I had not wanted Odiri to venture out, but many, many broken dishes later, and we conceded that perhaps it was for the best that we get some time out of the house. Our first night poaching for adventures at Rose Shell went fruitlessly, but on the second, we were recruited along to Serena's mission to Ghost Shade Keep, a temple of Persephone in need of restoration. That would have to do.
The next morning—more precisely before the next morning at the unholy hour of 03:30— I was roused from my sleep by voices from the porch. Odiri's sleepy and disgruntled mumblings layered with the brisk voices of Serena, V. Gates, and Kethra. I entered only to be confronted by Serena as to Odiri's state of things. A few glances from her to Odiri's bruised wrists and pointedly back to me were enough. She did not need to see the marks on her back and ribs to know what had transpired. There was no hiding it. I kept my distance and did not venture further into the room, that invisible wall held by my own shame and more than a few vague threats from V. Gates. No words were exchanged on the matter further. Heavens, what they must think of me…
Serena was particularly insistent that Odiri come to the temple for prayer. Persephone was calling to her. I had actually been doing quite a bit of thinking on the matter of my faith recently and was by no means opposed to the venture, though I stayed out of the conversation. Kethra managed to convince her well enough with the luring promise of honeycakes afterwards.
The Temple of Stars is a wholly different place at night. Though it is a quiet place to begin with, it is even more this way. I recall staying up many nights and peaceably wandering the candle-blessed halls during my residency there, appreciating the serenity of the illuminated emptiness, chambers full of prayers, distant only by their echoes. On our way to Persephone's altar, we passed acolytes of Sidereal and Lunor, followers of night wardens understandably preferring these hours for their worship. As soon as we entered the room, Serena doffed her clothes. Ah. Skyclad prayer. Considering V. Gates' boldness, this does not surprise me in the least. (I hope this is not a requirement to be a follower of the goddess…) Serena brought out her candles and attempted to guide Odiri through a prayer cycle. She was distinctly against it, but relented at Xiao's behest. As soon as the cycle was completed, Odiri hopped up and was quickly ushered out by Kethra for her prize of honeycakes. I remained with Serena, learning prayers with her, though I too eventually took leave, seeking a place to meditate in private. Before I left, Serena presented me with a necklace bearing the sigil of Persephone. I was grateful for the gift, though putting it on left a bizarre feeling in my chest as it clinked against my wedding band.
I stayed to meditate some, and my meditations followed me as I walked home to retrieve my and Odiri's gear. There's something particularly lucid about the air on a summer night. As initially unnerving as my introduction to Persephone through Serena was, I regret in many ways that I was unfamiliar with Her and Her following for so much of my life. Perhaps I would have reconsidered my faith sooner. I have witnessed wicked atrocities in my lifetime, enough so that it is difficult to believe in that life and light hold any dominion over the mortal plane when such horror exist concurrently. There is great comfort to be found in the thought that death doesn't have to be a savage thing. When so many of those I have held close have gone out in brutal violence, truly the best thing a person can be wished is a peaceful passing.
Arriving at the cottage, I was more than a little peeved to find it broken into. I had very purposefully picked such a distant place for my residence so that I and it would exist unmolested, but it seems that just about everyone feels it is their right to invite themselves over. When I entered to grab Odiri's gear, I was greeted with a note from Shei that she had already handled it. Infuriated, only mildly, I saddled Collien, took Dusty in tow, and rode back to the Inn.
Morning come proper, our party grouped over breakfast and set out. We agreed that, for both mine and Odiri's sake, we would not sail up the river. Rather, we'd travel the same path to Makiko's Trust as we had before and cross with a ferry there. Hopefully, we would actually make it this time. As we rode out past the wall, Odiri made nice with the cart horses, plying them with apples. The poor sods deserve it for putting up with our endless antics.
We camped again at the mouth of the Mara, and Odiri and I discussed briefly the possibility of making a waystation there, since we had the boar hide now to do it. It was our first civil conversation since the last big argument we had. About something entirely trivial, yes, but. It felt… good. A very simple kind of positive feeling. I was a little more at ease after that. Not for long, however, as Odiri's sleep was plagued by fits. I hardly rested much myself, turning to her side to soothe her whenever she woke.
I took the midnight watch alone, chatting with Charka on the matters of my worries for the better part of it, until my bow started to glow. Goblins. As I sent Charka off to quietly wake the others, I began to sense their approach myself. 3 of them. Hobgoblins of the Silver Demons. My concentration was totally interrupted by Charka relating that V.Gates wished to challenge them to a 3 on 1 duel, which has got to be one of the dumber things I've ever heard him suggest. I veto'd the idea immediately, shooting one at a distance and commanding the others to leave one alive. V. Gates transformed into the direwolf and, out of the corner of my eye, I could already see him and Charka making eyes at each other. Oh no, not this shit again…. With a cry of "don't fuck my dog!", I loosed a second arrow and downed one of the hobgoblins. Xiao killed the other flanking hobgoblin, and the final one was captured with Serena's magic and Xiao's grappling.
While I bound the hobgoblin for interrogation, I noticed that Charka and V. Gates were rather suspiciously missing. Reaching out to find her, my senses were blocked by a mental wall. Oh no. I'm going to kill that slutty fucking iguana. Though, if anything, my interrogation was more ferocious as a result of that bit of offense. I managed to glean three particularly important details from the hobgoblin captain. The Silver Demons, the Order of Night, a corp of elite mercenaries, had been dispatched against us. The Yomi Princes were not in collusion with the Goblin Queen, but rather served directly under her orders. And the Goblin Queen is still in her fortress at the heart of the Sha Desert. V. Gates returned at this point and asked a few of his own questions about Ghost Shade Keep. Honestly, I did not overhear much of it; I was scolding Charka at the time. I caught up with the conversation rather quickly when the hobgoblin insulted Persephone, putting Serena in a rage. She drew her halberd and went to behead him, but I stopped it just short of his neck. Hobgoblin he may be, but the rules of war apply. I asked him for his surrender. He refused. So I let go of the halberd, releasing the full swing of its energy with a thunk into his neck, killing him.
Bedding back down for the night, Odiri and I nearly got into another argument. I could not sleep afterwards, and stayed up the night, further arguing with Charka. If she has pups with him, I may just die. I would have preferred Naligor, if it has come to this. Taking a cue from Oranssi's book, V. Gates breakfast the following morning was particularly burnt.
Two days of travel up the riverbank passed uneventfully. Though, Odiri was back to being upset with me. Apparently, she had overhead some of what I'd said to Charka and was more than a little irate with me that I cared quite so much about her puppies. Charka has been loyally at my side for 56 years now. Of course I care about the source of her puppies. I'd practically be their godfather.
When we arrived at Makiko's Trust, it appeared that it had been in use in the time we were gone. Life was starting to return after the slaying of the hydra. It seemed that people, humanoids, had even been there. Members of our company? No, more likely, any number of our many enemies patrolling the area. It being sunset by the time we arrived, we rested the night. In the morning, fishing for breakfast. I noticed that Serena seemed particularly despondent, far from her morbidly cheery self. She wouldn't eat, just sitting there on the waystation's edge, caressing her halberd. Restless dreams, perhaps. I understand a thing or two on the matter…
We boarded a barge and managed across the river in one piece, though Odiri stayed very squarely in the center of the boat. I really must find a time to teach her how to swim. Perhaps it would serve to ease her fears.
On the other side of the river, we were met with a thick forest shrouded in mist. Wet, lush, mossy, and green, full of ferns and high-canopied trees. Through this, two and a half days of travel, made truly wicked by the stifling moisture of the air. But at last, we came to Ghost Shade Keep. Before us stood a great tower of four stories, carved to appear as thought it were out of one massive piece of white marble and basalt in the colors of the goddess. Atop it, a crescent moon, swathed in moss and sticky ferns. At the doorway, a defaced carving of Persephone, her holy visage crumbled in chunks on the moist forest floor. Serena seemed horrified, rippling with a rage at what the servants of Utos had done to this place.
Entering the ruined temple through a grand and ancient arch, we proceeded down a hall until we arrived at a room that appeared to have once been a place for the forging of weapons, complete with a kiln. Everything was lit in a dim glow of witchlight, giving a cold ambience of shadows cast far against the walls.
Before we proceeded into the fray of enemies that certainly hid behind the next door, Kethra stopped to sing for us. I have grown to like her more than Elura, in some ways. She is of a quieter breed, more earthly, less wild. And her song. Some of the things she's sung has been as frivolous as any other bardic thing, but this was different. "Cleanse my body of its pain. Cleanse my mind of what I've seen. Cleanse my honor of its stain." There is no way she could possibly have known how deep a chord it would strike with me, but strike deep it did. My soul was roused, and I was ready to fight.
Using V. Gates for cover, we slid open the door and were met by three walking corpses, still fresh, one human and two dwarves. All bore necromantic brands on their necks of Utos, marking them all as turned Revenants. This was going to be messy. Immediately, V. Gates turned into a bear and was grappled. Odiri and I sprang into action, both laying in on the remaining two. Xiao, in a wild flurry of claws, slashed one up, but was himself attacked when he came into the fray. Serena summoned up the smiting power of Persephone, black fire bursting forth from her halberd as she plowed it through one of the dead, the flames turning white as they made contact and seared the flesh. A bite from Charka and it was dead. Right. Fire was needed to kill these. Picking up one of V. Gates' fallen fire spears, I slashed at each of the remaining two. One ran from the combat with a cry of "Fuck this!" as he called for aid into another room.
For above, the voice of Utos. "So I see a minion of my traitorous wife is here. Seticor, kill them all! But bring me the Reaper." Of course, he meant Serena. It does not surprise me that a Paladin would have personal meddlings in the affairs of gods. A door opened and inside the chamber there, a fearsome wraith flanked by two wights. I knew the damage these could do. One had nearly killed Odiri the last time she was out. I wasn't about to risk that, so I drew out my sword and struck with a bolt of lightning into the room. The wraith immediately came after me, but V. Gates finished him off before he reached me, exploding into flames.
As Charka killed another Revenant, the final one ran to another door, calling for more aid. I went to that door, preparing to attack, but yet another door opened and out from there instead came four hungry dead, swathed in pale robes with bloody mouths, thirsty for blood. V. Gates dropped fire on them, cutting off my position from the combat. Through the flames, there was little I could see or do, though I heard Odiri fire off a lightning arrow, Charka kill one of the dead, and V.Gates turn into a hissing scorption.
When at last the fire was moved enough that I could get back in, I got a full view of Odiri being set upon by one of the soul-sucking fiends, white smoke swarming around her and wrestling out of her body her very force of life. Struggle as she did, she could not break free of it. Trumping fears, I was enraged. Another one of them went immediately for me and, in a single strike, I cleaved it down, evaporating it into dust. Struggle as Odiri did, she could not break free until, at last, she wrenched herself loose. The moment the thing's body was separated from her, I laid into it with a flourish of lightning, carving it apart across its chest until it burst under my blade into ash.
As Serena retrieved a chest of gold from under the wraith's throne, V. Gates and I dragged the remaining bodies out of the temple and into the light, where they dissolved into ash at first touch of the sun. Utos' voice called threats after us, but we were gone quickly from the place, keys glowing. In a flash, our wounded party was returned to the gates of the city.
Odiri and I made our way back to the cottage, but some fearful sense plagued me. Something was terribly, terribly wrong. Odiri had not died in that temple, clearly, and yet her aura bled of the sense of death. After I had healed Odiri of her wounds and put her to bed, I made my way to the Temple of Stars. I am not one to follow signs, but portents such as that are a difficult thing to turn a blind eye to. It was time for me to do what I had meant to. Before Persephone, I made my ritual offerings and prayed in petition. If Artimesia would stay deaf and blind to my desperations, then to death herself I would turn.
Persephone, Goddess of Night, Keeper of Death, Ward of Knowledge. I call on you and seek of you your aid. All my life, I have been a man of faith. But too much of suffering lays heavy on my heart. I have seen such horrors, and given bodied penance for those wrongs which I have done. Still, I am sent plagues in the face of earnest supplication. Before, I have accepted these as necessary punishments on my path. But now, I fear I have been forsaken in an hour of greatest need. My goddess no longer keeps me, if ever I was in her graces. So I come now to you as I am, pleading your mercies. Accept these sinning hands into your fold, and I will bare my soul and faithful serve. I ask for nothing, for there is no salvation I deserve. I only beg your sacred grace that those I love may pass in peace when they are done and gently west into your cloak of night.
I can only hope that I have been heard.
The following entry.
CW: Graphic, Whump, Emotional Whiplash
I have no desire to write this. The past days have been torture to me and to revisit them is to suffer them anew. Yet, there is a function here that I must fulfill. It was not until I went to war that I began to understand why my father kept a journal and insisted I make a habit of it. He was trying to help me, the same way he had been helping himself through his tragedies. There are certain pains a man comes to know in his life that cannot be spoken. Often, there is no-one to speak them to, because to speak is bring that burden of suffering down on another. But, not to speak, to keep pain locked away, is to invite madness. In the writing of something, in the explanation of it, there is a cathartic medium. Speaking, without really speaking.
For the sake of my remaining sanity, I will try to put this into words.
I should not have been away from Odiri so long. When I returned to the cottage in the early hours of the morning, I heard her weeping and calling for me. I ran to her and, throwing open the door to our bedroom, found her in a pool of dark, viscous blood. My mind fizzled with static. It had begun. I should have seen the signs sooner. The fight with the wraith had taken so much of her life. Of course. Of course these were the consequences.
I stayed at her side for who knows how long at first, holding her, letting her rock hysterically in my arms, supporting her against my chest, hushing her in a mantra, whispering comforts into her hair, telling her it would be okay. I didn't know if it would be, but it would have to be. Gradually, I could feel myself growing cold, hardened by experience. There would be time for emotions. Panic would only do harm. There was nothing that could be done to save the pregnancy now. She would have to ride it out. Between fits of her hysteria, I explained to her as much as I was able of what would happen next, what we would have to do. I do not think she could really understand me, but I knew she trusted me with her life entirely by the weak and ready ease with which she allowed her body into my arms.
For two full days, I carried her back and forth from warm baths to the bed, not letting her out of my sight for even a moment longer than I had to. I did not sleep. I hardly ate. I ran like a machine, going through rote motions of care done so often that my hands functioned on memory, archaic knowledge of so many times I had to do this for Allaya. I was not there for each of hers, but there for enough to know the process as well as any midwife. Over and over and over again, Odiri wept and apologized, and over and over, I hushed her and did what I could to soothe her. When she fell out of consciousness was the only time I lost my resolve and wept, healing her and clutching her hands, keeping her above the water and praying with all the soul in my body that she not die like this. Please. Not like this.
What could I have done to prepare her for this? There was only so much I could manage to say. It is a pain so visceral that it cannot be put in words, not the physical fact of it, nor the weight of the loss. I could not bear to look her in the eyes and ruin her little happiness while she still had it. That was all she would ever get, because always, always, this would be the result. How dearly I regret that, of all the instances in my life that I have been absolutely wrong, this had the one time I was right.
By the last day, Odiri fell silent, too weak or too far gone to say anything more, only moaning in pain and gripping my unwavering fingers tight through the waves of contractions, letting go with a fainting grasp when lulls hit upon her. What was there to say but grief? The only words she spoke to me, the only time I left her side, were in feeble request that I fetch a wrapped package from her chest. In it, fine cotton cloth, soft, green as the first buds of spring. She had meant to make clothes for our child of it, but…
When it was finally over, the child was no bigger than my fist. Odiri lay there, exhausted, half submerged in thick, red water, cradling it in her arms like some agonized facsimile of the intimate first moments of a mother, a spent deadness in her eyes. As I cleaned her off, I could not help but think with guilt on the timing of my prayers, what I had asked to be done. But with that, some measure of dark relief. I carried Odiri to bed, laying her down to rest. Three days was the sum of her suffering. Allaya had had miscarriages lasting longer than a week. I cannot help but feel that my goddess had heard me and paid her mercies.
There is a little grave now on the cottage grounds, in the dirt, away from the wounding marshes. I dug it myself as Odiri dressed our daughter in her unmade clothes, for the first and last time. She tells me it was to be a girl. It was too soon along to say, but mothers know these things innately. I would have liked a daughter. Though a son was needed for the Crowsley line, I had always secretly hoped for a girl. Foolish, foolish!, to think on all of that now…
I could not bear to be around Odiri. She remained at the cottage a few days more to regain her strength after such an ordeal, and I kept at her side only as long as needed, checking her health. It was not that I blamed her what had transpired. No. That was not it at all. If there is anyone to blame for this, it is me, for having put such a thing to fruition. But the sight of her roiled in me such a pain that I was driven to fits, feeling returning to me in sudden bursts rather than gradual trickles. Still, I remained numb. I drank, sat listlessly on the back porch, throwing pottery and emptied bottles into the marsh. I thought I would be angry. Enraged. I hoped, in a way, that I would be. Anger was at least some type of feeling. But I was left dead. Any shred of hope that I had carried with me was burnt, leaving only simmering coals of despair in the cavity of my chest. The wind had been knocked out of me.
That was how Odiri found me, the day she left. She had to, of course. The terms of her contract with Frivolity still stood and she was obliged to return to it. She was not recovered yet, but there was no use of her to stay longer. I did not look at her when she came to tell me. She'd bought a tea set, when she had gone to replace my dishes after the last fight we had, with a family of raccoons painted on it. A mother, a father, and a little cub. One by one, Odiri standing behind me, I threw the pieces of it into the marsh, and when the door shut with a finality on the other side of the house, the last cup leapt from my fingers and shattered against the porch step.
One would think that after so many times, it wouldn't hurt so much.
I don't remember much after that. It's all a blur. Days were spent in immutable unfeelingness, drinking heavily enough to cause violent fits, only for each to be extinguished in seconds by wracks of tears. Rinse and repeat, chasing some scrap of that vicious feeling if only to know any emotion at all. More than once, I found myself waking up in gutters, shambling home shamefully at all hours of the day and night, pocked with bruises, reeking of decay and misery. I avoided everyone I could, Odiri especially. I could not face her, and it would be a terrible thing for her to see me in such a state. She deserved better.
Our paths did inevitably cross. That particular night, I can make out pieces of. I'd gotten in another fight and, badly beaten and blackout drunk, I found a stretch of alley to pass out in, vaguely noting that it was occupied on the opposite side by a similarly unfortunate figure. Shaken awake. Some port guards. Being moved. The other person, again. And then, waking again, in a holding cell.
Shit. So it had come to this.
Head throbbing, hands shaking, too sober, too lucid, I looked about my confines until my eyes settled on my cellmate. My blood turned from pebbles to ice, striking and burning with coldfire as it banged around my far too spacious veins. Odiri. God, she was as bad as I was. I recognized the smell on her immediately. Sickly sweet, thick with smoky poppies and scalded licorice root. I should have expected it. If my vices were these, she must have turned to hers. We did not exchange even half a dozen words. Only sad, side-eyed glances and glares in my direction. Perhaps she was too far gone in it. Perhaps she had finally come to hate me for what I'd caused her.
The guards were afraid to speak to me in any reprimand. It was pretty clear that this had come as a full face surprise and nobody was entirely sure how to act. I should absolutely have been charged with something, if not a whole slew of things, but I was simply released after some vague demands of "not doing this again", the cell warden tripping over his words, unsure if calling me Commander was appropriate or not given the circumstances. It occurred to me seriously that I stood to lose it all. I had staked my life on this place, and there I was, throwing it away in mindless despair. Looking back at Odiri only confirmed me. I noticed that her bump had not entirely receded. It was just… there, a bitter reminder of why we had found ourselves this way at all.
No. No, this would not do at all. I could not throw my life away like this. I could not throw her away like this. I had to get my shit together.
I sobered up in a matter of horrible days, sick often and nearly incapacitated by aches. Most of my wine hold, I dumped out into the lawn; I suspect that patch of greenery may never grow back. Some time was dedicated to cleaning up the marsh, which by that point contained more glass than grass from so, so many broken bottles chucked carelessly into it. I re-entered society, throwing myself into a regimen of training and prayer in at attempt at cleansing, any distraction a welcome knot in my rope out of spiraling, black sorrow, a hard crawl back to sanity. Endlessly, worries of Odiri occupied me. I made a point to pass the manor to check on her, hoping to catch sight of her. Always, poppies bloomed in smoke at her window, curtains drawn. Still, I could not face her. I doubted she wanted to see me, after everything.
I was a fool.
A dock hand had spotted her on the far pier, fighting with Xiao and screaming, and told a guard to run and get me. I continue to be granted miracles. I cannot bear to think what might've happened had I not been in town at the time. My heart pounded out my chest as I ran, seeing her from a distance. She'd stepped over the railing, held only by Xiao's vicelike jaws clenched at her clothes. No. My skin hummed. My heart hammered. My lungs bruised against my ribs. I was not going to let this happen. I was not going to lose her like this. As I rounded the corner and dashed to the edge, her sleeve ripped in Xiao's teeth and she tumbled back. I reached for her, grabbed her, pulled her back over the railing, reeled her close, held her tight to my chest and did. not. let. go.
She fought me as though she were rabid. Clawing, kicking, punching, screaming, trying to break free of me with all her might and fury, but I held her through it. I held her until she had exhausted herself and the two of us were left sitting on that pier, panting, crying, spent of will, drained of energy. She sobbed, "It's my fault", over and over, inconsolable to the last breath, but I spoke over her mantra and forced her, begged her to listen.
I had tried, more than once. Many times, in the past, but recently again, on the nights that I did manage to make it back to the cottage, intoxicated and out of my mind with grief. I'd nearly done it a few times. Just, kicked the stool in and gotten it over with. I didn't. I was still here. This was the eight child I'd lost and I was still fucking here. Alive. Screaming, hurting, but alive. What had happened to us was not the end. It was not the end of me, or her, or of us. I loved her then. I still love her now. And I would always love her. There was still life yet to live.
It struck her. It must have, because something shifted behind her eyes. She said nothing at all, only leaned her head against my chest and left it there. That was enough. And so we sat, in perfect silence, made mute by the quiet understanding of loss.
I think we're gonna be okay.