Ardent spent an hour constructing protections over Miro, to defend him from not only physical harm, but also from sense-deception and the other mental delusions that glamour could wreak. The latter two she could have done without wards, but it was easier with them. “I wish I could consult with Play on how to make these more resilient in the face of that aether-siphoning enchantment. I am worried about that girl.”
“Play Until Collapsing Dreams? What’s the matter with her?”
“Oh, right, I didn’t tell you.” Ardent explained the final, confusing message she’d gotten from the catgirl. “I tried sending her a message, and she’s blocking me. With an automatic, ‘I said leave me alone, Ardent!’ reply. Maybe I should respect that, but…”
“No, I do not think you should. She sounds like she’s in trouble.”
“Yeah, she does. Question is, is it the kind of trouble I can fix, or the kind I’ll only make worse by trying? ’cause Play sure seems to think the latter.”
“Or someone is impersonating and intercepting her messages. She did say that could happen.”
Ardent hesitated. “Yeah, but…to Play? She’s gotta be one of the top ten worst people in the Etherium to try impersonating.” She crinkled her nose. “Still. I think we’d better check on her. At least stop by her castle. Maybe in disguise, in case there’s any casual watchers.”
Standing next to him as Miro sat on the bench, Ardent finally finished with the last protection. “I wish I could give you back fey evasion, but I’m pretty sure there’s no possession-applicable version of that.”
“It will be well, my lady. Thank you.” Miro stood on the bench and hugged her fiercely. “I wish I could make this easier for you,” he murmured in her ear. “You don’t know how much your goodwill means to me.”
“Yeah, well, given your penchant for crazy oaths, I’m starting to get an idea. Let’s go be sneaky.” Ardent shifted both herself and Miro into the shapes of sparrows, and ported them into the sky over Play’s castle.
One glance, and she knew everything was worse than she’d feared. The glamour that made the castle look as if it were the only one for miles was tattered and rent, adjacent buildings visible through the rips. The privacy glamour that should have shielded the castle from prying eyes was likewise battered. The spell that expanded the property’s available space was a wreck. Space itself was left mangled, warping inwards in a wedge that cut through the crippled hedge maze that represented Play’s ward, and into one side of the castle.
“Divine shield us all.” Miro circled over the castle at her side, sparrow-wings spread. “This wasn’t just an intrusion.”
“Justice, no.” Ardent angled over the ruined wards and slipped into the castle through one of the many gaps the wedge of mangled space had left. “Oh no.” She circled in the air of Play’s spacious entrance hall. “Oh no.”
Thousands of fragments of aether, sharp as broken glass, covered the floor. Amidst the wreckage, half-shrouded by debris, rose the feet of Contemplation After the Storm’s aether sculpture. Just the feet and parts of an ankle, and a single intact chunk of skirt. It was horribly still now, the dancing couple and their shared world alike in ruins.
Miro followed her inside, and almost fell from the air with the shock of it. “How – how could she do this? How could anyone do this? Why would she do this? What did Storm ever do to deserve this?”
“Ardent Sojourner.” Play stood at the top of the stairs. She was utterly white: hair, skin, clothing, everything bleached of all color, white as bone, as death. She looked directly at Ardent’s sparrow-form. “I told you. You are not welcome here. Leave.”
Ardent swooped to her and landed on the bannister rail before her. Several scrying spells hung in the air; some of them were Play’s, but one had an unfamiliar aether signature. Ardent made note of it. “Play, sugar, what happened here? You can’t think I had anything to do with it. I haven’t even been in the Etherium since you saw me leave last night!”
The catgirl gave a hoarse croak of a laugh. “You’re not that stupid. You know what happened here. And why. I told you already: get out.”
Ardent hopped backwards on tiny bird feet, head craned up to look at Play. “Sugar, we gotta stop her. We can’t just—”
“Do you think I didn’t try to stop her?!” Play roared. “Do you think I let this happen? Do you think there’s a place in the Moon Etherium that’s better defended? You are not this stupid! Get out!”
Ardent felt cold. They were being watched, and Play knew they were being watched. She needed to get Play away from the scrying spell to have a real conversation, but she couldn’t convince Play to leave without having a real conversation first. “It’s not too late…”
“Yes it is! Look around you, you Truth-lost fool! You are not in time! It is too late!”
Ardent shifted out of the sparrow form into her normal one, and took the queen’s token from her locket. “Look.” She pressed it into Play’s hand. The reveal-spellwork nudged at her awareness, and Ardent realized a tracer was tracking her movements now, too.
Play stared at Skein’s message with white, pupilless eyes. “No,” she said hoarsely, and threw it back in Ardent’s face. “No! I can’t help you any more than I already have, and I’m sorry for everything I did do! Go back to Try Again! Leave us in peace! This is still my home and I am telling you GET OUT!” Aether swirled around her arm and she hurled it at Ardent and Miro. Ardent evaded it, and found herself outside of the ruined hedge maze, blinking.
A moment later, Miro’s sparrow-shape landed next to her. He looked dazed but unharmed. “That was forceful.”
“Guess her ownership sigils for her home still work. They just…weren’t enough.” Ardent swallowed. “New plan time,” she said, and ported them away.
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