I woke up- still feeling exhausted- in a different part of the forest, laying against a tree with a small but incredibly warm fire just a few feet away. The night was so cold that I could see the breath in front of my face... So why was I warm? It must've been the long, worn leather coat that was draped over me. Wait, what? It was unmistakably Niccolo's coat... Seriously? Since when did he care enough to give me his coat? Since when did he care at all?
Then I started to remember; Jubilence had come to kill me. Her power was obviously making people laugh- it certainly suited her name- and I had lost the will to fight it. I didn't even try to stop thinking of everything as hilarious- it was a lot more pleasant than the alternative. I was curled up on the ground, barely breathing, and I was certian she had reached my heart with her knife... So how was I alive right now?
It was fuzzy at first, but gradually I remembered more and more... Though it still felt like a dream. I remembered the darkness- that black abyss that had been so inviting. And I vaguely recalled Croatoan screaming my name- but that couldn't be real. Could it? There had been genuine, unmistakable desperation in his voice... That just wasn't like him.
I remembered letting myself sink deep down, even past my head; I should have died. I had no will to get out at that point, and I was in too far deep for it to matter anyway. So how on Earth had I... Oh, that's right. At the last minute... I hadn't recognized him at the time, but now, looking back, his dark chocolate voice and the black leather coat that now hung on my shoulders was unmistakable. Niccolo had entered my consciousness and literally dragged me out of death.
My thoughts were interrupted by the flutter of wings behind my head, and when I turned he was standing there behind me. I stood up and tossed his coat back to him, but in just a few moments I was shivering, so he tossed it back to me as he went to sit beside the fire. The light flickered in his dark eyes, and I came to sat beside him, studying his face. It was, as usual, emotionless. But there was definitely something he knew that he didn't want me to know... Well, first things first.
"Thank you," I said softly, and then it was my turn to stare aimlessly into the fire.
"What for?" He responded blandly, though the usual irritation was gone from his voice.
I took a breath. "You saved my life."
"No," He said darkly, "I nearly killed you." There was something deeper than bitterness behind his words- it was regret. Pain and regret. And it just didn't make sense. "If I had stepped in sooner..." I was at a complete loss for words, so he continued, "You were already injured. And I was the reason why you had to live through hours of torture twice- I tried blocking your memories of it before I pulled you out, but I messed up, and because of that you had to go through it all over again... It was my fault you welcomed that laughter, my fault you welcomed death. And-"
"It was also your fault that I lived. I remember what happened- you dragged me back yourself. But if I died while you were inside my head, you would have died too. The only thing you've done thus far is try to help me. Tell me why that's wrong." My voice was hard, determined- I couldn't let him blame himself for this. It was rediculous that he was even trying.
He turned his head and let his eyes meet mine; they were just as dark as they had always been, but this time they also looked heavy and tired. It was all just so unusual.
"It's wrong because I failed. What difference does trying make if all I accomplish is making things worse?"
"It matters," I insisted, then added, "What's gotten into you, anyway? You never get involved with any of my fights unless I'm actually dying. It's always been that way."
"But you've never come this close to dying before."
"Not trying to sound offensive here, but... Since when do you care? Like, since when do you care about anyone at all?"
He took a deep breath before answering, "I honeslty don't know. I don't know what the Hell is wrong with me, or why it matters all of a sudden, but... Aretha, what's the point of my life?" I blinked.
"Yeah, seriously. What have I ever done with my life? I've killed people, made myself stronger, but what's the point of all that?"
"Following you, helping you learn, acting as your shadow- that's the closest I've ever come to actually doing something good. And if I just-"
"No." I cut him off, the pieces starting to come together. Croatoan would never in a million years actually voluntarily talk about his feelings, and he would never care about the purpose of life, either. That was the kind of thing I worried about. "Now I get it. You scripted this entire conversation to distract me. You knew I would tell right away there's something you're keeping from me, and you wanted me to believe that this is it. But I'm not buying it. So drop the act and tell me whatever it is that you're hiding. Please- this is just weird for both of us."
He gazed at me for a moment longer, than dropped his eyes. "You're getting good, aren't you, kid?"
"Rule number one: never let your opponent decieve you. Now could you please just tell me? That whole conversation was just too... Weird..."
He sighed, finally realizing that he couldn't win. If you ask me, it was a poor strategy to begin with, but he had to have been pretty desperate to even try it. "Fine." He conceded, "...Mevolent has the Grand Mage."
"You mean my Grand Mage?" I asked, though I already knew the answer. It felt like I had just been slapped.
"Who else would I be talking about?"
"Alright," I calmed myself down; panic wouldn't do any good. "I'm going after her."
"No." He protested immidiately.
"You can't just expect me to-"
"We're going after her." I looked at him quizzically. "And no, I'm not still acting," He confirmed, "Do you have any idea how much of a pain you are to bring back once you're so far gone? I haven't been this exhausted in years... Maybe even decades..." Now that was Niccolo Croatoan speaking. I reached out and rested my hand on his shoulder, and all of a sudden we were sitting in a dark corner of the cell of Zafria Kerias.