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“I’m sorry; we’re going to astral travel to a flea market?” Charlotte asked incredulously as she watched Genevieve and I set up a meditation circle under the shade of a towering old willow tree in my cemetery. “What if we want to buy something? How will we bring it back?”

“We’re not going there to shop, Lottie. Samantha’s finally had a vision about Emrys,” Genevieve explained.

The Veil between the Physical and Astral Planes is exceptionally weak in my cemetery, especially at night and on hallowed days. When I sleep there, my subconscious mind is highly receptive to all manner of revelations from the Spirit World. When I saw a Blood Moon rise on the night of May fifth, the same night as a penumbral eclipse, I knew that my dreams would be prophetic.

“I had a dream about him last Friday,” I expounded. “He’s at some sort of otherworldly marketplace, one that’s not connected to the Crypto Chthonic Cuniculi, so it’s mostly inaccessible to the Ophion Occult Order. In my dream, Emrys invited us to come and speak with him while we were lucid. He drew a sigil for me, the same one I’ve drawn in the middle of the mediation circle. He said that all I’d have to do is toss an Undying Rose – the earthly effigy of the rose Persephone used to steal a drop of his blood – into the sigil and it will become an astral portal to where he is.”

I held up the deep purple rose that I had cut from its bush earlier that day. I don’t know for certain where the roses came from, but my best guess is that they were made by the same Occultist who hallowed my cemetery to Persephone; Artaxerxes Crow. They have some connection to Emrys as well, since the only other time I saw someone else use one was when his avatar was summoned into the Physical Plane on Halloween 2020.

Knowing that Emrys wouldn’t dare to set foot in a place that was sacred to the Goddess who was ultimately responsible for his cosmic defeat, I gently tossed the rose into the middle of the sigil.

“He invited all of us?” Charlotte asked with an incredulous raising of her eyebrow.

“He said me and my coven. If he had just meant me or me and Genevieve he would have said that,” I replied. “You and Elam are coming too. I want as many eyes on this place as possible so that we don’t miss anything. We may not get an opportunity like this again.”

“And this is safe? Visiting some random flea market between worlds?” Charlotte asked.

“Samantha and I have visited the Underworld and come back no problem,” Genevieve reminded her. “So long as we’re bound to our bodies and Elam is bound to Samantha, we can come back anytime. Don’t worry; this is going to be a blast! Adventures like these are the best part of being a Witch.”

“The only reason you were able to go to the Underworld is because Samantha’s cemetery came with an astral portal in the back,” Charlotte countered, gesticulating in the general direction of the archway that was still partially visible behind the light spring foliage. “Other than that, when have any of us ever done anything useful with our astral projection? This is still a physical place, right? We don’t have any of our physical senses available to us when we astral project, and I get extremely disoriented trying to navigate the mortal plane with clairvoyance alone.”

“It is a physical place, but one saturated with astral energy and full of occultists and occult artifacts. It will be extremely illuminated to our clairvoyance,” I assured her. “Elam will also be there to guide us. As a ghost, he’s much more practiced at traversing the mortal plane in an astral form.”

Charlotte folded her arms over her chest and turned to look at Elam, who was leaning up against the willow tree as he waited for us.

“I don’t suppose you could go and scout the place out for us ahead of time?” she asked.

“I can’t go too far from Samantha, and definitely not across planes,” he said with a shake of his head. “But Eve’s right. Your astral bodies will be in no danger, and you can return here in an instant whenever you want.”

“But what about Emrys? Didn’t that book Leon gave you say that he’s some sort of soul-flayer?” Charlotte asked me.

“It did,” I admitted. “Keep in mind though, that book was written by his enemies. I want to hear his side of things before this conflict of theirs spirals out of control.”

“Any update from Chamberlin about that?” Elam asked.

“Yeah, he said that after he failed to purify the Sigil Sand, Ivy’s onboard with negotiating some kind of truce with Emrys,” I replied. “The Grand Adderman’s still reticent, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s running out of options. I need to find out if Emrys will agree to peace talks.”

“Um, I get that, but I’m still kind of hung up on him potentially flaying our souls,” Charlotte reiterated.  

“If Emrys and the Ophion Occult Order go to all-out war, there’ll be a lot of collateral damage and innocent souls caught in the crossfire,” Genevieve told her, gently grabbing hold of her and looking her straight in the eye. “Samantha, Elam, and I are doing this because if there’s any chance we can put an end to this before it starts, then it’s our responsibility to try. You don’t have to come with us, Lottie, but you’re still a member of our coven. Samantha and I would both feel a lot better with you there to help us.”

“Arghhh! All right, fine! I’ll come with you,” Charlotte gave in, plopping her butt down on the edge of the meditation circle. “If we’re holding hands, that will help keep our astral bodies together too, right?”

“I believe it should, yes,” I smiled at her, sitting down and reaching out for her hand.

Genevieve lit the incense and her bong filled with the entheogenic Delphi Dream, before sitting down to join us. She took a hit from the bong before passing it to me, and then to Charlotte before setting it aside out of the circle.  

“Start with taking a deep breath, completely filling the lungs, and holding it for five heartbeats,” she guided us as she took hold of each of our hands. “Exhale completely, and wait five more heartbeats before breathing in again. Eyes closed, in through the nose, out through the mouth. Focus on the astral energies flowing through you with each breath, gently aligning each chakra until those energies are enough to lift you up and out of your body.”

In unison with one another, the three of us slowly breathed in and out, ignoring the material world around us and focusing upon the task at hand. Eve was first, as usual, and because we were all holding hands, Charlotte and I felt her eagerly tugging us up to speed us along.

I opened my eyes, and beheld the dull and muted Physical Plane through my clairvoyance, everything outshined by the radiant forms of my coven mates. I noted that Genevieve had eschewed her normal skyclad form when astral projecting and instead wore a cloak like Charlotte and I.

“Are you worried this place might have a no shirt, no shoes, no souls, no service policy?” I teased her. 

“I just don’t want to risk a confrontation over it. I realize how important this is,” she answered. “Though I’m not actually wearing shoes, now that you mention it.”

“Christ, look at the sigil Samantha drew!” Charlotte said, pointing down at the meditation circle beneath us. The sigil wasn’t just glowing but flowing as well, churning the Aether around it in a misty, spectral vortex. “It’s an astral portal, isn’t it?”

“Oh yeah. It’s not stable, though. Good for one trip only,” Genevieve said with a delighted smile. “And Lottie, since we’re Neopagan Witches, try not to swear by Christ, okay?”

“Jesus!” she swore, both in defiance and in genuine annoyance.  

“Elam! Elam, come join the circle! I don’t want to take any chances of severing our bond,” I instructed, letting go of Charlotte’s hand and waving him in between us.

Faithful Familiar that he was, he obeyed without hesitation. Despite my concerns, I think that he probably could have stayed behind if he had wanted. The fact that he was willing to follow me to an unknown otherworld without complaint really made me appreciate how devoted he was to me.

“We step in together on the count of three, got it?” I instructed, each of them nodding clearly in response. “One. Two. Three!”

We all extended our right feet into the vortex together, and the instant we did we were swept away, falling out of our own world and tumbling between the cracks of countless others. They weren’t real, I don’t think. At least, not as real as our world. They were potential realities, or realities that could have been once but now can never be, or fantasies that are so persistent in the minds of real people that in some sense or another, they become real themselves. I only saw glimmers of them, glimmers in nebulas made of primeval chaos and uttermost void. 

It was outside of time, that place we travelled through, or at least we had no sense of it there. Our souls were haphazardly spat out upon a surreal landscape of earth, sea, and fire. Hilly plains of volcanic ash, incandescent calderas of lava and bubbling hot springs all intermeshed in a chaotic mosaic that didn’t seem to abide by any laws of geology or geography that I was familiar with. A strong but slow wind pushed fractal formations of dark silver clouds through a pale silver sky, illuminated by a single white orb which could have been either a bright moon or a faint sun.

While our spectral feet left no trace upon the ash we now stood upon, our presence nonetheless elicited a response from some of the local fauna. We were just able to catch a glimpse of some kind of shimmering scarabs burrowing themselves into the ash to escape the four otherworldly ghosts that had invaded their territory.

“Holy shit,” Charlotte murmured as we all gazed out upon the strange world we had found ourselves on. “This really isn’t on the Astral Plane. This is a real planet. This a real, alien planet! This is unbelievable!”

Genevieve glided over to one of the bubbling pools and peered into it, looking for any more signs of life.

“There’s some kind of bluish-grey algae growing on the rocks down there, and I think I can make out some small arthropods too. This planet’s alive!” she announced with glee, smiling and looking up at the alien sky.  

Conjuring an astral approximation of my staff, I plunged it into a small mound of ash beside me. I watched curiously as the scarabs shot out in all directions, moving too quickly for me to get a good look at them, before scurrying back into the surrounding ash.

“These bugs can sense our presence,” I remarked. “How and why would clairvoyance evolve in insects on this world, and why would their first instinct be to flee?”

“Samantha!” Elam called out. “I think I found the Flea Market.”

We all gathered around him and looked where he was pointing. On a distant dune, we beheld the moulted carapace of a colossal insect, gleaming a brilliant, lustrous gold in the broken white light.

“That’s impossible!” Charlotte claimed. “That thing must be hundreds of meters long! No insect, no animal period could ever get that big on the Physical Plane!”

“It could be the Incarnation of some kind of Titan,” Genevieve suggested. “But… it’s dead. I can tell that even from here. It’s dead. It’s the corpse of a dead god, and now it’s being used as a swap meet with a punny name. Either whatever killed it just abandoned it, or…”      

“Or is running the place,” I finished for her. “Well, we should see if we can find Emrys.”

In an instant, the world moved around us until we were at the entrance to the Flea Market. The colossal carapace was hollow inside, of course, and had been filled with a bustling city that looked like it had been created in the most ad hoc manner possible. There wasn’t a single straight street to be seen, and they converged with one another at random intervals. Stalls and buildings varied wildly in both design and materials, all imported from a plethora of different cultures across the planes. Enormous shards of luminous glass levitated above the throng like a thousand Swords of Damocles, any or all of them seeming capable of succumbing to gravity at any moment. In the very center of the moulted husk dangled a great spiralling chrysalis or hive woven of iridescent silk, its function not being immediately apparent to me.

There must have been thousands of people there, and hundreds of merchants hawking their wares. Most of those who looked human still seemed a little off, like they were members of ethnicities that didn’t exist in our world. Some of the beings were near-human in appearance, many seemingly some kind of Fey or Seelie folk. There was even a small handful of people that weren’t remotely human at all.

The only thing they all had in common was that none were native to this world.     

“Most of these people are here in person, aren’t they?” Charlotte asked.

“It would’ve been quite a feat for them to have built all of this while astral projecting,” Genevieve agreed.

“But if this place isn’t connected to the Cuniculi, then how did they get here?” Charlotte asked. “We’re on another planet, maybe even in another dimension. If getting here is beyond the Ooo’s abilities, then what sort of ungodly reality benders decided to turn it into a Flea Market?”

“Ladies, gentlemen, and any beings either too ancient and alien or too modern and alienated to settle on one or the other, come bear witness to one of the most astounding and atrocious abominations on this or any other world!” a fast-paced male voice rang out over the din of the crowd.

We turned to see a short, skinny, old-timey sort of carnival barker standing on a literal soap box, placed next to a large object draped in a black tarp.

“For the paltry price of a single three-headed coin, you can peer beneath the veil and behold with your own unbelieving eyes the mangled and mutilated monstrosity that lurks beneath!” the carnival barker continued. “But I must warn you, it is not possible to truly understand what dwells underneath without seeing it first! I cannot guarantee that you will still retain your sanity or will to live after witnessing the proverbial Mountains of Madness, for this low creature is truly like no other and serves only as a grim testament to the cruel sadism of the Lord Above! Anyone plagued by even the faintest lingering doubt as to their spiritual fortitude should not dare to even contemplate what might lie before me! But, for those brave, noble few who are truly dauntless of heart and incorrigible of spirit, I am proud to share with you this rare, unfathomable, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness sublime –”

The carnival barker was interrupted by a man yanking the sheet off the object beside him, revealing it to be a mirror.

“Whelp, that was a hell of an r/I’m14andthisisdeep post, eh?” Charlotte mused.

Genevieve and I, however, were far too stunned to be amused; not by the mirror, but by the man who had unveiled it.

“It’s him, Lottie. That’s Emrys,” Genevieve whispered.

We had only seen him briefly once before, more than two-and-a-half years ago, but he was far from what anyone would call forgettable. He was tall and gaunt, with literal blue blood flowing beneath translucent skin. His long, receding hair and regal beard were pitch black, and dark miasma wafted from his eyes, nose, and mouth. He was dressed in dark sable robes with three overlapping Ouroboros’s tattooed on his forehead, with a pair of ophidian pupils lying in the spaces between them.

What stood out the most to us were the six silver Ouroboros chains bound around his wrists, ankles, waist, and neck. These were the chains the Ophion Occult Order had made to limit the power of his physical avatar, and it seemed he had not yet found a way to free himself from them.

“Are you still here?” Emrys asked in exasperation, tossing the veil back at the carnival barker in disdain.

“…Possibly,” the strange man replied evasively. “But not definitively, for purely legalistic reasons.”

“I believe Mathom-meister was quite clear when he said that your rather pitiful chicanery wasn’t welcomed here,” Emrys reminded him.

“And who is he to judge chicanery from cutthroat, capitalistic competition? Should not the Flea Market be a free market?” the charlatan demanded. “And while we’re on the topic of commerce, I don’t suppose you have enough three-headed coins to pay for all the poor souls you have so discourteously exposed to my exhibit against their will? I’d hate to have to start shaking people down to get my due.”

“Hard to believe your own circus threw you out,” Emrys said with a sardonic eye roll as he tossed him a small medallion. “You get one coin. Take it and get out of my sight.”

The charlatan flipped the coin in the air thrice, presumably to confirm it actually had three heads. Satisfied with its impossible dimensions, he shoved it into his pocket.

“It will cover the trolley ride home, at least,” he acquiesced, stepping off his soap box and turning to face his looking glass. “A shame though you can’t see the genius in my little avant-garde performance piece here, Emmy. Even I know that the monster in the mirror is often the hardest to recognize.”

As the man reached to pick up his mirror, his reflection’s arms shot through the glass and grabbed him by the wrists, pulling him in. Emrys immediately tried to chase after him, but bounced off the glass as if there was nothing supernatural about it at all.  

“Bastard!” he cursed under his breath, before turning towards us and giving us a small apologetic smile. “I’m sorry you had to see that rather pathetic display. Unfortunately, the few meeting places I know of that are relatively safe from any Ophionic incursion also attract their fair share of other annoying miscreants.”  

“If it didn’t attract a little bit of everything, it wouldn’t be a Flea Market, would it?” I asked rhetorically. “Thank you, Emrys, for inviting us. I’ve never been anywhere like this before.”

“And thank you for accepting. Samantha, Genevieve, it’s a pleasure to see you again, and a relief that you have not fallen under the auspices of the Ophion Occult Order,” he said with a gentle bow. “Elam, I remember you as well. Valiant but not reckless, you remained atop Pendragon Hill during my battle with the Darlings until your mistress was well out of harm’s way, and then you got the hell out of dodge yourself. Samantha couldn’t hope for a better Familiar.  And Charlotte, any Witch that Samantha deemed worthy to induct into her coven is obviously someone whose acquaintance I am pleased to make. Welcome, all of you, to Mathom-meister’s Flea Market!”

“So this is where you’ve been hiding out the past two years?” Genevieve asked.

“Oh no. Far too Cosmopolitan for my tastes,” Emrys replied. “No, this is just a friendly place to meet those I consider friends – or potential friends, at least. I’d offer to show you around, but I know it’s difficult for you to astral travel for prolonged periods. Come with me to Mathom-meister’s house where we can talk freely, and we’ll discuss the situation with the Order.”

I gave him a small, single nod in response, and gestured with my staff that he should lead the way. He responded by pointing upwards, then vanished into his shadow form. When we looked up, we saw him waving at us from a balcony atop the great silken chrysalis.

We exchanged hesitant glances with one another, but ultimately followed him into the strange structure, moving from the ground to the balcony in an instant by will alone.

“How would an incarnate being get up here if they couldn’t fly or teleport?” Charlotte asked as she peered over the balcony’s teetering edge.

As though answering a summons, a humanoid creature apparated beside her in a flash of dark vapours. The hunched-back entity stood over six-and-a-half feet tall, and was clad in golden-brown erudite robes. Its squid-like skin was of a similar colour, and its entire face was a single gaping orifice that held a wispy, glowing orb in the center of its skull which I immediately recognized as its soul. A pair of long, fanged tentacles lined with pores and tendrils hung down from its head like a long, forked beard, and the seven digits shared by its two hands all bore wicked-looking talons, as did its two-toed, digitigrade feet.

“Not fly or teleport? What sort of pedestrian house guests do you think I entertain here?” the being asked wryly, its voice seeming to come from nowhere in particular.

Charlotte instinctively backed away from the creature and into the protective fold of our coven, but Emrys was quick to hold up his hand to plead for calm.

“Please, there’s no need for alarm. This is our host, Mathom-meister. He’s the only reason any of this is here in the first place,” Emrys informed us. “A year or two ago a companion of his unfortunately became one of the Darling Twin’s victims, and when he heard of my vendetta with them, he tracked me down; which is no small feat, I assure you.”

“It is for us. My people are a race of Planeswalkers. Traversing the many worlds of Creation is second nature to us,” Mathom-meister explained.

“I’ve… I’ve heard of your people, I think,” I said, softly and unsurely. “A friend of mine had an encounter with an artifact that gave her a vision of a race of strange and powerful sorcerers slaying their own god. I take it you’re the ones who slayed this Scarab Titan as well? That’s, that’s…”

“Horrifying, yes. That’s the idea,” he nodded. “You have nothing to worry about, young Witch. My people have no special interest in your world. This is purely personal. My friend is dead, and I want his murderers brought to justice; a goal which Emrys and I happen to have in common.”        

“Feel free to share this information with the Ophion Occult Order, Samantha,” Emrys said. “I’d very much like for the Darling Twins to know what’s hunting them. Mathom-meister, please excuse me while I take my guests inside. We do have pressing business to discuss and their time is limited.”  

The squid-cyclopes bowed gracefully, and my coven and I quickly scurried after Emrys as he led us inside through a towering hallway and into a large chamber that had been appointed as a living space.

I had thought that Emrys would want to speak with us alone, which was why I was surprised to see a young woman sitting cross-legged on a spongey yet chitinous object that I will for the sake of my sanity call a bean bag chair. Like Emrys, she was pale and blue-blooded, her choppy hair as black as coal. She wore a black robe and heavy black eyeliner, but these could not conceal the fact that she too had thin wisps of miasma emanating from her eyes.  

“Is that your… daughter?” Charlotte asked, as baffled by her presence as any of us. The woman smiled warmly at the question.

“In a way. I was dead, and Emrys gave me new life. Now a part of the Outer Primordial Darkness he represents lives in me too,” she said serenely.

Hovering above her left palm were three small bluish-green orbs, lazily going around in a circle. They were translucent and held something inside them that I couldn’t make out, but the orbs themselves appeared to be melting and solidifying by the woman’s will.

“You’re Petra, aren’t you?” I asked as I cautiously approached her. “Chamberlin had mentioned that Emrys had taken an acolyte. I’m Samantha, and this is Genevieve, Elam, and Charlotte.”

“I know. The whole reason we’re here is to speak with you,” she nodded.

“The Ophion Occult Order calls me a soul-flayer, and I’m sure you were all wondering exactly what that meant before you came here,” Emrys said, standing proudly behind his acolyte. “Well, this is it. The Darkness Beyond is now a part of her, and a part of her now lives within the Darkness Beyond. She is not unchanged from what she was before, but neither has what she was been lost.”

“My interpretation of the term ‘soul-flaying’ was the complete removal of a person’s consciousness from their astral and physical bodies to be subsumed by your Darkness,” I countered. “They told me that what you’ve done with Petra here is just the limit of your power while you’re bound in their chains. Are you telling me that if your chains were broken, you wouldn’t be able to do any worse than this?”

“On my physical avatar? No. So long as my astral form remains chained and bound with the World Serpent, I cannot cleave a conscious mind from its astral substrate,” Emrys assured me.

“But that is your ultimate goal, isn’t it? Breaking the chains the Ophion Occult Order put on you is just a stepping stone to breaking the ones the gods bound you with?” Genevieve asked. “You’ve allied yourself with a literal god slayer. Do you expect us to believe that his people’s abilities aren’t something you intend to put to your own ends?”  

“I don’t have an ultimate goal so much as I have a fundamental principle of opposing tyranny,” he claimed. “When I was a mere man, thousands of years ago, I was a tyrant. I believed that might made right so unquestionably that when my might began to fail me, the only thing I could think to do was to try everything in my power to restore it. This quest eventually led to me becoming one with the Darkness Beyond, which gave me not only the might I coveted but the wisdom I didn’t know I needed. It gave me perspective. It made me stronger than any human alive at that point but still let me realize how insignificant I was. It was humbling, and enlightening, and filled me both with remorse over my past actions and an impetus to use my newfound gifts to rectify them. I tried to overthrow the gods themselves which, in hindsight, was overly ambitious. I not only failed but had my soul devoured by the World Serpent, where it still resides to this day. 

“I am not eager to bring the wrath of the gods down upon me once again. No, for now, I will be content to end the tyranny of the Ophion Occult Order. This is the message I’d like you to relay to them. If the Grand Adderman agrees to unbind my chains and step down from his post, I will spare his life. If he declines, I want the rest of the Order to know that I will show mercy to any who sides with me over him. I am willing to allow the Order to exist so long as it agrees to become more decentralized, democratic, and accountable. They will have to forfeit certain artifacts and individuals in their possession over to me, chief among them the Darling Twins, but I am willing to negotiate. If they aren’t, then I will overthrow the Grand Adderman by whatever means necessary and see the Order scattered to the four winds. It is entirely up to them whether or not the conflict between us escalates to full-on war. Have I made myself clear, Samantha?”

“I think so,” I said as I pensively considered everything he had said. “Why should they trust you to keep your word once your chains are broken? For that matter, why should we?”

He took a moment to consider his response, eyeing me over as though he was trying to divine something that would win over my trust.

“Samantha, you made a pact with Persephone to get your Spirit Familiar there; one where she swore by the River Styx. Is that correct?” he asked.

“It is,” I nodded.

“And in the years since, has Persephone ever broken that pact she swore to?” he asked.

“No, she hasn’t,” I replied.

“I may not be an Old God, but so long as my astral form remains bound by their chains, they have power over me,” he said. “Samantha Sumner, Hedge Witch of Harrowick Woods, I swear on the River Styx that I have spoken no lies to you today. I swear by the River Styx that I will abide by any Covenant that I and the Ophion Occult Order agree to in good faith and fair dealing that they do not break first. I swear by the River Styx that when my chains are broken, I will give you no cause to fear me or regret your trust in me.”

I gave a questioning glance to Genevieve, and then Elam, both of whom nodded in the affirmative.

“All right. An oath sworn on the River Styx is good enough for me. I’ll deliver your terms to Seneca Chamberlin,” I agreed. “I’m very grateful for the trust and respect you’ve shown for me and my coven, Emrys, though I can’t say I quite understand it. Out of all the guests that were there on the Hallow’s Eve you were summoned, why did Evie and I stand out to you?”

“The Ophion Occult Order deemed you worthy of inclusion in their cult, an offer you rejected on principle. You cheated Persephone, but you did it not to gain immortality for yourself but to save your friend from hell. You came here, thinking I could very well tear your souls asunder, but did so because you believed it was your duty to prevent needless suffering,” Emrys answered. “You are extraordinary in your craft, courage, and conscience, the latter of which especially stood out among the degenerates at that party. I do apologize if I frightened you at that event. I was a bit… irritable, given the circumstances. I’m glad we were able to meet again under more pleasant conditions.”

“So am I, Emrys,” I nodded. “I’m not sure exactly what this means or how relevant it is, but Seneca wanted me to tell you that he’s able to offer you the Dream Demon Red Ruck as a sacrifice.”

Pffft. Tell him it’s hardly a sacrifice if I’m getting rid of a boogie man for him,” he scoffed. “In fact, now that you mention it, Ruck’s one egregore that might be of more use to me alive.”

I wanted to ask him what he meant by that, but we were suddenly interrupted by the rapid pounding of a gong somewhere down below. It seemed to be an alarm of some kind, as we could hear the panicked shouting and frantic racing of people either battening down or forsaking the Flea Market altogether.

Mathom-meister apparated into the middle of the room, his facial tentacles reflexively raised in a defensive position.

“Were you outside the market?” he demanded of us.

“The portal we came through deposited us a few miles outside of the market, yes,” I admitted.

“Damn,” Emrys cursed softly, though he sounded more frustrated than angry. “Meister, it’s not their fault. I knew they weren’t experienced Planeswalkers, I could have – ”

“It doesn’t matter!” Mathom-meister interjected. “They need to leave, now!”

“Why, what’s going on?” Genevieve demanded.

“The scarabs are swarming,” Petra explained. “Don’t feel bad; it happens often enough that they’re prepared for it.”

I wanted to press for more details, but I could hear the humming of a vast winged swarm steadily encroaching upon us.  

“Don’t worry. Once you leave the swarm will disperse… eventually,” Emrys told us. “We’ve said all that need be said for now. Return home, and I’ll reach out to you again shortly, Samantha.”

Again, I wanted to object, but the swarm outside was growing louder and louder, and it occurred to me that we might not be completely safe from a biblical swarm of insects that could not only sense but evidently sought out souls.

This occurred to Charlotte as well, as she was the first of us to vanish and awaken back in her body. We could all feel the weight of her reembodied soul tugging on us to return with her. Genevieve immediately grabbed hold of my right hand and Elam my left, both of them refusing to leave before I did.

I spared one final glance at Emrys, lamenting that we couldn’t have had more time.      

“I’ll relay everything you said to the Order. I’ll make sure they know you’re willing to negotiate a truce,” I vowed.

He gave me a gracious nod, and just as we heard the swarm start to pelt the exterior of the market, I forced my physical eyes open and was back in my body, still safely under a willow tree in my cemetery.  

I immediately looked beside me to Genevieve, and saw that she was awake as well, and then around me for Elam, who seemed to be suffering a bit of spectral whiplash from being pulled back with me so suddenly, but was otherwise all right. Sighing with relief, I turned lastly to Charlotte, and saw that she was looking down at the mediation circle in dreaded horror.

Following her gaze, I saw that the Undying Rose was gone – spent, perhaps, in exchange for our passage – and in its place was the inert, and hopefully dead, body of one of the shimmering scarabs.



Written by The Vesper's Bell
Content is available under CC BY-SA

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