Appletree

Resident Fruit Tree
Sasha had not realised that he had followed her, so hearing his voice almost directly behind her made her jump a little. Turning back, she was greeted with the sight of Arthur with Fawn in his arms and a crooked smile on his face, ready to lead the way.

Holding a torch steady along with a large dog was pretty much impossible, so she was very glad for Arthurs directions as they moved down the dark corridor beyond the doorway. She hoped they wouldn't have to go too far. She didn't like the idea of leaving the others behind with noone but Aiden for company. What if he decided he felt like a snack, or something else turned up? Why had Arthur taken Fawn first? Of all of them Fawn would be the first she would sacrifice if she had to choose, no matter how mean that sounded.

She was concentrating on keeping her footing on the uneven ground, so didn't register the bubble like barrier till they were almost right in front of it.
The colours shifting in its surface made her pause just a moment, reminded forcibly of the glowy-eye incident, but Arthur seemed completely unperturbed, almost cheerful even and marched right through the barrier as though it wasn't there. Sucking in a deep lung full of air, she followed, holding her breath as she passed through, only to stop dead when she caught sight of what was on the other side.

She would have rubbed her eyes if she hadn't had an armful of dog to deal with. It was like walking into a different house all together. It was cleaner, the walls and windows not near as dilapidated as those she had seen before, with actual candles all along the walls gently illuminating everything.
Looking back, she could dimly make out the creepy corridor though the orange and purple barrier they had just passed through. It took Arthur's prompting for her to follow his lead and set down her burden. Brushing white dog hair from her clothes, she straightened.

"Right. Let's get this over with then." Worry for her friends made her rather short with her answer.
 

KittyRoid

InTeReStInG
Arthur nodded grimly. But before they passed through his barrier again, he took from a shadowed nook in the wall at his face level a small, red gemstone, barely the size of his thumb pad.


He gave Sasha a half-grin, perhaps showing off? Then he tossed it softly into the air and, with his hand palm up beneath the spinning stone, spoke powerfully a word that set the hair on the back of both of their necks dancing. The gem in a single moment stopped in it's fall to hover above his hand, and a strange symbol emblazoned itself on it, bringing with it a brilliant ruddy orange light. Not bright enough to dazzle anyone watching it, but enough to light the passage past the ward shield.

"Activating this runestone is just small magic." Bending slightly toward her, he said softly through a smile, "I heard from behind me that you were having trouble, and this will help." Two whispered words and the shining stone spiraled around him, then Sasha, finally settling comfortably to float over her left shoulder. Arthur stood straight and winked, grinning broadly, then he marched quickly to the shining wall and through it.

As he walked quickly down the hall to the foyer he heard Sasha stepping more confidently. He grinned and congratulated himself for paying attention. It'd been a long time since he'd needed to worry about someone else having trouble navigating the dangerous floors, but he'd adjusted immediately. It boded well for how he well he would adapt to other humans in the manor--ones not familiar at all with it's hazards. He still warned her of the upcoming danger spots, having long ago memorized the route.

Once back in the foyer he quickly realized there was no one else she could handle on her own, so he requested she stayed in the huge room and warn him if trouble came while he took the other girl back. Together they lifted the boys, and it was much harder, even with help. James and the redhead sagged in the middle perilously, and Arthur having to tilt to try and balance their asymmetrical heights made it harder for him to see where he was going. Between the two boys, Arthur tore off a little strip of his shirt and messily tied his hair back in an attempt to help him see. There was still so much he couldn't figure out how to pull back that he huffed and gave the loose strands hanging between his eyes a dirty look. Then he morosely looked at his shirt. It no longer covered the entirety of his torso, exposing a slash of skin. "Well that'll help it last longer," he grumbled to himself, flicking the newly-loose threads that wouldn't require much to start unraveling, and shook his head.

Once the other human boy was safe, Arthur faced Aidan, hands on hips. The dragon looked awful. His skin was covered in a sheen of sweat, his hair lank and eyelids low. When he lifted his gaze to look at Arthur, his eyes were more yellow than gold, and his panting breaths didn't include the smoke that they should have. His lips split further and he winced at the pain as he whispered, "Arthur, help me."

Arthur blanched and his mouth dropped open. He stumbled forward, tripped on the stairs, and ended up on his hands and knees a few steps down from Aidan. "Aidan..." he breathed. "How?"

"The girl," Aidan wheezed.

Arthur whipped his head back to stare at Sasha, then back to look at Aidan. "Sasha?"

"She... She has magic." His voice was stronger, and he was gazing into Sasha's eyes.

This time when Arthur whipped his head back to stare Sasha there was a mess of emotions in it. Shock, disbelief, amazement, betrayal, hope, horror, and excitement. He got to his feet.

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"She didn't know."

Arthur looked back down at the dragon. "Really?"

"Not even a guess. Her Core is very dim, but it's there. Too dim to have done anything at all recognizable as magic, but she has potential, Arthur. And I need her."
 
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Appletree

Resident Fruit Tree
The power in the word Arthur uttered to set the little gem alight made goosebumps rise all over Sashas skin. She wasn't sure she liked the feeling. Still, she couldn't help staring in wonder at the little ball of light hovering over his open palm, bathing everything around them in a ruddy pinkish orange glow.

Another magical utterance and the light wizzed towards Sasha. Her eyes widened and she leaned away from it a little, watching sidelong as it followed her movements, keeping its position over her shoulder no matter how she moved. She looked back at Arthur just in time to catch the wink before he turned and headed back down the corridor. Following him, Sasha couldn't help but raise an eyebrow at his back. He sure was proud of himself for some reason.

As thankful as she was that visibility was better, his presumably well meant warnings annoyed her a little. She wasnt blind or stupid enough to walk without looking where she was going. She was even less pleased when reaching the entrance hall again, he directed her to stay as a lookout.

He disappeared with Jeanine in his arms, leaving her alone in the dark that even his gem light couldn't chase away completely. What exactly was she supposed to do if something did turn up? What if the something was invisible? Hadn't Arthur ever watched a horror movie? The first thing you learned was to never split up. Hugging her arms around herself, she stood quite still trying not to look too closely at the lingering shadows. Despite his foul attitude, she wished that Aiden were more aclive right now, but he was slumped on the stair, breathing ragged and eyes closed.

The sound of footsteps made her spin around, already half panicked, only to exhale sharply when Arthur reappeared. She hurried over to James before he could reach her, wanting to make sure that her best friend was the next one they brought to relative safety.

Even with both of them, it wasn’t easy getting James all the way to the bubble barrier. Their difference in height and strength made it rather awkward despite Arthur clearly doing his best to bare most of the burden. With James safely deposited next to his sister, Sasha took a moment to catch her breath when a ripping sound made her whirl around in alarm.

What she saw wasn’t exactly what she had been expecting. Why was this whole affair turning into a highly drawn out striptease? Wasn't he aware of what a not bad looking, half naked guy walking around did to a teenage girls brain? And anyway, who shredded a shirt just for a hair tie? He was in the company of three girls, and even if two were unconscious at least one of them was sure to have a hair tie on their person.

While carrying Alroy down the passage, she tried very hard not to watch the way his core shifted against the frayed hem of his shirt and the waistband of his trousers with every step. She was concentrating so hard on this that it was impeding her movement, suddenly clumsy feet catching on every uneven patch of floor she had navigated just fine on their first trip. Hopefully she could blame it on exhaustion.

With her own friends out of immediate danger, she trotted after Arthurs much longer strides to deal with his. Aidens condition seemed to have worsened even in the few moments they had left him alone. He looked like someone who had been dealing with a high fever for at least a week. Despite the dislike she held for him, Sasha felt deeply sorry for him in this state. He was hardly recognisable as the guy who had raged at her earlier.

She hung back as Arthur dashed to the dragon mans side, unsure of what she could do. Be a totally useless sentry again she supposed. Despite Aidens voice being barely audible, the deathly silence around them made his words audible even at Sashas distance.

The look in Arthurs eyes as he rounded on her made her actually take a step backwards, fearing that another episode of glowing eyes was coming on, though she wasn't yet grasping what had set him off this time. Not that she had understood that the last time either.

While Aidens next words seemed to calm Arthur, they had the opposite effect on Sasha. She took another step back and shook her head vehemently. "No. Nope, absolutely not. Whatever you did to him must have messed with his head. I don't have magic. I don't want any magic and I certainly don't want to be needed in any sense of the term by him. If you want magic, go wake up Fawn. She's the one for the supernatural, not me."
 

KittyRoid

InTeReStInG
"No one else has a Core," wheezed Aidan.

Arthur scowled, for the first time upset at Sasha. He slowly walked toward her, one step at a time down the stairs. He stopped while still on the stairs, but only three up from the floor. "Sasha, you aren't entitled to refuse. If Aidan dies then all of us are doomed to stay stuck in the place," he threw out his arms, "for the rest of our lives. If he dies then I have no hope of breaking the curse, and the rest of existence will pay the price. Every moment that passes brings Earth and all other realms closer and closer to utter destruction. That's too much for you to even comprehend, right now, and that's okay, but if you have any scrap of human decency you will take my word for it and set aside your pride and anger, at least for now, and help me save this man's life. I have seen things, Sasha. Things that would keep you awake for days, and when you finally did sleep, you wake in the middle of the night for weeks, screaming from nightmares. I know this, because I've lived it, and, frankly, I'm stronger than you are. If you refuse you are dooming everyone you love to deaths so horrible it would curdle your blood if I named even one. I have failed over and over to save the innocents that are drawn here and slaughtered, and the longer the curse upon this estate exists the smaller my chances are to succeed at all."

He roughly gestured at his right arm, where for the first time the moonlight caught on the wide, jagged scars all over his arms, and they stood out like pale lights, all while he glared at Sasha.


"Each and every one on these scars is an eternal reminder to myself that I have failed my duty and humanity and was too late to save the people that died inside these walls. Children, teens, adults, elderly. Every race, every coloring, every height. All of them, Sasha. Every drop of blood, every precious soul that has been lost--I scar my arms to never forget the people I've murdered. If the curse continues my entire body will soon become a testament to my weakness, because they are coming more often. I have lived in this castle for three and a half years, and in the last six months the number of lost lives has doubled what it was in the whole of last year."

He slowly shook his head, his lip curled. "I can't force you to save all of existence, but veils I wish I could. Aidan is irreplaceable, and if he dies, we all die. I can't try to save him alone without killing myself, and that would doom existence just as much as Aidan's death would."



"More so," groaned Aidan. "I'm not the only grumpy dragon with a penchant for sass, but you're the only sorcerer that can save us."


"Shut up, Aidan," Arthur snapped without looking back. "You know no other dragon can do for everyone what you can, so don't try and find reasons to give up and die, because all of them are fallacies."

Aidan chuckled slightly. "Worth a shot."

Arthur sneered as he looked back. "This isn't funny, Aidan."


"Arthur, let me tell you something: if you don't calm down at least a little in the next few moments you're going to lose control and destroy everyone, including yourself, and this time no one will be able to stop you. My attempts at humor are me trying to calm you down. Clearly, it isn't working, so I feel you had better chill on your own, or, as you said, all of existence will be doomed, 'cause this time you aren't going to be alive afterword to beat yourself up."

Arthur's jaw clenched, then he took a deep breath and closed his eyes, bowing his head. He took several, very deep breaths, and each one brought his shoulders down a little bit more. Finally, after seven relaxing breaths, he opened his eyes and looked at Sasha. He was clearly still upset, but he was back in the green zone for losing control. "Nothing will change about this situation expect your choice," he said lowly. "You have magic, and it isn't going to go away. What you want doesn't matter at this point. Now will you allow your pride to get the better of you, or will you help save this man."
 
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Appletree

Resident Fruit Tree
Sasha let the tirade wash over her, growing angrier with every word Arthur spoke. Who was he to determine who she was and what she could or couldn't do? If this was his attempt to persuade her he was going about it the wrong way. Belittling and threatening her was hardly going to help matters.

She was about to burst out in retaliation when Arthur threw out his arms. Sasha flinched at the sight of the thick silvery lines that crisscrossed his skin. How had she not noticed them before? The sight of so many, clearly deep cuts made her feel sick. Shuddering, she looked away, attempting to keep her breathing calm and the contents of her stomach where it belonged.

This occupied her enough that she mostly missed the exchange between the two men on the stairs. Their silence drew her back out of her own thoughts just as Arthur had composed himself enough to talk quietly again. She still refused to look at him, staring resolutely to the right, away from the mage light still hovering at her shoulder, her hair falling forward to further hide her face.

When he fell silent once more, she asked quietly "You really think I could be that shallow? That I could just watch someone die?" Her voice cracked on the last word, "Believe me, if I could, I would help. But that's not possible because I don't. have. magic. I can't. Your magic sniffing dragon is clearly delusional. I'm just a normal human girl. Why should someone like me have magic? If I had had magic, then-" She broke off and then said in a choked sort of voice, "I'm sorry, but you've got the wrong person."

And with that she turned and walked back towards the doorway leading to Arthurs sanctuary, head bowed and shoulders slumped in defeat.
 

KittyRoid

InTeReStInG
Arthur nearly snapped right then and there. She was selfish! Selfish and cowardly and, no matter what she said, was willing to let every creature on Earth and the others realms die. She wasn't even willing to consider that she was capable of helping! Not willing to take a chance and perhaps be wrong. Selfish, cowardly, proud, and determined to be right.


Arthur hissed an expletive that made Aidan chuckle again.


"Who would've thought it would take a girl to sully your tongue. Careful now, or you'll lose your 'sweet innocent goody two shoes who never swears like a man' reputation."


"I'll be back," snarled Arthur, then he raced after Sasha.


Well, he'd show her. He'd show her the truth and she would have to give up her illusion of normalcy. She was special. So very, very special, and she was doing herself a severe injustice to claim ordinariness.


Down the halls he sprinted, using his hand hooked on the wall to tighten his corners. As he ran the flimsy strip of his shirt he had attempted to pull his hair with went flying, and his hair was free again. He caught up to Sasha, grabbed her hand, swooped her into his arms, and kept running, a determined look on his face.


Once they were through his barrier he dropped her feet to the ground but kept a grip on her left hand. Using his teeth, he ripped the ring off his finger, then slid it onto Sasha's left ring finger. Then he slipped his large hand into her hair and grasped the back of her head, his thumb pressed into dip in her neck at the base of her skull. He jerked her forward and pressed their foreheads together. Closing his eyes, he let out a sonorous low hum that should have been out of his range. The note thrummed strangely through both their bodies, traveling first from his thumb on her neck and their connected foreheads, along their bodies and settling in their Cores.


Arthur regripped Sasha's hand, brought it to his abdomen, and pressed the thumb on a spot about an inch above his navel.


Then he did the same motion with his own left thumb on the space closest to her Core while keeping her thumb on him by pressing it still with the fingers of his left hand.


His note changed, slipping high, then low again, then settling in the middle. Arthur felt his Core warm comfortingly, and knew Sasha was feeling the new and strange heat as well. He also felt his Core twitch like it did when he and Aidan communicated magically, and he grinned, eyes still closed.



It was time.


He suddenly thumped both his thumbs against her and breathed a word that Sasha could tell was in another language, but, overlapping and louder, the English word in Arthur's voice caressed her.

"Rise"

Arthur stepped back, grinning broadly, and watched the glowing flower in his ring's colors bloom across Sasha's abdomen.

(but smaller and in the colors of the ring)

He knew she was feeling such a swell of breath-taking pleasure and was internally grateful he knew how to properly activate dormant magic, because the man who had done it for him hadn't done it properly. Arthur had hollered in pain for hours after his activation.

A smaller version of the flower bloomed on the ring and Arthur watched in wonder as glowing tendrils of the vine wrapped around her arms, necks and all over her body like a stunning, glorious tattoo.

The lines shone so bright he could see them through her clothes and he looked away, blushing, before he saw anything he shouldn't.

He wished his awakening had been this amazing. Sasha was feeling ecstasy, and he was more than a little jealous.


Since her awakening was done properly she would never have the problems he had with losing control, no matter how powerful she became. Another reason he was so jealous.


But the jealousy was slight compared to his excitement and joy for her sake. And pride in himself for learning how to correctly activate magic. The procedure was the same for every person, but it was harder for him to master since his magic was forever distorted by the abuse he had suffered. The man had paid for wrongly engaging Arthur's magic by those whose business it was to take care of sorcerers who abused their magic, but the damage had been done, and there was no cure. Everything was harder for him to learn. That's why he carried so much pride in himself and his abilities. Everything he did, everything he learned, took more work than everyone else, but that had never stopped him.


She would feel a certain internal strength that she hadn't felt before, but she wouldn't be able to do any magic yet. She had to be trained for that to be possible, and now that her magic was engaged she could be trained. He wasn't sure how great of a teacher he'd be, but he was jubilant to have the chance.


Now the vines on her body were dimming, then they disappeared, and finally the flowers melted away in a shower of sparkles.

He grinned at her. "I told you you had magic."

He glanced at her left hand. "And may I have my ring back?"
 
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Appletree

Resident Fruit Tree
As soon as Sasha was out of sight, she attempted to bat the glowing gem out of the air, but it stayed stubbornly at her side, zooming back into place no matter how hard she shoved at it.

"Leave me alone!" she growled at it, which of course had even less effect than trying to push it away.
Frustration, anger and quite a few other emotions she wasn't willing to give a name burned fiercely inside her. He wasn't even trying to understand her!

The sound of rapidly approaching footsteps had her dashing away the tears that had managed to leak out of her eyes and readying herself for another confrontation. But Arthur didn't even try to talk to her, instead simply wrenching her off her feet and into his arms as he continued to all but sprint down the passage. All Sasha could do was shriek in surprise and fury and struggle as hard as she could against his strong grip that clutched her to his chest, to no avail.

When she was finally allowed back on her feet, she immediately tried to put as much distance between them as possible, only to be wrenched back by the hand clamped around her wrist. It was exactly like what every woman in the world feared at some point. A guy in a dark alley who wouldn't take no for an answer. Thankfully her life so far had been protected enough that such fears had been unwarranted, but now, with a man who was so clearly stronger than she was looming over her, that universal fear came flooding in full force. He could do anything he wanted to her and she could do next to nothing to stop him.

Still struggling madly against his hold, she only stilled when his free hand found the base of her neck, at which point she went as limp as a kitten being picked up by the scruff. Arthur used this opportunity to step even closer and stooped slightly to press his forehead to hers.

Despite the dim lighting, they were so close that she could have counted his eyelashes if she were so inclined. Needless to say she wasn't. The strange humming he was producing made her quake where she stood and as much as she longed to kick him in the nuts, she still couldn't move a muscle.

Whatever happened next was lost to her, engulfed in a whirlwind of colour and sound. Her ears rang. Every fiber of her body blazed. her vision pulsed gold and purple and in the center of her suddenly tunnel-like vision a huge gleaming flower spiralled, its tendrils reaching to embrace her.

As quickly as it all began, the sensation was over and Sasha was left weak kneed, still trying to process the overwhelming sensations she had just experienced. A tiny fragment of that blazing power, that had radiated more than just warmth, but also joy, hope, confidence and serenity among many many other things, was still there, nestled beneath her heart, but it was nothing in comparison to all the darkness surrounding it. Darkness that Sasha had been fighting to keep at bay since the front doors had slammed shut, locking them into this house. Now, exhausted and dazed, she had nothing left to shield herself with and was all but consumed.

She gave Arthur as hard a shove in the chest as she could muster. “Havent you ever heard of common courtesy? Of something called consent?” She spat, before her legs gave way and she collapsed to the ground in a heap and started sobbing.
 

KittyRoid

InTeReStInG
Arthur was utterly bewildered. This was not the response he had expected. Not even a response that should be felt when dormant magic was brought to life. Sobbing after all that pleasure didn't... make sense.

"Uh..."

Well, of course he'd heard of common courtesy. He practiced it daily! And consent? Of course! He wasn't a pushy man! At least... not normally.

But there hadn't been time! And what other option did he have?

His own magic was stronger now, after awakening hers. He hadn't stolen any from her, but magic was a strange substance. The force and glory of breathing life into a new sorcerer was good for everyone that engaged in the process. It still wasn't full, but he wasn't running on fumes.

He blinked down at her, then slowly lowered himself to the floor a couple feet from her quaking form, his long legs folding down and around until he was sitting cross-legged. He tilted his head a bit to the side like a curious puppy and looked at her.

He could no longer press her to help him save Aidan. Tears were harder to assuage than anger was. Gentleness was required now, no matter how little time they had.

He spoke softly. "Sasha..." Well, he couldn't say he was sorry he'd done it, because he wasn't. It had HAD to be done, whether or not she was willing. "I... I'm sorry you feel so distressed. It... I... That wasn't the reaction I was expecting and..."

Suddenly he stilled and his eyebrows shot up. Ohhhh no.

"Sasha, did that not feel good?" He felt kind of awkward asking such an intimate question, but if he'd somehow done it wrong then he had to know. And he would apologize. Profusely and passionately and on his knees pleading for her forgiveness, even though he'd ruined her.

"It was supposed to feel good--amazing, actually. But if you felt pain..."
 
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Appletree

Resident Fruit Tree
Sasha was almost as bewildered by Arthurs questions as he was by her reaction, though there was no change in her demeanor other than a hardly noticeable shake of her head.

Yes it had felt good. So much so that it had almost come full circle and become too much to bear. But it already felt like nothing more than a distant memory, eclipsed by the rush of fear, worry and so many other negative emotions that had filled all the space inside her that had briefly been illuminated by what Arthur had done to her. Having had that moment of bliss without anything weighing her down made dealing with everything infinitely more difficult now.

She wished he would just leave, but was also grateful for his mostly quiet presence beside her as she cried. Perhaps the unstoppable tears were a subconscious effort to give herself a moment of time and space to rebuild some semblance of the barriers and shields she had placed around her innermost self over the years and that had been blasted apart by the magical fire he had ignited. For she had realised what he had done by now; what that new spark inside her was. She also understood that there was no going back.

"You had no right to do that." Her voice was hoarse and hardly more than a whisper, but surprisingly calm despite the sobs that still made her shoulders shake. When she finally lifted her head from her arms, her face was as calm as her voice despite the tear tracks and puffy skin. Her eyes however gleamed like dark moonstones.
 

KittyRoid

InTeReStInG
Her shake of her head was confusing. Was it a shake of “no that felt good” or shake of “no that didn't feel good”? He had no way of knowing without asking her, but, before he could do more than open his mouth, she spoke, accusing him of invasion when he knew he hadn't had a choice to do otherwise.


But he couldn't tell her that. Not if he wanted to be kind.


So he decided to ignore what she had said and try not to allow himself to stare stupidly into her eyes. They were dark and glistening, like his eclipse moonstones in the black chest, tucked away so Aidan wouldn't find them. The magic he was putting into them Aidan wouldn't be thrilled about, so he kept then tucked far away from the dragon's normal prowling grounds. Arthur felt drawn to her eyes like he was to his dark stones. Mesmerized. But now wasn't the time for attraction, so he stopped himself, instead saying quietly,


"You don't need to be scared. Magic isn't scary—it's beautiful. Don't worry, Sasha. I'll be right by you, helping you understand and develop your magic. It'll be my utmost honor. I know a lot has happened to you tonight, and I'm sorry about that, but you're strong. You're strong, and you're brave, and you aren't alone. I know this place, and I know it well. With me by your side, you needn't fear the dark, because I can name the dark, and it fears me. "


Now, not all of this was strictly true. Arthur didn't know every inch and every danger in the manor, but he knew and had faced all the monsters in it. And, just because most of them knew not to cross him, it didn't mean they feared him. Many did, but not all.


But when you're trying to soothe a sobbing girl, who's gone through a lot of junk in the last hour and doesn't know what's going on, you glaze over the more unhelpful details.
 
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Appletree

Resident Fruit Tree
While the little part of her that curled protectively around the spark agreed wholeheartedly with Arthurs sentiment about magic, the rest, rapidly recovering behind makeshift protections of bravado and scorn, scoffed. Why was he talking poetic nonsense? Did he expect her to go all gooey eyed and throw herself at him in her womanly weakness? He talked as though he had come straight out of the last century. ‘Utmost honor’ and ‘the darkness fears me’ indeed. Would he like an extra side of drama with that?

Looking away from his oddly intense gaze, she caught sight of James and the others still lying unconscious on the floor. The sight reminded her of what they were actually there for and her eyes hardened in steely focus.

“I didn’t ask for you to do any of this and I don’t need your help. You’ve been trying all this time to get mine, so let's just get that over with so you can get us out of here and I don’t have to deal with you any more.”

Yes, distancing herself from him sounded like a very good plan, especially after this new development. It also had the added bonus that she wouldn’t have to avoid looking at his arms all the time just to prevent herself from throwing up. Though Arthur couldn’t know it, the sight of the scars on his skin was one of the things highest on the list of things she quite simply could not deal with right now, if ever.

She stood up and swiped at her cheeks, though it did little to dispel the evidence of her breakdown. Without waiting for the sorcerer, she marched towards the foyer again for what felt like the tenth time. Time to see what the dragon guy wanted from her, if he was even still alive to tell them.
 

KittyRoid

InTeReStInG
Well, at least she's going to help save Aidan. But it's step one in a very long list, and I need her every step of the way. There's no way she can avoid me, because I'm the only thing that'll be keeping all of them alive. And I'm pretty sure the reason it's taken three years of fruitless labor to even piece the whole story together is because I had no help. I can find ways to protect all of them, and those means can probably give me advantages in seeing the whole picture, but I certainly can't break the curse without her specific help. Whatever it'll take, I'll need another sorcerer to help me.

Sasha was hardly the optimal candidate, but she was all he had. He'd have to make do, and that would include finding a way to convince her that she needed to have strong magic and that he was the only one who could teach her. He wasn't sure how he was going to do that, nor what it'd take to save Aidan. He needed her to be fully cooperative and willing to do whatever it took, and, the way it was looking right now, that seemed to be a juvenile fantasy.

Maybe telling her that the only way she could save her friends was to save Aidan, and also that she was the key for freeing all of them, but not without developing magic. If she never touched her magic Core after they escaped then that was fine with him. It wasn't his place to tell her how to treat her newly found magic. The muscle didn't need to be stretched, so however powerful she became within these walls wouldn't fade, but it wasn't like she didn't have a choice as to how she would behave afterward. If she wanted to continue with her studies, he'd be more than willing to help her move to a magical community, adjust to it, and set her up with a teacher. If she didn't want to have anything to do with her magic then it wouldn't effect her life at all. She could continue to live as though she didn't have magic, which would be such a shame and disappointment, and nothing would change.

Using magic was a conscious choice. A spell was required—she wouldn't just pop off... as long as he hadn’t muffed her awakening. In which case, she wouldn't have a choice about whether she was going to live an ordinary human life, because that would never be possible.

He bit his lip as he walked beside her. He had to figure out if he'd messed up. If she lost control now she wasn't strong enough to do any damage, but when she became stronger... She won’t get to his level during their time here, especially since his own magic will be growing as he taught her. He had been learning magic since he had been three, and she hadn't known about it until she was... however old she was. He had always been an awful judge of age, but she was at least mostly through puberty.


When they stepped into the foyer a few moments later what Arthur saw made his stomach lurch. Aidan, sprawled on the stairs, looked so bad Arthur didn’t even have the words anymore. He walked toward the stairs, slowly enough to make sure Sasha stayed with him. At least that’s what he tried to tell himself.

Great! I’m a coward!

At the foot of the stairs, he gazed up at the dragon, not wanting to go any closer. He was acting like a little kid, wanting to avoid having to look something gory he was being required to. Aidan wasn’t gory, but his deteriorated state was so horribly wrong it seemed he was gory to Arthur.

“What took you so long?” wheezed Aidan. “Were you making out?”

Arthur turned pink and barely held back his smile. “Of course we weren’t! We wouldn’t!”

“You traitor, I can see you trying not to smile! While I was here patiently waiting for you to get back and save my life, you two were off trading tongues and sharing saliva!”

He looked at Sasha. “He had you against a wall, didn’t he?”

This time Arthur turned scarlet from mortification. He glanced at Sasha out of the corner of his eye then snapped, “Don’t be ridiculous, Aidan! You know me! I have my priorities straight, and saving you has always been at the top!”

“Correction, I knew you. Ever since that girl showed up, you’ve been showing your human like never before, and it’s only the logical part of my brain that’s keeping me from wanting to eat you right now! Now hurry before the only creature that’ll prevent you from askewing your sensibilities and making your lust more important than the lives of everyone that exists will die!”

Arthur’s look turned ugly and rage joined the reasons for his red countenance. “Are you trying to make me lose control, Aidan? ‘Cause if you are, it’s working great. If you don’t want me to snap then you’d better shut up. I’m really pissed you don’t have more faith in me.”

You’re pissed? Excuse me for not filtering the truth out of what I say for the sake of your precious emotions. Pardon me for not placing your desires over my needs for once! I’m dying, Arthur, and, right now, my anger is the only thing that’s holding me back from panicking. More fuel isn’t going to make a difference anymore!”

Then he caught a glance of Arthur’s bare left hand and yelped, “What are you doing without your ring? What made you stupid enough to take it off in the first place?” He quickly found it on Sasha’s hand and sneered at Arthur. “Figures. Of course, it’s her. The only thing that can distract you from what actually matters. Now, put it back on before anyone with an interest in your death—meaning everyone—arrives and takes advantage of your idiocy!”

The gentle way Arthur took Sasha’s hand and pulled the ring off her finger belied the furious look on his face as he did so. He glared at the object in his palm for a second, then his eyes narrowed into slits and, before Aidan could do more than cry, “Arthur, what are— No!”, Arthur had gripped the dragon’s hand and jerked it toward him. He shoved the ring onto Aidan’s finger, the band automatically widening to fit the larger digit.


The reaction was immediate.


Aidan’s spine arched, and his head flew backward, cracking against the marble step. The dragon let out a horrible cry of pain and misery, and Arthur almost paused in indecision. Almost. He barely had the time to grab Sasha’s hand and haul her down the stairs and away from the grotesquely convulsing body, like someone having a seizure, before the first wave of agonizing heat pulsed off Aidan. Arthur hissed an expletive as he felt the hair on his arm singe and burn away and the skin respond just as favorably. He wrapped himself around Sasha, becoming a bodily shield against the waves of heat coursing onto them. If he had had his ring on, then he would’ve been able to cast a spell that would protect them from the scorching warmth, but, as it was, his own protective magic wasn’t enough to save his skin.

A stream of profanities in multiple languages poured from his lips, unintentionally into Sasha’s ear, as the next wave burned his back through the negligible sheet of strained material he was using as a shirt. They needed to get away, to be tucked in someplace with at least a measure of safety when things got worse. But if Sasha was struck with the heat she would be utterly defenseless against the harm. If she was cooperative and learned quickly then she would be able to develop her own slight magical protection soon, but, until then, her skin was as tender as an ordinary human’s, and if he didn’t shield her she would die. Not that he wouldn’t die. If he didn’t get out of the range of the damage soon it would destroy him, as well. But they couldn’t travel at all in this position, and in order to save Sasha’s life they had to stay here.

His mouth was right next to Sasha’s ear, though he hadn’t noticed yet. “Sakra kurva kecy! Come on, Arthur. There must be something you can do. Think.” But it was hard to think when each new pulse was hotter than the previous, each toasting him more and more. He hissed in pain and ducked his head.

He didn’t know if fire was coming, but, seeing as it followed the majority of every heat that the dragon emitted, he thought it likely. Magic was a strange thing, and dragons were also, so he wouldn’t be that surprised if fire could be produced without Aidan making it with his spark. If fire came then they were both thoroughly dead. There must be something!

“Sakra kurva kecy!”

Suddenly, Arthur’s head whipped up and around to stare at one of the black mouths to their left. He paid for it by getting his face singed, but at least he knew for certain now. Another river of multilingual profanities spilled into Sasha’s ear.

Great. Juuuust great.

“This really isn’t a good time,” he growled through gritted teeth to the creature not too far away.

Had he known which monster it was, he wouldn’t have been so upset, but he could only sense their presence and nothing more.

His mind was flailing now. “Ahhh what can I do?” He ended the rhetorical question with a gasp of pain. He had no idea what he could do to help Aidan nor help Sasha and himself, and he doubted Aidan was conscious anymore to be able to offer any guidance.



“GET DOWWWWWN!”

The second necessary for Arthur’s brain to register Aidan’s words and what they meant was almost more time than they could spare, but he dropped down to the ground, bringing Sasha with him. Somehow, she got twisted on the way down and when Arthur landed on toes and elbows over her, to his shock he found Sasha’s grey eyes inches from his.



Had the rugarus leading the staggered supernatural march toward their vulnerable enemies known what awaited her, she would have waited a few minutes before venturing out into the foyer, but what was going on in the other room was unprecedented and she was really very hungry. So as soon as she saw the two humans, her already splintered mind drove every logical thought from her head and she no longer cared about what was in the rest of the room. She let out a ravenous scream, a gurgling shriek that flipped Arthur’s stomach dangerously, and charged them, claws raking the air and massive tongue scattering spit as it dangled from her mouth.

Arthur still hadn’t seen what she was thanks to the curtains of hair that tucked Arthur and Sasha into a little cave. All he heard was the scream. He let his head sag and his eyelids flutter low. He eyes looked into the eyes of the girl beneath him, and their darkness shone full of sorrow and regret. “I’m so sorry, Sasha,” he breathed, sure that they were going to die at any second.

But what happened next neither the woman that had lost her mind from not tasting human flesh for so long nor the sorcerer who thought he had failed everyone and doomed the innocent girl below him to an agonizing death had seen coming.

The corona of fire that had slowly been building around the man hovering horizontally three feet off the ground finally broke free. Like a killer dog finally being loosed from its leash and charging anything that moved with the evil intention of ripping them apart, it ravaged the air toward the three living beings, pillaging the oxygen from the air and using it to grow stronger.

(but BIG and Aidan's floating in the middle.)


The rugarus’s howl of triumph turned into one of shock, fear, and panic. She tried to reverse direction and sprint toward back to her cool passageway, but the scroll of her life had been sealed ever since she had stepped into the foyer. When the fire struck her torso it shredded her entire malformed body, burned the pieces, and sent the remainder billowing into the air as ash.

Arthur gasped in shock. From the fire that passed way too close over his head, the realization that they were alive, and the, most wondrous of all, understanding that Aidan had saved them, again.

Then the fire was gone. Past their bodies and out to the doors, where it burst into an exhibition of sparks against the cursed wood.

Arthur felt Aidan’s body, finally restored to dragon form, crash to the stairs behind him, but he was again captivated by Sasha and couldn’t look away from her face beneath him.
 
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Appletree

Resident Fruit Tree
Sasha felt rather bad when they returned to Aidens side. He looked even worse than before, something she had not thought possible. Her remorse however died almost as soon as he opened his mouth.

Her own jaw dropped in outraged surprise and she nearly turned tail and walked right back the way she had come. He quite obviously didn’t want to be saved. As if she would ever do anything of the sort with him. Arthur could have been the only guy left in the world; with what he had done to her and his attitude the chance of her giving him the time of day was about as nonexistent as the chance of her waking up to find this whole thing had been a dream.

She glanced at Arthur and caught his eye as he looked at her too. His cheeks were quite obviously flaming, and Sasha looked away hurriedly. Was there some truth to what Aiden was throwing at the sorcerers head?
Before she could ponder this anymore, Arthur had grabbed her hand and was pulling the ring off her finger. She let it happen, partly out of surprise at his sudden action, partly because she really didn’t want the thing on her finger anyway and was still puzzling out when it had actually got there.

She watched in confusion as the sorcerer forced the ring onto Aidens hand. Was this part of the whole saving him business? The dragon man's initial reaction didn't look too promising. She didn't get to see how things progressed however, because Arthur was pulling her roughly away.
Oh not again. She thought, as his arms closed tightly around her. Sasha really was getting tired of him grabbing her all the time. Couldn’t he keep his hands to himself? She was not a doll he could tote around and do with whatever he liked. This whole train of thought was all but blasted away by the wave of searing heat that exploded from the dragons convulsing form.

Even somewhat shielded by Arthur's body, Sasha now knew what a turkey felt like when baking in the oven, if it had still been alive at the time. To say it was not a nice feeling was a gross understatement. Over the rush and crackle of the fiery energy pulsing all around them, she could hear her human shield uttering a steady stream of curses; some of which would have made her eyebrows raise in any other situation. She was used to bad language; her father cursed like a sailor when things weren’t going well with whatever car he was working on, but she had never even heard some of the things Arthur was now voicing.

She wanted to ask him what the hell he had done to Aiden, and also why she had been needed if he just wanted to jam a stupid ring on his finger, but the almost physical pressure of the heat all around them made it impossible. All Sasha could do was screw her eyes shut and make herself as small as she could in an attempt to lessen the amount of skin being assaulted with burning pain.

The next thing she knew, there was a roar of sound that might have had some semblance of words at their core, but which failed to register in her ears. A second later she found herself flat on the floor much like earlier, only this time Arthur was the one on top of her. Unable to see anything around them, she didn’t know to be even more scared than she already was when the inhuman shriek echoed through the foyer. She just assumed it was Aiden, possibly in his death throes and the final wash of fire over their heads before the heat vanished seemed to only reinforce that idea. She felt the crash of something huge falling onto the ground reverberate through her and was sure that Aiden was now dead.

In comparison to the searing heat a moment before, the relatively normal warmth of human proximity felt almost freezing cold. She shivered and finally opened her eyes to find Arthur still braced above her, arms forming a cage around her head and that intense look in his eyes again. Sasha looked away quickly, realised that his shirt had been completely burned away and quickly looked back at his face, just in case his trousers had met the same fate. Her own clothes seemed to still be intact, thank goodness.

“Uh thanks, but I think you can get off me now.”
 

KittyRoid

InTeReStInG
Arthur let out a huff, slowly lowered his knees to touch the floor, sat up, and exhaled slowly.

“Ow.”

Suddenly, he shivered violently. It was both from the cold air of the night washing around his bare torso and the cold that was, only temporarily, pulsing from his burned back. Soon the heat would begin, and he needed to have a way to heal himself in safety before it debilitated him.

He carefully levered himself off of her. First hands back down to stabilize himself, then one leg, one arm, and he flipped onto his butt next to Sasha's hips. Letting out an exhausted sigh he lifted tired eyes to the huge beast before them.

Aidan still had his eyes closed, and all his scales were lusterless and bone white. Arthur and Sasha would still need to heal himself physically--somehow--but now, as soon as he got his spark back, he could expunge the fuel ravaging his innards, and everything would be fine… he hoped.

He painstakingly got to his feet and limped over to Aidan. The dragon was still breathing, which was the best thing Arthur could hope for at this point. No smoke was trailing from his flared nostrils, and his breaths were more like heaves.

What was good news was that Aidan was on his back. His legs were sticking straight up like the fainting goats, except he didn't flop to his side and get back up. It would've been comical if the only reason he was on his back wasn't him dying.

First order of business: get the ring back. Arthur wasn't sure if it was even capable of extending to the width of a dragon claw, but he sure hoped it was, because if it was broken… No, he couldn't allow himself to think about it.

He stepped up to Aidan’s tail as it was wrapped around the side of his body. He bit his lip as he looked down. He wasn’t sure this would work--what if Aidan moved and sent him flying or the tail wasn’t as easy to climb as it looked--but he had no other choice.

Putting his arms out to balance, he took the step first onto the scaly tree trunk. He watched Aidan to see if he would react, but he didn’t, and Arthur progressed, step by step, along the tail. When it tilted upward, Arthur used the spines as foot and hand holds and scurried adeptly up the fifteen or so feet until he was close enough to jump and land on Aidan’s ridged belly.

He looked down to see if Sasha was watching him. “That’s how you’ll need to get up here,” he called across the foyer to her. “I’ll give you a hand at the top if you want.” Then he turned his attention to the front left clawed foot jutting into the air like a monstrous pillar.

He carefully navigated Aidan’s heaving underbelly, making sure to hold still when Aidan inhaled so he wouldn’t be caught one footed and lose balance when the great body heaved the infrequent breaths that were the only things giving Arthur assurance that Aidan still lived.

When Arthur accidentally placed his foot on the patch of scaled belly that was nearest to his Core, he gasped and almost went tumbling. The amount of magic coursing through Aidan was breathtaking! More than Arthur had ever realized. Had he been a sorcerer with that much power, he could turn night to day and level the Andes mountain range with a breath.

Then it struck him: if Aidan had this much power and stopping Arthur’s eruption had done that much damage… Arthur paled. When he lost it, his magic must quadruple in strength. It was a miracle he hadn’t destroyed the whole castle! He whipped his head around and looked at Sasha, aghast. If he lost control and she was nearby the sheer amount of magical force coming out of him would disintegrate her. He swallowed. He had to get control of himself. With other humans in the castle in close proximity to him, his closing control was no longer an option.

As if it had ever been okay…

He swallowed again, still staring in alarm at Sasha. Then he shook himself out of it and stepped past the patch and on across the white form. He didn’t need to get within ten feet to realize the ring wasn’t on Aidan’s claw.

His knees gave out, and he collapsed, gaping in horror at the empty claw. It was over. Hopeless. There was nothing. It was all over...

He wobbled to his feet and stumbled the rest of the way along Aidan. He tripped at the end and slid down the dragon’s throat on his back, crashing into the dying beast’s jaw. His back was bloody now, cut on the sharp scales as he slid, but he didn’t care. He felt tears sting his eyes, and he didn’t try to stop them. A few seconds in, he let out a pitious sob.


Suddenly there was a twitch in his Core, and he jerked back, staring at Aidan.


Sparks, you’re pathetic.


“Aidan? You can talk?” Arthur’s voice was croaky.


First off, I don’t know what you said because I can’t hear words anymore. Second off, even if I could hear your words I wouldn’t reply ‘cause they’re probably stupid like “You can talk?” or something else equally dumb. I’m not dead yet, though my body’s giving up. I can’t close my eyes anymore, for one, and they’re getting really dry. Third off, neither you nor I have the time for you to sob like a little girl. Unless you want all of us to die.


The ring’s gon
e, transmitted Arthur. It’s hopeless.


Are you stupid? Art, I can make it again just as soon as I can make fire. And this time it’ll probably be stronger, since my fire’ll be a lot stronger.


You… You can make it again?


You ARE stupid. I just said I can. That is AS LONG AS I CAN BREATH. So hop to it, wizard boy.


How… How can I save you?


The girl doesn’t have a lot of power at the moment,
replied the dragon. So you’ll need to boost it first.


I don’t have the ring. I can’t anymore.



The stream of vitriol that stabbed Arthur made him literally jump. Aidan tore into him for a good twenty seconds before stopping and snarling, How about all the crystals you’ve got everywhere? And maybe the runes? And the CIRCLES you’re always fussing about? Art, you’re magic isn’t limited to your body like mine is. You’re not thinking clearly right now, and I’m not surprised your thin human brain can’t support all that’s going all, but it’s not excusable right now. I need you and the girl to be at your sharpest, so quit being human, and be useful!


Arthur huffed and got to his feet, only to yelp as Aidan howled in his head, GET OFF MY WINDPIPE, YOU DINGUS!


Arthur half jumped, half tumbled off the dragon’s neck and landed painfully on his knees. He hissed a curse and stood.


I’ll give you a running and abusive commentary on my condition while you’re away; I care for you that much.


Thanks, but I’d appreciate it if you skipped the abuse.
Arthur was heading around Aidan’s body now, back toward Sasha.


No way. It’ll ensure you stay on task.


...You know I didn’t delay with Sasha before coming back, don’t you?


I know. You just took too long. But it doesn’t change the fact that, since she’ll shown up, you’ve gotten googly-eyed, sloppy, and too emotional. I wasn’t kidding about fighting the desire to eat you.



Arthur breathed out a laugh and smiled, as he rounded Aidan’s haunch, and Sasha came into view again. I appreciate your strength of will.


You should. I’m also trying hard not to eat the girl.



Arthur smacked the back of his hand against the dragon’s tail lightly and shook his head, grinning.


Did you just HIT me, Arthur Cage? You strike me when I’m DOWN? I'd like to see you try that move once I’m not dying! THEN we’ll see who lands blows on whom!


I look forward to it.


As do I.



By now, Arthur was near enough for Sasha to hear him when he said, “We need to go to my home. We need some supplies before we can save Aidan. You,” hand at bare-chest level he pointed a finger at Sasha, “will need one of my spellbooks to read from, we both need some talismans and charged crystals to boost our power and help with the specialized spells we’ll be casting, and I need the makings for a pretty massive magic circle.” He suddenly shivered. “And I need a new shirt!” He grinned lopsidedly, but his face was shot through with obvious pain, and he winced as he moved his hand around and touched the bleeding burns on his back. Then he smiled apologetically. “But first, I’ll need your help with my back.”
 
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Appletree

Resident Fruit Tree
Sasha scrambled to her feet the moment Arthur had rolled off her and busied herself with brushing herself off thoroughly. It really wouldn’t do for a still hot fiber of what had once been Arthurs shirt to set her overalls on fire. Judging by the state the now destroyed shirt had been in even before meeting an inferno head on, there wasn’t a great supply of clothes to change into should it be needed.

The sight of the dragon flat on its back with all its legs in the air would have been rather funny, had Sasha not known that the milky colouring of it’s scales was not even close to what it was supposed to be. Aiden looked like a ghostly copy of the flaming beast that had jumped them what felt like hours earlier. Sasha would have thought him dead, had the heaving of his uneven breaths not proved otherwise.

Sashas only response to Arthurs words as he carefully scaled Aidens tail was a quick shake of the head. She really didn’t feel like climbing around on a half dead dragon as if it was an installment on a children's playground. Surely whatever Arthur needed her to do could be done from the ground. She moved towards the stair, just so that when he did demand that she follow him up there, she wouldn’t have to shout too loudly to argue with him.

As it was, he did no such thing, picking his way across the lower belly and up to the massive chest. He paused at one point, though Sasha could see no reason for it, then continued out of her sight. She thought she heard a muffled gasp and a thud, quickly followed by a stifled sob. What was going on up there? Still her curiosity was not enough to prompt her to climb up to see.

For a while, she heard nothing, almost long enough to send her looking after all. Before she could make up her mind however, Arthur reappeared around Aidens side, looking -to Sasha amazement- almost cheerful. His following rush of half explained directions left her almost as confused as before. Talismans? Crystals? Magic circles? Why did it have to be her who got roped into all the magic hooha? She was in miles over her head. Probably any one of the others, Bubbles included, would have been better suited for this than her.

Following him back towards whereever his home was, Sasha kept her eyes resolutely on the floor in front of her feet so as not to look at the man striding before her. She wasn't even sure why she was doing it. Usually nudity didn't bother her too much. She had been skinny dipping and played strip poker at parties before without second thought. And while his back looked like someone had used it as a cutting board, she was pretty sure that wasn't what was making her stomach flipflop all over the place. This felt different than the almost crippling nausea the sight of the scars on his forearms provoked in her.

To distract herself from this whole train of thought she picked up her pace to keep up with Arthur and asked, “Hey, could you maybe fill in the woefully uninitiated around here and explain what exactly is going on and why you so desperately need me to help you? You’ve just been going ‘Sasha do this’ and ‘Sasha do that’ without rhyme or reason.”
 

KittyRoid

InTeReStInG
Arthur turned his head to look at her, face surprised, and also worryingly pale. "Oh! Does it seem that way? I-I'm really sorry, Sasha. I didn't know you were so lost. A lot…" he chuckled softly and rubbed the back of his head, "has happened in the last two hours. To both of us. I guess I wasn't able to properly consider how much you don't know and adapt accordingly." He took a deep breath and let it out in a whoosh.

"Said simply: there's a curse on this estate--in particular the castle. In 1908 there was a party being held for Lorelei and Darcy Constantine." He smiled back at her crookedly. "You met them when you arrived. Lovely, folks, aren't they! And on this night, the most powerful of all the monsters in this place. They won't stay away from Aidan for much longer. I banished them back to their territory, but this's their birthday, so it won't last nearly as long as it normally does."

"Anyway, it was the twins' birthday, so when the curse took effect they became the most malignant of the ghosts. Everyone who was there that night--well, all but one," Arthur's face darkened strangely, but then returned to something more pleasant, though still pained, "immediately became ghosts. Ninety-nine percent of all of them had no reason to stay on when they died, so they're tame. And everywhere. They won't attack you, but, if for some reason, you come in contact with one you…" he swallowed with difficulty, looked away, and pointed, without needing to look, at a scar on his arm, "you'll die."

He shook himself lightly. "The problem with the ghosts is that there are hundreds, and they don't need to worry about halls and doors to limit their movement. They can pop out of anywhere, anytime, and, because they're so subdued, it's harder for me to sense when they're near. Previous residents of the castle that had routines. The servants, stablehands, and gardeners, for example, all stay within the regions that they did in life, but the guests of the night wander through every inch of the unclaimed castle."

"What I mean by unclaimed is that each of the denizens has an area within the building that they have claimed and made their territory. Duaibhseach, for example, likes the rooms in the west wing on the ground floor that have the collapsed walls, because whenever there's fog it always goes into the castle through the broken walls, and she likes fog. Neoma, for who knows what reason, likes the stables. I've asked her before, but she's never given me a straight answer." He shrugged. "She's one of the less secretive of the monsters, but she's not without her mysteries."

"I've wondered if it's related to her knowing the bell tower is useful for my breaking of the curse, and she, like all the others, doesn't want me to break it. Of course, she wouldn't tell me if I were right."

Suddenly, he whipped his head around to gaze curiously at Sasha. "I wonder if she'd tell you? She's never had another girl to talk to in this awful place, and she might think she can convince you to sabotage my attempts at breaking the curse, since she knows she can't get anywhere with me."

"Although speaking of going nowhere…" Arthur's brow scrunched, "she might despise you because you are another girl, and she's had me all to herself for three and a half years. She's very territorial and might get jealous since I prefer you over her." He flashed an innocently unaware smirk at Sasha.

"Aidan and I have been working together the entire time I've been here to break the curse, but we haven't been able to even form the whole picture. That's where you and your friends can help! You'll be able to help me more than anyone else, including Aidan, because you are a fellow sorcerer." He smiled at her.

"I'm so glad you're here," he said quietly. "You're our saving grace. Humanity's saving grace. And you don't have to feel like 'The Chosen One' protagonist who's sole responsibility is to save everyone and have more weight on them than they can bear. That's what I've been for the last few years, and I don't recommend that lifestyle!" He said it merrily, as though he were joking, but the way his left hand clenched and ran up and down his scarred arm arm unconsciously proved that that wasn't the case.

Your sarcasm is refreshing.

I wasn't BEING sarcastic, Aidan. Wait, I thought you couldn't hear words?

I can't, but I recognize the internal signs your body is showing.

You know it's shather creepy that you can sense that, right? Doesn't encourage my confidence in you minding your own business and staying out of me.

You think I WANT to feel it? It's only because I'm keeping an open connection with you that I can sense those things. Sensing them gives me as much pleasure as you knowing I can sense them does. Your humanness is unpleasant to experience.


Arthur snorted, then glanced guiltily as Sasha. "Ah--sorry about that. Aidan and I are in an open magical connection and can talk mentally with each other that way. He's being a dragon, as usual, so hating my humanness and all. Hey!" He grinned at her, eyes bright. "You can learn how to make that connection soon, as well! It's simple and easy. I wouldn't expect you to want to have Aidan's voice in your head, but me being able to talk to you silently would be endlessly useful. It has a range, dictated by the strength of your magical Core, so to begin with you couldn't talk to me if I were in the foyer and you were walking where we are, although I could. Soon it'll be possible. Aidan's magical Core is strong enough that he can talk to me when he's at one end of the castle and I'm at the other. And don't worry, only the thoughts that are willfully shared are heard by the other party. Like actual talking." Then his look turned serious. "Oh, and if you really don't want it, then I won't teach it to you. But I'll be honest, that'll put our cause at a brutal disadvantage."
 
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Appletree

Resident Fruit Tree
Sasha tried to keep an open mind as Arthur launched into his explanation. Having always been quite the realist and never having much interest in or patience for any type of fantasy, it was difficult to believe even after meeting beings that should belong in the dusty volumes that filled library shelves.

Quite a bit of his talk went right over her head, but she did her best to listen attentively even as more questions arose with each sentence he spoke. She didn't quite understand his chatter about ghosts and territory. What did stick- though it could hardly count as a real revelation- was that ghosts were not good and should be stayed away from.

His musings about someone called Neoma sparked something in her gut, somewhere close to where he gestured towards when talking about cores. A tightening that she couldn’t place. Why was he telling her this? What was it to her if some other girl wanted to have him, she was welcome to him, no matter his stated preference. How could he just offhandedly say that anyway? He hardly knew her.

The reminder that she was apparently now a sorcerer or a witch or whatever (probably the reason he seemed so interested in her) made her scowl again and the talk about being anyones saving grace, let alone the whole of humanities didn't help at all. She was just a normal girl, certainly not a saviour of any kind and she didn't want to be one either. All she wanted was to get her friends out of here. She almost envied her friends their unconscious state.

Another thing she certainly didn't want was any mental connection to Arthur, or anyone for that matter. It sounded too much like mindreading to her, no matter what he said about it being a voluntary projection. Her thoughts were her own thank you very much. The last thing she needed was for anyone to go rooting around in her head, especially Arthur. His ego was already cocky enough without him knowing what flashed through her brain and body at the sight of his naked torso or that easy smile, misplaced as she thought it was.

When he paused in his chatter, she voiced what seemed to be the most pressing question at the moment. "But what exactly is the curse? What does it do? Also who put it here and why?"
 

KittyRoid

InTeReStInG
Arthur bit his lip and looked down. “That’s… where the confusion comes in. Those are most of the parts of the picture I don’t know. I know what the curse does. It’s simple and terrible and why there can be no delay in breaking it. It…” he took a deep breath and slowly let it out, eyes on the floor beneath his feet. “It irresistibly draws humans to the castle. And…” he shot a look at her out of the corner of his eye, “the monsters. And once anyone steps inside the castle walls they are unable to leave--human or otherwise. There are a few monsters--or as Aidan and the others call themselves ‘supernaturals’--who are outside the buildings, but they can’t leave any more than everyone else.”

“The trick with the monsters is that none of them want to leave. It’s a sanctuary for them. They’re safe here like nowhere else. The monsters whose natural habitat doesn’t align with a human manor either adjust or find a way to change it. Yuki-Onna has filled her territory with snow. I’ve no idea how. She won’t talk to me, though I know she can when many other monsters can’t. Rusalka has found a way to transform her hall into a fresh water lake. I really want to know how, but she’s never let me get close enough to ask without trying to kiss me.” He squished up one side of his face in perplexed vexation. “Frankly, it’s agitating. And it doesn't make any sense to me. Like…” he snorted softly, ever the unaware Adonis, “me? But I guess if you have no one better to try and seduce…” he shrugged and made a face.

“I’ll have to give James and the other boy talismans to protect them from all the different seducers. There’s a different method for each, and without the appropriate time to teach them the tricks and give them a proper run down, the talismans will help dilute the seduction.” He looked down at her seriously. “I’m going to need your help, as well as the help of the other girls to prevent the boys from being drawn. Some of the draws are very, very strong, and Kitsune likes to travel. All the Tricksters wander in some measure, but Kitsune is very… curious. And courageous. And clever, like the fox she is!” Arthur let out a sharp laugh and threw up his left arm. “She’s very astute, and if you make her happy she’ll help in some way, but she won’t be happy with any of you. She’s been fifty years without any human sex, and she finally has vivacious, zealous mates within her own home, but she’s prohibited from that release… oof she’ll be violent.” He puffed his cheeks, eyes flicking around in silent contemplation.

“This’ll be a lot more complex than I had first realized. I’ll need to make some lists. To begin with, hopefully only the first day, maybe more, my focus can’t be on you and your friends. I’m going to have to do my rounds and get a grasp on the individual response of the denizens. Also to tell them to stay back, to my limited capacity. Aidan will be in his coma for a record span, which means he won’t be able to use his sway to keep them back. All of the monsters will want you either dead or enslaved, but I’ll be using my rounds as a diagnostic tool to know what I should be most mindful of.”

“I know we don’t know each other, but I trust you to keep your friends safe while I’m gone. I can teach you some easy command words like,” there, again, Arthur said a word in an unknown language but in a honeyed undercurrent the English rang threw, “close and,” once more, “lock” he continued, “that’ll help you in your efforts. Although, depending on the temperaments of your friends, it might not help any friendships.” He slashed a smile at her. “As for trusting you…” he heaved a wary sigh and stopped walking. Then he turned to face her and caught her eyes, holding them with the import of his next words.

“You’re intelligent. Therefore it would be an affront for me to beat around the bush and soften the truth. So I’ll tell you straight up, and I know you feel the same way; I don’t know you nearly enough--nor you, I--you say with certainty that I can trust you. But we share the same goal, and we have to work together to achieve it. It’s going to be a bumpy ride, but I’m literally unable to break the curse without you. Had I been able, it would’ve happened long long ago. I believe I can trust you--even if we weren’t trapped here together I would trust you--and I know you can trust me, so the question is…” He put out his left hand, palm up, elbow straight--exposing his tender inner arm and the blue veins that kept him alive.

It was a sign of openness... faith... vulnerability... And an ancient one. Very few places in all of the human world would recognize the gravity of his gesture fully. Although here, in the castle, where time sometimes seemed to slow and get mixed up, for the humanoids it was the ultimate symbol of trust. Showing the belief that the Offered wouldn’t slit the Offerer’s wrist, when it was right there... inches away... the perfect time to strike down your foe... was everything. And it was Arthur’s first instinct when faced with the options to prove his faith in a way Sasha would understand.


As the trees outside softly applauded Arthur’s courage, the moonlight, waltzing across the walls and floor, shone upon his skin and face. The crimson edges of the cape of damage Arthur had endured peered over his shoulders and around his torso, ready testaments of what the sorcerer unfalteringly underwent for a complete stranger. His dark eyes, unsettlingly deep, were like a midnight pool the color of warm cloves; fathoms deep with husky, hidden mysteries and secrets awaiting only the being determined and caring enough to brave the dark and the silence and behold the treasures on the floor of Arthur’s soul. The two pools of biting sweet secrets were fixed on Sasha’s face, focused in as though trying to spy her soul like his could be glimpsed in tantalizing flashes. The crescents under his eyes--betraying any feeble illusion of nights spent full of the rich sleep this man deserved--were especially apparent as the fluctuating light cast shadows from his eyelashes down to them. His dark eyebrows were pulled together earnestly, lips puckered softly in intense sincerity.

When he spoke it was soft and solemn, “Do you trust me?”
 
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Appletree

Resident Fruit Tree
Oh great, so even he didn’t really know much about the whole curse thing. How were you supposed to break something you knew so little about? She tuned out a bit of his chatter about various weird sounding people or things. Yuka-what? Russian dolls? She was almost starting to wish she had paid more attention to Fawns constant goings on about the supernatural, or been more of a nerd. The latter option was the less grueling one, not that she really wanted that either.

She caught enough of his further expositions to gain a rather vivid mental image of James fending off a horde of harem girls intent on seducing him and had to choke back a laugh, especially when the image was expanded to include Jeanine with what looked like her camera bag raised over her head, threatening physical damage if anyone touched her little brother.

Almost subconsciously, Sasha found herself silently repeating the words Arthur had uttered, trying to copy the tone and pronunciation. Catching herself at it, she scowled and shook her head quickly. Berating herself, she almost missed what he said next. Only when he stopped walking did she pull her whole attention back on him.

Though Sasha partly understood the almost primitive meaning of his gesture, her urge to flinch away from the offered hand overrode it. The moonlight brought the silvery scars on Arthurs arm into sharp relief once more and she quickly looked away, swallowing heavily.

His quiet question made her head snap back towards him, steel grey locking onto warm brown. For a few seconds she searched his gaze and when she answered her voice was as blunt as her eyes.

"No. I don't trust you. At least not in the way you are asking me to. I'm sorry.”
She took a deep breath and continued, not even sure why she was making the attempt of explaining.

“You turned up out of nowhere and I know next to nothing about you or your motives. Yes you got rid of the ghosts for us and I am thankful for that, but you also brought along Aiden, who only made things worse.

"Now you're treating my friends like an afterthought since dumping them in a corridor. It's not that I don't understand that, your dying dragon friend takes precedence, but you are completely ignoring that they are the most important thing to me right now as you drag me all over the place as you see fit. I would be just as much of a sideline burden if I didn't apparently have magic and be of use to you.

"Which brings me to the heart of the matter. You did things to me that I specifically asked you not to. I don't care what your reasonings were. You forced something on me completely against my will."

Here Sasha had to pause for a moment to reign in her temper. Shouting at him would hardly help their understanding.

"That goes against every possible semblance of trust. I have no way of knowing if you will do something like it again and if you do I have little chance of stopping you. Trust is very difficult when you are at such a disadvantage.
So you are going to have to deal with the fact that I don't trust you. I already said I would work with you, within reason, and I keep my word. That will have to be enough for now."

She turned and walked on, and if her rather rigid posture wasn't enough indication that she thought this conversation over, the words she threw back at him certainly should be.
"Don't we have a dragon to save?"

Under her breath she added, “And a shirt to get you.”
 

KittyRoid

InTeReStInG
Arthur visibly winced as her painfully true words carved into him. She was right. Completely right in all but three respects. Aidan had already been there, he and Arthur weren’t friends, and, of far more importance: he cared more intensely for Sasha and her friends than she could ever understand. It was due to this dedication that saving Aidan’s life was, for the moment, the higher priority.

But yet…

When she had completed her tirade and walked on, Arthur took a few steps back and pressed himself against the wall, teeth clenched, eyes squeezed shut, and face toward the ceiling. He had been such an ass. She was right: he had forced upon her her magic and, no matter the need and urgency, it had been wrong. He didn’t deserve her trust. He had done things to guarantee her distrust, and he had earned every biting word she had thrust into him.

What happened?

The voice was so gentle it was difficult to believe it was Aidan’s.

Arthur didn’t reply.

Arthur?

Eff off, Aidan.


Aidan didn’t press, which surprised Arthur, but the surprise was muted by the crushing self-hatred that was pounding him into the floor.

He opened his eyes to stare at the ceiling, and found his vision blurry with tears. Slashing them away with one hand, he followed after Sasha. When he reached her, he remained parallel, with many feet of distance between them. Any right he had once had to walk in front of or near her hadn’t existed since he had broken one of the most fundamental rules of trust by invading her boundaries and pressing her magic onto her.

Any apology, no matter how genuine, would seem shallow and distasteful right now. He hadn’t earned her forgiveness, if he ever possibly could.


When her friends, still unconscious and slumped against the wall, came into view Arthur finally made his decision.

I’m not going to come straight back, and if you try to convince me to, I’ll sever the connection.

At first, silence.

Arthur, I trust you. Whatever you are going to do, I know you have a good reason for it, and I won’t argue. But, please, Arthur, be careful and conservative. It’s only by my magic that I haven’t lost consciousness, and every drop of magic you use now is going to hinder your ability to heal me.

I know. That’s why I’m going to perform Oubastet’s Ritual.

Arthur, no! That could kill you!

Another word of dispute and I’ll sever the connection.


Aidan didn’t reply.


So it was when Sasha and Arthur reached the other humans and the dog that Arthur whirled on Sasha, eyes fiery. “You’re right. I haven't earned your trust, and I've shown myself unworthy. So I won’t ask for it now. But I still need to tell you that I’m going to do something very dangerous. It’ll be disturbing to watch, so I advise you avert your eyes. I’ll be in a lot of pain, as well, and I’m not strong enough to prevent myself from screaming, so I also suggest you block your hearing. If I hadn’t proved myself an untrustworthy bastard I would cast the cantrip that saved your ears from Aidan’s roar, but I have absolutely no right to do any such thing, so I can do nothing to aid in blocking the noise.”

Without waiting for a response, Arthur marched resolutely to one of the brackets holding the scarlet candles that lit their way, reached in, burning himself with the magical fire on the way--however making no response--and pulled the candle out. Holding it with both hands, he shut his eyes, bowed his head, and began a spell.

Immediately, Sasha knew something was wrong. This spell wasn’t right, she could just sense it. The words Arthur spoke didn’t automatically translate themselves into English, and the words themselves were ugly, savage words that gave her Magic Core sharp tingles. Arthur himself had broken out in sweat as soon as he had started. His eyebrows were quaking in pain, though his voice wasn’t wavering.

The spell continued, and the tingling in Sasha’s Magic Core increased.

Abruptly, a bolt of scarlet lightning from nowhere struck the candle and when the light was gone Arthur now held in his hands… a knife. The blade and hilt were a red metal so dark it almost seemed black. Vermilion magic writhed across the blade, winding around, over, and into the cruel runes carved into it. A nauseating sight.


Arthur, still chanting the wicked words, began to draw the knife down his inner arm, starting at the elbow, slicing slowly through the scarred skin toward his wrist. A thin seam of blood sprang up as the knife moved. But the knife suddenly spasmed in Arthur’s grip and began to move faster, finishing the cut on his right and springing from Arthur’s grasp to draw a symmetrical line on the other arm.

Arthur winced as the blade, moving on it’s own volition free from his hands, traveled down to his chest and began carving a line, then a pattern on the sorcerer’s torso. The pattern was an ornate and unsettling circle, the focal point being the space closest to his Core, very close to his navel.


When the main circle had finished and smaller details were being formed, Arthur, eyes squeezed tight shut, turned his arms down and his blood began to drip onto the floor. A disproportionate amount of red life began to come from the slits on his arms, quickly shifting from drops to patchy sheets spattering onto the wood below their feet.

The blood, which should have splattered and remained still, instead beaded like liquid mercury and slid across the floor in droves like industrious ants, rapidly forming a larger version of the arcane circle on Arthur’s body. Once all the beads of blood were in place, they collapsed, completing the circle.

As soon as this was done, Arthur flipped his arms over and held them out at shoulder level. The volume of his chanting increased, and the bloody circle began to glow, filling the hallway with ghastly crimson light. Arthur’s face, lit and shadowed from the light below him, looked ghoulish. A gradually-building, swirling current of wind set Arthur’s hair spinning, and his voice rose to match the howling wind.

Then Arthur’s eyes popped open. They were glowing red.

And

He

Screamed


This shriek was different from the shriek when Aidan had absorbed all of Arthur’s out-of-control magic to save everyone. That scream had been of pain. This cry was of pain and grief and decimation of something indispensable.

And it lasted…

Far longer than his throat should have managed the howl broke the veil.

More cries began to sound around the castle, and these cries were of devil predators rejoicing, ringing together in a dizzying cacophony of wicked triumph. Bubbles jerked awake and added her howl of terror to the mess.

Suddenly a voice was roaring in Sasha’s head.

Sasha, stop hiiim!

Arthur briefly lifted off the floor, and his inhuman cry reached a fever pitch. Then he dropped. Hitting the floor, folding, and landing face-first on the wood. The arcane circle had mysteriously disappeared, as had the cuts on his inner arms, which were visible.

He was still for only a moment before getting to his feet, his eyes still solid red and his face flat and expressionless. The cuts on his torso were also gone.

He’s done this for you, Sasha, spat Aidan in Sasha’s head. I hope you’re happy.

Arthur turned and walked to the row of unconscious humans, lifted a hand, and now so powerful a spell wasn’t needed, wordlessly levitated the four teens. He began walking, the bodies rotating to vertical and moving so there were two on each of his sides.

Sasha, I don’t particularly care what you want--it’s not in my nature--but I care about Arthur’s state of well-being, and right now I’m unable to do anything to help. What he’s done to himself was incredibly stupid, but I know why he did it. Whatever you did to hurt him enough that he would even CONSIDER performing Oubastet’s Ritual… he sighed in her head. It doesn’t matter, anymore. But you should know, going forward, that Arthur has been without other humans for three and a half years, and he’s overjoyed to be around you. He cares fervidly about you and the other humans to an insupportable point where he will do anything for you. Such as endanger himself, as he's doing now. He’s survived the casting, but he's so far gone I’m no longer able to communicate with him, which is a truly terrifying thing. And I'm a DRAGON. You're the only being in this entire estate able to move that doesn't want him dead, so it's up to you to save him. Oubastet’s Ritual is a spell so dark it’s a wonder he hasn’t died, because the ritual requires vile twisting of magic to reach into the Darkest Realm for power that should never be held by humans. His magic is already tainted--I’ve no idea what effects he’ll suffer after the spell has ended.

We need you to run get a ring in Arthur’s office. It’s through the door on the right when you reach the split. The ring’s going to be floating in a pillar of magic on the small table in the middle of the room. The magic won’t hurt you; it’s there to strengthen the ring and keep it pure. Put it on the forefinger of Arthur’s left hand. Hopefully he won’t fight you, but the magic he’s channeling from the Darkest Realm has made him unpredictable. Whatever it takes, GET THAT RING ON HIM. The stone will turn black, as it should. He’ll recover sufficiently as soon as the stone turns opaque. You have a decent soul, so I suspect that assuring you Arthur WILL die if you don’t get the ring on him is sufficient motivation. Do you understand?



 
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