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Undeadly Melody

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When I was a little girl, my mother showed me how to heal the sick, and how to cure hearts aching and waning. When she played her golden lute to those who were ill, I would see their skin regain its color, hear their heartbeats become rhythmic again, and enjoy their smiles of gratitude.

But she also told me very clearly, that this instrument was very dangerous. The lute must be played very carefully, that very few could resist its powerful sound, and to never, ever, play it amongst those who had already died. Then... she left me, and she took the lute with her. I never saw either of them ever again. I was angry, but also alone, scared, saddened. I remember seeing her walk out the front door for the last time, promising that the lute would never burden us again. Its power was too alluring, and she feared it would curse us forever.

After the villagers had turned up on our door, torches and pitchforks wielded in anger, and my mother had been adamant about being the keeper of the lute, I wanted nothing more with it. No more golden lutes, no more unearthly sounds. I just wanted to live a good life after that, and be at peace.

~~~ Many years later ~~~

"I just need to find the golden lute! I can save you!" I could see the greed in his eyes, behind the desperation. It was just like before. People asking to play it, to help others, to save them. I remembered my mother's warning, to never trust anyone with it. And Dorian… I loved him, and I knew he meant well, but if the golden lute came back here, to my home, to my family… I couldn't imagine what would befall us.

"Dorian, please… let that thing go." I tried to plead with him. I knew he was desperate, willing to do anything to save me, but… looking for it wasn't worth the trouble, it wasn't worth all the misery the lute would bring.

"I just wanna help you, Melody. Can't you see that?" He said, his strong hands gripping my frail, cold ones. His strength at a time like this was admirable, and even warmed my dying heart. I wanted to smile, but I couldn't muster the energy to even do that.

"There's a reason my mother took that thing away, Dorian. Don't go…" I just needed him to stay with me. Now more than ever I needed him on my side. And Cadence… sweet Cadence, she needed Dorian, too. And I want them both here. I wanted to see them both, their love and faces, before I left them.

But Dorian, he couldn't stop. Knowing that there any possibility of stopping this illness urged him on, and never heeded my warnings. "I have to find it. I… I have to risk it." He replied, steeling himself. I wondered if he ever would find it, and I worried if he'd still take good care of Cadence while I was away. Life would get very difficult for her, and she'd need both Dorian and Eli to have a good life. I just hoped that for as long as I lived, they'd be here with me.

~~~ Very late that night ~~~

My coughing only grew weaker, but only because I lacked the energy to even raise my head above my shoulders. I knew I had very little time left. I slowly turned my head around, seeing Dorian asleep on a chair, tired from going around the village, trying to find anything that would cure me, or at least keep me healthy for just a bit longer.

"Dorian…" I whispered, my voice too soft to be noticed. "Dorian." I tried again, a little louder. Dorian slowly opened his eyes, and looked at me. He stood up and walked up to me, rubbing his eyes and clasping my hands again. No matter how many times he did it, it was still so sweet…

"What's wrong, Melody?" He asked, attentive and eager to help.

"Dorian…" I started, unsure of how to say what I wanted. My heart felt so, so weak...I could barely feel it beat within… "Get Cadence… please…" I whispered, hoping he understood that it was important.

His eyes shifted. I had the sense that he knew what was about to happen. "Of course." He said, getting up slowly, and gently leaving the room. I laid back, listening to the sounds of my home. I heard him walk up to Cadence's room, a soft murmur of voices, and several footsteps leading to my door. The light slowly poured in as Dorian, Cadence, with Eli behind them carefully approached me. They all looked sleepy, and quite concerned.

"Mom? What's going on?" Cadence asked, in her wonderfully sweet voice of hers. Oh, how I would miss her and her laughter… and Dorian's face and arms… Eli's support and company over the years… I could feel tears watering my eyes, and I didn't care if they would run down my face... I just wanted all of them here right now.

"Cadence…" I said weakly, slowly extended my hand. I gently caressed her cheek, while Dorian grasped my other hand. Eli seemed stoic as ever, but I knew deep down he was aware of my imminent parting, trying to hold back his feelings. "Cadence… I love you very much… I love all of you so very much…" I struggled to get the words out of throat. I saw Cadence frown and her eyes water under my hand.

"Mom, please… I don't want you to go…" It was all she could think of saying. I didn't want to go either, but...I knew, it was time…

"Cadence… Dorian… Eli… I love you all so much... " I didn't really know what to say right now… Cadence suddenly hugged me, quietly sobbing under her breath, as Dorian kissed my forehead, his warmth enveloping me. What was I supposed to say now...with so little time left…

"Eli… please, help my family. They'll need help, and they know they can rely on you." Eli simply responded by quietly nodding his head, and hiding his eyes under the brim of his hat.

"Dorian… take good care of Cadence… see her grow up… and be happy…" I wanted to say so much more, so many more things he'd have to see for me, but my voice gave out again, and the tears were already falling down his face. He already knew everything I wanted to say, and everything I felt.

"Cadence…" My heart almost couldn't beat anymore… "I love you so, so much… you're so strong… and so brave… I'm proud of you… someday you'll be… a great woman... " I couldn't see her eyes, buried in my shoulder, sobbing. All I heard, between sobs, was "Mom...I'm gonna miss you so much…"

She lifted her head up, tears rolling down non-stop. I gave her one last smile, to let her know that I would love her from beyond my lifespan. As I lay there, heart almost still, I looked at my family, one last time, taking in their faces, their tears of love. I kept smiling as I closed my eyes, happy to be with my family, happy to have them here, happy that this… was my last memory…

And I could feel… my heart… I was… ready to leave… I could feel… it was time… for my… very… last… heart…

Beat.

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RISE!

I gasped for air, life violently filling my lungs. My eyes were struck wide open with shocking revitalization, my heart kicked into sharp rhythm. I struggled to regain my composure, as my hands grasped for any solid surface to steady myself with. As I slowly got used to this pounding in this chest, I looked up. It was…

"Dorian?" I said, incredulously. He looked… different. It wasn't just he was wearing armor and clothing… he looked… old. Much older than I remembered. And he… had the golden lute in his hands, the echo of its strings still ringing in the air. Oh Dorian… such bittersweet joy to see you again like this...

"Melody… I found it. We can be together again." He exclaimed, his eyes lit up with the joy and flame of an old love rekindled. "I brought you back… we can be a family again." He said, seemingly savouring the victory.

Between my intermittent gasps, I wasn't sure whether to smile or chastise him… I thought I'd never see his lovely features again… but at the same time… using the golden lute…

"Mom?"

That sweet voice... was it really…?

"Cadence?" I turned to my side, and I saw...

"Mom! You're back!" She wasn't a little seven-year-old girl… Cadence was now looked much more like a woman… taller, stronger, so much more mature… how long had I been gone for?

"Cadence, I…" I was speechless. I had no idea what to say...it was just so overwhelming, to rise from the dead, I-

Suddenly, the pounding in my chest stopped. As soon as it did, I felt all my energy disappear. I collapsed to the ground, feeling all the light and sound fading…

"What's going on?" I heard Dorian say, sounding like he was so far away…

"...play the lute! Keep playing...!" I hear Cadence shout, just as I felt the darkness embrace me again.

There was an unearthly sound, the beginning of a song. Suddenly life filled me again, sharp breaths and pounding chests forcing me to live again. It was as if my own body was forced to function. It felt... unsettling. Uncomfortable.

"What just happened?" Dorian asked, whilst still playing the lute, its unnatural sounds filling the air and shaking the ground.

My memory went back to the days where my mother would gave me sporadic knowledge about the lute's power. I never thought it would ever be useful, and yet…

"The lute… has to be played constantly…" I explained, as I tried to step out of my own coffin. I felt weirdly healthy and strong, considering I was dead not five minutes ago.

"What?" Cadence asked, not quite believing what it implied.

"In order to keep the dead alive… you have to keep playing the lute." I clarified, already on my feet and stepping out of my grave. "If you stop playing, the rhythm stops, and so do those that are alive because of it."

I didn't have the heart to tell them that the longer you live because of it… the less of your humanity you retain… they wouldn't bear to know that even the lute cannot keep you alive forever, not in the way they wanted me to be. I stood in front of Cadence, not quite believing she had grown so much in my absence. It seemed as if ten years had been gone in an instant. She looked a lot like Dorian… she looked like an adventurer, just like him.

"I never thought I'd see you again…" She seemed to be in as much disbelief as I was.

"I never thought I'd be alive again…" I turned back to Dorian, dutifully playing the lute. Well, as best as he could. He was never very good with instruments, but he was trying as hard as he could. It brought a smile to my face, even as I tried to scold him. "I told you to not go looking for it…"

"I'm sorry… but it doesn't matter anymore. We're all together again." He said, looking so proud. Even with all the sudden aging, he still had the same smile, the same distinctive features. I couldn't help but notice he had the same ill skin and dark spots as I had before I died… and yet, as the lute's music continued, it seemed to be fading away before my eyes. It was healing him, beat by beat.

"May I?" I asked, extending my hands. He looked down at the lute, then back to me. He understood and handed it, the song paused, but the sound still echoing, long enough to let me live through the brief silence. I grasped the lute, the familiar feeling of the instrument returning so many memories. Perhaps I could still play this like I used to…

I gently played a lively chord.

With the lute in my own hands, every beat I played seemed to vibrate every bit of my body, filling my lungs with air, pumping my blood with vigor, making me feel alive, and so strong. As I kept playing, I could feel its power inhabiting me, able to be harnessed and wielded. It made me feel mighty, and dangerous. Tethered to the sound of the lute, but capable of twisting the hearts of others as well. It was a power I never wished for.

We slowly walked back to the village, as I caught up on all that had gone by in ten years, and occasionally asking me about what I knew about the lute. As I kept playing, the haunting concerto following us home, I couldn't help but wonder, and worry.

How could I possibly live? Was this what my life was now? Forced to play this instrument all the time? Its acoustic magic a constant presence in our home? Would the others turn against my family again, especially those that still remembered the last one to play the lute in this village?

"I'm so happy to have you again, mom." Cadence said, as the sun begun to rise again. I looked at her. She was smiling, just the way she smiled before I had become ill. That smile was so endearing, so sweet… and I was happy to see her again, too. But I was too aware of the burden that I had regained, and the fear that was growing within my heart.

Chapter Text

A few weeks had passed, and every single minute of it, the lute had been played, and music filled the rooms. Being back home was familiar, and comforting, but the music couldn't be ignored. Always reminding us of how fragile my existence was, and at times, becoming grating and disruptive. But Dorian insisted, that it was worth it if it meant having me alive again.

We lived, they worked, we ate together, we talked so much, and tried our best to adjust. And at times, life seemed almost comfortable. But too many nights had been frustrating, tiring, and brought strain to my home. It was too similar to when my own mother held the lute. And even then, she only used it to help others. Who was I helping? Just myself, clinging on to life by these magical threads, doomed to one day become another undeadly bard. We couldn't keep going like this for much longer. The others families were already suspicious, the old tales and rumors resurfacing.

"Dorian." I said one day, when I had had enough, and was determined to stop this.

"Yes?" He replied, getting ready to go to sleep for the night.

"We can't do this forever." I said, trying to play a softer, gentler tune for the moment. I hoped it would help him understand what I felt. "I'm happy to be here again, and these weeks have been wonderful, but… I can't live this like forever." I said, trying not to focus on how tired my hands were, forced to play far more than I had ever been ready for.

"Melody…" He started to protest, but I knew I had to convince him, now more than ever.

"We can't, Dorian. Look at me. I'm tired. This thing won't give us peace. I'm happy to be alive, but this is not how it used to be. Our whole family is being strained because of this. I don't want to be tethered to this. It's not what I want us to have to live with." I explained, letting my voice and eyes show their weariness, my fingers trying to convey a morose sound.

Dorian reflected on my words for a moment, and I knew that he, deep down, agreed with me. This restriction, this horrible clause, was not something he was prepared for, and it wasn't how he envisioned his reunited relationship. "But there's nothing we can do, Melody…"

But there was. For all their questioning and curiosity, I knew I had to keep some of the lute's secrets to myself. I knew many things that they didn't. Especially about the one who played it before anyone else, the one who found this cursed item. I didn't know everything, but I knew he would have the answers I needed.

But I couldn't tell Dorian. If I did, he would forbid me from going. Meaning well, of course, but it wasn't the right thing to do. This wasn't the way to live. I hated the thought of leaving my family, just like my mother left me. I hated the fact that I was cursing my family, just like my mother did. I hated the notion of leaving to destroy it, just like my mother promised.

But as I glanced down the hallway, seeing Cadence in her room, I knew I would never let her inherit this burden, this forbidden lute. I had to protect her, to keep her safe. As her mother, I couldn't force her to live with this any longer.

"Maybe there's nothing we can do. But maybe there is." I uttered, anticipating Dorian's surprise and curiosity. But before he got his hopes up, I had to put my foot down. "But I must be the one to do it. And I must do it alone."

~~~ A few days later ~~~

Convincing them to leave with the lute, with false reassurance to return to them, was very difficult. But I appealed to their frustration and disillusionment from the way he had lived for weeks, and they understood that ultimately, it was the wiser decision.

The preparations took very little time. Adventuring gear was always at hand in our household. I couldn't carry too much whilst still playing the lute. Sturdy clothing, trusty shovel, a bit of explosives just in case, a pouch to carry miscellaneous items, and of course, the ever-present lute. I couldn't carry a weapon while forced to play this constantly, but... maybe the lute would help me defend myself.

As the sun began to reach the horizon, I stood in the doorway, ready to live, and with all my gear set. I dreaded this. I was about to leave my daughter, and all her hopes, just like my mother did. There was nothing I wanted to avoid more, than this feeling. It almost felt like betrayal.

But I had no choice. I had to press on.

The goodbyes took a long while. Dorian in particular struggled to release me from his embrace, but he eventually let me go. As I stepped out, the burden felt heavier than ever. It was for the good of my family. At the very least, they wouldn't have to share the burden with me. If everything went well, I could return to them, and live a life of peace. If the worst happened… well, I was ready to make the sacrifice.

I slowly walked out into the woods, the lute's magic ever-present, shaking the earth and the trees around me, careful not to disturb anything else. I was cautious to never let its power tempt me and wield it, but even a careless song could bring chaos to the player.

It wasn't long before I stood upon the entrance to the crypt. The stairs leading down seemed to beckon, like a monster luring its prey with a hypnotising voice. As I played, the floor glowed with magic, the walls only extending the lute's reach deep into the earth.

I hesitated one last time before entering. I had died once before. But it had been relatively peaceful, amongst those who loved me, and I left them happy and satisfied. But now, failing to accomplish my mission would result a painful, lonely, hopeless demise. So many hopes and promises waiting for me at home. Would I ever came back to settle them?

And with that question fueling my determination to finally put an end to this, I started a new song, powerful and moving, as I slowly descended the crypt, in search of answers. I pressed on, ready to take on and defeat, for my family, the crypt of the necrodancer.