When Nile wakes, the sun hangs low in the eastern sky. She looks toward it, raises a rusty hand to block some of the light, and finds herself marveling at the pink shroud creeping around the heavens and over the Ashkeeper Peaks, breaking through the lingering darkness. The clouds of shadow that had followed their enemy had given way to light… does that mean they won the battle? She doesn’t know, but she basks in the warmth anyways. She looks at her hand - her blood-soaked hand, one which should not be moving anymore, because last night, by the fading light of twilight, Nile had been struck down by the blade of an enemy and died.
Upon recalling this, she jerks upward. She’s laying in a line - to either side of her, corpses, stretching to either horizon. Distantly, she sees clerics tending to the dead - not reviving them, not resurrecting them, but giving them each the blessings of their deities, sending them on their journey in the afterlife. She touches her throat lightly - no new blood, no gaping wound. Glancing around herself, she sees no remnants of magic - no circles of runes scratched into the earth, no ash from disintegrated diamonds, no light hanging in the air. She is just - simply - awake again.
She grabs down at her necklace, the eight-pointed sun symbolizing the Dawnfather. Did you do this? she prays, as the sun crawls higher in the sky. Did you bring me back to life?
Distantly, one of the clerics notices her, and calls out to the others. He runs over, bends down, and apologizes for mistaking her for the dead, says that they would heal her wounds. Nile nods absently, and the cleric glances over her, and quickly, confused, realizes that she’s perfectly healed.
He helps her stand up, and she staggers to her feet, shakily. He tells her that he’s going to bring her to their medics and healers, that they’re going to make sure she’s alright. Nile doesn’t listen. If you sent me back, she prays, tell me what to do. Tell me where to go.
Unfortunately for Nile, the message she wanted would be delivered to someone else.
Somewhere far away, in a shitty back-alley inn and sleeping on molding piles of hay, a small party jolts awake.
“I saw - a sun, behind mountains,” Nicolò gasps, grasping at the dissipating tendrils of his dream. “Breaking through clouds - unnatural, dark clouds.”
“She - she’s a she, I saw her,” Yusuf adds, pulling out a sketchbook. Charcoal in hand, he draws what he remembers, and narrates as he goes - “Human. Round face, dark skin. Her hair was in braids. She wore armor.”
“I felt her die,” Sebastien announces from the corner, so resigned. “She bled out through the neck.”
“She held the sun in her hands,” Quynh muses. “A follower of Pelor. I saw her speaking to someone, mostly in Common, but she knew a little Undercommon.”
Andromache, listening silently, finally opens her mouth to speak. “Pelor, the Dawnfather, is one of the six approved deities in the Dwendalian Empire, and she wore standard-issue Empire armor. The mountains sound like the Ashkeeper Peaks and Dunrock Mountains, in central Wynandir. The Empire’s been starting shit with the Kryn Dynasty recently; I’m willing to bet she’s stationed near the Ashguard Garrison. It's on the border of the Empire and the Dynasty, and the Empire has troops stationed there permanently.”
Sebastien groans. “So far away,” he complains under his breath. Andromache ignores him.
“I’ll get her. Yusuf, do you think you can get us there?” she asks.
Yusuf tears out a page from his sketchbook, presenting her with the image of their future newest member. “Always, boss,” he says with a grin.
The others gather their things and come in close, and once they are all ready, Yusuf begins to speak - verse and rhyme fall from his lips, his eyes glow a shade of gold, and in a moment, the five of them are standing in the small soldier’s outpost of the Ashguard Garrison. The streets are eerily empty; clouds blot out the sun.
“Go find a place to stay,” Andromache orders. “I’ll be back in a day or two.”
She sets out at a brisk pace, toward the edge of the garrison. She’d find a way out somehow.
The clerics back at camp confirm there’s nothing wrong with Nile; no injury, no scar, no scab, even. It doesn’t stop them from caring. Nile is fussed over, stripped out of her armor, cleaned up, and put to bed. They seem relieved that whatever problem existed seems to have fixed itself, as it’s saved them a few bandages and a spell slot.
She tries to get rest on the simple sleeping roll she’s been tucked into, but she can’t stop thinking of it - the way her hand looked when she lifted it to the sun, red with old blood, glowing gold in the early morning light. That hand that had flown up to her throat when it was sliced open by a Xhorhassian drow, that throat that had miraculously smoothed skin back over the wound. She thinks of the sun, and of the Dawnfather.
Was dying not enough for this? she asks him. Is my blood not worthy of you?
He doesn’t answer.
How were you even able to do this?
From his distant throne beyond the Divine Gate, the Dawnfather does not answer Nile.
At some point, her questions are enough to drag her into sleep, though light. Her dreams are scattered, vague, but she feels like she can see all of time behind her. An elven man wreathed in shadow. An aasimar and a tiefling, swords clashing. A half-elf running through a field, a wild grin from ear to ear. A dwarven woman cleaning blood from her beard.
She’s pulled from her nap by the sound of a conversation just outside the tent. It’s muffled, but someone’s speaking in an accent - they sound like they’re from the capital, Rexxentrum. She’s momentarily thrown off; most of the soldiers Nile fought alongside, and Nile herself, came from Zadash and the surrounding settlements in the Marrow Valley. Hearing a northern, Zemnian accent like one that would be heard in Rexxentrum was unusual, to say the least. The conversation isn’t heated, but it sounds serious. Final.
After a moment, a flap of the tent opens, and she pretends she had been asleep the whole time. The cleric who had first found her gently shakes her awake, and she plays at opening her eyes slowly and sleepily. Standing there before her, in a tall crimson uniform, is… well, someone she’s never seen before, but even as someone unfamiliar with Rexxentrum’s politics, she recognizes the symbol embroidered on their breast: three diamonds surrounded by eight curling spires, the symbol of the Cerberus Assembly. Shit, she thinks. She keeps her face carefully neutral. Why is someone from the Cerberus Assembly here?? What would crusty old mage politicians want with me?
The mage looks down at her, studies her for a moment, then crouches down. They have blue eyes, and their mouth is drawn into a frown, and it makes Nile feel like she’s not even there, or like she’s being examined under a microscope.
“Nile Freeman,” the mage says vaguely.
“Y-Yeah?” she asks. Although she’s nervous, she can’t help but put a little bite into her words. “That’s me. And who might you be?”
“I’m a representative of the Cerberus Assembly, and we are… interested in what has happened to you,” the mage replies. They reach out and touch her neck, and she startles, stiffens, but the mage doesn’t move their hand. They brush along her throat and marvel to themself about how utterly normal it is. When they’ve had their fill, they retract their hand, and finally look her in the eyes.
“You’ve fought well, servant of the Dawnfather,” the mage tells her. “Now we need your help.”
In the eyes of this mage, she is nothing but a butterfly pinned to a board. She swallows, nods, says okay, because what else can she do? What else can this mage do, should she refuse?
The mage nods, tells her to collect her things and meet them outside as swiftly as possible, and briskly retreats from the tent. She gets to her feet slowly, sluggishly, like she’s moving through mud. The cleric comes to her side, helps her dress in fresh clothing and don her armor, which had been cleaned in the night by some poor soldier or apprentice. It shines like she’s never seen it do before. She makes sure her scabbard is attached to her belt and sheathes her sword, takes in a breath, and steps outside the tent.
“I appreciate timeliness,” the mage says. Nile, not knowing how to respond, settles for a half-shrug and half-nod, and then feels incredibly stupid. “If you’ll follow me.”
The mage turns and begins walking to the back of the camp, a more private area. She feels the stares of the soldiers burning into her neck, open and curious about the fighter in full armor and employee of the Cerberus Assembly. It feels like an eternity before they’re away from all and the mage pulls out inks and chalks that look very expensive.
“If you don’t mind, I’ll have to draw us a circle,” the mage tells her, and Nile can only take the time to think to herself, circle?, before the mage is unconscious on the ground. Nile almost screams before she’s grabbing at her sword, but small foreign hands find the chinks in her armor and she’s knocked breathless. Bent halfway over, she looks up and makes eye contact with a dwarven woman with a well-trimmed beard and old, old eyes.
“Who are you?” she asks, heaving dusty air into her lungs.
“Andromache the Undying,” the woman answers, and Nile is knocked unconscious.
For the second time in as many days, Nile wakes up without knowing where she is; this time, she is moving. She doesn’t even think before she throws herself off the back of the horse she’s been unceremoniously slung onto and she flies backward, bounces, rolls, and comes to a stop. She’s so focused on shakily getting to her feet and running that she doesn’t notice that the sound of hoofbeats has quieted, or that the woman who had found her at camp had caught up to her.
“Where do you think you’re going?” the woman - Andromache - asks, in such a way that it doesn’t exactly sound like a question. Nile, unthinkingly, turns.
“A-away,” Nile trips over her words. “You’re - you’re kidnapping me, I was about to go - somewhere else, I’m a paladin of the Dawnfather, I’m supposed to be fighting the invaders -” she babbles. “This isn’t right.”
“You don’t have to do that anymore,” Andromache tells her. “You died.”
“Clearly I didn’t,” Nile snaps. “And again, you’re kidnapping me!”
Andromache sighs. “I’m like you,” she explains tersely. “And there are others. People who’ve died and risen back up: without the aid of magic, divine or dark, without the blessings or curses of gods. When we’re struck down, our bodies heal themselves. When our hearts stop, they start themselves again. All on their own.”
Nile takes a step backwards. “This is - this is nuts, there’s no way -” and in a moment, she has her blade out and swinging.
The greatsword finds purchase in Andromache’s bare arm, cleaving a wound wide open. Muscle fibers and sinew and bone are exposed to the air, and blood splatters across both of them. Andromache yells in pain, and Nile stops. Andromache doesn’t move either, though the expression on her face is twisted into rage. The two stand there, transfixed, as the wound slowly crawls closed, flesh regrowing and weaving itself back together.
“This is real, and it’s happening,” Andromache tells Nile, and to prove her point, slits Nile’s throat with a dagger she’d had hidden for who knows how long. And Nile dies, again.
When Nile wakes this time, they’re in a completely different location. Andromache has made a fire, and the sun is setting - although it might be more appropriate to say it’s being swallowed by clouds of darkness. Nile stares, for a moment, her suspicions awfully confirmed - the Kryn Dynasty’s troops hadn’t been defeated, they had simply moved. After a moment, she looks around - and she realizes where she is.
“You’re taking me to the Ashguard Garrison?” Nile asks, incredulously. Even in the middle of nowhere as they are - no roads in sight, only Andromache’s horse and the pack lashed to it with a rope - she would recognize the landscape surrounding the Garrison.
“That’s where the rest of the team is,” Andromache answers plainly.
“Yeah, you mentioned them earlier,” Nile responds slowly. She takes in the surroundings again, and shifts a little closer to Andromache. “What’s the deal with them?”
“We’re like… an army,” Andromache explains, poking the fire with a stick. She’s eating a rat. “We travel to where we’re needed, and we do what we think is right.”
Nile nods, absorbs this.
“My turn,” Andromache says with a grin, after a moment. “You’re a follower of Pelor? Don’t you know the gods are as fallible as mortals are? Pelor isn’t all powerful, he didn’t do this to you, and he can’t save you.”
Nile grabs at her pendant and frowns. “My whole life, I’ve worshipped the Dawnfather,” she answers tightly. “He spoke to me, and told me to follow this path. In my darkest moments, he’s shown me the way. I will continue to follow him, for as long as he’ll have me.”
Andromache take this in with eyebrows raised. “You know, I used to be worshipped as a god.” She snorts laughter. “A minor one, but a god nonetheless. An incarnation of death. It’s all bullshit once you get down to it.”
Nile looks at her with as sour a look as she can manage.
“Try to get some sleep,” advises Andromache. “You’ll need it for the morning. We’re almost to our destination.” In seconds, she’s asleep - or appears to be.
Nile breathes in, alone for the first time since the mage had met her. She takes a moment to remind herself of her oath, prays to the Dawnfather, and retrieves the rope.
Andromache wakes to find herself hog-tied.
“We aren’t going to the Ashguard Garrison.” Nile’s voice is as steely as her blade.
Andromache sighs, curses, and the fight commences.
Andromache cuts her way out of the rope using that Dawnfather-forsaken knife of hers - she must have it hidden up a sleeve, or something. In moments she’s on Nile with a face of pure anger and they’re fighting hand to hand. For every swing she aims toward Nile’s stomach and sides, Nile’s gloved hand catches it, or else aims for Andromache’s face. Nile is good, but she’s had nowhere near the amount of experience as Andromache the Undying. The first moment Nile gives her an opening, Andromache grabs her arm and roughly snaps the elbow backward.
Nile screams in pain and in return, Andromache breaks her knee. Nile collapses to the ground in a heap of metal and bone, and Andromache stands there, breathing heavy, staring Nile in the eyes while the two listen to the bones snap back into place. Something breaks.
“I want to go home,” Nile confesses, voice wet. Andromache lets out a long breath.
“You’re good. But before you make any decisions, you need to meet the team first.”
Andromache holds an arm out, and slowly, cautiously, Nile takes it.
Nile wakes before the sun rises as she was taught to do, and while the slivers of sunlight slide into the sky between the shadows, she prays. When Andromache wakes up, Nile watches her hide the remnants of the fire, pack what few things were used during the night (and curse when she realizes she cut the ropes she needs), and ready the horse to leave. Andromache swings up onto the creature’s back, and holds a hand out to Nile, who finds herself begrudgingly sitting behind her apparent captor.
The horse moves slow under the weight of an additional rider - especially unused to one as heavy as Nile in armor - but they’re near enough to the Ashguard Garrison that it doesn’t matter much, anyways. They’ve arrived within a few hours. Andromache has to perform some frankly stupid stunts in her quest to return the horse to the stable she’d stolen it from, and Nile has to ditch her armor outside of the settlement for both reasons of stealth and apparently fitting in, but in the end they make it inside safely and quietly, without much fuss.
Nile follows Andromache through the once-familiar streets of the Ashguard Garrison, and tries not to stare at the drow now occupying the places Empire soldiers once did. They laugh the same way, they drink the same way; the one small church in town, a small wooden thing with the symbols of the Empire’s six deities outside it, has had its symbols replaced with a geometric form, something made of pentagons. The sky is dark, an ashy, charcoal night, even though her body and faith know it to be midday. She tries to breathe and stay calm but for every fiber of her body screaming that everything is wrong.
Andromache winds through back alleys, following… some sort of trail, Nile suspects, but she can’t be sure because she has no idea what to be looking for. In the end, it doesn’t really matter, because their journey ends with Andromache knocking on the door of an abandoned armory, and the door opening with a grin and a flourish.
Lantern light pours out from the inside, and Nile lets out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. Haloed by the light is a man who looks human enough, but his eyes have a glow behind them that Nile’s never seen before; he seems ethereal, like he’s something from another plane. His smile seems as bright as the light behind him as he scoops Andromache up into a hug and swings her around.
“I missed you!” the man tells her earnestly.
“It’s only been a few days!” Andromache laughs. The man sets her down and right behind Andromache, shutting the door, is a tiefling man, blue-skinned and smiling softly. The two horns sprouting from his skull curl around his head like a crown, and his eyes - sea-glass green - are luminous in shadow. The tiefling embraces Andromache as well - tightly, intimately.
Once released, Andromache claps a hand on Nile’s shoulder. “This is Nile,” she tells the two. “Nile, meet Yusuf--” she gestures to the not-quite-human man “--and Nicolò.” She gestures to the tiefling man. “Yusuf here does the arcane magic. Nicolò has good aim.”
Nicolò makes a face of disagreement, and Yusuf says, “Well, I’d say he does a bit more than that.” Andromache shakes her head.
All in all, Nile totals five people in the room, beside herself. “This is your team?” she asks Andromache indignantly.
Andromache looks back at her, carefully. “They’re the best of the best, I assure you.” She turns and continues into the room.
It’s an informal affair, clearly not one intended for supporting day to day living long term, but they’re making it work somehow. Someone’s cooking food over a fire strategically placed under a hole in the ceiling to vent out the smoke. In one corner, an elven man sits scrawling something in a book - he has shaggy blonde hair and looks like he hasn’t taken a bath in three years, and has as much scruff on his face as his elven heritage would allow. Andromache moves to the other side, to where a half-elven woman sits making arrows. The woman has a spark in her eye and a waterfall of long, dark hair, and her smile upon noticing Andromache, human and sharp, is beautiful. The half-elf woman reaches up and kisses Andromache, and Nile abruptly feels out of place, like she’s walked into someone else’s home.
“Nile, what foods do you like? You’re Dwendalian, yes?” Yusuf’s questions jog her from her thoughts. She turns to look at him and Nicolò, who’s checking on the food; he spoons a tiny amount out to taste, and seems to deem it acceptable.
“I’ll eat anything besides sprouts,” she answers. “And who…”
Nicolò follows her eyes to the elf and the half-elf, and has a moment of realization. “Ah, this is Sebastien, and over there, is Quynh,” he says, gesturing to each of them in turn with the spoon he’s still holding. “Sebastien is a sorcerer, and Quynh is an archer skilled beyond imagination.” He takes the pot off of the fire, setting it down to one side to cool. “Dinner’s almost ready, so make yourself comfortable.”
Sebastien stirs at that, and starts grabbing at dusty, discarded helmets, collecting about five. Yusuf finds a few knives and brings them to the middle of the room, where Andromache has moved their packs into a little circle and sat down, heavily, upon hers. The group collects in the ring, and as Nile watches, Nicolò uses the helmets Sebastien found as bowls for a soup he made.
“Ah, we don’t have enough,” Nicolò says to himself as he fills the last bowl. “Hm. Nile, this is yours, I will share with Yusuf.” She takes the proffered helmet of soup and finds herself on the ground beside Andromache.
Dinner is quiet, at first. She finds herself watching each of them as she spears the bits of vegetables and meat with the knife she was handed; she observes Nicolò and Yusuf have an entire conversation with their eyes, and briefly makes eye contact with Sebastien, who looks more exhausted than a dead man. He looks away to drink the broth from his helmet.
Andromache and Quynh are also having a conversation, Nile notes, but they tend toward body language and expression. She doesn’t watch long.
“So,” she breaks the silence. “You all are… immortal?”
“More or less,” Yusuf answers.
“How… old are you all?” she asks tentatively, and Yusuf smiles.
“Nicolò and I fought in the Calamity,” he says with a grin, and Nile finds herself choking on a piece of potato.
“The Calamity - that war where the Prime Deities fought back against the evil Betrayer Gods, banishing them and eventually sealing themselves out of the prime material plane, that Calamity?” Nile repeats once she’s no longer choking. Yusuf smiles and nods.
“We killed each other,” he tells her, almost affectionately.
“Many times,” Nicolò confirms.
“But if you fought against each other…” she trails off. “Wouldn’t one of you be following a Betrayer god?”
Nicolò winces. “I was taught to follow Asmodeus, but it was wrong, as much as I felt it right at the time. Meeting Yusuf helped me to see that.”
She nods. Digests a moment. “And what about you all?” she says. “How old are you?”
Sebastien groans. “I was born about 400 years ago,” he tells her. “Nothing too exciting. Fought in a war, died, now I’m here.” He takes a long drink from a flask.
“I was born in the Age of Arcanum, over a thousand years ago,” Quynh tells her, leaning forward and resting her elbows on her knees. “I used to ride in fields, hunting whatever would make me money, and watch the airships and floating cities go by, drifting through the skies like whales. Mortals just don’t make them like they used to.” She looks almost disappointed.
Nile looks to Andromache expectantly, who quirks a lip and takes a sip of her drink. “I’m the oldest thing in Exandria,” Andromache answers, and somehow, Nile understands what she means.
She takes a moment, nods; notices Yusuf and Nicolò eating from the same helmet, moving for seconds. She eats more of her food.
“I dreamed of you, I think,” she murmurs. “Just - flashes.”
They nod, understandingly.
“We’re not meant to be alone. The dreams lead us to each other,” Quynh explains.
“Misery loves company,” Booker adds dryly.
“It’s more like we’re meant to find each other,” Yusuf corrects him gently. “Avandra sees that we’re the same and makes a path for us to follow, if we decide to do so.”
“It’s destiny,” Nicolò murmurs, and Yusuf gives him a smile, like they’re sharing an inside joke.
“And you all - fight for good?” Nile can’t help but ask. “What do you do, what do you fight for?”
Nicolò meets her eyes. “We fight for what we think is right. Freedom, safety, independence - the world, I suppose.”
“Noble goals.” Nile’s voice is quiet, and no matter how much she might want to, she can’t deny that their goals seem to align with hers - to do good.
They finish dinner no longer silent but still quiet, speaking infrequently, and with laughter soft like bells. Sebastien ends up eating the last of the soup (after washing it down with a drink from a flask of alcohol) and so is tasked with cleaning up after them, and Quynh helps make their beds for sleeping, while Nicolò puts out the fire. It’s not much more than rolling out the light blankets that they carry with them on top of the floor, but anything is better than nothing, Nile supposes.
“You can share with Sebastien,” Quynh tells her. “He might not even fall asleep under the blanket, anyway.” She looks slyly toward him, sitting against the wall and back to writing in his book, this time clearly less coordinated than he had been before.
Once they’re done laying out the spaces, the party starts to gather. Yusuf and Nicolò take one end - Yusuf with a back to the wall, Nicolò in front of him, pressed together like magnets. Quynh splays out in the middle with a laugh, and Andromache lays beside her. Sebastien curls up on Andromache’s other side, and Nile finds herself beside him, halfway under the blanket.
Yusuf blows out the lantern. “Good night,” he whispers in the darkness, and laying there, on one end of a line of immortals, Nile finds true sleep for the first time since she'd died.