"Not Again, Never Again."
"Come, Thaddeus. It's time." The pale light of morning peered in through the slit doorway of his canvas tent. As was always the case, the sharp bar of burning radiance managed to find its way into his eyes. Thaddeus blocked it out with his puce-skinned arm and proffered a sigh of irritation. Though truth be told, he was relieved, waking to that sight. After so many long months of being trapped beneath the surface, traversing the Harrowhearth, being free, seeing the sunlight again, it felt like a dream come true. He scratched tiredly at his wrists, where rings of draconic scales had already formed, digging into his skin while they aligned. With a growl, he stood and willed them away.
Now was not the time to be shifting. He was free of the stresses of the Harrowhearth; he could see the sun! Though he was far from home and wasn't even sure if his family was alive or not, he'd have the chance to find out something he couldn't have said for sure even the night before. His campmates had left him an ivory comb, which he attempted to use to turn his hair into something less than a snarled mess to no avail. Thatch planned to ask Priam and Michrath for the location of the nearest river, where he could cleanse the grime from his skin and the muck from his hair. But nothing will ever wash away the blood. So much blood spilled beneath the earth.
Suddenly, images flashed through his head of Sarauthedes, one of the women he'd been traveling alongside before...no; he vowed not to think about it. They'd met for the first time in the prison beside the arena in which they were forced to fight. Still clad in a torn white blouse and skirt, she'd looked so sweet and fragile. Even more so as, time and time again, she'd been thrown into the pit, and time and time again, she'd returned, drenched in her own gore. Oh, so much blood. During the penultimate battle before being sold to a fresh hell, she'd been felled again. Thatch had carried her twitching body out of the pit, heedless of the audience's screams. They'd wanted to watch her die, but he wouldn't give them that pleasure. He'd torn apart her skirt for thread and used the rat bone he'd been chewing on to sew up her wounds. His support had helped her push through. Thaddeus Thimblevinter had protected her. Until I didn't.
Unable to deny the flooding memories or the tears that came with them and hating himself for it, Thatch could feel the dragon starting to take over. On his forearms, skin hardened into scales, and fingernails lengthened into ripping claws. He'd use those claws to tear apart the cloth prison, which denied him the ability to vent his hollowing rage to the sky above.
"Thaddeus, are you coming?" Another voice came from without. It sounded like Michrath, but the weredrake couldn't be sure. He hadn't even known the two men for a full day yet. "Our window of opportunity is slipping away by the minute. If you'd like to be present, you'd best hurry."
Thatch still didn't know what the two men were inviting him along for. They'd kept him entirely in the dark. Ironic, since one of them's a priest of light and all. Michrath was a cleric from the same holy conglomerate Sarauthedes had represented. Either way, Thatch supposed it didn't matter what was going on. He was being given a chance to walk on the surface world again, let the sweet aromas of nature soothe his mind. These men had trusted him, despite being given little reason to, and it wouldn't be right to repay that hospitality by ripping their tent to shreds in a grief driven blood-rage.
The were-drake tamped down his rage and his shifting potential and strode from the tent. After so many months in the unchanging warmth underground, it was surprisingly chilly. It might take some time to get used to the air of late spring, which had once been so commonplace to him, but Thatch figured he could surpass that minor obstacle. Anything had to be easier to get over than the trauma he'd experienced in the Harrowhearth.
:That place is where you belong. You are a weredrake now; a creature made for lurking through deep tunnels in ravenous madness, not skipping through grassy meadows full of falling flower petals.: The damnable sentience stuck in Thaddeus's head had a penchant for ruining any good mood he conjured up.
"Shut it, Khrysalto," he growled warningly. "You're out of your element, your place of power. I'm home and in control, and there's nothing you can do about it."
:Just like you could do nothing about saving sweet Sarauthedes,: the voice said smugly. Thatch could almost hear the sneer. Oh, how he wished he could punch this creature in the mouth. But unfortunately, Khrysalto was nothing but a disembodied voice in Thatch's head, so he was plum out of luck in that regard. The best the Khindre could do was try to tune him out. :Did I not say? She would be the first to die. If you'd only taken my advice, she could have had a shred of mercy. And you call me evil!:
Priam and Michrath were already waiting in the carriage when Thaddeus arrived and no sooner had he leaped into the back than the tall, half-elven priest had flicked the reins, setting the cart into motion. Sitting beside the surly blonde fellow did not make for a comfortable ride. It feels like he's judging me; as if he blames me for...what? Was it something I said? Of course, it was. Thatch had told him that Sarauthedes was dead. He didn't know who this Priam thought he was; Sarauthedes hadn't mentioned anyone like him during their talks. I knew about Michrath. Sarauthedes said he was her very best friend. That was why the Khindre had chosen to trust them beyond using them as a method of escaping the Harrowhearth. That was why he'd answered their questions, spilled the truth about Sarauthedes. And now... What were they playing at?
Less than an hour later, he knew, as the carriage stopped in a meadow. The vibrant greens and various popping hues of the grass and wildflowers seemed muted now, despite their desperately missed beauty. Silently, their faces rigid-set and dour, Priam and Michrath unloaded a box from the carriage. They set it down and began to remove things from it, various bowls, strands of flowers, vials full of water. Seeing that water, which had been such a scarce resource, that whenever the group had come upon some, they had to choose who got the privilege of drinking, Thatch realized just how thirsty he was.
Quietly, trying to be unobtrusive, the Khindre sidled over and reached for a vial sitting off to the side. His untrimmed fingernails clinked on the glass, and Priam whirled around, fire in his eyes. "If you were considering drinking that, I'd advise you to consider again."
"What's in there?"
"Holy water. As a tainted were-creature, it might harm you. Besides, we're going to need every last drop. Or don't you want to see this ritual work? You were the only one of your companions who stayed, after all.
Thatch flared up in return. "I don't even know what the ritual is! How can I answer that question without that vital piece of information?"
"We told you, your whole bedraggled lot before the others went off on their lonesome. We're going to bring Sarauthedes back!"
"Wha_?" But Priam just kicked the crate and stormed off. Michrath glanced apologetically at Thaddeus and shrugged, though the Khindre could see the tightness in his muscles, too.
"He's not normally like this, I promise. He's just stressed, is all."
"And I'm not?" Thaddeus thundered. "He's not the one who had to struggle day in and day out for survival! He didn't have to live life always looking behind him, fearing that the slavers would be there ready to take him back to days of constant torture! He didn't have... he didn't have to watch Sarauthedes die!" Hot, angry tears were flowing freely down his face now.
Michrath put down the ritual tablet he was preparing and walked over, placing a surprisingly strong hand on Thaddeus's shoulder. "She meant a great deal to you, I imagine. You don't know him, so I can't blame you, but you have to think that he cares about her too," the half-elf explained sagely. He sounded like a wise Abbott passing his teachings down to his pupils, even though he didn't look much older than his mid-twenties. "His feelings are sincere. What I'm about to say might not make a lot of sense. But, seeing her perish, as much as I'm sure it hurts, that just might make you the lucky one, in his eyes. I know, I told you it'd sound crazy. Think of it this way. You met her, became close to her, and then lost her, watched the light fade from her eyes. Priam met her, became close to her, and then said farewell, with hopes and plans to meet again. Then, he comes to see her and gets the rude awakening that she's missing. Naught more than a week later, we rescue you in hopes of pulling her out of the Harrowhearth alongside you, and instead, you pelt him and me with the knowledge that she's dead. Priam never even had the chance to say goodbye; he didn't get that closure. As the one who sent her off on the mission where she was captured, it hurts to think that I killed Sarauthedes, even if indirectly. As the person who said goodbye, not knowing it might be the last time, grief burns inside of him, hollowing Priam out more than we realize.
Thatch sat down and wrapped his arms and tail around his knees. "But you're going to bring her back, right?"
Michrath's mouth thinned. "We're going to try. I've demanded a lot from the gods these past few weeks. Despite all our efforts, we might not succeed. Sarauthedes could be lost to us forever."
Don't say that, Thaddeus demanded silently over the rumble of Khrysalto's laugh. Please, don't say that! Sarauthedes was such a bright light that sparked in my life, however briefly. Say something else! Assure me, I beg you! But the priest had already moved away to continue his preparations.
Thaddeus sat with his head in his hand, scarcely able to think for all his fear and worry. He'd only known Sarauthedes for a couple of months, and yet, her potential loss had this much of an effect on him?
:You flesh and blood mortals are soft, weak, a puny, quavering afterimage in the shadows of us greater beings. This is precisely why you will never be anything more than prey animals to creatures like us!:
"Oh, stuff a sock in it, Khrys! I'm seriously not in the mood for gloating."
The voice roared in his head. It hated being called Khrys, for so-called lesser beings should be using his full title to address him. "Keep that up, and I will dig you out of my brain with my dirk!"
That shut him up. They both knew that without a host, the demonic spirit was nothing. Khyrysalto knew that if Thatch were to die without submitting to the hopelessness of failure, especially up in this foreign, sunlit world, his power would fade and shrivel, Khrysalto would become no more.
Finally, at long last, Priam and Michrath had finished the ritual preparations. They ordered the puce-skinned Khindre to step back and took their places, the half-elf outside the circle of stones and gems, and Priam within. They both took a deep breath, and the chanting began.
It was a long, slow ritual. Thaddeus had seen holy power at work through Sarauthedes, which had been life-changing. Before that point, he'd doubted anyone could command such ability to call flames and balms from the heavens, even while trapped miles underground. He'd seen amazing things from Sarauthedes. Still, bringing someone back to life? Without a body? It seemed exceptionally far-fetched to be true. But, still, Thatch sat there, grass cushioning his bottom, and watched for the hour it took for the spell to complete. It was honestly quite dull. There were no leaping flames or glowing orbs of silver light, anything like Thaddeus had gotten used to seeing with Sarauthedes around.
Then, just as Thatch was starting to nod off, he felt a distinct change in the air. Priam had gone still and was staring into the sky, had been for well over fifteen minutes. Then, as Thaddeus watched, all of the gems interspersed in the circle of stones began to glow softly, like the world's most precious candles. They began to lift into the air, rotating minutely, before gathering off to the side, in another, smaller circle Michrath had made with silver wire and sticks. As they clinked into each other, their glow intensified, and it seemed to Thaddeus as if they were shattering, vaporizing into nothing more than fragments of pure light. Like someone putting together an old, familiar puzzle, the flecks of light gathered into a single conglomerate. With each glittering bit that joined the whole, the nexus' radiant glow intensified until it became so bright that Thaddeus had to look away. Even through his eyelids, the light burned, scarring a halo into the back of his vision.
When at last he sensed the glow had died down, Thatch opened his eyes. And he couldn't believe what he saw. Sitting dazedly on the grass was a girl. Her skin was the same crimson hue as fresh roses, peeking through various slits in her ragged clothing, hair white and soft as dandelion fluff. Eyes like pools of silver cast around as if she were trying to make sense of where she was, while white, angelic wings flapped lazily behind her back. Thatch didn't even give her a chance to make sense of her surroundings. Almost instantly, he was there, pushing past Priam and pulling the only woman with such a unique form into the tightest of embraces. Sarauthedes gasped, strangling a scream of surprise, as her mind cleared, and she recognized Thaddeus. Holding her like this, seeing her returned from the dead, inspired a whole host of emotions in him. But, the one he grasped onto was the realization of just what losing Sarauthedes had meant to him. He knew now that watching her die to the servants of that corrupted draconic amalgam had been like experiencing the death of a beloved older sibling. The way Sarauthedes clutched tight to him, and the relieved, fond smile that washed over her seraphic features, told Thatch that she felt much the same way.
"I can't believe it; you're actually alive," he sobbed. "I'm so sorry, Sarauthedes. I wasn't good enough; I couldn't save you."
"Shhh," she soothed, pulling his face away so that he could look into her eyes. "Don't assign blame to yourself for things you had no power to control."
"But, I wasn't there when you needed me most, Sarauthedes," Thaddeus protested. "The one time when you needed allies by your side, I abandoned you, left you to face your trials alone. I promise you; I'll not fail you. Not again, never again."
"Truth be told, Thatch, I wasn't suited to survive down there, in the Harrowhearth. I'm a daughter of sunshine and flowered meadows, not of steel and bloodsoaked stone. What happened was inevitable, I think."
"How can you be so calm about this?" Thaddeus wondered incredulously. "You died!"
"Because that's what you need right now," Sarauthedes replied sweetly, patting the Khindre's cheek. "If I started freaking out, you would too. And that wouldn't do. Today's a day for celebration, not worry."
"Are you some sort of angel, Sarauthedes? How else could you be so perfectly gracious?"
Sarauthedes shrugged and flapped her wings. "I suppose these might impress that image on your mind. But, speaking of angels, you might want to let go of me before Priam starts getting jealous."
"Oh, so you do know him?" Thatch wondered. "You didn't mention him down there. Seems like sort of a jerk."
"Hey," Sarauthedes pouted, "don't you go calling my boyfriend a jerk. I'll have you know; he's plenty charming and very sweet on me to boot. If he's not been the kindest to you, it's probably because he doesn't understand how the bond between us works. That means, for the sake of his honor and mine, he was obligated to be jealous."
"I won't believe it until I see it, but I guess I can't keep him away for long."
"Nor would I let you keep us apart. And, Thatch, I know you don't have the heart to keep me from being happy."
"You've got that right, at least," the Khindre groaned. "Alright, I'll let him have his chance. But if he tries anything stupid."
Sarauthedes shook her head. "Yes, yes, my dearest little brother will rush in to protect me." She laughed with such genuine life in her voice, unlike anything he'd heard down in the Harrowhearth. "I love you, Thatch. Now please, scamper off and let me say hello to my other friends."
No matter how little trust the Khindre had for these other people, and despite his vow of protection, Thatch respected and adored Sarauthedes too much to deny her request.
"At least you're back," he sighed to himself. "That's enough for me."