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Chasing Arcadia

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Marea runs a finger along the spines of her books. Yellowed pages, fraying covers, some wrapped in plastic and others decaying in the open air. She pulls out an old tome, flips it open, and breathes. She closes her eyes and lets her mind wander. She waits for the memories, for the longing, for the aching and the guilt in her heart. But nothing comes. She cradles the book to her chest, just for a moment, then carefully slips it back on the shelf.

The bookshelves stretch from floor to ceiling, and they are nearly completely full. A shame, to leave them to fend for themselves. But books are heavy, and for the most part, they must remain. A handful of gaps represent her favorites, the storybook she once read with Rajya, Rajya's own notes and essays. Only the most precious can go.

She shifts her gaze to one of her more whimsical possessions. A crystal unicorn statue, nearly three feet tall, stands proudly atop an empty crate. Beautiful, but not precious. She has built a home laden with useless attachments, and she feels a twisting in her stomach, almost disgust, as she thinks about what she has let herself become.

But was it so bad, to have things? People? A place to call home, to sleep at night and relax during the day? There was certainly nothing wrong with it. She was often content, on rare occasion peaceful. Her best friend nearby and the roaring gears of an airship above her. But that was the problem, wasn't it—the airship, a massive, steaming colossus, so close within her reach. Her life's sustenance, a reminder that she still yearned for more, more clear skies and crisp winds, yet kept herself trapped in a box.

Almost three years ago, she came back from the Wastes, defeated and weak, prepared to accept her fate as a measly, smart-ass crook in the streets of human-infested cities. It took two years to find her place amongst the masses—at first it seemed impossible. That everywhere she went, destruction would follow. A menace, a misty-eyed, spiteful girl with a few screws loose; namely, the screws which dictate reasoning, caution, and empathy. She steamrolled her acquaintances, often quite literally, until she once again found herself on the go, in the sky, aboard the Rogue with a Captain that was patient and caring, but never doting, nor spoiling. The steady hand that was necessary to steer her. A man who didn't misplace his faith in her, and who she didn't fail. The crew called her Captain, for a short time. It may not have felt quite right, but the pride in herself was undeniable. She earned it. She succeeded. She was the only option Raigar had to lead the company in his absence, and she was a good one.

Now, she scarcely looks at the Rogue. More than most of the things she leaves behind, it makes her sad. Her own small ship, with its blue balloon and white base to match the sky, hovers in waiting along the rickety walkway outside her quarters. She picks up her last couple of bags, hitching one over each shoulder, and takes heavy steps up the gangplank, onto the tiny deck, and into the low-ceilinged cabin. She's spruced up the ship as much as she can for her newfound mission. The bench seats along either side serve different purposes—on the left, a few pillows and a ratty old blanket make a bed, and on the right, the cushions come off to reveal below them her books and mementos, extra clothes, a few rations and some smoke bombs, the essentials. Through the floor hatch, a massive amount of dried meat and barrels of water lies in shadow, alongside an equally terrifying abundance of ammunition and artillery. Machine guns have been installed on the two back corners of the deck, the ship's balloon laced tightly in rope to grip and help navigate the deck in high winds. Every moving part has been freshly cleaned and inspected, the holographic interface at the helm updated to be a little less flickery and sad.

Every detail has been taken into account. The only problem is the fuel—enough for six months, and her ship is almost beyond carrying capacity. It will slow her down, make it difficult to control in adverse conditions. But she has little choice—beyond the jungle, over the Unending Sea and into the skies beyond, she has no idea what awaits her. She doesn't know if there will be more fuel, more food, fresh water or friendly faces. She doesn't know if there will even be faces, if there will be land, if she will fly far enough to return to Ascalon one day, or if the ocean will just go on and on. Perhaps the visions that she had from the Priory towers in Divinity's Reach will be reality. Mountains that fade to hazy waves, knitting and swaying and losing themselves to a distance that never ends.

She does one more inspection of the outside of the ship. Scratches a metal finger at the newly painted name on the side of the deck—the Horizon, in stark blue letters. A fleck of color comes off on her fingertip, but she dismisses it; close enough to dry.

She bids herself one more look up at the refuge. Her crewmen walk about the deck of the Rogue above her, moving crates this way and that, preparing for a trip to Amnoon. Raigar is up there somewhere, watching them, or perhaps observing the ship's interface, selecting the route and checking the vitals. Or maybe, if he's feeling sentimental, he's watching her just as she watches the Rogue.

She doesn't look for him. She doesn't want to know.

The gangplank retracts into the Horizon. Marea moves up to the wheel, flicking switches and levers with practiced ease. The hum of the little ship grows louder, a higher pitch, as it lifts off from the canyons. Like a punch in the gut, she realizes she forgot to say goodbye to her cat. Poor little Inigo. He's never seemed to love her that much, but surely he will notice her absence, at least for a couple weeks. Then, he will forget about her. As only animals can do.

Hopefully, with time, everyone will forget about her. After all, humans are little more than animals.

Plunder and conquer, murder and hate. Soon it will all be behind her. And for once, she feels as if she could truly leave it there.

Her body is light as a feather, as if she could jump, and float through the air. What little is left of her arms tingles and goes numb. For a moment, she struggles to breathe, as if her throat has shriveled and shrunken. Leave it all behind. She's getting a second chance at freedom. An untold map awaits her, and her first stop--

West of here. A place of verdant plains and roaming horses, nestled between two great mountain ranges and a wide, flowing river.

--She smirks, a bit of cynicism creeping into her voice, despite being thick with emotion. “Goodbye, cruel world. I'm going to meet a real, tangible horse. Take that, fucking jackasses.”

She forces Raigar's face from her mind's eye. Still, she seems to feel his gaze on her back.

But with a day's flight, the land will roll away from beneath her. It will fade from memory like the fever dream days of her childhood.

And the search will begin.
Posted Jun 4, 18 · OP
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When she wakes in the morning, she eats a strip of jerky, dons a harness, and roams the outer deck of the ship, inspecting the conditions. The weather has been clear since she began her journey, not even a roving seagull in sight. If there was any damage to the balloon or her hastily mounted artillery, she would be surprised.

In the afternoon, she eats another jerky strip, and drinks a canteen of water. She takes out a book and reads by the helm, in the warm light of the sun. It casts the white fixtures of the ship in a golden glow, like effervescent armor, and leaves her left arm hot to the touch. Far beneath her, waves ripple and roll, the tiniest of giants, no more than a writhing mass of insects, when viewed from so high in the sky.

In the evening, as the sun sets, she sits on the deck at the bow, the guard railing only reaching her shoulders. She dangles her legs through the rails and swings them amidst the clouds. The clouds surround her, sometimes, deep plums enveloping the ship in darkness, soft and cool and formless. She reaches out as if to touch the deceptively full space around her, and suddenly they've flown past, into the open. Blood red sun drowns in the ocean, turning the choppy waves to molten, sinister and beautiful. She takes up her sketchbook, and copies the scene as best she can. Unpracticed, slippery strokes of oil pastels drag across the page, leaving behind little clumps of color. She thinks of the Zephyrite village in the Crystal Desert, bathed in that same eerie light. Left to die.

At night, in the dark, she lies awake. She stares at the stars. She imagines that Raigar sits beside her, stroking her hair. She imagines that this calms her, and, after a while, she falls asleep. She imagines that she dreams while she sleeps—she dreams of a wide desert, stretching from sky to sky, where wolves of leaves and sticks stalk the tarnished sands. She doesn't fear the wolves. But even so, they are in the way, and they will fight her. They bar her from her destination, on the far horizon. The snow-capped mountains are so impossibly monumental, they seem close. But she knows, from somewhere deep within her soul, that it will take a lifetime to reach them.

The snarling of wolves awakens her. And when she opens her eyes, the stars are in the same place, perhaps a degree or two along in their nightly rotation.

The Unending Sea can't actually be unending, can it?

It makes little difference to her if it is. She will just have to live in the sky forever, then. Hardly a disadvantage. Far from unlucky. It is only at night that doubt and guilt settle on her, like thick, warm blankets of wool. So comfortable beneath them, so easy to get lost in the dark. But the sun always rises, and she always gets up, she inspects the outside of the ship for wear and tear, she eats her jerky and drinks her water.

She realizes it has been a while since she meditated, so out she goes to the deck again. Plopping down cross legged, she closes her eyes, a cool, crisp breeze whipping loose strands of hair back from her face. An absent thought about redoing her braids drifts through her mind. Perhaps she will stop entirely for a saltwater bath. Attempt to catch some fresh fish.

Behind her eyelids, she imagines she can see bits of energy floating in the air. She plucks at them with her fingers, like picking diamonds out of the sky, and she feels the magic growing, humming through her veins. She gathers a hefty, condensed amount, concentrated in her outstretched metal fist, and painstakingly allows it to thread through her body. She tries to keep it even, leaving behind a little bit at every joint. Time passes as she works. She isn't sure how long. It must be long, though, as her stomach rumbles, nearly breaking her concentration as she slips through the final hurdle, the last ounce of magic nestled in her pinky toe. Then, taking a deep breath, she releases. As hard as possible, she throws the magic out of her all at once, her eyes shooting open, immediately looking down to her legs, her arms, all over her person.

No spooky dark mists. No death shroud today.

The ship cuts through the clear sky as it descends to the ocean, where it comfortably alights upon the gentle waves, as if it were meant to rock a baby to sleep. She sheds her clothes, along with all her weapons, except for a single long knife. Her left arm will be a problem in the water, but she lets it be. It has been so long since she had it installed, that she can't remember how to reattach it herself. And the mad genius that made it is long gone. The only man she ever met who was more zealous about chopping off his body parts than she was.

She dives through the cobalt waves. Immediately the weight of her arm shocks her, like lugging a bag of bricks through sludge. The aquabreather quickly becomes hot from her labored breathing, so she takes a moment of forced relaxation, turning to face the surface of the sea. Sunlight flits in patterns on the undulating surface, and the longer she stares, the more shapes she sees. Women in dresses twirling. Knives slashing through the air. Birds, born out of nothing and flying for only a moment, before being swallowed in nothing once more. Over, and over, and over again.

After a time, she turns away from the dancing lights, left arm tucked against her chest.

An hour later, she returns to the surface, three small silver fish speared on her knife. She tosses the knife up onto the deck, and lugs herself up with her left arm—just about all it's good for, alone on the sea. Where there is no one to quarrel with, no one to impress. Or horrify. The shock was just as pleasing a reaction as the admiration.

She cleans the fish up and eats them raw, slurping them down like noodles. The scales have been collected in a pile—dried in the sun, they take on an opalescent hue, and become hard as shells. After she takes out her braids and washes her hair, which sticks to her back in thick, frizzy waves of black, she painstakingly begins to poke holes in each scale with a needle. Hunched over on the deck, the sun slowly drying the water from her skin, she begins to feel sleepy. It is much warmer at sea level. A few times she catches herself drifting off, head nodding forward, lulled into peacefulness as scales slip from her fingers. But she awakens with a jerk. The sea is not her domain. And she can't let her guard down. Not with the dead weight on her left side, most of all.

In the evening, the ship returns to the sky. She dons her bodice, her leather leggings, her weapons. The teal beads in her braids have been joined by pearly scales, and she spends the rest of the night lounging on her bench bed, reading Ascalonian folktales until she falls asleep, in earnest. She knows every word of every book brought by heart. But taking them from the page is somehow therapeutic.

She doesn't dream. She floats in emptiness. And instead of a snarling wolf, her name wakes her. An achingly familiar voice, warm and low and tired, like the rumble of thunder in the distance.

She sits up. Through the windshield she sees the rising sun, and an island.

It fills her senses like wild, tantalizing fire. The air is thick with it. The jungle island, cut through by narrow, towering spires, is alive with the radiant glow of hundreds of ley lines, pulsing their rainbow light like a halo into the sky.

She trips over her feet on the way to the helm, instantly switching the ship into a steep descent through the few scattered clouds. If there isn't enough magic on that island to let her produce a death shroud, then--

There are no bets to be made, alone, in the sky. So she's just going to have to make it work.
Posted Jun 16, 18 · OP · Last edited Jun 16, 18
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Rajya Sleekfur grew up in the copper valleys of Ascalon. The lake near her fahrar was tainted, turned shifting shades of oily incandescence, so she didn't learn to swim as a cub. It wasn't until she became a full-fledged soldier, when a superior pushed her into a river because she had sneaked away to read a book, that she miraculously, by virtue of necessity, figured out how to keep her massive weight from sinking like an anvil into the murky depths of the water. The book had been ruined, swept away and soaked. The Priory forgave her for the loss. They never hesitated to loan her books.

Now, Rajya Sleekfur finds herself on the sea. She can't feel the waves, the swell of the ocean. Nor can she feel the sun, the blessed, blinding sun, or the sharp, salty wind that cuts through the ship's sails and sends sailors running about the deck, yanking on ropes and shouting orders to each other. She cannot feel, but she can hear, and see, as if in a dream.

The Unending Sea is bigger than she ever could have imagined. Of course she understood the concept of a sea, a huge body of water spanning hundreds of miles, if not thousands. If not millions. After all, it is called 'unending.' Is it simply due to Tyria's limitations, or could it go on forever and ever? Her chest tightens at the thought of such a thing. Sucked into the depths of an ancient, unknown world. All it would take is one storm, one undetected leak, one small mistake.

Pen Yfan pats her own shoulder, shaking her head as she turns away from the sea. “Do not be afraid. Nothing can happen to us, not as long as I am in charge of my body. You understand? No more screaming at the captain. He thinks sylvari are strange as it is. We will find her, wherever this ship takes us. I am sure of it.” She speaks softly, as if to a child. Rajya is conscious of this, on some level—condescension. She should be insulted. A seasoned scholar of her years. But she is not who she once was. A shadow of a creature, reduced to basic instincts—fear, brooding, longing, and love. She clings to Pen's words as to the hand of a mother, and knows that Pen would do the same with her.

The sylvari makes her way to the captain's quarters, dodging a scampering young deckhand as she slips through the swinging door into the cabin. Typhon Bashere sits at his desk, a large map spread before him, covered in scribbles of coordinates and notes. He holds his weathered head in his hands, deep in thought.

“Captain Bashere,” chimes Pen, sitting on the little stool in front of the desk. She pushes her fronds back from her face, and smiles warmly, trying to seem approachable. “Any news on the search? I see you have made some additions to the map. Perhaps I could look over them again?”

Bashere glances up at her with eyes sunken into sun-baked wrinkles. “Aye. That seems a fine idea. Though I do dislike having a talking tree upstage my own plans. There's no denying that you earn your stay on this ship with that intellect of yours.” He relaxes, sinking back into his threadbare armchair, and crossing his arms over his chest. “We detected tremors from the northwest at approximately 6:02. We've been heading in that direction since then, but the wind is fighting us. Perhaps you can discern the trajectory of whatever caused the tremors. Save us some effort.”

Pen bows her head obligingly, ruddy fronds falling about her face once more, and she leans in over the desk. She closes her eyes for a moment. Releases the reigns of her spirit to Rajya. And when she opens her eyes again, they glisten gold as they take in the intricacies of the map. Every minor slash and dot, hastily erased coordinates, frustrated doodles of squids and octopuses, every detail settles into place in Rajya's mind, and a thousand scenarios unfold beside them.

What do you think, Rajya? Are there conclusions to be drawn?

Yes. Unfortunately.

Pen lifts her head, and allows the charr to speak through her lips.

“Captain, I am afraid there is no trajectory. Just as with all of the past tremors, it was extremely powerful, and remained in a fixed point throughout the episode. If it were to have moved, we likely would have suffered from the fallout of such an obstruction in the sea. It also seems unlikely that the source of the episode remains; however, if we can reach the coordinates before nightfall, we may be able to find evidence of the cause.”

“Aye,” Bashere says softly, taking off his glasses to rub at his eyes. “That'd be the closest we've gotten, at least. We should make it in time.”

Rajya lets go, willingly, and Pen has the sudden, jarring sensation of plopping back into her body. She jerks in her seat, as if startled awake, and Bashere raises a tufted eyebrow.

“Sorry,” Pen says with a chuckle, “I had a chill. These ships are awfully drafty, are they not?”

“They can be. Best get you back in the sun, warm your bark, or whatever.”

“Yes, certainly! Thank you for allowing me to assist in your search, Captain. As always, I look forward to the day when we either find my friend, or your enemy.”

She tilts her head back, and smiles at the mural on the ceiling. A pearly white squid, tangled in a mess of tentacles and indigo ink. A tiny human depicted for scale—merely an ant beside the primal, otherworldly beast. She waves to the depiction, and then turns on her heel, making her way back to the hectic, frenetic world of the deck, where she sits in the sun, and tells Rajya of the warmth on her back.

Hundreds of miles away, Marea descends from the sky. She breathes deeply as the ley lines streak past her ship. She can feel them, buzzing in her blood. The air is alive with magic, intoxicating, sending the automated controls on her ship into a frantic beeping frenzy. She performs the landing unaided, coming to a smooth stop in the shallows of the ocean, and drifting forward a few more feet until the bottom of the ship becomes lodged in the sand. She quickly fills a small pack with rations and ammunition, hands shaking with anticipation, and then she's out on the deck, leaping into the water and wading the rest of the way to the beach.

As her feet connect with solid, dry ground, she drops to her knees. A smile of pleasure tugs at her lips, fills her eyes with a manic light as she swivels her gaze from side to side. The beach is small, only a couple miles long, before it meets the bulk of the island—those spire-like cliffs, pirouetting high into the sky, almost high enough to touch the clouds. Fairy tale towers with a dense network of pulsing rainbow light weaving through them.

“This is fucking crazy,” she says aloud, cackling lightly. “How has nobody found this yet?”

In her ecstatic state, she spares little thought for how she found it herself—there were no changes in the readings, no warning bells, not a single telltale ley line that she could've followed from farther back in her journey. It was as simple as nothing, becoming something.

She gets to her feet, and makes her way up the beach, to where the cliffs begin, their foothold shrouded by sparse, wiry jungle plants. Lush and green, she plucks a leaf from one, and experimentally shoves it in her mouth, chewing loudly. It tastes like shit, but she keeps at it anyway, never one to waste 'food,' and presses on past the trees and bushes.

The foliage only lasts for a moment. Soon she stands in a sandy valley of spires, and she cranes her head back, eyes straining to find their tops up in the violet sky. Down on the ground, the spires are far wider than they appeared, each one at least twice as wide as she can hug—and hug them she does. She wraps her arms around the base of one, pressing her face to the cool gray stone, flecked with a slightly porous pattern. A surge of energy flickers through her bones, and she imagines she could kill the birds in the sky with so much power. Though it occurs to her suddenly that there are no birds. She pulls back from the spire, and her eyes slowly scan the valley floor. Not a single sign of the smallest lizard, or even a fly. Just a few plants, like a rudimentary shield against the ocean, protecting their rocky friends from the water.

Despite the lack of life in a place so teeming with energy, she is unperturbed. She forms a metal fist and knocks on a spire experimentally—a hollow, deep chime echoes through the valley, bouncing from spire to spire until it fades into the distance. The ley lines high above seem to tremble from the vibrations. She feels each knock like a heartbeat, pulsing against her skin, trying to burst forth from her pathetic, mortal body. So weak, flesh and bone. So sad, a human form. Her teeth suddenly ache. She pushes the feeling away, and strides deeper into the forest of stone, footprints absorbed by the sand as soon as she leaves them.

The sky fluctuates softly, shifting from violet to indigo to deep blue and back again. The light here feels strange—there is no warmth to it. It comes from nowhere, and fills everywhere. Still, the island is comfortable, not cold or hot; in fact, she came to realize a short while ago that she could feel no temperature, as if the air was constantly adjusting to her body heat. Soothing her senses. There are no smells, either, except for the faint hint of steel on the breeze, like pavement after the rain. She sees an oily puddle in her mind's eye. With tiny bare feet, she splashes into it, splattering her pale legs with mud. An older child's hand grips her shoulder roughly, wrenching her away from the water, steering her into a dark alley, and putting a finger to her lips. “Shhhh,” she whispers. Marea stares at the girl's face, and after a moment, she realizes it's Winnie. Deep, cool brown skin, a round face, and rattlesnake braids that hang loosely over her shoulders. She stumbles along beside her guardian, the alleyway swimming before her eyes. She feels something, in the pit of her stomach—hunger. But so great that it spreads to her chest, and she struggles to breathe. Suffocated by it. Her ankle twists, and she crashes to the ground, not even a peep escaping her lips.

“Come on, Marea,” Winnie snaps, fingers gripping her wrist and yanking at her, to little effect. Winnie was always rather weak. Not in Marea's way, where she could have been more, had more, if only someone had bothered to notice her. For Winnie, it was ingrained in her being. A part of who she was. Physically and emotionally, the girl had little to offer. But if she picked on her baby doll, the infant she found abandoned in the trash and chose to tote around like an accessory at the ripe old age of five, she could be powerful. Everyone in the family picked on her doll, her stupid, tiny 'Rea, and the doll would come to her for comfort. Which she would give to her, for a time. A few minutes, perhaps. Before she found more interesting things to do.

Winnie yanks at Marea's wrist, and her stomach drops as she realizes the girl isn't getting up. She falls on her butt, shell-shocked, and begins to cry, holding the cold hand of her charge, stricken with the fear.

Marea awakens with a shout. Her head bangs into one of the spires, and she squeezes her eyes shut in pain as the echoing stone chorus rebounds through the valley once more. The eerie sound reverberates in her eardrums, increasing with intensity, until suddenly, without preamble, it stops. Blissful silence once again sits upon the island.

She slowly looks around her, eyelids heavy with weariness. She had been meditating—but at some point she must have fallen asleep. She remains where she was before, deep in the sea of spires, stretching up like pillars to support the ripening sky. It must be morning, of a new day. Surely not that much time has passed? Yet there it is, the sunrise. Without a sun. The sky only goes through the motions, here.

She gets to her feet, and reaches into her bag. She makes grabbing motions—unable to feel with her prosthetic appendages, she simply digs in and hopes to pull out what she needs. But this time, she grasps nothing. She upends the bag. Flattens it on the ground. The rations are gone. When did she eat them?

With an irritated huff, she turns back the way she came. She squints at the stone spires ahead of her. They fade into the distance, becoming a mist-like blur the farther off they get. She whips her head around, looking in the opposite direction.

Endless spire forests, in every direction. The sand unmarred by her passing—wherever she passed from. Her stomach grumbles, and with sudden urgency, she reaches for a lone bramble sprouting from the ground, stuffing it in her mouth, stems and all. The leaves are sweet, but the stem is bitter. It reminds her of Winnie—a strange person to recall, at a time like this, or any time. She tries not to remember her. She tries not to remember anything of her life before Rajya. Even without thinking about it, the lingering effects of that time cling to her like poison.

She chooses a direction, and she walks.

Winnie digs her fingers into a cake. An entire chocolate sheet cake, stolen from a bakery window. She pulls out filthy handfuls and stuffs them in her mouth, then offers the bits that cling to her skin to Darius, who drags his tongue over them slowly. Winnie giggles wildly, swinging her legs. Marea also swings her legs, wanting them to be like Winnie's. Skinny but pretty. They sit atop a crumbling wall in the courtyard of an abandoned townhouse, shadows of the towers of Divinity's Reach stretching across them in the afternoon sun.

Marea watches her companions. Darius is slightly older than Winnie, with a classic Krytan look, bronzed skin and brown hair, long and unkempt in a way he thinks is dashing. The rest of the family agrees with him. Their mop-headed savior. He knows the routes the Seraph will take before the Seraph themselves do. He has informants, real adult ones, leaders of gangs. Sometimes, when Winnie and Marea are out walking, gathering food or medicine, Winnie gushes about marrying him.

“One day, Darius will be the greatest crime lord in the whole city. We will live in a mansion with silk curtains and Elonian antiques, as my mom always wanted, and we'll eat the finest food, drink as much alcohol as we can without dying, and have lots of pets. I want five cats, personally. Darius will probably want something nastier, like a drake.”
Marea spots an apple in the gutter, likely fallen from someone's shopping bag, and snatches it up, promptly biting into it. It hurts her teeth.

“What about me?” she says softly, but with an edge to her voice, unable to keep the bitterness from surfacing. Some days are like that. Days of clarity, awareness. Few and far between.

“Marea!” Winnie snaps, whapping the apple out of her hand. It rolls right back into the gutter, and seems content to stay there. “You do not eat first! I don't know how many times we have to go over this. You get what's left. And now nobody gets the apple, because you've ruined it. Wasted it.”

“Wh—what about me?” Marea asks again, unfazed, until Winnie's hand cracks across her face, and her spindly legs topple over.

“You!” Winnie hisses, sticking a foot on her head to keep her down on the cobblestones. The street is suddenly empty. Marea imagines she can hear the sounds of doors and windows locking, curtains being drawn. “You might get to stay with me and Darius, if you're very good, but I wouldn't count on it. Selfish and inconsiderate. I regret the day I ever took you in. You know that?” She shouts down at her, wild, sudden rage filling her voice. “You would be dead if it weren't for us! Show a little gratitude!”

With that final note, her foot connects with Marea's face, and the world goes dark.

The three of them sit on the wall in the townhouse courtyard, and Marea watches chocolate cake crumbs tumble into the grass. Ants have already assembled for the feast, picking up bits five times their size and marching off towards their fortress. Marea hops down from the wall, and crushes them beneath her bare feet.

The awakening is worse this time. She gasps so hard her chest cramps, and the pain is piercing. She grits her teeth and waits for it to subside. And as soon as it has, she rolls over onto her stomach, face to face with lush green moss. She digs into it without hesitation, teeth tearing up greenery and sand alike. She sighs, she laughs, and at the end of it, when the binge seems to be over, she presses her face to the ground and begins to sob. The magic is everywhere. When she looks at her hands, they seem to vibrate before her very eyes. She has to get out. Has to—eat. No, she is a human, not a cow. She doesn't eat moss and leaves. She hates vegetables. Hates them, hates them. Even so, she finds herself digging up clumps of moss a moment later, and sticking them in her mouth.

“What the fuck is this?” she whispers through her mouthful, green juices dripping onto her chin. “Ship. Ship is that—that way. Because the stars, no stars, right. Okay. So the ship is, it's gotta be that way, because that feels right, and, and--”

“And you wouldn't want me to get hurt, would you?” Darius says gently, though not without a hint of warning. Of consequences for Marea's that don't put the needs of others before themselves. “You're a big girl now. I just need you to keep watch, and make your best judgment if anything goes wrong. Got it?”

Marea shakes her head. She's not a big girl. Winnie told her that she just turned five. She gave her a gift—a small knife, though not small enough for a five year old's hands. Grape vines decorate the handle, and her own name has been sloppily scraped into the blade. She's never seen it spelled before. It looks strange to her.

Darius gives her a hug, too tight, the touch of his hands filling her with a feeling she can't yet place—revulsion. And he rolls his eyes as lets her go and starts away. “You better not fuck this up.”

Marea slinks behind a pile of crates, peering out attentively, though she trembles like a frightened rabbit. After only a minute, a man in fine clothes, perhaps a merchant, appears at the end of the alleyway. He storms toward Darius, furious, counting something off on his hands as he attempts to lord over the younger boy. Marea hears his exclamations, but the words don't add up in her head. Too many, too fast, and with so much anger. She picks out the letters of the alphabet as she listens, and they spin about and tangle in her mind like an alien language.

The merchant draws a pistol. He backs Darius into a corner. Marea hears Darius call her name, and the reaction is automatic—she lifts her dress, taking her knife from the holster on her thigh. She walks into the open. Her hand moves. There is resistance. She struggles to plunge the blade into the merchant man's waist. Her appearance alone buys her enough time, as the man stares at her, dumbfounded, by the skeletal little girl that just appeared from the shadows with intent to kill.

As the man falls, her knife slips out from his flesh. She grips it tightly in her hand, and watches as thick drops of blood dribble down the blade. It reminds her of icing. Or ketchup. Or the sweet sauce that the butcher's wife puts on her homemade meatloaf.

Darius wraps his arms around Marea and spins her through the air, clutching her tight to his chest. “Nice work, kiddo! Wasn't expecting the man to pull a gun on a kid like me, but hey, you were there to save the day.” Her plops her back down on the ground, and wipes at a bit of blood on her cheek, where she was sprayed from the dying man's wound. “I'm proud of you, 'Rea. And I know Winnie will be, too. Hey, what's the matter? Don't get all teary eyed on me. This is exciting! Come on, I know you're a little brat, but you can do better than this.”

She stares at the merchant's lifeless body, a crimson pool spreading beneath his hips. She wipes at her eyes, but the tears just replenish themselves, hot against her chilly skin.

“What's, wr—wr--wrong?” She whispers, vision blurring.

Darius looks from her to the man, and back again, an eyebrow playfully raised. “Well, he's bleeding out on the ground. You killed him. That's the magic of knives.”

Marea shakes her head.

Darius nods.

Marea looks up at the sky, pure and blue across the low rooftops of the Commons. It sickens her.

She sits up, and before she can grab the nearest flora and begin ingesting it by the handful, she turns to the nearest spire and bangs her head against it, as hard as she can. The valley echoes like thunder, and she screams in pain at the sound, ears ringing, warm blood dripping down her neck. She gets to her feet and she runs, footsteps light as a child's upon the smooth sand.

She runs, and she runs, and soon she sees the faint outlines of bushes on the horizon, sprinkled amongst the misty gray spires. A flurry of memories fight for dominance in her mind, but she forces them away, she thinks only of her ship, of her friends, her cat and her books, she thinks of what she left behind, good and bad, old and new. She thinks of what she has learned to live for. She thinks of Rajya's burnt remains, Kaylee's crushed face, Noctis appearing behind her as if he were her shadow; and she thinks of her first kiss, with an uncouth, juvenile sylvari. She hasn't seen him in a long time. She tossed him aside, and he made certain that he would never feel anything but disappointment towards her, ever again.

She thinks of Raigar and Geneva. She thinks of the world, and how wrong it feels. Of how it has always felt wrong, since Darius swept her off her feet and twirled her around with joy. How dare he? How dare Tyria? How dare they allow her to be made like this? How dare they allow her to remember a world in which she wasn't the monster—everyone else was. She clings to memories of Raigar and Gen, sitting with them in the Sun, flying with them on the Rogue and lounging with them in the refuge. She clutches tight to Raigar's face in her minds eye. With the hands of a frightened little girl, who hasn't yet learned how to be empty.

She breaks through the foliage. Collapses to her knees in the sand, right where she knelt some time ago. Perhaps one day, perhaps several. After a minute spent catching her breath, she realizes the buzzing is gone. The humming in her veins, pulsing in her bones. She looks over her shoulder. And the island is only a patch of sand, perhaps a mile long. There are no bushes or trees. No spires, not even rocks. The ley lines are gone, and even as she stares, the far shore is growing closer, the relentless waves of the ocean eating it up and turning it to no more than particles, drifting in the endless abyss of the sea.

She is back in her ship, her eyes to the sky. It is black, now, just as it should be. The stars are all in their places. They fill her with hope. She munches on jerky from a large bowl, several day's servings within. She remembers little from the island. But whatever happened, it left her starving.
Posted Jun 29, 18 · OP
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She was beginning to think that it could only ever be sunny over the Unending Sea. And she certainly didn't mind, since after all, it was the blue sky that she frequently found herself lost in, that soothed her and kept her upright when her world was thrown out of balance, as it so often was. But when Marea wakes up to the sound of pouring rain rattling on the tinny shell of her ship, she can't help but be relieved. Something to break the monotony. Perhaps the winds will blow strong enough to give her some grief.

She goes to the helm and stares out at the slate gray sky. Far, far in the distance, a towering cloud writhes with violet lightning, flashes and streaks coursing through it like veins, a ceaseless barrage of white-hot fire. She shifts the wheel slightly, just enough to steer the Horizon off a course to meet the worst of the storm.

The cabin has a single overhead light in it, rarely used, but now she flicks a switch and it blooms to golden life with a soft electrical sizzling. She props open the bench seat that contains her storage, and goes digging through the goods, shoving papers and coats and bundles of jerky this way and that, until finally she pulls out her sketchbook and pens. She folds the seat down, and perches upon it, legs tucked up to her chest and sketchbook rested upon them as she tries to imitate the streaking of the rain with her fingers. She starts with a long line, from top to bottom of the page. Light, wispy strokes. The drops trail off like strands of hair. Nothing like the torrential bullets that strike the ocean outside, punctuating their fall with a little splash that glitters on the roiling sea's surface.

She turns to another page, and tries for a harder line, with less flourish, and then her rain looks jagged. She rips out the paper and crumples it up, crushes it in her silver grasp. Out here, as the only person in the world, that grasp doesn't even phase her. She has almost forgotten what an abomination it is. With nothing to remind her otherwise, she has always had the power of a norn in her left arm, and the weakness of a waif in the rest of her.

She tilts her head back against the seat rest, and closes her eyes. It only takes a minute for the rhythmic patter of the rain to lull her into a doze, and another minute for a strange crackling to appear in her mind. Peaceful as she is, the sound is absorbed into her dreams, and on her eyelids she sees herself plodding upon seashells, smooth and slippery underfoot. She holds one in her right hand, small and pearly white, worn into the shape of a fan. She lifts her left hand, unfurls her palm, and finds the same shell, but crushed, nearly to the point of a fine powder. Carefully, she slips the pieces to her right hand, and as they fall, they reform, whole once again.

A voice cuts through her respite.


Her head snaps up, eyes wide open. Her pleasant dream forgotten. All facilities are focused on the helm, at the holographic screen which has lit up to better provide inter-ship correspondence. Someone is out there. In the rain, on the ocean. She is not alone.

She walks silently to the helm, as if afraid the tapping of her feet might alert the listeners to her presence.

“Mayday, mayday, Pac—”

Static consumes the voice, that of an asura, she thinks, a female. Urgency grips the asura, though she remains calm.

“Pact Ninety—First—Explora—”

Marea dares to peer beyond the rain-streaked glass. Her heart leaps into her mouth as she spies them, a Pact war vessel, bobbing on the sea like a ship in a bottle. Strange judgment, she thinks to herself—to land the ship in a storm, when it is better built to withstand wind than water.

“If you—can hear us—send help. Unexpected—weather.”

Her eyes glitter with curiosity, but she only turns off the light in the cabin, keeping her presence a secret, and carefully lowers her ship from the sky.

All the anchors are released into the sea, and she doesn't leave until she is certain her ship will not budge farther than she can swim. Though it jerks upon the waves violently and water splashes over the deck, there seems to be nothing that will cause serious structural damage, so she turns her attention to the Pact ship, shielding her eyes from the rain.

She can see why it came down from the sky, now. Fins have been knocked askew, pipes and gears warped and melted as if by molten lava, half of the balloon stripped of its outer covering, and all the portholes shattered, left like gaping, black eyes, that watch her on her cheerful little ship, a mockery of the overcast sky. No one peers from within the open hatches, and no one calls out to her as the Horizon's gangplank bridges the gap between them.

The inside of the ship is no better. It is too dark to see in great detail, her surroundings cloaked in a film of black, but one swipe of her finger on the wall comes away thick with soot and decay. The portholes give little light, and the light from the smashed windshield is only enough to illuminate the helm, empty, the wheel turning lazily in a clockwise direction. She walks up to it, footsteps silent as a ghosts, and takes it gingerly in her hands, holding it still for a moment. When she releases it again, the spinning resumes. Disconnected from the core of the ship, it will turn and turn forever, whatever way the sway of the sea tells it to.

She flicks on the communications speaker. There is only silence, and the dead lights on the console remain unlit.

“Hello?” she calls out suddenly, startled by her own voice in the forlorn cabin.

She trots to the center of the room, craning her head back to the high ceiling, and shouting as loud as she can.

“HELLO! Hello hello! Where are you? Can you hear me?”

She quickly darts to the side as, almost in reply, a portion of the ceiling caves in, showering the floor where she stood with copper dust and pipes and sheet metal. The din is softened by the immense amounts of ash underfoot.

She reaches down and scoops up a handful of that ash, leaning in close to watch it sift between the creases in her metal hand. Gradually, she hears a singing. If it could be called that. She recalls an island, only a few weeks ago, that she stopped at for a time. There was not much there, so she only stayed for an hour or two. Or did she? There was magic. Magic like this. And it hummed in her bones like this keens in her ears.

She parts her fingers, and lets the ash fall. She can't remember the island. She didn't even know there was an island to remember, until now. And the air is simmering with magic.

Down the stairs to the cannon lines, and pitch darkness greets her. She slips her tiny flashlight from her pocket, and shines it into the drafty room, intermittently turned sideways by the pitching sea. The cannons have been melted and fused together, much like the rest of the ship. The shapes they've made are almost grotesque, unnatural, in a way she can't describe. Her gaze lingers on one mass longer than the rest. It seems that the metal was melted to the point of liquid, sprayed outward, and then froze in the air, like a sculpture depicting the crashing of the waves. She gets down on her knees, and leans in closer, squinting at a collection of discordant lines in the otherwise billowy bronze.

She imagines that it almost makes a face, eyes bulging, mouth gaping, the skin on its cheeks sucked back from the skull by some great magnetic force.

But she blinks, and only sees the faint outlines of an oval.

As she wanders deeper, she finds a large office, several desks askew and chairs overturned. But nothing has been burnt, nothing warped beyond comprehension. Books litter the floor, and on the largest desk, pushed back against the far wall, are piles and piles of papers, all carefully bound with string. Even as she rounds the desk, she knows what she will find: a tiny skeleton, with a large skull, and tattered blue cloth still hanging from its ribs.

“What happened to you?” Marea whispers, eyes drifting back to the papers without a second thought for the corpse. “Is your ghost here? Am I gonna get the shit scared outta me by some transparent blue asura?”

She unties a bundle of parchment, and flips through the papers, all covered from front to back in charts and calculations and what appears to be diaries, mixed in with the research. Untouched, and piled on the desk as they are, she feels a pull on her conscience—to take them.

The Pact ship groans with the pummeling of waves in the storm. Barely able to hold all the papers from the office, Marea hurries across the gangplank, back to her own ship, in through the door which she latches tightly behind her. She drops the papers in the bench seat, withdraws the anchors, and rises into the sky, turbulence be damned. The oppressive silence on board the Pact ship seems to cling to her, and when she's high in the clouds once more and spies the eye of the storm closer than before, she turns north, away, and onward. A single day without western travel won't hurt her.

When she casts her gaze down to the waves one last time, she expects the ship will have disappeared—but it is still there. Twisted and abandoned, the sea slowly swallows it, long after she has moved on.
Posted Jul 21, 18 · OP
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30th Zephyr, 1331

Science is naught but conjecture. We have little to give if we do not wonder, and science is the art of wondering, the urge to explore, the longing for discovery. This was to be my life's work, investigating the boundaries of reality itself, the edge of the Eternal Alchemy, the unknown components on the borders of The All. A wiser being once said to let it be, withdraw from your delusions before it is too late. To imagine that one simple asura, with bravery and cunning, could learn the secrets of the world itself, aboard a ship of simpler scholars and soldiers. Well, we have paid the price for vanity, and I the greatest of all, that I should remain alive, if barely, in this warped husk of a ship. I wish I could describe what I saw, what I felt—there was a great lightning storm, which struck our vessel and disabled us, but it was not what did the great damage within. We fell into a void, is the only way to put it. The world beyond the portholes was black, and thick, impenetrable nothingness, and it seemed that time had stopped. I could not move, not even to breathe, and it felt as if my body was being ripped in a million different directions, my very molecules torn asunder. Indeed, I watched as much happen to some of my crew. They disintegrated, or were mangled into hideous shapes. The ship was cruelly jumbled and reformed, absorbing all those who fell in its path. And at the end of the void was a flash of light, and into it my research assistant vanished.

After the incident, I tossed the bodies overboard, as well as I could. My exoskeleton, along with everything else bound by technology, seemed to have had the life sucked out of it, making physical tasks difficult, even more so due to the unknown wasting illness I seemed to have contracted. Even now, my hand shakes with weakness so that I can barely write. But write I will, as a warning. The Unending Sea plays host to the repercussions of murdering dragons. On the mainland there are merely tremors, but on the ocean, there is chaos. It is as if the Mists are ripping themselves apart, the greatest of anomalies this asura has ever seen. And I will not die happy to know it.

Marea digs into a strip of jerky, tearing at it with her teeth, spraying little crusty bits onto the paper. Gippa must certainly have gone mad—the dead asura, that is. Her name was Gippa the Philosopher, according to her maddeningly dense pages of recollections, fresh out of college, and she really enjoyed drawing foods with happy faces on the corners of her notes. Marea can relate to this. To the rest of Gippa's findings, she cannot, as she is not quite that insane, but nonetheless, something strange happened to the Pact 91st Exploratory Squad while they were scouring the boundaries of the known world.

Perhaps they all caught an unknown illness—Gippa did mention being sick, after all. It caused visions and delusions, probably, made the crew turn on each other, set the ship afire, and only the asura with her superior will and intellect lived to relate the tale, in the best way she knew how. An odd tale, but only a tale, with an inkling of truth buried somewhere within.

Marea gets to her feet and saunters to the helm, where the afternoon sun shines radiantly off the white steering wheel. She squints past it, at the cliffs in the near distance. They stretch high out of the water, white-chalked precipices swung gracefully upward into towering crowns. As if a giant hand had long ago splashed into the sea, and where the resulting tidal waves billowed impossibly tall, they turned to stone, and long green grass grew upon them, and fat little black and white birds with orange beaks settled in that grass and in the crevices along the cliff face.

She slips past the wheel and rests her forehead against the windshield, sighing softly as she looks down at the peaceful island. She could spend a long day down there, frolicking with the critters, searching for caves and signs of intelligent life. She could. And she could also contract a deadly disease that causes her to go nuts and burn down her own ship.

An island of madness, or an island of fun? That is always the question. Even before reading Gippa's research, islands had begun to carry a sort of wary gloom about them. All the more so because she couldn't remember what happened on an earlier one, her first stop.

“Is it worth it?” she asks aloud, her voice harsh and gritty compared to the constant, soft hum of the ship. “Do you think it's worth it, Horizon? I wanna meet the birds. They're goddamn cute. Nothing is cute up here. I can draw all the pretty little kitties I want, but it's not the same as having Inigo in my lap. Why hasn't the artificial intelligence of golems been installed in airships yet? I could be having a legitimate conversation with you right now.”

She pauses, cocking a brow as she stares at the empty cabin.

“Holy shit, I need to get out of here. Just one fucking hour. I'm not gonna go insane in an hour. Or I'm already insane and it makes no difference. Take the wheel Marea. Take it and shut up.”

The ship whirs and beeps as it makes a sudden turn towards the island, and the birds turn their black and white faces up to look at it, curious with their beady eyes.

Clouds drift across the sky overhead, gaps here and there in the rain-heavy cumulus letting in patches of blue warmth. Marea creeps cautiously through the grass, long green tendrils feathering around the spiked knees of her boots, and across from her, approaching from the cliff's edge, are the brave little birds, come to investigate the new arrival. They waddle from side to side, like very ovular quaggans, though the squawks they emit are far less adorable, and more akin to the much-loathed seagull's cries. Marea kneels down, holding out her empty hands as if they were a peace offering, and to her immense delight, the birds immediately swarm around her, nudging at her with their rounded heads and nipping at her leather coat with dull hooked beaks. She laughs, sitting back on her butt, and one immediately hops onto her lap, looking her dead in the eye and unleashing a hideous squawk. She gently scratches the top of its head, unafraid for her metal fingers with the strange avian, and after a minute the bird closes its eyes, content.

She roams the island without fear. The birds follow her wherever she goes, a writhing mass of feathered screeches many ranks deep, plus the lap-bird on her shoulder, like the leader of the gang. Her legs ache sweetly, finally able to stretch and move freely in any direction she pleases. The cool breeze carries the crisp tang of the sea, but as she journeys a mile inland, the crash of the waves fades from earshot, and only the wind rustling through the grass breaks the desolate silence. Even with her critters around her, it seems that the dip in the center of the island, a valley between the craggy cliff peaks, is the loneliest place in the world.

Eventually, they come to a rocky foundation. It rises only a foot out of the ground, no other traces of what once stood there remain. In the center of the foundation is a standing stone. No grass grows for a meter around it, forming a perfect circle of dirt. The stone itself has no particular shape, just a vague point upward, perhaps six feet tall. Marea stops in front of it, her bird friend ruffling his feathers anxiously, while the rest of the entourage lines up at the edge of the dirt, unwilling to go further.

She glances over her shoulder at the bobbing heads peeking up fearfully from the grass. “It's a rock. There's a lot of these where I come from.” The birds merely coo at her, as if pleading. Come back, strange featherless bird. This place is not for you.

“All places are for me,” she counters, nodding decisively as she steps past the stone, striding confidently into the field beyond. “Marea goes wherever Marea goes, and the world can take me or strike me down. Me and—Onogi,” she adds, giving her shoulder bird a reassuring bop on the beak. “I have a cat at home. His name is Inigo. That's how I came up with your name. I'm Marea, by the way. In case you didn't make that connection. Marea Sleekfur. And it's not because of my stunning frizzy hair.”

Onogi stares at her, chittering softly. She nods in agreement.

The valley is dotted with stones. She walks onward, and every so often, she encounters more. First two in a line, then three, four, and so fourth—some of them are taller, some are shorter than she, and some have the faintest remains of symbols carved into them. She traces her fingers along faded spirals and pictograph alphabets. She copies the symbols onto paper, records the positions of the stones, and chews on the end of her pen as she becomes hungry. Onogi jumps from her shoulder and flies low circles in the sky, going on ahead of her before looping back, riding the winds with stout black wings.

At the end of the valley, the land pitches sharply upwards as it approaches the far edge of the island, and the jagged cliffs cut from sea and salt. The sun sets as she crests the hill, casting a molten glow upon the green grasses and her pale skin, and upon the last flat expanse of plains before her. She lets out a low whistle at the sight, shielding her eyes with her hand—a great circle of standing stones spreads out in every direction, towering high as castles, glimmering with a strange golden shimmer in the sunlight. An eccentric network of lines has been laid out in dirt, past the first of which not even Onogi will pass.

“But Marea will pass. Marea has no fear,” she says, striding over the ancient ground. “This was a pretty cool adventure, I won't lie. An afternoon well spent. And once I get back to my ship, west it is. West forever. I have to find the mountains, and the horses, and, and...”

She grows quiet as she reaches the center stone, turned black against the heat of the fading sun. She places her feet just so in the dirt around it, and it seems they fit perfectly, in steps shared by a thousand others before her, and she pivots, turning slowly as the distant silhouettes suddenly take shape in her mind. She digs a hand into her coat, tearing out a wrinkled paper from Gippa's notes. She holds it up to the sky. THE ALL, proclaims the scholarly scrawl across the top margin, a network of grids and circles painstakingly laid out with perfect symmetry. A chill runs up her spine, prickling across her shoulders, as she realizes she stands in the middle of the odd motif. She expects the magic to hit her like a brick to the face, a tidal wave that smashes her to the ocean depths and devours her from the inside out—but the stone circle is still and silent, as empty and forlorn as the valley floor. Slowly, she turns to face the center stone once again, and, ever so gingerly, touches her forehead against the cool, damp rock.

The contact lasts only a moment, a short breath, but splitting pain shatters through her head and fills her vision with twinkling white lights. Beyond the lights is only blackness, tangible nothingness, and it fills her with an inexplicable, animalistic fear. She shoves herself backwards and falls into the dirt, scrambling away on all fours until she leaps to her feet and sprints. She flies past Onogi, who crouches down fearfully as she passes, watching her closely until she is long out of sight.

She remembers running from an island before, she remembers the confusion, and the unsettling, heavy feeling in her chest—hunger. She was hungry, and has always been hungry, longing for more from the world that feeds her. Longing for something that will fill the pit in her stomach, the hollowness in her bones. A desire so old and so simple, so deeply buried, she would never have thought of it herself.

She climbs onto her ship, and the flock of waddling birds watches from the distance, huddled in a wary clump. She sits on the floor and she stares at Gippa's drawing, unblinking even as her eyes begin to burn and blur. She saw the void the asura described. She glimpsed into the world beyond Tyria, and there was nothing. True, it was only one vision, one split second of a moment, but still, the sight fills her with fear. With hopelessness.

Finally, after what seems hours, she closes her eyes. She quietly gets to her feet, and tapes THE ALL to the corner of the windshield, where it blots out an insignificant square of the starry sky. What she saw cannot be it—there is more, beyond the white lights and the empty blackness. She refuses to believe that Tyria exists all alone in the Mists. There is something out there, and to find it, she must find the storm, find the void, and fall into the great unknown.

The ship turns away from the island, and glides westward. Fear turns to desperation, desperation to determination, and soon, determination to laughter, as Marea reads and rereads Gippa's account of the storm, cackling in the face of terror.
Posted Aug 13, 18 · OP
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Rajya spreads out a map on the table, unfolding it with care, smoothing down each corner thoroughly, though they immediately curl back up. Marea sits across from her expectantly, a contented smile on her youthful, gaunt face.

“We are here,” Rajya begins, placing one hooked claw in the circumference of Divinity's Reach, where Rurikton would be. “And I came from around—well, here.” She slides her claw to the Black Citadel, and then encircles all of Ascalon, even Ebonhawke. Marea gazes at the map, rapt.

“You've lived everywhere in all of A—Ascalon?”

“No, no, I mean that all of Ascalon was my home. To call a place home, you do not specifically have to live there. The land was all I needed, so wherever the land was, was home to me.”

“Oh. So, does that mean that, that, just because I live in the city doesn't mean it's my home?”

“If you do not feel at home here, then no.”

Marea tilts her head, gently poking the Reach on the map. “It does feel like home, now. But not the city, just this place. And not even this place, more like—y—you. Just you.”

Rajya lifts her eyes from the map, meeting Marea's for a moment. The little girl's eyes seem to overflow with kindness, round gray wells that nourish her own, for now, for a time. But tomorrow the wells will fill with anger, and pages ripped from books will burn to ashes in the fireplace.

“I am glad you think so, Marea.” She tenderly begins to fold up the map, handling it as if it were glass, when Marea smacks her hand down on it with aplomb.

“Wait!” she exclaims, pushing the map flat and running her hands over the western edge. “What's out here? Beyond the sea?”

“Nothing. Did I not just teach you to read? It's the Unending Sea,” Rajya counters with a playful huff, patting the pouting Marea on the head, before pulling the map out from under her hands.

“It can't really be unending, can it? There's no s—such thing. There's no, no unending islands, or woodses, or lakes.”

“It can be whatever it wants to be. However, it is true that we only call it 'unending' because we do not know how long it goes on for, and what lies beyond it. There is enough mystery in Tyria without sacrificing lives to the unknown.”

“I guess so,” Marea concedes, sitting back in her chair and biting at her thumbnail. “It just seems—it—I dunno what I want to say.”

As Rajya wedges the map between two books on a tall shelf, she looks back at Marea, fallen silent. The girl looks right back at her, though her pale eyes are distant now, unfocused.

The charr goes about her nightly routine, extinguishing candles with the barest puff of air, nudging dust over the cinders in the fireplace, opening the front door to dump buckets of water into the street, then replacing the buckets under leaky sections of ceiling.

“Rained a lot this week, huh?”

She blinks at Marea, nodding slowly.

“I wonder what the rain looks like over the Unending Sea?”

“Most likely just as all other rain does, though I suppose we will never know.”

Rajya snuffs the last candle between her claws, and then only moonlight gives the room a faint bluish glow, punctuated by the glistening gems of crimson in the fireplace, struggling to breathe through ash. Marea gets down on her knees and blows on the ashes, making space for the dying flames to flicker once again.

Pen Yfan watches the stars, perched on the railing of the ship. It bobs gently in the sleepy sea, soothing, like the arms of a mother she never had. A mother Rajya never saw, a mother Marea never knew. Perhaps Marea is luckiest of them all, in that regard—she was tossed aside, and found by someone who would love her, in time. A time too long to undo what had been done to her, but perhaps she was softened by it.

Pen thinks it must be strange to grow up. To have been a child, incapable of understanding how a wide glass of water and a tall glass could hold the same amount of liquid. In that regard, she is the lucky one—she never had to grow up, she simply was. And she needn't spend as much time learning about the hardships of the world as her kin, thanks to Rajya. Thanks to Rajya, she already knew, she had already lived a sorrowful life with a heart full of hope, and all that was left to do was continue that life, kindle that hope in her own soul, and kindle it in Marea's.

So Rajya was the unlucky one. Coming to the aid of others, however unlikely and unusual, and lifting them up from their own personal ignorance. And she received nothing in return, nothing but fire and fury. For what greater offense to a Separatist could there be, than a pacifist charr with a human daughter, writing treatises on peace and surrender?

Muffled footsteps catch her ear, and she looks over her shoulder, watching the hunched silhouette of Captain Bashere make his way to the bow of the ship. White sails flap languidly about his head, the wings of great birds beckoning him onward into the sea. He stops, planting his feet firmly on the deck, and slips his hands in his pockets, gazing wordlessly over the undulating ocean, like black glass under the gaze of the opalescent moon.

“Captain,” Pen says softly, coming up on his left side. “It is very late. Should you not be sleeping?”

He gives her a long sideways glance, sniffing once.

“Aye, in time. What're you, my mother?”

Pen perks up at that, her gentle smile broadening.

“No, do not be silly. I only worry because I have seen you out here so late many times these last few weeks. Does something trouble your dreams?”

“Nothing of that spiritual sort, not me. I'm firmly grounded in the present.”

“Yet you search the Unending Sea for a giant squid?”

“And you look for a girl who's barely human riding around in a blue and white airship. How you expect to see that from down here, eh?”

“I have eyes, sir—oh, I did not mean for that to sound so sassy!” She covers her mouth, giggling for a moment. “I am sorry, I was aiming for just a little bit sassy. You know how these things are.”

“Do I? I've never been a fourteen year old girl, can't be too sure.”

“Neither have I, so we're in the same boat—oh!”

Bashere finally turns his head to stare at her, face blank.

“You think I've never heard that pun before? Goddamn sylvari, acting like they ain't never stepped outside the jungle.”

“You got me. Those darn sylvari, so excitable.”

He shifts his gaze back to the sea, the weathered wrinkles on his face filling with silver moonlight. Pen steps a little closer, peering up at him earnestly.

“Sir, please forgive me for prying, but I have wanted to ask since we left port, and there has never seemed to be a chance—what are we doing out here?”

“Giant squid, said it yourself.”

“No, really. Why would you care about some squid? Has it done something to you? Did it kill your family?”

“Oh yes, my family lives on the open sea, just floating about on a raft, and one day--”

“--Come on, Captain! Throw me a—a bone, is it? That is the expression, correct?”

Bashere moves suddenly, knocking on the side of her head with his fist, as if she were a door to be answered.

“You're a marvel, the walking talking echo chamber.”

“It is a gift, truly, when I get a moment's peace from the voices in my head.”

“I don't wanna hear about that weird Pale Tree stuff.”

“I have little experience with the Pale Tree. Her voice has always been the softest among the din.”

Bashere raises a brow at her, and Pen does her best to raise one back, though both brows go up at the same time. Finally, with a scoff of distaste, Bashere pulls a cigarette from his pocket, lighting it in one smooth motion and touching it to his lips.

“Fine, you wanna know what I'm doing out here? I'm chasing stories.” A crisp, salty breeze blows his long gray hair back from his face, and the sails of the ship flap steadily behind them. “Stories I been hearing all my life. Come from fishermen, so the sea is all my family knows. My great uncle was lost in the Unending Sea, on a damned stupid quest to find sunken treasure, but his brother made it back to tell the tale. Told us all about a squid the size of a house, how it came outta the sea in a raging storm and swallowed their ship from beneath.”

“And you believe this story? It sounds rather far-fetched.”

“Aye, why shouldn't I? Old man like me, got no wife or kids, no friends. Just a crew that wants to chase my family legend. Not a bad way to die.”

“You, you think we are going to die out here?” Pen's eyes widen, and she leans in a little closer, trying to get him to look at her.

“No, not we.” He shoos her with a wave of his hand. “Me, myself and I, and all my men that want to come with me.”

“But why? Why would you want to perish in the middle of nowhere, with such a frightening death?”

“Because I want to experience something!” Bashere snaps, suddenly whipping around to face Pen. She shrinks slightly at the anger in his tired eyes. “Not everyone's life is adventure and endless wonder, you know! Most of us wake up, work, go to bed, and do it all over again, every single day. We ain't like your friend up in the sky, with her personalized airship and metal arms. When a man like me loses an arm, a million blessings don't fall with the rain and remake me better than I was before. No, I suffer, and I age, until life has passed me by and I've never done a damn thing.”

“Oh,” Pen breathes out, sympathy softening her shoulders. “So, what you are thinking is, perhaps your great uncle was not such a fool after all?”

“What makes you say that?”

“He lived his life how he wished, and then he died. Now, you are doing the same. You are your own mechanical girl in the sky.”

“By the Six, why would Raigar ever hire a dunce like you?”

Pen shrugs, smiling lopsidedly. “I asked him very nicely, and would have persisted if he did not take me on.”

“Hmph. Stubborn women. Same whether they got skin or bark.”

With one last breath, Bashere flings the cigarette into the sea, brushes his hands off on his trousers, and turns back to the ship, staring for a long moment at the cabin, looming darkly against the grain of the stars.

“Bet the squid is a woman. We'll find her, soon enough.”

“Aye aye, Captain,” Pen chimes helpfully, missing the way he rolls his eyes as he saunters off, disappearing between the ghostly sails.

Once she's sure he has left, Pen turns back to the bow, to the bobbing cradle of the sea, and wraps her arms around her chest, closing her eyes and listening to the crush of the waves. Rajya sleeps, wandering in the Mists far from Pen's mind, and Pen, not even on a map where a child can point at her head, fills to brimming with a strange peace, an emptiness, a delicate but certain sense of self that she has never felt before.

In the soothing surge of the unknown, she is Pen Yfan, all alone and nothing more.

High above and not so far off, Marea lies on her back on the deck of the Horizon, watching her own stars glide by. In them she sees her vision from between the standing stones, she sees the void and the twinkling lights that fill it. It chills her chest, but sets her mind afire. The possibility in each little light—endless possibility—endless chances for freedom, for escape, to find the life she was meant to live. By day, she scans the seas and does her best to track the winds and search for storms. At night, she can hardly sleep, seized in her dreams by that primal terror of the nothingness that lies somewhere beyond her reach. So instead of sleeping, she makes up her own dreams, awake, and sometimes she forgets if they are dreams or not. It has been a long time since she went so long without sleep. But years ago, when she avoided it at all costs, she does vaguely remember seeing things that were not there.

Eyes are upon her. She sits up, pouting with displeasure, and comes face to face with Evelina. The woman squats on the deck before her, red hair falling loose around deep green eyes, brown skin seeming to shimmer under the moon. They stare at each other, silent, unblinking, until Marea has to blink, she just has to, and then her lover's voice appears in her mind, clear as day and sultry as the blanket of night that hovers over them.

“What don't you have? Am I not enough?”

The thin strap of her dress slips down her shoulder, and Marea reaches out a hand as if to touch it, but she stops short, fingers twitching, a sigh escaping her lips.

“It's not you that's the problem. It's me. I told you that.”

“You wrote me a letter. We're not fifteen, you can do better than that.”

“I didn't want to tell you,” Marea whispers, leaning in closer, staring at those unblinking emerald eyes. “I didn't want you to be mad at me for doing what I have to do.”

She jumps as another voice suddenly calls to her, cloying, deep and comforting, the song of a spider as it winds you in its web. She looks to her left, and there is a familiar face, one that she hasn't seen in months—Noctis, scarlet eyes to match her own, dark hair resting perfectly at his shoulders. As she stares at him, wide-eyed, he slips on his sunglasses, and his face becomes unreadable. The handsome jaw and cold smile of a stranger.

“What do you have to do? You're just a kitten, after all.”

“And this is why I broke up with you, you goddamn fuck face,” Marea exclaims without hesitation, throwing her arms in the air. “I'm not just a toy for your amusement. You forgot that somewhere along the way, huh?”

“Don't avoid the question. You're just like me. Your desire to go to the Mists is more important to you than your love for your girlfriend. Even more important than your love for Raigar! A brother to you, and you would just leave him behind. What a bad kitten. Ungrateful. Should've stuffed him in the cargo bay and taken him by force.”

“Oh, shut up. Nobody invited you,” Marea snaps, waving her hand in his face.

She stiffens at a sudden pressure on her wrist. The rough scrape of bark, tugging at her gently. She swings her head around to her right side, and her chest aches with guilt at the sight of Nobu. Ridged brown bark barely illuminated by its own glow, his slender, tall frame like that of a child beside Noctis and Evelina, he doesn't touch her, yet she feels his hand against her skin. Black eyes meet hers, and she swears she can hear the flutter of wings, far off in the sky.

“Why do you have to do this? You have a choice. There is always a choice.” His imperious sylvari accent suddenly sounds foreign in her ears.

“And I made my choice. What're you even doing here? You don't care about me anymore.”

“I will always care about you, Marea.”

“Well aren't you a saint.”

“You have a home now, Marea.”

“Do I? Do I though? Could I really ever be at home in a place called Tyria?”

The visions disappear in the blink of an eye, as one last voice speaks up behind her.

“What do you want, little one?”

Slowly, she gets to her feet, turning to face Raigar. He stands with his back to the bow, arms crossed over his broad chest, gazing down at her with a kind smile. Despite that smile, sadness sits heavy in his eyes, haloed by golden hair that gleams in the light of the stars. Marea bows her head for a moment, looking at their feet, nearly toe to toe.

“I want to be free.”

“Free from what?”

She feels his hand tilting her chin up, and this time she sees it, too. Gently, she places her hand on his, brow furrowing as she meets his gaze.

“I'm—not sure. A lot of things.”

“Hm. Is that all?”

“Shackles. I feel like I'm in shackles, no matter where I go. And I just want to fly. And I want to be alone. And I want to know what it's like to, to feel, to feel at peace.”

“You want to know peace?” His gaze shifts past her, into some great, impenetrable distance. “Peace doesn't exist. Not in this life. It's not too late to turn back, Marea.”

“I won't give up,” she says suddenly, forcing his hand away from her face, but holding tight to it still. “You may have given up, but I won't. Rajya taught me that the world outside the city was a place of wonder, and hope. For a time it was, but that time is long past. Now I have to go farther. Farther, and I know I will find the place I'm looking for, I know it. It's your place. With the hills and the rivers and the horses.”

“Rohan,” the word drifts on the wind, so soft and faint amongst the whisper of the waves she almost thinks she imagined it, “My homeland. I hope it meets your expectations.”

“If I can ever get there,” she whispers back, her fingers suddenly closing on air.

Raigar's smile fades, the starlight dulls upon his hair, and shade falls upon his blue eyes. He nods once, before he turns away, taking two steps to stand upon the bow.

“You'll get there. And then you'll know what home is.”

She lurches forward to grab him as he takes a step into the constellations. And instead of falling, he fades away, like mist caught by the golden eye of the sun.

She stays like that, hand hovering, as if waiting for him to return and take it. Eventually, the sky lightens on a new day. On the horizon, steel gray storm clouds gather, stacked high into the heavens, and a single streak of lightning pierces the ocean, like an X, marking the spot. She returns to the cabin, to the wheel. And she clenches it tight as she puts the ship on a course to the eye of the storm.
Posted Aug 25, 18 · OP · Last edited Aug 25, 18
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The ship pitches violently in the sea. Cobalt clouds stacked above them let loose a torrential downpour, rain so thick that at times it is hard to see, little droplets as cold and hard as ice against Pen's young bark. She watches her hands as she flexes her fingers, nearly unable to feel them, and the shouts of the crewmen meld into one wall of sound in her head, Captain Bashere drowned out in the roar of panic and the swelling sea and the somehow calming thunder of rain against the deck. It reminds her of an afternoon in Ascalon, on the ranch, sitting at the table with Gaius with the shutters open. A solitary shower passed through, gentle raindrops like music on the tin roof of the hut. She was delighted, and she laughed, despite the pain that, at the time, was ever present in her head, a migraine that never went away.

Now the source of that pain hides—she whimpers like a caged lion, terrified of the sea.

Pen squints ahead, watching as the bow rises high, as if to pierce the steely sky. Her feet slide out from under her, and she skids down the deck, her back striking the cabin with a hard thump, alongside a few unlucky sailors that lost their own footing. Bashere clings desperately to the railing at the bow with one hand, the other hand raised in a fist, defiant, as the ship pitches downward again, and plunges into the waves. Pen stares at the wall of black water before them; it seems to linger, a spray of sea and foam barring their path, until all at once time resumes, and the massive wave crashes over the deck, knocking aside sailors like twigs. She chokes as it swallows her face, only for a moment until it washes over the sides of the deck, but Rajya cries out in terror, her eerie wails the only thing that penetrates the roar of the storm.

Pen gets to her feet, unsteady, but whole. Crewmen stream by on either side of her, returning to their posts, three men to a rope pulling it taut as the sails flap wildly in the wind. She slowly turns around, dazed, and gazes up at the cabin, strong and unharmed in the face of the storm. She plants her feet on the deck. She, too, is made of wood, and she can be as stalwart as--

--Another wave pummels the ship, slamming her face against the wall of the cabin. She cries out in surprise, and savors the soft, warm feeling afterwards, of sap dripping from her forehead down her cheek. She closes her eyes, woozy and blissful, sinking to her knees as she lets the sensation envelop her.


The voice is not hers. She shakes her head no, not now, Rajya. The dark is deep, and inviting.

No, Marea! Look! Look you impudent twig!

Her eyes pop open, and reality crashes onto her. She hastily gets to her feet, nearly toppling over in the process, and forces her way past the scrambling, shouting sailors. She goes to the side of the deck, and stares out over the surging sea, up at the dark sky, and, only a few miles away, she sees her.

A tiny blip of blue and white, as small as an ant, coasting below the cloud line. She heads straight for the center of the storm, where towering mists writhe with violet lightning, like tree roots descended from the heavens.

“Marea,” she breathes out, numb fingers beginning to ache. “Marea. Stop! What are you doing?! Bashere!” She dashes up to the bow, feet slipping and sliding as water continues to splash over the deck. “My friend! That's her, don't you see it? The ship in the sky!”

She can't seem to shout loud enough over the roar of the ocean and the hammering of the rain and the screaming of the wind. Bashere turns to look at her—past her, his old eyes filled with terror. And a strange sort of determination. Madness in the face of death.

She follows his gaze, and the cries of the wind become one with those of the sailors. Massive tentacles stretch forth from the ocean, ghostly white as the lonely moon, they reach up to the clouds, twisting and twining gracefully, ethereal beings dancing in the sky. All around the ship, glowing golden circles of light appear on the undulating surface of the sea, suddenly calm, and as she stares at those lights, they seem to split, shifting and phasing in and out of existence, like a broken hologram. The ship follows suit, sails crackling like a warped image.

The arms of the sea surround them, and Pen allows herself a moment, one split second, to remember the caress of the gentle waves the night before, that could have rocked her to sleep like the child she never was.

“Bigger than a house, eh?” Bashere murmurs, grabbing Pen by the shoulder and carefully pushing her aside. “Take the lifeboat. You know where it is.”

“I do not think the lifeboat will save me, sir,” Pen replies, surprised by the calm clarity of her voice. The universe seems to have gone still in the face of the great beast. “The water is full of—something.”

“Try. Or you will die here with us.”

She swallows hard, and watches as he walks to the center of the deck, the crewmen, huddled together, a solitary voice wailing in terror, moving in close around him.

He calls out orders, and she hears the din of footsteps behind her as the sailors rush to their guns and cannons and harpoons, but all she sees is Marea's ship, so fragile and alone, speeding fearlessly towards the heart of the storm.

Go! Go you fool! You cannot help Bashere, their fates have been sealed!

But he is a good man. How can I leave him?

He wants to die. If you care for him, you will honor his wish. And if you care for Marea, you will get on that blasted lifeboat and follow her, or I will make you.

Rajya growls with malice, sending a shudder up Pen's spine.

I love Marea. You do not have to make me, Rajya. I will go.

She swings her legs over the railing, picks her way down the rope ladder, and hops into the lifeboat, a little wooden thing little better than a canoe. She grabs onto the pulley and slowly lowers herself to the water, the hum of the ship's engines kicking in as she settles onto the surface of the sea. The lights beneath the water, as big as noonday suns, seem to blink at her.

“Be kind,” she whispers, leaning over the side of the boat and watching them, their sulfuric glow blinding her eyes like fire.

As she drifts away on some unseen current, the ship lurches backward, propelled by the long-dormant gears of steam technology. It makes a beeline for the tentacles in the sky, great white sails coiled away so that it seems a copse of bare winter trees stands upon the deck. Sentinels over the death of insignificant men, and great men, or simply just men, no different from all the others. In the face of fear, sailor, captain and sylvari are no more than a mote of dust in the wind.

She hears their battle cries and the massive boom of their weapons that makes the surface of the sea tremble. And then the head of the squid rises from the ocean, stretching past the clouds, golden eyes streaming by below her boat, reflected on the surface of the water until they emerge into the sky, and their radiant glow alights the ship with celestial fire. The men scream, and Pen sobs, just one single gasp, wanting to cover her ears and look away, though she doesn't, she can't. Her gaze is frozen in awe and horror. One impossibly huge tentacle comes down from the sky, and smashes the ship in an effortless blow.

Waves from the aftermath push her outward, farther from the scene, and she tears herself away, shaking uncontrollably. She fumbles with the oars, like slippery grass in her hands. A distant, deep part of her, aching in her chest, wants to turn back. But she feels another soul take hold of her limbs, gently guide them through the motions, and the boat begins to pick up speed, chasing the girl in the sky.

Marea stares ahead, her mind blank. There is nothing else in the world except for her and the storm. Machines in the ship whir and whistle as the atmospheric pressure shifts, and she goes from barometer to barometer, adjusting them accordingly. Warning lights flash on the holoscreen, so she shuts it off, knowing where she's going, in no need of sonar or a map—even without the windshield and the clearly hazardous clouds in the sky, she would know where to go. She can feel it the closer she gets. The dread, and fascination, of the void beyond the Mists.

A great boom rings out in the distance, and a moment later, the airship rattles from the force of it. Her skin prickles, but she simply stares out the windshield, taking deep, labored breaths. She becomes acutely aware of herself—the way her hair tugs at her skin, pulled taut in braids, the ache of a rotten tooth in the back of her mouth, the blurriness in her left eye. The hard muscles in her shoulders and back, the unexpected result of carrying metal limbs on her body.

She laughs, shaking her head dismissively. What an odd creature she is. What odd creatures we all are, meat encased in bones encased in flesh, that somehow moves about and talks and forms thoughts of its own. And when you strike it down, the monster gets back up, with stronger bones than before. Resilient and adaptable, the true menace of Tyria, is people. No news to her, but with the image of walking meat in her mind, it seems more reasonable than ever.

Lightning flashes outside, casting a violet glow over the windshield. Below, the sea churns in a strange circular pattern, focused under the eye of the storm. The hair on her skin stands on end, and she closes her eyes, feeling around for the magic—and there it is, overflowing, rushing around the air like flurrying snow. She follows the little pinpoints of energy, and to her surprise, they head not up into the clouds, but down, into the sea.

When she opens her eyes again, there is a hole in the ocean. The waves circle round it, a hurricane of the sea, and it swells wider and wider before her gaze.

“Fuck am I supposed to do with that?” she asks no one in particular, taking a swig of water from her canteen. “Not a goddamn submarine.”

She turns away from the helm, wiping at her mouth. A collection of pipes along the back right corner of the ship catches her eye, and she squints at them for a long moment, unsure what she expects to see. Abruptly, they begin to tremble, vibrating in place and screeching as Marea clasps her hands over her ears, groaning in pain as a heavy pressure settles on her back. She forces herself to walk despite it, inching over to the pipes, releasing one of her ears so she can turn the crank and--

--The pipes explode, fire and smoke flashing outward and stunning her for only a moment. She stumbles backward, hobbling to the helm and falling to her knees, feeling around for the fire extinguisher beneath the console. She pulls her bandana over her face but it does no good, and when she manages to find her footing, wheezing and hacking and lightheaded, she flings the fire extinguisher at the windshield, glass shattering, allowing the smoke to billow free and the air to clear.

She gasps for breath, but her respite lasts only a moment, as a silent streak of lightning flashes above her, and strikes the back end of her ship, another fire roaring to life from beneath the floor and spreading as if riding the air. Thunder cracks in the sky high above her, and she fumbles with levers and buttons on the console, releasing the contents of the cargo bay into the sea, hundreds of pounds of flaming fuel swallowed by the dark waves.

Still the fire sweeps across the floor, licking at her heels, warming the back of her neck. She tries to climb out the windshield onto the deck, but nearly gets thrown onto the broken glass by gale force winds, and she retreats back into the smoke, mind racing with a million thoughts and insufficient solutions--

--Into the sea. She will take the ship into the sea, dip it underneath just for a moment, then pull herself into the sky again.

She rips off her coat and throws it over the nearest flames, smothering them for a second before they bloom to life once more and consume the trusty leathers. Warning bells and malfunctioning sirens pierce the air as she begins to steer the ship downward, to the north of the vortex in the ocean, growing ever greater even as she stares at it. The cabin shudders but the descent remains smooth, and she grips the wheel as if to crush it in her unnatural hands, coughing and hacking, tears blurring her eyes.

And then, the ship goes silent.

Halfway down to the sea, it breaches the edge of the maelstrom, and the console goes dark.

“No!” Marea shouts, voice hoarse, followed by a bout of poorly suppressed heaving. “No no no! Come back!” She slams her fists down, shattering screens and delicate little buttons, a sudden heat crawling up the backs of her metal boots. “Fucking Horizon, wake up!”

She grabs the wheel and yanks it to the side, but the ship is unresponsive, internal gears fast asleep, wandering in their own quiet afterlife.

A high whistling precedes another explosion behind her as the flames chew through the exposed piping on the wall, and this time the fire envelopes her. She screams, though she can't hear her own agony, tears evaporated as if they were no more than morning mist, not the jewels of a suffering creature, more precious by far. Her unfeeling hands still clutch to the wheel, desperately straining to move it, almost operating with a mind of their own as her back and her legs burn bright in her mind's eye, pain so sharp and searing she can see it.

The Horizon pitches downward sharply, diving towards the maelstrom, a mile wide and growing by the second. Gray skies rush past her, a blur of smoke and lightning, and the ship, falling in earnest, a blue and white meteor made by the hands of mankind, passes beneath sea level in the blink of an eye. Fire crawls up her shoulders and catches her hair, licking around her neck and kissing her cheeks with gentle, cloying caresses. The darkness of the vortex fills her vision, and for a moment, it seems that it is all she will ever see. She will die, falling to the bottom of the Unending Sea, trapped in the deepest depths of Tyria, and she will never see the sky again or take another breath of cool desert air, she will never wake in the morning in the canyons and see the sun cresting the cliffs, and she will never press her face to a cat's silken fur or feel the warm touch of a loved one's hand against her cheek.

She screams in pain and cries with another sort of agony, with longing, that she should never find the beautiful dream she seeks, and she will die just as miserable as she lived, a failure, alone in the world.

And then, she stops.

The ship stops. The fire freezes in mid-air, as if it were no more than the masterful strokes of a painter's brush. Her mouth still gapes and cannot be closed, her eyes stare forward and she cannot blink them. She can't breathe, her chest crushed by an invisible presence. Gradually, as an eternity seems to pass by, twinkling lights bloom out of the darkness. They appear like stars in the night sky, but instead of calming her, they fill her with terror. The darkness in between each glittering diamond is so vast, so thick, she fears that it will swallow her, that it already has swallowed her. But soon, though she remains fixed in place, the stars begin to slide past her, increasing speed until they are no more than streaks of white light that fan out all around the ship.

Though she is still frozen, the pain is not. The fire is cold as dry ice, and every fiber of her being feels as if it is being torn asunder, every tiny particle and atom forced apart. She becomes her pain. Compressed and warped and picked at as she falls through a place where living things dare not tread, Marea is lost. There is no time, in the void, but she falls forever, and the person she once was is replaced with horror. Nothing else exists in the emptiness at the pit of the maelstrom. Nothing but fear, and doorways like stars in the night.

Magnesium bright light strikes her with the heat of the sun, and she tumbles through trees, before connecting to earth with a sickening crack.
Posted Sep 5, 18 · OP
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The first thing she feels is cool, lush grass, pressing against her back. When she opens her eyes, tall, leafy treetops spin against a starry sky, buoying this way and that, as if on a shifting sea of space. A high pitched ringing fills her ears, drowning out whatever else might surround her, and when she licks her lips, she tastes blood. She is an empty shell, dazed beneath the late night's gaze, and for a while, the only thought to punctuate her conscience is that she can't feel her hands. A muted panic rises in her chest, but her breathing never quickens. She only stares at the stars, tears welling in eyes that have forgotten how to blink, even as a warm trail drips down her forehead and fills her left eye with scarlet film.

After a time, the trees grow still. The grass becomes hot against her back, and the trance has been broken—she shoots upright, screaming out in terror as if she had only just fallen to the ground. A vision of the void flashes in her mind, and she whimpers, grabbing her head in her hands and squeezing her eyes shut. From head to toe, she trembles violently, and although she begins to sob, no tears fall upon her cheeks. She merely heaves and shudders and twitches, jerking her face away as those streams of shooting stars play across her eyelids. She can't escape them, embedded in her head, but she thrashes around as if she could, as if it was not futile to seek shelter from something that's a part of you.

As she hunches over, a sharp pain in her chest abruptly pulls her out from the vision. She opens her eyes, breathing unsteadily, and a searing, prickly burning sensation spreads across her skin. She looks down at her legs, where her pants are almost entirely shredded, and swollen, deep red skin fills in the gaps, blood glistening wetly on the surface. Her back feels similar, if not worse, and though she doesn't have hands of flesh with which to reach over her shoulder and touch, she is certain the burns are there as well. All the way up to her neck, where she discovers with a clumsy grasping of fingers that her braids have burnt off, leaving a jagged fray of hair at chin length.

She holds her hands in front of her face, staring at them quizzically. She moves her pinkies, then forefingers, she cycles through each finger, gritting her teeth with frustration as they scrape and screech, some little bits deeply hidden in the machinery knocked out of place so that she can barely move them. After a few seconds she manages to form fists, which she pounds against the ground, just once, shaking her head as a cruel, bitter smile breaks through the dried blood on her face. She begins to chuckle under her breath, the low, rolling laughter of a slightly mad woman, as she forces herself to her feet in one swift movement, the earth swaying precariously under her steps.

A long groan of pain escapes her lips as she straightens her back, bones and cartilage shifting unnaturally in her chest, and she gently brushes her fingers over the top of her forehead, coming away smeared with scarlet grime. Taking a long, steadying breath, she turns in a slow circle, surveying the clearing in which she stands, even as she grits her teeth to keep from bawling over the hideous pain that sets her legs and back afire with every mild movement.

Only a few trees were mowed down by her arrival—three trunks lie splintered across the ground, the remains of her airship scattered amongst them. A pile of charred books lying at one end of the clearing, pipes and gears at another, her most precious possessions strewn out alongside huge slabs of white sheet metal. She limps over to the nearest piece, one end stuck securely in the earth, and brushes the ashes from the face.

Horiz, says the pale blue lettering. Her heart drops to her stomach, and all at once the void returns to the forefront of her mind, mentally smacking her in the face and sending her reeling through the air, though in reality she still stands in the grass, and she jerks her head to the side, keening and murmuring unintelligibly. Her hand seems to move on its own—steel fingers suddenly dig into the pulverized flesh of her thigh, and she screams out in pain, baring her teeth, wild eyes staring ahead at the soft, shadowy forest.

Pulled free from the vision by more tangible suffering, she finally finds words in her parched throat.

“Fuck,” she rasps, barely audible, “Fuck, fuck, ah, fuck. Fix it. Fix it Marea, fix, yourself. Fix--”

She spies her focus lying nearby in the grass, unharmed, the white luster of the skull perhaps even brighter than before, and she stumbles over to it, picking it up in her sluggish hands, and reaching. Reaching out into the plants and the air, feeling around for energy, not with her limbs but with unseen spectral intent, just as she always has, for the last two years of semi-successful necromancy she has indulged herself in.

And the air is dead. It does not hum or tingle with life. She can find no strain of magic to follow, no leftover impressions of some great and recent feat. The breeze stings against her skin, and she feels as if she stands in a vacuum, a bubble within the void where there is existence, but it is empty and hollow as the void itself. It seems impossible, in a copse of rich forest, as real and familiar as Kryta, that there could be nothing for her to latch onto, not even the tiniest inkling of magic, too small to help but just enough to comfort.

“How,” she breathes out, fingers squeaking as they tighten their grasp on the Separatist skull. “How? Hello? Is this real?”

Crickets reply, chirruping rhythmically into the silence. Accompanied by the snap of a twig.

She whirls around, staring in the direction of the snap. She carefully sets her focus on the ground, and looks over her person, finding one weapon still intact along her belt—her tiny M pistol, blackened from the fire but otherwise not structurally compromised. The forest spins and pulses as she takes quick, unbalanced steps into the thick of the trees, making straight for a lantern light not too far ahead. Just the golden glow of it fills her with relief, but still, with great lethargy she makes her fingers wrap around the handle of her gun, held at the ready by her hip.

Gradually, two figures come into view. They stop in their tracks at the sight of her. An older man, wearing the simple patchwork garb of a farmer, with a scruffy beard, and a loaded crossbow in his hands, pointed at the ground. And beside him, a small boy, dressed in slightly nicer rags, carrying the lantern, and gazing at her with wide blue eyes, his face lit up as bright as day.

Marea holds her hands in the air weakly, leaving several lengths between them.

“More humans. What did I expect,” she jests, immediately coughing up a bloody ball of phlegm, and spitting it on the ground. She takes a startled step back as the man raises the crossbow, taking aim for her chest, and speaks in a voice full of bravado, yet wavering with fear. And what comes out of his mouth is gibberish.

Flowering gibberish, gibberish that seems to paint a vast landscape in the air, strange, alien tones like music played in reverse. Marea stares at him with wide eyes, dumbfounded, and he repeats what she assumes is a warning, as he inches slightly closer.

“Help,” she says loudly, intonating each sound as clearly as she can. “Help. Hurt. Lost.”

The man's reply rolls off his tongue like a babbling brook, chased close behind by a burst of lilies, lilting, ethereal tone sharpened into an obvious threat as he squints one eye shut, hands trembling as he braces to loose the arrow.

“No!” Marea exclaims, a bit more forcefully than she intended, stretching a hand out to caution him. “I don't want to hurt you, I'm hurt, help, please, I need help, heh-elp, look at me, just goddamn--”

The man's finger twitches, and the pistol comes down and shatters the peaceful cricketing of the woods. One lone shot is like thunder, critters in the trees scattering with the wind. The man drops to his knees, crossbow shooting off into the grass, and the little boy, after a moment spent staring at Marea in pure terror, takes off into the night, like a pale ghost fleeing the reaper.

Marea watches his fading form. She glances at the farmer, lying face down in the grass, blood pooling around his head. And with an agonized, drawn out groan, she begins to stomp after the boy, each stride of her ruined legs jostling her broken ribs and leaving her bloody head ever more woozy.

The homestead is not too far off. She comes to the edge of the forest, long after the boy has passed through, and sees the farmhouse, a stout stone abode, windows lit with warm light, behind it a small stable and fenced in pasture, and beyond that, she can just barely make out interweaving, sprawling hills in the silver moonlight, dancing against the horizon like waves carved of marble.

She limps up to the door of the house, and knocks a playful rhythm, before pushing it open and peering inside.

A small but cozy kitchen greets her, fireplace lit, round dinner table set for three. A roasted chicken sits on a cutting board, untouched, and Marea slowly creeps inside, examining the counters, stacks of dishes and bundles of greens strewn across them, a basket of apples and a peg on the wall holding a large ring of skeleton keys. As she picks up an apple, taking a ravenous bite out of it, her eyes travel to a knife rack, fastened up next to the keys. Curiously missing two of the blades.

A floorboard creaks, and she whips around and strikes at the first thing she sees. Her apple goes flying, as does one of the missing knives, catching the light of the fireplace as it skitters across the floor. A young, simple woman, not much older than herself, is already reaching for the second knife from under her bodice, and Marea knocks it from her hands just as easily, grabbing her by the shoulders, and forcing her back against the wall as she screams and quakes before Marea's madwoman visage.

“Listen!” she shouts, bloody spit misting over the poor woman's face. “Help! Help! Me!”

She releases her with a jerk, stumbling a few steps back to collapse in one of the dining chairs, sighing with relief. She takes her pistol from her belt once more, lazily pointing it in the direction of the woman, who gathers her long, full skirts in her hands, as if to hide behind them.

“Please,” Marea says more softly, trying to sound calm. “Everything. Fucking. Burns.” She points one stiff finger at her pulp of a thigh. “Though I'm pretty sure my nerves are damaged, because it should be way worse. And I gotta hunch you don't know what nerves are.” She pauses, narrowing her eyes at the woman's bewildered face. “I mean. Help. Heeeeeelp.”

Though the woman gives no sign of comprehension, she scurries over to a cabinet beneath the counters, and pulls out a small wooden chest, setting it quickly on the table next to Marea, before backing away as if afraid she were contagious. Marea flips the lid open, and a powerful stench of medicinal herbs makes her eyes water. She sniffles as she nudges around the contents, some familiar plants and pastes, and others foreign, almost as unusual as the sound of the strangers' voices. And all decidedly primitive.

She pulls out a salve with an antiseptic smell, and begins lathering it onto her legs, hissing through gritted teeth. She leaves the gun sitting on the table, still pointed at the woman, and watches from the corner of her eye as the little boy peers around a corner, rather high up, perhaps coming down a set of stairs.

“See? Literally all I needed,” she calls to him. Realizing he's been spotted, the boy tries to retreat, but Marea immediately jumps to her feet, gesturing from the woman to the boy, back and forth.

“Get him! Get him, now, both of you, here.”

The woman rushes up the steps, grabbing the boy by the arm and dragging him back with her, whispering what is likely words of comfort in her odd, blossoming tongue. Marea falls back into her chair, and continues slathering her body in silence, aside from the occasional whimper and whine. The process is long and the pain exhausting, and when she has coated her burns in medicine, she lifts her fingers to her forehead, flinching as she prods them into her open wound, trying to get a feel for how deep and severe it is. Yet she can tell little better than if she was using a random stick, and ends up drowning the gash in paste, before wrapping a long bandage around her head, sealing it up tight.

“Sure would be nice if you had an actual doctor, huh?” She wipes her slimy hands on the remnants of her leggings, and picks up the pistol again, scratching at a mysterious crust on the barrel. “But no, you're just lowly, humble farmers, with ye olde herbal concoctions. Not your fault, I'm not holding it against you.” She gestures to herself with the gun. “Marea. My name is Marea. Muh-ray-uh. And you?” The gun flips back to the woman, and she holds the little boy tightly to her side. Though her posture is defensive, some of the fear seems to have faded from her face, replaced with wariness.

After a pause, her name falls from her tongue like sunlight against chilled skin on a fair autumn evening.

“Maegan,” she says simply, and then, placing her hand on the boy's head, “Tomas.”

Marea blinks, leaning forward slightly. “Say that again. Again.” She waves her hand, signaling to repeat.

This time, the words take shape in her mind, and the glittering sounds of the strangers' language fall into a familiar, if altered, mold.

“Maegan and Tomas,” the woman says bitterly, brown eyes fixed on Marea. “Wife and son of Frank Ferny, who you murdered.”

“Shit,” Marea interjects, completely missing the bit about murdering, “You're speaking Common. You've got Tyrian names. Can you understand me at all? Me, Marea?”

“Marea,” Maegan mimics, nodding to her.

“Alright, that's a start. Who am I kidding, not like I'm much better. Medicine,” she proclaims clearly, pointing at the chest of herbs. “Burns,” she gestures to her spongy flesh, “Gun,” she waves her pistol in the air, and both mother and son attempt to squash themselves into the rivets of the wall, clearly frightened by the firearm.

“Gun,” Marea repeats, raising an eyebrow. “Everybody and their grandma has one. Unless—nobody does.” She bites her lip, thinking for a moment. “Because, because you haven't gotten to gunpowder yet. Sorry, I'm fucking up your timeline. But hey, don't tell anybody about this and it will be like it never happened. Okay?”

Maegan shakes her head, pressing her son's face against her chest. “I don't understand your harsh tongue.”

“My what what?”

“Wut wut?”

Marea sighs heavily, throwing back her head, and daring to close her eyes, just for a moment.

A wave of lights and darkness throws itself upon her, and she shouts and jerks her head and her eyes pop open. Maegan and Tomas stare at her, more bewildered than ever.

“I—had a hard time getting here. I traveled. Travel. From far away.” She wipes tears from her eyes, goosebumps standing out on what little of her skin is not crisped or metallic. “Tyria. I come from Tyria. My world is called Tyria. Is this Tyria?”

Maegan shakes her head, mousy hair coming loose from the bun that once held it back. “Middle-Earth,” is all she offers. Marea tries to make an encouraging smile, though it hurts her face.

“What Earth?”


“Myeetel—middle. You're saying middle. Um, what's on either side of it? Afterlife sorta thing?”

Maegan shrugs, brow furrowing distastefully at hearing the name of her home from Marea's lips. Marea mimics the expression, and pushes herself to her feet, rolling her neck and her shoulders and squeaking in pain as her broken ribs shift.

“Well, this has been a great talk, but I need to find a doctor so I don't puncture a lung. Don't move,” she says, waving the gun at the pair vaguely as she roams around the kitchen, finding a coil of rope beside the fireplace. She hefts it back to them, and takes hold of Tomas's arm, prying him away from his reluctantly compliant mother.

“Not gonna hurt him. It's like insurance. I need to sleep before I can go anywhere, but I don't like kids, and he's probably gonna try to kill me. Y'know, the usual.” She loops the rope around the small boy, pulling it tight, so his arms are good and trapped at his sides. She does the same to Maegan, and once the two are snug as bugs, she ties the remaining rope to each of their ankles, and then back to the fireplace.

“There. Now you aren't killing me, or tattling on me.” Marea nods once, content with her work, and grabs a scarf from the back of a chair. She balls it up into a pillow, and lies down on the floor, resting her head upon it so that she still stares at Maegan and Tomas, pistol held gently in her hand, fingers always poised to pull the trigger.

“Now, before I go to bed, I have a few questions. Try your absolute hardest to understand.”

“Fine,” Maegan murmurs, staring her down with a look of utter loathing.

Marea pauses before speaking again, moving her lips and her tongue around, trying to get a feel for her own vocal functions. “Where is the nearest town?” she asks, lilting and drawing out her words in an attempt to mimic the Middle-Earth accent.

Maegan grunts as if she's been punched in the gut, and barely keeps from rolling her eyes. “Five spans north of here. It is called Archet.”

“Don't know what a 'span' is, but north, got it. Second question. In what ways do I look scary to you?”

This time the woman laughs, and Tomas huddles close against her, even without being able to clutch to her dress with his hands. “Everything, Marea. Your eye is strange, your limbs are stranger, your voice is hideous and you look like you've been burned alive.”

Marea can't help but grin, and even giggle a bit alongside her, letting her eyes droop closed. “So I've heard. I'll have to take care of that. I had another question, but—I'm so tired. I could sleep and never wake up—good thing I don't need to be awake for this thing to shoot people,” she adds hastily, eyes popping open just long enough to hold up the gun, before she nestles her face against the scarf again.

“Goodnight, Maegan and Tomas. Be good so I don't have to kill you.”

The mother and son offer no reply. Exhaustion finally overtakes her, overtakes even visions of the void, and Marea drifts into a deep sleep. In her sleep there is only blackness, but far from empty, it fills her with warmth, if impermanent, if only for a time. Sleep is the same wherever she goes. And on that fever dream evening, she clings to it like a lost friend.
Posted Sep 17, 18 · OP
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Morning dawns too early. The hard wooden floor aches against her festering burns, but she pushes herself up, breathing heavily from the effort, and blinks bleary, crusty eyes into the darkened room. The fire has gone out, completely extinguished, and the light from the windows adds little shape and form at this hour. Silence sits heavy in the cottage, weighing down the boughs of herbs hung from the ceiling, a basket heaped with clothing by the back door, her fallen apple from the night before where it sits beneath the table, forgotten, browning.

She listens for the sound of breathing. Instead, the rustle of grass answers her question.

Lurching to her feet, the shadowy room spins around her, and she nearly falls against the door as she rushes towards it, throwing it open and racing after her captives. Under normal circumstances, she could easily catch up—Maegan moves swiftly despite her hefty skirts, perhaps twenty paces away, but Tomas slows her down. She pulls him along by the hand, until she hears the bang of the front door, and then she picks the boy up and runs, feet crunching in the frosty grass.

Marea slips and slides in the dampness, pain blinding her, vision peppered with shifting splotches of black as she fights to keep up. Agonizing minutes seem to pass by, but in fact, it is only a few seconds—she flings herself at Maegan, latching onto the back of her shirt, and they both collapse to the ground, Tomas flung aside as the women grapple for dominance, briefly rolling about before Marea's prosthetics take control, forcing Maegan down by the shoulders with her steely grip.

“Thought I said I didn't wanna kill you,” Marea pants, smiling thinly, eyes wide and wild.

“You think I'm a fool? You always planned on killing us. I could see it in your face. You're a madwoman,” Maegan hisses, snarling even as she stares death in the eye. “You're a monster.”

“No news to me.” Marea shrugs slightly, shifting her right hand to Maegan's throat, and lifting her left in the air, flexing the fingers stiffly before settling them into a tight fist. “But if what you say is true, this is a whole new world, a fresh start, and I can be whatever I want to be. So thanks for nothing.”

With one swing of her left arm, Maegan's face is splattered in the dewy dawn grass.

Marea's heart leaps into her throat as a single crack of thunder rings out in the clearing. A bullet whizzes past her, flying uselessly into the distance, and she slowly raises her hands in the air, turning to face Tomas as she gets to her feet. The little boy stands ten feet away, trembling, tears glistening on his cheeks, Marea's pistol held aloft in his hands.

“Oh, c'mon. Put it down,” Marea says softly, trying to sound comforting, though her voice wavers from exhaustion. “You won't wanna live with yourself after you do that. I killed somebody when I was your age. Hard to cope with.”

The boy begins to bawl, sobbing without restraint, face screwed up in a terrible expression of desolation. Marea takes a few steps towards him, hands tentatively outstretched for the gun, when a shot rings out yet again. It dents and dings off her left arm, and she throws caution to the wind, charging forward as Tomas fires off one last bullet, which connects—it embeds itself in her thigh, and she yelps and collapses in pain, right on top of him, wrenching the gun from his hands with ease and shoving it down his throat. She pulls the trigger, and it clicks. Empty.

A quick, clear snap echoes in the clearing, like a sapling tree felled in the cold of winter. She gets to her feet, and she limps back to the cottage, windows dark and gaping. With the iron sky above her, stars faded but sun not yet risen, she feels a strange, sudden closeness around her. Similar to her connection with magic in Tyria—but certainly not the same. Only one word comes to mind, but she knows that it is just longing, for familiarity, for certainty, a longing which she has never felt before, and she knows she will soon forget.

“Grenth,” she says into the cool, lifeless air. “If you can hear me—don't let my journey be like this.”

And she opens the door to the cottage, slipping behind stone walls.

The time before sunrise is a checklist. She ventures upstairs, where the sleeping quarters are. The Ferny's had fine furniture, for peasants, and she goes through an ornate wooden wardrobe, searching for clothes that will fit her. Maegan's stockings and a long blouse with flouncy sleeves will do, then she takes a thin summer skirt and rips a slit straight up the side, making it mobile. She slips on the woman's spare boots, old and worn, a bit too big, and then she whimpers in pain as she climbs on the bed to reach the sword that hangs above it. She yanks the weapon from its fastenings on the wall, inspecting it briefly. Blade dull but highly ornamented, with swirling vines adorned by grapes, and a hefty hilt with an elegant guard. An heirloom, most likely, that could be easily sharpened into fighting shape again.

In a large chest at the foot of the bed, she finds books. She flips through the pages, covered in foreign lettering, beautiful to behold but still utter nonsense, much like the accents of the people who wrote them. She takes the smallest downstairs with her, some entertainment for the road.

She picks up her apple from beneath the table and chomps away at the mushy flesh. Out behind the cottage, she goes to the small stables and throws the gates open, setting loose goats and pigs and a couple cows, along with one strange animal that almost fills her with joy, only to steal it away so cruelly. It hobbles out last, slightly too fat and making a ridiculous honking sound. At a glance, it appears to be a small horse—a pony, she recalls, is the word—but its legs are much too stout, and its face too round and homely. It brays at her loudly, trying to rub its snout against her own, and she clumsily pivots and strides away with a groan, rolling her eyes.

“You're a fucking liar, y'know that? You're a lying—thing. Heehaw. Lying Heehaw.”

As the sunrise fills the sky with verdant amber light, turning wisps of clouds blue and making the dewy grass glitter, Marea drags two bodies back to the cottage, depositing them in the kitchen with little thought for staging their deaths. Maegan would have had to bang her face against the wall with the force of an airship to mangle it the way Marea's hand did.

And as the beginnings of blue glow upon the horizon, Marea limps through the forest, and emerges in the quiet, green clearing where she arrived. She rummages through the debris thoroughly. She digs a small hole with a piece of scrap metal, and into it goes most of what remains, which she cannot carry—a few books, charred but intact. Her kitty pistol, partially melted. A bag of jerky, just in case. Then she lodges the piece of sheet metal over them, like a protective cover, Horiz staring up at her in the dirt. And she brushes leaves over the grave.

She returns to the homestead as sun floods the fields, a fine mist rising from them and soothing her aching, tormented flesh. The Heehaw honks at her, and now she obligingly goes to it, just barely heaving herself onto its back. The bullet in her thigh pulses with pain, and as she settles into place, the weight finally off her legs, she sighs in relief.

She isn't sure how to steer the Heehaw, but it seems to know where she wants to go. It immediately starts north, and after less than an hour, it clomps onto a middling dirt road, smooth and well-traveled, though on this day, it's as empty as the stone cottage she leaves behind. A sense of peace overcomes her. The sun warm on her neck. In her backpack, a book, Gippa's notes, a handful of jerky, her eye piece, her M pistol and the bullets she rescued from her kitty gun, all sit heavily upon her burned shoulders. The Ferny family sword bumps against her hip, hung from Frank Ferny's ill-fitting belt.

And the Heehaw clops onward, into uncertain lands. She watches the trees for a while, their long arms lacing overhead. Until, after a time, she closes her eyes, and she slumps forward onto the head of her mount, arms swaying in time with its steps.

Physician Telford saw little excitement in his little town of Archet. Most of his days were spent idle in the doorway to his practice, chatting with Hosta, a fine and charming housewife who sold baked sweets in the next building over. She would lean out her window, waving her hand and asking if he wanted a slice of fresh apple pie. And of course he did, for what else was he to do? Treat the occasional spider bite? Admittedly, the spiders in the area were monstrously huge, but at least they did not rend and maim as creatures in faraway lands did.

So, Hosta would bring him a slice of pie, and they would pick over it together on his porch. She would sit upon the water barrel to be at eye level with him, and they'd have a good chat, about husbands and wives, humans and hobbits, the state of the town and the surrounding estates. And then they would part, and Telford would watch from his shopfront as the sun sank lower in the sky, and yet another day of contentment passed by him.

But today, as he goes outside and waits for Hosta to wave from her window, he turns the other way in surprise, wide-eyed, as he watches the little lady and a handful of men leading a donkey down the street, with the petite shape of a person slumped upon it.

“What is this? An injured traveler?” he exclaims, jogging down the lane to meet them.

“Yes Mr. Telford, so it seems. She's a woman, wee small thing, and in terrible shape.” Hosta reaches up and pats the woman's leg, recoiling as her hand comes away damp with blood that has soaked through the stranger's stockings. “Bill here says she's been badly burned, and her skin is all clammy. Reckon she needs your immediate attention.”

“Of course, right away!” Telford stays a step ahead of the men as they lift the woman off her donkey, and carry her through the low doorway into the physician's shop. He darts around frenetically, wringing his hands, eager to help and overwhelmed that his help is truly needed.

He watches attentively as the woman is laid on the patient bed, and then he shoos the others away with a waving of his hands. “Out, out, this requires my full attention. Hosta, however, can stay. As my assistant.”

“I certainly can,” the woman says proudly, not at all ashamed with her own morbid fascination for the unconscious body in the room. She shuffles up to the bedside, resting her elbows on the mattress as she stares at the strange woman's face.

“Looks like she's been through a lot in the past, even before this. Poor little thing, women should not be made into fighters, I always say. There's enough men to do it themselves.”

“Yes, well, some women simply want to fight,” Telford replies absently, fishing supplies from a series of cupboards along the wall, and then sweeping over to his patient, carefully shifting the fabric of her skirt, and then her stockings, until her harrowed flesh is exposed to the air. Hosta gags a bit, but doesn't look away.

“What do you think happened to her?” the halfling gasps, covering her mouth with her hand. “Did she fall into a bonfire?”

“That, and more. She seems to have some sort of puncture wound as well, and that's only the legs. No doubt there will be more to come—perhaps I should not have asked you to stay.”

“No, I can handle it. I'll keep my mouth shut, if need be.”

“Thank you,” Telford replies with a gentle smile, reaching up to the woman's neck and examining an utterly destroyed piece of black cloth that hangs there, more of a frayed, singed rag than a bandana. “Later, when this is taken care of, we can eat a whole pie. And we'll share it with the girl, too.”

Later comes after many hours. Marea opens her eyes, blurry at first. A low, wooden-beamed ceiling comes into focus, and she glances to her left, across the room, where a window, made hazy by bubbled glass, lets the festive warmth of a sunset stretch upon the floor and flow over her pillow. She distinguishes two chattering shapes sitting on stools by that window. They speak in hushed voices, one quite a familiar form, a man of average build, perhaps a tad short. He towers over the silhouette across from him, with the long curly hair of a woman, and a much stouter stature. The height of an asura, maybe, with feet like a platypus's, and a covered bundle on her lap.

Marea abruptly sits up, gritting her teeth and ignoring the flaring of pain in her shoulders and back.

“Oh no, no no no! Not so fast, my dear!” exclaims the asura-sized shape, quickly hopping down from her stool and rushing over to Marea. “Be gentle with yourself, you have been gravely injured in most unusual ways.”

Marea stares at the little woman for a long moment, incessant dotage rising and falling in the background without ever being heard. Finally, as the man comes up beside the bed and rests his hand against her forehead, Marea speaks.

“You're a dwarf.”

The woman immediately goes silent, for quite a long moment, before bursting into laughter, throwing her head back and slapping the man's knee.

“Oh, did you catch that, Telford? No brain damage there, still got her sense of humor!”

“My sense of—what?”

“Just ignore her,” Telford interjects, nudging his companion aside as he stoops down beside Marea's bed. He reaches for
her wrist, before catching himself, and placing his fingers to a pulse point on her neck instead. “Hosta is a dear friend of mine. But perhaps not the best bedside manner.”

Marea blinks at him, at the warm touch of his hands on her patch of unburned skin. She looks down at herself, wrapped to the waist in clean white sheets, and the rest of her torso wrapped in bandages. Her prosthetics are out in the open, and the doctor seems not to care.

“You—understand me?” Even as she asks, she feels the round, elegant slant of the words on her tongue. Rajya always said she was a fast learner, a gift for language, when she applied herself.

Telford raises his brows, tilting his head this way and that. “More or less. You certainly sound like nothing I've ever heard before. Are you some adventurer, then? And tell me, when I knock on this side of your head, how does it feel?”

“It kinda hurts—”

“—The south! I bet you come from the south, on those fabled shores,” interjects Hosta, curls bobbing as she yammers on, “We never see anyone from that far away, all the way up here. But you look like sea-faring stock.”

“...Yeah. I'm from the south,” Marea says flatly, flinching as Telford proceeds to knock on the other side of her head. “If that's, that's what you said.”

“Perhaps you could talk a bit slower for our patient, Hosta,” Telford chides, beckoning her back to the bedside. “We must sound as odd to her as she does to us.”

“Very well, very well. Pie time?” The stout woman quickly unwraps the bundle she carries, revealing a blueberry pie, already sliced and still faintly warm from the oven. Acting without thinking, Marea immediately reaches over and grabs a handful right out of the middle, and shoves it in her mouth, smearing dark juice all around her lips. Hosta cackles with delight, though she produces a fork from the pocket of her apron and eats in a more tidy manner, while Telford gazes at the motion of Marea's prosthetics, captivated.

“Well,” the doctor starts, tearing his gaze away and sweeping up a little bite of pie with his finger, “I suppose you would like to know your condition. You arrived around noon on the back of a donkey, unconscious, and--”

“--A donkey?” Marea blurts out. “A suitably stupid name.”

“It was a donkey, yes. Anyway, we took you in and treated you for several hours, throughout the afternoon. You have severe burns all over your legs, and on your back and the back of your neck, as you most likely realized. It will take weeks, if not months, for them to fully heal, but you will be scarred for life.” He pauses, as if waiting for the waterworks, but Marea just shrugs, grabbing another handful of pie.

“Shoulda seen my old scars. Won't be that different,” she says dismissively.

“Mm, you have high spirits. A good sign. You also have a deep gash upon your forehead, which seems to have missed vital areas, but we will need to keep you awake for twenty-four hours to be sure that you remain amongst the living. I also treated several minor cuts across your person. Your final ailment, though—I've never seen anything quite like it.”

Marea stares at him, munching away noisily, waiting for the inevitable questions she must dodge.

“The puncture wound on your thigh—it was made by this small metal projectile.” He pulls the bullet from the pocket of his tunic, and holds it out for her to see. “My first thought was that it came from a slingshot, but truly, there is no way it could have buried itself so deep if that were the case. So I must ask, do you know what it is?”

Marea widens her eyes and shakes her head, a picture of perfect innocence. “Not a clue. I had something in my leg? I had no idea, I thought I was just crispy and tender.”

Hosta chuckles and shakes her head, popping a bite of pie in her small mouth. “Crispy and tender, oh good grief. You sound funny and you make funny, too.”

Telford sighs, placing the bullet in his pocket and patting it for safekeeping. “As I feared. You know, Hosta, the bard did bring tales of strange things along the North-South Road. What do you think? Do you recall any metal projectiles?”

Hosta shakes her head, rolling her eyes. “No, only strange hooded things, screeching in the night, the stuff that spooks children. That old man is always full of nonsense. It's not fair that all we get is a washed-up harpist, while my cousins in Hobbiton get regular visits from the wizard with the fireworks.”

“Wizard?” Marea cuts in, her face lighting up as she licks the last bit of crumbly pie from her fingers. “Like, a guy who does magic?”

“Of course, what else would a wizard be? He has a very long beard, I've heard, so you know he's legitimate.”

Telford shakes his head, tut-tutting under his breath. “I say he can keep his fireworks. We live in a modern age, an age of science, Hosta. Better to keep such whimsy and superstition at arms length. Leave it to the elves, who we rarely have to see.”
Marea mouths the word silently, elves.

“Anyway,” Telford begins again, rising to his feet. “I imagine you must be tired, Miss—forgive me, all this time, I did not think to ask your name.”

“Marea,” she says, opening her mouth to add Sleekfur , but she holds it back. Uncertain how it might be perceived.

“Marea. Quite a lovely name. You must be tired, but since you cannot sleep yet, I will send Hosta on her way, and keep you awake myself.”

“Ohhh, Telford!” the little woman whines dramatically, though she smiles broadly, already shuffling to the door. “I will be by in the morning to check on you, little one,” she chimes to Marea, waving as she slips out into the street.

“Little one,” Marea murmurs, shoulders slumping.

“She likes to call humans that,” Telford explains, pulling his stool over to the bedside, and perching upon it. “Now, what would you like to discuss, to keep you awake?”

Marea taps her chin slowly, licking her chapped lips, the remnants of blueberry flavor making her mouth water. “I'd rather just listen, actually. I have a book. Can you read it to me? Good practice, for the accent, thing,” she adds, pulling on her earlobes.

“It would be my pleasure,” the doctor replies, a warm, genuine smile crinkling his face. A face that could belong to any man, anywhere, yet somehow, in this one, she senses true kindness.
Posted Oct 2, 18 · OP
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Gone, gone, she is gone. I saw her, I reached for her, but just as before I was not strong enough to hold on. Never strong enough, never brave enough, we think and we think and we never act, we read every book and forget what we really need to know. No, no, she is gone. She is not in Tyria anymore. She is not in the Mists anymore. Can she come home? How can we ever follow her? I have failed to follow her too many times before, and every day I am made to regret it, I am reminded that I abandoned her, she may have chosen to leave but I let her. I let her go. Now, she is gone. The home that I provided could never be enough, when she had tasted something more, something beyond four stone walls, something in the brisk blue sky, in the spans of clouds that traveled across it.

I let her go, and I could not have stopped her if I tried. She would have slipped through my claws like water, rushing and streaming ahead, crashing and battering against her enemies until they fell away like leaves in the wind. She is gone, the path she has cleaved is gone, all things come and go with time and she, more than anyone, cannot be held still. I have always known this, when I was alive, as I died and fought against the tides of life, I have always known it, and yet I held her in my heart as if she were a totem I could set along my windowsill for good luck.

But perhaps I have to let her go. Perhaps to love Marea is to release her, set her free. She does not know I am here. And you never have to tell her. Especially now, that she is gone, gone, gone from this world, not dead but nothing, ceased to exist. What can we hope for? What can we do? I want to help you, Pen, but I cannot pretend to have answers, when I do not. I am lost in the middle of the sea, lost without the hope of seeing my cub again. Please, Pen, tell me what to do.

Pen Yfan stands on a rocky beach, so small that she can barely lie down on it. The lifeboat bobs on the gray waves in the distance, slowly, steadily drifting into the unknown. As she watches the waves swell, she can almost still feel them, as if she were back on the ship, the gentle ebbing and rocking of the waters, the mother's embrace, the cold fingers of terror wrapping around her heart, and squeezing, stealing the breath from her lungs.

She closes her eyes, and she takes deep breaths, reminding herself that she can.

“I do not know what to do,” she says, quietly at first. Stiff, frozen fingers curl into fists, and in a flash of anger, she strikes at the ground with her foot, sending pebbles flying, as she cries out over the sea.

“I don't know what to do! Help!” she shouts, tears brimming in her amber eyes, fronds flung back from her face as the wind picks up in reply. She clambers to the edge of the rocks, gazing desperately into the hazy, rainy distance. “Bashere! Marea! Anybody! Please, I need something, anything, a real voice that's not in my head, a real face that I can see and touch!”

The roar of the wind and the waves is the only answer. Tears streak down her face. She watches the horizon, waiting. She waits and she waits. And perhaps, after a time, she sees a flash of gold, the eye of a great beast that watches her. Or, she grows tired, and she collapses, and dreams such things instead.

In the days that follow, the boat comes back to her. It wedges itself amongst the rocks, and when Pen wakes up to find it there, she drags it onto the sand. She stares at it, at the empty bench seats and the inch of murky water that floods the floor. She runs her numb fingertips over the wood, ever so gently, and licks her lips, trying to form thoughts in her head, thoughts that flicker past her conscience and disappear in a flurry of static. Her stomach twists and throbs, and her eyes water from salt carried in the ocean wind.

Can you eat yourself?

“What?” Pen blurts out suddenly, a bit of life coming back to her face. “Can I—what are you talking about?”

You will die if you do not find food soon. Sylvari can eat plants. Could you cut off your fronds and eat them? Or even your toes for more sustenance. They grow back, do they not?

“Well, I, I suppose so. It seems rather—wrong, though. I don't want to do it.”

You may not have a choice.

“Then I will wait as long as I can,” she says softly, voice carried away on the sea breeze. She tilts her head up, and gazes at the cloudy sky, rainy bundles of cumulus drifting overhead like a fleet of ships in flight. Her eyes shift, tracking them as they go. She wiggles her toes, just to know that she still can. She climbs into the boat and lies down beneath the seats, face to the heavens, and as she rests there with amber eyes wide open, she reminds herself that her body is an imitation of the sunny sky, a bright blue canvas etched with brilliant streaks of white, and the clouds are fast on the move.


Pen blinks her eyes open. A clear, peachy sky sits above her, now, and she closes her eyes again, letting the warmth of sunrise wrap around her frozen bark like a blanket.

You have slept a long while.

“Leave me be,” she murmurs, rolling onto her side, and tucking her face against her hand.

It seems there are friends here to meet you.

“Rajya, have you gone mad?” She starts to roll the rest of the way onto her stomach, when a pressure alights upon her arm. Her eyes pop open in surprise, to find a portly black and white bird sitting upon her, gazing at her with a deep black stare. It clicks its orange beak twice, and tilts its head to the side, curious and friendly.

Pen immediately sits up, gasping at the sight of several dozen such birds around her, a writhing mass of round white faces, bobbing and chirping, crowding round the boat as if thinking themselves the waves. And the waves themselves are gone—before her stretches a verdant plain, long green grasses undulating in the breeze. She gets to her feet in a hurry, stumbling over stiff joints, the bird on her arm clinging on for dear life as she rushes into the field.

She has seen this place before. Felt it, even.

When her Dream first began, she stood at the crest of a hill on a plain much like this one, and there was a bird, she felt it on her shoulder and saw it sailing through the air above her, though she could never quite tell what it looked like. She stared into the eternal blue heavens and watched the shadow of the bird gliding over the grass, and there was only peace, and silence, and a strange sort of understanding about her place in the world, a world which she hadn't even awakened into yet.

Then, Rajya's roving spirit, fighting against the tides of time, latched onto her, and filled her Dream with roaring fire, and the longing for the little girl with the pale gray eyes.

“I have been here before,” she says aloud, taking a deep breath of the crisp island air. The stout little bird takes off from her arm, wings flapping noisily as it hefts itself into the sky, the sun cresting over the shifting horizon like the eye of some beautiful and terrible god.

“Rajya,” she whispers, running a hand through her fronds, “You were always meant to find me.”

Is that so?

“Yes. I would never have found my way here if I weren't searching for Marea. I would never have—” She laughs, sweet as an autumn evening beneath the copper trees of Ascalon. “I don't know what to call it. All I can think of is, home. Just home.”

As the sun rises higher in the sky, flooding the plains with gold, she sinks to her knees, and joy swells in her heart. Joy, followed so closely by longing, as, in some hidden part of her soul, she knows that the witching hour will pass, and she will never feel truly at home again.

In the months that follow, Pen Yfan walks amongst standing stones. Little birds play with her and bring her fruits foraged from the sparse bushes that cluster around ancient foundations, temples and houses lost long ago. She watches the sun rise and set, and exchanges words with Rajya here and there. Sometimes, as she rests at the crest of the white island cliffs, she swears she can see shadows dancing in the distance, far out above the sea, shapes that twine and writhe upon the wispy clouds in a whimsical ceremony. And sometimes, as she watches the waves weave under the flaming sunrise, she can feel them watching her in return.

In those moments, when it seems the island and the sea have a bodily presence of their own, she returns to a practice that she once abandoned. She had asked Rajya, many months ago, if she would act through her as a revenant channels a spirit. The answer was a firm no—the charr would not harm a single living thing, not even in the service of good. Because what was good, if not another person's evil? Pen tried to convince her, reminded her that she, too, did not intend to kill, only inhibit. But Rajya would not listen. And after, Pen wondered if Rajya even could listen. Can a spirit change its ways? Could something that was set in stone at the time of their death, be altered later? Or would the charr always be an image, a mere memory, of the actual person she once was?

Such thoughts drift through Pen's mind once again, as she stands amidst the stones, and closes her eyes. She sends herself to Rajya's domain in the Mists, the boundless fields of Ascalon, and she tries to grip onto it, that time and space, she imagines she holds it in her hand, imagines that it were a place she could simply open the door to, and step inside.

With energy building inside her, she strikes her arm through the air as if to throw back the door, and she opens her eyes as she leaps forward.

For a moment, the world around her fades away, blurs into nothingness, there is no wind in her hair and no chill upon her bark. And then, with a sudden rush of sensation, she flops face-first into the frosty island grass, yelping in surprise as a gaggle of tottering birds scatters frantically, squawking in protest. She quickly gets to her feet, brushing off her increasingly tattered clothes, and whips around to look back the way she came, eyes wide as an owl's. Sure enough, the stone that she started out beside is a hundred feet away, and she stands at the other end of the massive circle, having only taken a single step.

After a brief moment of confusion, and a longer period of shock, a wide smile finally breaks across her face, and she throws her hands in the air, cheering to the fiery sky. High above her, a thousand alien eyes blink and crinkle with what could only be happiness, and though she cannot see them, she can feel them, and they become almost as familiar as Rajya herself.

Months pass, and, for a time, the cold grip of terror, clenched around her chest, loosens and fades, replaced with a wonder she can only hope to cling to forever.
Posted Oct 27, 18 · OP
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