My world consisted of pain and misery. Never-ending agony. Inescapable loneliness. I hadn't been awake long, and already it felt like an age had passed. I couldn't count the number of days I still needed to wait. My mind didn't want to handle that level of pain.
Somehow, I must endure the unendurable.
Father and Aunt Kyra slept near me, fitful, and with eyes open. Uncle Calsean screamed from his lair below, but I knew he continued to sleep. I'd yet to explore our stronghold; how many others of our circle slept here? I had only the vaguest sense of our allies, of my Marauders, and lacked the strength to find any of them.
My focus must remain on Father and my beloved Elthanael. I was their anchor. They'd be lost without me holding onto their souls.
The crystal core pulsed anew, bright and icy, wrenching a small cry from me. As tall as I, with a girth I could circle my arms around, the pale blue crystal fueled Father's mission, held open the gate he needed access to. I felt myriad versions of him, refracted and amplified throughout the multiverse, and I held a sliver of each, reminding him of the path home.
And though it hurt like a thousand razor cuts to my heart, I couldn't break away from the core. I would endure anything to save my father. Even pain-induced insanity.
A new sound entered my awareness. So familiar, but so very long since I'd heard it. Unsure it was real, I perked up, glancing at the arched windows around the room. I had to be hallucinating; the Six Winds were surely cursed to sleep, same as us.
The sound grew louder, resolving into the constant universal hum of a celestial diva. A breeze gusted, carrying the loamy musk of a dragon. Tears of relief sprang to my eyes as I turned to the northern window. Sly leaned against one side, grinning like a fool in his elven form. "How goes it, Auntie?"
My knees gave out, and I collapsed with a sob. Pain faded to a distant ache as I basked in the Stygian dragon's aura. I wasn't alone!
He rushed to my side while the rest of Six Winds entered the tower chamber. I sobbed brokenly as Sly embraced my, and I had no concern about showing weakness in front of them. They were family, they were friends, and - most importantly - they were here. Awake, aware, and at my side.
"Aunt Morri, what's wrong?" Genuine concern filled a voice normally colored with humor. He ran a hand over my shorn hair, rocking me gently. His presence wrapped around me like his wings would, and I experienced safety and love for the first time since I'd regained conciousness.
The entire group waited silently as I regained my composure. Yrta dampened her song, reducing the hum of the universe to a background note. Their smell, their presence, their familiarity all gave me strength, helped me think of something other than pain. When the tears finally stopped, I sat up to stare at my nephew. My fellow assassin.
My beloved's son.
"It's falling apart." The remaining words died in my throat, fresh sobs rising from my chest. A wave of pain wracked me, and I cringed.
"No wonder you look like shit." This from Zhev. He said it with a wry smile, trying to keep the mood light. I smiled back at him, too happy to finally have company to let the misery keep me down.
But I knew what he meant. I hadn't spent much time before a mirror, but I knew my hair was a ragged mess, my skin more gray than silver. My wings were nothing but bloody stumps, and a mass of fresh scars covered my right arm and torso. My eyes had been too sunken and haunted for me to do more than glance at them; how could Sly continue to look right at me?
"Tell me," the other half-dragon said softly, keeping an arm around me. The breeze stirred long black hair, and I realized something had hardened behind his eyes. The Six Winds had clearly suffered in their return to the Shalafaes.
I took his free hand and raised it to my lips, then gave the other five assassins long looks. Several moments passed before I could actually speak. "It's a really long story." I began and they listened. It felt good to have someone to talk to again. And not just someone to listen, but someone who could actually help me.
Sly kissed my cheek. "We're here now, Auntie. What missions would you have us do?" I laid my head on his shoulder in relief, smiling deeply.