When the dog walks into the coliseum, the Scourge of the South hesitates. There’s a moment where the roar of the crowd almost pulls him back under the wave of red energy that blots out his mind but when he takes one heavy step forward he can see a sudden overlay of Inanna. He sucks in a shocked breath as his mind fully snaps back into his own control and when the dog gently taps her staff against his battle axe, he lets it drop to the packed dust with a loud and final thud. Around him, the crowd jeers.
“Aruff,” the little dog says, beckoning him with one furry paw. Too dazed to argue, he follows, hardly noticing that the packed stands fall silent the moment his foot crosses the threshold. When the gate slams shut behind them, Muriel gives a full-body shiver and exhales shakily.
“I— what—” he stammers. The little dog casts a look at him over her shoulder and continues walking determinedly away from the coliseum. “Wait! Who are you?”
The dog sighs before turning to face him. She presses a paw to her chest and barks softly. She goes to turn away and he quickly holds out one hand to stop her before he realizes he’s… in his old battle outfit. He’s covered in blood. The chains are back around his neck. His breathing picks up and he frantically claws at his clothing, ripping off the boiled leather of his protective gear and wrenching his collar apart with less force than should have been necessary. The pieces of his past fall to the stone pathway, surrounding him, and in a final desperate act he gathers up fistfuls of his long hair and shears it with the knife at his belt.
When he finally looks back up, something he cannot name shivering beneath his skin, he sees that the dog— Scout— has waited for him. Even though she has stayed patiently during the process, never rushing him, something in her body language now suggests that she is nervous to get them to their destination.
“Where are we?” Muriel finally asks. “What’s going on?”
Through a series of barks and woofs, Scout paints a very vague picture of the realm he’s found himself in. He listens intently as she speaks, even while his hazy memories of his fight with Vulgora filter back into his brain. He opens his mouth to speak before suddenly remembering a clawed hand plunging forward into—
“... Maven.” He says. The moment that her name leaves his mouth, the realm around him falls still and silent. His ears ring, the sound of gauntleted claws sinking into meat repeating in his mind. Had she said anything? Had she screamed, or made a sound? He can’t remember. He can’t —
“ARUFF!” Scout cuts in. He jerks his head up to look at her and realizes from very far away that he has crumpled to the ground. Tears sting his eyes and his breath hitches as Scout goes on. “Awoo woof, wrowf arf!”
“She’s— she’s alive?” he asks incredulously. Scout nods once and casts a nervous look over her shoulder. “Can you take me to her?”
Scout bays and takes off. Muriel lurches to his feet and runs after her. They move faster than should be possible, taking sharp corners and darting through hidden entrances and exits, moving from Vesuvia to the forest to the desert to—
They come to a halt abruptly. The water ahead of them shines almost golden in the light of a magicked sun slowly descending, the sight only marred by a single short pier and a lonely gondola. Scout doesn’t hesitate and hops into the boat with ease, looking at Muriel expectantly. He pants and shakes his head in confusion.
“I don’t understand,” he says. “Where’s Maven? Where are we going?”
Scout grumbles and points over her shoulder in irritation. Muriel furrows his brow for a moment but when he raises his eyes, the Lazaret suddenly appears. It’s a familiar sight, the plague island that haunts the city. It seems larger than life now, somehow more menacing than it has ever been. Almost impossibly, he can see a single smokestack belching out a dark cloud. Ash flutters to the sand. Every part of him is urging that he stay where he is, stay safe, but he feels a tug at his core.
Scout wrings her hands as he swallows, his dry throat clicking. “She’s on the Lazaret?”
Muriel takes one full moment to be afraid. Then he steps into the boat.
The trip is both the shortest and the longest boat ride he’s ever been on. Time moves oddly as they race toward the Lazaret, and when they finally hit the shore Scout sighs in relief. She gestures him out of the gondola and toward the hulking monstrosity of a building that patiently waits at the center of the island. She settles a little more heavily into her seat and watches him give the dark cloud billowing out of the smokestack a long look.
“She’s inside?” he asks once more. Scout nods. He nods back and makes his way into the stuff of nightmares.
The place is pristine, despite its dilapidated exterior. The air is heavy with a suffocating quiet as well as a growing heat that the setting sun can’t explain. When he turns a corner, he realizes why. At the end of a long, dark hallway, an inlaid window in a heavy metal door is open, allowing the hazy light and sweltering heat of the blazing crematorium to escape. Between Muriel and the door stands Maven. She sways on her feet as if she’s going to collapse at any moment, taking incremental, shuffling steps toward the light.
When Muriel opens his mouth to call out to her, his voice sticks in his throat. A step forward is met with an invisible sort of barrier. He strains his vocal cords and his muscles, pressing forward with all of his might. Maven takes a final step and lays her fingers on the door handle. It swings toward her with no resistance and heat blasts down the hallway. Muriel flinches back from its intensity but watches in horror as Maven takes another step forward, the flames reaching for her eagerly, beckoning.
“No!” he shouts. The barrier gives way with a sudden pop. He stumbles once, regains his footing, and sprints down the hall. It seems to stretch on infinitely even as his heart pounds in his throat with exertion, panic threading its way through his veins. Maven takes another step, her bare toes inches from the flame, before he finally reaches her and yanks her away. When he turns her around, he expects to see the wasted body and sunken, red eyes of someone plagued, but it’s only Maven’s normal face staring at him dazedly. “Maven, are you okay?”
She listlessly tries to turn back to the crematorium but he holds her firmly, one large hand wrapped around each of her arms. She blinks slowly. A shifting image of pale skin and bleeding scleras flits over her face before vanishing as if there isn’t enough magic to hold the illusion in place.
“Doctor,” she rasps. He winces at the rattle in her throat. “Is it time?”
Muriel opens his mouth slightly before his gaze moves back to the crematorium. Her words echo in his mind as revulsion washes over him. Something in him snaps. Tears begin welling up before he can help it, thinking of the coliseum, the fight with Vulgora, this place which is best forgotten to time.
“Maven, you’re not sick,” he says in a strangled voice. “You’re having a bad dream.”
Her head lolls on her shoulder as she looks away from the flame and up at him with glassy eyes. Somehow, the light of the fire flickers behind her pupils. “A dream?” she asks faintly.
His mouth works as he tries to fumble together enough words to rouse her, eventually releasing her arms to cradle her face and hold her close. She slumps weakly against his chest but he holds her up with ease.
“Yes, it’s just a dream,” he chokes out. He watches her gaze slowly fall from his and wander back toward the fire. “Please wake up, Maven, please—”
He kisses her out of desperation, out of not knowing what to do and not being smart enough to figure it out. He kisses her even as his mind snarls at him for touching her at all with his filthy hands, blood still caked under his nails. He’s more startled than he’d like to admit when their lips touch and she inhales sharply, reaching out with manic hands to bury her fingers into his hair and pull him closer. When they break for air, both of their faces are wet with tears. Maven’s dark eyes are darting frantically between Muriel and the open door but when he pulls her into an almost crushing embrace, she buries her face against his chest with no complaint and shudders in his arms.
“M-Muriel, I don’t— where—” she stammers. Her chest heaves with every too-fast breath and she shakes as if the only thing keeping her together is Muriel’s grip. The crematorium’s fire is abruptly smothered, so quickly that no smoke remains, haunting sliver of moonlight all that illuminates the dark.
“... we should leave,” Muriel says after a time of them simply clinging to each other. His throat is tight with emotion but hope fills him for the first time in perhaps his entire life, a heady concoction that reminds him over and over that Maven is here and safe in his arms.
Maven nods frantically against his chest but makes no move to loosen her grip, her chilly fingers pressing into his skin as if she believes that they could become one if only she used enough force. After a moment’s hesitation, he lifts her into his arms.
“Is this okay?” he asks. She nods against his neck, wrapping her arms around it, before shifting her head just slightly. “Okay.”
Nothing stops them from trying to leave. Muriel makes his way through the hallway with a quickened step, but nothing follows. As they go, he can feel Maven’s eyes staring behind them into the empty, gaping maw of the crematorium.