Mr. Rath is the funny old man that wears purple suits and lives in the little red house next door with a yard full of flowers and a funny dog that runs circles around her when she chalks up the sidewalk. Issy Ashcroft is really good at chalking, except it always gets washed away when it rains and it rains all the time in Daggerfall. Right now, she's drawing rainbows, the ballerina lady on the news, and Mr. Guevenne, who's the happy man who owns the pub down the street and lives with Mr. Rath. Mina says they're boooyfriends, but that's silly. They're a hundred billion years old and you can't be boyfriends if you're a hundred billion years old.
Mr. Rath has eyes like the moon and Mr. Guevenne is a scary monster man with horns like a billy goat, but only she can see that. She told Mina about it once in the tree house, but then she told Ma and she got in trouble for telling stories and she doesn't know why because it wasn't a story, it was true, but she still got in trouble. She doesn't tell anyone anymore. That's okay, secrets are cool.
Mr. Rath isn't very good at being a monster man, because he's wearing a big sun hat that keeps flopping into his eyes and it makes her want to laugh, but she draws a smiley face instead. Issy doesn't like it when people laugh at her, so she's not going to laugh at anyone else. He's planting weird onion things into the flower beds, except sometimes he gets bored of that and digs up worms and grubs instead. They're gross but kind of cool, so she draws worms all over the smiley with purple chalk.
Wait, no, that's not right. You shouldn't have worms on your face unless you're dead and in a box. She tries to erase it with her sleeve, but the cement rips a little hole in her sweater, so she just draws a box for the dead face and scribbles all over it with green until she can't see the worms anymore. That's better. Next she adds some flowers in red, but she used up all the yellow drawing cats, so she chalks in the centers with pink instead.
"Daisy, daisy, nightshade, gingko and more."
She sings her flower drawing song. She's never actually sung it before and she doesn't know the rest of the words yet, but she knows that it's the right song to draw peonies to. But the rest of the words aren't coming yet. She knows that she knows them, even if she hasn't invented them yet, but they just won't come. She grinds the pink chalk against the ground in frustration until the wind kicks up a cloud of rosy chalk dust.
"Buy all the seeds at the general store!"
Issy stops her assault on the chalk, looks up to see Mr. Rath tipping his hat at her. Huh, so that's how the rest of the song goes. She waves at him with a rainbow-dusted hand, finishes up the last flower, and skitters off the sidewalk to the border of her clean-cut yard and his wild flower garden.
"Thanks! I like your onions. Are they going to grow to be red or yellow?"
There's a fat green caterpillar wiggling on an iris. She scoops him it and lets him crawl all over her hands. His feet are weird and he looks like he's probably really mushy, but it's kind of cool how he squirms. Mr. Rath grabs a handful of the onions and to her delight, he starts juggling them, one swirling through the air after another.
"These, lass, are no mere onions! No, no, they're better than onions. They're tulips! Tulip bulbs, sure, but tulips nonetheless. If you know how to throw them at the right king, you can wreck an entire economy with them. I have. I will."
Issy doesn't really know what that means, but tulips are nice and yellow, except when they're black and white striped or pink. Maybe he's growing purple ones to match his coat. The caterpillar likes tulips too, she thinks, because he starts climbing up her arm.
"Oh, okay! Can you teach me how to do that sometime if you're not busy?"
He laughs and she's not really sure why, but she laughs too. The caterpillar's on her shoulders and she plucks him off and scoots him back into her hands.
"Busy, busy, I'm always busy! Busy as a bee, being as a biz. There's plenty of time. First rule of juggling: if the ball goes up and doesn't come down, reality is broken again. It does that, loudly and often. It'll get better on its own, because I, for one, am not fixing it. Second rule of juggling: don't let the onions hit the ground. Just don't do it. The third rule is that there is…actually, is there a third rule? Does it even matter? Restrictions don't define an activity. You do whatever you like how you like and when you like, and if anyone ever tells you how to do it, bite their toes off one by one. That'll show them."
The bulbs come to rest on the palm of his hand, each stacking on top of the next until he has a miniature tower swaying precariously in the breeze. By chance, a grasshopper leaps onto the topmost one before alighting again, and the whole thing tumbles down to the ground. Mr. Rath grabs his trowel and out comes the dirt and in go the tulips. As he does so, he starts to make a little pile for everything he digs out of the flowerbed along the way: worms, grubs, an odd-looking coin, what looks like most of a fish skeleton, and something oddly-shaped and way too big to have ever fit in the little tulip-hole that he's pulling it out from. He knocks it against the paving stones to loosen the mud, dunks it in his ladybug-print watering can, and wipes it clean with a sleeve, putting it next to the pile of squirming worms.
It's a tiara and not one of those plastic ones that come with tea sets, but a real, actual tiara made of gold probably and all sorts of gemstones that she can't name. Issy, caterpillar companion in tow and eyes wide, inches as far as she can without trampling over the irises. Mr. Rath has the best garden ever. She doesn't say anything but she wants it. He knows it –even she knows that a hundred billion year old monster man knows all sorts of things like that- but doesn't say anything until the last tulip bulb is deposited and covered.
"Did you know you were a princess in a past life?" he asks, very serious for a change. She shakes her head no, because she can't even remember what she had for lunch, let alone any past lives. It seems like the right answer for him because he perks back up.
"Good, no one ever remembers that except, of course, when they do. Which is never. Oh yes, you were a princess indeed, little gnarl. Actually, you were a queen for most of it, which is even better. And a great one too, my absolute favorite! Your name was Wylandriah…no, no, it was Potema. I always get them confused. Do you want your crown back? I bet it does all sorts of tricky things."
Under most circumstances, Issy wouldn't believe a word of that, but when a moon-eyed monster man that grows dead fish and crowns in his garden tells you something, you better believe it.
"Okay, that'd be great," she says, and she's already trying to work out if this means she's still a queen and if she can boss Mina around. Mr. Rath tosses it over the flowers bordering the two yards, but it sails over her head and lands in the birdbath. She retrieves it, but then she hears her Ma calling her from inside and realizes that she can't take it inside just yet because no one would ever believe that Mr. Rath dug it out of the ground for her. They don't even believe that Mr. Rath has moon eyes. She rushes to the sandbox, the only place in the yard that she's certain no one else will ever bother with, and buries it under some sand, placing her toy dolphin on top to make sure she remembers where it is later. You can't be a queen if you don't have a crown.
Issy starts to head inside before she realizes that she forgot something absolutely vital. She dashes back, carefully tiptoes through the flowers –no mean feat, as most of his yard is either flowers or weird mushrooms- and deposits the caterpillar on the brim of his hat. Then she's gone, leaving behind Mad God and perfectly ordinary insect to garden in peace.
Afzal's exiting the music store with an actual 7E 1993 kynarethine record of Sugar Moon's Neurasthenia in hand when he sees the man across the street. Tall guy, positively outlandish outfit, probably a professor at the art school a few blocks over because that place breeds weirdos. He's not really dancing but sort of shuffling along to an invisible tune, feet never leaving the ground. If this was anywhere else, he'd think it's weird, but man, this is Nvek we're talking about. Weird is in its blood, its soul. It's the sweet elixir that sustains it until even more weird shit can happen the next day and the next.
So he watches for a second and then heads down the street to scrounge up a newspaper from the box before heading down to the art supply store to check out the pens. His main thing is aural manipulation via tonal gun, but there's nothing like the feel of a beetle-ink micropen on corkbulb papyrus to get the creative juices flowing. Plus, he's promised one of his comrades-in-art that he'd design him an album cover and smooth, clean electrotablet lines do not do the Valeland revival jazz any justice. Afzal lingers over the rainbow displays of drawing supplies for several minutes before he gets the prickle-back sensation that someone's watching him. He's got a keen danger-sense and it never lies. He pretends to look at some notepads, but really, he's watching out for whatever it is.
Dancing Man's pressed up against the window tight, like he's looking for someone, but he's got the blankest eyes Afzal has ever seen. Sometimes you can just look at a person in the face and tell that whoever they used to be, they're not behind those eyes anymore. He goes back to poking around the notebooks for an inordinate length of time, but when he peeks up, Dancing Man's still there and fuck, he's staring right back at him with such a look of intensity that he goes ahead and almost dies right then and there. He is not here for any of this.
Afzal's shaking and gripping his bag so hard that his fingers nearly cut through the plastic as he, gaze firmly to his feet, creeps to the back of the store and locks himself in a stall in the men's room. It's a horrible hiding spot, but once he hears the click of the lock set into place, it feels like his heart restarts after being dead for several minutes. He tries to tell himself that it's probably just some old man that's looking for someone and everything's just a funny coincidence, but he can't convince himself of that any more than he can convince himself that he's actually a tiny Falmer pirate captain.
He doesn't know how long he stays there in that bathroom stall waiting for Dancing Man to get bored and just go away, but by the time he thinks the coast is clear and he tiptoes back to the open, Lady Azura's purple-gold skies are replaced by her sister's starry blackness. No sign of him by the windows and no sign of him in the store. He'd do a victory dance, but that just isn't his style. Instead, he goes right back to the pen display and picks out his drawing materials, because goddamn it, he is not going to let some weird old man stop him from picking up his supplies. He has a duty to the artistic community to keep on drawing in the face of vague danger.
He pays an unholy amount for the pens, but he barely even notices that at this point. He's just happy there's no one staring at him. Nvek. Great place to live, fantastic artistic community, but between the ghosts and the cultists and the rest of the strange lot, it's a magnet that draws in all manner of oddities. This is by no means the weirdest thing that's happened to him in his three years in the city and it will never, in fact, be.
The night air is cool and crisp, barely any ash on the breeze, and the streetlamps emit a steady, comforting glow. A woman strolls by with the specter of her grandmother; a living fabricant startles a group of teenagers on the corner; a fashion student is running around with an ultraviolet wig and headband studded with sparklers, because the fire-hazard look is in apparently. Yeah, things are back to normal. He gives a cursory glance for any rogue dancing men and heads out of the shop. It's late, but he's practically nocturnal in this point and half the stores down the strip never close until it's practically dawn. There's still things to see, things to buy.
He takes a quick trip to the comic book store to pick up some trade paperbacks for Pink and Falanea, then it's off to the vintage store across the street to rummage through overpriced t-shirts to his heart's content. An hour later, he's walking through the streets, still teeming with people, when he thinks he catches a glimpse of dancing and a face all too familiar out of the corner of his eye. And close. He spins around, ready to confront him or something, but no, it was just his imagination. He carries on, relieved, and it's then that he'd pulled into the alley.
Dancing Man's pinning his arms to the brick wall with more force than an old Breton ought to possess. Afzal knows he should yell, scream, kick him in the balls and then run far, far away, but the only thing he manages to do is whimper.
Dancing Man doesn't answer. Instead, he leans in so close that he can feel his breath on his skin and just bites his cheek. Just bites the shit out of him. He doesn't even know what to do. Are there any established guidelines for what to do in the event that a crazy old man stalks you all night and then goes cannibalistic on your face? Because if there are, he sure doesn't know them.
Afzal's so startled that he can barely feel the pain over his fear. He goes limp, but that does absolutely nothing to dissuade the man. At long last, he releases him and lets him fall to the ground. There's blood pouring from his mouth, staining his beard red, and it's his. He's going to be sick right here, right now.
"You, little mortal, have absolutely no idea of what you're playing with. Or who you're playing with," he says in some bizarre accent that he can't hope to identify, though he's going to spend ages later going through memospore records to try to place it. "You're running around like a headless chicken with no idea of what you're really messing with. Best figure it out before you bleed to death then, eh? Until next time, Architect."
There was a man there once, a mad man, but now there isn't. Afzal raises a hand to a bloodless, not-at-all torn cheek and wonders what in Oblivion just happened. Nvek. This city is going to be the death of him.
S'ravi checked in for a spider bite about three hours ago, but she's still sitting in an uncomfortable waiting room chair three hours later. These are designed for little wood elves, not Cathay-raht. She's busy struggling to find a sitting position that doesn't put her legs to sleep when the elf drags himself in. Not that she notices. People have been coming and going out of the hospital in droves tonight and she has long since passed the point where watching the new people still interests her. For S'ravi, there's nothing but a poorly-designed chair, a handful of outdated magazines, and the torturous wait until she can get checked out.
It's when he sits down right next to her that she finally takes notice of him. He stinks, absolutely reeks of unwashed skin, infection, something chemical and potent. Her snout wrinkles in distaste as she squirms as far away from him as she can get without leaving her seat. It's hard to get a good look at his face because he's hunched forward on his chair in a fetal position and his bedraggled ginger hair is in his face, but he looks to be an abnormally pale Altmer, perhaps with a bit of something else mixed in because his eyes look off in the quick glance she gets of his face before he buries his face in his legs.
"It was not better this time around," he mutters, inaudible to most but her keen Khajiit ears catch it. She doesn't know if he's speaking to her or to himself. "They told me it would be better, but I was deceived and bereaved."
"This one wishes to know if you are okay," she says tentatively, not quite sure if she's going to regret this later. She earnestly hopes that the mer's stench doesn't settle into her fur. He murmurs something that even she can't make out, though she makes out the words "heart and soul," and she urges him to speak up. He doesn't need to, because she already knows the answer and it's no. He's making tiny, choked sounds like a dog that's run into traffic, shivering as he does so. He lifts his face up just enough to see how blown his pupils are, something green leaking past his cracked lips. No, no, not okay at all.
How has he even made it this far into the hospital without immediately being rushed into care? There is no way that he wasn't seen by a horde of doctors and nurses coming in. She has no idea and right now, she doesn't care. She's just a clerk, but even she can tell when something is horribly wrong.
"Listen, S'ravi will be back. Stay strong, okay?"
"This was not what I was promised. He lied to me."
And that's all she hears of that, because S'ravi is out of the chair, out of the waiting room, down the hall, and trying to track down a nurse or doctor or someone. The hallways were brimming with people just a few minutes ago and now she can't find anyone at all. She flexes her claws, about ready to tear the tiles up in frustration.
"Can I help you?" says someone and praise the gods, it's a nurse.
"Yes, yes! Come with this one. I don't know what it is, but it's bad."
Seconds are hours until they get back to the waiting room. The Altmer's still there, thank goodness, and seems to be breathing, but anyone can tell he's in a bad way. A very bad way. S'ravi just came in for a spider bite, not to see someone maybe die right now. She takes a seat far away, facing the opposite direction, but when she hears the nurse gasp…well, has anyone met a Khajiit who can resist curiosity?
The mer's no longer curled around himself. He's standing up, albeit shaking so hard that it's a miracle that he's upright, and for the first time, S'ravi can see the blood blossoming from the gash where his heart is. Should be.
Suddenly, she does not mind the spider bite so much.