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“Not what you expected, is it?”

The words pierced a blackness that to find that which had lacked consciousness before they existed.  Thoughts reflexively formed in response, but they were jumbled, unclear.

“I expected…”  I?  I.  Who am I?

“Expected what?”

A response tried to form again, and an identity began to form with it.  “I expected… a Light,” she said, the words coming before the understanding, sounding strange even as hearing and thoughts and voice came into understanding around her, and in the distance a blazing pinpoint of luminescence appeared.  She turned towards it, puzzled, then back to the one who had spoken first, as memories and recognitions resurfaced and tumbled into form.  The blackness swirled and separated into the earth and sky of a barren plain, and Cearalaith stood unsteadily upon it.  “And… I… kind of expected Corael to be here.”

The man who had wakened her was not Corael.  He was an older elf, his pale features sharp and chiseled; his black hair fell limply around his slender ears and down his shoulders, and he appeared to be dressed in simple, dark silks and leathers.  He pushed up from the dreamscape rock on which he was perched and walked towards her.  “Your Light is over there, waiting for you,” he pointed off towards the distance.  “I suppose you could wait for your Corael to show up, if you wanted.  Though I wouldn’t hold your breath, so to speak.”

She stared at the man as he spoke.  “You look familiar,” she said tentatively.  “Who are you?”

He shrugged.  “No one of consequence to you here.”

She peered at his face.  “…Father?” she asked.

He blinked his steel-blue eyes at her.  “…uh, sure.  Let’s go with that.”

Cearalaith scowled.  “No, then.”

“Do I even look like him?” he laughed incredulously.  “Look, it really doesn’t matter.  As far as you care I’m a figment of your imagination.  An entity cooked up by the lingering remnants of your subconscious in order to bear an unbearable situation and function long enough to make the necessary choices.”

“Necessary… choices?”

“Do you remember what happened?”

Cearalaith frowned.  “I didn’t remember myself a moment ago.”

“Try to remember.”

She furrowed her brow and attempted to concentrate.  “…I remember… running in a field.  I was wearing my pink sundress – the grasses scratched at my bare legs – and my mother was calling…”

He shook his head.  “Too far back.  I mean right before it happened.”

She closed her eyes.  “Corael took me out to the shore… I remember the crashing waves, and the gulls…”

“Better, but still too far.  Closer.”

She opened her eyes.  “There were two of them at my door.  They had his papers and effects… and then Astoreth–”

“Cearalaith.”  He stepped closer, and put his hands on her shoulders, and they were cold.  She had forgotten cold.  “I know this is hard, but you have to do it.  Cearalaith, do you remember how you died?”

“I…” Cearalaith furrowed her brow, looking down between them.  She looked back up, her hand moving to the gaping hole in her chest.  “Kuvasei.  Kuvasei took my heart.”

He nodded.

“It wasn’t her fault,” Cearalaith hurried to add.  “There was something wrong with her… she taunted me.  She spoke of herself in the third person–”  She looked up at him again as she began to put the pieces together.  “Kuvasei’s in danger.”

He snorted.  “Mutt’s always in danger.  Who gives a shit about her?”

“I do,” Cearalaith said.  “And it wasn’t her fault – it wasn’t her.”

“Now you’re making excuses.”

“No, I know her,” Cearalaith insisted.   “Kuvasei was possessed, or – the demon.”  Her eyes widened.  “The demon must have taken her over.”

“How do you know?” he pushed.

“Because I do!”

“Not good enough!” he snarled.  “What makes you think the mutt didn’t just betray you?!”

Her anger flared.  “Because – she never once called me by name.  Little golden crown, she called me at the end.  She didn’t walk into my apartment – she waited until I invited her.  Her eyes – oh gods – I remember her eyes –”  She caught sight of the man’s smirk, suddenly, and threw off his arms in a rage.  “And because she’s not a mutt, you asshole, she’s my niece!  She would sooner slash her own wrists than bring harm to her family, and how dare you say otherwise!”

He grinned.  “Good,” he breathed.  “Get mad.  Let it fuel you.”

“Screw you,” Cearalaith seethed.  “Kuvasei is in danger and I’m going after her.  You can either help me, or you can get the hell out of my way.”

“Just one problem, princess,” he chuckled as she stormed past him.  “One little problem.”

She stopped, her back to him.  “…I’m dead.”

“You’re dead.”

She shook her head.  “That… this can’t be right.”

He shrugged.  “It is what it is.  And what it is, is crap.  Trust me.”

Cearalaith turned back to face him.  “Can you… get me back?”

“I can,” he said softly, walking toward her with a hint of swagger in his stride.  “But I won’t.”

She scowled.  “Look, you asshole –”

“No, you look, princess,” he snapped.  “I’m doing you a favor.  I can get you back, but I won’t.  Instead, I’m going to make sure that you stay here until the cavalry shows up and someone else can get you back.  It’s better this way.”

“Better?!  How?!  I need to get back and stop that thing, before it takes Kuvasei and goes – gods knows where!  Or what it will do!”

“You don’t have to worry about that.”  He moved closer to her, putting his hands on her arms.  She tried to wrench away, but he his grip was like cold steel.  “You just have to trust me – and hold on until they get here.  Hold on to your anger.  I know this is hard, I know it doesn’t make sense to you, but – hell.”  He sighed.  “Look, you’ll understand when you’re older.”

“I thought you weren’t my dad,” Cearalaith snapped, still trying to twist out of his grasp.  He chuckled and pulled her closer despite her resistance, pressing his cold lips to her forehead, and she winced, due as much to the chill the kiss sent through her as the act itself.  “Why are you doing this?”

Wordlssly he brought one cold hand to the hole in her chest, and with it drew the veil of blackness close around her again; it seemed he put something inside her, but she could not see it.  She tried to scream and fight, but found herself suddenly weak, sinking in his phantom arms as she faded into unconsciousness again.  “Because,” he said quietly, “I have a vested interest in seeing you grow older.”

*****

She believes the Light is a force of life and healing and all that is good and right in the world.  I believe the Light is a weapon, a simple but potent tool to be wielded at my will and to my ends.  If she is right, may I be its instrument now – and if I am right, may it be mine.

She would have expected waking up to be more painful, if she’d expected to wake up at all.  The air rushing into her lungs was only briefly excruciating, and the moment of disorientation she experienced at opening her eyes to grey skies and bloodstained stone was less than she’d experienced just…

Cearalaith blinked, her mind trying to snatch at a quickly-fading memory as several things happened at once.  Her hand flew to her chest – where it met new flesh, smooth and solid and warm.  Her heart pounded beneath.  Stavier was lying on the ground near her, evidently exhausted, panting as the glow surrounding him faded, and Liealia knelt beside him.  “Fuck the Argents,” the blood knight grinned up at his wife between labored breaths.  “They only wish they could do things like that.”

She sat up tentatively, trying to say his name, but someone else was screaming hers and then arms were around her.  Cearalaith’s eyes welled up.  “Asty?” she whispered, her arms reflexively responding and wrapping around her sister.

Astoreth only sobbed.  When she finally spoke, her first words were “I’m sorry.  I love you.  I’m so sorry.”

It wasn’t enough, but Cearalaith couldn’t find it in herself to want more right then – her once-adored big sister was there with her, holding her, soothing her through choked sobs, and it felt better than she wanted to admit.  She held Astoreth tightly in kind, fighting off her own tears as she tried to focus on what was most important.  “Kuvasei,” she said.  “Astoreth, we have to find Kuvasei – something’s wrong with her, the demon has her, we have to –”

“We know,” Lia told her gently.  “She’s all right.  Kuvasei is safe.  Westel is taking care of her.”

Some small part of Cearalaith knew that after what Kuvasei had been through she couldn’t possibly be all right – but as with Astoreth’s outpouring, she was grateful in the moment for what Lia’s assurance meant.  The immediate danger was past; she curled up in her sister’s arms and let herself cry.  She could deal with everything else tomorrow.

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