How it ties together.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
-Andrew Marvell, "To His Coy Mistress"
"I just ran," he said again, giving the ceiling a hopeful look. When further clothing failed to materialize, Glenn sighed and stood, glancing up and down the hallway to see if his armor had decided to return. It hadn't.
They didn't want to hear me. What could I have told them?
"That's not true, is it?" he said aloud. "I mean, I don't know if it's true. I never-"
I never tried.
When his bunkmate had rhapsodized about his dream of becoming a Conerian commander, Glenn had felt that the older boy was abusing the term. Dreams were breaths and reflections, living in the thin shelter of a blink. They came and went like sunbeams, and they never asked anything in return. Selfless in every sense.
And somewhere beyond lurked the future, a tangled knot of roads that could crumble at a moment's notice. They tried to force him to walk one, and all he did was dart aside, sliding from gap to gap. If the paths might fall apart beneath his feet, why try to walk them? If he was bound to lose his way, why not just drift from the beginning?
Because one day you look down, and realize you've been following a path all along.
"I've never had a dream," Glenn said, letting himself slump against the wall. "Just dreams."
If he didn't have a destination, he could never be lost; if he never set down roots, they could never be torn up. And he could lie hidden, stagnant water reflecting the darkness of a cave, hearing the waves outside break themselves on the rocks and knowing that what never went up never had to come down.
And he could rot.
They gave me their dream. I tore it out and never filled the hole.
No one had expected him to last more than a week. That he had held on for so long was less a testament to his tenacity than to his despair, which had kept him lurching along as periodic letters from home came to nip at his heels. Funny that anyone so adept at failure could still fear it.
I didn't want to be there. I didn't want to be that. I didn't want any of it.
The problem had never been a lack of wanting. It had been a wanting of lacks.
"That's why," Glenn said aloud, staring up at the ceiling. "I want to find out who I am and where I'm going. I want to pick a dream and chase it." As he stepped away from the wall, he added, "And I want to be someone."
A soft hiss registered in his ears. As he looked around for the source, Glenn felt something cold and wet flow around his bare feet.
"Oh, for God's sake! Can't I stay dry for five minutes?"
The sound grew louder, and suddenly the water was swirling around his ankles and beginning to lick at his calves. The current pulled at him, trying to coax him back.
Glenn watched the dark water for a moment, then shook his head and took a step forward. "I get it," he said, waving a hand to indicate the hallway in general. "So since I get it, do we have to get me wet? I mean-"
A black wave hit him, splashing over his knees and almost breaking his balance. Glenn stumbled before steadying himself against the wall.
"Fine. We'll do it your way, then." Gritting his teeth, Glenn marched ahead into the current, ignoring the heaviness of his clothing as the water crept up it. Each step threatened to sweep him away.
Gradually he noticed that light was seeping into the hallway in front of him, illuminating a passage where the unnatural darkness had been- which ended in a third wall and a stout, bone-white pillar. It was as if someone had chopped the top three feet off one the columns in the vestibule and done an impressive job of misplacing it.
Glenn's reflexive burst of speed almost tripped him, and he caught his balance against the wall with a yelp. Focus. Breathe. One foot, then the other. But the water was still rising, whirling around his hips. No. Focus. One step.
Something tugged at his concentration, and Glenn noticed that the current was slackening. By the time the water reached his waist, there was only the faintest suggestion of movement, making his progress slow but safe. More importantly, the column appeared to be coming closer.
There was a deep, quiet roar, like the sound caught inside a seashell. Glenn froze. For one protracted breath, the current stilled and died, and a sudden clarity left him wondering how all this water had flowed from a dead end.
The moment passed. Then the current returned and began to lower the water level, sucking everything back with enough force to create an undertow. Glenn hurried awkwardly forward, trying to compensate for the descending pull at his legs. He had almost reached the pillar when a cold spray made his nape prickle. One step, right. Just make it a fast step.
Feeling a wave rear up behind him a like horse, Glenn dove forward, throwing his arms around the column. There was a second roar. In the spectacular light show that followed, he wasn't entirely certain whether he was drowning.
The others would break. He had confirmed this by using a table as a shield and carefully tapping the leg of one of a pair of isolated dolls, resulting in an explosion that did little further damage to his hand and failed to set off a chain reaction with the other specimen. Dimitri didn't feel that this qualified as "progress."
All the while, the doll that didn't belong lay where it had fallen, glittering and untouched. He brought his staff down on it in a fit of temper and succeeded only in giving his bad hand a shock.
Impossible. Everything breaks. Retrieving his brooch, Dimitri made a fumbling, one-handed effort to scratch the layers of paint. When that failed, he tried to rip the dress, which turned out to have the resistance of chain mail. He made another effort at using the jewelry as a projectile only to watch it bounce harmlessly off the doll's knee.
Ignoring the little voice in the back of his head that told him to leave it alone, Dimitri put his face level with the doll's, breathing heavily. The eyes focused somewhere past him. "What am I to you?" he demanded. "A nagging impression? An afternoon without your butler? An anecdote?"
A lost trinket, a sheet of paper, and a drip of wax. Nothing.
His hands seized the doll's arms before his brain could intervene. Freezing-hot pain shot up his arms, blinding him as it burst into white rosettes over his vision. His fingers were dissolving. Dropitdropitdropit-
The metallic clang of the doll as it hit the floor echoed in Dimitri's ears as he staggered backward, watching in a haze as his arms shook like frightened rabbits. His only coherent thoughts were that he had been phenomenally stupid and that his fingers, while not dissolved, were a nightmarish shade of white. A whimper rode out on his next breath.
Everything breaks, but she won't break because of me.
As the involuntary trembling began to fade, Dimitri instinctively reached for his staff and discovered that there was no feeling in his hands. He cursed and glared at the ceiling.
"You've made your point," he said bitterly. "If I promise to stop destroying myself, will you stop helping me do it?"
But it's never enough to break myself, is it? I have to crash into everything around me on the way down.
Dimitri's daze wandered back to the dolls, which were still staring at him. "Blame her," he wanted to say, but he felt he'd been disingenuous enough with them. Instead he drifted a step forward, tripped on his fallen staff, and found himself tumbling toward the pile of blood-speckled dolls.
There was irony, and then was the helpless void in his gut, the lines in the sand that separated hilarity and terror until the wind blew them both into exhaustion, and the need for profundity lost in a storm of memory and panic. There was falling, and then there was the moment when gravity and force and accident and fate and a lot of other words that meant absolutely nothing to him boiled down to one that did: absurdity.
But I want it to mean something.
The word "column" flashed into Dimitri's brain, followed by "white" and "worthwhile." Even as part of him was trying to work out how long the table beneath the dolls had been an abnormally short pillar, his stiff hands shot out and made a clumsy swipe at it. The numbness made it impossible to tell whether he'd succeeded until the explosion was mixed with a sharp tug and the sense that color had found a way to turn itself inside-out.
He knelt in front of her, in a way that made it impossible to tell whether he was aiming for supplication or mockery. "Do what you're already supposed to do," he said. "Don't die. Unless you want to die here, of course." Clovis scowled at him as he continued, "It's all tied together, knots and bows and your little chain. Snip them out and it all falls flat. Puts time back in a line."
She snorted. "What, you think dead Fiends mean a less dead you?"
"I think it means the walls crack like eggshells." Cham half-smiled, but his eyes were leaden. "I don't care where I go, as long as it isn't here. Do you remember what the sky looks like?"
"Blue. Now tell me how to get out."
Looking almost wistful, Cham sank lower and stared up her. "First promise me something."
Clovis crossed her arms. "So what the hell happened to 'impossible to lie in here'? The deal was I win, you spill."
"Never said when I'd tell you, did I?"
Clovis opened her mouth to protest, then blinked. "Well, I'll be damned," she said at length. "I'd give you a point if I didn't want to strangle you so badly."
A smirk flickered over Cham's lips before collapsing into a frown. "Look, just- if you're ever in Gaia, tell my family I'm dead." For a beat, his eyes were lucid. "Don't tell them I'm like this."
"I look like a courier to you?"
"Swear it. You can't lie in here." When she didn't budge, he added, "Then I'll tell you."
Clovis sighed. And you wonder why the dragons don't stay. Bastard. "Fine. If I ever end up in that god-forsaken town, I'll tell someone who recognizes your name that you got yourself iced. Happy?"
"All the happiness here creeps away through the walls."
"Wonderful. Now tell me how to follow it."
Cham lay on his stomach and folded his arms, giving Clovis an unwelcome view of his death-wound until she sat down. "Funny thing about elves," he mused- "they never get lost. Getting you lost is how this place keeps you. Builds mazes out of your brain."
"Is there a point here?"
"Yes. Put an elf here, and it all unravels. Little bastards can go anywhere they want. Leave any time they want. That's what he did."
Clovis tapped the sides of her head. "Hey, look how pointy my ears aren't. I don't give a damn how elves can get out. I want to know how I can get out."
Cham shrugged. "Follow an elf."
"You cheating son of a-"
"Or stop being lost."
"I hate you so much."
"I'm serious." Cham pushed himself up on his forearms and leaned toward her, inclining his head. "Tell it what it wants. Accept where you came from. Stop pretending you didn't choose."
She regarded him for a moment. "Then why are you-"
"I'm dead. Nothing's left to change. Nothing here but a broken reflection."
"My heart bleeds." Taking a deep breath, Clovis gave her brain a moment to indulge in happier scenarios, in which she was burglarizing the wealthy and complacent, slitting the bottoms of purses, or rigging her way to success in card games and dart contests, or at least quashing the idiotic whim to see how her old haunts were faring in her seven-year absence. Could have left on that ship for Crescent Lake. Academy's crawling with senile packrats. Damn, damn, damn. As Cham settled into a vague, impatient humming, she cursed his killer for going for the heart instead of the larynx.
Hell, it's not like I've got anything to lose.
"You really want to know what happened?" she snapped. "It wasn't- I didn't-" Clovis fixed her eyes on the wall, giving her thoughts a moment to unsnarl. "Look, the idea was to get the Orb, get out, and pawn it off on some chump. He-"
"Former mentor?" Cham broke in. When Clovis glowered at him, he shrugged and said, "Thought so."
Clovis automatically shot him a rude gesture as she continued, "He wasn't supposed to wake up. And it all went fine- the traps, the dogs, the dumb kid he paid a gold a day to watch the back door- until I picked it up." She paused, feeling the memory in her palms. "I just never thought it would be so damn /heavy/. And he was keeping it in his bedroom, which is practically asking for- okay, okay, it's not, but anyway, I kept it from hitting the ground. Still made enough noise to wake him up."
Cham nodded. "And?"
"And I panicked, okay?" Clovis took a moment to get her voice under control, then said, "Damn stupid of me. If you're going to stab someone you're really, really not supposed to kill, there're at least a thousand places to hit that aren't the fucking heart."
She glared at him. "And I just stood there getting blood all over me. What do you think I did? Stuff went everywhere. Got me, the bed, the walls, everything but that goddamn Orb." Clovis's brain decided that this was more than enough, but her mouth kept moving: "Then I had one of those moments when your heart crashes somewhere around your feet and you realize you've completely screwed yourself over. I'm as good as dead in the guild. And out of it, too, if I set foot in Pravoka again."
"And you killed him."
"I- he wasn't even that bad of a guy. Kind of a jerk, used to throw things at me, but I threw stuff back and-" Her voice caught. "I killed him."
And I hate that I care.
Cham sat up, giving her a vexingly soft smile. "You don't have a clue how to deal with regret, do you?"
"Sure, I do. I ignore it until it goes away."
"Or the fact that you need people."
"I don't- shut up."
His eyes brightened to silver. "Exactly. And you try to prove nothing matters to you, but when you try to tear it out, it burrows into you and burns. Ignore it, and it eats holes through you."
I didn't mean to. That wasn't what I wanted to do.
"But it's what I did," she said, before realizing that she was thinking out loud. She bit her tongue against the next wave: And there are things I'm afraid of and things I feel guilty about, and things that matter to me and things I don't want to lose, and a lot of fine lines that I don't like to think about-
A flicker of movement drew her attention, and Clovis glanced down in time to see Cham poke his finger through her chest. She sighed. "'Cause that just never gets old, does it?"
"It's all old." He pulled back and said, "Go save the world, or whatever it is you're reeled into doing. And when you're done flopping around the boat, remember that you took an oath it might be dangerous to break." He flashed her a steel grin, then abruptly turned his back to her. "It's behind you. Get out."
He hadn't finished speaking before Clovis leapt to her feet and spun to see a squat, white pillar standing inexplicably less than a foot away from her. Her hand shot out for it, only to hesitate and clench.
"Oh, hell." Without turning, she muttered, "It's Penelope and I hope you suffer," before grabbing the top of the column and falling into a storm of lightning that ripped past too quickly for the thunder to catch up.
Glenn was the first, sopping wet and missing his armor, coughing and wheezing as he crawled forward onto the grass. His fingers dug into the turf like hooks.
Dimitri was next, thrown by a blast of heat over a dazed Glenn to crash in a black tangle of robes, clutching his hands to his chest. His staff followed a beat behind.
Clovis was last, hurtling forward in such a rush that she tripped and collapsed in a panting, cursing heap. The wounds on her knuckles re-opened as she pushed herself up.
In the next breath the castle doors slammed shut with enough force to make the earth vibrate.
"What the /hell/-" Clovis cut herself off and stared at Glenn. "Hey, didn't you go in there with armor?"
"I did," he replied tersely, pulling himself into a sitting position and returning her look. "Are you all right? You look kind of-"
"Shut up." Clovis turned to Dimitri and cocked an eyebrow. "What the hell did you do to your hands?"
"Nothing. We have other things to worry about right now, such as-"
"Frostbite." To the manifest surprise of the other two, Glenn grabbed one of Dimitri's hands and gave it a critical look before it was snatched back with a hiss. "Tuck your hands under your arms while I warm up some water, and no rubbing unless you want to lose your fingers."
Clovis looked blank, so Glenn sighed and made his way to the supply pile, from which he retrieved a canteen and a pan. "Go on," he added, gathering the nearest twigs and brush together. "Trust me."
As Dimitri reluctantly complied, Clovis blinked out of her fog, snatched the canteen, and guzzled a bit before coming up for air. "So you know all this how?"
Glenn held out his hand. "Onrac has cold winters. And I need that." When Clovis shrugged and took another gulp, he shot her a dark look and headed back to the supply pile, only to look up with a start mid-way. "Um, I don't see Maggie any-"
"She knew what was going to happen," Dimitri cut in sourly. "I couldn't possibly care less whether she made it out."
Clovis coughed, spraying a mouthful of water over the ground. "Holy shit," she wheezed. "So the elf was- and she was- if she isn't already dead, I'm going to-" Another hacking fit drew impatient looks from the other two.
"Are you doing that on purpose?" Glenn set down the flint he'd been grappling with. "Going to what?"
"Wondering that myself," said Maggie. She allowed herself a moment's wry satisfaction as she emerged from the tree cover. "Orbs might not take kindly to it."
There was a loud cough, followed by Clovis yelling, "You /set this up/, you lying, sadistic, self-centered-"
"Hello, pot, I see you've met kettle," Dimitri muttered. Clovis threw her canteen at his head, resulting in a dull thunk and a cockeyed hat.
"-bitch," she finished, a bit stiffly. "Why the hell did you bring us here?"
Maggie shrugged and leaned back against a tree. The blade-thin smile she could feel playing over her lips was probably doing nothing to placate her party, but she was finding it difficult to care. "Don't believe in Bahamut's blessing?"
"You told me yourself the dragons don't matter." Glenn was unusually calm, perhaps because his attention was focused on his fledgling fire. "This was something else."
"So allow me to guess," said Dimitri, giving Maggie the most caustic look he could manage with his hands jammed into his armpits. "You took us through the Marsh Cave by promising us treasure, 'happened' to find the crown, killed Astos to- well, God knows why you wanted to kill Astos-"
"I think he tried to kill her," Clovis chimed in. "The metaphor lost me there."
Dimitri shot her a puzzled look, but he turned back to Maggie to finish, "And then you returned here because you felt you had unfinished business. Am I right?"
"I'm blaming you for that lunatic ghost, too," Clovis added. "Just so you know."
Glenn looked up. "Ghost?"
"I don't want to talk about it."
"But you brought-"
"Shut up." She hesitated, then said, "Dammit, don't tell me I'm the only one who got a ghost."
The conversation had gone on long enough. "We can make the ship by nightfall," Maggie decided, striding over to the supplies. Both Dimitri and Clovis glowered at her and opened their mouths, but another voice beat them to it.
"Not if Dimitri wants to keep his fingers." Glenn's face suggested a certain level of internal panic, but he continued, "We just need a little time to thaw them out. I mean, um... Hey, the water's warm!" Cheeks reddening, he took the pan of water off the fire and deposited it in front of Dimitri.
Clovis quirked an eyebrow. "Well, I'll be damned. That sounded almost like a spine."
"Spines don't make noise," Dimitri said, gingerly lowering his fingers into the water. "And furthermore-" His face contorted. Before he could pull back, Glenn had grabbed his arms and held them in place.
"It's supposed to hurt," he said. "Just hold still." As Dimitri muttered something under his breath, Glenn set his hat straight, then turned back to the others. "So, Maggie, would you mind telling us-"
She gave him the look that had never failed to silence him in the past, and his new-found nerve buckled. But they would demand to know, and she had forfeited the right to withhold everything. Would have been simpler if they died. But she didn't mean it, not if she was willing to face herself, and why would she have pulled them along if she hoped for nothing more than their deaths? The Orbs forced them together, but she had forced them inside.
Things change here/, he had said, but he hadn't meant it. He was static under his skin. /Until he cracked. And whose fault was that?
Clovis's voice cut through her fog. Apparently the thief had decided to construct her own story, which all but confirmed the identity of the ghost. "So she came here with an evil elf, possibly an evil vampire elf-"
"Astos wasn't a vampire," Dimitri said through gritted teeth.
She ignored him. "I'm not sure if she was the star or the chimera, but the other one was, uh, someone else. And there was an annoying prick who never shut the hell up. Then there was stabbing, and I'm pretty sure she followed Astos out." Clovis took out her dagger and began to fidget with it. "Look, I got the whiny crackpot version. Not too clear on the details."
"You don't say." Dimitri shifted, winced, and glared at Maggie. "You'll have to tell us eventually."
Glenn looked up from where he had been sulking and said, "At least what's relevant. If any more buildings are going to try to drown me..." He trailed off, studying the others' faces. "Actually, I don't want to share."
Clovis shrugged. "I'm not arguing."
During the subsequent lull, Maggie tried to pare "relevant" down to a sentence. The process was interrupted when Glenn blurted, "I took my Orb from a dead man."
"Hey, me too." Clovis looked stricken for a second, then gave the group a defensive glare. "Castle's still doing it. The first person to ask gets a demonstration for an answer."
They both turned to Dimitri, who shrugged as much as his position would allow. "My Orb found its way to the Conerian black mages' guild, which I happened to be visiting, and I fell under its thrall, whereupon it was foisted off on me. Some of us are civilized, you know."
"I didn't kill anyone!" Glenn protested. "I was running, and he was just /there/." Guilt flickered over his features, and he added, "And, um, I was running away from the fighters' training camp outside of Coneria. But I didn't kill anyone."
Clovis narrowed her eyes at him. "So you're not-"
"Not even close. I'm two years short of certification."
"You're /sixteen/?" She wrinkled her nose. "I thought you were kind of scrawny, but... Shit. Now I feel dirty."
Dimitri smirked suggestively. "What, you-"
"/No/. That's your bag."
"You're lecturing me on morality?"
"I'm not playing a decade down."
"You are, however, a professed criminal."
"Damn straight." Clovis grinned and twirled her knife between her fingers. "Fourth class, going on third."
"And once again, the point is lost in an ethical wasteland."
There was a pause, during which Glenn gave them a hopeful look. "So I'm mature for my age?"
On the ship, Dimitri tended to lock himself in a cabin away from the sailors, Clovis bothered anyone off-duty, and Glenn stayed a safe distance from the rail, looking out of place. None of them came near the captain. Allowing time for post-confession bickering, they still had a good chance of reaching the vessel by sunset.
Maggie cleared her throat for attention. "The Conerian princess was kidnapped two years ago. You lot remember?"
Glenn nodded as Clovis said, "Eh, not really."
"Of course." Dimitri's voice was dangerously dry. "Assuming you weren't busy extorting widows and orphans, I imagine you were distracted when the Orbs appeared very shortly afterward."
Clovis snapped her fingers. "Oh, yeah, that princess. Thought they killed the guy who took her."
"He died twenty years ago, too," Maggie replied. "Didn't stop him then."
"Say, that's a neat trick."
There was a moment's pause as the implication sank in.
Dimitri was the first to speak. "So in other words, everthing is your fault."
Clovis grumbled something that included "robbing that academy blind."
"To be fair," said Glenn, a bit cautiously, "this might not a bad thing. I mean, there's destiny mixed up in this now, right? Don't the Orbs like destiny?"
"I was under the impression that the Orbs prefer making blood sacrifices out of their bearers." Dimitri cast an irritated look at his hands. "Haven't they thawed enough yet?"
Glenn persisted, "But we're the first people to come out of that castle-" Maggie caught his gaze- "in a while, and there's got to be some reason it let us go-"
"What, 'cause there's no such thing as chaos?" Clovis rolled her eyes. "We don't want to die either, kid, but what the hell makes you think this means anything?"
Dimitri laughed derisively. "Which means so much coming from someone who has repeatedly evinced a terror that her actions have consequences."
Maggie headed off Clovis's effort to retaliate. "Hands?"
Still looking a bit put-out, Glenn peered into the pan. "I think they're thawed. The color's back."
"Then we're going," she said, hefting her supplies.
Discontent hung in the air, but they seemed unwilling to argue and risk spilling any further secrets while the castle was still humming in their bones. Glenn set to work re-packing his supplies and wrapping Dimitri's hands.
"Wait a minute," said Clovis, getting to her feet. "I want my damn reward. Did anyone bring back a souvenir?"
Dimitri glared at her. "The boy and I both lost things, actually. I don't suppose your phantom friend-"
Maggie's ears pricked. In a single, smooth motion she turned and brought her ax down in the brush, resulting in a squeal, a thunk, and a startled yelp from Clovis, who had been closest to the blade. Before the thief could complain, Maggie reached down into the vegetation and retrieved a bloody rat tail, to which a large portion of the rat was still attached.
"I realize that Bahamut isn't terribly aware of the world around him," said Dimitri, giving the thing a dubious look, "but surely he'd notice if we tried to pass off the bottom third of a rat as 'proof of courage.'"
Clovis sniggered. "At least we'd be giving a rat's ass." To the others' looks, she added, "I can think of worse ways to cope."
"He won't," Maggie said, ignoring the interruption. "He smells the magic." When a glance confirmed that the party was close enough to being ambulatory, she secured the tent to her back and stepped toward the forest.
"Wait." Glenn's voice hovered somewhere below resolve. "Why did you drag us into it?"
"Why don't you ponder that on your own while you carry my staff for me?" suggested Dimitri.
Maggie didn't turn, but she stopped walking long enough to say, "Anchors."
There was a pause as the party fell in behind her. "That didn't answer my question," Glenn muttered.
"Eh, what can you do?" Clovis snorted. "We're all pretty fucked up, anyway."
"I'm beginning to suspect," said Dimitri, "that this was a cleverly disguised group-bonding experiment."
"Well, it backfired. The second the last Orb lights up, I'm throwing it at your heads."
"All our heads?" asked Glenn.
"I can bank a shot."
"And here I was under the impression that you could scarcely lift your Orb."
"Doesn't matter. The kid would take my side in a fight."
"You said you were going to throw it at me, too. And I have a name."
"Aww, see how close it is to a spine? It's like that stuff sharks are made of."
"In this case, the word that you're fumbling for is 'seafood.'"
"You know, I am the one carrying your staff."
Maggie's lip twitched as she tuned them out. Later there would be debate, varying degrees of confession and denial, and anger that rolled in and out like the tide. Beyond that lay wilderness, but every mastered memory was another paving stone.
They turned north.