Embers Of Light

rating: +22+x

You fidget with the satin pillow, jolts of excitement coursing through you as your fingers shake every once in a while. You stand up and look around your chamber, making sure nothing was out of place before you left. You shook the rest of your excitement away when someone knocked on your door—a young Maiden, Naomi Brighton.

"Madam, here are the treats you wanted," she spoke softly as she adjusted her Bauta mask, bringing in a cart full of small pastries. With the untouched ingredients found in the back of Station 2, a few bakers within the Masked Maidens were able to create food that was safe enough to eat for as long as needed. You feel very proud as the thought passes through your mind, smiling with satisfaction.

"Oh dear, you could have told me they were ready!" You replied as quickly and politely as you could, slightly flustered. You were never quite used to the treatment you got from them. "You needn't bring them to me yourself!"

"It's alright, I wanted to bring them to you. Though, pardon me, but are you sure this was the amount you wanted? There's quite a lot…."

You gulp quietly, your eyes quickly darting to the woven basket you had on the other side of the bed, nodding. "Yes, it's the perfect amount. You may leave them here. I'll bring it out when I'm done."

"Alright, Madam," Naomi smiles, curtsying. As she opens the door to leave, she says, "May your truth be unmasked."

You nod. "May your truth be unmasked."

As she closes the door, you quickly take the basket out and place some of the wrapped pastries inside. You're just about to turn to leave when suddenly-

"Sup! Been a while, huh?"

You gasp as the voice from above startles you. Looking up, you see a few blond hairs, then a black jacket… someone was hanging down from the ceiling. Before you can reply, the boy lands in front of you, a smile spread across his face. It didn't take long to recognize him— you were certain of it since you heard the voice. Tom Von Haderach.

"Surprised? You look the part, can't blame you though."

Your eyes widen. "Tom?! The fuck are you doing here? I thought we were supposed to meet, well, you know where!"

"Mind your language," he says playfully, mocking Blanche's tone. "I thought it'd be a bit more fun to catch you off guard, and I was right! Besides, no way in hell you eat all those pastries by yourself," he smiled, pointing to the cart by the door.

You let out a gasp. "You insult me, Tom. Are you trying to say that I'm fat?" You grin, laughing. "Well, since you're so hungry, have some. I was going to bring you a few anyway."

"Don't put words in my mouth, Evie," Tom says with furrowed eyebrows and a hint of harshness for a second, immediately dropping it as he reached for the pastries. "Gotta say," he said, in between bites, "You Maidens got great taste in pastries."

You catch his tone and clear your throat. "Helps to have a station that's quite literally all about this stuff. You'd think we'd have multiple theatres as stations like this one, but no—a bakery is where it's at." You sit on your bed, nibbling a strudel.

"I'd call you lucky, but I'd be a bit of a hypocrite, since, you know." Tom stared at the pendant on his chest. "Lived most of my life under Blanche's wing." He takes a seat on the bed by your side, pulling out a small box from his pocket. "Enough talk," he says with a grin. "We have a score to settle."

"Pff, we both know how this ends," you reply, slightly loosening your mask. "Blanche may have taught you a myriad of things, but beating me at Blackjack? Ha, good luck."

"Oh, I know that." You notice his grin growing, little by little. "Which is why I brought something a little different this time. When's the last time you played UNO? I swung by 389 on the way here, Penelope lent me this." Tom shuffled the cards as he spoke. "Don't worry, I checked beforehand if the self-proclaimed Game Master didn't pull any of her tricks with this deck."

You chuckle, a spark of anticipation igniting in your chest. "As long as it doesn't end like the last time, with Candyland."

Talking and playing with Tom had felt like a release from the constant sense of duty. The funniest part about it was the fact that you could hardly remember when it first started. You watch fondly as he takes the cards out, shuffling them with so much ease that it almost made you envious.

"Hey, wait, hold up." Tom stopped dealing cards. "Is it even safe to play cards here? You can't see it because of the mask, so you guys must've forgotten about it, but the whole place's still burning up. The heat feels so real, I almost forgot that the level isn't actually affected by it."

"Considering it hasn't gone up in flames yet, I can hope so." you respond with a slight sense of guilt, lightly tapping his forehead. "Now that you're mentioning it, put your mask on, silly. You're lucky you're not a crispy nom-Tom right now! The fire may not affect the level, but it would most certainly affect you."

"Ugh, fine," he says , twirling the mask around his finger a few times before placing it on his face. You notice a faint hint of sadness on the tone, one that quickly vanished once he finished dealing seven cards to you both. "You can go first."

The card at the center was a yellow six.

You stare at Tom. He's focused on his cards. You wonder if he's hiding a good card behind that grin of his, or if he's hiding something else… You play your card, a yellow eight, smiling a little bit. It's been ages since you last had a moment like this.

He plays a green eight, then you, a green two. Tension seems to grow between you as you start noticing a lack of black cards in his hand—you feel a strange sense of excitement and anticipation. Within a moment, after a few plays, you realize he has no blues. At 2 cards left, you feel like you're just about to win, until—

"Let's see how you handle this one, Eve," he says with a smirk, placing down a wild card that had a blank center. You think back to the last time you played Uno, which was just before you no-clipped during the car ride home—5, almost 6 years ago. No matter how much you thought about it, you couldn't remember a card like this being in the deck.

"What's this one meant to be for?" You ask, voice laced with suspicion.

Tom rearranges his hand, then sets them face down on the velvet mattress. "It's a white wild card. When someone places it down, you're allowed to make your own house rule."

"Huh." You say. "Alright then. What is it, then?"

"You answer a question of mine, any question. If not, draw half the deck."

"Half the deck? Or a simple question?"

"Eh, wouldn't say simple." He taps the red comforters a few times. "So, are you gonna answer?"

You put your cards down this time, crossing your arms confidently. "Fine, I will. What's your question?"

"How are you doing? And I don't mean Madame Evangeline Holmes, I mean you, the person beneath that fancy mask of yours."

The smile that was on your face fell for a moment before you caught it and smiled again. "How else would I be doing other than well? My people have made grand leaps in research, they're all still safe, and I'm playing Uno with a wonderful friend of mine. Clearly, I'm doing- I'm doing fine-"

"Really? I don't know, Evie, it's hard to believe you with that tone of yours."

"Oh, fine." You sigh softly, your smile slowly fading. You could just slightly feel the flames of the theatre's fire tickling your sleeves, a warmth you tried constantly to suppress. "I suppose I'm… well I'm tired. I've kept myself at the back of my people—but I've been doing… far more than I should endure. I just don't want my people to think I use them as a shield of some sort, you know?"

Seeing you had answered honestly, Tom's expression softened. "I see…" He didn't seem to be paying much attention to the cards anymore. He paused for a moment, considering his next words. "Ever notice how you keep straying back to 'your people?' I get it, they're extremely important to you. Though, I can't help but feel you're worrying too much. Being here so often probably isn't helping, either."

You stare at the pile of cards at the top of the bed. Maybe he's right, you think.

"I have an idea." Tom jumps out of bed, grabbing your wrist with a sly grin growing on his face. "Come on. I wanna take you somewhere."

You couldn't say much—not like you could refuse, anyway—as he took you to the door. He peeked out, making sure no one was around, then slipped outside, through the hallways of the Dressing Rooms and through the massive auditorium of the Liminary Theatre. Somehow, he weaved through the place, avoiding other Maidens who were talking and working in the seats as you both passed by.

"Where are you taking me?" You ask with a hushed, panicked tone, tugging at his sleeve.

"Relax, I'm not taking you anywhere dangerous." He stares back at you with a look of reassurance. You roll your eyes, turning back at the other Maidens, who were all busy with their tasks. You had finally made it outside of the theatre, behind the building where no one was around.

You see him pull a small notebook from his pocket, noticing Blanche's signature on the first page. Much to your surprise, he skipped over it, quickly flipping through the notebook until he found a rather complex-looking sigil. Shortly after, an exact copy of it hovered above Tom's hand like an aurora. Cautiously, he placed it on the floor, grabbing your wrist again. Before you could say a word, the two of you were pulled through the light, the world around you turning to white, and then…

"We've arrived. Blanche calls the place the Path Less Traveled. Ain't it gorgeous?"

You took a few seconds, quietly observing your surroundings. You stand on a gravel path, surrounded by dense vegetation. Vines were creeping up the nearby trees, flowers scattered through the grass, and beams of sunlight breaching through the clouds above.

You muttered a "Gorgeous indeed," as you indulged in the sight. You looked back over to Tom, who had turned to look at you too after taking his mask off; a satisfied look on his face. You couldn't help but smile, for real. "Thank you."

"Don't thank me yet, Eve," he said, sitting down on a rather large rock. "But, while we're at it, we're alone right now and not in a mask station. Why don't you take off your mask?"

Your expression faltered. He can't know. Not yet.

What will happen if he finds out? That your world had already plunged into darkness?"

You feel your head burn, forcing you to close your eyes for a moment. Opening them again, you found this world, so previously filled with comfort and serenity, growing a dark crimson hue. The shock quickly dissipates and replaces itself with a small sense of fear when you realized what was happening. The bright, lively flowers that adorned the ground had grown brittle and dead, the sun merely a faint, light red glow. Just barely, you could hear the crackle of flames. Tom smiled still, awaiting your answer.

"Maybe next time."

"Well, can't say I didn't try. You sure you're ok, Evie?" Tom twirled his mask around his fingers before storing it away in a pocket. "You look kinda spaced out."

He has no eyes. "Oh, I'm alright. Just taking in some inspiration, for the next time I draw." Please, stop smiling.

"Why don't we stay awhile, then?"

You rub your eyes, the view not going away soon enough.

"Sure."

You sat next to one another, talking about everything your minds could think of—things you both had done before—but felt far, far different now. The laughter seemed to fill the level, despite being outdoors. You wished it could last forever.

There was a moment of silence after, as you both took a breath from laughing so much. At that moment, you got up and hugged him.

"Thank you, Tom Von Haderach." You stuttered, trying to find the right words to say. "For being a part of this maiden's life."

"Woah, where'd that come from?" The question was soaked in a playful, joking tone you'd grown used to hear from Tom. It didn't hide the surprise you were sure he felt, though. "Jokes aside though," he said, returning the hug, "I'm glad to be of service."

You sighed and breathed deeply, shutting your eyes. The clouds had vanished from the sky above, revealing a canvas painted in azure.

Tom got up, jumping off the rock you sat on. "Man, I completely forgot I wanted to show you around the place!" His hand was stretched towards you. You took it, accepting his help to climb down from the rock—it was exceptionally difficult in heels.

Tom stared at his pocket watch, sighing a little. "I don't have the time to show you everything… what a bummer. Welp, guess I'll have to settle by the next best thing. Follow me! You're gonna love the view from up there," he said, pointing towards a nearby mountain. "It's not a hard climb, there's a path that takes you straight to the top without much trouble."

You grin, squeezing his hand just a little. "Alright, as long as I don't end up falling to my death."

"Har har," he responds, walking to the path of the mountain, past the rocks and vegetation, the forest, and up the mountain. Eventually, you had grown tired of walking; you slipped off your shoes to ease the discomfort, cringing at the feel of gravel. All that time within indoor stations had affected your comfortability, it seems. "You sure you don't want me to carry you?"

"You can carry me when I'm dead, Tom," you say with a groan, trying to keep pace. It wasn't long until you finally made your way up the mountain, the peak covered by leaf-ridden branches.

"Do me a solid favor and close your eyes, will you?" Tom smiles, looking back at you.

"You better not push me off the mountain," you say, jokingly.

"I won't, I won't, not yet at least." The two of you laughed.

"Fine, I'll do it." Reluctantly, you close your eyes.

"This is gonna be worth the hassle, I promise." You let Tom drive you through the rest of the path, listening to the shaking of leaves and the crunch of gravel.

A few moments later, he breaks the silence. "Alright, you can open them! How's the view? You can see everything from up here! The dam, the forest outpost, and if you squint hard enough you can even see the bay in the distance!"

You take into view the waves of the bay lightly crashing into shore and the dam that took up quite a part of the level. The forest caught your eye the most—it was a striking hue of emerald, and you could just hear the chitter of whatever animals could be within. A small gasp left you, almost wondering why the place wasn't considered a tourist attraction.

"One day," he says, "we'll explore it all. Just you and me! We can draw maps, and camp, and tell stories around the campfire…"

As he continued to speak, his voice faded away. Your heart begins to feel as if it was weighed down by anvils. "I don't know if I'll be able to do that, Tom…"

"Huh? Why not?" he asks, with a hint of sadness.

You quickly switch up your tone. "I don't mean I don't want to do that, I just mean—with everything I need to do with the Maidens—it may take longer than you're willing to wait."

His expression changed, turning into a soft smile. "So? You're one of my best friends. I'm more than willing to wait."

"Huh." You feel yourself grow more cheery. "Right."

"Besides," he chuckled. "We both know you should take more breaks. I can teach you how to get here if you want some place away from all the Maiden stuff. You need to promise me something, though. Do not bring anyone else with you. It could be dangerous to have multiple people here for all I know, and that's a risk I don't want to take."

You point at your mask, laughing a little as you say, "With this mask? Ha. Hardly a break." You tighten the lace around your ponytail. "And of course, I promise. You have my word."

The both of you smiled. "Good." He sighed as he looked back at his pocket watch. "Well, I'm afraid our time's almost up. It's almost tea time."

"Aw," You say with disappointment. "To think we couldn't even finish our game."

"Pfft, don't you worry," he responds, putting his hands on his hips. "That isn't over yet… now that you mention that mask, though…"

You watch the smile vanish from Tom's face like a wave.

"I decided to see if I could find anything about them on the Cygnus Archive. I ended up reading a ton on the topic. There are a few things I don't understand, but those can wait, they're not why I'm telling you this. How long has it been since you last took that mask off, Evie?"

You frown, looking away. "Hasn't been… too long…."

"Evie." He repeats, placing a hand on your shoulder. "How long?"

You fall silent, fidgeting with your fingers. "Not since the second Resistance."

Tom took a deep breath. "Feel like I'm asking a stupid question here, but you are familiar with the Excess Effect, aren't you? Bloody hell… the second Resistance? How are you still holding up? I'm worried, Evie. Worried that whatever's left of you gets lost behind that mask."

"Pfff," You try to laugh. "I have my ways."

He didn't look any less worried. "You may have your ways, but it's still concerning either way, Evie. I mean… can you even take it off on your own will?"

Your tone grew sharper. "I haven't tried. And as far as I'm certain, I don't need to try—I can't try. Not with everything going on."

Tom sighs, running a hand through his hair. "If you really insist on that, I won't push it. Just… take care of yourself, okay? Please. Who knows what'd happen if that double-edged sword of yours finally lands a fatal hit on you."

"I— I will. Don't worry about it."

"…right. Why can't I believe you?" He sat down on a nearby rock, staring you dead in the eyes. "You're hiding something, I can tell that much. So, how's it gonna be? You feel like talking to someone sometime soon, or are you going to let it drag you down to the grave?"

You scoff a small bit, trying to shrug it off. "Don't you have somewhere to be?"

He crossed his arms. "I'm sure Blanche can wait, since it's about you."

You continue trying to shake it off, smiling and pulling out a red reverse card. Tom looked at it, trying to stay serious, but couldn't help but smile a little bit.

"Now what is this?" Tom asks, taking the card and fidgeting with it, turning it around to find the card had a message written in purple: "How are you?"

"That's not how this works, Evie."

"So? I still wanna know. We've been talking about me far too long." You grin, leaning into him. "Come onnnnn!"

"You're still dodging the question… look, after we're done, you can ask me anything. Alright? But for now, this is about you," he says, tapping your forehead. "Worst case scenario, I'll just shut up and listen. I promise."

You sigh, rubbing your forehead and giving in. "Fine… How do I even—why don't I just… show you?" He raised a brow, looking at you curiously. "Put your mask on."

Confused, he puts the mask on. "Eugh, could never get used to this thing. So, what do we do now?"

You stare into his eyes, then close yours, opening up your θέαμα Colombina. However, instead of seeing into his vision, you allow him to see into yours. In a moment, you let your mind slip—you open your eyes, and the sky changed again to a blood red. You could see Tom gasp, and you know he saw that you lacked eyes. Your head ached.

Tom, unable to endure it, tore off his mask, breathing deeply. "What," he said in-between breaths, "What the fuck was that?"

"I don't usually see it when I'm around other Maidens, but… I just couldn't hold it back this time." You say, suddenly growing lightheaded. "It's the E.E.Ls. They've gone too high. By the time I've realized… it was too late. I can't take it off anymore."

"What…?" His face grew grim. "Why didn't— why didn't you tell me?"

"I didn't want you to harm yourself finding a solution for me," you say, almost desperately. "I know you, Tom—you'll do whatever it takes—"

"And? What about you, Evie? Just- damn it!" Tom sounded angry for a moment, standing up and punching a nearby rock. "Why didn't I get around to this sooner? There's got to be something that can be done, and I swear I'm gonna find it."

"No, see, that's what I'm talking about," The volume of your voice rises as you try going up to him. "You can't. At least—at least not right now."

He turns to look at you with a frustration in his eyes that almost scares you. "And then what? I'm just supposed to let— to let this happen until I realize it's too late, that you've lost your mind permanently? Huh? Tell me!"

There was a moment of silence. You could hear the wind howling nearby, dragging a few leaves through the air. Tom sighed. You look down, unable to keep your tears from falling.

"Hey," he says finally, his voice softer now. He hugs you, rubbing your back. It made you cry harder. "I'm sorry… alright? I guess we both got a little overwhelmed, huh…"

A chuckle comes in between cries. You thought you heard a sniffle. You apologize quietly, and many times, until Tom had to stop you from doing so. You both sit back down, looking out at the view.

"I think we've been here a tad too long," you mention, fiddling with the straps of your heels.

"Oh yeah," Tom replies, scoffing amusingly. "I'm so screwed."

"Not like you cared earlier."

"Har har," he says sarcastically, rolling his eyes.

You sit up straight, looking at him. "You said I could ask you anything if I answered you, right?"

He sighs in response. "Yeah. What's your question, then?"

"If I die… could you help the Leading Maidens watch over the others for me?"

Tom frowns, crossing his legs. "Like hell I'm letting you die anytime soon, Evie."

"It's not like I'm planning to, just—please just answer," you plead.

"…Alright. I will. That's a worry for some other time, though. I'm going to tell Blanche about this. If there's anyone who can find a solution, it's probably her…" You watched him scoot over to you before hugging you again. "For now, just… take care, okay? Try to at least."

"Right. I'll give it my all." You yawn, stretching as you pull away. "How long have we been here for?"

"Eh," he replies, looking at his pocket watch for the third time. "Not tooooo long. Just long enough for what would be a 2-hour lecture from Blanche." The two of you laugh at the thought.

You gaze one last time at the landscape before turning back, ready to return home. "We really should get going, no?"

"Yup. C'mon," he says. "I'll take you home. I'm late to tea anyway, and I feel like we could end this on a different note." He scratched the back of his head. "Besides, I think I have a pretty good excuse for being this late," he said, smiling.

He offers you his hand, which you take. He asks you to close your eyes again and he leads you back down the mountain, through the gravel path, and eventually back to Level μ.

"Thank you for today," You say as you both enter your room, sitting down on the bed. "Even if things got a little… well, you know."

"Heated?" He laughed for a little. "Sorry, couldn't resist making the pun. No need to thank me, though. Glad to be of service," he said, bowing. "I'll be sure to drop by again sometime soon, and next time, maybe we could have an actual game of UNO without the gimmicks? I kinda lied about checking the deck for the Game Master's tricks…"

"I could tell," you say, laughing for a moment. "I'll be waiting for that next time, Tom. Probably won't be any time soon, judging by the lecture you've got coming."

The two of you chuckle before saying goodbye. You watch him leave and your expression falters. Alone again. Ah well, you thought. Another day will come, surely.

You look back at the cart, which had been left untouched since you and Tom left the Level.

You ought to put it back.

"Psst." You hear a familiar voice coming from behind you. "I forgot these masks could do this!" It was Tom, again. "Just wanted to say that no, you're not alone in this. I'm still here, okay? Probably won't be having my mask on all the time, but if you need something, you know where to find me, okay?"

You smile. "Okay, Tom." You feel the link between your minds disappear.

You take a bite out of one of the pastries in the cart.

Maybe putting it back can wait.


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