She wandered through the ghosts of halls, familiar beyond enduring, yet unrecognizable. Where was she? Figaro? Doma? The walls and tapestries blended and blurred in memory. She looked down at herself. No armor. No shawl. Her hand rose to her neck, but her questing fingers didn’t find her brooch, treasured gift of her husband’s parents on the eve of their wedding. She was bare and defenseless, her only protection from the world a loose silk nightgown.
She shuddered, a convulsive gathering of her thoughts. She was… she was the queen of Figaro and the last remaining scion of Doma. Her name… her name would come back to her, surely? She looked around. The walls wavered in her vision, then steadied. Figaro. She was in her office in Figaro. A faint noise that might have been a giggle echoed through the corridor. She hurried forward just in time to see a flash of purple hair and a yellow bow flicker around the next corner.
She hurried forward, hand out to call to—whom? Who was it? Her own hair fell into her face as she ran, mouth open to yell a name she just couldn’t quite remember. The hair was the same color as the girl who ran far ahead. A memory sparked—
--sitting in a nursery, husband on one side and someone she couldn’t quite make out on another. She said, “We’ll name her Kamila, then?”
The figure said, “A fiiine name, baby,” as her husband leaned down to kiss the child’s forehead—
Kamila? Was that who she was chasing? But Kamila was gone, dead in the upheaval that had taken everything from her. Figaro gone, Doma poisoned and decayed, loves and friendships betrayed alike. A year since the world ended, and she’d been left alone, and come…where? To where had she retreated, in that endless solitary pain?
As she rounded the next corner, the walls flickered yet again and then re-solidified into the familiar rumbling of—a train? Her feet betrayed her and she nearly fell as the car through which she ran jerked into motion. The girl ahead of her vanished through the door into the next car.
She slowed. She needed to take stock, regroup. She had been here before, racing through these train cars in a mixture of rage and despair, hoping against hope she could—
--“Stop this train! Give me back my people and my family!” she demanded, already knowing in her heart of hearts that this was fruitless.
The train’s whistle blew, a wild scream of laughter and white steam. Jowd ran ahead, attempting to use his sheer brute strength to stop it. She could see him, up there… was he trying to suplex the train? She shook her head. Only her husband. His mother would have been proud…although she was glad the former queen wasn’t here to see it, just yet.
She had stayed back in the engine room, attempting to work the levers and stop the train herself, but the spectral energy that powered the locomotive ignored her efforts. She had struggled with it until she had finally had to admit to herself that her knowledge of engineering and Jowd’s brute strength weren’t enough and she’d jumped off to try to help Jowd, at least--
She remembered, with sudden agonizing clarity, her pain and sorrow, her absolute and utter rage. Her steps faltered and she stopped short. She looked more closely at the train in which she stood. Nothing quite fit with her memory—the ornate decorations on the carriage seats wriggled and chittered in her peripheral vision, blinking thousands of tiny eyes at her, and looked completely different every time she looked at them directly.
“Alma. I’m Alma,” she said aloud. “And I’m… in a dream, aren’t I?” The Phantom Train shivered, like a chocobo trying to shake off a stinging fly. Her surroundings changed again and she—
--stood in the shattering cold of the hills above Narshe, staring at the man who’d betrayed everything. Five years, five years since she’d let Jowd be lost and Kamila taken, and now the architect of her family’s destruction stood in front of her. She’d known his pretty words back in the cozy room in Narshe couldn’t be trusted. “All yours,” he’d said.
“Where is my family?” she demanded, levelling her sword at the man she’d believed was closer than family.
“Gooone, baby,” he drawled, his handsome face twisted into a triumphant sneer and his dark eyes malicious. “Now it’s juuust the two of us.”
“No. There’s no way that you’re telling the truth. You wouldn’t have kept Jowd all this time just to… just to… and Kamila…no. I’d know. …” she swallowed back a sudden spurt of tears or rage. “We thought of you as ours, together. Our family.”
“Ahh. All yooours, hmm? What a beauuutiful vision, baby, but no. You were always mine, but no, I was never,” his voice lashed at her, echoing somehow above the howling wind, “yours.”
He danced toward, her, reached out a hand, plucked the brooch from her neck. The scarf she’d given him whipped in the wind, obscuring his face one second and coming unraveled the next. His eyes gleamed, glowing white as the snow around her, as it somehow it snapped toward her, knocking her off her feet—
Alma blinked, breaking his gaze, and centered herself. A dream, she was dreaming, and that betrayal was behind her. Even the memory of it had been off—in Narshe he hadn’t worn the scarf she’d given him, nor had his eyes gleamed with such an unearthly glow. In the end, Cabanela had proved himself. His double had been a lie in both word and deed, and she had believed it almost to the end. It would be a pretty tale to tell herself that Jowd and Kamila were alive out there, even through the end of the world. She wanted that so badly. And Cabanela and the other one? Were they alive too, out in the ruined world he’d created? Did she want them to be, if having the one meant having the other too?
These thoughts were hard, and they wanted to skip away from her conscious like cold water on sizzling sand. She clenched her fists at her side, remembering another day when she had done so, and said their names as she tapped her thumb over each finger. “Lynne. Missile. Kamila. Jowd.” Unlike in the terrible time in Vector, there was no hesitation as she tucked her thumb in too and clasped her hands together. “Cabanela.” She gave her other hand, with its cold fingers interlaced into the others, a dry grin. “Sissel. Cidgeon, Memry. Cait Sissel. Amelie, Bailey…” She was running out of fingers for this metaphor, but they cupped the cold, empty space at the center that was her own soul. Save them and she could save herself. Save them and she could go home.
She shook herself. All of this contemplation was needless time spent when she stood alone in a cold dream with nothing but a nightgown. She looked down at herself again and concentrated. If this was some inimical fantasy-world, she wanted more protection than silk could afford. She needed to be at her best. Her favorite armor materialized around her, the jingle and clatter of the strips of leather and woven metal somehow working to recall her more firmly to her purpose. The sword Figaro’s king had given her on the occasion of her marriage to Jowd firmed in her hand. Her hair drew back into a tight, neat bun, suitable for the battlefield, tied with yellow ribbon. She would fight her way out of this nightmare and get back to where she belonged, wherever that was in this new world.
Memry climbed back on board the Vanguard and hurried down the ladder into the hold lounge without taking off. Jowd sat on the lower level’s couch, staring at the kitten nestled in his hands as it napped with absolute trust in him, while Cabanela paced around the upper level, his nervous energy seeming even more frenetic than usual as another kitten chased the fringe on his white wrap.
They’d had another one of their arguments before she’d escaped to the city, taking her uncle and Kamila with her to escape the sounds of their fury. Memry rolled her eyes at that memory. She wasn’t one to long for the simple, or the past, but all that angry noise made her stomach ache. She couldn’t imagine how she’d ever had that ill-starred crush on Draco. All that singing all the time? No, thank you. She wanted it on her terms or not at all.
In any case, their fight, as all their fights seemed to be when boiled to essentials, was essentially meaningless. They spiraled ‘round each other like a whirlpool, emotions crashing like tides on rocks. She couldn’t imagine how it never drained, never seemed to exhaust itself. How had they lived that way, before, in those years before Jowd was taken? Yet she knew how. They’d had someone to help smooth the rough edges between them, and they’d been too happy to notice that the rocks were always there, waiting. Well, perhaps at least the news she brought would be enough to soothe those turbulent waters for a time.
Kamila had followed her down the ladder, Cidgeon behind her.
“Did you tell them yet?” she asked Memry, her voice soft.
“Tell us whaaat, baby?” Cabanela said, pausing in his pacing just long enough to pick up the kitten chasing him. With careful hands he handed the kitten to Memry. “Nothin’ like ‘em, baby, but my coat’s sufferin’. Give him a little distraction, hm?”
“They’re saying the ruins of Doma are haunted by a masked ghost,” Cidgeon said, his dour face set in grim lines. “That the dead queen is keeping out scavengers…and anyone else besides.”
“What?” Jowd’s head came up. “That can’t be. Alma and I saw them…” His face filled with that remembered pain. “We…” he swallowed. “We said our goodbyes.” There was no laughter in the words, not even Jowd-ish black humor. It was clear that experience had been a profound one.
Cabanela slid him a glance; there were details about that long-ago visit to Doma that had never been shared with him, either by Alma or Jowd. It had been too close, too painful for Alma, back in their travels together before the world had been shattered, and he and Jowd could barely share a pleasant word these days, much less a conversation so fraught with painful recriminations on both sides.
Memry gave Jowd a quizzical look as she twiddled her fingers at the kitten’s paws where it lay contentedly in her arms. “Huh? Like you saw their ghosts?”
Jowd’s face relaxed again as he watched her and the kitten, and a corner of his mouth lifted, although his eyes remained dark and shadowed with the memory of the grave. “Mm. After I tried to suplex the train they were on.” He gave a great shout of laughter at their faces. “And succeeded too! But it wasn’t enough to stop them from going.”
The others on the airship fell uncomfortably silent, and Kamila sat down next to him, leaning against him. “I don’t think we really get it, papa, but it sounds like you really tried.”
His arm went around her, the kitten shifting easily to her lap, and his eyes softened. “We did. We really did.” They were quiet for a moment. Almost under his breath, he added, “I should go back there, check and see if anyone else we know has taken that ride…”
Cidgeon gave him a sharp look. “If you’re talking about heading to Doma, boy, I think it’d be a good idea for us all to go. If there’s a ghost haunting the place, it could be a lost esper, could be a monster…”
“Could be a demon,” Sissel added, his tone casual. “Like the one back in Mobliz.”
“Or we all know who it could be,” Jowd’s words fell into the conversation like lead, and everyone stopped.
“Nah, baby, there’s nooo living there,” Cabanela said, waving his hand to dispel the wave of dread his words had provoked. “She’s not sittin’ in the old homestead when she could be here with you and Kamila.”
Jowd’s face went hard as stone and his arm around Kamila tensed, the knuckles going white as he clenched the cushions of the couch. “Easy to say, isn’t it, old friend?”
“Papa!” Kamila put her hand on his. “It’s probably not mama, but if it’s Aunt Meg’s…ghost, or grandma or grandpa…”
“It’s not.” Jowd spoke with utter conviction. “It’s Alma.”
“She’s nooot dead, baby,” Cabanela said, his shoulders going stiff but his voice still resolutely light. “We’d know.”
Jowd stood and walked over to him, overshadowing Cabanela until they both stood in the darkness of his shadow underneath the hanging lamps above. “You know we wouldn’t. Your spells may be useful for fighting and espionage, but they don’t make you all-knowing any more now than they did before the end of the world.” Whether your double thought so or not; the words hung in the air, unsaid, but heard.
Cabanela ducked under his arm and whirled back into the light as he opened his mouth, his face incensed in a way no one but Jowd could pull from him, but Kamila interrupted his angry rebuttal.
“I’ve had enough of your fighting!” She didn’t stand, and the kitten on her lap never stirred from its nap, but her glare could have cut glass. When she looked at them, her face was older than a little girl’s should ever have to be. It was purely her mother who stared out at them for a moment. “It shouldn’t matter whether it’s mama, or Aunt Meg, or anyone or anything else haunting the ruins. Whatever’s there in mama’s old home is hurting the people of the kingdom she grew up in, and she wouldn’t want that.” She faltered, just a little, looking more like a child again. “We can’t let mama’s kingdom die this way. I may not have gotten much training as a princess but as Missile would say, even I know that.”
Jowd’s glare dropped from Cabanela’s, and they both turned away. Jowd’s guilt was perhaps more visible in his body language; a casual watcher wouldn’t have known Cabanela felt shame at all, but these weren’t casual watchers, and they all knew he had heard and been chastened.
Cabanela spoke first. “Anyhoot, it was neeever a question of if, but when we went to Doma, baby.” He frowned, his hand wiping down over his face. “There’s somethin’ there...”
Phantom spoke from the low pedestal they’d constructed in one corner of the room so the Esper could have a place to be with Seraph, now that they were reunited. “I feel it too. Something…like a dream…”
Cabanela cast a glance over to Phantom, his face perplexed. They had all expected the Esper to be ecstatic to be rejoined with Seraph, and they had been, but it was plain there was something still missing. It wasn’t like Cait Sissel had been, wherever she now drifted, but Phantom still mourned something or someone there.
Cabanela shrugged, then bowed to Kamila in his most ambassadorial fashion. “So you see? Dooon’t you worry, we’re on the case.”
Jowd snorted, turning his back on Cabanela and walking back to the couch. “He’s right about that. I’d be going whether he wanted to or not.”
Cidgeon spoke, probably rolling his eyes behind the thick smoked-lens goggles he wore, his tone dry, “If there’s a masked ghost or esper or demon or monster there, I don’t know why it was a discussion in the first place. We all know the harm these War of the Magi relics have caused. It needs research and—probably--disposal.”
They all nodded, Cabanela the most firmly of all. The mask, whatever that thing was, couldn’t be allowed to corrupt another esper as it had done with Cait Sissel.
The land racing under the Vanguard was brown and dead as anywhere else, and the river that had once been Doma’s water source had been subsumed in the cataclysm, but there was a miasma over the land, rising through the air. It made their noses sting and their eyes ache.
Jowd stared down over the rail, his face covered with a rag, heavy-lidded eyes taking in the place. Cidgeon stepped up to stand beside him, face uncovered, although his ribbon was tied firmly in place in his hair. Lovey-Dove was somewhere inside the airship, protected from the worst of the murk.
“It wasn’t like this before,” Jowd said. “There was poison in the water, but it hadn’t leeched into the land and air like this.”
Cidgeon’s frown deepened. “This is magically-based, I’m sure. And…” he snorted. “And it’s familiar too.”
“What do you mean?” Jowd’s head turned to him.
Cidgeon didn’t look up. “Pretty sure this came from my labs, at least partially. Got a certain crazy character’s hands all over it.”
Jowd’s fists clenched on the railing, but he said nothing. Another mystery solved and the answer was no more satisfying than any of the others involving the impostor at the center of the world.
Cidgeon continued, peering thoughtfully at the ground. “But anything natural should have dissipated by now. No. Someone’s helping this along.”
“Cabane—the Jester?” Jowd said, not meeting Cidgeon’s eyes when the shorter man peered sharply up at him.
“Nah, he doesn’t leave his tower anymore,” Memry said, joining them at the rail while Cabanela steered the ship under Kamila’s tutelage. “It’s gotta be someone working for him, maybe one of those creepy cult loonies…”
“Cult?” Cidgeon’s face was unreadable but his tone was dry as bone. “Hadn’t heard about that one.”
“Ohhh.” Memry fidgeted. “Yeah. Cult of the Jester, Jester’s Cult…it’s a popular one. Lot of people figuring if you can’t beat him, join him…”
Jowd snorted. “Does Cabanela know about this?”
Cidgeon shook his head. “Not that I know of.”
“Uh, maybe he should know...?” Memry said, and then pointed at something on the ground. “Hey. Changing the subject, what is that?”
The Vanguard’s shadow passed the small figure moving fast on the ground and Cabanela, evidently having seen it too, swung it around lower for another pass. The figure did not pause, but raced on ahead of them. A woman in a black dress floated over the dead ground. Poison flowered and flowed from her finger tips, curling heavily over the ground, and blackened whatever humble plants had managed to take root. Her violet hair flowed around her, long and wild, untamed.
“Alma!” Jowd’s shout pierced the air, but the figure didn’t stop or acknowledge his call in anyway. Her speed redoubled, although her feet never touched the ground, and she shot away from them in the direction of the castle. The miasma all around thickened until the air was dark and hazy with poison. Coughing and hacking, they all reeled, and Cabanela and Kamila cast Esuna in tandem to create a small and unfortunately all-too-ephemeral bubble of cleaner air. They were forced to raise the airship as high as it could go to escape the lingering effects, and put it on auto-pilot while they retreated inside.
“That was her,” Memry said, staring in astonishment at the place where the figure had vanished, just before she went down the ladder. “I think anyway. Never seen the queen quite so…wild.”
“Couldn’t be,” Cabanela returned as he and Cidgeon joined them in the lounge, Lovey-Dove flying to welcome them with a coo. “Alma would neeever ignore Jowd calling her. There’s a trap here. An illusion of some kind…” He cast an eye toward Phantom. “That’s your gig, baby. Any ideas?”
Phantom was silent for a long moment. “I…don’t know. Something is terribly wrong here. It’s like I can feel my own magic, but it’s not mine…”
Sissel spoke from where he’d been napping with a pile of exhausted kittens. “We’re being watched, every minute that we’re here. Can you feel it?”
No one said anything for a long minute, but they could all feel the watchful gaze, as if the air they breathed saw them from the inside out, as if a ghost was in the room.
Memry shuddered. “So what? We leave? That gunk is corroding the engines every minute we’re here and that woman, the queen or not, was just flat-out creepy.”
“We can’t leave!” Kamila protested.
“No.” Jowd smiled, his voice rumbling deep in his chest. “She’s here. We’re here.” His voice slowed, and went more distant. “No escape.”
Cidgeon cast him another sharp glance. “Practicalities first, then. Sissel, do you know Esuna?”
“Yeah. Seraph taught me back in Mobliz.”
“Yes, she’d know it, wouldn’t she.” Cidgeon put a thoughtful hand to the ribbon in his hair, Kamila’s gift. He hadn’t felt the effects of the poison outside, although he could feel how powerful it was. The powerful Relic had protected him. “Then, Sissel, you stay here and keep casting it on the ship. Keep the air and engines clean and protect those kittens of yours.”
Sissel’s tail twitched and he blinked lazily. “No problem.”
Cidgeon hesitated. “I might be able to do something about the poison in the ground and air,” he said, unusually hesitant. “But I’d need Seraph’s help. And someone to guard me.”
Memry sighed. “Yeah, fine, niece to the rescue as long as Sissel promises my ship will be safe. Seraph can come with me—I need to learn those spells anyway if she doesn’t mind.”
“Anything to help.” Seraph said. “I owe you all everything, so let me repay it however I may.” There was a pause. “Phantom…you need to go with them. To the castle.”
“Yes, dearest. You already said how wrong this is. And I’ll be just outside.”
Memry interjected, “This is just a big island and the ship’s not going anywhere until the poison clears, if we land.”
There was a long silence. “I owe you all everything, just as Seraph does, but you ask this of me again and again...”
“They aren’t asking you,” Seraph pointed out. “I am.”
“So you are.” Another long pause, where they all fidgeted under the strange intangible gaze, whose regard seemed to grow stronger and stronger. “Only because it is you asking.”
Kamila said, “So Papa, Uncle Cabs, and I will infiltrate the castle.”
Jowd nodded. She blinked.
“Papa, I expected you to say no.”
“What good would that do?” Jowd laughed. “My intrepid thief princess of a daughter would just build herself a wing suit and sneak after us, wasn’t that it how it went?”
Kamila blushed. “That was a year ago.”
“And juuust last month too,” Cabanela grinned, enjoying the rare moment of accord they could gain in teasing Kamila. “All grown up, baby.”
“Hmph. Just so.” Kamila turned her back on them.
Preparations went quickly from there, and Jowd, Cabanela, and Kamila found themselves in front of the castle, the Vanguard landed a safe distance away, within hours. The miasma of poison was thick and strong here, curling and billowing off the castle in great waves in the fast, ever-present howl of the wind.
Cabanela pointed at the great gate, his eyes grim. “Look familiar, baby?”
There was something white hung in the very center of the gate, gleaming unnatural white in the murk. Carved around it in a huge circular diagram were hundreds of eyes. They watched the small group, mask and eyes and the very air, and malice hung thick all about them. With a creak, the gates swung open, welcoming them in to Doma’s last refuge.
They walked together through the halls and shivered as the cold inside hit them, drawing a little closer together. It was absolutely quiet once the gates closed; not even the howling wind outside could be heard. Only their footsteps, thudding softly on the carpet, and the quiet hitch of their breaths gave truth to the idea that anything could live in this castle where only death had reigned for many years.
They didn’t speak as they walked the short distance from the gate to the main entrance to the throne room, but Jowd stood still for what felt like a long time before the closed doors. It wasn’t as if they didn’t all know what he was feeling or thinking, but stillness ill-suited Cabanela and finally he snaked a hand forward to the handle and threw one door open with an echoing thunk against the wall behind it. Jowd started, and glared at him, but Cabanela shrugged unrepentantly and shoved him forward, which did precisely nothing as Jowd had frozen again, staring up at the throne.
He was a stone, cold and hard. Yet his chest expanded and contracted too deeply as he stood, breathing too heavily for the faint exertion the stairs had brought him, and staring at his wife. She lay, slumped and pale, eyes open, in the throne of Doma, from which her mother had once dispensed justice and mercy with the same evenhanded honor. It seemed the whispers in Nikeah were true then, and everything led here. Her breathing was shallow; she looked emaciated, only one step from the corpse they’d all thought she was at first. How long had she been here?
Kamila darted past him, to her mother’s side. “Mama. Wake up!” she cried, shaking Alma hard. Alma’s head lolled to the side and her eyelids fluttered closed, then open again, but otherwise, showed no signs of life, much less of hearing her name called. Kamila clung to her, trying to warm her, to rouse her, but nothing worked. The time passed and Kamila subsided with nothing changed.
Cabanela strolled past Jowd too, bold and insouciant as ever. He put a hand on Alma’s shoulder. “Let’s get you ooout of that chair, huh, baby? Maybe get her into a bed?” he said over his shoulder to Jowd, but his voice died as Jowd swept past him and just barely managed to stop himself from twitching Cabanela’s hand aside.
Old betrayals died hard, and Cabanela knew that Jowd knew what had brought him here, but he tried not to shrink back at the glare Jowd fixed him with as his king said only, “Yes. She has rooms on this floor.” Jowd swept Alma’s body, too light and so cold, into his arms.
Cabanela danced forward, shaking off his unease. “Let me help.”
Jowd flinched away from him, his hands clutching Alma too hard into his chest before he relaxed them. “I’ve got her.”
Cabanela’s hands dropped and his face went a little stiffer, but he swept into an elaborate bow, motioning Jowd out of the throne room. He and Kamila trailed behind Jowd as he strode toward her old rooms; almost despite himself, Cabanela met Kamila’s worried glance with one of his own. Jowd’s mental state had been mercurial from the time they’d met again in Tzen. What would this do to him? She’d been so near and so far, all along.
Phantom stirred restlessly. “What now?”
Cabanela shrugged. “We decide wheeether it’s safe to get her out of here as she is, baby.”
“I don’t think…it is.” Phantom’s reply was slow and thoughtful. “There’s something watching us and I don’t think it will let us leave so easily.”
“I’d like to see it stop us,” Cabanela said easily, and snapped, his fingers throwing sparks. “We’ve come a long way since we saw that mask last, baby.”
“It’s not… that mask that rules here,” Phantom said. “There’s someone else? It feels….familiar, somehow. It all does.”
Cabanela got the sense of Phantom frowning, but was distracted by Kamila stretching her shorter legs to match her father’s longer stride as she caught up to him.
“Papa.” There was no answer.
“Papa.” Jowd cut his eyes to her and kept walking. She put a hand on his arm. “Mama will be OK. …Won’t she?”
“Of course she will,” Jowd said, tone sardonic. “A little more rest with her eyes closed and she’ll be fine.”
“I’m not a child,” she said sulkily. “You can tell me the truth.”
“I know,” Jowd said. His shoulders twitched in an aborted shrug, and he looked away. “I know.”
Kamila’s lips twisted in frustration and she dropped back again. Cabanela slung an arm over her shoulders. “Don’t leeet it get to you, baby.”
“He doesn’t trust me, or you,” Kamila said, too frustrated to lower her voice. “Or even himself!” Ahead of her, Jowd flinched, his shoulders tensing again. Kamila didn’t notice, her eyes downcast as she kept walking. “I thought when we were all together again it would be better.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “I miss my family.”
That stung, but Cabanela shrugged it off as best he could, relying as always on momentum to keep this ball rolling. “But we’ve found her now, baby, and things are gonna be better any minute now as she wakes up.”
Kamila didn’t look convinced, and Cabanela cast about for something else to distract her. His eyes were caught by the castle guest rooms, untouched, it seemed, by time or the predations of whatever foul thing had taken roost here. He cleared his throat. “It’s laaate,” he said. “Why don’t we let your parents have some time alone and I’ll make us some dinner before we get out of here?”
Kamila’s stomach rumbled on cue. “That does sound good. I’m so hungry…” she looked confused and her eyes flickered. “But there’s nothing left here, is there…?”
Cabanela shrugged and gave her a big smile. “We’ll make do, baby, like always.”
He peeked into the small kitchen, and found a frying pan. Kamila brightened when she saw it. “Oooh. Could we make doughnuts? Mom loves doughnuts. We could share them when she wakes up!”
Cabanela grinned and dove back into the cabinets, emerging triumphantly with ingredients. “Now we’re talkin’!”
Phantom spoke up, “I thought all the supplies were gone long since, taken by the humans in Nikeah?”
Cabanela’s eyes flickered as he tried to process this, and both he and Kamila stood very still for a long second. Then, as if Phantom hadn’t spoken, he continued setting out his cooking area, getting everything neat and tidy for cooking and the meal after.
“Let’s geeet started, shall we?” he held out a hand to Kamila, and twirled her when she took it. She giggled, then began pulling out ingredients from nowhere as well.
Cabanela lit the fire with a snap and noted Kamila’s intent face with satisfaction as she carefully poured oil into a pan to heat. At last, something was going right.
Alma stood in the throne room of Doma, listening to distant echoes. It should have been quiet—everyone had fled this blighted land long since. She remembered, after Jowd had been taken, sending representatives to ensure that refugees had had a place to stay, although she hadn’t been able to bring herself to come back.
No one came here. And yet she could hear footsteps and several voices talking, although she couldn’t make out what they said. She scowled. Looters, or worse, come to defile the last resting place of her family. Well, they couldn’t have this place too. She’d already lost too much—she would not give these interlopers the satisfaction of taking her last home.
She shook her head, struggling with memory. No, this was the dream again, wasn’t it? She was dreaming whoever was out there. Another trap by whatever held her here, to make her leave her stronghold. Well, and she would not, not without a fight. She had powers beyond…well, anyone’s now, didn’t she? Anyone human anyway…demons and monsters ruled the lands outside the walls and the only others with magic had perished with the rest of her party. Well, except one. Her hands fisted at her sides. He had survived when the rest had not. They’d been blinded by their emotions and been fooled by the fake. It didn’t matter how often she’d told herself there was no way she could know. She’d rubbed that thought as smooth and thin as one of the pebbles in Doma’s river and still it brought her no solace; she hadn’t known and it had cost them all the world. Her faults abruptly lay heavy on her and her knees loosened. She slumped into her mother’s throne and stared toward the doors of the throne room, listening to the voices of her past.
The ground swayed beneath her and she felt dizzy, as if she was being lifted up. She kicked out, struggling and fighting, but it seemed to make no difference. The feeling stabilized and she felt—safe, almost, as if she were home, but she knew better than to trust it. Her hand fell to the sword at her waist, but she didn’t draw. The voices had quieted, and the world shifted then stabilized once more, although she felt bereft somehow, as if she were no longer cradled in a protective grasp.
She could almost see it, as if through a hazy dream in which she was somehow within and from which she stood apart: Jowd laid her down on the vast four-poster bed that dominated her childhood room and lit the fire with a quick blast of fire magic—it was so cold in this castle, you’d think it was winter outside instead of late summer—and pulled a chair up to the side of the bed.
As he took her hand, the other Alma’s face twitched and she whimpered, a soft, lost sound that Alma-the-waking watched hit him directly in the heart. Powerlessly, she saw the blackness descend on him and knew his thoughts as if they were her own: it was his fault, of course. He’d left her to fall on that airship, hadn’t been there when she needed him. He was worthless, useless. Gotten himself captured. Couldn’t save Kamila, couldn’t save his wife, couldn’t even save his kingdom without help, and forget saving the world. He was so tired. So tired, and so worn.
“This land is crawling with demons. Why did you come here?” he asked aloud, but neither the other Alma or the one watching could answer. The bleak winds moaned around the windows and served as her voice as she despaired. She and Jowd, finally reunited, at least in this dreamworld, but as always, they were blocked from simple.
She watched him spiral further, holding “her” hand, his only anchor too frail and weak to ground him. His thoughts battered her. He had let his family be splintered. He had let the world fall to ruin. He should have seen the betrayal coming, should have known no one from the Empire could be trusted. The other one should have been so obvious. It didn’t matter. He was garbage. Worse than garbage. Worthless. Should never have allowed Figaro to enter that truce, should have…
As Jowd dropped into uneasy sleep, he fell forward, his head landing face-down on the bed. Alma, still watching, yearned to touch him and run her fingers through his hair, to let him know she was there. Almost, almost could she forget that this was a dream, and she felt herself being drawn to his side, but she whirled as behind her, something snickered. It wasn’t a sound she wanted behind her; it didn’t sound as though it wished her any kindness. She could feel it watching them, waiting for her to fall back into the dream.
She tried to harden her heart, to ignore this seeming of Jowd, but something in her wouldn’t let it happen. She drew her sword and stood in front of him, guarding his rest. In the corner of her eye, a child of indeterminate gender giggled, impishly playing peekaboo with the curtain. She scowled at the thing; no child had eyes like that, the corneas pearly white and gleaming with iridescence like a beetle’s wing, the pupil a black hole from which no light could escape. She felt herself being drawn in as the child came closer to her, falling fast into the madness those eyes promised, and yet she could not look away as the child giggled and danced forward.
The laughter seemed to echo strangely, to come from all corners of the room. Alma held her grip on the sword steady but her eyes slid involuntarily to the side as a giggle resounded directly in her ear. She recoiled; another child sat on Jowd’s back behind her, and another floated down from the ceiling, chuckling as its hair brushed her nose. Their gaze tore at her, ripping her apart molecule by molecule as she crossed the event horizon of their laughter; she felt herself unravelling as Jowd slept out of her reach. She spooled into helpless nothingness and Jowd slept on as the three children gathered around him, eyes gleaming with the same unearthly light.
The smell of freshly-fried doughnuts wafted dreamily through the empty halls; the platter was full and the kitchen clean once again. As time passed, Cabanela slouched moodily from one side of the small sitting room to the other, circumnavigating the settee where Kamila sat pretending to read a, presumably dull, book, judging from the way she sighed and fidgeted every few minutes.
At last Kamila threw down the offending novel and looked up. “Don’t you think we should check on them?” She wrung her hands, then stood up with a decisive snap, looking toward the door. “It’s getting so late and they both must be hungry…”
Cabanela started, thrown off his mental track by her words. He grinned, though his eyes were still too-shadowed and inscrutable, and said, “Of cooourse, baby, you’re so right. Those things are gonna be cold ’n’ greasy if they don’t get in here.” He danced to the door and gestured her through with a flourish. “After you.”
She grinned back at him and went to the door, but looked back a little uncertainly. “Should we take them with us?”
Cabanela waved this off. “They need to get up and ooout of that dreary old bedroom and back to the airship with us. We’ll take ‘em to go when we’re leavin’.” A beat, as he appeared to rethink a bit, and went back to grab one. “Just one, so they know what they’re missin’. Waaarm, soft doughnuts, nothing like ‘em.”
“Good idea.” Kamila turned to the door again and peered out. The evening had darkened the castle’s halls to stygian gloom and it was probably even colder inside than outside. The air was still and dead, as it had been within the Vanguard’s resting place. It made them both jumpy, thinking of what they had experienced there.
The hallway to her mother’s rooms was not a long one; it should only have been a mere few steps, but it felt as though it stretched into infinite darkness. Kamila drew closer to Cabanela. He looked down in surprise as she slipped her hand into his.
“You okay, there, baby?”
“Uncle Cabanela…” Kamila sighed. It was too adult a sound to come out of such a young woman, and yet she breathed the weight of the shattered world into that simple exhale. “I know you said—well, back in Figaro. You promised, so tell me the truth: Will it get better?”
“Of cooourse it will.” Cabanela kept his back straight, his face heroically turned into the dark hall. “I promised both you and your father so it’s gonna happen.”
“No matter the cost?” Kamila’s voice sounded a little strange, and Cabanela didn’t hesitate in his answer.
“No maaatter the cost.”
She gripped his hand hard, hard enough for him to make a face that she didn’t see in the darkness. “Some costs are too high. You know that, right?” She tugged at him, made him stop and turn to her. She pointed at him, making her meaning plain as she poked him in his skinny chest. “Right?”
He looked down at her, a warm, real smile beginning on his face, but her words hit him and he was silent for a long pause before he answered, “Quiiite the haggler, little lady.”
She rolled her eyes. “You’re just like Papa sometimes.”
“Oof, a hit.” Cabanela began walking again, snapping his fingers to create a ball of sparks to light the dark hallway. “And after I maaade you doughnuts and everything.”
“She’s not wrong,” Phantom said, and Kamila smiled, surprised to hear the normally-taciturn Esper take her side.
“See? Doughnuts dough not mean it’s not true.” She scampered to catch up just as Cabanela reached her mother’s door. It was entirely silent and as cold as the grave; Kamila stopped smiling and tapped Cabanela’s shoulder, pointing down to a dark, poisonous looking mist curling under the door and out around the hinges.
He kicked the door open without another thought, surprising three small childlike figures clustered around Jowd where he sat slumped over Alma’s body on the bed. They jumped backwards with comedic surprise, overreacting in a way that felt utterly staged.
“Ohoho, you startled us,” one said, echoed eerily by the other two in almost but not quite perfect unison. The effect was jarring, slightly nauseating, and wasn’t helped by the manic, echoing giggles that suddenly sounded from every direction.
“The show is just beginning… you almost missed the curtain,” the second one said, winking at Kamila, who recoiled.
“But brothers, of course we need to set the scene,” the third one said, chuckling. “Shall we have them meet us… further in?” The giggling rose in an insane crescendo as one darted forward, taking the doughnut from Cabanela’s hand in a flash and stuffing it into its mouth. It grinned around doughnut crumbs as it vaulted backward from Cabanela’s reflexive snatch, and all three children somehow jumped into Jowd’s back as it slept unprotected.
“This is a trap,” warned Phantom, floating free beside Cabanela’s shoulder and pulsing green light in a vain attempt to warn them. “But I think you’re already caught…”
Kamila and Cabanela stared wildly at each other, then at Jowd and Alma. The curtains on the large four-poster bed began to writhe and wriggle around them; Cabanela noted from the corner of his eye that what he’d initially taken for a pattern of rather tacky polka-dots on the heavy brocade fabric was actually many tiny masks. They glimmered a vivid, toxic green in Phantom’s light, leering and contorting their miniscule faces in obscene grimaces as the draperies drew around them, closing them into the bed as a spider pulls a fly into the web. They began to cough, the vapor filling the room taking its toll on their struggling lungs.
Cabanela shoved an Esuna at Kamila, and the poison mist recoiled. Her breathing eased, although she still looked pale and ill, illuminated by the sickly light; now the cloth hemmed them both in, the curtains on the bed grandly sweeping open, just as at the opera house. These, however, unlike those great swathes of fabric, seemed to want only to pull them in and swallow them down.
The only way to escape the tightening cloth and once-again-encroaching mist was to follow the children and so, without knowing why or how it worked, Cabanela and Kamila did, stumbling after them in the sure knowledge that they couldn’t leave Alma and Jowd to whatever the strange entities had planned. The darkness closed around them; the masks’ eyes glaring wide and empty as they disappeared. The mist, too, spun in deep whorls and was gone, swallowed by the gaping maw of darkness. Phantom’s magicite clattered to the floor, light extinguished, but the humans were gone beyond where their corporeal form could follow.
The tiny faces floated away from the draperies, falling like snowflakes. They drifted, gathered, coalesced in midair, then dropped. The mask, now whole and unbroken, fell with a pleasant ringing chime on top of the darkened Esper, leaving only the pale porcelain gleam of white ceramic in an echoing abyss.
Happy 3rd AUnniversary to the other two stooges and all around dream team, laughingpineapple and Siver!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Alma found herself in a world of blackened pearl and white marble. The sky…or was it ground? Or both, or neither? Whatever it was, it shivered in nacreous ripples that pulsated in a dark wash all around and under the walkways of grey-veined marble she trod. Every step echoed and the dark seemed to swallow it. She had the feeling that if she turned around, there would be eyes, floating off the safety of the softly glowing marble walkway, but when she tried, there was nothing there.
Someone was whispering her name, softly, obsessively. The sound rustled around her like dead leaves, making her shiver in a wind that didn’t exist. She shook it off, looking around to try to discover where the dream had taken her now. Just bare steps away, although it was across a chasm that might as well have been miles across, someone lay crumpled. A young woman, hair startlingly similar to Alma’s own, tools spattered around her as if she’d fallen from a great height.
One of the freakish children stood next to her, blond and cherubic, although its eyes were shadowed under the blue cap and mop of curls it sported. The way it stood over the girl seemed… possessive, somehow, and it smiled across the gap at Alma with white, white teeth that swirled with the same pearlescence as its eyes. She measured the gap; it wasn’t wide but she was weighed down with her equipment and—except, she wasn’t, was she? If it was dream equipment and dream logic, then she, who ruled this land, should be able to change this reality.
She eyed the child, who grinned like it knew what she was thinking, then backed up, took a running start, and leapt the gap. The child’s face dropped in amazement as she was on it with barely a breath, sword to its throat.
“Whoa!? So you have claws after all! I’m not messing with you without my brothers around.” It seemed to fold space around it like a cloak and disappeared without another word. Alma hissed, her eyes narrowed in poisonous, feral hate. She wanted to make it hurt, the way it had hurt her, but the young woman behind her moaned and Alma turned to her, fury forgotten as she took a hit to the heart.
She knelt next to her daughter and reached out a trembling hand. A dream, it was a dream, only a dream…but Kamila’s hair was soft under her fingertips, her skin clammy. It was there, a year’s worth of cares that she had never seen. There was a wrinkle between her eyes that had never been there. Could she really imagine a Kamila that seemed so real? Her human-ness seemed to warp the dream all around them, in a way that was completely unlike the thing that was not, nor ever had been, a child.
Her daughter whimpered at her touch and Alma jerked her fingers back before, more firmly, putting them to Kamila’s shoulder and shaking her. “Wake up!” Her words seemed to spiral away, devoured by the watching eyes. Kamila didn’t move, and Alma gathered her in, pulling her weight up and into her arms. She could not leave her here, dream or not, and they couldn’t stay.
She took one careful step, then another, balancing the weight of her daughter and her worries. Her next step came down—
--not on smooth polished marble, but on unfinished, gritty stone. The mines of Narshe swirled queasily around her before settling into place; Alma knew them with every painful step and beat of her heart. She’d been here before, once when the world still had held hope. She looked down; Kamila had disappeared but she now piloted a suit of Magitek armor. Alma recoiled; these were the things that had once laid waste to her homeland.
Carefully, she put her hands to the controls and took one tentative step forward. The machine rumbled and clanged around her and Alma grimaced at the sound, but kept walking. Monsters attacked, but she cut them down without mercy as she stomped forward like an avenging angel through the green dream-light.
A moogle—had that been Bailey? –rushed right through her, emerging from the chest plate, and disappeared, followed by a lean, red-haired young man who brandished his sheaf of paper like a weapon. For lack of any other path, she followed, manipulating her machine through tunnels growing smaller and twistier with every step. At last, through a niche that was almost too small to accommodate her, she came out into a larger, open room. At the end opposite her sat a large round stone, carved with a round-eyed face and a prodigious amount of facial hair.
In front of it sat Jowd, eyes closed and meditating. He almost seemed to glow, but, Alma noticed with a start, he didn’t distort the world the way Kamila had. The light he emitted was dark, pulsing like the oily sheen to the darkness before. Was this him, or a dream of him? But she’d never been here before, never seen this statue. It was wrong; everything was wrong.
Bailey and the rowdy youth from before entered from another crack in the cave walls, determined looks on their faces, and Bailey carefully and with great ceremony tied a ribbon around Jowd’s ankle before beginning to dance. The youth, too, danced in his own way, pamphlets raining down like snow across the cave. They seemed to do this for a terribly long time as Alma watched, but finally gave up in dejection, leaving Jowd alone again.
What good was it, Alma pondered, to stand here and watch a dream, even if it was a dream that seemed to have no connection to her memories? She couldn’t climb down from the armor; she’d tried. She couldn’t attempt to wake him. Calling his name, as she demonstrated for herself, had no effect. And there was still Kamila to consider; they’d been together and now they were not. Where was her daughter? Why, even in dreams, could they never be reunited?
She blinked, and Jowd was gone, leaving only the ribbon he’d had tied around his ankle, laid with sacrificial reverence in front of the statue. The cave was dark and cold, and fading around her, but the ribbon seemed to glow a bright yellow, penetrating the darkness with all the warm cheerfulness of the sun. It seemed to radiate heat. Alma’s eyes were drawn to it. Unlike Jowd, or even the cave denizens, but much like Kamila, it seemed to distort the dream. Oh, how she longed to escape the vile machines of the Empire and reach it, but it seemed impossible. The dream was fading, and she’d accomplished nothing. She wished, at least, she’d saved her daughter, but the dream had stymied her yet again.
She flinched as, without warning, Kamila plopped into her lap from nowhere, laughing. “Chung, chung! Chung, chung! Magitek armor!!” Her excited yells rang through the abandoned cavern. “I have always wanted one of these!”
Alma gasped, the wind stolen from her by her daughter’s precipitous appearance. “You—what? Where did you come from?”
“Mama, that doesn’t matter right now!” cried Kamila. “We have to go after Papa!” She wrenched the controls around, preparing to leave the cave, but she paused at the last moment. “What’s that…?”
She leapt from the armor with ease, displaying more agility than Alma had ever known her daughter possessed, and grabbed the ribbon. “This is like the one I gave Gramps, isn’t it!” She smiled back up at her mother. “You’d better take it. Come down for a minute?”
“I… I can’t.” Alma admitted. “I don’t know how.”
Kamila snorted a laugh; when she did that she sounded very like her father. “Sorry, I wasn’t thinking.” She reached out, patting a leg of the armor. “Time to go away now. I want the real stuff anyway.”
Alma found herself falling for a moment before the ground seemed to reorient itself for her and she was on her feet. The armor was gone, melted away as if it had never been. Kamila stood there, warm, bright. Real? She smiled at her mother.
“You’re not the only one with a connection to Doma,” she reminded Alma, who stared at her blankly. “This dream can’t fool me!” She reached up and undid her mother’s hair, wiping the pale imitation of a yellow ribbon away with an irritable hand before regathering the bun in a careful style that inextricably looped warm yellow in and out of coils of hair. “I don’t know why this is here, but if it protects Gramps, it’ll protect you,” she said.
Alma sputtered. “I don’t need protection—”
“Hmm.” Kamila gave her a look of pure teenage skepticism that clearly said you need it more than me anyway. “Well, you have it anyway and I won’t take it back. Now, come on, we have to get Papa!”
Alma found herself following her daughter, addressing her broad back in somewhat plaintive tones. “But where did you come from?”
“Hmm. Those dream clowns grabbed me—and all those doughnuts Uncle Cabs made too—” Kamila pouted. “And then you found me and then I was nowhere? Like some big nothing place.”
Alma went cold. “And then…?”
“Don’t you know? You called me.” Kamila turned and caught her hand, leading her across a rickety suspension bridge. “Mama, you have to remember that you control the dream.”
Alma’s face went still and she snatched her hand away. “So, you’re just another figment?”
Kamila stomped her foot. “No!” The bridge swayed. “You can’t run away from me that easily! Not again!” She stomped again, and the bridge broke, sending them both toppling back into the oily darkness. She reached out and took her mother’s hand again. “We’re here, and we won’t leave you!”
Alma let her daughter hold her tight, closed her eyes, and tried to believe as they fell through the dark. The last living heirs to the line of Doma floated in the darkness, eyes watching them from all around, until they landed with hardly a bump back on the marble floor from whence they’d come.
A door, made of the same white and gleaming marble, stood invitingly open, beckoning them onward. The destination was unclear, but Kamila and Alma stood together at last, at least until Kamila doubled in on herself, gagging helplessly as she ripped her hand from Alma’s. “Mama… help me…” she said, and crumpled to the floor, green as the dream and once again clammy to the touch. “You ha… have to cast Esuna on me, quick…”
Alma gasped in dismay, gabbling out the words to the spell and kneeling to her daughter’s side. Kamila began to breathe more easily almost immediately, and her first words were reassurance. “It’s OK… it’s OK, mom. I’m all right, I promise.”
The Queen of Doma, lost, for words, stared down at her daughter. The poison of Doma had almost claimed another of her family, and she had almost been the cause. She took a breath, then another. She knew what had happened to Doma. Now, if she could only figure out what Doma was doing to her.
This is where the rewrite stops, for now! Future chapters will diverge extremely heavily from this point.
Chapter 8: Debris
Alma and Kamila are reunited, but the shadows of 6 years apart mar their reunion.
Alma stiffened mid-step, knowing somehow that the dream world had changed. She could sense it—there were at least three, possibly four or more new beings in here. She could hear them, whispers free-floating in the chilly air. They almost sounded familiar, as though in a moment they would say her name.
Without much expecting an answer, she said tentatively, “Hello?”
“Mama!” One whisper sounded suddenly much louder than the rest. “Mama, where are you?”
“Kamila? Where--?” Alma braced herself. The dream had tricked her before with the seeming of her daughter. She refused to get her hopes up again. Kamila was dead. Curse this wretched dream for making her forget that again and again! But, on the other hand. What if…?
One step, than another, forward on ground that firmed beneath her feet into steps made of some odd, nacreous material. She wandered for a timeless while, listening to the pleading whispers just beyond hearing, until, far in the distance, she saw a crumpled form on the ground and headed for it. As she got closer, her heart leapt. It was her daughter, lying motionless and pale, with a small blonde haired child bending over her.
Alma pulled her sword. “Get away from my daughter,” she commanded, striding forward. She knew she should stay cautious, have a plan, but the sight of her daughter open to the predations of whatever was lurking in the dream world short-circuited any kind of prudence.
“Ohoho! So she has claws after all!” the child chortled, jumping away. “I’d better get my brothers before I fight you!” It disappeared.
Alma dropped to her knees and reached a trembling hand to her daughter’s face. It was there, a year’s worth of cares that she had never seen. There was a wrinkle between her eyes that had never been there. Could she really imagine a Kamila that seemed so real?
Her hand brushed Kamila’s cheek. It was warm and soft, not at all like any dream substance she’d experienced thus far. She stood up, braced herself, and leaned down to pick up Kamila’s body. It was unexpectedly heavy, and she staggered before taking a small, staggering yet determined step. She was walking forward—
—shivering in the deep cold of the mine shafts in Narshe. Kamila was nowhere to be seen, but Alma could hear her, somewhere up ahead. She was yelling something rhythmic; it sounded like she was… playing?
She hurried forward, body drawn close against cold deepening with every step. Narshe had always been hard to bear for a desert queen, but this seemed so much harsher than the real world had ever been.
As she entered a large cavern, strewn with old mining tools, crates, and laid with the rusty remnants of tracks, she had to jump back as a suit of Magitek armor rushed from one side of the space to another.
“Chung, chung! Chung, chung! Magitek armor!!” Kamila’s excited yells echoed through the abandoned caves as she ran the armor in circles. “I’ve always wanted to have one of these!”
“Kamila…?” Alma realized her normal voice was much too soft for the rumble of the machinery. She dodged the machine again and then leapt to the top of a crate, out of the way.
“Kamila!” This time she pitched her voice in the way that only mothers and aunts can, calculated to cut through whatever a child is finding to distract them. The armor stopped.
“Yes, mommy?” a small voice drifted from the cockpit.
“Come down here.” Alma found herself dropping easily back into the old speech, treating her daughter as a small child.
Kamila poked a sulky head up and made a face at her mother, but did as she was told. In inimitable Kamila fashion, of course, she jumped to the top of the machine and then flipped forward, landing in a pretty curtsey at her mother’s feet.
“Did you learn that from Uncle Cabs?” her mother said, taken by surprise.
“Yes, mommy! He taught me—“ they both stopped, remembering the circumstances in which Kamila had been removed from Figaro six years earlier.
Kamila’s more childish form melted into the little lady she’d become. “Mama! We have no time for this! We have to get you out of here!”
“I should be saying that to you,” her mother retorted. “What are you doing here?”
“Never mind that right now! We have to get to Uncle Cabs and Papa!”
Alma’s heart skipped a beat. They were here? Alive? Both of them, here. She reached out and hugged her daughter, hard. “You’ll tell me everything?”
“As soon as we’re safe.” Kamila bowed her head to her mother’s—when had she gotten taller than Alma?—and as they embraced, the world melted—
—and they stood back on the odd pearlescent steps, whispers and wafts of color boiling in the not-air around them.
Kamila looked around. “This isn’t Doma. Where are we?”
Alma shrugged. “A dream-world of some sort, I think. I keep running into more layers, old memories—“ she stopped, not wanting to upset her daughter with some of the nightmares she’d been living and reliving.
“Oh, that makes a sort of sense.” Kamila explained to her mother what she and Cabanela had seen.
“So, your father and… Cabanela survived. Our Cabanela? You’re sure it’s not… the other one?”
Kamila took note of the hesitance and the “our”. “Yes, Mama, Uncle Cabs is right here. And Papa. Even Gramps, although he’s not here.” She took a deep breath. “But… the other one is alive too.”
Alma took a deep breath. She’d known that, of course. The thing that called itself a jester would never die so easily. Of course, of course. She’d seen the tower, heard the whispers, even through the fog she’d floated in for the last year. Didn’t want to accept that the thing had lived but everyone else was gone. And when she found that Doma was still here? It was natural to come to the site where she’d once before lost everything and had planned to let herself do so again.
“Mama? Mama. How long have you been here? Why did you come here?” Kamila was speaking, but Alma was lost in thought. She was gazing into the distance, ears trained on something that for the moment only she could hear.
“Let’s go this way,” she said, beckoning her daughter onward. “I think your father is over there.”
Kamila, being fairly well-adjusted, rescues fairly easily. Adults are trickier, I'm afraid!
Chapter 9: Garbage
Alma and Kamila, filled with new resolve, find Jowd and vow to rescue him too.
So many good discussions on the GT Discord have made this richer. Garbage sisters forever!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
As they climbed and descended sticky, yet somehow slightly slippery steps and entered and exited door after identical door, even Kamila could hear the whispers coalescing out of the air.
“Allll yours, baby…”
They didn’t speak much. The need was too pressing, the chasm too great. Every once in a while, Kamila would place her hand on Alma’s, in an attempt to alleviate her mother’s worries. By the time they found a path to Jowd, both women wore identical strain on their faces.
Jowd lay, hands neatly placed by his sides, pink smock spread out. He looked as if he was laid out for his own funeral. Even his hair was more neatly in place than usual.
He was so nearly an echo of Alma’s fears that she couldn’t help the cry that escaped her as she broke into a run. The child waiting at Jowd’s head shook his own curly locks.
“Time is ticking, lady,” it said with an impish giggle. “My brothers and I are almost ready for you, and boy are our stomachs growling!” It reached out a delicate finger to more precisely place a tumbled fluff of Jowd’s hair. “Dinner looks s-o-o-o-o tasty. See you soon!”
Alma’s sword swung through where his head had been, but the child was gone.
“Filthy wretch,” she breathed, before falling to her knees at Jowd’s side. “Oh, Jowd, oh, love. What have they done to you?”
Kamila put her hand on Alma’s shoulder. “He was fine before we came here, Mama. Well, not fine, but not hurt…”
Alma reached up and put her hand on Kamila’s. “I know, sweet, I know. When I found you, you were lying in the same way. It’s just—a shock, that’s all.” She looked up at her daughter. “When I found you, I was drawn into your dream. I suspect the same will happen with your father. I think you should stay out here and guard our bodies if you can.”
“Mama, I can handle whatever is in there,” Kamila said, slapping her hand to the stock of the auto-crossbow that hung from her back.
“I know you could, sweet,” Alma agreed. “That’s why I need to trust you to watch our backs out here.”
Kamila made a face but couldn’t hide the look of shy pride that swept across her features. “I guess, if you put it that way… you can count on me, Mama.”
Alma tore her gaze from Jowd’s face and gave her daughter a slow, impressed smile. “We’ll be back soon.” She placed her hands on Jowd’s forehead. “Jowd. Wake up.” Leaning forward, she headbutted him with all her might.
--falling, falling into the dark.
After a few minutes, she was bored. Falling is only scary when you have to look forward to landing, and she didn’t appear to be doing it.
“Jowd! Are you in here?” The sound seemed to whip up and away, not carry.
A few minutes later, and Alma had had enough. Trust her husband to be dramatic at the least suitable times.
“Enough, Jowd. I know you’re here.”
“Of course, I’m not.” The voice sounded directly in her ear, a whisper of almost shocking intimacy after so long.
She rolled her eyes. “Enough with the theatrics. That’s Cabanela, not you.”
“Who am I, anyway? Who’s to say?” His voice was sardonic rather than melancholy. He almost seemed pleased to accept not knowing.
Alma heaved a long-suffering sigh. “Jowd, I love you so dearly, but I really will not fall for this... whatever you’re doing. If you’re trying to make me pity you--”
“Alma, at the moment, you’ll fall for anything.”
“Fine, fine. Let’s land, if it would make you happy.”
Alma landed lightly, tall and proud. Light sparked from the diadem on her head and her violet hair gleamed in the beam of light falling on her. The blue ball gown she wore sparkled in the light as paler blue satin gloves snugged her arms to her bare shoulders. Jowd landed with an undignified and resounding thump, then didn’t bother to get up, his stained gray smock spread around him.
“Well, Alma, queen of my heart, you’re as beautiful as ever. Sorry you have to sully yourself with this.” He smiled his old smile, gray beard and hair tousled.
“Why are you acting like this? We need to get out of here. Get up.” Alma said, hurt. She had expected at least a little joy, after a year. She attempted to dodge the spotlight, but it followed her.
“Well, lady of my dreams, you’re just that. Come here, give me a hug.” He grabbed her hand, pulled her down to him, a messy tangle of limbs tumbling as he sought to give her a sloppy kiss. The light dimmed to the faintest glow, just enough to see, but it leached all color from the scene, making him appear completely grey from head to foot.
“Jowd, stop. Stop.” Alma put a hand over his mouth and stared into his eyes. They stared back at her, lifeless and unseeing. She couldn’t even see her reflection in them, only a flicker of something white. “You’re not Jowd!”
She pushed off him and stumbled backwards, gloved hands going to her mouth.
“I told you I wasn’t. Does it matter? What is a Jowd worth, anyway?” He sat up, put his hands back behind him and stretched. “A Jowd is trash. Garbage. And I hate cleaning up garbage. Better to leave me here.”
Alma stared at him, unsure. Was he or wasn’t he her husband? She’d always known he was prone to the black, but this was beyond her experience.
Unaware of her contemplation, he laid back and stared up into the void. “Doesn’t matter anyway, dream girl. You’re not here anyway. Alma’s gone. Cabanela’s gone. Everything’s gone. Should have stayed on the train.”
Alma froze. “Don’t say that, ever, please.” She sat next to him. “I couldn’t lose you again, Jowd. I need you. Kamila needs you.” She took a deep breath. “Cab-- Cabanela needs you. We love you.”
“Don’t know why,” he said, indifferent to her pleas. “Garbage is unnecessary to a well-ordered life.” He reached up to his face, put his hand over his eyes, drew something away, cradled it in his hands. “This is much more me.”
He placed the smooth, thin ceramic over his face and it clung like a second skin. The mask, pristine white, swung to face Alma. “See?”
His eyes stared out at her, haunted and sad. They were no longer empty, but staring into them was like staring into a vast well of pain that never ended. Where had she seen that mask before?
The puppet stood up, holding a hand out to Alma. “Come on, Alma. Time for you to go.”
She didn’t move. “Don’t try to clear me out of here like I’m nothing to you. You know who I am, what I would do to get you out of here.”
“Alma, Alma, Alma. I told you. You’re not the one who’s nothing, but you have to leave trash behind in the dark where it belongs.”
He bent down and lifted her as if she weighed no more than a feather. “Go back to your own dream. I’m an unnecessary distraction for you.” An easel appeared behind her, blank canvas at the ready. He pushed her toward it. “Good-bye, dream girl. Go be a queen, not a maid.”
“Jowd, you’re not— you’re not unnecessary, PUT ME DOW—"
Did you really think a Jowd would be rescued that easily? Sorry. I like fluff, but I'm not that easy-going.
Chapter 10: Refuse
The dream is endless; the game continues.
Alma fell backwards, landing with an undignified thump on her rear. Kamila squeaked in surprise, crossbow jerked up in a panic so as not to shoot her mother by mistake.
Alma fumed. “He threw me out! That… that—” She got to her feet, stomped around in a circle, overcome with fury. “Ah! How dare he—” she looked down at the ball gown and gloves, persistent beyond Jowd’s dream. She sputtered in incoherent rage, reached up to her head, plucked off and threw the diadem still bound around her temples as far as possible.
Kamila stood, unsure what to say. She’d never seen her mother so incensed. Alma had always been kind, quiet, dignified. This woman kicking at her father’s feet was an alien, a virago Kamila was suddenly glad wasn’t focused on her.
Alma made a concerted effort, drew herself up and closed her eyes. “Just a moment.”
She breathed: four in, hold four, four out, still for four. Again and again, until she had regained a modicum of calm. The ball gown reformed into armor and the sword returned to her side.
“All right.” She turned to Kamila, eyes closed in forced tranquility. “You did say your uncle was also here?”
Kamila nodded, eyes wide.
Her eyes snapped open, burning with new purpose. “We need to find him.”
She pointed her fingers, snapped. A wheelbarrow appeared from nothing. “All right. Help me move your father.”
Kamila scrambled. If her mother could control this dreamworld to that extent—well, it was best not to speculate what else she might pull out of thin air. Between them, they managed to tump Jowd’s body into the barrow and set out yet again.
Hours later, they were forced to stop. Hunger and thirst didn’t exist here, but fatigue certainly did. They had seen the two small children over and over again, beckoning them onward. Every time they looked at Jowd, their hearts stilled. His face was being overtaken by the mask. It appeared to be coalescing from his flesh and seemed to settle more tightly to his skin with every shallow breath.
Kamila had tried, herself, to enter his dream, but had, too, been tossed out, similarly upset and lips tight around words she couldn’t figure out how to say. She had looked like a child of five when she was shoved backwards from Jowd’s crumpled body, but had taken a page from her mother’s book and figured quickly how to shape her soul more as she pleased.
“Mama, we’re going in circles. I don’t know where Uncle Cabs is. We need to take a moment.” Kamila stretched her back.
“I suppose you’re right.” Alma sighed and rubbed her temples.
“Oh, you can’t stop now! We’re hungry!” The children had appeared yet again, joined by the final one. “Food! Food! Food!”
Alma shot into stance, ready for attack. “I don’t know what sick game you’re playing. Tell us where Cabanela is! If you want us to go on, we need him.”
“Oh, I agreeee, baby.” The attack came from above, two Cabanelas striking from the sky like his lightning bolts.
One landed facing the children, one facing Alma, Kamila, and Jowd’s body. Mirror images of each other, down to the masks they wore. Kamila glanced back at her father. That mask, too, was identical to the one on her uncles’ faces.
Alma stood, frozen, sword raised. Her voice shook, but she stood proud. “I won’t let you hurt Kamila or Jowd.”
He made an elegant pirouette and danced forward, speaking quietly, “Oh, but you’d let me hurt yooooou, baby? How fitting for those who are miiiine to understand that they are my toys to break.”
“No, I—“ Alma’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t play semantics with me, you insane freak. If I’d known you were here, too, I would have found you first and put you out of your misery.”
The other Cabanela flinched but returned to his guard, saying nothing.
“Ah, but if you did that—“ the first rejoined, eyes sparkling with mirth, “--then you’d never see either one of us agaaain! Or maybe… that’s what you waaaant?”
He bent forward, closer than comfort, leaning his mask to her forehead. “Or will you admit that you wanted meeee all along…?”
“I—no! I never wanted you, you thing.” Alma struck with all her force, driving her blade at his face. The mask cracked. So did the makeup underneath, the façade shattering, leaving a black void. The jester dropped to its knees, raising its hands to its head.
The other Cabanela gasped and fell to his knees, hands raising in mirror image to the diadem bound round his temples, hidden until now behind the mask, which had cracked and fallen away when Alma broke the one on his double.
“Alma, I—“ he began, but pitched forward, landing at the giggling children’s feet. The other fell forward as well, falling over the side of the walkway and disappearing silently into the aether.
Kamila raced forward, shooting a scowl at her mother as she passed. “Dad! Let me help you!” She grabbed the crown, threw it to the ground, and stomped on it with all her fury.
The children stopped giggling. “Dinner’s alllllmost ready!” They began to disappear. “Just a little more seasoning.” As they faded, a final word floated in the air, “Fear and despair is almost the best spice, after all…
Kamila cradled Cabanela’s head, tears dripping from her nose. “Mama, why would you say that to him? Oh, Dad, she didn’t mean it…”
“I didn’t say that to him!” Alma protested. “I said it to the other one. That one!” She pointed to where it had fallen off the walkway. “It’s gone now, I guess.”
Kamila looked, puzzled. “Mama, there was no one else there. Just, um, Uncle Cabs and us and those gross children-things.”
Alma shook her head. This world was beyond fathoming. She drew closer. “You… know about us? Cabanela, Jowd, and me?”
Kamila nodded, blushing just slightly. “Amelie told me years ago.”
“Oh. And, umm… you’re all right with it…?”
“Mama! Of course. You shouldn’t be ashamed of love!” The blush was fiery red now, but she met her mother’s eyes with staunch resolve.
Alma sighed. “Out of the mouths of babes, I suppose.” She sat down, taking Cabanela’s hands into hers, and pressed his fingers to her mouth. “Kamila, can you believe that I saw something--someone else? I wasn’t talking to Cabanela. I was—well, I guess I was speaking to my own insecurities. Does that make sense?” She knew it didn’t. “I promise I’ll never say such a thing again. Will you guard us? I think… I think I’ll need to visit his psyche. And… I’m sorry.”
“I don’t need your apologies, Mama. But you better bring Dad back!”
Alma nodded. “I swear.”
Don't look at me like that. It's not my fault. Blame the Discord chat (it's OK, I know you're still blaming me.)
Chapter 11: Waste
Love goes away, like night into day. It's just a fading dream...
--The opera house of Jidoor, as always, was sumptuous in its grandness. As Alma hurried toward the stage, where she knew Cabanela must be waiting, she saw people standing all around, masked, waiting to enter to the public seating. Bits and pieces of their conversations came to her ears.
“There’s Queen Alma. Did you hear she and the King are with that filthy Vector thing?”
“Oh, Queen Alma! I hear she’s no better than she should be. Empire whore.”
“There’s the Queen. Disgusting, that she thinks she can come in here with civilized people.”
Alma drew her back straight. The echo of Kamila’s words sounded in her ears, “You shouldn’t be ashamed of love.” Ignoring the faceless crowd, she turned to head into the dressing room area.
A letter lay on the ground in front of her, so she bent to pick it up. As she scanned it, her brow creased in puzzlement.
“What shall I do? I'm lost without you...”
As she thought, she remembered the lyrics she’d once heard Cabanela sing on this stage.
“You’re lost without us? What do you think we feel without you, idiot…?” she said aloud, wondering if, like Jowd, he was listening just out of eyeshot.
She strode forward, half expecting it as the next letter wafted from the sky.
“’Ere I walk away, let me hear you say, I meant as much to you…”
“Don’t you dare walk away from me again, Cabanela.”
As she hurried up the last steps, she could see into the open door of the dressing room. Cabanela stood, facing away from the mirror, adjusting the studs on his cuffs. His costume was princely; he looked incredible. Alma’s heart squeezed. He had always been the most beautiful man she’d ever seen, and through everything, that hadn’t changed.
He glanced down the stairs, and Alma’s heart squeezed again. That damnable mask was on his face again. It held her gaze, impassive, as he did what she had told him not to do. Cabanela turned and walked through the opposite door into the wing entrance to the stage. As Alma hurried after him, he slipped through the gap in the curtains. Without any care for stage protocol, Alma hurried right after him, hand out to clutch at his cape, only to stop in amazement.
The sea spread out before her, red in the eternal sunset of the ruined world. The cliffs, crumbling and broken, spread before her. Cabanela was already climbing to the highest peak.
“Stop! Please!” But those long legs strode relentlessly forward, eating up the few remaining steps between him and his goal.
Alma found herself crying. She’d vowed the traitor would never make her do that again, but here she was. No queen was she, and no warrior, not here. The woman who hurried forward was only fear and ardent desperation to stop one she loved from doing what couldn’t be taken back.
“Please, wait, please pleaseplease let me be in time, Cabanela, stop—“
She caught up to him at the top. He’d, miraculously in her view, stopped. Stared out over the world.
“It’s beaaaauuttiful, isn’t it.”
“Not as beautiful as what weeee had, though…”
Alma sobbed. “What we have, Cabs. What we could have again, if you just stay with us.”
“Us? Jowd isn’t heeeeere, baby, and you’ve made it abundantly clear what you think of me.” He looked down at her. “Did you think I wouldn’t hear the audience, what they think? I’m not the oooooonly one creating this dream. Filthy Vector thiiiiiing, they called me.” He reached a hand to her cheek, but didn’t touch her. “I suppooooose they’re right. All my choices have led me here, baby. I’m just a waste of a life.” He stepped backward.
Alma clutched at his hand. “I thought it was the other one! I would never, never say those things to you.” She took a deep breath. “You and Jowd aren’t garbage, nor a waste. It’s me. I’m the trash.” Before he could knock her hand aside, she managed to dart it to his face. “And trash should be taken out.”
She grabbed his mask, lifted it easily away from his shocked face and lowered it to her own. Took a breath. The mask was already clinging, close as a lover’s caress. She dashed past him, and jumped.
Starlight and darkness, baby.
Chapter 12: Trash
Alma does something drastic.
--“Falling again”, she had time to think. “Maybe it won’t be so boring this time.”
Above her, something was falling toward her. Below, someone was screaming. Was it her name? She wasn’t entirely sure it mattered.
“Kamila, forgive me,” she whispered. “I’m sure you can rescue your fathers, but I don’t think I’m up to the task without their help.”
She landed in black water with a splash. It hurt beyond her expectations, partially shocking her out of her malaise. Another splash quickly followed. Alma didn’t bother to look. She let herself float, musing on her failures. Now she had another one to add to her list.
With a roar, she was lifted from the water by a soaked and dripping Jowd, and tossed onto some soft substance. She laid there, numb, as two male heads hung above her, shouting. The masks were nowhere to be seen, just two furious men yelling over each other about her needless self-sacrifice and blah, blah, blah.
“Baby, what were you thinking?” “Alma, how could you even think—“
“Shut up.” She sat up, smiling crookedly beneath the wriggling mask. “You two idiots were sunk so deep into yourselves I knew it would take something drastic. I had to.” And if she truly felt what she had said on that cliff, it could stay in her heart, she thought.
“I knew Kamila would think to move us all so we were touching. You underestimate our daughter. I expect you to make it up to her later,” she told Jowd, who blinked.
“And you!” she turned to Cabanela. “Did you really think that I would ever say that you were a thing? The other one, that other you—I don’t know what that thing is, but it’s not you. It’s just not. And. I’m sorry I ever even came close to believing that you and it were the same.”
Cabanela was holding one hand, Jowd the other. “We’ve all made our share of foolish choices, wasted our time.” She brought both hands together so all four laid in her lap. “But the beauty of time is that we get more of it whether we want it or not. It never stops passing, and it’s our choice how we spend it in the future.”
The mask still on her face cracked and fell, the shards squirming and recoalescing into the forms of the three laughing children.
“Did you really think this would save you?”
“Did you really think we can’t send you straight back into despair if we choose?”
“Did you really think that we aren’t the gods of this world?”
Their forms writhed and drew together into one grotesque three-headed being. “Time, you say. You have no more time. We’re hungry. This game has come to an end!”
The three shot to their feet; the sweet moment was past. They stood in their old familiar battle stances, each instinctively covering the others’ weak points.
“Well, come on, then,” said Jowd. “Let us show you what garbage can do.”
The thing howled, a rip of sound that seemed to crack the not-air and ground around them. The blackness melted away—
—and they were left in the dazzling, pearlescent white. Kamila stood, facing them, sword in one hand, automatic cross bow drawn and held cocked in the other. She held it steady, ready to shoot as soon as she could see an opening. The three of them were held immobile in front of the vast bulk of the thing that writhed and wriggled, muscles sliding obscenely beneath the surface.
“It’s time to see what you really face,” the thing between them yowled, voices overlapping and echoing through the empty expanse. “Everything here is mine; everything is under my control. You are all my puppets until I let you go—and I never will! I’ll drain you dry of every last hope and dream and worthless wish that things could be different. Regrets? They’re delicious; my favorite seasoning of all.”
Alma and Jowd struggled mutely against the magical bindings, but Cabanela was the one who managed to say what they were all thinking.
“I will be no one’s puppet ever again,” he said, the words somehow more portentous for the lack of his usual affected drawl. “Whatever I—we-- do from now on, it will be under our control and no one else’s. Baby.”
“Well said,” said Jowd, managing to overcome the bindings, struggling to get his hands free so he could reach his own weapons. “Kamila, sorry for ever doubting you.”
Kamila shrugged, eyes held on the monster, “Papa, I understand—it’s OK. Let’s finish this off and we can go home.” She raised the crossbow. “Just have to take care of this first.”
Alma’s eyes widened as Kamila squeezed the trigger and peppered all three of them with bolts.
Didn't you guys think it was too easy?
Chapter 13: Recycling
The Queen of Doma remembers.
Alma woke slowly. Where was she? She was wandering through the ghosts of halls—familiar, so familiar, shouldn’t she recognize them?— and wasn’t ever truly sure where she was. Figaro? Doma? The walls and tapestries blended and blurred together in memory. She looked down at herself. Where was her armor? The scarf she habitually wore? Her hand rose to her neck. The brooch her husband had given her before their coronation was missing as well. The only thing she wore was a loose silk nightgown.
She shuddered, a convulsive gathering of her thoughts. She was… she was the Queen of Doma. Her name… her name would come back to her, surely? She looked around. The walls wavered in her vision, then steadied. Doma. She was in her office in Doma. A giggle, faint, echoed around the corner. She hurried forward just in time to see a flash of blond hair flicker around the next corner.
She hurried forward, hand out to call to—whom? Who was it? Her own hair fell into her face as she ran, mouth open to yell a name she just couldn’t quite remember. That blond hair—she had seen it so recently, she was sure.
“Wait. Not again,” she said out loud. “I was already here.”
“Ah, the meal finally remembers,” said the mask, drifting in front of her, hanging on nothing but air. “My favorite part.”
Alma jumped back. “Stay back, you—“
“Oh, I need not touch you. You have been marinating for so long now that I pervade every part of your being.”
“What does that mean?” Alma edged around it, attempting to get behind it or at least to some more advantageous stance.
“You may stop trying to be sneaky,” the mask said, amused. “There is nowhere you can go that isn’t part of me.”
“Where are Jowd? And Cabanela?” She took a deep breath. “Where is my daughter, and what did you do to her?”
“Oh, you are just the most naïve little snack,” the mask snickered. “The fact that you believe, again and again, that they come for you and then betray you. It’s just so—delicious.”
“They did come for me. You’re lying—“ but Alma’s confidence was draining. Thinking back over her encounters, it had been almost too easy. She shook her head in negation. It wasn’t true. “I—I know they’re here. They would never betray me. You let me see them!”
“Oh, dear, my meal is distressed. What shall I do?” The mask chuckled. “Perhaps I should just finish you off. It might be a mercy. There’s nothing for you out there after all.”
Alma tried to regain her calm, using her breathing techniques – four in, hold four, four out, still for four—but her mind refused to quiet. It was indisputable that Kamila had shot her. And it had been, really, too easy to shake Jowd and Cabanela from their lethargy. Kamila had been rescued so easily, as well. She was starting to have trouble breathing as she thought back.
When had she come to Doma? Alma could remember the events after what she had mentally termed ‘The End’ with sick clarity. After three months of wandering the small cluster of new islands, lost and forlorn, with no way back to the mainland and no surety of there being anything to return to, she had found her former home. It sat alone, all the inhabitants long since fled in the aftermath of the poisoning. No towns had arisen from the ash here; there were lonely plains and scrubby grassland as far as the eye could see. She had been subsisting on monster meat and birds as she could catch them.
The thought of the castle larders had driven her on. Not everything would have been poisoned. Things preserved in glass and sealed well with wax, well away from the water supply, might reasonably be expected to have survived even five years. Alma suddenly remembered how eagerly she had entered the castle, excited to have some kind, any kind, of hope again.
The provisionary stores, however, were empty. The looting had been extensive and every single bit of what the townsfolk thought could be used had been taken. For Alma, it had been the last straw. She sat and cried, undignified wails as her heart rent for everyone and everything she had lost.
When she had finally caught her breath, her mind was clear as she picked herself off the floor, brushed herself off, and left the huge, empty castle pantries. She had gone to the throne room of Doma. She wasn’t sure what the plan was, but she was a queen and she was going to act like it. That hadn’t changed. She would reclaim this ruined world, sift through every bit of news for anything and everything that might give her some hope, and she would be Queen of Doma, if nothing else.
She had firmly crushed thoughts of love and family—they weren’t there. It was time to put away her hopes and dreams for them and work for the world’s good. Alma’s good was nothing compared to what she had to do. She had felt somehow cleansed, sure of her purpose at last. These thoughts had claimed her as she crested the steps to the throne. She strode forward, only to find the white mask lying at the foot. She had picked it up, sat down, and stared at the smooth white face—
Alma blinked. That was the last thing she definitively remembered before finding herself in the halls and offices of Figaro.
The mask was still there, hanging in front of her face, looking as smug as a lump of smooth white ceramic can look. Alma seized it in her hands and stared at it, face to blank white face. “I don’t know how you did this to me, but you will let me go, now!”
“Oh, my. Little snack, how many times do you think we’ve had this exact conversation?” The mask seemed to drip from her fingers and reform a few inches from her grasp. “I own you, body and mind, and I intend to savor you. Nine wonderful months has been barely enough to suck the metaphorical marrow from your psyche. I intend to eat every bite.” It drifted upwards. “You believe so strongly that you can save them, but deep in your heart you believe no one will ever save you. You’re just a meal of infinite variety and courses, snack. I can bring you back to despair and regret over and over again, endlessly creating new flavors.” It laughed, and the sound cracked the pearly steps under Alma’s feet. “Shall we try this again? Who knows? Maybe you’ll escape this time.” The cracks grew wider as Alma tried to keep her footing.
The last thing she heard before she fell backwards into the light was the mask laughing. "After all, variety is the spice of life.”
Fun fact: I considered just ending it here. (Spoiler alert: we're not done quite yet.)
Chapter 14: Dregs
Alma's family faces her limits.
Cabanela woke with a start. He, Kamila, and Jowd were in a muddled pile next to the vast bed where they had laid Alma’s body. He wasn’t sure why, but something felt off. There was an emptiness somewhere, a void that had, somehow been filled before he went to sleep. He scrambled to his feet, ignoring the pang as he lifted his head away from the warmth of Jowd’s chest, trying to forget how long it had been. Blinking hard, he bent down and shook Jowd as hard as possible.
“Jowd, get up. I think we’ve got trouble.”
Jowd stared sleepily at him from below. “Why are we on the floor?”
“I’d looooove to know that myself, but I think that can wait.” Cabanela gently patted Kamila on the cheeks. “Wake up, princess.”
“Aww, five more minutes, Dad…” Her eyes shot open in shock. “I mean, U-uncle Cabs? You know what, never mind…?” She lay still for a second. “Why are we on the floor?”
Cabanela threw his hands up. “I don’t knooow, baby, why don’t you tell me?” These royals were going to be the death of him. Why were they always asking him the questions? Shouldn’t someone else have to answer every once in a while?
Jowd, meanwhile, had gotten to his knees and shuffled over to Alma’s bedside. “Where is she?” The naked fear in his voice whipped Cabanela’s head around. The bed was completely untouched, pristine and clean.
“She was here, wasn’t she?” Cabanela raised his shaking hands to his head. He felt as if he’d gone on the worst bender in the history of the world. This feeling was even worse than—he shook his head to ward off the memory, and immediately winced. That had been a mistake.
Kamila had gotten to her feet, looking around. “Does anyone remember what happened last night?” She looked at Jowd, eyes round. “Uncle Cabs and I made doughnuts and we came looking for you… and then there were those three creepy kids… and I have no idea what happened after that.” She peered at Cabanela. “Uncle Cabs, did we jump onto Mama’s head?”
Jowd blinked at her. “That sounds painful. Where was I?”
“You were asleep, I think…?” She pursed her lips. “I guess we all were.”
Jowd got to his feet. “We all know it doesn’t matter what I was doing anyway,” he said with finality. “Where is Alma?”
Cabanela eyed Jowd. That had been a little too explicitly self-loathing, and right in front of Kamila, too. He resolved to bring that issue up later, when Alma could speak to him as well. “I guess we’ll need to explore,” Cabanela shrugged. “Laaaay on, baby.”
As they left the bedroom, the air around them turned cold. Kamila watched her breath form vapor in the air. “This is weird. It’s summer out.”
“It has been pretty cold since the whole ‘end of the world’, though,” said Jowd, contemplating the frost forming on the metal decorations on his coat.
Cabanela shrugged. “I only just woke up, baby, I wouldn’t know what the prevaaaailing weather patterns are.”
Kamila rolled her eyes. “Come on, when we walked in here yesterday it was definitely a lot warmer than this, and there wasn’t any kind of storm coming in.”
Cabanela sighed. “Of cooooourse it’s magical in nature, can’t you both feel it?” He held a finger up. Sparks crackled at the tip. “I almost feel like a lightning rod in here, there’s so much wild magic flying around.”
Jowd said, “Well, it’s just a distraction. We need to find Alma.”
“Agreed, baby, so let’s stop talking and goooo.” Cabanela strode on long legs through the door into the entry hall.
“I think we should start in the throne room,” said Kamila. The men looked over at her. “It’s just a feeling, though.”
Jowd shrugged. “It’s as good a place to start as any.”
Cabanela swiveled on his heel and headed up the short flight of steps to the throne room entrance. He took a deep breath before opening the door.
Kamila stepped to his side. “You OK, Uncle Cabs?”
Cabanela looked down at her. “Of course, it’s just—” he stopped. Speaking adult fears to a child, even a child he trusted to be mature as completely as he trusted Kamila, was irresponsible. “No, it’s nothing.”
“Come on then!” Kamila reached out and pushed the door open, letting it swing inward to reveal the grand throne room brightened only by the dull glimmer of candles in the wall sconces. “Mama? Are you here?”
The lights, with a fine sense of drama, brightened and burned with an eerie lilac light, revealing the figure seated on the throne. No queen ever sat as proudly, not a hair or stray bit of clothing out of place. Her face was cold and blank as she stared down at the three daring to enter the room with no sense of protocol or royal fanfare.
“You are most unwelcome to my castle,” the figure said. “I am Queen Alma of Doma. Who dares to intrude on my grief?”
Kamila hesitated, looking back at the two men. Both were staring at her mother with identical shocked, longing faces. She shook her head and sighed. It was clearly up to her to snap her mother out of the strange hallucination. She ran forward, intending to catch her mother in a hug. “Mama, it’s us. Papa and Uncle Cabs and me!”
“Stay back. How dare you, child?” the queen spat, standing and drawing her sword. “Come no closer if you value your head.”
Kamila skidded to a stop, inches away from entering sword range. “Mama…?”
In a blink, Jowd and Cabanela stepped to her side, ready to draw her back.
“Alma, please.” Jowd spoke, gentle and low. “Let’s go home to Figaro.”
“Figaro is no more. Kamila and Jowd, Cabanela, all the world is gone, lost to that thing the Empire created. Only this place is left, and I will die with it before I see it fall to strangers.” The queen raised a hand. “It is cruel of you to intrude on the last days of Doma, interlopers. I’ll see you dead as well if you don’t leave here at once.” She stepped into fighting stance, steps clean and precise even though her face was haggard and grey with ill health and too long a time spent still and cold. “Go, now.”
Her family stood frozen, ranged in front of the throne at a loss. They wouldn’t, couldn’t leave her, but how could they fight her?
The mask formed from nothing in her hand and she smiled for the first time, “Ah. I see my friend has come to help me rid myself of my unwanted guests. Many thanks, my lord Wrexsoul.”
She slipped it on and it fit snugly to her face. Flames rose around her as her petite form disappeared, leaving only a purple-shrouded figure in her place. Three more flames, with three small blonde children floating inside, arose to guard her. The castle shook as Wrexsoul laughed.
“Oh, this has been fun. The Queen has been just the most wonderful dinner guest but, sadly, her meal has almost run its course. Whom shall I invite next?”
Eww, Wrexsoul, you're so gross. That's a queen you're demonhandling, you know!
Chapter 15: Scraps
The origins of the mask are discussed and some conclusions begin to be reached.
The figure placed its hand to its chest and brought forth a small lilac flame, which flickered different colors as it looked from Jowd to Cabanela to Kamila. Pink shading to green. White and red tipped. Pale blue with a familiar lilac tinge. “All so braised in misery. Oh, this new world is so delightfully full of flavor.”
It lowered its hand to point, the flame dancing on its fingertip. “Should I start with you?” It shot forward to press against Jowd, too fast to recoil from or push away. “So full of fears, just as savory as could be, and such a nice vein of deep bitterness running through. One almost feels you’d volunteer.” It turned to Kamila. “Or you, my dear? Heat and acid mixed, roiling beneath that calm surface? There’s a certain fizz there.” It put a hand to Cabanelas’s chest, grabbing his scarf and pulling him close. “Or you? Salty, bitter, acid, heat… my, my, my, you’re an entrée when I’m looking for an dessert. No, better to end a fine meal with a digestif, don’t you think?”
The thing that had been Alma turned to Kamila. “Yes, I believe you’ll do nicely.” It began to reach out a flame shrouded hand, which was stopped by a lightning-fast grab from Jowd.
“You don’t threaten my daughter,” he said, in calm tone belied by the iron grip of his hand. “And you will return Alma to us.”
The flames housing the three demon-children blazed high, laughing as they converged on the trio.
“Try to stop me!”
“You’ll be dead before you can hit the ground!”
“The whole world is mine!”
Jowd closed his eyes and reached for the magic he had gained over the last year and a half. In response to his call, a torrent of icy ether washed over the children, freezing them in their tracks. “You three are just soul-scrap,” he said conversationally. “I know you, you filthy pieces of litter. I remember.”
Cabanela jerked a glance at Jowd. “Whaaat did you remember, baby?” he said cautiously. “Have you seen these things before?”
Jowd turned up a corner of his mouth, a humorless smirk. “Figments of my imagination, I would have called them, but here they are. They were in my dreams last night.” Almost casually, he pivoted, flinging the demon across the room and away from Kamila. It righted itself with insulting ease and chuckled softly, watching the little tableau. Every chuckle made the stones underfoot jump and wiggle a little, making the footing treacherous.
Kamila, ignoring the dialogue, had taken the opportunity to back away from the floating demon and the three children and cock her crossbow. “Is this really the time to talk about this, Papa?” She spared a nervous glance at Wrexsoul. “We have to get Mama away from that thing.”
Jowd raised an eyebrow at the demons. “I think this may be exactly the time.” He snapped his fingers and pointed at the nearest child. “Think hard and remember your dreams last night. Did you see them?”
Cabanela thought. “Maaaybe…?”
“Wait,” Kamila furrowed her brow as she stared at the children. “I do remember, I think. They wanted to eat us.”
“Stiiill do,” pointed out Cabanela.
“Yes, but, they… appeared in front of me at one point? And they were themselves, and horrible, and then they had you and Papa and Mama, and then…” she paled. “I shot them, but they were you, and then we woke up.”
Cabanela found himself nodding. It sounded similar to the dream he’d had, minus some unsavory details that Kamila didn't need to hear. “So…these are dreeeam demons, hmm?”
Jowd took another look at Wrexsoul, which was floating and softly laughing to itself, waiting for its prey. The stones in the castle walls were beginning to shake and shiver. “I think it’s one demon, singular, and we’re fighting it in many different parts.” He turned and looked at Cabanela for one brief instant, before, as always, turning away as if the sight of him was a wound. “That mask is very familiar. Do you recognize it?”
Cabanela’s gaze snapped to the demon’s face. Now that Jowd mentioned it, the mask bore a marked resemblance to the one the jester had flashed on the floating continent. He had tried to destroy it then but had only managed to knock it out of the magitek clone’s hands and onto the ground. The thing that wore Cabanela’s face had wailed like a wounded child, then gone silent as it had picked the mask up and flung it over the edge. It was beyond comprehension that it was here.
Jowd said, “When I was… still in Vector, “you” used to come to my cell, and “you’d” always bring a man in a mask.” His expression went flat. “Occasionally “you” would have the man in the mask attack me or… try other things to distract me.”
Cabanela opened his mouth to question this further but Jowd continued, “The masked man was you, Cabanela. Slave crowned and bound, but you all the same.”
Cabanela drew a long breath. “If you believe that puppet in the mask was me, there’s not much more I can say to you, baby.” He turned his back on Jowd, spine held proud and straight to disguise the hurt. “I don’t remember that time, or the things I did, but I’ll tell you this: from now on, the only one who controls myyy destiny is me, and me alone.”
The frenzied laughter stopped. “Ugh, enough, not again with the heroic speeches,” interrupted Wrexsoul. “You all need to go back to bed and wait for breakfast. Naughty children need to go to sleep on time.”
Kamila, who’d been watching the children unfreeze and creep towards them little by little, leveled her crossbow at the demon fragments. “No closer.” Without further ado, she slammed back the trigger, loosing a flurry of bolts at the demon children. “We’ll defeat you, and we’ll save my Mama, and then we’re going home!”
These three are going to kill me. Why are Jowd and Cabanela so hard to write.
Chapter 16: Rubbish
Alma had once thought she could be a hero. Now she knew better.
Alma watched, numb. She hung suspended, held supine as though she were a corpse laid on a slab or a banquet table. It was hard to muster any concern for what she could see through the mask’s eyes. She was drained dry, desiccated of anything that felt like emotion or even much like rational thought. She could see everything, see her family fighting against the fiend that controlled her body. As Jowd raised his fists against her, as Kamila wailed in despair while still fighting without mercy, as Cabanela faced her down with lightning blazing from everywhere and nowhere, Alma accepted the fury of their attacks with resigned equanimity. None of these visions were real. All of this was orchestrated, calculated to make her attempt to save them, to eke the last valiant residue from her soul, and she wasn’t going to give the demon the satisfaction.
None of her heroics had been of any use. The demon who possessed her body had manipulated her through an incredible number of cycles of memory and dream. It had granted her the memory of how many times she had gone through the same sequence or something similar, and indeed, she had saved her family in every conceivable situation and every possible configuration.
What was the point in continuing this game? It was time to let this go. Maybe wherever she went, she would finally be somewhere she could be happy once again. Or maybe her soul would be devoured, with not a scrap left for any sort of afterlife. Alma couldn’t, at this point, bring herself to care. She had one single choice left to her: end it now or let the demon end it for her.
Now, how was she to do this? She needed to surprise the demon and destroy her own body so that it had nothing to possess. Alma spared a thought to hope that no one else would come to Doma, leaving the demon alone in the wastes. Surely the survivors of the ruined world, if any there were, would be wary of such a place? To be certain, it would be best to destroy the mask. But, again, how? Would destroying it in her dreamscape even be possible? It needed magic. Could she call upon the spells she knew without alerting her possessor?
Alma jerked as a cut appeared on her cheek, her attention drawn back to the fight. Something had hurt her physical body. Maybe… maybe someone was out there fighting her after all? It wouldn’t be her family, no, of course not, lost as they were, but if there was someone out there truly fighting maybe she could use their movements to help her accomplish her own goal.
She started watching the one that the demon had made look like Cabanela. Although the seeming of Jowd fought with greater outward ferocity, and the one that looked like Kamila with greater precision, he fought with a single-minded purpose that said that he would do what he had to to finish the fight. The real Cabanela had been that way too, Alma thought. This unknown fighter might be counted on to finish her without too much fuss.
Alma tried to reassert control over her body, working to find even the smallest opening that would give her the chance to do what must be done. She managed to twitch her eyes first, then a finger. The demon didn’t appear to react, preoccupied as it was with whomever it was fighting. She drifted closer, tiny movements geared to stay unnoticed. It seemed to take an eternity, but she was managing something. She couldn’t afford hope or determination at this point, nor any other emotion that would give the game away. She had to drift, apparently meaningless oscillations in the air.
She spared one final glance for Jowd and Kamila. She had failed them so many times in dream and life. They hadn’t deserved what they had gotten from her. She didn’t have much emotional wherewithal for regrets anymore, but a faint pang of loss stilled her for one aching instant.
Finally, finally, she was close enough. She could see the Cabanela-seeming’s eyes. They looked like the ones she remembered, although she supposed since they were taken from her memory, that was only to be expected. It was only right and fair for her to die this way. She had left him when he needed her the most. She had not believed Cabanela when he had pled that he was not the Empire’s wretched jester. She had let him suffer that mental torment alone. She hoped, somehow, that the real one would find some peace, somewhere in that hypothetical afterlife.
She gazed at his face, one last time, and exhausted all her remaining energy in a great leap forward just as he cast a wave of magic towards the dream children. Petrification magic, she had time to think. She had expected lightning. She felt the stone taking hold, crackling up through her bones in a sweeping chill from feet to head. The last thing she felt was the hard crack of her body hitting the floor.
Chapter 17: Fragments
Cabanela’s hand was still outstretched in shock, his mouth open to scream something he would never afterward remember. As if in slow-motion, he watched the statue that had been Alma’s body fall out of the air and hit the floor with a resounding crash. The dream children stopped dead. The laughter stopped. All the world was still and quiet, cold as stone, except for the thunderous pounding in his ears.
A scream shook the air. Was it his? Jowd’s? Kamila’s? He had killed her, all accidentally, but it was done nevertheless. Somewhere, the part of him that was still rational told him that it was not his fault, but that part was a fool and not in possession of all the facts, which were: Alma was dead, and by his hand.
He stood stock-still, staring. Beautiful Alma, who had danced with him, laughed at his jokes, cried for his singing. Furious Alma, raging at his seeming betrayal, slapping him on the parapets of Figaro. Alma.
He sank to his knees, undone at last. He’d stayed strong and proud through everything, tried to be the soldier he’d been trained his whole life to become, had been, well, not stoic, because stoicism was impossible for a Cabanela, but had tried his best to believe that something could be salvaged. He’d been confident, despite everything.
Dimly, he could hear the scream, rising in pitch, scaling up and far past where the human ear should be able to hear or comprehend it. Rising to the point of madness. He dared to look at Jowd, likewise on his knees, hands held futilely to his ears. Kamila, too, crouched inward over herself. Their faces should have been drained, lost of all hope. And yet, they were staring past him, at the broken remains.
He looked, although he could hardly bear it, and was struck dumb yet again. A black, syrupy smoke was rising from the cracked stone, into a darkly lit, firey form that quickly bulked much bigger than Alma’s slim stature. It rose over them, chanting some horrendous demonic language and reaching for Cabanela. As the vast hand moved close, he could see the mask, smoke streaming from it. Before he even had time to consciously react, Jowd pulled him back and fired a sheaf of icy spears deep into the heart of the smoke. Kamila followed it up with a wintry blast of chilly air and giant ice chunks. Magic rained from all directions.
Cabanela, if nothing else, was willing to help destroy the mask that had been such a harbinger of ill fates for himself and everyone close to him. When his signature lightning was ineffective, he turned to the greatest spell in his arsenal of magic, hard won from magicite gifted to him by Lynne, and gratefully used in the time of greatest need.
He prepared the cast, muttering the words which would call the end of the world down around their heads. The being known as Wrexsoul, evidently able to recognize the spell, drove itself at him, howling pleas and promises above the rising winds and the crash of icicles driving themselves into its body.
“Don’t you know that you and I could rule the world together? Magic user, with me as your partner and wearing the artifact your race foolishly calls the Slave Crown, all would bow to us. Everyone in this world would do your bidding, in and out of dreams. Think what you’re throwing away! You’d be greater by far than that fool in Vector who didn’t know what he had!”
Cabanela finished the spell, with all but the last word remaining. He looked the mask in the eye. There was so much he would have liked to say, here at the end of all things, but there was only one thing to say. Without further showmanship, an amazing feat in and of itself, he said it.
The spell crashed down around them, destroying the cobbled stones of the castle, banishing the writhing demon children without a trace, and shattering the mask into a million tiny flying shards. One cut his cheek as it flew past, but Cabanela ignored it as he dove to protect the statue that had been Alma from the roof coming down upon their heads.
“Go on!” he yelled to Jowd and Kamila.
“Not ever again!” shouted Jowd as he sprinted forward with speed belied by his bulk, scooped the statue over his shoulder, and lifted Cabanela with one hand. “Run!”
They all ran, flying through the crumbling castle as the whole structure, abandoned and neglected for too long to take the stress of the battle, roared and began to fall. One by one, they flew out the grand entrance way, rolling and tumbling to avoid the stones falling. Kamila ran out first, fell, then rolled upward, ready to go back if necessary.
Jowd and Cabanela ran out together, holding the statue. They kept running, without looking back, until they were well away from the fallen ruins of Doma.
With infinite care, Jowd at last set the statue down. The sun was rising and the wind was cold. Cabanela shivered but refused to take his eyes from Alma’s stone visage. What had been the point of saving the statue? She wasn’t there.
“Are you sure?” said Jowd, the old familiar sardonic smirk on his face. “Personally, I think what you did was brilliant, but what do I have to say about the situation, anyway?”
Kamila and Cabanela looked at him, as he threw his head back and laughed; it was his old laugh, a blast of unfettered humor from the times when he had seen the joke, and no one else had. Finally, he calmed and shook his head
“Watch,” he said, and walked over to Alma. He whispered something in her ear, then kissed her cold cheek. As they watched, the stone melted away and the paleness of flesh reappeared. She crumpled forward, but Jowd caught her and swept her into his arms.
“Call the airship,” he said. “Let’s get her to bed.”
Chapter 18: Treasure
Better may be impossible.
Kamila shot up the flare signifying they were ready to go. Cabanela followed along, shaking his head. He’d forgotten, in the heat of battle and the weight of his own misery, that petrifaction could be cured if the subject was un-shattered. He sighed. This was a success, he supposed, but he’d made so many mistakes, been so careless. How could he even hope to dream of a future with reconciliation, let alone friendship or love, in it? He had failed at everything.
Kamila slipped her hand into his. “Don’t worry, Uncle Ca—I mean, dad. You guys can work it out.”
Cabs side-eyed her. The princess was growing up too fast, he supposed, but he, too, remembered the dream and the unexpected pang of joy he had felt when she called him “Dad.” “I hooope so, baby, but—”
“But, nothing. Mama’s alive, Papa’s alive, you’re here, they’re here. No one had to sacrifice anything. Don’t you think that might be a good enough first step?” She took her hand away from his and skipped forward to grab the rope ladder. “Don’t give up yet, Dad!”
Alma slept for days. Cidgeon, well-versed in caring for coma patients, undertook to teach Jowd and Cabanela what to do as they took turns. When the moment finally came that she awakened, they were there, awkwardly wedged into opposite sides of the room, but coexisting for her sake.
She opened her eyes. “How am I here? I thought—I was dreaming and—” she pushed herself up in bed. “So. You almost fooled me again.” She closed her eyes in resignation. “At least I don’t have to save anyone this time.”
“Or ever again, if that’s your choice,” said Jowd, sitting on the side of the bed. ‘But I hope you’ll change your mind.”
“Leave me alone, you figment.”
“Wrexsoul is dead, Alma. We were there, and we shattered his vessel.”
“No, no, no, you can’t fool me,” Alma said restlessly. “You are all dead, and I—I—!”
Cabanela hurried to the other side of the bed. “Alma. Breeeeathe, baby. Four in and all that, remeeember?”
Alma looked at him wonderingly. “I remember telling you that, years ago. I never thought you listened.”
“I listened to everything you ever said, baby,” Cabanela said before he could stop himself.
“Now I know you aren’t real,” Alma said, with the first hint of her old humor. “Cabanela would never say something so cheesy without following it up with three more just like it.”
He tried to smile, but it turned into a sniffle, then full-blown sobs as he turned his back on both of them and sank down beside the bed, long legs splayed as he wept.
Alma, alarmed, reached for him, but drew back her fingers at the last second. “Cabanela? What--?”
“Real. What’s real? Who’s real? All this tiiiime and I still can’t prove I’m who I say I am.” He wiped his eyes. “Sorry. I’m sorry. I won’t intrude.” He stood up, headed for the door.
Jowd put a hand on his shoulder. “If you leave now, you’ll never convince either of us. Is that what you want?”
Cabanela slumped. “I don’t know how to convince you anyway. You can’t even look at me, and who could blaaaame you? And I killed you back there, Alma. Do you remember thaaat?” He couldn’t turn, couldn’t see their faces. “I thought when we were all together again, it would be better. I let your daughter convince me to hope.” He shook his head. “I should have known that better’s never going to happen. You and Jowd called yourselves garbage and trash back there in that heeell-dream, baby, but what we had was worth everything to me, and it’s been that way from the moment I saw you both. I threw it all away for magic. I wasted whatever good I could have been.”
Cabanela put a hand on the wall to support himself. He was empty, drained. He’d come to the end of words. It was time to leave, to let Jowd, Alma, and Kamila rebuild their shattered lives without the puzzle of how to fit him in it.
“I’m going to the tower,” he said. “I hope that you’ll remember me foooondly, once in a while.”
“Wait.” Alma said. “Don’t leave. I don’t know how you can prove you’re not a dream, but I—we—know that you’re not that made thing. We do.” She sighed, “Please, turn around and look at me.” Cabanela turned, the bare minimum of a shuffle, just enough to display his profile to her instead of his back. “Won’t you let me see your eyes?” she asked. “Sulking doesn’t really suit you.”
Cabanela turned and looked at her. “Look at me. See me.”
“We do,” she said softly, as Jowd nodded, eyes held steadily on Cabanela’s face.
It wasn’t better, but it was something. As the three of them planned their assault on the jester’s tower, a small thought flickered through Alma’s mind and made her chuckle.
“What is it?” asked Jowd. “What’s funny?”
“Oh. It’s nothing,” said Alma. “I just thought—one person’s trash is another one’s treasure.”
Thank you for following my trashy romance story. I hope you enjoyed it. As ever, I am immensely grateful to Siver and LaughingPineapple for their encouragement, kind words, copious imaginations, and incredible patience. I, too, found a treasure when I butted into that conversation on Discord. Many thanks.