[FV] Midnight Walks


Authors
Kolo
Published
2 months, 17 days ago
Stats
7615 1

Aceus, the Head of Security for the Canthores palace, discovers one of his wards has been broken. The intruder he finds is desperate to speak to Emperor Peaches, despite his chagrin.

Theme Lighter Light Dark Darker Reset
Text Serif Sans Serif Reset
Text Size Reset

The cold air, the darkness, the silence.


At once, they shattered with a flick of magic - fingertip ignited with a tiny flame, led gently to lantern, pressed against wick. The flame wavered, then burst into a churning light, illuminating the room in throbs of orange and yellow.


Aceus hummed to himself, sweeping his gaze across the familiar furniture - bed, nightstand, papers, trinkets, statuettes, incense, chair, rug, door, circles.


Circles. Magic circles, rather - connecting his bedroom to the plethora of wards across the palace of Canthores, swirls of infused chalk spelling shapes and patterns. To any onlooker, they were nonsense - but to a mage’s trained eye, they were of exceptionally high quality.


Aceus fumbled for a moment before finding his glasses on the nightstand, pressing them onto his face. He peered at the vivid, arcing teals and greens of the only lit signal.


Of course, the urgency of the situation was not lost on him. It took only a glance to deduce which ward had been breached - southern wing, second floor, third hallway; likely one of the rooms overlooking the frost lavender fields.


With a resolute nod, he set off down the halls towards the source, shrugging on a warm coat as he went.


The night’s chilled air was enough to force a shudder down his spine. Though the light of First Moon was welcome, filtered through the stained-glass windows, it provided little warmth. Aceus gave it an absentminded smile as he turned a corner.


He glided through the palace on sure feet, on secure memory.


The walls of the palace were an old friend, brimming with dozens of enchantments of his make, whispering their secrets and sights to him.


They were his allies, his supporters, his world, his domain. In the quiet moments between one night and the next, he and they ruled supreme.


“Aceus.”


He turned his head.


The other Flame slinked out of the darkness of an opened door, head low - though the distrust in their sharp-colored eyes bored into him. “What’s you’re doing here?”


“Checking on an alert,” he replied, smoothly, gesturing vaguely in its direction. “It’s nothing to be alarmed of, Jeopsy. You may return to your quarters if you wish.”


“Return to my quarters,” they muttered. “Mmm. Where’s it?”


“The southern wing. I must make haste; follow if you’d wish to converse.”


He returned to his march. There was the sound of shifting from behind, and then the shuffling of Jeopsy’s footsteps, just a smidge quicker than his.


“Meant to talk to you yesterday. Mmmmissed you at dinner.”


“I didn’t attend.” he tilted his head.


“Why’sat?”


Aceus gave another noncommittal wave. “I was simply archiving several of my reports with the Faxtory’s database. I’d been busy for hours; hadn’t realized the time.”


“Ah, sucks. It was really well-cooked. And Peaches gave a nice speech at the end about - well I’m not remembering actually.”


Aceus glanced over his shoulder. Though it was commonplace among the Court to drop the Emperor’s titles in casual speech, it was typically reserved for the more high-ranking Flames and their private discussions.


Not to say that he looked down upon a Wings Flame, but... well, it was simply overly friendly.


“Actually.” Jeopsy coughed into their oversized nightgown’s sleeve. “Wanted to talk to you about Peaches.”


“What of the Emperor?”


“I’ve been approached by some person claiming they know how he attained the Blue Flame,” Jeopsy said, voice low.


Aceus let out a light chuckle. “Ah. Haven’t you been here longer than I? You should know how often those claims are mere drivel - spoken only for attention and coin.”


“They hads legitimacy to them.”


“Did they? What proof could they have served you?”


Jeopsy huffed, lifting both arms to pantomime a circle. “They said they had the Flames of Reewah. That they were a reincarnation, too.”


Aceus paused. He tilted his head, both ears turning to catch Jeopsy’s soft breathing. “And you believed them? Would we not have heard of a reincarnation as such before?”


“Wells, they said they were from Bivve. So, it isn’t out of the question.”


“What would a reincarnation of Reewah be doing on Bivve, of all places? Nestled in a den of Fervor-heathens, what would they hope to gain? Why be blessed there?”


“Listen, iss not important,” Jeopsy said, shaking a hand at him. “They could proves it.”


Aceus waved them off. The mutterings of the lesser Courtlings was not his concern - especially a distraction such as this.


No, his concern was the glass-cased preservation of the palace, of Peaches, of the Empire.


He was their bastion, a flag in the night.


He turned another corner and stopped.


The hall was deceptively nondescript.


The doors along the west wall were closed shut and likely locked - they were used for storing ceremonial plates and cups, tarps and flags.


The windows on the east wall were of a simple clear glass make, tucked by deep red curtains.


But even the warm rug on the floor was unmussed.


He prowled to the windows, Jeopsy lingering in the hall’s turn.


Aceus could feel his magic within the bricks pulsating, crying out, screaming at him - the hole was there. He could trace it against the frigid wall, the exact shape - more than large enough for any person.


There was no sign of break in the steel-colored stone. He pressed fingers along the edge of the window - no sign of tampering, and the lock was still secure.


But the ward - of course - was shattered, cleanly, carefully. Someone had clearly weakened the magical bonds holding the enchantment together - likely over the course of days, possibly a week.


It would have been easy to unravel the entire thread after and enter, with only the wards on either side alerting Aceus to their entry.  


Embarrassment flushed him. How had he not noticed someone picking at his work like a simple padlock? What would he say to Peaches - how would he answer to the other’s reasonable questions to his legitimacy?


Ah, well, Peaches was kind and understanding. The worst he could apply was a dejected sort of disappointment.


No, the real threat was his peers - the other powerful Flames of the Court. His stomach churned at the snippets of gossip he could already imagine.


“Wassit looking as?”


“I haven’t the faintest idea how they got in,” Aceus said, quietly.


“Well, what a shame’s that is,” Jeopsy said, with the slightest hint of smugness.


Aceus’ tail stiffened, eyes widened, shoulders tensed. His hands arched into claws, then curled into tight fists, near-trembling.


At once, he could feel Jeopsy’s energy shift - from playful and teasing to abject fear, nearly a taste in the air. They didn’t move as he turned - a swift, quick, jerky motion.


Too emotional. He whipped his tail once-twice to release the anger, and then leveled a cold, blank stare onto Jeopsy.


“If you have disrupted the sanctity of my wards and the safety of all within Canthores,” he said, slowly, enunciating each word, “then I do suggest, kindly, you speak NOW.”


“Iss not a threat,” Jeopsy said, though their pinned ears and trembling legs betrayed them. “They’s not a threat.”


“They? Who is this intruder?” he flexed his hands once more. “You clearly knew I would be alerted - you were awake, waiting for me. This was premeditated. Do you have any idea of the situation you’ve put yourself in?”


“They’s the one with information on Peaches,” came the tiny protest. “They needed to get in.”


“Secretly? You trusted this stranger, this liar - by helping them break into the palace? What exactly did you do?”


“I juss weakened the mortar and wards so they could get in without any troubles. That’s it! That’s all, I swears. They’s even fixed up the wall, see?”


“Where did you loosen the wall?”


Sheepishly, Jeopsy slithered over. The set of bricks they outlined looked no different to the rest, but this was no comfort - rather, it spelled the work of an adept mage.


Aceus’ growl spelled his irritation.


He let out another sigh, reaching to rub his temples. “The Emperor will be informed of your betrayal.”


“Iss not a betrayal! Iss important information for him!”


“Is it? Is it so important that it could not go through official channels?”


“It is, actually.” a new voice.


Both turned, Jeopsy perking up, Aceus summoning his claymore.


The newcomer balked at the sword, taking several steps back - but did not flee. When Aceus made no motion to swing, they relaxed, wings lowering back to a standard hold.


His eyes flicked over their form.


Their clothing was of exotic make - flashy colors and layers like a show-bird.


Their accent was not especially thick, though it certainly spoke of foreign heritage.


Their posture was assured, confident, despite the earlier hesitation.


None of which boded well, of course. He tightened his fingers on the hilt.


“I’m terribly sorry to have arrived under such undue circumstances,” they said, the wings on their head gently opening. “Unfortunately for us both, I am - was - being followed.”


“Followed? By whom?”


“At least a dozen Dewclaws,” they said, dipping their head in an approximation of a nod. “Though I suspect... actually, your name is-?”


“Aceus,” he replied, straightening his back. “He-him, head of security. I’m afraid you haven’t given yours.”


“I suppose I must, then, if you’re - well. Vialattea, though most nicknames will do. He-him as well.” he offered his hand.


Aceus shook it, firmly. The other’s grip was far weaker - evasive, almost. He slipped from the handshake as soon as Aceus loosened his fingers.


In the back of his head, he was already running numbers on a ‘dozen’ Dewclaws chasing this individual. If true, then he’d led them right to the palace - which would provide quite the annoyance to fix come morning.


But, they would likely respect the wishes of Peaches - deferring to Chellabra’s kindly relationship with the Empire - and dissipate as quietly as they’d supposedly arrived.


“You understand you’ve made a poor first impression,” Aceus informed him, hefting the claymore for a second to make a point. Vialattea grimaced at it. “Any one of the rest of the Court could have been approached regarding this. You could have spoken to the Emperor during Open Court.”


“Secrecy was of the utmost importance. Again, I’m sorry, but it had to be this way. My Flame is...” Vialattea coughed into his hand, “...of interest to Mewt Mavet. Has Jeopsy told you-? It doesn’t matter, actually. I really don’t mean any harm.”


“Then you won’t protest as I detain you.” he beckoned with a finger.


“Detained...?” Vialattea’s eyes widened in glazed surprise. “Wh - I - that’s not necessary. I assure you I carry no threat.”


Aceus didn’t move. “Your word is meaningless, considering your actions. Now, come along.”


Vialattea hesitated another long, precious second - before his shoulders slumped slightly and he let out a long, suffering sigh.


Once his displeasure was sufficiently voiced, he meekly tailed Aceus - who gestured for Jeopsy to follow, as well.


----------------------------- -----------------------------


“Mmm - at this hour?”


“Yes, my liege,” Gosha said, her dour expression signifying the severity. “Though if you insist on more sleep, I could perhaps tell Aceus-”


“Nono,” Peaches said, with a soft wave of his hand, “that won’t be needed. Just give me a moment to prepare myself.”


She gave a warm, quick nod, and slipped out of his quarters. The door shut with a quiet noise behind her.


Peaches sighed.


He pressed his palms against his eyes, rubbing in circles. The motion and the slight twinges of pain were enough to shake most of the exhaustion from his body.


His fingers flicked, his Flame flickered, and -


The door shut with a quiet noise behind her.


He pressed his hands in harder, tighter, rubbing harder. He blinked blearily at the specks of blackness, which quickly faded. Experimentally, he stretched his shoulders - and winced at the audible pops.


His fingers flicked.


The door shut with a quiet noise behind her.


He stood, stiffly. Both hands raised above his head, stretched out the sore muscles along his side - then down towards his knees. Something in the lumbar shifted uncomfortably, but not intolerably so.


Good enough, he supposed, and fetched a more proper-looking nightgown. After a pause, he supplemented it with an overcoat.


As he pulled it over his shoulders, he wondered briefly if Gosha would comment on it. She’d been trying to insist on his wearing of proper winter clothing for some time now. The cold seasons in Canthores’ higher altitude were, after all, a far cry from the temperate cools he’d known as a child.


Peaches turned the door’s knob and stepped into the frigid hall with a shiver. With no fireplace to keep it warm, the halls of the palace always held onto quite the chill.


Gosha, who had been leaning against the wall, stood straight quickly. Though she’d grown out of saluting him every time their eyes met, she still maintained a respectable decorum. He gave Gosha a smile, and she tilted her head politely in turn.


She looked tired, too. If only his power could grant her another precious few hours of sleep. What was the point of godhood if he couldn’t give his most trusted guard something as simple as rest?


He shook the thoughts from his head. No time for fantasies.


They set off together in step, gliding past the stained-glass windows that decorated the Emperor’s Wing.


Peaches gave them respectful glances as they passed, eyes flicking over each previous Emperor with a mixture of trepidation and admiration.


It still felt surreal, didn’t it? What a silly question. Of course it did. He ducked his head as they passed Nereen’s window - a rushed job, with so little change of substance under the other’s reign to serve as inspiration.


He still felt sorry for that. As if it was all his fault some way. As if he could snap his fingers and return Nereen’s legacy to him, tell him to make something more of it.


In the history books, would Nereen be nothing but a footnote in Peaches’ tale? Would they bother to mark down the adjustments to taxes, the changes to minute property law the other had imposed? Or would he be swept like sand, a forgotten name in a thick list of everyone who’d touched the Empire’s crown?


Useless thoughts. Here was, now, in the present, about to meet some sort of high-security prisoner at a terrible morning hour.


“Can you repeat what you said regarding his arrest?” he asked out loud.


“Certainly,” Gosha said, her voice sharp as ever. “He broke through several of Aceus’ protective wards in a weak point produced by Jeopsy-”


“...Jeopsy?”


“-And entered the castle, though it’s unclear if he actually - yes, Jeopsy.”


“That sounds rather unlike them, no?” Peaches frowned. The other’s sullen, shy sulking painted a clear picture in his mind’s eye. “Have they been checked for mind-altering?”


“Not yet, as far as I know. But they are being detained with the intruder. The intruder goes by Vialattea, apparently.”


Something like lightning, familiar and sharp, shot through Peaches’ chest. He tilted his head, but didn’t stop walking.


He’d never heard the name in his life, and yet...?


“Did he give any explanation of why he chose to... intrude?”


“Aceus was tight-lipped, but supposedly the intruder has ‘information’ for your ears only.”


“Ah, lovely,” Peaches said, with a wry smile. “I suppose I’ll have to hear it.”


Gosha shifted a hand to her sword’s pommel. “My liege, if you do not wish to tolerate wastes of your time as such....”


Peaches frowned, wrist aching as he tensed his hand. The temptation to press time back a moment and clear the sarcasm from his tone bubbled up in him, but -


- But he needed to be more genuine. At least with Gosha. He willed the anxiety in his heart down, into his stomach. At least there he could ignore it, inundated by a cocktail of painkillers.


“It’s not a waste of my time,” he said, instead, softly. “If someone’s sick, then I can heal them. And I’d rather they come to me with their delusions and paranoia and let themselves be healed than suffer alone for longer.”


Gosha merely shook her head, though it lacked real disappointment. He knew her opinion well on the matter - that martyrdom was a poor way to use their most holy Emperor.


Though, part of him didn’t know what else they wanted from him. Most of his duties were listening to pilgrims’ stories and locals’ woes, and simply serving as a mediator or comfort. His presence alone quelled the stress of most pious individuals. So, what then?


Ugh. Navigating questions proved more and more difficult every day, as he adjusted ever-slowly to his new position. Previous Emperors were trained well for centuries by their predecessors, who handpicked them with care.


Nereen, of course, had been cold in the ground long before Peaches was crowned.


“My Emperor.” Aceus’ voice cut through him like a knife.


Peaches automatically stopped walking.


He had entered a lobby of sorts, deceptively well-furnished with plush chairs, warm candlelight, and a single frosted window.


To the uninitiated, it was nothing more than a sitting room - but the smaller room it connected to was oft used for holding prisoners without rousing the rest of the guards.


He’d seen the enchantments in that almost-closet - dozens of them, tended to and formed by centuries of palace security.


Speaking of which.


Aceus, a yard or so away, was practically oozing a mixture of apprehension yet relief. He bowed deeply, then straightened himself with a disconcerted frown.


Peaches offered a warm smile, holding up a hand. “Aceus. Good ni... morning to you.”


Fuck. He flicked his hand.


Peaches offered a warm smile, holding up a hand. “Aceus. Good morning to you.”


“Good morning to you as well, my Emperor. I apologize we are meeting on such poor terms, on such a ghastly hour.” for his credit, Aceus did look rather pale. “I assure you I have already repaired the damage to our wards, and immediately took the intruder into custody. He was quite cooperative.”


“Was he? I’m glad to hear he didn’t make your life more difficult.” Peaches gently chuckled. “Why don’t you go get more rest? Gosha and I can discuss with the prisoners.”


“Your safety is my priority, my Emperor,” Aceus said, a hint of possessive firmness in his tone, “I would hate to leave and be responsible for any harm done to you. And I am deeply sorry for allowing this-”


“There will be no harm done to the Emperor within my presence, Aceus. You have no reason to doubt my competency,” Gosha spoke. Though her tone was not that of warning, there was a certain hardness to it that spoke of her rank and authority.


Aceus frowned. “I meant nothing of the sort, Blade. I would never call your dedication or skill into question - you have my word. I merely wish to make up for my mistake in allowing the breach in the first place.”


“You’ve already done what you can to repent, so to speak,” Peaches said, placing a hand on Aceus’ shoulder. “You’ve apprehended those involved and have repaired the damage. What more could I ask? Please, get more sleep.”


Aceus opened his mouth, as if to argue, but after a second acquiesced, slipping out of the lobby’s door quietly. Gosha’s eyes never left him until he was well out of sight, at which point she closed the door.


“Preemptive,” Peaches said, simply. “You think he’d try to come back in?”


“Aceus is relentless and ambitious. If he has a way to appeal to you, my liege, he will abuse it.” satisfied with her response, Gosha took up post next to the door.


He turned towards the lobby’s other door with a thoughtful hum. That was an assessment he could probably agree with, even if he found no real fault in Aceus’ drive and passion.


Really, he found it more admirable than anything else - envy almost bubbling in him at the thought of the other’s constant energy.


Ugh. He was clearly tired. His mind wandered like a meandering dragonid. Shouldn’t he be taking the intrusion of his palace more seriously, with a stalwart face, squared shoulders?


Were these not the circumstances that resulted in Nereen’s death?


Freshly sombered, he opened the door into the almost-closet. Seated in comfortable chairs and locked in silver cuffs were Jeopsy and a new face - Vialattea, by process of elimination.


He paused to look over the two, noting Jeopsy’s glum expression and the way Vialattea stiffened at his entry.


“Good morning,” he said, picking through the room until he found a chair of his own. “I do hope this is worth the early hours!”


“You must be Peaches,” Via said, voice a rush, a slight frown, “though you’re more demure-looking than - nevermind. I need to speak with you in private.”


“For what purpose?”


“I have information regarding the Blue Flame, and your attainment of it.”


Ah, this. Not an entirely uncommon source of paranoia for many people within the Empire, especially those who took Nereen’s death poorly.


For many, the unresolved puzzle was a tumor in the backs of their minds, pressuring them until bursting with the consuming desire to discover the ‘truth’, whatever it could be.


“How interesting,” Peaches said, “Thank you for coming to me with this. We should indeed speak privately, I think, though I should check with Liege Jeopsy and see to their release.”


“No needs,” Jeopsy said, voice almost frantic. “I promise they’re legitimacy. I swear it! They showed me!”


Ack. No good - that only served to upset Jeopsy further. Though, why were they so insistent on this Vialattea knowing anything of substance? They were one of the coldest Court members to outsiders. So why be convinced by a typical case of mania?


...Unless Peaches had misjudged them? But... he didn’t think he was that poor of a judge of character.


Peaches’ hand flicked, ever-so-slightly.


“How interesting,” he said, then paused for a split second to think of words - then flicked his hand again, and spoke more firmly, “I was informed that you had a hand in this intruder’s arrival, Jeopsy. Is there a particular reason you did this?”


Jeopsy gave a more relieved sigh this time, shoulders untensing slightly. “Mm glads you’re willing to listen to me, Emperor. Aceus blew me off like it was nothings. Listen - they’re not just any Flame. I promise! They’re a reincarnation too.”


Oh.


That was quite the claim.


Peaches turned his head to Vialattea, a few questions bubbling in his mind - but paused at the sight of the other’s piercing glare. He froze, suddenly caught under a spotlight, unblinkingly staring back.


“He’s got the Flames of Reewah, Emperor,” Jeopsy continued, almost oblivious, “And he can prove it. He proved it to me. And it’s important for you two to talk!”


The Flames of Reewah? That involved... mind-reading, no?


So then... could he-


Via merely nodded.


Well, that meant nothing. It didn’t take a social engineer to guess at what he was thinking at that revelation-


“I saw you invoke your Flame,” Via said, flatly. “You should indeed check with Liege Jeopsy and arrange their release.”


Peaches stared for a long, hard second, the sound of his heartbeat filling the tiny room. Unfathomable emotions crawled through him - and he watched the minute movements of Via’s eyes as the other tracked his thoughts, effortlessly, silently.


“Gosha,” he said, weakly, incapable of turning away, “Could you please escort Jeopsy back to their quarters?”


----------------------------- -----------------------------


“I suppose it would make sense for you two to have... interacted before.”


“Indeed. He was equally frantic when speaking to me as well.” though Via clutched the cup of coffee, he still had yet to sip.


Instead, he was hunched over, elbows on knees, wings lazily draped down his back.


Peaches idly twirled a finger around the rim of his own cup. While he usually indulged his own thoughts during lulls in conversation, he felt - tense? Concerned?


As if he had something to hide, or fear from Via - even though the other had made no motions against him yet.


He supposed that, perhaps, he was simply developing the paranoia of politics.


Via snorted. “That’s half of why I kept away from them, you know.”


“Politics?”


“I wasn’t on Bivve just to skirt Mavet. Well, that was part of it. But - Bivve is Fervor. Easier to hide my identity. Avoid getting distracted.”


Peaches nodded.


“I hadn’t realized that Khamdy had shown himself to you yet.” Via’s voice dropped an octave. “That does change... my perception of things. Greatly.”


“Only twice,” Peaches said, a thoughtful tint to his voice, “though both times he was... hm....”


Polite words failed him, but Via waved it off simply. Right. Of course. Mindreader. Was it easier for him to just think of his memories?


“No, talking is preferable. It’s louder and clearer.” now Via sipped, averting his eyes.


There was a long pause. The other’s words churned in his head, coalescing into a soup of emotion that he could not fathom of partitioning.


“You’re free to stay in the Empire as long as you wish,” Peaches said, after a moment. “I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful regarding Khamdy.”


“If it wasn’t him who gave you the Blue Flame, then who?” Via set the cup down to reach into his bag, procuring a thick notebook stuffed with bookmarks and strips of paper sticking out. “I was so sure - it coincided with my loss of communication with the other Ardor, and - and actually, have you asked Xharde who he thinks it was?”


The face of the dead god instantly filled Peaches’ mind. He shifted uncomfortably. “I did. He has suspicions, but nothing concrete enough to share.”


Via, who had been staring up hopefully, slumped back down into disappointment. “Fuck. Okay. That’s great, I guess.”


“Does... Reewah....?”


Via paused, flicking through their notebook. Then, diplomatically, “Reewah and I don’t talk often. Hey. This isn’t as cover-up as it seems. We just don’t. They want to... well, I guess, rest in peace, in a sense.”


Curiosity burned in him - an ignited fire that filled his chest with a plethora of unaskable questions. But were they unaskable?


Were they so bad, here, in this room with one of few peers - one of few people who could fully understand what he was experiencing?


“You’re poetic for a supposed farmboy, aren’t you?” Via asked, a half-quirked smirk.


Peaches ducked his head. “It’s - it’s a bad habit.”


“It’s alright. I just didn’t expect-” Via sighed. “I should’ve expected, actually. Of course news gets filtered strange when arriving on Bivve. I would’ve stayed in Sendrea longer, gathered more intel, but with the Dewclaws-”


“No worries.” Peaches lifted a hand. “Please, don’t concern yourself with the past.”


“You could all erase it, couldn’t you?” this time, Via didn’t look up from the book, instead scratching something into it in some Bivve language Peaches didn’t recognize. “With your powers?”


...He could, most likely. Though he hadn’t fully stretched the muscle of Xharde’s powers-


“Your powers.”


“Hm?” he responded, automatically.


“Xharde is dead,” Via said, flatly, plainly. “There is no bringing him back. That’s why Khamdy can’t move on, that’s why he dragged Reewah into this mess after him and got Reewah killed. They’re gone. So - it’s your power, now.”


Peaches shifted, opening his mouth-


“I know. It’s going to take getting used to. I know everyone around you will call it Xharde’s power.” Via looked up to poke Peaches in the chest with his pen. “But they don’t have the full picture like you, I, even Mavet does of just how fucked everything is. You aren’t just a reincarnation - you ARE an Ardor now. And yes, I know. It took me years to really grasp that. I don’t expect you to right away, either. But I’m just telling you what I would’ve wanted to hear back then.”


Uncomfortable words. But he could see the truth in them. It did spark a dozen questions of Via’s history - his ascension, his childhood, his struggles, his life, his dreams, his work, his-


“Well, I can answer the childhood,” he said, paging through the book. “Kirin. Didn’t have one.”


Right. Oops. Sorry.


“No offense taken. You’ve met Khamdy and who else, again?”


“Just Khamdy. Unless you would count Mewt Mavet among them?”


“No. And your memory of the night it happened...?”


“Foggy, I’m afraid. Trust me, I’m equally plagued by my inability to recall, as well.” Peaches folded his hands in his lap. “Bits and pieces.”


“Even those can be helpful. Especially with me here.”


Peaches took in a shuddering breath.


“If... if, um, it’s not too traumatic to share-”


“I can tell of it. I just need a moment. I haven’t spoken of it since the guards found me.”


Via just nodded.


Was it easier to simply think of it? Would words catch in his throat, choke away the truth, give him ways to weasel around the sensations, avoid staring such a memory in the eye?


“If it’s easier, that’s fine too.”


Maybe it would be.


For, even now, as he questioned himself, he could recall that night - exceptionally frigid, deep in the winter month of Ultredan.


Such temperatures had required their family requesting the local Flame to enact protective wards over their wheat and potato fields. It had been done, but with a frown on their face - irritation, surely, at the eleventh-hour emergency telepathy.


Though he hadn’t blamed them, his ears had pinned back when they snapped at his mother in irritation.


He’d been out long after dark, his only source of light the First Moon and a lantern, held out on a stick, as he picked through the fields.


The village he’d grown up in, barely a town of a hundred, was scattered along the Savalla - there wasn’t another home for several miles, and the only souls nearby were of his small family.


It was a simple, ritual thing to him. When night fell and his mother and sibling retreated to the attic, snuffed out the candles, sometimes he would creep from bed and clear his head in the cool night air, let the day’s memories fill him and his body as he idly walked through the wheat.


His excuse, always, of course - simply checking for vermin, ensuring the enchantments looked stable. But, of course, that was all mere lies - lies that he told himself, too, to comfort his compulsion to trudge through mud and dirt.


The edges of his memory were fuzzied and torn. The pictures in his head were unclear, smudged, filled in with his best approximation of what he saw.


He could remember the sensation of tilting his head back, the ache of pain in his neck, as he stared up at the stars. They had seemed unusually bright, but the patterns were long lost to him.


He could only remember the uncertainty in the pit of his chest as he watched several wink out, far above, untouchable. And, of course, the guilt - at his realization that he couldn’t recall a mourning prayer off the top of his head, and that he would have to hope some other person could send those stars off on his behalf.


Head down.


A shape in the field ahead, taller than he.


The fear and adrenaline that slammed into his body - the freezing hand-numbing terror that he had no weapons.


Instantly a slew of local wild predatory animals splattered into his mind, punctuated only by his careful steps backwards, as his limited options rolled like slots before him.


Run. Run? Where? Not to the house - family - the back shed? Weapon? Nearest? Useful? Needed something with distance, with-


And then a voice.


Lost to time, memory, the clutches of mortality that wrenched the dredges of his past from him in return for granting a future.


Their words were mostly indistinct, only a near-mocking tone keeping the throughline.


Snippets, here and there. The Pink Flame, nestled in his chest. They knew of it.


Dread. Different from fear or terror - a paralyzing, deep feeling, rising from the steady parts of him and bleeding into the anxiety and the tension, replacing it with the kind of understanding that one only attains when staring down true death.


They attempted to calm him with a simple gesture, but he was frozen to the ground as they approached, pulled their hood back enough for him to see their face.


Bright, vibrant, saturated eyes stared back, reflecting the Moon’s light. No horns. Nothing disrupted the cloak, and nothing stuck out from their silhouette. A smirk of grinning teeth, the look of confidence and certainty bleeding from them like magic.


They had a gift for him.


They were interested to see what he could do with it.


They wanted to know what would become of the world.


It would be fun to change the course of history, wouldn’t it? To peel away more at the rotted fruit and expose it for all to see?


He didn’t know. He couldn’t fathom what they were saying, right? That was the fun part - what an idiot Khamdy was, right? What a misguided, utter fool.


And then black.


Complete black.


And all else he could remember - waking up, the sun cocked half-morning, a worm crawling over his face, sitting up in a daze, the call of his concerned mother over the hill.


Nothing more.


Nothing less.


“Unfortunate,” was all Via said, after a long moment.


Peaches rolled his shoulders, the audible sound of them cracking filling the room.


He hung his head, somewhere between embarrassed and exhausted.


“Your memory actually seems tampered with. They likely cast a spell on you so you wouldn’t have perfect recall. If that, er, makes you feel any better.”


It sort of did. “Does their attitude or behavior remind you of anyone?” he asked, lifting his head.


Of course, he wasn’t expecting to get a name back. Xharde had been tight-lipped, Khamdy too busy rambling to care, Mewt-


“It could be Merse or Ceerie,” Via said, plainly, as he stared at his book. “I mean. I don’t think it is, but they kind of have that... kind of mischievousness to them. But as far as I’m aware they haven’t left Evenne since Mewrune died. They knew who Khamdy was, so that does imply they’re of Evenne.”


“Evenne. Khamdy spoke little of it.”


“I can imagine.” Via hummed. “He’s not very - articulate, I suppose. And upon finding you, I imagine he’d be even less enthused.”


The other’s desperation was clear in his mind, lightning in an empty sky. The wail of absolute horror, of soul-piercing destruction, the scream of Xharde’s name.


“He’s always been like that,” Via offered.


How dismissive. Though, Peaches couldn’t blame Via, considering the other’s impressive age.


Even though it was an incredible number, he had no reason to doubt the other’s tale, what little scraps he’d gotten in their conversation.


Of course, he’d like to know more - but this wasn’t a discussion where he steered the flow of questions.


Via averted his eyes, seemingly ignoring that thought. “I’m serious about you reversing the last few months, by the way. You could give us both a leg up against Mavet.”


“Is he really such a threat?” Peaches pressed, swallowing down the disconcerting lump in his throat. “Enough to find worth in upheaving the lives of all those mortals of the past month?”


“Upheave? They’d have no idea of what you’re doing. They never have.” Via tapped his temple. “Only you and I - thanks to my Flame - would remember this conversation. And you wouldn’t have your head of security throwing a fit any longer. And Mavet wouldn’t find out that I’ve made it to you and had a discussion with you. All the Dewclaws would know is that I made it to Lacraya, failed, and then returned to Bivve.”


“I’ve never used it for - for such changes before. I don’t....”


“You can. I know Xharde can. I’ve poured over the history I’ve managed to uncover and the documentation the other Ardor gave me.”


Peaches let out a tiny sigh - closer to a release of pressure than irritation. He’d half run on autopilot in this conversation, trying not to think of things that would - what, undermine him? - while maintaining usefulness to Via, and it was - hard.


It was hard to not work through the problem in his head, like a logic cube. It was hard not to let himself feel the emotions running through his mind - wariness, distance, alienation.


Here he was, speaking to one of the few people that shared his burden, and he could only see in them everything he was not: intelligent, observant, organized, directed.


Via was uncovering the secrets of the Ardor, researching every corner of the world, drawing his own conclusions, kind enough to offer Peaches answers.


And what was Peaches doing, save for wallowing in this palace and acting out the puppetry of being an Emperor - a title he’d never trained for, a title he’d never earned? He’d grasped at the keys of infinity, the secrets of the world, and had gone on eating breakfast and listening to mortals tell of-


-Did he even hear himself right now? Dismissing the concerns of mortals for some happenstance information, some possible dream of something greater?


Did he not tell Xharde, those years ago, that he would grasp onto mortality and hold with all his might?


“I’m sorry,” Via said, finally. He’d ducked his head, the lightest twinges of pink across his muzzle. “I’m really not good with people. The - the mindreading doesn’t help and I, uh, I’m not, um, very well socialized.”


“I-” Peaches’ tails stiffened, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to think all of that at you, or direct-”


“-No, you’re - you’re fine. I did literally break into your palace and kind of thrust this conversation on you. And I wasn’t even right in thinking Khamdy - and I wasn’t even forthcoming about myself. I’m sorry.”


He sat up a little straighter. “I appreciate you being here at all, truly. You’re one of the few people that I can talk to about this, who understands all of the context.”


There was an awkward, pregnant silence.


“We can maintain some sort of communication, obviously,” Via said, closing up his book in a bit of a rush. “You’re right. There’s no point in - in not working together to resolve this. You’re certainly much more tolerable than Mavet.”


That was probably a compliment. “And you’re sure there are no other... reincarnations, running amok?”


“There’s not.” the confidence in the other’s voice was almost soothing. “I definitely would’ve heard of them. Why do you ask?” a twinge of almost-panic at the idea.


“...I have concerns.”


“About?” Via leaned forwards, eyes wider, visibly tense.


“Khamdy,” Peaches said, plainly, opening his arms wide. “Now that Xharde is truly dead. Of course I lack understanding of him as an individual, but I’ve heard enough from him and Mewt to understand how desperate he was for Xharde’s return. And I now stand in the way of that.”


Via sat back, frowning deeply.


“I... I feel responsible for him,” Peaches admitted, casting his glance aside. “I know we are a pair, time and space, push-and-pull. I worry deeply for his mental state. What torture must he be suffering through? Is there anything I can do to relieve it?”


“I can see what you mean.”


“Do you think - if I reached out to him, would I only worsen his wounds?” Peaches looked back to the other, a hint of desperation in his tone. “Would I serve as only a reminder of Xharde? Or could he find some comfort in me?”


Via’s frown widened. “I couldn’t say. I don’t know him that well. Though... I... I could put you two in proper contact. If he’s still... around. Though we should be able to sense if he, uhm, kills himself.”


“Oh?”


“It’s like a shift, of sorts. Like the world tilts one way too far for a few moments. It’s subtle sort of, but you’ll really know when it happens. Something changing in the metaphysics of it all. Concepts shifting, crashing into each other.” Via tucked the book under his arm. “So, um, to sum it up, I’m sure he’s still out there.”


“I would... appreciate you giving me a way to speak to him.”


“Of course. I’d probably have to stay a few more days to get the crystal lattice up, but I did bring most of my magitech tools with me.”


Peaches finally broke out into a smile. “Well, that’s perfect then. I must re-extend my offer for you to stay here, in Canthores.”


“I appreciate it, but I don’t want Mavet to-”


“-I assure you, the Dewclaws will not bother you while you stay in the capital. The authority of the Emperor’s grace travels far in these southern lands - including to Chellabra. Our countries have a longstanding relationship and as long as you are a guest of mine, they can do nothing to upset that without disrupting that trade.”


“If you think Mavet isn’t above disrupting trade to get at what he wants....”


“You underestimate me.” Peaches’ smile grew.


The blush on Via’s face worsened, spreading across his cheeks, as his eyes widened. “I- I didn’t mean to-”


His words trailed off, sensing the lack of offense or insult. Indeed, the only thing coursing through Peaches was brief amusement and igniting excitement. Eagerness, even.


He had an ally, here - a knowledgeable, driven ally, who was as curious about the state of affairs of the world as he was.


They shared a goal: truth, did they not?


Via bit the inside of his cheek, but gave a slight nod. He rubbed at his muzzle, as if to dispel the pink.


Then there was no reason to keep distance between them. They could forge forth together, utilizing Peaches’ resources and position - and Vialattea’s knowledge and experience.


“You’re excitable,” came the mumble. “Young, I guess.”


“I’m forty-two!”


Via huffed. “Right. Young. Practically a baby. I’d tell you to guess at my age, but you’d be off by thousands.”


That wasn’t a no to his proposal.


The other let out a weak sigh, pressing hands to forehead. Some part of Peaches felt a twinge of pity, but - wasn’t it worth it? The idea of having an ally in this world?


“I can’t stay all the time,” Via said, finally, almost defeated. “I have to... I go to Moondown once a year for. A ritual - it’s hard to explain-”


“That’s absolutely fine. We can arrange for you to leave through Pedian whenever you need, to avoid going through Sendrea again.”


“...If you insist it’ll be fine.”


“I do!”


“Okay.” Via slumped back. “I’ll have to teleport back home to at least pack up some of my more crucial things.”


“I’ll have Aceus whitelist you in our teleport wards, then,” Peaches said.


“Then it’s decided?”


“It is!” he stuck out his hand, the energy filling his systems, rocketing from limb to heart to head to mind like a storm.


In a way, he felt alive - truly alive, for the first time since he’d had his agency ripped from him, torn like by the wolf of a stranger who had implanted that Flame.


For once, his fingers had gripped the horns of the bull again, and he could dig his heels into the dirt and feel the blood rushing through his body as he pushed back, as his goal centered itself, as the idea of making it over the horizon filled his mind.


“Stars,” Via muttered, taking his hand, “why don’t you write a novel or something?”