Candles in the Dark

by Hallan Mirayas

December 707

Alexastra slipped into Drift's rooms without a sound and eased the door shut behind her. "Drift? Are you here?" she called, careful not to be too loud. It was very late, and he might be— A strange sound drew her attention to a new door, just past the cold and unlit forge, one that hadn't been there the last time she had visited. She checked his bedroom first and, seeing that he wasn't there, quietly opened the new door. "Honey?"

She found Drift passed out, slumped over a desk full of drawings. He did not sleep easy, but whimpered and moaned as if in the grip of a vicious nightmare. That was the sound that had drawn her attention, and by all rights she should have been pleased. It meant that her plan was working, to build the stress and strain on her mark until the critical moment came to break him and send him after Linafex, ending that man's contract with her master.

It should have pleased her, upon his return from the aedra's mission, that Edward had promptly started working himself to exhaustion and that he took to avoiding sleep as much as possible. It should have pleased her that, at the merest touch on his shoulder, he would wake with a scream of terror. It should have pleased her that he was so close to the breaking point.

It didn't. Kneeling down and cradling him against her as he sobbed into the night, Alexastra wept with him… and she didn't precisely know why.

That incident had happened nearly two months ago, and Drift had slowly recovered his mental balance after long talks with Misha and that Hough boy. Her own indecision, however, had only grown stronger with the passage of time. She had played her part as comforter and confidante as much as the fox and the priest had, but when she'd been given the opportunity to turn up the pressure on him again afterward… she'd hesitated. She'd put it off for 'later'. What pleased her instead was seeing his smile come slowly back, seeing him pick up Whirlwind and practice with it after avoiding going anywhere near it for almost three full weeks, seeing him sleep the whole night through again.

Thus it didn't come as much of a surprise to her when Lord Agemnos summoned her to his throne room. He had taken the guise of a Midlands lord this time, dressed in sharply tailored black, with long brown hair pulled back in a ponytail and a precisely trimmed goatee that he stroked thoughtfully while he spoke.

"Alexastra, my dear, it is always a pleasure watching your plans come to fruition: a perfect snare, without a single thread out of place." He leaned forward. "But even my patience has limits. As much as you enjoy your latest toy, he is going to have to be broken sooner or later. Personally, I would prefer sooner, for Linafex grows tiresome with his complaints. Still…" He paused and leaned back in his chair, carefully leaving only the merest hint of irritation in his voice. "I know you like to craft your traps at your own pace. I won't tell you to hurry up… yet." His brown eyes narrowed. "Don't make me regret my generosity."

"You won't, my lord," said the raven-haired woman kneeling before his throne. "Upon my oath to you I promise that, before the month is over, I will bring this matter to a profitable conclusion."

It had been a week since her lord's veiled ultimatum, and Drift and she had been busy. He had been busy getting ready for Yule… and she had been busy subtly twisting the knife. A carefully placed word here, a disguised action there, and his nightmares started coming back again. On top of that, she added strategic praise of his work around town to bring many new requests for tinsmithing in time for the Yule celebration. As expected, Drift reacted to both by channeling his stress into long working hours through nonstop days and sleepless nights. She worked alongside him, feigning weariness and then pushing through it whenever he wanted to stop for her sake.

It worked like a charm. "Drift, when was the last time you slept? You look like death warmed over!" Alexis heard Wolfram's shocked exclamation through a closed door from an entire room away and carefully hid a smile. Yes, this was coming along nicely. Now for another turn of the screw. Dropping the paintbrush she'd been holding, the she-bat collapsed. As she fell, she purposely bumped against the wood and fabric construction upon which she'd just been brushing glue, knocking it off its stand with a crash that brought Drift and Wolfram running.

The touch of Drift's strong arms as he cradled her and the fear in his voice as he called her name clawed at her, but Alexastra crushed those reactions down with ruthless efficiency. She had a job to do. She mustn't let herself be distracted now. She opened her eyes slowly, wearily, and let them take their time focusing on Drift's pretty face. "Hiya, cutie."

"Are you all right?" her handsome mark asked, his brow crinkled in that adorably cute puppy look he got when he worried. "Please tell me you're not hurt!"

"So dramatic!" she admonished with a smile. "You always get so dramatic when you're tired-oof! Drift, dear… I can't breathe…" Drift loosened his hug a little, but not much, and Alexis wrapped her arms around under his and allowed herself a moment to just savor the feel of him. "Sorry about the mess," she said once his arms loosened, looking over the chaos her fall had created. "I must have passed out. I think we're both overtired."

"What is this?" Wolfram asked as he righted the wood-and-fabric span. Two feet taller than he was, it was shaped roughly like an inverted triangle with the top corners folded back. Wooden spars angled like long fingers from a central spine, over all of which was stretched a light fabric that tried to stick to the ram's fingers because of the thin glue Alexis had been painting on it to seal it. The shape looked strangely familiar to the ram, and his eyes widened when he looked from it to the she-bat and back. "Drift, you can't be serious."

"Why not?" Drift asked, lifting Alexis to her feet and making sure she was okay before stepping over to help Wolfram set the glider wing back onto its stand.

"What's going to keep you from splattering across half the valley if this thing doesn't work?"

"It will work," Drift replied, ears backed.

"That sounds nice, but it doesn't have the same reassuring ring as 'I've got a solid escape plan, already in place and repeatedly tested'." In any other city, Wolfram might have suggested that people weren't meant to fly or they'd have wings. In Metamor, though… Wolfram shook his head and sighed, knowing he wouldn't talk his friend out of it. "Will you at least have a healer waiting close at hand? You're more entertaining in one piece."

"I've got something better than that," Drift said, appreciating the ram's shift toward humor. Turning, he held his hands outstretched toward Alexis. "Toss me the vest Misha brought, would you, dear?"

Alexastra knew the look in dear Edward's eye. Ever since his trip out into the woods two months ago, he had been volatile and impulsive, even more than normal. Now, he was overtired on top of that, and he was about to do something crazy and foolhardy for the sake of his ego. Since he'd asked for the vest, she could predict with near certainty what he would do… and it was exactly what she had been waiting for.

Still, the formalities had to be observed. As she handed him the vest, she eyed him suspiciously and asked, "What are you scheming now?"

Drift smiled and tied himself into the vest. "You just settle down and rest for a while," he said, leaning in to steal a kiss. "I'll be back in a minute."

Alexastra twined her fingers into the vest to hold him there just a moment longer. Just one moment. That was all she would need to ensure dear Edward's death. Just one moment to employ two of the greatest gifts of a daedra spymaster. A moment's push of stealth to hide a hellborn hex, a little nudge of chaos into the vest to weaken its magic, and a final kiss goodbye. All it would take was a moment, and her mission for her lord would be complete. One last moment with her Drift…

She hesitated. One moment became two… and then three…

Wolfram coughed, and the awkward noise broke the moment. Drift drew back from the kiss, his ears and nose flushed and that adorable dopey grin so wide on his trusting face. He quipped something silly about how he must have been a good boy to get kissed like that, and Alexastra played along out of reflex, patting him on the head and sending the two on their merry way.

Inside, she was screaming. She paced the room in a frantic mania, desperately trying to convince herself to chase after him, and just as desperately trying not to. She wanted to run. She wanted to stay. She wanted… She wanted…

She wanted. And in a burst of insight as bright as the morning star, she knew what she had to do.

She ran as if her life depended on it.

Voices screamed in her head. Have you gone mad? Lord Agemnos will be furious if he finds out! He'll kill you! Or he'll do something even worse, and then not kill you! This is a disaster waiting to happen!

Only if I let it become one, Alexastra thought in reply… and then doubled over in pain. The Keep, capricious as ever, had placed her path squarely across the front steps of the Lothanasi temple. Just being near its holy ground was agonizing, like being squeezed in a vice from every direction at once, and she crumpled against the wall with a gasp. The truthful aura of the temple clawed at her mask of stealth like a hungry beast, forcing her to push all her strength into it lest it falter. If it slipped for even an instant, the Keep would recognize her as a daedra and…

Wait… this wasn't caprice. Alexastra felt questioning eyes on her. The accursed nymph must have intended her to pick up a healer on the way! Damn you, Kyia! This is not helping! She forced herself to keep moving through the pain, lurching forward and feigning a massive leg cramp to excuse her collapse. "No time. No time. Drift!"

Her desperate gamble paid off. Rounding the first corner she came to brought her two highly welcome sensations: a cold outdoor breeze and an end to the crushing pain of Kammoloth-blessed ground.

"Drift, are you out of your mind?! When I said well-tested, I didn't mean jump off the fourth-highest tower in the Keep! Get down!"

That was Wolfram's voice! She still had time. "Drift! Drift, wait! Stop!" Still maintaining the act of a cramped leg, she hobbled as fast as she could toward the wall top, snow crunching underfoot. Drift climbed down from the wall, his body tense with alarm, and she collapsed into his arms and held him tight. "Please don't do it," she begged. "Please. I have a terrible feeling about this." This close, she could feel her hex twisting the vest's magic awry and she angrily wrenched it loose and dissipated it before it could do more damage. She could repair the enchantment later, when she had… when she…

"Alex?" Drift asked, alarmed. "Alexis, you're shaking! Are you all right?"

Alexastra burst into tears. Burying her face in his soft chest fur, she sobbed, "No. No, I'm not."

For hours that night, Alexastra lay cuddled in Drift's arms. Wolfram had raised a scandalizing smile when he'd heard Drift offer his bed for the evening rather than have her fly home so tired, but once Drift had ever-so-politely told Wolfram what he could do with his innuendos, the ram had left them in peace. Drift had been true to his word, of course, and had pulled out a woven floor mat for himself in spite of her protests. He'd even provided her with a screen and nightclothes that he had thoughtfully purchased several weeks before. His bed was soft and warm, but she'd soon left it. Drift's nightmares tore at her and she slipped down to his side to soothe them away, waking him just long enough to wrap herself in his arms. It felt… special to be held like that. Not until nearly morning did she pry herself away to repair the damage her hex had done to his vest.

Once that was done, she settled back into her Edward's sleeping embrace and started laying new plans. Dangerous plans. "Be careful out there on the ice today," she said to him that morning after dressing in fresh clothes that Kyia had thoughtfully provided. "I have to go on a short trip this morning, but I'll be back as soon as I can." Smothering his protests with a kiss, she continued, "I know I promised I'd come see your ice-carving crew. I'll be there just as soon as I get this finished. Don't worry…" She reached up to scratch behind his ears, smiling as that dopey grin of his showed up again, and then kissed him again. "I know it's cold out. I'll bundle up."

Bundle up she did, once she got out of Kyia's view, in the white fur and form of an ermine Keeper. Disguised thus by the ice and snow, she was quickly up and over the town wall without being spotted, and out into the woods a moment or two later. She sensed what she needed out there among the trees: a ripple in reality, a nascent rift to the Dreamlands. It was the work of a moment to tear it open and step through, changing as she did to her raven-haired human form.

Shooing away a circling pixie with a fair-skinned hand, Alexastra cast her senses wide. It did not take long to find what she sought. She turned to the west and started running with one goal in mind: to gain, by whatever means necessary, an audience with the Lady of Dreams.

"A servant of Agemnos?" Nocturna remarked, her voice resigned and a bit annoyed. She gently shooed away the fae deer she'd been tending and turned her full attention on the creature before her. She stood slowly and turned to regard Alexastra with an expression crafted to show curiosity, boredom, and a deep-seated annoyance. “What scheme of his might it be about this time?"

Alexastra, still on bended knee, checked for the sixth time for scrying eyes and felt none. "Lady of Night," she replied in her most polite and formal tone, "I beg a boon of you, but I would prefer to make it in complete privacy. If it would please you to ensure that privacy, I can repay your courtesy in short order."

"Are all of your master's servants rewarded according to the number of words spoken?" Nocturna asked, raising her hand languidly. With an effortless sweep she banished the night-silvered forest, wrapping the two in a veil of impenetrable darkness. “I am listening, child.” Slender arms crossed over her breast as she regarded the kneeling woman.

The moment Nocturna's privacy ward was in place and while her attention was still elsewhere, Alexastra did something none of her kind had done since the very first spymaster had awakened to power: she dropped her masks. All of them. Broad bat wings wrapped around her like an ebon cloak, partly flesh, partly shadow. Dark hair and dusky skin framed eyes like chips of coal. Around her swirled an aura of twisted fates, of tightly hoarded secrets, of swift knives in the darkness… and of carefully, deliberately concealed power.

Nocturna watched this transformation without moving, only one slightly raised brow revealing her surprise. Compared to her, this display of power was as nothing, but the daedra beneath all those masks was one for whom she'd been searching for quite some time. "Alexastra. I thought that was you under all those veils. This puts a different spin on things."

Alexastra suppressed a wince. Lord Agemnos had warned her to avoid the Queen of Omens because of her talent for divination and foresight. A spymaster with no secrets had very little with which to bargain. Still, she had already accepted that this was likely to happen and, however weak a hand she'd been dealt, she would play it to the best of her ability. She had to. Drift's life, and possibly even his soul, depended on her success.

"Lady Nocturna, my plea is this: I ask— "

The Queen of Omens speared the creature before her with a glance. "You ask my protection so that you can rebel against your lord and master. You desire my aid so that you can wrest a mortal target from his commanding grip, when you were the one who put that mortal there in the first place. You would have me prop you up in the face of a hurricane and possibly risk my sworn neutrality." With each sentence, Nocturna leaned forward and her scowl deepened. "In return for this mighty boon, you would propose what as payment? You have nothing with which to bargain."

This time it wasn't a mere wince that she pressed down, but a full-on cringe away from the daedra lady's precisely accurate revelations. Each was a deliberately calculated strike at her pride, her talents, and her prestige, and she knew it.

"What could you possibly offer me, imp of Agemnos?" Nocturna repeated.

Summoning up the entirety of her skill as a negotiator, Alexastra looked up into Nocturna's eyes for the first time in the entire conversation and replied in a voice as calm and level as a pond on a windless night. "I could tell you a story." Cupping her hands, Alexastra raised them skyward as if throwing something. Sparks flew from them, arcing outward to fall in a circle amidst the enshrouding darkness. Where they landed, they flickered and multiplied. They looked like so many candle flames, for that's what they had become: uncountable candle flames, stretching away as far as the eye could see. "I would tell you a story of candles in the dark." Rising to her feet, she circled around the inner edge of the lights, her hands folded at the small of her back as she admired them, flickering in all their millions. "They're beautiful, aren't they? So fragile that a breath could extinguish them, so short-lived even when sheltered, and yet how brightly they shine in their short little span!"

"It's a well-crafted illusion," Nocturna replied, her voice flat and unimpressed.

Alexastra fixed the goddess of dreams with a hurt little moue over the faint praise and stooped to pick up one of the candles, shielding the candle flame with her hand as she brought it to the goddess. "Perhaps a closer look might shed some light on my meaning?"

Only at the last possible moment did the young daedra's hand drop, and Nocturna startled in spite of herself. It was no ordinary flame that danced atop the candle, but an image of her beloved Malger Sutt, playing his flute among a merry crowd. Its light flared brighter as the image shifted to a different scene, the marten shouting with fury as his twin blades danced through a fight. When the scene changed again, dimming and guttering as he fell ill with a fever, Alexastra asked, "How far would you go to stop someone from— urk!"

Nocturna's hand closed tight around the young daedra's throat, choking off her air before she could blow. "Not even in an illusion," she warned, her eyes narrowed. Taking control of the illusory candle, she plucked it from Alexastra's hand and sheltered it away from any fickle breezes. "I would advise you to take more care with your stories, child. You tread on very dangerous ground."

The goddess startled anew when she felt an unexpected touch on her shoulder. An exact duplicate of the young daedra stepped around from behind her. "I do it only to make a point, my lady," she apologized, cradling a second candle in her hands. It was a match for the one that Nocturna had taken away, save for the shape of the flame: instead of a lean and sinewy marten, there flickered a sturdy canine form swinging a smithing hammer. "You go to great lengths to protect yours," she said, her voice soft with commiseration. "Do you think I wouldn't do the same for mine?"

Now Nocturna had to be impressed. "Sight, sound, scent, and now touch, too?" she asked the Alexastra still seized in her hand.

"Projected directly into the mind, but only when I'm in physical contact with the target," replied the illusory second, mirroring the calm collectedness of the first. Both of them then turned that patient look into a small, almost playful smile. "Speaking of which... may I please have my neck back now? This is somewhat uncomfortable."

Nocturna let go and broke into a soft chuckle. "You are very, very good," she said, unable to keep the admiration out of her voice as realization dawned. "You wanted me to grab you, and set me up to do so."

"It seemed the most efficient and memorable way to demonstrate my potential usefulness to you," the real Alexastra replied, massaging her throat before taking the candle from her illusory 'second self', who vanished like smoke in a gust of wind. All the candles around them flickered in that wind except for the two held sheltered by their respective protectors. "I would hope that it helped me plead my case as well. Please. I know the odds are next to nothing. All I ask is a chance."

The Queen of Dreams pondered for several long moments, one slender brow elevating ever so slightly while she regarded the clever daedra underling before her. Slowly crossing her arms, she lifted her chin to gaze at her, forcing herself to draw back emotionally. As much as she owed Agemnos a thumb in the eye for what he'd done to her by this child all those centuries ago, this still required careful handling. "If all it took to achieve something in the Hells was raw courage and brass," she said at last, "I would dare the dark lords to gainsay you. Unfortunately, such is never the case."

Unfolding her arms, Nocturna held up the candle with which Alexastra had taunted her and focused her attention upon the minstrel's fiery form as he danced a silent pirouette. Plucking the flame from its wick, she cupped it between her palms. "In these flames we are alike, and for that small spark of sisterhood I will hear your plea." The burning minstrel danced along her fingertips as she raised her gaze back to the daedra spy. "I will do what I can to guide the path you follow, that at its end you find that flame you hold dear. But beware, seeker, for nothing is ever guaranteed." Her hand closed slowly, the fiery minstrel disappearing but for a flickering glow. "Now, tell me what you intend."

Lord Agemnos leaned back in his throne and contemplated his former servant for several long minutes. His silence weighed heavy on the room as he considered the offer that she had just made, but its weight and the force of his scrutiny seemed not to affect the she-daedra at all. She held her supplicant kneeling posture without flinching or fidgeting, the calm of a practiced negotiator. Good, he thought. After all the effort I put into raising and training her, she had better be able to hold her calm at the negotiating table. This might actually prove interesting enough to keep me from strangling her. Not that he had any qualms about eliminating the traitorous wretch, but paying recompense to Nocturna for killing her newest servant would be a bothersome hassle.

"You intrigue me, Alexastra," he said finally. "I've noticed your reluctance to move against Snow for some time now, but never before have you openly asked for him to be removed from the equation. Therefore, before I decide upon your request, I want one question answered. Why?"

"My lord?"

"Why are you doing this? Why throw away everything you've ever gained, and all that you stand to gain for a very long time, for the sake of this one meaningless mortal?" His voice took on a curious, almost inviting tone as he spoke, but it still kept a diplomatic distance. Both of them knew it was a question he did not expect would be answered. Information of that type was beyond precious.

She hesitated. "You want to know my motives, my lord?" she asked finally, clearly stalling for time. "Is that part of your price?"

Agemnos smiled. He had all the cards in his hand. He could ask whatever price he wanted. "It is."

"On one condition."

She hadn't even blinked. The speed with which she'd responded surprised him, because it suggested that she had anticipated his insistence. If her voice or her posture had been different, it might have been desperation, but no. She actually thought she could predict him! The sheer effrontery of it was amazing, but her calm manner in doing so piqued his interest. He sat back and gestured for her to continue. "Name your condition."

She produced a small parchment and offered it to him.

"You audacious minx!" Agemnos exclaimed, leaning forward in open astonishment. "You dare to write a contract for me? You forget your place!"

Alexastra drew her hand back as if both surprised and startled, and her face turned perfectly guileless as she unrolled the parchment. It was blank. "A contract, my lord?" She flirted her free hand in a throwaway gesture. "I wouldn't dream of it. I had hoped for your written vow that, in the interests of courtesy, what I reveal of my motives shall remain personal and private. However, since you react so poorly to the idea, I would be gladly willing to accept your given word."

The Lord of Avarice regarded his wayward spymistress for several long moments, pondering a particularly messy dismemberment, and then did something most unusual: he sat back in his chair and applauded. "Very well done, my dear. You goad me into a reaction and then set yourself up as the faultless party of reason, thus mentally improving your bargaining position. Beautifully maneuvered."

Alexastra bowed graciously low, her long black hair sweeping the ground before she rose again. "I studied at the feet of the master," she replied, the offending parchment vanished away by some sleight of hand.

Agemnos rose to his feet. "Normally, dear Alexastra, I would have you executed where you stand for your temerity and rebellion," he said as he stepped down from his throne, "but you appear to have guarded yourself well against my wrath... for now. You must have bargained quite well indeed to gain Nocturna's favor and protection. To set yourself so clearly against me..." He paused to stroke his chin. "One might almost think you mad. Still, you have provided me with more amusement in these past few hours than I have had in the past several years, and done it while still technically honoring my ethos. I suppose I should consider it a compliment." Agemnos reached his scrying pool and began to stir it into a lazy swirl. "Very well," he said finally. "I won't demand to know your motives, not at this time.

"Instead, I'll make you a deal. If you can keep your precious toy alive and out of my direct control for two full months— let us say until the midnight stroke at the end of February, then not only will I declare him safely off-limits for the full span of his natural life, I will forgive your rebellion and accept you back into my employ with no recriminations if you should ever choose to return. I will also see to it that, whether you return to me or not, you are promoted to a higher rank as a reward for your ingenuity and cunning."

"That is exceedingly generous, my lord," Alexastra replied with a grateful smile, but a shadow of worry crossed her face immediately after.

Agemnos allowed himself the merest hint of a smirk. "You sense the other hand starting to close. Good. You are correct: it is very generous. If you manage to succeed, without violating Nocturna's desire for neutrality and thus voiding your own protection, then I clearly must have underestimated your talents and been wrong about the potential of your mortal toy. Ignoring errors and misconceptions is bad for business. You'll have done me a favor worthy of magnanimity on my part." He sketched a partial bow, allowing even perhaps a bit more of a smirk than earlier. "Let it never be said that I am ungracious in defeat."

"And if I lose?"

All levity vanished from the daedra lord's tone with the speed of a scourging whip-lash. "Then you will leave Nocturna's employ at once, get your presumptuous and traitorous hide back here, and accept full punishment for your hubris and defiance." His eyes narrowed. "I assure you that said punishment will be neither pleasant nor brief. On that, you have my sworn oath." Finally, a genuine shudder from her. It was about time the little wretch realized just how deeply in trouble she was. Still, she recovered her calm well and quickly, which Lord Agemnos noted with approval.

"Lastly, oh prideful daughter of mine, should you now decide that you don't want to risk my deal..." Agemnos ceased stirring the scrying pool and an image of Snow's ice-carving crew swam into view, preparing for a day's work on a small, curved lake near Metamor River. Snow himself was out on the ice with them, reviewing the tasks of each team member if his gestures were any judge. Then the daedra lord snapped his fingers and the image in the pool flickered and changed, with fire-red lines appearing like a crazed spider's web beneath the ice. "It doesn't quite have the panache of Linafex putting a sword through his back," Agemnos mused, "but I know your toy can't swim. Even if he survives the ice breaking up beneath him, I have plenty of ways to make him dead before you can get back to him." He paused for effect, his hand poised over the scrying pool. "Accept the deal and I will give you a head start."

Alexastra didn't hesitate. "Done."

"Good," Agemnos replied, keeping his right hand hovering above the scrying pool while his left gestured to the door. The golden portal swung open as if of its own accord. "You'd better hurry," the daedra lord added, allowing himself the pleasure of twisting the knife just a little bit deeper as she made her escape. "I won't wait long."

"Fortune to you, father," Alexastra said from the doorway.

"And to you, daughter."

Neither said which kind of fortune they wished the other.

The door to Drift's forge creaked open, and Misha rose from his chair in the adjoining bedroom. Gesturing for Madog to stay by Drift's bedside, the fox-man walked into the forge to intercept the visitor. Keeping his voice down for the sake of the samoyed sleeping fitfully in the room behind him, he hissed, "Where have you been? He's been asking for you— " Misha's voice trailed off in alarm at the look she turned on him, "—all day?"

Alexis turned her haggard eyes away and, shivering with cold, pulled off her heavy fur coat and gloves. Hanging them up on a wall hook, she then leaned forward against the wall, resting her weight on her arm. "It has been a very long day," she said, her voice slowed as if almost too exhausted for coherent thought. "I wanted to be by his side all day, but I had two absolutely critical clients that it would ruin me to ignore. They introduced a lot of loose ends that needed tying, and a few tied ends that needed loosening, and all of it needed done immediately. I don't want to talk about it." She ended that sentence with a negating sweep of her hand, drew herself up straight, and then turned back toward the fox. "How is he? What happened?"

Misha decided not to push on the subject, at least for the time being, and waved the she-bat through to her beloved's bedside. "There was an accident with the ice crews," he said quietly.

Alexis listened attentively, but Alexastra already knew what had happened. She had been by Drift's side for much of the day in a wide array of shapes and disguises, providing all the subtle little nudges and odd twists of fortune that had kept her beloved alive from the ice back to Metamor. With her help, anything that could go wrong had gone wrong with Agemnos' plots that day. Even so, in spite of all her efforts to ward and protect him, Drift had nearly killed himself anyway. When the ice had given way under two of the ice crew, plunging them into the frigid water, Drift had grabbed a rope and jumped in after them. She had almost panicked when he vanished into the churning froth of shattered ice and freezing black water. Had Lord Agemnos somehow bewitched him? He couldn't swim! Only when he'd surged up out of the water, his taurform body just barely long enough for his hind legs to reach the bottom of the shallow lake, had she understood the method to his madness. His thick fur protected him from the freezing cold water just long enough to heave the two age-regressed Keepers out onto the ice, their bodies shaking and their teeth chattering. Then he had transferred the rope to his mouth and bitten down as his body collapsed in on itself, becoming fully canine. His much smaller full animal form was far easier for the others to haul to safety but by the time that had been accomplished he was just as soaked and frozen as the two he had rescued. She thought he was crazy for doing it, but when viewing him by mortal standards, she had to be impressed by her clever, handsome little candle flame. He had burned very brightly indeed.

Now, though, he was at low ebb. The icy shock of the freezing water had exacerbated the cough he'd been barely holding off for two weeks, and now she could hear an alarming rasp in his chest when he breathed. That could be trouble. It could also be opportunity, though: here inside the Keep, with Daedra'kama well past, Drift would be a much harder target for Agemnos to reach, and Alexastra would willingly take any advantage she could get. Once his ice-carving party had made it to the healers safely within the Keep's bounds, it had taken her the entire rest of the day to sabotage and uncoil all of her old plans and plots against him. She truly was exhausted, and the magnitude of all that had transpired that day began to weigh down on her; how close and how often she had come to instant death.

"Little spider has too many webs," Madog said, breaking in on her chain of thought. The mechanical fox, seated at the foot of Drift's bed, had fixed the she-bat with a piercing stare the moment he'd laid eyes on her, blue eyes following her every movement. "Careful, tricky lady, or you lose lots."

Alexastra lowered her head against her hands, closing her eyes and pressing her forehead against Drift's soft-furred knuckles to get away from that strangely unsettling gaze. "I am... aware of that," she replied. For the thousandth time, she wished that Misha had never found that accursed contraption. This was not the first time in their centuries-long lifespans that she and Malabrinium, or Madog as he was now called, had crossed paths. If he figured out who and what she was, as he had done so disastrously once before, well... that was yet another potential threat source that she didn't need. The odds against her were long enough already: she could almost feel the walls closing in around her. Even with Nocturna's guidance and the leverage of being closest to the target, she was still just one lesser daedra up against the full might of the Lord of Avarice. It was only the first day, and she was nearly stretched to her limits. How could she possibly expect to last two full months?

"May I— may I have a moment alone, please?" she asked, her voice threatening to break in the middle of the sentence. "I just..." With a visible effort, she forcibly resettled her composure. "I need some time to think."

Madog rose and left without a word, but Misha lingered for a moment longer. He rested his hand on her shoulder, strong and callused on the pads with just a hint of gray starting to creep into the fur. "We'll be right outside if you need us," the fox said and started to pull away, but she stopped him by laying her hand over his.

In spite of her upbringing, Alexastra found herself drawing solace from the gesture and decided that he deserved at least her thanks in return. "Please thank Caroline for staying with him and getting some soup into him," she said, having smelled both on Drift's hands. "Thank you also for staying with him until I could get here. I don't know what I would have done without..." She trailed off as realization dawned on her. "...without your help," she finished, uncertainty gnawing at her again. Did she dare? Did she dare trust her life to mortal hands? Did she dare to ask for help from the creatures of a day? She let his hand go, but only reluctantly. "Don't... don't go far."

Night had fallen over Metamor, dark and moonless, the wheeling stars hidden away by a thick layer of cloud. Misha went to bed and Madog went... wherever he went each night while his friends slept. The bells of the night watch tolled out the hours as they passed, quiet and peaceful. Through it all, Alexastra tended to her beloved, soothing his fever with water-damped cloths laid over the short fur of his brow and belly.

It wouldn't last. Nocturna's first warning had been very specific. Thus it was, when she heard the creak of the forge door opening and the clack of a cloven-hoofed footfall, that Alexastra rose from Drift's bedside with a smile. She was going to enjoy this. The goat-morph intruder, his fur greying with age, made it four steps into the forge before he felt a sharp-clawed hand clamp onto his shoulder. He opened his mouth to scream, but then cut it off when a mithril-edged razor nestled into the curve of his throat. "Now, now," Alexastra whispered in his ear. "None of that. Dear Edward needs his rest. This way, please."

Backing her nervous captive into the hall, she shoved him face-first hard against the wall and held him there by the back of the neck, her razor disappearing back into her sleeve. "Hello, Thestilus," she purred. "Nice disguise. Using the deceased father to torment the sick son? That old trick's only been done a few million times, so it doesn't surprise me that you'd try it."

"What are you doing?" the goat-disguised imp protested, struggling until she smashed his face into the wall again. "Let— ow! Let go of me! Have you lost your mind? We've got work to do!"

"I don't work for Lord Agemnos anymore, you idiot," Alexastra replied. "Edward Snow is now under my protection."

"You're insane!"

"You have no idea what I'm capable of doing to you, Thestilus. Don't push me."

"You don't— ow!— scare me, traitor!"

Alexastra trilled an amused laugh, smiling as she traced a finger up to his ear. "Silly little imp. To think that I would settle for merely scaring you." Without another word, she stabbed her thumb claw through his earlobe and ripped it downward. When he opened his mouth to scream, she cut it off by squeezing his throat, stopping the airflow. "I said none of that. I'm quite busy enough already concealing your regeneration from Kyia without having to damp your screams, too. And don't expect any assistance from Lord Agemnos, either. His eyes are elsewhere."

Thestilus choked, tugging futilely at the she-bat's grip. "I-impossible!" he squeaked out. "Nobody— hide that!"

The she-bat merely tsked. "Impossible just means you don't know how to do it yet," she replied. "I do." She'd been casting an illusion into his mind from the moment she'd first grabbed him. It was an effort to maintain it in all its detail, but she was a daedra spymaster. Deception was her stock-in-trade, and she hid any sign of the effort from her prey through practice and raw force of will.

She patted his ear as it "healed" with typically impish speed, her illusion flawless. She'd only needed to do it for real once in her life to remember the essence of the moment for all time, and its realism went unquestioned by the imp in her grasp. "There. Now that I have your full attention, let me make this clear. Drift is mine. Go near him again, and this will be as a lover's caress. Say anything, and... well..." Her smile was chilling. "You get the idea." Throwing him to the hallway floor, she blocked the door back to Drift's room with her body and fixed the false goat with an icy glare. "Leave. Now."

The imp fled, hooved feet clacking a hasty retreat into the night.

Once he was out of sight and hearing, Alexastra blew out a deep sigh of relief, not quite believing that it had worked. Nocturna had warned her to be very aggressive with Thestilus that night, to leave in him a lasting wariness of her. She would never have dared tread so closely to the edge of Nocturna's neutrality without that open permission. She hadn't actually harmed the imp, merely made him think she had.

Stepping back inside, she shut the door behind her. She could hear Drift whimpering in his room, in the midst of another nightmare. Settling down on his bed, Alexastra gently cradled his head in her lap, stroked his fur, and softly sang for him an old Suielman lullaby until his dreams were soothed. Looking down at his handsome face, she gently brushed a shed strand of hair off his nose and then leaned down to nuzzle the itch away.

"No more nightmares," she promised him in a whisper. "We'll put an end to them together.

"I love you."

"She attacked me!"

"I know."

"She switched sides!"

"I know."

"She threatened to throw me to the Lightbringer!"

"I know."

"She's ruined everything!"

"I know." The Lord of Avarice leaned back in his chair, steepled his fingers against his precisely trimmed brown goatee, and smiled as a powerfully built man in black armor stepped from the shadows and backhanded the nearly hysterical Thestilus into silence.

Agemnos' smile widened. "Everything is proceeding exactly according to plan."