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This Cage of Flesh and Bone

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Lahabrea looks down at his hands, testing them out, rubbing borrowed fingers together. Without his gloves, they feel so cold, vulnerable. Thancred had kept his nails tidy, at least, but his palms are rough with patches here and there bordering on calluses. He picks at one spot for a moment, nail snagging on worn skin in a way that makes the muscle under one eye twitch. 

 

He starts at the sound of the doors to their inner sanctum opening, and locks his gaze on his hands when it is the Warrior whose boots strike stone. It is best she assumes him too weak and disturbed to function. He winces when the woman stops then settles down on the bench beside him. 

 

Eventually, he turns his head just enough that he can glance at her from the corner of his eye. "Surely there are things that need doing. Rather than keeping an old man company."

 

She laughs at his slip up, the sound hammering at his skull, worming its way in. It’s obnoxious, annoyingly tolerable. "Old?? I'm a year your senior at least!"

 

He snorts. “Well. It hardly feels like it with all this running to and fro. I will stay behind this time and see what I can learn here while you flit about the forest.” Finding that balance between truth and lie where his words contained a dash of both was always enjoyable. The fun of confessing to his enemy exactly what he was doing while leaving them in the dark… It took clenching his jaw to bite back a laugh. 

 

“Are you sure you’re alright?”

 

“Of course.” 

 

She was supposed to get up and leave him to his thoughts, his plots, but she’s talking again, this time about Primals. It’s as if she is thinking out loud when she talks through her understanding of the summoning rituals. As she delves deeper into her theories, he’s almost impressed by how close she comes to the truth, here and there. Crass, tribal summons are nothing compared to true creation magic, yet the way she describes it somehow reminds him of the past in a way that tugs at the edges of his soul. He rubs his hands on his pants, rough fabric catching on rough palms. It’s all wrong. 

 

He wants to correct her, fill in the holes in her theories. What can he say that a Student of Baldesion might presumably know? Caught up in her genuine curiosity, in the way she devours his words as a hungry student, he loses himself in babbling along with her, until he feels her tug at his sleeve. “It’s late…” 

 

Tilting his head, he wonders why she would bother stating something so obvious. She stands up and tugs again and he follows her lead. He assumes that his host wouldn’t put up a fight over this kind of treatment and resisting would cause more hassle than it was worth. It is only when she takes him into a side room with a bed and little else that he realizes his mistake. 

 

“Do not look so panicked, Thancred! Despite the way you boast about your conquests, I had no plans to take advantage of you. I just wanted a quiet place for us to continue our conversation without waking the others.” 

 

The Warrior of Light sits down on the bed and pats the spot next to her, and he cannot help but doubt her words. He had known this Thancred to be… familiar with this kind of thing and hoped it would never be a problem he had to deal with while using him. “Your knowledge is fascinating, though. Please, tell me more... “ 

 

She asks, he answers, holding back just enough so as not to arm her with anything truly dangerous. The way she listens, attention rapt, yet eyes half-lidded every so often from exhaustion… It’s warm. No, that's not the right word. He's still fumbling for how to properly categorize it when she leans against his shoulder and his every muscle tenses. At first he’d thought the trap had snapped shut on him at last, but her breathing slows and she stills. How she must trust this Thancred , he thinks in bitter tones. Lahabrea stands up slowly, guiding her to lay down on the cot so he can… he frowns severely at how powerful the urge to flee is at this moment. What should have been a pathetically easy infiltration was already dangerous in ways he refuses to give voice to. 

 

"Thancred…," she mumbles, already half asleep and he jumps again when she grabs his sleeve. 

 

The fact that he even hesitates he rests squarely on any lingering faculties of his host. Or the fact that you froze as a cornered rabbit, you senile old imbecile. Pull yourself together! He yanks his sleeve free this man’s taste in textiles is abhorrent and slips away to the door, relieved beyond measure to see the Warrior drift back into dozing. 

 

***

Though most of him resided in that man’s body back at the Waking Sands, Lahabrea was exhausted from lurking in this cave for hours, listening to the Sylph’s muffled complaints and the skittering and chittering of vilekin. He was stretched thin, on the verge of fraying. Where was she? Not fallen prey to some stumbling yarzon. 

 

Finally she strides into the chamber, swagger in her step and weapon at the ready. It felt idiotic to introduce himself so to someone who had leaned against his shoulder mere nights ago. This woman who nearly pulled him down into the bed she slept in, who he nearly let pull him in. 

 

Damned mortal contrivances . He would just need to avoid her next time. 

 

At his threats she smiles patiently as though listening to a child regaling her with an obvious lie, until she breaks eye contact and tilts her head. Listening to someone else… Damned Hydaelyn. Surely telling her champion that before her stands but a minion of darkness. To destroy me would bring salvation, is it? Lahabrea’s fist clenches at his side, the leather creaking, unwieldy claws making a mess of the gesture. Well, he had no plans to make a stand here anyway. In this state he could never infuse a creature with enough power to do more than inconvenience her, but at least he could return some of the irritation she’d infused him with, some of the poison that plagued him. 

 

He sets his pet against her, dispersing into an incorporeal state to watch as she dispatches it with ease as predicted. She twists away from a strike from its tail at the last moment, delivering a graceful counterblow, reveling in victory as it tumbles down, screeching one final time. No, there is nothing special about the way she struggles to live another day like any mortal would. She is nothing, he thinks. That is, until she looks directly at something she should have no way to see. He’s never felt so exposed than he does now under her gaze. She knows he stayed and watched, and logically he knows she cannot read his thoughts, but the very idea bristles. 

 

Withdrawing into the Scion’s body in full, he’s all too aware of its reactions to the bluster of emotions he brought back to it. He grits his teeth and wipes his hands on ‘his’ workman’s pants, feeling no cleaner nor centered afterwards. This body demands resolution to a building need that disgusts him enough to set him running outside to still his breath in the baking sun of the desert. 

 

He takes a moment to experience the rare sensation of the sun’s warmth soaking into his skin, penetrating through muscle and bone. Though incongruous to the state he’s existed in for thousands of years, it is no less soothing. The persistent heat reminds him of days long ago, forging creations from the fire in his own heart. When a blink brings with it an afterimage of glaring light, he glances down at the shadow extending out from sturdy boots and up the wall at a strange angle. 

 

After all this time, is nostalgia finally digging its dirty little claws into me? No. I am nothing but thankful that I was left unsundered so that I may bring forth the end of Hydaelyn’s false reign!  

 

As furious as his thoughts are, as all consuming, he fails to fully convince himself before resuming his post in the dimly lit hallway of The Waking Sands. She’ll be home soon to make her report, after all , he thinks in a tone full of mockery, though its target is ambiguous. 

 

*** 

Lahabrea adopts a sufficiently casual pose as he listens to how the Warrior describes him as he'd appeared in the Maws. She puffs herself up with courage, calling him a coward for not fighting her himself. The other Scions reply in glad tones, liking her assesment of thier mysterious foe. 

 

But she is scared, oh yes. The way she speaks with carefully mustered conviction tells him the story behind the story, even through the doors to the inner sanctum. He could have joined in the celebrations, but as practiced as he is at deception, there was too much at stake to shatter the illusion with a stifled laugh or the incorrect expression giving him away. 

 

Their conversation turns to more mundane matters, to plans he already knows of all too well, so he stops listening. Once more, the Warrior refuses to leave him be when their parley concludes. "I missed you at the meeting. You must not be too hard on yourself. You can't be there to stop every tragedy." 

 

With no warning, ages of repressed fury come to a head within him, unlocked by her unintentionally pointed words. What do you know of tragedy?! Lahabrea's mind reels and his fingers comb through his hair, pulling here and there - it's too short it's too long and his stomach feels like it’s about to empty when she looks into his eyes with too much kindness and understanding for him to bear. 

 

What do I even look like anymore? What face do I wear? There's a mirror… and before he can catch his reflection there's a flash of searing orange and the world rocks. It slips out of his fingers, shattering on the floor. He sees himself running down a walkway, you can't save everyone, nearly slipping in a pool of blood, leave them, get to your destination or more will die, we’ll all die!

 

Warmth wraps around his shoulders, someone shaking him. "Thancred! Hush. It's okay." It's not! "You're safe here." You're the one who should worry about…! The others can't see… they'll know! "As you say. Hold on then," her distant voice replies to words she can’t have heard. 

 

And he's bodily carried to that small room again and sat on the bed like a fragile toy. His world tries to keep rotating around him until she sits by his side and holds him steady. "I understand not wanting to worry the others. They have a lot on their minds. You can talk to me about anything and I swear it shall be kept secret."

 

How much of that had he said out loud? And why did he not fight off her misplaced sympathy? "I have to do better. I have to be stronger." The words echo through Lahabrea and the sleeping soul he encompasses. Failures and victories with a price… they both know them all too well. 

 

"Don't lose yourself in striving, though."

 

He has to remind himself that she’s talking to Thancred, not him. This isn’t for him … but somehow she’s a knack for speaking directly to his soul. There’s a flurry of sensation in the mass of meat and bone and nerves that he’s stolen, from this affection that he’s stolen. It would be so easy to blame them on the other man and his fickle interests but dammit he knows better, even if he hasn’t felt such stirring in his breast in centuries. 

 

"You can't be everywhere at once, so for now, just be here." No. Fight it, damn you! Sentimental fool! His eyes burn with tears and he clings to her, mortal, his foe, twisting his fingers through the cloth of her robes as both men dive into catharsis in her arms. 

 

Her fingers rove through his hair, and she sings to him, quiet and sweet. Her voice fills that small space and settles over his ragged soul, sinking into the hollow parts and giving them substance. 

 

This is a farce . He's drinking in these vestiges of care knowing they aren't meant for him, but he snatches them up regardless. Empty for so long but for the burning coals that keep him going, it's too sweet to fight, even when, especially when, she rests her forehead against his as she whispers the last words of the song. It's a lie. Deception is his finest tool but he's never turned it upon himself like this. And he lives that lie with every filched fiber of his being and some of the substance within when she asks with her eyes and he answers ‘yes’ by meeting her lips and melting into her embrace. 

 

He’s split into pieces, shaking the bars of his cage, screaming to wrench himself from her grasp, but the longer he ignores it, the less it fights, and her kiss is slow and rapturous, giving him all the time in the world to lose this battle. The smaller, quieter, deeper part of him, long neglected and shoved aside for their great work, buried under paperwork even before those days - it yearns, craves, drowns in this. 

 

Then he’s floundering for some unseen shore when she pulls away from him, her warmth retreating back there it belongs. Not with him. Never with him. 

 

"I'm sorry… I don't mean to push you into anything." 

 

The flush of her lips, her pupils nearly wide enough to swallow up all color there… it's fascinating. "You're not, I assure you." He feels his voice rasp in his throat- harsh to his ears but by her smirk, she enjoys it.

 

"Thank the Twelve."

 

Even unmoored as he is, he can’t resist a jab at her mythology. "Hmm, I doubt they would approve of this," he replies, disliking the teasing lilt in his own voice. It was less mockery and more an invitation. 

 

“Menphina would find it amusing, surely,” she jousts back, leaning against him again and giving a conspiratorial grin. 

 

It’s infuriating, the way he can feel her warmth even through the layers of clothing that adorn them both still, and how he wants to tear those layers away to take more of her for himself. Infuriating… inflaming. “You would invoke the Lover then, here in this musty closet? No, I don’t think she would approve at all.” 

 

“Then I’ll ask her and the rest to turn a blind eye on this ‘closet’ for the night.” There’s a finality to her words that he has half a second to question before she slips her top off and falls upon him again. 

 

Oh how tired he is of fighting. Not for the Ardor, but to retain some shred of his fleeting sanity. And so he makes a conscious decision to let go - to let those base instincts of his borrowed body take over, because, by Zodiark, he feels good for once in his life. The layers between them fall away and, skin to skin, he finds her heat surpasses that of the sun’s rays, soaking into this body and reaching the immortal man within. Suffused with Light as she is, tempered by our eternal enemy. There is no denying it, he burns in her embrace. Here is where he knows he is lost, for even that perilous sensation affects him in ways he can hide from her no longer. 

 

The Warrior flashes him a devious smirk, her hand snaking down between them. Lahabrea buries his face in her shoulder, knowing whatever expression he wears is not the sly confidence she expects to see, as her fingers inevitably find his not his length and curl around it. He tells himself he’s just a passenger in this body as it bucks into her grasp, but that lie does nothing to account for the way his soul flares. It’s been too long since he’s known this particular cascade of sensations, of tightness and lightness and, “Please, Az …” What nonsense am I spouting? he hisses at himself, cutting off whatever he’d been about to say. 

 

She gives an amused hum in reply, understanding his words more than he does. “You would call to the Goddess Azeyma before you spill into my hand? Is there something you wish to confess then? Somewhere you would rather…,” 

 

Shame, anger, and an infernal need he can hardly fathom. Those forces conspire to wrest any last shred of control from him. In a breath, he’s upon her, reeling with the heady surge of victory that pulses through him as she feigns modesty, making him fight his way between her legs. All the while she grins at him. It’s a perfect conspiracy set to undo any last considerations for how much he absolutely should not be doing this. He should not be sheathing himself into the enemy as she squirms beneath him, moaning whorishly at his intrusion. He should not be using this vessel to slake long-dead lusts, and he certainly should be feeling like he’s reprising his role in some once-forgotten performance from a time before time. 

 

If he thought she was perilously hot before, it was nothing compared to the crucible that pulses around his cock. Forgetting himself, he lets out a throaty moan, though the voice that reaches his ears is not his . They’ve been telling him for years of the danger of borrowing bodies and not making them his own and only now is he starting to understand why. Lahabrea has nothing to cling to to stop his descent into at least four new Hells he’s not ventured into before. Then let your magma subsume me. Destroy me in your molten paradise time after time as I...

 

"Ah...Thancred!"

 

DAMN YOU. He roughly covers her mouth, hissing out a simple command - "Quiet!" It feels criminal to muffle the sounds he’s drawing from her, like silencing a symphony about to burst into glorious song, but the last thing he needs is to invite the ire of the other Scions, or even their attention . Worse… the name she called out. It drives into his gut, twisting, reminding him that he’s not the one she cares one whit about. A precarious farce , but one he has not the will to resist, not when her nails bite into his back, demanding he take his fill of her. 

 

That pain, as much as anything, grounds him to this moment. He’d known nothing like it in ages, this fire-laced sting borne of and begetting such terrible, base appetites and… I should be better than this, above it all !  

 

But he’s not. He wants to tear his way free of his vessel of flesh and bore into the reality of her, the veiled star at her very heart. To have its light fume against his darkness and risk its deadly inferno until he enfolds, to revel in the sweet threat of mutual annihilation. He snarls as his form strains against a prison of bone and meat that he claimed for the sake of the Ardor, not for this. Damn him to the deepest pits, as she surely would!

 

His tirade of self-loathing slides into the background, undercut by her staccato panting, the tremble of her thighs against his straining hips. She’s bucking against him in pure abandon until she suddenly stops, every part of her clutching at him as if trying to consume him. Eyes closed, but mouth open in a silent scream, her heartbeat pounds through him. There is a moment of maddening stillness, and he, or maybe only this filched flesh understands and joins her in ecstasy. There’s barely enough of him left to savor the fact that, for once, his mind is no longer a tangle of schemes within schemes, but an endless plane of white static nothingness as he spills into her, rocking with each rapturous spurt. He’s so far away when she kisses the lips of the man she thinks she’s found mutual comfort and delight with, a respite from her battle against unyielding darkness. He’d laugh were he not so diminished. This should be a time to revel in victory, for he has earned the closest possible confidence of their enemy, but when he slides out of her, yearning already to be consumed by her heat again, he has lost. 

 

She mutters another man’s name again as she slithers into his arms. If she’s put off by his silence, she shows it not in the kisses she peppers his chest with before stifling a yawn and rolling over, a soft smile still on her lips. Laid out before him is Warrior of LIght, bereft of armor, of consciousness. So absurdly vulnerable. 

 

A true champion of Zodiark, of his people, of his world, would seize this opportunity. To all the Hells with Elidibus and his warnings of disrupting the fragile balance of light and dark! Lahabrea’s fingers twitch as he envisions them wrapped about the Warrior’s unguarded throat, wrenching her life from her and striking a definitive blow against Hydaelyn, and he silently curses whatever infernal weakness holds him back. It is an act of pure will to not instead caress those bare curves, to rouse her and slake himself within her again instead and... 

 

He falls back to the bed, seething. All this because she spoke to him even through the guise of flesh, or so he thought. She doesn’t know him, and never will. 

 

The Warrior sighs in her sleep and tucks herself closer to him again, finding her way into his arms again, and there he comes to a realization. Maybe there is a way to tell her without telling her. 

 

He refuses to contemplate what an intensely stupid and dangerous idea this is, already sending tendrils of his being into her subconscious. Her mind is still untrained enough that he finds no wards of her own to inhibit his progress, though he keeps far enough away from the pale blue light that ensnares her more deeply than he ever could. In the midst of her inner world, he weaves an intricate trap to be sprung only when her sleep deepens enough for her to dream. 

 

And he waits, breathing only enough to keep this body from seizing up in instinctual panic. Footsteps pass by the door and he glares in that direction as though his gaze alone were enough to render any intruder to cinders. Yet she still does not stir, and she descends further into unconsciousness, into his hands. 

 

As an immortal being, he should be well versed in the ways of patience, but it is a virtue he never courted for himself. He’s granted plenty of time to rethink this plan but rejects every argument against it unheard. Then finally, she trips his snare. 

 

The moment she steps into her usual mundane dreams, she knows something is different. The shadows are thicker than they should be and seem to writhe with substance. An alleyway between two tall buildings beats with living darkness, pulsing along unseen arteries, branching off into smaller crevices, but all culminating somewhere in a distant heart to be infused with terrible intent and sent forth again. 

 

It should disturb her by rights, this living, maze-like city that surrounds her, but there is a rhythm to it that enchants instead. Where am I?

 

She turns her gaze upwards, trying to make out the shape of the towers around her, but they are infuriatingly indistinct. Yet, it can be no city she knows as the height of the buildings defies logic. Perhaps somewhere she can find a sign, or a guide? And so she ventures forth, following the lurching flow of darkness, weaving through alleys and thoroughfares, under archways and through indiscernible gardens, seeking. 

 

Come to me.

 

That voice…! She stops in the middle of a wide walkway, clutching her chest and trembling. Twelve save her, she knows that voice somehow. Its cadence slides over her, through her, worming its way into her mind and heart alike. But who?!

 

This is all too strange to be real, she knows, and perhaps she should rouse herself from this dream, but her curiosity is too strong to defy. Besides, what harm could she come to in a dream? 

 

When she resumes her march through this phantasmal city, she can sense the darkness around her rejoice. 

 

After walking for what must surely have been most of the night, she notices the substance around her thicken. Here, the shadow can now touch . Oh, and it is thrilling, hot and yet feather-light. Inviting. She could gladly stop here and let it play over her body until waking, but she knows it is not her destination. So she presses on, and the shadows churn gleefully around her. 

 

As though entering a forest clearing, the towers around her grow sparser here, leading her into a massive courtyard of beautifully patterned tile and manicured gardens. At the heart of it is the one she seeks. 

 

Come to me.

 

No longer does she need to walk. Instead she flows along to him on numerous tendrils of darkness. Carried, guided, brought home to his arms. “I don’t know who you are,” she says with a giggle that surprises her, “but I’m here with you at last.” 

 

All is now as it should be. 

 

Those words should make no sense, but oh! They do. All is as it should be as he draws her into his embrace. She accepts his kiss hungrily, sure it is the only sustenance she’s ever needed. Her eyes close, and it is only then that she realizes she couldn’t see a face in that mass of shadow. But what does it matter? She’s caressed by a million hands that rove over her naked form, and she faintly wonders if she had been wandering the city like that or if her shadow lover had stripped her without her realizing it. Yet, this is a dream, and all is as it should be, and she should be united with him with no barriers between. Seeking tendrils ask a silent question, pausing just at the precipice, awaiting her answer. “Yes, of course. I’ve always loved you…” 

 

Lahabrea watches as her sleeping form twists atop the sheets, shifting to give him access to deeper and deeper parts of her, and he smiles. Impossibly, she’s accepted him, and willingly. He longs to close his eyes and savor this, for taking her this way is immeasurably more pleasurable than piloting this man’s body ever could be. But the night is fading. Even in this windowless chamber he can feel it, and he can’t risk losing her to the waking world. 

 

He plunges into her, again and again, and both of them lose sight of where one ends and the other begins, their pleasure amplified back and forth, infinitely. Alas, he’d forgotten her mortal mind is not used to such heights, and her eyes flutter open for one horrifying second. “Shhh,” he whispers in both voices, in both worlds, and her body stills once more. 

 

He holds her like that for hours. When she drifts too close to the shores of waking, he drags her back under again. Why yes, this is a flagrant abuse of the powers granted to him by his God. Why yes this woman would probably hate him if she knew. But oh , she loves him now. 

 

Please, take me again ! she cries, her voice hoarse and brittle. The Warrior knows she is near her breaking point, but all she wants is more. Even in the dream she aches, her body drenched in sweat, her legs bathed in a deluge of their combined pleasures. More! For everything she asks, begs, he gives, eagerly, gleefully. Gods, has she ever loved anyone so? Surely not even… 

 

… “Thancred?” 

 

She’s awake, but blind. No, not blind. Her eyes are shut and opening them takes enough effort that she can only lie there and stare up at the ceiling. It takes long minutes before the scene around her resolves into anything recognizable. She’s in her borrowed room in the Waking Sands, and she is alone. 

 

***

 

His plans have gone horribly, devastatingly awry. He should stay far away from the Waking Sands. Its stone halls hold a power more dangerous than any he’s encountered in his many thousands of years as a horror of legend and song. 

 

Love. 

 

Yet there he stayed except where his schemes dictated, because nothing, n othing could interfere with their great work. 

 

***

 

He remembers nothing. 

 

The realization echoes in the empty halls of her heart, chanting a hollow dirge. 

 

Thancred gazes up at her, mouth curling into a lopsided grin at the sight of his savior. “Oh to have been rescued by one so lovely as you. If I wasn’t sure that if I move from this spot I’ll lose whatever lunch I apparently had today, I would hug you.” His fingers find their way to twine with hers, and she hopes she’s faking her smile as well as she means to. 

 

Those are the lips that commanded her obedience and whispered words of unfathomable sweetness in the dark of night. The fingers that twine with hers have grasped her hips, pulled pleasure after pleasure from her body, traced the lines of her soul, or so she swears…

 

... and he remembers nothing. 

 

Then, was Thancred aware during those times and he’s merely forgotten? Could he remember again? Or was the man she gave her body and soul to ilm by ilm someone else entirely? 

 

Someone else. 

 

Fool girl, he has a name, and you know it now. You’ve known from the moment he threw back his hood and laughed in victory at her shock over having been betrayed. 

 

Yet she dares not speak it here, nor give the thought even the slightest foothold lest it takes root and rends her apart from within. 

 

That was the plan, anyway, but we all know how those go. She awoke in tears in the dark of night after a few scant fitful hours of sleep, stumbling through the halls of the Waking Sands. And that's how she finds herself dragging a heavy crate back to her chambers, and locking the door behind her. 

 

She can hardly breathe, the air in the room seeming to become too heavy, the shadows a shade of black beyond black. 

 

With trembling fingers, she sets the lid aside, fearing to look within. But she must. Of this, she has no doubt. 

 

Before she even sets eyes upon her prize, she catches its scent. it doesn't smell like Thancred in the least, though he was the last to wear it. It smells like the very essence of fire, of spice. It is a raging inferno and the potential of life in the aftermath. 

 

The familiarity of it, the intensity, breaks her at last. She slips her arms into the sea of cloth, gathering it up in her arms. It is silken, like shadow woven into form, cool to the touch, but it warms against her quickly, as if recognizing her in turn, resonating with her. 

 

And she weeps, for she is lost. 

 

Somewhere, in a place just out of reach, Hydaelyn weeps as well.