that a year of guilt has finally moved me to speak up. What he did was wrong. Echo should never have been left on her own with only her staff for company. She was never meant to be by herself." His roommate was silent, but Zive knew there was agreement. Shilo and Espe might be cooperating, but they were far from friends.

The next morning, Zive was ready. His movements were slow and methodical as he packed supplies, intending on a long search. Either he would find Echo, or he would come to terms with her loss and move on. Espe was far from happy, but that was expected, and the guilt held the cleric firm on his resolve.

"I stood by silently for nearly a year now. I don't think she was right in everything she said, but she wasn't wrong, either. You're actions were rash, and I can't leave this unfinished. I will be back, either when I have found Echo, or when I have given up." His brigade general looked at him, anger evident in the rigidity of his frame. Zive got a stiff nod of consent, but that was all.

The first place to go was obvious, and the cleric paid the fair to fly near the barren expanse of ruins. The wind and dust swirled around him as he stood where she had been last. Zive closed his eyes and thought back to that day, could see her willowy frame as she stood in that spot, crying. Where did you go from there, he asked himself. The wind tugged at his clothing, whistling through the links of his hauberk. The crunch of gravel made him turn. Ollen was there, leathers covered in dust as he leveled his amber gaze.

"Go back to legion house. Espe won't be happy you're here."

"He won't be happy you're here, either, yet here you are."

"You followed me?"

"Shilo told me. She was my friend. She was Serre's best friend. I can't forgive myself for Serre's death. The least I can do is to look for Echo."

Zive cocked his head to one side. "How is it the women in legion have us all feeling guilty, even when they're gone?"

"Because women are good at that. You're slow to learn," and the ranger clapped him on the shoulder. "Where to first?"

The wind tugged again, more insistent than it had been before. Zive closed his eyes, felt the air and began to walk with it.

"Do you know where you're going?"

"Not a clue, but standing around won't help us."

The two walked in silence with the cleric stopping occasionally to close his eyes and wait for the insistent breeze. The creatures of the dessert scattered as the two daeva ventured further into the wilderness.

"Do you hear that?" Ollen asked, closing his eyes to better focus on his ears. "Kinda like ripping, hissing."

"It's a rift forming." Sure enough, the aether currents became visible, swirling around in the air.

"Do you think she would have taken a rift?"

"You think she'd go hunt Asmos on their home turf when she's breaking down?"

"I don't know. She was distraught, no telling if she was thinking clearly. I've gone to Morheim when I want to get away. Hide out there that no one can find me unless I want them to."

Zive turned it over in his head. Would she really have done that? Closing his eyes, he waited for the wind again in the hot, dry air. Aion, he prayed silently, please guide me to Echo. He continued to stand there like that, waiting for a pull, a nudge, an animal to chase him in a particular direction. The sound of dirt crunching made him open his eyes. Ollen was standing before the swirling aether, hand outstretched. The two locked eyes and nodded. The other side was cool and crisp, the white expanse stretching between the blue mountains. The two Elyos immediately ran for cover, hiding under thick branches to buy them time.

"So… what now?"

"We search." Zive took the lead, taking care to leave as few signs as possible in the snow. They wandered through the frosted valleys for hours on end, forcing themselves to keep moving to stay warm. The twilight of Asmodian day gave way to a near black night. Spirits low, Zive and Ollen sat silently beneath a white-caked tree, neither wanting to call quits. The cleric closed his eyes, praying for a sign, for the wind to tug at him the way it had before. He had been so sure then, that Aion would resolve this somehow, but trekking without aim through enemy lands was emotionally taxing.

A rustle of snow, and a small creature peeked into their hideout beneath the boughs. It froze, red eyes framed in white fur. Snow from a bough thudded behind them and the larail took off. Ollen, ever his inner mau, took off after it and Zive had no choice but to follow. The small form blurred in with the snow, traceable only by the depressions in the snow and the clouds of white it kicked up in flight. An arrow whistled through the air, but the prey turned at the last instant to run in a new direction. Again, Ollen tried to shoot the white creature and it would chose an entirely different direction.

"Ollen!" Zive shouted, but the ranger had already sensed their company and stopped his pursuit. Red eyes flashed at them as the templar levied his sword. Zive grasped his shield tight; Ollen already had an arrow to his bowstring. An electric cage surrounded the ranger and dragged him in to striking distance. Ollen dodged the blow, dancing backwards as he dropped a seed. The plant was sudden and brief, just long enough to throw entangling roots up, but the Asmodian tore through them. Zive charged at their enemy's back, but the templar turned and focused on him, trading blows that crashed over their shields. Arrows glanced off his helmet and the electric cage dragged Ollen again, but he was ready this time with daggers, catching the sword with them and giving Zive an opening. Their foe howled and swept his shield arm back, knocking Zive off balance enough to get tackled proper. The two wrestled, dropping shields and weapons to grapple, and Ollen had no clear shot. Larger and stronger by far, Zive was losing, the weight of full plate armor wearing him down. A whistle, and the Asmodian cried in pain, the arrow jutting between the metal. The ranger swept in, dagger in hand as he knocked the templar off his friend, pinning him with the blade at his throat. Zive rolled to his feet, chain mail clinking and icy from the snow.

"Zive," Ollen said quietly. "Zive," this time with more passion.

"What? Kill him already!" But the cleric wandered closer. Ollen was sitting on the templar's chest, blade in one hand, but in the other was a thin silver chain and pendant. "No way…" He knew that charm, a delicate flower made by skilled hands, a flower from a dream. They could hardly take their eyes away from the pendant to look at the man who wore it.

Ollen leveled gazes with him. "Echo?" And the Asmodian nodded his head.

"Let him up." The ranger did so slowly, and the templar rose in the same manner, leaving his weapon and shield where they lay. His helmet came off to show his entire face, and his expression was an accurate reflection of their feelings. "Echo," Zive repeated the name, pointing to the charm, and the templar nodded, touching the charm as it clinked against his breastplate. The emotions started to well up, the strongest being the desire to ask how an Asmodian came into possession of her creation, next followed by fear that they would find an answer they did not want, and finally frustration.

"How-" he heard Ollen begin.

"He can't speak Elyan," he snapped, frustration winning over the other two emotions.

"Echo," and the templar made a motion to follow him, bending down to pick up his hammer and shield. Both Elyos were on edge, but their foe fastened the shield to his back and weapon to his belt and bid them follow again.

"This could be a ploy," Ollen cautioned, dagger still in hand.

"True, but we have no other leads. If anything happens, we can take him out for good." They followed silently, eyes watchful for suspicious movements. Their guide peered back frequently, a look of confusion on his face mixed with some other emotion they could not place. Another larail through the brush and they tensed, an arrow whistling off, hitting the target. The templar looked at them after the arrow shot, gave a curt nod and kept walking. He turned in to a small alcove, peeling aside snow laden boughs carefully to reveal a small passage.

"Keep sharp," Ollen cautioned, eyes hard as they entered the tunnel. It was short, the dim light of the other side preventing them from total darkness. Ollen exited first, balanced on his toes in case of a surprise attack, but the enclosure was empty save for the three of them and some animals. There was a small building tucked against the rock wall, the roof thatch work sticking out under the thick, snowy blanket and a small wisp of smoke trailing lazily upwards from a chimney pipe. The Asmodian motioned with a hand to stay before disappearing into the house. Hushed voices preceded a woman rushing out of the hut, eyes wide in disbelief as she halted in place to stare at them.

"…Echo," Ollen broke the silence first. "Praise Aion, you're still alive." The ranger rushed forward to embrace her. She did not return the sentiment.

She was both familiar and stranger to them. Silver hair cut short, skin a shade bluer and face more narrow, armor of darker designs.

"Why." The word was hard out of her mouth, jaw tight as she stared at a place that was neither of them. "Why did you come here."

Zive put his head down is shame. "I wanted to look for you."

"After a year?" Her eyes were fixed on him now, and while they remained blue, he could imagine them flashing red in the Asmodian way.

"Yes, after a year. Not a day goes by that I don't regret that day. I couldn't take it anymore."

"Glad someone at least cared, but you are a little late. A whole year before you finally decided to look for me? I don't even know how you found me, how you found Wren."

The templar was standing behind her, arms folded as he watched the three of them. His ears perked at his name, but he did not speak. "Have you come to ask me home?" Echo continued, the edge everpresent in her voice.

"Yes."

"Is Espe still leading legion?"

"Yes…"

"Then that is not my home. I was being honest, and he kicked me from legion."

"Perhaps if you were to talk with him, he would change his mind? It's been a year-"

"No, Espe has always been childish. A boy who calls himself king and refuses to hear anything other than what he wants. He wouldn't have changed in one year. Besides, I came to realize something."

"And what's that?" Ollen took the bait.

"That I was more a friend to anyone than you were ever to me. Friends stick by their friends. I stuck by Shilo. And where did that get me? Left behind in the desert alone. Not one of you said anything, or came back for me." Her voice trembled as the tears began welling up. Echo fought it, but the tears managed to break and streak down her cheeks.

"Serre… did look for you."

"Good to know there's someone who's a true friend."

"… She went to find you by herself. She found Asmodians instead. Serre…isn't with us anymore."

Shock was clear on her face, the hurt bringing fresh tears of sorrow to those of anger.

"I came with Zive to find you…for her. Please, come home."

"It's not my home. Espe took that from me that day in the desert. This is my home now, here in Morheim, with Wren."

"I do want to ask how you ended up here. It's a bit cold. Would it be ok to have this discussion inside?"

She nodded curtly and walked back to the hut. Wren eyed them carefully, motioning their weapons to stay at the door. Echo was already sitting on the bed with a fur cloak wrapped about her shoulders. The hut was small, a shelf carved into the rock face above the bed, a fire pit in the center, some boxes for storage and a small kitchen with a table for two. Wren joined her on the bed, speaking to her quietly in Asmoth.

"Thank you," and the ranger took a seat at the table.

"So. I guess it'd be best to start from the beginning."

"Usually a good start."

"What happened after we left you?"

She was silent for a moment, eyes focused on another time and face nothing but sadness. "I waited so long. I really thought you'd say something. It hurt, really hurt when you didn't. There was nothing to do, nowhere to go, so I wandered around for days. I couldn't tell you where I was. It was just unfamiliar desert with beasts I had to fight constantly. A pathetic existence, really. I kept thinking to go back to legion house, but if Espe had been there… I was afraid of what might happen."

"Why'd you come to Asmodae?"

"I didn't. Not at first. Wren came to Eltnen. We crossed paths, and we fought. I remember partway through I stopped caring. It took everything I had to survive. He would have killed me eventually considering how I was. So I accepted it, stopped fighting. He knocked me down, and I just lay there. His sword point was at my throat, but I moved it," and her hand pressed over her heart. She turned to the templar and spoke with him in Asmoth. "He says that he didn't want to kill me, then, because I asked him to. Decided I would make a better prisoner than corpse. I do recall having my wrists bound as we walked looking for a rift. It was a while before I came to care about my situation, but he came to care for me first, so once the shock wore off, it was clear he cared. We met some other Asmodians once he brought me here. They tried to rape me, but Wren defended my honor. I suppose that was the start of our relationship.

"I was a slow learner, but he taught me Asmoth, and I kept waiting to be taken to Pandaemonium. Wren tucked me away here and took care of me. Next thing I knew, he had made me gloves to imitate claws, and shoes. We later cut my hair to weave it into the hauberk."

"Was curious about that. Glad to know you still have a bare back."

She didn't laugh at his joke. "There isn't much left to say. Emotionally? I went through everything. Depression, hatred, betrayal, disgust at myself, happiness, freedom, vengeance… They're all mixed up."

"And now?"

"All of them."

"So… I guess you won't come back."

"No." The word was a scoff, a laughing sound as if the question were a joke. "Being in Morheim is changing me. I can feel it. I can see it. I'm not entirely Elyos anymore. You two, Shilo, Serre and a few others, I loved you. I still do, but not in the same way. Espe forced us apart, and circumstances changed." The four of them sat quietly, letting her words hang in the air. "So now it's your turn. How did you find me?"

"We followed the signs." Echo gave him a questioning look at that. "Decided enough was enough, told Espe I was going to look for you. We went back to the last spot we saw you, prayed to Aion, and did whatever felt right. Ran into your templar when Ollen went after a larail. Nearly killed him, noticed your necklace." Zive's face grew darker. "You must really love him, to give him that necklace."

"I do. I loved you, too, but… The timing of that wasn't in our favor."

Wren spoke quietly to her, their fingers interlaced as he eyed his Elyos guests warily.

"Well… I guess we'll be heading back. We came to find out what happened to you, and we know now." She gave a nod, no smile on her lips. Just a hardness to her expression. Ollen stood and walked back into the snow. Zive made to follow, but his eye caught on her old koa staff and the tiny, infant sized boots that hung there. He understood then the mix of emotion she meant, and ducked out of the hut before she could see his hurt. Focusing his aether to return home, Zive began the prayer of mourning. For the Echo he knew and for the life he lost when he kept his mouth shut.