According to most traditions, rusalki were fish-women, who lived at the bottom of rivers. In the middle of the night, they would walk out to the bank and dance in meadows. If they saw handsome men, they would fascinate them with songs and dancing, mesmerize them, then lead them away to the river floor and their death.
When Agnès woke, it was with Olivia's face fresh in her mind's eye, the memory of her friend's pale and tranquil face vivid against the reality of the tent's darkness. She could nearly cry for the fact that this latest dream of Olivia had not been of the young woman's recent murder; it had been a happy dream of their childhood meetings. She did start crying, as it truly sunk back in that they would never meet again, and resorted to biting her lip so as to try to calm her breathing and not wake Edea. She was still the crybaby, much as ever. She still needed her dearest friend, who would have held her and hummed a song to calm her, the familiar song that had come back to her in her dream...
The song that was even now drifting into the tent from somewhere outside. For a minute Agnès did not move at all, did not even breathe, listening keenly to the singing voice of a young woman and expecting it to disappear any second. When it did not, she slid out of her camping roll and stood, rubbing the tears from her eyes as she rushed out of the tent and left behind a slumbering Airy and Edea. The voice did not sound quite like Olivia's singing voice as she remembered it, but then, it had been so long since she had been able to hear her friend sing. Years and years.
What did she expect to find? Of course Olivia could not truly be the singer. The wound that witch had inflicted had been a mortal one. But they were camped so close to the Water temple, having stopped short of purifying the water crystal only due to the fall of darkness... perhaps this might be some sort of sign. She needed to find whoever, or whatever, that voice belonged to.
"Ah, Agnès!" Ringabel's voice broke into her thoughts. She whirled about in surprise; there stood the vagrant, by the quiet embers of their evening campfire, one of his roguish smiles in his tone. "You heard that wonderful singing as well, did you? I've a mind to investigate and see what would bring a maiden out so far on her own, but-"
"You were keeping watch, were you not?" Agnès said quickly, realizing his angle. "You stay here. I will go look."
"A-all right," he answered as she turned away from him again; she was even more sure that he had wanted her to take his place watching, if only momentarily, so that he could have the chance to woo a mystery lady. But there was a very good chance it was not a woman as he imagined; it might be a spirit. Olivia's spirit.
She tried to keep herself to a brisk walk for as long as she could look over her shoulder and see the campsite. But when she looked over to check on Ringabel's shrinking silhouette and looked back once more, she caught a flash of a young woman swaying playfully as she walked-more like danced-amongst the trees ahead, by the river. Her long, straight hair streaming behind her was just like Olivia's, and Agnès' heart leapt to her throat. After that, there was no way she could have stopped herself from running.
They were so close to the water temple. There had been legends of vestals' spirits lingering after death for one last task, one last fulfillment of their vows they needed to see through; what if Olivia's spirit needed reassurance that her crystal would be cleansed? Perhaps she had one final message for Agnès? She seemed to be calling her specifically with the song she was singing, that shared memory of their childhood. And how could Agnès possibly deny her?
Olivia's graceful dance stopped at the water's edge, the girl extending her arms over the water as she sang the last few notes of the song. Even still, her form seemed to flow with movement, glowing slightly under the moonlight, as though she were the very water she had been custodian of for these past four years.
The woman turned to Agnès with a smile on her lips and in her dark eyes. It was such a blessed sight to see after she had been killed so violently, and Agnès choked up, reaching toward her friend. She probably wouldn't even be able to touch her, but...
...But no. When Olivia reached back and took her hands in hers, it was with a solid enough form. "You're here," Agnès said softly. "You're truly here...! But why-?"
Agnès stopped, startled. The spirit of Olivia had said the word at the same time as her. As she stood still at the side of the river with her friend, Olivia nodded her head slightly, her long, black-blue bangs falling forward. "Why...?" the dead girl repeated. Her hands shifted on Agnès, letting go of the wind vestal's hands and gripping her forearms instead. She looked back up at Agnès, her dark eyes flat like the surface of a stagnant pool. "Why did you lead the witch straight to me?"
The words struck Agnès to her very core. It was her fault her friend was not only dead, but unable to rest? "Olivia! I...I'm truly sorry! If there is anything I can still do for you-please-"
"Show me how sorry you are?" her friend asked. The spirit took a step back, straight off the edge of the bank, to fall into the river-her iron grip ensuring that Agnès followed straight after.
The moon only gave so much light, and it didn't penetrate the water; Agnès was swallowed up by the darkness of the river, her lungs burning as she tried to breathe and got more water than air. The form of her friend had disappeared, leaving Agnès alone to kick against the water, trying to find the surface and past that the bank again. But while the water crystal's dormancy had left the river's natural current sluggish, it was no natural force that Agnès was fighting against. The undercurrent of water wrapped around her seemed as strong as a monk's grip and as sly as a red mage's wit, first using its strength to drag her down farther and farther, then focusing its flow on her mouth and nose, eager to make her drown. She fought against it as hard as she could, kicking and thrashing, and after a moment it finally yielded, weakened. But by the time Agnès found surface again, she was exhausted herself, barely able to do more than churn water to keep herself afloat. The force had dragged her away from the bank; she could barely see it in the darkness with her wet bangs plastered down over her eyes. She knew she should yell for the others, but couldn't with her throat so weak from coughing and choking on the water that had found its way down.
As she paddled in place, trying to regather her strength, she felt the water winding around her again. Tears welled up in her eyes. It wrapped around her so slowly but surely; both of them knew which had won. Rather than cry, Agnès focused on getting as much air while she could, in this last moment she had. One more moment to be of the air. Soon enough she would be like Olivia: of the water, and dead.
Would even that be enough for her friend? Olivia's spirit had become twisted...but it was her fault. Her sin to pay for.
She heard a yell just as she was pulled back under. In her exhausted state, it didn't fully register until a moment later when a second person's arms wrapped around her, pulling her back to the surface. As soon as they broke, Ringabel was casting ice spells at the creature beneath them as Agnès clung to him. "Stay with me, Agnès!" he told her. He only cast once more before kicking swiftly away, bringing them both back to the bank as she hung on with the little strength she had left. When he pulled them back up, the cool wind cut through her soaked clothes; she shook on the grass before he sat and took her into his lap and arms, offering her a measure of warmth and protection that way.
"Sorry. I would offer you my jacket instead, but I'm afraid it's not even doing me much good at the moment," he said, trying to make light of things even though she could feel how both their hearts were pounding. "Just a moment for us to get our breaths back, then back to camp; we'll rebuild the fire and get warm and dry. Separately, of course. I suspect Edea and Tiz would both kill me if they saw us right now." He brushed her long bangs back to the side, peering at her face. "Agnès?"
Her shaking hadn't stopped, much to her shame; the tears were coming back in full force. "I-it was Olivia," she rasped. "She w-wanted me to..."
He shook his head. "Your friend died to protect you, Agnès," he said quietly. "She would not wish you ill...ah. It must have been that thing."
Agnès cautiously lifted her head to see a watery form, vaguely shaped like the bust of a human, risen from the river's surface. As she watched, Olivia's appearance rippled across it-but then so did another young woman's, the long, straight dark hair momentarily rolling into a more voluminous mass of blond hair. Edea? After that, the bust quietly dissolved back into the river.
"It must be able to read memories," Ringabel guessed. "It took a form it knew you couldn't ignore or resist. Lucky then I've no such memories for it to take advantage of-though I do go a bit weak in the knees for any fair maiden, so..."
His voice trailed off as Agnes made no response, still hiccuping quietly and fighting to recollect herself. After a moment, he patted her hair gently. "Let's return to camp; you'll feel much better once you're warm. Just stay by my side, Agnès. I'll not let anyone harm you, even a memory."
When they fought Rusalka the day after, an amorphous mass of water able to create illusions of itself, Agnès felt sure enough of what had tried to murder her the night before. Not her friend at all, but a monster desecrating the crystal Olivia had cared for. She lashed out with vicious lightning spells, and once the creature was defeated, the incident of the night before began to fade from her mind. And in the second and third worlds, they had Grandship; there was no need and even less desire to camp outside when they could curl up in real beds in the airship's inn. So by the time they were on a fourth world and started traveling a bit more on foot again when it wasn't too inconvenient, both to train and to let Datz, Zatz and the Proprietress have some free reign of Grandship for their own errands, Agnès had quite forgotten about the threat. She knew well enough what to avoid, anyway.
But when she snapped awake, it was not to Olivia's singing. It was to Edea's voice, calling out in a soft, gentle tone:
"Alternis, where are you?"
But Edea was lying across from her, fast asleep. For a second Agnès wondered: could this world's Edea possibly be in Florem? It seemed so strange.
"Alternis? Please help me... please..." There were tears in the speaker's voice now. It was not how her friend would normally speak at all, and Agnès flew up from her roll in a panic as she realized who the speaker was-who it was addressing.
Ringabel had lost his amnesia as a ward against terrible memories.
The man was standing at the edge of the campsite, his back ramrod straight as he stared into the darkness. Agnès circled around him. He was so transfixed that she did not even catch his attention until she was directly in his view. "You will stay with us," she said firmly. "Edea is safe asleep in the tent. Go and see."
"I have," he said curtly, his eyes flickering above her again. Toward the river. "It isn't our Edea at all." His jaw clenched, and then unclenched, and tightened again. "I know it can't be her, either, but..."
He worked his jaw again, and Agnès realized he was having to fight himself. He knew it was only an illusion that would greet him at the riverside, and one that would likely demand his life. Yet he wanted to go. And to some small degree, she wanted to as well.
The voice. It must be the voice; Rusalka had been able to charm them in battle with it. Agnès quickly covered Ringabel's ears with her hands, ignoring how awkward it felt to reach up and touch his face unprompted. Whether it was because she had muffled the distant voice or because she was touching him in a rather rude manner, she did succeed in getting his attention more fully. He looked down at her with something like desperation in his wide eyes.
"You will stay with us," she said more firmly; her voice was far from bewitching, so she would have to make up for the lack of charm with sheer conviction. "I will speak with you, or rouse one of the others for you, if you wish, or I'll-I'll sing, if that is what it takes to distract you, but you will stay with us. Promise you will stay with me."
He nodded, his face still between her hands, and she felt a drop of his tears hit her thumb. "Yes," he said quietly, his voice close to breaking. "Please, drown her out."
Agnès rubbed the small wetness on his cheek away, then dropped her hands to take his and lead him back to the campfire, away from the voice's call. She would stay with him and give him another voice to listen to for as long as he needed. For as long as it might take Rusalka to realize he still had a shield against his memories in her.