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Lessa

[PP - F3] Sanctuary

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Bahr frowned a bit at Lessa's inquiry, his brows quirking into a mixture of confusion and disappointment. She wanted to stay if he got kicked out? But if that happened, he wouldn't be there to have her back if anything went awry. And what if there was something else to how these people were being controlled? A drug, like Lessa had postulated, or perhaps something like a unique skill that Dominic possessed? Stranger things had happened within the walls of the floating castle Aincrad.

I've got to trust her.

Bahr wasn't sure where the mysterious voice of reason in his head had come from, but when it sounded, he gave a resigned sigh. He did need to trust her. Whatever happened after he was gone, he was positive she could handle it. "Yeah, alright. Feelings aside, we need to finish the mission. If my actions have put that in jeopardy, then I'll leave willingly and let you finish the job." It felt cheap. Bahr really hadn't done much of anything, other than confusingly skulking about the premises with much the same wonder and worry that Lessa had. That, and riled up an entire colony of brainwashed goons.

It occurred to him that it would be very possible for them to have people posted outside by the time he left, if it came to that. People that could have been skilled in combat, or high leveled. It was something to consider. He'd activate Parry upon his departure, just in case. Worrying Lessa about what-ifs wouldn't do him any good now, though.  

"If anything happens, though, or you start getting really sinister vibes, you get out of there. If you're in a situation where you can't, you message me. If they're watching over your shoulder or something, we can just use a pass phrase." But what sort of pass phrase could they use? "I guess, in a situation like that, just call me a dick in the message. I think that should do just fine."

A grin stretched across his face as he continued to stare directly into those deep, blue eyes of hers. Funny how that message had become one of their things. It was unique, and completely theirs.

"But yeah. Let me know if you feel unsafe. I'll come running."

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Prepared for argument or anger, Lessa was startled when Bahr responded positively. Sure, hesitation lurked just below the surface, but it was still confirmation. Finally, they were on the same page again. It felt really, really good, but she could tell he wasn't crazy about the idea. Was he upset at the prospect of being thrown out? Or was he really that concerned about leaving her behind? If it were the latter, or even a mixture of the two, it was a pretty sweet gesture. She hated to worry him.

"Look," Lessa began slowly, her free hand reaching to squeeze his shoulder. "I really hope it doesn't come to all that. I'd much rather have you here with me." Her lips quirked with a small smile. "I mean, if those kids end up needing a basketball partner, I'd do a really garbage job of it. So if you could stay around, that would be great."

A cloud drifted across her face, momentarily shading her pleasant expression. "But I won't be able to forgive myself if we don't try. I want to just see Rainey, so I can tell Lilik that we saw her, and that she's okay. If we can't do more than that... well, at least we did something. We tried."

Seconds later, the cloud disappeared, and true warmth filtered through again. "That's a terrible panic phrase," she informed him, her hand moving up his arm, over his shoulder, and coming to rest on his cheek. "What happens if I'm totally fine, but I just want to call you a dick?"

She was touching his face. Their lips were mere inches apart. His eyes were on hers. They were in a bed together. 

Danger zone.

"Okay," Lessa announced suddenly, drawing away from him. "I think our eight minutes are up. Better get after it." Leaving the warmth and closeness behind nearly pulled a disappointed groan from her, but she bit it back as she swung her legs out from under the quilt. Her face twisted, and she winced as her bare feet met the icy floor. "Cold cold cold," she whimpered under her breath, high-stepping toward the corner of the room where a floral rug lay. Only once she stood atop it did she summon her inventory and equip her usual garb. Turning back, she saw that Bahr had done the same. He had one arm in the crimson coat, entirely oblivious to her eyes on him, so she indulged in a quick peak. Okay, yeah, red is definitely his color.

Averting her gaze when he glanced back toward her, Lessa lingered by the closed door until he joined her there. Her eyes combed the pretty little room, the fragile decorations, the rumpled quilt on the queen bed. They'd entered riding high on fury and vitriol, a drug shot directly into their veins. But leaving? Well. Lessa cast a shy glance toward Bahr, who was reaching for the door. They might as well leave on the opposite end of the spectrum. 

Before he could turn the knob, she reached up to tug on the front of his jacket. Instinctively, he turned, opening himself up to her as she bounced on her toes and planted a quick kiss against his lips. She smiled as she rolled back onto her heels. "Sorry, go ahead," she told him. "I'd just been wanting to do that for a while now."

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Bahr didn't even try to hide the disappointed huff as she slinked away, letting his body lay limp in the bed for a few moments before groggily forcing himself to sit up. He rubbed his eyes absently with one hand while the other opened his menu, from which he selected his typical garb to replace the nighttime attire he'd dawned the evening before. As he did, he couldn't help but notice the time read 7:59 AM. He'd been cheated out of a minute laying there with her. But it was alright. He'd get that minute back at one point or another.

He grabbed his coat, which was still draped over the ruffled quilt. One sleeve at a time, he pulled it over him, pretending not to feel Lessa's prying eyes from the other side of the room. It wasn't that he minded it. In fact, there was almost a twisted sense of pride that filled him, if he thought about it. She's looking at me. Nobody else. Certainly not Dominic. But he pushed the thoughts from his mind as quickly as they cropped up. It was time to focus, and it was this focus that carried him from the bed and to the door.

Where it was immediately shattered upon Lessa's lips suddenly meeting with his. "Sorry, go ahead. I'd just been wanting to do that for a while now." It was no use trying to conceal his smile. She'd given him just what he needed.

As they exited the room, Bahr was surprised to find that there was a bit more bustle at this hour than he had been expecting. Perhaps everyone in the compound was an early bird, but something felt a bit off about it. While people had largely milled about at their own pace the day before, everyone now seemed driven by a focused energy. They scuttled through the halls with nervous urgency, all seemingly headed in the same direction. "Something's up. Let's follow them."

As it turned out, the Defiled Church had a back door. People of the flock funneled through the small cavity in droves, making their way into the enclosed forest that lay beyond. Bahr waited patiently for an opening rather than muscling his way past the countless pigeons, who seemed more numerous now than they did the night before. No doubt some of them would still be perturbed by what he had said. Best not to ruffle any more feathers.

It was when they'd finally made their way outside that the infectious bustle they'd been afflicted with came to a screeching halt. There stood Nancy, of course, with he hand held up as though to halt the pair, though the perpetual smile on her face belied the imposing gesture. As the rest of the herd scuttled past and through the grove, Nancy's hand fell to her side. "Sister Lessa is welcome to join us," she explained. "But not Bahr. You'll need to stay behind."

He cast a nervous glance toward Lessa, who seemed equally uneasy about the whole ordeal. This wasn't exactly what they'd discussed, but it ran along the same vein. Bahr knew better than to go back on a plan he'd formulated with Lessa, as the last time it had had nearly fatal consequences. With a resigned sigh, he replied, "I understand. Go ahead. I'll be waiting for you."

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"Sister Lessa is welcome to join us. But not Bahr. You'll need to stay behind."

Lessa's stomach plummeted, as if she'd just been tossed over a rollercoaster's peak. She had known it was coming, but actually hearing Nancy speak the words leaked anxiety into her system. Her first instinct was to grab for Bahr, hold on, and squeeze just a bit more confidence from him. Her logical side kept her from doing so. If Brother Jeff Probst and his flock had voted Bahr off the island, further associating with him might paint a target on her own back. Even if Nancy had hinted at relations the night before, her eternal smile didn't seem quite right this morning. Looking closer, Lessa noticed something else swirling in her big doe eyes. Definitely something up.

She had to get back in character. "Bye," came Lessa's dismissal, hardly sparing Bahr a glance. All the while, her heart swelled with every step she took away from him. Please, please forgive me.

The scene reminded Lessa of the moments after a sporting event or concert, when masses of people simply moved as a single unit toward a shared destination. This journey's end, it seemed, was an amphitheater. The half-circle of benches were carved into a hillside, with the valley dominated by a stage. Beyond lie... nothing. Clouds. The end of the world. Lessa's muscles tensed as the first tendrils of dread began to lick at her. This isn't right.

"So what's going on?" Lessa casually asked Nancy, the two women falling into step as they approached the first row of benches. "Seems like a big deal, whatever it is."

The other woman's blonde, corkscrew curls bounced as she nodded. "Brother Dominic is going to speak to us this morning. It seems he has a surprise for us."

"And he can't just deliver it in the cafeteria?"

Now Nancy shook her head, plump lips pursing in disapproval. "Oh no. When there is a big announcement to make, we always meet at the Lighthouse." At Lessa's quizzical expression, she explained, "It isn't a literal lighthouse, of course. It is just where we are closest to the Light. Where we can best see it, and allow it to guide us to what we really desire."

Now, dread gave way to true fear.

"Going to be honest with you, Nancy," Lessa quipped, trying to keep the mood light despite the sickness that dogged her. "I'm not sure I like the sound of this."

Nancy's hand found hers, squeezed. "Everything will be alright, Sister Lessa. You'll see. Brother Dominic will explain everything, and then he'll show you the Light too."

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"Bye."

Lessa's departure was flippant and callous, dismissing Bahr as though pleased to be rid of the annoyance his company wrought. But he knew better. Or, at least, he figured it out after a few owlish blinks. She was playing the role of pissed off partner. Bahr was a little surprised, given the jarring shift from lovey-dovey to this, but appreciated the genius behind it. He put on his best fake sour face in response, which turned out to be pretty easy given the annoyed scowl he often wore. His facial muscles were trained for this sort of thing.

As Lessa and Nancy departed, the jollier of the two trailed a few paces behind before stopping and looking back toward Bahr, as though to ensure he wasn't following. He jeered at her before shoving his hands into the pockets of his coat. "Just go, Nancy. I've got no interest in hanging around you freaks any longer than I need to, anyways." Ouch. He didn't mean that, honestly. But he had a role to play as well. Bahr being an asshole would be easier for her to buy and dismiss than fake platitudes or niceties. Which, she did, her eyes narrowing toward him before she turned and began taking longer strides to catch up the blonde accompanying her.

The plan, originally, had been to stay put. He'd meant it when he decided he would trust Lessa, and not violate the wishes of the commune. It had been the truth when he said he wouldn't follow them to wherever it was they were going. Well, mostly the truth. Actually, it was a complete lie, as Bahr discovered when his feet began carrying him of their own accord. He tiptoed through the forest as quietly as he possibly could, trailing far enough behind the pair that he could easily conceal himself when the situation called for it. It seemed that his rouse had been a success, however, and the moment to hide never arrived. He still stuck to the shadows and remained out of sight as best he could, but not once did they turn around to see if anyone was following them. 

It wasn't that he didn't trust her. He did. He just didn't trust the situation. Least of all, Dominic. Besides, he'd be lying to himself if he said he wasn't at least a little curious as to how this little meeting would unfold. 

The trek through the grove was a short one, opening up to a staging area that rested on the edge of the castle. Bahr's breath hitched as he took in the spectacle. There sat the entire commune, on their little benches surrounding the stage, blissfully unaware of how dangerous an area such as this could be. Bahr checked his HUD for a "Safe Zone" indicator, but didn't find one. Seemed they'd left that safety behind when the exited the church. All it would take is a rampaging mob to send swaths of these unaware fools hurtling off of the edge and into oblivion.

Or there could be something far more sinister at play here.

Nah. There's no way Dominic could be thinking that. Even if he was crazy, Bahr didn't see someone so measured and methodical as him resorting to such extreme measures. It was more likely that they convened here on occasions to discuss important matters. Such as an abrasive jackass infiltrating their quiet home and insinuating their entire way of life was a lie, perhaps.

He couldn't get much closer without revealing himself, but he was too far away to reliably hear whatever Dominic had to say. The man paced the stage as he waited for everyone to settle, having not kicked off their little meeting yet. Bahr took the opportunity to move in while he had it, hoping he could get close enough to make out words before the speech began. As such, the Disguise Skill was conjured, warping the light around Bahr's body in a way that made him virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the landscape. Because the light was being curved around him, the pocket of space that he occupied was pitched into darkness, making everything appear smoky as he peered through the sheet of shade. It almost made him feel a little bit like Harry Potter with his invisibility cloak.

So long as he didn't make any sudden movements, remained focused, and avoided combat, Bahr could maintain this state for an hour, at least. So he stepped out from behind his cover - carefully -  and started making his way down the slope toward the congregation. He selected a nice vantage point beside the stage where he got a bird's eye view of the action just before things got started. Amidst the crowd, Bahr was able to pick out Lessa's face easily. She looked... worried. Like something bad was about to happen. It twisted Bahr's gut a bit to see that, as he'd been suppressing his own anxieties about what could happen here. 

I hope she won't be mad, Bahr thought to himself. This is the second time I've gone back on one of our plans.

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They settled, side by side, on the bench. Only a few steps separated Lessa from the front of the empty stage, providing her with a front row seat to the spectacle. Whatever that spectacle would be. She had a very, very bad feeling about it.

Distantly, she heard Nancy ask, "Did you and Bahr have a good night?"

"Huh?" Lessa blinked, frowned. "Oh. It was fine." She ducked her head, letting her hair fall across her face like a golden curtain. Lessa was able to act her way out of tough situations, but the ability to hide a blush just wasn't in her repertoire. 

Fortunately, big-hearted Nancy mistook the gesture for one of regret. "Now don't you worry. None of that was your fault." She reached over to pat Lessa's hand, sympathy slathered across every word when she added, "It's a shame, too. He seemed like such a nice boy."

Dominic's appearance brought about an expectant silence, and saved Lessa from having to respond. As the crowd hushed, the guild leader strode onto the stage, black robes billowing behind him. The heels of his shiny dress shoes clipped across a surface still damp from the previous night's rain. When he came to a halt, and lifted his hands for silence from an already still audience, Lessa inhaled sharply.

It really is a cult. 

"Brothers and sisters," Dominic began, his voice low, and rich with forced vibrato. It was if he channeled his inner Southern Baptist Preacher, and Lessa shifted uneasily on the bench. He'd always had a flair for the dramatic, but this was a whole new level. What did this mean? Was the story of Sanctuary approaching it's conclusion? Lessa didn't like where it was heading. "Thank you so much for joining me today. As you know, I don't often keep you from your morning pancakes." He paused to paint a thin smirk across his lips, and light-hearted laughter rolled through the audience.

Once it had passed, he continued. "Unfortunately, we are now facing a crisis unlike anything we've ever seen. For so long, we have existed as a peaceful community, separate from the Otherworld. We've kept to ourselves, doing no harm." Dominic's handsome face hardened, disgust and anger forming an expression that chilled Lessa's blood. "After last night, however, our way of life has come under attack. Bahr will surely take word of what he's seen here to the Otherworld. Our beliefs will be dissected, our methods will be questioned, and our people will be threatened." He ticked off each new point on a raised finger, hand held high for his followers to see. "When the players come for us, they will force us to join their world - to fight their monsters, to act as prey. We are not prey."

He was really building up a head of steam, but Dominic seemed to hesitate when one shaky voice called, "But won't we be safe behind the locked door?"

Sounds of agreement rippled through the flock, and someone else shouted encouragingly, "Yeah! No one else is smart enough to figure out the riddle!"

Trapped in his first lie. To his credit, Dominic recovered quickly. "Yes, Brother Warren, that may be so. But we must now fear an internal attack. The seeds of doubt were sown last night, and the corruption will spread like a disease. Anyone who looks away from the Light, for even a moment..." His voice trailed. "Well, such weakness might result in a door being opened, ushering in the end of all we've ever known."

Nice save, Lessa thought bitterly, jaw clenching as the fear mongering unfolded before her. Turn the flock against each other, weed out the non-believers. Smart. But it wasn't going to work. Someone would stand up to him, right? Before-

"Now is the time to act," Dominic announced, drawing the crowd's attention back to himself. "We must seek the Light now, before that choice is stolen from us. Surely, even now, the players of the Otherworld march on our gate."

Lessa's hands balled into fists, sick fury roiling in her gut. How did that make any sense? Surely Dominic knew that Bahr had only left moments before. Even if he'd wanted to, he couldn't have amassed an army and brought it back here in such a short amount of time. Yet the crowd was simply eating it up, nodding along with these preposterous statements. I'm losing them, Lessa thought weakly. They're falling for him, if they haven't already fallen. They'll follow him anywhere.

Falling.

It hit her. 

"We must be the masters of our own destinies."

Her voice sounded tinny as she muttered, "Someone do something."

"We must take fate into our own hands, and live our lives on our own terms."

"Someone stop him."

"We must finally meet the Light, and join with it, to escape this Hell while we still can."

Lessa charged to her feet.

So did Olivia.

"Stop it right now, Dominic."

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When Dominic took the stage, things started to get... weird. While Bahr had been getting cult-vibes before, they were only cemented with the way that Dominic commanded the crowd with his gestures and rolled straight into upright manipulation. Bahr had created a crisis? By merely showing up and challenging the absurdity of their worldview? It was preposterous. The idea that Bahr had the political pull to amass a following of players willing to forcefully remove a peaceful colony from their homes based on nothing more than his opinion would have made him scoff, if he didn't think it would blow his cover. Newsflash, asshole. I'm an outcast in the 'Otherworld,' too.

And what the hell was he wearing? Actual cult garb? The tailoring on the robes was sub-par, at best. Bahr would be embarrassed to wear them for more than one reason.

"But won't we be safe behind the locked door?"

Bahr recognized that voice. Benjamin.

"Yeah! No one else is smart enough to figure out the riddle!"

A smirk crawled across Bahr's face as the consequences of Dominic's lies began to close in all around him, murmurs of agreement and confusion permeating the crowd. But the satisfaction quickly faded as the man masterfully deflected all of it. Now he was blaming them? "I don't trust any of you. You've been shown a nugget of truth, and now I must clamp down on the lies so that no room for error remains." That's how the situation read to Bahr. Though he may have put on a front of confidence, the reality of the situation was clear. Dominic was fearful. He knew that the empire he had constructed was only as stable as the lies it was built upon. He was afraid that Bahr's brief speech had started a crack in the foundation, and that it was now only a matter of time before the whole structure came tumbling down.

"Now is the time to act. We must seek the Light now, before that choice is stolen from us. Surely, even now, the players of the Otherworld march on our gate."

Wait a second...

"We must be the masters of our own destinies."

He can't be serious...

"We must finally meet the Light, and join with it, to escape this Hell while we still can."

No.

Bahr stood suddenly from his crouched position, the dirt shifting slightly beneath his feet. It was a subtle sound, but Dominic was sharp enough to pick up on it, his eyes flickering straight toward where Bahr stood. No doubt, he saw the telltale shimmer of Disguise's outline from the jarring shift, as he squinted in an attempt to discern what it was. The trained eye could identify the fluctuation of light for what it was, but that didn't bother Bahr at all. It was time to make his mo-

"Stop it right now, Dominic."

Saved by... Olivia? The deaf mute? Seemed she had a voice after all, and had chosen to reveal it not a moment too soon. It immediately captured Dominic's attention, though Bahr still caught him stealing glances at his position out of the corner of his eye. He knew something was up. He just didn't know what. Bahr's eyes shifted back to the crowd, where he noticed that Lessa was standing alongside Olivia. Of course she wouldn't let something like this play out uninterrupted. It seemed, too, that the crowd had settled into a state of unease as well. Hushed whispers rippled through the flock, and though Bahr couldn't make out the words, he could tell from the expressions of the people. A number of them had grown uncomfortable with Dominic's speech, and its insinuations. An equal number stared on at their "prophet" as though he had just delivered the news they so longed to hear. They would follow him off the face of the Earth if he asked. And he would let them.

"That's enough," she started as she began taking steps toward the stage. "I've played along with this for too long. I'm not even sure why I have. Maybe it was my desire to feel safe here? Part of something bigger? Familial obligation? I don't know. I didn't want to step on your toes, because you're my big brother. But I can't let you do this."

Wait. She's his sister? 

The crowd was plunged into silence once more as she climbed onto the stage. It was unlike anything Bahr had seen. Sure, there'd been an uncomfortable silence when Bahr had interrupted dinner the night before. But this? It was otherworldly.

"Sis... What are you doing?" His tone was slow and measured, but held a tinge of annoyance. For the first time since they'd met Dominic, the mask was slipping. He appeared visibly uncomfortable. 

"What I should have done a long time ago. I was all for helping you give people purpose and a safe place to live, which I genuinely believe this started out as. But over time, the original meaning was lost, and things gradually became stranger and stranger. You became a stranger."

"You're not feeling well, Sister Olivia. Perhaps you should go lie down. Sister Nancy, would you be willing to escort my sister back to the church so she can get some rest."

"Absolutely, Brother Do-"

"Stop it," Olivia interjected crudely, snapping her face toward Nancy. "You won't be taking me anywhere." Nancy seemed shocked by the words. Someone was defying Brother Dominic? The gall! And Nancy of all people shouldn't have had to take guff from anyone! She was in Dominic's inner circle, after all. She even sat at the head table with him during their meals! Though, so too did Olivia. "Has this been the plan all along, Liam?" she inquired sternly, shifting her attention back to her brother. "Or did the thought occur to you somewhere along the way? How long have you been planning this? To lead these people into oblivion." She took another step forward, her face mere inches from his, each syllable of the following sentence enunciated like a punch to the gut. "Is this what happened to Gabriel?"

Audible gasps could be heard in the crowd, along with a few hushes. Once again, everything plunged into eerie silence.

"Sister Olivia," he began, a dignified expression returning to his face as he straightened his posture and stared domineeringly into the eyes that matched his. The conversation had gone on too long, and he'd adjusted to the shock of his sister turning on him. He was getting back into his stride. "I understand that the sudden disappearance of your love has been a painful endeavor to digest, but we all have our crosses to bear."

He was dismissing her entirely on the basis of an emotional reaction. Bahr's stomach flipped repeatedly like a pancake on a hot skillet as he worked his jaw, doing everything in his power not to leap onto the stage and give the crooked charlatan a piece of his mind. 

"You know you can always come talk to me," he assured he as he placed a hand firmly on her shoulder. "You don't need to go through this alone. We are all here for you. But lashing out at me isn't going to be a productive way of resolving anything."

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"Stop talking to me like I'm some kind of child," she shot back. "I'm not stupid, and I'm not going to go on acting like I am. I know a wrong situation when I see one. This isn't right." Desperation shimmered in her wide eyes as she turned them on the captive crowd. "You all know that, right? You all see what's happening here? Dominic is crazy. He's mad for power, and he'll tell you whatever you want to hear. You can't tell me you're actually going to let him-"

Her voice was silenced mid-sentence as her face twisted in pain. As close as she was, Lessa was able to see that Dominic's hand had slid up her shoulder, and was now clasped on the base of her neck. He squeezed hard enough that his knuckles lost their color, fingers digging into the tender skin. The beat of silence was all he needed. "It grieves me to see that Sister Olivia, my own flesh and blood, is the first to have strayed from the path. We must correct this egregious lapse in judgment." Olivia's hands flew to her neck, clawing at Dominic's clenched hand, her eyes now rolling with fear.

"We must help her find the Light again."

He threw her toward the ledge.

The crowd erupted. There were gasps, some hushed, some explosive as the horrific scene unfolded. People screamed, shouted, cried out in alarm. But the worst were the cheers. Despite all they had witnessed, a handful of devout followers rejoiced, lifting their hands and their faces to the sun as an innocent woman tumbled toward her death.

Lessa registered none of it. All she heard was a whoosh in her ears as she lunged, arms outstretched. She was going to make it. She was going to-

Her boots slipped on the wet grass. "No!" she shrieked as she went down, sprawling only inches from where Olivia's body hit, bounced, rolled over the edge. Lessa's arms and legs worked without thought, gracelessly clawing and pumping to propel her forward. It was by divine intervention that her fingertips kissed Olivia's wrist, tightened, then held. "Hold on," she grunted, as they both slipped closer to oblivion.

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He'd seen all of it, resigning himself to merely spectating. But as Olivia was flung toward the edge and Lessa came uncomfortably close to following her over, he lost all sense of forethought or planning. Now Dominic was advancing on them, and Bahr had only seconds to react.

"Jesus Christ!" Bahr yelled as he scrambled up over the ledge of the stage, the illusion cast by his Disguise Skill abolished by the jarring movement. To the people in the crowd it would appear as though he materialized out of thin air before heaving himself aboard the wooden platform and charging straight for their leader. Dominic, however, had seen this coming. As Bahr neared, a dagger found its way into the cult leader's palm, flicked forward with the grace and agility of an experienced practitioner of the blade. Bahr saw it at the last second, pitching his head to the side to avoid the full brunt of the attack as the weapon's blade carved a red line across his cheek. The cursor rotating above Dominic's head shifted in hue from green to orange as Bahr's health bar plummeted, the amount of damage the shallow gash inflicted plunging no less than a quarter of the meter into oblivion. Having not had the time to draw his own weapon, all Bahr could do was maintain the momentum forward and shoulder check Dominic, sending the man stumbling backward as the crowd erupted into a mixture of cheers and pained cries.

"Gracing us with your grisly presence once more I see," Dominic grunted as his dominant hand fell to the side, the ornate dagger it gripped extended with its point toward the ground. He stood up straight and regarded his adversary with dignified chagrin, eyes tracing a line from Bahr, to where Lessa lay prone, then back to Bahr. He was already plotting. "I'd had my doubts before, but now I know. You're one of the Demons, cast forth from the Darkness of the Otherworld to swallow our Light." He was stalling. Bahr gripped Sickle and slowly unsheathed it, taking care to closely study Dominic's movements in preparation for a surprise attack. "Even now as you draw your blade, I can see it. The hatred roiling within you. How many warriors have you crossed blades with? How many battles have you fought? The practiced intensity of your unhinged fighting style tells me your power comes not from training or experience, but from rage."

It was clear that Dominic was trying to get to him, but there was truth to what he was saying. Whether through legitimate perception or a stab in the dark in the hopes he'd strike a nerve, Dominic had hit the nail on the head. Bahr recognized that he didn't have a particular fighting style or measured way of doing things. Hit the opponent, react the best he could, hope for the best, get angry and try harder when it didn't work. It was the method that had worked for him, so it was what he did. He'd gotten better, of course, but it was adrenaline fueled by rage that had carried him through countless endeavors. That being said, Bahr couldn't afford the luxury of cutting loose like that in a situation like this. One false move and the girls would be sent hurtling over the edge. He needed to focus.

"I'm honestly not sure if you're just keeping up with the lies, or if you've actually convinced yourself this garbage is real," came Bahr's retort on an exhale, pushing the anger through his lungs and out of his system. "Not that it matters. What's happening here is horrible. Whether it's manipulation or a delusion, it's over." He was beginning to sweat now, his breathing transitioning into shallow huffs as Dominic's slim figure blurred. Was it the adrenaline? No. His health was dropping, too. Poison. What a cheap trick.

A crooked smile spread across Dominic's cheeks as the fatigue reached Bahr's core and his arms began to tremble beneath the weight of Scarecrow's Sickle. "Come then, Demon Bahr," he chirped, spreading his arms in Christ-like fashion. "Show us that your cause is just. Show us that your will can overcome the whims of the Light. If I am wrong..." He assumed a more combative stance, dagger clutched backhanded, closing the openings that his extended arms had created. "Prove it."

He had the advantage. He knew it. Bahr knew it. The snow-haired swordsman was down on health and losing more, all the while his eyes swam and his legs buckled. Still, Scarecrow's Sickle ignited in an amber glow as he lunged forward with all of his might and carved into the space that Dominic occupied. The system carried Bahr through the movement, a wild succession of varying slashes and jabs that each threatened to steal chunks away from Dominic's health bar. But for every attack Bahr leveled toward his opponent, Dominic had an answer. He dipped and weaved between the attacks, each fluid movement he took closing the distance between them. A flip of the wrist, then a thrust, and the tip of the dagger was headed straight toward Bahr's heart.

Sickle caught the cross-guard of the knife and weakly shoved it aside, but Dominic's onslaught wasn't over. A rapid succession of piercing jabs followed, the surgical precision and domineering force of each strike forcing Bahr backward step by step. Though smooth and precise at the start, Dominic's counter assault became increasingly frenzied and animalistic the further it went, Sword Art after Sword Art only narrowly avoided or deflected by Bahr until his heel met with something. He couldn't take his eyes away from the battle, but he could tell that it was Lessa he'd bumped into. If he was pushed back any further, it was over, and he didn't know if he had the strength to hold his ground in his current state. 

It was then that Dominic took a pass past Bahr, lunging for the women that he was protecting. Bahr took a hand off of Sickle's hilt and attempted a last ditch grab at the deranged lunatic, but Dominic's maneuver had been a feint. He had played on all of Bahr's weaknesses to create the opening he needed, driving the entire length of his dagger between the Crimson Marauder's ribs and twisting. The lack of pain didn't stop Bahr from feeling the cold steel spreading his rib cage apart as the blade worked to enlarge the fresh cavity, Dominic attempting to thrust it even further than the cross-guard would allow to no avail. Bahr sputtered, then coughed, then gagged as the poison seeped into his flesh and the knife wormed around inside of him. Scarecrow's Sickle fell to the floor with a loud clang as Bahr felt the last of his strength being sapped away. The crowd merely stared on in silent astonishment. 

"It seems the Light favors me, Demon," Dominic taunted as he continued to work the blade. "Such slow and clumsy footwork. I'd have thought a warrior of the Darkness would have been more difficult to bring down. It's a marvel you've even made it this far."

Really? I lost to this guy? The words echoed through Bahr's mind on repeat as he exerted all of the energy he had left just to prevent Dominic from pushing him over onto Lessa and Olivia. For the first time since the fight broke out, Bahr's mismatched orbs trailed back to Lessa. Through the blurriness, their eyes connected. Hers looked distraught, pleading. Like she was silently begging for this situation not to turn out like it had. Crimson slowly encroached along the peripheries of his vision, Lessa's blue draining away as everything beyond the red went grayscale. Don't look at me like that...

"Nothing more to say? You're full of surprises."

The words were distant, and difficult to make out over the incessant beeping that Bahr was hearing. The low health indicator. He was dangerously close to the end, seeking comfort in Lessa's eyes where there was only fear. He felt it, too. But he couldn't let her see that. Was she saying something? Her lips were moving. What was it? He couldn't let go until he heard it. What she had to say. Her voice. He needed to hear it at least one more time. 

Okay. I won't die yet, then.

As Dominic slowly began to slide the knife away from Bahr's ribs, presumably to deliver the finishing blow, Bahr's hand clasped around Dominic's and forced it back in. Bahr grunted, then hacked, slowly craning his head back toward his assailant. Shock graced the false prophet's face as he attempted to reel back his arm, but Bahr had it. He had him, and he wasn't letting go. Bahr raised his arm into the air before he summoned Dracbane from his battle-ready inventory, knowing full well he'd not have the ability to lift it otherwise. With every ounce of strength that remained, he brought the sword down on Dominic's wrist, completely severing the hand from the rest. By a stroke of pure luck, the blade sapped away some of the health that Dominic had lost and replenished a portion of Bahr's just before the dagger still seated in his side and the poison it was coated in depleted the gauge in its entirety.

The tables turned, Dominic stepped backward with a harrowing screech, clutching his forearm at the base where his hand was only seconds before. In the final moments before it happened, his expression was totally chaotic. It shifted freely between shock, fear, anger, and despair. The illusion of perfection he'd crafted around himself shattered, and he revealed his truest self to his flock. A man who'd rode high on power, and abused it without any consideration that he might fall the moment it was ripped out from under him. And so, when he took one final step back and his heel found no footing, he did fall. And he might have caught the edge, had he still a hand to grasp it.

Driven purely by instinct, Bahr tossed aside the dagger and the dismembered hand that still gripped it, Dracbane clattering onto the wood as he dove forward and flung an arm blindly over the fringe of the stage. The moment his palm met with something, his appendages seized with every molecule of power his muscle fibers would allow. It was Dominic's arm, the very same that was now handless after their skirmish. There he hung, paralyzed by the reality of the situation he'd put himself into, looking pleadingly up to his savior. The very man he'd attempted to kill. As he looked into Dominic's eyes, and the fearful forests of his irises stared right back, Bahr only had three words to say. "I've got you."

But he couldn't haul him back in. Not alone. The poison was still working through his system, and he was too weakened by the battle to exert himself any further. Everything that Bahr had was going into simply maintaining his grip, and it was beginning to slip. Bahr frantically looked back into the stunned crowd until he found a familiar face near the stage. "Benjamin. Come help, quickly." Benjamin sprang into action, practically leaping onto the stage and sprinting toward the edge. The youth wrapped both of his hands around Dominic's and heaved with all of his might, slowly coaxing the man back onto the stage. 

First there was silence. Then, all at once, an absolute uproar. Bahr couldn't tell if it was a good one or a bad one from where he was standing. Given how divisive the gathering had been up to this point, he was sure it was a combination of both. All he knew was that it was loud. An endless cacophony of screams and whistles and cheers and cries. A group of men filed onto the platform, kicking the dagger away before seizing Dominic from Benjamin. They carried him off somewhere, hopefully to rough him up rather than hide him away, but Bahr didn't even care. The breedle of the low health indicator continued to wail in Bahr's ear as he stumbled over to Lessa, who had pulled herself and Olivia up at this point, and collapsed to his knees before her. Arms weakly wrapped themselves around her as his body pitched forward, supported now entirely by smaller blonde.

He hoped that she could find the words, because he couldn't. There was no way to encapsulate the emotions that began flooding in. So he pulled her closer. Then closer still. One way or another, they'd made it.

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She was being torn in two.

On one hand, she knew that Olivia had to be her top priority. She literally dangled from the edge, and with every wrong move, Lessa came closer to joining her. Though the woman's eyes were the same shade as her brother's, nothing malicious lurked beneath the emerald surface. All Lessa saw was her own fear reflected back at her. "Please don't let go," Olivia begged. And she wouldn't.

On the other hand, there was Bahr. As soon as Dominic began to speak, Lessa knew her companion had made his appearance. Relief clashed with frustration; she was grateful he was there, but at the same time, furious that he'd put himself in danger. She strained to hear what Bahr was saying, and how Dominic responded, but she quickly realized she couldn't split her attention. She had to focus on Olivia. Even when she felt something thud against her, and she winced as her grasp began to slip, she couldn't look away.

Until she heard Dominic's taunts.

"It seems the Light favors me, Demon."

Bahr was losing?

Her wide eyes found his instantly, as if drawn there by a powerful, invisible force. When she comprehended just what it was she was seeing, she nearly dropped the woman she clung to. He looked terrible, but it wasn't just the red gashes criss-crossing his body that worried her. She had seen Bahr take damage before. What was foreign, however, was the distant look in his unfocused eyes. The somewhat vacant expression on a face gone slack. That shy, often sheepish smile was gone, as was the light that had so captivated her. She watched it flow from him as those heavily lashed lids began to droop.

She was watching him die.

"Don't you do it," she sneered, attempting to shift her hold on Olivia while leaving her attention on Bahr. "Don't you leave me, or I swear to God, I swear, I won't forgive you. I'll never forgive you." Her muscles burned, her head pounded, her entire body pulsed with adrenaline, fear, and fatigue. But when she looked at him, everything coalesced into one single emotion - desperation. "I can't do this without you."

"Lessa, I'm slipping!"

An anguished cry escaped her as Lessa tore her gaze from Bahr. She blinked back the salty mixture of sweat and tears while she stared down at Olivia. One way or another, this was all going to end soon. But none of them deserved this. Not Olivia, for standing up to her brother. Not Bahr, for following Lessa into the lion's den. And not Lessa, either. She didn't deserve to lose her one beacon of light after years spent in the dark. After everything the game had taken from her, she was expected to stand by and let it take him too?

[censored] that.

"Hold on," she commanded again, but this time, Lessa pulled her legs up underneath her. Shifting her weight, even a little bit, allowed Lessa to incorporate her core strength. It was more effective than simply depending on her arms, and slowly, Olivia began to rise. They were both grunting, then gasping for breath, when the women finally collapsed side by side. 

Three other players bustled over, clucking like concerned hens as they stooped to provide aid. Olivia was scooped up, settled on her feet, escorted elsewhere. But when someone grabbed for Lessa's arm, she yanked it away. She didn't need help. She needed him.

And then he was there. As he collapsed to his knees, relief choked her, a reaction so explosive she might have been sick. Where his grasp was weak, hers was strong, crushing his body against hers. Lessa buried her face in his neck, fingers moving to twine in his hair. "You dick," she muttered against his damp skin. When he squeezed back, it forced a strangled sob from her. "Don't you ever do that to me again."

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A weak laugh escaped Bahr's lips as she chided him. "No promises," was the retort he gave, eyes trailed beyond her shoulder to find Olivia, eyes pried open as far they could stretch and shivering like she'd just spent the entire night in the woods of the fourth floor. Despite the obvious mental trauma she'd just endured, she appeared to have gotten off unscathed on a physical level. Bahr decided it was good to take any silver linings they could get out the situation. 

"You see!?" he heard Dominic's strained voice cry. "You see how violent this Demon is!? The Otherworld is corrupting us as we speak! Repent now or none of you will ever see the Light!" There was a carnal and animalistic tone to his voice that wasn't lost on the rest of the flock. 

"But you were the one who attacked him!" a voice cried. 

"Yeah! And he saved you!" chimed in another. 

Bahr slowly pulled himself away from Lessa to survey the crowd. Everyone was in an absolute uproar Their world had just come crashing down all around them in a matter of minutes, and they hadn't a clue how to react. Dominic struggled against the men that had apprehended him, expression tainted with a mixture of panic, fear, and anger. 

"Fools! He'll lead you into oblivion!"

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"He will lead you into oblivion?" The words roared from her before she knew what was happening, but she made no move to apologize. Rather, Lessa stood and drew herself to full height. Her five and a half feet seeming to tower over the rest of the crowd. She knew that Bahr likely wanted to speak for himself, and she knew he was more than capable. But he was also still incredibly weak, recovering from both the fight and the poison. Besides, he had let his actions do the talking. Her hand gently brushed across the back of his head, a light trailing of fingertips, a gentle reminder that he was still with her. I'll take it from here.

She turned to face the waiting audience, which had fallen deathly still after her outburst. "There should now be no doubt that Dominic isn't who you thought he was. He is malicious, power hungry, and willing to literally lead you to your deaths. He attacked my best friend, and nearly killed his own sister. Why? To show he could." Her expression lacked all it's usual warmth when she pointed an accusing finger at the still-thrashing man. As her blue eyes flashed, and the breeze blasted her blonde hair back from her stone-etched face, Lessa cut a more godly figure than Dominic ever hoped to. "If he's going to practice what he preaches, should he not be the first to meet the Light? So come on, Dominic. Go ahead. Jump. Show us how devout you are."

As the men restraining Dominic took a step toward the edge, the guild leader began to flail more violently. The sight sent murmurs pulsing through the gathered players, but it ceased as soon as Lessa's hand lifted. "He is a fraud," she told them, "but you should not be embarrassed to have followed him. The community you created here really is something special. But that love, that trust, that teamwork, you can find it all elsewhere in Aincrad. You don't need some false prophet to lead you anywhere."

Her hardened edges softened as she gazed out over the collected men, women, and children. "I know why you're afraid of this 'Otherworld.' Yeah, there's some scary stuff out there. But there's good, too. I mean, we're here because some random player was worried about her friend, who recently joined you guys. She asked us to look for her. Lilik isn't one of you, but she still showed compassion, and concern when she sent us on this mission." Her hand found Bahr's shoulder. "Bahr even showed mercy to someone we all know he disliked. You find a lot of that in this game, if you're looking for it. Does any of this really sound like the blood-thirst Dominic convinced you of?"

Most of those listening shook their heads, and a few even voiced their thoughts in hushed tones. It looked as though she had them, but there was one more point to drive home. "There's no Light, at least, not in the way Dominic presented it to you. But there is darkness. It's okay to be scared. I'm terrified." No one could see the gesture, so when Lessa's hand tightened on Bahr's shoulder, it was meant for only the two of them. "My lights are the people that I choose to surround myself with. They make the life I have worth living, despite everything else. I almost threw myself off a ledge just like that once, but I didn't, and I'm so glad. Bahr and I can't stop you from doing whatever it is you decide. But I'm asking you, please don't make a choice you won't be around to regret later."

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"He will lead you into oblivion?"

Ah sh*t, here we go.

Bahr had, more than once, been on the receiving end of Lessa's fury. And while he could hold his own, Bahr understood that he was a particularly indomitable creature. In that regard, Lessa was cut from the same cloth. Despite her small size, her's was a presence that commanded respect when she deemed it necessary to use her charisma to her advantage. Bahr wanted to raise to his feet and join her side, to fight this battle alongside her, but as her slender fingers gently brushed through his hair he relented. She had this. Bahr had already done his part. It was up to her to take it from here.

Bahr, along with the crowd, silently listened to Lessa's speech. Using the term 'attentive' here would be an understatement. They were enraptured by what she had to say. As Bahr's mismatched eyes shifted through the crowd, he could see it. Light bulb after light bulb after light bulb. Perhaps they were unaware, as they were caught in the middle of it. But as Lessa's hand found Bahr's shoulder and squeezed, powerful words regarding finding light in her loved ones fluttering from her lips and taking flight through the audience, he knew. They all already had their light. Now, with new awareness and perspective, it was being brought to the surface.

These people would be okay.

"I have something I'd like to say."

The high-pitched voice rippled through the crowd like a shock wave emitted from a nuke. In stunning congruence, everyone's eyes snapped to the source of the voice. Slowly but surely, the sea of people split before a young woman like the Red Sea before Moses. It may have almost been a humorous display given her small stature, had the situation not been so serious. As she strode forward, the light curls of hair that hugged her cheeks bounced and swayed with each step, a compliment to the plain green dress that did the same. Piercing blue eyes shot ahead with conviction and purpose as she slowly bore down on the stage, each patter of her light footfall sinking into Bahr's gut deeper and deeper. Everyone's eyes traced her as she sauntered past the overwhelmed crowd, up the steps, and onto the stage alongside Lessa.

That almost looks like it could be-

"As you all know, I'm Rainey."

Of course it was. And despite the fact that they had gone there looking for her, Bahr couldn't help but feel as though her sudden appearance now carried with it a bad omen. What more was there to say after Lessa's speech? If it were something positive, would it not make sense to simply go along with the harmonious condition of the flock and lead them indoors while their attention was still unsplit?

"I haven't been here for very long. I feel like I've only really just started getting to know most of you. And I've treasured my time here, truthfully. But..."

... But?
 

"I still want to go. To become one with the Light."

Audible gasps and hushed murmurs once again pervaded the expanse. Controversial topic after controversial topic had been layered onto these people one after another with nary the time to conceive of any of it. To process and digest their true meaning. Were any of them even in the right state of mind at the moment to be hearing something like this?

"I can't go on like this. Trapped in this game. Living in fear. I don't deserve this sort of torment. None of us do."

God, damn it. Bahr desperately wanted to say something. He wanted Lessa to say something. But what more could they say, it what Lessa had already said hadn't convinced her?

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Lessa gaped at Rainey. In truth, she had begun to wonder if the woman was even real. And just as it seemed the story was drawing to a close, one final twist awaited them. Rainey existed, and she was here. She lived, but if she had her way, it wouldn't be for much longer.

Though she had just delivered a somewhat stirring speech, Lessa found herself completely without words as the other blonde made her declaration. Perhaps she didn't quite sputter, but she came very close before she was able to manage, "No one deserves this. But you still deserve to live."

Slowly, Rainey's gaze tracked to Lessa. The blue eyes were more deep lake than Lessa's wide ocean, but the waters remained eerily calm as Rainey tilted her head. "But what is living, in a place like this?" came her simple answer. "Waking up just to wonder if it's my turn to die?"

You could say the same about the real world, Lessa wanted to argue, but she remained silent. It was different, she knew that. Outside of Aincrad, you didn't need to check your gear before walking across an open field. You didn't need stock up on health potions, just in case. You didn't need to check your friends list every morning to see who had died while you slept.

Something akin to curdled milk soured Lessa's gut, but still, she tried again. "We can help you." She spread her hands, motioning to the crowd. "You just said you were getting to know everyone. We can help you through this."

The shorter woman shook her head, curls bouncing around a face that remained pleasant despite the circumstances. "Lessa," she said gently, "I don't need help." She looked from the woman to Bahr, and then back again. "I find it endearing that you two have found each other, and I'm happy for you both. But I had someone who loved me, and it just wasn't enough. This isn't just a rough patch, or a bad day. I've been thinking about it for a long time."

Lessa thought she'd banished her anxieties with the defeat of Dominic, and the cleansing of his congregation. Yet they wormed their way back in while Rainey spoke. "Wait," she muttered, suddenly feeling a bit lightheaded. Even the cool breeze and the scent of damp earth did nothing to calm her as Lessa motioned to Bahr. "Let's just talk about it, okay? Let me talk to Bahr, and-"

"And what?" Even with the interruption, Rainey's voice remained level. In fact, it was down-right agreeable. "This is my decision, and requires no discussion on your part." Now it was her turn to extend her hands, palms outstretched. "Should you try to stop me, you'd be doing just what Dominic claimed you would."

She's right.

"I have made my choice, and I have come to terms with it."

She has.

Lessa could see it now: the unwavering patience, the gentle smile, the calm in those blue eyes. This was not a woman plagued by emotion, overwhelmed, and looking for a quick out. This was a woman who had decided, right or wrong, that death was the only escape.

There would be no saving this one.

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"I won't judge any of you for leaving with them. It's only natural. Most people are more afraid of death than anything else, because life is all we've ever known. And for those of you who choose to continue fighting, I'm proud of you. But, for me, I fear living more. I fear the fear. The anguish. The heartache. The loathsome reality we're trapped in. Even if the Light isn't exactly as Brother Dominic described, it has to be better than this."

Slowly but surely, Bahr's eyes ceased swimming, and he felt the strength returning to his strained muscles. The poison had run its course. A cursory glance at his health bar revealed that he'd managed to cling to life with a measly 98 HP. He was lucky that Dracbane had replenished a portion of his health prior to the battle's conclusion, otherwise he'd have faded away somewhere in the middle of Rainey's speech. But now, with renewed vigor, he was able to heave himself off of the ground with a grunt, sending Dracbane back to his inventory as Scarecrow's Twin found its way to the small of his back. 

Bahr was torn on how to handle the situation. As Rainey had stated, she'd made up her mind, and defying that would only strengthen Dominic's case. And as Bahr had decided, he wasn't in any sort of position to tell her what to do. Lessa seemed keen to try and talk things out. To win Rainey over with the power of her voice. Bahr didn't see the point. Who was he, or Lessa, for that matter, to tell her what her could or could not do with her life? It was probably one of the only things she felt she still had control over. As her eyes shifted from the crowd, then to Bahr, then to Lessa, it seemed she had more to say. 

"I'm sincerely grateful you came for me. Making Lilik worry so much about me that other people are put in harm's way is the last mistake I'll make. Tell her that I'm okay. Better than I've ever been, actually. And tell her that I love her."

Bahr, Lessa, and the stunned crowd stood on in solemn silence. Dominic had stopped struggling, his head hung in a shallow attempt to hide the crooked smile that had stretched across his face. 

"I'll wait," Rainey proceeded, "until everyone has gone. This sort of thing isn't suitable for certain eyes here."

Bahr had heard enough. It was time for them to take their leave and give Rainey the privacy to do what she felt needed to be done. He walked toward Lessa, placing each of his hands on her shoulders and guiding her body until she was facing forward, away from the edge. "Come on. Let's go," he commanded softly, taking steps forward and leading her along off the stage.

 

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"Oh, Lessa?"

Lessa swung back around at Rainey's request, an eager "yeah?" practically exploding from her.

The other woman's smile was gentle, if not a bit amused. Her expression was a far cry from one Lessa would paint on a woman about to die. "Could I speak to you for a moment?" Her gaze quickly flitted from Lessa to Bahr, then back again. "Privately?"

"Uh, yeah, sure." The swordswoman's eyes met Bahr's for a second, then she stepped away from him. A few strides later, she was standing beside Rainey on the edge of the world. It was difficult to put her anxieties aside, and in her attempt to remain casual, she pumped a bit too much enthusiasm into her, "What's up?"

If the other woman noticed the mishap, she gave no indication. Rather, she leveled a steady gaze on Lessa. When she spoke, her voice was as soft and delicate as an early morning fog. "You do know this isn't your fault, right?"

"I know." Lessa answered without thinking, a knee-jerk reaction that stemmed from years of stifling her emotions. And not just in Aincrad, either. If telling Rainey she blamed herself made Rainey feel bad, was it worth it? Why not just lie about it, save the girl the trouble, and just sort through the inner struggle later? It wasn't like -

"Do you?"

Lessa blinked a few times, sighed, shook her head. Apparently, sparing Rainey was out of the question in more ways than one. "I mean, deep down I know it. But it still feels wrong."

The other woman's face softened at the confession. "I will always be in awe, and a little bit envious, of the sheepdogs." At Lessa's frown, Rainey went on to explain, "My father was in the military, and he told me the story of the sheepdogs. Everyone in the world is either a sheep, or a wolf. The wolves pray on the sheep, who just go through life completely oblivious." She lifted a single finger into the damp air. "The exception to this is the sheepdogs. They're a small group who protect the sheep at all costs. They don't do it for glory, or for praise. They just repeatedly put their lives on the line to protect those who probably don't even deserve it."

When Lessa opened her mouth to say something, Rainey simply shook her head. The higher level player's skepticism was clear on her face, and Rainey had to get it all out before Lessa had the chance to protest. "I am a sheep. You are a sheepdog. You stand in direct contrast to everything Dominic told these people. You and Lilik both, you protect. You want to take the blows, and to spare everyone any hardships. You watch over them, like a guardian."

Finally, the first traces of sadness filtered into Rainey's big blue eyes. Her raised hand moved to finger the purple bow in Lessa's hair. "The Violet Guardian. I wish I'd been able to know you better."

You still could, Lessa longed to retort, but the words wouldn't come. Besides, to keep blatantly ignoring Rainey's final wish would be wrong. She had to let go. So instead, Lessa whispered, "Lilik told me you were scared, but you don't seem scared to me."

The sadness fled her, replaced by a genuine smile. "Then that's how I'll have you remember me. Goodbye, Lessa. Thank you."

The space between herself and Bahr seemed to take an hour to cross. When she finally reached him, she simply took his arm, and rest her forehead on against his shoulder. "Give me a sec?" she asked of him, before drawing in a few deep breaths. Once she had composed herself, she pulled back, but her hand remained on the sleeve of the crimson jacket. Her face was hard, and her eyes dry, but her voice wasn't entirely steady. "Okay, I'm ready. I'm going to help everyone pack up. They're probably really lost right now, and could use a little guidance." She loosed a half-hearted, one-shouldered shrug. "Since I got them in this mess, I should be there. Do you want to come with me?"

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Well, this was awkward.

She'd slinked away from his hands to join Rainey back on the stage, leaving Bahr alone to contend with the people of the flock. It was unclear how they felt about him now. Was he still the idiot who'd made a fool of himself in front of everybody while stomping on their beliefs? Or had their revelation about Dominic made that act justified? Did they condemn him for defeating their leader and putting a stop to the charade, or did they resent him for defying the Light? It seemed that they, too, had mixed feelings. Nobody talked to him, only offering quick glances out of the corners of their eyes. Were they being coy? Bashful? Indignant? Bahr hadn't a clue.

He didn't need to stand there and stare at them, though. That probably wasn't helping. His eyes trailed about the locale, finally coming to a rest on Dominic. He was still grinning, utterly pleased with himself for having facilitated the literal death of a human being. How disgusting. Bahr was sure that certain members of the flock had punishments in mind for him, but Bahr had idea of his own. He opened a messaging panel and wrote a message to Hestia, someone who he knew had locked people up before.
 

Quote

To: Hestia

Need you to make an arrest. Defiled Church, third floor. Dude made a suicide cult. He needs to be put away.

- Bahr


Hestia would probably find it a bit odd to receive a message from a total stranger like this. He wouldn't be surprised if she showed up with a party of Frontliners, just to make sure that it wasn't a trap of some sort. But that was fine. What better way to meet someone than during an arrest? It seemed better, at least, than the way he'd met these people. He could still feel their eyes on him, but he didn't dare to look.

Luckily, he wasn't alone for long. "Give me a sec?" she asked as she buried her face into his sleeve, taking a few breaths to compose herself. Just as he was about to reach a hand out to comfort her, she pulled away, one of her slender arms remaining wrapped around his. "Okay, I'm ready. I'm going to help everyone pack up. They're probably really lost right now, and could use a little guidance. Since I got them in this mess, I should be there. Do you want to come with me?"

"Of course,"
 came his knee-jerk response. He wasn't entirely comfortable being around these people any longer than he needed to, but with Lessa it wouldn't be so bad. Besides, she needed him. It wasn't that Bahr was immune the tragedy that was unfolding here, but he could tell that she was more affected by it than he was. "Just tell me what you need me to do."

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Lessa sucked in a long, slow breath. The air was still damp, and carried the woody smell she usually loved. That morning, however, everything seemed a bit muted. The aroma of damp earth, the sound of whispering wind, even the feel of the breeze on her skin just felt dulled. But deep down, she knew it wasn't the game. It was her. She was muted, dulled, and completely wrung out. Even with her arm hooked through Bahr's, Lessa felt impossibly alone.

But hadn't this been a victory? They had saved dozens of people, and revealed a con artist for what he truly was. They had demonstrated that love and goodness could be found all over Aincrad. They had lost the one person whom they'd set out to save.

Lessa turned around. She knew she shouldn't have, and she'd promised herself she wouldn't. But as the woman turned, the wind blowing her blonde hair back from her pained face, she watched Rainey's body tumble backward. A gurgled sound was all Lessa could manage as the sight burned itself into her brain. Like a skipping tape, it would replay over and over, haunting her for the rest of her life. Somehow, in that split second, she knew she would never escape the memory. 

"I don't know what to do," she finally said, the words clearly heavier than a simple answer to his question. It was a confession.

She would never be free of the doomed Rainey and their failed mission.

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Bahr didn't see it, but he knew she had. Her gurgled gasp as she turned her head was all the confirmation he needed. He held her closer, a vain attempt to assuage whatever it was she was feeling. Having witnessed death before, he knew it would never be enough. There was nothing he could do for her, but he hoped his touch would offer her some sort of comfort amid the whirling carousel of unease and distress that surely plagued her. An anchor of sorts. That was the hope, anyways.

The hours after were long, arduous, and unnervingly quiet. Hardly a peep was uttered by anyone as they slowly shambled back to the church, gathered what little belongings they had, and prepared to make their leave. Bahr and Lessa had made their way outside by this point, waiting around the statue that had so graciously allowed them entry the day before. Its stony features almost seemed somehow more somber now than they had before. Surely it was his imagination, but Bahr just couldn't shake it. It was different. Everything was different. 

"I'm here," a voice sternly called. Hestia, alone, no detail to speak of. It seemed she was confident enough to stroll into an unknown situation such as this, even when prompted by a message from a complete stranger. Either she was insane, or knew she could handle whatever came her way. 

No sooner had she arrived than the denizens of the Defiled Church began filing outward. The shuffled quietly, just as they had done within the confines of their former home, silently making their way past Bahr and Lessa, then past Hestia. Among them was Dominic, still detained by the men that had seized him after the scuffle. Bahr wearily pointed him out from the rest of the crowd.

"It's him."

"I see. Thank you. I'll see to it that he's escorted to our prison on the twenty-fourth floor. Is there anything else I need to know," 
she inquired, expression fairly muted considering what had happened here. And why wouldn't it be? She hadn't been there. Seen it. Experienced it. She'd only heard it secondhand, after being summoned to take him away.

"Yeah. Check him for hidden weapons. He almost got me."

"Noted. Alright, I'll take it from here." Dominic seemed to wince when her hand firmly grasped his arm and ripped him away from the grouping of men effortlessly. She wasn't exactly nice about how she dragged him away, which didn't bother Bahr in the slightest.

Bahr turned to Lessa. "... What now?"

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Lilik leaned forward in the uncomfortable wooden chair. Her fingers tapped a muffled rhythm across the table's marred surface, the sound practically a soundtrack to her anxiety. She rarely allowed herself to become so agitated, but over twenty four hours had passed since sending Bahr and Lessa after Rainey. What in the world was taking so long? Were they having a difficult time locating the timid girl? Had they decided to abandon the quest? Or had something happened to them? Had something happened to Rainey?

"Ughhh," came her exasperated groan. The woman leaned backward, stretching her long, lanky body away from the table. Then she raked both hands violently through her thick plum hair. Constantly visualizing the worst case scenario was a one-way ticket to madness, and Lilik just did not need that. What she did need was something a little stronger than coffee. Okay, a lot stronger than coffee. She dubiously eyed the mug that sat untouched on the table; the black beverage had long-since stopped steaming. A couple shots of vodka, a couple mugs of beer, and she wouldn't even remember Rainey's name, right? Except that it didn't work that way in Aincrad. Lilik was without her vice, and now, without her friend. What did she have left?

Honestly? Nothing. Lilik was still a fresh-faced level one, with only starter gear and garbage stats. So many years wasted waiting on Rainey, and yet here she sat, continuing to do so. And I'll keep doing it, she admitted to herself, though her face remained unreadable. I'd do it all again for Rainey. She gave me a chance when no one else would. I had nothing out there either, but she took me in. She had my back. Now, I have hers.

A sudden ping, a flashing in the corner of her vision. Lilik read the message, and already knew even before she'd reached the end. She read it again, and again, and did not stop until the words began to blur.

Spoiler

From: Lessa

Hey Lilik. I'm so sorry that it took so long to contact you. We found Rainey.

Are you available to talk? I'll meet you, wherever you are. Just please let me know.

 

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