Betwixt and Between
Part Three: Chapter One
"I climb this tower inside my head, a spiral stair above my bed."
Magic gave life to some very strange things. No one would consider a stone alive except someone who collected stone, or shaped it, or lived with it-- or who had magic with it. No one would consider a piece of cut wood alive except a logger, or a carver-- or someone who understood the magic of the trees. In the same way, no one would consider a mountain riddled with caves and tunnels alive except, perhaps, someone who spoke the same language as a mountain.
For centuries, the hidden, nameless cave system had been her home. She knew it like she knew herself, and it knew her just as well. When she rose from her sleep, it brightened the lights for her; when it warned of a possible collapse, she shored up its walls. When she asked it to protect her, it shifted its caverns so that no one could find her; when it told her it did not like an accidental intrusion of some underground dweller, she removed the intruder.
When she sensed the imminent return of a long-absent child, it eagerly readied his dusty rooms for him. The caves remembered him, their long memory jogged by his recent return and hasty escape. The magic of the mountain and the magic of the kit resonated in such interesting ways, even for such a short period of time, that it was bound to leave an impression.
Since that was the whole point, Eytasha Sphiridon had no complaints.
Far sooner than they'd thought, when they left the last time, Lament and three passengers reappeared at the foot of a craggy, grass-covered mountain. It wasn't as hot, this time, and the insects seemed to be hibernating or migrated or absent for some other reason. Karthekeyan joined them a moment later, staggering out of nothingness and looking vaguely shocked.
::Told you,:: Lament sent, panting, as Yula and her two small dragon-bonds slid off his back with their belongings. ::Knew you could do it on purpose.::
"I will never doubt you again," Keyan replied dryly, shouldering his pack and staring up at the grassy ledges above him. One of them-- he didn't know which, from the ground-- led to the invisible cave entrance that, in turn, led to the place he'd spent his secondary "forgotten past".
"Go on up," Yula suggested, catching Mahiru as she hopped from their tired ride's back. "We'll catch up."
"You'll get lost, or someone will find you and not let you through." Keyan shook his head. "I'll wait for all of you."
Yula had refused to be left behind, when Karthekeyan had finally made his plans to leave concrete. Strangely, he hadn't minded. However, that meant that a lot more planning had to go into the endeavor, since instead of one dragon who needed to hunt, and himself, who was content to fish the underground river, there were three dragons who needed meat, and two people to fish for. At least the two extra dragons were still small. Karthekeyan was seriously concerned about how they were going to fit Lament into the caves, given how he'd only barely fit through the tunnels last time and he'd grown another couple feet since then.
He shouldn't have worried. Though he hadn't the faintest idea how it was possible, when the whole troupe of them made it up to the right ledge and melted through the illusion hiding the entrance, the ceiling was remarkably high enough for Lament to even hold his head comfortably high. It was also, to everyone's intense relief, completely empty: the Others had long since deserted their watching posts in the entry. Keyan led them through tunnels which all seemed far larger than he remembered, with plenty of room for Lament, as well as much brighter, with the light bordering on white rather than its usual faint blue. He even thought he could hear threads of wardsong every now and then, though it was distant and muted.
And it didn't take as long as he'd expected to reach Lady Sphiridon's chambers, either. He stopped in front of it, staring in surprise and wondering if he'd somehow missed part of the journey. Little Mahiru butted up against his feet at his sudden stop and yipped in surprise, falling onto her rump and blinking up at him. Yula scooped the hatchling up, asking, "Are we there already?"
" ... I think so."
Yula cocked an ear at the door meaningfully, and Lament's reassuring song playing in the back of his mind urged the same. Even Shuu and Mahiru opened their eyes wide at him, as if expecting him to do something amazing. "Why did I even let you all come along?" he grumbled under his breath and, ignoring Yula's smirk and the hatchlings' all too innocent expressions, pushed the door open.
Unlike the rest of the caves, this was very much like how they'd left it. The room was unnaturally shadowed, especially around Sphiridon's seat, but the carvings still managed to shine in the dim light emanating from around and through the doorway. They looked, Keyan thought nervously, slightly different than they had been before, less jagged and more fluid, but he didn't think his memory was entirely trustworthy when it came to details of that day. He wasn't sure whether to be surprised or not that Sphiridon herself didn't look at all changed, seated in her throne-like chair and half-hidden by tricks of light and magic. Her face was bright against the darkness, however, with her chin tilted up stiffly and her hair white against black.
"Welcome home, child," she said, echoing their last meeting.
"Hello, Lady," Keyan answered the emotionless greeting, coming further inside.
"Welcome back," she added, looking past him to Yula and her bonds, and his bond beyond them. "You multiplied, I see."
"The more the merrier," Shuu chirped.
Sphiridon almost cracked a smile.
Then she looked back at her wayward ward, and Keyan quailed. "Well?" she demanded. "Are you ready? Do you remember?"
"N-no.... But that's why I'm here. I-- think I need help. To remember."
Sphiridon's white brows came together in a dark frown. "There is nothing I can do. Did I not make myself clear?"
"You-- you can shelter me and my friends while I talk to the Others," Keyan suggested hesitantly. When she did nothing but gaze at him, expression unreadable, he hurried to explain, "I've been trying to remember, honestly, but they won't let me. Every time I get close, one of them-- one of them stops me, distracts me, takes me somewhere else. Back here, in my head. I-- I want to ask them to stop, so that I can remember."
There was a long pause, and this time he didn't try to fill it with words. Sphiridon's head tilted just slightly, still staring at him with that inscrutable expression.
Sphiridon's eyes sharpened and went past him again; Keyan turned to see Lament sticking his head in the doorway. "Please," he repeated, "he's been trying really hard, and this seems like the only thing that might help."
Yula didn't say anything, herself, but she was glaring at Sphiridon as if daring her to refuse, and Shuu and Mahiru had adopted the most innocent-puppy expressions he'd seen on their faces yet. Apparently Sphiridon either wasn't as against the idea as she'd seemed, or even she was not immune to a hatchling's mournful eyes.
"Very well," she sighed gustily.
Relief. But before he could do more than start to smile and consider thanking her, though, she added sharply, "But I will have to reinstate many of the wards-- without being obvious about it, mind you. Your dragon-friend can help me, his magic is compatible enough with mine. And you will leave the minute you bring my grand-niece upon us. I am getting far too old to waste the energy in chasing her away again."
"Yes, Lady," Keyan agreed meekly. "Lament, will you--?"
"I suppose," Lament answered, eying Sphiridon warily. "If she shows me what to do."
"Of course, of course. Come here, then-- and the rest of you, shoo. Find rooms for yourself. I expect you will be here a while." She lifted one hand, cloaked in shadow, and waved it dismissively at the group. Keyan bowed with nervous gratitude and backed himself out, narrowly avoiding Lament, who was coming in to answer her summons.
::It will be all right,:: he promised silently.
::I know. Good luck, Keyan.::
Yula guided him out the door and let Sphiridon slam it shut with her magic behind him.
"Well, that didn't go so badly," she told him.
"It gets much worse from here," Keyan answered glumly, turning away from the door in search of his old rooms. The Others, he expected, wouldn't be nearly as reasonable, and he had just committed himself to trying to reason with them. His task, he expected, would be next to impossible.
And yet, he was trying, anyway.
Setting up the wards with the dragon-child's assistance was child play. The most work it took was guiding him through the correct steps. Attuning him to the caves took no effort at all-- perhaps, she guessed, due to his connection to the boy. They rose to his musical call almost as eagerly as to her own, and with a subtlety she hadn't anticipated he set and then hid the wards, almost as well as she, herself, would have done.
Perhaps the boy hadn't done so badly in his choice of companions, after all. She just hoped the girl and her little attachments weren't merely decorative, either.
For now, she sent the dragon on his way and settled down again to listen to the caves. She could learn far more about what was passing from them, since what Karthekeyan intended to do was so intimately involved with them. Hopefully, it would be enough to finally unlock what he had lost, because she was out of ideas.
"I dream the stairs don't ask me why, I throw myself into the sky."
Quotes from Sting's "Inside", on the Sacred Love album
Draclin'geyar are the Creative Property of Silver Midnight; Fleshshifters are the Creative Property of Drakiera