Betwixt and Between
Part Two: Chapter Four
"I am here, alone again, in my sweet serenity,
Hoping you will never find me in any place."
"That does sound a little dangerous," Tavarez frowned, pausing in his idle petting of his flitter as he considered that. She chirped quizzically at him, nudging his fingers with her little muzzle, and he resumed.
Over the course of the last segment of the tale, they'd gotten the dishes cleaned and put away and moved back to the couch. It really was a more comfortable place to tell and hear stories, and Yula could write out notes or pluck out melodies while she spoke. "Teleporting to someplace that might or might not exist?" she asked. "Or that might have changed since Nightling saw it?"
"Maybe. But I don't actually think Lament was a strong enough teleporter to get into a lot of trouble. He wasn't really that good at it, then-- actually, he's still not. Since I doubt he could teleport us through time, or into a dream or an alternate reality or anything, I wasn't too worried. The worst that would happen, I figured, was we wouldn't go anywhere and Lament would get an awful headache."
"Well, since you're still here to talk about it, I assume it didn't kill you."
"Nope," Yula giggled.
"And if it hadn't worked, there would be no adventure, so I assume it worked?"
"You assume correctly," Yula told him archly.
For all the hope he had, Vagrant was still somehow surprised that, when he opened his eyes, he saw a different place than the canyon they'd stood in a moment before. Like he hadn't really believed that it would work. They were now in a valley at the foot of a mountain, warm in the sun of late spring, covered with dry, yellow grasses, littered with oddly-shaped boulders, and buzzing with insects. It was, in fact, the very valley he had looked down upon from a dream.
They'd done it.
No, Lament had done it.
Lament shivered under him, and he hurriedly slid off, landing on his feet with a thump and crouching to absorb the force of it. The hare in his arms squirmed, leaping free as their various packs slid off after him. "My harp!" it squealed, shifting into Yula's rabbit-eared but bipedal form just in time to catch the case before it hit the ground.
Not paying her any more attention than it took to keep from running into her, he gathered up the rest of the bags and set them aside, while Lament sank to his belly, mouth gaping as if starved for air, half-grown wings twitching wearily. ::That was hard,:: he commented, not trying to speak around his panting, but even his mind-voice sounded strained. ::Where are we?::
::I don't know. I've never seen this place before, except from--:: Nightling looked up, searching desperately for the slash of darkness that would mark a recessed cave.
::Up there,:: Lament finished, looking up as well.
Both were disappointed. There were more boulders, and more grass, and the occasional twisted-looking tree, but no cave. Lament shut his eyes, and probably would have sighed if he wasn't still trying to catch his breath, and Vagrant slumped against him dispiritedly. After all that work, they'd come to another dead end.
Yula spoke up from behind them, her harp case slung over her shoulder again. "Don't be disappointed yet. The mountain's not completely smooth, a ridge or a boulder could be hiding your cave mouth from way down here." He glanced at her, and she offered an encouraging smile. "Or it could be hidden by an illusion."
"An illusion?" He couldn't help but be skeptical. It had been hundreds of years: who could be left to be holding an illusion?
::Actually, it makes sense,:: Lament admitted. At his raised brow, the dragon explained privately, ::Maybe this person who kept you there was the same species as you, and lives as long. She wouldn't want visitors, I don't think.::
::Even if the visitor is me? Besides, after all this time, wouldn't she have left?::
Lament didn't have an answer for that, he just shrugged his wings, breathing slowly getting back under control. "I think I have-- a headache now," he complained, tucking his muzzle under his paws and squeezing his eyes shut again. Yula stroked his forehead soothingly, while Nightling squinted up the mountainside, itching to start climbing and see if the rest of his dreams had a basis in reality. But he wouldn't go without Lament.
It was almost an hour later, after Lament had hummed away the worst of the pain with his own brand of magic and Yula had hidden their bags in the lee of a larger stone, that they finally started up the mountainside. Vagrant led the way, impatient and scrambling ahead of the other two, turning back every few lengths to stare down, trying to judge against his memory whether he was high enough to be looking down from the cave's height. Every time he turned to look, he decided he hadn't gone far enough, and kept climbing. It was a long way up, and Lament and Yula were far below him by the time he stopped, staring down from a ridge in the mountainside perhaps halfway up, and felt a shock as he recognized the view.
Almost nothing had changed: the grass was still yellow and waving in the breeze, all of the boulders and trees were in the same places, they even looked the same colors, shapes, and sizes. It was as if, when he'd dreamed all those nights ago, he actually had been there, right at that moment, staring down from almost exactly the same spot he stood now. His breath came quickly, both confused and strangely elated, trying to stay focused on here rather than slipping into there. He didn't know what had happened when he leaped, before, and he was almost itching to try it again and find out, as if the Others were behind him again. Would the wind catch him? The sun, maybe?
The dragon heaved his forelegs up onto the ridge and looked over his shoulder, down where Nightling looked, and his presence brought him crashing back into the moment. He jerked himself back from the edge, turning around in one quick, anxious moment, but found himself staring not at the cave mouth, but rather a blank stretch of cliff. He stared at it hard, willing it to be something else, but it stubbornly refused to change into what it should be.
"It's not here," he said blankly, trying to hide his disappointment. "It should be right here."
"Your cave?" Yula asked breathlessly, catching up and climbing awkwardly onto the ridge with them, one hand on Lament's shoulder for balance. Her harp case hung across her back heavily.
"It should be right here!" Vagrant insisted fiercely, hands clenched. "The valley is the same, the ledge is the same-- why isn't the cave the same?" If it wasn't here, then were was it? Anywhere? Would he ever be able to find it?
"How many identical views could there possibly be, no matter how many worlds there are?" Lament groaned.
Rather than commenting, Yula straightened, scowling at the blank rock face, and resolutely started walking towards it. Nightling, startled from his despair, grabbed for her hand but missed, and she kept walking, not even holding her hands out to check herself.
And kept walking.
And disappeared, right before she hit the wall.
"It's not really there!" her voice called through before he had a chance to be more than stunned. "Come on, just walk through it!"
"What-- of course it's there."
"I think she was right," Lament said wonderingly. "It's an illusion. I think-- I can even hear it. The magic in it." He slithered the rest of the way onto the ridge and, head lowered nervously, and followed Yula into the wall. He didn't disappear all at once, but in pieces: first his head, as if it dipped into some opaque liquid or through a curtain of stone, then his shoulders and ribcage. He paused there, and his head poked out again. "This feels really weird! Come try it!"
Unable to disbelieve now, Vagrant raced after him, and the bright spring day only darkened a little as a stone ceiling took the place of the sky, descending into the mountain deeper within the cave. Looking behind him, he could see the cave mouth opening to daylight, just like it had in his dream. "We're here," he breathed, and without waiting for the others, paced quickly into the tunnel.
Remarkably, the light he remembered was still there. It was impossible, or at the very least improbable, but it was still there. Even stranger, it only seemed to light up where he, Lament, and Yula walked: corridors he didn't chose remained dark and hidden, but wherever they did chose was lit by the pale blue glow. Whether the light followed him or he followed the light he didn't know. That was the only thing familiar in the whole place: there was no sense of being watched, no feeling that the Others would descend upon him at any moment, no song except the unsteady breathing of Lament and Yula, trying to keep up with his rapid strides. The magic was still there, but there was no life. It seemed surreal, like it really was a dream, and it felt strangely... wrong.
He didn't know where he was going-- or even realize he was going somewhere-- until he stopped outside a closed door, the only door he could remember in this whole stretch of caves, the center to the whole domain. It was the door to the Lady Sphiridon's chambers. There he stopped, letting Lament and Yula catch their breath beside him, hardly noticing how breathless he was, himself. His chest felt tight, but not for lack of air.
"Where are we--"
"Shh," Lament stopped Yula. ::This is where the lady who kept him here lived.::
Nightling put his hand on the handle. He half-expected power or magic or song to surge up and cast him away for such daring, but nothing happened.
::Go on,:: Lament urged silently, his voice a reassuring song in the back of his mind. ::You'll always regret it if you don't.::
Lament was right. Taking a deep breath, Vagrant opened the door.
Song borrowed from the OST for Hack//Sign, the song "The World"
Draclin'geyar are the Creative Property of Silver Midnight; Fleshshifters are the Creative Property of Drakiera