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The Beginning of the End

Chapter Text

Why was it that whenever she wished for sun, it rained? Or when she wished for a light breeze, all she received was a blizzard? Nature liked to tease Monica, it seemed, and it irritated her to no end.

She sat at the window staring glumly out at the snow, tapping one finger on the windowsill and holding a mug of some warm drink in the other. With the snow had come the dashing of her hopes for this day, planned out carefully between she and Zavier.

Monica didn't like Zavier, still considered him a stranger, though he had lived in town for three years now. But she had nobody else to hang around with, and it wasn't like he was a bad person.

She glanced behind her at the shop, and the carefully maintained and categorized flowers littered throughout. It was long past opening time, but no customer wanted to venture out of their houses in such weather. She would have little work to do today.

Her grandfather sat at his workbench, scribbling away at a little piece of paper. A letter to Shara, perhaps, or something similar. Writing was about all Wells did when he couldn't focus on the shop.

"You said you've been having nightmares?" Wells spoke up suddenly, not even looking up from his work to meet her eyes. "Do you want to talk about it?"

Not really. But they were becoming too frequent to ignore. "I guess." She looked away from him and turned back to the window. "I get them most nights, but often I'm not really sure what I'm dreaming about."

"Dreams can be tricky things," Wells agreed. "They can be as mysterious as they can be clear. Some people have even claimed dreams can reveal the future - though I'm not sure if I believe that."

"I don't like to consider it," Monica said. "If my dreams were prophetic, nobody would be safe."

"Nobody safe in Sharance?"

"That's right."

Wells nodded and grunted. "I think we'll just drop by the apothecary and have Marjorie cook you something up to help you sleep. The woman can work wonders."

"Thank you, grandfather."

Wells frowned. He'd been doing that a lot lately, but Monica had gotten used to it. No doubt he was looking at the serious girl in front of him and wondering where on earth his lively little granddaughter had vanished to. But he wouldn't find her.

That girl was long gone.

Monica left the windowsill and headed to the door. The cold air hit her face as she opened it, and she liked it. The snow was thinning, and there was no point staying inside.

"Are you going to visit Zavier?" Wells asked as she made to cross the threshold. Something in his tone made her feel the thought was an unwelcome one to him.

"No," she said, and she wasn't lying. "I want to see Shara."

Wells smiled. "Ah, good. It's been a while since you saw each other." He held up the piece of paper. "Will you give this to her while you're there? I would accompany you, but I have things I need to do."

Some kind of business, maybe. He was the mayor, after all. "Alright. I'll take it." She put the letter in one of her pockets.

Wells looked like he had something else to say, but then he shook his head and gave a loud, rasping cough. "R-Right..." He got up from his chair and shuffled up the stairs, giving one last remark. "Don't let too much of the cold in."

Monica stared after him for a few moments, and then stepped outside, closing the door behind her. She leaned against it, and wondered where she was actually going to go. No matter what she told her grandfather, she wasn't going to visit Shara. She would find someone to deliver the letter for her.

Monica had seen her sister in her nightmares. Being with Shara brought the memories of the horrors back to her, and she couldn't suppress them. Her nightmares, though surely of no real meaning, plagued her as if she knew they would somehow come to pass in real life.

It wasn't just Shara either. She dreamed about her sister's husband as well, though his fate tended to be significantly less frightening. But she still felt uncomfortable seeing either of them. Uncomfortable enough to avoid her own family...

She started when someone came suddenly around the corner of the shop, humming to themselves and smiling broadly. As soon as they appeared, the snow began to cease falling. Everything brightened, and the sun came out.

But the person themselves were the brightest thing of all, seeming to positively glow. Their presence added a warmth to the area that Monica had never really known before.

And somehow, with their appearance, she knew everything would be okay.

She never found out who it was that had walked by. Because a few moments later, they disappeared into thin air, and she was forced to conclude that they must have been part of another dream. Sometimes, she couldn't tell what was reality and what was not.

The wooden board next to the house was already full of requests from various people around town. Monica grabbed a piece of paper from inside the house, wrote on it her request, and pinned it to the board where it could be easily seen.

She stepped back and looked at the note.

From: Monica

Deliver something for me.

I need a letter delivered. Come see me.

Was it cowardice? Avoiding her sister? Maybe it was. But if so, she had lived her life a coward. There was always someone she was trying to avoid. Someone she opposed. Those she considered strangers.

But this was more painful...and Shara was no stranger.

A hand rested on her shoulder, and she turned sharply. She disliked being touched. Her mouth opened automatically when she saw who it was, and she spoke politely. "Oh, hello, Mrs. Payne."

Zavier's elderly mother smiled, and her mouth wrinkled. "I am sorry if I startled you, dear. It's just been so long since I've seen you! Have you seen Zavier? I can't find him anywhere."

"He isn't with me."

"No? Well, that's alright."

Helen Payne had moved into town with Zavier when her husband had died, and both had settled down in a newly built house that was located close to Privera Forest. They had tried making friends with Daria, but Helen soon decided their new neighbour was a bit too loopy for her son's health, and they had turned to Wells and Monica.

Helen was a social creature, but she seemed oblivious to the fact that Monica was certainly not. "I'm holding a bit of a tea party at home, and Zavier was supposed to help me set things up. But of course, he skipped out."

Monica could sense an invitation coming her way, and she opened her mouth to talk about how busy she was, in the hopes of throwing Helen off, but before she could do so, someone came round the corner and bumped into Helen, and the book in the old woman's arms went flying.

"I'm so sorry!" the newcomer said, flushing slightly. "Let me pick that up for you."

Monica froze at the sight of Shara, but her displeasure didn't show on her face.

Helen simply beamed. "Thank you, dear. It's quite alright. Oh! Didn't I invite you to..." She wiggled a finger.

"You did," Shara reassured her.

"And can you come?"

"I don't see why not-"

"Wonderful! We have Hazel coming, and I think she's bringing Karina with her. Sofia, Evelyn, Sakuya - but only because I promised her a crystal I found the other day - Marjorie..." She paused. "I think that's it. Many of the women I asked all had colds, the poor dears..."

How convenient.

Shara glanced Monica's way, and Monica looked down at her feet, jaw clenched. Her finger travelled to her pocket, and found the letter stowed within. She might as well deliver it now, and get it over with.

She could tell Shara knew she was avoiding her. Their relationship was far too strained, and it was all Monica's fault.

Helen shifted her position, and the late morning sun's rays shone directly into Monica's eyes. Squinting her eyes, she spoke nervously to Shara. "Grandfather asked me to give you this." Her voice sounded flat.

Shara took the letter, and looked at the front. "Thank you."

Helen looked from Shara to Monica and back again, mouth slightly open. "Woo! I've never felt such tension before. Are you having relationship problems?"

And once again, Helen expressed her lack of tact. Monica scowled and ripped her no longer necessary request from the board, and then walked briskly into the house, closing the door heavily behind her.

"Come to the tea party!" Helen yelled through the door.

"I have a cold!" Monica yelled back, just because it gave her a little satisfaction.

She glanced over her shoulder, but her grandfather was not downstairs. Maybe he hadn't heard. Then she wouldn't have to worry about explaining herself.

When she reached her room, she collapsed onto her bed, and promptly fell asleep.

Who is that? Who's there?

You already know me. I have dominated your dreams time and time again.

What's your name?

Fear. Death. Pain. I have many names.

I do know you. And I hate you.

Oh, I know, little one. The only beings that love me are the ones who use me to gain their own selfish means, thinking they are my master. That I will give them the world.

But you don't, do you?

Sometimes. But I always bring them down in the end.

What is it you want with me?

I am pain. I infect all I can. You are just another piece of the puzzle, another pawn in a web of lies.

I don't understand.

You thought I'd tell you everything? Oh, child. You are a fool, just like the rest of humankind.

Monica opened her eyes. She remembered this dream, but it was so different than the other ones she had before experienced. What did it mean? No. It didn't mean anything. It was just a dream.

There was a knock on the door. She ignored it. After a few minutes, Wells went to answer it.

Helen poked her head into the room, Wells at her heels. "Monica! I just came by to let you know the party is in an hour. I still don't know if you're coming."

"Go away! Or I'll...I'll bite you!"

"Poor dear," Helen said sympathetically. "Has she been under much strain? She's been so reserved lately..."

Monica buried her face in the sheets and scowled to herself.

Wells glanced at Monica and frowned. "Hmm. Helen, would you mind coming downstairs? I have something to discuss with you."

Helen shrugged. "Alright." She turned towards Monica and opened her mouth to speak, but seemed to think better of it, and left the room with Wells. But she looked Monica's way again before she disappeared down the stairs.

Monica lifted her face from the bed and rested her chin on her hands. Wherever Zavier was now, she didn't care. She felt less willing to spend time with him than ever. Being with his mother often had that effect on her.

There were few people she liked. Why was that? Was she doing something wrong? Either that, or she was right and the entire world was wrong. And that couldn't be the case.

She grasped her pillow and pulled a notebook out from under it. In the last few days she had started writing down what she dreamed, assuming her latest dream wasn't so horrifying she couldn't let herself dwell on it. Somehow recording everything helped her relax, even start to let go. Helped her to see how her nightmares had no real meaning, no risk of becoming reality. Years from now, when her dreams became more peaceful, she would throw the book away.

If her dreams became more peaceful, at least. She prayed every night they would. Because while experiencing what she dreamed in real life would be far more frightening, they were disturbing enough when they were experienced in her subconscious.

No, she wouldn't throw the book away. She would burn it, and with it her dark memories. Going up in flames. Burning to a crisp so they would be impossible to ever see again.

All she could recall of her last dream was a bit of dialogue, but that was all her dream had been. No pictures, no horror, except for the chill the voice itself put into her heart. But she wrote down what she could remember, and placed the book snugly back under the pillow.

Downstairs, she found no sign of Wells or Helen. She crossed the room to a display of flowers and began to arrange the display, moving bouquets where the placement looked scruffy, and cleaning any debris nearby.

She had just decided she might as well mop the entire floor, when the door opened, and two people walked into the shop. She gave them a quick look, and then shook her head. This was not one of her better days.

Shara was back, and she'd brought her husband along. They both looked tired. But there was something about the look on their faces that seemed incredibly alert.

"Do you need help?" She asked slowly. The flat tone in her voice was back, though she hadn't given it permission to return. It was habit now, automatic.

Shara glanced at Micah, and spoke just as flatly as her sister. "Where's grandfather, Monica?"

"I don't know. I think he left with Helen."

Micah whispered to Shara, but his words were loud enough to reach Monica's ears. "We can come back later."

Monica tried to ignore them, taking the mop into her hands and rubbing furiously at a spot of the floor which didn't really need to be cleaned. Her face had turned red. She felt so awkward.

Shara shook her head. Then she turned to Monica. "Would you mind getting us a few flower seeds? We need them for spring, and..."

She kept talking a little longer, but Monica was barely listening. It seemed odd to her that Shara was asking her for flower seeds, when she could just as easily get them herself. She worked here, had once lived here, she had right enough. Though, she hadn't been coming in to work very often lately.

Monica shrugged. "Okay. What kind?"

"Everything that can be planted in spring," Micah said, suddenly entering the conversation. "I need a lot. Say, a few of each kind?"

They kept the seeds in boxes near the countertop in the corner of the room. Monica nodded towards them, and then looked to Micah. "Come pick them out, then."

Micah followed her, and Shara went upstairs. Monica pulled a box forward and opened it. It was filled with a variety of seeds, all different colours and shapes. She had once enjoyed looking at them, imagining the flowers they would grow, how they would look when bloomed. She had liked flowers, though not nearly as much as Wells and Shara.

She still wanted an accessory shop. But that dream seemed to be getting more and more distant each day.

Micah looked up at Monica while he dug through the box. "Janet keeps asking about you. She always wants to know where Aunt Monica is." He smiled, but it was somewhat shaky. "She asked me to give you this." He held out a piece of paper.

It was a very messy drawing, drawn with so many colours it would have made Daria proud. Monica could make out through the scribbles the heads, torsos, and legs of two people standing hand in hand. One was labeled "Aunt Monica". The other, "Janet".

An urge to rip the thing to shreds came over Monica, but it disappeared as quickly as it came. For a few moments she stared at the page, and then risked a glance up at Micah.

He wasn't looking at her.

Tears filled her eyes, but she wiped them away. There was nothing she could do about the fear that filled her heart whenever she saw Shara, Micah, even Janet and Lynnx, their two children. But it felt like she was letting her emotions destroy everything she had that was worth having.

"I'm sorry."

Micah looked up, surprised, but Monica was already to the foot of the stairs. "Put the money on the table. I'll pick it up later."

Chapter Text

There was a sudden rush of wind throughout Sharance, a rush that seemed to give warning to what was about to happen. But the villagers, comfortably going about their lives, listened with deaf ears.

Terra put her hand over her eyes, squinted, and looked around Sol Terrano. "How long is this desert? I can't imagine how Gaius got over it by himself. I would have thought he'd die of dehydration."

"Maybe he did," her husband, Merell, suggested. "We don't know, do we?"

He pulled behind him a wooden cart, in which sat a heap of belongings, and, on the very edge, a small girl of late teenage years. "I'm dying of dehydration myself," she complained. "Because Fares stole my water ration." She glared at her older brother.

Fares, who walked behind the cart, shrugged. "It was a matter of survival, oh little sister. My ration ran out this morning."

"Yes, but only because you decided to shower with it -"

"Shut up!" Terra yelled suddenly. She glared at Merell. "Would you please remind me why we decided to bring these two along? My sister surely could have taken them off our hands."

"Until the end of the journey, perhaps, but I thought we wanted to get them off our hands indefinitely?"

Fares opened his mouth, outraged, but stopped short. "Look, is that blue? Could that possibly be the colour blue? I've seen so much yellow lately it could just as easily be red and I wouldn't be able to tell the difference."

"We're reaching the end of the desert," Merell said, nodding slowly. "In a few hours we'll be able to get a decent meal and some wine, grab Gaius, and scram."

Fares nodded in approval.

Terra glanced around her. "Not a monster in sight. You'd think they were avoiding us."

The girl, Garmede, slipped off the cart and went to walk beside her mother. "Remind me why we had to come out looking for Gaius."

"You know why," Terra said sternly. "And no more complaining, Garmede, not today. I've got enough headaches without having to listen to your whining."

Garmede sighed moodily and went back to the cart. But Fares had taken her place, and there was no room for her. After shooting her brother a look of pure venom, she went back to her mother's side.

The rest of the journey went smoothly, if you don't count an encounter with one duck that lasted only a few moments.

"Poor thing must be cursing our names right now," Fares said cheerfully as they continued on their way. "Sitting under a nice waterfall in the Forest of Beginnings, with all the other ducks."

Garmede gave him an odd look.

When they arrived at Sharance, Garmede thought it a very plain town. She'd seen its equal many times since they'd left home. Up until they'd entered the desert, they had stayed in many inns in many towns, all of which had bored her - especially the ones that had thrown them out for not being human. But since there was little that impressed Garmede, it wasn't much of a surprise.

How long would they have to stay here until they could move on? Oh, right. Her parents had been told Gaius was here, so this should be their last stop.

If he really had needed to run away, couldn't he have picked a new home somewhat closer to theirs? Walking was such a chore.

Fares approached the first human being they encountered, a dark-haired boy with very round eyes that were an oddly striking colour of grey. He started at the sight of them. "Hey!"

"Yes, yes, we're dwarves," Fares muttered impatiently. "No need to freak out, kid. We're just looking for someone, and then we're leaving."

"Know a guy called Gaius?" Garmede said lazily, yawning. "Dark hair, bust up right eye, and a dwarf like us?"

Fares rolled his eyes. "First things first, sis." He nodded to the boy. "See here, what's your name?"

"Zavier," said the boy skeptically. "And what is it you want with Gaius?"

"So he is here then?"

Zavier's arms were crossed, but he raised one at these words. A piece of paper stuck out from between two fingers. He nodded to it. "Just picked something up from him this morning."

Fares looked to his parents and back. "Where is he?"

"What is it you want with him?"

Merell pushed past Fares somewhat roughly, his wife close behind. "We haven't seen him in about twenty years, and we heard he was here, from a reliable enough source, I suppose. We're his family, it's only fair we see him."

Zavier looked from Terra to Merell. "His family? I wasn't aware he had one."

"I doubt he'd talk about us if he didn't have to, I don't think he likes us much." Garmede said pessimistically. "He slipped away in the middle of the night, and he took my journal along with him, too." She shrugged. "Though he probably didn't mean to do that. When I first got it, he took one look at it when I was writing in it, and he's never gone through much to see it again."

Fares winced at the memory. "That book was gross, that was! Like we needed to hear about all the guys you've snogged-"

"He's the blacksmith here," Zavier said quickly as Terra gave her children identical glares. He pointed. "Go down there, look for the last building on the street."

"Blacksmith?" Merell said lightly as they walked away. "Our boy's used his time well, it would appear."

Terra pursed her lips, and didn't reply. For whatever reason, she seemed to disagree.

Garmede didn't wish to see her brother. He'd always been much too sensitive for her tastes. A very undesirable thing in a man. Men were supposed to be strong and fearless. If they ever felt sad, you could never tell from their face.

"You're so conceited," Fares hissed suddenly.

"Excuse me?" She hissed back.

"The things you say about Gaius. It's like you don't care about him at all. He may be a pushover, but he's our brother."

Garmede snorted and laughed openly. "Really, Fares? You criticize me when the first thing you did when we realized Gaius was gone was ask if you could have the swords he left behind?"

Fares flushed. "T-Things were different then!"

"Were they? I'll be interested to hear how." And she walked towards her father quickly before Fares could retaliate.

A few people were going about their business on the street. As the dwarves walked confidently up it, there were looks from all sides and hushed whispers. Garmede acted oblivious to their attention, but it amused her, even pleased her.

Merell stopped in front of the last building and knelt down slightly to peer at the sign in front of it. "Well, it's definitely a blacksmith. Ready to go in?"

Garmede grabbed Fares by the shoulders and pushed him to the front. "If you like Gaius so much, why not be the first to talk to him? I'm sure he'd be happier to see you than the rest of us." The last line wasn't really sarcasm. It might well be true.

.....

Micah peered out the window, but paid little attention to what could be seen. "I've felt a shadow hanging over us. Something dark. Like a storm cloud gathering, ready to unleash itself on whatever lies below."

"A foreboding?" Shara suggested quietly.

"Yes, I think so."

Much of their conversation had gone like this is recent months. Brief and serious. It was like something divided them, but there was no reason for a division that Shara could see. It bothered her to no end.

And then there was Monica...

"What makes you feel like this?"

Micah glanced at her, and his face was blank. Odd, for Micah. Usually, it wasn't too difficult to read his face. "I don't know. Maybe it's just me. But I've felt like this before. Just before that business with Aquaticus."

He was planning something, she could tell. But if it was to run headfirst into whatever may or may not happen, which was his tendency, she would be fearing the whole time he was running into something he could not handle.

Shara preferred to prepare as much as she could before attempting something. Micah was different. She almost took his arm, asked him not to do anything stupid. But somehow she doubted that would go down all that well. Micah was Micah, and she would have to let him remain so.

He'd before taken down four monsters, not counting Aquaticus, without stopping to see what he would be dealing with, but how much of that was skill, and how much luck?

Micah's eyes narrowed, and his eyebrows shot up. "Come and see this."

Shara had been stationary, holding in her hands a flower pot she had been working with. She placed it on the table and joined her husband at the window.

At the foot of the Sharance tree stood Zavier, one of Sharance's newest additions. Around him stood a group of people of different ages, talking animatedly. When she got a closer look at their faces, she caught sight of the tell-tale point to their ears that identified them as dwarves. "I wonder why they're here."

She turned to face Micah, and was surprised to find him staring at her. He was frowning. "You don't look well."

Shara was surprised to find herself giggling slightly. "Have the dwarves already lost your interest, darling?"

"Well, you are much prettier to look at." Micah smiled, but then became solemn again. "I'm serious. You don't look well."

"Just because I look unwell doesn't mean I feel unwell. I'm fine."

And somehow, the tension between them seemed to lift a good deal. Shara relished the feeling, but then remembered what it was she was supposed to be doing. "Toyherb for lunch again!"

Micah took the flower, looked at it, and sighed. He'd never tell Shara so, but eating flowers made him feel like a grazing cow. The image that popped into his head from the thought was quite amusing.

He pulled his hoe from the wall nearby and looked around him for the flower seeds they had had purchased from Monica. After locating them, he opened the door and looked up at the sky. It looked fair. The weather would remain pleasant while he worked.

Shara coughed a little and opened her mouth before Micah could step out the door. "Before you go, um...I went to the apothecary yesterday."

"For cold medicine? Did you go for that? I know Lynxx needs it, Shara, but I can make it myself..."

"No," Shara sighed, and mentally, she rolled her eyes. "Not for medicine. I talked to Marjorie, and uh...I'm pregnant. Again."

Micah blinked, and allowed her words to sink in for a moment or two. "Oh." He paused in thought. "That's funny. For some reason the possibility of having a third child never occurred to me. Maybe I was mentally finished."

"You don't mind?"

"What? Of course not. A third child would be great." He kissed her cheek, and then smiled. "However, I'm not going to let you take care of the monsters for a while. You need to take care of yourself."

Shara found herself a little irritated. "I can collect eggs, Micah."

"I suppose you have a point. Okay, then. You're going to Helen's tea party, did you say?"

"I am."

"See you tonight, then."

Shara nodded her approval and let Micah leave. Once the door was shut, she turned to look around the room. Janet and Lynnx were upstairs, and it was time for her to go.

She wondered vaguely if Monica would attend the tea party. After her words to Helen through the door earlier that day, she doubted it very much. Monica, Monica...She didn't know what to do about her sister. Had she somehow upset her, and turned on Monica's hostility?

With one last check on her children, she left the Sharance Tree and made her way towards Privera Forest.

Helen's house was small, but very densely decorated and cared for. The garden, which was a good deal larger than the actual house, was pruned and weeded almost to perfection. Winter flowers seemed to be poking out of every nook and cranny, displaying their colour and variety to the world.

Shara was a natural florist, and the sight of the flowers almost made her wish to enter the garden herself and check on the flowers' condition, but she couldn't do that. She allowed herself a good look at them, though, as she passed them on the way to the front door.

Helen stood outside, waiting for her guests. At her side stood a very erect, tall, blonde woman Shara had never seen before. She was dressed down to her very jewellery in black, and her face had a sour quality about it that was quite disconcerting.

"Ah, ah! Wonderful! Someone is actually on time! I thought people would arrive early! The cakes have gone cold, they've been out so long." Her dimpled smile showed each of her discoloured teeth, and the blonde woman stared at them, seeming somewhat disgusted.

"This is Kathleen," Helen continued. "She came to Sharance on business, and I thought she might enjoy a little party while she was on her visit. Travelling alone can be quite lonely."

Shara couldn't help but think Kathleen looked like she would have rather been lonely. She extended a hand, and Kathleen, though she looked indifferent to the gesture, took it stiffly. A jolt went up Shara's hand, to her surprise, but it felt colder than a simple electric shock.

The edge of Kathleen's mouth had lifted a little. "And you are?"

Helen interrupted as Shara attempted to introduce herself. "This is Shara, the granddaughter of the mayor, if you remember him at all."

"Shara who?"

"Hmm?"

"What's her last name?"

"Oh!" Helen froze and her two chins wobbled as she moved her mouth noiselessly. "Well, she's the wife of the town amnesiac, so I suppose we don't actually know do we?"

"The town amnesiac," Kathleen repeated with a sharp emphasis. "How quaint."

Shara thought she detected sarcasm, and she felt a stab of annoyance. But she brushed it off as Hazel came around the corner, her face tomato red and mumbling to herself.

"I suppose Karina opted out," Helen said, correctly identifying the signs. "Oh, dear. We shall be a small gathering."

Except for Karina (and Monica, Shara thought sadly), all the other guests that had promised to come arrived shortly, and Helen ushered them all inside. She had set a large table with flowers from the garden and candles, though the effect would be lost as there was so much light in the room already. Helen was, if it were possible, even more energetic than usual, sweeping inbetween her seated guests and providing food and drink where she deemed it necessary.

Shara was unable to eat so much cake, and so she slipped some into her bag to give to the children later, with Helen's permission.

Kathleen sat at the head of the table, as straight as a poker and as emotionless as one, too. She partook of cake, but only a few bites, and then when she excused herself to the bathroom, she took the cake along, and when she returned she didn't bring it back with her.

Helen talked so speedily nobody else had a chance to slip in a comment of their own, until she left to fetch some more tea. When that happened, Hazel took the opportunity to satisfy her curiosity about Kathleen. "What kind of business brought you here?"

Kathleen took her time in draining her cup of tea before she bothered to reply. "My employer wished to locate a former employee of his. He was removed from work, but we need him to return."

"Why not employ someone else?"

"We have our reasons. That is all you need to know."

At the other end of the table, Sofia moved to take another piece of cake, but then thought better of it. Instead, she gave Kathleen an intense look. "A former employee of yours in Sharance? How predictable."

Kathleen raised an eyebrow. "Is it really?"

"It's not odd at all. I don't know everybody here, and all of them have worked for a company outside Sharance. I don't suppose there isn't a chance Micah has, but - we do know that -"

Kathleen raised a hand sharply, stopping Sofia in her tracks. "Does she always speak in opposites?" The question was directed at Hazel.

Evelyn answered her. "Oh, don't mind her. Father's been doing it all his life, and Sofia just follows his lead."

"How did you know she was talking in opposites?" Hazel asked.

"What else could she be doing?"

Sakuya was barely paying attention to the conversation, but now she broke in. "Where's my calculator? I need my calculator."

"Whatever for?" Hazel said.

Helen came striding into the room with a fresh pot of tea, and her eyes widened as she took in the scene before her. "My word! What happened to all of the cake?"

Marjorie looked down at her icing covered hands, and then to the very empty plate where a huge, half-eaten cake had a few minutes ago stood. "Whoopsie! I'm sorry. It's just been so long since I ate something so nice." She cackled.

"Oh, and I don't have another!" Helen said, but she looked pleased. "Well, never mind! I'm glad you enjoyed it. I have cookies I can bring out."

She left again, and all the guests collapsed into random, disorganised conversation with each other. Kathleen made no effort to join in.

"Shara, you've been so quiet," Marjorie whispered. "That's not like you."

"I guess I've had a lot on my mind. And I haven't been all that well, as you know."

The truth was, she was plagued. That was the only word she could think of that fit her feelings about life right now. Problems with Monica, the baby - though the latter wasn't an unpleasant subject. But like Micah, she had a sense of foreboding. About her children, her town, and more. She'd up until today thought maybe she was becoming inexplicably paranoid. But then Micah had voiced similar thoughts to her own, and now she wasn't sure.

"You've always been such a happy, social girl."

"Is that your way of telling me you miss that girl?"

"We'll be happy to have her back, when she's ready. If there's anything I can do to help you dear, just call. But I'd suggest doing it when Marian's out of the house. She's come up with a new formula that can blow up -" She stopped. "Well, I suppose you understand what I mean."

Helen rejoined the table, but she had had no chance to do anything more than sit down before Kathleen coughed pointedly, and all eyes turned towards her.

"You mentioned a "town amnesiac". I'd be interested to hear the story behind that." She said, and though she didn't quite direct it at Helen, all sat in wait of Helen's answer.

"Oh, Micah? How long ago was it that he moved in? Five years? Six?"

"Seven," Shara corrected softly.

"Ah, yes. Well he had amnesia, didn't he. He still does, or at least mostly. He called himself Micah and moved in to that big tree over there." She pointed in the entirely wrong direction. "Beat up a few monsters, and a dragon. Aracus? Aquarus? What was the name?"

"Aquaticus," Shara corrected again, and with the name came memories she didn't really like to dwell on.

"Right. And he's pretty much been here ever since, eh? I think that's about all there is to it. Nothing particularly fancy."

Kathleen blinked. "Hmm."

"Onions!"

Helen glanced at Evelyn, startled. "Eh? What's that?"

"I need onions for my next outfit. You don't happen to have any, do you? Onions are the next thing in fashion, I can tell -"

Kathleen's mouth twisted, and there was a flicker of amusement in it that Shara didn't like at all. It looked spiteful. Superior. The vibes she got from Kathleen were not pleasant.

When Kathleen stood up, scraping her chair on the floor, she barely stopped to acknowledge Helen for her invitation before she made her way briskly to the door, the heels of her shoes making loud noises on the wood panels.

Helen touched Shara's arm. "I am sorry to bother you, dear, but could you join me outside?"

Shara was surprised to find Kathleen had not left Helen's home after all, but stood by a snow-covered begonia bush that poked through the garden fence.

"Hello, Kathleen? Is there something you wanted to say? I'd be happy to hear it, of course!" Helen smiled for about the thousandth time that day.

Kathleen pursed her lips. "I could easily do it myself, however, I will soon be leaving, and I thought you might wish to accompany me on one of my last visits within this town."

Not only was the request for company against everything Shara had thought about Kathleen in the last half hour or so, but the thought of her purposely visiting -

But no, maybe she was just being prejudiced. Until one really knew a person, any judgement could be false and unfair. A person who looked reserved could surprise you by actually being completely the opposite.

"Why not join us, Shara? It looks like the party's over, after all."

Sakuya had just burst out the door and gone running down the path as if afraid Helen would chase after her and drag her back to the tea party, closely followed behind her by Pia - but Pia hadn't been at the party, had she?

"Things have been very rushed today," Helen said disapprovingly. "I could barely call that a party."

Kathleen began to walk towards the middle of town, and Helen made to follow. Shara felt unwilling to go anywhere else today but home, but she obliged.

After a while she realized she was going home. Kathleen was leading them to the Sharance Tree.

"What interest do you have in the tree?" Shara asked her.

"That is of no significance."

Kathleen did not make for the steps leading up to the door, but instead curved around them and headed towards the fields, speeding up as they approached like she was in a hurry, and had little time to waste.

She glanced over her shoulder at Helen and Shara and started, as if she'd forgotten they were accompanying her.

What? Was she suddenly afraid of being watched?

"How long has this tree been here?" Kathleen gestured to it curtly and carelessly, her eyes elsewhere.

"As long as I have lived, and my grandfather also. I'm not sure exactly how long." Shara looked at the still and dark woman in front of her, her face looking even more pale than it ought to be against the bold black of her clothing. "We've recently gotten the flowers on it to blossom."

"A piece of history for your town, I suppose?" She continued to the fields, stopping at the edge of the left-hand one. She knelt down and grasped a handful of the earth, letting it pour through her fingertips. It looked like she was checking the quality of the soil.

Helen had remained oddly silent during the journey, but Kathleen's gesture inspired her to speak. "Are you a gardener?"

"No."

Shara moved away from Helen and Kathleen, the former having returned to her regular, chatty self, and walked towards the barn to see if Micah was inside. At the door she found a hoe and a sickle, but instead of them being propped up neatly against the wall as they usually would be, they lay scattered among the grass.

On closer observation she perceived a glint of odd colour on the handle of the sickle, and she rubbed it and looked at her fingers.

Blood.

If circumstances had been different she might have thought Micah had just cut his finger. But the handle wasn't the only part of the tool blood-stained, and even so, a chill had filled her heart that bordered panic. What had happened to him?

"Micah?"

She opened the barn door, but Micah came crashing out before she could even take a step. His eyes widened and he hurried to grasp her arm before she toppled over from the momentum.

"Micah!"

He put his arms around her waist and pulled her out from under a stray pile of grass that suddenly slipped off the roof and littered the ground.

"What was that?"

"I didn't hurt you, or -"

"It's you I'm more worried about!" She dove for the sickle and held it in front of his face. "When I see this much blood -"

Micah coloured. "I'm okay, I swear."

"You've bandaged your arm. What happened?"

He put a hand to his head and wiped it. "Exactly what happened last time. I cut myself. Swung the thing too hard."

Last time, he'd come away with only a scratch. She looked at his arm now, and what she could see of what the bandage covered, it was going to need a lot of care. "We need to take that to Marjorie. The bandage won't hold all that blood."

Micah began to answer, but then he looked more fully at her face. "Shara, love, don't be upset with me. Please."

"You scared me."

"I scared myself. It's okay. It doesn't even hurt all that much. I got worse from the fight with Aquaticus."

In the blood department? No.

"That looks like quite a scratch." Kathleen was almost at Shara's shoulder, and she hadn't made a sound on her way towards them. Her face was intense, and her mouth had gone oddly thin. Was she scared of blood, but not trying to show it?

"I've had worse," Micah said with emphasis, and the statement seemed to be directed mostly at Shara.

"But you're still going up to the apothecary." Shara said firmly.

"I wouldn't say no to that."

The cold feeling had moved from Shara's heart to her stomach, but still it remained. On intuition she pulled her husband into an embrace, and felt the feeling lessen.

Kathleen turned and walked swiftly towards the exit, seemingly unconcerned, with Helen at her heels, leaving Micah and Shara alone.

"I do hope he'll be alright," Helen said loudly. "He's not much to look at, but the boy's been a great help to town. We're better off with him still breathing." She looked at Kathleen and changed the subject. "So, Miss Clark. Did you find what you were looking for here?"

Kathleen pulled from her pocket a bag of smoked fish, and began to eat it slowly. "Yes, I did." And she gave the most genuine smile with which anyone in town had seen her grace the world.

Chapter Text

It was that afternoon that Monica realized her nightmares were finally starting to come true.

Not that the "incident" had been in any way disturbing to the eyes of the villagers. For them, it had caused an intense enough confusion, but no fear. But it had been disturbing enough to Monica.

She'd seen his face before. The dwarf who was, apparently, Gaius' younger brother. He'd been in her dreams at least once. But there, he hadn't been one of the people being hurt. He was one of the ones doing the hurting.

The girl was proud, and there was a darkness about her. The boy, though, was a lot less easy to read. Not a good sign.

What was she to do now? This was too bizarre to ignore. Something was going to happen, and soon.

The parents had seemed to be purposefully avoiding the glances of the villagers that had been present, all of whom were looking at them curiously when they strode down the path. Now they stood with their children inside the weapon shop, and the whole lot bickered with each other at great speed.

And in the corner of the room, alone and silent, stood Gaius, wearing on his face the darkest look Monica had ever seen there.

Why had she come to the blacksmith again? She couldn't remember.

All of the family looked much like Gaius. She'd heard each member of a dwarf clan usually was born with characteristics that were the same as other members, or very similar. Perhaps dark hair and pale skin were two examples. They even wore similar colours.

"I'm not spending another second in here," the girl was snarling. "I'm so bored I could die."

"Die then," the boy said harshly. "You'll be doing me a favour."

The older woman had a huge scar running across her face. But that wasn't the scariest thing about her. She reached out with a claw-like hand and grabbed her daughter by the back of her overly skimpy outfit, and practically dragged her towards the door, saying, "Keep out until you can stay quiet!"

Monica stood there and watched as the two passed by, standing silently. In a few moments, likely as not, they'd notice she was there.

It was the older man who did, and he said nothing. And that suited Monica quite well indeed.

"Right," the woman said purposefully as she returned. She turned to glare at Gaius. "So that's it, then? You're staying?"

What? Had they wanted to take him away?

Monica looked once more at the dwarf's face.

Fat chance.

"Do you even have to ask?" That was all Gaius said, and oddly briskly, too, and then he was already walking back to the forge as if nothing had happened. There was the sound of clanging metal.

Looking anything but fazed, except for perhaps the girl, who merely looked enraged, the four trooped out of the building and turned down the path.

"They'll be back."

Monica turned to find Raven standing there. She hadn't noticed the woman had been in the room at all. "I know defeat when I see it. That wasn't it. They'll be back."

And that was that.

"What is it you want?" Raven said flatly.

…..

It was getting dark by the time Monica left.

The day was about over, and what a day it had been. Monica hated to look back on it.

Things were changing, weren't they? She thought she could feel it in the air. Some things would change for the better. Most, she was forced to conclude, would likely change for the worse.

The dwarf girl stood outside with Zavier, the latter of who looked very uncomfortable indeed.

Monica felt little pity for him.

The dwarf boy could be anywhere. And it was he who held her interest. He was proof. That her dreams weren't just dreams. But something...more.

This fact, she would have thought before today, ought to have added to her misery. She had always imagined what it would be like if her dreams came true, as she had always feared they would. This numbness had not been what she had imagined.

Maybe it was better this way.

"Who are you, then?"

She didn't turn around, but she knew it was the boy. "Monica. Like it should matter to you."

"Hmph."

"What do you want?"

"Let's start with you turning around, shall we?"

She did so curtly, but only so she could look at him more closely. Curiosity, on the occasions she had it, was irresistible. "Fine."

He stared at her, his brow creased. "Funny. I could have sworn I'd seen you before."

She'd seen him, at least. "You're imagining things, then."

"I saw you in the shop. You know Gaius?"

"I guess."

"He's the most irritating being to walk the earth."

"Because you wasted your time trying to take him away?"

"What? No. We'll get him eventually. It's only a matter of time."

That sounded like they intended to force Gaius from Sharance and drag him to whatever god-forsaken place they lived in. She wouldn't put it past them.

"I mean because he's a total sap. Dunno why the parents insisted we had to come for him. We're better off without."

It would appear family devotion only went so far here. Maybe just far enough to occasionally function.

She hated the lot of them.

Monica said nothing, and stared at him resolutely. What dream had it been, when she had seen his face? What had he been doing? Who had he been hurting?

Her brain sorted through all the images in her head and settled on one she had dreamed about a month and a quarter ago.

Ah, yes. He'd been gouging one of both Gaius' and Zaid's eyes out.

Coincidence was the furthest explanation from her thoughts right now.

She hated the lot of them. But the boy especially.

"I'm Fares."

Monica's mouth opened without permission. "I couldn't care less."

The boy only grinned. "We're on the same page, then. See ya."

And that was that.

Monica promptly turned and walked briskly down the street, her eyes staring intensely at the dirt.

The boy was definitely as proud as the girl. But there was something else hidden under there. Thinking of what she'd dreamed about him doing (and what she now thought could possibly be what he would be doing in reality in the near future) she was inclined to say narcissism or something like.

But there was only so far one could be judgemental, and Monica had reached that limit.

In any case, she was out of time. She had to figure out these dreams, and quickly, or she was asking for trouble.

She had little doubt of their prophetic nature now.

After all, she could guarantee today was the first time she'd seen him in reality. His image was not a memory.

.....

Kathleen Clark sat underneath a large tree in anything but a casual manner. But of course, Kathleen was anything but a casual woman. He'd known that for years. Even when she'd first walked onto his doorstep, half-starved, she'd looked like a princess.

Sometimes he wondered if she was actually royalty and hadn't told him.

"Well? What have you got for me?"

"Karzak," Kathleen began venomously, "I've been here five minutes and you already want a report. Do me a favour and keep your impatience to yourself."

"Time is money."

Kathleen tapped the wooden chest that sat next to her briskly. "And of course, money is all you care about. So be it." She lifted the lid of the chest, pulled a shining coin from the depths, and turned it in her fingers, examining it like a curious child. She dropped it carelessly.

Karzak waited.

"Well, I found him, at least. It's said he's got amnesia. I expect it's true as well. He didn't recognize me."

"Amnesia?"

"That's right. That complicates things a bit. But if we can't get him back, I could always kill him if you like. I'm not picky."

Karzak huffed. "I'd rather have him alive, Kathleen, assuming memory loss hasn't made him forget how to steal. You and he, you were always the best."

"I could have done far better if I hadn't had to run around all the time after him. He's never understood he could do far better with us than he could anywhere else. An honest day's work leaves you as poor as a pigeon."

"It takes time to turn some people to your side. Especially the rebels. Micah, he's a rebel."

"He knew I'd find him. I always have when he's run off. I can't see why he bothers."

"So what do you suggest we do?"

"You're the boss."

"And this boss likes to know the opinions of his employees."

"Try and jog his memory, if you're that keen on him. But me, I'd get rid of him. He's not the best thief out there. He wouldn't be all that hard to replace." She reached into the pocket of her severe skirt and pulled out a pair of earrings. "I pinched these off of the old woman. They should make you a coin or two."

"You're a gem, Kathleen," Karzak said as he reached out greedily to seize the items. "Don't know what we'd do without you around."

"Curl up and die, most likely," Kathleen said flatly. "I'm the only one who can tear my eyes away from gold long enough to realize it's time to eat."

Karzak ignored her. "I want you to get the boy, Kathleen, if you can. The moment people realize I'm desperate for a replacement the wages will shoot up. Easier this way."

"Oh, yes. Because even the rich are cheapskates."

"You know, I would get rid of you for saying things like that if I didn't need you."

"But you do," Kathleen said smugly. "So I couldn't really care less."

.....

Monica had spent the entire evening in front of her notebook, and so far she had written down about thirteen dreams she hadn't bothered to record before, with as many details as she could recall. Who was there, what they were doing. Even when she'd dreamed it, assuming she could recall the date.

Sometimes she could even tell the location of the vision. There was one that took place in Oddward Valley. One in a deep, dark dungeon she didn't know. Most likely at a castle somewhere. Another in a barren plain that seemed to have lava peeping through cracks in the earth.

Maybe she was wasting her time. In any case, if any of these dreams were going to come true, the more she knew about the events, the more likely it would be that she could see when they were coming and do something about it.

It was all she could think to do.

Her grandfather sat nearby poring over reports, and the heavy crease line on his forehead was deeper than she had seen it for a long, long time. He was mumbling. "Too many...What about Kuruna? She might know what to do...Still haven't found Sofia..."

He'd been mumbling for a while. She wasn't sure what about. But she had gathered that Sofia had somehow gone missing this afternoon.

He seemed to be getting regular reports.

Wells glanced at her. "You don't plan on going outside, do you, Monica?"

“No."

"I would ask that you don't. It's not safe."

Monica was surprised. Not safe? Sharance was one of the safest places in the country. "Why? Is something happening?"

"Sofia, she's missing. And she's not the only one, either. Some people think they're just out somewhere, but I doubt it. Something doesn't sit right with me here...I don't know. I'd just feel better...if you stayed inside."

Monica shrugged like she didn't care. "Okay."

Did she believe Sofia and whoever else would be back shortly? No. Nowadays, worst case scenarios were what she expected out of life.

She added Sofia and her thoughts about that to the notebook. No harm in keeping note of what was happening in reality as well as the subconscious. Perhaps when she looked back on events, it would all somehow connect into something more sensible.

Monica removed herself from the room and went upstairs. She sat by the window and stared out at the world below. It was too dark to see very much, except for the silhouette of a villager who stood in the street below.

She looked closer.

That was no villager.

It was a tall woman she had never seen before. That much she could tell, even in the darkness. In the woman's arms was a large, black mass which Monica guessed must be some sort of bag or box.

The woman looked towards Monica's window.

Monica quickly removed herself from view.

.....

Micah held the crumpled piece of paper out to Wells, who took it and stared at the writing on it in bewilderment. "What on earth?"

"I found it in the mailbox. I don't know what to make of it."

Ode to Black

The night rises
Full of surprises-
This you know.
For with it we grow.
The darkness thrives
On darkened lives.

Wells raised an eyebrow. "Perhaps a practical joke? Or perhaps someone's asking for feedback on their poetry anonymously."

"If that's the case," Micah said, shaking his head, "I'm not sure what kind of review I'd give them."

"The poetry could be worse, I suppose," Wells added casually.

"I do think there's more to it. It's totally bizarre. It even feels familiar."

Monica came hurrying down the stairs, but stopped short and stared at Micah resentfully. "When did you get here?"

"Monica," Wells said warningly.

"What's that?" Monica's eyes narrowed at the piece of paper. "Where did you get it?"

"That's enough, Monica," Wells said roughly.

"Let me see it."

Wells looked upset, but Micah just shrugged and allowed Monica to read the poem.

And as soon as she had, Monica rushed up the stairs again without a word.

"That child!" Wells said in exasperation. "I simply cannot understand her nowadays. She's as bizarre as that poem."

Micah looked thoughtful. "The entire day has been bizarre..." He seemed to have something on his mind, but then he shrugged it off and moved a little closer to Wells. "But it's over, so I think I should go soon."

"Have you seen Sofia or Rusk?" Wells asked him.

"No. Maybe they eloped."

Wells shuddered. "Anything but that. I've never been able to understand that relationship."

"I'm going looking for them tomorrow," Micah said quietly. "After all, this isn't the first time Sofia's gone missing. It's possible they'll both turn up in Sol Terrano or somewhere like."

"Are you sure it's worth going through that trouble so early in the case? I mean, they could have eloped, and if so they'll be long gone. Maybe they'll send a note." But Wells wasn't very hopeful about that. The last thing he wanted was for Micah to rush off on some goose-chase again. It was almost always bad news.

"And they could also be in trouble," Micah said firmly. "And I'm not one to let that happen if I can do something about it."

Micah was usually rather quiet in his manner, though social. But he was also so, so stubborn. Even an injured arm couldn't faze him, it would seem, though Wells had to admit Marjorie had healed it very well.

"So be it," Wells said with a sigh. "Just don't do anything stupid."

"What?" Micah sounded amused. "Did you think I was going to rush head-first into a pack of orcs?"

"You certainly used to."

"That was when I had less to lose."

"Don't kill yourself then."

"Well, I've never intended to do that."

Wells gave a grim smile. "Goodnight, Micah."

And that was that.

Chapter Text

Sherman was eating. This occurrence was not at all a surprise, usually, but the eating that was taking place in front of Micah’s very eyes just now was beyond even Sherman’s normal ability. Twenty plates of tempura udon in ten minutes, and he seemed to be just getting started. It made sense to Micah. Sofia was still missing, and Sherman was under a lot of stress.

Micah opened and closed his mouth continually, looking for an opportunity to speak. Sherman was rubbing his face into his noodles and spraying flecks of sauce onto the walls. When he re-surfaced to breathe, Micah might have a chance to get his question across.

With an audible pop, Sherman pulled his features from the empty dish and leant back in his chair, breathing heavily. “Evelyn, my dear! Where aren’t you?” He whipped his head from side to side, searching for his eldest daughter.

After a few moments Evelyn appeared in the doorway, balancing dangerously a heap of new dishes. “We’ve run out of tempura udon, father,” Evelyn said weakly. All her energy was going into supporting the plates. “I’ve brought you some simple things. While you eat this I might have time to cook something decent…”

Judging from the rate of Sherman’s consumption, this would be quite a feat. Micah hurried to relieve her of some of her load and set five plates in front of Sherman, who prepared to dive. Micah tapped him on the shoulder quickly.

With the air of one forced to spend the night out in Vale River, Sherman turned to face him. “Hmm?”

Finally, a chance to speak. “If it’s alright, sir…Can you tell me about the last time you saw Sofia? Do you remember where she was?” He’d been looking for she and Rusk ever since his conversation with Wells the day before, and so far had turned up nothing.

Sherman pinched a piece of sashimi off one of his plates and began to chew mournfully. “No, no…I don’t know exactly where she was. It wasn’t yesterday…I can’t remember that she wasn’t with that Rusk boy…” He seemed to get oddly emotional. “She was attempting to push him into the deep end of the lake with an iron ball tied to his two feet!

There was only so much of Sherman’s opposite-speak Micah could understand, and his last comment fazed him. He looked to Evelyn.

“I think he’s suggesting they were getting a little cozy,” Evelyn said with feigned lightness.

Micah turned back to Sherman to continue his questioning, but he was too late. The man’s face was already buried a few inches in the sauce that covered the large, soft pudding.

He turned back to Evelyn. “And when did you last see Sofia, Evelyn? Can you remember?”

“Mm…” Evelyn shrugged. “I think I saw her talking with Gaius that afternoon. I don’t know why, but she’s made a habit of talking to him. She looked kind of upset, but I guess that’s besides the point.” She folded her arms. “I don’t think I can really help you, Micah, sorry.” She glanced at her father, who was guzzling his meal at a renewed speed. She gasped. “I’ve gotta get cooking really fast…” She bolted out of the room.

Micah’s visit to the de Sainte Coquilles hadn’t done him too much good, and he’d already been to see Blaise. No clues on Sofia or Rusk. He’d looked everywhere - even venturing out into monster-infested territory to search. Either he was missing something, or they were further away than he thought. If the latter, the chances of him finding them were slim.

He hadn’t checked Dragon Cave. But the only person bold enough to venture there besides himself was Gaius, and only because he loved the mining down there. Sofia and Rusk would have had to be insane to go down to such a place.

All the same…he was running out of options. He couldn’t imagine letting this go and praying they came back of their own accord. In the case they couldn’t do so, he might be their only chance.

Even if they weren’t in Dragon Cave, Aquaticus owed him quite a few favours. Perhaps he could point him in the right direction.

He left Sherman’s sauce-stained dining room and walk out into the street. It was deserted, but he could hear noises coming from the weapon shop. It had been like that since Gaius’ apparent family turned up the morning before, and had for some inexplicable reason decided to make an extended visit. Wells and Hazel had already been driven mad by it, and Raven had conveniently removed herself that morning to visit Collette, who had moved to a large city when she got married the year before.

The air reeked of fish. Pia had been caught out a few months ago making the pond around the inn into a squid tank, and storing the ones she intended to cook shortly behind the building - in the baking summer sun. Somehow the smell still lingered.

Sharance was in quite a state. Perhaps being forced to visit other areas for a while was, in a way, a blessing.

When he reached the lake, he strapped on his water shoes and hurriedly crossed the water to the island where the entrance to Dragon Cave stood. He could see Carlos with Carmen on the shore, the two likely arguing over Carmen’s long-term boyfriend. They wouldn’t question him going this way, yet today he didn’t want to be seen. If he spent too much time down Dragon Cave, they might wonder if he was okay. Sure, there was a portal leading straight to Aquaticus, but he didn’t always go to Aquaticus.

He had his sword strapped to his belt, which he drew and held stiffly at his side. Just in case, for some reason, he would have to fight something off before he was finished here. Without much hesitation, he opened the door, slipped inside, and swiftly shut it behind him.

…..

Aquaticus was home, resting in the middle of the floor. His gaze darted to Micah as he walked into the room. The dragon god narrowed his eyes, and moved to face his visitor. “It has been a long time since we met. I believe it is safe to assume it is not a light matter which would send you to me.”

Micah shrugged. “It could well be. I don’t know. That’s part of the problem. But you probably already know why I’m here. You’ve been watching me, haven’t you?”

Aquaticus grunted and rose from his perch, turning in a circle before settling closer to Micah. “You seek friends of yours. What would you have me do about this?”

“You and I have no agreement. But I’ve been thinking you owe me a favour for carrying me off.” He may have been speaking to a dragon god, but Micah was usually quite blunt. “I want to know if you can see where they are, and whether they’re okay. I’d rather not have to resort to giving up.”

Micah could sense the dragon god thinking. Likely thinking about whether to accept or refuse, or to ask some favour in return. In the end, the dragon shook its head and let off a few bubbles. “I can see many who walk this earth, and I can see the two people whom you seek. But I will tell you straightforwardly, they are certainly not unharmed.”

There was a sinking in Micah’s heart. “What happened?”

“I cannot see specifics - I have not the power, nor the authority. Their wounds are not that of the body - but of the mind. More I cannot tell you.”

“But how am I going to get them back? You can’t see where they are?”

Aquaticus paused to think on this. “I can see that they will soon return of their own accord. When they do, heal their wounds as fit. In the end, this part of your problem will be a small one. But I can see that it will not be your only problem. There will be another, and it will be connected to this one. Be on the watch for it.”

“So Sofia and Rusk are mostly safe, but they’re going to bring a problem back with them?”

“Perhaps. But I would suggest the problem caused their problem.”

Micah gave up trying to understand the dragon god. All that mattered was that his friends would be safe. Though, he did find himself surprised to find Aquaticus could see the future. A little, anyway. He made himself ready to depart, nodding to the dragon god and turning away.

“Micah.”

Stopping short, Micah turned back towards Aquaticus.

“I am going to give you your memory back.”

Micah’s face betrayed his shock. Then he cleared his expression. “I was under the impression you meant to keep it.”

“I did. But it is not with you in mind that I do this. This problem I see. It is not just yours. But your friends’ problem also. I do not wish for you all to suffer. As a dragon god, it is my duty to perform for the greater good. Giving you your memory will help you sort out this problem before too many people get hurt. I am obliged to do this.”

“I don’t see how my memories would help.”

Aquaticus started floating in a lazy fashion. His words were almost sleepy. “But you will…but you will, Micah…And so will I…All I can foresee is that you need them…And I must give them to you…The universe tells me this…the stars…and the moon…The one true deity…”

Micah knew of no deity, or speaking universe. He didn’t know what secrets his memory held, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to know. Getting it back might prove to be a curse instead of a blessing. He learnt that the day he rescued Shara. How much did he trust Aquaticus? Would he even be allowed to say no?

“…Speak your thoughts, Micah.”

“Those memories might be a burden to me.”

“Oh, they certainly will be. Yes, they will be. A newborn child has only begun writing their memories. They are lighter and more free because of this - there is less on their conscience. The older a person becomes, the more memories they make, and the more heavy is their mind - especially for those who write evil into their memories. When I took your memory, you became more like that newborn child. More free. Even if you memories were happy ones, their return would weigh you down.”

“Even if his memories were happy ones”? The dragon god had as good as admitted this would be no pleasant experience. But what should he do?

“I remember the time you wanted these memories back. Before you knew what the result could be. I would keep these from you for the rest of your life. But I don’t think either of use would enjoy facing the consequences. You would face things that you would not understand the danger of because of the lack. Make your choice, Micah. And may the universe not fault you for it.”

Micah couldn’t think of any reason for Aquaticus to lie about this, yet…they didn’t have the best history. Though he wouldn’t realise it for many days more, he had already made his choice. When he spoke, he did so softly. “They’ll help me keep everyone safe?”

“You friends and your family, all.”

A moment’s hesitation. “Then I will take them.”

There was a noise like wind. With a very gentle gesture, Aquaticus touched his nose to the young man’s face. “I would take them from you again after it’s all over, if you desired it. But along with your old memories, the new would be removed.” Aquaticus seemed to sigh. “I truly am sorry.”

Micah believed him.

…..

It seemed like Monica’s day had consisted of nothing but spying on people she hated. But they plagued her mind and she saw a billion over-imaginative reasons why she should do what she was doing. Her most logical reason was that, in the end, every little bit of information counted. If something bad happened, she might be able to do something about it.

The dwarf girl was sitting around the corner with Zavier. They’d hit it off that morning and had been chatting like old friends ever since. If they ended up kissing, Monica was out. And totally done with Zavier.

Gaius’ mother was sharpening the deadliest looking sword Monica had ever lain eyes on. She appeared to be more masculine than her husband, which was observably a problem in their relationship. How typical.

Mrs. Payne suddenly crashed through the bushes, yelling, “Dwarves?! Are you new neighbours?!”

Monica pulled herself up off the snow and quickly made her way towards home. Or towards safety, more accurately. Where Helen was, Monica was not.

Fares was chatting up Evelyn next to the general store, who seemed relatively interested in what he had to say. But then she offered to make he and Gaius some matching outfits out of sea shells and ginger cake, and her true motivation in paying attention to him was revealed.

Suddenly having seen this exchange, Monica realised that it was quite a lovely day.

She was only a few more steps from her front door when she stopped short and froze, staring with wide eyes at the scene before her.

Gaius’ father was a rough-looking bear of a man, and he stood with his eldest son outside in the cold. Gaius didn’t seem to care to look at him, and this didn’t seem to bother the old man one bit. Suddenly, he reached up and made some strange hand movements in the air above Gaius’ right ear. Where his fingers had been, a dark blue mist rose up to form a shape. And then it was gone.

What was that? It looked like magic, but never had Monica seen anything like it. Also, those who practiced magic had to use magic books, and the old man certainly didn’t have one open.

Monica was going to pry. She could feel it coming. Who knew what he might have done? With a determined air, she passed her house and approached the old man, who ignored her.

She narrowed her eyes. “What did you just do?”

The old man gave her a harsh look, and Gaius turned to look at them both.

“What?” the man growled.

“You heard me.”

“I’ve got no answer for you. Forget it, kid. I didn’t do anything.”

“Sure,” Monica began, and she could feel herself becoming bolder. “Nothing. I just hope whatever magic stuff you were doing, you weren’t directing it at Gaius, because if you do anything to the people here, I could bite you to death while you’re asleep.”

The words came naturally, but she could tell she was really milking it. Grandfather would be ashamed of her. But she had good reason to be in a bad mood. A lot of good reasons.

The old man had raised an eyebrow. To her surprise, he started chuckling. “Kid, you’ve got no idea what you’d be dealing with. I’d suggest you drop it quick.”

“Try me…I’ll figure it out.”

Gaius reached up suddenly. Monica thought he was reaching for the ear over which his father had done something, but instead he grasped a lock of his hair and started to pull on it. And at the same time, he looked at Monica carefully. “What did he do?”

The old man gave a silent groan and stalked away speedily, passing Fares, who was grudgingly allowing Evelyn to measure his waist, and slipping away into the lake area.

Gaius seemed to relax once he was gone, but he still looked unhappy. He spoke, but probably more to himself than to Monica. “Wish they’d stayed away…Better for them, better for me…”

Monica was curious. Knowing she was having problems with her own family made her wonder why Gaius was having problems with his own. She settled for one question. “What’s up with them?”

“I left, and they didn’t want me to. Now they want me to go back. I’m not gonna, but it really sucks. That’s all, I guess.” He avoided her eyes, fiddling with the handle of his hammer instead. “They never really liked me.”

Another girl might have said something encouraging, but this was Monica, and she didn’t roll that way. All the same…whatever. “Good job people here are more accepting, then.” She swung around and started to walk away before he could say anything. “Bye.”

Finally getting home, Monica went straight to her room and opened her notebook, scribbling down any details of her spying. It occured to her that Gaius hadn’t asked for an answer to his question on what his father had done, and she wished he had. She really wanted to know what it might have meant.

I’ll figure it out tomorrow.

She began to visualise creeping into the old man’s room and waking him up while she hung over him, but she could picture getting in loads of trouble for that. What a shame…

He was probably up to something. She’d find out what eventually.

With that thought in mind, she went to sleep.

…..

Micah leapt over the rocks and stood staring over the valley. He knew she was here, but finding her was going to be no simple task. She would make sure of that.

He read through the poem one more time, to make sure he wasn’t misjudging what was written. No, it definitely was what he thought it was. Ode to Black. How typical of her.

It was getting late. He wouldn’t be able to track her down today. It irked him, but it wasn’t much of a problem. She’d still be waiting for him tomorrow. And the day after that, and the day after that…until he came and found her.

Aquaticus had been right about his old memories. They weren’t happy ones. But he lived with them, just like he had before. He already knew Aquaticus had been right about him needing them. Much longer and she would have found him - and he wouldn’t have known he was in danger.

But he couldn’t tell anyone this. Shara couldn’t ever find out. Nobody could.

And so he’d keep it from them, and pray he never let anything slip.

It was almost dark when he got home. Shara kissed him and asked him how his day had been, as she always did, and he replied as he usually did, that it had been okay, hiding from her that in reality, today certainly had not been okay.

He could never tell.