Special thanks to Cheyla for helping with this chapter as Brissy's got some technical difficulties at the moment-I appreciate you guys so much! All remaining mistakes are my own. See the first chapter for disclaimers/additional warnings/summaries.


RECAP: Harry and Quinn are officially together, Theo gets to the Kadel residence, Ilsa's father, Thomas, comes over to help in Theo's absence


ASKING FOR FAVORS - THEO AT THE KADEL MAIN RESIDENCE


It was little Meg Kadel that opened the front door, beaming up at Theo with a bright, childlike enthusiasm that suited her perfectly.

"Hi!" she chirped, beaming up at him. "Are you here to see Mama? She's in the smoky room."

Meg held out a hand, waving at him impatiently.

"…yes, I think so," Theo said, reluctantly accepting the small hand. It felt so tiny in his own, but soft and warm, as her small fingers curled around his.

"M'kay! This way." Meg led him through the shadowy entrance of the main hall and through the various twists and turns to arrive in a slightly brighter sitting room.

It was, indeed, quite smoky, as Meg had put it, but largely due to the thick haze of incense smoke that seemed to occupy the entire ceiling—and few feet below it.

A thick, herbal scent clung to the air, not a single whiff of it the least bit familiar. The smoky haze, however, had a faint lavender hue to it.

Carved wooden chairs were set in a square of four, around a narrow column in the centre, with a pristine silver bowl anchored inside. Little divots in the wooden frame around the square corners, seemed as if they were there to hold things. Small things.

A sudden rush of light-headedness made Theo grip Meg's hand a little tighter. He couldn't have ignored the Air boosting runes in the slightest.

His body seemed to lighten by several measures, a faint numbness tickling at his fingertips.

Meg tugged him over to one of the four carved chairs and gently pushed him to sit in the closest one. "Are you okay?" she asked, innocently. "Gonna be alright?"

"I'm—fine," Theo said, stiffly. "It's very—light in here."

"Light?" Meg asked, head tipped to the side like a little puppy.

"…it's nothing. Your mother?"

"Mama's meditating," Meg said, nodding seriously. "I'll go though. She'll come."

"How-"

"She can't come if I'm here now," Meg said. She beamed at him once more, skipping off with a tune hummed under her breath.

He watched her hop and skip in an odd pattern down the hallway, before the sitting room door closed behind her. The door closing felt like the clang of prison doors.

A tendril of discomfort curled in his belly, but Theo stubbornly pushed it away. Harry had asked him to come here, specifically, to see if Maia could help.

It was just a matter of waiting things out. Maia would probably show in a little while and then he'd be able to—Theo clapped a hand over his mouth to stop the pained whine that escaped.

A tremor passed through his entire body.

The dizziness shifted to nausea, a distant ringing in his ears, before the walls of the room seemed to start closing in on him.

He broke out in a cold sweat as Harry, Charlie and Ethan's claim marks began to burn and seize, as if someone was branding him with a hot iron.

A choked cry escaped.

The hazy mist overhead swirled into a solid form, slowly taking a humanesque shape, until it solidified into none other than Maia Kadel.

She stepped down onto the ground, her solemn, pale face creased with worry.

In a handful of seconds, she was beside him, kneeling on the ground without a care to her robes, catching his wrist in one hand.

Words remained stuck in his throat. The pain multiplied, building to a rising crescendo until he could feel a new mark etching itself on his skin, as if the finest, sharpest blade was making itself known.

Carving right down to his very core and dredging up a well of tumultuous emotion that he couldn't even begin to put a name to.

"Breathe, child," Maia crooned, her voice soft and soothing. "It is fine. You should not have come now. I had hoped you would not come at all."

She pressed him back into the chair, refusing to allow him to hunch forward. Instead, she wrapped the sleeves of his robe around his arm, and pushed it towards his face.

"Bite that, if you need to. Don't crack a fang. That will hurt more." She tore at his collar, shredding the left side of his robes with a quick slash of her claws.

Theo flinched, holding still when she pressed his arm back up to his mouth.

"Bite!" she said, sternly. "Honestly—if you were adding another one to your Circle, you should've stayed for the Bonding, instead of coming here."

He stared at her, confused. "I-I didn't come here in the middle of—!" His words broke off into a confused whine.

"You're getting a phantom mark," she said, briskly. "A temporary claim until everything's official. You'll need to bond as soon as possible."

"A phantom—what? How is that even possible?" Theo winced. "It hurts-!"

"Matters of the heart usually do," Maia said, dryly. She straightened, rising to her feet. "I can help with that, but you will owe me a favour for it."

Theo scowled. The last thing he wanted to do was to owe anyone anything, especially when it came to the Kadels. He knew by reputation that they could be vicious, unpredictable and—strange.

Very, very, strange.

"Come now, don't look at me like that. You were coming here to ask me something unreasonable already. What's adding a favour to that?"

He bared his fangs in answer.

Maia only smiled. "You're going to owe me a favour," she said, kindly. "And you can either give to me of your own accord, or I can demand it. I can promise, it will hurt less—if you give it to me."

A long silence stretched out between them, broken only by Theo's pained breaths as the exposed shoulder began to bleed, as the faintest outline of a crest began to show on his skin.

"Theodore," Maia said, a little more firmly than before. "Look at me. You have already helped my family. I mean you no harm."

That did the trick.

Theo slumped forward, golden eyes turning hazel and bleary. "…help!"

Her hand flashed out, pulling on his hair—a tuft of chocolate brown hair was tossed into the silvery basin, after Maia produced a knife from her inner sleeve.

She cut off a small lock of her own hair, tossing it into the bowl and reaching down to press a hidden catch to open up a secret cabinet set in the base of the square cabinet.

Small bottles with various ingredients, coloured powders and round pellets were immediately on display. Rifling through the first set on the second shelf, Maia placed them into the carved divots on the table's edge.

Drawing out a long, silky thread from a thick tassel of silver and cream-coloured strands that hung from her decorative belt, she wrapped it around her right thumb and smeared it over the bleeding mark on Theo's shoulder.

"Blood and hair," she said, briskly. "Don't ask me what else I'm going to put in there."

Dropping the bloodied thread into the bowl, she opened each of the bottles taken from the cabinet and shook out small doses of green, blue and purple powders. Three black pellets were added to the centre, before she leaned down and breathed once into the bowl.

A fine, purple-tinted mist left her lips.

The moment it touched the ingredients in the bowl, it burst into blue spirit fire.

She leaned back, quick enough to be out of reach of the towering pillar of flame that flared halfway up to the ceiling, before dropping down, remaining at the hight of the bowl's lip.

Her hand glowed blue, before she summoned a water bubble, dousing the flames before they could die out on their own.

The resulting ash was more of a thick, lumpy blue-grey goop. Scooping up a thumbful, Maia smeared it over the bleeding mark.

"This will feel really cold, then really warm and then perfectly fine," she said, matter-of-factly. "Breathe in."

Theo sucked in a breath and blew it out in a huff, as a freezing bolt of iciness seemed to pierce straight through his shoulder only to be replaced by a fiery inferno that seemed intent on burning through to his bones.

He was vaguely aware of Maia saying something and her words sounding very far away. Softness enveloped him and spots danced before his eyes.

Theo blacked out.


When he came to again, he was sprawled out on a wooden bench, that seemed as if two of the wooden chairs had merged into one.

The surface was hard and solid, but his head was pillowed on something warm and soft, a firm grip keeping him from rolling over and toppling onto the floor.

He woke with a fright, with only the arm around his upper body to keep him lying flat on his back.

"Don't move so quickly," Maia said, lightly. "You'll aggravate the mark before it takes. It's almost set. You've only been out for about an hour."

Theo blinked. "Wha-?"

"You can see it in a moment. Just let it set. You should be able to feel it, if you reach out into your bonds. I'm guessing the bond was blocked for some time, wasn't it?"

Maia's face came into view, where it hovered over him.

Oh.

His head was in her lap.

Theo's face warmed.

"Don't move," Maia said, sternly. She tapped his forehead, then stared straight ahead. "I'm sure you know who it is and why, so I won't bother with the formalities. Congratulations on your bonding. You will have to make it official, but a mark of intention at this distance is quite admirable, considering your Submissive's current state."

Relief was replaced by wariness, as Theo reluctantly settled in to wait. The ache in his shoulder was significantly dulled to what it'd been before, but at least now, he could trace it back, just like she'd said.

There was Harry—a little muted—and Charlie, a steady warmth and Ethan, a solid anchor—but now, a new sensation was twined around them, a feeling of peace and strength.

Quinn.

Ah.

He sighed.

A little warning would've been nice.


"So, you want me to wake him?" Maia asked, eyeing him critically.

He sat perfectly still as she wrapped his shoulder with cooling bandages. It felt wonderful against his too-warm skin, the mark still bleeding rather sluggishly.

Maia continued to wrap the bandages around it, interspersed with fingerfuls of the blue-grey goop. Her hands were steady and quick.

"I'm asking on behalf of Harry," Theo said, carefully. "It's not just me. It's all of us. Harry being—out of it—has been a source of stress and-"

"He should go through all three days," Maia said, frowning. "There's a reason I put three days on that and you really shouldn't be trying to break it."

"We appreciate your concern," Theo said. "But we'd also really just like to have Harry back."

"It'll probably cost you another Resting Period," Maia said. "Unless you find a couple more Bonded to absorb the snapback with the kind of magic needed to wake him. That isn't something to do lightly."

"…I know. We know."

"Do you?" she asked, sternly. "Because there are consequences to messing with things that tangle with time."

"I'm fairly certain you just saw one of them," Theo said, a faint smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "Harry's been occupied in his mindscape with his Caspered mentor. Your intention may have been for him to rest, but I don't believe he's getting much rest at all."

Maia sighed. "If you wish for me to wake him, does that mean you intend to use your favour?"

"Will we owe you if we use it?"

"…no."

"Then we'll use it," Theo said, matter-of-factly.

"You care for him that much?"

"…you should be able to see that on your own."

"Indeed. I simply hope you are ready for the consequences that will follow."

"It's Harry," Theo said, reaching for the repaired set of robes that Meg had brought in earlier. He spelled it onto his person, checking his range of movement with the bandage on.

"Oh?"

"With Harry, you get used to the unexpected. It tends to be inevitable."

"I see."

"So, will you?"

"I will," she said, at last.


ANYTHING THAT HAPPENS ONCE, CAN HAPPEN AGAIN - ALEC


Natural light fell into the hidden cove from a few spots in the overhead canopy of damp vegetation. Alec sat on the edge of the tiny island, his feet in the water, sand grinding pleasantly against his half-shed scales.

The warmth from the overhead sun wasn't too bad here, in his secret little cove. It was enough to leave him feeling tentatively drowsy, while the tiny island was just small enough that he could rest his body, without giving up the need to be near the water.

Feet kicking lightly through the shimmering blueness of the water, Alec took another shuddery breath. The sixteenth one in as many minutes.

He'd wondered if he would feel it. He'd told himself that it wouldn't mean anything. That it wouldn't have to.

But it did.

Even if he didn't want it to.

There was nothing to compare it to, after all. He'd never bothered to engage in the elaborate courting rituals of his kind.

There'd simply never been much need. He was busy, always busy. Too much to do, too much to be done, far too much responsibility poured onto his shoulders. From the moment he'd taken his first breath, it seemed.

And likely to the moment when he'd breathe his last. That was simply the way it worked for their kind.

Alec rolled his neck from side to side, working out the kinks. He'd have to surface again soon to take care of the other part of his assignment. And probably just to get good reception for the incoming message.

He wasn't looking forward to it at all.

Especially not now, after the tiny undercurrent of magic that had come his way.

It wasn't even much at all. Just the subtle shift in energy that went from searingly uncomfortable, to a more manageable throb.

Still painful.

Still unbearably cruel.

But tolerable.

Merrows had a high pain tolerance after all and Alec knew just how far his own went. Much deeper than it should for any living creature.

It wasn't Harry's fault he didn't know.

Not really. His bleeding heart would likely have him adopting strays with every other breath he took.

It was simply pure luck that had drawn in the one thing that had gently nudged Alec's mind in favour of him. In favour of his entire little band of misfit Bonded.

Merrow heritage. Specifically, enough that it would negate the more painful and detrimental aspects of potentially joining a Circle with Fire types.

The very thought of joining a Circle with a Fire type had set his soul to screaming out every single insecurity he'd ever had about his biological body. Some things were far too deeply ingrained to overlook otherwise.

Fire types were trouble.

The bad kind of trouble.

Their element was unpredictable, even when refined, and too much of a double-edged sword.

It wasn't enough that a Fire type could kill him. No, there was the very real chance that he could kill them.

Entirely by accident and definitely not on purpose.

Too dangerous. Too troublesome. Far too painful. There was a reason their kind never mixed.

It was just too much to deal with. Too much effort for little to no reward, whatsoever. Giving up so much for a landwalker that wouldn't even bother to find out the kind of sacrifice that would be made, to spend so much of their lives on land.

Ha.

As if any of them would ever truly care. Any dragel could be monstrous. Merrow were just less subtle about that monstrosity.

Sadness settled over Alec like a thick, heavy cloak. He wanted a Circle that would grant him the freedom he needed to continue his work with little to no interruption in his daily routines and schedules.

He also wanted a Circle where he could feel safe.

A lifetime of running, rushing and hiding had gradually torn away the last bits of security he'd had in his life. Sure, he'd sort of known what he was getting into—but it still hurt.

It still nagged at him. Tugging at raw, painful edges in moments like now.

Fire types in a Circle, no matter how nice they appeared on the surface or how cautious they promised they could be—were still Fire types. He would never feel safe.

Never.

That was a steep price to pay for pretty green eyes and a soft, tentative soul with even softer magic wrapped around it.

It didn't seem quite worth it.

Especially since there was so much more than just the elemental incompatibility.

Fire types had a penchant for mischief.

Merrow had an inclination for viciousness.

It was already asking too much of him to even consider those pretty green eyes.

Alec sighed, rubbing blue-scaled fingers up and down his arms. He was waiting for his skin to dry out enough to split and regrow some new shielding scales.

King Alcandor's request had sparked a train of thought that Alec really didn't want to consider. He would, of course, because leaving any stone unturned at this point in time, could come back to bite them somewhere unpleasant.

Or ruin them. Destruction was always an option.

Though sometimes, not a particularly good one. It took far more effort to keep from destroying things, than it did to actually raze them to the ground.

Alec squeezed his eyes shut, a slight tremor of pleasure echoing through his body as he felt that odd tendril of magic shift and twist around him.

Unexpected, but not entirely unwelcome. The newest addition to things seemed to have a surprising little detail in there.

A hint of Merrow heritage.

But not enough to tip the balance—yet.

The pleasant surprise almost overrode the irritation at the first stirrings of a phantom claim mark reaching out to his person. Alec scowled, reinforcing his personal shields and suppressant seals to disrupt the mark before it could take.

He couldn't deal with that now and especially not with everything implied by accepting and acknowledging that. It wasn't his business. It wasn't what he wanted.

At least he knew the new bond was reciprocated on both sides for Harry's new addition. That was good. Harry deserved to have some good, pretty things in his life.

He'd seemed like such a fierce, but lonely little thing when their paths had crossed. It was such a pity it hadn't gone any better than the disaster it'd been.

Maybe he should congratulate him, when they met again. If their paths ever crossed again. Alcandor was certainly keeping him busy lately.

Idly, he wondered if he'd met the lucky bastard at any point in his landwalking jaunts.

It was tempting to wonder if the new Bonded would welcome or reject him. There was nothing good in his favour, besides the obvious fact that he was Merrow and that was something entirely out of his control.

Soft tendrils of magic wrapped around his wrist; the scaled skin finally dry enough to flake off in ugly, ragged chunks.

Alec's jaw clicked shut as he focused on tearing out the whitened bits of skin and scale, forcing the new growth to the surface. His eyes glowed blue and then white, before he finally saw the scaled ridges he'd wanted.

Extra folds of skin and the delicate shape of those deadly fins brought a smirk to his face. It'd been a while since he'd last wanted some sort of extra defence.

This way, he could make any retaliatory strikes look like self-defence without offending any delicate landwalker sensibilities. He snorted, waving the arm through the water to slough off any remaining bits of skin.

A low rumbling growl from Goonter drew his attention.

"Yeah, you can eat it, you big lug. Make sure you don't leave anything traceable behind, alright?"

Goonter gave a pleased rumble, already gliding through the water, his great maw open to swallow up the discarded bits of skin and scale.

Alec watched in morbid fascination as the refuse travelled partway down that semi-transparent throat, until it hit Goonter's invisible stomach, dissolving into the faintest flare of purple, before vanishing altogether.

"Good boy," Alec praised, holding up his newly reconfigured arm to offer a congratulatory chin scritch.

He could've sworn Goonter was laughing at him, but in all honesty, he'd have worried if that wasn't the exact reaction.

Oh well. Time to do the other arm.

As he dug his claws into the smooth skin of his inner arm, he wondered, briefly, what Harry would look like if he wore one of his scales on that magicked cord 'round his neck.

It could look pretty. Maybe. Even if it was on land.

Might even suit him, if they ever got that far…

As if.


ALEC HATES HAVING TO WORK – PT 1 - EDGE OF NEVARAH, PRIVATE SWIMMING HOLE


His skin shedding session was over much too soon. Alec grumpily dragged himself up on the sandy shore to receive the incoming message.

A burst of staticky noise and then the distorted images and voices wavered through the small bubble, before it began to thin into nothing.

The message bubble burst into a shower of sparkling bubbles that popped almost at once, as they dissipated into the air, a few stray ones floating down to brush against Alec's bright shock of teal hair.

His expression was frozen into something that might've been horror, but was swiftly transitioning into a look that would spell doom and gloom on the unfortunate soul on the receiving end.

He tried—sixty-three times, to be exact—to re-establish the connection without any success at all. Each time, the magic would react in a decidedly different way than the previous attempt and his hopes twisted up until they shattered.

That kind of a problem meant one thing and one thing alone.

Death had come.

His informant, however well-meaning and intentioned, hadn't picked the safest or best-shielded spot before calling in. As a result, their position was compromised and they'd paid for it with their life.

Something that he absolutely detested.

Yes, wrangling information, extracting promises and ferreting out secrets were all part of the job—but he'd always done his best to try and do it with minimal collateral damage.

He did have a kill count to maintain, after all, and the paperwork was always a pain. Losing one informant, despite it being such a high risk in the first place, was still a loss and his burden to bear.

Alec closed his eyes, muttering the familiar chant under his breath that was really more of a prayer, given the number of times he'd recited it since first touching land. Bright blue letters streamed out of his mouth, floating runes that swirled around him in a token circle.

It was something of a general farewell, but also something of a remembrance token. Every life that was lost was still a life, after all.

He pricked his thumb with one sharpened fang and sealed the spoken chant, allowing the magic to overwrite itself, using the darkened bead of blood as the catalyst.

That would have to do for now.

Even if it barely felt good enough, considering what he'd learned. This was yet another problem that the Hunt had forced to fruition. He'd have to speak to Alcandor again about strengthening the magical reservoirs on Nevarean land again.

Message bubbles were the most efficient way of managing his information network and the fact that he could be putting them at risk, because he couldn't be under the water, was now a glaring problem.

Originally, Goonter was supposed to help with that. Along with the whole animal-tamer-bit, but now, Alec couldn't shake the feeling that something worse would start up next.

With next to no information reaching his ears, it made each step of their necessary plans, that much harder to negotiate and investigate.

It didn't help either that Alcandor had dumped the entire thing in his lap to go around with the young Royals of his generation.

They'd probably all be crowned before the Hunt was out, Alec thought, darkly.

Idiots, the lot of them.

Venturing in and out of the water constantly was more of a hindrance than anything else and if he had to spend another minute within Alcandor's court, then he'd probably wind-up stabbing someone.

Himself, even, if it would get him out of the stupid requirements of attending dinners, secret council meetings and other stupid, pointless things.

The entire ridiculousness of it all was even cutting into his free time to the point that he hadn't even had a chance to try and check into a certain clueless idiot with wild hair and pretty green eyes.

Ugh.

What a mess.


Alec stumbled down the pathway with a great deal of grumbling, mumbling and general swearing as he picked his way down the shoreline and towards the Merrow waters. He'd spelled his hair shorter, slicking back the tufted teal ends to be out of his face for the next few hours.

Alcandor would owe him for this.

So. Much.

It'd taken a few hours to get things settled the way he wanted it and even now, he knew well enough to see that he'd already taken far too long to set things in motion.

Out of every single little thing that could've been thrown his way, Alcandor had decided to do this.

Alec was not a happy Merrow at all.

Ignoring the fact that he generally wasn't a happy Merrow to begin with, there was the entire problem with the information he'd just learned.

One of his pitiful informants had delivered a bit of news that had turned it all sideways and Alec—rage and revenge aside—was absolutely furious.

His disposable informants were typically the sorts of creatures that were on their last thread of luck and he made it his business to stick his fins where they didn't quite belong to meddle and muddle it up a bit.

He'd surfaced specifically to leave a note for King Alcandor, a gesture he was now sorely regretting. He should have stayed deeper in the waters and left that stupid king to his dumb fantasies.

It took far too much time to keep everyone up to date with every single little scheme and it had pulled him away from his initial plan of deep-diving undercover and finding out just what was happening with the recent influx of intruders.

The Merrow Waters were the final defence point past Nevarah's secondary wards and protective dome.

Things that got through there—weren't supposed to.

He could imagine what a mess it was along the underwater borders. Some idiot had probably forgotten to ward their post before switching out and now, there was a breach.

Or a blip, really.

No self-respecting Merrow would hide a mistake like that from their own guard-kin, so any kind of a breach was likely to be on account of an information leak rather than a physical one.

Which meant interrogations, torture and general intimidation.

Ugh.

That would be yet another mess to clean up when he was through with the current one.

Alec waded into the shallow waters, his stride strong and determined, Merrow traits growing more pronounced as the water lapped at his thighs and then his waist.

Fluted ears that stretched out past his shock of bright teal hair and webbed fingers with sharpened points of bone on the knuckles as well. He grimaced, a hint of a fang peeking over one lip.

Stupid borders. Stupid idiots who couldn't do their stupid jobs. Stupid situations that had to drag him all the way down to their level and interrupt his nice holiday on land for the Hunt.

It'd been so long since he'd had a good holiday.

Alcandor, you idiot…!

He dropped into the water as the ground gave out from under him, plunging into the welcome depths of his element, cradled by the waves and renewed in spirit and mind by the sheer depth of pure energy contained within them.

Tucking the tips of two fingers into his mouth, he whistled sharply, calling for Goonter.

A half-crooning sound, a specific vibration that would bring the creature straight to him. He'd left Goonter lounging just within hearing range of his call.

Together, they'd be able to travel speedily between territories and depths, undetected. He'd really gotten lucky with bribing the familiar away from Alcandor's perfunctory care.

Freefalling into the depths, Alec made it halfway to his intended level, before the familiar came racing up from the deep, semi-transparent body growing clearer as it approached.

He gestured to it, arm held out in the appropriate sign, before Goonter swallowed him whole, as usual, shimmering in delight at the given permission.

It dove down immediately, once he'd tucked himself comfortably near one massive fang. Fast, efficient and slightly headache-worthy, Goonter was one of the reasons why he'd agreed to the entire scheme in the first place.

Stupid scheme. Stupid family ties. Stupid, idiotic…so much stupidity. They were all idiots. It was too much to expect more from them.

Right.

Goonter smacked into the sandy ground much faster than he'd anticipated and rolled around there, happily, kicking up a dust storm and tossing him around in a near dizzying motion.

Alec thumped gently on the inside of his mouth, until he was unceremoniously spat out onto the sandy, cloudy floor. He tumbled a few yards as Goonter attempted to slurp him in appreciation, bristly tongue rasping against his scaled face.

"Yes, yes, I know, you insufferable creature," Alec grumbled. "I missed you too and yes, you were very fast. Excellently done."

He waited until Goonter's eager self finally stilled enough for a good chin scratch. Goonter's tail thumped happily on the sandy ground, stirring up even more clouds of dust with every energetic wriggle.

An almost fond look overtook him, before Alec gave that snout one last firm pat and signalled where to go and hide until his return.

Traveling via Goonter meant no one would be looking for a random, stray Merrow to be waltzing around on the ground—least of all so close to the Merrow Royal territory. He spelled his hair a tad darker and longer, allowing it to fall to mid-back level.

It was enough to usually shift his appearance at a glance, that no one would really look any closer. He was well-known by his teal hair—and following in Kieran's footsteps—but this would work as a quick, temporary disguise.

Most of the Royal Guard tended to have darker hair and scales, so at first glance, he'd pass the usual inspection.

Swimming slowly along the border he'd chosen, shadowed figures came into view up ahead, a gaggle of Merrow that looked a lot like a hunting party.

Alec grimaced.

His aura flared lightly, a warning that he was passing by—right up until he realized who was present and what they were hunting. They were far too close to the borders to be anything but on the offensive and that many people were only present when a specific Merrow was present.

Alec's scales hardened in an instant. He shot through the water, picking up speed as his mind connected the obvious clues and spat out the one conclusion he was not in the mood to deal with.

If Alcandor knew what was happening now, he'd probably have his head.

Maybe.

If he could actually get his claws into him.

Alec could be pretty damned determined when he wanted to and this was starting to look like one of those moments.

Why was he always the only one who had to get things done around here?

Out of every single possible Merrow that could be patrolling the borders, it had to be Queen Regent Esperanza? Really?

Where was Crimson Tide? Correction, where was the entirety of Crimson Tide? They were called a tide for a reason! They were supposed to be all famous and dangerous, as legend decreed. A legion of Gheyo Merrows, known for the crimson-dyed tips of their tails, fins, and fingers—a warning that they could and would draw blood, if needed.

A promise that stained fingers or fins had no need to preserve an illusion of innocence. There was only loyalty to their kind and the borders they protected.

Not just a tide, but a promise. A legendary mantle taken up by every Gheyo who had held that title at one time or another. Once Crimson Tide, always Crimson Tide.

It was only the Royal Circle that knew which of the five guarding the palace entrance held the true title of the current Blood Titled Gheyo. The others were decoys—passable ones—but still decoys.

More trickles of fury dribbled into his veins and Alec sliced through the water as if it were part of him, wetsuit shifting to accommodate his morphing lower limbs for speed and efficiency.

He didn't dare transform in such a small space with so many witnesses, but the temptation was close. It would certainly make short work of the entire situation.

Even if it would mean weeks of paperwork that he was definitely not in the mood to deal with.

The guards reacted at once the moment his presence registered—weapons drawn and angled towards him, spells halfway-cast but not yet released. He glowered at them, because he could and ignored their presence in favour of focusing on the Merrow they were protecting.

If he hadn't seen her with his own two eyes, he'd have thought someone was trying to lure him into a trap.

But no.

He was, indeed, staring down at the Merrow Queen Regent herself, his esteemed Auntie Ess, and picking up on two very obvious points straightaway.

There wasn't a single hint of Crimson Tide beside her. There wasn't a single hint of a certain current Merrow Queen either.

Oh Kesmar.

Alcandor would kill him for this. Literally kill him, familial ties aside. He'd be descaled, deboned and then chopped up into tiny bite-sized pieces!

Never mind whatever excuse would be given, it would be his very own neck on the line.

As usual, of course.

Queen Regent Esperanze was patrolling the border with her entire entourage and his uncle and—for Kesmar's sake, why? Why was it always him?

There was no reason for her to be out and about, causing the kinds of trouble that would make his scales turn dark. He'd left them both in each other's company, before surfacing with Alcandor.

It was the only way he'd been able to accompany Alcandor and also track some of those pesky issues on land. Of course, now he would have to shuffle everything around all over again—and Alcandor would probably never let him hear the end of it for the next decade.

"I really hope," he began, sternly. "For your sake and my sanity, that you aren't out here causing trouble because you're bored sitting back at the castle and maintaining the proper wards while Alcandor is topside?"

Queen Regent Esperanza froze. Her long beautiful hair swarmed around her like a dark halo in the deep water. She was always stunning, as befitting a Merrow Royal. Her eyes gleamed wickedly, proof of her more feral nature carefully held at bay, the slight furrow in her brow not enough to quell his rising temper.

If she was worried, she could do it like a normal Queen Regent—not looking for something to rip into just because she could.

"Auntie Ess—what are you doing all the way out here? Aren't you supposed to be in the castle?" Alec kept his tone as even and calm as he could manage.

He arched a brow in silent question—and reprimand—as to the reason why she was supposed to be in the castle in the first place. Alcandor's absence had unsettled the palace, as usual, but that was to be expected.

And there were safety measures and adjustments made and enforced to ensure peace and protection until his return.

Queen Regent Esperanza slowly relaxed, a fond smile flickering briefly across her face, before it shifted to something akin to mild panic. Her scales shimmered and darkened, nearly camouflaging her in the darkened depths of the border waters.

He didn't have to imagine what her expression meant. It was one he knew all too well. It took nothing to keep his expression as neutral as he could manage it, even though her magic stretched out to him in a gentle pulse, checking him over for any possible injuires.

And verifying that it was indeed, him, that floated in front of her.

"Alec…you're—you're here," she said, carefully. "I thought you would be topside for a little while longer. If you're here, then that means my esteemed son-"

"Is thankfully not here and still making my life miserable above ground. Yes. He is. He's fine. That's not the question. You didn't answer my question. You shouldn't be out here. You know you shouldn't be out here and you know damn well that Killigan won't stay in the castle if Alcandor's not there, unless you're somewhere around."

She gave a nervous laugh. "Funny thing about that, now that you mention it…"

"Auntie!" he hissed, bristling all over from floating hair to webbed toes. "You had better not be hinting at what I think you're about to say! You do realize you're still one of the active Royals?"

Queen Regent Esperanza sighed. Her magic retracted, swirling around her in flickers of blue energy, before dissolving into the water. "…for what it's worth, I did try. But you do know how it works. The wards—and the borders. Oh, Alec! You, out of all of us, would know this."

"Yes. I know it. Everyone knows it. I'm here to witness it. Why am I witnessing this?" Alec forced himself to unclench his webbed hands, his feet kicking furiously in the water to try and alleviate the sheer volume of disbelief running through him.

"…have I ever mentioned that you're my favourite nephew?"

Alec could've screamed.

He sort of did, but the silencing spell ruined most of it.

When he was topside again, he was going to kill Alcandor for leaving him to deal with his mess!


KEEPER OF THE KEYS AND MORE - HAGRID'S HUT - BHARIN


There was a great hulk of a man in the doorway with a long, messy beard and striking dark eyes. Round enough to take up the entire doorway, but tensed as if for a fight, something held just barely off to the side, hidden from immediate view.

"Who's there?" he demanded.

Bharin sent out a few threads, latching onto points in the doorway, the bulky robes the man wore and a few things inside the hut. When no sense of immediate danger came rushing back, he decided it couldn't hurt to answer the question.

"Bharin Kalzik," he said, politely. "I thought I heard something over here. Who are you?"

"Hagrid. Keeper of the keys and gamekeeper here at Hogwarts. I belong here. You don't."

"True. But I am not here to stay. I am merely in search of something. Perhaps you can help me. I was here with a friend, but it seems there's no one up at the castle right now and-"

"No one's to be in the castle," Hagrid said, bushy brows furrowing. "And we're not to have guests. How'd you get in? Shouldn't have been able to get in and-"

"With my friend," Bharin said, evenly. "She asked me to accompany her."

Dark eyes narrowed even more, Hagrid's tensed shoulders rising up a few inches. "And would that friend have a name?"

"…Ilsa Deveraine. I doubt that you would know her, but she has been here before" Bharin said, lightly. "She has a ward that attended this school. A young wizard, known as Theodore Nott."

The bushy beard quivered when Hagrid frowned. "Nott? The Slytherin boy?"

Bharin frowned at him in turn. "Interesting way to remember him."

"He was a good one. Not as bad as the rest of them. Poor boy. Sees thestrals, you know. Because of his mother. Died when he was a babe. Gave me a bit of a shock when he said he could see 'em."

"…thestrals?" Bharin discreetly sent a few threads out, hooking them around Hagrid and watching as they latched on a small, sparking magical core and tightened accordingly.

If he'd ever had magic, it'd been severely repressed and tightly bound so as to remove the majority of it from his person.

A cruel practice, in his opinion, to punish a magical being by taking away what made them magical, but he knew all too well the prices paid for things that were no more than a mere slight.

Hagrid, it seemed, was someone who had suffered.

It'd be best to be careful of his words.

"Creatures that—never mind. You only see them if you've seen death. I shouldn't be talking to strangers like you. Shouldn't even have folks like you wandering around when there's no one to-"

"You said you're the gamekeeper?" Bharin asked, inching back a few steps.

The sensation of eyes watching him pressed a little too hard on his consciousness. Someone else was around and it wasn't Hagrid. Someone who was paying close attention to his movements, despite the care he took to keep hidden. Someone who was possibly dragel or some other creature-type.

Not good.

"Aye. What's it to you?" Hagrid grumbled.

"You're—feeding all of the creatures here? You know what they are on sight?"

Hagrid bristled protectively. "Now, listen here-!"

"What's in the lake?"

Hagrid froze. "What?"

"What's in the lake? Or more accurately, what shouldn't be in the lake right now? Because I saw something in there from the window and I'm pretty sure it shouldn't be there."

"There shouldn't be anything—what'd you see? What was out there?"

"Something dark under the water. Really dark. Didn't look—natural?" Bharin tried to explain. "I was coming down to take a look at it and I saw your hut so-"

Pushing past, Hagrid took the steps down from his hut without a hiccup. He shouldered past Bharin, and stomped towards one of the narrow footpaths leading away from the hut.

He paused halfway down it, glowering at Bharin over one shoulder. "Aren't ya comin?"

"…right behind you." Bharin sighed, turning his steps towards the path. The sensation of those watching eyes seemed to follow his every movement.

He paused, yanking on the thin threads to shut the door of the hut.

It clanged shut with a bang.

Oddly enough, Hagrid didn't seem to notice—or care.


The lake was a dark, murky thing looming in the distance, and a fairly blackened puddle of water up close. He didn't want to know what made it so dark and deep—it wasn't really a puddle, though he supposed it could pass as a lake—and it ran right up to the land's edge.

Sparse handfuls of coarse grass stuck up in odd clumps, the water lapping at the rough dirt crust of the shoreline. There wasn't a single hint of blue, just a deep, foreboding darkness.

A thin blackness that grew thicker and more indiscernible as it deepened.

Bharin was the first one to spot the creature crawling up through the surrounding greenery at the water's edge. His snarl of disapproval and the subsequent crackling bolt of magic blew the thing back into the water before it'd crawled all the way out.

Clawed marks were carved into the wet dirt and muck, deep gouges that tore off bits of the shoreline.

Hagrid swore loudly, paling as his words trailed off in an unintelligible mumble before he reared back, a grim look on his face.

"That's not good," he said, tugging on his beard. "That's really not good. That shouldn't be any of those in there—the Merfolk don't have the—!"

Bharin grabbed his sleeve, yanking him back with the aid of a few threads and brute force as the pathetic creature, gaunt and skeletal, made a second attempt to crawl up to shore.

He definitely hadn't imagined what he'd seen from the window, though now he wished he had.

It was pitiful to look at, sickly and greyed with glazed whitened eyes, a mouth hanging open, algae and slime pouring out of it. The defensive spell didn't seem to have touched it at all.

"What is that?" Bharin demanded, casting wards around both of them at once, half-out of reflex and half out of habit. The thin wall of magical energy did nothing to soothe the crawling urge of danger that clung to his skin.

There was a grunt from Hagrid, though his eyes were wide and shocked.

"Where did it come from without some kind of-" Bharin ground his fangs together.

The horrified feeling from before, wrapped around him like a strangulation vine as the lake's surface shifted and the darkening water—cleared.

It wasn't just one of the strange, inhuman creatures.

It was many.

Far more than he was prepared to destroy and enough to possibly build an army. He was surprised there was even any water left in the lake, given the way that it held so many of them.

"That's not—that's not—that shouldna be there!" Hagrid stammered. He barely resisted at all when Bharin hauled him backwards. "Inferi!"

"What's an Inferi?" Bharin demanded, feeling as if he was too close to losing his mind over strange terms and equally strange creatures. "Would you just speak clearly, man? It's not like I don't have eyes to see what's in front of my own face!"

"Undead," Hagrid said, tearing his eyes away from the first wave of creatures attempting to crawl up onto the Hogwarts grounds. A terrible expression stole across his face. "Undead—created by dark magic and dark wizards. It's not—it's bad magic. Very bad magic. You can't kill them with anything but fire and it'd have to be a very strong-"

Bharin growled again. He was right, but he still had to confirm it. He couldn't afford to be lax at a time like the present. "Your reaction tells me that they aren't normally in the lake, yes?"

Hagrid nodded, his bushy beard sweeping across his barrel chest as he did so. A quiet moan of despair escaped.

"Why are they coming on land? Why are there so many of them in the water?" Bharin yanked on Hagrid's sleeve again, to try and gain his attention. "Hey—listen to me—you need to-!"

"Who's there?" a thin, wavering voice called out. "Is there someone there?"

Both men jerked around to stare at the fat mess of shrubs several feet away from the water's edge. There was quite a bit of muddy ground surrounding it, as if water had collected into a man-made puddle of some sort.

Rivulets of lake water streamed away back to the lake itself, while the shrubs quivered and trembled with the force of the mysterious person hiding within.

"You're a Gheyo, aren't you?" the voice continued. "Please help me? I-I am in need of some assistance." The bushes began to shake and move, until a thin, figure rose from behind them, pale blue skin shining through drenched white fabric.

The streams of water seemed to double and triple on their way back to the lake's edge. A faint, sweetened scent tickled through the air.

Bharin's breath caught in his throat.

Despite the surprise and strangeness of it, he'd never seen such a beautiful creature before—and Patrick was certainly gorgeous in a way that spoke of his Merrow roots, no matter how buried they were.

Patrick had been a shock after he'd bonded with Surajini, because no one had mentioned anything about what a handsome dragel he was. Bharin had settled much more comfortably into the Kalzik household after that.

There was never any chance of it being otherwise. Especially after Patrick had proven himself to have such an incredible presence, despite his subtle pride.

But this creature before him—well. Bharin was reasonably sure his luck had definitely taken a turn for the worse. There was no mistaking what was before him.

The speaker was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. A lovely gorgeous creature of long, pale blue hair that clung to thin, bared shoulders, splaying over a flat chest and draped sleeves of pure white. Delicate silks and embroidered edges that might have been something to explain status and social standing, clung to the thin body.

Merrow, for sure.

Delicate fluted ears stuck out from between the long, wet clumps of hair, a worried face made up of fine features and a wide mouth.

Claim marks adorned their neck and shoulders in a deliberate curved pattern. The fancy symbols of each Bonded's family Clan shone as navy blue tattoos inside each claim mark.

Even with the lack of jewellery on their person, the claim marks looked more like an elegant, collared necklace, showing off that the Merrow was claimed and pleased to be so, despite the fact that they were currently alone.

A slight shiver ran through them, thin blue arms tapering off to slender, elegant hands—also the same sky-blue shade as their hair.

Bharin almost thought it was a glamour, but he couldn't be sure. Merrow were tricky after all and rarely did they ever care to have their immaculate appearance be anything other than, well, immaculate.

To see one in such a state did not bode well for anyone—least of all the Merrow.

The lunge of one of the Inferi had him shearing off another ineffective burst of magic, before the Merrow gave a little yelp and skittered forward, darting behind Bharin as if to use him as a shield.

Their hands were cold and trembling as they ducked behind him, reaching out to steady themselves with a hand on his lower back.

"Kalzik crest?" came the quiet warble of a voice soft and almost musical. "Oh, thank Kesmar. Your Clan is definitely one of the better ones. I don't suppose you could lend a hand, could you? I've used quite a bit of magic to make it here and I really don't want to disrupt too much of this realm's natural balance. I think if I do much more, I'll definitely throw something out of whack. Might I have your name, please? I only need your assistance to return to Nevarah's claim and my native waters."

"…Bharin Kalzik, actually. Lady Surajini Kalzik is my Bonded Submissive. Do you know her? She's a Master Healer among the Earth Courts."

"I don't know her personally, but I'm sure she's lovely," the Merrow said, confidently. "Would she mind terribly if you were to help me out? I wouldn't want to put you in a bad position, but I could actually-"

"Are you here alone?"

"Sort of. I had a bodyguard—at one point—they were—injured when we came through. I sent them back and got myself out of the water so I could start a poison flow, but then I realized there were other Aqua'kin-e in the water and I had to rethink that. It isn't their fault that they don't know what to do with those horrible things down there."

"Horrible things-?"

"I don't think those sorts of things should ever exist. Kesmar's bloody reefs! I'd bleed the entire lake, if it wouldn't do so much damage. The Aqua'kin-e here—I don't think they have any kind of poison resistance at all and if they die down there with those things in the water, it'll be a bloody mess, not to mention all of those half-souls or whatever you call them-"

Bharin made a soft sound in his throat, relieved when it shut them up. He wondered what kind of bodyguard would leave their charge behind in a clearly disadvantageous setting.

"They're called Inferi."

"What a beastly name."

"Do you have backup?" he asked, sharply. "Who will come for you?"

The Merrow hummed. "I don't know. Someone will come. Probably. I'm sure everyone knows I'm gone by now and that means help is surely on the way. I just don't know when or—well, who—but they'll definitely be here at some point."

"…that is not as reassuring as you make it sound," Bharin said, wearily. He backed up a few more steps, not wanting to turn his back to the cresting wave of snarling and hissing Inferi.

It seemed they were definitely confined to the water and while the lake could probably hold them, there was now the problem of getting rid of them.

Hagrid had said something about fire, but his Fire spells were nowhere near as strong as his Earth spells and he didn't have a suitable Fire puppet of his own to summon either.

At least, not a safe one…

He could attempt a few possible things. It would just take time to cast and require a bit of a boost. He wondered, briefly, if the Merrow would care to offer that boost.

They would certainly have the magical reserves to do so, judging from the visible claim marks and the pale blue colour.

Patrick had once told him that the different colours had different abilities. Paler colours were able to use sunlight or natural lights to convert directly into magical energy or wild magic—and darker colours were able to draw on the power of shadows.

"I'm afraid I don't know how to make it more reassuring," the Merrow said, apologetically. They lifted one pale blue hand, the long, dripping white sleeve of their robe hanging wetly in front of them. "But I'd really rather not move much further from the water, if you don't mind."

"If we don't move, they might drag all of us in there with them," Bharin said, sternly. "I'd rather not go in there—if you don't mind."

The Merrow blinked wide shimmering eyes at him, looking quite innocent and defenceless in a way that made his instincts twinge painfully.

"…I mind dying, Gheyo Kalzik. I would much rather stay alive."

Their conversation was put on hold as an incredulous Hagrid stared at both of them, as if he couldn't believe what was happening.

A flush of warmth crept up Bharin's neck. There was no need to debate the obvious.

"Now wait just a minute here-!" Hagrid began. "You can't just come crawling out of the bushes and expect me to believe that-"

An explosion sounded in the distance, somewhere back up at the castle. Fat clouds of smoke drifted out, streaming up into the sky. The sounds of clashing metal and groaning stone echoed eerily across the air.

Amplified, because it shouldn't have reached them where they were.

Bharin stifled a groan. He was going to have a headache from this.

And he was going to need a nap.

A very long, very deep sleep to recover from the sheer absurdity of all of this. Surajini would probably baby him for a month, if she knew what he was about to do.

Then again, after all of this, he'd probably let her.

Everything had been mostly fine right up until Ilsa had left. He had the sinking feeling that she'd taken all of the good luck with her and now, he'd have to deal with whatever or whoever was up in the castle wreaking havoc.

Hagrid's panic was almost laughable, except for Bharin had already passed the point of actually caring now.

He took a half step backward, putting more space between himself and the Inferi that had yet to figure out how to properly get out of the lake. It seemed the Merrow had cast some sort of ward before hiding themselves on land.

A tricky, but good survival tactic of sorts, seeing as they'd stayed close enough to the water to sustain themselves.

"We're not here to cause problems," Bharin said, wincing at a particularly loud shriek from one of the Inferi as the Merrow's wards kicked in. "But maybe you should deal with that and we'll deal with these while you-"

Hagrid seemed torn between leaving them and hurrying to see what had happened back at the castle. "I can't jus-" he began.

"You can," Bharin said, firmly. He hoped that Hagrid would go on his own so he wouldn't have to use his puppeteering strings to manipulate the man. He certainly seemed genuine in his care about the grounds and the creatures.

It'd be a shame to cross threads over it. They could probably work out some kind of an agreement, as long as they were civil.

"You said fire would work on them?" Bharin asked. He tugged gently on his bonds, waiting for a response that seemed to take forever.

Maybe he should put a little more effort into it. Surajini never took that long to answer his summons. He was always careful never to insist on greater urgency than what the matter required.

This was definitely more than usual.

"…I can't do magic," Hagrid said, unhappily. "But fire would do it. If a great wizard was 'ere, he'd be the one to-"

"Fire magic it is, then," Bharin said, grimly. "I'll take care of it. You go check on that up there—be careful—give some kind of a call, if you need help."

"You?" Hagrid asked, doubtfully.

Bharin suppressed a sigh. He tugged on one of the thin puppet threads he'd stabbed into Hagrid's arms, waiting until he could see the touch of influence take over. "Yes. Me. I'll come, if I can. In the meantime, I'll handle this here. Unless you'd rather think of something else before we're all dragged to our deaths?"

Hagrid gave him a scrutinizing look, before his dark eyes flicked to the Merrow that was doubtlessly peering over his shoulder. He gave a short, jerky nod and turned, scurrying back to the castle with surprising speed.

Bharin waited until he was well out of earshot, to turn and face the Merrow trying to hide behind him. "You won't be able to stand a Fire spell, would you?"

The Merrow hesitated, trying half-heartedly to circle around behind him again. "Personally, I'd really rather not. It's not a matter of standing it. Fire's really hot. It burns. I don't like burns. Is it really only fire that'll get rid of them?"

"That's what he said. They're getting kind of desperate. I don't even understand what they're doing here. I thought this was a magical school for children. These things are—dangerous!"

"Maybe it was for a training exercise?" the Merrow offered.

"For a Merrow school, probably," Bharin snapped, annoyed. "Even we wouldn't do this without some sort of extra precautions in place—and there's no children here right now either. No teachers either. No one. It's all a bunch of-"

"I guess they can't drown either, can they? They're just in the water there." The Merrow sighed. "So many of them too. Drowning is really far more satisfying than setting them on fire, but if you really must-"

"Got any better ideas?"

"Well, they are dead, aren't they? Say, where's the rest of your Suite? You're an ACE, aren't you? Or a Joker. Your rank's a little—soft. Please tell me you're not here alone? We'll really be in a spot of trouble if you are."

Bharin glowered at the Inferi that were now crawling on top of each other and trying to climb over the invisible wall of the ward keeping them contained in the lake.

"I won't tell you I'm here alone, if you can tell me why you're not here alone," he said, sternly.

The Merrow blinked up at him with those large, innocent eyes the same pale blue as their long, wet hair. They had the good grace to look a tad guilty. "Ah. Well. Good point."


A MEETING OF TWO JOKERS - BHARIN & CUNNINGHAMS / EARTH - HOGWARTS - DOWN BY THE LAKE


Bharin was prepared for a lot of things. He was not, however, prepared to meet Lord Cunningham and half of his bloodthirsty entourage.

The bloodlust radiating off of the entire group as they trooped down from the castle was enough to set his fangs on edge.

He was only grateful that they'd somehow managed to shadow walk past Hagrid's frantic retreat uphill. That was good. Less explanations, though Hagrid had seemed strangely unbothered by all of the oddness.

Oh well. He could worry about that later.

There were more pressing things to worry about, like the two approaching Jokers, pale-skinned and dark-haired with identical smiles on their identical faces.

A chill crept down his spine.

Vega Clan, he knew at once. They wore viciousness like a cloak—one that they were proud to show off.

And they would definitely know who he was.

"A-are those your friends?" The Merrow asked, tentatively. "T-they look dangerous."

Bharin tried not to sigh. It was an uphill battle. Forget Surajini babying him for a month—he'd take off the rest of the entire year, at the rate this was going.

"That's because they are," he said, tiredly. "They're Vegas. Nothing good happens when a Vega is around. Try to stay behind me—and don't get caught by anything crawling up out of that water, either."

The Merrow sniffled. "I wouldn't-!" They clamped a hand on his shoulder, squeezing hard enough to be felt through his reinforced Flexi-Suit.

"If you're not here to help with that," Bharin said, pointing over his shoulder. "You can take your blades and-"

"Wait a minute—I know you!" A Gheyo Prince, freckle-faced, with blue-black tinted hair, scurried forward. He dodged around the Vega Twins, bowing perfectly at the waist.

Bharin squinted at him. That face looked vaguely familiar. He'd seen it before. At the clinic where Quinn had worked.

"You're Quinn Kalzik's, aren't you? One of his parents?"

"…yes," Bharin said, slowly.

"Knew it!" the Gheyo said, cheerfully. "Milord, he's friendly. No need to scare him off." He grinned at Bharin, leaning to the side to smile at the Merrow.

The memory clicked—a young Gheyo from a grudge match gone wrong—being hauled in with Dahlia, Wikhn and Mimei struggling to keep him from fighting Quinn off as he'd tried to help.

"Grudge match!" he said, lifting his chin.

The Gheyo Prince fairly sparkled. "It's Ciro, actually. But I remember you—that was a pretty quick way to keep me from ripping heads off."

Bharin tipped his head forward in acknowledgement. "The idea was to restrain, not to inflame."

"It was clever thinking on your part," Ciro said, still quite cheerful. He turned to side and rattled off something or the other, that made the entire group of Cunninghams relax as a whole.

"Vega?" the Merrow muttered, still deep in thought. "Oh! Those ones." They stepped out from behind Bharin, hands folded, robe sleeves still drenched and hanging thickly by their sides.

Lord Cunningham came forward first, his expression grave. He offered the same formal bow as Ciro had. "…your highness, Lord Kalzik."

Bharin choked.

"Your majesty," the Vega Twins chorused, moving forward in near perfect unison. The eeriness from earlier had vanished at once.

"Ellery, Evren," the Merrow said, happily. "It's been so long since I've seen you. I almost didn't recognize you on land!"

"We almost didn't recognize you out of water either," Ellery said, hands extended.

The Merrow happily took both hands, beaming up at them with almost childlike happiness. "You have business on Earth?"

"As do you, apparently," Evren said, frowning at his twin. "Don't monopolize them!"

"Am not," Ellery said, tugging one hand free. "You're so stingy. We're only here on Milord's orders." His brow furrowed. "…are you alone?"

The Merrow froze. A nervous laugh escaped. "You don't have to say it the way he does," came the quick answer. "And I'm not alone. I was graciously offered protection by-"

"Lord Kalzik came here with a companion that has since left. He is not your Suite," Lord Cunningham said, approaching the trio. There was a slight sternness to his manner and it made the Merrow wilt at once.

"…are you on your way back to Nevarah?" the Merrow asked instead.

Lord Cunningham sighed. "I suppose we'll get there—after we take care of that. Did you bring it with you?"

The Merrow glanced over their shoulder, taking in the still raging and clawing Inferi attempting to make their way through the barrier, to reach land.

"No. But I would be grateful, if you could spare a blade or two to take care of things? I'm told that fire is necessary to purge them once and for all, but—as you know, that is not my preferred option."

"…of course," Lord Cunningham said, briskly. "You two—go on."

Ellery and Evren nodded in turn. They blurred off in two strong wisps of shadow.

The Merrow sidled closer.

Lord Cunningham pretended not to notice. He dispatched the rest of his Suite with quick, efficient instructions.

A relieved Bharin joined him, surprised when Hadrian turned up a few seconds later. The feathered mask was unmistakable, along with the famed Blood Title armour.

"Did you find anything else?" Lord Cunningham asked, glancing over at Hadrian.

"…no. He's gone and taken the wand with him. The Runes Master is tracing him."

"Ellery and Evren can follow the trace," Lord Cunningham said. "As long as you're agreeable."

"Sure."

"Good. Those—Inferi, was it?—I don't sense actual souls. More like half-souls. Think they can be reaped?"

Hadrian rolled his shoulders back, eyes bleeding to burning crimson. "One way to find out…"


THE MERROW CASTLE - ALEC


The Merrow Castle was silent.

Alec slipped in through one of the upper tunnels above the main door leading into the beautiful monstrosity of navy-blue stone and glowing pearl orbs in each window.

The Royal Guard was turned out in full regalia, patrolling their regular spots with calm efficiency. Shiny metallic armour glittered and gleamed in the flecks of light from the pearl orbs shining brightly from their respective spaces.

It was a diversion, he knew.

Because Merrow didn't need to fight with armour. It was there to keep potential attackers off-guard, so they would see something barrelling towards them, but never realize that they'd already been incapacitated.

The water was warmer near the castle, proof that the thermal transportation vents were active and operational. Also proof that the warm-water Merrow—including the rare Sandcrawlers—were sticking to their posts and rotations.

Most of the tunnels were for the Merrow who preferred to move quickly through the controlled streams and away from prying eyes. He'd always preferred them from the moment he was allowed to swim on his own.

Yes, they were sharp and small and sometimes cut off in one direction or another without warning—he'd certainly had his fair share of bumps and bruises when he'd first started using them.

But over time, he'd memorized the patterns, the shifts and knew just how to twist and turn his body to rocket through tight corners and sharper drops. It was just another part of living and breathing.

Alec slowed his speed enough to glance through some of the little carved observation windows at a few of the long stretches in the tunnels. They were made for watching or daydreaming, depending on the Merrow, and showed some of the most popular points of the castle.

He couldn't help but notice how quiet everything was.

No lights, hardly any sound, save for the occasional stream of bubbles in the corners where the wards and security monitors sent little bursts of information.

Sealed into those bubbles and only viewed by those in the Royal family and Royal Guard, it was a quick way of keeping everyone and everything up to date in case of an emergency.

Other Merrow wouldn't be able to see it, but it was a sign of the castle being correctly occupied and of everything being mostly alright.

He almost would've believed it, if it wasn't for the little information bubble that drifted up by the observation window showing a certain Merrow Queen slipping out—alone—and a tightly restrained Crimson Tide left bundled in their bedroom.

Krymsen—or Krym, as they preferred—was the current elected bodyguard of a certain Merrow Queen when King Alcandor was away. The kind of bodyguard that wasn't supposed to leave their side, upon pain of death.

The fact that they were there—and so tightly restrained too—did not bode well.

Alec dragged a webbed hand down his face, swallowing another groan. He shoved away from the window and dove back down the tunnel he'd just come from, dodging into a different one when he arrived at the small centre hub where different tunnels branched out to other destinations.

It took him a few minutes to arrive at the Royal bedchamber—and really, Alcandor owed him so much for this!—before he dropped down in front of the door and the six guards keeping watch in front of it.

They paled on seeing him, fins nervously twitching and grips tightening around long-handled weapons of spears, tridents and double-ended scythes.

He glowered at them. "I already know the current queen is not here," he said, irritably. "Thankfully, I'm here on other business. As for the rest of it, couldn't one of you have gone in there and helped Krym?"

Surprise shone on the two Merrow guards closest to him.

"Krym's not in there," the guard on the left said, slowly—carefully—as if he was afraid that Alec would bite his head off for speaking.

Good. He should be.

"Of course, they are! Where else would they be when injured like that?" Alec snapped. He shouldered past them, slapping his hands on the authenticator stone on the centre of the door.

It rolled back into the wall, revealing the lavish and pastel-coloured interior of the current Merrow Queen's personal bedroom.

On the floor, at the foot of the bed, was a bristling, cecaecilian-type Gheyo with vibrant blue upper scales and startlingly crimson-dyed lower tentacles.

They were also known as the Merrow's current Blood Title—Crimson Tide.

"For what it's worth," Alec began, "You and Alcandor owe me so much for this! How did you even manage to get yourself into this state? Do you have a death wish? One that you somehow neglected to mention during our numerous conversations these past few weeks?"

He approached slowly with his hands held out in front of him, finally shifting to allow his feet to stand on the sleek, stone floor. The fins on the back of his legs, slowly melted back into his wetsuit, his halfling morph shifting back to a more standard appearance.

Krym's struggles ceased at once, their pitch-black eyes zeroing in on him. Whatever they had to say was muffled behind the silencing spell, magic flaring and not quite slicing through the Royal Order that kept them restrained.

"Spell first?" Alec asked. His hands hovered over the delicate golden chains wrapped around Krym's arms and torso. "That can't be comfortable. What did that air-headed queen do—lead you out to the border and banish you back?"

Krym's scowl deepened, but they held their face up so the silencing spell could be properly dissolved.

The spell sparked and fizzed, before Alec sighed. He sliced a thumb on one sharp fang and waved the messy blood trail over the water in front of the agitated Gheyo.

Another, brighter spark leapt from his hands and the chains dissolved into a shower of dull rings, before pooling underneath their respective feet and tentacles.

"She didn't," Krym said, hoarsely. They rubbed at their face and neck, wincing at the movement that pulled on a sluggishly bleeding wound in their side.

Alec zeroed in on it at once, bristling all over when he realized the source of it. "Kesmar's bloody reefs—what did you do? What were you doing? How could you let something like this happen to-?"

"If you'd stop yelling for five seconds, I'd tell you," came the grumpy reply. Krym bit back a whine as they eased backward to sit on the foot of the bed, instead of sitting on the floor in front of it.

Alec immediately reached out, a healing spell on his hands. He paused just long enough for the nod of acknowledgement, before pressing the spell into the jagged gash of bleeding scale and skin.

Silence reigned for a long moment.

The frustration slowly ebbed from Alec's angry scowl. He sighed with the weight of a thousand leagues poured over his shoulders.

"Krym—what happened?"

"Don't blame her," Krym said, softly. "She tried her best. We got a tip—and it turned out to be a good one. Couldn't get word to you or Al, so we went to the Queen Regent. She promised to check into it and what came back was—not good."

"Define not good," Alec growled. "There's a lot that can be encompassed in 'not good' and this is not just a scrape!"

Krym winced. "I-I know. Trust me. I know. I-I don't want to be here like this any more than you do."

"Then maybe next time, try to plan for it? She's as reckless as he is!" Alec twisted to glare over his shoulder at the guards hovering in the doorway. "Don't just float there, you idiots! Get something to eat and some extra medical supplies-"

"Don't need a medkit," Krym said, wincing again as Alec recast the healing charm. "Your magic usually does the trick. It's always stupidly strong when it comes to healing shit."

Alec dug his fingers into their side for that comment, ignoring the low, pained whine that came from it. "Talk, you oversized octopus! Now!"

"Right. Time constraints." Krym winced, but leaned back a bit more, allowing easier access to their side. One half-dyed tentacle curled up, reaching out to brush against Alec's shoulder and torso.

"I'm fine. Everything's fine. Don't do that!" Alec said, snapping his fangs at the stray tentacle. "Worry about your own self for a change! You're not immortal, you do realize that, right?"

"A tip from someone who said that a breach was found leading into the Merrow Waters. From Earth. Evidence of magic pointed to Tavit, the Necromancer. I think it might've been assigned to you, except for you weren't there."

Alec rolled his eyes. "I still get messages, it's sending replies that's the problem right now. Long-distance bubbles are losing effectivity by the time they surface, so it's corrupting. But I've been able to read some of it, more or less."

"You didn't get the last ones we sent or you wouldn't be here with me—ow. Would you quit trying to carve more holes in me? I'm already bleeding enough as it is!" Krym growled.

"No. It makes me feel better," Alec growled. He pressed bony knuckles a little harder into Krym's side, ignoring the pained hitch of his breathing. Too little pressure would be a problem if the healing didn't take. "Keep talking."

Krym glared at him in answer. "You've probably already figured it all out, haven't you? It'd be a shame if you couldn't live up to your title, oh great s-!"

"Do you want me to actually carve your heart out? Hearts, I mean. Because I will and your replacement will be instated within a half-hour. You could stand to lose a heart or two, but all of them might be a problem-"

"You're a sick fish," Krym grumbled. "It's about Tavit. He gave magic to them. Spells—stored ones, I think? Revivals. A lot of it. The client was—not the best kind."

"Undead?"

"He's a Necromancer, what else did you expect?"

Alec grunted.

He withdrew to craft another healing spell in the small space between his hands. Bright bolts of teal energy leapt between his fingers as he focused on the right blend of healing and pure water energy.

"Anyway, they were given to some sort of—wraith? I don't know. Something that wasn't dead or alive. We got his warning message—sent via Niko, if you can believe that—and it said that we should keep an eye out for them, because there was quite a lot. We prepared for that, of course. I mean, what's more undead along with the Fabrine?"

Alec shrugged. He stretched the glowing spell of teal energy between his hands, before slapping it down on Krym's half-healed side.

Another whine leaked out. "You have the worst bedside manner I've ever known."

"And you're the whiniest patient I always have!" Alec snapped. "Keep. Talking!"

"They breached Nevarah through a different side. Earth's side. Brought their disgusting selves through the borders with intent to kill and destroy. The wards reacted very badly. Queen Esperanza reacted, but I think it was too late? They went to take a closer look at it and-"

Alec snorted. "And her royal highness thought it was a great idea to chase after-"

"To be fair, they tried to retreat and then she went after them."

"And you?"

"…I went after her. We met with some—resistance. I shielded. She got away. It went sour and—she banished me back here in hopes that someone would be able to help. The chains kept the wound from bleeding more than it should. It was a mess. We were kind of—overpowered."

"I don't like it."

"Don't think you have to like it, Alec. I don't. I was the one almost torn apart."

"Well, you're lucky it wasn't poisoned," Alec said, straightening up. His hands went to his hips, the newly healed wound a bit stretched and purpled against Krym's bright blue scales.

"Alec-"

"Save it. You owe me."

"…right."

"I'm serious. It's a favour now. I'll cash in whenever I feel like it."

"Fine. Just please-"

"Don't even bother to say anything stupid. I'll go after her. It's faster if I'm alone. You stay here so Auntie Ess stays here. Someone's got keep the wards properly fed and you know that it has to be one of the three of them to maintain peak strength."

Krym nodded, tentacles waving in agreement around them. "What about the rest of them?"

"If they don't know what their own Circle is up to, we've got other problems," Alec said, irritably. "Just don't let them kill each other before one of them gets back here. If they don't return, then don't let Auntie Ess out of the castle!"

"…are you sure that's the best idea?"

"No, but it's the only one that will have the least number of casualties. If any of them surface right now—those idiotic landwalkers are the ones who are going to pay and a lot of peace work is going to go right down the drain, if that happens."

"I know, I know!" Krym said, miserably. "I don't want to see it turn out that way either, but that entire Circle is made up of flesh-eating monsters that-"

"And you're one of them too!" Alec snapped. He slapped him upside the head, his glower growing fiercer. "And for Kesmar's sake, would you rest? Try not to get stabbed, gouged or tortured until I get back."

"That was one time-!"

"Tortured!" Alec growled. "Gouged and stabbed. That's three—and you did it nine times, not once!" He slapped at the tentacles trying to brush over him again to verify that he was alright. "I'm fine. You're not. Stay put!"

He shifted forms again, darting to the bedroom door. "Send me your exact coordinates of your last location. Was she hurt at all?"

"No. She hid the moment I told her to and I drew them off."

"Smart fish," Alec praised. "Now stay!"

"You can't go alone, it's dangerous to—take someone with you! There's plenty of the Royal Guard to—Alec? Alec!"

"I said to stay! I don't want your help and I don't need anyone else getting in the way!"

"Alec!" Krym groaned, head in their hands as Alec streaked out from the Merrow Queen's bedroom. "And you say I'm reckless? Alcandor's going to kill me if anything happens to you!"


THE LAST KNOWN LOCATION - ALEC


Alec slipped out of the castle through the back tunnel, his preferred exit strategy. He'd paused long enough to yell at the inner guards, the panicking council, Auntie Ess and her entourage—and the rest of Alcandor's advisors.

Kesmar's bloody reefs.

He really did have to do everything around here!

A happy, pleased chirrup let him know that Goonter was there—and headed straight for him.

He dodged, quickly, to the left, allowing the massive hulk of a thing to streak by, before calling out to it in an answering chirp.

It took a few minutes of clicking, warbling and chin scratches, before Goonter finally curled around him—gently—and allowed the careful healing and armouring spells to wash over him.

"Can't have anything happening to you," Alec said, patting the smooth, cool body. "Alcandor would throw a fit and I would be out of a good transport system."

Goonter huffed, nosing and nudging at him, until Alec laughed and shoved his head away.

"Quit it! Your breath still stinks. You know you're supposed to eat those things and not just swallow them whole, right?" He patted as much as he could reach with his hands and relaxed into the gentle hold.

More crooning chirps followed.

"Yeah, yeah. I know. Come on, we gotta go save another idiot."

Goonter perked up.

"What? Yeah, it's your favourite idiot." Alec flashed a rare grin. "Come on. Let's go."

There was another, longer chirp, before Goonter tried to scoop him up.

"…you want me to ride? Goonter, there's a lot of ground we have to cover and—oh fine."

Alec reached up with one arm and let himself be swallowed whole, wrapped in a bubble of water, his magic quick and sharp. He felt the moment where his intentions connected with Goonter's curious mind.

It took another minute for them to find the usual push and pull of familiar and handler, before it all snapped into place.

With a silent roar, they were on their way.

Goonter was fast and invisible, while Alec directed him with flashes of imagery from the coordinates that Krym had sent to him.

They would need a couple of portals to make the trip with minimal stress and exertion.

Better to end up there with enough energy to fight, than to worry too much about covering their tracks to the point of losing precious time.


THE BLACK LAKE - HOGWARTS - EARTH


Goonter crested through the black lake with a barely restrained roar. He spat out Alec on cue, interrupting the complicated scene taking place on the shore.

Reapers, the Merrow Queen and several Gheyos standing guard.

Oh joys.

Alec landed in a crouch with a snarl on his lips. He stood to his full height—granted it really wasn't that tall compared to the two large Reapers observing him silently—and stalked forward.

The familiar pale blue hair of a certain Merrow Queen was the first thing he noticed, right along with the muffled shrieking and screeching from behind.

He turned in time to see just what Goonter had brought him through.

Ah.

So, he hadn't been imagining it.

There was indeed a crawling, swarming, writhing mass of emaciated bodies, desperately trying to free themselves from the confines of the lake—that he'd just come barrelling through.

Kesmar.

Why. Why him?!

His arrival had scattered them and now, they were regrouping. Pale imitations of what they'd once been in life, the disgusting creatures battered their bodies against the nearly transparent wall of crackling white energy.

A good barrier. A strong ward. One he'd seen cast and crumble before. Which meant that none of the current Reapers present—or the Gheyos clustered around them—had any idea what was going on.

Alec stormed forward, murder on his mind and on his face. "You-!" he hissed, slapping away the two Gheyos that made a half-hearted attempt to stall his forward progress.

The Merrow Queen—Killigan—beamed at him. "Alec! You came! I didn't think you would come personally. I knew Krym would make it back alright. Figured you'd send someone. Glad you could make it. How are they? I only used the Royal Order just in case they were-"

"You know they hate it!" Alec snapped. "And really? Earth?"

Killigan offered a slightly more sheepish smile. "I was running short on time. I'll make it up to them. Honestly, you're running a little late yourself. I was really starting to worry. You never take this long to track me down whenever there's some kind of an emergency for-"

"Worry? You?" Alec snapped. "Have you ever worried about anyone else in your own life, besides yourself? You left the castle—the realm—unaccompanied! You sent your injured bodyguard back with a silencing spell that only three can remove!"

He scowled at Killigan's innocent expression. Looking them over from scale to fang, he could see that there were a few surface scratches and bruises, but nothing serious.

The lack of immediate healing let him know that there was more going on than what he could see at first glance. It didn't help that everything above ground smelled awful, wet and disgusting. Absolutely did not help that everything was so loud, dry and irritating either.

"Explanations," he ground out, temper simmering dangerously. "Now!"

Killigan winced, briefly. The kind of expression that meant he hadn't quite figured out a good cover story, but would at least make a decent attempt to bluff.

The headache looming overhead, seemed to grow heavier as Alec breathed.

"Well. It's a little hard to explain. See, this is Bharin Kalzik and these wonderful people are the-"

"I don't care about the names," Alec said, stiffly. "I don't care who is here or not. I care about that!"

He jabbed a finger over his shoulder where Goonter was roaring with delight at having such durable playmates. Unbothered by the dissonant screeching of the Inferi, he was happily tossing them around as if they were training buoys.

From the loud splashing and general muffled sounds coming from the lake, he could already tell the wards were just barely keeping the worst of it from splashing up along the banks.

Goonter was having far too much fun.

Already, there was stagnant blood in the water, and more dirt and debris quickly stirring with each rippling wave of his turbulent enjoyment.

"Oh," Killigan said, brightening. "No need to worry. Goonter's doing fine. Those little creatures are just a little upset. Mostly because I have their master right here." Reaching into the filmy folds of the royal robes, Killigan drew out a perfect, rose-gold toned pearl, the size of their palm.

A little swirl of pale blue magic gleamed in the light—a protective ward to prevent the captive within the pearl, from escaping at will. It was marked with a golden seal of an active Royal Merrow.

"Killigan!"

"What? You didn't expect me to leave him running around like that. He could've caused a lot more damage than all of that." Killigan tossed the pearl up and down in his hand.

"I'm going to let you tell Alcandor what you've done!" Alec fumed. "And you can deal with how he feels about it! Did you even think what would happen in your absence before running out of the castle? Do you have any idea what you've caused by just running off into another realm without-"

The cheerful expression twisted at once into something darker and sharper. "Alec," Killigan said, icily. The pearl was safely tucked away into a sweeping sleeve. "Must you really? Now is hardly the time-"

"…do I have any other choice?" Alec asked, his voice deceptively light.

"There are plenty of choices that-"

"But I don't, do I? Of course not, your royal highness. How could I forget that I only live to serve at this point. It must've slipped my mind to actually be worrying about you now. After all, what else am I good for than using my fins to save your helpless self when Alcandor can't do it himself? Ever so sorry I forgot that I was disposable to you."

Killigan froze. A pale purple tint rose in those thin cheeks. His jaw dropped, thin shoulders drooping a bit. The moisture in the air shifted, drawn towards him.

"Never mind me. I don't know why I'm here doing this, except for, Alcandor has been very good to me. Better than I deserve, probably. Do sit tight. I'll be right back as soon as I take care of this." Alec spun on his heel, all taut fury and bristling temper.

A stricken look took over Killigan's face. "Alec, that's not what I meant—you know that's not what I meant! You're not disposable and I definitely don't think that way about everything that you've done for-"

"Oh, I know what you said, your highness and I know very well what you meant. Unfortunately, I don't have time to be mindful of your pretty little feelings. I'm to keep you alive—and hopefully, myself as well." Alec tossed his head, the long dark blue locks, swishing away to his normal, shortened teal crop. Magic crackled loudly over his entire body in rippling waves of visible energy.

The wetsuit clung to his body, repairing over the scrapes and cuts that he'd acquired in the mad dash to get so much done in so little time.

Goonter was making a sizeable dent in the inferi, but he couldn't just blast through everything on his own, a little extra help was needed.

Alec nimbly dodged Killigan's tentative reach towards him, instead, turning his attention directly to Bharin Kalzik. His teal-eyes narrowed as they landed on the familiar dark-skinned Gheyo that he'd seen before.

"You're one of those Kalziks that were taking care of-" He stopped himself, before blurting out anything about Harry and the others.

Close. Too close.

He'd almost said something pointless for the sake of confirming what he already knew to be true.

Bharin eyed him warily, exhaustion radiating from his body. "Bharin Kalzik," he said, gruffly. "Belonging to Surajini and Hiram Kalzik. Your—Royal—asked for my assistance."

Alec grunted in answer. He didn't really care why the man was there, but an Earth Gheyo was more agreeable than a Fire one.

Than a Fire anything, really.

"We are indebted," he said, flatly. "Thank you for the care you took. A reward will be prepared upon Killigan's immediate return to the Merrow waters."

Bharin's mouth thinned into a line, but he said nothing, only tipping his head forward in acknowledgement. His golden eyes were definitely more a hazel hue now, but he didn't seem to be in any hurry to rush anything along.

Alec scanned the gaggle of arranged dragels along the lake's shoreline and grimaced when he caught sight of even more familiar faces.

The Cunninghams.

Of course they would be there in the thick of trouble. They'd shown their fangs and claws a lot more in recent years. Not to mention that embarrassing moment with Alcandor and the removal of that damn protection spell.

So much for a gesture of goodwill.

In the end, it didn't matter.

He didn't have to be a genius to figure out what the Cunninghams were up to. If the Royals didn't endorse them for the Shadow element soon, he was sure they'd nominate themselves.

Which also begged the question of what they were doing on Earth, of all places?

But since they were on Earth, and he was with Killigan, there were rules to play by. He'd have to be nice.

Well, polite really.

"…Lord Cunningham," he said, icily. He bowed to the tall Reaper, and then to the ominous one standing behind it.

If he wasn't mistaken, that was one of Nevarah's very own Blood Titles, Blood Raven—and none other than Hadrian Maruke.

Odd. He wouldn't have expected both of them to be on Earth and working together. Perhaps he should've tried to gain more information from his current sources on the state of the Shadow sections, as a whole. Alcandor would probably ask for it in the middle of his next report.

"Alec," came the mild reply. Lord Cunningham looked as inscrutable as ever, his gaze forever neutural, but his tone modulated. "You're here on his majesty's business?"

"What else could I be here for?" Alec shot back, bristling. His new scales shone bright in the light, glistening with the humidity in the air being drawn directly to him.

"The King sent you?" Lord Cunningham asked, shrewdly. "How—interesting. His Advisor's Ward."

Alec ignored him. He didn't need a reminder of his unofficial title, known only to those in the Merrow Royal courts. It wasn't worth adding to his headache to correct it.

"Don't be ridiculous, Jascha," Killigan said, mildly. "You've met him before. You just don't remember. Alcandor didn't send Kieran's ward, he sent his cousin. Alec—would you hurry up? I know you're upset and you have a right to be, but that can wait until later. I have something that needs to be destroyed and the sooner you clean that up—the sooner I can take care of it and we'll all be better for it."

Alec glowered in Killigan's direction, but turned away from the assorted group of Kalzik-Cunningham-dragels. "Far be it from me to stop you from destroying something," he said, sourly. "Or someone. And whichever one of you put up that stupid ward—would you take it down already? The sooner we get this over with, the better it is for everyone."


HARRY'S MINDSCAPE – HARRY & MAURY


Quinn eventually left the mindscape—it wasn't good to linger too long—and Harry watched and waved as he left. The image seemed to take forever to vanish, until there wasn't even a hint of Quinn's golden hair or pretty teal eyes.

The mindscape twisted and shifted, semi-visible surroundings falling away to a flat, empty blackness. Harry turned in a full circle before he realized there was nothing to see.

And no one to greet him.

Hands curled in the sleeves of his shirt, clutching the cuffs with sharpened claws, even as he worked to try and keep his face from showing the sudden tangle of emotions rushing through him.

He'd talked.

To Quinn.

And Quinn had said yes.

Quinn had said yes!

The reality was enough to make him giddy all over again. He'd found the nerve to speak up and ask for something—for someone—and for once in his life, it seemed that the fates hadn't tried to punish him for it.

His heart seemed intent on beating right out of his chest with a happy, hopeful tempo that he swore he could feel, even in mindscape. It was too good and bright and happy for it to be anything else.

Harry let himself smile, even though it felt a little strange after so much had happened so quickly. "I'll see you soon," he said, half-to-himself, thinking of Quinn and how much they'd have to catch up on when he was awake again.

There would definitely be no takebacks at all.

In fact, the sooner that Theo returned with a way to wake him from the healing trance, the sooner he could find a way to make their official bonding public.

Quinn had assured him that the soulbond clicking into place was proof enough. A few other rituals and necessary formalities would be completed when he was awake, but nothing would separate them now.

Nothing at all.

A formal ceremony was likely, as Surajini did cling to some traditions within the Kalzik Clan, and despite Quinn's fond exasperation, Harry had only felt even more love for Surajini who had always treated him as someone deserving and worthy.

To think that she would automatically include him and the rest of his Bonded in a future bonding ceremony had brought up the kinds of feelings that he'd never expected to have.

Another happy thrill ran through him and Harry wished for Maury again. He had good news and no one to share it with straightaway.

"Oret?" he called out, tentatively.

The happy bubble wavered in his chest.

A fleeting thought—so brief, he would've missed it if it were anywhere else than his mindscape—tickled at the front of his consciousness.

Of whether his parents would've been happy to see him. If they would've been glad to know that he was bonded now, with an Alpha, a Beta, a Pareya and now—a Healer of his own.

Maybe they'd be as happy as Surajini. Maybe they'd be happier. He had to think of it in a positive light.

He just had to.

Surely they would care that he was happy and loved, rather than fixating on any of the ridiculousness he remembered from the Wizarding World.

The happy bubble turned into a distinct ache.

Even though he was safe and anchored now to Nevarah, there were still innocents left behind. Some of his fellow students from Hogwarts, professors that had actually meant well in their own awkward ways, and even—if he dared to think about it, Remus.

Harry stubbornly shoved those thoughts away. He couldn't think about it now. Couldn't bear to remember any of it when he was still inside his head, waiting to wake up.

Waiting to take another step forward in his new life and especially when he didn't have anywhere to specifically call his own. If—if he had his own place—their own place—maybe there could be something more.

Maybe he could find out what had happened to everyone else besides just Hermione. Theo hadn't seemed averse to helping him investigate and maybe, there were others. Not to mention that he'd be able to see Hermione, once he was awake and back on his feet.

There was so much to do and be done!

And so much that Theo had shared with him that he was still trying not to process.

Trying.

Because it was heavy, hard, and difficult. That was three emotions right there that he didn't want to poke at for longer than the present moment.

After all, he hadn't been the only dragel that Terius had attempted to help, in his own odd way. There were others. Different elements, ranks and connections. Possibly even different creatures.

Harry tugged on his hair, pushing those thoughts away too. He wanted to linger on the happy glow still tentatively wrapped around him from the joy of Quinn's soulbond snapping into place. It was such a pure, genuine feeling that he wanted to luxuriate in it for a thousand years, if it was allowed.

The mindscape twisted and lightened around him, switching from a deep, voidless black to a more steady, murky grey. It hollowed out around him, giving the illusion of standing on a small round platform high up in the air.

Wind seemed to ruffle in his hair.

As if he were high in the sky, drifting through the clouds on his broom.

Oh.

He really did need to make sure there were some proper flying lessons somewhere in the near future. The kind of happiness that swirled through his mind was too much to ignore. It made him want to jump and scream and fly.

A light rustle of fabric behind him was the first hint of a second presence, before that familiar magic twined around him. Curling briefly over his wrist and then playfully tugging at his arms, Harry let it pull him forward a few steps.

He could never mistake the answering pulse of magic or that familiar tint to such open energy.

"Someone's happy," Maury said, softly. He smiled, warmly when Harry spun to launch himself forward in a hug that sent them both back two steps.

"Oret!"

"My Harry," came the gentle reply. Maury leaned down, folding him into a hug as best as he could. "Congratulations are in order, y es? You were so brave."

"Thank you," Harry said.

"It went well?" Maury squeezed him, gently.

"…yes." He sagged into the hug as if all his strength had left him.

"I am glad for you. It is a singular joy to want and be wanted in turn."

Harry nodded, too caught up to think of proper words.

"Three emotions," Maury said. He stroked a hand down Harry's fluffy hair. "Tell me three emotions for it."

Harry burrowed further into the hug, a hint of red on the tips of his ears. The slight desperation in the embrace was easily erased in the way that Maury hugged him back without complaint.

"Happy," he said, quietly. "Relieved. Grateful."

Maury gave him another tight squeeze, a faint purr rattling in his chest. "Those are honest and beautiful emotions," he said, softly. "I am glad it went well."

"He couldn't stay too long," Harry said, relaxing even more. "But he said he might come back, if Theo can't get the Kadels to do anything."

"His mental abilities are quite strong."

"He worked on it after The Incident," Harry said. "Because maintaining mental channels takes more than just daily practice. It's a lot of magic."

"Would you consider a mental channel with him straightaway or maybe something more formal?" Maury asked. He eased them down to the ground with a practiced hand, smiling when Harry curled into his side, not quite willing to give up his hug.

"Straightaway," Harry said at once. "But only if he wanted it and it was alright with everyone else. If he'd rather wait or if there's a benefit to doing it later, I guess I can wait. I don't want him to have to feel that he can't talk to me because I don't understand his whistle-speak or sign language. I know he can do the spelled words, but it also seems like it would be a strain."

Maury hummed. "Good answer. Keep in mind that all of your Bonded may not feel the same way. You should check with them first. I would wager that your connection will impact them in one way or another. You would have an open channel of communication at all times, but-"

"Can't it be two-way?" Harry asked, brow furrowing. "So, if I was in the middle of something that he didn't need to—well—I could mute it?"

"Definitely," Maury said. "It would just require a little more effort to set it up, but it would better for both of you. Bonding is a good thing, but so is some individual privacy. You might experience some overflow while it settles. Feelings, emotions and thoughts that are not your own."

Harry gave a slow nod. "Is there anything I can do to make it less confusing?"

"It won't be that bad," Maury said, amused. "It will just feel like you've bared your soul continuously for a little while. You'll learn to regulate and he'll learn to modulate. Because you two have a soulbond, the connection will likely be fast and deep. At that point, your job will be to focus on growing it roots and nurturing that depth."

"So empath-grounding on top of that?" Harry guessed. "The dimming spells and naming emotions?"

"Skin-to-skin contact, exercising your magic, blood-sharing would be a good alternative for you two, but considering his Healer status, you would either have to alter your entire diet to be a suitable feeding candidate—especially if he is still practicing and donating his blood—or you'd have to use a different medium."

"Medium?"

"A drink of sorts. Maybe a tea infusion or something like those cocktails they have for Alphas. You know the ones, Bloodroot, Calmweb, MindFine and such."

"Are there any for other ranks?"

"Yes, but usually, it's much easier to regulate our own instincts and urges, especially if we have a dominant rank present, so it's hardly necessary. You can always ask for your ranked equivalent if you're ordering something off of a menu," Maury said. "It's perfectly fine and normal, if you wish to."

"…it'd be nice to order something," Harry said, quietly. "Maybe we could celebrate when this was over?"

Maury smiled in that gentle way of his. "I think you would have earned a thousand dinners of catching up and enjoying each other's company," he said. "But, when your Theo returns, I think we should have some sort of action plan for your waking hours."

Harry straightened up, his expression slightly grim. "Yes. I was hoping you could help with that?"

"Goals, purpose, end result," Maury said, ticking it off on his fingers. "Right now, you want to build the most solid foundation that you can. Whether that is gathering your friends, family and new Bonded around you, or putting down actual roots in a home of your own, that should be your primary focus for now."

"Is it really that important?" Harry asked, hesitantly. "A place of our own? I mean, I know—everywhere that I've tried to call mine never lasts. It's attacked, burned or just wrong."

"But when it was yours, it meant something, right?" Maury asked, carefully. "A place—a home—is as strong as the ones who live within it. That will to live and that will to be protect what is yours is something that grows on its own."

Harry nodded, slowly. "I guess. How did you find yours? W-what made you choose it?"

Maury smiled. "Emerald Hollow was my childhood home," he said, softly. "It is also partially why I cannot gift it to you. The property is blood-bound to a very small, very specific group of people. Unfortunately, since I did not have any intent of taking on a mentored student when I made my final arrangements, it is gifted to two people. You will likely meet them soon or rather, the other one soon."

"Who?"

"…I will tell you later," Maury said, tapping Harry's forehead at the disgruntled expression. "Do not mind it. Emerald Hollow was a home that my family built with their own hands. It was a piece of property won through an honest trade with our work at the time. We built it up along with our business and everything else in those years. When they all—when it was over—when it was just me, I stayed there. Safe. Protected. I thought I would die there too."

Harry's hands flexed lightly in Maury's robes. "Really?"

"I didn't think there was much of a point in living. I'd been alive for sometime and everything was very dark and depressing. It was quite by accident that Ryuusen and the others stumbled through the property wards. I left the house, intending to chase away the intruders. I ended up taking them home and well, Ryuusen and I had a history. We were both stubborn and prideful, but in the end, our hearts won out."

"Do you regret it?" Harry asked, as softly as he dared. "Everything that you've-"

"No," Maury said, firmly. "I don't. Maybe I could've made better choices. We always think that. But when you learn to live with the results, when you take responsibility for your own future, it's not so bad. It works out."

"When I wake up," Harry said, his grip tightening on those dark soft robes. "Oret, will you-"

"I will be right there with you," Maury said, folding him into another hug, this time with Harry's head tucked under his chin. He swayed slightly, rocking him in a familiar motion. "You will not be alone and I will do all that I can to help you."

"…promise?"

"I swear it on Ryker's Bane."


A/N: A/N: Hey everyone! I know this chapter was a while in coming, but I've been wrestling it for a little while. We're setting up to get into the Trial arc with the dursleys and a few other things (Jun and Co.!) about to start happening. I could not wake Harry up this chapter, but possibly by the next one, he should be awake. We'll see.

How did you like poor Alec and his actual work? Hehe. We're going to find out his official title and what he does for Alcandor, when they turn up in Nevarah. Killigan's debut as Alcandor's Queen, is also in mid-reveal! Woop! And of course, we have Krym, one of the Crimson Tide and current Blood Title holder. So much Merrow stuff to write in this chapter, I hope you enjoyed it!

Also, we now have a Discord! It's very dragel-centric and there's plenty of fun and chaos. I do pop-in when I can. If you want to talk dragel-things, check it out!-there's an invite link in the AO3 chapter notes and on my tumblr.

Anyway, as always-Enjoy the read! and I'll see you next chapter! -Scion


I was asked to include a short ranking summary in a recent comment, so here we go for quick reference!

DRAGEL CIRCLE -RANKS
• ALPHA — the dominant authority figure, equal to the Submissive, within a bonded dragel Circle. One corner of the operating triad.
• BETA — Mediator between the Alpha and Submissive. Usually acts on the Alpha's behalf, when needed. One corner of the operating triad.
• SUBMISSIVE — the heart of a dragel Circle and generally the shortest. One corner of the operating triad.
• PAREYA — the protector within a Circle, usually attuned to the Submissive and proficient in defensive magic
• GHEYO — the fighter within a Circle, usually attuned to the Pareyas and proficient in offensive magic. Gheyos have multiple titles within their ranks, denoting special fighting skills and establishing a clear authority figure. A Circle with all Gheyo ranks filled is referenced as having a full Suite. They are ACE, King, Queen, Prince, Princess, Knight, Page, Trainee
• MAGE - A magic-oriented fighter within a Circle that does not follow Gheyo ranking or authority. They are known for having tremendous magical ability and control.
Additional ranks include, HEALER, ADVISOR, RHEYO, ROYAL, COMPANION, and CARRIER.


Find me online as Chera Carmichael for updates on all kinds of dragel stuff. I also have a Tumblr for chapter update progress, random fandom slash and some AU fic teasers at Scioneeris.