Some people say I'm bitter. And okay, I might be.
But let me ask - can you blame me?
We were all so happy together, and it all got taken away from us until we had almost nothing left. You ask me why I went, and I say I didn't really have much left to lose.
I remember when I was little, when me and Dad would play pretend, like all little kids want to do. He'd pretend to be the great dragon or evil wizard, and I'd be the knight who'd come to slay him. Mom would hang back and watch us and make up a little soundtrack on her lute, and would congratulate me after I poked Dad with a stick and he'd fall over dramatically.
(What can I say, I was never the princess type. They'd learned that pretty quickly when Mom had tried to get me to wear a dress for a family portrait. It got ugly.)
Dad told stories of his time adventuring, and Mom joined in talking about the trips they'd gone on together. Mom would brush my hair in the morning and sing to herself, and I'd sing along. Maybe that's where I got my voice from.
My family were adventurers and bards, all the way back. I wanted to be both. Mom and Dad both said I could. Mom told me I sang like a bird and Dad said that he'd take me with him when I was old enough and he could go out exploring again - that I was a natural already.
It never happened.
I was seven, of course I didn't know what was happening; when Mom started wearing long sleeves and Dad started looking worried, when I'd wake up in the middle of the night to hear Mom having a coughing fit in the other room, when my Uncle Eli - Dad's brother, an adventurer who'd hit hard times after losing part of his arm and had come to live with us - started taking over housekeeping duty.
I just thought it was funny seeing my huge uncle in an apron.
Then Mom passed out while she was trying to work in the kitchen, and Dad carried her to bed, and I watched from the doorway as he took off her vest to look over her and I realized how pale she'd gotten, and that her skin was covered in purple splotches.
Once he noticed me, I asked Dad what was going on. He knelt down, took my shoulder, and told me that Mom was very, very sick - had been for a while, but she hadn't wanted us to worry. I asked when she'd get better. He shook his head and said he didn't know, but hopefully soon.
Looking back at it, that should've tipped me off. But I was seven. Of course I didn't understand until it was too late that he was only trying to make himself feel better when he said she'd be fine.
Mom died a week later.
Dad never left her side. Uncle Eli tried to keep me from going in there or listening to their conversations through the door, but he was busy and worried and I was sneaky enough to catch some of it. Not a lot of it made sense to me, and there isn't a lot I remember. But there were definitely signs that Dad was looking for something, and Mom didn't want him to try and find it.
I remember the night she called all of us into her room and she held my hand through the bedsheets and I was confused about why her grip was so weak. She told us all how much she loved us and how strong we were. She shook Eli's hand, kissed Dad, and hugged me and nuzzled the top of my head as best she could. She told me to be a good girl for them.
I still didn't get it until they sent me away. Not until late that night when I couldn't sleep, and I heard Dad calling Mom's name down the hall; and I got out of bed and peeked into their room and saw Dad spread over the bed crying his eyes out.
I don't think he ever found out I saw him like that.
The next day he held me and tried to explain what I already knew - that Mom was gone. But he also told me that she might not be gone forever. I didn't know if it was just him trying to make me feel better, but he really seemed certain about it.
He was a good parent, really. He tried his best. Even if sometimes he'd leave for days or weeks at a time and Uncle Eli would have to take care of me - and trust me, he isn't very good at taking care of things, though he tries, too. Both of them tutored me and taught me everything I know.
Dad told me it was just us now. That someday we'd be partners in adventure and would find glory, fame, riches...and Mom again. I heard Eli arguing with him, telling him to stop getting my hopes up, but Dad seemed pretty sure there was a way.
Dad was all I really had. We were closer than anything.
Then, ten years after Mom died, he left on one of his trips and never came back.
The house was so quiet without Dad. It was just me and Eli, and Eli seemed even more grumpy and angry than usual, muttering about Dad and how dumb he'd been to go after that 'thing' he'd been looking for.
He told me not to try and go after him, that it wasn't safe. I believed him and kept my nose out of it for about a year, but then I started getting antsy. Dad had to be out there somewhere, and he had to have left some clue about where it was he'd gone. He'd told me I was cut out to be an explorer. Surely I was old enough now to be able to go after him. Whatever situation he'd gotten himself in, I knew I could get him out of it if we worked together.
I snuck into his room and found the chest with all of his notes. He kept pretty good track of all his little expeditions trying to find something. He mentioned in the papers that Mom had told him about it, that it had been something the grandmother I never knew had kept with her until it had disappeared.
His most recent notes had led him to a graveyard, not too far from home.
Uncle Eli tried to stop me once he found out. But I wasn't just going to sit around and watch everything fall apart. Even if Dad was gone forever, just like Mom, I wanted to know about it. I was ready, I told him. I'd do anything it took.
He told me I was too young. He told me I needed more training.
I told him to drop dead.
And I snuck out of the house with a shovel and a dagger that night. I probably shouldn't have been so harsh about it, but I was at the end of my rope, can you blame me for snapping? I'd been sitting around doing nothing while my dad was god knows where dealing with god knows what, I couldn't take it anymore.
I was nineteen years old. I was plenty old enough to go find him and finally get my answers about what it was he'd been looking for all this time.
I swore I'd find those answers if it killed me.
I don't know how I survived that fall.
It's one of those things that happens so fast that you don't really remember details. I just know something's weird about me - my heart is pounding, compelling me to do...something, move, anything - it skips when I don't and it feels awful. Even just tapping my foot helps.
I take stock of myself; still have the shovel, still have the knife. I can't even see the stars from down here if I look up. I put a hand to where a pain sears my head and feel something wet - the hand comes back with blood, a lot of blood. I have no idea how I haven't bled out by now, or how I'd made it through a head injury that awful mostly okay.
I get up.
I can hear distant music pulsing, the ground vibrating from beneath my feet. I'm in a cavern with brickwork that's been crumbled by time, and there are stairs descending in front of me. Something draws me towards them, an invisible string, the beating of my own heart...
I have a lot more questions than I did when I got to the graveyard, but the same resolution as before.
I don't know how long it takes me to reach the bottom.
Hours? Days? No one could tell me, not even the few who were both friendly and could talk. It's just floor after floor of perpetual motion and music vibrating in my head and my chest, and my heart pulling me along to it all.
I'm exhausted by the time I think I'm close to the source.
I've been dancing - that's the only way I can really describe it - this entire time, and I can't rest or my heart will skip and I'll get lightheaded. I'm bruised and bloody from the attacks of the undead armies that apparently live down here, but I've also gotten better equipment along the way, and I'll be damned if I'm letting a few scrapes stop me from getting where I need to go.
The whole thing's probably kind of ridiculous to look at, all of us slaves to the beat of the music around us, from slimes to swordsmen. All moving to the beat of one drum somewhere below.
That drummer had better be ready - they had a lot to answer for.
But first, another battle. I step in time and kick open the thick wooden doors in front of me, to see a large cleared-out cavern with four large bells, and a gong at the far end. A figure stands in the middle wearing golden plate armor and a green cape, their head apparently nothing but a huge bell with a crack in it. They turn towards me and squint at me through the one eye I can see through the crack, and they raise their giant mallet, and they laugh at me.
I should've recognized it immediately.
I remembered when we played pretend. But this time, he isn't holding back - and I don't know it's him on the other side.
They smack into the gong with the loudest crash I've ever heard, deafening me and sending my eyes crossed. It even blocks out the everpresent music, freeing us from the beat for at least a little while.
I walk over to my opponent with my rapier raised in case they think attacking me again is a good idea, but the sight stops me cold. The bell on his head broke in two from the impact, revealing a face that was worn, tired, pale, and covered in purple splotches - but one I recognize.
His eyes are vibrating in their sockets, probably from the loud noise still echoing in his brain. He looks like he's in pain, and confused, and it takes him a solid five seconds to get his eyes to focus on me, a little longer to process what he's seeing.
I don't know what to do. I just stand there like a scared deer holding a useless rapier and staring at him. How am I supposed to feel about this?
Try to put yourself in my shoes, here - close with your dad, the only person you had in your life, your only direct family left, he bails on you for two years, and now you find him in some dirty, musical hellhole and realize he just tried to kill you and very nearly succeeded.
Angry? Probably, but that wasn't fair to him, he'd had a reason for coming down here. Betrayed? The look on his face told me he probably didn't even know it was me until now. Confused? Definitely.
He tries to sit up, groaning in pain. I instinctively give him my free hand to help him up, still staring. He looks around the room, taking in the details and trying to remember why he was here, putting a hand to his head.
"...Cadence, I'm sorry. I was under his spell..."
I raise an eyebrow. Whose spell, exactly?
I want to ask him a million questions, but his eyes go wide and he scrambles unsteadily to his feet, grabbing my arm and making me flinch.
"We need to go. We need to get out of here now."
"Leaving so soon?"
That definitely isn't either of us. Dad pulls a face and I whip my head around to see who's talking - and oh man, is that face going to be unfortunately burned into my brain now.
"I guess you don't have the HEART to face me!"
This guy is at a sheer level of ugly that not even a mother could love. He looked about as dead as everything else in this godforsaken crypt, maybe worse; yellowed teeth, bald, admittedly impressive beard, discolored skin all gnarled up and wrinkled like a really old, blue tree. He raises his hand and conjures some purple mist, and in there I can see two hearts - one of them is beating in sync with mine, I can feel it. And in that moment, I know that I'm looking at the person responsible for all of this.
I want to give him a piece of my mind.
"I think I know how to defeat him, Cadence. But we have to work together. Follow my lead."
I glance back over my shoulder. Dad's got the most determined look I've ever seen on his face, and is holding the mallet he'd just nearly crushed my head with in both hands, ready to swing.
The ugly guy cackles horribly, banishing the images of our hearts and grinning at us, opening his arms.
"Go on and try! Try, my pets!~ I find this...most amusing."
With another cackle, he turns on a heel and disappears in purple smoke, and we're left alone in the arena, hearing faint music pulsing from directly below, louder than anything I've heard yet.
I turn back to Dad, my mouth open to say something, and then I shut it. Where do I even start?
"We don't have time for that...I'll explain later."
I put my hands on my hips.
"I think I deserve some explanation - like what the hell you've been doing for the last two years."
He stares at me, an expression of horror slowly spreading over his face. He drops the mallet at his feet with a loud crash and shakes his head several times, muttering to himself. I wait for an answer, but all I get is his mumbling.
"Two years? Two years? Is...is that how long it's been? I've been down here...that long...and he told me...and you..."
He turns his head and looks me in the eye. I try to stand my ground, but I'm just so relieved he's some kind of okay, I almost want to drop the anger right there.
And then he launches himself forward, throwing his arms around me. I yelp and nearly fall over, but keep my balance. He's shaking as he rests his head on my shoulder.
"...Cadence...honey, I'm so sorry...I didn't mean to be gone so long...He just..."
He sounds like he's going to cry, something I hadn't seen him do since that night by Mom's bedside. So I decide to let it go and I hug him back tighter than I ever had and try to ignore that I'm going to cry, too, because it's probably a bad time for that.
When I pull back and he gets settled standing up straight and looking over his hammer (realizing the handle was broken in two and was going to be useless in our coming battle), I don't ask any of the million questions I swore I would the second I saw him again. I can't bring myself to.
Instead I just smile grimly, still exhausted, but feeling like there might be a bit of hope.
"...I missed you, Dad."
We stand side by side in front of the heavy wooden doors, listening to the beat of the music from inside. Dad's to my right, staring grimly ahead and holding a dagger that he'd apparently taken with him all the way down here. I'm still gripping the handle of my rapier.
"Explosives are our best bet," he says. I just nod. "Are you ready?"
"Ready as I'm gonna be."
He stares at the door for a few beats, then looks over at me with a grim smile.
"Cadence...you didn't have to come here looking for me. You probably shouldn't have. If we make it through this, I...I hope you understand why I did it."
"...Save it for when we're out of here, Dad."
I'm still a little mad, but not much. I can't be. There's no time for it. We'll have all the time in the world for questions once this is over.
Of course, I know this could be it, and we could both be destined to wind up as nothing more than another pair of skeletons. But what can I say. At least I'm kind of thinking positive.
"One...two...one-two-three - "
On the next beat, we kick the doors open, and there he is, standing on a stage with his undead lackeys dancing to the music around him. He's tall and ugly and dressed in all red and black, and he's holding something in his hands - a lute, I think, though it doesn't sound like one at all. It sounds like nothing I've ever heard before, like all the weird music down here, and as he plays it, purple smoke curls around his fingers.
He looks up at us and grins, stopping his playing long enough to conjure a longsword out of seemingly nowhere and throwing it end over end, until it sticks into the ground at Dad's feet.
"You did seem to enjoy trying to use this, Dorian."
It's then that I notice the hilt is stained with blood - human blood. Dad glares down at it before picking it up and getting into a fighting stance.
The monster cackles again. "Ah, a frail old man and a little girl come to defeat me! Oh, I'm so afraid. None of your paltry weapons can even scratch me! RISE!"
He takes a hand from the lute and waves it in the air, and I can hear clattering from around the room. I look over and sure enough, skeletons, everywhere.
This is gonna be tricky.
I don't waste any more time. On the beats, I run up to the stage and jump left and right looking for a good place to put a bomb. I can hear Dad fighting off skeletons nearby, bones rattling and falling to the ground, and I set down one of my bombs and sidestep away.
It explodes, taking a chunk of the stage with it. The monster on the stage glares down at us and plays a chord that conjures more skeletons - stronger ones, this time, appearing on either side of me and forcing me to jump away from the stage to try and bait them towards a better position to attack.
Dad thrusts his longsword into the back of one of the skeletons from behind, and nods grimly at me in the beat of respite, sweat already slicking his hair to his forehead.
"A few more like that..."
I nod once and spin out of the way, lunging at another skeleton and knocking its shield out of its dead hands, then blowing it to bits with another thrust.
I notice that even though we're handling the skeletons well enough, Blue Man hasn't summoned any more. Maybe there's a limit before he can cause us any more trouble? Whatever it is, I'll take anything I can get.
I launch myself at the stage and set down another bomb, lighting it and rolling away - straight into a skeleton that bashes me in the head with his shield. Dad practically leaps over me to knock it away, pulling me out of the blast radius of my own bomb just in time - aaaand there goes another piece of the stage. The lute-wielding menace grits his teeth as he's forced to step back, and I can tell he's running out of room.
One more good one...
Dad and I bolt in opposite directions as more undead are summoned and come hurtling at us. I can swear I hear the roar of a dragon, but I don't want to look. I've got to get back to that stage...
I'm swept off my feet and pulled to the side by a skeleton mage. I hear another one fall to pieces somewhere, but I'm getting disoriented. I stab the mage and turn to see Dad kicking himself off the wall in order to get in a better position to come to my aid.
"You go! Go!"
I don't hesitate, bolting up to the stage on the beats. The monster's playing is growing more frantic, and the purple mist swirls around him in a vibrant vortex lit up by flashing light from below. I set down the third bomb and run.
"Agh! Curse you!"
I look up through the smoke and mist to see he's stumbled off the stage, stunned enough to drop his lute. It's still giving off purple mist, and I find myself staring at the thing in curiosity as the music halts momentarily, my heart along with it.
The monster starts to recover, and I snap out of my daze, thrusting my rapier through his chest.
...It doesn't even seem to bother him.
He just looks down at the blade sticking out of him, momentarily confused before grinning at me and stepping back to extricate himself from the rapier. I stare at him, alarmed - even the other undead couldn't take a good stabbing...
"Cadence, the lute!" I hear Dad shouting at me from the other side of the arena - he sounds breathless, and I realize that I'm getting lightheaded and my vision is going dark, "It's the only thing that can hurt him!"
I have no idea how a lute could actually be used to hurt anyone (other than bashing someone over the head with it, I guess), but at this point, I'm done questioning things. I stagger sideways and scoop up the lute, staring down at it blearily.
"I-it was keeping us alive...Play it, hurry!"
I can barely think, and my hearing's starting to go, but I nod and try to get my hands to do what they need to do. I vaguely remember when I was little, and I'd go to Mom when she played and ask if I could try it...She spent so long teaching me...It was hard at first, with my little fingers, but she said that I was a natural...
I strike a chord.
My heart lurches back to life in my chest, and the purple mist comes back, swirling around my hands. I gasp for breath and stagger back, but my fingers seem to keep playing on their own - a tune I don't really know, but one I'd heard the monster playing, something that seems to just erupt from my hands. And just like before, it doesn't even sound like a lute that I'm playing, it's some instrument I've never heard before...
"Give me that lute!"
Oh, right, we're still fighting.
I jump back as the monster lunges for me, trying to focus on playing. I play another chord, and he covers his ears, gritting his teeth and disappearing in a swirl of mist. I glance around to see him at the other side of the room, waving his hands in the air.
Apparently he still has some power over the dead, or maybe that's me, now. All I know is there are dragons, and a minotaur, and Dad barely ducks out of the way of a fireball, and my heart is pounding as I try to keep up with my own beat and race towards the monster. Power's surging through me unlike anything I've ever felt before. It's both thrilling and terrifying.
The monster extends his hand towards me and a blast of freezing energy locks me in place - everything but my hands, which keep playing desperately. He approaches, but I manage to break out just in time.
I can hear Dad scream as he's run down by a minotaur, but he shouts at me to keep going. I look over - he looks even rougher than he did after our fight, I need to end this as soon as possible - I'm caught up in an explosion and the world turns over as I'm flung back, hearing that monster's ungodly cackle before he disappears again. I struggle to catch my balance, still playing frantically. I lock eyes with Dad on the other side of the room, starting to get worried about this whole situation. He'd left me weak earlier...
Dad looks between me and where the monster is in the corner and seems to get an idea. Kicking himself off the wall again, Dad flies at the monster from the opposite side, slicing his way through dragons and minotaurs as he goes, sidestepping an ogre, just barreling at the guy top speed and yelling the entire time.
I realize what he's doing and get into position.
The monster doesn't realize what he's doing.
He turns at the amount of noise Dad's making and steps away from him, seemingly forgetting for a second that Dad can't actually hurt him. While he's distracted, I run up behind him, and take a deep breath, raising my right hand and letting the music ring in the air for a second.
Then I bring it down, striking the most powerful chord I've ever played or heard before in my life - a wave of sound and energy and power that causes the monster to scream and topple over, clutching at his head and screwing his eyes shut, writhing in pain for a few seconds before finally, finally going still.
It's hard to tell whether he's unconscious or dead, given that he was probably dead to start with, but whatever it is, he's down for the count. I let out breath I didn't realize I'd been holding, and slump down next to him, still picking at the strings, but more quietly. Dad tries to catch his breath and walks over to me - I notice he's moving to the beat I'm playing on the lute.
Dad crumples to his knees on the other side of the corpse, looking grim, but satisfied. He looks up at me, and I just kind of stare hopelessly, not sure what to do now.
Without a word, he holds out his hands. I almost don't want to give up the lute, it just feels...good to play, but I oblige, handing it over to him and letting the music fall silent for a few moments while Dad settles himself.
Dad's not really a musician, not by trade. But he can sing pretty well, and I know Mom was trying to teach him to play way back when. I can tell he isn't really confident with what he's doing as he holds the lute awkwardly, squinting down at the neck to make sure his large, clumsy fingers are in the right positions. I don't think he's played since Mom died...
But he tries it anyway, and the purple mist comes back to dance around his hands as he does his best to play a gentle, but powerful tune. I watch him curiously, not really sure what he's trying to do with it. Just like before, it doesn't sound like he's playing a lute, but it's different than when me or the monster had it - it sounds like he's plucking a harp, with maybe a bit of a chime in the background, like a bell.
His song becomes more intense as he gets more confident, and my heart starts beating in sync to it. He ducks his head, gritting his teeth, and plays a powerful chord. The mist starts to move from the lute to collect over the monster's body, and from it, I can see the images of the two hearts again, now beating at the same tempo.
And then, the mist reaches for me and forces itself down my throat.
My chest bursts with pain and I gasp, the world going dark and fuzzy as I fall backwards, ears ringing. My whole body is shaking, and I realize I'm coughing violently, and everything is throbbing.
The feeling seems to last forever before it starts to fade away, the burning pain and tightness in my chest easing up. After a few seconds of gasping, I start to realize that the noise in my ears is clearing up...and there's no music anymore.
I feel a familiar hand on my shoulder and focus on Dad, who's leaning over me, looking as exhausted and strained as I was. He's set down the lute behind him.
"How do you feel? Did that work?"
"I...don't know. Was it supposed to do something...?
"Here, give me your wrist."
I do my best, even though my limbs feel like they're made of jelly. I flop my arm against his hand and he presses his fingers to my wrist, silent for a few seconds before a relieved look crosses his face.
"...Good...I think we're both okay. No more of this running around to the music. ...We're alive again."
Dad helps me sit up, and I look around the arena to see the damage. The stage is, of course, in pieces, and there are bones - carcasses - bits of gold - lying around everywhere, unmoving. The place is dark and creepy now in silence, and I almost miss the force pulling me forward. It felt a little less...isolated and lonely.
"You doing all right, pumpkin?"
I look back at him. He looks strained, but he's trying to smile, and there's a sheer relief in his eyes.
"I'm...as fine as I can be," I reply, rolling my shoulders and stretching out my arms, "What about you?"
He chuckles weakly, "I've...been better. But I'll be all right."
I nod and force myself to get up. He helps me keep my balance. I look around the arena again and laugh.
"...Dad...That was awesome! And you - you were bada - "
"Cadence..." He gives me a warning look.
I clear my throat awkwardly, "Um...You were awesome."
"Well thank you. Definitely went better than last time..."
He bends over and scoops up the lute from the ground, cradling it in his arms like a baby. I eye him, biting my lip, my gaze switching from his face to the instrument.
"...All this time it was a golden lute you were after," I say, finally making the full realization. "But...why?"
He looks down at the lute with a weak smile, holding it close to his chest.
"You're about to find out. ...But first, we need to get out of here. It should be a lot easier going up."
He's right about that; the walk back through the crypt is unevevntful, and weirdly silent. The whole place feels alien without the pumping music and the lit-up floor, and it's made even stranger by what's left of former enemies lying around everywhere. I try not to look at it.
We're at about the third level before Dad talks, breaking the creepy silence.
"So...What did you think I was after?"
"I, uh..." I didn't want to admit it, but he had me cornered. "...I thought you were leaving us for gold and loot. Money."
He stops walking and turns to stare at me, shaking his head. "Cadence, I would never. I would never split up this family for the sake of money. I know I have a bit of a history, and if you've been living with Eli, well...he likes to say I might be a little greedy. But - I'm not! And I wouldn't have left if it wasn't important."
I believe him. I always felt kind of bad for doubting him...
We continue walking, going a few steps before he speaks up again, looking at me curiously.
"Speaking of Eli, he kept an eye on you while I was gone, right? Did he take good care of you?"
"Well...he tried." I wave a hand in the air, "He's not exactly the best at it."
He laughs, but he looks sad. "He never was a homebody, that one. He's probably furious at me..."
"Yeah. Ever since the first month or so, he's been grumbling to himself about how you abandoned us."
"I didn't mean to, I swear it."
"...What happened? How did you wind up..." I gesture vaguely at his head, "...like that?"
He winces, glancing away from me. "...I know I made it down here, and I fought that...'man' - the 'Necrodancer' - "
I can't help but snort, "Oh my god. Is that actually what he's called."
He nods at me, very seriously, "Your...I was told about him a long time ago. That's what they called him. I fought him, but I couldn't get my hands on the lute before I got overwhelmed. I don't remember what happened after that."
"Do you remember anything?"
"Not really. Just...ringing..."
He looks upset, and I can't blame him. It sounds like he really got put through the wringer down here, so to speak.
"...Sorry about that. The fight, I mean."
Dad raises an eyebrow, "You didn't know. And I should be the one apologizing. I just left you...I swear, I swear if this does what it's supposed to, it's all going to be worth it..." He sounds desperate.
"Okay, we'll call it even. But you still haven't told me what you're going to do with that thing."
He hesitates for a moment.
"...I died in that fight. And you - he had your heart too, something must've happened and you..." He swallows hard, shaking his head, "...But we're alive now. The lute brought us back."
He gets this determined look on his face, the one he got every time he'd stand in the doorway telling us he was one step closer to what he was looking for - that he'd find it soon and everything would be all right. I'd started to believe it less and less over the years, but this time...I want to, even if I don't understand.
I don't fully realize why he'd wanted the lute so badly until we get to the surface and stand before a familiar grave. My mouth drops open for a second as it all clicks.
"All this time...?"
He nods, once, with certainty.
"I couldn't get it to her in time to save her...I hope she didn't mind being kept waiting for a little while. Help me dig her up."
I don't move, just staring at the headstone, my stomach doing flips in my chest. I don't know how to feel...
"You didn't have to."
He purses his lips, eyes focused on the grave, but also somewhere past it - as if he could already see her again.
"...I needed to."
The few minutes after we dig up the casket and Dad sits beside it to play are a blur of reunions and catching up and emotions and nerves as we realize what we have to do to keep Mom from leaving again. I don't know why me and Dad get to live without strings attached but she does and it isn't fair, but we all agree to deal with it later, and give the lute to Mom, putting her life in her own hands.
It actually sounds like a lute when she's playing it, the soft sounds carrying over the empty graveyard and making it a little less creepy. We fall into silence, Dad watching her play with the expression of a kid whose birthday, Christmas, and the end of the school year had all fallen on the same day - and that's an understatement.
But I'm still not sure what to think. It's great to have her back, and I almost can't believe she's really here in front of me again. I'd had nothing to lose when I'd left however long ago, and now my family's back together...I'm afraid I'm not feeling enough. But I'm just so tired...
Mom seems to notice it first - she's been staring at me for a while now, incredulous. I guess I've changed a bit in twelve years. She tilts her head.
"Cadence, sweetie...Just how long have you been going for?"
I look up at the sky. It's dark and I can't see the moon. "Well, it was night when I left so...prooobably long enough for it to be night again?"
She winces, "We need to go home. I think it's been a long day for you both..."
Mom starts to get up, and Dad reaches out to support her as she steps out of her own coffin. "Not as long as all these years."
"Dorian..." She squints at him, "I'm going to need to have a talk with you about all of this, mister."
Dad smiles nervously, "But it's...good to have you back?"
She lets out a long, tired sigh.
"Yes...It's good to be back."
Maybe that's all that needs to be said right now. Maybe the more complicated stuff will come later. I can live with that.
The lute's haunting notes follow us all the way back to the house, under the sound of Dad trying to catch Mom up on the last twelve years. I'm hanging off of Dad's arm more than I'd care to admit, like a little kid, but I can't help it. I'm only now realizing just how exhausted I am. It feels like the ground's about to rush up and punch me in the face.
The familiar little house comes into view. It's probably about five in the morning by now, so none of us are sure whether Uncle Eli is going to be awake, let alone how he's going to react to this, but Dad puts on a brave face and knocks on the front door anyway.
I count five seconds before it opens to reveal my uncle taking up almost the entire doorway, squinting down at us blearily and scratching his beard with his good hand. A candle dimly lights the room behind him, and I can see Dad's old chest of notes against the far wall, and papers everywhere. Eli looks like he hasn't slept since I left, and I feel kind of bad about it - I didn't think he cared that much.
He and Dad just stare at each other for what feels like a full minute, and I can't make anything of either of their expressions. Dad's the one who forfeits the staring contest, glancing away and clearing his throat, rubbing the back of his neck.
Uncle Eli grunts and nods as if expecting this.
"...You're an idiot, Dori. You know that?"
Dad coughs into his arm, "You've told me."
"You shouldn't have gone."
"What do you have to say for yourself?"
Dad hesitates for a moment, before a little smirk crosses his face.
"I'd do it again in a heartbeat."
Uncle Eli gives a long-suffering sigh and steps forward, pulling Dad into a hug and smacking him on the back a couple times with his good hand like guys always do when they hug.
Dad returns the gesture, and comes out smiling. "Missed you, Eli."
"Eh." I assume that translates to 'I missed you too, but that's too mushy for me to say in front of the women'. He takes notice of me and raises a bushy eyebrow. "And you, Cadence?...Good to see you're still in one piece."
I suddenly feel very awkward, and clasp my hands in front of me, shifting around under his gaze.
"Mhm, I'm fine. ...Look, I'm sorry about what I said..."
"You're just like him. You're just like your father. Can't believe I have to deal with another of him."
It's chastising, but the way he says it, there's a little smile in it, and he shakes his head, chuckling quietly. Then he looks to Mom, pushing Dad aside a bit to get a better look at her.
"...By God. He did it. He actually pulled it off." He awkwardly bows a bit, "Welcome home, Melody."
"I'd shake your hand, but I'm a bit preoccupied," Mom replies with a small smile, playing a chord on the lute to emphasize it.
He settles for patting her on the shoulder, and I realize something, glancing between Eli and Dad.
"Wait, Uncle Eli...you were in on this?"
He sighs, "Knew he was planning it from the day she got sick."
"Then why didn't you tell me that was what he was after? I asked if you knew a million times!"
He gives me a pointed look. "Because you're just like your father. Now come on in, all of you. I've got eggs...somewhere."
Eli turns and goes back inside, and the rest of us glance at each other again for a moment. It still feels absolutely unreal that we're all here right now. Honestly, when I left, I wasn't a hundred percent sure I'd be making it back to this house, as much as I don't want to admit it. Let alone making it back with my parents...
Dad's still in Dead Ringer's plate armor and cape, but the splotches on his skin are clearing up. Mom has a worried look in her eyes as she plays the lute, but she's getting less pale by the second, more and more alive.
And me? I'm exhausted and sweaty, but the head injury doesn't hurt as much anymore. I've got a pouch full of gold and a few neat little charms around my neck. I've got a family again, and a beating heart in my chest.
There's a lot of things we've still got to figure out. I know almost nothing about the instrument that's keeping Mom alive, or the grandmother who apparently told stories about it. I don't know if Mom's just going to need to keep playing forever, or if there's some way to keep her here for good. I don't know how the others are going to react to Dad's story, or if he has any loose ends in the crypt. I don't know anything about the Necrodancer who made our lives a not-living hell, not even if he's really gone for good.
We all still have a lot of questions - about the lute and its player, about the crypt, about where we go from here.
But if I know anything about my family, I know that we're gonna find the answers if it kills us all over again.
...Since when did we ever do what was good for us, anyway?