RP:A Vigil Grey and Haunted
Part of the What Dreams May Come Arc
Summary: Before the stars burn beyond the veil, a red dawn breaks across the City of War. Encara, convinced to remain behind on account of her injuries and plagued by tangled thoughts and doubts as a result, keeps a vigil from atop Fort Frostmaw's outer wall while Alliance soldiers prepare for a dangerous expedition to the Shadow Plane. Drawn to the drow simply by curiosity or perhaps a sense of kinship, Valrae's ghost joins her - a stressed Encara tries to express her fears to the spirit and Valrae learns they're also connected by their feelings for Lionel. As the sun rises and Valrae begins to fade, she promises one last thing before vanishing: 'he'll keep his word.'
Passing through the impressive North Gate or standing upon the threshold of Frostmaw Fort, the courtyard sprawls out before you, securely fenced in by the mighty wall. High above upon the wall, soldiers march and sentries stand guard, ever watchful of Frostmaw city's borders and those that move throughout the fort. With the knowledge that sharped eyed archers oversee activity, one can move through the courtyard upon a stone-paved pathway, each piece handcarved with intricate, tribal designs beloved of Frostmawians. Bordering the path are grounds that should be nothing more than packed earth and snow, yet it appears to be a lawn of finely trimmed grass, of all things. How is such a thing growing in these harsh climes? Whatever the sorcery behind it, grass dominates this courtyard, a rare splash of color so far North, and dotted with statues of various famous warriors of lore. Lining the pathway are lengthy, tiered constructs of stone and ice: benches, you realize, cunningly wrought to provide seating for races of any height. Southward lies the gates to depart this area, well-guarded to prevent the ill-intentioned from fleeing. While northward looms Frostmaw Fort, a behemoth construct of stone, wood, and ice, riddled with battlements, towers, and a myriad of deadly defenses. As if the walls, mounted, giant crossbows, and guards were not daunting enough, to the east and west lie the courtyards of the Titan Sentinels, their earthen and frozen heads visible over the walls. The City of War seems to have earned its title.
Sleep is a precious commodity few soldiers are able to find entrenched in the shadow of a looming battle. The same can be said of Encara, who might not be fit to join the rest but still feels the disquiet coiling through her; an insidious poison that would shake the nerves of lesser men and fill their hearts with hopeless dread. Encara is neither - being well-acquainted with death herself, it is difficult for these sorts of things to truly disturb the drow, even if she can't quite shake the instinctive sense of trepidation that gnaws away inside her chest. She keeps her vigil, standing atop the mighty wall that surrounds Fort Frostmaw, the City of War sprawling out beneath her before an imminent dawn. The deep navy pall of night is drawing back, fading gradually into an uneasy grey, and the howling winds that beset Frostmaw throughout the night have finally died, the air gone eerily still as if the sky itself waits with baited breath to see how the next events unfold.
While she's tall for her kind, wearing only a pair of boots and simple pants, a borrowed shirt, and with a thick quilt wrapped around her to ward against the frigid early morning air, Encara hardly presents an imposing figure at the moment. The guards upon the wall give her a wide berth all the same - the sideward looks she gets, if they acknowledge her at all, are laced with unfriendly suspicion. Like most others on the surface, Frostmaw shares a deep and bloody history with the drow, and it begs the question: when Encara left Trist'oth, why did she choose to come here of all places? The native giants are a xenophobic enough people to begin with, let alone without factoring in her obvious ancestry, and Encara, born and raised in the perpetual warmth of the Underdark, has no love for the bitter cold that blankets this northerly kingdom for most of the year. There are far easier places for a surface drow to make a life for themselves. But the answer lies before her, past the city gates: a vast wilderness that stretches onward into forever, home only to towering mountains, open spaces of quiet solitude, and wild beasts. Encara is one of those, even if sometimes she would like to pretend she's as harmless as she looks right now, that she could live without the prejudice she receives from others. Regardless, there's a sense of peace to be found out in the windblown tundra and pine forests that soothes and lets her forget about all that, for a while.
Down in the courtyard at her back, men and women of the Alliance work in tense silence, preparing the supplies necessary for a journey that will take them across Lithrydel and beyond… a journey Encara won't be accompanying them on. Her jaw tightens again at the reminder and she thinks of Lionel's words only a few hours prior as she glares over the rooftops; his insistence she remain behind, recover, and that they -will- find answers for her, but not this time. That he wants her to trust him. Surface folk are quick to put their faith in others, quicker still to break their own oaths - it is folly to depend on anyone but yourself and the drow know this. The very notion that she believes Lionel and the promise he'll return is as terrifying to Encara as the fear of impending death is to those soldiers, though artfully disguised beneath an ocean of cold rage. Were she anyone else, it'd be tempting to convince herself this is just some twisted nightmare, but Hellfire's brand burns in her right shoulder at the thought, itself another reminder - both that she is awake, and that perhaps the man she trusted not to kill her can also be trusted to keep his word.
The dead were condemned to never again know sleep. There is a melancholic sense of familiarity crouching over those that readied themselves for the Shadow Plane mission. The longing for rest had been growing like a stubborn, insidious weed in her soul. The empty thing has started small, a pin prick in the otherwise sturdy house of her soul.. Now, it yawned inside of her hungry and dangerous, ready to pull her into the blackness of nothing if she’d only let it… Valrae would not rest yet. She had been drawn here, either to the power of the skull or the skull’s keeper, like a moth to flame. The pull was undeniable, a call demanding to be heard and followed. Valrae had long given up fighting it. Being near the skull was like standing in a blacksmith's forge though. Everything was suffocating heat and fire that threatened to hone her into a weapon.
Valrae had broken away from Lionel after the conversation between the Steward and the mysterious drow concluded. She followed her into the courtyard but broke away to linger and weave through the soldiers. The nervous energy wasn’t unlike pressing a cool rag to her forehead. As the dark blue sky bleeds into grey, the spirit of the witch circles away from the bustle of the Alliance and returns to the drow she had followed out of curiosity. She watched her for a time, unseen as others passed and cast looks of mistrust, fear, prejudice. Another bitter familiarity that tangled over her. Her spirit surges with sympathy, thinking of the witches she’s lost or left behind.
"Why did you need his word?” A soft, disembodied voice fills the silence suddenly. The spirit had pulled herself together. Using borrowed power and what little of her own was still clinging to her, Valrae had summoned a more corporeal form. Where once was only air the paperthin image of a woman stands. Her appearance is a mirror of the one that existed while she was living. A short, fragile looking woman with a waterfall of windswept gold-spun curls and emerald eyes that were doe-wide and belied a delicate nature. She was cloaked in scarlet that curled and moved as smoke. For a while, she cast her gaze out over Frostmaw as Encara had. She watched with frowning detachment. “Can you feel it too?” Valrae turns her face then, her eyes moving to Encara’s before the wound Hellfire and Lionel have left. She makes no attempt to explain her inquiry further or introduce herself, only purses the lie of her lips and waits.
From nowhere, a breath of chill wind shifts the long tangles of Encara's silvery hair - she turns with a blink, seeing nothing, but her gaze happens to catch on the shape of a familiar figure in the courtyard. Vir has paused briefly, his arms laden with various supplies, to stare up at the drow. After a moment, he waves to her. Not certain what to make of this, she purses her lips and returns the gesture somewhat stiffly, but the witch is already hurrying off with his things. Bemused yet strangely unperturbed, Encara looks back to the early morning view— and almost jumps out of her skin when she finds herself with some very unexpected company. It's all she can do not to cry out, even though her heart hammers like it's trying to escape from the confines of her chest. The flinch is pronounced, the drowic curses numerous — though hushed — but a quick glance around at the nearby guardsmen confirms that nobody has noticed her having a moment of silent panic. Despite this, she snarls. No one sneaks up on a drow… none among the living, at any rate.
Ghosts are inevitable, especially in places like the Underdark where killing is a casual past time - they fill the spaces between life and beyond in curtains of ever-shifting grey, but most tend to keep to themselves. It is a fact Encara is quietly glad for, because she never learned how to deal with something she can't touch, can't kill. In this way, the woman suddenly standing beside her echoes Encara's emotions: intangible, and thus, nearly impossible to grasp. 'Why?' Valrae asks and Encara is not sure she has an answer. She slides the closest guards a tentative look before opening her mouth to reply in quiet tones. "Reassurance?" That sounded better in her head. The androgynous drow snorts, shrugs awkwardly, and winces when her shoulder protests the movement. "I don't know." It's the truth. Words are cheap and ultimately meaningless without action to back them up - Encara was raised in a world filled with suspicion and questioned motives so she knows this well, but not why she needed to hear Lionel's promises. Perhaps it's because he had already shown her and drow, with their endlessly interwoven plots, are so fond of layered intent.
Feel what? The spirit gets a roll of the eyes. It occurs to Encara that maybe she isn't even here; maybe this is only some cursed figment of her imagination, a phantom conjured by her mind to sift through the mess Lionel has made in her. A few stones can start an avalanche, and the Hero of Hellfire has swept across Encara in ways she does not have the capacity to understand, leaving a wreckage in his wake that smoulders with newborn heat. After a pause, Encara decides to indulge her anyway. Clearly she's going mad, so why not try to talk it out? "The burning? The ache? The emptiness, or the pull; or the—" No, she won't say it, not even to this fair apparition. Encara scowls bitterly and clenches her jaw shut tight - the only thing she should be longing for at all is the death of her enemies. She doesn't -know- what she wants. With luck, Valrae will just assume she's talking about her injury. Everything she feels is worthless - she might as well be a ghost herself, for all the good it'll do her.
Valrae watches the sun slide slowly over the horizon without looking away from it. She was as unmoving as only the dead could be. The further time slipped around her the more removed she became. The harder it was to form an image that wasn’t off and unsettlingly… Other. Though the wind moved, the spirit’s bright cloak and shining hair merely floated as if she were slipping further into cold black water. The witch was not truly here. And would she ever be? It would only be a matter of time now… Oh, but she could still imagine. She could dream of the wind tangling her hair and the cold turning the tip of her nose red.
When awareness shakes the drow the ghost remains motionless and pensive of the early morning sky. Valrae gives her a moment to come to terms with the sight of her. Patients traveled with death it would seem. The witch had learned that it was always a little different for everyone the first time. With Meri, there had been sadness. With Maude there was only fear. Lionel had inspired something different though. In a crowd of people looking for his leadership she’d come to him. Coyly at first, as he was a shining beacon of power that demanded caution… Or was it the skull? The spirit had no answer to what had called her that day but in a blaze of crimson and emerald she had felt the sting of smoke on her tongue again. Had felt the fire. It was stunning and painful and glorious all at once to a ghost condemned to tread the line of living and dead and never feel anything more than regret.
Her eyes move knowingly to Encara at last. “And so you do,” The look on her face, one of quiet understanding and recognition suggests she hasn’t taken her words to mean the wound. She lets the air between them swell with silence for a heartbeat of time. “He’ll do what he can to keep his word,” She turns back to the sky. “I’ll do whatever it is the dead can manage to do as well,” A slow smile twitches at the corner of her painted lips. “It is considerably less than that of the living though,” Her tone suggests other meaning as she looks back at Encara again. “While the dead pine, it is for things we know we cannot have. The living? Perhaps all they need to do is have the courage to reach out.” The image of the woman’s shoulders shrug. If she had a throat the words would have caught in it or tasted of bile. No heart would beat in her chest but a hollow, phantom pain speared through it.
Valrae looks over Encara again, slowly. Were she still among the living it would be easy for the witch to imagine crossing paths and striking a friendship if only for the strange air of familiarity that being cast as dangerous ‘others’ left… Or perhaps it was the sense of knowing that the stranger near her had put much on the line searching for the remaining skulls that might give her life again. There was no true hope nestled in the witch’s chest for life but she could appreciate the sentiment immensely… And could find no energy to begrudge her of the same tangled feelings that rested within herself even if they were inspired by the same man. So while the words tasted of another death she uttered them unflinchingly.
Far in the distance, over jagged blue mountains bordering the horizon, the sky has turned a glorious molten red. A colour with weighted meaning and an omen to all on mornings such as this, it serves as an additional warning for Encara - her sensitive eyes narrow as the first pale rays of sun emerge from behind those peaks to chase away the grey. But its light also casts her phantom company in a soft, rosy golden glow and for a moment the drow can't help but openly stare, even if doing so hurts just as much as looking into the sun. The spirit may have lost the ability to move in tune with the rest of the world, but the sight of her standing there with gold-spun hair and a cloak like a shimmering comet trail does move something deep within Encara. Her mind is steered down well-travelled paths with almost painful intensity, and she finds herself pulled inexorably to memories of fire. She thinks of the hundreds of tiny lanterns strung above House Val'thyrion's grounds like multi-hued stars; pinpricks of light in Trist'oth's perpetual darkness that had seemed so enchanting when she was a child. She thinks of when the portal had snapped shut in a crackle of energy - the way the residual magic had ripped through her arm in a sparking emerald blaze and left scars like blackened wisps of smoke, how it'd marked her brother too, and how his scream had torn at her soul even as she collapsed to the floor and into unconsciousness. She thinks of the moment Hellfire pierced her flesh with searing intent, and all the air in her lungs had burned as time slowed to an agonising crawl. She thinks of Valrae.
Scarlet eyes widen a touch and Encara looks at the spirit, -really- looks at her, like she can peer into the mirror of her form in life and recognise the reflection in death. Valrae meets her gaze and she can sense the unspoken connection that exists between them. It's part of what's driven her, this strange kinship. Drow are prideful, self-centred things who ignore what they can't profit from regardless of any moral obligations that might prompt another to step in. She should not care about Valrae's death or for the persecution of Larketian witches. Risking her life for the ghost of a woman she never met, for the thousands of souls taking shelter under Cenril's crumbling barrier, for Lionel and the Alliance— what has she to gain from it all, really? Nothing, just as there's no benefit to the emotions tangled in her chest. Nothing will come of it. But oh, her heart can't manage to let it go. She can't walk away. Tucking her chin into the folds of the quilt wrapped around her, Encara huffs a small sigh and returns to observing the city. For now it's only the faint sense of empathy for a stranger's suffering, but could it ever be more? If Valrae were able to return to life, would they get along? While she doesn't know the odds of Uma's plan succeeding, it hasn't stopped the drow from diving headlong into danger in pursuit of the crystal skulls. Only a fool hopes too much, but for once, Encara wants to be a little bit foolish (and it's easy to blame that desire on her current state - what a mess she's become).
Valrae's words earn her a doubtful click of the tongue. Is it courage that should compel her to make that leap? Encara is not so certain of that, in part because her own feelings are still unclear to her. "If it were so simple…" the drow muses absently, though she neglects to finish the thought - perhaps it's unnecessarily cruel of her to voice such things when she stands here in flesh and bone with the cold nipping at her cheeks, while Valrae can only regret and remember. Encara shakes her head, her hair turned to long waves of pearl in the early morning light, spilling over her shoulders like silk. "Do you know much of my kind?" she asks in turn. "It is not a lack of courage that holds me back." The witch gets a knowing sort of look before the drow switches topic as she reaches to tuck a length of hair behind a pointed ear, lips pulling into a frown. Surface folk are so open about their insecurities and it bothers her - even as a ghost, she doesn't think Valrae should be so quick to show it. "It takes strength to appear like this, and I'm sure it isn't the first time you've managed it." Just to her. "According to my aunt, the Shadow Plane doesn't follow our rules. The realm belongs to Delisha - you may have power there beyond what you can manifest here."
It is, unfortunately, a big 'maybe;' for all her family's ancient ties to the Shadow Plane, she knows frustratingly little about the realm, just that she must reach it herself some day… which brings her mind inevitably back to Lionel. Encara scrunches her nose slightly at the dull ache that echoes through her at the thought of him. "You'll be doing more than me if I'm going to be stuck in this godforsaken fort." There's bitterness in the drow's voice, but it's not for Valrae.
Valrae watches the sky bleed red and lets the bold color spark her own memory. Fleeting images of her life that flash by in a blur of color and motion. It was difficult to catch the exact moment her foot landed on the path her life had taken. Was it the moment she tripped over Hudson and stained his shirt with chicken parmesan? Or was it the moment rain poured from the sky in torrents on the beach of Cenril and they both made a mistake that rippled into their lives with all the force of the earthquake that shook fear into Larketian hearts? She couldn’t deny Hudson and Alvina’s connection to the tangled web her life had become. Would she have ever thrown herself into the defense of her people if she’d never moved away from the life she had just started in Cenril? Or would she have just become another witch who listened to the stories coming from Larket with shock and disapproval moving fleetingly through her mind until the next headline pushed them away? She would never know the answer to the question that hounded her now, even after death.
Encara’s willingness to throw herself into danger for her, along with all the others, grabbed the jagged knife of guilt that had embedded itself into her soul and twisted it. How could she be worthy of such a struggle when doubt rested so heavy on her heart? Any other witch could have been cast in the fire… And still might.
As Encara looks to her, Valrae can feel something swell between them that she can put no name to as she returns her gaze. Suddenly, a familiar pain of longing claws through her. The longing for life, the desperate wish for a second chance and a change. Watching the wind play in the silken moonbeam tresses of the drow and the tuck of her chin against the cold sparks both envy and regret. Envy to feel the wind, regret that in life her path never intersected with that of the drow across from her. Before she can voice these thoughts Encara clicks her tongue and the words die in her throat.
Valrae’s laugh tumbled over her before she could move to cover the image of her lips. “No, I suppose nothing ever is,” She concedes with the tilt of her head. There was a fondness in the small smile she shares now. Her eyes flash with humor at the drow’s answer. “Perhaps not,” The spirit watches Encara frown and lets the quiet spin around them. Death had only tempered the direct and often messy honesty that she usually tackled such things with. It would have made her smile to hear the drow’s opinion of that.
"It does,” She agrees, moving with the change of subject easily. “And it isn’t the first time no... But I’m fading now.” There was no sadness to be found in the undercurrents of her tone. It was stated simply and as fact. The longer she kept herself between the space of the living and the dead, the farther she slipped away from both. Soon, there would be nothing left.
She turns her back to the red dawn and looks instead to those gathered below. The mask of her face rearranges to a look of thoughtful consideration. “I’ll keep that in mind,” She says eventually, her gratitude apparent. Out of something akin to muscle memory, Valrae reaches out, her hand moving to rest on Encara’s unwounded shoulder. There would be no sensation of touch for either of them and so the motion was pointless. A look of disappointed realization crosses her as she remembers herself and pulls her hand away. “Live to fight another day. It’s more than I was able to accomplish.” The twinkle of humor, though dark, returns to her eyes.
Slowly, the image of the witch curls away like mist in the morning sun. “He’ll keep his word,” Her voices whispers in promise. As Valrae vanishes she leaves behind only scent of smoke.