Finally, the conclusion you’ve all been waiting for…
The ballroom floor is the same tangled mess I remembered from when I first arrived. I flash back to my first and only dance of the night as I lead Caitlin out onto the floor. At her curious look, I grin.
“Can you think of a better way to navigate this mess? It seemed to work well enough for Lark.”
I know now that it was he who swept me across the floor before I chased my phantom upstairs. With his love of theatrics and indulging fantasies, who else would set up an elaborate prank like that? Too bad it had gone awry on him. I suppose my nature as the “bad cop” of our author duo finally came back to bite me in the ass. I hope my Author’s influence leads us to Zig’s mystery woman quickly.
Cait gives me a funny look at the mention of Lark, but I shake my head. It’s not important right now, and honestly, we should be focusing on finding Zig’s mystery woman. I don’t know how, but my gut says dancing is the way to go, so I lead Caitlin further into the mass of dancers.
The crowd parts, revealing a woman dressed all in black and gold and crystal. She looks directly at me, and I know this is the woman we are looking for. I spin Caitlin outward, releasing her hand and stepping forward to greet the woman with a small bow of my head.
“Excuse me, are you… you’re weaving magic in the house? I- Our friends have gone missing. Is there any way you can help us?”
She never breaks eye contact as I speak, and I know she is sizing me up somehow. When she finally looks away, it’s to consider the ceiling, and I have horrible sinking moment where I wonder if we speak the same language. So far, I’ve not interacted with anyone outside of my own group. I have no idea just how varied the party and its guests may be.
Her eyes are wide when she looks back to my face, and I tense. At least she’s looking at me and not at something horrible over my shoulder.
“You’re the Author!”
I blink at her sudden declaration – because it was a statement, not a question. But her excitement quickly calms back into her original placid demeanor, though it’s now tinged with worry.
“Some of your friends have gone missing? That won’t do…yes… I can help.” Her gaze keeps drifting to the ceiling, her attention clearly split. “Welcome to the masque, by the way, I’m sorry it’s turning so poorly…. ”
Frost and Lark appear from the crowd. “It’s not for lack of your good hospitality, madam. This one,” Frost says, waving a hand at me, “simply loves being in trouble.”
“And -you- love working,” Lark shot back at him, “so you’re both having a marvelous time, I’m sure.”
Our hostess seems completely unfazed by the new additions to our conversation- perhaps that’s why she was looking up? Not at the ceiling, but at the balconies? “Well..glad to hear it…” She smiles in welcome, as a good hostess should, but then is right back to business. “As for your friends… I can show you their threads…probably, so that you can trace them.”
I’m not at all surprised when Lark steps forward. If we’re talking threads, who better to handle them than a DreamWeaver?
He inclines his head graciously, falling into his automatic charming persona. “If it wouldn’t interfere with your own casting, I would find that most useful.
“Oh not at all, here.” She reaches towards the sky, her hands moving around and then reaches out to hand basically an invisible ball to him. So that’s what’s up with the ceiling then. I can’t see the magic myself, but Lark seems to have a good handle on it.
Frost is much more interested in the spellwork than I would think from him. I wish I knew what he was seeing- to me, it looks like he’s just staring at Lark’s empty hands. Finally, Frost pulls a single strand, and it shimmers into visibility. The thread is a flat, dull black, that somehow seems gooey like tar. Frost ignores us all, speaking directly to Lark as he holds up the thread.
“I think these are the Shades we were chasing. We can probably follow them back to Rain and Seth, then …”cut” them, if you all are finally in agreement with what needs to be done?”
Shades, huh. Well, that explains the feelings of dread. And why Frost would be so keen to Destroy them, but still…
I turn back to our hostess, knowing someone should ask, and Frost certainly won’t. “What my friend here is referring to is a kind of …annihilation. Destroying breaks down the patterns that hold energy to the physical world. Shades are a half-manifestation of void energy and physical energy, so he’s simply be releasing them back to the void. But if you’d rather handle them in some other manner…?” I leave it open ending, not knowing what tricks might be up her sleeve.
Taliana looks thoughtful. “I can help, and protect the rest of the worlds… Let me see.” She reaches into the air and pulls at a few more threads. “These are pieces of your threads, and just through this door is my house. I can tether you here… or, lend some grounding at least. Then I can protect this entrance and block all the others… only you few will be able to come back here, ever.. unless something… ” shakes her head, “I can seal your world off, basically.”
I nod, trying to ignore the feeling of being in two places at once. “That’s probably for the best-Shades are nasty business. They feed on mortal energy, and while most are simply pesky… Any parasite can become deadly, under the right circumstances. And with the unique circumstances here… So many worlds, so much imagination and potential-”
Suddenly, the pieces click into place. “We’re all writers.”
Zig gives me a curious look, but October is quick to catch on. “Rain and her death stories.” I nod, knowing this must be it. “Seth writes too, a little. I’m sure, a capital Author like myself or Cait is yummier, but what Shade would turn down free food?”
“And so many other things that aren’t setting right…. Feeding on creators… on writers… I don’t like the sounds of that. Please do what you can to stop it. I would offer more aid but… there’s a lot that needs to be fixed here.” Taliana looks a bit overwhelmed.
Frost nods, and I place a hand on his arm. He looks like he’ll just take the whole house down right now, which sort of defeats the purpose of stopping the Shades.
“Just stop anything else from coming over, and we’ll clean up our own mess.” I offer her a weak smile. “I feel like I’ve broken a lamp at a teenager’s rowdy party or something. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry.. I can seal you up in there, and limit the rooms your world has access to… and… anything goes during this Masque, I’m sure worse things have happened. I will have to ask but, I am sure they have.” Smiles
I nod, and it is clear everyone is anxious to get back upstairs and rescue Rain and Seth. “I’ll find you again once we’ve taken care of everything?” I had to ask- we hadn’t been able to see her all evening, and I had a sneaking suspicious it would stay that way as long as she wished it.
The woman nods, “Yes. I try to stay out of the way when I visit the worlds… unless clearly invited but,” she grins, “Well, you’ve invited me and there will be a thread connecting you back to my world.”
“Excellent. Alright. Thank you.” I bow again as I back away- Cait and the boys are already moving away. Our hostess returns my nod, clearly encouraging me to make haste.
Threads in hand, Lark is able to guide us quickly through the tangle of people and back upstairs. I’m not sure if it’s Lark’s doing or coincidence, but by the time we hit the stairs to the third floor, Naj and Kain and Zig and October have rejoined us. No one says a word as we rush up the stairs.
The journey to the spiral hallway seems much shorter now, though perhaps it’s because we’re moving with more purpose than I was when I was exploring earlier. As I step into the hallway, Frost catches my arm.
“Oh don’t even- you know I am perfectly capable of handling myself, Frost.”
He sighs, and I steel myself to argue with him, but instead he releases my arm.
“I would be freer to work with fewer people to worry over. Though,” and here, to my surprise, he looks right past me to Kain. “I would feel better having someone who was familiar with both their energies to help ensure we’ve got who we want and no one else.”
Kain moves to step forward, but Naj pulls him back. “One of us should stay,” he says softly. “For the nest.” His words are so soft I’m not certain I haven’t imagined them as he adds, “Just in case.”
Oh. Two of the four nest leaders are in there. If Kain and Naj both go… But I can understand Naj’s need for physical comfort right now- it’s a trait he inherited from me. I step away from Frost and wrap an arm around Naj’s shoulder. His arm goes around my waist and he nestles into me without a thought. I’m not quite as tall as Kain, but still tall enough Naj can tuck himself under my shoulder, if he leans a little.
I understand now how selfish it would be for either Caitlin or I to enter those rooms again. If some harm befalls one of them, well, we have the power to undo it. If something happens to one of us… I know neither of us would ever have the heart to touch Asylum again, without the other.
Caitlin steps up to Naj’s other side, sandwiching him in a wall of comfort. Zig and October gather around us as well, and we stand in a little knot of anxiety as the three most powerful men I know disappear into the darkness.
It’s a good thing I have the task of comforting Naj. Otherwise, I would have gone in after them by now, I know I would have. I don’t do well with the sit around and wait sort, and it feels like they’ve been gone forever.
Caitlin is humming a gentle tune under her breath- through Naj, I recognize it as one Nica likes to sing. The melody is simple but beautiful, building on itself as it goes. Naj joins in, adding a layer of harmony, and I let myself focus on the sound, on the enjoyment. The sound grows, layer upon layer of complexity adding to itself until I’m forced to wonder how just two people can produce such a song.
Then suddenly, Nica and Seth appear from the depths of the hallway, and I understand where the impossible harmonies are coming from. Naj races to wrap himself around his loved ones, shifting so that he drape himself along both Nica and Seth’s shoulders. He launches himself off of the pair of them as Kain materializes from the darkness. The three of them look haggard, but no worse for wear, really. Nothing some rest and maybe a good drink won’t fix. Kain nods, and I know the cat has been in my thoughts as he ushers his little family back downstairs. I know the others can’t be far behind if Kain isn’t going back in after them.
Sure enough, and icy blast tears down the hallway, and a great shaggy white wolf gallops towards us. Rain looks so small and fragile on his back, and being draped in Zig and October’s affections does nothing to dispel that. She’s not really all that tiny- at least as tall as Cait- but with the scarecrows and the dire wolf to compare to… but she’s alright too, as far as I can tell. Well enough to babble just as rapid-fire as Zig and October are. I’m sure none of the three of them hear a word each other says as the words pour out of their mouths. I pull Zig aside, suggesting he might take the pair of them downstairs to the sitting room we came in through. Once the OMIGOD factor wears off, Rain will undoubtedly be exhausted.
And then there is nothing left to do but wait for Lark. I move back to Caitlin’s side, squeezing her hand reassuringly as we stare into the hallway. Frost has curled up at our backs, clearly unwilling to leave us unguarded, and obviously feeling confident in Lark’s abilities to wrap things up. I’m happy to know no Destroying is going to go on, but I can’t help but worry for Lark…
When he staggers out of the doorway, clothes haggard and torn, blood and dust smeared on his face, I know he is fine. If he’s well enough to put on that kind of show, then clearly it had cost him almost no energy to deal with the Shades. I shake my head and move back down the hallway without giving him so much as a “are you kidding?” look.
“Hey! Is that all the thanks I get? Not even so much as a “Welcome back from Death” kiss?”
“C’mon, dorko. Looking that war-hero-ish, I’m sure you can find plenty of thanks downstairs.”