Appletree

Resident Fruit Tree
Sasha didn't mind the silence as they walked on. Perhaps her tirade had actually gotten through his obviously thick skull this time. She sure hoped so. He needed to learn that he couldn't just do as he liked. Being mostly alone or around others with skewed morals - people eating dragons for instance- would probably do that to a person.

When he pulled forwards and wheeled around to face her, she first thought he was going to explain what they were going to do to help Aiden. Perhaps he had only been waiting till they got past his protections. What he did say and do had her more than confused. They wanted to help Aiden, not cause anyone more damage

The moment Arthur bent his head over the candle and power rose around him in an almost palpable wave, Sasha took a stumbling step backwards. This was wrong. “I’m not-” She began, but was cut off as Arthur's voice rose with ugly incantation. Everything in her screamed that this needed to stop. The little glowy magic bud inside her felt like it was fighting to get away from Arthur. It seemed to crackle and hiss in angry protest like a wet log thrown in a fire. It was enough to make her take another step backwards.

Sasha flinched as the red lightning struck, not quick enough to shield her eyes from the flash. Blinking rapidly, the sight that awaited her when her vision cleared was enough to make her stomach drop to subterranean levels and the bile rise in her throat alarmingly. She could only watch, frozen in horror and fear far greater than anything she had felt so far that night as the knife dug its way through Arthurs skin. She wanted to jump forwards and wrench the knife from his hands, throw it far far away and whack some sense back into him, but was simultaneously unable to move. By the time the second cut was done, her knees had given way and she collapsed into a shivering heap.

The jolt of her body hitting the ground at least freed her voice.
"Arthur! Stop! Please!"
She got no reaction. In desperation, she shouted the only other thing she could think of. "Lock!"
At the sound of the word, the magic light bubble inside her pulsed and flared, warming her from the inside out. But just as quickly as it had appeared, the spark vanished again, leaving no visible effect behind. Arthur was still undeterred.

She tried several more times, calling out, trying to get his attention. With each attempt her voice grew feebler and her words nonsensical, till all that escaped her were whimpers as she backed away from the pool of blood forming at Arthurs feet. When her back hit the wall, she curled into the smallest ball she could and sobbed silently into her arms.

If Aiden could do more than project the sound of his voice into Sashas head, he would immediately notice the irrational feelings whirling around inside her like a typhoon, far worse than the immediate situation, bad as it was, called for. Panic, fear, a feeling of worthlessness and crippling sadness, resentment, loathing and so many others all mixed into a cocktail that reduced the usually confidant and snarky woman to little more than a helpless 5 year old child.

Aiden's voice roaring through the chaos in her mind was only just enough to shock her out of her almost catatonic state. Raising her head just enough to blurrily make out her surroundings, she half expected to see the dragon man standing over her. A moment later she realised this must be the magic telepathic communication Arthur had mentioned. In any other situation she would have been pissed. What was it with men and boundaries in this place?

It was only now that she realised that Bubbles had miraculously woken up and was pressing her shaking body against her side. She wasn’t sure if it was more for the dogs comfort or her own. Either way, she was immensely glad she wasn’t completely alone in this fiasco anymore.

I didn't ask him to do that! I would never ask anyone to do anything of the sort! Sasha wanted to snap at Aiden, but didn't know how. The dragon however was still talking, once again blaming her for everything. Between the blame there was some information though, so Sasha listened. Aiden hadn't even finished when she was already launching herself to her feet. With a cry of "Bubbles heel." she dodged around Arthur and his floating burdens and dashed down the corridor as fast as she could, not bothering to check if the dog was actually following her.

Skidding around a corner, she spotted a door and praying it was the right one, slammed against it. It took a moment of unfruitful hammering against it until she realised that it wasn’t locked, she was just trying to push open a door that was meant to be pulled. Wrenching it open, she flew over the threshold and tugged the door shut behind her. Even such a feeble barrier was better than nothing. She leaned against the wood, panting, internaly bemoaning her lack of fitness.

A sneeze nearby had her leaping to the side and almost crashing into a table in shock, but it was only Bubbles, who had heeded her call, apparently managing to slip into the room with her despite the speed at which Sasha had slammed the door.

“Oh Bubbles.” She choked out, kneeling next to the shaggy dog and burying her face in the warm fur as she hugged her fiercely. She knew she didn’t have time for this, but sorely needed it right now.

“I’m sorry to drag you from your master.” She whispered into the large pointed black ear. Even if Bubbles didn’t understand her, Sasha took comfort from the doggy smile and warmly gentle brown eyes and managed to get back to her feet.

Looking around, she was relieved to find that this room seemed to be the right one. At least it looked sort of like a wizardly office, not that she had much of an idea how such a place was supposed to look like. All the walls were covered in shelves, overflowing with books, scrolls and various other items. There was not just one desk, but several tables, each of them just as full as the shelves. Everything was illuminated by the glow of a fire in the hearth and even more candles. Candles she now eyed suspiciously.

A second sweep of the room found what she was looking for. Approaching the little round table and the pillar of orange light that emanated from it, or rather the seal carved into the wood, she supposed, Sasha had to question Arthur's jewelry choices. Much like the ring he had forced first on her finger, then on Aidens, this one was similarly gaudy, though the stone in the ornate setting was clear this time.

She simply stood looking at it through the haze of the magic surrounding it, until a whuffle from Bubbles, who was posted by the door, made her take a deep breath and attempt to snatch the ring from its floating position.

As Aiden had predicted, she met no resistance whatsoever. Having put too much force behind her motion in preparation for some form of opposition, she managed to not grab the ring, but knock it clear out of the air. It sailed in a glittering arc through the air and towards the table nearest the fireplace.

“Nonononono” Sasha hissed, pelting after it, nearly tripping as she rounded the table. After a quick cursory glance at the floor around her, she began shifting things around on the desk frantically. She paid little heed to what she was pushing out of the way in her search, sending a stack of papers cascading to the ground and knocking over several jars and bottles, most of which were thankfully tight shut.

So caught up in her search, she didn’t notice that Bubbles had padded away from the door and back to her side, or rather under the table she was just short of upending in her panicky state. The dog gave a rather polite sounding wuff, obviously a plea for attention. Sasha paid it no mind. Again Bubbles wuffed and was ignored. After a short pause she shuffled out from under the table and nosed at Sasha's side. This having just as much effect as her attempts before, she pawed carefully at the fabric of Sashas overalls.

“Not now Bubbles!”

But the dog continued to paw at her leg. When Sasha finally did look down at the whining dog, ready to snap at her again, it was to see Bubbles give her a rather hurt look before ducking her head and opening her jaws. From between the long canines, the elusive ring rolled out, coming to a neat landing between Bubbles’ large front paws.

“Oh you amazing creature!” Sasha could have kissed the dog, who was looking up at her in a rather proud manner. Unfortunately that would have to wait until later. Completely ignoring that the ring was now covered in doggy saliva, she scooped it up and with it held tightly in her fist, headed back to the door. Bubbles immediately trotted after her.

At the door, Sasha paused, listening intently. Hearing nothing from the corridor, she cracked the door open and peered out. Nothing on that side of the hall. Half expecting to meet Arthurs glowing red eyes on the other side, she pushed the door open enough to peer around it to the rest of the hallway. There was nothing there. Where had Arthur gone? He had been headed in this direction when she had passed him.

Slipping fully into the hall, she closed the door to the office and bit her lip in worry, glancing down each side.
“Bubbles, we need to find Arthur.” She implored to the dog, desperately. Who knew what he was doing to her friends even now. Then she realised that Bubbles had only seen Arthur for a moment and wouldn’t know the name belonged to him anyway. Her eyes darted around the hall as she thought hard. When her eyes caught on one of the candles, the little sputtering flame reminded her of someone with a similar hair colour. Of course!

“Find Alroy!”
 
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KittyRoid

InTeReStInG
Just as those words passed Sasha’s lips, Aidan’s voice came again, in her head.

I sure hope you’ve found the ring, because if Arthur keeps going he’s going to—

Suddenly there was a horrible noise in her head. A wheezing dragon scream, full of misery and terror.

Okay, Aidan’s voice was quieter and harder, raspy and hateful. Arthur’s gone up the spiral stairs past the unevenness in the floor farther down the hall than that door to his study. The stairs are accessed by saying the magic word for open, but since I don’t know the magic of sorcerers I can’t help you with that. On the desk by the fireplace there is a stack of papers full of messy scrawls. Those are some of Arthur’s notes, specifically the ones he’s using to make his personal grimoire. The paper should be somewhere near the top, and, unlike all the newer pages, it’ll be covered in magic doodlings. As long as you can keep the top of the stack separate from the rest it should be easy to find.

In the middle of that paper, written in MY blood, because Arthur got sloppy and ran out of ink, will be a word in Arthur’s magic language. Stare at it. It'll change to English or something. Arthur was the one who activated your magic, so your magics are linked. It’ll probably be some silly word that reminds Arthur of his life before getting trapped. The thing that resonates most with him. Read it with your MAGIC; you're supposed to be able to cast it then. Then you should be able to open the passage to the stairs.

Once you’re up, turn right, run until the walls start being lined with suits of armor, and head down the stairs on your right. That hall will dead end, and through the double doors on the right you’ll find Arthur.

Quick now! If you want to keep your friends alive, wake Arthur up!



((For your sake I’ll describe what the page looks and what she sees while she’s going.))

The piece of paper was indeed covered with doodles and the messy handwriting was hard to make out, especially in the multicolored firelight. One side of the page was actually the final instructions for a gruesome recipe involving the unspeakables of several fowl and mammals. Clearly Arthur was willing to pass up that particular delicacy and put the parchment to better use. It was the reverse side that had the interesting things.


***

When Sasha reached the irregularity in the floor, it was only thanks to Bubbles that she didn’t fall, because it was large enough that it was actually a trip hazard. It ran from the window to the opposite wall, and it could be made out that the inconsistency was actually a seam—or rather it had once been—all the way around the walls and ceiling. Like an earthquake had broken the foundation of the castle and created the rift, but it had been sealed rather well on the walls and ceiling.


Once she was able to really look at the paper it became immediately clear that much of the writing was cramped and illegible. Still, there were some things that could be read--although they were scratched out. There would be a word in English and right below it there was another word, presumably in Arthur’s personal magic script. There was “PBJ” “Lightbulb” “Advil” “Desperation” “Orange” “Tissues” “Dawn” “Singing” “Nightmare” “Grass” “Dishwasher” “Firefly” “Lasagna” “Tired” and others that simply couldn’t be made out. They were all scratched out, except one. Right in the middle of the page. Written in a dragon's battlelust-crimson blood. The word Arthur Cage most resonated with.

The magic characters shimmered into her mind and settled comfortably, the meaning of the word becoming clear just as a crack of genuine lightning whipped the night. The flash of light flooded the paper in Sasha’s hand in angry white relief.

“Lonely”

Oddly, there was no door, no giveaway odd panel on the wall, nothing that could’ve hidden the stairs. Yet, when she spoke Arthur’s word through thunder grumbling and the sudden and violent rain that cracked at the windows out of the empty ceiling a delicate and ornate spiral staircase began a softly spinning descent, like a ballerina in a musical snow globe. When it finished it’s subtle pirouette and touched the floor it melded with the wood as though it had always been there.

When both the sheep dog and the young sorcerer were on the next floor the staircase dissolved into flecks of metal and wood the colors of the ring and swirled away like cherry blossom petals and, moments later, into oblivion. The circular hole in the floor shivered close, and the two were again faced with a hall stretching dimly onward.

It seemed Arthur’s area was quite expansive, containing within the wards many passages crossing multiple floors--perhaps from the furthest basement all the way to the attic. Had she not been in an earnest rush, she might've noted that most of the rooms they passed were bare of everything, the doors open. Curiously, however, a few had closed and locked doors.

Soon, Sasha reached an area with rugs along the floors and the wall brackets holding the red candles were replaced by chandeliers. There were more closed doors and in the middle of the doors a unique sigil flickered with flames but didn’t burn nor emit heat. Through the open doors all the windows now had curtains on them.

Many drawings of various qualities all done by the same hand were scattered along the walls. They were of fascinating books and items, strange symbols, and stranger monsters. Aidan was recognizable in several--in many positions, both in his human and dragon form--as well as the twins, the foyer, and the view of the area beyond the doors from a higher perspective--clearly of the view from the balcony.

The one thing that Sasha had seen this night that there were no drawings of was Arthur.



Before Sasha had even reached the staircase going back down, Aidan was again in her head. He didn’t sound good at all.

I hope he didn’t give you any trouble. I still can’t reach him, which is disturbing and hopefully temporary. As soon as he’s lucid, tell him I’m going to kill him once I’m not dying. He was a foolish dunce for risking that spell even to get your friends comfortable. Their comfort REALLY isn’t equal to my life, and he knows that. He’s just swept up with hurt and, I expect, record levels of self-loathing. You need to be more careful around him, because he’s liable to risk us all dying to please your or any of the other manlings’ whims. I’ve been able to count on him being level-headed and dependable, but his focus is now split because he’s not alone anymore. He’s been without humans for three and a half years and it’s been tearing him apart. I would probably react the same--more so, even--if I could be with my mate again. I don’t even know if she’s still alive or if our progeny ever made it out of their eggs, but I’d be willing to bargain with a demon to have her here. I--...why am I telling YOU this? You aren't capable of understanding how I feel about Nina; I shouldn't waste my remaining strength on YOU. Now, let me know when he’s lucid and I’ll try to break in like I did with you.
 
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Appletree

Resident Fruit Tree
Sasha did as she was bid, refraining from lobbing a couple of well chosen words at Aidens head, physically or mentally. Hurrying back into the room she had just left, she started randomly picking up and discarding the various papers strewn over and around the desk. Having made quite a mess of the jumble in her previous search for the ring, it wasn't exactly an easy task. Bubbles was no help this time either. The dog sat by the door, occasionally whining in Sashas direction and otherwise snuffling and pawing at the closed door. Her meaning was quite plain. Why weren't they outside the door following her masters scent? What good was shuffling through a load of papers? Even with the explanation Aiden had given her, Sasha had to wonder the same thing.

The girl muttered idly under her breath, most of it expletives against Aiden for giving her stupidly difficult tasks and some of it at Arthurs obvious lack of even a remote form of orderliness on his desk. Mixed in too, were mutterings that might have been half hope-half wish, such as her fervent hope that dragon blood was as red as human blood. She was sorting through the piles of papers by sense of colour first and foremost. If dragons blood happened to be blue or black, she had next to no chance of finding the stupid thing. Who just randomly wrote in their friends blood when they ran out of ink anyway? At least bleed yourself dry rather than others. It wasn’t as if Arthur had much qualms damaging himself. She shuddered at that thought and quickly concentrated on her search again.

Finally she scrounged out a likely looking piece of paper from where it had fallen under the table during her earlier rush to save the ring. One side was covered in strange looking diagrams and paintings of plants and what seemed to be animal parts perhaps? For some reason the page, despite being clearly ripped from a book, had a blank back, or rather it would have been blank if it hadn't been covered in scribbles that were quite obviously different from whatever the book had been about.

Sasha didn't even bother trying to read the words. This page felt right, or rather it was the only one that matched the description Aiden had given her and she really didn't have the time to double check. She could try and decipher it later.

"Ok Bubbles, lets go!" She dashed back out the door and along the corridor. With her four legs, the dog easily overtook her, but slowed her pace so she remained only a foot or so ahead of Sasha. She ran with her questing nose to the ground, glancing back at her over her shoulder as though checking Sasha was still following every few feet.

Sasha herself paid little attention to where she was going, trusting Bubbles to lead her and following the dark shape moving at the edge of her vision as she squinted at the paper clutched in her hand. Reading while running was never an easy task and Arthur's cramped handwriting as well as the flickering candlelight were not helping matters. This quickly squashed any curiosity-spawned thought of deciphering the scratched out scribbles all around the edge of the page. Thankfully the one she needed was clear enough. In a space all its own in the center and written slightly larger than the rest, the strange red characters swayed before Sasha's eyes in tandem with her movement.

She would have tumbled down the rift in the floor, had Bubbles not let out a sharp warning bark. Instead, she only teetered on the edge, arms windmilling absurdly in an attempt to keep her footing. Stumbling backwards, she breathed a sigh of relief and looked around, wondering what she was supposed to do now, faced with this dead end. Oh yeah, use a magic word to open sesame a way to get to Arthur and her friends. Sure. Easy.

She stared at the stupid paper still clutched in her hand. She had rather crumpled it during her almost fall, but that did nothing to change the illegibility of the words scribbled there. By all rights the glare she directed at the paper should have made it combust instantly. Why wasn't this working? Aiden had said it should. Had she gotten the wrong page after all? But there hadn't been anything else that looked like this one.
She was rather tempted to crumple the paper into a ball and chuck it into the dark abyss at her feet, but the memory of James and the others prone bodies following the creepy Arthur like a school of odd fish stopped her.

One more try. She fixed her eyes on the red symbols and willed them with all of her heart to be something, anything else. Nothing happened. Despair bubbled up inside Sasha and she suddenly just wanted to curl up in a corner and cry. A low whine brought her attention back to Bubbles, who was looking imploringly up at her. When their eyes met, her face split into a wide doggy smile, lolling tongue and all. A tiny answering smile lifted one corner of Sasha's mouth, it was just too cute.

It was enough. Inside Sasha's chest the little spark of light flared. Placing her free hand on Bubbles warm head, she used the contact with the sweet creature as an anchor, reaching inside herself and grasping the little spark tightly. This time, when she looked at the paper the word written in dragon's blood seemed to shimmer and after a moment that felt like an eternity, Sasha understood. The symbols didn't change. She still couldn't read them, but their meaning was now clear.

Had she not been desperately holding on to the strange serenity that had empowered her to read the word. she would have scoffed and commented something about men being overly dramatic to Bubbles. As it was, she was only just able to gasp out the password before the sparkle dimmed again.

Sasha had no time to congratulate herself or even truly register her success. As soon as the wrought iron staircase had spiraled down like a circular escalator, both girl and dog pounded up it and down the carpeted corridor beyond it. They didn’t spare a glance for their surroundings, not the paintings or the doors they passed. Sasha gave Aiden's voice roughly the same amount of attention when it reverberated through her mind again.

Bubbles nose was once again leading the way, back down another staircase and further down the hall, till she skidded to a stop in front of a door. Halting next to her, Sasha considered her options as she bent almost double to catch her breath and ease the stitch in her side.
 

KittyRoid

InTeReStInG
Through the double doors Sasha found Arthur in the center of the low-ceilinged, windowless room—another hall in the massive manor—as the only thing on the ground. Arms straight out to the side, he was the orchestrator of the bizarre and haunting orbital dance being performed by the four chaise lounges and the dozens of scarlet candles that spiraled elegantly, like floating dancers at a ball, in and around and in between each other. The crimson, spinning light emitting from the many candles formed an unnatural, dizzying, strobe-like sequence that was a little nauseating and trashed Sasha’s equilibrium.
 
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