The last thing Dust saw before he lost consciousness was Gaius standing over him with an expression full of regret and worry.

When he woke up in a too-familiar tent, he didn't even remember that much. He clearly remembered the very start of the duel, but everything after that was a blur, at best. His stomach churned, and he wasn't sure if the nausea he was feeling was from the concussion he'd likely suffered, or from the sinking certainty that he had failed. He wasn't surprised to find both of his hands in restraints and chained to the frame of the medical cot he was lying on, but the knowledge that it was futile didn't keep him from putting all his weight into trying to break them. Managing to flip the cot over and getting a bloody nose from his snout hitting the floor too hard was still an acceptable approximation of progress.

Unfortunately, just as he had gotten himself turned around, and was starting a wriggle towards the exit, the flap of the tent opened, and none other than General Gaius – alive and well and victorious now that the Moonbloods stood no chance – stepped in. Dust couldn't see his face through the thin mattress, but an exasperated chuckle told him everything he needed to know about the man's expression.

"Good to see you're awake, at least," Gaius said, then knelt down to very carefully return the cot to its Dust-side-up position, making sure to support Dust's weight with one arm to minimise putting strain on him as he did so. "I know you're confused right now, but it's important for you to stay here."

"It's important for me to stop you," Dust growled. "I'm the only chance the Moonbloods have left."

"Then the Moonbloods never had a chance to begin with," Gaius replied. "You're strong, but I've always been stronger. The only thing their futile attempt at survival accomplished was bringing you back to where you belong: At my side."

"I don't want to be 'at your side'!" Dust yanked at the restraints again. "And if I don't stand a chance, why am I chained up like this?"

Gaius pressed a firm hand onto Dust's shoulder to hamper his efforts. "It took quite a bit of force to subdue you the first time, my friend. I wouldn't relish repeating it. Nonetheless, if you force my hand, I will not hesitate to employ a more long-term solution."

It bothered Dust, how immediately he understood that Gaius was threatening to break one of his legs. The time it would take for him to be able to walk again far outstripped the rapidly shrinking time the Moonbloods had left before they met complete extinction, if it hadn't happened already. As much as he hated to relent to Gaius's will, he stopped struggling.

A small, fond smile crossed Gaius face, and he started gently carding his fingers through Dust's messy hair, stopping occasionally to work out a tangle. "I gave orders for the Moonbloods' mages to be captured alive. If all goes well, Sirenni will be able to get the full details of what exactly they did to you."

He couldn't immediately put a face to the name, but Dust did remember that Sirenni was a person with a sorcerous voice, and whose ability to play minds like harps had forever ruined the expression "a little birdy told me" for Cassius. He also intuitively knew that there wasn't a point in asking whether the mages would be spared once information was extracted from them; the likelihood they'd even still be themselves by then was slim. Maybe, if he talked, they might at least be blessed with quicker, more dignified deaths. "I. . . I could tell you what I know."

"I'd appreciate that. Start at the beginning, if you will."

By the time Dust had gotten from describing waking up in the glade to the events that led up to his capture, Gaius was quite literally bristling with fury.

"If even a word of what those Moonbloods told you is true," the general growled, "I swear I will find a way to free your mind from that Moonblood sympathiser they tainted you with, Cassius."

When it had been the other way around, with Ginger wanting him to be rid of Cassius, the prospect of one of his souls being stripped away seemed so much less horrifying. "But Jin never hurt anyone. . ."

"Tell that to the families of the soldiers he used your hands to kill." As harsh as the words themselves were, there was no bite to Gaius's tone. He reached out to gently stroke the fur of Dust's cheek with his thumb. "I know you'd never do any of this without another's will being imposed upon you. You've always been good and loyal, and you will be again."

It would have been easier, if every fiber of his being was overcome with fear at the threat – no, not a threat, a reassurance – no, a threat – but there was still a part of him that used to be Cassius, part of him that had given up on being able to save anyone now, part of him that desperately wanted to lean into Gaius's touch and let the pain of failure be washed away by the comfort of returning to someplace he could still call home. As it was, continuing to muster any hope of escaping in time for it to matter was like floundering in deep water. ". . . How much time is left?"

"With our artillery out of commission, it may take longer than initially expected, but the Moonbloods should still fall by sundown."

"What's going to happen to Fidget and Ginger?"

"The fate of all Moonblood sympathisers, of course," Gaius said. "I already executed the nimbat myself."

The part of Jin that contributed to Dust's behavior snapped. "YOU BASTARD!" He lurched upward and started yanking at the restraints again, this time driven simply by the desire to break Gaius's neck, escape be damned.

Gaius very calmly responded by backhanding Dust with enough force that the room momentarily seemed to spin.

It was a strange feeling for Cassius to be a calming influence, but there wasn't any other source for what made Dust freeze and then quietly lie back down, ears flattened against his head. It was the first time Cassius had ever been able to overrule Jin with such a large gap in their intentions. Ahrah had said something before about keeping Dust's souls "in balance"; did he mean suppressing Cassius at times like this?

Perhaps Ahrah's absence was a good thing, though, since Gaius seemed appeased by the reaction and didn't hit him again. Listening to Cassius definitely seemed like the safer option now.

"I don't like hurting you, my friend," Gaius told him, "but I hope you understand that I won't be tolerating any more acting out from this 'Jin' character."

"Yes," Dust said in a small voice before looking away. "I understand."


Sundown came at once far too quickly and not nearly quickly enough, while Dust was still chained to that cot. Word coming back of Ginger's death was the last straw on the back of what little hope he had still held onto. Gaius didn't want Dust, just Cassius, and whether it was through complex magic or simple violence, Gaius would get what he wanted.

The "new" Cassius was quieter and more withdrawn than the original, and more prone to depressive fits, but it was easy for Gaius to convince himself and others that it was just from the trauma of what the Moonbloods did to him. It was an illusion that "Cassius" had no desire to dissuade them from. That illusion kept him – or what was left of him – safe from further attempts to "correct" his personality. He never saw a battlefield again, instead finding a gilded cage in the spacious accommodations Gaius provided for him. There were pretty words to be said of combat fatigue and emotional instability and only looking after his health, but he knew the real reason was that no-one trusted him with a sword anymore.

When it was finally time for him to return, body and souls, to the Life Thread, Dust welcomed it. And, for the first time since he woke up in the glade outside Aurora, he was truly free.