Priesthoods and Beasthoods - Chapter 6 - What_Is_A_Mild_Opinion (2024)

Chapter Text

It goes like this: Riz feels his hackles raise when he walks into the arcade, the flashing lights and rhythmic beeping of machines and the faint traces of magical energy that he’s getting better at sensing, after so many months of being around wizards and clerics and bards. He feels his hackles raise, but that might just be that Biz pisses him off, that he wants to hiss and bite every time he looks at Adaine with something skeevy in his expression.

He feels his hackles raise, but he can’t put a finger on the reason why until he looks at a pixelated version of the friend he’s been looking for for months, and feels bile rise in his throat. “Hi, I’m Penny!” the game chirps, pixel Penny waving a hand at him. “Wanna play?”

Riz feels his world telescope. Months of searching, months of lying awake in the dark, staring at the ceiling and trying to make answers out of incomplete clues. Months of a jagged hole in his chest that has never closed.

He asks Biz, heart pounding in his ears, fingers beginning to twitch, tail raising and lips beginning to pull back to expose a mouthful of fangs. And Biz smirks, too dark and conspiratorial to be anything good, pulls out a blank palimpsest, and says-

Well, to be honest, Riz pretty much blacks out after whatever he says.

All he can think about is Penny, who always double-knots her shoes and taught him how to mince garlic and watched old Jeopardy reruns with him late at night, both of them competing to see who knew more answers.

All he can think about is Adaine, who eats everything neatly except ice cream, which she drips on herself every time, and color codes all of her notes with highlighters and uses her Mage Hands to zip everyone’s backpacks when they forget because she’s too nervous to actually tell them.

He doesn’t know much about the other girls, really. He knows Ostentatia helped them. He knows Zelda brought Gorgug a flower on their first date, and then ate it when she got too nervous. He knows that there are people in all of their lives who know things about them like he knows things about Adaine and Penny. He knows that they are people. He knows that no one deserves to be trapped in a crystal so that some two-bit f*ckwad with a victim complex can feel good about himself.

Riz feels something stir deep inside of him.

For months, through fall and winter and now spring, he’s been easing off. Slowly pulling down the layers and layers of walls he built up over years inside of him, peeling the dam away like layers of an onion. He’s been doing it slowly, carefully, letting the water through first as a trickle and then as a stream, deepening and widening.

And now here is Biz, claiming his right to own other people like dolls, like video game characters, like something to dangle around and play with because they didn’t like him. And Riz thinks of Penny and Adaine, thinks of Ostentatia and Zelda, Katja and Antiope and Sam and Danielle, real people with real lives and real families.

He thinks about them, and feels the dam shatter like the wall of an aquarium, a spiderweb of cracks racing out and shaking the entire foundation, years of power pressing out against his bones and skin, a tsunami in a bottle about to break loose. The urge to fight, to claw, to protect fills him, and the magic in him responds, meets the urge and doubles it, triples it, wraps it with water and fuses until the magic and the need to protect are one and the same, the shore where the water meets the earth, where flesh meets soul, where potential meets reality.

He thinks about protection, and feels something open deep inside of him, some power that he could hold if he reached for it.

Instead, he uses all of his many years of practice to reel the water back in, to keep the dam intact. Just a few moments longer, he thinks. Just a few more. “Dude, I am in,” he says.

Biz hands him the palimpsest.

The dam shatters.

Biz’s eyes widen as the entire arcade room is bathed in stained-glass lighting, pale golds and pinks and purples spreading out from behind his head to flash over the crystal screens and metal railings. He feels something twitch, an itch between his shoulder blades. Riz reaches for the magic deep inside of him, holds up a clawed hand, and blasts Biz with all the radiant energy of a tidal wave.

Adaine is no cleric. She’s no expert on divine magic.

But she is a diviner.

The whole arcade lights up, crystal screens flickering, a sharp glitch of arcanotech energy mixing with something else, something much older. The screens flash blue and gold and purple, and Adaine feels a pulse of celestial energy from deep in the arcade, more potent than any she has felt before.

But, more importantly, she feels something shift.

For a split second, she can see thousands upon thousands of futures spiraling out like strings of light, a web of fate and destiny and chance blossoming in all directions from every person. And she feels it as thousands of futures blink out of existence in less than a second, futures where Riz’s magic is quiet, futures where he locks it up and never uses it. All of them snap and vanish from existence, and thousands more bloom in the spaces of their absence.

Somewhere in the Elmville Arcade, Riz Gukgak unlocks his magic, and Adaine feels it alter all six of their futures forever. She pulls out her spellbook and her orb, and starts racing into the mall with her friends.

Riz feels his body turn liquid and vanish, feels the vacuum pull him in. He blinks and finds himself in an endless palace of shifting glass walls and deep cracks that distort reality. He blinks and he’s alone with an empty palimpsest, and Penny’s scared voice.

When Fig Dimension Doors into the room, Fabian in tow, the first thing she sees is Biz, scorched to all hell. His entire face and most of his chest has been scalded, blackened flesh melted together with his t-shirt, screaming incoherently in pain. He can barely fly, one wing riddled with holes from the energy blast. Immediately, she feels her skin begin to prickle at the presence of celestial energy.

Riz flees, and then vanishes, but she can barely think past the army of screaming Biz’s he casts into her mind, all screaming “Come on, be cool! Be cool! Be cool!”

It’s more of an afterthought that Riz is fleeing, until one of the crystals in the pillars lights up, brighter than anything in the whole arcade with a fierce, golden-purple light, and flickers of Riz’s face flash in shattered segments over the surface of the palimpsest.

Later, Riz will be unable to explain how he did it. He’s a rogue. His job is to find hidden exits, to find side doors and sneak through and f*ck sh*t up from the inside. He could say all of that.

The truth? Penny sounds so scared and sad and so bone-achingly tired, that Riz feels any patience left inside of him snap, a cord pulled past the breaking point.

He’s so f*cking done with these f*cking crystals.

He lets the feral urges that sit under his skin loose. With claws made to scale cliffs and cut through stone, he digs down, down, down into the palimpsest, following the twisting cracks in the crystal deeper and and deeper, in and in and in. It slices at his palms, cutting, he understands, at the very fabric of his soul. He keeps going, cuts himself to shreds until he reaches the current through which energy flows.

f*ck you, Biz, he thinks, and shatters something in the current.

They’re out of time, Adaine thinks. She’s on the verge of a panic attack, breathing too fast and sweating with terror. Gorgug is hacking away at the wires. Fig is screaming behind them, wrestling with the trap she is caught in.

And Adaine can see that they’re too slow, can see futures vanishing by the second. They’re out of time, and out of options.

“I’m sorry,” she says to Zelda’s palimpsest, projects every apology in her splitting-open chest. She hopes she understands. And she Mage Hands Riz’s palimpsest out of the pillar and into her hand.

It drops into her palm, blinding with the light it gives off, turning her body brilliant. She nearly drops it with the speed and force it lands in her hands, and then actually does drop her crystal ball so she can catch the palimpsest with both hands, her heart pounding in her chest.

Miraculously, the crystal ball doesn’t crack as it hits the floor, but more importantly, she catches Riz. She holds onto the palimpsest with both hands, strangely warm, far warmer than she remembers Sam’s or Zelda’s being, humming with celestial power. The edges bite into her palms, cutting at her sweat-slick palms, but she just holds tighter, clinging to the point of pain to Riz’s soul. Her smart, brave, funny friend who carries highlighters for her and always talks about her books with her and started stocking tea in his apartment because she didn’t like his black coffee.

She holds on, terrified to let go, heart pounding in her throat, sitting warm and thick and heavy on her tongue. Please be okay, she thinks. Please, please, please be okay.

Penny is gone. Penny is gone.

He was so close. She was right there. She was right there. He almost had her.

And now she’s- she’s-

Riz is alone in a crystal, sliced to bits and drowning in energy with nowhere to go.

He can’t do this anymore. He can’t do this anymore, he can’t do this anymore, he can’t do this anymore-

There’s not really any thought to it. It’s pure instinct, all terrified need, looking at the crystal that Adaine has a death grip on. It’s still glowing, bright to the point of pain, but the images of Riz flickering in fragmented shards across the cracks have stopped moving, have vanished in a way that absolutely terrifies Fig.

She looks at Biz, scorched first from celestial and then hellish energy, cuffed and mangled, and casts Suggestion. Bring my friend back, she thinks as she casts it. You motherf*cker, give me my f*cking friend back.

Riz appears in the room in a blast of light that makes all of them wince and look away. His halo is still active, blinding in its brilliance, and the light has shifted some. Instead of the previous gold and purple and pink, it's all sharp yellows and harsh reds and bloody oranges.

It’s the look of someone whose friend just slipped through their fingers like water. It’s the look of someone who is done playing.

It goes like this: Riz has gone past mad and straight into ice-cold determination. All the water inside of him has frozen into blades of sheer ice, reflecting endless images back of his own frustration, his own loss, his friend that is gone, again. It casts the images back in broken slices, like ice, like a mirror, like the inside of a shattered crystal.

It goes like this: Riz is bleeding from his hands, and his fingers are shaking on his gun but his aim is steady, and Penny is gone, and Riz no longer cares about right or wrong or the way his friends are looking at him.

It goes like this: Riz shoots off Biz Glitterdew’s fingers one by one, no regret, just icy determination to get his answers. And he does. He does.

As soon as Riz sees the line of police cars outside the mall, and hears the choppers overhead, he thinks, sh*t.

And sh*t it is.

Prison, it turns out, is extremely boring.

Not that Gorgug ever thought he would be in jail, necessarily, but this is beyond any semblance of boredom he would have expected. They’re all been lying around in the holding cell together, just the brick walls and the magically reinforced bars and a smear of Bill Seacaster’s blood on the floor.

Riz had disposed of his teeth sometime in the third hour, tucking them away into his infinite briefcase when it became clear that no one would be coming to clean them up. He had been sneaking concerned looks at Fabian the whole time he cleaned them up. Gorgug had wondered, at first, if Bill would come back for his teeth so he could have them put back in, but three days later, it is seeming more and more likely that they are just going to gather dust in Riz’s briefcase of holding.

At least they’re all together, Gorgug thinks, as Fig leans over his shoulder and says, “And, look, take that piece and tuck it in with the rest- yup, just like that- and tuck that whole segment under and pull.”

“You can go tighter,” Kristen says, shaking her head back and forth for emphasis. “There’s a lot of slack right now, you won’t hurt my head if you pull a little more.”

Gorgug hesitantly tightens the strand of hair that he’s pulling on, the braid weaving together a little bit more, and Fig says, “There we go.”

Across from them, Riz is double-braiding Adaine’s hair while Fabian watches. He himself had violently protested the idea of getting his own hair braided, but Gorgug thinks they’re going to wear him down, judging from the way he’s watching Adaine’s braid come into existence with poorly disguised envy.

Riz, apparently, already knew how to braid because he sometimes helps his mom, but Gorgug, Fabian, and Adaine were all severely lacking in a knowledge that Fig and Kristen had decided needed to be remedied immediately.

So here Gorgug is, sitting on a bench in a holding cell, combing tangles out of Kristen’s hair with his fingers as Fig shows him how to braid. If he imagines more snacks and pillows and less cold, hard concrete, this could almost be a normal sleepover.

“Okay, so, f*ck marry kill, school teachers, go,” Kristen says, earning a squawk of laughter from Fig and crows of dismay from Fabian and Adaine. “I’ll go first,” the cleric plows on. “f*ck the fighter teacher, she is hot-”

“Must you subject us to this?” Fabian complains. “You are right, but at what cost?”

“Marry Jawbone, he would be a great fake husband for tax purposes-”

“There is no way you know how marriages change your taxes,” Riz says, starting on the other half of Adaine’s hair, one braid hanging down over her shoulder.

“And kill Daybreak, even though he doesn’t work there anymore, because he haunts my dreams,” Kristen finishes, making all of them wince. She claps her hands, and though she’s facing away because Gorgug is braiding her hair, he can feel rather than see her grin. “Alright, who’s next?”

“No one,” Adaine protests loudly, waving her hands around as Riz nods fervently in agreement.

“I beg of you to stop this madness before you scar us for life,” Fabian adds.

“I’ll go!” Fig chirps, to a round of groans from the other side of the room and a wince from Gorgug. “f*ck Jawbone, because have you heard his stories? He’s wild in bed, and a strong consent advocate. Sold.”

“I will never be able to unhear this,” Riz says despairingly, staring at the ceiling. Adaine looks like she is contemplating casting Silence around herself, Riz, and Fabian.

“Marry Ms. Fireblade-”

“The Solesian History teacher?”

“-because she keeps her classroom super neat, and I think she would be good at home maintenance. And kill Porter, obviously, because he is evil.”

“Dude, I really think he’s just doing his job,” Riz says, tying off Adaine’s second braid. “He might not be good at it, but I don’t think he’s like, doing something evil.”

“He is up to no good and I will prove it,” Fig says stubbornly, pointing a finger at Riz. “Mark my words, Gukgak, I’ll get him one day.”

Gorgug tentatively weaves another strand of hair into Kristen’s braid, trying his level best to forget everything that has been said in the past minute.

“Okay, sweet, excellent choices, excellent choices,” Kristen says, tapping her thighs with her palms. She swivels her head to look at all of them, radiating the energy of an overly enthusiastic firing squad as the rest of them cringe away from what Gorgug is assuming to be an evil glint in her eyes. “Alright, so who’s next?”

Across from them, Riz’s ears flatten back against his head and he shrinks down behind Adaine’s head, his frame folding up into something much smaller than it is. Adaine herself hides behind her hands as Fabian furiously avoids eye contact. Gorgug is just hoping that his position out of Kristen’s line of sight will provide him some protection.

“Fabian!” Kristen cheers, and it comes down like an executioner’s ax from the way Fabian flinches. “Lay it on us, pretty boy!”

Fabian blows out a long breath through his teeth, looking up at the ceiling with a very Kill me now expression. “Must you torture us with this inane and demeaning exercise?” he drawls, and Gorgug can tell that he’s truly uncomfortable just from the way his speech has grown even more excessively fancy than normal.

“So is that you abstaining from voting, or…?”

Yes, Kristen, I am abstaining from participating in this truly disgusting game.”

“Okay, okay, I’m picking up what you’re putting down. Riz?”

Gorgug glances up at where Riz was two seconds ago, and finds nothing but empty space.

“Wait, what?” Kristen says. “Riz! Riz! Stop hiding!”

“I don’t exist,” comes Riz’s voice from the empty space behind Adaine’s head. Gorgug deduces that he has curled up so tightly behind Adaine so as to become completely invisible behind her head and shoulders. “This is awful. Stop asking me.”

Kristen blows a raspberry and moves on. “Adaine?”

She tucks her head in between her knees and says, “Can we please talk about something else?”

“You all are boring.”

“You are horny,” Riz’s disembodied voice accuses.

“Alright, fine, party poopers. What else should we play?”

“Two truths and a lie?”

And so they go into two truths and a lie, which proves to be wild. Gorgug learns new things about everyone.

Fig wore only varying shades of pink for her whole year of fifth grade. Adaine has been hiding bags of candy in the Gukgaks’ freezer for months. Riz once combined energy drinks and coffee to make the world’s most toxic concoction and stayed up for three days straight hallucinating that all light fixtures were made of jello. Fabian once tried to learn how to shoot a bow and stopped when he somehow managed to shoot at a forty-five degree angle and shot his father in the leg. Kristen can burp the alphabet.

Gorgug himself reveals that he knows how to play lullabies on a recorder, and then everyone pounds their hands on the benches and walls chanting, “Play for us! Play for us! Play for us!”

Adaine produces six lurid plastic recorders from the depths of her jacket, handing them out to everyone. After a round of hysterical recorder honking from Kristen and even more hysterical laughter from everyone else, they all settle down and Gorgug starts coaching his friends through playing various simple tunes on the recorders. He teaches them Hot Cross Buns, and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and gets halfway through Mary Had a Little Lamb before he gives up and lets Kristen and Riz make increasingly horrible noises at each other on the recorders while the others watch in fond horror.

Fig, to everyone’s surprise, is startlingly bad at playing the recorder. She protests that she is a string specialist, to which Riz just replies, “Well, it’s good to know you can’t be good at everything. Otherwise you would be too cool,” which makes Fig blush deeply and grin helplessly.

Adaine and, surprisingly, Riz, prove passable. They both take to it with meticulous dedication, but when Riz figures out he can make her and Fig laugh by trading horrible squawks with Kristen, he gives up on the nursery rhyme melodies in favor of that.

Fabian and Kristen, to no one’s surprise, are both terrible at playing the recorder, something which clearly bothers neither of them in the least, because Fabian doesn’t care if he is “awful at a skill which will so clearly never matter again in my life,” and Kristen because, well, she has an annoying noisemaker, why would she care if she’s good at playing it?

Riz manages to organize them through a very disorganized canon round. The result is wobbly and imperfect, full of wrong notes and honking noises and plasticky squeaks. But for a few shining moments in the middle, each of them running the same melody at different times into one overlapping web of music and lightness, everything feels a little less bleak.

When they stop, they all exchange looks, and then, through unspoken agreement, begin again.

They play increasingly complicated canon melodies for the better part of three hours. It’s almost trancelike.

It’s hard here. In prison. It’s exhausting, and cold, and frustrating. Gorgug is so sad, and so worried, and so mad. But here, sitting in a circle with his friends, playing imperfect, squeaky recorder music in endless loops, watching Adaine’s face uncrease with the soothing repetition of it, watching Riz’s tail sway to the beat and Fig tap her feet and Kristen sway and Fabian grow less and less self-conscious as the music rolls on, Gorgug thinks that his parents were right. There is something healing and magical about making music.

He blinks away tears at the thought of his parents, and plays a little louder, tries to feel them through the hum of the music they taught him, back when his hands were smaller and they could correct his fingerings without him sitting cross-legged on the ground.

Eventually, the music starts to break up, yawns punctuating the melody.

Finally, when Adaine yawns for the seventh time, Gorgug pulls his recorder away and says, “Maybe we should go to bed.”

“Bed,” in the holding cell, is really more of a suggestion than an actual place to lay down. Technically, he supposes, they could sleep on the benches, but they’ve all collectively been ignoring the benches to curl up on the ground in a massive pile of teenager, huddling under thin blankets Adaine pulls from her jacket.

There’s some grumbling, but everyone begins to make moves down into what is becoming their usual positions, Fig and Gorgug on the outside, in semi-protective stances, with Fabian and Kristen next inside, and Riz and Adaine sandwiched on the very inside.

Gorgug ends up sitting up against the wall, Kristen’s head in his lap, as he slowly plays a much softer, longer piece on the recorder, one that he remembers his dad teaching him when he was very young. He watches his friends drop off into sleep one by one, limbs loosening as they melt into each other under Adaine’s blankets.

He plays for an hour and a half, until only the strip light fluorescents are left in the precinct. He slowly fades out, and looks over his drooling friends. He thinks all of them are asleep, until he spots a flicker of movement under one of the blankets, like a long tail sweeping past.

“Riz?” he whispers, and immediately two glowing eyes flick open and fix on him. “I thought you were asleep.”

Riz, beneath the blankets, is pinned in place by the loose flop of Fabian’s arm over his chest, so he doesn’t physically move, but one of his radar-ears flicks up and turns toward Gorgug. “I don’t really sleep,” he whispers back. “You’re really good at playing the recorder.”

Gorgug sets down the recorder carefully on the stone flooring, pulling up a blanket to drape around his shoulders. “Thanks,” he says quietly. “My parents taught me.”

“That’s fun.” Riz’s eyes trace over his face, considering. “Are you doing okay?” His voice is low, worried.

Gorgug blinks. He looks down at his hands, so big and callused, too clumsy to be truly good at delicate things, but just careful enough to be able to create things with passing beauty. Beautiful only in comparison to the ugliness it exists next to.

He thinks about his parents’ hands, so small and clever and capable of making intricate, helpful things that are beautiful in any context. He has a pang of longing, and closes his hands into fists.

“I miss my parents,” he admits to the hush of distant police chatter and his friends’ rhythmic breathing.

There’s a moment of silence, and then a small hush of rustling fabric. He looks up to see Riz wiggling out from under Fabian’s arm very carefully. He tugs his body out and hops through the mess of arms and legs, his tail swinging out behind him for balance. He comes up next to Gorgug, nudging one of Kristen’s flopped-out arms out of the way to sit next to Gorgug.

He takes a deep breath, curling his tail around Gorgug’s back to drape the end of it in his lap. “My mom works here,” he says quietly. “It makes me feel weird. Not just because we’re in here, and she’s out there, and there’s nothing she can do about it, but also just like- She’s right there. She’s right out there, but I still can’t interact with her. So, yeah. I get that.”

He doesn’t try to say he’s sorry about it, or that it sucks. There are no condolences that will do nothing. It’s just a moment of comforting empathy, sitting in a hard emotion together to be a little less alone.

Gorgug takes off the blanket from around his shoulders and drapes it around Riz’s shoulders. He wiggles down into the blanket and leans fully into Gorgug’s side. His whole body fits under his shoulder, his large ear pressed against Gorgug’s ribs, his small head leaning in against him. Gorgug wraps an arm around him, receiving a low, throaty purr in response, vibrating from Riz’s chest straight into his own.

It’s not all better. It’s not perfect. But for a moment, Gorgug is a little less alone.

“Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall, ninety-nine bottles of beer,” Fig sings from her own private cell, loud and clear and resonant.

“Take one down, pass it around, ninety-eight bottles of beer on the wall,” Adaine continues, high and warbly, pitched painfully in comparison to Fig’s singing.

“Ninety-eight bottles of beer on the wall, ninety-eight bottles of beer,” Gorgug calls, his voice bouncing off the concrete walls.

“Take one down, pass it around, ninety-seven bottles of beer on the wall,” Kristen cheers, with all the confidence of dozens of years of singing around campfires.

“Ninety-seven bottles of beer on the wall, ninety seven bottles of-” Fabian continues loudly.

“What the f*ck,” shouts the half-elven federal agent, throwing open the door to the private cells, “are you all going on about?”

All of them stop, turning to look at her through the bars. “We are protesting you moving us to separate cells!” Fig shouts through the bars, stabbing a finger at her. “This is cruel and unusual punishment, and we are protesting with the ancient art of annoying people with car trip songs!”

Agent Worrel looks at all of them, caught between incredible disbelief and apoplectic rage. “You are what.”

“We were doing cuddle piles!” she shouts back, enraged. “We were doing okay even in your stupid prison, and then you put us in individual cells! We are punishing you!”

Worrel stalks closer to Fig’s cell, her face tight with fire. “Do you think this is a summer camp? We are not here for you to do cuddle piles. We are here for you to be prosecuted for murder.”

Riz sucks in a deep breath, and, as loud as he can, roars, “Take one down, pass it around, ninety-six bottles of beer on the wall!”

“No!” Worrel shouts, rounding on Riz. “Enough! Enough of this!”

Ninety-six bottles of beer on the wall, ninety-six bottles of beer,” Fig and Kristen scream together, as loud as they can.

“No!” Worrel screams. “Shut up!”

TAKE ONE DOWN, PASS IT AROUND,” everyone howls at the top of their lungs, making the walls shake with the noise, “NINETY-FIVE BOTTLES OF BEER ON THE WALL! NINETY-FIVE BOTTLES OF-”


“Goddammit. Hit.”

Riz whoops, and Fig marks a little x on the piece of paper she has laid out in front of her.

It had been Kristen’s idea, but Riz had been the one to pull paper and pens for everyone from his briefcase, and distribute them through a combination of mage hands from Adaine and passing down the row of cells from everyone else.

They’ve split off into twos to play Battleship, making boards by drawing grids on pieces of paper and x-ing out their ships when they get hit. Fig is happy she’s not playing Adaine, who has an eerie knack for knowing where her opponent’s ships are even if she’s not actively divining, but Riz is not much better. He’s systematically eliminating her ships by sweeping the board and ruthlessly eviscerating anything he finds.

The one good thing about being in jail, she thinks with a bit of dark humor, is that there’s no way for anyone to peep on other people’s boards. She can’t see Riz at all past the massive wall of blank, dreary concrete. No amount of Shatters have done anything to the walls. It’s only been three days since they were separated into different cells, and Fig misses her friends. She can’t sleep alone. She wants to give them all hugs, but instead is settling for holding Riz’s hand through the bars.

They’re playing Battleship. It’s fine. It’s fine.

“A9,” Fig ventures.

“Miss,” Riz says. “Go fish.”

She laughs a little. “No, you.”

“Alright. D4.”

“I need to handicap you for this game to be fair,” she groans, marking off another x on her little two square ship. “You sunk my ship,” she says sullenly.

“One left,” Riz sing-songs.

Fig taps her fingers against the ground, surveying her other board to guess where Riz’s last three ships could be. “E5,” she guesses.

“Miss. A8.”

“f*ck you!”

“Oh, that's a hit,” he says gleefully, and the scratch of his pen follows.

She groans, dropping her head back to stare at the ceiling with dismay. Her neck protests, her horns tugging her head back too far. All these months, and sometimes they still catch her off guard.

She thinks of Gortholax, and worry and hurt consumes her. Did he really go back to hell? There's no way, right? He has a job here now. Fig is here.

He had been having so much fun coaching. He had been being her dad.


She snaps out of her reverie at the sound of Riz’s voice, low and worried. “Yeah, I’m here.”

“Are you okay?”

Fig stares at the wall, blinking rapidly until the mortar between the bricks blurs into the rest of it, watery. “Do you know who your dad is?”

For a long moment, there is only the faint chatter of their friends still playing Battleship, Fabian crying, “Ha-HA! I shall destroy your ships!” and Kristen howling with laughter on Riz’s other side. Riz is quiet, no movement, and panic begins to creep in like rot around the edges of her grief-stricken question.

Riz, for all he cares for the rest of them, does not often talk about his own complicated emotions. Maybe Fig crossed a line. Maybe she shouldn’t have asked.

She opens her mouth to apologize, but is cut off by Riz saying, “No, I don’t. He told my mom his name was Pok, but he didn’t tell her she was a celestial, so who even knows, really.”

Fig blinks at the wall. “Oh. How did she not-?”

“They didn’t, uh.” There’s a sharp noise as Riz clears his throat. She can practically see his ears flattening back against his skull. “They didn’t exactly know each other for long.”

“Oh. Oh. Wow. Your mom must have been bangin’.”

“I am begging you to never say anything like that ever again.”

Fig snorts. “I don’t know, I just figured, like. It took me a long time to know Gortholax, but that was because I didn’t know until my horns came in. I just thought you might know, because you’ve always known you were aasimar.”

He laughs, but it’s humorless. “Yeah. No.”

She scrapes a nail over her board, tracing aimless shapes over the paper. “Riz?”


“Do you ever wish he had been around? Do you miss him?”

The silence comes back, but this time she is less worried she has done something wrong. This is the silence of Riz carefully organizing the thoughts in his head that runs so far ahead of his body.

“Not really,” he says quietly. “Mom has always been enough for me. And I’ve always had one of Mom’s friends around as another half-parent. I don’t know what having another parent would feel like. I’m figuring out my magic on my own. I’ve got friends. I’m not missing anything.” A pause, heavy. “And, you know. He’s a celestial. It’s been fifteen years. I sort of figured that, you know, the chances that he doesn’t know are pretty slim. No sense missing someone who doesn’t miss me.”

Fig closes her eyes under the weight of it, feels it drop in her stomach like weighted bags, spilling drifts of loose sand through her guts. “Ah,” she murmurs.

“Ah,” he echoes, and they both sit in silence for a long moment.

Her bones feel like they’ve been filled with lead, her chest clenched tight in a vice. She thinks about her friend, who she sometimes finds sleeping in her backpack during school, who is always hungry but saves her cherry scones whenever Fabian brings them snacks because he knows she loves them, whose magic makes her break out in hives but is still bright and wonderful. She thinks about anyone not wanting him, and she feels so angry, but mostly just really sad.

“Well, for what it’s worth,” she says, “if he knows, and didn’t do anything about it, he’s missing out. You’re really awesome.”

Riz snorts. “Says the rocker.”

“I mean it! You’re so smart, and dedicated. You’re a good rogue and a good friend and an awesome detective. You’re funny and brave and you make my life better. Anyone would be better to have you in their life.”

There’s silence for a moment, and then he says shyly, “You make my life better too. You’re amazing.” There’s a gap, here, some sliced-open wound of intimacy that Riz is too scared to share. Fig can feel it, the space between what he feels and what leaves his mouth.

But that’s fine. Fig knows. She feels his affection in the way he looks after them in fights, and the way he helps them keep track of their homework, and the way he saves her snacks. She recognizes the perpetual creeping fear in his eyes the way she would recognize herself in a mirror, that insidious whisper in the back of your head that whispers that one day the people you love will realize you’re not who they think you are, and decide that that person isn’t worth loving.

He doesn’t have to say it all. She knows. And she knows that he is wrong. She’ll probably be a little bit in love with these people forever, she thinks, as she listens to Adaine and Kristen argue about their ships, Fabian and Gorgug laughing on the other side. She’ll take them for as long as they’ll have her.

I’m glue, and you’re never getting away from me, she thinks at Riz, and hopes he can read the gaps in her speech like she can read his.

“And, hey,” Fig says, “if I had to guess, I would guess your dad doesn’t know.”


She leans her head against the concrete wall, looks down at the paper with little x-ed out ships on a hand-scrawled grid from paper he pulled out to make them all a board game to pass the time in their gray scrawl from day to day. A moment of small joy that he gave to them just to be kind.

“Because I can’t imagine knowing about you, and not wanting to know you,” she says honestly.

It sinks into the concrete, soaks in and through to reach Riz.

About twenty seconds later, there’s a shuffle on the other side of the brick, and, in the corner of Fig’s vision, a small green hand weaves through the bars into her cell. She scoots to the edge of the cell and takes his hand, squeezing so tightly that his claws cut into the back of her hand.

“Yeah,” he says, in a voice that means that he doesn’t believe her at all, but appreciates the sentiment nonetheless, “maybe.”

She rubs her thumb over his palm. “I can hear you doubting me. When have I ever been wrong?”

“So many times,” Riz laughs. “Not all of us can have cool devil dads that swoop in and adore us. Thanks, though.” He stops, and his voice is thoughtful but certain when he says, “I don’t think Gortholax went back to hell.”

Fig eyes his claws, so large in comparison to his hand, encompassing the whole final digit of his fingers, something so sharp against his soft hand holding hers. “My mom seemed pretty sure.”

“Your mom was also pretty sure you wouldn’t grow horns,” he says dryly. “I’ve seen the way he looks at you. He adores you, Fig. He was devastated that he missed you growing up. I don’t think he would want to miss any more time. He might be in trouble, which is bad in a different way, but I don’t believe for a second that he would leave you again.”

Fig blinks away tears and sniffs. “Well. You’re pretty smart. I guess I should believe you.”

“And, hey, you already found him once. You can do it again. Nothing can stop Fig Faeth.”

She grins, feels her fangs tug at her lips. They’re not as full or even as sharp as Riz’s fangs, but it still feels like a bright tether between them. Cutting minds and mouths full of fangs.

Once upon a time, a little wood elf girl named Figueroth would have been horrified. Fig happens to be pretty happy with who she is now.

“Damn straight.”

Riz squeezes her hand. “Okay. Now I have to finish crushing you at Battleship.”

Fig groans, but it gets caught in a laugh. Yeah. She’s happy with who she is now.

“Seventy-seven bottles of beer on the wall, seventy-seven bottles of beer!”

“Take one down, pass it around, seventy-six bottles of beer on the wall!”

“Seventy-six bottles of beer on the wall, seventy-six bottles of beer.”

“Take one down, pass it around, seventy-five bottles of beer on the wall!”

“Seventy-five bottles of beer on the wall-”

Yvoni drops another stack of papers on the table with a resounding thud that Sklonda feels ripple up through her elbows. She looks up to find her best friend with an absolutely thunderous expression on her face, her cornrows in disarray. “If that bitch at the precinct starts going on about the kids one more time, I’m gonna punch her stupid f*cking teeth out.”

Sklonda shoves aside the papers she’s currently examining, some old filing of similar reports regarding students from the Adventuring Academy, and grabs some new ones off the top of Yvoni’s stack. She shoves her glasses up her nose and uncaps her highlighter. “Keep it together,” she says, her voice tight. “We take it out on her, she could take it out on them.”

“Why is there so much gods-damned paperwork?” Sandra Lynn complains on Sklonda’s other side, rubbing at her forehead. At one point, her hair was pulled back into a no-nonsense braid, but after five hours of running her hands through her hair, it’s come mostly undone, huge strands sticking out in all directions.

“It’s actually a little confusing that there’s not more,” Yvoni grumbles. “For how many of these incidents we get from students at the Academy, the paper trail is miniscule. If we had more, we could figure out how in the Nine Hells Aguefort pulled strings like he did.”

Sklonda highlights a line about a body count (four with bludgeoning damage, seven with clear lightning marks) and viciously circles the bold stamp at the bottom of the photocopied page that reads, Case Dismissed. That Aguefort was getting his students off is clear. It’s how he did it that is sticking them up.

She scans over the page to see anything she might have missed. Clearly Aguefort students, clear body counts, clearly dismissed. There are thousands of these cases over the centuries the Academy has existed. Thousands of dismissals, and they’re holding up her kid and his friends for the same charges that were brushed away like old layers of dust before.

Sklonda pulls off her glasses to rub at the bridge of her nose, trying to ward off the headache that has been building for a few hours. She knows there are ways to pull strings behind the scenes. Stars know she’s done it a few times, dismissing small infraction cases that could have ruined kids’ lives, wishing she could do more, wishing she could do something different, knowing she doesn’t have any financial net to catch her and her kid if she leaves and can’t find something else right away.

Can’t leave, can’t stay. And so we endure, her mind whispers, an old goblin saying.

She picks up the page and tacks it up with countless others on her board that she has been building. Yvoni has been helping with the board. After years of working alongside Sklonda, she knows the drill. Sandra Lynn clearly has no idea what to do with the board, but that’s fine. She’s doing her best.

She examines the board, the string looped through the tacks from a portrait of Aguefort to the dismissed case files to her kid and his friends’ rap sheet. (It is, even for Adventuring Academy standards, ridiculously long, and they’re only in their freshman year. Sklonda is as concerned as she is perversely proud.)

Shuffling paper comes from behind her, and Sandra Lynn asks, “Hey, what was that law we highlighted about the regulations regarding registered adventurers?”

“Administrative, 49B through 49F,” Sklonda says without tearing her eyes away from the board. “It should be on the counter with the annotated law stack.”

There’s the shrill scrape of chair legs as Sandra Lynn pushes herself up and goes to the counter to rifle through the law stack. “You really remember everything, don’t you?”

“Mind like a steel trap,” Yvoni murmurs, beginning to highlight her own sheet off the stack she got. “It’s a little terrifying to work with her sometimes, honestly.”

Sklonda turns around to see Sandra Lynn lean her hip against the counter. “You're good at this.”

“I could be better,” she replies. If she were better, maybe the kids would be out by now. Maybe her kid would be out by now.

Her eyes flick, briefly, over to the sheet cordoning off Riz's bedroom, still half open, bed still untouched from the last night he was in the apartment, when she got home late at night to find him and all the girls passed out in a tangle on the couch.

The absence of Riz is almost as alive as he is, and excruciating in a way that Sklonda cannot unravel. She cannot separate this place from Riz, and so existing here without him is like trying to stand on bones that have been replaced with paper.

She tears her eyes away, forces herself to focus on Sandra Lynn. “I appreciate knowing how things work. I like helping people.”

Sandra Lynn huffs a laugh, smiling through the dark circles smeared under her eyes. “I can see that. When was the last time you slept?”

(Four hours minimum, kiddo. Proof of sleep, please.)

“I got a solid six hours last night,” she says, hoping that Sandra Lynn can't tell she's overestimating by about three hours.

Sandra Lynn accepts it, turning back to the papers in her hands. Yvoni, at the table, sets down her coffee cup to look over the lip at Sklonda with knowing eyes.

Sklonda avoids eye contact and prays that her friend doesn't cast Sleep on her. She's fine. It's fine. She'll sleep when her kid is home. The apartment is too quiet without his breathing, without his heartbeat occupying all the empty space between the sagging walls.

She pushes herself up into a chair at the table, accepting some of the papers Sandra Lynn hands her as she rejoins the two of them.

Sklonda picks up a highlighter, cracks a yawn, and sweeps a hand over the table. Drifts of stapled papers come away, peeling off the table to settle on the floor. She grabs her coffee, unearthed in the paper exodus, and takes a drink. It's full of the bitter dregs at the bottom of the pot that every else avoids like the plague, a strange mix of liquid and grit that has never put off Sklonda or Riz. It's cold.

Just two months ago, for the first time in years, Riz had heated up her coffee mug for her with his hands, given it to her with a shy, forced casualness, the same little kid that used to heal scrapes and reheat her drinks, halfway to grown-up. He got friends, started using his magic again, started growing like she's never seen before, and now it's just Sklonda and his absence and her cold coffee.

She presses the heels of her palms into her eyes to stave off tears. She'll cry when Riz is home.

(Again, the little voice in her head whispers, If things were better, the kids would already be out. Sandra Lynn telling her she's good at helping people, the little voice whispering, But are you really? Do you make anything better? The law guides on the table stare at her, taunting and tempting in equal measure.

Sklonda has always wanted to know things. These days, she's wondering if being a detective has ever actually helped anyone. She's wondering if she made the difference she wanted. She's wondering if there's more than one way for her to help people.)

She opens her eyes again and finds Yvoni staring at her, dark eyes serious and knowing. There are more lines on her face now, gray beginning to creep into her hair, but beyond that, she could be exactly the same as the woman who sat across from Sklonda fifteen years ago at this same table with a line of pregnancy tests sitting between them.

This is more than a best friend favor, these late nights scouring old cases. Riz is all but Yvoni’s kid, too.

“We're gonna get them back,” she says, looking at Sklonda, but she hears what her friend is too polite to say in front of Sandra Lynn, who is also missing a kid, when what she really means is, We're gonna get our kid back.

She reaches over to take her friend's hand and squeeze, Yvoni squeezing back hard enough that Sklonda's claws poke into her skin. “Yeah,” she says. “We will.”

And all three of them get back to work.

“Forty-three bottle of beer on the wall, forty three bottles of beer!”

“Take one down, pass it around, forty-two bottles of beer on the wall!”

“Forty-two bottles of beer on the wall, forty-two bottles of beer.”

“Take one down, pass it around, forty-one bottles of beer on the wall!”

“Forty-one bottles of beer on the wall-”

“Is there a word for celestial in Goblin?”

Riz, flat on his back with his legs up against the wall, staring at the ceiling, blinks. He tips his head to look sideways, even though there's no way he will see Kristen through the cinder block wall between them. Still, he can picture the look on her face, open curiosity making her eyebrows raise and mouth turn down and eyes glow with desire to know.

It's the middle of the night, or, at least, what Riz thinks is night. It's been weeks now, and his circadian rhythm has never been the most reliable. Regardless, all of them are up, letting Kristen ramble at them incoherently, talking to fill the silence, working as a white noise machine for the other kids.

The question came out of nowhere, and followed a very long monologue about how much she misses fried chicken, so Riz is a bit taken aback. “A word for celestial?”

“Yeah,” Kristen. “Like, you know, I know the elven word for celestial kinda translates to ‘heavenly thing', and the celestial translation means ‘highest existence’, so I guess I was just wondering if there's a difference in the Goblin translation.”

“A closer translation of the elven word would probably actually be ‘heavenly being' or ‘being of divine power',” Adaine comments, her voice dropping into scholar mode.

“Utterly fascinating,” Fabian drawls from his own cell. “Watch as a whole person becomes a sleeping soundtrack with the most boring corrections known to man.”

Riz winces as the air turns cold, literally, arcane energy leaking into the air.

“Fascinating,” she shoots back, her voice turning icy with irritation, “observe a local specimen, a teenage male utterly devoid of any curiosity or joy for life.”

“I am not devoid of any joy for life, I am devoid of desire to know the most mind-numbingly inane-”

“HEY!” Gorgug roars, his voice rattling off all the walls in a deafening roar that makes Riz flinch involuntarily and curl up into a ball, hands flying up to cover his ears as they pin back against his head. “Cut it out! We're all stressed! Stop being mean to each other!”

Riz looks straight across at the cell opposite his. This long after lights out, his darkvision is doing all the heavy lifting, and Gorgug's face, creased with irritation and painted in the muted grays of the night. His white hair is drooping in his eyes, his hands bunched up in the sleeves of his hoodie. He looks tired. They're all tired.

Days have dragged into weeks, and everyone is on their last nerve. The problems are exacerbated in the late hours of the night (or is it morning? Riz can't tell anymore). When the lights click off, all of them are on their own in the dark, just their voices carrying from cell to cell, and the ceiling becomes hands reaching down to crush them, their blind optimism no longer strong enough to keep the weight of their incarceration from looming.

In the darkness, they're a lot less likely to be mad at the situation, and a lot more likely to be mad at each other. Adaine and Fabian in particular have taken to snapping at each other, needling one another for lack of anything better to do.

Gorgug interceding seems to have brought some awareness to both of them, though, because they have fallen into ashamed silence.

“You were mean to each other,” he continues to prod, his voice more disappointed than mad, which really is worse. “You know what to do.”

A beat of hesitation.

“Sorry, Fabian,” Adaine says, voice subdued.

He sighs. “I apologize as well. Your fact was not boring. I mean, it was to me, but I am sure Kristen and The Ball appreciated it.”

Riz uncurls, removing his hands from his ears as it becomes clear that neither of them will be shouting again.

“I did appreciate it,” Kristen says.

“I want to hear the answer,” Fig chimes in curiously. “Is there a word for celestial in Goblin? I mean, there has to be, right? Ooh, is there a word for tiefling?”

“You all are ridiculous,” Fabian says, but there’s a certain fondness to his voice in contrast to the earlier irritation. He recovers fast, at least.

“Riz?” Kristen prods. “Are there words for those? Would they be, like, different in your dialect than others?”

“Dialect?” Fig asks.

“You have a dialect?” Adaine asks, surprised, and then, without waiting for a response, says, “Oh, wait. That’s stupid. I’m sorry. Of course you have a dialect.”

“What’s a dialect?” Gorgug asks.

“A dialect is a version of a language spoken by specific groups,” Adaine explains, “like the difference in Common between Solace and the Baronies.”

A soft oh comes from his cell, and Riz, from the corner of his eye, sees Gorgug nod as it clicks. “That makes sense,” he says.

“Wait, there are different groups of goblins?” Fig asks.

Riz’s stomach twists, and he closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose, his ears pinning back against his skull. A low growl slips past his clenched fangs, involuntary. He reminds himself that none of his friends are being malicious, they’re just uninformed.

He opens his mouth to begin the age-old lecture, (no, we’re not all the same, no, I can’t speak for all of us, yes, most of us are from the Mountains of Chaos but subcultures vary enormously) but is interrupted by, of all people, Fabian.

“What do you mean are there different groups of goblins?” he asks, baffled. “Of course there are different groups. That’s common knowledge.”

Riz blinks. He sits up, and turns to lean and peer through the darkness at Fabian’s cell. He hears similar shuffling from Kristen’s cell, and spots Adaine across the row also turning her head toward him through the wall.

“I mean, it makes sense now that I think about it, but I don’t think that’s as common as you think it is,” she says after a moment, but she sounds thoughtful, not accusatory. “How do you know that?”

He scoffs. “How do I know that? Everyone knows that. It’s not uncommon for goblins to join pirate crews, if you must know. There aren’t a ton of them, and it’s not always… the most friendly environment, but a lot of the culture has leaked out through the years, especially the oral traditions.”

“The oral what now?”

“Storytelling!” Riz all but yells, blood rushing to his face. “Oral storytelling! Stars, Kristen!”

“How can you blame me?! It was so easy to go there!”

Anyway,” Fabian says pointedly, “If you must know, there was a Se’veskat man on Papa’s old crew. A wizard. Apparently had absolutely devastating Lightning Bolt form.”

“Se’veskat?” Fig asks. “Is that your group, Riz?”

He snorts loudly. “Oh, hardly. The Ball and his mother might as well have the word Ka’liyah tattooed on their foreheads. Have you heard them speak? That’s a dead giveaway, right there.”

Riz stares at Fabian in open shock. “I didn’t know you knew that,” he says after a moment.

Through the darkness, he can see his friend’s expression, falsely casual, unbothered in a way that is deeply self-conscious. Fabian meets his eyes and shrugs. “It’s not a big deal.”

It is, and he knows it, and Riz knows it, and probably even their other friends know it.

The region the Ka’liyah populate in the Mountains of Chaos runs along the southwest border, in the foothills and jagged cliffs that run right up against the Swamps of Ruin, deep crevasses with swampy forest at the bottom and extensive, ancestral cave systems in the cliffs high above them.

The cave systems of the Ka’liyah region are fairly isolated from other regions, and over time, the song-based storytelling methods as opposed to the more theatrical styles of other regions gave the Ka’liyah dialect a distinct rhythm, more akin to the syncopated patterns of song melody than the more structured beat of any other goblin dialect. It’s something of a joke within goblin circles, actually, that one can track music through the streets and eventually find two Ka’liyah having a normal conversation.

When the humans and elves had pushed into the land that would eventually become the Baronies, they had systematically shoved out all the preexisting populations in the area. The Ka’liyah had been hit particularly hard, colonists killing with impunity out of sheer greed, trying to get to the rich silver and coal deposits in the cave systems.

Not that it had mattered, in the end. The ecosystems of the caves were full of intensely magical creatures that tolerated the existence of goblins within the system, and nothing else. Eventually, the humans and elves left the caves alone, the silver and coal not worth the massive death toll the deep cavern creatures caused.

They left, but the damage had mostly been done by that point. The hundred-year diaspora of the Ka’liyah population had left more of them outside of their ancestral homes than left in them. Some left for other regions of the mountains. A few scattered out to the pirate ships that were rampant at the time. A huge population had gone to what would eventually become Solace. Bastion City is almost twenty-percent goblin, and most of that is Ka’liyah.

Not that anyone ever knows that. Not that anyone ever understands that. Not that anyone ever recognizes the rhythmic swing that Riz learned from his mom’s tongue before he was old enough to understand that it meant anything at all.

Except that apparently Fabian does. Except that apparently Fabian has known for months, probably, and has never made a thing of it. His horrifically out-of-touch half-elf friend, who has been annoying about everything under the sun, except, maybe, for the fact that Riz is Ka’liyah. That he knew, and he knew it was important.

Riz swallows, his throat suddenly tight and his face hot, his skin tight in a way that is, for once, reassuring, not suffocating. The same strange flicker of understanding he had with Kristen and Tracker weeks ago, talking about Kirizayak. Some fear of disillusionment with a loved one flickering into nothingness.

“So, you and your mom are- Ka’liyah? Am I saying that right?” Adaine asks, her fingers tapping nervously on the ground as she looks at him.

“Yeah,” Riz says after a moment. “Yeah, you’re saying it right. And, yeah, we’re Ka’liyah. But my dialect is only really sonically different from most other dialects. The word differences are a lot less pronounced after the diaspora.” He takes a deep breath and bites his lip. “Actually, the term for Fig, Fabian, Gorgug and I is the same. Ielanq. It means, like- two-for-one person. You’re not half of each side, you’re all of both sides smushed into one. Two-hundred percent person.”

Riz isn’t sure he has always felt like ielanq. He’s not sure how to be one-hundred percent of something he’s never seen. He’s certainly Ka’liyah, but how much celestial is he, really?

Then again, maybe it doesn’t have to be one-hundred percent celestial. Maybe it just has to be one-hundred percent whatever Riz is: magical coffee heater, sidewalk scrape healer, backyard, back-alley apartment angel. Maybe that’s enough to make a two-for-one person.

“Two hundred percent,” Fig says quietly, her voice delicate in a way that Riz wants desperately to protect. He thinks of Fig, who grew horns and threw away her mother because she was so mad and betrayed, who fell into punk-rock tiefling teenage years with all the recklessness of someone who didn’t think about what she might have been losing. He wonders if maybe she felt, when her horns came in, like she had to stop being a wood elf. Like she had to say goodbye to that whole chunk of herself.

“Two hundred percent,” she says again, and it’s sad but strong. “That’s a cool word. Ielanq. And that’s all of us?”

He smiles. “All of us. We don’t make distinctions for who the parents were.”

“I like that. We’re all being two hundred percent people together.”

“You are insufferably sappy,” Fabian says, but he sounds suspiciously choked up in a way that makes Riz’s tail wave.

“What’s the word for celestial?” Kristen asks.

He looks down at his hands, at his long, heavy claws and the stained-glass watermarks across his skin, a map of rivers over the topography of his body. “Kirizdue,” he says finally, feeling it settle in around him, over him, through him. “It’s not- it’s not an exact translation, because we don’t really believe in permanent states of existence in any other plane. Everything eventually cycles into something else.

“The best translation would probably be, risen spirit, or changed energy. It’s just the word for a soul that is in a temporary place of existence between cycles, and it exists as pure energy on its own for a while before it becomes something new. Not celestial in the sense that it’s magically heavenly, but celestial in the sense that it is the most concentrated state energy can exist in without a body.

“We actually believe that energy is at its strongest when it is within a body. Our kirizdue are powerful, but they’re stronger inside a body. We’re all kirizdue at some point, until we become something new again.” He clears his throat, folds his fingers in around the soft center of his palms. “Yeah. So. That’s the word.”

Silence falls for a moment, quiet enough that he can hear the faint hum of the magic blockers running through the cell walls, the faint thrum of his friends’ hearts, muffled through the walls but still there. Still there.

“Riz,” Kristen says, cutting the quiet, “I really love your religion.” Her voice is soft, awed, delicate and full of the unique sense of comfort he has only really seen from her in her moments closest to the divine. For all the stress it has put her through, Kristen loves being a cleric. And for her to take so much comfort and joy from Riz’s religion, which has always been something he kept close to his chest for fear of judgment, makes his chest grow warm and his tail wave, embarrassed but delighted.

“That’s a good word,” Adaine says, her voice fond. “Thank you for sharing it for us.”

“Cool as hell,” Fig says. “I still like the other word better though.”

“I like that one too,” Gorgug adds shyly, and when Riz looks over, his eyes are focused on him with a centered energy and calm admiration that makes Riz flush, his ears tipping down and then back up again.

He smiles at his friend through the darkness like a blanket, like a shield. “I figured you would,” he says. He watches the way Gorgug’s hands play with his hoodie strings, hears the way Fig shuffles, sees Fabian lean back against the wall and lean his head back to still watch them all, and he thinks, I’m starting to like it more, too.

“Okay, so,” Fig says, “is anyone else actually going to sleep now?”

They all exchange looks. No one says anything.

“Sweet!” she says. “You know what I think it’s time for?”

No,” Fabian says. “I thought you were joking about continuing.”

“I never joke about shenanigans! If we can’t get out, we might as well entertain ourselves.”

“This is degrading.”

“Come on, Fabian,” Riz says with a needling, fanged grin that earns him a heatless glare and nothing more. “Have a sense of fun.”

He kicks the bars of his cell and huffs exaggeratedly. “I have an excellent sense of fun, one for teenagers, not for kindergarten teachers.”

There’s a flash of warm golden light from the cell next to Riz’s, and a llama-shaped shadow appears on the wall across from Kristen’s cell. “Sounds like we just need to teach Fabian about the joy of activities with friends, huh, Mr. Squiggly?” before immediately responding in a ridiculous, exaggerated elven accent to say, “We sure do, Kristen! And who better to do that than-”

“The Shadow Pals!” Fig and Adaine cheer together.

There’s a heavy thunk as Fabian slams his head against the wall, and Riz dissolves into giggles.

“Where did we leave off last time?” Gorgug asks.

“Mr. Squiggly and Mrs. Dove had just gone to the carwash and learned about the importance of taking care of our things,” Adaine says with an exaggerated seriousness that Riz knows is equal parts delight to do something so silly, and joy at irritating Fabian.

Riz also knows that Fabian is not nearly as bothered by the puppet show as he pretends. He sees how Fabian watches it too closely to be pure disdain, sees the way his ears sometimes flick out of his posturing into signals Riz recognizes far more clearly, ones much more akin to his own body language. But, well, if Fabian won’t say it, Riz will keep his secret for him too.

“Can we get a hand over here, Mr. Gukgak?” Fig giggles.

“Why, of course, Miss Faeth,” he says, doing an elaborate bow that makes Gorgug stifle a smile across from him. He opens his palms and lets the water flow from his veins to pool in his hands, overflowing from his soul. Light blooms between his fingers, swirling like lazy water currents, a sunset gold that curls into dusky blue and purple where it ripples. He lets the light cantrip puddle around his ankles and drift into all the other cells to beam from behind.

Immediately, Fig’s bird-shaped Mrs. Dove appears on the wall, and begins chattering about, “Oh, what a lovely day with my wonderful friends. I think I shall bake a cake. But, oh no! I am all out of ingredients!”

Mrs. Dove is quickly joined by Mr. Giraffe, Adaine’s shadow puppet, who quickly makes a plan with her to go to the store so they can bake a cake together. They borrow pans in an elaborate bit with Gorgug’s shadow puppet, Mr. Slitherby, who provides the pans for the cake as well as the recipe, which is so detailed Riz suspects Gorgug is using an actual recipe he knows.

Riz, operating the lighting for the shadow puppets, has no free hands left with which to participate, but sits back to watch the show play out over the segmented brick, shadows full of life and his friends’ laughter flitting over the bars, unimpeded by physical objects. Kristen and Fig, in cells on either side of him, make their shadow puppets hug on the walls, and he could cry or laugh, but mostly just thinks he could crack right open from love.

The whole time, the water flows through him, clear and strong, a river running on through its natural course. He spent so long terrified of this, he thinks, watching Mr. Slitherby wriggle over the walls and tell Mrs. Dove and Mr. Giraffe that they have to be sure to grease their pans. So scared of this, and for what? Wasted years.

Kristen was right, he thinks. It still scares him sometimes, but maybe his magic doesn’t have to be something he swallows. Maybe it can be one tool of many. Maybe it can be something that he loves, too.

After all, he’s here in the darkness with all of his friends, using tiny pockets of light to make the loneliness less lonely, to make the terror less terrifying. He watches them hold each other through the touch of their own shadows, and thinks that everyone that ever taught him that his magic was bad was wrong.

Magic, after all, is only an extension of the person who wields it. Magic has no morality. If Riz does bad things with it, it will be bad. If he does good things with it, it will be good.

He thinks about watching his friends’ wounds close under his fingers. He thinks about reheating his mom’s coffee in her favorite mug. He thinks about their shadow puppets, a moment of comfort and shared joy in the darkness when everything else is so scary. These are good things. Riz can be good. He is good.

The crack in his chest, the fault line carved open by years of terror, years of abuse, years of waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting for people to hate him, shudders. It doesn’t close. He doesn’t think those things ever close. But it stops deepening. Maybe he doesn’t have to hate himself forever. Maybe he can be ielanq as just himself, and that can be enough.

Locked in jail with all his friends. It’s a strange place to have a self-revelation, maybe. But when has Riz ever done anything the normal way?

His magic hitches, and then pulls stronger, faster, deeper. The light still flowing from his fingers pulses with a brilliant surge of energy, lighting up the whole cell block and throwing his friends’ faces into deep shadows and stained-glass hues.

The shadow puppet show pauses as everyone turns to look at him.

“The Ball?” Fabian says. “Are you okay?”

Riz laughs, wide and a little broken but finally, finally, starting to be at peace. “Perfect,” he says. “Keep going.”

“Ah, sh*t. Does anyone remember what beer bottle number we left off at last time?”

“f*ck. Was it sixty-two?”

“I thought it was twenty-two.”

“You all have the memories of a bird that has slammed into a window one too many times. It was absolutely fifty-eight.”

“I… don’t think that’s right.”

“Damn. No telling. …Well, only one thing to do. Once more, from the top, with feeling! All together, now. One, two, one, two, three, four!”

“Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall, ninety-nine bottles of beer!”

Riz wakes up, and has a niggling feeling that today means something. And then he remembers. It’s the fifteenth.

It’s prom.

Priesthoods and Beasthoods - Chapter 6 - What_Is_A_Mild_Opinion (2024)
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