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Aletheia's Daughter

Chapter Text

There were things you could get away with when you’d saved the world, or at least your local part of it. For example, you could get away with telling your Queen that she was an idiot. Merel had pretty seriously considered that one. But goodwill only lasted so long, and there were things she wanted more, wanted enough to forego personal satisfaction for a bit.

The word “stand” didn’t really apply to a Naga, but to the extent that it did, Merel stood in the throne room of Queen Silreah of Mardelen. It wasn’t exactly opulent, but it was very large. Twin pools filled most of the chamber. Two statues of Naga women flanked the entryway, serpentine from the waist down; behind them, a colonnade circled around a cushioned throne.

Merel had seen every throne room in the Luxaren isles, and she thought you could tell a lot about a kingdom’s monarch by the way they styled their own. Hotenshin’s throne room was small and cozy. Erdengard’s had a bunch of knight sculptures. Parvian’s had two smaller thrones beside the king’s. And the throne in Mardelen’s was so padded that it could be used as a bed – and maybe had been.

If Merel remembered correctly, the throne in Castle Darkloft had been adorned with teeth the size of swords and accompanied by a pair of sacrificial altars. That was before they’d defeated Darkloft, destroyed her throne, torn down her castle, and had a priest purify the ground for a mile in every direction.

Yeah, a queen with a cushioned throne wasn’t so bad.

Silreah lounged. She was a generation older than Merel, but she wore it well. Her hair was dark as ever, her skin almost-but-not-quite flawless, her scales still a deep violet. Merel might have found her attractive, in another life, but not in this one.

Merel was the only petitioner today, so it was just her, Silreah, and two token guards.

Merel said, “I want free reign of the Archives. With guests.”

It wasn’t a demand Merel expected to go over well. Queen Silreah was happy enough that Darkloft had been defeated and peace reestablished, but she was not good at gratitude. Or forbearance. Or, Merel thought in uncharitable moments, much of anything beyond lounging around her throne looking pretty. More importantly, Silreah could probably guess what Merel wanted out of the archives, and wouldn’t like it.

Silreah didn’t look so pretty with a frown. Her tail visibly twitched in irritation, and she curled it around one leg of the throne, apparently to keep it still.

“What?” she said, “You spent ten years sneaking in, breaking in, or just outright stealing from them and now you want me to open the doors to you? And that human of yours, I suppose. What kind of ruler do you think I am?” Silreah answered.

Which was kind of a good point. Punishment for breaking and entering: A key, so that you could skip the breaking part?

“I’m part of the reason you still have Mardelen to rule,” Merel said. “And for that matter, so is Chisa.” Bitch.

That made Silreah scowl, but it was true. Technically, Merel was a petitioner like any other. No minister, she, nor noblewoman. Just another Naga, asking something of the Naga Queen, to be accepted or rejected as the Queen saw fit. But it changed the calculus somewhat when that queen owed you her people’s lives. So Silreah lashed her tail, and said some things that made Merel grit her teeth…but, eventually, she relented. It wasn’t nearly as much trouble as Merel had expected.

The Archives were hers.


Merel would have left with a spring in her step, if she’d had feet to step with. As it was, she moved with a satisfied curl in her tail that she didn’t bother to suppress.

All these years and now it’s mine! she thought, then chuckled at her own presumption – and then started mentally debating just how much of the contents she could get away with, uh, “borrowing.”

It was just past noon. The main hall beyond the throne room was thronged with people – some petitioners, like her, but mostly officials – all Naga.

Except one. Chisa hovered near one wall, watching the ebb and flow of people, bouncing nervously from one foot to the other. Merel made a beeline for her, and reflected that it wasn’t hard to find one’s wife in a crowd when she was the only person with legs.

Chisa also had green eyes, and brown hair to her chinline. She had a foreign accent, and features that weren’t common in Luxaren, and her face and demeanor made her seem younger than she really was. Merel thought she was cute as hell. But it wouldn’t be entirely wrong to suggest that Merel had married the legs. That had been a year ago, shortly after Darkloft’s fall, but Merel still couldn’t look at Chisa without feeling an upswell of emotion about it; a feeling part mischief, part joy, part triumph.

(Also part memories. There was more than one thing you could get away with when you’d saved the world. For example, you could ask the king of Hotenshin to fund an extravagant wedding and honeymoon. Not that he’d minded at all; he was a romantic to put Merel herself to shame.)

Chisa met Merel’s eyes as she approached, and smiled at the expression on her face. “You g-got what you wanted?” Chisa spoke with an occasional stutter, a verbal tic that got worse when she was nervous. Merel found it alternately endearing and cute.

“I got everything,” Merel said. She grabbed Chisa’s hands and swung them back and forth. “A key to the archives and permission in Silreah’s own hand to look through anything I want. She hated all of it but she can’t do a thing, everybody knows we saved Luxaren. She’s probably afraid I’ll start a coup or something.”

“You wouldn’t do that!”

“Hell no. I don’t want her paperwork!”

Chisa laughed and gave her a hug. “I’m glad everything worked out.”

“Come on, let’s go downstairs right now, I want to show you around!”

They descended to the lower levels of Mardelen castle, Chisa with some difficulty. The ramps were pretty steep. Merel made a mental note to try and browbeat Silreah into putting in courtesy stairs for visiting humans – after she’d had a chance to cool down some.

“You might have to win another argument b-before you can actually get in,” Chisa said as they got down to the bottom.

“Huh?”

“L-look who it is.”

“Oh.”

Merel knew most of the Archive guards on sight. The man at the door today was more familiar than most, though: long, better built than most guys if you liked that sort of thing, deep red hair uncommon among Naga…and a searing glare that Merel would have insisted she totally didn’t deserve, except that she didn’t have pants to set on fire.

“Davis!” she said, with unfeigned cheerfulness.

“Merel,” he replied. “Funny thing. While you were gone, there’s been a remarkable drop in how many scrolls and codices go missing. Suddenly I am afraid that will stop.

“It’s good to see you, too. I have something for you.” Merel handed him Silreah’s scroll.

Davis glowered at her, but he took it, opened it, and read. She watched with not-inconsiderable satisfaction as his expression grew steadily more apoplectic.

“She can’t be serious!” he said at last.

Merel waved the Archives key at him. “She is totally serious and I win!” Chisa elbowed her in the side. “Ow!”

“Not nice,” Chisa said.

Davis scowled. “Apparently our dear Queen has gone mad.”

“Oh, you know she was always mad. Seriously, Davis, this makes your life easier. I might borrow some stuff, but I’m not going to steal anything because I don’t need to anymore.”

“I’m still counting it all when you’re done.”

“Sure, if you want.”

He gave her the scroll back and waved her by. “Well, go on, before I accidentally spill ink on that order and drop your key down a grate.”

“You’re so sweet!”

Merel unlocked the door and led Chisa through into the marble arcade that separated the archives from Mardelen proper.

“You know, he didn’t look twice at me, or call you a freak or a-anything,” Chisa said once they were alone.

“Oh, sure, Davis is all right about humans. He’s big on people minding their own business. He doesn’t care that I hang out with humans, he just thinks of the archives as his business, that I’m trying to mind.”

“That’s…k-kind of understandable?”

“Heh heh. I suppose I might’ve earned that. But he just runs the place and sometimes watches the door. I don’t think he’s even read anything in here. I’m not sure anyone has except me in years.”

“Is that why it looks so…well…”

Merel looked around at the arcade. The marbling was beautifully done…but pitted and cracked. Statues of rulers lined one wall…some broken and unreplaced. A rug lined the hall, well swept and clean, but old stains marked the workmanship, and the edges were frayed. Merel looked down, paid momentary attention to its design, stylized images of ancient history, more like what you’d find on a tapestry than a rug. The artist had stitched their sigil into one corner; the stitching, she noticed as she passed over it, was damaged and unreadable.

It was the same inside, she knew. The architecture spoke truth louder than words: This place had been built by a people that considered knowledge a great treasure, and then passed down through generations that did not. Once upon a time Silreah might have changed that. But she’d looked into the past, found that she didn’t like what rested in those shadows, and looked away.

“No,” Merel said sadly, “this is older than that.” She rested her hand on the inner door – more of a gate, really, large and lined in decorative bronze – and hesitated. I won’t look away. I’ll bring in the light.

“Is something w-wrong?”

Silreah. Humans. Me.

Heather.

I’m going to finish what you started, Heather. I was a good student, right?

“Just…old memories,” Merel said. “I haven’t come in this way since I was a kid.”

“I thought you sneaked in all the time?”

“Yeah…through the aqueduct. The grates are supposed to keep people out but the grate locks suck. You can get anywhere in Mardelen through the aqueducts if you know what you’re doing. Nobody ever figured it out.”

“Hee!”

“Anyway, yeah, it’s been a really long time since I saw this door from this side. Long time coming.”

Chisa took her other hand. “You ready?”

Hell yes.”

She pulled the gate open and glided through.

Chapter Text

It turned out that rooting through bookcases wasn’t nearly as fun when Merel didn’t have to keep an ear out for the guard. On the other hand, playing tour guide was kind of cool.

“Here’s where Heather and I used to work,” she said, glancing in through the door of a mostly-empty room. No shelves here, just a couple of desks. “I wasn’t here for long, but I spent a lot of time in this room. Not as much as I did at the temple, though.”

She opened the desk drawers.

“Looking for her stuff?” Chisa asked.

“Not anymore, it’s just sort of a habit. They were pretty thorough about erasing Heather’s presence here, after she was gone.”

“Davis’s people did that? Why?”

“Not Davis, his predecessors. He was just a kid back then too. It’s not his fault. He actually takes pretty good care of the place.”

Chisa nodded.

“As for why, well…remember those engravings on the upper floor of Lake Eye Temple?”

“Yeah. I remember when we met, you said you were obsessed with them, or something like that?”

“Heh. Kind of. They’re really, really old, like dawn-of-Naga-civilization old. Silreah hired Heather to translate them. Then, when Silreah didn’t like what they said, she blamed the messenger.”

“What did they say?”

“I don’t know all the details. I tried to eavesdrop when Heather gave her report, but I couldn’t hear much until Silreah started shouting. I know one thing, though: the Naga used to be human. That’s what set Silreah off so bad. Not to mention half her court.”

“Didn’t Heather tell you what she was going to say? Weren’t you her…I don’t know, assistant?”

“Hardly. I was a kid who ran off to the temple because I was mad. I ran into her by accident, liked her, and stuck around. She kept trying to get me to go home.”

Chisa smiled. “I bet that worked.”

Merel smiled back. “You’d lose that bet twice.”

Further down, they came to the aqueduct inlet. It ran down the center of a crosshall. The water moved slowly, but it was clear, and an indoor bridge allowed crossing without getting wet. An arch at each end of the hall let the water in; both were secured by padlocked grates.

“Here’s where I got in, until now,” Merel said. “Check this out!” She slipped down into the water, unfastened a brooch from her blouse, and stuck the pin end in the grate lock. After a few moments of fiddling it popped open. “See?”

“You are going to close it again, right?”

“Oh, if I must.” Merel closed it and levered herself out of the water. “I didn’t get my clothes wet, did I?”

“No, just your tail.”

“That’s fine, it doesn’t really hold water.”

“Why did we skip the last couple of doors?”

“Oh, I never could get in to those. They’re locked, and the locks don’t suck.”

“B-but you have a key.”

Merel blinked, took the archive key out of her pocket and held it up. “Oh yeah. Not used to that. Let’s go back and check them out.”

One was an office, fairly well decorated, like it once belonged to someone important. The other was more stacks. A secondary door joined the two.

“I remember these, I think,” Merel said, “I borrowed Heather’s key once to go exploring. Neat.”

“Are these the only ones you haven’t been in?”

“Well, technically I think I’ve been everywhere here…but yeah, there’s maybe half a dozen I couldn’t get into on my own. I thought about breaking in, but I didn’t really want to wreck anything and it’s not like there isn’t plenty to look at outside.”

“What are you going to do now that you’re here, anyway?”

“Well, I’ve thought about that a bit,” Merel said. “Heather had our history all figured out, but I was only like ten and she was so far ahead of me. It’s like I poked my head over a windowsill, but before I could really understand the view somebody closed the shutters.”

Chisa didn’t say anything, but put an arm around her shoulders in sympathy. Merel patted her hand.

“I guess I want to see what she saw,” Merel said. “Open those shutters again, you know? I know the broad strokes, but…it’s just so bloody frustrating. I’m stuck rebuilding knowledge that I shouldn’t have to, because Silreah was a bitch and burned it all, and yeah it’s all still there written in the stone at Lake Eye Temple but I don’t know how to read it, I can’t prove it. I guess…I guess that’s what I really want. I want to prove that she was right.”

“Have you ever tried to find your teacher? I mean, you could just ask her.”

“I don’t even know if she’s still alive. And I never asked her where she was from because I was young and stupid and so excited to…well, I was just excited.” Merel shrugged uncomfortably. Excited to what? I wasn’t old enough to get in her pants, I was barely old enough to want to.

“I’ll help,” Chisa said.

“I know. Thanks. I guess it’s kind of selfish of me to pull you back here to be part of my weird private crusade. One day I’ll make it up to you. Um. Maybe soon. It’s not like I’m in a hurry here. Want to go visit your family, come spring? I’d love to see where you came from.”

Chisa stuttered more than usual when she answered: “U-um. M-m-maybe?”

“Maybe?”

“M-maybe. I, um…s-sorry, let me think about it for a while, okay?”

“Okay, sweetie. Sorry if I shouldn’t have asked. Take all the time you need.”

“Thanks, Merel.”

“Anyway, I think I know where to start.” Merel took a scroll out of her pack and held it up to Chisa. “Remember this?”

“Sure, I…w-wait, you never gave that back?”

“Sure I did. I mean, it’s back in the Archives now, isn’t it? Oh, don’t give me that look, it totally counts. Anyway, I stole this because it was in Old Naga and shared some uncommon words with the inscriptions at Lake Eye Temple. I only know a little bit of the language, mostly what I picked up accidentally as a kid. What I really want to find is anything that has Old Naga and a translation in to some other language – common Luxaren might be too much to hope for, but I know some Handarein too, so that would work. I know there’s scrolls like that here, I saw some as a kid, but I never managed to find any again afterward.”

Chisa looked at their surroundings, shelf after shelf of books and codices and scrolls. “That’s going to be a long search.”

“I might need some help,” Merel admitted. “Come on. Let’s at least make sure I can get everywhere with this key. Then I’ll ask Davis if he’s got a catalog or something. He must have, or they wouldn’t notice when I steal stuff.”

Most of the locked rooms were more offices. One held piles of what looked like old official documents. One wouldn’t open at all.

“Weird,” Chisa said.

Merel fiddled the key for a while, but it refused to budge. She idly considered just forcing the door. Despite the lack of real maintenance, most of the archives had been built to last. She doubted the door would move for anything short of a battering ram.

Not much point, she thought, Davis’s people probably have the right key anyway.

Merel kept a mental tally in her head. Three to four thousand codices. Perhaps twice that number of scrolls. Ten thousand all told, mostly written in Luxaren. A lot, but not unmanageable. It had all seemed so much vaster when she was younger.

She found it hard not to get distracted. There were books on foreign lands, places where strange animals walked, strange birds flew, and strange peoples did strange things. Novelty was so hard to come by, and Mardelen was so dull and stifling. One day I will see all of these things for myself.

Mathematics and philosophy interested her less, but they were still knowledge, still a record of thought. It still had history. She opened illuminated codices and wondered, what hand moved that pen, a hundred or two hundred or five hundred years before? As the words got inexplicably harder to read, she kept flipping the pages anyway.

“Merel,” Chisa said, and nudged her shoulder.

“Mm?”

“It’s getting dark out.”

Merel looked up. The sun had dipped below the windows. It hadn’t set, not yet, but it was getting there. No wonder she couldn’t see.

“Sorry! I never had free run of the place until now. Uh…were you just watching me read?”

Chisa blushed. “H-h-hey. It’s c-cute.”

Merel opened her pack and started shoveling books and scrolls into it. Chisa stopped her.

“It will still be here in the morning, Merel,” Chisa said, “you don’t need to take it all home.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” Merel emptied her pack again, then put one scroll back in; the first one, the one she’d taken a couple years ago.

Chisa laughed. “Put it back.”

“It wouldn’t be an Archives visit if I don’t steal something!”

“I m-m-married a kleptomaniac.”

Merel smirked, and kissed her, and returned the scroll to the pile. “Better?”

“Much.”

They cleaned up and headed out as the sun set behind them. Davis was still at the door – and still glowering. “Done looting?”

“Heck no! I’ve only just started! Hey, question. There’s a door in there this key doesn’t unlock. What’s up with that?”

Davis frowned. “The one in the back, on the left?”

“I think so.”

“It’s an old storeroom. Someone lost the key a while back, I think. Every so often I try to get a locksmith in here to deal with it. Silreah never wants to pay for it.”

“Huh. Okay. You guys have a catalog for this place?”

“Yeah. Look in the drawers on the right side as you go in.”

“Thanks.”

Davis grumbled something distinctly un-welcoming, but otherwise let them be. Merel left him to stew.

“Come on,” she said, “Let’s go home.”

Their room was on the main level. It had to be, for Chisa’s sake; stairs weren’t very Naga-friendly, and the fairly steep ridged ramps Naga used weren’t very human-friendly, and Mardelen Castle was built for Naga They’d bought the room shortly after Darkloft’s fall, and paid for it with spoils from her castle. It turned out that infernal weapons from the demon realm were kind of valuable. That suited Merel fine; working for a living wasn’t really her bag.

Their room had one bed, one cabinet, a chest with what few personal valuables they owned (mostly Merel’s better jewelry). Chisa insisted they keep the floor relatively clear, so that she could practice her forms in the mornings. The whole left a sense of more space than the room Merel had once shared with her sister Zeri, even though it was technically smaller. Not having barrels of alchemic reactants lying around everywhere helped, and it certainly smelled better without all the chemicals. Merel didn’t mind the mild asceticism…much.

A small idol sat on top of the cabinet. It was of one piece, but depicted two figures. Aldeenia, Goddess of Love, stood proud; before her knelt Almuna, divine guardian of her temple. Chisa had gotten it custom made for Merel as a wedding present, and Merel treasured it. More for the guardian than the goddess; after all, they’d actually spoken to Almuna.

An outlet for the aqueduct pooled in one corner. All the Mardelen living spaces had one; most Naga got uncomfortable when away from water for too long. Merel less than most, but still. Traveling the isles had given her a bit more appreciation for living in a land built to Naga tastes. Besides, as she’d told Chisa, the aqueduct was a back door to everywhere.

The room wasn’t large, but it was home, and it was theirs.

After they’d had some time to relax, someone knocked at the door. Merel answered it. Her sister Zeri, as usual.

“Hey, sis,” Merel said.

“Hey. Have plans for dinner?”

“Yup. ‘Make you cook.’”

Zeri laughed; it was true. Merel could burn water. Chisa was a passable cook, but Zeri was genuinely good at it. She joined them for dinner at least half of the time. The castle technically had a dining hall, but they rarely went.

So Zeri cooked, and they ate, and swapped stories afterward. Zeri shared some mocking anecdotes of customers at her alchemery, idiots who wanted the impossible but didn’t want to pay or wait for it. Merel described her meeting with Silreah, and exploring the archives properly for the first time. That led into some of the books and scrolls she’d found – not the ones she was looking for, but the ones on foreign lands – and that in turn ended with interrogating Chisa about the wonderful strangeness of the mainland. All in all, it was a fun evening.

“Thanks for coming,” Chisa said at last, as the night was winding down.

“Any time. If the wisecracks I get from customers are any indication, I figure you could both use the company.”

“You catch much flack about us?” Merel asked.

“Not as much as I expected. Lots of people don’t like humans, but lots of them also know you two helped take down Darkloft. It’s changed some minds. These things just take time.”

“Do they g-give you trouble? Because she’s your s-sister, I mean?” Chisa said.

“I lost a few customers – but I don’t think it’s because of you, it’s because I won’t put up with people getting too nasty. Merel is my sister, after all.”

“Heh,” Merel said, “thanks, Zeri.”

“Welcome. Screw the naysayers. You married a human and I am totally okay with that, and they’d better be, too.”

Chisa started to say something, stuttered to a stop, then tried again: “T-t-thanks, Zeri. I w-was kind of worried when w-we came back. I mean, you w-were nice when I met you, but I wondered how you would t-take it when we told you, well…”

“Oh, please, like I couldn’t see it coming just from the way she looked at you. The only thing I wondered about when the two of you went adventuring was whether you’d return the sentiment.”

“It took a bit of time,” Chisa admitted.

“You always could see right through me, Sis,” Merel said.

“Yeah, and don’t you forget it!”

Chisa laughed at both of them.

“What’s funny?” Zeri asked.

“Just, the two of you. You’re so, well…”

“Sisterly?” Merel said archly.

“Yeah. There’s something Lady Yvian used to say, ‘be at ease with your weapon.’ That’s what it’s like. You’re…at ease.”

“I thought you had a sister too?”

Chisa hesitated. “I d-do. Her name’s Hiroko…but we’re not l-like that.”

Something about the way she said it took the humor out of Merel. She exchanged a glance with Zeri, then took Chisa’s hand. “Is that why you weren’t sure about visiting your family, earlier? You’re afraid they…”

“S-something like that. Grandfather would be okay with it. You’d like him, he doesn’t care what anyone thinks. Mother and Father…I don’t know. Hiroko…”

Zeri put her hand on top of both of theirs. “Well, I’ve got your back in this, whatever your actual sister thinks.”

“Me too,” Merel said. “Remember how you used to chew the hell out of people for calling me a freak? I’ll do the same for you when the time comes.”

Chisa teared up a bit and put an arm around each of them. “Thank you so much.”

The moment passed. They cleaned up, and saw Zeri out, and got ready for bed. Merel considered asking Chisa to skip the nightgown (a beautiful silky semi-transparent thing that had been her own wedding gift, and Merel had made no bones about her motives in choosing it), but decided against it. Married meant they had all the time in the world, and Chisa pretty clearly felt vulnerable tonight.

Instead Merel just hugged Chisa with her tail. It wasn’t that it didn’t matter that Chisa was human. Merel liked human, she had a thing for human, it was part of what attracted her to Chisa in the first place. But Zeri was right, the naysayers were dumbasses.

Merel had never been one for hiding how she felt about anything. Yeah, they could have kept their relationship somewhat less obvious, and maybe caused less trouble. That had never even occurred to her, not even in a “screw them, they’ll learn to accept it,” sense. What Merel wanted, she did.

But there was more to it than that. She would have married Chisa anyway, but it didn’t hurt that doing so, in so public a fashion, carried a message. The same one she intended to deliver, one day, to the idiots that had once answered “Actually, Naga originated from human stock,” with “Get out.”

That message was: Fuck you all.

Chapter Text

Lake Eye Temple was a bit of a different beast than the archives. There were no guards to stop Merel from taking things, but that didn’t help, because it was kind of hard to take things that were literally written in stone.

The temple was ancient. Older than Mardelen Castle, maybe older than Mardelen itself. It stood on an island in the middle of a lake, bridged to each shore. A pair of relics flanked each entrance, violet glass orbs set in tall bronze frames, like torchstands.

The stone was mostly unmarked; the bridges were in good condition despite their age, far better than could be natural. A soft aura of magic permeated everything. Nothing strong, or at least not obviously strong, but Merel could feel it. The work of a skilled magician, perhaps. Or, more likely, a priest’s consecration. It was hard to tell the difference with magic that old.

Things Merel knew about Lake Eye Temple: It was old. It had once had some religious purpose, but hadn’t been used that way in living memory. More recently, human travelers from Erdengard had often used it as a waystation, but that too had fallen off when relations between the two kingdoms deteriorated. Naga avoided it for the same reason; it was uncomfortably close to the border. Murals and writings on the walls of the second floor appeared to depict Naga history, and the language of the writings matched many of the oldest scrolls in the Archives.

Things Merel didn’t know about Lake Eye Temple: Basically anything else.

Oh, she had her suspicions about other things. It may have been used by the Naga, but it probably hadn’t been built for the Naga. Naga buildings didn’t use stairs. Perhaps it pre-dated their transition. On the other hand, it had a Mardelen-style aqueduct running through the rear half of the building, which was strange. It took water straight from the lake outside, and it wasn’t very clean, but it was there, and that didn’t make sense for non-Naga.

There was something else Merel knew about Lake Eye Temple: it held the Truth.

“Well, here we are?” Chisa said, watching her.

“Yep. Feels better than last time.”

The last time they’d been to the temple, they’d been armed, and they’d had support, and they’d needed it. During Darkloft’s expansion, infernal magic and grotesque monsters roamed the halls. Now, two years later, they were still armed; not with Merel’s knife or Chisa’s axe and armor, but with ink and scrolls and blank codices. Of course, this time they were alone, but that was okay.

Merel knew what she was looking for; she knew the answer that she had come here to find. Now she just had to prove it.

“Come on,” she said, “Let me show you something.”

The first floor of the temple was utilitarian, and in Merel’s estimation, mostly useless. She led Chisa up to the second floor, where the real interesting stuff was.

Engravings on the walls of the second floor depicted…things. Pieces of history, Merel believed, but many of them were difficult to interpret. In one, several humans and Naga circled around a sword impaled in the ground. Another depicted a single Naga drawing a bow, though whether for battle or for hunting was unclear. A third, humans surrounding an alchemic burner. A fourth, something that might have been a tentacled demon or might have been a really ugly tree, and without understanding the inscription under it, Merel couldn’t tell.

There were others. Many others.

“Right…here,” Merel said, coming to a stop in front of one. This was the spot, but the engraving’s exact contents were irrelevant. “Chisa, look at this one, and the ones that way, and the ones the other way.”

Chisa did. “I’m n-not sure what I’m looking for,” she admitted.

“What’s in the pictures on the right that’s not in the pictures on the left?”

This time she got it. “Naga.”

“Right. I guess you could say…this is where I got my start. I was doing transcriptions for Heather, and I said, ‘There’s no pictures of nagas until right here, just humans.’ I think she put it all together as soon as I said it. That humans were first, and we came from them.”

“What did she say?”

“Nothing, really. She was happy, and got me some candy, but didn’t say why, only that I’d done good. I didn’t get it, but I was only like ten and I really liked candy so I didn’t ask what was so special. I guess it was kind of like what I’m doing now; she knew the answer but still had to prove it. And now I have to prove it again because Queenie is an idiot and burned everything.”

“So, what now?”

“Now we break our hands copying everything in sight, so that I don’t have to come out here every time I want to compare something.”

They got started. The task was long, slow, painful, and would likely take months. It wasn’t bad, though. It came with memories – not all good ones, but meaningful ones. Old ones, new ones, small pieces of the process that had made Merel who she was.

Old, good: Curling up in front of an old fragment of the past, learning penmanship by doing just what she and Chisa were doing now; but learning more than that, learning that knowledge didn’t have to be something adults gave to you, it was something you could work out for yourself…

Old, bad: Same scene, a few years later, frustrated, staring blankly at sigils that she knew meant something important, but that stayed resolutely indecipherable. Slowly understanding that the road to knowledge was longer than she’d thought, more thankless; that Heather had only made it look easy. Without the master’s expertise the task was suddenly so overwhelming she could cry.

More recent, and better: Chisa, taking one of Darkloft’s monsters off Merel’s back in the lower halls of the temple. Karuna watching out for them both with practiced ease. Learning how to fight, learning what it meant to have someone’s back and know that they had yours. Learning that Heather hadn’t been a fluke, that humans really were all right.

She liked that last one. It hadn’t taken long for Merel to start crushing on Chisa, but it was still kind of funny to remember what it felt like before she realized where her heart was heading.

Yeah, there were a lot of memories in this place. And Merel figured she was making new ones, even now; in a few years it would be me and Chisa, showing up all the idiots. That was an appealing thought. Merel lost herself in it and let the scritch scritch of the pen soothe her mind. Word after word, most a mystery. But mysteries with solutions, discoverable rules, like Zeri’s alchemy. The greatest gift Heather had ever given her was to demonstrate that it was possible to understand things; that the rules themselves were not magic or beyond her ken.

After a couple of hours, she compared notes with Chisa and found that she could barely read a thing Chisa had written.

“Um,” Chisa said, “No good? I was trying to draw the letters just like they look on the wall.”

“Well…I guess it’s kind of close? But here, look, these are the same letter, but you drew them different.”

“They look different on the wall, though,” Chisa objected.

Merel squinted at the scroll, then at the wall. “Huh. You’re right. Oh, I get it. That second one is part of a ligature, that’s not one letter, it’s two different ones…oh, you wouldn’t know about that, I guess.”

“I know what a l-ligature is,” Chisa said indignantly, “I did get an education. But I don’t know which letter is which.”

“Sorry. Maybe this will work better if we fix that.”

For most of the rest of the day, Merel taught Chisa the Old Naga alphabet; twenty-three symbols and five diacritics. The digression wasn’t really a problem. They had time.

Merel enjoyed playing the part of the teacher for once. It wasn’t much of a topic, but it was something, proof that she hadn’t wasted the time she’d spent here. She didn’t know what most Old Naga words meant, but the letters were easy enough. She could even pronounce most of them; some were still in contemporary use, and Heather had figured out the rest, though Merel had no idea how. Afterwards, Chisa tried her hand at transcription again, and did much better. It turned out that copying was much easier if you knew what the letters were supposed to look like.

Around midafternoon, they took a break to eat. Merel appropriated a brazier from somewhere, and lit some charcoal with a fingertip. She caught a fish from the lake, and Chisa cooked for them both. Afterwards they set down their sleeping-mat and lay back to back, digesting, exchanging inside jokes and lazy comments about the engravings.

Something was wrong with the engravings, Merel thought. Something about the way the Naga were put together, like someone had grafted a serpent’s tail beneath a human’s torso without much thought for whether the combination made sense.

Merel was pretty sure anatomy wasn’t supposed to work that way. Not that she was any expert, enthusiastic exploration of Chisa’s anatomy notwithstanding. The thought derailed her, and she found herself wrapping the end of her tail around one of Chisa’s legs.

“You’re thinking something dirty,” Chisa said.

“Maybe! Skip the nightgown tonight?”

Chisa made an adorable strangled sound. “In a t-t-temple?!”

“That just makes it better!” Merel said.

Chisa blushed, and said something noncommittal, but she smiled through the stutter.

Merel smiled in return, a heartfelt one. She loved Chisa for her earnestness, but she liked her for all her flustered moments. Merel loved teasing her, loved how she would act mortified and scandalized but still smile afterward. It made Merel feel like a cat playing with a mouse, but with no claws, and the mouse enjoying the game.

Later, after Chisa had gone to sleep, Merel listened to her slow breathing and stared at the pictures on the wall. She couldn’t make them out very well, not in the dark, but it didn’t matter; she’d spent enough time here to see them perfectly in her mind’s eye.

They tickled at Merel’s sleepy thoughts. It was hard to date any of the images, but there should have been…some kind of progression. Heather had shown that the Naga were once human, but if she’d figured out how the change happened, Silreah had silenced her before she could share it.

Something about the order of the images was wrong. She should be able to see people becoming less human, more Naga.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

“This can’t be right,” she mumbled to herself, struggling to stay awake. It was so hard. She curled up on the floor and lay her head down on her tail. It felt like there was some crucial understanding, just out of reach. Some missing piece.

In the oldest Naga images, they were bigger, they had larger fangs, but they still looked pretty much the same. Merel knew that farmers could get plants or livestock to change, generation to generation, by selective breeding. But not as fast as this must have been, not in the space between one engraving and the next.

And the Naga couldn’t be hybrids, either. It wasn’t completely unthinkable, admittedly; Merel had a thing for humans, so why not a human who was into snakes? But humans and snakes didn’t have the right parts. Well, they sort-of-did, if you stretched it, but they weren’t the right size…maybe if it was a really big snake? Still, she didn’t think so.

We’re not hybrids. But this didn’t happen over time, either.

This happened all at once…

Merel fell asleep.

Chapter Text

The days they spent at the temple were pleasant, if a bit tedious. The weather stayed cool and calm. The fish from the lake added some variety to the food they’d brought. And they mostly had the place to themselves. The temple wasn’t actually used as a temple anymore, although it served as a decent campsite for travelers. One or two such passed through, and also a small group of Naga children, out exploring.

Chisa took a break that day to make the Naga children lunch. Afterwards she sat back down next to Merel and said, “You know, Karuna once told me that was how things all started. A kid in her hometown was exploring Castle Darkloft, back when it was empty. He got stuck, his mother asked Karuna and Aurelie to go find him, and Aurelie disappeared after.”

“The kid’s probably lucky that Darkloft latched on to Aurelie and not him. Though I have to admit, spooky ancient ruin with nobody there? Yeah, I’d be checking that out too. Hell, aside from the spooky part I guess that’s pretty much what I’m doing now.” Merel set a sheet aside and stretched. “I think I’m done with this image. Not many more to go.”

“I n-noticed we haven’t looked at the upstairs shrine at all. Were there no engravings there?”

“Shrine?”

“You know, where Karuna got that crystal for her sword.”

Merel coiled up. “I completely forgot about that. I don’t remember if there were engravings up there. Let’s go check.”

She ascended the stairs with some discomfort. In the single small room on the highest level, six serpent statues flanked an altar and a pair of braziers. It looked…almost normal. Like any other religious architecture.

“Huh,” Chisa said. “Last time we were here, there was so much infernal power in the air that even I could feel it. I…don’t think it’s there any more?”

“Nope,” Merel said, “Definitely not.”

“You’re sure?”

“I’m sure. All Naga magi have at least a touch of infernal power. Nothing like what Aurelie can do, but even the weakest can sense it around them.”

“Huh. I wonder why that is.”

“Well, Mardelen’s not that far from Aothuth’s Gate. Maybe something bleeds out of there, and we pick it up somehow?”

“But if it did that to you, then why not humans? Erdengard is closer to the Gate than Mardelen.”

“Good point. I dunno, then.” Merel slithered around the edges of the room. “There’s no magic in here at all, as far as I can tell,” she said. “Weird.” She approached the altar itself and ran a hand over it. “Nothing.”

They’d come across a number of the altars in their prior travels. Each had held a shard of crystallized hope, an impossible physical manifestation of virtue alone. Merel had never understood how they could even exist. Aurelie had made a sword from them, a sword for Karuna – their leader, Aurelie’s lover – and Karuna had wielded it like a titaness wielding Heaven’s own fire.

But when they first found the shards, each had been practically buried in infernal magic, eight tiny wavering candles staving off Hell’s darkness.

“I don’t get it,” Merel said, “Without the crystal here to drive all that power back, I was thinking we’d be lucky if the shrine was still here at all.”

“I dunno.” Chisa looked at the walls. A single image had been etched repeatedly across them all, showing two creatures she didn’t recognize. “I don’t think those are the kind of thing you’re looking for. Sorry.”

“Yeah, I think you’re right. Oh well. I’m kind of curious now.” Merel prodded at the altar, with her finger and her mind. It was inert, and empty, but undamaged. There was no sense of unseeable ashes in the air, either, like you’d get after serious magical combat. Nothing had happened here.

“Maybe we got it wrong,” Merel said. “Maybe the crystal wasn’t set here to resist that infernal mess…maybe it was here first, and the demons wanted to suppress it. Then the darkness withdrew because there’s nothing left here for it to fight. Because we took what it was after. Or…I don’t know, I’m making that up. It could be something else entirely. But I bet if we checked the other altars, they’d be like this, too.”

“If you s-say so.” Chisa poked at the altar herself. It somehow looked less impressive without a surrounding hellscape. “Hey…Merel.”

“Yeah?”

“I think this altar was consecrated twice.”

“Huh? Why would anyone do that?”

“I d-don’t know. It feels…layered, I don’t know how else to explain it. One dark layer, one light. Maybe we could ask Lynette to look at it?”

Lynette Gwenidon was a Heaven Knight; not exactly a theological expert, but close enough. She was also sort of a friend.

“Then I’d have to talk to Lynette, though.”

…sort of.

Chisa frowned at her. “You might have more to talk about than you think. She knows more about all this stuff you’re doing than I do, her family sent her to an Academy when she grew up. I asked her about it once.”

“Huh. Never saw her as a scholar. Did she say what she studied?”

“T-theology and combat, mostly,” Chisa admitted.

“Now, that I can see. Not really my thing, though.”

Chisa dropped the subject, and turned back to the altar.

“I always felt kind of bad taking the c-crystals from these. L-like we were stealing hope from the past, but not giving it back.”

“Well, it’s not like anybody was using them.”

“Yeah, but…w-well, I want to give back. Do you know what god this altar is for?”

Merel frowned. “I don’t think so. I mean, going by the crystals I suppose it was a god of hope, but I’ve never heard of any such god. The artwork and statues are kind of similar to that temple in Parvian, so maybe the shrine is for one of the Ageless.”

“I’ll try something anyway.” Chisa sat down, crosslegged, in front of the altar.

“What do you have in mind?” Merel asked, but Chisa didn’t answer her. Instead she addressed the altar:

“I d-don’t know if this makes it okay, but here are some things I hope for. I…I h-hope Merel and I have a long happy life together. I hope humans and Naga learn to get along. I hope Grandfather is okay. I hope H-h-hiroko und-d-d-d-d…”

Chisa’s improvised ritual faltered; Merel didn’t have to see her face to know there were tears in her eyes. She slithered up behind Chisa, took her hand, squeezed it lightly.

Chisa tried again: “I hope Hiroko understands one d-day.” She kept at it, listing hopes and dreams, some great, some small. And somehow, in that small space, Merel felt a growing feeling of gratitude – but not her own. When Chisa ran out of words, it hovered there, waiting.

“I think you should try, too,” Chisa said.

“Ugh, I’m no good at this sort of thing.”

“You’ll be okay.”

Merel sighed. She coiled up next to Chisa and sat down on her tail. “Am I allowed to hope for Queenie to get a boil somewhere uncomfortable?”

Chisa made a noise halfway between a giggle and a mortified groan. Merel snickered and instantly felt better.

“Okay,” she said, “I’m not really the worshipping type, but I suppose I’ll see if I have anything you like. I hope Lynette gets that stick out of her butt.” Chisa elbowed her. “Okay, okay, I’ll do something serious. I hope I find out where the Naga really came from. I hope that when I do, it doesn’t get me banned from the archives or exiled or something like that. I hope I get to see the mainland one day…heck, I hope I get to see the whole world one day. I hope…” she trailed off.

Chisa looked at her quizzically.

“I hope Heather’s still alive,” Merel said. “I hope I get to tell her I finished what she started.”

That was the hard part. The rest wasn’t nearly as bad. When she ran out of things to say, she finished with “and I hope Chisa doesn’t smack me when I say that I hope I can get her naked tonight.” Chisa smacked her arm. So much for that hope. But the sense of gratitude was stronger now, and Merel could tell that the god, whoever it was, was pleased.

“I’m glad we did that,” Chisa said.

“I guess I kind of am too. Still feels kind of weird to be talking to an empty altar, though.”

“It’s not empty.”

“It’s…what?”

Chisa was right. There were a pair of tiny golden, intertwined rings in the center of the altar, made of faceted stone, where Merel could have sworn there was nothing before.

“Um. Are those for us?” Merel said.

“I think those are for people who come after us. Like the crystals were.”

“Woah, wait! I kind of need those hopes! I mean, we’re…are we sacrificing something here?”

“I don’t think it works like that. Hope isn’t like m-money. If you give it to someone, you still have it.”

They both stared at the altar for a time.

“Those are r-really tiny,” Chisa said after a while. “What if the stuff that was here before c-comes back to kill it?”

Merel remembered the last crystal they’d found, in the depths of Castle Darkloft. Power literally bleeding out of the Hell Aothuth, the walls coated with it, the smell a sickening blend of infected pus and decaying corpses. Surfaces sheathed in putrid flesh, housing eyes that twitched back and forth, seemingly sightless; but if you looked away and then looked back you could catch them following you.

Merel remembered that horror. And she remembered, in the middle, the last crystal. Translucent gold, clear and untouched, as insuppressible as Hope itself.

And Merel remembered its Voice, quiet as a whisper, yet hard as iron:

Even if the darkness reigns, I shall still remain.

“I think it’ll be all right,” Merel said, but she shivered.

Even good gods could be scary, sometimes.

Chapter Text

They returned to Mardelen with full packs and aching hands.

Davis raised an eyebrow at the packs. “I don’t remember you taking all that stuff out.”

“I didn’t, I’m adding stuff,” Merel said. “These are copies of the Lake Eye Temple engravings.”

Davis looked at her intently. She just grinned. Finally he nodded in something almost like approval. “Fair enough. New material goes in the third room on the right side until it’s cataloged. Need help?”

“No, but maybe just don’t tell Silreah about this.”

“I am not a moron.”

“Cool, thanks.”

Days passed. Weeks, months. There wasn’t much she could do with just the engravings, there wasn’t enough text to even think about translating them. She had to learn Old Naga first, without help. At least enough to start putting pieces together.

They worked out a system. Chisa searched for works that had copies in both Old Naga and another language; either common Luxaren or Handarein, the two languages Merel knew. Merel took what she found and pieced together passages, trying to puzzle out which Old Naga words meant what. There were very, very few works to go on, and simply identifying them was hard. Without knowing Old Naga, how could either of them tell if a given text was the same work as another? It seemed an impossible task. The Archive’s contents were all cataloged, of course, but the rare few Old Naga works were indexed in Old Naga, which didn’t help at all.

Merel could never remember later which of them suggested matching works based on their illustrations, but it was all they could come up with. It was effective, if tedious.

What few translations they did find were almost entirely Old-Naga-to-Handarein – presumably because the two languages were near-contemporaries. Merel knew a little Handarein, but Handarein was long dead and Merel wasn’t anything like fluent, and their grammar was wildly different. There was exactly one work in the Archives about Handerein written in common Luxaren. It was the scroll Merel had taught herself the language from – and it only covered so much.

Deciphering anything became a long slog, where she had to compare a passage in a language she didn’t know, to one in a language she only half-knew, then somehow figure out the missing pieces from context. Half of the time she would guess what a word meant, only to find her guess contradicted in another text. She found herself learning more Handarein than Old Naga, which was kind of cool but not what she was after.

It got worse when she tried to apply what she’d learned to the temple engravings. She built a story from them, piece by piece, but it didn’t quite fit together, it had strange gaps, it contradicted itself in subtle ways. It gave dates that didn’t match up, named kings with no lineage. She had to be doing something wrong. Some of the words must not mean what she thought they meant, or maybe their meaning was dependent on other words that she hadn’t deciphered yet.

Chisa patiently sifted through every last work in the archives for her, and made a new index from it. Two hundred works in Handarein. One hundred in Old Naga.

Only eight in both.

Merel sent her back to look for Luxaren translations of the Handarein works, thinking that she could use that to work out more Handarein words and then maybe that would help with the other translations. That got her two more scrolls.

“Is it going to b-be enough?” Chisa asked, concerned at Merel’s crestfallen look.

Merel sighed. “I don’t know. It will have to be. It’s so frustrating, I’m sure there’s more translations than that, but we don’t have any way of figuring out which ones they are. Is that really all there is? Is there anything left to check?”

“I d-don’t think so. Except maybe that room we can’t unlock.”

“Davis said that one was just a storeroom.” Merel thought about it. “You know what? Fuck it, it’s worth a shot. Let’s go talk to him.”

They wandered out to the entryway. Merel waved at him to get his attention.

“Having any luck?” he asked. He’d shown at least some interest in their work, after a while. It was hard not to, when they crossed paths nearly every day.

Merel said, “Some, not as much as I want though. We combed the whole place and I think we’ve found everything we can that’s useful. We can’t get into that one room in the back to check it, though, and it’s eating at me.”

Davis shrugged. “You can talk to Silreah about a locksmith if you want. Hell, she let you in here, you might have better luck than I did.”

“Eh, screw her. If you can get someone in here, I’ll pay them myself.”

“I can do that.”

“Thanks. And, well…thanks for helping out. I know you don’t like me being underfoot all the time.”

Davis’s tail twitched uncomfortably. “As long as you’re not stealing things it’s not so bad.”

“Heh. Blame Chisa, she keeps stopping me.”

He nodded at Chisa. “Thanks, miss. I’ll get you that locksmith.”


After an hour or so the lock finally clicked, and the smith put his tools away. “Somebody really didn’t want that opened,” he grumbled. “Not many locks in Mardelen like that one.”

“Thanks,” Merel said, “Let’s open it.”

The smith pulled the door open and held it for them. She, Davis, and Chisa stepped through.

“‘Storeroom’, huh?” Merel said.

Davis scowled. “It says storeroom on the castle map. It’s hardly my fault if the map lies.”

It was more books and scrolls. Nothing more, nothing less. It didn’t look any different from any other room in the archives.

“Yes,” Merel said, “Yes, yes, yes yes yes!”

“Is this really going to help that much?” Chisa asked. “There was hardly anything you could use in the rest of the Archives, I d-don’t think we’ll get more than one or two more here?”

“Who cares? Somebody locked all this up and I wanna know why. This is buried gold!”

The locksmith interrupted. “Do you need any more from me, ma’am? Want me to put a new lock on it?”

“Not right now, maybe tomorrow though.”

“I’ll be on my way, then.”

“I’ll show you out,” Davis said. Merel suspected he was thinking let’s not have more random people wandering around unescorted, but whatever. She inspected the shelves, and hardly noticed as the two of them left. It didn’t take long to see that something was off about the shelves’ contents.

She motioned Chisa at some of the books, “Check that out.”

Chisa took a look at the titles, made a confused sound, and pulled one off the shelf. She opened it. “This isn’t in O-Old Naga,” she said.

“Nope.”

“It looks familiar…but I don’t think it’s Handarein either.”

“It’s not Handarein. It looks like some of the fragments near the Gate to Aothuth. It’s demon script, I think. Some old scholar must have had really weird tastes to be collecting these.”

“Can you read it?”

“Only a little. I didn’t exactly stop to study the writing on the walls at the time.”

“Can you l-learn it? Like you did H-Handarein, or Old Naga?”

“I dunno that I’d say I’ve learned Old Naga yet.” Merel frowned. “Maybe I can, though. These aren’t all demonic. Here.” She pulled a book off the shelf. “This one is Old Naga. Really Old Naga. But this is parchment, not papyrus, and they didn’t use parchment back then. So somebody transcribed it.”

“You can tell that just from the papers and the lettering?”

“Yep. Let’s catalogue these. Same deal as what we’ve been doing with the others. We’re looking for anything written in both demonscript and something else. No, wait. I don’t know if they’re already ordered. Uh, let me think. Um.”

Merel thought. If the collector had a particular order in mind – which was likely, given that this was a library – then she’d want to know what it was later. Alphabetical? That was the most common, but she had no idea if demonscript letters had a canonical order. Come to think of it, she wasn’t even sure they used an alphabet, instead of logograms or something. She knew they had writing, but…

Okay, first question. Were the symbols an alphabet or not? No, that was the second question. Were they ordered or not?

“Uh, I’ll start from this end, you start from that end. See if the titles or the authors start with the same symbol for several books in a row.”

“I’ll try?” Chisa’s question mark was audible. “I don’t know which line is which.”

“I don’t know either. They might even change from one book to the next. Sorry.”

Merel went down the shelf noting the first and “last” symbols (maybe they wrote right to left?) of everything on the cover of each book, skipping the scrolls because they were a pain in the ass. She got halfway down the shelf before facepalming.

“What is it?” Chisa asked.

“Sorry, I’m an idiot.” Merel ran her fingers along the start of the shelf, “Look, these are demon script.” Then she bracketed another section with her hands. “And these are Old Naga. And we know the Old Naga alphabet. They’re in order. The demonscript books probably are too.”

Chisa looked closely at the two sets Merel had indicated, then looked a few shelves further up. “But it looks like these up here are Old Naga too.”

“Yeah, both sets are alphabetical. Why they’re separated I don’t know. My guess is the whole thing is organized by topic, then by language, then by alphabet. Or logogram if that’s what the demons used.”

“So we don’t need to write them down?”

“No, we still need to write them down, if only to figure out what the order is.”

By evening they’d transcribed the covers of everything on the first bookcase and the headings of the scrolls, and Merel had opened more than a few to try and puzzle out the language. Her wrist hurt from notetaking, and her notebook was covered in scribbles.

Demon script:

Alphabet: Probably. Too few unique symbols to be logographic.

Direction: Right to left, top to bottom, I think. End of paragraph always blank on left.

Ordering: ERROR: BROKEN IMAGE

Words: No damn idea, yay!

“Hey, Merel,” Chisa said, “Why do the Naga books come in all different sizes, but the demon books mostly look the same?”

Merel blinked. “Do they? Huh. You’re right, like three quarters of them look the same. What’s up with that?” Something clicked. She opened two books and compared them. “I think these are the same handwriting, too. Grab something off your end?” Chisa did, and they compared the two. The lettering was very similar. Too similar to be coincidence.

“Were they written by the same person?” Chisa said.

“Maybe…or maybe copied by the same scribe. If I was trying to preserve a lot of ancient scrolls in codex form, I might buy a whole lot of blank books from an artisan…” Merel trailed off and looked into space.

“Did you think of something?”

“No, just…” Merel smiled. “I was just thinking. When Heather was studying Lake Eye Temple, she had me copy a whole lot of the writing off the walls. Not for preservation, you know, engravings are kind of hard to damage…it was just so she didn’t have to walk around everywhere to compare stuff. And, well…I dunno. Maybe whoever made these was kind of like me back then.” She shook her head. “It’s silly but I can’t get the thought out of my head.”

“I’m sure whoever it was would be glad you found them.”

“It beats writing something that nobody ever reads,” Merel said. “Heather once said that the secret fear of every author isn’t that their work will be lost or hated, but that no one will care enough to read it. Like those idiot elders that keep this place locked up like it’s some kind of shrine and never look at any of it. I kind of wonder if it was like this for her.”

“What do you mean?” Chisa asked.

“Digging around ancient writings trying to figure out what they said, what happened in the past, and wanting to smack the idiots who didn’t care.”

“With a kid on her heels h-helping out?” Chisa teased.

Merel half-winced, half-smiled. “You are definitely not a kid,” she said, eyeing Chisa up and down. Chisa blushed. Merel laughed.

“Come on,” Merel said, “Let’s go have some dinner and go to bed.”

“It’s not that late. You’re not really t-tired, are you?”

Merel answered with a predatory grin that said “No.”

Chapter Text

Merel did discover something strange in what they came to refer to as the Infernal Archive, but not for several months.

It hadn’t taken long to confirm that she was looking at translations. The works came in pairs; one demonic, one Old Naga, identifiable by the structure of the text and the occasional illustrations. It frustrated her. Here was exactly what she had been looking for, a good way to map Old Naga on to another language — but it was the wrong language.

She’d figured out a fair number of Old Naga words, which at least gave her something to work with. It was a diversion from her intended studies, but so what? It was interesting. It was hidden.

The treasure came with costs: “You found it, so you get to index it all,” Davis told her. “I might as well get some work out of you while you’re here.”

“Does that mean I get to keep it all too? Finders keepers?”

“No.”

It helped that the languages weren’t terribly different. With samples side by side, she could see that Old Naga was much more similar to the infernal tongue — or at least, the infernal tongue of its day — than it was to common Luxaren. It helped. Not much, but it was something. They looked for a dictionary, but the closest thing they could find was a pronunciation guide, which wasn’t much use. So Merel started a dictionary of her own, mapping demonscript to Old Naga — and to common Luxaren when she could work that out, which happened more and more often as the weeks passed.

The first demonic passage she managed to fully translate chilled her to the bone. Not for its contents, but because she had seen it before:

A MAJESTIC NEW DARKNESS AWAITS GIVE YOUR FLESH IN PREPARATION THE UNHOLY SHALL CONSUME

ALL MISTAKES SHALL BE UNDONE ALL FALSE RIGHTEOUSNESS SHALL BE REMOVED EVERYTHING SHALL BE AS IT SHOULD BE

She’d seen it carved into the floor of the caverns leading to Castle Darkloft. In common Luxaren.

It had survived, its meaning intact, from the time when Old Naga had been a contemporary language until the present day. Possibly longer. Many of the books and scrolls repeated it, usually set out from the surrounding text, like a prophecy or a catechism. Merel shivered. She’d thought the crazy ass shit in the cavern had been related to Darkloft. Now she wasn’t so sure.

That wasn’t the strange part, though. The strange part was that one of the translations was wrong. It was missing a section from its counterpart. She wasn’t sure how much, but at least a table and some surrounding text, just gone, omitted by the ancient scribe. Weird.

Merel puzzled over it for weeks. She brought the two scrolls home over Chisa’s protests.

Zeri came over the next morning, and arrived to find Merel poring over her notes and Chisa practicing her forms. She raised an eyebrow at the latter when Merel answered the door.

“Did I come at a bad time?” Zeri said.

“Nah, it’s fine. Come on in, just stick to the edges of the room.”

Zeri kept a nervous eye on Chisa’s whirling axe as they made their way around. Merel mostly tuned it out; she saw it every morning and knew it was perfectly safe. Chisa could and would check a blow if someone was in the way.

They sat down on the bed, with their tails coiled lazily along the floor. “So what’s up?” Merel asked.

“Nothing special, I just haven’t seen much of you recently and wondered what was going on.”

“Sorry, I’ve mostly had my nose in those demon books in the archives.” She described the weird passage with the missing translation.

“Taking time out from your Lake Eye obsession?” Zeri said teasingly.

“Hey, it’s new and strange and I want to know what’s in there. Just because, you know. Because it’s there.”

“Heh heh. Scholarship hasn’t changed you much, Merel.”

“Ugh, don’t call me a scholar. I don’t have any idea what I’m doing, I’m just making this up as I go along.”

Chisa worked her way to the far end of the room and turned around. She swung her axe in their general direction, at head level. Zeri flattened instinctively, and Merel laughed at her.

“You know a battle axe doesn’t have a twenty foot reach, right?” Merel teased.

“It looks scary as hell.”

“It’s a trainer, the head is soft. But it’s funny watching you flinch.”

“Oh, hush.”

Chisa grunted and did some impossible motion, something blurry and hard to follow that looked like the axe’s momentum ought to have rolled her over.

“How does she do that?” Zeri asked.

“It’s the legs.”

“Better leverage?”

“No, they’re just so awesome that it bleeds into everything else she does!”

Zeri guffawed. Chisa made an incoherent semi-giggling sound, missed a step, then stopped and dissolved into laughter. “M-M-Merel!”

“Hey, it’s true! Also, you messed up, I win a point.”

Chisa leaned her axe up against the wall and sat down on the other side of Merel, breathing hard.

“Do you seriously make a game out of trying to screw up her routine?” Zeri asked.

“Sure!”

“It’s g-good for practicing focus,” Chisa said.

“You should try it,” Merel said. “One point if she makes a mistake, three if she falls down, redeemable for…uh…never mind, not redeemable.”

Chisa gave Merel a look that was halfway between ‘mortified shock’ and ‘death glare.’ Zeri snickered. “I’ll take your word for it.”

“Stay for breakfast?” Merel asked.

“Nah, I already ate. I’d better go open the shop, anyway. I have a couple customers picking things up today.”

“Aww.”

Zeri left, and Chisa and Merel ate.

“Are you coming to the library with me today?” Merel asked Chisa between bites.

“N-not this time. There’s a merchant group from Erdengard that wants to t-talk to me.”

“Huh. Any idea why? They giving you a medal for clearing the road to Erdengard?” There had been issues as the borders thawed; some Naga thought that human travelers were fair game. Some humans thought the same of Naga. Chisa had offered to do something about that, and for once Silreah had taken her up on it. And that had very quickly been the end of the issue. When you had forged yourself in demonfire, mere highwaymen were a bit of a step down.

“I don’t think it’s that,” Chisa said. “They said they want to ask me about local trade.”

“Tell them you want a cut for the information?”

Chisa stuck her tongue out. “I don’t know anything important.”

“Oh, thbbbt. You probably know more about Mardelen’s economy than every other human in Luxaren put together, just from listening to me and Zeri bitch. And people that won’t give most humans the time of day will at least listen to you. I bet that’s what they’re really after. A go-between.”

“You really t-think so?”

“Of course I do, sweetie.” Merel downed the last of her breakfast and settled back on her tail. “I might be home late tonight.”

“Those t-two scrolls again?”

“Yeah. Sorry. I owe you a nice dinner or something once I crack this open.”

“Yeah, y-you d-do,” Chisa teased. Merel glowed at her, gave her a kiss, and started getting her things together. It was going to be another long day.


Late that night, Merel pored over the two scrolls. The first, written in demon script. The second, Old Naga, but with a table just…missing. And probably more.

Her head felt fuzzy. She was really up far too late, but…intuition. She couldn’t sleep. She felt like some key understanding was hovering just out of reach. Whoever had translated the scroll had done it wrong, and wrong in a very intentional way. What had they hidden?

One phrase at a time, she matched up passages, until she had bookended the missing material. Here was the last line the scribe had translated before the gap; here was the first line after it. They’d elided a whole section. They’d even altered the section numbering, to obscure the fact that something was missing.

She studied the missing table. Some of the demon words she knew. One of them was Naga. One of the others was human. The scroll, so far as she could tell, referenced military topics; perhaps this was a commentary on a war, and the table listed the forces involved? Several lines had numbers in them. Unit counts? An order of battle? But then why leave it out of the translation? What was sensitive about an ancient war?

She could pick up a word here and there throughout the passage, but almost nothing in the table. The numbers, yes, but not the words. Not by memory, nor in the dictionary she and Chisa had spent so much time constructing. Why a lot of uncommon words in one place?

The answer floated in, tweaked her mind, floated out: jargon. Someone discussing something obscure and technical.

She ran down the table, muttering the pieces she could understand to herself:

“Something something blood something, something something infernal magic, something water magic, the numbers ten and one, a line I can’t read, another line I can’t read, the number one-hundred attached to something else I can’t read but has something to do with earth, nine and then something that might mean snake or might mean sardonicism, argh, this sucks.”

She started sounding out the words she didn’t know: “Six lembs blood arthrep. Three bell demurgh. One magatama. Magic infernal number-ten wait what?”

Magatama was a word Merel knew; it was a crystallized form of infernal magic. Zeri had some. For her work.

Was this an alchemic recipe?

“That has to be a coincidence,” she said to herself. More than once, Heather had set her straight about words that sounded the same, but meant different things. Even within a single language, homophones could make life difficult; it got worse when you added more.

But magatama is demonic essence, sort of; wouldn’t it make sense for us to get the word from them?

Easy enough to verify. She left the scroll open and went looking through the catalog they’d made. DA-641, alchemic text, set aside for Zeri. They’d identified it by the diagrams but couldn’t read any of the words.

Merel pulled out the scroll and compared it to the mystery one. Many of the words matched. She didn’t know what most of them were, but they matched. Could she piece it together from a similar text in Luxaren? She wasn’t an alchemist, but she’d picked up enough from her sister to understand what she was reading.

Three bell demurgh? She checked the scroll again. It was the plural form of ‘bell’. Three transmutation bells!.

Merel went back out to the main stack, pulled out a basic alchemy book, and set it out side by side with the demon one — the alchemic text, not the one with the mystery section. This was the skeleton key, the thing that would unlock everything. Alchemy was a universal language; it worked the same way for demons that it did for Naga. The books would have to correspond, just like two scholars studying, say, botany, would each record the same plants from the same places.

All I need is for some of the same recipes to be in both. Match the diagrams to find equivalent recipes. Compare the recipes to decipher the words. Fill the words into the mystery scroll’s recipe. Zeri was going to be so impressed. Merel grinned, pounded the desk, and fist-pumped the air. “I’ve got this,” she crowed.

Merel did not sleep much that night. Or the next.

Or the next.

Actually, she didn’t sleep well for rather a long time.

Chapter Text

Merel hunched over a desk in the archives. Shadows grew across the floor as the sun went down. Fire in a building full of papers was stupid, no matter how much she needed to see. So she conjured it inside a glass jar.

Chisa stood behind her. Davis, too; though, like Merel, “standing” was an inexact term for him. Merel tried to tune them out.

“M-Merel,” Chisa said, plaintively, “talk to me.”

Merel’s lips compressed into a line, and her eyes darkened. “I…I can’t,” she said, “not yet.”

“You’ve barely left the archives in weeks! At least let me help you.”

“I have to…I’m sorry, I have to do this by myself.”

Davis said, “I’m with the human on this one. Seriously, give it a rest.”

“You just want me out of here,” Merel said, but she put no heat in the words. “Not going nowhen. Nowhere. Any…something.”

“Merel,” Chisa said.

“Yeah?”

“C-come home.”

Chisa was a lot stronger than she looked, and there were two of them. Merel watched her desk recede with blank eyes as Davis and Chisa dragged her out.


Chisa cooked salmon for dinner. Normally, Merel would have devoured it; instead she picked at it with a fork. She didn’t really want food. But she had to eat in order to work. She had to sleep in order to work. Maybe.

“What did you find?” Chisa said.

Merel finally took a few bites.

“M-Merel.”

Demons did it.

“I didn’t find anything yet,” Merel said. It wasn’t exactly a lie. “Well, nothing I’m sure of. Just…fragments. Bits and pieces.”

“You only had bits and pieces before.”

“Not like this. I mean…I don’t have all the important bits translated. I don’t have confirming sources. But for the first time I can see the whole picture. I think.”

Chisa waited for Merel to elaborate, but she didn’t. Instead she took a sip of water and pushed her plate away.

“Chisa…I’m sorry, I can’t eat this. I’m going to bed.”

I’m sorry. Please, please don’t look at me like that.


Inferno. Three humans, one Naga, and a demon the size of a building, a demon called the Haathalek, ERROR: BROKEN IMAGE in Infernal. Merel’s adrenaline screamed at her, fight, kill, destroy. She hadn’t felt this song since Darkloft, the heady mix of aggression and terror. Merel looked around at her companions. Chisa, scared but shining with determination. Aurelie, face flat, eyes merciless. Karuna on point, all poise and professionalism. So familiar (remembered?), so right.

Karuna was bleeding. Of course, this was halfway through. (Huh?)

One of the demon’s three heads opened its maw and went after Aurelie. Karuna got in the way, sword up, bathed in a shield of Light, shining gossamer threads with the strength of steel. The jaws closed on her and strained, but the shield held, and Karuna kept her arm free. She stabbed it in the face, again and again, without a trace of her usual finesse, just pure violence. Chisa, right next to her, hacked at one of its eyes with her axe. The axe bounced off the scaled lids twice before finally breaking through. The beast recoiled; its teeth, unable to quite penetrate, caught on Karuna’s armor and tore a chunk of it free.

The head rose up near the roof of the cavern, well out of reach. Merel conjured great spears of ice and hurled them after it, going for its eyes, its mouth, anything that might be a vulnerable point. She called lightning from thin air and the thunder deafened her. The group of them had danced this dance together more times than she could count, so much that it was almost routine by now — if you discounted the fact that this time their prey was so large that it had once played chicken with a man-o’-war and won.

Lynette, off to one side, watched. (What?)

A black aura swirled around Aurelie, and she said something in the infernal tongue with the sound and tone of a curse. A great cloud of nothing crossed Merel’s field of vision, something she could look at but not really perceive, like some unconscious part of her psyche saying no, you do not want to see what she just did. When it cleared, the wounded head separated from its neck. It fell towards the fire sea below; two vertebrae the size of wagon wheels tumbled after it.

Lynette watched it fall in satisfaction, and something about that was wrong. (This isn’t how it happened, Lynette was never there)

(of course she’s here, this is her vengeance, right? Not mine.)

The demon’s neck stump spurted black ichor. Some of it landed on Merel’s arm, and she cried out in pain. It burned like fire, ate through her flesh like acid. Within seconds she could see her own bone through the wound.

Chisa hand-signaled to Karuna, disengaged, and ran back to help her. The second head still held Karuna’s attention. It weaved back and forth, looking for an opening. It found none. (Where’s the third one?) Each time it darted forward, Karuna was elsewhere. Each time it darted forward, it retreated nursing yet another stream of blood.

When main force failed, the demon exercised its own magic and set the stone itself alight. Karuna’s shield held; Aurelie sheltered next to her. The demon’s head came down close. The two of them couldn’t maneuver effectively, but Aurelie drove it back with one aethereal sword of Darkness after another.

Lynette stood in the middle of the fire, untouched (and that’s still wrong, everything about this is wrong, its blood was just blood and where is Chisa this hurts so much…) “Thank you,” Lynette said, looking at Merel as if nothing was happening. “Thank you for insisting on this.” (Where is the third head? Where? I can’t not see something that big!)

Merel’s skin was on fire. She was no good at shields, but she tried anyway; and suddenly Chisa stood next to her, bathing her in magic as cool as the rivers of Mardelen, healing Merel’s burns, closing the gaping hole in her arm.

“Can she still fight?” Lynette asked.

“She’s f-fine,” Chisa said.

Lynette was standing right next to them, but she was also standing on air above the fire sea, (and why are we right next to the edge now when we weren’t last time I looked?), but somehow Merel knew what was coming next.

“What’s wrong?” Chisa asked. “Isn’t this what you wanted?”

Look out!” Merel screamed as the third head rose over the ledge from below.

Chisa didn’t even twitch as one of its horns drove through her back.

(That didn’t happen, this isn’t happening!)

“Acceptable losses,” Lynette shrugged.

The demon was suddenly irrelevant. Merel howled at the accusation in Chisa’s open and lifeless eyes. The prophecy means we’ll win, and I was counting on that, but it never said all of us would make it, oh no, oh Chisa, no, no, no…

“Merel! Merel!

“Mmph,” Merel said, stuck in that half-waking state where you know you’ve been dreaming but can’t really move or speak yet. It faded as Chisa shook her. Horror gave way to relief.

“Thank you,” she said. “Oh, thank you.”

“Nightmare?”

“Yeah. How did you know to wake me?”

“You only ever wrapped me up that h-hard that one time on the pass to H-Hotenshin. When one of Darkloft’s spirits was sending us nightmares.”

“Oh, Chisa, I am so sorry! Are you all right?”

“I’m f-fine. Are you? It wasn’t like…that time, was it?”

“Yes. No. I mean, yes, I’m fine, and no, it wasn’t like that. I don’t think anything was messing with my head. It was just a…just a memory gone all wrong.”

I spoke my mind, and it got you killed.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

No. Not until I’m absolutely sure.

“Just…hold me. Just be here, okay?”

“Okay.”


A few days later, Merel lurched into Zeri’s alchemery like she was ready to roll over. Zeri looked up from her work.

“Merel, hey, I…uh, are you all right?” Zeri looked at her face. “I can’t tell if someone punched you in the face or if you just didn’t sleep at all. Ever.”

“I was up all night. Zeri…here, look at this. Can you tell me what this would do?” Merel held out a couple of scrolls.

Zeri took them. “Maybe? Um, which one?”

“Uh. The one you can read. The other’s demonscript. Sorry, kind of tired.”

Zeri unrolled it. The scroll was an alchemic recipe of a few dozen scribbled lines in Merel’s handwriting. Zeri read down the list: “Wow, this is long. Six pounds of blood coral, one magatama, three transmutation bells, infernal and water magic in a ten-to-one ratio, the water part being sufficient to saturate a one hundred pound unit of common dirt…one nine-foot anaconda, dead? Merel, this is the weirdest alchemic recipe I’ve ever seen!”

“Uh, don’t read it out loud, okay?” Merel stuck her head out of the door and looked around nervously.

“Fine, fine. That’s a lot of infernal magic for an alchemic reaction, though. What is this, some kind of demon weapon?”

Merel flinched. “Just read it.”

Zeri kept going, muttering in a much lower voice. Eventually she came to the last item.

“Oh, shit,” she said. “Oh, shit. I see where you’re going with this. Merel…you found this in the archives, didn’t you? You know what this is supposed to do.”

One live human. That was the last thing on the list.

“I was hoping you would tell me I’m wrong,” Merel said.

One live human. One dead anaconda. Images of Naga on the walls of Lake Eye Temple, serpent tails grafted on to human bodies.

Zeri lit her alchemic burner.

“What are you doing?” Merel said. “You can’t do anything with it, you don’t have the—“

Zeri thrust the scrolls into the fire. Merel screeched and grabbed them out again. They were already burning. Merel put it out with her own skin as best she could. It hurt, but what else could she do? “What the hell, Zeri!”

“You can’t let that get out, Merel! No one can ever see it!”

“You can’t just burn it! The truth doesn’t go away just because no one can see it!”

“I’m not talking about that! I believe you, Merel. I always have. But Merel, people could do things with that. Horrible things.”

Merel stared at her, then said in a small voice: “I know. I don’t have any idea what to do.”

“We…look, is that thing still readable?”

Merel looked at the charred paper. “I think so. Most of it.”

“So transcribe it all. All except the recipe. Then we cut that part out of the scroll and burn just that.”

“Okay. I…thanks, Zeri.”

“Don’t thank me, I think keeping any of it at all is insane.”

“I mean…thanks for believing me. For not…”

Zeri uncurled from her workbench and reached out to her sister, hesitantly. “Merel…I’m not Silreah. I’m not going to cast you out for telling me something I don’t want to hear.”

Merel hugged her. “I know.”

“You better have your wife look at that hand. It’s blistering.”

“Yeah, I’ll do that.”

Zeri grabbed her shoulder as she turned to leave. “Merel?”

“What?”

“You found more, didn’t you?”

“Yeah.”

“Tell me.”

Merel pulled away. “I need to get this burn fixed. I need to…I need to talk to Chisa.”

Zeri let Merel go. She fled the room.


Merel dropped the key to their room twice before she managed to open it. She bumped painfully against the doorframe on the way in, and then tried to close the door too fast. It crunched into her tail. She whimpered. That hadn’t happened since she was little. She pulled the rest of herself inside and shut the door.

She wondered just how long it had been since she’d really slept. She looked around the room, not really seeing it. It didn’t matter. The wood beneath her tail had the feel of home. It smelled like home, too — but she also thought she could smell her own sweat. A little voice in her head, something with more of her in it than the books and the scrolls and the late nights, reminded her that she probably stank and it had been several days since she’d bathed properly and she ought to fix that before Chisa smelled it.

It didn’t matter. Merel drank in the smell, and it calmed her a little. Home.

Chisa was practicing her forms. Merel heard her before she saw her, because her eyes wouldn’t focus, but that was okay. Chisa was there. Home.

Chisa glanced over at her, and missed a step.

“Merel, what’s w-wrong? You’re white as a sheet!”

“Um. I burned my hand. Could you…?”

“O-of course.”

Chisa took her hand and did whatever it was she did — Merel didn’t know anything about healing magic. The blisters withdrew, the throbbing pain faded. She hadn’t realized just how much it hurt until it was gone.

“Thanks.”

“I-it’s not just the burn, is it?”

“No.” She hugged Chisa, hard. “I think I know how Silreah felt, when somebody told her she was descended from humans.”

“B-But you already knew that.”

“Yeah, but, well.” She hugged Chisa harder. “Sweetie…tell me you love me. I kind of need it right now.”

Chisa hesitated for a moment, the characteristic delay when she was trying to say something without stuttering.

“I love you. Always.”

Merel buried her face in Chisa’s hair. “So, yeah. Remember on the path below Castle Darkloft, we kept running into alchemist stations? And we’d wonder what use demons had for alchemy?”

“Y-yeah?” Chisa said, perplexed.

“Well, now I know. I put the pieces together from those old demonscript scrolls. Chisa, they made us. Out of humans. We were…I think we were demon slaves, an army for them.”

For a single terrifying moment, Merel thought Chisa might pull away in disgust. This must be how Aurelie feels all the time. But Merel knew it was crazy, and Chisa just held her.

“I d-don’t know what to say,” Chisa said.

“I don’t either.”

So they sat in silence, and Chisa held her, and for the time being that was enough.

Chapter Text

The fire crackled and hissed and Merel couldn’t take her mind off of it as she copied the damning scroll. Her hand hurt; she’d been doing a lot of writing lately and it was catching up. She could have asked Chisa to do the transcription, but it felt like something she ought to do herself. I dug it up, I get to own it, she thought bitterly. Finders keepers.

The fire burned and burned and stayed in her head as she wrote the words in two columns, on the left hand the original demon-script, on the right, common Luxaren: “Transformation recipe from human to Naga.” Only that wasn’t accurate, not really. The demon word for human carried connotations of contempt, the easy target, the awkward kid that other kids picked on because it was just too much fun not to. The demon word for naga was almost the same as the word for slave. It differed only by a diacritic and its grammatical gender: inanimate neuter. Naga were tools, not people, meant to be used in war and discarded.

So an alternate translation, something closer to what the author had actually meant, might have been: “Recipe to turn worthless monkeys into useful weapons.”

Merel kept the more neutral translation, made a footnote about it, and seriously considered sending a letter to Karuna. Hi, boss. Mind re-opening the Gate to Aothuth? I need to blow off some steam.

Someone knocked on the door. Merel clenched her hands into fists and ignored it.

They knocked again. “Merel? It’s Zeri. “

Oh. “It’s not locked, you can let yourself in.”

There was a creaking sound, and Zeri poked her head around the door. “Is company okay?”

“Sure.” Merel put her pen down, stretched, and slithered over. Zeri hugged her, and Merel buried her face in Zeri’s shoulder. “Thanks, sis. I needed that.”

“That bad, huh?” Zeri took a look at what she’d been writing. “Okay, yeah, that bad. No wonder you look like you could chew rocks. Why did they use us, anyway? Why not just enslave humans?”

“I’m not sure, but I think it’s because of all the water. Like, you know how the Isles are all connected by bridges? They’re defensible. But not against Naga. We swim too well and we don’t need boats. We can just go around the bridges.” Merel bit her lip, then added: “I think, anyway. I found some descriptions of battles where we fought that way. I don’t know for sure that that’s why they did it, though. It’s…well, here, look at this.” Merel started digging through her pile, looking for another scroll.

Zeri laughed. “Hah. It’s funny, you hate what you’re reading but you still perk right up when I ask you to talk about it.”

Merel made a face at her. “Oh, shut it, sis.”

“You’re not really going to show all this to Silreah, are you?”

“I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’ll figure it out when I’m done. Or not. It’s…ugh, I don’t know. I hate thinking about it. I hate that I have to think about it. But mostly I hate that I waited all these years and then worked myself to the bone and I still don’t get to tell Silreah I told you so. Not and enjoy it, anyway. This all just sucks.” Merel grabbed a pillow off of her bed, buried her face in it, and shouted: “Arrrrgblblbl…!”

“Heh,” Zeri said, “feel better?”

“A little. Things were so much easier when all I had to worry about was how to get Chisa into bed and how not to get turned into demon kiblets. Shishkabob. Whatever.”

“Well, take a bit to not worry about it. Here, I’ll make you breakfast.”

“Okay, but only if you make enough for three. Chisa will be back from the Merchant’s Guild soon.”

“Never pictured her as a liaison. She’s too timid.”

“You haven’t seen her pissed off, have you? It doesn’t happen a lot but it’s pretty awesome. Anyway, the liaison thing works out better than you’d think. The Erdengard merchants pretend to trust her because she’s human, and the Mardelen merchants pretend to trust her because she lives here and she’s married to a Naga. All of them like money and she gives them a way to get it without having to pretend that they trust each other. I think you said something about food?”

Zeri looked through their food stores, and picked out some eggs and not-entirely-fresh vegetables. Chisa returned before breakfast was ready, looking hassled but satisfied, and filled them in on the momentary state of local trade. To Zeri, it was of professional interest; at least a few of her alchemic materials were scarce in Mardelen but common elsewhere. Economics bored Merel, but it was still a welcome respite from the heavier fare of recent days.

After breakfast — which Zeri somehow managed to make taste fresh in spite of the half-wilting vegetables — Zeri excused herself to open her alchemery, leaving Merel and Chisa alone.

Merel settled herself in front of her desk and groaned. Chisa gave her a concerned look. “You l-look terrible.”

Merel put a hand to her face. “Did I forget makeup?”

“No, silly. You look a-angry and upset and tired.

“Hey, at least I’m sleeping now!”

“You know what I mean. H-here.” Chisa straddled Merel’s tail and massaged her shoulders. Merel leaned back into her, closed her eyes, and sighed.

“Thanks, sweetie,” Merel said. “That feels good.”

“Lie down, I can do more.”

“Is that a proposition? Usually I’m the one asking you to bed in the middle of the day.”

Chisa blushed all the way to the roots of her hair, and it looked adorable. “N-no,” she said, “maybe l-later. Right now, just lie down so I can do something about the knots.”

Merel did, and Chisa went to work. She had a firm grip that belied her slim frame; not Karuna’s harsh iron (or what Merel imagined as Karuna’s harsh iron), but something warmer, something kinder, like the strength of a live tree. It wasn’t magic. It felt better than that, more intimate. Merel wrapped her tail around Chisa’s waist, partly to steady her, partly just a hug.

“Chisa,” Merel said, “Thanks.”

“Just stay still.”

She did. The tension would return, she knew; she would get stuck back into the job, not come up for air for hours, and find that her muscles didn’t like staying still for that long. For now, though, it helped.

Mostly. “I-it’s not just the k-knots,” Chisa said, “What’s wrong?”

“Everything,” Merel said, glumly. “I mean, I hate what I’m reading, but it’s just, I don’t know, facts. I’m not personally responsible for any of this stuff. But when I’m done, what then? Silreah’s had fifteen years to get used to the idea that we began as humans. She hates it but she knows it’s true, so I’m not really the one goring her sacred cowballs. This, though…if I start talking about this, we won’t be run out of Mardelen, we’ll be fleeing it.”

“Well, you always wanted to travel…”

“I guess so.”

“No, really. Here, sit up.”

Merel did. Chisa sat behind her and rested her chin on Merel’s shoulder.

Chisa said, “Remember when you first decided to join me and Karuna against Darkloft?”

“Sure. I said I wanted to come along because I had a monster crush on you. You were embarrassed as hell. It was great. I bet you’re blushing now just remembering it.” Merel tilted her head just enough to eye Chisa’s face. “Yep! Just like that!”

“T-that’s not what I mean,” Chisa sputtered. “I mean, you wanted to see the world. You kept egging us on to Erdengard, and then you went all around town just to see everything that was there, and then we went to Parvian and you did the same thing. It was hot and your tail was all dried out and hurting but you didn’t care, it was all new to you.”

“I remember,” Merel said. She smiled. “Good times.”

“Only, we’ve been here two years and you haven’t gone anywhere.”

“Well, I sort of have a crusade here.”

“I k-know. But it sounds like you’re almost finished. If we have to leave afterward, so what? Y-you’re done. And you couldn’t wait to l-leave Mardelen last time. So you don’t have to be afraid. Silreah’s just going to make you do what you wanted to do anyway. You can go anywhere you want.”

Merel shut her eyes. Tears welled up. Sweetie, you’re right, you are so right. I needed to do this but I don’t have to do it forever, I don’t have to spend my life on it, there is so much more out there. When did I forget how to be me?

She leaned to the side, pressed her cheek against Chisa’s. “That sounds wonderful. Fuck Silreah, let’s do it. Let’s do everything there is to do and then make up new things.”

The world is huge, and even this, even this, is just one tiny part of it.

Chisa kissed her. It was the best kiss they’d shared in months.


The job was done.

Translated everything: Check.

Copied everything: Check.

Hid extra copies so Silreah couldn’t destroy the knowledge again: Check.

Burned the bits that were too dangerous not to burn…

No check. Not yet.

Four relevant things in the room: Zeri’s alchemic burner. The damnable scrolls; one the original, one translated in her own hand, both threatening. And Merel herself.

And she didn’t think she could do it.

Merel set her copy by the fire, and took a knife to the original. She carefully cut out the table. She left the description, left everything except the recipe itself.

Her thoughts wandered. How did demons discover this, but never human alchemists? Followed quickly by no human would be stupid enough to think of it.

The Temple engravings were so much easier to understand now. Of course they had gaps. Of course they contradicted themselves. They weren’t written to record Naga history; they were written to obscure Naga history. To abolish an unwelcome piece of it, and stand up something more palatable in its place, something just close enough to the truth that everyone involved could pretend it was the truth. Something parents could tell their children, when the children asked where they came from.

They’d been honest enough not to lie outright, but not honest enough to tell the whole truth. A society of Silreahs. A monument to falsehood.

Merel wanted to hate them and couldn’t.

How had the first Naga felt about their transformation? Were they the same people, just with different parts? Did they look down at themselves and see part of their body torn away, replaced by an alien thing built from the remains of an animal that they feared and despised?

Merel looked down at her tail, tried to imagine the situation in reverse. Legs in place of her tail, legs like Chisa’s. It didn’t work. She couldn’t see herself as anything other than what she was. That tail was supposed to be there.

A perpetually horrified servant wouldn’t make a very good servant. Maybe it wasn’t like that. Did the human mind instead just…go away, leaving something entirely new behind, something wholly dedicated to its infernal creators’ will?

Merel wasn’t sure which would be worse. I was born from their suffering. She clenched her hands into fists. Anger was easier to deal with than despair. Small, half-bidden shadows of infernal magic crept out between her fingers. She remembered that Aurelie knew ways to kill demons with their own power. I wonder if she can teach me.

She dismissed the magic and forced her thoughts back to the present. Scroll. Knife. Fire. She set the safe part of the demonscript scroll aside. She lit the burner. Before giving herself time to think, she threw her copy in.

It took forever to catch, but it caught, and burned. That left the original. Recipe for transforming worthless monkeys into useful tools.

She looked down at it and looked at the fire again. Her stomach roiled. She thought about tucking the scroll back in her blouse. She thought about using it. Not on any particular person, not for any particular reason…except, perhaps, just to prove that it worked.

Stupid, stupid, stupid, she thought, holding the papyrus at arm’s length, staring at it. But another part of her mind shouted back: true things don’t go away just because you don’t see them, the process will always be there to be rediscovered, destroying knowledge of the facts doesn’t destroy the facts, I AM NOT SUPPOSED TO BE THE ONE WHO LOOKS AWAY.

A hand gripped her arm. Zeri’s. When had she come in?

Zeri grabbed the original out of Merel’s hand and tossed it in the fire, the same as before. This time Merel watched it burn, and didn’t take her eyes off it until there was nothing left but ashes.

“Thanks,” Merel said in a small voice. “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do what Silreah did.”

“I’m not sure I did the right thing,” Zeri said dully.

“I don’t know either.” Ashes floated out of the burner. “I guess it’s out of our hands now.”

“Yeah.”

Chapter Text

Merel tapped her pen against the desk nervously, realized she was tapping the business end of it, and reversed it. Then realized she was dipping the wrong end in the ink. This wasn’t going well.

Hi, Queenie.

No, this wasn’t a personal letter and it was supposed to be serious. She tried again.

This report describes a re-investigation of the relics and architectural decorations at Lake Eye Temple, and their relationship to certain documents discovered in the Mardelen Archives; and in the process sheds light on the origins of the Naga species…

She scowled and tore the page up. That made her sound like a wannabe academic. She was emphatically not an academic.

“Hey, Chisa,” Merel said, “You’re nobility on the mainland, right? How am I supposed to present this sort of thing?”

“S-sorry, I don’t know. Just be yourself. It will be all right.”

“Oh, well, it was worth a shot,” Merel said. She scribbled over the paper and tried again. Somehow, Merel had managed to study history all her life without formally presenting findings to anyone. She certainly didn’t want to imitate the old farts that ran the Archives. But the only role model she’d ever had for this was Heather, and Heather had gotten herself exiled.

Third try, or maybe tenth, she’d lost count:

Queen Silreah:

I’ve enclosed my findings on the origins and early history of the Naga. You won’t like them. What you do with the knowledge is up to you, but I don’t recommend ignoring it. It’s too explosive.

These things are true. They suck, but they’re true.

You threw my predecessor out of Mardelen for less than this, so I’m just going to save you the trouble of exiling me and skip town for a while. Don’t bother burning the papers. I’ve hidden most of the originals and kept copies of everything, and I’m going to share it eventually. This is more of a friendly warning than anything else.

Merel

“That’ll do, I guess,” she muttered.

It took them most of the afternoon to get together the scrolls and papers she wanted to keep, and sort out the ones she didn’t. If they were going to be on the road for a long time, best not to take more than necessary. She made three piles: one of supporting evidence for her report to Silreah, one of things she wanted to take with her, and a third for the archivists to re-file. Chisa made bundles of the first two as she went.

When they were done, Merel pulled out the drawers in the catalog and rifled through them. She came to the spot where that first scroll was indexed, the one she’d stolen, the one that Davis had been so pissed about. She pulled the card out and wrote on it with a pen, in big, cheerful letters: Hi, I took this with me again! Just for old time’s sake!.

Chisa, looking over her shoulder, made a confused sound. “B-but we put that one back!”

“I know. But I have an idea.” Merel went back to the stacks and scribbled out a note — with no salutation to incriminate anyone:

By the time you find this, I’ll be gone and Silreah might be looking to burn stuff again. I’m putting all the most important records in an alcove just inside the aqueduct tunnel. If you believe they’re worth preserving, you can rescue them from there.

You might want to “lose” the key to the back room again, too.

Thanks for everything.

She put the note under the scroll. “There.”

“I get it, I think,” Chisa said. “Are you sure he’ll do what you want, though?”

“I hope so. I don’t think he’ll like what I found, but I think he’ll like Silreah biting chunks out of his personal demesne even less. Sometimes an overprotective busybody is exactly what you need.”

“And the note in the catalog is to make him look here?”

“Oh, I’m sure he’d check anyway, just as soon as he realizes we’re gone. The one in the catalog is just to mess with him.” Merel looked around at the books and codices and scrolls and sighed. “I’m going to miss this place. Don’t suppose I’ll ever get to see it again.”

Chisa gave her a hug. “Let’s go exploring.”

They passed by Davis on the way out. He eyed all the stuff they were carrying. “Are things going missing again?” he grumbled at Merel, but there wasn’t much heat in it.

First thought: Just lie. Nope, nothing to see here.

Second thought: Truth he wouldn’t believe. Yeah, I’m looting the joint and running away.

Third thought…oh boy

“Davis!” she said, “Just the man I wanted to see!” She gave him a wide smile, the one she used when she wanted people to notice her.

“Really?” he said, taken aback.

“Really,” she said. She pressed her bundle of papers into his hands and ignored Chisa’s mystified look. “Here, I’m really busy today. Can you take these to Queenie for me? It will be a great help.”

Davis bobbled the bundle for a few moments before securing it. He eyed it suspiciously. “What is all this?”

“Something she asked for a long time ago.” Stretching the truth far enough to tear. “Anyway, just see that she gets it, okay?”

“I suppose,” he said dubiously.

“You are such a dear. Oh, and when you give it to her, tell her you told her so.”

“About what?”

Everything,” Merel said. She kissed him on the cheek, then turned to Chisa. “Come on, Chisa, we still have work to do!”

They beat a swift retreat while Davis stared after them, stunned.

They made it all the way back to their room before Chisa cracked up and collapsed on the bed. Merel joined her.

“That was…that was p-p-p-per-p,” — fit of giggling — “That was perfect. Silreah’s going to be s-so mad.”

Merel wiped tears of mirth out of her eyes. “The best part is that Queenie’s got no excuse for being mad at him. He really did tell her so. He’s argued against giving me free run of the archives from the beginning.”

“Do you think he’ll really say that to her?”

“I have no idea, but I sure hope so. Thank you so, so much for keeping a straight face.”

Chisa dissolved into laughter again. “You have to tell Z-Zeri. She’ll love it.”

“Hell yes she will. We’ll see her on the way out. How fast can you pack? I don’t really want to stick around and see how open-minded Queenie’s feeling today.”

“I can pack fast enough, I think. What happens to what we leave behind?”

“Dunno. Zeri can figure it out.”

They kept the packing as minimal as possible…or at least, tried to. Clothes and food wasn’t such a huge deal; they could get more on the road if they needed to. But Merel’s documents were another story. It turned out paper was really heavy when you had a lot of it.

They crammed it all into two packs, along with clothing and a bit of food. And money. And a few things they could sell for more money if they ran out. Chisa locked up behind them and they headed for Zeri’s alchemery.

When they arrived, Zeri took in their appearance and grinned wryly. “You’re going on another adventure, aren’t you?”

“I kind of pissed off Silreah. She doesn’t know it yet. We’re trying to be gone before she finds out.” Merel related her stunt, to thunderous guffaws, then gave Zeri the key to their room. “Can you grab anything we wouldn’t want to lose?”

“Yeah, sure. Where are you heading?”

“We’re going to the mainland! And it’s going to be awesome.”

Chisa added: “We’re going to see K-Karuna and Aurelie, and maybe stay with them for a while. We’ll send a letter from Springsmouth so they know we’re coming.”

“Okay. I’ll tell Silreah’s people you went to Hotenshin or something instead. Just be sure to send me letters this time.”

“Hey, I would have last time if I wasn’t busy not being dead!”

“Sure you would have. Chisa, take care of my sister, okay?”

“O-of course!”

The trip to Springsmouth was less eventful than she expected. If anyone followed them, they didn’t catch up. They stopped for a couple nights in Erdengard to visit the School of the Unwavering Blade, where Chisa had learned to fight. After that they passed through Parvian, but they didn’t stay long. Each mile brought memories, and also some satisfaction. Mardelen had never been seriously invaded by Darkloft, but Erdengard and Parvian had. It felt good to see the roads in use again, the homes rebuilt, the bridges no longer splinters. It was visible proof that, damnit, they’d done good.

In Springsmouth, the port was running again. There were perks to having saved the world, some large, some small. A small one: The mayor was more than happy to refer them to a good shipmaster.

On the docks, Merel stared at their ship-to-be, eyes wide as saucers. “That’s huge.”

Chisa laughed. “You’ve never s-seen a ship before?”

“Nope! Well, in books, sure, but it’s not the same.”

“That’s actually kind of small for a seafarer. I came to Luxaren in s-something about half again that big. I think Lynette came in a real warship.”

“I want to see what things look like from up there,” Merel said, pointing at the crow’s nest.

Chisa laughed again, and poked Merel’s tail. “How are you g-going to get up there, silly?”

“Hand over hand, if I need to!” Merel made a face. “Okay, yeah, there’s no way I’m strong enough for that. Oh well. Come on, let’s get on board.”

A sailor met them at the gangplank. He eyed Merel’s tail dubiously. “I heard we have some passengers this time. You?”

“Yeah,” she said, “Is that a problem?”

He shrugged uncomfortably. “Don’t think so. Just, uh, be careful. We have a rope ladder for people who fall out but I don’t think you could, um, climb it.”

“I’ll keep that in mind. Anywhere we can put baggage?”

“If those packs are all you’ve got, they can fit under your bunks. If you’ve got something else it’ll have to go with cargo.”

“It’s just the packs. Thanks.”

“Welcome. And welcome aboard the Orntyr.”

“Orntyr?” Merel asked.

Chisa said, “It’s a breed of hunting d-dog from the northern isles. I guess you came a long way?”

“Yeah, Cap’s from up north but we work all the way up and down the coast.”

“In t-this small a ship?”

“Well, we’re not exactly crossing the ocean in it, are we?” the sailor said, a bit defensively.

They crossed the gangplank without fuss and went below. Merel took one look at the “bunks” and winced. They were small even by human standards. It was going to be a painful few days.

“Maybe I’ll just sleep on the floor,” she said.

Chisa gave her a sympathetic look.

“Oh well. When do we leave?”

“Afternoon t-tide, I think.”

Merel shoved her pack under the bunk and worked her arms a bit. That much paper was heavy. “Come on. I want to watch when we cast off.”

It was nearing sunset when the ship set sail, heading south. Oarsmen drew them out of the harbor, into the ocean. It really was a small ship. Large enough to sail the ocean, but not large enough that you couldn’t feel every wave. Merel had trouble keeping her balance. She knew that would go away over time, that she’d “get her sea legs” (in whatever sense that applied to Naga), but for now it was difficult. She kept feeling like she was rolling over.

She noticed the crow’s nest rocking side to side and decided she didn’t want to go up there after all.

The ship escaped the harbor; the sails went up and caught the wind. And suddenly they were really moving, the wind was in her face and blowing her hair all over and it felt glorious.

I’ve seen over the next hill and past the next city and today I will see over the horizon.

“Come on,” she said to Chisa, “Let’s go up front.”

The buck and sway of the deck was worse towards the prow, but she didn’t much care. She could see the way the bow dipped between each wave and crashed into the next, could feel it lift her and put her down. She wondered if that was how humans felt all the time; legs carrying them up and down, up and down....

Chisa sat down on a bench near the front. “You g-go on,” she said. “It’s a little scary for me.”

“Aww, c’mon.”

“I’ve s-seen it before, remember?”

“Oh, all right.”

Merel slithered right up to the front of the bow and grasped the banister. Chisa was right; it really was a little scary. It was a long way down and they were going awful fast.

The ship crested a wave and suddenly it was a much longer way down. The deck dropped out from under her as the prow sank. Merel’s stomach flipped and her heart raced. She clutched at the banister and hung on as the keel crashed back into the water. The spray soaked her hair and formed tiny rainbows in the sunset.

“Chisa!” she shouted, delighted, “It’s like I’m flying!

Chisa shouted back something she couldn’t hear, but it didn’t matter. The Orntyr chased the sun towards the horizon, and Merel didn’t leave the bow until that fading light dipped beneath the water and she could see no more.

Chapter Text

Merel and Chisa disembarked at the nearest mainland port a few days later. Merel’s tail got a few curious looks. She preened a bit, but they didn’t stay.

According to their most recent letters, Karuna and Aurelie lived on the outskirts of a village some distance along the coast, too small to have its own port. It was slow going getting there. Merel kept stopping to smell the roses — and everything else. Luxaren was an island chain, with its own unique ecology, and much of the life on the mainland was new to her. Chisa indulged her, for which she was grateful. They were in no hurry, and everything around them screamed new to Merel.

Still, eventually they arrived. It really was a small place, a few dozen buildings clustered around a crossroads. One was the unpaved road they’d been traveling on. The other could barely be called a road, more of a track really, one path leading up into the hills, the other down towards the coast. Merel just barely spotted the sea in the distance.

They stopped in for directions at the town’s only inn, then followed the path towards the coast. It was the second-to-last home before the beach, well apart from its neighbors, partially concealed by low trees. Merel heard the clash and clang of metal as they approached.

“Think they’re sparring?” Merel said.

“I think so.”

For politeness’s sake, Chisa knocked on the door, but neither of them were surprised when it went unanswered.

“They’ll be out b-back,” Chisa said, and they headed around the side.

She was right, of course. They rounded the corner. Well away from the house, Karuna stood with her back to them, Aurelie facing her, both holding battle stances. It had the look of a momentary respite.

“Are they seriously sparring with real weapons?” Merel asked.

“They’ll be using blunts. Aurelie should really be wearing armor though.” Chisa frowned. “I know she hates it but that’s risky.”

The two of them watched as Karuna and Aurelie burst into motion, fake blades flashing in a virtual whirlwind. Nothing touched skin. Merel considered whistling in appreciation at the skill.

Halfway through a strike, Karuna suddenly pulled it and spun around. A green glow surrounded her. Merel had just enough time to see Aurelie’s sword come to a stop an inch from Karuna’s helmet, and then she couldn’t see anything at all. A howling gale rose from nothing, stripped half the leaves from a swathe of trees, bowled Chisa over and rolled Merel along the ground like a log, tail and all.

The wind stopped as quickly as it had started. Karuna shouted:

“Sorry! Are you all right?”

Merel spat a few leaves out. “You owe me some help fixing my hair!” She coiled her tail, picked herself up, then helped Chisa up only to find it wasn’t necessary. She grinned crookedly as Karuna and Aurelie approached. “Good to see you again, boss. What was that all about? Paranoid much?”

“Sorry. I saw Aurelie look over my shoulder and acted on instinct. Too much adrenaline.”

“Well, you still owe me help with my hair. And maybe some clothes if that ripped it up. Actually, scratch that, your fashion sense sucks.”

“It’s nice to see you again, too.”

“Hello, Chisa,” Aurelie said. “Hello, Merel. Thank you both for coming. How are you doing?”

Chisa talked animatedly about their life in Mardelen, and the four of them headed inside. Karuna took some time to get out of her armor. Aurelie helped her. Merel watched the two of them with interest, and felt strangely voyeuristic. She didn’t know Aurelie all that much but thought she was cute as hell, with her long blonde hair and hesitant voice and a tight black not-quite-dress that both looked really good and allowed for much better movement than it seemed like. Karuna was less Merel’s type; dark violet hair, dark skin, a warrior’s build and demeanor from a life of soldiering. Merel liked her women softer than that. But the two of them together, now, that was fun. Merel figured it must be like seeing herself and Chisa from the outside. She kept trying to read their eyes for kicks.

Aurelie held Merel’s attention in more subtle ways, though. A subtle miasma hovered around her, invisible but unmistakable. Merel could sense it. Any Naga mage could sense infernal magic, and most could use it. And now Merel knew why. There was some satisfaction in that.

Getting to know Aurelie had been a bit odd, but less so for Merel than some others. She’d never felt the revulsion that, say, Lynette had, or even Chisa’s shy caution. Getting over Aurelie had been as simple as getting over the fact that she and Darkloft shared a face. Which…okay, wasn’t that simple, but wasn’t made worse by the bent of Aurelie’s natural talents.

They went inside. The little house was modest. Room for two, room for guests, but no more. No unnecessary furniture, no collections of possessions. It was a different sort of asceticism than Chisa’s. It had a very temporary look to it, like its owners weren’t quite ready to put down roots.

The front room was big enough for a group to sit and eat. A large painting, the only noticeable decoration, hung on one wall. The painting depicted a harpy and a rock golem with familiar faces, on a surreal background where a mountain forest blended into a gorgeous desert mesa. The level of detail in the figures was unsettling. Merel thought she could run her fingers over the golem’s pitted stone and feel the roughness of its surface, or watch a breeze through the window ruffle the harpy’s feathers. The imagery was perfect; the figures looked nearly alive.

Merel whistled. “That’s Eelinoth and Therona, huh? Is one of you secretly an artist, or did you commission that? There’s some pretentious asshats in Silreah’s court that could learn a thing or two from whoever made it.”

The image moved in response. The golem smiled and waved a massive fist. The harpy just scowled.

“Oh, wow,” Merel said, “they’re really in there, aren’t they?”

“Yes,” Aurelie said, “I don’t have the power to make them truly live. I bought the painting from a curio dealer, and bound their spirits to it. I tried to get them something pleasant. They can’t speak, but they can hear us.”

“So I see,” Merel said.

“Hi, Elly!” Chisa said. “Hi, Therona!”

Eelinoth waved back again. Therona mimed something obscene.

“I guess being dead hasn’t changed you two much,” Merel said. “Hey there.”

Karuna showed them the guest bedroom. Merel noticed that it actually had a Naga-sized bed.

“Aww, thanks,” she said, pointing at it.

“No problem,” Karuna said. “We knew you would drop by sooner or later. The carpenter gave me some funny looks when I asked him for a twelve foot long bed. He’d heard of Naga but never met one.”

“I’ll be glad to sleep on a real bed again. Remind me to complain about the trip over here. I was practically doubled up in those bunks. Felt like I broke half my tailbones.”

“I can imagine. Well, there’s plenty of space for both of you. Are you hungry?”

“If you’re offering food that’s not made by one of us, I’m famished. I suck at cooking and Chisa’s not much better. Zeri does all the good stuff back home.”

Karuna chuckled. “It must be an alchemist thing. I’m not good for much more than field rations, but Aurelie cooks wonderfully.”

“Awesome! What’s for dinner?”

“Charred snake,” Karuna deadpanned. Merel’s jaw dropped. Chisa burst out laughing so hard she choked on it.

Aurelie stuck her head around the corner. “Um. Am I missing something?”

“Your wife is trying to turn me into a cannibal,” Merel said, “or maybe a meal.” Chisa recovered from her coughing fit and immediately started laughing again. “Will you stop that?”

“N-n-n-no.”


Dinner was actually marlin, freshly caught (“benefits of living near a fishing village”, Karuna said) and wonderfully made but disappointingly familiar. Merel had hoped for something more exotic.

“We’re on the coast of the same ocean, Merel,” Aurelie reminded her.

“Doh. Good point.”

They ate. It was the best food either of them had had since leaving home.

“Aurelie, next time you visit Mardelen, I wanna get you and Zeri to make something together, so I can see if the world explodes from all that culinary awesome in one place.”

It was supposed to be a compliment, but Aurelie’s face fell. “I’d like that, but Zeri might have to come here. I…don’t really want to go back to Luxaren.”

“Oh, hell. Um, sorry. Will it be weird if I give you a hug? Karuna, give her a hug for me.”

“It’s okay,” Aurelie said, “I’m not mad, I just want to stay away. Too many bad memories.”

Karuna put an arm around Aurelie’s shoulder. It seemed to help.

“As long as we’re having awkward moments,” Karuna said, “Here’s another. When we heard you two were coming, I sent Lynette an invitation. It seemed appropriate to get the team back together, even if only for a few weeks.”

“Oh, bah,” Merel said. Chisa elbowed her.

“I know you don’t like her much,” Karuna said, “and heck, I don’t like her much. But she did her part.”

“That’s questionable,” Merel groused, “but thanks for the warning.”

“Be nice,” Chisa said.

“Well, if you say so, I kind of have to, don’t I?”


Lynette arrived a week later. She was blue-haired and tall. She wore a uniform that might have been military or might have been clerical (or for that matter, could easily have been both). She kept her back straight. Her default expression was that of a judge about to rule. She was pretty much everything Merel didn’t like in a woman. But Merel reluctantly admitted, at least to herself, that Karuna was right; Lynette had a right to be there.

“Hi,” Merel said, along with the others.

Lynette came in, took off her coat and set her spear by the door, and glanced over the room. “Nice place,” she said, in such a neutral, polite, blindingly insincere tone that Merel was almost offended on the owners’ behalf.

“Thanks,” Karuna responded, in the same tone. “How was the trip?”

“I got interrupted. I meant to arrive a few days ago. Passed through a town having problems with bandits, and the local Watch were too full of cowards to deal with them.”

“Where was that?” Chisa asked. “That needs to stop. I could help.”

“No need. I put the fear of Rezael into the bastards. I don’t think the survivors will stop running until they reach the sea.” Her expression softened a bit, and she added: “But thanks for offering.”

Karuna showed Lynette around; Lynette stayed surprisingly polite. Maybe her rectal stick includes “don’t be rude to your host”, or something. She turned up short at the painting of Aurelie’s arcane servants.

“Okay,” Lynette said, this time without the tense following-the-letter-of-etiquette tone, “that really is impressive.”

When the image moved, she instinctively reached over her shoulder for the spear that wasn’t there. “What the hell is that?”

“They’re real,” Karuna said.

“Ugh.”

Therona had apparently thought hard about how to communicate; she started drawing letters in the painting’s sand with a claw. The words gradually demanded that Lynette do something anatomically impossible with her missing weapon.

Without letting her finish, Lynette responded: “If you’re going to that much effort to insult me, at least be creative about it.” That seemed to enrage Therona more, but Lynette deliberately turned away without reading the next set of letters.

“You get used to her,” Karuna said.

“I’d rather not.”

“Well, you don’t have to. Wine?” Karuna raised a bottle, almost like a peace offering.

“Um,” Lynette seemed about to refuse, then reconsidered. “I suppose I can, as long as at least one of us stays sober.”

“Huh?” Merel said.

“I don’t like not being alert. Ambushes happen.”

“In a private home?”

“It’s okay,” Chisa said, “I’ll pass on the wine tonight.”

Merel thought it was silly, then she suddenly realized: Chisa’s trying her damnedest to turn this meeting friendly.

Lynette took the bottle. “…thanks, Chisa.”

And it’s working!

Chisa really was magic that way.

They took the evening outside, passed the bottle around, talked, bickered. Merel spent an hour or two grilling Lynette about her home country of Rezael, the land of the Sleeping God. Afterwards, Lynette and Karuna decided to spar for a while while the other three looked on.

As they squared off, Merel shouted out, “Hey, isn’t there some rule about drinking and fighting?”

“Oh, shut up!” Lynette called back.

“No ma’am!” To her fellow spectators, Merel said, “Either of you taking bets?”

“Um, maybe,” Aurelie said, eyes bright. “I have to bet on Karuna, of course. How much did you have in mind?”

Merel thought for a second, to whatever extent the word “thought” applied when she was tipsy. “How about losers have to sleep with me tonight?”

“Okay. Wait, what? Hey!”

“Ha! Gotcha! Hey, boss, did you hear that? If you lose I’m stealing your wife tonight!”

“Did you ask Chisa first?”

“N-n-n-no, she didn’t! I think she’s supposed to!”

Nice catch, sweetie, Merel thought.

“Ugh,” Lynette said, “I really needed that thought. I swear I don’t know which of you all to stab first.”

Karuna said, “Oh, just let it lie and laugh for once.”

“You’re okay with someone else’s wife hitting on yours?”

“It’s just a joke.”

“It’s in poor taste.”

“Hey, d-don’t fight,” Chisa said.

“It’s okay, Chisa,” Karuna said, “I don’t think we’ve ever agreed on anything, I don’t think we’ll start with humor.”

Merel had a mischievous, evil, awesome thought. “I can think of something you agreed on!” she said.

“What’s that?” Lynette snapped.

“You both thought all that business in Hotenshin was a terrible idea.”

“Hotenshin?” Aurelie asked. “The festival town?”

Lynette’s mouth snapped shut. Karuna’s too. They both looked at Aurelie with identical expressions of horror.

“Um?” Aurelie said.

“Never happened,” Lynette said.

“Never happened,” Karuna echoed. “I’m going to get you for that one, Merel.”

Merel cackled. “Looking forward to it! Now fight?”


Eventually the sun set. Their hosts prepared for bed. Lynette announced that she was going to take a walk for a while before sleeping, and left. Merel privately suspected that she just wanted some time to herself. Merel and Chisa sat outside for a while in the dark.

“You did good, sweetie,” Merel said.

“Huh?”

“With Lynette, I mean. She seems to soften up a little more with you than the rest of us. I mean, she doesn’t even really like any of us.”

“S-sure she does. She’s just b-bad at showing it. Like, the wine thing? She trusts us to watch her back while she’s drunk, or she w-wouldn’t have taken it.”

“If you say so. Not a huge fan of all that righteousness.”

Chisa gave her a hurt look. “She’s r-really not as bad as you make her sound,” Chisa said. “Really. She m-made some mistakes and she t-talks big but she’s a good person. W-who else would hunt down a band of highwaymen just because they’re there?”

“Well, you would.”

“E-exactly.”

“Oh. Oh. Huh. I never thought about it that way.”

Chisa glowed at her, kissed her cheek, and then stood up. “I’m g-going to bed, okay?”

“Sure. I’ll join you in a bit.”

The wind shifted inland, bringing with it a loamy smell. The moon was nearly full. Merel settled up against a tree, a massive one that she had never seen on the Isles and that Chisa had identified as oak.

She listened to the night insects buzz and chirp, unfamiliar variations on familiar sounds. She wondered what creatures made them, if they looked like their counterparts at all, but for once felt no urge to go looking. She felt tired, but it was a good kind of tired, a peaceful kind. Running from Mardelen was running from home, in a sense. It didn’t really spoil the excitement, but it was always in the back of her mind.

Now she was done running. She knew she’d move on eventually; she couldn’t not. There was too much left to see. But for now, she was home again. Every so often the wind brought her the quiet sound of Lynette’s footsteps, pacing the grounds like she was keeping watch, and even that felt right.

She gazed into the dark for a while, then finally got up and stretched, groaning. She headed inside. She heard quiet voices, Aurelie and Karuna speaking softly, and paused. They didn’t hear her. Naga didn’t make footsteps.

“I do feel a little left out,” Aurelie was saying. “You’re all so close. I feel like I missed learning all the jokes. Remember what Lady Yvian used to say, about being at ease with your weapon?”

“’Train until you are completely at ease with your weapon. Know it so thoroughly that you take its presence for granted, as you would with a dear comrade — or a great enemy.’”

“Right. That’s what it feels like. You’re…‘at ease’ with them, like you are with your sword.”

“Or with you.”

“Yes,” Aurelie said, and Merel could practically feel her smile.

Karuna said, “I wonder if that’s what Lady Yvian was trying to teach me, when she assigned me to you. After Lespandelle…I could still be at ease with a sword. But not with a comrade. You changed that for me.”

“I wasn’t the only one, I think.”

“Well, you opened the door.”

They went silent. Merel puzzled for a few moments, feeling like she’d missed something important in the conversation, but it wasn’t really her business so it was no matter. She was about to go in when Aurelie spoke again:

“So, um. I have to ask.”

“Oh, no.”

“What’s this about Hotenshin?” The words were suspicious, but Aurelie’s tone was playful. Merel smirked, and let her hand fall away from the door. There was no way she was missing this one. Aurelie had a better sense of humor than she’d thought.

“Okay, I’ll tell you about it…but let’s go outside. Merel’s trying to eavesdrop.”

Merel involuntarily sputtered, crammed it down, realized that was totally useless now that she’d made a sound, then gave up and laughed. She pushed the door open and went inside. “Sorry about that. What gave me away?”

“Nothing,” Karuna said, “I was guessing. I’m still going to get you for this later.”

“I’ll look forward to it.”

“Yeah, yeah. Go to bed, Merel.”

Merel gave Karuna a mock salute, then gave Aurelie a hug and murmured in her ear: “I really am sorry for listening in…but it sounded like you might need this.”

“Thank you, Merel,” Aurelie said, squeezing her back.

“Tell me how it goes in the morning?”

“No way.”

“Aww. Damn.”


Several days later, Aurelie returned from a trip to the town post with a letter, addressed to Merel in a familiar hand.

“It’s from Zeri! Yay! Gimme!” Merel grabbed it and ripped the envelope open. A second, smaller letter fell out, along with Zeri’s. Merel eyed it, but read Zeri’s first.

Merel:

It hasn’t been long since you left, but I thought I’d let you know how things are going back here. Silreah’s been pestering me about where you’ve been, she insists I must be lying to her, which I guess is kind of understandable because I totally am. She seems anxious as hell about it, like it’s not enough just to have you gone. She gave me a letter to pass on and I put that in with this one.

I asked around a bit but she hasn’t told anyone anything, as far as I can tell.

A bunch of my customers have asked after the two of you, more than I really expected. I think you two have done even more to change minds than I realized. I hope that sticks. Maybe it’d help if I go looking for a partner in Erdengard or something, except I don’t get off on humans like you do. I’ll point a couple of my more suspiciously-interested customers that way instead. Hey, how’s this for a new business: Inter-species matchmaking!

Send me a letter back when you can, and give Chisa a hug for me.

— Zeri

Merel chortled and passed the letter around. Chisa blushed; Aurelie looked thoughtful and said “that might be a good idea.” Karuna just grinned wryly.

Lynette read it. “You got run out of town?”

“I ran myself out because Queen Silreah’s a dumbass and would have run me out anyway,” Merel said. She opened the second letter, the one from Silreah. She blanched.

Merel:

I’m giving this to Zeri because I’m sure she’s lying about where you actually went. I read your report. Fine, you’re a wiseass and you got what you wanted. Keep it to yourself you little idiot. I don’t care if you’re right or not. I don’t want a human army marching on our borders because they think we’re on an Infernal leash.

— Silreah, Queen of Mardelen

It was like a bucket of dry sand.

“Merel?” Karuna said. Merel passed her the letter without thinking. Karuna read it and passed it around — probably also without thinking.

“Bitch kind of has a point,” Merel said.

“I’m missing something,” Lynette said. “Why would anyone think anything of the sort?”

“Oh, hell. Who gave Miss Crusader that thing?”

“Hey!” Lynette said.

“I did,” Karuna said, “Sorry.”

“Hey!” Lynette said again.

Chisa started to say something, but Karuna cut her off. “Look, everybody shut up. Merel, I haven’t asked what happened because it was your own business, but it sounds like it might be more than that. You might as well tell us what’s really going on.”

“Sure, if she swears not to start the army Silreah’s worried about.”

Lynette gave her an exasperated look. “Should I lead an army your way?”

“No!”

Karuna said “Lynette, humor her. You owe her for the Haathalek.”

That brought Lynette up short. She deflated. “Hmph. Okay, whatever.” She looked Merel in the eye, raised her right hand, and said: “In the name of Rezael and of Gwenidon, I swear that I will do nothing to cause or aid an assault on Mardelen on account of anything you tell me today.”

Merel still hesitated. Chisa poked her in the side. “T-that’s more than enough coming from her, and y-you know it.”

So they all sat down, and Merel shared. What she’d found, why she’d run away. What early Naga history looked like: Enslavement, service, war. She expected condemnation, at least from Lynette. She got thoughtfulness instead.

“Fine,” Lynette said, at last.

“That’s it?”

“That’s it. I don’t like you, but you’re no demon’s pet. And I saw enough of Mardelen to know that your countrymen aren’t either. That means you threw them off. It means you rebelled. And won. More power to you.”

“Uhh,” Merel said. That was a huge jump off of no information, Merel could think of three other possible ways it could have happened just off the top of her head (Maybe the demons lost their war and abandoned us of their own volition? Maybe whatever spells enslaved us weren’t passed down between generations? Maybe the infernal magic still latent in mages like me is a trap left for the future?), but she wasn’t going to complain about extra seasoning in her stone soup. “Thanks, I think?”

Merel looked at the others.

Karuna shrugged. “Well, what do you expect from me?” She gestured at Aurelie. “I sleep with her, and she bleeds pitch. I’m hardly going to have a problem with you.”

Aurelie just gave her a wry smile.

“Thanks, guys,” Merel said.

“When did Mardelen start an academy, anyway?” Lynette asked. “The isles are such a backwater, I didn’t expect any serious education there.”

“Huh? No, there’s no academy.”

“You taught yourself to do linguistics? I doubt that.”

“I had a teacher named Heather,” Merel said. “Silreah hired her from the mainland to do the same thing when I was a kid. Then she didn’t like what Heather found, threw her out, and burned everything she learned.”

Lynette’s jaw dropped. “What the fuck?”

“Yeah. I had to start from scratch. But I watched how she did it, and learned from that.”

Lynette gave her a funny look. “Does this Heather have a surname?”

“What’s a surname?”

“On most of the mainland, members of families of stature have two names, a surname that’s common to the family and a given name that’s just for them.”

“S-she’s right,” Chisa said. “I’m supposed to be using yours now, I think, but you don’t have one.”

“Oh. Well, if she had one, I don’t know about it. I always just knew her as Heather.”

Lynette sighed. “Okay, whatever. Brown haired woman, low voice, freckles, about so high, walks with a limp?”

Merel gasped. “You’ve met her?” Then: “But she didn’t have a limp!”

“She did when I met her a couple of years ago. Wouldn’t say where she got it. She’s a philologist at the Academy of Lespandelle. I studied there for a while.”

Merel’s eyes teared up. “She is alive then. I didn’t know.”

“Of course. Why wouldn’t she be?”

“She just…well, relations with humans weren’t good at the time. We weren’t at war, but…sometimes humans would just go missing.”

“Missing.”

“Yeah.” Merel fidgeted. Missing. Like it was an accident. Dad was responsible for some of those accidents. But then they’d caught him, and then…Merel shook herself. Change the subject. Any subject. “Isn’t this kind of a weird coincidence? I mean, you just happened to meet someone I used to know when I was a kid?”

Lynette looked like she wanted to follow up, but thought better of it. She shrugged. “It’s not that much of a coincidence. There’s only three academies along the coast, and the other two are far from here. So there’s only one place you could have found a linguist. And when King Parvian sent to the mainland for help dealing with Darkloft, he probably just contacted the closest chapter of the Heaven Knights of Rezael. The Knights sent me, but anyone of high enough birth to lead such a mission would have attended the Academy.”

“Damnit!” Merel swore. She turned and punched the wall as hard as she could. It didn’t hurt enough, so she did it again, and felt something crack in her knuckles. “I could have found her years ago.” She tried to hit it again, but Karuna lanced out, caught her wrist, and held her fast. A hair later Chisa did the same on the other side. “Let me go!”

“Merel, you’re hurting yourself,” Karuna said calmly…too calmly, there was something wrong with her voice that Merel couldn’t read and didn’t care to.

“I don’t care,” Merel said, “I should have thought of that, I spent years and years wondering and worrying and didn’t have to do any of it.”

“It’s done. This is still good news for you.”

Merel wanted to snap back, but Chisa shook her and she swallowed the words. She coiled her tail and slumped down into it. Chisa took her hand and made the pain go away, but Chisa could only heal her broken knuckles, not the knowledge that she could have suffered so much less if she had only used her damn brain a little more…

“How far is Lespandelle from here? I have to go see her,” Merel said.

“About two hundred miles,” Karuna said.

“That’s supposed to be close?”

“Here on the mainland, it is. It’s Luxaren that’s small.”

“Okay. I still have to go see her. Come with us, I’ll introduce you.”

“No,” Karuna said.

Merel just looked at her, perplexed and hurt.

“I’m sorry, Merel. I have a history in Lespandelle. I can give you the names of a couple of innkeepers you can trust, and a couple of officials you can’t, but I can’t go with you. I’m not welcome there.”

“Pffft, like anyone would mess with you.”

“That’s not what I’m worried about,” Karuna said softly. Her voice still sounded wrong, everything about it was wrong, her tone was calm but it was a careful measured calm that spoke of something roiling beneath the surface.

She sounds like Aurelie right after a fight, Merel thought.

Lynette eyed Karuna speculatively. “You fought in the Succession, didn’t you?” she asked.

“I did.”

“Which side?”

“The winning side. I don’t want to talk about it. I’m just not welcome there.”

Lynette frowned. “If you have a grievance, I could arrange for an Inquisitor.”

“I appreciate the thought, but no. If I decide to do something about it one day, I’ll do it myself.” Her expression was cold, so cold Merel shivered. Merel had seen Karuna angry, afraid, desperate, righteous, but she’d never seen her like this, with nightmares in her eyes. Someone wronged her terribly, Merel realized, and now she has the power to do something about it, and she knows it, and she fears what she might do.

Aurelie set a hand on Karuna’s shoulder. Karuna’s eyes warmed again. The temperature in the room went back to normal.

“Well, I’m going,” Merel said.

“In the morning,” Chisa said.

“I’m not waiting!”

“The morning,” Chisa said again. “It’s raining outside. The road is mud. You can get around fine in that, but I can’t.”

Lynette raised an eyebrow at Chisa. “Since when do you wear the pants in the relationship?”

“W-well, I’m the only one of us that can wear pants?”

Lynette snickered.

“I don’t get that one,” Merel said.

Chisa squeezed her hand. “I’ll explain it to you later.”

By morning, Merel had gotten over the worst of her frustration. The self-flagellating train of thought had faded. In its place drifted a pleasant refrain of now, finally, now, vindicated. Behind that was something even better: soon, understood.

It was a thought she wouldn’t share even with Chisa. Chisa could see the sweat and tears that had gone into Merel’s work, but neither Chisa nor Zeri nor even Karuna, their onetime fearless leader, could say with conviction: that was well done.

Merel wanted that. She’d never really thought about it, but she’d always assumed her only reception would be ignorant rage. Her friends and remaining family would support her, she always knew that, but that support would be born of loyalty, not understanding.

It was like she’d built a bridge and asked people to look it over, and tell her what they thought. Anyone with an ounce of imagination could look at a bridge and see more than just the bridge. Anyone could see in their mind’s eye the labor that constructed it, the endless wagon-trains of trade that might move over it, or the armies that might fight over it.

But only an architect could look at a bridge and say: “Huh, that’s a really good way of dealing with the poor bedrock on the north bank, how did you think of that?” And only an architect would understand the answer.

There was something about Merel’s work, something she didn’t know how to describe but which had nothing to do with the late nights and aching hands, that she had never thought she might share with anyone. She’d taken the impossibility so much for granted that she’d never even dreamed that dream.

She’d known Heather had to come from somewhere, that there were other people like her; she’d read about the Academies — but the strange thing with reading about faraway lands was that they never seemed quite real, not the same way that Luxaren was real. The idea that the mainland was a real place that she could really visit; and the idea that Heather had come from there, not from the mysterious kingdom of Elsewhere with which Merel’s childhood memories associated her; those thoughts had never quite collided. It was easy to say “I know the world doesn’t end at the island shores.” It was much harder to notice what that implied.

Well, now that she’d noticed, Merel dreamed like mad.

On the front doorstep, they said their goodbyes. Karuna hugged each of them, and Aurelie did too, and Merel even tried to give Lynette a hug but was rebuffed.

Instead of sniping, Merel just backed off and said “Thanks. You really helped me out here.”

Lynette shrugged. “Like Karuna said, I owed you for the Haathalek. Debt paid. Good luck, though. Give my regards to the provost.”

The rain had stopped. The path was a muddy ruin, and Chisa still had trouble, but Chisa assured her the highroad would be fine when they reached it. It took half a day to get there, but she was right. The highroad was paved with stone, as wide as Merel was long, straight as an arrow. It stretched out ahead of her forever, and disappeared into a pinprick in the distance.

Merel grinned at Chisa. Chisa smiled back. They set out.

Chapter Text

They arrived at Lespandelle in the afternoon. Light rain the previous night had cleared the dust out of the air. The day was clear as summer, but cool as mid-spring.

A pair of guards slouched by the gate, not paying much attention. One twitched when he noticed Merel and elbowed his compatriot, though neither drew their weapons. He gave some sort of hand signal to the guardhouse, but no one else came out.

Merel murmured to Chisa as they approached. “Is this going to be a problem, do you think?”

“M-Maybe. If it is, front guards are m-my problem, guardhouse yours.”

“Yeah. Keep an eye out. Crossbows from the guardhouse might be dangerous without Karuna.”

“Okay. Don’t k-kill anyone.”

“Not planning on it.”

Merel waved to the guards and gave them the most winsome smile she could manage. It helped to be pretty, in a land where people routinely mistook you for something monstrous. Men did nothing for her, human or otherwise, but she could get their attention reliably enough when she had to. They seemed to relax a bit, at least. It was a bit like dealing with the sailor at Springsmouth, except with more weapons.

“Names?”

“Chisa Tsukuda.”

“Merel. And since I know you want to ask, yeah, the tail’s real.”

The guard frowned, and his companion gave another signal to the guardhouse. Merel hoped it was a stand-down. “All right,” the first said, “I don’t know what you are but I guess it doesn’t matter. Business in Lespandelle?”

“I’m visiting the Academy.”

“Those are big packs for someone that’s not a merchant.”

“It’s mostly paperwork.”

“I’ll have to check them.”

Merel frowned, and looked to Chisa.

“It’s normal in this part of the world,” Chisa said. “Let him look.”

The guard raised an eyebrow, as if to say as if you had a choice, and Merel bit back something sarcastic. They went through the packs and found nothing interesting. One of them eyed Chisa’s armaments with suspicion. “Tsukuda?” he said.

Her eyes hardened, as if challenging him. “Yes.”

He scowled. “Fair enough.”

When they were done, Merel asked “Can you give us directions to the Academy?”

“And a good inn,” Chisa added.

They did, and the two of them entered the city.

Merel said, “What was that last bit all about? With your name, I mean.”

“Some cities don’t like people bringing weapons in, but most of them don’t give nobles trouble about it. And my family name is known here.”

“I wondered why you gave them your full name. You don’t usually do that. Is that why you’re carrying all the weapons this morning, too?”

“Y-yeah. I thought they might be a problem.”

They passed through the main gate. Chisa didn’t give it a second glance, but Merel took a moment to gawk. Luxaren town fortifications were mainly palisades, sometimes reinforced with earthworks. Lespandelle’s were a stone edifice twenty feet high, like someone had wrapped a castle wall around the whole city. Merel thought, holy crap, that’s huge, and another thought chased it a moment later: how did they do it?

They followed the main street for a mile or so. In the heart of the city, a collection of civic buildings and merchant storefronts ringed a plaza, with a trio of running fountains in the middle. The north side was walled, like the city but lower, and a palace rose behind it.

Merel tried to turn north, along the other main street, but Chisa stopped her.

“What’s the problem?” Merel asked, “They said the Academy’s this way.”

“We’ve b-been on the road for weeks. You need some rest first. And food.”

“No way. I can deal.”

“You’ve waited this long, you can wait one more day.”

“But I’m this close!”

Chisa tried a different tack: “Your hair is a mess. A-and your makeup is long gone. And you haven’t bathed since that last village.”

Merel started looking around for a mirror before realizing it. She laughed. “You are a dirty fighter and you know me way too well.”

Chisa grinned at her. “Come on, Merel. Let’s go.”

They found a room. Merel wrinkled her nose at the once again human-sized bed, but there was no help for it, it would have to do. They unpacked, bathed, and then ate in the common room. It was pretty late. Chisa dragged her back upstairs before she could insist on leaving.

“We both need rest,” Chisa said.

“No I don’t!”

“Yes you do. You know you do. W-what’s the rush? One more day won’t change anything.”

“I know. It’s just…I dunno. I’m terrified,” Merel admitted. “What if she doesn’t remember me? I mean, I knew her for what, a year? There’s no way I’m as important to her as she is to me. What if she doesn’t care? What if I’m just telling her something she already knew? I want to go and get it over with so I don’t have to be afraid anymore.”

Chisa hugged her. She didn’t say anything, but Merel could feel her smile.

Merel hugged her back. “Thanks,” she said.

“S-sure.”

“I’ll wait a day.”

“T-thanks.”

Merel spent most of the rest of the day organizing the materials she’d brought. She wasn’t going to take everything. Just the important bits. She could bring more later, once she knew Heather wanted to see it. Once she knew for sure Heather was even here. Besides, she wanted to make a good impression, and it was hard to do that while carrying fifty pounds of paper — even if she could balance most of it on her tail.

Eventually the sun went down, and they went to bed. Chisa wore her nightgown, the special one. They were both too tired to do anything about it, but Merel knew Chisa had done it for her and she appreciated the gesture.

Merel couldn’t sleep. She just listened to Chisa breathe, and worried. An hour, two hours.

She realized she couldn’t hear Chisa’s usual light snore. “Are you still awake, too?” she asked softly.

“Yeah. W-what’s on your mind?”

“Tomorrow, I guess. Um. Well, maybe a little more than that, there’s something else eating at me. Small confession?”

“Hm? Sure.”

“Heather was my first crush.”

“I sort of guessed.”

“Are you jealous?”

“A l-little,” Chisa admitted, “but it’s okay.” She smiled shyly. “S-small confession: Karuna was mine.”

“No shit,” Merel said.

“How about you? Are you j-jealous?”

“Oh, hell yes. I’m going to smother her in her sleep first chance I get,” Merel said. She smirked at Chisa’s choked, unintelligible response, and instantly felt better. Merel’s interest in Heather had never been just about scholarship, and she’d never tried to hide that from Chisa…but she’d never brought it up, either. It was a small load on her chest, but still a load. Now she felt lighter.

“What about you?” Merel asked. “You’re not sleeping, either.”

Chisa hesitated. Then she said, “The road south from here leads to my f-family’s lands, eventually. We could go visit them after this. Maybe.”

Merel rolled over and took her hand. “We could. Worried about what they’ll think of me?”

“Yeah. I guess what you said earlier made me think about it again.”

Merel held her. Returning the favor, she thought. After a while, she laughed. Not that there was anything funny, really, she just couldn’t help it.

“H-huh?” Chisa said, confused.

“It’s just…well, look at us,” Merel said. “We’ve fought demons bigger than this building. We slithered right up to the gates of Hell, spat through the door, and lived to tell the tale.”

“You slithered. I walked.”

“Yeah, yeah. Point is, we’ve got nothing left to prove. Yet we’re still lying awake at night worrying about the approval of our mother-figures.”

Chisa giggled. “When you put it like that, I guess it is really funny.”

“It’s hilarious,” Merel affirmed. “Let’s sleep. Or stay up if we can’t, whatever. Worrying’s silly, there’s nothing Heather can do to me or your family can do to you that’s worse than what we’ve already gone through.”

They slept.


In the morning, Merel fixed herself up as best she could and they headed to the Academy. It wasn’t far away, and it was impossible to miss. A low marble wall separated the campus from the road. The gate was made from some wood she didn’t recognize, ornamentally carved and imposing as heck. There was no guard at the gate. Merel just pushed it open. Inside, they followed a cobblestone path through a garden-field towards the center of the campus. Signs marked out the buildings, but Merel didn’t really know what she was looking for. She noticed two of interest. The first was marked Visitors. The second was Library.

The library tempted her, but it wasn’t what she was there for. She followed the visitors’ sign to a small brick hut, single-roomed. A youngish man sat at a desk inside, reading and looking bored.

“Hi,” Merel said.

He blinked at her with a puzzled expression. “Huh,” he said. “Naga?”

“Yes! You’re the first person I haven’t had to explain the tail to in weeks.”

“You’re a long way from home. What do you two need?”

“I’m looking for someone,” Merel said. “Her name’s Heather. If she has a family name I don’t know it. She was a linguist when I met her, but that was a long time ago and I don’t know if she’s moved on. A mutual acquaintance said she was a professor here up until at least a few years ago.”

“I don’t know a Heather, but I’m pretty new here. Try the history building. It’s a bit further up the main path, on the right.”

“Thanks.”

They kept going. The lobby of the history building was empty. They waited by the door, and Merel tried not to lash her tail with impatience. Eventually someone else came in — a student, Merel thought — and Merel got his attention and repeated her spiel. And then…

“Yeah, I know her. I don’t know where her room is, sorry, but the professors’ rooms are all upstairs. Someone up there can probably help you more.”

Merel’s heart leapt into her throat.

Chisa helped her with the stairs. They chased directions up to the third floor, then the fourth. Most people they spoke to commented on Merel’s tail. A few avoided her. One asked her for a date; Chisa took her arm and said “H-hey, she’s mine!” which made Merel smile.

At last, someone pointed to the open door of the office he’d just left, said “Sure, she’s in there,” and then hurried off.

Merel’s tail felt like it had turned to stone.

“Ready?” Chisa murmured, her voice too low to carry.

“Nope,” Merel said. “Here goes.” And she stuck her head around the door.

Chapter Text

Merel’s first impression was books. There were a lot of them, about half arranged on shelves, the rest piled in neat stacks along one wall. No scrolls, oddly enough. Perhaps they’d all been transcribed into the modern form. The room smelled of paper and well-used leather.

She met Heather’s eyes. She looked different. She looked…Merel shied away from the word old, but it hovered at the edge of her thoughts. Heather’s hair was starting to gray, and her face showed the beginnings of wrinkles. Not much, not yet, but it was there. She was still pretty, but not young and beautiful like Merel remembered.

Her eyes had the same open curiosity in them, though, and that was everything.

“Yes?”

Merel hitched the rest of herself into view. Chisa followed behind. Merel had never been so conscious of her tail in her life. She didn’t doubt that Heather’s last memory of Naga tails was an unpleasant one.

“Hey,” Merel said.

Heather’s eyes narrowed. She glanced from Merel to Chisa and back again. “I haven’t seen one of your kind in quite a few years, and I didn’t leave Mardelen on the best of terms. What does a Naga want with me now?”

“You, um. Don’t recognize me?”

Heather tilted her head and frowned. “Should I? It’s been a very long time. And you look young. When I was last in Mardelen, you couldn’t have been any older than…” Her jaw dropped, pieces falling into place. “Merel?”

Merel grinned. “Greetings, oh ancient Master. Been a while.”

“What on…how did you…okay, um. Okay.” Heather reached for words, failed to find them, gave up and started laughing. They all did.

“Well, my day just got…different,” Heather said when the laughter died away. She addressed Chisa: “Just so I don’t have to say ‘hey you,’ later, what’s your name?”

“Chisa.”

“Thanks. I’m Heather, but I’m guessing you knew that already. So. Merel, what brings you here? You didn’t track me down after so many years on a whim.”

“You’re not going to ask why I showed up with a human in tow?”

“How many guesses do you think it would take?”

Chisa snerked. “Two. Maybe.”

“Congratulations, by the way,” Heather said.

“Am I that transparent?” Merel complained.

“Y-yes.”

“You weren’t exactly subtle about your preferences as a kid.”

“You knew?”

“Of course I knew. I never said anything, because the last thing you do to a little girl with a crush is feed the crush. But I wasn’t going to send you away over it. You were a good student, after all.” Heather made a disgruntled face. “Better than most. Even the adults. It’s good to see you again.”

“Aww. Thanks.”

“So what brings you all the way out to Lespandelle?”

“Well, uh,” Merel said, “remember the stuff at Lake Eye Temple?”

“Yes.”

“After you left, Silreah burned everything you’d done.”

“I sort of expected that.”

“So I did it again.”

”…what?”

Merel took her bag and Chisa’s and set them on Merel’s desk. “I did it again. Everything you found, even the stuff you didn’t tell me about.” She opened one bag and pulled it out. “Here, look at this. This is the Lake Eye Temple engravings.”

Heather took the book and opened it. Row upon row of copied engravings, some in Merel’s handwriting, some Chisa’s; and beside it the translations. Not without some missing words, not without uncertainties marked with footnotes…but it was enough, it was everything important.

”…Wow. Merel, wow. I’m not sure if that’s impressive or crazy. Did you have another teacher after I left?”

“No. Just a long time to be pissed about it, and not a lot of supervision.”

“I’m surprised Silreah even let you at the archives, and she must have, there’s no way you could have done it with just the engravings at the temple.”

“I had leverage. It’s a long story. But, Heather…I found more. I think. Was there anything…was there anything you couldn’t tell Silreah, or me, when you made your report?”

Heather frowned. “No. She cut me off early, but I got all the important bits in there. Everything I was sure of, at least. I didn’t have that much time to work with, so there were some loose ends. The biggest open question was why. I mean, why make Nagas at all? The inscriptions at the temple didn’t explain. I wrote a monograph on the subject after returning home, although without any physical proof I didn’t have a lot to present.”

“Okay. I figured out why.”

Heather’s face broke into a heartfelt smile. “You really were a good student. Tell me!”

“Um. Well, at least I think I figured out why. And I don’t like it. I want…I want to show you everything, but I also want you to check what I found, make sure I got it right. I don’t know anybody else who can, and I…I have to be sure.” Merel felt Chisa take her hand. “I just have to be sure.”

Heather looked at the book, and looked at Merel’s face. Then she pulled some of the other books out and leafed through them. Not reading, just looking.

She stopped. “This one. That’s not Old Naga. It’s Infernal.”

Merel nodded.

“I’ll look,” Heather said.

“Can I read your monograph?”

“Sure.”


Merel brought the rest of her papers to the Academy, and over the next couple of weeks Heather churned through them with ruthless efficiency. Merel read her monograph, then asked whether there was anything interesting she could go see. Heather suggested ruins north of the city, and Merel and Chisa spent some time there. Nothing significant. But it was old, and Merel didn’t understand a word of the writing on the walls. Also, there were skeletons, although that was much less spooky than it used to be. It was hard to get spooked by the quiet dead when you’d fought the walking kind.

Merel read Heather’s monograph. It was mostly what she expected. The same translations (not always identical, but close; Merel breathed a little easier at that, she figured it meant she must have done something right). But Heather had worked mostly on the temple, not the items in the archives themselves. She’d known the Naga were born of alchemy and infernal magic; but she speculated (and noted it as speculation, not to be trusted) that it was the work of human mages touched by infernal power, like Aurelie, not demons directly. Merel wanted to say “Hah, the student has surpassed the master!” but she didn’t know that, not really. She still needed the master to tell her she’d done it right.

But nothing in Heather’s work surprised her. Neither the conclusions, nor the reasoning behind them. That was relieving.

In between work, Merel wandered the city with Chisa. Chisa wore her family crest, and people stepped out of her way. Not like she was royalty or even really nobility, but like a stern authority, to be given visible respect. Merel kept wanting to chuckle at that. The situation had its benefits. People stared at Merel’s tail, but nobody bothered her.

They developed a routine. Heather questioned Merel in the mornings; Merel and Chisa went out to enjoy the city; Heather questioned her some more in in the evening. Sometimes she praised Merel’s work; sometimes she objected to her errors.

Sometimes Merel complained about Heather’s work too. One morning, while re-reading Heather’s monograph, she said, “It’s so…so cautious. I keep wanting to roll my eyes at all your hedging.”

Heather looked up from a scroll. “If it helps any, I get frustrated with you, too. I keep wanting to complain that you’re jumping to conclusions. And you do. But I’m pretty sure you’re right anyway, which kind of takes the force out of it. Remember when you were trying to help me a bit too much as a kid, and came up with a translation that was wrong because two words looked similar, but weren’t?”

“I remember. But I got better about that! I don’t make that assumption any more.”

“That’s true, you don’t make that assumption, in that context. But I think you’re making a similar one here. That if it looks like a spade, it’s a spade. That’s fine if you’re talking about something boring and normal. If you’re studying the construction of the Mardelen aqueducts, and you find a reference that says they were designed by so-and-so under direction from King Whoever, there’s no reason not to take it at face value. But if you’re going to say that demons created Nagas as foot soldiers by alchemizing humans and serpents — if you’re going to claim that really happened, that it’s not just a darker-than-usual creation myth — then you need more. To say that the only documents you can find say so, isn’t enough. It’s too outlandish a claim.”

“That’s not the way you put it to Silreah,” Merel said, “I remember. I was listening at the door. I couldn’t hear very well, but you said you confirmed that the Naga were once human.”

“I was much younger then, too,” Heather said softly, “and I made my fair share of mistakes.”

Merel thought about that for a moment. Then she said:

“I don’t think that part was a mistake. I don’t think you think it was a mistake either.”

“This really bothers you, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, kind of,” Merel said. She waved Heather’s monograph at her. “I mean, you’re telling me I’m jumping to conclusions, but almost everything I wrote in there is in here too. You call it speculation, but I think you and I both know that every word is true.”

“Maybe, but I didn’t prove it. I just translated the inscriptions, which say that Nagas came from humans. It does fit. Your anatomy doesn’t make sense, your history emerges from nothing a thousand years ago, and the records from the archives and the temple do fit those facts. That doesn’t mean they’re honest. Creation myths have been built on less, and the Academy has stricter standards than that.”

“I didn’t do all this for the Academy.”

I did,” Heather said. But she was smiling.

Merel arghhed, slithered around in a tight circle, and lashed her tail in frustration. “What do you want from me?”

“You tell me,” Heather said. “Call it a final exam from your old teacher. Convince me that I can convince the Academy that it’s all true.”

“But you said it yourself. Our anatomy is all screwed up. It makes sense for us to be hybrids. All the Temple engravings do is confirm what’s right in front of our faces already.”

“It’s not enough. Whoever did the engravings could have seen all that too, and tuned their narrative to fit it. Try harder. Give me something they haven’t seen before, something that’s not in here,” she tapped her monograph on the table.

Merel thumped her tail on the floor. Someone below shouted a complaint in response.

“Chisa, help me out here. You did this sort of thing growing up, right? What do they want?.”

“S-sorry, I never did original r-research. Not until I met you.”

Okay, something new. Something Heather hadn’t already known and taken into account. Merel thought about it. “The locked room in the archives. The stuff in there, that’s all new, it wasn’t in your monograph, you never saw it. But it corroborates most of the story from the Temple, and fills in the gaps the engravings left out. And it was written by demons, not Naga or humans.”

“Okay, fair. Independent sources are a good start…if you can trust them. Who trusts demons?”

“Fine, but if the Naga were just making up myths, they’d be different from what the demons had to say about it, right? We might lie, and they might lie, but they wouldn’t be similar lies. Not without collusion, and nobody colludes with demons unless they’re stupid.”

“Or evil. Mind what case you’re actually making. But you’re getting warmer. What else? Give me something that doesn’t require me to trust.”

“Okay,” Merel said, “here, check this out.” She held out a hand, palm up, and concentrated. A shadow black as night formed above it, like a small fragment of Aurelie’s scarier powers. Heather eyed it with a mix of curiosity and apprehension. She looked like she was trying to decide whether to step back or not.

Merel said, “Every Naga mage I’ve ever heard of can call on infernal energies. Not very much, usually. I can black out a room, but I can’t bind the dead. Others are similar. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Whoever decorated Lake Eye Temple could make up whatever they liked, but they couldn’t give us powers we didn’t have.”

Heather frowned. “Now, that’s interesting. I didn’t know that. Good. But my objection still holds — the authors could have tuned their narrative to fit what they already knew.”

“A narrative that associates us with demons? Who would say that, unless it was true?”

“Someone who doesn’t care for Nagas, perhaps. Lake Eye Temple had stairs, as I recall.”

“Which makes sense if it was built early, either just before or just after we were made.”

“But it would also make sense if it was built and decorated by humans who didn’t care for Nagas.”

“Then why draw our history on their walls at all?”

“Good question,” Heather said. She grinned. “Not bad. Keep going.”

“I don’t understand why you’re fighting me so much on this. I know you believe it.”

“Because the Academy will fight harder. If you can only convince an audience that already agrees with you, you don’t have that strong of a case. So keep going.”

“Okay, what about the recipe? No, that came from the demon scrolls too. No, wait, wait, it still helps. It’s like the thing with my magic, where chroniclers can’t give out powers to match their story. Alchemy is the same, it works the same everywhere. It’s how I figured out the translation in the first place. A…a dishonest chronicler couldn’t invent an alchemic recipe to suit their story because the recipe wouldn’t work!” Merel raised a fist triumphantly.

Heather asked: “Does it work?”

Merel’s fist fell. “Um,” she said.

“Well?”

“Zeri said it probably does what it says. She’s an alchemist, she would know.”

“Okay…but no one else can check that. You burned the recipe.” Heather raised an eyebrow, her expression enigmatic. “Didn’t you?”

“Um.”

“You didn’t, then?”

“Technically Zeri burned it.”

“No extra copies hiding somewhere?”

“No,” Merel said. But she fidgeted.

“Should I believe you?”

“It’s the truth!” Merel insisted, “but, well, I remember what was in it. I can’t burn a memory.”

Heather nodded. “I believe you. The recipe is the biggest reason I won’t write this off as myth. If it’s real. That’s the catch. Like the inscriptions, you know what’s written, but you don’t know for sure that the author was honest unless you can check their work. And for such a great claim, you really want to be sure.”

“Well how am I supposed to check?”

“Test the recipe, for one.”

WHAT?

“Well, you did ask.

Merel closed her mouth and made a crooked look. “Okay, yeah, I guess I did.” She slunk over to the door, opened it, looked both ways down the hall, and closed it again. Heather raised an eyebrow at her, and Merel shrugged uncomfortably. “I actually thought of that already,” she confessed. “But I don’t want to do it. There’s no way I’m throwing a person in an alchemy pot. I want to know, but not that bad.”

“So find a volunteer.”

“No,” Merel said. “No, no, no, no no no. No. I know what you’re thinking, and no. I like Chisa’s legs right where they are.”

Heather threw back her head and laughed. “Oh, wow, you should see the look on your face! Both your faces.” Merel looked at Chisa. Chisa had that adorable flustered look, where she was aghast and trying to giggle at the same time.

The giggles won out this time. Chisa wrapped Merel up in a hug, and when she stopped laughing she said “T-thanks. I l-like my legs where they are too.” In a much lower voice, and with much more of a stutter than usual, she added: “w-w-with you between t-them.”

Merel sputtered something incoherent and flopped back on her tail. Chisa’s face was red as fire but bore a tremoring smirk.

“I think you just broke my brain, sweetie,” Merel said.

“D-d-dose of your own m-medicine.”

Heather said, “I’d give a lot to know what she just said.”

“No way. Let’s, uh, let’s go back to the subject at hand. I’m still not sticking Chisa in a pot. Or anyone else.”

“Finding a volunteer might be more possible than you think…but yeah, I don’t know if I would do it either. I’m just saying it would work, and be definitive. There’s other options. The simplest…you remember the recipe, you said. I know a few alchemists. You could reconstruct it, and we could show it to them. Discreetly. If a few well-known names confirm that it existed, and should do what it says, that might go a long way even if we can’t demonstrate it. The Academy is strict, but not insane.”

“I don’t know if I want to trust anyone that far, though.”

“You could also go back to Mardelen and look for physical evidence. Exhume graves. Look for battle sites, find demon and Naga remains from the war if you can. That sort of thing.”

Merel slithered over to Heather’s desk, put her arms down on it, and rested her head on them. She felt dismayed. “That’s a lot of work, and I wouldn’t even know where to start. I got where I wanted to go, but the way you put it, it’s like I’d have to start all over again.”

“You don’t have to. You can stop whenever you like. You can never convince everybody; you just try the best you can. And you can never be absolutely sure. There’s just the point where you decide you’re sure enough. Are you?”

Merel hesitated.

“Yeah. Yeah, I think I am.”

“Okay, so. You’re in front of the Academy, presenting your findings — a followup to my own work. What’s your case?”

“Uhh, I don’t think I’m actually going to do that.”

“Humor me anyway.”

Merel thought. She’d read Heather’s monograph, twice, and had some idea of what to say. “Naga have several characteristics that defy the usual explanations. Our anatomy is half-human, half-serpent, but humans and snakes can’t mate. Our history is very short, too short for gradual divergence from a common ancestor. Our mages consistently carry minor infernal powers. A potential explanation is presented by…oh, screw it, talking this way is stupid. Naga are weird, here’s why we’re weird, two distinct sources agree on most of the details, we have a recipe to prove it but can’t use it because we’re not monsters. But alchemists have vetted it and agree it’s legit. Good enough?”

“It’ll do. Welcome to scholarship, Merel.”

“I never wanted to be a scholar. I just wanted to know. Like I said, I didn’t do this for the Academy.”

“Why did you do it? Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad you did, but it was a huge effort and I doubt your people will ever thank you for it. So, why?”

Merel hesitated, for once at a loss for words.

Because I had a crush on you? It was the first answer that came to mind, but it had to be wrong. That was half a lifetime ago, as a child, and a few years with Chisa had taught her the difference between a crush and love. It didn’t feel like enough. It couldn’t be enough. She looked at Chisa helplessly, but Chisa wouldn’t have the answers, either.

At last, Merel said, “Because you were right, and they were wrong. Because it matters what is true.”

Heather opened her mouth wordlessly, closed it again, then suddenly hugged her.

“Would that half my students understood the same,” she said. “You’ve made your old teacher proud, Merel.”

Merel cried.

Chapter Text

Stories are never really over, the writer just runs out of words.

Before I decided on a final title (and the chapter-naming theme), my working title for this story was Fragments. I like the one I eventually chose, but right now the old one is more appropriate.

There’s always stuff I want to do in a story that gets dropped for whatever reason. For example: When I realized I was frequently using Zeri as Merel’s sounding board, I considered shifting the story to tell it from Zeri’s perspective. I didn’t think of that until I was ten thousand words in, so it was never a serious possibility. But it would have been an interesting narrative decision, and it would have fit my usual pattern of writing from the perspective of minor characters.

One of the hardest things about writing is cutting things that you like, because for whatever reason they don’t serve the story. I had that problem a lot this time. But eventually I realized something: This is the Web, not print, and I can have my cake and eat it too. So before we leave Merel and her friends behind, I hope you’ll stay for just a few more words, brief fragments of moments that might have been.


These lines were meant for Merel’s final conversation with Heather. I had to cut it for lack of a good spot to put it; it suits best after the end:

“You have the talent. If you want to stay and work on this with me, adding Naga history to the greater historical project, you could do that.”

“No. I have what I wanted, I have the truth. I can’t stay here any more than I could stay in Mardelen, there’s too much of the world still left to see. Reading history isn’t the same as seeing the ruins myself.”


Meant for the same scene. Even in the denouement, I wanted to include small characterization details, and this would have tied up a loose end. I cut it for the same reason as above — I couldn’t find a good place to put it, and it’s not plot essential, so out it went.

“And, well, there’s another problem. Silreah thinks that with this out, humans might think we’re still demon servants, and come after us. It’s not that far off base.” Lynette had been okay with it, but Lynette was a friend, sort of, and Merel was pretty sure she was making a moral exception. There would be others like her who wouldn’t have cause to do that.

“Point,” Heather said. “And nothing you found says when that stopped being true, or why.”

“Well, nothing I’ve found so far. I didn’t translate everything yet.”

“C-could you do it like with the recipe? Find someone to vouch that it is the way you say?”

“Sort of. Politics is harder than history, but also more flexible. It would help, but it won’t help if Merel signs off on it, because she’s a Naga, of course she would say that, and she’s — pardon this — a nobody. So am I, really. Silreah’s somebody, but like Merel, her testimony won’t be trusted in and of itself.”

“Chisa? Your name would be worth something, right?”

“Some, but maybe not much on its own. I was a runaway.”

“I don’t know anyone else on the mainland. Well, Karuna came from here, but going by what she said back at her place, her word might not be worth anything either.”

“I’m not sure what to suggest,” Heather said.

“What about Lynette?” Chisa said.

“She can barely stand talking to me, do you really think she’ll help?”

“If she thought it was the true and honorable thing to do, she would.”

“Who’s Lynette?” Heather asked.

“Lynette G-Gwenidon,” Chisa said.

Heather’s eyes widened. “Now, that’s a family name that’s worth something. That would be like the Heaven Knights themselves attesting that the nagas are clean. Not everyone would believe it…but few would dare question it.”


Another variation on the final scene. This one I really do regret leaving out, because it relates to my central problem with the story as written. I had to cut it, though; no matter how I put it in, it killed the rhetorical force of Merel’s final line.

“I was just trying to prove that you were right.”

“What if I wasn’t? What if you spent all that time trying to prove a false thing? That’s why I’m so frustrated about this. I’m pretty sure I was right, and you’re right, but I almost wish you weren’t, because it’s a bad perspective to reinforce. Learning to recognize when you’re wrong is the hardest lesson there is and I wish you could have learned it early.”


A microscene from early notes, before I knew what I wanted to do with the story. Karuna’s team meeting the Mammonites:

“They’ll follow the letter of their agreements…and usually the spirit.”

“Usually?”

“They don’t have a concept for morality, but they do value repeat business and they take a very long view on their own wealth. It comes out pretty close to human fairness. They’ll only cheat us if the money in it is good enough to be worth the blow to their reputation.”

“And only if we think we can get away with it,” the demon interjected. “You four have cut rather a wide swath through our kind on the way here. It is true, I and my minions are more powerful than your enemies have been — but so are you. Being dead is bad for business.”


I wanted to show Merel and Chisa in combat at least once, mainly for awesomeness-fanservice. In this fragment, while on the way to Karuna and Aurelie’s, they rescue some NPCs who got ambushed by bandits. Cut because it had no relevance to anything, but it got replaced by the Haalathak flashback and Lynette’s brief reference to a similar event later on.

One of them turned and took a swing at Chisa. It was a very bad idea. Chisa rushed in under the blow, jammed her axe handle into his stomach, then chucked him on the side of the head with its blunt end. He fell over and did not get back up.

Their leader grabbed one of the civvies, an older woman, and put a knife to her throat as if looking for leverage. That was an even worse idea. He started to say something — Merel assumed it was something like “back off or she dies” — but Chisa was already on him, and this time she wasn’t using the blunt end. He was dead by the third word.

His two nearest compatriots stared. One of them looked terrified enough to drop a load in somebody else’s pants. The other pulled a short sword out. He stepped up behind Chisa while her back was turned and she was focused on the leader.

That was the worst possible idea. Merel stopped grinning. She gestured; the mud froze solid, and the bandit with the sword slipped and fell. She followed up with a bolt of lightning that blasted him all the way across the road and into the base of a nearby tree. Then, just to emphasize the point to the rest of them, she set him on fire.

Resistance collapsed around that point.

(more description goes here)

“Are any of you h-hurt? I’m a h-healer.”

The father stared at her. Merel was pretty sure why. For some reason people found the combination of “smiling babyfaced young woman with a stutter” and “just cut through three armed men like she was squashing mosquitoes” disturbing.

(Perhaps the party they rescue here has a kid)

“I want to be like her, Mommy!”


There were a couple fragments involving Merel meeting Chisa’s family; none of them made it to the final version, but I liked this bit. Merel views Hiroko’s condescension more or less the way Chisa viewed other Nagas’ insults when they met, resulting in the following exchange, of which only the first line survived in any form:

“Chisa’s fought demons bigger than your house, so shut up.”

All of you, be silent!” Chisa’s father roared, and his tone held such command that even Merel held her tongue.

“That’s better. Chisa, is what she says true?”

“S-sort of. I think there was only o-one that big.”

“It had three heads,” Merel said, “so it should count as three kills.”

Mister Tsukuda ignored her. “Hiroko, you owe your sister an apology.”


An alternate version of the same fragment, cut for the same reason:

—like Chisa’s parents, who never meant her ill, but who didn’t know what to do about their strange child who went out into the world alone and came back married to a foreign woman who wasn’t even of her species

—or Chisa’s grandfather, who did know what to do: Congratulate her on learning, on loving, on growing, and welcome her home…and save difficult questions for a more private moment.

—or Chisa’s sister, who cared more about the family name than her family and Merel loathed her for it; but Chisa insisted Merel not antagonize her anyway; and Merel didn’t understand, but she mostly held her tongue because it was important to Chisa…

—mostly. “Chisa’s fought demons bigger than your house, so shut up.”

“I should’ve said that,” Merel murmured to herself.

“Hm?”

“Nothing, sweetie.” She curled her tail around in a familiar hug; Chisa smiled and appeared to drift back off to sleep.


Another lost fragment of Chisa’s family, more heartwarming. I think I managed to get the note about Chisa’s stutter in elsewhere:

Her mother sighed. “I don’t understand you, child, but I won’t fight with you about it. You always were so…different. Does she make you happy, at least?”

Chisa started to answer, stopped, and held up a hand. There was something her mother understood that no one else did, not even Merel really, that when something was really important she wanted to be able to say it properly. Her mother waited.

Chisa started twice more before she was sure she would get it right:

“She makes me happier than I have ever been in my life,” she said, clearly and with no stutter at all.


Karuna reflecting on her life choices. Cut because I couldn’t find a good spot for it and it wasn’t important enough to make one.

“Lady Yvian had a gift I just don’t. I can use a sword, and maybe I can teach someone else to do the same. But she could find your private song of war and show you how to sing it to yourself. That’s…beyond me, I think. I could teach, but what I taught would not be the Unwavering Blade.”


Merel being Merel at Karuna’s. Cut because I realized I had too many Merel-being-sexual bits and too many bedtime fadeouts.

Merel lay down and curled up. “So when do we get to defile the bed?”

“Don’t be s-silly. The others will hear us.”

“So? Let’s give them a show!”

“What? Y-you can’t possibly mean that! W-we, umm, uhh…”

Merel laughed, grabbed Chisa’s hand, and pulled her down to the bed. “By Aldeenia, that expression is never going to get old.”

“You weren’t s-serious,” Chisa said.

“Did you want me to be serious?”

Chisa blushed furiously.


Chisa and Karuna sparring instead of Karuna and Lynette. Cut because I didn’t want to hit the same note too many times, and I really don’t like “which of these two characters would win in a fight?” subplots.

After digesting, Chisa asked Karuna if she would be willing to spar some more; Chisa said she felt rusty. Karuna grumbled a bit, but acquiesced, and Merel settled in to watch as they prepared to pick up where Karuna and Aurelie had left off. Chisa had practiced regularly in their home in Mardelen, but she hadn’t had a human opponent in over a year. On occasion she’d found Naga soldiers willing to join her, but she had told Merel once that it wasn’t really the same, it required different skills to face someone with feet.

They squared off. Merel shouted at Chisa, “Kick her ass, sweetie!” and Karuna raised an eyebrow at her. Merel blew a kiss back. Then the two of them were off. It wasn’t a real fight, but it was close enough, and more visibly violent than when Karuna fought her wife. Chisa was good — but Karuna was peerless, and in better practice, and it showed.


Some discussion of future plans, just after the game’s ending. Intended to present a bit of Karuna and Aurelie’s history to non-players, and to give Lynette a pet-the-dog moment. Cut because it would have to have happened before the story started.

“You could come back to the mainland with me,” Lynette said.

“I thought you didn’t like her,” Karuna said.

“I don’t. But I think you both deserve better. Luxaren’s a small world, and I imagine it’s hard to escape a reputation here. On the mainland, Aurelie wouldn’t be ‘the woman who used to be Darkloft.’ She’d just be someone else who happened to have the same name. No one would care.”

“She has a point, you know,” Merel said. “It might be nice to live somewhere that all the rulers aren’t insane, too.”

“Rulers are insane everywhere,” Karuna said. “Some just stab you in the face instead of the back.”


A breakthrough Merel had behind the scenes. Cut because it was neither necessary nor interesting, but picture a lot of this happening where you can’t see:

“Paydirt!” Merel’s face glowed. “I was working through some new scrolls, and one of them turned out to be an Old Naga translation of the Prophecy of Luxaren!”

“B-but how does that help? I mean, we already know it.” She made a face. “W-we lived it.”

Merel grinned. “That’s the point. I know what it’s supposed to say. If it’s a good enough translation, I can compare it to a copy in common Luxaren and figure out what all the missing words mean.”


This would have been funny, but I got more of a scene out of Karuna not knowing when Merel and Chisa were going to arrive.

“But how did you know when we’d get here?”

“When there were rumors in town of three different bandit groups getting routed by their own victims, it was pretty obvious.”

Chisa blushed.

“Word got that far ahead of us?”

“Horses are faster than Naga, last I checked.”

“Oh yeah. You know, I’d never seen a horse until I came here. I had to ask Chisa what they were.”


This made me laugh, but didn’t quite make the final cut.

“You’ll return the scroll you stole?”

“Which one?”


A scrapped reaction of Merel to her own discoveries — the phrasing is a reference to Thou Art Godshatter, one of the secondary inspirations to the story. I wanted to keep this for the sake of Chisa’s line, but eventually cut it because I couldn’t see Merel reacting in quite this way. She can feel insecure, but self-loathing isn’t in her character.

“We’re demonspawn,” Merel whispered to herself, closing her eyes. She lay there silently for a few moments. Suddenly she understood just how so many others had felt, hearing that the Naga were human-spawn. Merel had never cared. She liked humans. More than liked. This time she had to face it without that easy out.

I’m not like them. I won’t turn away.

Slowly, deliberately, firmly: “I. Am. Demonspawn.” It hurt to say. But, damn all the gods, it was true.

(later, with Chisa)

“I’m demon-shatter, a fragment of a weapon built long ago for a pointless war in a forgotten age.”

“I d-don’t care. You’re my demon-shatter.”

Chapter Text

Thanks to Unity for creating Luxaren Allure, without which Aletheia’s Daughter wouldn’t exist. It’s a really good game and if you somehow ended up here without having played it, go do that.

Extra bonus thanks for releasing the game with its internals freely visible. The script and maps were invaluable tools for getting fine details right, and this story is better for it. Related thanks to Malandy for suggesting the tool I used to dump the script, because open internals or not, clicking on individual characters to view their lines isn’t something I wanted to do.

I usually try to stay canon compliant, and I didn’t make up the Naga backstory out of whole cloth. The author hinted at Naga history in several places, especially during Merel’s flashback. I took those hints and ran in the direction that I thought the author intended. It turned out I was wrong, but that’s okay. It’s still interesting how two wildly different histories can both fit the same set of in-game evidence.

Merel was my favorite character, but I felt like her scholarship kind of got short shrift in-game. It’s clearly part of her character, it’s almost the first thing we learn about her, but other than occasionally translating ancient scripts it doesn’t have much of an impact on the story. Which is fine, because the story wasn’t about her — but I liked her, and I wanted to see more of that part of her, so that’s what I set out to do.

As usual, I bit off more than I could chew, I had new challenges to deal with, and I didn’t get them all right.

There were a few purely mechanical difficulties. Chisa’s stutter was hard to reproduce well. I had to infer things like the capitalization of Infernal or the plural of Naga from the script.1 And there were quirky language puzzles to work around, like this one: “Merel slithered. Chisa walked. They ?????ed.”

There were other, funnier problems. In trying to do my homework on snakes, particularly Merel’s thoughts at the end of chapter 3, I ended up having to google things like “anaconda hemipenis size”. I’m sure that got me on a list somewhere. I never did find a good answer regarding whether the relevant parts fit. There’s plenty of genetic reasons why it wouldn’t work, but Merel wouldn’t know about any of that.

There was a meta problem, too. Most fanfics are shipping-centric, and Luxaren Allure is basically a romance. Aletheia’s Daughter isn’t. I couldn’t remove the romantic elements while remaining true to the source material, but that wasn’t the kind of story I intended to tell, and I worried about reader expectations. This is the out-of-universe reason that Merel and Chisa are already married when the story starts. I wanted to make it clear at the outset that this would not be a shipping fic. There’s no lavishly-described wedding to look forward to, no love-triangle subplot to angst over.2

None of those issues were too hard to solve, though. The first really hard thing was characterization.

Merel’s a very different character than I typically write, and her personality is very different from my own. Getting her voice right was hard. Handling her sexuality was harder. Merel is a sexual creature, and I had to exhibit that without it seeming gratuitous or getting in the way of the story. The original game did so very well, and I did my best to live up to it. I think I did okay. But I’m not sure. Calibrating Merel’s sexuality was hard in the same way that calibrating Chisa’s stutter was hard.

Chisa gave me trouble in general. I never felt like I’d really found her voice, not like I did with Zeri (easy, she has so little in-game presence that she’s practically an original character) or Davis (same), or Heather (a little more presence, but I could blame any mismatches on the passage of time). When it came time to figure out what Merel and Chisa actually do day-to-day, at first I toyed with making Chisa a straight-up homemaker, which is ridiculous lore-wise — but it was the first thing I intuitively attached her personality to.

Yeah, no. Chisa took work, and many edits. I found that she kept fading into the background if I wasn’t careful — I think because she does it for Merel but doesn’t do it for me, and I never thought that much about her in-game. But Merel is the viewpoint character, and Chisa should never be background to her, so I had to fix that.

Eventually I had a breakthrough, and in my head it sounded like this: Merel is the brains, but Chisa is the soul. And another, a quote from Shania Twain: “A friend is someone who knows the song in your heart and can sing it back to you when you’ve forgotten the words.” That’s what led to the scene in Chapter 8, where Chisa reminds Merel that there is more to her wants than her work.

Karuna, Aurelie, and Lynette were simultaneously easier and harder. Easier in that I didn’t have to do anything nearly as complex with them; harder in that I had to manifest their personalities within the space of a single chapter.

Yeah, characterization was difficult. But Unity tells me I got it right, so I think the effort was worthwhile.

There were other things I did not get right, though.

Sometime between when I finished The Artificers and when I started writing Aletheia’s Daughter, I became acquainted with the concept of Rational Fic. I also read the Abridged Guide to Intelligent Characters, and I wanted to apply some of the lessons — and in the process to make a point, about the proper approach to mysteries. In chapter 3, Merel reflects: “Knowledge didn’t have to be something adults gave to you, it was something you could work out for yourself.” I wanted to transmit some of the habits of mind behind “figuring things out for yourself.”

I think I mostly failed at that. I got a few examples in, like when Merel was trying to model the Infernal Archive, or her use of the alchemy books as a map between languages. But I couldn’t show the whole experience end-to-end. Partly because I don’t have the plotting chops, and partly because I don’t have the slightest clue how real linguistic research works.

To convincingly depict a character’s solutions, I must first understand them myself. In Merel’s case, I had one saving grace: She’s not an expert at what she does, so I could get away with having her attack the problem the way I would. I couldn’t show the process, but I could show the approach. I had no such excuse with Heather in the final chapter, which is why their discussion is more philosophical than technical.

To make Merel visibly intelligent, in a way that wasn’t just an informed ability, I needed her actions to be thoughtful, understandable, and (occasionally) wrong. My plot wasn’t complex enough to support that kind of mistake. Hence, Merel’s most visible struggles are not with her primary task. There is some of that, but mostly her conflicts are social or personal.

My greatest dissatisfaction with the story, though, is that Merel was right. Merel isn’t a great scientist — at least, not in this story. She would fail the Wason Selection Task. Heather’s complaints to Merel at the end are, in large part, my own complaints about how I wrote her.

Aletheia’s Daughter came out fine, narratively, but I didn’t quite hit the target I was aiming for. It’s a character study of Merel3, and I’m proud of it as such, I like what I did here. But somewhere out in the land of Potential is another, better story. One where Merel does not merely find something unexpected; one where, instead, she discovers she was wrong. That when you set out to prove something you think you already know, sometimes it just isn’t so.

Someone should write that story, but it seems it won’t be me.

Extra Credits

There are a few outside references sprinkled through the story. Here are a few:

  • “Let’s go exploring” is from the ending of Calvin and Hobbes.
  • It was possible to understand things” is a reference to (and maybe a mantra against) this comment from pjeby
  • The metaphor of looking away is stolen from Yudkowsky’s The Sword of Good.

The chapter titles, of course, are all mythological references, as is the work title itself. Originally I wanted to name it after the God of Science. But as far as I can tell, there is no such god — presumably because the gods were invented before science was invented. Perhaps we need a new one.

I left two final mysteries behind for readers, small things that I won’t explain here, small things to figure out for yourself:

  • What is the provenance of the ship name Orntyr?
  • And from whence came the Infernal alphabet?

Two bonus points to anyone who can find the answers, redeemable for…

…for the satisfaction of knowing you found them.


  1. Interestingly, only child-Merel and Heather ever spell it with an S, and only child-Merel and Caustiumbra say it without caps. I’m not sure if that was intentional or not, but I preserved the usage. 

  2. There’s a line from the script: “Ugh, I was really liking this story, but now there’s this love triangle going on. Don’t you just hate that? It always ends with someone left out and lonely. Nobody ever writes it so they all three get together. I’d love to see that sometime.” As someone who doesn’t do closed relationships, I would too. :-P 

  3. Sometimes it seems like all my stories are character studies.