The paddle dipped into the dark water, catching against mud and plant-matter and gods only knew what else. Filia surveyed the scene from her perch on the boards that crossed from one side of the boat to another. The splash of the oar propelling her tiny craft forward was a sharp contrast to the quiet around her. Even the clouds that had riddled the town with raindrops had ceased their onslaught, though the sky threatened that this reprieve could be short-lived. The rooftops that peeked out from the newly created sea were empty. There was not a man, woman or child in sight, awaiting rescue from the high ground. Not even so much as the quack of a duck or the soaring outline of a gull could be found to give some sign of life. But it didn't feel empty exactly. More like something was there—holding its breath.
Filia gripped the oar. Whatever that something was, it was leading her on—on to find Val, or to walk into a trap, or… what exactly? The false Val—the one who had called himself the remaining memory of Valgaav—the enchanted cross that projected its image had a number carved in it. 342.
She'd gone, with Xellos trailing after her, to the room with that same number. She'd tried not to imagine what she'd find on the other side of that door, but even if she hadn't held back, she wouldn't have come up with the crudely-made canoe barely concealed by the billowing curtains that led out onto the open balcony.
Xellos said someone was messing with her. At the very least: she was being led. The room number, the boat, the open window... She could only follow and hope they would lead her to Val… and that he would be alright.
She looked away from the water and turned to the front of the boat, where Xellos had worked himself into a relaxed slouch and was resting his head against the bow. Among his many skills seemed to be the ability to make himself comfortable in any environment.
"You could grab the other oar and help me out, you know," Filia hinted testily. Snapping at Xellos was probably just as useless as wondering what was going on and why, but it was at least simpler. "If it's not too much trouble," she added sarcastically.
"You're doing fine," he answered, as though all she'd requested was encouragement. "Besides, I'm on bailing duty."
She ground her teeth together. "It's not even raining anymore!"
"Yes, but it could any minute—and I'll be ready," Xellos adding with a too-keen-to-be-sincere smile.
Filia whipped her paddle over her head and drove it fiercely along the water on the other side of the boat in a mostly unsuccessful attempt to keep the boat moving forward. It was much too easy to go in a circle.
"I don't even know why you've come along if you're only going to be dead weight!" she grumbled as she tried to find the right balance to get the boat moving in a straight line.
He opened his eyes and quirked his brows into an expression of would-be sympathy. "Oh, poor Filia," he lamented. "Always with a millstone around her neck. It must be exhausting to deal with all your burdens: a child to look after, mouths to feed, bills to pay, and that hard work to be done keeping your shop running, and, of course," he paused, placing his hand on his chest, "my visits which you apparently find very trying."
Filia set her mouth in a definite line as he went on: "If only instead you had blessings like: family and friends who love you, a beautiful home, a successful business of your very own, and…" He paused, as if unsure how to precisely put this, "…good company."
"You're bad company," Filia disagreed, "and you can't deny it!"
Xellos shrugged, but didn't seem about to prove her wrong. "Company then."
Filia tried to turn her gaze away from him. He didn't have to act like she was ungrateful simply because she thought he could do more. She wouldn't deny being ungrateful for him, but not the rest. The rest was why she was here in the first place, fighting so hard to protect her blessings.
But… as she looked into the muddy water she couldn't help but feel… Well, she'd taken it for granted. That it could always be like this. That she didn't need to change anything in order to keep it all. And that's why Val had slipped away.
A tiny bubble rose up from the dark water, then a few more. They grew larger and hit the surface with a glug. Filia reared back, careful to not throw the oar into the water in her panic. They sprang out of the water—long, unnatural. Those hands that had reached out from nothing and held her down before Xellos found her. There were four of them, wavering high in the sky, moving as though their bones had been broken but the pain was nothing to them. One clamped its fingers onto the side of the boat, spreading its greasy white powder all over the wood and revealing the rotted gold flesh beneath.
That's when Filia took out the gun she'd borrowed from Jillas and took a shot. She didn't know whether to thank the gods or beginners luck when she struck a knuckle. The hand twitched and sizzled, black blood leaking from a hardened vein, eating away at the flesh of its host as soon as it hit the air.
Filia did not have time to rejoice as the phantom limb sank into the water, or to appreciate the low whistle from Xellos that signified that he acknowledged the she at least hadn't fucked up. She wheeled around and fired another into the palm of the hand reaching for her head from the other side of the boat. Hands can't scream, but as the wound opened, Filia could swear she heard one.
Another grabbed the prow of the boat and she was knocked off her feet as the floor went diagonal. That was where beginners luck ran out. Scrambling upward in a panic, she wasted two shots before decimating it with a third.
The boat had barely sloshed back into a relatively level position when another sluggishly grasped the side of the boat, dragging it forward and scooping water into the interior. Filia pointed the pistol at it and squeezed the trigger, but nothing but an impotent clicking sound emanated from the weapon.
Without even getting up, Xellos reached out his hand and drove his staff downward into phantom limb. It went through without even the slightest resistance. As the wounded thing jerked violently into the water, Xellos turned to look at the shallow level of water that had splashed into the boat. With a little tut-tut he said, "Aren't you glad I'm on bailing duty now?"
Filia was too shaken to reply. She put the pistol back, reflecting that, while a gun might let her put more distance between her and a foe, a mace will never run out of ammo.
Xellos lifted the rusted pail. "So," he said casually as Filia lowered herself back into a seated position, "those are what you saw earlier?" He let the scooped up water slosh over the edge of the boat.
Filia nodded grimly, taking up the oar. "By the library," she said. "Before all…" she gestured vaguely around at the rainwater pond they were sitting in, "…this."
"Hmm," Xellos hummed thoughtfully to himself. "And what did the rest of them look like?"
"There was no rest of them," Filia said with a shudder. Some of the floodwater had seeped into her supposedly waterproof boots and she couldn't keep the chill away. "They were just… hands… reaching out of nothing."
Xellos nodded as though this was the usual manner of things. "Well, if that's your library up ahead then it's not a wonder you came across them again. In fact, I think they may have pulled us closer to it."
Filia looked at the domed building ahead. It looked different, peeking out of the water as it did. As though it was from an ancient civilization lost to the tides.
It had been her plan to go there—never much of a lead, but it was the last place she saw Val. She'd wondered if the room number left by that phantom of Valgaav would lead her to him, but it had merely given her a means of getting through the flooded streets. So the library was their destination once more.
Xellos muttered something as Filia tried to spy a window that they could get in through. She wasn't sure, but it sounded something like, "Drawn forward by the inexorable hand of fate."
Filia hoisted herself gingerly through the window, careful to avoid any broken glass. Xellos, who never had to worry about such petty obstacles, was already well into the room. He leaned against the banister that looked out over the flooded atrium. "Well now," he said softly. His eyes were drawn to the same thing hers had been when she'd first entered the library earlier that day, "I can't say I expected to see one of these here."
Uneasily, Filia strode over to his side, resting her hands on the brass railing. Even halfway submerged, the dragon skeleton was an imposing presence. It wore on her mind, even more now that Xellos had taken an interest. When Xellos takes an interest it's rarely a sign of good things to come.
"Do you know what it is?" Xellos asked, waving a gloved hand in the relic's direction.
Filia took a breath. "Well… it's a dragon."
"Obvious," Xellos said with a displeased little shake of his head. "Just what kind of dragon?" he asked. The creepily even edges of his hair settled after their brief toss.
A lock clicked. A stone dropped. A trap sprung. Pick your metaphor of choice, but, for Filia, it was the dull sense that the protestation of blissful ignorance must come to an end. "When I first saw it—" she began as he turned to give her a look of anticipation. "But I don't know why it would be…" she tried again, trailing off. Finally she just choked out, "I thought it might be an Ancient Dragon."
"We'll make a paleontologist of you yet, Filia," Xellos replied cheerfully. "Yes," he said, his tone getting more serious as he turned back toward the gargantuan remnant. He flicked his violet eyes open. "I know my dragon remains, and that is indeed an Ancient Dragon."
Filia looked away from him and at her hands.
"The real question is:" he went on, "what is it doing here?"
It wasn't the only question—it was just one of the select few that could be articulated. Called up from her memory, she saw the strange woman from the hotel. How she just let herself be swallowed up by the waves, never letting go of the hateful look in her eyes. And her words…
I'll take him back.
They hadn't been spoken aloud, but Filia flinched nevertheless. Perhaps an ancient sense of being watched had activated. Perhaps that ghostly echo was conveyed to her in a way other than speech. Nevertheless, she whipped around, facing an aisle of shelved books that led deeper into the building.
And there he was—finally and at last. Past false alarms did nothing to mediate the hope that rose in Filia's heart when she saw Val's familiar profile—looking up and away from her. They did everything, however, to enhance her sense of dread when she saw whose face he was looking up into.
"But no… We saw you dr—" Filia started, returning the fiery gaze of that woman. But they hadn't seen her drown, not exactly. They'd just seen the water take her. And there she was—no worse for it. Her clothes weren't even damp.
"Val—come here!" she tried, nervousness heavy upon each word.
He didn't come. He didn't answer. He didn't even seem to hear. He kept his blank expression fixed on the strange woman. He kept his hand in hers. Now that they were side by side, the resemblance Filia had noted before was impossible to deny.
She pushed the rising suspicion away. "Please, Miss," she said, stepping forward and addressing the obviously unfriendly stranger as boldly as she could manage, "that's my son. Let him go…"
The woman never blinked—never flinched. She just said one word: cruel, incredulous and final.
And then she turned and fled, with Val in tow. He ran along with her without question. In the entire encounter, he hadn't looked at Filia once.
"Wait!" Filia cried, racing after her. "Come back! Val!"
The hall stretched—far longer than the building could've contained. On the flat surface, Filia couldn't convince her feet that they weren't running uphill; or her eyes that Val and his kidnapper weren't running downhill.
There was a shadow at the end of the passage. Beyond the blurred spines of books on either side of her, there was an open door. She forced her aching muscles to give her another jolt of speed as her son and that terrible woman glided effortlessly through the entryway—letting the door shut behind them.
Filia practically slammed into the metal slab at top speed. She felt around in vain for a doorknob—as though one would just emerge out of the featureless steel. She gave the door a push, then a jab with her shoulder, then a run and a smash against the impassible wall. Her shoulder throbbed as she banged and kicked, but there was no give.
"Open up!" she shouted, beating the door with reddening palms. "Val! VAL!" she cried, tears forming in her eyes.
"You won't make progress that way," Xellos chided, walking down the aisle. He covered the distance in a matter of minutes. And as she looked back now, the mile long hallway she'd endured was barely a nook. She breathed heavily and sank to the floor, burying her face in her arm.
"Bright side, Filia," Xellos reminded her. "He's alive. We have confirmation of that now."
Filia sniffed, trying to hold back a sob. Alive… yes, but to look at him, it was as though he was in a dream. And he wasn't being dragged away by that woman. No! He'd followed—as though he trusted her.
She took another frustrated whack at the door and only got bruised knuckles for her trouble. "What kind of library has… has a vault door?!" she demanded, unsure how exactly to classify the blockade.
"What kind of library has an Ancient Dragon skeleton as a centerpiece?" Xellos countered with a shrug.
She looked down, no answer for that. That's when she saw the plaque—a tarnished gold, the size of a doormat in front of the locked door. "What's this?" she said, scooting off of it to get a better look.
Xellos leaned down to have a look at it. There was a circle-shaped indentation in the middle of it with an ornate design bordering it. On either side of the circle there was a small, shallow indentation. An inscription was scratched above it.
"The path remains closed and death will prevail," Xellos read, "'Til judgment is passed: black feather, gold scale."
"Black feather… gold scale…" Filia repeated. It was inescapable now. A conflict that she'd hoped had been played out to closure, however excruciating, was echoing back at her.
"Black feather signifying Ancient Dragons and gold scale signifying Golden Dragons," Xellos concluded. He cupped his chin in his hand and drew his brows together. "Is it saying that the door won't open until judgment has passed between the Ancient Dragons and the Golden Dragons? What more exactly would that entail?"
Filia ran her hands over the tablet, letting her fingers dip into the two dimples that sat on either side of the ornamental circle. If it was a symbol, it wasn't one she recognized.
"Maybe," she began, grasping for some kind of way forward, "it's been magically sealed. And it won't open until the items the spell mentioned are placed here—a black feather and a gold scale."
Xellos raised an eyebrow, but said, "I suppose that's possible."
Filia got to her feet. "If it's possible then we have to try," she said, her tone beyond argument. She wiped her remaining tears away with the back of her hand.
"Well then, I suppose a golden scale should be easy enough to come by," Xellos said, straightening up. "That's just dandruff for you."
Filia didn't say anything. It might not be so easy. With her magic being suppressed, she wasn't sure if she could pull off a transformation.
"As for a black feather…" Xellos trailed off with a slight shrug. "Well, it's certainly a day for ducks. We just have to find one."
There was not an appreciable difference between the outside and the inside. The cracked ceiling of the silent study area had let in a large amount of water. It sloshed over their feet as Xellos opened the door. The oatmeal-colored carpet of the rest of the library could've been somewhere under the murky water, but that was only speculation.
"We're not going to find any ducks here," Filia said somberly as she followed Xellos into the vaulted chamber.
"Do you suggest we find a lake?" Xellos asked, stirring up the water with his staff for emphasis. "It would be harder to find somewhere that isn't lake."
However much lake there was, Filia couldn't help but feel that they'd never find a line of ducklings swimming after their mother. Not in Potter's Field. Not now. Such a sight would be too… ordinary, too wholesome. Things had gone too wrong for that. "But that doesn't mean we'll find a duck in this library," was all she said.
"It does seem like a bit of a wild goose chase when you put it like that." Xellos smiled wryly. "But if you're going to try to accomplish something that may turn out to be pointless, then you might as well save yourself some effort and take advantage of your nearest resources first."
There was a creak as he opened a lectern. "Ah," he said, eyeing its contents. He whipped a quill out of an inkwell. If it had been Filia, she'd have splattered herself with ink; but, Xellos being Xellos, his gloves were still spotless. "A black feather," he said, holding up the stained pen.
She glanced at it cautiously. "That… could work," she said, well short of praising his ingenuity.
He tucked away the quill in his cloak. "If your 'magic lock' theory holds any water at all, then it should." He looked beyond her, his thin pupils focusing sharply. "And you'd better hope it does, because I don't think we're alone here."
A ripple lapped against Filia's knees. The crest was a few inches higher than the water had been before that. And there were steps… more like stumbling than walking. There was the sound of breathing, though not in the rhythmic, life-sustaining sort of way. It was a constant exhalation and it was getting closer.
Filia had never forgotten what it had been like, back at Valgaav's base, when Xellos had been beaten. She still had nightmares about it every so often—her holding his shoulder and trying to keep it from falling away from the rest of him. But Xellos was a monster, and there had been nothing but darkness in his wound. The shadow that shuffled toward her from the darkened hall was different. Filia could smell the blood before she even saw it.
The creature was tall: its skin scorched a ragged black. Its arms were swollen and painful looking—much too big for its emaciated body. Its head was hooded and fastened to his neck with a rope, like a prisoner awaiting execution. Its neck was slumped, its shrouded head cradled in his shoulder, its face buried in the stinking wound that had nearly cleaved its arm from its torso.
It leapt. How could it have possibly seen through the blackness of its hood? And yet it leapt directly toward Filia. No jagged teeth or sharpened claws waited for her at the other end of that lunge. It wasn't that calculated—not a strategic move. It wasn't even primal so much as it was desperate. She'd barely gotten a grip on the handle of her mace before the creature cannoned into her. The base of her spine connected with a rack of books as the force of the impact sent her flying. She winced and heard a splash; her mace was no longer in hand. Ripples from her weapon's dive into the water washed up against her as she struggled to lift herself from the fallen bookcase.
The… fugitive? The monster? The wounded beast? It bore down on her, grotesquely inflated fists aimed to smash her prone form. She ducked and rolled, splashing as she went. She felt around desperately in the water, but couldn't make much of a search for her mace before the stampeding escapee forced her into another dodge.
"Xellos!" She caught his eye as she scrambled through the shallows, hoping to find her mace, but not to trip on it. His head was tilted to the side, either in an imitation of her attacker or in blithe pondering. Her focus lingered on him just a fraction of a second too long. Arms, oozing a sticky mixture of blood and puss, crossed over her neck and pushed her to the ground.
She reached out wildly in an effort to stop her fall, but only succeeded in sweeping the contents of a table over on the way down. Water haloed her face as she struggled to keep her chin up. It was either let the beast push her head under and drown, or crush her throat against its monstrous forearms. The nothingness of that hooded face looked down at her. It wasn't fussed over which she chose.
She groped frantically around in the water, hoping that she'd find what she needed. Her fingers closed around something and it no longer mattered whether it was her mace or not. She put all of her strength into an upwards swing, smashing the item against the hidden jaw of her attacker.
The black clouds on the edges of her vision receded as the creature flopped backwards, stunned by the blow. She took a hungry breath, willing herself to recover fast because it would get up again if she hesitated.
It didn't. The spiky, crushing power of her mace dropped onto its head, just as it began to rise. Its hood collapsed inward. What was left of its head couldn't hold against that force. Xellos's palm was over the top of the weapon's handle—delicately—as though endeavoring to keep himself separate from such a hulking, imprecise instrument.
"Found it," he said. He'd tucked the black feather behind his ear as though it was some sort of unfitting hair accessory.
She reached out shakily for it. Any of the reassuring feelings of having her mace back were undone by the squelching sound that came from the creatures head when she lifted it. She didn't particularly feel like putting it back in its holster under her skirt.
She blinked the growing blurriness from her eyes and, for the first time, looked down at the object she'd haphazardly used as a bludgeon. It was a tarnished rod, shaped like a candlestick. A thinner bar crossed the top of it, making a t-shape. On each end hung a small plate, suspended by several strands of ball-chain. Metal cylinders of various sizes rolled across the table she'd upset, before plunking into the water.
She held it in front of her, letting her world focus entirely on the balance, washing away the misshapen corpse beyond it.
"Gold scale," she croaked.
Any mild doubt that Xellos might've expressed about Filia's reading of "scale" was just a sort of perfunctory devil's advocate play. He was all for clever stretches. And, anyway, the base of the scale fit too perfectly in the ornamental circle on the plaque, with the two dish attachments hanging directly above the smaller indentations. Like it was meant to be.
Filia swiped the feather from his hair, placing it reverently on one side of the scale. It was too light to lower the cup any, so it didn't move. Neither did the door.
She pinched the bridge of her nose. It had been too much to hope that these simple items would make any difference, but she had.
Xellos eyed the little still-life they'd created, muttering something under his breath. All that was audible was a repeat of the line: "'Til judgment is passed…"
"What are we going to do n—" Filia began, but Xellos held up a hand.
"I may have seen something like this before," he said slowly.
Hope rocketed back up on a plume of annoyance. "A lock like this? Why didn't you say so earlier?!" Hadn't they wasted enough time that they didn't have already?
Xellos shook his head. "The feather, the scale… it reminds me of an old story. Let's see… I believe it was from a civilization that lived in the area we'd now call the Elmekian Empire—an ancient one."
"From your youth?" Filia asked, but taking refuge in nastiness didn't bolster her spirits any.
Xellos ignored this. "They believed that when a person died, they'd face judgment for their deeds in life. For anatomically unfathomable reasons, they decided this would be accomplished by weighing the person's heart against a feather. To get to heaven, a person's heart needed to be lighter. Presumably heaven's standards had more to do with cholesterol than morality."
Filia spotted a straw worth grasping at—though any would've been at this point. "So the door won't open until 'judgment is passed' and to do that… we need a heart?"
He only shrugged.
Filia let out a breath and stood up. "Then we'll get one."
Xellos quirked his eyebrows. "What, yours?"
"Of course not!"
"Ah," Xellos said knowingly. "Already given yours away?"
"Listen," Filia hissed, "nothing we've got so far has been what we expected. Our feather is a pen and our scale is for weighing. Who's to say the same thing won't be true with this heart?" In a quieter voice she added, "You said someone's messing with me—leading me. We found what we thought we needed much too easily."
"And all in the same room too," Xellos mused. "You have a very paranoid point."
"We'll find a heart here," Filia said. Her own heart was hammering, as though volunteering to place itself on the sacrificial slab. "We weren't brought this far to stop here."
Filia wasn't sure what she'd expected when she re-entered the room: a half empty box of chocolates floating sadly in the wreckage; a lacey Valentine; a locket. Something that clearly hadn't been there before, but lay awaiting her return.
In the few moments they'd been gone, every shelf, desk, table had been moved into sloppy barricades against the walls; all but one. A single table stood in the middle of the room. The hooded corpse lay on top of it, its bulging arms hanging so its fingers grazed the surface of the water.
A slender black line had been drawn on its chest. At the base of that line, embedded in its still warm flesh, was a knife.
"We have been provided for," Xellos said, coming up from behind Filia.
"Filia?" he prompted when she didn't respond.
Filia clamped her eyes shut so hard it hurt. She breathed in shakily and took a step toward the mock-autopsy table.
She opened her eyes and gripped the knife.
She caught her hand twitching—rhythmically, as though doing the pumping work for the muscle she could still feel beneath a layer of fabric. She kept her eyes straight ahead, but she knew Xellos was watching her.
She knelt in front of the tablet, holding out the monstrous heart like a priestess from the darker days of atonement. She placed it on the other side of the scale. It dipped downwards as blood pooled out of the heart and into the dish. Metal clicked against metal as the heart-side sank to the ground.
"Xellos," Filia said softly, "you said if the heart was lighter than a feather… that the person would go to heaven. Where do they go if the heart is heavier?"
Xellos didn't answer. He didn't have to.
A hinge moaned as the door opened.
Filia could make out nothing in the darkness behind the door. There was no sign of Val or the mysterious woman he'd gone away with. Filia reached out with both hands, following the line of the vault's frame out into the darkness. She felt a wall moving out from each side of the door. A hallway with no light at the end of it.
Filia took a tentative step inside, as though afraid the floor would fall away beneath her feet. She kept a hand on each wall, and blindly moved forward.
Perception became tricky before very long. She'd hoped that by that point, that she'd feel the walls open out, leading her into an open room. It would still be dark, but it would be a more open darkness. Instead she couldn't shake the feeling that the passage was narrowing.
Even as she prayed it was all in her head, she felt her shoulders scraping against the thick walls. She turned sideways and kept moving.
How far did the passage go? If she couldn't see a sign of light by that point, she couldn't imagine how far off the end would be.
Just as her mind folded around the grim prediction that the hall was literally endless, she felt it. At the edge of her hand's reach there was something solid. The tunnel stopped, and all she could feel was wall. She ran her hand up and down it, desperately seeking an opening. She bent down as much as she could in that cramped space to see if there was a lower opening, and she strained until she reached the ceiling to see if there was a higher one. There was nothing but wall.
She pounded a fist against the dead end, half out of frustration and half in the hope that it would sound hollow. "How?" she demanded in a hoarse whisper. "I saw them… they had to go somewhere."
They had to go somewhere, but there was nowhere.
Reason intruded into her panic, pulling her fallen spirits away from her downward spiral. She stopped to take a breath. There had to be a way forward. She just couldn't see it. She'd rushed ahead—well, of course she had—without finding a light to guide her. She'd have to take the long trek back out to the anteroom and find a light. No matter how badly she wanted to go forward, the only place to go was back.
She tucked her shoulders in and made a slow, painful turn. She'd been expecting a tiny rectangle of light somewhere beyond the silhouette of Xellos's head to guide her back the way she'd come. Instead her dilated pupils shrank in shock as a swath of warm, orange light hit her full in the face.
Reflexively, she shut her eyes, opening them only slightly until the pain went away and the blur clarified. When she could finally stand to see again, she still couldn't make sense of it. There was no Xellos in front of her. That wasn't hard to make sense of, though it did contribute to the nasty, tightening feeling in her chest as she realized she was alone.
What she couldn't make sense of was the distance. It was the same feeling she'd had when running after Val. Something was messing with her mind. The long hallway… how could it be no more than a walk-in closet?
She took a step forward and should've come out right where she started. The scene before her should not have been in any way connected to the library, let alone occupying the same space as the room she'd been in. Bonfires rose in neat little rows, spewing dirty cinders into the air. The orange flames moved in creepy unison, as though it was all the same fire. Piles of curling paper fed the flames. She moved closer, the heated air forcing her to keep her distance as though it were solid. She saw the bindings among the kindling, the broken spines, the pages, the rotten stench of the vellum. Books. Each beacon was fueled by a pile of books.
She cradled her head in her hand. It didn't matter that there was stained, termite-ridden wood instead of carpet; it didn't matter that sticky piles of insect eggs were piled along the perimeter; it didn't matter that it was impossible to tell if the walls swam with heat shimmers or larvae. Each burning pile of books stood where she'd remembered a bookshelf standing before.
"I… haven't gone anywhere, but…" she trailed off.
A crackle from the plume of flames kept her from completing her thought. It spat embers into the thick air, sending its literary kindling fluttering. Filia caught an airborne scrap, so charred she could barely make out any of the writing.
The world's more full of weeping than you can understand, it said. Too numbed to react, she could only think that it sounded about right.
A sucking sound drew her attention, and she walked through the row of flames to its source. The atrium. The same place where she and Xellos had entered the flooded library. But it had occurred to her that her socks were beginning to dry. There was nothing to wade through. She looked out over the banister to see the dirty water rushing, lowering, as though being funneled toward some unseen drain.
It was as though the plug had been pulled on the flood. But that was background noise. The library's centerpiece commanded attention. Its white bones still gleamed, but they had to peep out from a mass of leathery, black flesh. There must have been eyes at some point, but they'd sunk away—beyond the powers of formaldehyde or forbidden magic. Half of its rib cage was entirely exposed. The rotten flesh lay in patches across the dragon's skeleton. Someone had tried to put it back together, but they couldn't find all the pieces.
Dizziness nearly overtook her, but she held on to consciousness. Val. Val was somewhere in this hell and she had to find him.
She gripped the banister for balance and pulled herself along it. There were stairs somewhere near, and the guttural sound from below told her that no flood would bar her way.
The stairs looked a breath away from collapse. A tick, tick from the wood suggested that it was just the leftovers of a squad of six-legged creatures. She tentatively put her weight on it.
It didn't fall. It almost would've been better if it did—right there on that first step. It would've broken the tension. Waiting, all the way down, for it to fall was worse. Even as she left that last step and placed both feet on the ground, she still felt the anxiety building. The only thing that changed was its focus.
There was a smear on the ground: nearly black at its thickest, and red along the trail of the someone or something that had bled there. The streak of blood continued, beyond her sight, on the other side of the ancient dragon carcass. Here and there, thinner stains ran in lines of four—like a scratch.
A mottled, brown beetle crawled between her feet and toward the pool of blood. Tick, tick…
She followed the bloody trail, walking sideways as she did. She rounded the skeletal centerpiece, bracing herself to run if need be. There, kneeling at the end of the streak of blood, was the woman that took Val.
Filia couldn't see her face. Her head was bowed, in prayer or in pain. In front of her, sitting on the dais between the woman and the dragon, was a small statue. Three men had been molded into the iron.
A creaking floorboard betrayed her, and the woman looked up. A thin stream of blood dripped from her hairline down her face, but her mouth was set in a line.
"W-what happened?" Filia demanded, somewhere in the valley between anger and fear. Blood stained the woman's dress but aside from the minor wound on her forehead, Filia couldn't make out the source. "What have you done with Val? Where is he?!"
The woman turned back to her idol. "Safe," was all she said.
Filia was buying none of that. She waved a hand at her surroundings. "No one's safe here! Tell me where he is!"
The woman did nothing further to acknowledge her. As the silence stretched on, Filia could feel herself deflating. "Why are you doing this?" she asked, fighting off tears. "Who even are you?"
At this, the woman turned. She subjected Filia to a critical stare, as though preparing to communicate something incredibly complex. "Veyra," she said.
"Veyra?" Filia repeated. The name didn't mean anything to her. "Why are you—"
"If you're going to dimension-hop, a little advanced notice would be nice," a voice behind her said.
It was a reflex. Filia couldn't stop her head from turning as Xellos appeared behind her. In the pit of her stomach, she knew what would happen when she turned back to Veyra.
"Gone," she whispered softly. She rounded on Xellos, practically seething. "She got away because of you!" She gestured a shaking hand at the place where Veyra had been only a second ago.
Her waving hand turned into a fist. "You disappear to goodness only knows where and when you do come back it's just to ruin everything!"
Xellos raised an eyebrow. This was a common complaint, and—from one perspective or another—possibly even a generally valid one. But this time at least it was unfair from every angle.
"I think you'll find that you're the one that vanished, Filia. Anyway," Xellos went on, not giving her time to retort, "I take it you came across the woman from earlier?"
"Yes," she answered. She didn't have time to get caught up in his inability to take criticism without lobbing the complaint directly back. "Val wasn't with her… and she was hurt. I don't know what happened…" she trailed off. "Veyra, Veyra…" she muttered to herself. "I don't know anyone by that name… Why would she…?"
Xellos's bemused expression snapped to one of stern disappointment. "What?" he replied flatly. It was barely a question.
"Veyra," Filia repeated. "That's what she said her name was, when I—" She stopped when she caught sight of his expression. "What?"
He put a hand to his temple. It was a clear expression, one that said: not only do I have a headache, but it's caused by your stupidity.
"Let me get this straight," he said. "This woman—No, no," he interjected, "let's be casual—this gal is named Veyra?"
"That's what I said," Filia responded. Who was he to goad her for not knowing more when he was the one that interrupted her? "What are you getting at?"
He shook his head. "Nothing. I think I'm starting to understand what's going on here."
She was about to politely ask him to share with the class, when he cut her off by pointing his staff at the little idol that Veyra had been praying to. "Now, what exactly is that?" he asked.
"I don't—" Filia began hurriedly, not exactly eager to let the conversation move on, but as she looked more closely at the three men depicted on the statue, she realized that she did know. She recognized them—their flowing robes, their tall hats, the judgment in their gaze. She'd seen them before: on the worst day of her life.
She reached out a hand dazedly and had only barely brushed against the cold surface of the idol, when she heard a sound like an intake of breath. She drew her hand away and stepped back.
The slick of blood Veyra had left on the floor gurgled, as though something was pushing up from within it. Redden forms bled from the stain—rising like an ancient ship from the wrecked depths of the ocean floor. Invisible chains pulled them upwards, out of that pool of blood that had seemed so thin a moment ago. The blood burbled with hidden depths; the figures rose, motionless.
Three of them; each the perfect reflection of its statue counterpart, save for their height. They loomed, taller than a man. Not bigger, but taller. Their robed bodies stretched and strained, so they could look down on you without so much as a nod. In their still, black-red forms, they looked almost like tokens from a giant's game of chess.
The elders—or their ghosts. They'd spoken to her at the temple that served as their grave: the grave of the ancient dragons and, soon after, the servants of the Fire Dragon King. In her mind they were the three wise men, that is, when she dared to think of them at all.
They opened their eyes.
"We have waited for your answer, servant of the Fire Dragon King," they reverberated in unison. Not one of the three moved his mouth. "Who was just and who was evil?"
Filia covered her mouth. The smell of the dried blood on her hands filled her nose, or perhaps those monoliths of blood were overpowering her senses. She quivered.
"You who carry the torch of your canting kind; you who spoke of peace in the midst of our tomb; you who could not even allow us the quiet grace of death. You must know."
She swallowed and willed herself to speak, blocking out memories of shattered bones and web-masked skulls. "I know," she said heavily. "I know," she repeated, a little louder.
"But I'm doing everything that I can," she went on. "I know I can't make it right… what my people did. But please… let me do this one thing: as penitence. I have to find Val. He—"
"Penitence?" the voices raised in anger. "The child is the last of us. He is a rare treasure. He alone carries everything that we once were: everything that was taken. He is not your penitence; not your punishment; not your redemption. He is more than a story you tell yourself to feel better."
Her head wrenched sideways as though she'd been slapped. "I—I didn't mean it like that at all! He's my whole world!"
"Yours?" their voices boomed.
Xellos's gaze turned upwards. A soft shower of dust fell from the quaking rafters.
"Filia…" he prompted.
"Complete annihilation or assimilation," the wise men roared. "The Golden Dragons decided that these were the only responses to those who would violate the peace of their governance. Do not think yourself different because you chose the latter."
A plank shattered from above them, depositing a fragment of ceiling just inches away from Filia's head. She didn't move. She just stared at the triune phantoms of blood, her mouth agape in a futile effort to shape words. Her eyes were wide, but they betrayed no awareness to the falling debris or the rumble that promised more.
Xellos adjusted his grip on his staff. He looked from the impassive figures to the shell-shocked Filia. He sighed.
The red gem at the end of his staff struck its target with a calculated crack.
Xellos caught her mid-slump. Filia hadn't expected the blow, and would no doubt be furious when she regained consciousness, but that was an issue for later on. Right now, the important thing was to watch what happened next.
Filia's eyes remained shut. Honestly, it was probably a relief to be placidly out of it after the series of events she'd been a party to. Xellos looked up. The blood golem was gone. The space was the same, but it was absent all the strange alterations it had picked up. Broken shelves lay where the bonfires had been; the bones of the ancient dragon were bare; there was still rot and damp, but the library was significantly less cannibalized.
"Ah," he said.
The fever dream had broken. It was now clear to him. He was no stranger to the ins and outs of Filia's psyche, but even a stranger could've seen that she was unravelling. The poor little dragon was seeing things.
He smiled. Of course, that wasn't all. Insanity is a personal thing, and what was happening here was far too expansive for that. It wasn't so much that Filia had lost her mind, but that something in this town had found it.
He ducked his head under Filia's elbow, hoisting her into his arms. It remained to be seen what could be done now. Putting some distance between Filia and this place before she woke up would probably stop the horror show from restarting. It wouldn't help in finding Val, though.
Xellos glanced at the door out of the library. When they'd first arrived, it had been several feet under water. Now… well, it didn't look as though a flood was about to force it to buckle. Contrary to popular literature, it doesn't always rain when you're sad. Sometimes the sun completely fails to set an appropriate mood. But not here. Here, in this town, the relationship between inner and outer was much closer.
He walked to the door. With Filia out of it, there'd be time to take a look around: find the source of this anomaly. He pushed open the door and looked out into Potter's Field.
The sky was grey, but the deluge was on hiatus. He turned sideways to maneuver Filia through the door and stepped out.
He heard a crunch.
His eyes opened, flicking downwards. But he didn't need to lift his foot to see what he'd stepped on.
Bones. Cracked, yellowed with age, shuffled so that it was impossible to separate individuals. He didn't recall the ground being a bed of bones when he'd initially looked out the door. This wasn't something he'd usually miss.
He walked forward gingerly: over the shattered femurs and around the canopies of ribs. There were skulls there too: large, equine, eye sockets shattered open wide.
"Dragons," Xellos said as he walked along. "What does this town have to do with dragons?"
…Or perhaps it was just that Filia had to do with dragons. But she was out cold. Her guilt… her fear… None of that should be an issue. He'd cut off access to the blueprints from which her nightmares could be built.
There was a shape: something buried under the bones. He crouched down to get a closer look.
It was a hand. Slender, gloved in white. A blue gem in the shape of an oval set in gold was attached to the purple trim of the fabric. The wrist hung in a limp, downward arc. Its fingers dangled. There was a finality in its languor: buried in this sea of bones.
He looked at it for what seemed like a very long time.
Cold water hit her face. She opened her eyes, blearily trying to focus despite her throbbing head. The dark, purplish blob in her vision clarified into Xellos, who was holding a bucket and looking critically down at her.
"…And we're back," he said.
Filia dug her elbows into the ground to push herself into a seated position. Xellos placed the bucket on the ground, juggling his staff from under his arm to his open hand. That staff that she'd seen coming at her just seconds before everything went black.
She reared back, hackles raised. "You—you hit me!" she shrieked.
"I was testing a hypothesis," he said, as though that made it okay. "And now I've revived you."
"What possible hypothesis could you be trying to prove for you to club me over the head?" she asked. Everything was… unsettled. The blow or her rage had done it. Even then, though, she felt something raining down on her. Emotional gravity coming to exact its toll.
"I just needed you unconscious—which I accomplished with care and precision, by the way," he added. "You're somehow never at fault when you bludgeon someone, despite making no effort to mitigate long-term damage."
Her head did not feel like it had been treated with care, but then again, it hadn't for a while now. "Why?" she demanded.
"Well, it's a little hard to explain," he said. "But I have come to the conclusion that all the terrors you've been facing have been coming from right here," he said, tapping her head lightly where it wasn't tender.
She swept away his hand. The memory of all she'd seen was seeping back through the pores of her anger. "Are you calling me crazy? You saw it too! It wasn't just me!"
"That is not what I'm saying." He paused. "Well, that's not just what I'm saying. Rather, I believe something is using your psyche against you. Your emotions are deep enough to drown in even in the best of times, and this is no ordinary place. Something is spinning your hallucinations into reality."
"I reasoned that, since this was all being put on for your benefit, knocking you out would make it all stop," he said, in response to the expression on her face. "And it did."
She glared around. The landscape looked, if not benign, then at least not outright hostile. But no hallucination stole her son away. "I don't believe you," she said.
Xellos shrugged as though to indicate that this was not entirely relevant. "We're not out of it, you know. You're awake. It'll rev up very soon now, I expect, whether you believe or not."
"If that's what you think then why'd you even bother to wake me up?!" she exploded. "You only thought I was so reality-warpingly insane that you felt the need to coldcock me, so why let me keep doing it?!"
Xellos tapped his fingers against his staff awkwardly. It was always hard to tell whether gestures like this were true displacement activity or purposeful communication. Body language became unusually complicated when Xellos was the subject. "It's not really about you or being 'insane' exactly. You make a good target because of who you are and how you feel. But without you to focus on, whatever is mining for this kind of thing will turn its attention to the next available person."
He smiled bitterly. "And I think I'd rather that attention be on you than me. It seems more… productive."
"Productive?" she shrieked. "You're shoving me in front of whatever is responsible for all of this because it's more productive? She stole my son, Xellos!"
Filia lurched, her balance thrown off as Veyra's Yours? reverberated in her mind.
"It doesn't matter," she said quietly, clenching her fist. "I don't know why you're even here if you didn't want to get mixed up in this. I don't know why you ever—"
She stopped, her eyes glued to the lake in the distance. The quarry. The rain had filled the earthy bowl. It was an accidentally collaboration between man and nature.
Had there… had there always been a row of pillars rising up from under the surface?
Xellos looked at her oddly. "Fil—" he began, but she was already running.
Grooved marble columns sat in the more-green-than-blue glacial water. They crumbled, but even with age they were bright and clean—whiter than the snowcapped mountains beyond them. Filia stumbled. Grass was growing beneath her feet. Even on paved road the blades pushed through, framing the pool in an unfitting spring.
She was there again. That place. The wisemen had shown it to her that terrible day in the icy resting place of the Ancient Dragons. They'd brought her back.
She skidded to a halt at the water's edge. Somehow she'd been expecting a firm hand on her shoulder to pull her back, to keep her rashness in check. She turned her head back in the direction she'd run from.
There was no Xellos. There was no library. There was no town. White fog swirled at the edge of the circle of grass, obscuring anything beyond it. The wall of vapor was moving—devouring the lawn as it billowed forward.
Already it was within arm's length. For all her eyes could conclude there was nothing beyond the mist. The world was only this big and getting smaller by the second. The way the cloud moved was sinister. She felt that she shouldn't touch it.
She reached out and touched it.
Her joints screamed: annihilation. She drew her hand back immediately and the pain dimmed. Her fingers looked unharmed, but needle pricks danced along any stretched of skin exposed to the fog. She flexed her fingers and tried to work the blood back into them.
Inch by inch, the fog was getting closer. She shuffled toward the water's edge, keeping a wary eye on the clouds. She balanced on the rocky edge of the pond. A look at its surface told her nothing. The columns were reflected in it, but anything under the water was hidden.
The icy clouds licked at the edges of her boots. She was losing ground rapidly. Gaseous nothingness would take her too before long.
She took a breath and jumped in the water.
Plunk. A drop of water hit her face. She opened her eyes, half-expecting Xellos to have revived his role of… reviving her, but the water was leaking from a high stone ceiling overhead. She rose, breathing in the musty air of the chamber, and looked up.
The stones were dark with water. Variations in texture hinted at the growth of something in the damp corners of each rock.
Was she… under the lake? Then how'd she end up in this room?
A squelching sound from the distance drew her attention. The wound on her ankle twinged as she turned toward the source of the sound. Little footsteps slumped from the shadows. She recognized it as soon as it stepped into the light. Batlike, hunched, caked in fluid flesh. It was the same creature she'd seen back when everything went strange.
She braced herself to… she wasn't sure what. If she ran, she didn't know what she'd be running into, but it still seemed wrong to strike something that wretched. Before she could make a decision the thing let out a cry and slumped over. Bubbles of blood and mucous rose and fell where its mouth must've been, and then stopped altogether.
She took a few tentative steps toward it. It didn't move. Its oozing footprints left a trail to a ring of thatch. She could see more of them, slumped over in the bed of grass, among white shards and viscera.
She stared at the nest. "They're… they're babies," she said softly.
No. They hadn't even gotten that far. They weren't done. But their eggs had been smashed and they'd been left to crawl blindly toward certain death. Filia had seen baby dragons before—newly hatched, wet and unaccustomed to this world of light and space. These ones… hadn't gotten the chance.
The ceiling leaked. Drips and drabs of water plopped against the floor. Drips and drabs of water ran down her face.
She put her hand over her mouth and tried to get ahold of herself. Val. Val. That was what really mattered now. If he was in this place, she had to find him. Wherever this place was.
It reminded her a bit of the Temple of the Fire Dragon King. Oh, the materials were different and the place was obviously in a state of disrepair—but those high ceilings. It's different being in a room made to comfortably hold several dragons at a time. Crumbling pieces of statuary lined the walls, too battered to be identified.
There was probably a door somewhere along the far wall, but rock and timber blocked the way. There was one hallway. No other choice.
She took a few steps toward the hallway and then stopped. She turned back to the nest; back to the half-formed dragon child. Carefully, she slid her hand underneath the fragile thing, lifting as though it might fall to pieces in her arms. Its wings were so thin she feared she'd break them with just a breath.
She placed it back in its nest with its siblings.
The writing over the door was unreadable. It had a similar angular sweep to dragon writings she was familiar with, but the symbols were warped, flipped, insensibly placed. It didn't help that the tiles they'd been painted on were cracked and broken in places.
A few pieces had crumbled to the floor. Two large triangular shards bore crude drawings of women. Each one was holding something, but was broken in such a way that it was hard to tell what. She stepped carefully over them and pushed the double doors open.
Rows of benches in various states of disrepair flanked each side of the room. A torn navy carpet led to the stepped altar that formed the focal point of the chamber. Two blackened statues stood on the platform. They were of women—holding both their arms up toward one another so that they framed the lectern below them.
The faint scent of blood reached her nose. She moved closer.
Each statue held something real. Thin, yellowing cloth had been wrapped into bundles that were each about the size of a cantaloupe. The smell of blood intensified.
A book had been left open on the dais.
And it came to pass, it said, that two women appeared before the magistrate. The one said, O my Lord, this woman has stolen my son away in place of her dead one. The other said, Nay, the living son is mine and the dead is yours. Thus they brought the matter before the judge.
The magistrate considered all this. Then he proclaimed, Bring me a sharp knife. Divide the living child in half and give one to each.
There was a drip from one of the tiny, swaddled sacks. It wasn't water.
"The False Mother said, Make it so. Let it be neither mine nor thine," Filia read in a quavering voice. "But the True Mother said, Give her the living child, for I would rather give him up than see him slain."
Her grip on the lectern increased. "Is that what you want?!" she asked of the book, of the statues, of the room in general. "For me to say that I'm a False Mother? That I… stole Val?"
Filia whipped around. Veyra stood there, at the entrance to the sanctuary. Through her back and out her chest was a still-dripping spear. Val held her hand, staring catatonically ahead.
Filia's mad dash to Val was stopped as a simple gesture from the woman forced her back. "You can't do this! You're dead! You're dead!" she shouted. "Call me whatever you want, but I wasn't going to leave him then and I'm not gonna leave him now! He can't go with you! He's alive; you're dead!" She repeated those two words desperately as though they were some sort of talisman against the undead.
Veyra's face was impassive. "With me there is rest and family. He has been cut off from his own for so long. Better to die and remember than to live and let it all stay forgotten. Better to be who he is than to be your creation."
"How can you possibly say that?! It's not a choice between his identity and his life. He already is who he is!"
"Then why haven't you told him?" Veyra asked flatly. "About his past? About his people? About their murder? About me?"
"I… I'm going to," Filia countered.
"Really?" Veyra said, smiling nastily. "Then do." She snapped her fingers.
Val blinked. He looked from the woman holding his hand to Filia and then back again. "Mommy?" he said. Even he didn't sound sure which woman he was referring to.
"Val!" Filia tried to rush forward again, only to be pushed back by an invisible wall.
"I will tell him if you don't," Veyra said evenly.
"Val," Filia croaked, getting to her feet. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you. I was scared I'd get it all wrong. You… you were right when you said that… I don't look like you. We're not the same. You're an Ancient Dragon—the last one there is… alive."
Val's mouth hung open. He still seemed half-asleep. Thought was difficult enough as it was. "Why am I the last?"
Filia grit her teeth. Veyra was looking at her. "The Ancient Dragons were strong, but peaceful. They didn't let themselves get drawn into either side of war." She swallowed. "But there were other dragons… and they were frightened by the Ancient's power. And jealous of it too," she added. "Those dragons convinced themselves that the Ancients were dangerous, just because they couldn't control them. And they turned against them."
It was the kind of story where even a seven-year-old could figure out which were the good guys and which ones were bad. It would take someone much older to pretend the reverse. "Who would do that?" he asked, chafing that such a thing could've happened at all, let alone to people he was supposed to be connected to.
"Golden dragons, Val," Filia whispered. "My people. They did a terrible thing and they died for it."
Val bent his head. After a moment, he looked up at Veyra. Filia had to wonder if they were seeing the same thing. Under Veyra's influence had the spear and the blood disappeared to leave his perfect image of a mother. "Then are you my real mother?" he asked her.
Real. In that heartbreaking moment, Filia felt the panic of being unreal—of being illegitimate. Of being the False Mother all along. She looked at Veyra with new eyes and it was only then that she really knew why.
"No," Filia said, before the impaled woman could respond. "And yes," she added. "She is, in every way, as much your mother as I am."
She took in the contours of Veyra's face. It was a mirror. Xellos had seen it, but she hadn't wanted to. Of course she looked just like Filia, but with a few of Val's features thrown into the mix. Filia didn't know what his real mother looked like. Her only image of Val's real, legitimate, true mother could be something like herself.
Galveyra! She'd been so stupid. He'd practically spelled it out for her.
She stared at the thing that called itself Veyra. "You're what happens when I don't feel good enough. You're me."
A window burst, gushing water into the room. Veyra tightened her grip on Val.
Your emotions are deep enough to drown in even in the best of times.
"Val!" Filia called, reaching out her hand. "Val, she's not real! I know so little about your people, but I promise you that I'll find out everything I can; we'll find out together! As a family! We may not be blood-related, but I love you so much and I want everything in the world for you! You can't tell me that's not real! No one can tell me that's not real!"
Tears were welling up in Val's eyes. His cheeks puffed out in frustration and confusion. Emotionally, this was beyond his understanding. He'd wanted the truth, but the truth did not make him feel better. He was in over his head, so he did what was natural for a child in over his head. He walked over, buried his head in his mother's skirt and cried.
Filia threw her arms around him in relief. The ceiling buckled, sending the lake cascading downward. She held on to him against the current.
But Veyra was still holding him too. She hadn't stopped him from going to Filia, but she hadn't let go of his hand either. Filia wrapped her raincoat around Val, as a torrent of water sent them skyward. Veyra hung like an anchor onto Val's hand, pulling the three of them toward the deeps.
The statues of the two women swirled before them, ripped from their pedestals by the force of the churning waters. Or… there had been two, but Filia lost sight of one. Whether it was tossed away by the tide or shattered, she couldn't say, but the one that was left held aloft a bundle the size of an infant.
Veyra stared into Filia's eyes through the murky waters. Her expression was not much different from when she'd first seen her: vowing to take Val back even as the flood took her.
She let go of his hand.
A matted, furry hand pulled her out of the water. "Oi! Boss! Lord Val! You alright?"
Filia opened her eyes. Val was still there—wrapped up in her arms. He coughed a few times, but otherwise seemed okay.
"I… think so," she said. She looked up at Jillas. He was wearing waders and looking somewhat harassed. "Oh Jillas, I'm glad you're safe," she said in relief.
"'Course Oi'm safe," he said, as though this went without saying. "All Oi 'ad to do was find 'igh ground an' wait out the storm. Oi didn't jump inna lake!"
"I see that at least you found what you were looking for in there," said a familiar voice. "Somehow."
Filia looked up. Jillas was standing somewhat warily a couple of feet away from Xellos, who was casually floating above the water. "Had a rough day, Val?" he asked, exercising his gift for understatement.
Val nodded emphatically. Filia put a hand on his head in a way that was designed to soothe her as much as him.
"Well, can we at least say that all the… difficulties have cleared up?" Xellos asked.
Filia looked into Val's eyes. She needed to talk to him more in detail. The rough sketch of events had been hard enough, but he deserved more than that—at least after the shock wore off. There was so much more to say too. Explaining genocide was one thing, but transmigration of the soul was another. Then there was the matter of all she didn't know. Respects were owed—by both of them—at the site where both their kin lay dead. Perhaps answers would be there as well. At the very least she could try tapping Xellos for information about the Ancient Dragons—as fruitless a task as that might be. Maybe someday Val himself would even remember, but she had to hope that the memory of the pain didn't destroy him as it did Valgaav. She had to be there to make sure that didn't happen. "No," she said. The difficulties were just beginning.
Xellos's posture abruptly shifted to one of more alertness—from disreputably lazy to cat-napping-with-one-eye-open. So Filia added: "But I think it'll let us leave now." She looked out into the flooded town of Potter's Field. The waters were high, but not swallow-the-earth high, not apocalyptically high. She could imagine raincoat-wearing townsfolk returning at some point soon to access the damage. "I hope."
"'It?'" Jillas repeated, mystified. "Whuz this 'it' you're on about?"
Xellos shrugged. Filia said nothing. When he didn't seem destined to receive an answer, Jillas pulled a few damp scraps of paper from his pocket. "Well, if you can find a way out of 'ere, Oi did find a few leads on what rat 'ole Peaceton an' Avery mighta run off to."
"That's not important now," Filia said automatically.
Jillas sagged. "Not important?" It was the whole reason they'd come here. "Then what is?"
"That's a good question," Filia said. She could already feel her magic returning, allowing her to heal the cuts and bruises of the day. "What do you think, Val?"
Val hesitated. It had been a day of devastation, terror and awful truths. He shivered in his mother's arms. "Dry clothes. An' a hot fire," he added. "And something to eat."
The sun peered through the clouds. Filia smiled and nodded. "Yes. Let's take care of that first."
Still, Filia felt, as they trudged through the waters in search for high enough ground to take flight, that there was something else important here. The nightmare was over.
But she must never, ever forget it. Nightmares recur, and this one had been real.