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Generated: Aug 05, 2022 5:31 PM
Post last updated: Aug 05, 2022 5:31 PM
washed ashore
An unsuspecting box finds itself in the Serpent Isles
Permalink Mark Unread

A small bronze box washes ashore. While it's an odd bit of cargo to wind up overboard, it looks perfectly innocuous, if sturdy and water tight.

Then the box drags itself further inland, and opens.

Inside is an amulet, resting comfortably on a tidal map. Next to it (her actually, thank you) is a compass. She's in the right area, she thinks, but sailing's hard enough even when one's vessel isn't a literal box thrown into the ocean, she's probably not quite where she intended to be just yet.

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The amulet floats out of its box, and inside it materializes a young woman standing on the sand, peering around herself. She's clearly some kind of spirit, with the pointed ears, dark purple hair, and glowing violet eyes, but for a spirit she looks human enough. A bit too well dressed for an ordinary one, but it's tasteful, if extravagant. The backless gown reveals a dark stain on her shoulder blade, and there are dark marks that look like blackened tearstains, under her eyes. Around her neck is the amulet that rested in the box.

Sure, she could survey the area without manifesting, but after days of being cooped up in a tiny box, she kind of missed having a body.

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She finds herself on the sandy shore of a small beach surrounded by towering cliffs covered in plant life and moss. The beach is south-facing, and the open ocean is what greets her, though if she peers around the cliffs she will be able to spot ships not too far away to the east. There is a small pass in the cliffs, wide enough for two people to walk side-by-side, which winds in that direction also.

There's definitely nothing that looks or feels like it should be called "Black Mist" anywhere around, though.

Permalink Mark Unread

Yeah, she probably got a bit off course. Sailing is hard enough when one's vessel isn't literally a box in the ocean, and it's not like she has any experience.

She picks up her box and tucks it under her arm, then heads off to the pass to see about finding the locals.

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The pass is not actually very long, and after a few snaky twists she emerges from a secluded hole in the wall that is actually pretty hard to see from the outside, hidden behind bushes and trees. But past those she can see...

...a port city.

The towering cliffs seem to be a recurring motif, but that has not stopped these people from settling; if anything, they took it as a challenge and filled every sufficiently horizontal surface with buildings. A bustling port is an easy walk away from where she emerged from, but the city goes well into the island and around the bay. The architectural style is not entirely consistent, ramshackle wooden huts placed side-by-side with three-story alehouses slash inns in sturdy stone, and it speaks of a settlement of pirates and ne'er-do-wells, hopefuls wishing to try to make their fortune, and shades haunted by pasts they seek to escape in a lawless country.

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Definitely not the Shadow Isles. Oh well. She is always free to ask for directions now that she's here.

She'll walk to the nearby port, and attempt to find a local or two.

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It's mid-morning, and the port has been up for business for the past several hours. Her clearly-nonhuman visage draws some stares, especially with the dark aesthetic, but once it becomes clear there's no Black Mist trailing off her or anything people shrug it off.

This is Bilgewater, purple ladies with billowing dresses and glowing violet eyes are not the strangest thing these people have seen.

Permalink Mark Unread

Huh. That's convenient. She'd have gotten more than just stares, elsewhere. That narrows down the potential places she could be.

She looks for someone that looks vaguely authoritative, like a guard or a ship captain or something. Are one of those available and not looking particularly busy?

Permalink Mark Unread

The closest thing this place has to guards are the people who seem to be hired security for each of the ships, and those don't look busy except for being at attention to look for threats. Any ship captains in view are actively giving people orders, but it's only a minority of ships that have those; most others are probably in an alehouse or another, or perhaps a brothel.

There is a distinct lack of anything that could be reasonably thought to be employed by a central authority, though.

Permalink Mark Unread

Hmmmm.

She'll try an alehouse, she supposes? Since there isn't any kind of central authority, she'll aim for ship captains and navigators.

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Alehouses abound! If she goes for the fanciest one she spots, one where the paint is almost not chipped at all, she'll find it very busy, even though it is midmorning. Pirates, sailors, navigators, captains, those are probably all there, from what she can see. If wealth indicates anything, the captains are the ones with fancy rings and necklaces, although perhaps those could be merchants. They'll certainly be the ones who can actually defend those possessions if need be, which is the most important form of power this place recognises.

There's nothing like a generalised hush while people take her in and assess her as a threat, but the chatter does get a little bit more subdued for a second or two before everyone there reaches the same conclusion the people outside did and turns back to whatever they were doing.

Permalink Mark Unread

Great! She'll just, uh. ... Pick an intelligent looking person with nice possessions and attempt to strike up a conversation.

"Hi, excuse me, do you have a minute?" she asks someone that looks like they aren't super busy.

(Haha, she has no idea what she's doing, she would literally be having an easier time of it if she'd found the murderous zombies.)

Permalink Mark Unread

The person she approaches had been quietly nursing a large mug of something - rum, probably, and the strong kind, if her nose is any guide. There's actually a bit of space around her table, now that Avedra's paying attention. It can't be just because of the two large pistols hanging from her belt, as plenty of other patrons, including the two quiet, burly men sitting with her, are carrying just as much if not more. Still, she commands a certain presence.

She turns to look at Avedra, taking a second to take a good look at her from head to toe and back, then cocks her head and says, "I'd usually ask what it's worth to you but you look interestin'. Speak."

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The dark and well dressed woman smiles pleasantly and takes a seat. She sets her box gently on the table and folds her hands.

"Well if it's interesting you're after, I'll get straight to the point and tell you I'm trying to sail my vessel to the Shadow Isles."

She then waits for the reaction, because this is probably the stupidest thing this woman has ever heard.

Permalink Mark Unread

From her reaction - an eyebrow lifted until it hides behind her bangs - it may not be.

From the reaction of the two men sitting there, who had turned their full attention on Avedra the moment she sat, it probably is. They freeze, and now there's a hush, at least from the people who were close enough to hear her despite the background noise.

"Girl, I'll also cut to the point with ya. Whoever sold you that little bauble," and she nods and looks in the direction of the amulet Avedra is wearing, "probably robbed you blind. It can help a bit with the Black Mist, aye, but not enough to set sail to the eye of the storm. You're lookin' for trouble, and I hear your kind's not treated nice by it."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I agree that it couldn't provide enough protection to shield a wearer from the Black Mist for any extended period of time," she says placidly, smiling a like there's a joke only she gets. "Even a spirit. Fortunately! I am not one of those. Not properly, anyway. And I have it on very good authority that the amulet itself can withstand at least thirty years of practically drowning in the stuff."

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The woman keeps peering at Avedra for a couple seconds more then shrugs and lifts her mug to her lips again. "Your funeral." After taking a swig of the vile substance she sets the mug down and says, "So what do you want? You won't be findin' anyone hereabouts who'll sail there for love nor money."

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"I wouldn't ask anyone to. I'd just like directions! Which isle am I on, exactly?"

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"...sweetheart, did you hit your head or somethin'? This is Bilgewater Bay."

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"Not precisely. I'm just not a very experienced sailor, and my vessel is quite peculiar. Thank you very much, I'd thought so but it's important to be sure." She opens her box and breaks out her tide map, peering at it thoughtfully. Hmm... since she's already asking for help: "I'll give you a protection enchantment if you can help me chart my course. It'll last a couple months at best, less if you go and fight a spirit or wizard or something."

Permalink Mark Unread

Now she's looking interested. She leans forward and rests her chin on the back of one hand, propped up on her elbow, eyes piercing when she asks, "Now what sorts of enchantment are we talkin' here, lass? That little trinket of yours ain't worth much, but if you can do better I'm sure I can find some buyers."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Excuse me, my trinket is a one of a kind treasure and furthermore exorbitantly expensive," she sniffs, a little offended. "And I'd be enchanting an object of your choice with the shitty knockoff version. It'd be a manavore based enchantment, absorbing ambient magical energy in a small area around the wearer. Obviously breaking faster if exposed to more energy. Though if you want it to keep longer, I'm sure you can put it in a lined box to stop it from eating anything it's not supposed to."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Got a way to prove you can do that?"

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"I can enchant it now, let you test it however you like, and renew it back to its original state once you're done. And of course if you renege I will break it and find someone else."

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"You know, I've decided I like you. Show me."

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“Do you have a bauble on you that you’d like enchanted? Preferably something that doesn’t corrode or break easily, this won’t do a thing for the object’s durability. A coin would do, if nothing else.”

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She grabs a ring, thick silver with an oval green-blue gem, and plops it on the table.

(The level of chatter is now noticeably diminished, and while the people immediately around them are at least trying to gamely pretend they're not paying attention, a few patrons a bit farther away are actively craning their necks to get a better view.)

(A more critical eye will notice a pattern, though: the veterans don't care. The scarred ones, the ones whose eyes have the shadows that haunt the weary, those are not paying attention. It's the green lads and lasses who have yet to be tested by the sea who seem most interested, who find the conversation a spectacle.)

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Avedra holds her hand above the ring, and her eyes and amulet brighten.

The gem in the ring clouds with darkness, turning a deep black.

“Done,” she says, when it has turned completely black. “The gem will glow purple when it’s eating something. As it gets full, it’ll keep the color even when it’s not. When it’s about to break, it’ll be as bright as,” she motions to her trinket, “and when it breaks it’ll return to as it was.”

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The woman grabs one of her pistols, switches a bullet out for another bullet she grabs from a pouch attached to her waist, and shoots at the ring. The whole motion lasts less than two seconds, and the bullet is reduced to a pathetic flattened disc, while the ring is none the worse for wear - except for how it's just absorbed an amount of magic.

"Colour me impressed. What's your name, girl?"

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"Avedra."

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"I'm Sarah Fortune," she says, with the smirk of someone who knows that everyone knows who she is, "and you have a deal. You say your little bijou can do the same, but permanent?" She shakes her head. "All those years, all those fools talkin' 'bout how it'll help them get fame 'n fortune in the isles, when they could be actually usin' it. What's the price for a permanent one like yours? That is, if it ain't stuck to your person, with a name like that."

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"We're quite inseparable, I'm afraid. And yes, being horribly wasted and misused is one of my major complaints of its treatment so far."

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"Well, I'll take the shitty knockoff version, then, and give you the map you want."

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"Pleasure doing business with you!"

She holds a hand above the ring again, and its gem darkens, just a little. A deal's a deal, after all.

And then she produces the tidal map and they can get to talking navigation, and how an idiot can navigate their way right to the eye of the proverbial storm. Avedra is inexperienced, but certainly not stupid, and she's got a decent handle on the calculations necessary for proper navigation. She just absolutely wants to make this idiot proof with the help of an actual professional. Even not being one, she knows where her strengths lie, and it's not with sailing.

Permalink Mark Unread

Well, Sarah Fortune is a professional, alright. Once it becomes clear that what Avedra wants is to... throw herself into the currents... and end up there, there's actually a fairly reliable way to do it. A specific chain of currents that every seasoned veteran of the Serpent Isles knows about, because they know that if they get caught unawares there they'll inevitably end up within reach of the Shadow Isles and then the Black Mist will absolutely turn them all into zombies.

"But that's what you want, ain't it, sweetheart? To get all the way there. Say, why don't you indulge this pirate's curiosity and tell me your story? I'll trade ya one of mine."

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"It's exactly what I want, thank you. And... yes, all right. Though only the short version, I'd prefer to keep the private details private."

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She leans back and fidgets with the amulet around her neck, looking thoughtful. "I was sick, and this amulet was made to save my life. Long story short, it worked. Eventually, anyway; death's a bitch and I can't say I recommend it. And then I needed quite a while to... settle in, I suppose, and absorb the power necessary to wake back up."

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"And then of course once I was properly situated I threw myself overboard from the brainless idiot that had been wasting me, and here I am!"

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"...and why do you want to get to the Shadow Isles of all places?" she asks, looking rather bewildered. "The Ruined King rules there, even if you can survive the Black Mist - an' mind you, not convinced you can, yet - his armies will get ya just the same."

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"Mm. They hadn't always been like this. I'd studied there when they were still known as the Blessed Isles, and were a gorgeous center of knowledge and civilization and whatnot. So it stands to reason that there is no reason they should stay like this, either. I might be the only person in the world that can go and check. So I shall." Pause. "And I really have been stuck in the Black Mist before, for decades, around the neck of an undead pirate that was quite insistent on keeping me, it's where I got the majority of the power I needed to begin waking up. Plus, you know. Obligate manavore. Center of evil magic. Kind of an obvious thing to attempt to eat."

Permalink Mark Unread

Miss Fortune whistles a long, low whistle. "You been around a while, huh? Well, give the King my regards, if possible through his skull. Although he probably ain't gonna stay down, they never do, magic eating or no."

    "Wait, hold on," one of the pirates nearby who gave up all pretense of not eavesdropping puts in, turning his chair around. "So did ye know 'im? Or did ye know about 'im? Before everythin'?"

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"Probably not, but I'll see what I can do," she agrees, amused. Then she looks at the nearby pirate. "No, he was after my time, and the whole debacle happened before I started waking up at all. I've no idea of the circumstances leading up to the ruination or the immediate aftermath. I could give you a history lesson of what the place used to be like, but there wouldn't be much point."

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    "'E killed 'is missus, see?" the pirate says enthusiastically, while Miss Fortune rolls her eyes. "And 'is missus were a spirit, so them spirits got all screwy-like, an' set a curse on the isles."

        "Bullshit," says another pirate, since now this is a crowd event. "It's his wife went killed 'im, and his dyin' scream was the Black Mist -"

    "Well what do ye know?" says first pirate, looking affronted.

            "Well I know he was sideways, if ye catch my drift," says a third pirate, elbowing her mates and guffawing, "an' he was cheatin' on his lady with a boy."

"No one knows what happened," says Miss Fortune, who has been rolling her eyes so hard it's a wonder they haven't rolled right off her face. "And people like stories."

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Avedra snorts. "Yes, I can tell." She returns her map (now with little notes written on it) to her box, and closes it back up. Then, deciding that she's heard enough pirate gossip for the day, picks up her box and stands to go. "I'll ask for that story another time, I think, we've too many listeners for any interesting ones."

Then she pauses.

"Oh, and do be careful with the protection charm. It will absorb all it can, but if there's more magic than it can swallow, the leftovers can still do harm. This being why my trinket can't protect wearers from the Black Mist entirely."

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"I'll keep it in mind, sweetheart," says Miss Fortune as the sounds of heated drunken arguments start to pick up while people discuss (read: shout) their pet theories about what the fuck happened in the Shadow Isles and with the Ruined King.

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She gives a friendly little wave and departs.

There's a deadly cursed set of islands she's got to get to, and now she's got a much better idea of how to do it. She's curious about what's going on there, too.

Once she's found the perfect spot to embark from, she returns her amulet to its place in her box, shuts it, and fastens the latch securely. Then with more cheer than strictly necessary, she tosses it out to sea. Her body fades away before it hits the waves, and she's off.

Permalink Mark Unread

It doesn't take long; the box is light and the currents are strong. Within a few hours, she's hitting the shore again.

This time she's definitely where she wanted to be. She can feel the recognisable cloying taste of the Black Mist around her, and despite it being early afternoon the skies are dark and stormy.

The beach isn't sandy and pretty. It's rocky and bleak and cold, with the biting wind not made any better by the perennial wetness of the more mundane kind of mist that also seems to be everywhere. The ruins of a port city she might recognise surround her, with glowing green-blue wisps of magic keeping debris and even entire ruined buildings afloat here and there. There's enough light from the Mist that it should probably have been named the Green-Blue Mist, not the Black Mist, and it is enough to see by even with the sun entirely hidden.

And of course, here and there, the dead.

There's not an army, nor even groups, for the shambling corpses will turn on each other when lacking other prey. People, their bodies not entirely rotted away as the Mist reanimates them too quickly for the rot to properly settle, but dead nonetheless. Not doing anything, really, just standing around, looking agonised, occasionally staring at bits of architecture and having fits of despair that express themselves as loud keening wailing that can be heard for miles. It happens enough that the background noises are entirely dominated by those wails, most of them from unseen sources in the distance partaking in their own brand of suffering.

But the sight isn't as ghastly as that of wights, ghostly creatures that used to be spirits of all sorts, distorted by the Mist into mockeries of their former selves. Their forms shift chaotically, at times expressing memories of death and horror played on repeat before recoalescing into individual shapes. They make no sounds, but their pain is felt nonetheless.

Permalink Mark Unread

The sight is heartbreaking, especially knowing what this place once was. And these poor souls, suffering so. She’d remembered a little, from her time asleep with the undead pirate, but not with much clarity. It’s worse than she’d thought it’d be, and she definitely didn’t think it’d be nice.

Her box washes ashore, and she opens it and manifests to see if any of the denizens will come try to kill her or something.

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None are close enough by to immediately take notice of her.

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Good! Then she’ll tuck her box away somewhere it won’t get lost or washed away or anything. The tidal map and compass can stay with it. Best if she just just keeps to the essentials, so she can easily flee if the locals change their minds about attempting to murder her.

The capital is further inland, though, if she’s even on the right island. Which, she might not be. She’s not sure yet. It’s been such a long time, and everything’s so different. But inland she’ll go, skirting around the restless dead as she can.

Permalink Mark Unread

Beyond the port city she's walking through are the ruins of the highroad that leads further inland and eventually to the capital. It's... probably not a great idea for her to follow along it, if she's trying to avoid the locals, as even though they don't tend to be in groups per se they do still cluster around any remnants of civilisation. Conversely, steering too far away means that she's walking mostly blind.

She does eventually run afoul of one of the dead, though, while creeping past some buildings in another small town. His skin is greyish-green and he looks emaciated and sickly, but the only giveaway of his death is the way he's got an exposed fracture on his femur.

He doesn't attack her when he sees her, though. Just stares.

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She sticks to keeping the road in sight while carefully staying off of it. Now she’s fairly sure she’s on the correct island, which means she won’t have to pick up amateur box sailing again. This is for the best, really.

When she’s spotted by one of the locals, she stiffens and watches him warily. Really? No attacking? She’s torn between slipping off like she hadn’t been seen and trying to talk. After a brief debate, she decides to go with talking, on the basis that she’d like to get hostilities out of the way now instead of later. Since she’s relatively close to her box, here, and can escape if she needs to.

“… Hello?” she ventures, a little tentatively.

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"...Denna?" the man asks, his voice low and raspy but understandable enough.

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“… No, I’m afraid not.”

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"Denna," he moans, then shakes his head and takes a step towards her. "Where... Denna!"

And he lunges at her, quicker than the zombies elsewhere have been moving, not unnaturally so but just as quick as a human would be when they had no concern for their own wellfare and just wanted to kill.

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Her hand reaches for her amulet, and she pulls it off herself (through the neck, not over the head; she does not need to be entirely corporeal) and then tosses it behind him.

And then her body disappears and the dead man is left grasping air.

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He blinks at her sudden disappearance, then falls to his knees and starts crying.

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… she should leave, probably. Keep going. Find the center of this mess.

But the entire reason she’s here is to figure out what’s going on, and this… does not seem like a mindless soldier being used as an instrument of war. This seems like someone confused and in pain. And maybe she should play along with his delusion, see where it goes.

She remanifests behind him, and steps towards him and touches his shoulder.

“… Hey,” she murmurs, softly. “It’s me, Denna.”

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He whirls around, looking like a complete mess, then blinks at her several times in a row, trying to clear out the tears.

"Denna? Is - is it really - but - I saw you - die -" He lifts one hand to his temple as if suddenly suffering from a very strong migraine, and he squeezes his eyes shut and groans in obvious pain. His voice echoes, as if it's not entirely being produced by his vocal chords.

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“I’m okay now,” she murmurs gently, patting his shoulder some more. Then, uh. Okay, it seems like he’s getting confused again, but that started to get somewhere, didn’t it. Hm. “… Let’s go home.”

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"...I don't remember. Denna, where - where's home -"

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“Shhhh. It’s okay,” she soothes, before he starts to panic again. “I’m here.”

And then she can hug him, because damn does it seem like he needs it.

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He hugs her back, tightly -

- he pulls away, looks at her with dawning horror -

- starts squeezing her shoulders and shaking his head hard. "You're not Denna. You - lied - you're not Denna!"

The cry sends a magical wave that throws her back several feet and immediately alerts all the other undead in the area. While the man clutches his head and screams and screams and screams, other creatures start quickly approaching.

Permalink Mark Unread

Okay, bad plan!

How about her backup plan of running away, will that get her chased?

(She runs inland, because if she’s going to pull another sneaky amulet throwing trick, she’d like them all pointed in the correct direction to be fooled by it.)

Permalink Mark Unread

She's absolutely chased, yeah.

Not all undead are zombies, although the majority certainly are. And not only human zombies - there's dogs and cats and rats and birds and - but mostly humans. And then there's the wights, the areas of visible distortion that only sometimes resemble physical beings and only sometimes are coherent enough to chase her. Those are less good at it.

And then there's the weird edge cases. A centaur with the lower body replaced by that of a bull, a zombie that has arms coming out of its neck instead of a head, a creature that looks like an artist's rendition of what the ghost of a werewolf would look like. Those seem even more insistent than the zombies and more willing to chase her as far as they can, while the zombies themselves often reduce to fighting each other and forget that she exists.

Permalink Mark Unread

Hmm. Interesting categories, here.

Amulet throwing trick! Perpendicular to where she’d been running. And then her body can disappear and her amulet can harmlessly land in the dirt and be still and beneath notice.

What does this do?

Permalink Mark Unread

Some of the smarter undead do notice the throwing of the amulet, but they don't immediately associate it with her upcoming disappearance, and by the time any of them wonders at it they've lost track of its trajectory and don't know where it's gone. They try to chase after it anyway, but after a few minutes of failure give up.

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That’s concerning, but she can be patient. She’ll just be a harmless bit of jewelry and wait for them to get bored and go away. Nothing to see here, anyone.

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There do seem to be a few small groups of undead that don't attack each other and instead only attack outsiders, and those seem to be a lot more goal-driven and are the ones that look the longest. But they, too, stop searching and go back to walking in random directions.

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She waits until nobody’s looking in her direction again, and then she picks herself back off of the dirt and resumes walking. Keeping faaaaar away from everyone she can.

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The road that goes directly towards the capital passes through what used to be a farm, or at least probably used to be a farm. It's definitely going to have undead in it.

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Mmmm. She doesn’t like this, but so many people are suffering in front of her, and maybe she could fix it.

She has, during her time asleep, been: dropped off a cliff, chewed on by a wild animal, and crushed beneath a landslide. She has been carried around for decades doing who knows what, by a mad undead that was part of an undead pirate crew, and then her carrier was beaten to a pile of gore and she’d been taken as a prize. These are only the things she personally remembers; there was a lot longer before that she wasn’t even a little awake for. The amulet, she was fine each time. Her body is even less of a concern; the captain she ‘stole’ herself from tried shooting her, several times. It just harmlessly went through her. So… she should, in theory, be okay.

She can do this. If she just walks purposefully and doesn’t try to lie to anyone, maybe she will be beneath notice.

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The farm is actually empty. At least, nothing tries to get her.

Huh.

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Good! That’s how she likes it. She’ll just keep purposefully walking, then. Still not on the road, but where she can see it.

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A few minutes after she's out of sight of the farm, though, there's a noise like a hunting horn.

And before she can react, a net of woven cord is thrown at her out of nowhere, its fibers glowing green with powers of the Black Mist. From behind dead trees and rocks and shrubbery that are absolutely not large enough for this, several zombies come out, their cloaking magic dispelled as they surround her.

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Well this is alarming, and pencil her down as ‘alarmed.’

Still, she’s more curious than scared. This clearly a planned ambush. What are they going to do with her now that they have her? If she just sits quietly and is captured?

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From a distance, someone who must be their leader appears.

The creature is more Black Mist than anything else, clawed hands and a floating skull attached to a body that is not obviously physical. It's riding a skeletal horse similarly animated by Black Mist, and does two circles around Avedra.

"You're new," it - he - says as he slows his trot to a canter and then to a full stop. His is voice made up of several different voices speaking at the same time, not exactly echoing, but rather reverberating. "Not from here. Not corrupted yet. Curious."

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“I’m not,” she agrees. “And you’re very lucid, aren’t you. What’s your name? I’m Avedra.”

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"Thresh," he says, and at no visible command of his the other undead pull on the net in a way that magically transforms it into a circle of rope that twists itself around her waist, wrists, and feet, such that her wrists can't move too far from the waist and her feet can't move too far from each other. "You'll be a good test subject."

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“Testing what, exactly?” she wonders, eyeing her new bindings thoughtfully. Alarming that they can do this, but actually this is a major improvement over the net for escape attempts.

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"How outsiders hold up under our rule."

He turns around, then, and starts riding off. The other undead follow, not as fast as him but fast enough that Avedra will need to walk fairly quickly to be able to stand upright rather than be dragged around.

Permalink Mark Unread

Oooookay. You know what, sure, she’ll go along with this. Away to wherever, with her charming undead posse.

“Are you guys as conversational?” she wonders, lightly.

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"Yes," replies one of them, in an echoy voice similar to regular zombies' and not like Thresh's. "We band together, so we can remind ourselves of who we are. I am Janilla."

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“Oh I see, that’s useful. Is that how it works for everyone here? Need to help each other pick up the pieces?”

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"Far as we can tell," says another one. "- Perrak. My name."

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“Nice to meet you both. So, what’s my life looking like, under your rule?”

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"...'s pretty nice, actually," says Perrak.

    "Our leader Thresh wants to bring the prosperity and glory of the Blessed Isles to the world, that all be able to enjoy the same luxuries and comforts we do," says a third one, unintroduced.

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“Cool. Uh. You know things here are super broken though, right? The place I just came from was strictly speaking much nicer, even if it’s not as nice as the Blessed Isles were.”

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"What are you talking about? We have the best universities in the world, and food, and art, and music, and architecture, and philosophy, and study of magic..."

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“You did,“ she corrects. “But it’s very different now. Have you visited any universities lately? Because I couldn’t find the one I went to when I studied here.”

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"You're surely mistaken. I went to the College of Enchantment just yesterday."

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“Can you take me there and show me? Because if it’s anything like the rest of this place…” she’s lacking anything broken to point to at this very moment, but she waves illustratively. With both hands, since they’re tied together. “Actually, better question, can you remember the entire period of time from yesterday until now.”

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"Yes and... I mean I can't remember literally every minute of it? I don't know what I ate for supper yesterday -"

    "Breaded chicken, lentils, and mashed potatoes," offers Janilla.

"- okay I guess I remember it now."

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Uh huh. Right.

“Do you keep a calendar? Notes, maybe? Is it all just you reminding each other?”

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"Well it's both, you can't just keep stuff in your head or you'll forget everything."

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“Can you show me them, please?”

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"When we get there, sure."

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“Okay,” she agrees.

And until then, she’ll just keep on being a prisoner going where they want her to go. Is it at least capital wards? A little?

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Nope! It's actually entirely orthogonal to that direction, going away from the main "populated" areas.

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That’s strange, but. Okay.

“Why don’t you make your base closer to civilization?” she wonders, after a while.

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"...politics," says the fourth and last one, who has been silent until now. "Helia wants to hoard all of our wealth to itself and not share with the world."

    "That's a bit uncharitable," says Perrak.

"I call it like I see it," they shrug.

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“What’s the politics like, then? You guys who want to spread the Blessed Isles’ glory, and the ones who want to… stay and improve? Or just stay?”

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"Thresh is better at this stuff than us, you should ask him."

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“Okay,” she sighs.

Walking! So boring. Whee.

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The walking takes a while longer, but when they get to their destination it's... pretty organised, actually.

There are more undead at the settlement, including spirits and ambiguous cases, and they all look like they're pretty stable. The sun still isn't there, and they're building their buildings using material that insists on occasionally starting to randomly float rather than stay and be a wall, but overall they seem pretty determined to make it work.

Thresh is already there, and has probably already explained the situation with their ?prisoner? to the others, as they don't seem surprised. When they get to the village, they lead her to a small jail, properly enchanted to not permit her to escape via shenanigans.

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Thaaaaat could actually hold her. The amulet her, not the basically-an-enchantment body her. So, the real, actual her. She hesitates, instead of placidly going where she's led, like she'd been doing.

"... do I get bathroom breaks...?" she attempts, slowing.

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"'Course, we're not savages," says fourth person. "- we have indoor plumbing, not sure if that made it there, so that helps."

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"Oh so the bathroom is inside the prison cell? That sounds like it might be a health hazard. Actually, will I have proper privacy if I need to change, and how often are mealtimes...?"

Operation: be as annoying as possible, and prepare to snap her amulet off of its chain at the slightest provocation. It can stay outside, 'she' can go inside, and this still gives her an exit even though it plausibly might lead to her body cutting out at an inappropriate time.

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"There are separate rooms for changing and necessities, obviously."

    "Is that how holding cells are elsewhere?" wonders Perrak. "Do they want prisoners to suffer?"

"Don't think Thresh wants to hold you that long there," they continue. "Just wants to make sure you're not gonna run away screaming before you hear him out."

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"Have I run away screaming yet? Look, fine, you've caught me, I'm making dumb excuses, I'm—I'm claustrophobic, can I hear him out while outside of the small enclosed space? Feel free to add more bindings, I'm fine with bondage, just, um, look it'd be really embarrassing to have a panic attack in front of all of you nice people."

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"We can keep you in the external cell if it helps?" suggests #3.

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Damn it, stop being reasonable, you're making it very hard to plausibly lose an amulet without it being very obvious that's what she's doing! Ugh, this isn't working. They're clearly not going to do any kind of manhandling. Can she trip and call it good enough? She'll have to, it's about the only plausible opening she's got.

"That would be so much better," she agrees, sounding relieved and looking excited, "which way is it, is it over—"

It's pretty easy to trip, when one's feet are tied together. She can just pretend to be too excited to take a step and then: whoops! Down she goes, with a little yelp. And off goes the amulet, into the dirt.

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One of them helps her up - gently, no manhandling at all - and then they lead her to the external cell, which is just a shaded area with a comfortable-looking couch, a desk with some paper, ink, and quills, a bookshelf with... two rotted books... a chest for personal belongings, and a little attached house with an indoor privy and shower.

Also, the whole area is enchanted to prevent escape, naturally.

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Yeah, she figured. But the important part of her is outside, so! In she goes.

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They get rid of the ropes, then, and off they go.

A couple of minutes later Thresh shows up and tosses her amulet to her. "Nice try."

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"Wait—" she tries to halt the amulet's trajectory before it's inside, but actually she was taken by surprise, one minute she was being ignored in the dirt, the next she was scooped up and being thrown, and, and.

Her reflexes aren't good enough to manage it. Especially with how she'd been playing all innocent and nonmagical. Mana is a force to be steered and channeled, not a switch that’s flipped on or off. Into the cell goes the important part of her.

"Shit."

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"You're funny. Now stay there and I'll be right back."

And off he goes.

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"Not like I have a choice now, is it!" she yells after him.

Then she huffs a sigh and picks, well, herself off of the ground, and returns her amulet to its chain. It's easy enough to repair, and if anything, making a single link as conjured as her body is means that she can attempt to pull something like this trick in the future more easily. If she ever gets out of here. Because she's now definitely trapped. Yay.

And then she sits down on her comfortable couch and pouts.

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When he's back, he's made his face into something - less scary. The rest of his body still looks the same, though. "So," he says, his voice now more like the others', "you're not really just an outsider, are you."

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"I mean, I definitely am an outsider. Just also maybe the only one that wouldn't literally die or get corrupted from being here. Not that I know I'll last forever, mind, which was why I wanted to keep an exit. I was going to hear you out regardless!" Huff.

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"And I'm gonna let you go regardless, especially now that it's clear you're not particularly a threat nor one of my dear husband's traps to try to draw me out."

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“Trouble in paradise?” she wonders, dryly. “Why is your husband trying to draw you out, can’t you just talk about your problems like normal people.”

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"Because our beautiful King is the one who wishes to hoard all of our treasures and knowledge and progress to these isles, and not spread it out at all. Even though people are killed and lost by the minute, out there.

"...well, the treasures and knowledge and progress we could rebuild, here, from ages past. But we have forever, don't we?"

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“And people in here are suffering right now, caught in torturous memory loops. Surely you’ve heard the screams. You want to bring that to the rest of the world? Trap them in this living death, too?”

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"Of course not. But the thing the outside has which we don't is - infrastructure. And as you have doubtlessly seen, infrastructure is exactly what keeps us sane." Pause. "Saneish. Mostly sane. I suspect more people and more infrastructure improves this. I have perhaps decided to not enlighten these people about the fact that their memories are centuries old because most people who notice they are walking dead and that their world isn't a paradise succumb to despair and we cannot have that, now, can we?"

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"Or you could, I don't know. Build the infrastructure in here, instead of trying to steal it and killing who knows how many people in the process. Make it so that you don't have to lie to everyone about their world not sucking. You've had decades, centuries, why is this tiny pathetic camp all you have?"

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"I... don't know," he replies, slowly, with a furrow emerging in his eyebrows.

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"The work of a decade, much less a hundred years, and you have, what. A hundred people? Maybe? As the grand result of your efforts? That speaks of a level of incompetence that I don't believe you have, doesn't it. Or, more likely. You're trapped in a loop just like everyone else, and any attempts to spread 'paradise' are dragging more people into this hellhole."

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"It's been much longer than a hundred years!" ...wait, that doesn't help his point at all. It has been much longer than a hundred years, hasn't it? So what has... he... been doing... for that time? "I - can't be trapped, too, I, I remember -"

What does he remember?

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... She might have just done the exact thing she did with the guy who thought she was Denna. Except this time, she's trapped in a cell when everyone starts screaming and going crazy. She could eat her way out of this magical prison eventually, but who knows how long that would take.

"—Let me out," she interrupts, afraid. "Please. I don't think you're monsters, I think you're victims. I want to help but I can't if I'm trapped in here."

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He's no longer paying attention to her, and seems to be muttering to himself more and more agitatedly. His echoing voice makes it impossible to understand the words he's saying, especially as he paces from side to side and loses focus halfway through every sentence.

At the same time, all of the other undead in the city... stop. Stop whatever they're doing, their conversations, their thoughts, their walking. They don't exactly freeze, but they stop, as if they've all been simultaneously interrupted by the same thing.

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Avedra grimaces, from realizing the mess she's gotten herself into, and the novel sensation of genuine physical discomfort.

She's never really felt particularly besieged by the Black Mist or anything equivalent at any point. It's just kind of been a thing that's around, that she eats sometimes. It certainly might be bad for her in the long run, but in the immediate sense, it's fine. Now, it is distinctly not fine. There's a pressure, a projection, from this person in front of her that she poked just intelligently enough to send over the edge. His pain and confusion and attempts to find the missing pieces and the intense importance in his task. She understands very much why everyone stops. It's sort of like a wave, crashing into everyone around him and sweeping them up into his charisma. Except this is probably not actually the wave itself, is it, this is the tide retreating from the beach before the tsunami. She's seen how the victims here snap when they get pushed too far. It's pretty clear that's about to happen now.

Her projection of a body, her magical vanity project to remind herself and everyone else that even though she's an amulet she's a person, is dropped in favor of more practical concerns. If she's right, if everything is about to unravel because she couldn't resist tugging at the damn threads, then she needs to protect herself as much as possible. Be her own anchor in the coming storm. Her own voice echoes softly from no obvious source as she puts everything she has into shielding herself, quiet and almost beneath notice.

"...I am Avedra, amulet and half-spirit of protection. I was made to preserve myself, I will not let myself be broken again..."

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"No, no, no," Thresh starts saying, more audibly and clearly. "I... he..."

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Several things happen in quick succession, then.

First, Thresh returns to his previous form, and wails in a series of psychic waves, his reverberating voices interfering with each other in pulses loud enough to actually physically destabilise the buildings in the little settlement.

In response to that, every other undead starts screaming, too, compounding the effect. If her amulet were not thoroughly protected it would probably crack from the pressure.

And at the same time, storm clouds with green lightning thundering in them appear right above the town, and if Thresh's face can look terrified it's doing that right now.

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She is really not in much state to make observations right now. It's rather more important that she put everything she has into staying whole. She will not break.

"I am Avedra, and I can't, I won't—mother died to save me, so I need to, I can't, I won't—"

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Thresh recovers enough presence of mind to stop screaming and stagger to his skeleton horse and somehow convince it to let him ride off into the distance. But the magic and psychic event he's caused is still happening even in his absence, the other undead reflecting and amplifying it in all directions. The dead spirits lose coherence and the dead mortals fall to their hands and knees, unable to hold themselves up under the pressure they're helping create.

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And just as Thresh's figure disappears in the foggy horizon, the clouds start shooting out green lightning, and at one spot where the ground is hit, a figure appears.

He's holding a large greatsword made of the same magic that feeds the Black Mist, and from a darkly pulsating triangle in his chest emerges a fog so dark and thick it's almost oily. It forms spirals around his body and his sword, and while he looks around it shoots out in the direction of the collapsing buildings and other structures, knocking falling debris away from falling on and crushing the screaming undead. One of the tendrils of darkness hits into the protective wall around Avedra's cell and shatters it like glass, at which point he immediately swivels around and looks directly at the Amethyst of Avedra.

Then he shakes his head, looks at the townspeople, and says, in a tone that brokes no argument: "I am your king and I demand silence."

The screams all immediately stop in response to that, and the leftover psychic waves crash harmlessly against the darkness surrounding him and dissolve into nothing.

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One tiny voice does not fall silent.

"I am Avedra, and I will not be..."

She then notices that the barrage has stopped, and trails off. Oh. She did it. Yay. Now she can... do things other than that, she guesses.

".... so you'd be the husband, then?" says the little violet amulet in a sea of green mist.

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After another second of making sure the undead are no longer on the verge of collapse, he turns back around to look at her. "So he was here, then," he says in a more normal voice. "...who are you and why are you here?"

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"Avedra. Hi. Um. Here in particular because I got thrown in a cage, here on the islands because I'm an incorrigible dumbass who can't resist poking things to see if I can help."

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"You are this far in, and yet you have not been corrupted." He looks around at the undead who are slowly coming back to their senses, then at her again. "...I cannot help them. But I believe we can help each other."

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"Yeah you seem to be the sanest person I've met so far here so I'm up for teamwork as long as you're not doing something like 'conquer everything."'

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"...no. No, I would not say I am."

He starts walking towards her to pick her up, dispelling his greatsword into mist as he does.

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"Great! Don't do that. It's dumb, I told Thresh so too."

He is entirely free to pick up the pretty violet amulet. The pretty violet amulet notes that she's maybe lost her word filter somewhere and furthermore is probably rambling and giving a hell of a bad first impression.

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"Mmhm," he says, with a teeny tiny movement to his lips that - might be a smile? "- do you, ah, have any companions that got misplaced, or is it just you?"

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"No no, just me and my box, purposefully sailing to the Shadow Isles in a way that is in retrospect self-destructive but at least in a way that probably wouldn't bring other people down with me."

Oops too honest.

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"Very well."

And they are hit by lightning.

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The place they arrive at is in much better repair than the ramshackle town Thresh had been trying to build. It is, in fact, fairly recognisable to Avedra, if she's ever been to the capital, Helia.

They're in a garden, and while normally one would want to add caveats about how gardens are not typically made with (un)dead plants, this somehow actually works. The colours are dark greens and blues and purples and the occasional red, but it is artfully decorated nevertheless, a gloomy aesthetic that is enhanced rather than diminished by the fact that most of the plants are not alive. There is a pond, its waters dark and hard to see into, with the kind of occasional movement that suggests the existence of (probably undead) fish. In the middle of the pond is a tiny isle with a single dead tree planted on it, pulsating ruby veins decorating its trunk and faintly illuminating the surroundings. It's small, probably private, and a little emerald cobblestone walkway leads to the ruins of the palace.

And they are ruins, the walls are cracked and broken, vines crawl along the whole structure, various turrets are held up only by the Black Mist itself. Yet, it seems much more purposeful than the ruins she's seen so far. The village Thresh had been building was trying to carve out a semblance of normalcy out of the chaos; this place is harmonising with the chaos, using the dark magicks that haunt this place to enhance it rather than tear it down. She may observe that actually the roofs of the palace are mostly intact, and the bits that aren't intact seem to have been turned into localised art installations, with magically placed debris forming abstract floating sculptures and evil-looking vines linking them together into something cohesive.

If there is a way to draw out beauty and prosperity out of death and decay, this is it.

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".... Oh. Oh, this is gorgeous," she sighs, entranced. Is she too easily distracted by pretty things? Yes, probably. "Yeah okay I would love to help make more of this."

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"We tried to do the best we could," and there is something almost like a smile on his face; certainly in his voice. "- ah, do you have a means of independent motion? I do not mind carrying you but I would imagine you'd prefer having control over your movement."

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"Oh. Yes, I do, it was just easier to keep only being jewelry after.... well, that."

The amulet floats out of his grasp, and, more slowly than usual, she reforms her body.

"Also I am an obligate manavore and while I have some control over it I don't have perfect control, so, uh. We should keep me away from anything nice and magical."

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"...I see. I can probably provide a steady stream of magic, if you do not mind it being Black Mist."

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"No, I came here expecting to eat nothing but Black Mist. I actually have before, before I properly woke up I spend a couple decades around the neck of an undead pirate. But. Yes I would really rather not break anything nice."

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So a bit of the black oily mist around him, which is no longer coming out of his chest and is instead just hanging around him, swirls in her direction instead.

It is extremely dense and concentrated and probably has several hours maybe days' worth of magic for her.

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"Ooo," she says, and she carefully reaches out to catch it and channel it into one of the little beads adorning her amulet. ... Several of the little beads, actually, this is a pretty respectable amount of power. They turn a deep black as they're filled, now available for her to siphon in to the ever-hungering magical maw powering her consciousness. She'd had a decent amount stored, before, but shielding herself from the psychic spirit scream caused her to deplete them quite thoroughly. While she always eats mana, doing difficult things causes her to devour it faster, and 'trying very hard not to die or go mad' definitely counts.

Once everything is neatly tucked away in her mana storage solution: "Thank you, that's very helpful. Now! You mentioned I could also help you? I would love to."

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"...what do you know of the history of the Shadow Isles?" he asks, as he starts walking towards the palace.

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"I'd studied here, when I was human and they were the Blessed Isles. But everything that came after, just the broad strokes of 'something went wrong, now everything is terrible.' There are a lot of rumors of what happened, but I'll spare you them."

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He shuts his eyes for a moment and takes a deep breath. "I confess to curiosity about them, but you are probably correct that they are not worth knowing. What happened was..." He pinches the bridge of his nose, and pushes the door into the palace open. They lead to a large courtyard slash hallway with wide windows in tinted glass along the way, offering a beautiful view of the more public gardens and the rest of the city. It is very much the same city of Helia Avedra will be used to, just... with a different aesthetic. "You are partly a spirit. You knew of the covenant between the Monarchs and the spirits?"

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"Yes. I'm, uh. Also from a spirit and a human coupling, so. I had a somewhat personal interest in the matter."

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He takes a moment to process this then nods. "I was the Prince, and he was a spirit of - I don't even know. He was so, so flighty, he never stood still. I met him for the first time when I was a child, and he was of course grown, but when he saw me he made himself small so he could talk to me and I felt so condescended to I refused to reply. I just stared over his shoulder and resolutely ignored him." Again that half-smile playing on his lips, for a second, before it vanishes again. "The covenant was... we..." He shakes his head. "The marriage had to be for love. Yes, there was politics, I could never have married a human if I were to inherit, but nevertheless, it would only count if we actually loved each other. So I did. I loved him, and then... then...

"...then we killed each other."

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"I'm so sorry," she murmurs softly.

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He shakes his head once more, as if trying to wave away an insistent fly. "He had a point. The Blessed Isles were so much more plentiful and bountiful and prosperous than anywhere else. Of course he of all people would be the one to notice, to think of it. It would never have been enough for him, to just settle for being King of a country where nothing ever went wrong, when there was so much wrong elsewhere. Each minute was another person, another child who died who didn't need to." He turns right at a T-junction and then left into a set of stairs going up in a spiral. "But people wouldn't trust it and just accept it. We couldn't show up at their shores and declare ourselves their rulers. We could trade with them, and offer humanitarian aid, but it was not enough, never enough for him.

"And he had a point, damnit," repeats the King, pausing at the top of the stairs to punch a wall hard enough to crack.

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"Yes. Yes he did," she agrees, still so whisper soft. He still has something of a point, too, but now it's buried under confusion and guilt and pain and spun round and round in a torturous loop of forgetting and remembering.

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He walks in silence for a bit longer until they reach a door, then he opens it and gestures in. It's a room, nice and spacious, with a bookshelf that has actual books and a pretty rug, the walls decorated with some pretty abstract magic artwork, a table and a desk, a door leading to a washing room, a sofa, a bed. The windows open to the rest of the city, which from here can be seen to be bustling with activity, indistinguishable from a normal city of her youth except for how everyone is dead.

The King walks over to a padded chair and sits there, making his green crown of magic fade into nothing. He closes his eyes and leans forward to rest his head on his hands then says, "We have several guest rooms available, seeing as we so seldom have guests. There's a map of the keep on the bookshelf somewhere but of course there's no way to remember everything first time. And you don't have to stay here if you don't want to, but I wished to offer you the choice."

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"Sure. It'll be novel, having so much space." She gives a little smile to the very sad king as she sits down. "But you didn't answer my question, did you. How can I help?"

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"Why are there rumours about what happened here, instead of knowledge? Why haven't I sent envoys to other nations to explain, to ask for help, to trade with, to establish diplomatic relations with?"

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"Because everyone from here creates the Black Mist, and if any of you ever try to leave, you'll kill anyone and everyone you interact with, and maybe raise them to spread the stuff, too." Her mouth twitches. "Good news, I specialize in absorbing, containing, and devouring unwanted magical effects, so I can just work on that a bit more. But I'm also happy to be your singular envoy to the outside world, if you could, uh. Maybe get me a better vessel than a literal box."

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He smiles again, head still resting on his hands.

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And once more it's gone. "The Black Mist is... Spirits are more emotion than matter, and Zerin - Thresh - was that more than most. It was an accident - we were having an argument, it got more heated than usual, I was tired and said some things I didn't mean, he was stressed and being fuelled by the feelings of all the people he rallied to his cause - he lashed out at me, and that broke the covenant. And so the purpose that every spirit on these isles shared for centuries prior was shattered.

"That's... that's it. That's the Black Mist, from what I've been able to piece together. It's the feelings of disorientation, of confusion and fear and anger and sadness that they all felt, at the same time, when the covenant was broken. And it makes us - the dead - forget the faces of those around us, lose hold of the order in which our memories happened, get our emotions amplified and twisted. And the way to fight it is," and he straightens up to gesture expansively around, "this. Structure, solidity, routine. If we set everything up to remind us of who we are, we remain sane. But the moment that's gone," he snaps his fingers, "so are we.

"So it's not just that we'd spread the Black Mist wherever we went and doom the people we mean to befriend. The very act of leaving, of sending envoys, would doom them to the same fate those poor souls you've seen have met. If anyone tries to leave, they'll soon forget their mission, forget what they're trying to accomplish or even who they are.

"Both edges of the blade that is the Black Mist cut deep."

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"It sounds it. Even though, often enough, it's not very black at all," she agrees, because it's clear to her by now that this is the sort of person who appreciates gentle levity. "Right, okay, so. What resources do you need from the outside world the most, and are there things you can offer in exchange? The closest civilization is very, mm. Mercantile, but with less ethics and even more greed. The best idea I've got is to make a dozen protection charms and exchange those for things you want, but that doesn't scale very well because it's... sort of like loaning out tiny bits of myself for a while? So I can't actually hold up an entire island on my ability to enchant things alone."

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He nods, then sighs. "I don't know. I never thought -" He cuts himself off, then clears his throat. "I expected I would need to rebuild our kingdom bit by bit over the next centuries until we had enough structure again that we would not throw out the occasional ghost pirate ship and would be able to actually move out from there. What little I know of how the outside world has developed comes from the very rare outsider who dies on our shores and then manages to make their way far enough inland that one of our scouts can bring them in and help them organise their memories. The last time that's happened was seventy-two years ago.

"So, I don't know. You're an unexpected boon and I will need to think on how to best apply your unique talents.

"And there's the matter of what compensation you would want for it."

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"Oh. No, I'm fine. I mean, please feed me and continue treating me as a person? But, no, I actually just went in a box and threw myself out to sea on the premise that people were suffering and I wanted it to stop."

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"Well. Thank you for your sacrifice."

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"It's really not one, I promise that the outside world has not met my basic standards of 'I would like to be treated as a person,' but you're welcome anyway."

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"I do hope we do better than that." He stands up and dusts himself. "If I understood what I was seeing correctly, the beads on your amulet should have enough magic now to last you a while, yes?"

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"Yep! I can come get you if I need to be topped off, but if there's anything really magical nearby I might need it marked on the map so I can avoid it just in case. My whole mana eating thing is sort of... imagine a whirlpool, I suppose? And I can keep it spinning by continuously pouring mana into it, which I keep containers on hand for. But if there's so much in an area around me, it can get past and go into the whirlpool even if I don't mean for it to." And if the whirlpool stops 'spinning,' her mind turns off and she goes back to sleep, but she'd rather not bring that up right now. He can probably guess.

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"I think the most magical things you are liable to run into by accident if you go exploring are the art installations," he says, on his way to the door, "so it should be fine." Then he turns around and says, "By the way, I never told you my name. I am Viego, at your service." He bows to her, and his crown reappears on his forehead as he does.

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"Pleasure to properly make your acquaintance," she replies, with a matching curtsy. She's tempted to call him 'your majesty,' but actually, she suspects he finds the title complicatedly painful, considering the circumstances. "I'll try not to break any art installations while you're resting, but I suppose if that's all there is to accidentally break, no promises."

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"I'm sure it won't be an issue."

And off he goes.

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...

She should probably try not to flirt with the pretty, but definitely married king. Uh, actually, does mutual accidental murder count as a breakup? It might be. Still, it still seems a little tacky, so she'll try to resist. A little. ... But she's pretty sure he started it.

Nope, not thinking about this anymore. Avedra's just going to go set herself down on a table, dismiss her body, and get to playing with magic to see about coming up with better mana absorption, for the good of the citizenry of the Shadow Isles. Having this much spare mana around to play with, along the knowledge that she can easily go get more, is as novel as the room. The most expensive project she's worked on since waking was her body projection, and even that was made with hyper-efficiency of mana consumption in mind. It'll be a little strange to not... have to think about that as much. That'll take some getting used to.

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At least for the next short while, no one comes bother her. Probably no one's used to having guests to bother anyway, and Viego himself may not have told many people about her yet.

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Avedra has actually been saving up some ideas of things she could try to enhance efficiency of holding mana, or catching more of it all at once, or larger but sturdier shields more along the lines of the prison cell she was briefly kept in than the usual tight, hyper-compressed mana containers she tends to specialize in. She couldn't really try them all, because her mind turns off if she doesn't keep it constantly fed with mana, and actually she would really like to keep having thoughts. So instead she'd stay in the land of theory as much as possible, carefully weighing which things are more likely to bear fruit before committing precious resources to them. But since that's not an issue anymore, she can actually just try things. Tentatively at first, but then rather gleefully as her new circumstances begins to sink in. Magic has always been fun, but oh she had forgotten how wonderful it was to just play with it, instead of careful obsessive budgeting. She hasn't done this since she was human, and she missed it so.

If she'd stuck to careful and responsible budgeting, the stores of mana Viego gave her could have easily lasted her days. Instead, she burns through almost two thirds of them in a couple of delightful hours of experimentation. It feels a little bit like some kind of sacrilege, but definitely the fun kind. Still, as the stores begin to get run down, her ingrained habits kick back in, and she puts down her work to remanifest a head (with attached body) and poke it out of her room.

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The hallway is not particularly long, with occasional doors and paintings on either wall and a long rug spanning its length. To the right, the hallway ends on a window overlooking a courtyard, and an aperture next to it leads to the stairs that brought her there; to the left, the hallway continues on for a bit longer before taking a right turn.

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Well, clearly the thing to do is go exploring! Though she’ll grab the map first, so she has some kind of guide. But it sounds fun to just wander around a pretty palace, looking at all of the sights.

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The map suggests that if she goes back downstairs she can get to a physical training courtyard which is next to a magical training courtyard. The other rooms on this hallway aren't especially marked but it she checks them out in person she'll find an old armoury, a room with paintings that look old and decayed but sort of on purpose in a way that makes them look exotic and mysterious rather than badly kept, and a couple more guest rooms, all empty.

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Hmmm. Okay, maybe just blithely wandering around poking her head into rooms is an inefficient use of her time. She's admittedly not used to this sort of thing just yet, it's odd to be directly given information and resources to do what she wants instead of stubbornly clawing it together by herself.

... Actually. Does the palace have a library?

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Well according to her map there are three libraries, the closest one being the military and history-focused one.

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Three?

Well screw this wandering around nonsense, she's going to the library! One of them! The military and history focused one sounds good for now, she's mostly just excited that there are books she can read without sneaking around like the ghost in an amulet that she is!

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Here is the military and history library! It has a library ghost! He looks like a plump man with a thick mustache and he's reading a book when she arrives. He looks up and blinks owlishly at her. "Hello."

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Oh no a person, she was not expecting a person. Uh, uh, she can do this, it'll be fine.

"Hello! I wanted to read up on the local history." Well, she mostly just wanted to read literally anything, but reading up on the history she missed sounds like a responsible use of her time and attention, so she'll go with it. "Are there any books you could recommend?"

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"Ooh! I absolutely can," he says, and his image flickers into something like an octopus but with more than eight tentacles and each of them seems to be like twenty-feet-long (though they're coiled). "What period are you interested in?"

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... Aw!! She beams at the display of abnormality. It's oddly comforting, to see that she's definitely not the only weird ghost thing here.

"For right now, the time period after, uh..." She pauses and tries to remember the exact date that she died. The way years have been accounted since then has changed, which complicates things. "120ish BN, if you use that date system here? It'd be about a hundred years before the Ruination, I think."

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"Most certainly!" And his tentacles extend to various seemingly-arbitrary shelves and he starts piling books on a table between himself and her. "Let's see, we have Lanessen and Ribben and Holter and Vert on general history," he says as he grabs the books, "and for more specifics bits there's Forres & Gardien on spirit-human relations, it spans a while longer than your period of interest but includes it, and one by Ribben again and one by Traer on the evolution of the artistic movements of the time, another Ribben on the relations between the isles and their influence on the Ruination. Then there's Holter & Forres, posthumous, on an analysis of the supposed historical and sociological roots of the Ruination, and this memoir by Compet telling the story of King Viego and his consort, the King hates it and has a beef with a few details but grudgingly admits it is mostly historically accurate if from a fairly distant perspective, don't read it in front of him unless you enjoy the faces he makes in which case absolutely do that..."

And so on.

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She is a very happy amulet, and honestly doesn't even know where to start. Okay, that's a lie, she totally knows where she wants to start, and it's the one that causes Viego to make faces. But actually she wants to hear Viego's problems with it personally, and furthermore see the faces he makes, so she probably shouldn't actually start with that. Since he's not here.

General history it is, then! She'll grab a couple of the books, thank the library ghost enthusiastically, and park herself in a nice out of the way table. After a few minutes, she then dismisses her body, because she doesn't really need it to read or turn pages. Instead she floats lazily above the books and turns pages with telekinesis. Honestly, she forgot she had a physical form when she was human and reading, this just feels more honest.

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The spirit eventually returns to a more human-looking form because all of the tentacles are extraneous when one is not actually reaching for books, and besides fingers and in particular thumbs are great when one does not have telekinesis.

No one shows up to interrupt them.

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Yeah, she's going to be there for hours. Historically speaking, nothing of much importance happened between her death and the Ruination, but it's absolutely fascinating to read about the differing opinions of things she was there to see. Besides, it makes her rather nostalgic.

Then she'll move on to reading about what happened with the Shadow Isles after the Ruination, but before she can get much of anywhere, one of the dates from a more recent book gives her pause.

"... It's been almost a thousand years since the Ruination?" she asks, surprised.

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"...hm? Oh, no, I think according to the current calendar it's been slightly over a thousand," he says, gesturing with a tentacle that emerges from his back in the direction of said calendar on the wall next to the door.

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“Oh,” she says, in a small voice.

She hadn’t thought it’d been that long. It took her over a thousand years to figure out how to reliably stay awake? That’s such an impossibly large number, and it feels so incredibly unfair. Why couldn’t she manage it sooner, why couldn’t the idiots that passed her around like a cheap whore (okay, admittedly an expensive whore) have realized the obvious thing to do with an amulet that eats magic? Why was she so starved, for so long, that her consciousness only awakened for brief glimpses of time, before she ran out of mana and inevitably fell back to nothingness again? Why did no one that realized she was a person care enough to fight for her to stay conscious? Why did she have to do all of the fighting, all on her own, all this impossibly long time?

One of the benefits of being an amulet without a body currently conjured is that if she wants to cry, no one has to know.

"That... sounds like long enough that I'm going to need to break it up into chunks and work through it another day, really. Thank you so much for your help, you've been wonderful."

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"Sensible! Well, I'm almost always here so if you ever need anything you know where to find me!"

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"Thanks so much, I'll be back when I have more time!"

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This complete, she can then float off to find a nice place to cry. She doesn't precisely feel things in her conjured body, just can tell when she's touching things or not, but crying is still confusingly comforting anyway. It's at least more comforting than brooding as an amulet in a drawer somewhere, which was her second idea. So she'd like to. Her room is the obvious venue, but it still doesn't really feel like hers, yet, and. Well. She really likes the gardens. They're very pretty. Less private than her room or a quiet out of the way drawer, admittedly, but honestly if anyone will understand needing to cry about time lost it's probably these exact people, so. Not being entirely private doesn't seem like the worst thing ever. Still, she'd rather not draw a crowd or anything. The little courtyard Viego teleported her to seemed very out of the way, she can just. Go there, remake her body, and quietly cry for herself and the unfairness of it all.

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After a few minutes someone shows up again, looking... anxious? Perhaps?

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Oh. Oops. She scared the poor sad king. This is a downside of not hiding in a small drawer, or her room.

“I’m fine,” she sniffles, “sorry to scare you, just, um. It’s. Been longer than I thought since I died.”

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He releases a breath. "So... you're fine? No catastrophes or emergencies?"

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“Yeah, none to speak of. I actually did a lot of magical experimentation and think I can make improved mana storage devices now, among other things, just, um.” She sniffles again. “… sorry for scaring you.”

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"It's alright. I... didn't realise you wouldn't have known. I know... how it feels... to suddenly notice it's been a thousand years."

He hesitates, but she doesn't seem to want him gone - he's not as good as Zerin was at this, but he's learned any of it, and has had a thousand years of being a King (...well, kinda) to practise. So he walks over to her and makes to sit on the bench, not right next to her in case she wants space, but not so far that she'll feel like he's actively trying to stay away.

(Zerin had intuitions for this kind of thing. All Viego has is rules. Many, many rules.)

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“It does seem like the kind of problem that would be pretty normal here,” she agrees, a little wryly. She smiles at him when he sits down, so clearly she doesn’t want him to go away. For a little while, she’s quiet, and just looks at the pretty garden.

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“… I think I’m just angry, really. I just did magical research in three hours that would have taken me years of careful and obsessive theorycrafting to get around to testing to be sure it could possibly be worth the mana cost. I walked into a library and could just, just, ask for help and get it and look up what had changed since I died! You have a lovely tentacle librarian who is a total sweetie and very helpful, and, and. For a thousand years I didn’t have any of this. Nobody ever… I had to fight and scheme and bite and claw for everything, for every scrap of being awake and staying awake and getting to do what I wanted when I wanted. And I could have just been here. Somehow that’s just... not worse, I guess, but it makes me want to cry, so um. Here I am.”

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Zerin would know what to do here better than Viego does, he thinks for the he's-long-since-stopped-counting-th time. And for the he's-long-since-stopped-counting-th time he wrenches his thoughts away from that and manually overrides this helplessness to try to figure out what to do, himself.

...a part of him wants to hug her but that's probably the part of him that's attracted to her so it should be ignored.

Instead what he does is turn slightly around to face her and open his body language a bit, softening his features and tilting the angle of his shoulders and head. That probably achieves "understanding and sympathetic but not overbearing or overstepping". "Why... was that the case? What was preventing you from doing more, or coming here earlier?"

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"Oh. Um. So if I don't have enough mana to, to operate my mind, then... I can't. I call it being asleep, because I'm not dead, really, but. I certainly don't have proper dreams or anything. And in order to be 'awake', I need both a large store of mana and a semi-steady supply of mana to keep the proverbial lights on. So. For most of my thousand years of existence, I was actually just a pretty bauble that provided some protective qualities against magic. An almost ordinary amulet that got sold off for spare coin or forgotten in a drawer or who knows what else, really. And no one would even know."

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"And it took the whole thousand years to gather up the magic you needed to be awake at all?" That is a lot more magic than he'd thought it would take.

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"Not precisely. After my stint with the undead pirate, I had most of what I needed to wake up, and I started to do so somewhat reliably. But I was... very confused, in the beginning. I didn't know what was going on, I didn't know why or how to conserve mana, I'd—I'd weave a spell to call for help and drive myself back to sleep in the process. I'd intervene in crises because someone was being hurt, or close to dying, or just needed help, or any number of well meaning but stupid things. I didn't realize that it could be decades before I'd regain the power I needed for consciousness, or..." She folds and unfolds her hands. "... Or that there wasn't much incentive for anyone that had me to want their amulet to start having opinions and preferences."

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"You - oh, of course when you projected people would not have helped," he sighs defeatedly. "I do not know why I bothered to expect otherwise."

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"To be fair, I think some of them tried, but couldn't manage to reach the mana requirements, or would have if they'd thought they hadn't imagined me, or were worried I was a sealed evil spirit or something, but. I've mostly been passed around the Serpent Isles since beginning to wake. Pirates and would-be adventurers out for glory and whatnot. Not precisely those with lots of empathy and forethought." She shrugs unhappily.

"I also hadn't worked out my external mana storage system," she points to the little beads adorning her amulet, "that gives me a much needed buffer. Nor, in fact, my method of conserving mana by purposefully going to sleep, but weaving mana storages to release their stores and wake me after a set amount of time. So those compounded the issue. But. Yes." Avedra swallows and looks at her feet. "For the most part, I had little to no help."

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Well, it is not news to him that the world sucks and most people in it do, too, and at this point he's mostly numb to the horrors.

"You're here now, and that part of your life is hopefully over."

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"Yes, I am, and if I have anything to say about it, yes it is," she agrees, brightening a little. "But it's after the siege ends that the degree of the destruction truly comes to light, so." She motions illustratively around herself. "I needed to cry. Because I'm here now, and it's safe to."

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"...I believe I am somewhat familiar with the feeling, also, yes."

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“I imagine so,” she agrees, amused. “Though for the record it is a terrible tragedy my undead pirate didn’t come ashore and go inland, it would have neatly wrapped everything up.”

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"- oh that would have been terribly useful. Undead pirates are a particularly thorny issue, unfortunately."

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“They seem to be, with the sailing around confusedly and causing mayhem whenever they find anything. But what’s the Shadow Isles’ side of the thorny issue?”

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"Most of them, by now, are not locals, and 'do not go to the Shadow Isles' is a fairly sticky memory they carry into death, so we have trouble ever reaching them to help. But they also form their island of stability around each other, the crew, and see everyone else as enemies, be they other undead or, more frequently, other pirates or mere trading vessels around the Serpent Isles. And to make matters worse, they cannot recognise their homeland anymore, so whenever they reach any shore they believe it is not theirs and therefore they should ransack it.

"I... wish to be able to say I had predicted this, but I had not, and had to learn only later from the few outsiders who trickle in that this created the rather persistent rumour that I command fleets of undead pirates who kill their countrymen and then send their new recruits out to continue this cycle. 'The Harrowing', they call it, when undead pirates reach Bilgewater."

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She winces.

"Yeah. I'm sorry. That was how I made it back to civilization. For what it's worth, I think I can invent a shield that'll keep Black Mist out specifically, and unlike every other mage I can safely test whether or not it'll work, so. We can probably throw a bunch of those at Bilgewater in your name, maybe along with a fruitbasket or two, as an apology?"

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"I do not think the fruit that grows here is edible by mortals," he comments dryly.

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"Okay, fine. Treasure chest full of shiny things," she snorts. "They're pirates, after all."

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"Shiny things, we can do."

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"That'll probably go over better than fruit, anyway."

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"They might still not trust us on account of all the Black Mist but hopefully some persuasion will help."

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"I suspect they're going to think I'm a little crazy when I come back with gifts and relayed apologies from you. Realizing you're not the evil villain they think you are is probably going to take some time."

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"Yes. Less time than it would to singlehandedly unify the kingdom again, though, probably. Hopefully."

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"I expect so, though now that you mention it I want to help unify the kingdom again, too."

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"I would welcome all the help. It is dangerous for us, as we have to travel far from current civilisation to reach other outposts and that risks destabilisation, so that particular job is strictly voluntary. The safer but slower solution is just expanding our cities outwards so that the stability is easier-within-reach."

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"Yeah. I'd want to get a path to the nearest port city up, really. Since I will presumably be coming back with presents, anyway."

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"There are... a couple of issues with that idea. The first one is that the nearest port city is to the southwest and the continent is to the northeast, so any ships sailing from there would need to detour a large amount to be able to get there without being harassed by the undead pirates, plus that risks causing them to become undead pirates themselves. The second is that a narrow corridor would be difficult to maintain and defend, and a reasonable amount of infrastructure and local population would be necessary to counteract those problems."

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"Oh. I suppose so, yes, since any wandering undead could show up, get upset, and scream to disrupt it. Hmm. I suppose I'll just deal with clever spellcrafting and being an envoy and leave logistics to better informed individuals." The last part is said rather wryly; she knows her own desire to meddle with everything to try and help.

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At that point, a ghost appears at the door of the gardens and, with a nod from Viego, approaches them and bows.

    "Your majesty," she says, "Lord Garton and Lady Hellinger are available at your pleasure, and Lady Rocton should be able to arrive by tomorrow."

"Speaking of better informed individuals," he says, turning to Avedra again. "Would you join me and my advisors tomorrow for a meeting about what you could best help us with?"

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She grins broadly, delighted.

"Yes, absolutely! And if you have more Black Mist you can feed me I can..." she pauses. She was going to say work on spellcrafting, but actually, that should probably wait until the better informed individuals can point her in the right direction. What she should do now is: "... make more storage containers so I have more mana to work with and need less mana babysitting."

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Here's more tendrils of extra concentrated Black Mist for her, then. "Thank you for the report," he says to the ghost. He doesn't know her name; Zerin would've. He ignores the stab of pain at the thought for the several thousandsth time, and instead says, "You may go," at which point the ghost disappears into nothing.

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This time Avedra absorbs all she can; she cannot actually store all of it away.

"Yep, I need to make more storage. This isn't weakening you very much, is it?"

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"I have a thousand years of concentrated Black Mist in me. I will not know the difference for a while yet."

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"Oh." She pauses in consideration. "... I might need to purposefully burn through mana, then. Since it seems like that might be... bad for you. That'll be very strange."

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He shrugs one shoulder. "It does not affect me; I have a way of controlling it. And it helps, to draw the Black Mist from around the country so that it has less of an effect on others. I believe the current structure should survive my absence, should that be necessary, but I have not had cause to test this yet."

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“So what I’m hearing is that I should burn through mana gleefully and without remorse!”

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"With the added bonus of having two ways of getting rid of it rather than just one. You are a gift that keeps on giving."

Wait was that flirting? ...probably.

Whatever, he'll own it; she looks smart and like she has her priorities in order and importantly she is not his royal subject, which is only true of one other person he has interacted with for the past thousand years.

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… She blushes and inspects her hands on her lap. Her blush is a dark purple, because of course it is.

“I’m happy to help. I’ll just, um. Need to think of things to spend power on. I suppose I can make this manifestation a bit less, uh. Economic?”

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"Oh?"

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“Well, the major problem is that I, um. Don’t really feel things? Physically, I mean. I can tell when I’m touching things but it’s not… really the same. And hot and cold and taste and such are just right out.”

Oh no is this going to have subtext? This might have subtext!

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Viego is pretty sure at this point Zerin would be yelling at him about something, though he's not quite sure if the something is "she's clearly also interested!" or "you're pushing her away chill out".

Well, they have forever to find out.

"And these are features you are capable of adding or modifying? I confess the magicks involved in your existence are rather mistifying to me; one of the people who will be at the meeting tomorrow, Lord Garton, is my minister of research, and I imagine he would be fascinated."

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“Honestly it is kind of fascinating, because you’d think that making a body wouldn’t be an… obvious inherent thing an amulet could do? But it’s really obvious, the hard part was making it not be so power heavy. I have a set shape and everything, I didn’t, um, choose or design this.” She motions to herself. “It’s less like a conscious and careful spell and more like… oh, I really don’t have the words to describe it. Humming, maybe? Unclenching my fingers? Some mix of those and not quite those. Anyway adding more would be like humming louder or stretching further. And also sort of like… mmm… running the rest of the way on a circular track. Am I making any sense?”

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"None whatsoever," he says, with a crooked smile.

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“Damn. Well, it should actually be very easy, and in fact easier than what I’m doing right now, just, um.” Pause. “… If I turn it on now I’m probably going to embarrass myself.”

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The Ruined King merely raises an eyebrow.

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"Last time I could feel things I spent an hour rubbing things against my face and crying!!" she defends.

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Oh no that sounds adorable.

"I see. I would also be mortified if that happened." He may not be succeeding at keeping that thought from his voice. He may not be trying very hard.

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"It's pretty mortifying, really." But on the other hand, if she didn't run off to turn on her ability to feel things in private, she could be touched by a person. Which sounds very nice and probably feels nicer. Especially a nice sad happens-to-be-shirtless person.

... They do have forever to figure it out, though. Or at least, a very, very long time. So there's no rush. Also, he's married. That should be a conversation of some kind before she flings herself gleefully into his arms for the delicious hedonism of physical touch. From experience, turning on physical sensations sends her ability to think rationally right out the window.

"... I'll let you know when I'm a bit more adjusted, though," she adds, a little shyly.

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"I shall hold you to that." He gets up and dusts himself, at the same time as a rather dense tendril of darkness makes its way from his chest to a spiral unobtrusively rotating around her feet. "I should stop imposing, though, I'm sure you've had your fill of this old man."

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She grins down at the little tendril of magic, because grinning at him seems a bit too daunting of a task right now.

"No, no. You can't be old. I'm older than you, remember? ... And besides, you're not imposing."

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...leap of faith.

"If that's so, I would invite you to dinner with me tonight."

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Okay she needs to adjust to having physical sensations right now. Not literally, but. Figuratively.

"I'd be delighted. Though, for the record, I haven't actually tried eating normal people food, so 'dinner' might actually just be feeding me more Black Mist instead of, you know. Food. I can probably taste it, at least."

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"None of the food on the Black Isles is normal people food, for none of us are normal. It is mostly for the taste, we all subsist on Black Mist one way or another."

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“Fair enough, I just didn’t want to, um. Disappoint you if it turns out I can’t eat food at all.”

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"I shall temper my expectations. Should I fetch you, or do you prefer to find your way to the private dining hall? Your map should have it marked."

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“Fetch me, please! Your palace is a very pretty maze.”

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"As you will. I shall be at your door candlemark and a half after sundown. - ah, you will find timekeeping devices everywhere, it should be easy enough to know the time."

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Giggle. "I can probably manage it, yes."

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"I will see you again soon, then," he says, before bowing courteously to her (although it is a less deep and formal bow than the one the ghost offered him) and turning around to leave.

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Avedra stands to return a curtsy, then sits back down to smile to herself and internally scream about how she has a date with the sad pretty king who is still married who is clearly on some kind of break or open relationship something with his amnesiac husband who he hasn't seen for the past thousand years after they accidentally killed each other, and there should still be a conversation about it but it is probably actually fine. Honestly, she wants to go find Zerin/Thresh and save him on principle, because Viego is obviously still so sad and the whole thing is very tragic and also Zerin/Thresh is probably going to try to start an invasion of neighboring islands again so, uh, no. Also, it would be bad form to just leave her love interest's former partner to suffer in looping torment while she cavorted off with his husband, that seems like it would be fighting dirty. Proverbially.

She should not use the limited time before her date (!) plotting a way to save her date's once-husband. That is an inefficient use of one's time, clearly she needs more resources and information to pull it off anyway, not to mention more time than 'from now until a candlemark and a half after sundown.'

Instead she's going to, um. Go back to her room and. Probably turn her ability to feel things with her body back on. She can do this without immediately breaking down crying and touching every soft thing within reach, ri—?

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—nope, nope, that was literally never going to happen, it was silly of her to think so. Everything feels so nice, it's so nice to feel like she's breathing again, she has weight and fingers and can touch things and there's a soft bed that is all hers that she can flop into and wriggle under the silken sheets and sob at how beautiful physical sensations are and the pain of how much she missed them and, and, and.

She keeps half an eye on the time but yep she's absolutely going to be rubbing every single thing in this room on her face and crying for most of the interim until date.

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And right on time, there is a knock on her door that somehow manages to sound polite.

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By this point in time, she's made herself presentable! By turning down her feelings. They're a lot, okay, and while turning them off completely would feel a bit like she's dying (again), turning them down a little through a careful balance of magical skill nicely threads the needle between 'feeling like she's dying again' and 'overwhelming.' To the point where she probably won't immediately embarrass herself by wandering off to rub her face against a tablecloth or something.

When she opens the door she's looking significantly more happy, though.

"Hi!" she says, all bright happy smiles and just a little bit of bouncing.

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"Hello," he says, eyeing her with some amusement.

Also he's no longer shirtless. Technically. He's wearing a fancy doublet that's held tight against his skin, except it has a hole cut open aligned with the hole on his chest. Or not exactly cut open; it looks like the doublet was designed with the hole in mind, and incorporates it into the design. His trousers and shoes are similarly nicely appointed, but of a more subdued make, as the top is clearly the centerpiece of the outfit.

He offers her a hand, very gentlemanly.

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(Nooooo he put the abs away!! A tragedy!!)

She gingerly takes the offered hand, smiling a little shyly and immediately rubbing little circles onto it with a thumb. Touch!! Physical sensation!! Wonderful things!!!!

"So I have turned back on my sense of touch, if a little, um. Dulled right now? It's a lot, I was worried I'd immediately embarrass myself if I didn't turn it down a little."

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"Very sensible of you." He guides her hand to his arm and then, after making sure to shut the door, starts towards presumably the dining room.

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Eeeeeeee yes okay she can happily be on his arm, that seems like a good place to be. (She totally wants to rub his hand on her face. Or her arm on his face. Damn it, she thought she got this out of her system!)

"I try to be!"

Probably she should say things but actually touching his arm is pretty great even with dulled senses, so. She's mostly just nestling happily against him about that.

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He's perfectly content to lead them in silence past a couple of hallways down a set of stairs two more hallways and into a room.

It's... probably a "private dining hall" only in a relative sense; it was clearly designed to accommodate a party of at least twenty people. Probably a relic of a bygone age when entertaining dignitaries from abroad was a thing that ever happened.

The long table in the center of the room is set for two, though, with a small tablecloth right in the middle and two chairs opposite each other. Across the room from them is another door, with a spirit in the shape of a human of indeterminate gender except they lack a lower body and instead their long shirt trails off while they float in place.

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"Hello!" she says brightly, to the spirit. It's only polite to acknowledge them, after all.

A giant room being used for a date for two people is kind of cute, in a formal sort of way. She immediately wants to steal him away to a garden for a picnic, but yes, fine, she won't ruin his planned evening. Yet. Nonetheless, the place is very pretty, even if it feels far too big and formal for them.

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The ghost bows and disappears into the door.

"Apologies for the sumptuousness. The only rooms smaller than this in the palace are personal chambers."

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"Oh, I see. It's okay, but I was plotting whether or not to steal you away to a garden for a picnic. I just didn't want to ruin your thing if you were attached to it."

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"I fear the food I ordered for tonight was enchanted to need cutlery, which would probably be awkward to arrange if we go to a garden. But I shall file the idea away for the future."

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"And you're charmed by the idea," she observes, amused.

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"No comment."

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"That's a yes!"

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"Now would be a great time for food to arrive!" Viego calls, and obligingly the ghost pushes the door open to bring them twin trays. Rather than walk around anything he just slides through the table itself - not being solid has many advantages - and places the trays in front of both of them.

    "Bon appetit!" he says, before disappearing off.

The trays contain... a ghostly salad. WIth ghost ham and ghost leaves and a ghost dressing and it is all very ghostly.

...solid, though, and when she tries it she'll find out what happens when dead people spend a thousand years working on perfecting the taste of food without having to worry about nutritional content at all.

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Well, it's very cute and charming, and she beams at it accordingly!

"Thank you!" she calls to the ghost, brightly, and then she sees if she can in fact eat food.

...

"My senses are dulled and this is still the greatest thing I've ever tasted, to the point where I am a little in danger of breaking down crying again," she says, very seriously.

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"Then you should wait to get to the main dish," he says with a smile tugging at the corner of his lips.

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"I'm so doomed," she snorts, and then has several more bites of food in quick succession. She doesn't actually start crying, but. But. It's definitely delicious, and might even be a bit overwhelming if she didn't have her senses dulled right now.

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Viego is probably used to this, as he seems completely unfazed.

The ghost returns with a bottle of something, and pours a ghostly-white liquid that mists at the surface. "His selection of wines is divine and pairs great with whatever he's serving," Viego says, and if a ghost can blush this ghost is blushing, in addition to stammering his thanks.

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"Awww. I'm sure it's delightful. I look forward to when I have carefully weaned myself onto physical sensations and can taste everything properly."

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Viego smiles, a little bit.

...and then has no idea what to say next. Wait, no, he's had classes on how to court people - wait, is he even courting - don't be dumb this is literally a dinner date - well he just met her yesterday - the Zerin voice in his head is telling him to tell the sarcastic self-commentary voice in his head to shut up and just enjoy himself.

Right. That. That thing that he knows how to do. Yes.

"So, at the risk of sounding common," he starts, after only a brief pause of internal conflict, "why don't you tell me a bit more about your story? I understand the broad strokes of your motivation but it is a very shallow understanding."

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"You'd like to hear my tragic backstory?" she teases, a little amused. "Yes, all right. Well, I'm from Ionia. Pallas, specifically. Next, uh... does history remember the Darkin?"

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"I think... I have heard the term before, referring to a type of spirit? But they never, as far as I know, set foot on the Blessed Isles, so I am ignorant."

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"One did! My mother. Though I really doubt she introduced herself as such. As a general rule, they are completely opposed to spirits and humans making friends. While the term was originally referring to a type of spirit from Shurima, in practice it was used specifically for spirits that think humanity is dumb and stupid and needs to be ruled over by their spirit overlords. And any spirit that was against that rhetoric would disavow themselves from the group, and Mother uh. Very vehemently did."

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"...I see. That would make the Isles' erstwhile agreement between mortals and spirits rather antithetical to their outview."

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"Exactly! Which is probably why I was sent to study here, along with the Blessed Isles being great and everything, but that's skipping some parts of the backstory. So megalomaniacal spirits that want to conquer humanity are obviously hard to, uh. Stop. What with how they don't want to stay dead. Making my mother's epic quest of stopping her evil brethren from murder rather complicated, since she was outnumbered."

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"...I see it runs in the family."

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Avedra giggles.

"More than you realize! Mother fell in love with the clever mortal that turned out to be key to solving this problem, and this was how I was made. But I think that's skipping parts of the backstory again."

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"It does seem to be, yes. Carry on."

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"Right, so. Epic quest. Mother comes here to ask for backup, and uh." She winces. "Is turned down. She goes to Ionia to look for help. She eventually finds it, in the form of my mom, and I'm realizing right now that I should break out their names to make this as clear as possible, because the pronoun game sounds like the least fun game. Mother-the-spirit was Sesharea, and my mortal mom was Mizere. Ionia's very big on, mm. Old sleeping spirits. Dormant, but not faded into nothingness like spirits usually go. And mom—uh, Mizere, the mortal one—went 'Well if we can't kill them why don't we trap them,' and proceeded to figure out a way to do that! In objects."

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"...I... see."

So something clearly went wrong, there, because he's assuming the part where she ended up trapped in an object was not part of the plan.

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"They succeeded! Mostly. They mostly succeeded. Lots of megalomaniacal Darkin got trapped in lots of objects, usually their own weapons or something. Tying a spirit to something they treasure is easier than just some random rock you picked up off the street, is I think the logic. But they uh. Missed at least one." She winces again. "Who was obviously upset about the situation. And sought revenge on my immortal spirit mother through the easiest vector of harm. Turns out, squishy human daughter is uh. Way easier than the immortal spirit mother to injure. I think his first idea was to go after mom, but. I was easier to get at than she was, too."

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"...ah. Tell me this man is gone."

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“Trapped in his bow and kept specifically in Pallas to make sure he doesn’t get uppity. My parents couldn’t really… make him be properly gone, you know? I guess I haven’t checked on him to make sure he’s still there.”

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"That suffices. - I apologise, I interrupted."

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“No, no, it’s okay. This is where my memory gets fuzzy, anyway. He, um. Wanted to make mother suffer? Which means er. Long and painful and drawn out death by poison, not ’Haha, I killed your daughter.’ He wanted mother to be forced to watch me die.“ She looks away, picking at her food. “So, uh. That wasn’t fun.”

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He shuts his eyes for a couple of seconds, then opens them again while letting out a slow breath. "I am very sorry that happened to you."

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"Me too! Anyway, um. My parents tried to find a way to save me and... well, they succeeded? I honestly wasn't very cognizant of the how, but. Um. The general idea of it is... spirit's energy, human soul, uh." She makes a pained face. "... Long story short, uh. Mother sacrificed herself. For me. Um. Rather... literally and directly."

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This is the horrified face of someone who's lived with spirits his whole life and knows exactly which parts of a spirit's life cycle involve completely ceasing to exist, i.e. none of them.

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"And that was, um. It. I was then an amulet and the next time I was awake I was somewhere else, in another time. With the undead pirate, actually, so that was fun whiplash."

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He has... no idea what to say to that. That sounds horrifying and traumatic as fuck.

"And the first thing you decided to do once you were free was find the Blessed Isles you heard got cursed and help fix them," is what he does say, in a tone of naked admiration and respect.

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"W-well. I mean. It's also self interest, I also want to never have to play mana miser ever again, and. ... Everyone I knew is dead by now anyway. I might go check on Pallas again, eventually, but. I. Might as well do something useful with myself while I'm furthering my goals, right?"

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"Might as well," he repeats, with a small smile.

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"It's just practical!" she defends.

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"I'm sure it must be."

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".... Hush, you," says Avedra, pouting.

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"If you wish."

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".... You keep making an expression!!!!"

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"Milady, I am afraid I do not buy your practicality explanation one bit and I believe you should own the fact that most people would not go through such lengths to help people they have never met from a place they've only been to a long time ago."

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".... It's any practical!!" she insists, but she's blushing this time and sounds just a smidge less defensive this time.

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"You do not need to defend your choices. You are a good person. That is enough."

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"Well! Well.

"... Thank you," she mumbles, to her food.

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"There is naught to thank me for. I am merely stating the truth."

And speaking of food, here are the trays with the main course, which, being cooked rather than just salad, has a smell.

The smell of the main course is nicer than the taste of the salad was.

"You have outdone yourself, Jermont."

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"I am almost certainly going to cry from this," she says, a little wryly. "I might start crying from just the smell, actually. Um."

... She really wants to be snuggled right now, actually. The food's nice, but it's also a lot, and he just spent a while arguing with her about how he thinks she's amazing, and. There's a table in the way of snuggling. Also he's married? Also her social skills are very much still recovering, and she has no idea how to say 'actually can you please hold me,' and probably all of those other reasons are convenient sounding excuses that don't have to do with her actual reason. Look being courted is nice and flattering and all but, but. But!!

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...okay Zerin would say that she's clearly obviously... feeling something...

You know, having a shoulder Zerin would be way more useful if he'd tell Viego what he's missing. Right now all he's doing is telling Viego that he's missing something.

Once the ghost cook is gone he says, somewhat self-deprecatingly, "Milady, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say you are having trouble finding the words to communicate something." Thank you shoulder Zerin for rescuing him at the last second, it would've been nice if you'd mentioned it earlier though. "I promise you shall suffer no woes and I shall think no less of you for just saying it."

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"Oh, I don't think you'd think any less of me or cause, um, woes somehow or anything!" she says, immediately, and then she trails off and looks rather shy, fidgeting nervously. ".... It's just um. That I would really like, to be um, held by someone."

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His shoulder Zerin is saying something like "I told you so", but Viego would like to say that no you did not you lying liar who lies.

Uh.

What does he. Do.

Shoulder Zerin: "Hold her, stupid."
Inner Viego: "This table is very long and it would look undignified to go all the way around it after she just said something like that!"
Shoulder Zerin: "..."
Shoulder Zerin: "Wow."
Inner Viego: "You're not meant to make fun of me, that's what the other voices in my head are for."
Should Zerin: "No, they're right, you're being monumentally dumb right here. Go. Hug. Her."

"That is something I can help with," he says, after a moment's hesitation. There, that sounded smooth and suave, right? It'll work to pad over the seconds of silence during which he gets up and walks around the table and drags another chair closer to her so he can hug her?

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"I-I mean," she says, and she's gone from mumbling to babbling, hasn't she, "I really wouldn't want you to feel obliged? The main draw of a hug is in fact that both parties want to, a-and if you're just holding me because I am helpful and nice and asked for it while on the inside you're freaking out or would rather not, then it's okay, I'll be fine, I, um."

He has, by this point in time, closed the distance. They are successfully on the same side of the table. It would be quite easy for them to hug and for her to have the first human(ish) touch she's had in centuries. The prospect is surprisingly intimidating, despite how desperately she wants it. She looks at him like some kind of cross between a kicked puppy desperate for touch and a startled rabbit who may or may not be considering bolting. Either way, whatever she is looks a bit like she's about to start crying again.

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Look it would just ruin his image if he didn't hug her now. And his shoulder Zerin might literally spontaneously manifest just to kick his ass. She's getting hugs.

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"Oh."

She's briefly stiff with surprise when he touches her, and then her social anxiety is overridden with the desperate need for the physical comfort of someone else alive(...ish). Avedra gives a little sniffle, and then flings herself into his arms to cling desperately to him and cry, all thoughts of dinner utterly forgotten.

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That's okay the dinner was mostly - uh - protocol? He has no idea how to court someone not at court, okay, this is all wrong and he has no idea how to deal with it he has no script.

But fine. It's fine. He is - half-certain that the crying isn't bad, she did mention it earlier, and - he'll just hug her and run circles with his thumb on her back and hopefully that'll be the right choice?

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Judging by how she's nestling into his arms and nuzzling a little between quiet sobs, yeah, it seems to be the right choice!

How long is he going to keep holding her? Because she'd really like it to be 'forever' but doesn't want to impose.

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Well, they do have forever but he's pretty sure she's gonna get bored of it before forever, actually.

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Yep! Or at least, she remembers that dinner exists, because eventually she sniffles:

"... I'm sorry, I think I um. Ruined dinner a little."

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He half-smiles, at that. "One of the things we have done away with, in the course of inventing food anew, is it ever getting cold. It'll hold for as long as we want it to."

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“Oh. That’s really nice, then. I’d have felt s-so bad if the chef went through so much work, and then I didn’t even try it. Though I meant more in the sense of, um.” Sniffle. “This is probably not how you expected the date to go. So. Sorry?”

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His shoulder Zerin has several terrible suggestions for what he should say to that and it is at this point that he decides that having an imagined version of his lost husband on a date with someone is probably not a great idea so shoulder Zerin can go stuff it.

"It's true," he agrees easily. "I had expected it would take me longer to have you in my arms."

There, that was much less crass than what shoulder Zerin was thinking.

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She splutters and laughs at the same time. Perhaps 'sporfle' is the correct word for the sound she made.

"I. Well. I can't really argue with that, can I," she snickers, reaching up to gently caress his cheek. Probably they should talk about his lost husband at least a little?? How does she do that though! That sounds so difficult!

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Okay now even he can read that bit of body language, up close. "Something on your mind?"

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"Oh! Um. ... You're married? Or were? Probably we should um. Have any kind of conversation about that??"

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Viego has to turn away and cover his lips a bit because laughing directly would be so rude.

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"I mean I realize it's been a while and you haven't seen each other in ages, it's just I don't, want to, um. Are you okay?"

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"I'm fine," he says, voice slightly choked. When he turns to look at her again he's managed to control his face into a normal smile. "- sorry. It's just, ah, I actually never really did manage to explain the concept of 'monogamy' to Zerin. He would have been very bewildered that you were even asking."

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"Oh! Heh. Okay. And... he'd want you to be happy regardless? Is my impression?"

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"Certainly." Honestly Viego feels like he'd have really liked to meet Avedra annnnnd no this is veering too close to missing his husband and he does not want to doom and gloom this date let's not think about that.

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Snuggle snuggle.

"I should probably mention that right after you invited me to dinner, my immediate urge when left to my own devices was 'hunt down Zerin and drag him back,' but I decided that was unlikely to fit in the time before dinner. Just, uh. That might be a project I want to work on. Both because he does seem to keep launching raids outside the Shadow Isles, and because, um. Well. You're. You're obviously very sad and miss him very much?"

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"Is it that obvious?" he asks, lightly, but there's a strain at the back of his voice, as if he's making it light. "I suppose it is. I... have tried, for a thousand years. The method I used to transport myself to where you were, and transport us back here, is new; it makes use of how the Black Mist is everywhere on these isles, and is all part of the same thing. I... do not think others could make use of it, not in the same way, not immediately. But still, it has always been too risky to seek him out, myself, and he is always far enough from the bigger cities that anyone else who does chances losing their senses of self." He shakes his head, then looks at her again, a strange intensity in his eyes. "Another project you would be a boon to, though one I am not sure I can justify, given the other demands I must impose on your time. It would be... selfish."

He's pretty sure he knows what she'll say to it, and he... kind of wants to kiss her over it. It's - thoughtful is not the right word. Seeing something broken, something one could fix, and immediately starting to plan around it. It is a kind of heroic responsibility you cannot find often.

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“It’s not very, I think. Or it’s… you can to be happy too?? You’re allowed to fight for yourself instead of just everyone else. So. I mean. Yes, clearly I’m going to work on that too.”

Even if she’s admittedly a little afraid the sad, pretty king will forget about her the minute he has his husband back, but. Love is not about possession. Quite the opposite, really. If she likes him and means it, then him being with her is irrelevant. Also if he’d ditch her the minute his husband is back she’d rather know sooner than later, but. Still.

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The thought comes unbidden again, and this time he voices it: "I think he would like to meet you. - the full him, not the husk he's made himself that you ran into."

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“I’d like to meet him too! Properly, I mean. Though I’m admittedly a little cranky he successfully threw me in a magic cage.”

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A smile. "He is perceptive. But I think talking about my husband is perhaps not the best conversation topic for our first date."

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“Probably not. But um, it did seem. Rather important to talk about, you know? If we wanted to be at all serious about each other.”

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Viego's old enough that the multitude of emotions that bubble to the surface don't turn him catatonic. He can process them later, when he has more time to look at them and think about them. For now he notes that he has emotions, that he's not sure what-all they are, and that they have the familiar tang of an interconnected web of things reinforcing and suppressing each other rather than anything more straightforward. Then, he lets it pass, because they are not useful right now.

"I believe you're right. I... don't talk much about him, anymore. It's been too long. But I can't forget - none of us can, a mixed blessing if there ever was one. I just don't look in that direction often."

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“Yeah. I understand." It hurts, to poke at old (mental) scars. She understands that very well. And probably she's poked at his scars enough for one date. Not everything needs to be quite so emotionally front loaded.

"... Think we can eat dinner while snuggling?" she wonders, giving the poor sad king an out from heavy topics, "Because I do absolutely want to try it but think it'd help to be held for when I inevitably get overwhelmed."

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Shut UP shoulder Zerin Viego told you to not interfere.

"I believe we can arrange ourselves to make it work." He sends a thin tendril of Black Mist in the direction of his on plate and carefully drags it to this side of the table.

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Avedra gives a happy hum and arranges herself to make it easier for him to eat around her.

... This does involve her being more or less on his lap, but. It's fine! Probably. It's probably fine.

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It's. It's definitely fine, yep. Definitely. He's just a quiet person by nature and that's why he's not gonna say anything. Or squirm even a little bit. He'll hold himself poised and composed and eat, too.

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With a little bit of nervousness and hesitation, she tries a bite.

 

"... this is really good," she mumbles, already beginning to sniffle.

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He can... pet her? That helps, right? Hopefully?

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It seems to! By how she tucks herself into him for more sniffling.

"Everything is so nice!!!" she says, at a more reasonable volume than before. "It's not fair!!!"

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"To whom?" He is hopelessly lost.

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"Oh I just mean in general and am sort of, um, dramatically exclaiming my emotional state in an illogical fashion instead of actually literally thinking everything is too nice and should st—you probably know this already I'm rambling sorry." Nestle nestle, sniffle.

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Heeeeeee doesn't need to talk he can just keep petting, that works.

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Yep, she finds being pet very soothing! After she's been sufficiently soothed, she ventures out to have another bite of delicious food. This will become something of a pattern, actually. Venture out a little for food, return to nestling back in his arms for comfort and reassurance. She clearly likes being in his arms very much.

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And this means he doesn't need to spend any processing power on being able to generate words, and he so very desperately needs all of his spare processing power right now.

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She does still notice something's going on with him, though it does take her a couple of cycles of trying (too delicious) food and then getting soothing snuggles and pets.

"... Are you okay?" she asks softly, all self-conscious concern. "Is this um, too much, or...?"

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"I -" Shoulder Zerin starts yelling at him in his head to not tell her some polite lie, that will go very poorly. "- confess I have not really touched someone... this much... in a thousand years."

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"Oh. Should we stop? Even though hearing that absolutely makes me want to cuddle you more, I um, get being overwhelmed."

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"- no, no, it's - I'm not overwhelmed. It's not, uh. Negative."

Wow congratulations on this masterful display of wordcraft.

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She furrows her brow, clearly confused. Then, almost audibly, the puzzle pieces click into place. She abruptly realizes that she's a person he's romantically interested in, on his lap, and that has implications.

Avedra blinks several times, blushing her dark purple blush. Then she seems to make a decision of some kind, and shyly nestles closer to him.

"O-oh," she mumbles, small smile playing on her lips.

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...okay! Communication has been achieved! He is... not sure... if this is a good thing overall, but. Success? Hooray?

Words. What are words.

"You're doing it on purpose, now," he accuses, though his voice is light and... not entirely disapproving. A bit. Not entirely.

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Her little smile widens.

"Do you want me to stop?"

This time, the question is blatantly flirting. Along with how her fingers are playing with his hair. That's also blatantly flirting.

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...well now that the cat's out of the bag he suddenly finds himself with much less ability to not squirm. Wonderful how much his brain was predicating his self-control on his image of self-composure.

"No," he says anyway, and at least he manages not to stutter like a teenager, come on, he's a thousand years old, get a grip, old man.

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Avedra gives a pleased hum and continues playing with his hair.

".... You know, I was very disappointed by how you found a shirt for our date."

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He doesn't choke on his food, because he is not made of biology, but he nevertheless grabs a glass of the wine to occupy his mouth with something while he panics.

"I... thought to dress up," is what he coughs up after a few seconds.

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“It looks good on you!!” she assures, immediately. “Just, um, also. …. Oh, I’m so bad at this, I’m sorry.”

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"Just also I look attractive?" he suggests, and he doesn't blush because he doesn't run on biology and doesn't need to have blushing effects if he doesn't want them and he doesn't want them. It is... not very like him to say things like these, but honestly whatever he'll just do things and hopefully it'll be fine.

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“Yes! That. You are, um. Attractive.”

The last word is a bit mumbled, because surprise! Avedra is still shy. No less sincere for it, though.